Tag Archives: Valentine’s Day

A Taste of Valentine’s Day at Fabbrica

8 Feb
Mark McEwan Fabbrica Toronto

Dining with Mark McEwan at Fabbrica

Jenny and I aren’t huge fans of Valentine’s Day. We rarely mark the occasion with cards or flowers, and definitely steer clear of restaurants offering (usually overpriced) Valentine’s Day-themed prix fixe menus.

So, when I was invited to have dinner with chef Mark McEwan at his newest Toronto restaurant, Fabbrica, to preview the kitchen’s Valentine’s Day menu, I was initially skeptical. But, then again, it’s not every day the chance comes along to sit and break bread with a man who is one of Toronto’s best-known chefs and a host of Top Chef Canada on the Food Network.

As we sat and read over the special Valentine’s Day menu that will be available to Fabbrica diners between February 14 and 17, McEwan put me at ease by saying that he’s not a fan of Valentine’s Day menus built around “cheese” like heart-shaped food and chocolate incorporated into each dish for no good reason. The dishes on the $55 prix fixe ($85 with wine pairings) were developed around the same ethos McEwan says Fabbrica’s regular menu is built: good, honest Italian food done right.

Veal Mark McEwan Fabbrica

Seared veal tenderloin on braised brisket raviolo and carrot-parsnip puree. A great dish!

Since graduating from culinary school at George Brown College in 1979, McEwan has been at the forefront of Toronto’s dining scene, owning and/or running the kitchen at some of the city’s most popular restaurants and hotels—many of which count wealthy residents and visiting movie stars as frequent diners.

But despite the flashy clientele, McEwan says he’s always made sure his menus focused on the classics rather than what’s trendy. And he thinks that’s what diners want. Even in the food trends that have taken Toronto by storm over the past year or two—think tacos, Southern barbecue and rustic Italian—McEwan says the key elements are authenticity and time-honoured technique.

McEwan Fabbrica Budino

And for dessert, caramel budino topped with espresso gelato

McEwan says that even the projects that have brought him into the national spotlight—his Food Network shows The Heat and Top Chef Canada—have been real and honest. Of the former, which followed him as he worked to open his eponymous, upscale Toronto grocery store, McEwan, he says the show was an honest portrayal of the experience, giving viewers a glimpse at the opening of a business and the mistakes made along the way. And he says he’s enjoyed working on Top Chef Canada because, unlike some other food-based reality shows, this one is focused on good cooking and passionate chefs; “It’s not about a basket of weird ingredients,” he says, referring to Chopped—a show I admitted to him that I’m a pretty devoted fan of.

Like his restaurants, there’s a definite polish to Mark McEwan, a sense that he’s always ready to perform. But after spending a couple hours with him, talking about food, sports (he’s a Buffalo native and, like me, a long-suffering Bills fan) and ideas for Toronto’s future (he’s a big believer in the current plan for a downtown casino), I was definitely left with a feeling of authenticity in both the man and his food.

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Surviving Winter: Indulge at Ambiance Chocolat

13 Feb

Valentines chocolates heart plate

Jenny and I aren’t big on Valentine’s Day. We don’t buy each other gifts, and we don’t usually go out for dinner (although we’re making an exception this year for a cool Valentine’s Day-themed event). That said, the days leading up to February 14 do tend to get us thinking about our relationship; we met on Feb. 10th, four years ago. And thinking about our relationship inevitably gets us thinking of all the things and places that we’ve discovered, experienced and loved over our time together. One of those is a little chocolate shop in Toronto called Ambiance Chocolat.

Chocolates in display case

My obsession with good chocolate is pretty extreme. I feel compelled to walk into just about every chocolate shop that we walk by, wherever we are. This compulsion hit me one day about two years ago when we were walking through the Leslieville neighbourhood and walked by Ambiance. We were smack in the middle of planning our wedding, and were trying to keep our eating in check so we didn’t end up feeling like beached whales on the big day. So when I suggested we check out the shop, Jenny resisted, reasoning that since we’d never heard of the place, the chocolate must not be anything special.

How wrong she was (a fact she’s since admitted)…

Ambiance Chocolat counter

We’ve found a lot of great chocolate shops in Toronto, but Ambiance stands out for us. The flavour combinations all sound intriguing, and more importantly, taste amazing. Belgian-born chocolatier Patrick Smets made chocolate at the Belgian Chocolate Shop in the Beaches for 15 years, but decided to open his own shop three years ago. Patrick says that the Belgian Chocolate Shop was focused on traditional truffles and chocolate, and his desire to experiment with flavours was a key reason in his decision to open Ambiance.

Caramel chocolate oozing

During our first visit, the jalapeno caramel and rose truffles caught our eye immediately. One bite and we knew these chocolates were something special. The flavours are so fresh and real tasting – the jalapeno strikes the right balance between sweet and heat, but what we love most about it is that you can actually also taste the pepper itself. And the rose (one of Jenny’s favorite flavours) has an interesting floral taste without any of the extreme sweetness that can make other rose-flavoured truffles taste artificial.

Chocolates on pink background

We fell in love with these two flavours so much that they actually ended up at our wedding. Each guest received one jalapeno caramel and one rose chocolate, along with a card that explained why we thought these were perfectly suited to represent our relationship: “Just like love, these unique rose and jalapeno chocolates are sweet and spicy, filled with surprise, strange yet enticing, and slightly unexpected, while still making so much sense,” we wrote.

Wedding place setting with chocolates

Patrick says that he makes all the caramels, ganaches and other fillings from scratch using only natural ingredients as flavouring. Ideas for flavour combinations come to him from the notes he tastes in the various chocolate varieties he uses: if a particular chocolate has citrus notes, he knows it would make an ideal partner for lemon; chocolate with smokey notes might be paired with scotch and smoked salt. He says that experimentation and being able to identify notes in different chocolate varieties are important to making great chocolate, as the wrong combination or ratio of chocolate to flavouring will result in one overpowering the other in the final product.

Chocolate cream centre

Ambiance has several truffle flavours available year-round, and also features special ones for holidays. For Valentines Day, there’s a red wine caramel-filled chocolate, as well as a “light rose” flavour, which combines white chocolate ganache with grand marnier and orange.

Valentine's Day chocolates

Aside from the jalapeno and rose, some of our favorite Ambiance chocolates are the lemon-mint (mint-infused white chocolate ganache with a tart lemon caramel), pistachio (filled with a white chocolate pistachio cream) and the mousse, made with 72% dark chocolate.

They also sell that classic winter warmer, hot chocolate. We haven’t tried it yet, but listening to Patrick talk about how Ambiance’s hot chocolate starts with a  house-made ganache and then gets mixed with hot milk (a technique that ensures a rich and intense chocolate taste) convinced us that we need to have a cup on our next visit… and to visit again soon.

Ambiance sign

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