Last Thursday marked the beginning of the annual Montréal en Lumière festival, which will run until March 3. Every year the festivities focus around a theme and this time the city is celebrating the vibrant culture of Buenos Aires.
As a thriving culinary city, a huge part of the festival revolves around literally tasting the spirit of Argentina, along with Quebecois favourites we all know and love. For the foodie on a budget, the returning Escales Gourmandes series of gourmet pit stops is a must. Scattered around the free outdoor site at Place des Arts, Montreal restaurants have set up kiosks where festival-goers can drop in for a small snack or full meal.
To do it right, I recommend arriving on an empty stomach.
My first stop was the SAQ Express booth; to wet my palette, so to speak. For $4.50 I had a steaming cup of hot red wine. Mulled with spices similar to a hot apple cider, it was the perfect antidote to the bone-chilling wind. Other items on the menu included several varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Blanc and spiked coffees, all between four and six dollars. They also offered chorizo sausages and marshmallows to roast over nearby fire pits, but I opted out as I was saving myself for better things to come.
Next up was L’Atelier d’Argentine—a Montreal restaurant that was serving up its South American specialties.
The chefs grill the food in the middle of the booth for customers to salivate over as they wait to order from their spots at the wooden tables that line the perimeter. I had the grilled pork sandwich slathered with criolla sauce; the sauce, made with olive oil, diced tomatoes, onions and peppers, added tanginess to the savory pork. My companion opted for the corn empanadas. The dough was buttery and flaky and the inside was hearty, tasting like a cream of corn soup. Dipped in the homemade chimichurri sauce for an added zest, I think that might have been the winning dish of the night. The empanadas were around $6.00 for two and the sandwich was just under $7.
Next, we stopped at the small window set up by Café Jura. We each devoured a churro, which oozed dulce de leche from the doughnut center. For $3.50, it was a delightful and authentic treat.
From there, we spied the Baraque à Frites and the Maison du Chocolat right next to it. Someone with greater willpower than I might have kept walking, but forgoing fries and chocolate is simply not something I’m comfortable with.
At Baraque à Frites I was presented with a cone of crispy Belgian-style fries and a choice of one of their specialty mayonnaise dips for $4.50. I selected the Béarnaise, made with mayo, white wine and tarragon. The fries were a little salty, but the creaminess of the mayo salvaged the dish and I was altogether satisfied.
Of course, it was then necessary to balance the saltiness with a little sweetness and poke around the Maison du Chocolat hut next door. This kiosk was set up by the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and was a miniature version of one of their stores. After much deliberation, my friend and I chose to bring home caramel apples and 72 per cent dark chocolate bark, adorned with almonds and fleur de sel caramel, all for $12.
The last stop for the night was the SAQ Bistro, set up as a sit down restaurant inside a dome. The ambiance was definitely memorable, but the food fell short of my expectations. We ordered what the menu promised to be parmesan fondue with tomato coulis, for $6.50. Disappointingly, we were served two small, square, battered bricks of cheese that looked store-bought, with tomato sauce slathered on the side. For another five dollars each, I had half a shot glass of porto and my friend had a tiny plastic cup of Cabernet white wine.
I left the Escales Gourmands probably about seven pounds heavier, but thoroughly content. You will find something to satisfy just about any palette and it is all relatively inexpensive. The winner, in my opinion, was L’Atelier d’Argentine. But I will definitely be back to sample the rest of the kiosks before making a final judgment.
For more information, visit montrealenlumiere.com