Among all of Rush's super-complex songs, there exists one so damnably difficult, it's like the Mount Everest of rock. La Villa Strangiato, from 1978's Hemispheres, is a nine-and-a-half-minute instrumental in 12 parts, based on a nightmare suffered by guitarist Alex Lifeson; its arrangement is so intricate that he, bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart themselves couldn't record it all in one take, despite their redoubtable technique.
YouTube is littered with hundreds of videos by musicians, both amateur and professional, who have attempted to scale its peaks. And last week, chef Matt Kantor took the challenge a step farther: he recreated it as food.
As the centrepiece of an epic, nine-course prog-dinner extravaganza at The Cookbook Store in Rush's hometown Toronto, Kantor served up a wild-looking dish in which the song's various movements were represented side-by-side. There was a lamb ball with dill on top of a spinach-and-yogurt purée (the Hellenic Danforth and Pape), calamari tentacles dyed with beet juice (Monsters!), tapioca "caviar" soaked in paprika and oil (The Ghost of Aragon), octopus with a deep-fried chickpea (Monsters! (Reprise)) ... And somehow, as in Rush's song, the parts came together into a whole - in this case, a salty-and-sweet Mediterranean dish - that made sense of its sprawling list of ingredients.
Kantor's ambitious dinner was a testament to his Rush fandom (the New York state native fell in love with the band as a junior-high-school student in the early '80s and never looked back), and also his latest foray in a culinary crusade. He hopes to help bring what he calls "thinky" food - reminiscent, let's say, of a well-wrought Neil Peart lyric - to a city whose gastronomic endeavours, he finds, veer closer to the Top 40.
"Toronto for the most part is fairly traditional," says the curly-haired, boyish-looking chef. "Aside from a couple people like [Origin's] Claudio Aprile, nobody's really doing the avant-garde stuff here." Kantor, who studied and trained in the U.S. and the U.K., moved to Toronto in 2007; he's best known for running the themed-dinner series Hidden Kitchen and Secret Pickle Supper Club, and for spectacularly ambitious dinners such as a 23-course tribute to the Catalonian restaurant elBulli, held last fall. He's inspired by cutting-edge Spanish cuisine, with his own style being "playful, technical, but not super-molecular. For me it's arduous, but the diners aren't supposed to feel that way."
The 16 diners at the $150-a-plate, three-hour-plus "Rush as Food" meal (proceeds of which went to the Art Gives Hope charity founded by the band's late photographer Andrew McNaughtan) ranged from foodies who had never seen the band play live to rabid fans discussing their favourite live Lifeson guitar solos and the merits of new album Clockwork Angels. All were frequently smiling, and not just because of the copious glasses of Entre Nous (an agreeably fruity Pinot Noir by Crowley Wines in Oregon, named after a song on Rush's 1980 album, Permanent Waves).
Kantor's amuse-bouche was something of a (dry) ice-breaker: a white blob plucked out of a cauldron of liquid nitrogen, to be consumed whole; the freezing substance quickly dissolving into a film of lime-flavoured meringue. The dish was named after the song Limelight, not only because of its ingredients, but also because eating it was a performance - everyone was eager to see the smoke coming out of their fellow diners' noses.
From there, the dishes got madcap indeed. The song Red Barchetta, about a joyride in the future when cars have been outlawed, became a deconstructed red bruschetta where a tomato, shiny like a polished racecar, seemed to have burned black-olive rubber through a "dirt road" of breadcrumbs. Afterimage, about the impact of losing a loved one, involved a wisp of cotton candy that dissolved when Kantor poured coconut milk over it, the resulting sauce imprinting its "memory" on the rest of the dish. In Kantor's version of the drug-smuggling opus Passage to Bangkok, four kinds of curry, related to countries mentioned in the lyrics, were rolled up in paper "joints," each burned at one end.
Occasionally Kantor's conceits grew rather abstruse - Larger Bowl (named after a song from 2007's Snakes and Arrows) was presented with 16 garnishes arranged in the same intricate repeated pattern as the lines in the verses. Kantor, who employed all of his servers to help him with the laborious plating, admits few if any diners would spend the time to analyze the layout. Nonetheless, he says, "You have to do it right; it's about integrity and trying to really convey what's important in the dish." Fans appreciated Kantor's devotion: Bruce Duerringer, who has seen approximately 50 Rush shows and travelled up from Houston for the meal, found that eating the dishes was akin to climbing inside another fan's head: "When you listen to the music, especially with headphones, that's a really personal experience. Most of us don't have the luxury of his palate, so we're sharing his experience of the music and trying to put together those tastes with what he's feeling."
Kantor developed his menu over eight months of brainstorming with fellow chefs, researching Rush's inspirations for their songs, and culinary labwork; La Villa Strangiato went through 17 or so iterations, which Kantor compares to "massive overdubbing." Even then, he admits he couldn't quite get a handle on every single one of the song's movements, but perfect correspondence takes a back seat to flavour. "At the end of the day, it can't be an art project that tastes like garbage ? it's gotta be good."
In that respect, his diners were in agreement. Christine Lucyk, a keen amateur sous-vide chef, praised the "cleverly crafted menu," while Beverley Wintjes, who has seen the band around 100 times, affirmed that as someone who's "not a gourmet person, I really enjoyed all that weird-looking stuff - you've got to be adventurous once in a while."