Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eat Here: Earls Toronto

How many times have I been to Vancouver? Twenty times? Thirty? Seven? I actually have no idea, but what I do know is that every time I'm there I spot an Earls restaurant, and I wonder about it.
I wonder what hold this West Coast-sprung restaurant chain has on the denizens of Vancouver. I wonder why a day doesn't go by that a Left Coaster doesn't bring up a pasta dish, a burger, dessert or some fond memory that happened at Earls. And now with my Ask Amy column in House & Home magazine, whereby readers write in requesting favourite restaurant recipes, I get weekly emails from people asking for specific Earls recipes. Note to those people: Earls will not divulge any of their "secret" recipes.
So, weighing all the aforementioned evidence, I obviously started thinking that Earls was putting drugs in their food. And even with that impetus, I still never ate there. Too many other great restaurants crammed into fleeting Vancouver visits. Too little inclination. I was interested on one level, but turned off on another.
Then came news that Earls was launching a huge restaurant in Toronto's Financial District, just a few city blocks from where I work. And then came the invite to the tasting party prior to the big opening, mere blocks from where I work. And you know what? I went. And you know what else? Very tasty!
I loved the look of the place, a big bold T.O. meets West Coast 10,000 square foot statement, where steel and glass meet stone and marble. Locally grown and seasonal produce cooked from scratch is what they specialize in; from burgers to sushi to steaks, signature sandwiches and hip-worthy desserts. Fantastic wine list mulled over iPads, fun cocktails, and even a Toronto-specific house brew. Little wonder the place has been packed since day one.
And now I don't have to fly all the way to Vancouver to be annoyed by people who won't shut up about how great Earls is.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Springtime! (Um, hello?)

If you live in Toronto you'll know that Old Man Winter and Jack Frost played a bit of a joke on us this week (and I've got a sneaking suspicion Mother Nature had something to do with it too), when they dumped a foot of snow on our fair city, just as I was beginning to take my undiagnosed springtime allergy pills again.
But they can't stop the asparagus from coming up, those tasty green and white spears are like vegetal clockwork, letting us know that spring has finally arrived, especially in Germany, where Spargelsaison rivals Christmas.
I just had my first batch of the year, white meaty, butter-poached white spears, at Nota Bene, imported from Holland, topped with a smack-your-mama Hollandaise sauce. They were awesome, and at $19 for four spears, they were also worth their weight in gold. (Money saving tip: make your own easy Hollandaise here.)
If spring won't truly come, at least we can fake it with a taste of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Burgers in Bouludland

I'm kind of busy but also feeling kind of dopey and allergetic (instead of energetic), so this week let's dip into the well for a food story I wrote a few years ago for enRoute magazine that ended up being featured in the "Best Food Writing 2008" anthology. I was reminded of this story recently, when I read this amazing piece in the Atlantic, which basically calls out the Best Food Writing anthologies as a blight on humanity. Even so, I agree with about 81% of B.R. Myers' argument.

Someone’s in the Kitchen with Daniel

A private cooking lesson with Daniel Boulud shows why he’s cut out to be a French chef – and you’re not.

Here’s why Daniel Boulud’s burger is better than yours: Ordering the original DB Burger served at the chef’s Manhattan restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne, buys you ground sirloin stuffed with succulent braised short ribs, foie gras and preserved black truffle, made to order on a freshly baked Parmesan bun. The accompanying pommes frites, served in a parchment-lined silver cone, taste more potatoey than any fries I’ve had before.

Momentarily lost in the reverie that is love at first bite, meat juice dripping clear past my watchband, I realize too late that I’m actually meant to use a fork and knife to eat the thing, like the businessmen surrounding me who also wisely removed their suit jackets in anticipation. “Yes, that is what most people do,” volunteers my waiter as I lick my elbows clean.

Bottom line: Daniel Boulud is an evil genius – and if this burger were single and Jewish, I would marry it. In what must be a culinary first, the superthick stuffed patty sees the shredded short ribs actually cutting the fattiness of the foie and sirloin. What’s more, the short rib stuffing involves numerous steps, the most impressive being pouring three bottles of dry red wine into a saucepan and then setting it aflame. Boulud has taken an essential yet basic piece of Americana and spirited it into a technique-driven masterpiece.

Boulud’s pantry is stocked, like most in his culinary bracket, with the cream of the seasonal crop, a legacy perhaps of being raised on the family farm in Lyon. But it’s the way the chef handles his raw materials with a neurosurgeon-like attention to detail that must be the secret ingredient. This becomes clear after witnessing him at work during a private cooking lesson, post-burger. I’m here to learn how he transforms something even more pedestrian than the humble beef patty. I mean, it’s one thing to make an easy crowd-pleaser like his oft-copied haute burger, but it’s another thing altogether to make a potato and leek soup into, well, soupe.

I meet him in the small catering kitchen of Daniel, his flagship restaurant, just down the hall from the gleaming service kitchen. Boulud arrives wearing a pristine chef’s jacket, a perfect suntan and a Cheshire grin. I instantly deem him charming, creative and meticulous. In short, he’s a French chef. (And no offence to the burger, but if he were single and Jewish, I’d marry him too.)

We set to work on a cold potage Parisien purée with sorrel. “First, you make a soup with potato and leeks and good chicken stock. And then, separately, you blanch Boston lettuce and sorrel in salted water.” He squeezes out the water. “Then you boil a little bit of cream. Et voilà. ” Boulud pours it all into an industrial-grade blender and sticks his spoon into the running blender, which ranks as the second most dangerous thing I’ve ever witnessed. He adds salt and pepper – “always be seasoning” – a little more stock for that bull’s eye consistency, and then he sticks his finger into the moving blender for a taste, which is, hands down, the most dangerous thing I’ve ever witnessed. After the chartreuse-coloured soup is strained and cooled, he dollops a fluffy cloud of whipped cream atop the bowl, explaining that the quality of the ingredients, the seasonality and the technique make even a simple dish sublime.

But he’s not done yet. “And now we have some caviar floating on the cream,” he says (of course we do), at which point he starts spoon-feeding me his own line of Caspian osetra straight from the tin. Then the chef employs such gravitas while meticulously arranging fresh sorrel leaves and wee homemade melba rounds around the bowl’s outsize rim that I’m just waiting for him to pull out a ruler and calipers. Meanwhile, the cream and caviar gently loll atop the soup before slowly creeping over it like delicious sea foam. “ Et voilà! ” We both sneak a spoonful. Mmmm.

Sensing the caviar boosts the bottom line and recalling the price of my lunchtime burger ($32), I ask the chef how much he would charge for this lovely potage if it were on the menu. And with that, he laughs the laugh of a man who’d charge $90 for a bowl of soup.

I’m capping off my day in Bouludland on the other side of the kitchen door. The look of Daniel is that of a typical Park Avenue building built in the 1920s: columns and pilasters, velvet settees in the lounge and well-spaced tables in the dining room. It’s like entering a fancy restaurant scene in a big-budget movie, and, before long, I start to feel like Marie Antoinette as a stable of liveried servers refolds napkins, refills champagne flutes and presents us with a three-tiered silver tray of amuse-bouches to start. I half expect them to slip off my boots and start fitting me with bespoke Parisian footwear.

Following a remarkable dinner and the chariot des fromages, a series of desserts is upon us, including a vacherin à la violette, canneberges et litchis that is almost too beautiful for words. Dressed in a pastel-coloured frock of teardrop meringues, it is delicate, sweet and crunchy… By my count, it incorporates no fewer than seven textures, three temperatures and a dozen delightful flavour components, including, I suspect, marshmallow.

Just as I’m marvelling at the artistry of the thing, Daniel Boulud, who’s been working the room in his chef’s whites, approaches the table, still sporting that Cheshire grin. All I can think is, this is one happy man. He’s using an impeccable foundation of technique and inherent talent to turn meringue into magic and burgers into bliss. Something like that would make me happy, too.

Especially if I could charge 90 bucks for a bowl of soup.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Three-star eats

This photo is of one of the 369 appetizers I ate while on a recent trip to Baiersbronn, Germany, researching a story I’m writing for enRoute magazine.

Part of the trip involved eating at Michelin starred restaurants, with each meal clocking in at roughly 4.5 hours. Very time consuming and filling! But also, surprisingly fun. (And obviously, totally delish.) You can read all about my experiences sometime later this year (if you choose), but in the meantime I can tell you this: I was stunned by how approachable three-star Michelin dining could be. Sure, the service was over the top, yet at the same time, sort of personable and chummy. The food was impeccable, out of this world, but not of the heavy old-world playbook I had been expecting.

That’s all I’ll say for now, as I fear I’ve already said too much, yet I still feel compelled to finish with this tip: You can dine at three-star Michelin restaurants in Baiersbronn, for as little as $185 euros per person. Compare that with what a three-star would cost you in Paris (eg. Guy Savoy is at least double that), which is probably why there were so many Viennese and Parisians filling the gleaming German dining rooms.

Imagine: A flight to Frankfurt then a speedy two-hour train ride, and you’re in the Black Forest eating a five-hour meal.

Guten Appetit!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Change is delicious

I just realized that I’m about eight months into my first-ever office job, more than beating the odds set by most of my family and friends, who figured I’d last about two minutes in an office.

“You’ll have to set an alarm in the morning,” they cautioned.

“Everyone will hate you,” they warned.

“You’re not as funny as you think you are,” they said.

“What does my inherent hilarity have to do with working in an office?” I asked.

“Nothing. We just thought you should know that you’re not that funny.”

Either way, I’m still here, as Food Editor at House & Home magazine, and pretty much loving it. It sure helps that my co-workers are that winning combo of smart, funny and nice. And Snack Thursdays in the editorial department have turned out to be an unexpected boon. Also, being able to work here part time while continuing on with my freelance gigs is just what the doctor ordered.

We’ve been getting great feedback on the food features, and so far Lynda hasn’t fired me. And Suzanne must have some faith in me too, because as of May there will be a bigger and better stand-alone food section in the magazine for the first time ever. (Psst! It looks great.)

I’m also pretty excited about the April issue (it hits stands in about a week), as it features a bunch of incredible recipes from Milos restaurant. Quite a coup (if I do say so myself), including the Milos Special, which ranks as one of the single best things I have ever eaten in a restaurant.

I have to say that this job, this change, has been good for me. I’m learning new skills every day, especially at the photo shoots where I'm left in awe of the creativity of our food and prop stylists, like Ashley and Sasha. (By the way, Ashley is a man, and those are his hairy knuckles in the photo, not mine.)

So it turns out my family and friends had nothing to worry about after all: I may just make it to a year.

And by the way, my new office friends think I’m hilarious.