La Route des Epices chez Anise avec François Chartier
February 27, 2007
The Montreal Highlights festival delivered many treats too to be sure, with an overwhelming number of themed dinners and visiting chefs. One such event that I was lucky enough to attend was The Spice Trail with François Chartier at Anise. This meal was full of exotic surprises and creative spot-on wine pairings. Racha Bassoul’s mastery of spices and playful spirit meeting M. Chartier’s wine expertise and outside the box thinking.
This event was a real trip if you were paying attention to all the details. The menu was a booklet (designed by Epynord..) that also explained the thought process behind the pairing, providing much to chew on mentally for the curious like me. It was a good thing, because M. Chartier himself was not there, and I think it might have been a bit much for the servers talking about the Romans, and molecules in wine.. But all those interesting tidbits and background offered another level of titillation, elevating the experience above the ordinary.
A sparking cider with elderberry syrup (made by me) started off the evening with some addictive cumin spiced popcorn and nuts. The first course was constructed around ‘sotolon’, the chemical component responsible for the characteristic flavour of the Jura Vin Jaune, which is also present in fenugreek, and to a lesser degree in maple syrup and molluscks. So they infused a Juraçon with fenugreek and served it alongside 3 Princess Scallops with different froths, one sake, one fenugreek and one maple. You could not help but get the point and identify that sotolon taste, which was neat.
The next course was killer, so good.. A piece of monkfish with cardamom, coffee and boletus risotto with a New Zealand Pinot Noir (Carrick 2003). The inspiration here was the Bedouin cardamom coffee ritual, of which we were given a whiff before digging in. Coffee goes with oak aged wines and cardamom is part of the molecular aromatic profile of cold climate New Zealand wines. The complementary flavours were layered, with milder King oyster and chicory, as well as a stuffed olive bread that looked like a wedge of Morbier, and the risotto rounded it all out. Very complex, very satisfying.
The foie gras course was another big hit at our table. First we were served a black tea fragrant with curry leaves, anise and Sichuan peppercorn. While we sipped that, our foie gras steamed in a mini tea pot above a clove scented broth, which became pudding like and was then to be eaten on a mini loaf of tea bread. I don’t think I’ve ever had foie gras steamed before, and I couldn’t help but think of all that was lost through the mesh, but there was no denying that it was delicious. The intoxicating aromas of the broth was what got me though, I can still taste it, wow. The wine was a Spanish Bierzo, a rare cousin of Cabernet Franc that has hints of smoke like in the tea, and also contains eugenol, the active ingredient in cloves.
The main course was Boileau venison rack with chocolate and licorice, to go with a Domaine de la Grange des Pères 2003 (Vin de pays de L’Hérault). The idea here is that liquorice softens the Syrah’s tannin, while the pyrazines in chocolate match the Cabernet component of the wine, and some Pimenton was added to the mix for the Mourvedre. On the side was a sun-choke puree ever so subtlety tasting of liquorice, and a basil garnish (anise again). The sun-choke was great, and the meat was tender and flavourful; the sauce was frightfully intense on its own, but with the wine, it all came together.
An Alsace Pinot Gris (Clos Windsbuhl 2004) eased us into the wind down of the meal, the transition from savoury to sweet. Back to white, a soft rind ripened Fougerus cheese was served stuffed with spiced honey and nuts. The finale brought the only South African wine of the night, the famous Vin de Constance 2000 (Klein Constantia Estate) and a beautiful composition of sweets using the aromas evoked by the wine. There was a miniature gingerbread house, homemade vanilla cotton candy and three candied apple cylinders, one wrapped in rose water gelée, another with curry and the last with pineapple caramel. Stunning, and intricate, it was impossible not to be charmed by these precious little morsels, finishing the night on a definite high note.
All in all, I have to say that the meal was amazing. Because of the inventive menu, the sensory tricks, the lingering spell of Racha’s spices. And because François Chartier is intensely meticulous and knows his stuff. But the main thing is they built the menu around the wines, as opposed to the other way around, resulting in a sum that was greater than its parts. From my own experience doing wine-pairing tasting menus too, I have found that you always get a more perfect match by starting with the wine. It’s easier to fiddle with the food than change the wine. And as a chef, you end up doing things you wouldn’t normally think to do with a particular foodstuff, the wine becomes part of the recipe, like a sauce or condiment, its fun.
Despite the fact that this was indeed a convoluted menu, it turned out to be a good example of innovation and gimmicks done right, not overdone. And after all, it was a special occasion; most people were there expecting some tricks. But not everyone cares to probe so far into the alchemy of taste, many just want to taste good food and be treated nice. There was enough of both for everybody. I had my booklet to explore so I was able to indulge my foodie side and learn something without my dining companions getting too bored. And although there were constant intrusions and instructions, typical of this kind of menu, what stood out was the pure pleasure on the palate, and the artful plates. There might have been acrobatics behind the scenes, but you didn’t have to know anything about spices or the research behind the matches to know that it was simply delicious. Which is what counts the most in the end.
Their little dance was a success with Racha’s generous touch softening M. Chartier’s cerebral edge.. Tango or Waltz, a bit of Jazz, whatever it was, it was seductive, a bit of magic on a cold winter night.