Short Fiction – Table Manners

Alison gave the exclusive restaurant’s private dining room a final once over. Everything had to be perfect this evening. She adjusted the forks at two place settings on her family’s side of the table, stopping to refold a napkin at the spot where her father would be seated.

The room was as elegant as she could want. A long cherry-stained table with cream-coloured velvet seats filled the centre of the space. Three walls of the room were exposed brick, with the fourth being glass that allowed the diners to view the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar. The menu was mostly local ingredients prepared with classic French and Italian techniques, but without the piety of those nose-to-table places that told diners the name of the chicken they’d be eating. It had taken weeks to narrow down their choice to something that would suit everyone, and even now Alison feared that someone in her party this evening would have something to complain about.

She smoothed the skirt of her silk dress, admiring the sapphire colour, knowing that it made her eyes look even more blue. “I hope everyone can find the place,” she said, turning to Percy, her fiance, who was sorting the selection of wines arranged on a sideboard for their meal.

He sniffed as he replaced a bottle and turned to her. “It will be fine, Ali. Don’t get so stressed. There’s enough wine here to make your parents and my parents the best of friends.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she replied, admiring his stoicism. “Or that there’s enough wine to make everyone come to blows.”

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Short Fiction – Oysters

I’ve been writing (and hoarding) short fiction over the pandemic so I thought I’d actually let some of it see the light of day. This piece is based on an encounter I watched some years ago at a local restaurant.

The restaurant was not what she had expected. Described by her co-workers, and the online rating website, as one of the city’s best seafood dining experiences, Malia expected The Oyster House to be a white tablecloth affair. Instead, the long narrow room was decorated in something akin to “upscale sea shanty”. The walls were bead board on the lower half, the raw wood treated to look weathered from exposure to the elements. The upper walls were painted light blue and were adorned with old signs with corny jokes as well as advertisements for crab shacks and oyster po’boys. Shelves above each table included huge dried starfish, glass balls attached to bits of fish netting, and knickknacks made out of lobster shells which Malia found oddly disturbing.

She had tried to get out of coming, but her workmates had insisted. A month into this new job and she still felt out of her element, but Darlene, her deskmate, would not take no for an answer.

“The whole department all go out together for lunch on the last Friday of each month,” the older woman explained. “Since there’s so few of us, we treat it as a team-building exercise. And management pays for half of our food bill.”

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Flavour Flash – The Festive Special

As Canadian Thanksgiving approaches, we ponder the annual question associated with this holiday with trepidation. Not what to be thankful for, but rather… will it be too hot in Toronto to actually cook a roast bird and five side dishes on Thanksgiving Day? It’s about a 50/50 draw; some years early October is cool and rainy, other years temperatures can hit the high 20s.

Since it’s just Greg and I, we usually just cook a chicken, but I don’t relish standing in a hot kitchen with the oven and all the burners going if it’s going to be a warm day with a humidex. Besides, I can roast a chicken any time, I don’t need a holiday to do it, so while we want to do something to celebrate the day, I’m never inclined to actually break a sweat.

For the past couple of years in pandemic times, upscale local restaurants have filled the void with gorgeous multi-course menus delivered to our door. One of the options we considered this year included seared foie gras, so there’s lots to be thankful for.

In the past, though, the delivery options got no more fancy than Swiss Chalet.

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Smörgåsbord: Easter Feasting: Tanto, L.U.S.T., and Salt

We may have gotten a little bit greedy. Three big, multi-course meals over a long weekend… a decade ago, when we ate out for a living, that might have been achievable with stretchy pants and strategic naps, but now, when our constitutions were less enthusiastic? Sure, we’ve put on the Covid 19 (pounds) like everybody else, from a year of eating as a form of self-care, but as we perused the menus, we were unsure… that was a whole lot of food. But heck, we’re troopers, let’s take one for the team and support our local dining establishments.

Of course, we failed. 5-course dinners got split into two or three meals, leftover duck got reworked with blueberry preserves and waffles for breakfast. Desserts got cut in half and shared rather than eating a full portion each. We did manage to eat it all, just not all at once. But when a great meal is the only high-light of an otherwise dull existence, then why not splurge occasionally, especially for a holiday that you don’t technically celebrate?

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The Best Restaurant

Let me tell you about the best restaurant I’ve been to lately…

Nestled in a corner of Parkdale, the room is pale green with a wall covered in black and white photos of (mostly weird) celebrities. The table is large and round, glossy black with red and orange accessories. Seating is straight-backed parsons chairs; super-comfortable with lots of back support, and covered in slipcovers that evoke a mid-century lounge. The lighting is bright but not glaring, and nobody EVER turns down the lights to near-darkness just as you’ve started to read the menu. The soundtrack on the stereo is whatever you want it to be, but mostly leans to bebop jazz or Klezmer music at brunch. Nobody, diners or staff, wears perfume, cologne, or bad aftershave. Service can be a bit haphazard, but is warm and charming, and nobody ever corrects you when you mispronounce the name of the wine, or uses their pinky finger to point out the various elements of a dish while you sit impatiently waiting for them to shut up and go away so you can eat already. The linens are well-washed cotton napkins, not old tea towels that shed all over your outfit. The menu changes daily, and ranges from super-simple to multi-course high end fare, offered at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Brunch is served on weekends. There’s only one table so your meal is never interrupted by other guests, and there’s no worry about social distancing.

Welcome to my dining room, which I’ve discovered that I prefer over pretty much any restaurant I’ve ever been to…

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Lockdown Dining – Miku

Miku Toronto, part of Isolish
10 Bay Street, unit 105
(647) 347-7347
dinner for two: $130 plus tax

While restaurants are not able to open their seating areas, none of us in Toronto are hard up for take-out or delivery dining options, and that includes high-end offerings from almost all cuisines. There will always be pizza and wings, but a new service called Isolish is teaming up with fine dining restaurants to offer 4-course meals for delivery. So you can still eat posh during lockdown, but in your own dining room.

Working with a variety of restaurants around the city, Isolish offers a unique one-off meal for delivery, with each restaurant offering their 4-course menu on a specific date. A portion of the proceeds goes to Daily Bread Food Bank, making the prospect of a fancy feast even more alluring.

On April 30th, the participating restaurant was Miku, and for $65 per person we got a marvelous 4-course meal comprised of beautifully-detailed dishes. Some of these are currently on Miku’s To-Go menu for anyone interested in trying them outside of the Isolish promotion.

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Lockdown Dining – Greg Couillard at The Depanneur

The Depanneur
1033 College Street
416- 828-1990
Dinner for 2 – $48 plus tax, pick up only

With the prospect of actually going to a sit-down restaurant for a meal looking to be far, far off in the future, and little else going on in the outside world in the form of entertainment, we’ve been punctuating the weeks of isolation with interesting take-away meals, both as a means of giving ourselves something to look forward to, and as a break from cooking every day.

As long-time fans of Greg Couillard, we were excited at the announcement that The Depanneur was offering a take-away dinner featuring some of his dishes. The supperclub dinners hosted by The Depanneur and owner Len Senator are always a hot ticket when Couillard is at the stoves, and this Persian-inspired dinner was no different, selling out well in advance.

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Book Review — The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony

The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony
Adam Platt, 2019

Adam Platt has been the restaurant critic at New York Magazine since 2000, when he took over from Gael Green. His own food background skews heavily to Asian cuisine as he spent his formative years in Japan and China, so while he has no formal cooking background, he has a deep understanding of the current food scene.

The early chapters of The Book of Eating read more like a very tasty auto-biography, detailing Platt’s childhood eating experiences in the US and abroad. These are engaging as part of the bigger story and especially for anyone interested in regional Asian cuisine, but I can see where and why some readers on Goodreads gave up near the beginning as Platt doesn’t really dish a lot of dirt on the NYC food scene, and he can tend to be repetitive with phrases that he presumes are witty (the term “boiled owl” appears far too often).

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We Be Jammin’ — How to Make No-fail, 3-ingredient Jam With Any Quantity of Fruit

Do you ever watch an episode of Bake-Off and boggle when the contestants make jam — in a frying pan? Just because their recipe calls for a small amount of jam for a layer of a cake? How do they do that? Jam must be made in huge quantities, in a gargantuan pot, from flats of berries or massive big baskets of peaches… doesn’t it?

And what happens if you get your fruit home and there’s not enough to make Grandma’s beloved recipe because it calls for 11 pounds of peaches and you’ve only got 7? The recipe will get messed up and jam is already a hot, scary, time-consuming task. Better to just buy a jar and forget about making your own, right?

Hang on, ya’ll, I’m about to rock your world.

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Book Review — Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

In our easy 21st century life, we think we’re “roughing it” when the power goes out for a few hours. But the first emigrants to Canada not only didn’t have power, they also didn’t have roads, running water, nearby stores and shops, or shelter… until they built it themselves.

Catherine Parr Traill (and her sister Susanna Moodie) were part of the early waves of colonial settlers who cleared and farmed land in (then Upper) Canada, and Traill especially documented what her life was like, including the many recipes (receipts) used for daily meals and medicines, as well as instructions on how to do just about anything, from building a fence to making butter.

Originally published in 1855, The Female Emigrant’s Guide was written especially to offer advice to new settlers, explaining what to bring on the crossing, what to buy, and offering myriad tips and instructions on how to set up a homestead in the middle of the woods and not die in the process.

This hefty edition is more interesting than Traill’s own work, however, because of the massive amounts of research and supporting documents Cooke and Lucas include. At 608 pages, the authors include not just the original work by Traill, but a biography, a publication history of the work (it was printed in different editions, with changes and corrections to each version), and then an extensive section called “Guide to Traill’s World” that includes typical seasonal menus, modern interpretations (with measurements and cooking times) of recipes in the guide, a primer for fireplace cooking at home, plus an extensive look at cooking measurements since most recipes of the time didn’t include standardized measurements and when measurements were includes they might be metric, imperial, avoirdupois, Winchester, wine, or apothecary. Or you know, an actual teacup and teaspoon, regardless of how they compared to any official system.

A massive glossary of food and cooking terms might be unnecessarily completest; some entries are for things not actually referenced in Traill’s work but the editors have included them because they were in popular use elsewhere at the time.

Which is to say, that this is a definitive work on both Traill and her life.

The editors avoid delving into the political issues provoked by Traill and other settlers; that is, the outright theft of First Nations land by colonial settlers, other than to point out that they have reproduced the original work as it was written, including the use of terms that are now out of use or considered offensive. Traill and others like her believed themselves to be entitled to Canadian land, and certainly we wouldn’t be here without their efforts, but the general treatment of First Nations peoples in the effort to colonize North America is a shameful bit of history that is vaguely romanticized when admiring Traill’s work.