Artful diningPublished on August 17, 2009

  • Santé Restaurant and Art Gallery’s menu is all the more enjoyable given the art-filled environment.

  • Chef Michael Blackie, National Arts Centre, Le Café

Food and art just naturally seem to go together. Designed to ?impress, inspire and delight us, special meals and art in its many forms offer multisensory delights that create beautiful memories - all the more potent if the two are combined.

Dramatic Dining

Dinner and a show are a lot more interesting in Ottawa these days, thanks to the arrival of Chef Michael Blackie at the National Arts Centre's Le Café, which for decades has been dishing up delicious meals for lovers of the arts. Just like the NAC's wide range of exciting performances, the kitchen now serves as a true culinary showcase. "I like to describe our food as a modern interpretation of Canadian cuisine, reflecting not only the wealth of home-grown ingredients but also our country's increasing diversity," says Chef Blackie. "Throughout the day, we provide lots of interesting options from which to choose." A highlight is the new Munch Menu, a small set of tasty selections served later each night that a show is taking place in the NAC's Southam Hall.

For those familiar with his characteristic inventiveness, Chef Blackie's playful new menu does not disappoint — with options such as his famous General Blackie's Crunch Chicken, Digby Sea Scallops with soya truffle emulsion and quail egg, or Smoked Haddock and Fingerling Potato Chowder. He's particularly pleased with his Ginger Snap Crusted Rack of Lamb, as well as the fact that the menu offers a great variety of proteins and some vegetarian options too. "There is a strong link between our food and what is happening on the NAC's stages," confirms Chef Blackie. "Our menu has been designed to represent the fullest potential of contemporary Canadian cuisine. I am very conscious of the NAC's role as an iconic cultural institution."

Chef Blackie firmly believes that food is the ultimate expression of art. "You get to look at it, smell it, touch it and eat it. No other field of passion reaches the human psyche in so many dimensions," he says. "Some of the events that take place under our roof tend to push the boundaries of what people expect from theatre or music. Similarly, I want the menu at Le Café to challenge people's expectations. As with any performance, I want our food to make a profound and lasting impression."

Gallery Dining

Just as a live show and dining are a natural fit, so too is visual art and food. Santé Restaurant and Art Gallery was one of the first establishments in Ottawa to make a commitment to showcasing original art when it opened twenty-five years ago. That mission has proven to be very successful; Santé now has legions of loyal patrons who visit regularly to enjoy a fabulous meal amongst the frequently changing displays of art.

It's not unusual at Santé to see diners wandering about, checking out the canvases or hanging sculptures that are perfectly accented by the restaurant's cheery yellow and poppy coloured walls. Santé owner Donna Holtom is proud to confirm that Santé is a true gallery - vernissages are held at the beginning of each new show and numerous times each month, guests leave after a meal with newly-purchased artwork tucked under their arms. "The art really serves as a conversation point for diners," says Donna. "Our location on Ottawa's busiest intersection at the corner of Sussex and Rideau is a big drawing card, but so too is the quality of our food and of our art." The food she refers to is an eclectic menu featuring many Asian influences, thanks to a talented Vietnamese kitchen. "I believe that filling our space with beautiful art serves to heighten the dining experience, making it more rewarding," says Donna, who notes that the concept of meshing art with fine dining is relatively new in North America, though it's hundreds of years old in Europe. "There is a natural harmony between food and art," she adds. "The beauty of our well-prepared, well-presented food is very complementary to the artists' careful work."

Artful Dining at Home

One doesn't necessarily have to go out, however, to enjoy an artful dining experience. Given the passion for building or renovating to create beautiful spaces for entertaining, why not consider an elegant and artistic evening at home? Those who love to cook can impress guests with their culinary talents; those who don't can purchase gourmet takeout or, better yet, hire a chef for the evening.

Chop Chop Catering's Ken Harper is a local chef who specializes in home dinner parties. After a menu consultation, he arrives with all the ingredients and equipment to whip up a fresh, creative meal in your kitchen. Among his many specialties are Crunchy Fennel and Orange Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette, Crusted Tuna Carpaccio with Ginger-Kumquat Coulis and Grilled Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Skewers with sun-dried Lime Chermoula. "I think being able to observe and talk with a professional chef during a party is exciting for people because there is such widespread interest in food now," says Ken. "I've been told that what I do elevates the process of preparing food into an interactive and satisfying art form."

Entertaining Dinner Parties

To make a party even more artistic, including live music is easier than one might think. In addition to scores of professional musicians, many Ottawa high schools are teeming with musical talent for hire. Nepean High School, for example, has several small instrumental and vocal ensembles in hot demand for private engagements. Alternatively, Quintessence, a renowned local group of six singers who specialize in a capella, performs regularly at private functions.

Then there's the ultimate interactive experience where you and your guests play starring roles in dinner theatre. Ottawa's BigTime Productions offers fantastic home murder mystery events, which include the services of two professional actors. "It's fun multi-tasking," explains Peter Dillon, BigTime's president-at-large. "You get to socialize, eat and be entertained, all at the same time." The home party concept evolved out of the larger corporate murder mystery events which BigTime has staged around the world for many years.

A BigTime party is effortless to host - you simply assign roles beforehand and encourage guests to come in costume. Scripts are not required as the actors guide the participants through the hilarious process of unravelling the mystery. "Because they are professionals they are very good at playing off everyone else," explains Peter. "The skill and spontaneity of our actors makes the evening unique and very entertaining."

Peter confirms that one of the best aspects of a home dinner theatre party is watching guests become completely engaged in the theatrical event. "Whether they're solving our Ace in the Hole murder mystery or sleuthing their way thorough The Codfather, the interactive nature of the evening often leaves guests saying it's the most fun and memorable party they've ever attended."

Chef Blackie's Tips for Artful Presentation • Think of the plate as a blank canvas. Neutral or white dishes are best for displaying food and letting the natural colours shine. • Consider what you are serving in terms of more than just how the elements will taste together. Texture and form are important as well. • Incorporate black and white elements, perhaps in the form of garnishes or sauces, to offer a counterpoint to more colourful ingredients. • Don't try to incorporate too many items, thinking that will impress your guests. Sometimes the simplest dishes composed of only a few carefully-chosen ingredients make the most impact. — Written by Paula Roy

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