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Canadians in Europe

TRACKING DOWN AND CATCHING UP with expatriate Canadian chefs doing great things in leading European kitchens is easy, and we have done so frequently (think Jessica Rosval, at Osteria Francescana and now Casa Maria Luigia, in Modena, and Ben Ing and David Zilber in their Noma days, etc.). But this time out, our plan was slightly different. We wanted to check in on two Canadian chefs making a name for themselves on their own terms — while owning their own restaurants and running their own show.

First stop, Bermondsey, London, to catch up with ex-Montrealer Jonny Lake. If you follow the chef on Instagram, you may know him as the official purveyor of Christmas tourtières to the staff of Canada House, among other deprived ex-pat Canadians. More notably, he also worked for 13 years at The Fat Duck, where he ended up as that estimable restaurant group’s executive chef. In 2018, he quit, along with the group’s award-winning head sommelier Isa Bal, with a view to collaborating on a place of their own. Trivet opened in October 2019 — just in time for the pandemic. After enduring that early misfortune, they collected a first Michelin star in 2022.

From London, my wife, Lisa, and I had our sights on Berlin, which is enjoying some well-deserved time in the culinary spotlight. German culinary technique has long been exceptional; what’s changed here of late is the use of local ingredients. As irrepressible chef Billy Wagner explained to me at his tasting bar Nobelhart & Schmutzig (#17 on the latest list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), just a couple of short blocks up Friedrichstrasse from Checkpoint Charlie, “Before the wall came down, all we had was produce imported from Europe to West Berlin by plane.” And now, instead, a good part of the farmland surrounding Berlin, which, back then, was under the purview of East German collective farming, is host to artisanal, biodynamic producers trying to restore that abused land. The 30-year-old experiment is spurring on a renewed Berlin restaurant scene.

Along with Nobelhart & Schmutzig, those ranks notably include Otto, Tim Raue, Lode & Stijn, Coda (the two- Michelin-starred desserts-only tasting-menu restaurant), and Ernst, another Michelin-starred World’s 50 Best Restaurant. Ernst, helmed by a 30-year-old Japanese-trained Canadian chef named Dylan Watson-Brawn — Gault Millau Germany’s chef of the year — was the main reason for our visit.
[vcex_image_galleryslider caption=”true” image_ids=”26870″]TRIVET36 Snowsfields, London, U.K.
UPON SETTLING IN AT TRIVET, near London Bridge, the first of many different and interesting things you’ll likely notice about the place is that the expansive, assertively international wine list is organized in a manner rather different from the expected. No old world and new world or Burgundy and Médoc headings here. Instead, wines are grouped by age. And not that of their own vintages, but, instead, of the era of the local winemaking industry. The list starts under the heading 7,000 BC with wines from Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. And if you came all this way to drink something from Canada, you’ll need to flip ahead well past 700–650 BC (Piedmont, Veneto, etc.) all the way to 550 AD.

The intent from Master Sommelier Isa Bal is no doubt educational, but it comes across as playful. You are in the hands of a sommelier who wants to expose you to lovely, unfamiliar things. Go with it. We did, starting at the beginning — why not? — with an orange wine from Georgia, Mildiani Qvevri Bouquet Rkatsiteli 2018, aged in clay and then French oak, dry but luscious and round, with a floral nose, a strong dose of stone fruit, and a long finish.

Trivet is a welcoming space, with a big bar, to the right of the entrance, with 10 stools, and the dining room, to the left, with bare wood tables, neutral wood tones and a spacious open kitchen where chef Lake and his team of four cooks go about business quietly and calmly. And what a job they do.

First up, scallops and king oyster mushrooms in a broth that combined three (dashi, scallop, and mushroom), made separately and blended. Earthy, firm king oyster played the perfect counter- point to the sweet, tender scallop. Add to the mix diced blanched — and rasped raw — orange peel, and the pop of fennel flower and you have a crackling mix of complementary flavours, each announcing itself with clarity as they compete for your palate’s attention.

The same was true of the next dish of sweetbread with grilled maitake, with red cabbage, fresh lingonberries, and fragrant wild cumin — luscious textures, clean flavours, and an original composition. But it was the squab that dazzled. First, the legs, confited, shredded, and reconstituted into an onion-and-squab- liver-filled croquette rolled in cornmeal, served impaled on its cleaned leg bone for a handle (a “squalipop,” if you will) with a side of orange sabayon for dipping. And the breast? Roasted rare to a delicious and supple state of tenderness plated with a well-acidulated jus, its texture defying its cuisson, which in my experience is always more enjoyable medium-rare. Inquiring, I learned that a yogurt-based marinade was, in some part, responsible for the unusual and exquisite results. A discreet trick from an exceptionally deft kitchen, content to not draw too much attention to itself. This was smart cooking of a very high order, crackling with flavour, balanced and well-textured, and striking that elusive and highly desirable balance of originality and tradition. All in a casual and convivial setting, with polished but unfussy service. After a small dessert of a crisp canelé, finished with a dab of local honey, I sipped a digestif and thought contentedly about returning, soon.
[vcex_image_galleryslider caption=”true” image_ids=”26871,26872″]ERNSTGerichstrasse 54, 13347 Berlin, Germany
TO COME CLEAN, I had never previously devoted much time to thinking about kumquats. Not until this one came along — fresh from the south of France, seed-less, and now alone on a plate, warmed through, softened and lightly infused with smoke from a brief stint on a charcoal-fired grill, and dusted judiciously with a just-detectable dose of bottarga. This is finger food, Ernst-style, a second course in a tasting flight of more than 20. It was an arresting mouthful — dense with distinct and complementary flavours, an original composition, and utterly delicious. So where do you go from there? Onwards and upwards, it turned out.

At this small tasting bar, tucked away behind a forbidding brushed-aluminium door in the gritty Berlin neighbourhood of Wedding, eight diners face off across an austere wooden bar with nearly as many chefs and servers, and watch their meal come together up close and personal. You might not be able to hear what chef proprietor Dylan Watson-Brawn, his chef-partner, Spencer Christenson, and their crew are saying to one other as they huddle in intense concentration over the next flights of plates. But, as you will quickly learn, they can hear you. So, if you make an innocent sotto voce observation to your dining companion that, say, you liked that cup of dashi perfumed with yuzu, you might next find yourself informed summarily and unbidden by one of the cooks that the citrus in question was in fact Japanese orange.

Unusual, but no matter. In this unconventional restaurant, the flow of information from the chefs is necessary and welcome. Because even experienced diners will frequently find themselves without useful reference points for many of the novel flavours in play. Would you attribute the odd, sweet tang of ice cream to its having been churned not from cream but from bovine colostrum? I didn’t think so — and me, neither. And the long, delightful road to that singular dessert was punctuated by so many exceptional dishes.

The kitchen leans heavily on the building blocks of Japanese cookery (nifty knife work, dashi, miso and other koji-driven fermentations, obscure citrus, and a decidedly un-squeamish fang-to-fin approach to seafood consumption). But it deploys them to arrive at flavour combinations that are seldom traditional and, more often than not, entirely original. A dashi-poached nugget of sunchoke comes topped with a tangle of julienned raw squid, capped with veal marrow rendered smoky from quick, direct contact with a smouldering em- ber of binchō-tan. Next, the sunchoke’s skin — dried, deep-fried to crispy, its sweet earthiness playing off a filling of micro-planed winter truffle. Then cep- and-seaweed chawanmushi, and local ginkgo and pistachios, braised in dashi until textured like meaty legumes. Julienned endives are dressed with chilled, gelatinous dashi, Osetra caviar serves as filling for a dashi-poached gnocchi, and a whole trout-roe sack gets wrapped in chard and grilled. An unscaled fillet of red mullet — its skin doused in hot oil until the dermal denticles raise like hackles — made for a texturally memorable mouthful. So did the custard-soft legs of a huge brown crab, steamed long and slow over water well shy of a simmer. Much of the oeuvre, though, hinges on vegetables dressed up for dinner like you have never seen them before — say, poached Japanese pumpkin topped with congealed crab fat, slow-roasted sweet potato doused in a sauce of puréed, roasted black sesame, and bok choy afloat in ibérico ham–infused dashi (hashi, as we called it).

There was plenty more before we arrived at that colostrum ice cream, and colostrum custard dusted with tangerine powder. And if by then we had long since lost count of the number of courses, the sense of delight with which we started the meal was still intact. Burgeoning, actually — given the choice, I would happily have stayed for the second seating and eaten the same menu all over again — or at least tried.
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By Jacob Richler