The 2010 PMA International Winemaker’s Dinner at Madison’s Grill

Tuesday was a funny day. One minute, I was mopping up the lake that had overtaken our office bathroom (there is something to be said about reliable plumbing), the next, I was at a posh food and wine event at the always elegant Madison’s Grill.

I can’t express how fortunate Mack and I were to be the recipients of an extremely generous gift – two tickets to the Peter Mielzynski Agencies (PMA) International Winemaker’s dinner, the gateway to an evening of glorious food, liberally poured spirits and the company of some of the most renowned winemakers in the world. At $160 a ticket, it was out of our price range, but Monique and Patrick, who we had met at the Farmers’ Market Dinner at the same venue a few months back, were unable to attend, and asked us if we could go in their place. We accepted, and thanked them profusely.

One of several glasses of wine that night

While Mack and I enjoy wine, we admittedly aren’t very knowledgeable about it – growing regions, grape varieties, aging processes – all of it forms a murky haze for us. And though one night does not cure all, to have the opportunity to be exposed to those whose enthusiasm and passion for wine exuded through their pores was intoxicating (or was that the wine?).

A sea of glasses

We arrived at the restaurant just after 6:00, greeted by floating trays of hors d’ouvres and the offer of a sweet grass martini made with Calvados (apple brandy). Not long after, Chef Blair Lebsack spotted us in the crowd and came to greet us personally – his ability to make everyone feel welcome is something that elevates him in the industry, in my opinion.

Eventually, we found ourselves at a table where the common denominator was an interest in wine. PMA, which put together the dinner (we found out later that PMA represents some of the top wine labels in the world), ensured that one of the seven wine and spirit makers present were seated at each of the seven tables. Our table was fortunate to dine with the affable Craig McDonald, who works at the Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery in Niagara, and is considered one of the best winemakers in Canada.

Whites

The Farmers’ Market Dinner had exposed us to the concept of a chef’s introduction of a dish, and how the preamble about the ingredients and processes undertaken to create the final result enriches the meal. An additional layer was added to the PMA dinner, as the winemaker was given the microphone first, to introduce their company and products. Not only was it interesting to hear the stories behind some of the spirits, I was also amazed by the history and generations-old expertise in the room. Lamberto Frescobaldi’s family, for example, has been in the winemaking business for seven hundred years in Tuscany.

Reds

Blair then took the floor before cutlery was raised, and explained why the kitchen thought the dish in front of us would pair well with the wine or spirit we were drinking. Halfway through the dinner, Mack remarked, “I never really appreciated pairings until now.” I felt the same way.

Innis & Gunn beer

The amuse bouche of pickled beet and carrot terrine was meant to refresh our palate after the heavier scallop, tuna tartare and foie gras hors d’ouvres. It was exactly that, a pop of acidity that complemented the sweet and bubbly Pongracz Cap Classique from South Africa.

Pickled beet and carrot terrine with dill salsa verde

The first course was Mack’s favourite – an unassuming combination of steamed PEI mussels with braised pork belly. He thought the pairing, with a Wayne Gretzky Estate Series Chardonnay, was a dream, and loved the textural play of the mussels and the meltingly tender pork.

Steamed PEI mussels and braised pork belly

The next course was my favourite – an upside down smoked duck and gouda tart. As soon as the plate was put down in front of me, I was in sensory overload, under the spell of the fragrant aroma. The duck breast was perfectly cooked, fatty and toothsome, while peach preserves offset the richness of the buttery tart. I am normally not a fan of beer, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the pairing with an Innis & Gunn beer, which played off the smokiness well.

Upside down smoked duck and gouda tart

The nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna served as a good bridge to the denser courses that followed. The beans deserve a special mention, still crisp and light.

Nicoise salad

The fourth course of thyme rubbed Nouveau Beef petite tender was unforgettable. With truffle appearing in more mainstream restaurants, sometimes unnecessarily, this dish reminded me why it is such a glorious ingredient to begin with – creamy and fragrant, both Mack and I wanted to bathe in the white truffle hollandaise. This dish also exemplifies Blair’s exquisite attention to detail – as the beef was paired with a Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Oregon, he made sure that the accompanying wild mushrooms (and white truffle) were also sourced from that state.

Thyme rubbed Nouveau Beef petite tender

The final main, paired with a bold and full-bodied Collazzi Toscana from Italy, was Blair’s clever homage to rustic, “meat and potatoes” Italian food. Instead of doing a traditional mashed or boiled potatoes, however, the plate featured an extravagant potato-lobster lasagne, with the starchy spud layers standing in for pasta.

Oven roasted Pilatus Farms bison tenderloin

Dessert (accompanied by our eighth drink that night, a Kunde Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel) was a sinfully rich chocolate-almond silk cake, tempered somewhat with a wild berry compote. Needless to say, I was happy we were offered coffee to end the night, the caffeine helping somewhat to gather my bearings.

Chocolate-almond silk cake

At the end of the “epic meal” (Mack’s words), the kitchen staff were applauded with a much-deserved standing ovation. From start to finish, it was an incredible dinner, and an evening we won’t soon forget. We are indebted to Monique and Patrick for this experience.