Monday, February 02, 2009

The Hipster as an Artifact of Late Capitalism, Part I: The Black Hoof

It was our honeymoon. We were freshly off the plane, jet lagged, and I was hungry. However, as we were in Milan, and it was about 3 in the afternoon, not much was open.

So we wandered in search of food, happening upon a grocery store. We ambled in, and I grabbed a plastic-wrapped prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich.

And that was it. The prosciutto was sweet and succulent, with just enough saltiness to enhance the flavours present without it. It was beautiful.

I spent the rest of my honeymoon eating as much prosciutto as possible. Returning to Toronto, I was dismayed to discover the truth that many of us discover upon our returns - the good stuff doesn't travel.

For years, I sought out decent prosciutto, which, at the very least, would compare to the inexpensive sandwich-grade prosciutto I found at that Milanese grocery store. Occasionally I would happen upon some good stuff, usually at St. Lawrence Market, but it was never consistent - fine prosciutto one week became the salty-dried porcine husk you were sliced and handed two weeks later.

As reliability is the cornerstone of consumer choice, I flailed wildly about in my pursuit, hoping that one day, I would find a deli that delivered the prosciutto I had savoured Italy, all the time. But to no avail.

Local restaurants were not much better, and vastly more expensive. The much vaunted Terroni, purveyor of traditional southern Italian food, generally served disappointing Canadian prosciutto.

Here I must make a confession - I have never understood Toronto's love of Terroni's, and with it the long line ups that snake out the door of the Queen Street location. I have been there a number of times, in part because so many people love the place, rave about it, would throw themselves into the lake if it closed down.

Yet each time I found it lacking, especially when the bill came - how much for pizza and water? Really? So I remain unconvinced, but I haven't been there in 5 years now, so what good is my opinion at this stage?

Anyway, one evening, we visited a lonely restaurant on Stracahan, just off the Queen West strip. It was called Bollicine. And it was there that I tasted what I had longed for, that Proustian moment of biting into a soft mound of cured ham and being transported instantaneously to Verona - the dislocation of time and space through ham.

Each time we returned to Bollicine I encountered the same delicious prosciutto. Bollicine's prosciutto, as well as their other food, came as close to real Italian food as anything I had experienced here in Toronto. And remarkably, Bollicine was the nearest restaurant (at the time) to our place in Liberty Village.

So it should come as no surprise to any of you that Bollicine went out of business.


That was 3 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Back when I wrote this piece on Ossington, the piece that is, far and away, the most read piece on The Transcontinental, my one true "hit", which, in the greatest irony, has a mistake in it so egregious that I am surprised that no one has ever called me on it, a mistake which I have now corrected having noticed it but which a trace remains for those who bother to look for it.

I now live on Grace Street. So I am actually much closer to Ossington than I was back when first found myself interested in what was happening in the area, the area which feels most like my neighbourhood in Toronto for reasons which I cannot entirely fathom.

And like all the other failed projects the choke this blog, that entry to be part of a series of pieces on what I'll name the Trinity-Bellwoods district, which is, without a doubt, the epicentre of Toronto's cultural consciousness.

One of those pieces was going to be on Dundas Street, which, like Ossington at the time, was undergoing a similar kind of transformation. It would have been nice to be able to show you what has changed over the years, but I can't, because I never got around to it, just as so many things cannot be resumed simply because time has passed, and what once seemed necessary now seems irrelevant.

All I can show you is now. And are fewer places that are more now than the Black Hoof, which, like Bollicine, now has the distinction of being the restaurant nearest to my current home.

They themselves lack a website, although given the near unanimous praise, the Black Hoof, whose name is an Anglicisation of a Spanish ham and not the 19th Century Chief of the Shawnee, is pretty much the hottest thing going.

It is always busy. I know this because I walk by it all the time. Because it is right next to where I live. And as you know from my own story, I have a special love for cured meats, which, supposedly, is a "craze" in Toronto these days.

So it should come as no surprise to any of you that I went there one night with a friend. This is what we had:

The prosciutto was, frankly, underwhelming. But the Serrano ham was a revelation, a soft little mountain of piggy heaven that nearly brought me to tears of delight. More astounding, through some kind of gustatory alchemy, it made all the other meats on the slab taste really, really good.

Now the evening wasn't entirely without its problems. Firstly, they forgot our order. This was especially despairing as we sat directly across from the guy who sliced all the meat. So we sat there, watching him slice meat, delicious meat, none of it intended for us. Eventually, we asked what was going on, and apologies were made, and we were brought a variety of free cocktails.

Unfortunately, what would have been ever nicer than the wonderful free cocktails would have been more meat. If you bother to read the review I've linked to, you may notice that people talk of the place's affordability. It's true - the place isn't that expensive, but a plate of sliced meat, perhaps surprisingly, doesn't actually leave someone terribly sated, especially if they've been plied with apologetic cocktails.

Nevertheless, we left the place astounded, the heaped upon praise fully justified, and we were happy to part with our money for the experience.

The next day, I reflected on our meal, and I wondered why The Grizzly House kept leaping to mind.

I had (have) long entertained the idea of opening a fondue and hot rock restaurant here in Toronto, a place where you slice meat and vegetables and then charge people to cook it themselves. Moreover, elements of the Grizzly House aesthetic (tacky, thrown together, everyday things at exclusive prices) constitute a core part of the Queen West/Dundas West/Ossington aesthetic, wherein the hipster culture that fuels these places finds increasingly sophisticated and expensive ways to fuel their love of the grubby.

The Black Hoof, like other recent additions to the area, embodies the area's hipness, which is to unabashedly charge its patrons a lot of money for something deliberately unremarkable.

"Hypocrisy! Andrew, you enjoyed the place, you loved it, you obsessed over sliced meat for months after going there, you thought of taking your son, as he too has a weakness for cured meats. How can you castigate them?"

Please do not misunderstand me, but let's be clear. They slice meat and mix drinks. And people can't get enough of it. They do stuff with marrow and pork belly too, which is also delicious, but what it isn't is remarkable. What's remarkable is that people have never encountered any of this before, what's remarkable is that sliced meat and cocktails is something new and astounding.

How strangely provincial this amazement over the Black Hoof is. Here we are, in a big, cosmopolitan city, and yet here in the heart of Little Portugal, right next to Little Italy, a block from a butcher, and people speak of the Black Hoof as though they had just seen that man had upon the moon strode.

I ask you - Do they slice their meat in a special way? Does the love they make their drinks with make them more alcoholic? Does the white enamel stove they have with the electric burners cook pork belly more consistently? Is it horrifying to simply say no, they don't?

What is truly remarkable is that my neighbourhood is chock a block with restaurants and furniture stores and art galleries that are premised on the improvement of the mass market everyday, a revolution in culinary and aesthetic experience of the everyday the likes of which no one has ever encountered.

Their aesthetic program, and it is both aesthetic and a program (indeed, one restaurant advertises their ideology on their website) is to elevate the industrial, mass-market goods that we all grew up with, grew out of and grew to despise, and convert them into art. The slavish care once reserved for coq au vin is now lavished on the hamburger.

There is a word for all this, my friends- it's KITSCH.

The dark heart of the latte-slurping vintage hipster elite West Queen Dundas West Ossington denizens is nothing more and nothing less than than a conception of taste that is the deliberate, cultivated, self-conscious absence of taste.

Closer to home, the Black Hoof now looks like an ill fit for this grand thèse. And this is probably why I would still recommend the Black Hoof - it is not their fault that cured meats were somehow non-existent to Torontonians (of a certain socio-economic class) until they (that class) "discovered" them.

Although the Black Hoof is the cause of these renewed reflections on my world, it is not, by any stretch, a neat example of the thesis which knits them together. Much better is the fact that most restaurants in the area have a house poutine. Just say those words together - house poutine.

"Yes, waiter, I'll have the house poutine. No, I'll eat it here, and tell the cook not to scrimp or char the carmelized onions!"

But that's to come. Or, if this blog is to be at all consistent, this will be the only post ever.

Or, the first stop will be Burger Shoppe Quality Meats.

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