Friday, June 24, 2011

Eat here: Drake Summer School

The Drake Hotel is like that slightly smarter, more fashionable best friend: You love hanging with her but sometimes she makes you so jealous you could barf. Full of bright ideas and usually one step ahead of the best trends, the Drake has maintained its vision of being a hotbed for culture, always changing, never resting.
When it first launched (ideally in my neighbourhood), I liked the place but didn't love the food. We'd go for drinks, sometimes drinks would turn into so-so snacks, but in all these years I never once ate in the dining room.
Things took a dramatic turn for the better when Chef Anthony Rose was hired, his love of great ingredients and slightly upscale comfort food translating into a menu of things you want to eat.
Case in point: The brand new Drake Summer School Dining Hall, which launched this week and runs to September 4. Located in the dining room proper, the space has been designed as a cheeky ode to a sort of circa 1940s British boarding school -- think Hogwarts meets Hogtown. Basically, the walls are hung with all sorts of old school photos, trophies, textbooks and other crap, while communal tables look like retrofitted bowling alley lanes slung with comfy chairs and banquettes.
And then there's the food. Cocktails aim high but for me, fell short. Too much kitsch (eg. emptying out juice boxes and refilling them with dribbly sweet vodka-spiked lavender lemonade.) I love a solid theme, but hate sticky fingers. (Go to the bar to get a proper delicious Drake cocktail.)
The menu is a long list of both re-imagined school day favourites and retro classics, including a spectacular creamy tomato alphabet soup, Thousand Islands-kicked Shrimp Louis, buttery mushy peas and a gargantuan two-pound aged Cumbrae's rib steak (suitable for two feasters) that was incredibly cooked and boasted a whiff of smoke (teacher's lounge?)
You'll like Drake Summer School because it's hot, tasty fun, and it's just here during summertime, then it's gone.
Next up for the Drake's Dining Roadshow: Chinatown launches September 8th.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Snack of the Day: Popcorn, Indiana

Though I choose “sweet” over “salty” 85% of the time, there’s something about this Popcorn, Indiana white cheddar popcorn that hits me right in my happy place. Like the bag says, it’s crunchy, crispy, sharp and savoury, all at the same time. It’s the best bagged popcorn I’ve tried, and I cannot. Stop. Eating. It. (Help!)

Friday, June 10, 2011

I left my heart in San Antonio...

The recent launch of the stunning Pearl Brewery complex along San Antonio’s River Walk, anchored by the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) plus the school’s strong focus on the local Latino gastronomic aesthetic have helped give this rich and tasty American food culture the legitimacy it deserves.

Not that it needs a fancy culinary school to lend it legitimacy. But since over 80% of the kitchen workers in the southern states are of Latino descent, this gives them the opportunity to helm kitchens as head chefs with culinary degrees in their back pockets while cooking their own food.

In addition to the Latino-infused CIA, gourmet shops and restaurants like La Gloria (street foods of Mexico), there’s a Saturday Farmers Market in this River Walk extension, which together illustrate how Latin American food has become an important part of the larger American culinary cannon.

When I was speaking at a conference in San Antonio (or as I like to call it, Shvitzy Antonio) earlier this week, I was taken aback by bursts of colour and music everywhere, the kind people and the great food. From our waiter at Luke (star chef John Besh’s first restaurant outside of New Orlean’s), who joked about putting roofies in our French “75” cocktails, to the amazing receptions held at the famed Mi Tierra, and then the closing night event where a smiling group of Brazilian dancers conga lined us from the manicured lawns out onto our waiting river boats, the sweltering heat added even more exotica to this small but proud American city, where the tacos are great, but the margaritas are even better.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Surprise! Top Chef Canada Doesn’t Suck

I don’t know why I was taking it so personally, but I was wracked with worry in the days leading up to the premiere of Top Chef Canada. As a big fan of the American version (and as someone who met with the producer prior to casting to give him some ideas re potential chefs), I cannot believe how good it is. It totally doesn’t suck. No “The Trouble With Tracy” lighting. No canned laughter. Just a great group of mostly talented chefs.

The bigger shocker? A lot of them even have big personalities; showboating and smack-talk included. (How very un-Canadian.)

The hosts are nice facsimiles of their American counterparts, and most of the challenges have been even more interesting than the U.S. ones, including one that had the chefs traipsing around Toronto’s unique ethnic enclaves to learn and cook recipes from another’s culture.

I’ve enjoyed the food of a few of the chefs (in real life), including Connie DeSousa’s, who is truly doing women chefs proud.

I visited Calgary last summer and toured around the city for a day with Connie and her Charcut co-chef/owner John Jackson, and also had a fantastic meal at their restaurant, where they make everything from scratch. During summer the place becomes a veritable pickling and jamming factory, where they can more than 1,000 jars of everything from tuna to berries to peaches and cucumbers. And then they use some of that preserved fruit in their ever-changing, dead simple, crazy delicious, no-bake cheesecake. I wonder if Connie will break it out if there’s ever a quick-fire dessert challenge.

Charcut's no-bake cheesecake

(serves 4)


3/4 cup (175 mL) heavy cream

1/4 cup (50 mL) icing sugar

seeds from half a vanilla bean

1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) pure vanilla extract

1 1/4 cups (300 mL) cream cheese

1/4 cup (50 mL) graham crackers (crumbs)

1/2 cup (125 mL) seasonal fruit, fresh or preserved


1. In a bowl, whip heavy cream, icing sugar, vanilla seeds and vanilla extract until thick, then put it in the fridge.

2. In another bowl, beat cream cheese using whip attachment, frequently scraping down bowl until there are no lumps. Then fold whipping cream mixture into cream cheese.

3. Layer jam jars with graham crumbs, cheesecake filling and fruit.