My Mom and Step Dad have birthdays several months apart. We usually celebrate both at the same time – around my Mom’s birthday in April – by taking them out for dinner or to a spa; something we can all do together. This year, we left it until closer to George’s birthday, and tried something quite different: dinner at Atelier.
Atelier is a tiny (22 seats) but prestigious (and expensive) high-end restaurant that offers Ottawans something unavailable anywhere else in the city. Not only do they feature a blind 12-course tasting menu – meaning you go in, sit down, and eat what’s put in front of you without ever putting your hands on a menu – but the chefs use a combination of traditional and modern cooking techniques to plate their creations. It’s also probably the only place in Ottawa where you can sample food created using molecular gastronomy cooking techniques, which use chemicals, gasses, and other fun tools to embrace the science of food and to challenge the diner with new twists on traditional dishes that might feature powders, foams, dehydrated components, or frozen elements. These were complicated dishes, and some featured upwards of 50 components on a plate!
It certainly led to lively discussion between the four of us at the table. Of course, that was probably helped along by the wine-tasting we opted for as well. The restaurant’s sommelier, Steve, had arranged wine pairings for nine of the twelve courses – small tastes that would work out to about 3 full-size glasses of wine apiece over the course of the evening. Steve would come around before the plate was served, pour, and explain what to expect in the wine and why he chose it to go with the upcoming dish. Unfortunately, most of the wines are not available for us peons to buy at the provincial liquor store, and are only sold through consignment to restaurants. Sad face… we had some real beauties.
WARNING: This is gonna be a long post, because I want to record what we ate. Thankfully, Junkii got some great photos of each dish, but if I don’t write it down, we’ll forget. The foodies among you might enjoy the rest of this post, but most of you probably won’t care.
You can go to our SmugMug account if you just want to drool over the photos, but if you want to read about the dishes, you can just click to
Not a course in itself, but the restaurant did provide freshly made and lightly salted baguette – nothing special except that it was yummy and gave us something with which to wipe up any remaining sauces at the end of each course.
The bread was served with unsalted butter that had been whipped and stuffed into a tube. The tube even had a seal under the cap, which needed to be punctured like a tube of ointment. Strange, but playful, and a good indicator of what was to follow.
Course 1: Piccalilli Pork (Each course was named)
Our first taste featured a seared piece of smoked pork belly, with a variety of sauces and reductions. If we judge based on the TV series Top Chef, pork belly has gained a lot in popularity among higher-end restaurants. But mainstream supermarkets still don’t stock it, leading us to believe it’s still not popular in most Canadian kitchens. In a setting like this, then, it would probably be many diners’ first taste of pork belly. If that were the case, this dish would impress.
But the Chinese use pork belly on a regular basis and have really mastered it – slow cooking this fatty meat with spices to make intensely flavoured, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. With Junkii’s Chinese background and because we hang out with other foodies, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to enjoy pork belly. We even make our own PB dish at home. So, while good, we found the less-intense flavours of this particular dish unimpressive. We would have been terribly disappointed if the quality of the food hadn’t gone up from this point.
We weren’t disappointed.
Wine Pairing: This course had no pairing
Course 2: Waterworks
This one was all about different preparations of watermelon: watermelon rounds with grey salt, pickled watermelon rind, watermelon reduction, tapioca pearls soaked in watermelon juice and, most memorably, an encapsulation of watermelon juice. They basically froze the juice, encapsulated it in a clear film, and then melted the juice. It looks kind of like an egg yolk on the plate, but you could pick it up and pop it in your mouth – which we all did. Very fun food!
The other notable ingredient on this plate was smoked swordfish, which was one of the most memorable flavours of the entire evening.
Wine Pairing: 2008 Weingut Pfeffingen Scheurebe Spatlese (Germany). Loved this one, but then again, we generally love Rieslings, and the Scheurebe grape is a cross between Riesling and some unknown variety. Must try to find other Scheurebe wines at the LCBO!
Course 3: Welcome to the Jungle
This is a play on traditional tomato salad. The restaurant has it’s own garden behind the building where they grow many different heirloom varieties of tomato, summer squash, cucumber, and herbs. All of which made it onto the plate, again, along with a host of different sauces and reductions. This was probably the busiest plate of the evening, but it goes to show just how important local and freshly picked produce can be. Junkii, who generally doesn’t care for tomatoes, left the tomato to be his final bite of this dish!
The plate also featured fresh Bocconcini cheese, as well as some very flavourful fresh goat cheese.
Wine pairing: 2010 Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand). Not my favourite style of white but this one wasn’t bad. Wouldn’t seek it out though.
Course 4: Pretty Green
I would probably place this as my third favourite dish of the evening. The showcase here was a seared piece of butterfish, but it was topped with a foam made of salsa verde, and the combination of those flavours worked perfectly. The plate also featured a base of eggplant and Israeli couscous – an ingredient none of us has ever had before.
Wine Pairing: 2010 Gaia Estate Thalassitis Assyrtiko (Greece). Steve told us this would likely be the most challenging wine of the evening as it was more about mineral taste than fruit. Personally, I found it almost salty on its own, but my tablemates disagreed. This wine went through the most profound change when it was paired with the food however. A lot of the harsher side of the wine just disappeared from the palate, becoming more balanced. Nice pairing.
Course 5: Old England New Scallop Chowder
The second favourite dish of the evening, this one featured a seared diver scallop in a bacon foam. Served in a bowl, what you can’t see are the ingredients below the foam, which include crispy bacon, compressed celery, and a greens. The flavour in this dish was intense to say the least. The scallop could have been slightly less cooked, but that’s nitpicking. We would have gladly had a full bowl of this dish as a meal in itself.
Wine pairing: 2008 Rosehall Run Cuvée County Chardonnay (Canada). Unfortunately, Steve faltered here. Maybe it’s just that we don’t care for Chardonnay wines (which is true for me) but it’s more likely that we all find wines from Prince Edward County, Ontario to be lacking in general. It’s a fun place to visit, but the good wines are few and far between.
Course 6: The Bisque is Back/Lobster Roll
A two-in-one course, this one started with a punchy and bold lobster bisque, served in a shot glass that the chef suggested we take in one mouthful. More please!
It was followed by a twist on a lobster roll – which was more like a roulade – featuring Nova Scotia lobster rolled in sheets of avocado (which I assume were frozen, then cut, then thawed; they were so thin). The flavours were wonderful, but none of us found it tasted very strongly of lobster, which probably means there wasn’t a lot of meat in the dish. That’s okay by me since I may be allergic to that particular crustacean. I’ve had bad reactions before.
Wine Pairing: 2009 Weingut Studert-Prum Riesling Kabinett (Germany). Mmmm, another Riesling. Technically, less sweet than our first wine, but maybe due to what we were eating it with, the general consensus was that this was sweeter. I just called it delicious.
Course 7: Melon Love
Interesting presentation. The perfect cube of honeydew melon had been marinated and then compressed using a vacuum seal bag. It was then placed on a spoon with a clip that held a kaffir lime leaf (an aromatic ingredient common in Thai cooking) right where your nose would be when you put the spoon in your mouth. The entire thing was sitting in a piece of PVC pipe. Strange, but tasty, and a nice palate cleanser before the meat courses started to arrive.
Wine Pairing: This course had no pairing
Course 8: Smoked, Sous-Vide, Seared
The name refers to the three processes that they put the duck through to prepare this dish. So what you wind up with are very smoky, very tender (sous-vide cooks meat very slowly for a very long time), and yet slightly crispy pieces of duck breast. And that was served with brussel sprouts (which weren’t at all bitter) and heirloom carrots. A scattering of bacon lardons helped add crunch and augment the smokiness.
Wine Pairing: 2009 Lotus Pinot Noir (USA). None of us are huge Pinot fans, finding it too understated (our palates aren’t refined enough, maybe) but this one was good. Had a peppery/spiciness to it.
Course 9: Wagyu
And now we get to the favourite dish of the evening. Right across the board, we all loved this dish, which had two major components. The first, a strip of seared Kobe beef, was another new ingredient for us all. And if it always has that kind of tender texture, it’s no wonder Kobe beef is so sought after. This stuff just melted in our mouths.
The second component was a little burger patty made from the Kobe beef trimmings – and I just know it was seasoned with tarragon, one of my favorite herbs. Between the flavour in the burger and the smooth texture of the steak, this was easily the best of the evening.
Wine pairing: 2004 Bodegas Altanza Reserva Seleccion Rioja (Spain). A good wine, but nothing special. It didn’t augment the meal in any way, but it didn’t interfere either. Or maybe it was just that the beef dish was so good, the wine was merely an afterthought for us diners.
Course 10: Gold Dust
On to dessert. This one had a frozen yogurt that accompanied frozen and smashed Ontario peaches and raspberries. Not a particular favourite. All these ingredients are fantastic, but because the fruit was still frozen from the liquid nitrogen bath, it wasn’t releasing any of its flavour. It probably would have been wise to wait for the plate to melt a bit more before digging in. That might have helped it a lot actually, in hindsight.
Wine Pairing: 2008 Ca’del Baio Moscato d’Asti. Steve told us this was not a serious wine – at only 5% alcohol, it was a light, fruity, fun wine that would work with the fruit plate we were about to receive. And he was right. Actually, there turned out to be more flavour in this sparkling wine than in the dessert.
Course 11: Cherraoke
Very nice dessert. Lots of components again – but this time the flavour was there. Fresh cherries and blueberries surrounded a sliver of cake, and a scoop of toasted-hay ice cream. The hay ice cream was a revelation, having a great nutty flavour to it. And all of this was topped with a splash of cherry soup, served at table, that helped mingle everything together. Very elegant way to end the dinner.
Wine Pairing: 2008 Cattail Creek Select Late Harvest Merlot (Canada). Late harvests are always good. Some better than others though, and this one wouldn’t make it to my own must-have list.
Course 12: Chocolate Menthol Soufflé
Imagine my delight when we finally got a chocolate dessert. With no wine pairing, this would be the last taste of the night! I love fruit, but give me chocolate any day. This was not a traditional soufflé, but was more of a foam that had been frozen in a ramekin dish. The waiter said it would be kind of like an Aero bar, what with the bubbles.
WRONG! It was not like an Aero bar at all. In fact, it had barely any chocolate flavour. It was a big disappointment. It had no texture, practically disappearing on your tongue – and the only flavour that came through was menthol and ice crystals. It wasn’t a pleasant way to end the meal, and had it not been for the amazing food that had preceded it, it would have made me angry. By the time I got home, all I could taste was menthol. Blech.
Dear Chef Lepine, if you read this, I urge you to take that course off the menu. Otherwise, thanks for one of the best meals I’ve ever had.