QUEBEC CITY – Paul McCartney has left the building.
Wrong. He’s about to arrive by limo through the statuesque gates of the Chateau Frontenac: the landmark Fairmont hotel where he’s about to stay and where hordes of fans and paparazzi have gathered this sunny afternoon to catch a glimpse of the man who is arguably the world’s most famous musician.
Nope. The latest buzz is that McCartney, whose free outdoor concert for an audience of 200,000 happens tomorrow on the famed Plains of Abraham, has surreptitiously entered by a back door.
As I soon discover, none of the above is true.
The former Beatle’s tight security team has helped perpetrate various rumours to distract from the fact that his private plane is arriving later this evening, something only a couple of photographers have figured out, hence the rare photo of him giving the thumbs up as he waves at them en route to the Chateau.
I’m at the hotel partly to witness McCartney mania firsthand but mainly to attend a function hosted by a celebrity of another kind.
Tonight, Jean-Georges Vongerichten – the unstoppable, New York-based Alsatian chef/owner of a burgeoning restaurant empire who’s known for his sensational brand of “vibrant cuisine” – is preparing a seven-course dinner with the help of in-house executive chef Jean Soulard to be savoured by 80 guests in the Champlain room of the historic Frontenac.
This is the first of four lavish soirees planned by high-end commercial kitchen design company SML for the ongoing celebration of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary. On this summer’s roster of culinary stars are two Canadians, Iron Chef champ Rob Feenie from B.C. and Montrealer Normand Laprise, and stellar American chef Thomas Keller.
Yes, this place espouses Donald Trump’s famous credo: Go big or go home.
Charles Aznavour has been here. Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil are on the schedule of non-stop events that have this beautiful burg – a historic jewel complete with steep cobbled streets, European-style, colourful row houses and wall-to-wall eateries – happily hopping to commemorate Samuel de Champlain’s arrival here in 1608.
My munching began as soon as I arrived 24 hours ago. It began with the first-class poutine at fast food joint Chez Ashton and included the inimitable game-filled, juniper-berried tourtiere at Aux Anciens Canadiens.
Still, I’ve left room for this evening’s fabulous feast. It’s a flavour-packed rollercoaster of contrasting taste and texture that’s innovative, unpredictable and downright delicious.
Dinner begins with a wondrous mistake. Apparently, even top chefs forget eggs they’re poaching at a low temperature – but saving the day is the mark of a master like Vongerichten.
As an amuse-bouche, he places slices of their still soft yolks between dainty puff pastry rectangles and tops them with black caviar, one of the few ingredients in this meal that’s not local.
Next come tender, juicy “noodles” made of raw tuna doused in a ginger marinade and inundated with slices of pungent, crunchy radish.
This is followed by a mouthwatering mini-terrine of foie gras topped with roasted strawberries and a paper-thin caramel crown – a luscious savoury spoof of crème brulee.
Hot on its heels is melt-in-the-mouth Arctic Char bathed in tangy tomato jus on a bed of al dente Israeli couscous.
Only a chef with chutzpah and a palate for the unusual would serve poached lobster with lychees. Thin slices of celery and fennel add crispness to this ethereal, refreshing dish.
Smoked chile glaze on baby lamb chops is a bold, intense flavour hit. So is their accompanying bright green sauce spiked with fresh mint.
Vongerichten playfully does his version of Cherries Jubilee for dessert. No flambeeing – just perfectly poached cherries in their own deep, dark sauce served with a dollop of silky pistachio sabayon.
As I head home by train the next day, I can recall every mouthful and mentally plan my return to Quebec City.
Meanwhile, my prayers for no rain during McCartney’s concert must have been answered. It was an unmitigated success.
For more info, check: quebec400.qc.ca.