Precious things are kept in vaults. This truism became evident during my stay in Quebec City.
First, let me explain how I ended up in a restaurant, located in an ancient vault in Quebec City’s old town, just steps from the St. Lawrence River.
We were having breakfast at a fine brunch restaurant, L’Epicurien, on Maguire Avenue, and started to chat with the couple next to us. Conversation came around to the unusual Columbus Blue Jackets sweater that one of them was wearing. Unusual, yes, since in Quebec City most hockey fans are either sporting the wares of the Montreal Canadiens or the bygone Quebec Nordiques.
Turned out, that the couple’s daughter was married to hockey player David Savard, a culinary connoisseur who played parts of 10 seasons with the Blue Jackets. Savard won the Stanley Cup while with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2021. The couple explained that Savard hosted the NHL’s championship trophy and had chosen to bring it to a favourite restaurant of his — La Tanière.
As a hockey fan, this anecdote interested me. And as a purveyor of fine food, I was intrigued to learn more about the restaurant that had indirectly hosted the Cup. (Or is that hoisted?)
Fast forward to a recent winter evening, and we found ourselves at the non-descript door on a hard-to-find side street not far from the historic Place Royale.
Keying in a secret code, we entered the restaurant, went down a flight of stairs and were met by a maître d’ who already knew our names and took our coats. Much like the entrance to a speakeasy.
In fact, La Tanière’s director/owner Philippe Veilleux at Bistro Origyne called it “speakeasy-esque”. And yes, the mysterious beginning was part of the restaurant’s appeal, as we made our way through different rooms during our 15-course meal. This feature allowed us to explore the ancient vaults of New France merchants that survived many a devastating fire during the centuries.
First stop was the bar, where we were served clever hors d’oeuvres with non-alcoholic drinks. The pétillante de rhubarb was outstanding. The appetizers included modernist takes on ancient terroir vegetation like sea lettuce, whelks, charcuterie tuna, cow parsnip, artemisa, and something called fake sand. It’s made from a mixture of parsnip, sea parsley seed, and maple sugar.
We then moved to the chef’s counter which overlooks the open kitchen and pantry.
It was here, back in 2021, that the restaurant staff gave Savard the idea to return for a meal, with the Cup. He agreed, and then the staff at La Tanière worried. Just how could they recreate their scallop dish with sturgeon caviar, so as to fit perfectly into the huge bowl that’s the crown on the Stanley Cup? After a great deal of worry and measurement, it all fell into place, and the evening ended up going viral on social media.
Chef François-Emmanuel Nicol, still proud of that night, is eager to show us video of when the Cup ended up in front of the chef’s counter, where we were seated. The scallop dish, called The Noble, is a signature now, the only menu item that never disappears, even though the restaurant’s offerings normally change with the seasons.
He’s proud as well of the restaurant’s recent five-diamond certification, the result of years of training and preparation.
A Quebec City native, he refined his skills at the Quay in Sydney, Australia, at Arzak, in San Sebastian, Spain and at Mirazur, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France. All these experiences helped him create a modernist, avant-garde approach to his art.
Nicol often comes to the chef’s counter to introduce and explain servings. He favours foraged material. Mushrooms and pineapple weed come to mind. Another clever example is a faux plastic (made principally of gelatin) since foragers on the St. Lawrence shore often encounter real plastic. He works with foragers from Ile-aux-Coudres in Charlevoix. Most dishes feature a limited number of ingredients. Skirret (a rare local root vegetable), seedlip, and cloudberries are some of the distinct ingredients from the area.
La Tanière shares three kitchens with its sister eatery, Bistro Orygine. Located upstairs and accessible through a different door, on a different street. The Bistro is more casual and not as expensive, specializing in vegetarian dishes. A third restaurant, Légendes, is also run by the group. Manager Philippe Veilleux says people will come to Quebec City for a weekend, to visit all three establishments, “the Grand Slam” in his words.
Another Vaulting Experience and The Plains
During a yoga weekend, we attended a sacred crystal bowl concert in the vaults of Le Monastère des Augustines.
The sisters of the Augustine congregation created the original network of hospitals in colonial Quebec. Their convent, now an inn/wellness centre, is open for museum visits, concerts, and overnight stays.
Any visit to these vaults, drenched in history, is worthwhile as they remind us of the sense of place that permeates the Old Town.
A more obvious reference to history is the Plains of Abraham, now a National Battlefields Commission space. It is officially known as the National Battlefields Park. The area is of huge importance, given that the battle that decided the fate of British North America took place here. But there’s so much more.
In 1928, aviator Charles Lindbergh landed on the Plains. He flew in from New York City, bringing emergency medical supplies to a fellow pilot. This flight occurred a year after his historic non-stop trans-Atlantic flight. Today, a few reminders of his impromptu visit remain: A statue showing stylized wings of his plane and in nearby Ste. Foy one can find the Lindbergh Hotel. Lindbergh, then probably the most famous celebrity in the world, walked into the nearby Château Frontenac dressed in his aviator uniform, and was refused a room, since he’d not made a reservation! Hotel managers quickly rectified the situation.
On the Plains, in WWII, there was a prisoner-of-war camp as well as normal military barracks. In the former, German prisoners and Jewish refugees fleeing the war in Europe were held together. A shanty town existed there after the Second World War.
The Plains had other functions. It was a golf course from 1874-1915. The Quebec Skating Rink was built here, and the local team, the Bulldogs won the Stanley Cup in 1912 and ’13. It also served as the site of an arsenal laboratory, the Ross Rifle factory, and the Quebec Astronomical Observatory, all demolished in the 1930s.
Today, the entire area is a huge park, where athletics plays a big part, as joggers, skaters, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and even Nordic walkers make full use of the trails and track. In the wooded areas along the steep cliffs of Cap Diamant, you can marvel at how English troops under James Wolfe managed to scale the cliffs at night, preparing their surprise attack on the French army led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.
At the Plains of Abraham Museum, a film provides the background of the 1759 battle and maps show the exact locations of the consequential moments of the confrontation.
In summer, the Plains are even busier serving as a prime location for concerts in the open-air Festival d’été — a major tourism event that is a key reason Quebec City ranks among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in 2023, a ranking focused on music festivals and culture.
Another notable landmark is La Citadelle, the official residence of the Governor General of Canada. It is on the far eastern shank of the Plains. In 1943, world leaders stayed in the building while planning the invasion of German factions in Europe. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King convened in La Citadelle while their military personnel were bivouacked at Le Château Frontenac, which had been emptied for wartime service.
In peaceful times, the Château has welcomed a long list of dignitaries. For example, Sir Paul McCartney popped by in 2008, after his massively attended outdoor concert on the Plains of Abraham. His photo, and that of others, festoon hallways in the hotel. In the main lobby, there are images commemorating the Lindbergh exploit and subsequent occasions.
Once you’ve become familiar with Quebec City, you might want to head to the top of the Observatoire de la Capitale for a bird’s-eye view of the city. Or, you can take in a brunch at the revolving restaurant atop the Hôtel Le Concorde. But, you won’t see the vaults I’ve mentioned. Their precious contents must be carefully peeled back.