THRU is found inside Atelier Restaurant, at 540 Rochester Street.
Reservations are made at thru.tickit.ca. June and July dates are now sold out. August dates to come.
Cost: $400 for two, taxes, gratuity and booze included.
Of all the various chats I have had with chef Marc Lepine over the years, the one I remember most vividly was his response to my intoning, matter of factly, the virtue of the KISS principle. I don’t even remember in what context; I just remember he recoiled. “What does that even mean?” he asked me. “Chefs are always talking about keeping things simple. I’ve never understood it. Why would I ever want to keep it simple?”
There’s nothing remotely simple about THRU. It is, in fact, a complex dining adventure with many moving bits. It’s meant, I think, to offer what Lepine’s 11- year-old restaurant, Atelier, offers… but ramped up and with more shared content from the renegade brain of its chef.
The small dining room is a shimmery silver boite that seats six, at three two-top tables. It’s found within Atelier, like a gift inside a present, on the Rochester Street restaurant’s upper floor. And like the experience of Atelier, THRU is grounded in offering hyper-contemporary food and drink of exceptional quality. But where Atelier offers a 12-course blind tasting menu, THRU delivers a 50-ish-item extravaganza. Some bites savoury, some sweet, some in liquid form. These are delivered one by one, in pretty rapid succession, fanning out on the shiny dark table blotched with QR codes and titles (“Penicillin,” “Sunchoke,” “Halloumi,”…) It looks a bit like an undisciplined game of solitaire at first, and then the food arrives (in very cool serving dishes), you pick up your chopsticks, and the game’s afoot.
Across from me was my game friend Sheila Whyte, of Thyme & Again Creative Catering — a woman of excellent company and palate, and one who can really work a smart phone. And working one of those is a prerequisite if you want the full THRU experience: the camera function on the phone is used to unlock those QR codes. Once scanned, up pops… something: a rundown of ingredients; a tip on how to approach a dish; a recipe for the finest tequila cocktail you’ve ever had; the history of a wartime recipe; a video demo of a technique using a modernist kitchen toy; the answer to what’s the green crumble beneath the sous vide cheesecake skull (crushed wasabi peas) or to what the heck Sea Robin is. Without accessing the text within the code, I would not have known how long to cook the licorice root-skewered Japanese A5 wagyu beef over the binchotan-fired konro grill (answer: “However much or little as you like.” I think we nailed it.) One code attached to a particularly retro dish inside an hourglass, unlocked an Abba song that’s been my ear worm for a week.
We ate our ‘bonus round’ bite in the Atelier/THRU kitchen after it was all over. I think it was the 52nd item, though I did lose count. It was an “Un-fortune-ate Cookie”, which we were fortunate to receive despite not having answered, while upstairs (by return text), the question attached to the bonus QR code. It had asked for our best guess as to what THRU stood for. My best guess (I won’t bore you, or embarrass me) was met with an eye roll from Lepine. Still, I got a cookie. Unfortunately, the fortune inside gave no clue.
Given it took Atelier 10 years to get any kind of restaurant signage (if you squint, you’ll now see a small black Atelier announcement to the left of the door) keeping things hidden (like a blind tasting menu, like coded messages, like surprises) is a toy and a tool Marc Lepine enjoys playing with. He also enjoys creating dining experiences that do so much more than feed us well: they seek to amaze us, make us laugh, or sigh, or wonder; teach us something modern or take us back in time (pre-smart phones) … even unnerve us a little, take us out of our comfort zones.
When Lepine came through THRU to ask we six guests what we had thought of the experience, we all agreed it was incredibly inventive, wildly different, great fun… an evening we would be digesting for weeks. Though I did add that I had found it a bit overwhelming.
“Good” he replied.