Feb 27, 2009

Festival of Chefs 2009: Starfish

Next in the Festival line-up is Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill proprietor Patrick McMurray, making an appearance at CheeseB on May 3. This will be his second appearance at the Festival.

Breemer and O-reagano go on a field trip...
Walking into Starfish we were immediately taken by the all-encompassing warmth. Warmth from the cozy atmosphere, warmth from the satisfied feeling after eating, and the hospitality emanating from everyone who worked there.

Proprietor and personality Patrick McMurray proved he inherited the Irish gift of gab when he pulled up a seat beside us and chatted about his love of cheese, philosophy of food and his new venture, The Ceili Cottage.

“Cheese is the answer!” That was the statement that began the relationship between McMurray and CheeseB. His love and enthusiasm for cheese is so great he confessed a dream of his to retire out to a farm and make cheese. In fact, rumour has it Afrim may be working on a special whiskey cheese which may become the house cheese for the Ceili Cottage. Whiskey and cheese? What could be better!?!?

Patrick McMurray: man of many hats, including the CheeseB Trophy "Chef Hat" from last year's Festival.

McMurray holds a number of philosophies on food. First and foremost he insisted you have to “have fun with what you’re doing, because if you do it shows on the plate.” This was clear both from the lighthearted nature of everyone we met in the place, but also in the food we devoured. His more practical philosophies have to do with responsibility and sustainability. With an increasing interest in localization he’s taking a very personal approach by buying direct as often as possible and getting to know exactly where the food’s coming from. In fact, he was able to rattle off the names of each farmer or fisherman who grew or caught the ingredients on our plates, even down to the flour used in the bread. He enjoys the close working relationship with artisanal growers and farmers and tries to keep everything as natural as possible.

The localization emphasis is sure to be carried onto his next venture, The Ceili Cottage, which is McMurray’s stab at creating a true Irish local. Located in Leslieville the establishment will be half pub, half Irish dance studio, and oh so much more. McMurray has so many plans for the pub it could be another article entirely.

Seated by the window we were treated to a nice view of a park and the Cathedral Church of St James (which, we learned, is the only church in North America boasting a peal of 12 change-ringing bells… I have a sinking suspicion that McMurray may kick butt in Trivial Pursuit, maybe he’ll have a quiz night at the Ceili Cottage to put all those facts to good use).

Flavourful, luscious, peat-smoked Salmon

For a starter we selected the peat smoked salmon with horseradish crème fraiche, watermelon radish and pumpernickel. Smoked at a higher temperature, the peat gave the salmon not only a lovely fragrant smoky flavour, but a nice texture.

Wild Irish Mussels: Small and Fiesty

The fact that I was able to indulge in Irish mussels was due to about five years of paperwork in which McMurray fought to be able to import oysters in from Ireland, with the oyster ordeal over he proceeded to obtain permission to import other Irish shellfish. As Patrick pointed out, though these wild mussels are smaller in shape, they’re bigger in flavour (who said size mattered anyway?). The mussels were immersed in white wine, garlic and cream, and served with house-cut frites.

Rainbow Trout of remarkable freshness and texture, and fingerling potatoes, mushrooms, veggies for O-reagano

Sticky Toffee Pudding accompanied by a good coffee

On the dessert menu there’s Cheese Boutique’s selection of cheeses with granny smith apple and homemade quince jelly. The List, at the time of our visit, is as follows: Reblochon, an unpasturized cheese from the Savoi with a Brie like consistency and the flavour of an Epoisse, Piave, a cow’s milk cheese from the Piave Rover Valley with a dense texture and a slightly sweet flavour, and Benedictine Blue, an unpasturized cow’s milk blue from the St Benoit du Lac region of Quebec which has been cured for five months.

However, we decided to treat ourselves to the Sticky Toffee Pudding, and boy, are we glad we did. It was at once both delicately fluffy and intensely rich. Savouring every spoonful, the dessert was divine right down to the last bite.

Scooping out the delectable Urchin interior

For an extra special treat we taste-tested sea urchins which had just arrived-- care of Harold Cassaboom in White Head Island, Grand Manan, New Brunswick. While dissecting this spikey, globular guy McMurray commented that it was like doing microsurgery. Inside was a vibrant orange flesh that had a distinct taste. Apparently the taste is something people generally either love or hate, which we proved as O-reagano fell in love with it while Breemer was satisfied with just a tiny taste.

Weathervane Scallop post-operation: Row, Muscle, and Mantle

Our next lesson was with weathervane scallops where we learned that what we normally see served as scallops in restaurants isn’t all there is. In addition to the abductor muscle which is typically served, there’s also the roe (which tasted fresh and sweet) and the mantle (quite salty and crunchy).

O-reagano highly recommends the custom-made Oyster Stout-- it truly does contain Oysters!-- which you can read about on the Starfish blog . Check out this blog for updates on such things as Sea Urchin arrivals and the stories behind fishes and dishes.

All in all, the experience at Starfish surpassed expectations. Come by on a Monday for a good ol’ fashioned session with good food, good tunes and good times. We know we will.



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