by Morri Mostow
Im wild about duck. I dont shoot it and I dont cook it but I love to find it on a menu. Few places have more duck-adorned menus than the Eastern Townships, home of the world-famous Brome Lake duck. This upscale fowl is a year-round dish du jour in the Townships many fine restaurants. As new resident Townshippers, my husband and I have done our share of exploring and have settled on our two favourite duck establishments: the Auberge Lakeview Inn in Knowlton (Ville Lac Brome) and La Vieille Bûche in Mansonville.
Brome Lake Duck has been a tradition at the Lakeview for decades. For the last four years, its four-fork Sheffield dining room has been among the 15 or 20 restaurants judged excellent enough to serve the elaborate gastronomic duck dinners created by the invited chefs of the Brome Lake International Duck Festival, which turns an otherwise dull month of October into a bonanza for the areas hotels and inns.
For us, the Lakeview has many charms. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, this cozy 28-room inn has been a landmark destination in the area since 1874. It was reopened in 1986, after being lovingly restored to gracious Victorian splendor by its new owner, Montreal businessman Ronald Blair. We particularly enjoy the quiet elegance of its Spencers Pub a faithful replica of the pub of the same name in London, England with its raised, high-backed booths of finely tooled mahogany trimmed with brass.
One Friday, we fortuitously arrived during Happy Hour (from 5 to 7 p.m.) to discover a continuously replenished platter of complimentary Brome Lake duck wings so tasty that they even attract workers from the Brome Lake Duck Farm, conveniently located up the street and around the corner from the inn. These succulent, spicy morsels are oven-baked, with paprika, herbs and five kinds of pepper, until the meat almost falls off the bone. We usually accompany them with a half pitcher of Lions Pride, a full-bodied dark ale brewed at the Brasserie Le Lion dOr ($7.75) in nearby Lennoxville, a generous basket of perfectly seasoned, crispy French fries ($2.95) and a Lakeview Salad, a chef salad of mixed greens, garnished with generous chunks of Gruyère, maple-cured ham and chicken ($6.95 small; $9.95 large). The pub stocks a well-balanced selection of foreign and domestic beers, both on tap and bottled, including those of the provinces microbreweries, Le Lion DOr and Unibroue (owned by Quebecs famous chansonnier Robert Charlebois), with its imaginatively named brews: La Maudite, La Fin du Monde and La Blanche de Chambly.
Outside of Friday Happy Hour, we normally tuck into the duck club ($9.95 for one or $12.95 for two, includes fries and salad). By substituting roasted duck meat for the usual chicken or turkey, Lakeview chefs have turned an otherwise mundane sandwich into a taste sensation. A note of caution: depending on the chef on duty, the duck club can be disappointingly meager or dauntingly generous. For duck without the bacon, opt for the duck burger ($6.95), a burger plate, with all the usual trimmings, where roasted leg of duck stands in for the normal beef patty.
If your appetite and pocketbook permit, treat yourself to duck in the Lakeviews Sheffield dining room, which also boasts an extremely fine wine cellar with some rare and exotic vintages. Quebecs leading sommelier, Alain Bélanger, helped select the wine list, which offers bottles at prices ranging from modest to expensive. The Sheffields four-course table dhôte menu ($38 per person) changes every week but always features a Brome Lake duck entrée. Join the ranks of the French, Swiss and other Europeans who frequent this charming inn and dine on its duck (and many other) specialties. Its well worth the leisurely 75-minute drive from Montreal.
Southeast of Knowlton, on the road to the Owls Head ski and golf resort just beyond the town limits of Mansonville, sits, in isolated splendour, La Vieille Bûche. This gourmet hideaway is a labour of love of owners Louis and Christine Veillon. A charming and gregarious host, Louis, who hails from a hostelry family, began cooking as a hobby. While he confesses to being a culinary autodidact, Louis has learned his considerable skills from several of the areas top chefs who helped him launch his restaurant two and a half years ago. Judging from the superb quality of his eclectic cuisine, which boasts seven to nine different vegetables with every main course from parsnip-and-turnip flan and sweet-and-sour beets to ratatouille in puffed pasty he takes instruction well! Today, this flourishing establishment is essentially a family run operation. Louiss wife Christine looks after the decorations and laundry and daughter-in-law, Lisa, keeps the books. While Louis is assisted in the kitchen on weekends by a chef who teaches the culinary arts at a Sherbrooke CEGEP, he essentially turns out the meals himself, with occasional help from his affable son Chris, the Communications Director at Jay Peak.
Every meal weve ever had at La Vieille Bûche has been outstanding. The choices vary with the seasons and Louis fantasy last spring he served alligator gumbo! Many dishes are not even on the menu, which is why you must ask Louis what else is available that day. Thats how we discovered his P.E.I. mussels ($8.95), which arrive perfectly steamed, garnished with a spicy, garlicky marina sauce and heaped on a small bed of multi-coloured rotini pasta (to sop up the sauce). Louis serves this dish in the downstairs pub on Friday nights (when mussels are in season), since Friday is the day his orders arrive fresh.
So, when we decided to host a small family celebration in October, we naturally turned to Louis, who graciously agreed to open his restaurant for our party on a Sunday afternoon. And, since it was October, we naturally hankered for Brome Lake duck, Louis exquisite greaseless, boneless breast of duck, to be exact. While we all enjoyed it that day accompanied by four other courses in a menu he prepared specially for us, Louis regularly features it in a table dhôte menu priced at $28.95. For that reasonable price, you will find a choice of appetizers (like mussels or smoked trout), a creamed vegetable soup (asparagus or spinach, perhaps), an inventive house salad (a combination of couscous with chick peas, beets salad, zucchini and capers on a bed of baby greens) and the houses decadent crème caramel made with cream not milk. As for the pièce de résitance, Louis lightly pan fries and oven finishes the skinless, deboned duck breast. He serves it rosé, European style, the thin slices of slightly pink meat glazed with a light fruit gravy ours was of blueberry and cassis; later in the season, it would be of cranberry and ground cherries the texture and flavour reminiscent of filet mignon. Our guests are still raving about it, weeks later. Whether Brome Lack duck appears on the menu or not, Louis always has some in reserve. You have only to ask. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
COPYRIGHT © 1999 by Morri Mostow & Associates. All rights reserved.