The Media Panel at the fourth annual Terroir Symposium at Hart House really got my goat, but not in an entirely bad way. The talk gave me what I think is an exciting idea.
We heard a misguided complaint that the media talks only about new restos, which Time Out New York‘s Gabriella Gershenson was able to quickly explain away by iterating the media’s singular purpose: to report what’s new. Next question.
Still, it made me think of A.O. Scott’s weekly video paean to late-great movies. Last week he did Polanski’s Chinatown, with footage. Yup. The knife-to-the-nose scene. Although I was hoping to see Faye Dunaway being slapped through, “My daughter, my sister, my daughter.” Oh well.
Then it hit me.
Why not get people to tell their favourite stories about long-gone Toronto restaurants, and bring them briefly and meaningfully back to life?
What old restaurants are worth remembering and talking about? Which restaurants have great personal meaning for us? Which of them have put an indelible mark on the city’s culinary scene even though they’re gone?
I asked around informally and heard Fenton’s mentioned again and again. Also, Winston’s, L’Hardy’s, Pronto, Three Small Rooms….
For my part, I often think about The Copenhagen Room, where Toronto had its first ahead-of-the-curve experience with “ethnic” cuisine [discounting but not dismissing Italian and Chinese food — I’m talking the ’70s here]. The open-faced sandwich was the gourmet poutine of its day, and you heard that here first.
But back to the panel for another minute. There was a sad detour down a sorry side road.
Can we please stop comparing ourselves to NYC? Or to Vancouver for that matter?
Yannick Bigourdan begged us to stop the comparison at the first Terroir. Clearly, it’s a habit hard for us to break.
On the panel’s plus side, kudos to Mitchell Davis for talking about Milwaukee as a food town. His recipe for making a city famous in gastronomic terms: “a citizenry passionate about its food.” We’ve certainly got that in spades.
A nod to Bonnie Stern for reminding us that there’s a difference between a restaurant city and food city.
To the esteemed Alan Richman, thanks for saying that the countryside is where we’re getting some of our best food and dining experiences today.
Sasha Chapman, the city’s treasured food scribe, thanks for saying that, at best, we have to be critical if we’re going to be credible.
More Terroir HIGHLIGHTS:
Indefatigable barristas Sal and Nick from Pantera for pressing out espressos, foaming up cappuccinos and pouring lattes pleasantly all day.
The broth in the dumpling course at lunch. With all the girlie I’ve got in me, I’m gonna say it: DIVINE.
“The cauliflower writes the menu.” — David Kinch, who farms specifically for his restaurant.
Joshna Maharaj asking us to make the local food movement more welcoming to imports like spices. “After all, we’re all imports.”
Jason Bangerter on what his kids get to eat [which would explain why they spit out hot dogs at a neighbourhood barbecue].
The “old-school” debate on tipping. I’d love to see that format become a regular. The university setting screams for it.
Rory Gallagher on tipping [or not tipping] Julia Roberts on her last movie performance.
Finally, the touching standing ovation for Arlene Stein, who conceived Terroir and gives any restaurant or food city a good reason to want to compare themselves to us.
Cooking class highlights with Bonnie Stern, as promised:
Challah making and shaping
We’re using Jenny Stolz’s recipe, Bonnie’s grandmother, who had 11 children. She was famous for repeatedly winning top honours for her challah at the county fair. The prize? Enough flour to feed the family another year.
Should I make a three-, four-, five- or six-strand braid for challah? Bonnie gave us drawings and clear instructions, but it was Bonnie’s hands themselves that sorted out each of our challahs.
Shakshuka [eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce]
Her descriptive phrase above describes this dish perfectly. Shakshuka is one of Israel’s most popular dishes. Although it’s simple, Bonnie’s rendition shows a fine sensibility and requires restraint and a light touch. The sauce is a gentle cook-up of mashed tomatoes, not a homogeneous puree. The heat comes from harissa and the ancient flavour accent from cumin. Bonnie says she’s eaten versions of the dish from Jerusalem to Australia. Some break the eggs [Shakshuka means “all mixed up], but the dish is much more elegant following Bonnie’s technique, leaving the eggs undisturbed.
Soufflé rolls with smoked salmon
The foundation of this dish is classic soufflé: béchamel, separated eggs, beaten whites folded in to aerate. The mixture is cooked on a shallow tray and becomes a sheet of soufflé Once cooled, spread with mascarpone/sour scream/yogurt in the combination you prefer [we had mascarpone] and lay down some smoked salmon. The roll is then sliced to showcase the spiral filling.
Bonnie’s suggestions for substitute fillings: cold shrimp, crab salad, a hot seafood mix or even creamed broccoli.
French toast casserole
Bonnie calls this a cross between French toast and bread pudding. Nuff said. Except maybe a teasing mention of brown sugar and maple syrup.
On patriot maple syrup
A third of the students were expat Canadians, which made it interesting to hear one of them pipe up about how silly we are in our nationalistic zeal to make it sound like Canadian maple syrup is the best.
“Vermont produces great maple syrup,” he rightly points out. In terms of terroir, there can’t be that much difference between Vermont and Quebec maples.
But why self-deprecate? It was an odd little moment away from home. It’s impossible not to compare your destination to it, but really, we don’t need to pit an apple with an orange. Vive notre difference.