*Restaurant is now closed*
I guess it was inevitable. We finally have our very own Top Chef champion opening up shop in town. Well, to be clear, it was Top Chef Canada and Dale MacKay had already opened up shop prior to officially winning Top Chef Canada. Now this is where a strange dynamic occurs. Suddenly, the food is almost secondary to who is preparing it. Sure, a restaurant should generally have good food in theory; however, when you have a well-known chef, that can be the meal ticket in itself. I mean, look at Hawksworth. I certainly enjoyed my meal there; but honestly, I had to try the place out because it's David Hawksworth! So does that mean I need to go have The Burger at Cactus Club again since it is Rob Feenie's creation??? On that note, prior to being on Top Chef Canada, Dale MacKay's claim to fame was heading the kitchen at Lumiere (Rob Feenie's former stomping ground). I had the good fortune of enjoying the Grand Tasting Menu there prior to its closure (and db Bistro as well). In some sense, I already knew that Dale MacKay had immense talent. Sometimes, those with so much talent tend to over-analyze and/or over-think things. That seemed like the case with Dale on Top Chef
Canada. Doesn't matter tough. He won and with a full house on a Saturday night, it seemed the restaurant was winning too.
Since it was so busy, our table was not ready when we arrived. Seeing how we had to wait, they served us a complimentary appetizer in the Flat Bread with bacon and onion. Immediately, it brought back memories of the one we had at db Bistro. Coincidence? And much like last time, it was thin, crispy and mild-tasting. There was definitely the saltiness of the bacon and sweetness from the onions; it just wasn't very impactful. Nitpicking aside, it was fine and well, it was free. Elaine did a bit of researching on the Internet and concluded there were 2 things we had to try. One of them being the Sweet & Sour Eggplant. The plate was presented with 8 pieces of eggplant atop baba ghanoush and topped with cucumber yogurt, tomato and a fried eggplant chip. I found the eggplant to be cooked beautifully where it was soft while not crossing over to mushville. It was sweet with a light tang.
Her second choice also happened to be Dineout Girl's selection as well. So we ended up with 2 orders of the Black Cod with Thai Broth (which was featured on Top Chef). Good thing we got more than one because it was very modest in portion size. The picture that you see was the second order which was bigger than the first. The first one only had one piece of cod, albeit bigger than each of the 2 smaller pieces in the second plate. The cod itself was cooked perfectly being moist, flaky and buttery. The broth popped with flavour, possibly a bit on the salty side though (heavy on the fish sauce). Despite this, it was fragrant and had just the right amount of coriander. The few drops of chili oil didn't have a huge impact; yet at the same time, that was a good thing since it can be overwhelming especially with the cod. Another dish we had 2 of was the Pulled Pork Sandwich with apple-horseradish slaw, salted watermelon with mint and fried pickle. Yet again, this item was featured on Top Chef (and won too). Well, what can I say? This was a solid pulled pork sandwich. The meat was moist and had the just right amount of BBQ sauce which was smoky and sweet. The coleslaw was pretty good, it had a nice crunch with an apple tang and a slight kick. The bun was soft and held up to the wet ingredients.
Continuing on with more watermelon, we had the Tomato & Watermelon Salad with watercress, onion, chives, mascarpone and vanilla balsamic dressing. We rather liked this rendition of a watermelon salad. It was creamy and sweet with a hint of saltiness and tang. The salad was light and refreshing while exhibiting an herby
bitterness. A lot of different flavours going on in what some might consider a simple item. Moving along, Costanza ordered something that had the same deja vu feeling as the flat bread. The Foie Gras Mousse was exactly the same one I had at Lumiere. Not a stretch really, I mean, it was one of Dale's best dishes. So offering it here at Ensemble was only logical. The whipped foie gras was served with celery root, apricot, hazelnut, a touch of balsamic reduction and brioche waffle. The result was a very light foie gras dish with had a good balance of flavours. Viv opted for the Vancouver Island Mussels in a curry broth with cilantro. We found the mussels to be rather small; but the broth was quite tasty. It was fragrant with big hits of curry and much like the black cod broth, it was on the saltier side. The accompanying fries were crisp and potatoey.
The item that stuck out on the menu for me was the Five Spice Pork Belly with smoked miataki, pear puree, pickled carrots & daikon and cashews. The pork belly was prepared beautifully where it melted in my mouth. There was a range of flavours: the buttery-nuttiness of the cashews, sweetness of the pear puree, subtle Earthiness of the mushrooms and tang from the pickled veggies. The pork belly was slightly lost with all of the ingredients on the plate; but in the end, I still enjoyed it, so no harm, no foul. From one plate with plenty of flavours to another that was very mild which was the Roasted Lamb Loin accompanied by radish, shiitake puree, bulgur wheat and black garlic jus. The lamb itself was cooked perfectly. It was both visually and texturally appealing. However, everything on the plate had a "muted" existence. Don't get me wrong, this was a pleasant plate of food and in no way, shape or form was it bad. We just thought it needed a little "something" to make the flavours pop.
The next dish was once again quite familiar and somewhat polarizing. The Cornmeal Crusted Scallops with corn succotash, mushrooms, sea beans and chicken & scallop jus reminded me of the one I had at Lumiere. Seems to be a trend here eh? Well, I don't blame them, why not go with what has been successful? Now to the polarizing part - Costanza wasn't really down with the corn succotash and others were slightly indifferent. For me and Elaine, it was delicious and went well with the perfectly seared scallops. It was sweet and full of pop from the "snap" of the corn niblets. I found that the jus didn't have enough salt to balance out the sweetness of the other components of the dish; yet that really wasn't a huge issue since it was ultimately tasty.
A dish that Costanza did want to try was the Beef Shin and Fritz. I couldn't hide my excitement over that choice since I really wanted someone to order it. When it arrived, I wasn't really expecting it to be shaped like a puck; but when flaked apart, the meat was like "pulled beef" which had some pepper notes and plenty of meaty depth. I particularly liked the crisp edges of the meat. Next, we had the Poached and Crispy Chicken with chicken veloute, morels and fava beans. For me, I consider chicken to be the perfect blank canvas for creative flavours. Where this dish fell flat was the flavour profile. It was far too mild and showed restraint. The veloute was smooth and rich; yet at the same time, having no impact. The morels compensated for this somewhat; but as Costanza remarked, "I've had much more flavourful morels than these ones". We did, however, like the crispy chicken. It was moist and tender on the inside while crispy on the outside. As for the poached chicken, it was super moist and tender.
For our last savoury item, we had the Herb Risotto with tarragon, chervil and chive. Despite its interesting serving vessel, the risotto was uniformly liked by everyone at our table. It was creamy, well-balanced and had good flavour, particularly from the herbs (and not relying on salt). I found the risotto just a minuscule past al dente; but that is nitpicking. Onto dessert, we shared three starting with the Precious Pavolova. Viv and I thought this was a nice whimsical shot at the judges on Top Chef Canada. We remembered this deconstructed pavlova where it was criticized for being too precious (much like many of Dale's other creations on Top Chef Canada). This particular pavlova came with cherries marinated in basil and balsamic along with candied ginger and more basil. For me, this was a pleasant, if not "okay" dessert. Nothing really made it memorable for me; however, the addition of basil did make it at the very least different.
Another dessert, that actually did quite well on Top Chef Canada, was the Souffle. The Souffle of the Day was a Pineapple Souffle with pineapple carpaccio and sorbet with toasted coconut. The souffle looked impressive and didn't collapse despite my photo-taking delay. It was eggy, light and not too sweet. The pineapple and sorbet added more pop to the dessert and overall, it was pretty good. Lastly, we had the Chocolate Fondant with Hazelnut-Nougatine Ice Cream. This was my favourite of the three desserts. The cake was warm, decadent and rich. It was not overly sweet while definitely chocolaty (dark). The accompanying ice cream was good with the nougatine providing a nice crunch. This was a good end to a relatively decent meal. Did it "wow" us? No, it didn't. But it was far better than what I expected. Now that is a bit strange since one would expect a lot from the winner of Top Chef Canada. However, that would be both unrealistic and unfair. We felt that the overall execution of the food was pretty good considering it was a full house and we had ordered a large percentage of the menu. In terms of flavour, there are some tweaks needed in some of the dishes. One important thing to note about the food is that the portions are very modest. If one wanted to be satisfied, I would say that 2 - 3 dishes per person is necessary (not including dessert). Depending on which ones you choose, it can quickly add up.
- Generally well-executed proteins
- Service we got was pretty good
- Can get pricey depending on what you order
- Depending on what you expect from Ensemble, the atmosphere is quite loud