Chef Lorenzo Loseto and his restaurant, George, have been on my mind lately. Loseto won silver at the Toronto Gold Medal Plates – missed gold by a whisker – and then last week a special dinner was held at George for owners of the VISA Infinite card, at which I was privileged to be a sort of emcee. My principal duty was to put together a small introduction about Loseto and his particular cuisine and then to describe in detail, dish by dish, what we were about to receive. Meanwhile, the excellent Nick Keukenmeester from Lifford Wine Agency (a suave and very entertaining fellow) introduced the accompanying wines.
For me, the event was an encouragement to try to articulate what I admire most about Loseto’s cooking. Borrowing an approach from The Commitments, I called him up a couple of days before and asked him who his influences were. “My mother and Susur Lee,” was the answer. Loseto moved to Ontario from Italy as a baby. His mother loved to cook and loved doing everything from scratch. As a child, young Lorenzo learned all the fruits and vegetables, how to cook them, how to can and preserve, how to bake and cure meat and make sausages – which gave him an edge over his contemporaries when he decided his future lay in cooking professionally. His first job was as an apprentice at the Windsor Arms, 21 years ago. I tried to do the maths… Caramba! So he was there under Michael Bonacini and Marc Thuet! Not so. They both jumped ship a week before Loseto joined, moving to Centro – and the hotel closed soon after. But his next job was a doozy for an ambitious young cook – to be sous chef for Susur Lee in that tiny little kitchen at Lotus, on Tecumseth Street. This was in 1990 to 1993 – when Lotus was the most interesting restaurant in Canada – and you could call it a baptism of fire, just four of them working elbow-to-elbow, heads down, barely speaking.
“I loved it!” Lorenzo told me, earnestly. Right… He and Susur share a very serious approach to their profession.
“So, not a lot of laughs…” I ventured.
“We weren’t there to socialize!” pointed out Lorenzo.
Susur is inimitable, but I see his influence in Lorenzo’s work – not the Asian-western fusion thing – but in the intricate way Lorenzo builds and balances flavours in a dish – the way he’s not afraid to add. It’s really hard for critics to approach because we love to dissect and deconstruct, to taste and analyze individual components of a dish. With Susur and Lorenzo the full effect, the full glory only happens when you combine those components on the fork and taste a whole mouthful. It’s like listening to an orchestra play. The critic will need to understand the way the harmony is built, what the second violins are playing… The composer wants you to just sit back and listen to the total sound.
So you have this overlay – a young cook who learned from his mother to appreciate great ingredients and the simplicity of home cooking from scratch. Then add to that some of the most complex cuisine we’ve ever seen here from Susur Lee’s unique, whimsical, Cantonese-Pekingese-French imagination… Loseto went on to The Founders Club as sous chef, did a stint as pastry chef at Circo to hone his confectionery skills; then thought he’d better get some hotel experience – first at Hemispheres here in Toronto then as executive chef of Bacchus in the Wedgewood Hotel, Vancouver. He came back here in 1999 to join Guy Rubino as co-executive-chef at ZooM and then Rain… And then opened George, the restaurant that is also part of Verity women’s club. I remember how exciting that moment was: the first opportunity Toronto had to see what Lorenzo could do on his own, in complete charge of a large, ambitious, first class operation… He did brilliantly.
I would put Lorenzo in the highest tier of Toronto chefs these days. Certainly, we ask him back every year to be one of the top ten local chefs at the Gold Medal Plates competition. He has won silver twice.
Here’s what he served us the other night.
The first dish was a treatment of yellowfin tuna. He began by slicing the loin as sashimi and marinating it in a verjus vinaigrette. Verjus (as you well know, O dearly beloved) is the tart juice pressed from unripe grapes. It’s sour but not as powerfully acidic as vinegar or lemon juice so it doesn’t cure and blanch the fish the way a ceviche treatment would. It just adds a bit of a sheen – and an edgy flavour. Under the sashimi, he made a tartare using the fatty belly of the tuna with some fresh ginger, shallots and a little bit of chili. Under that lay a raw plum carpaccio made with red plums from Italy, sliced as thin as tissue paper and fanned across the plate. Beside it was a wee mound of grain salad – pistachio nuts and farro. Farro is far, the grain of the ancient Romans, mentioned in Virgil’s Georgics – a hardy, wheatlike cereal very similar to spelt. It is still grown occasionally in Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo but it’s tricky because it prefers hills to plains and only gives about a quarter the crop that durum does. It’s very digestible and also delicious – especially when Lorenzo kisses it with George’s house dressing – which is a miso vinaigrette with miso, olive oil, sesame oil and rice vinegar.
There was a crunchy slaw there as well, working as refreshment and textural contrast, but the strongest flavour on the plate was a generous streak of curry mascarpone. The idea was to rake your fork through it, pick up some plum and some tuna and experience all three together in your mouth. With it we drank Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio 2009, a crisp refreshing crowd-pleaser. It was an obsequious courtier where the tuna was concerned, letting the rich fish walk all over it in sleek piscine stilettoes, then hurrying off in a fluster when the tart miso dressing stepped forward.
Chef went back to his boyhood for the next dish – rich, lip-smacking home cooking but executed, of course, with his customary elegance. It started with beautiful Ontario beef short ribs. Loseto marinated them overnight with salt and pepper and a basic mirepoix of vegetables, letting those natural enzymes start to break down the meat and tenderize it a little – then braising it for about six hours in a very low oven. He let the beef cool, portioned it and then completed it in a finishing jus of red wine enriched with lightly smoked figs, the jus reduced until it was as smooth and layered, as lively and profound as an antique Madeira.
As an accompaniment, he chose polenta. I remember travelling years ago in the Italian Alps, at about this time of year, when there wasn’t enough snow to ski yet but the November mud was frozen hard for the winter and the larch trees had turned an amazing orange colour so all the mountainsides were the colour of rust… You could see the hunters quite clearly from miles away in their green camouflage coats against the orange larch trees. So could the birds and animals they were waiting for, of course… Nevertheless, there was always some piece of game for supper in the hotel and it was always served on a slab of polenta to soak up the juices.
Loseto’s polenta was much more refined – soft, moist, enriched with butter and a little Parmigiano Reggiano and some lemon thyme. And with it he served a broccoli confit. Lorenzo doesn’t like his broccoli crunchy so he cooked it very slowly in olive oil that had been enhanced with shallot and garlic and rosemary – then he cheffed it up with a few little extras – roasted chestnut and apple… Bacon… And little pearls of yellow beet formed with a tiny melon-baller.
Like his mentor, Susur Lee, Lorenzo tends to get frugal with leftovers so he puréed the beet that didn’t get scooped and hid a little under the polenta, just to add another sweet, earthy flavour to it.
And what to drink with this refined-domestic, unctuous, sumptuous dish? Keukenmeester chose a New Zealand Pinot Noir – the spectacular Felton Road 2007 Bannockburn Pinot Noir from Central Otago, to be precise. Gorgeous. Yes, there was New World fruit but it was beautifully balanced with oak and earthy spice. Powerful but sophisticated. In my head, I was thinking more about Grenache, Mourvèdre, a robust but earthy Southern Rhône blend, but the Pinot worked wonderfully well.
Our next course was rack of venison with potato pavé and caramelized sunchokes. I like the idea of two red meats and two red wines – and of moving from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon – from body to soul, perhaps – or from heart to mind. Venison is the most autumnal of meats – even when it’s farmed. We’ll save the rant about the patronising idiocy of Canadian law that forbids us from serving our own wild game in our own restaurants – or from hanging it properly in fur or feather. Instead I’ll just point out that Loseto’s hard work in tracking down some exemplary farmed Ontario fallow deer definitely paid off. He marinated it with garlic, mustard, herbs and little pieces of foie gras. Then he wrapped up the whole party in cawl fat so that when he seared and roasted it, the foie melted like some kind of divinely decadent butter, and the juices were forced to remain in the meat. The potato pavé lay beneath it, layered petals of potato bonded with a dab of basil pesto. And with it, the sweet roots and tubers of fall –caramelized baby sunchokes, just blanched and roasted off, and rainbow carrots, turned and roasted together. Served with a small carrot flan like a sweet, moussy custard. He finished the plate with a couple of ancillary flavours, like different colours on the canvas… A little dab of baked apricot jam – not too sweet, a bit tangy – and a jus spiked with ancho chili – just bringing a tiny moment of chili heat.
All this stood alongside the Joseph Phelps Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, another fine match.
After that? A scrumptious cheese, one that had never been served at George before. Afrim Pristine at Cheese Boutique made the decision – Le Blackburn from Jonquière, Quebec. Deliberately made in emulation of the famous French cheese, Cantal, it’s a semi-firm cheese, made from unpasteurized, certified organic farmhouse Holstein cows’ milk – the best milk imaginable in other words. Afrim gets it from Quebec at about 3 months old and – genius affineur that he is – ages it a further 15 months in perfect conditions. The result? It’s fairly mild but with loads of flavour – a perfect balance of nuttiness and fruitiness. Lorenzo garnished it with brioche toast, pickled cipolini onions, tomato jam and fresh pear. With it we poured a port that I knew very well indeed – the college port from my boyhood, available to the undergraduates at New College, Oxford, during the 1970s at a very reasonable couple of quid a bottle: Quinta do Noval LBV.
I would like to say my university days (or nights, to be more precise) came flooding back at the first sniff of that purple-black nectar. So I will. So much so that I paid too little attention to the finale, a chocolate tasting in four parts, featuring a chocolate pot du crème with coconut-almond sorbet, a tart of chocolate spiked with chili, chocolate profiteroles with chocolate paté inside, and a chocolate ice cream terrine with chocolate sorbet and vanilla, ginger and burnt honey. A swirl of orange-and-olive-oil purèe on the plate failed to hold off the all-out cocoa Armageddon.
If you’ve read this far, you have earned the following nugget of actual news. I’m going to be emceeing another VISA Infinite gastronomic evening on Tuesday, January 25 at Susur Lee’s as-yet-unopened new extravaganza, Lee Lounge. The premises combine Lee with what was once Susur and more recently Madeline’s (he has knocked down a wall). The menu features some of the dishes with which Susur has wowed Singapore at his latest restaurant there. Susur himself will be doing the cooking and talking about it. The dinner is only open to Canadian VISA Infinite card-holders. If you’re interested in scoring some tickets there’s more information available at www.visainfinite.ca.