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Musings on Toronto’s Chef legacy


Not to flog a well-ridden horse (ok, I will)  but I’ve been meaning to get back to posting about the Terroir 2012 conference  and while looking through my notes got to thinking about the dialogue surrounding the 50 Best Restaurants List.   There was outrage, insult and a lot of defensiveness felt at Canada’s chefs being excluding from the rankings.

I read a few interesting opinions as to why we are being “overlooked”  and even why we may not yet deserve to be there.  Some writers seemed to feel that cuisine in Toronto (or across Canada) is very good, excellent even, but  plays it too safe– no real risks are being taken.  Or perhaps not enough.  Maybe this is partially due to clientele.  A restaurant has to survive in an incredibly tough business.  A kitchen must cater somewhat to the palates (and wallets) of the customers as much as the chef may be dying to expand his diners’ comfort zone.

On my initial visit to Chantecler in April I asked which dishes were the “hits”.  The answer was “depends who you ask”.  The regular customers had certain faves and the industry people who ate there had others.

All of this was running through my head as I thought back to the Terroir 2012  “Culinary and Drink Trends” session.  The first half seemed to focus more on food trends in general than just drinks, and a fascinating conversation evolved about where cuisine in Toronto was headed.  Grant Van Gameren, executive chef at Enoteca Sociale (formerly of Black Hoof fame) was very outspoken and raised some interesting questions about the legacy of Toronto’s chefs as leaders.

He said that as new interests develop and old trends fade (so long charcuterie) we need more chef-leaders in the city. A lot of  small restaurants are being opened by newer, younger chefs and a lot of the “grandfathers” are doing TV.  Which wasn’t a criticism, just a question about who is out there teaching these new up and comers?  In Van Gameren’s opinion, “we’re in a 5-year block of transition” to what our food scene is going to be.  And which of these younger guys/gals is going to still be around?

He went on to say that the need to break free, expand your creativity in your own kitchen is understandable but are 27 and 28-year-old chefs ready to set the pace for the next generation?  He suggested that many chefs in Toronto need to travel more, stage more around the world.  Get a more international perspective.  Right now no one in Toronto is doing much to stand out.

He even singled himself out saying sometimes that when he is mentoring his crew, he will find himself wondering what more he can learn–so he can better lead those under him.

Van Gameren also acknowledged that in order to sustain a groundbreaking restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea in Toronto you would need investors to take on the risk and also the local support of Toronto’s diners–people need to be willing to shell out cash for more than just comfort food.

He pointed out that a lot of the smaller places opening these days take on the same formula– reclaimed wood, edison bulbs and copper accents–and some chefs do serve  avant-garde cuisine in these cozy rooms–but often the stereo is blasting so loud you can barely hear your server describing, with great care, the dish you’re about to eat.

Which brings me back to the type of restaurants that are featured on the Top 50 list; true “fine-dining” venues with a less laid-back atmosphere.  Places where the chefs are moving cuisine forward, maybe even before the diner is ready to take the leap.  Though hopefully they have enough faith to jump.

Do we have these kind of leaders (and diners)  in Toronto? In Canada?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens next year.  Or in the next five.

For some interesting perspectives on the Top 50 list (and how it’s is judged) you can check out these links:

Lesley Chesterman, The Montreal Gazette

Chris Nuttall-Smith, The Globe and Mail

Adrian Brijbassi, Vacay.ca

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NY NY: One pork bun too many before dinner at Prune

The Wild Blue Yonder

Departing Toronto and flying to NY on Thursday, we arrived just in time for all the trees to bloom.

East Village in Bloom

Once set-up in our apartment on St. Marks Place we ran to grab some lunch around the corner at Momofuku Ssam Bar.

We really did run as it was almost 3pm and they close until dinner at 3:30.  Tad had had their buns of deliciousness before so he  craved reunion while I was happy to finally be introduced.

Better than a circle of friends.

My picture cannot really convey the deliciousness which caused me to eat one pork bun too many when I was already bursting.  But the eyes would not back down and I shovelled the last one in feeling equally satisfied and slightly queasy at the same time.  In hindsight, an hour later, I have no regrets.

Bun-ravelled.

We had two steamed pork buns each and a pulled duck bun.  The duck bun was lined with smoked mayo and sauerkraut and the pork was accented by cucumber, scallions and hoisin sauce.  The bun was soft like newborn Wonderbread, crust removed.  Fresh, tender, sweet, salty flavours.

As I perused the drink list and I noticed a Riesling from Tawse Winery.  I said to the server, “Oh how nice, I’m from Toronto so happy to see a Canadian wine on the menu” and she replied, “Yes, wine making is getting popular in Canada.”

Why yes- yes, it is!!!

After some R&R at our apartment we wandered out again before dinner.  It as a gorgeous night.

The Cooper Union Building

We wandered around and I went into a couple little boutiques where jeans came in waist sizes for women from 23-28 (well, ok, it was the sales table but they were all beautifully laid out and not a bigger size in sight).  We headed to Prune for dinner at 7:30.

Prune (NYTs review) has been in the East Village since 1999 and is at 54 East 1st Street. Chef Gabriella Hamilton won the 2011 James Beard Foundation Best NY Chef Award and has recently written a biography called Blood, Bones and Butter (excerpt here from Bon Appetit magazine).

The pictures below were necessary but taken under duress as the place only seats 30, and it’s elbow to elbow.  Obnoxious food blogger iphone antics seemed out of place and I was extremely self-conscious.  Tad twisted my arm.  Lighting sucks but “picture it” all in better light. And btw, I don’t think you come here without ordering the bone marrow.

Roasted marrow bones, parsley salad (with capers) and sea salt on the side.  Served with grilled bread.  The sum of the parts –the fatty, rich,  mouth-coating marrow with the sea salt cleansed with the bright, fresh flavours of the parsley salad was luscious.  You really are temped to stick your tongue into the bones (once the little spoon renders itself useless) to dig as deep into the crevice as your would like.

Our mains--see the clams and pork in the back?

The mains were also lovely.  I had Arctic Char (with the crispest, sweet skin I’ve ever tasted) on a lemon rice which was like a light risotto mixed with fresh peas.  Tad had pork shoulder with Littleneck clams in a broth filled with kale and white beans.  The tender, delicate pork was sitting in the broth surrounded by the sweet, tender clams.

Not too sweet, a little espresso bitterness in the chocolate. Perfect conclusion!

Dessert was a chocolate semifreddo (an Italian chilled dessert usually softer than typical ice cream) on slightly sweetened whipped cream and I think it had little caramel bits around it  (we’d finished a bottle of wine and a negroni at this point).

So excuse my bad photos, tomorrow I hunt for cheese.  Til then….

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