At the end of January, faint fingers of light still held onto the sky as I left work to head to dinner. After a quick subway trip around the Yonge-University bend, I emerged from the bowels of the TTC and found the early darkness of winter had already wrapped the city tightly with its cloak. From a block away, the orange-yellow glow from The Cookbook Store beckoned. I walked quickly towards my goal; it was cold out and I was hungry. As I made my way along the concrete, I pondered the humorous riddle of how a number of tables and chairs would fit in the tiny bookshop – never mind an entire area for cooking and prep! Arriving at my destination, I yanked the door open and hustled across the threshold. Once inside, I shook off the lingering chill of night and took in my surroundings.

The large central book displays had been disassembled and pushed to the perimeter. A long table, set for a dozen hungry souls, now dominated the store. The surrounding walls of books created a cozy cocoon for gathering guests to chat and mingle, many of whom had already arrived. Still, it was early yet, so after saying hello to my dining friends Jo and Kathleen, I pulled out my camera and made a beeline toward the back of the shop. It was clear that it would be from this direction that our dishes would come – through the open passageway behind hinged bookshelves. And so I followed it. I passed a tiny nook of an office, crossed a narrow stairwell, and emerged into the Rosemill Kitchen Studio the next shop over.

I’d never celebrated Australia Day. But I’d decided 2012 would be a perfect year to start, having heard that Chef Luke Hayes-Alexander would be one of the participating chefs at the Toronto Down Under dinner. His restaurant, Luke’s Gastronomy, had been on my radar for a rather long while, but I’d never made the time to trek to Kingston. So this was a perfect opportunity to sample his cooking without ever leaving the GTA. Not only would the night would feature Chef Hayes-Alexander’s dishes, but also dishes from chefs John Placko and Matt Kantor.

So back in the Rosemill Kitchen Studio, I found Chef Luke Hayes-Alexander, a slash of colour, busily humming his way around the kitchen. I really hate intruding on people’s space without encouragement, so I quietly took photos of the space and half-listened to Chef Placko chatting with other guests nearby. Having reached that awkward point of silently milling by the doorway (my meal at The French Laundry immediately comes to mind), I slipped out to rejoin the main party in the bookshop.

There was John and Susan, who own Bush Dreams (they provided the spice for one of the dishes and a bottle of spice of our take-home treats). Hart and his wife Taimi-Leigh (from Lifford Wines who imported the alcohol we drank that night). At the far end, David – who insisted that I should tweet Alexa Clarke and tell her she owed him $50 dollars – and his wife (I think) Barbara. On the opposite end of the table, friends Anne and Darlene – one of whom drove in from the Thousand Islands(!). Jo, Kathleen, and I joined the others at the table. There was one last empty seat beside me; it was soon filled by Jordan, who snagged the last-minute ticket. I was jealous of Matt’s colleagues Rich and Tony, who got to sit in the kitchen and watch all the action.

As we were all assembled, Alison Fryer, who runs The Cookbook Store, introduced the night’s players and at last, we had truly begun our evening.

Oysters Kilpatrick with bacon, bacon “snow,” and Worcestershire sauce. Smoky notes with the briny taste of oyster. I quite liked this.

The Vegemite grilled cheese sandwich was a cute little bite that I felt could have done with more Vegemite. Less restraint was needed, I think.

This was an interesting drink/dish: a hot and cold martini of beet and granny smith. With cool red beet infused with vodka and topped with a warm granny smith foam. I got notes of lemon when I drank this.

The yellowtail crudo with coffee, lemon, and  beer was really interesting. The dot on the left was made with sparkling ale from Coopers Brewery in Australia. The coffee flavour was quite pronounced. It all came together really well.

One of the other interesting drinks that night was this sparkling Shiraz. Bubbles. In a red!

A brandade is traditionally made from salt cod, but in this case, chef Kantor used the barramundi fish, commonly seen across tables in Australia. The Barramundi brandade was quite balanced, and went well with the vinaigrette of garlic, parsley, shallot, and olive. There were hits of salt that gave it an extra punch.

A visually appealing pumpkin soup, with a “bubble” of goat cheese and surrounded by crispy dehydrated ginger microsponge.

Blinman” : White stripe lamb, beets, lemon myrtle, brown butter, and wattleseed. The lemon myrtle was like a smooth and delicious custard. Wattleseed comes from the Acacia family and is a traditional food eaten by Australian Aborigines. The pickled beet and lemon made a nice sweet contrast to the rest of the elements on the plate.

The kangaroo loin with Quandong peach chutney was covered in a pepperberry rub. Sided with onion micro sponge and tamarillo purée. My notes indicate that I got an almost chestnut flavour from the peach… though take that with a grain of salt. By this time, I’d consumed copious amounts of alcohol.

The next course, “Sydney” was an Aussie meat pie done two ways: traditional and modern. I loved that I got to experience a traditional serving of the dish before eating the deconstructed version. I really enjoyed the beef shoulder, especially when eaten with the pastry bits. Sided with brown mustard, smoked paprika, coriander, and black pepper. The second presentation also had white wine jelly and pastry purée underneath. A really lovely combination of flavours and textures in each mouthful.

The cheese course consisted of Roaring Forties blue cheese, raisins, compressed apple, and walnut bread crisps. Shockingly forgot to shoot before I started eating.

Now, I’m biased towards dessert, but chef Placko’s deconstructed pavolva of passionfruit was my favourite of the night. Lots of textures: lightness from the poached meringue, crispness from the baked meringue, crackle from the poprocks, creaminess from the ganache. And all topped with gold flake to make a beautiful plating. How can I not love it?

Whisky truffles on a nail. Boozy little buggers. Great presentation with the nail.

The other extremely memorable dish was chef Hayes-Alexander’s “Testosterone.” The essence of masculinity: whisky cream croquette, a coffee toffee, musk meringue, and tobacco ice cream. The baby tabacco pipe was sprayed with a scent that chef created especially for this dish. A fantastic smell of chocolate, tabacco, and MAN. Served with a glass of Forty Creek whisky.

More dessert: a liquid nitrogen poached wattle seed ice cream. Creamy with a lovely nutty flavour. A significant amount of time was spent setting things up so that I could capture the moment where smoke came out of our mouths when we ate this. Rather unsuccessful in capturing that moment, but we were amused.

The Tim Tam slam: Live is a hilarious experience. You bite the opposite corners off a Tim Tam and proceed to suck back your hot (but not too hot) beverage of choice through it. Quickly, before it dissolves, you cram it into your mouth to enjoy the mix of flavours and experience this gooey-brownie thing. I don’t have a good photo of this, but I think that’s okay. It really wasn’t pretty. But it was tasty.

And so we come to the end of the night. Not only were we replete, but we got some treats to-go: pepperberry rub, a package of Tim Tams direct from Australia, candy from chef Hayes-Alexander, as well as a bottle of that enticing armoa on the tobacco pipe. Our section of the table really liked that smell and were quite excited to be able to take it home.

Thank you to the chefs and the organizers for such a memorable evening!

More from Toronto Down Under

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