September 13, 2011
After culinary school and restaurant experience in Canada, with some in Europe, Ontario native Marc Lepine decided in 2008 to open his own restaurant, atelier, in Ottawa. To prepare he studied at Alinea and the concepts in Ideas in Food, both leaders in American modern cooking techniques. Their ideas are pervasive underlying atelier‘s cuisine. If one looks at a post on a meal two years ago at atelier, the plates look like the modernistic ones we see in blogposts on Alinea. But now they are overshadowed by Lepine’s own style: a very large number of ingredients in each course. Linda, Tony and I went for dinner at atelier on July 22, 2011.
Linda and Tony arriving at the front door.
The interior is uncluttered modern with comfortable chairs
The printed menu of the day is only brought at the end of the meal in order to enhance the sense of discovery. All diners have the same twelve-course meal, except that allergies etc. are discussed during the obligatory phone call the previous day. Each dish is described in detail as it is served, which is impossible to note or remember as there are so many components. My descriptions below are gleaned from the recollections of the three of us, helped by the photos. The titles come from the menu we took home with us.
Linda and I started with glasses of Terra Serena prosecco.
Tony and I chose the wine pairings offered with the menu; they were each described to us on serving by the excellent sommelier, Steve Robinson. Linda limited herself to most of a bottle of 2005 Domaine de Varoux Chablis during the meal.
Sliced baguette rounds with a tube of whipped butter were put on the table.
The first course was
The pork chunks had been cooked slowly sous vide and then crisped up. There were, as in most of the courses in this meal, many ingredients. There was an overall acidic effect to this dish; it was served without a wine from the pairings.
Escobar, or butterfish, had been cooked sous vide and wrapped in a pickled Greek grape leaf. It was served on top of Israeli cous-cous. The garnish included purslane and micro basil leaves. I don’t remember what the white noodles were. The nettle purée on both ends of the dish was quite good.
The Greek effect of this dish was carried forward with the wine pairing:
2009 Gafa Estate Thalassitis Assyrtiko Santorini, Greece.
Welcome to the Jungle
When this pretty dish was served, the waiter said it had forty ingredients, which is at least twice as many as the other dishes. They all seemed fresh and good. There were a variety of tomatoes of different colors and sizes. Fortunately, there was no vinegar in the dressings and this refreshed our palate after the first two dishes. The black dabs are puréed fermented garlic. The black dots are dried olives, not black pepper.
The wine pairing was appropriately mild and elegant:
2010 Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, New Zealand.
Old England New Scallop Chowder
A large sea scallop had been seared and placed on top of truffled mashed potatoes with bacon bits. It was surrounded with foam, porcini powder and herbs. Very good.
The wine was more substantial, Canadian and good:
2008 Rosehall Run Cuvée County Chardonnay Prince Edward County, Canada.
Spruce with a P
Peas, pea shoots and a sauce of cold pea purée were served with a ginger beer foam and spruce shoots.
This dish had some sweetness and worked with the surprising wine pairing:
NV Villa Rubini Vino Spumante di Ribolla Cialla Friuli, Italy. Steve told us that this is the only sparkling ribolla cialla on the market.
Modernist High Tea
Salmon was served with two teas: a lapsang souchong foam and Earl Grey jelly dabs. Mustard greens were sprinkled on top.
The rich salmon benefited from the contrasting wine pairing:
2009 Studert-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett Mosel, Germany.
The spoon had a clothespin clip holding a kaffir lime leaf for its aroma. The warm pineapple chunk for this intermezzo was lightly spiced.
Duck breast, smoked and cured in house, had been rewarmed. It was served with maple syrup jelly dabs, fresh morels and asparagus tips.
The first red wine, 2008 Chateau d’Or et de Gueules Les Cimels, Costières de Nîmes, France, was light and went well with this dish that was not very wine-friendly.
The Wagyu beef from Idaho had been cooked very slowly sous vide and then charred. It had a good flavor. Trimmings from it had been made into a little hamburger. The garnishes included bone marrow gnocchi with turnips and onions which had been prepared with high temperature sous vide. This needed a robust red wine and got it:
2004 Bodegas Altanza Reserva Selección Rioja, Spain.
Frozen napkins were brought to the table. As they were unfolded clouds of steam rose from them.
Rhubarb & Co.
The light meringue-like shell was filled with a sweet woodruff custard. The red swirls are an elderberry sauce.
The first sweet wine was
2008 Konrad Wines Noble Two Marlborough, New Zealand.
Berries and Hay
Three presentations of strawberries included a dark, sweet chocolate and hay-flavored ice cream.
The wine with this was Canadian and very unusual, a semi-sweet late harvest red wine:
2008 Cattail Creek Select Late Harvest Merlot Niagara, Canada. It was a good match.
The finishing lollipops were flavored with an Ecuadorean citrus.
The chef obviously considers his dishes to be works of art as well as great cuisine. They are carefully plated. My photos without flash in the low light do not do them justice. He seems to have evolved a culinary philosophy of his own: the use of many garnishes on a core ingredient or complementary pair which has been started with modern techniques such as sous vide. This complexity softens the dish both visually and in its flavors. A successful meal can depend on adherence to a consistent approach throughout as this one did. Unfortunately I have not been to Alinea yet, but I would rate this meal a little above the modernist cuisine I know best, WD-50.
The service was always excellent, with dishes and wines being explained and questions answered. The pace was just right. The ambience was quiet and comfortable. Although we ate a lot, I didn’t leave feeling stuffed, just highly satisfied.