Two Chefs, Two Takes on NS Food

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It was quiet inside Seasons by Atlantica when I arrived at 6:30pm on Tuesday. Aside from the row of tables flanking the restaurant windows, which eventually filled up with guests who had been anticipating the Iron Chef Atlantica event all day, the restaurant remained virtually empty. The bar was a little bit busier, with an almost midi-style tinkling of piano keys that filled up the space around the folks having drinks. The restaurant remains one of the city’s best kept secrets in some ways, perhaps a testament to Haligonians’ unwillingness to embrace hotel restaurants as must-go dining destinations.

As the night’s event closed in, the kitchen was just as calm as the dining room. Quiet, even, by kitchen standards. Pans were quietly stacked, only bothered by brief, sweaty sighs from a couple of pots sitting on low, blue flames below. Chefs Luis Clavel and Frank Widmer were relaxed, joking and casually wandering the kitchen, expertly tending to their dishes with sous chefs under foot and over plates. Clavel was, as always, casually confident about his menu. Widmer, meanwhile, happily captained his traditional dishes, clearly easing into what is a fun routine.

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The event started with Janice Ruddock from Taste of Nova Scotia welcoming everybody to dinner, and the two chefs making a brief appearance in the dining room to introduce their menus. Chef Widmer talked with delight about creating a menu of Swiss dishes with Nova Scotian ingredients. Clavel coolly talked about “destroying” the food and “putting the flavours back together.”

“You should go to his kitchen,” Widmer laughed. “He really destroys it.”

That joke sums up the approach to this Iron Chef “battle”—it was steeped in camaraderie and lighthearted fun,  a way for two chefs with two very different perspectives to see what one another can do behind kitchen doors.

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For the first course, Chef Widmer offered up lobster minestrone Ticinese with big, freckled chunks of lobster, cannellini beans, and a parmesan crisp. Clavel presented HPP—pascalized, or cold pressed—lobster, lobster tempura on a bed of roasted corn, and lobster sausage draped with a lobster-yuzu gelee cupped in a cloud of smoke. Just as the smoky glasses were delivered to the dining room, a fog crept up Robie Street, as if on cue.

The Berner platte was the entrée theme, with Widmer preparing a traditional platte using Nova Scotia seafood, and Clavel, of course, doing a more playful take on the dish using the modernist techniques he is known for.

The traditional Berner platte was delicious. It was an Alpine fantasy for me. I love the simplicity of it: lots of strong flavours presented in uncomplicated ways. Freshly smoked salmon, a perfectly cooked scallop, tender boiled potatoes and a creamy, slightly tart sauerkraut were highlights.

Clavel’s take on this dish is delightfully jumbled. Salty, smoky, sweet, and earthy: familiar flavours were deconstructed and rearranged in an interesting way. A tender mussel ravioli was shored on a delicious cabbage hash with sweet, shredded short rib. Rich flavours of foie gras, pancetta and truffle accented the dish in mousse, crumble and powder. Chanterelle was transformed into a leafy sheet that had a fascinating texture that fell somewhere between rawhide and jelly.

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The desserts were takes on crème brûlée. Widmer’s Swiss-style version had a custard that tasted entirely like the burnt sugar you find on a traditional brûlée. A delicate, slightly tart pear compote and a bright mint leaf added contrast. Once again, he offered a dish that displayed restraint and simplicity that was delicious, and a great counterpoint to Clavel’s modernity.

The trompe l’oeil “breakfast” that Clavel served was a nod to the ingredients in a brûlée. An “egg” made of vanilla and mango, a powder of English cream, and a “bacon” made with caramelized, candied pear. The pear gelato in nitro and icy pomegranate rounded out the tasty dessert. Maybe it’s predictable, but the bacon was the best part.

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The highlight of the night, though, was the smallest course. The palate cleanser, a “lemon cough drop in liquid,” was the exact opposite of an exercise in restraint. There was so much work put into such a small sip. The effect, especially in the kitchen where it sat under a fog as thick as the one that was, at that point, swirling outside the hotel.

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This was a really great event, and I’m glad that Taste of Nova Scotia took a detour off of their Chowder Trail to put it on. I wish more people had gone. And I hope they do something like this again. More than anything it’s nice to see two chefs have the chance to explore food and celebrate traditional and new ways of using our local flavours. Two takes on Nova Scotia food just isn’t enough. I want more!

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