I didn’t think I’d like this place very much. I’m suspicious of gastro technology. It bores me and I’m not clever enough to get it. Though I’ll admit a little professional curiosity.
My husband was a different story. Twelve tiny courses of high-tech-freaky, ultra-fussed-over food, from a stove-less kitchen, served blind over three hours? (Are you serious?) When he could be at home supping on leftover chilli with a beer?
The last time I had to promise him the sky and the moon and favours of all sorts if he’d be my dining date was for my fifth and final visit to The Mill. (A different sort of freakish evening. But let me not digress.)
Here’s what happened. He spent three hours giggling. Claims it was the most fun he’s had dining out in a long time.
Atelier is chef Marc Lepine’s avant garde, 22-seat restaurant, open two months now on Rochester Street. Lepine was the executive chef at The Courtyard Restaurant for a number of years. He left that position last year to build this project, based on the Barcelona model of the kitchen-as-laboratory, seeking creative ways to ramp up the sensory experience of eating.
To that end, traditional cooking gear is shucked out, and a range of high-tech equipment is used to play around with the texture, form, aroma and colour of ingredients in order to create dishes designed to mess you up a bit. (After our meal we visited an uncluttered, hyper-efficient kitchen that looked more like an operating room.) This place he called Atelier, which means an artist’s workroom.
It’s a workroom with a tricky location. This modern restaurant doesn’t even have a sign. It may be coming still, or it may be part of the secret alchemic plan. For now, 540 Rochester Street is a gun-metal grey two storey house that looks like it’s had a fire-rash around its windows. Curious rusty grates stand in for railing and window treatments. We ask ourselves, Was this pokey little place surrounded by parking lot and government office towers really the temple for an exhibitionist chef’s over-imaginative ego? Husband’s mood was dark.
Things improved inside, up the steps, through the grey and black dining room with oversized white leather armchairs, dark wood tables and the framed art of a three year old Lepine child on the pale walls. Things continued to look up with our greeting. The young staff settled us with the wine list and offered drinks before outlining the ground rules. There would be no menu unless we insisted. Menus are for the weak, said my man. Bring it on.
And so it began. Thirteen small, blind courses. Some no more than two bites, some slightly more substantial, all of them stylized, all of them designed to confront the senses in some way.
The shock is that it’s unsettlingly delicious. This is food that takes your mouth and your mind for a ride. Textures play with and against each other. So do aromas and temperature. Some things pop, others fizz and steam, some things crunch when you think they should slide, and flavours mix and create aha déja vu memories – of childhood dishes, of ball game food.
There are plates that are over the top twee – a long, fussy Versailles garden of perfectly behaved dots and smears, tiny piles of this and that and thin lines of coloured dust. I wanted to hate it. But when you consider the ingredients and the flavours, they begin to come together in shockingly sensible patterns. And in the mouth, there are many Holey Moley moments.
Mind you, the charm of the food would be vacuum sucked right out of it if the service were pretentious. Led by sommelier Steve Robinson, the staff are beautifully human. There is none of the sombre earnestness you might expect to accompany an ahead of its time, high-end restaurant. They giggle along.
Which brings me to the paragraph where I would ordinarily launch into an explanation of the food, starting from the top with the Screwdriver lollipop and going course by course by course through to the Elvis truffle. Well I’m not going to do that. I’ve never written a review without a word about the grub I ate, but here goes nothing. It’s meant to be a surprise and I’m playing along.
Did everything work perfectly? No. Some experiments missed the mark, but not many. Most were extraordinary. And the nature and pace of the meal meant you never had time to grow too attached to any of them, the delicious, the fun or the “nice-try” plates.
A short three and a half hours later, and the experience is over. I am told they can speed it up if you’d like; two and a half is probably the Reader’s Digest version. I don’t know why you’d want to.
This is a brilliantly creative place. Tweak the budget and book a table.
I will tell you what we paid. Dinner at Atelier costs $75 per diner. The wine pairing (optional) is a further $55. I don’t begrudge them a cent.