Quebec is one of the oldest cities in North America and as such has had the time to develop a tradition of great food (being settled by the French probably didn’t hurt). Quebec is also a divided city. Sitting on the banks of the St. Lawrence River means it has a low elevation riverfront called the Basse-Ville and an upper elevation called (what else?) the Haute-Ville. Then there is the nagging division between the Anglophones and the Francophones – neither speaks with the stirring cadences and resonance of their respective mother tongues. The differences that really count though are between the tourists who arrive by ship and those who arrive overland. No city can successfully accommodate the oversize cruise ships which swell the population of a small port by several thousand in a matter of minutes. Cheesy souvenir shops and cheap eateries proliferate with the express intention of separating the boat people from their money as rapidly as possible – and the results are predictable. Somehow, Quebec has managed so far to avoid this fate. Yes, there are a bazillion souvenir shops crowded among even more bistros, biergartens and burger joints which share the sidewalks with more indifferent art galleries than in all of Paris, but there are some great restaurants too.
Le Continental sits just down the block from the Chateau Frontenac, near the Citadel on the Plains of Abraham. The Plains of Abraham is (are?) the site of the battle between the French and the English for control of Quebec and the highest point in the city. It is a steep climb from the riverfront despite the availability of a funicular, and a real challenge to ascend entirely on foot. There are about 12 flights of public staircases which are much more direct than taking Siri’s suggested route, but no less steep. Arriving at the top, one is rewarded by a wonderful view of the river, and a great meal.
The wine glasses at Le Continental include a crest with the words “Depuis 1956” though I’m not sure that is a long time in a city founded in 1608. The restaurant is beautiful, with wood paneling that would do any private club proud, patterned carpets that just miss looking Oriental, and brass lighting fixtures that look authentic. The maitre d’ greets and assesses guests (reservations are de riguer on weekends) and then escorts one to a table either in the front room or the back. Because the human male agreed to wear a respectable looking blazer, we were seated (on both visits) in the rear. The tables are well separated, the linens crisp and blindingly white, and one can distinguish between the sommelier (black jacket), one’s waiter (white jacket) and the busboy (burgundy jacket). Perhaps because one can tell who is responsible, or more likely because the staff is concerned and well-trained, the service is extraordinary.
The house specialities are fabulous, theatrical (and delicious) flambés, but first there are the appetizers. On Thursday evening MiLady ordered the shrimp with cognac sauce. Huge pink, perfectly chilled shrimp arrived with a cocktail sauce that carried the unmistakable aroma of cognac. Not overpowering, but a reminder that cocktails contain their fair share of alcohol, and that cocktail sauce should be assertively flavored, not kid’s ketchup. The other appetizer that evening was a giant sea scallop, seared and wrapped in bacon. It was scrumptious – the salt from the bacon heightening the scallop’s natural sweetness and tickling the palate with the contrast. On Saturday evening MiLady refused to tamper with success – she again began with the shrimp. Succumbing to a long held fantasy, Saturday’s appetizer of choice was a set of six perfectly prepared snails in the shell. Contrary to recent experiences, these snails were neither over-cooked (rendering them rubbery) nor over-garlicked (forcing the human male to sleep in another room as his pores exuded the perfume of the stinking rose during his repose).
I frequently rail against the pricing structure of the winelists at many otherwise excellent establishments. Le Continental has a list that is balanced both in styles and prices. Our first dinner was accompanied by a fine 2010 Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune. It’s familiar, several bottles of the 2008 vintage reside in the cellar, and the style is distinctly French. It has good tannins and a less fruity nose, but with a lingering finish that closes with an earthiness that works well with strong flavors. Saturday night’s choice was a 2005 Medoc cru bourgeoise from Chateau Bel-Vue. No Frenchman made bad wine from the 2005 grapes, and this bottle was a fine example of the vintner’s art. Nicely rounded with a deep flavor of dark stone fruits but at 13% ABV without the additional alcohol that has become so popular in recent years. It wasn’t light but it was well-balanced and nimble. Neither bottle was over-priced and in each case the sommelier took the time and trouble to decant it to facilitate its opening, a courtesy American sommeliers, with a few notable exceptions, no longer routinely perform. The list ranges from CDN $40 to CDN $800 with the vast plurality of wines less than CDN $125. If one excludes the classic Bordeaux first growths, most of the balance of the list is under CDN $100 (roughly US$75) and includes many very drinkable bottles at half that price.
MiLady chose Langoustine Newburgh on Thursday – she loves langoustines and she correctly reasoned that a Newburgh sauce would elevated the crustaceans to something beyond blissful. Her choice gave the waiter his chance to show off. The dish is prepared tableside, with great showmanship and then flambéed immediately before being served. Usually the presentation is better than the dish, but at Le Continental the waiters actually know how to cook and present the specialities. The result was a dish so good that she ordered it again on Saturday. The delicate flavor of the langoustine was perfectly enhanced by the cream, housemade lobster bisque and sherry sauce, given the flaming presentation, an unforgettable meal. Thursday evening’s rack of lamb was almost great – it arrived slightly over-cooked (I like it reddish-pink inside) and begging for a sharper knife than the one supplied. It was flavorful but clearly not the kitchen’s best effort. On Saturday my choice was the house special filet mignon – prepared tableside and served with a cognac and pepper reduction. The waiter seared both sides perfectly, leaving the interior juicy and red; the reduction brought out the rich flavor of the beef and made for a thoroughly satisfying experience. I would award at least two [slurp]s here, but my publisher tells me we are trying to go upscale in our readership, so I am to exercise only my best table manners.
The dessert menu looked intriguing – a lovely hazelnut cake, a St. Honore cake, the usual assortment of delicious sounding items including a chocolate crème I normally would have scarfed down in an instant. But, Thursday was the evening before MiLady’s birthday and so required something very special as a fitting end to the meal. Slightly separated from the listing of the usual desserts were three dessert flambés: Crepes Suzette, Cherries Jubilee and Pears in Pernod. We chose to share the Cherries Jubliee and were not disappointed. Gorgeous ripe pitted cherries were lightly cooked in sugar and butter, then soaked in kirsch and sweet cherry brandy and flamed. The sauce thickened to the consistency of of thick honey and was then poured over a scoop of fine vanilla ice cream and the cherries arranged around the rim of the plate as if to form a necklace of garnets. Such a dish is clearly to good for ordinary mortals – but I let them eat it anyway. Saturday night finished with the pears; delicious, impressively lit up, but without ice cream only a close second finish.
Flaming dishes are probably cliches now – given the restaurant’s 1956 origins though they were undoubtedly the most nouvelle of cuisines. They and Le Continental are really classics worthy of attention – being iconic runs the risk of being cliché, but only if the passion is lost, and it certainly hasn’t been here.