Archive for July, 2010

Eager Beavers

28 Jul

Three well-refreshed judges: Anthony Walsh, john Higgins and me.

It was a night of good humour, excellent food, intense competition and the start of something that will benefit Canadian gastronomy in a unique way, if all goes according to plan. Last Monday, Michael Stadtländer and friends took over the Drake hotel’s bar and restaurant to raise funds for his Eager Beaver scholarship project. The idea is that a lucky graduate culinary student from George Brown College and another from B.C.’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts will be given an extraordinary apprenticeship, spending a month with a star chef in every province and territory in Canada. They will document this 13-month process on video for the benefit of other students and they will emerge with an unprecedented awareness of the foodways of our vast country. I think it’s a brilliant idea, though the students will have to be chosen very carefully if they are to take full advantage of such an opportunity.

Meanwhile, we had the fundraiser to enjoy – an industry-only affair that included a black box cooking contest between four chefs – Steve Gonzales, sous chef at Origin, Nick Liu, chef at the Niagara Street Café, Kevin McKenna, chef at Globe and Earth, and Alida Solomon, owner-chef of Tutti Matti. Three of us were judging them – George Brown College’s own chef John Higgins, chef Anthony Walsh (who is incredibly busy right now as Oliver Bonacini prepares to open its three restaurants in the TIFF Lightbox building) and me.

Before the contest, however, there was ample time to party and enjoy the delectable treats of a number of other superstar chefs who came to show their support for Stadtländer and the Chefs’ Congress he organizes. Here are some of the highlights…

Michael Stadtländer himself brought a whole pig (one of his own from Eigensinn Farm) slow roasted in his wood-fired oven until the skin was crisp and the colour of mahogany. He served it with delicate ravioli filled with peach and ginger in a lemon basil butter sauce. Southbrook 2006 Cabernet-Merlot was the inspired wine match.

Daisuke Sakura of Kaiseki Sakura marinated fingers of lake trout in a fish broth with soy sauce and lime then plated them alongside crunchy zucchini. He put delicately crunchy deep-fried noodles over the top and scattered flower petals and shredded red and green shiso leaves from his garden. As each bowl was handed out, he spooned a little warm fish broth over the top which softened some of the noodles and released the heavenly fragrance from the ingredients. Another great wine match with Malivoire 2008 Chardonnay.

Ravine Vineyards provided the wine match for the Dairy Farmers of Canada who cut four cheeses – a deliciously earthy, creamy, Chardonnay-washed Rosehaus and a Tomme-style Quinte Crest, both from Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Picton, down in Prince Edward County; a semi-soft Fleur-en-Lait from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario, and Le Rassembleu, a firm, woodsy blue cheese from Québec’s Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde.

Chef Chris Aerni came all the way from New Brunswick’s Rossmount Inn, where he is chef and co-owner, bringing a suitcase full of perfect mushrooms picked from the Inn’s 75 acres – golden chanterelles and coral-coloured lobster mushrooms, to be precise. He cooked them up with baby NB scallops until they were soft as silk, dusting the scallops with powdered dried sea lettuce (such a salty, tangy marine flavour), a nasturtium coulis and a rich chanterelle butter. It tasted as heavenly as it sounds and was beautifully matched with spicy, complex Stratus 2006 White.

Jeremy Charles flew in from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he is poised to open a new restaurant called Raymond’s in the fall. He made a ravioli of moose meat and mashed potato sauced with chicken stock and a brunoise of vegetables and finished with a little grated parmesan. A yummy dish, nicely paired with Mission Hill 2008 Five Vineyards Pinot Noir.

Oyster Boy Adam Colqhoun was a jovial presence behind the Drake’s sushi station, shucking huge, heavy-shelled beauties from Colville Bay, P.E.I. that he had personally harvested. Creemore Springs beer was the perfect accompaniment.

Anthony Walsh and two of his team made gorgeous, sticky steamed buns folded around incredibly tender Wellington County beef brisket, nam prik vegetables and “forever leaf” which is the pretty name for wild purslane, a fleshy plant that regenerates easily in the woodlands of our country. Henry of Pelham 2008 Baco Noir was an inspired pour with the brisket.

So, all told, I was pretty full already when I slid onto my judging stool beside Higgins and Walsh while master of ceremonies Sheldon Jaffine thanked sponsors All Clad kitchenware and Creemore Springs brewery. Then the competition began. The black box ingredients were interesting… two cuts of Eigensinn Farm pork; a cornucopia of David Cohlmeyer’s Cookstown beets, tomatoes, Asian greens and other vegetables; some cold-pressed hemp oil; some of Chris Aerni’s awesome mushrooms; a bottle of Creemore beer (for cooking not chugging) and the secret ingredient, a jar of raw pig’s brains. Each chef had 25 minutes.

The time passed quickly with pig-brain jokes coming thick and fast – lots of zombie wisecracks and references to Young Frankenstein’s Abbie Normal. We tasted Steve Gonzalez’s offering first – a sort of vegetable ceviche using the beer instead of an acid full of interesting textures and flavours with the sweet-tart green tomatoes and zucchini flowers most prominent. He had sautéed the pork bacon and braised off the pork belly but there was no sign of the brains.

Nick Liu surrounded his slices of pork with a garland of vegetables, using the oil as a final drizzle. He had roasted the pork and the bacon with maple syrup and chanterelle butter and set it over a salad of inely shaved fennel and beet. The brains had defeated him and were still in their jar.

Kevin McKenna roasted off his beautifully seasoned pork to tender perfection, slicing it over dark leafy greens, awesome chanterelles and crunchy julienne of fennel. The judges agreed his pig-brain and beer sauce would make him a fortune if he could bottle and sell it.

Alida Solomon combined larger elements – the whole onion flowers, the whole zucchini blossoms, stalks and all – cooked her beets just so and pan-seared her pork to give it a great crust before cooking it off in a covered pan. She too made a brains sauce using the bacon as scrumptious lardons. Her textures were distinct, her flavours bold and the food reached the judges piping hot. We were unanimous in giving her the victory.

All told, it was a super evening and a fine preliminary to the second Canadian Chefs’ Congress that will take place on Vancouver Island around September 11, 2010. In 2011, the third Congress is scheduled for St. John’s Newfoundland. Both gatherings promise to be epic parties and gastronomic exchanges of true significance.

One final date to note down: on October 3, Michael Stadtländer is holding his Harvest Festival up at Eigensinn Farm, reviving all the outdoor sculpture and cooking stations featured a couple of years ago for his Heaven on Earth project. It’s going to be amazing!

Judges three, all well refreshed: Anthony Walsh, John Higgins and me, with Christian Morrison, Canadian Chefs Congress, steering committee.


Hello godello

24 Jul

Fanny bay oysters and pimentos de padron

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that albariño was being feted as the unknown great white grape from Galicia. Now that savvy sommeliers have brought it so delightfully to the world’s attention it’s time for a new uva desconocida. Say hello to godello. And while we’re about it, let’s open our arms to a Galician red called mencía. Both introductions were made earlier this week by Luis Nuñez of Losada Vinos de Finca and his agents here, The Wine Coaches, over a seriously delicious dinner at Cava. Chef Chris McDonald is himself a sommelier and his wine-pairing dinners on those long-ago, shining, stimulating nights at Avalon were always revelatory (I remember one occasion built around Oregon pinot noirs that changed the way I thought about food-and-wine matching, not to mention north-western pinot). He and his co-owner and co-chef at Cava, Doug Penfold (who looks more and more like Chris with the passing years) performed brilliantly this time around, much to the delight of the crowd.

Godello turned out to be a total delight. It grows in a single mountain valley in Galicia, about 250 kilometres from the sea, on very slatey soils that contribute a vibrant minerality to the wine. In 1885, the proprietor of Bodegas Valdesil planted a vineyard called Pedrouzos exclusively to godello. His neighbours said it was financial suicide as the variety is notoriously delicate and easily over-ripens but our champion stuck to his intentions. Today, that vineyard still exists and the godello clone that originates there is recognized for its superior structure and complexity.

 The first version we tried was 2008 Val de Sil, made from vines that are 20-30 years old. It’s fermented and aged on its lees in steel – clean and concentrated, minerally with a hint of citrus – reminiscent of a Rousanne or a good Chablis. The chefs paired it with two divinely creamy Fanny Bay oysters from Vancouver Island that they had subjected to a mild escabeche treatment for a couple of hours, leaving the oyster flesh slightly denser than normal and with a subtle prickle of vinegar. With them were two pimentos de padron, those pinkie-sized green peppers that let you play Russian roulette – due to a genetic fluke, one in every dozen or so is not mild and sweet like its brethren but searingly hot. Pan-fried in olive oil and scattered with salt, my two were safe. Crunchy cucumber threads and some fresh dill flowers completed the dish, the flavours resonating in several different keys with the wine.

Smoked albacore tuna sashimi with tonnato sauce and garden beans

Godello number two was 2007 Pezas de Portela. This wine is fermented and aged for six months in oak barriques before moving into steel where it rests on its lees until bottling. The hint of oak was altogether charming but don’t take my word for it. Robert Parker declared this wine the second best white in all of Spain. McDonald and Penfold’s dish played brilliantly to the smoky oak – a salad of split yellow and green beans with an olive oil dressing, three slices of rare, lightly smoked albacore tuna sashimi and a stunning tonnato sauce made of crushed tuna, egg yolk and olive oil, as smooth as satin.

The third godello 2007 Pedrouzos, was the evening’s star in my opinion, a wine made from vines grown in the original 1885 vineyard. The production is tiny from such ancient plants – only 500 magnums a year, the winemaking method identical to Pezas de Portela. Knowing where it came from added extra concentration to the tasting – as did the understanding that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Again, the accompanying dish was designed to shine a light into the wine’s interior, illuminating all sorts of aromatic echoes. Subtly flavourful quenelles of pike and lobster were set over a slice of fried lion’s mane mushroom, its texture not unlike eggplant, with a vibrant, very pure green pea sauce.

Then it was on to the red wines, three iterations of the mencía grape made by Finca Losada. The project is a new one, started only in 2005, but the vines are ancient – 60 to 70 year-old bush vines growing on clay just to the north of the godello area. We started with 2007 Losada – a big, robust red, rich and dense with dark fruit tannins and as much acidity as a Baco Noir, spiced by 10 to 12 months in French and American oak. The chefs met the acidity head on with a soft crimson piquillo pepper surrounded by a pulpy, tangy, chipotle-spiked tomatillo sauce. There were fried chickpeas for substance and the pepper was stuffed with a gorgeously loose, almost liquid house-made morcilla blood sausage, rich enough to take on the muscular wine.

2006 Altos de Losada was also big and bold though the extra year and a purely French oak regime added a measure of elegance. Lean slices of red deer leg volunteered to dance with the wine’s tannins; crunchy poached Asian greens and a compote of peach and red currant answered the challenge of acidity; a glorious slab of gamay-poached foie gras, soft as butter, quietly stole the show.

The final red, 2007 Altos de Losada, La Bienquerida, is a single vineyard production and one step further along the path to ultimate sophistication. The chefs decided to balance its power with voluptuously tender braised Texel lamb shoulder in a rich gravy with favas, tomato and grilled baby fennel. Another triumph.

In case anyone was still hungry, we finished with a slice of marcona almond cake, some bing cherry ice cream and a sour cherry compote, pleasantly paired with a Spanish sticky, Moscatel Oro Floralis from Torres.

It was a very fine evening, by universal consensus, and a treat to discover two grape varieties and so many wines we had never tasted before.



22 Jul

So it’s finally happened. Toronto has scored a big-time foreign chef. The rumours have been flitting about for years – Gordon Ramsey was coming to the condo tower at One Bloor Street; Jean-Georges Vongerichten was seriously thinking about building a bridgehead in one of the new boutique hotels; Nobu had been checking out fish wholesalers in J-Town… None of those came to pass. What we did get is Scott Conant, one of New York’s finest, chef of L’Impero (2002, James Beard Best New Restaurant in the US), and of Alto, and of Scarpetta (2008) in New York and later Miami Beach, and now of Toronto, Ont.

Our Scarpetta is the lobby-level restaurant in the new Thompson Toronto boutique hotel at the corner of Bathurst and Wellington West and it opened on Wednesday night with a very typical Toronto fanfare of fire trucks and fire alarms (called in error, but talk about a baptism by fire (alarm)) and – you guessed it – no liquor licence. Guests who wished to wander into the restaurant from the lobby carrying a glass of wine were told it was verboten. Welcome to Toronto, Mr Conant. Yes, it’s true that the restaurant and hospitality industry is the most important economic sector in Ontario, the number one employer in the province, and that we’re trying to bring back American tourists to the benefit of all, but you must understand that the powers that pertain in our city have made it their mission to throw every kind of obfuscation and problem in front of anyone who seeks to enhance our gastronomic reputation by opening a new restaurant in Toronto. Or you could look at it another way, pointed out Amy Rosen, also at the party: why do these places open before they get all their licences and paperwork in order? Why not wait a couple of extra days?

But I digress…

Scott Conant, chef, and our newest immigrant (kind-of – he still lives in NYC but will drop by here from time to time) has written an open letter to Toronto and published it on the revered American blog, the Huffington Post. It’s a friendly message, full of flattery of Niagara produce, Ontario salumi, et alia. He seems to think we call our city “” (don’t know where he picked that one up – not from Toronto, obviously) and it’s written as if he’s talking to children in the second grade. But in all other respects it is far less condescending than it might have been. The tone is almost apologetic – as if he senses a potential resentment against big-shot New York chefs barging in and teaching us how to eat Italian. Heaven forfend.

Conant has a TV smile and a baseball player’s gift for the apropos summation and he did his duty by us on Wednesday night. In the end, however, it will all come down to the food on the Scarpetta plate. The bite-sized treats and chafing-dish pastas at the debut were intended to showcase the actual menu and while everything was yummy, nothing was OMGwhere’smynotebook amazing. But you can’t judge a cook by his canapés. I’m going to wait until September to dine there properly and make up my mind.

But consider this… Wouldn’t it be interesting if Toronto (half the city is Italian – or so we have always been told) were to find that we had been missing out on Italian food until now… That Conant and Scarpetta were to open our eyes to what New World-Italian food can be!

On the other hand, what if we all went to Scarpetta with an open mind, tasted it, pondered it (in a true state of superhuman objectivity) and decided it was actually pretty simple stuff, no better than anything we are already used to eating at Via Allegro or Il Mulino or Zucca or Biagio – or even Local Kitchen? What then?

Conant’s signature dishes were front and centre on Wednesday night – spaghetti with basil-scented tomato sauce; calamarata of pasta cuffs with tender mussels and baby squid in a sort of chicken broth; crostini with marinated eggplant and lardo (which really were scrumptious); super-tender braised short ribs with farro risotto; creamy polenta with a fricassee of truffled mushrooms… The jury is out. One thing, though: it really is good to have some new blood in the city! I can’t wait to read what our local media make of Scarpetta. Some will love it; others will not. That goes without saying. And I dare say we can all guess who will kiss and who will diss, who will drool and who’s too-cool-for-school…

Meanwhile, Counter, the diner that is also part of the new Thompson hotel, has already changed chefs – after only a week. There’s another place I have to try.


Tastes of Thailand

18 Jul

A cook from New Thai Food's station at Tastes of Thailand prepares spicy papaya salad (Som Tam) with her pestle and mortar. Easy for her; searing pleasure/pain for this one.

Living in downtown Toronto, we know it happens every year. The prettiest weekend of the summer, when everyone should be outside on deck or patio or puttering about the backyard, is blighted and spoiled. A persistent noise fills the warm, aestival air, pitched somewhere between a buzz and a whine, like hornets swarming in the eaves or the ceaseless chorus of 10,000 soprano vuvuzelas – the Honda Indy. It’s amazing how far the sound travels. When we lived in the Annex, north of Bloor, it would wake us at 8:00 am on the Sunday in question, as if our neighbours were renovating their basement with a jig saw. These days we live farther south and the sound of the racing cars ceaselessly chasing each other around their walled circuit is even more obtrusive, driving us indoors and making the cat nervous and bad-tempered.

In the great scheme of things, however, all this is more than balanced by the treats that accumulate for the downtown urbanite – interesting events within easy walking distance – from burning police cars to fez-headed Shriners on the march to maniacal Spanish soccer fans to this weekend’s other gathering, the Tastes of Thailand in Nathan Phillips Square. Okay, it isn’t a major festival. The GTA’s tiny Thai community seems to have no budget for advertising and the word-of-mouth head of steam that seemed to be building a few years ago has since dissipated. I only heard about it through my son, who works in a Thai restaurant on the Danforth. So, yesterday, down we went for a pleasant hour to listen to Thai music from performers on the scaffold stage instead of Danika Patrick’s transmission.

It was all very low-key (the energy, not the music). There are booths where one can buy a few minutes of Thai massage – a particular style in which the victim’s limbs are twisted into knots. There are stalls selling trinkets and scarves and one tent where a woman is patiently and skillfully carving fruit into spectacular floral sculptures. It’s one of the most ephemeral art forms imaginable but taken very seriously in Thailand, where the king himself employs a royal fruit carver to provide decorative centrepieces for his dinner table.

As for food, there are half a dozen restaurants represented at Tastes of Thailand, each offering a buffet selection of dishes for a few bucks. The cooks in question are aware that most of their audience this weekend will be Thai so the treats have a pleasing authenticity in terms of flavour intensity. We didn’t try everything but several items stood out. At Pi-Tom’s stall, we tasted beautifully fluffy moist tilapia fried in a crisp batter and dressed with a tart tamarind sauce. At the Thai Senses booth I was most impressed by very tender, grilled baby octopus on a stick and by plump, heavy pork sausages also impaled on bamboo. They are sweetish and garlicky with a soft, fine texture and my son told me they taste exactly like Toronto’s finest Thai sausages, the ones that are made in her home by P’ Tum, a familiar member of the community who supplies several high-quality restaurants and is also a fortune teller.

Best of all was a spicy papaya salad, freshly made to order at the stall operated by New Thai Food, a restaurant at 2450 Lakeshore Road West in Oakville ( Two years of staff meals at Mong Kut Thai have given my son a taste for lethal chili heat so he asked for the salad to be made properly spicy. We watched as the cook began by crushing a handful of scarlet chilies in a huge black mortar, wielding the pestle like a hefty muddler. She added chewy dried shrimp and a good quantity of grated white papaya, then roasted peanuts, crunchy green beans snapped into one-inch lengths, and a ladleful of a dressing made with lime juice, tamarind juice, sugar and garlic. My son and I carried the dish away to a table and tucked in, relishing the variety of textures, the fresh flavours, the swift onset of delectably agonizing pain as the chili oil attacked the inside of our mouths. “In Thailand,” my son told me, “children start eating raw chilies when they’re about five years old.”

Two minutes later I was back at the New Thai Food stall to buy ice-cold drinks, much to the amusement of the young women manning the concession. But that salad needed the chili heat. Thai food is all about the balance of extremes – sweetness, acidity, saltiness, chili heat. Diminish one or two of those components – as so many Thai restaurants do in deference to Western palates – and the whole thing is suddenly out of whack, too sweet, too bland and generally unsatisfactory. It’s good to taste the real thing from time to time.

Tastes of Thailand runs again today at Nathan Phillips Square. A fine place to escape the Indy buzz.


The BarChef Nationals

15 Jul

Wild goings-on last night at BarChef on Queen West where six of the country’s finest mixologists duked it out at the second National Bar Chef Competition. It was the idea of BarChef’s co-owners Frankie Solarik and Brent VanderVeen, though Frankie was not competing, preferring to serve as one of the three judges. Alongside him were Kevin Brauch (the tough but genial, sometimes manic, secretly sentimental host of the excellent Chef Off! Television extravaganza) and Catherine Santos from Diageo, representing the evening’s revered sponsor, Ketel One vodka. The prize is a trip to Amsterdam, including a visit to Ketel One’s family distillery and two nights in the red light district.

Nishantha Nepulangoda pouring Ketel One vodka (he thinks)

I arrived early, as is my wont, and enjoyed a refreshing White Orchid, a fabulous cocktail for a hot summer night, served in a flute and created by Frankie. Appropriately, it starred Ketel One, the vodka embraced by a heady cardamom and cumin syrup, sweetened with cassis, acidulated with a grapefruit-infused dry white vermouth and topped up with sparkling wine.

Wandering to the back of the long room (Frankie usually keeps the lights so dim that I hadn’t seen the rear wall since it was the Opal Jazz Lounge, years ago) I came upon David Wolowidnyk from West in Vancouver preparing his mise-en-place. His principal ingredients were Szechuan Buttons – spherical, bright orange flower buds about the size of a large garden pea, each with a wiry green stalk. Their real name is Acmella oleracea, also known as spilanthes, and they are native to Brazil though they are grown in many parts of the world these days. What makes them so special is the strong analgesic in the plant, a substance called splianthol, which has the same effect on a person’s mouth as Szechuan pepper. The Chinese call that sensation ma la, meaning “numb heat,” the tingling cold-hot anaesthesia you get when you lick a 9-volt battery. It also makes you salivate. Wolowidnyk cut one of the wee buds in half and gave it to me to eat… The effects lasted for hours! He used them in his cocktail (he called it Sichuan Punch) by muddling a handful of the buds and then infusing them in vodka for two weeks. Meanwhile, he brewed a delectable green tea flavoured with cherry blossom and sweetened with sugar (it is served to first-class passengers on Singapore Airlines, the lucky dogs). To these ingredients he added fresh lemon juice and a dash of Scrappy’s cardamom bitters from Seattle. “Shake hard to chill,” he suggested, “then strain it into an Old-fashioned glass over new ice, top it up with [his own house-made] ginger beer and garnish it with a whole Szechuan button.”

Wolowidnyk was full of lore. Did you know the term “punch” in the sense of a bowl of drink comes from the Indian word for “five,” which is punj, because a true punch has five ingredients. I didn’t know that, and I am horrified by the omission. I always assumed I knew absolutely everything.

Another useful fact: as of June 3, 2010, it is now legal in British Columbia for a barman to make his own infusions.

And another: In British Columbia, bitters has always been classed as a herbal extract in order to exempt it from liquor tax. I can see that. Yes, that one I can see.

Anyway, Wolowidnyk’s Sichuan Punch is pretty delicious and very interesting. I taste the tart lemon juice first, then the cherry sweetness of the tea syrup, then a faint tingle of the Button, coming in like a ghostly echo of ouzo and pepper.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The competition has not yet begun and there are canapés to negotiate and people to talk to, ears straining over the shouted conversation and the steady thump of the DJ’s contribution.

David Wolowidnyk and his amazing Szrchuan Buttons

At last we begin and first up is Lauren Mote, once a server at Le Sélect, now a writer, mixologist and general manager/sommelier of downtown Vancouver’s hot hot spot, The Refinery, where she has created a formidable and persuasive cocktail program. Tonight, her competition drink is called the Nolet Prat and it begins with three remarkable tinctures – home-made vermouth “van Kersen” (macerated cherries and cocoa nibs in vodka), home-made “Smaak van Noyaux” (made from taking the white membrane on the inside of apricot kernels which tastes like bitter almonds and infusing it in vodka) and home-made orgeat syrup. To these she adds a dash of quince vinegar and garnishes the rose-pink drink with a twist of lemon peel. The Ketel One vodka should be added almost at the end of the process but – horreur! – there is none to hand. A bottle is quickly grabbed from the display behind the bar and the cocktail completed.

As a prelude to the experience, she freezes quenelles of lemon curd in liquid nitrogen and these are passed among the crowd as a palate cleanser. It is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. OMG. Makes me want to dash out and buy a bottle of liquid nitrogen and set to work with the old egg yolks and lemons… Wow.

Kevin Brauch lets me sample his cocktail. The Nolet Pratt is pretty good, but it lacks pizzazz and definition. Only later do I find out why…
David Wolowidnyk goes next, followed by Wes Galloway, who has won a string of major competitions and is currently bar manager and mixologist at Black Beans Steakhouse and Lounge in Port Hope, Ontario. He takes a much more conventional approach to cocktail building – so solid, so old school, in the best sense. His drink is the Jade Crown – vodka, Lillet Blanc, Domaine de Canton, Strega, a dash of Fee Bros. grapefruit bitters, a drop of roasted black peppercorn tincture, all stirred together with plenty of ice. Before straining this into the glass, he spritzes the glass with tobacco-infused Navan. It tastes spicy, like ginger, but then the black pepper kicks in, and the bittersweet suggestion of tobacco, the citrus, the herbal Strega… It’s fascinating but surprisingly insipid considering it contains so many powerful ingredients.

Next up is Nishantha Nepulangoda, cocktail guru of Blowfish in Toronto, renowned for the complexity of his achievements. His Snowbird does not disappoint his many fans. The drink itself is tall and bright green, a mixture of vodka, ginger liqueur, yuzu-infused sake, home-made ginger beer, nelli cordial, fresh lime juice, Nisha’s own bitters, five fresh nelli fruits and a whole yuzu. The glass is rimmed with a powder of sugar, dried ginger and citric acid. The drink is presented on a tray together with three other elements – a flaming cube of camphor; a glass cloche of fresh fruits (nelli, yuzu, vodka-steeped grapes); a wonton spoon containing a Ketel One pearl, an ice wine pearl with cucumber, a yuzu sake pearl, some wasabi seaweed paper and some jalapeno olives with cucumber.
So… Quite the presentation. And Nisha added to the theatre by freestyling vodka from a great height into each of the three cocktails he was preparing and then into his mouth. That’s when it happened. Nisha stopped dead in his tracks, turned to the crowd and announced that the bottle of Ketel one contained not vodka but water. It was a prop bottle from the back of the bar!
Scandal and consternation! No wonder those early cocktails had lacked a certain je ne sais quoi!

The judges go into a huddle, but meanwhile, on with the show… Next to step up is Fabien Maillard, once a French chef, now owner of the Lab, Comptoir à Cocktails, a modern speakeasy in Montreal. Maillard, too, has a showman’s touch, juggling and spinning bottles behind his back like Bryan Brown in the movie, Cocktail. His Martini de Provence is the only savoury cocktail in the competition and to me it is the most delectable, the simplest, and probably the only one I will one day make at home myself. First he tastes the vodka. Okay. It’s really Ketel One. Then he halves cherry tomatoes and drops them into the glass. He takes fresh oregano sprigs, crushes and slaps them and drops them in. Some Worcestershire sauce. Some lavender-infused sea salt. A hefty slug of Pernod. It looks amazing with the scarlet tomatoes shining in the lights. Then he muddles it all together, adds ice, stirs and strains the now coral-coloured liquid into a glass which he garnishes with a whole cherry tomato.

Again, I nab Brauch’s cocktail. It’s a beauty. The sweet-tart tomato water, the perfumed salt, the forthright hit of Pernod – very good balance. A real cocktail.

The last contender is Rob Montgomery of Toronto’s The Miller Tavern. He uses a chemist’s flask and two cut crystal mixing jugs to prepare a drink he calls To The Five Boroughs a.k.a. Voltron Cocktail. To make one you’d have to combine Vodka, Tanqueray No. Ten gin, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse and fresh lime juice in a glass of ice, stirring well. Rinse a new, chilled glass with Lillet Blanc vermouth then strain the cocktail into it. Garnish with orange zest (spritz, wipe, discard) and a pickled cherry. “First sip the drink then bite the cherry!” That is the instruction. Yum. The overall impression is of fruit – kind of a delicious blur – or is that because it’s getting on for midnight by now?

Lauren Mote and her liquid nitrogen

The judges retire to a backroom and are gone for the longest time… 45 minutes… tasting the early water cocktails remade with vodka. Then the grand announcement.

Sharing third place are Nishantha Nepulangoda and Fabian Maillard. In second place is Lauren Mote. And the national bar chef champion 2010 is David Wolowidnyk – he of the Szechuan Button that I can still taste, walking home up Spadina, along Cecil, holding my loot bag of Fee Bros. aztec chocolate bitters, yuzu juice and tissue paper, counting my echoing footsteps in the breathless Toronto night.


Chefs Congress Industry Night

09 Jul

This will be fun! They’ve asked me to be one of the judges and I can’t wait. See you there!


Three Good Reads

09 Jul

Three fine new Canadian cookbooks have just arrived at the Cookbook Store, each one offering more than just recipes.

The Harrow Fair Cookbook (published by Whitecap, $29.95) is written by Moira Sanders and her younger sister, Lori Elstone, together with their cousin Beth Goslin Maloney. It’s a beautifully evocative testament to rural Canada, specifically the Harrow Fair, a classic country fair which has been held in Essex County every summer since 1854. This is Canada’s southernmost county, where Ontario dips a dainty toe into the American midwest, lapped by Lake Erie to the south and on the same latitude as Tuscany and Northern California. Think farmland, orchards and vineyards, hot, dusty, empty roads where all you can hear is the buzz and zip of insects in the parched afternoons; then think 70,000 people showing up every Labour Day weekend to go to the fair with its livestock shows, pie and preserve competitions, pony rides, craft exhibits and tractor pulls. Photographer Mike McColl perfectly captures the merry, good-hearted mood – an ambience which doesn’t seem to have changed much over the centuries if the scattered vintage photos are anything to go by.
I’ve blogged about Lori Elstone before – when she managed Tony de Luca’s cheese shop outside Niagara-on-the-lake and made me a sensationally delicious panini. Now, she and her sister have created a record of the food at the Fair that not only reads deliciously well but will make anyone who has to live in a city ache with envy. “Canning is very very cool,” the authors assure us before the book has even begun, but so are the other recipes in the book, some of them 1st-prize winners at the Fair, others heirlooms from the authors’ extended family – they have lived in Essex County for generations. I shall certainly try out cheddar loonies and summer pea soup and Elstone’s rhubarb custard pie (which won a red ribbon at the fair). The sections on pies and cakes, canning and preserving are much stronger than “main courses” but that is as it should be in a book that is born from and also brilliantly evokes the rich traditions of a true county fair.

Talking of Tony de Luca, check out Simply in Season (Whitecap, $39.95) his second cookbook. Tony has presented his food in many different ways and many different places during his 14 years on the Niagara peninsula. He created the restaurant at Hillebrand estates winery in 1996, opened his cheese store in the Red Barn, built a high-end restaurant in Si Wai Lai’s reincarnated Oban Inn, put together the Old Winery as a sort of roadhouse on the main highway into N-o-t-L for pastas, pizzas and fairly generic antipasti and recently opened a new, small, fine-dining establishment called Deluca’s Wine Country Restaurant a little way farther along the road, opposite Jackson-Triggs winery. This book is definitely at the fancy end of Tony’s broad culinary spectrum, arranged month by month and starring Niagara’s excellent farmed and foraged produce, all quickened by the warm and generous traditions of his Italian heritage. (Has anyone ever written about the vital Italian influence in Niagara’s wine country – not just the families at the Falls, but the importance of the Ziraldos, Pennachettis, Picones, Pingues, Pavans, Pilliterris, and all the other food-and-wine founding fathers whose forebears came from Italy?)
Faced with a seasonal Canadian cookbook, devil’s advocates immediately turn to the starvation month of April to see what, if anything, the locavore chef has found to recommend. He makes a sauce out of carrot-tops, inspired by Anton Mosimann, plays with tarragon and arugula (from a greenhouse, I suspect) but is redeeemed by his grandmother’s delectable Easter recipes and a seafood sausage based on a dish he learned while cooking at Chewton Glen in England in 1988. And that is the other delight of this book – at least for a restaurant nerd like me. There’s a long and detailed introduction in which Tony describes his entire culinary career to date, starting with the moment he realized he wanted to be a chef, at the age of 12, helping out in his parents’ 35-seat restaurant, L’Altro Mondo, in Oak Ridges, Ont. The Windsor Arms, Chewton Glen, Oliver’s Bakery, Langdon Hall, Truffles (in the Susan Weaver, Patrick Lin era), the Millcroft Inn (his first job as executive chef in 1992), Colori, briefly, on the Danforth and so to Niagara… everywhere gets a mention. Here and there throughout the text are little photos of various kitchen brigades over the years, snapshots of comradeship. Being a professional cook is like being an actor – you develop intense emotional relationships with the people you work with for as long as you work with them, then move on to a new kitchen or a new production with barely a backward glance.
Tony’s recipes lie on the cusp of domestic and restaurant cooking. They’re elegant and professionally balanced, imaginative (I love the sound of shrimp minestrone, or fresh asparagus with oyster cream sauce) but they are also lucid and doable for a competent, careful cook with time to spend shopping. His cousin, Maria Giuliani, provides poetry to introduce the chapters and a high-school friend, Anna D’Agrosa, took the photographs, though you have to comb the copyright page with a magnifying glass to find her credit.

The Boreal Gourmet by Michele Genest

A third book that has pleased me inordinately this housebound week is Michele Genest’s The Boreal Gourmet, Adventures in Northern Cooking (Lost Moose, $26.95). Miche and I worked together many years ago when she edited my restaurant reviews for enRoute magazine and, like me, she had spent serious time on a Greek island, but we lost touch. Now I know why. She went to live in the Yukon! This book drags us along with her, starting at the deep end with a chapter entitled “Into the Wild – In Pursuit of Berries.” Within a paragraph we are introduced to Linda, a friend of Miche’s who becomes obsessed with the picking and hoarding of lowbush cranberries – their colour and firm roundness, the way their dark red lustre glows against the silver bowl in which she keeps them, hidden in the root cellar. We learn the unspoken etiquette of cranberry picking and the importance of keeping another picker’s patch secret – only then, when we are thoroughly inveigled into local lore and anecdote, are we allowed to share the recipes.
That is surely the chief delight of this book (along with Cathie Archbould’s photographs and Laurel Parry’s illustrations). Miche is a lovely writer who brings you in to the kitchens and out into the wilderness of the Yukon. This book will be cherished as a primary source of northern Canadian foodways as well as a treasure trove of household recipes from Whitehorse. I don’t suppose I’ll ever make elk liver paté or braised moose ribs with espresso stout and chocolate but it’s enormously interesting to read about them, and the practical wisdom in the methods makes me feel as if I could master them all. What do you do with dry shaggy manes? Why, use them in a wild blueberry risotto. What do you do when sourdough goes bad? Throw it away and start again.


The Beast

04 Jul

Whether he likes it or not, Scott Vivian’s name still seems to be snagging the monikers of mighty forebears. As co-owner of Wine Bar on Church he was always going to be in the shadow cast by Jamie Kennedy. It was Kennedy’s place, Vivian had risen through the ranks of Kennedy’s properties as saucier then chef de cuisine, and when he and his partners bought the wine bar they made the smart decision to stick to the Kennedy formula where the menu was concerned. But Vivian and his pastry-chef wife, Rachelle, were ready to step out into the light of independence and they jumped when Jason Inniss and Bertrand Alépée called them this spring to say they weren’t going to renew the lease on Amuse Bouche. The property is of major historical importance, of course. From 1987 to 1997, the little house on the corner of Tecumseth and Whitaker was Susur Lee’s Lotus, one of Toronto’s seminal restaurants. It was also a hang-out for Lee’s culinary generation, an afternoon gathering place for chefs before they went to work – Michael Stadtländer first met his wife Nobuyo in the little sidewalk patio out front. When Lee closed Lotus, the place became Nonna (a distinct improvement in terms of looks with the noisy old wine fridges going and a quaint little bar appearing in the rear). Then Nonna became Amuse Bouche for a very successful five years.
Now it’s Beast. The Vivians have painted the old orange walls beige but otherwise little has changed. The kitchen is still ridiculously small. The room is still too hot in the summer and will be too cold in the winter. The front patio is still one of the most pleasant places in the city to eat on a warm summer night. Just as Susur Lee and his wife once did, the Vivians are living in the bijou upstairs apartment and have turned the upper deck into a herb garden to supply the restaurant. And the origami dragon left over from Lotus days that the Amuse Bouche team found in the basement and kept as a talisman of continuity still has a discreet place on the bar.
What has changed is the intention of the operation. Amuse Bouche was a destination for gourmets from across the city. Beast is setting out to be more of a local hub. Only three weekends in, Sunday brunch there is already a crowded event (it’s a meaty Quebec-style brunch menu with pork pastrami eggs Benedict, for example). And dinner prices are pretty reasonable – starters $10-$15, mains $12-$29, while the miniature wine list has a couple of bargains such as Tenuta Ponte Greco di Tufo at $55 or Vicente Vargas Videla Malbec rosé at $40.
Such are the fashions of the day that a menu set out with starters, mains and desserts seems almost a novelty. My friends and I ignored such an old-fashioned structure, ordering a bunch of things and then sharing. There was plenty to enjoy, including the breads Rachelle Vivian bakes – a miniature, herb-flecked baguette made with oregano from the rooftop garden and a moist, buttery Parker House roll. An amuse appeared from the kitchen – a salty, juicy cattail heart wrapped in prosciutto and set upon a pile of soft white powder that had once been pine nut oil, magically transformed, and a dab of last year`s peach butter for sweetness.
Three sweetbreads were cooked just shy of creaminess, coated in crunchy batter that was lightweight and not remotely oily. Vivian set them on top of a salad of delectably tangy red and orange grape tomatoes scattered with chewy bacon lardons, a hint of onion and a drizzle of a subtle ranch dressing. The acidity of the tomatoes and the dressing offered a precise balance to the richness of the glands.
Beetroot tart was another starter, the season`s last purple beets sliced over a disc of Rachelle Vivian`s buttery puff pastry with horseradish crème fraîche, a suggestion of feta and some chopped caperberries for salt.
Soft, sleek petals of home-smoked black cod were served cold, tumbled over frisée with sliced radish and raw orange. Three glossy, ethereally light chicharrons of exploded pork crackling added textural crunch.
From the list of mains, house-made mezzaluna were half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with a ricotta-and-herb mixture. I found the pasta a tad too sturdy and the filling too bland but I loved the environment Vivian created for the little parcels – soft morsels of pork forked off a braised pig`s head, pea shoots for freshness and colour, masses of grated parmesan and a whole runny egg yolk on top.
Venison striploin was a perfectly cooked slab of locally farmed red deer, lean but juicy and tender, sliced over a jumble of spätzle, wild mushrooms and wilted lamb`s quarters. Slivers of liver the size of a penny black postage stamp added unexpected but welcome gaminess to the proceedings but the star of the dish was the mole sauce that underpinned all the other flavours. This was not a sauce made from actual moles, you understand, so much as the Mexican classic. Vivian learned to make it years ago while working in the States. A Oaxacan dish washer at the restaurant sometimes prepared the staff meal and he shared the secrets of the sauce with the young cook. It`s a beautiful version textured like a moussy purée with a complexity of spicing, a suggestion of chili heat, a dry and subtle richness from the chocolate.
Desserts were predictably yummy. A most fragile and delicate shell of peppered pastry was filled with strawberries, some preserved, some fresh, all of them full of sweet flavour and running with juice. There was a globe of lemon-ricotta ice cream. There were crispy triangular beignets as light as wonton wrappers filled with unctuous dark chocolate fondant, scattered with pecans and sitting in a plate-lickingly good salted caramel sauce.
Service was excellent but then, the place was very quiet – just Slow Food guru Paul de Campo and a group of his friends at an outside table; a loving couple in a corner. That will change, I predict. Beast will catch on quickly – opening another successful chapter in the long story of the little house on Tecumseth.
Beast, 96 Tecumseth St., 647 352 6000.