At the Top of Their Game

I am generally sceptical when being served game meat. Having grown up eating wild caught stuff, the flavour of the game meat served in Toronto restaurants is generally subdued. Ontario law dictates that wild game meat cannot be sold to the public, so most of the venison, rabbit, elk, kangaroo, etc., that we eat here has been farmed. Farming has its pros and cons, of course, but one of the the most noticeable differences is the lack of a gamey taste because the animals are eating controlled feed instead of foraging in the forest.

This is a good thing, in a way, because it means that people will try game meat and not be put off by the strong flavour. But folks like me, who expect the strong flavour, often find game meat lacking. What is needed, then, is for the meat to be prepared at the hands of a skilled chef who knows how to nuance, accentuate and tease out the flavours. Last night, 9 sets of those skilled hands took on the challenge.

The Ontario Game Dinner at Hank’s was a benefit for Slow Food Toronto – money raised went towards sending Toronto chefs to Slow Food’s bi-annual conference in Italy.

I did take some photos of the chefs as they got up to talk about their dishes, but most of them were grainy and dark. Or the chefs were gesturing and the shot would end up blurry or with a hand waving in the air. So while Jeff Crump is the only one who made it to the photo-essay, all the chefs who took part deserve many compliments on the dishes they offered up.

Note – this event was BYOB – we paired the meat dishes with a 2008 Baco Noir from Blomidon Estate Winery and dessert with a Pomme D’or apple wine from Grand Pre Winery – both from Nova Scotia, smuggled back in my luggage on a recent trip.

The charcuterie platter by Joshna Maharaj of The Food Studio included venison terrine with port cherries and pork back fat; goose pâté en croûte in red fife and duck fat pastry; wild boar pancetta, duck prosciutto and pickled green tomatoes and green beans.

Chef Maharaj had tweeted about her pastry earlier in the day and we were really looking forward to her course. And it was pretty damned awesome pastry, as was the terrine.

Rising Star elk carpaccio with Flying Monkey mustard, spiced red fife crisp, drizzled with pine and juniper cold pressed oil and garnished with Soiled Reputation radish seedlings.

This dish came from Bertrand Alépée of Amuse Bouche and Scott Vivian of Wine Bar/Hank’s (our host for the evening).
Loved this dish – the flavours of the unique oils were a great match for the elk.

Mike Steh of Red’s Bistro and Jason Bangerter from Auberge de Pommier offered up a ballontine of Cumbrae Farms rabbit in a mushroom puree from Forbes with wild mushroom cream.

The smell of this was absolutely divine. I was expecting the rabbit to be a more traditional preparation, so this ballontine was a nice surprise. The soup was made from local mushrooms that had been picked in season and dried then reconstituted.

Squab pastrami on brioche, paired with a consomme and confit of squab with a quail egg, and housemade Wellington mustard by Jason Inniss of Amuse Bouche and Chris Brown of The Stop.

Again with the surprise preparations, because we were all expecting the squab to be a more traditional roast. Fabulous consomme – dug the confit except for the wee tiny bone. (I’ve been getting bones every time I have confit anywhere, so I think it’s just some weird curse I have following me around.)

Smoked wild board ham with pommery gravy, chicarones, triple chips and shaved fennel salad with blood orange vinaigrette. With thanks to Jeff Crump of Ancaster Old Mill who cheerfully stood and let me take his photo a gazillion times to get this shot.

I was too slow (and, well, busy eating) to gets shots of the brilliant salad, potatoes and cracklings that went with this dish, but they were all amazing. Crump once worked with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK and the potatoes were from Blumenthal’s famous multi-step recipe.

Ontario Gala apple pie, topped with blueberry crisp ice cream made with duck eggs, topped with maple candied boar bacon. All hail Rachelle Vivian of Wine Bar/Hank’s for a sweet end to the evening.

Bacon, I take back all those disparaging things I’ve been saying about you – you’re not overdone and tired. You are sweet and crisp and maply and full of tasty goodness. I adore you. And I adore Rachelle Vivian for the amazing things she can do with flour and sugar and eggs.

So while the game wasn’t especially wild, I didn’t end up missing the gamey flavours in the end because the chefs involved all offered dishes that worked with the best characteristics of the meats they served. There are more dinners planned to raise funds to send chefs to Terra Madre so if you’re in Toronto, keep an eye out for more info.

Thanks to everyone involved in the dinner – it was a fabulous meal and a memorable evening.