A Little Winterlicious Brain Stew, Anyone?
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A Little Winterlicious Brain Stew, Anyone?

A mystery dinner cooked by one of Toronto's top chefs? Yes please! Brain stew, lamb's testicles, and a pig's head? Erm...

Guests await their mystery dinners at Parts & Labour.

Guests await their mystery dinners at Parts & Labour.

Winterlicious Culinary Events
Various venues
January 25 to February 7
$45 to $120

“There’ll be brains and sweetbreads…I will crush you with food.” Matty Matheson, head chef at Parkdale’s Parts & Labour restaurant, makes it clear from the outset that his menu is not for the meek, abstemious, or vegetarian.

That’s okay. His guests knew what they were getting themselves into when they booked—sort of. They’re here for the Four Ways Dinner, one of the culinary events put on as part of this year’s Winterlicious festival. For their $75, attendees will be getting a four-course dinner cooked by one of the Group of Seven Chefs, a Toronto-based troop of bearded and tattooed chefs who champion local, sustainable food. They collaborate from time to time on events like this.

Four of the Group of Seven are taking part, but diners are not to be told which of the four will be cooking for their communal table—or of what each menu will comprise—until the very last minute.

Will it be the Tempered Chef’s Bertrand Alépée, who promises a “French gastronomic adventure”? Or Chris Brown from The Stop Community Food Centre, known for his love of Italian food? Who will get the nose-to-tail extravaganza by the Beast Restaurant’s Scott Vivien, or the “hunter feast” planned by Matheson? Potent Manhattan cocktails help to deaden any pre-revelation jitters.

In Torontoist’s case, it’s Matheson who strides over and asks whether everyone likes pork, mentions the word “trotters,” and enthusiastically drops the lamb’s brain and sweetbreads bomb. People smile nervously.

Out comes the appetizer: white bread, made by Matheson’s mom, accompanied by bone marrow and sardines, with a bottarga dressing and watercress. The bone marrow isn’t as overpoweringly rich as it sometimes can be, and the sardines have a nicely charred, meaty flavour with just the right amount of saltiness.

The brain stew.

The brain stew.

This is followed by a “sweet winter stew,” served family style. It contains sweetbreads, lamb brains, pork belly, scallops, trotters, and oats. One diner dives into the contents of her plate with particular gusto. “We eat everything in Spain. But we need some more bread, to mop up the brains,” she explains.

Just as everyone’s digesting this morsel of information, Matheson arrives with his pièce de resistance: a pig’s head, with quails—including one protruding from piggy’s mouth—served in a tray with roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. Pairs of white rubber gloves are handed out to help with (there’s no gentle way to put this) the ripping apart of the carcass. It’s a macabre scene, but there’s no denying the juiciness of the pork cheeks or the sweetness of the earthy Brussels.

The pièce de resistance.

The pièce de resistance.

A meal like this needs a hearty dessert, which comes in the form of a huge chocolate zucchini cake cooked by Matheson’s mom (thanks again, Mrs. M), with a glass of cream and chocolate milk drizzled with strawberry Nesquik syrup.

On the other communal tables straddling the dark, high-ceilinged room, people are tucking into salted caramel millefeuille, panna cotta with candied orange and chestnuts, and sticky toffee pudding with foie gras. Judging by the increasingly jovial clatter of conversation, they’ve enjoyed the rest of their meals too, which have included smoked haddock ravioli, pasta e fagoli, and crispy duck tongues—not all at the same time.

But Matheson can sleep easy; everyone on this table is looking pretty crushed. That was some feast.

The Four Ways Dinner was a one-off event on Feb. 4th, but there are more culinary events on the Winterlicious calendar:

Photos by Charlotte Santry/Torontoist.