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Conspiracy Theories, Orville Redenbacher Chia Pets and a Trip to Gary Danko

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A visit to San Francisco wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Gary Danko.  This top 5 tripadvisor, Michelin star destination and Zagat juggernaut  hasn’t wavered despite the cyclic nature of food trends which have hit the bay city over the years so I was excited when I secured a reservation for a Friday evening.  I invited a few colleagues to come along.

The cab ride over was led by a conspiracy theorist who, while driving the winding roads of San Francisco, showed us how he protected his ipad from the government with it in one hand while the steering wheel occupied his other. We also got a history lesson of the neighbourhood which surprisingly didn’t include taxi cab fatalities.  Thankfully, after a few blocks,  we arrived at our destination (probably due to some autopilot device monitoring Mel Gibson as Jerry Fletcher’s car or maybe my numerous prayers to the ultimate alien deity in the sky).

We had a small wait in the bar before being seated at a round table of six in the middle of the restaurant.  Well dressed waiters, white table clothes and silver plates at each setting  were classic reminders of a upscale dining experience. As for the menu, one of the unique aspects is the fact that one can enjoy a choice of a wide array of appetizers, mains and desserts for one set price. The number of courses is also variable and portion sizes are adjusted accordingly.  One option is a  trolley offering an extensive choice of cheeses which is navigated throughout the restaurant like a streetcar on Powell St.

We all opted for the 3 course menu for $76.  Before that, we were treated to a curried carrot soup as an amuse bouche.  It was very earthy, silky and subtly spiced.  A nice start to the evening.

Curried Carrot Soup Amuse Bouche

Curried Carrot Soup Amuse Bouche

I was set on the Dungeness Crab Salad with Avocado Mousse, Hearts of Palm and Madras Curry Vinaigrette but asked the waiter for his opinion.  Perhaps I was wooed by his professionalism, but he highly recommended the Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing instead.  The presentation looked like an Orval Reddenbacher Chia Pet with a nori bow tie,  avocado arms and mushroom legs.  The tuna was seared beautifully. The dressing was fairly acidic but blended nicely with the protein.

Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing

Seared Ahi Tuna with Avocado, Nori, Enoki Mushrooms and Lemon Soy Dressing

For the main, I like the sound of the Juniper Crusted Bison with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions and Wild Nettle Spätzle as a package.  It was a hunk of meat which was nicely prepared but a little too much.  I quite enjoyed the noodles from both a taste and appearance perspective.

Juniper Crusted Bison with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions and Wild Nettle Spätzle

Juniper Crusted Bison with King Trumpet Mushrooms, Cipollini Onions and Wild Nettle Spätzle

For dessert, I ordered the highly recommended  Strawberry Soufflé with Strawberry Sauce and Strawberry Sorbet. That’s a lot of strawberry!  The pillowy, warm and fluffy texture had me at the first bite. I was hoping that the sorbet would have a tartness to cut through the sweet souffle but I couldn’t quite finish it.

Strawberry Soufflé with Strawberry Sauce and Strawberry Sorbet

Strawberry Soufflé with Strawberry Sauce and Strawberry Sorbet

The meal ended with an array of cookies for the table which were a  delicious finish.  The ladies also received a parting gift which ended up being banana cake filled with a delicious cream cheese filling (no…I’m not a lady but dined with one who didn’t see bringing the bread home worth an extra 20 minutes on the hotel tread mill the next day).

Treats

After Dinner Treats

Gifts for the Ladies

Gift (Banana Bread) for the Ladies

 

 My Take

Dining at Gary Danko is a San Francisco rite of passage. The unique menu structure is a blessing, especially when in  group with diverse palates. The service was sincere and professional.  It was almost as if they were paid actors and actresses in a swanky movie.  The food was solid although I found the bison and the souffle to be a little overkill.   The amuse bouche and after dinner treats were a testament to the attention to detail which has been synonymous with the name Gary Danko for years.  If you think the high Zagat ratings, repeated Michelin stars and smitten tripadvisor reviewers are  a conspiracy…just ask the cab driver.

Gary Danko on Urbanspoon

 

 

Slanted Door: Lessons from Russell Peters and the Danger of Arranged Lunches

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I was listening to Russell Peters on Sirius radio the other day.  It was a replay of his classic rant on arranged marriages.  I thought a little about it and tried to imagine being in that situation.  In a universe filled with energy flow and frequencies, I can’t imagine  being attached to a  woman who would nag me about my food desires, affinity for a pint or the fact that I sit up at weird hours documenting the trials and tribulations of my culinary journals while watching HBO shows.

That said, it was at that point that I realized I have had an experience almost as excruciating…the “arranged lunch”.  Let me explain.  While in San Francisco, I sent out a general invite offering  to bring any of my colleague’s customers out for lunch. I had a few bites and arranged to bring out a group.  I had no idea who they were but figured lunch at the Slanted Door, the well established Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s pier would be a safe call. I met the first of the four at the convention centre for walk to the pier.  I had met her once before so it wasn’t hard to strum up some conversation.  We arrived at the rather large and very busy restaurant about twenty minutes later.  It has a wide open concept with tables offering various views including the kitchen and bay areas. The rest of my group hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited by the door (I never noticed if it was slanted or not) so we could be seated.  Much like a blind date, I watched people stroll in trying to predict who I’d be meeting.  Finally, three ladies walked in who seemed to the fit the bill.  After some quick introductions, we were seated around the corner in a half circular booth against the wall.

I’ll be the first to admit the menu is a bit long but these ladies made it look like they were reading the bible. The scowls and whispers trying to identify any dishes somewhat recognizable.  I quickly realized the extent of their Asian experience was limited to chicken balls and fried rice.  My fears were further confirmed when the table seemed either confused or appalled when the waiter suggested we order family style.   To avoid further hardship, we agreed to choose a dish each. My dreams of trying some of the more innovative offerings of the James Beard recognized iconic eatery was going up in smoke.

In addition, my guests continued to make various observations including the fact that most of the waitstaff were males and they need more women on the floor.  Nothing like a gender equality talk to spice things up.  That said, I did find the service a little arrogant.

The scowls continued when we were notified that diet coke was not a menu option.  The non-alcoholic drinks mainly consisted of spritzers and juices. So, a couple of them ordered lemonade.  I had a a ginger soda.

I decided to be a bit greedy and order the gulf shrimp and pork wonton soup ($7) to start.  I don’t anybody cared.  After all, the combination of seafood and pork might have thrown things into array.  Fragrant, light broth housed noodles and dumplings which were tender and perfectly cooked.  It was a large bowl but didn’t care much that I didn’t have to share.

Gulf Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup $7

Gulf Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup $7

The vegetarian rolls ($12)  served with peanut sauce were stuffed with mushroom, tofu and cabbage.  They hit the mark although nothing spectacular but seemed to be acceptable at the table.

Vegetarian Spring Rolls $13

Vegetarian Spring Rolls $13

The grilled organic chicken with vermicelli ($16) was one of the safer bets on the menu so I wasn’t surprised to see it ordered.  It went pretty fast but I did manage to get a bite or two.  Nicely season and nicely cooked but once again, nothing remarkable.

Grilled Organic Chicken $16

Grilled Organic Chicken $16

Sticking with the safe poultry theme,  we also had lemongrass chicken ($18).  A few mumbles about the spice levels circulated the table but I found it had a nice level of heat.

Lemon Chicken $18

Lemon Chicken $18

The woman I walked over with ordered the trout served with green mango and a chili sauce.  It was easily the best dish of the meal.  The fish was moist and the accompaniments were a great contrast.

Trout Filet $20

Trout Filet $20

My choice was the cellophane noodle with dungeness crab ($20).  Very disappointing.  I probably could have but all the crab in the dish on a tablespoon.  It was so torn up that the pieces looked like specks in the abundant heap of noodles.

Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness $20

Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness $20

 

Vegetables included boy choy and snowpeas (each $11)  from local farms.  They were  fresh, simple and nicely prepared.

Bok Choy $11

Bok Choy $11

Snow Peas $11

Snow Peas $11

My Take

Slanted door is likely the most well known Vietnamese restaurant in the San Francisco.  It’s location and reputation makes it a popular destination for lunch and dinner. Personally, I found it a bit overpriced for very good but not spectacular food.  The lack of crab in a San Francisco restaurant overlooking the bar is the ultimate and sad irony.

In the end, I don’t recommend arranged dining, especially at a place that revolves around family style dining.  I walked back to the convention centre with the first woman I met and couldn’t help but ask if that was the most painful dining experience she ever endured.  She enthusiastically agreed and  felt a little better.   If the success of  “It’s just lunch” or other dating sites hinged on a dining experience like this, there’d be a lot more single people in the world.

The Slanted Door on Urbanspoon

Why Can’t I Speak Easy at Speakeasy 21?

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By definition, a speakeasy is an illegal establishment which housed alcohol during prohibition.  Since then, it is often included in the lexicon of terms used to make words like restaurant, drink and  food sound cooler.  Speakeasy 21 has recently opened in Toronto’s financial district and according to the webiste “is a Resto-Bar serving Contemporary Bistro fare with a large selection of custom crafted cocktails and spirits.”  It sounded like an interesting concept so I coaxed a colleague into joining me for dinner.

Any difficulty finding the place among the concrete jungle of Adelaide St. was negated by the loud music which emulated from the smallish confines of the bistro.  The tunes were audible from the sidewalk and got louder as we approached the front door.  After checking in using my reservation, only remnants of the after work business crowd remained along with a spattering of random people including some creepy guy who sat by himself drinking what looked like diet coke while scoping the crowd. We were seated near creepy guy at a small bar table close to the open kitchen.  The waitstaff consisted of a mosiac of men and woman who obviously took various lengths to mimic the retro looks of the 20’s and 30’s.  For example, one waitress was sporting the curly blonde locks and make-up reminiscent of Mae West.  Others wore the same outfit but looked more like they were attending a Jersey Shore prohibition party.

The music continued pounding which even made ordering difficult.  Nonethesless, I started with a libation.  Whether you want a martini, a mason jar or a drink on the rocks, it will run you $15.04. I opted for the Brown Derby and the result was a mediocre attempt at this bourbon based drink.

Brown Derby $15.04

Brown Derby $15.04

From the menu I started with the Bulgogi taco for $6.  My first thought was that this better be a damn good taco, especially if you have the balls to charge me $6 for it.  It didn’t live up to the price.  It was seasoned nicely but was pretty safe.  Although served with house made hot sauce, the small amount of condiments were a bit of a let down.

Bulgogi Taco $6

Bulgogi Taco $6

Next was the foodie mix salad (aka kale and arugula) for $14.  It was James Bond at a  McDonald’s….tasty and nicely but over dressed.  There could have been a few more treasures hidden within the forest of greens although I liked the radish.

Kale and Arugula Salad $14

Kale and Arugula Salad $14

The tuna crudo ($14) was seasoned  nicely with citrus and heat.  It was arguably the best dish of the evening.  The grapefruit, jalapeno and coconut atop the buttery fish created a bit of an orchestra in the mouth.

Albacore Tuna Crudo $14

Albacore Tuna Crudo $14

I was interested in the construction of the shrimp and chorizo sandwich so I ordered it.  It was a $17 filet-o-fish topped with a hot dog.  I don’t know what possessed me to order a sandwich with cheese on top of a  formed shrimp patty  but it really wasn’t appealing.

Shrimp and Chorizo Sandwich $17

Shrimp and Chorizo Sandwich $17

Finally, we ordered the butter chicken balls for $14.  A bowl of  three meatballs arrived swimming in a delicious gravy.  I enjoyed the coriander and mango flavours as well.

Butter Chicken Balls $14

Butter Chicken Balls $14

 

My Take

Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of Boardwalk Empire, but my impression of a speakeasy does not consist of overpriced food and blasting music.  Sure the show is set in New Jersey but I don’t think it  means that your waitstaff can look and act like Snooky or Bow-Wow (or whatever her name is).  The $6 taco, $15 cocktail  and $17 dollar sandwich were disappointing.   The butter chicken balls and tuna crudo were decent but still priced in the echelon of Steve Buscemi’s pocketbook.  This place needs to decide what it wants to be; a retro hangout for overpaid suits with classic cocktails  or a loud Moxie’s rip-off with half ass food served by pretty girls .  Right now, it’s the latter.  Perhaps it should be called Speakloud 21 because it’s the way you can hear a damn thing.

SpeakEasy 21 on Urbanspoon

A Cavalier Attitude Toward the Most Important Meal of the Day

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There seems to be something about offering breakfast in a hotel.  I’ve stayed in numerous hotel across Canada and the United States and can make a few  general observations about the most important meal of the day:

1. Free breakfast usually involves a large common room populated with sports teams, messy haired kids wearing butterfly wings and hungover parents.  Some will settle for a cold boiled egg and plain bread because the line up for the waffle machine and the toaster is too long.  If you do get the the waffles, it’s a complex process of pour, fill, rotate and wait.  While waiting, you look around and make conversation with a family member, a stranger or the orange juice carafe  in an effort to avoid the jeers and dirty looks of the 15 people in line waiting for Belgian deliciousness. Kids are allowed to have free reign at the breakfast apparatus confirmed by the crunch of fruit loops beneath the feet of morning zombies.

2.  For those who prefer to eat a croissant while blow drying their hair, there is the room service option.  Fifteen bucks will get you a choice of baked goods (with preserves of course), a shot glass of orange juice, a carafe of house coffee and a individual tub of Activia yougurt delivered sometime between 6:45-7:00.  An extra 10 dollars will get you a “hot” breakfast with some eggs supposedly kept warm by the use of a plastic cover.  Either way, the tray ends up on the floor outside door and the faint smell of ketchup fills the halls along the walk to the elevator.

3.  For those adventurous enough to leave their quarters, breakfast at the hotel restaurant is a third option.  Similar to an amusement park, the convenience of proximal eating comes at a premium.   The biggest decision is the choice between the $30 buffet which allows for the dried fruit and nuts as well as the bacon, the $15 continental buffet which the excludes pork products and the premade eggs benny or the a la carte menu which frequently involves a double take at the prices.  That said, at least there’s free refills on the coffee.

Attached to the Hotel Zetta in San Francisco, the Cavalier offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Intrigued by it’s honorable mention in this years James Beard nominations, I wanted to experience at least one meal so I went for breakfast, especially given its proximity to the convention centre. It is constructed to look like a high end pub one may frequent after a game of polo or a fox hunt.  It’s a small menu with 4 or 5 standard morning items.  I opted for the breakfast sandwich consisting of eggs, crisp bacon, pepper cress and a mustard dressing for $13.  I was promised the crispy potatoes  were worth it so I added them for another $6.  I finished off the order with a $4 stumptown decaf coffee. The sandwich was delicious; all the components from the bun to the red onion, cress and mustard condiments hit the mark.  The potatoes, as promised, complemented the sandwich and the coffee was probably the best I had in San Francisco.  That said, it ended up being a $23 breakfast.

 

The breakfast Sandwich ($13) with fried potatoes ($6) and Stumptown coffee ($4)

The breakfast Sandwich ($13) with fried potatoes ($6) and Stumptown coffee ($4)

My Take 

I’m not saying that I expect to get a breakfast sandwich combo at a hotel for the price of an egg McMuffin combo.  Don’t get me wrong, the food was delicious and the service was pleasant but $23 is a little steep.  I would have liked to try lunch of dinner to assess the vibe (it was a bit dull and sleepy during the morning hours), but one can only hit so many places while in town. Maybe James Beard wasn’t  a morning person but hell, at  least there were free refills.

The Cavalier on Urbanspoon

Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

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When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:

1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.

2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of  wheat.

3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian  Hill district.

In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but  regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor.  We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner.  The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting.  It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food.  The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.

The service staff was cordial but a bit confused.  They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding.  For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass.  That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.

The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15.  First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup.  The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent.  Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio.  In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.

 

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche

Melon Soup Amuse Bouche

Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.

Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort.  With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier.  For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs.  I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.

 

Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)

Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene.  It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food.  There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food.  If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places.  However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people  who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place.  Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante  frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.

Seven Hills on Urbanspoon

Holy Alioli! I had Croquetas at Coqueta

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When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain.  It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”.  Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef  Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy  Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.  I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation.  Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier.  The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used.  Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables.  There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.

Coqueta's Interior

Coqueta’s Interior

Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty.  There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables.  What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power.  The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of  quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham.  AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid.  To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego  cheese and the apricot conserva  was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.

Pixotes 3.50

Various Pintxos $3.50

It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the  Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back.  I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13).  The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion,  were seasoned and cooked well.  The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.

Shrimp

“Sunnny side-up Huevo with shrimp, crispy  dressing potato and chorizo dressing  ($13)

A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8.  Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes.  It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish.  Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was  subbed for a tomato  base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.

Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas $8

The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok.  Keep in mind I’m impartial  to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception.  Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.

Croquetas

Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon $9

The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively.  It tasted pretty too.

Beets

Ensalada de Remolacha $9

The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish.  The  calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time.  The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.

calamari

Calamares a la Plancha $10

I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs filled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7).  Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten.  It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.

Eggs

Huevos Nacional $7

The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and truffle honey-$8).  Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox.   Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.

Salmon

Salmon Ahumado $8

Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14).  There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents.  The salsa was delicious.

Asparagus

Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco $14

The most carnivorous tapas order was the  Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12).  I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked.  The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.

Coqueta Meatballs

Albondigas a la Feria $12

My Take

Eating at  a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot.  Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist.  Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast.  Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all   Since the James Beard awards are like the  Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally.  However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie,  I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing  the point.  A few dishes at Coqueta were like that;  it was a good experience  but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex.  The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.

Coqueta on Urbanspoon

Chopping the Dynamic Duo at the Tavern by Trevor

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Tavern by Trevor is another example of the cross-pollination that is occurring in Toronto.  Partly a way to jump on the small plate phenomenon that has taken the city by storm and partly a means of dealing with the inertia of local foodies to try surrounding neighborhoods, the tavern recently opened at the corner of Spadina and Richmond.  I was impressed by the small yet inventive and reasonably priced menu. Chef Trevor Wilkinson teams up with restaurateur Mike Yaworski in an odd couple type collaboration.   Chef Trevor is the owner of Trevor Bar and Kitchen which has sustained the volatile Toronto dining scene while watching others come and go along the Wellington Street stretch. He also recently appeared as a contestant on Chopped Canada this past year.

I arrived and decided to sit at the makeshift patio (a few tables plus a number of stools beneath a counter made of 2x4s which looked like an inventive RONA project) which took over part of the wide sidewalk along Spadina Avenue.   The waitress was quick to arrive with the food and drink menus.  Boozewise, there are three tap beer from the local Amsterdam brewery plus an array of bottles, big bottles and cans.  The wine list has around 10 bottles of both red and white wine with most in the $40-60 range.  There is also a half a dozen or so bourbons plus a small list of cocktails priced at $11/each. I started with an old-fashioned served with bourbon, sugar cube, angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  It was a decent drink but was served with too much ice making it difficult to disperse the sugar which had settled at the bottom of the glass.

Old-Fashioned $11

Old-Fashioned $11

For the most part, the food menu is structured by price points.  All “Bar food” is $11, salads are $10, “from the stove” is $15 and  entrees are $21. There are also a few sandwiches ($12-14) and sides are $5. There is also the ability to add a number of proteins to the salad.  I ordered the  green pea & lettuce with feta & mint salad and added ginger and garlic fried chicken. For the entree, I went with the bbq octopus, prawns & chorizo with fennel & radish in wild leek vinaigrette.  That’s when things got bad. The salad arrived in a large white bowl and presentation was far from remarkable. The only lettuce was romaine  and it was cut ribbon style with a knife (one of my pet peeves).  I don’t know if the lettuce was warmed first or just not fresh because I found myself pulling out  brown and wilted pieces. From what I could salvage, it was a good flavour combination but I certainly wasn’t enjoying the pea and feta hunting through a jungle of limp romaine. Turning my attention to the chicken, I was equally disappointed.  It was boneless and served with an aioli.  The pieces varied in size and thickness.  I cut into the first thick piece and it was pink. A second thick piece was also pink.  I cut into a third thinner piece and found it cooked properly and found the coating to  be very tasty.  When bringing this to the attention of the waitress, I was told that she just ordered it and it looked like that so it’s fine.  She left only to return a few minutes later to tell me that she checked with the kitchen and in fact the chicken was cooked and it looked like that because it was dark meat.  Then she proceeded to tell me that they were out of the octopus and asked  if I would like anything else instead.  I politely and thankfully said no.

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7

"Cooked" chicken

“Cooked” chicken

 

Select Lettuce from Salad

Select Lettuce from Salad

My Take

This is one of the worst dining experiences I have had in Toronto in a long time. First, serve a cocktail that can be consumed properly.  Second, either use fresh romaine or don’t prepare it so it wilts. I thought the reason you used romaine was for the vibrant crunch.   Third, if the chicken is pink it is undercooked and the fact that I didn’t eat it should be a hint that despite the reassurances from the waitress and the kitchen (who actually didn’t look at the chicken), I was not happy with the dish.  As a footnote, I have asked 5 people since if the chicken looked undercooked based on the picture and all agreed unanimously.  Fourth, it you are only going to offer three entrees on a menu, you shouldn’t run out of one.  Furthermore, you shouldn’t wait until the   customer orders it before you realize it’s not available.  Fifth, if a customer is clearly unhappy with the experience, perhaps something should be done.  Even an apology would have been sufficient.  Instead, I left paying my bill having eaten only a few bites of salad and a couple of small, thin pieces of chicken. All I can say is this meal is a far cry from the Coq au Vin I had at Trevor Bar and Kitchen a few years ago.

For serving wilted lettuce, raw chicken and not having octopus….Chef Wilkinson..you’ve been chopped.

(I’m aware that in fact Chef Wilkinson did not in fact cook the food I attempted to eat but it is his name on the place!).

 

The Tavern by Trevor on Urbanspoon

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