Go out to dinner on October 21 at one of our Restaurants for Change and you can help change Canada for the better.
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Go out to dinner on October 21 at one of our Restaurants for Change and you can help change Canada for the better.
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How cold was it at Langdon Hall this week? Not quite cold enough to keep my wife off the little skating rink they have flooded on the basketball court. I watched her do her elegant thing for a while until the wind chill drove us indoors to the soothing heat of the spa. Not cold enough, either, to keep the heroic construction crew from their ongoing outdoor work expanding the dining room and kitchen. Some beneficent sprite must have blessed the infant Jason Bangerter at his christening with a particularly chefly gift – that whenever he took on a new job, the owners would give him a new kitchen in which to play. It happened at Auberge du Pommier and then again at Luma. Now at Langdon Hall he will have 50 percent more space in which to perform his art than Jonathan Gushue ever did, along with the very latest generation of induction stoves. If he now seems as quietly excited as a well-mannered kid in a candy store, just wait until the summer when he gets his hands on the produce from the garden and the wild things from the woods…
But his good fortune is also ours, of course – as we tasted on Tuesday night. It was a busy evening for Chef and his brigade – the first Wine Maker Dinner was also taking place in a private dining room, organized by the hotel’s new General Manager, Christophe le Chatton. Langdon Hall has three stellar sommeliers (known as the three musketeers). Le Chatton must be their D’Artagnan, then, for he, in his day, was Toronto’s finest. Langdon’s lead sommelier, Katy moore, was kind enough to invite us to the dinner (a spectacular array of Domaine Faiveley Burgundies with five courses and no doubt innumerable intermezzi) but we were determined to see what Bangerter was up to on the à la carte, so we ate in the main dining room with its views of the nocturnal garden (fairy lights glinting from the snow) and of the new 30-seat extension, where the steps down to the lawn used to be. We ordered conservatively, but many other little sample dishes were sent out. They spoil you rotten at Langdon Hall.
So we shared a lobster salad – perfectly timed pieces of tail and claw, juicy and quivering but poached long enough to taste of lobster without losing any of their natural tenderness. There were cubes of firm lobster-court-bouillon jelly and a streak of pink lobster roe across the plate. Chef had chosen leek as the crustacean’s date for the night – leek turned into crisp tempura wands, into moistly poached, crunchy little drums, into drops of silky purée, even into a dusting of pleasantly bitter leek ash. Garnished with fennel fronds, the whole plate looked like a Joan Miro painting and was gone in a trice.
Wendy started with slices of marinated albacore tuna (see above) that came close to the textural place where fish becomes meaty but kept their discreet marine flavour. Carrots were the supporting cast this time – bias-cut coins, shaved ribbons, some lightly pickled, others roasted to tenderness, still others minced into a brunoise and turned into a sweet-tart relish. As a sort of dressing, a ginger and perilla purée brought in a fresh spectrum of flavours. The presentation reminded me of a display cabinet at the Pitt-Rivers museum – comprehensive, dramatic, surreal… Charles Baker’s 2011 Ivan vineyard riesling was brilliant with it.
My appetizer was billed as a toasted barley and sweet onion pudding – a rich, rustic Canadian cousin to a risotto with moist strands of duck confit stirred in. It was topped with generous hunks of melt-in-the-mouth pan-seared foie gras and startled by moments of tart preserved wild strawberry around the plate. Softly fried sage leaves brought a vegetal note and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Gewurztraminer caressed the dish like a louche and loving courtesan.
“You must try this,” said Chef, as a dish of Humboldt squid appeared. One can only imagine the size of the creature in life! He had cut its body into cubes fully an inch and a half across, some poached, others battered and fried. How do you flatter a Humboldt squid? With a hank of the crunchy green lichen they’re calling “caribou moss” and a tangerine aïoli and some dabs of sea buckthorn for acidity, and a sauce of squid ink that was as black as the squid itself was white.
Are you getting the picture? I was strongly reminded of the way Bangerter used to cook at Auberge, where his European, Mosimann-trained roots were always showing. He’s Canadian, lives in Milton, started out with John Higgins at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, but spent three or four very formative years on the other side of the water. His food these days is so refined – not as ethereal as Jonathan Gushue’s, but discreetly substantial and with all sorts of subtle surprises.
Wendy had ling cod as a main course, the fish bronzed and parting into moist petals. A bed of lentils provided bottom (as we English say), and salsify appeared three ways, as crisp ribbons, as a soft purée and as oiled and roasted chips. A parsnip-vanilla jus linked all the flavours together and an unexpectedly firm, crunchy white cippolino onion, masquerading as a baby turnip, also made a contribution. Our sommelier chose Vasse Felix 2011 chardonnay from Margaret River as a complement.
Me, I had the venison – two cylinders of tenderloin that showed all the gradations from seared surface to a rare ruby-coloured heart. There was a spicy confit of red cabbage turned into a purée, big blocks of butternut squash scented with pine from the property, some delicate Brussels sprout leaves and a peppercorn-game jus by way of a sauce. La Spinetta’s 2009 “Pin,” a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, hit just the right note.
Langdon’s ace pastry chef, Sarah Villamere, departed with Jonathan Gushue, leaving big shoes to fill. Rachel Nicholson seems up to the task. She made a stiff custard of citrus and coconut milk and encased it in a square of saffron-coriander gelée, topped with a gossamer ricepaper tuille.
It only remained to polish off a confection of picobello cheese that had been transformed into custard, then torched and served over crumbled chicken skin and huckleberry compote, and we were ready for bed.
I’ve seen many chefs come and go at Langdon Hall in the 25 years since it has been open. Jason Bangerter certainly belongs in their (mostly) mighty company. He is having enormous fun, working wickedly hard and is filled with excitement at the possibilities that await him in the months to come.
Well, we have been living the life o’ Reilly these last few days. We spent the weekend giving thanks for our decision to spend it at Langdon Hall, bobbing about in the warm waters of innocent physical self-indulgence. Plenty of hiking, cycling, working out in the gym, circumambulating the snooker table and striding about the croquet lawn, mallet in hand – but could it possibly even begin to balance the caloric intake of the various breakfasts, lunches and dinners? Not to mention the little treats the staff at Canada’s best hotel like to drop casually in one’s path – for example, the dainty but existentially profound chocolate tarts that greeted us in our room when we arrived. All weekend long, the see-saw of eating and exercise, the teeter-totter of sin and redemption, creaked and squeaked like a rodeo bull in a Calgary bar. I have to get into my suit on Thursday for the Gold Medal Plates event in Halifax, so I was seriously concerned.
“Why on earth would you go to Langdon Hall, then, O’Reilly, you fool?”
There’s a reason, your honour. My son Joseph passed a milestone on the long path to his doctorate, and we deemed it a ripe moment to celebrate.
“But could you not have stuck to thin gruel and green tea for your meals at the hotel?”
We could not. It’s true we were a week too early to witness the menus of the new Executive Chef, Jason Bangerter, who drove up the driveway as we were leaving, but there was no escaping the genius of pastry chef Sarah Villamere.
“You’ve mentioned that name before.”
I have indeed, so save your majesty, and hope to again. It wasn’t just those chocolate tarts. Nor even the wild cranberry and sumac soufflé with molasses ice cream (the soufflé as proud and haughty-high, as sharp and ethereal as any queen of Tara). It was the dessert she sent out on Saturday night, when we were all but determined to eat nothing more at all (barring a sortie or two onto the cheese trolley).
This is what it looked like (points to the picture at the top of the page) – a saucerful of secrets, nothing too fancy to the eye but mysterious, and giving off a powerful fragrance of mushroom. Very few desserts smell like mushroom… Later, Sarah Villamere told me what goes into this amazing treat. She starts by making “milk jam” which is very like dulche de leche. Then she makes a purée of impeccable chanterelles, with nothing but a grain or two of salt before adding a reduction of Earl Grey tea to the mixture. She roasts some apples in foil until they are softish but not mushy, chops them up and tosses them with wild oregano, sugar, sea salt and cold-pressed canola oil. A morsel of this heady mixture goes onto the mushroom-milk-jam. In late July, she had picked sour green apples from Langdon Hall’s trees, juiced them and made a sorbet; now she shaved that sorbet into snow with the paco-jet and set a spoonful over the roasted apple. The penultimate ingredient was powdered cep mushroom that she had baked into a cookie and then powdered again to sprinkle here and there over the dish. The final flourish – a candied chanterelle perched on the apple snow.
It was a dazzling dessert – the most interesting pudding I’ve had all year with those cold, tangy, acidic apple flavours and heavy, roasted, sweet apple flavours, cep and chanterelle and oregano aromatics and the underlying richness of condensed dairy. Even more striking was the core texture of the dish, reminding me of the thick, velvety softness of a mushroom velouté but also the crusty, almost-solidity of clotted cream. Splendid stuff, to be sure, though Villamere modestly described it as being “fairly straightforward.”
No sir. O’Reilly.
A fascinating change of personnel is taking place at Langdon Hall, even as we speak. The great Jill McGoey, who has been General Manager at Canada’s best hotel (just ask Conde Nast) for a decade, is moving on. I wish I knew where, because I’d immediately make plans to stay there. Most guests who stay at a great hotel have no idea that a general manager even exists – which, of course, is the point. Jill McGoey was the best.
Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue is also leaving. To say his tenure at Langdon Hall was successful would be the understatement of the year. He upheld the CAA Five Diamond award, became a Relais & Chateau Grand Chef (the equivalent of 2 Michelin stars) and bounced Langdon Hall on to the San Pellegrino list of best 100 restaurants in the world. He is also a man of rare kindness, charm and intelligence and has been a great mentor to many young cooks who have passed through his kitchen. I don’t know where Jonathan is headed, but I shall find out, tell you, and we can all go there and have dinner. You will not be disappointed.
Who could possibly fill these two very large pairs of shoes?
Taking over as General Manager of Langdon Hall is Christophe Le Chatton, a man I have known my entire professional life. He started out at the Inn at Manitou, recruited by the late, great Ben Wise, just when I was starting out at Toronto Life. He was the first sommelier I became aware of in Toronto, after he moved to the Four Seasons, and, in my opinion, he was the best there was in the early 1990s. I invited him to write a column we called “The Matchmaker” in Food & Drink magazine, and he did a great job – smart, erudite, unexpected – just what you want from a sommelier. Then off he went to manage huge, world-famous hotels in New York and Shanghai. And now he comes back to Ontario. I am very very pleased.
How do you find a chef who can guide Langdon Hall forward from the exalted latitude it already occupies? The hotel’s owners, Bill Bennett and Mary Beaton, have been rather brilliant, I think, in hiring Jason Bangerter. His curriculum vitae sparkles and glimmers in the sun. He’s originally from Milton, Ontario – a stone’s throw from the hotel. He went to George Brown and apprenticed under John Higgins at the King Edward Hotel until John sent him off to Europe to work with Anton Mosimann. He stayed for years, gathering knowledge in a number of cherished, esoteric kitchens, polishing his techniques, at which point the Oliver Bonacini group brought him back to Canada to helm Auberge du Pommier, building him one of the best-endowed kitchens in the country, in which to play. Bangerter performed dazzlingly well there. I wrote a story some years ago, speculating about which restaurants in Toronto might win a Michelin star or two if the pneumatic Guide ever came to Canada. My conclusion was that only three were guaranteed a place in that exclusive, stubbornly Francophone constellation: Scaramouche, Avalon and Jason Bangerter’s Auberge du Pommier.
So he has the chops. I’m not sure they were immediately apparent when he came downtown to helm the OB presence at Luma and Canteen in the TIFF Bell Lightbox building. I think he will find the more rarified air at Langdon Hall more to his liking, especially since he will be inheriting a spectacular brigade from his predecessor. I’m going to Langdon Hall for Thanksgiving, as luck would have it, so I will have a golden opportunity to see how things are working out in the first, crazy, back-seat-of-the-car embraces of the new relationship. Watch this space.
To close, let me turn away from the future to the past. As he marches off, I shall proudly step forward and pin my posey to Jonathan Gushue’s lapel. Some of the dishes you have cooked for me, Jonathan, will be forever etched onto the ten stone tablets of memory. That incredible salad that won you the Gold Medal Plates gold medal, for example! So courageous! So gobsmackingly scrumptious! Even more than that, however, I remember you coming to the Stratford Chefs School to teach a masterclass at the Old Prune, at the same time that I was at the school as Writer in Residence. You were such a superstar that the students could barely function, but you patiently helped them do the best they could do and I watched each one of them grow two inches taller because of your gentle candour and generosity of spirit.
Nothing stays the same – however much we might wish it did. My favourite hotel in Canada bounds ahead with a new energy. Who knows what the future will bring?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Down in Niagara and in need of lunch, I ended up at the restaurant at Peninsula Ridge winery on the Beamsville Bench. You can’t miss the house, a handsome, turreted, red-brick Victorian home set high on a hill with the winery buildings and carriage house behind it. The place was built in 1885 by prominent local doctor William D. Kitchen and meticulously restored by the winery’s proprietor, Norm Beal, when he bought the property in 2000. He opened up the rooms both upstairs and down but left the gorgeous original woodwork (including a fine cherrywood staircase).
I first visited in 2001, very soon after the restaurant opened. Ned Bell was the chef – a celebrity appointment following his critical successes at Accolade and Senses – and the meal he cooked for me was exceptionally good. Alas, Ned had moved on before my review had even appeared. Several chefs followed, including Niagara’s talented Ross Midgely for a couple of years. The current incumbent arrived in 2012 – a Quebec City native called Pierre Bourget who had been sous chef at the wonderful Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island before coming back east.
The restaurant was very much as I remembered it – even the same warbling, upbeat jazz playing slightly too loudly (though my chair was right underneath the speaker). Two local couples and a matched pair of businessmen shared the dining room with me. The friendly young woman who served us was surprised when I sat with my back to the window and the stunning vista down the rolling benchlands to the lake and distant Toronto on the blue horizon. Old habits die hard. I still instinctively choose a chair that lets me see the restaurant not the view.
Chef Bourget’s menu read well – there was plenty to tempt. The wine list sticks to Peninsula Ridge’s own wines with 18 offered by the glass, including the limpid, aromatic, mineraly Wismer vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. I began with a hearty dish of tender, juicy Manila clams steamed in a rich saffron broth with little chunks of peppery chorizo. Espalette pepper added sweet capsicum flavours while a concassé of fresh tomato lightened the overall weight. Chef had sprinkled pea sprouts and chopped chives over the top and finished the dish with a slice of toasted multigrain baguette as a crouton spread with pungent Kalamata olive tapenade – a nice bitter counterpoint to the spicy sweetness of the broth.
A notably tender fillet of arctic char, sweetened with a marinade of maple syrup and grainy mustard, was served on a cedar plank. Flanking the fish on one side was a mound of fingerling potatoes, lightly smoked then roasted off in duck fat until they were soft inside, crispy on the surface – quite the yummiest potatoes I’ve had in ages. On the other side was a cornucopia of vegetables – three spears of crunchy white asparagus, a muddle of soft red pepper strips like a sweet peperonata, a noble stalk of green kale. A garnish of purple basil leaves made their own aromatic contribution.
Both dishes were served piping hot, which is always attractive, and though there was nothing unconventional about the ideas, execution was pretty much flawless. Ditto dessert. There were five to choose from and I ended up with sticky toffee fig pudding – a dense cakey puck that really did taste of figs glazed with a toffee sauce. Crumbled sponge toffee and a scattering of berries shared the plate, along with a serving of walnut praline ice cream.
All in all, most satisfactory. The Restaurant at Peninsula Ridge is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday and for Sunday brunch. 5600 King St. W., Beamsville, 905-563-0995.
A flying visit to Montreal – tout seul – so, where to eat? Of course, it’s a Monday night and the usual suspects are closed. Thumbing through recent suggestions from two friends on the local Gold Medal Plates judiciary panel, Robert Beauchemin of La Presse and Lesley Chesterman of the Gazette, I see that they both seem to like Bouillon Bilk, on Boulevard St. Laurent – which makes it a longish but doable walk from my hotel. And it opens seven nights a week. So be it.
But Bilk? The SOED defines “bilk” (noun) as “a hoax, a deception.” Are we to presume that the bouillon here has been brewed with a kettle and a stock cube? To me, the name conjures vivid memories of Mr. Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band whose greatest hit was undeniably Stranger on the Shore, a plaintive melody with no lyrics, performed by Mr Bilk on the clarinet. It was a theme of my childhood since I too learned to play it on my shrill, ex-U.S.-marine-band, nickel-plated instrument and would terrify the judges at music competitions who were expecting the minuet from Mozart’s clarinet quintet. But I digress. In her review of the place, written two months after it opened, in 2011, Lesley Chesterman explains that “the restaurant’s name… really has no significance other than it sounded good to the owners when they dreamed it up.” As honest a reason as any.
It turns out to be just what I needed – a simple, modern room with white-painted walls, a bar in one corner and a couple of high tops to vary the look of the dozen or so tables, each one dressed with snowy linen and fine stemware. The greeting is warm and the sound level drops to a sophisticated hum once two large early-dining parties leave. The conversation all around me is about the food on the menu and the smart, well-trained servers are kept busy explaining nuances of ingredient and technique. Chef Francois Nadon’s menu is small – maybe half a dozen starters, five mains – but there are a couple of specials and everything sounds intriguing. By the end of the evening I have written “Wow” in my notebook half a dozen times – something that hasn’t happened for years in Toronto.
I start with an “amuse” for $6 – a delicious and elegant little appetizer of a moist, warm duck drumstick, impressively tender and succulent beneath a sweet chili glaze. It sits on a streak of black bean paste painted onto the plate and is topped with shaved triangles of pineapple and a flurry of seedlings. The salty sweetness of the black bean and pineapple is a delightful counterpoint to the richness of the duck.
Then a dramatic presentation of soft beef carpaccio cut to form a scarlet rectangle on the white plate. The meat is wet with a soy and citrus marinade and is crowded with toppings – pieces of fresh heart-of-palm and shaved rounds of radish beneath which hide amazingly tender little clams. Torn crumples of crisp nori add another flavour and texture and there are different red and green seedlings here and there together with an invisible and delicate scent of ginger. It’s a plate of remarkably fresh flavours rendered just a little pleasantly funky and decadent by the unexpected fishiness of the clams, though I feel there may be a drop too much soy. The wise sommelier recommends a very light, unoaked Pinot Noir from Australia’s Yarra Valley called Pepé le Pinot (Jamsheed 2011) that suits it perfectly, the dish emphasizing the earthiness beneath the wine’s cheerful red fruit.
My main course is a crisp-skinned fillet of sea bass smothered in chopped razor clams. Teaspoon-sized dollops of green pea purée are a lovely foil as are shavings of ginger, two soft discs of fondant potato and some quarters of baby turnip. A sauce vierge of chopped red grapes, minced bacon lardons and salted capers matches the clean, lucid flavours on the plate, making little islands of buttery wilted greens seem all the richer. With this, we go to a Portuguese white wine with much more chewy texture and oakiness than the graceful Pinot – a 2010 Bical from Campolargo in Bairrada. That also gets a Wow.
The wine list has certainly grown since the place opened. It’s now full of regional treasures from Jura, Savoie and Gaillac (so unusual in Ontario) and other French destinations that add a stripe of exoticism to the more expected Old and New World offerings. One of the Jura treats is a Macvin (unusually, a red one made from fortified Pinot Noir) that works brilliantly with the four Quebec cheeses I try – a Sorcier de Missisquoi, like a Canadian cousin to Morbier; a firm, sweet cow’s-milk cheese called Le Canotier; a soft, creamy, white-bloom goat’s cheese called Chèvre à ma manière; and a semi-soft, yellow slice of Les Métayères. They are all splendid, served with a sweet compote of figs, glazed walnuts and hazelnuts and a teaspoonful of white honey. The Macvin reveals all sorts of cherry-herbal-prune aromas with a subtle, almost medicinal hit, like a chinoto wine.
Such a good meal – and not wildly expensive. The staff remain friendly to the end and I step out into the night feeling less like a Stranger on the Shore than I usually do in Montreal.
Bouillon Bilk is at 1595 St. Laurent Blvd. (near de Maisonneuve Blvd.). 514 845 1595. It’s open Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Friday I was up at the crack of dawn to drive down to Niagara College to deliver a convocation address to some of the students and to receive an honorary diploma in Media Studies. It truly was an honour to be thus gowned and hooded and the graduating students were impressively polite and patient with this old geezer at the podium. The trip also gave me a chance to check out Benchmark, the restaurant in the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. It has been thoroughly worked over in the last ten months by Michael Olson, the renowned chef (Liberty, On the Twenty) who also teaches at the College. He runs Benchmark as a classroom where students in the culinary and hospitality programs can learn the realities of the business.
That’s how Niagara College works, with excellent and famously hands-on courses. It also has 40 acres of vineyards on the beautifully landscaped 114-acre campus, tucked up under the Niagara escarpment, where students can learn viticulture, growing the grapes that they then turn into wine in the teaching winery. Those wines are routinely entered for professional competitions and have so far won 140 awards! I remember coming across one years ago when I was one of the many judges for the Ontario Wine Awards. I thought it was a joke until I tasted it. Dazzling! Renowned winemaker Jim Warren was il professore at the time, which explains a lot. I believe it won gold that year. The College also has its own brewery, beer store, greenhouses and now a chic, ultra-modern wine boutique beside the vineyards where anyone can buy the wines. Production is very small, obviously, so this is actually the ONLY place to do that. Reserve wines are referred to as Dean’s List and some of the labels are designed as report cards filled out by none other than Tony Aspler. I strongly recommend you visit and buy, next time you’re down in Niagara.
And stop for a meal at Benchmark. Our lunch there was delightful, set in the restaurant’s airy rotunda with its wrap-around view of the vineyards and escarpment. The place is open to the public and is a local favourite, especially now that Olson has done away with much of the formality of service and dramatically lowered prices. The five of us were served family style with platters of food set down in the centre of the table for the appetizer courses. We began with silky slices of Mario Pingue’s yummy local prosciutto and slices of Guernsey Gold from the Upper Canada Cheese company in nearby Jordan. The College’s own semi-dry Riesling was a fine accompaniment.
Crispy battered shrimp with coleslaw and a peppery aioli followed, then Olson emerged with a casserole of perfect white asparagus grown by farmer Peter Janssen in Simcoe. He doesn’t grow enough for the commercial market but advertizes in German-language newspapers and sells the lot to ex-pats who miss Germany’s obsessive spargelfest. Olson’s students cooked it beautifully, dressing it with fresh orange, a Riesling-orange hollandaise and chopped chives from the garden. Our hosts brought forth a second wine for good measure and reasons of scientific comparison – a gloriously golden barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It was hard to say which wine better suited the asparagus but I think the Riesling was the ultimate winner. There’s something to be said for classic combinations.
For a main course I ordered tender pork with a sweet, sticky glaze of maple and beer – roast potatoes and vegetables were exemplary. Then Olson brought out another unique treat, a sort of soprbet made by freezing the pure wort from the brewery before any hops had been added. It was, as you might expect, marvelously malty and sweet – quite the most original and delicious ice I’ve had in ages – and full of the taste of barley. We finished with platters of cookies and pastries that were actually a preview of recipes from the upcoming tv show starring Anna Olson (Chef Olson’s wife). It’s called simply Bake and will be well worth following if the scrumptious apricot pastries and empire cookies are anything to go by. “It’s an inverse puff pastry,” explained Michael Olson. “Instead of starting with dough and adding butter, we start with a sheet of butter and add dough. It makes for a more even result.” Absolutely lovely!
Tuesday, if you recall, was a spectacularly beautiful day – cloudless skies of periwinkle blue, a slight breeze, pleasant temperatures, Ontario looking bright green and bushy-tailed, Vancouver still full of hope and innocence – the ideal time to set off into the countryside, heading north to Michael Stadtländer’s Eigensinn Farm. It was a private invitation, an opportunity to see a preview of the great artist’s new project, the Pine Spiel. Inspired by the waldschule, his childhood school in the forests outside Lübeck, and by the pine circles of the native peoples of Ontario, it promises to be an extraordinary creation – a walk through the pine forests on his own 100-acre farm with pathways and “rooms” fashioned in the woods, places for spiritual reflection and delectable food… So we drove north to see it, my wife, my son, his wife and me.
It has been a couple of years since I last saw Eigensinn Farm and the trees have grown up around the driveway so that I drove right past and had to double back. But there were Michael and Nobuyo and their three apprentices busy in the gardens and about the open fire-pit outside the kitchen door.
“The Pine Spiel,” mused Michael… “Actually, I’ve postponed it until 2013 – Eigensinn’s 20th anniversary.”
“Still, we can see it…”
So we walked – down to the pond, now stocked with brown and speckled trout but used more often as a swimming hole on sweltering summer nights than as a source of provender. Up the lane to the teepee field where a French landscape artist is going to create living sculptures using lines of plants along the contours of the land. Into the pine forests…
Mosquitoes were thick around us but they were Eigensinn mosquitoes and knew not to bite. We saw the work that Michael and his apprentices have already accomplished – pathways delineated by brushwood, clearings here and there, still abstract concepts, it’s true. No way this could be completed by August. And we came upon the scultpures left over from the last major walkabout – the sculptures of the Heaven on Earth project – the chef with his tray, the earth-mother oven, the god of wine, the farmer made of rusting machinery, the underground house, the play house… Michael showed us where he will plant an allee of 300 shoulder-high pine trees to lead from one patch of pine forest to the next – he’s dedicating it to David Suzuki. Then he showed us the Outside Dining Room, a new area planted to conifers where people can commission an al fresco dinner for a dozen friends. It will be ready by mid-August and is the sort of magical place that will be remembered for ever by those lucky enough to dine there.
And then we were back in the farmyard, admiring the litter of piglets (a red wattle and black English cross), the new chickens, the indolent marmalade cat lying in the herb beds, the sunlight on the blackcurrant bushes. One of the apprentices brought out a plate of lightly smoked New Brunswick sturgeon sliced onto rye bread with a dab of crème fraîche and pungent purple chive flowers. Another brought slices of Eigensinn ham and a plate of cucumber, sliced thickly and briefly pickled in the Japanese way in miso and beer.
I was going to bring some of the new Carmenere rosé from Cono Sur – my favourite foreign rosé this summer, so full of juicy flavour – but thought it politic to stick to local wine, choosing Trius Sauvignon Blanc and Cave Spring Gamay. To honour my daughter-in-law, Kayo, Nobuyo brought out various rare sakes including something I had never tasted, an awamori at 43% abv – more like an eau de vie than a sake and dazzlingly yummy. We drank it from beautiful little glasses that Nobuyo explained were made in Okinawa from vegetable ash and recycled Pepsi bottles from the local U.S. navy base. Magic! To turn the crass detritus of our shallow culture into splendid art is cause for celebration – and a toast in awamori.
Dinner took place indoors with friends, apprentices and family all sharing the farmhouse table. Nobuyo cooked rice and slippery mizuku seaweed, the first asparagus from the garden served with delicate fillets of pickerel, and a dish of crumbled wet tofu and dandelion greens. The main event was two legs of the least fortunate of Eigensinn’s piglets grilled outside on the barbecue until the juicy flesh was succulent and the crackling crispy and tissue-thin. With it came mashed potatoes stirred in with a handful of raw lovage leaves. Dessert was a rottegruze of stewed strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries and black currants in apple cider, topped with a chunk of sweet woodruff ice cream. We were eating the farm and it was heavenly.
Conversation? We discussed Haisai, Stadtländer’s whimsically beautiful restaurant on Singhampton’s main street. He will be cooking there for all of July and then passing the kitchen over to two guest chefs from Germany. They sound pretty cool and I think I’ll have to go and check it out. He is also looking for a manager/maître d’ to run the place for the foreseeable future – a brilliant gig for a front-of-house person with both savvy and soul.
We also discussed the appalling mega-quarry threatening the entire area between Eigensinn and Toronto. Even if you are entirely indifferent to the country and province in which you live, to the health of the water that you and your children drink, you ought to find out about this Satanic initiative. Below is an article by Donna Tranquada that explains the issue, originally published in Homemakers magazine.
The sun shone brightly over our small farm in Dufferin County yesterday as I worked in my garden, weeded the vegetable patch and watched tractors plow the dark earth in nearby fields. It was one of those perfect spring days in the country. Our little “homestead” is perched on the top of a hill about 90 minutes northwest of Toronto. We’re surrounded by rolling pastures, gabled farmhouses and grey-weathered barns that have survived a century of seasons. It’s one of the most stunning regions of Ontario and is known as “The Hills of Headwaters.” But looming over the landscape is the threat of a mega quarry that will destroy vital farmland, jeopardize fresh water and devastate our environment.
As you drive westward from our farm, the land rises to a vast and fertile plateau in Melancthon township, north of Shelburne. It’s the highest point of land in southern Ontario and contains the best grade of soil in the province: Honeywood silt loam. Farmers love it. Not only is it fertile and rock-free, it sits upon a massive limestone aquifer, which offers a perfect drainage system for growing potatoes and other crops. Fifty per cent of the potatoes consumed in the Greater Toronto Area are grown on this plateau.
The region is also the source of water for four watersheds, including the Grand and Nottawasaga rivers. It’s estimated one-million people downstream rely on the fresh water. Local wells, ponds and streams count on the headwaters for replenishment.
Agriculture or Aggregate
Enter the Highland Companies. Over the past few years, Highland, which is backed by a $22-billion Boston hedge fund, has purchased about 7,000 acres of the 15,000-acre plateau. At first, Highland said its focus was growing potatoes and, after assembling so much land, it’s now the largest potato producer in Ontario.
But, in March, Highland confirmed suspicions that it was far more interested in the limestone beneath the fields. Highland filed a 3,000-page application to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to tear up the fields and excavate the largest open pit quarry in Canada for the lucrative aggregate market. The proposed size is staggering. The mega quarry would span 2,300 acres. It would be deeper than Niagara Falls and plunge 200 feet below the water table.
Forever is a long time
In order to keep the quarry from filling up with water and draining the watersheds, Highland says it will have to pump 600-million-litres of water a day, 24 hours a day. Forever. That’s the same amount of water used by 2.7 million Ontarians each day.
At a recent public meeting hosted by Highland, I expressed doubts about a pumping system running in perpetuity. The hired water-management consultant replied “We have the technology.” Well, the Japanese thought they had the technology to protect their nuclear reactors from earthquakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was equally confident about its levees around New Orleans. Pumps fail, and when that happens, the results will be catastrophic for those downstream.
Not Welcome in the Neighbourhood
The mega quarry would also be a troublesome neighbour for the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through the Hills of Headwaters and is recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve. The Florida Everglades and Galapagos Islands share the same designation. The Niagara Escarpment Commission says it is “one of the world’s unique natural wonders.” The Escarpment also supports “300 bird species, 53 mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, 90 fish and 100 varieties of special interest flora including 37 types of wild orchids.” Yet, the largest quarry in the country would stretch alongside this environmentally-sensitive area. No government would ever allow a quarry of any size near the Florida Everglades or in the Galapagos Islands.
Deep Down on the Farm
Once Highland extracts the limestone it intends to farm the bottom of the pit. That’s right, the bottom. The company claims it will spread topsoil in this deep, massive scar and, if the pumps don’t fail, it will grow crops. But according to current provincial legislation, Highland is under no obligation to rehabilitate the quarry pit because it would be below the water table.
Help Stop the Mega Quarry
There’s so much more. Up to 300 heavy diesel trucks an hour would rumble to and from the pit each day, polluting our air and clogging our roads. And, incredibly, the largest proposed quarry in Canada is not subject to an Environmental Assessment in Ontario. This is unacceptable.
The Hills of Headwaters is normally quiet and bucolic. But it’s now noisy with opposition to the proposed mega quarry. What can you do to stop it? Write letters of objection to the province of Ontario. Please demand an Environmental Assessment. The deadline is July 11, 2011. Click here to learn more. You can also e-mail Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty here.