I’m seated on a plush banquette in a high-sided booth watching white-jacketed, silver-haired waiters bustle about in the baronial-style dining room. The weekday business types at the table across from me are debating what I assume is some Bay Street deal. Unfortunately, the tables are too far apart for me to benefit from any insider information. A little further off, a distinguished older gentlemen and his glamorous companion are deep in conversation. I begin to wonder if have I fallen through a hole in the space–time continuum and ended up in the 1960s.
This fanciful notion is dispelled by my server Erin, a bright young woman who is several decades younger than most of the other staff. She turns on an iPad that’s sitting on my table. It’s a guide to the wine choices. That confirms what I’ve been told: Hy’s, a Canadian family-run steak house since 1955, is reaching for a new demographic without abandoning what it does best—great steaks.
There is a good mix of clientele, from deal makers to families
celebrating and whatever divertissements the glamorous couple are engaged in.
The Toronto location has been recently and unobtrusively renovated. The thick carpets and upholstery are now in understated earth tones. The long narrow room and muted lighting lend an intimate feel. The updated background music, fortunately at modest levels, adds a modern vibe.
The high-tech wine menu heralds an impressive selection of wines. I’m intrigued to be able to organize them by region, varietal or even by wine critics’ points ratings. And once I get to a particular wine, a quick tap gives me a detailed profile.
As I’m dining alone, I decide a single glass would be more appropriate. While many restaurants try to offer a few selections of the most common grape varieties (a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, with perhaps a choice of Old- and New-World examples), Hy’s offers 15. There is a good selection of reasonably priced wines, starting at around $10 and ending up in the low $20 range. Standout selections in my mind include the 2011 Joseph Phelps Insignia Cabernet blend at $150, the 2012 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Napa Valley at $125 and the 2009 Siro Pacenti Brunello at a somewhat more moderate $67.50.
I notice that several tables are ordering the Caesar salad prepared table-side, followed by theatrically flambéed steaks. The ambiance is such that I can’t resist this retro approach. Erin pushes over a large trolley and energetically mixes and tosses my salad. And it’s properly prepared, with raw egg and anchovy. The result is a wonderfully delicious, crunchy salad that is both rich and tangy. Erin tells me that Jim, a waiter at Hy’s for 43 years, claims he has made more than a million of them.
Next up is my steak Dianne. The grass-fed beef from High River is a particular point of pride for Hy’s, and very much in tune with today’s more health-conscious clientele. Finished in flamed brandy and garnished with pan juices, it’s bang-on.
Finally, my resolve not to overindulge takes a hit with the made-in-house key lime pie.
In an era of cheek-by-jowl restaurant seating, overly familiar waiters bellowing to be heard above jarring music and excessive food fussiness, Hy’s delivers on its promise of a time-honoured restaurant experience or, as the restaurant accurately and succinctly puts it: “Times change. Classics remain.”
The gentleman butcher
The Who’s My Generation is thumping out of the sound system as I enter Sanagan’s Meat Locker in the heart of Kensington market. How appropriate. After my delightfully retro meal at Hy’s, I’m off in search of a traditional, but modern, butcher’s shop.
Peter Sanagan is a Toronto-born chef-turned-butcher and is interested in promoting the finest from Ontario farms. When he worked as a chef in a small inn near Owen Sound, he realized that the best farmers he worked with had few outlets in the cities.
In a serendipitous moment while walking through Kensington market, Sanagan came across a 400-square-foot family butcher’s shop that dated back to the 50s. Its owner wanted to retire. The time was propitious, as the “eat local” movement was just becoming an issue. The business took off and Sanagan soon moved to his present, much larger location for both retail and wholesale.
As meat is produced year round, it is possible to source just about every product from Ontario. Even the salt they use is mined here.
Sanagan’s champions heritage breeds such as Berkshire pork, Chantecler chicken and grass-fed beef. Although some grocery stores are starting to feature limited quantities of grass-fed beef, this has been a staple of Sanagan’s from the start. It has a slightly herbaceous taste profile, is considered healthier and is the type of beef typically consumed in France and, to some extent, the UK. The Mayo Clinic website points out that, in comparison with corn-fed beef, the grass-fed version contains less total fat, more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and more antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin E.
The Chantecler chicken is a breed developed in the early 20th century at the Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac in Oka, Quebec. The chickens are slower to mature and significantly leaner than their ubiquitous and much plumper cross-bred cousins. The flesh is denser and the taste is more intense and flavourful. Certainly worthy of recommendation.
Sanagan’s also produces its own sausages, including intriguing varieties such as wild boar with red wine, along with a variety of homemade meat pies and terrines.
Peter Sanagan is truly a gentleman butcher of this generation!
Flights of coffee
Coffee in Toronto has come a long way. Not so long ago, I despaired at the lack of sympathetically roasted coffees and purchased mine from Coffee-Man Higgins in London, UK. These were coffees that could not be simply classified as mild, medium or strong, but rather had a taste that was distinct, subtle and reflected the country of origin. I’m not impressed by eager baristas proffering complicated concoctions bristling with exotic ingredients; extra-hot no-foam yak’s milk, anyone? I prefer my coffee completely unadulterated.
Thus, my expedition to Leslieville’s Boxcar Social, where they take coffee seriously. Their second location, barely now a year old, is in a funky, industrial-chic space. Intriguingly, Boxcar offers flights of coffee and pairings of coffee with wine and whiskey.
General manager Taylor Seymor tells tales of the extraordinary lengths Boxcar goes to in its quest to deliver the perfect cup of coffee. Water, he tells me, is the most active ingredient. Not only does it have to be in the right ratio to coffee and at the right temperature (between 97 and 98°C), but its composition will affect the flavour. The key to good coffee, apparently, is to control every step of the process down to the molecular level. One of the roasters even goes so far as to supply Boxcar with water-testing kits. As every batch of roast coffee from the carefully selected suppliers varies slightly, there are weekly tastings to carefully whittle down the purchases for the coming week.
Flights of coffee include esoteric-sounding products such as Ethiopia Reko, Ethiopia Biftu Gudina and Kenya Karatu AA. I try the Kenya. This coffee is grown by a cooperative of farmers at elevations higher than 6,000 feet. It results in a pale roast with a wonderful aroma and vibrant but subtle tastes of dark fruit with hints of citrus. Coffee, after all, brings order to the morning.
Tapas and Rioja
I close my eyes. The rich velvety nuttiness of the finest 36-month-old Fuente Ibérico de Bellota ham transports me back to the tapas bars of Barcelona.
Is there a hint of green olives? Or it is just the hints from ex-chef Michael Tkaczuk, co-founder of Serrano Imports, whose passion for this wickedly expensive but sublime jamón (ham) has guided him to overcome substantial bureaucratic hurdles to become the first company in Canada to import it?
“It’s on a par with Beluga caviar or Kobe beef,” Tkaczuk tells me. I’m a believer. The exquisite flavour comes from a special breed of pig, with the animals allowed to roam freely and gorge on acorns and olives. Like a proud father, Tkaczuk shows me a photo of a rustic stone building in a mountainous village where the ham is aged for 36 months. Serrano also imports the relatively less expensive but still superb 24-month-old Fermin Ibérico Jamón and an intensely flavourful 23-month-old Trevelez Jamón.
Tkaczuk has trekked all over Spain—often with fellow chefs in tow—to hunt down artisanal products, some of which have never before been sold beyond the tiny villages in which they are made.
A good example: Anchovies from the Bay of Biscay. Caught only between mid May and mid June when the fish are large and lean, they are aged in sea salt for 12 months before being packed by hand in extra-virgin olive oil. The result is like no anchovy I have ever tasted. Plump, with a firmness of flesh more reminiscent of fresh fish and a subtle sweetness of flavour that isn’t overpowered by saltiness.
Tkaczuk boasts about his canned gourmet seafood. My first taste of the Navajas razor clams dispels any doubts. These curious, stringy-looking delicacies have a slightly chewy texture that evokes the sea without being salty. I’m addicted. There are clams, tuna belly, sardines, small scallops in a tomato-based Galician sauce and two of what will become my favourites: Squid in its own ink and cockles. The squid has a wonderfully earthy counterpoint that almost belies its seafood heritage. In a class of their own are Serrano’s miniscule, snail-like cockles. Simultaneously sweet and salty, they are exquisitely complex yet delicate. No wonder such a small can commands an eye-popping price.
Tkaczuk recommends a tapas evening. Put out a selection of hams and seafood, and pair them with crackers and fresh bread. Open a bottle of Rioja, then sip, nibble and talk.
Serrano Imports is a wholesaler. A few products are available at Longo’s and specialty stores, but for a larger selection go to Lola & Miguel, the Toronto online shop specializing in Spanish food.
Since opening less than a year ago, Yam Chops has bucked the traditional butcher shop by making bacon out of coconut, tuna from chickpeas and crab cakes out of tofu. Yam Chops’ owners believe that plant-based proteins can be a staple of any kitchen or diet, and offer recipes for all types of eaters: flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans.
Acknowledged with a “two pectoral fins up” rating, Yam’s carrot cured lox is made with organic carrots cured in a secret marinade topped off with capers, red onion, dill and cashew sour cream…and a smile!
Our man about town is suave, debonair, charming and, best of all, extremely curious. He hunts, sleuths, discovers, explores and tells all.