Written and photographed by Max Rudy
Since moving to New York City, I have been dreaming of taking a road trip to Québec, or as I like to think of it, “The Poor Man’s Trip to France.” From New York City, it is just a mere six hours to Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. Montreal’s food scene, with its wondrous piles of smoked meat, poutine and top restaurants, is well-documented, but just two hours north of Montreal is the city of Québec.
Québec has a reputation for being one of the biggest tourist cities in all of North America, and for good reason. It is plucked straight from Brittany and perched on the cliffs at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Compared to Montreal, a city with 63 percent of its population speaking French as its first language, 94 percent of Québecois have French as their mother tongue. Old Québec is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with the famous Chateau Frontenac regally standing above the old town, it is not just easy to forget you are in North America, it’s simply hard to believe.
In Québec, it is very easy to get caught up in the tourist traps; every other place is either a French brasserie or a crepe house. Soupe a l’oignon gratinee is omnipresent. Escargot pours from the menus. It can be quite confusing, expensive, and mediocre. But with the guidance of one Québec City native working as a waiter at Montreal’s La Fabrique, we managed to get the proverbial keys to Québec’s world-class local food scene: one that is remarkably French and uniquely Canadian.
Agriculture is tied so closely to the history of the Québecois that farm-to-table is not a fad, but intrinsic to their way of life. French Canada is very rural. If you simply venture 10 minutes outside of Québec, you will run into farmland. Québec City (where pesticides are banned) has agro-tourism located just across the St. Lawrence at Ile d’Orléans. On top of the Chateau Frontenac, they grow their own herbs for their four restaurants. The origin of their food is of utmost importance.
As we sat down at these recommendations straight from the Québecois waiter’s list, we were blown away at every meal by the meticulous menus, the emphasis on local ingredients, and the degree of decadence offered by each establishment. At Toast! (17 Sault-au-Matelot), a quirky but classy spot in the Vieux Port neighborhood, any plate can get a bonus helping of foie gras, which arrives freshly butchered each day from a farm just 20 minutes outside of the city. We feasted on local duck breast and rabbit (with 60 grams of seared foie gras—how could we resist?), snacked on local cheeses with maple syrup-infused rhubarb on the side, and felt like we were truly sampling the terroir of the city.
The dedication to farm-to-table doesn’t stop at food. Most everyone enjoys a good libation, and Québecois beers and dry ciders are another source of fresh, local pride. Reigning as the oldest bar in the city, L’Oncle Antoine (29 Rue Saint Pierre) is built in the catacombs of one of the oldest city house, with curved stone ceilings, the comforting smell of the original fireplace burning, and unpretentious, proud bartenders. They were more than happy to let us sample some of Québec’s finest beers from Unibroue, made from local grains on farmland that was settled in the late 1600s. These selections, brewed in the Trappist monk tradition of Belgium, are works of art. Maudite, a malty amber ale that was the first out of the brewery kegs in 1992, pays homage to the Belgian dubbel style, while La Fin du Monde (translated to “The end of the world”) is surprisingly light and effervescent for a beer dedicated to the first French settlers of Quebec and the mighty obstacles they faced in region’s harsh conditions.
But even the frankest of Francophones needs a change-up every now and then, and Ristorante Il Teatro in Le Capitol (972 Rue Saint-Jean) managed to fulfill our Italian cravings with handmade pasta and sauces while remaining distinctly Québecois. The indoor herb garden, constantly snipped and trimmed by cooks running to and from the kitchen, was the most obvious aspect of the restaurant’s commitment to fresh and local ingredients, but the same theme made its way through the entire menu. From the fresh salmon tartare to “Grandma’s Snails” to the foie gras tasting plate, we marveled at how we were able to taste the essence of Québec even in a traditional Italian restaurant.
>Max Rudy is a globe-trotting, food-loving good time waiting to happen. When not running the Interwebs for Rubbermaid (not Tupperware), he can be found planning vacations based around food and friends, eating ethnic delicacies, or being woken up by his cats for their food. Max resides in Little Poland—aka Greenpoint, Brooklyn.