A Tale of Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities

This week was very largely taken up with the Gold Medal Plates travelling folderols—flitting off to Montreal on November 13, to Vancouver the following day and then to Calgary on November 15, staging a dazzling event in each city and raising a dazzling amount of money for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The Calgary auction alone netted $164,950—never mind ticket sales and the pot from the other cities. Our goal of making $1 million this year seems attainable. For me, the kick of being part of it all is tasting food from the leading chefs in each city, linking up with other food writers and critics whose work doesn’t reach Toronto, being a member of a talented and exceptionally friendly team (a novel feeling for a writer who rarely leaves the solitude of his garret) and hobnobbing with some of the world’s best athletes. Then there’s the fun of hearing a live performance by Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo at each event and the impromptu duets he performs—with Steven Page in Toronto, Kevin Parent in Montreal and Simon Whitfield (the gold-medal triathlete) in Vancouver. It’s all terrifically good fun.

But the dishes, the dishes.… Montreal first. I was struck by how many chefs prepared a classic version of something fairly familiar—a torchon of foie gras on brioche, for example, or vitello tonnato or a crab-based version of Caesar salad. Interestingly, the three award-winning dishes were less orthodox—though I don’t think that necessarily means the five judges (Julian Armstrong of the Montreal Gazette, Maeve Haldane of Voir, Robert Beauchemin of La Presse, Thierry Daraize of Journal de Montréal and me) are on a different wavelength than the majority of the industry.

Taking the bronze medal was chef Jérôme Ferrer of Europea, who presented a dish of two elements. One was a delectable little breaded patty of mild cheddar cheese to be eaten like a Popsicle with a bamboo stick. The other was a thick slice of impeccably textured tuna crusted with black and white sesame and tamari. The wine he chose to accompany it, Nk’Mip 2005 Pinot Noir from Okanagan, was a particularly successful match.

The silver medal went to Mario Navarette Jr. of Raza, who sliced a Guatemalan white fish called cobia as thin as tissue then dressed it with a thick emulsion of tart lime juice and rocoto peppers. Strewn over the top were crunchy kernels of corn and lightly marinated onion while two tiny discs of sweet-potato ice added a dazzling counterpoint in terms of richness and temperature. Finding a wine to cope with the acidity was challenging but an excellent solution emerged—Sumac Ridge 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, also from the Okanagan.

Our gold medal in Montreal this year was awarded to Roland Ménard of Manoir Hovey. He included instructions on how to eat his creation as he passed plates out to eager fans. A “bonbon of conifère and sureau” (like a round chocolate candy on a stick, filled with chilled apple juice and subtly flavoured with elder and a hint of spruce) was to be used to mop up a rich foie gras foam. Then, moving dramatically from sweet to salt, attention shifted to a tender, sapid sliver of duck breast. It was a most original and effective dish and the wine match was another hit for Nk’Mip—a delightful 2006 pinot blanc.On to Vancouver and the luxe Westin Bayshore hotel where the calibre and passion of the cooking set a new standard for this campaign. Striking rather a Roman pose for the camera, the three medallists in the photo above had to work hard for their prizes. Taking the bronze (by a difference of less than one percentage point over David Hawksworth of West) was chef Scott Jaeger of The Pear Tree. Poised over a stripe of celeriac purée, his little slab of B.C. Berkshire pork belly was so tender it parted at the touch of a fork. The sweet flavour of the meat was beautifully enhanced by a miniature puck of cipollini onion jelly and a tiny crunchy tube of pastry filled with pear butter. The accompanying wine, cutting valiantly through the fat, was Inniskillin’s 2004 Malbec from the Okanagan.

The silver medal also went to an out-of-town chef—Melissa Craig from Barefoot Bistro in Whistler. Her presentation was exceptionally refined—four dainty treasures from the sea set out on a small wooden block. Here was a Cortez Island black pearl oyster—one of a new breed of East Coast oyster being farmed in the Pacific—dressed with a pickled daikon and cucumber mignonette that tasted intensely of cucumber and had a lovely sweetness to contrast with the oyster. A stiff mousse of B.C. spot prawn was cut into a tiny drum wrapped in a membrane of sesame jelly and topped with what looked like caviar but turned out to be a molecular doppelganger of miso and squid ink. Albacore tuna sashimi was dressed with a yuzu bonito mayonnaise and topped with soy-flavoured “pop rocks.” A crunchy cone of cured wild salmon was dressed with horseradish cream. The matching wine, a 2005 riesling from Tantalus Vineyards, was perfectly chosen, its acidity and intensity of flavour dovetailing with the many tastes on the plate.

The gold medal went to chef Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s. The banner above his station described the dish very simply as a “porcini mushroom and chestnut soup”—and indeed it was, served in a coffee cup like some kind of cappuccino. But the texture was profoundly enriched, and the layers of mushroom flavour were dramatically deepened by melted foie gras and a scattering of crunchy truffled brioche croutons. In a ceramic spoon set on the saucer of the “coffee cup” was the other element of the dish—a square of chilled mushroom jelly and a roasted mushroom salad served at room temperature, the supple textures and contrasting temperatures working beautifully in the mouth. The judges were unanimous in awarding the dish maximum “wow factor.” As an accompanying wine, Posteraro chose a Niagara chardonnay that proved an inspired match—Pillitteri Estates Winery 2006 Chardonnay Sur Lie.

And then to Calgary and the Hyatt Regency hotel, with the chefs occupying a number of salons around the central ballroom. As each judge reported back to our secret lair and the marks were tallied, it became apparent that the final result would be a damned close-run thing: the top five chefs were all within eight percentage points of each other. As happens so often at the Olympics, a tiny decimal point separated the fourth-place competitor (Chris Grafton of Murietta’s pairing bigeye tuna tataki with slow-roasted beet, blueberry relish and a grilled oyster mushroom bread pudding) from a podium finish.

Scott Pohorelic of River Café pipped him at the post, taking bronze with a broad but thinly cut triangle of maple-braised wild boar jowl. It was an ostentatiously fatty piece of meat (and all the more delicious because of that, of course) and Pohorelic paired it with a serenely simple celery root mash and a lively slaw of Asian pear and baby cress to keep the palate alert. Crisp potato threads scattered over the top added a delicious crunch that underlined the luxe texture of the jowl. Black Hills Estate 2005 Nota Bene Cabernet Sauvignon proved a successful match—its tannins tamed by the meat’s fat; its acidity a valuable counterpoint.

The silver medal was awarded to Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar. He chose to gild the textural lily by cooking B.C. sablefish sous vide until its already buttery texture was tremblingly soft. This is a naturally sweet fish, and Ly amplified this with a miso and grapefruit sauce and bold golden stripes of coconut and sweet potato purée. Crunchy, tangy, lightly pickled onion and soft spinach also provided telling contributions. The accompanying wine, Nk’Mip Cellars 2006 Riesling, made a beeline for the grapefruit on the plate and waltzed away with it into a citrus sunset.

For the second time in two days, the gold medal was won by a soup, in this case an awesome puréed mulligatawny ma
de by Paul Rogalski of Rouge. He served it piping hot in a martini glass, its extravagantly silky texture further enhanced by the addition of a puddle of liquefied foie gras. A scribble of tart, concentrated crabapple gastrique from a squeeze bottle lent necessary acidity, and the coup de grace was a scattering of hyssop blossoms from Rogalski’s garden. The first taste of the soup was all about texture—the gastronomic equivalent of stroking a fur coat’s satin lining. But then the flavours started to kick in—the blend of curry spices in the mulligatawny gathering a sly and complex heat, the sharpness of crabapple, the floral, licorice-like perfume of the hyssop. Rogalski chose a wine that echoed those exotic floral impressions—Mt. Boucherie Estate 2006 Selection Gewurztraminer.

Three GMP events in three days.… The team felt like a rock band on a gru elling tour, but what a delicious high! Just two shows remain—Edmonton on November 20 and Ottawa-Gatineau on November 22. Then it’s back to reality.