Friday, 2 March 2012

Fine Dining by Students in Brandon

The study hall just off the main entrance to the Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts (MICA).
For a few years I've heard of Grey Owl Restaurant being discussed by various people.  At first, shortly after I moved to Brandon, it was a mystery to me, as I couldn't find it listed in commercial directories like the Yellow Pages.  I then learned a couple of things about Grey Owl Restaurant that explained why it seemed so elusive to me:
  1. It was a restaurant operated by students of the Assiniboine Community College's (ACC) Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts (MICA); and
  2. It was a seasonal restaurant, open only for four (4) weeks in January and February of each year.

You could imagine the frustration I felt when two years ago I didn't even know how to obtain tickets or reservations to the restaurant, while last year I finally did know only to discover I had called too late and the reservations were fully booked.  I admittedly forgot about it this year until I read an article in a local newspaper promoting the event and stating bookings could be make beginning the following morning.  After diligently calling MICA repeatedly for half an hour in my office (which, with a few false starts, was a mildly frustrating experience), I successfully obtained a reservation.  It perchance was the Friday of the Lieutenant-Governor's Winter Festival, but there was no way I was giving up this reservation; at least there was still Saturday to do the Winter Festival.
The bar of MICA's dining room, set up as the Grey Owl Restaurant in January and February.
A loaf of bread served with herbed butter.
Upon entering MICA, a heritage building that formerly was the Nurses' Residence during the Brandon Asylum/Brandon Mental Health Centre days, I was greeted with some vintage decor and the wonderful aroma of what I soon discovered were shrimp and scallops sautéed in the dining area.  I was greeted and seated at my table by MICA students, and there were also students assigned to make drinks, serve tables, and, of course, cook the food in the kitchen.  I honestly didn't know what to expect, so I took a breath and went along for the ride.
The Coco Loco, with rum, coconut milk and cinnamon.
I started things off by trying one of their drinks, figuring (correctly) that the dinner would last long enough that I should have no problem driving myself home afterwards.  I ordered the Coco Loco, as I was tempted by the coconut milk in the concoction.  It tasted alright with the coconut milk, rum and cinnamon amongst other ingredients, but it didn't have a "wow" or eyebrow-raising factor.  I was unable to finish the last half of the drink at the end of my dinner as it somehow started tasting a bit too strong for my liking.
Amuse-bouche: Gazpacho with crème fraîche.
While I perused the menu, my server brought an amuse-bouche: gazpacho with crème fraîche.  Garnished with chives and a bread twist and served chilled, the gazpacho was thick, tangy and refreshing.  It was a pleasant and appetite-inducing start to the dinner.
Escargots "Remy Martin"
For my appetizer I ordered Escargots "Remy Martin", partly since it had been a while since I've had escargots.  Each escargot was resting on a mushroom cap and roasted in garlic, butter and wine, and the dish was topped with Swiss cheese.  Though the cheese was quickly becoming difficult to stretch apart, the flavouring and presentation were pretty good, and overall I enjoyed this dish.
Ebony and Ivory Soup, served in a martini glass.
Apparently the main courses included either a soup or salad, so out of sheer curiosity I decided to try the Ebony and Ivory Soup.  Made with dark chocolate infused with Grand Marnier, as well as Madeira Crème Anglaise, and garnished with a thin slice of candied organge, this was arguably another "Spirit of Iron Chef" moment for me.  Served not as a dessert but as an entrée soup, it was an eye-opening experience.  The chocolate was fairly bitter, but that was countered by the sweeter Crème Anglaise, resulting in a colourful flavour.  Though the soup gets high marks from me for creativity, unfortunately I found the soup to be on the rich side.
Charbroiled New Zealand Rack of Lamb
Charbroiled New Zealand Rack of Lamb viewed from a different angle.
For my main course I opted for the Charbroiled New Zealand Rack of Lamb.  My first impression was that, for a main course, the portion was quite big.  Though I understood that it was to accommodate all the cooking students and ensure they made various contributions throughout the night, it made for a bigger meal than I anticipated, which already was compounded by my having the Ebony and Ivory Soup.  The lamb itself was coated with honey and pistachios and served with a raspberry port reduction; this was done nicely, and I certainly enjoyed the rack of lamb right down to the last nibble of meat on the bone.

I also opted for some potato croquettes as the accompanying starch; though they were only mildly crispy on the outside, the inside was smooth and almost creamy in texture and was nicely flavoured.  Other sides included in this dish were glazed beets, zucchini, roasted tomatoes and grilled leeks.  I definitely enjoyed the beets and the zucchini; the beets had a nice sweetness to them, and the zucchini, served in thin long slices, though light in flavour, still had a nice savoury touch and, being the lighter side item, countered the other items well.  The tomato pieces, topped with breadcrumbs, were a bit on the bland side unfortunately compared to the other items, and I would've loved the leeks had it not been for the core still being undercooked and therefore a tad too zingy.
I definitely didn't mind the slow service this evening as it allowed me some more time to recover and tackle some dessert, and the wait allowed me to observe the dining room, including the occasional tableside flambés where diners ordered Sautéed Shrimp and Scallops as their appetizers.  When I was presented the dessert cart along with the menu, I was at a loss as to which dish to try.  However, the server helped solve my dilemma when she added that two of the dessert items could be ordered to go.  I therefore decided to try the MICA Mess and bring a piece of Turtle Mountain Cheesecake home with me to try later in the weekend.
Close-up of MICA Mess.
The MICA Mess was inspired by the traditional English dessert, the Eton Mess.  Like the Eton Mess, it was a mixture of strawberries, meringue pieces and whipped cream, but MICA twisted this dish by adding raspberries and an apricot emulsion.  The apricot emulsion was a pleasant gem to discover, and the meringue added a nice crispy dimension.
Handmade chocolates on a sugar sculpture
Handmade chocolates on a sugar sculpture
As if the meal wasn't already over, when I asked for my bill the server presented a sweet finish on a silver platter, some chocolates handmade by some of the MICA students served on a sugar sculpture.  They were a mix of truffles, ganaches and I'm sure at least one liqueur, and I could not taste anything amiss with these chocolates.
Turtle Mountain Cheesecake
Finally, on Sunday, I was able to finish that piece of Turtle Mountain Cheesecake I brought home with me.  Made with toasted pecans, dark chocolate and caramel, the cheesecake was creamy, decadent and enjoyable.  It was worth buying a second dessert to bring home to savour.

Overall, I was quite impressed with the calibre of MICA's students, and it was quite a satisfying experience.  There's still some training and experience required yet for the cooking students, but they certainly proved they have the potential to reach a high calibre if they so wish.  The students responsible for customer service also did well, even if there was the occasional nervousness from some of them.  Aside from the reservation system, one concern that I do have about Grey Owl Restaurant that I forgot to mention on my comment card was the fact that it was only four weeks long.  Considering there are no classes held during the summer months, there may be a business opportunity for MICA to operate a restaurant in the summer.  Considering the popularity of Grey Owl, MICA and ACC should look into the feasibility of a summer restaurant.  In the meantime, I'll have to make sure I remember to call to make a reservation when Grey Owl returns the following year.

Name: Grey Owl Restaurant
Address: 1031 1st St. N., Brandon,MB
Cuisine: Continental
Price Range: $20-$30
Accessible: Yes
(Open seasonally only - mid-January through mid-February)

1 comment:

  1. Wow. A restaurant operated by students? It’s good training to get students to experience real hands-on work when they’re still studying. That way, they get to receive real feedback coming from a diverse group of people and not only from their professors.

    Danny Riddell