Howard Levitt: We may not have Michelins, but Canada has plenty of restaurants whose chefs, and dining experiences, are truly world-class

By Howard Levitt

Original Source: National Post

When Noma was on top of the World’s Best Restaurant list, I flew to Copenhagen for a single night between court cases. Shortly after the earthquake at Fukushima, I flew to Tokyo and Kyoto to get a table at restaurants I would otherwise have waited months to gain access.

I went to Osteria Francescana (No. 1 in the World’s Best 50 last year) on my honeymoon. I ate at the two restaurants consecutively owned by Joel Robuchon, the best chef of the 20th century, for meals I could not afford, back when there were two chefs per diner and his name had not yet expanded internationally.

A lawyer by trade, I am a food enthusiast by longtime habit.

I often hear Canadians refer to restaurants as 3- or even 5-star Michelin, unaware that there is not a single Michelin-rated restaurant in this country. As a judge on two prestigious restaurant review panels — one Canadian and one international — I know what the culinary world is capable of and where Canada fits in that constellation. We may not have Michelins, but Canada has plenty of restaurants whose chefs, and dining experiences, are truly world-class.

As we celebrate our 150th birthday this summer, I will be sharing my Canadian highlight reel.

We start with Canada’s best, the only restaurant that would warrant three Michelin stars: Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. Its chef, Jason Bangerter, started, humbly enough, at George Brown College’s chef school, and quickly moved to Europe where he worked under some of London’s top chefs, including Marco Pierre White and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, before returning to Canada 15 years ago to join Auberge du Pommier. When Jonathan Gushue (who owns and head chefs the estimable Berlin in Kitchener) left Langdon Hall four years ago, Bangerter was asked to become its Executive Chef. Under Gushue, Langdon Hall had earned recognition in the world’s most prestigious rating service, World’s Best 50 (the San Pellegrino List) in 2010, at number 77, one of only five Canadian restaurants ever to crack the top 100. Bangerter has raised the bar significantly since.

Much of the pleasure of eating is poetic remembrance. This meal brought back many of my fondest and long hidden memories.

For the first course, a skeleton was brought out, one of a very large yellowfin tuna caught off of Nova Scotia with intense candied sweet jewels of tuna resting within its spine. The next course was also spectacularly plated, a ceramic bowl with the bottom shaped into a chicken’s foot resting on the table. In that bowl was a moist chicken liver mousse entirely unlike any other I have experienced — and coming from a Jewish home, I am no stranger to chicken liver. This one was stuffed with truffle slices, pistachio and an intense rich chocolate designed by the chef himself and his pastry chef at Or Noir in Paris. The blend of truffle, chocolate and pistachio with the chicken liver was an artful tapestry, a brilliant and fresh combination that left me contemplating how humble chicken liver could be so transformed.

The next course was beets; not the plebeian, hard-working beets we see in most Canadian restaurants these days, but three different types — yellow, red and striped beets — on top of a jellied borscht beet stock, topped with crème fraiche and bubbles from sparkling wine. I normally abstain from beets, having had too many in recent years. But the additional ingredients completely transmogrified what could have been pedestrian.

The remaining courses? Local quail (the breast plus the remainder in a sausage), all with smoked parsnip and chocolate and quail bone jus; cauliflower in three forms (raw, pudding and cooked); scallop and caviar with an intense cream that gave it another dimension; snow crab with apple gastrique, apple sorrel puree and dill (all from Langdon Hall’s garden); venison with morel mousse with cabbage and wild sumac from the local forest and an egg truffle dish, lightly steamed, then infused with champagne, topped with truffle and chives and toasted brioche. Quite apart from the complex tastes and variegated ingredients, each remarkable dish was styled as if for a food magazine.

The reality of international dining is that some three-star Michelin restaurants (such as Robuchon in Las Vegas when it had that rating) are disappointing. This meal in humble Cambridge, Ont., would have created lineups in Paris or San Sébastien, but Canadians don’t even realize they have this world-class gem in their midst, entirely accessible and close to undiscovered.