Chez Boulay Bistro Boreal, in Québec, takes locavore a step farther. Not only do its owners, Chef Jean-Luc Boulay and Chef Arnaud Marchand, limit their ingredient list to those grown in the northern latitudes known at the boreal forests, but they extend that rule to all ingredients, shunning even exotics like lemons, olive oil and tropical spices. You might think this would limit flavor options, but the dinner we ate there certainly didn’t show it.
The chefs’ philosophy of boreal cuisine brings some exciting new flavors to the table as they find local wild herbs to add the aromatic touch that pepper and other tropical seasonings give the traditional pantry. We sat down in the attractive bistro to sample the results.
As we browsed the menu we sipped the house special aperitif, a Rhubarbaria, their signature drink of local rhubarb juice (rhubarb, water and sugar only) mixed with white wine from Lac Brome, with a cranberry floating in it.
We began with a carpaccio of Arctic char with cattail hearts (think hearts of palm) and a fine dice of lovage root and vegetables, dressed with elderberry vinegar and organic sunflower seed oil. Although I thought the elderberry vinegar a little too prominent, its sharpness masking the delicate char a bit, the ingredients worked well together and I allowed for my own low vinegar tolerance. The dish was light enough not to spoil my appetite.
The other appetizer salmon tartare with birch syrup and pine nuts, delicately seasoned with fir-tree tips. It was presented on a small board made from a slice of tree limb. Nice presentation and the fir tips gave a delicious woodsy grounding to the brightness of the salmon flavor.
Entrees were an even harder choice. There was a mighty tempting confit of Quebec lamb shank and a squash tatin with boreal spices, and a spelt risotto with mushrooms and seasonal vegetables gratiné in a Jerusalem artichoke purée, among other choices.
Having tasted Quebec veal before, I couldn’t pass up the veal chop, which turned out to be closer to a small rib roast, almost two inches thick, its caramelized exterior concealing the tender and juicy meat inside, finished to a delicate pink. New Zealand spinach accompanied it, served raw with oyster mushroom sauté.
The steak knife that came with it was a work of art, its beautifully grained wood handle curved, and its tang engraved. Presentations were attractive and eye appealing, but not contrived. Several dishes, I noticed, were presented in cast iron, as were my companion’s roasted scallops. These were on a bed of whole-oat risotto with caramelized shallots, and a foam of Tomme des Joyeux Fromager from a local cheese maker.
I thought dessert out of the question, but when I saw the magic word “cloudberry” on the menu, I had to order the iced nougat with wild berries and cloudberry coulis. The cloudberry coulis blended the berries well with the cold nougat, but the smoky subtlety of these rare tundra berries was not a pronounced as I would have liked. But I’m always critical of any other flavor competing with my favorite berry on earth. Still, I didn’t offer to share a bite, so never got a taste of my companion’s black current crème brûlée, which he pronounced – next to a kir royale -- the best use of black currant he’d ever tasted.
We came away enthusiastic fans of boreal cuisine, and plan to return to Chez Boulay Bistro Boreal in different seasons to sample what their explorations have turned up in each. Next time I will leave room for my second choice of dessert: apple tarte tatin and fir tree essence mousse. My mental taste buds imagine eating a tarte tatin under the Christmas tree.
Chez Boulay Bistro Boreal is in the heart of Old Québec, at 1110 Saint-Jean St., adjoining the lobby of Hotel Manoir Victoria. Reserve at 418.380.8166