Grouse Mountain takes wine tasting to new hights

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      Today, we’re all about matches made in heaven—or at least a few thousand feet closer than usual. Because that’s where we start: at the top of the North Shore mountains.

      Much has been made, and continues to be made, of the art of matching food with wine. It’s become standard in many restaurants: the tasting menu. A little bite of this, a little sip of that. There are some stellar hands at the practice in the kitchens and cellars of Vancouver restaurants. It’s music to my ears and heart when, after I’m done studying the menu and the wine list, the server or sommelier says, “Maybe we’ll just get the chef to cook something? Pick a few glasses to go along?” Yes, please, any time and place, and in spades. Tasting menus have me hooked; set a set menu in front of me and I’ll eat it.

      These exercises in gourmanderie are never inexpensive. But they are almost always memorable, especially when the team of food and wine lovers consults and conspires, and the whole thing becomes high art.

      There are few higher than the Observatory restaurant, atop Grouse Mountain. It’s a local landmark, been here for a long time, gone through changes, peaks, and valleys. You’ve doubtless come across an old saying that runs, “The better the view, the lesser the food,” or words to that effect. Well, sir and madam, here is a definitive refutation of that ancient adage. This was one of the best dinners of the year, in full view of the city, the harbour, the Grouse Grind terminus, and the sunset.

      Hadn’t been there for years, but recently many favourable comments have rolled down the hill. They’re all true. Along with sommelier Brent Fraser, executive chef Dino Gazzola assembled the Observatory’s current prix fixe menu for our little table the other night: five courses, five wines to match. The all-in cost for such hedonism runs to $125 per person or so, depending on spur-of-the-moment inspirations from the kitchen. And of course, the gondola ride up and down is included in the package.

      Now we know the Observatory’s cellar in the sky is chock-a-block with exquisite bottles. There are multi-vintage verticals, magnums, rarities, and, best of all, drinking wines—heavy on class-act imports but also showing thoughtfully selected B.C. treasures. The pairings at our table were sensational, as close to perfect as it’s possible to get.

      The obligatory but always welcome amuse bouche was a mini plate of micro greens and tomatoes with smoked celery salt and tomato water. Then it really began: seared scallops (a staple in local restaurants these days), with smoked octopus carpaccio and pickled radish salad, alongside Church & State Chardonnay from Vancouver Island. There was spice-rubbed confit of pork with mizuna and Okanagan peach purée, Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace, rich and opulent, and the colour of sherry. There was wild mushroom lasagna with house-cured bacon and brown butter, paired with a minty Batasiolo Barbaresco from Italy.

      On to duck confit croquette with cherry gastrique, Moonstruck Blossom blue cheese and watercress, paired with a gorgeous, inky seven-year-old Cahors from France, just coming into its peak of flavour. Then, lamb with du puy lentils and blackberry jus and braised fennel with mustard greens, along with Sequel Shiraz from Washington state. Finally, peach semifreddo with basil and Champagne coulis plus hazelnut brittle, flawlessly matched with a heady Dr. Loosen Riesling Auslese from Germany. Oh, and somewhere along the way, there was an icy, tingly gooseberry sorbetto as an intermezzo. Yeah, I know, that’s six separate plates, but the kitchen was inspired to slip a little something else in along the way.

      All found, a brilliant international taste tour for palate—and soul—from two geniuses working closely together. There was delicious subtlety in every sip, every bite, and service was world-class. Your turn. Call ahead for hours and special menu items, and book a treat for a special occasion.

      A week or so later we did it again, this time at sea level. Patrick Doré is executive chef at Herons Restaurant in the Fairmont Waterfront hotel. His “Local Source” menus change often, but all have the same focus: whatever’s fresh in the market and local from the cellar. Three courses as a rule, three B.C. wines to match, all in for $46 per person.

      A tot of Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay sparkler to set up the palate for the treats to come, beginning with corn tempura Dungeness crab “fry legs” in red pepper oil. Next, B.C. halibut cheeks with angel hair pasta, heirloom tomatoes, and tarragon pesto. That sat perfectly with Mission Hill’s 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, roast wild salmon, plus pont neuf potatoes and bacon and black truffle vinaigrette. Hadn’t had those special spuds for decades; they’re as fabulous as I remember. The Chardonnay stayed around for that, and it was perfect with the rich fish and the taste of truffle (and the duck fat in which the potatoes were cooked!).

      Next, CedarCreek Pinot Noir arrived, to keep the Chardonnay company and act as a counterpoint to the salmon, and then came grilled sirloin of lamb, with lamb boudin and olive oil–poached eggplant and tomato. The 2007 Pinot proved versatile and perfect for both courses: lamb and Pinot Noir must be one of the best combinations in the world.

      A chunk of pecorino cheese, burnt with honey on a cedar plank and served with organic lettuces, was the surprise cheese course, and then there were Chardonnay-poached Okanagan nectarines with basil, and Baltic yogurt gelato in pistachio sauce that was perfectly set off by a thimbleful of Mission Hill Late Harvest Riesling.

      Not only did the chef cook it, he chose the wines for this dinner and served it. That’s a brilliant bit of multitasking by a passionate food-and-wine person secure in his kitchen, cellar—and element. Whatever he’s cooking up this week is well worth your attention. See about it on-line.

      And this note, if you’re planning on doing some pont neuf potatoes. Doré uses chicken stock to parboil them before slicing them into little logs. It’s not difficult; you can find lots of instruction on the Net. But you do want duck fat for the final fry. Saw some just last week in the coolers at Les Amis du Fromage.