Crosstown Kitchens

Oh for a muse of fire to drag you back through the fecund fall to a charming summer night… The CN tower glowed violet to the south – I don’t know why – but I sat in comfort and in excellent company in the small front garden of Amuse Bouche. It was the second evening of Crosstown Kitchens’s fundraising series on behalf of Stop, with five chefs from five restaurants (Amuse Bouche, Marben, C5, Torito and Perigee) each cooking one course of a delicious dinner. The third event took place at the ROM’s C5 restaurant on September 25 – which may or may not have passed by the time you read this. I’m stuck up a mountain in Greece and have lost my calendar. Either way, it looks like I’m going to miss it – or more likely already have. And I bet it was terrific.
The Amuse Bouche event certainly was. If you remember the minuscule size of the kitchen from the long-ago days when the Tecumseth Street property was Lotus you will appreciate the surreal notion of six fully grown chefs working together in that tiny space. That’s Bertrand Alépée and Jason Inniss from Amuse Bouche, Carlos Hernandez from Torito, Craig Alley from Marben, Chris Brown from Perigee and Ted Corado from C5. Some of them were out on the sidestreet with a barbecue – I don’t know if anyone actually went downstairs to that Dickensian basement to work. But the enthusiasm, the merriment, the passion! This reporter’s eye was positively glistening. Apparently they had all found themselves representing Toronto at the Montreal Festival of Lights earlier in the summer and had decided to group together to form Crosstown Kitchens.
Now this is important. There have been many associations of Toronto chefs and restaurateurs over the years. I can’t think of one that hasn’t ended in tears and a clash of egos or else faded into oblivion before anything could be achieved. This one seems to show promise. There are no old lions in the group determined to show that they still have teeth. There are no loose canons. Sitting there that warm July evening, it occurred to me that I was tasting Toronto’s future. These guys are the new generation – all just into their 30s as far as I know and all talented. And they all have a sense of the city they live in. Not just because they were supporting the excellent Stop but because their dishes were so very “Toronto.”
The chefs had drawn lots to see who would cook what dish and Ted Corrado began. He slipped two curls of cured speckled trout into a clear chilled tomato consommé smokily flavoured with bonito like a sweet-smoky-salty dashi. Beside the fish lay three or four different coloured heirloom cherry tomatoes, peeled and poached, like tangy juice bombs. On top floated a cucumber froth and one or two tiny but very intensely flavoured arugula leaves for their peppery heat.
The second course came from Amuse Bouche – a crispily crusted little potato croquette drum they call their inside-out poutine, made with a cheese called “Indiscretion.” Across the plate was a slice of a deliciously moist terrine made with rabbit raised at Blue Haven Farm. Between these elements lurked some crunchy tangy pickles from Hannah Jacobs’s Matchbox Garden.
Carlos Hernandez of Torito was responsible for the third round. He had planned to use fresh zucchini flowers but his supplier let him down that morning. By 3:00 pm he still hadn’t found any! Panic! Alarm! I believe it was a neighbour with a garden who finally saved the day. Hernandez stuffed the blossoms with a gorgeously rich, flavourful mix of crumbled chorizo and Monforte toscano cheese. Then he plated them with big elliptical slices of grilled green and yellow zucchini and two tiny tomatoes briefly poached but still clinging like babies to their umbelical vine. The plate was brushed with a black olive purée like some sombre Victorian warning of the bitterness of death beneath all the vernal exuberance.
The fourth course belonged to Craig Alley of Marben. He offered a divine grilled lamb chop tossed in lemon and roasted garlic butter. Alongside stood a deep-fried Lebanese kebbeh, crusty like the earlier croquette and filled with feta and pine nuts. Moist, juicy mint lebnah was the refreshing vgetable – like a crunchy Levantine slaw.
Chris Brown and sous-chef Anthony Davis of Perigee provided dessert: a shot glass of lemon balm soda with Ontario saskatoonberry sorbet. And beside it a tiny financier cake with a black, red and gold raspberry on top, basil to scent it and “balsamic-baco noir fluid gel” (a tangy molecular semi-saucy sauce). Caramelized puff pastry with crème fraiche ice cream and Ontario blueberries completed the plate.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? It was.
For about 23 years I’ve been wondering whether it might be possible one day to isolate and describe a “Toronto cuisine.” I still don’t know if one could extrapolate that meal into a notion as weighty as that. But I can’t conceive of a Toronto cuisine that lacked the elements that Cookstown Kitchens managed to bring into their evening – a cosmopolitan freedom that allowed them to borrow from Japanese, Latin, Mediterranean and Lebanese cooking, not to mention molecular gastronomy, without missing a beat or making a great big song and dance about it. Those notions were beautifully integrated into the whole. Most of the ingredients were very local indeed and made full and righteous play of our artisanal producers. Interestingly, there was also an unusually sophisticated sense of the overall harmony of the meal. So often when many chefs combine to create a single dinner it becomes a little competition to see who can outdo whom. Not that evening.
Walking home past the violet tower I decided that I was quite certain I had just tasted something significant for the future of cooking in this city. I have not changed my mind.
There are two more Crosstown Kitchens fundraising dinners planned – on February 2 at Torito and in April at Marben. But first, on October 5, the group will headline the Farmstart Feast in support of McVean Farm. The feast will happen at the farm and there are only 175 tickets for sale. Each ticket costs $75 which includes the price of two drinks tickets and a shuttle out to the farm. Check the Crosstown Kitchens web site, www.crosstownkitchens.com for more information.

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