We visit Montreal, Outaouais and Quebec City
Montreal is a city of many religions, including the big five: Hockey, Dining, Cycling, Dancing and L’Amour. From Plateau-Mont-Royal to Westmount, Outremont to Mile End, hundreds of kilometres of bicycle paths weave through the multicultural landscape of neighbourhoods, each with its own style of lamp posts, green-space parks, unique chocolatiers, cheese boutiques, pretty cafes and bistros. People like to work in the ’hoods where they live—and enjoy the city’s many religions right at their own doorstep.
To Market, To Market
On a winter’s day, the Jean Talon Market offers sensory solace from the damp cold; in summer, it’s a country market garden. Local produce induces one to fill a bag and rush home to cook and eat. La Fromagerie Hamel has been here for 50 years selling its own cheese made in Repentigny. Artisanal apple wine shops dispense tastings of hydromels, ciders and wines. Forbidden Fruit of Franklin, Quebec offers apple wine made from frozen apples. Olives and Olive Oil purveys a luxurious selection of tapenades, stuffed olives and small-grove, estate-bottled olive oils, many exclusive to this shop.
Appetites raging, we need lunch, and we’re heading to the Provence style brasserie, OSCO! in the Intercontinental Hotel. Osco means “bravo” in Occitan, an ancient dialect of Provence. And, indeed, Chef Mathieu Saunier fulfills its promise and stays true to his southern roots. His signature dish of fish and Gaspe lobster bouillabaisse with baby vegetables sings of the sun, and with a rosé from Provence, it is worthy of this light-filled room. The bar, Sarah B., evokes the magical French ‘green hour’ traditionally dedicated to the consumption of Absinthe. Later, we dine at Ristorante Bice on classic combinations of savoury Italian dishes like fine filet of beef paired with lima beans that appear to have been freshly shelled, and the signature dish, agnolotti with veal. In summer, the magnificent European style garden Il Giardino della Bice is ranked as “the prettiest terrace in Montreal.”
Let us Entertain You
Besides the Grand Prix, when 85 percent of the visitors are from Toronto, Montreal hosts the world’s best and largest jazz festival, which draws 2.5 million visitors every year; the Franco Folies de Montreal is the biggest French music fest in the world; the Comedy Festival; the Children’s Festival. In any given week, the city will entertain, delight and surprise. It was natural that the Centaur Theatre should mount a musical play about a Montreal institution, Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraic. Embraced worldwide as serving the ultimate smoked meat sandwich, and a must on any Montreal visit, the idea of the musical lured me once again to Montreal. I took the easy way: VIA Rail right to the station below The Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, arriving just in time for lunch. Speedy check in and check out, and the kind of modern comfort we have come to expect from the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts group. The play had me laughing my head off, and craving a smoked meat sandwich—medium fat, with a side of fries. Culture in its broadest sense is a part of the life in Montreal, and an important aspect is the culture of food and drink and dining well. Just below the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Brasserie T has a menu that beguiles us with its diversity and low prices. No surprise, it is a young cousin of the renowned Toque! Appetizer portions of tartars, smoked herring with whipped cream and croutons, braised beef cheeks en gelée, Coquilles St. Jacques, Croque Monsieur. I want it all. What makes these dishes seem so new is the inimitable style of mentor Normand Laprise.
Those of us who indulge our palates as one would a favourite grandchild, appreciate dining at Europea—France imported to rue de la Montagne. Executive Chef Jérôme Ferrer was awarded the prestigious title of Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef this year (there are only three others in Canada). It is well deserved. Chef de Cuisine Patrice de Felice suggests a beginning of lobster cream cappuccino with truffle shavings and an array of spectaculars follow. Each course has a pre-course that delights the eye and the palate: cheese fritters for example, shaped like cigars, come in a cigar box. “For me,” says Ferrer, “the business is all about giving pleasure.” Later, shopping for jewelry does whet the appetite. We’re happy to find Birks’ Café par Europea, newly opened for afternoon tea, brunch or lunch and a glass of wine.
Successful restaurant owners everywhere are building dynasties. I first dined at Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City and, here they are, in the super-chic Hôtel Le Germain. Chef Daniel Vézina creates appetizer-size portions of carefully constructed ingredients to pair with an exceptional wine list. We are here late night, for dessert. An artist’s sensibilities and a pastry chef’s skill are shown off on plates of flavourful sweets that defy description; a medley of apple nuances; a pastiche of chocolate.
We leave Montreal reminded once again that the waves of good taste play here at a very high decibel.
In the Outaouais region, we come upon the world’s grandest, most dramatic log cabin, standing like a beacon of hospitality in the rolling countryside. Fairmont Le Château Montebello, more than 80 years old, still invites us to enjoy a hot drink in front of a huge circular fireplace in the family-friendly grand room. If these walls could talk, they might tell us about the G7 meeting in 1981, the NATO meeting in 1984, The North American Leader’s Summit in 2006, as well as the countless guests who have enjoyed weekends of boating, golfing and snowshoeing. “We love to eat, we love wine,” says Alsatian Executive Chef Serge Jost, who presides over the care and feeding of guests. Herbs from the garden, fish from nearby lakes and local meats meet his challenging standards. The kitchen is all windows and the view often catches his attention. “What are you doing?” someone will ask, and he will answer, “I am looking at the sunset.” Capturing the moments at Montebello.
Down the road, there is an old train station that has been converted into a chocolate kitchen by artisanal chocolatier Gaétan Tessier. Chocomotive has become a landmark, and a delicious pit stop. His raw materials are all organic/fair trade and his dark chocolate (my favourite) is 70 percent and not a pinch of cocoa powder in sight. Sharing his knowledge, he teaches a class to graduate culinary students. Sated by the dizzying flavours of good chocolate, we are on our way.
As the crow flies, we are about an hour from Sterling Restaurant Steakhouse, a solid, well built wood structure whose focus is the very best Alberta beef served in white tablecloth elegance. We catch the aroma of the maple wood fired grill the moment we enter. We choose our steaks and see them sizzling on the barbecue that, amazingly, is not in the kitchen, but in the dining room. Proximity to our nation’s capital brings the bold face names to dine here—Gatineau is just over the bridge from Ottawa. Prime Ministers, ambassadors and politicos of all parties turn up at Sterling. Five minutes from Ottawa is the Hilton Hotel and Casino du Lac Leamy. In winter, rooms afford grand views of the snowy, wooded countryside. From the luxurious bathrooms to the exceptionally comfortable furnishings, the hotel is deservedly five star. There are more Dale Chihuly glass sculptures here than I have ever seen in one place. Opulence reigns supreme and carries over into the five-diamond rated Le Baccara gourmet restaurant. Lovingly balanced plates of fine local ingredients filtered through classic French haute cuisine are paired with wines from a 13,000-bottle cellar. I cannot resist the foie gras, or morel stuffed partridge, or a taste of roasted Quebec lamb with fleur de sel and sautéed lamb sweetbreads. The dining room is the apex of sophistication in the middle of nowhere. To complete the evening, a short visit to the splendid Casino is in order. Lady luck is with me—I do not lose.
After breakfast, we are on the road again and craving a small hit of chocolate. At Master Chocolatier Nathalie Borne’s Miss Chocolat, an artisanal shop with an interactive workshop, we too can learn to become a chocolate chef. She even makes chocolate for diabetics.
A Special Place
With a clutch of chocolate lollipops to go, we drive through the snow-covered countryside, and come to the peaceful town of Chelsea, which drew Charles Part and Jennifer Warren-Part from Toronto. A renovated old gas station became Les Fougères, an idyllic restaurant, store, gardens and wine cellar. How wonderful is the quiet here. We lunch on this month’s made-with-love menu: Brandade soup with white truffle oil, confit of Quebec duck with roesti potato. Their book, A Year at Les Fougères, has won numerous book awards.
Soaking It Up
After days of over-indulgent dining, an afternoon at Le Nordik Nature Spa is in order. I recall the exhilaration as I walked outside in below-zero weather clad only in a swimsuit and robe and climbed carefully into a steaming hot outdoor pool. A few seconds under an icy waterfall, followed by Finnish sauna, a massage and I am rejuvenated.
Un Bière, s’Il Vous PlaÎt
Our last stop before returning home, Les Brasseurs du Temps, is a popular, 200-seat microbrewery. We can taste a selection of beer as we watch it being brewed, and eat really good burgers. And what a lot of fun that is.
It’s a unique experience, savouring the province of Quebec, and enjoying its natural gifts and hospitality. —Sara Waxman