RSS
 

Archive for December, 2012

Christmas in Norfolk

31 Dec

Very flat, Norfolk

This Christmas we made our escape to Norfolk (England, not Virginia), renting a tiny 17th-century cottage near the coast. It was built as a royalist magazine during the English Civil War, cunningly disguised as a chapel to hide its stores of gunpowder and weaponry from the Puritans. They say there’s a secret tunnel leading from it to the sea but we never found it, preferring to hole up around the blazing log fire after dark, listening to the buffetting wind and walking on the vast, deserted beaches and sand dunes during the daytime. This is the Eastern bulge of England that sticks out into the cold, grey North Sea – marsh and wetlands and tidal channels down which the fishing boats creep to catch crabs and lobsters and small, flavourful brown shrimp. We bought some almost every day from a hut on Brancaster Staithe with bags of cockles, mussels and oysters as relish. The weather was gratifyingly bleak and rainy but we had mornings of unexpected sunshine and nights when the wind died away around three a.m. and the full moon shone like a searchlight through the mullioned windows of our attic bedroom.

Local mussels at Titchwell Manor

We ate very well, needless to say. For Wendy’s birthday dinner we splashed out at The Neptune  (one Michelin star) in Old Hunstanton and tasted grilled partridge breast with sweet red endive leaves, dots of quince jam and dainty sandwiches of fried brioche filled with a paté made from the bird’s lights. We followed that with lobster agnolotti and juicy kohlrabi in a lightweight lobster bisque. Then perfect fillets of baby halibut with crosnes and artichoke hearts.

There were many other feasts, of course. When our daughter came up from London to spend a few days we took her out to lunch at Titchwell Manor for pails of  huge, glossy local mussels steamed with butter and shallots and turbot fillets with hollandaise, roast chestnuts and brussels sprout leaves – a side of green kale with chopped white anchovies almost stole that particular show.

Brancaster oysters, each one the size of a serving spoon

Our favourite spot, however, turned out to be the White Horse at Brancaster, a pub on the edge of the salt flats that stretch out for miles towards the sea. They serve local oysters there – huge, soft, creamy ones that taste of melon and brine and go down spectacularly well with a malty ale called The Wreck, brewed in the village. I couldn’t resist the lemon sole amandine but Wendy’s choice was even better – a slab of grilled smoked haddock perched on a mound of smashed potatoes with wilted spinach and a final flourish of chive oil. Unpretentious pub food, but as good as it gets anywhere. If only we had had time to see our friends in London, but we stayed away from cities this time. Notwithstanding, it was an altogether splendid holiday.

 

 

Yakitori Bar

20 Dec

Yakitori Bar hangs out its shingle

The quality of Baldwin Street’s restaurant strip continues to rise in a sinuous gyre – which is lovely for me since I live a three-minute waddle away (two minutes, if striding in a forthright manner). Hemant Bhagwani has taken over the old Jodhpur Palace property, turning it into a miniature recreation of his Global Tacos (the original version, on Mount Pleasant, closed some months ago). Now Sang Kim (co-creator of Ki and Blowfish) has set up shop on the corner of McCaul (right next door to the highly esteemed ND Sushi and Grill) with a flash, friendly, very cool Korean spot called Yakitori Bar as well as a second project in the rear of the building – a bi bim bap take-out spot cleverly called The Seoul Food Co. Yakitori has been packed since it opened – not so much with the Asian students who line up in all sorts of weather outside the ramen bar at the other end of the strip, but with 20- and even 30-something foodies who have followed the building’s 30-day renovation on Sang’s blog and are curious to see what all the fuss is about.

Sang himself is one answer to that question. Dapper in his trilby, he is the consummate host, hip but warm-hearted (part of the proceeds of the sale of certain dishes heads straight to Japan and charitable post-tsunami reconstruction) and always interested in something more than the bottom line. He also teaches first-class sushi lessons on the premises.

Another reason is executive chef Shin Aoyama (of EDO, Ki and Koko! in recent years). This time he’s prepping yakitori to be sure but also serving forth a broad and delectable array of contemporary Korean street foods, all fresh and beautifully balanced, plus some great fusion ideas.

Before we taste some of those dishes, however, consider another interesting aspect of Yakitori’s debutante menu – the inclusion of guests chefs’ signature skewers – an opportunity for talented chefs who aren’t necessarily cooking in conventional kitchens to showcase their work through the signature medium of sauced yakitori. For example, Peter Minakis of the Kalofagas food blog has offered a butan kalamaki – a juicy, rigani-scented pork souvlaki by any other name, that reminds me of my youthful sojourn in the Ionian. Nettie Cronish, nonpareil of natural and organic cuisine has created an almond nut butter tofu-tori. Former private chef and educator Vanessa Yeung has proposed flank steak satays marinated in soy, hoisin and sugar which impart awesome flavour to the slightly chewy meat. And more and more… Such a nice idea!

Three ages of kimchi: three months, two weeks and one day

Meanwhile, Shin Aoyama’s own menu is a treat. $4.95 buys a flight of three differently aged kimchis – one day, two weeks and three months old – all crunchy, nicely chilied-up and increasingly acidic and funky the older they get. Kimchi poutine is another possibility – with melted cheese sandwiched between okay fries and awesome caramelized kimchi – or how about gochu rellenos, green korean chilies, panko-crusted and deep-fried, stuffed with dense ground pork. I loved the two soups we tried – one a sleak, creamy, subtle white miso chowder filled with little clams and shrimp, the other a busan bouillabaisse of hokkaido scallop, shrimp and flaky cod in a spicy house broth.

Main courses (nothing costs more than $9.95) are big enough to share. Oxtail braised in red wine and soy was brilliantly tender, falling from the bone, but the meat hadn’t lost its own sapid juices. It was sticky and rich but not heavy. Pork belly, too, was surprisingly delicate, seasoned with soy and topped with half a boiled egg.

Squash duk bok ki

The yakitori themselves are robust rather than dainty, and perfectly grilled. The chicken thigh option was my favourite, though the beef tongue came a close second, both served with three dipping sauces of sesame, soy and kimchi. Then I tried the Godzilla skewer, another guest chef’s creation, this time from the mind of Shinji Yamaguchi, who is owner-chef of Gushi, a shipping-container street-food resto on Dundas Street West. Godzilla turns out to be balls of ground chicken flavoured with onion, soy sauce and coriander and dressed with Yamaguchi’s trademark Gushi teriyaki sauce.

We finished with rice cakes (no dessert is offered) like long, very dense, very heavy cylinders of rice paste. In Korea, you see kids hanging outside the school eating these with a sweet red sauce. Here, they are served inside a hollowed-out squash with the self-same sauce and a generous smothering of melted cheese. Such is Baldwin Street’s charming cultural melange.

Yakitori has a list of sakes and fruity cocktails, four seasonal beers on tap, only eight wines and some first class water from Evian and Badoit. This place is definitely a filip for the neighbourhood and I am determined to become a regular customer.

Yakitori Bar is at 1 Baldwin St., 647 748 0083, www.yakitoribar.ca.

 

Richmond Station

16 Dec

The daily shark

So sad to hear that Dale Mackay has closed his two Vancouver restaurants, Ensemble and Ensemble Tap, neither of them yet two years old. The intense – and intensely talented – young chef was the winner of Top Chef Canada season one and a lot of us were excited to see what he did next. Here in Toronto, the victor from Top Chef Canada season two, Carl Heinrich, has made a more promising start. He too has parlayed his prize money of $100,000 into a place of his own, co-owned with butcher and charcutier Ryan Donovan. The two men were together at Marben in the same roles, advocating farm-to-table cooking and practising what they preached. I liked their work at Marben; I’m even happier with Richmond Station.

Physically, it’s really two restaurants – a large bar and dining room with soaring ceilings, a dramatic round window onto the street and an understated TTC-subway theme. (Well, why not? Torontonians wax lyrical about the Paris Metro and have an awed affection for the London Underground – why not the TTC?) Up some stairs at the rear is a more intimate area where design firm Stacklab has removed most of a wall to reveal the kitchen bustling with no fewer than 12 cooks on the night we visited. Ryan Donovan was quick to explain that the reason for such a large brigade was that they had all come in that day to break down a whole cow and a whole pig that had arrived earlier. Donovan is a total nose-to-tailer, of course, having worked at the Healthy Butcher and Cowbell, and it’s a very good sign that he’s passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm to others. Rumour has it there are always a dozen men and women in whites in the kitchen.

Richmond Station isn’t just a temple to meat, however. Both Donovan and Heinrichs are quick to point out that they care about fish and vegetables too. So we balance our starters with half a dozen mild, sweet, plump Lamarque Vert oysters from New Brunswick and a wooden plank of the daily charcuterie. There are slices of a softish, crimson beef heart salami with an intense beefy flavour; some bigger, pink, thinly cut slices of “Moscow sausage” made of finely ground pork and beef and served hot fron the grill; a coarse duck terrine en croute, its moist pastry crust just the merest sliver around the yummy terrine. A scoop of gorgeous duck parfait completes the selection along with two kinds of mustard, a beet relish, some pickled red onion and a little bowl of crispbreads. The waiter persuades me that a cocktail would be just right with the charcuterie and brings me a Chet Baker made with 12-year-old Eldorado rum, ginger, honey, vermouth and angostura – like a sweet, spicy rum Manhattan. I’d lose the honey but it works well with the meats.

Other treats? An excellent lobster bisque with an unusual texture as if two soups had been folded together, one a regular, creamy, middleweight bisque, the other foaming. There was plenty of lobster in the soup and a whack of fresh tarragon – and also some miniature croutons that someone had cunningly added at the very last minute so they were still crunchy.

On to moist, grill-charred fillets of sea bream served with wedges of potato rösti that for once in this city weren’t soggy with oil. There were perfect baby heirloom carrots, juicy pink-stemmed Swiss chard and a little herb salad of chives and delicate green leaves as a sort of garland. Like all Heinrich’s dishes, it showed a satisfying balance and a lack of fuss – just the way you or I might cook at home if we had chef’s naus and 12 dedicated people to help.

The best dish of the evening was a main course of roasted venison leg – the most tender and flavourful venison I can ever remember eating. Heinrich paired it with some deliciously logical, seasonal accompaniments – tiny lentils spiked with a carrot brunoise, a luxe celeriac puree, some teeny-weeny pan-fried cauliflower florets and a big, tangy cranberry-allspice jus that set all the other flavours on their best behaviour.

Heinrich is 27, Donovan 32; pastry chef Farzam Fallah looks about 16 but his work has a mature assurance. Apple pie cheesecake was exactly that – cheesecake on a graham crumb base with big juicy chunks of lightly poached, cinnamon-dusted apple and an add-on of walnut streusel – altogether soft, sweet and tangy. Date tart is like a date square from a country fair gussied up with a bourbon glaze, a mound of crunchy, salty shortbread crumbs and some crisp, translucent shards of whisky caramel. Fallah pairs it with an extraordinary ice cream infused with the flavour of toasted hay.

Richmond Station was packed the night I went and Donovan and Heinrich made frequent journeys into the dining rooms – as did other members of the kitchen brigade. The place had a great vibe like a braid of hope and energy and accomplishment that was as uplifting as a glass of Champagne, and service was friendly, smooth and professional (which is unusual among new restaurants these days).

Richmond Station is at 1 Richmond St. W., 647 748 1444, www.richmondstation.ca

Mon-Fri 11:30-10:30, Sat 5-10:30.

 

The Secret to Restaurant Reservations

04 Dec

Tired of being told by a hot-for-a-weekend-then-totally-forgotten restaurant that they have nothing available until 5:30 on February 18? Yeah, me too.

Well, Here’s what you have to do… (qv sinister)

Now we know why we felt that compulsion to catch ’em all. Turns out a rare Pokemon card is your introit into Resto Chichi, your nimble leap over the velvet rope at Klub Kool, your backstage pass to the kingdom of heaven. Mewtwo, I choose you!

 

EAT CANADA

03 Dec

Here it is, folks, EAT CANADA – the app of apps for anyone who travels across Canada and wonders where to eat and drink. It was my good friend John Gilchrist’s idea – to mine the accumulated knowledge of Canada’s primo restaurant critics and create an app that would benefit one and all. We all knew each other from Gold Medal Plates, of course – but, above all, each of us knew the city where he or she lives. And now the wisdom of the ages is distilled for you into an app. I don’t have a portable telephone so I don’t really know how it looks, but my children tell me it’s dandy and full of good and useful things, especially if you are a business traveller. To be sure, I stand behind my selections.

Here is why you should work up an app-appetite for Eat Canada:

Eleven of Canada’s major cities are included – Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and St. John’s.

Each city features twenty, critic-chosen restaurants and beverage places, largely within the downtown business core. In total, over 200 highly recommended restaurants are included.

Reviews contain info on cuisine styles, noise levels, private rooms, price ranges, credit cards, hours, websites, alcoholic beverages, corkage and outdoor dining.

The app’s interactive elements include full mapping to get directions to a restaurant from a user’s current location, plus links to phone numbers, websites and the OpenTable reservation system.

Users can track which restaurants they’ve visited and keep notes on their favourites.

The app has been built for iPhones and iPads and will be available through the App Store for $9.99.

Developer for Eat Canada is Jeremy Gale of Force Grind Inc., Calgary, Alberta.

For more app info check out http://www.forcegrind.com/eatcanada

And here are the critics who have contributed to this marvel of the age:

Karl Wells (St John’s): restaurant critic for The Telegram, an accredited chef and host of the Rogers TV show, One Chef One Critic.

Bill Spurr (Halifax): features writer and restaurant critic for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Robert Beauchemin (Montreal): restaurant critic for La Presse and college instructor on culture and food.

Anne DesBrisay (Ottawa): restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen for 19 years and author of Capital Dining, the definitive guide to dining in the Ottawa area.

James Chatto (Toronto): restaurant critic for over 25 years, editor of Harry Magazine and National Culinary Advisor for Gold Medal Plates and the Canadian Culinary Championships.

Christine Hanlon (Winnipeg): has written about food and culture for Style Manitoba, Western Living and Fodor’s Canada.

CJ Katz (Saskatoon/Regina): culinary host of CTV’s Wheatland Café, restaurant writer for the Regina Leader-Post, publisher of Savour Life Magazine and author of the newly released TASTE: Seasonal Dishes from the Prairie Table.

Mary Bailey (Edmonton): publisher of The Tomato Food & Drink, certified sommelier and wine instructor Art Institute of Vancouver, and co-author of two National Best-Sellers on Alberta food.

John Gilchrist (Calgary): CBC Radio restaurant critic for 32 years, restaurant writer for The Calgary Herald, author of ten National Best-Sellers on dining in the Calgary-Banff area, and instructor of food and culture programs at the U of C.

Andrew Morrison (Vancouver): editor of Scout Magazine, restaurant critic for the Westender newspaper and instructor of food writing at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.

I know – it’s a hell of a roster. And, unlike other lists and top tens and what-have-you guides to eating in Canada, we have actually eaten at these places. And that, in the world of restaurant criticism, is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Here is where you need to go: http://bit.ly/eatcanada Bon appetit!