“Une brunch sans alcool n’est rien d’autre qu’un triste dejeuner tardif.”
Translation: A brunch without booze is just a sad, late breakfast.
We’re in Montreal for the 36th annual Jazz Festival and deliriously happy. Fresh from Paris, my French is in pretty good shape. We check into our bright and modern pied-a-terre from Like a Hotel on Rue Prince Arthur — in the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles and a ten-minute walk to the Place des Arts. With a full kitchen, free WiFi, and abundant natural light, the apartment is perfect.
We’re thrilled to have tickets to the prodigious Patricia Barber, and equally eager for the array of free outdoor events like the 4-hour tribute to the late great B.B. King. Small, intimate venues like L’Astral and Club Soda are always a gas — bring it on.
Singing and Swinging
At Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Patricia Barber delivers “Stay With Me” to an SRO crowd of 3,000. She knocks it out of the Place des Arts with lilting piano, accompanied by spectacular bass and saxophone. Barber punctuates the set with well-timed laughs and yelps — intentional, musical Tourette’s. Her take on the Motown classic, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” makes me, well, love her. When she gets to Henry Mancini’s, “Two for the Road,” I’m in a deep jazzy swoon.
Club Soda and Pokey LaFarge are already rockin’ when we arrive. We sing along with “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” (“no siree!”), and Pokey’s newest ode to beautiful women everywhere, “Something In The Water.” Download this great tune from Pokey’s website — it’s free.
All this music makes me hungry. We head southwest to Griffintown, a bustling neighborhood in a feverish growth spurt. “The Griff,” historically populated by Irish immigrants and laborers who built the Lachine Canal, also happens to be home of native son and jazz icon Oscar Peterson — how synchronous. The vibrant urban area is up-and-coming, and I’m very intrigued.
Our first brunch is an event. We settle in at Le Bureau’s outdoor terrasse and take in the stylish, urban vibe. We opt for the signature grilled cheese — gooey appenzeller and gruyere cheeses, local ham “on-the-bone,” and crusty bread. With chilled sangria, both red and white, this is our first and simplest meal in this great city — marvelous.
We cruise Boucherie Grinder and admire the dry-aged, ethically-sourced wares. The upscale butcher supplies restaurants Grinder, Le Hachoir, and Léa — more on that yummy triumvirate later.
Observe: Each sangria in Montreal is different. Due to an antique but sturdy law regarding fermentation, many are prepared á la minute, by the glass. The distinctive brew at Le Bureau features white wine, white rum, peach schnapps, apple juice, pineapple and 7-Up, which sounds thoroughly gross but is fresh and divine.
Our second brunch is at Le Hachoir of Boucherie Grinder fame. We’re seated in a breezy window, open to the street in authentic Montreal style. The vibe is funky and upscale, and the service is deliberately, purposefully slow. Rubén González recordings issue a Pavlovian command to relax. Hachoir’s white sangria is distinct and delicious, with raspberries, fragrant whole mint, Cassis, white cranberry and “un petit peu de brandy.”
Our burgers are as big as planets, each with an orbit of fries (and mayo), and small pile of salad, a nice counterpoint to the general unctuousness. Le Classique features a beef burger with bacon, aged cheddar, arugula, and satellite-size fried egg. Burger Jean-Guy is a venison burger with chevre noir, bacon, greens, and an unexpected sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and golden raisins.
Quel dommage: Meat of such distinguished provenance must be served rare or medium — never well-done.
Savor the Sound
Big Damn Band
We get religion with the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and especially enjoy Breezy, his slightly demented washboard-wielding wife. Other free outdoor favorites include Alan Gerber, a soulful bluesman with crazy Kabuki expressions; the sophisticated Pram Trio — not your daddy’s jazz, but equally smooth; and West Trainz’s mobile musical trolley that loops endlessly through the festival, enchanting music fans of all ages — babies wiggle, adults swing and sway.
Between the Bands
Our informal Sangria-tasting continues as we sip and savor onsite at Café Nouveau Monde and Balmoral, and streetside, along St. Laurent and St. Denis. Some are red, some are white; most come with straws and mid-century maraschino cherries. I find the reds traditional, with Bordeaux or claret, fruit and 7-Up. The whites are less predictable and often wildly creative.
My favorite is delivered at a casual but very serious Spanish bistro, Casa Tapas, up the Plateau on Rue Rachel. The first sip nails it — the BEST sangria preparation of the entire superb experiment, with winning layers of wine, Cassis, a surprising hit of sweet vermouth, and the usual Montreal obsessions: white cranberry juice and 7-Up. It is fragrant, visually stunning and complex — perfect with our tapas trioof mussels with fennel, asparagus with manchego, and tiny green olives. We can’t wait to return.
Shop ’til you…
And don’t forget to shop in Montreal! The exchange rate is more favorable than it’s been in a long time (I call it, “the new discount”), and there are surprising bargains to be had.
One of my favorite shops is Kaliyana in the Plateau on Rue St. Denis, close to our mod digs. Check out Kaliyana’s flowing sculptural designs — contemporary, avant-garde pieces created by über-talented Canadian designer, Jana Kalous.
Tired of looking like everybody else? Head for Montreal.
Grand Blues Tribute
The festival winds down and wraps up with its ultimate event, The Grand Blues Evening in Memory of B.B. King, a tribute to the iconic musician from Mississippi who devoted his life to the blues for 70 years. A massive crowd gathers on Place des Festivals stretching from the stage, down Jeanne Mance to St. Catherine. There are thousands of people. I’ll cop to a bit of crowd-phobia, but this event feels very safe and secure — seriously worth it.The Québécois homage is split into two sets, with guests Jordan Officer, Jimmy James, Mike Goudreau and Conor Gains; singers Angel Forrest, Kim Richardson, Mathieu Holubowski, and more. Magnificent harmonicist Guy Bélanger anchors the event, which beloved festival founder André Ménard describes as “one huge Bistro à Jojo,” Montreal’s iconic blues club.
Bob Walsh launches into “The Thrill Is Gone,” and the electric evening is off and running. Kim Richardson is introduced by Bélanger as “Soul Sister #1,″ and follows Walsh with a spirited, “Let the Good Times Roll.” Mike Goudreau trades vocals with Richardson on “Everybody Wants to Know Why I Sing the Blues,” and for my personal favorite, “Caledonia.” Belanger plays with just about everybody, and the crowd is ecstatic — it’s truly a magical evening. We let the good times roll and celebrate B.B. King’s legacy until after midnight.
In the words of the immortal bluesman from Mississippi, the Montreal Jazz Festival “is the best in the world.”
Don’t miss the 37th edition, June 30 – July 9, 2016!