I developed an interest in food and restaurants early. In this I had a companion: my friend Sarah, who at sixteen was a year older than me and even keener than I to explore everything culinary the city of Toronto had to offer. In 1971 the mainstream Toronto restaurant scene was emerging from its love affair with steakhouses and Cantonese restaurants and starting to celebrate the foods new Canadians were bringing in from every corner of the world. Sarah and I studied the reviews in Toronto Life magazine, mapped out our choices and hopped onto the subway to explore neighbourhoods across the city in search of food adventures.
We chose moussaka and pasticcio from roasting pans in Greek kitchens on the Danforth—who ever heard of going into the kitchen to select your meal? We went west on the Bloor line and discovered injera and cardamom-spiked coffee at Ethiopian restaurants; we became regular crêpe-devourers at Le Papillon near the St. Lawrence Market; and we ate many a Ploughman’s Lunch at the Groaning Board on Jarvis St. after market shopping trips. (Emboldened by our experience, I took my boyfriend and another friend to Three Small Rooms at the Windsor Hotel (gone now) after a high school dance. We ordered stuffed avocado and white wine and the waiter didn’t blink an eye; he accorded us the dignity of adults.)
When Sarah and I were older we both worked on Queen St. West, and we continued our restaurant exploration, lunching at the Queen Mother or Peter Pan and swapping stories about our lives in the magazine business (me) or strategic communications (Sarah). Until recently, every time I returned to Toronto for a visit I would call Sarah to arrange a rendezvous, usually a snatched one, and she came up with the just right place for us—a Chinese restaurant specialising in Cantonese cuisine that featured snow pea shoots and preserved turnip, for example, or Cava, a Spanish restaurant serving beautiful tapas with a huge wine list, including 14 different sherries.
We met at Cava in the late afternoon. I was about to order my usual glass of white—I was eyeing up the Verdejo Ora di Castilla 2013—when Sarah said, “Hey. Where else are we going to find a wine list with 14 different sherries? Can I tell you a story?”
She told me a story about a legendary night years before at the restaurant Avalon, Cava owner-chef Chris McDonald’s first restaurant. Sarah and her companions decided to put themselves in the hands of the chef. They selected the nine-course“adventure” menu, with wine pairings, and in so doing they entered a culinary castle, where the whole intricate structure was delicately built, floor upon floor, flavour upon flavour, until at the end the diners soared up into the stratosphere to look down at the exquisite construction they had just inhabited. It took months to pay off that dinner. “Stephen and I had no money. Our kids were at university and we had five places to put every penny. But we didn’t care.”
And now, here we were, at chef McDonald’s current home. (He has since moved on from Cava.) We decided to put ourselves in the chef’s hands for the next two hours. Our waiter guided us through the sherries. We started with Fino “Una Palma” Gonzalez Bypass. Fino is the driest and palest sherry, and to accompany it, we choose the “Supergilda”—a crostini piled with a sardine, a pickled pepper, an olive and an anchovy—briny, meaty and sharp. Next, the waiter moved us on to an Amontillado—a sweeter and darker sherry that starts off as a fino that over time is allowed to lose its veil of “flor” or yeast, and oxidize. The waiter said: “So, now you choose. Are you going to have Serrano ($15) or Iberico ($30) ham with this sherry? The Serrano is perfectly lovely, but the Iberica….!”
We carpe diemed, and went with a pink and silvery pile of Iberico, cut into gossamer-thin slices. Oh my.
We ended our tiny meal with an oloroso, a dark and nutty sherry whose flor is suppressed at the beginning of the process, and which oxidizes in casks, sometimes over many years. With it we enjoyed a crostini of Valedeon, an earthy blue cheese from Leon, served with sweet, sherry-roasted figs that underscored the sharpness of the cheese.
And then we said goodbye, until the next time, and I went home with two stories, Sarah’s at Avalon and ours at Cava, when we just went for it, like we did when we were teenagers and just discovering our taste. Sarah has since moved to a small village on the west coast of Newfoundland, and I don’t know where or when our next culinary adventure will take place. But every time I have a sip of sherry, I think of her.
Sherry Manhattan for Sarah
1 ½ oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 ¼ oz Alvear Medium Dry Amontillado Sherry
1 tsp. agave syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
lemon twist for garnish
Stir over ice and pour over one large ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with the twist.