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!

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