What a fascinating evening we just enjoyed! Last night Montreal had been suddenly smitten with a serious amount of snow and our cab company could not promise us transportation, so the judges were obliged to rent a stretch limo to travel from restaurant to restaurant in the style to which we all hope to become accustomed. Leaping snow ramparts to reach the sidewalks, we stumbled into the hospitable warnth of the chosen restaurants. Every dish we encountered was completely different in style and intent and the final marks were astonishingly close, less than a single percentage point separating bronze from silver, and gold just a hair’s breadth ahead of the rest, though four of the six judges placed it first.
Who were the judges? The cream of the crop. We were led by our Senior Judge for Montreal, Gildas Meneu (TV and radio gastronomic journalist, writer, foodie, gourmet, butter lover), with Senior Judge emeritus, Robert Beauchemin (writer, anthropoligist, food and restaurant critic extraodinaire); Lilly Nguyen (award-winning cookbook author and wine enthusiast); Marie Pâris (head of the Gastronomie section at VOIR, and Montreal ambassador for website Star Wine List); and David Ollu, chef-patron of Hélicoptère, who won the bronze medal last year in Montreal.
We tasted, we analyzed, we debated, we added our scores and crunched the numbers and here are the results. Olivier Vigneault of Jatoba won the bronze with an exquisite dish that showed a profound Japanese sensibility. On the plate were three identical compositions, each one based on a slice of superb bluefin tuna sashimi. Chef had given it a “skin” of powdered nori and gold leaf (worthy of the décor of his opulent resto) and then topped it with a morsel of very fresh sea urchin, held in place with a dot of black garlic purée. A tiny cluster of puffed rice added crunch while a single Japanese chive and a miniature shiso leaf brought their own herbal nuance to each bite-sized experience. Chef had flooded the plate with a colourless but intensely flavoured ponzu sauce spiked with yuzu and smoked bonito that brought the other ingredients to life and then added dime-sized coins of white kimchee that he had fermented for three long months, each one a crunchy, funky taste-bomb. As an extra, poised on the rim of the plate, we found a pinky-sized roll of charred salmon and rice seasoned with yuzu and habanero paste, wrapped in impeccably crispy nori. Chef chose a wine from Nova Scotia to bring bubbly refreshment to his creation – the always delicious Benjamin Bridge NV Brut.
Darren Rogers of Park won the silver medal. He chose a magnificent local duck breast as his protein, dry-ageing it for two weeks, roasting it and giving it a delicate, crispy skin, glazed with honey, coriander seeds and black peppercorns. Each of us received a thick slice and each of us revelled in the meat’s juicy, tender duckiness. Sharing the plate was a silken purée of Jerusalem artichokes, sprinkled with a crumble made from more of the duck skin. There were loonies of lightly pickled Asian pear and pieces of tuile like fragments of an ethereal net for textural crunch. Soft, fermented matsutaki mushrooms provided an exotic counterpoint while a rich duck reduction amplified the flavour of the meat. Using more of his canards, Chef had taken creamy foie gras and wrapped it first in duck prosciutto, then in savoy cabbage leaf. He took half a dozen herbs and turned them into a green emulsion to dot the plate then garnished everything with two or three red-veined sorrel leaves. The chosen match was a most delicious wine, Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard 2016 Chardonnay from Niagara – bright, complex and refreshing.
The dish that won gold was altogether different. Marc-André Jetté of Hoogen et Beaufort had fallen heavily for some splendid oyster mushrooms, grown within Montreal’s city limits in a soil enriched with coffee grounds. He seared them briefly over his open wood fire, giving the meaty, juicy ’shrooms a slight caramelization and a hint of woodsmoke. More of the mushrooms became a rich purée, offering a different side of their earthy, sweet personality. Still more were lightly pickled in white balsamic, sugar and salt – then Chef used the pickling liquid to make a fluid gel that dotted the plate with random moments of earthy acidity. Petals of pickled and charred pearl onions made a telling contribution while smoked bread, sliced tissue thin like crispy lacework, added another, contrasting textural pleasure. Finely grated Louis d’Or cheese was sprinkled over everything, enriching and uniting the components. The woodsy, smoky spirit of the dish was perfectly caught by Chef’s chosen beverage – a light but complex beer with a hoppy, floral, teasingly malty character, aged in American oak barrels – the Saison Bariquée from a collaboration of two breweries, Isle de Garde and Ma Brasserie.
David Lawrason, the Great Kitchen Party’s National Wine Advisor, had charged us with selecting a Best in Show beverage and that went to Malivoire’s 2017 Gamay from Niagara, a superlative food wine that reminded us strongly of haskap berrries.
Congratulations to Marc-André Jetté for his courageously vegetarian, deeply delicious dish. I can’t wait to see what he will do in Ottawa next year at the Canadian Culinary Championships!