Not to backtrack – But Montreal is home to some amazingly fun Festivals!

Ok – I know – I am part way thru a trip in Business Class to Bali – and I’m writing this while sitting in the Air France Executive Lounge enjoying free drinks, free food, and comfy chairs in Paris. So a blog on the Festival of Lights in Montreal is going to appear out of the Blue.

But bare with me on this.

Montreal – in February – is cold and dreary. And the PTB (Powers that be) in the city decided that having a festival in February – which didn’t conflict with Mardi Gras (March), New Years (January), Jazz (June), Laughter (July), Graffait (who knows), etc. was a great idea. And thus the Festival of Lights was born.

At the end of the Festival – which runs for 10 days of entertainment and restaurant craziness – is Nuit Blanche. Also not a new idea – or even an idea unique to Montreal – but with typical half French/half English style, organization and verbe – springs to life in our Beautiful City. The basic idea – keep the lights on all night – with free entertainment in basically every venue in the city that can host a crowd – churches, museums, bars, you name it – there’s something happening! Frozen Pianos, Casual Art, Singers, Jugglers, Musicians, Art happenings, Art tours – the city bumps and grinds and parties till Dawn.

For The Intrepid Traveller and I – it’s an occassion to stay up just a bit later than normal – and its a time to take in (for free) a show that we would never ever even consider attending. Our selection criteria is simple – has to be inside (we get cold), has to have seats (we can’t stand for even 5 minutes, let alone hours), and it has to be multi-lingual – my french is horrid.

Several Nuit Blanche ago – we discovered the caberet at the National Theatre School. They take a long thin space, fill it with chairs – put performers in front and in the middle of the space – and just go at it. The first year they must have had more funding – because there were at least 20 performers. Each year the number of performers has decreased – but that’s been more than made up for by the quality of the acts.

This year was the best ever for quality – a group of 4 young men who cloned the harmonies of the Beatles – in French. They looked, acted, and played the parts – even if the songs weren’t familiar – the joy and abandonment felt absolutely right. We loved it.

What we actually loved even more was a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucassion Chalk Circle. This was put on in the big theatre of the Theatre School – by the junior professional and extremely talented students there. As is typical with the Theatre School – no expense was spared on costume, set design, and quality of performance. These kids are not interested in impressing me – it’s the Montreal andToronto Theatre folks who come to see and hire that they want to amaze. We’re hangers on that profit from the opportunity to see the future in performance today.

So – enough on the Festival of Lights. It’s over for another year – but listen up if you aren’t from Montreal – this is a reason to come to our fair city. And if you do live in Montreal ask yourself – are you missing something amazing?

Signing off to go back to blogging about travel – The Soup Lady

Yo Tohu – Stripped down Cirque – but so much fun!

I’m such a sap for the Circus – both old school (with animals) and new school (acrobats, jugglers, and the like). Which is why Pista del Tango was such a disappointment. How dare you ruin the Circus for me?

Thank goodness for Tohu. I always assume that everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say Tohu – but based on the lack of audience on Thursday (2/27/2013) night, I’m guessing that maybe I need to start off with a – how to find the Tohu.

Where/What is Tohu

Start by checking out their website – there’s both an English and a French version – you can get tickets, check the dates of different performances, and get a list of all the free stuff that happens there. I can personally recommend just about anything that they put on – I’ve never had a bad time – and frequently had a great time. This is NOT Cirque de Soleil, despite the physical closeness – those tall buildings to the right as you drive in are the Montreal headquarters of the Cirque de Soleil – and clearly there’s money and financing cross-overs. But Tohu is clearly independent – and rather feisty about that.

Festival Mondial Du Cirque De Demain

This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen these guys perform – and it is always a huge pleasure. Truly some of the best young (and not so young) performers from around the world come to Montreal as part of this group. There is no pretense at a story, or a theme, or even much of a set. Instead – this is a presentation by 9 different performing teams – each one of which has one at least one award – and in some cases – several awards. So we’re talking the best of the best at what they do. And what they can do is nothing short of astounding. We were 4 – and each of us had a different top act. My husband’s personal favorite was the Starbugs – 3 nutty guys – clowns with tremendous physical abilities. I just couldn’t stop laughing. One highlight – the fake ‘fight’ that started with the 2 guys in ‘contact’, and continued as they got further and further apart. What a hoot. My daughter loved the Chinese juggler/plate spinner who managed to take spinning objects to an entirely new level – and ended his act by pulling a ‘dragon’ out of his basket and spinning that! Another favorite was the Trapeze artist – who did things on a trapeze including several multiple spins high above the audience, unattached to the trapeze at all, that I’d never seen before.

Then there were the 2 male contortionists. I can’t find words to describe their act – except to say that sometimes they looked completely normal, and other times left me sitting with my mouth completely open in stunned surprise.

I particularly like the first act – a quick presentation by the students in the circus school. A teaser to encourage people to get tickets to their graduation performances in April – something I totally recommend that all my followers – and all their friends – do immediately. There are 2 different productions – they split the class in half, and each group gets their group of performances. I’ve done both – and never been sorry.

Finally – I wouldn’t do a fair review of this wonderful evening if I didn’t mention the guy (huge) and girl (tiny) team. The guy essentially tossed his partner around like she was putty – and she let him do it! Her grace was extraordinary, and his control when tossing her was so light and easy – you could easily fool yourself into thinking – I could do that. Word to the wise – Nope, you probably can’t.

Positive Stuff: Cafe at Tohu – little known but completely wonderful place to grab a grilled cheese sandwich, a bag of delicious popcorn, or even a Latté before a performance, Free stuff before the performance – in this case – a pile of circus toys that you could try out – including a tightrope to walk and plates to spin, and inexpensive parking – Just $5. Negative Stuff: Don’t count on the scenery and costumes to blow you away – that’s not the point, There’s not a bad seat in the house – but there are some side seats that are best avoided, and it ends late if there’s an intermission.

Go – Enjoy – Tell’m the Soup Lady sent ya.

Maison Boulud Delivers

Actually – probably not! Unless you happen to be living in one of the Ritz-Carlton Residences conveniently located right above the hotel. But even so – not sure if take-out from a restaurant like Maison Boulud makes sense – this is a place that’s all about the Service – and the elegant feel – and the open kitchen.

But I digress. Maison Boulud’s offering for the Festival of Lights was a 8 course meal – a combined effort of the host chef – Daniel Boulud, and his Argentine protegé Mauro Colagreco. The idea was that each chef would design part of the meal – and then their teams would get together to execute.

Entering the dining room at the Ritz is already an experience – on the left as you enter is the kitchen – on this occasion literally packed with Chefs, Sous-Chefs, and other work bees. There were so many team members on alert that they could barely move! As we passed by on our way to our table, the hostess greeted several by name – I’m guessing to emphasize the close relationship between the front of the house and the kitchen.

The menu was presented, the new design of the space admired – and the service begun. There were 3 yummy mini-bites to start, my favorite of which was a toss-up between the deep-fried mushroom creme ball and the nibble of crab filled tiny artichoke. So far – so great. The 2nd course was my husbands favorite – a sea food tartare wonderfully presented and featuring sea urchin. I liked the next course a lot better – a soft egg yolk with Black Truffles and delightful crisps of Jerusalem artichoke. They had even tossed in some surprise bits – Macadamia nuts.

There was a fish course (OK – but not at the same stellar level), a venison course (I had 2 pieces – one more gamey than the other – but both delicious), and then the Pièce de résistance – a cheese course like none I’ve ever had.

They made a Munster Mousse, spread it relatively thin on the plate, and then topped it with a Cumin Sugar Tuile. You cracked the Tuile – and then ate in one bite both the Tuile and the Munster. The result was both sweet and flavorful, with high notes of Munster and Sugar and a touch of honey. The texture was both crunchy (the Tuile) and creamy (the Munster). It was delicious, surprising, and fun. And credited to the guest chef – Mauro Colagreco. Good work sir.

Dessert (who doesn’t love dessert) was also from Mauro – and again a delight. Swirls and little pillows of Orange Sorbet, Saffron Mousse, Almond Foam, the occasional nut, and a crispy nut power underneath it all. I used both my spoon and my fork to be sure to get every little tiny bit.

We also managed to acquire a little insight into how the combination happened. In conversation with Cyril Duport (the delightful Front of the House Manager) – it turns out that Daniel Boulud insisted that he be paired with Marco – ignoring the suggestions of the powers-that-be at the Festival. Interesting tidbit, eh? But the combination worked so well – I don’t blame Mr. Boulud for going with a ‘guest’ chef he knew he could count on to execute flawlessly.

Bottom line – while the meal at Chez l’Epicier (see the blog titled “Molecular Cuisine can be delicious – who knew?) remains at the tip-top of my food pyramid – I was impressed with the offerings of Daniel and Marco – and would definitely go back to the Maison Boulud when finances permit.

Maison Boulud on Urbanspoon

Molecular Cuisine can be delicous – who knew?

So last night I had one of the best dinners ever. I mean ever, ever. It was at Chez l’Epicier, one of Montreal’s hot restaurants for gourmet food – and it was part of the Festival of Lights, a yearly party held in February – the darkest part of the year here in the semi-frozen North.

Chef Gonzalo Aramburu from warm and sunny Argentina was the ‘guest’ chef – and the meal he and his team prepared was beyond a doubt over the top amazing. Unfortunately – he’s only cooking here in Montreal on Feb 25 and 26 – which means if you are reading this after the 26th – you missed it! But write down the name – this is a chef you will hear about again.

The meal – well – it was amazing. Instead of the 10 courses we were expecting – there were actually 12. The first course – an ‘amuse’ – was actually fun – amusing even.

Amuse of Paint and Paint-brush

Amuse of Paint and Paint-brush

They gave us 3 differently colored food mixtures – garlic, tomato, and a pesto – and a paint brush. Our task – paint the supplied wafers and enjoy. Fun to do – and it tasted good.

The 2nd course had 4 different components – but my favorite part featured what looked like a soft-boiled egg – but in fact was an egg shell holding a piece of poached salmon with a fabulously tasty Hollandaise ‘foam’. Yummy.

The ‘salad’ course featured craftily cut vegetables arranged artfully on a dish with a passion fruit vinaigrette that was stunningly flavorful.

Tricks from the modular cuisine arsenal included liquid nitrogen poured over a cinnamon stick to create a ‘spice fog’ that flowed over and around the dishes, a baby pork belly that was at once both crisp and tender (how did he that do that?), quince sorbet that added a palette cleansing step to a Beef ragout, and my favorite course – an absolutely perfectly cooked miniature Filet Mignon.Gonzalo Aramburu Dinner 3 To end the meal – there were 2 major desserts, coffee if you wanted, and a ‘box’ of cookies, maple marshmallows, and Cotton Candy – all prepared in-house.

My husband was so thrilled with the meal that he actually contemplated ordering it again. Or – 2nd best – go back again the next night. It was that good, that special, that memorable.

It was why you pay to eat dinner – to enjoy something you can’t possibly do at home – in a wonderful place, with fun friends. What more can one ask. Well – if it’s something of Chef Gonzalo Aramburu – apparently quite a bit.

Chez L'Epicier on Urbanspoon

Europea Guest Chef Disappoints

The Europea has historically been one of my favorite fancy food restaurants in Montreal – it is so seldom that I’m disappointed with either the food or the service.

This said – in recent visits, things have changed. The maitre-d – who had always greeted us by name – is no longer there, and the service, while always upscale and efficient, has become clearly more ‘important’ guest oriented. It’s hard not to notice, for example, that Jerome came up stairs – greeted the groups at 4 of the tables on either side of us – and ignored us completely. I’m not that proud that I need to be greeted – but it does hurt when clearly other people at other tables rate – and you don’t. Bad boy there Jerome.

But a fancy restaurant has to be about the food – and last night (Feb 23, 2013) the Europea offered a set meal by a very famous guest chef from Argentina, Francis Mallmann. Typical of what we’d expect at Europea – every course used unique tableware, and the presentations were interesting. Unfortunately – there were no outstanding courses – and several of the offerings were pedestrian at best. At the price point – this is unacceptable. Is it too much to expect that at least one of the courses be ‘blow-you-away’ quality?

Particularly disappointing was the way they handled my allergy to goat cheese. Generally, in a restaurant of this caliber, and a chef of Mr. Mallmann’s reputation, I’d have expected that the course in question be modified so that I could enjoy it. But all they did was leave off the goat cheese. No added salt, no bit of yogurt – nothing. Clearly the chef wasn’t in the kitchen at that moment, or his sous-chefs had been instructed to not change the courses. I wouldn’t mind if my meal cost $25 – but at ten times that price – hey – add a bit of yogurt or sour cream to off-set the sweetness of the squash puree!

I think that the folks at Europea knew that Mallmann hadn’t really delivered – because when we were leaving – the maitre d asked how we enjoyed our meal. When I commented on the fact that several of the courses were disappointing – he said – “Have you eaten here before?” When I replied in the affirmative – he said – “Well, then you know our normal quality”. Enough said.

Too late to get our money back – but there’s a lesson learned. Older celebrated chefs may be just floating along on their reputations – if you want great food – look for younger chefs with something to prove.

Europea on Urbanspoon