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Archive for December, 2010

Raw Aura

31 Dec

Raw Aura: no sidewalk tables until next summer

There’s just one raw-food restaurant in Mississauga and this is it, a quaint 22-seater on busy Lakeshore Road East. In the summer, they add a couple of sidewalk tables which attracts attention, but word has been spreading since Aura opened 18 months ago and a growing number of people who want to eat gluten-free Vegan food that has never been heated above 110oF (43oC) are making the pilgrimage. For some, it’s a matter of health; for others, a philosophical choice. For owners Dimitris and Harula Fraggoulis (his family owns Colossus Greek tavern a couple of blocks east), both reasons apply. A couple of years ago, Dimitris discovered that Vegan raw food eased the symptoms of his colitis. When the lease on this property came up, he took the plunge. It’s a cute space with bright abstract canvases on the walls, tables made from sawn rounds of a tree trunk, and a fine bluesy choice of music playing. Its greatest asset, however, is chef Doug McNish, who works in full view in an open kitchen behind the bar.

McNish is in his late 20s and has been a Vegan since he was 21. The change in diet was good for him: he lost 100 pounds. Still, I imagine it hasn’t always been easy sticking to his guns in his chosen profession, especially when he was slapping hundreds of steaks onto the flames as the grill cook at the Air Canada Centre under Brad Long or working for Arpy Magyar’s endlessly busy catering company, Couture Cuisine. But McNish seems to revel in challenge, setting himself the strictest of culinary parameters. It goes without saying that raw food is healthy, all vitamins, minerals and enzymes retained as nature intended. And doing without refined and processed foods is probably a good thing, too. But it can be argued that some of the beneficial compounds in plants can only be accessed by our bodies after those plants have been cooked in some way or another. And I don’t buy the argument that raw food is more easily digested than cooked food. Quite the reverse, in fact. Raw Aura’s food is rich, dense and very filling. It’s also packed with flavour and McNish manages to offer an attractive variety of textures, thanks to techniques such as dehydration, cold-pressing, shredding, spiralization, squeezing, blending and chopping.

"Ravioli": it ain't, but it is delicious

Crispy kale leaves are a case in point – shredded kale splattered with a tangy nut butter and then dehydrated until they really are crispy. I could eat them by the handful. Some of them turn up as jaunty little plumes on an appetizer of very thinly sliced raw red beet topped with a creamy purée of red pepper and a thicker “ricotta” of tangy puréed cashew. Big flavours, contrasting textures… The menu describes the dish as “ravioli” which is strange and misleading since the ingredients are layered not stuffed. And why call the nut purée “ricotta.” This food doesn’t need to borrow words from orthodox gastronomy to explain itself.

Some dishes remind us that we already eat plenty of raw food. Avo Tartare is a kind of turbo-charged guacamole of diced avocado, tomato, juicy shiitake mushrooms, green onion and hemp seeds in a herbed lemon sauce. A platter of dips includes a green pungently garlicky spinach-and-sunflower-seed paste and a hummus of sprouted chickpeas. McNish’s “breads” are more original, made of seeds and grains, some sprouting and alive, pressed together to form dense conglomerates. One is hard and crunchy, another softer and bendy, all of them full of layered, subtle flavours. 

Chef Doug McNish and owner Dimitri Fraggoulis

Really excellent smoothies are one option where drinks are concerned. Dimitri Fraggoulis also brings in a small range of organic wines, some from Ontario, the most interesting ones from Greece, including a fresh, tangy Domaine Douloufakis Vilana from Crete called Enotria.

It was great with a main course of sweet and sour noodles, the noodles made from kelp and raw zucchini, tossed with onion, cilantro and romaine in a super dressing of almond butter infused with maca. What’s a maca? It’s a starchy Peruvian root that tastes a tad malty and gives a massive energy boost. But by now my digestive system was waving frantically that enough was enough. This raw food is more robust than the things we usually eat.

McNish is particularly good with desserts. He makes a sensational dark chocolate cake textured with banana, avocado and cocoa and a very dense, dark chocolate brownie with coconut frosting. My favourite is a fruity blueberry “cheesecake” involving more nut butter. Instead of sugar, sweetness comes from agave, xylatol or dates.

McNish is cheerfully easy-going about the Vegan way. It’s great if you want to change your life and eat like this all the time, he says, but you can also use it as an occasional culinary break. Raw Aura is worth a detour. I’ll be going back.

94 Lakeshore Road East (near Hurontario Street), Mississauga. 905 891 2872. www.raw-aura.com

 

Les rêves en brie

26 Dec

 

Mae Martin

The young woman in the picture is my beautiful and talented daughter, Mae Martin. She is a comedian, currently pursuing her career in England and here in Canada – back and forth. Tonight, she’s appearing on a television show called Global Comedians – on Global TV at 10:00pm – also starring one of her childhood idols, Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall.

Other than a natural desire to brag about her, I mention Mae here because she has inherited my interest in cheese. Indeed, in one area at least, she has surpassed it. For the last year or so, Mae has been using cheese to influence her dreams. It started (as so much good science does) with an empirical observation, namely that her dreams were particularly lucid and memorable when cheese had featured in her evening meal. Since then she has taken it several steps further. As she wrote to me recently: “I’m not sure where I heard that cheese before bed gives you vivid dreams, maybe in a Wallace and Grommit film, but this year I began experimenting with different types and amounts of cheese. I tried Wensleydale and Cheddar but have had the most success with eating half a wheel of French Brie, which is very cheap in England, and very creamy. I eat it on crackers and then have extremely lucid dreams ranging from epic survival dreams where I’m escaping the city (there are usually zombies in these ones) or am in haunted hotels, to dreams about befriending celebrities. The goal, of course, is to have a vivid flying dream, where I am zooming around London like Peter Pan, and this has happened once or twice.”

Mae shares my fascination with the idea of controlling astral projection, but cheese-dream manipulation seems to be an easier accomplishment. It could be that one merely sleeps better under the influence of tryptophan (one of the amino acids in cheese), which has been shown to reduce stress and make people drowsy. But I think there’s more to it. Mae’s great grandmother (my grandmother) believed strongly that eating cheese last thing at night “gives you nightmares,” and, remembering her gentle disposition and deeply felt Methodist beliefs, I dare say she would describe a dream of the zombie Armageddon as a “nightmare.” To Mae, it is a psychic adventure to be relished.

Half a wheel is a lot to eat every night. Nevertheless, speaking as a chevalier of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France, I am happy that brie is so effective. As an Englishman, however, I would urge her to see what patriotic visions might be conjured up by Double Gloucester or Caerphilly.

Clearly more work is needed before cheese can be used as a fine-tuned instrument of Inception, but I am tempted to offer myself as a guinea pig. I’d love to know if a melt-in-the-mouth Riopelle de l’Isle would produce vividly colourful abstract visions, or if large bedtime quantities of Brillat-Savarin or (gorgon)Zola would make my reveries more succintly aphoristic or turn them into long, rambling narratives? Might a blue cheese encourage dreams of an erotic nature? And if so what differences could be expected between, say, a morsel of mild, creamy Meredith from Australia and a ripe wedge of Stinking Bishop?

Meanwhile, I read in today’s newspaper that American skier Lindsey Vonn attributes her Olympic gold medal to rubbing a spreadable Austrian commercial cream cheese onto her injured shin in the days leading up to the race.

Humanity is only now beginning to understand cheese’s more subtle virtues. I am proud that my daughter is in the vanguard of this bold exploration.

 

Totally Scallops

23 Dec

 

Totally Scallops by Judy Eberspaecher

Obsession is absorbing. It can go on for years – even decades – a process of concentrated gathering, collecting, hoarding. Then one day a point of satiety is reached and the tide turns. All that the river drew in on its flood is finally allowed to ebb back out into the sea. And when an obsession is shared a strange transformation sometimes takes place as all those stored experiences reveal themselves as expertise.

Totally Scallops (Kimagic publishing), is a specialized cookbook entirely devoted to scallop recipes. It is the pearl cultivated over Judy Eberspaecher’s 26-year fascination with Pectinidae, the world’s only migratory bivalves. Judy hails from Nova Scotia, Eastern Canada’s scallop hub, so she comes by her passion naturally. She’s a wonderful photographer, and her book is lavishly illustrated with her own images of scallop dishes, boats, regions, markets, fishers, environments… anything that is related to the delectable little critters. And there are almost 100 short, lucid, eminently doable recipes collected from around the world. It’s fascinating to see how different cultures have treated the scallop, how they choose to enhance that rich treat.

In England, we grew up prizing the scallop’s livid, glossy orange roe, tucked around the creamy white cylinder of the adductor muscle. In North America, only the muscle is prized and typically, on a scallop boat, the “roes and rims” are scraped away as detritus and tossed back into the sea. Patrick McMurray of Starfish, Toronto’s primo raw bar, brings in real East Coast scallops alive-oh and encourages his customers to eat everything inside the shell, including the roe and the ring of crunchy eyes that lies just inside the shell’s rim. It is SO delicious, SO sweet and strange and textured that you forget you are eating a living creature.

            McMurray has his moment in the book, but it’s really about ways of cooking scallops. “Treat them like miniature tenderloins,” proposes English chef Theo Randall of the Intercontinental hotel in London. “They have such a great texture and flavour that they don’t need much help.” Fortunately, the rest of the world disagrees. From Montreal comes a scallop, canteloupe and foie gras tartare; from Wales a scallop and laverbread kiss; from Japan, curried scallop cakes; mango scallops fom Singapore, scallop carpaccio and Norwegian scallop and avocado tarts… And scallop soups from just about everywhere. Judy’s husband, wine writer Alex Eberspaecher, provides an introduction and a short essay on matching scallops to wine (Champagne or Riesling share the honours). Best of all are the informative little sidebars that together amount to a small treatise on scallop science and lore.

King scallops with ginger-lime butter

            The book just won the Best Fish and Seafood (Canada) category from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and now goes up against the rest of the world. The winners will be announced in March. This is a marvellous book for scallop lovers but it will resonate more generally than that, ringing a bell with anyone who still jealously hugs an obsession or has learned to share it. Buy a copy at the Cookbook Store (of course) or from the book’s own web site, www.totallyscallops.com ($39.95).

 
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Three more shopping days left

22 Dec

Mon dieu...

I came across a bottle of Hine Rare VSOP Cognac the other day – a delectable liquid that must stand on the summit of the little pyramid of VSOP Cognacs currently available at the LCBO (CSPC 356857, $83.25). The label confirms it as Fine Champagne, which means it is made exclusively from eaux de vie distilled from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne areas of the Cognac region. Such brandies are racy, vigorous, nervous and aggressive and must be confined in oak casks and left for many winters in one of those damp warehouses down by the placid river Charente, until the long years mellow the harsh edges, allowing them to reach levels of length and complexity that are unsurpassed in the wide, wild world of brandy. Personally, I usually prefer Cognacs with a high percentage of Borderies eaux de vie. The Borderies area has clay soil and the spirits derived from its vineyards age a little more quickly and release notions of walnuts and violets into the air trapped inside a brandy snifter. Martell’s superb Cordon Bleu is heavy with Borderies spirits which become slightly pruney with oak and time, almost as if they had been hanging out with an Armagnac during their incarceration.

But it was the Hine Rare VSOP we were discussing. Very Special Old Pale is an 18th-century English shipper’s term, and that the Cognacais still use it hints at the historic importance of their English market. Some say it was created to designate the brandies preferred by the Prince of Wales, who disapproved of the habit of adding a dash of caramel to Cognac to make it look darker and more mature. As an accurate descriptor, however, it leaves plenty to be desired. Like Cognacs labelled VO or Réserve, VSOP must be at least 4½ years old; Hine Rare is blended from eaux de vie that are twice as old.

Thomas Hine, incidentally, was an Englishman, born and raised in Beaminster, Dorset. In 1791, his father (also a Thomas) sent the 16-year-old lad over to France to learn the language and the Cognac business. Despite the fact that England and France were at war for most of the next 25 years, Hine prospered, as did his fellow immigrants James Hennessy from Ireland and Jean Martell from the Channel Islands. Today, six generations later, Hine is still in family hands – which is a pleasant thought to ponder as you raise a pre-Christmas balloon of this amber nectar to your nose. Aromas of jasmine and acacia will be your reward, according to the Hine tech sheet. I’m not entirely sure what acacia smells like, so let’s just say “elegantly floral aromas.” And there’s fruit there too – juicy raisins and something akin to that plum tart tatin I described in my last posting on Frank’s Kitchen.

Can a brandy be delicate and round and intense all at the same time? My notes on Hine Rare would imply that it’s possible. Some Cognacs are thin, disdainful and austere. Others are clumsy and disjointed. This one is a slender beauty with a genuinely friendly smile. Definitely something to slip into a loved one’s stocking.

 

Frank’s Kitchen

19 Dec

Oysters Rockefeller - a perfect retro treat

For once the choir of local critics sings in tune – a hymn of praise to Frank’s Kitchen – with only Toronto Life’s warbling tenor sounding a little sotto voce. I must add my voice to the general harmony: this is a super restaurant, conceived and operated with pride and passion. One owner is chef Frank Parhizgar, who put his shoulder to the wheel as second-in-command at Centro for six years in the Bruce Woods era, but also spent a more inspirational year in Marc Thuet’s kitchen. The other owner is his wife, Shawn Cooper, formerly General Manager of the ACC’s very posh Platinum Club and now running the front-of-house here.

All that experience is immediately apparent when you walk into the long narrow space they renovated and opened at the end of the summer. The welcome is gracious, the tables set a decent distance apart, the noise levels well under control (even though the tight little kitchen is open to the rear of the room), the lighting flattering. I like the look of the place – the walls taken back to old brick but then partially clad in handsome wooden panelling that rises up to form the sturdy bar, carved and finished almost like the chapel of a church. One of the kitchen team happens to be an artist and his spare, whimsical canvasses lift the mood nicely. The place seats around 45 and is always busy, especially on Sunday nights when other chefs and industry types crowd in for the $28 three-course prix fixe.

They are right to come. Cooper and her servers are most attentive hosts, eager to talk about the food, fully engaged in their mission to please. The kitchen, too, is committed to excellence, its standards and attention to detail much higher than we’re used to on this strip of College Street. Looking back on the meal we had the other night, I’m left scratching my head at how high the food costs must be, for prices are by no means steep (mains $15-$30) and yet Parhizgar isn’t stingy with the foie gras, fresh truffles and lobster and his meats are as carefully sourced as any. It helps, no doubt, that he does everything himself, from the array of fresh, warm breads (four or five very distinct, beautiful kinds including focaccia topped with roasted garlic and roasted cherry tomato, a soft sphere of eggy brioche, epi bread, etcetera) to the last envoi of tiny chocolate truffles and freshly baked madeleines that he takes out of the oven just as we ask for the bill.

This is the way to amuse the girl

And dinner starts with another gift – a three-part amuse gueule comprised of a shot glass of leek and potato velouté that really is as thick and smooth as velvet, topped with a dribble of herbed truffle oil; a deep fried ball of tangy goat cheese the size of a marble balanced atop a spoonful of cucumber and tomato salsa; and a tiny taco of oniony tuna tartare crowned with a green beret of vodka-lime guacamole.

It’s been a while since I last saw oysters Rockefeller on a menu. Parhizgar asks $13 for six, each one smothered in lemony hollandaise, diced bacon and wilted spinach – rich, but in an elegant old-moneyed way as opposed to vulgar opulence. His house-made charcuterie avoids the via salumi with finely sliced lamb loin like snippets of rose-coloured silk, delicate lamb carpaccio and a terrific, rather firm chorizo finished with Chianti.

Another appetizer fans out translucent beef carpaccio around a little puck of foie gras torchon that has the big, discreetly boozy, meaty flavour I associate with Marc Thuet’s Alsatian torchon recipe. A salad of chopped green beans (just blanched, almost crunchy) refreshes everything though the scent of truffle in the shallot vinaigrette dominates the dish’s subtler flavours in a bossy, bullying way. The waiter credits a Portuguese sous chef with another appetizer of lobster and shrimp ceviche, the lobster in its tenderest, almost raw state, the seafood served chilled on a brick of seaweed set in ice and adorned with kalamanzi limes and a half lemon wrapped in muslin for those who wish to up the acid.

Lobster and shrimp ceviche on a brick of seaweed ice

Lobster is a house speciality. We didn’t order the whole beast, but the kitchen uses slices of tail meat as the filling of delicate ravioli that arrive in a pool of vibrant tomato broth spiked with basil olive oil. Meats are also beautifully handled. My friend ordered the striploin steak (aged 68 days) and asked for it “medium.” Which is exactly how it came, juicy and slightly crusted from the grill, attended by a corps de ballet of miniature turned vegetables and with a side order of excellent rather chewy frites dusted with finely grated parmesan. I had the elk loin, a lean, dark crimson piece of meat that chef had moistened with a faux fat cap of foie gras and brussels sprout leaves before slicing it thickly. There was shaved truffle on top and whole roasted chestnuts in the mahogany-coloured foie gras jus and a jumble of baby carrots, brussels sprouts, tiny onions, beets, purple potatoes and dimes of sliced baby zucchini.

Yer steak... Check out the marbling on the truffles

And later there was cheese, of course – a trio of Mimolette (still my desert island cheese) and two Quebec forms, the ever-reliable Benedictine Bleu and a lush, sweet, tangy, snow-white goat cheese from Fromagerie Le Détour in Notre-Dame-du-Lac that threatened to ooze out from under its surface coating of grey ash. The cheese is called Grey Owl after the renowned writer, proto-environmentalist and pretend Native American who wrote Sajo and her Beaver People and other enchanting fables of the north, and it is my new favourite goat cheese in all the world.

We didn’t really have room for dessert but we had some anyway. Piping hot little beignet doughnuts were spongey and fluffy and glossy as milkweed inside, dusted with icing sugar and glazed with a honey syrup. “Tart tatin” came deconstructed in a bowl, the disc of pastry smothered in a compote of darkly caramelized black plums and topped with vanilla ice cream. It looked like a mess but tasted divine.

The short wine list has the look of a work in progress but our server suggested a couple of new treats that hadn’t yet found their way onto the card, including a dark and brooding Primitivo that worked excellently with the meats.

Every decade, College Street offers an unexpected jewel – Palmerston, back in the day, Trattoria Giancarlo, Gamelle in it sprime… Frank’s Kitchen is in that class, a sophisticated grown-up in a neighbourhood of brash children. I’ll be going back there whenever I can. Frank’s Kitchen is open every evening except Monday. 588 College Street (at Clinton). 416 516 5861. www.frankskitchen.ca.

 

The Toronto Temperance Society

16 Dec

The Bijou, prepared by Shane Roberts at the Toronto Temperance Society

It’s such an amusing idea – an unmarked door set back a couple of feet from the sidewalk on the College Street restaurant strip. If you are a member, you touch your card to the glowing red light in the wall and the door unlocks. Almost complete darkness and a flight of steep steps (going up not down) awaits you. You begin to climb, slowly becoming aware of the sound of old-fashioned blues from the room above. There’s a bar ahead of you, with nine stools and a couple of high-tops against the wall. Behind the stairs are some booths offering comfortable privacy. The walls are papered with a brown Chinese willow pattern print – very understated, almost dowdy. There’s a deliberately contrived feeling  that you have left the noise of the street and entered a mellow, sophisticated space – the Toronto Temperance Society.

One thing I am never sure of when I climb those stairs is who I will find at the top. The bar was the brainchild of Christine Sismondo and Bill Sweete, but Sismondo was gone before the place was a week old. Moses McGintee was going to be the barman at one point but then it was Scott Mochrie and then Adrian Stein. Now it is Shane Roberts, formerly the chef at one of Sweete’s other properties, Negroni. He and Sweete have put together the current cocktail list. The first drink I try is called a Bijou and it’s a very fine cocktail, big-bodied and perfumed, made with Plymouth gin, sweet white Italian vermouth and a hit of Chartreuse that adds delectably bitter herbal complexity. I’m always happy to see Plymouth gin at the back of a bar. In fact the rail here is uniformly impressive with Havanah Club 7 the house rum, Alberta Springs the rye, Milagro the tequila… And there’s food – the menu from Sidecar downstairs, where Sweete is also an owner.

While I’m waiting for something to eat, I order a Corpse Reviver #3, shaken with brandy, Campari, Cointreau and lemon juice. The citrus flavours are the eye-openers with Campari filling out the middle and the brandy coming in at the end like the bassline a church organist plays with his feet. Like the Bijou, the cocktail is served ungarnished. “It lets you concentrate more on the drink,” explains Sweete.

Our dinner begins to materialize. Mushroom soup is a people-pleaser, not overly heavy but redolent of chicken stock, cream and truffle oil. Half a dozen tempura shrimp are each as big as my thumb, plump and juicy with a crisp, delicate breading and a bowl of lightweight ponzu for dipping.

Fennel risotto is rich and gooey with mascarpone, almost too well seasoned but lifted to a new, more interesting level by very finely grated orange zest sprinkled on top.

Gravlax and potato salad - a fine combination

The star nosh tonight is a plate of gravlax cured with beet juice (a fashionable trick in Toronto these days) and topped with watercress, ribbons of crunchy fennel, a terrific potato salad made with sautéed potatoes and whole capers that pop in your mouth like tiny salt bombs.

One of the founding principles of the Toronto Temperance Society was that private membership would serve to keep College Street’s rowdier elements away. When I dropped by in the fall – early in the week and early in the evening – I pretty much had the bar to myself, and it was perfect. But Saturday night is Saturday night, even in a private club, and the place begins to get noisy as it fills up. There’s a photographer from the New York Times taking pictures and the lights become suddenly brighter to let him catch some background. The story will run on Boxing Day apparently and I’ll be interested to see what New York makes of it all. I hope they mention the house rules, especially the final proscription: “Do not ever attempt to order a Cosmopolitan. You will be asked, politely, to leave.”

 

Compliments of the Season

14 Dec

Buying presents for people we care about at this time of the year – or buying a few innocent extra indulgences for oneself – is always an ordeal. So many exhausting decisions…

I’m here to help. 

CARM Praemium awesome Portuguese olive oil

OIL         At the farthest, most remote reaches of  Portugal’s Douro valley, so far and high  you can see the Spanish border to the east, in a landscape where the sun beats down on the parched, vertiginous slopes of crushed stone like a hammer on an anvil and the river takes many days to slip silently past the great port vineyards before surging out into the Atlantic, stands the epicentre of the Casa Agricola Roboredo Madeira, better known from its wine labels as CARM. It’s the Madeira family business and once, almost a decade ago, I tasted its finest wines and olive oils in a palace in Lisbon, poured and interpreted by Felipe Madeira himself. Much to my delight, I recently rediscovered some of those oils right here in Toronto, at Salt Wine Bar on Ossington Avenue, to be precise. You can buy them there by the bottle, to take home, and I strongly recommend such a course of action. The CARM Praemium is the one to aim for – an organic extra virgin oil cold-pressed from Madural and Verdeal olives. The flavour is strong but it’s not raunchily oxidized like so many Portuguese olive oils. The aroma is penetrating, fruity, like ripe tomatoes and apple skins with just the right amount of peppery prickle. On that night in Lisbon, the chef at the palace chose to flatter Felipe Madeira by turning his golden treasure into dessert – a trio of olive oil mousse (with a bouquet of newly cut hay), juicy sugared olives (a brilliant idea I have never encountered since) and an olive oil ice cream that tasted like crème fraîche boosted by the fruity, plum-tomato aroma of these amazing Madurals. Praemium knocks any olive oil from Tuscany into a cocked hat, especially when tasted with fresh, moist, heavy Portuguese corn bread for dunking and a scrunch of coarse salt.

One of many many delectable Kusmi teas

 TEA          I’m a sporadic tea drinker at best. There will be times, mostly during some kind of physical recuperation, when a really excellent tea becomes an enthusiasm. Cleansing, restorative… Then I feel better and quickly return to older associates – coffee, port, Negronis, a refreshing ale…Recently, I had a chance to taste some teas from Kusmi, the venerable company founded in St. Petersburg in 1867, removed to Paris in 1917 (for obvious reasons) and last year entering North America via Montreal. These are very high quality black or green teas and exotically flavoured blends, some subtle, some powerful but all of them elegant and delicious. Most usefully, Kusmi has prepared a sampling box of 12 different varieties (two teabags per variety, $17) to allow a thorough exploration. I was enchanted by “Prince Vladimir” with its citrus and vanilla aromas, and by “Anastasia,” all bergamot, lemon and orange blossom. These teas, I suspect, will command my loyalty for more than a morning-after. Find them at Cheese Boutique, McEwan, Pascale Bros and elsewhere. A complete list of retail locations is available at www.kusmi.ca.

Francois Chartier's life-changing book, Taste Buds and Molecules

WORDS         I met François Chartier a few weeks ago when he passed through Toronto, publicizing his extraordinary new book, Taste Buds and Molecules (McClelland & Stewart, $39.99). It is a manifesto, a treatise, a revolutionary new approach to the relationship between food and wine, and it could change your life. You and I (and I include you in this with total confidence) were brought up to match wines to food in an entirely empirical manner. We were taught guidelines that had evolved through trial and error. Like good scientists, we tested those guidelines through trials of our own. Perhaps we even came up with some semi-original ideas, but always because history, custom, tradition, our own instincts and the evidence of our own palates determined them. Chartier, a leading sommelier in Montreal, approaches the relationships between food and wine from the inside out. This book is the result of 20 years of research and it has been hailed by no less a sage than Ferran Adrià as “magnificent” and “groundbreaking.” Chartier’s method is to analyze the aromatic molecular compounds in a wine and then find the identical compounds in foods. Pair them together, however bizarre the combination sounds, and a gustatory orgasm is guaranteed. Some of these juxtapositions might be guessed at – mint and Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Others are more obscure. The same compound, sotolon, links the vin jaune of Jura with curry and maple syrup. It also accounts for the deep affinity between fenugreek seeds and Manzanilla sherry and oysters. Chartier was completely persuasive when we met. “You must dip grilled asparagus in dark chocolate and then taste it with a Cabernet Sauvignon,” he insisted. “It is a revelation.” Study this book and you will learn what wines to serve with what foods, by a method entirely based upon biochemistry rather than the evidence of your senses. It is full of wisdom, though the style of the writing is decidedly scientific and the graphic design annoyingly distracting. This will not deter the professional sommelier or the wine geek but it may tire the general reader. No matter. Dip into it whenever you can. Use the index. Amaze your friends and confound your enemies. You can find the book at the Cookbook Store.

Chateau de Montgueret Cremant de Loire

BUBBLES          France is replete with sparkling wines, mostly made in the same painstaking way as Champagne though each blessed with its own proud provenance and name. Crémant de Loire is one such style, and Château de Montguéret is an admirable example of it, a crisp, elegant bubbly made from 60 percent Chenin Blanc, 20 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. It calls itself a Brut but it’s not as austere as many Champagnes, though the chalky soils of the Loire valley lend a definite minerality to the long, satisfying finish. On a good day, I can imagine pear and cooked apple on the nose but let’s face it, we turn to bubbly for texture and sharpness, refreshment and chill and for fizz and frivolity rather than vague suggestions of fruit. If you’re on a budget that denies you real Champagne, this will solve your problem: it’s a bargain at $18.95 (CSPC # 621896 on the LCBO’s general list). And we drink too few wines from the Loire – possibly because Niagara already provides us with a home-grown seraglio of cool, diffident blondes.

Sharon Shoot at Chocolate by Wickerhead's door

CHOCOLATE          Back in the mid-1990s, chocolatier Sharon Shoot had a charming little store on the margin of the Beach. It was called Wickerhead and the great treat available there was clusters of fresh, crunchy-squeaky popcorn hand-dipped in dark, milk or white Belgian chocolate. In those days I wrote Toronto Life’s food shop guide single-handed, spending six weeks of every parched and broiling summer visiting hundreds of gourmet stores in the GTA, learning the city’s foodscape first-hand. My reward was the discovery of obscure jewels such as Shoot’s awesome corn. Things are different these days at Toronto Life, and Sharon Shoot has moved on. But only a block or two. She is still in the deliciousness business, with a new store called Chocolate by Wickerhead at 2375 Queen Street East (at Beech), 647 344 9060, www.wickerhead.com. And the chocolate popcorn remains her defining gift to the world. If you have never tried it, now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.

The Appleton 30-year-old rum - wasted on pirates

RUM          A great amber rum can hold its own against almost any other spirit. Appleton’s 30-Year-Old is such a treasure. The distillery’s Master Blender takes several individually oak-aged eight-year-old Jamaican rums, blends them and then puts them back into six barrels that once held Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey for a further 22 years. Six casks yield only 1,440 bottles and that is the number released every year – some of which have ended up at Vintages (CSPC 164103) right now and are selling for $503 each. I have never heard of a more expensive rum. Is it worth the money? Sure, if you can afford it. Thirty years in wood is a very long time and a rum might be expected to emerge like the Count of Monte Cristo, all dried-out, embittered and obsessive, but this spirit survives the incarceration with cool equanimity. It’s a superb rum, with a smooth, lissom body like good Armagnac. Appleton’s telltale orange zest aroma is there on the nose but tightly braided with vanilla, caramel, raisin-studded butter tart and a hint of chocolate. The palate is delightfully refined and well balanced, not sugary (nothing so crass) but conjuring illusions of caramel sauce, toasted hazelnuts and the scent of a baked plum tart coming hot from the oven. The dryish finish is as smooth as the beginning, lingering into the distance without any bitter hook or wobbly vibrato. The only criticism I have ever heard levelled against this rum is that it is almost too elegant, too smooth and refined, in other words, not rummy enough. Which is as daft as saying a song can be too well sung. I urge you to buy a bottle – and then send it to me.

 

Enoteca Sociale

12 Dec

Ontario buffalo mozzarella with anchovies and pickled eggplant, a primo antipasto

His recently concluded decade as owner-chef of Silver Spoon in Roncesvalles taught us to expect big, honest flavours from Rocco Agostino. The phenomenal success of Pizzeria Libretto where he is chef and co-owner proved he has his finger on the syncopated pulse of popular taste. Now Enoteca Sociale (same ownership team as Libretto) brings everything together. No pizza this time, but hearty, simple Italian food and once again nightly line-ups at the door. My wife and I showed up there last Thursday and were greeted with the news that we’d have to wait an hour for a table. The charming hostess suggested we cross the road to Brockton General, have a drink at the bar there and she would phone us when a table was ready. I don’t own a cell phone, of course; neither does my wife. “Never mind,” smiled the hostess. “I’ll call Pam [Pam Thomson and Brie Read are co-owners of Brockton General] and she can let you know.”

So a happy upshot all round, really. Good that Enoteca is SO busy, good that it is so well staffed, and good that we got to pay an unexpected visit to the always delightful Brockton G, which was itself pretty full. We sat at the bar and talked to Pam and Brie and Pam cured the hiccups that had afflicted me for 30 hours by offering a shot glass of chef Guy Rawlings’s house-made cider vinegar. I don’t know if my spasmous diaphragm was paralyzed by the acidity or seduced by the vinegar’s wonderful flavour, but it did the trick. Then the call came and we hurried back across the road and resumed our evening at Enoteca Sociale.

The place was certainly buzzing. We sat at the narrow wooden bar – a good vantage point for wine-lovers who can check out the long, impressive list of Italian and Canadian vini (80 wines under $80 is the boast). Some of the tables beside us were high-tops which made us feel less exposed on our tall stools, more part of the room. The décor is consciously casual – tiled floor, dark wooden tables, whitewashed brick walls – hard surfaces that amplify the sound of merry diners to such a degree that noise begins to be a problem. A friend of ours, a former audiologist and speech therapist, has a theory that the iPod generations who now spend their lives in a full-time ambience of music have already damaged their hearing and therefore speak more loudly. I totally buy that. It’s also true that only the most sophisticated restaurant designers pause to think about noise. At Nota Bene, for example, acoustics engineers were consulted and the dining room ended up with camouflaged acoustic panels on the ceiling and padding on the undersides of the tables to deaden sound bouncing up off the hardwood floor… I know – probably not within the budget of most restaurateurs. At Enoteca, those who are sensitive to cacophony might wish to book the small room in the basement. It has a fine view into the humidity-controlled cave where Agostino ages his collection of cherished cheeses.

Those cheeses (Italian and Canadian, all sourced through Cheese Boutique) occupy half the menu – a fine show of respect, with 31 available on the night of our visit. Prices reflect the care taken: one cheese for $7, three for $18, five for $29 – though the menu doesn’t specify how large portions are. For a moment we thought about forgetting dinner and just making a night of cheese and wine but wisdom prevailed.

Agostino describes the food at the Enoteca as “inspired by classic Roman cuisine and Nonna’s cooking.” At this time of year, it’s also thoroughly tuned into fall and early-winter textures and flavours. Pickles are part of the season in Italy and they are here too in a dish of thickly sliced Ontario buffalo mozzarella, firmish and tasting of cream, strewn with capers, black olives, a couple of slices of red chili pepper, flecks of pickled onions, coarsely chopped chunks of pickled eggplant and cured anchovy fillets. The mild, sweet cheese was just enough to withstand the barrage of salty and sour but only after bread showed up to restore the balance.

Baccala cakes - fabulous texture but oh so salty

Baccala cakes are fabulous fish cakes studded with chunks of potato and salt cod in a crisp golden crust. The kitchen sets them over a stiff, pungently garlic-driven aïoli, scatters fried chickpeas around them, then strews everything with slightly wilty arugula that lacks the energy to make much of a contribution. But salting is a problem with the dish. You can still taste the flavour of salt in the cod – which is lovely – but someone has then flung a mighty pinch of sea salt at the cakes as they came out of the pan, and the same sensibility has salted the aïoli and the chickpeas. Too much seasoning actually starts to mask the flavours it should be enhancing and an otherwise super dish is marred.

Spaghetti cacio e pepe is a delightfully simple dish of perfectly textured spaghetti with finely grated pecorino cheese and freshly ground black pepper. It sounds so easy but all three ingredients have to be brilliantly judged to make magic happen. This time Agostino hits it out of the park.

Some secondi get a little more complicated. I don’t often see goat outside a Caribbean or south Asian restaurant. Here, they treat it like porchetta, deboning the animal and stuffing it with a loose farce of pork n’dua, the internal parts of a pig that usually get little attention. The goat’s texture is as fine as young veal, its sweet flavour again over-seasoned and dominated by a garlicky green gremolata spread on top of each slice. Around it are soft chunks of roasted squash, some kale and a light meaty jus.

Creemore farmed Ontario ranibow trout is treated beautifully, a fillet pan-fried until the skin crisps but the flesh stays moist, set over firm brussels sprouts and creamy mashed squash. We shared one of the vegetable side dishes between the two mains, a heap of soft roasted purple beets with some bitter greens, a sweet-tangy balsamic reduction and a splodge of stracciatella on top (not the soup called stracciatella, but the cheese made of torn-up mozarella and cream that is sometimes used to stuff burrata and has the tetxture of rich, creamy cottage cheese).

After that, the thought of more formaggi seemed less attractive so we ordered a dessert, unaware we were about to taste one of the most delicious puds in the city. It’s just a vanilla panna cotta but the texture is simply ambrosial – soft yet not at all runny, wobbly, creamy, too insubstantial to stand up for itself if it weren’t relaxing in a ramekin… Crumbled on top are crushed smoked pecans that fall into the panna cotta every time the spoon enters that smooth, snow-white embrace. Wonderful stuff.

Anitpasti $8-$12; pasta $12-$15; secondi $15-$18. Panna Cotta $8. Enoteca Sociale is open daily from 5:00pm (public holidays excepted). Some tables can be reserved.

1288 Dundas Street West (at Coolmine Road). 416 534 1200. www.sociale.ca

These pies are from chef Rocco Agostino’s Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington. Is it the best pizza in the GTA? Or is Terroni’s better? Or is Via Allegro’s the ultimate version? For me, it’s between those three. But what do you think?

 

Aravind

09 Dec

Aravind's super-tender squid in spiced butter sauce

I thought the owner of the new little Keralan restaurant on the Danforth looked familiar. Turns out he’s Aravind Kozhikott, formerly the barman at Marc Thuet’s Bistro Bakery Thuet and Conviction. The premises are familiar too, for this was Mong Kut Thai until very recently, when owners Sam and Wan Luechapipat decided to concentrate their resources on the smarter sibling, Mong Kut Thai Gold, a block or two west. Kozhikott moved in, splashing on some yellow paint and putting up a plywood dado. Some art for the walls will be the much-needed next step.

The chef is Aravind’s father, Raj Kozhikott, who has come up with an ambitious idea for his small menu – south Indian Keralan dishes but executed using high-end Canadian ingredients and with a high-end Canadian sensibility. By that I mean small, elegant portions and deliciously delicate textures. If food were priced by weight, these dishes might seem expensive compared with a standard high-street curry house, but mercifully other criteria sometimes come into play. Prices here range from $6 to $9 for appetizers and $14 to $21 for mains.

Dinner begins with the well-informed waiter pouring everyone a glass of cumin water (water in which cumin seeds have been boiled, cooled to room temperature) and setting down a saucer of nibbles – fried plantain chips and deep-fried ribbons of mildly spiced chickpea-flour batter.

We try four of the six appetizers. First to appear is a trio of mini dosas, each not much bigger than a finger. One is filled with grated beet, coconut, mustard seed and a hint of green chili, a super combination. Number two plays with the classic filling of mustard leaves by chopping up spinach, kale, broccoli and swiss chard and seasoning the mix with shallots, garlic, ginger and a tiny suggestion of masala spices. The third one is folded around a bland aubergine paste. Excellent condiments accompany – a rich, tangy tomato chutney and some pickled ground cherries as salty and sour as pickles from Japan. The one drawback to the dish is that it’s really too small to share, and one wants everyone at the table to taste such flavours.

Dear little appetizers

Making very small onion bhaji is a great idea. For once they are not uncooked in the middle or burnt on the surface. Instead the onion is sweetly caramelized and the spiced-up chickpea-paste matrix just so. Pan-seared calamari are admirably tender, glossy with a rich coriander seed-lemon butter that will please lovers of dairy. Crab cakes are also miniaturized, generous with crab and potato and a mild glow of heat, served with yoghurt flavoured with ginger, coriander leaf and cardamom and a thick, sweet-sour tamarind sauce.

There is no meat used in this particular cuisine – just fish and vegetables. We don’t miss it. Nadan fish is a plump fillet of Lake Huron pickerel in a rich tomato-tamarind masala that finally brings a little genuine spicy heat to the table. Alongside are okra sautéed with sliced onion and some moist but inevitably starchy cassava, smashed like mashed potato and seasoned with mustard seed. Flaky parathas share the plate but would have more to do if there was more of that yummy sauce. Boatman’s crab and kappa is a simple dish of crab meat and more smashed cassava, served with Keralan breads and a couple of salty crab legs in their shell.

As a dessert, the waiter suggests a trio of soft, sweet, traditional treats – one of puréed fresh mango, another of vermicelli in coconut milk with nuts and raisins and the third of lentils cooked with brown sugar.

So, let’s imagine that a success will allow Aravind to prosper, to add a little more to the décor and maybe grow the menu a tad. What will Toronto gain from its presence? I can’t think of anyone offering this sort of subtle, refined, contemporary Keralan cooking in the city. It isn’t the place for a bargain-priced blow-out, but there are some interesting ideas about flavour and texture in play. And Kozhikott draws on his own background to put together an interesting little cocktail menu (next time I must try a Cochin Caesar, made with coriander-infused vodka, tamarind, ground cloves, ground cardamom and lime juice). Of the 14 wines on the list, 10 are from Niagara, quite rightly. Fingers crossed for the affable Aravind. I hope it succeeds.

Aravind is at 596 Danforth Avenue (around Logan). (647) 346-2766. No web site at present.

 

Oyster madness

07 Dec

International oysters (et alia) at Starfish: a superb feast

What fun we had last night at Starfish, the five of us lads – Sean and Rasoul (our good friends from British Columbia), we others from Toronto, showing what this city can do by way of an oyster presentation. I don’t believe anyone in North America can match Patrick McMurray for the breadth of his offering – oysters from B.C., the Maritimes, the U.S., England, Scotland, Ireland and sometimes France – the distinctions and differences between them a fascinating, humbling education. Patrick’s latest toy is an iPad upon which, at the stroke of a nimble fingertip, he can summon a map of Galway or Essex or Clydeside or Prince Edward Island and Google down until you can see the actual oyster bed. He points out the source of the fresh water rinsing the estuary, the salt tidal pools, the thatched cottage on the shore where he watched the oystermen work and enjoyed a pint. Patrick is taking the hi-tech bivalve thing to the next level, developing an app for oyster lovers, but he still relies on his knife for real work. The other day in Beijing, he broke his own Guinness Book of World Records record for fastest oyster opening, shucking 38 in a minute. It usually takes me a full minute of cursing and nicking to open one.

You will see from the photograph that we ate our fill last night. At four o’clock are the P.E.I. malpeques with which we began – sweet, rich, creamy, innocent as children. Above them are the critters from New Brunswick – even sweeter but with a hint of a tang. At high noon in the picture are the Irish darlings from Clarinbridge Bay. After the Canadian oysters the first taste of one of these was like falling out of a rowing boat into a cold, roughish sea. Big and meaty, plump and briney, they leave a bracing memory of salt and minerality in your mouth.

Beside them at 10 o’clock are the oysters from Galway Bay – the oysters used for the World Championship oyster shucking competition that P. McMurray won in 2002, as we all recall. These are oysters for men – even more filled with ocean than their Clarinbridge neighbours. I used to read that oysters and Guinness was a famous match and never understood it, popping malpeques with stout and always feeling the Guinness overwhelming the morsel of slippery life. These macho, brine-bitter Galway molluscs could give any beer a bashing. Well, almost any beer… We did come up with one brew… But I’ll save that for the end.

Two English oysters came next – one from Jersey in the Channel Islands that was all sea salt and ripe honeydew melon on the palate (so Sean said, and he was right). The other was from Mersey – not the Liverpudlian flood (no Gerry and The Pacemakers needed here) – but the little river near Colchester, home of south-eastern England’s most beloved oysters. These reminded us of the flavour of watermelon – the fruitiness at odds with the texture, so meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.

Irish limpets, New Brunswick scallops, Scottish oysters and a snowball of Ontario horseradish

Patrick McMurray gets these rare jewels from an English dealer called Tristan Hugh-Jones (though perhaps with a name like that he should properly be described as Welsh) who carries the Canadian government seal of approval. He also promises to provide French oysters as the need arises. Meanwhile, last night, there was a final oysterly treat with half a dozen perfect ambassadors from Scotland’s Loch Ryan – no-nonsense shellfish with a tangy, dry, metallic finish like a Glasgow kiss to the palate. Sharing that upper tier of the presentation were marvels from Neptune’s pantry – Irish limpets as cold and crunchy as brown abalone, and New Brunswick scallops, the small ones, with rims and roes intact, sweet as sugarcane.

What did we drink? I am happy you asked. Of the several wines sipped, the star was La Baronne, a blend of Vermentino and Grenache Blanc from Montagne d’Alaric, with a typical Vermentino hit of lemon juice and lemon zest, filled out and mollified by the Grenache. Of the beers, I can only bow down before a brew provided by Rasoul – Rogue XS Old Crustacean barley wine from the Oregon Brewing Co. of Newport, Oregon. Unfiltered and unrefined, it was quite unlike the sickly-sweet, viscous, head-splitting barley wines of my misspent youth. The bottle boasted of 120 IBU (International Bitter Units), the result of an array of bittering hops and aromatic dry hopping, and it had the acidity to match it. There was also a message, “Best when aged for 1 year,” on the glass, alongside the information that this particular specimen had been bottled in 1999. The extra decade was not without effect. Sean, whose palate is excellent, came up with the most accurate comparison, likening it to the corrosive taste of rotting plums. Everyone loved it.