Bring out the big guns

Wow. Whistler’s five-day celebration of wine and food has wrapped up, and I, like many other first-time attendees, am sufficiently impressed.

While I certainly didn’t make it out to every party, seminar and event on the jam-packed Cornucopia schedule (I’m only human, and to be frank, wine takes a serious toll on me), I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit a top local dining gem for the first time.

The Top Table-operated Araxi once again hosted their Big Guns Winemaker Dinner this year, partnering with renowned Australian winemaker, Penfolds, for spectacular pairings. Matthew Lane, Penfolds’ director of wine education, who also just so happens to live next door to the vineyard, was even on-hand during the decadent five-course, four-hour-long meal to provide context, history and descriptions of the seven wines poured throughout the evening.

Before guests were shown to their beautifully-appointed tables, we were treated to flutes of Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Rose at a reception, while a variety of canapés were circulated amongst mingling food and wine lovers: I managed to grab a pickled chanterelle with Chinese artichoke, and a Waygu beef shortrib beignet and beets. But, knowing that an amazing meal surely lay ahead, I was careful not to overindulge on the delicious tidbits.

When the time came to languish over the five-course meal prepared by Araxi’s executive chef, James Walt, I was glad I had conjured up my willpower.

The first course, the Qualicum Beach Scallop Soup, was a stunning start to the evening of epicurean delight. Baby radish, salsify, bacon and Dungeness crab were presented in a shallow bowl, and a rich cream, infused with a hint of toasted ginger, was poured on top of the ingredients directly at the table. It was a rich and impressive soup — one which left at least two at our table craving seconds. Paired with the only white of the evening — Penfolds’ Yattarna 2005 — and their Cellar Reserve Pinot Noir 2003, the white easily stole the show with its toasty, fruity aromas.

The second course, a fois gras press, was adorned with luminescent fruit punch and gala apple pearls, toasted pistachios and fresh fig jam, which added great texture and contrasting flavour to the fois gras. The two wines presented with this course — Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2005 and 1990 — yielded murmured discussions comparing and contrasting the years. The differences were quite noticeable, with the legendary 1990 Bin 389 benefiting immensely from the additional 15 years on the shelf.

We moved onto the saddle of rabbit, served with freshly shaved Alba truffles, Desiree potato puree, Pemberton crosnes, and truffle sand. “Truffle sand?” I hear you ask. We had the same reaction. Apparently, Walt combines olive oil, truffle oil and other things to create a powder, which instantly liquefies when it touches moisture. I think I’ll call this Whistler’s newest white powder. Penfolds’ Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was, as Lane aptly described it, a “concentrated, bold expression of Australian Cabernet,” with fragrant berry flavours.

Personally, the dry aged Pemberton Meadows beef, topped with crisp veal shortbreads, sunchokes, golden beets, globe carrots and sauce diable definitely stole the show. Paired with Penfolds’ infamous ’98 Grange, silence descended upon our table as we savoured a glass alongside the perfectly prepared beef. It was, quite simply, a breathtaking pairing and a perfect illustration of why they call it the Big Guns dinner.

Finally, we were on to dessert (where had the past three and a half hours gone?) Poached Okanagan Jonagold apples and a Moonstruck cheese croquette were served with a dollop of crème fraiche ice cream, creating a perfect balance of sweet and savoury. The dish, which was envisioned and created by Araxi’s talented pastry chef, Aaron Heath, was complemented nicely by Penfolds’ sweet Grandfather Tawny, which has a rich, butterscotch flavour.

As if we weren’t sufficiently indulged, a selection of petits fours — handmade chocolates, salted caramels and jellied blood oranges — were brought to the table.

Now, I’m quite sure that the Big Guns dinner is over the top, even by Araxi’s exacting standards, but the next time I’m looking to impress a guest, or just truly spoil myself, I know where I’ll be making a reservation. Sante!


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