A four-day, five-night trip that felt like fate.
We were supposed to go to Philadelphia but ended up in Québec City. It was our first wedding anniversary and my birthday, and we had been going back and forth on what we wanted to do. We had both been wildly busy, not least of which because of the interruption of Hurricane Fiona to work and life, and thus not very focused, though it was becoming increasingly clear I was fast approaching a burnout point. A snafu in our initial hotel reservation yielded an opening to look again at prices in Québec City, a place we’d regretted spending just a day on our Montréal honeymoon. And so we booked a room at Le Chateau Frontenac for the same cost as the Philly hotel (though quite a bit nicer), a shockingly cheap rental car in Queens, and we were on our way. Apparently the second week of November is a good one for travel costs.
I’m writing this with the flush of immediacy, not hindsight. I don’t think hindsight provides much depth when it comes to visiting a place briefly, anyway. But as I’m teaching culinary tourism next semester at Boston University’s gastronomy program, I wanted to both share my eating (as I did for Montréal and Atlanta) and use the occasion to consider my own desires, expectations, and methods when eating my way through a place and visiting as a tourist. What is it I want? How much do I impose? As I wrote in the Montréal piece, “Disclaimer that I am mentioning our experiences so as to pass on generous recommendations, especially for those who don’t eat meat, and with the note that no tourist can ever know a city—but I think and hope they can appreciate one. It’s in that spirit that I share where we ate.”
A vacation is taken to escape the daily, to appreciate something new—I suppose I’ll be wondering whether it’s a good thing to do, or perhaps a neutral thing, or maybe even a bad thing, for the rest of my life. I do know I desperately wanted one, perhaps more than any other time in my life.
What I specifically wanted was a hotel room I’d be happy to hang out in, not just a bed—a place to truly rest and honestly be a bit helpless, make very few choices, make a spa visit. Le Chateau certainly delivered, giving us a river view upgrade when we’d booked a city view, and it was already decked out for Christmas. On our first morning there, we ordered room service, which came unexpectedly with three croissants, much to my delight. (I could write and likely will write an essay on the significance of croissants to my life.)
We ended up walking everywhere until the last day, when a cut on one of my toes was filling my sock with blood—glamorous! Since we’d visited before, though quite briefly, we knew we wanted to go back to two places we’d enjoyed: Nina pizzeria and Le Projet, a beer bar with great nachos (I could also write an essay on bar nachos). But because it was a longer trip, we also had many more recommendations to hit up, a list that expanded greatly through a chance meeting with Pamela MacNaughtan, who writes Urban Guide Québec, at a pub I’d found through her writing: Pub L’Oncle Antoine, a no-frills spot in a cellar—precisely my favorite type of spot. She doubled up on a suggestion to go to Hono Ramen that Monday for veggie ramen, as well as jjacques, a cocktail and oyster bar that operates on a light speakeasy level. Both delivered, and the fried shiitake mushrooms and vegetable shumai at Hono were especially delicious.
The best way to experience a city being through those who live there continued with a breakfast at Babeurre Délicatesses, where we met with wine writer Rémy Charset. Homey yet exceptional food at the small spot in the Limoilou neighborhood—we ate a frittata with local mushrooms and salad, vegetarian chili with spicy cornbread, and left with a box of pastries that I devoured over time. A bun filled with banana cream was especially good. He hooked us up with a reservation the next day at Restaurant Melba, a brand-new place where they overindulged the limits of our wildly limited French, taking pains to explain the menu and provide switch-outs for meat dishes. It was an absolutely exquisite meal from top to bottom, with barbajuans stuffed with spinach and goat cheese, eggplant topped with duxelles, a deeply satisfying endive salad, a heavenly slice of chocolate tart... exactly what I would have wanted to eat on my birthday, had I planned it. Instead, fate did.
This trip made me think a lot about something another writer said to me on a long-ago press trip, that he didn’t like Anthony Bourdain’s shows because they provided access to a place that no regular person or even run-of-the-mill travel writer could enjoy. I disagreed with him (I’m prone to disagree with men on press trips) because I often find, by going with the flow, listening and being open to whatever, that things turn out far more interesting than if one were to plan everything according to or in pursuit of an easy listicle. Producers, a TV show, being famous—these help, of course, but they’re not the only route to an experience that’s more than a checklist. A place can open itself to you, though there’s no escaping being a tourist when one is being a tourist. It’s about not imposing your own desire onto a place but meeting it where it meets you. So much of people’s unhappiness or dissatisfaction in coming to San Juan, for example, is that it doesn’t match their imaginary version of the city. I’d never imagined Québec City; all it’s done is delight me with what it is.
Now that I’ve disparaged having a list, here’s mine. I always recommend building a map and walking around, going where feels right.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include a method for a juicy carambola (starfruit) crumble that can be applied to various fruits you have around, as well as easily made gluten free. See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing, but I’m expecting some fun pieces to come out soon!
I re-read the uproariously funny, to me, ArtForum by César Aira.
Truly nothing though it was nice to return to the kitchen to whip up an easy breakfast after a couple of weeks of feeling nothing but dread and duty regarding cooking, baking, and recipe developing. Vacations!