It’s a well known truism that Quebec City is North America’s most European of cities. Once the capital of New France, conquered by England in 1759, then absorbed into Canada in 1867, the city and the province of Quebec have fiercely maintained a distinct identity. Not only is Quebec’s first language French in officially bi-lingual Canada, the city’s architecture from stone townhouses to walled fortifications and narrow flower-bedecked streets, create an atmosphere more attuned to old Europe than 21st century North America.
As a student in the late 1960s/early 1970s at Quebec City’s Université Laval this journalist, already fascinated with food and familiar with Canadian cuisine in other provinces, accepted a certain reality. The food products of Île d’Orléans, the rich farmlands surrounding Quebec, the fish and seafood of both the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean at its mouth were as fine as one could obtain anywhere on the continent. Yet, despite its French heritage, the city’s restaurants were either unimaginative or serving French cuisine that was even then available only in small provincial outposts in the mother country.
Perhaps poutine is an apt example of a half-century of culinary evolution in Quebec City. Invented in the 1950s, this fast-food combination of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and smothered in beef gravy became virtually the Quebec national dish and for years the butt of jokes in other parts of Canada – that is until the 21st century. In recent years poutine has changed under the talented hands of imaginative chefs and has migrated to major North American food centers from Philadelphia to Vancouver. From cafes to fine dining restaurants, additions from smoked bison to wild mushrooms and even foie gras now grace hand cut fries, squeaky organic cheese curds and lighter herb flavored gravies.
That same evolution in cuisine under both the talents of seasoned chefs and a new generation brought up on the media’s internationalization of tastes are transforming Quebec City into a sought after dining destination. Yet traditions remain; they’re simply being tweaked. The same incomparable food products Quebec agriculture has always produced now take center of the plate as the following nine city restaurants so admirably prove.
Hilton Executive Lounge/le23
The floor to ceiling glass walls of the Hilton Executive Lounge/le23 located on the 23rd floor of the Quebec Hilton command panoramic views of the walled city of Vieux Quebec, the historic 19th century Hôtel du Parlement (Province of Quebec Parliament Building) both the mighty St. Lawrence and Charles rivers and the Laurentian Mountains in the distance. The view is magical at night. Open to guests in Executive rooms (21st through 23rd floors) the Executive Lounge offers an extensive continental breakfast buffet – croissants to crepes – and from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. an imaginative hot and cold tapas buffet – both complimentary. Recent selections included P.E.I. mussels steamed with kalamata olives and feta cheese, scallop ceviche, saffron rice with baby shrimp and beautiful little plates of lobster salad with Île d’Orléans strawberries. Monday through Friday from noon to 2:00 p.m., the room becomes le23 offering lunch with a view to the public.
Located on the 28th floor of the Hotel Le Concorde Quebec, Le Ciel! Bistro-Bar offers majestic views of Quebec City as it makes a 360° revolution once per 90 minutes. In most cases, that would be the only highlight for a revolving restaurant review. Yet in Le Ciel! Bistro-Bar’s case a diner may be excused if they never look out the window walls because their focus is on the imaginative dishes placed on the table. Braised veal cheeks with parsnip puree, Jerusalem artichokes and armillare mushrooms or pan-fried escargots on beds of savory puree of cheese and squash while one’s dining partner enjoys roasted salmon on green beans, fennel and preserved tomatoes napped with an herb sauce justifiably demand attention. Perhaps between sipping a fine wine from Le Ciel!’s extensive wine selection featuring such rich dry Quebec reds redolent of summer berries as Le Jaja de Jau Syrah, one takes a glance out the window and remembers why the restaurant’s on the 28th floor. The view of vibrant nightlife on the Grande-Allée, dramatic lighting on iconic Hotel Chateau Frontenac and the fabled Citadel finally elicit awe. Then dessert arrives: strawberries, orange sections, cherries and blueberries decorated by crunchy mint meringues on a pool of red berry sauce and an éclair filled with Valrhona manjari chocolate garnished with pearls of meringue and raspberry puree draw your attention back to the sophistication created by the talented Quebec team at Groupe Restos Plaisirs. On the way down the glass elevator take a second look at the beautiful city views and be contented you chose the revolving Le Ciel! Bistro-Bar.
Legend goes that Jacques and France Gauthier are not responsible for Cochon Dinque, the superb Parisian style bistro located in the city’s 17th century lower town, once the gritty dock and women of the night district. When the Gauthiers were frequenting Couchon Dinque with after movie munchies for its famous 4-layer carrot cake, lower town was in the midst of a dramatic restoration into the historic Quartier Petit-Champlain. Thirty-five years later Jacques and France Gauthier head Quebec’s acclaimed restaurant collection Groupe Restos Plaisirs but it all started when they acquired Cochon Dinque in 1979. The pig takes center stage with maple-smoked ribs, smoky BBQ pulled pork, and plates of bacon and cheddar sausages or cranberry maple, among others, all served with fries, grain mustards, mayonnaise blends with harissa or dill and crocks of homemade pickles. Now with three Cochon Dinque’s in the city, it’s equally well known for seafood pie, burgers with beef or herbed pork, salmon tartar, duck confit and pates. Variations on Quebec’s national dish, poutine include one with their incomparable BBQ pork. Twenty-first century creations such as watermelon, tomato and feta cheese salad and, of course, a wide variety of desserts including ice creams and the 4-layer carrot cake round out the menu. The ambience of historic stone structures, rough-hewn wood beams and overflowing flower boxes will transport you to the age when Quebec was the mighty capital of New France but as in any French bistro, you’ll linger and savor the present.
Legende Par La Taniere
Chef/owners/spouses Frédéric Laplante and Karen Therrien seem to have no problem redirecting their devoted customers from one location to another, yet with modesty they nearly apologize for the supposed inconvenience. Housed in one of Quebec’s burgeoning boutique hotels, Hotel des Coutellier, the new restaurant’s name is a direction that, although they closed La Taniere, Legende is a continuation of their talent. For this group of travel and food journalists, Legende Par La Taniere presented the full array of their talent in a succession of artistically arranged platters highlighting the considerable breadth of the menu including charcuterie and seafood platters, grilled smoky trout over brussels sprout caesar salad – the smoky flavor permeated the sprouts ¬– highly imaginative Bison Tataki (buffalo carpaccio) skewered with chanterelles, paper thin cheese crisps, garnished with micro greens and bright sea buckthorn berries. As for wine, a Pinot Noir as light as a dry French rosé had a nose of cranberries and a mouth feel of tart unripe raspberries, all with mild tannins leaving the palate dry and clean. The dessert tray highlighted selections from the menu including sorbets of herbs with fleur de sel and caramel, a cucumber sorbet with sea buckthorn and a panna cotta with organic honey. True to a fine restaurant, your visit may not have the same offerings since Legende Par La Taniere’s menu changes without notice depending on the availability of the best products. Suspend expectation and give in to desire.
Christian Lemelin, like many fine chefs, gave in to his passion at 17-years-old and accepted the reality that culinary excellence requires devotion and giving up sleep. In his mid-30s, he is chef/owner of Quebec’s celebrated Restaurant Toast. Located in Vieux Quebec in a charming historic building now the boutique Hotel Le Priori, the interior glows with warm light reflecting off stone walls and simple yet sleek wood modern décor. A large inner courtyard, heated and protected from the weather in season, creates a quiet and intimate garden dining experience. Like most of Quebec’s restaurants, the emphasis was on fresh local ingredients, which are in abundant supply, but the dishes come from the creative and fertile mind of Chef Lemelin. An astounding flavor experience was a fillet of barely seared, deep red, blue fin tuna on a creamy white sauce paired with baby shrimp salad, fennel salad and a mild white cheese mousse. The chef’s concept of ‘surf & turf’ was the most creative this chef journalist ever enjoyed – octopus sous vide cooked for 14 hours then rolled in smoky paprika and paired with grilled sweetbreads. Both were accompanied by a fine white wine from Quebec, Cavalier du Versant 2011. Its nose had the fragrance of fresh grass and grapefruit. The mouth feel was dry with citrus peel, green apples and grapefruit tones leaving a slightly sweet aftertaste. Dessert was a trio of Quebec cheeses with roasted mixed nuts served on a rectangle of black slate – a favorite material for tableware in Quebec’s trendy restaurants. To counterpoint the richness of a flourless Vairhona chocolate cake, it was paired with semi-dried Quebec blueberries. Unhurried relaxation and imaginative cuisine are the hallmarks of fine dining at Toast.
Le Chic Shack mobile
Idyllic Île d’Orléans in the middle of the St. Lawrence River has been famous for the fertility of its farmland ever since the first French settlers arrived in the 17th century. It’s the motherland for much of the finest products that grace the tables of Quebec City restaurants. For well over a century, Île d’Orléans has been prized as well by affluent households as a prime summer cottage getaway. So it’s no surprise that an upscale food truck should find a seasonal home on the island. Le Chic Shack mobile is a simpler version of the popular local Le Chic Shack chain, a component of the Price family businesses. One of Quebec City’s most illustrious families, the Price group of businesses, and the family’s philanthropic largess, has been an integral component of Quebec City since the mid-1800s. As in the evolution of poutine, Le Chic Shack has taken traditional Quebec bistro fare to a new level while maintaining a relaxed café atmosphere. Le Chic Shack mobile has a beautiful river view location at Parc Maritime de Saint-Laurent under the shade of towering trees. The talented young staff offers a select number of tacos, burgers and, of course, poutine. Shrimp tacos are seasoned with lemon and cilantro, while cod tacos include famous fresh Île d’Orléans strawberries and there’s a smoky pulled pork taco. Their poutine is decidedly upscale consisting of roasted potatoes, squeaky fresh cheese curds and a light, flavorful black pepper gravy. Burgers of local beef, cheddar, house pickles, bibb lettuce, tomato, maple-smoked bacon and their own special sauce are served on brioche buns created by local artisan baker Eric Borderon – gluten-free buns are available. Chunky sweet and salty chocolate chip cookies round out the food truck menu. Le Chic Shack mobile is open only during the summer season. At the mainland Le Chic Shacks the selections are more extensive. Burgers include a veggie patty with pickled beets or one with bison and blue cheese as well as a lobster burger – Maritime lobster only available during the winter season. Poutines can include additions of red-ale braised beef, smoked meats or wild mushroom ragout. Lovers of comfort food do not have to sacrifice flavor or creativity in Quebec.
Like many of Quebec’s chefs Stéphane Roth utilizes locally grown organic produce. Except in the case of Tournebroche local is as close as the extensive roof top garden of Hôtel du Vieux-Québec where his restaurant is located. Both the restaurant and hotel have garnered praise and awards for their eco-friendly business practices, which include a roof top apiary. The restaurant preserves as much of the vegetables and fruits as possible for the winter season in such forms as tomato ketchup and dried herbs. The hands-on ethic of Tournebroche results in breads being homemade along with sauces, mayonnaise (an important component in any French kitchen) and ice creams. Owner and restaurateur Guy Collin loves the rotisserie and a specialty of the house is organic chicken from the Charlevoix region, famous for its meats and dairy. Traditional dishes such as shepherd’s pie are tweaked adding rotisserie chicken and a grilled cheese sandwich may have organic potatoes, onions and bacon. Of course the cheese is from a local fromagerie. A Belgian style white beer, Brasseurs du Monde L’Infusee, is specially brewed for Tournebroche by Micobrasserie Orléans. Charcuterie is a standard for most Quebec restaurants, and at Tournebroche that includes wild boar with sea salt and cranberry crumble, melon and green apples with smoked organic meats from the Charlevoix and a variety of patés. The dining room is busy, large windows overlook popular rue Saint-Jean with its many small shops and cafes, and you can dine with confidence that every delectable bite is fresh and beneficial to local producers.
Chez Boulay-bistro boreal
Boreal refers to the eco systems of the northern hemisphere and at Chez Boulay-bistro boreal that means Nordic cuisine. Long time restaurateur Jean-Luc Boulay and young but experienced chef Arnaud Marchand pair Quebec’s abundant food products creating seasonal menus with an emphasis on Nordic preparation techniques. They are strong believers in the health benefits derived from a diet rich in fish, game, vegetables and berries. The menu at Chez Boulay-bistro boreal, depending on the season, will include bison, wild boar, elk, partridge, rainbow trout, northern pike, wild celery, sea asparagus and balsam just to name a few ingredients that may stimulate your imagination and appetite. A recent dish of moist tender halibut fillet lay on a bed of oyster mushrooms and boreal salsa verde – mixed summer vegetables and herbs – paired with creamy mashed potatoes seasoned with hemp oil. Balancing the demands of a commercial kitchen with the safety of the eco-system is a prime directive for this team so products are obtained only from purveyors following responsible cultivation and harvesting whether it be from the land or sea.
Restaurant Le Continental
Housed in a historic 1845 house once owned by a famous Quebec family – one member became a prime minister – Restaurant Le Continental is a beloved city tradition. Opened in 1956 by brothers from France who had gained their experience at Paris’ Hotel George V, it was the first Quebec City restaurant to offer French Cart Service with classic French cuisine. In French Cart Service the entree is prepared tableside. Hot foods are cooked on a rechaud (hot plate) that is on a gueridon (small table). Cold foods, such as caesar salad, are assembled on just the gueridon. Servers plate the finished foods onto individual dishes and serve them to guests from the right. This is the only style of service where food is served from the right. Some foods, such as desserts, may already be prepared. They are displayed on a cart that is rolled tableside and guests are served after making their selections. Such hard to find dishes are available on Le Continental’s menu such as partridge with foie gras braised with brandy and red wine, espagnole sauce, mushrooms and deboned at table served over white rice. Flambé preparations are popular in French Cart Service, and Le Continental does not disappoint, offering flambé peppercorn sirloin, flambé shrimps with whisky, flambé orange duckling and perhaps the most famous flambé dessert in French repertoire, crepe suzette with enough butter and liqueur to require a diner to suspend any guilt about dieting. The hushed elegant décor and waiters in white dinner jackets evoke a bygone era in contrast to the rushed pace of 21st century life. Observing the packed restaurant with French speaking locals, there remains a place for tradition in the hearts of the Quebecois.
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