Monday, November 14, 2011

gastrO'Canada: Rabbit, Red Deer and Really Strange Ice Cream 11/12/11

Try not to feel guilty in Le Lapin Sauté, a quaint French country style bistro, tucked away in the equally as quaint artist neighborhood that hides in the shadows below the walls of Old Quebec.

The shame comes not from indulging in fragrant desserts or deep red wine, or even the chef’s decadent dishes, which arrive tableside still sizzling in their sauced drippings.

I challenge anyone not to feel a tinge of guilt when your dinner’s former likeness is glaring at you en masse from every corner of the room. Black, beady eyes, some painted, some sewn, wait judging while you wait for your wine. 

At least until the waitress places the lapin cassoulet on your placemat, the cast-iron pot still hissing from the oven as juices stream from the rabbit leg into a bath of white beans and bacon. Your first bite and the wooden rabbit statues, the smiling rabbit paintings and the silhouetted rabbit curtains immediately disappear into the background. To hell with them. Better yet, to the oven to make me seconds. 

Le Lapin Sauté specializes in its namesake (lapin = rabbit) and they infuse the furry little foragers with the best of French-Canadian cuisine. That is, French-style cooking with the Canadians’ industrious use of seasonal foodstuffs.

They cook with what’s around. They include maple syrup in some way in almost everything. And they skin, sear and serve just about anything that was once cute and cuddly. It endears the food to the homeland and vice versa. And despite the obvious French foundation, the cuisine contained swirls of a unique Quebec identity.

Take the grilled rabbit with mustard sauce. The meat was tender with an appropriate light game flavor, while the mustard provided a gentle zing. Yet underneath a maple sweetness rolled around the tongue. A little bit of Canada in the little bits of bunny.

We tried four variations of rabbit at Le Lapin Saute. The mustard and its plate pairing, olive sauce smothered medallions. All around were fresh root vegetables, mostly carrots for obvious reasons, chunked and simply charred, perfect for swathing up what sauce stayed on the plate.

The aforementioned cassoulet, a white bean and bacon casserole served piping hot in its cast-iron bed; the vehicle for a thick confit rabbit leg. The meaty thigh submerged in the oil and flavor and bacon beans and the bone pierced through looking like a stirring spoon. The meat shredded off with the lightest touch, tender and juicy with an almost poultry taste, albeit more earthy. Soaking in the stew was a rabbit sausage, filled with fennel and the mineral bite that comes from small game.

From such small animals came such big flavor. Flavor for a price, in Quebec. It is an expensive city, even during an off-season in mid-November. Every restaurant tacks on two taxes, prior to gratuity, on top of mid to high range prices. The problem, however, was that there was no low to mid range options. There are very few, if any, quick-stop spots. Our American perspective sees fast food or a step up to a sandwich shop as perfect lunch options. Even on the streets of Paris or Rome, where food is a snobbish lifestyle, there exist sandwich shops with ham and cheese baguettes or a quick street vendor. In Quebec there are none, save for the random Subway tucked between a furrier and souvenir shop.

When in search of a quick bite for lunch, I ended up sitting down. Why? Because every place was a sit-down restaurant.

If Le Lapin Saute is any example, the food prices should simply be a guidepost, not a deterrent. The food itself is hearty and filling, regardless of eatery, so two large meals a day still resulted in full bellies. Traveling in the off-season meant cheap hotels and virtually no lines or waits. Driving meant no airline or airline baggage fees.

Above all, it means embracing a slower pace, spawned from the lack of fast-food and the boon of cafes and bistros.

One of those was Pain Beni (don’t ask me to translate, I did the yeoman’s work with The Sautéed Rabbit). Twenty yards from our Hotel Clarendon, down the short cobblestone walk that connects it to the sprawl of the Frontenac grounds, you’ll know you’re there by the red light above the stone steps.

I chose it because the menu served Quebec Red Deer with berry and juniper sauce, and frankly I couldn’t walk away from that. I tackled rabbit, locally grown pork, the farmers market down along the riverfront (local iced cider and plum wine doled out in samples) – so red deer from down the road seemed an appropriate nightcap.

The modern décor of Pain Beni reflected their menu. And yet, like the rest of Quebec, it was rooted in the root veggies and local products procured around the province. Oysters three-ways (fried, sautéed in lemon and garlic and raw with oyster foam) bridged to the venison I was promised. The loin was exquisitely seared, but rare as was the house custom (I was told by our jovial waitress). Dollops of raspberry sauce and juniper sauce spotted the edges of the plate. One tangy, one a sweet woodsy flavor that when combined, tasted like a holiday medley spread over the meat. Which itself was strong and wild, but reigned in by mild peppery spices. The truffle potatoes came in the form of a white brick, which were actually layered, paper-thin potato slices held together by black truffles and truffle oil. Decadent, for sure but the deer held up next to the overpowering truffle.

If dinner wasn’t modern Quebec, dessert sure was. An apple and butternut squash pie, deconstructed in similar fashion to the truffle potato brick. Only around it were maple crumbles, butternut squash puree and sage-infused whipped cream. The autumn spices danced through each piece, fusing together when combined. The squash and apple complimented each other, one tart and the other slightly savory, but both sweet around the edges. 

Atop the entire dish, however, reigned a cool abomination – cheddar cheese ice cream. It was cheese. It was ice cream. And alone, a spoonful hit the tongue sour, remained that way until the distinct cheddar flavor melted away. It was unnatural, even though ice cream and cheese are naturally related. But when added to the apple pie, the ice cream took on an entirely new character. It lost all sourness, the cheese flavor died to mild and the fruits jazzed up into the forefront. It became a perfect bite: all familiar things but totally unique. 

As we sat in the Hotel Clarendon lounge listening to jazz and sipping port, I looked around for rabbit statues or perhaps a deer painting. None. No furry creatures looking down at me with accusing stares. 

Indulge in Quebec, nothing to feel guilty about here. 

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