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Not that there's anything wrong with France, but Montreal is not Paris and so much the better. If you want to get away for a weekend, or even a night, Quebec is closer than France and offers intriguing dining opportunities. Especially at the Beaver Club.
The Beaver Club was founded in 1785 by Frenchmen and Scots. Fur trading was the business of Montreal then and, as the story is told on the menu, fur traders were the most colorful of its citizens. Membership in the Beaver Club, which had no permanent quarters, could be obtained only by meeting three tests: the candidate had to be accepted by unanimous vote, had to have journeyed to the Northwest Territories and wintered there, and had to be vigorous and socially acceptable. These criteria are evoked by the stained-glass frieze near the back of the restaurant.
Fortunately for today's guests, wintering in Eskimo Point or Fort Reliance is no longer required and, since 1958, the Beaver Club has been a restaurant inside the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Once you get past the carpet with the outline of beaver pelts, the service becomes the focus. Recommendations are provided on the menu, which heralds the bounty of Canada and combines it with classic French methods. A cold smoked landlocked salmon from Lake St. Jean and arctic char with Abitibi sturgeon caviar resembles a six-layer cake. It is a fine starter and easily prepares the palate for the heavier dishes to come.
Or you can try the sauteed duck foie gras atop a caramelized-onion tart accompanied by a wild boar sausage, all drizzled with a spicy apple vinegar. The generous serving of foie gras is subtle and perfectly complemented by the Muscat de Lune recommended by the restaurant's Serge LeBlanc.
Follow the appetizers with a remarkably light lobster bisque or a more distinctive veloute of gourgane beans (flatter, larger lima beans) with bacon crisps and beetroot chips.
For an entrée, the caribou filet prepared in a Canadian Port wine is attractive, as is the pan-fried Alberta beef flamed in Canadian Club whiskey. But the bison filet wins out this evening--peppered rosettes of meat in a sauce of cranberry wine, pumpkin puree and chestnuts.
On the seafood side, a croquante (a sort of pot pie) of crisp Maritimes lobster, scallops and mussels with "screech" and mushrooms is exquisite. The lobster bursts with flavor, and the screech, an antique reference to an ingredient in the bisquebouille sauce that resembles the residue at the bottom of rum barrels, makes the dish distinctive.
There is no room for the cheese course, but dessert is impressive. Choose from the pastry cart or hope that chef John Cordeaux's kitchen has a surprise in store, something like a nougat glace in a molded dark chocolate cauldron, set on a "campfire" fueled by chocolate meringue logs and surrounded by berries wading in mango and raspberry coulis.
That would work well before you sip an espresso and enjoy an Hoyo de Monterrey Churchill or another Cuban cigar from the Beaver Club's humidor. --Alejandro Benes
Alejandro Benes is a writer and business executive in Washington, D.C.
Beaver Club at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel
900 Boulevard Rene-Levesque West
Phone (514) 861-3511
Dinner about US$75 per person, with wine