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Quebec (inc. Montreal) Trip Report

Trip report Pt. 2 of 3: Panache, Initiale, L'Utopie (Quebec)

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Restaurants & Bars

Trip report Pt. 2 of 3: Panache, Initiale, L'Utopie (Quebec)

Barry Silver | Sep 11, 2005 09:29 PM

Here’s part 2 of a 3-part report on my family’s August trip to Nova Scotia and Quebec – with no holds barred in the dining department. Part 1 is in the Canada section.

Our first dinner in Quebec City was a return to Panache, in the Auberge St.-Antoine where we stay. The headline here is that we all felt that the restaurant had improved from our visit the previous year and we can now enthusiastically recommend it. The room is as striking as ever, a painstakingly restored historic warehouse with which we fell in love when it used to be the hotel lobby. You can eat outside – we would never miss the chance to eat inside. The service was outstanding and my teenagers, who have to endure watching me ponder wine choices every night out enjoy the opportunity to select from the “water list”. The sweetbreads appetizer (pan fried with mushrooms and parsnips) was a winner, but the star was my son’s “Parmentier” of lamb, potatoes and goat cheese. One thing we enjoy at Panache is the emphasis on the excellent vegetable side dishes. Each entrée comes with one choice from the list, served separately in a sharing portion. We can never decide, so we got 6 for the 4 of us, including the best mashed potatoes you will ever have, wonderful baby peas with bacon, my favorite beets, and a crazy mac-and-cheese with mushrooms. My daughter and I shared the duckling, and if you like duck find a partner and do this by all means. You get breast slices as well as braised leg and fois gras, elegantly served from a common platter. The guinea hen and bass dishes also won high praise. We enjoyed desserts including a Quebec beer “fantasy” – with apples and I-don’t-know-what-else, a bread pudding that came with a peach “shake” and a berry assortment.

There was not much time to mull over that meal, because the next night we ate at our all-time all-around favorite restaurant, Initiale. From the moment we were warmly greeted – we go only once a year but feel like returning family – the service was simply the best anywhere. They have renovated what was already a beautiful room (old building/high ceilings) to add intimacy, and it works. I wish I had made better notes to do the meal justice. Suffice it to say that the chef mixes creativity with the best of taste in both senses of the word. The presentation on the plate is always visually striking as well. We get lost in each dish. I particularly remember my own meal, which started with a fois gras along with an apple/fig salad and went on to a leg of deer with a barley/mushroom risotto which was right up my alley. After the cheeses, I finished with a memorable berry soufflé with gingerbread ice cream. The final treat is an assortment of homemade chocolates – I wish I had one of them here right now! We always try to rank our favorite Quebec restaurants, but year after year there is no debate among the four of us – Initiale is #1.

In our ranking debates, our third night's destination is a tough one. I’m not sure how to classify Restaurant L’Utopie – maybe “Rookie of the Year”. In a way this was the most exciting evening we had, in part because it was new to us and in part because the chef creates such excitement. But it is a young restaurant – in a way a generation younger than the others in terms of setting, service and cuisine. Young, engaging and promising. The room is striking, decorated with birch tree stands. The service is professional – a bit more relaxed than the more formal others we encountered. The amuse-bouche was a strong start, a fried shrimp with pureed cauliflower and cucumber. We were dazzled by the appetizers, including scallops with squid-ink pasta, a half-pigeon, an array of tomatoes and particularly another scallop dish which came with an array of “scented salts” of various flavor combinations. The tuna and guinea fowl entrees were excellent and all dishes were visually stunning, but I need to talk about the lamb dish my son and I ordered. The special set menu concept now at L’Utopie is an “architecture menu”. The chef apparently asked an architect to challenge him with a series of building design concepts which would be the inspiration for the creation of a meal. We did not order this entire menu, because it required table consensus, but the lamb from the architecture menu was available a la carte. I hadn’t given the whole thing much thought, and being a banker and not an arty type I tend to dismiss this kind of high-concept exercise. But when the plates came out we literally gasped. And we “got it”. The chef had presented a building complex on our plates, with symmetrical rectangular prisms of perfectly-done lamb roast end-capped with a block of fois gras – the building itself. As in the design, the blocks were separated by a “wall” that looked like corrugated metal but was a subtle chocolate/kirsh material, with the landscape finished by asparagus and squash puree and a 5x4 matrix of small cylinders of root vegetables. It made us regret we had not seen the other parts of the architecture dinner, and it makes me eagerly anticipate what this chef will come up with in the future. Desserts were similarly creative – fried dark chocolate, a fig donut, “Russian cigarettes” filled with chocolate something-or-other. One criticism would be that the desserts on the whole were too sweet for some of us. But this dinner was a thrill for us and we will be back!

Now when you read our itinerary, and the comments from the rest of our trip, the obvious Quebec City question is: Why not Laurie Raphael? We have dined there on our previous trips, but without taking a thing away from the greatness of the L-R kitchen, I have to say that it somehow has not been quite as enjoyable for us. Perhaps there is a touch too much theatricality for our tastes, perhaps it’s the service which has been for us slow near the point of neglectful. Whatever it is, we were not yearning to go back this year, and it will be hard next trip to dislodge any of the three described here from our schedule.

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