Monday, August 28, 2017

Canada's (gigantic) table

In February of this year, it was announced that Stephen Beckta (of Play, Beckta, and Gezellig fame) and Sheila Whyte (of Thyme and Again catering) were putting together a 1,000-person dinner party on Wellington Street, in honour of Canada 150. It was like they were speaking directly to me. I told Chris that I wasn't interested in any of the other celebratory events, but that I really, really, REALLY wanted to go to this one. At the time, ticket prices had not yet been revealed, so we agreed to wait and see, and then decide.

$175 a person? Sign me up. (Plus taxes and fees, of course.) Then it was a question of whether we'd even be able to get tickets. Somehow, the Ticketmaster gods smiled down upon me and I scored a pair in the blue section, near the eastern end of the venue. (I may have shrieked a little.)

After that, we waited.

And waited.

And... you get the idea.

But then, suddenly, it was August. The weather in Ottawa got better. Emails about where to arrive and what to bring (and not to bring) popped up in my inbox. We started to get excited. We got dressed up. I packed my tiniest purse. We got in line with all the other keeners in evening finery on a stunning summer night in the capital. We walked down the long, long, long table to our seats in what turned out to be the Quebec section. We made friends with our seat neighbours to the west who, as it turned out, had gotten engaged earlier in the day. (Congrats, Ben and Demetra!) Champagne was poured (and refilled). A toast was called for by Guy Laflamme and Steve Beckta. We cheered. We drank. We drank it all in. The white tablecloths, the wineglasses, the sun in our eyes, the Peace Tower, the pure joy on everyone's faces, just to be in this place on this night.

And then we were wined and dined beyond all expectations.

The giant (really, it looked infinite when you peered in either direction) table was divided into five sections, one for each region of Canada: Pacific, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic. Each section had four chefs: two local, and two from the region in question. Each chef supervised one of the meal's four courses. Our chefs were Normand Laprise from Toqué in Montreal, Daniel Vézina from Laurie Raphael in Montreal and Quebec City, Joe Thottungal from Coconut Lagoon, and Marc Lepine from Atelier. Each course was paired with an Ontario wine. Portions were fair, even generous for the quality of ingredients in play here.

We began with Normand Laprise's whelks and heirloom tomatoes. What's a whelk, you ask? It is otherwise known as a sea snail. And it is apparently delicious. I'm a big fan of pretty much all shellfish, so I was excited to try these, and was not disappointed. These were from Quebec's north coast, and had been cooked in what tasted like butter, to a chewy but pleasant texture, paired with both raw and poached tomatoes, olive paste, and herb oil, garnished with tiny edible flowers and a few petals of pickled white onion. Briny, fresh, and exciting. The wine pairing was a Charles Baker Riesling from Niagara's Twenty Mile Bench, and it was my ideal wine, zesty and citrusy with a tiny hit of sweetness.

Next up, my favourite course of the night: Daniel Vézina's lobster and grilled romaine. A generous portion of butter-poached lobster meat rested on a smear of coral (yes, coral) mayonnaise alongside two tiny adorable heads of grilled romaine lettuce, a crisp shard of bacon, pickled daisy buds, crisp tiny cornbread croutons, and a parmesan crisp. The lobster came from Iles de la Madeleine and was luscious and luxurious and just perfect for a fancy, one-night-only dinner like this. With it, an unfiltered Norman Hardie Chardonnay. Everyone knows I'm a member of the anything-but-chard club, but this was very nicely matched to the food and it worked for me. (Also it was the smallest pour of the night, which is fine.)

Third course was the ostensible "main," the heaviest and most protein-centric. Joe Thottungal created a luscious lamb loin dish with mushroom masala (a mildly spicy curry that to me felt inspired by German-style Jaeger sauce) topped with tiny chickpea puffs and fried rice noodles for crunch,  surrounded by a creamy beet sauce. The lamb was lean yet buttery-soft, and the surrounding elements married perfectly, with no one flavour overwhelming the rest. I loved it, and said so when the chef walked by later and I got to shake his hand and thank him. Chris asked on the spot if we could make Coconut Lagoon our anniversary dinner next month, and I am so on board. (Watch this space!) The Niagara Pinot Noir from Pearl Morissette had a pleasant earthiness that went very well with the lamb, and the texture was heavier than some pinots I've had, which was a positive note for me (I usually find them a bit too light).

All too soon, it was time for dessert, and yet not a moment too late, because I was dying to see what Marc Lepine and his band of molecular gastronomy practitioners would set before us. I was not disappointed. A bar of wobbly raspberry curd (set like a soft gel) was showered with spongy bright-green crumbs of matcha cake and liquid nitrogen-frozen chocolate ganache "rocks" that melted as you ate them. The whole thing was speared with a gently minted shard of meringue for extra zip and crunch. I tried to get a bit of each element in every bite, because they all danced together so well on the tongue. It was exciting and impressive, but not weird or too pushy. My one quibble was with the dessert wine pairing, a "Forté" port-style fortified red wine from Union in Niagara. It was neither sweet enough nor weighty enough for this dessert; I would have done a red icewine, I think. (On its own, the wine was delicious, though.)

Finally, each guest received a stunning dark chocolate bar (in a really nice box) from Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, compliments of chef Melissa Craig, to take home. I have yet to devour mine. But it looks amazing.

After a final toast and standing ovations for the chefs and the myriad volunteers (who did incredible work and should be commended heartily for making the event run so smoothly), our magical evening wrapped up with a viewing of the sound and light show on Parliament Hill. We wandered west to find our friends B and C, who had dined in the Pacific section (cod curry from Vikram Vij! wild boar! crab! corn dessert!) and also had an extraordinary time. We had a blast debriefing one another and talking over the night.

I can't imagine any adventurous eater leaving this party unsatisfied. The ingredients were so high-calibre, and in my opinion the preparation and presentation lost nothing to the demands of a large-volume, high-stress environment. It was as though we visited four fabulous restaurants in one night, with one of Ottawa's best views no less. I think the price was more than fair for what we received and enjoyed. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to experience such a perfect evening. Thank you to everyone who made it happen. It's rare to see such perfect execution of a very, very big idea with a lot of moving parts. Massive kudos to you all. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lunch on the Riviera

Yesterday Chris turned 40, and we thought it fitting to celebrate with a fancy lunch. After all, we are both self-employed in the summer and can take long lunches if we so desire. After some rumination about where to go, I recalled that Chris hadn't yet enjoyed a meal at Riviera, so I booked us a table and off we went.

Riviera is such a glorious room, and it's even nicer with daylight streaming in from the high windows. We had a nice table for two about halfway back with a friendly and well-informed server who took great care of us. I generally don't drink in the daytime, so I ordered sparkling water, but it came with two freshly-cut slices of lemon and a cut-glass tumbler. Classy. Chris got one of his favourite beers, Saint of Circumstance by Collective Arts.

The lunch menu is much shorter than dinner, and includes salads, pastas, sandwiches, and a few more traditional mains. Chris nearly always gravitates towards a fish dish, so he selected the Euro bass with morels and peas. I dithered over steak-frites and spaghetti with shrimp, but ended up going for "Le Big Matt," which I correctly deduced was a burger. I asked what it came with, and our server winkingly rhymed off the Big Mac jingle: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese... you get the idea. I couldn't resist after that, though I did get the side salad with it, thank the gods. 

The fish was a perfect slim fillet, skin seared crisp, with a buttery flavour enhanced by a white wine and butter sauce with (I think) tarragon, over morsels of morels, fresh summer peas, and slices of baby potato. Chris just about licked the bowl, it was that good. (I know because I tried it.)

The burger was... I feel like I've been overusing the word epic lately, but it really was. It managed to perfectly capture the spirit of a Big Mac, while upscaling the experience with great beef, a soft homemade bun and cucumber pickles, fresh lettuce, and a not-too-sweet sauce. The melty cheese pulled it all together. This was a riot, though very messy to eat (think sauce down the wrist and sesame seeds everywhere). I resorted to knife and fork, sparing my dress the indignity. I'd order it again, though. What a treat.

Chris and I swapped modes for dessert: I opted for restraint with the pavlova while he went hardcore with the peanut butter mousse. The latter had flourless brownie bits and hot fudge sauce to take it over the top. To him, it was the perfect birthday dessert.

My pav was perfection to both the eye and the palate: crisp without, chewy within, on a thick puddle of calamansi curd, topped with dollops of white chocolate ganache, micro mint leaves, and supremes of ruby-red grapefruit and orange. I've rarely come across such a well-designed and delicious dessert. I thought the deconstructed lemon tart from their opening menu couldn't be beaten. I stand corrected.

It felt gloriously decadent to have such a delicious and relaxing lunch on a Monday afternoon. But a birthday calls for a little indulgence, don't you think? (I've already requested we return for mine in February.)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Das Lokal serves up flawless Teutonic treats

The annual A Taste for Life fundraiser in support of Ottawa's Bruce House facility, which offers housing and services for people in our community living with HIV/AIDS, is one of my favourite events. Dozens of local restaurants donate 25 per cent of their sales on a Wednesday night in April to Bruce House, which means we have a great excuse to go out for a delicious dinner and also support this amazing charity. Our friend M usually books a table at whatever restaurant her brother is "hosting" (greeting diners, telling them about the fundraiser, soliciting additional donations in exchange for a chance to win prizes, etc.) and always invites us along.

This year's location was Das Lokal, a small former chicken hut in the lower Byward Market that now serves elegant and delicious German-inspired fare, wonderful cocktails, and divine desserts in a homey, pretty room in shades of grey and white, with two walls of windows and a white upright piano tucked against a wall. Six of us crammed into one of their three huge booths and thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic meal.

A round of tasty drinks started us off right: my Orange Earl Grey Sour was a lovely balance of citrus and tea notes with vodka as its kicker. Chris tried the U-Bahn with Aperol, pineapple, and passionfruit. Other tempting choices included a smoked old-fashioned and a kimchi Caesar. The wine list is short but well-selected; I had a lovely dry rosé from southern France, and Chris enjoyed a glass of crisp white Sylvaner. German and Austrian beers are also on tap, including the rarely-seen apple Radler from Stiegl (they have the grapefruit one too).

As this was not your typical Wednesday night for the restaurant, the front-of-house staff were a little bit overworked, but their demeanour remained pleasant and helpful throughout, and we were in good company so we waited patiently for the eventual delivery of top-notch comestibles. I opted for the daily soup, a velvety-smooth tomato (vegan) kicked up with a swoosh of reduced balsamic and a restrained dollop of onion jam. I would eat tomato soup every day and night, and this one was terrific.

Knowing I'd want dessert, I kept my "main" light with a charcuterie plate, which was anything but simple. One can select three items from a list of five or six cheeses and eight or so meats and fishes. I went with Oka cheese, smoked duck breast, and salmon gravlax, something I adore and rarely see on menus. All the meats and fish are cured or smoked in-house, and it showed: the gravlax was velvety, toothsome perfection; the duck breast sliced paper-thin with the perfect amount of smooth fat around pink meat, smoky but not campfired. Even the aged Oka classique, which came sliced thinly instead of as the usual wedge, was at proper temperature. The accompanying pickles and chutneys elevated the whole thing to epic status: whatever was in the diced pickled carrot and celery concoction, I want more of it. The cherry chutney was also divine, though the squash puree with star anise leaned a little weird (but I admire the creativity!). Herby, rustic breadsticks and char-marked baguette crostini formed an adorable bouquet in a tiny bowl.

Chris, along with two other members of our party, opted for the classic pork schnitzel with mustard, spätzle, and pickles, which arrived in a fair-but-not-stupid portion, all its components beautifully executed and tasty as hell, according to him. It all disappeared with haste.

The house-made bratwurst plate with potato sauce and mustard was deeply appreciated by the gluten-free member of our company. I tried a bite of the sausage and was deeply impressed. It's great value too, easily a small main for the price of an appetizer.

One of our friends was seated with a view of the kitchen pass-through and caught a glimpse of the touted Black Forest cake, exalting in its use of whole sour cherries rather than jam, as with so many downmarket versions. Three of us ordered a slab (and I do mean slab) of the gorgeous confection, three layers of chocolate cake filled with sour cherry compote, kirsch liqueur, and softly whipped cream, the whole thing dusted with cocoa. I tried a bite and was blown away.

Myself, I can never resist a chocolate punch to the face, and ordered the house made truffle plate. Three lovely chocolate coated marbles of dense ganache, two flavoured gently with rosemary and one with bourbon, plus a mound of orange-scented ganache on its own, dotted with perfect berries atop a swoosh of crème fraîche, made for a decadent end to my meal. I don't even like rosemary much and these were awesome.

Our friend R, a very serious home cook and restaurant aficionado, was as impressed as I was with Das Lokal. We all left well-fed and watered, pleasantly sated and happy (if a tad overheated from the small room filled with warm bodies). Every one of us would return in a heartbeat. I found myself hoping to end up back in that lovely room much sooner than next April.