Fine Dining in Old Quebec Review - A Gastronomic North American Paris

Quebec is a city that takes its cuisine seriously.   There’s living proof in the working garden that graces the hill in front of the Provincial Parliament. Packed with vegetables and herbs, it is harvested regularly by chefs from the Parliament.  There is no sign that says so, but nature’s bounty on that great lawn is free for all comers, and locals in the know forage freely in the garden of the great house. 


Bordeaux Wine Festival, Quebec at night

Quebec, steeped in history, monuments and museums, is a gastronomical Paris, north-Atlantic style, home of bistros and dining experiences common to the Gallic ancestry of so many of its Frenchspeaking citizens. The cobble-stoned streets of the old city are lined with enticing restaurants and stores devoted to epicurean pleasures.   


The gastronomes and hungry tourists were out in full force every evening during a recent visit. We ran into heavy traffic during our meal  at  L’Echaude, one of a series of fine bistros, which we explored in old Quebec.


Ancient chocolate store

The restaurant was packed and orders were backed up.   Our waitress was at the mercy of a kitchen which seemingly could not stay in pace with orders. When the logjam eased, the results were worthwhile:  large penne al dente with braised pork cheeks, a ginger broth with shitake mushrooms, a memorable fish and mussel soup in a lobster court-bouillon to start.   The mains arrived: smoked Arctic char on melt-in-your mouth blinis, stuffed éclair pastry with fois gras, and a flavored rhubarb puree. There was another long wait until dessert arrived, allowing our taste buds to revive   Desserts included   a generous bowl of crème brulee with Madagascar bourbon vanilla accents and a pistachio rhubarb cake with strawberry ice cream to top off a long evening’s feast.  Slow they might have been, but the chefs in that kitchen seemed free to let their imagination roam.


We’d had Arctic char on the previous evening. It’s a local favorite and not often available on the U.S. side of the border. At Legende, another well-populated bistro, it was smoked, accompanied by Brussels sprouts, and a caesar dressing with smoked herring, that was a strange matchup, but one I could easily become accustomed to. We also shared Bison, another Canadian favorite, dressed with marinated mushrooms, browned cauliflower and sunchokes.  Locavore is the mandate in almost every Quebec restaurant, particularly in the summer when the fields overflow with fresh vegetables.


Flying acts by Crepuscule during the summer


I should mention poutine. It’s almost a Canadian symbol, possibly more beloved than mac’n cheese in the States. Poutine, definitely not haute cuisine, comes in many fashions, basically whey of local cheese, french-fries and a mysterious sauce, elaborated with various meats if the customer wishes. We tracked down a local snack bar serving Poutine and ordered light. It came in a greater size than expected.  A medium portion for one person was easily enough for four people, particularly when one of us did not like it. Poutine is all too gloppy for me but it’s something a venturing eater is almost obliged to try. In this case, I say, “once is experience, twice is perversion.” 



We were in Quebec for the Bordeaux Wine Festival, which occurs every two years. It extended over several blocks in tent after tent, each devoted to different communes of Bordeaux bringing a huge quantity of Bordeaux wines on the market or wanting to embrace the Canadian trade. About one third of the wine available to Canadians comes from France.


It also included one tent, which showcased Canadian wine.  This gave me an opportunity to taste local wines and I unearthed a few favorites, Vignoble Sainte-Petronille, a tangy white,  Sieur Rivard Selection,   a blend of  Frontenac Noir-Lucy Kulman and Baco Noir, La Mansard from Frontenac Blanc, and Le Chaume, made from Frontenac Gris-Prairie Star. 


These are not your usual Cabernet and Chardonnay, but are hybrids, man-made and capable of surviving the long Canadian winter. Some of the hybrids were created after Europe’s vineyards were decimated by phylloxera, a louse, which made its way across the Atlantic to Europe.  Grapegrowers made many attempts to debug their fields, but failed until they imported American root stock and grafted it in a variety of combinations to native varietals to restore their vineyards.  France no longer sells wine from hybrids. Many American vintners cultivate those grapes although most prefer more popular varietals.


Our lunch that afternoon at the festival, was catered by The 47th Parallele, one of Quebec’s most innovative restaurants.  We worked through a rather rustic series of dishes, a mixed plate of charcuterie, roasted Cipollini onions and potatoes, prosciutto, duck breast, and boudin.  It was a fixed menu, designed for servicing the crowds attending the festival. I could have done without the boudin, another local favorite, but not with me.  


Tournebroche,Photo credit:Marc D'Entremont

I’ve never been one for progressive dining, but this was the plan for our final evening. We started at Tournebroche, a bistro specializing in rotisserie prepared meals.  We took our starters here and I could have     stayed all night after sampling one of the tastiest, most full bodied fish chowders I’ve ever had, along with some nibbles of a chicken liver mousse with carrot chutney and gravlax. There were two items on the menu that I would love to have tried, a shepherd’s pie and a boar pate. But we had to move on to restaurant number two, Chez Boulay Bistro Boreal, another upscale boite.


Fortunately our goal was just a few steps away on the highly touristic rue Saint-Jean in old Quebec.  Boulay had an onion soup on the regular menu, which I wanted to sample, but we were on schedule for a main course. Given two choices, bison cheek or halibut filet, my partner and I took one of each.  The halibut plate included mashed potatoes dressed with hemp oil, oyster mushrooms and green boreal salsa.


We shared a crisp Riesling Echos 2010 from the Niagara Peninsula, an area just north of the border on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Our red wine was a Cabernet, Redstone 2012, also from the Niagara Peninsula. The area has huge butte overhangs buffering it from cold winds and varietals such as Cabernet and Chardonnay can survive there. It is best known for late harvest dessert and ice wines that rival the best from Germany and France.  The Cabernet was a perfect match for Bison Cheek, braised in red currant vinegar and flanked by two takes on celery, a root puree and grated wild celery root, pairing with beech and lobster mushrooms.


Chef at Le Continental, photo credit:Marc D'Entremont

We finished off the evening and our days of delectation at Le Continental, a restaurant from the old school. It’s housed in an ancient building with almost historic furnishings, dark wood paneling, beautiful art, formally dressed waiters, and tableside service.  We were here just for dessert and we watched and salivated as our maître d prepared delicate crepes, deftly, quickly, and gracefully. It was a fine way to close our exploration of cuisine Quebecoise. 


I would like to have dined at Le Continental years ago when there was a dress code, and guests were more formal.  I inquired about those times and a waiter looked around at guests wearing  eans and polo shirts and sighed, “Very few patrons dress for dinner.”    I inquired about a dress code and he signed once more:   ”That was long ago, today anything goes.  ”


When next I am in Quebec,  I will return to  Tournebroche for the fish chowder, and  Boulay to try the onion soup.  And I will make sure I am in town on a Friday evening, when the Hilton stages its famed lobster festival, every style you might want to try for a flat price, $80 Canadian, about 20% less for those of us from south of the border, because of the strong American dollar. My timing was bad and I really regretted missing a lobster feast.


Photos:Courtesy of Quebec City Tourism unless otherwise noted






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