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Archive for September, 2011

The Sausage League finals

29 Sep

Ryan Donovan handles the trophy - the Froman Pump

We all remember Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, cunningly impersonated by Ferris Bueller when he wanted to take his friends to lunch at a fancy restaurant on his day off. It was to honour him that Ryan Donovan named his spectacular new trophy The Froman Pump. It is part of the prize for winning the Sausage League, the four-month-long competition that came to a fascinating conclusion last night at Marben restaurant, where Donovan is co-chef and butcher. The pump itself is an antique sausage-making machine, rescued from Craig’s List and turned into the Froman Pump by sculptor Iner Souster. Together with temporary custody of the trophy (and a name plaque on its base) the new champion has won a trip to Chicago courtesy of Marben and Porter Airlines.

There were three finalists last night, all of whom had fought their way through tough heats during the summer. Chris Brown from The Stop Community Food Centre was there. Jesse Vallins from Trevor Kitchen and Bar was the second competitor. Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille from Pizzeria Libretto/Enoteca Sociale completed the field. Though there were three of us judging – Jamie Drummond from Good Food Revolution, Kurt Krumme of West Side Beef Co. and me – this was essentially a people’s choice award. Twenty-five bucks bought all three dishes plus a Steamwhistle beer – a great bargain, to be sure.

 

All Night Breakfast by Jesse Vallins

Jesse Vallins prepared an “all night breakfast” as his dish. The sausage looked absolutely splendid – one of the most beautiful and perfectly formed bangers I’d ever seen. He had ground pork shoulder and belly very finely and spiced it with a subtle blend of mace, ginger, sage and white pepper for a sweet, delicate flavour. Sharing the plate was a lightly cooked poached egg that wobbled and trembled until I stabbed it with my knife. There were soft baked beans, a grilled tomato on top of a disc of fondant potato and a slice of fried bread. Vallins had even gone to the trouble of making his own version of HP sauce – not quite as tangily tamarind-fuelled as the commercial version but much more delicious. It was a great breakfast to be sure and though there were one or two reports of customers finding the egg underdone, the judges (especially Mr. Krumme) were delighted with the dish.

 

Chris Brown's take on a cassoulet

Chris Brown’s creation was a play on cassoulet. His sausage was magnificent, a Toulouse-style pork sausage flavoured with nutmeg, wine and garlic and with a delectable mixture of textures inside with some larger pieces of pulled pork in the finely ground matrix of meat. A smooth rich purée of navy beans and duck fat lay under the sausage and there were soft, tasty nubbins of duck confit here and there. A little mound of choucroute brought a pleasant acidity to the general richness and a piece of ethereal pork crackling was the jaunty crown. As a condiment, Brown added some smooth purple fermented grape mustard that had a sly dry heat that sneaked up on the tongue like a murderous ninja.

 

 
 

Piggy in a Blanket by Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille

Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille gave us their version of piggy-in-a-blanket. They too had made a pork sausage out of shoulder and belly but they had breaded it before frying it so that the juicy sausage was hidden in a crunchy crust. Flavours were big and spiky in this dish. The sausage itself was forthrightly peppery while the salad of cherry tomato and parsley was dressed with tangy pickling juice and the chefs’ house-made bomba. The base-note came from a thick, rich roasted onion aïoli.

 

Three great dishes. My own vote went to Chris Brown because I thought his dish was so well conceived and because I loved the texture of his sausage. In the end, however, it was Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille who garnered the most votes. They will get to keep the Froman Pump until next year when the Sausage League will once again unfold itself. The whole thing has been so successful that Ryan Donovan is considering separate competitions in Ottawa and Niagara in 2012. I trust Agostino and DeMille will eat well in Chicago and that they will make all dinner reservations in the name of Froman.

 

Acadia

27 Sep

Perfect scallops taste as good as they look

Such excellent food! And it seems the verdict is unanimous whenever Acadia is mentioned. The new little place on Clinton Street, a few paces north of College, has caused a justifiable stir. The owners, Scott and Lindsay Selland (he used to be general manager of Colborne Lane) are still in their twenties. So is chef Matt Blondin who worked for the Rubino Brothers at Rain and Luce before moving to Claudio Aprile’s Senses and then Colborne Lane, rising through the ranks to become Aprile’s chef de cuisine there. I first tasted his food in July 2009 when he cooked one of Charlie Burger’s mystery dinners – the dishes were complex, inventive, used lots of elaborate techniques and tasted delicious. Blondin left Colborne Lane a year later, worked in a fishmonger’s store in Kelowna for a short while then ended up at Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler in Melissa Craig’s kitchen. So Acadia is really his first restaurant as chef – and it’s a dazzling debut.

From a customer’s point of view, the place is almost too successful. The space is divided into a small dining room and an even smaller bar area that morphs into the open kitchen. There are a few stools at the bar itself where lucky punters can watch Selland make stellar cocktails like the Defensio, a silky version of a Negroni with a dash of Cointreau nudging the Campari, gin and vermouth. The cocktail list – and the array of beers – is more interesting than the 16 or so wines on offer.

Décor is not Acadia’s strong point, though the room doesn’t look or feel shabby – just plain as a pikestaff. The problem is noise. Always packed with people who are having a very good time, the decibel level around 8:00pm is painful. It’s quieter right next to the kitchen.

But the food really does forgive all. Apparently it was Selland’s idea to give Toronto something we’ve never had before – a menu that draws on the culinary traditions of the Acadian diaspora, from the Maritimes down to the Bayou with lingering nods to the Lowcountry cooking of Georgia and South Carolina. Blondin had never cooked that way – had never even visited that part of the continent – but he was intrigued by the challenge. My own memories of Louisiana cooking are vivid – heavy, crude textures, lots of sweetness, swampy sauces, overcooked fish and meat… Blondin’s version is infinitely better than the original.

Not your everyday breakfast grits

Dinner starts with a long dish of pickles in lieu of bread –big white celery pieces, cauliflower, green beans, okra (best of all) pea shoots, sea asparagus, breakfast radish… each one individualized with its own degrees of saltiness, sweetness and acidity.

Scallops are perfectly timed, no longer raw but not yet fully opaque in their heart of hearts, sweet and fresh-tasting. Blondin serves them with strips of pickled watermelon rind that have a texture slightly firmer than daikon, with pieces of crunchy fried chicken skin like crackling and with parmesan melted into crisp little yellow nets. A squiggle of arugula purée and dots of celeriac purée are the more-than-decorative sauces, basil leaves bring their own perfume into play.

Grits are a revelation – better than polenta, soft but with a subtle texture enriched with pimento cheese. Hiding beneath the surface are very fresh, juicy shrimp, as plump as they are tender, and chopped oyster mushrooms that provide another slippery lurking presence. A clear ham-hock broth surrounds the grits – you could stir it in, I suppose, but it’s so profoundly tasty on its own – and fried parsley is the garnish.

Mains are just as terrific. I loved the pork ribs Blondin braises slowly in a stock sweetened with sarsaparilla root, vegetable mirepoix “and other good stuff”. It’s sweet, sticky, rich, fabulous and the kitchen kindly takes the ribs off the bone so there’s no work to be done. The starch is puffed amaranth seeds, like a dark version of Israeli couscous, and the dish is crowned with a tangle of  fried “tobacco leeks,” so called because they look like shreds of tobacco.

There's a rolled-up fillet of grouper under there

A thick, very juicy fillet of red grouper is rolled up and smothered by an étouffée of sweet shrimp chopped up and stirred with  Sea Island red peas in a creamy tomato sauce. Stealing the show are thick slices of Blondin’s own hickory-smoked andouille sausage, like firm, peppery, fine-grained chorizo, that works marvelously well with the fish. Vegetables are turned into a thick “chlorophyl purée” of parsley, chives, chervil, spinach and a little parsnip for texture. Raw green Euclid Street oxalis leaves are strewn over the top. A side dish of collard greens is so good I want to eat it every day for ever – the forthright, slightly bitter flavour sweetened by a milky herbsaint dressing and unexpected slices of soft pancetta hidden among the leaves.

There are only two desserts to choose from. “70% chocolate” is a fantasy landscape on a wooden board with tiny mountains of almond milk ice cream, squares of sugared sponge cake, pipings of soft chocolate ganache and tart, wild Carolina scuppernog grapes preserved in brandy.

Ear plugs might be in order, but it’s worth putting up with the ambient din for the super food and for the rare opportunity to be able to say, “Ate in Acadia, ego.” Acadia is at 50C Clinton Street, a few doors north of College Street. 416 792 6002. www.acadiarestaurant.com

 

 

 

Turkish Delights

24 Sep

Afrim Pristine lifts the lid on many Turkish delights.

It’s over! I had thought we all had til Monday to get to Cheese Boutique (45 Ripley Avenue, just about where the Queensway meets the South Kingsway – but you know this) in order to taste some pretty spectacular stuff. The Pristine family had flown in three chefs from one of Istanbul’s top hotels, the Çiragan Palace Kempinski, courtesy of Turkish Airlines, to show us how profundly amazing very high-end Turkish food can be. They had a gala evening at the Boutique last Thursday with hundreds of guests enjoying the treats provided by the chefs – almost all ingredients flown in from Istanbul. The quality was astonishing. I was particularly mesmerized by the olives. They had obviously been picked early for they were an almost yellowy green, like the palest peridots. They seemed to glow as they lay in their ornate bowls, each one stuffed with a slivered almond as white as snow. Beside them, hidden under beaten silver cloches, were tiny pastries, amazingly fresh, made from phyllo and various nuts, slightly sweetened with honey. There were dishes of Turkish delight dusted with confectioner’s sugar, little cylinders of emerald green pistachio paste or cream-coloured almond paste like the marzipan apotheosis. Such dainties… They put everyone on their best behaviour.
The Pristine family understands how to throw a party. In one corner, a table groaned with grilled vegetables, pickles and barrel-aged feta. Students from Niagara College, led by chef-professor Mark Picone and his colleagues, helped the visiting artists prepare the goodies and carried them out for the hungry hordes. There were many canapés but some caught my fancy in particular. Tiny, crispy cones held a moist mixture of finely minced chicken and crushed walnuts. Baby ravioli were stuffed with braised duck flavoured with thyme and rosemary and served in Chinese spoons over a citric cream. Savoury pastry cups cradled grilled eggplant garnished with rocket and pomegranate seeds. Best of all was the basterma, cured and spiced beef striploin sliced into translucent, tissue-thin, crimson ribbon, tasting of isop pepper and a hint of garlic. Marbled like porphyry, the meat was Venetian red, as tender as silk, unforgettably beautiful.
We drank perfectly brewed tea from hot little glasses and then Vineland Estates sparkling Riesling, off dry Riesling and Elevation Cabernet Franc (spiked with a trace of Cabernet Sauvignon). I recalled long-ago family trips to Istanbul, Ankara and Gordion – how we stuffed ourselves each evening with a myriad refined, complex, irresistible appetizers so that we could barely face the substantial main courses of pilaf and kebab. (It’s still the best way to eat in Turkey).
I asked Fatos Pristine (who knows Turkey well – he keeps an apartment in Ismir) what is the best Turkish olive oil he carries and he showed me a bottle of Zei. It comes from Ayvalik on the north-eastern coast of the Aegean and is pressed from the same olives we were eating – gem-like green drupes, picked in their childhood before they have developed much oleic acid at all. The oil is denied sunlight or air once it’s pressed, so it stays (dare I say it) pristine. It’s fresh, fruity, green, not as tangy as the pungent oils of Tuscany or the Douro and without that little finishing hook of bitterness that is the hallmark of central Italy. Smooth as butter, in other words. I love it.
Cheese Boutique’s Turkish extravaganza was a huge success. I hope it encourages more such adventures. We are so rarely exposed to the splendour of Ottoman culture.

 

The latest message from opponents of the Mega quarry. The time for action approaches. The rally takes place at Queen’s Park on September 30th at 3:30. We have achieved a great deal already. We can win this..

22 Sep

 

Eigensinn Emergency

20 Sep

Michael Stadtlander’s 100-year-old barn burned to the ground last week. No one was hurt and all the animals were saved. They have to build a new barn before winter sets in, to protect the livestock. Two fundraising events are being held in Toronto in October. Details are posted below on the Eigensinn Newsletter. It must have been terrifying but the fire is described with typical Stadtlander sangfroid.

Michael does so very much for every just cause that catches his attention and sympathy. Now is the opportunity to help him in his hour of need.

 

 

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

14 Sep

 

Je me tiens toujours fidèle à la sorcière glauque.’ Thus speaks Enoch Soames, eponymous anti-hero of Max Beerbohm’s marvelous short story, the first one in Seven Men. Soames is a dim, talentless, fiercely pretentious poet who clings desperately to the very edge of the Edwardian arts scene. He is from Preston in Lancashire but he slips into French whenever possible. The “glaucous witch” he refers to is absinthe, the drink of Bohemian Paris at the time, the tipple of choice of Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, etcetera, etcetera. The craze for la fée verte was never quite so strong in England but in France it bewitched everyone, regardless of their wealth or status. It was supposed to have hallucinogenic properties (Oscar Wilde said it made him feel as if he had tulips growing on his legs) caused by the compound thujone found in Grande Wormwood (artemisia absinthium), its principal ingredient, and some physicians diagnosed a unique disease they called absinthism as a more virulent and demented form of alcoholism. The Bohemians rather cultivated this wicked legend and there are many contemporary paintings showing an absinthe drinker contemplating a transparent, naked green nymph who winds herself about the table – the green fairy herself.

Absinthe ended up being banned in many countries including France and Switzerland (it was first distilled in Switzerland by a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire) and the U.S. (it had quite a cult following in New Orleans). Now it’s back – and not just in the form of the faux, dyed, Eastern European infusions of the last decade. There are several versions that faithfully recreate the traditional French methods using real herbs including Grande Wormwood, anise, hyssop and the dozen or so other plants that tinted and flavoured the stuff. Analysis of surviving bottles from the Belle Epoque reveals astonishing news: the amount of thujone was tiny – so small that it would pass current U.S. and Canadian laws without any problem. So what was all the fuss about back in the day? Why, in the story, did the artist Will Rothenstein say to Enoch Soames: “It is bad for you.”?

Current supporters of the new absinthe propose that the reason was a lot of cheap, fake absinthe pushed in those days, coloured green not by herbs but by copper or other toxic chemicals that induced the astonishing visions and tremors.

Hmmm… My personal jury is still out on that one (the counter-evidence from the day is rather overwhelming; then again, modern scientific analysis is sometimes accurate). Meanwhile, however, I have been enjoying my bottle of Lucid Absinthe Supérieure. It is the creation of a remarkable man from New Orleans – Ted Breaux – who has spent much of this century on a mission, first to recreate, precisely, traditional, high-quality French absinthe, and then to plead its innocence to the wider world. He makes it in France using the original stills designed by Gustav Eiffel in the 1830s. The U.S. admitted it as legal in 2007 – the first absinthe allowed in America in 95 years… And now it’s available at the LCBO in a dramatic black bottle adorned with cat’s eyes.

la sorciere glauque - or not so glauque since I don't do the sugar-cube thing.

And there are other absinthes now, but Lucid is the bottle on my personal back rail. Like all the best old absinthes, it’s pretty alcoholic – 62% alc by vol, as opposed to, say, vodka, which is usually 40%… That’s because it’s not meant to be swigged from the bottle but served in a much more elegant way (that has always reminded me of the preparation of a ball of opium – but that was before Mr. Breaux persuaded me that absinthe was entirely innocent). You need a reservoir glass shaped like a thistle with a bulbous base that can hold about an ounce of la fée verte. You pour her in. You put an ornate slotted silver spoon across the rim of the glass and set a sugar cube on the spoon. Then you dribble ice-cold (very very important, that it’s very very cold) water over the cube, dissolving it down into the spirit. As with ouzo or Pernod, the spirit clouds – the French call the effect the “louche” – a beautiful word to describe a beautiful thing. It’s like gazing into an opal or into the swirling clouds in a witch’s crystal ball but the clouds don’t part to show an anxious Auntie Em; the liquid just stays cloudy – a pale nacreous green – while giving off suddenly powerful herbal aromas. My favoured ratio is three parts water to one part absinthe, but some fans prefer five parts water… Then you sip. If you like ouzo or Pernod or pastis or raki or some forms of arak – or sambucca, come to that – you will love Lucid absinthe. It’s like the sophisticated but sexy older sister of those tongue-tingling fennely herbal types. The name refers to the legendary state of “lucid intoxication” that absinthe was supposed to inspire, a condition brought about by the rare balance of stimulants and depressants in the herbal recipe of the drink. I cannot speak to that, of course. Lucidity was never my strongest suit.

As for sweetness – I don’t feel I need the sugar cube. I like the startling bitterness of the wormwood without the toothpaste-mitigation that sugar brings. Needless to say, the old Czech student prank of igniting the absinthe before drinking it should be avoided. Unless you want an elaborate pattern of scar-tissue around your lips.

If you aren’t so taken by the flavour of anise, try mixing it up as part of a cocktail Ernest Hemingway invented called Death in the Afternoon. He left precise instructions: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly…”

Lots more to discover at www.drinklucid.com .

 

 

 

 

 

Elle M’a Dit

08 Sep

Owner-chef Gregory Furstoss cooks a tarte flambee

 

I’m a big fan of Baldwin Street’s quaint restaurant block – the little strip that runs between Beverley and McCaul and boasts a couple of dozen little restaurants and a handful of shops left over from the influx of draft-dodging hippies in the 1960s. We live around the corner and my wife and I often nip down there for dinner when we don’t feel like cooking. There are six places that do a decent job and now there is one that takes everything up to another level. Elle M’a Dit opened in early June at number 35, premises once occupied by a deeply underwhelming Thai restaurant. They had a good summer thanks to the outdoor patio tables; now the business is moving inside and upstairs – which means, I suspect, they may have to think of new ways to attract attention. Baldwin Street is a charmed enclave on summer nights, full of casual, restaurant-hopping crowds; in the winter time it can feel totally forgotten.

Elle M’a Dit is owned by chef Gregory Furstoss and his wife, pastry chef Tory Yang. Furstoss comes from Alsace and paid his dues there and in paris before coming to Toronto in 2005 to work at Bistro Bakery Thuet. Marc Thuet was piling his ever-changing menu with fabulous Alsatian cooking at the time and Furstoss proved a very useful sous chef. It was there he met his wife but by 2006 he had moved on to Senses as sous chef to Patrick Lin, where he stayed five years. I can’t think of a more interesting mentor than Lin with his meticulous Asian-Western-fusion cuisine, and Lin was obviously keen on Furstoss. He brought him along as his sous when he competed in the Canadian Culinary Championship in 2009 and they both performed brilliantly.

This is Furstoss’s first restaurant and he is still wide-eyed with excitement at the idea. I asked him why Baldwin Street and he admitted that he had originally thought he’d end up on Ossington or Dundas West as part of that particular movement. But the landlord here offered him such a sweet deal he couldn’t turn it down. I like what they’ve done to the property. It’s very simple and austere upstairs with cream-coloured walls and ceilings and beautiful wooden tables, floor, chairs and benches, though the last could do with some kind of cushion. The menu is Alsatian and I would venture to say it is some of the best Alsatian food I’ve encountered this side of the Atlantic.

The tarte in question

There are eight styles of tarte flambée but for this, my first visit, I chose the traditional version – an incredibly delicate, crisp crust that can just bear the weight of finely minced bacon, almost invisible onion, fromage blanc, gooey gruyère and a sprinkling of chopped chives. The texture may be insubstantial but the flavours are rich and bold. It’s one of those dishes that can become addictive.

Alsatians are masters of foie gras – Marc Thuet always did the best terrine in the city – and there’s one sitting right here on the menu giving me the glad eye, lifting its skirt to show a glimpse of Chianti wine gelée and sautéed black cherries. Next time, ma chere, next time… Tonight I can’t resist a starter of surf clams and veal kidney, a fascinating combination that works rather well. The clams, like slightly chewy red triangles, are tougher than the kidneys which look like finely sliced button mushrooms and have a sweet innocence to their flavour. A tangy grain-mustard sauce links surf to turf and the garnish of baby turnips and Brussels sprout leaves threatens to steal the show.

My wife orders sweet corn soup which is a large bowl of thick, creamily rich sweetcorn purée, its subtle taste spiked by small pieces of sautéed potato and soft fried clams as well as dill yoghurt and sliced radishes. Wendy is a purist where soup is concerned and feels there are too many extraneous elements in the bowl – it’s like a reorchestrated chowder.

Smoked trout salad looks great – snips of supple, sweetly smoked, coral-coloured fish surrounding a heap of salad greens, avocado and radish in a yuzu dressing – but the textures don’t quite work. Too many soft textures and nothing to crunch with the radish sliced so thinly.

Pig's trotter patties - pourquoi pas?

Main courses promise much and I can’t help smiling at the thought of trying more and more of them as the weather cools down – braised beef tongue with crispy gnocchi; a baeckeoffe of beef, lamb and pork cooked in a casserole with potatoes; a bavette steak frites for $19; seared foie gras with duck crackling and sautéed plum… But the specials that the charming and thoroughly professional waitress announces sound irresistible. I opt for pigs trotter stuffed with a chicken and mushroom mousse then sliced and breaded into two thick, russet-coloured patties. It’s a great way to present trotter. All the various textures of flesh and jelly and rendered integument are pressed together with a pale vein of eggy mousse running through it. Beneath the patties is a whole nother dish of pulled pork and beans in a dark, sticky sauce, adding a superfluity of richness in the way that Alsatian chefs love to. A little top-knot of arugula and radish in a heavy vinaigrette is the most token of nods towards the notion of vegetables.

The other special is almost as intense – a superbly tender beef short rib in a black, goopy onion sauce paired with a perfectly seared scallop. An awesomely buttery cauliflower purée shares the plate with little slivers of sautéed cauliflower, fava beans and some ribbons of parsnip.

We barely have room for dessert after this but dulche de leche mousse with sautéed strawberries tips the scale into greed. It’s very sweet and comes topped with a sugared crumble like Captain Crunch cereal.

Furstoss advertizes that his cooking is a modern take on Alsatian cooking and it is, up to a point. But he has the wisdom to understand that weight and richness and marvellously big flavours are the heart and soul of the cuisine and he delivers them beautifully. The little wine list offers 20 wines, 19 of them French, including some super Alsatian bottles, all reasonably priced.

Elle M’a Dit is the new queen of Baldwin in terms of quality and a very welcome addition to my neighbourhood. It’s open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and for dinner every evening except Monday. The address is 35 Baldwin Street (right at the foot of Henry Street), 416 546 3448. www.ellemadit.com