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Apr 11, 2009

Toronto's Culinary Scene, Part III

Toronto at NightToronto at Night*

Note: Parts I and II, which precede this post, cover Days 1-3 of my recent culinary trip to Toronto. Here's the final installment to this gustatory saga (in which I gained about 2 pounds!):

Day 4

On this last day we once again piled into a stretch limo because we had much to see, all of it located in various parts of the city.

Stop #1—Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market: This popular Saturday-morning market is housed in one of four former city streetcar barns, all dating from around 1915. All the barns were 18 days from the wrecker’s ball a few years ago when a coalition of citizens managed to save them. Now they’ve been transformed into a center for sustainable food production and education, where people come to grow, learn about, celebrate, advocate for, and (at the Farmers’ Market) buy healthy local food. Located at Christie and St. Clair streets, the Wychwood Barns complex is an outstanding example of intelligent urban renewal.

Wychwood GreenhouseThe Greenhouse at Artscapes Wychwood Barn

Our visit occurred on a blustery early April day, but inside the barn all was warm, cozy, and friendly. Aside from local produce, you could purchase baked goods, coffee, honey, and even crafts. I was most impressed with the barn-cum-greenhouse---an immense, nearly full-windowed growing space where children learn to plant seeds and grow crops (which they also help harvest and later eat).

Stop #2---Buddha Dog: This place is so great. It was actually founded three years ago in a small Ontario agricultural community (Prince Edward County) where local farmers, butchers, chefs, bakers, dairies and others came together for a single purpose: to create an exceptional hotdog with absolutely no preservatives. They wanted the dog, in and of itself, to represent the very best of the region’s culinary tradition.

And did they ever succeed! I’ll admit to being a bit of a hotdog aficionado. I’m never in NYC without hitting Nathan’s Finest, and I always like to sample the best version of a regional hot dog wherever I travel. So when I say that the Buddha Dog was darn good...well, it was darn good. Absolutely delish, in fact.

Buddha Dog Menu, copyright Suzanne RodriguezThe Buddha Dog Menu

The Tornoto Buddha Dog was opened in 2007, and it’s very popular. Inside, the place is bright, with contemporary light-wood furniture and handsome decor, and quite casual. A few small tables and chairs at the back; counter seating up front. You place your order at the bar, and stipulate what kind of cheese (if any) and sauce you want on the dog (ranging from sweet to really hot---see photo). The dogs are tucked into fresh buns made from locally-grown grains. There’s an artsy, giant map of Ontario over the bar that shows where all the ingredients come from for the dog and its sauces---quite interesting, and another example of how seriously people in this town take local sourcing.

Stop #3---Cowbell Restaurant: In 2006, Cowbell’s chef and co-owner Mark Cutrara was vacationing in British Columbia with his family when, on a fishing jaunt with a local farmer, he exchanged three salmon for a leg of lamb and vegetables produced by the farmer. “I used these ingredients to cook one of the best meals of my career,” he said. “Up until that time, it was my only experience eating a meal created entirely by one farm.”

Cowbell's Chef and co-owner Mark Cutrara, copyright Suzanne RodriguezCowbell's Chef and Co-Owner Cutrara (how many restaurant kitchens can you think of that sport a food sourcing map?)

Now Chef Cutrara and his co-owner, Karin Culliton, celebrate Ontario's local farmers. You’ve probably gotten used to wine-grower evenings at your favorite restaurant, right? Well, at Cowbell Restaurant they have Farmer Nights. A typical such occasion occurred one night last summer when they celebrated Dennis and Denise Harrison of nearby Dingo Farms, who produce a renowned, naturally-raised beef. Also on that evening's menu were vegetables from local Cookstown Greens, and wines from Ontario’s Fielding Estate Winery.

But there’s more. Cowbell makes its own charcuterie, bakes its own bread, does its own smoking of meat and fish, whips its own butter, and butchers its own meat. They buy entire pigs, lambs, etc., butchering them in-house. Cows are purchased in portions, and one of the treats of this entire trip was to watch Chef de Cuisine Guy Rawlings tear an entire side of a cow into serving portions---it took about 15 minutes! Whatever’s left over is transformed into sauces, stock, etc. “We use every single ounce,” Chef Cutrara said proudly. “We do nose-to-tail cooking here.”

Stop #4--FRANK: That night, we journied off on the final stop of our trip. Dinner at fabulous FRANK, located in a new Frank Gehry-designed space inside the Art Gallery of Ontario. The restaurant is hung with Frank Stella paintings. In case you missed the inspiration for the restaurant's name: Frank Gehry + Frank Stella = FRANK.

The space, as you can imagine, is simply stunning---one entire backlit wall holds the wine in rows. Once a month wine at the top of the wall is moved to the bottom, and the empty spaces are filled in with new bottles. As the month progresses and bottles are removed to be served, spaces open up here and there on the wall...and, of course, each month it's a different set of spaces that empty, reflecting the wines ordered by diners. In a very real sense that wall of wine is a piece of kinetic art.

Dessert at FRANK RestaurantAn elegant dessert at FRANK Restaurant

Executive Chef Anne Yarymowich sat with us, providing lively commentary to the edible works of art presented to us one by one---and everything we ate that night celebrated local food and wines. A stunning meal, and a must on any visit to Toronto. Also sitting with us were one of Canada's top wine writers, Billy Munelly of Billy’s Best Bottles, and top designer Kato Wake.

Our menu:
Stoddart Family Farms Duck Egg en Cocotte
With duck graisserons, and rye flour biscuits
Paired with 2006 Village Reserve Pinot Noir
Le Clos Jordanne, Niagara

Soiled Reputation Salad**
With watercress, pickled baby beets and Ewenity Dairy Feta cheese
Paired with 2007 Narcissist Riesling
Megalomaniac, Edra's Vineyard, Niagara

Roasted Ontario Lamb Leg
With potato squash perogies
Lavender lamb jus and lavender gremolata
Paired with 2006 Meritage, Tawse, Niagara

Milles Crepes Cakes with Stoddart spelt flour crepes
Caramelized Ontario russet apples and Woolwich dairy ch̬vre Рhoney ice cream.
Paired with 2006 "Indian Summer" Late Harvest Riesling
Cave Spring, Niagara

The next morning, incredibly early, I left for the airport and, eventually Sonoma---and a week of nothing but salads and fruit to make up for my Toronto gluttony. Ah, but it was worth it!
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* This photo of the Toronto skyline, by Jason N. Lunas, is published courtesy of Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5 license. Thank you.

** So many people have asked me about Soiled Reputation that I've added this note. Soiled Reputation is an 80-acre organic farm in southwestern Ontario. It's owned and operated by Antony John and Tina Vandenheuvel, who sell their high-quality produce to restaurants and the public.
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