Ottawa is usually brumal and bitterly cold by the time Gold Medal Plates sets up there in November, but not this week! There was warmth in the sun that caught the last of the leaves in Confederation Park and put a smile on every face I passed. This is our second year in the spacious splendour of the Shaw Centre and the evening was once again totally sold out. The eager crowd loved the show (run as smoothly as butter by MCs Curt Harnett and Sylvie Bigras) and cheered like teenagers when the band began to play – Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Colin Cripps, Sam Polley and Devin Cuddy bringing the house down.
From the culinary perspective it was one of the best years I can remember in the nation’s capital, fully reflective of the exciting local restaurant scene. Our gold and silver medallists were jostling for victory right up to the tape so it was lucky we had such a great team of judges to sort things out. Leading the way was our Senior Judge, author, editor, restaurant critic, Anne DesBrisay, alongside author, television star and Canadian culinary ambassador, Margaret Dickenson; author, stylist, educator and culinary maven Pam Collacott; industry leader and owner of Thyme and Again Creative Catering, Sheila Whyte; Chairman of the Canadian Culinary Federation and executive chef of the House of Commons, Judson Simpson; and last year’s gold medal winner, Chef Patrick Garland of Absinthe Café.
Joe Thottungal of Coconut Lagoon won the bronze medal. He had taken note of the Rio Olympics theme and his dish was a riot of bold colours. It also featured a quenelle of yucca and coconut mash as a tribute to South America, though the rest of the flavours on the plate owed much more to the magnificent cuisine of Kerala. Front and centre was a seared lamb loin cooked with garlic, lemon juice, star anise, chickpea flour, coconut il and green chili, then roasted inside a banana leaf parcel with a tomato masala marinade ( a heavenly harmony of spices with just enough chili heat to rouse the palate). The sliced lamb was set onto the yucca-coconut mash which itself was dressed with a spoonful of vividly yellow mango curry and a spicy green bean thoran. Fresh beet purée added colour and earthy sweetness while a mustard yoghurt kichadi brought yet another subtle flavour to the party. The finishing flourish was a maple leaf made from a crisp papadom. Chef Thottungal found a really good local beer for a most impressive match – Two Flags India Pale Ale from Dominion City Brewing Company.
Jon Svazas of fauna won our silver medal – a first-time competitor who took some ambitious risks and brought them off brilliantly. He chose to work with Quebec emu, slicing the lean meat into a delicately flavoured, slightly sweet carpaccio as the base of his dish and moistening it with white soy-miso emulsion to bring out the latent umame in the supple, subtle flesh. He had taken egg yolks, cured and dried them until they had the texture of bottarga; now he grated this over the emu like a carpet made of soft shards of gold. He slivered lightly pickled slices of matsutake mushroom here and there, and scattered broken walnut. A nest of matsutake crackers was ethereally brittle while baby blood sorrel leaves startled the eye with their crimson veined greenery. The last touch was a generous teaspoonful of Acadian sturgeon caviar, adding its salty intensity – a different kind of egg from the cured golden yolks, but a wonderfully welcome treat. Chef Svazas’s wine was a doosey and another fine match – the 2013 Unfiltered Niagara Peninsula Chardonnay from Norman Hardie Winery in Prince Edward County.
The gold medal ws awarded to Marc Lepine of Atelier. He won gold before, you may recall, and then went on to win the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna in 2012. That victory ment he could not compete again in Gold Medal Plates for the next three years. This was his first time back and, once again, he aced it. There were many elements in his dish but by serving them in a bowl with a broth and a spoon to eat it, he ensured that flavours never reached our palates in isolation. Chef finished the dish at our table by bringing a spirit-heated cona from his station in which corn cobs were steeping in a miso and bonito broth as clear and tan as tea. This was poured into the bowl where the solid components had already been placed around the principal protein, a chunk of impeccably tender hot-smoked steelhead trout glazed with a sticky mix of molasses, miso and Newfoundland screech. Under the fish we found a loose, nutty porridge of barley and corn, the lovely, earthy, grainy flavours sharpened by crunchy coriander seed and a hint of lemon confit. There were soft little pillows of white cured pork belly and pieces of tender golden beet. Dill fronds brought a fresh herbal note and tiny smoked cinnamon cap mushrooms a fleeting impression of swetness and acidity. Chef had transformed carrot into flakes with the texture of bonito and he fnished the dish with a dramatic hoop made from a tuile batter scented with toasted fennel and coriander seed that rose up above the bowl like a crisp bracelet. An orchestra of flavours and textures – but playing sublimely harmonious music. Chef Lepine found a stellar wine for his match – the 2012 “Le Grand Clos” Chardonnay from Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara.
So the roster of talent heading to Kelowna in February continues to grow with another returning champion throwing his toque into the ring. It’s beginning to look as if it will be a true battle royale.