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Off the Beaten Track: La Cabane d’à Coté

After a two-hour, 60-km drive northeast from downtown Montreal to St-Benoit de Mirabel in pre-virus rush hour traffic, we spot the sign rising—just—out of the towering snowbank that flanked the right-hand side of Montée Robillard: La Cabane d’à Coté.

“À coté de quoi?” one might well wonder, for there was nothing around to see save maple trees and snow. But the sugar maple-laced woods to the north were, I knew, shared territory with an 11-year-old Quebec culinary landmark called La Cabane à Sucre au Pied de Cochon, out of sight but just a three-minute drive up the road and around the corner on Rang de la Fresnière. Vincent Dion Lavallée, chef and owner here, was previously the chef there for Martin Picard–who is a partner in this venture, too. They share syrup. They share apples and cider and pork. And so far as I knew they also shared a culinary vision, that Quebec’s cuisine and terroir is best expressed heavily accented with DIY rural spirit. So without further ado we pulled in to find out. It was Feb. 28, and two days previous—just two weeks after the biggest snowfall of the season—another storm had swept through, dumping another 20 cm on the region. The Cabane had snowbanks up to its waist. Near the front door an outdoor fire burned, a friendly beacon on the tundra. We trudged past, slipped inside and found Dion Lavallée hard at work with his team, finishing up mise en place for that evening’s service. Wait. This predictable statement, while true, does not properly communicate the scene.

Remember, we are in a chalet-cum-sugar-shack. Wood panelling and wooden beams everywhere, hunting mounts, animals skins draped over the backs of chairs. But this stove the kitchen team is gathered around is not really a stove but, upon closer inspection, a wood-fired evaporation table. A huge expanse of hot cast iron surface intended for simmering vast pots of maple sap, not prepping tasting menus.

But after a quick tour (a glass of wild apple cider and other unique ciders in the cidery, a quick hello to the deer, pigs and chickens) a menu dégustation of sorts was exactly what we had come for. The maple trees had just started to run days previous; the “maple menu” had been launched that very week. In the 36-seat dining room next door, where the floor-to-ceiling windows were half blocked with snow, the picnic-style communal tables were set with vases of tulips and litre bottles of the season’s first syrup, for drizzling at liberty on whatever you like.

So too was mine, a concrete-slab topped high-top tucked in the corner of the kitchen window-side, where it overlooked the slumbering orchard. So, with daylight gone, we settled in and began where things should: with a pea soup. But a rich and delicious one, the creamy purée of its base studded with whole peas and shredded ham. For good measure, we had a little ham steak on the side, lightly smoky, tender and lusciously fatty, drizzled with beurre noisette and maple syrup. Then that slice of Quebec was juxtaposed with another: caviar service. In this case, a big bowl of glistening greenish black roe from a fish “Jimmy caught in Lac Saint-Jean,” set in a big bowl of fresh snow and consumed, as I recall, as the sound system blasted Julien Clerc’s rousing live rendition of “Laissons Entrer le Soleil” (aka “Let the Sunshine In,” from Hair.)

Yes, this was fun. And the food, mostly raised on the farm, always as local as possible, was not merely good; it was spectacular. Picture this: thin sliced loin of pork cuit à la ficelle, scattered with fillets of local lake smelt cured like white anchovy. Or, how about an overwintered apple, frozen for six months, peeled and gushing sweet juices, accompanied with a dollop of fresh sheep’s milk cheese and grated black walnut. How about one of their own sasso chickens, braised in cider with morels and crème fraîche? Exquisite, yes. . . but nothing eclipsed the local trout, wrapped in maple leaves from the forest floor, lightly poached in maple sap and served flaked over wilted greens and local lentils with dollops of béarnaise (from the farm’s eggs, of course). Excerpt maybe the seared maple syrup foie gras or the braised duck, and I don’t even have space for the six desserts.
Cooking this good with a sense of place as compelling as this is cooking of the very highest order. Creating that meal over a converted evaporation table instead a conventional stove—never mind in a proper restaurant kitchen—is something else again. And eating like this in such a convivial setting so completely free of pretension and affectation was the clincher. This restaurant will be the first table I travel for, once things open up again. Very soon, apparently: this summer, in conjunction with La Cabane PdC, they’ll be serving simplified summer menus at their outdoor picnic tables. Don’t miss it.

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