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Malcolm Jolley: Ten restaurants that guarantee you a fun evening

Commentary

When Howard proposed we each draw up a list of ten of our favourite restaurants and post them at The Hub, I instantly and unequivocally agreed. Making up lists of favourite restaurants is the sort of thing I do when I daydream; it seemed like an easy and fun exercise. And, I reasoned, it would be handy to have a list committed to the World Wide Web.

I have a tendency to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights when a real person asks me for a restaurant recommendation, this way I would create a reference point for myself and others that I could effortlessly share.

How wrong I was! The first few restaurants were easy enough to conjure up, but after the first few that came to mind my inner deer returned and the panic came back. What if I forgot one? What if one my favourites had declined since the last time I was there? Would I attract the ire of disappointed Hubbists?

Also, what if most of my favourites were of the same type, or clustered in the same city? Worse than wrong, it might be boring. This list project turned out to be more difficult, than I first imagined.

Despite requiring some effort and some thought, the exercise of enumerating ten restaurants, spread around my hometown and some of the places I am familiar with, turned out to be quite enjoyable. My first criteria for a great restaurant is neither the quality of food nor service, per se. Instead it’s whether or not I have fun when I am there.

The places on this list are places where I have had fun. Of course good food (and often, but not always, wine) is important, and I would argue good service is essential. Though, what exactly is good is always up for debate. Fun, to my mind, isn’t: either you’ve had it or you have not. Revisiting these ten top restaurants was an exercise in conjuring up memories of fun.

Here they are in no particular order.

Restaurant L’Express, Montreal

I fell for the young lady who would become my wife after a long lunch at L’Express; it was a long time ago, in our last year of undergrad and living in Montreal. It is not clear to me which direction the positive association to this perfect bistro runs. Do I love L’Express in part because it’s where I began to fall in love with my wife, or do I love my wife in part because she also loves L’Express? Last time we were in Montreal, this time to drop off our kid at university himself, we traversed the black on white tiles up to the door and sweet-talked our way to the last two seats at the bar. We ordered from the big wine list, which helpfully tells you how many bottles of each listing are left and tried with mixed success not to simply order favourites like the sorrel soup, or classic Tartare. Then we craned our necks to look at the chic Montréalais eating well into Saturday night and let out a bit of a sigh.

The Anchor & Hope, London

In my humble opinion the “gastropub” is not a concept that travels well outside of the British Isles. Probably because North America has always had casual restaurants with good food and a bar. Britain (I am told) did not until the last decade of the last century, and when Londoners were offered the opportunity to eat well without linen table clothes and uniformed waiters and the gastropub boom was on. This restaurant pub is firmly in the tradition. The Anchor & Hope is two rooms: a bar and a dining room. If you’re lucky, you’ll start in the former, maybe with a pint of bitter, before heading to the bare unvarnished wooden tables of the latter for wine and fancy British food, like a salad with smoked mackerel. It’s on The Cut, by the Old Vic, near Waterloo Station on the south side of the river. It’s lovely to meet locals for a drink after (their) work and stay for dinner. But it’s also great fun as a kind of escape valve and temporary oasis from the West End and tourist London on the other side of the river. It should be mentioned that it was founded and is operated by alumni of St. John, and is loyal to that restaurant’s ethos.

Scaramouche, Toronto

Until COVID-19 wreaked its horrors on the hospitality industry, Scaramouche was one kitchen with two restaurants, with two menus: the dining room proper and the Pasta Bar. As a young(er) man, I had a number of formative meals in the dining room which were as expertly executed and served as any I have had in the étoilees in New York, California or Europe. There’s a period in one’s career as a diner, where this is very exciting. But when good friends took us to the somewhat erroneously named Pasta Bar I fell in love again, as it felt more intimate and convivial, and started to book it with regularity. (It also had excellent people watching.) Now, I hear it’s all one restaurant, and I regret I haven’t returned yet for the locally sourced, beautifully cooked food and the best restaurant view of the Toronto skyline going.

Il Sorpasso, Rome

I don’t go to Italy for modern cooking; I want it traditional and I want a lesson in what exactly is supposed to happen gastronomically in whatever town or countryside I am in. And yet, and yet… I love Il Sorpasso, which likes to break the rules, while making it clear they know exactly what they are doing. A good example of this is their pasta with butter and anchovy, the memory of which, paired with a Trebbiano Spolentino, is bringing water to my mouth as I type. Their gastronomic irreverence is matched with the shabby chic decor and friendly service from young people who know you know they are much cooler than you. It’s tucked in a quiet street between the Vatican and the Castle of Saint Angelo, which it makes it another escape pod oasis from the busy, tourist Rome. Unsurpassed, indeed.

Langdon Hall, Cambridge Ontario

Full disclosure: I am friends with the Bennett family that owns and operates Langdon Hall. I have been treated well there, but since they rest their reputation, and correspondingly high rates, on treating people well, I believe that’s par for the course of all their guests. Langdon is, I admit, a cheat because it’s my way of sneaking in an extra restaurant, apart from its renowned dining room. I love the Wilks Bar equally, and see the two dining areas, which share Chef Jason Bangerter’s renowned kitchen and extensive gardens, as a continuation of a whole. One can attack the gastronomic pleasures of Langdon by arriving in time for sandwich or a burger at the bar, as a kind of warm-up to the tasting menu at the dining room. Or, one can arrive later, dive fully into Bangerter’s tasting menu, and the myriad pleasures of the cavernous wine cellar, in the evening, and keep lunch at the bar as a civilizing restorative exercise the next day, after good long walk around the grounds.

Hotdog Cart (Various locations), Toronto

Hot Italian sausage on a yellow brioche bun with sauerkraut, raw onions, dill pickles, sliced banana peppers and French’s mustard. Particularly as a late lunch after some kind of business engagement, eaten standing up on the sidewalk in an alcove to get out of the way of traffic. I will defend Toronto street meat until the day I die, and those who speak down on it are wrong and damned to a life of joyless culinary ignorance.

The Rose Venice, Los Angeles

The Rose is an American restaurant that only Americans can do, and do well. In between the beach and Venice’s hipster scene on Abbot Kinney, it’s a really big space, mostly under a kind of tent and exudes boisterous energy, like a good party. I mean it’s fun and impossible not to get caught up in the vibe. Portions are, of course, commensurately expansive: a giant chopped salad with a really big glass of rosé, please.

Mi Mi, Toronto

A friend who lived around Broadview and Gerrard took me to Mi Mi’s in Toronto’s Chinatown East longer ago than I can remember, and it quickly became a regular Sunday lunch spot for our family in cold months when a steaming bowl of their Pho is more than worth the drive over the Don River. There are more exotically authentic Vietnamese restaurants in Toronto. Mi Mi is, I think, a kind of Vietnamese diner, it serves the greatest hits of the diaspora. Cash only, fluorescent lights and good hot food made well and they are generous with the accompaniments including a homemade garlic hot sauce. It’s never empty.

La Piola, Alba

The town of Alba, in Piedmont, south of Turin, has a number of gastronomic claims including being the birthplace of Nutella, its festival of local white truffles, and the centre of the wine region of the Langhe, which includes the prestigious appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s the latter that has brought me to this perfectly sized pretty old walled town, that lives up to its reputation for the appreciation of good food and drink. The most famous restaurant in Alba is the three star Michelin Ristorante Piazza Duomo, but my favourite is across the square on the other side of the cathedral. The release of Nebbiolo wines is typically in the spring, when it is warm enough to have lunch outside, and La Piola’s tables on the piazza are a perfect spot to people-watch and enjoy a glass or two of Arneis or Dolcetto while moving through the specialities of Piedmont, like vitello tonnato or the small ravioli of pasta a plin.   

St. John (Smithfield), London

Howard has captured the spirit of St. John so well, I am not sure how to add to it, especially having written about it in my wine column too. I suppose, like the nine places that precede it on this list, it represents an oasis (a word I have used in this list twice before). It’s an island of calm in a big city, a machine that is tuned to please its guests, if (and only if) the guests are willing to be pleased and respect the pleasure. It’s in the noise of cutlery and the standard, short stemmed wine glasses, and of course the food and service. A great restaurant calls one back. I might visit London and miss a meal at St. John, but I’d be sad about it, like I had walked by the door of a good friend without knocking on it. Long may it run.

Malcolm Jolley: Is ‘Slow Food’ the future? Taking in the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022

Commentary

The Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022 was held at the end of last month in Turin. Terra Madre (“Mother Earth”) is a sub-organization of Slow Food International, the Italian-based world movement founded by Italian Communist politician Carlo Petrini in the mid-1980s to promote the production and consumption of food that is “good, clean and fair”. I attended it for two of the five days that it ran, as a guest of the Italian Trade Agency in Canada.

The first Slow Food event I ever went to was in Toronto, in the mid-to-late-2000s. It was at Roberto Martella’s now defunct Grano restaurant, which was also established in the mid-1980s and quickly became a centre for the celebration of both Italo-Canadian culture (including, of course, food and wine) and a salon where new ideas learned about and discussed. True to form, that evening, Martella was right on trend.

Roberto and the Slow Food Toronto chapter organized a dinner, for a mixed crowd of foodies and trade people, comprised of local products and wines introduced by the makers and it was a good time. By the early 2010s Slow Food Toronto events, like their annual picnic at the newly renovated and repurposed Evergreen Brick Works, were hot tickets that attracted top chefs and winemakers and commanded the attention of the growing number of people taking a greater interest in what they ate, whether for epicurean, political, or cultural reasons, or some combination of all.

Slow Food was then more than a dining club, even if the main attraction to their events for many (like me) was more to do with the promise of a good meal made by an all-star team of top chefs than belonging to a political movement.The galvanizing act that led to the formation of Slow Food was the protest against the opening of a McDonald’s at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

Slow Food was always about more than opposition to fast food. It was about the convivial and cultural power of “good food” and established the “Ark of Taste” to protect traditional foods. It was about “clean food” that’s made in sustainable ways that respect the natural environment. And it was about “fair food” that was made for the economic benefit of its producers.Slow Food was, and is, a political movement, which skewed on the progressive end of the spectrum, and there would always be some kind of speech or polemic communication at their events.

More than a decade and a pandemic on, I wondered where Slow Food fit in a world where local provenance and environmental consciousness had been adopted into the mainstream. Would the Salon del Gusto be more like a political convention, where the Terra Madre producers and Slow Food convivial would meet and plot the vanguard action of the good food revolution? Or would it be more like a party? (You can imagine which version of Terra Madre I was hoping for.)

Terra Madre turned out to be a bit of both. There were all kinds of seminars and demonstrations that focused on the clean and fair aspects of Slow Food. There was also an official address by Petrini and a panel with the incoming board of directors of the organization, as well as networking going on between the delegates sent by various countries from around the world.The theme of the show was “regeneration”, specifically after the shock of the pandemic, which had caused Terra Madre 2020 to be cancelled. It was held in the ruins of an old smelter, on the banks of the Doria, a tributary that flows into the Po in Turin. The industrial site has been converted into a public park, Parco Doria, and the event was open to the public.

It worked as a kind of giant farmers market, with tents full of producers from all of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, and another open area of stalls with producers and delegations from all over the world. I was there on Friday and Saturday and saw lots of families doing their shopping, as Slow Food delegates engaged in serious-looking conversations beside them.

It had the air of a fall fair, and displays like a long table on which samples of every known dried bean known to humanity were arrayed. With each was a card with information from whence it came, and sometimes a picture of it on the stalk. This was surprisingly popular with children. Another booth was run by the Italian association of free-range honey producers and encouraged visitors to rate blindly a selection of honeys from around the country.

It also worked as a kind of trade show. I was one of a handful of foreign journalists brought to Terra Madre by the Italian Trade Agency operating in our respective home countries. But we were in the larger company of buyers, who had come from around the world looking for interesting Italian products to import. Deals were being made all over (presumably fair ones).

Wandering around the Terra Madre Salon del Gusto, talking to producers and eating and drinking it all in, as it were, I came up with three main takeaways about the event.

The breadth and depth of Italian food and wine are colossal

I spent an hour or so one morning in the tent that housed exhibitors from the Southern Italian region of Calabria, in which I tasted roughly a dozen different ‘nduja’s.‘Nduja is a tangy, soft, and moist spreadable sausage, liberally spiced with pepperoncini peppers that can be found in Canadian specialty stores but is still rare enough outside of its natural habitat to be considered exotic. I didn’t set out to taste all the nduja, but once I had two or three it seemed like a logical course of action. I don’t know how many nduja producers there are in Calabria, but I am comfortable speculating that the ones who travelled to Turin for Terra Madre represent a small fraction of the total.The same must be true for all the dozens upon dozens of olive oil, pasta, salumi, cheese, and other items set out to be sampled or bought by the Terra Madre producers.

Wine at Terra Madre had its own tent and sitting area, the Enoteca. There one could buy tickets for a glass of one of just under 500 wines or vermouths. All of them poured by uniformed sommeliers, ready to answer questions about each label.This would be a feat unto itself, except the wines all came from, and only came from, Turin’s home region of Piedmont. There are 19 other administrative regions of Italy, all of which produce wine, some of which produce a lot, but this insanely broad sample featured only one.

No doubt some of the pasta producers at Terra Madre dream of being the next Barilla, and some of the wine producers would happily take their place next to big producers like Zonin or Marchese Antinori. But the scale of small, family-run production throughout food and wine is impressive to ponder and sank in as I made it from the tent of each region, through the rows of tables laid out with their wares.

The (slow) food is the message

There were a number of stages and seminar areas throughout the Terra Madre grounds. Sometimes they would be holding tastings or panel discussions.The most popular one I saw was for the Slow Food-run University of Gastronomic Sciences, which drew in groups of high school kids to visit the show. Who wouldn’t want to go?

But by far the most popular areas, and the places with the most action, were the stalls of the producers who engaged their churning audiences with madly sliced cheese, dried balsamic vinegar on little wooden spoons, or anchovies stuck with toothpicks. They not only knew how to speak on their products (sometimes even in English), but they were also doing brisk business. People came for the goods and real programming was eaten and drunk.

Italian food production is back to the future

The first rule of going on press trips is don’t complain about going on press trips. So, I am not complaining when I report that I had a six-hour layover at the Munich airport on my way home. The gastronomic entertainment at MUC was not nearly as diverse or interesting as what I’d seen and tasted in the days before in Turin. Over a schnitzel and a stein of beer it occurred to me that my hosts at the Italian Trade Agency had done more than show me excellence in that country’s food and wine production.

It also occurred to me that they had done more than show me that excellence can, and more often than not is, be made in a way that is good, clean, and fair. I knew all of that already; I am in the choir singing about it every day. What Terra Madre showed me was that smaller-scale companies, often family-owned or co-operatively run, can create an economic ecosystem that brings employment and growth across the entirety of Italy. Is this the back to the future of manufacturing, or even agriculture, in the West? If it is, we’re all going to eat and drink very well.

In my next column, I will profile a few specific producers, especially winemakers, I met at Terra Madre 2022.