We’re nearing the yearly gastronomical frenzy at the venerable Montréal en Lumière festival (Feb. 19-Mar. 1), purveyors of Nuit Blanche (Feb. 28).

This years’ offerings are more luxuriant than ever, and while the free outdoor site will be on hand for cheaper (corporately-sponsored) thrills, the real delights are to be found in dining rooms at the four corners of town as hundreds of global guest chefs descend upon our city.

In its first year as a UNESCO-recognized gathering, Montréal en Lumière doses up the usual geographical mashup to guide the culinary program: Switzerland, Washington DC and Lanaudière. I’m not going to pretend to find some throughline for these three places, so let’s jump into particulars.

Old Swiss food conjures up images of chocolate and cheese. Of course, things have long since changed and Montréal en Lumière is helping to smash stereotypes with a barrage of Michelin stars. From my count, we’re looking at a total 9 Michelin stars, if you tend to count that kind of thing.

Guest chef menus are vague, yet styles range from classic French to tapas, crossing kitchens from La Chronique to Maison Boulud. Prices vary wildly yet tend on the pricier side. For example, the “World’s Best Sommelier,” Paulo Basso, will pair wines at overfluffed Europea with Paul-André Ayer’s dishes for a smooth $300.


For choco-cheese addicts, however, the rich nation’s iconic delights are on show across a flurry of fondue dinnerschocolate-inspired menus and all-you-can-eat raclette evenings. These tend to be more moderately priced.

Personally, however, I’m more interested in the focus on Lanaudière and Washington: two more “emerging” culinary scenes. Despite its general eminence in all things political, DC has never really found the same culinary footing as NYC, Chicago or even San Francisco.

Yet its culinary riches are developing: ethnically varied, innovative and well-financed chefs have recently brought some amazing ventures to the forefront. Big names such such as Equinox‘s Todd Gray and uber-competitive TV wonder Mike Isabella of Kapnos fill the program and are likely worth the tab.

However, from past experience, I’ve found the wine evenings can sometimes be the most revelatory—with dishes more odd & exciting than the headline dinners. In this spirit, check out Marjorie Meek-Bradley at the always-pleasurable Pullman wine bar.


As for Lanaudière—that Nor’Easterly region right next to Montréal—well, what do we really know about its chefs and traditions? Top pick (and likely to sell out first) is Nancy Hinton’s guest spot at Les 400 Coups. Her rural joint Les Jardins Sauvages was the subject of great fanfare & controversy last year as duelling critics Lesley Chesterman and M-C Lortie disputed its merits. For a more low-key introduction to our neighbouring region, however, check out the Jean-Talon Market for local products and demos by Lanaudière cooks.

For amateurs of the peculiar world that is Québec culinary TV, you can brush elbows (and determine the financial fate) of four favourite Les Chefs! contestants in a $100 a head 12-course competition dinner.

In the series known as “Planète Montréal” you can have so many profound questions answered. Questions such as: “What would (Habs GM) Marc Bergevin make for dinner?” or “What kind of meal would (hipster band) Mister Valaire curate if they had a captive audience?”

Last and not least, the always-educational UQÀM agro-gastro talks come to the festival this year with a séance on olive oil. Tastings included.

The real wacky & budget friendly food thrills, however, are often found on Nuit Blanche. As we did last year, we’ll be providing a list of cheap (or free) thrills just prior to Feb. 28.

Follow us on Twitter for more updates: @Forgetthebox / @JoshDavidson

Miami beach

By way of weather or food, Montréal and Miami seem to have little in common. But, I happened to have a stopover in Miami for one evening last week. I thought I’d follow my gut. You see, my suspicion was that some kind of culinary simpatico must exist between these two towns. With little time to test my hypothesis, there was only one choice: deploy the Namesake Methodology. Here’s how it works:

1) Jot down the names of the first 5 Montréal eat/drinkeries that come to mind
2) Search for their Miami namesake over crappy, stolen WiFi at a South Miami strip mall
3) Visit as many as physically possible within a 6 hour window, in an economy rental car, during rush hour traffic
4) Compare and contrast their essential nature

The optional fifth step, which I’ll for next week is to: summarize your (mis)adventures into some kind of far-reaching pronouncement as to how Montréal should enrich its culinary landscape.

I’ll get to the bulk of my findings next week. The first journey of Namesake Quest yielded enough to whet the appetite for these subtle affinities.

Random test 1: Schwartz

Schwartz of Montréal is “world famous, serving the best smoked meat from the original recipe of spices since 1928,” and is demarcated by a large orange and black sign.

Schwartz of Miami flies under the radar, tucked away like a delicate flower in a hidden, gleaming patio.

Michael Schwartz Restaurant, MiamiOur smoked meat purveyor’s only namesake in Miami, it turns out, is also preceded by the first name of its founder: “Michael.” Yes, Chef Schwartz was apparently so rushed (or just so badass?) that he didn’t even spin celebrity-chef nameplay–so common in large American municipalities. (Think of the shudder-worthy Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in NYC, or Ramsay BurGR in Las Vegas).

No. In his bid to compete with suave South Beach elitesplaces with names like Meat Market, Zuvia, SLS and 660Mr. Schwartz seemed to just have said, “enough!” to all the vapid words. “Why not just copy the name on my passport onto the sign,” I imagine him thinking, “I’ll just ‘Restaurant’ to the top of the menu.” It’s the drabbest name in town. But it’s ingenious.

When I arrived at Restaurant Michael Schwartz, I’d already strolled past half a dozen half-empty lounges on the bouncy strip known as Collins Ave. Meanwhile, his venue was humming.

Entrance to Schwartz resto, at the Raleigh HotelSchwartz’ entrance is as inconspicuous as its name. Tucked behind unmarked glass doors at the back of the stunningly-preserved Art Deco lobby of the Raleigh Hotel, I completely missed it. I must have seemed so obviously Canadian to the valet boys: fumbling around the hotel environs, address in hand, marveling at the lack of deli signage.

Then there was the fact that I was arriving on foot (unheard of in Miami), in Birkenstocks (even more uncouth), hands hitched to my backpack (shudder!). It was a wonder they even let me into the lobby. But they did show me pity–once they had finished parked a pair of matching white BMW 5-series that appeared to belong to some fellow diners.

Unlike its St-Laurent sibling, tables at this Schwartz are located almost entirely outdoors. A small dining room opens up onto a vast terrace spilling over two deco-tiled levels that flank the original 1941 pool replete with chairs and vines à l’époque. And every table was packed.

Despite my aforementioned attire (I’d just come from a campground), an effervescent hostess guided me to a spare seat at the small bar.

Backlit with a deep yellow light, the wood-panelled drinkery was stocked to the hilt with a seemingly well-heeled selection of liquor. It appeared to hover in space, a backdrop to four (count ’em…four) perfectly-tanned male bartenders. The closest one greeted me with a refined swaggerthe not-at-all-unpleasant air of an establishment that has confidence and class. “What’s going on tonight, sir? What are we having?”

I was almost upset. I had wanted to hate this place so much.

The barman even avoided the natural up-sell (there’s a $25 martini and a $28 glass of merlot), pointing me instead to their more-than-respectable house ale…for $8.

When my bottle of “Michael’s Genuine Home Brew” arrived, I was sorta kicking myself for not ordering a cocktail. But once again, Miami Schwartz’ eponymous naming conventions proved deceptive: this ale had a nice tone and a sweetish nose with hints of fruit and molasses. It was followed up by a surprisingly bitter, but very agreeable finish. Yet another indication that the U.S. is becoming a craft beer mecca.

Instead of brisket, Schwartz Miami has ceviche ($13). I expected a few lonely morsels of fish, but was instead saddled with a cereal bowl packed to the rim with fleshy morsels of tilefish swimming with Florida orange segments in a no-holds-barred citrus sea. I like agressively-acidic ceviche, and this one had such fresh citric acid that I literally tilted the bowl up and finished every last drop. Cilantro and chili slivers topped the near-perfect dish. If only there’d been more of the latter (there was but two tiny red slivers), Mr. Schwartz would have surely knocked this one completely out of the park.

By the time my bowl was empty, the terrace was blanketed in diners’ chattera flurry of voices and chuckles left mostly naked to the wind. And such a welcome respite from the basslines pumped by the majority of its South Beach neighbours.

Warm refinement just oozed out of the place. The longer I sat by this cabana-style pool bar, inflected with a certain 1940s vigor, the more optimistic I began to feel about Miami itself.

To sum up: Miami Schwartz was contrapuntal to its Québec namesake in nearly every imaginable way: from décor to flavours to pricing to clientele. But its mastery of each of these ingredients produced a southern Schwartz that was just as true to its roots–the history and ethos of Miami Beach–as our own version is to Montréal.

Next week: the wrapup of the MIA-MTL culinary mashup wherein we visit bagel shops, Really Bad Brazilian Restos, and a dive bar…and propose that Montréal start offering more Cuban food to distract us from snowstorms…ASAP!!