The Meandering Epicurist
The Wine Academy
In a virtually anonymous location on Richmond Street, The Wine Academy is not a place where, as the old saying has it, “Club members prefer leather armchairs to women.” For a start, women make up almost half of the membership and overstuffed chairs have been usurped by chic industrial banquettes, high tops and stools. It’s comfortable, yet spare and sophisticated with a tincture of elegance.
Aaron Bear Robe, the guiding mind behind this new breed of private club, which officially opened last September, is a serial entrepreneur in the hospitality industry. He offers me a very fine glass of specially imported Sardinian red wine from the bar.
Understandably discreet about the identity of the club’s members, who come mainly from the financial sector, Robe will at least admit they are usually in the 35–55 age range and share a passion for the finer things in life, in particular the culture of wine. On an iPad near the door is a list of upcoming wine appreciation nights. The club brings in top sommeliers and carefully selected wine agents to help members to learn more about hard-toobtain wines.
Members of The Wine Academy have 24/7 access to their own elegant wine lockers. Mounted on vibration isolation pads and kept at 12.5°C, with humidity between 60 and 65 per cent, each locker keeps prized wines in ideal conditions and is secured with a private key and CCTV cameras.
During the Academy’s hospitality hours from 11.30am to 10.30pm, the kitchen serves seasonally adjusted tapas and regular menus. When I was there, intriguing dishes that tempted my taste buds included Saltspring Island mussels with ale, bacon and shallots, and beef cheek with pomme puree, spinach and jus. The sardines with speck, white bean and paprika and the pork belly with green beans, honey and cilantro were both delicious, I might add. If members wish to drink their own wine, they simply can call ahead and it will be decanted for them.
Other amenities include a boardroom with audio-visual equipment, a small library and a business centre. Perhaps it was the wine tastings but, after my visit to The Wine Academy, I couldn’t for the life of me recall why leather armchairs ever needed to figure in club membership.
Through the window of Chiado we see grey-haired waiters, attired in formal black waistcoats and traditional white aprons. Corkscrews are peeking out of their pockets. Warm greetings, pleasant ambient chatter and reserved good humour welcome us as we’re ushered to our seats. Tables are discreetly spaced and draped with starched white tablecloths.
Baskets filled with impossibly thin gossamer toast confections and crunchy baguettes appear, along with dipping dishes full of smooth extra-virgin olive oil. Fortunately, before we overindulge, our waiter returns with a tray carrying a selection of fresh fish that Chiado flies in fresh each day from Portugal. Tonight’s centrepiece—a bulbous, Technicolor orange fish with bulging eyes. The agony of choice! I plump for the lobster risotto and forgo an appetizer.
The chef’s amuse bouche of cow’s milk cheese with a balsamic reduction can easily substitute for a starter. Two of our party are, however, less restrained than I and decide to split a starter: Grilled tiger shrimp spiced with piri piri, roasted jalapenos and banana peppers. Their shared portions are more than sufficient for us all to sample. It’s an engagingly spicy dish that lifts the shrimp to succulent perfection.
Thank heaven, no one swoops in to interrogate us and find out how our first, or any bite, is tasting. But, rest assured, should we need anything, there are sufficiently attentive staff a mere raised eyebrow away.
My thinly sliced whole lobster, cooked and apart from its claws, rests on a creamy, slightly crunchy risotto.
Everyone has ordered differently from the wine list. I’ve opted for a glass of the Muros Antigos Loureiro Vinho Verde 2014. This is not a wine I am familiar with, but turns out to be a refreshing, lightly fruity white wine with a slight spritz and gentle acidity that nicely offsets the richness of the risotto.
Tonight, for us, is all about the seafood, but we catch a passing glimpse of a plate piled high with a sizable rack of roasted Australian lamb as it heads by. It comes with a red Douro wine rosemary sauce according to the menu. Next time!
Our dessert is the curiously named “Molotov.” Yet the allusion to violent conflagration is rather misleading. My Molotov turns out to be a huge apparition of egg-white meringue, gently infused with a subtly sweet vanilla cream and a texture that leans towards candyfloss. This is how dining used to be and is again.
Salt Hidden on a lower shop shelf amidst a bewildering array of specialty salts, I find a small, innocuous tub of Cornish Sea Salt. Seemingly overawed by its better- known rivals, I feel it is an underdog that deserves a try.
Turns out, it’s a wonderfully serendipitous discovery. The Cornish’s large but delicate flakes are, well, flaky and crumble nicely for sprinkling. There’s something decadently satisfying about handling the salt rather than simply brandishing an ancestral silver shaker. What would the butler have to say?
I learn that this handcrafted salt is taken from the briny sea at the jagged part of southwest England, the bit that juts out into the empty and wild Atlantic surf. The company’s artisanal plant is just steps from the ocean.
With all its natural minerals it tastes saltier than regular salt and so, according to its miners, you need less. I wondered, but after crumbling it on a selection of my favourite dishes, I agree. It does add more depth and subtlety of flavour. This, my friends, is going to be my go-to salt in future.
A few years ago, when Jeremy Kessler was picking up his favourite mustard at a miniscule store in St. Lawrence Market, owner Anton Kozlik said he was shutting up shop for good. The pair quickly struck a fortuitous arrangement. Kozlik would teach Kessler how to make his mustard, and Kessler would embark on an exciting journey as an entrepreneur.
Today, Kessler is quietly confident that he sells the best mustard in the world, a fact I would not care to dispute. There have been articles published in The New York Times, the Boston Herald and a raft of other places that agree.
Warming to his subject, Kessler reels off a cornucopia of mustard facts. Did I know that the famous French Dijons are almost assuredly made with Canadian brown mustard seeds and that Canada’s oldest working mustard mill is down the road in Hamilton? Or that there are three types of mustard: Brown, oriental and, the most common, yellow? Or that Canada supplies the majority of mustard consumed on the planet?
Today, I look around the now slightly larger St. Lawrence store where Kessler, who has a wry good humour, holds court with regular customers on a Saturday morning. There’s an astonishing range of prepared mustards and mustard powders. But Kessler’s secret recipe is staying under wraps. “It’s a simple combination of production techniques and quality ingredients” is the best I can get from him.
He does tell me the blended whisky mustard contains a third of a cup of whisky, and that his honey mustard is flavoured only with pure honey, unlike others that have cheaper sugar added.
Kessler’s “cast-away on a desert island” favourite mustard? The Burgundy, which is made with wine, like its more popular cousin, Dijon. But the Burgundy’s recipe calls for red, not white wine. I try a jar and, to my palate, he’s dead on. I’m hooked.
A machine that can sauté onions and garlic, make béarnaise sauce, knead bread, turn out creamy soups, steam fish and deliver mango sorbet is not easy to label or categorize. To my glee, the Thermomix can even prepare and cook an entire meal from soup to main course to dessert without extra measuring cups, scales, pots or pans. It also takes the unreliable guesswork out of cooking time and temperature.
I saw my first Thermomix in a Montreal hotel kitchen. As I watched, the chef threw in a few ingredients, set a couple of controls and before I could say Jack Robinson or ask about the machine, his chocolate mousse was ready. Magic.
Ever since, I’ve yearned to lay my hands on one. A well-kept secret staple in many a restaurant kitchen, this amazing device was originally designed for European domestic kitchens. My chance came with the recent introduction of the TM5.
The TM5 is best described as German engineering blended with Apple aesthetics and electronic wizardry. It’s solid, but the swoopy white plastic form, inset with LED lights and trimmed with stainless steel, gives it a gee-whiz appearance. Peering inside its 2.2 litre stainless steel main mixing/ chopping and cooking container, I can’t miss the shining Solingen steel blades. And a solid reversing motor enables the Thermomix to achieve the impossible—to chop in one direction and blend in the other.
While new owners are gifted with a fancy hardcopy cookbook with 200 recipes, it’s the chefon- a-chip that sets this baby apart. Slap the disk into the side of the machine, select a recipe and it will step you through the process from start to finish. Need 10 g of an ingredient? It’ll weigh it. The same with the next ingredient, and the next, until the task is complete. No need to figure anything out or take chances—the TM5 even sets its own timer and temperature with the push of a button.
The charming staffer who guided me through the demo knew I was gobsmacked as she started with dough for pizza or ciabatta. She followed up with a tasty vegetable soup from a base of sautéed onions and garlic. She then added some water, inserted a plastic basket with sliced vegetables and set them to steam (infused by the very same onions and garlic used for the soup.) Meanwhile, on top of the machine, a special steamer cooked salmon fillets. Not only a delicious, healthy meal, but ready in the nick of time to boot. This is about as idiot-proof as it gets.
Belly Ice Cream
For all my love of food from every corner of the globe, when it comes to ice cream I admit to a monogamously dogged preference for vanilla. Until now. The moment I saw the squat cube tub with the alluring description of “Scotch whiskey, smoked almonds and salted caramel,” I knew I was in trouble. Imagine the piquancy of “whiskey” combined with the creaminess of Jersey milk, and rounded out with both the earthiness of almonds and the sweetness of caramel. Sublime. Next to it, a tub of “obscene chocolate brownie” sets off more flashing lights, as a spoonful or two proves that it lives up to its nomenclature. Indulgently chocolatey richness is mellowed by a counterpoint of biscuit-like chunks.
This frozen nectar of the gods is made exclusively from rich Jersey milk farmed at Miller’s Dairy in Creedmoor, Ontario. Vanilla? It was nice knowing you, but I’ve found a new love.
Homefront’s man about town is suave, debonair, charming and, best of all, extremely curious. He hunts, sleuths, discovers, explores and tells all.