the quaint charm of quebec city

After a very brief stopover in Toronto (literally just 18 hours) to see my brother – where our big highlight was the Soon Tofu restaurant he took us to – the next stop on our wee Eastern Canada getaway was the quaint Quebec City.

And yes, it was still cold and wintery… even colder and wintery-er (I like to make up words) than Ottawa.

As our friendly cabbie brought us closer to Old Quebec City, it was difficult to see the beautiful, quaint charm that we’d heard so much about because of the wet, heavy snow descending from the darkened sky. The snow continued to fall as we arrived at our hotel. We only ventured outside once to forage for food at the nearby grocery store, then settled into our hotel room for the night with a couple of DVDs rented from the front desk. Exploration would have to wait until the following day and we crossed our fingers for a break from the bleak winter weather.

Morning greeted us with rain – a blessing in disguise as it helped to melt away most of the snow that had covered the streets overnight. After fortifying ourselves with winter gear, we headed out to start exploring the “old” part of this city, the part that we came all the way to Quebec to see.

Grey, clouded-over skies don’t make for the best ambience but the quaint charm was unmistakable and impossible to miss as we navigated through puddles and piles of snow. Whether it was the somewhat early hour or the coldness of the morning, not a lot of people were out at the time, which allowed us to meander slowly and take in all the sights.

We stopped into a cafe called Le Maison Smith to warm up with a cappuccino and do some people watching as the area became progressively busier.

After perusing the menus of various restaurants (I love that all restaurants have their menus posted outside), we settled on having a late lunch at Restaurant SSS (Simple Snack Sympathique). SSS is split into two sections – the lounge and restaurant. We sat on the restaurant side; the ambience was warm, cosy, and elegant all at once.

Our lunch started with the soup of the day, a perfect bowl of creamy butternut squash soup, its sweetness accented with a hint of curry. Quite possible the best bowl of butternut squash soup we have both had. My pick for the entree was the Cod (parmesan crust, veal jus with tamari, sweet pea puree, saute of vegetables) – that sweet pea puree was absolutely divine. My only complaint was that there wasn’t enough of it on the plate. Mark’s pick was the Ribs (marinated, grilled, smoked; substituted salad and vegetables for the fries), very moist and tender. All in all, a great pick for a meal – wonderful food and wonderful, friendly staff.

After a quick refresh/pit stop at our hotel, we headed out for dinner at Lapin Saute, located in the Petit-Champlain district. The best way to describe the ambiance is “homey” – it’s a small space but warm and cosy, with a bit of that bed & breakfast feel.

Butternut squash seemed to be the theme of the day, so we started with a small bowl of their version – a carrot and butternut squash soup – just as good as the iteration from Restaurant SSS, with its own unique charm. My entree pick was that night’s special – a braised beef short rib served with roast potatoes and vegetables, a beautifully tender and flavourful dish. Mark chose their braised rabbit cassoulet and duck sausage, one of their signature dishes. It was the first time either of us had tried rabbit; Mark was indifferent about it, but I quite enjoyed it. I’m not gonna say it tastes like chicken, but it kinda does taste like dark meat chicken, just a bit drier and ever-so-slightly gamey. Halfway through we switched dishes, since Mark is a braised short rib aficionado and I ended up really enjoying the rabbit cassoulet.

As great as the braised short rib was, the true highlight for Mark was the local cheese plate. I don’t think I’ve seen him this excited about cheese… ever. The two cheeses were recommendations from our server; a soft variety called La Sauvagine, and a harder, more pungent variety of which I don’t recall the name of (sorry). The cheese is served with mixed maple-flavoured nuts and a blueberry-cranberry Gentilhomme spiced wine compote. Mark was so smitten with this combination that I tried to recreate this when we got home (luckily La Sauvagine is available here), but my attempt definitely paled in comparison to the real deal (sorry Mark). His love affair with the Quebec cheese plate was short and fleeting, but with a fiery passion. I ended the evening with a couple dark chocolate truffles because you can’t go wrong with truffles.

The tempo was certainly more relaxed and we ended up lingering for a couple of hours. Having said that, we never felt pressured to leave and the service was impeccable.

Our stay in Quebec City was short but memorable. As much as my fellow Canadians grumble about the Quebecois, everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful. Our sad attempts at speaking French were welcomed by all and mercifully they switched to English once they heard us butcher even the simplest words. And of course the clouds parted and the sun came out to play on the day we left, as life sometimes goes.

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