RSS
 

Archive for October, 2008

Gold Medal Plates 2008, Montreal

24 Oct

Gold Medal Plates Montreal soared gracefully out of the starting gate at the Palais de Congrès de Montréal on October 23. With some 750 guests eager to taste, listen and bid on this year’s dazzling auction lots, it was a merry gathering indeed and the spacious halls of the Palais inspired envy in visitors from other cities where Gold Medal Plates is close to outgrowing its venue!

Seated in the splendour to which they are rapidly becoming accustomed, the judges eagerly awaited the offerings of our 10 star chefs. Montreal presented some firsts for GMP this year. Denise Cornellier is the first chef to compete who runs a catering company rather than a restaurant. Also, Laurent Godbout was entered twice, at one station cooking solo on behalf of his restaurant L’Épicier, then dashing to the next station where he is co-chef of Restaurant Duel with David Biron? Opinions were divided as whether he was at an advantage with “two kicks at the can” or disadvantaged by splitting his energies and attention. Last year’s Montreal competition saw a distinct division between chefs cooking classic dishes in traditional ways and a more free-spirited avant-garde. This year, the dichotomy was not nearly so apparent as each chef concentrated on expressing his or her distinctive and individual style. As has been the case everywhere so far this campaign, the final marks were close.

The bronze medal went to Deff Haupt of Renoir who played with the sophisticated simplicity of a beet carpaccio, sliced tissue-thin, as the base for a pan-seared scallop. A slim wheel of orange, dried to a crisp, lay on top of the scallop as a base for a delicate orange and ginger emulsion. Big citrus flavours were earthed by the sweet flavour of the beet and the fresh sea taste of the scallop. Chef Haupt paired the dish most successfully with Huff Estates Off Dry Riesling 2007 from Prince Edward County.

The silver medal went to chef Gilles Herzog of Derrière les Fagots. He marinated red tuna in soy, ginger and sesame, seizing its juices and clenching its texture until it had the juicy solidity of beef. He then paired it with a mysterious cylinder of a white sesame emulsion, a butternut squash purée, and a spicy, tangy citrus chutney. The dish was beautifully matched with Black Prince Winery Vidal 2006 from Prince Edward County.

The gold medal was won by caterer Denise Cornellier with a dish that was the most delicious and pleasurable of the entire evening. She offered a bowl of a rich, flavourful Jerusalem artichoke soup dotted (in a rare molecular moment) with carrot “caviar.” Dressing the soup was a crisp fritter of Gaspesian crab meat, a fragile pastry wand and a ball of rich, flavourful foie gras ice cream. The combination of disparate temperatures and textures wowed the judges. Chef Cornellier chose another Black Prince wine from Prince Edward County as her partner – the First Crush Chardonnay 2005 which worked particularly well with the soup and the fritter.

Congratulations to all the competitors! Denise Cornellier now goes on to the Canadian Culinary Championships in Banff next February, representing the fortunes of Québec.

James Chatto
National Culinary Advisor
Gold Medal Plates

 

Gold Medal Plates 2008 Toronto

24 Oct

Oh my goodness, what a party! The Royal York hotel proved to be a venue of extraordinary glamour, its staff most generous hosts. Gold Medal Plates stretched out across the second floor from the spectacularly painted ballroom to the elegant Ontario room where Canadian Culinary Champion Melissa Craig wowed the VIP reception with her supremely elegant king crab fantasia. A very merry crowd of almost 650 guests were delighted to discover that EDO Sushi and Amaya the Indian Room had set up “demonstration stations” in the main hallway, supplementing the offerings of the competing chefs with daringly delicious dishes.

The competitors themselves had definitely come to play. As in Ottawa-Gatineau the previous evening, the consensus among the judges and the other gourmets in the room was that the standard of quality had never been higher. The judges were faced with a difficult task – so much first-rate gastronomy – but three chefs in particular enthralled us with their technical sophistication, their harmony of conception and their originality. Each had many elements on the plate but they were all there for beautiful reasons.

Taking the bronze medal was John Kwan, chef of Lai Toh Heen, who presented a quartet of items, arranged with unearthly precision. Like many of the competing chefs, he provided written material to help explain his dish, in this case, the healthy virtues of his ingredients in Chinese medicine. He fried a cube of beef tenderloin in a wok and set it on a crisp, tissue-thin golden base for contrast, adding a garnish of dried tangerine peel that set our taste buds alight. He prepared a succulent Cantonese beef wonton and set it in a hot-and-spicy Sichuan soup flavoured with Sichuan pepper, Chinese wolfberry and ginger. Beside that stood a miniature roll of sweet, tangy, gingery pickled vegetables wrapped in a ribbon of Australian wagyu beef that had been marinated with Chinese herbs. A delicate dumpling of mashed yam and beef was crowned with a sliver of truffle and a truffled-soy sauce. United by the sense of the beef, the dish worked well with Chef Kwan’s chosen wine, the Jackson Triggs 2004 Pinot Noir Delaine Vineyard. An extra taste of Inniskillin sparkling icewine was an added treat.

David Lee of Splendido and Nota Bene took the silver medal, though it was a close-run thing! He created a delightfully witty “English breakfast,” subtly elevating every harmonious element to extraordinary heights. Perfect baked beans, enriched by Splendido’s own salted pork lay on a toast point fried in duck fat. A slice of boudin noir was a technical tour-de-force – no easy feat to make a miniature black pudding that smooth and fine and to spice it so carefully! But it was the bacon and egg that really wowed the crowd. Lee cooked the eggs very slowly and on a very low heat until their texture had changed dramatically. The whites were removed and the now-pliant yolks were rolled out between bacon of translucent delicacy, bonded in a vacuum chamber then sliced and fried at his station. The result was egg yolk with a unique texture somewhere between solid and jelly. Inniskillin 2004 Pinot Noir Montague Vineyard was the chosen wine – a fine match, particularly with the boudin noir.

The gold medal went to Patrick Lin of Senses who had the kindness to provide a recipe card featuring the seven (count ‘em) individual recipes that made up his little plate. This was a treatise on the duck (Ontario’s own King Cole ducks), using every part of the bird but the beak and feet. There was a sliver of cured duck breast with a hint of bitter chocolate duck jus. Beside that a very different slice of the breast smoked in cherry wood came garnished with passion fruit seeds and green tea dressing. Beside that lay a slice of galantine made from the duck’s leg and neck and crowned with a pungent kumquat compote. A tiny metal dish held a rich crème brulée flavoured with duck liver mousse. Lastly a lollipop of soft, marinated foie gras rolled in crushed candied walnuts lay across the lip of a shot glass containing a cool broth made from the duck’s bones – so flavourful but surprisingly light and refreshing, almost a palate-cleanser. When the winning wineries were announced alongside the gold, silver and bronze chefs, only one man came to the stage – Bruce Walker of Vincor. Vincor wines had swept the field that night, with Jackson Triggs 2004 Cabernet Merlot Delaine Vineyard as the gold medal match.

Congratulations to all the competing chefs who provided such fantastic and delicious entertainment. Patrick Lin now goes on to represent Toronto at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Banff in late February, 2009.

Next week: Montreal!

 

Gold Medal Plates 2008, Ottawa-Gatineau

24 Oct

The 2008 Gold Medal Plates campaign got off to a roaring start last night with our Ottawa-Gatineau event, held in the splendid surroundings of the Hilton Lac Leamy, on the Quebec side of the river. Our 2008 Canadian Culinary Champion, Melissa Craig, was the star of the VIP reception, reprising a version of her delectable winning dish from the February competition: a miniature, golden king crab croquette on its shadow of mango-basil purée, a demitasse of creamy king crab and coconut soup with the merest hint of chili and lemongrass, and a little cone of bamboo leaf that contained the juicy, tender flesh of the claw. Such vivid flavours! Meanwhile, David Lawrason introduced some of the winning wines from the Canadian Wine Awards to much delight.

In the great salon, the area’s top ten chefs were busy putting the final touches to their dishes. This year, a separate table was roped off from the throng where the judges sat while runners brought the dishes to them. The presence of Lively Media’s talented film crews, filming the entire event for a tv series to be shown next spring, also added to the general energy of the room. At 7:30, guests took their seats for the Celebration part of the evening, to be serenaded by Jim Cuddy and friends, and both charmed and inspired by Olympians Adam Van Koeverden, Simon Whitfield and Adam Kreek. In the end, the auction was more successful than ever before at this venue – a tremendous achievement!

All ten chefs performed brilliantly, the judges agreed, with standards of originality and presentation even higher than in previous years at Ottawa-Gatineau.

The bronze medal winner was Stev George of Olivea in the Kingston region. He used locally raised pork and offered three different cuts – the firm, juicy loin rolled around a peppery herb stuffing, the dark shoulder meat wrapped in kale (the first time anyone has served kale at a Gold Medal Plates event, as far as I know) and a finger of the soft, fatty belly. A perfectly crunchy morsel of crackling presented a fourth element while delicious baby autumnal vegetables from Taylor’s Farm in Prince Edward County added other homey flavours. The sauce was a beautifully judged purée of Niagara peaches that used some of the wine George chose to compliment his dish, Sandbanks Estate 2007 Riesling from Prince Edward County.

The silver medal was won by Matthew Carmichael of Restaurant Eighteen in Ottawa with a daring combination of ostrich and lobster. The butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster was remarkably tender; the ostrich was, in the words of Michael Moffatt (last year’s Ottawa-Gatineau winner and therefore a judge this year), “the single most delicious thing in the room,” moist, perfectly cooked and seasoned with a subtle hint of espresso and cocoa nibs. Jerusalem artichoke purée, a pair of sour cherries pickled like Japanese ume plums, and a scattering of tiny mushrooms completed the plate. Another Prince Edward County winery, Closson Chase, provided the harmonious accompaniment – a gorgeous 2007 Pinot Noir.

The gold medal went to Charles Part of Restaurant Les Fougères in the Gatineau River Valley. Part called his creation “The Mouth of the St. Lawrence” a region that inspired the dish. At its heart was a fragile raviolo filled with a rich brandade of Clark’s Harbour salt cod. A fresh Grand Banks scallop perched on top of it, its sweetness earthed by a hint of white truffle oil. Matane shrimps, potted in the British way in butter, mace and nutmeg, retained their delicate texture. Lennox Island mussels were plump and soft, their flavour enhanced by an intense fumet reduced from their own mussel liquor. It was a subtle collation of marine tastes and soft textures beautifully matched with another Prince Edward County wine, Huff Estate 2007 Off-Dry Riesling – giving the County a sweep of the wine awards!

Congratulations to all the competitors who worked so splendidly! Charles Part now goes on to the Canadian Culinary Championships which will be held in Banff on Februray 19, 20 and 21, 2009.

James Chatto
National Culinary Advisor
Gold Medal Plates

 

Come and Join Us

20 Oct

It may come as a surprise to some of you who know how I feel about Napoleon Bonaparte to learn that I will be taking part in an event for Courvoisier, the cognac with the closest tie to the little corporal. The good news is that you, dear reader, can also be involved.

It’s taking place at the Carlu in Toronto on October 27. I will be participating as one of the judges for the ‘Find Greatness Within’ Culinary Challenge, which will bring together some of Toronto’s top chefs, who will be developing appetizers and cocktail combinations built around Courvoisier cognac.

Courvoisier would like to invite some of you to attend the event as well, provided you live in the GTA, are of legal drinking age and can make it out to join us.

The first 15 cognac fans to email aburmaster@harbingerideas.com and include the words “jameschatto.com” in the subject line, plus include their name, address, and phone number in the body of the email will be registered to attend with a guest. This is a completely free event, and space is extremely limited.

All guests have a chance to taste food developed by chefs from Amuse Bouche, C5, Colborne Lane and Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. They will also be one of the few people in Canada with a chance to taste Courvoisier JS Succession, a rare cognac that retails in Canada for over $4,400 a bottle.

As alcohol will be served throughout the evening, guests should ensue that they have a safe way home following the event.

Allons-y, mes bons viveurs!

 

Whisky Live

20 Oct

It’s a sad little blogeen that plagiarizes himself but I’m eager to publicize the imminent Whisky Live event in Toronto on October 24 (go to http://www.whiskylive.com/canada/toronto-2008/ for actual facts and coordinates) and with Gold Medal Plates suddenly looming up on the horizon I don’t have time to extrapolate on the theme of Scotch whisky. Or Canadian whisky, come to that (having just sampled the beguilingly smooth and delicious Century Reserve 15-25 year old Canadian rye from Highwood Distillers of Alberta). More about GMP next time but, for now, consider the opportunity to spend a delightful evening at Whisky Live. I have no personal axe to grind here, except to point out that this is an opportunity to taste some pretty stupendous waters of life. If you do go, check out Marc Laverdiere’s masterclass in room 2 at 8:30pm: he’s pouring the Highland Park 40 year old for the first time in Canada. It’s a total treat. Like an unexpected kiss on the cheek from Greta Scacchi in the foyer of a cinema on Wardour Street, 25 years ago. Pause and count to ten. Twenty maybe. Make a promise you’ll remember the moment for ever.

Where was I? Oh yes, whisky and autoplagiarism. This time from A Matter of Taste.

“Single malt whisky,” frowned The David, chewing the words as if they were a toffee he did not enjoy. “You wish me to teach you to understand single malt whisky…” The great bushy eyebrows descended further towards the nose. The shoulders rose up behind his head, a mountain range of weatherbeaten tweed. “Aye, I could do it.” Then one pale blue eye fixed me like a moth on a pin. “But who’s paying for the teaching aids?”
And so we began.
“Do ye ken how whisky is made?” asked The David.
“Oh, I think so. Barley is malted by soaking it and then drying it over peat fires. Hence the smokiness. It’s milled and mixed with warm water and yeast to begin fermentation, then the fermented wort is double-distilled in a copper pot still, the spirits aged in oak barrels then diluted-”
“Whisky,” interrupted The David, “is made when the great principal elements of life conspire together: the good grain of the earth embraced by the pure clean water off the hills and by fire to release its majestic spirit. But the earth is always with it, in the black peat that smoulders in the maltings, in the granite that blesses the rills and streams as they pass over its face.” He jabbed a finger down onto the table. “Man’s ingenuity plays a role, I grant you that! But the birth of a whisky is an elemental mystery! The evidence is plain to see. There are near a hundred distilleries in Scotland making a single malt whisky and each is unique.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” I explained. “How does one find one’s way through so many, without having to taste them all?”
“And why shouldn’t you taste them all?” asked The David incredulously.
“They say you can categorize them by region?”
“There’s something in that,” he grudgingly agreed.
“I mean, the whiskies of Islay all have that medicinal, iodine flavour, don’t they.”
“And so would you,” roared The David, “if your water had trickled over the peat moors and you had been confined in a sherry cask for a generation, with the wood spreading and shrinking with each passing season, and the sea knee-deep at the walls of the warehouse when the wind is high, and the brown kelp scenting the air you breathe! Aye, you can feel the ocean in a whisky from Islay’s south shore – Laphroaig or Lagavulin, Ardbeg most of all.
“And what of the other islands? Talisker from Skye, Highland Park from the Orkneys? Are they as phenolic?”
“Talisker is a king, high and civil and deep. But Highland Park…” The David allowed himself a rare chuckle. “There’s the honey of the heather in her and the sweetness of smoke, and sherry from the butts if you find the twenty-four year old.”
“The older the better, eh?”
“Pach!” grunted The David. “Didn’t I say each whisky was unique? Some iterations are best at ten or twelve, some at twenty, though there’s more of the oak in them. And it matters where the barrels are from. Have they held sherry – or bourbon from America? Glenmorangie is finishing some of its whisky in port wood, or claret or madeira -”
“I tried the port wood! It’s magnificent! The colour of copper and you smell butterscotch, mint and bitter chocolate, citrus and sandalwood!”
“With a drop or two of water, you do. But add a little more and you’ll smell hazelnuts and the hay of summertime. And before you add any, take a sip of it neat, to judge its body and texture. Glenmorangie’s pot stills are the tallest in all Scotland, so the spirit is more delicate.”
“That’s a Highland malt. But what about Speyside?”
“The heartland. Half of all Scotland’s distilleries are there. You know The Macallan? Was there ever such a big, bold self, full of malt and sherry tones. The older the better with The Macallan for my money. Or for yours, I should say. There’s sherry on the nose of The Glenlivet as well, when it’s been long in the wood, but that’s an altogether more delicate offering – flowers, peaches, all elegance. The Glenlivet, mind. There are other whiskies from near the Livet river that claim the name, but only one is the definite article.”
“And what of them all would you like to drink now?” I asked. The David’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be staring deep into the past.
“I’ll take Lagavulin.”
“Ice and soda?” It was a joke, but The David did not take it well. Barbarous was the kindest epithet he bestowed upon the suggestion. I had to buy him more than one wee dram before the dust could be said to have settled.

Hie thee to Whisky Live. I’ll be in Montreal, still doing the dishes after Gold Medal Plates, but I’ll think of you there and wish I was at your side.

 

Crosstown Kitchens

20 Oct

Oh for a muse of fire to drag you back through the fecund fall to a charming summer night… The CN tower glowed violet to the south – I don’t know why – but I sat in comfort and in excellent company in the small front garden of Amuse Bouche. It was the second evening of Crosstown Kitchens’s fundraising series on behalf of Stop, with five chefs from five restaurants (Amuse Bouche, Marben, C5, Torito and Perigee) each cooking one course of a delicious dinner. The third event took place at the ROM’s C5 restaurant on September 25 – which may or may not have passed by the time you read this. I’m stuck up a mountain in Greece and have lost my calendar. Either way, it looks like I’m going to miss it – or more likely already have. And I bet it was terrific.
The Amuse Bouche event certainly was. If you remember the minuscule size of the kitchen from the long-ago days when the Tecumseth Street property was Lotus you will appreciate the surreal notion of six fully grown chefs working together in that tiny space. That’s Bertrand Alépée and Jason Inniss from Amuse Bouche, Carlos Hernandez from Torito, Craig Alley from Marben, Chris Brown from Perigee and Ted Corado from C5. Some of them were out on the sidestreet with a barbecue – I don’t know if anyone actually went downstairs to that Dickensian basement to work. But the enthusiasm, the merriment, the passion! This reporter’s eye was positively glistening. Apparently they had all found themselves representing Toronto at the Montreal Festival of Lights earlier in the summer and had decided to group together to form Crosstown Kitchens.
Now this is important. There have been many associations of Toronto chefs and restaurateurs over the years. I can’t think of one that hasn’t ended in tears and a clash of egos or else faded into oblivion before anything could be achieved. This one seems to show promise. There are no old lions in the group determined to show that they still have teeth. There are no loose canons. Sitting there that warm July evening, it occurred to me that I was tasting Toronto’s future. These guys are the new generation – all just into their 30s as far as I know and all talented. And they all have a sense of the city they live in. Not just because they were supporting the excellent Stop but because their dishes were so very “Toronto.”
The chefs had drawn lots to see who would cook what dish and Ted Corrado began. He slipped two curls of cured speckled trout into a clear chilled tomato consommé smokily flavoured with bonito like a sweet-smoky-salty dashi. Beside the fish lay three or four different coloured heirloom cherry tomatoes, peeled and poached, like tangy juice bombs. On top floated a cucumber froth and one or two tiny but very intensely flavoured arugula leaves for their peppery heat.
The second course came from Amuse Bouche – a crispily crusted little potato croquette drum they call their inside-out poutine, made with a cheese called “Indiscretion.” Across the plate was a slice of a deliciously moist terrine made with rabbit raised at Blue Haven Farm. Between these elements lurked some crunchy tangy pickles from Hannah Jacobs’s Matchbox Garden.
Carlos Hernandez of Torito was responsible for the third round. He had planned to use fresh zucchini flowers but his supplier let him down that morning. By 3:00 pm he still hadn’t found any! Panic! Alarm! I believe it was a neighbour with a garden who finally saved the day. Hernandez stuffed the blossoms with a gorgeously rich, flavourful mix of crumbled chorizo and Monforte toscano cheese. Then he plated them with big elliptical slices of grilled green and yellow zucchini and two tiny tomatoes briefly poached but still clinging like babies to their umbelical vine. The plate was brushed with a black olive purée like some sombre Victorian warning of the bitterness of death beneath all the vernal exuberance.
The fourth course belonged to Craig Alley of Marben. He offered a divine grilled lamb chop tossed in lemon and roasted garlic butter. Alongside stood a deep-fried Lebanese kebbeh, crusty like the earlier croquette and filled with feta and pine nuts. Moist, juicy mint lebnah was the refreshing vgetable – like a crunchy Levantine slaw.
Chris Brown and sous-chef Anthony Davis of Perigee provided dessert: a shot glass of lemon balm soda with Ontario saskatoonberry sorbet. And beside it a tiny financier cake with a black, red and gold raspberry on top, basil to scent it and “balsamic-baco noir fluid gel” (a tangy molecular semi-saucy sauce). Caramelized puff pastry with crème fraiche ice cream and Ontario blueberries completed the plate.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? It was.
For about 23 years I’ve been wondering whether it might be possible one day to isolate and describe a “Toronto cuisine.” I still don’t know if one could extrapolate that meal into a notion as weighty as that. But I can’t conceive of a Toronto cuisine that lacked the elements that Cookstown Kitchens managed to bring into their evening – a cosmopolitan freedom that allowed them to borrow from Japanese, Latin, Mediterranean and Lebanese cooking, not to mention molecular gastronomy, without missing a beat or making a great big song and dance about it. Those notions were beautifully integrated into the whole. Most of the ingredients were very local indeed and made full and righteous play of our artisanal producers. Interestingly, there was also an unusually sophisticated sense of the overall harmony of the meal. So often when many chefs combine to create a single dinner it becomes a little competition to see who can outdo whom. Not that evening.
Walking home past the violet tower I decided that I was quite certain I had just tasted something significant for the future of cooking in this city. I have not changed my mind.
There are two more Crosstown Kitchens fundraising dinners planned – on February 2 at Torito and in April at Marben. But first, on October 5, the group will headline the Farmstart Feast in support of McVean Farm. The feast will happen at the farm and there are only 175 tickets for sale. Each ticket costs $75 which includes the price of two drinks tickets and a shuttle out to the farm. Check the Crosstown Kitchens web site, www.crosstownkitchens.com for more information.

 

The Ark of Greed – Da Dong Duck

20 Oct

Inspired by the Slow Food Movement’s catalogue of immortal gastronomical treasures, I have decided to create a more personal register – The Ark of Greed – a compendium of the most delicious things I have ever eaten and drunk. The original plan was to go back through my life and make meticulous notes, starting with babyhood and Heinz chocolate pudding, moving on through my mum’s fritto misto, my dad’s pilchard curry, etcetera, etcetera… One day, maybe. Just for now, though, the Ark will have a more recent and random structure, to be added to as treats occur.

In the crowded fo’c’s’le of cheese, for example, I must now include two fascinating experiments currently being conducted by Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique. The first begins with a lovely, smooth Drumloch cheddar from Scotland. Pristine strips it of its protective green wax coat, wraps the naked yellow form in cheesecloth and then soaks the whole package in 16-year-old Lagavulin whisky from the Isle of Islay, re-annointing it twice a week for three months. I was privileged to try some this week. It’s superb. The whisky hasn’t made much inroad into the actual cheese but the edible rind is marvellously aromatic, elegantly reeking of the Lagavulin’s telltale odours of kelp, iodine, gun oil, peat smoke and tar. Pristine has created this gem for the popular Toronto eatery Trevor Kitchen and Bar and I would hurry down there, phoning first, to taste it.

And that is not the only Dionysian delicacy to spring from Afrim’s Olympian thigh. He has been ageing chevre in a mixture of gin, tonic water and lime in an effort to make something entirely unique for the cheese plate at Crush. It’s another winner, in my opinion, and definitely worthy of a place on the Ark of Greed.

Also aboard, in the wardroom reserved for poultry, is the best Peking duck I have ever tasted. It’s quality is not a surprise. The Beijing restaurant that serves it, called Da Dong, is one of two or three that specializes in the dish. It’s a thoroughly modern, glamorous establishment with a beautiful dining room abuzz with happy conversation and much table hopping from the local glitterati. The walls are backlit green glass painted with an abstract, calligraphic impression of a bamboo plantation (amazingly like that side wall in the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, though that must be a coincidence). The anteroom is a glassed-in chamber where a dozen chefs are constantly pushing prepared ducks into wood-fired ovens and pulling them out when they are lacquered and golden. You can sit there and watch if you like, but the more conventional plan is to go in and sit down at a big round table with a bunch of friends and indulge in a set dinner.

It begins with a finger of duck liver paté, as rich as any foie gras, encased in a tiny brick of clear golden jelly. Europeans look around for toast to spread it on but the idea is to eat it on its own, startling the palate into a sudden understanding that tonight is not like other nights.

Then comes dessert – many variations on a theme of sweet stiff jelly involving red bean, sweet potato, sesame, as well as mashed potato stained with the juice of some purple berry and garnished with golden candied citrus peel. These treats remain on the lazy susan throughout the meal. Tuck into them at this early stage and you mark yourself as a rube.

Now the silent, serious server brings a dish of perfectly steamed asparagus – its texture poised between softness and crispness – the spears angled upon a bed of ice with a rich, salty tahini-like sauce for dipping.

Then a warm dish of noodles tossed with soft smoked salmon, lemon, shreds of cucumber and a wasabi hit. Again the temptation is to dive in, but patience, Iago… Patience…

Then a rich, heavyweight, translucent, golden consommé of mushroom harbouring big slippery slivers of local wild mushrooms. I would call them shiitake, matsutaki, chanterelle, straw mushroom, lobster mushroom, but I dare say they have their own names and subtle identities. On the plate beside the bowl of soup lie spices – whole star anise, coffe beans, salt – though the soup owes nothing to them. Perhaps I was supposed to add them myself?

A show-stealing course now follows – grilled nuggets of genuine kobe beef so rich that these smallish morsels are exactly big enough. You can dip them into sea salt or a mound of finely chopped scallions. Or you can just put them in your mouth, chew once or even twice and experience them melting into sweet fatty beef juice on your tongue.

The dinner proceeds. We all know we’re waiting for the main event of the duck and it suddenly occurs that it might have been a good idea to pace ourselves… But before that proposition can take hold, more goodies arrive. Here is a whole red cod, filleted and reformed between its head and tail, one side of it dressed with spicy red peppers, the other with a brunoise of sweet, mild yellow peppers and orange. Down the middle runs a green stripe of minced chive. The steamed fish is so fresh-tasting, so soft and moist, it quite erases the macho memory of that kobe beef.

Now comes a dish that must be Cantonese – juicy, rare shrimp cooked in a sauce of peach and cream that tastes like hot sweet mayonnaise. It’s the perfect distraction as waiters at last bring the condiments for the long-expected duck – dishes of sugar, white garlic paste, hoisin sauce and white scallion, tiny plates of radish and pickled cucumber and pickled bok choy. Steaming baskets of soft pancakes appear and here, finally, comes the duck. But no! Not yet! First some other things to calibrate the buds. This one is finely chopped duck meat with fresh peas and peanuts in a nest of very crunchy potato threads all rolled in a crisp lettuce leaf. Scrunch, scrunch! All gone! This other creation involves broad beans and dried shrimps served in a martini glass. I love it. Others hate it with an equal passion.

Basta! At last. The duck. Waiters bring three for our table, each one on a trolley, wheeled in slowly amidst appropriate genuflection and applause. The waiters wear gloves as they remove the skin from the breast in one piece (a most unorthodox gesture but a trademark of Da Dong). There are three ways to eat the meat and its skin: with little sesame biscuits; dipped in sugar and popped into the mouth; rolled in the pancake with hoisin sauce and the other condiments. There is so much duck to go round. Glancing up from my twelfth pancake I see that everyone else has given up, exhausted, sated, happy but too full to move… Excellent. All the more for me.

There is dessert – those jellies – also rather a good tiramisu, but we have been exposed to so much swetness during the course of dinner that they have lost their appeal. Not that they go uneaten.

Outside the restaurant, Beijing’s wealthy young elite wait for their chauffeur-driven limos to appear. Truly, China is ready to enter the wider world.

 

Pine Nuts and Honey

20 Oct

So many delicious flavours this week. On Wednesday, we went to Madeline’s, Susur Lee’s new place, where the menu is entirely composed of small dishes inspired by the Mediterranean. The only dish with any Asian pretensions is the slow-braised pork belly served over a mash of potato and celeriac and surrounded by currant chutney. The recipe for the pork comes from Madeline herself – Susur’s mother – who was not much of a cook, according to Susur, but knew from pork belly. It’s rich, unctuous, surprisingly lean, infused with sweet-salt darkness as if soy and molasses had stood as godparents at the pig’s christening. Oddly enough, the currant chutney gave me a Proustian moment – it tasted exactly like the chutney my father used to make.

Last night, we went for dinner at Mistura and ate rather too much. Not our fault. The food was excellent and chef-co-owner Massimo Capra sent out a special treat which will be going onto the new menu in a couple of weeks. They were massive shrimp – the kind they call carabinieri around Genoa or “Spanish shrimp” in the market here. Capra deep fries them so the legs and head can be munched and scrunched while the rich tail meat stays juicy. One of several desserts we tried produced ecstatic murmurs from my wife. It was a pine nut and honey tart, like a cross between a butter tart and a pecan pie that has shuffled off this mortal coil and turned into a pastry of mere energy, sweetness and light. A new favourite.

As for tomorrow: I have no idea what I’ll be eating! I leave for China in an hour – Szechuan, Xi’an and then Beijing to catch the last half of the Olympics. Three weeks of new tastes. What a lucky boy.

I’ve been meaning to write… I leave for China on Saturday and will be working with pen and paper during the three weeks I’m there, taking gastronomical notes, as meals occur.

 

Here and there

20 Oct

Last night I went to Lee on King West to have dinner with my daughter and her delightful girlfriend and who should pop out of the kitchen to say hello but Susur Lee himself, looking as cool and dapper as ever in his chefly whites. “I thought you were in New York,” sez I. “I’m back and forth,” sez he. Right now he’s in the kitchen next door at Madeline’s, the new restaurant he has devised to take the place of Susur. It’s named for his mother. Back in Hong Kong, when she was in her 20s, she worked at the British army headquarters. The officers couldn’t say her real name so, with the easy arrogance of the colonial English, they called her Madeline. The restaurant has been operating for a couple of weeks without any official opening. It was packed last night, the room transformed from the pristine white-on-white elegance of Susur into a look that borrows from the opulent, filigreed decorative styles of Turkey and Morocco with black and scarlet flock wallpaper moodily lit, small booths and a menu borrowed from the Mediterranean. And from Britain. The first appetizer is Welsh rarebit, a dish, says Lee, that he first made at Peter Pan, back in the 1980s. Dominic Amaral, who has cooked alongside Lee for eight years, eventually rising to sit upon his right hand as sous chef at Susur, will be Madeline’s Executive Chef when the master opens his place in Manhattan this fall.

Everyone knows that Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store knows everything about everything. She is the city’s single most valuable culinary resource and now she has scored a major coup, bringing Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the world’s most famous restaurant, to Toronto. It took her two months of negotiations and is part of his grand intercontinental progress, publicizing his new book, A Day at elBulli: An Insight into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adrià (on sale October 2008). Time magazine has declared that Adrià is one of the 100 most influential people of our time. Now we can all hear him speak, on Wednesday, October 8 at 4:30 pm at the Isabel Bader Theatre, at Victoria University in The University of Toronto, 93 Charles Street West, Toronto. Tickets are $95, to be paid in advance, and can only be purchased at The Cookbook Store (416-920-2665 or 1-800-268-6018). That price includes a copy of the book.

I mentioned it in an earlier post, but I just wanted to add an extra reminder about Anita Stewart’s extraordinary, patriotic project, the World’s Longest Barbecue (click on Coming Attractions on the right of this page) this coming Saturday. I was going to be doing my best Parker-Posey-in-Waiting-for-Guffman impersonation (all alone with a single, pale and sickly, goosebump-skinned raw chicken wing cooked over a firelighter) but the merciful deities have wangled an invitation for me to the home of a friendly chef with a brand new Weber. I think she has more elaborate plans. The point is that Anita’s project is a rather wonderful idea, with Canadians all round the world from Afghanistan to the Arctic simultaneously gathering around the flame. It started out a few years ago as a way to support our beef farmers; it has grown into a global party.

Last Friday, if you recall, was a day of magical beauty, if only because we were spared thunder and rain. I rented a swish car and drove up to Eigensinn Farm, arriving early and finding Michael Stadtländer picking herbs in the lush gardens outside the kitchen. He and his family had just harvested the first-ever crop of sour cherries from their five-year-old tree and the fruit formed the basis of a trio of desserts that night. Before we went inside, however, the great chef showed me his new greenhouse which will buy him an extra month of produce at both ends of the growing season. Then we inspected his straw-bale-insulated carpentry barn, where he and his son Jonas are busy making the furniture for their new venture, a 30-seat restaurant called Haisai that will open in the nearby village of Singhampton in October. The chairs are massive, crafted out of rugged wooden boughs from the farm’s forested acres. With his tongue certainly in his cheek, Stadtländer has made himself a throne from the trunks of Christmas trees. No one who lives in Ontario will be surprised to learn that Haisai’s progress has been hobbled by bureaucratic red tape – but now the green light is shining. Jonas Stadtländer will be the chef of the new venture. Haisai means hello in the dialect of Okinawa, and I dare say the welcome will be as warm as it always is at Eigensinn Farm. I must save the gastronomic details of that visit for a review in Toronto Life, but it was the best meal I have had there in years. Michael Stadtländer is an artist at the height of his powers and though the price of dinner has gone up again, to $275 a head, it includes a healthy portion of spiritual renewal for those of a sympathetic bent.

 

Calling all chefs

20 Oct

Michael Stadtländer has done it again, raising the consciousness of the entire restaurant industry. He and his wife, Nobuyo, are hosting the first Canadian Chefs’ Congress at Eigensinn Farm on September 21 and 22. It’s a unique opportunity for chefs to gather for a two-day powwow and by the looks of the prospectus, it could be a life-changing experience. The idea is to create a national network of chefs to reinforce “the passion and integrity of the Canadian food culture,” by bringing in great chefs from every part of the country who will cook and give workshops. It costs $250 to attend and Stadtländer could sell it out in a heartbeat to the general public. But this one is just for chefs – the lucky dogs. Read the bulletin below and tell me if it isn’t the most extraordinary industry event of the year!

The biennial Congress will be taking place in a different province or territory after this one, so it won’t be coming back to Ontario for another 27 years. I’d say this is a chance for our local chefs that should not be missed.

Here’s the message from Stadtländer as posted on the Congress’s web site:

Nobuyo and Michael Stadtlander will be hosting the first Canadian Chefs’ Congress at Eigensinn Farm

Canadian Chefs’ Congress – September 21 & 22, 2008

This exclusive biennial event, scheduled for September 21st and 22nd, 2008, is a celebration of the unique food cultures of our country. This year’s Congress will bring together over five hundred chefs from across Canada. Participants will savour an exceptional showcase of regional cuisine, while also learning about the sustainable production practices that make it all happen.
The conference will begin with an opening ceremony introducing the chefs and the Eigensinn Farm landscape to one another. After the ceremony, celebrated Canadian chefs from each province and territory of Canada will create “The Best of the Country”: a culinary masterpiece composed of regional delicacies. Each meal will be supported by wines from Canadian producers.
Keynote speakers will set the academic tone for the conference by establishing panel discussions on subjects such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other key points related to our distinct Canadian food culture. International bestselling author Jeffrey M. Smith, a leading spokesperson on the health dangers of GMOs will be addressing the congress. Chef Robert Clarke from C Restaurant in Vancouver will be addressing sustainable aquaculture.
As day one comes to an end “Midnight Kitchens” manned by noteable Ontario chefs including Michael Stadtlander, Jamie Kennedy of Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Anthony Walsh of Canoe, Lino Collevecchio of Via Allegro, Daisuke Izutsu of Kaiseki Sakura, Mark Cutrara of Cowbell, Scott Miles of Grey County Meats, Kevin McKenna of Loyalist College and Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy will provide late night feasts for those who have lasted beyond the well known
Canadian musicians, early evening bonfire and a spectacular firework finale by Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy.
On the second day of the congress, a breakfast highlighting artisinal Grey County products will be prepared under the guidance of Chef John Higgins and the students of George Brown Chef School. The students and instructors of Georgian College and Loyalist College will be providing support throughout the Congress.
Following breakfast, authorities in the fields of contemporary cuisine, food security, biotechnology, conservation, sustainable agriculture and responsible aqua culture will present a series of ten workshops in the sculpture gardens designed and built by Michael and his apprentices for the 2005 Heaven on Earth project.
Later that day, chefs from Niagara, Prince Edward County and Pelee Island/Lake Erie North Shore will create the “Ontario Harvest Feast”. This event will celebrate the emerging food and wine culture from all three of Ontario’s recognized VQA wine regions, highlighting their wines and local foods.
The 2008 Canadian Chefs’ Congress will bring together the expertise of chefs, producers and supportive communities, promising to become an important think tank for our country’s culinary future. Michael and Nobuyo see this congress as the beginning of a twenty-six year series that will travel to each province and territory across the country. Each edition will be hosted by a venue that typifies that region’s distinctive culinary practices and products.
The confirmed participating chefs are: Vikram Vij (Vijs’ in Vancouver, British Columbia), Scott Pohorelic (River Cafe in Calgary, Alberta), Remy Cousin (Calories Restaurant, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), Tristan Foucault (Oui Bistro, Winnipeg, Manitoba), Michael Daquisto (529 Wellington, Winnipeg, Manitoba), Ross Fraser and Simon Fraser (Fraser Cafe, Ottawa, Ontario), Chris Aerni (Rossmount Inn, St. Andrews, New Brunswick), Craig Flinn (Chives Restaurant, Halifax, Nova Scotia), Gordon Bailey (Lot 30, Charlottetown, PEI), Jeremy Charles (Atlantica Restaurant, Portugal Cove, Newfoundland), and Pierre LePage (L’Heritage Restaurant, Yellowknife, NWT).
In addition to the Congress festivities four invited chefs representing The Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Newfoundland and Labrador will participate in “Canada North.” This event will take place during the week leading up to the Congress and will be held at four separate restaurants in the Toronto/Singhampton area (David Chrystian/Chez Victor, Anthony Rose/The Drake Hotel, Paul Boehmer/Rosewater Supper Club, Jonas Stadtlander/Haisai) with each chef highlighting products and techniques from his home province. The aim of “Canada North” is to promote truly regional cuisine and the distinct challenges of sourcing local food products in Canada’s most northern provinces and territories.
The Canadian Chefs’ Congress is an exclusive event devoted to the enjoyment and preservation of Canadian food culture. The Congress is an opportunity for chefs and food producers to meet and taste all that Canada has to offer in a beautiful natural setting!

MISSION STATEMENT

The Canadian Chefs’ Congress connects chefs to our land, in solidarity with farmers, fishers, gardeners, foragers and all artisanal food producers. It is a biennial gathering of chefs from across our country that reinforces the passion and integrity of the Canadian food culture.

For further information: regular updates and online registration:
www.canadianchefscongress.com; For more information, please contact: Michael
Dixon, Public Relations and National Liaison, Canadian Chefs’ Congress, phone
(647) 999-0012, mdixon@canadianchefscongress.com; Michael Stadtlander,
Executive Director, Canadian Chefs’ Congress, phone (519) 922-2645,
chef@canadianchefscongress.com