By Laura Byrne Paquet
Are the long winter nights starting to get on your nerves? Then head to Montreal, where the city is doing its best to banish the dark with Montréal en Lumière (montrealenlumiere.com), an 11-day event with activities that the bilingual program guide runs to 150 pages.
No matter what floats your boat, you’ll probably find it here. Belgian waffles and children’s marionette shows? Check. Six-course gourmet meals and Mozart? Check. Free DJ dance parties under the stars? Mais bien sur.
And this Saturday (February 25), the fun goes all night during Nuit Blanche. Mingle with free-roaming penguins at the Biodome, make your own animated film at the National Film Board, or take a midnight tango lesson.
Events are happening all over the city, but the busiest spots include the area around Place des Arts, Old Montreal, Plateau-Mont-Royal/Mile End, and Olympic Park. Even the underground city is getting in on the act, with 140 contemporary art projects strung out along a 7K route.
Free shuttle buses will circle the main festival sites until dawn. The Métro will be running all night, too, at $4 for unlimited travel.
Overwhelmed by choice? Here are my top picks, based on my trip to the festival’s first weekend.
Table d’hôte at L’Autre Version
295, rue Saint-Paul Est
With its red-lit bar and Euro-lounge soundtrack, L’Autre Version is uncommonly hip for touristy Old Montreal. Last weekend the guest chef was Gérard Fischer of Gatineau’s Le Tartuffe, whose menu highlighted the festival’s featured culinary regions: the Outaouais, Belgium/Wallonia, and Washington state. My six-course meal was outstanding, ending with a dessert of strawberry crumble, topped with olive and basil oil ice cream and java pepper cream. The table d’hôte will be different when you visit, but I suspect it will be equally memorable. Daily until February 25 inclusive, $22.50–$70. www.restoversion.com
Coeur de Pirate at Métropolis
59, rue Sainte-Catherine Est
Singer-songwriter Béatrice Martin, better known as Coeur de Pirate, is a force of nature on stage. I stumbled across her show at the Ottawa Jazz Festival and got swept up in a frenzy of ecstatic fans. Her light-as-air voice and catchy pop hooks have already snagged the attention of everyone from the Vancouver Olympic Committee to Perez Hilton. Come see what all the fuss is about. February 24, 8 p.m., $42.30–$48.25. www.montrealmetropolis.ca
Sunday brunch at Les Cavistes
4115, rue Saint-Denis
The festival brunch menu at this small Plateau bistro is nothing if not adventurous. My appetizer of rice tart, crème anglaise, and berries was bland, but the omelette with Swiss chard, lardons and cheese sizzled. Those with stronger morning-after stomachs than I can try blood sausage with Brussels sprouts or beer-braised pork cheeks with braised red cabbage, among other mains. A nice cheese plate finishes the meal, and you’ll still have time for some retail therapy along Saint-Denis before heading home. February 26, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. $35. www.restaurantlescavistes.com
- Quartier des Spectacles
If you’ve ever been to the Montreal Jazz Festival, you’ll recognize this big square wedged between Place des Arts and the Hyatt Regency hotel. Decked out with a Ferris wheel, two big stages, marshmallow-roasting fire pits, and multiple bars and food stands, it draws families by day and music lovers by night (expect the free DJ nights by Black Tiger Sex Machine on February 24 and DJ Mini on February 25 to be jammed). Escape the evening crowds with free jazz and flamenco concerts at the nearby Balmoral bistro. February 21–24, 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.; February 25, noon – 3 a.m.; February 26, noon – 6 p.m. Prices vary. www.montrealenlumiere.com
- Une nuit festive signée Japon (FREE!)
All things Japanese will be on display during this Nuit Blanche event at Montreal’s main library. After an evening of ikebana, tea tasting, haiku, origami and videos, let loose during a free manga ball that starts at midnight. Dress up as your favourite manga character, if that’s your thing. La Grande Bibliothèque, 475, boul. De Maisonneuve Est, February 25, 6 p.m. – 3 a.m. www.manga.banq.qc.ca
Montréal en Lumière. Until February 26. Various locations in Montreal. www.montrealenlumiere.com