Alsatian cuisine would present a challenge for anyone. The region itself proved to be a challenge for any one ruling country to control for centuries. In fact, it’s long been said that for residents of Strasbourg, the region’s largest city, nationality was decided by whichever army was marching down the street that morning.
In all of the tumult, centuries of patriotic uncertainty has compelled the locals to make the best of their Rhineland reality and as a result, they’ve cultivated a true fusion cuisine of their own. Granted, it’s a gustatory grab-bag where butter and foie-gras meet fermented cabbage and where snails meet spaetzle, but regardless of the ingredients, it has the advantage of being paired with some of the world’s most unique and wonderous wine.
This was the classic old-world collision on display at Biff’s Bistro recently, when enthusiasts and a handful of media gathered for the third installment of that restaurant’s food and wine series.
Despite being the third time through the gauntlet, this particular dinner had an added air of intrigue however, as it was the first for Amanda Ray, Biff's newly-minted chef de cuisine. An Oliver and Bonaccini veteran—she spent almost six years behind the stoves at Canoe—R ay says that although she welcomed the challenge of the short-notice tasting menu, it was nevertheless a serious undertaking for a chef just five weeks on the job.
“I think it was about the third day I was here, and after we’d sorted out the summerlicious menu, that they came to me with the food and wine event, and said, how do you feel about coming up with an Alsatian wine pairing dinner?,” says the young chef. “I hadn’t really cooked true French food since Auberge du Pommier and a stage in France,” she jokes. However, Ray says that after a quick brainstorm session with O&B oracle Anthony Walsh, the evening’s menu came together quickly.
Ray’s dishes—each exquisitely paired with classic Alsatian Riesling, Pinot Gris, Klevener de Heiligenstein and even beer, by sommelier Anthony Demas—were an exercise in classic Alsatian flavour profiles, prepared confidently with a certain rustic charm. Highlights of the evening included sweet-butter poached pickerel served on escarole; a brilliant choucroute a la Colmar, packed with veal tongue, boudin noir, Tamworth pork belly, topped with fermented turnip in place of a classic cabbage slaw; and of course, the cherry strudel that Ray says she and a sous-chef hand stretched in one of the resto’s private dining rooms.
Despite the rich, butter-heavy Alsatian dishes on display this evening, Ray says that as the season moves on, and she has the opportunity to start putting her own stamp on the everyday menu, diners can expect to see familiar French fare, albeit with a lighter feel for the summer months, when Ray says patio diners might appreciate more frogs’ legs and salads over a foie torchon. And, although lighter food and French cooking may sound discordant, a young chef and sommelier team that can harmonize the competing flavours and historical traditions of Alsace should have no trouble finding their stride.
4 Front St. E., Toronto ON.
Written by J.D. Ney
After years of editorial positions with two of Canada’s leading food and hospitality magazines, J.D. decided to get out of the professional journalism game, but found that he couldn’t leave the writing–to say nothing of the food and drink business–behind for good. Combining a passion for fine food and better beverages, with a keen eye for the broader story and culinary trends across the city, J.D.’s work can be read here at Spotlight, and you can follow him on Twitter.