One of the mainstay characteristics of ethnic cultures is communal dining.
Consider shared plates, be they for home cooked meals or elaborate multi-course wedding banquets.
Ethiopian cuisine serves long-cooked flavourful dishes on platters lined with fluffy sheets of wonderfully sour injera bread. Chinese cuisine serves chicken, fish, and pork or beef dishes communally, diners furnished with small bowls of rice and chopsticks.
Not a buffet, the table dynamics translate into every diner having equal access to the food served. It is a more personalized dining experience, everyone permitted to create their own.
Conversely, the dynamics of individually plated meals translate into culinary microcosms for diners. Individual diners retreat to the confines of their own plates. It is actually an intimate act for a diner to share a taste with another.Now, let’s take one step further. Consider sharing the act of preparing your meal, seated and table-side. This is fondue.
Until last Monday, I knew only the oriental-tradition of simmering broth-based fondue. Chinese (also “Mongolian”) “hot pot,” Japanese “shabu shabu,” and Korean “steamboat” are all based on the same principle: flavourful broth or stock in which meat (thinly sliced beef, chicken, and/or pork), seafood (fish, shrimp, scallops, calms, mussels), tofu (firm or “puffs”), and vegetables (bok choy, napa cabbage, spinach, lettuce, winter melon, bean sprouts, shallots, mushrooms) are cooked, mostly from raw. The resulting cooking liquid becomes a rich soup that tends to be eaten with noodles. Essentially, fresh and healthy ingredients are cooked and shared amongst a gathering of people around a burner (usually gas or induction), heating a shallow pot.
In Gatineau, there is a purveyor of more mainstream fondue (and raclette), “Meule Et Caquelon” (74 Boulevard Gréber): cheese (“melted stuff”), oil, and chocolate.
Chef Patrick Garland decided to introduce a three-course fondue meal at Absinthe Cafe in trendy Hintonburg.
Normally reserved for special occasions, fondue is familiar to many as a Christmas or New Years Eve treat, a luxurious midnight indulgence with family. Along with the nostalgia, however, come reservations. Tea light candles never heat fondue pots properly. Many cheap sets tend to be fragile. Specialized fondue burners with “blue liquid” or “gel” fuel are required to heat oil or broth. If not careful, the setup can catch fire.
Garland, being an ardent traditionalist when it comes to fine food, has quite the collection of French copper cookware, numbering almost 200 pieces. His menu is a balance of classical technique, international inspiration, and local ingredients. At Absinthe, you will find sauce grebiche, mushroom duxelle, celeriac remoulade, and pâté de campagne on the same menu as Korean barbecue quail. Playful, some of the more creative charcuterie plates in Ottawa are served here. One featured a duck confit pogo.
With a strong retro vibe, it wasn’t much of a surprise Garland scrounged up the stands and enamel-coated cast-iron fondue pots for a multi-course ($44/person) that begins with rich and flavourful cheese (traditional Swiss moitié-moitié), continues with oil, and finishes with luscious chocolate (65% dark).
Served on Mondays, when Absinthe’s dining room is less busy, we consider the fondue meal an elegant option for an intimate date night. While there are some fondue rites and rules, there is no meal more conducive to boisterous laughter. If you sit perfect strangers together at a table with a fondue pot, they will quickly become friends.
Consider the following remarks that came from my table at the soft launch of fondue night: “Can we forget forks and eat the cheese with spoons?”; “Sorry for playing with your meat!”; “Hey! Give me back my poker!”; “Do you think Chef would mind if I drink from the [chocolate] fondue pot?”
Fondue Moitié-Moitié (paired with 2011 Niagara Tawse Riesling)
Think fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and house-baked bread, each bite enveloped in an impossible coating of 50:50 gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois AOC.
Fondue Bourguignonne (paired with 2010 Chateau La Dominique St. Emilion Bordeaux)
When asked, enthusiasts tend to point out savoury fondue success depends on sauces. Well versed in the world of sauce-making, Garland does not disappoint: creamy and savoury garlic and anchovy; cooling ranch; spicy buffalo; and blue cheese “Rébellion 1837.”
The accompanying crudité was lovingly prepared, carved by hand. It was served with a “Green Goddess” sauce that worked equally well with the beef.
Valrhona Caraque Fondue (paired with Graham’s 10 Year old Tawny Port)
When our pot was switched out and we were served our third tray of edibles, Garland remarked, “You know those airline brownies… the only edible things on the flight?”
Fruit is traditional. Dipping dense and flourless brownies in chocolate, however, isn’t for the faint of heart. For a brief moment, angels sing.
A restaurant that opened on Holland Avenue in a much smaller space in 2003, three menu items persevere: the hanger steak frites, escargot gratin, and Benevolent burger. The burger, which is made from hanger steak trim, is benevolent because $1 from each sold goes to the Cornerstone women’s shelter.
I hope fondue joins the steak frites, gratin, and burger as regular menu options.
The optional wine pairing costs another $26/person.
Absinthe Cafe Resto Bar
1208 Wellington Street