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Archive for May, 2010

Heads or Tails?

28 May

I’m in England now, staying in London for a couple of days before going north to the Yorkshire Dales. There, Canadian Olympic oarsman Adam Kreek, crooner Matt Dusk and I are leading a group of Canadian enthusiasts on a week-long hike (aka pub crawl) across the stunningly beautiful countryside. There will be many gastropublic delights, but for me the treats have already begun. At lunch today, my mother cooked something I had never tasted before – a dish she remembered from her own girlhood – skate nobs.

My mum grew up in Essex (just east of London) but she hasn’t seen these knobbly little lumps of juicy flesh and cartilege in a fishmonger’s for 70 years. These days they are restricted to the north of the country – and to Scotland, it seems. That’s where the skate nobs she cooked came from. My mother sourced them online through an Aberdeenshire butchery called Donald Russell (www.donaldrussell.com). They were delicious, the flesh characteristically skatey, tender but fibrous with sweet, creamy juices, slipping easily away from the shiny knuckle of cartilege. My mother dusted them with flour and slow-fried them in olive oil and butter, seasoning them in the pan and squeezing lemon juice over them once they were on the plate. As with a skate wing, she explained, you can also cook them with capers and beurre noir.

So what are these nobs exactly…? The supplier describes them as coming from the tail of the ray – and indeed a big skate would have a tail this thick, while the tail’s tapering shape would explain why some nobs were smaller than others, the biggest being about the same size as a ping-pong ball. Jane Grigson in her book on British fish cookery confirms they come from the tail area. But the French, perhaps inevitably, have a different opinion. They call these pieces joues de raie, skate’s cheeks, which shows a worrying inability to distinguish between the face and the rump – unless “cheeks” is also a pun in French. Paul Bocuse insists they are nothing to do with the tail, describing the nobs as coming from either side of a skate’s head. The only thing upon which both French and English experts seem to agree is that skate actually improves, gastronomically speaking, if it is a little ‘high.’ Any whiff of ammonia dissipates during cooking, says Grigson reassuringly. Our Scottish nobs were fresh as daisies. I shall look for more in Yorkshire and try to see whether they come from the front or the rear of the creature. Watch this space.

 

Coming attractions

27 May

Here’s a lovely way to spend an evening. On Thursday, June 10, Didier Leroy is having a fundraiser at his restaurant, Didier, for the Toronto Wildlife Centre. The menu has been devised by Leroy, celebrity chef Christine Cushing and Master Chocolatier Sylvain Leroy who promise sparkling wine and canapés followed by “six sumptuous courses.” There will be seafood, but no meat or game on the menu, which makes sense given the nature of the cause. Château des Charmes has provided all the wines for the evening and the winery’s representative Chris Giuliani will join forces with sommelier Zoltan Szabo to guide diners through the pairings. The host will be none other than my friend Kevin Brauch, the thirsty traveller himself, who is an excellent fellow once you get past his unfortunate enthusiasm for Arsenal football club. The evening’s food and drinks, as well as everyone’s time, has been generously donated to maximize funds raised to pay for veterinary medical care for sick and injured wild animals. Tickets cost $375 (a portion of which is tax deductible) and numbers are limited to a mere 60 guests, which will enhance the pleasure for all concerned. For reservations, contact Tory Edwards at Didier Restaurant & Catering. Telephone: 416 925 8588.

Talking of Kevin Brauch, he’s also the host of a new tv show that debuts on the Food Network on Friday, June 4 at 8pm. It’s called CheF*OFF! and is best described as a cross between Iron Chef and Kenny versus Spenny. The premise pits two very talented chefs against each other in a series of cooking contests such as have never been seen on television, with sabotage and childish skullduggery all part of the game. The two chefs are Michael Lyon (a delightful guy who won Calgary’s Gold Medal Plates twice, currently executive chef of the Eldorado in Kelowna) and Michael Blackie (a wicked genius who won Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates and is executive chef at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa). I turn up in each episode as one of the judges who has to taste the chefs’ dishes and decide which is the victor. This is important, as the losing chef is subjected to diabolical humiliations and public punishment. It was enormous fun making these unique shows, mixing extreme silliness with first class cooking. I think everyone will enjoy it.

 

Malena

24 May

One of the most perplexing questions you’re ever likely to hear is whether there is a decent Greek restaurant in Toronto. My old answer was no. My new answer is Maléna. I first met Sam Kalogiros six years ago, when he was a server at Luce, the Rubino brothers’ deliciously idiosyncratic foray into Italian cuisine. Kalogiros comes from Corfu, the Ionian island I know best, and he mentioned at the time that he had a long-term ambition to open an Ionian restaurant. He said the same thing a few years later when he and co-owner, co-manager, David Minicucci opened L’Unita at Avenue Road and Davenport. L’Unita’s food was Italian, convincingly interpreted by young Canadian chef Doug Neigel. Now the same team has opened Maléna, just a few doors south on Avenue Road, in the premises that used to house Pink Pearl. Already mighty popular, it has a casual, quirky charm that isn’t as obviously cool as L’Unita. And aside from Chiado, Starfish and the top sushi contenders, it’s Toronto’s most serious seafood restaurant.
But is it Greek? Canadians used to the opa!-Zorban-burnt-meat-‘n’-baklava enclaves of the Danforth might not think so. But sophisticated Athenians and Corfiots will give a shrewd smile and a nod of appreciation to Neigel. His menu (strongly favouring seafood over meat) is laden with Ionian references, not slavishly copied but judiciously appropriated and translated.
Sea urchin crostini is one example. I always associate sea urchins with the Ionian because of a particular morning when my friend in the village where we lived, Philip Parginos, taught me how to go snorkelling for octopus. At lunchtime we pulled ourselves out of the water and onto some flat, gently sloping rocks to dry off in the scorching sun. Philip had gathered some sea urchins and now he opened them with his knife, took out the lemon he had hidden in his diver’s pouch, squeezed some juice into each urchin and we ate them just like that. However many Japanese uni treats I’ve had since, that remains my seminal urchin experience. At Maléna, Neigel takes very crunchy toasts and spreads them with a little puréed avocado (these days, they do farm avocado in the Aegean islands). Then he lays the sea urchin on top, strews some red amaranth seedlings over them and finishes it all off with a sprinkling of black salt. The avocado is a great idea – echoing the texture of the urchin but too bland to impinge on the purity of its flavour – but it’s the salt that brings the dish to life (and reminds me so forcibly of that seaside lunch, I suspect).
Crab is another rare pleasure in the Ionian. In the market in Corfu town we once saw a big kavouromama, a female crab with her glistening eggs. Greedy gourmets were arguing about which of them had the right to buy it. At Maléna, they serve a single huge stone crab claw, still in its shell, and pair it with avgolemono sauce. Not your usual avgolemono – a liaison of egg yolk and lemon juice stirred into chicken broth – but a stiff version with the texture of an aïoli and mixed with masses of chopped dill. Scrumptious.
Then there’s the Ionian seafood soup. It contains cod (I’ve never heard of cod in the Ionian) as well as clams, mussels and spot prawns, all nicely undercooked to preserve their freshness and delicate textures. The broth is a thin tomato consommé flavoured with fresh oregano and basil leaves and lots of ground pepper. Slices of grilled ciabatta lie on top, which means they’re soggy by the time the dish comes to table.
I could go on – there are so many delicious things on the menu – especially whole fish of various kinds, simply and flawlessly grilled – and you can’t get more Ionian than that. They do the same thing around the corner at Joso’s, of course, though there it’s seen as Dalmatian. Same wind and water.
And in lieu of a cheese course, Maléna suggests a finger of saganaki – salty kephalograviera cheese fried and served hot with a curiously bitter orange and ouzo marmalade. It’s an unusual combination and I will have to taste it a couple more times to figure out whether or not it really works.
One last treasure Maléna presents is the talent of sommelier Zinta Steprens who gets to play with a really original little wine list that features a number of unusual white wines, all available by the glass. From Greece, a crisp, aromatically floral blend of moschofilero and rhoditis is made by Skouras. From Friuli come three stunning wines from Bastianich – a malvasia, a tocai and a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon and picolit. A glass of either would be the ideal partner to a light dinner sitting at the bar, conversing with half a dozen oysters (from P.E.I. not Corfu) or a crudo of Qualicum Bay scallops: true Canadian-Hellenic détente.
Maléna is at 120 Avenue Road (one block south of Davenport). 416 964 0606.

 

New York in Toronto

20 May

Yesterday, I had a glimpse of the almost-finished Thompson Toronto, the city’s latest boutique hotel, designed by New York firm Studio Gaia. It’s going to be stunning when it opens next month and a boon for travelling businessmen, just a five minute cab ride from the island airport. And this is the only Toronto hotel I can think of that has its own outdoor skating rink – such a charming local touch. There are several treasures in the lobby. One is a vast black-and-white mural by Valencian artist Javier Mariscal, inspired by Toronto’s skyline. Another is the comfortable bar (intended to be a famous rendezvous for the neighbourhood). The third is Scarpetta (opening in July), an incarnation of the much-lauded New York restaurant opened two years ago by chef Scott Conant. The mood at Scarpetta New York is modern, cool and unstuffy and the same kind of inclusive attitude is promised here. Conant’s food – generous, robustly flavoured Italian dishes with sudden moments of refinement that make you constantly re-evaluate the experience – should find many fans here. I liked the way Tony Cohen, one of the partners in the hotel, described the cuisine as “rustic Tuscan meets urban Milan,” which seems to be casting a pretty broad stylistic net.
There are other food outlets in the hotel. Min Soo Kim, whose Bracebridge sushi restaurant, Wabora, is the favourite of Muskoka’s smart summer set, is opening a Wabora on the Stewart Street flank of the building. On the Bathurst side, there’s a 24-hour diner called The Counter that I imagine will become clubland’s new hang. It’s been designed by Brenda Bent (Mrs. Susur Lee) and her business partner Karen Gable to look like a classic boxcar diner, though Bent has added her own inimitable touches such as banquettes upholstered in pewter-coloured flock, dazzling blue floor tiles and a wall of porcelain figurines. The menu features classic American diner fare including all-day breakfast, plus a few Canadian touches (poutine, to be sure).
The most beautiful space in the hotel will only be open to guests staying in the 102 rooms or condottieri living in the 336 condo units that share the ½-million-square-foot building. It’s the rooftop bar on the 16th floor. Designed by Toronto’s own II by IV, it gives the impression of being made almost entirely of glass, with an outdoor infinity pool and awe-inspiring views of the city, the islands and across the lake to Niagara.
Thompson Toronto hotel, 550 Wellington Street West. 416 640 7778.

 

Stadtländer’s urban barn dance

16 May

Michael Stadtländer came to town last night, cooking for a hundred guests under the skylight at the Wychwood Art Barns. The evening was the grand finale of this year’s Salut festival and also a fundraiser for The Stop. I was lucky enough to emcee the event and arrived early to check out the venue. Michael and his apprentices were busy in the kitchen area beside the greenhouse and I asked him how things were going.

            “Oh, not too good,” he replied. The centrepiece of the menu was to be sucking pigs roasted in the Art Barn’s new wood-burning oven, but it has not yet been fitted with a chimney and so could not be used. Undaunted, Stadtländer had borrowed a giant wood-fired barbecue from a friend up near Collingwood and his wife, Nobuyo, was driving it down in their truck that afternoon. Unfortunately a tire had burst and the truck was stranded with no spare and no cell phone.

            “What are you going to do!!?” I gasped.

            Michael just smiled. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “We’ll think of something.”

            An hour before the guests were due to arrive, Nobuyo and the truck finally appeared. She had found a phone and called a friend who by sheer chance had a spare wheel exactly like the ones on the ancient vehicle. The monstrous oven (it looked like an old industrial boiler on legs) was dragged into the Art Barns garden and fired up with maple and apple logs. Their sweet smell greeted the fans with a promise of treats to come.

            The preliminary reception was a party in its own right. We drank 13th Street’s merry sparkling rosé while Adam Colqhoun from Oyster Boy shucked some splendid malpeques and servers passed by with Stadtländer’s canapés. Little pieces of wild perch were wrapped in speck, pan-fried and served on apple crisps. Soft, creamy fresh goat cheese from Fifth Town was rolled in lettuce leaves with masses of chives and then sliced into tiny drums, topped with shaved radish. Most delicious of all was some sliced smoked goose breast served on Stadtländer’s rye bread and butter. Jamie Kennedy once joked that no one on earth smokes hams more slowly than Michael – just a thin line of cold smoke slowly rising inside the fieldstone smokehouse Michael built behind the kitchen at Eigensinn Farm. “Hams stay in there for years.” (A slight exaggeration). The smoked goose was stunning, the soft flesh ruby red, its clear, succulent fat reminding some guests of pata negra ham.

            At seven o’clock we all sat down at two very long tables and dinner began.

            The first course was a soup made with white asparagus from David Cohlmeyer’s Cookstown Greens. “I want the asparagus to speak for itself,” Michael had told me and it did, most eloquently. He had started by peeling it and using the peel to make a stock, adding a dash of cream, some pepper and nutmeg and enough egg yolk to form a liaison. He used this to bathe the asparagus spears (poaching seems too aggressive a description) and then garnished the dish with the raw asparagus tips and some parsleyed croutons made from his chewy sourdough bread. It was a geat soup – so simple but packing some surprises: the hint of nutmeg (who puts nutmeg with asparagus?) was quietly exotic while the pleasant bitterness that is part of asparagus’s profile added its own dimension. Asparagus can push a timid wine around, causing dismay, which is why the Germans pair it with invincible rieslings during the endless vernal banquets of their white asparagus Sparglfest. Stadtländer chose a different companion for the soup – Henry of Pelham’s elegant 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. Aromatically, it was a perfect match and the wine stood up remarkably well to the asparagus’s juicy, vegetal advances.

            Next up: an amazing terrine made from squab and foie gras. Looking back on the last 17 years of meals up at Eigensinn Farm, I was struck by the fact that Stadtländer almost always uses foie gras when he cooks squab. He seemed surprised when I pointed this out to him – a recurring instinct more than any kind of conscious plan. For this dish, he began by marinating the foie gras in Calvados and maple syrup then tucked it around with smoked pork back fat and cooked it slowly to create a trembling pink brick of pure deliciousness. He deboned the squab, using the bones and a little pheasant meat to make a stock which he then refined down into a consommé and then further reduced until it was a sapid jelly the colour of brandy. He roasted the squab breasts and laid them side by side along the top of the foie gras then poured on the jelly, turning it into a translucent matrix of flavour. Beside the terrine were two slices of fig brioche bread and a little salad of various young greens from Michael’s garden.

            The dressing involved a very interesting product from Niagara called Aceto Niagara. It’s made in a barn by a couple of German winemakers called Martin Gemmrich and Wolfgang Woerthle. They begin by making icewine which they then ferment into vinegar. Then they age it for years in small oak barrels, turning it into Canada’s answer to balsamic. It’s all natural and it’s the sort of vinegar – rich, viscous, incredibly layered in terms of flavour – that you can sip at the end of a meal as a digestif. Amazing stuff.

            But we didn’t drink vinegar with that awesome terrine. Daniel Lenko had raided his wine library to provide a delectable 2007 gewurztraminer, all rose petals and spiced honey on the nose but with a nice suggestion of acidity on the palate and enough weight to offer perfect balance – the wine pairing of the night.

            The party was in full swing as the next course appeared. Stadtländer had planned to cook lake trout from Nottawasaga Bay but the winds were so strong last week no fishing boats had put out. Instead, he sourced some Lake Huron pickerel and three sizeable pike from a lake near his farm. He pan-seared the pickerel in brown butter and fragrant savoury until the flesh was gloriously moist and soft. As for the pike, he filletted the fish and cubed the flesh, mixing it with egg white, salt and pepper, cream and butter (pike likes butter), shallots and a dash of kirsch, then he pressed the mixture into little dumplings which he poached in chicken stock. God, they were delectable. Everyone got two on their plates, but we all agreed we could have eaten twenty. Keeping the fish company were three fat spears of green asparagus in brown tarragon butter and a little wild rice which Michael had roasted with onions to modify its texture. We drank Grange of Prince Edward Victoria Block Chardonnay from the already legendary 2007 vintage – a rich, elegant, tangy wine that worked particularly well with those pike dumplings (moans of pleasure).

            Finally – the hour of the pig was upon us. These were sucking piglets from Eigensinn Farm – the cross of two old European heritage breeds (red wattle and black English) that Stadtländer favours. Such sweet juicy pork; such crisp crackling… And with it a jus reduced from the piglet bones. Alongside were vegetables from the farm – tender Swiss chard and wild burdock root. Michael has to uproot great patches of burdock each spring to stop it taking over the entire property. Rather than chucking it onto the compost he fed it to us, first cleaning and slicing the roots then roasting them off with sunflower oil seasoned with pepper and maple syrup. The firm, bittersweet little ovals were a clever contrast with the meat. Stealing the show, however, were some exquisitely soft ravioli filled with spinach and crushed hazelnuts and tossed in a pesto made from the green part of wild leeks picked from Michael’s wood lot. The wild leek bulbs also appeared, roasted in duck fat with a touch of maple syrup and apple cider vinegar. To drink, the great chef chose Tawse’s fruity 2008 Lauritzen Vineyard Pinot Noir – yet another triumph.

            Cheese came next – three Canadian beauties brought by the Dairy Farmers of Canada and introduced by Debbie Levy. One was a smooth, creamy Cru de Champlain from Fromagerie F. X. Pichet in Sainte-Anne de la Pérade, Quebec. Another was the semi-soft Fleur-en-Lait, made in a St. Paulin style by Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario. The third was a fabulously nippy seven-year-old cheddar from Pine River Co-op in Ripley, Ontario. With them we tasted a spectacular botrytis-affected riesling – the 2008 from Ravine Estates, one of my new favourite Niagara wineries.

            And so to dessert, which Stadtländer paired with the tangy 2007 Cabernet Franc Icewine from Château des Charmes. Beneath a delicate little blanket of chocolate-flecked Lübeck marzipan lay a maple mousse on a layer of genoise, all topped with a kiss of whipped cream and a gelée made from Waupous apple Icewine. Très charmant – but a surprise lurked at the heart of that seemingly innocent mousse, a fabulously intense compote of rhubarb and sour cherry essence that took everyone by surprise.

            It reminded me that Stadtländer had started his career as a pastry chef before coming to Canada in 1980 to open Scaramouche with his friend and co-chef, Jamie Kennedy. They introduced Toronto to the precepts of European nouvel cuisine and also to the idea of the celebrity chef. Young Canadian cooks hung on Michael’s every word – how did he cook green beans? How did he decorate a plate? Why was he smoking eels in the bushes below the restaurant? Never mind that Michael was only 21 years old.

            Since then, for 30 years, Stadtländer has been a major influence on the way we think about food – sometimes as a distant, eccentric figure, more recently as the fearless leader of the local-seasonal movement, as the rest of us finally came panting up behind him to admit that everything he had been saying since 1980 was true.

            In that time, he has given us the bold improvisations of his dinners at Stadtländer’s, on John Street; the wild shore-and-garden cuisine he offered at Sinclair Philip’s Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island; the amazing two-year series of nightly art at Nekah – still one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. Michael’s food there was amazing – a meticulous technique somewhere between European nouvel cuisine, contemporary North American cooking and Japanese kaiseki – all informed by an aesthetic that seemed New Age but was really closer to German Romanticism. If I close my eyes now I can still see the final presentation of exquisite petits fours served on a cold granite stone, scattered with calendula petals.

            And then, for the last 17 years, there has been the deep magic of Eigensinn Farm. I still can’t get away from describing it as Prospero’s Island – with Michael as Prospero, a magician and impresario creating culinary theatre that leaves susceptible people like me simply gobsmacked. The special events are particularly memorable – those hot summer days of wonder where we walk across the wildflower meadows and through the forest from one improvised cooking station to the next, charmed by music or actors or dancers or Sheldon Jafine’s conjuring tricks until the sun sets and the geat bonfire is lit – multi-media performance art of the highest calibre. I swear I once saw Michael control the weather, warding off an inopportune rainshower with a discreet gesture.

            Last night we brought him off his 100-acre stage, forbad him magic and drowned all his books except for his talent for cooking. Michael’s food is simpler now than it was at Nekah. The Asian and Japanese inflections have slowly faded over the years – though I still think the influence of kaiseki remains in the structure and progressions of a Stadtlander dinner. The plating has become less precise, more natural. The importance of using local, seasonal produce from his own or his neighbours’ land has grown increasingly insistent – with some perennial exceptions such as Quebec foie gras and Adam Colqhoun’s oysters.

            That bioregional integrity where ingredients are concerned lends its own rigour to Michael’s art. It imposes limitations that he can use as a structure, letting his imagination scramble all over it like a child on a climbing frame. It also gives him an incredible understanding of those ingredients, because he has watched them grow – seen them in all their seasons from seed to fruit – knows the weather they have lived through and the other plants that flourished beside them. When you feed your own pigs with fruit from the wild apple trees that grow in your own hedgerows, you build up a marvelously instinctive knowledge of what goes with what and an amazing awareness of terroir. Michael proved that again last night.

 

Greek aromas

14 May

To the Metropolitan hotel for a fascinating symposium on Greek wine given by the eloquent and profoundly knowledgeable John Szabo. He goes to Greece almost as often as I do and has devoted much energy to a study of the modern wine industry there. It’s unfortunate that so few of the excellent products enter our sphere of consciousness in Canada but hopefully that will change now that funds have been found to set up organisations in Toronto and Montreal that are virtually wine embassies for Greece. Expect to encounter far more high-quality krassi on restaurant wine lists in years to come.

To that end, perhaps, there seemed to be an exceptional number of sommeliers in Szabo’s audience. This time he concentrated on four grape varieties – moschofilero, aghiorgitiko, assyrtiko and xinomavro (his pronunciation was spot-on). Moschofilero is always a delight – our summertime house white on Corfu – as crisp, lightweight and refreshing as a pinot grigio from the Alto Adige but with an aromatic nose that sometimes reminds me of gewürztraminer or alvarinho and sometimes of torrontes. The assyrtiko wines Szabo chose were from Santorini – fantastically dense, full-bodied whites with negligible fruitiness but spectacular minerality. The vines produce hardly any fruit but are woven into living baskets in the barren volcanic soil to protect them from the ceaseless winds and scorching sun. He presented a decent Chablis alongside – a great idea – both wines are such ascetic conduits for their own terroir; and both are capable of almost infinite subtlety within their narrow spectra.

At lunchtime, when the symposium went downstairs for a fine, very un-Greek buffet and a chance to taste another 36 wines, I sought out the Santorini assyrtikos. Szabo had mentioned how unexpectedly well they had worked when paired with grilled lamb chops and indeed they stood up to everything the hotel threw at them, from salmon sashimi to kebabs. Vintages occasionally brings in one of these wines and they are always worth buying.

There was another epiphany waiting at the end of the event. I am a muscat freak and seek out any examples of the broad and rowdy and often magnificent muscat family whenever possible. I had hoped there might be some viscous, golden, sweet delight from Samos, such as Byron adored, but instead I found something much more vibrant. Patras is a seaport on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. They make a sweet red wine there from mavrodaphne and corinthiaki that is sometimes called “Greek port” by people with no palates at all and was often used as communion wine in the Church of England, when I was a choirboy. But they also press a sweet white wine from muscat grapes that have been picked and left to turn into raisins on beds of straw, like a Hellenic vin de paille. Parparousis is the producer of this bewitching elixir. Fabulously sweet but with a piercing acidity, like an icewine on steroids, it filled my head with its grapey muscat perfume. “Try it with some blue cheese,” said sommelier Christian Lupu, who was pouring on behalf of the importers (www.cavaspiliadis.com). Luckily there was a massive wedge of young moist Stilton over on the cheese table so I was able to take his advice. Oh yes. Yes indeed. The wickedly rich saltiness of the cheese was neatly balanced by the sweetness and acidity in the wine – like the ultimate gladiatorial battle of equally matched warriors fighting with totally different weapons. My mouth was the coliseum. Two thumbs up.

But blue cheese is like that. I can’t think of any other little food-group that provides so many earth-moving moments. Port and Stilton, obviously (and if you’ve never actually tried it, you haven’t lived). Also Ardbeg single malt whisky from Islay (the most phenolic one of the lot) and Cabrales, the Spanish blue: that one will dissolve your tongue. And here’s another: Featherstone gewurztraminer icewine from Niagara with German cambazola. Think about it… Gentler, creamier, heavier and more limpid, more floral – but awesome. Surround yourself with gardenias when you make the experiment just to gild the olfactory lily. You may never be seen again.

 

More news

10 May

First, a humble and heartfelt thank you to all the people who have been in touch during the last few days to offer encouragement and support. I’m amazed and delighted – and determined to cherish this revenant blog as a place where I can continue to write about food (and wine and whisky and all sorts of other good things). Restaurants will be a part of it, to be sure, but now that I have my freedom I can clamber out of that rather limiting mandate and start exploring all the social, cultural, artistic, political, moral, immoral, geothermal, nonsensical, paradoxical lumber we pack around the things we put into our mouths – everything that gives context and resonance to the merely culinary – food’s intellectual and emotional terroir, if you will. I’m looking forward to it no end.

Meanwhile, on Saturday night, Michael Stadtländer will be cooking an extraordinary dinner at The Wychwood Art Barns. I’m lucky enough to be the emcee. I don’t want to give away the menu but it involves white and green asparagus, squab and foie gras, lake trout and piglets, Canada’s finest cheeses and Lübeck mazipan – not exclusively and not necessarily in that order. It’s the last event of the Salut Wine + Food Festival and will raise funds for The Stop Community Food Centre. As some of you may know, I love nothing more than describing Stadtländer’s food and this time the great chef has also chosen all the wines to accompany his dishes. Most of the ingredients come from his farm or from his close neighbours outside Singhampton (not the marzipan). If you can join us, that would be great! Tickets are available through www.salutwinefestival.com. If not, check here afterwards for a report describing all the succulent magic you missed.

This just came through the ether from some disembodied vox americana:
“Top Chef is coming to Canada! Based on the highlighly successful US show we are looking for Canada’s next culinary star! Top Chef Canada will select the country’s best culinary talent to face-off in a gruelling competition that will put their skills and creativity to the test. Ultimately only one chef will claim their rightful place in the spotlight, winning the top prize of $100,000 and the Title of Canada’s Top Chef. If this is you or someone you know please go to http://www.foodnetwork.ca/topchefcanada/index.html and download the application. Deadline for applying is June 14th 2010.”
A hundred big ones. Got to be worth a shot.

 

Now then, where were we…?

07 May

My apologies for the long absence since the previous posting. I have been frantically busy for the last year, witness to some fascinating gastronomic moments which I will attempt to share when a quiet moment arises in the weeks to come. There will be more such moments now that Toronto Life and I have parted company. A couple of days ago, the magazine’s editor, Sarah Fulford, asked me in to the Verity members’ lounge for an espresso and explained that she was redesigning Toronto Life in time for the August issue and that I no longer fitted in with the plans. In truth, I have felt uncomfortable there for quite some time, the magazine’s current editorial tone not really in tune with the way I like to write. But it was a good run – 23 years as a columnist, writing about Toronto restaurants, a subject I love, for some extraordinary editors, starting with the incomparable Joseph Hoare.

Next day I was back in the same building for a happier occasion – a brilliant lunch in the private room at George with Paul Pontallier, general director of Château Margaux, and various illustrious colleagues. We tasted some delectable things, including Ch. Margaux 1996 and 2004, the latter a super wine with all the elegance, finesse, grace, perfume and balance of a great vintage but lacking only a modicum of extra intensity to be a great vintage, according to Pontallier. He made the wine sound like a dazzling beauty who can’t quite keep up with the conversation. As if anyone would really care…

To begin we tasted the white wine produced at Château Margaux, Pavillon Blanc 2008. This is a spectacular treat, first produced in 1920 and from 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The selection process is meticulous, with 60% of the total crop rejected in 2008 – even more in 2009. Ripe Sauvignon Blanc from this obsessively cherished vineyard tastes different from the varietal wines we’re typically used to – none of that shrieking vegetal character – especially when it has been flattered by a priceless oak program that encourages and educates the fruitiness and the floral aromas without leaving any obvious wooden mark. You would swear there was Semillon in there, but there isn’t. They only make about 800 cases of this white and it sells for around $400 a bottle, mostly to Japan and Russia. Interestingly, it is a much more robust food wine than one might imagine. Chef Lorenzo Loseto challenged it with a brilliant amuse of smoked black Alaskan cod over crushed shiitake mushrooms, a cube of rich cauliflower mousse, a little structure of white asparagus and orange fruit with a very tart vinaigrette – an intelligent and piercing cross-examination. The wine responded gracefully but firmly, never nonplussed.

I’m starting a new book that will attempt to describe all the most delicious things I have eaten and drunk in my life so far. I think the Pavillon Blanc will make it into the ms. As will Château Margaux 2009, still in barrel, if I ever have the opportunity to taste it. Paul Pontallier told us he had never seen a vintage like it – so fine – such tannins but such soft tannins – so elegant but also the most concentrated wine Château Margaux has ever made… And it’s still a baby, a long way from even being bottled. Something to dream about.