To Ottawa on Monday afternoon for a flying visit of meetings that involved delicious taro root frites at Restaurant 18. The day ended with jackets off in the Kanata home of chef Michael Blackie, the local champion of Gold Medal Plates 2006 and silver medallist in the Canadian Culinary Championships the following winter. It was a boys’ only night, offering the entertaining company of Stephen Leckie, grand fromage of Gold Medal Plates, Ottawa real estate developer Terry Guilbault, his son Michael and His Excellency the Italian Ambassador, Gabriele Sardo. We sat under a large umbrella on Blackie’s second-storey deck while the indecisive sky brought showers, a fine sunset, rainbows, more showers and finally darkness in what seemed like quick succession, though that could have been the Sake Caesars.
Even against such a flashy lightshow, Blackie’s food took the biscuit. He started us out with canapés – two kinds of maki roll, one involving a Thai-spiced tuna tartare, the other a startlingly delicious combination of foie gras and mango, the two sweet softnesses cuddled up inside a nori sleeping bag and a warm rice counterpane. There were creamy-fleshed New Brunswick Caraquet oysters on the half shell, au naturel, as Neptune intended. And a little bowl of potstickers filled with sweet pork and drizzled with Chinese black vinegar that went unnoticed until someone tasted one and sighed with pleasure. Then they were gone in a flash.
We sat down and Blackie served forth a Goat Pea Salad (much hilarity until the spelling was explained) of warmed goat cheese crisps on crunchy, lightly acidulated fennel, charming little Mill Creek Farm sweet pea greens, shaved Hakuro radish and arugula – a delightfully refreshing dish.
By now every mosquito in the subdivision had crashed the party. It was a unique sensation – to eat so well while being eaten myself. Blackie’s next dish was a revelation, finally explaining why the Marx Brothers used to make such a fuss about duck soup. It began with duck confit liquidized to a thick, sumptuously rich purée with carefully judged pourings of chicken stock and cream. “I’ve burned out the motors of at least three blenders making this dish over the years,” confessed the chef. The beige elixir was scattered with tiny red, white and black fragments – crushed chorizo, feta and dried black olive respectively – and set in the centre was a whole diver scallop, marinated in olive oil then grilled for a moment on the barbecue.
By now we were already feeling we had dined well but the best was yet to come – a spectacularly tender piece of Alberta beef, the eye of the rib, aged 30 days then slow-smoked over apple and hickory wood in Blackie’s driveway. He finished it on the barbecue and crowned each slab with a mash of jerusalem artichoke and a chardonnay-rosemary “retention,” a word that is part of the unique but undeniably logical culinary vocabulary he is developing. I think it’ll catch on. Both the wines Terry Guilbault had brought worked beautifully with the meat – one a Torres cabernet sauvignon from Catalonia, the other a suave Chianti in honour of the ambassador.
Dessert was a “Jivara chocolate linear” – a feuilletine pavé crunch (doncha love the technical argot of the pastry kitchen) topped with caramelized banana and Mayan chocolate ice cream, that was just as yummy as it sounds. Then, while the more serious members of the group engaged in conversation, Blackie poured me a rare mirabelle eau de vie that immediately set the innards in order.
Eating in a chef’s house is always fascinating. Away from their brigades and the professional equipment of a commercial kitchen, they often seem to bring out the barbecue. It’s as if they relish the primordial contact of flame and flesh. Also, their food is almost always well seasoned – more so than the same dish might be in the hands of an amateur. Add to that the fact that chefs are generous, nurturing creatures and you begin to understand why such evenings invariably create happiness and end late.