The night was achingly cold and snow clung to our clothing as we walked the narrow streets of Vieux Quebec, the oldest part of the city.
Because February is the time of Carnaval de Quebec, the city's elaborately carved ice sculptures appeared in front of restaurants and shops throughout Quebec.
By the time we reached the small restaurant called Gambrinus on this visit a year ago, we were so drawn to the magic of the scene that we no longer noticed the cold.
Just across from the looming bulk of the Chateau Frontenac, we turned into a lighted doorway. Suddenly, the quiet world outside was replaced by warmth, laughter and the aromas of cooking. Fresh carnations on each table and green plants in the windows belied the winter outside, and the welcome was genuine.
Gambrinus is a local favorite with those who come to dine in a modern setting that still retains the warmth of the old city. We began with escargots a la facon de grand-maman Marie, or "snails like my grandmother Marie used to make."
The snails had been baked in a tomato-and-cheese gratin and were fragrant with garlic. We began to wish we'd had a grandmother named Marie. A cream-of-cauliflower-and-celery soup was packed with flavor.
Then came veal medallions in a rich brown gravy with wild mushrooms, and poached salmon in a creamy, slightly tart mustard sauce. For dessert, manager Giovanni Venturino led us to a display case filled with pastries. We chose an apple tart with cinnamon and walnuts and a traditional creme caramel, or custard. Daily prix fixe menus that include an appetizer, main course, dessert and coffee are $15 to $25 Canadian (about $13-$22 U.S.).
Gambrinus was typical of the restaurants we visited--small and friendly and French fare, with influences from Spain and Italy. For the most part, dishes are prepared simply and tend to be hearty and substantial.
An exception is A la table de Serge Bruyere, where the food is sophisticated and contemporary. Owner/chef Bruyere has a multi-story complex in a corner building dating from 1843. We couldn't get reservations in the main dining room, La Grande Table, so we decided to try the downstairs cafe, La Petite Table. It was a fortuitous choice, since the service was casual but attentive and the food came from the main kitchen above, but cost about half as much as upstairs.
We began with a carrot soup, aromatic with the scent of fresh carrots combined with stock and cream to preserve the delicate flavor. Mussels flavored with a light mustard sauce were served in a shell of fragile pastry. The combination of flavors and textures led us to consider ordering more of the same.
We were saved by the arrival of our main courses--medallions of pork with a light butter sauce infused with honey, and sweetbreads in an orange sauce. We just managed to split an apricot tart that could easily have served as an illustration in a book on beautiful pastry-making.
Prices at La Petite Table are between $6 and $7 Canadian for appetizers, $10-$13 for main courses. If you decide to opt for the more elegant La Grande Table upstairs, figure on spending twice as much. Upstairs, a "Discovery Menu" includes seven courses for $44.75 Canadian.
The next morning we headed for croissants and coffee at Roger Geslin, a patisserie and confiserie that serves dark coffee and the flakiest, most buttery croissants this side of Paris. We purchased some of the preserves to take home and found them to have an intensity of fruit flavor we have seldom tasted. The orange marmalade is not to be missed--light with a clear, bitter orange flavor that is refreshing but not cloying.
Vieux Quebec, with its winding streets and 200-year-old buildings, seems to inspire romance, especially at carnival time. So that evening, we indulged a fantasy and hired a caleche, or horse-drawn carriage, to drive by the huge ice palace and take us to dinner at La Caravelle.
A brisk fire was burning in a large stone fireplace; lace curtains hung at the windows to the street, and our quiet candle-lighted table was just right for a romantic evening.
To start, we had especially tender escargots, this time served in the traditional Burgundian style, with garlic butter and a clear, intensely flavored lentil soup with onions, carrots and celery. Then came paella Valenciana, saffron rice with clams, mussels, shrimp and other seafood, and zarzuela de fruits de mer , an enormous platter of shrimp, mussels, frog legs and fresh fish, served with rice that had been cooked in olive oil and garlic.
We finished with creme caramel with blueberries and strawberries, and a chocolate Black Forest cake with sour cherries and kirschwasser (a cherry-flavored liqueur). Dinner for two came to about $80 Canadian.
While La Caravelle has Spanish influences, most of the restaurants in Quebec City owe more allegiance to France. One evening we joined some friends for dinner at Le Paris Brest, a small bistro that would have been at home in any Parisian neighborhood.
The prix fixe menu included a casserole of mussels scented with tarragon in a fresh tomato fondue, and a grilled halibut served with a mushroom sauce. For dessert there was a chocolate truffle cake. The menu cost $21 Canadian per person.
Our favorite among the more traditional French restaurants was Cafe de la Paix. It's usually packed and is popular with both locals and visitors. If you can't walk, they have valet parking, which is a real plus in the crowded streets of the old city.
The menu features several seafood dishes, including fresh lobster. However, on the recommendation of our waiter, we tried the duck a l'orange and a pheasant with peaches. Both dishes proved how good traditional French cooking can be from the kitchen of a fine chef--no cloying, heavy sauces, just the light flavors of the fruits as a counterpoint to the fowl. Figure on about $35 Canadian per person for dinner.
Just around the corner is Aux Anciens Canadiens, the only restaurant in the old city serving traditional French-Canadian cuisine, a hearty blend of early French recipes adapted to utilize ingredients found in the New World. It includes such stick-to-the-ribs fare as pig's knuckle stew and tourtiere , a meat pie with ground beef and pork, seasoned with nutmeg and encased in pastry.
Set in a building dating from 1675, the restaurant has thick stone walls and pine floors, and waitresses dress in 17th-Century costumes. Our entrees, however, were not as good as other renditions of the dishes we've tried elsewhere. Stick to the robust soups that are served family-style from big tureens, and the ultra-sweet desserts made from maple syrup. Soup and dessert cost about $7 Canadian per person.
The 1990 Winter Carnival, Carnaval de Quebec, is planned for Feb. 1-11, with activities scheduled throughout the city. For particulars, contact the Canadian Consulate's office at (213) 687-7432.
Recommended: Gambrinus, 15 Rue du Fort; A la table de Serge Bruyere, 1200 Rue St. Jean; Roger Geslin, 60 Rue Garneau; La Caravelle, 68 1/2 Rue St. Louis; Le Paris Brest, 590 Grande Allee; Cafe de la Paix, 44 Rue Desjardins; Aux Anciens Canadiens, 34 Rue St. Louis.