Fine French Dining on the Edge of the Wilderness

Ragout d’elk et sa sauce veloutée au chocolat noir.

I was not surprised the menu was in French. After all, my hostess, Christiane Champeval, was from France. And she had invited me for a gourmet dinner prepared by her imported French chef.

But my high school French seemed to be letting me down. My rough translation of the next course was “elk stew with chocolate sauce.” That couldn’t be right, could it?

I coaxed myself to keep an open mind. The first two dishes had been delicious and the chef seemed quite sane.

I was dining in late September at the Takhini River Lodge, a luxurious bed and breakfast perched on the edge of the wilderness just half an hour from downtown Whitehorse.

Most of us sharing the table were strangers when the evening began, but that feeling was quickly waning.

We had enjoyed two intriguing courses already, including an appetizer of freshly prepared guacamole with a crisp rasher of bacon to scoop it up. It was served in individual preserving jars.

That seemed a different use of jam jars . . . but why not? The novelty of presentation set off the piquant flavour and added a certain je ne sais quoi.

“Ideally, a chef is a traveling person – traveling spiritually and physically. In every place there is something new to discover,” said Chef Philippe Kientzler.

“My job is to mix my skills with the quality local produce and interpret the food to connect with the place and the clients.”

I had never thought that deeply about food. I felt as if Chef Philippe had come all the way from France to challenge and stretch me. But he had been presenting gourmet dinners at the lodge for a week and connecting with other Yukoners too.

“I call it l’arte culinaire,” continued Chef Philippe. “Connecting with this place is easy – the beautiful setting, the immediacy and vigour of the landscape, the comfort and tasteful decor of the lodge. So then I tailored this menu to you, our guests and worked with the food from here.”

The filet of Arctic char wrapped in crisp phylo pastry served on a bed of leeks in white vermouth butter sauce had been amazing. Even my husband, who strictly avoids all members of the onion family, had devoured it with murmuring approval.

The elk and chocolate was next. I leaned across the table for a perspective from Brook Bouquot, one of the other guests.

Bouquot is a baker, the owner-operator of The Birdhouse, a restaurant in Porter Creek. She knows a lot about food. “Can you put meat and chocolate together?” I queried.

Bouquot looked at me kindly, realizing it was her duty to educate.

“Oh yes! Chocolate is not always a sweet. Cacao is used to enrich and complement the flavours. Think of Latin cuisine with its chicken in chocolate sauce.”

I looked blank at her Latin American reference but she seemed adamant this next course would be fabulous.

And it was. It wasn’t weird. It wasn’t a combination of entrée and dessert. It was a rich, tender, moist stew with the subtle dark chocolate flavour creeping up behind the gamey-ness.

I would never have imagined such a delicious combination. At the end of the course, every plate was empty.

By the time dessert arrived, I was no longer squinting at the menu trying to translate a prediction of what was next. I trusted this Chef Philippe. He was good and his food was even better.

Christiane was brilliant to bring him to the Yukon to experiment with our food and delight our taste buds. I can hardly wait until next fall when Chef Philippe returns to connect with us again.

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