THOUGH HE HAS BEEN AROUND TOWN FOR A DECADE OR SO, COOKING AT GRAVITAS, REEF AND UNDERBELLY, RYAN LACHAINE REACHED BACK TO HIS CANADIAN ROOTS (AND HISTORY BOOKS) WHEN CHOOSING A NAME FOR HIS 10-MONTH-OLD RESTAURANT.
He settled on Riel, after a 19th-century Canadian politician, Louis David Riel, who, according to wikipedia, is increasingly celebrated as a proponent of multiculturalism and considered the founder of the province of Manitoba and leader of the Metis or people of the prairie, whose cultural roots are the results of the merging of Aboriginal inhabitants and fur-trading European rascals.
Reading the menu, one sees the influences and blending of the cultures and food traditions that Lachaine loves: his Ukrainian heritage, his windy home province of Manitoba and his adopted Space City.
Take the cheddar and potato pierogi that accompanies Riel’s best-selling menu item, the juicy, moist hangar steak. “I ate these my whole life. I like to eat them all the time. For the menu I just finessed them up a bit,” says Lachaine of the ethereal Eastern European wonders with their crusty exterior and smooth, soothing, soul-satisfying filling.
Other notes of his home: Bannock – a traditional native bread of the plains dwellers – leavened with Canadian beer, and the Montreal smoked meat platter with its pickled mustard seeds, rye bread slabs and good old French’s® yellow mustard.
The menu is one page with items listed one right after the other. The first 12 items are appetizer style. Small plates but large enough for two to have a few tasty bites. Though woe be to the dining partner that tries to taste my corn gnocchi, flavorful dumplings in a cotija fondue – so tasty yet so light – cheese air – I can’t get enough. A sprinkling of espelette – basically a fancy French version of cayenne, adds a snap of fireworks to the plate. “It‘s a summer dish, but it‘s a top seller – we are trying to figure out how to keep it on the menu year round,” groans Lachaine.
If you are not up on your French cooking words, you should have many questions for your waiter. They have the answers. Like what is a soubise? Answer: a classic sauce made from pureed onion and cooked rice. However, remember that Lachaine twist? The soubise served with the Vermillion Snapper Crudo is made with pureed fennel.
Torchon is a method of preparing foie gras. Which you won’t see until you hit the bottom of the menu where the desserts are listed. Lachaine offers a mighty fine Sticky Toffee Pudding – topped with shaved goose liver in a stunningly sweet toffee sauce tempered with pork blood. Try it. I loved it. He calls it their “offal dessert.”
Togarashi – not French but Japanese – is a peppery spice mix tossed with the sunflower seeds in the most delectable compressed watermelon and chilled slabs of chevre salad in town. As to the Asian influence, Lachaine says, “Everywhere I’ve worked used Asian favors so I decided to as well.”
But once again he adds his own spin – in the Fried Rice with rock shrimp, Chinese sausage, ginger, duck yolk and sesame seeds. The purposely overcooked rice is spread out on trays to dry a bit, then deep fried to puff them up before being stir fried with the balance of the ingredients. The results – spectacularly textural and deliriously delicious.
Currently, the menu is in transition, with seasonally responsive items being introduced weekly, such as the rare to medium rare, sliced and fanned duck breast with a charred apple and fennel salad and a generous smear of aggressively seasoned and wonderfully orange acorn squash puree.
As the weather chills, Lachaine will add the quintessential French Canadian meat pie, the Tourtiere, and, of course, the Ukrainian standard Borscht.
Of his adopted home city, Lachaine, a grad of Art Institute Culinary program, loves the camaraderie among his peers but bemoans the lack of neighborhood delis. “I am here all the time and rarely if ever get out to eat anywhere. But once a week I gotta have my corned beef on rye. In Winnipeg there was a Jewish deli on every corner. Here I have to drive out to NY Bagels and Deli in Meyerland.”
Lachaine is a modest guy. Neither he nor his menu tout the fact that he supports local farmers and meat growers, believes in tail to snout usage, and that he opened his heart and kitchen to the hurricane flood victims. But he does and he did. Through the Midtown Kitchen Collective, he and his kitchen pushed out endless deep trays of bolognese and pasta. And most recently participated in Feast PDX in Portland, cooking in a massive event to raise funds for relief from the most recent fire and rain horrors – the Wildfires of the Pacific Northwest and the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.