Thursday, November 5, 2009

DNA Delivers Ecogastronomic Delights

Earlier this week, some friends and I went out to DNA Restaurant to enjoy their special "Ecogastronomy" menu in honour of Slow Food week. Founded in 1986, Slow Food was started in reaction to the rise of 'fast food', and was perhaps one of the earliest promoters, although indirectly, of the farm-to-table approach to eating. Proponents of Slow Food believe that food should be more than sustenance in the belly. Food, in its full range of recipes and flavours, should celebrated, savoured, and enjoyed in the company of others.

Recently, Slow Food has added eco- and social responsibility to its gastronomic roots--hence ecogastronomy. According to the Slow Food Canada website, "Ecogastonomy is an attitude that combines a respect and interest in enogastronomic culture with support for those battling to defend food and agricultural biodiversity around the world. [...] It helps to safeguard local cuisines, traditional products, vegetable and animal species at risk of extinction. It supports a new model of agriculture, which is less intensive and healthier, founded on the knowledge and know-how of local communities."

The Ecogastronomy menu at DNA Restaurant was true to all these Slow Food principles. It was my first visit to DNA and my expectations were high. I'd been hearing good things about Executive Chef and co-owner Derek Dammann's culinary concoctions that honour heritage food traditions and use mostly local and sustainable-sourced ingredients, as well as the extensive Canadian wine list compiled with partner Alex Cruz.

Overall my dining companions and I were impressed. We all agreed that the $45 set price for the four-course menu was a steal for the quality and quantity of food. Far too often, farm-to-table dining is out of the price range for the average person. For this event, DNA makes it reasonably affordable. Good on them! In contrast, the $45 optional wine pairing offered to accompany the meal was a huge disappointment and grossly overpriced. Only three services were accompanied by wine and the quantity was very meagre compared to other wine-paired meals I've experienced. Instead, consider ordering your wine by the glass or bottle with help from the sommelier. The extensive wine list offers some affordable choices (as well as some luxury ones!) and a very exciting selection of Canadian wines.

Now, on to the food! Overall the ecogastronomy menu is ambitious and varied. Our waiter was fabulous at explaining everything on the menu, even offering insights into the ingredients themselves and how some of the dishes are prepared. In keeping with the celebration of food in all its ranges and flavours, much of the opening appetizer and pasta course options include ingredients that many of us are not used to, such as heart and testicles (Yes, you read that correctly!). This was a turn-off for some at our table, and the source of great excitement for others. It was really interesting to watch the range of reactions.

Some of the appetizers on offer included zupa di pane (bread soup), porchetta di testa (a charcuterie made from a pig's head), veal heart tartare with brioche, fresh oysters, and Kamouraska lamb carpaccio. The carpaccio, which was delicate and flavourful, was a big hit at our table; as was the heart tartare for the more adventurous and the zupa di pane, which was full of chard and beans and very rich. Appetizers were served with a variety of fresh-baked breads and olive oil, which stayed on the table until the main course.

Moving on to the pasta course, selections included ravioli al sole, kamouraska lamb cavatelli, and spinach pasta with fresh lobster and Matane shrimp, among others. The ravioli was stunning. Upon cutting into it, the barely-cooked yolk of a duck egg spilled out onto the plate. I'd never seen that before, although some of my dining companions had encountered it in their own culinary gallivanting, and even tried to reproduce it themselves(!). Aside from the egg, the filling of the ravioli contained duck liver, heart, tongue, testicles and foie gras, in a refreshing example of leaving no part of an animal to waste. The cavatelli was also well-received. The lobster and Matane shrimp was tasty with generous portions of seafood and married well with the fresh spinach pasta, but was very, very salty. This was a shame because the delicate flavours of the seafood were not allowed to come through on their own.

Main courses included boudin noir (a blood sausage), kamouraska lamb, veal loin, milk-fed piglet, wild coho salmon and striped sea bass. All were tasty, well-prepared and well-presented. The only missing element was vegetables, which were there but you had to hunt for them. There is still a lot of seasonal produce available at this time of year, so I'm not sure why the veggies were so starkingly absent; although it is in keeping with the bistro style that seems so popular among trendy restaurants these days.

Wrapping up the meal, the salted pine nut tart with ginger and olive oil gelato was the perfect finish. I highly recommend it. Other options included apple cake and a chocolate panna cotta made from a traditional recipe (Ask the server about the secret ingredient.). This was followed by almond cookies and coffee.

Overall a very pleasant night. A few final notes: Almost everyone commented on the decor, which is high-tech, modern, tasteful and inviting. The layout also feels very private and helps keep the din of surrounding diners to almost non-existent (A feat well-worth mentionning!). However, the service for the four-course menu was very long. We were in at 7pm and not out until well after 11pm. At that point many of us were rushing out the door, even leaving early before the coffee, weary of long drives back to Vaudreuil and the North Shore. Finally, this is no place for a vegetarian, although I suspect that non-meat-eaters could be accommodated with advance notice.

Sorry, no pics. I decided to sit back and immerse myself in the experience of the evening.

PS. The Montreal chapter of Slow Food is offering a 10% discount on annual membership upon presentation of the restaurant bill from the this week's Ecogastronomy menu. for more details contact them at info(at)slowfoodquebec(dot)com.

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