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Je me souviens

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Jean: What does the Je me souviens on the Quebec license plates refer to, again?

Me: I don’t know. I can’t remember.

As the last of our “we need to do something this summer” expeditions, we went to Québec City for Labour Day, taking a couple extra days off on each end, because we were driving. We’ve been to Québec City quite a few times before—hard to remember how many; at least 8—but even though we tend to do the same sorts of things each time (art galleries, walking, dining), no visit is quite the same.

Itinerary

We left Thursday after work (and dinner at home) and got as far as Trenton. Friday we made it into Québec City around 4:00 pm. Monday morning we left Québec City and ended up in Ottawa, again around 4:00 pm. Tuesday morning we drove home from there, arriving around 5:00 pm.

On the way there, we took the 401 (well, 407 through Toronto) and went through Montreal, both of which were unpleasant. (Though did lead to the discovery that the GPS can detect high traffic in TO in Montreal—I’m still not sure how.) So on the way back, we went the backroads. Took a little longer, but was worth it.

Accommodations

In Trenton we just stayed at a Comfort Inn, where we got a good CAA deal. In Ottawa, through Expedia, we got another good price on the Cartier Place Suite Hotel, which is older, but we did have a full kitchen, and living room separate from the bedroom and bathroom. And it had a pool and hot tub, which we used (once we finally found it).

In Québec City, I think for the first time, we stayed outside the old city, at a Bed and Breakfast. It was a nice place with friendly hosts, and where we got to meet other people, from Washington DC, Iles-de-la-Madeleine, and Wasaga Beach. We had our own room and bathroom, though the TV was shared (and we ended up not watching at all. And not really missing it, either.) And breakfast was great: cheese, fresh baking and a variety breads, fresh fruit, cereals, and yogurt.

So the main deal was the 20-minute walk to get to the old town, particularly that rain was predicted on the weekend. But what we learned was that Québec City has a decent bus system, at least for getting from this part of town to the old town. In the end, though, the weather turned out better than predicted—cloudy, but not that much rain—so we only partook of buses once, avoiding one of the uphill climbs by taking the electric écolobus up to outside the gates.

Otherwise, we just did a heck of a lot of walking. To and from the B&B at least twice each day (once in heeled shoes—only me), then walking to the various sites we wanted to see. And we were pretty proud that we didn’t suffer from sore muscles or other injuries from doing so. Anyway, we certainly needed the exercise, giving the…

Dining

Jean’s friend: So, what are you planning to go see in Québec City?

Jean: See? We don’t go there to see things. We go there to eat.

And we were pretty successful on that front. Obviously, the road meals were fairly mediocre—Tim’s; Saint Hubert (which has some nostalgia value, but the food is meh); absurdly bad service at the cafe attached to the Cartier Place Suite Hotel; and “Roland’s Fine Dining”, which really wasn’t, but was in fact a cut above all else in this category.

Our big dinner was supposed to be at the three-star Laurie Raphaël, a restaurant we’d been hearing about for years. But it turned out to be a little disappointing.

The restaurant was completely full, and the tables fairly close together, so it was somewhat noisy. And while the service wasn’t bad, by any means, it wasn’t quite three-star, with, for example, the wine sometimes arriving a little after the course it was supposed to accompany.

We both had the “menu surprise”, which is a three-course meal for $55, but you don’t have advance warning of what you’re getting. After a very nice amuse of gulf shrimp and seaweed, the first course was a duck paté with pistachios, onions, and fruit. And while it certainly tasted nice, it seemed a little bland, given that they were working with very flavorful duck.

The main course was beef. It was perfectly chosen and cooked, and therefore had perfect texture. The problem? Just that beef requires no creativity on the part of the chef. Anyone can make good beef. You just have to pay for the good meat, then not overcook it. Now the accompanying vegetables, covered in a delicious truffle-scented crips, were definitely wonderful and creative. But still.

They had suggested two possible wines to go with this, so we each took a different glass. My Cotes du Rhone was wonderful, all smooth fruitiness to stand up to the beef. Jean wasn’t quite as sure of his more rustic Cote du Provence wine.

They then offered to insert a cheese course here (extra charge, of course), which we decided to go for. That was really great. Six different cheeses, none of which we’d ever had before, each one with a separate accompaniment: tiny mushrooms, fruit glazes, and so on. I had a really nice 1-year-old port with that, while Jean had a late harvest.

Dessert was equally impressive, a four-part thingie not all of which I can remember, but everything was both delicious and somehow light. (And definitely chocolate was involved.)

Still, I’m not sure we’ll go back there, especially given how much we also enjoyed these other restaurants, all of which were cheaper:

  • La Crémaillère, an old favorite that has somehow never been listed in Where to Eat in Canada, but we’ve always found it really good. It’s another white linen place, but less busy, more space between the tables. Here we especially enjoyed the snow crab appetizer, the rosemary lamb shank main course (mine), the basil tuna main course (Jean’s).
  • Apsara, a Thai restaurant that was just crazy busy and noisy, but what a deal. A cocktail, soup, three appetizers, three main dishes, dessert, tea, and a full bottle of wine, for $40 each. And everything is very well prepared: fresh crispy vegetables, nothing greasy, nothing oversalted, all just tasty and nicely textured.
  • Portifino Bistro, recommended by the nice folks at La Crémaillère (who aren’t open for lunch on weekends) with creative and fresh pasta dishes, and a nice selection of wines by the glass.
  • Conti Cafe, which initially put Jean in a bad mood by giving us a not-so-great table, but we perked up considerably on tasting the food: spaghetti with duck for Jean, lemon cod for me, both very well done.

Should also mention the Murray Street Cafe in Ottawa, which aims to offer gourmet food in a casual atmosphere. It does look like a casual bar, and the food really is wonderful. Here I tried “poutine” for the first time (Jean’s dish), but I put it in quotes because it was made with spatzle instead of fries, and was very light on the gravy and cheese. And really quite good. I had the healthier tomato starter, then the duck as my main, while Jean went with pork hocks. They also had a big list of wines by the glass, and I was pretty proud of how well my selections went with what we ordered.

Shopping

One of the first things we did in Québec was head to St. Jean street to visit our favorite stores: the medieval clothes (where I got a belt to go with the dress I’d purchased here last time), the used record store (which I don’t recall being that crowded and confusing last time), the kama sutra, and we discovered a new gourmet food shop! Everything looked wonderful here, so the fact that we only bought the following actually shows some self-control:

  • Greek olive oil (half the price we pay for it here)
  • Cranberry-flavored maple butter (their maple is lighter colour than Ontarian)
  • Vanilla sugar (specially for this particular pie crust recipe; very hard to find)
  • Whole nutmeg (biggest I’d ever seen)
  • Granité of sauternes
  • Ciel de Charlevoix (a blue cheese)
  • Epoisse (a stinky cheese)
  • Dried cranberries in cranberry oil

And we went to various galleries, as always admiring the variety of artists on display, but being particularly taken this time with Guy Corneau, of gallery Korno, one of whose paintings is above (though the photos don’t do justice to the live works). There was one in particular (not the one above) that we were both really taken with, though the price was such that it would take a little planning before purchase.

I also spent considerable time looking at necklaces (still mourning the loss of two on our Indiana trip), finally buying one at another outlet of the medieval clothing shop. Doesn’t replace what I lost, but it’s quite nice.

Free street entertainment

Québec City offers a lot of cool live outdoor entertainment in the summer. The first night we walked out onto underneath the highway overpass to see a live performance by Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, such events aren’t ideal for the short who arrive too late to get spots near the front. We were fine with the trapeze artists, but it was hard to really see what people on the ground were doing.

The next night, we were just waiting around the waterfront area, and some sort of performance was going on. It involved whale music, people on stilts, and exchange of fire. Still not sure what that was about.

The final night turned out to be Gay Pride. So we went to see a male Céline Dion impersonator. He only used his own voice on the very lowest parts; otherwise, it was lip synching. Anyway, it was strangely kind of fun. Though I think he was somewhat more feminine than the actual woman. 🙂

Sights

What did see beyond that? Well, not a whole lot. We did walk the Plains of Abraham. We intended to go to the Titanic Exhibit, but got deterred from the lineup. Plus the fact that it’s coming here soon, anyway. We visited the Market there (yes, more food!) for the first time. Very nice selection of produce, but we did resist any purchasing. And we visited the Market in Ottawa, in the rain.

Literature

As planned, we listened to The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens in the car. And we both got right into it, carried along the journey of this 300 lb. woman whose husband suddenly leaves. And in actual book form, I finished Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing, which was really enjoyable. A lot of great characters coming together amidst the backdrop of French/English tensions in Winnipeg. And I started Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit by Laura Penny, which is a little dated, but only in the sense that we’re even deeper in the pile now.

2 thoughts on “Je me souviens

  1. When you opt to try those mystery menu deals, do they at least ask you if there’s anything you can’t or won’t eat – like do you have any food allergies? Or can you specify that you’d like to try it, but can’t eat seafood and see if they’ll take that into account?

  2. At this particular restaurant, they won’t take allergies or food dislikes into account. So the menu warns that if that’s an issue for you, you shouldn’t go with the “menu surprise”. Everything else on the menu is more expensive, though. (Unless you *only* order an entree, I guess — no appetizer or dessert.)

    Other places I’ve been to that have something similar are more accommodating on that front.

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