Montreal knows how to PARTY! – Nuit Blanche Rocks – even for Grannies

For soon to be a senior – the whole idea of Nuit Blanche is a bit frightening. Mobs of people milling around, no toilets anywhere, fast food offerings only, and the events seemingly focused on the younger crowd that finds DJ’s fooling with records entertainment.

But that is so totally different from what Nuit Blanche is really all about. Nuit Blanche is fun. Lots of fun, actually. We started at the Place des Art’s metro station – it’s centrally located, and dumped us right at the heart of the action – Quartier des Spectacles. And what a pulsing, beating heart it was. We were there just at 6:00 – the light shows were happening, there were people roasting hot-dogs on sticks over open fires all around the Quartier, there were people sliding down the ice slide, there were jugglers with fire batons – people playing ‘toss’ with giant balls – and that was just in the short walk from the metro station to St. Catherine’s street. Amazing.

We loved the light shows – heavily animated – entire buildings had become the canvas for animation artists to play upon. There were letters falling out of signs, people walking past open windows which then disappeared (not the people – the windows!), and flashing colors everywhere. We even spotted people writing in neon letters 30 feet tall on another building. It was amazing. And so good-natured. Not a grumpy face anywhere.

We walked down to China Town for dinner – using the underground the whole way so as to avoid any slippery side walks, and after dinner walked back to the one event we’d decided to try. Out of over 1000 activities – this was the one that seemed to us to be ‘our speed’.

Events we decided quickly NOT to try  – Tango Dancing, Gumboot Dancing, anything that mentioned a DJ, anything that wasn’t free (we really wanted free), anything that looked to be mostly in French (our French isn’t that great), anything that started after 10:00 (we’re early to bed kinda birds), and anything that wasn’t near a metro stop. That eliminated a lot of options – but we cut down more by checking if there would be seating (we can’t stand for an hour – not even close), and anything that mentioned ‘experimental’. Hard experience has shown that ‘experimental’ at Nuit Blanche is often smutty.

Out of our short list of about 15 – sounds pretty good choices – we eventually agreed on the Cabaret de la Nuit Blanche. It was being held at the National Theatre School – and there are always seats. And the space has high ceilings and good lighting. And it’s right up the street from where we were going to eat dinner (The Tong Sing – reviewed elsewhere). In a nut shell – perfect – if the advertised acts – Fanfare Pourpour and Les Soeurs Schmutt delivered.

We arrived just at the stroke of 9:00 – just as the band was gathering. We snagged front row seats on the side and settled in to enjoy ourselves. And enjoy we did. The Fanfare Pourpour was quite simply outstanding. I attached a picture – it’s out of focus and not great – and Fanfare Pourpour1it doesn’t even begin to capture the joy they bought to the house. It was in their faces, their voices, and communicated itself throughout the crowded space.

Sharing the stage – and the center of the room – and an overhang in the back of the room were the 2 lovely and extremely flexible young ladies who performed on and off during the evening. Acting as host was a female impersonator – the quite talented Soizick Hebert in the role of ‘Jackie’. Altogether – I was sorry we had to eventually pick up stakes (and purses and coats) and head back home.

Great night Montreal. You sure showed the world exactly how to properly party.

6 Tips to getting the best from the Montreal Festival of Lights

There are literally dozens of gourmet experience offerings during the 10 days of the Montreal en Lumiere festival – and picking and choosing which meal to enjoy (and spend your hard-earned dollars on) is not a simple job. So many choices – so few evenings, such limited funds.

So – to help you out – here are the Montreal Madame’s quick guide to making great choices:

1) Old age isn’t good for a chef. Don’t pick a meal where the ‘guest’ chef has a huge reputation, and has been doing this a long time. Why not? Because in my experience, these chef’s have little left to prove – and a lot to lose if they take risks. So you can bet the meal will be on the safe side of dreary – with an expensive price tag to boot. Better bets are elsewhere.

2) Up and Coming means Exciting. A young chef who has just gotten a serious award is probably still trying to prove he’s worth it. And those meals can be some of the most fun. Just bring an open mind – molecular cuisine is huge – and not to everyone’s taste.

3) Never pick a meal that goes on for more than 2 days. Why not? Because in my experience, the chef shows up for the first day – trains the team – and then leaves. You end up eating a meal cooked by quickly trained newbies – and pay the celebrity chef price. That’s no fun.

4) More courses – more better. Meals with lots of courses tend to be a better deal. You’ll get smaller portions of course, but the odds that something will be spectacular increases when the chef has to do more work. Logically it seems the opposite should be true – but experience has shown that making the kitchen sweat a bit is the best way to get the best experience.

5) Don’t let price keep you away. Ok – seriously expensive meals may not be in your budget, but don’t toss away meals in the $50 to $80 bracket. They are often the best ‘bargains’ – a great restaurant, a hardworking kitchen team, and a fun approach.

6) Don’t be discouraged by the lack of description. Sometimes the chefs don’t even know what they are going to be doing until they arrive in the city. In fact – if the description mentions a specific course – unless you are seriously interested in trying that course – steer clear of that offering. It means that there’s not going to be a lot of creativity happening – and tried and true, while safe – can be boring.

If you have other ideas – comment away – these are just some of the clues I’ll use when picking where to spend my money – you may well have ideas that are even better.

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