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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

 

Parenting Palates and Toasting Khaleesi at Woodlot

Dining alone is not for everybody.  I’ll admit it’s not always my favorite thing to do but given my travels I’m up for it when necessary.  Others choose to order room service, sit on the bed and get cozy with the remote.  I find, however, that going out solo usually results in some adventure worth repeating. Take a recent trip to Woodlot for example.   I had just finished an appointment on a Monday and was looking for an early bite  which turned out to be a daunting task given the number of institutions closed on the first day of the week.  I went to woodlot a few years back and enjoyed it, so I figured it was worth another shot.  They take reservations but also seat walk-ins at the bar on the communal table which sits near the open kitchen.  I decided to sit at the table and was soon joined by a family of four who also wandered in.  I pegged the kids at 8 and 6 years old and was curious to see if the routine was the same as what I go through with younger children. For example, my son’s definition of a good restaurant is a good Caesar salad and free refills.  My daughter, on the other hand, enjoys chicken anything as long as it come with a side of  good people watching. Watching this family, I was quickly reminded that excursions with children to restaurants outside those with kid’s menus or clowns have the following characteristics:

  • The father’s main goal is to get their kids to try something so they can later brag about the fact that their offspring has their daddy’s palate. Other than the birth itself or a hockey goal, nothing makes daddy prouder than watching their son suck back a Malpeque oyster.
  • Handheld devices are a must.  Whether a cell phone, Nintendo DS or an iPad, the need to kill the 10 minutes before the food comes is a must. Long gone are crayons and sheets containing mazes, word finds and words which unscramble to spell spaghetti, hamburger or soccer.
  • The key is to verbally deconstruct any complicated dish in hope of fooling the child into believing that it’s not fancy.  For example, “Do you want to try Gnocchi?  All it is is the same pasta you are eating with a little bit of yummy mashed potato in it?”.  This usually results in the child looking back at the parent with a “are you kidding me?” look on their face.
  •  Mom is usually more subtle by ordering something safe instead of the what they really want in the off chance their child just might want to try what they are eating.  It’s a more subtle approach than dad and if he/she complies, it’s a reassurance that the child is still Mama’s little boy or girl.

The cocktail list payed homage to Game of Thrones by offering the Mother of Dragons, Clash of Kings, North of the Wall and Little Finger. Khaleesi aside, I went with the maternal choice which was campari with grapefruit tonic and pastis.  It didn’t go down like dragon fire but instead tasted like a tame negroni.

Cocktail $13

Mother of Dragons Cocktail $11

Woodlot is know for it’s bread.  A number of varieties are available for sale everyday starting at noon.  The same bread is offered to start the meal for those who dine in.  By offered I mean provided free of charge.  In fact, a variety ranging from white to whole wheat to multigrain is provided with a small churn of butter.  It was quite delicious and nicely complimented the rustic nature of the restaurant itself.

Complimentary Housemade Bread

Complimentary Housemade Bread

My starter was the ember grilled Hen-o’-the-Woods mushrooms with wild rice, black walnut, beet root and dill ($13). These are one of my favorite mushrooms so I had high expectations.  Great textures and smoky, earthy flavours highlighted the dish.  My expecations were met.

Woodlot Mushroom Salad

Woodlot Mushroom Salad $13

For the entree, I opted for  a small order of hand cut sourdough spaghetti and meatballs with dry aged beef, san marzano tomatoes, basil and parmesan for $16.  The meatballs were moist and flavourful, the sauce was fresh and tart and the sourdough pasta was an enjoyable twist.  It was a small portion but I guess that’s what I ordered.

Small Sourdough Pasta $16

Small Sourdough Pasta $16

I also ordered the warm kale salad with currants, toasted almond and pickled shallot for $7.  The kale was nicely cooked and the flavours were quite balanced and enjoyable which  I thought it paired nicely with the pasta.

Warm Kale Salad $7

Warm Kale Salad $7

I wasn’t blown away by any of the desserts (in fact there are only four including a cheese plate) but I ordered the vanilla pavlova anyway.  Served with blueberry and lemon curd, the pavlova itself had a crispy crust and a soft, fluffy interior.  The addition of fresh tarragon was smart and the whipped cream helped to buffer the other components on the dish.  That said, the extreme sweetness of the pavlova was not balanced with the minimal tartness of the curd, especially when the blueberry joined the party.

Vanilla Pavlova with blueberry.lemon curd and tarragon

Vanilla Pavlova with blueberry.lemon curd and tarragon $11

My Take 

Even as College street near Palmerston becomes increasingly innodated with new and trendy eateries, Woodlot sits quietly around the corner and  remains a popular dining destination.  The communal table, brick oven and open kitchen make for a fun atmosphere even if though it’s at a lower decibel than nearby La Carnita and Dailo.  The fact that they focus on freshly baked bread and a dedicated vegetarian menu in addition to the small but smart standard one is a reminder that the food as opposed to a wild cocktail menu, small plate snacks and loud music is the foundation for Woodlot’s success.  Although I wouldn’t necessarily call it kid friendly, perhaps the parents at the communal table were smart.  After all, what parent doesn’t tell their child that they have to eat everything on their plate and with the small portions at Woodlot, maybe  that’s not such a daunting task.

Woodlot Restaurant & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Adding a Thoroughbred to Toronto’s Culinary Horse Race

In the race to win over ravenous hipsters and foodies, a number of new horses have joined the field.  Thoroughbred is no exception. By reading the name you would expect telewagering, mechanical bulls or country-inspired  karoke. Instead, you get a trendy,  multi-floored work in progress.  Floor one is an attractive smaller area housing a bar and a few tables and serving food which can be described as bar food done differently .  The second floor is the kitchen complete with a 10 seat chef’s table. Only a few steps up is the third floor which will be a 35 seat dining room with a complete dinner service.  Closed Sundays and Mondays, it offers lunch, dinner  and late night service Tuesday to Friday and opens Saturday at 5pm.

And they’re off…..

Although tempted to relish a mint julep in honour of the thoroughbreds of the Kentucky Derby, I was intrigued by pop-culture inspired  Art Vandelay instead ($13).  Made of London dry gin, Dr. Van Nostrand’s tonic, sage, hopped grapefruit bitters, lime and  egg white, I presume it’s a spin on a Gin and tonic or even a Tom Collins developed by a guy who spent Thursday night’s in the 90’s in a spirit-induced coma laughing at the Soup Nazi, Puddy or shaking his hands at neighbours and muttering Newman under his breath.  It was sweeter and smoother than I expected, perhaps a reflection of who Art actually would be compared to creator George Costanza.

 

Art Vandelay $13

Art Vandelay $13

 

The race started with a simple bowl of olives ($6). Although it’s hard to imagine a twist one one of the most ubiquitous dishes on Toronto menus, the addition of slim jims and peperoncini peppers was a noble effort.  The portion size was generous and  and despite the fact I’m not an olive fan,the additions were smart and they were very acceptable.

Smoked Olives $6

Smoked Olives $6

 

The next leg was with a bloomin’ scallion, a daintierz twist on the Outback bloomin’ onion.  Light batter surrounded tender whole green onions and served atop a citrusy “dipping” sauce.  Although a plain dish, it was attractive and well executed. It’s more of a knife and fork nourishment as opposed to a get your hands greasy goody.

Bloomin' Scallion $6

Bloomin’ Scallion $6

 

Coming into the final turn, I ordered the roast broccoli marrow, broccoli carpaccio, plum vinegar and  mache ($6).  Perhaps a shot at the bone marrow movement, this dish was visually stunning and textually complex.  At first sight, the roasted broccoli stalks would fool a PETA member.  Surrounded by jicama, red pepper and cashews, the flavour was as balanced as the presentation.  Although primarily vegetables, this dish was a steal for the price and absolutely delicious.

Roasted Broccoli Marrow $6

Roasted Broccoli Marrow $6

 

The home stretch was another vegetable creation; shaved summer squash with watermelon, pine nuts, lemon vin and grana padano ($6). Another show horse, piles of shaved zucchini were garnished with ribbons of the same and a few radishes. The watermelon’s sweet  and the  cheese’s salt sung a harmonious tone atop the tart   lemon vinaigrette and spots of olive oil. Like the broccoli, it was a light, well constructed, striking and balanced dish.

 

Summer Squash

Summer Squash $6

 

Not only is the food delicious, but the service was top notch.  Lacking a Kentucky Derby pretension,  professional staff run the place, including an engaged business partner who is cordial and visible. He introduced himself to me and brought me upstairs to meet the head chef and show me the kitchen, chef’s table and future dining area.  The chef table’s concept includes unique group offerings including a Flintstone’s (ribs and all the fixings) or east coast seafood theme. Patrons can also set price points and let the chef go wild. The menu is in progress but promises a full dinner menu reminiscent of the offerings in the bar below.

My Take

Thoroughbred has come out of the gates offering a cool, trendy yet slight awkward set up close to the entertainment district.  So far, the food and service are winning heats.  They ignore the expected equine cliches by naming cocktails after Axel Foley instead of Willie Shoemaker.  Excellent service and engaged ownership combined with unique and innovative snacks, sinful meats, seafood and sandwiches make up the bar menu which leads me craving the bigger show upstairs once it’s offered.

If using the metaphor of a horse race, so far Throughbred is a winner.  In the Toronto restaurant derby, the biggest question is whether their vision will come to fruition and this foal will achieve the success of Secretariat or the unfortunate fate of  Barbaro. If they stick to this gameplan, I’ll place my bets on the former.

 

Thoroughbred Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

 

 

Living the Khabouth Brand at Byblos

Coming back from Kingston, I got off the train in the middle of rush hour and realized it was hapless to attempt to drive back to London so I took the opportunity to grab an early dinner at Byblos. Hidden on Duncan St, the outside is quite subtle especially compared to the massive four floor fortress inside.  When I went to the reception, I got the typical routine when I told them I didn’t have a reservation. It starts with the fake pensive stare at the blank computer screen, followed by  a slight nod and a grim proclamation and they said there was only room upstairs in the lounge.  I followed him upstairs and was seated at a well stocked bar.  I felt like I was in the bleachers at a Jays game beacuse I was the only one there.  Good thing they snuck me in!  As I waited for a drink, I looked around and the saw that the place was decorated in the typical Charles Khabouth style.  The room was elegantly decorated and accented with hints of the Middle east.

I was quickly greeted by two barkeeps and we were able to strike up a bit of a conversation.   First, we discussed the concept at Byblos: eastern Mediterranean flavours and a kick ass bar. I decided to test the latter out with an old fashioned ($15).  Made with a base of Bulleit bourbon (that’s a good start) and accented with date molasses instead of sugar atop a signature Khabouth big ass ice cube,  it  had an odd colour (I love the bronzy hue of a good old-fashioned) and slightly overwhelming sweetness which hid the bourbon a little too much but in the end was still a decent drink.

Old Fashioned $15

Old Fashioned $15

From a food perspective, the menu is divided into small and large plates with a spattering of rice dishes.  Since I was solo, for the most part I stuck with the small dishes and quizzed the guys about the best dishes:

Cheese Acharuli (Quail Egg + Brioche + Za’atar) $9- Eggs and cheese make me happy so this was an easy choice.  The crust was crispy and held its texture while housing the melted cheese and runny egg.  The za’atar flavour  and pickled onion was a great addition to this spin of the traditional Georgian bread. I didn’t confirm the cheese but wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little sheep’s milk feta hidden in the stringy mess.
Cheese Acharuli  (cheese bread) $9

Cheese Acharuli (cheese bread) $9

I asked about octopus versus crispy squid and the consensus was go with the latter for $13.  Although advertised as a large dish, it was no bigger than the acharuli and was seasoned with toum, spices and schug (hot sauce).  Although the use of the toum was subtle, it carried a garlic punch that some might find a bit overpowering.  Personally, I loved it.  The squid itself was a bit lost in the batter and the expected heat from the schug fell a little short.
Crispy Squid Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13

Crispy Squid
Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13

The final decision was between the duck or eggplant kibbeh.  Once again, after careful consultation I went with the vegetarian option ($14) after a suggestion from the waiter that duck might be a bit dry.    Within minutes they arrived, served with a yogurt based dipping sauce.  It was nicely spiced but overall the dish was a little underwhelming, especially with a  $14 price tag.
Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14

Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14

My Take
Byblos is an other Charles Khabouth creation which fits his  typical blueprint of huge fanfare, lively atmosphere, abundant space, fancy cocktails, well dressed waitstaff, nicely balanced pretension and hit and miss food.  As a whole, I usually enjoy the experience but always leave with a few criticisms. Let me explain what I mean by balanced pretension.  I have no issues with people taking pride in their craft and not hiding behind the veil of impartiality.  I had a great discussion with the barkeeps about the Keg Mansion, cheque averages and noise levels.  We bounced thoughts on the local eateries and agreed or agreed to disagree on many of them; whether it was the  noise level, skimpy portions or best anchovy dish in town. That said, they are quite confident about their own joint.    This pride is the foundation of the Khabouth brand. Whether it’s Patria, Weslodge or La Societe, you leave feeling a little cooler even if some of the food is hit and miss. Byblos is no different.

 

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