One of my favourite things to experience is food; I enjoy trying new things and being delighted by the sensory overload that is a wonderful evening out. I’ve come to realize that one of my favourite restaurants in Ottawa is Atelier and that’s because I enjoy how Chef Lepine engages the senses and challenges them. I heard about the Ideas in Food dinner being hosted at Atelier and although I didn’t know much about Chef Alex Talbot or Chef Aki Kamozawa and their work, I knew enough to know that this was not an experience to miss and booked a table right away.
When Dima and I were seated in those wonderful white chairs at Atelier we pounced on the evening’s menu. A whopping 15 courses with ingredients unfamiliar to me – chicken heart, duck tongue, sea urchin. This was going to be an intense dining experience and I was looking forward to trying every single unfamiliar ingredient! Before I could start speculating too much Chef Lepine and Chef Talbot came out to introduce the meal, the first glass of my wine pairing was poured and the experience was starting.
The first course was a meyer lemon ice cream with whitefish roe and burnt lemon meringue. I savoured the ice cream with meringue ash, it was so vibrant with sweet meyer lemon flavour and the ash seemed to compliment it nicely. The meringue itself was topped with whitefish caviar, Dima and I picked it up and enjoyed the mild taste of the roe with the smokiness of the meringue. The second course was fried chicken hearts with dandelion honey-tabasco and coleslaw puree. I enjoyed dipping the hearts into the tabasco and the puree; I liked tasting the sweet heat but then being immediately cooled down by the coleslaw.
The third course, probably my favourite, salt-cured musk ox with pickled cattails, brown butter mayonnaise and black radish. The meat was so perfect, so tender. I didn’t care for the cattails too much but I enjoyed stacking musk ox, brown butter and radish on my fork for the perfect bite. Dima and I had visions of the musk ox piled high on rye bread, what a luxurious sandwich! Fourth course was surf and turf with sea urchin, duck tongue and watercress leaves. I liked eating bits of the soft sea urchin together with the crisp duck tongue, I enjoyed the textures.
Fifth course was a parsnip soup with young coconut, sweetbread croutons and black olive. This course wasn’t for me – I wanted more flavour from the soup, and didn’t enjoy the texture of the sweetbread crouton. Sixth course was sweet & salty with sweet potato and olive in many different preparations. The best part of this plate was the sweet potato skin topped with green olive – crispy and salty!
The seventh course was forbidden congee with duck gizzards and egg yolk. The rice was creamy, warming; the gizzards tender and the yolk wonderful. Digging my spoon in I tried to get a good mixture of rice, gizzards and yolk so I could get the perfect bite of comfort. The eighth course was squid rings with pistachio, green papaya and culantro. The texture and taste of the squid reminded me of fresh made pasta, seasoned with salt and pepper. I loved the softness of the squid with the hardness of the papaya salad, wonderful play with textures.
The ninth course was a very dramatic halibut for two with Chinese celery and potato puree. The fish was brought whole to the table and we were able to serve ourselves. The wonderfully sous-vided fish was tender and we scraped every edible ounce off, I even went for the cheeks. We were half way through the fish that I remembered I had the puree on my plate, it was delicious but my focus was on the fish.
Tenth course was corned leaf tripe with fermented red and green cabbages. This plate reminded me so much of the pickle plate I had a few weeks earlier at Zen Kitchen where there was both kim chi and sauerkraut. Eleventh course was shredded beef tongue with smoked oatmeal, watercress and wonderfully sweet Dr. Pepper syrup. Dima and I loved adding the syrup to the oatmeal, a little like brown sugar but with a twist. I had to resist the urge pick up the plate and lick it.
The twelfth course, an elk strip loin with sunchoke-hazelnut puree, pickled milk weed pod and green brier. I loved the puree and was intrigued by the taste of the milk weed pod and the look of the green brier. Thirteenth course was la sauvagine with black garlic powder, basil and birch syrup. I liked going back and forth pairing the cheese with the garlic, syrup or basil; experimenting with different flavours and how they worked with the cheese.
Fourteenth course was a bowl of powdered palm sugar ice cream with citrus salad cells and shaved shortbread. The shortbread contained pop rocks so when you let it melt you would get a wonderful pop on your tongue! I really liked the citrus salad which made me pucker every time I got spoonful but a spoonful of ice cream would neutralize it. The fifteenth course was a chocolate pudding served in a squeeze tube and sweet cream granite. People were being creative with it, making designs, I squeezed all the chocolate out onto my plate and then rolled the tube up to ensure I got every last drop. Yum!
After 15 eye opening courses it was over. The bill was paid, Dima bought me the Ideas in Food book and we squabbled over where to buy musk ox while driving home. A few days have passed and Dima has stopped talking about ordering musk ox from Nunavut and I have read the book, followed some people on Twitter and have been inspired by the meal, by the creativity. And I wonder who else has been inspired by that meal and the two classes that Chef Talbot taught at the Urban Element.