Gran Cru Deli
A sip of Equinoxe Crozes-Hermitage, startled me with its atypical acidity, savoury notes of olive set off by white pepper. A lovely, quirky, unexpected find. Much like Grand Cru Deli where I tasted this intriguing wine with Master Sommelier and owner Bruce Wallner.
Wallner runs Grand Cru and upstairs the training facility Sommelier Factory for hospitality professionals and keen oenophiles in an appropriate red brick vintage house on Richmond Street West.
Bottles are jammed in on every conceivable horizontal surface. In the eclectic selection, Wallner stocks what he likes to drink leaning from moderate to expensive European wines, many that are biodynamic or natural. These wines are more balanced and reflective of where they are produced, enthuses Wallner. I keep sipping the Equinoxe: it keeps drawing me in with evolving flavours.
I’m like a kid in a vinous candy store. I fossick in the nether corner of the deli and discover a remarkable range of small producer champagnes. Wallner prices wines at or near LCBO levels but charges only a modest flat $18 a bottle corkage. For many wines, he’ll open a full bottle and charge only what you drink. Exploration and education by the glass. Or you can buy bottles to take out.
As I sip my way through remarkable wines I would normally hesitate to order, Wallner drip feeds me wine geekery. (I now know why I prefer Oregon Pinot Willmette Valley from Halton Hills rather than further up or down the valley.) All learning should be this enjoyable. And, there’s food! Chef Sophia Andrade has a petite, interestingly balanced menu. Heavy on snacks and appetizers such as the Spanish style bocadillo sandwich of morcilla sausage with tomatillo, green pepper on a baguette. Or my favourite, grilled octopus lurking under rich black squid ink rice.
Wallner tells me he wants to eliminate the intimidation in wine appreciation and make it open and accessible to all. And that he does. Quirks and all.
Eating out shouldn’t come with a side of guilt or topping of planet wrecking. Most of us know by now that greenhouse tomatoes are an energy and fertilizer black hole. And I won’t even start about the scarce desert water in the jet setting lettuce. Fortunately, there’s no need for recriminations here.
Forget hair-shirt bland seasonal food. The chefs at Richmond Station make local root vegetables sing. Take the salad of Chioggia (candy cane) beet sourced from Cookstown Greens organic farm. Lightly smoked, the beets explode with sweet flavours enhanced with sheep’s milk ricotta from Sheldon Creek. Topped with chef’s ice wine vinegar dressing this is indulgent, and totally unexpected, in the depths of winter.
How do these folks coax such flavour out of root vegetables? Hayden Johnson, one of the owners tells me it’s simple. Use the best regenerative, farmed local produce. He goes on to share that his kitchen taste tests organic and non-organic produce. Organic wins every time. The soil makes the difference and according to Hayden, not all soil is equal. Even the best local regeneratively farmed soil may not suit all crops. That’s why his chefs visit farms to, literally, get their hands dirty. They even have their own one-acre local garden where cows till the land and crops are rotated.
An indigenous Lake Huron fishery supplies Richmond Station’s fish and entire animals, not just choice parts, are butchered in the restaurant, where every part is used. Which is why I’m happily munching on homemade sour dough focaccia and charcuterie from a sharing plate that includes: Summer Sausage, Beef Bresaola and Kantwurst accompanied by fermented pickled root vegetables. Another not to miss platter is their creamy Nicola heirloom potato salad topped with black truffles. These thin skinned slightly floury golden tubers are astonishingly good.
Fortunately, I’ve saved room for probably the tastiest roast duck breast I have ever eaten. Hayden lets me in on their secret. They only use the more tender female ducks. Brined overnight they dry age the breasts for 10 days. The aging delivers an intense flavour and eliminates the typical chewiness. Served with fried cornbread, heritage carrots, carrot puree and a rich coffee and date jus this is indulgent richness.
And what a desert. Sticky toffee pudding with buttermilk ice cream and wildflower honey sauce. Guilt? Well maybe a little, the best sort.
Partway through tasting a dozen or so alcohol free wines, I realized it was pointless to expect the nonalcoholic Chardonnay to taste like its intoxicating cousin. I was thinking about this experience the wrong way.
I dropped into Clear Sips pop up store at Stackt Market. Enthusiastic, but not evangelical, David Thompson the founder is an importer and distributor of what he likes to call “sober beverages.” If you approach their products ‘ab initio’ you will be rewarded.
David and his daughter, Mary guide me. Starting with bubbles: their Odd Bird, Blanc De Blancs and Blanc de Blanc Rose, despite a rather unusual nose was well balanced with a nice mousse sparked with citrus notes and an agreeable acidic bite. Odd Bird trumpets its origin as 100% Chardonnay from Languedoc-Roussillon with added Pinot Noir for the Rose. In a traditional bottle this is one of Clear Sips best offerings.
Odd Bird Low Intervention White #2 a natural wine from three varietals from Alsace including Pinot Blanc and Riesling was lean, well balanced with lemon and citrus flavours.
Switching to beer, Nonny Czech style Pilsner from British Columbia was one of the standouts. Made with
Saaz hops, the traditional Noble hops used in fine European beers and named after the Czech town of Zatec , this was as fine malt beer with a hoppy element. The Irish Red Ale from Montreal based Sober Carpenter was, by contrast, richer with a fuller taste ale profile. Another excellent option.
I tried Clear Sips range of whiskey and gins. On their own underwhelming but
their Monday whiskey from California whipped up into a remarkably satisfying non-alcoholic whiskey sour with an orange ‘liqueur’. There was a depth and length of flavours that even made me forget it was nonalcoholic.