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Looking for Gizmo at Porh Pawh’s Bakery and Cafe

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Once in a while I pass a place and just feel the need to drop in out of nothing more than curiosity.  After breakfast, I was walking down Adelaide and saw Porh Pawh’s etched on a window covered with frosted glass. The name could suggest a spa or even a “spa”.  It might also be a good name for a dog groomer (bring your dog’s Porh Pawh’s to us and we will make them feel better).  The only real indication that something is inside is a small sandwich board on the sidewalk.  What’s more confusing is when you look at the entrance there are pictures of retail listings listed beside the front door leading one to believe they may be buying a duplex as opposed to a salad.

I ventured inside.  It looks very regular, like any building entrance, until you get around the corner.  At this point you see a small. modest counter.  Suddenly a small Chinese woman appears with a cloth around her head as she bustles around the kitchen preparing lunch.  It reminded me of the scene from Gremlins when Billy’s father walks into the shop to find a unique gift and eventually leaves with a Mogwai.

The woman quickly came to the counter as I was staring at the menu which consisted of standard breakfast and lunch items mixed with Asian influenced salads.  In front of me were baked goods in containers that looked like they were about to be carted off to a school bake sale.  Since I just ate I was more interested in grabbing something for the road as opposed to a full lunch.  I asked about the bake sale containers and I  was told they were shortbread cookies, date squares and rice krispy treats.  Further explanation informed me that her main intention is to try and make these goods as healthy and possible and I got a very detailed explanation of each.  For example, the addition of oats and milled flax seed to the shortbread adds fibre and counters the absorption of the butter while the hidden chocolate centre  enhances the flavour with the need for additional fat and sugar.  In addition, the marshmallow component of the rice krispy square is minimized and replaced with cranberries and sesame seeds as healthier and alternate flavours.

Date Square $2.75 and Shortbread Cookie $1.85

Date Square $2.75 and Shortbread Cookie $1.85

I was compelled and ordered all three as well as a coffee which was fair trade, organic and made with the rarely used Aeropress method and served with a biodegradable lid and cup.  It was a decent cup of coffee although it can’t replace a good, more  traditional Amerciano. As a waited another patron came in and she greeted him by name and asked if he had a minute to talk after she was done.  He grabbed a date square and said sure.  I love shit like this and only imagined the conversation that would ensue.

As for the baked goods, I was honestly shocked.  I’m not suggesting for a second that this health food but it is certainly better than anything Starbucks will ever offer.  It was unique and much fresher than the mass produced Starbucks garbage. The combinations of flavours in all three were almost bang on to their less wholesome alternatives.  The sesame in the rice krispy square was brilliant as was the chocolate in the shortbread and the walnuts in the date square. She also gave me a sample of a gluten free muffin she was “testing”.  Shes makes batches, freezes them and then periodically tastes them to assess their integrity over time.  I think it was lemon poppyseed and was tasty although it still had that obviously gluten-free texture.

My Take

I love a good coffee shop/cafe and Toronto has no shortage of them.  They are, however, usually overrun by hipsters and serve the same old cookies and squares as everywhere else.  Stumbling into the almost hidden Porh Pawh’s was like walking into Mr. Wing’s mysterious shop in Gremlins.  The soup was boiling, the goods were displayed and conversation was a bit like a high school chemistry class. The experience and the goods were as magical as Gizmo himself so  I made a note to come back for lunch sometime soon and reminded myself that it might not be a good idea to get anything wet or eat the date squares after midnight.

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Burma Superstar, Molly Shannon and High School Religion Classes

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My last stop in the San Francisco area was at Burma Superstar, the iconic Richmond area eatery offering the mysterious food of Burma.  Although Burma is now technically Myanmar, I suppose not having to changing the menu or threatening the near 25 year old brand is more important than geographical accuracy.  Plus, whenever I hear the name I think of two things; Molly Shannon and high school religion classes.  When Burma Superstar was only 7 years old, Molly Shannon and a much younger Will Farrell starred in Superstar which was based on the Saturday Night Live skit.  My daughter took quite a liking to the film and almost killed herself trying to do the razzle dazzle on a slippery hardwood floor.  On the positive side, it  opened up the door for me to add “don’t make out with trees” to the list of things to cover off in birds and bees talk we had later.  Regarding school, I had a Catholic education  and one thing you could count on was that once a year a teacher would forfeit the normal religion lesson to show the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar right around the time of the Passion.

Based on the numerous web reviews, I knew a visit to Burma Superstar even early on a Saturday evening would mean a line and I was right. We were politely told that the wait would be somewhere in the area of 45 minutes to an hour. I made a note that our table would be right after a couple of sweet old ladies who signed in just before me.   We were offered B*Star, Burma Superstar’s sister restaurant as an alternative and, after careful deliberation, we opted for original instead of the sequel and walked around the neighbourhood for a while.

We were seated in a little less than 45 minutes and, as anticipated, right behind the old ladies. It’s was a crowded and tight place but we had some reprieve since we were sitting right by the window. We started the highly recommended signature tea leaf  salad.  It arrived to the table separated into the numerous ingredients (including tomatoes, jalapenos, beans, seeds, fried garlic and a fermented green tea paste) which were skillfully combined table side.  The magic in this salad lies in the tea paste for unami and the aromatic fried garlic which elevate the other ingredients.  The textural differences were appealing as well.

Another house favorite is the pumpkin pork stew.  This is a bit of a misnomer since it is technically made with kaboucha squash.  Also called Japanese pumpkin, this gourd is revered for its aphrodisiac qualities which, if I would have known at the time, I may have avoided given the long plane ride home given the fact I was planning to  change into jogging pants.  It all worked out though. The gross, crowded red-eye home quashed any chance of arousal at 35000 feet. The prominent flavour in the curry was ginger which was a refreshing compliment to the squash. Although I enjoyed the uniqueness of the dish, the kaboucha was very dominant and it’s slimy/starchy texture wouldn’t work for everybody.

Pork and Pumpkin Stew

Pork and Pumpkin Stew

I’ll stop here for a second to provide an update on the old ladies that were seated just before us. They were within eyesight and I was impressed by a couple of things.  First, they there using the napkins bib-style, meaning they were really getting down to business. Second, each had an Asian beer in the bottle (screw the glass), which they were sucking back rapidly in between bites.  Third, those dishes just didn’t stop.  One after another, what seemed like a significant part of the menu arrived at the table and yet they tackled them all in that graceful old lady manner.  I think I actually teared up and hoped that one day, in my elder years, I could bust into a restaurant and show a bunch of privileged hipsters how to strap on the feedbag.

The third was the Burmese chicken and shrimp casserole. My rationale for this dish was simple; cook anything in a clay pot and I’m happy.  In addition, anything with peas makes me happy.  I really enjoyed it.  The use of the bone-in chicken, the perfectly cooked shrimp and the fact the dish had the elements of both Thai and Indian cuisine were all positives.  It was like a jacked up Pad Thai married  with a chicken and shrimp biryani.

Chicken and Shrimp Casserole

Chicken and Shrimp Casserole

For dessert I had to try the black rice pudding which we split as a table. It looked like my son’s attempt at a creative bowl of cereal in the morning.  It was well balanced between sweet and savory which was catalyzed by the fresh fruit and the abundant use of sesame seeds and almonds.

 

Black Rice Pudding

Black Rice Pudding

 

To end everything off, I glanced over at the old ladies who were looking quite content as they finished off a dessert of their own and  tipped my hat to them out of a combination of sheer respect and an overwhelming feeling of  awe.

My Take  

Burma Superstar is listed as a San Francisco must in almost every magazine and website in existence. It’s success has resulted in the emergence of a number of Burmese eateries including B*Star by the same owners down the street  which offers many of the same dishes. The wait is inevitable and long, the quarters are cramped and the food is good. I got schooled by old ladies and was scared to change into my roots jogging pants. In the end, I didn’t want to sing “Hosanna!” from the mountaintops (or my desktop if I was still in high school) or break into the razzle dazzle but I would rate it much higher than 32% on rotten tomatoes.

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Yountville Day #2: Oppa Napastyle While I Dream of (Bistro) Jeanty

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On my last day in Napa Valley I wanted to go back to Yountville one more time to once again experience it’s quaint beauty, not to mention the fact I was offered transportation in a small red convertible which made me feel like the numerous washed up yuppies back home I see driving around in their open top Chrysler LeBarons.  It is a very picturesque drive up highway 29 and the feeling of the fresh wind in my face trumped the sun scaling the top of my head (which is the main reason I have always found convertibles less than enjoyable).

This time I wanted to explore the V marketplace which houses a number of small shops and boutiques. I did a quick tour of a wine shop which offered a wide range of bottles at different types and prices. Not surprisingly, there was some ass hat walking around with his buddy pointing out every wine he has had in the place.  I normally wouldn’t care but there  was a pompous tone in his voice as opposed to a authentic and  organic bliss. In other words, it was more important for him to flaunt his status as a self-declared sommelier than a true wine enthusiast.

The highlight of the market was Napastyle, the Michael Chiarello market which offers a wide range of foodie friendly articles including various foodstuffs, kitchen equipment and knickknacks to enhance any home’s decor and entertaining potential.  They had a series of condiments available for tasting which were divine, especially the smoked and spicy olive oils and the fruit vinegar (especially the peach one from what I recall).  At this point,  we regretted out decision to have traveled with carry on luggage and sucked back a bit more oil before we left.

It was on the tail end of the lunch hour, so we decided to hunt out a place to eat.  I would be remiss if I didn’t try and add another star in my Michelin sky, so we decided on Bistro Jeanty, the French cafe in the heart of Yountville.  It was quite busy and the patio was full but we were able to secure a table inside.  I assume the decor was meant to be a recreation of a rustic and modest eatery in Paris as opposed to the clean and crisp feel of a place like Redd down the street.  The waitress arrived very quickly and happily explained the menu.  She was polite and courteous in a way that couldn’t be taught and I quickly felt quite welcome.

We decided to split a meal starting with Langue d’Agneau (warm lamb tongue and potato salad) for $15. This dish was a bit of a concession for me but I was curious to see if lamb tongue had the same distinct taste as the rest of the animal.  It did.  It was as tender as the potatoes and was well complimented by the acidic dressing and bitter greens. The fact that this rather heavy dish was listed on the “lighter side” of the menu was  a clear foreshadowing of our upcoming experience.

salad $15

Langue d’Agneau $15

Dish two was the Quenelles de Brochet  (pike dumplings with lobster sauce) for $15. The dumplings were as light and  fluffy as cumulus clouds in an atmosphere as thick as that of Venus (ok..this is the astronomy geek in me…Venus’ atmosphere is 90 times more massive than earth’s….and so was this sauce).   Taste wise what can I say.  It’s butter, cream and lobster.  Collectively, I enjoyed the contrast of the light dumpling against the heavy sauce and thought this dish was quite good.

Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon) for $26  was the final dish. Cassoulet is a bit of a generic term used to describe a bean based stew.  In fact, it is named after the dish the stew is served in more than a summary of the ingredients in it.  I equate it to pork and beans, the North American staple that involves a frantic search through the beans in search of the tiny sliver of bacon strategically placed in each can.  Instead with this cassoulet, the fruits of such labour included whole sausage and a duck leg. It was nicely seasoned and did bring back memories of a gold old can of Libby’s.  Once again, the dish was very rich and after a few bites, I threw in my serviette and called it  day. In fact, I didn’t even think about food for a number of hours afterwards despite walking around in the epicentre of culinary temptation.

Dump $15 and cross $26

Quenelles de Brochet $15 and Cassoulet  $26

My Take

Day one in Yountville featured fresh California fare at Redd whereas day 2 was in stark contrast with the rich French food at Bistro Jeanty.  The service at Jeanty was incredible. Despite the use of sauces as thick as the atmosphere of Venus, I wouldn’t call the food astronomical although stellar would still be an adequate description. The V marketplace, specifically Napastyle,  is well worth a visit even if to only indulge on a few olive oil and vinegar samples.  I the end, I envision coming back to Yountville since I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary options in this small town.  There is Redd Wood, Bottaga, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and, of course, the Michelin star mecca which is the French Laundry.  This gives me an idea; I could transport a suitcase of money down to the Napa Valley, dump it on French Laundry’s porch in exchange for dinner and then use it to transport back a arsenal of of olive oil.  I guess that means I’d need to check a bag though.

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by the power of greystone….i now pronounce you man and wife.

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I had an English teacher in grade 9 who I remember well. First, he was a huge Arlo Guthrie fan.  While donning his leather jacket, he would play Alice’s restaurant in class as a reminder of what a generation influenced by Guns n’ Roses and Poison was missing.  At the time I thought he was a bit of a dork but as I matured I gained a greater appreciation for the folk rock of the 1960-1970s.

The reason I mention this was the fact that I remember this same teacher introducing me to the magnificent works of e.e. cummings, the American poet who died a decade before I was born. From what I recall, cummings was known for his descriptive verses which elevated the feeling of an experience to new levels. In particular,  I remember the phrase “puddle wonderful” which describes  a feeling that really can only be compared to hopping  in a post-storm pool of water with an indescribable bliss. He was also known for his preference for lower case letters which may subconsciously be the reason why I sign my emails with a small ‘s’.

Like many things in high school, I doubted I would ever have the need to pull it out my memory vault but it surfaced when I attended a wedding in Napa Valley (I’ll get back to this), specifically at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. This beautiful property boasts one of the most unique and coveted culinary programs in the United States.  It is also a perfect venue for a wedding and I was lucky enough to be invited to one in May.

The wedding was small and had some stereotypical but also a few surreal elements. There was an Irish priest named Peader who was either really funny, really drunk or both. He was pretty close to a Simpson’s character.  The ceremony was outside so his voice was somewhat muted by a flock of birds who chirped as they watched from the crevices in the old building in the backdrop.   It wasn’t creepy in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way….more like Cinderella when the animals united to fix her dress in time for the ball.  Instead of the traditional bible readings, one of the passages was “I carry your heart” from the gospel according to ee cummings which brought back high school memories that I found to be puddle-wonderful.

After the ceremony, the festivities  moved inside where one could roam around and look at a variety of cooking utensils and hundreds of corkscrews  on display. It was a foodie zoo (would that be called a foo?).  There was also a stellar market place that was in plain view but guarded by glass walls and  a less than enthusiastic security guard who looked more inclined to drink bourbon with us than make sure we didn’t steal spatulas. While I began down the path of mild intoxication we were treated to a few starters including a delicate scallop which swam in a delicious and spicy puree and a mini bulgogi soft taco which didn’t disappoint. There was also a duck empanada (not pictured) which rounded out the delicious and diverse hors d’oeuvres.

Growing up, in addition to learning about the literary merits of American poets, I was exposed to many  Northern Ontario weddings which involved rubber chicken dinners and cash bars.  The closest thing to culinary innovation was half a dozen Parisian potatoes to complement the prime rib and green beans. Move the venue from Sudbury to the Napa Valley and make the wedding couple a pair of urban foodies instead of a blue collar uncle on his third marriage and watch the sparks fly.  In this case, the food was presented in four food stations which were chosen based on the ethnicity and preferences of the bride and groom.  There were French, North African, Filipino and Korean posts.  My objective was to try a little of everything. The first station featured a salmon en croute but with a twist; the addition of black cod (since it is the bride’s favorite fish) served with an herbaceous salsa verde. There was also an arugula and endive salad.  I love black cod and will be first to admit it would be tough for it to hold up in both taste and texture in a en croute preparation but it was saved by the salmon.  The salsa verde was brilliantly fresh and  a perfect condiment for the delicate cod. The addition of the bitter greens was a smart contrast against the sweet whitefish.

The French Station

The French Station

The North African station featured spiced game hen with a tajine of quinoa and spring vegetables along with a dollop of preserved lemon and olive tapenade. Personally, the hen was my favorite dish of the night.  It was moist and  bursting with flavour.  The quinoa let the hen shine but didn’t disappoint on it’s own. I love preserved lemon and I loathe olives, so I was curious to try the tapenade.  The olives won but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a smart combination for those that enjoy the nasty little fruit.

The North African Station

The North African Station

The focus of the Filipino section was suckling pig which was complemented with truffled mac and cheese and a chilled spinach salad and pickled vegetables. There was also a pineapple mayo and some fish sauce to add some sweet and salt respectively.  The joke at our part of the table was whether the truffled pasta was authentically Filipino or a creative interpretation orchestrated by the groom.  The pork by itself was a little underseasoned but the diverse flavours which surrounded it were more than enough to compensate.  I thought the spinach salad and pickled veggies were brilliant.

The Filipino Station

The Filipino Station

The final stop was Korean which featured short ribs as the headliner.  I was intrigued by the loosely defined “risotto” which was a porridge of multiple types of rice along with barley. The station was rounded out with a sugar snap and sprout salad and kimchee as a traditional condiment.  The ribs were a bit flimsy but well seasoned.  I am typically not a risotto fan but I enjoyed its complexity and mouthfeel.  The salad was fresh but I would have loved a little more crunch from a few more snap peas.

The Korean Station

The Korean Station

Each station was paired with a California wine which included a Charles Krug Sauv Blanc at the French station, the Morgan 12 Clones Pinot Noir for the North African offerings, the Caymus Conundrum for the Filipino food and the Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel partnered the Korean fare.  I thought the choices were quite complimentary. I’m still a little naive when it comes to all the elements of the marriage between wine and food but I could appreciate these pairings. I had tried the Caymus in the past paired with pasta and was excited to see it on the list.  As for the Ravenswood, I liked it so much I sought out and purchased a bottle when I got back to Ontario.

Dessert (or mignardise) followed the choose your own adventure theme and offered a variety of trendy confections including macarons, eclairs, truffles, creme brulee and chocolate covered strawberries which hit the spot in between the IPAs and the 90’s pop blaring across the dance floor.  The wedding cake was a stunning croquembouche.

Croquembouche Wedding Cake

Croquembouche Wedding Cake

My Take

I was quite keen to attend this wedding in Napa Valley even if it meant a cross continent flight and I wasn’t left disappointed.  Beautiful scenery, great food and a good group of people made for a fun weekend.  I think this is a good blueprint for weddings whether the couple of honour are a pair of foodies or not.  A short ceremony infusing a stereotypical Irish priest, the infusion of the works of an modern American poet in addition to the typical biblical stuff and visually stunning surroundings was a great trifecta.  As for the reception, the wide variety of sentimental and meaningful food choices was brilliant.  The idea of wine pairings replacing the typical chardonnay and cab sav house wines at the table elevated the experience even more.  I tip my hat to the CIA Greystone  for great execution of a rather complicated meal.  Most importantly, I would like to congratulate the bride and groom and wish them  all the success  in their future endeavors and I selfishly encourage them to consider revisiting this concept again in the future.

In sum, I’ll use the same Virginia Woolf quote that was scripted on the back of the wedding program; “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.  I couldn’t agree more.

Food Deserts: The Comestible Topography That Brought Unilever to Its Knees

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I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s.   The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical  regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price.  Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as  the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford.  It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis.  This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice.  I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.

The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience.  As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof.  Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg.  A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare.  There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there  was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do.  Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited  the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished.  The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private.  When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.

(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)

I got thinking about this and  a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion.  There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.

1. Big Business versus Big Business

Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves.  We are not talking small mom and pop shops either.  The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada.  As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel.  Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.

2. Convenience versus Necessity

We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity.  It also comes at a price.  If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice.  I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf.  The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities.  In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.

3. Government Responsibility

The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato.  Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful)  public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption.  I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet.  I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible.  If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario.  Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.

food guide

Health Canada’s Answer to Food Deserts

4.  Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns

The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement.  Some question how real mayonnaise actually is.  On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole.  That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this.  I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line.  A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants?  A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point  is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog  (I think I’ll tackle this one separately)  but it is ” real” food for thought.

My Take

A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis.  As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing.  In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section.  This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities  will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.

I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains.  An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way  weekly flyer specials  from the parent company work.  Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created.  I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative.  Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could  test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.

In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert.  The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods.  The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.

 

 

 

Hoping Reddington Keeps me off the Blacklist After My Blatant Voyeurism at the French Laundry

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After a  night of a little too much scotch, I had to muster the strength to venture up the road to Yountville,  a quaint village north of Napa which is  full of beautiful scenery, fancy restaurants, artistic gardens and specialty shops.  I was invited to lunch at Redd, which is described on their website as an updated wine country menu with international influence.  It ‘s the decade old project of respected chef Richard Reddington who should not be confused with fictional international criminal Raymond Reddington of Blacklist.

The decor is simple, roomy and classy.  The waitstaff are professional but not pretentious. I started with hair of the dog in the form of a large goblet of a delicious house red.  To start I went with the appetizer special which was a hamachi collar atop asian slaw.  The slightly fatty, slightly fishy taste went well with sweet but pungent taste of the overdressed slaw.

Hamachi Collar with Slaw

Hamachi Collar with Slaw

Enough with the pseudo-healthy crap. I had a post-scotch apocalypse to deal with.   The fried chicken sandwich fit the bill.  Smothered with melted Gruyere cheese, it seemed the perfect remedy to my self-inflicted woes. Plus, it was served with onion rings which were delicately breaded and quite light. The sandwich was a posh McChicken that hit all the notes needed for a post hangover ration.

Fried Chicken Sand wich with rings $16

Fried Chicken Sand wich with rings $16

With the booze sweats complete and a reasonable amount of grease in my digestive system, I ventured down Yountville’s main drag to take in some of the scenery.  It was surprising quiet given the weather was near perfect.  The walk included trips past rock gardens, markets and a couple of Michelin star restaurants, ending at the ultimate destination in any Napa culinary adventure; The French Laundry. Until now, this Michelin three star establishment has been a figment of my imagination.  In one sense, its legendary status makes me an immediate fan. In another, I wanted to see it first hand so I could better justify  the 300 per person charge.  The exterior is rather modest and the inside is a secret which can only be viewed through small cracks in the window blinds.  I left a bit like a voyeur but I could justify it given the fact their very public garden is right across the street for all to see. Speaking of which, it was a fantastic parcel of land filled with ripe strawberries, cauliflower, fresh herbs, a chicken coop and even an apiary.  The energy of the place was magic and suddenly the French Laundry’s price tag didn’t seem so outrageous.

Mushroom Garden on Washington Street

Mushroom Garden on Washington Street

french laundry

Outside French Laundry

French Laundry Farm

French Laundry Farm

The walk back included a stop at Thomas Keller’s Boulage bakery for an eclair and an Americano, both of which were quite satisfactory and well under $10, a far cry from the price tag associated with his other venture.

The day ended with a drive out to the Stag’s Leap region of Napa Valley and specifically to the aptly named Stag’s Leap cellars which were responsible for the vaulting of California reds into the upper echelon of wines worldwide.  In 1976, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 edged out three French reds including the highly respected Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 to win the international tasting and the rest is history.  Historically, the only upset that rivals this was the historic and nauseating miracle on ice in 1980 which also involved the US as a massive underdog against the powerhouse Russians.

View from Stag's Leap Cellars

View from Stag’s Leap Cellars

My Take

Yountville in Napa Valley is a must go destination for any foodie.  Redd is a classic example of Californian fare.  The decor, much like the food is clean and simple but subtly elegant.  The walk along Washington street is like following the yellow brick road on the way to the castle but in this case the destination is the French Laundry and there are many distractions along the way including the  Boulage bakery and the Laundry’s own garden.  As much as I clicked my heels together, I could not transport myself into the secret quarters of wizard Keller’s castle. Can anybody lend me $300?

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I Didn’t Get Crabby but I Managed to Get Bitter at Oxbow Public Market in Napa

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Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different.  Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market  to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa.  Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.

My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my  $9 fresh crab taco.  Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese  ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck  taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro  ($8.00).  These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful  but it worked reasonably well.  It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla.  There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)

 

After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe.  It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would  be in it?”.  My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home.   Voila!  That’s Oxbow Market.  In particular, let me focus on the last place.  I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura.  Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off.  The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen.  I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around  aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.

Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.

My Take

If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab).  They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour.  For any foodie,  I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for  Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.

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