New Italian At The Old Prune

Earlier this week, I was invited by Mary Luz of Sizzling Communications to a dinner at The Prune in Stratford. The meal would be cooked by Italian chef Paolo Lopriore as part of The Stratford Chefs School's International Celebrity Chef-In-Residence Series. Hailing from Siena in Italy's Tuscany region, Chef Lopriore, along with student chef Beja Cassiano, created a beautiful menu for us on a blustery January night.
The Stratford Chefs School is devoted to developing in young Canadian chefs a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of classical cuisines in today's market, and an appreciation of the challenge of operating a successful restaurant.
Students not only work in the kitchen, but gain experience in all areas of running a restaurant, including various front-of-house duties. The Chef-In-Residence program is a great opportunity for student chefs to work alongside some of the most renowned professionals in their field from around the world. School co-founder Eleanor Kane, says it's a key program that sets the Stratford school apart. "Providing first contact with international restaurant chefs is important in our recruitment strategy. [Lopriore's] exacting approach and attention to detail made a huge impact on students and our culinary instructors. We anticipate another exciting immersion into Italian cooking and culture."

Lopriore helms the kitchen of Il Canto, the restaurant of the Hotel Certosa di Maggiano, which has been voted one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. He apprenticed under legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who considered Lopriore his best student, and has worked in kitchens across Europe, including in Italy, France and Norway.
Paolo Lopriore's love of food comes honestly. Kitchen life started out at the foot of his mama - a self-taught and passionate home cook who instilled in Paolo the need for quality local, seasonal ingredients long before either term was a catch-phrase on restaurant menus. After school, his talent caught the eye of the great Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan. Lopriore worked under Marchesi's tutelage in Florence and at L'Albereta in Brescia. In 2002, he took over as Head Chef of Il Canto, ranking 39 in the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2011. His is a menu that's non-traditional- a bold move in one of the most protected culinary regions of Italy.
Arriving a bit late for dinner (thanks rush-hour traffic), we quickly caught up to our fellow diners, starting with the amuse bouche: a gorgeous, velvety, savoury egg custard, served in the shell and topped with chives and caviar. This was a very good start indeed. It was followed by a sweet and sour eggplant caponata with shrimp. While the shrimp was beautifully cooked and full of flavour, I'm sorry Chef, but this dish didn't alter my loathing of eggplant.

The pasta course was a visually stunning risotto blackened with squid ink ad topped with squid. The rice was creamy with a nice bite, and the fish was tender and delicate. Second only to the amuse, the main course was my favourite dish served that night. The venison with blueberry sauce was simple, yet packed quite a punch. The meat was almost fork tender and juicy, and the sauce was a perfect match for it. It wasn't overly sweet, and matched the seasoning of the venison perfectly. The wine we had with the main course was a delicious Sangiovese from the same region as the chef - 2009 Collemattoni Rosso di Montalcino. It's fruit forward, smooth, full-bodied and juicy with very little tannins. I'm now obsessed with finding it.

We ended our dinner with a pair of desserts. First up was a dish that gave credence to reports that Chef Lopriore's food can sometimes be "challenging". The lemon honey pudding with coffee ice cream was certainly... assertive. The combination of intensely sour lemon flavour with unsweetened coffee was not one I enjoyed, and the presence of a lot of lemon zest was reminiscent of shredded, dried coconut, which is a texture I'm not fond of.

The second dessert offering was definitely more my speed. We were presented with baskets of mint and pistachio tuilles, and dark and white chocolate pops with herbs. The tuilles has a satisfying crunch and a lovely, light sweetness. I only tried the dark chocolate pop, and had a delightful mouth surprise when I bit into it and got a mouthful of herby spearmint gel. Wonderful.

Thanks to Mary Luz for giving me the opportunity to attend this dinner, Chefs Lopriore and Cassiano for putting out a tremendous meal, the school's Executive Director Kimberly Payne for being a delightful host, and all the student staff working the dining room at The Prune that night for making the entire evening smooth and delightful. Oh, and to Rossy for the lift! Cin cin!

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