Ottawa has the unfortunate reputation of being a culinary backwater. Our fair city’s population is a fraction of New York’s or Chicago’s. Our restaurant industry is not nearly as mature as Toronto’s or Vancouver’s. The food trends Ottawa follows tend to be years old, rarely cutting edge.
Such was evident during a tweetup at Play Food and Wine this past Sunday, organized by Yelp Canada community manager Crystal Henrickson (@yelpcanada). When she asked how the food scene was in the National Capital Region (NCR), two yelpers, one of whom shook his head when I told him I was an indie food blogger, described it as lacking. Accordingly, Ottawa’s food scene compares poorly to that of others cities’. What merit Ottawa’s has tends to be high end and expensive.
While Jenn and I disagreed, we decided it was better not to argue in what was the bustling upstairs dining room, every seat taken on a Sunday night. We weren’t about to highlight the many “but”s that came up in conversation. But, we’ve a great burger in Hintonburg. But, we’ve incredibly high densities of pho noodle and shawarma houses. But, we’ve a great artisan bakery that makes a mean macaron. But, a handmade donut shop just opened. But, Pascale Berthiaume makes amazing ice cream…
I pointed to chef/owner Marc Lepine of Atelier Restaurant, leading his team to earn the gold medal at the Canadian Culinary Championships (CCC) weeks ago in Kelowna, British Columbia. The CCC is a national competition amongst regional qualifiers who themselves competed successfully in specific cities. At the CCC, the unassuming and characteristically humble Lepine beat out 8 competing chefs, including celebrity chef Rob Feenie of Vancouver’s Cactus Club Restaurants. The component “challenges” were judged by a panel of respected food writers, food critics, and fellow chefs. Both the regional Gold Medal Plates and CCC raise money for the Canadian Olympic Foundation.
When my reference drew blank looks, I shifted my attention back to enjoying my braised lentil appetizer with anise, prosciutto, and crispy parsnip. It had me wonder how Ottawa’s two-time Gold Medal Plates silver medalist chef/owner Caroline Ishii of ZenKitchen would prepare lentils.
The fact is Ottawa’s food scene is changing, aspiring to be much more than it is reputed to be. We have fine dining restaurants whose chefs compete well nationally. Entrepreneurs are moving to fill gaps. We’ve a well respected high end vegan restaurant, the afore-mentioned ZenKitchen. We’ve a handful of food trucks, including Jackie Joliffe’s green chip truck, which she re-engineered to serve soup.
Finally, we’ve a contingent of ambitious young chefs who accomplish some amazing things when left to their own devices. Two, Jonny Korecki of Side Door Contemporary Kitchen and Curtis Luk of Courtyard, are contestants on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada this season. Executive Chef Michael Blackie of the National Arts Centre recently created an annual challenge for junior members of his kitchen to come up with and demo original dishes in front of an audience. And, there are the Eleven Madison Park (EMP) Tribute Dinners.
Chefs Murray Wilson and Kyle Christofferson organized a second EMP tribute dinner at Perspectives in Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel (525 Legget Drive). It was held this past Monday night.
Wilson is the Sous at Atelier and was a member of Lepine’s gold medal-winning team at the CCC. During the previous EMP tribute dinner, Lepine and Christofferson, Chef de Cuisine at the Brookstreet, were guests. This time, no less than eighteen sets of hands were in Executive Chef Clifford Lyness’s expansive kitchen at the Brookstreet, prepping for the sixteen-course meal thirty patrons enjoyed. A day later, thirteen cooks and chefs were in the kitchen during service, including Montreal’s Josie Weitzenbauer and Executive Chef Michael Hay of Courtyard. The dishes were paired with wine by Brookstreet sommelier Rene Wallis.
Prawn: langoustine roulade with avocado, greek yoghurt, lobster roe powder and oil
[Wilson and Lepine prepared a take on this dish for CCC's first challenge, pairing it with 2008 Old Vines Riesling from Chateau des Charmes in Niagara]
Caviar: egg yolk (cooked sous vide), sea urchin, buttermilk, and caviar
[Think caesar salad, seriously!]
Cauliflower: roasted Cauliflower with grapes, almonds and curry
[served with cauliflower couscous, carrot curry sauce, cauliflower puree, and curried carrot and ginger broth]
Squash: spot prawn (sous vide in beurre blanc)
[served with butternut squash puree, glazed "coco" (cannellini) beans, butternut squash wedges and bacon crisps. And, finished with butternut squash bisque, pepitas, and pumpkin seed oil]
boar: wild Boar and foie torchon
[served with juniper berry crumble, minced butter nut mash, butter nut squash spheres, pickled king oyster mushrooms, red currents, brussel sprout leaves, beets, and fig pulp. And, finished with game vinaigrette]
lobster: lobster (sous vide in orange beurre blanc at 150F)
[served with yellow carrot puree, sugar snap peas glazed with chicken stock, Vadouvian curry granola. And, finished with citrus sabayon and cilantro leaves]
quail: quail (sous-vide @ 145F, glazed with honey and soy)
[served with orange puree with braised endives (cooked with saffron, ginger and shallots), medjool date balls. And, finished with date and quail jus with orange blossom water and phyllo allumette (sprinkled with orange juniper powder, parsley powder, and piment d'espelette)]
guinea fowl: guinea fowl (sous-vide @145F, brushed with brown butter)
[served with parsnip puree, Riesling-poached grapes, sauteed black trumpet mushrooms and oat crumble. And, finished with raisins and a guinea fowl sauce w/emulsified foie, red verjus, and red grapes]
I feel tributes dinners should be learning experiences, young chefs preparing dishes from well-respected and cutting-edge restaurants from around the world. A tribute dinner allows a brigade of passionate people to work together in a kitchen, usually donated, making dishes well outside their comfort zones. Or, tribute dinners should be more established chefs, preparing dishes from well-respected restaurants that have since shuttered their doors. These dinners are more homage to culinary history.
Lepine's El Bulli dinner at Atelier falls into the latter category. The EMP tribute dinners fall into the former category, foodiePrints having interviewed organizing chefs Wilson and Christofferson beforehand. Click here to read the interview.
While the meal was hours long, I think guests got their $125/person value eight courses in, many of the plates traditional entrée size. At my table were food bloggers, wine bloggers, sometimes beer bloggers, and a chef, Robin Bowen. We all left the table in wonderment, having partaken of a meal of significant undertaking. We all understood the effort involved. We all were grateful for being able to participate.
For one evening Wilson and Christofferson aimed to serve dishes that would be the talk of the town afterward. They succeeded.
Now, to yelp, if you think Ottawa is a culinary back water, watch this city. Give it time. It may well surprise you!
Update: Our wonderful wine blogger, Claire took photos during the dinner. Ours was the blogger table after all. Between the laughter, there were many camera clicks. Respectful of our fellow diners, there was no flash and we held up no course, sometimes finishing faster than the tables around us.
Wine was provided from Lifford Wine Agency. Sommelier Wallis even paired wine “on demans” for diners who did not opt into the official wine pairing.