Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of buzz in Winnipeg about the Raw:Almond dinner on the river. Having attended in the past, I can say that the experience lives up to the buzz. What I was unaware of is that at the same time, in Brandon, there is another buzz-worthy event called the Grey Owl Restaurant.
The Grey Owl Restaurant is put on by the students of the Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts at the Assiniboine Community College. Like the Raw: Almond experience tickets for this event sell out in a flash. This year, if I heard correctly, that flash was about an hour and a half.
You may be wondering how a pedestrian Winnipegger like me managed to make it to this event. Well, the Manitoba Canola Growers are one of the sponsors of the demo-kitchen theatre at Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts (MICA) and they extended me an invitation. I’m glad I accepted. I left Winnipeg Friday afternoon and traveled to Brandon with Lindsey Mazur, who works with the Women’s Health Clinic, and is a #CanolaConnect Be Well Camp participant, and Wendy Elias-Gagnon, a former Manitoba Canola Growers employees. Both were great companions for the journey who provided interesting conversation to help the time fly by.
Grey Owl Dinner:
Our evening began in the Canola Growers Theatre where we took some time to introduce ourselves to each other. One of the objects of the evening was for those, who like myself, write about food, to meet those who produce it. Then we watched a short video featuring one the farmers who was in attendance this evening. This took us up to the point where dinner was ready to be served.
The dinner was a full five-course meal, proceeded by an amuse-bouche and with a palate cleansing sorbet before the entree. There were 24 of us seated at four tables of six each. The tables were nicely balanced between those of us who had traveled from Winnipeg and farmers and others in the agricultural field.
Among our chefs for the evening were members of the MICA culinary class who took the bronze medal at the Taste Canada Cooks the Books competition last fall in Toronto. Although relatively new if last night’s dinner is anything to go by, MICA is establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with on the Canadian culinary scene.
The amuse-bouche was a Rabbit stuffed Rabbit. My only previous experience of Rabbit was in my childhood, and the only thing I really remember was that there were a lot of bones. This dish was entirely boneless, and entirely delicious.
After the Rabbit we were brought menus which gave us choices for each of the first four courses. I ordered the Escargot for my appetizer, the Mushroom Soup for the soup course, the MICA salad for the salad course, and the Rack of Lamb with a Lobster side for the Entrêe. I’ll say a little bit more about that choice later. Suffice it to say that I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.
For my appetizer I had chosen the Classic Escargot, which the menu describes as follows.
Delicate morsels roasted in butter, garlic, dill pesto, cognac, and white wine nestled in mushroom caps swiss cheese accompanied with french baguette
Unfortunately, the attempted photo ended up being washed out, so I don’t have a picture to accompany the description. The escargot were well cooked without being chewy, while the sauce also let them shine through. I didn’t try any of the other appetizers, but the ones that I saw around the table all were equally visually appealing and enjoyed by the diners.
One of the other appetizers was Pan-Seared Scallop and Tiger Prawn. This was prepared tableside. I have a short video of Rica, one of the students during the flambée portion of the preparation.
We had two soup choices, and while I was tempted to go with the Classic French Onion, I instead opted for the Wild Mushroom and Truffle Cream.
Wild Mushroom & Truffle Cream
Wild mushroom laced with a touch of Sherry Black Truffle cream
The soup was subtly seasoned, allowing the mushrooms to shine through as the focus of the dish. The dish was served with a large cracker, as you can see in the picture below, that had a breadstick texture to it. It was slightly salted, again meaning that it didn’t overwhelm the delicate seasoning of the soup. You’ll also notice in the picture that it was a full portion. This was a sign of things to come during the evening.
Moving on to the salad, I ordered the MICA Blend salad.
Golden and purple beet ratatouille, layered with goat cheese nestled on a bed of tender baby greens and pea shoots Spiced pecans, mandarin orange segments, pomegranate Drizzled with creamy poppy seed dressing and blood orange vanilla vinaigrette
The star of this dish was the golden and purple beet ratatoiulle. The golden beets provide a milder contrast to the purple beets, while the goat cheese adds a rich creaminess that makes you think you are eating a vegetable cookie. The greens were crisp, and the spiced pecans add a nice bit of crunch. I especially liked the fact that the vinaigrette and dressing neither overwhelmed the other flavours or left the greens dripping and droopy.
At last we came to the entrée. As we were dining I noticed that most of my table companions had left a small amount of each on the plate at the end of every course. As the youngest of six boys, this concept is foreign to me, but it was at the entrée portion of the evening that I saw the wisdom in this.
I’ve been to several dinners of this nature in the past, and I’ve never left hungry, but this was the first one I had been to where everything is served in full portions. As someone later explained this is what they call “farmer’s portions.” This is great after you’ve come in from a hard day of working in the barns or on the fields. This is not so great if you are a cleric whose lifestyle tends toward the sedentary.
Figuring that I could handle what was coming, I had ordered both the Rack of Lamb entrée and the Lobster side.
Charbroiled New Zealand Rack of Lamb
A tempting pecan and honey crusted charbroiled rack of lamb spirited with raspberry and port reduction
Vegetable of the day
Pommes du Jour
All the components of the dish were excellently prepared. The lamb was cooked to medium rare, and although the meat should be the star of the dish, for myself, the raspberry and port reduction was the best part. In particular I liked that it went well with all the other elements on the plate.
6 oz. Lobster Tail
The lobster itself had been well cooked. It had a nice chew to it with out being rubbery, and the clarified butter added just the right amount of sweetness to it.
Yet in the end this did me in. I take pride in being a bit of a trencherman, but in the end I couldn’t get through all the potato and veg after finishing the lamb and lobster. Fortunately, after the entrée we got to tour the kitchen facilities where the students had all been doing such amazing work for us.
The important part of the kitchen tour is that it gave us a few minutes for our stomachs to settle and leave us with enough room for…
When the dessert portion of the meal arrived, one of the culinary students brought around a cart with examples of the six different desserts on offer. All of them looked very appetizing, but keeping in mind that the I had overdone it on the rest of the menu, I decided to go with the light choice and choose the Classic Crème Brulëe.
Classic Crème Brûlée
“Our signature dessert” Rich custard infused with vanilla bean, singed with crusted caramelized sugar presented tableside with flambéed berries
Like the salad, this falls into the category of being so good that I forgot to take a picture. The crust required a good tapping to crack, but the inside was light and fluffy.
Throughout the evening, the service, provided by the students of the hotel and hospitality students from Assiniboine Community College was excellent. Our primary server was Vraj who made sure that the there was plenty of wine and water when necessary and knew what he was describing whenever asked a question about the menu.
If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to the Grey Owl restaurant, don’t miss the opportunity to go. Come with a hearty, and I do mean hearty, appetite. Also, come prepared to linger over your meal. The pace of the evening is leisurely so there is plenty of time for conversation among old friends if that ‘s the route you choose to go. It’s also a great opportunity to make new friends.
To the students who cooked and served, an unreserved bravo. To the Manitoba Canola Growers, thanks so much for inviting me. To my table mates thank you so much for the enjoyable conversation. A special thanks to Lindsey and Wendy for making the round trip so pleasurable.