The Bounty Of 'Bistronomie' : Québec City Chefs And Their Quirky, Youthful Spirit Add A Contemporary Contrast To French Tradition.
By Craig LaBan, Inquirer Restaurant Critic
POSTED: October 09, 2014
The mission to Montreal has become required eating over the last decade, its smoked-meat-and-poutine soul inspiring a generation of hipster-handcraft chefs from Brooklyn to Philly.
But the quest for Québec profond requires a deeper drive into the heart of the province - 21/2 hours northeast to Québec City, where you'll find another metropolis in the midst of its own food revolution.
More intimate than Montreal, and more deeply influenced by the historic stone-walled ramparts of its French-Canadian charm, Québec City has been energized in recent years by a generation of young chefs who have brought edgy bistro kitchens that take full advantage of the region's considerable artisan food bounty, from "ice ciders" to raw milk cheese, exceptional produce, and wild game.
" 'Everything's cool - no worries,' " says Olivier St. Cyr, 30, interpreting his restaurant's name, L'Affair Est Ketchup, which refers to a peculiar Quebécois expression that St. Cyr says stuck from a Heinz commercial in the 1970s.
It's so cool, in fact, that some diners actually arrived by skateboard the night we were at this funky 26-seat storefront bistro on gentrifying Rue St. Joseph, where two homestyle electric stoves sizzle away in the cluttered open kitchen. But Ketchup's chef and co-owner Francois Jobin, 33, a veteran of fancier addresses in Montreal, turns out anything but home cooking on his surprisingly sophisticated blackboard menus.
His blend of seasonality and bold local flavors typifies the quirk and youthful spirit of the "bistronomie" movement that's now redefining the character of Québec's new flavors.
A ruby-rare steak of local red deer came with mashed potatoes sparked by scallions. Perfectly seared wild scallops from Îles-de-la-Madeleine were sublimely sweet alongside celery-root puree. Half a quail arrived with its claws still on, all the better to grip while I stripped the bird clean and devoured a foresty mound of foraged chanterelles and lobster mushrooms.
With a sweet-tart bottle of "ice cider" from La Face Cachée de la Pomme to wash it down (Québec, is hard-cider heaven), our eating journey beside the St. Lawrence River was off to a stellar start.
As St. Cyr and other chefs note, while their town is awakening to a jolt of contemporary "foodie energy," QC's chefs are still far more influenced by French traditions than the international flavors more prevalent in cosmopolitan Montreal.
You'll find plenty of evidence of that Gallic heritage amid the stone-cobbled streets and Citadelle of scenic Vieux-Québec, whose walled ramparts and steep and narrow streets date to the 17th century. But nowhere is 20th-century French formality still more alive than at elegant Le Continental, where bow-tied waiters are still masters of the booze-ignited flame and the lost art of tableside service.
"This restaurant is really a passion," says owner Mattieu Pettigrew, 35, a longtime waiter who a few years ago bought the 58-year-old restaurant with two other veteran server colleagues. "We aren't just waiters here - we're cooks."
Poof! Fireballs of fragrant flame explode with regularity from tableside carts that quietly trundle throughout the richly paneled dining room, clearly to the delight of our neighbors: "Better than Paris!" the man next to me said with a giggle as he eyed his crepes Suzettes.
The prices are as eye-opening as the pyrotechnics ($70 for a whole Dover sole?!). But few restaurants, even in Paris, still make duck a l'orange for two as good as this one, the crisply roasted bird dismantled, then simmered down in rich Grand Marnier gravy. The Alberta-raised steak au poivre, its 10-ounce sirloin flamed in Cognac, was worth the $44 fee.
There's still a place for that Old World magic in Québec, just as it is still worth visiting Le Chateau Frontenac, if only for a midday snack beside the stained-glass window seats at Bistro Le Sam, where you have a bird's-eye view of the St. Lawrence and a glassed-in cave in the nearby 1608 Bar, with more than 30 varieties of local cheese and charcuterie.
At the other end of the spectrum, but still in tune with local tradition, skip straight to the province's beloved fast-food chain for poutine, Chez Ashton, for a satifying straight-ahead fix of gravy-laced cheese-curd fries.
But the rising bistros of Québec's emerging neighborhoods show a surging and sophisticated dining scene that has embraced some wider contemporary food trends. Lovers of the natural wine movement should flock to Le Moine Échanson ("the monk in charge of drinks"), where the Belgian-born sommelier and owner, Bertrand Mesotten, imports exclusive European organic wines to match with some edgy seasonal plates (ready when you hear the kitchen honking a clown horn in the back). Paired with some excellent salt cod fritters, lamb meatballs and offal over polenta, and a succulent pork belly topped with minced clams, we drank through an obscure lineup of Alicante orange wine (Tinajas de la Mata) and a macabeo white from the Roussillon that were both funky and well-made.
The focus is more clearly on the local wines and ingredients at Le Clocher Penché ("the leaning steeple"), a sunny corner bistro where chef and co-owner Mathieu Brisson, another fine-dining refugee from Montreal (Toqué!) who has embraced Québec's "bistronomie," turned out some truly gorgeous plates: pristine salmon tartare with pink grapefruit; organic local Wagyu oxtails braised into a beefy mash over toast; tempura-crisped squash blossom over noodle-thin ribbons of zucchini twirled over creamy vinaigrette scented with chocolate mint.
But the best plate of our meal, and possibly the entire trip, was the "cocotte du moment" for two that brought a whole Cornish hen, soy-glazed and crispy from three days in the making, served over an earthen casserole brimming with heirloom carrots, brussels sprouts, and duck fat-poached potatoes with bacon and mustard.
For a taste of the kind of ingredients that inspire Québec's chefs, a short day trip to L'Île d'Orléans, three miles east of Québec City in the St. Lawrence River, and just beyond the majestic Montmorency Falls, shows a sense of the sheer beauty this landscape lends its produce. The windy and sunny southern shore, though, is strawberry paradise. And that is where you'll find "jam tender" Vincent Paris and Catherine Trudel, who returned two years ago to their native island to launch Confiturerie Tigidou. Ensconced on a hill in an artfully rehabbed farmhouse, they produce dreamy jams from organic local fruit at maximum ripeness (with no thickening pectin), often with savory touches like basil in the strawberries, or a whiff of coffee for the blueberries, delicious melted into the finishing sauce of a roast: "Jam for dinner!" says Vincent, a former graphic designer. "This farmhouse found us.
"The foodies and hipsters have just come to Québec now, too, which is why it's so fantastic we're here, surrounded by the holy land of fruit."
It's little wonder, then, that they chose another nugget of optimistic local slang for their name, Tigidou, which is 1920s Franglish for "It's perfect."
So in other words, if you're wondering how the food is near Québec City: Tigidou. . .l'affair est ketchup!
IF YOU GO
Restaurants in Québec City:
L'Affaire Est Ketchup, 46 Rue St.-Joseph Est, 418-529-9020; on Facebook