Friday, March 13, 2009

By Julianna Hayes
What do you get when you throw two acclaimed chefs into a kitchen and challenge them to create a meal around a selection of wines? You get a cook-off, a heck of a meal and a fair amount of chest pounding.

That scenario played itself out recently at Cabana Grille Restaurant when co-owner/head chef Ned Bell faced off against Mission Hill Family Estate Winery executive chef Michael Allemeier in what could easy be construed as Kelowna’s version of Iron Chef.

The two men are long-time friends and even co-hosted the show Cook Like a Chef on the Food Network. Their kitchen reunion was nothing short of a culinary showdown in front of a formidable crowd of 110 hungry patrons.

The inspiration for the evening was a selection of Mission Hill wines and each chef was challenged to make a dish to pair with each using a specified ingredient. For example, the ingredient in question for the 2007 Five Vineyards Pinot Grigio was shellfish, but beyond that the menu was script free.

Allemeier explained that each chef would give his “interpretation of the wines” in his choice of the final ingredients and their preparation and presentation.

For the shellfish course, Allemeier opted to use B.C. spot prawns and scallops from which he made a ceviche. The cold dish featured basil, yogurt, parsnip, micro greens and tiny “verjus” pearls made from the wine itself.

Bell, meanwhile, served up a roasted Ocean Wise – meaning it comes from sustainable seafood sources – jumbo scallop with organic walnuts, golden raisins soaked in the Pinot Grigio, curried lobster emulsion and eggplant puree.

Both dishes delivered big in the flavour department, but Allemeier was the clear winner when it came to the wine pairing component. The lemony bright citrus and mineral character of the wine mirrored the freshness of the ceviche, which tasted like it was plucked fresh from the sea. Bell’s version, while scrumptious, overpowered the lightness of the wine, which, despite its abundant acidity, failed at cutting through the richness of the colossal scallop and its robust accents. A better match would have been a crisp and aromatic Riesling.

Wine number two was the 2006 Perpetua, a Chardonnay from the winery’s new luxury line of products know as the Legacy Series. The secret ingredient was rabbit and this time it was Bell who served up a cold dish featuring a “finger sandwich” of rabbit brioche, brassica mustard crème fraiche and a galantine of rabbit with hazelnuts. Allemeier opted to make a rabbit Sheppard’s Pie.

In my view, both chefs executed their dishes beautifully, but came up a tad short in the pairing. I thought the elegance and refinement of the Perpetua – a wine to be treasured for its full palate yet delicate balance between fruit and oak – was somehow lost next to these culinary offerings.

The third course featured the another Legacy wine, the 2005 Quatrain – a blend featuring Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon – matched with venison. Allemeier elected to run with venison loin served with mushrooms and mint bread pudding. Bell produced braised venison shank on stoneground polenta with roasted carrots and plum.

Both dishes were incredible and picking a winner was a challenge as each had merits. Bell’s option was rich, flavourful and the meat melted in your mouth, mirroring the wine’s velvety texture. But Allemeier triumphed slightly with his rare loin cut and wild mushrooms, which picked up on the wine’s underlying earthiness.

Not to be outdone, Bell conquered in the next round when the men squared off with aged cheese for the 2005 Oculus, a Bordeaux-style blend also from the Legacy series. His dish of blue cheese shortbread and Camembert was simply yummy. Blue and hard cheeses have an underlying saltiness and their proteins cut through young, bold, tannic wines like the Oculus and soften all their hard edges. Bell accomplished this masterfully. Allemeier tackled a soufflé made from Salt Spring Island’s Moonstruck White Grace cheese and hazelnuts on beetroot with a side of cherries soaked in Oculus. In theory, it should have worked, but the dish was a little fussy and was easily manhandled by the big wine.

The last course was dessert featuring some kind of citrus to be paired with the 2007 Reserve Riesling Icewine. Dessert and the sweetest of dessert wines are always uneasy co-pilots. Both chefs got the pairing bang on though by balancing the sugary component of their dishes with healthy hits of citrus that picked up on similar characteristics in the wine without giving diners too much of a good thing.

If I had to pick a winner though, it would be Bell, and this is purely a case of personal preference. I’m not a fan of chai thus Allemeier’s orange and cardamon-scented chocolate chai didn’t appeal to me. I also struggle with foods that have semi-firm textures like tofu and Allemeier had two of those components in his dish – a cold lemon madeleine “cake” that sat in the chai and a lime gelatin “marshmallow.” But others loved the dessert and got a kick out of the presentation.

Bell’s dessert was a simple lemon and white chocolate cream with a honey pistachio baklava that was refreshing, light with a lovely sweet-sour component.

In the end, most people – including myself – thought the battle came to a draw, certainly if you tallied the votes in this could. But I thought people reading this might think that was a cop-out, so I came up with two tie breakers – best overall wine pairing and best overall dish. Here’s how that played out:

Best Wine Pairing Overall - Ned Bell for the aged cheese and Oculus course
He nailed the 2005 Oculus, an earthy, robust, Old-World style blend with his blue cheese shortbreads. The savoury, salty flavours were simply ideal with the wine. If this were a round of golf, this pairing would have represented that pleasing “ping” you hear when you connect with the ball in just the right way.

Best Dish Overall – Michael Allemeier for his rabbit Sheppard’s Pie
I don’t even care for rabbit, but I could not stop eating this dish and that was something I heard from many other diners that evening. While it may not have gone perfectly with the wine for which it was intended, Allemeier rocked the ultimate in comfort foods and brought it up to a whole new level.

So after the bonus round, we still have a draw. Hey, it even happens on Iron Chef from time to time.

Wine Notes

Pentâge 2005 Pentage
Aromas: Leafy tobacco, meaty, compost, mushroom, herbaceous, cherry, coffee bean, pepper
Flavours: Coffee, cedar, pepper, cherry, dusty cocoa, cranberry, tea, mentho
Body and Finish: Dry, earthy palate with moderate tannin and a slightly hot finish
Overall Impression: More Old-World and earthy in style than the fruit bombs we typically see in the Okanagan – not to everyone’s taste
Would I Buy It? For something different.
Cellaring Potential: Hang onto it for a couple years
Score: 89/100
Price: $29
Availability: Winery directly, private retailers

Mission Hill 2007 Five Vineyards Rose
Aromas: Orange blossoms, cranberry, strawberry extract, pomegranite, citrus
Flavours: Pomegranite, strawberry, orange zest, vanilla
Body and Finish: Bright fresh entry, nice acidity at the mid-plate, lots of zip on the finish
Overall Impression: A tasty little rose blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cab Sauv made in a lively, quaffable style.
Would I Buy It? Sure
Cellaring Potential: Drink Now
Score: 89/100
Price: $14.99
Availability: Winery Only

BC Buy of the Week

St Hubertus Estate Chasselas 2007 $15.99
Light bright wine of fresh green apple, a hint of peach, citrus and lemon. Easy sipping wine. Think cheese fondue.

Import of the Week

Sileni Cellar Selection 2007 Pinot Noir (New Zealand) $20.99
Forward bright fruit expression with aromas of fresh ripe Bing cherries, strawberries, and a touch dillweed. A graceful wine with juicy red berry flavours, menthol and mouthwatering acidity. Easy to drink.

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