From the first time I stepped into a friendly little fish shop in Leslieville called Hooked, I was… well… you can fill in the rest. Chef owned and operated, husband and wife mega-duo Kristin and Dan Donovan have assembled a small yet exceptionally skilled and abundantly knowledgeable team who can talk your ear off until next Tuesday about their sustainable catches.
Champions of the slow food and slow fish movement, proud partner of Ocean Wise and SeaChoice, among many others, Hooked has been a leading name in the sustainable seafood game since mid 2011.
One of the most unique elements of this eco-friendly enterprise is that they host cooking classes at their Leslieville location (they also have an outpost in Kensington Market), the other night, however, I had the privilege of being catered by these pesce peeps at one of the Evergreen Brick Works’ GE Café Chef Series. Running on the first Tuesday of every month, Evergreen assembles a local chef alongside a winery for an interactive, demonstrative and deliciously topical meal. On this day, each course was enhanced with a pairing by Ilya Rubin of 13th Street Winery in St. Catherines.
Setting up and cooking for the first time ever using their outdoor wood burning clay and brick oven, the sun splashed playfully off the “Valley” chimney as Kristin and her crew cooked up a masterful meal consisting of mostly locally caught and farmed lake fish. Perhaps the most rewarding element of the evening was watching Kristin and counterpart Fred Gunnarsson entirely in their element – while actually being quite removed from it.
Imploring a temperamental wood burning oven for the first time, eyeing out measurements and generally MacGyver-ing the process from gills to the gut, it was great to see others cook the way I like to – through trial and taste, with ingenuity and passion. These two truly know how to cook – cook well – and are always opening up their shop or their phone lines to help at-homer’s get the most out of their fish.
Starting things off with a selection of smoked fish from Ontario and BC alongside a fizzy glass of Cuvee 13 Rose – the Georgian Bay whitefish was wonderful, a steelhead trout from Lois Lake, BC was pink and pristine, and the Lake Eerie pickerel was happily making a second appearance later in the meal. Top a crusty piece of bread from Bix Bakery with Hooked’s house made cream cheese, the salty bite of a caper berry, or a pickled beet and I’m laughing all the way to my second helping!
A light, summer-fresh yellow perch from Taylor Fisheries was poached in a court bouillon complimented by an aromatic garlic scape pesto, poached garlic scape, and bright cherry tomatoes. This was a true seasonal treat. The unoaked June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 was a nice floral accompaniment with more pleasing minerality than one often gets from a Chard.
Next was the elusive, yet abundant silver bass, also from Taylor Fisheries in Lake Eerie. Apparently this is actually a carnivorous species that’s a burden to the local ecosystem. Highly popular in the Asian market, nearly all of the fantastic, sweet, soft bass gets shipped abroad. Pan fried on seasoned cast iron in the wood-oven and placed overtop of grilled asparagus, and otherworldly tartar sauce with cornichon brine and tarragon that came together before our eyes – this was a healthy twist on what could be your next ‘fish and chips’ dinner. The June’s Vineyard Riesling 2011 that came alongside the silver bass was fruity but not overly sweet, surprisingly crisp and refreshing.
The final fish course – a lightly smoked and grilled pickerel from Wheatley, Ontario – was lifted up even further with a Bloody Good Pink Pinot (seriously, that’s actually what they call it). The BGPP Rose 2011 – a 50-50 mix of pinot noir and pinot gris – offered an exceptionally sweet and acidic balance with the crispy, salty skin of the fish and savoury garlic butter on top. Sided up with a sensational warm summer salad of fingerling potatoes and green beans with a tangy hit of Dijon mustard and white wine vinegar, fresh herbs and salty caper berries, this was my favourite dish of the night.
We finished off in seasonal form with a refreshing rhubarb ice cream by Bix Bakery on pizzelle with a fresh mint garnish.
For gastronomes and those who love to cook at home, there was so much to be learned and savoured at this event. The environmentally-industrial backdrop of Brick Works (I know that seems like an oxymoron, but it’s not) and the charisma of Kristin and her team (and likely all of the chefs that participate in this series) made this one of the more engaging dinners I’ve attended in quite some time.