Second Helpings

On the Road: Thank goodness the weekend in northern Arizona (see this week's Cafe column) wasn't my only summer escape.

I spent some time in Quebec, Canada, maybe the most charming town in North America.

Sure, I got worked up over the tourist sites. But eating was just as much a highlight.

It's amazing how pleasant breakfast can be when you don't have to gulp it down two minutes before you have to leave for work. My wife and I would spend about an hour each morning at a cafe on a street so narrow you could practically touch both sides with your hands at the same time. There we read the paper over croissants, grilled French bread and jam, and chocolatines, croissants stuffed with melted chocolate. In Quebec style, we washed everything down with a huge bowl of coffee and steamed milk.

I was surprised to discover there is a distinctive Quebec cuisine. Naturally, it bears strong French influences, but it owes much to local geography, too.

I doubt whether we'll ever sample it here in the Valley. That's because the food is staggeringly rich and hearty, designed to get natives through eight shivering months of bone-chilling winter. Stepping out into a 100-degree evening after a traditional Quebec meal could prove fatal.

Probably the best place to sample this lusty fare is in Quebec at Aux Anciens Canadiens, housed in a building dating back to 1675.

Start off with Grandmother's Pea Soup, a venerable dish fashioned from split yellow peas. The Assiette des Habitants (Country Platter) lets you sample several traditional main dishes. If you've ever traveled in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, you'll recognize the Quebec Meat Pie as a form of pasty ground beef and pork folded into a pie crust. The Meatball Ragout is spiced with cinnamon, while the Pork and Beans come nestled in a pastry cup.

Quebec is famous for its maple syrup. (Strangely, it's no bargain--you can get it here in the Valley at Trader Joe's for the same price.) Cooks ladle it on everything from ice cream to duck. In fact, Aux Anciens Canadiens' duckling braised in maple syrup is scrumptious, a nice twist on the traditional berry or orange sauce. A tart, refreshing, local apple cider provides the right liquid touch.

The absolute maple-syrup killer, however, is the tarte au sucre. It's a maple-syrup pie--like a pecan pie without the nuts--addictive enough to be classified as a drug. Every restaurant serves it, and we never had the will power to pass it up.

Many native dishes emphasize game. Caribou from Labrador is popular. If my dish was any guide, caribou is somewhat less gamy than elk or deer from the American West, and somewhat more tender. It's generally served in a sharp pepper sauce. You'll also encounter lots of rabbit, often teamed with potatoes, onions and mushrooms in a filling pastry pie.

With the weak Canadian dollar, prices seem uncommonly low. A three-course meal at Aux Anciens Canadiens will set you back between 20 and 25 American dollars, including tax.

--Howard Seftel

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