Sunday, April 15, 2012

Travels in Taste - Pain Béni - Quebec City

It's travel time!

Back in early March, my girlfriend and I decided to take a short trip to Quebec City. The trip was originally supposed to be a jaunt to a tropical paradise, but there were several factors that changed our minds about leaving the country for some all-inclusive dealie in Dominican Republic and a big one was our shared concern over food quality. After months of living on inspired food made by ourselves or others, the last thing we wanted was to be eating a week's worth of "Denny's" buffet food. Maybe we were being too harsh, but I'd heard enough horror stories to feed my concern.

With the plan in mind to go to Quebec City for a few days, I looked up a few suggestions on, which provides rather reliable restaurant, hotel and destination information. As I went down their list of top restaurants (#1 being a sushi place, oddly enough) all the places recommended were pretty damned expensive, with the exception of #6 (Le Lapin Sauté) and #7 (Le Pain Béni). So, I figured I would choose one of these for our Wednesday night dinner (we arrived on Tuesday and wanted to forego anything planned that night). I can't remember why I chose Pain Béni (means 'blessed bread') over Lapin Sauté, but I did. I'm very glad I did, because we tried Lapin Sauté on Thursday night and it was VERY disappointing. Great service, but the food was worse than sub-par. I'd avoid it if I were you. Instead, maybe try their partner restaurant Le Cochon Dingue - our lunch there was very good. Or maybe what happened to me was a combo of exhaustion and the cook having a bad day. Who knows?

Either way, I don't like writing posts about lousy food, so let's move on.

Something really interesting about all the restaurants in Quebec City is that they offer a 'table d'hôte'-style menu on top of à la carte. We had already partaken of this the night before our outing to Pain Béni, so we stuck with our menu items this time, but I still found that an interesting aspect of the city's culinary culture. Now, on to Pain Béni itself!
What surprised me about this place is how unassuming it was. It was just a little bistro tucked in an "auberge" (a classically styled inn) near the Chateau Frontenac where we were staying. It was very small, only a dozen small tables at most. Now it was Wednesday night in the city's low season (the Carnaval de Québec had ended a couple of weeks previously) and there wasn't much going on. We had made reservations regardless, but there was no need; there weren't a whole lot of people.

The service was nice, straight-forward and friendly. There was the slightest air of "stuffiness" at first, but once Kari poured on her charm and the server saw how much I was enjoying the food, that attitude vanished. It even wound up in an extra glass of Ice Cider for Kari! Now, on to the meal!

First up, we ordered drinks. Kari ordered a sparkling wine of some sort while I indulged in a sampling of Quebec microbrewed goodness in the form of a bottle of Dieu du Ciel's Route des épices (literally "The Spice Road"). This was a rye beer (weird, eh?) that was utterly delicious. It had a kind of rye/gingerbread kick to it that I'd never tasted in a beer before. It was a total 'find' and I hope I get the chance to try it again some time, over and over again!

Rye Beer, who knew?
So, beer in hand, it was time for the first course. Now, it must be taken into consideration that both Kari and I were suffering with very nasty colds and my appetite wasn't the most ravenous at that point. So, I decided that instead of going full bore with a meal, I was going to have two small plates in succession, saving room for dessert (which, as we'll learn, was a stroke of genius on my part).

The menu is French, 'fancy' (I saw one review call it 'fussy') and very rich - foie gras, boudin, fondue and so on... (although there were some items with more 'global' flair) So, I figured I'd go all in with the luxury. I decided to order the 'Ris de veau' (Veal Sweetbreads) and the Seared Foie Gras. For her part, Kari was focused like a laser beam on the Cheese Fondue (she'd been pining for it as soon as we decided we were going to Quebec). It worked out well since it was a pretty big pot of fondue so there wasn't any period of either of us waiting for the other to finish eating.

The Fondue was pretty tasty (of course I sampled some) and I liked the added touch: (from the menu description) Quebec cheese fondue with apple cider, served with country loaf pieces and fresh fruits. I think Kari was happy:

Yay Fondue!
So, on my end, I decided to go with the classic French glandular/organic feast. First up was Ris de veau croustillant, Crème de topinambour, tombée d’épinards au beurre noisette, noix d’acajou. Which means Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Sunchoke Purée, Spinach in Brown Butter and Cashews. Now, in case y'all didn't know, sweetbreads are NOT brains (although they look similar) nor are they testicles. They are, in fact, the thymus gland, usually of veal, young beef , lamb or pork. Also, sunchokes are also called Jerusalem artichokes (but aren't artichokes - it's complicated) and are very sweet.

So, how was my first foray into the world of glands? Really freakin' tasty, actually! The sweetbreads themselves were simply prepared in a cornmeal crust, having a rich yet oddly bitter flavour. I really don't know how to describe it. There are elements of the flavour of organ meat, but lighter, even fluffier, if that makes sense. Either way, I thought them to be delicious, especially when offset by the sweetness of the sunchoke purée, the richness of the spinach and the nutty goodness of the cashews. All in all, a decadent treat that I'll remember for years to come, especially paired up with the Route des épices beer, which just made the whole flavour profile more striking.

Tasty glands...
Up next was the Foie gras poêlé, purée de courge, pickle de figue, ail noir et mélasse, toast de pain d’épices. Translated: Seared foie gras, squash purée, pickled fig, black garlic and molasses, and spiced bread. Wow, what can I say? It's muthafreakin' FOIE GRAS! Just about the most unctuous, decadent food item in existence. And paired with the black garlic-molasses purée? Fugedaboudit... SO GOOOOOOOD!!! If I have one complaint about this dish, it's that the spiced bread was too strong, it overpowered anything else. It was tasty, but not a good element in this dish. White toast would have been better! But, everything else was a symphony of flavour when put together. I'm definitely going to have to experiment with black garlic... The server recommended a Pinot Noir pairing so I enjoyed a glass of Blackstone Pinot Noir out of California. It was a really tight pairing, the wine didn't overpower the food and was given a lot more flavour thanks to the food, which is exactly how good wine pairings should work, right?

Unfortunately, I was too busy enjoying this plate that I totally forgot to take a picture of it... Oops.

Next up, dessert!

So, once again, Kari was easy to convince as to her choice of dessert - they had a Lemon Crème Brulée. Me, I wasn't quite as sure until I saw "aged cheddar ice cream" as part of one of the selections. Cue the brakes! SKKKKKRREEEE... Cheddar. Ice Cream. YES!!! So, I ordered Pomme “Cortland” et courge confite, érable et sauge, glace au cheddar de l’Île-aux-Grues, crumble aux épices, espuma à l’érable. In English: an apple and squash layered confit (essentially a layered square of thinly sliced apple and squash baked - I think - with maple syrup and sage), cheddar ice cream(!), a spiced crumble and maple 'foam'. I wasn't sure what to make of what was being described on the menu, but I HAD to try it if only for the ice cream.

When it arrived, I was surprised to discover that it was essentially a deconstructed apple pie. The 'confit' was the filing, while the crumble served as the crust. And the ice cream served equal purposes. I was a little worried when I saw "maple foam" on the English menu, I was worried about getting one of those molecular gastronomy foams that looks a bit like spit. Luckily, what they called 'foam' was more like a mousse. Phew!
So, how did it taste? OH MY GOD!!!! Everything was amazingly delicious. The confit was firm and tasty, the crumble a perfect crunchy bite, the maple mousse light and sweet and rich. And then there's the ice cream. Wow. Just... wow... Imagine the best cheesecake-style ice cream but instead of some sort of questionable cream cheese, you're using premium extra-old cheddar. It was one of the tastiest things I've eaten in a long long time.

Paired with a glass of Ice Cider, a Quebecois speciality, it made the evening complete. And I'm not a big dessert guy!
Deconstructed Apple Pie. MORE PLEASE!

So there you have it, our night out at Pain Béni! I'd say give it a try if ever you're in Quebec City. That being said, there are so many restaurants in Old Quebec that this might only be one of many spectacular gourmet outings. All I know is that I am very, very happy we decided to go there.

That's it for now! Stay tuned for the next Travel in Taste where we head back to Montreal to see what an up and coming BBQ joint has to offer!


No comments:

Post a Comment