The 2016 Gold Medal Plates campaign began in Montreal on October 12 with a triumphant drive-around quest to find our gold, silver and bronze-medallist chefs. It was a warm and sun-drenched early evening and excitement was high as the Montreal culinary judiciary made its rendezvous – Robert Beauchemin, the food and restaurant writer and Senior Judge for Montreal, together with food journalist and critic Gildas Meneu, culinary guru Mme. Rollande DesBois, last year’s gold medallist, chef Guillaume Cantin, and yours truly.
We taxied our way from the old city to the Plateau and beyond, visiting five restaurants and tasting some fascinatingly imaginative and very different offerings from chef Antonin Mousseau-Rivard of Mousso, chef Aaron Languille of Le Diplomate, chef Stelio Perombelon of M.Mme, chef Sophie Tabet of Chez Sophie and chef Jason Morris of Le Fantôme. The marks were close but we were left with a clear and unanimous winner – Sophie Tabet of Chez Sophie, a small, elegantly modern restaurant in the swiftly up-and-coming neighbourhood of Griffintown.
The pinnacle of her dish, its crowning glory, was a veal sweetbread, perfectly tender inside a crunchy crust of fried batter and garnished with a flurry of microgreens. It lay on top of a jumble of lightly sautéed mushrooms – miniature shiitakes, honey mushrooms and king mushrooms – all soft and supple but offering an intriguing variety of rich fungal flavours. Beneath them lay a perfect raviolo (thin, impeccably textured pasta) filled with pulled côte de boeuf that had been slowly braised in a rich red wine reduction. Was there a fleeting hint of truffle in there or was it just an echo of the mushrooms? There were three sauces rubbing shoulders on the plate – a little of the red wine braise seeping out of the raviolo, a sweet-savoury foie gras cream, and an emulsion of Château Chalon vin jaune that brought its own nutty acidity to the occasion. Chef Tabet’s technical marks were through the roof – it was impossible to find any fault with all these elements. And her wine match was a triumph. Vignoble de l’Orpailler is a veteran winery in the Eastern Townships; we tasted its Cuvée Natashquan 2014, a deep golden blend of Seyval and Vidal, aged in new French barriques that showed an intensity of apple, citrus and tropical fruit flavours that took me completely by surprise. They were vivified by a tangy acidity that cut through the richness of the dish and elevated the mushroom, beef and foie gras flavours in a delightful way. Congratulations to Chef Tabet – a worthy gold medallist, to be sure.
Our silver and bronze dishes were separated by less than a single percentage point. Taking the silver medal was chef Aaron Languille of Le Diplomate, a very cool, intimate spot in the Mile Ex area, beyond the Plateau. Customers sit at the long bar and can watch the chef and his team plating their orders. So we saw Chef Languille build his competition dish from the ground up, starting with a salad of diced Empire apple mixed with miniature cubes of tangy horseradish jelly – such different textures, such refreshing flavours! Chef used two teaspoons to form tiny quenelles of a bright green purée of kale and sunflower oil that adorned the white dice; then he broke small shards off a dark green, tissue-thin sheet of what was once kale but was now transformed by a series of molecular techniques into a brittle crisp. These were placed carefully into the diced salad, adding another level of texture and taste. On top of all this he placed a brown dome that looked like the bottom half of a roasted artichoke but was actually a modern take on pommes Anna made from very thin slices of blue potato brushed with butter flavoured with fermented garlic and honey. Crisp on the surface, soft and tender beneath, it tasted like the apotheosis of all potatoes. A scattering of salt crystals and freshly grated horseradish for peppery oomph, and the dish was complete. It’s a bold chef who goes vegetarian at a Gold Medal Plates event, but we didn’t miss the protein. The wine pairing was perfectly judged – Pearl Morissette’s 2011 unfiltered Chardonnay from the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, its complex fruit reaching out to the diced apple on the plate.
We awarded the bronze medal to chef Stelio Perombelon of M.Mme (pronounced “Monsieur-Madame”). He chose to work with boned guinea-fowl thighs, turning them into a ballotine held together by the bird’s crisp skin and cooked sous-vide at 68o. The meat was juicy, supple but firm and full of flavour. Three little drums of the ballotine were placed on the plate, each crowned with a peeled Pacific sidestripe shrimp. Dabs of a yellow ochre purée turned out to be thickened sweet potato bisque, emulsified with oil from the shrimp. The shrimp shells had been roasted, dehydrated and ground to a powder that chef mixed with a little cayenne and used as a decorative, spicy dust on the plate. Adding a clever acidic contrast was a mound of sliced pattypan squash – the last of the season – treated like bread-and-butter pickles with a quick bath in vinegar seasoned with sugar, salt, coriander seed and celery seed and just a suggestion of the house curry powder. We all agreed that the balance of delicately sweet and subtly tart elements was beautifully achieved. Chef paired his dish with another local wine that was new to me – a blend of Chambaudiere and Seyval grapes, fermented and aged in new oak and called Mirabel, the creation of Vignoble Négondos in Quebec’s lower Laurentians. Its peach and yellow plum notes were particularly in tune with the sweet potato purée.
So we have our first Gold Medal Plates regional champion: Chef Sophie Tabet of Chez Sophie. Once the marks were crunched, we dashed back to her restaurant to tell her the good news, but she had gone home to spend time with her seven-month-old baby. Judge Beauchemin will give her the gold medal and trophy plate tomorrow.
Congratulations to all our Montreal competitors on what was a truly inspirational showing. The campaign has begun! Next week, Edmonton and St. John’s.