Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gold Medal Plates dinner

The last time I wore a suit was in 1988. I was teaching at Otsuma Women's University in Tokyo, and at the end of the school year, the women would don kimonos and throw an elaborate party at a ritzy hotel for their teachers. My chance to eat some of the best roast beef in Japan, well worth putting on a suit for a few hours, once a year.
So naturally, putting on newly purchased, black-as-a-funeral suit and seeing myself in a mirror, I had no idea who that person was. But I was up for some good food.

There is an internet collection of food lovers called The eGullet Society I discovered a couple of years ago, when I was getting into restaurant reviewing. I had never posted to the site and consulted it rarely, when I wanted opinions on one restaurant or another. Recently, on reading an article in the Sun about a new restaurant from an old chef in Paris (L'Atellier de Joel Robuchon) just as I was contemplating a trip to France that would put me in Paris for a few days, I decided to look up a list of the world's best restaurants, which is easy to do online. I had never heard of The French Laundry until October, or any of the other restaurants that appear on the list. It widened my horizons in reading about chefs whose cuisine I enjoy in Vancouver, as several of them have indeed worked at these famous restaurants, from which they have certainly learned much. EGullet had a little thread about an upcoming food competition in support of the city's upcoming Olympics. Although I have less than zero interest in the Olympics, a chance to try "the best" by a dozen of the city's top chefs seemed worth donning suit once again.
I knew the Westin Bayshore only as the hotel Howard Hughes lived in while he was in Vancouver in the early 70s. Was it famous for something else? I had purchased my ticket on line, having been told one would be sent me. As it wasn't, I had to have the people at reception scroll through their long lists of attendees to finally find my name and let me in. I was told to come back to the reception desk at 7:30 (it was now 6:00, the time we were supposed to arrive and indeed, the food was ready to eat) to be told which table I would be seated at. I assumed it was a sit-down dinner.
Instead, amidst a sea of other men in black suits and women in the female equivalent, I found little islands of food. Restaurant Stations, they were called. In the middle of the room, what looked like small children but were probably seriously starved teens twirled about gynastically. I was given a glass before entering the room, and discovered that by standing in a line, I would get a small plate, the restauarant's entry into the competition, and my glass sample of paired wine. At an event like this, the wine would be paired PERFECTLY, I thought.
My first line turned out to be for West, the restaurant that had enchanted both my previous night's feast as well as its leftovers, a pheasent that gave wings to my taste buds, for lunch. After the pheasent landed daintily on my stomache, I walked over to my local rec centre (about a mile round trip) and worked out, hoping to expand my famously tiny appetite to enjoy this top of the line food. I was ready. A glass of red accompanied West's offer. But oddly, instead of being the sky above the pheasent, I forgot what I was eating while I was still eating it. I next tried some food from Fuel, where I had such fine food for my birthday. Again, all I can remember is that it came with yet another glass of red wine. Two totally forgettable mini-meals is not a good start to a competition. Maybe they were good? Don't recall. Had 2 cameras and a microcasette recorder and didn't use any. Didn't seem to be an option. Some folks I know reccommended the "Roulade of Buffalo" from the host hotel. I had seen it when walking in, but noticed the buffalo roamed with its Oyster buddy. I have never eaten an oyster that didn't immediately make me want to puke. But these are the tops chefs! The food olympics! Surely they can make oysters edible? Nope. OK, this is not going well. Two nothings and then I'm poisoned. Thankfully, I was rescued by a short rib hamburger from Lilliput. Or no, that's Rob Feenie, the city's most famous chef. Having just lost his restaurants a few days before, I was surprised to see him there, and even more surprised to see his double, a life size portrait, being auctioned (as were many bottles of expensive wine) off to get more of those tiny burgers into the micro-stomaches of needy gymnasts. I just wish I could get something to drink other than Red Wine! And the fact that there were no tables and chairs. I learned that this was the food event. The sit-down would be to listen to athletes speak. I was here to have the chefs speak at their most eloquent, tales of culinary magic- not words but dishes! To sing me into higher states with choruses of beets and beef, duck ascending heavenward, oysters made edible at last!
At least I got the beets. The "duck breast wtih trio of baby beet roots" from the Hyatt restaurant was excellent, or at least the beets were. The duck, as well as pork, were more fat than flesh. Who eats fat? Amidst all these starving athletes? It just seems rude.
By this time, I'm starting to suffer from my inability to sit down anywhere and enjoy what I'm eating (ever hopeful!). Slowly. Digest. Ponder. What is that? And particularly to savour with the wine. OK, my experience with red wines is tinier than a Feenie burger. Aside from sangria, I only drink red wine when a restaurant pairs it with what I've ordered. This usualy works. However, as last night at West, when the food is over, I find, however well the wine went with the food, it's now undrinkable. So I doubt I could ever appreciate red wine in itself. Paired with beef, pork, etc, it's part of the culinary experience. One part. Red wine without food is like Maggie hitting the horn on her toy steering wheel while Marge drives home on the opening of the Simpsons. But one red wine after another, led me to increasingly pour them out quickly after they did their job with the bites of meat, then not know if the new one worked with the new dish or not. My palate was becomming increasingly confused. I also had to spend considerable time keeping a look out for empty space on one of the small tables there to collect our discarded plates, so I could get rid of mine. Something I found myself doing more and more often. The "Olive oil poached BC Spring Salmon" from Bacchus finally got me some white wine, but it provoked the gag reflex even more than the oyster (more than one dish featured it, to my horror). I had to pour several sips of white wine into my throat to wash away its nausea. And I was planning to go to Bacchus. On its website, it looks like someplace to wear a suit. But perhaps not to Eat!
Chambar, where I have usually dined well, did not dissappoint with its short ribs with applewood smoked cheddar, a regular resident in my fridge. Actually beef was pretty good throughout. A woman came by and offered me what looked like sushi rolls, and chopsticks to speer them, but they were ox! Babe-olicous! But horrors did not cease. The worst thing that wormed its way into my mouth turned out to be elk! It promptly came back out. Maybe I read the eGullet post wrong. This was a competition for the WORST CHEFS IN VANCOUVER. The black suit, of course! I'm at my own funeral! I've been poisoned! I'm in Food Hell!
And then, I'm not. I have a really good scallop. I have to remove it from its porcine environment and just feast on its goodness. I ask the chef, and he tells me it's infused with vanilla bean. That's pleasureable just to say. My thanks to the Whistler Hilton for remembering the emperor of local food, the scallop. Half a dozen of the best meals I've had in Vancouver have involved scallops. We have some tasty ones here or ways to bring them here.
Actually, the last thing I had was the best. I never wanted it to end. It also featured white wine, so it was my friend before it entered my mouth. I'll let an expert describe it:

The gold medal for our Vancouver event this year was awarded to Chef Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s. The banner above his station described the dish simply as a “porcini mushroom and chestnut soup” – and indeed it was, served in a coffee cup like some kind of cappuccino. But the texure was profoundly enriched and the layers of mushroom flavour were dramatically deepened by melted foie gras and a scattering of crunchy truffled brioche croutons. In a ceramic spoon set on the saucer of the “coffee cup” was the other element of the dish – a square of chilled mushroom jelly and a roasted mushroom salad served at room temperature, the supple textures and contrasting temperatures working beautifully in the mouth. The judges were unanimous in awarding the dish maximum “wow factor”. As an accompanying wine, Posteraro chose a Niagara Chardonnay that proved an inspired match – Pillitteri Estates Winery Chardonnay Sur Lie 2006.

James Chatto, National Culinary Advisor, Gold Medal Plates.

I've never heard of him, but I agree.
I've never felt like less like an expert. With a palate as sophisticated as the judges' and I assume, the chefs, I might be able to appreciate what was being done with all those intricate flavours and enjoy them appropriately but aside from the mushroom soup and that solitary scallop, there was nothing here to surpass my usual restaurant fare. The ox sushi and Feenie's microburgers were both tasty and the beets were refreshing, in a Kerouacian sort of way. I remember the pheasent from West, my fantastic lobster gnocchi as well as the wondrous adventure my palate went on through the morsel of Fumiyo's smoke infused-chicken. But I don't remember the famous chef's entry in the following day's food olympics! Maybe it needed a cocktail.

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