Saturday, March 20, 2010
Baguettes, butter and cheese: eating our way through La Belle Province
Travelling to big cities is exciting for various reasons, but one of the things we look forward to the most is trying out new restaurants and new combinations of food. Montreal and Quebec City did not disappoint, and we were taken on a bit of a tour gastronomique of this great Francophone province.
Now perhaps my title is a bit of a stereotype or misnomer, but it is quite standard as a guest at someone’s home to nibble on baguette and to sample some of the unique, wonderful cheeses that Quebec has to offer. They have hundreds of varieties, but in Ontario, we are only exposed to a small percentage, which is a true shame! Quebec residents, monks, and cheese-makers alike have been making award-winning cheeses as far back as the 17th century. A well-recognized favourite, Oka, was established in Quebec in 1892, and used a special process of aging the cheese on cypress wood from the southern United States. It has since been sold to a commercial cheese company. One of my personal favourites is a Perron cheese, an aged cheddar infused with a 10-year port, made in Saint-Prime. I managed to bring some home, but I can’t imagine it will last long. From blue cheese to camembert, from goat cheese to sharp cheddars, Quebec is the place for cheese.
And it is also the place for restaurants. Our first night in Montreal, we dined at the trendy La Bottega in Little Italy. It boasts a true wood-fired oven, imported directly from Italy, and the mouth-watering thin crust pizzas are a testament to what a difference authentic Italian makes. We ordered a few different pizzas to share between four people, and were impressed with the more complex flavour of the rapini and sausage pizza. But we were also pleasantly surprised with the simple delicacy of a plain tomato pizza with buffalo mozzarella. The sauce has a sweetness to it, complimented by fresh basil, and the thin crust just melts in your mouth. I will definitely make the effort to go back for this! Also, don’t miss the lamb ‘popsicle’ appetizers – they are tender and to die for.
Montreal has been known for its wicked breakfast places, and Les Enfants Terribles in Outremont (1257 avenue Bernard) certainly lives up to this reputation. Its wood décor, supplemented by whites and blacks, is somewhere between trendy bar and modern cottage, making it a comfortable place to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning. We opted for the café au lait in a bowl, the best and only way to have it in Quebec; it is so delicious you don’t even need to add sugar. My eggs Benedict, always a tough one in restaurants, were perfectly runny, and the Hollandaise sauce was light, but full of rich flavours. The service was friendly and professional, and I would highly recommend this family-friendly place to anyone who visits Montreal.
Another memorable experience was our last night in Quebec City, dining at Panache restaurant in the old town. It is part of the Auberge Saint-Antoine, a small but very fancy hotel in the lower town, closer to the St. Lawrence River. We reserved online at OpenTable.com, which listed the restaurant as expensive, at three dollar signs, but not the top four (this was a little misleading, but I think the Quebec City tourist area is overall more expensive than Montreal). It had great reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, and often appeared in top ten lists for the city. We were excited and glad to avoid walking around aimlessly trying to find a place to eat, as you often do when travelling to new places. We even dressed ‘fancy’, or fancier than we had been for the rest of the trip. And I am glad we did! When we arrived, the average age was about 40, and most of the men were wearing full suits.
The place was beautiful – exposed wood beams cascading across and above grey stone walls, it was once a 19th century marine warehouse, now turned exclusive (and a little stuffy!) restaurant. But maybe this atmosphere is warranted; the food was delectable and different from our other meals in Quebec, and the overall service was good. We dined on scallops, guinea hen, and various complementary amuse-bouches brought to the table, all with delicious savoury high notes, such as the asparagus and poached egg appetizer, served in a shallow bowl surrounded by a sort of parmesan ‘mousse’. In the end, I would recommend this place, just be prepared to dress as though you’re going to a wedding, and maybe save it for a special occasion.
So if you’re looking for your own ‘tour gastronomique’ in our great country, look no further than la belle province; whether you’re dining in on fine cheeses and wine, or going out for a romantic night on the town, Montreal and Quebec City have much to offer.
Click on the link for more information on the history of Quebec cheese.