House of Commons (Underground Restaurant)
Mon Cheri likes to do surprises for me once in a while. This one started in a curious way with him telling me 10 minutes before our event that I must come up with a joke. That did throw me off. With both of us being hangry, it took a while to agree on a funny one, but we came to it nonetheless.
At an agreed time, we waited around on a small street by a large parking. It was rather desolate there until other couples started arriving. Lastly, a man dressed in black walked out and sat on a piano stool a few feet away from us. He was not picky on the quality of humour as everyone was telling him the “password” joke to get in. There was even a need for air-drums at the punchline in some cases. This process added to my confusion. A few moments later, we were cleared and given instruction on where to go.
After a quick stroll up the stairs, we were soon welcomed by a smiling lady offering us sparkling wine and asking how our day was. The large guest room was filled with abstract art with a massive table taking up a chunk of space. An owl (House of Commons signature bird) painting was overlooking the seating area further adorned with several crafted artifacts. A private dinner in an “underground restaurant” in a company of local folks was on the menu for us. We wandered around while waiting for all the guests to arrive and walked out to the lovely patio with the fired up BBQ. Our socializing part was initially focused on a man with a very familiar voice. Mon Cheri knew who it was, but kept it a secret from me. Then I heard the name Jesse and all started to make sense.
Still unsure about the format of this one-of- a-kind event, we were all called to the table. The seating was smartly organized with people to the right and left of you on the bench being strangers. When Jesse Hirsch introduced himself and the event, I was finally on the same page as everyone else! Sarah, the owner, followed with her story of starting this awesome career of running an underground restaurant three days a week.
Now that we had finished our Cava, we moved to white wine. On offer was a local Niagara Sussereserve Riesling from Rosewood Estates with a Market Green Salad - grilled radicchio, pickled roots, and squash, on top of an arugula greens bed, topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. This turned out to be a great complement for the alcohol, but the truly magical part was the fresh chef-made feta cheese and a few marigold leafs. The sheep cheese had a smooth texture and silky skin, it was so fresh and juicy - a real treat.
Brad Kurtenbach, the baker at Marben, introduced each dish with the attention it deserved. He did so, while our professional waiter served the dishes in a delicate manner, with us hardly noticing his presence throughout. Between every dish, Jesse Hersh kept our discussion going with people participating and yet leaving the conversation open-ended for us to carry on with our neighbours as we enjoyed our food.
on Cheri sat across, which gave me an opportunity to join conversations with strangers on both the left and right side. It wasn't a big crowd, our larger table had ten guests and a smaller one to the side fit another four with Jesse joining. After our salads, three Malpeques PEI, Caraquet Oysters came in. They were served on wooden boards, on top of a bed of white rice with a zesty wild leek and cava mignonette. Mon Cheri is no fan, so I enjoyed this simple and fresh second course with my neighbour. Sarah made sure that folks who did not want shellfish got their own appetizer - slow roasted tomatoes and pickled mushrooms seared in parmesan cheesed balsamic vinegar. These tomatoes are Mon Cheri’s favorite, and they were done just right - slightly sweet with their smokey skins. Soft sour-dough bread accompanied these dishes, and contributed to their excellence.
Our evening advanced as we talked about the place of social capital in our lives, which lead to the topics of micro-transactions and social media. This became a rather close-to- heart issue so we got to hear more insightful replies. At that point, our mains arrived. There was a lot to pick from. Grilled Ontario asparagus and heirloom carrots were on a side for sharing and in front of us was butter poached and roasted Cornish Hen. The bird was perfectly cooked skin and very tender meat, everyone got a half with both wing and leg included. We were warned by the chef in his introduction that a bit of pink meat is just a part of a process and no cause for alarm. The dish was very tender, but unfortunately the conversations around out tables were getting more engaging and folks paid less attention to the food at that point. If that delicious treat was not enough, there was also BBQ Grey County Lake Trout, which was also shared with our immediate neighbours. The fish was cooked to perfection and accompanied with Brussel Sprouts. These mains were paired with a 2014 Pinot Noir from The Grange in PEC.
Lastly our dessert arrived - maple BBQ sprints with chef’s made creamed yoghurt. Served in espresso cups, this light and healthy dessert had unexpected hints of cardamom spice. It was delightful and very low in sugar.
hile this dinner experience was about the beautiful cuisine playing on the local ingredients, fresh and pure flavours of our rich land, the skilfully steered conversations flowing at the table were equally as important. It was such a great feeling meeting fellow Torontonians some of them turned out to be living in our neighbourhood. Starting off as strangers and leaving as friends, is precisely how this evening felt with both our palates and minds well entertained.