Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Quintessentially Québécois

When one thinks of French cuisine, thoughts may lead to the corner bistros along the cobble-stoned streets of Montmartre or Michelin-starred restaurants on Champs-Élysées. But this past summer, my travels led me somewhere closer than Victor Hugo’s motherland that evoked familiar French culinary flair and yet represented a distinctive cuisine in and of itself. Just under a day’s drive from Philadelphia, Montréal and Québec offer an unmistakably Continental-style culinary culture and atmosphere that visitors can immersed in thoroughly as if they were in Europe.

Contemporary French-Canadian cuisine, as typified today in Montréal and Québec City (two of the most populous cities in the province of Québec), draws its initial influence largely from France and Ireland because of the ethnic migrations from these countries since the 16th century and less prominently from the Canadian First Nation cuisines. More recently, Québécois cuisine has broadened into integrating Jewish, American Southern (think barbecue meats), Mediterranean, and Central European cuisines. While the French influence is still easily recognizable, it is just as easy to distinguish overt and subtler variations in the Québécois cuisine today.

Even in the marketplace, the experience is a curious familiarity of a French marché (or outdoor market) blended with a characteristic Québécois identity. At the Jean-Talon Market, a favorite farmers’ market among locals and visitors alike in the Little Italy neighborhood, I instinctively felt as if this was a bustling market in a regular French quartier. From a glance, you will find your requisite French boulangeries (bakeries), charcuteries (meat delis), and fromageries (specialty cheese stores). But looking more carefully, you will also discover specialty stores for hundreds of varieties of olive oil, Middle-Eastern and Asian spices for princely prices, exquisite types of wild and cultivated mushrooms (have you ever heard of lobster mushrooms?), and a gelateria offering a dazzling array of Italian gelato.

In Montréal and Québec City, I dined at several places including a restaurant with a relaxed and informal setting, a bistro with intimate al fresco dining (think elbow-room seating), cafes blasting cheesy French music, a cozy crêperie with dozens of sweet and savory options, a croissanterie (café specializing in croissants) that brought me back in time, and a fast food joint selling the ubiquitous poutine (French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds). But alas, it is not possible to share about them all and I will have to whet your appetite with just one of my favorites during the trip.

Coming closest to what you would imagine a French restaurant to be is Au Petit Extra, located just off the Rue St Denis tourist belt in Montréal, and a well-kept local secret. The setting is very informal, no pretensions of grandeur whatsoever, and the servers are friendly and eager to explain each dish even if French is not your forte. Based on a Montréalean friend’s advice, I ordered from the table d’hôte (set course menu) and thoroughly enjoyed the foie gras medallions with fig appetizer, followed by the classic French duck confit, and topped off with a chocolate fondant for dessert. The smooth and creamy foie gras medallions balanced by the light hint of sweetness of the fresh fig and accompanied with a sip of Prosecco was a virtuoso combination. The duck confit was faultless, baked to a crispy finish and was wonderfully tender and juicy within. The intense flavor was further enhanced through the excellently paired French wine from the Sancerre region. Unlike the petite morsels most people come to expect of French restaurants, Au Petit Extra will leave even the heartiest appetite well-satiated.

Of course, while nothing beats being there in person to savor authentic Québécois food, if you can’t travel to Montréal or Québec anytime soon, there are just a few places to venture for a preliminary taste of an all-time Québécois favorite, the poutine, right here in Philadelphia. Adsum, Matt Levin’s new bistro in Queen Village serves a fancy version of foie gras poutine as an appetizer while the Institute in the Spring Garden neighborhood also offers regular poutine on its bar menu.

Photo credit: http://www.out-there.com

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