The Inquisitive Traveler
A taste of France without crossing the Atlantic
By Patty Burness
There are some real travel bargains available now. If you can take advantage of them, try Quebec City — this UNESCO-designated World Heritage site is a treasure. And getting there takes about the same time as a flight to New York. Quebec means “there where the river narrows.” Indeed, Quebec City sits atop the banks of the St. Lawrence River. French may be the official language, but English is spoken widely. A few months ago, I joined a gourmet cuisine tour to get inside access to some of the best this historic city has to offer.
Quebec City recently celebrated the 400th anniversary of its founding in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. In its early years, there were many spirited contests on the Plains of Abraham (once a battlefield, now an expansive park) between the French and the British over who would ultimately control this gem. Quebec City is divided into two parts — Vieux (old) Quebec (Upper Town) and Vieux Port (Lower Town). Visitors are either inside the stone walls or outside of them; seven medieval gates are virtually the same today as when they were first constructed. In fact, Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico.
During my culinary excursion, my base was a former wharf and cannon battery known today as the Auberge Saint-Antoine. Located next to the St. Lawrence River, the Auberge’s restaurant used to be a maritime warehouse. During recent reconstruction of the property, archaeologists uncovered artifacts from the 1600s — and they are on display there. The rooms have everything one wouldexpect at a luxury boutique hotel — sumptuous bed, silky linens, high-tech access, heated bathroom floors, friendly service and a knockout view of the river. While it’s tempting to kick back and relax, keep moving, for there is a lot the to explore — starting with Panache, the hotel’s restaurant that has garnered rave reviews since its opening.
The ambience is warm and casual as you sit amid stone walls and massive wood beams with the river right out the window. French Canadian cooking at Panache uses fresh ingredients, local purveyors and everything else a San Franciscan would expect. Start with the white coco bean (it has nothing to do with chocolate) cream soup that conceals a wild boar and truffle mousse at the bottom of the bowl. The spit-roasted local duck, tender and juicy and glazed with maple syrup, is a signature dish. Served with asparagus, mushrooms and a spinach mousse and paired with a 2005 Dominique Portet Fontaine from the Yarra Valley (Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot blend), I was happy my room was only an elevator ride away.
There’s plenty to discover down Quebec City’s narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets — antique shops, museums, historic stone row houses and churches, wine bars, bistros and the bustling marketplace (Marche Vieux-Port). Take the funicular 300 feet above the Vieux Port, straight up Cap Diamant to Vieux Quebec, and arrive at Chateau Frontenac. Built in 1893, this grand dame is one of Canada’s legendary railway hotels. San Franciscans will be right at home on the city’s hilly streets.
At lunchtime, head straight to Laurie Raphael. This modern and creative restaurant is conveniently located next to the Marche Vieux Port. The daily “Chef! Chef!” menu is a surprise, and the three courses are put together at the last moment depending upon the chef’s inspiration that day. Laurie Raphael’s unique concept of restaurant/workshop/boutique gives patrons the opportunity to sample culinary delights, try out their skills in the demo kitchen, and purchase homemade creations.
Before or after dinner, take time to sneak into Le Pape George. This intimate wine bar offers numerous wines by the glass, tapas-like treats, and great music in the evening.
When dinnertime rolls around again, visit one of Quebec’s City’s long-standing favorites: Le Saint-Amour. The front room is small and cozy, and in the rear of the old stone house is a delightful and airy dining room. Think about the strip loin of beef, with Yukon gold potatoes and caramelized cipollinis paired with a 2005 Jackson-Triggs Cabernet Shiraz blend from Canada’s Okanagan Valley.
The next day, we toured Ile d’Orleans, 15 minutes outside the city. This charming rural island is home to artisan growers and producers and is known as the “Garden of Quebec.” It’s easy to create your own gourmet tour of the island, topped off with a stay at an auberge (inn).
One stop was Cassis Monna et Filles where we tasted luscious black currant jams and authentic cassis. The family there is the fifth generation of liquoristes, who began operating in 1872. Next stop: Le Canard Huppe, where local lamb was a winner. There’s much more after these adventures, so save room for the wines, chocolates, sweets, and smoked treats available all over the island.
Back across the bridge that connects Ile d’Orleans to the mainland, you’ll see Montmorency Falls. From a height of 83 feet, watch 35,000 liters of water per second cascade down the cliffs. They can be viewed from several angles via cable car, foot bridge and stairs.
The final evening, we were hosted by the only female chef in Quebec City — Marie-Chantal Lepage at Le Monte Cristo Resto Lounge. Located just outside Quebec City in the five-star Chateau Bonne Entente Hotel, the restaurant combines the best of New York and Las Vegas. It’s trendy, yet rustic and locally inspired. We savored maple-glazed breast of quail with smoked lardons and roasted lamb chops with a wasabi crust, both served with a 2005 Clos La Chance Pinot Noir from our own Santa Cruz Mountains. The combination of flavors and the ambience was a delightful feast for the senses.
There’s no significant jet lag involved in this trip to a taste of Europe in North America. Try it — it’s delicious.
Quebec City is about a five-hour flight, fly into Montreal or Toronto and connect to Quebec City, http://www.expedia.com/gogreen; www.eco.orbitz.com. Tourist Information: Don’t forget your passport. http://www.bonjourquebec.com; http://www.quebecregion.com. (All prices figured at $.80USD = $1.00CAD)
Where to Stay
Auberge Saint-Antoine: 8 rue Saint-Antoine, Quebec City; 888-692-2211, 418-692-2211, http://www.saint-antoine.com. Rooms from $135.20.
Where to Eat
Panache Restaurant: 8 rue Saint-Antoine, Quebec City; 888-692-2211, 418-692-2211, www.saint-antoine.com. Tasting menu $76; paired with wine, add $59.20.
Laurie Raphael:117 rue Dalhousie, Quebec City, 418-692-4555, http://www.laurieraphael.com. Chef! Chef! menu $20.
Le Saint-Amour: 48 rue Saint-Ursule, Quebec City; 418-694-0667, http://www.saint-amour.com. Appetizers from $13.60, entrees from $33.60, desserts from $4, wines by the glass from $6.40.
Le Monte Cristo Resto Lounge: 3400 Chemin Sanite-Foy, Quebec; 800-463-4390, 418-650-4550, http://www.chateaubonneentente.com/index-en.php. Appetizers from $11.20, entrees from $24.80, desserts from $9.60, wines by the glass from $7.20.
Le Pape George: 8 rue Cul de Sac, Quebec City, 418-692-1320.
Ile d’Orleans: http://www.iledorleans.com, http://www.producteurstoques.com.
Montmorency Falls: http://www.bonjourquebec.com.
Super Shuttle: 800-258-3826, http://www.supershuttle.com. It’s a fast trip to the airport, especially if you’re the last to be picked up.
United Airlines Red Carpet Club: http://www.united.com/homepage (click on Services and Information). When you need a respite from the hassles of travel, try the club. From day passes to annual memberships, you’ll gain entry to places to sit back or work (try the latest Westin Renewal Lounge, an oasis in the middle of the Club); enjoy wireless access and some beverages and snacks. Prices and locations:
Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge: http://www.aircanada.com/au/en/home.html (click on Information & Services). Their vast modern spaces offer comfortable places to relax and get work done, too — business centers with free internet access, complimentary alcoholic/nonalcoholic beverages, light meals and snacks, local beer on tap — all with great service.
Visiting Canada, especially its eastern coast, can be controversial. On the one hand, Canada is stunning, while on the other, it continues the age-old tradition of the seal hunt. The U.S. Humane Society suggested a national boycott of Canadian seafood and tourism because of the hunt even though the objectionable activity occurs predominantly around Newfoundland. Russia has halted the killing of baby seals; the European Union will consider banning its trade in seal products in a few weeks. In the meantime, the hunt continues as it has for decades, and most Canadians and others worldwide are disturbed by the inhumane treatment of the seals. You decide how to channel your activism. Quebec City is worth the trip.
Seal Hunt Information:U.S. Humane Society http://www.hsus.org:80/marine_mammals/protect_seals/about_the_canadian_seal_hunt/; International Fund for Animal Welfarehttp://www.ifaw.org/ifaw_canada_english/; Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/seal-phoque/index_e.htm.
Correction: Rates for cottages at Nick’s Cove start at $255 depending on location and day of the week. The rate was incorrect in the April article.
Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org