Ask a French Canadian and he'll tell you: Vermont is an English-speaking colony of New France. Before you bristle in indignation, consider all those mailboxes in your town that end with an "-ard" or "-ette." Then consider that the Québecois in question is an actor at Cabaret du Roy in Old Montréal who calls himself Tèlsphore Jolie and claims it's still the 17th century. He's not boasting, just stating facts.
Many Green Mountain residents who claim Canadian heritage have only been exposed to their ancestral foods through Grandma's tourtiere or roadside-stand poutine - maybe a maple tart if they're lucky. Just an hour and a half from Burlington, the theme restaurant Cabaret du Roy delivers the classics and much more.
And yes, "more" includes a heavy dollop of theater. Theme restaurants aren't generally known for their cuisine: Food is beside the point when you're watching an unemployable actor get thrown by a horse at Medieval Times or gawking at ostriches racing for the gold at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction. Cabaret du Roy is a happy exception. The actors ask diners to believe they're in a tavern that serves hearty food and libations made from the New World's fresh bounty. And, despite the fact that they accept reservations by telephone and payment via major credit cards but not barter, that's a fair description of the restaurant's generous offerings.
The Cabaret's bill includes a $5 charge for what are listed as "animateurs" - bilingual performers such as Tèlsphore, who won't disclose his 21st-century name, and Alcide Beauchamps, another colonial character. Alcide is the innkeeper's brother, a turnip farmer and recent widower, dulling the pain with drink: "She drowned, her hands tied behind her back," he laments. "Now I am looking for a new wife." Tèlsphore discloses that he's paying off a running bill: "When the tavern first opened, I came and I ate, I drank, I ate, I drank, I drank. They tell me I have to pay off my debts by singing here every night. I have been for seven years. The tab is still running."
Whatever his real name may be, Tèlsphore puts on quite a show. Switching effortlessly between guitar and mandolin, the minstrel performs nearly nonstop for more than three hours. Briefly breaking character, he says, "I just drove down from Québec City at three this afternoon. It's been a long day." Before it's over, he and Alcide will engage in a little clog dancing.
Besides the high quality of the food, the most striking thing about Cabaret du Roy is that the servers and performers appear to be enjoying themselves. One might think pretending to be a 400-year-old turnip farmer night after night would wear on a guy, but Alcide seems far from putting a musket to his head. Even the busboy, in his linen knickers and Buddy Holly hipster glasses, glows with pride.
A gold medalist at the Québec Tourism Awards, Le Cabaret du Roy attracts an international clientele. The night we dine, a party of 30 hails from Marseilles; Swiss couples flank our table. The only other Anglophones are a group of drunken, middle-aged Canadian women who seem to have confused this theme restaurant with Chippendale's. Although their official spiel is in French, the "animateurs" skillfully switch back and forth between languages, depending on the audience.
The Cabaret's prix-fixe dinners, which range from $28.95 to $67.95 Canadian per person, begin with a basket of two breads: the hearty, seven-grain loaf represents "the settlers;" rolls called bannock were adapted from a Scottish dish by "the settled," a.k.a. Indians. The bannock is dense like a bagel, peppered with dried berries and glazed with maple syrup. Although the fare is rare today, even on reservations, Native American foods are well represented at the Cabaret du Roy. They have their own section on the menu: "Cuisine de Premières Nations."
Among these is the Wendake salad, a prettily arranged wreath of cooked baby corn, multi-colored peppers, squashes and red and green beans. Perhaps a little too authentically, it is under- or unseasoned. A better New World bet is the "Casserole de cerf aux pommes," a rich stew of venison and apples with a base of beer. The menu rightly designates the smoked salmon appetizer as a "bonbon indien." Maple-glazed and accompanied by perhaps the world's sweetest, juiciest cape gooseberries, the dish is like a dessert interpretation of lox. Even better are the "Viandes séchées à la façon des sauvages." The molasses-marinated dried meats are reminiscent of South African biltong, while the onion confit, seed-filled mustard and more cape gooseberries provide a sobering contrast.
Old World-style appetizers are plentiful as well. "Accras de poisson à l'huile pimentée" are fish-stick-like breaded balls, said to have been concocted by sailors in one of the first examples of deep frying. What makes them unique is the use of hot pepper oil to give the mild fish a pleasant burn. "Pannequet de pleurotes et de champignons blancs au cumin" is a revelation. The cumin cream sauce enveloping the crispy local mushroom crêpe is both unabashedly novel and comforting. Luckily, despite what the clumsily translated English menu would have you believe, the dish doesn't taste like "the New France undergrowth."
Following the two appetizer courses, a young serving wench produces a pair of tiny glasses filled with Boulard Calvados. "This will help make room for the rest of the meal," she insists. A large selection of Québec-made liquors get their own menu, but a more interesting choice is a wine-bottle-sized vessel of spruce beer. The non-alcoholic bubbly is citrusy with floral undertones. The tree note dominates for a surprisingly pleasant, Pine-Sol-scented soda.
Locally raised game meats play a leading role in the resto's interpretation of the cuisine of New France. That specialty is best displayed in the "Pitance du coureur des bois," a mixed grill intended for hungry trappers. A startling pile of guinea fowl and chicken legs, peppery boar sausage and lean venison ribs sits atop a cushion of rice pilaf and locally grown roots and peppers. Served in a rich sauce au poivre, the tender animal parts make a satisfying, rustic partnership, though the sauce does rob them of some of their dramatically different tastes. The guinea fowl in particular is a rare indulgence, duck-like but lean. The ribs are like pot roast you can eat off the bone.
Another game sausage, rich venison links, is the centerpiece of "La potée du Cabaretier." The hot pot surrounds the slices of spicy meat with beans, potatoes and a variety of squashes, all cooked in a red-wine-and-bacon gravy. Take away the meat, and the dish appears to be a warmed-up Wendake salad.
The familiar tourtiere, usually made with an aromatic mix of ground beef and veal, gets a rich new spin as the "Cipâte du seigneur Hébert." Louis Hébert was the first feudal lord of Québec and the first white man known to have farmed Canadian land. The heavy pie named for him includes chicken and pork, but also bacon, beef, lamb and rabbit, under a flaky and sweetly fatty crust. The brown sauce is far more substantial than a tourtiere's light smattering of cinnamon and cloves. Another French-Canadian staple, salmon pie, is also available.
More apéritifs follow the main course: a maple-spiked red wine called Eraporteross de la Rivière du Chêne and a shot of Sortilège, a sweet and smooth Québecois maple whiskey that translates as "sorcery." After finishing a song, Alcide returns to the table to complain that he's suffering from "mal aux cheveux" (a painful hangover, or literally "hair that hurts") and must hasten to cure it with more wine. That's the last thing diners need after being plied with the cabaret's fascinating free booze.
Everyone went home with a doggie bag, but not before dessert; it's included in all the Cabaret's prix-fixe dinners. According to legend, Seigneur Hébert brought the first apple trees to New France in 1617. "Sauté de pommes au cidre et au sucre roux" takes full advantage of the harvest. The simple dish - basically a hyper-buttery apple pie filling - gets an unexpected snap from fresh lavender. For chocolate lovers of any century, "Mousse au chocolat noir et au Sortilège" provides a fix to last days. The ethereal dark-chocolate mousse hardly needs the hit of maple from the whiskey, but it doesn't hurt. Adding to the overwhelming luxury, the mousse comes on a tuile rich in caul fat and dripped with thick ribbons of ganache.
Ever the educator, Tèlsphore says 900,000 Québecois migrated to Vermont between 1810 and 1910, mostly in search of factory work. For those with French ancestry - or Amerindian, for that matter - the food at Cabaret du Roy is an experience in edible anthropology. The rest of us just get a great meal.