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Day 1 in Halifax: Hitting 60% of my Maritime Wish List at the Famous Pizza Corner in February

I just attended a conference in Halifax.  I only had a few days so I wanted to make sure I hit the laundry list of things I wanted to do in the Maritimes in the middle of February:

  • Drink local beer
  • Eat a donair
  • Visit pizza corner
  • Have a lobster roll
  • Hit at least one restaurant from “You gotta eat here”.

The first interesting thing about Halifax is the fact that the airport is 45 km away from the city.  Between these points is an abundance of land which could easily accommodate a hundred airports.  One explanation from a cab driver (who had a strong resemblance to Burton Cummings) for keeping the airport well away from the coast is the tendency for sea birds to fly into windshields or engines of incoming planes. Regardless, any cabbie probably won’t complain given it’s a sixty dollar cab ride for a one way trip downtown.

I arrived at the Westin which looked like a cross between an apartment building and an old hospital but was reasonably nice on the inside.  After checking in, I grabbed my toque and scarf and headed out to brave what Halifax had to offer.  I was looking to watch the second half of a soccer game, so a quick search of urbanspoon identified Maxwell’s Plum as a pub with a large number of local beer and football on the tube.  On the way, I looked like Q-Bert as I tried to navigate around the poorly maintained sidewalks in between snowbanks that were higher than  my waist while a mix of ice and snow pelted my face. After walking about a kilometer,  I trekked up the last hill which had to be at least a 60 degree angle and arrived at my destination.  I sat at a small table near the bar with a good view of the game and an equally good view of the clientele which looked like the same as what you would see at a Tim Horton’s in Ontario. The crowd was young and old but all glowed with that down home aura. Discussions included hockey, knitting and the weather.  The Thursday frosty glass special was Hell Bay English Ale from Liverpool, NS, so I ordered it thinking it was a fitting start given I was watching a team with the same name on the tele. The glass was certainly frosty and contained a beer with a nice balance of bitter and carmel flavours.

I went with the burger special for $6.99 and added an egg for $2 which I later realized was kind of ridiculous.  The platter arrived, which brings me to my second interesting observation about Halifax; the restaurants seem to like using dishes with their names chiseled or painted on them.  The burger and fry platter (on the aforementioned  plate which looked that something from Maximilian II and not Maxwell’s Plum) was decent, falling somewhere in the middle of the best and worst I have ever had.

$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg

$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg

I also ordered a sampler of Spruce beer, an organic brewery from Cape Breton which included  Bitter Get’er India Black IPA, Kitchen Party Pale Ale, Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout and Ready Yer Knot Regatta Red Ale.  In addition to the ingenious names, they carried some ingenious flavour.  In particular, I enjoyed the Bitter Get’er and the Kitchen Party for their complex and crisp, fresh flavours respectively (far and middle right).

Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95

Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95

Afterwards, I donned the water garb again and headed down the road a block to the famous pizza corner.  I mean, there’s a big difference between this late night party zone at 3 am on a Saturday night in July versus a frigid afternoon in February but I needed to see what the hype was about.  Not surprisingly, the intersection was barren of all activity except for blowing snow.  There was a big red DO AIR sign (the N was burnt out) on the storefront  across from my next destination, the Sicilian. Known for it’s big slice, which surely appeals to the post-bar Halifax drunkards, they also offer a donair.  A donair is a Canadain twist on a Doner, a turkish dish made of a combination of meat cooked by rotisserie.  The Canadian version is slathered with a sweet sauce and served in a warm pita. Being a bit of a traditionalist, I would have liked to go to the site of the first Canadian donair, but the King of Donair left the pizza corner a few years back and my already frozen face wouldn’t have been able to handle the walk to their new location.  I carried them back to the hotel and on the way noticed a couple of things.  First, like other local food destinations whose their foundations lay in mom and pop establishments,the pizza corner is starting to be infiltrated by the tentacles of half-ass cookie cutter chain restaurants. I mean, there are still the small, locally owned joints like a Filipino restaurant with a sign on the door saying we are getting out of dodge until the end of February, but the familiar logos of Smoke’s poutinerie and Subway are creeping closer. Second,  I appreciated getting the heads up about the possibility of falling ice outside a burrito restaurant just down the road.  I normally tend to pay little attention to my surroundings but was grateful for the warning when I looked up and saw this:

Beware of Falling Ice

Beware of Falling Ice

After another tumultuous walk, this time back to my hotel, I tore into my pizza corner treasures. The Sicilian’s version of the Halifax doniar ( I got mine minus tomato but with onion) was delicious and as sinful as Lucky Luciano himself.  There was enough sweet in the sauce and spice in the meat to please all “corners” of my mouth. The BBQ chicken pizza wasn’t bad either.  Mission accomplished for day one.

Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair

Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair

My Take

Although hardly under ideal circumstances, I began my quick trip to Halifax by knocking three of the five musts off my list.  I weathered an east coast storm, drank some delicious local brews, hit pizza corner, avoided an icicle avalanche and dripped a sloppy donair all over my hotel desk.  I love the east coast philosophy of screwing roll up the rim after 5 pm  and communicating over a beer instead of coffee  whether you are a wannabe hipster named  Evan, a hockey fan named Peter or a gramma named Mabel.  I also love their ability to recognize that you are a tourist and then kindly tell you to “come back when the weather’s better now”.  Before I went to bed I took one last look over the pier from my hotel window and thought “ya…I  bitter get’er done”.

Maxwell's Plum on Urbanspoon

Sicilian Pizza Donairs & Subs on Urbanspoon

De Niro’s Pad, Homicidal Snowplows and Psychoanalysis at Rino’s Kitchen

I love Windsor.  I’ve mentioned before it reminds me of my hometown of Sudbury. Although it will probably never be part of  a conversation about  the best dining destinations in Canada, Windsor has quietly evolved into a diverse and vibrant culinary locale. Driven by a number of mom/pop or brother/sister joints, one can choose almost anything.   If you’re in the mood for a family style joint, you can hit the Lumberjack’s salad bar or order Penalty Box’s chicken delight. Food Network junkies can hit a number of joints visited by John Catucci on You Gotta Eat Here.  If you are in the mood for ethnic food, there is fantastic Italian along Erie Street and great Thai, Lebanese and even Ethiopian scattered throughout the city.  If you are still stuck you can hop onto Windsor Eats, an impressive website which provides up to date information on local restaurants and even offers tours which highlights local fare.

What makes things even better are the uncontrolled circumstances which usually occur involving a trip to Windsor.  It’s never simply a go to a restaurant, eat and leave experience.  There are always a few things which happen along the way that makes things stranger than fiction.  Take my recent visit for example.

I left the hospital on my way to a meeting with two colleagues; one works with my company and the other is a local doctor. The latter  had suggested we hit an Italian cafe so we can experience Erie Street.  Once I turned onto the street, we pulled over in front the first cafe we found that looked open.  I’m reluctant to name it over fear for my car tires and general well-being. Upon entry, the people in the place scattered, abandoning any card games or whatever else was going on.  The cafe basically consisted of a small bar, a huge espresso machine and an empty gelato bar with a smaller ice cream cooler beside it which was housing three or four flavours.  Looking around I saw a bunch of Italian guys, a picture of Robert De Niro (who apparently visited during Superbowl in Detroit) and an aged and framed oil painting of an Italian man who I have yet to identify.  I think I even saw the eyes follow me  as I walked around the place. A large television was showing Grey’s Anatomy much to the pleasure of a few of the patrons.  Things seemed to settle down once they figured out we weren’t cops and we were able to order.  Given it was about 10 degrees below zero, I ordered a decaf Americano and my work colleague ordered a latte.  The doctor, on the other hand, ordered a chocolate gelato on a waffle cone and proceeded to eat it like a happy 12 year old child.  While we waited, an old Italian guy walked out of the washroom.  He was either hiding in there after thinking a sting was going down or maybe he just needed to use the facilities but his reaction was nothing short of priceless.  I should point out that my colleague is an attractive blond woman whose likes probably haven’t stepped foot in that cafe for 30 years.  His jaw hit the floor like a Warner Brother’s character and he started speaking in tongues.  The woman behind the espresso machine just told him to go sit down.  He complied but continued to mutter drunken Italian nonsense in our direction for the remainder of the visit.  In between bites of chocolate, the doctor suggested that I should probably switch chairs so my back wasn’t facing the front door.   So, with Dr. Dreamy on the tube, a smiling De Niro on the wall and a bunch of old Italian guys (including the paisan in the oil painting) staring at us, we had our meeting, finished our coffees (and gelato of course) and scurried out.

After we dropped him off we decided to grab a bite.  Not only was is cold but it was starting to snow.  I should take this opportunity to point out something about Windsor; they don’t like snow.  In fact, they would have no problem declaring a state of emergency once enough snow falls to erect a  Tyrion Lannister snowman.  So, with nothing more than a centimeter of snow on the ground, out came the plows.  I was driving down one of the many one way streets and a saw the plow behind me.  I was immediately reminded of  a scene from 1986’s Maximum Overdrive.  The only thing missing was the Green Goblin face.  The homicidal plow approached at a feverish pace, sending sparks instead of snow ten feet into the air. I turned onto another street the minute I had a chance, took a deep breath and realized that my life had now been threatened  twice in the same evening.

We eventually decided on dinner at Rino’s kitchen. Rino’s encourages you to “Taste the finest Essex County has to offer. Farm to table at its best in a relaxed pub atmosphere.”  It was also recently featured on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”. At this point I should point out the fact that, like most cities, there is a subset of Windsor’s population who thinks they are hipsters.  The last time I came to Rino’s there were a table of clowns that looked more like the cast of Scorpion  than self-proclaimed food aficionados. To be a good hipster you really have to be a self-righteous asshole.  Just wearing the plaid and sitting farm to table joint in a small, blue collar city is not enough.

Luckily, hipsters were absent on this evening. Instead, we arrived on the tail end of an art show.  Small pictures were hanging all over the place.  In fact, we switched tables so as not to get in the way of the viewing audience.  I did have a look at some of the pictures and my colleague, with her psychology background, had commented that most of them looked like Rorschach blots.  I had to agree and felt tempted to lay down on the bench I was sitting on.  One of them looked like De Niro pointing a gun at me.  Another looked like the Green Goblin. Asa a result, I quickly ordered on of the four or five Ontario pints available on tap.

The menu offers all sorts of choices ranging from seasonal salads to protein laden mains.  I’m always a fan of house-cured meats, so we started with the charcuterie plate for $15.  Two types of meat (salami and coppa) and cheese (asiago and pecorino) were served along with roasted red peppers and bread.  The quality of the ingredients were quite good although it would have been nice to have some mustard or other condiments along side.  I would have also liked to see something like aged Ontario cheddars available “on board”.

Charcuterie $15

Charcuterie $15

As tempted as I was to order the signature pork and waffles, the pleasant waitress talked me into the seasonal oxtail stew served atop potato mash ($17).  The stew was filled with tender meat and carrots and served in a hearty portion with more carrots on the side.  It was a lot of carrots. Maybe a few green vegetables would have been better. In addition to a good dose of carotene, it was a delicious dish which was seasoned well.

Oxtail Stew $17

Oxtail Stew $17

They offered an apple crisp and a pumpkin walnut cheesecake for dessert.  I ordered the latter. Pumpkin and walnut go well together and the cheesecake was not overly sweet or heavy.  I think the icing sugar was a fitting garnish for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s kind of a f#ck you to the hipster movement who would likely reference the fact if wasn’t 2003 and then suggest a ground cherry as a more appropriate condiment.  Second, it’s the perfect example of a small town, blue collar adaption of the farm to table concept  in  a relaxed pub environment.

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

 My Take

In the span of a few hours, I escaped a scene from a Robert De Niro movie, outran a homicidal snowplow and got psychoanalyzed by the works of a struggling Windsor artist.  I also ate a decent meal at a restaurant which adheres to farm to table principles from charcuterie to dessert without the associated urban pretension.   You won’t find mason jars or the unnecessary yet abundant use of radishes at Rino’s. In fact, the menu offers trendy, tasty and reasonably priced choices without compromising portion sizes at the expense of making things look pretty.  Ya, I love Windsor…with icing sugar on top.

Rino's Kitchen & Ale House on Urbanspoon

 

What About Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu When The Donger Need Food?

When one mentions Korean food in Toronto, Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu is on the top of this list.  Not to be mistaken with Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles fame, Buk Chang is a College Street mainstay. It is part of my quest to tackle Korean food this year and having a colleague craving bibimbap in a hot stone bow, it seemed a logical stop.  Luckily, it was just past the lunch hour so we easily secured a table in the back corner and were handed the one page menu.  The decor was rather plain but not uncomfortable. Boasting a menu of 9 items with only 2 of them over $7, I ordered the seafood soon tofu with the hot pot of rice for $8 while she ordered the bibimbap for a little under $10.

One of the things I love about the Korean experience is the banchan, which is an array of side dishes which compliment the main dishes.  These are somewhat open to interpretation but usually include kimchi, steamed vegetables (called namul) and other things like pancakes which can contain any number of ingredients.  In the case of Buk Chang, we were treated to some bean sprouts, kimchi, radish and some Kuromame black beans.  The beans were the best part of the banchan and although the rest of the offerings were good, they were far from mind-blowing.

Banchan

Banchan

 

I’m a little stubborn when I go out and eat in an environment that is somewhat foreign to me.  There have been numerous instances where I have been faced with questions like “Should I eat this hot pepper or is it just garnish?” or “Which sauce goes with which dumpling?”.  Today was no different.  I cautiously spied patrons at other tables for hints on proper conduct although I’m not sure there is a particular science in eating Korean food.  I mean, you don’t have to have a Michelin star to conclude that an shelled egg placed on the table should eventually end up cracked in my soup.  What confused me a little more was the reason why the server poured water in my bowl of purple rice after he scraped most of it into another bowl.  Was it to help out the dishwashers?  To cool the bowl down in case I forget and burn myself?  Was I supposed to do something with it to complete my meal?  In the end, I never got the answer despite watching  an older Korean lady who ordered the same thing as me. She didn’t give the rice bowl a second glance which did nothing to answer my question.

The seafood soon tofu arrived bubbling. I dropped the egg in and watched the protein denature like I  was presenting a grade 8 science project.   The tofu itself was amazing; it’s texture hit that part of my brain that made me fall in love with things like rice pudding and tapioca.  The broth was punchy but delicate. Understanding that this is a restaurant with a significant devotion to tofu, I still found the seafood contribution nothing short of measly.   Two tiny unshelled, head-on shrimp and one mussel were absolutely lost in the big bowl of tofu. I’m not really a fan of rice but I enjoyed a few bites from the bowl of the purple grain that was served with the soup.

Seafood Soon Tofu $7.97

Seafood Soon Tofu (with hot pot rice) $7.97

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of bibimbap mainly due to the fact that it’s mostly rice.  That said, if you crisp up some rice against a hot stone bowl and add a fried egg among other things  you can at least peak my interest. It was a decent $10 bowl of rice.  The egg was nicely done and other condiments were used in good proportion.

Bibimbap $9.74

Bibimbap $9.74

My Take

Most white people will confess that their experience with Korean food has been limited to bulgogi beef and bibimbap, a statement which is possibly as stereotypical as the gong which sounded every time Long Duk Dong entered a scene during  Sixteen Candles more than thirty years ago.   Buk Chang’s  focus on soon (soft) tofu opens another page in the Korean cookbook.  Other than the mystery of the water pitcher, this place offers a straight forward experience in a no frills fashion. That said, when I ponder the scant amount of seafood in the soup,  I need to remember that in the end I’m getting a filling meal for about $8 although I think calling it seafood soon tofu is a tad deceiving.

In many good lunches and dinners you only ultimately  remember every perfect ration eaten,  great nosh and  nectarous thrill. Coming here and nibbling inferior kimchi and bland namul prevents me from calling this the best Korean experience I’ve ever had but based on the tofu soup and the bibimbap, I understand why it’s become a staple for many ethnic food enthusiasts in the GTA.

Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu on Urbanspoon

Hopgood’s Foodliner as Switzerland to Toronto’s Proposed East vs West Food Rivalry

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I’ve been pondering a visit to Hopgood’s for some time now.  I often stay downtown so the thought of a long drive, expensive and smelly cab or an onerous TTC excursion usually turns me off and I end up settling on something a little closer. However, a few Mondays ago I was driving to Toronto from London right around dinner time and took advantage of the location plus buck a shuck oysters by popping in before checking into my hotel for the night.

Hopgood’s has received constant accolades since opening a few years back.  It’s theme is east coast fare with a Toronto twist. It goes without saying that it boasts a ocean-centric menu with a bit of poetic licence.  The menu is smallish but complemented with a number of blackboard specials meant to highlight seasonal ingredients.

I grabbed a seat at the bar right in front of the oyster shucker.  He was busy cracking open the joints of 4 or 5 different types and throwing them on trays of ice.  Oysters are a most interesting culinary phenomenon.  There are dozens of species of oysters and each have a distinct profile.  Much like wine, pundits post comments about the bouquet and balance of the tasty mollusks.  There are heated debates about proper condiments; horseradish, lemon and mignonette seems to be holy trinity but it is not uncommon to see cocktail sauce and even blended scotch make it’s way on the list as well. In oyster world, there is also the east versus west coast battle which may be as heated as the music rivalry which has existed in the hip-hop/rap world since the nineties.

Let’s stop here for a second.  I’m a white guy who can’t dance or sing but I’ve always been fascinated by the impact that music has had on popular culture.  Historically, religion and land claims have the two biggest triggers for disputes across the globe. However, in the last 20 years one can argue that one of the biggest rivalries (at least in the US) has been fueled by music.  The west coast vs east coast conflict peaked in the late nineties with the murders of  the treasonous 2Pac (I say so because he was actually born in east Harlem and became one of the kingpins in the west coast movement) in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G ( the self-proclaimed king of New York) just six months later.  I read into this a bit more and discovered a couple of interesting facts:

  • Tupac and B.I.G were victims of drive by shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California respectively.
  • Tupac was hit four times in the chest, pelvis, and his right hand and thigh.  B.I.G was also hit four times with almost an identical profile except for a shot in the back versus chest.  Both reports noted that one of bullet hit the victim’s left testicle.
  • Tupac died six days later in hospital while B.I.G died only an hour after the shooting.
  • Neither  case has  been solved although much speculation still exists as to who the shooters were.  Not surprisingly, names like Diddy and Suge Knight (and in the case of Tupac Biggy himself) come up, but the composite sketch of B.I.G’s shooter looks like The Fresh Prince’s Carlton more than any of the suspected hip-hop thugs.

Back to Hopgood’s.  As opposed to a skinny and cut West Coast Tupac and a heavy east coast Notorious B.I.G, oysters are the opposite. Atlantic oysters tend to be a bit smaller whereas Pacific are meatier. What I found impressive was the fact that there was no compromise in quality even though it was buck a shuck night.  I have been to other places where the only option were rather measly and pathetic Malpeques .  They did charge for condiments such as horseradish (and a rather interested egg/scapple combination (6 o’clock) which I quite enjoyed) but that still didn’t hinder the fact that they were a great deal.  They did take some time to come and an apology came in the form of a free oyster topped with a torched parmesan sauce (2 o’clock) which gave it a nice baked oyster taste without compromising the integrity of the fresh oyster itself.

Oysters (A Buck each)

                                                                     Oysters (A Buck each)

While waiting for the oysters I ordered a winter derby (Elijah Craig Bourbon, Averna, Clementine Shrub, Lemon, Maple Syrup, Cinnamon & Pear Bitters) for $15.  It was tasty cocktail and while a little on the sweet side, had a nice balance and richness which removed the temptation to shoot it while at the same time not being a meal in itself.

Winter Derby $15

                                 Winter Derby $15

I went to the blackboard for my next dish which was beet greens served with brown butter and walnuts.  The bitterness of the greens were harnessed somewhat but the sweetness of the butter and the walnuts glued things together with earthy contrast and crunchy texture. The apple added a needed freshness. I found it a very smart dish.

Beet Greens

Beet Greens $6

The blackboard also offered a tuna belly crudo which was garnised with a salad made of watermelon radish.  It was safer than I expected.  The tuna itself was fresh and delicious but there was a general lack of seasoning, acid and heat. In the end, I thought the fish and salad lacked cohesion as a single dish.

Tuna Belly Crudo

                                                Tuna Belly Crudo $10

For the main course  I stuck to the menu and ordered the sablefish with a n’duja and brussel sprout salad. I expected that a restaurant with great accolades  which specializes in seafood would be able to nail a piece and sablefish and I wasn’t disappointed.  What blew my mind was the salad.  The crunch of the sprouts with the surprising heat (after all where are talking east coast) of the n’duja was unexpected.  In fact, the fish was close to playing supporting actor to the sprouts but the fact it was perfectly cooked allowed it’s buttery richness to shine as the star on the plate.

Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N'duja

                                                    Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N’duja $25

Since I was so impressed with the salad, I couldn’t help but turn to the blackboard and hope that the steamed scallops with n’duja was still available ( I should state here that like most specials, they are made in limited quantities and many of them had lines scratched through them as the night went on).  It was a carbon copy of the sablefish; the beautifully presented (in shell)  scallops were respectfully prepared and once again the sauce was spicy and delicious.  I love playing with my food and I had fun dissecting the bivalves.

Steamed Scallops

                                                                   Steamed Scallops $12

There were long voids in between dishes and I found the service quite scattered and unorganized.  Maybe it was the fact that the waiter taking care of me also had everybody else at bar, a few tables and was responsible for all the drinks.  Although it was a Monday, it was busy and I think at times there was no rhyme or reason to the ways things flowed.

My Take

There is no doubt in my mind why Hopgood’s Foodliner has received the laurels it has since it opened a few years back.  It takes the friendly cuisine of the east coast and urbanizes it to compete in Toronto’s progressive dining scene.  Smart blackboard specials, perfectly executed proteins and surprisingly sauces highlight a superb menu.  The cocktail list is pricy but smart by taking a number of tastes,flavours and boozes into consideration.  The overall experience, however,  was somewhat hampered by slow, inconsistent and confused service.

Classic east/west rivalries such as the Celtics versus Lakers exist in sports. In the culinary world, celebrity chef and competitive brothers Bryan and Mike Voltaggio represent both sides of the United States (with west coast Michael winning the head to head battle on season six of  Top Chef). I got thinking than a similar east versus west rivalry may add some spice to Toronto’s dining scene.  Perhaps the line can be drawn along Bathurst which would nicely separate the bourbon- swilling Parkdale posse from the suit wearing Grey Goose-drinking downtown dwellers.  Thankfully, the likelihood of shootings is minimal, but I imagine feuds could escalate into a night of a few Campari or Shiraz-fueled bitchslaps should things get out of hand.  More likely would be the back and forth twitter banter such as “Hey Don Draper..how’s that Manhattan Tasting #westisbest” or “I drink AFTER working a 10 hour shift, not DURING one  #plaidisbad”.  The biggest question regarding Hopgood’s is since it’s an east coast restaurant on the west side, which side of the fence they would sit on?  Perhaps it can assert itself as a neutral zone and a place where all can exist in harmony while doing oyster shots….just as long as you’re not in a hurry.

Hopgood's Foodliner on Urbanspoon

Tinder Surprises and Scenes from the Red Wedding while Bymark Hits the Mark

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My job allows me to attend a number of group dinners.  I’m often reluctant to write reviews of these experiences since they are a bit artificial and may not apply to somebody  looking to grab dinner for two on a Saturday night.  That said, I imagine smooth execution of a delicious dinner for 100 people would speak highly of the quality of the food and the service.  This was the case during a recent visit to Bymark. I wasn’t involved in planning this dinner so I can’t comment on the price per head as part of this review.

I’m used to standard set menus which offer soup or salad as a starter, fish, chicken or steak as he entree and some dessert which usually includes a cheesecake and something chocolaty.   Bymark’s options blew my mind.  There were five starters that included butter braised lobster poutine, fois gras, yellow fin tuna with yuzu, buffalo mozzerella and mixed greens. I sat staring blankly at the menu as I had to reprogram my brain think outside the soup/salad binary code I’m so used to.  I’ve been in a fish mood lately and I’m quite sure “yuzu” is Japanese for “tasty little bastard”, so I went for the tuna.  It was seared and served beautifully .  I would have liked a bit more of both heat and acid to tear into the richness of the tuna but it was fresh and clean and the pop from the odd ginger crisp was memorable.

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls

My colleague opted for the lobster poutine.  It was a modest portion served on a circular lobster shell and topped with bernaise sauce.  I think I saw him cry a little bit.  I managed to score a few frites and thought it  was greasy sweetness…literally and figuratively.  I cried a little too.

Butter Braised Lobster Poutine

Butter Braised Lobster Poutine

Another colleague of mine from Quebec stuck to her roots and ordered the fois gras.  As a disclaimer, I am not wacky over fois gras.  I enjoy a think slice of torchon as opposed to a hunk of liver on a plate.  This appetizer was the latter.  Maybe it was the garnish which was a bile-looking sage puree coupled with a bloody looking compote and swimming in a pool chocolate jus. It might have been the fact that the fois gras itself was not served cooked throughout. Either way,  it looked like aftermath of the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones.  Since I am not a savage medieval warrior or Hannibal Lecter, it wasn’t my thing and wouldn’t have been any better even  if there were a few fava beans thrown on the plate.

Fois Gras and Sage Eclair

Fois Gras and Sage Eclair

The selection of entrees were equally as impressive.  There was the choice of steak, lamb, black cod, chicken and vegetable risotto Black cod is one of my favorite fish and I was particularly intrigued with the octopus and crab cakes, so my choice was a no brainer.  To me, the key to good black cod is to achieve the same silky mouthfeel as if  you were eating a pound of butter but without the probable ill-filled aftermath.  Mission accomplished.  The citrus butter balanced the sweetness of the cod and with the help of the coriander crust and subtle broth enhanced it at the same time.  The crab cakes were delightful morsels and the eggplant and  zucchini strands brought some earthiness to the dish.

Coriander Crusted Black Cod

Coriander Crusted Black Cod

For the most part, dessert adhered to the group dinner blueprint in offering chocolate something and cheesecake.  They did, however, offer a delightful selection of cheese (including a killer blue) served with honey, grapes and bread.  It was a nice way to finish the evening.

After Dinner Cheese

After Dinner Cheese

There is something to be said for a restaurant’s ability to execute a large group dinner.  Although it cannot always be compared to the service required for a smaller, more intimate dinner, there is a standard which includes ensuring 100 wine glasses are never empty and that everybody gets their meals within a short window of time.  The service was flawless other than a few hiccups regarding coffee service at the end of the meal.  That said, maybe we scared them off given the fact that our table looked like a bunch of adolescence watching Porky’s for the first time. One of my single colleagues decided to open her tinder app and demonstrate the concept to a bunch of us.  Essentially, you scroll through pictures of people within a defined radius of where you are sitting, squatting, drinking etc.  You either like or dislike them based on a few pictures and whatever witty (or ridiculous) banter they include in their profile.  A yes means if that person also approves of your posted resume, an “It’s a match!” flashes on your screen and the happy couple can be begin a chat which may or may not lead to other things including a walk in the park or a deep discussion about existentialism. A no means great big red letters are stamped over the unsuspecting dude’s picture and the girl can smirk with the satisfaction that she temporarily ended somebody’s hopes and dreams. During the lesson and in the presence of the opposite sex, there were a couple of quick observations I made about this phenomenon called tinder:

1. Guys should not put pictures of cats on their photo roll.  Cat guys seem to be a turn off to women (although I can think of a few guys that really like pus…never mind).

2. Guys should not post pictures of themselves hanging with their buddies, especially if it’s every picture.  There were a few cases where we actually wagered who the actual guy was.  Plus, it may lead one to believe that you either need your buddies in  a picture  look better or you are into threesomes, foursomes or frat parties.

3. Girls and guys differ on the definition of witty and/or funny.  For example, one guy’s status was “My mom says she likes me”. The girls at the table thought that he was clever; the guys thought he was a putz.

4.  Girls want to see the whole package.  Close-ups of a bicep or upper abs along with a shot from distance demonstrating a dude’s love of barbecuing veggie skewers in bad lighting doesn’t work.  It’s  a hook-up app, not a 100 piece puzzle.

5.  I suspect that pseudonyms are acceptable if not encouraged.  Let’s face it…if your name is Marvin or Randy you don’t have a chance.  The brown guys have no problem changing their names to Richard or Jacob (I had an Indian guy beside at dinner who confirmed that Richard was actually his cousin Ashok).  That said, some white guys have figured it out.  Take Roberge for example.  This french prince (whose name is likely Bob) was sleek and suave and would likely want to any girl to roll the “R’ and extend his name to a 3 second ROOOOOBBBEEERRRRRRRRRRGGGGGEEEE!

My Take

As mentioned, I am reluctant to suggest that a good group dinner means that a table for two will have the same experience.  What I can say is that the execution of dinner at Bymark was close to flawless.   Although the fois gras was a bloody mess, the other starters, including the lobster poutine and the seared tuna were delicious.  The entrees were served hot and I heard no complaints (whether it was the steak, fish, lamb or risotto) across our table.  For the most part, the service was prompt and professional.  In the end, I think both the guys and girls agreed  that the pieces of meat served on the plate were much better than those offered on tinder.  Sorry Bob.

Bymark on Urbanspoon

Playing Hooky at Japango

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When I’m at a week long conference, I take the opportunity to skip out for lunch.  I mean, the daily monotony of chafing dish chicken masked with corn and called Mexican or olives and called Greek gets a bit much.  The icing on the cake is when the next day’s soup looks surprisingly like what was on the buffet table the day before. So, when a colleague suggested we play hooky, I jumped on the opportunity to head out of the hotel for a quick bite.

I hadn’t been here for about 10 years.  The last time I went the team I was on had the whole restaurant booked (which isn’t hard to do since the place only holds 20 people or so). I remember my manager, who is one of the whitest people I have ever met (he was kindly referred to as a bag of milk at the beach once), telling us all to meet at “Jap ‘n Go” at 630 for dinner.  Since then, I haven’t had a chance to get back.  This time, we didn’t have a reservation but arrived before noon so we were able to get promptly squeezed into the corner.

The service was quick.  We ordered a mish-mash of sashimi and sushi rolls.  First to arrive was the typical bowl of miso soup.

Miso Soup

                                                                            Miso Soup

Next to arrive was the famous Japango roll ($13) and crunchy spicy tuna roll ($9).  The former signature roll is a California roll with torched salmon and scallop on top.  The fish was noticeably fresh and the mix of sweet and heat plus the slight char of the delicate scallop and fat of the salmon was a delightful mouthful.  The crunchy roll exuded the same freshness but the heat was a little lacking.

Japango Roll ($13) and Crunchy Spicy Tuna Roll ($9)

                                             Japango Roll ($13) and Crunchy Spicy Tuna Roll ($9)

The sashimi 2 platter ($25) arrived shortly after served with a bowl of rice.  It was a diverse mix of the standards including salmon and tuna and some pleasant surprises including some sort of seared whitefish (I’m not going to pretend I know but it had the taste and texture of halibut . Once again, the freshness was evident and the presentation was simple but impressive, although it was a little tight at the table.

Sashimi 2 $25

                                  Sashimi 2 $25

The final arrival was the dragon roll ($12) which is shrimp topped with eel and avocado. Once again, fresh was the word. The avocado was nicely ripened and the eel was umamic bliss.

Dragon Roll $12

                                Dragon Roll $12

My Take

Japango has all the makings of a great hooky destination.  You can sneak in between class, have a decent lunch and get back in less than 45 minutes.  While there, you are treated to fresh sushi with friendly and efficient service in small, modest quarters all at a price that I would deem “reasonable”.  When I mentioned “hooky” to my daughter, she shook her head and told me to “urban dictionary it fam”. I answered I use urbanspoon, not urban dictionary.  She rolled her eyes.  I guess in her eyes I’m as lame as someone who calls it “Jap ‘n Go”. At least we both like sushi.

Japango on Urbanspoon

Filling my Belly at 1 Love Kitchen

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The fusion of music and food is a fundamental component to the theme of eateries all over. My son works at Five Guys and spends eight hours listening to classic rock while flipping burgers and dropping fries. Grand Electric blasts old school rap throughout the smallish confines while one eats some of the best tacos in the city. Some eateries take it a step further by creating an entire theme around their pop culture icons. For example, take Sky Blue Sky’s odd tribute to indie band Wilco or Fidel Gastro’s  snack shop which pays homage to the Presley family at Lisa Marie.

One of the newer joints to follow this blueprint is 1 love kitchen, a drop in Caribbean place on Queen street.  Not surprisingly, the menu revolves around jerk meats and features all the fixings including rice and peas and plantains.  In a a Toronto twist, they also offer quinoa and beans for fans of the ever popular supergrain.  A sketch of Bob Marley with his famous smile looks down on the modest interior which has seating for a couple of dozen people.    A line of chaffing dishes  housing the menu offerings is staffed by a single employee who was quite welcoming upon my entry from the bitter cold.  I was grabbing take-out for myself and a colleague who was tormented by the hotel down the road’s lame attempt at gluten free/vegetarian offerings and needed some real food in order to get through the rest of the meeting.  I went right for the jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans, cole slaw ($9.45)  and plantains for an extra $1.25.  The chicken was well seasoned and moist and the rice and slaw hit the spot. The plantains were a bit tough and dry.  The portion sizes (especially the chicken) wwer rather large which somewhat justified the ten dollar price point.

Jerk Chicken with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.45

Jerk Chicken with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.45

My intent was to get the channa roti with buckwheat as a gluten free option but I was informed that this option never took off so they don’t offer it anymore.  So, I ordered the veggy lover’s medley ($9.50) instead after finding out it was a chick pea based curry and therefore had adequate protein and was served with rice and peas and a side salad.  The curry was well developed and hit an appealing bite at the end. The texture of the chick peas were spot on.

Veggy Delight with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.50

Veggy Lover’s Delight with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.50

Another interesting point is that 1 Love Kitchen is part of Belly, a rather new reward program that allows numerous businesses to be linked to the same account thus cutting down on the need to carry 15 lunch cards around.  With a scan of the Belly app, one will gain points and get rewarded for their ongoing loyalty sometime down the road.

My Take

In the midst of numerous burger joints, sub shops and hot dog carts, 1 love kitchen offers quick Caribbean cuisine for around 10 bucks. Sure, there are a bunch of hole-in-the-wall jerk chicken shacks which might be a bit cheaper, but the proximity of 1 love within the hub of hotels, hospitals etc coupled with the Belly reward program makes it a consideration for a quick lunch or dinner. It’s another example of the fusion of good music and good food.  After all, I left sayin': let’s get together and feel all right. Wo wo-wo wo-wo! before and after I filled my belly. Bet it would taste even better after embarking in some of Marley’s other “talents”.  Too bad they don’t have late night hours.

1 Love Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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