I hope by now that you’ve all heard of what I consider to be Montreal’s most diverse and refined winter festival: Montréal en Lumière. For its 13th edition (Feb. 16 – 26) festival goers could take in theatre, dance, music, art installations and even circus. (I had the pleasure of attending the Australian contemporary circus C!RCA’s opening performance at TOHU, including a visit behind the scenes!) With so many activities to choose from it’s hard to decide just what to go to, but each year there are two things at the festival I make sure not to miss: the Nuit Blanche and the culinary part of the festival, which takes place at many of Montreal’s top dining establishments.

This year I was fortunate to be invited to choose from a few of the gourmet evenings that the festival’s finest tables had organized. My first meal was at the glamorous wine bar Pullman. Guest chef Matthew Dillon travelled from Seattle with a suitcase full of ingredients required to prepare his creative, Mediterranean-inspired 5-course meal. Pullman’s talented sommelière, Véronique Dalle, selected 5 amazing wines to pair with each course. My most memorable courses were the first and dessert. The smoked labneh (strained yogurt, a daily staple in many Mediterranean households) topped with marinated peppers was served with the most amazing rye cracker. Dillon brought both his peppers AND labneh with him from Seattle!

The entire meal was a culinary delight, but it was the dessert – slow-roasted squash and kernels of black rice in a bowl of rose-flavoured yogurt “soup,” resembling a decadent rice pudding – that I found both exotic and comforting. I enjoyed it so, that not only did I finish mine, but that of my dinner companion as well! The wine pairing was unusual, but successful: Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato 2010 from Italy. To me, it also smelled like roses – a floral note that ended my meal in perfect harmony.

My second festival table took place at the reputed Portuguese restaurant Ferreira Café. Being a fan of this southern European country and its cuisine, I was not disappointed. Once again, I was seduced by the first course, chef Marino Tavares’ sardine risotto. Served with a seared scallop flavoured simply with olive oil and citrus, it tasted like Portugal – truly the best part of the meal. Following the risotto came the smoked arctic char and for the main, braised veal cheek, but it was the very un-Portuguese dessert that thrilled my taste buds and catered to my sweet tooth: a vanilla pannacotta topped with caramel popcorn. A delicious surprise paired with a refreshing Moscatel de Sétubal – a fragrant and floral fortified wine, a feminine alternative to traditional port wine. Although it was my first time at Ferreira, my dinner companion had been several times and remarked at how Tavares’ talent really shone with the challenge of creating a unique menu for the festival.

Maybe with me it’s all about the first courses and the desserts, because for a third time in a row I was drawn to those two courses during my festival meal at L’Auberge Saint-Gabriel. Appealing to my girly side, chef Eric Gonzalez served his amusing amuse-bouche “Mussels & Fries” in a martini glass. Resembling a ball of fried ice cream in a vanilla sauce, it was actually mussels in fried potato batter (hence the “fries” reference), served in a white wine sauce. Both inventive and delicious!

The most creative part of the entire meal was the fact that all of the courses were paired with beers from Belgium (Brussels and Wallonia being the festival’s featured regions). The Auberge’s sommelière, Emmanuelle Tellier and Gonzalez chose the beers before deciding what dishes to prepare to serve with them. After the mussels, I also really enjoyed the Jerusalem artichoke and white beer soup with a morsel of Alaskan crab. The soup was paired with the same white beer used in the soup, so the pairing was perfect – a nice light beer with a tangy aftertaste. From the crab and artichoke soup we went back to the sea with a crispy-skinned royal sea bream served with fennel, potatoes and leeks, and then returned to land with roasted pork loin “au caramel.” The pork was a bit tough, but the flavour went perfectly with its beer pairing. Our pairing of preference went to the Trappistes Rochefort extra-strong beer, which went surprisingly well with the decadent chocolate pie decorated with candied prunes, oranges and whipped Armagnac cream. Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend drinking beer with each dish for such a large meal, it definitely was a unique experience that I won’t soon forget.

My entire fine-dining experience at the festival was made most enjoyable by the pleasant, amiable service and expertise offered by the sommelières at Pullman and l’Auberge. Both Sophie and Véronique of Pullman and Emmanuelle of St-Gabriel offered unpretentious wine (and beer!) knowledge in a laid-back and charming manner – commendable and appreciated any time of the year. The other precious ingredient to each of my Montréal en Lumière dinners was my company. Without my girlfriends – Natalie, Claude, Jennifer and Jessica – none of these delicious dinners would have been nearly as delightful.

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