Malena’s halibut cheek cakes, with horta, pickled shallots, and lemon crema.
Gourmet food in the name of alleviating hunger.
It’s a bit of a high-wire act, the fine-dining food fundraiser. One the one hand: well-heeled guests enjoy a seemingly endless array of delicacies prepared by many of the most accomplished restaurants in town, accompanied by a similarly generous choice of wines and beers. On the other: the luxurious spread is in aid of people who often have far too little to eat at all, never mind of what quality. It feels gauche—and much more seriously, heartless—if you stop to think about it while gorging on yet another slice of grilled steak (or worse, take one bite and toss it in the trash).
And yet, it’s undeniably effective.
On Sunday evening food lovers and philanthropists gathered for the twentieth Toronto Taste, Second Harvest‘s major annual fundraiser. A block of Queen’s Park Crescent was shut down for the occasion as the ROM opened its doors and played host for the event. Guests mingled and munched, sampling small plates from more than sixty restaurants and bevvies from over twenty-five providers, and bid on various auction items to boot.
Second Harvest is, essentially, a food rescue service: the charity sends its seven refrigerated trucks across Toronto, to food distributors and grocery stores and sometimes restaurants, picks up fresh, perishable food that would otherwise go to waste, and then distributes it to shelters and drop-in facilities and community centres—over 250 social service programs in total. Last year Toronto Taste raised approximately $250,000. While this year’s total wasn’t available at press time, Second Harvest says that each $250 ticket sold will pay for 250 meals.
And that is why, perhaps, that slippery feeling of unease can be dispelled, at least a bit. Sure, it would be great if everyone just wrote out cheques and we could forgo the waste and expense of the lavish party altogether. But it rarely works that way—charities often find that they need to sweeten the donation process, and big parties are the trick of choice. And so, despite our moments of discomfort, in the end we came to this: hunger is ruthlessly non-ideological. If a bit of dazzle is required to get cash contributions flowing, then on with the show.
But enough waxing philosophical about the complex nature of generosity and human motivation—how was the food, you ask?
Mushroom tarts with goat cheese ice cream, created by Oro.
Overwhelming in volume, though variable in quality.
If we were, perhaps, buffet-frequenters of some experience, or maybe professional competitive eaters of repute, we’d have managed to sample the offerings from every station. We are but frail creatures of limited capacity, however, and had to stop well before the finish line. This was a day for loose-cut clothing if ever there was one.
Not all the food was quite as dazzling as we’d hoped, unfortunately. Nothing was decidedly off, but there were many plates that seemed a little tired or unloved. It was a question of nuance—a bit more seasoning here, a better sear on the scallop there. Such details are incredibly hard to manage in a catering-style environment, to be sure, but they are what separate a giddy meal from a merely good one.
There was also, without question, some very good cooking on offer, and we found enough high notes among the dishes to keep us pretty well content. Nota Bene had our favourite among the red, meaty, hunk o’ beef choices: an open-faced slider (half chuck, half brisket) with dijon cream, that was juicy and drippy and everything a burger should be. New Yorkville restaurant Maléna lived up to its self-proclaimed love of seafood with some delectable smoked halibut cheek cakes (think an earthier, Canadian version of crabcakes) made vivid with a topping of pickled shallots. And vegetarians did not need to fret, for they too had some standout options. Oro‘s mushroom tart with goat cheese ice cream (yes, really—made with a crème anglaise base and everything) was scarf-worthy even for the carnivores in the crowd.
The Platonic Form of brunch (aka soft boiled quail’s egg with beurre blanc, bacon, and crispy shallots). Thank you, Scaramouche.
Surprisingly, though nose-to-tail eating has been the dominant culinary trend for several years now, there was relatively little by way of offal or other exotic-sounding animal bits. Lamb brains, prepared by Buca, were probably the most avant-garde of the dishes, and really very well done. Tightly wrapped in prosciutto and then fried, the result was a textbook study in contrasts: a salty, crisp exterior balanced by mellow, very tender brains inside. (And yes, for the record, we realize how off-putting that sentence probably sounds.)
Our single favourite dish of the evening? Courtesy of Scaramouche: a soft-boiled quail’s egg, drizzled with beurre blanc and topped with slivers of bacon and crispy shallots. (Our only repeat visit, this egg. It was like the distilled essence of brunch.) And though we’ve had it a dozens of times before, when we thought we were full past bursting we somehow found room for Dufflet‘s hazelnut dacquoise, of which we will never tire.
So, a bit of a mixed bag: mixed feelings, mixed reactions to the food. But there was—in intention, in enjoyment, and in sheer effort—considerably more good than bad. And given the cause, that was more than enough.
Photos by Joel Charlebois/Torontoist.