Tuesday, March 18, 2014


One of the most anticipated culinary events that took place in Montreal this February came not by way of the annual Highlights Festival as you might have expected, but rather courtesy of a private initiative on behalf of the crew at Impasto where chefs Michele Forgione and Stefano Faita hosted acclaimed chef Nate Appleman for two nights of clever cookery in Little Italy. Distinguished amongst his peers, chef Appleman's accolades include Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chefs" list, and the James Beard Foundation "Rising Star" award in 2009. Most recently, his celebrity status was sealed on the other side of the pass when he became a household name, competing on the Food Network's Chopped All Stars and The Next Iron Chef.

Following chef Appleman's success at A16 and SPQR in San Francisco where he earned the aforementioned distinctions, he rode the wave eastbound partnering with high-profile restaurateur Keith McNally (Balthazar, Minetta Tavern) to open Pulino's in NYC. The plan no doubt, was to combine Appleman's command of Italian cuisine and newfound national notoriety with McNally's knack for the New York City restaurant scene and pragmatic business model. Together Appleman, a pizzaiolo certified by the AVPN (a non-profit organization who's "mission is to promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the true Neapolitan pizza" since 1984) and McNally, would bring the real deal to a city militant about it's professed love for pizza. The collaboration endured little more than a rocky year before Appleman fired his last pie, forsaking fine-dining for a position as corporate chef at Chipotle Mexican Grill, a chain of burrito and taco restaurants with a zealot commitment to sustainability.

Smug speculation and self-righteous criticism as to why chef Appleman made the perceived backslide fueled the sneering fires of cynical bloggers and arrogant food media hungry for content, but in a 2012 Interview with Grub Street, Appleman who says he's never been happier, insisted "It was the best decision of my life." Speaking of his time at Pulino's: "Maybe it was the person I teamed up with when I opened the restaurant, and that's just the crowd he draws, and that was my mistake. But it exposed me to something I did not like". What he does like, is making a difference in the way average American's eat "It's one thing to be a really good chef and cook and it's another to impact millions of people - from the farmers, ranchers and everyone down to the 20,000 employees". Most of all, Appleman asserts he's most fulfilled by the time he gets to spend with his son, a luxury many chefs are forced to sacrifice for the demanding schedule of their craft.

Prix Fixe - 70$
Chestnut Gougeres, Maple Syrup, Strachino

The evening at Impasto began with flutes of prosecco, and steaming hot chestnut gougeres tucked into a linen napkin served along side a small plate of mild strachino cheese laced with a generous splash of maple syrup and a hefty helping of black pepper. Mopping up the salty sweet combination of creamy cheese and maple with the nutty choux pastry, we were surprised by it's proclivity to the sweet side of the spectrum, particularly when factoring in the prosecco, but would've nonetheless happily devoured a dozen if given the opportunity. A generous pinch of fleur de sel would've been a practical resolve.

The entrée that followed was a trio of onion petals cooked until they were pliable enough to stuff full of spelt cooked to a tapioca-like consistency. Chopped pistachios, salty prosciutto and an indistinguishable mixture of dried fruits were perhaps sautéed a tad too zealously leaving behind a mildly acrid taste. Cubes of inconsistently cooked foie gras were sporadically mealy. It was a bit of a clumsy dish that would prove to be our least favorite of the night. 

Onion Involtini, Spelt, Dried Fruit, Pistachio, Prosciutto, Foie Gras
(Offida Pecorino, Fioba, Aurora, DOGG 2011)

Chef Forgione's famously delicate gnocchi were magnificent dressed in an intoxicatingly oceanic bonito butter and an elegant punch of chopped dill. Reaching outside the box for bonito, a crucial element of Japanese cuisine, was brilliant and completely unexpected coming from such a fervently Italian kitchen. A ladle-full of mussel battuto overtop would be accurately equated to a seafood bolognese, virtually ground bits of bivalve smothered in a vibrant tomato sauce. 

Gnocchi, Bonito Butter, Dill, Tomato & Mussel Battuto
(Cortese, Baccabianca, Tenuta Grillo 2006)

Sliced roast pork shoulder crusted in fennel, coriander and coffee was tremendously tender, the mild center heightened by it's boldly seasoned exterior. A sprinkling of crispy grains kept the dish popping texturally and a side dish to share of roasted pear, king oyster mushroom, garlic and pleasantly bitter tardivo (a vegetable similar to radicchio) echoed the conviviality of the sliced roast. A hint of acidity from a quick pickled dice of more mushroom strewn throughout the side dish was lively on the palate.

Pork Shoulder, Coffee, Fennel, Coriander, Crispy Grains
Roasted King Oyster Mushroom, Garlic, Pear & Tardivo
(Barbaresco Riserva, Muncagota, Produttori del Barbaresco DOC 2008)

Piped piles of sweet, floral honey, creamy ricotta and bitter chocolate were all manipulated to an identical consistency, but their intensely opposite flavors complimented one another handsomely. The sweetness of the honey balanced the bitter chocolate and the ricotta toned it all down, rounding out the sharp edges. Lightly salted shards of crunchy tart crust tasted twice baked with a nuttiness and pleasantly gritty chew from the toasted sesame seed. What the dish lacked in finesse presentation wise, it made up in assertive simplicity and confidence. 

Honey, Bitter Chocolate, Ricotta, Sesame, Sea Salt Torta
(Fola Vendange Tardive, Ancelote 2007)

When kindred spirits come together to cook from the heart it's always a treat but as lovely as the food was, we would be remiss to neglect mentioning how well selected and reasonably priced the night's wine pairing was. A supplementary 30$ was a bargain for 5 glasses of captivating selections. We frequently forgo pairings for a bottle primarily as a function of cost, but at this price point it represented a can't miss value. Service was sharp, and the evening ran like clockwork at an ideal pace thanks to front of house staff that truly rose to the occasion. Look to Impasto for an exciting schedule of collaborations on the horizon including an event with chef Basilio Pesce from Toronto's Porzia on April 26th, and the possible return of chef Appleman in summer 2014 for the launch of a new restaurant chef Forgione has described as "Something I've always wanted to do."

48 Rue Dante
Montreal, QC

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