Making progress

Making progress

A tasty young rumour appears to be true—that Gordon Ramsay will be opening a restaurant in Toronto. He is currently in negotiation for space in rather a cool venue: the new condo tower planned for 1 Bloor Street East. Perhaps he’ll also turn the project into a TV show.

Earlier this year at the Canadian Culinary Championship, we offered a raffle prize that was won by Mr. Andrew Weston. The prize was a progressive dinner for six, accompanied by the CCC’s own Kim Dal Bianco and me. It finally took place last Thursday and proved what fun such evenings can be, cruising about in a stretch limousine from restaurant to restaurant in delightful company. We began at Splendido with some delicious canapés: pineapple shooters with wasabi-sake-lime foam, the little glasses rimmed with salt; a tiny crunchy heirloom radish with a sprig of edible honsai thai flowers (that tasted a little like broccoli) dusted with vanilla sugar; a tangy mouthful of goat cheese, oven-dried cherry tomato and balsamic. A miniature, ethereal parmesan cookie beside the last of these almost stole the show. Manager Carlo Catallo poured us each a flute of sparkling Franciacorta to accompany the next dainties: sashimi of Hawaiian kampachi (a fish I didn’t know—it resembles a kingfish) with lily bulb purée, house-made tamari and some earthy little seedlings; a kumamoto oyster topped with champagne horseradish foam. For our final treat, Catallo brought out a demisec Vouvray, Domaine du Clos Naudin, which was an inspired choice with chef David Lee’s awesomely tender butter-poached lobster tail. Lee paired it with juicy Dutch white asparagus, the first B.C. morels of the season, some ramps and some fernlike “chicken feet” greens.

So far, so very, very good. Then we climbed into the limo and headed off to Etobicoke and Via Allegro. Here, too, the welcome was exceptionally warm, as plates were set before us laden with grilled wild ramps, a gorgeously rich, loose-textured polenta and a Brazil fig wrapped in pancetta. The other half of the dish arrived on a brace—a miniature Tuscan grill of glowing cherrywood embers. Chef Lino Collevecchio had strewn some thyme and other herbs over the coals seconds earlier, and the fragrant smoke curled up around delicately crisp cauliflower tempura and some succulent pieces of grilled quail stuffed with a green mash of truffled fava beans. Heavenly flavours! The restaurant produced some fine matches for the dish—a glass of 15-year-old Bowmore single malt scotch and a relatively lightweight, easygoing Châteauneuf du Pape, La Cour des Papes 2003. Head sommelier and manager Wendy Votto kindly took the group on a tour of the principal wine cellar, then we set off once more.

The next stop was Célestin, where chef-patron Pascal Ribreau was waiting with our main course. But first we were offered an amuse-bouche to prime the palate—a zingy gazpacho of green tomato, green pepper and clam with a cayenne pepper shortbread. Wine was poured, a yummy young red burgundy called Mémoire du Terroir 2006. It was an inspired pairing with a sapid Berkshire pork tenderloin stuffed with lightweight shrimp-and-saffron mousse. Sharing the plate was a shrimp tempura, some parsnip purée and a fat cornmeal chip with Galician clam sauce. Magnifique!

And so to our final resting place—Cava—for a quartet of cheeses: super aged manchego, unpasteurized idiazábal, blue valdeón and goaty montenebro. A smashing little sherry whose name escapes me popped up with them while dessert brought an even more delicious Spaniard, Gonzalez Byass Lepanto brandy aged in oloroso casks. I suspect the dessert may have been created with the brandy in mind, for the match was marvellous with the earl grey–milk chocolate ice cream, white chocolate mousse on a disc of red jelly, slightly orangey brandysnap tuile and an item chef Doug Penfold called “pecan butter crunch,” a gooey chocolate, white chocolate and pecan affair like some kind of Olympian nanaimo bar. It will be on sale in the new ice cream and candy store called Xoco Cava that Penfold and Chris McDonald are opening next door to the restaurant. Can’t wait for that.

On Friday, I went to Canoe’s private room for the launch of Anita Stewart’s Canada (HarperCollins $34.95), the spectacular new book by this country’s leading culinary activist. I am a huge fan of her work, which goes well beyond photographs, recipes and the written word. Her passion and enthusiasm inspire everyone she meets to think a little harder about Canada’s food ways. She’s this country’s culinary conscience, and was a determined advocate of local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients long before such stances were fashionable. She’s also great fun to be around, partly because she has been everywhere in Canada and has extraordinary tales to tell. A lot of them are included in the new book (her 14th!), which really is an encyclopedia of the ingredients, recipes and people, past and present, who create our Canadian cuisine. The recipes are excellent, of course, but read the book from cover to cover and you’ll emerge with a new and more thorough sense of what being Canadian implies. The message? Here it is, in Anita’s own words: “This is a book about pride and tenacity—and it’s about the pure sensual pleasure of tasting the richness of Canada on every level, from the physical to the intellectual… So join the party! Head to a market, buy local, go home and cook with the rhythms of the seasons. Be true to your own culinary story. It’s really that simple.”