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I Got Invited to a Somewhat Lame Toca Party

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At least once a year I get roped into a fancy dinner at a place I normally wouldn’t go.  This year it was Toca, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. Boasting the fact they have Rome and Michelin star Chef Oliver Glowig on retainer, Toca promises a unique take on Italian cuisine.  One can choose from the 4 course tasting menu for $89 or order a la carte.  I’m a firm believer that ninety bucks should get you at least 5 or 6 courses so I chose my own adventure and opted for the menu.

The last time I had a $16 bowl of soup I pointed out that it better change my life since it was nothing more than a mushroom broth. Well, I’m still sitting here talking about food so I guess it didn’t work. This time the same price tag offered me zuppa di sedano e patate (celery and potato soup, lobster, peas, green beans, croutons), a soup with an ingredient list which appeared more French than Italian. Once again, it won’t make me beg the Huffington post to print an article I wrote or quit my job and apply at Zomato, but it was more rewarding than the broth.  The flavours of the individual ingredients were not dulled by butter or cream or fat but instead expressed a mouth-popping individuality with every bite.

Soup

Zuppa di Sedano e Patate $16

The wine list is comprehensive and offers choices from around the world at a wide spectrum of prices, many of which are triple digits and above.  We took a new world followed by an old world approach, sharing a 2009 Hamelin Bay Rampant Red Aussie Shiraz for $75 followed by a 2010 Château de Montmirail from  Rhône Valley for $95.

At the advice of the waitstaff, I split an order of the scialatielli (homemade with clams and mussels) with another dinner guest.  I thought the pasta itself was fantastic even if the fruits de mer were a bit stingy.  There seems to be this growing trend to group clams and mussels in with some of the more illustrious seafood options out there for the purposes of jacking up the price.  I mean, I can still buy about 6 pounds of mussels for the price of a small lobster so $26 for 4 or 5 clams is a bit of a stretch.

 

Pasta (Half of a $26 portion)

Scialatielli Pasta (Half of a $26 portion)

For my entree a went with the half galletto croccante;Lemon and rosemary roasted cornish hen for $26.  I felt a bit friendless in my inability to secure a whole hen but my table mates were sold on the tasting menu, black cod and filet mignon. Normally, I’m all over black cod but I think I’ve begun a formal protest against the combination of seafood and olives/tomatoes, so I avoided it on this occasion. So, I was left alone to dine on the simple yet nicely prepared fowl. The skin was crispy and well seasoned and the hen itself was moist although I didn’t care much for the tomato stack sidekick. The gnocchi (pictured on back of plate) was cooked in butter and sage and  available as a side for $9 for  4 pieces.

Cornish Hen $26

Galletto Croccante (Cornish Hen) $26

Dessert was a Cachi Melograno (yogurt mousse with pomegranate sorbet and persimmon) for $14.  This combination of ingredients could have produced either an overly tart or sickly sweet confection but it was light, fragrant and balanced, ending the meal with some palate cleansing pleasure.

Dessert $14

Cachi Melograno $14

My Take

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I have high expectations when it comes to restaurants whose quality is assumed by the prices they charge for their food.  This is the case with eateries within many of downtown Toronto’s luxury hotels.  Even when I travel abroad, I frequently reconsider visiting  a restaurant (even when associated with a reputable chef) when I find out it’s attached to a hotel.  That said, the food was quite acceptable but fell a little short if you approach it from a value perspective.  For example, although I didn’t have the tasting menu myself, for $89 I would have expected something a little more creative (eg. more small dishes)  instead of a sampling of something I can get off the menu anyway. Come to think about it, it was more prix fixe than it was tasting.

One of the fundamentals of a Ritz-Carlton experience is an exceptional, if not slightly nauseating level of  service.  Fortunately or not (depending on your take), this didn’t occur. It was cordial and efficient but not over the top.  The general ambiance made me wonder whether a woman who showed up with her dog Cuddles in her Prada handbag would leave satisfied that her ego got stroked as much as her dog does.  Speaking of which, the people watching was a bit disappointing.  The rather sterile crowd was not nearly as entertaining as the fur shawl wearing couple I saw at the Trump a year or two ago, making for a rather lame Toca party.

TOCA on Urbanspoon

I Know I’m as White as the Adrak Duck but Cut Me Some Quack

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I was meeting a customer for a dinner in the North and since we both agreed on Indian, he suggested Adrak in Richmond Hill.  So, I hopped on Open Table and made a reservation for the following week.

I’m not overly familiar with Richmond Hill so I needed to type this one into my iPhone.  With the help of Siri I was directed into an abandoned parking lot with a small sign stuck in the ground  indicating that the restaurant was somewhere in the vicinity.  After parking, I walked around to the front of one of the buildings and found the entrance rather easily.  It’s quite spacious, complete with a glassed off area housing tandoori ovens pumping out meat and bread at a feverish rate.  There is a unique cocktail menu which brings flavours of the Southeast into a potent potable.  Although I was tempted, I was deterred by the need to drive back to airport area afterwards.

Although  Adrak means ginger in Hindi, the minute I heard the name of this restaurant I thought of the Aflac duck. This mischievous water fowl made headlines when the absolutely obnoxious Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice for making a series of inappropriate jokes related to the tsunami in Japan years back..  Since then, the duck has continued to get in trouble in commercials  by most recently attending a yoga class so he can shamelessly stare at women’s asses in tight pants.

Since the Alfac duck is really white and the name sounds like Adrak, I would like to propose that the term Adrak duck refer to any really white person that walks into a ethnic restaurant and either gets questioned about their food choice or their level of spice.  I have been the victim of this practice numerous times and just think I’ll start belting out “Adrak!” in a duck voice whenever this happens. Consider the following examples.  I recently walked into a Thai restaurant with my daughter and we ordered fresh spring rolls with pork rind in it.  The waitress raised an eyebrow and asked if we were sure we wanted pork rind because  it was skin.  Although I was tempted to yell “Adrak!”, as much as I hated to do it, I had to resort to a foodie look while stating “Yes, I’m aware”.  I also have a Sri Lankan friend I will meet for lunch on occasion.  Whether we go for East Asian or Indian, the level of spice is a discussion between the waitstaff and I with frequent glances at my friend with a “is this guy for real?” quizzical look on their face.  The assumption is the level of heat needs to be tailored to me since I’m the wimpy white guy.

ADRAK!

I’ve read reviews questioning the service at Adrak.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a Wednesday night but I found it prompt and courteous.  The night began with a decent amuse bouche reminiscent of arancini with saffron accents and served atop a tangy tomato sauce.

Amuse Bouche- Arancini

Amuse Bouche- Arancini

Tandoori Temptations

We started the night with a trio of protein from the tandoori oven; salmon tikka, bhatti da murgh (chicken legs) and chaamp taajar (lamb chops).  Each was seasoned with an array of spices, fired up and attractively served.  Before putting in the order, however, it happened.  Totally ignoring the Indian guy at the table, he looked at the two white guys at the table and asked about the spice level.  We agreed on spicy and he proceeded to inform us that Indian spice is hotter than normal spice.

ADRAK!

Even for a white guy, everything was nicely spiced and didn’t require copious amounts of water nor a call to Telehealth to digest.  Despite the extreme heat of the tandoori oven, the meat kept its interior moisture and the traditional sauces were a nice complement.

Salmon Tikki $18

Salmon Tikka $18

Bhatti Murgh $16

Bhatti Murgh $16

Chaamp $25

Chaamp Taajar $25

Next, we decided on a few curries. At the recommendation of my guest, we ordered the Dal Makhani (lentil) and the less traditional Adraki mushroom dishes.  He also recommended the Romali Roti as opposed to Naan.  I added the Matter Paneer (pea and cheese) and the smokey Bangain Bharta (eggplant).   Quite confident with our dominance of the tandoori, I figured spice wouldn’t be an issue this time but in sitcom fashion, the waiter reminded us the spices are more prominent in curries so we should might want to bring it down a notch.

ADRAK!

The lentils were delicious but extremely rich driven by the background taste of lots of butter.  One of my favorite characteristics of a curry is the consistency and I found the mushrooms  a bit disjointed.  The flavours were fine but just didn’t blend as nicely as I hoped.  The peas were spot on; a nicely balanced mix of sweet and tangy with a perfect texture.  I thought the eggplant was decent as well although not as good as the dal or matter.  Once again, the spice level was quite acceptable, even for a tongue flexing Caucasian.

While waiting for the curry, I watched the chef toss the roti dough like a pizza and delicately place each piece on a heated globe of stone and wait a mere few seconds for it to heat up and then skillfully fold it into a basket for the table.    Now I can barely eat with a fork, so using the roomali roti ($5) as a vessel  is always a fun adventure which usually ends up with me spilling something on my shirt or lap.  I’d probably be safer with some basmati and a fork but what’s the fun in that and plus, I’m not a huge fan of rice.

mushroom

Adraki Mushroom $14 and Bangain Bharta $14

Dal Makhani $12 and Matter Paneer $13

Dal Makhani $12 and Matter Paneer $13

My Take

I’m not suggesting that Adrak did anything wrong by questioning the spice levels for a couple of white dudes but I find this is a common occurrence in a slew of ethnic restaurants.  I’m sure it is quite common to have complaints from some clown who thinks he is scary spice come in only to be brought down to baby spice level with one bite of a samosa.  At the same time I should point out that I’m not interested in spice that kills the flavour of the food for the purposes of bragging rights but I do like things which are authentic. That said, I’m tempted to stand up and yell “I did it in two minutes and thirty-seven seconds” hysterically as I rip off my shirt and reveal my “I survived the Blazing Wing Challenge Buffalo Wild Wings Shirt” tee to silence the critics.

Adrak was a decent experience in modern Indian food. The service was good and prices were not ridiculous but a little on the high side  From the open kitchen in which one can witness dough tossing and hot tandoori ovens to the large variety of  traditional and not so traditional curries, any fan of Indian food will find something to satisfy their palate whether your tastes could be better described as  baby (Adrak!) or scary spice.

Adrak!

Adrak!

 

Adrak on Urbanspoon

Why Making a Reservation in Toronto Reminds me of an Anchorman Melee

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There has been a definite evolution in the process behind making a restaurant reservation over the past decade.  Years ago, you either showed up live or called ahead and a friendly person on the other end would scratch your name into a book.  Now, the lucrative online reservation systems has blossomed  and many restaurants are left to choose which system fits their business needs the best.  In the end, the choice appears relatively seamless to the patron, but there are some interesting observations to make about this cutthroat business.

Some restaurants have gotten rather creative with the reservation process. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, for example, offers reservations for dates two months later.   The reservation process starts at midnight and  I will admit I woke up at 3 am to try and secure a spot but was left unsuccessful and had to stand in line with the rest of the peasants.  Others restaurants are asking for credit cards in advance and threaten charges if there is a cancellation too close to the reservation time.

No Reservations

Congratulations, you are a successful restaurant who is either relishing in the fact that people line up to get in or your establishment is so tiny that  you have no problem hitting your capacity on a nightly basis and don’t need a system.  You’re a pain in the ass because if you are looking to entertain clients, have a birthday or plan to propose to your girlfriend, you have to hope to hell that the stars align and you can get a seat without having to wait two hours.  You probably will only seat people once the whole party arrives and you likely take cash only as well.

Reservation by Phone 

Yes, there are restaurants which still see a phone as something you talk on as opposed to checking in, tagging friends and taking pictures.  This system is not conducive to those who have a whimsical desire to make a reservation at 3 am.  In all likelihood, restaurants who subscribe to phone only reservations are:

  • long-standing eateries that have been using a reservation book since 1960 and damn well won’t change now.
  • owned by control freaks who don’t think a computer could never do what a human can.
  • likely to still hand-write bills and frown when you insist that the stub on the bottom is not a sufficient receipt for business purposes and begrudgingly copy one by hand upon request.

OpenTable

OpenTable is the patriarch (or matriarch) of online reservations systems. Once a monopoly, they were known for offering bonus points and a lack of a 7 pm slot on almost any night of the week at some restaurants. Although they still own the lion share of the business (but still only have 322 accounts in Toronto proper), they have responded to recent competition by  undergoing  a major rebrand focused on pillars which include warm and welcoming, inspired and reliable and fresh and current although it would be naive to think that all restaurants they work with have the same philosophy.You still get the opportunity to review the restaurant after and get the subtly threatening email if you don’t show up threatening that you might get banned if such indiscretions continue (even if the restaurant fails to record your attendance).  Open table restaurants tend to include:

  • those who fare better on tripadvisor than yelp.  Tripadvisor uses open table as their reservations system.
  • conglomerates such as O and B and The Khabouth empire since you can refer to affiliated restaurants in the event your first choice isn’t available.
  • those whose names start with numbers or the letter a since they are listed in alphabetical order when searched by region.
  • pricey restaurants in expensive hotels and those who wish they were pricey restaurants in expensive hotels.

 Seatme

Now owned and operated by yelp, this reservation system is less centralized.  Seatme does not have a master website like OpenTable but is meant to attract small business owners  who either find open table too difficult, expensive or cumbersome.  Unlike urbanspoon and tripadvisor, the yelp site itself does not pimp their online reservation system by embedding it in the reviews.  Instead of going to a central site, one gets prompted to reserve via seatme when they go to the restaurant’s site looking for a table.  On the consumer side, it is hardly distinguishable from other reservation systems but  on the vendor’s side it promises a better and cheaper experience than Open Table.

Bookenda

At the end of 2014, yellow media (the yellow pages people) announced the acquisition of both bookenda and dine.TO.  Bookenda is a online reservation that is gaining steam in pockets across Canada including the GTA.  It’s membership is impressive; Pai, Thoroughbred, Rasa, People’s eatery, Ruby Watchco and Edulis are among the hot destinations under the bookenda umbrella.  Like OpenTable, there is a reward program. Instead of saving points in the hope of someday attaining an elusive dining certificate, bookenda offers a variety of reward opportunities for as little as 400 points.  Points are not only awarded for booking online but also if you post your reservation on facebook or make a comment about your experience on their site afterwards.

My Take

Long gone are the days of picking up the phone and dialing a rotary phone during business hours in the hope of securing a 7 pm reservation at your favourite eatery.  Now, you can simply go on a smart phone, tablet or computer at anytime of day and secure anything but a 7pm reservation at any number of establishments.  In some cases, you can be recognized for your loyalty with points which may lead  to a glass of wine, a free appetizer or the ultimate prize of an OpenTable dining certificate.

I picture that scene from Anchorman when the rival broadcasters including the likes of Vince Vaughan and Tim Robbins assemble in the parking lot for a good old-fashioned brouhaha.  In the restaurant world, the clans would be divided based on their reservation system.  In one corner would be the no reservation group who ironically would need to wait outside the lot until space in the lot became available and the whole group was there.  Their main artillery would be dirty looks and ignorance.  The reservation by phone group may sport tin foil hats to prevent satellite interference and carry archaic weaponry  reminiscent of  Game of Thrones. The OpenTable entourage (although they would not likely show around peak dining hours) would be the largest, led by Michael Bonacini and includes fans of tripadvisor and urbanspoon wearing “Keep Calm and Use Opentable” T-shirts. Seatme peeps would be scattered throughout the parking lot like lone vigilantes. The bookenda bevy would likely be led by Lynn Crawford with patrons wearing red t-shirts symbolizing Canada which spell out “Bookenda is the New OpenTable” scrawled across the front in large white writing as they sipped free wine they got for 400 points.

"I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!"

“I said I wanted a 7pm Reservation!”

 

In the end, the competitive world of online reservations has made it easier than ever for patrons to plan in advance when eating out.   Of course, there are still a number of restaurants who feel that it is an honour and privilege to dine there and don’t mind making people wait for the experience. Otherwise, with some flexibility, one can plan a dinner without too much of a headache regardless of the system.  A quick call to the restaurant might be necessary to secure the elusive 6-8 pm time slot but otherwise it is a pretty easy to book, show up and reap the rewards of a completed meal.  You even have the opportunity, good or bad, to enlighten fellow diners about what you ate and how the experience was….without the need for pitchforks.

 

Korean Cowboy: Fried Spaghetti Westerns and a Mad Hatter Menu

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Cowboys have always been a focal point in pop culture.   Bon Jovi is a cowboy…on a steel horse he rides.   Paula Cole asked us where have all the cowboys gone? after she does all the laundry.  Jon Favreau reminded us why Olivia Wilde should stick to television and Daniel Craig to James Bond when he directed Cowboys and Aliens (which only received 44% on rotten tomatoes).  Whether you watch American Idol or read Louis L’Amour, the cowboy is one of the quintessential symbols of Americana.

Korea on the other hand, elicits another series of thoughts and feelings.  Political pundits will cite the lovable Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea or the infamous Kim Jong-un of  the North.  Youtube junkies have hummed and danced to  Psy’s Gangnam Style behind closed doors since 2012.  Foodies hear Korean and think about  bibimbap, bulgogi and hot pots.

So, when thinking of a Korean Cowboy, any number of images come to mind. One may think of Glenn Rhee swapping out his ball cap for a Stetson in the Walking Dead or the purposely annoying Ken Jeong following the gang to the Alamo in the Hangover 15.  Regardless, I suspect the vision of such a cowboy would be more in line with wackiness and fun as opposed to a cameo in a somber scene from the Unforgiven. When looking at the rather insane offerings at Korean Cowboy in advance, I was reminded of the phrase mad hatter which originated from the overt symptoms hatters use to exhibit due to mercury poisoning from the felt used inside of hats and wondered if this menu was a side effect. However, when the website explained  that Koreans are fun people who enjoy lots of booze, fun food and general goofiness,  I figured the menu was a reflection of the fact that this establishment promised  a forum for all three.

Located on Yonge just north of Eglinton, Korean Cowboy had an exciting buzz from the minute I entered. I was greeted by a bubbly waitress and seated at a table with a good view of televisions and saloon-like surroundings. The bar was reminiscent of a scene from an old spaghetti western and offered craft beer, soju and a decent rail of spirits.   The name of the restaurant is painted across mirrors situated behind the shelved booze.  Speaking of spaghetti, I was intrigued by the first of many anju dishes available on the menu; fried spaghetti.  Anju, as I learned from the website, is a generic term given to snacks which are usually served and  enjoyed in the presence of alcohol. This fried spaghetti was not the traditional throw leftovers it in a pan and heat up type.  It was fried in its dry state, creating an odd but intriguing nibble.  For a buck, you can’t go wrong.

Fried Spaghetti $1

Fried Spaghetti $1

It was a Wednesday which happened to be oyster night, meaning you could get a dozen for $12. Instead of the traditional hot sauce and horseradish, they were served with a carousel of unique toppings which included among others Korean tabasco, chili vinegar, sesame, coffee and soju.  Each put a fun and unique spin on eating a plate full of the molluscs. The coffee was probably the most unique and the chili vinegar was one of the best.

Oyster Condiments

Oyster Condiments

Wednesday Night Oysters  12/$12

Wednesday Night Oysters 12/$12

There are no apologies on the menu for the lack of fine food.  Instead, the menu items looked like the product of an episode of Chopped held in a dorm room.  Take the hot dog stir fry ($3.99)for example.  The simple combination of chopped wieners, vegetables and a ketchup sauce result in a dish you want to hate but can’t. It’s tangy and sweet and something you would crave on a street corner after a few pints and allow you to go to bed confident that you’d wake up fine the next morning.

Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99

Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99

The cheesy spicy rice cakes were a cross between laffy taffy and ball game nachos with that repulsive yet delicious spicy cheese sauce. The chewy rice cakes may not appeal to everybody, but as a guy who loves tapioca and any kind of pudding I found the texture oddly appealing especially when hidden among the nostalgic stadium flavours. This dish was a home run.

Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99

Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99

The steamed bun burger ($3.99) was a decent attempt at this classic Asian snack.  The Korean spiced beef sat nicely in the white folded bun riddled with black sesame seeds.  Green onions and cucumbers finished it off. It was messy, wonder bread fun.

BBQ Beef Buns $3.99

BBQ Beef Bun $3.99

Strategies to get kids to eat vegetables usually involves dousing them in cheese, sauce and/or butter.  This is usually the case with brussel sprouts and broccoli but Korean Cowboy does it with corn.  It tasted like one of Gramma’s casseroles before anybody gave a shit about butter or fat.   It was ridiculously but regretfully good, much like a vat of movie popcorn or a slice of greasy, deep dish pizza.

Skillet Corn $5.99

Skillet Corn $5.99

I’m always interested in a good taco so I ordered one of each of the korean beef, spicy pork and chicken.  Each was filled with a cabbage salad and the aforementioned meats in a rather large flour tortilla.  They were decent but in a city in which tacos have become a foodie staple, they fell a little short.  The shell was too much and swallowed instead of housing the taste of the proteins.  Retrospectively, I should have ordered ssam (lettuce wraps) instead to allow the filling to shine a little more.

Tacos $10.99 for 3

Tacos $10.99 for 3

The wings were also a bit disappointing.  They were “cooked the Korean way” and bathed in your choice of a number of sauces. After the anju, I expected a wing with a compilation of crunch, succulent sweet and sinister spice. They weren’t as crunchy nor sweet or spicy enough.  They had the texture of a M and M breaded wing that had been baked in the oven for 20 minutes. The fries were fresh cut and tasted especially good when dipped  in the hot dog or rice cake sauce.

K-wings and Fries $14.99

K-wings and Fries $14.99

My Take

Korean cowboy is a playful addition to mid-town Toronto dining.  Whether it is the decent choice of craft beer, a glass of soju or a variety of anju, malarkey ensues the minute you sit down.  The food is a mix of dorm room creations and campfire provisions developed through the delirium of a culinary mad hatter who wants to fuse Korean fare with edible Americana. The tacos and wings were average.  Despite the fact I tore through a good part of the menu, there are still things like sawdust chicken,G-PO (file fish), kimchi fries and squid and pear salad not to mention a number of pork dishes including mocha pork belly and the King Koink platter.  Maybe next time I visit I’ll throw on a mercury-free fedora and hum Kid Rock’s “I’m a cowboy baby….I can smell a pig from a mile away” as I strut up Yonge street and sniff the air.

Korean Cowboy on Urbanspoon

Windsor Coffee: Let’s get Brewin’ Bros. and Salute as we drop an Anchor on a Lobster-Clawed Mermaid

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Windsor was once a Tim Horton’s town.  Years ago, I spent countless hours in Timmie’s plugging away at a computer in between appointments when I used to travel there twice a week. At the time, public wifi was as non-existent as choices outside of lame coffee and cookie cutter, par-baked apple fritters.

In the years since Windsor has evolved into more of a cosmopolitan burghal.  Although the downtown is still a work in progress, glimmers of light have emerged through the cracks of closed eateries and boarded up retail stores. Neighbourhoods like Walkerville have developed their own identities, offering foodies everything from microbrews to quinoa burgers.

In conjunction with this expansion, there has been a explosion of coffee shops which have percolated up in all corners of Windsor. It goes without saying that Starbucks has jumped on the opportunity to sway local and loyal Tim drinkers and recruit teenage caffeine junkies to a life of lattes, frappuccinos  and cake pops.

I was recently down in Windsor for a couple of days of business and embarked on a mission to hit as many coffee shops as I could.  Not only did I want to sample the wares but I wanted to test the waters regarding the ability for everybody to play nice in the sandbox.  I was intrigued with a comment a good friend of mine and Windsorite made about her hometown.  She said that she doesn’t understand why the art community in Windsor can’t get along.  In particular, she was referring to belly dancing, yoga studios and coffee shops and since I would be an absolute embarrassment at the first two, I figure I would test the theory while drinking java while strumming away on my computer.

Salute Espresso Bar

Pronounced salute-a, this coffee house is located in the aforementioned Walkerville area.  It has an underground feel, partly due to the fact you have to walk down the stairs to get inside. This industrial theme is furthered by the painted concrete floors and unfinished ceilings.  It’s quite spacious and offers a number of tables and stools to sit and sip.  Instead of coffee brewed by the pot and housed in a thermos, Salute chooses to brew cup by cup using a chemex. I usually order decaf and their product is amazing,  As it cools, the flavour profile evolves, reflecting the complexity of a high quality coffee bean.  For latte lovers, if you’re against lactose in dairy and phytoestrogens in soy you can substitute in their housemade almond milk (which I sure as hell hope is carrageenan free). The pecan tarts are sinful. They also offer a small menu which offers a decent breakfast sandwich. During my visits,  many people walk through the doors to buy coffee and accessories.  They also sell high quality chocolate and…uuummmmm….toothpaste.

Salute Breakfast Sandwich and a Decaf Coffee

Salute Breakfast Sandwich and a Decaf Coffee

Those who would enjoy Salute include the following:

  • Local residents who choose not to deepen the carbon footprint by refusing to drive outside their Walkerville microcosm.
  • Members of the non-GMO, gluten free, vegan, raw and alkaline clan who can take advantage of the secret passage to Carrots N Dates next door so one can indulge on cold pressed juices, kombucha or longevity salads while sipping a brew.
  • People who enjoy listening to funky music off the owner’s ipod playlist set at a volume which only slightly impairs you ability to have a conversation with your table mate.
  • Those who like picking up things and bringing them home to enjoy later (I am referring to coffee here in case your mind wandered somewhere else).
  • Heathens who would rather drink coffee than go to church on Sundays.
  • Oral care enthusiasts who want clean teeth after drinking copious amounts of coffee and/or eating squares of delicious chocolate.

Anchor Coffee House

Pronounced “anchor”, this coffee house is tucked in a strip mall along Huron Chruch road. My impression is it that is owned by a young husband and wife team. The decor is more rustic than industrial, highlighted with a lot of wood accents and nice art hanging on the walls.  It’s quite cozy and is open 7-5 during the week and 11-8 on Saturday.  They are closed Sundays.  They offer a selection of brewed coffee as well as the normal list of espresso based drinks.  I ordered an decaf Americano which was delicious.  Since I was there a while, I also ordered a Chai Latte which they make from scratch in a stove top process which takes an hour or so. It was complex and nicely balanced with an aggressive amount of spice and minimal sweetness.  There is also a good selection of homemade cookies, scones and bars.  I was there in the morning and fell in love with the sight of a frittata on display at the cash.  It was a near perfect breakfast…light, fluffy, well seasoned and all that stuff.

Anchor Chai Latte

Anchor Chai Latte

Anchor Frittata

Anchor Frittata

Those who would enjoy Anchor include the following:

  • Local business owners and workers who no longer feel the need to head down to the street to the Tim’s or Starbucks to wait in line with the other peons.
  • Those who need to cleanse themselves from the defilement of chain restaurants after wondering why the hell they went to the Applebee’s next door.
  • Travelers who need a caffeine shot prior to crossing the border and have this ill-conceived notion that you cannot or should not stop in Detroit because you might get carjacked by members of Eminem’s eight mile cartel. (On a side note, I think coffee is ok to bring across the border but just don’t bring an orange over.  The border patrol has citrus sniffing dogs and the punishment is a dirty look and having to watch a perfectly good piece of fruit tossed into the trash).
  • I can’t recall music playing so I think Anchor is good for those who want to enjoy the silence instead of listening to it.
  • Fans of frittatas, homemade soups and baked goods like grandma used to make.
  • Music fans who are looking for a  true coffee house experience.  Anchor offers live music on Saturday nights so one can be serenaded while sipping. Everybody can sleep in on Sundays.

Brewin’ Bros Coffee Company.

This is the newest addition to Windsor’s growing coffee culture. It is quietly located in a strip mall along Walker Road. In fact, I drove by it, missing the small black and white pop-up sign that was impaled in roadside snowbank. It’s internet presence  is as non-existent as it’s signage. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the name. It sounds like a brewery; I mistakenly typed in “brew bros windsor” and was provided with numerous sites linking me to Brew, a microbrewery located on University Ave. Perhaps a better name would be naivety (pronounced naivet-a) for a number or reasons. First, it appears to have a French theme as indicated by the Eiffel tower decal by the washroom, an array of macaroons in the display case and fact that individual cups of coffee are brewed via the French press method but it lacks a Parisian  bistro feeling. The ceiling is unfinished and furniture is more practical than cute.  Second, the prices are lower than I would expect. Third, they don’t have decaf which I find quite odd. Fourth, the husband and wife owners look younger than my kids.  I felt like a bit of a chaperone sitting there watching them making gaga eyes at each other at their makeshift office in the corner of the seating area. Lastly, they have the strangest hours.  They don’t open until 11 and stay open until 1130. Apparently the model is working but I prefer a different type of brew after 8 pm. They offer a small menu which I haven’t tried except for a piece of turtle cheesecake which was quite satisfying.  The macarons were decent too.

Brewin' Bros French Press and Turtle Cheesecake

Brewin’ Bros French Press and Turtle Cheesecake

Those would enjoy Brewin’ Bros include the following:

  • Drivers who prefer Walker Road as a means of getting in an out of Windsor and don’t mind getting their assess out of the car to get a coffee instead of joining the Tim’s or Starbucks drive-thru line.
  • Coffee drinkers who can enjoy a French Press at Brewin’ Bros. and then walk two doors down to Personal Service Coffee to grab a bag full of shitty mix and match Keurig pods for home.
  • Patrons of  “Mom’s” next door who would prefer a coffee to go along with their halal fried chicken combo.
  • People who want a one shop stop for coffee, bubble tea and soda.  You can bring your non-coffee drinking friend there, order them a bubble tea and tell them to shut the hell up.
  • Fans of name that tune. Acoustic sets of lyricless classic rock played who included Zeppelin and Hotel California by the Eagles, making it fun to see how it takes you to figure it out.
  • If you’re not a morning person or a religious zealot, this place is for you.  They don’t open until 11 am, stay open until 11:30 at night and aren’t open on Sundays.

Starbucks

I love when yelpers, spooners and bloggers go into in-depth descriptions about Starbucks.  “Starbucks is an international coffee chain out of Seattle that offers a variety of hot and cold drinks”. Gee thanks!  All I am going to say is that I went there on my way out of Windsor and unbeknownst  to me, it was the launch day of the La Boulange, the new bakery which promises a new line of French pastries that go magnificently with all Starbucks beverages.  I walked into see all the tables donning dollar store pink plastic aprons and the staff wearing matching pink aprons.  I felt like I was at a breast cancer fund raiser as I shoved a butter-laden chocolate croissant down my pie hole. It wasn’t bad but still tasted like a mass produced pastry.

Those who would enjoy Starbucks include the following:

  • People who enjoy making up a name for the side of the cup (yes..that’s right..my name is Chazz), prefer random strangers to know what your real name is or those who like watching the staff cringe when you go there with a friend of colleague with a name like Chanika or Harpreet.   Come to think of it, even the name Shawn is an adventure since I often have to spell it out like I’m standing in front of my grade one teacher. If they guess it correctly though, some of them act like they just got final jeopardy right.
  • Those who think contrived names like grande and venti are cool and think it ironic that a tall is in fact not really tall but actually a small.
  • Coffee drinkers who conform to the biggest coffee conglomerate on the planet yet long to be individualists by ordering a grande no-fat, half-sweet ,extra foam soy green tea latte.  In fact, I know somebody who made sure that his local Starbucks knew his individual  concoction should be ordered and understood as the “Captain’s cappuccino”.
  • Those with a mermaid fetish.  Looking at the Starbucks slogan, I don’t know how she can even hold a coffee.  I think her father must have been a lobster. If there was even an American Horror Story:Coffee Shop series she could be one of the lead roles
  • Of course, the numerous locations, familiarity and convenience of a drive-thru make it an easy choice for many people.

My Take

In addition to an influx of new and trendy restaurants, Windsor’s coffee scene has taken off in the last couple of years.  The success of such a scene is not indicated by the number of Starbucks within the perimeter of a city but instead a vibrant selection of  independent retailers.  This is not a blog to say that one of these establishments is better than other. If you’re in Walkerville or want a latte with housemade almond milk, go to Salute Espresso bar.  If you want a wicked chai latte in the west end, go to Anchor Coffee House.  If a little name that tune and a french press is your preference, then Brewin’ Bros. Coffee Company  is your destination.   I think riffs between independent businesses are counterproductive.  That’s what rap and religion are for.  Toronto adopted a coffee house passport a few years back in which patrons who visited a number of participating vendors  got a coffee mug or a t-shirt with a completed card.  It’s a small gesture, but it targets the people who would rather not stare at lobster-clawed mermaids. That said, imagine if the number of Timbucktoos (my term to describe Tim Horton’s/Starbucks regulars) in Windsor dropped and  even 10% of their business was diverted to small businesses like these.  Maybe these businesses would get drive-thrus, roll up the rim, put pink plastic on the tables and maybe even name their cup sizes something ridiculous like douze or seize.

In the end, the advent of coffee shops in Windsor is indicative of the city’s evolution as a whole.  Hopefully in five years these places will continue to be vibrant partners in the community and not causalities of big box (or in this case big cup) retailers.  It starts one brew, macaroon or frittata at a time.

 

Salute Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Anchor Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Day 2 and 3 in Halifax: Stealing Bikes, Nauseous Bus Rides and Bonehead Lumbersexuals

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I woke up the next morning with two items left on my list:  to have a lobster roll and hit a “You gotta eat here”.   The weather had changed from an east coast storm to a cold, still day.  Some of my colleagues who got in earlier in the week had gone to dinner at the Bicycle Thief (which promises offers North American food with an Italian soul) and raved about the experience.  I checked out the website and was pleased to see a lobster roll featured prominently on their high gear menu. I also recalled a friend of mine fondly reminding me that the best calamari she ever had was on a Halifax pier and since this restaurant overlooked the water and featured flash fried squid as an appetizer, all was good.  I’m not sure of the origin of the name of the restaurant but I suspect it may be a reference to a 1949 Italian movie of the same name which scores a impressive 98% on rotten tomatoes.  Or maybe people just like stealing bikes along the pier.

I skipped out at lunch and took the 5 minute walk to Bishop’s landing and was seated near the window overlooking the harbour.  I gave the menu a quick glance already knowing what I was going to order.  Shortly after, a slightly awkward waiter arrived and took my order.  The two-minute flash fried calamari ($9) arrived a lot longer than two minutes later.  It’s appearance was a bit anemic and it’s taste was the same. Even with the aioli, it lacked punch and the promised garlic was a little underwhelming.  The squid itself was surprisingly chewy given the short fry time but this was likely due to the thinness of the cut.

Calamari $9

Calamari $9

The lobster roll ($19) was delivered shortly after on a plate which had the name the of the restaurant proudly displayed on the rim (which as I mentioned in a previous blog seemed to be a Halifax thing).  The roll itself had that  pleasant and nasty wonder bread taste which was generously stuffed with the sweet, sour and crunchy lobster mix.  The fries and salad were sleepy sides which did very little to enhance the plate as a whole.

Lobster Roll $19

Lobster Roll $19

Later that night I attended a group dinner that was part of the conference.  On the map, the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club seemed like a short jaunt but the need to navigate the Halifax peninsula turned it into somewhat of an adventure.  The driver got lost and it took nearly 30 minutes to get there.  The God awful temperature in the bus when combined with the winding roads lead a bunch of nurses I was on the bus with  refer to the vehicle as the “menopause bus”.  As a result of the travel induced hot flashes, most of us were ready to vomit by the time the doors opened and I had a new appreciation for the trails of tribulations of a 50 plus year old woman.

Those with no familiarity with the Maritimes would picture the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club as a posh hamlet with a snooty clientele donning ascots and smoking jackets.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, it was more like a rustic clubhouse that smelled a little like gramma’s house. This was one of those dinners where you pick your entree in advance and  have the choice between  fish, beef or chicken.  Although haddock is a bit of a poor man’s fish which is often used a as cheaper alternative to cod or halibut in fish and chips, I was told to always order fish on the coast since cows and chickens tend to avoid the ocean.  The fish arrived hugging 3 or 4 ounces of fresh lobster including a claw.  I can’t imagine anywhere else on the planet where this would simply be called “haddock”.  In the eyes of a Maritimer, lobster is simply “the other white meat”.

After a double hit of lobster and a good night’s sleep, my only objective on day three was to hit a “You Gotta Eat Here”. A quick look at the map indicated that Bonehead’s BBQ was only a few blocks away.  I walked over, knowing  I was getting close when I could smell the air filled with the sultry scent of smoked swine.  It was a small place with a few tables and a takeout counter which overlooks a small kitchen.  The staff appeared to be lumbersexuals; a term to describe those with a  rural, rugged look yet (usually sporting a beard) but at the same time adhere to a urban lifestyle. I ordered the white trash fries ($6.99) which were fresh cut fries topped with thick sausage gravy. Lumbersexual number two threw down a pan and made the gravy to order which I found most impressive.  They were nasty and I mean that in the sense of feeling like you’re doing something wrong but it seems so right.  I would have preferred a crumbled sausage instead of the kielbasa style pieces used in the gravy but it had all the elements of a good, greasy and naughty experience.

I also ordered a brisket sandwich ($6.99) and a side of mac and cheese ($3.50).  The brisket itself was not mind blowing but still had was reminiscent of  some of the good, southern smokehouses.  Mac and cheese is like a banana; it has the ideal consumption window of a few minutes. As much as I like a good pot of Kraft Dinner, I fail to be impressed when it falls below a tongue burning temperature. Like the white trash fries, the mac and cheese was made to order so it arrived and stayed hot, keeping its flavour which I would probably put in the top third of mac and cheese that I’ve had.

For dessert I grabbed a banana pudding ($4.25) that was nicely packaged in a plastic take out container and complimented with nilla wafers. Honestly, it tasted like something made from a hand mixer and an endorsement from Bill Cosby (before he went from Cliff Huxtable to America’s not so friendly sweater wearing dad and possible dirty old man).

Mac and Cheese ($3.50), Brisket Sandwich $6.99), Banana Pudding ($4.25) and White Trah Fries ($6.25)

Bonehead’s Mac and Cheese ($3.50), Brisket Sandwich $6.99), Banana Pudding ($4.25) and White Trash Fries ($6.99)

 My Take

I was successful in my attempt to complete my bucket list during my short visit to Halifax.  Day two involved a lobster roll with awkward service at a place named after a 16 year old bully and a sickening bus ride to gramma’s house to eat unadvertised lobster hidden under a slab of haddock.  Day three involved eating southern food in the east prepared made to order by friendly lumbersexuals who know less about wood than Bill Cosby.

Halifax is a quintessential Canadian city with amazing people, a small town mentality, branded plates and an attitude which shines despite bombardment by east coast weather, economic woes and bad curling teams.  Although it’s food will not likely top the national ranks, it has great local pints, pays respect to the almighty lobster, owns the Canadian donair and makes eating pizza on a street corner a drunkard’s after hours tradition . Does it git any better?

The Bicycle Thief on Urbanspoon

Boneheads BBQ on Urbanspoon

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg

$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg

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

Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95

Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95

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

Beware of Falling Ice

Beware of Falling Ice

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

Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair

Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair

My Take

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

Maxwell's Plum on Urbanspoon

Sicilian Pizza Donairs & Subs on Urbanspoon

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