Getting all steamed up over fish

When I lived in Taipei, Taiwan I discovered steamed fish. It seemed to be on every restaurant menu and highlighted the divine, subtle flavours of fish.

IMG_6932The hallmark of this dish is its simplicity. Any klutz in the kitchen can do it. That’s because steaming is a moist and gentle way to cook the piscine population and even if you steam a little longer than necessary, it won’t (OMG!) dry it out.

Start with a steamer. If you don’t have one, make the trek to the best housewares shop in town: Tap Phong Trading (360 Spadina Ave, (416) 977-6364) where you’ll find many options, from the standard bamboo baskets that fit inside a wok or over a pot, to a full stainless ensemble with pot, stackable trays and cover. The latter is easier to clean and less prone to mildew. Many rice and slow cookers also convert into steamers. No matter the format, make sure you find a steamer that is wide enough to accommodate a pie plate since the fish cooks in sauce and steamer trays are full of holes.

IMG_5109Next step: choose your fish. Salmon, halibut, tilapia, sea bass, cod, haddock, sole… you name it. Anything can work from inexpensive, supermarket frozen fillets to local fresh findings. Both Bill’s Lobster (599 Gerrard St. E; 416-778-0943) and Hooked (888 Queen St. E; 416-828-1861) are walking distance from my kitchen and both offer excellent fish and service. While you are there, nab a recipe or tip from them. Bill’s wife has plenty of quick culinary ideas, as do all the staff at Hooked who use the tagline “we are chefs, first.”

You’ll need to access your inner chef when slicing the fresh ginger. Go thin. Once you’ve peeled a three-inch piece, cut lengthwise into paper-thin slices then stack them together and slice into thin matchsticks.

Mirin makes this dish. It’s a Japanese rice wine similar to sake, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content. Most Asian food stores sell it. In a pinch, you can use sherry, cooking wine, Vermouth or dry white wine but add half a teaspoon of granulated sugar to the cooking liquid if you do.IMG_5110

Simple steamed rice is the perfect compliment. The fish steams up a delicious sauce of its own that will soak into the rice. Stir-fried baby Shanghai bok choy rounds out the meal perfectly.

IMG_6927Chinese-style steamed fish

1 lb (450 gm) fresh or (defrosted) frozen sea bass, cod, salmon, haddock, tilapia or halibut fillet, cut into 4 pieces

Sauce:

1 + 1/2 TBS black bean and garlic sauce OR 2 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp sesame oil

2 TBS water

2 TBS Japanese mirin

1 three-inch knob ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into matchsticks

3 green onion OR 1 small leek, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 TBS fresh coriander, chopped

Mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Place fillets in a heat-proof dish that will fit inside an aluminum or bamboo steamer. (Or, create your own steamer by placing a rack set in a large skillet.)

Using a spoon, place an equal amount of sauce on each fillet. Sprinkle over with ginger matchsticks and green onions or leek.

Bring several inches of water to boil in the steamer. Wearing oven gloves, place the dish with fillets into the steamer.

Cover and steam 8-10 minutes on high, or until the fish flakes at the touch of a fork and is opaque in the middle.

Garnish with fresh coriander and serve over steamed rice.

Make it a pie, mate!

I like to hang with like-minded individuals. Translation: all my friends live to eat – ravenously!  Including my book club buddy and fellow running mate Glennis, who dropped this bomb last week, “My Kiwi friends just opened a bakery.”

She barely finished her sentence before we hightailed over to Wiseys Pies & Bakehouse (874 Eglinton Ave. E. (416) 423-9473).IMG_8672

Truth be told, my expectations were low. I’ve never been a fan of savoury pies (i.e. chicken pot pie), knew nothing about New Zealand baking and was dubious that anything other than speeding TTC buses and barreling semi-trucks could be found at the corner of Eglinton and Laird.

But one look at their spiffy logo and expansive storefront windows and I knew Wiseys meant business (despite opening just a month ago). Glennis and I walked in to their bustling bakery/cafe and were mesmerized by the bounty of it all.

IMG_8640Unlike many independent coffee shops in Riverdale that stock the same old muffins, croissants and scones, Wiseys bakes everything in house and much of it with true Kiwi flare.

Take the Sally Lunn Bun. It’s a sweet dough bun full of sultanas about the size of a personal pizza that’s covered in white or pink icing then dipped in coconut.

“A bunch of blokes will take that out for a smoker,” explains owner/head baker Gary Wise. In other words, this bun is fit for a crowd and enjoyed during work breaks in New Zealand.

Gary, Glennis and Karen.

Gary, Glennis and Karen.

Then there are the pies. As ubiquitous as fish and chips in New Zealand, Wiseys “hand held” take-away personal pies drew a lineup outside their doors at their June 28 opening. A lineup of ex-pat New Zealanders, that is, prompting Gary to shout out “Let the Canadians try one!”

Wife and co-owner Karen Kriese-Wise likes to pull out Wiseys Pie Chart for the uninitiated. IMG_8662Each pie, whether it’s mince (ground beef), steak and mushroom, butter chicken or potato top (there are currently a dozen different varieties) has a unique slash in the pastry to signify what’s underneath. Hand-held pies cost $5 or $6 and family-size, large pies $17.

I chose Thai Green Curry Chicken IMG_8663and fell in love the first mouthful. Emerging warm from the heated display case, my pie had a crisp, golden crust and its rich coconut chicken curry filling made for a spicy, breakfast pick me up.

Glennis ordered the raspberry cream bun and dug into its pillowy, sweetness laden with freshly whipped cream and jam. IMG_8660

Not a coffee drinker, Glennis was lured by Karen’s offer of another Kiwi-invention, a “flat white” which straddles the line between latte and cappuccino. Wiseys use beans from Pilot Coffee Roasters (Tasting Bar at 50 Wagstaff Drive) not only because they are excellent but surprise, fellow New Zealanders are at the helm there, too.

Glennis is picky about the coffee she doesn’t usually drink and loved her flat white, as did I. It didn’t hurt that a crispy little chocolatey cookie comes on every saucer. There’s an extensive list of coffees on the Wiseys’ blackboard including a Long Black, which is Kiwi for an “Americano” and if you’re bringing children, it’s nice to know you can order a “Fluffy” which is frothy hot milk topped with chocolate or sprinkles.IMG_8666

Translations don’t end there. Try an Afghan Biscuit, which is a brown, crisp, cocoa-rich cookie full of corn flakes, or a Lamington. Baker Gary likes to “dress up” his Lamingtons “the posh way” splitting a round sponge cake into two thin layers, filling it with whipped cream, jam and strawberries then blanketing with chocolate ganache.

Chelsea Bun and Saskatoon Berry and White Chocolate Scone

Chelsea Bun and Saskatoon Berry and White Chocolate Scone

Wise is full of ideas and has plans to introduce more to the bakery. He’s got three new pies in the works: Lamb and kumera (the Maori word for sweet potato), beef and dark ale, plus The Popeye: beef, spinach and potato mash. Also coming are fresh artisan breads, sandwiches and a Pavlova for Christmas. He might even bake up some ANSACs, named for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and developed during World War I.

I’ll leave that one to your imagination, or reconnoiter your way over to Wiseys for a live tour.

A little piece of T.O. Riviera

We live on a lake but you’d never know it. Torontonians have been robbed of their waterside and there’s no time we feel this stronger than in the heat of summer.

But there’s a culinary solution called The Rectory Café.

IMG_7817First bonus: You get to take a boat there. The Rectory Cafe is situated on Ward’s Island and the gale of a great lake will rush through your hair if you stand on the deck.

Second bonus: You’ll forget you live in Canada’s biggest metropolis and may feel a little Riviera coming on as you settle into the Rectory’s spacious patio and point your chair towards the blue, blue, blue of the lake view beyond.

That’s what we did on a recent lazy Sunday afternoon. We were on our bikes and took the first ferry. No matter that it went to Centre Island. It was a 10 or 15-minute ride past all those Centreville shenanigans to Ward’s idyllic southern boardwalk. Watch for the sign, turn left and enjoy the cafe’s regal lakeside entrance.

IMG_7770No matter if you arrive at their 11 a.m. opening or mid-afternoon, the Rectory’s kitchen keeps the  place hopping all afternoon long and into the evening — especially if the weather is cooperating.

Thanks to a little inside info from the staff, we started with a tall glass of Barking Squirrel amber lager IMG_7768 produced by Toronto microbrewery Hop City. It’s no secret that I love beer and the squirrel really satisfies with its rich burnt orange colour and what Hop City calls “noble hop aroma”.

We paired this with the perfect app: Char Grilled Calamari ($12) draped in a lemon oil and scallion thyme aioli. The calamari was perky and tender to the bite, its inherently bland personality enlivened by a perfectly piquant sauce.

IMG_7783Next, the day’s “special”. If you’re a devotee of Anthony Bourdain, you won’t go near a restaurant special but at the Rectory, it’s a must. This special was so fine, I have to apologize in advance that it’s not on the menu. Imagine the world’s best fish taco: juicy morsels of spice-rubbed Basa fillet topped with caramelized onions and salsa verde on a simple wheat taco softer than a cloud.

David opted for the Steamed Asparagus and Goat Cheese Omelette ($14) IMG_7786and was not disappointed. Okay, omelettes seem simple but can be a disastrous, eggy mess if handled poorly. This one was fluffy, light, and turned by an angel.

I considered dipping a straw into the Rectory’s trendiest drink for dessert. But I was hesitant… did I really want to sip from a tiny can of Italian sparkling wine made from some royals in Austria that have hit the drinking waves with their Prinz Max Emanuel Thurn und Taxis sparkling bianco?

Bucking the trend, I ordered cake instead. The Rectory has a long list of desserts but the best are always, again, the specials made in house by pastry chef Sergio. Even the house-brewed coffee is above average. The only thing that doesn’t seem to work at the Rectory is a rainy day. Most of the seating is al fresco.

That’s why I love their website http://therectorycafe.com/ where you can plug into the weather forecast and the ferry schedule instantly to plan a little Riviera in Hogtown this summer season.

Breaking West Coast Bread

There are few things I like to do more than visit bakeries. Good bakeries, that is. And I knew Victoria, B.C. was going to oblige.

It all started with this faction of folks I know who all either live in Victoria, or wish they did. They are all foodies. And they keep bragging about Victoria’s great coffee and artisanal bread.

IMG_8339Fol Epi (398 Harbour Rd #101,
(250) 477-8882) was on the top of their list. The French name was unforgettable. Fol means “wild” and epi is a classic, long and narrow loaf shaped like a branching wheat stalk.

“Look for the silo,” advised Victoria resident Kent Green when he heard I was coming into town. “They grind their own flour!”

I never found the silo but I did see the huge stone grinder through the window of this unique destination. Fol Epi is located at Dockside Green, a 15-acre sustainable, LEED-certified development in Victoria’s inner harbour and the perfect venue for this organic bakery where baker Cliff Leir has installed not only a flour mill, but a wood-fired oven.IMG_8338

He’s using only two, organic, Canadian-grown grains at his bakery – Red Fife and rye – yet outputting a large variety of breads including the namesake epi, baguette, boule, rye round, whole wheat, and ciabatta. Not only is Leir grinding flour daily but he is also sifting his Red Fife into a more refined flour suitable for the baguette and ciabatta.IMG_8406Not surprisingly, this chef is a member of Slow Food Canada and while “artisanal” is a label many use with abandon – Leir defines the term. His breads are all leavened with wild yeast (aka natural starter) and often take up to 24 hours to ferment. Humidity and temperature affect these breads immensely. Factor in the fluctuating heat of a wood-fired oven and this becomes an ultra-challenging place to bake consistently high-quality loaves.

I’d say Leir revels in it. I spoke to him briefly when visiting Fol Epi this month and when I suggested his bread baking routine presented a few hurdles, there was a knowing twinkle in his eyes. Then he simply smiled and nodded.

He does, however, have a very modern four-deck electric baker’s oven where he produces a variety of high-selling pastries, from croissants, to canel cakes to macaroons.

Then there’s the rich aroma of Caffe Fantastico wafting through his bakery. He shares the building with one of Victoria’s top espresso shops, where they roast their own beans, of course!

IMG_8310Coffee and pastries go hand in hand. And that same special synchronicity happens in “Vic West” at Fry’s Red Wheat Bakery (416 Craigflower Rd; (250) 590-5727 ). Equipped with a cafe latte from The Spiral Coffee Co. next door, I ambled into this quaint little bakery owned by Byron Fry who started his bread-baking career with a mobile oven, visiting farmers’ markets. In 2012, he finally settled and opened this shop only to learn that in 1897 his great grandfather had established a bakery right across the street. In tribute, Fry uses his family’s historical logo and name. And he doesn’t veer too widely from the artisanal methods employed more than a century ago.IMG_8315

Like Fol Epi, he bakes out of a wood-fired oven that he had custom built on the site. He also uses organic grains, heirloom wheat and natural starters to create loaves that are rich in taste, such as IMG_8311Whole Wheat Country, German Rye, Pain Rustique, Cinnamon Raisin Rye, Flax Rye, Sunflower 100% Rye, Focaccia (Olive-Rosemary-Roasted Garlic) and baguettes.

I tasted the pain rustique and was floored. This bread contains 30 per cent whole grains and has a faintly sour, layered flavour with a wide open crumb. The cinnamon raisin rye travelled back to Toronto with me and continued to satisfy for days, with its rich rye flavour and raisin-studded interior. Fry bakes his loaves dark, resulting in a caramelized, crackly crust flecked with deliciously burnt notes.IMG_8340

I wish I had tasted his pain au chocolate. His Tumbler account reads: “You can see the gorgeous layers created by this amazing butter from Jerseyland organic milk produced by 100 Jersey cows in Grandforks B.C .where the farmers know all their cows by name, not number. We are the only bakery in town using this butter and it makes all the difference!”

That’s something to shout about.

And me, I’ll be pouting in despair until my return back to Victoria where I plan to visit five more artisanal bakeries on my list.

 

I want a cardamom bun!

IMG_8452It wasn’t until Instagram that I came to know a cardamom bun. Not only is this pastry fun to repeat rapidly as a culinary tongue twister but it’s drop dead gorgeous, too. I found myself staring longingly at the photos posted by Bakery 47 in Glasgow, Scotland considering the sweet mystery of it all.

I wanted it.

I needed it.

I would serve it at teatime (the way those Scots must?) in all its cardamom glory. I could smell its perfume wafting through the bun’s heart and soul intoxicating each of its dainty, egg-brushed strands all buried in sugar and butter.

Something about its knots and twists kept me happily delusional until one day I shook myself into action and created my own, using my basic challah recipe as the core.

IMG_8442

 

Mado’s Basic Challah Dough

It’s basic because you can use it in various ways, from cardamom to cinnamon to hamburger buns to challah loaves yet it veers from the norm with the addition of whole wheat flour and the development of a sponge starter, first.

Sponge Starter

2 cups warm milk

¼ cup canola oil

¼ cup liquid honey

2 eggs

2 cups organic, unbleached all purpose flour (I like President’s Choice)

1 cup Red Fife whole wheat flour

1 tsp SAF instant yeast

In the bowl of a large KitchenAid mixer, using the whisk attachment, combine milk, oil, honey and eggs until smooth. Add flours and yeast and mix until combined, using the paddle attachment. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for two hours until the mixture is bubbly and puffing up about 20 per cent. (With a little imagination, the surface should look like a sponge.) If desired, you can make the sponge ahead and store in the fridge up to one day in advance.

3-4 cups organic, unbleached all purpose flour

1 tbsp kosher salt

Remove wrap and add 3 cups of the flour to the bowl and salt. Using the dough hook, mix the flour for about 6 minutes at med-low speed, gradually adding more flour, tablespoon by tablespoon until the dough no longer pools at the bottom of the bowl and gathers around the dough hook.

Transfer the dough to an oiled, large bowl or dough container, cover and let rise at room temperature for 2 hours or until doubled.

IMG_8443

Make the filling

1 stick room temperature unsalted butter

½ cup packed brown sugar

2 tbsp ground cardamom

In a small bowl, mash the butter, sugar and cardamom until smooth.

Once the dough has finished its first, two-hour rise, transfer to a lightly floured surface, shape into a loose ball and leave to rest 5 min. Dust with flour and roll out to a 24 in x 24 in square. Spread the filling evenly over rolled out dough, then fold in half, pulling the far edge toward you to cover the butter mixture.

Cut two thin (1/4 in) slices of the dough, gently twist together and lengthen like a rope then knot. Place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and cover with a tea towel. Repeat. Preheat oven to 400F and let rise, covered with a tea towel or oiled plastic wrap for 45 min.

Baste with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse or pearl sugar. Bake for 15-18 min, or until golden brown, turning baking sheets halfway through the bake.

Makes 24 buns.

 

Deconstructing Chianti

“The baron is standing right over my left shoulder,” enthuses the man offering me a glass of wine, nodding his head in that direction. “I’m not kidding. A real baron.”

IMG_7626

Sidekick on the left, Baron Francesco Ricasoli on the right.

So I look. I have to. I am drinking the man’s homegrown Chianti and am curious what a real baron looks like. Suave and impeccably attired, he’s smiling ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t in his shoes?

Baron Francesco Ricasoli is thirty-second in a long line of barons overseeing Ricasoli estate in Tuscany, the essential birthplace of Chianti where his forebearer Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the first modern Sangiovese-based Chianti recipe in the 1800s. (I’m not sure if this happened before or after Bettino became Italy’s second prime minister, but do know his governmental office shows just how seriously Italians take their wine).

I met the present-day Baron Francesco Ricasoli at the Canadian unveiling of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione on June 16 at The Carlu and planned to take this wine tasting as seriously as a wine-drinking journalist can. I was up for the slow amble… table to luxurious table, tasting endless glasses of voluptuous Italian red wines. I took notes. I asked questions. And I leaned into the shiny, silver spittoons IMG_7630with grace and feigned expertise, all the while knowing I’d  rely heavily on a certain wine guy once back in front of my computer, writing this piece.

P1010701

Wine Guy Randy Hodge

In my books, nobody knows wine better than Randy Hodge. He will tell you the contrary, but that’s just part of his charm. Randy is all about enjoying wine and accepting personal preferences.

Like mine.

Randy and I both knew I had a grudge against Chianti. Turns out the first glass I met didn’t appeal and I’d never given another one a chance – until The Carlu wine tasting where every single drop went down like pure elixir.

It didn’t hurt that I was sampling Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which in wine-speak means top-rung. Most of the bottles I tasted retailed for no less that $50. But honestly, after my second or third sampling, I couldn’t articulate a single, sober tasting note or fact.IMG_7625

For Chianti is more than just an intoxicating drink. It’s a confusing and complicated puzzle, unless Randy is leading the tour.

He says the first thing to understand is the terroir of this wine. All Chianti hails from Tuscany and is sanctioned as a DOCDenominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin). In other words, wine makers can’t put “Chianti” on the label unless it comes from the designated area (parceled into seven sub-regions, of course). Strictly defined, regular Chianti must contain no less than 75% Sangiovese (a red) but can contain white grapes in the remaining 25%.

The specs don’t end there. Up one notch from regular, old Chianti is Chianti Classico, with its black rooster logo and yet another award: it gets a “G” on the end of its DOC making for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) pointing to a smaller, higher quality regional area. The Chianti Classico consortium currently rules, I mean, stipulates that Chianti Classico must contain no less than 80% Sangiovese grape (and rules out white in the mix, calling for red grapes only in the other 20 %)  which explains those “bright red cherry flavours” Randy says dominate this medium-bodied wine.

Chianti Riserva, he says, is another story. The best comes from Classico and Rufina sub-regions and is often aged in oak barrels from an estate’s best grapes. These tend to be fuller in body and richer in flavour. Think black cherry.

And if all these notes, regions and classifications aren’t enough to make non-wine-geeks quit their wine education, Randy jokes that the “Chianti Mafia” have upped the ante with Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which goes another step, aging up to 30 months, versus the Riserva’s measly 24.

IMG_7622Forget the rules and regs.  Have a glass and taste this newcomer for yourself!  I can heartily recommend the pricey Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico 2010 Sangiovese the baron was pouring. As I savoured its nuance, the baron’s  sidekick giddily pointed at the drawing on the label, bragging “That’s his house, no joking!”

But when I go Chianti shopping on my dime, I’ll stick to Randy’s guidelines. He says reliable producers of Chianti Classico are Fontodi, Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Badia a Coltibuono,  Castello di Querceto and Volpaia. Look for these at Vintages and expect pricing to range from $20-$25. For the economical among us, there are even under $20 bottle such as Rocca di Castagnoli, Valiano, Cennatoio and Lornano.

P1030353But beyond the right bottle is the right food pairing.  Rich, meat infused tomato sauces makes a great match for Chianti’s relative lightness and bright fruitiness. P1030276Shut your eyes tightly and travel to Tuscany on your palate. If visions of wild boar, Pecorino cheese, grilled lamb and forest mushrooms dance before your food-obsessed imagination, nab them. All will make fine companions for this age-old wine that funnily enough, made its first crude debut in a fiasco, or flat bottom carafe woven in straw. Yet nothing about Chianti is a ludicrous failure, especially when a perfect bottle graces your lips and turns a fine meal into an aria.

The Best Dinner Ever

It takes balls or foolhardy abandon to organize an event and call it The Best Dinner Ever. That meant I had to go.

For a good cause, my friend Nora twisted my arm and that of others to attend. We donned sparkly, tight evening wear and put on our heels. We tried to look natural – even a little bored – before stepping on the red carpet that was laid out before the entrance.

It’s not every day you get flashed by paparazzi enroute to dinner.

That was our first clue that this might be the best ever.

Second clue: Glen and Jamie.

IMG_7707

They were our hosts for the night and stood near the entrance to The Chef’s House (215 King St E) glad handing. Glen looks suave enough to be cast as the next 007 Agent. IMG_7746 Jamie plays sidekick. IMG_7745He wears funky, thick-rimmed glasses that barely take your attention from the luxuriant tuft of red hair standing upright and three inches off his head. Both have huge poise and TV-like presence. It didn’t hurt that their faces were plastered on the water bottles. (Note to self: If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, get your face on a water bottle.)

Seconds after a warm handshake with the awesome duo, I was presented a champagne glass shimmering with bubbly Prosecco and topped with a fat, strawberry-slice-floater.IMG_7711

A young server wearing a baby-blue tie and crisp, beige shirt held steady both the tray and his smile as I pointed a camera lens in his direction. A bastion of servers stood in the wings, all wearing silk ties that popped off their uniforms in bubble-gum pink, key-lime green and Dijon-mustard yellow. An über clean stainless-steel, open kitchen sparkled in the background offset by an army of tall, white chef hats huddling about.

Tonight’s venue was anything but under-staffed. The Chef’s House is a training ground for hospitality workers – servers, bartenders, hosts, cooks and dishwashers all put their lessons into motion here. We were their guinea pigs. And this was an apt pairing when raising awareness and funds for The Peer Project.

As newbie chefs-to-be scrambled to plate over a hundred goat cheese soufflé appetizers, IMG_7731equally young-to-the-trade servers brought plates to our table, while others fumbled and squeezed awkwardly around our shoulders to pour Chef House Label Caves Spring chardonnay into our wine glasses. It was a ballet of sorts. Sometimes the pirouettes were graceful and other times, not. Yet none of this deterred the conversation with the young man at my left from being anything less than riveting.

IMG_7744Charlie Lo had a small case of the jitters. He was about to stand up and give a speech to this hundred-dollar-a-seat-audience and tell us his story. Twelve years ago, a Peer Project mentor coached eight-year-old, fatherless Charlie into believing something radically different than anyone or anything was telling him at the time. He told Charlie to believe in himself, to have dreams and to fight for them. That, despite his learning disability and the uninspired words of his middle school teacher who said he wouldn’t amount to anything. That, despite the support and love of his single mom who was fighting breast cancer and was equally vulnerable, newly immigrated to Toronto and not an English speaker.

Charlie’s the kind of guy who will flash you a smile while saying some of the saddest things. He’s got an adorable mannerism of shrugging and squirming about in his shoulders like he’s trying to get out of a straightjacket, then he tosses back his head in relief and you know he’s traded in all that discomfort for a piece of bliss.

It didn’t hurt that Charlie knew just about everyone in the room. Before and after his heartrending speech, our conversation was interrupted incessantly by bear hugs and handshakes from passers-by,

So I turned to vivacious Laurie on my right and listened how she’d crawled off to Energia Athletics on the Danforth in the middle of the night to cycle through her 3 a.m. volunteer shift at Energia’s annual 24-hour Spin-A-Thon to raise thousands for this very cause. She not only believes in The Peer Project enough to spin through the night, Laurie, a psychologist, refers many of her young clients to this non-profit.

Sadly, the wait-list is long – 400 names long – and thus, the need to fundraise and eat The Best Dinner Ever which had moved into the second and most successful course:IMG_7743 seared fillets of sea bream in a tarragon-citrus broth with a tangle of spring veggies.

Not everyone at our table had dined at The Chef’s House before. I go so far back that I remember its previous incarnation on the other side of the street, Siegfried’s Dining Room, a much less glitzy, almost stogy venue where I enjoyed many an inexpensive, yet delicious repast served by students.

But the problem with students is their timetables, course limitations and school rules – two things that can really get in the way of a long, leisurely meal with endless refills of wine and merriment. Once the raffle tickets had come and gone, IMG_7741with happy winners racing to claim gift baskets spilling over with chocolate, wine and Bread by Mado (yes, this is a plug) the rest of us losers sat miffed, ready to drown our sorrows.

The head instructor delivered the bad news by microphone. Chef’s House was closing shop. According to the institution’s curriculum, it was time for the students to tidy up and go home. Luckily the three-piece jazz trio “The Sixth Street Trio” serenaded us with guitar, bass and saxophone as we trailed out the door, saying farewell to Charlie, The Peer Project and a dinner that was the best for many a philanthropic reason.