Thursday, January 24, 2013

Atelier - Part 2

Hi there!

OK, so I'm back to finish off my exploration of the gastronomic safari that is dinner at Atelier. Please keep in mind that I'm working 3 months after the fact and a lot of this is coming purely from incomplete notes.

10th Plate - "Appletini, Appletini, Appletini?" - photo by kira_generika

And now, dessert time! The first course "Appletini, Appletini, Appletini?" (I have no idea what the heck the name is all about) was a celebration of apples, obviously, and the chef was clearly have one helluva party with them! I'll try my best to explain all that was going on here. There were pieces of poached apple, an apple and sorrel sauce, apple cider foam, apple-sour cream cake, as well as a hazelnut and white chocolate ice cream, a chocolate caramel "paint" (I think) and pieces of dehydrated chocolate mousse. This last component was definitely my personal favourite on this plate; it was like sponge toffee, but in chocolate form - super crunchy, rich and tasty. I also quite enjoyed the marriage of the apple flavours with the white chocolate-hazelnut ice cream. Very bright and fun, but still pretty damn rich.

11th dish - (Your Name Twice), Pumpkin Eater
Next up, the requisite pumpkin dessert. Kari was wary, not being a pumpkin fan, but needn't have been. This course was quite an enjoyable departure from the standard, and overbearing, pumpkin pie flavour profile. The dish was made up of a chestnut-pumpkin cookie, a pumpkin mostarda (a kind of sweet pickle), a coconut-ginger sorbet, something that appeared to be a disk of pumpkin pie filling (but not sure what they actually called it), homemade granola (which was a bit peppery, in an awesome way), a coconut macaroon, coffee paint, and a bunch of other stuff! I really liked how they played the "heaviness" of traditional pumpkin flavourings with bright and refreshing flavours like coconut and ginger.

Special birthday course - Shattered Dreams

Hey, it's my birthday! So, for an added bonus, I get cake! Although in this case it's shortbread with buttercream icing frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed into pieces by our server. Hence the name "Shattered Dreams". I discovered a couple of interesting things through this "bonus" dish: first, liquid nitrogen is kinda epically cool, and two, not sure I like the texture it creates in baked goods... It was damned tasty, but it felt a little like chewing on fibreglass. Maybe Atelier's version of the birthday bumps?

Last dish - A Mangoes into a Bar...

And finally, the last dessert, A Mangoes into a Bar (ba-dum-bump). It consisted of (so far as I can remember) pieces of fresh mango, cardamom ice cream, funnel cake, crushed pistachio bits and dried mango soaked in vermouth. While this sounds like a lot of big, kick-in-the-face flavours, it was actually a nice light way to end the night and cleanse the palette. The flavours were fresh and bright and it was a perfect way to end the night. Probably my favourite dessert of the night (although the dehydrated chocolate mousse bits in the Appletini dessert win best dessert element).

So there you have it, a remarkable foodie experience - definitely a fascinating and delicious birthday treat!

Now, if restaurants were simply about food, then this would be in the running for top meal ever. Unfortunately, service does play a role and I found the snobbishness of our server didn't mesh well with such fun and playful dishes. He should of at least laughed at the bad jokes!

I'm curious if there wasn't an intentional "good cop-bad cop" kind of dynamic going on since the sommelier was very easy-going and down-to-earth (which aren't really the qualities one expects in a sommelier), in contrast to our reservedly smug server.

But really, that is my only complaint, and it's minor in the grand scheme of things. It would have also been nice to have gotten the details of the plates in writing, but I'm nitpicking out of blogger laziness. Lord knows trying to scribble the notes while the server described each dish was pretty damn challenging.

As for the dining experience, I would, should money accommodate, try Atelier again, but not until they did a total menu revamp. I'd very much like to see how such a culinary production evolves with the seasons.

In the end, was it worth the hundreds of dollars in output? I say yes, if only for the incredible variety, creativity and boldness of the food. Not being a dessert person, however, I found myself wishing for more meat, less sweet (especially when the dessert courses were larger than many of the dinner courses). But the desserts were pretty remarkable and I would not want to take away from them.

So that pretty much wraps up the gastro-journey that is a meal at Atelier! Kudos again to the chefs!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Toast to My Hometown's Better Eateries - Atelier - Part 1

Hi there!

Yep, it's time for another account of an over-the-top culinary experience. The occasion? My 38th birthday! Now, the occasion (Oct. 16) has long since passed, but I had trouble getting all the pics and write-ups organized. Also, what I'm writing here are memories of impressions of flavours I experienced nearly 3 months ago, so accuracy might not be dead on. Then again, those flavours I DO remember and can describe in detail should help give you an idea of just how *good* this food was.

Note: After trying to get this posted in one go for months now, I decided that splitting it up into two posts was the way to go. After all, we are talking about 14 total courses here! So, the first part will cover the 10 savoury courses and the second part will cover dessert and my overall impression. Essentially, this is one big post split in two mostly to salvage my brain and your eyes.

So let's get to it!

As a birthday present, I asked Kari if she could treat me to a culinary adventure at one of Ottawa's somewhat well-kept secrets in dining, Atelier Restaurant. The brainchild of chef/owner Marc Lepine, Atelier provides 12-plate tasting extravaganzas, and that's it! Each meal (escapade? tasting safari?) takes about 3 hours and there are optional wine pairings as well as an extensive by-the-bottle wine list. The cuisine can best be described as "evil and tasty genius" with lots of neat-o techniques like sous-vide and molecular gastronomy being put into place, which I appreciated, having seen many of these interesting techniques on TV, but they aren't really commonly accessible for the average foodie in Ottawa.

Atelier is a food snob's paradise and they know it. The Soviet-style "no need for a sign" exterior makes a clear statement that if you don't know how to find the place, maybe you shouldn't have bothered. But, that being said, the interior is quite warm and intimate.

Very austere decor on the outside

So, as we were sat down, we were given our wine pairing list and menu:

Wine pairing

The menu - details to be provided!
Our server was quite soft-spoken and, unfortunately, a bit aloof. Which, considering the pedigree the establishment is trying to put together, is understandable, but not always the best way to engage a people-person like Kari. Oh well... Let's get on with the food!

First up were a series of fun little amuse-bouches. Just from this initial display, I knew it was going to be a fun night by my tongue and tummy!

A plethora of "amuse-bouches"
In the shot glass was a combination of 25 spices designed to replicate the flavour of a gin and tonic. it was definitely a wake-up call for the palette.

Next was fried chicken skin (in the centre of the plate) with little dots of jalapeno and plum purée. What's to say? It's fried chicken skin! Bag that stuff and sell it at the local Mac's Milk!

Next was a one-bite tuna tartare (just to the front and right of the shot glass) with passion fruit and jerk spices. This was an interesting dish as it metamorphosized from a sort of muddied bite into an explosion of bright fruit flavour and delicious fish with a spicy kick ,but not too much.

Next up was a little chickpea and yogurt "doodle" on date purée. This was another magical transformation as the flavours came together to remind me of an incredible one-bite samosa.

Finally, in the beakers at the left was a roasted garlic soup rimmed with eggplant calzone spices. It was a little tricky drinking the soup, but it was pretty delicious (hard to miss with roasted garlic!). I don't think I got the spices to mix with the soup the way the kitchen had intended, I just remember a burst of tomato goodness.

OK, now that the freebies were done with, out came the wine and the first of many plates.

1st dish - Undercover Salmon

The "Undercover Salmon" was called so because the fish under the piece of bread, which was actually a pumpernickel chip. Glad to see the chefs share my respect for the flavour of pumpernickel, a highly underrated bread, frankly...

As for the dish itself, it was really fun as you had to crack the chip to get at the sockeye salmon tartare beneath, which was flavoured with lemon sambuca (I think) and tarragon. Very subtle flavours to accompany the salmon which was delicious. The dish was rounded out with a quail egg, edible flowers and a finger pepper. There was a beautiful moment of decadence as I made sure I got a nice piece of fish, chip and the quail egg in my gob all at once. Soooooo gooooood!

2nd dish - Mini Mozza

The second dish was called "Mini Mozza" and centred around a pair of fresh mozzarella balls (snicker here). This was an interesting version of a Caprese salad, with cherry tomato, marinated eggplant, edible flowers, fresh basil and a milk barley foam serving as the dressing (maybe? A lot of this stuff is out of my league for interpretation). Then there were the interesting mad scientist touches of broccoli and heart of palm purées (the green and beige "jellies" on the plate). On top of that was a sprinkling of dehydrated olive which added a nice rich salty finish.

But all of these elements were bowing at the feet of the meat element: pieces of fried pork jowl, which were basically like the bacon God made on the 7th day because He needed to outdo the previous 6 days work via pork. Yeah, that.

3rd dish - Liquid Orange Sticks

Dish 3 was called Liquid Orange Sticks and this was sort of the soup course for the evening. was built around carrot broth with chorizo, oyster plant and pickled Israeli couscous. There were other elements (the white powder was freeze-dried something) but I couldn't write all the details in time. That being said, the most memorable elements of this were the fantastic combo of the carrot soup with the chorizo (definitely something that I'll attempt to make in the future), and the pickled couscous, which was like little flavour grenades - a kind of sweet-and-sour Pop Rocks...

4th Plate - Black and Green (photo by kira_generika)

Next was Black and Green, the second of four fish/seafood dishes (which was quite the surprise for me, who never can get enough fish and seafood). This dish consisted of tempura halibut cheeks with squid ink alongside a garlic pistachio purée, a kind of whipped avocado, corn nuts(?) and slices of jalapeno peppers.

Really, the star here was the fish. It was delicate, flavourful and tender, with the tempura adding a crispy and greasy undertone. It was a fun little juxtaposition of refined and dirty. The purée added an extra dimension of flavour, but got a little lost next to the fish. I don't really even remember that rest of the elements.

But really, they could have just served the halibut cheeks naked on a plate and I would have been happy...

5th Plate - Tofulery

And the food just keeps on coming... Up next was the first plate that had me cocking an eyebrow. it was called "Tofulery" and as someone who generally keeps the bean curd at arms' length, I wasn't sure what to expect.

The dish consisted of smoked tofu in a dashi broth with soba noodles, porcini and lobster mushrooms, ginger and Chinese greens. There were probably more ingredients than that, but I didn't have time to write them down... (I'm still not sure if the the white stuff in the picture is egg or tofu!)

I needn't have worried about the tofu though, it was quite tasty! The whole thing tasted like a very high-end miso soup: salty, rich and warming. Not the best dish of the night, but possibly the nicest surprise.

6th Plate - Sebastien and Pinchy (photo by kira_generika)

And here we have the hands-down winning plate of the night: Sebastien and Pinchy, an homage to lobster.

This was a combination of crab salad and lemon-poached lobster meat with zucchini, celery, and spice cake, topped with brown butter and served on a reduced lobster stock.

Verdict? OH MY SWEET GOD, BEST PIECE OF LOBSTER EVER!!!!!!!! Which means that it's possibly the best bite of anything I've ever had in my life. I cannot give enough kudos to the kitchen team for this one. The lobster was tender, sweet, exquisitely balanced by the lemon and totally worked with the veggies. The spice cake wasn't necessary (as spice cake in savory dishes can be, this isn't the first time I've thought this) and I think I made sure to eat it apart from the lobster and crab salad for that very reason. Also, the crab seemed to be just a couple of degrees south of fresh. It was delicious, but it was a subtle bit funky.

Now, I would like to point out to the creative team that makes up the names of the plates at Atelier that Sebastien (from The Little Mermaid) and Pinchy (Homer Simpson's pet lobster) are BOTH lobsters, but we'll let it slide this time...

I seem to remember that once I'd finished this plate and had the corresponding crustacean foodgasm, I went outside for a smoke and to digest a little.

7th dish - Like a Sturgeon

Next up, more fish! Um, OK!!

I'd never had sturgeon before so I wasn't sure what to expect. Would it taste oily and "fishy"? Would it be super light and delicate like the halibut cheek had been? After all these plates, the flavours would need to be pretty bold to keep me from losing interest.

I was in luck, this tasted like fish should: delicate, but with pronounced flavour. In this case, the fish had a subtle bitterness that nicely went with the Moroccan spices in which it was seared.

Complimenting these flavours was a kind of chickpea/olive/apricot relish. The plate was also served with pieces of grilled (I think) artichoke, red pepper purée and a goat cheese/cauliflower foam. I found that the foam was a bit understated when eaten with the fish, but it was quite lovely on its own.

8th dish - Piggie Smalls

Well, I'll be damned, time for some mammal!

Next up was Piggie Smalls: Crazy porcine goodness with tons of extras. The plate consisted of sous-vide pork leg in some kind of rich tangy sauce with cherry tomatoes, artichoke purée, grated Gouda, garlic powder (but freshly-made magic cooking science garlic powder), chimichurri, slices of beet, charred corn and pickled chantrelle mushrooms served over a habanero "paint" on the plate. Basically it was a kind of Barbecue Salad with elements of Tex-Mex. REALLY tasty, if not revolutionary. The pork leg was cooked terrifically, with subtle hints of ham coming through even though it hadn't been cured or smoked.

The only "gaffe" was that I think the habanero paint had been painted on some time before serving, like maybe an hour or two! It was stuck, almost dried, on to the plate and as such I really wasn't able to incorporate it into the other flavours. That was really too bad, because I betcha it was DELICIOUS!

9th dish - Land of the Rising Bison
The last of the savory dishes was Land of the Rising Bison, consisting of pieces of grilled bison loin, kohlrabi slices with soymilk gel (the round tubular dealies), fennel, green bean tips, cashew tuile (the long thin pieces that look like crispy noodles), a cashew-coriander crumble, fermented green tea and cilantro oil.

By this dish, a little taste bud exhaustion had set in. Looking back, there are only a few elements that were able to etch themselves onto my palette so as to remember what it tasted like. The first was the bison itself: perfectly cooked and delicious, melt-in-your mouth tender. The juice from the meat mixed well into the fermented green tea pooling beneath it to make a remarkably unique jus. Second, the cashew tuile was wonderful, like candy, but paired well with the rest of the dish. Unfortunately, the rest of the plate was a bit more understated and as such was lost next to the flavour of the meat.

To be continued!