Canada is a vast country with many varied experiences to offer the traveler. While the West Coast is a winter sports wonderland, the Eastern shores are the ideal setting for a trip exploring Canada’s culinary roots, traditional and ethnic eats.
Where it All Begins
In America we like things fast, but on the Flavor Trail in Charlevoix, Quebec it’s all about slow driving and slow food. It’s pulling over on a whim to learn what treat lies behind the orange chef hat sign by the road.
Created a decade ago as a result of the close interplay between the growers and the gourmands of the area, the Flavor Trail is an 89-mile road along the St. Lawrence River stretching from Baie Saint-Paul to La Malbaie. Along the route over 40 businesses, farmers, and restaurateurs await to educate, entertain and satiate the curious and hungry foodie. With the orange chef hat signs outside each establishment, purveyors are easy to find.
I pick up the Flavor Trail in Baie St. Paul, about an hour outside of Quebec City. My first stop is Laiterie Charlevoix, an extensive farm featuring a cheese monger, cheese and dairy museum and a boutique ice cream producer. My guide, Robert Benoit, has an infectious passion for all things dairy. In the cheese shop Robert explains the process of creating the Vieux Charlevoix (aged cheddar), Flurmier (brie-like soft cheese), Hercules and the newest addition, 1608 Charlevoix.
Our tour continues with Robert introducing me to Eric, the young owner of L’Armoire a Glaces. With just one ice cream machine, he is churning out over 20 varieties of ice creams and sorbets including the popular Dulche de Leche and the unique tomato and basil sorbet.
Continuing along the route I head to Les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix, a husband and wife owned organic meat producer. As a fourth-generation farmer, Damien Girard knows the lay of the land. Organic chicken and pork and organic sausage and bacon are available.
Lunch at Au 51 in the heart of Baie St. Paul is a perfect example of the relationship between the producers and chefs in the area. Chef Patrick Fregni uses the meat from Les Viandes and features the tomato sorbet from the ice cream shop on his menu.
For dessert I continue on the Flavor Trail to the town of Les Eboulements and the husband/wife shop of La Chcolaterie du Village. The couple converted their home into a boutique Willy Wonka factory featuring over 50 varieties of Belgian chocolate confections. While I’m sampling delicacies like dark chocolate with Szechwan pepper, the local blueberry producer stops by to drop off her product that will be crafted into a mound of dark chocolate and berry bliss.
The last supplier I visit is Les Jardins du Centre, a sixth generation farm producing over 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including petite versions of carrots and corn that are a hit with the over 100 regional chefs the farm supplies.
I finish my day in La Malbaie with dinner at Auberge des Falaises. This gastronomic powerhouse is located in an unassuming bed and breakfast, proving that looks are often deceiving. Situated high above the St. Lawrence River the food easily rivals the view. The multi-course tasting menu showcases regional products in every course from the mushrooms the chef picked himself while hiking, to a medley of miniature root vegetables from Les Jardins du Centre.
From Farm to Traditional Table in Montreal
Montreal is the most French city in North America. The language dominates conversation and the food dominates the culinary scene. The city’s top restaurants show how regionally grown food is being crafted into traditional and modern French cuisine.
My first night in the city and I go directly from a five-hour flight to a seven-course dinner at XO housed in the best boutique hotel in the city, the Hotel Le St. James. The menu changes seasonally, but you’ll never go wrong with the seven-course chef’s choice tasting menu. Put yourself in Chef Michele Mercuri’s capable hands and you may feast on salmon with steal trout roe, tagliatelle with sea urchin cream or guinea fowl with porcini mushroom foam. At the end of the meal when you’re presented the check, you’re also given a package with a muffin to take home for the next day’s breakfast. Save room.
When I think of a casino, five-star dining isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but Nuances at the Casino de Montreal is one of only two five diamond restaurants in this foodie town, and its held this status for a decade. The dining room has a modern, elegant feel done in creams and blacks with splashes of lime green. On the front page of the menu, Nuances promises sublime, audacious cuisine and Chef Olivier Rault and his staff deliver on this promise. The menu focuses on seasonal, local ingredients from the Quebec province from cheese from the Charlevoix region to local meats and freshly caught fish. With its location on Ile Notre Dame, across the St. Lawrence River, make sure to make a reservation that will allow you to enjoy watching the sunset over the city of Montreal.
Everyone who comes to Montreal wants at least one classic French meal, and Bonaparte at the Auberge Bonaparte in Old Montreal fits the bill. The décor pays homage to Josephine (Napoleon’s wife) and everything (except the bread) is made fresh daily in the kitchen of Chef Gerard Fort. Start with the escargot in phyllo dough, a unique twist on this classic French dish. For a lighter entrée, opt for the scallops with mushrooms. 447 Rue St. Francois-Xavier, 514-844-4368.
For a taste of nouveau French cuisine I head to Verses in another boutique hotel, Hotel Nelligan in Old Montreal. Chef Remi Morency features unique Quebec items like boar spare ribs, ostrich tartar and Boston deer steak. In the French tradition, sauces, oil and butter are used liberally. The best example of Morency’s creativity was his playful approach to the traditional Greek salad. Instead of tomatoes, there is a divine tomato mousse and the chunks of feta are replaced with an airy feta foam.
Local Ingredients Go Global in Toronto
After days of French overload, it’s time to head to Toronto. This cosmopolitan city is Canada’s cultural and artistic capital and its diverse population has created a cornucopia of ethnic eateries.
A colleague in Toronto armed me with an insider’s opinion on the best restaurants in the city and he told me that Lai Toh Heen is considered to have the city’s best dim sum. This upscale restaurant exudes an atmosphere of 1930s Shanghai mixed with art deco touches. Dim Sum Chef Raymond Fung serves up interesting concoctions like Phoenix dumplings filled with truffle and assorted seafood, steamed devil ray shaped dumpling with shrimp, asparagus and sun dried fish and pastry filled with foie gras (I can’t let the French food go so easily).
While ethnic food often means cheap eats, that certainly isn’t the case at Chiado, a Portuguese bistro that has the most expensive prices of any restaurant I dine at in Toronto. Thankfully, chef/owner Albino Silva backs it up with his cooking skills. Silva got his start early on in the culinary world, apprenticing for a baker in Lisbon when he was just 10-years-old. He moved to Toronto when he was 15 and then spent sometime in the States where he served as a popular instructor at the Culinary Institute of America for two years.
Chiado’s cuisine is often called “progressive Portuguese”. The menu is a seafood lovers delight with much of the fish flown in fresh daily from the Azores. Unique starters include the carpacio of grouper or grilled squid paired with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks. For my main course I try a distinct Portuguese dish, cataplana. A cataplana is a special covered copper pot used to cook this Southern Portuguese staple that is similar to a French Bouillabaisse. The stew features clams, grouper, salmon, skate, and monkfish along with sweet peppers and onions. It’s one of the most interesting dishes I have in the city. My companion and I end our meal with the decadent chocolate mousse paired with towers of meringue and espresso crème and anglaise marinated berries.
During the next day exploring the quirky Bata Shoe Museum and the new Frank Gehry addition on the Art Gallery of Ontario, I take a break to roam the streets of Korea town and stumble upon Hodo Kwaja Korean bakery to sample the delectable Korean walnut cake. These bite-size delights are shaped like a walnut, but instead of a hard center are more doughnut like and filled with your choice of three flavors (I opt for the red bean). Who knew bliss could be had for a mere $1.50 for six.
From the farmers to the producers to the restaurateurs, Eastern Canada offers a wide array of experiences for the adventurous culinary traveler. The diversity of each city plays out in its cuisine and affords tourists an opportunity to get the flavor of Canada through its eclectic cuisine.
The Flavour Trail http://www.tourisme-charlevoix.com/tourist-trails/flavour-trail
Hotel Place D’Armes http://www.hotelplacedarmes.com/
Montreal Tourism http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/
Lai Toh Heen http://www.laitohheen.com/
Toronto Tourism http://www.seetorontonow.com/