2012 changed the way I think about food. Good fortune happened. Life happened, I suppose – but now, looking back, it all feels like serendipity. Our lives changed in ways both large and small. We met too many new friends to count, and old friends wove their lives even more deeply into our own. Our families prospered, everyone healthy, everyone well. We spent the summer in a timeless reverie with nieces and nephews. Marvelous children – golden children, all of them – growing so confident and strong. And over and over again we found ourselves looking at each other, wondering – how did we come to be so fortunate to be living all of *this*? Looking back now, I think 2012 was simply the longest dinner party we’ve ever held.
Before all of this fades from memory, I want to acknowledge the many people, places and experiences that fed us so marvellously this year, and who put so much of themselves into keeping our family and friends healthy and well. (Photos are in the gallery below, in no particular order, and are also on my Flickr page. Generally, they’re geotagged on Flickr, if you’re trying to find a location, and in some cases I flag a location below).Best neighbourhood cocktail party – our friends Jim and Hélène throw an annual party every summer in Fortune, PEI. To me it always feels like waltzing through paradise – warm sun, soft breeze, good friends, brilliant food. This year, Jim deconstructed the classic lobster roll and served up an unforgettable lobster bruschetta. I ate twelve. Best food truck food and best grilled cheese sandwich – with apologies to my friends in the Toronto food truck scene, my best food truck experience this year was The Big Orange Lunchbox in Charlottetown, PEI (@PEILunchbox). James Oja came out of nowhere, it seemed, and forever changed the food scene on PEI. Everything they serve is intensely satisfying, but my favourite of the year was the Porky Pigg (pulled pork) grilled cheese sandwich. This is not a delicate experience. This is an everyone-stand-back, loosen-your-belt experience. They’ve since moved into permanent digs, but the experience is still awesome. Best meat on a stick – in September we spent a couple of weeks in Istanbul and I performed a series of highly unscientific and dangerous experiments involving fire, meat and sticks. Well, spears, really. It’s impossible to pick just one, so I’m picking all of them – the doner vendors of Istanbul are God’s Children, and when the reckoning comes, they will be be standing at the gate, kebabs in hand. Best soggy burger – on a related note, the Kizilkayalar burger (we had ours in Taksim Square, Istanbul) has to be tried to be believed. There is nothing like it, anywhere. They are small enough that you eat several without too much shame. (I owe a huge debt to my friend Bulent Hacioglu (@bhcgl) for the introduction). Best looking plate – I love the way Alex Molitz plates his côte de boeuf at Farmhouse Tavern (@FarmhouseTavern). This is no boy’s steak. This is a beat-your-chest, howl at the moon, run-down-your-prey-and-roast-it-on-a-spit steak. Best dim sum – we’re lucky to have so much great dim sum in the GTA, but my favourite dim sum will always be the spicy dumplings at Ding Tai Fung. They are poetry (Ding Tai Fung is rightfully known for its Xiao Long Bao, but I think these spicy dumplings are its best dish). Best brunch – As you enter Farmhouse Tavern you pass the tractor-smoker, and the smell of wood smoke escorts you in. Warm, rustic and friendly with a killer menu – this is a wonderful soft-landing for your weekend morning. Honourable mention to The Beet Organic Café (@TheBeetCafe) and to The Junction Eatery (@JunctionEatery), which were my brunch standbys all year. Both have great food, and excellent value.
Best restaurant steak – this is a tough call, but Farmhouse Tavern’s côte de boeuf is remarkable. Beautifully aged, perfectly roasted, gorgeously plated. Alex Molitz does a great job with everything, but this dish is a knockout. I enter civilized, and leave in a near-feral state. The wine keeps things under control – barely.Best steak at home – my family has bought meat from The Queen Street Meat Market in Charlottetown for generations, and we buy our beef there in the summer. I get rib eyes, cut thick, and roast them low and slow over hickory with a sear at the end. PEI beef is no longer a secret off the Island. Thank god. Best local lunch – our local standbys are The Junction Eatery and The Beet Organic Café. Superb quality and great service at both. Derrick Markland (The Junction Eatery) and Michelle Vella (The Beet Organic Cafe) bet on our neighbourhood when few others would, and we’re grateful for it. We’re lifers at both. Side note: Derrick makes the best Huevos Rancheros in Toronto, and whenever you leave The Beet you feel, well, healthy. Best food in a bar that is also a club that is also a restaurant – 3030 Dundas West (@3030DundasWest) changed the way I think about my neighbourhood. When it opened, I had already realized that we were on to something – I just didn’t realize how much potential we had. When he’s not modelling, Chef Adisa Glasgow pushes out amazing food, including some terrific small plates that are also a great value. Also, PINBALL. Best oysters – No contest; wherever we go, Johnny Flynn’s Colville Bays are always our favourite. In the summer it’s a 10 minute drive. Oyster Boy distributes them in Toronto, increasingly to everyone. Our favourite local joints, Hole in the Wall and Farmhouse Tavern, often have them. This makes us very happy. Also, Johnny is an incredibly nice guy and a big supporter of Souris, PEI’s Village Feast. Best lamb roasted in a hole – Kadinlar Pazari, a pedestrian square in the Fatih neighbourhood (near the Valens aqueduct – pictured below) of Istanbul, has a few büryan kebab restaurants. My favourite was Siirt Seref Büryan Kebap. Here, lamb is roasted in a hole and served in salted chunks still on the bone. The meat is tender and covered in crunchy fat. I couldn’t help but feel that lamb has been eaten this way here for hundreds of years. Favourite purveyors – Scott Dingwell (@farmboy961) kept us well stocked with pork this summer. Shoulders, bacon and ribs, mostly, all from his herd of Canadian registered purebreds (the mothers are a Yorkshire Landrace cross and the dads are purebred Duroc). His pork is superb. And we had great fish from City Fish Market. Grilled, with lemon and salt. This is *incredibly* fresh fish. Favourite food photos – In 2012 I took about 5,000 shots of food, and kept just under 1,600 of them. My favourites were my pics of Derrick’s breakfasts (The Junction Eatery), fish from City Fish Market, pork ribs from Scott Dingwell, a lamb roast we rotisserie’d, and Alex Molitz’s côte de bouef (Farmhouse Tavern). There are a bunch of Honourable Mentions too – all below. Best street food – no contest for me – the tacos we had in Mexico City and Manzanillo early in the year were fantastic. We stumbled across Ricas Carnitas just walking around Mexico City, and were taken by a local to Tacos Yuly (we took these back to the villa to feed a group of 12 – the picture of me eating them is a picture of me not waiting for the other 11) and Antojitos Mexicanos Lulu in Manzanillo. Ricas Carnitas is a frenzy at lunch-time – you can lose an arm. All of them are cheap and delicious – and when the food is served, all conversation stops (Ricas Carnitas is here, Tacos Yuly is here, and Antojitos Mexicanos Lulu is here). Best guest food photographer – our friend Louise Savoie is a terrific photographer. She and her family spend part of the summer in Fortune and last year, during a dinner party at our place, took my point-and-shoot for a few moments and walked around the room shooting the food (I actually think she was overwhelmed by the sight of the paella and just had no choice). I learned more from those shots than I did in months of trying to figure it out for myself. Most wine-soaked dinner party – John Bil (@ShiptoShorePEI), who manages Catch, served us 20 pounds of smoked pork shoulder, all the sides, and a never-ending array of superb wines. We were the only non-industry folks at the dinner, and these people knew their wine. I also have a distant memory of chilled bourbon and a very fine sauternes. After that, everything sort of fades out. Most resentful fish sandwich – I’m not poking fun – for all I know this man was having the worst day of his life – but I was struck by his expression as I stood nearby and watched him work, near the foot of the Galata Bridge, in Istanbul. Most surprising burger – The In-N-Out Burger chain has the worst kept secret in fast food – most of their best items are off the menu. This includes the “protein style”, so-called because there is no bun. I am telling you this because I love you – you need to try this burger. Don’t eat the day before. (I am telling you this because I love you). Most gratuitously porky photo of breakfast sausages – I have no excuse for this choice other than that I love this shot of these bangers we bought at Jensen’s in Palm Desert for Christmas day breakfast. Best dinner party – we started a new tradition this year – just before we go to PEI we invite a bunch of friends over to say goodbye and eat and drink and eat *a lot*. Hands down, this was our favourite dinner party of the year. Special thanks to Alexa for shooting my favourite picture of me smoking a cigar. Best view from the meal – We lucked out this year in the view department – the year kept getting better and better. We ate lunch on a gullet in the Aegean Sea, dinner under a tree overlooking Manzanillo Bay at sunset, and dinner overlooking the Golden Horn. But there’s no place like home – overlooking Fortune Bay in PEI. Best kid’s dessert – in the spring we took our nephew Thomas to Paris for a week of Disney and history. On the last night our waiter surprised him with a dessert and my shutter just happened to fire at the right moment. Best family-style home-cooked meal – No one does family-style like my remarkable cousin Paige. From her tiny cottage on the water in Keppoch, PEI Paige serves up Sundays that are unforgettable, all of them. Last summer’s favourite for me was watching her roast 4 bone-in briskets at the same time. Strangely, on that occasion a thoracic surgeon did the carving – good thing, perhaps. The rest of us hovered nearby, catching burnt ends. Guests supply the sides, and we eat by the water.
The bo ssäm at Daisho was incredibly fun, and crazy delicious. It was also a perfect way to wish happy holidays to friends before we all went our separate ways. Excellent side-effect of the meal – friends then trying bo ssäm at home, and inviting us or bringing us leftovers.Best bar food that is not really bar food even though you eat it in a bar – The Hole in the Wall (@HoleintheWallTO) is going to need a bigger hole. Jack Wilkinson, co-owner and Chef, is crazy talented and makes a lot of noise for such a small space. This is a *great* bar, but it’s also a terrific restaurant. Word is getting out. Best street food in our ‘hood – The Junction Flea has lots of great street food, less than ten minutes from our house. This has been a revelation. Vendor after vendor after vendor provide terrific small plates, all great for grazing and walking. Most romantic setting for a meal – in the town of Torba, on the Aegean Sea in Turkey, we discovered Gonca Balik, a tiny and modest fish restaurant. Under a clear night sky we ate mezze and grilled fish on the beach. It was unforgettable. Best sno-cone – I’ll let the kids speak for themselves on this.
Best restaurant meal – how often can you sit next to an aqueduct and eat lamb roasted in a hole? How often do you find roasted lamb, on the bone, with the fat left on, salted and crunchy from the fire? I don’t think the lunch at Siirt Seref Büryan Kebap cost me more than $10 but I’ll never forget it. A shy waiter who spoke only broken English and knew Canada only for its snow guided me through the menu and somehow rustled seconds for me (the stuff on the bone does not last long). Afterward, I drank a fragrant yogurt beverage, and wandered through history, thinking about lamb fat.Best meal – Every year my wife Vicky prepares a large paella for family and friends, and they are always unforgettable evenings. Trust me, I know of which I speak – there is paella, and there is *paella*. Vicky cooks hers over an open fire, using fresh PEI seafood. We gather round the table, drinking, laughing and eating, as the sun sets and kids finish up and make tracks to play in the last of the evening light. Nothing says family to me like these meals.
And finally, my food heroes of 2012. I could talk your ear off about how wonderful the Junction is as a place to live, but to really understand it you have to come and eat here. Incredibly talented and hard-working people have opened one superb restaurant / bar after another in the last few years. Nothing moves me more than the food art created by talented, hard-working people. We are so damned lucky to live here among them. The Beet Organic Café, 3030 Dundas West, Hole in the Wall, LAN Sushi, Indie Ale House, Farmhouse Tavern, Curry Twist – by the time you’ve finished reading this there will no doubt be more – it’s an embarrassingly long list. We love these folks and have had so much fun this year eating their food.