Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 11:46 pm

A Love Letter to Local Food: Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill

When I saw the menu for the third Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill, I couldn’t look away. Sylvan Star Cheese fondue? Nature’s Green Acres short ribs? Greens, Eggs and Ham duck confit? Not only did every dish sound delicious, but the ingredients for nearly the entire dinner had been sourced locally. Moreover, several producers would be joining us for the meal. We were in.

The fact that the dinner cost $70 per person (plus $30 for wine pairings) was a moot point when I made our reservations two weeks prior. But after the fact, I can wholeheartedly say that the experience was worth every dollar.

It was a little comical that we made our way to the Union Bank Inn on Friday via public transportation, but then again, it didn’t make sense to drive, particularly in the dinner’s context of sustainability. After our coats were taken, we joined a couple seated at one of the two tables in the Vintage Room, right by the fireplace. Meals at a communal table have to do with the luck of the draw sometimes, but fortunately for us that night, Monique and Patrick and Slow Foodies Nicole and Steve provided us with good company, and enhanced our evening with lovely conversation.

My only criticism was the packed quarters – I felt bad for the servers who had to work between a too-narrow space between the two tables (resulting in a few dropped dishes). I had to wonder if the decision to include an additional eight seats beyond their original limit of twenty was the right call.

The cocktail hour was accented by dainty hors d’oeuvres – including smoked salmon, beef tartar, and Fairwinds Farm goat cheese tartlets. The beef tartar was particularly excellent.

Smoked salmon tartlets

Before the meal began, Chef Blair Lebsack invited the two producers up to provide some background on their farms. Andres Gruenberg (of Greens, Eggs and Ham) and Eric and Ruby Chen (of Peas on Earth), gave us snapshots of their production, and were ever gracious about the work that they do. Blair then proceeded to introduce the appetizer course – descriptions also accompanied every subsequent dish, and was much appreciated. It was obvious that Blair has a lot of respect for local producers (having visited their farms and all), so it was great to hear about some of the cooking processes he used to create the dishes.

The Sylvan Star Cheese fondue came in individual servings, much to my delight (not that I wouldn’t have shared, heh). The grilled apple, Saskatoon berry compote and spicy pine nuts were fancy accompaniments, but I probably would have been happy just with baguette slices and cheese. Yum.

Sylvan Star Cheese Fondue

The Northern Alberta Pike fillet (from Lesser Slave Lake) was a favourite of some around our table. Wrapped in Pembina Pork bacon and topped with candied bacon(!), it was a surprisingly subtle course, with each element holding its own. The fish had been cooked perfectly, and the underlying shellfish and golden beet broth lent an earthy note to the dish. Not surprisingly, Mack loved the candied bacon.

Northern Alberta Pike Fillet

The cleverly named Duck, Duck, Goose was my personal favourite. Andres had asked Blair why he hadn’t been ordering goose, which spurned experimentation in his kitchen. Both birds were served two ways – in-house smoked duck breast atop potato-onion hash, an absolutely sublime pulled duck confit with braised leeks and parsnip puree, slow roasted goose breast with sour cherry pan jus and goose rillette on toast points. The servings may look deceivingly small, but it packed a hefty punch – and had Mack been momentarily distracted, I would have swiped some of his duck confit.

Duck, Duck, Goose

As I had the chance to visit Nature’s Green Acres last summer, I was looking forward to trying their Nouveau Beef again (butchering at seven months lends the beef its name). The braised short ribs did not disappoint – meltingly tender, the flavour in the meat was inherent. The mushroom confit and mushroom-marrow farce were great accompaniments, and mirrored the beef’s richness.

Braised Nouveau Beef Short Ribs

By that point in the meal, I’m sure I would have been satisfied with flavoured whipped cream for dessert, but of course, Blair did not disappoint, and ended the dinner with a bang. The white chocolate pecan brownie had been doused in a duck egg-EnSante wine sabayon and macerated berries – every bite was a textural firework of nutty, tart sweetness.

White Chocolate Brownie

The dinner was a love letter to local food, no question, and I was especially thankful for the opportunity to share a meal with some of the city’s wonderful producers. Shopping at a farmers’ market or even visiting a farm is one thing, but breaking bread is something else altogether. Blair said that another Farmers’ Market Dinner is in the works for March, though patrons would probably get something similar by ordering the chef’s 6-course “Menu Surprise” – a tasting menu that allows the chef to utilize producers that cannot offer great quantities of ingredients.

Thanks to Blair and the staff at Madison’s Grill for a wonderful evening!

Madison’s Grill (in the Union Bank Inn)
10053 Jasper Avenue
(780) 401-2222