Media dinners are staged to impress yet publicists often have trouble filling a table full of food writers. We get lots of invitations. Plus, we aren’t always ready to write about each and every meal that comes our way. But last night’s meal at Mistura (265 Davenport Rd) is a story I want to tell.
Every mouthful was remarkable and shared in the most convivial fashion. It marked the first media meal I’ve attended where the owner sat among us, introducing each dish with the kind of detail only a cook can possess, then looking out at us warmly, raising his glass in tribute and eating hungrily.
“Our agnolotti is stuffed with wild boar,” explained owner Paolo Paolini, as he introduced our primi course. “We reserve the cooking juices and combine with port or wine. To finish, we add sun-dried sour cherries. They add dimension.”
I could barely stifle the swoon from my lips after devouring half of my portion in one gulp. I looked to my right and watched wine writer Tony Aspler expertly slice small, exquisite pieces while quietly rolling his eyes in ecstasy.
I should have exhibited more professional control with the crispy artichoke appetizer, but it too, left my plate in seconds, swathed in a creamy, piquant sauce of fresh herbs, caper, gherkin and boiled egg.
Paolini introduced the artichokes as “crispy and flaky, never leathery like some artichokes can be” and at that instant, deep-fried crumbs crackled at the bite, raining down on my dress as wine writer Margaret Swaine proclaimed loudly, “these are better than any I have tasted in Rome.”
We are a jaded, opinionated bunch, tasting delicacies all across the city and around the world. Aspler had just returned from the 300th anniversary Chianti celebrations in Florence and Swaine was heading off to Wenzhou, China on a morning flight. But both had time for Mistura’s lamb ribs last night.
“These are our pride and joy. You can’t find lamb ribs anywhere except here at Mistura,” proclaimed Paolini, introducing succulent, meaty ribs bathed in a sweet, finely tempered Balsamic glaze.
“Where do you get them?” asked someone.
“Ah, ah, ah… a butcher!” stammered Paolini, smiling broadly at his coy response.
Luckily, his right hand man entered and further questioning ceased. Executive chef Klaus Rohrich was wearing a chef’s jacket and a Blue Jays cap, nervously scanning the table full of food writers. Extracted from his kitchen domain, Rohrich looked exposed and twitchy, perhaps more due to the imminent Jays’ game than our inquiring gaze.
“Chef, tell us where you’ve trained?” asked the first and Rohrich murmured a muffled response about growing up cooking then entering the Mistura fold, cooking for years under the man he has now replaced: Massimo Capra.
Before more questions ensued, Paolini came to his rescue, extolling Rohrich’s charcuterie skills and his ability to use local and seasonal ingredients to recreate the Italian fare that has kept Mistura in business for 20 years.
Bubbly Prosecco and a huge platter of cured duck prosciutto, bresaola, cappicola, prosciutto and bellota pata negra was set out on a table to welcome our arrival. But it was the crostini slathered in duck liver pate that captured my attention and the warm mushrooms and gorgonzola hit a close second.
Pacing is a virtue that wise food critics employ at every professional opportunity but last night, I lost any workable tempo and simply dove in. Who could blame me when the salty, crisp skin of a pan-seared Branzino beckoned, offset by plump Manilla clams and even plumper cherry tomatoes?
Others would say no to dessert, but again, duty called and I obediently spooned up a voluptuous vanilla panna cotta draped in a strawberry sauce and studded with blueberries. A perfect medley of thick cream and soft, whipped air, mouthful after mouthful floated down my throat in sweet, puffy clouds.
Next, Paolini offered grappa and I started to shake my head wisely in abstention until the wine writers among us voiced their interest in this first Ontario-made grappa.
“You need a separate license to distill,” they intoned, knowing that grappa is a recycled liquor made from wine-making’s dregs, its flavor akin to fire water. But this delightful potion had been supplemented with maple syrup and cayenne, to create a bewitching sip of sweet heat that closed the evening’s meal like a kiss.