Cover photo from Taste of Maclean's Dining Series website

You can really taste the Maclean

So there’s some new thing called Taste Of Maclean’s Dining Series. Yes, that Maclean’s. Anyway, it’s a series of dinners at great restaurants in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, hosted by excellent sommeliers, with Australian wines poured at each. We attended the Toronto event last night at Nota Bene.

The hosts

Jacob Richler mumbled his way through hosting duties. David Lee is an amazing chef…let him speak with his food, don’t drag the poor guy out to talk about it. John Szabo should have “Wine Bard” on his business cards. Seriously, after hearing him speak about Australian wine regions I want very badly to go back.

The menu

Wolf Blass Gold Label Adelaide Hills Sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay 2011; Annie’s Lane Clare Valley Riesling 2013

NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER with Ataulfo mango, cashew milk, wakame, chili mint chutney
Wolf Blass Gold Label Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2013

QUEBEC DUCK BREAST “PASTRAMI” with Lennox Farm rhubarb compôte, honeyed Cookstown sunchokes, pumpkin seeds
Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

“TONGUE N’ CHEEK”: PERTH COUNTY BEEF CHEEK & CONFIT VEAL TONGUE with squash & jicama salsa, sweet English peas, smashed potato, Cotija cheese
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2011

ARTISANAL CHEESES: Picobello (cow’s milk, Holland); Grey Owl (goat’s milk, Quebec); Blue d’Elizabeth (cow’s milk, Quebec) with wildflower honey, lavash seed crackers
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2011

DESSERT: salted caramel truffles; shaved almond biscotti; chocolate corn nuts

PORT: Penfolds Grandfather Rare Tawny

The verdict

THE FOOD: the lobster was fine. The beef cheek was very good, though Nellie didn’t like it. The veal tongue wasn’t for me; luckily I had Nellie’s extra beef cheek. The cheese were excellent. The duck, though, was SPECTACULAR.

THE WINE: the whites were decent, but just decent. The Wynn’s is, indeed, an excellent cab for the money. Both Penfolds were very good. But that port…good lort. That’s right, I said lort. Good lort. That port.

THE EVENT: good, and Szabo on his own is almost worth the price of admission, but I’m disappointed that with some kind of Australian wine association sponsoring (the name is Google-proof, alas) what they presented were Australian wine brands so well-known in Canada they’re practically clichés. Why not bring the 389 and Coonawarra to draw people in but then feature some lesser-known wineries? Not so small the LCBO can’t bring them in, but not Wolf Blass fucking Gold either.


Cover photo from Taste of Maclean’s Dining Series website

"We are not swans. We are sharks."

I’m always conflicted about the Reuben sandwich. It always seems like a good idea, all the rye bread and corned beef and swiss cheese, and then all of a sudden…sauerkraut. Ugh…whose #@&% idea was that?!? It doesn’t ruin the whole experience. It just dampens the rest of the tasty flavours.

The past few days have been like a Reuben. On Wednesday we saw Up In The Air (imdb | rotten tomatoes) which was excellent, and deserves all the hype. George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga (my girlfriend du jour) were all great in their roles. Highly recommended, if you haven’t seen it yet.

On New Year’s Eve we returned to Nota Bene for dinner, as we were so impressed by our first visit (about a year ag0). Two things went wrong before we even got there: I finally succumbed to this cold I’ve been fighting off for weeks, and we had FAR too big a lunch at Terroni. Still, I was excited to go. Last time we both enjoyed all three of our courses and the service was outstanding. This time…well, I can’t be sure if things have gone downhill, or if it was just down to being New Year’s Eve. My lobster bisque was just okay and my main (pulled suckling pig) should have been better than it was, even after I realized I was eating blood sausage with it. Nellie’s starter was good (it was the same pasta she had last time) but her chicken was…well, a giant slab of chicken. The molten chocolate cake & Grand Marnier ice cream we had for dessert was solid, if unremarkable. Really, though, the thing that shocked me the most was the difference in service. From the start we felt we were being rushed…asked for our orders when we’d barely sat down, drinks showing up when the last ones were less than half drunk, and so on. We asked for a recommendation from the sommelier; whoever we got wasn’t the sommelier, but someone who seemed to know less about wine than we did. Merlot? Yeah, no, we don’t want merlot, thanks. What pissed us off the most was this: since we had a fair amount of wine to go with the chocolate dessert we ordered glasses of dessert wine for after that final course. Instead, they bought the dessert wine while we still had half our dessert and nearly a full glass of pinot each. I get it, it was New Year’s Eve and they were trying to turn over the table, but it’s not the kind of treatment I’d expect from Nota Bene.

On New Year’s Day (happy 2010, by the way!) I dragged my sick ass out of the condo because there was no way I’d miss the chance to see Avatar (imdb | rotten tomatoes) in IMAX/3D.  Wow…it was worth the hour standing in line. It took me a while to adjust to the 3D glasses, but my god. Just incredible. Seeing little plants floating in front of me, feeling vertigo as the camera looked down off a cliff, getting nearly airsick as we flew through a canyon. The movie itself wasn’t anything special or new, but if that movie doesn’t win every single visual effect Oscar, then something is drastically wrong.

We spent the rest of yesterday (and today, so far) sitting on the couch and watching movies (Lions For Lambs and The Watchmen) and playing Mario Kart Wii.

Pretty good couple of days. Too bad about the stupid sauerkraut.

Note well

Friday night I thanked Nellie for putting up with four years of MBA nonsense by taking her to dinner at Nota Bene (not that a meal should cover it, but she’s easily bought off). It was our first time, and we were anxious to try it to feel the contrast with David Lee’s other restaurant Splendido. Which we loved. Duh.

We arrived early to have a drink at the bar. Best way to start the night off right for patrons: make their first drinks big ones. My Oban on the rocks was enough for two, and Nellie’s glass of Cabernet Franc was a solid one. Just as we were wondering if we should check in for our table, a server collected us and brought us into the main room. Both it and the bar are really quite nice, a good mix of polish and vibrancy.

Before I get to the food, I have to mention the service. At Splendido the service is as much part of the meal as the food, and they take care of you in every way possible. Nota Bene was slightly different: while the service was still excellent, it seemed like they were trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible, and let the food speak for itself. Servers, the sommelier, plate runners…we must have had a dozen different people come by the table, and never for more than a few seconds. If someone saw our wine glasses were half empty, they’d stop and pour, even if they’d never been to our table. The sommelier picked up my card and brought it to the station. It never felt rushed (the meal was 2.5 hours; how could it?), just efficient. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I appreciated it.

Now then, the food: I had the mozzarella di bufala w/ sundried tomato, grilled radicchio & olive oil to start; the grilled rock cornish hen w/ rosemary, lemon & bacon; and the flourless chocolate fudge cake w/ dulce de leche ice cream for dessert. Nellie had the mafalda pasta w/ truffle-scented mushroom bolognese to start; the mediterranean sea bass w/ forest mushrooms, potato gnocchi & basil pesto; and the small cheese plate (and Tawny port) for dessert. Well, she thought it would be small, but they brought three fairly large hunks of cheese for her enjoyment. One was roquefort, one beemster extra old and the other was…well, she can’t remember, but she seemed happy with it. This whole affair (after my initial glass of Okanagan Meritage and Nellie’s glass of Prosecco) was washed down with a bottle of 2007 Tenuta Maiolo Campania Lugana, a recommendation from the sommelier, and one that worked quite well.

The food was, as expected, exquisite. I can’t speak for Nellie, but my appetizer was delicious, my main was perfectly sized and seasoned (bacon + green beans…who knew that combination worked?!?) and my dessert was absurd. All things considered — food, service and the relatively low cost compared to similar dining experiences I’ve had elsewhere — it was a fantastic meal, one I’d like to repeat.