Animal houses: four Toronto feasts that release the beast
At Momofuku Daishō, two whole fried chickens make for a fantastic family feast
Let’s be honest: Christmas dinner is not going to be tasty this year. It never is. Turkey is difficult to cook, and Aunt Muriel seldom does a good job, unless she’s deep-frying it, which she probably isn’t. Not only that, but nobody at a holiday dinner — nobody — is permitted to admit that the turkey they’re eating is about as tacky as subway gum. Christmas dinner makes a stoic out of everyone.
This is a travesty, because feasts should be good. Being at a feast means that you’re a part of a clan. It’s a time for hedonism, for setting aside squabbles, for temporarily abandoning fad diets.
The upside is that whole animal feasts are actually getting interesting in this city — in restaurants, at least. That’s partly because nose-to-tail dining is currently as fashionable as scanty facial hair. Take advantage of the times. The unabashed consumption of animals could become passé any day now.
Over on College Street, Bestellen’s suckling pig dinner ($59 per person) is gluttonous in an ancient Rome kind of way. There is something about the perfume of roasted suckling pig — one that has been rubbed with rosemary-lemon salt, brined, steamed, then roasted for four hours — that transports you to a more primal era. When the beast is brought to the large communal table, things get less civilized — fast.
This is what happened to me: I ditched my cutlery and began to stuff succulent, fatty, porky pork into my mouth at a completely unsustainable rate. Agony ensued. Still, I somehow managed to eat a dessert of chocolate ganache with salt flakes and crushed pistachios afterwards, which means that the dessert was good because eating more didn’t even seem possible. (A word of warning to those who get all fuzzy-wuzzy around cute things: a suckling pig is as tasty as it is adorable, even after it’s cooked.)
For something a little more sophisticated, date-y even, Beast does whole animals on request. Chef-owner Scott Vivian serves the animal in multiple courses: lamb, pig or cow, but also less common options like wild boar or even water buffalo. (But since a water buffalo could probably feed “half of Toronto,” as Vivian puts it, he won’t literally cook the whole animal, just a lot of it.)
I had a fine six-course dinner at Beast that revolved entirely around rabbit ($80 per person). It was a dinner that Vivian will probably never replicate because he tries to ensure that each whole-animal dinner is unique.
To start, Thumper’s heart, liver and kidneys were served on grilled bread with a mushroom ragu (fantastic). Another course featured teeny-tiny rabbit ribs with kimchi and carrot-sweet brown butter. Yet another had a crispy, Southern-fried rabbit leg. Other parts that weren’t used directly were used to make sauces and stocks. The only course that didn’t have any rabbit pieces in it was the dessert, but it was rabbit themed, at least: the pastries were called “cottontails” and came with a sweet carrot sauce. They were delicious.
Now, it would be amiss to mention feasts in Toronto without a nod to New York chef David Chang, who seems to have been born with an innate understanding of communal dining. Daishō, one of his three Momofuku restaurants in Toronto, does intense large-format dinners, including a $600 rib-eye steak that’s been aged 65 days.
Still, considering that fried chicken is one of Chang’s all-time favourite meals (“I love, love, love, love, love fried chicken,” he says in his Momofuku cookbook), it would be just plain silly to not try some at Daishō. Bonus: Matt Blondin is in the kitchen, and that guy blew people’s minds when he was at Acadia.
Like the other Momofukus, Daishō is casual. Servers are dressed in T-shirts, and food is served on plastic plates. For $125, diners get two whole chickens, around three pounds each, from a farm in Ontario. The birds are taken apart and cooked sous-vide in buttermilk for two hours, then they’re triple-dredged in flour and other spices before being quickly fried in super-hot canola oil. If you don’t use your hands, you’re a prude. And don’t forget to make use of the accompanying scallion pancakes.
Over on St. Clair West, chef Nigel Finley cooks up fresh seafood feasts at Catch. Depending on what’s available, these could include clam bakes ($100 for two), whole halibut ($162 for a six-pound fish, good for four people) or massive wild striped bass ($625 for a 15 to 25 pounder, serves at least eight).
Finley’s a purist, so he seasons whole fish with just a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper, nothing else, then quickly sears it on a grill. The fish is then baked, seasoned with a bit of olive oil and lemon, and it’s ready to go (after Finley debones it tableside, of course). If you’d like to know which of your friends has actual taste, watch for the one who goes straight for the fish’s head: the best flavours reside in the succulent cheeks or in the moist meat just behind the gills.
Of course, if you’re really in for some holiday overconsumption, you could always go for Finley’s “gout,” which is quite possibly one of the most obnoxious things to ever have been put on a menu in this city: oysters stuffed into a trout stuffed into a goat.
Aunt Muriel would never make that, but then again, maybe that’s a good thing.