Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Langdon Hall (my favourite Canadian hotel) and a Grand Chef of the Relais and Chateaux (though he points out it’s the property not himself that owns the title) is off to Madrid Fusion next week. Madrid Fusion is now one of the most important gatherings of chefs. No prizes for guessing that it is held in Madrid, as a rule, but Gushue is going to the New World version down in Mexico. His theme as a presenter will be Canada’s forgotten ingredients and he’ll be introducing some of the world’s great chefs to treats like Newfoundland spider crab. As something of a preview, he presented an amazing menu of delights to the VISA Infinite crowd on Wednesday, up in the immaculate show kitchen above the St. Lawrence Market. We had an eager, attentive crowd of more than 50 – not bad on an evening blessed with a full moon and Game Seven of the Stanley Cup – though the leafs said about that the better.
Gushue’s menu was unusual – nine dishes drawn from his repertoire of “tapas” – those fascinating little extra courses that he slips in between more substantial dishes at major dinners at the hotel or uses as an amuse bouche. One or two of them are sometimes brought out as a surprise at dusk when one is sitting outside under the Camperdown elm, sipping a glass of Champagne before dinner and watching the scarlet sky reflected in the ornamental pool… You can see why I like Langdon Hall.
To accompany Chef’s oeuvre, we poured a goodly number of fine Canadian wines, starting with the crisp, intensely flavourful, bone dry sparkling rosé from Grange of Prince Edward in the County. Winemaker Adam Delorme was on hand to introduce this delicious bubbly while Gushue got things rolling with a number of little passed tartlets. These tartlets have proved to be immensely popular at the hotel and a great way of showcasing whatever is current and fresh from the garden – source of so much excellence during the season. Tonight he filled some with a puree of jerusalem artichoke topped with cubes of lamb jelly. Another had a sweet pea mousse topped with mint and some of the fresh ricotta made in the hotel’s kitchen. A third held a jelly of apple juice and cooked leeks topped with the rich spider crab meat (a much more interesting, lingering flavour than Dungeness crab) and a dab of whitefish caviar. Scrumptious – and we hadn’t even started the event!
For our first foray we swapped bubbles to Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine Brut. The dish was designed to take advantage of the wild greens from a deliberately untended corner of Langdon Hall’s garden, an anarcho-syndicalist collective of wild herbs and various lettuces. Gushue turns them into a gazpacho but then uses it more like a sauce than a soup to dress a rainbow of hothouse tomatoes. “But it’s still too early for them to have as much flavour as I’d like,” explains the chef, “so I peel them and raisin them to intensify the flavour.” And alongside, in each of our bowls, is a single juicy, awesome black morel from the Queen Charlotte Islands. Chef had been hoping to use the blonde morels that grow wild along the driveway and in the woods of Langdon Hall but they haven’t come in yet (such a strange wet spring…). I treat-saved my morel, of course, leaving it until everything was eaten, and then indulging in that juicy, earthy, alien squelch-crunch of mushroom.
The next dish blew the room away – crunchy raw asparagus from Langdon Hall’s garden paired up with thinly sliced, mild-flavoured breakfast radishes. Gushur drowned them in a dashi stock to which he gave his own Newfoundland-born twist, using East-coast kelp and dried caiplin instead of bonito and further westernizing the broth by using chicken stock montéed with butter. All this was a sort of Grinling-Gibbons frame for the main event, a generous spoonful of sturgeon caviar from Purdy’s fishery in Lake Huron. Better known for the pickerel and perch they catch, Purdy’s also net the occasional wild sturgeon and one or two may be full of roe they can turn into caviar. They can then sell the delicacy on to gourmets in Quebec or B.C. but not in Ontario – a convoluted matter of government quotas or some such bureaucratic fiddle-faddle. “This was a gift,” said Gushue as he spooned it into our bowls. The whole thing was gone in three or four bites, each one a dazzling experience of simultaneous chlorophyl crunch from the asparagus, profoundly fishy saltiness from the caviar, rich and subtle maritime tastes from the dashi, all cut by the dry acidity of the wine.
Dish three introduced Charles Baker’s Riesling from Mark Picone’s vineyard – one of the great expressions of Bench Riesling and a knife-like contrast to a dish of soft textures and warm, tangy tastes. Scrambled duck eggs stirred with ramp tops while the gently pickled ramps acted as a garnish topped with delicately acidulated and salted whipped cream… There was a final sprinkle of red sumac powder bringing another lemony taste to nibble away at the richness of the eggs. Then the wine arrived as if the delicate acids in the dish had called in massive air support.
Onwards to moist, fluffy pickerel fillet dressed with a streak of honey infused with wild ginger. Crème fraîche was a cool blonde presence and toasted sunflower seeds a rich nutty flavour while black radishes from Cookstown Greens added a strong, peppery hit. Then there was a boned chicken wing, cooked endlessly sous-vide until it became the ultimate mouthful of sweet chicken. Gushue served it over tender cuttlefish cut so small it looked like a risotto, stirred up with a brunoise of kohlrabi and creamy mascarpone. Powdered brioche was strewn over the dish which was finished with dabs of reduced sweet sherry, its glaucous, boozy funk a brilliant extra touch.
The main course (though the dish was no bigger than any other) was lamb neck with fresh peas, ricotta and pine mushrooms. With this appeared an extra treat – lamb belly breaded and fried like tonkatsu then sliced into awesomely fatty treats. Tawse Pinot Noir was just the ticket. After that came pickled strawberries with cider vinegar reduced to the thickness and sweet-sour hit of caramel. Toasted hemp seed was as rich as ground cashews and there was a slice of Monforte Talleggio cheese, milder than the Italian original and a little dismayed by the vinegar in the dish.
Then it was on to dessert proper, accompanied by Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 2007 Riesling Icewine, introduced by Sue-Ann herself. The tangy elixir worked beautifully with both the last courses – the first a spoonful of sorrel ice cream paired with a compote of last year’s raspberries mitigated with icewine. The grand finale was a dainty millefeuille pastry filled with a crème patissier made from winter parsnips folded into sunflower seed praline, two unlikely but wonderful flavours.
Another triumphant evening for the VISA dining series – and if those dishes don’t wow the crowds at Madrid Fusion then I’m a Dutchman. And I’m not.
Thank you very much to Marc Polidoro who took all these lovely pictures!