Busy like bee

Busy like bee

Quelle week, as they say in France—though of course one would always rather be busy and active at this age than morosely, motionlessly wealthy or monotonously toiling away for Matthew and Son. On Thursday, I played guinea pig for a series of new dishes chef Patrick Lin is introducing at the redesigned Senses—fascinating, innovative cuisine and exactly what we have patiently hoped to see from Lin since he came back from Hong Kong. The new menu kicks in once Winterlicious is over, so I’ll wait until then to share the experience in more detail.

Another two-day sojourn at the Stratford Chefs School allowed me to say bonjour again to Yvan Lebrun, chef-patron of Initiale in Quebec City, and also his wife, Rolande Leclerc, who manages the restaurant with inimitable grace and enthusiasm. I described Lebrun’s food in a long-ago blog post, and it was a huge treat to taste it again, this time through the virtually transparent veil of the school’s students. Lebrun was there all week as celebrity chef in residence, instructing the second-year students in his own precise, flawlessly textured, contemporary French cuisine. He also supervised a dinner lab each evening at the Old Prune, during which a student chef prepared a Lebrun menu for those members of the public smart enough to have joined the Dinner Club. On Tuesday it was Blake Anderson and on Wednesday Elizabeth Nowatschin—both performed superbly to packed houses. Two dishes were particular highlights. Tuesday’s menu included a small lobe of sweetbreads, perfectly prepped, dusted with a citric semolina flour and then lightly fried to a lightweight but marvellously juicy consistency. It was crowned with a spoonful of tangy, bittersweet grapefruit-and-sumac confit and paired with two sauces—a thick, pale emulsion of sea urchin with the merest hint of vanilla and garlic, and a second sauce that was basically the sweetbreads jus. A single virginal baby bok choy was also present—the very taste of dewy green innocence beside the subtle, deep and worldly flavours of urchin and organ meat. Away to one side of the plate, a line of powdered citrus perfumed the air with the aroma of Seville oranges. Kit Fraser of the Barrel Select wine agency generously donated wines for the evening and described them with her customary skill. For the sweetbreads she chose two gorgeous Viogniers, both 2005 and both from the same Sanford & Benedict vineyard in California, but produced by two different houses—Cold Heaven and Yves Cuilleron at Domaine Deux Mondes. The differences between the wines (the first crystal clear and aromatic, the second rounder and richer but without that delectable acidity) were an education in themselves.

Wednesday’s star dish was a deeply flavoured daube of rabbit saddle, the tender meat cut into little pieces with tiny specks of carrot and slivers of celery in a rich gravy then set upon a miniature pancake made with chickpea flour. Beside it, very rare chopped shrimp had been set in a small bowl then drowned in warm shrimp bouillon topped with lobster foam (oh so delicious!). A tissue-thin disc of crispy pancetta covered the daube like a shield while the rabbit jus, reduced to the consistency of caramel, was drizzled around the whole construction. That evening’s wines were donated by Lailey Vineyards and the youthful, strawberry-flavoured 2006 Pinot Noir was poured with the rabbit.

I am continually amazed by the very high quality of the work done by the Stratford students and by the extraordinary curriculum the school puts together for them. This week the guest chef is Paolo Lopriore, flying in from his restaurant, Il Canto, in Siena, Italy, to impart his wisdom to the class. I shall nip down to taste his menu on Wednesday.

On Friday, the 2007 Wine Tasting Challenge awards luncheon took place at Via Allegro with over $100,000 in prizes going to the winners in both professional and amateur categories (the largest purse for any similar competition in the entire world). It has become an astonishing event that now attracts competitors from as far away as Las Vegas (as one would expect given the value of the prizes). You can click here for all the details but I would be remiss in not congratulating the winners. The Grand Award went to Aaron Pitcher, an LCBO product consultant from Windsor. In second place (for the second time) was Anton Potvin, owner of Niagara Street Café in Toronto. Coming in third was Paul Pender, the winemaker at Tawse winery in Beamsville. Lesley Fraser, who works for Hobbs & Co. Wine Merchants, won the special CCOVI-VQA challenge, identifying VQA wines. Allison Vidug, a student at Niagara College, won the Spirit Challenge. The three amateur winners were all women: Marlise Ponzo, who is a manager at Crush Wine Bar, finished first; Jayne McMahon, a Toronto actor, was second; Andrea Harrington, a law student at U of T, came third. The contest is all about identifying wines tasted blind—a fiendishly difficult occupation—and I am in awe of all these people.

The Challenge has many godparents including Professor Isabelle Lesschaeve of CCOVI-Brock University who is auditor and director of the event, Professor David Hulley, also from Brock, Howard Wasserman of B & W Wines, Spiegelau Crystal and Toronto Life. But a child can only have one father and he is Felice Sabatino of Via Allegro, who conceived the competition in a moment of typical passion and generosity back in 2003 as a way of encouraging wine knowledge in the industry and in the world at large and putting Toronto’s name on another map. Anyone can enter and there is no entry fee.

Saturday brought yet more wine and yet more students—this time at the third annual Massey College wine grazing. Organized by junior fellows Myles Leslie and Marie-Pierre Kruck, it consisted of a Tour de France, tasting and comparing everyday and prestige bottlings from a series of great French producers and matching them with meticulously imagined dishes devised by our little group. Darlene Naranjo, who is in charge of all culinary matters at Massey College, and her team prepared them beautifully, especially a sausage of crab and scallop in a lemon beurre blanc with roasted apple for our two excellent Chablis, and a perfect, buttery Alsatian tart of onion, leek and bacon lardons for the Leon Beyer Rieslings from Alsace. Stealing the show were the succulent pink lamb chops with rosemary jus and redcurrant compote she sent out to accompany the Bordeaux wines, in particular Château Lannessan 2003, a cru bourgeois from Haut-Médoc. So many Bordeaux at that level can seem tight-assed and austere, like some gaunt and supercilious priest wrapped in a cloak of black tannins, a cold sneer on his lip, his nostrils like the barrels of a shotgun. But 2003 was such a hot, ripe vintage and the Lannessan so nicely judged it was as if that Bordelais père lost his head one silent, scorching August afternoon among the rows of dusty vines and danced a little dance all on his own. We finished with an extraordinary Clos des Fées Vieilles Vignes 2004 from Roussillon—all spicy black cherries, blackcurrant and warm, dark Carignan-Grenache depths. Marie-Pierre and her husband, Frédéric Charbonneau, took it upon themselves to find a perfect cheese for the wine and opted for an Ossau-Iraty from the Basque end of the Pyrenees. A most unorthodox choice! Ossau-Iraty, a firm, fine-grained, thick-rinded, sweetly balanced ewe’s milk gem that has been enjoyed in southwestern France for 2,000 years, is more often paired with a white Burgundy. But chalk one up for the avant-garde iconoclasts! The cheese and the Clos des Fées gave the evening its final epiphany.