Ottawa Citizen


The food also makes the experience a delight

- Peter Johansen is an Ottawa writer who likes Montreal whatever the season.

Q What’s this festival you keep nattering on about?

A You must mean Montréal en Lumière – or, in its less lustrous English translatio­n, the Montreal High Lights Festival. MEL’s 16th edition is Feb. 19 through March 1. My wife and I like its ebullient mix of outdoor entertainm­ent, lively cultural attraction­s and, above all, culinary events that range from over-the-top (with prices to match) to, well, free.

Q It seems a lot happens, perhaps, but why go this year?

A Because UNESCO has dubbed 2015 the Internatio­nal Year of Light. The festival – with light in its very name – is one of the few Canadian entries on the agency’s internatio­nal roster of light-centred events. But, frankly, do you need an excuse to attend something that’s akin to Winterlude on steroids?

Q What’s the festival all about?

A At its heart is food. Some 50 restaurant­s mount special menus, tied to the culinary traditions of another country, a U.S. city or a Quebec region. These vary each year; this time, honours belong to Switzerlan­d, Washington, D.C., and Lanaudière respective­ly. A passel of Swiss chefs, including six who head Michelin-starred restaurant­s back home, will be in town.

Q So what memorable meals have you had?

A We’ve scarfed back a six-course lunch at Europea, where renowned chef Jérôme Ferrer began with dried prosciutto hanging from a miniature clotheslin­e — an amuse-bouche before the first course — and ended with post-dessert treats of wee madeleines and cotton candy. At Bistro Apollo Concept, last year’s dinner by Claude Le Boyan included beautiful ravioli of crab, mussels and piquillo peppers in a Tonka bean emulsion (there were five other courses).

Q But I don’t want to spend a lot of money on food.

A It’s possible to find everything from light snacks to a Swiss wine tasting that’s accompanie­d by a small snack plate. (Who knew the Swiss make wine?) But how does free sound? A personal favourite is the annual Fête des fromages d’ici, where 17 Quebec producers will dish out samples. Among them: Fromagerie F.X. Pichet, which took cheese-of-the-year honours last April at the Canadian Cheese Awards in Toronto. Just head to the Complexe Desjardins, across Ste-Catherine Street from Place des Arts, until Feb. 21. Like us, you might buy a chunk or two of your favourites.

Q When I’m stuffed, what should I do?

A Hit the festival’s diverse cultural programmin­g. Name acts like Bryan Adams and the Tragically Hip are on tap this year, along with popular Quebec talent. But I recommend spreading your wings. Last year, for example, we caught Haiti’s most famous rock band, the high-energy Boukman Eksperyans; Nick Waterhouse, a young rhythm and blues guy whose name has popped up seemingly everywhere since; and a Sunday afternoon with classical pianist Marika Bournaki, whom Huffington Post dubbed “the Celine Dion of classical.”

We attended The Book of Bob, a world premiere by Montreal playwright Arthur Holden. And we toured a free exhibit by acclaimed artist René Derouin. I wouldn’t have missed any of it — though I knew nary a one.

Q But what would you recommend this year?

A Switzerlan­d spills over into the entertainm­ent roster, so catch some Swiss acts — ranging from Stefan Eicher, that country’s best-selling artist, to Mama Rosin, a Geneva-based band that fuses Cajun and Caribbean rhythms. Music choices range widely, though — gospel to classical, Juno winner Dan Mangan to Brooklyn guitarist Kaki King.

The range of other discipline­s is just as impressive: a play (with English subtitles) staged by Robert Lepage; a tango evening by England’s Sadler’s Wells; the nostalgic musical Forever Plaid. And there’s Montreal’s Nuit Blanche on Feb. 28, where about 350,000 visitors will enjoy 200 activities, almost all free and connected by shuttle.

Q This doesn’t sound like something for kids.

A Au contraire! Families will revel in the free outdoor stuff around the festival hub in Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s pedestrian­ized festival space that takes over Ste. Catharine Street around the Place des Arts and Museum of Contempora­ry Art. Enjoy free rides, such as a Ferris wheel and urban slides for young and old (think psychedeli­c luge run, and you’ll get the picture). Attend free concerts, watch fireworks, see interactiv­e exhibits, catch street performers, grab hot chocolate. And just revel in the lively crowds.

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  ?? Haute cuisine isn’t the only option at the food-centric Montréal en Lumière festival.
MONTRÈAL EN LUMIËRE/MARIE CLAIRE DENIS   Haute cuisine isn’t the only option at the food-centric Montréal en Lumière festival.

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