To Quebec City for the investiture of restaurant Initiale and Auberge Saint-Antoine (with its own restaurant, Panache) into the Relais & Chateaux fold. “These two are my favourites in the city,” I’m told by Normand Laprise, chef-patron of Toqué! in Montreal, “along with Laurie Raphaël and a bistro I like called Le Café de Clocher Penché.” Local connoisseurs chime in to add L’Utopie and Jean Soulard’s stately Le Champlain at Château Frontenac.
I know, I know, if I were a more diligent foodie, I would visit them all and be carried back to the airport on a litter. Instead, me and the missus sharpen our evening appetites by days spent exploring the charming but strangely empty lanes and ramparts of the old town. Lunch in a couple of touristic bistros is awful (our fault for choosing carelessly). But we are fulsome in our enthusiasm for the city when a shopkeeper asks how we like it. “I once visited Niagara-on-the-Lake,” he continues, smiling. “It was very pretty. There. Now you have praised my country and I have praised your country.” Growing up in England, I was taught to cheer Wolfe’s coup on the Plains of Abraham as a victory. It is seen differently here. History, like reviewing restaurants, is always about personal interpretation.
Initiale’s deep-rooted loyalties are implicit in the names of two of its three private rooms—Le Salon Escoffier and Le Salon Carême—but there’s nothing old-fashioned in chef-patron Yvan Lebrun’s meticulous artistry. Highlights include a cubic inch of cod that parts into soft petals at the touch of a fork; it’s crowned with a black postage stamp of parmesan cured in squid ink which works as a dazzling little condiment. A small slice of sweetbreads au beurre noisette has the texture of a slippery cloud. Wrapped in tissue-thin potato scales, a drum-shaped piece of calf’s liver is rose-pink and rare, its flavour mesmerisingly delicate. I think it’s the best calf’s liver I’ve ever eaten. Lebrun seems a most serious, intense man but he allows himself a smile when he enters the demure, formal room and is received with a standing ovation.
Panache has a different mood, set in a 19th century merchant chandler’s warehouse close to the river. Its massive stone walls and huge wooden beams have been lovingly restored by the Price family, owners of the beautiful modern auberge. Clever lighting, a blazing fire in the middle of the room and cushion-strewn banquettes inject cosiness into the luxury. Chef François Blais aims for a sophisticated modern take on “traditional Quebec classical dishes and our childhood memories,” but don’t expect wacky poutines or post-modern tourtière. He sets the slow-braised meat of a wild hare under mashed potato with a surface of grilled goat cheese and turns the dish into an island with a flavourful jus that has not been reduced to glue. Duck steps away from the cliché of confit, the legs braised in red wine until juicy flesh falls from bone, the tender breast given a crisp maple glaze, the almost raw “filet” sliced into silken slivers bathed in a foie gras sauce.
Both restaurants draw heavily on Eastern Quebec’s gorgeous seasonal produce, as they should. It’s only quite late in each meal that we notice the complete absence of the Asian grace-notes and global ingredients that are now so engrained into the menus of Toronto’s or Vancouver’s top restaurants. That thoroughbred French or French-Canadian ethos makes even a lemon sauce on a raw scallop taste unexpectedly exotic.Can’t forget to mention the local cheeses. So many good ones but very few were new to me, which reflects well on the conduits of supply we enjoy in Toronto— people like La Ferme, Cheese Boutique and Chris (Alex Farms). But at La Fromagerie’s stall in the Marché du Vieux Port they’re a lot less expensive. We head home laden with cheese and eager for salads of bittersweet Chinese greens.