It was with both excitement and trepidation that I arrived at Absinthe Café last night for the third Knives Out Ottawa dinner. The theme for this event was Auguste Escoffier, a man dubbed ‘the king of chefs and the chef of kings’. Escoffier popularized and updated traditional French cooking methods and is considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern French cuisine.
Knives Out is a celebratory culinary collaboration between seven of our city’s top chefs: Steve Mitton of Murray Street, Mark Lepine of Atelier, Marc Doiron of town, Pat Garland of Absinthe, Jamie Stunt of Oz Kafé, Chris Deraiche of the Wellington Gastropub and Arup Jana of Allium. It was a true delight to witness their camaraderie and the sense of fun they bring to this project.
And the food? I would have to use a lot of adjectives to do it true justice. Forced to choose just two, I’d go with surprising and delightful. Given a third – I’d say excessive, but only in the most delicious and wonderful of ways as each chef presented playful twists on classic Escoffier dishes.
We started with lovely little blini adorned with crème fraiche and caviar. The first bite tasted like my grandmother’s pancakes…and then it was just so much more. This was followed by a second amuse, also courtesy of host Pat Garland; he called it Poutine Escoffier and it was a fantastically rich, salty concoction that include shards of duck meat and duck gravy along with the fries and cheese.
Chris Deraiche’s consommé Zola consisted of a beautifully flavoured broth over tasty little Parisienne gnocchi, made of choux pastry. Next up was probably my favourite dish of the night – Arup Jana’s chicken tartlet, with truffles, pickled onion and a soft boiled egg, along with fantastic fois gras mousse. The dish was perfection in terms of both its look and taste, with each of the distinct flavours perfectly balanced.
Mark Lepine’s scallop Thermidor was a lovely adaptation of a dish traditionally made with lobster; the sambuca, dehydrated fennel, bacon and smoked paprika created an unforgettable taste medley. This was followed by Marc Doiron’s duck a l’orange, featuring orange and thyme marinated duck breast, cooked sous-vide, plus duck rilettes made from confit, glazed endives also prepared sous-vide, bathed in orange sauce with pickled pearl onions and duck crackling on top. It was as awesome as it sounds.
It was a little daunting to see some of the heftier dishes appearing towards the end of the meal, such as Steve Mitton’s tongue Rossini, a playful take on a dish typically made with filet of beef. Jamie Stunt’s filet of sole was, in his words, designed to be like something you’d find in a 1950’s cookbook but it hit all the right marks for flavour and presentation.
When Pat Garland announced that it was time for the final course, crêpes Suzette, he did so with the unforgettable words, “’we’re gonna fire shit up”. This was at 11:15 pm, almost five hours after we sat down.
I am somewhat relieved not to have been a restaurant patron in Escoffier’s era (late 19th and early 20th centuries). No way could I eat like this all the time, but for one night, it was so fun to pretend I was in Paris during La Belle Époque.
The next Knives out dinner will be held at the Wellington Gastropub in March, with the date and theme yet to be announced.