We used to have a little restaurant down the street from our house. It was called Pepino’s. It was at the corner of Ford Drive and Royal Windsor in Oakville. They made the best escargot. Period.
“How do you know it was the best escargot, Hugh,” you may ask. Well, escargot is one of my things. Wherever I travel, whenever I venture into a restaurant, I’ll poke around to see if they offer escargot.
You may be one of the folks who recoils slightly… whose face contorts at the thought of a small plate of snails… however beautifully prepared and presented. To you I say, get over it. They are a delight. But I won’t hound you for not wanting to try them. For one thing, you may be a lover of oysters. Sorry, but I won’t go there. You’ll have to pry my jaws apart with a crowbar to squeeze a Malpeque onto my tongue. You enjoy your oysters… I’ll revel in my snails. Hell, if you don’t like `em, there’s more for those of us that do.
When Pepino’s closed more than a decade ago, I was ½ heartbroken. I foolishly hadn’t befriended the chef and there seemed no prospect of ever enjoying the most scrumptious escargot ever again. I was in a funk about it for months. I had to be content with the third best preparation of this delicacy on earth; from Colossus on Lakeshore… interestingly, also in Oakville, if you ever care to try their escargot preparation. Or the second best; from the dining room at La Reign Elizabeth – Montreal’s famed Fairmont hotel.
It seems essential that I explain at this point that, although I’m content to enjoy escargot prepared in butter, garlic and shallots served bubbling hot in mushroom caps in one of those commercially produced white ceramic dishes… you know the ones. They have seven deep indentations, designed specifically for holding mushroom caps and snails…. I find that rather dull. Even if you top each succulent delight with a little bit of Gruyere and grill them. That don’t impress me much.
No. I’m looking for the creativity of a chef. I’m looking for a PRESENTATION of escargot; a different experience. I’m looking for the plate that, when it arrives at the table, makes me sit up just a little. I look back to the doors of the kitchen to see if the sous-chef is poking one eye around the corner to see the reaction of his client… to assess whether or not I’m worthy of the culinary delight that is actually his and his alone. Innovation and creativity are his intrinsic delight, despite generally casting seven pearls before the swine that I am. Sadly, it seems that only occasionally does any kitchen afford its team members the opportunity to venture to this place.
At the Queen Elizabeth, I will point out that you have to know someone well if you’re going to gain access to their special delicacy. That’s because they no longer prepare it the way they used to. In fact, many of the people who now serve in their dining room won’t even recall the old preparation if you ask, “will you do it the way Armand used to make it?” They will ask, “what do you mean?” when what I mean is that I’ve actually decided to stay at the Reign Elizabeth rather than my preferred Montreal hotel simply for the opportunity to enjoy one of the most lovingly prepared delights that has ever appeared on a menu. I mean I’d like you to walk back into the kitchen and, if it’s not too busy, ask one of the old guys if he’d do it the way they used to.
On occasion, the waiter will respond with a faint, wry smile and say, “I’ll see if they’re not too busy.” You’ve got one of the old boys! He knows how they used to make it. They don’t make it that way any longer, but this customer has been here before… and more than once… and they know the place well enough to ask for it the old way.
When it arrives, it’s on a salad plate. A bed of perfectly prepared polenta, just shy of an inch thick and cut two and a half inches by two and a half inches square supports a small tower of tender escargot and chanterelle mushrooms. They are carefully piled, about three inches high in total, and its drizzled with the most amazing sweetened red wine and balsamic vinegar reduction. It’s garnished with just a few curls of green. Beautiful. Just beautiful.
It’s the second-best escargot preparation I have experienced; not really available any longer, but etched into my mind as a creative culinary treat like few others. It ranks just ahead of the green-tinged snail and mushroom hash that I have enjoyed on more than one occasion at Colossus. The flavor behind the Colossus offering is truly remarkable — like no escargot anywhere, honestly. I’ll admit that its appearance leaves me wondering about the chef’s intent… but the flavor… oh, the flavor!
However, there is no question in my mind that the Pepino’s escargot tops the list. I will admit that I haven’t yet ventured to Asia in hunt of the world’s greatest preparation, but I haven’t found anything in Paris, London, Milan, New York, Chicago, San Fran… or a host of other places… that compares to Pepino’s escargot. So sad, was I, that I stood before the locked doors of this little restaurant, staring at a sign that said, “for rent.” No escargot for you! Sad face emoji here.
Two years after Pepinos closed, I was at the Oakville curling club. I had just finished a curling match and my seven play-mates and I were tucked neatly into beer and rum at our table. Our conversation migrated to restaurants and, at a suitable juncture, I lamented the demise of Pepino’s. One of the guys from our opposing team was the proprietor of Stoneboats – an Oakville landmark and well-regarded restaurant near lake Ontario. Dave chimed in that he, too, knew Pepino’s and that he too knew and loved the dish that I explained was like no other. Moreover, he knew the restaurant’s former chef …and where that chef was now working! I cannot tell you how excited I was at the prospect of finding my favorite escargot on another menu in a new location! I left the club that evening with a great sense of potential for the opportunity to be reunited with my culinary destiny.
A week later, once again at the curling club, I’d forgotten about the restaurant conversation I’d had with Dave. Evidently, though, he hadn’t. He sought me out after our evening’s play. He dropped a single, folded page in front of me at the table where I sat. I looked up at him. He smiled. I unfolded the paper not really knowing what to expect. What I found was a small miracle: the recipe for my escargot, hand-written by the original chef himself… and with a smiley face beneath it.
- A good knob of butter
- A couple of shallots
- A clove of garlic
- Some coarsely ground black pepper
- Three good handfuls of fresh mushrooms
- One good handful of well-rinsed snails, ideally from your own garden, but canned ones will do in a pinch
- 2/3 of a cup of demi-glace
- Start with the butter. Finish with the cream. Enjoy the delight.
I have to admit that when I read the recipe, I was initially tremendously excited. After only a moment, though, I was concerned that the simple line, “start with the butter,” was too simple to produce the result I had enjoyed at Pepino’s. That concern proved unjustified. Perhaps it was just good karma, but the first time I tried to replicate Pepino’s escargot, it worked delightfully well. It was remarkable. Simple, but marvelous. I’ve enjoyed it many times since. I cannot make the dish without seeing Dave’s grin or without thinking of Pepino’s or La Reign Elizabeth or Colossus or a half dozen other restaurants.
In particular, I cannot help but think of the creativity that an individual had when they combined only a handful of ingredients to create a truly unique culinary experience. Every other restaurant I visit – snails, butter and garlic. Pepino’s? Magic.
Each chef had the same potential. Only one infused a tablespoon of innovation and creativity with ingredients that were commonly available to every other chef. Okay, Armand and The Queen Elizabeth had, too… and the chef at Colossus. But is there really any need for countless restaurants to offer the run of the mill snails in butter when only the smallest twist might set them apart?
I think of the countless financial advisors with whom Credo conducts research almost every day of the year. They look at the menu being offered by so many suppliers. Many of them would be content with butter and garlic. Few of their chefs are like EdgePoint, however, willing to twist the same simple ingredients in a slightly different way to arrive at something new and unique and really differentiated. Most limit themselves to using the same ingredients that Environics has confirmed register with the customer’s palate in the same old ways. A few, however, are prepared to swim cross-current, combining these ingredients strategically to deliver new, better and leading experiences.
More power to the creative innovators. They will prosper. They turn snails into escargot.