We are really on a roll now. The Toronto gala was a triumph in every department with an enthusiastic multitude of 770 guests thoroughly involved with the event. Awesome silent auction? Check! Innumerable trips auctioned? Check! Inspiring Olympians? (Like it was ancient Greece!) Food, wine, cocktail excellence? Need you ask? Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were our delightful emcees and the all-star line-up of musicians performed superbly – thanks, Jim Cuddy, Ed Robertson, Barney Bentall, Neil Osborne, Colin Cripps, Danny Michel and Anne Lindsay! Many thanks are also due to our team of judges in Toronto: Senior Judge, food writer, editor and leading light of The Walrus, Sasha Chapman; author and Canada’s greatest culinary activist, Anita Stewart; celebrity chef and actual chef, Christine Cushing; chef instructor and the mind behind George Brown College’s culinary program, chef John Higgins; and last year’s gold medal winner and Canadian Culinary Champion, Lorenzo Loseto. Sitting together and reviewing the dishes to come, we all agreed that it may very well have been the strongest line-up of Toronto chefs we have ever assembled.
Our bronze medal went to Jason Bangerter of Langdon Hall. His team had created an extraordinary station covered in living mosses and mushrooms, with turf on the ground and stone pillars – it even smelt like a forest. Chef’s dish was equally arresting. It looked dainty and elegant on the plate, small amounts of many elements carefully set out, but with the surreal off-centrepiece of a quail’s leg standing vertically, its tiny claws curled, (almost as if it were giving the judges the talon?). Beside it lay a cylindrical slice of sausage wrapped in quail skin – both the leg and the sausage had been glazed to a golden patina with a glossy reduction of game birds. The birds themselves had been turned into the sausage that stuffed the cylinder and the leg beneath that other-worldly claw – quail, squab, partridge and duck, all of them lightly and sweetly smoked in the Japanese manner with sugar, salt, rice, herbs and flowers rather than wood. And, we discovered, those miniaturist accompaniments were possessed of flavours far beyond their size. A herb-spiked celeriac purée was the Platonic ideal of all celeriac purées. Half a blackberry had been coached to become the quintessential representation of its species. A pink dust made from berries and wildflowers was heady with flavour and Chef had even drawn perosnality from the morsel of lichen on the plate (caribou moss is interesting but it doesn’t taste of anything unless you are a savvy seasoner). In short, and despite appearance, there was an awful lot going on. His choice of wine, Leaning Post’s 2010 Pinot Noir, picked up the smoke and berries on the dish in a most satisfactory way.
We awarded our silver medal to Damon Campbell, executive chef of the Shangri-La hotel. His dish was as pretty as a picture and technically flawless; it also tasted wonderful. Curling around the side of the plate was a wedding-braid of ingredients. Morsels of butter-poached lobster (their texture impeccable – juicy, rare but still flavourful) were the big protein, but this was a symphony, not a concerto. Equally important were the perfect little potato gnocchi underneath, flavoured with wild mushrooms and light as nubbins of mousse, and the crispy rice crackers perched on top that were scrunchily dusted with surprisingly sweet and intense tomato powder. Chef shaved nickel-sized petals of black truffle over these treats and scattered edible flowers and micro-herbs. The secret ingredient was a brunoise of tomato, its sweet tang lifting other flavours like Atom Ant lifting a car. Chef finished the dish at our table, syphoning on an aerated lobster emulsion, like a bisque “whipped until peaks form.” It was a fascinating dish – charming and perfectly balanced with all flavours bright and true. For a wine, Chef chose Southbrook Vineyards 2011 “Poetica” Chardonnay, a classic lobster match that showed the worth of conventional wisdom.
Damon Campbell’s dish would certainly have taken gold if it weren’t for the last offering the judges tasted, from John Horne of Canoe. It was one of the most extraordinary things we’ve ever been offered at Gold Medal Plates, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In essence, it was beef short rib with tree syrups – simple as that – but the flavours and the execution and the thinking behind it continue to resonate. To begin with, the Grandview Farms short rib was perfectly cooked – sous vide at 68 C for 72 hours – then cut into 1-inch cubes of tender flesh and glazed with different tree syrups – birch, maple, sumac, cedar and juniper – giving each little block of succulent meat its own sweet, tangy identity. One of them was perched on the end of a broad, roasted beef rib bone, just for the sheer drama and fun of it. Two small moments of parsnip purée on the plate lent a sweet, earthy, perfumed component and parsnip recurred as a crispy ribbon, showing the textural yin and yang of which this root is capable. Christmassy cedar fronds lent visual interest, nonchalantly breaking the old rule that everything on the plate should be edible. And then there was the maple leaf, a green one, the size of a child’s hand, marinated for a very long time in cider and then flash-fried, leaving it crisp and translucent. I have never eaten a maple leaf before. It was only very slightly resinous, not tangy or in any way mentholic. Indeed, its flavour was incidental when compared with the symbolically adventurous, unique and patriotic act of eating a maple leaf. Chef’s wine was a good match for the beef, the 2012 Iconoclast Syrah from Creekside Estate in Niagara.
Bravo, Chef… Bravo and Brava Chefs! It was an amazing evening, and I regret that only one of you can come to Kelowna. Tomorrow, St. John’s!
And now here is David Lawrason’s accompanying wine report:
Once again this year the wineries of Ontario stepped up to the plate and uncorked their big guns at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the Toronto running of Gold Medal Plates. It was the highest quality level from bottle to bottle I have seen in the country this year, making the judging of the Best of Show Award rather tough. But when each judge ranked their top five, the same five wines showed up. It was then the ordering that became difficult, and only two points separated first and second place.
The Best of Show Wine Award is a judging of all the wines in each city to recognize the generosity of the Canadian wine industry, which each year counts over 60 wineries as donors.
The winner this night was Norman Hardie 2011 Niagara Pinot Noir, a light, wonderfully aromatic pinot of uncommon finesse. Mr. Hardie has been a great supporter of Gold Medal Plates over the years, indeed even contributing enough wine to Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna in 2012 to serve over 300 people for two hours.
The first runner-up position went to the Hidden Bench 2012 Nuits Blanche, a deft barrel-aged blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon that in my mind is one of the great whites of Canada – indeed an earlier vintage did capture White Wine of the Year honours at the Canadian Wine Awards.
The second runner-up was Creekside’s 2012 Iconoclast Syrah, a finely balanced, ripe syrah by winemaker Rob Power, that bridges northern Rhone and Australian sensibilities. And as it happened this wine also won the day at the podium with gold medal chef John Horne, who matched it to his amazing shortribs glazed with tree syrups. This earns Creekside a spot with Chef Horne at the CCC in Kelowna in 2015.
Other wines to reach the podium included Southbrook’s suave and complex chardonnay paired with a seamless lobster and gnocchi plate by silver medal winning chef Damon Campbell of the Shangri-la Hotel, and Leaning Post 2010 Pinot Noir matched to herb smoked game fowl by bronze chef Jason Bangerter from Langdon Hall. From a renovated barn near Winona, Leaning Post winemaker IIlya Senchuk is specializing in single vineyard sub-appellation wines.
For the judging I was joined by two close friends and colleagues from WineAlign.com. Sara d’Amato is an accomplished sommelier, writer and educator and the only woman to have won the Toronto International Blind Wine Tasting Challenge. She is also a judge at the National Wine Awards of Canada. Michael Godel is also a WineAlign reviewer, a former chef himself, a blogger on wine at Canada.com and wine director at Barque Steak House.
This night, Peller Estates came up big at the Celebration, donating their off-dry Ice Cuvee Rose to match with the dessert, as well as a well-balanced 2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay and 2013 Baco Noir. Ice Cuvee has been poured across the country in celebration of Peller Estates Niagara’s big win as Winery of the Year at the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada.
And what were the other wines that made our job so difficult? Well among the whites the rich, maturing Stratus 2010 White and Rosewood’s opulent 2010 Origin Chardonnay. Among reds we enjoyed 13th Street 2012 Gamay and a tiny two-barrel lot of The Farm 2012 Pinot Noir from the Neufeld family. And Rosewood very generously doubled up this year with its 4th-place-finishing 2012 Origin Cabernet Franc.
Many thanks to all participating wineries that made GMP Toronto one of the great shows of the tour.