For those of you who don’t know, Jenn and I organized a pre-Canada Day dinner at Atelier, inviting everyone to join us, be they foodies, gastronomes, gourmets, or simply adventurous eaters. In total, 9 people attended, including several local twitter personalities (@spoonsie and @epicuriadotca). Our intention was to support a local restaurant on a traditionally slow day of the week.
Our 12 course meal included an appetizer/amuse bouche, 8 savory courses, and 3 dessert courses. It culminated with what has become a signature dish for Atelier’s pastry chef, Chef Michael Holland: the Elvis Truffle.
However, before we begin, let us start with the restaurant itself.
Located at 540 Rochester Street, Atelier is situated in an unassuming building with purposely aged iron grates and no signage. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the word “atelier” is French for “workshop” so the building resembles one outwardly. Like other avant garde restaurants, such as Chicago’s Alinea, Atelier’s food speaks for itself. Secondly, when the restaurant opened, signage simply wasn’t a priority. When time permits, Chef/Owner Marc Lepine has said he will look into something subdued.
Here is Atelier’s utilitarian kitchen with its compliment of ubiquitous equipment to make highly imaginative dishes, which are best described as “avant garde.”
It is amazing to think that approximately 552 dishes (12 course x 23 seats x 2 days) are produced in this small space during Friday and Saturday service alone. It is a very efficient space.
Atelier’s dining room is elegant with its simplicity. Its walls and ceiling sport shades of white. Its tables, a dark stain. Its chairs, white leather upholstery.
The chairs were specifically chosen to allow patrons to sit comfortably through Atelier’s 12 course tasting menu. A meal can easily last 3 hours.
I feel the intention is to take nothing away from the meal, whose individual courses are meant to be experiences for the senses. As such, the wall decorations, furniture, and colours chosen are meant to be neutral. They mimic a canvas. They also encourage patrons to dispense with any formalities, speak to each other, and enjoy themselves. Regarding the wall decorations, all of the paintings come from a local Canadian artist, Chef Lepine’s (then 3 year old) daughter.
For a little history, Atelier’s Chef de Cuisine, Sarah Allen, directed me to a thread on the E-Gullet forum that includes pictures of what the restaurant looked like before. With permission, here are before pics.
The transformation is striking: repaired masonry, painted brick, gutted and entirely re-built kitchen.
Now, on with the food!
As we were seated, we were presented with Sour Cream and Onion Bread with Flaked Butter and the Wine List.
The sour cream and onion bread is a dish that Chef Holland discussed on twitter (@pastryoverlord) several months ago, even asking his followers what “flavour” he should try next. Before, he baked up loaves of barbecue bread, which Chef Allen (@sarah_j_allen) assured me was delicious, even attracting local wildlife to the restaurant’s garbage bin. To make the barbecue bread, Chef Holland replaces all of the liquid from a regular bread recipe with barbecue sauce. I have absolutely no idea how he makes his sour cream and onion bread.
Nevertheless, with its baguette-style texture, oven freshness, and “from my childhood” flavour, I was grateful just to eat it.
The bread was served warm and perfectly sliced. The warmth actually just softened the butter flakes enough to allow them to be spread smoothly onto the slices. My dear friend Yannick, who writes the Endorphin Buzz blog and who joined me for dinner, told me the butter was actually sprayed onto the serving tray. This attention to detail (spreadable non-softened butter) and creative take on a traditional restaurant element (table bread), demonstrated the innovative whimsy of the dishes to come.
Regarding the wine list, I should point out that Atelier has two sommeliers on staff. The first is Steve Robinson, who presided over our meal. The second is Chef Lepine (@marclepine). Besides being a celebrated chef, he carries sommelier credentials and trained at Ottawa’s Algonquin College.
For an additional $55, Atelier includes a wine pairing to go with its 12 course meal. The wines chosen represent a veritable multi-continent tour, with a partial preference towards Canadian wineries. While members of the other table opted for the pairing, I chose not to. I was however assured by those who did that the pairings were well chosen.
First Course: Pretzel Pop
When our host explained what went into this first course, I immediately thought “creamsicle.” The “pop” portion was attached to an authentic rolled-paper lollipop stick. It consisted of a Dijon mustard cream that was frozen on an “anti-griddle”, dipped in honey, and then covered with crushed salted pretzels.
An anti-griddle is the opposite of a regular griddle, rapidly cooling foods instead of heating. It gave the cream an ice-cream texture.
The dish’s flavour pairing is classic (Bavarian pretzels with hot mustard), just completely revisioned: slightly sweetened, with contrasting textures, and cold. It was great. Even my better half, who dislikes dijon, enjoyed this appetizer/amuse bouche.
Second Course: Halibut Cheek
This fish course served a portion of fish that is extremely prized in Asian cultures. Cooked sous-vide for several minutes with star anise, it sat atop Jerusalem artichoke puree and was accompanied with asparagus heads, pieces of crumbled bacon, and drops of olive paste (finely ground tapenade).
Overall the dish was good. Its flavours worked well with one another and everything was expertly plated. For unfamiliar patrons, this would have been an excellent fish course. However, since my better half and I grew up eating this portion of fish, we found it slightly overdone. While it was by NO means harsh, we are just used to this portion being softer and much more succulent. Interestingly, before dinner started, my table even discussed a Chinese meal of fish heads.
Aside: It was after the second course that we started seeing subtle differences in the service between Atelier and other restaurants.
- Our hosts were extremely knowledgeable about the dishes, demonstrating an understanding about them, not just reciting facts. With the sheer number of different dishes and constantly changing menus (sometimes weekly), we assumed they must be food enthusiasts. Else, Atelier employs two of the best front of house staff in the city.
- The cutlery changed with each course, ensuring no leftover flavours or textures.
- While each course came promptly after the previous, the ladies of our party were served theirs first, a courtesy that other restaurants seem to have lost.
Suffice it to say, despite the number of courses, we were tended to very well.
Third Course: Lobster
The third course was a wonderful multitude of textures and flavours. Butter poached Atlantic lobster came served atop truffle oil pancakes. It was topped with a very thin slice of black truffle and a chardonnay foam. It was accompanied with cinnamon mushrooms, a dehydrated leek ring, a piece of chive, and two sauces: watercress mayonnaise and egg yolk.
This course made up for the previous one. The lobster was perfectly cooked and the earthy truffle and mushroom flavours, a wonderful compliment. The onion, raw chive, and watercress provided a nice green and onion contrast, all carried well by the rich egg yolk and mayonnaise. My perfect bite: lobster, with several bubbles of foam, a sliver of truffle and pancake, a bit of chive, a scant touch of mayonnaise, and some egg yolk. Yum!
Fourth and fifth courses follow after the jump…
Fourth Course: Soup
Apologies, I ate the whipped elderberry and honey foam and drank several spoonfuls of soup before I realized that I hadn’t taken a picture. That said, this is a cold soup, made with caramelized pear and horse radish. It originally came with a dollop of foam and was served with an ingenious spoon equipped with a built in clip, holding a blooming sprig of milk weed.
The trick to this dish, if there really is one, is to pair the scent with every taste. The texture of the soup came from pureed pear, which produced an almost sandiness. The horse radish provided a bite, but the soup itself was fruity sweet. The foam had the texture of egg white and was honey sweet. Me, I actually took a breath with every spoonful. The milkweed carried a scent reminiscent of lilac.
While my better half and I enjoyed the soup, several others just ate the foam. I was told that the horse radish flavour was a little too strong.
Fifth Course: Tuna
Seeing this dish, my eyes lit up. I am a fan of nigiri sushi and sashimi and was literally spoiled when I last visited Vancouver. There, I ate more than my fair share of raw sushi-grade salmon and, to a lesser extent, tuna. And yes, I am aware of the mercury payload that tuna usually carries, especially larger growing species in which the mercury concentrates due to their larger body mass. I eat tuna sparingly. This course was a welcome treat!
The slice of tuna loin served looked spectacular. It was crusted with shichimi (known as togarashi outside Japan), which is a seven flavour spice mixture whose main ingredient is coarsely ground red chili pepper. According to wikipedia, the chili pepper is accompanied by orange peel, sesame seed, poppy seed, hemp seed, nori, and ground sansho (similar to Sichuan pepper). As far as I can tell, higher end restaurants crust finer cuts of beef with this mixture, but crusting tuna is not unknown. It is much more common to see tuna crusted with soy and sesame seeds.
Accompanied with a scroll of cucumber, a slice of marinated radish (from Atelier’s own garden), stripes of lime and ginger gel, some mixed orange juice and ghee, thinly sliced nori, crushed Brazil nuts, and green beans, the dish was a feast for the eyes. Two guests expressed some reluctance to disturb the plate.
Eating it was a feast for the palate.
The tuna was butter soft, fatty, and flavorful. Its crust, spicy and nutty, but complementing the tuna well. The rest of the plate provided fresh and bright flavour contrasts. The green beans were perfectly cooked, bright and crisp. The brazil nut and nori were great added touches, adding more nut and umami. It was my second favourite dish of the evening.
In fact, an image of this dish was one of the ones I sent out on Twitter when I arrived home after the dinner. I felt compelled to share it with friends.
Now, as a responsible food blogger, I am going to allow my readers time to mop up the drool. I will not be responsible for shorted computers.
The remaining 7 courses and my verdict on Atelier will wait for another blog post. Since, the proceeding blog will be the third on a single visit to a restaurant, the verdict will be very positive.
540 Rochester Street