I am a very bad foodie. I have no idea where the best Greek-style yogurt in Toronto can be found. I have not tasted every falafel north of Queen. I am now determined to deal with these shortcomings one day, having discovered only this morning the value of confronting one’s failings. I am a martyr to vertigo – the sudden shudder of nauseating fear when I glance out of my window and see someone standing on a rooftop or the cold liquid spasm of heart-thumping anxiety when one of my children steps too close to the edge of a cliff. It’s a very logical reaction, of course, and shows that people who suffer from it have evolved slightly further from our tree-dwelling ancestors than those who scamper easily in high places. Nevertheless, it’s good to conquer one’s fears so when I was invited to be one of the diners at the inaugural Dinner in the Sky event in Dundas Square this morning, I jumped. Perhaps you have seen these affairs? 26 people are strapped into chairs fixed around a dinner table which is then winched 100 feet into the air by a crane that the organizers promise can take the weight. In the middle of the table is a space where a chef and two waiters serve a delicious lunch, sometimes using a convection oven to warm the food. It all began a few years ago in Belgium and has slowly spread halfway around the world.
American Express has sponsored two days of ascents in Dundas Square as rewards for their cardholders but some media were also included in the first try, presumably to test if the Nascar-like harnesses were safe. I sat next to Mark McEwan and the National Post’s social columnist, Shinan Govani. With barely a shudder we were airborne, gliding nine stories up until my face was opposite Will Smith’s much larger head on the hoarding for Hancock. Vertigo? Nah… Though I held on to the counter in front of me quite tightly. Glancing down, the red carpet looked very far away.
Champagne eased the initial launch; lunch took the rest of the hour we were up there, a rather pedestrian two-course effort from caterers Presidential Gourmet, plated on the ground and served aloft beneath silver cloches. But we were there for the ride and as the table slowly turned in the breeze and office workers waved from their ninth-storey cubicles we felt privileged to be sitting so high above the city, like so many Nelsons on our contiguous columns. No one dropped anything or felt sick. No one tried to fly. We were not mobbed by starlings.
I went to Cava last week and found owner-chef Chris McDonald next door at Xoco Cava, the new candy and ice cream store he has set up with his co-chef and business partner at Cava, Doug Penfold. The room was almost finished, the look including marble slabs for the window display of chocolates and a curious wall made from fragments of very expensive bone china pressed into white grout. “They’re all bits of crockery from Avalon,” explained McDonald. “It’s kind of a Gaudiesque statement and also a symbolic repudiation of formal fine dining.” Then he showed me the 12 ice creams he had for sale in the vintage refrigerated steel counter that is the heart and soul of the store. He was given it by Gelato Fresco’s Hart Melvin in exchange for one of his late mother’s two grand pianos. McDonald and Penfold are having fun with ice creams and sorbets and the dark chocolate version, almost pure chocolate and velvety smooth, will soon be a serious rival for Gelato Fresco’s extraordinary “black” treat.
Tearing myself away, I went next door for dinner and was quickly reminded why Cava is one of my easy favourite restaurants in this city. The mood is casual – the plain cement floor and unadorned walls amounting to another passive aggressive attack on luxurious décor. Three dishes really stood out from the many I ate.
First, and most obviously, the acorn-fed Ibérico ham carved in slivers at the bar. The fat really does seem to melt on the tongue; the lean has a slightly funky sweetness and an illusory hint of cinnamon and mace that makes you want to chew each morsel 100 times until it turns to sweet-salt pulp in your mouth.
Then there was a new dish of Japanese eggplant – five little drums of the vegetable that had been rolled in cornstarch and then deep fried twice to give a crisp shell to the rich, creamy insides. Fingers of fresh yellow cheese and a drizzle of honey lifted the eggplant above its sauce – a greeny-beige tomatillo salsa with enough of an acid tang to refresh all the sweetness. Strewn over everything were bonito flakes that shimmied in the heat coming up off the dish and aded their own smoky grace note to the dish’s resonant chord of flavours.
The duck and anchovy torta is the kind of intense fantasy sandwich one might make very late at night – mashed anchovies on moist shaved duck breast cooked medium rare, pressed between two rounds of wholewheat bread and grilled in a panini press. Two pimento-stuffed green olives stick up on a toothpick like an alien’s eyeballs. Only anchovy lovers need apply for this one but it’s a most delectable mouthful, especially alongside a glass of very cold, crisp fino sherry, and a reminder that true tapas should always be exaggeratedly flavourful – then the amount of food on the plate seems exactly right instead of niggardly.