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70 Years of Legendary Women and Seinfeld-Like Cereal Obsessions at Rasa

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With the popularity of food trucks in Toronto, it seems like two things are happening.  First, the trucks are spawning off from established restaurants in order to expand their reach.  Second, the gypsy life of a food truck transforms into a brick and mortar opportunity and sets up in one of the many trendy areas of town.

The latter describes Rasa bar.  Set up in the proximity of Harbord Room, THR and Co. and Spendido along Harbord St, it’ s  the brain child of the Food Dudes who may be best known for their Cap’n Crunch tacos served with spiked mango slaw.  In fact, these tacos inspired the dish for my Masterchef Canada tryout a while back.  In addition, I was told by a colleague the the cereal dessert was the best she had in Toronto, which left me more than intrigued.  Needless to say, I was excited to sit down, have a drink and see what else the dudes had to offer. One warning…taking a look at the website may induce seizures or nausea in those who can’t handle rapid movement.  It reminded me of Madonna’s stomach turning “Ray of Light” video.

Once I showed up, I noticed a couple of things almost immediately.  First, it had that garage/industrial type feel.  Second, they played excellent music at a decibel level which allowed for conversation with other people; a novel concept in a city where decor and the insistence of loud tunes outshine the food at times.  Finally, from the minute I entered it was clear that the service would be cordial.  I forgot about how difficult it is to get to Harbord during the bicycle rush hour, so I was 10-15 minutes late and they didn’t bat an eye.

In addition to a small list of draught beer including Niagara-on-the-Lake’s hidden gem Oast brewery, one can sip a number of innovative cocktails featuring some of the trendier spirits on the rail. I opted for the Texas Guinan, a bourbon based drink with accents that allowed the whisky to shine instead of being blunted by conflicting additions.  It’s the way I imagined a cocktail in the era of prohibition where the goal was to relish the booze in its native form. Interestingly enough, this drink is the namesake of a prominent silent movie actress who became America’s first cow girl.  On the more notorious side, she opened a speakeasy in New York during prohibition and was well known to law enforcement for the majority of the 20′s.  Ironically, although spending a decade in an environment filled with booze and scantly clad women, Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan died in Vancouver in 1933 of ameobic dysentery.

Texas Guinan $15

Texas Guinan $15

The food started with a complimentary offering of the mini muffin, a dainty bite filled with the fall flavours of pumpkin and squash and topped with a little salted caramel. It was a cute homage to the season.

Complimentary Mini Muffins

Complimentary Mini Muffins

Next was the chopped salad (vegetables, quinoa, macedonian feta, crispy garbanzos, sumac) for $13.  It was fattoush on steroids.  The strong acidity/sourness of the dressing and sumac, the saltiness of the feta and the crunch of the garbanzo beans created a taste and textural diversity as impressive as the ingredients themselves.

Chopped salad

Chopped salad $13

The fish board special of the night was a chowder ($18).  A thick broth housed jumbo shrimp, scallop, fish, doubled smoked bacon and pickled jalapenos.  It was smooth as silk with enough acid and heat from the pepper to cut the richness to a very palatable level.

Fish Board (Chowder) $18

Fish Board (Chowder) $18

After careful consultation with the very pleasant waitress, we opted for the duck breast over the truffle gnudi and beef cheek ragu.  Rendered nicely and sitting on top of a pillowy puree, it was finished with cherries, chestnuts and greens topped with shaved fois gras torchon.  Although the duck was  underseasoned , it was saved by the array of aforementioned flavours on the plate.

Duck Breast $25

Duck Breast $25

I didn’t need the advice of the waitress for the spare ribs and I wasn’t disappointed. Although a little tricky to eat, they were extremely tender.  More impressive were the playful flavours.  From both a taste and visual perspective, the sweet rib sauce coupled with the foamy polenta was a tongue-tingling metophor of a root beer float. The pickles and corn nuts added a tad of acid and texture.     `

Spare Ribs $17

Spare Ribs $17

As I mentioned, I was told about the druthers of the cereal dessert.  Although I can’t say it is the best in Toronto, it fused modern flavours and techniques with the simple flavours of the well-known boxed treat.  Despite the use of cocoa puffs (or a reasonable facsimile), the sweetness was surprisingly subtle and was further suppressed by the intense nuttiness of the macademia milk.  The fact that it was poured tableside added a nostalgic flare reminiscent of the morning ritual.  It appears from the menu now that there have been some modifications to the dessert (ie. banana and cocoa milk) so I can’t confirm it would be the same today.

Cereal $8

Cereal $9

The other dessert we ordered was the praline sticky bun.  Another breakfast favorite turned dessert,  candied bacon and walnuts surrounded a decedent and rather large pastry sitting on top an innovative cream cheese anglaise.  It was sinful and delicious.

Sticky Bun

Sticky Bun $10

My Take

Rasa by the Food Dudes takes their innovative gypsy philosophy and centralizes it into a bricks and mortar environment. From the homage to female legends (including the Texas Guinan cocktail and Madonna’s Ray of Light website) to their Seinfeld-like cereal infatuation, the concept is pop-intelligent and fun.  The menu seems to rotate often (it’s changed since I went a couple of weeks ago) and there is always the mystery of things like the daily fish plate. There is also “set Mondays”, a $35 tasting menu  with $5 drinks and live music. I suspect Rasa’s promise of fun food and respectful service might actually draw foodies and food truck followers alike into the relatively unknown area north of the College Street parallel and into a land lacking “provision pretension” despite primping plaid shirts. In summary, when I think of Rasa I can’t help but think that Tony the Tiger said it best;”They’re Greeeeeeeaaaaat!”

Rasa on Urbanspoon

Fin-al-ly..The Peoples Eatery has Come Back (although it was never there to start with) to Spadina Avenue!

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The first time I heard the name “peoples eatery” I couldn’t help but think of  Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.  He used to step into the ring, grab a microphone and proceed to gloat and taunt his way through an electric monologue which began with “Finally, the Rock has come back to insert city,” and made numerous references to him as the “people’s champion”. He would also cite his “people’s elbow” finishing move so suffice to say he may appreciate eating at the people’s eatery.

In fact, the name may be a reference to the People’s Republic of China given the menu features a spin on Asian fare in the heart of China town (there seems to be inconsistency about whether there is an apostrophe in peoples but the website suggests no)   .  As an extension of 416 snack bar, it has similar features in that it’s crammed into a tiny space (at least the downstairs is) and doesn’t see the necessity of utensils.  It’s different in that the dishes are primarily  inspired by Jewish and East-Asian cultures with a few other surprises thrown in. In addition, there is the option of a tasting menu designed by executive chef Dustin Gallagher and his culinary team.

I arrived to be greeted by well-coiffed waitstaff with a pretension reminiscent of  Rocky Maivia, Johnson’s pre-rock persona. They offer a small but impressive list of local beer featuring breweries like Left Field and Neustadt for around $7.  I inquired about the list and had the choices on the menu described to me.  Ten minutes later, the same guy had a conversation with a co-worker behind the bar raving about the new beer they just got that wasn’t on the menu. I was a little perplexed as to why this was never mentioned to me.

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“It doesn’t matter what beer you want!”

The Peoples Eatery in a true snack bar.   Most things on the menu are under ten bucks unless you want quail or peking duck.  I got the “small plate” speech which was a predictable as the Rock saying “Jabroni” during one of his heated wrestling rants.  I ordered a bunch of dishes with the knowledge  they would arrive as they were prepared and ready from the kitchen.  Speaking of the kitchen, there is an open prep area for cold foods beside the bar and an open kitchen for hot food in the back. The first dish  to arrive was a twist on the Jewish Sabich (pita with quail egg and herb salad) for $7.  The abundant filling made it a bit tricky to eat and was accented with pickles, a tangy dressing and a creamy sauce.  The flavours were good but it lacked a little substance, especially for seven bucks.

Sabich $7

Sabich $7

Next to arrive was the panipuri ($4).  Also called waterbombs, these bite size morsels fizzled more than they exploded although the dipping sauce added a sweet, tangy and sourness which accented the bombs greatly.

Panipuri $4

Panipuri $4

The General Tso-fu should be ordered just for the name.  It’s tofu….done General Tso style.  It was arguably the best thing I ate all evening.  The silkiness and temperature of the piping hot tofu coupled with the cooling yet spicy sauce balanced perfectly.

Tso-fu $4

Tso-fu $4

Char Shiu Boa (aka pork buns) may be the new taco. Although surprisingly simply, there are many interpretations of this traditional Chinese dish.  The people’s version is a transfer from 416 snack bar and more reminiscent of the Momofuku staple as opposed to the standard dim sum version.  It had that wonderful wonder bread mouth feel and taste which surrounded  a delicious tender pork filling.

Char Shiu Bao $5

Char Shiu Bao $5

Although I follow and accept the small plate doctrine of the restaurants I eat in, I felt it very strange that my oysters were served last.  My guess is that either the waiter forgot until I reminded him or it takes longer to shuck 6 oysters than it does to prepare four dishes.  I was interested in the oysters for two reasons; they were less than $3 bucks each (which is a novelty in Toronto in most cases) and the promise of traditional and untraditional garnishes.  In this case, they were served with lime, a mignonette and a beet horseradish (which I suppose is a little unorthodox).  The oysters themselves were a nice size and shucked properly.

Oysters 6 for $15 served with lime, mignonette and beet horseradish

Oysters 6 for $15 served with lime, mignonette and beet horseradish

For dessert, I ordered the pineapple with coconut cream and lime.  It was a refreshing finish to the meal but nothing remarkable. In general, I find the quality of pineapple inconsistent in general  and this one was a bit on the sour side.

Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4

Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4

My Take 

Ok, the Peoples Eatery has never been on Spadina Avenue so technically it can’t come back but let’s stick with the wrestling analogy.  First, we have the pretension of the staff which mimics that of the buff characters in the ring.  There was certainly hipster muscle flexing going on.  Second, like a wrestling match, the menu was well choreographed, offering both traditional and fancy moves contained within an entertaining evening. Finally, as a finishing move the dessert  was more like Hulk Hogan’s lame leg drop as opposed to the Rock’s electrifying people’s elbow executed in front of the millions and millions of his adoring  fans.  In the end, the People’s Eatery is a decent but not spectacular sequel to 416 snack bar.  I wouldn’t say it has the swagger of Wrestlemania but it would certainly be considered a good episode of Monday night raw…. if you smell what the Rock is cooking.

People's Eatery on Urbanspoon

Another Susur experience: Would I thank this Luckee star?

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Deciding on brunch in the competitive Toronto restaurant scene can be a daunting task.  Visions of eggs benedict and chicken and waffles fill my head like sugar plums on Christmas day. However, the recent addition of Luckee, Susur Lee’s latest project, has added Dim Sum to the trendy weekend choices. Located in the Soho hotel,  one can indulge on weekend dumplings as well as the wares of circulating trolley carts.

When I arrived, I was able to see Susur Lee quarterbacking his kitchen staff who were busy prepping and steaming the day’s fare. The menu includes both standard menu items and daily specials off the cart which circles around regularly. The set-up of the restaurant was a bit odd for dim sum.  The table we were at was not accessible by the cart, meaning we either had to get up or they had to carry things in.

Luckee offers a small number of Lee’s signature cocktails including the Burnt orange manhattan which I had a few weeks before when I went to Susur’s flagship  restaurant Lee.  Since I was driving home after, I simply grabbed a pot of Jasmine tea.  `

The waiter was pleasant and had a good handle on the menu.  He nodded happily with each order and emphatically insisted that we were missing out if we didn’t order the Shrimp Cheung Fun.   We complied.

The service started with an offering of three condiments;  green onion, mustard and hot sauce, soy sauce with sesame.

Luckee Condiments (Green onion, mustard/hot sauce and soy with sesame)

Luckee Condiments (Green onion, mustard/hot sauce and soy with sesame)

Instead of going into excruciating detail about each and every dumpling, I will summarize it as above average but expensive dim sum.  The offerings were a mix of traditional dumplings and some more innovative creations orchestrated by the flavour-bursting brain of Susur himself.  For example, the crispy vegetable spring roll, har gow (shrimp dumpling), xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings), chicken pot sticker were all a good reflection of the classics.  The Char Siu Bao…not much so.  I found them  a bit doughy and uninspired.

Good!

Vegetable Spring Rolls $6

Vegetable Spring Rolls $6 and Curry Shrimp Rolls $7

Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9

Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9

Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8

Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8

Chicken Pot Stickers $8

Chicken Pot Stickers $8

Not So Good

Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9

Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9

Regarding the more innovative dishes, it was well worth trusting the waiter’s recommendation of the Shrimp Cheung Fun $12.  The taste and texture of the roll itself accented with the soy juice was yin and yangtastic. It was a multi-dimensional taste experience and the best thing I ate all meal.

Shrimp Cheung Fun $12

Shrimp Cheung Fun $12

The savoury crispy rice donuts ($6) were filled with chicken, choy poh, chinese chives, jicama and shrimp.  Once again, flavours like jicama add a twist to traditional  dim sum in a successful and sexy manner.

Savoury Crispy Rice Donut $6 (came with 2 pieces)

Savoury Crispy Rice Donut $6 (came with 2 pieces)

The curry shrimp rolls ($7), pictured above, were another twist on the standard spring roll.  They were seasoned nicely and served with another dipping sauce indicative of Susur’s explosive flavour profile.

Dessert was also split into the traditional and not so traditional.   The former was a sesame custard ball that was good but not remarkable.  The latter was a mango passion fruit panna cotta with a great texture.  It was quite polarizing; the super sweet of the mango combined with the sour passion fruit wouldn’t be for everybody. It was a good few bites but wasn’t something that I would say was easy to devour.

Mango and Passionfruit Panna Cotta $7 and Sesame Balls $4

Mango and Passionfruit Panna Cotta $7 and Sesame Custard Balls $4

My Take

The reviews of this place from a service and value perspective are hit and miss.  Personally, I found the service to be excellent. The waiter was pleasant, efficient and recommended the best dish I ate.  The dishes, from the dumplings to the desserts, were a yin and yang of traditional and contemporary flavours.  I really can’t ask for much more. As for the incessant complaining about the price and the fact that five blocks up you can get the better dim sum for a third of the price, it gets tiring:

1. Susur Lee is a internationally recognized chef who has a restaurant in a suave hotel just outside of Toronto’s entertainment district.

2.  You can have a good experience in a place with a nice ambiance and a great drink list instead of a hole in the wall serving water and green tea.

3.  Toronto is a city where people will pay  $16 for a bowl of mushroom soup.  In fact, some of the most elevated prices in the GTA are during brunch.  Try and find bacon and eggs for less than $12.  That said,  what’s a few extra bucks for a dumpling?

I don’t want to sound bitter but it’s like complaining about a burger at Harbord room because there’s a McDonald’s up the street.  Let’s compare apples to apples.  Luckee is another option to the expensive brunch options. The dim sum is above average and the sauces/condiments are explosive,  punchy fun.   Yes, you will pay more than you will anywhere else along Spadina but it’s competitive among other Saturday and Sunday morning hot spots. For the haters…walk up the street.  Better yet, when pondering Beast’s $14 beastwich breakfast sandwich, say hi to Ronald while you order a $3 egg McMuffin.

Luckee on Urbanspoon

Dailo: Asian Foodie Flare Beside a Mexican Place in Little Italy

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Toronto is a true cultural mosaic.  There used to be  streets and neighbourhoods which defined a specific cuisine.  Danforth is Greek, Spadina is Chinese and College West is both little Italy and  Portugal.  Over the years the barriers have crumbled and now there  are no boundaries when it comes to a opening a new restaurant.  I remember the now defunct Strata 241, which offered all day Italian pastries and pizza/pasta dinners, opening in the heart of Chinatown.  Now the tides have turned with Dailo, an Asian snack bar which has graced the border of Little Italy albeit beside La Carnita’s Mexican concept.

We showed up on Friday night with fingers crossed hoping to get a table.  There was space at the bar, so we were quickly seated and handed the bar and food menu.  We were quickly greeted by a young lady who looked fresh out of college.  She enthusiastically explained the menu, adhering to the common how to order off a small plate speech and  the importance of balance in Asian cuisine.  Drinkwise, we started with a trio of cocktails; the Manila Galleon, Tom Yum Booze and the 5 Spice Dark and Stormy. Watching her make the drinks was like watching a student trying to please her parents by getting an A on a science project.  She was meticulous in everything from setting up the glasses to laying out the necessary ingredients.  She tasted every drink before delivery and dumped one which was 90% complete while having a mild hissy fit. When they did arrive. we were treated to some of the more innovative cocktails I’ve tried this year.  The Tom Yum Booze gets an A, having all the hallmarks of Thai flavours including kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger syrup and coconut water.   It was spiced with chilis resulting in a refreshing drink with a bite.  The addition of the five spice and some star anise to a traditional dark n stormy worked wonderfully. Another A.  A Manila Galleon was a name for a 16th century ship which hauled goods from Spain to Mexico to Manila and back again.  The ingredients, mainly tequila, ginger and lime pay homage to this. In addition,  rhubarb was a highly sought commodity by Marco Polo. As for the aperol…I have no idea why that’s in there.  Regardless, it’s another smart cocktail which definitely gets a passing grade.

Cocktails

Manila Galleon, Tom Yum Booze and Five Spice Dark n Stormy Cocktail ($14 each)

For the food order, we chose a number of dishes but our calculations didn’t compute with our server.  She suggested that our choices, although good, were somewhat out of balance and suggested  we supplement with another couple of dishes.  What was funny is I didn’t see this an any kind of salesmanship whatsoever.  I think it was a honest request to ensure we had a meal which had a yin and yang foundation.

In adherence with the small plate code of Toronto “the dishes arrived as they were prepared”. In most cases this means quick but the service was slower than average for most of the night.  The first two were the crispy octopus freshroll ($8) and the jellyfish salad ($6).   The use of daikon as a taco shell of sorts and the clever combination of pork and octopus in the freshroll was brilliant. The slaw was well seasoned with a good balance  of sweet and acid, bursting with asian flavours including sesame.

Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6

Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6

The next duo of dishes included fried watermelon ($9)  and duck tacos ($6). The first  (which I think is off the menu now) was a clever dish which used the melon’s sweetness and texture as a foundation along with a crispy batter and finished with asian flavours.   It was a great example of sweet meets salty.  The filling in the duck tacos was a little scarce so I was only able to get a hint of the flavours which couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming taste of the fried taco shell. It was like eating those free wontons you get when you spend more than $30 at your local Chinese takeout joint.

Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6

Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6

The third wave consisted of the silken tofu ($11) and the sweet and sour pork hocks ($13).  The tofu had a beautiful texture and was nicely complimented with the earthy flavours of seaweed and mushroom.  The pork hocks were both crispy and tender and seasoned with the familiar taste of a Chinese sweet and sour sauce laced with garlic.  It was a safe dish  but enjoyable nonetheless.

Silken Tofu $11and Sweet and Sour Pork Hock $13

Silken Tofu $11 and Sweet and Sour Pork Hock $13

The next arrival was the hakka brown dumplings ($9). Flavoured mainly with sesame a bit of heat, the consensus at the table was they were below average.  They were sloppy, mushy  and lacked any real consistency.

Hakka Brown Dumplings $9

Hakka Brown Dumplings $9

The first of the “bigger” dishes was the truffled fried rice ($19). I love egg and the use of edamame was a smart twist.  I was pleased to see the use of fresh black truffle instead of truffle oil and that it didn’t overwhelm the other complex flavours in the dish. It had a spicy kick very similar to that of the dumplings.

Truffle Rice

Truffle Fried  Rice $19

The final dish was the Singapore Curry Cauliflower ($16).  The purple potatoes were a great marriage for the cauliflower and made for an attractive presentation.  Flavourwise, it was a pretty decent curry.  We were halfway through it before they realized they forgot the rice and it soon arrived with an apology. Once again, it had the same signature heat of most of the other dishes.  I’m a fan of heat and although the flavours of the dishes were diverse, the level and type of heat wasn’t. It just became a bit monotonous after a while.

Cauliflower Curry $14

Singapore Cauliflower Curry $16

For dessert we ordered the Kasu White Sugar Cake ($8).  More like a rice pudding, it was served with a caramelized sauce and garnished with sea buckthorn. The quick consensus was that we didn’t like it.  The barkeep seemed to take it personally and reaffirmed its authenticity and asked what the issues were.  The sauce was undercaramelized and just didn’t have a clean and consistent sweetness.  The addition of small strands of lime leaf was strange and disjointed. In the end, although they may not have agreed, we weren’t charged for the dessert.

Sugar Cake $8

Kasu White Sugar Cake $8

My Take

Dailo is the long awaited restaurant from Nick Liu.  Even though it took forever to open, it immediately hit the waves of social media, receiving both accolades for a great vibe and criticism for overpriced Asian food.  I think it’s a little of both.  It’s loud and crowded but it’s fun.  I swear I even saw Richmond Station’s Carl Heinrich hanging out at one of the tables.  I can summarize this vibe in one word…passionate. Whether it was the hissy fit over an ill-prepared cocktail, a lesson in balancing food or a concession about a dessert we didn’t like, the staff had a swagger and fervor which can’t be taught although in general the speed of service was generally below average . The patrons also added to the zeal.  Beside us were a couple who took hundreds of pictures all over the restaurant (including over the shoulder of the chef at times)  while taking numerous shots of sake on tap in between.

The prices do push the boundaries of acceptability (eg. six cubes of watermelon for $9). If you’re looking for nothing more than some good Asian inspired eats the pundits are right; there are a million dumpling houses and eateries along Spadina, Dundas or College which can satisfy that craving for half the price. With that, however, you are likely to get service and an environment which is much less exciting. If you want a fun evening with innovative cocktails, decent food and suave clientele and are willing to pay for it, Dailo is a good choice.  Plus, if you go you’ll be cool.   Remember, the foodie doesn’t make the place..the place makes the foodie.

DaiLo on Urbanspoon

Montecito: A Memorable Montage Yet Mediocre Menu

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Montecito sounds like a good movie. Starring renowned chef Jonathan Waxman and produced by movie legend Ivan Reitman, it’s a tale of Californian cuisine trying to find its place in the bustling entertainment district of Toronto. Whereas other restaurants in the area have opened and closed with varied amounts of fanfare, one might consider Montecito a big budget production.  It’s a massive, two floor establishment complete with a large bar and lounge are on top and abundant seating on the ground.  Pictures of Montecito, California are projected on the screens throughout the restaurant and snapshots  of Reitman’s accomplishments fill the walls on both floors.

The place was packed.  The clientele ranged from hipsters to business folk.  In fact, the upstairs lounge was filled with suits, ties and plenty of booze. We were quickly seated by a courteous hostess and our waiter showed up shortly after.  He was a little odd from the start in that he talked to us like he was reading a script, making sure he told us that the summering projections were that of Montecito in Southern California.  Otherwise, he was not very informative when it came to anything to do with the menu. The cocktail list was small and sleepy so I opted for a side launch weissbier, one of five draught beer available on the menu.

To start, I ordered chopped salad which consisted of beets, corn, red peppers, onions, blue cheese and boiled eggs for $12.  As a whole, it was very average although the ingredients were nicely proportioned. The blue cheese was divine and made the remainder of the dish a little less boring.

Chopped Salad $12

Chopped Salad $12

I also ordered meatballs served with polenta and tomato sugo for $19.  The triplets came out covered in shaved parmesan cheese.  The rich creamy polenta balanced nicely with the acid in the tomato sauce.  The meatball themselves were old school and nicely seasoned but in the end the price was as elevated as a movie ticket itself.

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

There are only 2 dishes on the menu which bear the initials of Chef Waxman; the chicken ($24) and the potatoes ($9).  For that reason, I saw them as a must. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, well seasoned was served with an herb salad and salsa verde.  It was good but I can’t say I closed my eyes and tasted Montecito while the salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean with every bite (despite the fact I continued to see images on the wall all night).  The JW potatoes were crispy and well seasoned but once again didn’t transport me to the judging table of Top Chef Masters.

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Garden and Salsa Verde

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Salad and Salsa Verde

JW Potatoes $9

JW Potatoes $9

The other entree we ordered for the table was halibut served with grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa and chermoula ($32).  I was a bit surprised to see roasted tomatoes scattered across the plate.  Maybe I’m out of the loop (I’ve seen it in other places) but I really don’t understand the combination of fish and tomatoes.  It doesn’t work for me.  Neither does mushy halibut or charred romaine.  There is not a thing I liked about this dish, including the $32 price tag.

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

For dessert, I bought into the Reitman propaganda and ordered the Stay Puft marshmallow basked alaska for $12.  This sickly sweet, ghastly combination of sponge cake, ice cream and torched meringue swam atop a chocolate sauce which tasted like Nestle Quik.  I didn’t (and couldn’t) finish it.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

My Take

Initially, I was excited to experience food influenced by the highly touted Jonathan Waxman.  With the name Montecito, I expected fresh California fare.  Waxman’s contributions make  him more like a supporting actor by offering his famed chicken and potatoes to another wise lame script devoted more to an Ivan Reitman montage than fresh and innovative cuisine. Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito  as twins along with other memories of movies past (including a replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man which gets passed around tables like a joint and seems to make drunk patrons ridiculously happy) seemed more important than focusing on great food in the present in an area of Toronto that desperately needs it.   To me, it’s nothing more than a glorified Moxie’s or Earl’s.

Ivan Reitman has had a very successful career as a movie producer.  Like anybody else with such a long history, as a producer and executive producer he has had some great movies and some which aren’t so good.  I quite enjoyed the groundbreaking zaniness of Animal House, the crude humour of Old School and EuroTrip and the smart jocosity of Evolution.   On the other hand, I could do without Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam or Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot. As far as his restaurant production goes, I’m forced to give Montecito a very emphatic two thumbs down.

Montecito on Urbanspoon

A Blind Date with THR & Co…Harbord Room’s Little Sister

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Ever since I went to Harbord room, I’ve been interested in trying THR & Co, their sister restaurant. Eating out can be like a blind date. Sometimes, all you  had to go on is a picture of the menu and an online testimony or two.   I  showed up early given I was on another dinner mission  in an attempt to avoid outgoing Toronto traffic.  As a result of this, I was offered  a seat on the comfy side of the bar (there are four or 5 padded stools instead of the regular ones which graced the remaining perimeter.  One of the first surprises was the limited bar menu.  My tainted recollection of Harbord Room (which involved a few drinks with the Food Network’s Kevin Brauch) was an innovative and expansive cocktail menu so I was a little surprised to see a limited selection here.  In fact, another gentleman came in and ordered an amaretto and after a 5 minute search concluded they didn’t have any. Of the four, yes four cocktails, I ordered The Pisco Sour (pisco, pear, egg white, ginger and sage syrup and fresh lemon).  She was certainly playful but was anything but sour. In the end, I was impartial.  She was neither naughty or nice.

Cocktail $13

Pisco Sour $13

For the appetizer, I went with the compressed carrot salad for $13.  She was one of the prettier salads I’ve been served. The  had carrots which were roasted, pickled and cut into attractive ribbons. The apple vinaigrette was subtle but appropriate.  The sunflower granola was less appealing and a little abundant.  All in all, she looked better than she tasted (hmm…that sounds wrong)  but was a very acceptable starter.

Compressed Carrot Salad $13

Compressed Carrot Salad $13

For the main I ordered the Oxtail Bucatini for $21. Wow, she had really small…..pasta.  I recently complained about the price of the pasta at SPQR in San Francisco but that was a value compared to this portion.  Although the pasta itself was delicious and nicely cooked the oxtail was scarce and there was no unity in the sauce.  Instead of a marriage of  flavours, it was more  like a breakup.

Bucatoni with Oxtail Ragu

Bucatini with Oxtail Ragu $21

For a side, I ordered marinated mushrooms which was served with pickled onions, fresh bay and salsa verde.  I enjoyed this dish. Although a little greasy, the unlikely combination of ingredients really worked. I was surprised by the potpourri of mushrooms which  filled the bowl. She would have been a perfect match with the rib eye steak on the menu.

Marinated Mushrooms $7

Marinated Mushrooms $7

None of the desserts appealed to me so I juts decided to end the date and get the hell home.

My Take

Harbord room is like a hot date. It has one the best burgers in Toronto and an extravagant bar menu.  On the other hand, THR & Co is luke warm. I was a little disappointed by the small (although firm) pasta and rather dismal cocktail list.  The carrot salad was stunning and almost as delicious. The pasta was saved somewhat by a nice side of marinated mushrooms.  If Harbord Room and THR & Co are in fact sisters, the latter is the one that probably doesn’t get a date.  She has a really nice salad though.

THR & Co. on Urbanspoon

Sky Blue Sky: I’d Rather Hang out with Wilco Instead of Jared Any Day.

I was looking for a lunch spot and remember stumbling across Sky Blue Sky in my travels.  All I knew is that they supposedly had good sandwiches and made an appearance on You Gotta Eat Here.  I’ve been to quite a few restaurants dedicated to members of pop culture.  For example, I’ve been to Lisa Marie in Toronto (Lisa Marie Presley) and Marlowe’s Ribs and restaurant in Memphis (her sorta famous dad).  I’ve dined at  Montecito in Toronto (Ivan Reitman’s tribute to himself) and sipped on cocktails named after Seinfeld characters at Thoroughbred,  but I’ve never been to a place which has paid tribute to the American rock band Wilco.  I’m not talking a poster or album cover hanging on the wall kind of dedication; I mean every sandwich and even the name of the place itself seems to be a WIlco song or album name.

With two locations, I strolled into the one on College Street.  After taking a flight of stairs to get inside, I entered a very modest abode which resembled a deli.  Red and white checked tablecloths covered the spattering of tables and hints of pop cultures stuck on the walls.

The menu is simple.  There are a couple of daily soups and a whole lot of sandwiches including a nice selection of vegetarian ones.  I opted for the split pea with ham($3) and the “Dreamer in my Dreams”($6), described as “slices of roast beef topped with onions cooked in red wine vinegar, banana peppers, slices of tomato and some cheddar cheese.  We put this dream on our spicy jack bread with some mustard and mayonnaise and serve it to you well toasted.”  The soup was well seasoned and had an enjoyable spicy bite at the end. The sandwich arrived in paper sporting the same red and white design.  By well toasted they meant a trip to the panini press.  The bread was delicious and housed a good proportion of fillings.  The cheese was melted nicely and the red wine vinegar, despite it subtly, shone through nicely.

Split pea soup $3

Split pea soup $3

Dream of my Dreams $6

Dreamer in my Dreams $6

As  I was waiting, I saw an older gentleman hobble up the stairs.  He was greeted like Norm from cheers when he walked in.  Soon a student dropped in and got the same treatment.  The two guys working there were friendly, engaging and respectful. There was a sign reminding patrons that Styrofoam soup bowls are recyclable so please use the appropriate bin.   You pay on the way out and not when you order.  You are asked to grab whatever drink you want out of the cooler and leave it to you to let them know. That’s the mentality I like in a place.  Many establishments have forgotten the fact that if you treat customers with respect, they will give it right back to you.  As the for bill, my math might be off on the individual items because my soup, sandwich and Perrier came to a mere $10.54.

My Take

In a world trodden with Subway, Quizno’s, burger joints and overpriced business lunches a simple sandwich shop like Sky Blue Sky has appeal.  It was a bit of a hippy mentality without the flower power, tie dye or Joe Cocker.  Instead, the same “love not war” cordial nature was replaced by good food, a friendly environment and numerous tributes to Wilco. The staff are delightful and well…not Jared.  To paint another picture Sky Blue Sky may not be for everybody (maybe it’s not where all the cool foodies go), but like Wilco, has found success through loyal followers (I guess a couple of Grammy wins doesn’t hurt either).  Plus, I’d almost hang out there just to hear the neighbourhood priest come in andd confidently order a “Hell is Chrome” or maybe an old lady from the area (who would likely be a regular) come in and proclaim”I must be high!”  Either way, I think they’d get a good sandwich.

Sky Blue Sky Sandwich Co. on Urbanspoon

 

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