Sunday, November 18, 2012

TRC's Pop-Up Dinner with Fidel Gastro

Photo credit: Kyla Zanardi (thanks, Kyla!)
TRC's dinner with Fidel Gastro was definitely a new experience for the group. First, it wasn't at a restaurant. Second, our chef was accustomed to cooking 'extremo' sandwiches on a food truck at lightning speed, not 6-course meals for 25 guests over 4 hours. Third, we were being taped for Fidel Gastro's (aka Matt Basile) upcoming TV show, Rebel Without a Kitchen (Travel + Escape, Spring 2013, channel 267). Add it all up, and it equaled one super-fun night with old and new friends, and one delicious delicious menu of elegant street food.

How I came to get in touch with Matt was as a result of a dinner party with friends Stephanie and Glen; Glen knew Matt and spoke about how Matt had followed his passion for food, leaving the advertising industry as a writer. Being in the ad industry myself, and also having a passion for food, I envied the path he'd crafted for himself. I thought, "this guy sounds cool ... maybe he'd be interested in doing a special truck food event for TRC?" And so I contacted Matt. Not only was he interested, he had a great suggestion for how to take my idea and build on it to make it even better. About 5 weeks after our initial conversation, "TRC does Fidel Gastro at Loft 404" became a reality.

Our event took place at Loft 404 - The Ambrosia Hub. It's a space I hadn't heard of before, but Matt suggested it was an eclectic spot that would work for our event, and so I trusted he was right and it was booked. Eclectic is definitely the right word to describe it. It's a labyrinth of rooms, each decorated with local artist's works, a hodge-podge of furniture, and random nicknacks. The charm of it added to the event quite nicely.

Kicking it off the first of 6 courses was a deep fried cheeseburger with tomato jam and a quail egg over rare beef tenderloin with grainy mustard. Both were a huge hit. The tenderloin was seasoned beautifully and meltingly tender, while the quail egg was cooked perfectly and accompanied well by the sharp mustard. The cheeseburger elicited responses from TRCers like, "eye-rolling yummy!" and "really? Do I need to say anything more?!". The cheese had seeped from some diners' burgers (mine included), and the cheese selection could have ventured into something a little sharper, but all in all we were a very happy bunch.
Deep Fried Cheeseburger and Tenderloin with Quail Egg
The second course was a kimchi cesar soup. The diners appreciated the clam and Matt's innovative take on the classic Caesar drink, turning it into a soup and substituting celery for home-made kimchi. The added touch of rimming the bowl with a seasoned salt was not lost on us. Unfortunately, most diners found the soup just too spicy to finish. Despite the heat, the complexity of flavour of this dish was incredible. For those of us (myself included) who appreciate a little sweat on your brow while eating, Matt had another home run. As one diner put it, "Very tasty, but not for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach. Loved it."
Photo credit: Kyla Zanardi
Our third course was roasted whole whiting with mushroom, chow mein and asparagus 'coleslaw'. This was by far the most polarizing dish amongst the group. For one diner, it was their favourite dish of the night. For another, it was too fishy, bony, and the salad too acidic. What everyone could agree on, however, was the presentation was impressive.
Roasted Whole Whiting
Course #4 were bison tempura pogos with red wine and cranberry relish. Thankfully many TRCers are meat-lovers, so to put deep fried meat on a stick in front of them was the equivalent of Santa bringing you all you wanted on Christmas morning. The tempura batter was light and crispy, while the cranberry relish was a perfect balance to the slightly gamey (in a good way) bison. I found the bison sausage to be a tad large, but I would have been the minority in that sentiment.
Photo Credit: Kyla Zanardi
Our final dish before dessert was the "big pig taco". The presentation was extraordinary - a whole baby pig, carted out and carved up before us! For the pig lovers-not-eaters, it was a little too real to be comfortable, but for the carnivores among us, it was delight. Pork can be easy to make dry, but Matt succeeded in keeping the moisture while attaining a perfectly crispy skin. The accompaniments - chimicurri sauce, apple slaw, and avocado aioli - rounded out the flavours and made for a lovely combination of crunchy and soft. For those who didn't eat pork, Matt prepared an insanely delicious pulled turkey filling. I actually enjoyed the turkey more than the pork, simply due to the bold flavours and creamy/saucy texture. I'm not sure of all the ingredients, but I'm pretty sure magic was one of them.
Photo Credit: Kyla Zanardi
Photo Credit: Kyla Zanardi
Finally, we ended off our meal with what I consider to be a great street food take on dessert: peanut butter, banana and bacon grilled cheese sandwiches. It was a toast to Elvis, and The King would have been proud. By this point, everyone was quite full but that didn't stop the oooh-ing and ahhh-ing. As one TRCer put it, "it's over the top, in a good way". Perfect way to describe it.
Photo Credit: Kyla Zanardi
All in all, we had a magnificent time. I was thankful for the generosity of Steam Whistle for providing us 3 cases of beer for the event, to Matt for agreeing to cook a stupendous meal for us, to his team for their great service and hospitality, and to the film crew from General Purpose Pictures for making us feel totally comfortable while filming. What I'm most thankful for, though, are The Restaurant Club members. Those who came out - whether for their first time or their 8th time - to support yet another TRC event; for filling the room with laughter and good conversation, for providing me their feedback, and for being great friends. None of these events would happen if it weren't for your support, so thank you.

Oh, and one more thing ... OlĂ©!