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Archive for April, 2011

The taste of Akiwenzie Whitefish

29 Apr

C5 chef Ted Corrado takes the mic

Last night my son and I went to c5 at the top of the ROM for a terrific sold-out dinner to celebrate Ontario fresh water fish. It was chef Ted Corrado’s idea, inspired by his connections with Ocean Wise, the initiative I keep going on about that is attempting to bring rhyme and reason to Canada’s reckless consumption of unsustainable fish species. Corrado brought in guest chef Jamie Kennedy, guest winemaker Charles Baker and guest fisherman Andrew Akiwenzie, who catches whitefish in Georgian Bay, 257 kilometres northwest of the Musuem. It’s very much an artisanal family business – Akiwenzie, his wife and their five sons – with a single 23-foot open boat and less than 200 yards of nets. He was taught the ways of the water by his two uncles but when Andrew was a boy they were not allowed to sell their fish – not until 1991 in fact when a court finally agreed to uphold their right to fish commercially. The family chooses to sell directly to the public, pointing out that involving a middleman can lead to issues of freshness. Instead, they drive down to farmers’ markets in Toronto (I buy from them at Dufferin Market) and deliver to chefs who are invariably blown away by the quality and freshness of their fish.

Smoked whitefish rillettes with crispy pancetta

Whitefish was the star of last night’s menu. Ted Corrado opened proceedings with scrumptious rillettes of lightly smoked whitefish mashed up with finely chopped pickled ramps. He set this on a puck of weighty brown toast, topped it with some seedlings and a strip of crispy pancetta then finished the dish with a wild ramp vinaigrette that perfectly cut the richness. To drink, Charles Baker poured his two Rieslings… Two? I know! I was astonished, too. I thought he only made the one Riesling, using grapes from Mark Picone’s property on the Bench. This year he is introducing a second wine, made in a similar way from a different 1.1-acre vineyard in Twenty Valley. He’s calling it Ivan Vineyard, though sommeliers are going to have to look very carefully to tell the difference between the label of the two brethren. Identical twins they are not. The Ivan has a slightly less austere acidity, more lime and less mineral. Both are delicious but Ivan is going to win many fans when it comes to wine-matching time.

Whitefish caviar in an embrace of rosti

Jamie Kennedy prepared the second course using a folded, brittly crisp potato rösti like a taco shell to hold a brunoise of carrots, radish and other earthily sweet vegetables, some lightly dressed baby red sorrel leaves, a dollop of creme fraiche and a generous spoonful of the golden-coloured whitefish roe that Mrs. Akiwenzie processes by hand. The scrunch of the potato and the soft, mildly flavoured roe was a spectacular combination. With it, Baker poured Stratus 2008 Semillon, the first single varietal Semillon Stratus has ever bottled from their seven-acre vineyard. Limpid, rich and weighty it had the gravitas to balance the roe.

Our main course was an unplanned improvisation of Kennedy’s. Let me explain. Akiwenzie and his one tiny boat are very much at the mercy of the weather and the winds had been too violent all week for him to go fishing – until yesterday. He set his nets and to his immense surprise pulled in a catch of chinook salmon! Is there some waterway connecting Georgian Bay with the Pacific ocean? Have these burly fish leapt the Rockies to join us in Ontario? Why no. They are the result of old attempts to introduce Pacific salmon into the Great Lakes as sport fish. Akiwenzie told an interesting story of how the fishermen on his reserve were instructed to throw any salmon they ever caught into a landfill since they were supposed to be the exclusive catch of sportsmen. The late chief of his band took the government to court, arguing that it was against his First Nations culture to waste food in such a way. He won.

Chinook salmon from Georgian Bay...?? Who knew?

So last night Kennedy found himself with gorgeous pink chinook to cook. He chose to grill the fish, skin on, topping the fillet with a chive sauce and a gremolata of chopped wild leek and reduced cider vinegar. He set the salmon on wilted spinach and a purée of sweet potato. With it we drank Stratus 2007 Tollgate Red, a tasty blend of Bordeaux varieties with a splash of Syrah and Gamay – “Chef’s choice,” said Charles Baker.

Dessert was a thrill. C5 sous chef Jonathan Pong was given the opportunity to create it and he began by setting a half-inch of panna cotta enriched with St. Maure goat cheese at the bottom of the bowl. Then he flooded the dish with a scarlet rhubarb consommé in which he placed little agar-formed beads of strawberry and rhubarb. Yes, they looked a touch amphibian – a tad tadpoly – but they tasted heavenly. Cookstown nasturtium leaves became tiny lily pads and across the rim of the bowl he placed a flat wand of strawberry meringue topped with a ribbon of rhubarb. Applause was long and loud for the dessert and it worked brilliantly with the pudding wine – Stratus 2008 Red Icewine made from Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and Syrah.

Rhubarb consomme - like a rock pool on Mars

A very good time was had by all and awareness raised of the work being done by the Akiwenzies and by Ocean Wise. A second dinner, celebrating Canada’s West Coast fishery with Robert Clark of C restaurant as guest chef will take place at c5 on June 23. Hope to see you there.

 

Ab Fab

28 Apr

The opening oeuf - thanks to Elliot Faber for the pictures

Absolutely Fabbrica! We started with champers, darling – just a smidge – not Bolly but Nicolas Feuillatte Brut, standing around in Fabbrica’s front bar prior to our Visa Infinite dinner. We all know Fabbrica – Mark McEwan’s six-month-old Italian restaurant at the corner of the Shops of Don Mills. I reviewed it soon after it opened and felt the service wasn’t as smooth as it needed to be. Well, that problem has been more than solved. This was the first time the restaurant had done a dinner for 80 but everything went impeccably. Mark McEwan was his usual charming self, hobnobbing before we sat down and then introducing Fabbrica’s chef, Rob LeClair, and also Andrew Ellerby, chef from One (another McEwan property) who had come north to help on the line. LeClair and I had spoken a few days earlier about the menu (a collaboration between LeClair and McEwan) and discerned a subtle theme running through it. The notion of cucina povere, the proud culinary stance of Italy’s rural poor in which as little as possible is bought, as much as possible is grown or foraged and nothing is wasted. It isn’t an idea limited to Italy, of course – it reminds me of the way Canadian pioneers lived, especially at this hungriest time of the year when nothing is growing yet and the winter larder is empty. Is an exclusive and delectable dinner at a high-end restaurant too big a stretch as a way to honour frugality? I don’t think so. For all the glamour of his restaurants, McEwan’s cooking has very honest roots.
We began with a small homage to the egg. As LeClair reminded us, an egg is not something to take for granted. It’s a beautiful thing – especially the fine eggs Fabbrica sources through La Ferme, hen’s eggs that come from a farm near Tottenham. This one was hard boiled, peeled and beheaded then the yolk was removed and crumbled into a mixture of salt cod and mashed potato seasoned with chili and oregano, like a stiff brandade. The cod mixture was put back into the hollow egg white and garnished with two chives and a crispy ribbon of pancetta. Some of us saw the dish as a Provençal take on devilled eggs; others were reminded of an English breakfast of kippers, eggs and bacon – whatever. It was a delightful little opener. Matching wine to eggs is never easy. Craig De Blois from the Lifford wine agency had the job this night and chose a white Burgundy, Louis Jadot 2008 Bourgogne Chardonnay. It worked like a squeeze of lemon over the salt cod but the egg gave it the cold shoulder.

Octopus terrine and bitter greens

Our next course reminded me of days long ago when my wife and I lived in Corfu with our baby sons, experiencing the Greek village version of cucina povere. Our koubaros, Philip, taught us to dive for octopus and how to tenderize them by hurling them against the rocks 40 times. At Fabbrica they pop their fresh octopus into the freezer then thaw it again, which has the same effect and is much less messy. They cook it in just the same way we used to, placing it in a Le Creuset casserole with a touch of garlic, chili, parsley and just a dash of olive oil, putting on the heavy lid and then letting it seethe in its own juices. First it clenches like a huge fleshy orchid and turns purply pink; then it relaxes. Once cooked, the limbs are layered in a terrine with the gelatinous juices to bind them. Then, when the terrine is sliced, it ends up as a beautiful pattern of different cricles and colours. We each received a slice of this delicious treat set over a purée of long red chilies which had a gentle heat, strewn with chickpeas, shaved radishes and a variety of bitter greens dressed with parsley oil. The wine match was spot-on this time – Trout Valley 2009 Riesling from Nelson in New Zealand. Its racy acidity cut the richness of the octopus while a brisk minerality in the finish reached out to the chlorophyl flavours of the greens.
The next dish was classic Mark McEwan – oxtail slow-braised in a not-very-hot oven for hours until the meat is incredibly tender and the liquid is enriched by all the goodness from the joints of the tail bones and the integuments turn to jelly. Then the kitchen forks the meat apart, mixes it with a little very soft caramelized onion and folds it inside an oversized raviolo. The braising liquid isn’t wasted. McEwan lightens it up, refines it, balances the seasoning and then uses it to flood the plate around the raviolo. The final flourish is a perfectly seared day-boat scallop from the Maritimes set on top of the pasta like a golden tamoshanter. Oxtail and scallop is a brilliant combination – both so sweet and tender, both wickedly rich. Finding a wine with which to bless this unusual marriage was a challenge but De Blois triumphed again with another gem from New Zealand – Carrick 2007 Pinot Noir from Central Otago. Light enough to refresh the palate it had masses of flavour and no big rough tannins to bully the scallop.

The short rib

Our main course was also iconically McEwan – gorgeous beef short ribs seared and then marinated in red wine. When they emerge from this bath they slide into another of veal stock with a vegetable mirepoix to be braised long and slowly in the oven until the chef can lift the bones out of the meat. To make it easier to handle and slice, McEwan presses the meat and sets each portion on a soft bed of polenta enriched with mascarpone and Parmiggiano reggiano. Again the braising liquid becomes the rich, dark sauce for the dish. Meanwhile, Rob LeClair has been busy with tomatoes, deseeding them, partially dessicating them in a cool oven and then smoking them lightly over a trickle of applewood smoke. He purées them by hand using a mezzaluna, feeling anything more mechanical ruins the texture, and they form a dazzling accompaniment to the meat, strewn with a scattering of crispy shallots. This time De Blois went to Italy for a wine – a super 2005 Brunello di Montalcino from Tenuta di Castelgiocondo – that proved an inspired match. The room bowed to his genius.
After that, Debbie Levy from Dairy Farmers of Canada introduced the cheese course, starring the cheese that is the new Grand Champion at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. It’s called Louis d’Or and is a washed- and brushed-rind firm cheese made from raw, organic milk from a mixture of Jersey and Holstein cows. It comes from the Fromagerie du Presbytère and is incredibly hard to find in Ontario as the dairy only produces eight wheels a week. Mild and nutty with a fruity edge, it has a smooth texture and a subtle, beautifully balanced flavour. Levy chose two other finalists from the Grand prix to accompany it, both divine – Celtic Blue, a splendid, mild, creamy blue cheese from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario, and a 14-month-old clothbound Cheddar from Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. With them we drank Quinta da Noval NV tawny port which was a fine idea, its relative delicacy perpetuating the mood of restraint.

Trifle - or is it?

Dessert was a trifle. Just saying those words will cause certain ears to prick up. My mother makes the BEST trifle that has ever been built and anyone who dares to offer me anything from the zuppa Inglese tribe will have the memory of her Christmas trifle as insurmountable competition. Fabbrica’s talented pastry chef, Sabine Gradhauer, rose to the occasion however with an excellent confection starring the only fruit or neo-fruit we have at this time of year – forced pink rhubarb. This she stewed with some strawberries and a little wine adding layers of dark chocolate sponge cake, of whipped cream stirred with yoghurt and lemon and a final topping of strawberry granita and streusel crumble. It disappeared in a flash, helped along by a tangy 2008 Late Harvest Tokaji from Disznoko Furmint. But about that trifle… You will notice from the description that custard was conspicuous by its absence and I don’t know that a trifle can really be considered a trifle without custard. I shall use this loophole to remove Fabbrica’s dessert from any comparison with my mother’s.
Next up for the VISA Infinite series is a visit by Rob Feenie to Truffles in the Four Seasons hotel, Yorkville. I won’t be there, alas, but it sounds like it’s going to be an amazing occasion. Chef Feenie is bringing most of his ingredients with him from Vancouver. Find out more at www.visainfinite.ca.

 

22 Apr

This just in from Nobuyo Stadtlander: a new fund-raiser for Japan. Just because the western media has forgotten about the situation does not mean we should also turn away.

 

A Fowl Affair

21 Apr

Much delicious fun was had on Monday evening at Globe Bistro on the Danforth. Owner Ed Ho closed the place in order to allow his chef Kevin McKenna (ably assisted by Dan Sanders), together with six other talented toques, to stage the third dinner in a series collectively known as the Group of Seven. The first had taken place at Beast and had played against the reputation of the place by forcing each of the seven chefs to prepare a vegetarian dish. The second event was staged at Parts & Labour, where sustainable seafood was the theme. Monday’s plan was that every chef should do something with fowl. Lots were drawn to determine the order (leaving McKenna scratching his head about what to create for dessert) and the seven, released from the self-imposed tyranny of their menus, began to imagine the possibilities…

It’s always a pleasure to revisit Globe Bistro, one of the most elegant bistros around. There was a fair representation of the industry in the crowd, together with friends of the restaurant and fans of the chefs. Wines were generously provided by Fielding Estates of Niagara and Rosehall Run of Prince Edward County. Rosehall’s co-owner and winemaker, Dan Sullivan was most entertaining as he described the early days of the County and the lonely life of a pioneer vigneron: “If it’s one person doing it, it’s a nut in the woods; if it’s two, it’s a destination!” Then we began to eat.

First, Mark Cutrara

First up was Mark Cutrara of Cowbell who christened his dish “Cock ’n’ Balls.” There at the bottom of a wee bowl of clear partridge stock lay a whole, exeptionally tender cockscomb, two small, firm, sweetish, flavourful balls of partridge meat, two small dice of tongue and a little brunoise of carrot. It was delicately textured and beautifully balanced in terms of flavour and rather well matched with Rosehall 2008 Cuvée County Chardonnay, a lush, ripe, barrel-fermented beauty with vivid fruit and a final flourish of County minerality.

Second, Scott Vivian

Chef number two was Scott Vivian of Beast who introduced his dish as “a take on southern fried chicken livers.” He had taken whole chicken livers, battered and deep fried them and they were amazingly delicious, soft and offally in a crisp batter shell. A creamy ranch dressing cut the liverishness a little as did a couple of tartly pickled wild leeks, picked last week, and some small spikes of pickled fennel root. Soft beets were the third sweet-sour element but in case the livers should be overwhelmed by such a coalition, Vivian sent in a thick tranche of bacon. Heaven. With this we drank  Fielding 2010 Estate Riesling, aromatic, slightly off dry but with a ringing acidity that easily stood up to the pickles.

Third, Guy Rawlings

Guy Rawlings, who recently left Brockton General, was the third artist of the evening. He chose to work with the gizzards of drakes which he confited until they were unexpectedly tender, the texture most like that of a perfectly cooked lamb’s kidney. The presentation was typically rawlings with other interesting components all hither and yon on the plate, distanced – until you put them in your mouth. Thin dime-sized slices of salted carrot waved at garlic-mustard greens foraged that morning in the Don Valley. An emulsion of duck egg yolk, olive oil and garlic mustard streaked the plate and everything was strewn with a fine powder of pork “overcured” with smoked cinnamon and smoked black pepper. Rosehall’s 2007 Cabernet Franc picked out the subtle gizzard flavour like a sniper on the roof.

Fourth, Rob Gentile

The fourth chef to strut his stuff was Rob Gentile of Buca who described his dish as “zampone di pollo.” Zampone is usually a pig’s trotter stuffed with its skin but Gentile chose to work with a chicken leg. I’ve been trying to think how he did what he did. First he made a farce out of the rest of the chicken, adding a little lardo, then he must have peeled back the skin on the chicken leg, removed bone and flesh and stuffed the skin with the farce like a sausage. The result was deep-fried and set upon a bed of Italian lentils (perfectly cooked) sauced with a green purée of nettles, marjoram, mint, thyme, parsley and basil. For good measure, the clawed chicken foot was also included on the plate. Some people attempted to eat it, but I found it defied my ingenuity. The Fielding 2008 Cabernet-Syrah was most impressive.

Fifth, Bertrand Alepee

On to course five and chef Bertrand Alépée, late of Amuse Bouche, now freelancing as the mood takes him and thoroughly enjoying his liberty. His “squab en surprise” was essentially a pigeon Wellington, the tender squab breasts moistened with foie gras mousse and wrapped in buttery puff pastry (oh, such pastry – just in case anyone had forgotten that Bertrand began his career in the sweet kitchen). A truffled celeriac purée was as aromatic and sweetly earthy as you can imagine while some local seedlings I didn’t recognize added a herbal, chlorophylous element. And chef included the late squab’s inedible claw, raised in defiance, some blades of grass clenched in its tiny talons. A juniper-infused jus completed the spectrum of flavours, most of them neatly echoed in Rosehall’s succulent 2008 Pinot Noir.

Sixth, Matty Matheson

The penultimate treat came from Matty Matheson of Parts & Labour who offered a treatise on the goose. Around a mound of soft, sweet, tangy choucroute he set his proteins. First a mighty hunk of rare smoked goose breast – surprisingly sweet and delectably peppery. Then a sausage made from the bird’s heart, liver, kidney and skin, the flavours unexpectedly subtle. Some meat pulled from a confit of the goose thighs and some more from its braised neck. Around this hearty assemblage he spooned a foamy sabayon of goose fat and dijon mustard. Fielding’s Rockpile Pinot Gris was just the wine for this dish – Alsatian in its opulent texture, fragrantly fruity and with a streak of sweetness.

Quail for dessert, thanks to Kevin McKenna and Dan Sanders

And then it was time for dessert… Chef Kevin McKenna, who had so generously welcomed his colleagues into Globe’s slender kitchen, sent out his “fowl dessert,” which he called a kind of Baked Alaska made principally of quail. Here was a quail egg ice cream flavoured with bacon and topped with crumbled bacon playing the part of pecans. McKenna set it on a slice of almond genoise that he brushed with maple syrup and a hint of bacon-infused whisky. Beside the ice cream he set a puck of tangy sea buckthorn jelly. To the left, as the quail flies, he put a piped meringue made out of the whites of god-knows-how-many quail eggs. Beyond that was a creamy quail egg and a ribbon of something that tasted like the most profoundly flavoured caramel made from over-reduced quail stock, caramel, spices and chocolate. So extraordinary, and Fielding’s 2007 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer took care of any missing fruity matters.

It was all terrific fun and a fine opportunity to see seven of the city’s hot young talents showing what they can do. The next uprising of this Group of Seven takes place on June 6 at Cowbell where the theme of the evening will be BEEF. I imagine a quick call to Cowbell (416 849 1095) will secure a seat. I’m not sure how much it will cost but Monday’s feast was a bargain $99 plus $29 for the wine pairings.

 

Margaux Masterclass

19 Apr

 

A great wine is like a great performance at the Symphony. One starts with excellent grapes, the other with a fine piece of music, but both need a masterful interpretor to become truly unforgettable. Very few wines in the world offer the quality or the cachet of Château Margaux and an opportunity to taste older vintages should always be embraced. Even more exceptional is the chance to be part of a masterclass tasting with Mme Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the proprietor of Château Margaux since 1980. She is coming to Toronto next week, for the first time in 20 years, and wine lovers will have the opportunity to meet her at two events organized by the Volunteer Committee of the Toronto Symphony. It’s all in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the TSO Fine Wine Festival and all proceeds will support the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its educational outreach programs. Here are the details.

The main event, “An Evening with Château Margaux,” takes place at 6:00pm on April 26 at the Four Seasons Yorkville. Mme Mentzelopoulos will guide a masterclass tasting and discussion of nine Château Margaux wines she has selected, including the 1983 and the 1996 Château Margaux, followed by dinner. Tickets are available at $650, which represents a great value given the calibre of wines being served. While this price reflects the actual cost of the evening with no tax-receipt attached, patrons will have the opportunity to make a voluntary donation at their discretion. Such donations will be acknowledged in the evening programme and receive a full tax receipt.

The following evening, April 27, an even more exclusive reception in honour of Mme Mentzelopoulos and in the presence of the French Consul General is being held in the Rosedale home of Maureen and Wayne Squibb, major supporters of the TSO. Tickets for this reception are available at $1,000, and space is limited.  A tax receipt will be issued for the maximum amount allowable for this reception event.

“The chance to sample a wide variety of wines from this iconic château and engage with its visionary owner is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Marianne Oundjian, Co-Chair of the TSO Château Margaux Committee. “What a delight this promises to be for both wine and symphony lovers.” I couldn’t agree more.

For more information or to purchase tickets for the event, please contact Linda McGeown, TSVC, at 416-593-7769 ext. 359, or lmcgeown@tso.ca.

 
 

TOCA by Tom Brodi at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto

18 Apr

Dungeness crab meat with fennel crisp in a marrowbone

Where is it written that a five-star hotel must have a five-star restaurant? Actually, that is standard doctrine in most European manuals, but it doesn’t seem to apply these days in North America. Or maybe it’s just that our definition of a five-star restaurant differs from theirs. A third possibility is that the Ritz-Carlton company has a savvy read on what Toronto likes these days and decided to go for something tasty, local and middle-of-the-road in creating TOCA by Tom Brodi in their new Toronto hotel. The property looks great in a bright, shiny, modern way, hung with original Canadian art and with inlaid maple leaves in the lobby’s marble floor. In the distance, as one walks in, steps lead down to DEQ with its luxe sitting-room atmosphere, open fireplace, bar and patio. It also has its own menu of retro treats such as fondue or Pingue prosciutto sliced right there in the room on a vintage charcuterie slicer, the kind of machine with the silent, silky gears of a Rolls Royce.

For TOCA, however, one turns to the left, either into the chic bar where renowned bartender Moses McGintee holds mixological court beside a Mont Blanc of ice decorated with alluring seafood, or up the broad flight of stairs to the restaurant proper. No one could ever criticize a Ritz-Carlton for cutting corners where staffing is concerned. The room is bustling with hostesses, waiters, busboys, managers and sommeliers, many of them familiar faces from the city’s A-list restaurants. The rhythms of service aren’t quite smooth enough yet, but I dare say that will come. The room itself is certainly handsome. Part of it appears to float out over the bar below and for people hoping to have a conversation with their dinner the music seems obtrusively loud. The main dining area is farther back, separated by the glassed-in cheese cave where $250,000 worth of Cheese Boutique forms age in refrigerated splendour. Tables are polished wood (no linen here); lighting is flattering and many diners are offered a deliberately open view into the kitchen through the broad corridor of the pastry station.

The hotel has made a conscious effort to showcase Canadiana on the wine list, with ingredient sourcing and in their choice of chef. Tom Brodi was at Canoe for 11 years as Anthony Walsh’s right-hand man and he brings his local connections and knack for creating high-end takes on traditional dishes with him. He’s also of Hungarian heritage and uses it here the way Walsh uses his Quebec roots at Canoe. For example, lángos, a sort of puffed-up flatbread of fluffy fried potato-dough becomes a delicious base for double-smoked New Brunswick salmon, crème fraîche, seedlings and crispy garlic chips. Sommelier Lorie O’Sullivan likes to pair it with a very hoppy, unfiltered German Pilsner from downtown’s Duggan’s brewery – a most dramatic choice as the fish oil seems to boost the bitter hopping even further.

Other starters are more elegantly presented. Here’s a fabulous, rich, home-made-tasting duck and onion broth poured from a jug into a bowl containing duck confit meat, soft onion and croutons topped with an Ontario gruyère foam. Or here’s a marrowbone split lengthways to act as a vessel for a mixture of tender tasty dungeness crab meat with fennel and tiny medallions of the bone marrow. Brodi finishes it under the broiler with a sprinkling of gratinéed cheese then tops it with fennel foam and a tissue-thin stencil of a fennel root crisp. Crab and fennel is always a delectable combination – this dish takes them to lobster thermidor country.

West coast halibut with carrot foam

Mains play music for many masters. There are massive slabs of protein for those who need red meat or baked rock hen for poultry fanciers. Vegetarians have a treat in store with a dish of truffled ricotta ravioli smothered in wild mushrooms, fresh baby rocket and Jerusalem artichiokes in three different guises – as very soft roasted chunks, as little crisps scattered o’er, and as a foam (Brodi has an unapologetic affection for foams). A buttery mushroom sauce lies at the bottom but it’s the truffle oil in the ricotta that remains as the dish’s dominant aftertaste, its pungency masking the more subtle individual flavours of the mushrooms. This time, O’Sullivan’s match, a 2008 Fontodi Chianti Classico is spot on – one of the only wines we taste all night that isn’t from Niagara.

A fine, juicy fillet of West coast halibut arrives with a topknot of carrot foam like one of Kate Middleton’s hats. Wilted lettuce, petits pois and fingerlings lie beneath but anyone who orders this thinking it’s a lightweight option has been deceived. Diced smoked Berkshire bacon and an unctuous beurre blanc take it deep into the land of the rich and famous.

It’s been a while since I last saw “stew” on a menu but Brodi offers a good one, as down-home as anything in the city with exceptionally tender pieces of St. Canut piglet braised in a rich tomato-paprika gravy with fragrant little turnips, potatoes and baby white onions. Admirably light quark spätzle share the plate while dollops of sour cream and a separate cast-iron ramekin of sweet-tangy braised red cabbage adds the Magyar grace notes. Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Reserve is a suitably forthright, rustic match.

Piglet stew tastes home-made

After that, cheese is obviously on the cards, but the choice of three is made for you, which seems a bit of a let-down after staring all evening at so many options. And while cellar temperature is ideal for long ageing of cheeses it’s a bit too chilly for service. Desserts are very well executed. I loved the Grand Marnier soufflé with its separate jugs of vanilla crème anglais to pour in and a little serving of creamy vanilla ice cream. Deep dark sticky toffee pudding tastes more like black treacle (much more interesting than pale caramel) and finds its identical twin in a dark, viscous, raisiny 2001 Sangervasio Recinaio Vin Santo. This is a lively, interesting restaurant and the decision to set it up as an independent kitchen within the hotel is a smart one. It’s going to do very well at lunchtime as Bay Street suits find their way across University Avenue, and the steak program will challenge The Shore Club when that glam protein house opens next door later this year. TOCA’s breakfast takes me right back to hotel power breakfasts of the ’80s. And dinner? As the new clutch of luxury hotels develops the deep downtown they will start to generate their own business, I suppose. They may even bring Toronto back to the idea of dining in a hotel. The rest of the world does so with alacrity. It’s time we put aside our foolish prejudice and joined the party.

TOCA (it stands for TOronto CAnada) by Tom Brodi is inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel, 181 Wellington Street (at Simcoe Street). 416 572 8070.  www.tocarestaurant.com.

 

The Coronation of Martin Juneau

13 Apr

Chef of the day at Newtown, Montreal

Last night I was in Montreal to help present chef Martin Juneau with his trophy as Canadian Culinary Champion, a title he won in February at our Gold Medal Plates final. Juneau is chef of Newtown, the restaurant and bar once owned by Jacques Villeneuve – or rather chef of the chic, modern restaurant on the second floor of the four-storey property. His jurisdiction does not extend to the bar and terrace and the whole enterprise is overseen by Executive Chef Daren Bergeron who has often competed in Gold Medal Plates from his other location, Decca 77.

But last night belonged to Juneau and a bunch of us gathered to hand over the engraved cup that will be his for the next 10 months and the superb silver-and-gilt plate, both designed and created by BIRKS, which he is entitled to keep for ever. GMP Montreal Senior judge Robert Beauchemin was there; so was GMP Ottawa-Gatineau Senior judge Anne DesBrisay (who took these pictures) and a surprise guest, Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, who was in town on Slow Food convivium business and stayed to show the support of the west. The tone of the evening was set by Juneau himself, who tends to hide his heartfelt emotion behind a casual, laid-back manner, but the applause was long and loud for the champion and the two sous-chefs who competed alongside him in Kelowna, Laurent Roy Julien and Nicolas Point.

When we had done our happy duty, half a dozen of us stayed for dinner, ordering family style with the food set out in the middle of the table for all to share. We began with bison carpaccio sliced so thinly it almost painted the plate. One could have dragged a fork across it and left half behind. Juneau had seasoned it with a grinding of a spice that seemed uncommonly aromatic and exotic but was merely very fresh black pepper. Beside the meat stood piped dots of intensely flavourful grano padano cream, a salad of diced raw zucchini, and another of arugula topped with grated padano.

Scallops, seared to take them beyond gumminess but so briefly that their juices had barely seized, played a game of camouflage alongside braised cippolini onions in a potato foam; poached quail eggs provided a third example of soft, round, white delectability.

Quail breast rolled around a gently spiced boudin noir was cooked sous vide to give it a rare, trembling texture not found in nature. Beneath the meat were slices of raw Granny Smith apple and under them, a purée of browned onions with a deep, sweet flavour that balanced the boudin noir beautifully. A mound of lightly stewed apple and fennel served as a soft condiment.

Beefy beef cheek cheeky with carrots

Juneau loves to take a single, often humble vegetable and use it in several ways on a dish. He also likes involving a raw ingredient to provide freshness and texture, especially when the main protein is rich and unctuous. The dish with which he won the Championship – crisp-skinned St. Canut piglet belly glorified with various iterations of beetroot and Granny Smith apple – was one case in point. Another was last night’s beef cheek, the first of three main courses we also shared. The big chunk of meat proved marvellously tender and unctuous, set over carrot cut and cooked like fettucine and sauced by the beef’s seeping juices. Buttery mashed carrot shared the plate and the whole thing was smothered with ribbons of raw carrot. Bugs Bunny would have had a field day but for me, it was one carrot too many.

“Rabbit three ways” was delightfully inventive. The leg meat had been shredded, wrapped around the bone and then breaded and fried in a crisp panko crust like a pogo. The liver and kidneys were skewered and grilled. The tiny rack was cooked sous vide so that one could draw the soft meat off the toothpick-sized bones merely by sucking. The vegetable component was an unexpected but rather brilliant match – firm little edamame with wasabi mayo and a final sprinkling of shredded nori.

Halibut represented the denizens of the deep, a quivering fillet topped with tomato gratin and sliced chorizo, sitting on a mound of sweet, partially oven-dried tomatoes, baby kale and rapini. The waiter closed the deal by pouring a chorizo broth into the bowl. The dish ended up tasting much more of chorizo than of halibut, but perhaps that was the point.

Fragments of a dessert

Three desserts appeared, each of them consisting of distinct elements lined up on long, elegant plates. The first involved gorgeously moist, fresh apricot financier cake, moments of passionfruit foam and of yuzu curd, smiles of fresh orange injected with vanilla and slender white fins of meringue. The second starred fresh Quebec strawberries, almond sorbet, morsels of lemon cake and dabs of vanilla fromage blanc. The third envoi featured a chocolate mousse tartlet, julienne of fresh pear, pecan sorbet, brown butter cake and large dots of salted caramel cream that almost flirted with the flavour of bacon.

Newtown is at 1476 Crescent Street in Montreal (514-284-6555), a beacon of elegance and sophistication in a street better known for its balconied pubs and serious celebrations whenever the Canadiens play at home.

 

The Shackleton whisky

08 Apr

Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds on a fine Antarctic day

I love this story. I’ve been following it for months on that excellent blog, thewhiskyexchange.com, the source of these handsome pictures. It all began in January 2006, when some archaeologists from The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust checked the ice beneath the hut abandoned by English explorer Ernest Shackleton during his historic 1907-1909 quest to reach the South Pole and found four wooden cases of booze. Two were marked as containing an Australian brandy; the other two were splendidly emblazoned with the logo of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky. Here was a treasure trove indeed! Scotch over 100 years old – with an heroic pedigree to boot. Most people’s reaction would obviously have been “Quick! Drink it!” but the New Zealand scientists showed admirable respect and patience. A more exacting analysis was required…

But first, the back story. Every schoolboy knows of the exploits of Shackleton, gallant hero. His attempt on the Pole predated Amundsen and Scott by several years. He and his team set up camp on Cape Royds, Antarctica, building a wooden hut to serve as HQ before setting off for the Pole. They got to within 100 miles of their goal before Shackleton made the decision to turn back, saving his men’s lives (no one died) but leaving the ultimate prize for Amundsen. The men made it back to their hut but found that sea ice was forming so quickly they had to make a very fast exit. They left many artifacts and supplies behind, including the whisky, buried under the floorboards, entombed in ice.

Inside the hut

Mackinlay’s? That’s Chas Mackinlay & Co, to give the brand its full name, a blended Scotch that ended up as part of Invergordon Distillers, which in turn was purchased by Whyte & Mackay in 1995. They did next to nothing with the brand and it would probably have faded into oblivion if it weren’t for Shackleton. Whyte & Mackay’s billionaire owner, Vijay Mallya, was presented with a completely unexpected public-relations plum when the story broke. The New Zealand team were carefully thawing out a case of the 100-year-old Scotch in their lab. Mallya, most respectfully and carefully, sent his private jet to bring three bottles back to Scotland for analysis.

What did it taste like? Whisky expert David Broom was the lucky noser who was invited to describe it. “The Shackleton whisky is not what I expected at all,” he reported, “and not what anyone would have expected. It’s so light, so fresh, so delicate and still in one piece – it’s a gorgeous whisky. It proves that even way back then so much care, attention and thought went into whisky-making.”

Whyte and Mackay’s master blender, Richard Paterson, was then invited to analyse and replicate the whisky, a task that took him six weeks. “It was a real privilege getting to handle, nose and taste such a rare and beautiful bottle of whisky,” he writes. “The quality, purity and taste of this 100-year-old spirit was amazing. The biggest surprise was the light flavour and the clear, almost vibrant colour of the liquid. I hope I have done our forefathers and Ernest Shackleton proud with the replica.”

David Broom believes he has. “I think the replication is absolutely bang on,” he declares. “Richard has done a great job as it’s a very tricky whisky to replicate, because you have this delicacy, subtlety and the smoke just coming through. The sweetness, fragrance and spice, and the subtle smoke, are all there in the replica. I’m blown away.”

Paterson worked with a range of highland malts, including Glen Mhor, which was a principal component of Mackinlay’s before the distillery closed in 1983. The original whisky was bottled at 47.3%, possibly to prevent the spirit freezing in Antarctic temperatures, so Paterson copied that too. Official tasting notes conclude that the replica “has a light honey and straw gold colour with shimmering highlights. The nose is soft, elegant and refined with delicate aromas of crushed apple, pear and fresh pineapple. It has a whisper of marmalade, cinnamon and a tease of smoke, ginger and muscovado sugar. The generous strength of the 47.3% whisky gives plenty of impact, but in a mild and warming way. It has whispers of gentle bonfire smoke slowly giving way to spicy rich toffee, treacle and pecan nuts.”

Fifty thousand bottles of the replica have been made. Each one will cost £100, with 5% from every sale being donated back to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the New Zealand charity responsible for finding and uncovering the original whisky. If all 50,000 bottles are sold the Trust will receive £250,000.

Meanwhile, the three bottles have been flown back to New Zealand, and when all is said and done they will be returned to their case and buried again in the ice beneath Shackleton’s hut. Who knows whether Mackinlay’s will also be re-interred after this charming revival? We shall see.

One of the cases, disinterred from the ice

 

The Toronto Standard – birth of a voice

07 Apr

Tonight I went to the launch party for the Toronto Standard, the city’s new online magazine. I am its food critic. I have no idea how all this will pan out but I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t the start of a beautiful friendship. Our city itself, the subject of most of the writing, will judge with its usual alacrity. The mandate is to be a touch more international and a tad more sophisticated in our approach than a mere city magazine. As I write, we are three hours old. I’d love to know what you think of us. See what you think of www.torontostandard.com then post a comment below. The best one wins a prize.

 

Brunch with Jamie Kennedy

04 Apr

Setting up for Brunch

I don’t know about brunch. It’s neither one thing nor the other. It takes up the heart of a day and callously obliterates the need for afternoon tea. Then again, a really first-class brunch party is pretty splendid. We threw such an event on Sunday in Jamie Kennedy’s event space at the Gardiner Museum, as part of the VISA Infinite Dining Series. The sun shone; the Kevin Cody Trio played mellow jazz; three California wine houses from the Central Coast provided a broad array of rare and delectable wines, some of which could be guaranteed to please a late-morning palate while others seemed like much more unlikely candidates. And Chef Kennedy did us more than proud. All in all, I would say this was the best brunch I’ve ever eaten.

From the outset, I was reminded of the words of English journalist Guy Beringer, writing in 1895 in a magazine called Hunter’s Weekly: “Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.” That was the first ever use of the word “brunch” and it’s interesting how the concept caught on – and how the mood of it hasn’t really changed very much in the intervening 115 years. From the beginning, brunch was as much a party as a meal, which is one good reason why bubbly is the drink most associated with it. We served a good one – Bogle Vineyards Clarksburg Brut Blanc de Blancs 2009 – crisp, biscuitty, with a citrus edge. It worked beautifully with the little hors d’oeuvres Kennedy created before our very eyes – blinis made with Red Fife wheat flour fried at the station in the dining room and topped with a dab of crème fraîche, a teaspoonful of a salad made from finely shaved radishes and onions, a slice of lightly smoked local pickerel and a garnish of whitefish roe from Georgian Bay – gorgeous apricot-coloured caviar that is one of Ontario’s finest home-grown treats.

The blini, smoked fish and caviar station

Then we sat down and I began to eat my weight in Chef’s freshly baked Viennoiserie of croissants, scones and brioche with crème fraîche and blueberry jam while our wine guests introduced themselves – Jody Bogle, charming proprietor of Bogle Vineyards; Walter Whyte, Sales Director of Peachy Canyon Winery (his wry wit had the room in stitches); and Scott Montgomery now regional manager for the Americas of Delicato Family Vineyards.

Kennedy’s next gambit was a fabulous oyster stew made with plump, demurely flavoured Caraquet oysters from New Brunswick simmered with sliced fingerling potatoes and onion in a broth made with Delicato’s Fog Head Highlands Chardonnay and cream, all seasoned with chives, black pepper and nutmeg. It was beautifully judged, luxe but not too rich, the nutmeg lifting the hint of minerality in the oysters’ flavour. We tasted two wines with it – the Chardonnay, which was full-bodied, ripe and oaky, and Bogle’s 2009 Chenin Blanc, lighter, aromatic and crisply acidic. Somehow the soup enhanced the fruit in the Chenin, making it an even more inspired choice. The crowd was unanimous in their appreciation of Kennedy’s skills as a sommelier but wondered about the next course – a bright spring salad that Chef had decided to pair with Bogle Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir and Peach Canyon 2009 Viognier.

We showed have known better. Kennedy was batting 1000 that morning. The salad was basically made up of anything Jamie could find at this dormant time of year – some leafy lettuces from local hydroponic greenhouses, some crisp radishes and juicy, bittersweet endives from Cookstown Greens. He tossed the leaves in a creamy vinaigrette, scattered brioche croutons over them, and finished with a strewing of finely chopped, crisply fried, unabashedly salted shallots. If bacon ever needs an understudy in the garnish department, those shallots would win the role. They lifted the salad into the same league of flavour intensity as the wines. The Viognier (the only white Peachy Canyon produces) turned out to be massive – off-dry, very alcoholic, with plenty of acidity and a nose of ripe star fruit and yellow plum. The Pinot Noir seemed delicate by comparison, smoky, earthy, a blend of Russian River and Clarksburg fruit with an elegant structure under its merry cherry greeting.

The next dish brought in two inevitable bruncheon ingredients – eggs and cheese. In this case, Kennedy had made a quiche-like tart featuring Monforte Taleggio cheese and little flecks of smoked bacon from his bacon guy, Fred Martinez in Sebringville. He surprised us all by adding another component to the course – a perfect chicken galantine stuffed with chopped leeks. But it was the sauce on the plate that picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the wines – a rich, smooth, fiery red sauce made from last summer’s red peppers and tomatoes. It came out with its dukes up ready to fight Peachy Canyon’s suave Westside 2007 Zinfandel and Delicato’s complex 2008 181 Merlot but ended up hugging them both. None of us could decide which wine worked better so honours were shared.

Debbie Levy from the Dairy Farmers of Canada borrowed the mic to introduce the next course – a little plate loaded with creamy, unctuous Bella Casa Burrata, drizzled with honey, and a fine nippy 8-year-old cheddar from Maple Dale. Kennedy had chosen to serve Peachy Canyon’s inky, extracted, 2007 Petite Sirah, a wine full of deep dark thoughts about the soul of blackcurrants and blueberries. Maybe it was the salted crackers and toasted hazelnuts but the wine worked magnificently with the creamy burrata – a total surprise for many.

After that it only remained to finish off the finale, a strudel made with the last of the autumn apples from 2010 and the first baby-pink forced rhubarb of 2011 paired with maple ice cream.

There are still some Dinner Series events left, though you have to be a VISA Infinite card holder to qualify for tickets. I’m looking forward to emceeing dinner at Fabbrica with Mark McEwan on April 26 and a more casual Chef Experience with Langdon Hall’s Jonathan Gushue at The Market Kitchen at St. Lawrence Market on June 15. More details at www.visainfinite.ca.