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Apr 8, 2009

Toronto Culinary Scene, Part II

Art Gallery of Ontario
The Art Gallery of Ontario*

Note: Part I, which precedes this post, covers Days 1 and 2 of my recent culinary trip to Toronto.

Day 3

As we set out around 9 a.m. on our third day of investigating Toronto's culinary scene, it was cold, rainy, and windy enough to violently turn umbrellas inside out. Undampened---in spirit, at least---we arrived at our first destination of the day, the St. Lawrence Market. Named one of the world’s 25 best markets by Food & Wine Magazine, the market is housed in an 1844 building (Toronto’s first city hall) and brims with the best in local and imported food and wine. We were lucky enough to have the Market's official tour guide---local historian, author, and generally delightful character Bruce Bell---to show us around.

First stop: The Carousel Bakery, where we breakfasted on Toronto’s wildly popular Peameal Bacon Sandwich. This invention dates back to the 19th century, when Back Bacon---or, as we Americans like to say, “Canadian Bacon”---was brined in a mixture that included crushed peas (don’t ask). Just type “Peameal Bacon Sandwich” into Google, and you’ll get an idea of how well-known this delicacy is (not to mention how rabid adherents can be about the various varieties).

Peameal Bacon on a Bun copyright Suzanne RodriguezPeameal Bacon Sandwich at the Carousel Bakery

To me it simply looked like lots and lots of Canadian Bacon on a bun. I was able to choose from a variety of mustards and/or sweet sauces, but that was about it. Puzzled, I turned to Bruce Bell and said, “I don’t get it. This doesn’t have any lettuce or a tomato or anything. It’s just Canadian Bacon.” Bruce smiled knowingly. “That’s the beauty of it!” he replied. Once I took a bite I understood what he meant.

An array of Kozlik's Mustards, copyright Suzanne RodriguezA few of Kozlik's Mustards at the St. Lawrence Market

We spent a couple of hours walking around the market, sampling food and chatting with vendors. One of my favorite places was triangular-shaped Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard where you could buy any variety of mustard you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t. There were stores with fish so fresh you wouldn’t have been surprised to see them leap about. There were bakeries, a caviar shop, gourmet coffees, delicatessens to die for, produce, cheese shops, meat vendors selling Ontario-raised venison and Hugarian lamb sausage. One shop specialized in local honey; another in salt from around the world; and yet another in maple syrup.

We returned to the Westin around noon to freshen up, leaving once again at 2:00 for a well-planned dine-around. Up to now we’d been getting around Toronto on foot, in taxis, or via the city’s excellent subway system. Now, however, due to the distances we would be traveling across town, we all piled into a stretch limo. Over the next 8 hours we would visit 5 chefs in their restaurants, enjoying a knockout dish at each stop:

Octopus Salad and Scallop at Vertical Restaurant in Toronto, copyright Suzanne RodriguezVertical Restaurant: Octopus Salad and Scallop

#1 Stop---Vertical Restaurant: Presided over by Chef Tawfik Shehata (our amiable guide through Kensington Market on the previous day), Vertical is one of Toronto’s most acclaimed restaurants. The freshest ingredients, mostly local, are used in the primarily Mediterranean cuisine. What we devoured: Pickled Octopus Salad with Green Olives, Fennel & Arugula on a Grilled Organiz Basil Toast; and Scallop with Tuscan Kale, Chorizo, and Piquillo Pepper (see photo, above). Wine: Alticelli Blano 2007 (an Italian wine from Puglia).

#2 Stop---Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner: This lovely café on the third floor of the Gardiner Museum offers a panoramic view of downtown Toronto. Chef Scott Vivian explained the menu’s local sourcing and emphasis on seasonality, and then dished up two of the most popular dishes at Jamie Kennedy's: Organic Ontario Fries with Mayonnaise and Artisan Cider Vinegar; and Sliders made with short ribs that had been braised for about 18 hours. Those fries were the best I’ve ever had anywhere, the short ribs the most tender. Accompanying this hands-on feast was a 2007 Wildass Riesling (produced by Stratus Winery).

#3 Stop---Senses Restaurant: Chef Patrick Lin combines his ethnic Chinese heritage and classical French culinary training to create East/West dishes with a major “wow” factor. And wow is a word that characterizes Senses Restaurant. Chef Lin believes each dish should entice and thrill the 5 taste senses (which he defines as sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and peppery). Our stunning sampler reflected these 5 senses: Small crabcakes (sweet); Hamachi (salty); Tuna with mango and ginger (sour); Oriental Meatball (bitter); and the amazing Fois Gras Crème Brulee (peppery). Wine served: Cave Spring Riesling 2007.

Epic Restaurant, TorontoEpic in the Fairmont Royal York

#4 Stop---Epic at the Fairmont Royal York: Chef Ryan Gustafson is highly active in Toronto’s sustainable food movement and is particularly devoted to avoiding endangered species on his menus. Epic’s cuisine is created with ingredients that are first and foremost sourced locally, then secondly throughout Canada. Last, when necessary, ingredients are brought from elsewhere in the world. The restaurant is grandly beautiful, with sweeping banquettes along the side---but nonetheless it’s cozy and comfy. We settled into the private dining room, where we were handed menus.

At home I have a heavy vegetable and fruit habit which was feeling a bit deprived, so I opted to substitute two veg-heavy appetizers for a main course. I chose the Cauliflower Cream & Winter Leek Soup graced with a delectable slice of locally-made Lamb Merguez Sausage; and the Winter Salad of Organic Greens, Roasted Winter Vegetables, Pickled Onions, Almonds, and Lemon Vinaigrette. Wine: 2007 Megalomaniac Savagnin, reminiscent of Chardonnay.

#5 Stop---Scaramouche: Our last stop was at the beautifully charming Scaramouche, which has been around since 1983. The restaurant offers an amazing view of the city at night, and has long been acclaimed for its menu. We were there for dessert, and I must state upfront that I’m not really a dessert fan. I’ll eat them and enjoy them, but I don’t lust after them. It never crosses my mind to treat myself to an ice cream cone. I could sit beside a chocolate cake for a week without sampling it.

Scaramouche Restaurant, TorontoScaramouche

However, the Coconut Cream Pie with White Chocolate Shavings and Dark Chocolate Sauce at Scaramouche was absolutely fab. The creation of the extraordinary pastry chef, Joanne Yolles, it’s famous throughout Toronto and has received critical acclaim for years and years. It was light as a feather and sort of melted away to nothing in your mouth. Divine, I tell you, divine!

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* Photo of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AG), by Glogger, is published under the GNU Free Documentation License. Thanks, Glogger.
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