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Archive for the ‘Extravaganzas’ Category

St. Patrick McMurray – at it again

06 Mar

shucker contest

 

The Ontario Hostelry Gold Awards 2014

02 Mar

0_81

And the nominees are…

It seems fitting on Oscars night to mention the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s annual gala where gold awards are handed out to the chosen luminaries of Ontario’s hospitality industry. These are our own Oscars, really, and the winners are selected by past awardees under the aegis of the OHI’s chair and president (for lo these 24 years), J. Charles Grieco. It’s good and proper to honour the industry’s stars but the OHI serves another purpose, providing scholarships and bursaries to talented young people who might not otherwise be able to afford professional training. It also supports the up-and-coming young idea with its 30 under 30 program. Funds raised at the gala provide the wherewithal to do this important work and it’s also a lovely evening out. This year’s gala and awards dinner takes place at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto on April 24. Buy a ticket or a table at www.theohi.ca.

Mr. Grieco has given me permission to name this year’s honorees in advance of the great event.

Educator: Deborah Pratt, Winery public Relations, Great Estates of Niagara.

Media/publishing: Jennifer Bain, author and Food Editor at the Toronto Star.

Chef: the great Arpi Magyar, Executive Chef and Proprietor of Couture Cuisine.

Supplier: Lynn Siegal of Hilite Fine Foods Inc.

Foodservice-Chain Operator: Annie Young-Scrivner, President, Starbucks Canada.

Independent Restaurateur: Tony and Mario Amaro, Co-owners, Opus Restaurant.

Hotelier: Heather McCrory, SVP Operations, Americas, Fairmont Raffles Hotels International Hotels & Resorts.

Artisan: Jonathan Forbes, Founder, Forbes Wild Foods.

A powerful list indeed, and sincere congratulations to them all.

 

The Dinner Party – second time around

13 Nov
Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, brooklynmuseum.org

Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, brooklynmuseum.org

Last year, Chef Alexandra Feswick organized an extraordinary event created by and for Toronto’s female chefs. It was so successful, she’s doing it again on December 3rd. Here is her press release about this exciting evening.

TORONTO’S TOP FEMALE CHEFS COLLABORATE 

FOR THE 2ND EDITION OF THE DINNER PARTY

A Fundraising Dinner Inspired By The Famed Artwork Installation by Judy Chicago

 Alexandra Feswick and Kristina Chau of Not Your Average Party are delighted to announce that The Dinner Party will be hosted at The Great Hall for the second year in a row.  After the overwhelming success The Dinner Party collected last year, it is anticipated that December 3rd, 2013 will mark yet another wonderful, and playful celebration of female culinary talent in the city of Toronto – one not to be missed.

These noted chefs will be challenged to co-create a tasting menu for this sensational interpretation of Judy Chicago’s artwork installation, The Dinner Party in commemoration of women who have inspired them.  The Great Hall, home of Samuel J Moore – represented by Feswick – will host some of Toronto’s best female chefs:  Tara Lee (Skin & Bones), Trish Gill (The Dock Ellis), Tiffany Wong (Pizzeria Libretto), Charlotte Langley (Catch) and Leonie Lilla (The Libertine).  2013’s Toronto’s Hottest Chef Leah Wildman (Fit Squad) will be heading up dinner pairings while the lovely Miriam Streiman (Mad Maple) will MC for the evening.

The icing on the cake:  some of Ontario’s most talented male chefs will be serving things up: Dustin Gallagher (Acadia), Alex Molitz (The Farmhouse Tavern), Jeff Crump (Earth To Table), Rocco Agoistino (Pizzeria Libretto), Scott Bailey (Compass Restaurant) and Basilio Pesce (Porzia).  The event is a celebration of female Chef’s with the support of some of the city’s most notable, talented and spirited male Chef’s.  “They all support and believe in what we’re doing and having them work with us tonight is my hope that the community will see us working together: while changing these typical expectations about the inherent rolls of men and women in a restaurant.” (Feswick, The Dinner Party, 2012).

The dinner will be held at 7pm at The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. West at Dovercourt on Tuesday December 3rd, 2013.  Prices are $120 and include alcohol pairings and tax.  All proceeds will be donated to I Walk for Water.

To purchase tickets please visit: https://www.uniiverse.com/listings/the-dinner-party-toronto-M450F

 

Langdon Hall’s VISA Infinite extravaganza

16 Jun

 

Chef Jonathan Gushue

Chef Jonathan Gushue

Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue was on superb form last weekend for the annual VISA Infinite Dining Series gala at Langdon Hall. The two-day affair, brilliantly organized by the IDMG team, was blessed with perfect weather and guests made merry throughout the great hotel and its splendid gardens. Several people remarked to me that they felt we were living out an episode of Downton Abbey, but without any of the show’s attendant melodrama.

We began on Saturday evening with cocktails, bubbly and delectable canapés on the croquet lawn then moved indoors to the dining room for the first five courses. Gushue’s food has always been extraordinarily refined and delicate but these days it seems even more ethereal, inspired by the fresh produce of Langdon Hall’s garden and grounds and the early harvest of farmers and growers in the vicinity. “It hasn’t really been a conscious decision towards lighter and fresher food,” the chef explained to me, “so much as a natural process based on my own tastes. I’m more interested in working with vegetables and fish and I find I just can’t look at another piece of chicken-fried bacon or something foolish like that. I was part of an event at Norm Hardie’s place in Prince Edward County earlier this year. There were 23 chefs there and 21 of them cooked a meat dish. Some of them were amazing, but I’ve been on a bit of mission ever since.”

This light touch has always suited Langdon Hall where so many of the guests are planning a romantic stay. Gushue has received dozens of hand-written letters over the years from guests who appreciated being able to enjoy a six- or seven-course dinner without feeling exhausted at the end of the meal. Too much rich, heavy food can sometimes snuff out the pilot light of passion.

peas and ricotta

peas and ricotta

The amuse offered a perfect illustration of Gushue’s philosophy – perfect peas, freshly picked and popped from their pods, served raw, as Nature intended, with some of their dear little tendrilly leaves and a trace of fresh mint. He posed them beside a spoonful of pea purée to give another viewpoint onto the vegetable and paired them with a dab of ricotta. Not just any ricotta. This was the 2013 Grand Champion from the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, voted the best cheese in Canada. It’s made from sweet whole milk by Quality Cheese in Vaughan and it’s wonderful. The other element of the dish was a lemon verbena water. The herb grows all over the property and Gushue uses it frequently. This time he made it into an infusion that he chilled and thickened until it reached a point somewhere between a liquid and a jelly – a subtle suggestion of flavour to complement the ricotta. The 2010 sparkling brut rosé from Hinterland in Prince Edward County was a perfect accompaniment, introduced, as were all the wines, by Langdon Hall’s assistant sommelier, Melissa Marynissen.

Gushue’s second dish was another masterful understatement. He started with beautiful little gem lettuces sourced from Deerfield Nurseries in Hagersville, briefly brining the leaves to give them a slightly marinated feel but leaving them still, essentially, raw. On top of them he perched a plump Digby scallop that he had warmed in the oven, not really cooking it, just basically bringing it up to room temperature, barely seizing its sweet, sticky juices. To this he brought the lightest sauce imaginable, made by thickening milk with a dash of puréed scallop, adding a thinner second sauce of lettuce juice. So light and fine! But the finishing touch was like sprinkling gold dust on the bedsheets. He brined and then dry-cured egg yolks for 12 weeks until they ended up looking like golden, semi-translucent glass but with a strange pliant texture that Gushue described as “like cutting into a gummy bear.” He grated the yolks and scattered them over the lettuce like pollen gilding a lilly. The yolky flavour was as rich, in its way, as the scallop, and a fine contrast for the pristine lettuces. A 2011 Loimer Grüner Veltliner was wine enough to match the scallop and egg but fine enough not to bully the leaves.

asparagus with chive blossom

asparagus with chive blossom

By now, our palates were becoming calibrated to the vegetable-seafood-dairy world of Gushue’s imagination. The third course pursued the theme further – a dish of Deerfield Nurseries asparagus tips moistened with cold-pressed canola oil and roasted for a moment in the oven. “That asparagus is so good I like to leave it to its own devices,” said Gushue, but of course he added some subtle enhancements. The base of his sauce was tomato water – the pale, sweet but tangy juice that drips all night from a muslin bag filled with chopped raw tomatoes. Gushue  infused it with marigolds from the garden then finished it by adding a little of the sheep’s milk yoghurt they make in the kitchen. Nothing shows off the taste of asparagus like nutty ingredients and Chef brought in three elements from that section of the gastronomic orchestra: a drop or two more of the cold-pressed canola oil with its unique, faintly nutty taste; some powdered hazelnuts; and some red quinoa, a particular type of quinoa that holds its crunch even when cooked and has an unusual walnut-like flavour. To finish, a little squeeze of lemon juice over the asparagus and a final garnish of chive tops. Gushue told me once that if he could only have one garnish on Earth it would be chive tops – not just because of the gorgeous mauve colour but because they have real flavour and a honey-sweet finish behind the oniony allium aroma. I would have reached for a Sauvignon Blanc with this dish but Marynissen chose a red, the 2008 Mercurey 1er Cru Les Champ Martins from Domaine Michel Juillot, and it worked admirably, picking out the nutty flavours perfectly.

Atlantic halibut

Atlantic halibut

It was time for something more substantial and now Gushue turned to his Halifax fish suppliers, Fisherfolk, for some superb Atlantic halibut. Fisherfolk is a family firm and most of its members are fishermen themselves so there’s no need for a middle man. Seafood comes from the cold Atlantic to Langdon Hall’s dining room within hours not days – something Gushue hadn’t experienced since he was at The Wedgwood hotel in Vancouver. He roasted the halibut very simply, just gilding its surface with a white wine glaze. Alongside it he served black salsify – the last of last year’s crop from Anthony John at Soiled Reputation – slowly braised in a warm bath of Chardonnay, fish stock and shallots. As a second vegetable he heated the same braising liquid to boiling point and used it to blanch chunks of peeled cucumber. It ended up with the texture of vegetable marrow and nearly stole the show. Sprinkled over the vegetables was crumbled, very crunchy chicken skin that had been roasted until it gave up all its fat, quickly seasoned with salt and pepper and then crushed to dust. He used the rendered schmaltz to make a mayonnaise, a very tiny amount of which went into the sauce that finished the dish – a light stock spiked with wild herbs from Langdon Hall’s woods. The Chardonnay was an assertive, perfectly balanced beauty – Bachelder’s 2010 Wismer Vineyard from Niagara.

There had been no starch whatsoever in the meal to date – and no meat, either. But now the carnivores were rewarded for their patience. Grandview Farms wagyu beef sirloin is grass-fed so that famous wagyu marbling isn’t nearly as pronounced. It’s leaner and lighter than corn-fed beef and it doesn’t exhaust your palate the way a big slab of USDA Prime does (awesome for the first three bites, then a burdensome duty after that). Gushue has a bone to pick with modern beef-lovers who measure the quality of their meat by how soft it is. “There’s a difference between tender and soft,” he says. “I like a little toothsome crunch to my beef – I don’t want it to cut like liver.” It didn’t. And it tasted divine. Beside it, Gushue set scallions, simply grilled and brushed with Langdon Hall butter, and a medley of pink and golden beets. The sauce was a shallot broth made by roasting shallots at 450 degrees for an hour until one side of them is almost charred black then moving them into a new pan and cooking them down at 225 degrees for 16 hours. They give up all their sweet, golden juices but there’s also an intriguingly sour, bitter note from the preliminary blackening that brings the broth to life. A 2010 Springfield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon did its vinous duty by the beef.

And then it was time to move on to the conservatory for a spectacular array of Canadian cheeses, all of them prize winners at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix and introduced by Debbie Levy of Dairy Farmers of Canada. Behind the cheeses were desserts created by Langdon hall’s brilliant pastry chef, Sarah Villamere. There was pansy and rhubarb mousse, intense bite-sized chocolate and lovage tartlets and scrumptious white-chocolate-strawberry-hazelnut cake.

The firepit...

The firepit…

But the evening didn’t end there. Out in the candlelit darkness by the reflecting pool, Gushue had set up a firepit and was melting raclette cheese, to be eaten with marinated onion and prosciutto. Or for those who needed something sweeter, Villamere had made cheesecakes in little glass jars. Someone played guitar and the starlit sky promised a clear sunrise.

Sunday morning on these weekends means a spectacular brunch and this time Gushue and his tireless staff set up the party around the swimming pool. There were dozens of dishes to taste and Sarah Villamere was front and centre with a bakery’s worth of cookies and scones, praline brioche with honey butter, Danish cheese tarts, croissants and pain au chocolat, cookies and miniature pots of blueberry-basil crème brûlée topped with crème fraiche.

I can’t list everything but I can’t forget the pizza-like dandelion tart flecked with pancetta, cheddar and marinated raisins. Or the eggs en cocotte cooked with cream and Bleu d’Elizabeth cheese and walnuts. Or the salads – one of tart sea buckthorn berries, green grapes and pear, another tumbling strawberries, feta and celery, still another of melon, grilled apricots and marmalade.

It was a perfect day and Wendy and I lingered deep into the afternoon, long after brunch had been cleared and the guests had driven away.

My sincere thanks to Ksenija Hotic who took these beautiful photographs. www.ksenijahoticphotography.com.

 

Langdon Hall on June 8

25 May
Langdon Hall itself

Langdon Hall itself

Two weeks from today – on Saturday, June 8th, to be precise – I will be motoring down to  Langdon Hall for the amazing VISA Infinite weekend, one of the highlights of my year. Not only is it an opportunity to spend a night and the best parts of two days in my favourite Canadian hotel, it also involves two spectacular meals from Grand Chef Jonathan Gushue – of which more later. We did this last year, some of you may remember and it was spectacular fun. You can find my report on this site by searching for Langdon Hall Weekend.

This year Chef Gushue has vowed to raise the bar even higher. Saturday’s dinner will begin in a clearing in the estate’s woodlands where there will be music and lively conversation. Then we’ll proceed to the croquet lawn for the second course (honestly, anyone who hankers after the Downton Abbey lifestyle needs to be part of this) and then into the dining room for the next four courses. Dessert, I gather, will be outside by torchlight in the warm summer night. Langdon hall’s sommelier, Kathleen Moore, will speak about the wines she has chosen for each delectable course. I’ll be introducing the food but I promise not to talk too long.

Brunch by the reflecting pool

Brunch by the reflecting pool

Sunday morning sees a truly spectacular brunch down around the pool. There were something like 50 dishes last year, a jazz band and some very glamorous cocktails. It was one of those days you wish would never end.

The whole weekend is an endless succession of treats, all set in what Condé Nast Traveler magazine has deemed to be one of the top 15 hotels in the world. If you haven’t booked your room yet just dial 1 800 268 1898 and do so. The price is $1,250 per couple – which includes everything.

 

Make Wine Not War – the Massey College wine grazing 2013

27 Feb

grazing

One of the signal privileges of being a member of the Quadrangle Society at Massey College is that I get to help with the College Wine Committee’s annual Grazing. It’s always a delightful occasion with about 100 guests (half of them junior fellows of the College, half of them senior fellows and Quadranglers) moving from food station to food station in the Junior Common Room and Upper Library, tasting the precisely devised dishes prepared as perfect matches for the wines. The wines themselves are selected by the Wine Committee with a theme in mind and this year we attempted to show some of the different things that can happen to a grape when it’s grown in Ontario and in California. Jonathan Bright, who heads the Committee, came up with the title for the event, a cunning reference to the War of 1812 and the peace movement of the 1960s: Make Wine Not War.

I had discovered in previous years, much to my amazement, that some of our guests were unfamiliar with Ontario wines – old prejudices formed 30 years ago still nudging them away from the local shelves at the LCBO, the local pages of a restaurant wine list. They had passed from the last century into the present one in a state of ignorance, their lives immeasurably deprived of Ontario’s shimmering, racy Rieslings, our sleek Bordeaux blends, our Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and profound late-harvest elixirs.

So there was an element of evangelical zeal in my introductory comments to the evening’s wines. I attempted to explain that, here in Ontario, we really don’t have to struggle to make wines of true elegance and that it isn’t all that hard to showcase the crisp acidity or the aromatic intensity that comes from interesting soils and a long hang time on the vine – especially now that our vineyards – and our winemakers – are reaching the glory of maturity. And, dare I say it, our summers do seem to be warm and fruitful more often than they used to be.

For California, the problems were always the other way around. All that heat and sunshine – the macho show-those-grapes-who’s-master winemaking taught at U.C. Davis – the early taste for over-oaked, overly potent Chardonnays and inky, over-extracted Cabernets… The one thing they seemed to lack in those old days was any whisper of finesse. But all that is changing too. Today’s winemakers are seeking out cooler areas where altitude or fog and wind from the Pacific mitigates the heat and where grapes ripen more slowly, developing more interesting aromas and keeping some notion of acidity. So our theme wasn’t quite such a cool-warm divide as it might have been 10 or 15 years ago.

We began with a delicious bubbly from Prince Edward County, the 2008 Grange of Prince Edward Sparkling, a méthode Champenoise blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a pinky, beigy, papyrus colour – one of those elusive nacreous half-tones you see in a dawn sky or near the edge of an opal. It had an intriguing nose with plenty of yeast on top – like bread or biscuit dough overlaid upon notes of ripe red apple and a hint of pear. Tasting it, the apple was much sharper – like a Granny Smith – and there was some citrus there and a definite minerality as if one were sucking a cold, clean pebble from the bed of a stream – a trademark of a Prince Edward County wine.

I wish I could tell you where to find the 2008 but I think we drank the last of the vintage. It was very generously donated by Caroline Granger who founded and owns the winery. Her father had bought the property when she was a girl and she spent her summers there before growing up and becoming a fashion model and actress in Paris and New York, then a schoolteacher then a forensic accountant. In 1997, she and her three small children returned to Prince Edward County and the family property where she conceived the idea of growing vines. She planted the first 10 acres by hand – literally, when her tractor broke down – all the while studying chemistry and biology at Loyalist College. 2003 was her first harvest and, as an accountant, she couldn’t resist crunching the numbers from her investment. She calculated she would have to sell each bottle for $7,000 to break even on her costs to date. Today she has 60 acres under vine and a great success on her hands.

We had tasted the bubbly in November, together with Massey’s brilliant culinary director, Darlene Naranjo, and with Greg Cerson, the College steward and the man who makes our Grazing possible in every logistical way. Darlene came up with a perfect canapé to pair with the wine – a warm scone topped with a quince and green apple compote and a hint of fresh ginger. Scrumptious.

After that little appetizer we moved to the Upper Library for the first real pairing. We’d wanted to show that both Niagara and California are capable of perfumed, exotic wines beyond the usual pale. I had also thought it might be interesting to show off a Muscat from California, partly to justify the extraordinary and unprecedented infatuation that state is currently showing for the grape and also to show that not all Californian Muscats are sweet, one-dimensional, deeply tiresome wines that taste more soapy than floral and appeal mostly to people who like drinking Blush Zinfandel or are slaves to the Dark Master, Coca Cola. We found something much nicer. Uvaggio’s 2010 Moscato is dry, lightweight and has a true Moscato aroma like grapes, ripe canteloupe and gardenias.

Next to this we opened a 2010 Gewurztraminer from Cave Spring Cellars, grown on the Beamsville bench in Niagara on the sloping hillsides right under the escarpment. Cave Spring’s winemaker, Angelo Pavan, lets the grapes hang quite late into the harvest to build up sugar and aromatic complexity but picks while the necessary balancing acidity is still intact. It has none of the voluptuous weight of an Alsatian Gewurz but it’s still decidedly seductive with aromas of elderflowers and dried rose petals. There’s a little sweetness when you taste it and flavours of spiced pears and bubble gum but a lovely tangy acidity that keeps the wine honest. It opened up quite dramatically in our glasses and there were oohs and ahs all around the room, especially when I mentioned that Cave Spring had generously donated the wine for the evening.

We wanted something decadent and delicate to pair with these two wines and we came up with a milky infant of a ricotta cheese cradled in a bitter leaf, sweetened with floral-infused honey, a touch of anise and a final kiss from a rose petal – as if some wayward aunt had waved her perfumed hanky over the innocent ricotta as a blessing.

On to the Chardonnay station. When we were in the very early stages of thinking about this evening I had contacted Martin Malivoire, proprietor of Malivoire Wines on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, to seek his advice and suggestions. He was supportive from the outset and proposed that his 2009 Moira Chardonnay might be just the wine to show how dazzling Niagara Chardonnay can be. He only makes 100 cases from the vineyard he and his partner, Moira Saganski, planted in 1995 and I was thrilled to pour it. This wine was praised by Jancis Robinson in terms that made many a Burgundian producer green with envy when she tasted it in London a couple of years ago. It’s made in a cool, clean Burgundian style with some of the juice fermented in French oak barrels made for Martin by a Burgundian cooper and some aged in steel. The oak is part of the choir, not the solo performer, harmonizing with refreshing acidity and minerality and  rather a yummy nose of honeysuckle, pear and lemon zest. En bouche, you find – if I may plagiarize Martin’s web site – flavours of “pineapple, pear, honey and custard cream with a zesty mineral finish.”

We felt this wine needed a dish of its own. Martin has since emailed me that he had opened a bottle of it for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and cooked up a perfect pairing – butter-poached lobster on linguine with a lobster and tomato reduced cream sauce with roasted fennel and oven-dried tomatoes. We came up with something fairly similar – shrimp cooked in butter with tarragon and just a hint of saffron to bring out the oak.

Alongside this gem, we served the 2009 Mer Soleil, grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County by the Wagner family. This is a perfect example of what Californian Chardonnay makers are after these days – a site that is naturally cooled by Pacific air and ocean fog being sucked into the valley. But there’s plenty of wind to keep the vines healthy and dry and a great deal of sunshine. Even 15 years ago, Californian Chardonnistas used to use so much French oak to ferment and age their wines that it ended up tasting like pineapple juice sucked through a straw from an old leather boot. The Australians were doing the same. Most of them have moved on. And yet this wine seemed undeniably oaky after the chic and taut Malivoire, full of spicy vanilla aromas along with hay and honey – and Mr Wagner also finds Meyer lemon on the nose but that may be the power of suggestion since his vineyards are surrounded by lemon groves. The oak is certainly there when you taste but, in the mouth, the wine is surprisingly delicate and not full-bodied at all – just a delightful and easy-going Chardonnay with an adorable smile… Darlene found a terrific match with a gratin of potatoes with molten Emmenthal cheese and lemon thyme cream.

Our third station was devoted to Pinot Noir, indubitably Ontario’s most promising red. There are some thoroughbred beauties strutting out of Prince Edward County, where the soil is almost identical to the Cote d’Or, and now that the vines there are reaching maturity, the Pinots are getting more interesting every year. But there are also some spectacular versions from Niagara’s benchlands and our Pinot Noir was from Tawse – voted the Canadian Winery of the Year by Wine Access magazine for an astonishing three years in a row – 2010, 2011 and 2012! Moray Tawse makes several Pinots from various vineyards. We tasted the Growers Blend from the long, hot 2010 vintage – a year which gave delicious concentration and complexity to the wine. From the vast spectrum of potential aromas Pinot Noir offers we found ripe cherries and blackberries with a hint of violets and some earthy, truffly, mushroomy forest floor background.

Our Californian Pinot came from Kenwood (the 2010) and was a good one, typical of what can be achieved down there now that winemakers have stopped manhandling the fruit as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon. So many Californian Pinots basically taste like raspberry juice with streaks of spice added by ageing in oak. This one was much better integrated and more interesting, grown in the Russian River valley of Sonoma – relatively cool and close to the ocean – and the winemaker decided to add 1% Syrah to the mix to add complexity and body and probably a bit of extra colour. Is that cheating? Not if it improves the wine. We found the nose to be a bowl of fruit – raspberries and strawberry jam, Ocean Spray cranberry cocktail – even a hint of Ribena. The taste was more complex – refreshing, suprisingly tannic in the way cranberries are and though there wasn’t any sense of a barnyard or those forest floor mushrooms there was a pleasant background of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. I urged our guests to go back and forth between the two, looking for the difference that climate can make – especially to the intensity of the aromatics and the underlying acidic structure. The Californian is cheerful, likeable wine – very easy to spend an hour with – but if you want long involved conversation deep into the night, the Tawse was the Pinot to choose. And to eat? Darlene prepared a splendid dish to go with both wines – slow-roasted pork topped with a mushroom brunoise in a dried cherry and pomegranate marinade.

I suppose the area where the biggest difference between Ontario and California can be seen is in the category of Big Red Wines – especially Cabernets. We can get some really good colour and intensity from C Franc in a long, hot year – but perhaps we should be looking for supple strength rather than brute force. For our Ontario red we left the benchlands and moved down to the plain – the Niagara Lakeshore appellation that lies around the road from St. Catharine’s to Niagara on the Lake. Like Malivoire and Tawse, Stratus is a brilliantly conceived winery, utterly eco-friendly, gravity-driven, so the wines aren’t constantly being pumped around and stressed. The vineyards there were planted with the deliberate knowledge that the principal wines made were going to be blends – the speciality of winemaker J-L Groux, a man of professorial intellect and a thorough individualist. We tasted the 2007 Stratus Red which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – all three mainstays of Bordeaux of course – with a little Burgundian Gamay added – something you would most decidedly not find in a Bordeaux. 2007 was another of those long, hot summers in Ontario when Cabernet Sauvignon was able to ripen properly – which is not always the case here in cool years. J-L gave the components 644 days ageing in French oak barrels – 88% of them new ones. Then he chose the barrels he liked best (the rest went into Stratus’s second wine, called Wildass). The ’07 Stratus Red was finally released in 2010 and it proved to be a super, elegant wine that deserves the most concentrated appreciation. It’s so smooth and well-integrated that it’s actually quite hard to analyze! There’s a lovely juicy, round acidity and all sorts of rich, ripe, sleek black-fruit flavours right in the centre of the palate. And though it’s more than five years old now, it still tastes marvellously vibrant and young.

Our Californian Big Red was the 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The name is a tad misleading as it’s also a blend, containing 23% Merlot to soften and humanize the dark, disapproving, rather austere frown of the Cabernet. These vineyards were planted in the 1960s and their roots grow deep, which adds all sorts of nuances to the wine. 2009 was also a summer of heat waves in California – one after the other – and we could taste the ripeness of the fruit. The Ridge is just reaching its peak now and it met with universal approval – not too extracted or jammy but huge, full-bodied and powerful. The tannins were smoothing out but there was plenty of acidity tucked away behind the tell-tale Cab Sauv blackcurrant and the aromas of black tea, fennel, brambles and cigar boxes.

We paired both reds with a cassoulet prepared with double-smoked bacon lardons and wild boar sausages made for us especially by Peter Sanagan at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market – (my local and therefore my nomination for Toronto’s best butcher’s shop). My favourite cassoulet wine is an inky black Fitou from Roussillon, tasting of charcoal and liquorice and sinful mid-afternoons. I once drank such a wine with a magnificent cassoulet made by the wives of the vineyard workers of Carcasonne and it was a humbling experience. I made the mistake of asking for seconds and my Oliver Twist-like presumptuousness ruined me for the rest of the week. At Massey, no such Armageddon occurred – but I think the Ridge worked better with the cassoulet than the Stratus. Darlene also served some mimolette cheese, gouged à la minute. I am on record as saying this is my favourite cheese in the world.

And so to our finale. We had thought about presenting an Ontario Icewine but we figured everyone already knew what they’re like. So, to bring symmetry to an evening that began with a lone Ontario bubbly we ended with a lone Californian sticky, another Muscat but made from a different kind of Muscat than the dry Moscato we tried earlier. This particular grape is called Orange Muscat and its aroma is like apricots and the orange flower water that barefooted street-children sell you in Marakesh. As far as I know only one producer makes it – a couple called Andrew and Laurel Quady who live in Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. They had experimented with making their own port during the 1970s – they rather cleverly called it Starboard – but in 1980 they came up with the fortified  Orange Muscat they call Essensia and it became an instant cult hit among dessert wine lovers. They have continued to experiment and these days Essensia also contains a few percentage points of Muscat Canelli which enhances the citrus character of the wine and a tiny bit of Malvasia Bianca which boosts and complicates the floral aroma. This is really one of those wines that takes the place of dessert but the idea of pairing it with a final treat was irresistible – some crystallized orange peel dipped in dark chocolate.

And that was our evening. It was certainly a wonderful occasion for me because my son is currently a Junior Fellow at the College and he came to the Grazing as my guest. Although Massey is one of the planet’s most enlightened and stimulating educational environments, that night we were not really there to learn. Our sole purpose was more simple and more profound – the clear-eyed, utterly single-minded quest for shameless hedonistic pleasure.

 

 

SOUPSTOCK, baby! Yeah!

15 Oct

What did you do to stop the Mega-Quarry, Daddy?

It was the topic of the morning the other day as we sat in the departure lounge of Regina International Airport: the great gathering of Soupstock down in Woodbine Park in the Beach (or Beaches, if you prefer) on Sunday, October 21st. It is going to be astonishing! A cross between last year’s Foodstock and the perennial fundraiser Empty Bowls, with over 170 chefs gathering to offer soup to the multitudes, it could be the largest-ever culinary protest in the world. The purpose, if you haven’t heard, is to protest against the proposed Mega-Quarry north of Toronto. I really think we all have to go and be counted amongst the righteous. Or face the puzzled frowns of our unborn children when they ask what we did to stop the Sons of Fomor from destroying our beautiful province. Do you want this farmland to end up looking like the Tar Sands of Alberta? Money’s lovely, of course, but some things are more important.

Now here are the official messages from people who are already doing their bit.

“While Foodstock was amazing, it  only whet our appetite for something even bigger,” says Chef Michael Stadtlander from the Canadian Chefs’ Congress, which is co-hosting the event with the David Suzuki Foundation. “Soupstock is going to be the culinary celebration of the year; delicious, huge and truly inspiring.” Joining Chef Stadtlander are well-known culinary champions like Lynn Crawford, Jamie Kennedy, Brad Long and Donna Dooher. Up-and-coming chefs like Jon Pong of Hoof Raw Bar, Craig Harding of Campagnolo, and Calgary’s Connie DeSousa of Charcut, will also showcase their talents.

“By participating in Soupstock we hope to motivate Torontonians to join the inspiring movement to stop the Mega-Quarry and protect our precious headwaters and farmland,” says Chef Jamie Kennedy of Jamie Kennedy Kitchens. Chefs have volunteered to concoct original soup creations for Soupstock that celebrate the Melancthon region’s rich agricultural, cultural and natural history. In addition to culinary star power, local Ontario producers are donating the produce to be used by the chefs in the soups.

“It’s exciting to see our local farmers matching the incredible generosity of the chefs by donating fresh ingredients for Soupstock,” says Dr Faisal Moola from the David Suzuki Foundation. “From beets and bones to potatoes and dairy, these producers are kindly sharing their bounty and making the event a true celebration of local food.”

The mega-culinary event hopes to raise awareness about the need to stop the Highland Companies’ proposed limestone Mega-Quarry in the Township of Melancthon just 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The Mega-Quarry would permanently destroy more than 2,300 acres (930 hectares) of the best potato farmland in Ontario. The company is backed by a $25?billion Boston hedge fund and has proposed to blast a pit deeper than Niagara Falls in a landscape of great agricultural, cultural and ecological importance. The Mega-Quarry would require 600-million litres of water to be pumped out of the pit each day in perpetuity. Up to one million Ontarians downstream rely on this water. Thanks to a growing community of support to stop the Mega-Quarry, last fall the  Ontario government ordered the province’s first Environmental Assessment of a quarry application. Of course, we have no actual government now, so I’m not sure how that will pan out.

Funds raised at Soupstock will be used to continue building a community of support to stop the controversial Mega-Quarry and support other environmental and food-related issues. For more information, please visit www.soupstock.ca, or contact: Jode Roberts, David Suzuki Foundation 647 456 9752 cell, jroberts@davidsuzuki.org.

 

 

The Great Chowder Chowdown

10 Oct

Here’s a delicious way to show support for Ocean Wise’s ongoing campaign for sustainable seafood: the 2012 Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown! It’s taking place at the Fairmont Royal York, Toronto, on November 21 and promises to be a sell-out, so grabbing a ticket now is a smart decision. There will be 13 competitors serving up their own chowder creations – all of them local chefs who support the Ocean Wise initiative – and it’s a strong field:

· Chef Albert Ponzo | Le Select Bistro

· Chef Patrick McMurray | Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill

· Chef Shaun Edmonstone | Bruce Wine Bar

· Chef David Kokai | Loic Gourmet

· Chef Morgan Wilson | Trios Bistro at the Toronto Downtown Marriott Eaton Centre

· Chef Amira Becarevic | EPIC at the Fairmont Royal York

· Chef Daiji Tanaka | Hapa Izakaya

· Chef Kristin Donovan | Hooked

· Chef Frank Byrne | Fishbar

· Chef Thomas Heitz | Port Restaurant

· Chef Reuben Major | Earls Kitchen and Bar

· Chef Alexandra Gaponovitch | Calphalon Culinary Centre

· Chef Stacey Blois | Western University Canada

As if that line-up isn’t enough, the judges for the event include a number of famous faces – Anthony Walsh, Jamie Kennedy, Carl Heinrich (who won Top Chef Canada 2), Rebecca LeHeup of Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and Micah Donovan of The Food Jammers. Of course, there will also be a People’s Choice award.

“This friendly, but competitive, cook-off brings together 13 of Toronto’s top chefs as they showcase their original ocean-friendly seafood chowders, paired with craft beer, at this fun and delicious consumer event,” says Mike McDermid, Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise partner relations manager. “The winner will be crowned 2012 Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown Champion.”

Tickets are $45 for adults, or $40 for students, and are available at vanaqua.org/chowder-chowdown.

 

Coronation Day

21 Sep

 

Chef and co-owner of Atelier, Marc Lepine and his sous chef, Jason Sawision

To Ottawa for the coronation of Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier as Canadian Culinary Champion – a joyful and delicious evening. If you missed the competition last February, Lepine was a very worthy champion who leaped into the lead during the first of the three contests (the Wine Matching contest) and never stumbled. It was a strong field and all the chefs were on top form but Lepine was simply on fire. It was like watching Andy Murray in the Olympic finals – no one was going to keep him from that gold medal! The verdict among the judges was unanimous and a worthy Champion was celebrated.

On Tuesday last, we held the actual coronation, the traditional launch to the next Gold Medal Plates campaign. The trophy was presented before a small crowd of media, VIPs and all the Gold Medal Plates Ottawa-Gatineau judges who had taken Marc Lepine to the podium in last year’s regional event. Cameras flashed, glasses were raised and the general mood was one of undimmed merriment and congratulation.

Lepine and his team had generously offered to cook for some of us so we duly sat down. Those who had eaten at Atelier before were just as full of anticipatory excitement as those of us who had not. I wasn’t sure what to expect – a couple of apps? In the end we were treated to a 14-course dinner of extraordinary quality.

Smoke

But first, a word about the restaurant. There is no name on the door of the low, detached building at 540 Rochester Street, Ottawa (613 321 3537). The windows are guarded by a fashionably rusted metal grill and there are rough stones laid around the base of the façade. Inside is a tiny room with grey walls hung with very small framed paintings done by Chef’s daughter when she was five years old. The wee room seats 22, mostly in huge, cream-coloured leather armchairs that are wonderfully comfortable. I counted 5 people in the kitchen and three servers – a ratio of staff to customers that promises much but must challenge the restaurant’s profitability. Interestingly, there is no actual stove in the kitchen. “He uses induction, and circulators, and sometimes a blowtorch or a soldering iron as a heat source,” someone mentioned.

Not to mention a warm sense of humour. The first canape to be passed among the little throng was an empty shot glass. Not quite empty: there was a tiny pinch of dark dust at the bottom. We were instructed to down it in one. Our mouths tasted gin and tonic.

Then there were wobbly brown bubbbles that burst into liquid gazpacho in our mouths. Confited quail legs coated in prune purée (the soft, seasoned flesh sliding from the bone between our lips). A popsicle of frozen yoghurt that wasn’t sweet at all, just a brilliant palate cleanser.

Lepine was a stagiere at Alinea in Chicago a few years ago. Clearly, it was a highly influential experience. I have eaten in the restaurants of several Grant Achatz alumni. Though Lepine doesn’t have a kitchen brigade of 50, he comes closest to Achatz’s aesthetic of surprise, wit, true flavours, wry juxtapositions and unexpected harmonies.

Lepine’s dishes all have amusing names, apparently chosen from suggestions offered by the team in the kitchen. The best was the last course, involving mango as purèe, jelly and as a dehydrated pickle paired with lemon balm, cardamom ice cream and fried bread covered with saffron syrup. The dish is called “A Mangoes Into a Bar” – which is great. But I’m jumping ahead.

Give Peas a Chance before the soup hits the porcelain

The problem for the critic is that each of the 14 courses involves at least 14 ingredients and a dozen different  techniques, some molecular, some not, others more a matter of studiously letting something like a marigold leaf or a tiny yellow chili appear entirely unadulterated. I’m sitting here looking at my laborious notes and realizing that listing a hundred flavourful grace notes isn’t really going to give much of an impression. The pictures show how stunning the dishes looked and perhaps you can see the little coloured dots and moments of pale powder and minuscule dice made of jelly. Analysis is probably not the right response (though I think Lepine appreciates the awe of the ingredient-nerd). It’s the same with Susur Lee and Claudio Aprile in toronto – and maybe Grant Achatz, too. They are magicians who would rather the audience sat back and were amazed than bent forward, squinting, to try and understand the sleight of hand. But let’s look closely at one or two plates and see if we can see what’s going on.

Here’s the dish called “Smoke,” which arrives under a glass cloche filled with applewood smoke that is whisked away, perfuming the dining room. On the plate is a PERFECT piece of Quebec bison, cooked sous vide for half an hour at 52oC the pan-seared. The meat is heavenly – juicy and red with a faint flavour of woodsmoke. Beside it is a teaspoonful of crumbled fried potato, like the sort of pan-roasted breadcrumbs my mum used to serve with gamebirds. A finger of deep-fried French toast sings a similar song (and what a good idea for breakfast!). there’s a sautéed radish, some white drops of onion soubise, a dollop of ground pink peppercorn mustard, three salt-cured grapes that have the texture of cherries and a fine tarragon powder. The dark smooth sauce at the top of the plate is a liquidized boudin noir – rather an extravagant way to make gravy but it tasted amazing. A single marigold leaf was the token green on the plate. Busy? Yes. Crowded? No. And the bison’s role as star of the show was never jeopardized.

“Give Peas a Chance” comes from a less multi-dimensional place – almost an experiment to see what can be done with something as simple as a pea, the better to express its essential peaness. It begins with solids in a bowl – fresh little peas, chunks of sweet pea meringue, and more pea meringue crushed to powder. A smear of crème fraiche up the side of the bowl lets pea tendrils climb almost vertically from the tiny pool of pea purèe at its base. Slices of green grapes cling to the slope; a morain of frozen green apple snow brings sharp acidity. And see the golden cubes of apple cider jelly! They add a different sweetness to that of the green peas, and a different kind of tang to the green apple’s tartness. Now the waiter pours on a chilled pea soup – thick and green as Wiberg’s pine essence for the bath, sleek as paint. The dilemma is whether to scoop a bit of everything greedily into the spoon or try to pick out the different components, as curiosity demands. Either way, it’s absolutely delicious.

Piggie Smalls

Those are just two moments from the evening. “Sebastien and Pinchy” featured lobster and crab. “Piggie Smalls” showed off piglet tenderloin with blowtorched corn, pickled chanterelles, a powder made of ramps and truffle oil, and umpteen other nuanced details.

What fun it all was.

On Monday, we begin this year’s cycle of Gold Medal Plates events with a chauffeur-driven judges’ day visiting our competing Toronto chefs and tasting their dishes – all in lieu of a gala this year. Then it’s on to Regina for the great party on October 11. I can’t wait.

yer actual trophy (not actual size)

 

Olympic report

20 Aug

Eugene (aka Dr. Draw) our awesome troubadour on the pub crawl through the City of London

What fun the Olympic games were! London looked absolutely splendid, everything worked and while Canada didn’t do quite as well as we all hoped, we matched the total number of our Beijing medal haul. I was there to help make sure the Gold Medal Plates guests had a lovely time (though our event experts Lisa Pasin and Cressida Raffin did all the heavy social lifting and organizing) but ended up having a very cool fortnight myself, hanging out with the likes of Jim Cuddy, Marnie McBean, Adam Kreek and Kyle Shewfelt. We were down at Eton Dorney to see Adam Van Kouverden win a magnificent silver and Mark Oldershaw an unexpected and valiant bronze (two medals in the space of 40 minutes) and though I regret the pork and chili sausage I purchased behind the stands it was a great day in all other respects. We had been in the stands beside the Serpentine the day before when our dear friend Simon Whitfield swam so brilliantly then came a terrible cropper on his bike. His mother and his wife were very brave.

As far as restaurants went, I think my recommendations went down well. Excellent modern Indian food at Trishna. Smashing canapés and cod at the Admiral Codrington. And three unforgettable pub crawls thanks to my friend Dr. Kit Barton, a professor at Regent’s College London who knows more about pubs and beer than anyone I have ever met. We started at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, moved on to the Cockpit (a real neighbourhood pub where the bellringers of St. Paul’s cathedral come to drink on Christmas Day). Then across the Millennium Bridge to The Rake (320 different beers and an outcry from behind the bar when someone asked for a Guinness), finishing up in Borough Market at The Market Porter. Dr. Draw was our troubadour, improvising abstract, pagan music on his violin in the ancient lanes and yards of the City and delighting the crowd in the Porter.

The tubes were like saunas, the cabbies grumbled that business was down, but everyone else agreed that for a fortnight London was generous and merry and astonishingly friendly. Everywhere we went in our patriotic red and white, the Gamesmaker volunteers called out “Hello Canada!” and we felt entirely welcome. I wanted the Games to go on forever.