Apr 3, 2009

Toronto Culinary Scene, Part I

Spring Pea Soup with Lobster Risotto, copyright Suzanne RodriguezRegatta Restaurant, Westin Harbour Palace Hotel: Spring Pea Soup with Lobster Risotto

I'm in Toronto on a food & wine press trip, along with a lively crew of culinary, wine, and travel journalists---six of us all told.

I arrived a day early to explore on my own, taking in two amazing museums: the Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. More details about Toronto soon on my travel website and travel blog. For now, though, a few culinary highlights:


Chef's Table, Regatta Restaurant (Westin Harbour Castle Hotel): From the 20'-long galvanized metal table of Regatta's Restaurant, tucked neatly into a corner of the kitchen, we were able to observe Chef Duff Lampard and his crew create one exciting dish after another while providing commentary and answering questions.

After breaking the ice with a glass of 2000 Dom Perignon, we watched the assembly of our amuse bouche, a tiny section of quail. Next up: Spring Pea Soup with Lobster Risotto, garnished with Snow Pea Shoot (one of the writers called this "spring in a bowl," and I thought of it as the ultimate essence of pea). By the way, the Dom was one of only two non-Ontario wines poured on the trip; Ontarians are extremely proud of their burgeoning wine industry---and they have every right to be.

Chef Lampard, Regatta Restaurant, Toronto - copyright Suzanne RodriguezChef Lampard arranging the main course

The main course was a triple presentation on a single plate: Ontario Royce Family Turkey Wrapped in its own Skin on a Bed of Squash Puree with Root Vegetables; Ontario Lamb with a Mustard Sauce and Braised Shallots; and Alberta Beef with Truffle-Spun Potato, Buttermilk Onion Rings, and Local Mushroom Sautee. It was lovely to have turkey out of its usual season (Thanksgiving), and it provided a wonderful contrast to the richer-toned beef and aromatic lamb.

The triple-threat continued with dessert: two creme brulees served together (caramel, mango); Mini Spy Apple Crumble; and Chocolate Silk.

Trius Chardonnay and Trius Merlot---grown in Ontario's Niagara area, 32 miles across the Lake---provided an excellent intro to the region's wines.

Day 2

Chinatown & the Kensington Market. We were warned not to eat breakfast before setting out for a tasting tour of Chinatown and the Kensington Market. Good thing, because the "tasting" was non-stop. Our guide was one of Toronto's hottests chefs, Tawlik Shehata of the acclaimed Vertical.

Toronto actually has 5 separate Chinatowns, each hosting a large number of restaurants and stores devoted to other Asian cuisines. As evidence of this, we started our Chinatown walk by munching on the best Vietnamese pork buns I've ever had---simply sensational spicing, with a distinct peppery overtone.

Then the quick turn of a corner, et voila! We're in the Kensington Market---actually a few short blocks lined with small, mostly ethnic/specialty food stores, all wrapped up with a decidedly bohemian flair. One of my favorite stops was St. Andrew's Poulters, which sells a solid truckload of chickens each and every day. A specialty here is chicken blackened with a blowtorch and chopped into pieces. It's still raw when purchased; the blackening imparts an unusual twist with flavor and rids the chicken of tiny feather bits. Blackened chicken is particularly popular with Toronto's West Indian population.

Cecilia Espinosa of Emporium Latino

My other favorite stop was the marvelous Emporium Latino, a tiny little space presided over by the outgoing Cecilia Espinosa. All sorts of Central American ingredients can be obtained here, but the real reason to come is to buy the delish takeout foods produced in the nearly-microscopic kitchen---tamales, flautas, chile renellos, and the inimitable pupusas. We had ample samples of each, along with a variety of salsas.

We finished up here and had an hour to play around before regrouping at Vineyard Estate Wines for what was billed as a "cheese tasting." In reality it turned out to be one of the best and most extensive wine/food pairings I've experienced. Located on the harbor in Toronto's Queen's Quay West, the store stocks the finest of Ontario wines and wine accessories. There are, I believe, more than 100 Vineyard Estate shops. The flagship store, where our tasting was held, is large and elegantly designed.

Inside Vineyard Estate Wines, copyright Suzanne Rodriguez
Vineyard Estate Wines, Queen Quay West

Once in the store we became acquainted with our hosts, Daniel Chan and Glen Siegel, over a crisp Andrew Peller Signature Series Ice Cuvee accompanied by fois gras mousse on a delicate toast. Then we moved to a private room for the pairing. Here's how it played out:
  • Aperitif Wine: Hillebrand Estates Late Harvest Vidal 2006, accompanied by Pate de Fois Gras with a Kumquat Gelee.
  • White Wines: Peller Estates Private Reserve Dry Riesling 2007; Hillebrand Estates Trius Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2007; Andrew Peller Signature Series "sur lie" Chardonnay 2006. The wines were accompanied by (1) Gravlax with Dilled Honey Mustard; and (2) Butter Poached Salmon served with (a) lemongrass and (b) buerre noir.
  • Red Wines: Hillebrand Estates Trius Red 2006 (blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon); Andrew Peller Signature Series Cabernet Franc 2004; Hillebrand Estates Showcase Merlot 2004. The wines were accompanied by (1) Wine-braised Beef Short Ribs with Chocolate Demiglace; (2) Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese; (3) Local Cheddar.
  • Icewines: Hillebrand Estates Showcase Riesling 2007; Andrew peller Signature Series Riesling 2006; Hillebrand Estates Trius Vidal; Andrew Peller Signature Series Oak-Aged Vidal 2006; Andrew Peller Signature Series Cabernet Franc 2006. The wines were paired with (1) Caramelized Ontario Apple Galette; (2) Ginger Creme Brulee; and (3) Dark Chocolate Ice Wine Truffle.
A pretty amazing experience. The food had been days in preparation; the short ribs, for example, were marinated for a day in merlot, and then prepared with the utmost simplicity---no salt or spicing whatsoever; a dice of carrots, celery, and onion; all braised slow and low until the sauce thickened.

A quick dash to the hotel to change clothes, and then we were off again!

Exterior of Mengrai Thai Restaurant, copyright Suzanne RodriguezMengrai Thai

Our Night 2 dinner was at Mengrai Thai, beautifully ensconced in a solid brick 19th century building with gorgeous wooden floors. This long-ago brewery, with its exposed brick walls, working freight elevator and other industrial parts, is lightly decorated with a few large pieces of golden Thai statuary and large canvases of the Buddha's head. Long before it became a Thai restaurant, the building was used in movie backdrops---it's said that Sophia Loren was filmed here, as was John Travolta. The restaurant is in a part of town that's home to the local film industry, so it's not unusual to see home-grown stars and visiting Hollywood types enjoying dinner. Jessica Alba, for one, is a frequent guest.

Chef Sasi in a rare moment of relaxation

The chef, Sasi, dubbed Canada's most famous chef by Maclean's magazine (2008), is known in culinary circles as one of the premier Thai chefs in the world. Born in Thailand, Sasi is serious about re-interpreting traditional Thai cuisine; she doesn't want to change it so much as enhance it by adding layers of flavor and texture. She prefers working in the kitchen, while her outgoing husband is the perfect front-of-the-room host.

After a half-hour cooking class with Sasi, we retreated to one of the gorgeous brick-and-wood rooms and the celebration of Thai food began. My favorites included the mango salad, the 22-flavor beef salad, and the Ontario lamb and fresh peach curry. The coconut rice was a real treat, but the famed kumquat martini was way too sweet for my taste buds.

Somehow we staggered out, into a taxi, and onto the next and final stop: the Fifth Grill & Terrace, where we were expected for dessert and drinks. What a great place, housed in yet another beautiful old industrial building. We walked past a formally-clad doorman, across a wood-floored room that housed a disco, and into an ancient freight elevator that could only take 4 people at a time. Run by a friendly young guy, the elevator creaked slowly up to the top of the building, and when the old wooden doors were drawn open we were whisked off to the bar while the elevator returned downstairs to fetch the rest of our party. We stayed a while, listening to the hottest jazz/blues group in Toronto while enjoying dessert.

Eventually it was back down the freight elevator, into taxis, home to the hotel, and finally---blissfully---to bed. As I fell asleep I was certain of one thing: I wasn't hungry.

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