Many thanks to everyone who sent such kind words about my winning a silver National Magazine Award on Friday evening. It was my 19th NMA nomination for work written for Toronto Life (this time for the Top Ten New Restaurants from April, 2010) and though I haven’t been connected to the magazine for over a year, it was gratifying to have the long-ago story recognized. Kathryn Hayward edited it (she too has left Toronto Life and now works for The Globe and Mail) and was sitting beside me at the gala so we were able to congratulate each other.
Onwards and upwards to Sunday’s Toronto Taste, held inside and outside the Royal Ontario Museum, with 60 chefs and 30 producers of wine or beer gleefully closing the northern end of Queen’s Park to Sunday traffic. This was the 21st iteration of Second Harvest’s glamorous fundraiser and the weather was benign, much better than the sweltering heat or torrential rain of years gone by. Crowds were dense and line-ups long inside the museum which made reaching or even identifying the chefs’ stations tricky but I did find C5’s spot (this is their home turf, after all). Chef Teddy Corrado had created a scrumptious taco of forked pickerel marinated in aji paste which he topped with dabs of guacamole, pico de gallo and tomatillo relish. “Tex-Mex is my guilty secret,” said Corrado with a grin.
Wandering outside, the human pressure eased. There was room to chat with chefs and other old friends in the milling throng. Every Toronto Taste has its own internal trends, and this one was no exception. There were two mighty porchettas each with suitably crunchy crackling (Sotto Sotto’s was irresistible) and plenty of pork in other guises. But this was, above all, the year of the burger, with innumerable variations of the tender patty on offer. The trouble is that that means innumerable buns and who wants to fill up on soft white bread when there are so many other delectable treats to be sampled. One burger, however, stood out from the pack – a gorgeously juicy (and topless) brisket burger, cooked rare and topped with sophisticated, crunchy house-made kimchee, made by David Lee of Nota Bene.
When there is so much to eat, a one-bite wonder often makes huge impact. That was the thinking behind a scrumptious, multi-textured mouthful from George’s Lorenzo Loseto. He sliced venison salami very thinly and skewered it against a fried lemon thyme spaetzle with some roasted heirloom beet and carrot. In typical Loseto style, it was a cunning, complex swirl of cleverly complimentary flavours. Scaramouche’s Keith Froggett was not in attendance but his team proffered a Chinese spoonful of impeccable veal tonato – a classic version that reminded me what an elegant little masterpiece of a dish v. tonato is, especially when topped by a cucumber slaw.
Finding ways to present finger food that don’t involve bread is a useful lesson for any young chef. John Higgins and the team from George Brown College’s The Chef’s House went the hollowed egg shell route, filling each one with a luxe foie gras custard, a little quinoa for structure and a cool lobster salad – a divine combination of flavours that may have been the most original dish of the evening. Another contender came in a dixie cup from Tundra – a chilled strawberry-and-rhubarb soup topped with lobster salad, celery seedlings and candied violet. Straddling the fence that separates sweet from savoury, it was a super idea.
Other notable experiences included a brilliantly old-school canoli and a juicy lamb sausage served with tzatziki at the Maléna-L’Unita station. Paul Boehmer of Böhmer mixed up a dandy venison tartare and set it beside a salad of baby herbs on a cunningly undulating tuile.
Peach Chardonnay vinaigrette liaised valiantly between the two elements. Anne Yarymowich of Frank put together a duck confit tostada topped with Monforte ricotta cheese – as delicious as it sounds – one bite and it was gone. Chef Michael Smith, representing SODEXO Canada, offered his version of a shore dinner – confited fingerling potato topped with seared Manitoba pickerel, a strip of wild boar bacon and a tarragon mustard foam. A dainty anchor fashioned from potato held things together. I loved Chiado’s monkfish wrapped in a collar of duck prosciutto and topped with tiny cubes of port jelly. Ditto Didier Leroy’s classic steak tartare (the city’s best) served either with a sweet potato crisp or on a knob of baby cucumber.
Was it possible to find favourites among all the general gustatory splendour? Rocco Agostino of Enoteca Sociale turned salt cod and potato into soft warm fritters and served one on a bed of tender tripe in tomato ragout. Topped with lemon caper aioli and a leaf or two of fresh chervil it was a total triumph, a dish you’d order over and over again if you came across it in a restaurant. Mark McEwan presented the perfect little crispy, deep-fried Lake Erie smelt he serves at Fabbrica with fennel salad. Someone spread the rumour that these were actually Lake Erie sardines which had the Museum’s icthyologists pushing their way through the crowd to glimpse such a zoological miracle. They were only your regular smelt but for a number of trusted palates they proved to be show-stealers. And Marc Thuet of Petite Thuet proved what a master he is with a variation on an open-faced pork belly sandwich. The pork had been cooked sous-vide until it was as tender as a mother’s kiss, the meat set on a slice of fried wild-rice bannock and topped with Asian slaw, peach coulis and tonhatsu mayo. Awesome.
It was interesting to see media friends and colleagues working the event. Their lovely pictures and descriptions will be everywhere by now, I dare say. Some were busy tweeting as they moved around the stations, others were assigned tweeters from the organizers, who skillfully transmitted the journalist’s impressions into the ether for the benefit of the curious planet. The auction prizes were specatcular – especially a barrel of Tawse David’s Block Chardonnay (300 bottles of wine), a 10-day food and wine trip to Portugal or a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. However, Prize #11 may have been the most meaningful, and the one that reminded everyone of why they were there, eating and drinking and talking so merrily. It had been titled “Feed a Family of Five for a Year” and promised Sun Life Financial would match funds raised from personal donations made at Taste, dollar for dollar, to a maximum total of $10,000. Twenty thousand bucks is what it costs Second Harvest to feed eight families of five for a year. So many people in this soi-disant world-class, first-world city don’t have enough to eat. Our various levels of government have not managed to solve the problem. More power to Second Harvest for stepping in and to the generosity of everyone who bought their tickets to Taste.