Friday, December 19, 2008

Titillating Tales from Toronto

Can a restaurant possibly be worth getting yelled at by ornery subway workers and passerbys, then trudging almost a mile through two feet of snow during a blizzard? After all that, the place had better be stellar. No, it needs to be absolutely, unabashedly phenomenal. And in a northern suburb of Toronto, nestled among a labyrinth of modern office buildings lays a quaint, cozy cottage that houses the absolutely, unabashedly phenomenal French restaurant, Auberge du Pommier.

It all started on a day that called for a blizzard so bad that the airlines cancelled all their flights, leaving travelers stranded in a city that was -14 degrees celsius outside. Not willing to risk driving or walking around in the frigid air, for that matter, my coworkers and I decided we needed to stay close to home base. A work associate had told us about a French place that was relatively close by. We had tried to book a reservation the day before, but to no avail. They had a full house. Given the bad snowstorm, we gave it another try. We got in. The hotel front desk told us the subway line would take us straight from the hotel to the restaurant with less than 30 seconds actually spent outside. It was just the next stop. Right on. Can't get better than that.

Down we went into the bowels of the Toronto subway system. I left my hat and gloves in my hotel room - I mean, 30 seconds outside? I can take it. First things first - we had to get train tickets. We went to the fare booth. Now, follow me on this. There were three of us going there and back. That means 6 tokens. The guy in the booth was huge and gruff. Almost immediately, he started barking at me. "You can only get 5 tokens on discount." Okay, so here's the money for the tokens. After I collected the 5 tokens, I gave him money for a 6th, and he bellowed, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU NEED THAT FOR? I JUST GAVE YOU 5 TOKENS!" I tried to explain that we needed 6 tokens for the evening, and he not only couldn't understand it, he was getting more agitated by the minute. He was definitely a few crayons short of a full box, and I was ready to pull out a few more before my friend pushed me through the turnstile, waving at the guy sarcastically. The thing is, he was treating me like I was a stupid woman. I was shocked by the disrespect and unwilling to let it go without his recognizing the inappropriate behavior.

We got off the next stop, even though the map I had reviewed gave me the impression I had to get off two stops over. But hey, the hotel folks know what they're talking about, right? Wrong. We got out of the subway station entering the blizzard that stopped everything that day. We headed south, and I just didn't like the scene, so we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. While asking the attendants, a lumberjack-looking Canadian asked where we were trying to go. I told him and he asked, "Are you walking or driving?" I started to explain that we had just gotten off the subway, trying to offer up the option of getting back on, but he just couldn't bother with that. He interrupted, "Right now, are you walking or driving?" Uh, technically, we're walking. So he sent us on a "10-minute walk" south. The thing is, he was treating me like I was a stupid woman. I was shocked by the disrespect and, oh my gosh, didn't this just happen to me? What is WITH these Canadians?

That "10-minute walk" ended up being akin to a snow hike, for which we were woefully unprepared. We had to cross a HIGHWAY in 3-ft drifts of snow. Snow was getting into our shoes, our pants were wet, my hands were about to fall off, and thank goodness I have thick hair protecting my head. At the same time, though, there was a childlike wonder and fondness about being out in the cold weather, forging a new path in the fresh snow, realizing that if I "shoosh" just so, I can go faster. So we shooshed our way down the hill, parallel to the busy road, laughing and giggling all the way. Really, we were. When we came up on the restaurant, we busted through the doors looking like wet cats. Meanwhile, other patrons, in their sequined dresses and jacket and ties were eyeing us up and down in disdain. We didn't care. We were just glad to be inside somewhere. As Patrick said, "At this point, I think I'd be happy with TGIFs."

The great thing is that the staff didn't care either. They were pleased that we made it there all right after I panted into my cell phone, 15 minutes into the 10-minute walk, that we would be late because we missed the stop and were busy cross-country skiing without any skis. "We'll be waiting for you," they said. Lovely.

We were seated in a cozy, classic ivory-paletted room, tastefully decorated with a seasonal motif, complete with a roaring fire. Wet pants and all, the ambience was a great start to the respite we all deserved after our Arctic journey. The servers placed three little white ceramic glasses in front of us. A mise en bouche, or pre-starter. "Compliments of the Chef. Creamy blah blah blah with some crab meat stirred in." Hm. No spoons. What do we do with this? "Excuse me, do we need spoons with this?" "Nah, just shoot it back!" Yeah, man. My kind of place.

I kicked it back, and the exquisite warm creaminess washed away any of the lingering cold in my bones. The second shot back allowed for the sweet crab meat to dance with the savory cream soup, and I had to close my eyes for a second. There are some folks who need a hard drink to warm up the body. Me? I'll take this "Creamy crab meat blah blah blah" from Chef Jason Bangerter any day.

Our server was a young man who was attractive in a "boy next door" kind of way. He had the kind of looks that you're sure you know him from somewhere. Maybe a TV show as an extra? Or as Pat suggested, "a clothing catalog?" His knowledge of the menu and the wines was vast and impressive, and he managed to accentuate it with humility and grace. He was the perfect server, and set the standard by which I shall evaluate all other servers at fine dining establishments in the future.

Based on his recommendations, I ordered the Cappuccino de Truffe, Chef Bangerter's special of pureed mushroom and truffle soup with velvet shank cream, Pamesan biscuit, and a sliver of aged Parmesan. True to the name, it came in a classic French coffee mug with the shank cream layered on top of a beautifully viscous mushroom blend. The richness and earthiness of the dish was just insane. The little sliver of Parmesan must be decades old. It had the grittiness and pungency reserved only for the best of its kind. My enjoyment of that little morsel of cheese was indicative of how I would savor the rest of the meal - that every little bite deserved to be truly tasted and acknowledged.

For my entree, I ordered the Veau Poche, or Poached Veal. As we ordered our meal, we asked for a wine recommendation. I generally like big reds of the new world, but veal? Mushroom soup? Nothing too heavy, please, I would really like to taste the food. He said he would think on it - he was sure something would come up. A few minutes later, he came back with a bottle in hand. A Pinot Noir from Chile called Cartegena. Now, I probably dislike Pinot Noir most of all. It's the most inconsistent because, as a shirt I have that describes the grape, it's "mysterious, seductive, and difficult to manage." But I could tell our server was in the know - and it was within our budget - so we went with it. The first sip started very fruity, with a hint of sweetness and ended with a bite at the end that let you know who was boss. I was surprised by this, but the server said, "Ah, but this wine will change all throughout the meal." I couldn't deny, though, that it was a good wine with an earthiness that complemented the mushroom theme that veined its way throughout all of our chosen meals.

The veal was slowly poached in milk to preserve its tenderness. If you cook meat too quickly, at too high a heat, it will seize up, and voila! The densest, most fibrous meat you'd ever have the pleasure of biting into. This veal, on the other hand, passed the fork test. It was so tender, it almost made you wonder if you were eating meat at all. Along with the veal came sweetbreads dredged in Japanese panko crumbs and fried until crisp. Sweetbreads are the glands within the neck of the animal. It's very neutral in flavor, unlike the liver or kidney. Amazingly, and I don't generally use this descriptor, they tasted just like a chicken McNugget. Underneath the veal was truffled mashed potatoes and braised wild mushrooms. All of this was covered in a Perigueux sauce - a brown sauce made with Madeira. When I combined the potatoes with the mushrooms with a bite of the veal and the sauce, it was pure heaven. I relished in the melding of all the flavors that frolicked in my mouth, I just couldn't believe someone could put all this together to extract that kind of wonderment. Then if you combine this with the wine that was perfectly paired? What's better than heaven?

After the meal, we all looked at the half glass of wine we had left in our possession. Our SuperServer suggested some cheese as a good complement to the wine and a perfect ending to the meal. Delice de Bourgogne, he said. It's a creamy, decadent triple creme cheese, served with raw honey and toasted baguette slices. If there was ever the perfect combination of tastes, I would have said it was the veal dinner the chef had created as the entree. But alas, no, it's this cheese with the honey. Even the crunch of the toasted baguette lent a texture that would have been missing had it not come to the party, because a party it was, indeed. We scraped at the plate, not wanting anything to go to waste.

After we paid, the wonderful servers of the Auberge du Pommier called the security guards in the office building just behind the restaurant. They would let us into the building and lead us to the subway tunnel that would take us back to the hotel. After that incredible meal that was fit for a queen, we spent a mere 30-seconds outside before we were whisked away in our subway chariot. Because at that very moment, and even now, as I remember this sumptuous meal, I felt like royalty.

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