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Potato gnocchi in tomato butter is served at Ensemble Restaurant, 850 Thurlow St. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)
Potato gnocchi in tomato butter is served at Ensemble Restaurant, 850 Thurlow St. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)

Alexandra Gill

Top Chef winner triumphs in his own restaurant Add to ...

Ensemble

850 Thurlow St., Vancouver

604-569-1770;

$160 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

French bistro

Congratulations, Dale MacKay, a.k.a. Top Chef Canada. You've made Vancouver proud. Don't pay any attention to what they're saying in Calgary. No other contestant in the Food Network Canada culinary competition was more deserving.

It wasn't just your impressive display of cussing, er, cooking skills that earned you the $100,000 grand prize. I sincerely believe your victory was even sweeter because you had it tougher than all the rest.

I say that not because the producers type-cast you as a prickly prima donna ('twas funny how they kept hammering home the bad-guy trope with all those secondary shots of you smoking cigarettes) and the judges ridiculed your style as too "refined" and "precious." What is this, Eat St.?

While you may have absolutely no interest in playing the victim card, I think it's worth pointing out that none of the others - not Dustin, not Andrea and certainly not Rob nor Connie - faced the additional pressure of being critiqued by their celebrity-chef former boss (Daniel Boulud), one-time archenemy (Rob Feenie), competitive hometown peer (David Hawksworth) and a head judge (Mark McEwan) who so obviously disliked you. Talk about intense.

Okay, perhaps having Hawksworth on hand for the grand finale was more help than hindrance. But until you squeaked through at the bitter end, it really seemed like you couldn't catch a break. And guess what? It's only going to get worse now that the couch-side critics are racing into your new restaurant to taste for themselves.

I think they'll be surprised by how easily Mr. Fancy Pants has embraced downscaled dining. Ensemble is much more swingy than I expected. Love the red accents, cellophane chandeliers, funky artwork and new dark-wood floor (shame about the flood).

I'm happy to hear that you plan to hang window coverings and ceiling panels, which should help buffer the clangy acoustics. And I'm glad to see that you didn't inherit the turquoise plastic-dipped Louis XVI armchairs from this downtown room's previous inhabitants. To paraphrase the Top Chef judges, it's such a fine line between trendy and twee.

I almost didn't recognize some of the waiters from Lumière and db Bistro. They look so much happier these days. The fact that 18 staff members followed you here is telling. Guess you're not always as petulant as you were in Episode 11.

The Ensemble menu features a handful of your winning Top Chef dishes. Of course it does. But many of these dishes - the soups and the uncut pulled-pork sandwich, in particular - do not lend themselves well to sharing. So why do the servers keep insisting that the entire small-plates menu is meant for sharing? It's confusing.

My favourite Top Chef dish is the black cod in Thai broth. This finely clarified consommé really does taste like liquid gold. And the sablefish, although pricey, flakes so luxuriantly with the simple push of a spoon, it would be a shame to use a lesser ingredient.

Speaking of spoons, I could have used one with the spiced melon soup - or is it meant to be eaten with a fork? I'm not crazy about this dish. I admire the fact that you've adapted a winning amuse bouche for the restaurant by adding Dungeness crab and increasing the portion size. But I'm not getting the intense pop in the mouth that the judges so enjoyed. It's thin, and the brunoised melon on top of the melon base makes it too one-dimensional.

Now the pulled pork sandwich is one you probably should be doing differently in the restaurant. You won this challenge because you were able to use a pressure cooker to pull off a good braise under tight constraints that would be easy for home cooks to replicate. But you're not cooking at home and you're no longer pressed for time. Although the sauce is lovely and deeply smoky, your pork butt tastes like a dry sponge.

Compare it to the beef shin that you prepare with a classic low and slow braise. Now this is beautifully moist meat with a ton of flavour. And the velvety carrot puree punched with cumin is a perfect complement to the shin's thin crispy pan crust.

Which brings us to the subject of texture. The judges did remark several times over the course of the competition that it was an element often missing from your dishes. I agree.

There are times when you nail it just perfectly. The crispy shallots and fresh peas that adorn your beef tenderloin carpaccio are inspired departures from the standard Parmesan garnish. It takes a rather ubiquitous dish to a higher level.

This extra note - the layer that separates a top chef from a great chef - is missing from your herb risotto, which is technically excellent - loose and creamy - but boring. Same with the roasted beet and fresh ricotta salad, which would be much creamier and delicious if served at room temperature.

Dale, I don't mean to downgrade your triumph. You are a top chef in my books. Your pan-fried potato gnocchi with its luscious tomato butter sauce is one of the best gnocchi renditions I've ever inhaled. Your roasted lamb loin made me swoon. Your pineapple soufflé is ethereally sublime.

But there's always room for improvement. You now have the freedom to call your own shots. And I look forward to watching you grow.

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