Portland Variety has become a King West institution creating intriguing cocktails and impeccable cuisine inside their elegantly casual space. The man behind the menu is Chef Jo Castrinos. We asked Chef Castrinos five questions shedding light on his culturally-rooted take on cuisine, his favourite menu items, and the ingredients he couldn’t cook without.
Q. If we think of food as the distillation of hundreds of years of culture and history - which dish on the current Portland Variety menu has its roots most firmly planted in your personal history?
It's the grilled octopus with smoked tomato, Iberico Chorizo and fennel pollen. The octopus most reminds me of my family, it was always the start to most holiday meals. Simply grilled and served with olive oil, lemon and some dried wild oregano picked from the hills around our native town in Greece. It is my favourite ingredient. It is a dish I have introduced to many; especially back in the day when most people were terrified of it.
The chili oil is something I've always kept as a condiment in my kitchen it makes everything it's drizzled on sing. The sherry vinegar has been my preferred vinegar. The octopus is sous vide with bay leaves, which is based on how my mom stewed it, along with fennel seeds, which are my addition to the flavour profile. I used fennel a lot when I began cooking professionally, to the point where one of my first mentors called me the "king of fennel". There is also fresh parsley (which is so underrated and often maligned as was the octopus, but central in all Mediterranean cooking). Lastly the addition of Iberico Chorizo is my nod to Spain. It is a luxury ingredient, which is reflective of the reverence I hold for octopus, and [this dish is] finished with fennel pollen, which mirrors the fennel the octopus is cooked with.
Q. The focus of the menu you designed is its ingredients. Which ingredient from the menu can also be found in your home kitchen?
It would have to be olive oil. By olive oil I mean extra virgin, accept no substitutes. At Portland we use it for everything from pan searing to finishing.
Q. Why is that ingredient so important for your work?
It is an integral part of most sauces. We use it to give a richer flavour for or Patatas Bravas after we initially steam them and prepare them for service. It adds richness and balance to all of our dishes, and a flavour profile of a rich ancient heritage. It is our link to all the cuisines we pay tribute to and the primary ingredient, apart from salt, that they all have in common.
We use a " softer" tasting olive oil. When olive oil is initially pressed it is too peppery for [me]. In Greece we let the oil sit for a year to mellow out or get softer. The oil I use at home is from my brother's olive trees from our native island Lesbos. It is an ingredient we often take for granted, but it is everything.
Q. What item on the current menu do you most often crave?
The striped bass crudo. I could eat it everyday. The flavour profile is very clean and in the style of a ceviche. The olive oil finish of course is what gives it balance. Crudo and a mezcal margarita is the breakfast of champions.
Q. Which ingredient comes to you with the most interesting origin story?
I love our beef which is local and from the Southern Ontario Beef Producers. Grass fed and corn finished. We use it for our porcini rubbed rib eye and our beef tenderloin carpaccio. Also the smoked Spanish Paprika is something I've used for years. First introduced to me by the Pasquale Brothers; my oldest and dearest suppliers. Anna Marie the current owner (it's been in her family for 100 years) frequently travels to Spain and she was the first to bring it back to Toronto. She gave me a large bag of it over a decade ago and I thought it was legendary. We use it in so many ways. She still provides it for me.
Q. If you could cook for anyone, who would that be and what would you prepare for them from the current menu?
My mother, who was a master at cooking. She provided me with my palate along with my philosophy about cuisine. I would cook her my Imam bayildi which I've added cinnamon to and modernized. Also the shrimp Pil Pil that is marinated in smoked paprika. The marinated shrimp is the last thing I fed her in the hospital, and of course the octopus, but minus the chorizo (as my mom did not eat mammals). She would probably complain about how spicy it was. We would laugh at her hard to please palate and discuss how I cooked it. Then she would look forward to coffee and the hand made sweets soaked in honey.
Megan is a lifestyle, food, beauty & travel writer. Her passion for travel has taken her to 36 countries and she now calls Toronto home. Follow Megan at @immfab