Ottawa: L’Atelier

I’m leaving for a business trip today and so I thought I would leave you guys with another entry at a restaurant from my last one to Ottawa.

L’Atelier, one of 2009 En Route’s top new restaurants, is the most experimental restaurant I’ve eaten at in Canada. It incorporates molecular gastronomy, using modern techniques and technology.  Chef/owner Marc Lépine worked briefly with Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and spent time working in Toronto, France and Italy.

His plating was original and meticulous. As well, many of the vegetables and edible flowers used were grown in the garden right behind the restaurant.  Although he took many risks with certain flavour combinations, they weren’t always balanced and at times the dishes lacked substance.

I’ve listed a few amusingly named dishes from our twelve course dinner.

concord grape sphere

Amuse – Concord grape juice sphere with pop rocks. Fun way to kick off the meal. An explosion of fire works in your mouth. I felt like a kid again.

bread and butter in toothpaste tube

I liked the experience of squeezing out my butter onto a dry piece of bread but then I needed to use a knife to spread it.  The butter needed more salt.

L Atelier savage garden

Savage Garden: wild coho salmon, smoked avocado puree, dill flowers, cucumbers, lemon confit, edible flowers and kumquat.  Delightfully presented. Considering the name of the dish, I didn’t expect to see so many garden flowers.  This dish could have reached another level had the chef incorporated at least one or two foraged items.

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Curraty Chops: barley crumble, puréed carrots, pickled and roasted.  An homage to carrots.  I enjoyed that the carrots were prepared three different ways which showcased the various flavours and consistencies.  The barley added extra texture.  However, the flavours didn’t have enough depth.  For instance, I would have wanted the roasted carrots to be much sweeter.

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Bisontennial: bison prepared sous vide with a sweet potato puree, foam of beef bone marrow, pearl onions, roasted brussel sprouts and a shaving of black truffle from Italy. The bison was precisely cooked sous-vide which made it juicy and tender.  The beef bone marrow gave the dish depth.  My only criticism was that the slice of black truffle didn’t add any value. It was dry, wilted and un-aromatic.

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Stick up: lychee sorbet with a strawberry coating propped up on an Australian pine cone (the pine cone was inedible).  Playfully presented.  Fun way to cleasne the palette.  Loved it!

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Hello nasty: nasturtium leaves, nasturtium sponge cake and crumble, chocolate and clementine.  Incorporating vegetables in desserts is a growing trend.  Well done.

L’Atelier has a vital place in the Canadian progressive food scene. However, I felt the flavour combinations needed to be thought through further to generate a more polished final product.

540 Rochester Street, Ottawa

www.atelierrestaurant.ca

Tasting menu price per person = $110

NYC: Blanca (Brooklyn)

For our first and only outing to Brooklyn last December, we decided to try the tasting menu at Blanca.  We first checked-in at Chef Mirarchi’s more casual and hipster pizzeria Roberta’s. Then we waited inside near their bar until we were escorted by staff through a maze of separate spaces and buildings to the Blanca dining room.  We were seated at the bar overlooking the open kitchen in an airy and minimally decorated room.

Blanca

The chef showcased 25 dishes, mostly bite sized with Italian, Japanese and Mexican influences.  Personally 25 courses is a lot for a 2.5 to 3 hours meal.  I’ve been to tasting menus where there were only 6 courses and I enjoyed every single dish.  With 20+ the chef undoubtedly tucks in a few fillers.  As a result, nothing blew my mind.  What I appreciated most about this meal was that I was introduced to a lot of unfamiliar ingredients.

Except for the dining area, all photos were forbidden.  Lately, some chefs are banning photographing food their customers are eating and paying for.  Some of the reasons behind this include protecting intellectual property, preserving the element of the unknown for future customers or avoiding the publication of undesirable pictures.

So I’ll go through just a few of the dishes to peak your curiosity.

Course #2: Glass shrimp with blood orange with poppy seeds. The transparent bottom feeder had a distinctive chewiness but lacked flavour.  The blood orange added freshness and the poppy seeds gave texture.  Overall, a dish that appeared exotic but ended up being lackluster.

Course # 9: Soft tofu with purple kale.  This was one of those filler dishes. If the ingredient can be easily re-created by everyday people, it’s the chef’s job to elevate it to new heights.The chef made the silken tofu from scratch with an apple juice broth with a piece of blanched kale.   The tofu was in fact soft and very silky. Although he wanted to show case his tofu making skills, the dish was lifeless. I did not see how it added value to the meal.  He could have and should have done something much more groundbreaking.  Simply adding juice and a cruciferous was uninspiring.

Course #12: Mini plankton agnelotti.  Plankton are “floaters,” organisms in the ocean including algae, zooplankton (“animal plankton”), phytoplankton (plankton that are capable of photosynthesis), and bacteria. The black plankton purée burst in my mouth with a fresh and creamy sea flavour.  The most memorable savory dish of the evening.

Course #18: For our bread course we were presented with a home-made baguette, wheat loaf and a Hawaiian roll.  I loved the Hawaiian roll.  Instead of three different breads, of which two were just very ordinary, I would have much simply preferred two Hawaiian rolls. The airy half sphere was made with pineapple juice and topped with black salt.  The bread had a honest pineapple flavour without being artificially fruity. There should have been more items like this one on the menu.  Nothing too creative but still very special.

Course #24: Culantro sorbet with horchata (Mexican black rice) ice cream.  Culantro is the spicy cousin of cilantro and sometimes called a Mexican cilantro.  Keeping with the trend of incorporating leafy green veggies into desert items, the sorbet had a very strong healthy flavour.  The black rice foam toned the sharpness of the culantro.

For a satisfactory meal I felt the dinner was overpriced at $195 per person, not including taxes and gratuities. And very few of the dishes were stand outs.  The quantity was overwhelming and didn’t leave me longing for any one item.  The mish mash of dishes clouded my memory.  At one point, in the middle of our meal, I felt like trying his pizza.  So we asked if there was a way to circumvent Roberta’s long wait list.  For your information, apparently customers queue up for up to 2 hours.  The wait staff kindly informed us that they could only add us to the list like every other customer and the optimal time to put our names down would be around 9:45pm, three-quarters way into our meal.  When we were done at around 10:30pm and reported to Roberta’s front desk, there was still a 30 minute wait.  At that point we decided our hunger for his pizza disappeared very quickly.  If a customer is paying top dollars for a tasting in, of all places, Brooklyn, for a passable meal, a bypass to the chef’s more casual fare would be the honorable thing to do.

www.blancanyc.com

Toronto: Splendido

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Hope y’all will be spending time with family and friends you love.  Instead of dining at a restaurant with a special prix-fixe V-day menu, my husband D. and I opted to have our dinner 2 weeks ago at Splendido for their exceptional Winter Tasting Menu.  The price was $125 per person for a 12 course feast,  superb service and delightful ambiance. Some of the best service in all of Toronto with the chef presenting some of the courses himself, soliciting our opinion and answering all of our questions.  They offer a 5 course menu for $75 as well.

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Smoked Oyster Potato & Chive: an incredible start to our 2.5 hours meal. The oyster, on top of a whipped, creamy and velvety potato purée, was perfectly smoked, only with a subtle hint of smokeyness. All topped off with a crisp apple chip.  Unfortunately, our waiter forgot to advise us of the Osetra Venetian Caviar supplement for $30.

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Norwegian Salmon Sashimi Avocado & Nori: the salmon was organically presented on top of a polished stone. The sashimi itself was nothing extraordinary but I did like the crunchy nori tempura and that one slice of spicy pepper which cleared my sinuses.

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Parsnip: Sorbet, Crumble & Foam. The creamy sorbet, bubbly foam and crackling chips were perfectly combined. This was an incredible frosty version of an underused winter root veg.  The sweet and savouriness were well-balanced with a mild but very unique flavour.   My second favorite course for the evening!  What I love most about a tasting is the element of the unknown and this was definitely a very cool surprise.

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Bolero Carrots Ginger, Coriander seed & Pumpkin oil: A four hours roasted carrot, pumpkin seeds and candied granola with a ginger jus. The carrot is taking a prominent role on many tasting menus that I’ve tried as of late.  At esteemed establishments such as at Eleven Madison Park (New York) and L’Atelier (Ottawa), chefs take the ordinary carrot and turn it into an extraordinary fare.  Still, just because you roast something longer doesn’t necessarily make it better. The carrot had a soft stewed consistency and was too sweet. I like my carrots roasted just enough so that the inside is soft and outer layer has a brown caramelized texture. Pumpkin seeds were a predictable pairing and the spiced granola was quite frankly very granola.  Too add dimension, I would have preferred a less familiar toasted seed such as poppy, black sesame or buckwheat.

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Jassen Farms Endive Crème Caramel & Garlic: at the bottom of the espresso cup, there was a layer of crème caramel, then polenta with sous-vide prepared endives, topped with garlic foam and a very generous shaving of Spanish Périgord black truffles.  I loved the silkiness of the crème with the effervescent foam and the bits of tangy endives.  Overall delectable but very sweet.  This was also my first time trying black truffles from Spain. It added some earthiness but overall I prefer the aroma and intensity of white truffles.

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Ingersoll Creamed Burrata Broccoli purée, Hazelnut & Honey:  My least favorite course and redundantly presented on top of another stone.  The poached burrata with puréed broccoli and lemon seemed very much like eating a spread without the cracker, piece of baguette or crudité.  In order to have the cheese stand out, chef Victor Barry could have displayed it in a more playful manner.

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Mille-Feuille Smoked Sweetbreads, Pomegranate navet & Vanilla jus: The sweetbreads were accompanied with button mushrooms and a mille feuille pastry. My sweetbreads were a tad bit too stringy for me but I enjoyed the crisp mille feuille and the tart pomegranate. The mushrooms didn’t add much value as its texture was very similar to the sweetbreads.

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Spanish Périgord Truffle Agnolotti Seti’s Ricotta: The evening’s winner!  After visiting Bologna, Italy, I truly appreciate a well made fresh pasta and Splendido did a phenomenal job. The whipped ricotta inside the agnolotti was frothy. The truffle oil had an enticing aroma and the black truffle bits gave the needed texture to complete a truly decadent dish.

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Hidden Bench Hen’s Egg Smoked Pulled Pork, Garlic butter and Fried chicken skin: I love it when chefs incorporate an interactive component.  In a hot mini cast iron we dropped the piece of herbed butter, cracked our own hen’s egg, mixed in the greens, added the pulled pork and topped it all off with deep-fried chicken skin. The flavour was uneventful but the preparation was fun.   This course was appropriately placed right before our refreshing palette cleanser.

 

splendido23Cornet Blue Spruce Sorbet: Creamy yet still invigorating.  The chef is following the trend of incorporating leafy greens into desserts.

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White Chocolate Tamarind cake, Nutmeg & Orange: Our plate came with a single white chocolate sphere.  The chef poured a hot orange bourbon sauce on top which then melted the chocolate and magically opened up the dessert.  Inside we discovered pieces of blood orange, tamarind cake and ginger ice cream.  The reveal and flavours were grand except the ginger ice cream was quite intense.

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Petit Fours: The maple marshmallow was the most interesting but the other petit endings did not satisfy my sweet tooth as I’m not a chocolate lover.

Overall, a very elegant evening.  A luxurious meal with some exceptional dishes. Definitely a worthwhile fine dining experience in Toronto to celebrate any occasion.

88 Harbord Street, Toronto, ON

splendido.ca

Tasting menu price per person = $99 or $150

Toronto: Momofuku Shoto

shoto1After our gastronomical adventures in Paris and Central Italy last fall, I thought it was appropriate to have my first gourmet meal back in Toronto at the highly written-about Momofuku Shoto for our anniversary. I hadn’t really thought of trying it until my friend J dined there for her own anniversary and kept raving about it.  I wasn’t impressed with NYC’s Momofuku Ssam or Toronto’s Momofuku Noodle bar and I also read mixed reviews about Shoto. So I showed up with minimal expectations for the 13 course meal using local/seasonal ingredients with some Asian inspiration. This dinner cost us $150 per head, not including taxes or gratuities, by far my most expensive tasting menu in Toronto.  For those of you who aren’t ready to take the full plunge, Shoto has recently introduced a 5-6 course tasting for $95 per person from Tuesday to Thursday evenings.

I’ll share some of my thoughts and photos on just a few of the dishes to give you a sneak peak..

Amuse bouche: the petit pot had a bone marrow mousse on top of a beet jelly.  The mousse and jelly complemented each other both in texture and flavour.  My first impressions were very positive and continued throughout the meal.

Lamb consommé

Lamb consommé

Lamb consommé poured onto ground lamb with eggplant and tomatoes wrapped in a rice paper roll. The consommé had a very clean flavour. An excellent rendition of a classic Cantonese dim sum dish normally filled with shrimp or ground beef and then topped with soy sauce before serving.

Spaghetti: ramen like noodles sautéed with crab meat in Momofuku’s spicy sauce topped with white kimchi.  The kimchi was crunchy and a bit sweet. Personally, being Korean, I would have preferred a more fermented and sour white kimchi. This was Shoto’s version of a Korean Bee-bim-myun (cold Korean buckwheat noodles sauteed in a red hot spicy sauce).

Foie gras

Foie gras

Foie gras: Le plat de résistance and distinctly presented in an egg shaped bowl. Ontario pickled plums with Ontario walnuts and Ontario Reisling gelée topped with shaved cured foie gras.   I prefer pan seared foie gras but this was one of the most unique, interesting, fun and flavorful ways I’ve tried non-seared foie gras.  I later saw on Serious Eats that this was one of NYC Momofuku Ko’s signature dishes. I’m not surprised that some of Shoto’s dishes are Ko’s original creations with tweaks here and there.  Regardless of the dishes inspiration, it was amazing! Loved it and will be talking about it for a long time.

Brisket: the last savory course and least favorite.  Roasted beef brisket with green onions, cilantro and a white sesame gelato. It was a slab of gourmet smoked meat without any bread to soak up the grease.  A heavy finish before our dessert courses.

Sweet cream and popped corn

Sweet cream and popped corn

Corn: sweet cream, cocoa and popcorn.  Ever since I tried Korean corn flavoured ice cream I love almost any dessert with corn.  The sweet corn flavour and popped corn texture are a fun tasting dessert pairing.

Peach dessert

Peach dessert

Peach: white chocolate, spice cake.  This was a deconstructed pie using Ontario roasted peaches and topped with peach ice cream. D was not crazy about this last course but I love fruit with my desserts as I find it adds a crip freshness.

We thought $150 was pricey for a pleasant but not so impressive ambiance.  Some diners expect a white table cloth setting and service for that price.  The dining room was a U-shaped bar around an open kitchen with leather stools. Pictures of your food are permitted but kitchen staff photos are forbiden (as I was warned twice)! On the other hand, I thought the flavours were balanced and David Chang’s team made appropriate use of fall local/seasonal produce. I whole-heartedly agree with Chris Nutshall’s 2012 review giving it an extraordinaire 4 stars for the food. It definitely tops my list of high end and pricey meals in T.O.

momofuku.com/toronto/shoto/

10 courses five days a week (tuesday – saturday, $150)

5-6 courses including both individually plated and sharing dishes (tuesday – thursday, $95)