15 September 2008

Three days of culinary pleasure

Day One | Surprises abound in suburbia

Usually, I have to admit, the thought of weddings brings to mind love, affection, and inevitably, some kind of long, drawn out meal of mediocrity served by jaded teenagers sticking their thumbs in your mashed potatoes as they plunk your plate of dried chicken breast in front of you.

This Friday, I had that prejudice tossed out the window of the Oakville Conference Centre. We were there for the wedding of a cousin-in-law, and let me tell you, it was a wonderful occasion capped with a splendid meal.

From the antipasto spread awaiting us as we arrived in the reception hall, to the white gloved waiters whisking plates in and out of my field of vision...from the moist prosciutto-wrapped veal tenderloin cooked just to the right degree of pink through to the mysterious 5th course of goat-cheese brushed, breaded chicken breasts with a sauce so sweet and tasty it must have been made with caramel...from the endless bottles of wine through to the phenomenal dessert buffet that appeared at 10:30pm, weighting down table after table with tasty, lovingly produced sweetness, this was a culinary affair. I could only think that the kitchen was worthy of many kudos for that evening.

As worthy as the servers, who tended to all 240 guests with the utmost of attention and class, making the evening seamless and classy, as any bride and groom would like to remember it to have been.

Day Two | Unplanned, Unstructured, Unlimited

Fast forward, if you will, to Saturday afternoon, when after the traditional post-wedding family brunch, we hopped in our sweet ride and headed further west to the Niagara region. It was a hot muggy day, but pouring rain. We made it to at least five vineyards before I declared it to be late lunch time. Of course, the time of day didn't correspond so well with our desires. It was more like "blue-haired-seniors-dinner-hour".

Luckily, upon request, the good-natured folks at the Inn on the Twenty in Jordan Village sat us down and made a deal with the kitchen staff to feed us a nice light repas. With no small amount of apologizing and checking in and checking back again, the host made sure we were happy with our seats, and gave us our options.

So we were presented with the Vintner's Lunch, aka Platter for Two, featuring local cheese, local charcuterie, local bread...supplemented by a dish of olives of every variety, because our host caught on to our affinity for olives, and added them to the meal.

The duck prosciutto was smoky, velvety, melt-in-your-mouth, matched only by the locally produced summer sausage in its dense, spiced way; the house-prepared crisps of baguette spritzed with olive oil, balsamic, and sea salt; the tiny poached quail's eggs; or perhaps the wedge of local 4 year old cheddar, sharp, creamy and rich...or maybe the hearty slice of Niagara Gold cheese that acts just like an Oka but stays on the right side of stinky.

Perhaps it was all of it that made the match. I love a well-done "ploughman's platter", and this vintner's edition was all that we wanted it to be.

It was exactly what we needed. Even as the staff apologetically hustled around us and prepared for the white-haired early-bird dinner crowd, taking part in a pre-rush routine that they conduct every day, we managed to have a little escape of quiet culinary contemplation.

Perhaps it was the sprightly glass of Gamay (Cave Springs, which is affiliated with the Inn) or the rain outside soaking the gully behind the restaurant, but I simply didn't want to leave.

Alas, another three vineyards were calling our name, so off we went out into the gray.

Our real dinner that night was a hotel restaurant meal, stereotypically mediocre steak dinner in an overly decorated, blandly named "bistro" at 9pm. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing so exceptional that you'd write in a blog about it. But having had that lunch we had, it was perfectly fine with us.

Day Three | The Hustle, the Bustle, the Bakery

Before heading back east to Ottawa, we made a detour into downtown Toronto to catch a coffee with a good friend of mine, who managed to wedge us into a busy day. We met up in bustling Kensington market, the land of grocers, latino markets, fish mongers, used clothing, and bakeries.

After lunch in a place that might have forged its PASS certificate from the Board of Health, we headed back into the heart of the market area to bid our farewells. But not before we found our newest culinary experience at Cob Bakery.

Picture, if you will, Kensington Market...tight streets, crammed with shops and pedestrians and cars and bikes. Picture the smell of Toronto, boiled down into tighter quarters - a blend of exhaust, sweat, trash, fish, and produce. Picture decades of heavy use showing on storefronts, in restaurants, and the pavement.

Now picture a fresh new storefront. A bright airy bakery, with big glass cases showing off pastries and yeast breads in a freshly painted, air-conditioned storefront that seems almost to shine, it's so well-maintained. Granted, it's new-ish, and it's a franchise. But it's also attractive.

And picture, if you can stay with me, walking in, on a hot day when you're about to hit the highway for five hours to head home to the city you've never really loved...and being told that you should pick anything you want out of that bakery to take on the road with you.

And picture that it feels like fall, despite the humidex. Picture that there, before you, are pumpkin scones, dripping with cream cheese icing and a drizzle of caramel.

And tell me you'd turn that down.

I had that thing in my hands and on its way to my mouth before the end of the block. It was a light, moist, yet appropriately crumbly scone. Coloured almost like turmeric more than pumpkin, but lightly spiced with cinnamon and just the right amount pumpkin-ish. The icing was drippy, fluffy, sweet, sticky and irresistible.

You know that moment in a movie when the world around the protagonist slows down, fades, and spins a bit, with a camera panning around him? That was my moment with the pumpkin scone. Kensington ceased to be smelly, or busy, or overcrowded. In fact, it might have ceased to be, for that moment.

Thankfully, the market returned to its bustling stinky glory after a few minutes. There were a few latino grocery places around the corner that I needed to poke through before we hit the road.

All in all, an unexpected weekend with plenty of foodie surprises. Which maybe just goes to show that when you don't expect anything, you can find just about everything.

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