Secret Heart – A Valentine’s for Adventurous (Food) Lovers

by Jodie James Elliott

Originally posted February 2013.

Elk heart

On the corner of College and Rusholme, stands a classic example of Toronto’s Victorian Commercial architecture – red bricks blackened by decades of sun exposure, columns in the Ionic order. Though most of its charming features were only discovered after Len Senater had taken over the former convenience store. Peeling back the layers of corrugated plastic signage, and cardboard, has revealed a space that a pub franchiser would envy – although such a person would likely gut the place and fill it with imitation walnut MDF wainscoting and framed portraits of late-19th-century nobodies. This is The Depanneur home to the Rusholme Park Supper Club, and inside, a small culinary troupe frantically puts together the final touches of a Valentine’s dinner called Secret Heart – A Valentine’s for Adventurous (Food) Lovers.

I arrive early but this gives me a chance to hit the oysters, supplied by Sue Littleton, competitive oyster-shucker and my dinner companion for this evening. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her so we catch up as she prepares the oysters. Sue is a whiz at this. She succeeds in covering the ice with the naked mollusks in less time than it takes me finish my first glass of Pinot Noir (Loveblock). This will mean something to anyone who has ever sat down for a drink with me.

Sue prefers Canadian oysters, which are available in winter. Here, she presents a selection from both the east and west coasts of Canada. The east coast oysters, from Village Bay, New Brunswick, are harvested through the ice in winter. The other selection, Kusshi, come from the northern tip of Vancouver Island and are believed to have a cleaner taste than other varieties from the Left Coast.

She shucks one for me. I want to concentrate on the taste of the oyster itself so I skip the garnish for now. It’s plump, intensely briny with a fresh aftertaste similar to cucumber. You can research wine pairings on your own for more suggestions, but Sue recommends a New Zealand Chardonnay for the best option. If you prefer to keep it Canadian – as she usually does – then try it with a Niagara Dry Riesling, such as Hidden Beach or Thirty Bench.

The Village Bay oysters have a clean, rounder taste. Their earthy flavor comes from the heavy lime deposits caused by the run-off from the pine trees surrounding the bay. During the time it takes me to sample the first two oysters, Sue has shucked about a dozen more. She’s been shucking competitively since her first competition in Montreal almost four years ago. Currently, she places sixth in all of Ontario.

Oysters by Sue Littleton

Among the usual garnishes of freshly-grated horseradish, pickled chilies, and Tabasco sauces, we also have Len’s Love Potion, a homemade concoction of infused olive oil, tangerine peel, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, chili, black sesame, among other things. This is applied to the oyster using an eyedropper. What aspiring chef doesn’t enjoy experimenting with aphrodisiacs from time to time.

The other guests have arrived and are gathered around the oyster bar as Len and his team finish the final preparations. It is a good mix of people, ages ranging from mid-20s to late 50s. One of them, a man about my age, samples a Kusshi, applying Len’s potion with a heavy hand.

“How is it,” asks his date.

“Yeah, I definitely felt it move.”

Eventually we take our seats at the table and Len welcomes us with a brief background of the Supper Club and its rules:

The Depanneur is where interesting food things happen. So far, there have been about 100 Supper Club meetings since its inception. By paying the $80 membership fee, we become members for one evening. Normally the membership fee is $40, but today is an exception. While attending the meeting, members are served a free multi-course meal. No alcohol is bought or sold on the premises – but of course, members are entitled to bring their own bottle and there is no corking fee. The object of the club is to “disentangle quality and luxury.” Later, Len will explain to me that of all the Supper Clubs hosted at the Depanneur so far, this is by far, the most elaborate, technically complicated, and expensive dinner he has ever created.

Here goes.


The Aperitif (formerly known as the “Bukkaktail”)

We open with a bukkaktail. Well, it was meant to be called The Bukkaktail, but someone must have talked Len out of it, so instead we are served The Aperitif (formerly known as the “Bukkaktail”). Hence, the offensive title has been cleverly rendered hypothetical. And who could possibly take offense to a hypothesis? Besides, I think most of us are quite aware by now of the incalculable contribution pornography has made to our culture. It was because of porn that VHS became the dominant medium of home entertainment over the superior quality of Beta. It was because of porn that the Internet became more than a tool used exclusively by lab technicians at obscure universities. It was the porn industry that determined BlueRay should be the successor to DVD. Porn has had more influence over our culture, technology and economy than France. Why shouldn’t this little glass of white goo pay homage to one of porn’s casual little subgenres?

The cocktail is made with an unfiltered sake – milk sake, if you will – stirred with ice wine, Żubrówka Buffalo Grass Vodka, yuzu, and basil seeds. The yuzu gives it an overall floral taste and settles at the bottom in a thick, chewy finish as it splashes down our throats.

Bleeding Heart / Burning Heart / Beet’n Heart – Platter for Two

Elk. The bull tenderly cares for his harem.

The majestic elk is one of the largest species of deer in the world. The average bull weighs about 320 kg, stands about one and half metres at the shoulder, its antlers can grow to over a metre in length. Elk usually travel in single-sex groups in and around forests, but from August into early winter they enter their mating period called a rut. At this time a dominant bull will leave his gang and find himself a harem of about 20 cows or more which he proudly protects by patrolling and standing up to any sizable rival. Its mighty heart pumps an average 46 times per minute.

Unless, of course, that heart is on my plate.

elk-heart-tartareElk enjoy eating the tender shoots that sprout from the ground in spring so sunflower sprouts is an appropriate garnish. I’m not sure if they also eat dried wild blueberries and nasturtium capers but these have been deliciously added to the elk heart tartare. The capers give it a nutty taste. Overall, the tartare has a delicate and bouncy texture that is pleasant. I eat the raw heart with reverence – for I expect to inherit the elk’s power.

On the same plate we are also served two duck hearts, spiced and sautéed in garlic and butter. The man sitting next to me is a bit of a sommelier hobbyist and could be a goldmine of useful information right now, but I am distracted by the bed of duck liver pâté upon which the spicy duck hearts rest. This is seasoned with Len’s Chinese 5-spice blend and served with homemade sourdough crisps, provided by Nice Buns Bakery, which also operates out of the Depanneur. I wish I could eat this all night. Some people believe that when you really need something, the Universe will just give it to you. Well, Len has just announced that there’s enough pâté left over for seconds. Wait, it gets better. Not everyone at the table has room for seconds. So guess who gets thirds. I know what you’re thinking. But I think foie gras, when served in small single portions, is pretentious.

I should mention that this course also includes heritage beets with fresh hearts of palm. Shout out to the vegetarians.

The Soup

Jewish food isn’t typically known for being sexy but the Cock & Balls Jamaican Soup – made with Chinese black chicken and nutmeg matzah balls – would be an exception. Event the schmaltz, infused with saffron, is sexy. The broth has some bite and is made from Chinese black chicken. This gives the stock its intense flavour and dark grassy colour. The matzah balls, shaped in the classic quenelle, get their kick from the fresh Jamaican nutmeg.

Breast / Belly / Loin – Platter for Two

This dish calls attention to our erogenous zones by taking the scopophilic ‘male gaze’ approach to assemblage plating. Without getting too deep into second-generation feminist/film theory, it simply means that I, the viewer, am the dominant power, and this dish is the passive object of my desire.

Thus, fragmentation occurs as follows:

Breast. The lamb is fresh but I think I still prefer the shank, seared rare.

Loin. Why is it so hard to find beef tenderloin at the supermarket, anyway? I once went to the butcher in Kensington Market thinking I’d have no trouble picking some up there. When I asked for it, the butcher went to the back and returned with a massive length of meat slung over his shoulder. He would only sell it to me whole. I’ll have to ask Len if he can hook me up – but I suppose he’s buying in bulk too.

Belly. Pork belly is a stately slab of fat. When braised in apple cider and Blanche de Chambly, it is luscious.

This Dionysian carnage is served over truffled celeriac and potato purée, with cherry-garlic confit and a port-spiked jus. The wild-forged mushrooms include chanterelles, yellow foot, and hedgehog, giving the plate a solid, earthy grounding. Vegetables include carrots and depodded sugar snap peas, fun little spheres of various sizes bouncing around.

Sue is already full. She simply can’t do it anymore and insists I finish the plate.

“Are you sure,” I ask, already filling my mouth with her share.

Shoots & Leaves

shoots-leavesAn artful little salad comprised of a spicy sprout and microgreen mix, with edible flowers, and topped with a champagne-ginger pomegranate jelly, and passion-fruit vinaigrette. The microgreens, all local Ontario and in season, include buckwheat and sunflower sprouts, fragrant like a meadow. I have to say this salad is really fucking good. It’s like drinking Prosecco in the shade while someone else mows the lawn.

The Dessert – Platter for Two

In the centre is a bowl of warm chocolate ganache. The problem with tasting real chocolate of this quality is that you can never go back common chocolate. So much for that inexpensive pleasure. The list of exotic fruits surrounding this little oasis is too long to include here (I’ve footnoted them below). But you can’t just sit there with this plate in front of you and not marvel at the spoils of globalization. Remember when the only fruit available in winter was canned peaches?


At the end, we are brought a ruby port with a pinch of pink peppercorn. Pink peppercorn is called baie rose in French. I’m surprised no one thought to capitalize on that sexy opportunity. Three-and-a-half-hours later we have finished dinner and Sue, my friend and charming dinner companion, presents me with a Valentine’s gift: a 12-inch single of Nina Hagen’s New York.


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