You might not think the middle of the winter is one of the best seasons to eat out in Montreal, but the annual Highlights Festival is doing its best to convince you by inviting chefs from around the world to partner with local restaurants for two weeks of fine dining.
The festival is also known for its Nuit Blanche and arts programming, but come on, we’re here for the food.* While a lot of the dinners aren’t cheap, there are some great deals on lunches, happy hours, cooking classes, cheeses, ciders and brunches.
With so many options, it’s hard to know what’s worth your time – and especially your money, since dinners created and prepared in tandem with local restaurants range from about $60 to $350 dollars per person plus tax, tip and wine pairing. But these are some of the best chefs in the world, and $60 is a very inexpensive Michelin star-quality meal.
That’s why I’m here with my picks for the best restaurants of the festival.
What you need to know:
Guest City: This year’s guest city is Lyon, France, a city with 21 Michelin Starred chefs.
Methodology: I started by looking up the invited guest chefs, because those are really the focus of the festival. Most of the chefs coming to Montreal either have a Michelin star restaurant or have trained somewhere Michelin-starred. Some are up-and-coming, some have a lifetime of accolades. If you want traditional French cuisine done with polish, you go with an older gentlemen (and they’re all men). You look up their famous dishes and you get exited for a great meal. If you want something more…risky but exciting and potentially spectacular, check out the menus at the restaurants of the younger chefs. These chefs are bringing their most famous dishes, most often using a mix of local and imported ingredients.
The Délice Network: Other chefs are coming from Turkey, Mexico, the US and Denmark as part of the Délice network, a group of 22 gourmet cities partnered with Montreal from around the world. Highlights Festival organizers thought it would be a good idea to invite chefs from the network for our city’s 375th anniversary.
Fine Dining Dinners:
If money’s no object, there’s the $350 Jerome Bocuse and Christophe Muller honorary co-president’s dinners at Maison Boulud. (THIS IS NOW SOLD OUT.) They’re coming from the three-Michelin-star L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges just north of Lyon. They’re doing two 5-course dinners on Feb. 24 and 25 featuring the restaurant’s famous truffle soup and lobster nage.
These two gents are also in charge of a relatively more affordable $85 brunch on the 26th. (NOT YET SOLD OUT.)
If you want Lyonnais mastery for less of an investment, there are two dinners at H4C Place St-Henri on Feb. 24 and 25. The Feb. 23 date sold out, which leads me to believe that the big spenders opted for the honorary co-presidents’ dinner, leaving room for us masses at this stellar meal. The invitee is Chef Gaetan Gentil, an up-and-coming one-Michelin-Star chef from the French culinary capital. No word on the menu, but the $85 you’ll spend on five courses or $110 on seven courses is figuratively easy to swallow compared to the $350 above.
For a less expensive dinner, there’s the $80 meal Feb. 27 and 28th from Chef Frédéric d’Ambrosio of Balthaz’art and Chef David Pellizari of Lili.Co. D’Ambroisio has worked in a handful of Michelin Star restaurants and will pair his signature dishes with those of LiliCo. Think handcut beef tartare with black olives and lemon confit and cod cooked à la plancha with sweet potato mousse, crab and coconut croquette and vanilla butter.
Then there’s the $65 American tapas evening hosted by Tapas 24 with Chicago’s 2-Michelin star chef Ryan McCaskey. He’s a 3-time James Beard Award finalist for best chef and he’ll be serving his tasting menu on Feb. 28th and March 1st in tapas format. You can expect dishes like duck with gingerbread purée, mushroom panna cotta, pickled cherries and popcorn. That’s one dish.
One highlight will be the $49 lunch at Laurie Raphael on March 1st and 2nd with Quebec’s Daniel Vézina and the up-and-coming Lyon chef and artist Jérémy Galvan. Galvan’s cuisine is inspired by natural elements, local artisans and producers. And pairing him with the longstanding Quebec celebrity chef Vézina will be an interesting pairing of experience and creativity.
Then there’s the $25 three-course lunch at the Balmoral, which is being transformed into a traditional Lyonnais bouchon for the festival. Bouchon: a bistro known for its generosity and good food. Joseph Viola, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France and president of the Lyon Bouchon Association, is in charge of the menu. The $40 bouchon dinners are also a steal.
You’ve got to check out the all-day black truffle brunch at Toqué! On Saturday, Feb. 25. It’s $95 but you pay for what you get.
For Canada 150, l’Auberge Saint-Gabriel is doing a pan-Canadian 5 à 7 on March 2. It’s more of a stand-up meal with cooking stations featuring west and east coast oysters paired with Quebec beers, and cheeses from BC, Ontario and the Prairies paired with BC wines. It’s $45 for six hors d’œuvres and six wine and beer tastings.
Feel that pocketbook getting lighter just by thinking about foie gras? Yeah, me too. For people like us, there’s the Festival of Our Cheeses at Complexe Desjardins Feb. 23-25, which is all free tastings of Quebec cheeses. (Expect lines.) And there are free activities and tastings at Jean-Talon Market on Feb. 25 and tastings on the 26th from market vendors. For more info you can check out potluckmtl.com, essentially the festival blog.
The Montreal Highlights Festival
Feb. 23-March 11, 2017
Location: In restaurants and other locations all over Montreal
*There’s a scene near the end of Ever After where the not-so-evil, slightly plump stepsister snubs her mom by repeating what her mom had told her: that she was only at the ball for the food. Certainly, the prince wouldn’t be interested in her.