|Come Friday evening, heaven might take the form of sweet riffs from Fathead with a grilled squash and chevre panini on the side. Fathead is the Juno award-wining Ontario blues band that is playing at one of the festivals outdoor sites. The panini comes from Pasta Etc., a hole-in-the-wall take-out restaurant two blocks away.
Everyone knows Montreal is a great food town and has superb festivals. But for most of us, when the city becomes le jazz hot, the festival site is le food not. Sure there are plenty of restaurants ringing the venues, but with so much wonderful music, its a shame to waste even an hour eating inside when we could be picnicking outside.
The festival is hoping that more of the one and a half million jazz lovers who will come this year will eat on site. There are the usual burger and waffle vendors and the organizers have whipped together a Louisiana ready-to-go menu that includes a bowl of gumbo for $2 and platters of crawfish at $6.95. The on-site food and drink stands contribute substantially to the cost of the outdoor events but thats little consolation to a couple out for an inexpensive date or family of four that has already forked over a small fortune for t-shirts or other souvenirs. With prices of $3.00 for a char-broiled wurst and $2.00 for ice cream, once youve walked through the barricades its easy to feel that youre a prisoner in fast food land.
It doesnt have to be that way. Good food and music should go together like a Zydeco band and a bucket of shrimp. The key is to plan for a picnic. You cant bring canned or bottled beverages or any alcoholic drinks into the area (those are sold on-site). However, you can bring food so why not make it a meal to remember rather than just a smugglers nosh.
The most economical picnics may be the ones we prepare at home but who wants to shoulder egg salad sandwiches on a hot day. Fortunately, several places bordering the Jazz festival can put together a meal to go.
Dim Sum for one or more.
Chinatown is only a few steps away and most restaurants here have great takeout. But if you dont want a whole meal drop by Sung Sing Lung at 72A Lagauchetiere street west. This is one of the oldest grocery stores in the area. Its well stocked with inexpensive Chinese comfort food including fried bread sticks, steamed buns, almond cookies, sticky rice, and homemade bbq. A take-out special of rice, meat and an egg roll costs $4.25. The store is open until 5:45 most nights, later on Friday and Saturday but it will be closed for holidays from July 5 to July 22.
A Middle Eastern Feast
Le Soleil, on the corner of St-Laurent boulevard and Ontario street is a wonderful cafeteria style restaurant that is only a block from the festival but is open every day until about 8 pm and closed on Sunday. It does a thriving business for the office and commercial trade in the area but is relatively unknown otherwise. Pity. It makes many excellent North African dishes such as brik (a kind of Tunisian empañada ), kefta (spiced beef ) sandwiches, couscous and salads as well as a wonderful selection of baklava pastries.
Al fresco Italiano
Hidden off the street at 1435 Bleury, between de Maisonneuve and Ste. Catherine streets is Pasta Etc., a jewel of a coffee shop with excellent panini sandwiches, freshly made cold soups like gazpacho; and, since this is Montreal, bagels and lox all dressed at $3.95. Theres pasta, of course, as well as fresh fruit, yogurt, and several kinds of salads. Its open everyday from 7 AM to 9 PM during the festival
Basement level bistros
If you are in a group and no one knows what they want, head down the Complex Desjardins escalator at the corner of Bleury and Ste Catherine The subterranean food court here offers more than a dozen cuisines from Mexican and Japanese to Québecois and Italian. You can grab a smoked meat from one stand, a poutine from another, muffins, coffee, chicken terriyaki, burritos or Caesar salads. For cheaper generic snacks such as soft drinks, chips, and ice cream try the news stand at the east end of the food court.
If a straw-basket picnic is what you have in mind, it probably includes baguettes, good paté, ripe cheeses, and lip smacking French pastries. Dont go hunting around town for this, just drop by Fougasse & Quignon. F&Q used to have a store on Mountain near Sherbrooke. Now they are sequestered underneath Ste. Catherine Street in the passageway that stretches between Place Des Arts and Complex Desjardins. Jacques Raymond has a superb selection of breads, salads, and charcuterie. Try the chatta - olive stuffed bread from Southern France, the boccocini and tomato salad, or fresh almond croissants. If you call in advance (286-9324) M. Raymond will prepare an order to match your budget.
Free concerts are held at 8 different locations. Almost all of these venues are sandwiched outdoors between Bleury and Clark and De Maisonneuve and Ste-Catherine streets. There is another site inside Complex Desjardins featuring noon concerts. It is also the location of the festivals daily la petite école du Jazz (see Family Stuff below). There are also free midnight shows at the Spectrum, but you cant picnic there. The closest metro stop to all sites is Place des Arts.
The outdoor locations vary from huge outdoor stages to more intimate spots. The Scène Air-Transat Radio-Canada on Ste. Catherine street features larger groups and big bands like Normand Gosselins 17 piece Jazz P.A.L. The crowds gather on the steps of Place des Arts across the street. The sound is great but it can be a little intimidating to dine al fresco as strangers gather around and wait for the show to start.
The best place for terrace dining is probably the small area which this year is called Chapiteau du Casino de Montreal. It is on the eastern side of Place des Arts, overlooking Saint-Urbain street. The bleacher style seating is comfortable and there may even be a few tables in front of the stage. Its a great venue to catch soloists like New Orleans Wanda Rouzan or small combos like Montreals Penny Lang and Michael Browne.
But real picnics demand a park or at least a spot under a shady tree. For that you have to go to a small patch of wooded greenery on Ontario and St. Urbain just across from Parc Fred Barry. For the last few years, this park has held some of the festivals most exuberant blues concerts. There are over a dozen park benches and a nice shady area a half block west beside the huge stone walls of the church, St. Jean lévangeliste.
Dont expect to dine luxuriously during the concerts. Rather make your choice early and get there in plenty of time to enjoy a meal, watch the crowds gather and the bands set up. Then clean up and join the fun.
More than ever this is a great year to go en famille.
Jugglers, acrobats, and clowns perform around the festival site throughout the afternoon into the early evening. A free, adult supervised musical park is on the Place des Arts terrace. It has giant instruments to play with and an arts and crafts tent is open for kids until about 9 PM every night. Theres also face painting from 1 to 5 in the afternoon and 7 to 9 in the evening.
The popular la petite école de Jazz is held daily at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and includes some of Montreals best Jazz musicians like James Gelfand and Michel Donato. Any kid is welcome but should arrive before the school starts.The bilingual show lasts almost an hour. It gets children involved with music and an original jazz focused story.
If you are at the festival site in the late afternoon or early evening, watch for the new nightly parade. It leads off with the Original Pinstripe Band from New Orleans high stepping along Ste-Catherine street. The parade starts at the Air-Transat Radio-Canada stage in front of Place des Arts. It takes an hour and a half to wind through the festival site with several stops, a huge alligator, and lots of buffoonery along the way.