In April, Chef Martin Picard came to Toronto to promote his book, Au Pied De Cochon Sugar Shack, by cooking a dinner with Chef Anthony Walsh at Canoe. Now, four courses may seem like a small number, but this is Martin Picard we’re talking about – and if you’ve ever been to Au Pied De Cochon in Montreal or his Cabane A Sucre just outside of Montreal, you know that nothing he creates is what one would ever consider light.

By the time I stepped on the 54th floor of the TD Tower in downtown Toronto, a good number of people were already about, mingling and chatting. Flutes of Hinterland’s effervescent rosé were being served alongside oysters and canapés of maple salmon (on house-made bannock and topped with crème fraîche). A quick perusal of the crowd triggered recognition of many familiar faces. Chefs from across the city had gathered tonight, honouring and giving tribute – not only to one of their own – but to a Titan of the Canadian culinary landscape.

The sun began to slide below the horizon, but fingers of yellow and peach hung on to the sky as we sat down to hear the opening remarks. It was a magnificent view of the city’s West and a visual presage to the dishes that would follow.

On the table were freshly baked breads, and the one studded with bacon was a table favourite. I tried my best to not inhale too much of this in anticipation of the gluttony to come. Things began with a dish from Chef Picard – a foie gras tarte tatin with a tart onion jam and lancaster cheddar. Rich and sweet and salty, these big and bold flavours were mellowed and complemented by the dollop of cottage cheese on top. There was this great caramelization on the cheese-lined crust, giving it a lovely little chew. The only thing that I didn’t enjoy was the texture of the chunks of apple. Too mushy, but they lent the dish a subtle sweetness. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the chunk of foie on this tart was ridiculously generous. I highly enjoyed the pairing of the Antolino Brongo Cryomalus Apple Ice Cider (Sait-Joseph-du-lac, Quebec 2009), a 5 apple blend popping with apple flavour and a hint of tart.

Anthony Walsh took command of the second course, a roasted bone marrow canoe bearing chunks of yarmouth lobster, cinnamon cap mushrooms, sweetbreads, and sautéed stinging nettles, all thoroughly doused with a delicious lobster cream sauce. The nettles lent the dish a nice textural contrast to the richer components, a bit of “roughage” reminiscent of kale. Beneath the bone, pommes purée; it maintained this great potato flavour while still being rich and creamy. I was mildly jealous of others who had bigger dollops of potato on their plate and I may have licked all traces of the purée from that bone. We drank a Norman Hardie Winery Chardonnay (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario 2009) with this dish. Thought it decent.

After the bone marrow, there was a bit of a break. So, with dishes empty and mouths idle, I mustered up enough gumption (with lots of incitation from my table-mates) to head up to the pass and start shooting. Up top, Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller (Cabane à Sucre) and Chef John Horne (Canoe) prepare the next course. Above, Carl Rousseau (St. Canut Farm), Martin Picard, and Marc Beaudin (Au Pied de Cochon, Cabane à Sucre) smile for the camera. Well, someone else’s camera, at any rate.

 It wasn’t long before we returned to our seats for the next course: an intermezzo of iced cedar sap. A pine granita sat on an doughnut-shaped ice “cube” with dollops of sweet pine tree “sap” dotted about the plate. I wasn’t sure I’d like this one much, but found it had great balance and wasn’t the overwhelming flavour I thought it would be. A really great way to cut the richness from previous dishes. I chuckled when a fellow diner commented that it was “like licking a sauna!”

Our palates reset, we were ready for Picard and Walsh’s dégustation des porcelet de carl (shoulder, loin, tourtière, and h.f. belly). Our waiter had dubbed it a “ménage a quatre.” And why Carl? Because these meats came from St. Canut Farm – Carl’s farm. Clock-wise on the plate: “holy f**k” pork (belly with perforated skin – very crunchy with a good porky taste, but wouldn’t call it “h.f.”), pork loin with branston chutney and collard greens, the tourtière (meaty, with foie and game meat), and compressed shoulder (I liked this best. Lots of chew and lovely spicing). I found there were lots of Asian flavourings in this dish – an odd dollop of minced ginger and scallion that I usually associate with chicken dishes sat on there, and the roasted pork belly was good, but only reminded me of siu yuk. This was paired with a Stratus Red (Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario 2007) that had a really nice dry and fruity taste. Would drink again.

With that, we were done with the savouries and moved on to the sweets. As a teaser, maple cotton candy was being spun at the pass and handed out. Light, burnt, maple, sugar… how could I not love this? And it set the stage for the next, and final, course.

Picard’s maple mille-feuille was, hands down, the best thing I had eaten in a long time. Crunchy and flaky and toasty pastry sandwiching alternating layers of maple pastry cream and whipped cream. On top, grains of maple sugar embedded in slathering of maple butter. Served family style, our half of the table demolished almost our entire serving. And then I took the rest home. And then I took some other table’s leftovers home. It was really that good. Luckily, page 107 of the Sugar Shack book details how I may go about assembling one of my own. As a standalone, the Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard Barrel-Aged Chardonnay Icewine (Vinemount Ridge Ontario, 2008) was sweet and balanced, but suffered as a pairing.

With lots of big flavours, a variety of textures, and excellent pairings, the Canoe Shack-Up was, without a doubt, a fantastic dinner that ranks highly with me. And while the dinner had ended at Canoe, the party continued until the wee hours of the morning. Blithely hopping from place-to-place with friends, old and new, was a pleasure I hadn’t had in some time. One of those really great evenings that lingers strongly in my memory still.

More Canoe Shack-Up Photos

[flickr-gallery mode=”photoset” photoset=”72157630106740930″]