There’s a certain type of city – Savannah, Bruges, Oaxaca – that could easily cruise forever on its historic good looks. Canada’s entry is, naturally, Quebec City…the oldest burg in North America (she turned a youthful 410 this year). It, and none of the above, however, have ever really been known for surfing the, um, cultural bleeding edge.
Now, we’d certainly spent our share of nights out on the Montreal music scene; but this was our first touchdown in its pretty neighbor to the north. Yet what ultimately surprised us was that, although so many visitors come for the stunning historic beauty of the place (and its legendary Chateau Frontenac, where we did spend one night), QC was actually genuinely hipper than you might expect. Indeed, on our first evening, we hooked up with local electronic duo Fjord, at their stylish new Japanese restaurant Honō Izakaya, in the Rue St-Joseph area – which buzzes until late with creative energy. (Though antiques browsing along the Rue St-Paul was also a treat.)
Of course, we weren’t going to pretend that we did anything less than swoon over the city’s ethereal 17th Century good looks. But we were also their to uncover what makes it a dynamic, palpably contemporary destination.
Here’s what we did.
Arriving on a drizzly day, we were instantly comforted by the feeling that we could easily have been fine with just holing up in this gorgeous boutique hotel until things dried out. The experience started at maximum enjoyment, with a glorious lunch at Il Matto, 71’s energetic, Italo-chic restaurant – where one can indulge in sublimely flavorful modern updates of classics like salmon tartare, linguine with mushrooms and other pasta and pizza specialties – all in a sleek setting with futuristic looking “cage” chandeliers hovering above.
Heading upstairs, the stylishly understated rooms were like veritable apartments in their proportions – with awesomely high ceilings, and prodigious windows framing (in some cases) captivating views of the St Lawrence River (we admit to having a thing for watching ships come in to harbors).
The lobby was a dream, a decidedly cosmopolitan spot for socializing and new-friend-making (which is always quite easy in Canada, of course). High-tech wine/cocktail dispensers allowed for the experience of fetching your own tipple (how civilized) and then lounging about on one of the fiery red couches. Don’t forget to look around – the hotel also collects art created by mentally challenged artists, and there’s a visceral honesty to the works. To wit, in the front window were Gaultier-looking corsets made from wire and bottle flip-tops.
Since, um, civility seemed to be in exceedingly short supply back home, we were particularly drawn to the heady but approachable Museum of Civilization. Bleeding hearts that we are, we eagerly immersed ourselves in the zeitgeisty current exhibition This is Our Story, which looks at Quebec’s Aboriginal population. As immigration debates rage on, it couldn’t be more relevant.
A rather striking mix of 19th Century and modernist architecture situated amongst the trees in Battlefields Park, this is arguably Quebec City’s marquee museum. Nearly 40,000 works stretch back to the 17th Century to tell the history of Quebec art – though we spent most of our time in the excellent modern and contemporary pavilions, which offer convincing evidence of the region’s ongoing artistic vitality. Just opened is an exhibition on the work of revelatory artist Numa Amun.
Buzzing with all sorts of buzzy people from the early hours on, the stylish Honō epitomizes the new QC spirit. Headed up by restaurateur Thomas Cassault, we pulled up a stool with he and Louis-Étienne Santais (who is his musical partner in electronic duo Fjord) one evening for a couple of hours of unapologetic decadence and excellent tunes on the soundsystem (everything from The Smiths to Felix Cartal). We were introduced to our new obsession, ouefs de caille marines, while tasting unusual types of sake (like the sweet Honjozo, which gets stronger when heated up) and some impressively smooth Japanese whiskey. Rather than sushi, come for Japonais curry and white tuna tataki.
Anchoring the eastern end of the archly hip Rue St-Joseph corridor (Honō is at the other end), Le Clocher Penché – it translates dramatically to “The Bell Tower” – looks airlifted straight from a trendy little corner of Paris’ Marais. One of those rarest of restaurants with art aspirations that actually lives up to them – it’s veritably a dine-in gallery. And its charmingly lived-in atmosphere gives it an inviting authenticity…yet the crowd is as cool as they come. They serve classic market cuisine (listing all the growers and artisans on their site) like pressed Quebec lamb, raw/marinated sustainable tuna, homemade blood pudding, and some of the most divine chicken liver mousse anywhere – which for us, strangely enough, is kind of a really big deal.
This is the absolute pinnacle of new Quebec City dining. There’s little reason, actually, why this hip bistro organique shouldn’t be considered one of the genuinely best restaurants in the world. First, the aesthetics. They may have actually invented “space-age rustic” here, with futuristic (and boldly turquoise) banquettes under potted plants hung from a romantically beamed ceiling. Picture windows frame the historic beauty of the Lower Town just outside, and there’s a second, more intimate and brick walled dining room.
Oh, but the food, glorious, glorious food. We took our place at the perfect-for-people-watching bar, and had our lives (and our taste buds) forever altered by the resplendent Discovery Menu. To wit, scallops in morel sauce, sunflower & beluga lentils, fried polenta with beet remoulade, red deer & hemp – all done without fuss or self-conscious over-concepting, yet with the flavor of each and every ingredient shining delectably through. And everything – everything – is unflinchingly local. Like, when we asked for a dirty martini, since no olives are grown in Quebec, it was served with a spray of shitake. Now that is dedication.
The sort of place that, if it was in New York, would be preeningly pretentious, Le Drague is technically a gay club. But it’s just so much flamboyant outlandishness that it is often packed with straight people, who have come to realize that this is where everyone is having more fun. The cabaret performances are uninhibited, to say the least – and there are DJs and dancing ’til the wee hours. Especially great for heating up during those cold Quebec winters.