Wow, Le Café, who knew?
I can’t say this restaurant has ever been on my radar. I’ve heard of chef Michael Blackie – he often appeared in newspaper articles of interviews with local chefs. I guess I always just saw this restaurant as a tourist trap, but still endearing with their inviting outdoor patio perfectly positioned next to the Canal. A restaurant that sat a very large number of guests, which would result in a plate of mediocre food. I just assumed people would eat there for the view, the people watching, and the sheer convenience of the fact that it’s the perfect place to grab a bite before a show. And that’s it. But an event put on by the Marketing Officer at the NAC quickly proved me wrong. Le Café offers so much more.
I got an email a couple weeks ago from Jennifer Covert, inviting me to taste Le Café’s new Taste 5 menu. A food blogging event of sorts. The first of it’s kind with some of Ottawa’s best food bloggers, including Don and Jen from foodiePrints, Jody from Simply Fresh, Paola from C’est bon cooking, Shari from Whisk, Lana from Apron Strings, Heather from After the Harvest, Sean from mediastyle and Matt from Kayahara. Every last detail from the minute we arrived to the last bite of food we ate was so carefully planned. To have pulled this off so flawlessly was really quite impressive. Great company, a bit of hands-on, an intensive kitchen tour and of course indulging in delicious food. What a night!
We were brought through the long corridors and deep down into the kitchen of the NAC. As we exited the elevator into the first prep area, a long table beautifully decorated and candlelit was patiently awaiting our arrival. A sweet glass of maple cider wine was offered as we listened to how the evening was to roll out. They divided us into teams, each one responsible for a specific part of the dinner.
Team Crabby, paired with Chef Sharma, were responsible for the brandade crab galette.
Team Flamer, along with Chef Bento, took care of the soya stained torchon of foie gras with warmed duck confit.
Team Crack and Chef Richardson carefully prepared the crisp skinned salmon with wasabi crack.
And my team, Team Ménage. At first I thought woohoo! We’re taking care of the cleaning! That’s what I’m best at. Not so, it was a ménage-à-trois. AAA three way. We were paired with Chef Morris, so patient, and really just an amazing person all around. As much as I don’t enjoy cooking, I could learn to love it under his wing.
Chef Michael Blackie oversaw it all. And he said it best when he talked of these amazing chefs who made it all happen. Customers assume it’s always the head chef that makes their plate. But nothing would be possible without this grandiose team.
As team crabby got started on their dish, the rest of us got the tour of the biggest kitchen I’ve ever seen. Set up to serve 3 courses to hundreds of people in less than an hour, the equipment in this kitchen alone had our jaws resting on the floor. Everything right down to the conveyor belt where we carefully decorated each plate.
Our first dish was delightful, Brandade crab galette who’s taste was tempered by the curry, fennel and sweet corn broth it bathed in. A crisp basil leaf interspersed between shavings of fried leek decorated the top of these golden fried beauties. They paired this dish with sparkling Prosecco La Robinia from Italy.
Next came the soya stained torchon of fois gras with warmed duck confit, highlighted by tiny cubes of green apple gelée that added an unusual splash of colour. The firm buttery texture of the fois gras and confit combination melted so smoothly in your mouth that even the sugar torched fig was no match for the richness of it. We rinsed it down with a Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris from the Okanagan Valley.
There was a ripple of excitement when the crisp skinned salmon was served. Dusted in wasabi crack and served with a delectable smear of cauliflower and black sesame purée gloriously smooth in texture. Tasty bok choy, chewy enrigi mushrooms and sliced lotus root completed the plate. To drink, they served us a lovely rosé from Huff Estates South Bay Vineyards in Prince Edward County.
We could have stopped there, but passing up the main course was not an option. An elegant combination of beef done three ways. 65 degree centigrade filet carefully placed next to the moist beef short ribs, braised ever so slowly in garlic and lemongrass. The meat was partially framed by a bright orange swipe of whipped sweet potato and dredged with crushed pistachio. Moist slices of pulled cheeks hugged tiny servings of charred pearl onion and meaty oyster mushrooms.
My job was to heat up the Jerusalem artichokes that were served alongside the beef tenderloin. It was much less intimidating than you would think – thank god. And the Israeli Galilee Cab Sauvignon served with this dish was heavenly. I would have drank the entire bottle.
The wine pairing, introduced by sommelier Tegan Schioler, was perfect and so well thought out. Every luscious detail of the bottled potions described to a T, making us feel like royalty in a true celebration of food and wine. Even right down to the sparkling water that they make in-house. Refreshing, and of course, a fabulous gift to mother earth. They've even got an organic separation process with the garbage going on. What more could you ask for of a restaurant, really.
The type of setting we had was really quite unique – being placed in the kitchen with the chefs cooking your meal, there to answer any question you may have. Ensuring nothing but excellence for you and those you love dining with most. They are looking to offer this type of service as corporate outings, or other groups who want to experience great food at the heart of a bustling kitchen. Simply put, a destination for food lovers.
For our last course, we moved up to the restaurant. One that Chef Blackie has great plans for renovation. Honeybush semolina spring rolls piped with roasted banana filling and served on a bed of cubed tropical fruit. The opposite end of the plate made way for a tiny snowball of vanilla ice cream decorated by a thin wafer of chocolate. A glass of port completed this final dish as our bellies sighed with satisfaction.
I have a new found respect for the effort and patience that goes along with a restaurant of this size. To turn around this much food without skimping on quality is impressive. And it wouldn’t be possible without all the magnificent behind-the-scenes people that make it all happen.
I have a feeling my next visit will have to be brunch. They offer a significant buffet at a surprising $27.95. And really, what better way to spend a Sunday morning, sitting by a sun-filled window or watching the boats float by (in the summer).
I can’t thank Jennifer enough for inviting us. She and Natalie Peachy from the food and beverage department made us feel fantastic. And to Chef Blackie and his amazing posse for all of their time and addictive energy. I can’t imagine pulling something like this off while the kitchen remains open to the public is that easy. But they sure made it look that way.