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Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bowl of ramen and I figured nothing was better than a snow storm to dive back into a bowl.  I have scratched a few places off the list but hadn’t had the chance to try Touhenboku ramen on Queen Street. Spearheaded by owner Zuimei Okuyama,  it has all the hallmarks of the trendy Toronto noodle houses.  First, it has a name a white guy has a hard time remembering (Touhenboku means “blockhead” in Japanese).  Second, it has a cute mascot (in this case a smiling tree stump named Tomo who is a half breed consisting of a Canadian and Japanese maple).  Third, it has a small menu, modest interior and they sing you a farewell tune on the way out.  The big difference is that they use chicken instead of pork as the base for their broth.  From what I understand, this may be a “bone” of contention among ramen purists, but I approached it purely from a taste perspective.  They also adhere to the “vegetarians need love too” philospohy and offer a vegetarian broth which is not the case for some of the other ramen houses in the area.

That said, I ordered my regular fare; shio ramen (thin noodles) and an order of gyoza.   Since I was breaking the pork broth doctrine anyway, I decided to go spicy since I was intrigued by the addition of the “special chili oil”.  The soup arrived quickly and I immediately noticed the distinct smell of chicken emanating from the bowl . Any fears of a dainty broth were quickly extinguished after the first few sips.  As promised, it was rich and creamy and the oil added a modest amount of heat to the broth. The noodles and egg were cooked to near perfection (the noodles were firm and the egg was not quite hard boiled). The other ingredients were in good proportion to the broth and noodles.

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Despite the fact the place was rather empty, the gyoza, despite being called an appetizer, didn’t arrive until I was almost finished the soup. With this annoyance aside, I was treated to a good plate of dumplings.  They were seasoned well and nicely pan-finished, keeping the integrity of the dumpling while adding the right amount of crispiness.

Gyoza $5.50

Gyoza $5.50

My Take

I wanted to insert some witty banter into this post  but I was left stumped.  Once you’ve branched out to a number of ramen places, you run out of ideas.  Touhenboku turns over a new leaf by having the gall to focus on mizutaki (chicken broth) and knot the traditional tonkotsu (pork broth) as the base to its hearty soups. The flavours are quite rich which might help justify the fact that boles are a bit smaller than other ramen joints.  In the case of the spicy ramen, it’s bark was worse than it’s bite although the chili did add a nice flavour.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the gyoza, despite having a filling a little less poppy than others, were some of the better I’ve had since they were pan-fried to near perfection. In the end, Touhenboku has blossomed into good competition with other ramen houses in the area in regards to both service and more importantly, a decent bowl of soup.  Domo arigato Zuimei Okuyama…wood you please take a bough?

Touhenboku Ramen on Urbanspoon

VON Doughnuts: Bartering, Sex Toys and Memories of Fritters That Look Like Celebrities

I remember when I used to sit on the stools in the poorly decorated Tim Horton’s donuts in the early eighties.  The classic brown and yellow decor, the tattered picture of Tim Horton himself and the nameless (at least I think he was) Timbit mascot are all nothing but distant memories.

Tim Horton was a cult hero on the ice.  Having played the majority of his career for the Leafs (including the last time they won the Stanley Cup), his life ironically ended as a member of the Buffalo Sabres in a traffic accident on the QEW after a game against his old team.

What I remember the most are the doughnuts.  The apple fritters were like fingerprints; no two were the same.  You could look at a batch and, like a cloud, find one that would like Pierre Trudeau, Ernie Whitt or the thing growing on the face of the old woman serving you behind the counter (see below if you don’t want to take my word for it).  They had apple, cherry and blueberry turnovers the size of pirate hats and the once famous strawberry tarts which seemed seasonal anytime of year.

Since then, the explosion of the Starbucks-lead cafe concept and rapid expansion of the Tim’s franchise meant that the creative, heavy handed tendencies of the local bakers have been replaced by the cookie cutter approach meaning that a dutchie  looks the same whether you get it in Yellowknife or at Queen and Bay.

As a result, I’m always looking for this delicious treat in other places.  Whether an old school honey cruller at a small town ma and pa shop or a yeast-raised treat at gourmet boutique hidden within a urban bazaar,  finding a good donut is well worth the trip.  Needless to say, I was excited to see that Von doughnuts was down the road from a restaurant I was dining at that evening.  Despite an Alberta clipper,  I began the three block trek down Danforth in efforts to get there before it closed at 6.  When I walked in, I had the pleasure of meeting the owner who proudly described the daily doughnuts available.  She also informed us that she works 60 plus hours a week which likely explained the sign on the window looking for an evening baker.  She also explained a sort of barter system that existed among local businesses.  For example, she often trades doughnuts for Pizza Libretto’s thin crust pies.

The variation of doughnuts with witty names (such as enjoy-mint and one night stand) differs depending on  the day of the week.  I decided to opt for a variety (half dozen for $18) which included the following:

Pucker up Sucker (bottom left)-  The owner cited this as one of the more popular.  The curd was delicious and pure, leaving out the excessive sweetness that exists with most lemon filling, resulting in a fantastic balance. It was also ingenious that the curd was spread throughout the middle of the doughnut like a sandwich. Jelly filled  doughnuts at Tim Horton’s are like a lottery; you either hit the jackpot or get a smigin of filling which may or may not be the flavour you actually ordered.

Peanut Butter Jelly Time (bottom right)-  The worst part of this creation was the fact that Peanut Butter and Jelly Time song (including Brian from Family Guy dressed up in a banana suit)  got stuck in my head.  Otherwise, It was surprisingly balanced and not over sweet.

Creme Brulee (top left)- Smart in concept but less explosive than its box mates.

Butter tart- (bottom middle)  I didn’t understand this one. I think efforts failed in the attempt to reduce the signature sweetness of a butter tart. Maybe you’re best not to mess with this Canadian favorite.

Spicy Bourbon Cracker Jack (the duplicate)- By the time I ate it, I had forgotten it was spicy and was pleasantly surprised at the reminder.  This was a great combination of snack nostalgia, subtle heat and just enough sweet.

 

Six pack of doughnuts $18

Six pack of doughnuts $18

 My Take

I like the doughnut movement much more than the cupcake one.  I think a deep fried piece of dough is a much better blank slate for creativity and VON has no lack of it. The passion of the owner, coupled the creativity of her wares makes VON doughnuts an exciting destination. Despite trying 5 varieties, I feel I have just scratched the surface.   After all, I haven’t had the opportunity to try the Dill-Dough (ok..that didn’t sound right), which is normally served on Friday and Saturday or any of the seasonal treats that magically appear here and there.  Although I don’t think I will ever again see the day where I can eat an apple fritter that looks like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, I can still get some solace knowing there’s dill-doughs and one night stands to keep me happy.

Von Doughnuts on Urbanspoon

 

 

Signs: Where Ordering a Beer Looks like a Ralph Macchio Impression

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When I heard the name Signs I wondered if long-haired freaky people could apply or whether I needed a membership care to get inside.  As I looked more into the restaurant, I found myself humming the five man electrical band lyrics out loud.  Signs is another of a number of emerging restaurants which attempt to bring different humanitarian efforts into the kitchen.  With restaurants like Paintbox and Hawthorne, which work on skills training (the former focuses on training and career path opportunities for  people in the Regent Park area) and O.Noir, (whose theme is an awareness and  employment of the blind by serving food in the dark), Signs provides career opportunities and growth for the Deaf in the hospitality industry.

Upon arrival you are greeted by a hostess who explains the process:  You are served by somebody who is deaf and you sign your order using the prompts outlined on the menu.  Sounds easy…it’s not. I’m the kind of guy who has struggled with every map and instruction manual ever made.  This effort was no different. Take the beer list for example.  I attempted to order a $9 cracked canoe using gestures that looked like Ralph Macchio cleaning Pat Morita’s car.  The waiter sort of laughed and showed me the correct way; you simply make a zigzag with your finger to symbolize “cracked” and simulate paddling a canoe.

The decor is clean and fresh and the walls are lined with posters demonstrating how to sign letters of the alphabet along with a few important words including important potent potables such as Whisky and Vodka.

For dinner, I started with the $5 soup of the day (chicken and spinach I believe) which I once again failed sign properly and in my panic forgot to take a picture of.  It was well-balanced and not overly salty.

For an entree I decided on the chicken piri-piri for $28. To order it, you had to sign a chicken (which is like giving yourself a beak) and signal the heat sign which is like making a fanning motion in front of your mouth.  It was a bit slow to arrive and when it did, it was pretty average.  It had moderate spice and was served with blandish roasted vegetables and a sweet potato side.  The plate was very orange and looked a bit like a Halloween hangover.

Chicken Piri-Piri $28

Chicken Piri-Piri $28

For dessert, I decided against the 30 minute apple crisp (they offer a 30 minute dessert they bake from scratch nightly) that the rest of the table ordered and opted  for the $9 Nutella Tiramisu instead.  Once again, it was average at best although I enjoyed that despite using sickly sweet nutella, the use of cocoa powder among other things managed to keep it from turning it into a cloying confection.

Nutella Tiramisu $9

Shaky pic of Nutella Tiramisu $9

My Take

Located on Yonge near Wellesley, Signs is definitely more of a tourist destination than one for a foodie.  It gets good reviews on yelp and urbanspoon and is ranked 15th among over 6000 restaurants in Toronto on Tripadvisor.  The space is large, roomy and clean and the staff are kind and courteous.  There is humility when you order, especially if you have no spatial reasoning capabilities. The food is average at best but in the end didn’t necessarily diminish the experience. You also pay for the experience.  A pint of cracked canoe is a whopping $9 and the chicken piri piri was $28.  At least you can get a bowl of good soup for $5.

Signs is a mix of tourism and novelty sprinkled with hints of decent food  In the end, is a humbling reminder that not everybody can hear bacon sizzle, hum Five Man Electrical Band or listen to Peter Cetera sign about the Glory of Love while the Karate Kid courts his girl with moves that look like me trying to order a pint of beer.

Signs Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Guinan $15

Texas Guinan $15

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

Complimentary Mini Muffins

Complimentary Mini Muffins

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

Chopped salad

Chopped salad $13

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

Fish Board (Chowder) $18

Fish Board (Chowder) $18

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

Duck Breast $25

Duck Breast $25

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

Spare Ribs $17

Spare Ribs $17

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

Cereal $8

Cereal $9

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

Sticky Bun

Sticky Bun $10

My Take

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

Rasa on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabich $7

Sabich $7

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

Panipuri $4

Panipuri $4

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

Tso-fu $4

Tso-fu $4

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

Char Shiu Bao $5

Char Shiu Bao $5

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

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

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

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

Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4

Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4

My Take 

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

People's Eatery on Urbanspoon

Another Susur experience: Would I thank this Luckee star?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good!

Vegetable Spring Rolls $6

Vegetable Spring Rolls $6 and Curry Shrimp Rolls $7

Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9

Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9

Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8

Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8

Chicken Pot Stickers $8

Chicken Pot Stickers $8

Not So Good

Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9

Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9

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

Shrimp Cheung Fun $12

Shrimp Cheung Fun $12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

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

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

Luckee on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

Cocktails

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

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

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

Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6

Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6

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

Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6

Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6

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

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

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

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

Hakka Brown Dumplings $9

Hakka Brown Dumplings $9

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

Truffle Rice

Truffle Fried  Rice $19

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

Cauliflower Curry $14

Singapore Cauliflower Curry $16

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

Sugar Cake $8

Kasu White Sugar Cake $8

My Take

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

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

DaiLo on Urbanspoon

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