This week, I was taken to a surprise dinner and asked to wear something nice. When it comes to places that call for 'something nice', I thought I had seen it all in Ottawa, but with this particular place receiving reviews such as "the most buzzed about restaurant in Ottawa" and "the wildest dining experience in town", I've clearly been missing out. They say you should be wary of entering an unmarked restaurant (do they say that?), but as we approached our mysteriously dismal dinner venue, I thought My feet are strapped into six inch towers of torture and I double conditioned my hair – I am not going back. Sleek, delicate grates covered the windows of the little grey house, as the “540” affixed to the door seemed to suggest that yes, we have arrived at the right location, and did we have a spare mouth gag, by any chance? My date, having noticed the sprinkling of hesitation on my face, nervously joked that he was bringing me to a 50 Shades of Grey party. Meanwhile, my mind raced through my inevitable expectations: were we walking into that infamous scene from Eyes Wide Shut? A speak-easy? Or perhaps Fight Club? Wrong on all counts. Instead, we walked into Atelier Restaurant: “A tasting menu restaurant in Ottawa serving 'New Canadian' food based on hypermodern culinary technique and technology.”
We were seated into a very cozy dining spot, with soft, elegant chairs and a calm, pastel ambiance peppered with beautifully framed doodles, suggesting the chef/owner’s pride in his children or perhaps the beginnings of a side career in visual art. A very endearing detail.
Our waiter was impeccably polite, professional, and probably an elephant, because I don’t know how a human being can remember fifty details about each of the twelve (!!!) dishes we were served. (On that note, I’ll apologize in advance for the fact that I cannot describe the dishes aside from their main components, because I just don’t remember everything that went into them.) My date, being extremely classy, decided that we should opt for a wine pairing with our dinner, and I, being a fan of booze, agreed. The Sommelier (Steve Robinson, who was not coincidentally named ‘Best Sommelier in Ontario’ in 2014) poured our whites, reds, and rosés with every meal, detailing his particular choices in that adorable way someone speaks when they’re trying to contain their passion in a box with an ill-fitting lid.“Wouldn’t it be funny if they served oysters?” my dining companion joked again, knowing my disdain for things that taste like the lake squeezed its armpit into a shell. Enter our first dish of course (is everyone familiar with how my life works, by now?), called ‘Aw Shucks!’ : Oysters with jelly, topped with horseradish foam. I’m going to expand my horizons and be open to new possibilities! I thought, as I let one slither reluctantly into my mouth. Nope. Not today. Not ever. That’s just me though, I don’t like oysters. They sure did look lovely, though..
The next dish was called ‘You’re Singing Out of Tuna’ and was a very tasty tuna tartare adorned with hints of crispy chicken skin, among other intricate details.
Next came the ‘Shrimp Ring’, or the SOIHFDOIHF WJVPOD as I heard it. A dehydrated turnip covered a bed of something at meaty but not very loud in taste. “I think this might be shrimp,” I observed. “Is there shrimp in this?” I asked the waiter, with the wonder of a culinary explorateur. “In the shrimp ring? Yes.” He answered. Ah so.
The next dish was particularly important to me because it marked the beginning of a very special bond between us and our waiter. He called it ‘Strawberry Fields for Now’ and described it as a berry soufflé (served atop a porcelain sphere) and suggested that we eat it in one bite because “…at the end, it pops in your mouth.” At that, my raging possession by the That’s What She Said spirit took hold, as the words projectiled out of my mouth before I could stop them. To that, he stopped mid well-rehearsed sentence, laughed, and said “I’m not supposed to say that but.YES!”
Hey, have you ever eaten baby octopus and wondered why it was just soooo boring? Okay, then you must’ve tried adding a strip of Agar, a splash of squid ink, and oh, I don’t know, maybe some dehydrated Chorizo to it, as they did in this next dish, the ‘Squidgee Kid’ . Wow.
Next came the ‘Abraham Lingcod’ which was a perfectly seared piece of fish full of flavour and colorfully complimented by flavors I can no longer identify. If you look closely, I think that’s a tomato. Again, I’d like to reiterate that my failure in remembering the dish components is strictly because there were just so many (and…alright, so much wine too..)
The waiter called this next dish ‘Pasta La Vista, Baby!’, and while it’s a fact that the dish was flavorful like all of the others, it’s also a fact that I requested that the waiter re-describe its entirety with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. Fact #3 is that the waiter said he didn’t think he could do it. Fact #4 is that I told him to try anyway. Fact #5: he said he would practice it and come back later. Fact #6 the rest of the meals were presented to us in an Arnie accent. Get to da next one!
The following dish (the ‘Squabble’) had, as can be seen, roasted vegetables, a very flattering cream sauce balance, and something I found peculiarly soft yet squishy, not quite game-y, not quite poultry-ish, with a slight bitterness overshadowed by this sort of flat aftertaste. It had a rounded, voluptuous edge, but smoothly obeyed the knife blade when it was cut, the way an egg would. “Excuse me sir, is this sack?” I asked our waiter. “Pardon?” he asked. “Am I eating a testicle?” Like the professional that he was, he answered, without flinching: “That is squab.” “What is squab?” I asked, adjusting my monocle. “It is essentially a pigeon,” he explained. “So street bird. I am eating street bird,” I confirmed. He laughed and nodded. Then, before walking away, he leaned in and added, “Iiiiiiz naht a peeeegeon”.
Wanna know what happens at the end, when you go to a restaurant that utilizes hypermodern culinary technique? You get three desserts, one of which is a helium sugar balloon (called the ‘Dino Egg’) that is handed to you on a fruit candy string. We were told to put our lips on the sugar coating and suck the helium out, which, let’s face it, never gets old. Diners of all ages were laughing as we turned into chipmunks, then into big messy babies with sugar balloon remnants covering our faces. Brilliant.
The second dessert, called the ‘Rhubarbara Walters’ (I cannot get enough of these names), was a frozen orb of passion fruit sorbet, nestled atop a spongecake crumble, with berries, edible flower petals, and some sort of dehydrated magic bowing at the feet of its elegance. The tropical-fruity shell was very thin and melted almost immediately, the flavours fusing perfectly with their dry, semi-sweet counterparts.
Our last dish and the third dessert, which I assume was a continuation of ‘Rhubarbara Walters’ was comprised of what looked like a creamy snake topped with little meringues and dehydrated sugary… matter. Bits of jelly rested along its curvy spine, and once again, it had a light and fruity tone that didn’t make you feel like you’ve just eaten the conclusion to twelve dishes, which I really did not mind.
As a side note, I’m not a wine connoisseur but you know how people who really want to convince you that they know about wine will tell you that they’re ‘picking up on’ ‘notes’ of ‘plum, Autumn, a sneeze, and a hint of Sunday morning’ and you’re like “yeah me too” but really you’re not even sure what colour the wine is? Well, for the first time in my life, I observed this lovely sweet passionfruit-like smell in this one particular Riesling, and was absolutely floored by its taste which was also very fruity, very rounded, not too sweet, and just delicious. I just felt like I got it, guys. That wine was a 2012 Studert-Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese from Mosel, Germany, and if you ever find it, I would suggest you give it a try.
The entire dining experience lasted almost four hours, and truly, I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun eating food. Each dish enticed the diner to experience it like a little story, and each triggered an entirely unique sensation, whether by virtue of the crackling chorizo, the waiters’ and sommelier’s seamless dedication to providing incredible service, or the mystique of the elusive street bird. Highly, highly recommended.
Atelier is located at 540 Rochester Street. Cult robe optional.