Deana Lancaster Does Shrooms And Eats Horse at L’Altro Buca
by Deana Lancaster | It’s autumn. Curled and broken leaves layer the sidewalk like sodden paper mâché, and a cement sky is gray with rain. It’s my favourite season, but still, it weighs heavily. Time to pull the crock-pot from its hiding place behind the toaster and load it with browned meat, fistfuls of herbs, and wild mushrooms that taste of the forest they were found in.
Even better: to slip into the quiet, art deco elegance of L’Altro Buca in the West End to satisfy my craving for crispy-skinned meats and the lusty flavours of fungi at Andrey Durbach’s annual Game and Wild Mushroom Festival. The ingredients that Durbach sources – locally foraged morels, chanterelles, matsutake, porcini and field mushrooms – are more varied and pristine than what I can dig up (figuratively, if not literally), and his cooking is much more refined than I can accomplish (with crock-pot or not).
It was near impossible to make choices from the 15 or so dishes available.
Diners can order a la carte, or by three or four-course menu ($45 and $50 respectively, with wine pairings extra). I could happily have loaded the table with them all, but then might have been stuck there to hibernate until spring. So we picked.
Plump Hokkaido scallops, seared to golden, were arranged with crispy boar belly, cauliflower purée and the pungent sweetness of balsamic vinaigrette; they paired beautifully with the soft bubbles of Pasqua Prosecco.
Like tiny treasure chests of dough, we found handmade porcini mushroom gnocchi hidden in the wild mushroom soup, under a velvety slick of herb crema, all of it well matched with a bright and buttery glass of Prato Grande Chardonnay.
The funny thing about a mushroom menu: so much of it is brown and unassuming looking. Its appearance gives no hint of the deliciously rich flavours contained within.
Like the spiral nest of beige chestnut tagliatelle, coated in earthy mushroom purée, buttered cabbage and melted Taleggio cheese; or the modest-looking crescents of foie gras tortellini floating in a deeply satisfying brodo that filled the nostrils with its heady aroma.
This menu is about more than just fungi. The brawny list of game includes bison, rabbit, boar, venison, pheasant and even horse. I’ve read about that last – horsemeat is lean, high in protein and has regained popularity in Europe in recent years, since horses are not susceptible to mad cow disease – but I’ve never eaten it. But I can’t do this much-envied gig without a willingness to sample whatever’s cooking; hesitation has no place here.
So I made my husband order it.
Grilled to medium rare, the tenderloin was meaty and dense, served with sweet garlic purée, roasted field mushrooms, Chianti and olive oil. It wasn’t unpleasant, but we struggled with the slight aftertaste, and I suspect, with our own bias about it. A glass of full-bodied Accordini Valpolicella certainly helped.
An ample breast of pheasant — poached and roasted, juicy and tender — was much easier, the plate artfully studded with foie gras-stuffed morels, Parma ham and vin santo sauce. It was perfectly paired with a gently spicy, berry-hued Renero Pinot Noir.
We finished the meal, this ode to Autumn, with zeppolini, pretty and perfect Italian doughnuts dusted with a fine sugar, nuzzled into soft caramel and poached pears.
Fall was tardy this year, letting us lull through late summer with sultry, sunny afternoons; and sneaking in a side entrance much later than usual. But we’re into it now, and there seems no more fitting way to welcome it.
Deana Lancaster is an authentic pop culture vulture who will cop to an addiction to EW.com that is as insatiable as those she has for all things gourmet, great shoes, cool tunes and the Huffington Post. A 12-year staffer at the North Shore News, she serves as the paper’s food & wine editor, features editor, and dabbles in some selective freelancing. If she’s not at her computer, she’s likely hanging with her family — or depending on the season — surfing at Long Beach or snowboarding Cypress.