Rare early Mayan clay figurine of a restaurant critic. Plus ca change.
Chef Ned Bell literally rolled into Toronto last Thursday, almost exactly a month after setting off from St. John’s in his bid to cycle across Canada, all to raise awareness about the parlous state of the fish in our beautiful oceans. It was great to see him looking so amazingly fit and spry – every inch the athlete. I don’t think I’ve seen a guy in such good shape since hanging out with Simon Whitfield at the Beijing Olympics. His bike was on display in one of the larger party rooms at the Four Seasons hotel (Ned is currently Executive Chef of the Vancouver Four Seasons) and it was there that scores of us gathered to welcome him. Paul Boehmer and Martin Kouprie represented the chefly community and there were some fine speeches made. Isadore Sharp was inspiring, reminding us that other movements for change had started with a courageous individual’s gesture. Many people recalled Sharp’s lifelong support for Terry Fox. And Dolf Dejong, vice president, Conservation and Education at the Vancouver Aquarium, made a persuasive appeal for support in the struggle to encourage sustainable fisheries. As Ned said, we can all make it happen by innumerable personal decisions, by asking your waiter next time you order fish in a restaurant if the species is sustainably caught, by politely suggesting your fishmonger wise up about the virtues of some creatures over others. Many righteous and responsible scientific predictions point to empty oceans by 2048 if we don’t get our act together, which would be a tragedy for our grandchildren – even worse for the two billion humans who rely on the sea for their daily source of protein. Ned has two-and-a-half months more cycling to go before he reaches Vancouver. You can follow his progress (and find useful data) at chefsforoceans.com, as well as keep tags on the 20 special events in which he is taking part across the country. “In 20 years,” said Ned, “we could have every person in Canada eating sustainable seafood.” Ned’s cycling 8,000 k for the cause; we just to have eat for it, albeit in a more informed manner than we’re used to doing. No problemo.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Englishman in possession of a pair of shoes never wants them to look new. They should shine like the mirror of Venus, regularly cleaned and brushed with a military spit and polish, but that surface gloss should not conceal the decades of living in this rough-and-tumble world; that lustre should enhance, not camouflage the patina of age. Old shoes are comfortable, the leather gradually softening and stretching to accommodate the shape of their owner’s feet. But for the English, well-looked-after but obviously elderly footwear is also a matter of pride – even of a harmless kind of snobbishness. As well as advertising a proper notion of thrift, longevity implies quality. Only the very best shoes will last for years and years.
But not, alas, for ever. Last week, I came to the sad conclusion that it was time to have my favourite shoes put down. They are a pair of old-fashioned cap-toed English brogues bought in London more than 20 years ago as a birthday present from my mother. But what makes them unique is their colour. It is the rich raw sienna of the golden-brown crayon in my prep school pencil case, paler than a palomino pony’s coat but slightly darker than its mane, and the original shoemaker had worked extraordinary depth of tone into his creation. Harry Rosen himself once complimented me on their colour (a memorable moment). He had only seen brogues of such a particular hue once before, he recalled; shoes that had sat for years in a Roman calzolaio’s front window until the sun faded them to a unique tan… He had tried to buy them but the salesman had urged him towards another pair of a more conventional tone.
I remember the first time I wore my shoes, a trifle self-consciously because they looked so very new – but we were in Manhattan not England and I thought I could get away with it. We spent the entire day walking through Central Park and then around the Metropolitan Museum, and by teatime my feet were in agony. I walked into the hotel in my socks, carrying the instruments of torture. Clearly, these were not shoes that could be taken for granted. They would need time.
Years passed and tolerance changed into a comfortable affection. They became my favourite summer shoes, well-matched to beige or tan trousers – not so good with blue jeans which made them look, in certain lights, almost orange. And they acquired the desired patina – small scars and scuffs, lovingly attended to but, once acquired, never completely disappearing. I had them soled and heeled whenever necessary, changed the laces when required, used nothing but neutral polish on them, but, God help me, I abused them. They were made for boulevards and cricket pavilions but I wore them on rocky Mediterranean beaches and over gritty Moroccan dunes and into the damp heather of Scottish moors. Indeed, it was on a recent trip to Scotland that I realized their time might be up. Like two faithful golden retrievers they gazed up at me with loyal but exhausted eyes. The stitching had been lost around the top of both heels and on the top of one heel a ribbon of leather had torn away. The uppers were split, a tongue frayed. Gaps between the sole and the welt had started to let water in and the heels were once more in need of replacement. Even the colour seemed to have darkened a little, while the polish looked more like a coat of varnish than anything that could still penetrate the layers of time to reach and refresh the actual leather.
Only one slim chance remained – to find a cobbler who would commit to a complete refurbishment, who could somehow repair the terrible damage, close up the wounds, stitching them with a surgeon’s patience, cleanse the layers of age and return them to their former glory. It seemed a superhuman undertaking – impossible, surely.
Lorena Agolli is the owner of Sole Survivor, a low-ceilinged, dark basement emporium in Kensington Market. She has had a lot of press recently, and deservedly so, but it was the Toronto Star that first drew attention to her work in an article that made much of how unusual it is to find a woman in her twenties taking on this traditional craft. Her tools are vintage, her prices more than reasonable and she has recently found considerable success. The first time I took a pair of shoes there – chestnut Oxfords in need of a simple heel and sole replacement – she was doing everything herself. Now she seems to have an apprentice and sometimes a third young woman to work the antique till.
I handed over the brogues. Can anything be done? Like a kindly veterinarian, Agolli examined them and explained the work they needed, how the back of the heels could be rebuilt with a new leather lining, the upper patched from inside, the stitching replaced and, yes, she could thoroughly clean and repolish the leather, bringing back its youthful glow. Her calm confidence was encouraging. The tiny ember of hope began to smoulder. “Come back in a week,” she said.
The day in question dawned. I reached Sole Survivor before lunch, ducking into the deep shade of the shop, my eyes still dazzled by the sun. The shoes were ready. Everything was as Agolli had promised – the heels restored and firm again, the splits invisibly patched, all the leather soft and supple. The whole transaction, including a new pair of honey-coloured laces: just over fifty bucks. My brogues are back, so comfortable, and familiar. They certainly don’t look new – but that, of course, is the point.
Sole Survivor is at 16 Kensington Avenue, 647 995 3306, solesurvivorshop.com.
I am almost at a loss for words. Wendy and I just got back from two weeks in the very far north of Scotland where we had the spectacular time of our lives, helping to host the latest Gold Medal Plates trip. If you’ve ever been to a GMP event you’ll know that we auction trips to fascinating parts of the world at our gala events in 11 Canadian cities – the proceeds go to programs that support Canada’s Olympic athletes – which means a guest list of couples drawn from across Canada. This time, we took over the entirety of Ackergill Tower, a 15th-century castle about 10 feet from the North Sea, a gaunt and defensible property that is as luxe as Downton Abbey behind it’s massive stone walls. It is staffed by the friendliest, wisest, most professional group of people you will ever meet, who seemed delighted to drive us about the countryside in Land Rovers, to stay up with us til two o’clock in the morning in the Tower’s private pub, to transform the Great Hall at the drop of a hat from the perfect venue for an educational gin tasting (led by me) to a glittering, candlelit whisky dinner (led by Malcolm Waring of the local Old Pulteney distillery) and still have it ready for breakfast the following morning.
I have no space here to describe the full events of our week. Those who wished to learn were taught clay pigeon shooting or fly fishing on Ackergill’s private loch. We had our own GMP Highland Games featuring archery and toss-the-welly. We took to the sea in superfast rubber rib boats, getting up close and personal with tens of thousands of fulmars, guillemots, cormorants, puffins, oyster catchers, terns and gulls and watching seals in their deep cliff caves. We hiked along cliff tops to ruined castles and visited one that was most decidedly not a ruin – the Queen Mother’s former retreat, the Castle of Mey. We walked from Thurso to Scrabster and had a spectacular lunch at Chef Jim Cowie’s extraordinary little restaurant, the Captain’s Galley, recently rated the best seafood restaurant in the U.K. Four enterprising members of our group took a private helicopter across the breadth of Scotland to Skye for lunch at Three Chimneys; the rest of us took ship to the Orkneys for a private VIP tour of Highland Park distillery. And wherever we went we had music. Staying with us were Spirit of the West’s frontmen Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann, B.C. troubadour Dustin Bentall, the brilliant fiddler Kendel Carson and guitarist Matthew Harder. They played for us most evenings and some afternoons and never failed to enchant. Our resident Olympian was none other than Steve Podborski, who regaled us with tales of the ski slopes and his more recent experiences as chef de mission of the Canadian team at Sochi.
Did I mention the food? Ackergill Tower’s chefs and kitchen are masters of Scottish country house cooking. For the whisky dinner, they prepared the best lamb I’ve eaten in years (sourced from the flock of the Castle of Mey). Lunch might be a perfectly dressed local crab or lobster and chips and a mug of cullen skink (smoked haddock chowder). For the grand dinner on the last night, where the men all wore kilts and full highland regalia and the women wore sashes over their gowns, we were served venison and a mighty haggis piped in by Wick’s local bagpipe and drum marching band. Another night, we all went down to the bothy by the loch and found a great barbecue had been prepared: when we had eaten our fill we went back to the beach and toasted marshmallows over a massive bonfire. No one got burned and there was music and whisky and a northern twilight that lasted almost till dawn.
And we were blessed by the weather. Yes it was windy, and we often awoke to mornings of fog and moist air that curled our hair and made complexions look ten years younger. But the sun came out within an hour. Changeable might be the best way to describe it, but it only added to the challenges of the golfers in our midst who played the local links courses or drove down the coast to try Royal Dornoch. In my heart, I hoped for a mighty storm, such as one often gets up here where the North sea meets the North Atlantic, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe next year… Because we will be doing this again next June, gathering a new clan of guests at the GMP gala events across Canada this fall – people who want to live like lairds and ladies for a week of luxury and aristocratic country activities, wonderful music and delicious food, Champagne teas and rare whisky tastings, highland dancing and fling-the-welly.
I bought a wonderful picture last week – a print of a painting by the young Japanese artist Sae Kimura of a dog barking at the moon. The dog (really a dog-cat cross) is called Joni (pronounced Johnny) and is a frequent hero of Sae’s extraordinary, whimsical, profound pictures. She currently has an exhibition at Harvest Kitchen on Harbord Street. I’ve never eaten there, but I will do so very soon because the restaurant’s Managing Director is Jill McAbe, one of the principals of JOV Bistro, back in the day, and a woman who would not be associated with anywhere that was less than stellar. She spoke at Terroir on Monday, educating us all about collaborative systems in the hospitality industry. It was there, in-between speakers, sitting in the Arcadian Court, that my monkey mind made its way back to Sae and Joni.
Terroir was very interesting. I’m not going to offer a precis – just a quick thank you to Scott Vivian, chef-patron of Beast, who made me blush deeply by mentioning me from the stage. There were many fascinating speakers and a general spirit of earnest bonhommie that I found encouraging. Strong contingents from Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Belize, Tuscany, Quebec, the USA, England and Alberta reminded the 700-or-so onlookers that the symposium now has an inclusive relevance far beyond the friendly confines of the GTA.
I’m delighted to say that those Albertans who came to Terroir stayed a few extra days and met up with other chefs and dignitaries who flew in from Calgary, Banff and Edmonton to put on a tremendous show of their own at Richmond Station on Wednesday night. The emcee was my friend the gastronome and food writer extraordinaire John Gilchrist (he shared the platform with Dragon’s Den star Arlene Dickinson) and nine guest chefs did the cooking. They are all part of the Alberta Ate collective, a group of chefs inspired by Toronto’s own Group of Seven, who come together in different permutations to create events like this. I don’t know if there was an actual mandate to do so, but the eight-course meal seemed designed to show Toronto that there was more to Alberta cuisine than steak. The opening act in particular, featuring Connie de Sousa (8½ months pregnant but wouldn’t miss the event) and John Jackson of Charcut, a restaurant known for its nose-to-tail meat, was splendidly unepected. The two chefs offered an elegant, delicate salad of smoked pickerel cheeks, gorgeous potatoes cut into thick coins, a dill-dressed hard-boiled quail egg and crunchy snowpeas. Little flecks of crunchy batter, threads of pickled onion and some awesome Brassica grain mustard completed the dish, along with a dressing of mustard-spiked sour cream. Lots of sturdy flavours on the plate but the salt-cured pickerel cheeks had enough personality of their own to stand out. Big Rock Warthog ale was a clever accompaniment.
The idea of the evening was to showcase Albertan ingredients as well as chefs and I think it was an eye-opener for some of the Toronto crowd. There wasn’t a dish that didn’t excite. Most of the chefs had competed several times at Gold Medal Plates in either Calgary or Edmonton but a couple of them were new to me. JW Foster is the new executive chef at The Fairmont Banff Springs: he presented a braised pork and caramelized onion terrine, a firm slice dressed with mâche and tiny pickled chanterelles that had the colour and almost the texture of uni.
Duncan Ly, chef of Hotel Arts Calgary and Yellow Door Bistro, won silver in this year’s Canadian Culinary Championship. His dish on Wednesday was brilliant – a piece of almost raw, citrus-cured rainbow trout over a hot-sour consommé made from the trout’s bones and spiked with a funky hint of fish sauce. Fresh sugar snap peas, wilted baby spinach, fondant potato and a few trout eggs were part of the fun, as was a bowl of crispy trout skin chips. A creamy cocktail like a Sour made with Alberta premium rye worked really well with it.
And so we progressed… Justin Leboe of the highly esteemed Model Milk in Calgary gave us elk tartar with an insanely delicious sauce made by puréeing raw oysters, ramps and sour cheese until it had the colour and texture of lobster tomalley. Chef and visual artist Pierre Lamielle of Food on your Shirt had fun with a Beet Wellington. Blair Lebsack of RGE RD in Edmonton cooked pheasant breast with a supple crepe filled with the leg meat, Sylvan Star gruyere and roasted onion. Chef jan Hansen of Heritage Park brought the savoury procession to a close with sous vide lamb loin, pickled beets and roasted carrot purée.
Karine Moulin of hotel Arts provided dessert - a dense chocolate and Saskatoon berry cake with wild blueberry chantilly and crispy green flax praline.
Amazingly, we finished on time and a fine time was had by all. I now have a smart white Stetson which I wear around the house.
The New Zealand Wine fair blew into town yesterday with a stellar gathering of wine producers showing off their work for trade and media. It was a splendid opportunity to taste beyond the normal availabilities of Vintages and the LCBO, and there were treats galore. Robert Ketchin organizes the event and he started with a walk-about pour-your-own tasting of 16 Pinot Noirs from various parts of the country, designed to showcase regional differences. For me, one wine stood out dramatically from the pack – Ostler Vineyards Caroline’s Pinot Noir 2011. Grown in the Waitaki Valley on the south island, the vineyards sit on limestone – rare in NZ – and the Pinot has an underlying minerality that sits firm beneath the sliding, prismatic illusions of cherries and damsons, liquorice, dark chocolate and smoke. If you want some you’ll have to contact the agent, Mark Cuff at The Living Vine Inc. It costs around $55 a bottle.
Other wines that made a big impression on me? Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is going to be in the Vintages July 7th release ($25.95). It’s made by Erica and Kim Crawford (yes, that Kim Crawford) from grapes grown high in the hills above Marlborough’s Awatere Valley. It’s fragrant, delicate, luminous – not one of those big, pungent New Zealand Sauvignons that jump out of the glass at you.
Then there was the Kings Series from Marisco Vineyards in Marlborough’s Waihopai valley. Owner and winemaker Brent Marris traces his family all the way back to one of the 35 illegitimate children of King Henry I and he calls his Chardonnay The King’s Bastard. His peachy, oak-touched, hint-of-nutmeg Pinot Gris is named The King’s Thorn, for a subsequent member of the family who refused to give up the Isle of Lundy to Henry II. Then there’s A Sticky End, a delectably sweet Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes that grow in a shadowy part of the estate and where botrytis develops every autumn. Named for another ancestor who was hanged, drawn and quartered by Henry III for piracy, it has an amazing aroma of toast and marmalade, tastes of honey and peaches and apricots and has a delicate acidity that keeps the sticky weight and sweetness from feeling too overwhelming. Not sure if we’ll be seeing any of these wines in our liquor store but a quick call to the agent, Peter Sainsbury of Glencairn Wine Merchants, might secure you a case on private order.
Here’s a pretty thing, an Easter gift from my daughter-in-law. It looks like the paddle for a glove puppet’s canoe; in fact, it is a cooking spatula made in Japan by Mr. Tsuneo Kawamura out of hinoki wood. This particular hinoki tree (also known as the Japanese cypress) grows on the slopes of Mt. Fuji. The spatula has a marvelous fragrance, sweeter and not quite as resinous as cedar. I imagine, if I use it to stir rice simmering in the pan, it might impart a subtle sense of that coniferous aroma to the rice. But that would presumably diminish the spatula’s own rare scent. An old dilemma: there is always a price to pay for transient pleasures.
|Looks like Arlene Stein and the Terroir team have done it again – another extraordinary line-up for this year’s Hospitality Symposium with major gastronomical celebrities, both local and international.
Terroir takes place a month from now on May 12th at Oliver & Bonacini’s regal Arcadian Court.
Definitely not to be missed!
Check out the line-up:
Chef Demos by Visit Sweden
Potluck Lunch: A collaboration between American and Canadian Chefs
Main Stage Presentations
Lucky BEEF – Peter Meehan from Lucky Peach in conversation with
Jill McAbe, Restaurant Management Consulting
How we collaborate with The Group of Seven Chefs, Toronto &
Live from Hartwood – Eric Werner, Chef, Hartwood, Tulum Mexico
Creative Culinary Communities
For ticket purchase and more information, visit http://www.terroirsymposium.com.
Meanwhile, this just in from Cava:
On Monday April 28th, Cava is delighted to welcome Murray McDonald, chef of Newfoundland’s award winning Fogo Island Inn for “MC²”, in a collaboration with Chris McDonald exploring the historical intersection of Iberia and Newfoundland.
Originally from Newfoundland, Chef Murray has returned to his home province after developing his culinary skills in China, New Zealand, Mexico and Bermuda.
Now residing and working at the remote outport of Fogo Island, Chef Murray is dedicated to supporting local talent and showcasing local ingredients, foraged, fished and farmed on Fogo Island.
Join the two McDonalds for this unique six course collaborative dinner including innovative beverage pairings. It will be an evening to remember.
$150 plus taxes and gratuities.
Monday April 28. 6:30pm
Cava Restaurant, 1560 Yonge Street
Please reserve at 416-979-9918
Seating is extremely limited
If you hanker to be the anti-hero of your very own film noir, I know the place where your adventure can begin. Head over to The Senator after 9:00 p.m., when the last of the dinner crowd has melted into the night. That’s when they turn down the lights and set out candles on the tables in those vintage booths. Ease onto a stool at the bar and ask bartender Tim Morse to make you a house Derby – a tart, boozy mix of Maker’s Mark bourbon, Earl Grey-infused Dillon’s gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and fresh mint. Look around you while you nurse the first of many. Sure, it’s still The Senator – still rocking 1948, when the place was last redecorated – and it’ll be serving breakfast as usual in a few short hours. But Bobby Sniderman, his son Zachary and manager Peter Moscone have a new plan for their beloved sanctum. From 9 to midnight it becomes Bar Senator and a very cool spot it is.
I was there last Thursday night when they launched the concept. I had expected Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks but the mood was far more merry. DJ Matt Cully of “Goin’ Steady” was playing anything from Motown girl bands to Dolly Parton to Sinatra. Chef Andrew Taylor was sending out miniaturized versions of his wicked, panko-crusted crab cakes, Cumbrae beef sliders, tangy guacamole with crunchy crudités, and tiny grilled cheese sandwiches as if afternoon tea at Downton Abbey had found its way to Pittsburgh. They are all parts of the new bar menu at Bar Senator and the crowd was loving them.
The crowd… Who will they be on nights to come, I wonder? There aren’t many places this close to Dundas Square where a person can relax with a cocktail and a crab cake. The after-theatre crowd will congregate, I imagine. Hipsters will totally get it, sliding into the booth under the retro Coca Cola billboard (there are many homages to the Dark Master at the Senator). Ryerson sophisticates who crave style, not just empty calories, may also contribute to the clientele. As will any citizens of our unique metropolis who have a sense of history. And also, of course, the aforementioned wannabe-film-noir-anti-heroes in their trench coats and homburgs. I have a special pair of spectacles that turn this garish technicolor world to black-and-white and I wore them all through the party that Thursday night. It was the right thing to do.
Bar Senator (The Senator Restaurant) 249 Victoria Street, (416) 364-7517 www.thesenator.com.
My koubaros, Philip Parginos, sends me this photograph to remind me that spring has already arrived in the mountains of Corfu. The implicit question, of course, is why am I here, chipping ice from my little patch of Toronto’s sooty tundra when I could be there, watching plants grow in the sunshine. Meanwhile, I read that voting has begun in the Veneto to find out whether the local population favours secession from Italy and the return of an independent Venetian Republic. Corfu was part of that Republic for 400 years, until the coming of the Corsican monster. Is it time to put the pieces back together?