Din­ing like it’s 1899

Long for­got­ten dishes — like Welsh rab­bit and lob­ster ther­mi­dor — make a come­back in T.O., primed for din­ers look­ing for a side of his­tory

Richmond Hill Post - - Food Feature - by Jon Sufrin

It’s the mid­dle of po­lar vor­tex–in­flicted Jan­uary, and I’m at a new restau­rant in Park­dale think­ing about how it’s 2014 out­side but not in­side. The set­ting is un­usual for the neigh­bour­hood. The vol­ume of the mu­sic (jazz, rag­time) is ac­tu­ally soft enough for con­ver­sa­tion, and the place is el­e­gant in a re­ally, re­ally old school kind of way: white mar­ble bar top, 19th cen­tury–styled light fixtures, an­tique Li­mo­ges dish­ware and dap­per servers clad in sus­penders and bow ties.

My table­mate and I are eat­ing ciop­pino, a toma­toey seafood stew in­vented in turn-of-the-cen­tury San Fran­cisco, brim­ming with oc­to­pus, mus­sels, crab and fish. We are seated near a made-in-Toronto pi­ano that’s around 100 years old, and we’re sip­ping ab­sinthe served in the tra­di­tional way, slowly di­luted with su­gar and ice wa­ter from a foun­tain that any grand­fa­ther worth his salt would want chill­ing on his man­tel. (The anise-tinged ab­sinthe used to mess up the likes of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec some­thing fierce back in the art nou­veau hey­day of Paris).

The venue is Geral­dine, and the year might as well be 1890. For own­ers Alexan­dra Al­bert and Peter Ram­say, this old-timey gran­deur is a di­rect re­volt against the cook­iecut­ter west end restau­rant aes­thetic that’s de­fined, pretty much, by re­claimed barn wood and sal­vaged de­tri­tus.

“We wanted to get away from the same thing you see ev­ery­where,” Al­bert says. “It’s be­com­ing a for­mula.”

The in­ter­est­ing thing is that relics from Vic­to­rian-era din­ing are show­ing up in restau­rants across the city. You can time-travel with­out a flux ca­pac­i­tor. That’s how neat Toronto is.

A few blocks east of Geral­dine, Chante­cler now serves lob­ster ther­mi­dor as a spe­cial on Fri­days and week­ends. It’s a throw­back to 1894 when the dish was first served in Paris as a trib­ute to Ther­mi­dor, a play by Vic­to­rien Sar­dou. No­body re­ally re­mem­bers the play any more — or Sar­dou for that mat­ter — but lots of peo­ple re­mem­ber the dish he in­spired, in­clud­ing chef Jonathan Poon.

At Chante­cler, Poon steams lob­ster, then care­fully re­moves and chops up the meat. He folds the chunks into a sauce made from lob­ster stock, white wine, ba­con, cream, brandy and mus­tard pow­der (the lat­ter two cru­cial for an au­then­tic recipe), then stuffs the meat back into the lob­ster shell. He

This is a del­i­cacy that seems bar­baric — de­li­cious.” and it is — but it is also

adds a bit of Parme­san be­fore brown­ing the whole thing un­der the broiler, and serves Ritz crack­ers as a to­tally non-tra­di­tional side.

“I fig­ured it would be fun,” says Poon of bring­ing this clas­sic food to Queen West. “It looks very ex­trav­a­gant.”

Ni­a­gara Street’s Edulis has also gone way, way back by re­viv­ing one of the great French dishes of the 19th cen­tury: ca­nard à la presse, which trans­lates to “pressed duck.” This is a del­i­cacy that seems bar­baric — and it is — but it is also de­li­cious, and it was nearly im­pos­si­ble to find in Canada (out­side of Que­bec, at least) be­fore Edulis start­ing do­ing it late last year.

The key to ca­nard à la presse is us­ing a duck that has been stran­gled, in­stead of killed in some other grue­some way, so that the blood is re­tained. This blood will be nec­es­sary when duck parts are stuffed into the press and squished to make one of the planet’s best pos­si­ble sauces.

Edulis serves the duck as part of a six-course meal for four peo­ple, and it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that should be sought out with ur­gency. Chef Michael Ca­ballo needs three weeks no­tice so he can pro­cure a top-notch duck and also so he can age the car­cass for two weeks (this in­ten­si­fies the bird’s flavours).

He serves lighter fare for the first few cour­ses — seafood, usu­ally — be­fore get­ting into duck leg in course four. The height of the ex­pe­ri­ence is course five, wherein the vin­tage press (se­cured from an auc­tion, which in this case means eBay) is brought ta­ble­side, and the duck’s bones and of­fal are juiced for ev­ery­one’s view­ing plea­sure. A sauce is then pre­pared — also ta­ble­side — with shal­lots, La Fine Bre­tagne (an ap­ple liquor), duck jus, foie gras and the fresh duck ex­trac­tion, and it’s all driz­zled over medium-rare duck breast.

Over in Lit­tle Italy, Frank’s Kitchen does a take on oys­ters Rock­e­feller, est. 1899. The orig­i­nal recipe for this dish was con­ceived at An­toine’s, a New Or­leans restau­rant that has been around since the be­gin­ning of time, and it is of­ten em­u­lated but never du­pli­cated (the orig­i­nal recipe has been kept un­der the strictest of wraps). For this ver­sion, chef Frank Parhiz­gar sautées spinach and ba­con, adds poached oys­ters, bread crumbs and hol­landaise sauce and then bakes them. The restau­rant sells hun­dreds of th­ese lit­tle guys ev­ery week — not bad for a snack in­vented over a cen­tury ago.

Yorkville hasn’t es­caped this lit­tle trend thingy ei­ther. Set in a Vic­to­rian town­house, the Ox­ley is one of the pret­ti­est pubs in the city (I’ve heard good things about the women’s pow­der room). Chef An­drew Carter does lots of old Bri­tish favourites, in­clud­ing Scotch eggs, suet pud­ding and Welsh rab­bit (also known as Welsh rarebit). This lat­ter snack, as flavour­ful as it is old, has no rab­bit in it — it’s essen­tially cheese on toast but more com­posed. Carter makes a cheese sauce with aged ched­dar, Worces­ter­shire sauce, mus­tard and stout, then douses a piece of house-made sour­dough with it.

When I was a kid, I al­ways thought the fu­ture of din­ing would be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Grey sludge, maybe, with the per­fect bal­ance of vi­ta­mins and nu­tri­ents. I also thought we’d have fly­ing cars by now.

The lack of sludge I’m fine with.

L-R: Edulis’ ca­nard à la presse in­volves an im­pres­sive duck press; Geral­dine’s ciop­pino seafood stew dates back to turn-of-the-cen­tury San Fran­cisco; the Ox­ley’s Welsh rab­bit is essen­tially a (rab­bit­less) haute fon­due on toast

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