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Pandemic vacation in Quebec

That it did wonders for my mental health, there’s no doubt. Despite the constant consideration of risk to physical health in everything we did.

Jean wanted a vacation that actually felt like a vacation, which to him, meant getting out of the province. We weren’t up for flying, though, and of course didn’t want to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we aren’t. In a week, the only “outside Ontario” destination that was possible was Quebec.

We did start in Ontario, with a couple days in Ganonoque. Then it was three days in Quebec City, and two in Montreal to finish. In the days leading up, I became obsessive about reading the daily covid case counts—which at that point, were actually pretty good. And while away, Ontario trended up a bit, but Quebec was still on a downswing.

It did feel like a vacation. Though one unlike any other. (Including the slightly uneasy feeling about blogging about having managed a pretty good vacation in these times… )

Restaurants

Food-focused travelers that we are, definitely the weirdest thing was taking into account whether the restaurant had an outdoor patio. Any that did—particularly if they had a covered one, which meant dinner couldn’t be rained out—immediately vaulted to the top of the consideration list, when previously that didn’t factor on the list at all!

We sat outside cafes. We dined at the tourist traps on Crescent Street and Place Jacques Cartier in Montreal. I finally ate on a roof-top terrace in Montreal (Jean had done it once before). We ate at Quebec’s Cafe du Monde for the first time, despite the warning that we might get rained on. (We did not.)

Cheese plate on patio
Cheese plate on Terrasse Nelligan in Montreal

We had one of the most memorable dinners ever, during a thunderstorm, on a covered patio attached to a food truck at one end, and a winery at the other, on Ile D’Orleans.

We did not go to some of favourite places, because they were not open, or had only limited opening days, or… had only indoor dining. Hence our best meal of the trip was probably in… Ganonoque, at Riva, on their lovely back patio.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva dessert

Obviously, nobody needs to feel bad for us about all this al fresco dining in August. But it was a really weird thing, this focus on the open air. (And also, how early we were eating, with the thought it would just be less crowded then. Which was generally true.)

… Also, it has to be said, we did have one dinner inside. That was not the plan! The place had a patio, we had requested that as part of reservation, and it was not raining. But they just informed us, when we arrived, that the patio was not open that evening. Oh, and did I mention that, had we turned and left, they would still have charged us $50? (This “no show” charge, we had been warned about. The possibility of not getting our preferred seating, we had not.)

My thrifty side kicked in and we stayed, though I spent a lot of the evening feeling uncomfortable, huddled inside the sheets of plexiglass on either side of me. Jean would start anytime someone walked behind him. (Mind, he would do that pre-pandemic, too.)

Food was good. Very creative. But if we were going to eat one place inside, maybe it wouldn’t have been this one, you know? (I mean, we didn’t go to the St Amour!)

Restaurant roll call

In Gananoque, we ate at Riva twice: dinner the first night, then lunch the next day. As already noted, these were likely the best meals of the trip. Lovely weather both days. They were careful about screening and getting contact information, as well.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva entree

Dinner the next night was takeout from Sushi Sun, as they had no patio and were not offering indoor dining. We ate it on the beach, sitting at an absurdly small picnic table.

On the drive to Quebec City, we stopped at Rose Cafe in Drummondville, which turned out to be lovely. They had a patio, but it was heavily raining at this point, so we were directed to their greenhouse instead. A bit of warm lunch, but quite nice!

Our first dinner in Quebec City was at Le Lapin Saute, who had warned us that in case of rain, they would not be able to move us inside. But that they did have umbrella coverage. At any rate, the rain had stopped by dinner time. It was a neat location and we enjoyed their sampler platter of duck and rabbit specialties.

Duck and rabbit sampler plate

On Ile d’Orleans we did more snacking than proper lunching, but particularly enjoyed our stop at Cassis Monna & Filles. The weather forecast had called for rain all day, but it didn’t rain much, and was very sunny by the time we reached the lovely Cassis Monna & Filles property. Things would change for our afore-mentioned dinner at Panache Mobile au Vignoble de Sainte-Petronille, which was just a hoot.

Water on patio with view
Before the storm, at Panache Mobile

We had a great view of the falls from there, and the service was really excellent. For wine, we went into the winery and purchased a bottle, which obviously meant a better price. Food was quite good–chicken pate, pulled pork taco…

Chocolate pana cotta
And chocolate pana cotta for dessert

Lunch the next day was at the deservedly popular Cafe du Monde, in the Old Port area.

Cafe du Monde

Then our “scary” indoor dinner at Bistro l’Orygine. They offered five-course chef’s menus which likely would have been interesting–I would actually have gone for the vegetarian (other options were vegan and non-vegetarian)–but I wasn’t sure I was hungry enough, and also thought that we might end up being there too long. But we didn’t have trouble selecting the recommended four sharing dishes from the regular menu. And as noted, they were quite inventive and tasty.

Tomato dish and wine inside restaurant
Took a while to get a spoon for this dish, but the broth was worth the wait. That BC Pinot Grigio was also terrific. (Also note the plexiglass divider.)

First lunch in Montreal was at a decent but somewhat overpriced patio restaurant in Old Montreal, near our hotel. We had our first dinner at the Labo Culinaire Foodlab, on their rootop terrace. Given the name, I was expecting some sort of molecular gastronomy thing, which we didn’t get. But it was creative, well-prepared food, and good service (except for suggesting their tea options were listed on their online menu, which they were not. Lots of online menus this trip! Bring your phone or you can’t order!)

Three plates on picnic table
Grilled oyster mushrooms, shrimp roll, and tomato / buffalo mozarella grill

We skipped dessert here in favor of getting some ice cream later, in Old Montreal.

Lunch the next day was at on OK Italian place on Crescent Street. We talked to a couple a table over, who were from London (Ontario, not UK), and here on their Honeymoon–the originally planned honeymoon destination being out of reach. In their case, Quebec City was the next stop.

Wine on Crescent Street patio
“Fantastique, tout le weekend”

Then dinner was on Terrasse Nelligan, a very popular rooftop restaurant that didn’t take reservations. We arrived early to get a seat, then bought some time (to get hungry enough for a meal) by starting with a cocktail (virgin one, in my case). We then shared a cheese plate, and Jean had a half-chicken dinner (which he really needed only a quarter of). I had some well-prepared salmon tartar.

Terrasse Nelligan
This “terrasse” would become more busy as the evening went on

Activities

For the hours we had to kill in between meals 💁, we didn’t make too many plans in advance. In Gananoque our main accomplishment was a three-hour hike on a humid Sunday at the Marble Rock Conservation area. We hadn’t expected it would take that long, but we survived! It was a pretty interesting walk, but didn’t make for the most compelling photos.

In Old Quebec, we just walked around, and visited a number of shops. Masks were mandatory in all indoor spaces in Quebec (you were allowed to take them off to eat inside restaurants, of course, but had to put them back on once circulating) and I have to say, I don’t think I saw a single adult inside not wearing one, the whole time. Most kids were too, though the law said they didn’t have to. And, stores were very insistent on you using hand sanitizer upon entry. This started to seem excessive when visiting one shop after another for just a few minutes each, but… I’m not really complaining. Overall I was impressed.

View of Quebec City, with Chateau Frontenac
Quebec be pretty!

We spent one day driving around Ile d’Orleans, stopping at places of interest, which somehow included three wineries (apart from the one we had dinner at)… I discovered that I was quite the fan of Quebec rose. But we also found a few whites and reds we enjoyed. And one dry pear wine.

Six wine glasses with cheese
Vignoble Ile de Bacchus did their wine tasting outside

I felt we had to stop at a jam place called Tigidou because I just loved the name, but it turned out that their jams were pretty great, also. We sat outside to enjoy some with scones, which attracted the attention of local residents…

Chicken seeking scone
Don’t think I’ve ever been this close to a chicken (who wasn’t food)

Museums

We had hoped to see the Boat Museum in Gananoque, but it was not open this year. We did visit the Parc Maritime du Saint-Laurent on Ile d’Orleans, where we were a bit stymied by the screening question of whether we had traveled outside Quebec in the last month. I guess the honest answer would be no, since we had only traveled to Quebec. But we responded that, well, we hadn’t traveled outside Canada, and that seemed to do. (Guess they aren’t getting that many out of province visitors?)

It was a nice waterfront spot. (Jean’s one complaint that day was that, for an Island tour, we didn’t see the water that much.)

In Quebec City, we noticed signs for the Imagine Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit, and thought that sounded interesting, so we got tickets. It wasn’t showing original Van Gogh paintings, but large projections of some of his works (or close-ups of parts of them), set to music. There were some interesting sequences, though it doesn’t quite match seeing actual Van Gogh’s.

In Montreal, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts. The permanent collection was still closed, but you could get tickets for a special exhibit on Paris in the Days of Post Impressionim. This was just a beautiful collection, with pieces by some big names (Picasso, Matisse, Degas), but mostly featuring lesser-known but also supremely talented “independent” artists.

The only problem was that, despite the controlled number of entries at timed intervals, the first couple rooms felt uncomfortably crowded to me. It was like one of my covid bad dreams–except that everybody was wearing a mask. But just as I starting to wonder if I should leave, I moved on to the next room and found fewer people in it. And it remained less crowded for the rest of the visit. Too many people spending too much time at the start of the exhibit, maybe…?

Hotel life

Unlike our July vacation, we didn’t upgrade our rooms this time. In Gananoque we stayed at Comfort Inn, which was pretty much what you’d expect from a Comfort Inn. (Good location, though.) In Quebec City, the room at the Hotel Palace Royal had more charm, but not much more space. The Marriott in Old Montreal was the best experience. They had just reopened and seemed happy for the business. We got upgraded to a suite, which was really nice.

Chateau Frontenac
A more picturesque hotel in Quebec City than the one we stayed at

No hotels were doing room cleaning during the stay, which was fine, except for having to go to the front desk to get more toilet paper. (At the Comfort Inn, this request took a surprising amount of time to fulfill.) The Comfort Inn and the Montreal Marriott had brown bag breakfasts, which did the trick. In Quebec, we were very close to many cafes and other restaurants, so finding breakfast wasn’t a problem.

Remembering to wear a mask in the hotel common areas was tricky at first. Not when walking in from outside, but when leaving your room, where you of course weren’t wearing one. But by the end we were used to it, to the point where it seemed slightly odd to get home and not have to put on a mask to go in.

Elevators were the main problem, and only at the Quebec hotel. At the Comfort Inn, we were just on second floor anyway, and the Montreal hotel wasn’t that busy, so it was easy to get an elevator to ourselves. But the Quebec one was more hopping, and we were on the fifth floor, so trying to not crowd in there was a daily challenge.

Yes, sometimes we resolved it by taking the stairs. One day, all the lights were out in the stairwells, so that was fun! But when luggage-bound, we just waited and waited until one came by that had room. Something to consider when hotel booking…

Book, TV, movie

I, Tonya poster

The earlier dinners and less stuff being open led to more time than usual lounging at the hotel in the evening. We made our way through Netflix’s The Messiah series, which was really interesting! Also on Netflix, we watched the movie I, Tonya, which was much better than either of us had expected. Watch I, Tonya! You do not have to be a figure skating fan. Just ask Jean.

On the drive, we listened to the audiobook of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Very engrossing novel; a recommended read.


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Visiting l’accent de l’Amérique

Our next destination after Prince Eward County was Québec City—currently branding itself as l’accent de l’Amérique, which is kind of clever. The 6-hour drive there seemed rather long, and a bit of a waste of another nice day, but we passed the time listening to the audiobook of Ready Player One, a fun, near-future sci-fi novel recently turned Stephen Spielberg movie. (The audiobook was read by Will Wheaton, which made one detail in the novel especially amusing.)

ready-player-one.png

Guess what was playing in Picton while we were there? Didn’t see it, though; didn’t want to spoil the book

We had booked a room at the fancy and historic Château Frontenac, which was having anniversary specials. So we had the door man, and concierge services, and a great, central location. The room was just one of their “basic” ones, but it was still a good size and comfortable.

Chateaux Frontnac lobby

Our modest little hotel

And the outside of it. It’s huge! You can get lost in its corridors.

We had wanted to have dinner at Toast, but—cue the jokes—Toast was closed due to fire. So we booked (or really, had the concierge book for us) at their sister restaurant, Simple Snack Sympathique, or SSS. We found it just as delightful as we remembered Toast being, with creative food combinations and lovely presentation. I had the Québec Exquis special, which was a prix fixe of three courses all incorporating maple syrup in some way. (Québec Exquis was a one-week period in which Québec restaurants featured three-course, prix-fixe menus built around items from québecois food producers .)

First up for me was snow crab, then duck (the maple sauce was amazing), then maple éclair. Jean went with the regular menu for foie gras, smoked pork, then fromage fermier (farmer cheese!) for dessert.

Tastes as good as it looks

We enjoyed a selection of wines from the Languedoc region with that—also part of the Québec Exquis special. (By the way, we had no idea before leaving that all these restaurant specials would be on.)

Jean took to getting up early for photos, while I had more leisurely mornings. Worked out for both of us.

How the world looks to morning people, apparently

Our first full day there, after a joint breakfast (not at the hotel), we walked down rue St-Jean, the shopping street outside the Old Town. This time we didn’t find too many treasures worth buying, though: just a bargain-priced collection of sheet music, for me.

We’d never been to Ile D’Orléans before—an island about a 30-minute drive from Québec—and had been planning to visit it this trip. But after driving around Prince Edward County, which is nearly an island, visiting various food-related destinations, we weren’t sure if we wanted to get back in the car and do the same here? On the map provided by the hotel, though, I noticed that there were bus tours we could take to the island. So we signed up for La route des saveurs, starting at 2:00, and running for 2.5 hours

Joining us on the tour—which started right at our hotel—was a friendly couple from Carolina, on an anniversary vacation, and two young women from South Korea, in Canada for what seemed like an absurdly short time for such a long trip. We found out that a popular South Korean show was filmed in Québec City, leading to an increased number of Korean tourists going there and looking for the “red door”. (CBC story: How a popular Korean soap opera is drawing Asian tourists to Quebec City.)

20180425-QuebecCity-471of471-HDR

Not the red door, but still a cool shot of Old Québec

Our guide was a lively young man with an enthusiasm for both Québec and the culinary products of Ile d’Orléans. Being early spring, with snow still in the fields, the island landscape wasn’t as lovely as it presumably becomes when plants are in bloom. So, we don’t have too many photos from this part. But, we did enjoy the tastings at each stop.

  1. Chocolaterie: Your typical artisanale chocolate shop, except that they also had an ice cream shop with chocolate-dipped cones. We enjoyed the chocolate maple sample, and bought another set of maple-based chocolates for later consumption, but resisted the ice cream, figuring that would give us a sugar overload too early in the tour.
  2. Maison Smith: A coffee shop where we sampled a maple latte. Normally I don’t care for sweetened coffees, but this one had a very light touch with the maple, and I quite enjoyed it. The owner gave an interesting overview of his business as well. We bought some ground coffee here, for planned use at our Ottawa accommodations.
  3. Sucrerie: Probably the most interesting stop, as the maple syrup was currently being gathered here and we got an overview of the whole process. We tasted various strengths of maple syrup and the maple jelly, which we bought a jar of.
  4. Cidrerie Bilodeau: Here they make dry and sweet apple ciders of various types, from dry sparkling to iced apple, any of which we were able to sample. We bought a cassis / apple blend that we figured could make interesting kir-like drinks. And also a jar of the most delicious apple butter I’ve ever had. Should have bought more. [There was no obligation to buy things at each stop. We just did.]
  5. Nougaterie: Run by an originally European couple who immigrated to Canada and established this business. They had nougat in an extraordinary range of flavors, all super-fresh as it was made on the premises. We restricted ourselves to purchasing a single salt caramel bar. Amazing-tasting caramel, though.
  6. Cassis Mona et Fille: Probably the most famous destination on the island. They make a range of products based on cassis (black currant), and gave us an overview of them all. In the summer, they also run a restaurant that is supposed to be quite good. All the drinks were lovely, but we especially blown away by the creme de cassis, which we bought (more kir!). We also got some cassis mustard (yes, it’s purple).

All that eating did not stop us from going out to eat later! We went back to an old favourite, Thai restaurant Apsara. We had one of the set menus that is a real bargain, even when we upgraded the included wine to be a Blanquette de Limoux. Each course was fresh and delicious. And the ladies got a lovely change purse as a gift at the end.

Assortment of Thai desserts—and note the cool teapot

The next morning we spent more time wandering in the Old Town, as we’d previously been rushing through it.

 The afternoon we spent at the Québec Art Gallery, which has only modern and contemporary works. Our favourites were the Inuit sculptures, which were just amazing. The building was formerly a prison, and we also had a look at the old cells. Not big!

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One of the exhibits at the Quebec Art Gallery. (Photo by me, hence the blurri-ness.)

Our last dinner in Quebec, on a somewhat rainy evening, was at Le St. Amour. We’ve always loved Le St. Amour. It’s in this gorgeous, high-ceiling roomed with a sunroof. And the food is always amazing. It didn’t disappoint this time, either.

We started off the evening trying to work in French—French menus, speaking French to the waiters (an ongoing amusement of the trip was Québecois complimenting Jean on how good his French was, for an Ontario. Well, I hope so.). But we detected a bit of an anglo accent from one of our waiters—bit unusual in these parts—and it turned out he was originally Australian! And still had that accent in English.

L’amuse bouche at Le St. Amour. Or as they call it in English, the amuse bouche. (Food just sounds better in French.)

So he was happy to English-it-up with us, and then we were hopelessly back in English-land with everyone, with even the native Québec waiters. Oh well!

This part will come as a shock to you all, but I had the Québec Exquis special, while Jean ordered off the regular menu! For me this meant a main course of escargot and Jerusalem artichokes, a main course of duck, and a chocolate mousse-themed dessert.

Dessert

Jean started with foie gras, then had a lamb leg and ground lamb ravioli, and concluded with a cheese plate. We shared a bottle of Languedoc red, a Grenache-Syrah blend (no Mourvedre). With dessert I had a red banyuls (“a little French love letter to chocolate”, is how this wine is described) while Jean was recommended a sherry, which he enjoyed.

Cheese for dessert

A great capper to a very enjoyable visit. Our next stop on the way home was Ottawa.