Atelier deserves all the praise it gets

[Vacay.ca is putting together its second annual list of Canada’s Top 50 Restaurants and public voting helps to determine that list. The voters have been incredibly supportive of Atelier, a wonderful restaurant with only 22 seats in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood in Ottawa. I had a chance to dine there and speak to its chef, the talented Marc Lepine. This article was published in Vacay.ca in October.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO —  Midway through her dinner, Jennifer Swartz looked up to her dining partner and exclaimed, “Hands-down the best meal of my life.”

Swartz had been meaning to make reservations at Atelier for a number of months and wasn’t disappointed in her August visit despite entering Marc Lepine’s restaurant with lofty expectations. “You hear so much about this place in Ottawa but it’s still a little secret outside of the area,” said Swartz, who lives in Canada’s capital and was dining a couple of tables away from me. “The food is like art.”

And that’s not by accident. Lepine began Atelier in 2008 after completing a stage at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant run by Grant Achatz that’s consistently near the top of the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants ListAlinea is known in North America for popularizing microgastronomy, the cooking technique that involves chemistry and often results in whimsical creations. Numerous chefs have tried to replicate Achatz’s success with microgastronomy and the results are often hit and miss. Lepine is one of those who is on the mark.

In February, Lepine’s team won the Gold Medal Plates competition at the Canadian Culinary Awards in Kelowna, British Columbia, and earlier this year Atelier was named the People’s Choice winner in theVacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List, finishing fifth overall.

Knowing Atelier’s reputation, I approached my visit to the restaurant expecting an opulent room laden with crystals and 500-thread-count linen. Like its chef, though, Atelier is understated in every way but the boldness of its cuisine. The restaurant’s exterior on Rochester Street, six kilometres from the frenzy of the Byward Market, is so non-descript it doesn’t even have a sign. It’s a house, not a mansion. The exterior is slate grey and a black grate covers the window, making it seem almost moody when you approach in the night. But that’s not an indication of what’s inside. When you enter, host and sommelier Steve Robinson greets you warmly, inviting you into a 22-seat space that feels like a dinner party.

“It made sense that we didn’t have a sign, because our menu’s blind and we’re reservation-only, and this kind of works for us,” says Lepine, pointing out that Atelier isn’t the sort of place where people decide to go on the spur of the moment, so it wasn’t important to rent a storefront in a well-trafficked area of Ottawa.

People would come searching for the food, if it was good enough, he believed. As Swartz indicated, the word of mouth drew her in.

One of the most likeable chefs you’ll ever meet, Lepine puts his imaginative spin on dishes to make Atelier as creative a kitchen as you’ll find in the country. One of the plates on my visit featured 14 ingredients, another — an octopus salad — was so minimalist it was positioned to occupy only one corner of the white plate; hence its menu name, “In This Corner.”

That’s the other aspect of Atelier and Lepine you will remember: The imagination doesn’t stop with the food. Each dish has a name that attempts to be clever. A cold pea soup puree is called Give Peas a Chance (and you should, it’s delicious), a crab-and-lobster dish is named after characters in both the “Little Mermaid” (Sebastian the Crab) and “The Simpsons” (Pinchy the Lobster), and a peach dessert gets tagged with the title Impeachment. The servers appear chagrined and apologetic when they pronounce some of the names, which only adds to Atelier’s lack of pretentiousness. The music is all Canadian. Imagine dining on Idaho-raised wagyu beef prepared sous vide — meaning sealed in an airtight bag and cooked in water for several hours — while Joel Plaskett plays in the background. It’s not something you’d ever envision, and that ability to surprise and make you look at dining anew is partly what defines Atelier.

As soft-spoken as he is, Lepine is fiercely passionate about food and his idea of it. You can tell from the meticulousness of his restaurant. The service is first rate; the kitchen is smaller than what you’d find in some Toronto condominiums yet it turns out plate after plate of mind-blowing dishes; and Lepine is up for any challenge, even producing a 100-course dinner at a special event in Toronto earlier this year.

From Dishwasher to Award-Winning Ottawa Chef

Formerly from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Lepine fell into cooking because a high school teacher suggested he pursue culinary arts.

“It was the last day to pick something you wanted to study after high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Lepine said with a storyteller’s grin. “One of my teachers said, ‘Well do you have a job?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘What do you do?’ I told him I wash dishes at a hotel. He asked, ‘Do you like it?’ I said, ‘It’s awesome. I love it.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go to school for culinary arts?’”

Like that, a success story was set in motion. Lepine eventually got a gig at Courtyard Restaurant in Ottawa before spending a week working 14-hour days in the Alinea kitchen, which solidified his commitment to start Atelier.

“The vision just became really, really clear after I had the stage in Alinea,” Lepine said. “I thought it would be great if I could have something like that on a smaller scale in Ottawa, where we have the creative freedom in the kitchen.”

He indulges in having “all these toys we can play with,” including liquid nitrogen, a microgastronomy staple that helps develop unique textures and shapes, creating foams and smoke-enhanced concoctions that will stretch your understanding of cuisine. The cost of the 12-course menu is $110 per person — an increase of $35 from when Atelier opened but still a reasonable price, especially when you consider you can’t get a dining experience like this anywhere else in Canada. Toronto’s Colborne Lane probably comes the closest, but even at that restaurant — which also uses liquid nitrogen in many of its dishes — you will find options that are more traditional than avant-garde. At Atelier, the menu flips daily, not seasonally, and you never know what you’re in for until you walk through the heavy grey door.

“One of the drawbacks I think of seasonal menus is that food doesn’t really work that way. Some things have a one-week season, some things have a two-week season, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do a menu that was blind and that was ever-changing was because we can change dishes any time we feel like it or any time we need to,” Lepine said. “We’ve had one person come back here 35 times, some others more than a dozen times. I didn’t know it at first, but I think part of the reason why is because we do change the menu so often that people want to see what’s new.”

They also return because Lepine knows how to cook first, invent second. That shoulder cut of wagyu beef is succulent, the pan-seared quail served atop a bed of corn and couscous melts on the tongue, the foamy desserts are luscious. With anything this artistic, not all the dishes are going to work as envisioned. There’s too much going on in the Undercover Salmon, for example. Although beautifully plated, it didn’t need much beyond pumpernickel and dill to wow, but was loaded with a dozen ingredients. Still, it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen or tasted, and that’s what Atelier is about — a fantastic chef with a rich imagination and desire to push the limits.

He’ll take you on a ride. Don’t be surprised if you want to hop right back on when you’re done.

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