Last night I was in Montreal to help present chef Martin Juneau with his trophy as Canadian Culinary Champion, a title he won in February at our Gold Medal Plates final. Juneau is chef of Newtown, the restaurant and bar once owned by Jacques Villeneuve – or rather chef of the chic, modern restaurant on the second floor of the four-storey property. His jurisdiction does not extend to the bar and terrace and the whole enterprise is overseen by Executive Chef Daren Bergeron who has often competed in Gold Medal Plates from his other location, Decca 77.
But last night belonged to Juneau and a bunch of us gathered to hand over the engraved cup that will be his for the next 10 months and the superb silver-and-gilt plate, both designed and created by BIRKS, which he is entitled to keep for ever. GMP Montreal Senior judge Robert Beauchemin was there; so was GMP Ottawa-Gatineau Senior judge Anne DesBrisay (who took these pictures) and a surprise guest, Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, who was in town on Slow Food convivium business and stayed to show the support of the west. The tone of the evening was set by Juneau himself, who tends to hide his heartfelt emotion behind a casual, laid-back manner, but the applause was long and loud for the champion and the two sous-chefs who competed alongside him in Kelowna, Laurent Roy Julien and Nicolas Point.
When we had done our happy duty, half a dozen of us stayed for dinner, ordering family style with the food set out in the middle of the table for all to share. We began with bison carpaccio sliced so thinly it almost painted the plate. One could have dragged a fork across it and left half behind. Juneau had seasoned it with a grinding of a spice that seemed uncommonly aromatic and exotic but was merely very fresh black pepper. Beside the meat stood piped dots of intensely flavourful grano padano cream, a salad of diced raw zucchini, and another of arugula topped with grated padano.
Scallops, seared to take them beyond gumminess but so briefly that their juices had barely seized, played a game of camouflage alongside braised cippolini onions in a potato foam; poached quail eggs provided a third example of soft, round, white delectability.
Quail breast rolled around a gently spiced boudin noir was cooked sous vide to give it a rare, trembling texture not found in nature. Beneath the meat were slices of raw Granny Smith apple and under them, a purée of browned onions with a deep, sweet flavour that balanced the boudin noir beautifully. A mound of lightly stewed apple and fennel served as a soft condiment.
Juneau loves to take a single, often humble vegetable and use it in several ways on a dish. He also likes involving a raw ingredient to provide freshness and texture, especially when the main protein is rich and unctuous. The dish with which he won the Championship – crisp-skinned St. Canut piglet belly glorified with various iterations of beetroot and Granny Smith apple – was one case in point. Another was last night’s beef cheek, the first of three main courses we also shared. The big chunk of meat proved marvellously tender and unctuous, set over carrot cut and cooked like fettucine and sauced by the beef’s seeping juices. Buttery mashed carrot shared the plate and the whole thing was smothered with ribbons of raw carrot. Bugs Bunny would have had a field day but for me, it was one carrot too many.
“Rabbit three ways” was delightfully inventive. The leg meat had been shredded, wrapped around the bone and then breaded and fried in a crisp panko crust like a pogo. The liver and kidneys were skewered and grilled. The tiny rack was cooked sous vide so that one could draw the soft meat off the toothpick-sized bones merely by sucking. The vegetable component was an unexpected but rather brilliant match – firm little edamame with wasabi mayo and a final sprinkling of shredded nori.
Halibut represented the denizens of the deep, a quivering fillet topped with tomato gratin and sliced chorizo, sitting on a mound of sweet, partially oven-dried tomatoes, baby kale and rapini. The waiter closed the deal by pouring a chorizo broth into the bowl. The dish ended up tasting much more of chorizo than of halibut, but perhaps that was the point.
Three desserts appeared, each of them consisting of distinct elements lined up on long, elegant plates. The first involved gorgeously moist, fresh apricot financier cake, moments of passionfruit foam and of yuzu curd, smiles of fresh orange injected with vanilla and slender white fins of meringue. The second starred fresh Quebec strawberries, almond sorbet, morsels of lemon cake and dabs of vanilla fromage blanc. The third envoi featured a chocolate mousse tartlet, julienne of fresh pear, pecan sorbet, brown butter cake and large dots of salted caramel cream that almost flirted with the flavour of bacon.
Newtown is at 1476 Crescent Street in Montreal (514-284-6555), a beacon of elegance and sophistication in a street better known for its balconied pubs and serious celebrations whenever the Canadiens play at home.