By Jacob Richler - Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 0 Comments
After 20 years, Montreal chef Normand Laprise publishes his first recipe collection
The first thing I thought of while contemplating the simple white cover of Normand Laprise’s long-awaited first cookbook was a conversation we had five or six years ago at a quiet table at the back of his Montreal restaurant, Toqué! As the scheduled interview wound down, I had asked him what he was planning next. “One thing’s for sure—it won’t be a cookbook. Everybody’s writing them these days.”
It was a fair point. Even then, close to 3,000 new cookbooks were being published annually in the U.S. alone, far too many by celebrity TV chefs equipped with teams of writers and researchers who spared them the trouble of writing—not to mention reading—the many recipes published under their names.
Amidst all that noise, the rare chef now and then releases a cookbook that is greeted as a genuine publishing event. Like Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli 1998-2002, say, and more recently Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook and René Redzepi’s Noma. And that is precisely the way the original French edition of Toqué! Les artisans d’une gastronomie québécoise was greeted upon its release in Quebec last month. Continue…
By Michelle Tarnopolsky - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 10:13 AM - 0 Comments
In a tough economy, one Italian restaurant lets customers barter for their meals
At the Vatican this month, a restaurant owner scaled St. Peter’s marble-clad dome and refused to come down to protest the austerity measures driving Italians to new heights of desperation. The stunt made headlines around the world. The owners of another restaurant, L’è Maiala in Florence, have found their own unique, if not quite so ostentatious, way to grapple with the dire state of the economy: they’re turning to an archaic form of payment, the barter system, as a way for cash-strapped diners to pay for their meals.
“People keep calling to see if it’s real,” says manager Donella Faggioli. “They think it’s just a publicity stunt.” It’s real all right. Customers of the traditional Tuscan trattoria, which opened just north of downtown Florence on Sept. 21, can pay for all or part of their meal with five kilos of tomatoes from their garden, say, or the postwar end-table they inherited from nonna.
The eatery’s name means “it’s a female pig”—Florentine slang for “it’s tough,” an expression growing in popularity during the financial crisis. At L’è Maiala, prospective trades are agreed upon when making reservations. Establishing the value of the food and wine on offer is easy—the staff is already familiar with fair market prices. “At any rate, it is bartering; it’s an offer, a request,” says Faggioli. “The client can always say, ‘No, I’m not giving this to you for that price.’ Just like I can say, ‘No, I can’t accept that,’ for whatever reason.”
So far, most diners have offered bottled foodstuffs like wine, olive oil and preserves in exchange for their tripe, ribollita and, of course, pork prepared in a variety of ways. The name of the 40-seat restaurant has also prompted patrons to contribute to the swine-inspired décor. “I love that one guy decided to paint a pig on a vase and bring it to us,” says Faggioli. “People are having fun. It’s interesting, different.” And a welcome option for Florentine foodies who are being forced to be frugal.
By Jessica Allen - Thursday, August 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Restaurants have a new nemesis: real-time food criticism in 140 characters or less
First came the bloggers, then the Chowhounders and Yelpers. Today, restaurants must contend with a new breed of critic: the tweeters.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Amy Lu, a Toronto-based food blogger, tweeted to her 650-plus followers that she was excited to have high tea at the Windsor Arms, a luxury hotel in her city. Her enthusiasm was confirmed by a smiley-face emoticon. Twenty minutes later, Lu’s mood had shifted: “Wow @windsorarms,” she wrote, “I’m not impressed with the service so far . . . It better be good or bad review from me.” Precisely two minutes later, the Windsor Arms, which has nearly 11,000 followers, replied: “Are you here for afternoon tea now?” Lu confirmed she was. Fifteen minutes later, the blogger tweeted to the hotel, “Thanks so much for ﬁnding me and helping me improve my experience here.”
It was a social media success story—or did a hobbyist reviewer just bully a restaurant in a very public way? Food writer Ivy Knight, the publisher of Swallow.com, who tweeted during the exchange that she was sorry to see the Windsor Arms get a Twitter shakedown from a blogger with less than 1,000 followers, thought the latter. Knight ended with, “Please tell me you didn’t comp anything.” In fact, Lu, who hadn’t been seated yet when her tweets were sent, was given a spa voucher. Lu says she has never sent a negative tweet before. “But that day, there was just one thing after another,” explains the 26-year-old. “No one greeted me or asked if I needed some help.” She also felt her server was condescending when she presented a Daily Deals voucher. “Restaurants should be able to take the criticism,” says Lu, who works as a baker and social media handler at Le Dolci, a business that offers dessert-decorating classes.
By Alex Ballingall - Monday, October 24, 2011 at 9:50 AM - 2 Comments
A Vancouver restaurant urges its male customers to sit down
Picture yourself at Edible Canada, a restaurant that opened a patio and dining area this summer on downtown Vancouver’s Granville Island. You’re enjoying their signature local duck-fat fries with Fraser Valley bacon aioli. You’re a man, and you’ve been drinking. When you get up to drain the contents of your expanding bladder—as one tends to do in such situations—you notice something peculiar in the unisex bathroom stall: a small silver sign indicating you’re not allowed to pee standing up. You’ve got to sit down like everybody else.
Calm down. It’s a joke. But even though the signs were put in place largely “for a giggle,” the instructions are causing quite a stir, Edible Canada owner Eric Pateman tells Maclean’s. Early last week, a blogger for the Vancouver Sun wrote about the sign he found in the restaurant bathroom. Since then, Pateman says journalists from around the world have been contacting him about his supposed ban on peeing standing up. “It’s been an interesting couple of days,” he says. “We just put them up as a conversation piece, and it certainly seems to have generated that.”
Pateman says that, typically, guests at his restaurant get a laugh out of the signs, return to their tables and tell their friends to check it out. “The patrons think it’s been hilarious,” he says.
By Peter C. Newman - Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
Peter C. Newman on a restaurateur to the rich who now wants to build schools in Africa
Toronto has more great restaurants than great chefs, but of the many places where the empire city’s first-rank power brokers hang out, none is more socially significant and brazenly chic than Canoe, which occupies most of the TD Bank Tower’s 54th floor. Toronto Life originally dismissed its look as “understated butch elegance,” but decor is not what keeps this particular canoe afloat.
Regulars occasionally glance across Lake Ontario to enjoy a horizon view of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but mainly they come to gaze at one another or, more specifically, at each other’s dining companions, to see what mergers or acquisitions might be coming down the pike. Peter Oliver, who along with his partner, über-chef Michael Bonacini, owns the venue, credits Canoe’s popularity to the creation of a club-like atmosphere. “The new-style executives,” Oliver contends, “want restaurants, like everything else in their world, to be direct extensions of themselves. That means slightly ‘hip’ and fashionable, yet unpretentious and understated.” (That lack of pretension has not been translated into Canoe’s à la carte offerings, which include a starter plate comprised of screech-marinated foie gras, B.C. honey mussels and chilled Yarmouth lobster.)
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
Restaurant chains are rolling out airline-style rewards and points programs to fill seats
Restaurants are taking a cue from the airline industry and implementing loyalty programs they hope will lure frequent diners by offering free trips, a peek at new menu items, and entry into contests.
Starbucks customers in Calgary and across the U.S., for instance, can now get a “My Starbucks Rewards” card that gives habitual caffeinators a star with every purchase. More stars mean more benefits: refills on brewed coffee and tea, or the chance to buy rare coffee beans and trips to far-flung coffee-growing regions. Denny’s Rewards Club members get discounts on meals and a “tasty offer” on the anniversary of signing up. At Kelsey’s, eKlub participants are welcomed with a free starter, and then receive news alerts on deals, coupons and contests. The most appetizing offer, though, may come from the Outback Steakhouse, which honours its American rewards club members with a “free Aussie-Tizer” on joining and enters them into a contest for a trip to Australia and tickets to see country singer Tim McGraw.
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
Paul Vozoris the “wonderful heart of Wasaga Beach”
Paul “The Blanket Man” Vozoris was a local fixture in Wasaga Beach, Ont. With a cigarette dangling from his lips or between his tanned, rough fingers, Vozoris would wander around the small community—snow or sunshine—in his worn cut-off jeans, layers of blankets cinched with a woven belt, and a Santa Claus beard.
Exactly how he ended up in Wasaga was a mystery. Some speculated his family was murdered; others thought his mind snapped because his wife was killed in a car crash. But the truth emerged late last month after he collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 64.
By Julia Belluz - Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 8:40 AM - 0 Comments
The BP oil spill is killing the local fishery—and making the region’s chefs search for creative alternatives
About a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans restaurateur Tommy Cvitanovich introduced a new signature dish at his restaurant: charbroiled mussels from Prince Edward Island. “Ninety-five per cent of the tables here order charbroiled oysters,” he says of the original signature at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant. “So when we were faced with the possibility of losing our supply, we had to come up with something.”
Cvitanovich is just one of many Louisiana chefs and restaurateurs scrambling for local seafood in the face of what seems like a never-ending oil spill. About a third of the Gulf’s federal waters have been closed to fishing, and many of the shrimpers and oystermen who could work on open areas of the coastline have signed up with BP to help in the cleanup. Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board says the US$2.4-billion industry is “devastated.” Production levels for shrimp are at about a third; oysters, a quarter. Morale is at “a record low.”
By Jacob Richler - Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 1:40 PM - 0 Comments
Vancouver’s Cactus Club Café puts a lot of pressure on more expensive establishments
What I am presently surveying—aside from the most fetching collective of waitresses you can find a Mari usque ad Mare, guaranteed—is a cluster of seven delicate hand-cut butternut squash-stuffed ravioli, pleasantly drenched in beurre blanc, sprinkled with a little truffle oil and garnished with pine nuts and crisp-fried sage. The setting is new, but I have seen, eaten and loved this dish before.
The first time was nearly a decade ago, when a scaled-down portion appeared briefly before me as part of a long, three-figure tasting menu at Rob Feenie’s exquisite Lumière, in Kitsilano, Vancouver. We next met next door a couple of years later at the Lumière Tasting Bar, and our last encounter was in the neighbouring bistro—Feenie’s. A casual place, that, but not quite so much as the venue today: the flagship Bentall Centre location of the Cactus Club Café, where since 2008 Iron Chef Feenie has been employed as executive-chef-with-an-incomprehensible-title (“Food Concept Architect”).
By Jacob Richler - Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 10:20 AM - 0 Comments
At Rush in Calgary, thanks to $145-a-barrel oil, chef Justin Leboe got everything he wanted
Even for the restaurant business, notoriously susceptible to daft trends, the period of the open kitchen struck me as exceptionally ridiculous. I mean, do customers really not know what cooking looks like? Don’t they have kitchens of their own at home—and didn’t they go out to get away from them? But while I am happy that this trend is dead, I can still make a case for one exception—or at least say that it is a shame that the finest design feature of a restaurant called Rush, in Calgary, is one that you are unlikely to ever see: la cuisine.
This one is a showpiece. Two thousand shiny square feet, all told, centred by a bespoke $100,000 cooking suite from Montague, of California, an island at the centre of the action—one side designated for cooking fish and the other for meat. There is a refrigerator with four ice-filled shelves conceived to keep fish usably fresh for an extra week. The set-up includes four separate immersion circulator baths for sous-vide cuisine—and two fiercely hot planchas (one chrome, one cast iron) for applying the ideal finishing sear to the meat and fish slow-cooked in those plastic bags. There are state-of-the-art proofers and steamers, extractor hoods equipped with five successive sets of filters and UV lights—and to cap things off, a granite counter at the pass is precisely 42 inches high so that the chefs posted there do not have to bend over while saucing and garnishing their plates.
“For me this kitchen represents the best of [the kitchens at] the French Laundry, Daniel and the Inn at Little Washington,” Rush executive chef Justin Leboe tells me on the tour, speaking of three great American restaurants at which he has put in time.
Leboe is a Vancouverite and his kitchen career started there, rather predictably in the employ of Umberto Menghi, for whom he washed dishes. The CV has been on an upward trend since, and has included stints at Accolade, in Toronto, as well as at Escabèche in Niagara-on-the-Lake, at Patrick O’Connell’s aforementioned Inn, as well as a handful of well-considered stages at Daniel, Jean-Georges and the French Laundry. He was executive chef at Waterloo House in Bermuda when the call came from Calgary. “There I was on the beach, age 34, a faxed legal document in my hands,” Leboe recalls.
The most compelling part was the plans for the restaurant: the blueprints were incomplete—the kitchen was a blank page. And so, apparently, was the cheque waiting to pay for it. Leboe arrived in Calgary in September 2007 to find the city overrun with construction cranes. In the summer of 2008, a couple of months before Rush opened, oil hit US$145. “You couldn’t wipe the smile off people’s faces here,” Leboe recalls.
Rush opened in September; by November, oil was under US$50 a barrel, and while customers were not all staying home, they were definitely in the mood for more modest dining. But good restaurants have weathered far worse (for example I never did make it to the opening party for Yannick Bigourdan and David Lee’s Splendido, on Sept. 11, 2001). And a recent visit to Rush found them doing respectably—half full on a Tuesday night.
My meal began with an amusing take on a breakfast of corn flakes, with tiny potato crisps standing in for the cereal and a small pitcher of vichyssoise doubling for the milk. Highlights of what followed included a salad of barely cooked lobster with grapefruit and some impressively tender pork, cooked en confit, shredded, and pressed back against its crispy skin. An agreeable meal that did beg the question: precisely how much did the kitchen have to do with it? Did it really help the chef cook better or faster?
“A bit of both,” Leboe had asserted earlier in his fastidiously organized kitchen.
One might also assert that it will have to be a lot of both to earn back the three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar investment in the kitchen. And I can add that I have enjoyed many superior meals assembled in kitchens equipped at a small fraction of that cost. But then, if someone cold-called me to offer a two-hundred-grand upgrade for my home kitchen including an immersion circulator, a steam oven, Rorgue range, counter-flush deep fryer, and a wood-burning brick oven for the parking spot outside, I would answer a resounding yes, too. So hats off to Leboe’s good fortune—and take note that if you drop by Rush, ask for a tour. jacob richler
SPECIAL EVENT: Jacob Richler and Scott Feschuk will host a chef’s tasting menu at Rush on June 7.
To attend, go to www.macleans.ca/taste
By By Jacob Richler - Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Formal dining is out; authenticity is in. The success of Rob Gentile’s Buca is a case in point.
Rob Gentile wanted brains—a whole lot of them. To be exact, he wanted 800 little white ones plucked from the most innocent and unsuspecting lambs available, possessive of young, tender lobes as yet untoughened by disappointment or complicated thought. “They’re harvesting them for me now,” he told me calmly one recent afternoon in the kitchen of his downtown Toronto restaurant Buca—they being the myriad suppliers he was leaning on hard for the cause.
The thinking is that if you were to string all the little brains together and hook them up to even the smallest of watch batteries they would easily outpunch Sarah Palin thought for thought. But chef Gentile actually had something else in mind: sage, namely, and some minced rosemary, oregano, parsley and freshly ground pepper. First he will cut each brain in half and soak it in cold water to flush out the blood. Then each half-lobe will be embalmed in a blanket of prosciutto and fried crisp with a scattering of capers and foisted on the unwary public gathered at the Royal Ontario Museum on June 13 for a fundraiser called Toronto Taste.
By Jennifer Cockrall-King - Thursday, April 8, 2010 at 12:00 PM - 7 Comments
These days the verdict of the once all-powerful professional reviewer hardly matters
It used to be that when a restaurant opened, a few weeks later a review would appear in the newspaper, written by a single, paid restaurant critic. That review would usually stand unchallenged or unchallengeable. Very likely, it would make or break the reputation of the restaurant. Oh, how times have changed. For the better? Well, why not start up a discussion thread about it? Or maybe you’re at a restaurant on opening night. Go ahead, post your own review.
Once the domain of taste mavens, open-forum websites like Chowhound.com have unleashed an army of Everyman food critics and ushered in the era of the gastro-democracy. A new restaurant opens and before the week is out, there might be several differing reviews by chowhounders-at-large. These rank-and-file contributors spend their own hard-earned cash on a meal, so they chew-and-tell as they see fit, sometimes ad nauseam. The site is divided into various boards, from general food topics to the geographically arranged boards based on restaurant reviews. No place or food is too upscale or downmarket, too obscure or too mainstream. There’s a “chowhound” out there who will answer your most urgent culinary conundrums—usually within minutes. In late January, Chowhound had to split its busy “Western Canada” discussion board into a British Columbia and territories board, and a Prairie provinces board due to the increase of user traffic.
Chowhound’s closest rival, eGullet.com, is less user-friendly, and tends to be more of a food industry insider’s site with an air of elitism that lingers. In the era when everyone’s a critic, Chowhound has become the alpha dog, thanks in part to a civility and an inclusiveness that trickles down from its head moderator, Jacquilynne Schlesier.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 10:57 AM - 5 Comments
Mac Harb, noted opponent of the seal hunt, dissents on Parliament’s decision to serve seal in the dining room.
“The harp seal that they are talking about and are so excited about, it tastes horrible,” said Liberal Senator Mac Harb, a former municipal politician in Ottawa.
He said he was told by people who have tried seal that it tastes bad, but has not tried it himself. ”If they were to do this, it would be important for them to take a leadership role and have a feast first before any other members of Parliament so they can see first-hand how tasty it is. I’m sure they’ll conclude quite quickly it’s not edible.”
A correspondent with Gourmet magazine sampled seal a year ago. A raw piece of liver was described as “salty, smooth like sushi, and imbued with a scent of sea so strong I felt as if I were eating ocean.” The boiled ribs were “soft and somewhat rubbery, not as tender as pork, but again steeped with that satisfying hint of the sea.” And the brains were “creamy.”
By Anne Kingston - Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
The appointment of an influential restaurant critic has ignited a debate about anonymity
Who could have predicted that in naming its new restaurant critic two weeks ago the New York Times was also administering “the death blow to critical ‘anonymity’ ”? So said popular food blog Feedbag to the news that Sam Sifton, the paper’s cultural editor, would replace Frank Bruni in the fall. Unlike his under-the-radar predecessors, who seemed to have a Hutterite-like aversion to the camera, Sifton is a known quantity visually: within seconds of the announcement, his photo from the Times website went viral, likely ending up on the wall of every restaurant kitchen in the city.
Feedbag viewed the development happily, noting that a restaurant critic’s anonymity, long viewed as sacrosanct in the food world, “is a sham anyway.” Others were less sanguine: “Unless Sifton does something major to alter his appearance, every restaurateur in New York City is going to know exactly who he is,” Bill Daley lamented on the Chicago Tribune’s food blog The Stew. “Frankly, that saddens me.” Clearly, Daley’s a fan of artfully disguised restaurant critics, tales of whom invariably burnish the teller’s self-importance. In her book Garlic and Sapphires, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl writes of rivalling Mata Hari in elaborate ruses when she was the New York Times restaurant critic in the 1990s. Joanne Kates, the Globe and Mail’s restaurant reviewer for 34 years, also makes a production of going incognito: she wears hats and masks to professional events and tries to blend in with the crowd when reviewing, a practice she calls “protective mimicry.” Like most reviewers, she never makes the reservation in her name and uses credit cards under aliases. Continue…
By Pamela Cuthbert - Friday, October 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 0 Comments
Pawpaw fruit, sea asparagus, balsam jelly: Canadian chefs are crazy for ‘wildculture’
It’s a cornucopia of enticing goods right under our noses—and often under our soles. Wild foods have always been there, naturally, but most have gone unnoticed. Lately, a movement of forest-to-fork eaters is embracing native edibles that are as exotic as any import, and rating them as gourmet fare. As an offshoot of the eat-local dogma, and beyond the Canadian culinary clichés of wild blueberries, wild salmon, and maple syrup, there are hundreds of untamed foods gaining popularity.
“Wild is big,” declares chef Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier in Toronto. “As a chef, you want to think outside the box, to find something different and exciting.” He rhymes off a long list of sauvage items worked into his menus, from wild rose jelly—“it’s nice with scallops or with white fish such as halibut”—to ox-eye daisy capers, wild mustards, elderberry syrup, pickled fiddleheads and more. He’s particularly pleased with one Canadian amuse bouche—a little pot of pheasant and foie gras rillettes with tempura-style wild mushrooms, garnished with truffled cedar jelly and pickled spruce tips, and paired with a champagne flute of spruce beer. “Especially when chefs come in, it’s the showstopper.”
Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods, based near Creemore, Ont., supplies dozens of chefs, including Bangerter, with a range of uncultivated goods from across the country. He started his company 10 years ago and has seen the interest increase dramatically in the last two. “I think people are more concerned about knowing where their food came from.” Working with 30 to 40 foragers each year, he sources syrups, fresh vegetables and fruits—from the rare (sweet chestnuts) to the ubiquitous (wild highbush cranberries). “We can have over 100 different items,” he says of a good year.
“Food without farming” is entirely regional, based wherever conditions allow it to thrive. Depending on your locale, you can find cattail hearts, cloudberries, balsam jelly, chanterelles, sea asparagus, Labrador tea, the pawpaw fruit, black walnuts, edible flowers and birch syrup. And that’s for starters.