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Archive for May, 2011

Bute Street farmers Market

29 May

A merry market for a Saturday morning

London abounds in excellent farmers markets. I’ve written before about the gastronomic glories of Borough Market or the tiny, expensive Pimlico Road market watched over by a statue of the boy Mozart. The one my mother uses is a street market that closes quaint little Bute Street in South Kensington every Saturday morning. It’s already a food-conscious thoroughfare the rest of the week with a super fishmonger called Moxon’s, a number of cafes and bakeries and some of London’s best gelato at Oddino’s. Saturday brings over a dozen stalls offering all sorts of delightful treats. So dangerous to venture in if one is hungry…

English strawberries have a different flavour than our fragrant Ontario varieties. Sweet and juicy but less aromatic these are just the babies to mash up with cream and sugar or pop one at a time while enjoying the spectacle of England’s batsmen punishing the Sri Lankan bowling.

 

Madame Gautier Traiteur is a company created by two French cooks offering an irresistible range of prepared dishes, some hot – whole pot-roasted chickens (so tender, so full of flavour) with a pungent herb stuffing bathing in simmering gravy, a massive chuck of beef in a sort of sauce chasseur – some cold – duck confit, Catalan meatballs of lamb and mint, boeuf bourgignon, etcetera.

 

Moxon’s specializes in the harvest of the still-fecund seas around Great Britain: dressed crabs and oysters from Essex, brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay, North Sea herring and Dover sole, Cornish mackerel, smoked eel, Scottish salmon…

 

Nut Knowle Farm is a goat milk dairy in East Sussex. Their smoked St. George cheese was recently voted Britain’s best goat cheese; their more recent endeavour, Martlet Gold, is even better – a powerful cheese with a real lactic tang – and absolutely delicious with a glass of strong, dry cider.

 

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…

25 May

When an old friend runs to seed...

All year, I have been waiting for this moment in my garden – when the eager perennials prove that they have survived another winter and the dilatory perennials reluctantly acknowledge that they too intend to show up again, albeit much later, and stick their shiny green noses up through the smothering sod. There is much rejoicing at the news, but only for two days. The evil Norway Maples that loom over my backyard like halitosis-ridden maths teachers over an ignorant and recalcitrant schoolboy suddenly come into leaf just as the hostas start to yawn and stretch and that is the end of summertime where sunshine is concerned. Not a glimmer of Phoebus in his glory until November – not in my backyard.

This year, however, we have other, more sinister concerns to worry us. Something is seriously up with my rhubarb. This is a legendary crown of rhubarb brought from Scotland in the mid 1800s and cherished by a succession of owners, in which lineage I have the honour to be the fifth. I get three crops a year from my precious patch. A week ago, however, following the incessant rains that (it turns out) were not a precursor of the American Rapture but more like something from a Somerset Maugham short story set in Malaya in 1920, a strange tumescence became apparent. It was very Ridley Scott, very Alien, like something bulging and eager inside a latex membrane on the end of a rhubarb stalk that had grown from another rhubarb stalk…

So what? Well, imagine a new arm grew from your regular, familiar, everyday arm. You’d be freaked out too, no? Even Kafka would admit it was weird.

Day three, the membrane sort of peeled away from the fistlike clump on the end of the stalk and something like a pink and yellow cauliflower was revealed. We have all seen Matango, Attack of the Mushroom People. And we all know how predictable it is that an inexplicable and vigorous vegetal GROWTH coinciding with rumours of the END OF THE WORLD can only be something profoundly dangerous conjured from the mind of some all-powerful human-hating horticulturalist egged on by the ghost of John Wyndham.

I bend closer to look…

“Hey, professor, over here…!”

“What is it, Brad?”

“Some kind of rhubarb flower, I think, though it’s like nothing I’ve ever…”

“Fascinating…”

“Wait! It’s moving! Oh no! Oh, sweet mother of… Nooooooooo…”

We all know what happens next. Brad becomes one of them.

The squirrels (having eaten my rhododendrons) will not go near this throbbing alien lifeform. By night, the racoons huddle like superstitious peasants when they come upon it, crossing themselves and scurrying away.

Yesterday, I stood before it as the sun came up (mankind is always braver as the sun comes up) and called forth whatever entity had possessed my old rhubarb crown. Suddenly, a demonic, ultraviolent gust of wind bowed the maples above me. The sky grew swiftly dark and lowering under charcoal clouds. Carmina Burana was playing in my head… I ran into the house.

I’m off to England tomorrow. Who knows what I will find when I return?

 

Aria

22 May

 

Overhead at Aria

The area around the Air Canada Centre continues to flourish as an entertainment destination – what was once parking lots and wasteland now morphed into glamorous restaurants like Aria and E11even and the prince of all sports bars, Real Sports, inside the building itself. Last night we went to Aria, the beautiful restaurant at the foot of the new Telus tower. The team behind the tower are among the many loyal long-time fans of Noce, the 18-year-old, rather quaint Italian restaurant on Queen West, which led to their invitation to Noce’s owners, Elena Morelli and Guido Saldini, to create the new restaurant in their building. It opened two months ago and it’s a beauty, designed by architect Stephen Pile.

The space is on the corner so two sides of the room are floor-to-ceiling windows. “They’re 36 feet high,” explained the dapper Saldini, “so we get a great deal of light in here. And just hanging the fine-mesh steel curtain that covers the southern wall of windows was an incredible undertaking.” A third wall is a vertical, glassed-in wine cellar that houses the large inventory of wines, all of them excellent, all but a few beyond my wallet. The bar is backlit with pinkish red lights against which horizontal bottles of Gaja wine seem to swim like a school of black fish. Filling the air in this handsome lightbox is an extraordinary sculpture by Dennis Lin of ribbons of walnut wood (noce being Italian for walnut (geddit?)) swooping and writhing above and around glittering Moooi spheres of metal filigree studded with tiny lights like the balls of a giant plane tree bewitched by a fairy godmother. It all stops just on the honest side of Vegas kitsch – the antithesis of bland, and all the more welcome for that in our too-beige town.

I should say at once that this is an expensive dinner. The owners had no wish to be seen as the neighbourhood cheapy. It’s also very good – the best meal I’ve had so far this year. Chef Eron Novalaski, who came here from Noce, does posh northern Italian very well with some very fine textures to be found. Details are particularly well attended to. Grissini in the bread basket are crisp and peppery instead of generic; the butter and the dark green olive oil are of the finest. Water glasses are hand-blown Murano glass highlighted in crimson and the water that goes in is house-filtered and carbonated. The sense of quality is established before the first dish has been tasted.

Scallop crudo to start things off

I like the arrangement of the menu. There’s an opening section for nibbles such as salted anchovies served with bread and house-made butter or a nice little affettati of house-cured charcuterie, all of it first class especially ribbons of nicely seasoned lardo and silky Piottosino prosciutto from Italy. Wild mushroom soup is a true velouté, smooth and thick as paint with a deep mushroom flavour and a finish of golden oil flecked with minced black truffle.

Then comes an area devoted to crudi. When we failed to order any of those dishes the kitchen turned one into an amuse bouche – gorgeous slivers of sweetly gummy raw Hokkaido scallop topped with crispy chickpeas and bathed in a rosemary vinaigrette.

The dish that earned my first “wow” rating of 2011 was Aria’s version of vitello tonato, one of my favourite things to eat in the world. The veal was impeccable – pan-seared tenderloin sliced very thinly; the sauce a purée of tuna, capers, anchovy (you can taste all three) bound with egg yolk. It’s the quality of the eggs that give the sauce its unexpectedly yellow colour. Tiny potato chips the size of dimes add subtle crunch while a garnish of miniature fronds and microgreens bring fleeting bittersweet chlorophyl flavours. Deftly done.

Marvellous vitello tonnato

Specials abound, expertly related by the friendly, smart server. Fresh soft-shelled crab from B.C. is a much bigger creature than we are accustomed to in high-street sushi bars. Here, the juicy body and limbs are lightly and crisply battered then set over mashed avocado and quartered cherry tomatoes – not the most imaginative of accompaniments but pleasant enough.

The one disappointment of the evening was a pasta – chitarrine al pomodoro e basilico. Basil was no more than a distant backnote in the thick, ketchuppy tomato sauce while the chitarrine seemed heavy and stodgy. But a whole grilled branzino was flawless, the snow-white flesh moist, fluffy and flavourful beneath the crisped skin. It came with a side dish of boiled potatoes simply dressed with parsley. Nothing else was needed.

Roasted and deboned quail, a dish that requires nice timing if it isn’t going to dry out. Another box ticked – the slightly crisp skin was a tad too salty but the quail itself was juicy and sapid, its sometimes elusive flavour chirping loud and clear. The meat was set over creamy polenta enriched with bone marrow and thick chunks of wild mushroom moistened with a dark foie jus. I ordered a glass of 2008 Insoglio del Cinghiale from Tenuta Il Biserno to go with it. Yes, it’s a bit too big and dark and brooding for quail (it would have been better with the tomahawk steak, there being no wild boar on the menu) but it’s rare to find this Tuscan beauty offered by the glass and I couldn’t resist.

Steve Song is Aria’s pastry chef. I have followed his work for years, first falling for his enormous talents when he was creating amazing dessert using Lindt chocolate at Oro, a decade ago. There was chocolate on his two offerings last night – one a rich dark chocolate opera cake with gold leaf decorating the glossy icing and Bailey’s crème anglais lapping at its base; the other a “duomo” of hazelnut dacquoise, dusted with chocolate and sitting on finely sliced poached pear and a solid base of hazelnut meringue. Pure self-indulgence.

Any minute now, Aria will spill out into the open piazza with tables and umbrellas to add even more to the downtown summer scene. Funny that so much of the city’s glamour seems to be percolating down to this part of the city. Funny how many of the new restaurants of the last two years have an Italian schema! Hands up who remembers the ’80s.

Aria is inside the Telus building at 25 York Street, just south of the railway tracks and hard by the ACC. 416 363 2742.

 

FoodShare – be there or be square

20 May

This is the season for festivities and fund-raisers when important and worthy charities call upon the community to do its bit for the general good. Of course, they also call upon chefs and restaurateurs, wineries and breweries to provide the necessary bait that will lure the general public into showing up and opening their wallets. It never ceases to amaze me how often and how selflessly the hospitality industry donates time and treasure and expertise to these worthy causes. In a business where profit margins are at best limited, the effort expended is even more commendable.

Now then… Here is another event behind which we should all throw our support. It’s called Recipe for Change and the purpose is to promote Food Literacy in schools. I’m all in favour of food – and literacy – and schools. And I particularly admire FoodShare and the work it does in our schools. In the past, I have looked into the sometimes deplorable state of nutrition within our education systems. There are many dedicated people working really hard to improve matters, but the problem is enormous. Anyone with children – or with an ounce of common sense – knows that hungry or malnourished children have to struggle to learn. Here is an opportunity to do something about it. What follows is the press release about the Tasting Adventure Dinner set for May 26. This one is really important.

31 Top Toronto Chefs, 8 Wineries and a Brewery Make for One Delicious Recipe for Change on May 26

Tasting Adventure Dinner Supports Food Literacy in Schools

 

On Thursday, May 26, 2011, an unprecedented 31 top Toronto Chefs will come together with 8 local wineries and a local brewery to serve up one fantastic meal with delicious consequences: Food Literacy in schools.

Recipe for Change is a Tasting Adventure unlike any other: a full meal with beverage accompaniments plus unheard-of opportunities to mingle with 31 Chefs seldom found in the same room, let alone contributing to the same meal.

Toronto Chef Luminaries contributing to this special night include Didier Leroy of Didier, Fabio Bondi of Local Kitchen, Martin Kouprie of Pangaea, Anthony Rose of The Drake Hotel, Winlai Wong of Spice Route, Donna Dooher of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, Steffan Howard of Palais Royale, Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy, Albert Ponzo of Le Sélect Bistro, Michael Van Den Winkel of Quince, Rocco Agostino of Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto, Luis Valenzuela of Torito, Chris McDonald of Cava and Xococava, David Garcelon & Tim Palmer of the Fairmont Royal York, Marc Breton of the Gladstone Hotel, Anne Yarymowich of Frank at the AGO, Mark Cutrara of Cowbell, Zane Caplansky of Caplansky’s Delicatessen, and more.

Recipe for Change is a celebration of food with a purpose, supporting FoodShare’s Field to Table Schools program, which returns Food Literacy to students from Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12.

FoodShare is the only organization in Toronto taking a complete, multi-faceted and creative approach to food in schools, approaching issues of childhood nutrition from all angles. The organization pioneered the model for student nutrition programs in the City of Toronto, which works hand-in-hand with its Field to Table Schools program, the educational complement that returns food education to schools delivering hands-on fun food activities and curriculum connections from Junior Kindergarten through Grade 12 to cultivate Food Literacy. FoodShare’s “Good Food Café” is a successful healthy cafeteria, which the Toronto Star has called “the future of school lunches.” And in 2010 the organization helped facilitate Canada’s first school market garden at Bendale Business and Technical Institute in Toronto.

“At FoodShare, we’re cooking up a Recipe for Change,” says executive director Debbie Field, “we’re reminding children what food is and where it comes from, teaching that healthy food also tastes good, and helping them to choose it for themselves. Now with the help of this amazing group of chefs, and the Recipe for Change event on May 26, we are taking this work to a new level: leading the charge to embed food education in the Ontario curriculum and make Food Literacy a requirement of graduation for our students. Recipe for Change will take our vision for students to new heights: healthy fresh food in schools, and students being taught to cook, garden and compost throughout all the subject areas.”

Complete details on the event may be found at http://foodshare.net/RFC2011/index.htm, including chef bios, and all food and beverage offerings. Tickets are just $100, a steal for a full meal and accompanying beverages and a fantastic night out.

Marion Kane (former Food Editor of the Toronto Star, local food sleuth and broadcaster) calls Recipe for Change “the best fundraising feast I have attended”, saying of the inaugural 2010 event that “chefs and guests all relished the fantastic food and uplifting spirit.”

When: Thursday, May 26, 2011, 6-9pm

Where: St Lawrence Market North Building (92 Front St E., Toronto’s first marketplace)

Details: http://foodshare.net/RFC2011/index.htm

FoodShare Toronto (www.foodshare.net) is Canada’s largest community food security organization. Now in its 26th year, FoodShare works with communities to improve access to healthy, affordable, sustainably-produced food through community-based programs and policy recommendations, with a vision of Good Healthy Food for All. FoodShare’s programs, which reach over 145,000 children and adults per month in Toronto, include fresh produce sourcing and sales, childhood nutrition, hands-on food education from JK-Grade 12, a healthy school cafeteria model, gardening, composting, cooking, and urban agriculture. See a full backgrounder on FoodShare’s multifaceted work in schools and childhood nutrition at: http://foodshare.net/download/FoodShare’s%20work%20in%20schools%20backgrounder.pdf

 
 

Canada’s Innocent Gun

17 May

The Canadian brew

A beautiful coincidence… I have just been writing about Innis & Gunn Original, the Scottish oak-aged beer, for the upcoming Holiday issue of the LCBO magazine Food & Drink, when what should appear on my doorstep but the new, brief star from the brewery produced in honour of Canada Day. Innis & Gunn is an accidental work of art. The story goes that a whisky distillery decided to temper some bourbon casks they were intending to use for their whisky by filling them with ale. The ale remained in the casks for 37 days and was then poured out. The experiment worked and the distillers (Wm. Grant & Sons) ordered more. Meanwhile the brewers tasted the no-longer-wanted ale and found that it was amazing! Oak-aged! Complex and profound and full of oaky-whisky aromatics. (Full disclosure: it was the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh; the brothers who made the discovery and went on to develop the notion of oak-aged beer are Neil Innis Sharp and Douglas Gunn Sharp – hence the name Innis & Gunn, also known as Innocent Gun in the UK…)

Canada embraced the original and the blonde versions of this remarkable beer so whole-heartedly thatfor the last three years Innis & Gunn have produced a special Canada Day beer as an acknowledgement and thankyou to their loyal fans across the ocean. The latest iteration will be in LCBO stores and widely available across Canada while stocks last. It’s extremely delicious – robust, oaky, with a rich, resinous nose of Fuggles hops and oaky vanilla flavours among the malty sweetness. I had thought they might have slapped in some maple syrup or something to Canadianize the brew but they are wiser and more subtle than that. To quote from the smart gift box, “Alongside ale malt we have added Munich malt to give a beautiful biscuit backbone as well as golden oats which have added a wonderful creamy smooth finish. We have used one single variety of Fuggles hops grown in East Kent, England. These have added their signature earthy, rich and resinous hop aromas and character.”

I don’t usually quote from back labels because they are usually a tissue of lies but in this case the I&G team is spot on.

And to properly Canadianize the product they have boxed it with artwork by Ontario artist Deborah Colvin, a whimsical image of wild hockey against a map of Canada. Such a lot of trouble for a Scottish brewery to go to just to flatter their Canadian clientele!

This is a strong beer at 8.3% alcohol by volume – kind of a barley wine, which takes me back to my university days and a barley wine served in the Turf Tavern pub off Holywell Street (of blessed memory) and the night when a rugby-playing Goliath threatened me with violence unless I changed my tipple to a Real Ale (CAMRA had just been invented). But I digress. A week ago I would have rejected this oak-aged brew as unseasonal, but then the sun was shining and I was in a T-shirt digging the garden. Now we have chilly Vancouver drizzle and the rich, hearty, malty ale seems entirely à propos.

 

Be a Taster

16 May

An image from last year - gorgeous Canadian caviar - ah, the romance of the roes

 

Buy a $250 ticket for Toronto Taste on June 12 and you have just provided 250 Second Harvest meals for people in need. That’s the all-important bottom line, of course, but the event has also grown into so much more in its 21 years of existence. For foodies, it’s an opportunity to taste the work of 60 chefs and 30 wine or beer producers – and, even more alluring, to meet the chefs and their teams and chat with them face-to-face. For others, it’s a social affair, a charity gala for a good cause with the always amusing Bob Blumer (author of The Surreal Gourmet books) as master of ceremonies. This year, again, it’s being held inside and outside the ROM and I’m thoroughly looking forward to going. There are always questions to be asked. Will pork be the ubiquitous protein du jour again? Can I eat all 60 offerings? What if I run into any or all of my current nemeses?

Toronto Taste has raised over $4 million for Second Harvest. Auctions as well as ticket sales have made their contribution. This year the lots seem particularly interesting and include a Fiat 500 car and also a barrel of David’s Block Chardonnay 2010 donated by Tawse Winery. This unique prize will yield approximately 300 bottles of custom labelled wine.

Tickets are available for purchase for $250 each (with a tax receipt issued for $125) at torontotaste.ca or by calling 416.408.2594. For additional information and to see the impressive line up of chef and beverage participants, as well as details on the auctions and raffle, please visit torontotaste.ca.

 

The Sausage League

14 May

Cory Vitiello's sausage - best or wurst?

Game on! Last Wednesday saw the opening round of Sausage League play and it was a very close match. The League is the creation of Ryan Donovan, butcher-charcoutier at Marben restaurant and features a series of chef-versus-chef sausage stand-offs on Wednesday nights over the coming months. By the time we get down to the championship match on September 28th only three chefs will be left.

Wednesday’s encounter was a merry one with chef Anthony Rose from the Drake hotel squaring off against The Harbord Room’s Cory Vitiello. I sat at the counter that looks into the kitchen which was even busier than usual as Marben’s own chef, Carl Heinrich, and his team put forth their regular dinner menu for a packed restaurant and a large private party downstairs. Lots of people opted to eat the two sausage dishes as part of dinner ($25 bought both dishes and a bottle of cold, refreshing Steamwhistle beer). Those who did were entitled to vote for the winner.

There were some attempts at influencing the decision, notably by Vitiello who added a persuasive postscript to the description of his dish that read “For your consideration, people: Anthony Rose supports the murdering & slaughter of giant pandas & baby seals to produce his signature giant panda & baby seal bacon burger. As far as the rest of us are concerned, so do you if you vote for him. Ethically yours, The Harbord Room.” I don’t know how many hearts and minds were swayed by this libel but all is fair in Sausage League play.

Chef Vitiello served his sausage to me first. It was a thick slice of smoked veal bockwurst finished in a frying pan and had a very fine texture like a mousseline – lightweight, almost bouncy – and a delicate, sweetly smoky flavour. With it, chef served a little salad of shaved fennel and celery heart (lovely crunchy contrasts to the sausage) and there were tartly pickled mushrooms, crispy capers and crisp-fried shallots on top. The salad was dressed with a juniper-verjus vinaigrette that brought all the flavours to life and the whole thing was crowned with a panko-crusted fried egg yolk to add extra richness. The dish was a delightfully harmonious affair, the sausage very much a team player.

Anthony Rose's scallop-and-lobster extravaganza

Chef Rose offered a very creative take on bangers and mash. His sausage was another soft, delicate affair, a mousseline of scallop containing nuggets of very tender lobster meat wrapped in prosciutto and then pan fried. The cloudlike texture was brought deliciously to earth by the prosciutto and by the green mashed potato on the plate (green because the spuds were stirred with a purée of wild leek. Four different-coloured varieties of cooked cherry tomatoes lay around on the plate, each one a warm, tangy juice bomb that exploded in the mouth, and again a vinaigrette quickened the entire experience.

Hoping to stay long enough to find out who won the competition I moved on to Ryan Donovan’s charcuterie plate and sausages of a very different kidney. He had made a fabulous salami, coarse-grained but beguilingly tender and flavoured with Fernet Branca in honour of British chef Fergus Henderson, whose favourite tipple it is. What a dazzlingly brilliant idea! The hint of bittersweet herbs added a fascinating extra dimension. Also on the wooden board were ribbons of lardo cut so thin they were almost translucent, the blocks of lard rubbed down with fennel, coriander, paprika and dried chilies then cured for three months. Here was a terrine of rabbit loin and pork enhanced by the rabbit liver, egg, milk and red wine. And over there silky slices of Berkshire ham glazed with walnut syrup and then set for a while in the smoker with smouldering chips of applewood from Donovan’s parents’ orchard. The last element of the collation was a chicken ballotine, incredibly juicy and tasty. Donovan makes it by making a farce of the chicken’s brown meat mixed with mushroom, wrapping it like a sausage in the chicken skin and then cooking it very slowly, sous-vide, before a finishing stint in the frying pan. Gorgeous stuff – and even more delectable with pickled ramps and cornichons, Kozlick’s triple crunch mustard and a cool, subtly sweet compote of carrot and cardamom.

Ryan Donovan's dazzling charcuterie at Marben

Meanwhile the votes were being tallied. I was in two minds… Vitiello’s dish was a better dish in terms of balance, but Rose’s sausage was more interesting. And it was a sausage competition. I put my x next to Rose’s name but, as is often the case in life as well as in the Sausage League, the majority did not share my opinion. So Cory Vitiello goes on to the next round.

I can’t help thinking Ryan Donovan’s Henderson salami would win the whole enchilada if only he entered the competition…

Future dates are as follows: Wednesday May 25th, C5 v. Marron Bistro; Wednesday June 8th, La Palette v. Parts & Labour; Wednesday June 22nd, The Stop Community Food centre v. Table 17;  Wednesday July 6th, The Healthy Butcher v. Trevor Kitchen; and Wednesday July 27th, Torrito v. Pizzeria Libretto/Enoteca Sociale. Playoffs take place August 10th, 24th and September 21st. The final Championship match, as mentioned, is on September 28th.

 

Liberty Belle Bistro

11 May

Old-school onion soup. Every table has a different salt and pepper shaker.

My wife knows from renovation. She could write a book about it. And she tells me that the reno conducted by chef-owner Aidan Pascoe and his father that has given the world Liberty Belle is first class. It’s a cute little bistro on the edge of Liberty Village – 24 seats plus six stools at the handsome wooden bar, and an outside patio for warm evenings – with a décor full of gathered details. Carved wood may have come from a church pew; the swing doors into the kitchen are stained glass; a poster of can-can girls cheers up the narrow vestibule and becomes the company’s graphic. Specials are written up on a blackboard, which is just as well because we can’t hear the hard-working server thanks to a table of three young women behind us – the noisiest people I have ever heard in a restaurant, braying and screeching and shouting each other down. Thank God they are already having dessert as we sit down.

Pascoe’s menu is consciously retro French bistro, offered without any obvious irony. Enough time has passed since the mass extinction of French bistros in the 1990s that onion soup, moules frites and steak tartare are no longer clichés though they are still familiar enough that any chef attempting them must show why, either with some new twist or by doing them very well. The onion soup is exemplary – masses of finely sliced, browned onions cooked down until they almost dissolve in their own sweet broth all hidden beneath a thick floe of crusty bread and bubbling browned cheese. It’s cave-aged Quebec gruyère, rich and delectable, and the portion would be enough for a normal person’s dinner.

Steak tartare was less successful, the meat ground instead of chopped and mixed up with a rather overwhelming amount of gherkin and capers. It didn’t feel as if there were any egg yolk to bind things together so the texture was crumbly – a tartare lite – without any sense of sticky rawness. Brioche toast points were fine and the lone pickled green chili on the plate made me long for more.

Carolina stone bass - pretty as a picture

A plate of forthright hush puppies was another huge portion, the dense balls of cornmeal flecked with the merest suggestion of bacon and scallion. Their surface was pleasingly crisp and there was a decently creamy horseradish sauce for dipping but the side salad stole the show, a lightly dressed mound of very fresh rocket and radicchio.

A special of house-made fettucine returned to the richness and large flavours of the onion soup, the pasta smothered in a thick, sapid crumble of spicy merguez sausage, king oyster mushrooms sliced into sturdy ribbons and kalamata olives adding even more pungency and salt.

Carolina stone bass was a gorgeous piece of fish, moist and tasty. Pascoe paired it with pan-fried fingerlings tossed with red pepper and soft white onion and some pretty purple kale leaves. His sauce of grapefruit beurre blanc wasn’t the best idea, however, the mild bitterness of the grapefuit ganging up with the mild bitterness of the kale to nudge the dish off kilter.

Desserts are much lauded at Liberty Belle, the work of Sarah Fortunato. Plates of her petits fours sit temptingly on the bar beneath glass cloches. We ordered a lovely opera cake made with almonds and a vanilla and lavender mousse, topped with white chocolate and blackberries – lots going on but why not – it was the cakey equivalent of those can-can girls. Vanilla panna cotta was just a heartbeat too loose in texture and too sweet, not as good as the compote of forced pink rhubarb that dressed it.

Opera cake with attendant macaron and a comma of coulis

The tiny wine list (only eight bottles) will have to grow. We drank Prospect Winery’s Ogopogo’s Lair 2009 Pinot Grigio, a lovely B.C. offering and usefully versatile, but I think people are going to want more choice. And the bill was disarmingly reasonable, cutely presented inside a musical box. I rather thought it was going to play Sousa’s march, Liberty Bell, that Monty Python used as their opening music but instead it was the theme from Love Story.

Liberty Belle Bistro is at 133 Jefferson Avenue (a few doors south of King Street West). 647 352-3553. www.libertybellebistro.com.

 

Return of Makoto

07 May

Makoto Ono presenting an omakase dish at Edohei, his father's restaurant in Winnipeg

I just got off the phone with an old friend – chef Makoto Ono, who won the first-ever Canadian Culinary Championship back in 2006. We held it in Whistler, B.C., beautifully looked after by the Hilton hotel, and Makoto came through against some very tough competition, including Mark McEwan, representing Toronto, Robert Clark, representing Vancouver, and Michael Blackie, representing Ottawa-Gatineau. With enormous charm and humility, Makoto, representing Winnipeg and the restaurant where he worked (a small bistro-cum-food store called Gluttons) and brilliantly assisted by his pastry chef Chantalle Noschese, aced the three-day competition.

The rest is history. Chantalle became pastry chef at Canoe in Toronto before going back to Winnipeg (the call of the prairies). Makoto was head-hunted to China where he opened a huge and dazzling restaurant in Beijing, called Makoto, which was our principal rendezvous during the 2008 Olympics. When the games were finished he left for Hong Kong, opening a tiny, precious spot called Liberty Private Works, where he cooked an omakase meal for a handful of very select gourmets every night. He also partnered in a big sports bar for the same backers and basically became the talk of the town.

Makoto comes from restaurant roots. His father, Sadao, opened Winnipeg’s renowned Japanese restaurant, Edohei, and Makoto grew up there. He returned early this year to take over the reins while his father battled cancer (the prognosis is positive). Meanwhile Liberty Private Works needed someone to take over and chose Vicky Cheng, a young man who used to work at Canoe, Auberge du Pommier and for Daniel Boulud in New York. If you’re in Hong Kong any time soon, I would recommend a visit.

As for Makoto… His victory in the Winnipeg 2006 Gold Medal Plates was historic for many reasons, not least because it was the first and last time we staged a GMP event in that city. Until this year. We’re going back in the fall, which fills me with happiness. That gives us nine cities across the country, from St. John’s to Vancouver, all prepared to play the GMP game, raising money for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. And with the 2012 London games on the horizon, anything we can do becomes very important. Makoto is going to be a part of the event, serving as an honorary judge on the jury of experts who will determine the gold, silver and bronze medallists, and also preparing delectable canapés for the couple-of-hundred VIPs at the preliminary reception.

What the future holds for Makoto is a mystery. His girlfriend is a pastry chef from Vancouver, currently working in Hong Kong where she stars at an all-dessert restaurant (a three-course dessert prix-fixe, like Chickalicious in New York). The idea of doing somewhere together has been broached, he tells me, but who knows where? Vancouver? Why not Toronto, sez I? Meanwhile, we should all go to Winnipeg and ask Makoto to cook for us, omakase style, in his father’s restaurant. I can guarantee it will astonish and seduce the most jaded buds.

Edohei is at 355 Ellice Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba. 204 943-0427. www.edohei.mb.ca.

 

Culture shock

04 May

Canadian opera singer Jane Archibald (image stolen from the COC with no attempt at remorse or apology)

I seem to be having an unusually cultural 24 hours, still reeling from Tuesday night’s wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos from the COC – so funny, so wise, so beautifully played and sung (Jane Archibald a particularly fetching Zerbinetta) – its theme one that has always intrigued me, namely high art versus comedy. Because the opera is written by Richard Strauss not Vivian Stanshall, high art triumphs – and most convincingly. It made me think how much harder it is to reconcile farce and profound human experience rather than set them up in opposition – Shakespeare figured it out but very few others have ever even tried. Tragedy is so much easier.

And now my dear son has popped in with a choice of movies we might watch tonight – mostly Scandinavian horror such as Dead Snow (Nazi zombies terrorizing people in a remote part of Norway) and Sauna, a Finnish spine-tingler about a demonic presence that may or may not be inside a sauna in a swamp being mapped by the equally aggressive conquistadors of 16th-century Russia and Sweden.

Breathless entertainment all round, to be sure, and a necessary antidote to the post-election cultural anxiety. Some friends have been saying that the arts will wither now that Harper is in control and that there will be nothing left but compulsory Beatles karaoke. I have lived through this scenario before, in Thatcher’s England. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the creative instinct. Satire has a field day. Street performers become more efficient at dodging the kultural police. The underground does well but the problems grow for the big companies, the arts establishment. “Let them find sponsorship in the private sector,” is the Conservative solution. Oh well, that’s what our major cultural institutions have been doing (quite well actually) for years and years. Plus ça change.