Taste 5 “blogger night” at the NAC

Prior to this past Wednesday night, I had eaten at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa exactly twice: once, during my undergrad days, for a pre-concert Valentine’s Day dinner, and once for a wedding. Both meals were solidly executed, but neither was especially memorable. I wrote off the cuisine at the NAC and its restaurant, Le Café, as intended for the blue-rinse and rubber-chicken sets.

All that changed on Wednesday, when I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an event organized by the NAC for a group of Ottawa food bloggers – and me, since I happen to be in Ottawa at the moment. Things have clearly changed there since Chef Michael Blackie took over the kitchen last April.

After gathering in the NAC’s foyer, we were led down to the lower kitchen, where the Chef’s table awaited us. The Chef’s table is a new initiative at Le Café, intended for corporate events, special occasions and (eventually) partnership with a local hotel in order to offer “gourmet staycations.” For the night, the table was ours.

We didn’t have a completely free ride, though. It was planned as a hands-on event to give us bloggers an idea of what goes on in the NAC kitchen. We were divided into teams with cryptic names (including “Team Crack” and “Team Flamer”), and each assigned a chef and one of the five courses in a “Taste 5” menu, the tasting menu Le Café offers on nights when there are performances in Southam Hall. (It’s currently priced at $42.95 on the Le Café website.)

Unfortunately, we quickly learned that it’s hard to cook, eat and document all at the same time, so most of the teams ended up doing little except plating the final preparations. Too bad, too. I’d been looking forward to trying out the custom-built 8-burner induction cooktop and the Thermomix.

According to Chef Blackie, the Taste 5 menu is an “augmentation of the mise en place in the kitchen” at any given time. In our case, I suspect there were at least a couple of elements prepared specifically to get our attention…

Our first course was “Brandade crab galette, fennel sweet corn broth, basil crisp.” A nice, understated beginning, with a little richness and sweetness to signal that the meal was going to be a luxurious one. I didn’t love the “curry powder” note in the soup, but the crisp galette against the smooth soup was a nice textural contrast.

Course number two was “Soya stained torchon of foie gras with warmed duck confit, green apple gelée and sugar torched fig.” From a purely gustatory perspective, it’s hard to go wrong with foie gras – though Blackie recounted his first encounter with it, which ended with him spitting it on the floor – and this dish was no exception. Foie and fruit is always a good pairing, and the salad on the side balanced the richness nicely.

This was followed by my team’s course, “Crisp skinned salmon, wasabi crack, cauliflower and black sesame purée.” Though beautifully plated on slate tiles, I had a few problems with the dish: the salmon was overcooked, the wasabi “crack” (crushed wasabi peas) added little flavour, and the whole dish was underseasoned to my palate. Good concept, but the execution could have been better. And yes, I know it’s brave to say that when I’m one of the people who should have been executing it!

Inasmuch as there’s a “main course” in a tasting menu, it was the next course: “AAA three way: 65 degree centrigrade filet, braised short rib with crushed pistachio, pulled cheeks with charred pearl onion and oyster  mushroom.” I’m a die-hard short-rib fan, and this one was as good as any I’ve had. The pulled cheeks were also delicious, and the juice from the “lime cheeks” not only offered the necessary balancing acidity, but also made for a unique flavour combination.

After this, we were taken upstairs to the Le Café dining room for dessert, “Honeybush semolina spring rolls, roasted banana ice cream, tropical fruit cubic.” The ice cream here was especially good, especially set off against the temperature and texture of the spring rolls.

If this meal was representative of the food the NAC’s 28-member brigade is putting out these days, then Le Café deserves to be a dining destination in its own right, as well as providing convenient pre- and post-performance meals. Chef Blackie made no bones about the fact that he’s taken the restaurant in a completely new direction, to the occasional displeasure of previous regulars. Ultimately, he said that if he gets complaints, all he can do is pick up the phone and explain his perspective on the changes he’s made. Besides, the new menu is selling.

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2 Responses to “Taste 5 “blogger night” at the NAC”

  1. Matt, it was great to meet you. I enjoyed hearing about all your dining and food writing experiences. I hope we can catch up again someday. This post is a great recap of the night. Have a super vacation!

  2. Matthew Kayahara April 26, 2010 at 5:03 am

    Shari, it was great to meet you, too! I make it to Ottawa pretty often, so I’m sure our paths will cross again. Looking forward to it.