April was the coolest month—at least, it was for me, exploring hip downtown restolounges for a future article. Only four out of the dozen visited had food you might ever want to meet again but it was the peripheral observations that proved most entertaining. A chef throwing down the towel and walking out the door when asked to cook a chicken breast for a female customer’s accessory puppy. A suave, very well-dressed couple feeding each other scallops then making out shamelessly on a banquette. A soi-disant “sommelier” who couldn’t pronounce the names of some pretty well-known grape varieties and cheerfully told me he hadn’t actually tasted any of the wines he was recommending. Quite a contrast to last Monday’s gala lunch at Via Allegro where the prizes for the 2005 Wine Tasting Challenge were handed out. The six winners (three pro, three amateur) bagged a total of $30,000 in cash, trips, Spiegelau stemware, free meals and scholarships, making it easily the most valuable sommelier competition in North America. (I think Chicago is next, with a prize of US$8,000.) Click on www.winetastingchallenge.com for the list of winners and to find out how to enter this year. Why not give it a try? The Challenge is open to everyone, a stipulation insisted upon by Felice Sabatino, president of Via Allegro, when he created the competition, which is now conducted under the auspices of CCOVI at Brock University. There’s no entry fee. Toronto Life is a sponsor, I’m proud to say.
Another little issue that came up more frequently than usual this month has to do with crockery and cutlery. Style is often valued more than function in Toronto restolounges, but this is something everyone encounters in even the most serious gastronmical temples. I’m talking about the beautiful modern knives and forks with the exaggeratedly heavy handles and the curvaceous white bowls and dishes so beloved of today’s restaurateurs. However carefully you place it, the knife always slips down the side of the bowl, coating the handle in sauce. When the bowl’s really big, the knife gathers enough momentum to flip a small scallop over the opposite rim and into your lap. Some chefs try to help out the customer by applying squiggles of sticky black reduced balsamic to the plate, hoping to slow down the ass-heavy utensil on its inevitable bobsleigh ride, but it only makes matters worse. Like beach tar, the stuff ends up on your hand and shirt cuff and no amount of licking or napkin work will get it off. Why don’t restaurants ever think these things through?
This being the end of the month, I thought I should record the most delicious thing I tasted in the last four weeks: the amuse that began a dinner at Langdon Hall. Served slightly chilled in a Martini glass, it was a rich, saffron-scented bouride, like a puréed fish soup, but stiffened with a touch of gelatin. On top was a white foam flavoured with Balinese long pepper – subtly aromatic, fragrant with the merest hint of a lovely bitterness. Sommelier Sylvain Brissonet (whose wines are consistently priced lower than they would be in the city) paired it with an ounce or two of Chateau Gaudrelle 2003, a semi-sweet “sec tendre” Vouvray from the Loire. Heaven. Jonathan Gushue (formerly restaurant chef at Truffles) is now the chef at the unabashedly luxurious country house hotel and he’s doing a marvellous job.
And today’s May 1st—which means scholars at my old school in England will be cavorting naked at dawn in the dewy garden behind the cloisters. It’s funny the things you remember.