Dinner at Tutti Matti

The finished product: baby tomatoes cooked with garlic and basil, served with ricotta

A few weeks ago, Chef Alida Solomon from Tutti Matti gave a cooking demo at our local St. Andrew’s Market, where she cooked baby heirloom tomatoes with garlic, olive oil, salt and fresh basil to make a delicious sauce for pasta. The fates conspired against getting a large pot of water to the boil that day at the market and we weren’t able to enjoy it on pasta, but she served it in small cups with a dollop of ricotta mixed with fresh herbs. Since then, I’ve recreated her recipe at home with delicious results: very easy, and very reliant on the tastes of the fresh ingredients.

I haven’t been in Tutti Matti for a long time, probably since just after it first opened, and her demo reminded me of a great Tuscan restaurant in the neighbourhood with which I should become reacquainted. Luckily, my sister Betty and friend Pat read my blog, and decided to take me there for a pre-birthday dinner last night. It wasn’t at all busy on a Saturday night at 7pm; it did pick up by the time that we left, and I think that they draw a bigger crowd during the week from all the office around there.

The food was divine: we started with their speciality appetizer of the evening, “prosciutto four ways”: the classic prosciutto-wrapped melon, prosciutto wrapped around figs and then grilled, the same treatment for peaches, and a fourth way that completely escapes me right now because the grilled prosciutto-wrapped peaches were so freaking good that I was completely transported to another dimension. This would be so easy to do at home: firm, largish pieces of freestone peaches, probably almost a quarter peach, wrapped in prosciutto then grilled until it starts to crisp on the outside, which means that the peach is starting to caramelize a bit inside. We also shared the carpaccio affumicato, which paired smoked duck and smoked venison each with complementary garnishes: orange and pecorino for the duck, and figs, pine nuts and arugula for the venison. The third appetizer, which I know that we ordered from the menu but is not on the version on their website, was thinly sliced roasted pork with a tuna sauce, which sounds a bit weird but was incredible: the sauce had sufficient acidity to perfectly offset the sweetness of the pork.

For the mains, Betty and Pat both had the pasta special, a lobster ravioli with fresh peas; I tried a taste, and it was lovely. All their pastas are made in-house, and the quality really shows. I had the pappardelle con stracotto, which is wide, hand-cut noodles with pulled brisket, cherry tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs. The flavour was wonderfully rich and complex, the perfect meal for the cool evening that we were having. I’ve had pappardelle with cinghiale (wild boar) in Italy, a very typical Tuscan dish, and this was reminiscent of that in all the right ways; I notice that she has tagliatelle con cinghiale on the lunch menu, which definitely motivates me to head over there for a long lunch some day. We accompanied this with a nice – and nicely priced – Chianti Classico Reservi.

We had skipped the secondi (meat or fish course) in order to save room for dessert; for that, we shared a selection of biscotti (including seriously decadent dark chocolate cookies) and a cheese plate, washed down with vin santo. All excellent.

The service was perfect: our main server was there when we needed him, offered friendly advice when asked, kept the water glasses full and generally seemed to enjoy talking to us. Chef Alida came by near the end of our meal and chatted; I know her from the market, although this didn’t seem to be special treatment for us: she was checking in at most tables to make sure that everyone was enjoying their evening. We were not rushed at all, and spent a leisurely 3 hours or so at dinner.

Open for dinner every day except Sunday, and open for lunch on weekdays. Although their website doesn’t mention it (so you should call to check before showing up with bottle in hand), BringMyWine states that they allow BYOW Monday-Thursday for a $30/bottle corkage – pricey, but worth it if you have an expensive bottle at home that you want to have with your meal.

GNO with Pat, Gail, Julie & Julia

Last night was a GNO – Girls’ Night Out – with my friends Pat and Gail. We had plenty to celebrate: Gail’s birthday was just past, Pat’s divorce just came through, and we realized that we all met on a day just about 30 years ago when we lived in the same university residence.

We started the evening with the early show of the film Julie & Julia, which is really wonderful. Not just a chick flick, it’s a foodie flick that had me salivating at every turn, and a peek into the love story that was Julia and Paul Child’s marriage. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were inspired as the Childs, and the twin story lines of the Childs in post-war Paris and the modern-day Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking were nicely balanced. It’s a fun and engaging film, definitely worth seeing.

As the credits rolled, I realized that I was starving after two hours of watching all that cooking: even the popcorn was starting to smell edible. However, a table at Veritas awaited. The place was surprisingly empty for a Friday evening; not sure if they get most of their business at lunch from all of the offices around there, or if we were just too late for the dinner crowd. We started with a round of dry gin martinis with olives and settled in to peruse the menu. Veritas sources many of their ingredients locally, organic where possible, and the menu presented some very difficult choices. Pat and I both started with the Peking duck on scallion pancakes, and Gail had the smoked trout with sweet and sour onions. Both plates were beautifully presented, and the duck was delicious although a bit salty.

By this time, I think that there was only one other table occupied in the restaurant, although there may have been more on the back patio, and the chef came out to chat with us about what we liked, and to hear about Julie & Julia. We moved on to a bottle of the 2007 Thirty Bench Red, a blend with which I’m familiar because I belong to the Number 30 Club and Thirty Bench ships me a case of wine per quarter, complete with the winemaker’s tasting notes.

For mains, I had the grilled Berkshire pork loin with a forest mushroom gratin: absolutely delicious. Berkshire pork is so much more flavourful than the usual insipid stuff that we get in the grocery stores; I didn’t really appreciate how good pork could taste until a trip to eastern Croatia a few years ago, where pork is a staple and the pigs range free in the forests, and Berkshire pork is certainly a step in the right direction. The mushroom gratin was great, but the pork was the true star of the meal. I don’t even recall what else was on the plate, although I’m sure that there was a veg or two. Pat had the roast chicken with chorizo bread pudding and browned beurre beets; she pointed out that she never orders chicken in a restaurant, but was glad that she made an exception. Gail had the rhubarb glazed rack of lamb with braised shallots and wild rice (which had been my second choice), and it looked amazing.

We finished with a glass of port (I think) for Pat, a baked apple dessert for Gail, and crème brulée for me. I’m quite sure that I didn’t need to eat dessert, but it was good.

Quite a foodie evening, between the film and the dinner. Today, I headed over to the library website and reserved a copy of Julia Child’s My Life in France and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia , since these were the two books on which the movie was based. I also looked up the original Julie/Julia Project blog that Julie Powell wrote, as seen in the movie and on which her book is based. Although the fairytale transition from a blog to a book and movie deal isn’t something that many of us would expect to ever experience, it does show that sometimes if you just get started, things happen.

Sometimes, the bear eats you

Sometimes I think that my friends have much more interesting jobs that I do:

Polar Bear and seal

This is taken by a friend who works for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, on a trip with an icebreaker in the Arctic.

In my job, I only see this metaphorically.

My 5km

If you know me in person, you know that I’m not much of an athlete, but I decided to do a 5km walk this past weekend as part of the Scotiabank marathon to raise money for a friend’s pet charity, the Fort York Food Bank.

Amazingly, I walked the 5km in 48 minutes. Even more amazingly, my very generous friends donated $1850 to FYFB in sponsorship of my walk.

After I sent out a thank you note to all my sponsors, Mark Kuznicki, who biked the 660km rally from Toronto to Montreal in support of People with AIDS this year, responded:

Amazing!  At $1850/5km, you’ve now established a new effectiveness benchmark for me.  Hmmm….let’s see, that means I would have to raise $244,200 for the Bike Rally next year!  I need richer friends.

Venus and Mars

Men and women communicate differently, there is no doubt. For example, Damir goes running with our friend Susan most mornings at the ungodly hour of 6:15am: she runs over from her place about 6 blocks away, then they go off for 5-8km together. Yesterday, I asked him how his run went, and he said that Susan was late (which is unusual). His story:

She was late because she stopped to talk to some firemen. She was edgy when we ran, it was some female thing.

In the evening, we met Susan and a visiting friend for drinks, and she noted that she’d had a pretty crazy day, saying that Damir probably already told me about what happened that morning. I said that he had said she was late for the run because she stopped to chat up some fireman. Her story:

She smelled smoke as she ran over to our place, went up the driveway of a house to investigate, and found their back porch on fire. She raised the occupants of the house out of bed, had the parking attendant at the lot across the road call 911, tried to keep the fire from spreading by kicking the bits of burning porch away from the house, and hung around to give her story to the police and firemen. By the time that she met Damir at the park across the road from us, she was 10 minutes late and still hyped on adrenaline, so much so that he had to tell her to slow down during the run.

Hmmm, a slightly different take on the story. 🙂

Reggae Run

My friend Susan, who has been living with rheumatoid arthritis for over 25 years, will be running another half-marathon this year to raise money for the Arthritis Society and all of the great research that they do to keep people like her running (or at least walking). I’ve written previously about her last run, the half-marathon in Amsterdam last October: the picture on the left is her crossing the finish line, still smiling after 40km.

She’s headed for the Reggae Marathon in Jamaica this November, and you can sponsor her here.

Making the world smaller with Skype

I love this time of day, late afternoon, when I check my buddy list on Skype and see the early birds in Australia and the night owls in Europe all on line, plus the usual contingent of those on my own continent. Makes me feel like I can put my arms around the whole world, if that’s not too excessively gooey.

Our host, the zombie

Last night’s Hallowe’en soiree was great fun, especially considering that most people were in costume. I didn’t have the time or inclination to come up with ideas and wrestle Damir into a costume, so we went as ourselves, but there were a lot of great ideas there.

Our host, taking time out of his day job as a history professor, was a zombie.

Preparing for Hallowe’en

I don’t usually make a big deal about Hallowe’en — in fact, for years, I was one of those people who sat around in the dark at home so that no one would knock on my door. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I haven’t attended a lot of Hallowe’en parties in my adult life.

A few years ago, one couple started inviting me to their Hallowe’en parties. They have an old Victorian house, very traditionally restored and in a dense thicket of trees: very appropriate setting for a spooky night. It’s also a mutual friend’s birthday a few days before, making the celebration for her birthday as well as Hallowe’en. Many people wear costumes that are some sort of visual pun, and three years ago (the last time that the party was held), I wore a half-slip stenciled with all sorts of psychoanalysis-related words (a Freudian slip) and dressed Damir in a t-shirt with the letter “e” stenciled on it (e-male). The friend whose birthday it was happened to have been laid off a few days before, and I suggested that she wear a pink slip, which she not only did, but used it as a way to tell people at the party that she had been canned — quite therapeutic for her, I think.

A short time after that last party, the couple who held the parties split up. She stayed in the house, he moved in with his girlfriend (that’s her faerie illustration on the right), and there was a lengthy and acrimonious battle in spite of the fact that they both had been involved with other people throughout a large part of their marriage. Recently, she moved away to another city with her boyfriend, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband moved back into the house with his girlfriend. Now they’re reinstating the traditional Hallowe’en party. Okay, it might all sound a bit weird, but I quite like them both and plan to attend.

There’s always the question of what to take to someone’s house for a party, and although we’ll likely just take a bottle or wine (or two), I saw some great ideas on Boing Boing: “finger” cookies and a Jello brain (the mold for which you can buy here). They also linked to a great site for making Hallowe’en decorations from tampons — I love the little tampon ghosts, I may have to try a few of those myself.

Staying with friends

One of the great things about the jobs that I used to have, which required a lot of business travel, is that I now have a network of people who I know around the world. Some of them are more friends than just business acquaintances, which has the extra benefit of providing a cheap place to stay when I visit certain cities. I’ve been travelling for the past 8 days to London and southern France, and stayed with friends the whole time, which was great. In a hotel, I would have spent more time hanging out on my own, ordering crappy food from room service and watching bad TV; this way, I had family dinners, pleasant chats and managed to attend two birthday parties.

Of course, there’s always the bits that aren’t quite as convenient. My friends in London are outside the city which creates some logistical issues with the transportation to my business meetings. They also have three small kids, and the spare bedroom is the kid’s playroom; early Thursday morning, a 1-year-old crawled on in and serenaded me on a xylophone. That in turn led me to forget that I had left a pair of panties that I had washed by hand hanging on the back of the bedroom/playroom door, something that I remembered two days later when I was in France. Thong panties, to be precise. Luckily, my friend found them when she was tidying up for the 1-year-old’s birthday party on Saturday, and we had a laugh about it when I returned on Sunday.

This trip was primarily about the conference that I was speaking about in London, and the trip to France was purely to see my friends in Tourouzelle. She’s just starting to sell real estate down there, and it’s very tempting to consider a little cottage in a French village — food and wine are very inexpensive down there, property prices are still pretty reasonable, and the countryside is very pretty. On the other hand, she did hit a wild boar with her car on the way to a property showing the other day, not something that’s likely to happen in downtown Toronto. Unfortunately, she only stunned it in spite of the major damage that it did to the front corner of her car, so there was no wild boar for dinner.

It’s always interesting to stay with another couple, especially one that you don’t see very often, to see the dynamics of their particular coupledom. For example, I’m shocked that the father of three young kids whose wife works can possibly imagine that she’s going to do all the child care as well as all the cooking and housework, although there’s definitely two complicit in that arrangement. I’m also pleasantly surprised at how a couple that used to spar quite openly now seem much closer in the face of some financial setbacks.