Foreplay with Eric Wood even though Susur Lee thinks he’s “Chopped” liver

I went to the Beverley hotel yet again for lunch with a colleague. I was going to blog it right away until I heard that chef Eric Wood was going to be on Chopped Canada.  I figure I’d wait to see if I could boast that I dined at the restaurant of a Chopped champion.

Ironically enough was the fact that Wood was taking on Bryan Birch from Barque, another place I managed to hit in the last year.  With two very different styles and figured it would come down to the ingredients and the moods of the judges. What I didn’t expect is how moody they could be…

I’ve reviewed the Beverley twice already. I like it because it’s relatively quiet, has a nice ambiance, takes reservations and has a menu that can appeal to the masses.  I started with the Butternut and Tarro salad.  I enjoyed the balance of the sweetness of the squash and dates with the flirt of acid in the dressing.  The tarro and beans offered a great textural contrast and an earthiness to this unique salad.

Butternut and Farro Salad $9
Butternut and Farro Salad $9

Eric Wood is know for his 4 play; a structural sound square meal; a snapshot of his id and ego on any given day.  Typically, it’s an appetizer, salad, main and dessert.  On this particular day, it was shrimp and mussels in a coconut broth, a sage and sunchoke gnocchi, an heirloom tomato salad with pressed ricotta and a sea buckthorn cheesecake with grape jelly.  Foreplay like this makes me want to put out.  The shrimp were delicious and were cooked to perfection.  The gnocchi was nicely caramelized and was far from boring. Although I’m not a huge tomato fan, the cheese compensated  and I really liked the dressing.  The dessert hit the spot as well although it was a little sweeter than expected.  I wanted to be totally overcome by the delicious tartness of the fruit especially in the midst of the super sweet jelly.

4 Play lunch $16
4 Play lunch $16

My Take

Chopped Canada is a double edged sword.  In one sense it can assign subjective culinary supremacy to any of a number  of aspiring and established chefs.  On the other hand it can be a shot to the ego and reputation if one were to lose.

Eric Wood’s appearance on Chopped Canada was consistent with his restaurant philosophy: respect for ingredients  highlighted with bold flavours. Despite this, Susur Lee couldn’t see the forest (in particular morel) mushrooms through the peas.  From the minute Eric missed the infamous snack cake on the plate, Susur had it out for him.  Perhaps it was some kind of king vs queen street rivalry or maybe a textbook  example of workplace bullying, but it struck me as odd.  After sulking about the snack cake, Susur went off on Eric’s blue rare duck, his accusations of making excuses, missing tahini, roasted morels that had the texture of leather and the inappropriate use of cardamom dust with key lime pie. Meanwhile, he turned a relative blind eye to things like overcooked salmon offered by other competitors.

Three’s a charm at the Beverley. In a sense, it has become my go to for a reliable place with a relevant and diverse menu in a beckoning environment.  In particular, the 4 play is a fun spin on a lunch special, featuring the freshest ingredients used to construct  a tongue-tickling portrait of a complete meal. There is a wide diversity of appetizers including the tasty butternut and farro salad.  Perhaps chef Lee should drop by the Beverley hotel for a little 4 play and if  he’s still grumpy after that, maybe he should just get Bent.

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Why an Elton John Concert is Like a Michelin Star Dinner.

A good meal is music to the mouth.  A good concert is music to the ears.  I went to see Elton John in London at Bud Gardens recently and saw comparisons between his concert and a good meal.

The amuse bouche was a stunning performance of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. I somewhat naively picture Elton front and centre with nothing more than him and his piano gracing the stage.  Instead, he was on the left side with a complete band.  It was louder than I expected as well…perhaps in part due to the fact that three quarters of the audience was over 65 and probably needed a few extra decibels of help.  It was a good starting bite by hitting hard and setting the tone for the remainder of the evening.

Benny and the Jets was next and reminded me that, like many restaurants, aging doesn’t mean a change in quality.  Sure, Elton’s trademark magazeeeeeeeeeene has been replaced with a lower pitch version, but it’s still a damn good song.

Some of the most memorable restaurant experiences don’t necessarily involve food but often include the people around you.  Take for instance the old couple that sat in front of me.  He sat stoically  with him arms crossed most of the concert while she looked around like a nosy neighbour looking for dirt on the guy in Row H Seat 5 that she could share during tomorrow’s coffee session.  It lead me to believe that they probably got the tickets for Xmas, are against resale and wanted to humour their kids who bought them thinking that “Daniel” was a song they actually liked.  On the other side of the aisle was a couple who hit the aisles to dance feverishly to any fast song including but not limited to “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting (although it was a Monday and I’m not sure how they’d fair in a brawl..they were definitely lovers more than they were fighters).

The appetizers included a number of slower melodies including “Candle in the Wind”, “Levon” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  The latter featured a yellow submarine type video montage of Elton’s life in the background including paying homage to his husband and kids. The bright lights of iphones  waved in the air and were used by  numerous concert goers to record clips of the show (or in some case the whole concert).  I got a kick out of one guy who whipped out an ipad to do the same.  It looked like a spotlight as the brightness of the screen emphasized the 8 or 10 annoyed face within his diameter.

Throughout the concert his showmanship matched the quality of each song; there was  frequent hand raising Alan Shearer style while breaking from a piano medley. He also ended each song with a bang on the piano or some kind of appreciative gesture.  He would wave, bow and solicit energy from the crowd in ways that made you forget he was 66.

The main course was surprisingly high tempo. Elton pounded the piano while his supporting band kept up with him nicely. The well dressed percussionist reminded me of a good bartender at a chic downtown restaurant.  He rhythmically rattled his instruments like a cocktail shaker. I imagine he would mix up a mean cocktail. Come to think of it, many Elton songs would make great cocktail names….

Love Lies Bleeding– Vodka, housemade clamato, spice medley, worchestershire sauce and spicy, pickled green bean

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road– Bourbon, Galliano, Fresh Lemon juice and gold flakes

Rocket Man– Bombay gin, muddled berries, lime juice, soda water and egg white cloud

Amidst the fast pace was the infusion of some slower tunes including the recent “Ocean’s Away” which is a tribute to the often forgotten veterans of WW1.   The video played in the background and created a sombre but not uncomfortable aura in the arena (even the crowd dancers took the opportunity to rest their weary limbs).

As Elton disappeared the crowd roared into waves of cheers and claps, demanding dessert to end a near perfect meal.  Elton complied, returning for a two song encore which featured songs on polar ends of his musical spectrum (I suppose a good dessert often uses the same mentality).   The first was “Your Song”, the haunting ballad which pays tribute to whoever you want it to.  He dedicated it to the fans who have supported him throughout the years.  I figured I would take the opportunity to follow suit and record a snippet  for my whoever.  He ended with the fast paced Crocodile Rock in which Elton summoned the crowd to sing along…a painful reminder of why most of the audience was singing from the crowd and not from the stage.

There is a lot of congruency between a good concert and a good meal. Restaurants and arenas are mediums for artistic expression. Sure, one stimulates the ear drums and the other the taste buds but in the end both reach out to the primal desires of human beings.  The importance of both food and music are evident in the earliest of civilizations. People don’t mind paying premium prices if the goods and services provided are suburb.  Finally, the music or food doesn’t have to appeal to everybody but it’s utter magic when it’s the right fit.  If an Elton John concert was a restaurant, I’m sure it would easily get two Michelin stars.

Tasting, Trivia and Tea Time in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Day 1- Tasting Menus and Creepy Paintings

To switch things up, our last team meeting was planned outside of the normal confines of the GTA and we headed to Niagara-on-the Lake.  A hot spot for worldwide travelers during the summer months, this small border town on Lake Ontario sits quiet during the winter months populated by stray deal seekers and seniors who didn’t make the trek down south for the cold season.

I showed up at the Prince of Wales a little late but in time for the second course of a wine and food pairing.  I quickly had a glass of Cattail Creek Pinot Noir shoved into my hand while the chef explained the salmon he prepared.  It was a pan roasted organic salmon cake, blue cornmeal and citron aioli lettuce wrap slider. Very tasty.

Salmon Cake
Salmon Cake

The next course was a fair trade coffee braised Ontario short rib, sweet potato and succotash and watercress salad served with a Henry of Pelham estate cab/merlot. They paired together nicely and the spoon was a blend of nice winter flavours.

Coffee Braised Short Rib
Coffee Braised Short Rib

The final was a dessert tray with a divine 2005 Southbrook ice wine.  Promised to have complex fruit flavours, it had an overwhelming but delicious raisin flavour that was delicious with the truffles.

Further inspection of the hotel afterwards revealed a setting which may have been the inspiration for the Shining or some other horror movie.  The attention to detail in everything from the tapestries to the door knobs was incredible and a far cry from the facades which grace most of the modern day destinations in metropolitan areas. Part of the ambiance was a number of oil paintings scattered throughout the hotel depicting members of the royal family past and present.  Almost ever suite in the hotel is different.  Mine was a red room complete with velvety curtains, matching carpet and a Pollyanna backboard.  There was antique side tables, cozy chairs and yes…an oil painting with two overdressed and unhappy children staring at me.

Room at the Prince of Wales
Room at the Prince of Wales

Escabèche at the Prince of Wales Hotel on Urbanspoon

Day 2– Beer is the new wine but microgreens are alive and well

There’s a beer movement brewing  in the wine-dominated Niagara region. The Prince of Wales featured Niagara-on-the-Lake’s own Silversmith black lager.  It reminded me of a black and tan..it starts punchy and ends with a smooth finish.  The Butler’s bitter is produced by students of the Niagara College teaching brewery and  proudly features on the list of taps available.  Meant to resemble the beer of choice (or perhaps necessity) by the 1812 British soldiers, it was pleasantly unrefined  but surprisingly refreshing.

We walked down the street to the Charles Inn for dinner. It was a mere five blocks from the Prince of Wales but during a polar vortex it felt like a marathon of a walk. It’s a quaint hotel and unlike the Prince, it was decorated much more subtly but still maintained the feel of a 19th century abode.  It was a set dinner but was a fair representation of the food scene in this sleepy winter town; squash, microgreens, pork and salmon. In a sense, it’s a fusion of old school dining with a flare of the new.  I opted for the squash veloute (which in fact was a cream soup but I guess you can call it a veloute as much as you can call it a bisque).  It was hot and creamy and flavourful. The roasted marshmallow was a nice addition but a few springs of crispy sage would have worked really well.

Squash Veloute (aka soup).
Squash Veloute (aka soup).

The pork loin was served roasted and was coupled with a square of belly, another example of a fusion of eras versus one of cultures.  It was cooked and seasoned nicely and served with root vegetables and a sort of potato pave. I’m sure the latter is a favorite of the locals year round as it screams old school french.

Pork Loin Entree with potato pave and root vegetables
Pork Loin Entree with potato pave and root vegetables

Coming as no surprise, dessert was creme brule, the ubiquitous staple of purveyors of fine dining and pyromaniacs across the country.  It had all the elements; crispy top, smooth bottom, a spattering of fresh fruit. and yes..icing sugar. Looking at it was like watching a Miracle on 34th street.  I felt relieved knowing this dish would still be around when I was 65 or 70.

Creme Brulee
Creme Brulee

Charles Inn Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Day Three– Burgers, Balzac’s and Brass Tacks

So there’s no question that a winter virus plus a few too many brews makes one a little groggy the next morning so I crossed the street to Balzac’s to indulge in some sort of recovery beverage.  Balzac’s is  small chain of coffee shops that populate the Golden Horseshoe. They offer roomy interiors and a carousel of available coffees.  In addition, they sell traditional coffee inspired beverages but also feature some interesting elixirs that crush things like Starbucks sickly sweet caramel flan latte.  The citro-boost for example, is a potion of lemon, maple syrup, ginger and cayenne pepper.  It was exactly what the doctor ordered. I trotted back across the street, sat in my meeting and felt medicinally wonderful as my colleagues sipped the watery, hotel made coffee of unknown  origin.  The next day I went back and had the Cafe Nordique, a latte with honey, vanilla and cardamom.  Although a little on the sweet side, the cardamom burst through, resulting in a pleasurable treat.

Balzac's Coffee on Urbanspoon

In the still of winter, I was not surprised that the hotel was rather empty on Monday and Tuesday night.  Wednesday, however, was a different story.  After my meeting, the bar/restaurant was buzzing and filled to capacity.  A wave of blue hairs and accompanying distinguished gentlemen had invaded the place.  When I asked the barkeep what was going on she responded with two words: Burger night.  It seems 5 dollar burger night is all the rage.  The locals dig themselves out of the driveways and brave the cold to indulge on this weekly treat.  You even see a pint or a glass of wine  peppered on tables around the bar although fisticuffs remained at a minimum.

My plans involved crossing the street to the Irish Harp pub.  Voted Niagara’s number one pub, it features an array of local and European beer.  Their flagship pints are sold under the “Irish Harp” name and brewed close by. I sucked a few back over the evening with great delight. To my surprise, not every person in Niagara-on-the-Lake was eating a burger at the Prince.  The remaining folks were about to engage in Wednesday trivia night.  The place was quarter full but table tents with team names adorned most of the unoccupied tables.  We took one of the only free tables on the bar side.  Shortly after, the regular crowd shuffled in.  One group was a half dozen twenty-somethings who looked like trivia was their only break from hours of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Another table was Niagara-on-the-Lake’s version of thirty something foodies.  The remaining tables were serious looking mixes of older patrons who were here to play.  The husband/wife trivia leading tandem showed up and we were off to the races.  Six sheets were circulated in succession with questions that would stump Ken Jennings.  The lager numbed the fact that I couldn’t list the first native american prima ballerina (who passed away in 2013) although  I did know the author of Get Shorty.  After 4 rounds we were in third place and received a few threatening glares from the locals but in rookie fashion we choked a bit in the last two rounds and finished out of the money in 5th place (actually it wasn’t money…first place was a basket of homemade chocolate).

I found the food average.  The black and tan onion rings with Guinness spiked mayonnaise were a unique and delicious twist on the traditional appetizer although a little steep at $13.

Black and Tan Onion Rings $13
Black and Tan Onion Rings $13

For a main, I ordered the Irish hot pot which combined a small portion of Irish Stew with the Steak and Guinness pie for $13 and a side of mashed for $2.50.  It was quite average.  The meat was tenderish and the seasoning was acceptable but neither dish was mind blowing. The picture is really bad because I wasn’t allowed to use my phone during trivia so had to sneak a fast shot…proof I’m not Peter Parker. The pictureless bread pudding was quite delicious, a fitting end to a table who wasn’t quite smart enough to win the prized confections.

Irish Hot Pot $13 plus $2.50 for potatoes
Irish Hot Pot $13 plus $2.50 for potatoes

The Irish Harp Pub on Urbanspoon

My Take

Niagara-on-the-Lake made me crave life after 65.  The thought of indulging on microgreens, creme brulee and a weekly burger plus a trivia beat down while drinking copious amounts of microbrewed beer is a solid retirement plan.   Sure, I would need to put up with annoying summer tourists and creepy oil paintings but it beats snowbirding to Florida, plying bingo and eating dinner at 4 pm every night.