FAJO Picks — Stylish Venues
Stepping into Ottawa’s Atelier Restaurant, one of the first things you notice is the artwork. But take a closer look, and you’ll notice that the splashes of bright colours are actually drawings by owner and chef Marc Lepine’s eight-year-old daughter.
“It’s so easy to become pretentious when you are doing high-end food. I guess [the humour] helps fight it a little bit,” jokes Lepine.
Atelier is a reservation-only restaurant that features a set 12-course tasting menu every night. The menu, which changes regularly, is more than just a meal; it’s a three-hour experience paired with 9 to 10 optional wine suggestions. Each dish is designed with care, integrating different textures, colours and, above all, a multitude of flavours and components that blend seamlessly on one plate.
Every night, Atelier’s four chefs prepare and plate three courses each, in what Lepine calls a “collaborative kitchen environment,” often using their solar-powered ovens and ingredients grown in the garden behind the restaurant, when available. “The creativity levels are through the roof in the kitchen all the time. It’s really a fun environment,” says Lepine. Every new course is tested by each chef, after which it is critiqued, adapted and improved until it is perfect — only then is it added to the menu.
For our special FAJO tasting, we were treated to three dishes, prepared and served by Chef Lepine himself. Our meal started with a summer salad made up of lightly salted raw peas, string beans, purple heirloom carrots, spearmint, sage flowers, apricots and a single, lightly sautéed pearl onion, all served over a drizzle of mint-infused butter. In the middle of the ceramic wave-shaped plate was a spherification of spearmint peas (a culinary process that shapes liquid into spheres by creating a thin membrane to keep it in a specific shape), which, once punctured by our forks, oozed out onto the salad, providing a pool of sauce just sweet enough to balance the salted peas.
“After flavour, I see [style as most important]. We stylize our plates, and the lights are specifically set up to shine down on the table so that at night, when it is dark, they shine right on the plate. Food is the focus, and we leave the tables relatively bare,” stresses Lepine.
Next, we moved onto my favourite dish of the tasting: a thick, single slice of beef rib-eye (sourced by local Ottawa farmer Dan O’Brien), served with parsley chips and turnip coins, a truffle bread pudding so crispy on the outside we could hear it crackle as we cut into it, drops of truffled sour cream and a drizzle of blended dandelion and horseradish. Served with the steak was a small pile of everything-bagel crumble; the poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried garlic, dried onion and salt provided playful and delicious seasoning for each bite of beef.
We finished our tasting with a dessert that was being added to the menu for the first time that evening. A frozen dome of strawberry sorbet, shaped on the back of a ladle and dipped in liquid nitrogen, housed a salad of strawberries, peaches, gooseberries and basil. The light-pink dome was peppered with dollops of basil meringue and sprinkled with a dusting of crushed Rice Krispies powder and Pop Rocks.
To eat the dessert was to experience the humour and creativity of Atelier. We had to use our spoons to break through the frozen dome, which broke into pieces like thin chocolate. The dome was colder than you would expect and didn’t so much melt as disintegrate when it hit our tongues. That sensation, coupled with the Pop Rocks, which you could still feel pleasantly crackling after you had swallowed, made it impossible not to giggle as we finished every drop in our bowls.
Every dish was so carefully designed, prepared and balanced that we took a few moments to appreciate its complexity before diving in and slowly savouring each bite. The end result was wanting more of everything and feeling like our craving for Atelier could never be quenched.