Ideas in Food at Atelier

In general, I don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews on my site; it isn’t what I intended to be about. But I’m going to make an exception in this case, because I’ve wanted to experience an Ideas in Food meal for so long that it would be artificially limiting myself not to sort out my thoughts and impressions after the fact.

I assume that most of my readers are already familiar with them, but if you’re not, Ideas in Food is Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa, a chef-couple currently living in Pennsylvania and working as consultants, writers, photographers and teachers. On his (and my) recent visit to Ottawa, Alex was guest chef at a dinner at Atelier restaurant, and taught two classes at The Urban Element. Aki, unfortunately, had to stay home to deal with other projects.

In conversation with Atelier chef Marc Lepine after the fact, I found out that the menu served on Monday night was designed by Alex using ingredients provided by Atelier and prepared by the Atelier staff under Alex’s direction. These are my thoughts on the meal.

Meyer Lemon Ice Cream, Whitefish roe, burnt lemon meringue

In retrospect, this course really set the stage for the meal, by encapsulating some of the themes that would be repeated over the course of the evening: the interplay between the sweetness of the ice cream and the salinity of the roe, the light bitterness of the burnt lemon meringue, the textural contrasts and the precisely random presentations were all echoed in later courses.

Fried Chicken Hearts, Dandelion honey-tabasco

This dish introduced another of the meal’s themes: offal. The chicken hearts were juicy and meaty, the coleslaw puree and bamboo skewer were playful, and the sweet-spicy honey was downright delicious. My only complaint would be that the batter on the hearts could have been crispier. Other than that, the Colonel never had it so good.

Salt-cured Musk Ox, Pickled cattails, brown butter mayonnaise, radish

A kick of rich umami and saltiness, with the pickled cattails to refresh the palate between bites. The texture on the cured musk ox was unforgettably smooth, which was echoed by the brown butter mayonnaise.

Surf and Turf: Sea urchin, duck tongue, watercress leaves

I’ve been wanting to try duck tongues for a while now, and I can’t think of a better first experience. The tongues were confit, and the dish was dressed with the confit oil. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some sesame oil in the mix…) I love sea urchin, and the combination of smooth, sweet-bitter urchin and crispy duck tongues was outstanding.

Parsnip Soup: young coconut, sweetbread croutons, black olive

The soup was my least favourite course of the evening. Not that it was bad, exactly, but it had a slight lingering bitterness that I didn’t love. The sweetbread “croutons” (prepared with Activa RM, as I would learn the next day) were flavourful, but not quite crispy enough to be the trompe l’oeil they were intended to be. The texture of the soup, however, made me want a Vita-Mix more than ever.

Sweet & Salty: potato and green olive

This was easily my favourite course of the evening, both visually and gustatorily. The sweet potato was presented in the form of crispy chips, dehydrated skin, greens and a puree, and the green olives were presented as a caramel, blended with sugar, and in the puree with the potatoes. This dish had a huge sweet/salty flavour tension that meant it had vanished long before I was ready to be finished.

Forbidden Congee: Duck gizzards, egg yolk

It was clear with this course that the menu had really hit its stride. Although it was a little “tighter” than I normally find congee to be, this dish was pure comfort food.

Squid rings: pistachio, green papaya, culantro

Another favourite, this dish had it all: tender, toothsome squid (cooked sous vide at 59°C for 3 hours, if I recall correctly) with spicy green papaya underneath. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the green papaya had been compressed with its seasoning, which included fish sauce as well as some kind of chilli. My companion couldn’t stop raving about this dish.

Halibut for Two: Chinese celery, potato puree

This dish was intriguing not least for the way it was served: a whole, on-the-bone baby halibut was cooked sous vide, then presented family style, with individual plates of celery-tinted mashed potatoes (prepared using the retrograde starch technique, I later learned) and a soy sauce-inflected beurre blanc.

Corned Leaf Tripe: Cabbages: Red, green, fermented

The tripe for this dish was cooked in a pressure cooker with corned beef stock, making it some of the most tender tripe I’ve ever eaten. It was served with a kim chee puree and red and green cabbage leaves, giving the dish both spice and earthiness.

Shredded Beef Tongue: smoked oatmeal, watercress stems, Dr. Pepper

Cooks tend to get very excited about smoky flavours, which often leads to them being used with a heavy hand. This was not the case here: the smoked oatmeal had a perfect level of smokiness to it, enough to complement the other components without overpowering them. The beef tongue, cooked sous vide at 70°C for 36 hours in a Dr. Pepper mixture, had great texture, but could have used a little more seasoning.

Elk Strip Loin: Sunchoke-hazelnut puree, pickled milkweed pod, green brier

Nearly every tasting menu I’ve ever had has included a version of the “nice hunk o’meat” course, and this was as good an example of it as any I’ve ever had. The balance on the hazelnut-sunchoke puree was particularly impressive; this wasn’t a combination of flavours I would have thought of, but it worked beautifully. I had never encountered green brier before, and don’t know a whole lot about it, but it would seem that I am not alone in that respect.

La Sauvagine: Black garlic powder, basil, birch syrup

Caught up in conversation and enjoying the food and wine, I absentmindedly tucked into this dish before taking a picture of it, so the plating isn’t faithfully reproduced here. Having eaten at Atelier several times in the past, I always look forward to the “Sauvagine course.” This time, it was less rich than in the past, being balanced by a slight bitterness and the vegetal and menthol notes in the basil. This still felt like a decidedly savoury course, rather than an obvious transition into the desserts.

Powdered palm sugar ice cream: citrus cells, shaved shortbread

The first of two dessert courses, this dish had one major problem: The portion was too generous! That said, I did my best to finish it off, because it was delicious, and the shaved Earl Grey shortbread paired wonderfully with the wine, a 2008 Weingut Pfeffingen Scheurebe Spätlese.

Chocolate pudding: sweet milk granita

Like the Sauvagine course, I failed to take a picture of this dish until after I’d started eating it, which is too bad, because the presentation was very playful: the chocolate pudding was served in, essentially, a toothpaste tube, which we pierced and proceeded to squeeze all over the plate. (That’s why I didn’t take any photos after I started eating it: it wasn’t very photogenic!) The pudding wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but this dish was basically all indulgence.

It’s very difficult to adequately describe a meal that I’ve waited so long to enjoy: I’ve been reading Ideas in Food for literally years, and have always marvelled at their creativity, knowledge and openness, all brought to bear in the search for delicious. At long last, I can say with certainty that Alex’s food is every bit as delicious as it looks and sounds online. Alex is also as creative, knowledgeable and willing to share his knowledge in person as online, but that’s a subject for my next post.

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