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Archive for January, 2012

Winners of the 2011 Winetasting Challenge!

31 Jan

The news is out. The winners of the 2011 Winetasting Challenge have been announced.

The Challenge was created in 2004 as part of The Renaissance Project, brainchild of Felice Sabatino of Via Allegro Ristorante, to celebrate and encourage excellence in our wine service industry. It was a huge success and, as the competition grew, Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute was appointed as the organizing, presenting and auditing body in 2005. It is now the most unique and largest wine tasting competition in the world, with the largest prize purse of its kind in the world – upwards of $100,000 including cash, trips, Spiegelau stemware and scholarships.

In the Challenge’s early days, Toronto Life was a media sponsor, an association that has since been dissolved but which made me proud when I was still involved with the magazine. I particularly liked the fact that the competition was open to anyone, professional and amateur, and that no entry fee was required. That is still the case. The event is operated by volunteers and all awards and competition expenses (venue, food, wines, etc.) are provided courtesy of the sponsors. In a healthy spirit of competition, neither The Renaissance Project nor CCOVI keeps or publishes any individual scores. Only the names of the winners and runner-ups for each of the categories are announced.

            It’s a very tough competition – as it should be with so much at stake. All the wines and spirits are presented ‘double blind’ (purchased and at the competition, pre-poured out of sight by “bonded” representatives from CCOVI at Brock University) the “challenge” is to correctly identify the grape varietal, country, region of origin and vintage from a diverse range of world wines. The professionals try to identify seven wines while the amateurs attempt to identify three wines. There are two supplementary rounds where (1) three VQA wines are presented double blind and (2) three spirits are presented double blind.

            You can find out much more and see a list of the noble sponsors who make all this possible at the Challenge’s website, http://winetastingchallenge.com/.

Peter Boyd has something to sing about tonight

            And so to business:

1st Prize, professional: Peter Boyd, Sommelier at Scaramouche and an Instructor with the International Sommelier Guild, songwriter and preternaturally gifted blues musician.

2nd Prize, professional: Jonathan Salem-Wiseman, Professor at the Humber School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, winner of 1st Prize, amateur in 2010.

3rd Prize, professional: Eugene Mlynczyk, Key Account Manager, Sales at Vincor Canada.

1st Prize, amateur: Anthea deSouza

2nd Prize, amateur: Jordan Mills

3rd Prize, amateur: Monika Janek

Spirit Champion: Mark Coster, familiar to all as a contributing writer at Good Food Revolution.

CCOVI VQA Challenge Champion: Peter Bodnar Rod, Director of sales and marketing at 13th Street Winery and the Director Online education, Wine Industry Liaison at the International Sommelier Guild. He was also the first Grand Award winner of the Challenge, back in 2004.

            Huge congratulations to them all!

 

Bestellen

26 Jan

Chef Rob Rossi and Front-of-house Ryan Sarfeld, co-owners of Bestellen

We had a fascinating preview of Rob Rossi’s new restaurant, Bestellen, last night when he and co-owner Ryan Sarfeld hosted a VISA Infinite dinner on the premises. It should open in early February but there have been some delays getting licenses from the City (Unheard-of! How astonishing!). Based on last night’s experience, I think Rossi is on to a sure thing for his first shot at chef-patron. The room is very long and narrow with a bar halfway down it and a big open kitchen at the rear. The décor is rustic but not rude with fine old barn boards on the ceiling and an arresting mural of animal parts on one of the walls. Meat will feature strongly on Bestellen’s menu (there’s a great big meat locker with a window for watching the beef dry ageing) and it was front and centre last night.

            Robert Rossi, in case you didn’t know, was one of the three finalists in last year’s Top Chef Canada television show. He looks too young but has actually been in the business for a decade, first at Café Brussel on the Danforth, then Canoe for a couple of years, then Habitat, when Scott Woods was chef there and amazing the city with his molecular cooking. In 2009, Rob went west to be sous chef at The Chef’s Table in Calgary, then came back to Toronto to take over as Executive Chef of the four Mercatto restaurants. I thought he did a great job there – the food was always fresh, original, delicious and far more accomplished than it needed to be.

            I had sort of assumed Bestellen might propose yet another domestic Italian menu, but no – it’s actually far more original. Last night Rossi showed he has an eye for the simple, rich, delicious dishes of pre-nouvelle French cooking. He also flaunted the charcuterie he has been working on since last summer, ably assisted by Grant Van Gameren, lately of Black Hoof. It’s all pork, dry-aged in house and I was struck by how moist and fresh it all tasted. We had a noce – a fairly coarse, fermented salami studded with crumbled walnuts that turn rather meaty when trapped inside a sausage for months (as who would not?). A fermented salami tastes tangier and more salami-like than your average charc. There was lonza (pork loin cured like prosciutto), a yummy chorizo, ruby-coloured copa and several others served with slices of fried house bread – basically a batard loaf made on the premises. As condiments he offered pickled ramps. Rossi goes fly fishing on the Grand River and when he has caught his limit he spends the rest of the day picking wild ramps from a large and double-secret patch.  

The wall of meat at Bestellen

There were other canapés – little one-bite brochettes of duck hearts speared with caramelized cippolini onion and smoked bacon cured with maple syrup and bourbon. The kitchen got the hearts just right – medium-rare rather than overcooked and grainy or undercooked and sticky. A simple tartare of albacore tuna, preserved lemon, green apple and basil served in a spoon was the best mjatch for our aperitif of very brut Champagne.

The first course dropped us into the deep end in terms of saturated fat. No fresh little salad to get us going. No. We had a cube of Ontario pork belly cooked sous-vide in duck fat and then deep-fried. The outside was delightfully crisp, the inside quiveringly unctuous. So delicious! Paired with some Brussels sprout petals, a little savoury chestnut purée and a sherry-caramel gastrique. A rich beginning, to be sure. The wine chosen for it, captivatingly introduced by my co MC, Jamie Drummond, was Pyramid Valley Vineyards Riverbrook Riesling 2008 from New Zealand, rich but clean, aglow with lime, petrol and honey aromas. Gorgeous on its own, it was a little put out by the gastrique, showing a sudden moment of bitterness. Not what one expects from a well-brought-up kiwivino.

Lobster beignet with Sauce Americaine; butter-poached lobster with salsify

The second course was an example of Rossi’s interest in retro sophistication – butter-poached lobster, courteously lifted out of its shell for us, the flesh impeccably tender. Beside it was a little lobster beignet that used up the knuckle meat from the creatures, stirred into a batter and quickly fried. There was salsify – as batons and as a purée. I love salsify – the pale but interesting, juicy but subtle love-child of an artichoke and an asparagus. But it’s not a vegetable you see much any more. The sauce was a classic Americaine made with the crushed lobster shells, vegetable mirepoix, tomato purée, wine and brandy, cayenne… One mopped it all up with the beignet. (I used to think Lobster à l’Americaine might conceivably be an American dish. Smack! comes the hand of Prosper Montagné and the Larousse Gastronomique. It was invented in Paris by Chef Pierre Fraisse of Peter’s Restaurant during the period of the Second Empire. He had to improvise a version of Lobster Provencale for some customers who were in a hurry and came up with what he called Homard a l’Americaine. Were the customers American tourists? Possibly. Fraisse himself had worked in Chicago for a while and according to Larousse, the chef was “still under the influence of his American sojourn.”) Either way, it was a smashing dish and the lobster itself was perfectly paired with Littoral Wines Charles Heintz Sonoma Chardonnay 2009. The wine and the sauce, however, wasn’t such a happy union.

Roast beef rib and marrowbones - not exactly short commons

On to the main event – roasted rib of 40-day dry-aged Wellington County beef, cooked on the bone sous-vide then finished in the oven. It came to the table on a platter for two to share, garnished with split marrowbones. Side dishes were button mushrooms with lemon beurre maître d’ and pommes aligot. Have you forgotten Pommes Aligot? It’s a dish from the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, basically mashed potato mixed with far too much butter and a little garlic, into which grated Appenzeller cheese is folded until it develops an almost elastic consistency, like a semi-solid fondue. The food of champions. It was an amazingly successful course and the wine match was absolutely first class – a big Californian Cab that had much more Bordeaux-style elegance than usual: Stonestreet Wines Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley 2007.

Following on, for those who might still be hungry, we moved to a trio of Canadian cheeses introduced by Angela Marsillio from the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Then dessert – a chomeur pudding. In French Canada, a chomeur is a poor man, a person on welfare, and this classic dish is a baked maple pudding, devised at a time when maple syrup was cheaper than sugar. Rossi’s version starts by coating the inside of a small Mason jar with cream and reduced maple syrup then filling the jar with layers of raw cakey-pancake batter and maple syrup. Bake it and serve it in the jar with a teaspoon and some crème fraîche – just an edge of lactic acidity to pretend to cut the sweetness… heaven in a jam jar, if entirely unrelated to the chosen wine, a stunning, heavy-duty Gewurztraminer from Alsace, Domaine Ostertag Selection des Grains Nobles 2007.

            I liked what I saw of Bestellen and I foresee a bright future for the place. It’s located at 972 College Street (close to Rusholme). Phone 647 341 6769. Check out the site at www.bestellen.ca.

 

OHI awards announced

24 Jan

  

 

There you go… That’s the mandate of the Ontario Hostelry Institute, an organisation that does a great deal of good for anyone who likes to eat out in this province – or stay in a hotel, or shop for local, artisanal products, or read about food and wine. The OHI provides scholarships and bursaries to talented young people who might not otherwise be able to afford professional training, and we all benefit from that. The OHI does this, in part, through its gala – a most convivial black tie party held every spring at the Four Seasons that is also an opportunity to celebrate the careers of industry leaders by giving out gold awards.

Last week, past honorees gathered just after dawn to discuss who should be honoured in 2012. The meeting was convened (and governed with his usual mixture of tact and firmness) by the OHI’s chair and president, Charles Grieco. He has generously allowed me to share the news of the winners in each category.

Chef: Stephen Treadwell, Stephen Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine
Hotelier: Anthony (Tony) Cohen, Global Edge Investments

Independent Restaurateur: Frédéric Geisweiller, Le Sélect Bistro

Educator, Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes, Dean, College of Management & Economics, University of Guelph

Media/Publishing, Jody Dunn, Editor and Marketing Manager of Food & Drink magazine

Foodservice Chain Operator: Cora Tsouflidis, CORA

Supplier: Stephen J. Shamie, Hicks Morley

Artisanal supplier: Stephanie Purdy, Purdy’s Fisheries Limited

A star-studded list of people. And that’s not all. Mr. Grieco will also be presenting the Chairman’s OHI Gold Award to Anita Stewart M.C., LL.D.and the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Gold Award to Dean John Walker MBA of George Brown College. The following people have been newlt elected as Fellows of the Ontario Hostelry Institute: Jamie Drummond – Good Food Revolution; Jeff Stewart MBA – Centre for Food and Wine – Niagara College; Melanie Coates – Fairmont Royal York; Connie McDonald – Royal Ontario Museum; Chef David Chrystian – Hotel Le Germain; Jill McCoey – Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa;

Afrim Pristine – Cheese Boutique; Lori Stahlbrand – Local Food Plus; Peter Bodnar Rod – 13 Street Winery; Gary Hallam M.Sc. – Conestoga College.

Congratulations to all. The gala dinner will be held on March 22 this year (please see below). It’s going to be a smashing beano with Anne Yarymowich, executive chef of Frank, and Michael Bonacini, executive chef of Oliver Bonacini, serving as the Honorary Dinner Chairs.

 

 

Massey College Wine Grazing Italy

22 Jan

 

To Massey College for the annual Wine Grazing, where 100 junior and senior fellows of the graduate college get together to roam between the library and the Junior Common Room, tasting lovely wines and the delectable dishes matched to them. I’m honoured to be a part of the event, helping to choose and introduce the wines and figure out the food.

This year our theme was Italy, dalle Alpi in Africa – “from the Alps to Africa.” When Sabrina Bandali, head of the Massey College Wine Committee, and I started planning the evening, almost a year ago, we envisaged a neat and tidy, scientific comparison between the wines of northern Italy and of southern Italy. To put it into zoological terms, we would find the wine that filled the same gastronomic niche in either region and taste them side by side. But Italy has a way of interposing itself, muddling our precise northern intentions. Last summer, we came across a white wine from Tuscany – in the middle of the country – just where we had intended to fold our map – that would not be denied. Like an actress auditioning far too hard for a part, this bianco threw herself onto the table and began to emote until we had to include her. It was the same story for our dessert wine. I had cherished plans to pitch a northern recioto di Soave against a southern Zibibbo – but the same thing happened. Another ravishing Tuscan – more mature, undeniably eccentric, but no less mesmerising – bewitched us again. And then Sardinia shot up its hand, reminding us that Italy has islands too. So our tidy north-south plan turned into a fairly chaotic race around the country. In other words, much more Italian in mood as well as matter. And how could it be otherwise? There are more than 2,500 different grape varieties in Italy, with as many as 600 of them used in a serious, commercial way. I think we work with around 20 varieties in Canada. Choosing 10 Italian wines to represent the country was always going to be a challenge.

We started with a sparkling wine from the north – from Franciacorta in Lombardy, to be precise – a charming, ephemeral bubbly, Ca’ del Bosco’s NV Cuvée Prestige (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). There have been vineyards in Franciacorta, where the Padana plain suddenly bumps into the foothills of the Alps, since Roman times but the idea of using them for sparkling wine is only about 35 years old. Ca’ del Bosco was one of the pioneers, the creation of a teenager fresh out of oenology school, a young man called Maurizio Zanella. He had fallen in love with Champagne and didn’t see why it couldn’t be grown in Lombardy. Fortunately, his family was immensely wealthy – his dad one of Italy’s largest auto parts manufacturers – so the project came to pass, with Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco planted in tight rows in the French way and a cellar built where Zanella could mimic the méthode Champenoise. That’s what we drank last night – classic, fresh, crisp Franciacorta bubbly with a nose of green apple and melon, a soft supple mousse that doesn’t last long and a streak of minerality in the finish. It’s still a rarity in Canada, something the millionaires who own the country clubs in that part of Italy like to keep to themselves. We matched it with a parmesan crisp to catch the wine’s buttery, yeasty nuances, and a slice of fresh apple to mirror the fruit.

After that we divided the crowd into two groups of 50 and sent the first cohort up to the library to begin the Grazing proper. We started with Tiefenbrunner’s 2010 Pinot Grigio (agent: Rogers & Company), a stunner from the Alto Aldige, that amazingly beautiful area that used to be part of Austria until 1919. The Adige river has carved a profound valley through the Alps and temperatures get as hot as Sicily there during the summer but when you look up –up –up you can still see snow on the tops of the mountains thousands of feet closer to heaven. There are Gothic schlosses, and little alpine stuben where you can get lunch, and some terrific white wines. Vineyards have been planted there since pre-Roman times. Hilde and Herbert Tiefenbrunner started making wines at Schloss Turmhof in 1968 and today they are one of the great bastions of quality in the Alto Adige. This Pinot Grigio had a fairly subtle nose, like yellow plums, but there was so much more texture to it than one might expect – a creaminess balanced by tangy acidity. Those yellow plums are there on the palate too but then it suddenly finishes with an unexpected flourish of peppery spice.

            Alongside the Pinot we poured Silvio Carta’s Badde Alva 2009 Vermentino from Sardinia (find it at Vintages). Vermentino is a lovely, lively, aromatic white grape that loves the climate around Corsica, Sardinia and the Ligurian coast, an enthusiasm it is easy to share when one recalls the sparkling Mediterranean, the cloudless skies and the landscape of yellow hills covered with a herb-scented macchia that gioves way here and there to olive groves and vineyards. Silvio Carta is a family firm based in the Orestano region on the western coast of Sardinia, a relaxed and easygoing place after the bustle of the Alto Adige.

            For these two wines, the brilliant Darlene Naranjo, who is in charge of Massey’s talented kitchen, created something consciously simple, a jumble of boiled potatoes and fresh arugula stirred with grated Piave cheese and plenty of Olio Carli’s super olive oil. The peppery arugula and the oil picked out the citrus element in the Pinot Grigio beautifully while the less acidic Vermentino provided a richer liaison with the food. The crowd appeared to be delighted with the match.

            Our second station also featured two whites, starting with Donna Chiara’s 2010 Greco di Tufo from Campania (agent: The Case for Wine). I love Greco di Tufo. It’s a deceptive wine, appearing rather shy on its own but proving surprisingly self-possessed when you pour it alongside food. We provided a salad of shaved squid and pine nuts liberally dressed with parsley, lemon and olive oil, and the wine rose to meet it. Donna Chiara does something unusual with its Greco, harvesting it late so there’s more flavour and body than usual – a tad less crisp acidity. It was a dazzlingly good marriage.

            The other white at the table was Frescobaldi’s Castello di Pomino 2010 Bianco, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc from Tuscany (agent: Lifford Wine Agency). It’s fascinating to see how Chardonnay changes when it gets to central Italy. That uptight, chic, blonde Burgundian ice-queen in the Hermes scarf lets her hair down. It’s still a tightly woven wine but fragrant with peach and a good splash of oaky spice from Frescobaldi’s barrel program. We decided it deserved a salad of its own – grilled asparagus (that picked out the oakiness in the wine) tossed with mushrooms and fennel that isolated some unexpected herbal notes behind the fruit.

            Many of our guests were waiting for the big reds and we plunged deeply in for our next station, whizzing back northwards along the autostrada to Piemonte and Barolo country – steep, up-and-down hills smothered in tightly planted vineyards that look like green corduroy from a distance, the deep valleys filled with white fog on autumn mornings. This is the land of white truffles and of many fabulous red wines, the king of them all being Barolo made from late-ripening, tannic, perfumed – amazingly complex Nebbiolo grapes. In very old age, Barolos are spectacularly beautiful – the colour of orange Victorian brickwork, fragile and heady with the scent of old-fashioned roses. Our Barolo, however, was revelling in the vigour of youth, Fontanafredda’s 2005 Serralunga d’Alba (agent: Noble estates Wines & Spirits). It had a robust acidity with lots of spicy tannins coming in at the end of the palate, but there was so much going on in terms of aroma and flavour – ripe cherries and old oak furniture, the smell of walking through oak woods on a warm afternoon. We served a rich dish of fresh pasta with dried porcini mushrooms and a cream reduction, topped with shredded prosciutto. The richness of the food and the austere structure of the wine cancelled each other out letting the mushrooms find their proper place among the woodsy aromas of the Barolo. A smashing fit.

            Our second red wasn’t quite so well-balanced with the dish but it stood out magnificently on its own, Planeta’s Santa Cecilia 2007 Nero d’Avola from Sicily (agent: Halpern Enterprises). The ancient Greeks brought this grape to Sicily and it settled right in like a native, quite at home in the parched landscape, though it ripens very late, sometimes not until November. Back in the 1990s, when Diego Planeta and a group of other talented pioneers set out to revitalize the island’s wine industry, Nero d’Avola was a natural, native star for them to work with. Planeta bought land in the south-east, far from his own western estates, simply to flatter the grape and it responded beautifully. The wine is profound and opaque, almost black, full of the scent of black and red currants, oak and spice and shoe leather (though it’s Ferragamo shoe leather of the very finest quality), and underneath darker forces are at play – espresso and dark chocolate and a hint of burnt caramel.

            Our next station presented two more red masterpieces, starting with Tenute Girolamo’s 2008 Aglianico (agent: Liberty Wines). Some say Aglianico is another ancient Greek grape; others that it was already here in southern Italy when the Greeks arrived. Either way it is the great red of the south – making Taurasi wines around Avellino and Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata where it grows on the slopes of the volcano Monte Vulture. Tenute Girolamo brought it over the regional norder into north-western Puglia into a green valley deep in the mountains. In its youth, this wine has been described as dark and feral like the howling of the wolves that still roam these central mountains. This one had mellowed a little but it still spoke of wild places – forests of juniper and smoky evergreens, bramble thickets and dried black fruits, pepper and spice, liquorice and dark chocolate. It has become one of my current favourite reds and I’m delighted it will be appearing at the LCBO any day now.

            Up against it was a super Amarone Riserva, the 2005 vintage from Zenato (agent: J. Cipelli Wines & Spirits). I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about Amarone, how it’s pressed from grapes that have spent the winter drying out on trays, how the sweet, sticky juice slowly ferments itself dry without losing those ripe, raisiny flavours. The 2005 Zenato is a beauty, though it required a little palate-reconfiguration after those three dark, well-structured powerhouses – as if you had spent the evening listening to three very tall, stern and humourless maths teachers in their academic gowns, one after the other, and then suddenly came upon the English professor, sitting by the fire in an old tweed suit, smiling serenely… Do not be fooled! There is an intellect behind that warm and fuzzy manner. And the amarone provided the defining match of the evening, brilliant with our dish of juniper-spiked venison stew served with soft polenta and side orders of hot roasted chestnuts and peperonata.

And so to our finale, Badia a Coltibuono’s 2004 Vin Santo from Tuscany. Vin Santo is made in lots of places in Italy – I’ve had some brilliant ones in Udine, up by the Slovenian border, and some very strange specimens farther south – but Tuscany is surely its homeland. Like an amarone, it is made from dried grapes – but white grapes, usually trebbiano, malvasia and occasionally grechetto. The grapes are hung up in bunches for the winter rather than spread on trays, then they’re pressed and the syrupy juice goes into small barrels made of chestnut or oak where they are left to ferment very slowly, for years. Never topped up, there is loss to evaporation – the angels taking their share. It’s not unlike what happens to whisky. Yeasts die at 18 percent alcohol so that’s the strength these wines reach, usually, though not always, leaving plenty of sugar behind. Our version was simply magical, its nose suggesting everything from dried apricots and raisins to Scotch whisky, instant coffee powder and toffee. Darlene baked some almond-apricot biscotti to go with the Vin Santo and I urged our civil gathering to dunk them into the wine. I suppose it is indecorous to then try to suck the Vin Santo out of the sodden biscuit but it’s hard to resist doing so; better to just bite off the wet bit and enjoy it. I don’t really know why but it’s something that always gives me an enormous, almost visceral pleasure.

            So the gathering ended but no one really wanted to go home. Roberto Martella, co-owner of Grano and Italy’s unofficial cultural ambassador, was there. He had been a huge help all year, suggesting wines and making key introductions to agents on behalf of the Committee – such a generous soul. Brunello Imports provided a loot bag of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta for everyone to take home. Any day now, we’ll start thinking about a theme for next year’s gathering.

 

Smith

15 Jan

Smith's daily flatbread

We wanted dinner somewhere new; I picked up a two-week-old copy of the Star and found a gushing review of a restaurant called Smith that opened last fall on Church Street… Kismet. I reached for the phone.

If Fate governed our choice, perhaps it also determined the tenor of the experience. Everything about our evening seemed a tiny bit out of sync. It may have been our fault, booking at an hour that was so unfashionably early for that hard-partying part of town. Smith is in an old three-storey building but there was no one to be seen when we pushed open the door except the manager, sitting at a table looking at the evening’s reservations. The room looked pleasant – a fireplace, old mirrors, a Persian rug. But we only caught a glimpse before we were whisked upstairs to an equally empty but distinctly more dowdy room. We must have been judged and found wanting – too early, too old, too square or too straight… Who can say?

But this was to be our home for the next two hours so we might as well make the most of it. We looked around. Have we not, by now, seen more than enough Edison bulbs to light us (ever so dimly) to the grave? Commute Home’s shabby-chic design for Smith uses them liberally, along with a chandelier or two, lots of interesting, edgy artifacts on the black walls and plenty of exposed, distressed industrial moments. Of course the crockery and cutlery was mismatched vintage stuff. Left to ourselves, we crept up a narrow staircase to check out the third floor and found a bar and also a barre, cutely mounted against a wall of mirrors with dozens of pink ballet shoes hanging from the ceiling. On Saturday nights, apparently, the top two storeys become a wild and crazy happening.

Tonight was anything but. Smith’s short menu is printed on a huge, folded sheet of newsprint so even I could read it without my specs. The wine list is reasonable and well balanced; there are house cocktails, too, of course.

We started with the “olive plate.” Someone in the kitchen must have heard that Oliver Bonacini restaurants serve their olives warm: these ones were piping – not a plate but a bowl of sun-dried Moroccan olives, nuked (presumably) until they were too hot to put into one’s mouth.

The daily flatbread sounded yummy and indeed the toppings were excellent – tender duck confit, tangy salsa verde, arugula, pea shoots, dabs of creamy goat cheese, slices of pickled beet that threatened to take over the whole dish but then surrendered the field to a strewing of hazelnuts. It would have been lovely except the flatbread let down the side. It was stodgy and cold like yesterday’s paratha. Chef Taylor Quinn is a Jamie Kennedy alumnus and ought to know that flatbread needs to be grilled or toasted as it was on every Kennedy menu for 20 years.

The pearl barley "risotto"

We ordered the risotto which turned out not to be rice but pearl barley tossed with diced carrots, lots of cremini mushrooms, fennel and slices of chioggia beet, all surrounded by a halo of golden beet purée around the bowl. On top lay a feta croquette, lightly breaded and fried. As dishes go it was fine – tasty, wholesome, just short on finesse.

My main course was miso-glazed sable fish, a dish created in the 1990s and so often copied it became a cliché, here presented without a trace of retro irony. The fish itself was lovely, lightly crusted with red miso, parting into buttery petals at the touch of a fork, but I wasn’t so dotty about the accompaniments. Bok choy was as bland as crunchy water; shemiji mushrooms contributed nothing but slipperiness; a superfluity of mushroom-ginger broth was the weakest liquid imaginable. I thought my taste buds had malfunctioned but no, I could taste the bitter phenolics of a still-hot Moroccan olive.

Sable fish with miso glaze

Braised Moroccan chicken was much more successful – a huge portion of tender chicken thighs and breast, nicely spiced and set over a rowdy jumble of couscous (again misidentified as rice – the menu calls it “pilaf”), more mushrooms, olives, tomato, preserved lemon, onion and what I think must have been dates. Hearty and lots of fun.

We finished with a Riesling-poached pear that was becomingly fresh and aromatic, sharing the light poaching syrup with a couple of apricots, a star anise pod, a scutum of cinnamon and a sprig of fresh mint. On top was a scoop of gorgeous lavender mascarpone ice cream.

It was not yet nine as we left the establishment. By now the main floor was packed with merry men tucking in to chef’s fare, a most convivial scene.

Smith is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday. 553 Church Street (at Gloucester Street), 416 926 2501. Check it out at smithrestaurant.com.  

 

 

Anita Stewart OC

09 Jan

Our Anita

I am delighted to report that my friend Anita Stewart was awarded the Order of Canada on New Year’s Day, honoured “for her contributions as a journalist, author and culinary activist and for her promotion of the food industry in Canada.” Anita is an inspiration to our broad industry, one of very few people who understands the big picture of Canadian food and also its smallest local nuances. She is the founder of Food Day (http://foodday.ca), broadcasts regularly on CBC Radio (cbc.ca/freshair) and for nearly three decades has chronicled the food life of Canada. As an author she has published 14 books, including Anita Stewart’s CANADA: The Food, The Recipes, The Stories, that recently hit the Globe and Mail’s Bestseller list. She is on the Advisory Council for the Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table and is an honourary lifetime member of the Canadian Culinary Federation of Chefs and Cooks (CCFCC). I’m also very happy that she is one of the Toronto panel of judges for Gold Medal Plates.

Once upon a time she and Jamie Kennedy (also an OC) and I planned to create a tv show. We wanted to call it Free Radicals and proposed that the three of us should criss-cross Canada with Anita leading us to fabulous indigenous foods, Jamie cooking them and me commenting about the process. I thought it was a great idea but the networks found the whole thing too cerebral. No competitive back-biting or kitchen shenanigans, no manufactured melodrama or gratuitous cussing… Plus, it must be said, our travel budget would have been astronomical. Still, I think the show would have worked. Maybe next time.

The Order of Canada has a motto that suits Anita rather well: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM… “They desire a better country.” It is our good fortune as Canadians and food lovers that Anita has always been prepared to act on that desire, fearlessly in person and so elegantly in prose.

 

Toad in the Hole

07 Jan

One of the things that has given me most pleasure in the last few years is to watch the friendship burgeon between my daughter and my mother. Now that Mae is living in London for most of the year, growing her career as a stand-up comic, they have been spending lots of time together. I never taught Mae to cook (mea culpa, mea gulpa culpa) in the way that my mother (a genius in the kitchen) taught me to cook. Now my mum is doing the honours. In fact, they are considering writing a cookbook together and I am sure it will be vivid and funny and wise and full of invaluable insight.

            One of the dishes my mother has taught my daughter in the last year is Toad in the Hole. Everyone knows, I hope, that this is an English treat consisting (in its most usual incarnation) of sausages smothered in batter pudding (a.k.a. Yorkshire pudding) then baked. The end of the sausage tends to poke out from the pudding like a toad looking out of a hole. The whole affair is delicious with hot English mustard.

            I was thinking about toad in the hole last week when I was in Greece and busy installing a new woodstove chimney through our three-foot-thick stone walls. The guy doing most of the work was Steve O’Connor, an Englishman who has lived in the next village but one for a good 20 years. We were swapping renovation stories while we worked and talking about the things we had found in our very old houses – dowry papers and other legal documents sealed for safe-keeping in an old daub-and-wattle bedroom wall; bits of a stone mortar; bottles of veterinary embrocation; an English gold sovereign that had slipped between floorboards a hundred years ago.

            Steve had the strangest story. His old house, like mine, had a stone pezouli running along the inside wall of the kitchen – like a support wall about three feet high and two feet deep – useful for sitting on or using as a big shelf. I kept mine; he decided he’d rather have the extra floor space and started to demolish his, busting off the plaster and old whitewash then digging out the stones and rubble from which the wall was made. To his surprise, the pezouli was hollow and the inside was rank and damp where the roots of an olive tree had writhed their way in from the garden outside and then rotted. He had almost finished the job when he noticed something in the dim light of the kitchen – something shiny and black that moved amidst the rubble. It was a monstrous toad. Sometime long ago it must have squeezed in from the outside, following the olive root. It couldn’t get out and so it lived in the darkness inside the wall, blind and imprisoned, growing ever fatter on whatever moisture it could suck from the rotting tree roots, eating whatever creatures found their way into that fetid space.

            “It was as big as a half-deflated soccer ball,” said Steve. “Monstrous. I got a shovel under it and carried it outside under the trees. It was heavy and it wobbled. Then I went back in and began digging down, sealing the wall.”

            And now I can’t get the image of the toad out of my mind. Toad in the hole. It has quite put me off my tea.