Fringe Food

Gastronomie en Lumiere

Photo Josh Davidson

Culinary artistry is back in the spotlight this month, part of a wide-ranging city strategy towards “keeping February fun”—a response either to mid-winter suicides or to the failing economy, I’m not sure. Festival Montréal en Lumière picks up where Igloofest left off, culminating in that notorious late-February climax of creativity: Nuit Blanche on Feb 26.

So lest you believe that 11 more days of bleakness are your fate, Lumière has redoubled its culinary efforts, offering a Herculean program of tastings, workshops and events. Despite a diverse cornucopia of gastronomical offerings, the festival’s offerings are not for the faint-of-pocketbook. Rather, it’s a carte of options doused in the think of corporate sponsorship, elite price points, and celebrity chefdom.

Luckily, none of the latter three features are enough to sway a committed eater such as myself. Nor, will I argue, should they throw you off, whether starving artist, part-time faculty, or loan-supported student. There are enough worthwhile highlights to step into the fray.

Let’s start with basics: each year Lumière invites global culinary folk to showcase new, exotic food landscapes to pathetic, freezing Montrealers. This year, the magic number is three—and a more random mashup of “terroirs” could not be achieved by hitting Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” button three times consecutively. So what do Seattle, Brussels and the Outaouais have in common?

Nothing… at first glance. Nor really at second. But a generous take on this year’s three featured food regions reveals some subtle affinities between the social and physical geographies on spotlight.

Headlining the guest cities this year is Seattle—ground zero for the New American approach to fresh, seasonal and local cooking. A quick glance at Lumière’s PR suggests that Seattle’s Finest have been quite literally shipped eastward, coffee-encrusted Pacific salmon in tow, to be put on display here in sub-zero Montreal like a bunch of exotic glass-cased tarantulas at the Insectarium. A closer read reveals that while a possible marriage of worlds between the 18 imported chefs and producers and their local pairings may well exist, it’s hard to see most as more than eccentric mashups—which is just fine in my book.

For example, you have Oregon’s Don Cranck matching his vineyard’s no-nonsense pinot wines to the down-to-earth terroir-based cuisine of Globe’s Jean-François Baril: an interesting evening, though not cheap ($85 with wine). A spirit of refined adventure seems to tie together ex-geologist Sean Boyd, who successfully replaced Walla Walla valley fruit trees in Washington state with the once “France-only” syrah vines, (considered, at the time, impossible to cultivate “properly” outside France) and innovative yet understated Pullman (3424 ave du Parc).

But though I’ll be knocking on the door for his food alone, the pairing of celebrated yet understated Ethan Stowell—known the very accessibility of his rustic Italian—with Lower St-Laurent’s schmaltzy, overdressed Buenanotte is just plain odd.

On to the region of honour: Wallonie-Bruxelles, known not only for being the French part of Belgium, but also for waffles and moules frites. Fiercely-proud of its tiny regional specialties (of which the latter two are pale examples), the region’s affinities speak well to many a Belgian-themed Montreal resto (ever notice the number of moules-frites specials being hawked on any given Thursday night in this town?).

The synergy manifests itself in heavy-handed ways—such as Frites Alors’ outdoor “baraque à frites” at Place-des-Arts throughout the festival—but also in unexpected ones. Fungus fanatic Nicolas Schreidt, of Brussels’ award-wining Café de Spores (yes, a shroom café), sets his sights on local produce, and lays out a feast for Μontrealers at the iconic Μarché Βonsecours (February 25th). Worth catching! And as for Outaouais, that picturesque mountainous region many city-dwellers mistake for a simple misspelling of Ottawa (it actually doesn’t even include Ottawa), six chefs are dotted throughout the city showcasing the best of their farms, inns, and lakes. Look for wonderful seafood, game meats and of course, root veg.

Though I’ve no idea how long my stomach or pocketbook will endure, I plan to hit up Lumière with a few bucks and an empty gut, and will be posting daily updates on The Link to give you tips along the way. Watch for these updates, followed by a special edition on where to eat during Nuit Blanche.

So in the parlance of Montrealers, Wallonians, Outaouaias alike (sorry, Seattle): “À vot’santé!”