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Archive for January, 2011

The Domain of Killien

31 Jan

The thing about cross-country skiing is that it’s heaven when you stop. Especially if you’re a couple of hours into the forest, along one of the trails that loop through the 5,000 pristine acres that belong to the Domain of Killien. Up and down hills and steep little valleys, skirting snow-choked muskeg and cliff faces where icicles have formed like the organ pipes in a church, you suddenly find yourself on a ridge with a view of a frozen lake as smooth and white as royal icing on a wedding cake. That’s the moment to pause and inhale the absolute silence of the forest. It isn’t the silence of death, just a perfect pause, as if Nature were holding her breath and playing a game of statues, month after month, with infinite patience. The air is utterly still so it must be the weight of the sunshine that causes a little snow to fall from a branch in a slow-motion sparkle of light. And though deer tracks cross the trail here and there, some undeniably fresh, we saw not another living soul – man, bird or beast, on our two lovely long days in the wild.

A surprisingly large number of people have heard of the Domain of Killien, mostly because of the long-running advertisements on Toronto’s classical music radio station. In the off-season, however, one can almost have the place to oneself. It began life as a private fishing and hunting camp, built in 1927 by a local doctor on the shore of a lake about 15 minutes outside the village of Haliburton. In 1982, it was bought by the Count and Countess de Moustier, who already owned the adjacent 5,000 acres of forest, land that merges seamlessly into Algonquin Park. They had fallen in love with the Canadian winter and also, I suspect, with the simple charms of Ontario cottage life that Canadians often seem to take for granted. They set about renovating the property, making it a little more exclusive (five rooms in the main lodge, eight separate cabins in the grounds) but maintaining its rustic appeal. When the Countess’s two sons, Jean-Edouard and Dante Larcade, joined them in 1984 they opened as a year-round resort, renaming it the Domain of Killien after the family’s seigneurial estate of Quillien, in Brittany.

I first came to visit a year or two later, on assignment for Toronto Life – an article about posh getaways that was great fun to research. All the things I noticed then still hold true today. A great deal of the pleasure I felt had to do with things the Domain is not. It isn’t a typical Canadian resort. There are no facilities for children, no spa for grown-ups, no televisions or radios – no noise at all really beyond birdsong in the morning and the crackle of logs in the fire after dark. The lounge in the main lodge is a place to lie back on one of the big sofas around the fireplace and read a book (there’s a complete set of Tintin in the corner). Each of the pine-panelled cabins has a modern bathroom, a comfortable bed with extravagantly good sheets, a huge woodstove and pictures on the wall that reflect the family connections with Paris, Brittany and Guadeloupe. Everything is fine without being pretentious, the serenity tangible and inspiring – it’s why the great cellist Rostropovich came here to practice from time to time.

Days are filled with outdoor activity. A 40-minute hike takes you deep into the domain to secluded Delphis lake where there’s a winterized but very basic cabin for those seeking total solitude. In the summer, canoeing, fly fishing, tennis and hiking are the attractions, with golf close by, if you wish; at this time of year, it’s more about cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, skating on the tiny rink beside the lodge and arrangements can also be made to go dog-sledding. The ski trails held the most attraction for my wife and me and we hit them after an excellent breakfast, taking with us a bumper packed lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit, raspberry squares and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had – as thick and rich and intensely chocolatey as some magical restorative from a children’s story book.

Back in the 1980s, Dante Larcade was chef here (he once had a little restaurant in Paris). Then he left for Toronto and opened an art gallery on Queen Street West called Roseland while his brother, Jean-Edouard, ran the Domain. Now Jean-Edouard has moved to the West Coast and Dante is back in charge, not as chef but as leader of a charming and efficient new staff who seem to love the place as much as he does.

The kitchen is in the hands of an enthusiastic young local chef called Emily Bjelis. Our first taste of her talents was the unforgettable almond biscuits we found in our cabin when we arrived – bendy cookies with more than a suggestion of meringue and macaroon in their make-up. They worked well with some very old non-vintage extra dry Champagne we brought with us and chilled in the snow. Slightly brown and with just a hint of oxidation, it was far more exotic and delicious than it had been when it was bottled almost 20 years earlier.

Chef Emily Bjelis's signature appetizer

Bjelis’s dinner menu is very small – a soup, a choice of two appetizers, of two mains and of two desserts, plus cheese if you wish. Her style is faultless, honest and forthright, quite a bit plainer than Dante Larcade’s more Parisian cuisine. Her signature appetizer, according to the friendly server, is the layered creation seen here – a sort of exploded millefeuille of sliced portabella mushrooms, crisp parmesan puff pastry, spinach leaves, tomato and a cheesy bechamel sauce. I was just as impressed with a beautifully tender veal tenderloin served with wild blueberry gastrique and a muster of vegetables including perfect turnip, green beans, mashed sweet potato and pickled red cabbage. The wine list is mostly French but with enough Canadian bottlings to remind everyone where we live. Prices are eminently reasonable and choices interesting – I was delighted to find a 2008 Jurançon sec that proved a lovely match to a starter of rare scallops garnished with leek.

The Domain of Killien isn’t for everyone. Its charms are more meditative than frenetic, its comfort more understated than pampering, but I find the overall insistence on simplicity ends up being rather sophisticated. And you can’t really go wrong with access to 5,000 acres of unspoilt Canadian wilderness in the Haliburton Highlands – a brumal Eden for couples with romance on their minds.

Domain of Killien, 1282 Carroll Road, P.O.Box 810, Haliburton, Ont K0M 1S0. (705) 457-1100. www.domainofkillien.com.

 

The Copper Chimney

30 Jan

Prawns in coconut sauce, lamb vindaloo and (foreground) gorgeous baigan Patiala

Kudos to the Chowhound community who quickly recognized and broadcast the quality of The Copper Chimney when it opened last September. And thanks to my friend Vee who passed on the buzz to me. I must confess I was a tiny bit sceptical at first when I looked at the menu. Recent interest in food from the subcontinent has been focused on regional cuisines or else the lightweight, elegant, westernized New Indian cooking of such places as Amaya and Vij’s. This menu is long, geographically eclectic and studded with familiar dishes from the post-World-War-II flock-wallpaper curry-house oeuvre that most of us grew up eating. Then again, it is wrong to pre-judge a restaurant, especially one where the chef is Jokh Rana, who cooked so well for so long at Cuisine of India in North York (that renowned spot now razed to make way for a multi-storey building). So off we went late on Friday night, up, up, up Avenue Road, almost to the 401, until we glimpsed the bright orange signage, knocked the snow from our boots and stepped inside.

The décor will never make the front cover of Interiors magazine but it’s rather a relief to find walls that haven’t been stripped back to the brick and a ceiling where ducts and piping are discreetly hidden. The room looks fine, with basic lighting, crimson carpet and tablecloths, big mirrors and Gujurati cushion covers framed on the walls and little beaded tea-light holders providing a tiny modicum of glamour. It doesn’t seat more than thirty but there were at least three dedicated and attentive servers working that night and I’m glad we booked because the place was full. We ordered a bottle of wine from the tiny, inexpensive list of LCBO standards and considered our options.

But let me cut to the chase at this point. The food was uniformly excellent, dishes diverse and distinct, portions so big we needed two satchel-sized doggy bags and a weekend to finish our order. Herewith, some highlights.

Amritsari fish. When one plays Fantasy Restaurant, imagining the ideal restaurant and the brigades who staff it, it goes without saying that the cook in charge of the frying station comes from India. Indian cooks are simply the best in the world at frying. This dish is a case in point. The fish used is basa, also known as Vietnamese river cobbler, a clean-tasting Asian catfish with flaky white flesh. Here the kitchen dips it in a flavoured batter spiced with turmeric, ground coriander seed, garam masala and two or three other secret ingredients and fries it to a greaseless golden crisp, leaving the actual basa delectably moist. Served piping hot, it comes with a bright green sauce made from yoghurt, cilantro, mint, lime juice and garlic. I have no idea if this is what fish tastes like in Amritsar, but if it does, more power to them.

Your sizzling Lucknowi reshmi kebab

Lucknowi reshmi kebab. Brijesh Kumar is the tandoor chef at The Copper Chimney and as central to the experience as his colleague, Chef Rana. In visits to come, we will explore the rest of the tandoori menu. This time we had the Lucknow-style kebab, massive pieces of marvellously moist and tender chicken breast that had been marinated in yoghurt, saffron, pulverized onion and garlic and some delicate spices, threaded on a spit and cooked in the tandoor. It reached the table on a very hot metal platter, sizzling and smoking and surrounded by julienned onion, pickled onion, cabbage and other vegetables. Chef Kumar had timed it perfectly, the chicken cooked through but awesomely juicy, the marinade slightly browned in places.

Chili lime wings. I know – it doesn’t sound entirely authentic. So think of it as this restaurant’s gesture towards the fusion dishes of the New Indian movement. The sticky glaze has a nice balance of sweetness, tangy lime and chili heat and there are more lime wedges to squeeze, if needed. Even people who don’t see the point of wings will enjoy these babies.

Baigan Patiala. This is one of The Copper Chimney’s star performers, a rich, heavy dish of eggplant stir-fried until it’s so soft it almost begins to dissolve. Inextricably integrated is garlic, tomato, corinader, mango and – the key ingredient – masses of fresh, sharp raw ginger that cuts through the smotheringly unctuous textures and warm, whispering flavours, dragging you back into the light.

Lamb vindaloo. The ongoing tour of India takes us to Goa for an authentic version of the traditional macho tester. The lamb was lean and tasty but a tad dry and fibrous – the only textural flaw in the evening. The sauce was super, packed with vinegar and pepper and just enough heat to bring a prickle of perspiration to the pate of my head. (That’s my chili meter though it seems to vary with our species. I know some people break into a chili sweat on their foreheads or even under their eyes… Perhaps a kind reader will explain why people differ.) Big chunks of fried potato resting on top were a wicked garnish.

Prawn Coconut Curry also seemed like a Goan dish, its green sauce thick and rich, sweetened with coconut but then sharpened with tamarind, the flavours deliberately restrained to allow the taste of the prawns an opportunity to take a shy little bow.

Sundries such as basmati rice, raita and excellent breads from the tandoor did not let the side down and the kitchen took extra trouble with hot plates and frequent changes of cutlery.

Almost forgot the ras-malai for dessert. We were stuffed but somehow managed to finish the goblet of double cream flavoured with cardamom and crushed pistachio and the small, flattened balls of fresh cheese drowned therein.

Prices, incidentally, are very reasonable, most mains costing around $12.

The Copper Chimney is at 2050 Avenue Road (two blocks south of Wilson). 416 850 9772. www.the-copper-chimney.com.

 

Ontario Hostelry Institute Gold Awards announced

28 Jan

The annual gold awards from the Ontario Hostelry Institute were announced this afternoon and those of us who have been aching to make the results public since our breakfast adjudication last Thursday can exhale once again. These honours are awarded by past gold award honorees and are really the equivalent of the industry “Oscars.”

The Institute’s mandate continues to be the recognition of excellence, passion, achievement and success in the hospitality industry. Each year, the OHI honours the celebrated achievements of industry professionals and raises critically needed funds for scholarships. The Gold Awards recognize those top hospitality industry achievers whose commitment to excellence enhances the image of Ontario among thousands of diners, travelers and vacationers each year.

Here are the 2011 Gold Award Honourees as announced today by J. Charles Grieco, OHI Chair and President. The Gold Award presentations will be made at the OHI’s Gala Gold Awards Dinner and Auction on Thursday, April 14 at the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto.

The Chairman’s OHI Gold Award will be given to Kathleen Taylor, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

The Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Gold Award – Chef Jamie Kennedy, owner of Gilead and recently named to the Order of Canada.

Gold Award – Foodservice Chain Operator – Mark Pacinda, President and COO, Boston Pizza.

Gold Award – Independent Restaurateur – Armando Mano, Owner and General Manager, Centro Restaurant, Lounge & Catering.

Gold Award – Hotelier – Andy Loges, General Manager, Hilton Toronto Airport Hotel & Suites.

Gold Award – Educator – Michael Olson, Chef Professor at Niagara Culinary Institute.

Gold Award – Media/Publishing – Karen Gelbart, Food Television.

Gold Award – Chef – Jonathan Gushue , Executive Chef, Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa.

Gold Award – Supplier – Fatos Pristine, owner, Cheese Boutique

Further information about the OHI Gold Awards and the OHI Gold Awards Dinner and to make reservations for this marquee event can be found on-line at the OHI web-site www.theohi.ca.

Huge congratulations to these thoroughly deserving men and women.

 

Lee Lounge Visa evening

27 Jan

Lee Lounge - an ironic greeting at the door

Susur Lee has a lot on his mind. Last week he was in the Cayman Islands for the ab-fab gastronomical festival that takes place there every year. Right now he’s in Hong Kong visiting with his Mom before nipping off to Abu Dhabi for five days to guest star at the World Gastronomical Congress. And of course he has four restaurants to worry about – Lee in Toronto, Zentan in Washington DC, Shang in New York and Chinois by Susur Lee in Singapore. And now a fifth… Lee Lounge opens on Valentine’s Day as an annex to Lee on King Street West, the latest incarnation of the space that was once Susur and more recently Madeline’s. On Tuesday, the latest VISA Infinite dinner took place there – three weeks before opening – with Susur himself in the kitchens and, now and again, in the dining room. It was a sell-out crowd of 120 filling both the Lounge and Lee (the two rooms are now linked by an opening in the connecting wall) and the food was spectacular.

We began with Nicolas Feuillete Brut Champagne and a selection of extremely inventive hors d’oeuvres. One morsel in particular was universally declared to be the most irresistible dainty ever created – finger-sized spring rolls, very crisp and piping hot, filled with ground beef and nippy five-year-old cheddar cheese… “Cheeseburger spring rolls” in other words. Whether or not they will appear on Lee Lounge’s menu when it opens remains to be seen.

We sat down to an amuse, though as joint emcees David Lawrason and I were up like jack-in-the-boxes throughout the evening, David discussing the wines that Lifford wine agency had provided, me trying my best to describe Susur’s dishes. The amuse was relatively simple – a delectable shigoku oyster on the half shell (as meaty as a kumomoto but not as briney, now being grown in north-western USA). Susur has garnished it with a shallot mignonette, a dab of puréed meyer lemon and a morsel of Portuguese-style salted chili. The balance of rich, salty oyster with the tangy and sweet-tart and salty-hot  condiments was impeccable.

Susur describes a dish

Lest we forget, Susur revolutionized high-end dining at Susur, circa 2001, by reversing the order of dishes, starting with the substantial, meaty main course then serving half a dozen other courses that grew progressively lighter as the evening progressed (though he did concede that dessert was an appropriate finale). He reprised the idea on Tuesday and once again I was struck by its undeniable logic – why not start with the big, heavy dish when the customer is hungry rather than almost full? Of course, it’s a nightmare for the sommelier who must bring out a mighty red and then offer lighter, more elegant wines, each one running the risk of seeming an inadequate successor to the one before.

This time, we began with a rich, robust, fruity Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, the Joseph Phelps 2007. It worked beautifully with the first course, a roast loin of New Zealand fallow deer. The meat was improbably tender and still bloody, the way Susur likes to serve it; the sauce held all the drama and artistry. It began as a reduction of white veal stock with onion and white wine, blitzed with honey and Dijon mustard; then Susur puréed some of the apricots he put up last summer, adding a hint of vanilla and swirled that into the mix, finishing it with a little butter to emulsify. Alongside was a crispy little croquette of boiled potato broken up and mixed with some Rose Haus cow-milk cheese from Fifth Town dairy, together with thyme, rosemary and black pepper. The cheese played with the fruity flavours of the sauce. As David Lawrason pointed out, the mustard sprang out to meet the wine which was threatening to overpower the venison and the whole gustatory skirmish ascended heavenward like some Renaissance painting of the Assumption.

The world's most delectable wrap

The second course… “This is the money dish,” said Shinan Govani of the National Post, one of many illustrious scribes at the media table. Susur had taken it off his menu at Chinois, in Singapore, and it is promised for Lee Lounge. It’s basically a contemporary Susurisation of Peking duck but it blew off every sock in the room. If you want to try it at home, here’s how. Take a duck breast and remove the skin. Create a new skin by skimming the uba off a trough of fermenting bean curd. Layer it with dried shrimp and five-spice powder and deep fry until very crisp. Meanwhile, marinate the duck for two days as if it were going to end up as char sui pork, i.e. in Chinese wine, rose wine, hoisin, dark soy, garlic, ginger and coriander. Then slow roast it until it’s like juicy, meaty candy and cut it into strips. Serve it with the crispy “skin,” some steamed pancakes for wrapping, some fermented bean sauce, and some julienned raw condiments – leek or green onion, cucumber and raw persimmon. Tell guests to wrap up their own pancakes and watch them gasp in ecstasy as they try it with Amity Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir, the best vintage of that renowned Oregon Pinot I’ve tasted in years.

At that point, David Lawrason and I decided to stay seated. “Taste this,” he said, pushing across the remains of his Phelps Cabernet, “with that.” And indicated the tiny bowl of intense blackberry and mint sorbet with a twist of freshly ground black pepper and a teaspoonful of Niagara Cabernet Franc Ice Syrup that Susur had sent out as a palate cleanser. Oh. My. God. The wine and the sorbet had been separated at birth. Identical twins!

We had tasted Bambi. We had sampled Donald Duck. Now we got to eat Thumper.

As a homage to the year of the Rabbit, Susur presented three dim sum rice-dough dumplings stuffed with a farce of rabbit, ginger and cilantro. One was garnished with chopped black truffle, another set on a puck of soft roasted pear and dusted with grated biobio parmesan from Quebec, the third annointed with a sauce made from wine and finely chopped sweet Chinese sausage. Susur had told me he considers this dish as much European as Chinese. For those who had never considered grated cheese or a dark gravy on dim sum, it was a revelation. And the Jadot 2008 white Burgundy wasn’t a bad choice at all.

The last savoury course showed Susur’s interest in Japanese flavours – a plump scallop pan-seared on one side and surrounded by salmon “pearls.” I’m sure hal;f the room thought Susur had gone molecular with these intensely fishy, salty spheres but they were just salmon roe that had been rinsed free of salt and then marinated in dashi, sake, mirin and soy. With this dish came some pickled white asparagus, pickled radish, and a sweetly rooty sauce of carrot essence, ginger and scallop stock. The wine? Paul Zinck 2009 Pinot Blanc.

Dessert? Vanilla panna cotta with a “ravioli” of tissue-thin raw pineapple filled with raspberry purée, invigorated with a passion fruit and orange gastrique. We thought a port had been paired with it, but “Quinta do Portal Colheita 2007” turned out to be a dry red table wine from the Douro, to the astonishment of all.

The food that night was spectacular and some of the wine matches inspired. The room looked stunning with gold walls, black lacquered tables, fuchsia light boxes recessed into the walls and a new façade of floor to ceiling glass. The kitchen encountered some hiccups that stretched the evening a little longer than intended… I could point out that that is in the nature of previews. Those of us who were there now have bragging rights that we were the first people ever to eat in Lee Lounge.

Many thanks to photographer Marc Polidoro for the images. © Marc Polidoro

 

Cookstown Greens – an amazing opportunity

24 Jan

Cookstown Greens

David Cohlmeyer came to Canada from the US in 1972 and quickly became a gentle but powerful alternative voice as chef and restaurateur at Beggar’s Banquet, as food and agriculture columnist of the Globe and Mail and as the founder of the Toronto Culinary Guild. But he is best known as a farmer. He founded Cookstown Greens in 1988 – a farm supplying our leading chefs with fantastically inspiring produce – everything from edible flowers to heritage vegetables to obscure herbs and perfect asparagus. A tireless advocate for locally grown foods, a generous contributor to innumerable causes and events, he is a pioneer, a leader and the environmental conscience of everyone who knows him.

This morning I received an email from David confirming the rumour I reported in my review of Woodlot restaurant that Cookstown Greens is for sale. With Dave’s permission, I’m copying that email here, hoping that some angel may see the potential and step forward…

David Cohlmeyer writes:

The rumours are true.  Cookstown Greens is now being offered For Sale as a Going Concern.  Having turned 65, it is time for me to reduce my business responsibilities and begin to explore other interests.

The 95 acres of excellent land (one hour north of Toronto), all buildings (including greenhouses and living quarters), the full complement of appropriate farm equipment, irrigation permit and system, all written procedures, records and contacts, as well as the reliable, award winning business, the well-respected name, and an amazing view are all listed for sale at only $1.2 million.  Our knowledgeable, motivated and very capable employees are eager to continue operating the business.  And I am willing to remain involved as long as required to bring about a successful transfer of ownership.

For the past 22 years we have steadily increased production, sales and reputation.  Seven years ago we moved the entire operation to our current location.  Now we are beginning to realize the increased margin we looked forward to when we moved to this “New Farm” – minimal need for fertilization, reduced requirements for labour-intensive hand weeding, near-elimination of pest problems, easy-to-work rock-picked soil, and of course continually improved flavour and extended shelf-life.

Here is an opportunity to fulfill a dream.

To maintain the leadership Cookstown Greens brings to Ontario’s hospitality industry, there are many ways to leverage this sale into its full potential

  • An innovative hotel PR team could promote its “own farm” on menus.
  • A creative restaurant could obtain custom fed meats, unique cheeses and special produce.
  • A premium winery could confirm its obvious link with premium food.
  • A quality distributor could become the supplier of “the most respected” local produce.
  • An on- farm Inn (the dream of many a chef) could be built in the fields to become a local hub.
  • A retail store could be assured of distinctive produce to sell, process, and distribute.
  • A specialty processor could have reliable access to many unique local ingredients.
  • A starting farmer (1st or 2nd career) could immediately build on a well established business.
  • A chefs’ school could have a demonstration farm to reveal the best of Ontario.
  • Another farm could link with Cookstown Greens as an entrée to the high-end market.
  • A gourmand “angel” could have bragging rights for owning the “best market garden”.
  • Or a creative group of these could band together to bring the business to the next level.

Time may be of the essence.  This is not the end; it’s a new beginning.

David Cohlmeyer   (705) 458-9077 or dave@cookstowngreens.com

 

Massey College Wine Grazing straddles Andes

23 Jan

Remains of the Malbec station

How might Dickens have described it: the snowflakes floating silently out of the darkness, drifting down into lanes and quadrangles, bearding the stone gables and clinging like a bride’s veil to the russet brick of Massey College. Inside, all is warmth and conviviality as the gowned and rosy-cheeked Master makes merry with graduate fellows and guests. Fine vintages flow; the high table groans under roasted fowl, rich sauces and forcemeats, spiced casseroles and curries, creams and sugared cakes. But step back into the night. There, amid the freezing slush of St. George Street, huddling for sustenance at the vendors’ carts, stand shivering students clutching their last few groats. Cold in their garrets, undergraduates at less civil colleges than Massey think of the stodge and slopkettle that waits for them in the residence dining hall and decide, once again, to make do with a slice of cheap, chewy pizza and a Coke.     

            That’s how I have always imagined the winter scene on the sprawling campus of the University of Toronto. And that’s why I am so grateful that it is Massey College, and not one of the other halls of learning, where I help out the resident wine club with it’s annual Grazing. We don’t sit at the high table and the Master is absent – but the food is always wonderful. Darlene Naranjo is in charge of all matters culinary at Massey and she nourishes the academic community there with great skill and imagination. Greg Cerson is the steward and facilitator of logistics. Thanks to him our group can process from the Common Room to the Upper Library and back again three or four times in an evening and each time find some new treat piping hot and ready to be tasted with wines already poured.

            This year our theme was the wines of Argentina and Chile, the amazing speed with which their wine industries have come up to speed once the political horrors and corruption of the 1970s and 1980s were ended, and the recently evolving determination (mirroring Australia and Canada) to create fabulous high-end wines that reflect specific terroirs. Our little tasting was not a competition between the two countries, though their histories have been remarkably similar: conquistadors and mission priests planting the first vines (Criolla in Argentina, in the late 1400s; Pais in Chile, circa 1541), French vines and know-how arriving in the mid-19th century, foreign investment kicking in (finally) in the late 1980s and ’90s with modern equipment, modern thinking and the idea of export all catching on thereafter. Argentina has its special red grape in Malbec, Chile with Carmenere, both of them originally from Bordeaux, though Malbec was a major player until Merlot usurped its role and Carmenere was never more than an extra with a line or two of dialogue in a good year.

            Here are some highlights from last night. Our first station featured a refereshing méthode Champenoise bubbly from Chile – Valdiviseo Blanc de Blanc Brut – necessary refreshment after the crowd had been listening to me talk for 20 minutes. We moved on to Tilia Torrontés 2009, a fresh aromatic white made from Torrontés, a natural cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, the old mission grape, and the only variety we tasted that was actually born in South America. It smelt like Viognier with aromas of apricot, yellow plum and white flowers but was as crisp and fresh as a Pinot Grigio. We paired these wines with a traditional Argentinean empanada, like a tiny vegetable pasty with a hint of chili and yucca, made to a recipe from the area where the Torrontés was grown. People in Mendoza love their empanadas. They are sold on the street and everyone has their favourite concession stands. I remember visiting Mendoza in 1990 and the woman who was my guide to one of the wineries suddenly swerving her Mercedes into the side of the road when she saw an empanada stand. She was a very glamorous lady in her forties, an Hermès scarf knotted loosely around her throat, lots of jewellery, perfectly crimson nails and an incredibly haughty attitude. She wolfed down that empanada though, sighing and moaning with pleasure then licking her fingertips before we drove on – without a word being said.

The next Massey station set a very high standard. We poured the Luca Chardonnay that I have described before – a most delectable wine like a Meursault that’s come back from a holiday in the tropics with a Carmen Miranda hat. Beside that, we offered Underraga’s Terroir Hunter Sauvignon Blanc from the small Leyda Valley in Chile. While the recent pioneers in Argentina have gone vertically up into the Andes, planting vineyards at dizzying altitudes, in Chile the exploration has been outwards into the many valleys that twist down from the mountains to the Pacifc, north and south of Santiago. Some are hot, some cool, depending on the Andean and ocean breezes. The Leyda Valley was only planted in 2000 and it attracted attention because it seemed so like Marlborough in New Zealand – very dry, quite cool – less rain than New Zealand but similar temperatures, and perfect for Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is heady with grapefruit, lime, passionfruit, green grass, and a dry minerality at the finish as if you were sucking a pebble.

With this, the kitchen served a fillet of a buttery-rich, dense-fleshed white fish called corvina graced with plenty of citrus zest and fruit to balance the acidity in the wines. It was awesome with the Sauvignon Blanc.

Our third station presented two Malbecs – Catena Malbec from Argentina (seamlessly elegant) and Valdiviseo Single Vineyard Malbec from Chile (grown in a much warmer location, a tad rugged on its own but great with the food). The dish was osso buco with a brunoise of carrot, parsnip and leek and fire-roasted sweet red peppers.

            At station four we poured two Argentinean reds – Trivento Golden reserve Syrah and Salentein Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – both of which slipped down very easily with lean, pink loin of lamb crusted with pecan and thyme, a single Chinese gooseberry on the side.

            Station five was reserved for a typical Chilean Carmenere from Marques de Casa Concha. We paired that with shavings of Idiazabal, the hard-to-find aged sheep’s milk cheese from Spain’s basque country that is smoked over beech wood. Carmenere’s story always amazes me – the grape brought over with all the other Bordeaux varieties in the 1850s but its identity lost along the way. It looks like Merlot but ripens much later, not until its own leaves have turned scarlet, so growers just called it “the late-ripening Merlot.” It was only in 1994 that a very astute French ampelographer identified it as Carmenère. Since Carmenère was virtually extinct in France I suppose we can include the grape on the short list of Lazarus toxons – species once thought extinct but rediscovered – of which the coelacanth is the poster child.

            We finished with another Carmenere (Chileans have dropped the accent on the second e and pronounce all four syllables of the name), the spectacular Purple Angel 2007 from Vina Montes. Last year, Massey wine committee member Sabrina Abandali and I tasted dozens of Carmeneres at the Chilean wine show at the ROM, looking for our grand finale. This was the one we loved most. The company was created by a well-known winemaker and a group of eager investors in 1988 with the single purpose of producing ultra high-end wines – no cheap-and-cheerful money-makers – and that marked another step forward for the Chilean wine industry. The grapes come from the Colchagua valley – source of most of the great Carmeneres I’ve ever tasted – and the yield is kept extremely low so the wine is particularly intense. Drinking it is like painting a stripe of dark purple paint across your tongue – spicy, tannic, peppery paint with the flavour of blackberries, black currants, a little eucalyptus and just a hint of the metallic taste of your own blood. We served it with hot roasted chestnuts. And that was probably where the Dickensian mood came from, thinking of those old-fashioned treats as I trudged home from the College through the softly falling snow, my teeth stained a pretty purple from the angelic Carmenere.

 

Visa Infinite with Jamie Kennedy

21 Jan

Jamie Kennedy and his team, heads down over his own beef

Wednesday evening turned out to be an excellent party. It was another Visa Infinite gathering, this time much less formal than the last event at George, and we held it in the Market Kitchen, that interesting second-storey event space above the St. Lawrence Market. Manning the stoves was Jamie Kennedy with two of his sous-chefs. Charles Baker brought his eponymous Riesling (definitely an archetype of the grape’s Niagara Benchland expression) and Geoff Heinricks provided two extraordinary wines – his Keint-he Pinot Noir and his Keint-he Pinot Sauvage, a unique wine made from botrytis-affected Pinot Noir that ended up coral-coloured, not sweet but by no means dry, and incredibly complex with all those curious, beguiling stone fruit and truffle-honey aromas that noble rot creates. With two winemakers and one eloquent chef on hand there wasn’t a great deal for me to do except introduce people and let them tell their always fascinating stories.

While guests gathered, we sipped Henry of Pelham’s elegant Cuvee Catharine rosé bubbly while Jamie and his team sent forth such treats as tourtiere strudel with mustard pickle, crisp apple with pork belly and cider mignonette, smoked fish cake with wild leek tartar sauce, marinated eggplant on sourdough bread and a vegetarian ceviche on a potato crisp. Meanwhile, the Dairy farmers of Canada set up a tasting table for three awesome cheeses – Le Baluchon from Quebec, Devil’s Rock Creamy Blue from Thornloe, Ontario and Empire Cheddar from Campbellford, Ontario.

himself

Chef Kennedy’s first course was a miniature bowl of jerusalem artichoke soup (so simple – just a purée of jerusalem artichokes, onion and chicken stock) with a j-choke crisp on top and a tiny drizzle of bright green parsley oil and bright red pepper oil. With that, we poured JK Chardonnay, a wine Jamie helped create at Rosehall Run winery in Prince Edward County, close to his farm. Rosehall’s winemaker was interested to bring a chef’s sensibilities to the art of blending the various lots of Chardonnay from the vintage (different clones, different oak programs, some unoaked). The final cuvée was gorgeous, richer and more layered than some of the guests were expecting. I think the only place to find it now is at Jamie’s restaurant, Gilead Bistro (4 Gilead Place – which is an alleyway running south off King Street, east of Parliament – 647 288 0680). He closed the place down for a couple of weeks in January to redecorate. I haven’t been since but trusted friends say it looks very charming and romantic after dark with candles twinkling and the day’s menu chalked on a blackboard. Check it out at www.jamiekennedy.ca.

We tasted Charles Baker’s Riesling next – tangy, not quite bone dry, with notes of grapefruit and an elegant minerality at the end, a wine that is going to be very different but no less delicious a decade from now. With it, Jamie paired small fillets of Georgian Bay whitefish coated with red fife flour and pan fried, braised leek and crisped potatoes from his own farm in Hillier, Prince Edward County.

The main course was beef, also from the chef’s farm. He follows a very natural way of raising his cattle – no antibiotics, no corn or feed, nothing but the grass that grows beneath their hooves and hay. He also keeps them three years – twice as long as most commercial beef. It was superb beef, full of flavour and amazingly tender. Jamie braised the shoulder and roasted the prime rib and dressed them with a dark jus and a sharp parsley ravigote that did its job of bringing the dish to life. The Keint-he Pinot Noir was another impeccable match, an unfined, unfiltered Burgundian style Pinot finished in French oak. It was the first time I had tasted it and I was really impressed by its balance, intensity and drinkability. Geoff Heinricks was the true pioneer of modern winemaking in the County, moving down there in the mid 1990s. He wrote a great book about the experience – A Fool and Forty Acres – and has since written a number of practical treatises of invaluable use to those who have followed him into the County’s viticultural scene. It was fascinating to get a double taste of Hillier terroir from the beef and the Pinot Noir, both products of the same soil, grown about two miles apart.

Jamie Kennedy delivered a two-part finale to go with the Keint-he Pinot Sauvage – a slice of pear over which he melted some rich, unctuous, yellow Cape Vessey semi-soft goat cheese from Fifth Town dairy, also in the County. The little edge of bitterness and salt on the rind of the cheese caught something in the wine and a light went on somewhere on my palate. The other element was an apple tarte tatin with a very thin crust and some maple and black walnut ice cream. This time it was the acidity in the apple and one or two crunchy walnuts on the side of the plate that found a friend in the wine.

For anyone interested in experiencing the terroir of the County (and one example of the Niagara bench) the evening was a gentle eye-opener, the quality of wines, beef and produce absolutely first class.

We’re doing another evening next Tuesday the 25th at Susur Lee’s new place, Lee Lounge, on King Street West. At least I hope we are. The brown paper is still up in the windows, the Lounge  unopened and Susur is currently overseas… Not to worry. He will be there in person and the whole thing will be amazing. The last few tickets are worth scrambling for at www.visainfinte.ca.

Thank you and merci, Dairy Farmers of Canada

 

Parts and Labour

19 Jan

The smoked trout plate - big enough for dinner on its own

It all sounded so new last summer when this big barn of a restaurant opened. It all seemed a bit old hat last night, when I finally got around to eating there. It’s still big, of course. You can sit at the long, long bar on cute stools that look like giant springs or at one of the eight communal tables that each seat eight people and promote a mood that reminded me a lot of a school commissary. You can even go downstairs where live music is often played. I stayed upstairs and parked myself in a corner, the better to soak up the vibe. Here, as in so many of our new restaurants, décor is deliberately shabby. The bare brick walls have been whitewashed, as have the ducts and pipes laid bare across the ceiling. Light comes from ninety assorted metal cylinders hanging over the bar or from eight of those bundles of dead neon tubes that seemed so cool at Delux on Ossington a couple of years ago. Last night someone kept fiddling with the dimmer switches – up, down, bright, dark – a game I always find oddly annoying.

My reading about this restaurant had assured me that I would be overwhelmed by the hipster energy and dazzled by the coolness of the crowd. Tuesday was probably the wrong night to go. It was busy but aside from the birthday party at the other end of the room most people were there to have dinner rather than flaunt. Fashion-wise, it was a mixed bag. The men on the staff were all dressed like voyageurs with beards, tartan shirts and woollen hats pulled tight over their heads (I imagine they must have been itchingly uncomfortable with the heating was turned up high). The women were dressed more in the eclectic second-hand Ralph Lauren style favoured by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. The music came from that era, too – or slightly earlier. It was vintage Bob Dylan, hour after hour. The child sitting at the bar for dinner with his father obviously didn’t think much of it. He kept his own headphones on for most of the meal. Quality time with dad.

I enjoyed the service. My server was very friendly and efficient, and quite proud of the special of the day – a 35-ounce ribeye, cooked on the bone and served with béarnaise sauce and the usual trimmings, for $90. I suppose there are other men in Toronto who would have attempted it, but 30 ounces of beef is my limit these days so I turned my attention to the menu with its lists of “entrees” and “plates.”

Even ordinary portions are generous at Parts and Labour and when dishes are heaped so high presentation ceases to be much of an issue. The “plate” I began with consisted of soft chunks of moist, lightly smoked trout mixed up with chopped hard-boiled egg, thinly sliced radishes, crunchy beetroot that had been shredded like vermicelli and tossed with a tart dressing (a little too tart for the delicate flavour of the trout) and torn bread warmed up with some oil to form delicious croutons. Fresh herbs were everywhere – coarsely torn mint, parsley, dill and chervil that brightened the dish considerably. That is their role in life, after all, to be their own fresh, unapologetic selves, like witty singletons a wise host asks to his dinner parties. In the middle of it all was a dollop of tangy horseradish crème fraîche the size of a child’s fist. It was a pretty good dish – enough food to satisfy as dinner if you were eating at home – with some interesting flavour combinations.

Roast black cod warily eyeing its green sauce

A couple of main courses led me deeper into the evening. The first starred a slab of roasted black cod, very slightly undercooked so that although the silky petals of fish were moist and opaque they weren’t quite as tasty as they might have been and the skin was soft rather than crispy. The fish wore a tangled toupée of scorched watercress (juicy, crunchy with a delectable pepperiness) and lay on top of a jumble of cauliflower florets, diced pork belly and foraged mushrooms like slippery little hattifatteners. Beneath it all was a primer coat of well seasoned parsnip purée and beside it on the plate two stripes of a green sauce that could have been described either as a Green Goddess or a pesto without danger of contradiction.

My other main course presented an island-continent of excellent mashed potatoes whipped up with horseradish and topped with soft leaves of purple kale. There were roasted cippolini onions on the side and a deep moat of dark, rich maple jack sauce spiked with bacon lardons. The principal protein was calf’s liver, which came crowned with shredded and crisped pig’s ear, a brilliant garnish that really stole the show. But the dish had some serious problems. The plate was cold for one thing, so by the time it reached me the sauce was also cold and had started to congeal. And the liver had been cut very thickly so that while its edges were dry and overcooked, its centre was still raw and gummy. There is a fine art to timing the cooking of liver and few chefs are as adept at it as they may think. I remember Charles Oberdorf, when he was food editor at Toronto Life, telling me he would cross the GTA to eat calf’s liver grilled by the late Freddie Lo Cicero, the meat cut into thin slices then set very briefly on a hot grill so that the surface charred a little but the inside was still juicy. Mistiming it by twenty seconds in either direction spoiled everything.

liver and onions and beautiful purple kale

Desserts got a bad rap here when the place opened last summer but last night’s vanilla panna cotta was super – sleek and wobbly and rich under a warm compote of white wine grapes.

The wine list could do with a makeover. There are less than 30 in all and nothing on the list is Canadian, though the server told me they did have an Inniskillin Pinot Noir. “We’re changing the whole list next week,” she assured me when the glass of red I asked for proved unavailable. I’ve heard that one before, of course, but this time I hope it’s true.

Parts and Labour is located at 1566 Queen Street West (at Dowling Avenue). 416 588 7750. www.partsandlabour.ca.

 

A night off

18 Jan

Nostalgia for the Light

Last night my wife and I thought we would go out on the town WITHOUT GOING TO A RESTAURANT… Save some money. See a movie. Have fun without eating.

“Let’s see this,” suggested Wendy. “Nostalgia for the Light. Peter Howell, film critic of The Toronto Star, writes that it might possibly be the most profound film he has ever seen.” It’s playing at the TIFF Lightbox. So off we go.

Love the Lightbox. A great building.  In fact, we just used it for a photo shoot for the coming issue of harry magazine. I’ve written before about Luma, the very good Oliver Bonacini restaurant on the second floor, but this was a restaurant-free expedition so I spared the room no more than a single wistful glance and we headed to the BlackBerry Lounge bar to wait for the movie. A glass of wine for each of us. Another glass of wine (we had over an hour to kill). And inevitably something on which to nibble – a $4 bowl of peanuts (huge and certainly containing more than $4-worth of warm, real peanuts), then an equally generous $4 bowl of green, brown and black olives, warmed and juicy, each one distinctively flavoured and textured. That hour slipped by. A sudden panic as we realized we only had a couple of minutes before the film began. Called for the bill. $80, including tip. Wha…??! Add the price of the tickets and we might as well have gone out to dinner.

Oh well. It is lovely, once in a while, to leave the house and not have to eat four to ten courses. The wines were delicious (as were the nuts and olives). And the film was truly extraordinary. It will surely stay with me as long as I live. I think the dozen or so people in the otherwise empty cinema would agree. It’s a documentary that links the astronomical study of the universe through telescopes in Chile with the despicable tragedy of Pinochet’s political atrocities, using that country’s Atacama desert as a fulcrum. The air there is the driest on earth, giving us the best view of the stars this side of Hubble. It also preserves human remains – mummifies them – letting us exhume pre-Colombian Indians reverently interred by starlight a thousand years ago or discover the bone fragments of Pinochet’s political opponents from the 1970s, their bodies raked up from mass graves by bulldozers, soon after they were buried, to be secretly dumped into the sea. Maybe.

All mirrors are time machines. The mirrors in astronomical telescopes are particularly powerful examples, bringing us images from just a moment or two after the creation of the universe. Pinochet murdered his tens of thousands of victims rather more recently, with the blessing of the CIA and the tight-lipped teatime smile of Margaret Thatcher wagging an admonitory finger at anyone who suggested something might be amiss in Santiago.

This coming Saturday I have to introduce Chilean and Argentinean wines to a merry group of wine aficionados at Massey College’s annual Wine Grazing, an event I always look forward to and enjoy. I’m just happy that we will not be opening any vintages from the Pinochet or Galtieri eras. How could they taste of anything but blood and bitter tears?

 
 

Woodlot

13 Jan

Chef-co-owner David Haman in his teeny open kitchen

Woodlot is the flavour of the last two months – another dark, eccentric, under-decorated restaurant with serious food. The big surprise is that it isn’t on Dundas Street West. Instead it occupies a former garage on Palmerston, a few paces south of College Street. It still looks like a garage, even though it spent the last eight years as a lounge called Octopus (a.k.a. Octapus). The floor is industrial concrete, the walls open brick, a staircase of steel girders leads to an upper level, a few cement steps lead down to a sunken bar with four tightly placed stools. On a cold, snowy winter’s night, with the coarse brown curtain keeping out the wind when the door opens, it’s not exactly comfortable. But it is merry. Chef and co-owner David Haman and his team are packed into the tiny open kitchen along one narrow wall, hemmed to one side by a huge domed wood-burning oven. Another cook is working at a table in front of the oven. The kitchen’s supplies and equipment are scattered all over the room, wherever there’s space. And Woodlot is humming, choked with customers from the moment the doors open in the evening.

Haman seems a tad overwhelmed by his own success. It’s been a couple of years since I last saw him, when he was working with Claudio Aprile at Senses. Before that, he had done a six month stint at el Bulli then opened Czehowski in 2005 as co-chef with Nathan Isberg. I chatted with him once when he was at Senses and he seemed a thoroughly likeable guy – smart but humble and still eager to learn by experience, putting in a year as a waiter at Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar to learn the front-of-house side of the business. Most recently he worked for David Cohlmeyer for two years, commuting every day up to Cookstown and toiling away on the farm. Right now, Cookstown is for sale, incidentally, and if Cohlmeyer can’t find a righteous-minded angel I fear the place will fall into the hands of property developers. Then that magical, golden soil that Cohlmeyer has cherished so well will be lost to us, buried forever under a dormitory subdivision.

Crab and white bean salad

There are plenty of good honest vegetables at Woodlot. Haman’s first menu was full of vegetarian alternatives to the meaty dishes – so much so that it became unwieldy and Haman ended up dividing it into two separate cards, one for those who eat meat, the other for those who don’t. The food is consciously plain and hearty – Canadian comfort food with no sign of anything molecular this time around.

I started out with a salad of perfect little white beans dressed in oil and salt, perfect bunches of mache, perfect shaved fennel with a very faint hint of preserved lemon, a slice of perfect, soft, saltily sapid prosciutto, and a mound of white crab meat that should have been the crowning glory but had so little flavour it might have come out of a tin. I confess I ate a lot of crab when I was England last week, so I knew what I was hoping for last night.

Oxtail and ox tongue terrine was much more robust, a fine heavy slab of dense, offally meat, full of flavour. A stripe of crumbled pistachios provided decoration; a spoonful of fig and port compote was crunchy because of the fig seeds and added to the natural sweetness of the meat. I would have liked something with the bite of mustard or the tang of a pickle to provide contrast, but I’m splitting hairs. The terrine itself was wonderful and worked beautifully with a glass of Boutari’s 2007 Ramnista, a 100% Xinomavro from Naoussa in Greece, big, extracted, tangy, tannic and full of spicy purple fruit.

Chicken and smoked ham hock pie

My main course was the chicken pot pie, a classic version with tender chicken, shredded smoked ham hock, big soft chunks of carrot, potato and swede and soft cippolini onions all in a runny, creamy sauce. The pie was sealed beneath a golden dome of pastry and was piping hot – much too hot to eat without scorching and blistering the soft tissue of one’s mouth. So I ate the side order of potato and gruyere gratin while I waited for the pie to cool. It was worth my patience.

As a finale, I wanted to try the apple tarte tatin from the wood-burning oven. The apple was very soft and darkly caramelized, the pastry beneath a tad sturdy, not quite as decadent as it might have been. With a scoop of honey gelato, it all went down a treat.

It’s interesting when a clever chef decides to set aside all the complicated techniques he has acquired and aims squarely for honest simplicity – like a masterful lieder singer standing up and singing a Christmas carol. It’s all very pure and perfectly in tune but a part of me misses the old David Haman who took so many risks at Czehowski and who made one of the great desserts of the decade during his sojourn at Senses – a cylinder of frozen white cheese soufflé that turned out to be nothing but a semifreddo shell filled with luscious black elderberry sauce that oozed out onto soft cubes of olive oil cake decorated with chopped shiso leaves. Unforgettable.

Woodlot is hugely popular with critics and customers alike. It’s fun and casual and the service is friendly. The small wine list has three or four local wines but most are European and most are over $50. The only Scotch on the bar is Edradour 10 Year-old – not the first Scotch you’d pick if you were only going to have one on offer – not even the fiftieth – but  a lovely, eccentric choice.

Woodlot. 293 Palmerston, just south of College Street. 647-342-6307.