Chef Marc Lepine, owner of Atelier (540 Rochester Street), Ottawa’s hub of creative cuisine, generously invited foodiePrints to attend a dinner he organized with guest Chef H. Alexander Talbot. He asked us to document the meal.
Chef Alex Talbot is a celebrity among chefs. He and Chef Aki Kamozawa are the people behind Ideas in Food, a blog, now a book, and a culinary consulting business, all based out of Levittown, Pennsylvania. The Ideas in Food blog and book aggregate thoughts from two people who have amassed immense following for their thinking-outside-of-the-box take on food.
Many culinary professionals read Ideas in Food, looking for bleeding edge concepts and techniques. Yes, some of the tools employed were once labeled molecular, but the familiar microwave, food dehydrator, and blender were once laboratory mainstays, not common kitchen appliances. I consider theirs the practice of extending the frontiers of food and their kitchen an incubator of techniques that may one day become mainstream.
Take sous vide for instance. Cooking ingredients sealed in plastic in temperature controlled water was once considered exotic. But, Jenn and I encountered it at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel two years ago, dining at Epic. While we had to send our server to the kitchen to ask at what temperature the short ribs were cooked, they were unmistakably cooked sous vide. Now, many Ottawa restaurants employ immersion circulators and vacuum sealers.
When we asked Ottawa’s chefs who were invited to compete in the 2009/2010 Gold Medal Plates what is their favourite local restaurant, there were multiple mentions of Atelier. Many described dinner with Executive Chef Lepine and Chef de Cuisine Sarah Allen as wondrously creative. Incidentally, Atelier alumnus Pastry Chef Michael Holland, one of the original three, returned to help out with the dinners.
Atelier is likewise an incubator of food ideas. For visits to Atelier, we advise going in a group, eating a light lunch, canceling your late night appointments, and having an open mind. The regular 12 course blind tasting menu at Atelier is an adventure for the senses, one worthy of discussion. It leverages your food memories. It creates new ones. It is akin to visiting an art exhibit at a local gallery, but texture and taste are the media of choice here.
Now, imagine organizing an exhibit at one said gallery and inviting the noted artist to visit. Such is how Chef Talbot found his way to Ottawa. With Chef Lepine as his host, Chef Talbot worked with Atelier’s kitchen team to prepare two seatings of 15 course meals. The next day, he taught courses at the Urban Element on modern kitchen techniques.
There is a reason the dinners and courses were scheduled Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon respectively. It was to permit culinary professionals an opportunity to attend. Chefs and cooks from as far as Montreal drove in.
At my side, Marysol Foucault, owner of Edgar. When Jenn found out she couldn’t take the evening off teaching, she contacted Marysol to see if she could join me. A meal like this needs two sets of eyes, two palates, two collections of food memories, to document properly. Thankfully, we were also seated with Chef Jason Laurin of Essence Catering. The dishes evoked different thoughts from all of us. It was a very fun dinner.
Upon arrival, we were presented with Parmesan cheese popcorn in lieu of bread.
“‘liquid spear waltz’ from Donnie Darko“
While tasting of parmesan, but with no powdery residue, the popcorn was a tad chewy. Still, it was a welcomed change from bread, as we were all keen to save our appetites for the upcoming 15 courses. Mostly the bowls of popcorn sat throughout the meal, our reaching over to graze a kernel or two from time to time.
The wines served that evening were not paired with the dishes per se. Flights were served with every two courses ($55). Sommelier Steve Robinson admitted some trepidation as he had not tasted the individual dishes, the menu having been in flux until the last possible minute. That evening’s wines served:
- NV Hillebrand Trius Brut Rose – Niagara Peninsula, Canada
- 2008 Chalres Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling – Vinemount Ridge, Canada
- 2001 Nicholas Paragon Vineyard Chardonnay – Edna Valley, USA
- 2008 Voss Estate Pinot Noir – Martinborough, New Zealand
- 2008 Weingut Pfeffingen Scheurebe Spatlese – Pfalz, Germany
- 1996 Domaine de Rancy Riversaltes Ambre – Roussilon France
I opted not to partake of the wines. Marysol, chose a glass of prosecco to accompany her meal.
You will notice two sets of thoughts per dish as we continue. Italicized are Marysol’s thoughts, she choosing to describe the dishes whimsically, sometimes with music.
[served with whitefish roe, meyer lemon ash, burnt lemon meringue]
“I think it was imagined just for me. roe. lemon. meringue. yum.“
This dish was a balance of clean flavours. The white fish roe’s saltiness balanced well with the meyer lemon ash and sweet citrus and smoke of the meringue. The roe was clearly an integrated component of the dish and not an overpowering texture or flavour as it sometimes is with sushi.
[served with with dandelion honey-Tabasco and coleslaw puree]
“I was simply fascinated by the slight matte finish of the dandelion honey, even after my plate was gone.“
This would be the first of many courses involving offal. A big fan of chicken hearts, I know they need to be carefully cooked or will become tough. These ones were presumably sous-vided, coated, and deep fried. They had gone slightly beyond tender, but were wonderfully savoury. The sweetness and heat of the honey and creaminess off the coleslaw puree made this dish a play on Southern comfort food.
A friend in the second seating would tell me the hearts were served on sticks.
[Cured musk ox was cut from the rib-eye and served with a sliver of black radish, pickled cattails, and brown butter mayonnaise]
“stanley kubrick. structured, linear, perfect. (and my favourite of the evening)“
It seems musk ox at Atelier marks two firsts for me, my first time partaking of the blind tasting and my meeting Chef Alex Talbot. The musk ox, itself a wonderfully gamey flavour, carried a salty bite. Paired with the brown butter mayo and gently pickled cattail stems, everything evened out. Our table would contemplate increasing the brightness of the cattails, but decided they may overpower the flavour of the musk ox.
[plated with oil from the duck tongue sous-vide]
“Josh Keyes masterpiece.“
This dish became my favourite of the evening, sea urchin a very rare treat for me. It’s creamy rich softeness was a stark textural contrast to the slow cooked and then crisped duck tongues. The chewy duck tongues smacked of umami. Paired with the peppery watercress, I was saddened when the plate was taken away, every morsel consumed.
[Served with young coconut, sweetbread croûtons, and black olive]
“Somewhat reminded me of a diorama, there was a little world of it’s own in the bottom of that bowl, it could have been protected by a glass pane.“
This soup made me a fan of parsnips. For too long, I have only come across them bashed. The soup’s velvety texture was luxurious. The black olive addition added scant strong flavours to counter the gentle sweetness of each spoonful of soup. Paired with bursts of coconut sweetness and oddly crusted and chewy sweetbreads, the soup was a collection of textures. A number of people at the table discussed how a more delicate sweetbread preparation would change the dish. When served, I loved how the sweet breads were holding the tide of soup away from drowning the young coconut.
[sweet potato skin fritter above sweet potato jam, topped with green olive sugar and plated with sweet potato glass and green olive caramel]
This dish was more a visual achievement for me. It was as if the sweet potato had been fashioned into sails, something akin to spinning straw into gold. The fried fritter was earthy. The sweet potato jam, a mushy dark sweetness. The sweet potato glass, a bit of candy that was a challenge to dismantle with forks and knives. The dollop of green olive caramel was what stood out for me. I wanted to purchase a jar of the caramel that carried a briney greenness.
[sous vide duck gizzard, served with egg yolk and walnut oil]
“First bite of rice was really foresty pleasant.“
Congee is something that needed no explanation to me. Growing up with an Asian diet, white rice congee is pure comfort, prepared thinly for someone under the weather, prepared thickly to accompany a meal. The porridge fills the belly with warmth. This take with black rice was distinctly nutty, more resembling a risotto than a porridge. It was paired with shaved sous vide duck gizzard (translated: very tender), fatty egg yolk, and walnut oil to bring out more nuttiness. Having fought a troubled belly successfully with a pot of white rice congee the week before, the forbidden congee was a brilliant take to me. It could have done with a little more seasoning though.
[served with green papaya salad, culantro, and pistachio]
“Perfectly plated and, instantly, images of the taschen house came to mind. architecturally stunning“
The squid rings were cooked sous vide at 59C for 3 hours, which produced a crunch. Their dressing hits you with a spiciness and brightness, finished off with some Thai basil herbiness. Culantro is a common finishing flavour for Vietnamese pho, the long flat leaf you are often served with your plate of bean sprouts. More used to shredded or slivered green papaya salads, the cubes were a tad hard to me, but provided a rawness that went well with the slight fishiness of the squid.
Course 9: Two Plates:
[served with butter lemon sauce]
“…part of the movie ‘drawing restraint’…It gave us time to focus and wander at the same time. politeness. manners. ritual.“
The halibut was cooked sous vide at 52.5C for 1 hour. It was tender and succulent. The sous vide’ing seemingly intensified the fish flavour. But, it was the plating that brought a pang of familiarity to me. Fish is served whole at Chinese dinners, especially feasts. Placing a carefully portioned serving of fish atop Marysol’s serving of mash was an exercise in civility. She would remark the Chinese celery was delicate in the mash.
This course took the longest to finish, likely providing the kitchen a brief respite to prepare the balance of the multi-course.
[served with fermented red and green cabbage, on kimchee puree]
“like a painting of a manta ray. protective. don’t care if you don’t like me, i am pretty on the inside“
The tripe was sous vided with corned beef stock. It gave the tripe a slippery texture and infused it with salty and beefy flavours. The cabbage seemed to be a pairing of German kraut and Korean kimchee.
[served with smoked oatmeal, garnished with watercress stems, and plated with Dr. Pepper syrup “soundwaves”]
“shredded beef tongue made me smile. I was reminded of Tool shows, the visuals and my ears buzzing.“
The beef tongue had been sous vided with Dr. Pepper and pulled. Just as the congee was comfort to me, many at my table found comfort in the oatmeal, plated with the pulled tongue, everyone enjoying its “mushiness.” Despite carrying a smokey flavour that worked well with the strands of tongue, the sweetness of the Dr. Pepper syrup on the plate brought back memories of sprinkling brown sugar on morning oatmeal. This plate started a conversation about crisped pulled meats, meats that were long braised, pulled, cooled, and then pan-fried to crust and crisp. It is something Jenn and I look forward to whenever we make a batch of pulled pork.
[served atop sunchoke-hazelnut puree, pickled milk weed pod, and green brier]
“Definitely an Esquivel song. milk-weed-pod-and-green-brier-fun.“
“I loved green brier – would snack on that with my musk ox.“
The green brier was new to most of us, something that reminded several of rhubarb. It however carried a slightly sour tang and greenness. Whereas the milk weed pod seemed preserved in the same way as salted plums at the Chinese grocery store, just a little funkier. The pairings worked, the gently salted rare elk, the slight caramel sweetness of the sunchoke and hazelnut puree, the greenness of the brier, and the funkiness of the milk weed pod.
[served with black garlic powder, birch syrup, and baby basil]
“The sauvagine course screamed pj harvey: ‘to bring you my love’“
La Sauvagine, Chef Marc Lepine’s favourite, is an artisan cheese, made in small batches to preserve quality. It is noted for its creamy texture and delicate flavour with hints of sourness. This plate brought out the best in the Suavagine. The birch syrup contrasted its sourness. The baby basil, gave the cheese a slight grassiness, a flavour I am told La Sauvagine naturally has, but have been unable to discern. The black garlic provided an earthiness, almost a molasses flavour.
[served with citrus cells and shaved shortbread (made with pop rocks)]
“The palm sugar ice cream reminded me of a hay stack. A quiet afternoon. safe, cozy.“
By this course my palate had been well exercised and was becoming overwhelmed. I took the bowl as a re-engineered take on vanilla ice cream with short bread. Oh, but the vanilla was replaced with the complexities of palm sugar. If you let the shortbread soften on your tongue, the pop rocks activated. The grapefruit, lemon, lime, and ugly fruit cells provided a citrus edge to the dish. Marysol would tell me the latter two components were fun surprises.
“The chocolate pudding made me feel naughty. a lovely ending thank you.“
The chocolate pudding permitted the table some creativity as we emptied our tubes. The granita was just sweet and fatty enough to carry the chocolate flavours.
It would turn out one member of our neighbouring table squeezed his tube a little too hard, depositing chocolate pudding on ours.
For the chefs in the room, this multi-course was an opportunity to eat food prepared in conjunction with someone they admire.
For me, the dinner demonstrated celebrated chefs can be humble, Chef Talbot visiting each table in his blue jeans, cap, and t-shirt and chatting with everyone jovially. It demonstrated how food can evoke food memories and simultaneously extend them. It demonstrated the vast opportunities at hand to try new ingredients and create novel dishes.
Yes, a few dishes could have used a slight adjustment in brightness or seasoning, at least to my palate, but that’s not the point. The point is the experience and sharing it with people you are dining with.
Take your time to enjoy your dishes. It can make all the difference.
540 Rochester Street