To Ottawa for the coronation of Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier as Canadian Culinary Champion – a joyful and delicious evening. If you missed the competition last February, Lepine was a very worthy champion who leaped into the lead during the first of the three contests (the Wine Matching contest) and never stumbled. It was a strong field and all the chefs were on top form but Lepine was simply on fire. It was like watching Andy Murray in the Olympic finals – no one was going to keep him from that gold medal! The verdict among the judges was unanimous and a worthy Champion was celebrated.
On Tuesday last, we held the actual coronation, the traditional launch to the next Gold Medal Plates campaign. The trophy was presented before a small crowd of media, VIPs and all the Gold Medal Plates Ottawa-Gatineau judges who had taken Marc Lepine to the podium in last year’s regional event. Cameras flashed, glasses were raised and the general mood was one of undimmed merriment and congratulation.
Lepine and his team had generously offered to cook for some of us so we duly sat down. Those who had eaten at Atelier before were just as full of anticipatory excitement as those of us who had not. I wasn’t sure what to expect – a couple of apps? In the end we were treated to a 14-course dinner of extraordinary quality.
But first, a word about the restaurant. There is no name on the door of the low, detached building at 540 Rochester Street, Ottawa (613 321 3537). The windows are guarded by a fashionably rusted metal grill and there are rough stones laid around the base of the façade. Inside is a tiny room with grey walls hung with very small framed paintings done by Chef’s daughter when she was five years old. The wee room seats 22, mostly in huge, cream-coloured leather armchairs that are wonderfully comfortable. I counted 5 people in the kitchen and three servers – a ratio of staff to customers that promises much but must challenge the restaurant’s profitability. Interestingly, there is no actual stove in the kitchen. “He uses induction, and circulators, and sometimes a blowtorch or a soldering iron as a heat source,” someone mentioned.
Not to mention a warm sense of humour. The first canape to be passed among the little throng was an empty shot glass. Not quite empty: there was a tiny pinch of dark dust at the bottom. We were instructed to down it in one. Our mouths tasted gin and tonic.
Then there were wobbly brown bubbbles that burst into liquid gazpacho in our mouths. Confited quail legs coated in prune purée (the soft, seasoned flesh sliding from the bone between our lips). A popsicle of frozen yoghurt that wasn’t sweet at all, just a brilliant palate cleanser.
Lepine was a stagiere at Alinea in Chicago a few years ago. Clearly, it was a highly influential experience. I have eaten in the restaurants of several Grant Achatz alumni. Though Lepine doesn’t have a kitchen brigade of 50, he comes closest to Achatz’s aesthetic of surprise, wit, true flavours, wry juxtapositions and unexpected harmonies.
Lepine’s dishes all have amusing names, apparently chosen from suggestions offered by the team in the kitchen. The best was the last course, involving mango as purèe, jelly and as a dehydrated pickle paired with lemon balm, cardamom ice cream and fried bread covered with saffron syrup. The dish is called “A Mangoes Into a Bar” – which is great. But I’m jumping ahead.
The problem for the critic is that each of the 14 courses involves at least 14 ingredients and a dozen different techniques, some molecular, some not, others more a matter of studiously letting something like a marigold leaf or a tiny yellow chili appear entirely unadulterated. I’m sitting here looking at my laborious notes and realizing that listing a hundred flavourful grace notes isn’t really going to give much of an impression. The pictures show how stunning the dishes looked and perhaps you can see the little coloured dots and moments of pale powder and minuscule dice made of jelly. Analysis is probably not the right response (though I think Lepine appreciates the awe of the ingredient-nerd). It’s the same with Susur Lee and Claudio Aprile in toronto – and maybe Grant Achatz, too. They are magicians who would rather the audience sat back and were amazed than bent forward, squinting, to try and understand the sleight of hand. But let’s look closely at one or two plates and see if we can see what’s going on.
Here’s the dish called “Smoke,” which arrives under a glass cloche filled with applewood smoke that is whisked away, perfuming the dining room. On the plate is a PERFECT piece of Quebec bison, cooked sous vide for half an hour at 52oC the pan-seared. The meat is heavenly – juicy and red with a faint flavour of woodsmoke. Beside it is a teaspoonful of crumbled fried potato, like the sort of pan-roasted breadcrumbs my mum used to serve with gamebirds. A finger of deep-fried French toast sings a similar song (and what a good idea for breakfast!). there’s a sautéed radish, some white drops of onion soubise, a dollop of ground pink peppercorn mustard, three salt-cured grapes that have the texture of cherries and a fine tarragon powder. The dark smooth sauce at the top of the plate is a liquidized boudin noir – rather an extravagant way to make gravy but it tasted amazing. A single marigold leaf was the token green on the plate. Busy? Yes. Crowded? No. And the bison’s role as star of the show was never jeopardized.
“Give Peas a Chance” comes from a less multi-dimensional place – almost an experiment to see what can be done with something as simple as a pea, the better to express its essential peaness. It begins with solids in a bowl – fresh little peas, chunks of sweet pea meringue, and more pea meringue crushed to powder. A smear of crème fraiche up the side of the bowl lets pea tendrils climb almost vertically from the tiny pool of pea purèe at its base. Slices of green grapes cling to the slope; a morain of frozen green apple snow brings sharp acidity. And see the golden cubes of apple cider jelly! They add a different sweetness to that of the green peas, and a different kind of tang to the green apple’s tartness. Now the waiter pours on a chilled pea soup – thick and green as Wiberg’s pine essence for the bath, sleek as paint. The dilemma is whether to scoop a bit of everything greedily into the spoon or try to pick out the different components, as curiosity demands. Either way, it’s absolutely delicious.
Those are just two moments from the evening. “Sebastien and Pinchy” featured lobster and crab. “Piggie Smalls” showed off piglet tenderloin with blowtorched corn, pickled chanterelles, a powder made of ramps and truffle oil, and umpteen other nuanced details.
What fun it all was.
On Monday, we begin this year’s cycle of Gold Medal Plates events with a chauffeur-driven judges’ day visiting our competing Toronto chefs and tasting their dishes – all in lieu of a gala this year. Then it’s on to Regina for the great party on October 11. I can’t wait.