S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen
owlfish

Bloor-Yorkville Wine Festival: Fetzer 'Great Beginnings' Appetizer Challenge

According to a paragraph frosted into a well-polished mirror, the Carlu was a theater once considered to have the best acoustics in North America. Glenn Gould thought so, at least. The theater opened in 1931, up on the 7th floor of the building now known as College Park, the centerpiece of an Art Deco confection on a large scale. Sad to say, until I saw a model of it, I hadn't realized how nicely proportioned the building was.

Regardless, chamaeleoncat (CC) and double0hilly (DH) didn't come with me for the acoustics, nor the drab lighting, nor even the conceptually-spiffy little clips to hold small plates securely to the bottom of our wine glasses. They, like I, were there for the food and drink, the alcohol and appetizers. The event, part of the Bloor-Yorkville Wine Festival (underway through this coming weekend), was a competition among local chefs to create a novel appetizer which best complemented the theme wine-of-the-year. Fetzer, the sponsor, chose its Gewürztraminer as the wine to work with, although there was a healthy selection of other Fetzer wines to drink as well. (And water, both sparkling and non.)

We began with the "Pan-fried Blue Crab cakes with textures of spicy tomato and coconut curry and cilantro oil" from 17 Noir (Niagara Fallsview Casino). After abandoning all attempts to use the conceptually-spiffy little plate clips, we began to eat. CC thought the cakes too spicy, and none of us could particularly taste the crab in the wake of the flavorful sauces. Still, as DH commented, the dish was inoffensive. The dish also tied for second place in the judge's voting.

Next up was Tundra's "Jasmine smoked arctic char, seared scallop, and bison strudel". (Our ballot referred to this dish as including 'artic car'. Poor spelling pervaded.) The subtle barbecue flavoring in the char involved a taste - and texture - which lingered in my memory. DH and CC were particularly keen on the bison strudel. Actually, we were all rather keen on anything which didn't involve fish or, even more so, scallops. There were way too many scallops over the course of the evening. If the three of us were giving awards, this dish might have taken fourth place.

Unanimously, at least for the three of us, The Fifth's "Duck Confit with corn and avocado millefeuille, quacamole and piquillo rauigonte" was the most exciting dish of the evening. The duck confit was tasty, the millefeuille a small bit of heartiness, the yellow flower petals on top pretty (and, to my tastebuds, a pleasantly bitter contrast), the guacamole unified the dish, and the corn cracker/cookie, delicate and prettily leaf-shaped was both good and fun. We were all disappointed when the dish won none of the prizes. If I had had any more appetite left at the end of the evening, I would have joined the others in going back for seconds of this dish.

Our favorite for the virtual category of Ultimate Comfort Food was Savour Luxury Catering's "Coconut dusted shrimp on lime pickle risotto with apricot-lemongrass froth and coriander oil", served with baby bok choy. Lime pickle risotto doesn't sound like a feasible combination, but it worked beautifully. It was a dish to curl up with, a balanced meal-in-a-bowl with meat, rice, and vegetable. None of us could discern the taste of coconut in it, but had we been able to, the taste would have been right at home among everything else. The judges at least gave the dish third place.

None of us agreed on what we liked about Oscars' Assiette of salmon. CC favored the quail's egg aioli, roasted pine nuts, and organic salmon on a rye cracker, or perhaps the maple-roasted salmon. I much preferred the slice of foie gras and salmon paté on a blini, refreshing and smooth after all the intense richnesses of an evening of appetizers. All three left DH underwhelmed.

The second rice dish of the evening was also a hit with us. Olio (Toronto Renaissance Airport Hotel) offered up "Pan-fried pancetta wrapped monk fish, butter poached lobster and chorizo paella, foie gras emulsion, and pimento sauce." As CC observed, the pancetta-wrapped monkfish was a pleasant variation on the more typical bacon-wrapped scallop, with the delicate denseness of the monkfish filling in for the scallop in a much more interested way. (Particularly good given the evening's overdose of scallops.) The paella was rich, but I could easily have eaten more. None of us could detect the fois gras emulsion, and CC was frustrated by the presence of a decorative mussel shell on the place, when no mussels had been used in the making of the dish. Still, the consensus was that this was a very friendly dish - and the we gave the staff our virtual "Friendliest Staff" award.

Our virtual award for "Best Presentation" goes to Liv Restaurant, where a "Braised venison rib with spicy asian glaze" was presented on an iron plate tree, next to a beautiful mist fountain graced by a calla lilly. So pretty! The venison rib was awkward, sticking in our teeth, and we never did decide if it was easier to eat with fingers or fork. The glaze wasn't spicy, despite the press, but it was a pleasant balance between oriental and more southern styles of barbecue flavors. Still, for me, the accompaniaments were the highlight of the dish: crab apple sauce and fun little twirls of potato chips.

The Fairmount Royal York's Epic restaurant offered a problematic dish; our thoughts about it were complicated further by the judges giving the dish first place. Certainly the dish was a contrast to what the other restaurants were offering: "Kafir lime crusted ahi tuna, exotic fruit wrap, and chilli-ginger vinaigrette" with a taro chip, and served on an inedible green circle cut from a leaf a circle of banana leaf. The flavors were overpoweringly intense, especially the lime crust on the tuna which hid the taste, if not the (beautifully tender) texture of the tuna. CC and DH were immediately repelled by a bite of the fruit wrap ("an assault on my senses"), while I appreciated the concept of a crêpe-wrapped chopping of papaya. Papaya is a tricky fruit to work with, as I learned at my Knife Skills class, easily bruised and, when bruised, it acquires a taste particularly unpleasant to some. (See the comment below for an explanation of the wrap's actual contents; there was no papaya in it.) We agreed that the dish was trying too hard, was too aggressive in its flavors, and probably our least favorite. And then it won first place among the judges.

By now, our appetites were waning and we had two scallop dishes left. DH, never a scallop fan, excused herself from the last two scallop-laden dishes. From Brasserie Frisco, CC and I tried the "Seared sea scallops and elderflower", served with warm and tender Portugese bacon, elderflower foam, a salad of julienned greens with marinated onion slivers, and what we thought at the time was a slice of lemony potato, but turned out to be sun choke. Elderflower always makes me happy (having only ever had it in moderation), so I liked this dish more than the others did. CC thought it unmemorable, while I thought it quite pleasant overall. It was another of the few dishes which succeeded in being an all-in-one balanced meal.

If the final dish had been more exciting, CC would have had some too, but it wasn't, despite tying for second-place. The BB33 restaurant at the Delta Chelsea was serving "Smoked scallop and oyster with apple and pineapple salsa". The scallop was indeed smoky but, strangely, the otherwise nicely fruit salsa was, if anything, far more smoky than the scallop was. The best part of the dish was a fun little cheddar crisp.

By this point in our evening of small dish feasting, I was entirely full, and thus missed out on the fun of going back for seconds of the best dishes. CC and I followed the example of a woman at our (standing-space only) table, and stole a few lychees from one stand's table decoration for contast, much needed after quite so many main courses. The servers were out of the theme wine but still had plenty left of other Fetzer variants, so I moved on to a lightly-oaked Chardonnay after a bottle of sparkling water. I liked seeing the parade of chefs at the end, largely in uniform, and all the variants of uniforms they wore - white, black, berets, tall hats. On our way out, we noticed a pile of booklets, a collection of recipes of what we'd tasted, and what other people at the Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Calgary editions of this event had also tasted. Browsing the book filled in some of the ingredient details we missed at first taste.

Of all the events in the Bloor-Yorkville weekend, this seemed - both in advance and in practice - like one of the best to do, for the sheer variety it offered, the fun of competition, and the assurance of being able to stick to white wines all evening. It would have been even better if there hadn't been quite so many scallops... and better too if we had had appetite for dessert afterwards, something to balance out the persistent intensity of eating quite so many showy appetizers in lieu of dinner. Still, I'm quite glad I went and, though I'm unlikely to be in town for this particular event again, I'd quite willingly try similar occasions elsewhere.
Tags: eating in toronto, food, food event
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