Last year, I had the pleasure of watching the culinary team at the Royal Ontario Museum bring the old building into the modern world with a philosophically vibrant cafeteria, a highly accomplished special event schema and a fine restaurant, C5, under the soaring, pointy crown of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Talking to me in a hard hat and steel-toed slippers, Connie MacDonald, the ROM’s senior director of hospitality, restaurant and retail services, told me of her plans to hold special evenings that would bring together chefs, farmers and winemakers in a sort of slow-food symbiosis. Up there on the fifth storey, it seemed like pie in the sky, but this month Connie did it with the first of four monthly events. The featured chef was Jamie Kennedy (an appropriate choice since it was Connie who first recruited him to the museum and helped him create JK ROM back in ze old days) and the winemaker was Norm Hardie, whose Prince Edward County wines have received such excellent press. They are both farmers, too, so I guess that base was covered. It turned out to be a delectable evening with some of the best Jamie Kennedy food I’ve eaten in a while.
But first we had a chance to taste Hardie’s light, vibrant melon de bourgogne at the reception—I think only Norm Hardie and Martin Malivoire are making wine with this grape in Ontario. During dinner, Hardie told me how thrilled he is with the 2007 vintage (a fairly universal verdict across the province except for people who like tart, racy, cold-summer, Mosel-style Ontario riesling). In 2006, picking through the harvested grapes on the sorting table, Hardie ended up with three and a half tonnes of unworthy fruit on the floor. In 2007, he threw away only 50 kilos, the fruit was so healthy and fine.
One of the things about the dinner that brought a smile of gratitude to my wife’s lips was that it was only a four-course meal. We started with a wonderful dish—a crisp-skinned fillet of local perch with wee pieces of various winter root vegetables all bathing in a consommé made from the perch bones. With it came a toast spread with a gorgeous aïoli made from wild leeks that Kennedy had put up last spring. The flavours were amazingly vivid, but it was the firm, almost crunchy texture of the root vegetables that really made the dish throb. Because they hadn’t been cooked to mush they exuded a trace of tartaric acid into the soup which found a spot-on balance with the hint of natural grapey spice in Norm Hardie’s awesome 2007 Pinot Gris (Prince Edward County’s star white variety).
The next course involved Prince Edward County beef (the animals feed on grass that springs from the same soil that nourishes the vines, so there should be some mystical harmony of terroir happening at the subconscious sensual level). Kennedy roasted some of the meat (it was wonderfully textured, almost crunchy) and turned lesser cuts into a rich daube that would put Mrs. Ramsay to shame, serving it with sweet potato purée. Hardie matched it with his famous pinot noir—the 2006, which is lovely, but about to be totally eclipsed by the 2007.
By now we had reached that stage in a formal meal that Kennedy calls the decollage, when the food and the wine are speaking harmoniously and the guests are relaxing and laughing. Such a nice idea to identify and name that moment, that mood. It’s not the best time to stand up and try to attract the party’s attention with serious wine or food speak, but Kennedy had to in order to introduce the next course, a warm melt of Niagara Gold (a fine example of single-estate, Guernsey milk, artisanal cheese from Jordan Station) with black walnut crisp and blackcurrant. The finale was a poached apple cake with maple ice cream—very delicious, intense flavours that were excellently escorted by the 2007 Waupoos iced apple cider from Prince Edward County.
“These evenings are supposed to be a conversation between the chef and the winemaker,” said Connie MacDonald. And that is exactly what it proved to be. Coming up on May 9, chef Michael Olson cooks while Stratus provides the wines. On June 6, chef Nathan Isberg of Czehoski and Coca teams up with Long Dog wines (these wines are not to be missed by anyone who likes juicy, flavourful pinot gris, pinot noir and chardonnay). On July 11, Amuse-Bouche sends chefs and co-owners Bertrand Alépée and Jason Inniss while the Speck brothers of Henry of Pelham provide the liquid art. To join the fun, call C5 directly at 416-586-7928 or check out its Web site. ROM members call 416-586-8095.
Sitting with us at the ROM evening were Charles Grieco, grand fromage of the Ontario Hostelry Institute, and his wife, Margaret. On Thursday, I spent a couple more hours in their delightful company at the OHI awards gala. The OHI gets little air time in the popular media because it exists by, with and for the hospitality industry, recognizing excellence at every level and in every facet of the business. Each year, a bunch of past winners gets together over a cruelly early breakfast to debate the election of new fellows and gold-award winners in many categories. At the gala, the chosen sit at a long table on a very exposed dais while their praises are sung. This year, I took particular pleasure in the induction of Mrs. Amar Patel, chef-patronne of Indian Rice Factory, as a Fellow, in Cosimo Mammoliti, owner of Terroni, getting the nod as primo chain operator, in Ottawa’s own Natalie MacLean receiving an award in the media category and Stephen Beckta of Beckta Dining & Wine in the category of independent restaurateur and in Cumbrae Farms’s owner and master butcher, Stephen Alexander, taking home the gilded toque as supplier. The gold award in the chef category went to Andrew Milne-Allan, chef-owner of Zucca Trattoria. He made an extraordinary speech that brought a tear to this hardened journalist’s eye, taking us back to his roots at Beggar’s Banquet and The Parrot on Queen Street West in the ’70s, reminding us of the hospitable precepts of cooking and breaking bread. Milne-Allan is a chef’s chef, eschewing television, never pursuing the media, cooking honest, really good food. Pop into Zucca on a Sunday night and you’ll see a good many serious culinary players having a quiet dinner at their secret resto of choice. Congratulations to him and to all the honourees at the event, their achievements duly recorded on the Ontario Hostelry Institute Web site.