The building itself, an austere, slate-clad edifice designed by Moshe Safdie in 1998, is lightened up by whimsically jagged glass dormers that march across the roofline. It seems to echo, in considerably more modern tones, the features of the Auberge St.-Antoine, across the street.
The painstakingly restored 19th-century façade of the St.-Antoine belies the smart, up-to-the-minute boutique hotel that one finds within, complete with Frette linens, couture-clad concierges, and a bumping lobby soundtrack. But the property’s history is literally inscribed in its walls. Shards of blue delft, the stoppers of ancient glass vials, every sort of flatware and ceramics—all of it found during the renovation—are displayed throughout the hotel, in illuminated vitrines in the corridors.
When we checked into the St.-Antoine, the sleek, stylized stone fireplaces in the lounge were ablaze. In front of them, children played backgammon and did puzzles, while their parents, chic-looking art-director types, lounged on velour pillow-strewn sofas napping or drinking wine. We showed the chatty bartender our photo of the revelers—nope, no recognition there—and he recommended we try an aperitif from Hemmingford, Quebec, called Neige, which, he explained, was a cidre de glace: cider fermented from juice pressed out of apples that have frozen on the tree. It was honeyed and viscous like its close cousin, ice wine, but with the aroma of Calvados—an intense, appetizing sweet-tart apple flavor. It was classic Quebec: something warm squeezed from the ice.
He gave us a copy of Clique, a guide to hip restaurants in town, but we were so comfortable we didn’t want to leave. So we made a reservation at the hotel’s restaurant, Panache, a barnlike room with massive, handhewn beams and a rustic, tailored chic, that turned out to be the sleeper of the trip. Here, our meal began with Pickle Point oysters from Prince Edward Island, served with dollops of a Québécois caviar called Abitibi on top. Duck foie gras was accompanied by a zingy chutney of apple and cranberry and a smoky reduction of honey wine. Partridge breast came with bacon-studded cabbage. More game courses followed—tender venison rib, and hare with a side of yellow beets perfectly cooked en cocotte. At every point, a knowledgeable, discreet wine steward offered wine-pairing suggestions, which we were delighted to accept (the wines available in Canada are often unfamiliar to Americans, even enthusiasts like us).
At a handful of ambitious Quebec City restaurants we’d encountered Spanish new-wave pretension, not to mention jarring pairings like oysters in strawberry foam. But at Panache, François Blais offered a truly Québécois interpretation of seasonal food and a pared-down, let-the-ingredients-speak-for-themselves simplicity.
The next morning, we hailed a cab to take us across town to Les Halles les Quartier, a small food hall on the Avenue Cartier, for a progressive Québécois cheese-and-baguette tasting. Earlier in the trip we’d noticed two artisanal bakeries on the block and an astoundingly comprehensive traiteur (charcuterie and cheese vendor). From a boulangerie artisanale we bought a loaf that was milky-mild and a little sweet, and from Eric Borderon, another that offered a pleasing sourness. At Aux Petits Delices, we bought four raw-milk cheeses and sat down to a midwinter dream breakfast, mixing and matching the breads with Quebec’s best curds.
For people who love cheese, Quebec is absolute heaven: there are more than 300 different varieties, and its cheese makers tend to be mavericks. One, Luc Boivin, submerged 1,700 pounds of cheese in the nearby Saquenay fjord in 2004, hoping it would age there in an appealing way (in fact, once it sank, the cheese was never found again). Of those we sampled at Les Halles les Quartier, our favorite was the Kenogami from Fromagerie Lehmann, which had an appealing reddish exterior, chewy rind, and soft center with notes of mushroom and hazelnuts. Pied de Vent, a raw-milk cheese that ran a close second, had a craggier exterior, with a melting center and an intriguing, olive-like sour saltiness.