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Archive for February, 2011

Mastiha

24 Feb

Skinos Mastiha - unique and indescribable

An island shaped like a peanut, 50 kilometres long and less than eight kilometres from the Turkish mainland, the Aegean island of Chios greets visitors with a certain cautious dignity. Here tourism is not the overwhelming preoccupation that disfigures so much of Greece. There are no resorts and few hotels. Most of the bays and beaches bask summer-long in undiscovered privacy; the peaceful fishing villages are disco free. The Chians prefer it that way.

            After Corfu, Chios is the Greek island I know best. I love driving the empty roads in the north of the island, roads that swoop and soar over fire-scarred yellow mountains and grey limestone plateaux, passing through isolated villages peopled almost entirely by the old. Their sons and daughters live overseas or in Chios Town, but the elderly remain, devout, conservative and protective of traditions. Aghia Gala is one such village. The gravel track that leads there slithers around plunging hillsides high above the sea before turning inland into a precipitous valley. Across the chasm, halfway up the cliff face, is a tiny Byzantine chapel. Far below, in the heat and silence of the early afternoon, you can hear a stream beneath the poplar trees. At the back of the chapel a curtain hides a deep cave where the daughter of the Emperor Constantine Monomachos lived, in the eleventh century. She was afflicted with leprosy. Look up at the roof of the cave and you see a droplet of opaque white water beading a nipple of rock. Legend had it that this was the milk of the Mother of God. That’s why the town is called Aghia Gala – Saint Milk.

Then there is Anavatos, a ghost town of abandoned stone houses, perched upon a spear of rock, three hundred metres high; and Volissos, where a municipal plaque on the ruined Venetian castle reads Homer Lived Here. There are the deep valleys of the northern coast where the last of the ancient pine forests of Pityoussa have somehow escaped both drought and fire, precipitous slopes of tall trees and purling streams, where the evening light hangs like honey between the mountains. And then there is the peaceful harbour of Emborio, close to the southernmost tip of the island. Its beaches of smooth, black volcanic pebbles that clatter like porcelain underfoot have been a wonder since the bronze age, and were widely used in decorative outdoor mosaics by the Genoese nobility of Chios. Today, their commercial heirs, the Chian shipping families, have built villas in the surrounding hills. It is likely that their collective influence will keep the village out of the hands of developers.

            Emborio’s glory days came during the centuries of Turkish occupation, when it served as the port for the mastic trade. For some as yet mysterious reason, southern Chios is the only place on earth where the resinous sap of the mastic bush congeals into transparent, colourless, nuggets of hard gum that glitter in the dazzling sunshine as if someone had flung a handful of diamonds into the foliage. Famous for 3,000 years, its delicate, alien flavour is a mixture of pepper, cloves, melon rind and coal tar, and the women of the Sultan’s harem in Istanbul chewed it constantly, to sweeten their breath and whiten their teeth. It’s also one of the more arcane flavours used to make Turkish delight. Thanks to the mastic groves, Chios enjoyed preferential status under the Ottomans, until the Greek rebellion of 1822. Some say the Chians were reluctant freedom fighters, that men from Samos declared the revolution on their behalf. Whatever the truth, the Turks took a swift revenge on the island, slaughtering 30,000 men, women and children, and carrying off another 45,000 into slavery. The scale of the tragedy astonished Europe. Delacroix’s painting, The Massacre of Chios, was widely reproduced. Driving over the mountains today, past hillsides still marked with long-abandoned terraces, it is clear that the island never really recovered.

            The last time I visited Chios, I bought a little pouch of mastic diamonds from a woman who was drying them on a cloth by the roadside. The rest of her crop, and that of everyone else she knew, was sold to the Metaxa brandy company to be turned into a sweet spirit – Skinos Mastiha Spirit. It’s clear, not as thick as some liqueurs – as viscous as Cointreau perhaps – and it perfectly captures the unique and uniquely indescribable flavour of gum mastic. I’m delighted to say it is currently available at the LCBO (CSPC# 91033, $34.25). A few of our more adventurous mixologists have played with it, but I like it neat and chilled in a tiny ornamental liqueur glass, sometimes garnished with a twist of tangerine zest, and a bowl of unsalted pistachios alongside. One of the iconic flavours of the eastern Mediterranean.

 

The Canadian Culinary Championships

21 Feb

The final podium finish

Last weekend we gathered in Kelowna B.C. for the Canadian Culinary Championships, bringing the winning chef from each of our eight Gold Medal Plates regional events to compete in three gruelling challenges. My team of judges, profound of palate and splendid in their impartiality, performed magnificently and I will name them first, proceeding from east to west: Karl Wells from St. John’s, Robert Beauchemin from Montreal, Anne DesBrisay from Ottawa, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, CJ Katz from Saskatchewan, Clayton Folkers from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary, Perry Bentley from Kelowna, Sid Cross from Vancouver and our culinary referee, Vancouver’s Andrew Morrison. Google their names with pride.

We began with a reception party at Quail’s Gate winery, introducing the chefs, their sous chefs, the enthusiastic local students from Okanagan College’s culinary arts program who were to assist them, the judges, and Olympic rower Adam Kreek representing the athletes who are GMP’s principal beneficiaries. Each chef was given a bottle of the mystery wine, unlabelled, anonymous, and given 24 hours to create a dish to perfectly match the wine. The catch – they had to cook the dish for 350 people and they had to do their shopping on a budget of only $500 – about a $1.47 a head. I couldn’t do a dinner party for that but the chefs rose to the occasion, rising at dawn to shop. One chef handed back nine cents – all he had left; another returned an unspent $247! Such impressive parsimony.

On Friday night they presented their dishes, each at his station in the lovely 1920s-style main floor of the Hotel Eldorado, while the guests tasted, sipped the mystery wine and recorded their own verdict. It was quite the party, packed and exuberant, casual but intense, and though a People’s Choice Award was given the judges kept their silence. Until they all came back to my hotel room and talked and talked…

The wine was a doozy – La Stella Fortissimo 2008 from the Okanagan, B.C.’s version of a SuperTuscan, mostly Merlot and Cabernet but with slightly less than 10 percent Sangiovese Grosso aged in Slavonian oak. It was inky black, very young and tight, massive with tannin and acidity but with all kinds of fruit and cinnamon-liquorice spice eager to burst out – a rowdy adolescent full of promise. The challenge for the chefs was to tame its aggression and only a couple of the competitors managed to do that. The dishes were delicious, and full of imagination. Here’s what the chefs decided to do.

Jeremy Charles from Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland, assembled a very pretty composition of creamy polenta, finely chopped bittersweet rapini with lemon, chili and garlic nuances, braised beef short rib, a potato raviolo topped with tomato concassé and a dab of a profound, almost offaly jus.

Martin Juneau from Newtown in Montreal spent a deal of time trying to find pig’s blood but eventually succeeded and turned it into a seductively soft boudin noir with a savoury crust which he set over a smooth white bean purée. The blood and the legume tamed the tannins in the wine – the only dish to do so. He surrounded the boudin with a deconstructed Bordelaise sauce – a brunoise of shallot turned into a chutney, a Melba-thin toast topped with bone marrow butter, a reduction of the mystery wine, and some fresh tarragon leaves as a crown. There was a drizzle of parsley oil, too, but it was the blood and bone marrow that cast a magic spell over the wine, making it crouch down and purr.

Michael Moffatt from Beckta Dining and Wine and also from Play, both in Ottawa, had competed in the CCC before, back in 2007. He made a terrine of lamb liver, dense, subtle and spiked with pistachio and sundried cranberries which he served on a slice of painstakingly made brioche spread with apple-red onion butter. A cilantro and cucumber relish refreshed the dish nicely and a smear of grainy mustard spiked with a reduction of the mystery wine added piquancy.

February in Kelowna - one reason why we hold the Championships there

Toronto champion Frank Dodd from Hillebrand Winery restaurant in Niagara made 350 tiny perfect pies filled with minced beef and chopped mushroom – delicious and irresistible with ambrosial flaky pastry. Beside the pie was a wee mound of red cabbage cooked with icewine and cherries that reached into the wine and drew out the Sangiovese fruit, and a stripe of a reduction made from the wine.

Dan Walker from Weczeria Food & Wine in Saskatoon represented Saskatchewan. He presented a cold dish of gorgeously tender beef striploin, pink and perfect, patted with grainy mustard and rosemary. There was a mound of pulled beef short rib braised with a hint of vanilla and a bed of potato and parsnip salad with leek and a buttermilk dressing. Roasted garlic aïoli acted as a condiment; red onion and cherry marmalade was another luxe component. “Meat and potatoes,” was how Chef described it. Some judges thought the striploin-wine match was magnificent; others were unconvinced.

Andrew Fung from Blackhawk Golf Club outside Edmonton also chose beef short rib as his star. He braised it for five-and-a-half hours, removed the bone then roasted it some more. The effort was well worth it for the meat was amazingly tender and flavourful over ribbons of mustard-flecked spätzle. On top, he set a tangle of crunchy bean sprouts in a chili-spiked Thai red curry dressing and finished the dish with a parsley-chive oil.

Duncan Ly from Hotel Arts in Calgary decided to use chicken – the dark meat fortified by marination with the wine like a crisp-skinned, magnificently tender coq au vin. Beneath it was a take on the classic chasseur sauce with pearl onion, bacon flecks, a turned carrot, celery leaf and a gastrique using tayberry – a berry like the love child of a raspberry and a bramble. It was totally delicious but it circled the wine warily rather than engaged it.

Robert Clark of C restaurant in Vancouver had also competed in a CCC before – our inaugural one, held in Whistler back in 2006 – an event with a very different mood to the series of parties held this weekend. He had brought his sommelier, Kim Cyr, to the competition, and she pulled off a spectacular feat, not only analyzing the components of the wine but correctly identifying it. Clark made a thick purée of a sauce to mimic the spicy flavours in the Fortissimo using cranberries, cinnamon, star anise and liquorice. He found bison and turned it into a tartare pressed into a tube of fried pastry, like a wonton wrapper. He draped a slice of pancetta over the roll and also worked tarragon and chervil into the dish. Yes, it echoed the fruity aromas of the wine exactly, but it didn’t seem to address the tannin and acidity quite so well.

The people’s choice went to Jeremy Charles by a considerable margin.

Martin Juneau's second Black Box dish

Saturday dawned bright and cool as the judges and chefs, each with his chosen sous chef, made their way to Okanagan College for the Black Box competition. Start time was 8:00 a.m. but the production team, assisted by the invaluable Chef Michael Lyon of Hotel Eldorado, himself a two-time winner of Gold Medal Plates regional events, had already been busy for hours preparing the arena. We were expecting a crowd of hundreds and we were not disappointed. The chefs and sous chefs were introduced then forced to surrender their cell phones and BlackBerries before being led away to their sequestered lair, to be summoned when their turn came.

Judge Perry Bentley had chosen the ingredients for the black box, all of which had to be used by the chefs in their two dishes. It was a deliberately challenging inventory: two large Dungeness crabs, alive and kicking, courtesy of Codfathers Seafood market; a smoked wild boar shank from North Okanagan Game Meats; a gnarly little liquorice root dug up on Vancouver Island and acquired through Mikuni Wild Harvest (a tricky ingredient to use as the liquorice flavour only emerges when it’s cooked and must be used sparingly or its bitter pungency can overwhelm a dish); some gorgeous local heritage candy cane and golden beets from Green Croft Gardens; and some juicy Asian kosui pears, grown in B.C.. Each chef had access to an identical pantry of vegetables, dairy, herbs, spices, oils, stocks, wine, flours and seasonings to enhance the mystery ingredients, and they all rose manfully to the occasion, completing plating within their allotted hour, all except Dan Walker who went over time by 90 seconds, a mistake that cost him points with the judges.

Andrew Fung from Edmonton led off the contest. He boiled his crabs in a lemon court-bouillon then used the meat to make a tasty crab cake, stirring in onion and garlic and coating the cake in panko crumbs. With it he made a relish of shredded golden beets and chunks of crunchy Asian pear dressed with vinegar and sugar. For his second dish he braised and pulled the boar meat, setting it over a creamy potato “risotto” flavoured with thyme and (ever so subtly) with the liquorice root. A sweet salad of pickled candy cane beet finished the dish.

Robert Clark from Vancouver went next. He too made a beautifully textured crab cake, spiked with mustard and cilantro and bound with a little egg. He paired it with a salad of grated pear and cilantro and a tart liquorice butter sauce that cut the richness of the crab nicely. Having tenderized the boar (a crucial first step) he diced the meat and aranged it in the bottom of a bowl with pickled beet, basil leaves and a little basil oil then joined the judges in their chamber to finish the dish by pouring on a thick velouté of golden beets, quickened with more of the liquorice root. It was a visually stunning presentation and tasted as good as it looked.

Dan Walker from Saskatoon’s first dish was a riot of colour – a boar shank ragout set over beet and potato rösti beside a bright yellow purée of liquorice root and golden beet, garnished with crunchy pickled candy cane beets. He also made a crab cake, mixing the crab with shallots, ginger, garlic, tomato, basil and cilantro; a pear purée served as a splendid sauce and a tomato concassé was the final flourish.

Martin Juneau from Montreal was our fourth competitor. His crab salad moistened with cilantro-scented cream delighted the judges, set as it was in the centre of a pool of strongly vinegared tomato-and-onion gazpacho, ringed by olive oil. His boar dish was like an extrapolation of a breakfast, the shank cut into pieces and arranged over a sweet-sour onion, Asian pear and liquorice marmalade together with a hearty potato pancake. He set a perfectly poached egg on top and crowned the whole ensemble with shaved raw beets.

Michael Moffatt from Ottawa made the dishes that scored highest with the judges that morning – the juicy crab meat posed in a cold, delicate tomato consommé. He used the liquorice to flavour a salad of julienned Asian pear and also in the garnish, a tangle of confited lemon zest. His tender boar meat lay on a bed of creamy potato and beet “risotto” ringed with a pungent salsa verde of many herbs.

Duncan Ly's first Black Box dish

Duncan Ly from Calgary created a stunning presentation of lightly sautéd crabmeat with liquorice-infused cream and a hollandaise sauce, beside a slaw of Asian pear and cilantro. He braised the boar shank and set it in its own clear broth with a perfect potato fondant, firm chunks of the beets and a diadem of crispy potato threads.

Frank Dodd, representing Toronto, made best use of the Asian pear, turning small spheres of the fruit and poaching them with liquorice, bringing out just the right amount of liquorice flavour. He made a syrup from the pear juice and used both to accompany a chilled salad of crabmeat with basil and olive oil. He cooked down his boar meat until it was tender and shredded it between two discs of pasta like a giant, open raviolo, moistened by the boar broth. With this, he served chunks of perfectly cooked beet then set a poached egg on top, its runny yolk acting as a second sauce.

Frank Dodd's first Black Box dish

Our final competitor was Jeremy Charles from St. John’s. He used both the crabmeat and the finely diced and fried boar shank in one dish, tossed with fettucine (made à la minute) sharpened with lemon zest, white wine and a tomato concassé. His second dish was vegetarian – chunks of crisp raw pear and sliced beets dressed with a liquorice vinaigrette and pear purée, crowned with crisp matchstick frites.

And that was the Black Box competition. The judges were most impressed by the dishes they tasted, but hoped fervently that smoked boar shank was not on the menu for the evening’s Grand Finale in the Delta Grand hotel.

In past years, the CCC’s Grand Finale has been a relatively small affair. Saturday night’s event was anything but – a major gala that began with a VIP reception featuring Victoria gin and wineries from the Naramata Bench Winery Association and ended with a sit-down dessert, inspiring words from Adam Kreek, great music from Colin James, Barney Bentall and their attendant musicians, and a most successful auction (I’m proud to say the winning bidder for the trip I’m leading to hike the Yorkshire Dales in June paid $12,000 to join the party). In between, 600 guests from across the country tasted each chef’s signature dish and matching wine, moving from station to lavishly decorated station. We the judges sat in grandeur at a spotlit table and had the plates brought to us. As one might expect, the gastronomic standards were exceptionally high. Here are the dishes the chefs presented, in the order in which we tasted them determined by the weight of the food and wine.

Frank Dodd, representing Toronto, wowed us once again with his technical skills and imagination. In the centre of his plate sat a miniature glass cloche filled with smoke pumped in from a tray of smoldering vine wood. We lifted the cloche and there was a slice of succulent salmon that had been cured in icewine and smoked, then wrapped around a finger of pickled golden beet and a small bundle of seedlings and baby spinach leaves. Beside it was a tiny perfect spherical croquette made with potato and Monforte Toscano cheese, a few dots of icewine syrup and a sweet-tart popsicle made of beet juice and icewine sorbet. The fascinating little collation worked brilliantly with Dodd’s chosen wine, the fruity Brut Rosé sparkling wine from Trius.

Duncan Ly from Calgary also chose to work with salmon, bringing his supplier to the party. He in turn brought two mighty coho salmon he had caught off the Queen Charlotte Islands, each as big as a man’s leg, displaying them on a bed of ice. Chef Ly cooked the salmon fillets sous vide until they were meltingly soft then cut a piece for every plate, sprinkling it with a crunchy powder made of crushed duck crackling. Beside it was a slice of duck torchon, the tender, ruby-coloured breast rolled with duck confit rillettes and wrapped in duck prosciutto. A purple stripe of beet emulsion was dotted with tiny segments of peeled orange and garnished with a curly, very crunchy cranberry-nut cracker. Chef Ly’s wine was the tangy 2009 Tantalus Riesling from the Okanagan, its racy acidity in dramatic contrast to the soft, sweetish flavours of the dish.

Michael Moffatt from Ottawa was the next chef to bring his dish to the judges’ table. He had sliced a firm, coarsely textured and deliciously flavourful terrine of rabbit, studded with pistachios and set it on a crisp melba toast, topping the meat with finely diced pickled pineapple. Beside it, he had impaled some tender grilled squid on a fork with a taro-flour tortellini, both generously dressed with lush, creamy bonemarrow butter sauce – an amazing mouthful. The third element on the plate was a “duck reuben” – thick, juicy slices of corned duck breast, cooked rare, draped over a mellow sauerkraut and topped with crumbled motes of aged Beemster cheese that had somehow been rendered crunchy. It all proved a fine match to the 2008 Pinot Gris from Fielding Estates in Niagara.

Robert Clark from Vancouver followed next, making magic from Fraser Valley quail. “I created this dish entirely to match the wine,” he explained, and indeed it was the pairing of the evening, brilliantly wed to the white Bordeaux-style 2008 Alibi from Black Hills in the Okanagan. Chef Clark had poached the small plump breast of the quail then glazed it with orange citrus. He turned the wee leg into a ballotine stuffed with a citrus-scented farce. A quail egg, cooked sous vide so that its white was set but its yolk still runny was coated in a delicately crunchy powder made from the crisped and ground-up quail skin; the egg was set on a coin-sized puck of French toast flavoured with coriander seed. In a tall shot glass, two Lilliputian mushrooms bobbed about in piping-hot quail consommé, its flavour disarmingly pure, while a slice of kumquat could be seen drowned at the bottom, gently adding a citrus hint to the soup. The jus on the plate was a reduction of the consommé and a mound of fragrant coriander salt allowed the judges to season things to their taste.

Martin Juneau's Grand Finale dish

Martin Juneau from Montreal was our fifth competitor. He confited St-Canut piglet belly until the fat almost melted into jelly and the lean milk-white flesh was improbably soft, the skin a delicate, brittle crisp. Then he glazed the meat with red beet juice and heaped it with dill fronds, pickled beet and strips of crunchy onion pickled in beet juice. A broad stripe of purple beet purée painted the plate which was also decorated with intensely flavourful dots of dill-green apple jelly. Chef Juneau paired his dish with a dazzling aged apple cider from La Face Cachée de la Pomme cidery in Quebec, the 2007 Cuvée Dégel Reserve – a brilliant match.

Up next was Dan Walker from Sakatchewan with a rustic, seasonal dish that he felt fully represented the province. Front and centre was a moist fillet of bacon-wrapped Saskatchewan pickerel dusted with lemon, dill and salt. Beside that were two slices of a dainty cabbage roll filled with a stuffing of finely ground elk meat seasoned with garlic and onion. A mound of buckwheat groats with the texture of Israeli couscous added body to the dish while a swirl of puréed beet and two wands of air-dried carrot brought colour and sweetness. A drizzle of apple cider gastrique finished the plate. Chef Walker found a good match to the elk and bacon in the 2009 Pinot Noir from Road 13 in the Okanagan.

Andrew Fung from Edmonton was the penultimate contender, presenting a slice of Asian-style pork belly darkly marinated in soy. Bringing acidic contrast to the meat were some juicy sautéed pieces of Granny Smith apple and a tangy Asian slaw dressed with sugar and vinegar. Slices of peppery duck-and-blueberry sausage provided a second protein and a toasted pistachio biscotti served as a most original garnish. Chef Fung worked with another wine from Road 13, the 2008 Jackpot Pinot Noir.

Jeremy Charles's dish from the Grand Finale

Jeremy Charles from St. John’s brought our final dish, a treatment of wild Newfoundland rabbits he had trapped himself. Everything on the plate was sized for a doll’s house – the tiny frenched rack of ribs, the swirl of rabbit liver mousse on a crunchy coin of Melba toast, the slice of roulade made with the tenderloin set in a firm matrix of herb-scented, confited leg meat. Perched on top of a mound of steamed Brussels sprout leaves flecked with rabbit bacon was a crispy raviolo filled with braised leg meat, mushroom duxelles, a dot of feta and a trace of sweet date. A turned baby carrot seemed like something out of Beatrix Potter and for sauces Chef Charles had made a purée of Jerusalem artichoke and a dark sticky reduction of the braising jus. The dish was a technical tour de force that worked beautifully with Ravine Vineyard’s 2008 Merlot from Niagara.

While the guests found their seats in the hotel’s ballroom and settled down to the show, the judges retired to their lair to deliberate and enter their scores. It had been a most interesting weekend. Three chefs had pulled ahead of the pack during the first, Wine-Matching Challenge; a fourth competitor had aced the Black Box. Three or four chefs stood out in the Grand Finale. We knew the marks would be close – they always are at the CCC with chefs of this extraordinary calibre. At last the moment came to announce the medalists and summon them to the podium. But first the judges were invited up on stage and presented with a small token of appreciation from the Gold Medal Plates organisation – a solid gold toothpick – a gift both beautiful and practical.

Winning the bronze medal was chef Robert Clark of C restaurant in Vancouver, B.C.

Winning the silver medal was chef Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Our gold medallist and new Canadian Culinary Champion was Chef Martin Juneau from Newtown in Montreal, Quebec.

Huge congratulations to him, his team, his cider-maker – and to all the chefs and winemakers who were part of an incredibly successful weekend. We’ll be back in Kelowna this time next year to do it all again with different dishes, wines and a new cast of chefs. I for one cannot wait.

 

Sparkling Hill

18 Feb

A bath with a view

Sometimes an invitation is too intriguing to cause even a momentary hesitation. That was certainly the case when Sparkling Hill resort in the Okanagan suggested that the judges for the Canadian Culinary Championships – ten of us, all told, might wish to spend 24 hours there before driving into Kelowna for our gruelling weekend of work. The kicker was the opportunity to experience the cold spa in the resort’s extraordinary Kurspa. You may have heard of this – it’s quite the rage in Austria and Germany. One strips down to swimming trunks, socks and shoes, gloves and a surgical mask and spends three minutes standing in a chamber with an ambient temperature of minus 110 degrees Centigrade. There is nowhere on earth that naturally reaches such a low temperature – only in space can such cold be found. Why does anybody do it? There are many reasons given, most to do with wellness, but the gist of it is that a person feels so wonderful when it’s over. To be that cold must be extraordinary, we thought, and so it proved. “When you emerge,” explained Hans-Peter Mayr, President and CEO of the resort, “you will feel as if you want to run outside and pull up a tree with your bare hands, the adrenalin-endorphin rush is so strong.” Okay…

In the end, seven of the ten judges decided to go for it. We made a surreal picture, kitted out for the “plunge” (photos were taken and I am spending a fortune trying to have them suppressed), then in we went, three at a time, accompanied by Hans-Peter, who wore a suit and tie. You enter three rooms, the first chilled to minus 10, the second to minus 60, and then into the third… It’s no bigger than an elevator, panelled with wood, and there’s a window through which a controller peers, making sure we don’t overstay our welcome in this frozen circle of hell. The first thing that happens is that the room fills with fog – the frozen carbon dioxide of each exhalation. The first minute is simply really really cold, though the total absence of moisture mitigates it a little. After one minute and 45 seconds, the brain begins to send frantic signals of alarm and the urge to open the door is almost overwhelming. Fifteen seconds later, the panic passes. By now the cold has entered your bones. Shins and pate, elbows and shoulders feel it first. “Like a million little needles,” said one judge. And yet there is physical exhilaration – that endorphin rush. Hans-Peter counted down the last five seconds and we left the chamber quickly and gratefully.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. It has worked marvels with people suffering from depression, inflammation, rheumatism, fibromyalgia… And now I have experienced the deep cold of space and lived to tell the tale.

Chef Ross Derrick

As spas go, Sparkling Hill is unique in the world. It is owned privately by Mr. Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of Swarovski crystal company. Built on the peak of a granite mountain with amazing views of Lake Okanagan and the Monashee mountains, it cost $122 million to build and has been decorated with 3.5 million Swarovski crystal pieces – about $10 million worth of scintillating, iridescent glass. The spa itself is vast, with all manner of steam and sauna rooms, water therapy walkways and pools and serenity areas, combining the German idea of a wellness spa with the North American emphasis on pampering. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.

There are several restaurants at Sparkling Hill, including one called Cleanse, where no food is served, just detox concoctions. We had dinner in Gernot’s, the private dining room named for the owner. The chef is a talented young Canadian called Ross Derrick and he started us off by leading us out into the snow and sabreing a bottle of local bubbly, mixing it with local poire Williams, cassis and a dash of vermouth in an Okanagan take on a Kir Royale. Then we went back indoors into the firelit, wood-panelled room and sat down to a splendid dinner. Each course was named for the local artisanal producer who supplied the main ingredients or else, where the first course was concerned, “Farmer’s Market.” It proved to be a most impressive collation of vegetables – beetroot whipped with gelatin to make an ethereal mousse, juicy little cippolini onions, a purée of banana squash, dried leeks and raw radish, carrot pearls and candied parsnip crisps, delectably matched with Township 7 Sauvignon Blanc.

Farmer's Market - a sparkling first course

Veronika Falkner was a rabbit terrine. Ms. Falkner is only 16 years old but raises rabbits for market. Chef Derrick had turned them into a moist, dense terrine, wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with a couple of grains of Murray River salt, garnishing it with dots of yellow cherry purée and sour cherry compote, both coming from a grower called Neil Sproule, who may or may not be my relative.

We went on to a succulent little fillet of the first sable fish of the season, pan-fried for a moment then shown the oven, surrounded by tamarind purée for sourness, eggplant with lemon purée, cauliflower florets turned into tender pakoras with turmeric oil, some brown and crispy, others pickled, tender and white.

The main course was Fraser Valley goose, slivered slices of the breast with a tasty fringe of fat, cooked sous vide then roasted. Chef piled them up with crunchy moist braised endive scented with vanilla and citrus and a jumble of supple oyster mushrooms.

Our goose, cooked to perfection

Then there was cheese – a sort of blue tête de moine made locally and served with honey spun into sponge toffee – and followed by dessert – an extravaganza of local fruits preserved last summer, made by one of the pastry team, Anne Riemerschmid. I remember tonka bean mousse with a damson plum sauce, rosemary panna cotta with poached pear, a peach foam, a blueberry-blackberry sorbet, a whole cherry hidden in a marzipan coat, a tiny apple strudel and more and more. But all so light and easy.

Sparkling Hill is entirely unique. Check it out on the web site, www.sparklinghill.com, and also check out the prices. The owners have not created this place for a wealthy elite. It costs about as much to stay there as it does in an inn in Muskoka. Amazing.

 

Top Ten New Restaurants of 2010

17 Feb

My old editors at Toronto Life may be surprised to see me presenting a list of Top Ten New Restaurants – I always used to grumble about doing it when I worked for that magazine. I would moan about the illogicality of comparing apples to oranges and when that got me nowhere I’d lard my introduction to the list with modifying qualifications which the editors would immediately remove. And now here I am, blithely putting my own Top Ten together. Oh well. Hey-ho… These days, I can do exactly as I please.

            Toronto offers amazing culinary resources to a would-be chef. The new generation of cooks has grown up listening to dozens of culinary languages and their gastronomic vocabulary is now broad enough to beggar parallel. They can revel in the freedom to use any flavour, texture or technique that takes their fancy. They are not shackled by genre or ethnic heritage; they have a different and rather terrifying responsibility: they can do as they please.

            Given such freedom, it’s interesting that so many of the new restaurants that opened in 2010 showed such a narrow focus. Here are these polyglot chefs, well educated, sophisticated, opening their first restaurants. Instead of leaping forward into the future, most of them have chosen to step back into the past, sometimes two generations back, offering a sort of faux immigrant experience to their customers. Last year saw a cluster of deliberately under-decorated little dives pop up in the city’s western reaches with tiny menus of old-school domestic European cooking or quaint North American comfort food. The recession was fading into memory across the rest of Canada but these new restaurateurs were behaving as if breadlines and soup kitchens were only a couple of slow evenings away.

            I have nothing against humble simplicity on the plate, even if the hard wooden chair I’m sitting on wobbles and the quaint table is too small to hold more than two plates and a glass. I love the new fashion for wacky house-made cocktails. And it’s nice that so many new places are doing gnocchi and collations of charcuterie and hand-cut pasta – it makes it so much easier to compare them. Provided you’re paying close attention. Otherwise, they tend to run together in the memory into a single archetype.

            It’s just a phase the city is going through. When wealthy angels are wary of investing, chefs have to finance themselves. They set up shop in low-rent neighbourhoods and do their own renovations and it all ends up feeling a bit like a student project, but with much better food.

            Do I sometimes miss cushions and white linen tablecloths and a measure of old-fashioned glamour? Those places haven’t disappeared – it’s just that nobody writes about them these days. Toronto’s restaurant press, more than ever before, is giddy from a collective neophilia. The magazine and newspaper critics march in step from one debut to the next, eyes constantly on the horizon (or on their twittering BlackBerries), vigilant for novelty. I can’t remember the last time I read anything about, say, Scaramouche, Centro, Langdon Hall, Canoe, Chiado or Sushi Kaji in any mainstream media – though all of them are firmly amongst the Top Ten Best Restaurants in our part of the world. Ignored by the press, such stars no longer bother to court journalists, relying on a core clientele that already appreciates what they have to offer.

            In my case, I’m afraid it’s purely a matter of budget that prevents me visiting all the city’s best restaurants every year as well as all the new ones. I pay my own way these days, and am happy to do so. If you care to look back through my archives you can see new places I wrote about that have not made my top ten, though some of them are quite popular with the public and with other critics. It may be they were having a bad night when I happened to drop by. Or perhaps it’s just that we all have our own ideas about what constitutes quality. Here are my ten best experiences of 2010. Please check out my archives for full reviews.

 Number 1        FRANK’S KITCHEN     Every decade, College Street offers an unexpected jewel – Palmerston, back in the day, Trattoria Giancarlo, Gamelle in its prime… Frank’s Kitchen is in that class, a sophisticated grown-up in a neighbourhood of brash children. It’s a super restaurant, conceived, owned and operated with pride and passion by chef Frank Parhizgar and his wife, front-of-house whizz Shawn Cooper. 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. 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. I’m not sure how they do it for though prices are by no means steep (mains $15-$30), 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 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. Don’t miss: elegantly opulent oysters Rockefeller; charcuterie including lamb loin like snippets of rose-coloured silk; lobster ravioli; elk loin with a faux fat cap of foie gras. Wines: there are sometimes unadvertised treasures to boost the short printed list. Frank’s Kitchen is at 588 College Street (at Clinton Street). 416 516 5861.

 Number 2        MALÉNA     Sam Kalogiros (a guy from Corfu) and David Minicucci helped define the new vibe at Av and Dav with L’Unita. Now they have opened Maléna a few doors south, a seafood restaurant in a cleverly reinterpreted and sophisticated Ionian idiom. What does that mean? Consider chef Doug Neigel’s sea urchin crostini – crunchy toast spread with puréed avocado, sea urchin, red amaranth seedlings a little black salt. The avocado is a great idea – echoing the texture of the urchin but too bland to impinge on the purity of its flavour. Together it tastes like the sea itself. The menu is packed with delicious things – a great seafood soup full of nicely undercooked clams, mussels, spot prawns and cod; whole fish flawlessly grilled; stone crab claw in avgolemono sauce. If the atmosphere sometimes gets too boisterous to concentrate on the nosh, why not sit at the bar with a glass of Moschofilero from sommelier Zinta Steprens’s fascinating list and converse with half a dozen oysters (from P.E.I. not Corfu) or a crudo of Qualicum Bay scallops: true Canadian-Hellenic détente. Maléna is at 120 Avenue Road (one block south of Davenport). 416 964 0606.

 Number 3        ICI     The chic, modern little space on the corner of Harbord and Manning is packed every night, already a hit with the neighbourhood and a destination for fans of owner-chef J-P Challet from across the GTA. Counters at the bar, in the windows and below the open kitchen offer one way of experiencing the place, perched on comfortable stools, or there are several tables, set close together as they are in any good French bistro. The menu is full of irresistible things, with every dish available in a large or smaller portion (such an attractive idea) backed up with five or six items for sharing – a plate of oysters perhaps, or charcuterie or a selection of little croquettes, everything combining big flavours and delicate textures. Challet’s mission these days is to reinterpret classical French bistro ideas in a modern, lightweight manner, sometimes redistributing the elements of a dish. So blanquette of veal arrives as a soft, very thin crepe wrapped around the juicy pulled meat with its white mushroom sauce. Chopped morels and black trumpet mushrooms reinforced the theme in a darker, richer truffled sauce. A cube of perfectly cooked boiled potato, a trembling flan of puréed squash seasoned with lots of white pepper, green beans and strips of heirloom purple carrots as thin as pencils completed the dish. Challet is a qualified sommelier as well as a chef and suggests a couple of matches by the glass with every dish. His wine list is a thing of beauty with Canadian bottlings outnumbering French and top local producers strongly favoured. Like the menu, the list will change frequently. It’s great to have Challet back in the saddle, demonstrating the art of bistronomy. Ici is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. 538 Manning Street (at Harbord). 416 536 0079. www.jpco.ca

 Number 4        LUMA     Daylight floods into Oliver Bonacini’s spiffy Luma, up on the second storey of the new TIFF Bell Lightbox building. Unlike the drab airport-style décor of its BlackBerry lounge, the restaurant’s looks are all very cool and laid back with enough visual drama to delight rather than bore the eye. Finishes are in different woods on the floor and high partition walls, chairs in mushroom leather, sofas more of a butterscotch while a massive planter filled with curly willow wands gives focus to the centre of the room. Chef Jason Bangerter has put together a menu that doesn’t make a massive opening impact – sandwiches, salads, tuna, chicken, beef tenderloin, steak frites – but quality of ingredients and attention to detail lift standards remarkably high. Burrata, flown in from Italy and barely a day old, oozes rich buffalo cream when one slips a knife into its glistening, tender, snow-white heart. Bangerter sets the cheese on top of a thin but flavourful slice of grilled eggplant and surrounds it with a kaleidoscope of colourful beets, some cut into soft chunks, others firmer but thinly sliced. A marjoram and pine nut vinaigrette echoes the earthy sweetness of the beets and it’s impossible not to mop the plate with chunks of the lovely crusty breads baked by David Wilson, that masterful artisan of the ovens and the man responsible for Marc Thuet’s loaves, back in the day. Foie gras torchon is as smooth and soft as a baby’s arm, served with square-cut blocks of toasted brioche. Pan-seared scallops are meticulously timed, surrounded by tiny grilled artichokes and perched on top of a disc of smashed potato. Curls of cured ham are the crown, lemon vinaigrette the dressing. Canada is the principal provider of wines. Luxuriously spacious, elegant but not posh, unhurried and airily contemporary, Luma’s a great place for a downtown lunch. Luma is at 330 King Street West (at John Street). 647 288-4715. www.oliverbonacini.com

 Number 5        ORIGIN     Chef Claudio Aprile talked for years about opening a larger, more casual sibling for Colborne Lane, his edgy gastronomic temple. Ambition fulfilled. Taking one of Toronto’s oldest buildings back to its bare brick bones then redecorating with modernist whimsy, he has created a hip bar and a loud, bustling 90-seat dining room – numbers doubling when the sidewalk patio comes on line. A central open kitchen provides the ambient energy along with a menu of small dishes (nothing over $19) of no particular cultural focus. One or two damp squibs aside, most plates provide fireworks. Miso-glazed black cod in mushroom consommé is silken heaven – maybe the best version of that clichéd dish that I have ever tasted. Splendid shrimp ceviche gets a garnish of corn kernels crisped and still vaporous from a dip in liquid nitrogen. But not everything is exotic. Very fresh buffalo mozzarella becomes a sort of bruschetta with basil and tomato; smoked cod croquettes are pure Little Portugal. Crisp, freshly made fried plantain tostones outshine a conventional guacamole. Foodies will want to sit at the counter, sushi bar-style, and watch the action. It’s almost more fun to relax in the bar, tasting the inventive cocktails and sharing one plate at a time. Origin is at 107 King St. E., (at Church St.), 416 603.8009. www.origintoronto.com.

 Number 6        BROCKTON GENERAL     First-time restaurateurs Brie Read and Pam Thomson have turned a grungy Portuguese sports bar into a demure little gem with thoroughly unpretentious décor, enthusiastic service and seriously impressive food. The kitchen is the solo domain of chef Guy Rawlings, who writes his small menu on a roll of butcher’s paper that hangs on the wall, changing many of the dishes nightly. As one would expect from a Cowbell alumnus, he butchers his own meat, buying a whole lamb from Dingo Farms in Bradford, for example, and wasting nothing. He served the shoulder on the night we visited, the tender meat confited in spiced oil, pulled and heaped onto a slab of grilled eggplant that had been brushed with Greek olive oil, mint and dill. Rawlings is a whizz at pickling, using preserved items to add an extra dimension to several dishes – crunchy pickled cucumber adding tang and texture to the lamb. Pasta is a must-have – maybe maltagliati tossed with braised escarole and braised celery tops – forthright, pleasingly bitter greens that made the nubbins of meat from a boar’s head seem all the sweeter. Four of the eight wines on the current list are Canadian (all of them available by the glass) but Read and Thomson have had a surprise hit with their bourbonade, a lovely summer cocktail of bourbon, thyme-flavoured simple syrup, fresh lemonade and soda. Beer remains the preferred solace of those old Benfica fans, some of whom still drop by from time to time, taking an avuncular interest in Brockton General’s progress. Dinner menu Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Brockton General is at 1321 Dundas St. W. (at Lisgar St.), 647 342-6104.

 Number 7        THE COPPER CHIMNEY     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. Don’t be put off by the eclectic, old-school-curry-house menu – the dishes here are diverse and distinct, the quality excellent and portions so big we needed two satchel-sized doggy bags and a weekend to finish our order. Highly recommended: fried basa catfish in crisp, spiced batter, Amritsar style; sizzling, juicy Lucknowi chicken kebab, one of many super items from the tandoor; Baigan Patiala, 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. 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.

 Number 8        ENOTECA SOCIALE     Rocco Agostino, co-owner of Pizzeria Libretto, has another smash hit on his hands. No pizza this time, but hearty, simple Italian food and once again nightly line-ups at the door. Overcrowding and ambient hubbub will be too much for some customers. They might wish to book the small room in the basement which has a fine view into the humidity-controlled cave where Agostino ages his collection of cherished cheeses. The rest of the menu is “inspired by classic Roman cuisine and Nonna’s cooking,” according to the chef. Hence fabulous fish cakes studded with chunks of potato and salt cod in a crisp golden crust set over a stiff, pungently garlic-driven aïoli. Or a delightfully simple dish of perfectly textured spaghetti tossed 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. 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, but its sweet flavour is over-seasoned and dominated by a garlicky green gremolata spread on top of each slice. 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. For dessert, vanilla panna cotta is simply ambrosial – soft yet not at all runny, wobbly, creamy, too insubstantial to stand up for itself if it weren’t offered in a ramekin… Crumbled on top are crushed smoked pecans that fall into the panna cotta every time the spoon enters that smooth, albino embrace. Wonderful stuff. Anitpasti $8-$12; pasta $12-$15; secondi $15-$18. Panna Cotta $8. A long, excellent wine list is worth serious exploration. Enoteca Sociale is at 1288 Dundas Street West (at Coolmine Road). 416 534 1200. www.sociale.ca

 Number 9        FABBRICA     Fabbrica is Mark McEwan’s new venture, a big, clever restaurant on the outer ramparts of the Shops at Don Mills, close to his food emporium. Giannone Petricone Associates designed the space, using reclaimed wooden strips on the soaring walls, a red, black and blue scheme and light fittings like white balloons hanging from octagonal umbrellas. The conceit is industrial but it’s all so obviously designed that the grit can only amount to a gesture. The space reminds me of the restaurants Terence Conran was opening in London during the 1990s – smart but also relaxed and unapologetically practical. Chef Rob LeClair executes a long menu that reads as Italian, but from no particular region, with flavours and textures showing a refined North American approach. Butterflied smelts, lightly battered and crisply fried, are fabulous, the fish moist, soft and white and served with half a grilled lemon and a lemon-caper aioli. Pizza here is Neapolitan style, the crust soft and slightly chewy but not at all charred. Octopus is a palpable hit, slow cooked in its own juices with chili, garlic and parsley then lightly grilled. Tender tentacles are tossed with ceci beans, matchsticks of salami, peperonata, onion and arugula to make a lovely, decorous, gently flavourful salad. Flavours soar in a braise of lamb neck with pale pine nuts and caponata that shares a rich, lip-sticking jus with a hearty, firm sausage of lamb and fennel. Fabricca is at 49 Karl Fraser Road (on the north-east corner of the Shops at Don Mills, where Don Mills Road meets Lawrence). 416 391 0307. www.fabbrica.ca.  

Number 10      RUBY WATCHCO     It seems like more than a year since Ruby Watchco opened, the casual-chic restaurant showcasing the combined talents of chefs Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk. Their concept is a bold one. Each night they offer their customers one simple four-course meal—salad, main, cheese and dessert—starring whatever ingredients they are able to source that day from local farmers and growers. The style of food has been described by one of their friends as “souped-up home cooking.” At $49 a head, however, this is no cheap table d’hôte and every dish has to deliver. The food, plated at a well-lit table outside the kitchen, is served family-style in red Le Creuset casseroles which adds to the infectiously friendly vibe. Every time I’ve been there I’ve seen strangers turn to the tables beside them and discuss what they’re eating. Dinner starts with a salad – maybe of confited chicken leg, the tender, flavourful meat chopped up with crunchy croutons, red lettuce leaves, shaved radish, a quartered soft-boiled egg and some shaved pecorino. Beneath it all is some Garlicky green goddess dressing that brings everything to life. The main course could be a grilled flank steak, sliced thickly on the bias. A puck of herbed cabernet franc butter melts over the meat, licking the watercress beneath it. Smoked button mushrooms, sautéed with baby creminis and caramelized onion petals, nestle in one Le Creuset ramekin. Another holds chopped leeks and spinach, both braised in cream. A third is filled with firm, buttery roast parsnips, cut like plump frites. Cheese follows, then dessert – Kirk’s awesome lemon tart, if you’re lucky. I like Ruby Watchco’s style. The restaurant has substance but also a discreet glitter of star quality that brings focus and credibility to this emerging Queen East strip. Ruby Watchco is at Queen Street East (at Broadview). 416 465 0100. www.

 

A day in Montreal

13 Feb

Le Gout des Mots

On Friday, I took the train to Montreal to take part in a symposium on food writing at McGill University, a joint – and bilingual – venture of the French and English Departments. The venue was the Faculty Club Dining Room, a delightfully eccentric Victorian salon resplendent with stained glass and mock-Gothic columns. There were to have been five of us on the panel, including master baker and author Marcy Goldman, chef and veteran restaurant critic of the Montreal Gazette Lesley Chesterman, and anthropologist and food writer Robert Beauchemin. Robert is an old friend who is also Senior Judge of Gold Medal Plates’s Montreal jury but, hélas, he was stricken with a cold and forced to make his excuses. Instead, we were joined by Catherine Turgeon-Guin, a rather brilliant graduate student working on historical aspects of food writing, so the academic side of the subject was well represented. Our moderator was Professor Nathalie Cooke, renowned culinarian and also editor in chief of CuiZine, the Journal of Canadian Food Cultures. I believe the proceedings of the day will be fully reported there, so I won’t go on about them. Suffice it to say, I hope the audience had as much fun as the panelists. Time sped by. By way of self-introduction, each of us was invited to name our favourite piece of food writing. To my surprise and delight, Lesley Chesterman nominated the Jeeves stories of P.G.Wodehouse, especially those tales dealing with Anatole, the brilliant French chef employed by Bertie’s Aunt Agatha and coveted by every other household in the brittle but endearingly innocent world of Wooster. Her father read them to her when she was a child, she explained, and she remembers being deeply impressed by the power and influence the great chef exercised over aristocratic society. It was a good start to an afternoon that gave much pleasure and food for thought.

            The organizers of the event, Professors Frédéric Charbonneau and Paul Yachnin, had also invited another panelist who had been unable to join us – Hugo Duchesne, co-owner and sommelier of La Montée de Lait, the excellent little restaurant on St-Laurent. He has been too busy since the recent departure of chef and co-owner Martin Juneau to take part in the discussion. Juneau, if you recall, won the Gold Medal Plates Tour de Montréal in the fall and will be competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next week. Meanwhile, he has moved to a new kitchen – Newtown, on Crescent Street. Taking over at La Montée is a 25-year-old chef called Jonathan Lapierre. My friends Frédo (the same Professor Charbonneau), his wife, Marie-Pierre and their pal, Andy Paras, and I were eager to taste his work and see if La Montée is still one of Montreal’s finest, so off we went there for dinner.

(right) Professor Charbonneau. (left) me in full academic costume. (behind) splendidly decorated Faculty Club Dining Room

      

      La Montée is a cosy and merrily informal spot with an open kitchen at the back. A tall red banquette runs down the centre of the room creating a partition between the bar area and the dining area. The décor is cheerful – a high ceiling covered in dark blue pressed tin, walls of open brick or white clapboard, black wooden tables set very close together. It’s a little bit scruffy, very serious about wine and food and always full.

            We began with oysters – some from St-Simon in New Brunswick (briney with a fine minerally, metallic finish) and others from Summerside in P.E.I. (creamier, sweeter) served with their mignonette on long, rough-hewn wooden boards. A glass of Cadel Vispo Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2008 was an almost perfect match. The wine list here is mostly French, jewelled with interesting producers from small appellations, but a blackboard of other wines by the glass changes frequently.

            From there, I pursued a nautical theme with a plank of seared mackerel – very intense, salty and densely textured under its crispy skin. Chef Lapierre had cut it into bite-sized pieces and arranged them into three mounds with fresh, crunchy shaved fennel and radish, pungent chives and whole segments of tangerine. There were dots of thick tangerine curd on the board and a puddle of smooth white caillé de vache, which Google translates as “cow quail” but which is really a separated dairy product somewhere between buttermilk, crème fraîche and green cheese. Its cool creaminess was a perfect foil to the mackerel.

For my main course I chose sweetbreads – a single good-sized lobe perfectly cooked, tender and creamy inside its browned and fairly crispy surface. Surrounding it were wands of firm roasted parsnip with their uniquely aromatic, sweet, rooty flavour, and little slices of cooked apple that had been pickled in vinegar with a slightly too heavy hand. Chewy lardons of smoked bacon, a delectable cauliflower purée and a sticky brown reduction of pan juices completed a scrumptious dish. Frédo chose a great wine to sashay down the gastronomic aisle with it – a limpid, elegantly oxidated, altogether seductive 2003 Savagnin from Jacques Puffenay of Arbois in Jura that tasted of walnuts and an autumn walk through the woods. After that, he still had room for a beautifully moist financier cake with fresh orange and citrus sorbet but I declined (for some reason I don’t now remember) and regretted it for the rest of the evening.

            “We must go to La Brasserie T next time,” suggested Marie-Pierre. It’s Normand Laprise’s new casual spot next to the Museum of Modern Art, inexpensive and open for lunch. He gets his beef from Cumbrae Farms in Toronto (only Laprise could get away with that in Montreal) – beef of such quality that he can cook his bavette rare and it’s still tender. So that will be a date, next time in Montreal.

La Montée de Lait can be found at 5171 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal. 514 273 8846. www.lamonteedelait.com.

 

This and That

10 Feb

I’ll be posting my top ten new restaurants of the last year sometime in the next couple of days. It’s always a pleasure to look back on the recent past and calibrate the similarities between apples and oranges. 

Jean-Francois Daigle's delectable bison

Meanwhile, congratulations to Jean-François Daigle, a student at The George Brown Chef’s School, who won the Canadian heat of the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition on Monday. He beat out seven other students from chef’s schools in Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec City to take the prize. I was lucky enough to be one of the judges and watched him prepare his deceptively simple dish before tasting it – a gorgeously tender bison tenderloin cooked sous-vide then pan-seared, served with asparagus hearts, an apple-parsnip purée with mustard essence and a silken sauce sweetened with honey, red wine and beef stock. The contest was also about communication skills and behaviour under pressure, both areas in which the young man shone. He goes on to represent Canada in the finals in Napa.

One of the very few regrets I have about not owning a car is that visiting Cheese Boutique has become something of an ordeal – taking the subway out to the West End then walking the long walk from Bloor Street downhill to 45 Ripley Avenue. It has taken on the weight of a pilgrimage – though for any half-decent  pilgrim ardour and arduousness go hand in hand. And the Boutique is the nonpareil of gourmet stores in the GTA. I speak with rare authority on this matter for I have visited them all. May will see the 7th annual Festival of Chefs at the Cheese Boutique – wonderful weekends where Fatos Pristine and his remarkable family invite top Toronto chefs to their store to cook for the customers, using products from the Boutique. Every Saturday and every Sunday turns into a merry party that completes the circle between retail store, wholesale supplier, restaurant, chef, restaurant-goer and customer, to the benefit of all. This year, the Boutique’s line-up of chefs is a very cool and contemporary roster – not at all your usual old-school suspects. You should really check www.cheeseboutique.com for dates and details but here is the card: Rob Gentile, Buca; Albert Ponzo, Le Sélect; Lora Kirk, Ruby Watchco; Tomas Bellec, The Four Seasons; Tom Brodi, Toca; Rocco Agostino, Enoteca; Basil Pesce, Biffs; Kevin McKenna, Globe Bistro; Tony Glitz, ACC Realsports bar; and Grant Van Gameren, The Black Hoof. See what I mean? A very cool gastronomic gathering.

 In other news, chef Chris Haworth of Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington (www.spencers.ca) is putting together a unique event on Sunday February 27, building a menu around the best Ontario hard ciders. It should be a delicious opportunity for scrumpy lovers. Tickets are $95.

 

Mary Macleod’s shortbread

07 Feb

Mary Macleod herself

File this one under Treats and Goodness and Shameless Self-indulgence. Toronto Life’s former food editor, my friend Joseph Hoare, first directed me to Mary Macleod’s tiny shop cum tea room on Yonge Street, north of Eglinton. There were a couple of specialist food stores in the neighbourhood at the time, each one a pioneer of quality – C’est Cheese, the Belgian Chocolate Shop and Mary Macleod’s. Mary immediately made me feel right at home with her friendly smile, beautiful manners, soft Scottish accent and a welcome cup of tea. Her speciality – indeed, the only thing she sold, then as now – was fabulous shortbread, made to the recipe her grandmother taught her when she was a girl in Scotland and, in her own words, “as pure as this world will allow.”

It was gorgeous stuff, handmade with only natural ingredients, rich with butter and perfectly textured so that each cookie broke perfectly between your teeth, dropping only two or three tiny crumbs. My children adored it – especially the Chocolate Crunch variety, with big chunks of chocolate embedded in the shortbread. It took Mary 18 months to figure out how to bake them without the chocolate melting (magic is involved, presumably).

A chock-full tin of assorted shortbread

Today, 30 years after she opened her store, Mary Macleod is still going strong. She moved a long time ago to 639 Queen Street East – just East of the Don Valley – and she continues to innovate and develop new recipes. Tins and boxes of her shortbread go out all over the world to devoted connoisseurs. Mary is in her 70s now but is clearly still very much on her game. Her latest creation, butterscotch shortbread, is like nothing I’ve ever tasted, a uniquely textured treat like the love-child of shortbread and vanilla fudge. It’s so rich that a small bite should satisfy anyone’s craving – except that it’s so delicious the craving comes back in a flash, and stronger than ever. If, like me, you have been a Mary Macleod fan since the last century, you will also be delighted to learn that her hand-rolled Selection Shortbread is back on the retail counter after an absence of 15 years – perfect little bite-sized shortbreads in a variety of flavours, each in a little paper bonbon cup. All Mary’s cookies are made without additives or preservatives, so you have to eat them quickly. Not a problem.

Mary Macleod’s Shortbread store is at 639 Queen Street East (at Broadview). 416 461 4576. www.marymacleod.ca.

 
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Cava Invitational Charcuterie Challenge

03 Feb

 

An excellent evening unfolded at Cava last night for the second annual Ground Hog Invitational Charcuterie Challenge. I was privileged to be one of the four judges together with the highly esteemed Jamie Drummond of Good Food Revolution, the rightfully renowned Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto and the respectfully revered chef Robert Bartley, Director of Culinary and Executive Chef for Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment Ltd. Our host Chris McDonald was charm itself as he led the four of us out of the party and into his chocolate shop next door, where we spent the evening like so many little Hansels in a gingerbread prison, very well fed and fortified by Henry of Pelham Gamay and Pinot Gris from Niagara (and some fino sherry from farther afield) but forbidden to leave.

The invitation to compete had been sent out to some 20 chefs and McDonald accepted the first eight to reply. Michael Steh of Reds was there (he won last year) and so was Teo Paul of Union, Matt DeMille of Parts & Labour, Ryan Crawford of Stone Road Grille, Ryan Donovan of Marben, Ted Corrado of C5, Albert Ponzo from Le Select and Geoff O’Connor of Nota Bene. Each of them had prepared his best ground/cured/chopped/puréed/ emulsified/brined pork dish, all in pursuit of a handsome prize – a $400 gift certificate for the Cookbook Store, the opportunity to display the trophy for a year (it’s like something out of Lord of the Flies – a wooden board engraved with the name of the Magister Porcarius and decorated with four shins and trotters from a patanegra pig and a pig’s skull (you can see the kill hole above the left eye)) and the services of B.C. chef Mara Jernigan’s son Julian for a week. He’s starting out in the business and looking for work as a stagière.

Michael Steh's creation came third

The mood in the kitchen, we were later told, was decidedly friendly and collegial with chefs helping each other plate for the sold-out audience of 60 or so fans of the pig. The paying customers also had score sheets and declared a people’s choice winner – in third place, Albert Ponzo; in second, Geoff O’Connor; in first place Michael Steh again! All worthy, beyond doubt, but we judges made up our own minds as we sat next door at the chocolate counter with dishes brought to us, blind, every 20 minutes or so. And we were unanimous in our decision.

In third place was Michael Steh of Reds who prepared what looked like a mixed grill at first glance, with dishes based unabashedly on his mother’s Slovenian recipes. There was a thick slice of black pudding stiffened with barley, a slice of juicy cured pork belly, a whole little smoked sausage with a very fine grain and a crispy fritter of head cheese (aka brawn), all served over soft, subtle choucroute. The plate was decorated prettily with dabs of apple sauce and a spoonful of excellent mashed potato.

Matt DeMille's brawny bravado won him second place

In second place was Matt DeMille from Parts & Labour. He made a flawless, rather classical dish of a slice of wild boar head cheese, its texture surprisingly light, the jelly matrix jewelled with flecks of carrot. He set this over a salad of nicely firm brown lentils and celery leaves dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and around the plate was a gribiche of pickled fennel in mayonnaise. The balance of acidity and richness was beautifully judged and it worked dramatically well with the H of P Pinot Gris.

Our winner was Geoff O’Connor of Nota Bene. His dish (may I be blunt?) took the competition to a different level, certainly in terms of complexity. He described it as a galantine cooked inside a piglet, and so it was… But let me explain. He began by poaching the piglet’s ears in duck fat to slightly soften the tell-tale white cartilege. He cooked the wee loin in a swaddling of maple bacon. The shoulder meat was wrapped in lardo. The tongue was poached with orange and a variety of spices. Then all four elements were built into a plump galantine, held firm and apart in a coarsely ground matrix of lean meat and fat. This mighty sausage was then put inside the pig to be oven roasted, then carved and served in slices. Also on the plate was a small drift of excellent whole-seed mustard in pickling brine, and a compote of diced quince which I think had been smoked in some way before being preserved with sugar and a hit of vinegar. An ethereal chicherone was the scrunchy garnish.

Geoff O'Connor's winning dish

It was all good fun and I was happy to see chef Pat Riley (an Avalon alumnus, he opened Perigee, if you recall) in the audience. He is taking over Far Niente and the other restaurants and outlets at 187 Bay Street – great to have him back in action. Maybe he’ll compete next year. Sincere congratulations to all the chefs who gave up their Wednesday night to take part in the Challenge. O’Connor must now add some kind of porcine part to the trophy – a curly tail perhaps?