By Yasmin Nissim and Chris Cline
It was an epic night at the polls on Monday! Voters flexed their democratic muscle and cast their ballots in a shocking race to the top. There was certainly no voter apathy to speak of in this bicameral system. Coincidentally, there was also a federal election going on at the time. What better way to wind down and await the results of our 41st election than with some excellent food, fantastic wine, good company and a little democratic fun!
This week, Duelling Chefs had a full house, with the buzz of conversation wafting between election results and the culinary campaigning right at hand. The sixth duel in the Duelling Chefs series had host Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar face-off against Chef John Taylor and his team from Domus Café, a venue notorious for their fantastic use of local, seasonal ingredients. This turned out to be quite the meal, with both kitchens serving up menus that had many similarities – in this case, great minds do think alike! But, before any plates had emerged from the kitchen and before the ingredients had been announced we ventured into the crowd for a little “advanced polling”.
In the spirit of the season, we opted to speak with the voting public this week to see what some of the motivators were for their participation. Several of the guests we approached were quite excited about the evening itself. Ryan, a first time participant, stated cheerfully that he was more excited about the outcome of Duelling Chefs than the federal election. Anne, who was visiting from the U.S., was quite excited about the wine pairings for the evening. Her dinner companion, Tracey, was looking forward to the duel as Juniper and Domus happen to be two of her favourite restaurants in the city, and she was quite pleased that six local charities would be benefiting directly from the event. Conservatives take note: supporting social programs makes people happy.
Following the main courses and just before dessert, we thought we’d check in with the crowd to see how the evening had been shaping up for them. A table of guests sitting near us were having a fabulous time between the food and good conversation. One of the party, Kathie, when asked about her evening highlight, stated that her favourite part was having the opportunity to try things she normally would never try, a point her companions definitely agreed with. Quebec take note: trying a new thing may turn out well for you in the end.
As always, the evening ran smoothly, the air filled with laughter and a not uncommon “yum” from surrounding tables. The ingredients selected for this duel consisted of pineapple as the secret ingredient, halibut for the fish portion and whole chicken for the meat selection. Liberals take note: pineapple candy is apparently a crowd pleaser – it gets votes. And now on to the campaign hopefuls…
Juniper’s opening move earned them an instant nod from Yaz. She was truly impressed with the slightly salty exterior of the spring roll, the tender crab, and the sweet and sour dip that used citrusy undertones and finely diced pineapple to great effect. This was a nice light way to start off the evening, giving guests just a tease of the greatness to come.
John Taylor and company kicked things off with a soup that had quite the twist: chicken bacon! Never having experienced chicken bacon, both reviewers weren’t sure what to expect. It turns out that this specimen had all the pluses of pork bacon (salty, smoky flavours) and none of the minuses (toughness etc.) The bacon was a tender, flavourful protein island in a sea of sweet coconut and squash soup. The presence of coconut and pineapple drew in a tropical commonality that worked surprisingly well with the squash. This dish was a hit for Chris, and it received his vote.
This was the first dish of the night to exhibit a clearly discernible concept. On one side of the plate sat poached halibut. Mild and unassuming, this fish was ready to fall apart at the mere suggestion of a fork. On the other sat the smoky fritter, powerful and full of flavour. Dividing this ying and yang combination was the sweet pineapple salsa; it sat between the two factions like an edible Berlin Wall. Unlike the aforementioned wall however, this salsa enforced a peaceful consensus long before it was brought down by our forks. When combined with the poached halibut, this salsa added bravado to the meek-mannered fish’s step. However, after a bite of the fritter, the salsa managed to cool off the fritter’s swagger. Freakin’ brilliant stuff here.
Where Juniper’s dish was a high-minded, delicious concept, this dish relied on blazingly good looks in addition to its good taste. The true standout here was the deep red brush stroke of voluptuous beet purée. The purée added an exotic flair to the finely roasted halibut, which was truly tender with a slightly crisped exterior. The sweet potato pavé’s layered, rectangular structure added complexity to the dish. The pavé’s natural nuttiness reflected the nutty flavour found in the halibut. This was a well executed dish that earned both Yaz and Chris’ votes.
Heads turned when the servers brought out plates that included a shot glass of pineapple juice and chicken broth. It accompanied the roulade, which consisted of a chicken breast stuffed with foie gras, rolled and sliced vertically before serving. The shot brought together the peppery tones of the foie gras with its own peppery flavours. Chris enjoyed the creamy sabayon, but wished there had been more.
Domus brought everything to the table for this creation. The chicken ballotine, a creation that was literally tied and bundled together, was truly fantastic. The sous-vide chicken breast was coated with crispy chicken-skin bits and it was perfectly moist and tender. The fresh accents of chives, corn and ramps (wild garlic) brought a bright element to the plate, and the dense cornbread sealed the deal. This dish received both Yaz and Chris’ vote.
Dessert brought out the absolute best in both kitchens, making it hard to choose a clear winner. Anchored by the warm caramelly pudding chomeur (translated from the original French as poor man’s pudding) the dish was topped with a unique surprise. Nestled into the dessert was a handmade candy filled with pineapple flavoured powdered sugar not unlike pop-rocks. After the last bite was demolished, Yaz gave this dish the nod.
In the face of stiff competition, Domus was not to be bested! The warm toffee pudding was sweet with a salty complement provided by the milk crumbs. The chef seemed to anticipate the mild character of the ginger-ice cream, pairing it with a roasted half pineapple for added flavour. When paired with the interesting red Anatolikos dessert wine from Greece this dish was a hit, and so Chris gave it the nod.
By the time all polling stations had reported (tweeting of advanced results was policed diligently), Domus was elected with a majority and took the win for the evening. Elections Canada take note: all eligible voters took part in the vote. We recommend providing wine with each ballot. Domus’ reign will be a short one – the next duel is set to take place May 16th between Juniper and e18ghteen. Tickets are still available!