Warm sunshine in November, and Ottawa looked particularly stately and welcoming. Last night, we returned to the National Arts Centre for our Gold Medal Plates event (long ago sold out with around 500 attendees). Bidding was gratifyingly brisk during the live auction, the energy levels spiked by inspiring musical performances from Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay and local star Kathleen Edwards. I love how the configuration of the NAC lets the chefs’ brigades watch the stage during the second half of the evening, lining the balcony and grand staircase for the best view in the house.
Mixologist Dave Mitton from the Harbord Room in Toronto travelled with us to demonstrate some superb cocktails. This time I tried his awesome Pear & Cinnamon Sour made with Alberta Premium rye, cinnamon syrup, fresh pear puree, egg white and freshly grated nutmeg. Thick, rich but also refreshing, it was subtly fruity and tingled with the flavours of Christmas spices.
The judges have a private room of their own at the NAC (out of space-management necessity rather than choice) but it allowed us unusual freedoms in our discussions and commentaries. Senior Judge for Ottawa-Gatineau, Anne DesBrisay, led the team, ably abetted by author, educator and celebrity chef, Pam Collacott, author and Canadian culinary ambassador, Margaret Dickenson, by Judson Simpson, who is executive Chef at the House of Commons and National President of the Canadian Culinary Federation, and by last year’s Ottawa-Gatineau champion, Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine.
It was our shared opinion, as the evening progressed, that the city had really raised its game this year. Most dishes were decidedly complex, and all of them looked sensational. But while we do award marks for imagination and presentation, we award more for taste: flavour even edging texture on our scorecard. Our bronze winner had flavour in spades, a dish from a previous gold medallist, Charles Part of Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec. He began with lambs from Berg en Dal farm, 25 minutes from his restaurant, roasting the little tenderloins to pink perfection, making a sausage from the fatted shoulder meat and minced roasted red pepper and slow-braising the shank, neck, rib and leg meat. This tasty mix of meats was stirred up with dreid cranberries and a touch of preserved lemon then wrapped in bright green spinach leaves. The lamb bones were turned, over several days, into a delectably savoury jus that underpinned all three elements. Sharing the plate were soft shards of fennel and red onion, a stripe of silky fennel purée and a little rampart of alternating dice of salty, pungent preserved lemon and creamy ewe’s-milk feta from Folies Bergères. There was fennel seed and tarragon in there too, but the taste of the lamb sung through it all. The wine? Chef Part surprised us all by pairing the dish with a white – a minerally, judiciously oaked 2009 Chardonnay from Norman Hardie in Prince Edward County: it worked particularly well with the lemon and fennel flavours.
Our silver medal, for the second year in a row, went to Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant and one of Ottawa’s finest. Chef Ishii described it as dedicated to the memory of her mother’s home cooking when she was growing up in Japan – and also to the flavours of the fall. It was a dish of many components: a pan-fried gyoza dumpling stuffed with chopped shiitake and oyster mushrooms and a little kimchee beside a smear of subtly spiced “Japanese curry” sauce; a “lollipop” of rich, soft, grilled eggplant, salty and sweet beneath its yuzu-Asian pear dengaku sauce; a sturdy grilled onigiri rice cake folded around a stripe of shiso-umebochi pesto; a chunk of roasted kabocha squash with an apple-butter miso glaze; a most beautiful crimson square of tissue-thin pickled watermelon radish; a final garnish of a crispy wheel of lotus root dusted with matcha-wakame salt; and three dots of very spicy persimmon-mango-habanero hot sauce for those who wanted to turn up the heat. As I said, a complex dish with masses of autumnal flavours going on, but Ishii’s refined aesthetic made a harmony out of all the flavours. Her wine was a personal favourite of mine, Cave Spring Cellars’s 2009 Chenin Blanc, its lovely intensity reaching in and through the exotic ingredients.
Our gold medallist was competing for the third time, though he had never reached the podium before – Marc Lepine of Atelier, a young chef renowned as Ottawa’s master of molecular cuisine. In the past, his dishes have seemed overly intellectual to some of the judges. Last night, he tempered his tastes a tad to please the crowd as much as astonish it – and the move paid off. At the heart of the dish was a perfectly seared Qualicum Beach scallop, gilded by the pan but trembling and opalescent at its heart. It basked in a thick, smooth purée of truffle-scented, aerated potato that hid the treasures beneath its surface – smooth, slippery pickled chanterelles, bacon and fennel, two crispy chorizo meatballs, celery that had been compressed with sambucca, a secondary sauce of lemon thyme and shallots… The flavours were well-judged in their intensity and I began to enjoy the realisation that I had no idea what I might find under the scallop. Across the top of the bowl (by serving it in a bowl, Chef Lepine made sure that we would eat the dish as he wished, tasting many things on each forkful instead of analyzing every separate element) across the bowl he set a crisp yellow paper that crumbled into shards and was made, by I know not what kind of monkey business, out of celery root. It was dabbed with caviar and white powdered bacon that tasted of maltose. As a final flourish, Chef squirted an atomizer of sambucca and lemon verbena over the top of the dish. His wine was one of many Chardonnays chosen last night – a delicious 2009 from Hidden Bench Vineyards in Niagara that played beautifully with the scallop.
And so it only remains to finish our campaign in St. John’s on Thursday then our table will be set for the big game in Kelowna next year. Good luck to all our valiant contenders.
Here is David Lawrason’s wine report from our Ottawa-Gatineau event:
A White Wine Tour de Force
The chefs of the nation’s capital were part of a country-wide trend in choosing predominantly white wines to match their creations. There were only three reds poured. All but one of the wines were from Ontario, so again riesling figured heavily on the menus, along with chardonnay. And the pairings with the white wines were quite bold with two of them matched to meat dishes.
I was joined on the judging panel by two prominent local wine experts. Rod Phillips is the wine columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, the author of several wine books and judges several competitions. Janet Dorozynski is Wine Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and standing judge for the Canadian Wine Awards. Both teamed up to create the Ottawa Wine Challenge, a competition for wines poured at the Ottawa Wine and Food Festival which ended the day before our GMP event. So thanks to Rod and Janet for staying the course!
The judging for Best of Show Award was not as easy as in other cities, with no unanimous choices. But with Painted Rock 2010 Chardonnay from British Columbia receiving two first place votes, it was the winner. Things became even closer thereafter, with Hidden Bench 2009 Chardonnay taking second spot, and Chateau des Charmes 2007 Old Vines Riesling in third. Hidden Bench Chardonnay was also paired with gold medal winning chef Marc Lepine of L’Atelier.
The other chef-paired wines included: Trius 2010 Cabernet Franc, Angels Gate 2010 Gewurztraminer, Cave Spring 2009 Estate Chenin Blanc, Ravine 2010 Sand and Gravel Chardonnay, Norman Hardie 2009 Niagara Chardonnay, Huff Estates 2007 Merlot-Cabernet (drinking beautifully) and Lailey 2010 Pinot Noir.
The Celebration wines were an exact duplication of those poured in Toronto, so many thanks again to Tawse, Malivoire, Trius and Black Hills for their exceptional generosity in supplying two cities. In the VIP Reception guests enjoyed the slender, refreshing L’Acadie Vineyards 2008 Brut Prestige sparkler.