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Montreal Showcases Its Best

03/21/2014 05:27 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

MONTREAL, QUEBEC -- We all know Montreal as a city of festivals. The best known of those celebrations, however, are focused on a particular type of experience, such as food, art, or music. But for the tourist who wants a taste of it all, Montréal en Lumière is a particularly great treat. "There is always something going on in Montreal," says Alexandre Despatie, a two-time Olympic silver-medallist diver. Despatie, now a television journalist in Quebec, was among the many revellers who took part in the 11-day festival that wrapped up on March 1.

Intrigued by En Lumière and what it might offer, I arrived in Montreal in the early evening by train and after settling into the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth (conveniently located above the train station), I hit the streets eager to discover some new highlight or hidden cultural gem by sampling an eclectic mix of events tantalizingly placed before me.

Montréal en Lumiére (MEL), formerly called the Montréal Highlights Festival, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. Featuring music, dining, arts, theatre and even sports, it lures people into the city's winter vibe, which is shockingly alive despite the frigid February temperatures. (It was minus-22 Celsius degrees on the first night I was there.) One of the world's largest winter festivals, En Lumiére welcomed more than 1.3 million this year. The incandescent atmosphere mushroomed into a heat wave during the final weekend as temperatures soared above freezing just in time for the annual all-night modern-art extravaganza, Nuit Blanche.

In a city of 5,500 restaurants, some of Montreal's finest tables participated in MEL. This year's gastronomy theme was Spotlight on Montreal. Whether blending culture or wines, Montreal chefs fused menus based on unique pairing concepts. For the hungry tourist looking to explore this foodie destination, the prices were often as enticing as the meals.

At Vertije, a charming bistro (540 rue Duluth Est), chef Thierry Baron prepared a six-course tapas menu that was "fit for an athlete." Inspired by a pair of celebrity maître d' and Olympians Benoit Huot and Despatie, A Taste of the Olympics was a protein-rich dinner that started with beef carpacaccio and ended with a decadent chocolate fondant. Huot and Despatie regaled the table with details of their competitive accomplishments and the importance a proper diet plays in sports. Not that any at the table seemed too keen on dieting at the moment. In fact, we ate everything on our plates like champions.

A more conventional themed dinner called A Tale of Two Kindred Cities was held at Renoir, an elegant restaurant in the five-star Sofitel Montreal (1155 rue Sherbrooke Quest). The menu combined Quebecois cuisine with Bonterra organic wines produced in Mendocino, California. I arrived expecting to dine alone; however, my evening morphed into a four-hour dinner party as the hotel's general manager, sommelier and chef, Olivier Perret, joined me during the six-course presentation of artfully prepared dishes. Perret, a down-to-earth and passionate chef who hails from the Burgundy region of France, remembers "the aroma of my grandmother's cooking in the morning" and uses this inspiration to create dishes that satisfy the senses. The menu highlight for me was the sweet-chilled lobster carpaccio paired with Bonterra's light and aromatic 2012 North Coast Viognier.

Story by Julia Pelish, Vacay.ca Writer.

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