Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Quebec, Eh! (part 1)

We recently returned from a week in Quebec City, so of course I have to report on every last thing I ate.  Okay, I’ll edit…but with such a great food city as Quebec, it will be hard to leave out one tiny morsel!

            Actually, we arrived in driving rain.  Ugh.  The condo we rented in the old city was right next to a convenience store that, conveniently, had a nice selection of beer, so as we unpacked and settled in, I enjoyed a beer that I discovered at a tasting while “working” in the Converse low-res MFA residency period at Pinecrest Inn:  Le Fin du Monde.  The end of the world.  It felt like it, with all that rain.  Nothing is gloomier than rain on vacation when all the buildings are grey stone and it’s a very dark 6PM.
            How to rally?  Luckily, we were only around the corner from Aux Anciens Canadien, a famous French-Canadian restaurant in a historic building.  (Standards for historic are high in Quebec—we’re talking the 1600s.)  We ran over and got a cozy table for two in a nook upstairs and had just a few “snacks,” since it was late and the restaurant is known for gigantic portions:  I had a plate of smoked eel and smoked sturgeon that was excellent and a (giant) (appetizer) piece of meat pie.  Steve had escargots—I believe it is physically impossible for him to turn down escargot on a menu—and boar and wild caribou rillette (like pate).  We shared our first poutine in Canada (French fries with gravy and cheese curds).  For dessert, a delicious maple syrup pie…the piece was the size of a hubcap.  Yum!
            I won’t go on and on about the weather, just to say that there was more rain throughout the week than one would want unless one was a duck.  Oh well.  We both discovered that some shoes previously thought not to be able to handle puddles actually could!
            Our first full day we walked around and tried to get a feel for the city.  There’s a convenient tourism bureau with very helpful people, though clearly this is not the unbiased tourist bureau that we encounter here, as each window was someone shilling for their own company.  Still, it was helpful to find them all in one place, and we set up a walking tour AND a food tour for the coming days.  (The company we liked was Voir Quebec.)  Whew…time for lunch!
            We found ourselves in the lower part of Quebec at lunchtime.  I really wasn’t prepared for the many and massive hills that make up the old part of the city, and being constantly confronted with a steep staircase every which way (or should I say, my platform shoes were not prepared).  On the plus side, hiking up and down burns calories!  We found L’Echaude, a lovely bistro a bit off the tourist track, that offered a nice lunch deal.  I had salad topped with beautiful slices of smoked duck and Steve had an omelet with amazing smoked salmon.  And wine, of course!  (In a moment of poor French execution, I thought I was ordering French fries—frites—for an appetizer, but in a happy turn of events, they ended up being fried oysters!  Steve thought he was ordering beef carpaccio, but it was actually beeT carpaccio, with goat cheese, and it was fabulous!)
            Since we were too full to climb back up a staircase, we decided to wander the lower city and eventually made our way to the farmer’s market—Marche du Vieux-Porte—which is truly a sight.  Aisles of produce and ice wine and maple products and spices and foie gras and on and on.  We bought some wonderful apples; the girl who explained the different types to us had definite opinions on which she liked (don’t ask her about Spartans!), and when I said, “It seems you’re in the right job,” she laughed and said, “I am loving the apple!”  Cheese from Quebec (you know, the soft, unpasteurized, raw milk kind the US won’t allow imported in), bread, maple-coated popcorn, a maple-oatmeal cookie (as I noted to Steve, “I am loving the maple!”).  After the market, we wandered in desperation looking for a state-run liquor store—SAC—along a major thoroughfare during rush hour—score! success!—we headed home for a relaxing night of wine, bread, and cheese.
            At breakfast, I went for takeout breakfast pastries (do you think maybe there was a croissant in that bag!?) at Paillard, and then with a bit of time to kill, we explored the beautiful lobby of the castle-like hotel, Le Chateau Frontenac (if you’re not familiar with it, check out the picture!) and found time for a Bloody Mary/Bloody Caesar at the wood-paneled bar.  Time for our walking tour, which was excellent.  We learned about the history of Quebec City (founded on fish and furs!) and the battles between the French and English.  Our guide was especially good at creating an enthralling atmosphere for the story of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.   Home to relax before setting out for dinner, at a newish restaurant I had read about:  Chez Bistro Bouley Boreal, which features ingredients from the north and is run by a chef who was in the “Top Chef” of Canada (be still my heart!).
            Oh, my…what a menu!!  It took forever even to make a drink selection from the interesting cocktails.  Steve ended up with a drink based on a gin made in Quebec, and I ended up with something that seemed to be Canadian whiskey with a rich, dark, earthy broth.  (Maybe we can get Steve to expand upon my lame drink descriptions in an edition of “Two at the Most”?)  We went all in on the Nordic concept with our food choices:  I had salmon tartare to start, and he had bison tartare.  Oh, divine….  (And don’t they say that raw food is healthier?)  For dinner, I went with one of the specials, sweetbreads with root vegetables in a delectable maple syrup reduction, and Steve had a fantastic black cod with a celery/salsify puree that had him sopping up every drop with bread.  Dessert:  cheese course for me, and Steve had something that is rather untranslatable, but which turned out to be yummy:  “nougat glace,” sort of a non-ice cream sundae.  At the end of the trip—a trip filled with fabulous food—we both decided this was easily our best meal, and one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten.
            Forging on the next day:  pastries from Paillard and then I took a walk up to Parliament Hill and to the Plains of Abraham, which now is a lovely and large park.  There were special displays of Halloween decorations in the Joan of Arc garden, and behind the museum there were several groups of schoolkids practicing with a “regiment” for a re-enactment of the battle.  The “French army” was practicing running forward with their bayonets, and the “British army” was practicing falling down dead one after the other in a Radio City Rockettes-style chain of gore and death (not to fear, Anglophiles, the British ended up winning this battle and control of the city).
            What can I say about the food tour except that every city should have one (and I should lead the one here in Alexandria)!  The combination of exercise while eating is super-smart!  While I wonder a bit about the pay-off angle of the stops chosen, there’s no denying that what we ate and what we learned was all wonderful and a bit off the beaten path:  cheese, pate, a dizzying array of maple syrups gulped from a series of small cups, crepes, chocolate, ice wine, maple-laced Canadian whiskey…oh my.  Clearly our guide loved food, and his passion showed.  Our favorite stops were the SAC (the liquor store!), where I discovered a highly dangerous product, Sortilege—a liqueur of Canadian whiskey and maple—that I am now seriously addicted to; the crepes at Casse Crepes Breton; the maple store whose name escapes me; and the gourmet food at the specialty grocery store, J.A. Moisan Epicier (since 1871; the oldest continuous grocery store in North America).  Could we really eat more cheese and bread for dinner?  YES.  After the tour, we loaded up on my new favorite drink at the SAC and then a bagful of cheese, bread, and pate from the Epicier.  Steve also found some excellent Montreal bagels there that he was familiar with, so that put an end to my morning trips to Paillard. 
            Since it wasn’t raining, we decided to go for a walk to see the scary Halloween decorations at night, along with the five year old Quebec children.  On the way back up to the Plains of Abraham, we were lucky enough to stumble into a branch of Chez Ashton’s, a Canadian fast-food burger place which, according to our food tour guide, was the first place to serve poutine.  Of course we had to try a “mini”—which was about the size of a trough—and here was the promised land of poutine.  Cheese curds squeaked, gravy was assertive, and fries remained crisp.  Go to the source!
            Waddled home for a relaxing dinner of cheese and pate, if you can call watching the presidential debate “relaxing.”
            I think I’ll have to break off now…probably you need a snack to fortify you for the adventures ahead, including the big foie gras event!  To be continued....!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.