Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Braving the Burbs: Blacktree

Well I can now add two firsts to my list: making wine, and having a great meal at a restaurant in Burlington.

It all started like this: I have friends who are true wine-lovers, and in fact have a wine importing business. They invited me to make wine with them (read: pick varietal, pay money, go back 8 weeks later and retrieve “home-made” wine) at a place near their house in Oakville. Seeing as how they know what they’re talking about when it comes to wine, I happily conceded, presuming the outcome would be nothing like the plonk I imagined home-made wine to be. As we were booking our wine pick-up date, my friend suggested we make an event of it and go out for dinner afterwards. I rarely say no to a dinner date. And so we were booked.

Jump ahead 8 weeks, and there we were, driving to Blacktree restaurant in Burlington. I hadn’t heard of it before and so Googled the National Post review. It was a moderate review; certainly not the glowing report I was hoping for. Hmmm. Would this just be an over-priced disaster?

After driving along, wondering which of the crappy cookie-cutter strip malls the restaurant was in, we arrive. We walk towards what I think can only be the back / dumpster area. “Where the hell are we going?” And then there it is: Blacktree. A simple, clean, modern and engaging exterior, leading to a romantic, cozy and welcoming interior. Check: we won’t be eating off paper plates.

Alright so we’re here. I like the place. It’s not slammed-busy, but it’s got some good energy. Let’s get to the FOOD already! OK, here goes.

After placing our orders, our server arrives with fresh-baked, perfectly salted and crispy/soft bread. With … wait for it … foie gras butter! OMG. I love you already, Blacktree. Then, out comes an amuse bouche, a tidy little white bean ravioli with gogi berry. What an intense burst of flavour from just one bite!  And a 2006 Amarone arrives, at the request of my wine-knowledged friend.  Ohhhhhh, it was good.  Dear Amarone: I love you.  Love, Alyssa.

Smoked Cod
Our appetizers then arrive: first, a smoked Alaskan black cod with pork jam (yes, pork jam), roasted red pepper sauce and bacon-wrapped tempura asparagus.  It was sublime. The smoke flavour led, and I really enjoyed how it provided an experience to both the smell and the taste. Plus, the bacon/asparagus tempura rocked.  I really, really loved this dish. Can I use “really” once more? Really. OK, so the second app was the lamb carpaccio with quail egg and goat cheese. The lamb had a subtle flavour, and the quail egg was cooked perfectly. It was not my personal choice so if the diner (you know who you are) cares to elaborate, please do.

Then, through conversation I discovered at least two of my fellow diners had not had foie gras. What?! They must! They must fall in love the way I did! And so, we order one for the table. It arrives, all pan-seared and buttery goodness. It’s topped with a meringue and served with sponge toffee and tamarillo. Blow. My. Mind. And then, out came the honey truffle bomb, which really was a culinary exercise in food science. The flavours were subtle (too subtle in my mind), but the presentation and subsequent mouth-feel was entertaining.

Gnocchi with Pork Belly
Finally, our mains arrive. Me with a gnocchi with pork belly and pork tenderloin, others with tuna and scallop as well as ostrich tenderloin. Though my gnocchi dish was promoted as my Italian dumpling favourite, it was really more of a meat dish with gnocchi as the pairing. The pork belly was so tender and salty and flavourful. The sauce was rich and tomatoey (I just made up a word, BTW). The tuna was a beautiful dish; light, cooked properly, and seasoned well. The ostrich was a bit heavier, and not as gamey as one might imagine. All in all, we were happy campers.

Honey Truffle Verjus Bomb
To top off the night, we enjoyed grappa, and a tableside demonstration of how the bombs are made (a mixture of truffle honey verjus with xanthan and glucose, then dipped in aglin water to make a skin/capsule around the verjus that makes the little flavour bubble).  Extra points for that little number ... I ate it up.

So was I surprised? Yes. Was I impressed? Mostly. Would I go back? Sure … if you offer to drive.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Caramelized Scallops

This one is so ridiculously easy, and the taste is just sublime. It just goes to show that with quality ingredients, you really needn't do much save proper cooking and seasoning.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a 1st course):

  • 6 large sea scallops - ensure they're VERY fresh!
  • 2 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
  • kosher salt and fleur de sel
  • freshly sqeezed lemon (optional)
  • thyme or other herb to garnish (also optional)
  1. Wash the scallops and pat them dry. These need to be DRY before you set them in the pan, or they won't caramelize properly. Season with kosher salt on both sides.
  2. Heat a skillet (NOT the non-stick kind; it will give you better colour) over medium-high heat. Add the ghee and let melt and heat up to smoking.
  3. Add the scallops to the pan and let sear on each side until nice and rich, golden brown; about 3-3.5 minutes per side.
  4. Transfer to a plate, squeeze fresh lemon juice over (optional) and garnish with a scant sprinkling of fleur de sel.  Serve immediately!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Origin: The Start of Something Great

I had been following Claudio Aprile's blog about his new restaurant, Origin, since the summer of 2009.  Then, in late March of 2010, there is was - the tweet that made me swoon: "@coreymintz Origin is open and taking reservations. 416 603 8009 But no liquor license yet."  What?!  It's open?!  Finally?!  Yesssss!!!  I couldn't wait to pick up the phone.  And, as luck would have it, I had not yet booked a TRC dinner for March.  We were on.

Fast forward to March 30th, and there we were; at a head count of five, we were the smallest TRC gathering yet.  It was perfect.  After quickly getting acquainted and then scanning the menu we all agreed: let's ask our server to bring us whatever he thought we should try.  Carte blanche.  What followed was an onslaught of dishes, and I was in heaven.

All-told, we consumed a total of 15 different dishes.  The menu (as it stood the day we visited) carried 37 dishes, so there are many still left to choose from.  From the list, we tried:
  • Potatas Bravas
  • Deviled Eggs + gremolata + smoked bacon (photo below - the only one stolen from the restaurant blog)
  • Shrimp Seviche + lime + tomato + freeze dried corn + coconut
  • Tuna Salad + Asian pear + avocado + puffed rice + spicy ponzu dressing
  • Mussels with vermicelli in spicy tomato broth (wasn't on the menu so that's my made-up name)
  • Bufala mozzarella + pear + rosemary oil + pine nuts + honey
  • Bufala mozzarella + confit tomato + basil + preserved lemon
  • Bangkok beef salad + peanut + mint + mango + fried onion + nam jim dressing
  • Chorizo + manchego rice + poached egg + salsa verde + dried black olive
  • Miso glazed black cod + mushroom broth + jerusalem artichoke puree + crispy soba
  • Caramelized brioche + walnut praline + honey yogurt sorbet
  • Spiced chocolate pudding + formage frais + frozen aerated milk chocolate
  • Manchego cheese cake + saffron sorbet + marinated berries
  • Hot chocolate cake + candied citrus + soft serve
  • Dulce de leche + espresso ice + caramel crunch + sea salt
Okay, so in an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, here are a few highlights:

The potatas bravas is potatoes with some chorizo and olive and bit of kick.  As one guest described, it was 'comfort food', and the heat was just perfect.  Success on this dish.  The deviled eggs had such a delightfully creamy yolk.  Plus, I do love bacon.  So you can't really go wrong there.  Onto the seviche: the seasoning was great and the shrimp were lovely, but i could have gone without the freeze-dried corn, and I really didn't taste the coconut.  The tuna salad was a good balance, but nothing quite popped off the plate in terms of flavour, so I'd given this one an "OK" rating.  Similarly, the mussels (which I will admit I NEVER order, so take this with a grain of salt) had nice flavour and the broth was quite good, but the vermicelli was difficult to eat and added little to texture or flavour.

Moving onto the two cheese dishes (bufala mozzarella), they both were a real treat.  My fave was the one with pear and honey; the star of that show was definitely the rosemary oil.  It was such a great aroma to complement the other flavours.  The bangkok beef salad and the miso cod were both resounding hits.  We were divided on which won "best dish", so you'll just have to try them both (NB: cod won in my books).

I rarely finish my meal with a sweet dessert, but as we neared the end, out came five of them.  Wow.  This one was difficult to judge, as each seemed to be in perfect balance.  I love the combo of sweet and salty, so the dulce de leche with sea salt was spot on.  In the cheesecake, you could definitely taste the manchego (which I love), but the saffron sorbet was a bit lost.  The spiced chocolate pudding was SO GOOD.  And the possible dessert winner?  The hot chocolate cake.  To quote one of the diners, "I'm definitely going back for this one.  Dark chocolate and citrus are such a wonderful combination with the soft serve adding the necessary foil to the sweetness"  Couldn't have said it better myself.

As for the space, kudos to Stroudfoot for some incredible design pieces.  There are several different light fixtures, each strikingly beautiful.  The open kitchen is both visually appealing and experiential. Our only complaint was our table location.  We sat at the front of the restaurant by the bar (the Westerly room, if you visit), which felt segregated from the main dining area.  It also suffered from poor acoustics; it was a challenge to hear one another (which, if you were sitting in the lounge or at the bar, may not have been such an issue). Besides, that, the service was quite good, and the restaurant seemed to be experiencing few hiccups.

So, does it hold up to Colborne Lane, Aprile's other restaurant?  Well, no.  But it wasn't intended to.  Would I recommend it to you and go back again and again?  Yes, for sure.  I suspect the menu will continue to be tweaked (and hopefully edited somewhat?), but you'll surely find some new favourites and reason enough to want to repeat.

Oh, and special thanks to one of my closest friends and a very talented photographer, Shauna.  You can see more pics from the restaurant on Facebook, and visit her own website here.    

Thomas Keller's Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Tarragon

The chicken dish is one from "Ad Hoc at Home", Keller's latest cookbook. It's quite easy and is made in relatively few steps. As for the pasta, it was yet again one of the "here's what's in my fridge that needs cooking" creations. It was fresh pasta, mushrooms that were sautéed and finished with vermouth, plus zucchini, butter, lemon zest, garlic and shallot. Email me if you want that recipe ... otherwise, just go for it!