The Gist: http://www.atelierrestaurant.ca/
The Why: A trained Sommelier who later transitioned to cooking only to work under the tutelage of Grant Achatz, Marc Lepine’s Atelier was the primary reason for a brief stop in Ottawa en route to Montreal from Toronto. With Lepine fresh off being named Canadian Culinary Champion after winning gold in Kelowna just a month prior I’d heard mixed about Atelier from people I respect and though I’ve generally found ‘mg’ to be rather hit and miss outside of Chicago the <$100 twelve course menu simply seemed too good to be true – the sort of thing I had to experience for myself.
The Reservation: With a dining room no larger than the average living room and tables well spaced so that a total of less than 30 diners can enjoy Lepine’s cuisine at any one time reservations are a must. I made mine by opentable.com over a month in advance for this particular Saturday and the only time available was 9:00pm, a late start for a 3+ hour meal – particularly after a drive from Toronto.
The Space: Sturdy wood tables, well polished and without tablecloths, plush seating and overhead spotlighting, crayon drawings on the wall, and a gleaming kitchen in the back – think wd~50 but smaller, Alinea but less serious – cozy but not at all stuffy.
The Service: Considering Lepine’s elaborate compositions I was absolutely stunned by the quality of dish presentations – not only from my primary server, a smiling young woman named Jamie – but also by two additional male servers and the Sommelier. Rapid but not rushed and clever without pretense I thoroughly enjoyed all of the servers and the tongue-in-cheek mannerisms that played into the evening’s theater.
The Food: Complimentary Bread and Popcorn, $95 12-course tasting, plus $30 9-course half-pour wine pairing by request ($60 9-course full-pour pairing also available.)
Bread with Tube Butter and Black Truffle Popcorn: The whimsy started quickly as a soft loaf of sliced bread arrived with a tube of what appeared to be Acrylic paint – or aerated butter in a tube. With a pliable crust and spongy crumb I can’t say the bread was anything to brag about, but the butter was clever – gently sweet – and with a touch of salt. For the gluten intolerant, popcorn dusted with black truffle imbued salt was offered and after finishing the loaf I requested that instead as the table of regulars next to me raved it and, well…yeah, black truffles + butter + salt = best popcorn ever.
The Citrus Beet: With the menu served as a collection of clever titles but no further descriptors the onus is on the server to keep the diner informed, and that is exactly what Jamie and all of her colleagues did. For my first course, and a sign of the complexities to come, I was served Seared Tuna with Togarashi crust amongst a bed of beets, citrus, and spice including a compressed beet sheet, tangerine imbued with saffron, pomello cells, blood orange slices, Fuscia flowers, jicama, mellon, and beet balls, a yellow beet string, and a small Hazelnut “clump.” Inevitably a salad course but obviously much more texturally and visually appealing once you got past the presentation this was simply an excellent salad with good balance of earth and sweet plus a touch of heat from the togarashi and a mellow cooling effect from what I’m guessing to have been a goat cheese holding together the hazelnuts.
The Codfather: Continuing the clever titles (and showing a fascination with cinema that would recur through the night) this dish would be one of the standouts of the evening as Sous-Vide Salt Cod was presented in a bed of Asian ingredients including a soy/mirin Reduction, lotus root baked in brown sugar, a crisp of Chinese Five-Spice, soy ‘paper,’ shredded aged tofu, and whole edamame, snap peas, cilantro, wasabi greens, scallions, and ginger. Another salad of sorts, but this time far more savory than sweet each bite was a different experience from the last and save for one particularly briny bite of the soy paper everything worked nicely together, the salt cod acting as an anchor to various tastes and textures.
2007 Domaines Schlumberger Grand Cru Kessler Riesling (Alsace, France) – Generally thinking of Riesling as sweet I was surprised how much I liked this. Lemony at first and rich without much sugar at all I really enjoyed liked how the acid balanced out the salty aspects of the dish.
Liver Let Die: How do you get chicken liver to be as smooth and creamy as foie gras? Apparently you take chicken liver, make it into a mousse, then freeze it and crush it. Take that composition, now room temperature, and place it next to a pair of purees – mustard and “chicken pot pie” then add in some buckwheat brioche, fermented garlic, plum and rhubarb cooked in Grenadine, julienned apples, and finally some chives and what do you get? A big, fussy, overly complicated plate of delicious…something that could certainly have been accomplished with far fewer steps (and perhaps a few fewer ingredients) but the kind of dish where the variety itself acted to make each bite as compelling as the last.
2007 Cave de Turckheim Grand Cru Hengst Gewürztraminer (Alsace, France) – a touch sweeter than the Riesling and a lot more smoky this was another great pairing with the fruit tones acting to compliment the liver while the more subtle earthy notes worked well with the fruits. Another really excellent pairing that somehow managed to work with a rather diverse plate.
Crabby Caesar: …and then there was this, when the complication became almost obscuring. Described as a deconstructed Caesar salad…with half of a soft shell crab that was deep fried and dusted in celery salt…the rest of the plate consisted of tobasco habanero meringue, clamato gel, anchovy mayonnaise, Israeli cous cous with Worcestershire, fried capers, olives, lemon and black pepper cookie crumbles, Meyer lemon marmalade, house made cocktail sauce, pickled celery, pickled Jerusalem artichoke, artichoke chips, opal basil, hummus, and finally smoked paprika taihini. Generally capable of teasing out the finer points of a plate this was a case where there was simply too much going on – sure the overall taste was good there simply was no way to appreciate everything going on, except perhaps the crab; perfectly crisp on the exterior giving way to a sweet, nearly melting interior.
2008 Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling (Niagara, Canada) – Bringing the sweetness up a peg this local Riesling from what was reported to be the oldest vines in Canada was probably my favorite wine of the evening, a rich dry flavor with a lot of fruit and a bit of mineral. Trying to refresh my palate between bites of the crab (in order to perhaps appreciate the nuances more) I finished my half-pour quite quickly and was replenished without request – a nice touch.
Lego: For course 5 a dish previously called the “Tomatrix” was delivered and while the concept was certainly a novel one I have to say the execution was the worst of the night. Essentially a construction project with a goal of building up to a total of 100 ingredients by adding one on each day I happened to be there on Day 9 and as such received a gazpacho sphere with jicama disc, spruce tip, yellow pepper puree, cucumber, tomato, purple basil, cilantro, celery salt. Tasting like a bloody Mary minus the booze but with a bit of pine there was nothing here that really fit my palate even if the idea itself was an interesting one.
#ccc2012 Culinary Championship: At the midway point I’d see Chef Lepine’s award winning dish, a superlative “surf and turf” consisting of a seared sea scallop juxtaposing a deep fried Chorizo meatball served over truffled pommes puree, and topped with bacon powder and bacon bits, fennel pollen and dehydrated fennel, plus lemon-thyme shallot sauce, lovage, and a compressed celery sheet. Complicated, but not simply for the sake of complication I particularly loved how the aromatic potatoes melded the sweetness of the scallop and the spice of the pork while the aromatics of the fennel and shallots hid in the background lingering on the finish.
2009 Hidden Bench Chardonnay (Niagara, Canada) – Light but a bit ‘oaky’ for my palate this was my least favorite white of the evening yet considering the savoriness of the course with which it was paired the flavor certainly was not ‘bad,’ particularly as it related to the meatball.
Marrakesh Express: Probably my favorite course of the meal this presentation of sous vide leg of lamb in ‘Moroccan spice sauce’ along with goats cheese, chickpea croquettes, pistachio eggplant puree, green garlic foam, garlic confit, and pureed date was essentially a modernist take on the traditional tagine. At times sweet and at others spicy but at all times aromatic and texturally compelling I particularly loved the croquettes – crunchy bites of chickpeas with a nearly liquid center making the bites of lamb all the more flavorful when taken in succession.
St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout (Quebec, Canada) – I tried. I swear I did. I just can’t drink beer – especially Stouts – and one sip was enough to confirm that I didn’t want to ruin the rest of the meal. I’m sure in some circles this makes me less a man, but I guess I can live with that. For what it’s worth, the fella at the table next to me had nothing but raves.
The Boar Identity: Moving on to the first of two locally sourced wild-game courses, another outstanding presentation would arrive featuring wild boar belly from Mariposa Farms (a place we’d visit < 12 hours later,) alongside white bean and tomato cumin puree, pickled shallots and purple cabbage, caraway seed ‘gel,’ diced potatoes, jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro, and a deep fried plantain. Complex and unexpected in many ways with the protein itself almost acting as savory seasoning to the fruits and vegetables on the plate I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the pickled components and the sweet plantain plus the aromatic puree – the cumin particularly rising to the palate and working particularly well with the smokiness of its wine pairing…
2009 Cave Spring Dolomite Pinot Noir (Niagara, Canada) – The best pairing of the evening, in my opinion, this was perhaps the best red I’ve had since Paris – a rich and fruity Pinot with a lot of richness in the mouth that dazzled with the diversity flavor profiles from the aggressively flavored plate with which it was paired.
Elka Seltzer: The final savory of the evening, course nine, would show Lepine’s fondness for the immersion circulator again – this time with an intensely mineral and earth presentation of blood-red elk tenderloin rolled in black trumpet mushroom crust. Fork tender and full of flavor with an accompaniment of trumpet, maitake, and hedgehog mushrooms plus celery root puree and chicken stock enriched with dark chocolate this was the sort of dish where each bite teetered on the edge of ‘too rich’ only to be pulled back temporarily by pearl onions rendered in red wine vinegar and figs, both adding much needed levity.
2008 FitaPreta Tinto (Alentejo, Portugal) – Smooth and aromatic with a distinct earthiness and a sort of coffee undertone that worked beautifully with the chocolate stock and minerality of the elk this was another great pairing but having now been eating for the better part of six hours and drinking quite a bit more than usual I have to say this glass weighed quite heavily on me, both in the belly and the brain.
Parsnip Cake: Assuming nothing ordinary of the desserts I was surprised by the lack of clever title, but with a dense coffee cake made from mashed parsnips as its base this certainly was not a typical dessert. Semi-sweet but more so buttery and savory the cake was garnished with dehydrated parsnip chips and crumble parsnip cookie for texture plus brown butter powder, caramel, pineapples poached in vanilla, birch sugar ice cream, and finally the zest of Keffir lime to form an almost tropical flavor profile. Interesting and far more delicious than other vegetable cakes I’ve had at Schwa and Ko I particularly liked the ice cream here – a light mint that worked well with both the heft of the cake and particularly the lime.
2007 Villabella Fiordilej Passito (Veneto, Italy) – A sweet white poured sparingly this was an interesting wine as it was certainly a ‘dessert wine’ but far less sweet than the one that would follow, a sort of honey flavor at first but then a flavor that sort of reminded me of peanut butter.
What Lies Beneath: Anticipating another fruit-based dessert for course 11 I was partially correct when this one arrived featuring a “frozen passionfruit noodle cage” but also somewhat surprised when it was served over top of frozen chocolate ganache crumble, dark chocolate cookie crumble, Jack Daniels meringue, tonka bean yogurt, buttermilk, and spicy almonds. Apparently formed into a gel and frozen with a liquid nitrogen stream as it was piped the ‘cage’ was intensely tangy and slowly melting while the amalgam below of dark chocolate was made rendered even more bitter than usual by the whisky-laced puffs. Toying with both extremes of the taste spectrum while using the smooth yogurt and peppered almonds as a sort of bridge the final surprise of this dessert was the inclusion of pop-rocks – an unannounced guest that left everyone in the room smiling. All things being equal I can’t say this was the best dessert I’ve ever tasted, but it was definitely one of the most unique.
2008 Konrad Wines Noble Two (Marlborough, New Zealand) – With a dessert so wide ranging it seemed logical for the sommelier to go over-the-top sweet with the pairing and while I think an ice wine would have been more appropriate (being in Canada and all) this tropically flavored Riesling blend certainly did not lack in the expected sweetness or smooth mouth feel, plus it brought the added perk of a sort of oaky finish that worked nicely with the spice from the almonds.
Mental Menthol: The final bite of the evening, this presentation of icy menthol in a white chocolate sphere was paired with raspberry sauce, individual raspberry ‘kernels,’ and dehydrated lemon meringue was a breath mint to rule all others – both the flavor and the temperature numbing to the mouth and leaving behind the faint linger of a lemonhead candy.
The Verdict: Obviously a shock n’ awe sort of restaurant, Atelier did an admirable job of offering both food and fun with a service staff that fit Chef Lepine’s whimsical sense of humor to a t. Seemingly out of place in a Canadian landscape where molecular cuisine is not nearly as widely embraced as in the United States or Europe I think Atelier fills an important gap in the local food scene and while some dishes were seemingly complicated simply for the sake of being complicated most of them offered something delicious while all of them at least brought some interesting technique to the table. Certainly not the ‘destination’ restaurant that many of world’s best ‘mg’ restaurants have become I particularly appreciated the half-pour wine pairings, an educational opportunity for someone with quite a low tolerance featuring some things I’d have never opted to try otherwise and I would definitely return if I should ever find myself back in Ottawa.