Posts tagged ‘top 50 restaurants in canada’

March 5, 2013

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.

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August 9, 2012

What to expect when Momofuku opens in Toronto

momofuku-white-chocolate

The White Chocolate dessert is one of the most popular items at Momofuku-owned Ma Peche in New York. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

NEW YORK CITY — I visited New York last month to see what Torontonians can expect from the Momofuku experience when that restaurant empire makes its much-anticipated Canadian debut in the coming days — I didn’t think I would find the maitre d’ investigating too.

“I’m just seeing how things operate. Getting a feel for it,” says Joel Centeno, who moves over from the formal Auberge du Pommier to be the host at Daisho, the flagship restaurant of David Chang‘s ambitious enterprise that’s attached to the soon-to-open Shangri-la Hotel. The Momofuku Torontofranchise, whose debut was scheduled for July 28 but has been pushed back because of construction delays, will also feature three other eateries: Shōtō, whose Japanese name means “short sword” (Daisho is a term that refers to a set of samurai swords); Nikai, which means “second floor” and will be a level below the main restaurant; and a Momofuku noodle bar that will instantly be the hottest lunch spot in the city and possibly a go-to late-night choice as well.

It’s not only the most anticipated restaurant opening in Toronto in recent memory, it may be the one notable event that finally gets Canada taken seriously as a culinary destination around the world. No Canadian city has a Michelin restaurant guide, while there is one each for New York, San Francisco and Chicago. The country has gone nine straight years without placing a restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list, while Momofuku’s Ssam Bar in New York has made it two years in a row.

“Without a doubt, it instantly raises the city’s foodie cred,” award-winning food reporter Steve Dolinsky of Chicago, a regional chairman for the World’s 50 Best list, says of Momofuku’s foray across the border. “If Chang is able to maintain his high standards in a remote location — which includes consistency and his presence more than a few times per year — then I think it becomes one more important reason to visit Toronto.”

Chang said he spent more of his time in Sydney, Australia than he did in the Big Apple during the year he opened his only other Momofuku location outside of New York. With Toronto, it’s too early to know how much time he will be in Canada but he has a reputation for being a hands-on owner. As I discovered, Chang doesn’t have to be on-site for his restaurant to shine.

When I went to New York to see what all the fuss is about, I was impressed for reasons beyond the food.Má Pêche, the franchise’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel in Manhattan, captures the spirit of a culture that’s post-recession, post-fine dining and eagerly communal, but has managed to elevate eating out to an activity akin to going to a fine art museum. We want top class, we don’t necessarily want to look like it in order to have the experience.

What The Black Hoof  — named Toronto’s top restaurant by Vacay.ca judges earlier this year — lacks in classy atmosphere, Daisho will possess thanks to the Shangri-la, the latest luxury accommodation to hit a downtown area that has seen the addition of Ritz-Carlton, Thompson and Trump properties in a short amount of time. What other restaurants in the city are missing in inventive cuisine, Momofuku’s brand will deliver.

There are Korean and Japanese influences, for sure, but the complexity of Chang’s cuisine redefines fusion. His chefs aren’t simply throwing stuff together and seeing what sticks — a characterization made by some early commenters of the New York operations —, they’re pushing the envelope the way great chefs from Grant Achatz to Michel Bras do. The steamed lobster bun at Má Pêche (or “mother peach”) is addictively good. The monkfish was so tender you could’ve mistaken it for poached lobster, while a bowl of curried carrots shocked with the deliciousness of its flavour. Desserts, including the famous White Chocolate that features salty popcorn and caramel, drive repeat business on their own.

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