Drought and deluge in a single week…Out there on the starting grid, the Toronto summer coughs and splutters and floods its engine. Just like the smokers who were unexpectedly given a heatwave-last-hurrah on Monday as sidewalk patios scurried to open, crowded with puffing punters flamboyant in shorts and Ts. A man was selling bottles of water on University Avenue. Hogtown goes from Aberdeen to Abu Dhabi in 60 seconds. Then Aberdeen again. The aliens at the controls had to be laughing as they turned the dial back to torrential rain this weekend. What the hell, we’re used to it. And it’s great for the rhubarb. I’ve had two crops out of the garden already this year, turning it all into syrup (2 cups chopped rhubarb, _ cup sugar, 2 cups orange juice, _ cup water, maybe some seeds from a vanilla pod, simmered to a pulp (15 minutes), strained, chilled, mixed with very cold gin in a ratio of 3 to 1 (favouring gin). Perfect last Tuesday, undrinkable in the rain).
News trickles in that the old Luce space in Hotel Le Germain is to be renamed Chez Victor, to honour Victor Germain of the owning family. It made me think of another Chez Victor, on Wardour Street in London’s Soho district. Theatrical types loved it—a charming and cosy little French restaurant with scarlet walls, heavy linen and gilt chairs, the air heady with the aroma of fresh baguette and old cigars. My mother used to take my brother and me there for lunch when we were nippers, and we learned the right way to eat an artichoke, dipping each petal into a rich vinaigrette and scraping off the tender pulp against the teeth. The waiters were older than God and they served classic things like paté en croute, goujons of sole, and wild strawberries to finish. Of course, this was all long before you were born, gentle reader. Last I heard, the place was part of an Italian chain. And that was there and the ’60s, and this is here and now. I’m not sure that anything called Chez Anything is going to strike Toronto as a particularly interesting moniker. And does it really go with the glam Luce décor (I’m assuming they’ll keep it)—the two-storey-high leather ceiling, those gigantic white banquettes? Chez Dieter, maybe…
But what do I know? When was the last time a restaurant opened with a really intriguing, clever name? There was the ’80s era when everything ended in o”—Pronto, Centro, Prego, Orso, Grano, Soko, Cibo, Alto, Oro, Zero—like a schoolboy’s mnemonic of irregular Latin verbs or a game of Guess the Missing Marx Brother. Then we had our hydrophilic period—Acqua, Monsoon, Rain, Tsunami, Ocean, River, Eau —and our moments of cartographic precision—Five Doors North, Latitude, North 44º, 65 Degrees, East! Other names can be grouped together as an amusing assonantal party trick for restaurant geeks: Lee, Lily, Li’ly, Lolo, Lure sounds like the valedictory ululation of Bedouin women in Lawrence of Arabia. If you don’t have a vaudeville drummer to cap your punchline, just say Ki, Kei, Ka Chi.
And talking of CAPS (ba-da-bim), last Monday was the Ontario final of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers’ annual national competition. The country’s only Master Sommelier, John Szabo, organized and governed the contest and was kind enough to ask me to be a judge. After months of numbers-winnowing and a long written exam, the three finalists—Julie Béribé of Signatures in Ottawa, Jennifer Huether-Vranjes of the Air Canada Centre and Jaime Duran of Le Sélect Bistro—spent a gruelling afternoon decanting, blind tasting, correcting a flawed wine list, matching wines to an elaborately imagined French menu and fielding tricksy questions from the table of judges. It was a damned close-run thing but Huether-Vranjes was announced as the winner that night at the highly enjoyable gala held in the ageless Imperial Room at the Fairmont Royal York hotel. She had a baby four weeks ago so hasn’t been drinking wine for nine months—which might have put her at a serious disadvantage. On the other hand, we speculated, motherhood may have sharpened her olfactory acuity. If anyone knows whether that could be true, I’d love to hear about it.