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Archive for October, 2010

Gold Medal Plates Saskatchewan

31 Oct

The gold medal winner

 

The Gold Medal Plates team blew into Saskatoon on Saturday, knowing that we had a sell-out crowd of 550, a great venue at the TCU Centre and an irresistible show to offer with Jim Cuddy and Anne Lindsay, Barney Bentall and Colin James providing the music. Comedian Ron James was in very fine form, keeping the audience in stitches (plenty of whispers of “I can’t believe he said that!” amidst the laughter). Saskatchewan’s own superstar Olympian Catriona Le May Doan emceed the second half of the evening and interviewed gold medallist Alexandre Bilodeau on stage. By then the crowd was feeling very well fed but none of us on the team knew how the auction might go. In the end, it was the most successful evening in Gold Medal Plates’s history and by a wide, wide margin as around $400,000 was raised.

I was just as happy where the food was concerned. Our ten chefs came from Regina and Prince Albert as well as Saskatoon, making this a true representation of Saskatchewan and it’s one million population. And I was thrilled to see and taste a huge range of local product from farmed steelhead trout to lentils, black pansy syrup to haskap to the world’s best wild chanterelles, awesome lamb to local venison, wild boar and duck.

The bronze medal winner

Our bronze medallist was Chef Anthony McCarthy of the Saskatoon Club. He braised Berkshire pig cheeks to the point of tenderness and sauced them with the braising liquid and a pork demi-glace made from the pig’s bones. The lean meat stood beside a small and elegant pirozhki filled with a purée of semi-dehydrated Prairie Sensation apples, touched by a subtle hint of black truffle. A fava bean purée added lovely colour to the plate and a delicate apple cider cream picked up the flavour of the pirozhki. Chef had twisted a very crisp, lightweight strip of crackling into the Q of a pig’s tail and the dish was finished with a couple of perfect little golden chanterelles foraged in the Whitefox area by a gentleman called Lorne Terry. “Call it ‘pork and beans,’” said McCarthy. So we did. The wine was a good match – the dry, aromatic 2008 Pinot Blanc from Peller Estates in B.C.’s Okanagan valley.

The silver medal was awarded to Chef Ryan Marquis of the Delta Bessborough hotel in Saskatoon. Front-and-centre on his plate stood a hen’s egg shell filled with a spectacularly luxe foie gras crème brûlée that many of the judges deemed to be the single most delicious item of the evening. Beside it stood a big square-cut slab of smoked pork belly with a maple molasses glaze and more dots of the black, deeply flavoured glaze decorated the platye. A stripe of parsnip purée and a crisp parsnip chip represented the vegetable kingdom. Chef’s wine choice worked well – the awesome 2008 Nota Bene from Black Hills winery in the Okanagan, British Columbia.

The silver medal winner

 

Taking the gold medal by a unanimous decision of the judges was Chef Dan Walker of Weczeria Food and Wine in Saskatoon, by far the smallest restaurant in the competition. His strip of wild boar belly was perfectly textured – crisp where it needed to be, unctuous elsewhere, and richly flavoured. An almost undetectable scattering of crumbled pecans added an extra dinension. Beneath the belly we found some pulled leg meat from the boar, moist and sapid from a well-seasoned marinade. Two purées – one of carrot, the other of jerusalem artichoke – were delightfully lightweight but also full of flavour, matched by crisps made from the same vegetables. Two soft, pan-fried potato gnocchi were exemplary in texture and useful for mopping up a finishing flourish of green herbal oil. The winning wine was a great match – a wine that has already captured gold elsewhere in this year’s campaign – Rockpile 2008 from Road 13 winery in the Okanagan.

So our first venture into Saskatchewan was an unparalleled success in every way. Chef Walker will be coming to Kelowna in February and it’s fascinating to see that competition beginning to take shape now that four of our champions have been chosen.

 

Gold Medal Plates Vancouver

31 Oct

On Friday night, in the friendly confines of the Sheraton Wall Centre, Vancouver, where the finals of the 2009 Canadian Culinary Championship were once decided (seems like yesterday), a little bit of Gold Medal Plates history was made. A very merry crowd, primed by excellent food and wine, the spectacular music of Colin James, Jim Cuddy, Barney Bentall and Anne Lindsay, the knife-sharp stand-up of comedian Ron James, and the smooth-as-satin martinis made with our new best friend, locally distilled Victoria gin, bid and bid and bid on the auction prizes, raising a new record sum for a single GMP event, well over a quarter of a million dollars.

The culinary side of of the evening also set a record as the gold, silver and bronze medallists crossed the finish line in what the judges deemed to be very nearly a dead heat, all three separated by no more than 1.5 percent. All ten chefs surpassed themselves on an evening when the gastronomical standards were uniformly high, but when the numbers were crunched, and the judicial brows mopped, here’s how it went down.

Taking the bronze medal was Neil Taylor of Cibo Trattoria. He made specatcular use of local, seasonal ingredients with a carpaccio of wild venison, tender and smoky, dressed with slices of superb pine mushrooms (the best in the world). A tangy, earthy black truffle and celeriac aioli, smooth as a Jim Cuddy lyric, grounded the dish while paper-thin shavings of red-wine-soaked pecorino pushed the flavours skyward. Wild watercress added the “green” to the flavour and colour spectrum of the dish. The wine pairing, with Foxtrot Vineyards awesome 2007 Pinot Noir from the Okanagan vineyards, was the most precise and seductive of the night.

The judges awarded the silver medal, for the second year in a row, to Dale Mackay of Lumiere, who pipped Neil Taylor by about half a percentage point, in true Olympic fashion. Chef offered the archetype of baked B.C. black cod – a small but perfect fillet that broke into moist, glossy petals at the touch of a fork. Morsels of smoked tomato lay on its surface and beneath it was a jumble of corn kernels, finely shredded kale and button mushroom, all textures and flavours distinct and bold. Mackay finished the dish by pouring on a little consommé made from barbecued pork spiked with a beautifully judged combination of spices like a smoky version of five-spice. Just to make the point, a bowl of those spices was set down on the judges’ table to add to the general atmosphere and the chosen wine seemed to pick them out of the dish – a big, off-dry, fruity, petrolly 2009 Riesling from Tantalus in B.C.

The gold medal was awarded to chef Rob Clark of C restaurant, who also won gold in 2006. He presented a demi-tasse of translucent, pure tomato consommé as a palate cleanser. Then, having primed our taste buds, pow! A slice of a delectable terrine made with Fraser Canyon rabbit was as moist and rich and sapid as rillettes, with spot prawns as hidden treasures in the luxe matrix. Subtle, sweetly pickled chanterelles were one delightful counterpoint; another was a slender tuile, simultaneously peppery and sweet, providing textural crunch. His chosen wine was a great match, finding all sorts of nuances in the rabbit – an aromatic 2009 Viognier from Black Hills estate winery in B.C.

This was an incredibly closely fought contest and all the medallists deserve huge applause, but it’s chef Clark who will be going on to Kelowna next February to compete in the Candian Culinary Championships for the second time.

 

Edmonton Gold Medal Plates

28 Oct

Chef Andrew Fung's gold medal gyoza

Last night saw a brilliant party at Edmonton’s Shaw Centre as the Gold Medal Plates campaign soared onwards into the fall. We have never welcomed a bigger crowd – 775 guests – and, as always in this generous city, the welcome was warm and the auction bidding lively. Alexandre Bilodeau was the inspiring keynote speaker, allowing us to all to relive his gold medal moment from Vancouver with emceeing duties provided by the ever-charming Terry David Mulligan and dashing paddler Adam Van Koeverden. Irresistible music from Jim Cuddy, Colin James and Anne Lindsay kept energy levels high as a kite.

The ten competing chefs had also come to win, bringing first class ingredients and delicious imagination to their dishes. Such is the strength of Edmonton’s culinary scene these days that seven of the ten chefs were competing at Gold Medal Plates for the first time.

Taking the bronze medal was Chef Shane Chartrand of L2 Grill, the new restaurant at Fantasyland Hotel. He created a delectable roll of rich, soft, foie gras-scented steak tartare, rolling the finely ground raw beef in a crunchy, peppery crust of dried squid ink. At the heart of each slice lay a morsel of moist white monkfish. Two sauces complemented the protein – one a purée of sweet pea enriched with bone marrow, the other a tangy, sweet orange caramel sauce that served as a brilliant bridge into the wine. For that, Chef Chartrand went to Ontario, pouring the Wayne Gretsky No. 99 Estates 2005 Vidal Icewine, VQA Niagara Peninsula, a bold decision that paid off handsomely with a great match in terms of texture and weight.

Chef Michael Brown's silver medal study in crab

The silver medallist was no stranger to the podium: Michael Brown, execuitve chef of Share in the Westin Edmonton hotel, won gold in 2006 and another silver in 2008. This year he gave us “a study in crab,” complete with some poetry he had written especially for the dish. Each guest received a small cocktail glass of rich, thick, intensely flavourful crab bisque topped with a corn espuma spiked with a hint of jalapeño and scattered with crunchy, colourful motes of beetroot crisp. Beside the glass lay a spinach crepe wrapped around a salad of Alaskan red king crab, the flavour cool and delicate but unmistakably crabby. A single parmesan gougère was the third element, its rich cheesiness leavened slightly by a garnish of micro firestix flowers. An elegant yellow beet tuile was perfectly crisp, earning the applause of the chefs on the judging panel. Chef Brown paired his dish with an appropriately aromatic Tinhorn Creek’s 2009 Gewurztraminer from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.

Our gold medallist last night, by a unanimous decision from the judges, was Andrew Fung, chef of Blackhawk Golf Club, who presented a duo of Alberta beef. A plump gyoza, piping hot on the warm plate, was filled with a mixture of red-wine-braised short rib, caramelized onion, balsamic and foie gras mousse – a rich mouthful indeed. A lip-sticking veal reduction enhanced it from one direction while a tartly refreshing Granny Smith apple purée leavened the effect beautifully. Lolling over the top of the gyoza was a piece of garlic-and-thyme-infused, oven-dried roma tomato. The second part of the creation came in a miniature bowl – slices of very rare beef tataki, using the hanger steak cut. Seared for seconds then sliced against the grain, the meat was spectacularly tender, dressed with shaved asiago cheese, olive oil and – in a surprising but very successful combination – a tangy ponzu sauce. The wine pairing was particularly well achieved, with chef choosing Road 13 2008 Jackson Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley in B.C.

Congratulations to all our competitors and thanks to our valiant judges! Now Chef Fung will start planning for the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna next February. We look ahead to a busy rest-of-the-week with GMP events in Vancouver on Friday and Saskatoon on Saturday.

Chef Shane Chartrand's bronze medal steak-and-monkfish tartare

 

Fabbrica

27 Oct

Fabbrica

Alas, I have no images of Fabbrica to post with this report. I left my pocket camera at home. “No worries, Jim,” I hear you say. “That’s what makes this blog so real.”

Fabbrica is Mark McEwan’s new venture, a big, clever restaurant on the outer ramparts of the Shops at Don Mills, close to his food emporium. Giannone Petricone Associates designed the space, using reclaimed wooden strips on the soaring walls, a red, black and blue scheme and light fittings like white balloons hanging from octagonal umbrellas. The conceit is industrial but it’s all so obviously designed that the grit can only amount to a gesture. The space reminds me of the restaurants Terence Conran was opening in London during the 1990s – smart but also relaxed – with McEwan’s ever-practical touch visible in the details. For example, a romantic table of reclaimed wood in the private room is on wheels.

McEwan fans should not expect to see him in whites in the semi-open kitchen. That is the domain of chef Rob LeClair, formerly of One. His long menu reads Italian, but from no particular region, and flavours and textures have a refined North American approach rather than anything too robustly Italiano. It seems to suit the neighbourhood. McEwan has always been a master at divining the tastes of his clientele and the restaurant has been packed since it opened.

That was only a couple of weeks ago, which may explain why some of the service is still a little green (manager Craig Hudson is in the process of polishing things there) and why a couple of the dishes need fine tuning.

Straciatella is a case in point. This is a soup close to my heart. Long ago, when I was on the musical stage, I spent 18 months in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End. My pre-show rituals were obsessively precise and unchanging – half an hour of table football in a Soho arcade then a bowl of straciatella in a local Italian dive. Fabbrica’s version is almost as good. The chicken broth is impeccable, subtly enriched with reggiano – and chopped parsley makes its usual refreshing contribution. But the eggs need a more delicate touch – a flick of the whisk, perhaps: they lie in the soup like a big lump of scrambled eggs.

Butterflied smelts, on the other hand, lightly battered and crisply fried, are fabulous, the fish moist, soft and white and served with half a grilled lemon and a lemon-caper aioli. One of the many bruschettas also pleased me – the bread only very lightly toasted so it’s still soft at heart, spread with bone marrow for a rich warm texture, topped with grated pecorino, parsley, lemon and a suggestion of horseradish.

The designers have built a glassed-in curing room at the back of the restaurant where salumi hang from the ceiling beside prosciutti that still have some time to go. Until they’re ready, the kitchen is slicing a particularly sweet ham from Italy alongside decent house-made capicolo and finocchio, all garnished with pickled vegetables and mustard.

Pizza here is Neapolitan style, the crust soft and slightly chewy but not at all charred the way we are used to at Libretto. We ordered one that came smothered in bechamel, cheese and sliced cremini and oyster mushrooms, finished with truffle oil.

Octopus is a palpable hit, slow cooked in its own juices with chili, garlic and parsley then lightly grilled. Tender tentacles are tossed with ceci beans, matchsticks of salami, peperonata, onion and arugula to make a lovely, decorous, gently flavourful salad. Risotto is similarly elegant and correct, the perfectly textured carnaroli stirred with small cubes of roasted pumpkin, motes of pancetta and a hint of riesling.

A lamb dish uses the neck meat, braising small, lean pieces with pale pine nuts and caponata in a rich, lip-sticking jus. In the middle is a hearty, firm sausage of lamb and fennel. With this presentation flavours start to soar but now we are near the end of the meal. Time for pastry chef Sabine Gradhauer to do her thing with salted caramel ice cream or the house take on tiramisu. It’s like an exploded millefeuille of delicate caramel tissue sandwiching piped espresso-infused mascarpone over white chocolate sponge cake. In a little glass beside it is a suprisingly lightweight frappucino slushy capped with with white foam.

Fabbrica will do well, I’m sure. It’s good enough – and good enough value – to please the neighbourhood, and a feather in the Shops of Don Mills cap. Another plume is coming there soon, I hear, as Amaya opens yet another location in the mall.

Fabricca. 49 Karl Fraser Road (on the north-east corner of the Shops at Don Mills, where Don Mills Road meets Lawrence). 416 391 0307.

 

Marben

24 Oct

Marben's painted predatrix

By eleven o’clock on a Friday night the place is jumping, a clubhouse for young and merry Welly-West condo types. In the hours prior to that, it’s a serious restaurant, good company for other local stalwarts Niagara Street Café and Le Sélect. It was already serious before the recent reno, when Craig Alley was chef and the room was as suave-verging-on-kitch as a Vegas lounge singer, black-on-black décor and backlit onyx here there and everywhere. The new look, apparently executed by the staff, is all about rustic wood, with a ceiling of undulating wooden strips like some tiny cartoon version of Koerner Hall, general-store shelves of preserves, panelled paintings in a naïve style and maps of Ontario chalked onto blackboards. The farm theme is frankly bizarre in deepest downtown Toronto but it reflects the importance of local provenance to the new chef, Carl Heinrich, a Stratford Chefs School alum who worked as a sous chef for Daniel Boulud in New York and Vancouver, and was briefly sous at Cowbell before coming here. Every item on his menu has a name attached – Giggie’s Speckled trout, John’s Burger, Ryan’s Charcuterie – names that mean nothing whatsoever to the uninitiated, of course, but friendly servers are quick to explain.

Ryan’s charcuterie, for example, is created by Ryan Donovan, house butcher and charcutier who learned his craft at the Healthy Butcher and Cowbell. Thirty bucks buys a good selection – enough for four people to share – including perhaps a fine-grained, subtle kielbasa held together by a delicate mouseline; “Besignano” salami that, interestingly, uses beet juice as a natural nitrate to help the pork along; a fabulous venison summer sausage, the lean meat mitigated by a little Berkshire pork fat and mustard seed; a house terrine of duck and pork with green peppercorns, soft and fibrous like rillettes standing at attention; and, the piece de resistance, pieces of “pig face” like pinkie-sized cuts of fatty bacon cooked sous-vide for a couple of days and served warm, the skin slightly crunchy. With a selection of tasty mustards and pickles, this is one of the best charcuterie iterations in town.

Brent’s baby beet salad (farmer Brent Preston from Creemore) tumbles mild, sweet pickled pink and red beets with tangy pickled cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, little triangles of fried bread, pickled shallots, toasted pine nuts and a surprisngly discreet ranch dressing. It’s a pretty good salad and we ate it in about twenty seconds.

Simon's tortellini

Simon’s tortellini (named for owner Simon Benstead) are rather leathery tortellini containing barbeuced beef that tastes of a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce. They come with excellent black kale, hair-thin hickory stick potatoes for crunch, some mushrooms and a hen’s egg that sauces the pasta with its runny yolk.

Halfway down the menu, dishes drift unannounced from appetizers to mains, and prices (charcuterie aside) enter double digits. A crisp-skinned fillet of sea bream (Pauline’s) is placed over squash coulis and partnered with various vegetables cooked à la Greque in a tangy caper and lemon juice vinaigrette with intensely sweet raisins. The kitchen, true to its Cowbell influence, brings in sides of beef and breaks it down in-house, so the cut of Dennis’s roast beef ($18) changes from night to night. We got tenderloin, fabulously tender but with a good flavour, too, sliced over a brown butter hollandaise. Squash, celery and carrots made their shy contributions but the show was stolen by a most sophisticated pommes Kennedy – exceptionally delicate potato millefeuilles deep-fried in beef fat.

Dennis's tenderloin

We have the waiter to thank for the hit of the evening – John’s burger. The ground meat was taken from the neck and shank but it enveloped richer, softer beef from marinated, roasted ribs. Garnished with aged cheddar and branston pickle in a house-made bun it made a good case to be considered the nonpareil in a city that has suddenly developed a taste for artisanal burgers.

Desserts were of the arty-take-on-a-humble-classic variety. A chocolate ice cream sandwich between chocolate cookies arrived with dark, sweet chocolate sauce and vanilla crème anglaise for dipping. Salted apple bread-and-butter pudding also had glam make-up in the guise of Baileys caramel sauce and dolce di mascarpone.

The small, rather pricey wine list has only two Canadian wines to offer – an inexplicable decision, completely at odds with the staunchly local provenance of the food.

488 Wellington Street West (at Portland). 416 979-1990. www.marbenrestaurant.com

 

Old, older, oldest

22 Oct

Glenfiddich global ambassador Ian Millar

My Dad drank Glenfiddich. Not exclusively. Mostly as a treat at Christmastime. For men of his generation, it had a special distinction as the very first Scotch distillery that marketed its single malt whisky outside Scotland as single malt whisky, rather than sending it away to flavour blended Scotch. That was in 1963 and history tells us that the great pioneer was an eight-year-old Glenfiddich, aged mostly in old Spanish oak sherry butts. Very few people in England and North America had tasted a single malt before but you could say the idea caught on. Soon other distilleries saw the possibilities and began to bottle and sell their own productions.

Cut to this weekend, in Banff, Alberta, where Ian Millar, global ambassador for Glenfiddich, will be pouring iterations up to 50 years old for loyal fans. The agents were kind enough to invite me but alas, I couldn’t make it, so instead I showed up last night at the Spoke Club where Millar was pouring the 12-, 15-, 18-, 21- and 40-year old Glenfiddichs. With him was Ian McDonald, one of the seven Glenfiddich in-house coopers who repair and rebuild the many kinds of oak barrels used to age and finish the whiskies. He had brought a cask with him and proceeded to dismantle it to its hoops and staves and then rebuild it again perfectly in six minutes – a fascinating operation I had never witnessed before.

It’s all about the barrels, you see. Millar reckons the oak provides about 65 percent of a whisky’s character so it matters greatly whether the cask or hogshead or butt comes from America or Europe and what, if anything, it has previously contained. Last night’s nosing showed this to perfection.

The 12-year-old was a good dram to begin with, most of it aged in used bourbon casks but with about 15 percent in Spanish sherry butts. Tasted cold there was a certain sharp edge to it that was smoothed away as the spirit warmed up in the glass held tight in a hot little hand . The bourbon barrels were responsible for the brown sugar aroma but the hint of pear, interestingly, was a result of a deliberately long fermentation. I hadn’t heard before that the actual length of fermentation could have such a direct effect on ultimate flavours.

The 15-year-old had a sweeter nose – vanilla toffee, honey, raisins, spice… The reason is that a third style of oak was used in the blend – new US oak barrels that had never seen bourbon but lent some of their pungent vanilla lignins and tannins to a small percentage of the finishing Scotch. A little too much of a good thing, in my opinion.

The 18-year-old Glenfiddich is a super whisky, one of the most celebrated Scotches in the world and its class fairly jumped out of the glass. Like the 12-year-old, it’s 85 percent used bourbon barrels and 15 percent Spanish sherry casks but the extra age has smoothed things out. The nose is reminiscent of baked apples, butter and cinnamon, the body is a touch more viscous and the long aftertaste is dry and complex, with dried fruit, citrus and spicy notes all dancing slowly around in your head. My Dad would have loved it.

The 21-year-old is a rare treat, an anomaly, with a nose that eluded me until Millar explained what had been going on. Glenfiddich had bought a quantity of rum and let it sit in their own barrels for months – long enough to give the wood a thorough Caribbean education. Then the rum was removed (“not wasted,” said Millar) and the 21-year-old whisky put into the barrels for four months. Any longer and the rum’s funky influence would have grown too strong. Millar held his glass up to the light. “There’s a little golden note in there from the rum,” he said, “and a hint of ripe banana on the nose that can only have come from the rum.” Such is the power of suggestion that everyone suddenly caught that little whiff of the islands.

Glenfiddich and the Balvenie are sister distilleries owned by the Grant family. Millar and I chatted about the 50-year-old Balvenie I had the good fortune to taste a couple of years ago at Allen’s, on the Danforth, courtesy of John Maxwell – a marvellously dark, smooth and viscous whisky with enormously complex aromatics. The Glenfiddich 40-year-old was lighter in body and colour but still altogether profound. “Forty years old is the minimum age,” Millar reminded us. “There are whiskies in this dating from 1925 and from the 1930s as well as the 1950s.” The nose carried a powerful testament of the sweet oloroso sherry that had once filled the Spanish oak barrels in which the Scotch aged – raisins and prunes, Christmas pudding, hints of nutmeg and vanilla. The flavour was surprisingly dry and austere with different levels of pleasing bitterness, like the bitterness of very dark chocolate or of lemon peel on the long, long finish. As a rule of thumb, explained Millar, Spanish sherry casks give more complexity and a longer finish to a Scotch but can mask its personality if over-used while American bourbon barrels have simpler effects but allow the whisky to speak its own mind more clearly.

At $2,200 a bottle, the 40-year-old is never going to be an everyday dram. The 50-year-old costs $26,000. Millar brought two bottles with him – one to sell through the SAQ in Montreal, the other to open and enjoy in Banff. That will be quite the party.

 

Gold Medal Plates Montreal

20 Oct

 

Gold medal winner Martin Juneau

The 2010 Gold Medal Plates campaign got off to a delicious but unconventional start yesterday in Montreal. Our usual method, as some of you may recall from previous years, is to hold a spectacular party with great chefs cooking in competition with each other, delectable Canadian wines, amazing live music, inspiring athletes, and a crowd of 600 or more to enjoy the evening and raise money for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. That will be the pattern in other cities as the autumn progresses but it was not how we did things yesterday. Montreal had already thrown its great Olympic party and parade of champions in April and the powers that be in Canada’s Olympic movement felt one major event was enough this year. Which left us with a predicament, as we needed to be able to find a new Gold Medal Plates champion from Montreal who could compete in the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna next February. What to do, what to do…?

Our solution was to gather our esteemed group of judges, rent a luxurious and spacious vehicle and spend the day traveling from restaurant to restaurant, zigzagging across Montreal. At each restaurant, the competing chef presented us with his competition dish and accompanying beverage. Other than water, that was all he was allowed to offer. The judges took absolutely no notice of the décor, service or anything else, concentrating solely on the dish and its beverage, awarding marks for presentation, texture, taste, originality, the compatibility of food and drink and also for “wow factor,” a category that allows us to award a few extra, very subjective points for the immediate effect the dish produces.

It was a gloriously sunny day as the judges convened in the calm of the library-like lobby of Le Centre Sheraton hotel. This year, our posse of palates included senior judge Robert Beauchemin of La Presse, Julian Armstrong, former food editor of The Montreal Gazette, Lesley Chesterman, fine-dining critic and food columnist of The Montreal Gazette, Chef Mathieu Cloutier who won both Montreal’s GMP event and the Candian Culinary Championship last year and was therefore obliged to judge, not compete, this year, and yours truly. Also with us was Gold Medal Plates CEO Stephen Leckie, our admirable logistics star Claudette Dupras, who organized the day, and two gentlemen from the Canadian Olympic Committee - Jean Gosselin, Senior Advisor, Public Affairs (and no relation to the competing chef) and Jacques Cardyn, Chef de Mission for the 2011 Pan American Games.

This dish won the silver medal

Our chariot was a sturdy black minibus with darkened windows that looked from the outside like the sort of vehicle that takes prisoners to and from the courthouse. Inside, however, it was furnished with soft leather horsehoe banquettes and all sorts of other pleasures. Off we went… Eight hours later, well-fed and happy, the judges compared their scores and our gold, silver and bronze medallists were confirmed. It had been a fascinating day, notable for the fact that so many chefs had chosen to use the glorious little piglets from Gaspor farm, also known as St-Canut, and the abundance of squash in the dishes.

Here are the chefs who took part in the competition – in alphabetical order: Darren Bergeron of Decca 77, Derek Damann of DNA, Alexandre Gosselin of Bar & Beouf, Martin Juneau of La Montèe de Lait, Alexandre Loiseau of Cocagne, Francis Pouliot of Laurie-Raphaël, Michel Ross of MAS Cuisine and Marc-Andrè Royal of Le St-Urbain.

The scores were very close.

Bronze medal winner Michel Ross of MAS Cuisine

Taking the bronze medal was Michel Ross of MAS Cuisine, a very small, unpretentiously decorated restaurant in the Verdun area of town that the local judges told me was always packed. He made an amazingly tender confit of pork shoulder “en crepinette” topped with a pressed cep cap. Beneath it, he painted a broad stripe of bright green arugula puree and a thicker brown puree of the richly flavoured ceps. Two tiny turned turnips had been poached in Gamay until they turned a deep purple colour and took on the fruity acidity of the wine. A spoonful of toasted savoury granola added plenty of textural crunch to contrast with the soft purees while the morsels of dried fruits in it formed a bridge into the wine. Chef Ross finished the dish with a foamy emulsion of oat milk and a piece of the piglet’s crispy crackling, deep-fried like chicharron. It was a beautifully thought-out and harmonious dish and it worked very well with the wine Chef Ross chose – Malivoire 2008 Gamay VQA from the Niagara peninsula in Ontario, its lightish body bringing intense fruit flavours and refreshing acidity.

The silver medal was awarded to Marc-André Royal of Le St-Urbain, a former fruit store in the up-and-coming Ahuntsic area. The menu and wine list were written on huge blackboards and the place had a delightfully casual feel. Chef Royal’s dish starred a cylindrical mound of blood pudding with a gorgeous texture – light, moist, almost crumbly and not at all gummy. It was seasoned with five-spice and cardamom, finished with a caramel gastrique glaze and topped with some crushed almonds. Next to it stood a perfectly cooked scallop, medium-rare but seared to a golden crust on one side. A luxe puree of smoked yellow squash flecked with chives lay beneath the boudin and a little more of it had been dried and turned to powder to decorate the side of the plate. The sauce was an unctuous, fabulously rich bordelaise made with soft cubes of smoked bone-marrow and the dish was finished with a white parsnip foam. The wine match was dazzlingly good with the blood pudding – a spicy, elegant Osoyoos Larose 2006 VQA, a Bordeaux blend from the Okanagan valley in British Columbia.

The team Le St-Urbain

 

The gold medal was awarded to chef Martin Juneau of La Montée de Lait in Mile End. This is the third incarnation of the restaurant, a cheerful space with a blue pressed-tin ceiling and red vinyl banquettes. As you can see from the picture, the presentation of this dish was most dramatic. A stripe of pink-purple beet puree streaked the plate and more of the multi-coloured beets (from legendary Laurentians grower Monsieur Bertrand) lay beneath the meat, some cooked, others raw and sliced paper-thin. The meat was belly pork from a St-Canut piglet, glazed and stained purple with beet juice, superbly juicy and topped with a beet-glazed square of crackling. Little cubes of soft green-apple jelly and counters of fresh green apple dotted the plate while the pork was crowned with a crunchy knot of beet crisps. There was plenty of subtle sweetness in the dish, brilliantly paired with an intensely flavourful, full-bodied and potent still cider, La Face Cachée de la Pomme Dégel réserve cidre tranquille from Hemmingford, Québec.

So the Gold Medal Plates campaign has begun. Chef Juneau is the first champion and will be heading off to our finals, the Canadian Culinary Championship, to be held in beautiful Kelowna, B.C., next February.

 

Noma

14 Oct

Rene Redzepi (photo: Renee S. Suen, www.flickr.com/photos/sifu renka

The first thing you twig when you meet René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, currently voted the number one restaurant in the world, is that he isn’t a diva. Lots of chefs are – most of the ones who end up on tv seem to be, for example, whether their act consists of flirting with the camera or ranting at their juniors. Redzepi, however, is not of that tiresome and self-obsessed kidney.

He came to Toronto last weekend at the behest of Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store, his lone Canadian stop on a tour for his new (first) cookbook, Noma, Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon Press, $55). Alison booked him into the Elizabeth Bader theatre to deliver a lecture to keen local foodies, chefs and culinary students. Which he did, with Alison as interlocutor, and helped by some illustrative video footage of his dishes. He was impressive, to say the least. For one thing, he’s so young. Born in 1977 to a Danish mother and Macedonian father, he was a troublemaker in high school, dropped out at 15 and signed on at restaurant school for no real reason, discovered his vocation, was turned down by several restaurants then accepted, at 16, to a three-year apprenticeship at Michelin-starred Pierre André, in Copenhagen. In 1998, he got a job at Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier before going on to other renowned destinations such as El Bulli, the French Laundry, Kong Hans… He was obviously a talent, but how does a young chef emerge from the shadow of such very powerful and influential kitchens to define his own aesthetic?

In 2003, back in Copenhagen and now aged 25, he was offered the chance to be chef and co-owner of the restaurant that would become Noma. The setting was a 1767 warehouse once used for the Iceland, Greenland, Faroe Island trade and the two other owners were determined that the cuisine would reflect that heritage. Redzepi had always assumed he would cook French food… What happened next is a kind of Road-to-Damascus revelation as the young chef began to ask himself questions and to look more closely at the environment around him. He travelled to Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes, absorbing Nordic culinary culture, watching and tasting and thinking, figuring out how the sophisticated precepts of the places where he had worked might be applied to his own locus. No, it wouldn’t be seal heart and whale blubber and herring. It would be… And here I have to suggest you nip out and buy a copy of Noma, the book. Seven years since it opened (at first mocked by the Copenhagen culinary establishment but now clenched tightly to its bosom), Noma has two Michelin stars and is currently the number one restaurant in the world, according to the San Pellegrino academy of voters, amongst whose number I have the honour to stand.

No, I haven’t been to Noma. But I almost feel that I have. I have eaten at Dill in Reykjavik where Redzepi’s disciple, chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, pays homage to a number of Noma’s signature dishes. (Now I know how to make that flower pot of edible “soil” in which raw vegetables were “growing” and which hid a delectable dip…) As we saw and heard during Saturday’s lecture, 95 percent of Noma’s ingredients come from within 100 kilometres of the restaurant. Fresh is best. Local trumps long-distance. Where he would once have insisted on serving Greenland halibut (OMG – imagine how that tasted) he would now seek out a fresh, unfrozen turbot from Gilleleje, 30 kliks north of Copenhagen. Exceptions include the world’s most perfect langoustines, netted 500 metres deep at the base of a sea-cliff in the Faroes, and the super-yogurt called skyr made from the rich milk of small, hardy Icelandic cattle.

But it’s the free-spirited and enormously creative way Redzepi uses these pristine treasures that brings tears of wonder and awe to the eye. The audience stared silent and open-mouthed as the chef’s cinematic hands picked fronds and petals of humble beach and estuary plants, scattered them onto a pulsing oyster in its half-shell, closed the shell and then steamed the oyster in a Dutch oven with beach pebbles, seaweed and sea water. Or how he bound white asparagus to spruce fronds and grilled them together so that the spruce resin flavoured the imperially insipid asparagus. When he mentioned that he used spruce tips as a counterpoint to the dish, every Canadian in the place had an invisible arm upstretched… “Ooh, ooh! Please sir! We do that too! Jonathan Forbes bottles spruce tips! And the First Nations people showed Champlain 400 years ago! Spruce saved our lives from scurvy in the winter!” (Oh yes, our culinary Canada suddenly includes Québec when we’re trying to make a point.)

The thing about Redzepi’s cooking is that it is real – as Michael Stadtländer’s food is real (how I wish I could have brought them together for an afternoon – the way you want to have Mozart meet Ravel). Noma food isn’t theoretical physics, though he’s not afraid to manipulate ingredients, taking sea urchins and drying them then turning them to sand to use as part of an edible seascape. It’s all about expressing the terroir of a place, a region, a Nordic culture, with food as the medium but all the traditional techniques shaken up in a box with a bunch of new ideas. And the way the finished dish is arranged and presented is astonishingly beautiful. I would call it art – absolutely – but Redzepi disdains the word. “I’m not an artist, I’m a chef.”

Watching him last Saturday evening, when a few of us had dinner at Pangaea, he was very much the artisan, chatting with Langdon Hall chef Jonathan Gushue and Nota Bene maestro David Lee not about philosophy but about practical affairs – suppliers and equipment and international organisations like Relais and Chateaux. He has no time for what he calls “the act” in restaurants – those hushed rituals and pretensions that we associate with heavy linen cloths and precisely set cutlery. (Me, I quite enjoy them – sometimes – but that is another story.) At Noma, there is no cloth on the tables and the cooks, not the waiters, serve the food, chatting with casual frivolity about the dishes.

Alison Fryer had dined at Noma last month, which gave a fine immediacy to her questions on stage. The most interesting ask of all was when she enquired what Redzepi might do next. He is, after all, so very young. Could he do another Noma somewhere else, where the local flora and fauna was markedly different, where the gastronomic culture was not so familiar to him? It was the only question that seemed to give him difficulty, as if suggesting a new project might sound disloyal to the work he’s still doing at Noma.

My own new ambition is to visit Noma and experience Redzepi’s imagination in the ostensibly ascetic but discreetly self-indulgent frame he has devised for it. Trouble is, one has to join a waiting list that is months and months long. Failing that we have his beautiful book. The dull grey cover echoes the Lutheran understatement of his restaurant’s décor. The glory is in the 209 consecutive pages of photographs (bravo photographer Ditte Isager) that document his state of mind, the 96 pages of recipes, the continual reinforcement of his anti-pretentious rule. Will anyone attempt to cook from it? That may not be the point. The layout is more like a catalogue of a fine art exhibition with the photographs gathered at the heart of the book, separated from the recipes and the explanatory text.

Nordic food is the new hot cuisine, overtaking northen Spanish this fall, very much because of Noma. But fashion is meaningless. What matters is the way he uses his gifts to enhance the ingredients of his immediate neighbourhood, to make much of foods that have been ignored or disdained since the last Ice Age, to show how the humblest plant can be canonized. And if it isn’t wild, it is grown by dedicated obsessives, farmers and market gardeners who understand the gypsy-grandmother mix of wacky lore and outfield wisdom – the  Noma-Roma-oma mindset.

Parts of Canada are similar in bio-regional terms to north-eastern Denmark. But we have so much more, frankly, with our Carolingian forest in Ontario, our British Columbian desert and rain forest, our tundra and prairie and mountain and arctic terrains… a whole great northern continent of possibilities. So why don’t we have the number one restaurant in the world? There must be some other element missing.

Which is why we all stared so hard at Rene Redzepi, up there on the stage in his sport shirt and sneakers. I’m so glad he stopped here between New York and London. So glad he was able to show us that to become world-famous as a chef you don’t have to be a tv lover-boy or a bully.

 

England’s top 100 restaurants?

13 Oct

News from London, England… Which may come in  very handy if you’re going there any time soon.

The National Restaurant Awards are the result of an extensive survey that asks chefs, food critics and restaurateurs from all over England to select the seven best restaurants they have eaten in during the last 12 months. From these votes, Restaurant magazine (origin of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants awards) compiles a list of the UK’s Top 100 Restaurants. The following from food writer Becky Paskin of BigHospitality:

The Ledbury named Restaurant of the Year at National Restaurant Awards 2010

  The Ledbury has tonight been named National Restaurant of the Year, beating The Fat Duck and Bistro Bruno Loubet to the top spot the year’s National Restaurant Awards 2010.

Led by Australian chef Brett Graham, the Notting Hill restaurant also received the Best Front of House Award.

Other awards handed out by Restaurant Magazine at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London tonight (11 October) included The Restaurateurs’ Choice, which went to Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, and Best Gastropub, which went to The Hardwick in Abergavenny.
Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London, which earlier this year broke into the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, tonight also won the Chef’s Chef of the Year award.

William Drew, editor of Restaurant magazine editor said: “The UK restaurant sector is back in great shape after the shake-out of the last couple of years – and the standard of the winners in the National Restaurant Awards reflects that.”

“The Ledbury’s coronation as the National Restaurant of the Year is fully deserved: Brett Graham has quietly built it into a quite brilliant restaurant where his stunning but never flashy food is matched by outstanding service in a smart but unstuffy environment.”

 The UK’s Top 100 Restaurants for 2010 are:

1 The Ledbury, London
2 The Fat Duck, Berkshire
3 Bistro Bruno Loubet, London
4 Hibiscus, London
5 The Walnut Tree, Monmouthshire
6 Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
7 Bar Boulud, London
8 The Square, London
9 The Waterside Inn, Berkshire
10 Galvin La Chapelle, London
11 Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Rock
12 Pied a Terre, London
13 The Hardwick, Monmouthshire
14 Hix, London
15 l’Anima, London
16 Le Champignon Sauvage, Gloucestershire
17 Terroirs, London
18 Arbutus, London
19 Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxfordshire
20 Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Perthshire
21 Wild Honey, London
22 Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, London
23 Bocca Di Lupo, London
24 The Kitchin, Edinburgh
25 The River Café, London
26 Northcote Manor, Lancashire
27 Hix Oyster and Fish House, Dorset
28 St John, London
29 Galvin Bistro de Luxe, London
30 Polpo, London
31 The Sportsman, Kent
32 Maze, London
33 Hand and Flowers, Berkshire
34 The Star Inn, North Yorkshire
35 Hakkasan, London
36 L’Enclume, Cumbria
37 Trullo, London
38 L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London
39 Roka, London
40 Simpsons, Birmingham
41 Elephant Restaurant, Torquay
42 Chez Bruce, London
43 Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
44 La Becasse, Shropshire
45 Harwood Arms, London
46 Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, London
47 Koffmann’s, London
48 Midsummer House, Cambridgeshire
49 Petrus, London
50 Mya Lacarte, Berkshire
51 Hereford Road, London
52 Jack in the Green, Devon
53 The Modern Pantry, London
54 Zuma, London
55 Le Café Anglais, London
56 Porthminster Beach Café, Cornwall
57 Galvin at Windows, London
58 The Quilon Restaurant & Bar, London
59 Viajante, London
60 Zucca, London
61 The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye
62 Le Gavroche, London
63 Hipping Hall, Kirkby Lonsdale
64 The Dogs, Edinburgh
65 Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh
66 Great Queen Street, London
67 21212, Edinburgh
68 Fraiche, Oxton
69 The Hinds Head, Berkshire
70 Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, London
71 Gidleigh Park, Devon
72 Corrigan’s Mayfair, London
73 Racine, London
74 James Street South, Belfast
75 Launceston Place, London
76 Ondine Restaurant, Edinburgh
77 Kitchen W8, London
78 L’Ortolan, Berkshire
79 Lucknam Park, Wiltshire
80 Purnell’s, Birmingham
81 Ode, Devon
82 Scotts, London
83 Bell’s Diner, Bristol
84 The Cinnamon Club, London
85 JoJo’s, Kent
86 Pipe & Glass Inn, East Yorkshire
87 Cafe Spice Namaste, London
88 Indian Zing, London
89 Hawksmoor, London
90 Barrafina, London
91 The Magdalen Arms, Oxford
92 Petersham Nurseries, Surrey
93 Tom Aikens, London
94 Wabi, West Sussex
95 Tyddyn Llan Restaurant with Rooms, North Wales
96 Koya, London
97 Browns Hotel, Tavistock
98 Murano, London
99 Braidwoods, Dalry
100 Yauatcha, London

 

Carisma

11 Oct

Carisma's octopus salad - shaved so fine on cucumber ribbons

There’s a risk involved, in this digital age, when you deliberately misspell a familiar word as the name of your new restaurant. “Did you mean Charisma?” asks Google. No, actually, I didn’t. You are a search engine not the world’s grammatical conscience. Now do as you’re told… Carisma it is – the latest project of Michael and Margie Pagliaro, who created Il Mulino on Eglinton West, and before that, Barolo… For me, they epitomize the concept of accoglienza, the warm, welcoming hospitality that Italians may have invented and still do so well. I last saw them about a year ago, quite unexpectedly, when my wife and I were having dinner at Haisai and they were there too. Michael had been unwell and they had sold Il Mulino to Oscar Valverde (another master of accoglienza). They were retired now.

Yeah right. They stayed retired less than a year – long enough for Michael to bounce back and to recruit their daughter, Monica, 24 years old and until now working at the Bank of Montreal, into the front-of-house fold. Most interestingly, they moved back downtown – to King Street East. On Eglinton, there were no local rivals. Down here, they are surrounded by the distinct but powerful Italian houses of Biagio, Terroni and Romagna Mia. How they will fare remains to be seen, but there is no diminution in the quality of service from Il Mulino’s glory days – especially if you are an old friend from Forest Hill. And Alan Hilario is in the kitchen here as he was at Il Mulino: indeed, the menu looks uncannily similar to the simple, high-end, traditional pan-Italian card that proved such a success up there.

The room is different. Il Mulino was white; Carisma is black (walls, ceiling and furniture) with a huge, round, marble-topped bar in the centre, where single male condottieri come for an early, after-work dinner. It’s cool and comfortable and already packed, though it’s far too soon to assess the food with any degree of long-term accuracy. Not all the dishes are firing on all cylinders yet but you can still find some precocious treats.

Pan-seared scallops are crusted on the surface, rare inside, paired up with wilted baby spinach and little snippets of oyster mushroom that echo the texture of the scallops and share in the flattering glory of a saffron, lemon and white wine sauce.

Chanterelles, peas and a chardonnay sauce lift a lobster risotto out of the earth’s gravitational pull even when the delicious lobster tail is itself a tad clenched. Nerves, perhaps – or a moment too long in the pan.

More of those super chanterelles (so fresh they are almost crunchy) find their way into the tangled embrace of a dish of very fresh tagliolini tossed with slivers of duck confit and zoomed with thyme and white truffle oil.

A fillet of beef on the bone is crusty on the surface, red and oozy on the inside… It’s lovely to see this cut – keeping the mignon and the bone together adds needed flavour to the tender muscle – but the vegetables (asparagus, peppers, green beans) seem a touch old school.

Not that there’s anything wrong with old school. Old school service is what sets Carisma apart in this cynical and insincere age – and people love it.

 Carisma. 73 King Street East. 416 864-7373. www.carismarestaurant.com