Tag Archives: Toronto eats

Media night at Mistura

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.img_8451

“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.img_8449

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? img_8457

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.img_8460

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.

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“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.

Stop right now, thank you very much

Lately I’ve been feeling out-of-touch with the trendsetters of Toronto’s vibrant food scene. But just a few nights ago, I spent several delicious hours updating my internal food app at The Stop Night Market. I even stood in line – despite my well-known personal aversion to this urban predilection.IMG_2660

I joined a thousand other ticket holders entering the vast, empty lot at 181 Sterling Road in Toronto’s west end and felt a gentle thrill as every line moved at a painless, carefree pace. It didn’t hurt that the evening was bathed in a warm, golden June light that put a glow on everything and everyone, including my neon yellow wristband – an all-you-can-eat ticket to sample from 47 unique food and beverage carts manned by many of Toronto’s food celebs from Momofuko Shoto to up-and-coming stars like Rasa, Branca, Dailo and Boralia .

I was ready to brave the mission alone but was happily joined by yoga-buddy, neighbour and CBC radio host Gill Deacon who tapped my shoulder hello and offered to cart-cruise with me. IMG_2655We ambled up to a counter and found ourselves spooning up esquites or messy mouthfuls of creamy, cheesy smoked white corn spiked with chillies and lime juice. Gabriela Ituarta of Maizal explained that we weren’t eating your average peaches ‘n cream corn but an heirloom white variety grown sustainably in the Kawarthas alongside blue, black and green corns.

Two carts away, the aroma of Hawthorne’s signature dish beckoned: crispy chicken skin tacosIMG_2702 piled high with braised chicken, carrot kimchi, flash-fried vermicelli and guacamole edamame (I dare you to say that three times). Gill and I kicked back our sliders in mere seconds, delighting in these unctuous, texturally divine creations.

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Crispy Chicken Skin Tacos

Next stop, Dailo and chef Nick Liu’s large, welcoming platter of locally produced smoked trout served on delicate betel leaves, covered in a toss of kaffir lime leaves, hot Thai peppers and coriander. Commonly used throughout Asia to wrap around highly addictive chewable betel nuts, these leaves are rarely found on the plate, yet they’re surprisingly sweet, tender and thin, providing the perfect vehicle for a sampler.

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Smoked trout on betel leaf with satay almond sauce and fried shallots

Unlike many of the Night Market offerings, Dailo’s betel leaf preparation was a one-bite morsel that suited my mission to taste widely yet wisely. Night market feeding is a bit like binging on Netflix. You don’t want to stop. The pull of eye candy is immense. Yet the overwhelm factor easily sets in. Besides, the host of the event, The Stop, is all about food consciousness.

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KanPai red rice, barbecue pork and lotus root

According to Kathe Rogers of The Stop, this two-night event raised $200,000 to help “fight hunger, build hope and inspire change” and sponsors such as Blue Goose (naturally raised beef, fish and chicken), Fiesta Farms, and Boulart (artisanal bread) donated raw materials to these restaurant teams that worked like mad to pump out 800 samples in a single evening.

Eavesdropping at the AGO cart, I could detect a slaphappy, Red Bull induced banter   among the half dozen chefs scrambling to keep the Pan American Tamale Stand operating smoothly. Yet despite the crowds and the unceasing need-to-feed, executive sous Chef Renée Bellefeuille had plenty of time to share recipes and enjoy accolades from fellow eaters.

IMG_2697“Do not eat the corn husk,” laughed one of the chefs as I dove into smoked chicken with caramelized onions, charred corn and queso rolled inside a steamed cornmeal cake that sky-rocketed from delicious to miraculous once doused with dollops of salsa verde , cherry tomato salsa and lime crema.

“Cholulu, don’t forget the cholulu. It’s my favourite,” said Renée, when she saw me lingering at the high-traffic condiment station.

IMG_2700_editShe also noticed that I took only one heavenly nibble of her dessert tamale with its rum soaked pineapple and caramel rivers of dulce de leche spooned over a sweet, steamy masa harina.

But pacing, my friends, is the only answer to a night market feast especially when the sun starts to set, samples get lost in the shadows and chefs lose their happy-to-serve-you mojo.

Hail to sales people.

Marketing Meredith at Libretto Pizzeria was still revved up enough at sunset to provide a full introduction to frittatina, or stuffed bucatini pasta that inexplicably transformed into square cubes once tossed into the deep-fryer! They emerge with a creamy hot interior of provolone and bechamel sauce beneath a lightly battered surface. Dunked into tomato sauce, these addictive creatures are a hallmark of Libretto’s newest resto concept, A3 on College Street.

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A3’s Frittatina

Learn something new every day.

And when you get to taste it all amid one thousand other happy campers, it is a win-win.

Thank you, The Stop.

 

The Best Dinner Ever

It takes balls or foolhardy abandon to organize an event and call it The Best Dinner Ever. That meant I had to go.

For a good cause, my friend Nora twisted my arm and that of others to attend. We donned sparkly, tight evening wear and put on our heels. We tried to look natural – even a little bored – before stepping on the red carpet that was laid out before the entrance.

It’s not every day you get flashed by paparazzi enroute to dinner.

That was our first clue that this might be the best ever.

Second clue: Glen and Jamie.

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They were our hosts for the night and stood near the entrance to The Chef’s House (215 King St E) glad handing. Glen looks suave enough to be cast as the next 007 Agent. IMG_7746 Jamie plays sidekick. IMG_7745He wears funky, thick-rimmed glasses that barely take your attention from the luxuriant tuft of red hair standing upright and three inches off his head. Both have huge poise and TV-like presence. It didn’t hurt that their faces were plastered on the water bottles. (Note to self: If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, get your face on a water bottle.)

Seconds after a warm handshake with the awesome duo, I was presented a champagne glass shimmering with bubbly Prosecco and topped with a fat, strawberry-slice-floater.IMG_7711

A young server wearing a baby-blue tie and crisp, beige shirt held steady both the tray and his smile as I pointed a camera lens in his direction. A bastion of servers stood in the wings, all wearing silk ties that popped off their uniforms in bubble-gum pink, key-lime green and Dijon-mustard yellow. An über clean stainless-steel, open kitchen sparkled in the background offset by an army of tall, white chef hats huddling about.

Tonight’s venue was anything but under-staffed. The Chef’s House is a training ground for hospitality workers – servers, bartenders, hosts, cooks and dishwashers all put their lessons into motion here. We were their guinea pigs. And this was an apt pairing when raising awareness and funds for The Peer Project.

As newbie chefs-to-be scrambled to plate over a hundred goat cheese soufflé appetizers, IMG_7731equally young-to-the-trade servers brought plates to our table, while others fumbled and squeezed awkwardly around our shoulders to pour Chef House Label Caves Spring chardonnay into our wine glasses. It was a ballet of sorts. Sometimes the pirouettes were graceful and other times, not. Yet none of this deterred the conversation with the young man at my left from being anything less than riveting.

IMG_7744Charlie Lo had a small case of the jitters. He was about to stand up and give a speech to this hundred-dollar-a-seat-audience and tell us his story. Twelve years ago, a Peer Project mentor coached eight-year-old, fatherless Charlie into believing something radically different than anyone or anything was telling him at the time. He told Charlie to believe in himself, to have dreams and to fight for them. That, despite his learning disability and the uninspired words of his middle school teacher who said he wouldn’t amount to anything. That, despite the support and love of his single mom who was fighting breast cancer and was equally vulnerable, newly immigrated to Toronto and not an English speaker.

Charlie’s the kind of guy who will flash you a smile while saying some of the saddest things. He’s got an adorable mannerism of shrugging and squirming about in his shoulders like he’s trying to get out of a straightjacket, then he tosses back his head in relief and you know he’s traded in all that discomfort for a piece of bliss.

It didn’t hurt that Charlie knew just about everyone in the room. Before and after his heartrending speech, our conversation was interrupted incessantly by bear hugs and handshakes from passers-by,

So I turned to vivacious Laurie on my right and listened how she’d crawled off to Energia Athletics on the Danforth in the middle of the night to cycle through her 3 a.m. volunteer shift at Energia’s annual 24-hour Spin-A-Thon to raise thousands for this very cause. She not only believes in The Peer Project enough to spin through the night, Laurie, a psychologist, refers many of her young clients to this non-profit.

Sadly, the wait-list is long – 400 names long – and thus, the need to fundraise and eat The Best Dinner Ever which had moved into the second and most successful course:IMG_7743 seared fillets of sea bream in a tarragon-citrus broth with a tangle of spring veggies.

Not everyone at our table had dined at The Chef’s House before. I go so far back that I remember its previous incarnation on the other side of the street, Siegfried’s Dining Room, a much less glitzy, almost stogy venue where I enjoyed many an inexpensive, yet delicious repast served by students.

But the problem with students is their timetables, course limitations and school rules – two things that can really get in the way of a long, leisurely meal with endless refills of wine and merriment. Once the raffle tickets had come and gone, IMG_7741with happy winners racing to claim gift baskets spilling over with chocolate, wine and Bread by Mado (yes, this is a plug) the rest of us losers sat miffed, ready to drown our sorrows.

The head instructor delivered the bad news by microphone. Chef’s House was closing shop. According to the institution’s curriculum, it was time for the students to tidy up and go home. Luckily the three-piece jazz trio “The Sixth Street Trio” serenaded us with guitar, bass and saxophone as we trailed out the door, saying farewell to Charlie, The Peer Project and a dinner that was the best for many a philanthropic reason.

La Cubana

LC Entrance

Sometimes we foodies just get lucky. Forget about those resto-reviews written by folks like me. Forget about reservations and research. Simply close your eyes and tap your sparkly red shoes like Dorothy. Okay, one exception: Make sure you are walking the golden culinary pathway (Roncesvalles) and throw a dart at the first appealing doorway on the street’s north end: La Cubana (392 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-538-7500, lacubana.ca) .

That’s what my friend Rocca and I did last month and the place blew our not-very-Spanish socks off.

It didn’t hurt that we got the last table before a weekday lunch line started to pile up at 1pm. LC Seating We stepped lightly as a server guided us towards the last vacant booth, sighing happily to claim a little territory in this highly manicured eatery that is both bright and airy, with wake-me-up colourful tiles covering the floors and a long, soda fountain-type bar separating hungry customers from a busy grill-line-cook outputting seafood and pork delights.LC Signs

At La Cubana back-lit signs yell out red-lettered words from the menu, creating a mystique called hunger (if you are like us) and no entiendo.

Bocaditos, medianoche, frituras, dolce and tostones say the signs and that’s all part of La Cubana’s charm. Enter here a new world of flavours all expertly prepared, at great prices and in beautiful surroundings.

Take the sandwiches and medianoches section of the menu. You think the latter means something different, but it doesn’t. A medianoche is what any serious salsa dancer turns to for a midnight snack.

“Those are sandwiches, too,” explained our friendly server who was moving at Roadrunner speed to keep up with the lunch traffic.

“Duh,” said we in tandem and along came a LC Fish Sandmost sumptuous grilled fish sandwich, its contents spilling out of a soft, sweet-dough egg bun. A big hunk of perfectly grilled pickerel resided within, wedged around avocado, pineapple salsa, red cabbage slaw and mayo making the whole thing a textural, multi-sensory delight.

We were having a girls’ lunch and sharing was part of the package. The mother-and-daughter-team beside us were in the same mode and I couldn’t help but notice they were switching between Spanish and English convo while nibbling away at a feast of small-plated bocaditos such as habanero glazed fried squid ($7), mussels with coconut and lime ($6) and tropical chips and salsa ($6).

Not us. As a Ricky Ricardo voice-alike sounded over the airwaves we happily awaited arrival of our second order: a big bowl stuffed to the brim with avocado, LC Saladhearts of palm, orange segments and Bibb lettuce. This clean, fresh offering with its crunchy white, baby palm stems (memories of white asparagus) would be a winner served at a beachside cafe in Nice or Veradero.

Speaking of all-inclusive vacations to Cuba and the wretched food sagas I’ve suffered through (second-hand) via rants from returning travellers, I assure you there will be no déjà vu at La Cubana. In fact, nothing should stop you from racing across the threshold of this newly opened (November 2013) establishment as soon as possible.

Especially, if you’re a dessert hound and want to join the fresh-out-of-the-fryer donut trend that has swept across North America’s beltline.

Rocca made me do it.

She forced me to share five, TimBit-sized donuts under the dolce portion of the menu, where it says quite plainly “donuts” and doesn’t whisper to you that these

LC donuts

seductive little creatures have been whipped up from a buttermilk Béarnaise batter that balloons into warm, sweet, heavenly dough that’s lovingly tossed and turned in a dry bath of cinnamon sugar so that when it hits your open mouth all that comes to mind is simply x-rated.

Five dollars for five! Priceless.LC Coffee

Especially if you pair it with a bistro glass full of cafe con leche ($4) that rivals any latte I’ve tasted in Riverdale, especially since the last drops in the glass are pure sugar (gracias, sweetened condensed milk).

Adios La Cubana. I hope to see you again, soon.