The cheese stands alone
Saturday was a most exciting day for this cheese-eating peacemonkey, when I had the signal honour of being inducted into the Confrérie des chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France. In all, nine of us were dubbed Chevalier in a splendid ceremony held at Cheese Boutique while members of the public stood and cheered and mounted knights, maidens, trumpeters and a falconer from Medieval Times put on a show both inside and outside the store. The Grand Maître of our order, legendary cheesemaker and cheese merchant, Christian Room, came from Paris to do the honours, surrounded by officers of the Confrérie, all of them resplendent in green robes and feathered hats. An avatar of the god Krishna was an unexpected but welcome guest (see photo), joining the group at the microphone. Then the newly minted chevaliers plunged our swords into a sumptuous strawberry and pistachio-marzipan cake the size of a tabletop made by Amuse-Bouche’s Bertrand Alépée.
Let me name the fellowship of the nine. Lynn Crawford, Linda Haynes, Michael Bonacini, Mark McEwan, Jacob Richler, Brian Langley of Longos, John Louis Coppa of Highland Farms, Afrim Pristine and me. It was particularly good to see Afrim inducted into the order by his father, Fatos Pristine, owner of Cheese Boutique and the leader of our Toronto chapter. Afrim, I would suggest, is now one of Canada’s most gifted and skillful affineurs, a young man with a knowledge of and passion for cheese that is only matched by his father’s own enthusiasm. Come the day (and come it will) when the chevaliers are bidden to don their tennis-green ribbons and ride into battle—the next time the government tries to ban raw milk cheese, maybe—I can think of no more valiant companions in arms.
After all the trumpets and pomp of the ceremony, Mr Pristine brought 85 of us together at Biff’s for a superb dinner. It was an opportunity to showcase some of Canada’s finest products to such distnguished visitors from France and Anthony Walsh and his team served this country awesomely well. The banquet started with a collation of raw seafood from Canadian waters —Queen Charlotte Islands scallops with Voglers Cove red abalone, B.C. albacore, arctic char and Pelee Island caviar. The next dish was so delicious and so perfectly balanced it drew gasps of admiration from the entire room—pieces of juicy Conquest Hill organic squab breast with a miniature, pastry-domed allspice foie gras tourtière, soft turnip and parsley root and a maple sauce invigorated by Newfie screech. A tiny intermezzo of lemon sorbet followed, then various cuts of sweet, tender St. Canut organic piglet with preserved fennel mustard and Thunder Oak gratin. Dessert was warm sugar shack torte, pumpernickel heartnut ice cream and saskatoon berry preserve. Three cheeses followed—the gorgeous Thunder Oak aged gouda from Thunder Bay, everyone’s favourite Quebec blue, Ciel de Charlevoix, and a morsel of a very soft, rich cheese especially created by the Pristines for the evening by days and days of repeated inundation in Hemmingford Neige Iced Cider. Yummy? Bien sur.
Earlier in the week, I went back to Colborne Lane for dinner. Reviews for the restaurant have been unusually mixed. The Globe and Mail and Martini Boys adored it; the National Post hated it, the Toronto Star found it all too much to take in. The trick is to try to go there without preconceptions or prejudice. There’s no point in blaming a restaurant for not being something it never set out to be, or in criticizing it for doing things differently than the critic had expected. This isn’t supposed to be molecular gastronomy alla el Bulli, nor is it wrong because it’s not meat and two veg. Some writers disliked the communal table—though both nights I’ve been there, the idea has proved to be a sociable success, just as it has been for years at many other Toronto restaurants including Rain, Xacutti and Bar One. Some felt the plates were overburdened with elements and flavours—which sounds to me like Salieri criticizing Mozart for “too many notes.” But the controversy is interesting and underlines the fact that chef-part-owner Claudio Aprile really is doing his own thing (as is his wont) rather than following any of the more familiar culinary paths that criss-cross the city. Many of his dishes are certainly complex on the palate but he’s an artist of sufficient reputation for us to see that this is deliberate, not a mistake. I find the food at Colborne Lane fascinating, unexpected and delicious 9 times out of 10. The textural inversions on the tuna dish, for example, are totally radical. It’s not how Ferran Adria deals with tuna; nor is it mom’s cooking: it’s Claudio Aprile. It sounds like he’ll be more likely to satisfy one and all when he and partner Hanif Harji open their next place, Bar Crudo, this summer, at Queen West and Dovercourt. Look for simple grills, ceviche and plenty of raw fish on that menu.
Two weeks ago I promised to pass on ways to buy Louis Jannetta’s new book, King of the Maitre d’s. The best method, unsurprisingly, is to go to a bookstore and buy it, or order it if they don’t have the book in stock. Alternatively, visit www.rainbooks.com or call 905-592-2122. “