Archive for ‘Food and Drink Writing’

June 16, 2014

A night at Vikram Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti

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Vikram Vij is eager to welcome diners to his restaurant in the suburbs. (Herman Chor photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca on June 8, 2014.]

SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It’s 7 pm on the first Wednesday in June and the lineup at Vij’sis two hours long. Those at the back of the queue may not know it but they could hop in a car and drive 45 minutes to find food prepared by the same cooks as the famous Vancouver Indian restaurant. Not only that, these days they’ll also find Vikram Vij at My Shanti.

The celebrity chef’s newest enterprise opened on June 2 and for the time being it needs its owner’s attention. “It’s like a baby,” he says of the 130-seat restaurant with an exterior so eye-catching you’ll think it belongs in Times Square, not a suburban strip mall.

For 20 years, Vij has spent most of his evenings working the room at Vij’s, making it a destination restaurant unlike any other in Canada. With My Shanti, he sees an opportunity to elevate the food choices in the suburbs. He also indulges in showcasing more of his recipe book, filling the menu at My Shanti with regional dishes from India.

Anyone who has been to Vij’s knows the cuisine is a blend of European technique and Indian flavours. My Shanti is more traditionally Indian. “These are the dishes I’ve wanted to share with people for a while. They are from different regions of India, from places I’ve visited many times over the years,” says Vij, who juggles his time between the restaurants, his packaged food product line and numerous TV appearances, including as an upcoming member of CBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”

Vikram Vij’s Culinary Tour of India

Though the cuisine at My Shanti isn’t the same as Vij’s or Rangoli — the small eatery next door to Vij’s on Granville Street that’s also often packed with diners — some of the experience is unmistakeable. The spices that are so sublimely blended together you don’t realize there are dozens of them in each bite, the texture of perfectly prepared basmati rice, the heat that hits the back of your throat after you’ve enjoyed the other flavours first. Those are all hallmarks of Vij’s food and it’s what you’ll discover in the Indian dishes at My Shanti.

“This really is just like Calcutta fish,” Mariellen Ward, my dining companion, said with both joy and surprise when she bit into the steamed tilapia ($19.50), served with mustard gravy reminiscent of dishes from the capital city of the state of West Bengal. “This is really is like being back in India.”

Ward is an excellent person to gauge the authenticity of My Shanti’s recipes. Her website, BreatheDreamGo.com, has been recognized as a leading authority on travel to India and she has visited the country several times in the past decade. She assured that the menu accomplished Vij’s aim of giving diners a culinary tour of his homeland. Dishes evoke the diverse tastes of the Asian nation. The names on the menu tell diners the origin of the appetizers and entrees.

As good as the food is, the decor is a match — starting with that shimmering exterior. It is made of 4,000 sequins, affixed by hand to tiny hooks attached to a brick wall. The wind ripples through the sequins, causing a lovely wave of silver to streak above your head.

Mysorian vegetable thoran ($15) is a curry mixed with delicious grated coconut; Hydrabadi chicken biryani ($22) is served with Vij’s “3 Mistresses” — spicy sauces that include tamarind and chili concoctions; and Goan Oyster Pakoras ($11.25) are tasty morsels breaded in chick-pea flour and served with a tangy green chili creme fraiche. There are also Bollywood references and colloquial Hindi phrases used on the food and cocktail menu (try the rum-based Dawa Daru, $11). The standout, though, is a flavourful appetizer inspired by South America. The Peruvian/Indian ceviche of fish and shrimp features the seafood dropped into a gol gappa (a thin, crisp, hollow, bite-size bread bowl) and served atop a non-alcoholic shot of tamarind juice. Pop the seafood-stuffed gol gappa into your mouth and throw back the tamarind shot. Unique and incredibly tasty.

August 13, 2013

Chase is on to be Toronto’s best restaurant

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The rooftop patio at Chase is sure to be a hot spot in Toronto. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 12, 2013.]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Steven Salm has opened 14 restaurants in his career. That would be impressive for anyone in the restaurant business. Consider that Salm is 29 years old and the feat seems astounding. The transplanted New Yorker’s most ambitious and likely finest achievement debuted on a Monday afternoon soaked with sunshine and a champagne sprinkle of rain.

It’s called the Chase and the Chase Fish & Oyster Bar — two restaurants, one building, four floors apart. Anyone would crown the combined 10,000 square feet of dining flair as Toronto’s new “It” spot without even pulling up a chair. The space is that phenomenal. The rooftop, home to the Chase, features lounge chairs on the patio, a wonderfully stocked bar, and lavish decor in the interior that’s bracketed by attractive glass walls.

“This is the most relaxed I’ve been in eight months,” Salm said on opening day, smiling in the way people smile after they’ve finished a marathon — half excited with the achievement and half astonished at what they’ve just put themselves through. “I thought we would do half the size of what we did, but the real estate is so good and the opportunity really excited me.”

New Yorkers Salm and David Chang of Momofuku have invigorated Toronto’s dining scene with culinary ambitions on a massive scale. Momofuku Toronto opened last September in a terrific 6,600-square-foot property adjacent to the Shangri-la Hotel. It features three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and the recently opened Milk Bar. The Chase restaurants are in the historic Dineen Building, a circa 1897 heritage space.

Executive chef Michael Steh oversees both two restaurants, which have separate chef de cuisines and diverse menus. The oyster restaurant, which debuted four days earlier, flies in fresh seafood from both coasts of Canada. It’s offerings include Oyster Po’boy Sliders ($11), a Lobster “Waldorf” Roll with candied walnuts and apple ($28), and decadent seafood platters ($50 or $110). The upscale rooftop kitchen sources local ingredients and also features some seafood dishes from abroad, including a delicious grilled octopus with pork sausage, salsa verde, and piquillo peppers ($23).

“We want to reset the bar for fine dining in Toronto,” says Steh, who has worked at Splendido and Reds, a favourite spot for bankers in the Financial District. “I think a lot of restaurants get away with things in this city that they wouldn’t in a place like New York. I think competitiveness is something that’s been lacking in Toronto for a long time. Steven has a lot of competitiveness and that is why I jumped aboard. He brings a drive for excellence that’s contagious.”

July 1, 2013

Montreal Jazz Fest keeps going strong

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Feist opened the 2013 Montreal Jazz Fest with a free show. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca on June 30, 2013]

MONTREAL, QUEBEC — In a city that very well may be the festival capital of North America, the annual event that started on Friday night stands above the rest. It’s not that the Montreal Jazz Fest’s lineup features the biggest names in music — the superb Osheaga festival that runs August 2-4 this year has a more star-studded roster — or the most unique venues and program.

The Jazz Fest remains worthy of reverence for the same reason any great event or attraction would. It has built up years, 34 of them, of credibility and notoriety. Its 25th anniversary edition in 2004 drew 250,000 people for its finale, a Cirque du Soleilperformance that celebrated that circus troupe’s 20th year, and earned the event a Guinness Book of World Records‘ mark for largest jazz festival on the planet. Since Ray Charles headlined the first edition in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Fest has grown into a calendar event, an annual occasion that your mind makes note of every June. You know the Montreal Jazz Fest means something, just like you know theToronto International Film Festival or Tour de France or Rio Carnival mean something, even if you’ve never been.

What the Jazz Fest means to Montreal is approximately $125 million in economic impact each year. It employs 2,500 people during its 10-day run and attracts more than 1 million people, roughly a third of them from outside of the metropolitan area. It is also traditionally considered the event that kicks off festival season in Montreal, a city that rolls out good times like no other North American centre other than New Orleans. Following the Jazz Fest is the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the delightful Circus Festival, Osheaga, the underrated Reggae Fest that’s in its 10th year, Pop Montreal, a world film festival, and on and on right into the new year when the 30-year-old Snow Fest and IglooFest, billed as “the world’s coldest rave,” serve as opening acts to the Montreal en Lumière Festival that fills the cold winter nights with dance, song, and plenty of cups of hot chocolate, many of them spiked.

While the likes of Charles and Stevie Wonder have opened the festival, the event for the past two years has featured Canadian talent on the first night. Rufus Wainwright kicked things off in 2012 and this year’s edition starred Feist, who played a free show for more than 100,000 people in Places des Festivals, a square outside of the Contemporary Museum of Art and the concert hall, Place des Arts.

June 13, 2013

Mark McEwan talks about Top Chef Canada’s future

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Viewers at Richmond Station watch Mark McEwan as he hosts the finale of Top Chef Canada’s third season. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This report was originally published on Vacay.ca on June 10]

Speak to Mark McEwan about Top Chef Canada and you’ll get the sense the show has many seasons ahead of it.

McEwan, the head judge for the popular Food Network cooking competition, said he is thoroughly enjoying the production, which wrapped up its third season on Monday night.

“I’m just having a blast with it and it’s only going to get better,” McEwan said at Richmond Station, a Toronto restaurant operated by last year’s Top Chef Canada winner, Carl Heinrich.

Richmond Station hosted an invitation-only showing of the Season 3 finale. Tourism Calgary sponsored the event because its city was the setting for the final episode, which crowned Matthew Stowe as the victor. Calgary is also aiming to tout its brigade of outstanding restaurants in hopes of attracting culinary travellers. The city landed eight restaurants on the 2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide, announced last month. It also had a handful of contestants in Season 3 of Top Chef Canada, but the title went to a Vancouverite.

A product development chef for the Cactus Club chain of restaurants in British Columbia, Stowe wins the $100,000 grand prize. He also joins Heinrich and Dale Mackay as Top Chef Canada winners. Of all the Top Chef Canada competitors so far, however, the most successful has been Season 1 runner-up Connie DeSousa, who was at the Richmond Station event. Her CHARCUT restaurant in Calgary has won wide acclaim, and landed at No. 5 on the 2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 list, while DeSousa won the Vacay.ca award for Top Female Chef in the country, chosen by the 34 judges from across the country.

“I just love Connie’s food,” McEwan said. “I really thought she would win Season 1, but in the finale there was just a problem with one dish and that’s what cost her.”

DeSousa was one of the guest judge’s on the Season 3 finale, along with Jann Arden, the Calgary-based singer-songwriter.

April 14, 2013

Rene Redzepi speaks from the heart in Toronto

[This article and video were first published on Vacay.ca on April 10, 2013.]

The world knows Rene Redzepi can cook, but who knew he could write?

On Monday afternoon, Redzepi stood in front of 500 attendees at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto and read from a manuscript he prepared especially for the conference. Candidly, he detailed his passion for food, the roots of that passion that go back to his childhood in rural Denmark, how being true to his desires propelled his culinary success, and why losing sight of those desires led to standing on a beach in Mexico and contemplating running away from Noma and the mania surrounding it. His words about the dangers of burning out were a generous gift to chefs in the audience striving to attain what Redzepi has accomplished at his Danish restaurant. They were also extremely well thought out sentences, carefully chosen nouns and verbs that resonated with emotion.

Redzepi spoke about how so many people were advising him to go against the ethic of Noma, which has always been about food and flavours first and foremost. The restaurant, which has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, has never had the finest silverware or the most fashionable wait staff, but Redzepi has been encouraged in recent years to add such pretentiousness. Advisors told him to reach for more accolades and that meant more material luxury in his rustic dining space “as if a fucking bowtie would make the food taste better.” On top of those influences was the intense pressure of running a business that has faced more scrutiny in the culinary world than any other restaurant on the planet in the past four years.

“I said, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Redzepi said to the crowd at Terroir, an annual gathering that brings together international food industry professionals to discuss sustainability and better practices.

Afterwards, he told Vacay.ca and other media, “We got very confused at Noma when we first started having success. I went to cooking school to learn to whip a bernaise, not how to deal with the New York Times in a press conference.”

Like many accidental celebrities, Redzepi found himself performing tasks he never endeavoured to perform and, on top of 85-hour work weeks at the restaurant, the demands on his time resulted in a wish to escape. However, his drive to improve overwhelmed any thoughts of quitting. After introspection about how to deal with the stress and what it was doing to him, the 35-year-old said he chose to clutch onto the beliefs that made him so celebrated in the first place.

“I feel more energized than ever,” he said, explaining that any downbeat sentiments in his story were there as a cautionary note to other chefs. He urged them to not lose their vision, or allow it to be circumvented by people who feel they are better at business or public relations or management. “This was a story about memories and also a story about sticking to what you know.”

What Redzepi understands better than just about anyone is how to make the most of the quality of food within your grasp. When speaking about the use of unusual ingredients in his cuisine, he said, “It is all about a search for flavours, it has nothing to do with shock value.”

The ants that he uses in his dishes are “little tiny creatures” that have what he describes as an explosive taste exotic to Scandinavians. “Here we are in cold, grey, shitty, Protestant Denmark with our potatoes and our beet root, and suddenly you have the flavours of ginger and lemongrass to put on your beet root. That is magnificent.”

April 3, 2013

Rene Redzepi of Noma to appear at Toronto’s Terroir Symposium

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Among the delegates at Terroir will be chef Marc Lepine, who created this inventive dish featuring lobster and crab at his Ottawa restaurant, Atelier.

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]

Arlene Stein has tried for three years to line up a date for Rene Redzepi to join Toronto’s food industry at the annual Terroir Symposium. This year the schedules aligned and the executive chef of Noma is the marquee name among a list of culinary stars ready to appear at Monday’s gathering that’s focused on encouraging better practices in the industry and celebrating local food.

“I made a film with Rene last year about Noma’s Saturday night menu, which is pretty significant and pretty fantastic. Getting to know Rene even more than I had before helped to build that relationship. We were trying to get him here for three years but in 2010 he and his wife had just had a baby, and last year our conference was four days away from the World’s 50 Best awards,” Stein, the event’s founder and chairperson, said last week. “This year he decided to come and we are thrilled. We have outstanding international chefs and amazing Canadian chefs.”

The day-long symposium will be held at the Arcadian Court, an Oliver & Bonacini venue at the historic Simpson Tower. It will include seminars that range from appetizing (cooking demonstrations) to thirst-quenching (craft brew workshop) to thought-provoking (a debate on “culinary cannibalism”).

Along with Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant has ranked atop the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, other international chefs at Terroir will include Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Faviken, Kobe Desramaults of Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium, and South African Peter Templehoff of The Collection by Liz McGrath.

Among the notable Canadian chefs in attendance are Marc Lepine of Ottawa‘s Atelier, Jeremy Charles ofRaymonds in St. John’s, and Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of CHARCUT in Calgary — all of whom will perform cooking demonstrations.

Terroir will be a more high-profile gathering than culinary events with larger advertising budgets and more prominent histories in Toronto. While it is a gathering for the industry and not for culinary travellers, it is still a tourism driver for the city.

“It’s subtle and very grassroots what we are doing,” Stein said. “We’re not overly swamped with people. You can stand in the halls and have a conversation. I think the chefs like that.”

While Terroir started in Toronto and is in its seventh year, Stein is aiming to expand to “another Canadian city.” The notion of Terroir — which to a great degree depends on the willingness of chefs to share their coveted ideas, practices, recipes, and sources — would not have worked in the 20th century, Stein said.

“We happened to come around just as the local food movement really started to take hold. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time for us. We filled a gap in the marketplace because all of a sudden everyone needed more information and a way to build real resources around sustainability,” said Stein, who has spent recent months in Europe networking with several of the chefs who will be attending the symposium.

March 5, 2013

Atelier deserves all the praise it gets

[Vacay.ca is putting together its second annual list of Canada’s Top 50 Restaurants and public voting helps to determine that list. The voters have been incredibly supportive of Atelier, a wonderful restaurant with only 22 seats in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood in Ottawa. I had a chance to dine there and speak to its chef, the talented Marc Lepine. This article was published in Vacay.ca in October.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO —  Midway through her dinner, Jennifer Swartz looked up to her dining partner and exclaimed, “Hands-down the best meal of my life.”

Swartz had been meaning to make reservations at Atelier for a number of months and wasn’t disappointed in her August visit despite entering Marc Lepine’s restaurant with lofty expectations. “You hear so much about this place in Ottawa but it’s still a little secret outside of the area,” said Swartz, who lives in Canada’s capital and was dining a couple of tables away from me. “The food is like art.”

And that’s not by accident. Lepine began Atelier in 2008 after completing a stage at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant run by Grant Achatz that’s consistently near the top of the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants ListAlinea is known in North America for popularizing microgastronomy, the cooking technique that involves chemistry and often results in whimsical creations. Numerous chefs have tried to replicate Achatz’s success with microgastronomy and the results are often hit and miss. Lepine is one of those who is on the mark.

In February, Lepine’s team won the Gold Medal Plates competition at the Canadian Culinary Awards in Kelowna, British Columbia, and earlier this year Atelier was named the People’s Choice winner in theVacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List, finishing fifth overall.

Knowing Atelier’s reputation, I approached my visit to the restaurant expecting an opulent room laden with crystals and 500-thread-count linen. Like its chef, though, Atelier is understated in every way but the boldness of its cuisine. The restaurant’s exterior on Rochester Street, six kilometres from the frenzy of the Byward Market, is so non-descript it doesn’t even have a sign. It’s a house, not a mansion. The exterior is slate grey and a black grate covers the window, making it seem almost moody when you approach in the night. But that’s not an indication of what’s inside. When you enter, host and sommelier Steve Robinson greets you warmly, inviting you into a 22-seat space that feels like a dinner party.

“It made sense that we didn’t have a sign, because our menu’s blind and we’re reservation-only, and this kind of works for us,” says Lepine, pointing out that Atelier isn’t the sort of place where people decide to go on the spur of the moment, so it wasn’t important to rent a storefront in a well-trafficked area of Ottawa.

People would come searching for the food, if it was good enough, he believed. As Swartz indicated, the word of mouth drew her in.

One of the most likeable chefs you’ll ever meet, Lepine puts his imaginative spin on dishes to make Atelier as creative a kitchen as you’ll find in the country. One of the plates on my visit featured 14 ingredients, another — an octopus salad — was so minimalist it was positioned to occupy only one corner of the white plate; hence its menu name, “In This Corner.”

That’s the other aspect of Atelier and Lepine you will remember: The imagination doesn’t stop with the food. Each dish has a name that attempts to be clever. A cold pea soup puree is called Give Peas a Chance (and you should, it’s delicious), a crab-and-lobster dish is named after characters in both the “Little Mermaid” (Sebastian the Crab) and “The Simpsons” (Pinchy the Lobster), and a peach dessert gets tagged with the title Impeachment. The servers appear chagrined and apologetic when they pronounce some of the names, which only adds to Atelier’s lack of pretentiousness. The music is all Canadian. Imagine dining on Idaho-raised wagyu beef prepared sous vide — meaning sealed in an airtight bag and cooked in water for several hours — while Joel Plaskett plays in the background. It’s not something you’d ever envision, and that ability to surprise and make you look at dining anew is partly what defines Atelier.

February 17, 2013

Chef Michael Smith shows Canadians how to cook

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on January 10, 2013 and then syndicated on the Huffington Post Canada.]

HUNTSVILLE, ONTARIO — Michael Smith told me he has built a career out of reminding Canadians that cooking is about the people you share the meal with rather than the perfection of the recipe. He then went about showing what he meant.

In a wildly entertaining weekend at Deerhurst Resort, Smith held court and kitchen in the Muskoka property most famous for hosting Barack Obama, Stephen Harper and the rest of the G8 leaders during their 2010 summit. Smith didn’t have the security detail of those politicians, although he could have used one given the fact his contingent of female fans have a voracious appetite for him as well as his food. Clearly enjoying the attention, Smith hugged, kissed and signed autographs of his latest cookbook, Fast Flavours — 110 Simple Speedy Recipes, for the roughly 200 people who showed up to be in the presence of Canada’s most famous chef.

Standing 6-foot-7, Smith came across as a gentle and affable giant with a great deal of admiration for his adopted country. He was the head of food operations in the Athletes’ Village at the 2010 Winter Olympicsin Vancouver, turning out up to 12,000 plates a day for the competitors and delegates in a role he called the highlight of his career. Currently the only chef on the Food Network Canada with an instructional cooking program, “Chef Michael’s Kitchen,” Smith has lived in Prince Edward Island since immigrating from New York more than 20 years ago. He elevated the Inn at Bay Fortune on PEI to recognition as one of the nation’s finest restaurants before his cookbooks and television shows took off, rocketing him to stardom.

“I miss some aspects about being a chef in a restaurant, but I don’t miss the hours or the lifestyle,” Smith said, reiterating that he has no plans to open an eatery.