To Montreal, to find our next champion of this year’s Gold Medal Plates campaign, not with a grand gala but with an intimate group of judges, cruising the city from restaurant to restaurant in a couple of spiffy Teo Tesla taxis. Our merry crew was led by Robert Beauchemin, the food and restaurant writer, anthropologist and Senior Judge for Montreal, together with food journalist and critic Gildas Meneu, author, broadcaster and culinary guru Mme. Rollande DesBois, and cookbook author, teacher and broadcaster Lilly Nuguyen.
I must say, the showing from our five chefs was extraordinarily strong! Any of the three dishes that medalled could have won gold in the rest of the country and our final decision was not, at first, unanimous. But after long deliberation we reached a verdict.
We awarded our bronze medal to chef Fred St-Aubin of Moleskine. His dish was a most audacious explosion of sour and bitter flavours and absolutely delicious. Its star was an octopus limb, tender as a kiss and so full of flavour it drew wows of approval from our entire table. Chef had boiled it, cooled it, still preserving the naturally gelatinous schmeck of its surface, cooked it sous vide with a little red wine and some red wine vinegar, then finally roasted it in the wood-burning oven where he creates his delectable pizzas. Cushioning the octopus on either side was a “bitter salad” of braised puntarella, crunchy little crescents of lightly pickled fennel and fragments of radicchio that looked at first glance like bacon. Segments of tangerine, lightly torched added a different, sweeter acidity while a dab of black garlic paste sat on its own near the rim of the bowl, a brooding umami-laden presence. Under the salad was a generous amount of a red pesto made from espalette peppers, at once rich, tangy and possessed of a sly chili heat. Drops of balsamic and chili oil provided the finishing touch. The pervasive bitterness and complex acidity demanded a unique wine and Chef delivered it, a cloudy, funky natural orange wine from Pinard & Filles called Frangine. Made in Magog, Quebec, from a hybrid grape called La Crescent, it was bone dry, tart and tasted of citrus, pineapple and tea – a brilliant choice.
Our silver medal went to Chef Jason Morris of Le Fantôme in Griffintown. He offered a very elegant presentation of veal, cooked with classical precision that still hit all available pleasure buttons. There were five components to the dish, starting with a superb bavette of veal, pan-seared unilaterally, tender-hearted but crispy on the surface. Chef had prepared what he called a “beurre animal” from the veal bones – a sort of foaming butter – and he used this to cook the bavette. Beside it was the runny yolk of a confited quail egg, trembling on a small mound of bone marrow. A single sweetbread, impeccably prepared and fried, was garnished with a couple of cocoa nibs, adding a fascinatingly dry, bitter edge to the creamy gland. Two minute rectangles of polenta stood erect, topped with shaved popcorn and a hint of truffle. The final element was the most delicious thing we tasted all evening – a single morel stuffed with a rich farce made from steamed veal tendon, chopped and macerated with shallots and lemon. Chef finished his dish by pouring on an unctuous demi-glace. Everything was in perfect harmony, thematic, disciplined but deeply decadent. And for a wine, Le Fantôme’s excellent sommelier, Tiffany Golarz, poured the Hidden Bench 2013 Pinot Noir from the Beamsville Bench, Niagara, a marvellous wine with a true Burgundian feel, full of cherry and earthy spice with a hint of dark chocolate that caught the cocoa nib perfectly.
Chef Éric Gonzalez of L’Atelier Joël Robuchon, the sumptuous, breathtakingly beautiful new restaurant in the Montreal Casino, won gold. His dish looked exquisite, assembled, as our Senior Judge pointed out, with Cartesian precision. Chef had used a coulis of haskap berry and blackberry to paint a perfect purple circle in the centre of the plate. Surrounding this, at a distance, like three tiny yellow satellites, were sculptures of two dime-sized circles of marinated butternut squash joined to each other by dots of squash purée and topped with a minute flower petal and a chive the size of an eyelash. Also in orbit near the edge of the plate were three comets of black truffle purée. The sun around which these elements spun was a drum-shaped slice of protein, half of it made of quivering foie gras, the other half superlatively tender Alberta bison loin. Chef had joined the two meats together with protein, rolled them into a cylinder like a torchon, and cooked them sous vide, a technique he understands as well as anyone on the planet. The meat sat on a mound of soft onion confit and was topped by a crisp, hollow, square-shaped pain soufflé no bigger than a postage stamp, intricately decorated with squiggles of the black truffle paste and a freckling of gold leaf. The wine that accompanied this little masterpiece was the 2013 Syrah from Painted Rock in B.C. – a powerful, intense beautywith a nose of ripe black cherries and anise. Chef had tuned his berry coulis to precisely the same frequency.
Congratulations to all five of our competing chefs and especially to Chef Gonzalez. I very much look forward to tasting more of his work in Kelowna, come February.