Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Edible Events - A Taste of Winterlude - Canadian Game and Wild Foods Dinner at the Courtyard Restaurant

Me again,

Every so often, the missus/babymama/gf/love o' my life and I splurge for some sort of epicurean fiesta, as my three posts on Mill Street's Brewmaster's Dinners will attest. Ottawa has no shortage of festivals and events the year 'round, but one of its top draws is Winterlude, which is essentially a celebration of all things zero Celsius and colder. And what's a good Winter festival without a bunch of culinary events to surround it?

Annually a number of "foodie" events take place, ranging from giant gala-style events featuring a celebrity chef (not something I've yet to engage in considering the 200-hundred-plus dollar price tag) to foodie tours, to smaller-scale multiple course meals at many of the cities finer restaurants. This will be the third year running we engage in one of the multiple "Taste of Winterlude" events. I'll admit I spaced on blogging about the 2011 event at the Arc Lounge, but that's probably for the best because all I really remember is delicious Foie Gras served on a mini-Beavertail and drinking a metric ton of wine. As for last year's, it was a bit unimpressive and I prefer not to blog about that which does not impress me in foodie-land. But this year's event at The Courtyard Restaurant was definitely worthy of putting fingers to keyboard.

It was a "Wild Food and Game" themed meal, so vegetarians need not apply! The idea was to serve as many "wild" foods that can be found in our proud nation and pair them (mostly) with Canadian wines (and beer). Amongst the key ingredients around which the meal was built were Quebec duck, Atlantic sturgeon, wild mushrooms, wild boar, Steelhead trout and caribou.

The menu.
Dish 1 - Amuse Bouche

This is the opening shot across the bough that's supposed to wake up the palette and make you say "Goddamn, this is going to be tasty!" In this case, the one-bite-wonder consisted of Confit Duck Terrine, Foie Gras, Pine Nut Purée, Hibiscus (leaves and gelée), Black Onion Seeds and an Anise-Porridge Crisp.

The amuse-bouche is conceptually awesome, but I find that sometimes it tries too hard to be too much. In this case, all the various elements were delicious and fascinating, but it was hard to distinguish them all in one bite. What I mostly could taste was the luxurious combo of the duck terrine and foie gras, which was awesomely tasty good (Foie gras and duck? Hard to go wrong!) with an added bit of sweetness from the hibiscus gelée, but the pine nut purée and onion seeds kind of got lost in the whole bite. I wisely broke off and saved the anise-porridge crisp until after, mainly because I wanted to taste it on its own. I'm glad I did because it was a one-of-a-kind flavour and texture experience that I really dug.

The pairing was a Californian sparkling wine which was a fun little compliment that helped open up the palette, but in the end the terrine/foie combo was still front and centre.

Amuse bouche of confit duck terrine and other goodies

While we were enjoying this first bite, the sommelier and executive chef came out to tell us all about how they put together tonight's menu and walk us through the dishes. There was a bit of a bittersweet aspect when I discovered that the chef was no longer Michael Hay (which goes to show you how out of the loop I am since he'd been gone since June of last year). Instead the new chef was Murray Wilson, an export from the UK. I needn't have worried, he had already shown his skill with the amuse-bouche, and I could tell just from the menu that he was creative with the plates. 

Chef Murray Wilson

Dish 2 - Appetizer

Next up was something really unique and special, a neat-o appetizer consisting of a Smoked Sturgeon Rillettes with Caviar, Pickled Cucumber and Red Onion, and Capers. The presentation was great, served up in a little mason jar with a whole bunch of Pumpernickel Toast on the side.

I loved this dish; bright, refreshing and delicious. The sturgeon was light and delicately smoked, the cucumber and onion rounded out the flavours and the caviar gave a nice salty pop to the whole thing.

There was one drawback, though, in that the Pumpernickel Toasts were by far too pumpernickel-y for the Rillettes and overpowered the delicate flavour of the fish. On their own they were fantastic, almost a fusion of traditional pumpernickel and a sweet spice cake.

The wine pairing was PondView Estate Riesling out of Niagara. I have to admit that a couple of months later and not being a huge Riesling fan, I don't really remember the wine being remarkably good or bad. I do remember it going quite well with the pumpernickel.

Smoked Sturgeon Rillettes

Dish 3 - Soup

Next up was the soup course and what a soup course it was! Let me fill you on a little secret (in my opinion at least): I think soup might be the best way for a chef to display some of their best stuff. From the lobster bisque at Mill Street's first Brewmaster's dinner to my own creations, soup is one of those "blank canvases" that allows a lot of creativity. Certainly this dish was another example that makes the point. I've had many mushroom soups in my day, but this one was a completely new iteration of an old classic.

To wit, this dish was made up of a base Wild Mushroom and Beau's "Bog Water" Beer Soup, with Sourdough Croutons, slices of Smoked Wild Boar, dollops of Goat Cheese, Mushroom Chips, and a Wild Mustard Gel.

Holy moly, that's a complicated soup!

It was also really super-tasty! All mushroom soups have a rich earthy flavour, naturally, and this was no exception. But there was an added element of depth from the beer. Beau's is one of those breweries that I think employs mad scientists (or mad brewmasters, I guess) because they put together some pretty crazy ideas for beer. The Bog Water is one of these, wherein they use wild harvested bog myrtle instead of hops to flavour the beer (I had to look it up here). Turns out that this is a method that used to be quite popular in Europe, but it's still pretty crazy to me! The flavour of the beer (which was naturally the pairing to the soup) was interesting, almost a sweet earthiness, if that makes any sense, which in turn added a sweetness to the soup that was a bonus.

Throughout the bowl were all the other elements that interacted in each their own way with the soup. First, the goat cheese was ladled in four little dollops at cardinal points on the edge of the bowl. So, you naturally want to scoop and mix the cheese with the soup, producing an almost silky texture and bringing an airy touch of flavour to the soup. The Mushroom Chips were, I suspect, some sort of dried treatment, possibly using morels. The flavour was quite complimentary to the soup, with just a bit of happy little peppery notes. The Croutons were also a nice flavour enhancement to the soup. I pretty much tried each "side element" on its own with the soup, just to make sure none of the ingredients overpowered the other. This turned out to be a very good idea, because the Wild Boar was by far the standout flavour in this dish, if not the whole meal! So good! Smokey and rich and beautiful, it was like super-bacon. Obviously, it sort of overpowered the soup itself, but who the heck cares?! SUPER-BACON!!!!! And that's about that!

Wild Mushroom and "Bog Water" Beer Soup

Dish 4 - Fish

Next up was the fish course (the pre-main?). This was a lovely and light dish (and light fish), but still substantial enough for a Winter feast. The dish consisted of Pan Roasted Wild Steelhead Trout, Lentils du puy, Yellow Foot Mushrooms, Roasted Almond Purée, Confit Cherry Tomato, Onion and Thyme Velouté.

Let's start with the fish. First of all, it's really freaking hard to go wrong with Trout. It's environmentally sustainable, light-tasting and really difficult to screw up! This was a really nicely done piece of fish. Personally I would have cooked it less, but I like my fish underdone, and really, cooking fish has to be done in a way that appeals to the "masses", which in this case it did. Let me put it this way: my piscaphobe girlfriend ate half of it and loved it (but only halfway because it still got too "fishy" for her, but she's crazy). I do have one little complaint: they cooked it and presented it skin-side up, but the skin wasn't crispy, which makes it a little unpleasant texture-wise. Maybe take a blowtorch to the skin? I'm really not sure.

Now, the other elements did a very good job of complimenting the fish, especially when the trout, Lentils and Almond Purée were eaten together in one bite. It was kind of a neat "earth meets water" flavour. The Yellow Foot Mushrooms, I believe, had been lightly marinated (I could be mis-remembering) and had a nice zing.  The Velouté was, essentially, the sauce on the plate. It was tasty, if a little basic, but didn't really stand out compared to some of the more "punchy" flavours on the dish. As for the Confit Tomato... it was a tomato? I didn't really notice what the "confit" effect was, but the acidity was a nice foil for the density of the lentils.

The wine was Norman Hardie County Chardonnay (2010 - Prince Edward County, Ontario). It went really well with the fish, imparting a buttery flavour and mouth feel, as a good Chardonnay is want to do. I must admit, I'm also a bit biased towards wines from Prince Edward County rather than the Niagara region, probably has something to do with a camping trip a couple of years back where we visited a few wineries in the region and it was epic goodness.

Steelhead Trout with Lentils and other goodies...

Dish 5 - MEAT!

And now we come to the main event: a slab of bloody meat surrounded by side orders of deliciousness!

The dish was: Herb Roasted Leg of Caribou, Gruyère and Truffle Pavé, Carrots Glazed in Bourbon Maple Syrup, Squash Purée, Brussel Sprouts, and Wild Lingonberry Gastrique. I believe the meat was originally supposed to be elk, but the chef told me he couldn't find any and had to go with farmed caribou instead. To be honest, I don't think I would have noticed the difference. The meat was delicious, cooked nice and rare, and not terribly gamey; in fact I found it hard to tell the difference between the flavour profile here and that of really high end prime rib roast. That being said, the caribou was way leaner than any beef I've ever had!

What brought this plate to "above and beyond" levels were the sides (which is often the case: there's only so much flavour you can coax out of a hunk of red meat). The Squash Purée was nice and rich, without being overloaded with cream or butter, which is all too often the fate of any kind of mashed substitute on a "meat n' ________" plate. The Brussel Sprouts were also surprisingly subdued, steamed simply with a bit of butter and lemon juice (I think), which I appreciated. Too many preparations try to mask the unique flavour of Brussel Sprouts, which is understandable, but not what I'd do. The Lingonberry Gastrique (the jelly-looking stuff that goes across the plate) added a nice sweet and sour undertone to the rest of the plate. The Carrots were kinda super-awesomely awesome. They might have been just a smidge underdone (maybe slight crunch to cooked carrots is a new thing in haute-cuisine because this isn't the first time), but really, they were mainly a sauce carrier. And hoo-boy, Bourbon Maple Syrup! How can you wrong? Especially when you slather everything with it? But THE grand champion side for this plate was the Gruyère and Truffle Pavé. It was so good I'll give it a whole paragraph!

OK, so as far as I thought, a "pavé" is a rectangular potato dish. Turns out the term is applied to anything cut into a rectangular shape. Most times I've encountered it, it's been a potato-based dish. It's essentially made from very thinly sliced potatoes cut into a rectangle and stacked on top of each other with goodness between the layers. In this case the goodness was truffle and gruyère. NOM! Also, especially deliciously awesome when saturated with caribou blood! SO GOOD!

The wine pairing was Painted Rock Syrah 2007 (from BC's Okanagan Valley). This was one hell of a wine (and the sommelier made a point of noting it was a 140 dollar bottle of wine from the restaurant and hard to find (lord knows it isn't at the LCBO!).

Dripping tasty CARIBOU MEAT!

As an added spiffy bonus, they put the pairings on display:

Wine/Beer pairings on display

Dish 6 - Dessert

And finally, even though we had bellies full of food, we had to finish off the experience with a Warm Chocolate Cake, Black Raspberry Curd, Agassiz Hazelnut Ice Cream. There were, I believe, actually two kinds of cake: one was a "regular" chocolate cake, the other flourless. Also not mentioned on the menu was a kind of dehydrated chocolate crunchie bit.

I don't remember a whole lot about this dish, mostly because I was very full of meat. It was quite tasty and the mix of chocolate, raspberry and hazelnut, from both ice cream and Frangelico liqueur (the pairing) were very nice; rich but not heavy.

Chocolate Cake goodness!

And that's that! The first of many (I hope) Edible Events!