The sudden death of Anthony Bourdain by suicide hit me hard. I’m the last guy to get on facebook and overblow what the death of a celebrity meant to me. I didn’t lose my virginity while reading Kitchen Confidential or become a half ass blogger because of him..I just respected the hell out of him.
On the heels of Kate Spade’s suicide this week, it is clear mental illness has no limitations and does not affect any specific phenotypes. Anthony was the manliest of men and Kate the girliest of girls and I would almost argue that 90% of humanity falls somewhere in between. In other words, we are all targets of this malicious disease.
In comparison, Gord Downie’s cancer was another tragedy which hit me hard. Gord filled my ears while Anthony filled by belly. Unlike depression, however, Gord was given some time and allowed to close out his life with an epic concert series and the ability to say goodbye to his friends, family and fans. They raised thousands for cancer research and the whole Canadian musical community came together in a full blown and multi-city memorial. What happened to Gord was not his fault…for whatever reason cancer picked him and made him the weak member of the pack just like a lion would target and attack the injured antelope in a slow and methodical way.
Anthony, on the other hand, didn’t get to celebrate his life; he just took it. There were no celebrations or unification of the culinary community; he was alone except for the darkness that told him the best solution was to take his life. He was the head lion in the pride; successful, confident, respected and almost invincible but unlike the slow and methodical hunt that is called cancer, he was taken out by depression in one swift and ruthless attack.
It seems then that cancer and depression are not much different but last time I checked, there is no chemo for the soul. However, reactions continue to be very different. We empathize for Gord’s loved ones and ask “Why did the cancer do this to him?” and yet with Anthony, Kate and others the first reaction is “How could he/she do that to them?”. Depression is not a fake disease made up by pharmaceutical companies to make money. It’s not treated with St. John’s Wort or ignorance. It doesn’t go away when things in life get better nor does it prey on the weak alone. It’s not classified in stages and doesn’t come with a ominous prognosis like “he only has 3-6 months to live”.
Like many, I perused the net while reflecting of Anthony’s life and found an article from US weekly called Anthony Bourdain: 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me facts that struck me:
7. I haven’t worn an earring or thumb ring since my daughter was born. Dads shouldn’t have earrings. Or thumb rings.
12. I love nothing more than cooking with my daughter.
13. I recently bought her her very first chef’s knife.
23. It’s really me handling my Twitter account.
24. I am afraid of clowns, nurse’s shoes and pressure cookers.
25. I have very rigid criteria for what makes a good burger. And a brioche bun is not part of it.
I always thought Anthony was invincible and if anything, his fate would be at the hands of a venomous scorpion or a stray bullet striking his Achilles tendon during a trip in a war torn country on the other side of the planet. Instead, he was killed by something much more global than the slums of Vietnam and something much more lethal than the sting of an arachnid. I think I will celebrate his life eating a greasy smash burger on a Wonder bun that I made with my daughter while watching “It” or Nurse Jackie and thanking the Lord i don’t live with a disease scarier than a floating red balloon that might pop at any second. RIP Anthony.
There is a hipster civil war a brewing. You need to look no further than the recent antics around Antler restaurant for proof. In recent weeks, the vegan movement has come head to head with knife wielding carnivores who’s expression comes more from what they make look pretty on a plate. This battle has received widespread media attention and has polarized the otherwise unified youth movement. In a nutshell, Antler has been scrutinized about their claims regarding the ethical treatment of animals. Farmed game meats and the abhorrent appearance of fois gras on the menu seems in stark contrast to the restaurant’s statement. As a result, on some of the busiest dining nights of the week, protesters have periodically riddled the streets in front of Antler donning signs and chanting sayings defending our four-legged friends. In retaliation, owner Michael Hunter (I mean with the name Hunter can you blame him???) decided to first take one of those friends and demonstrate his butchery through the front window, cook it up and down it in front of the crowd using the same medium. Understandably, the vegan protesters “were in shock”. The subsequent social media comments have been as polar as opinions towards Trump. Some are posting that they are planning to make a reservation ASAP while others are speaking out and calling for a full out ban of the Dundas St. eatery. I can’t confirm whose winning the battle other than noting that blogTo reports that reservations have soared in the days following the latest standoff. Personally, although I’m off meat at the moment, I’m tempted to book one myself.
The clash between those trying to save animals and those who would rather grave them is nothing new. Humanity’s position on the food chain has always been up for much interpretation. This situation, however, goes well beyond this argument alone. In other words, the ongoing battle is more than just the fundamental rights of an individual to behave and function within societal laws; it’s the morality around why they do it.
I’m not sure where I sit on this issue. Do we have the right to disrupt a legal business because we don’t like their philosophy? On the flip side, do businesses have the right to brand themselves using, in the eyes of some, ethical pretenses? Finally, regardless of the action, was the owner justified in his actions given they occurred within his own establishment? To me, it’s not an argument about meat;it’s merely the scape”goat” (God..that joke was baaaad) or maybe more appropriately, the catalyst which accelerated the aforementioned hipster civil war. You see, what we have here if a battle between two entitled groups who believe their own righteous philosophies trump the other. I can’t say it’s much different that the American civil war…minus the guns and widespread fatalities of course. Instead, Antler may in fact be the Fort Sumter of this millennial battle, with placards, tweets and deer limb replacing muskets and knives. Perhaps entrepreneurial carnivores are deemed the south in the sense that they support slavery; but in this case that of our avian, mammalian and piscine friends.
So how do we end the standoff? Perhaps we can halt the mean-natured posts and public displays of gluttony by drafting a constitution of hipster behaviour. It would outline acceptable behavior yet have room for amendments based on the ever changing trends of a millennial’s world. This document could be posted on facebook, reddit or other social media channels and come complete with amendment suggestions from the likes of @dontmeatmefordinner or @nosetotailneverfails. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:
The right to bear meat. Conditions would include the right to carry concealed meat but public displays would be reserved for grocery stores, butcher shops or display windows along Spadina avenue. Otherwise, animal foodstuffs could be displayed in private spaces providing the windows are opaque or have sufficient glare during dinner hours.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects , restaurants against unreasonable searches and seizures protesters and placards shall not be violated, and no Warrantsreally mean social media posts shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oathinstagram or affirmation twitter, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.challenged.
Just don’t lie about shit including claims about ethical treatment of anything or things like GMOs, free range, fair trade, farm to table, organic, natural, sugar-free, gluten free, omega-3, air-chilled, low carb, high carb or no carb. Also, no absurd claims about cocktails (ie that vodka martinis are better than gin ones or that old fashioneds should be made out of rye instead of bourbon) should be made.
Regarding the Antler situation, I think I’ll exercise my constitutional right and plead the fifth. I see both sides of the story but will stick to the fact that this issue is bigger than the safety and welfare of animals. It’s an egotistical battle fueled by self-righteousness and entitlement on both sides. It will be interesting to see how this one “pans” out…but perhaps the affected parties can sit down and resolve it over a plate of GMO-free gnocchi in an agreed upon neutral restaurant which is not owned by a conglomerate of course.
I’ve only come to realize recently the important role that accents have on pop culture. The attention to detail and need for authenticity has often required actors to hide their native tongues to better represent to the role they assume. Actors like Charlie Hunnan and Hugh Laurie fooled us for years by Americanizing their voices to play the leader of a Charming biker gang and a Jersey cocky doctor respectively. Most recently I’ve heard interviews from the cast of the Walking Dead only to realize that both Rick and Morgan among others are from across the pond and their American grunts and mumbles amidst the zombies are just part of the act. It’s not always English to American either; I recently binged watched season 1 of Fargo and listened to hours of Californian Colin Hanks and Texan Allison Tolman speak in Minnesota and surrounding accents.
On the other hand, bad accents can counter attempts at authenticity. For example, shortly after marrying Guy Ritchie, Michigan native Madonna felt the need to let the world know that she became English overnight driven by a lukewarm British accent. The act was deemed rather inauthentic and lead to a good amount of backlash.
The need for some degree of authenticity seems to exist in the restaurant business. In addition to a decor which reflects a restaurant’s overall concept, some insist on ensuring that the staff are equipped with a lexicon synonymous to the overall theme. It makes sense; I love to grab a Guinness from an Irish barkeep or listen to the proper pronunciation of a great Asian dish. Although the logic and emotion behind this is obvious, I think a couple of rules need to be established:
Let’s avoid Madonnaisms. If you are not from the country, don’t use the accent. A crash course using Rosetta Stone won’t fool anybody except the hipsters who did exactly the same thing to create the appearance that they are more intelligent consumer.
If you are fluent in the language, don’t be arrogant about it. If I order rigatoni, I don’t mind having it repeated back to ensure accuracy but don’t need it done to correct my pronunciation. I’m North American; rigatoni is the same as Reeg-a-tow-naaay.
Make the menu authentic but readable. I can figure out that secondi means second but let’s draw the line at having the ingredients listed in a different language along with a 4 page glossary in the back.
I suppose at some point I should get back to reviewing a few restaurants so this may be a good segue. I went to Oretta a while back. I was looking for a semi-quiet Italian place downtown that didn’t have the name Cibo, Terroni or Mercatto in it. I had strolled by it a couple of times prior and was impressed with the roomy layout and decor of a traditional Italian ristorante mixed with a little King Street cheesiness. Not surprisingly when we were seated we were greeted by a young waiter will a full out Italian accent. I didn’t for a second think it was fake or phony but it did make me ponder the impact it might have on my dining experience.
The menu was a shortlist of classic Italian salads, pizzas, pastas and “secondis”. In the dead of winter the Cavoletti salad (shaved brussel sprouts, almonds, pickled red onion, pecorino and crispy prosciutto) was a crisp, fresh and balanced reminder that sulfuric and pickled vegetables can nicely bridge our extreme Canadian seasons.
From the pasta menu we opted for gnocchi and risotto (aka. Riso di Ieri). The former was doused with a rich meat sauce which made for a heavier dish, especially with the dense dumplings. The flavours were great but it grew monotonous rather quickly. Regarding the Riso; the normal and often overemphasized creaminess and volume of the risotto itself was de-emphasized. It was hidden in a pan fried crust and served atop a generous portion of mushrooms. As somebody who’s not the biggest fan of risotto, I found this version much more balanced and exciting mainly because the rice was de-emphasized. More traditional risotto fans, however, could easily be left disappointed by this interpretation.
I failed to capture a picture of the Margherita pizza ($16) but it looked like…well..a pizza. It passed the test; simplicity by means of a thin crust and fresh ingredients and would reasonably match the others along the King or Queen street strips.
Dessert was “cocco bello”; a tart with fresh fruit, cream and coconut housed in a nutty crust. Perhaps it was not a standard winter dessert but a few berries when it’s below zero is always a kind reminder that, like the salad and despite a horrendous winter, spring and summer are always on the way.
Deciding where on the spectrum between nouveau cuisine and authenticity one’s restaurant will fall must be a difficult decision. Not only does the food have to fit the bill but the vibe and environment also needs to reflect the theme. This includes the manner in which the staff addresses its patrons. I mean, it goes without saying that Game of Thrones would be ridiculous if the Lannisters sounded like Joe Pesci or Donnie Wahlberg.
Oretta was a happy medium along the spectrum of ignorance and imitation. Everything from the decor to the food to the waiter’s accent was authentic and not arrogant. The menu was smallish but highlighted the simplicity of Italian cuisine. The salad and pizza were the highlights although pasta and dessert were more than acceptable. In the end, I found Oretta a welcome change from the hipster-driven Terroni-like chains that have popped up all over the citta.
By now the dust has probably settled on the instant Pot craze (and I mean that literally as I’m sure about 75% of them are likely sitting on the top shelf beside the slap chops and magic bullets). Although they were hotter than a Hatch’em over the holidays, it goes without saying that it won’t top the list of intelligent gifts on February 14. Valentine’s day, the first commercial aftershock of the Earthquake called Christmas, is hardly about anything practical and it would be an utter disappointment to be so unthoughtful.
When it comes to my feelings about the Instant Pot, I guess the biggest question is whether it’s a good thing for humanity’s relationship with what we eat or just another example of culinary sacrilege equivalent to Nutrigrain bars and TV dinners. On one hand, the Instant Pot has at least refueled an interest in cooking. People are keen to actually purchase raw ingredients even it means throwing them all in a magic pot for a ridiculously short amount of time to see what happens. On the other hand, the demand for needing things completed instantly has almost gotten pathological.
Rosie the Robot Maid
First of all, why haven’t they made a live action Jetson’s movie? I’m sure Emma Stone could team up with Damian Lewis, Seth Green or Benedict Cumberbatch in all-ginger starring cast depending on whether she wanted to pad her acting resume with a drama, comedy or oscar winner film respectively. Perhaps the plot could involve a spine-tingling adventure in which the couple tries to determine how two redheded parents could possibly have blond and silver-haired offspring. Perhaps the role of Rosie the Robot maid could be split cast between the Instant Pot and the iRobot Roomba 980.
I think many people dream of one day having their own Rosie in the future and the Instant Pot is a surrogate. Perhaps as we get closer to a Rosie in every home we will see a closed loop system in which Alexa (who based on what I’ve heard from some is not the most intuitive of virtual friends) tells the Roomba 980 what to throw into the Instant Pot so one can arrive home with a delicious meal waiting. As I mentioned, such an automatic process makes me question what we are doing with our relationship with food. It seems to me that using the Instant Pot might be more important than what comes out of it, especially when you have the ability to use annoying hashtags like #instantpotential or #instantpotoninstagram to brag to your instagram friends. Making spinach dips, stir frys or roasted chickens in the Instant Pot, however, seems a bit counterintuitive to me as preparing them are normally quick and/or easy anyways.
You’ll have to wait a minute cause it’s an instamatic.
The words above are one of the many brilliant lyrics penned by the late Gord Downie. From the song “So Hard Done By”, I think it speaks of the ongoing conflict humanity has with time and the need to wait for anything. Just like money, time is a commodity and we decide how to spend it. I get irritated at people who tell me they don’t have time for the gym or television or buying their own groceries. Like money, how you use your time is a choice and there is usually enough for most things so let’s no don’t disguise choice, good or bad, as a by-product of not having enough time in a day.
What does this have to do with the Instant Pot? Simple…people crave any perception that they are saving their precious time even if they aren’t. You can’t tell me that roasting a chicken in an Instant Pot actually saves any time. You still need to prep the bird and clean up the pot after. The only variable is how long it takes. These are two different concepts. It’s kind of like Amazon prime. It takes the same amount of time to order regardless of which means we use; the difference with prime is we get it earlier. Let’s not mistake saving time with a lack of patience or the desire to get something immediately. They are two difference concepts.
The Dan Brown Phenomenon
Dan Brown burst onto the scene in 2003 with the Da Vinci code, his sophomore effect in the successful Robert Langdon series. I’m not a huge fan of Dan Brown’s writing per se but I think his brilliance was taking the concept of religious symbolism and instead of writing a textbook what would sit on a shelf (likely beside an instapot), he transformed his theories into a fictional novel. Despite a weak plot and poorly developed characters, the Da Vinci code has sold around 80 million copies and has people looking at their dollar bills a little more closely. I call the ability to disguise something as another for the purposes of increased exposure and/or profit the Dan Brown phenomenon.
Let’s be real…the Instant Pot is nothing more than a glorified pressure cooker. This technology has been around since the 17th century and the science really hasn’t evolved much since. It is the sole reason, after all, why Top Chef contestants can cook short ribs to near perfection in under an hour; a process which usually takes at least three. Despite the fact the ability to cook food faster by simply adding pressure has been around for almost 350 years, all of a sudden people are fascinated at the fact they can cook a chicken breast easier and faster than microwaving a hungry man dinner.
The Instant Pot: The Universal Remote Outside the Family Room
Maybe proponents of the Instant Pot will argue that it’s not the ability to pressure cook that makes it the best thing since sliced bread (although I believe the Lux model might actually slice bread as one of the features). They will instead argue that its multi-functionality is the key to its brilliance. The ability to steam rice, warm soup, saute veggies, set the pot to porridge setting and even make yogurt all in the same device seems revolutionary. This has likely lead to kijiji sites across the country lighting up with hundreds of only-used-once crock pots on sale due to “downsizing” for $20 o.b.o. My only issue is, much like losing the universal remote, you are screwed if anything happens to the all-in-one device and you may end up in a situation where you may actually have to remember how to turn on an element to boil some water….providing you have any pots or pans left in your dwindling reservoir of kitchen items.
I’m still on the fence about the Instant Pot. On one side, i think it has sparked a re-interest into getting people back into the kitchen with the intention of trying to cook using raw ingredients. This has been coupled by a sizable social media community posting cool and innovative ways to use the device suggesting that cooking may actually be fun again. The device has infused a sense of pride in both those with curious culinary minds who want to truly play with their food and those who are kitchen amateurs and can take pride in the fact they cooked spaghetti with “homemade” sauce in one pot.
On the other hand, the Instant Pot is another example of the constant propaganda intended to give us immediate satisfaction with minimal effort. It’s a glorified vending machine and another step toward Rosie the robot and the near complete automation of food preparation.
In the end, it’s not really about saving time but instead about feeding our need to satisfy our ever increasing impatience. The Instant Pot will eventually join the graveyard of kitchen gadgets with the likes of Gotham pans and George Foreman grills. Until then, people will continue to exercise creativity in efforts to abandon primitive cooking practices including using a stove top and a skillet, ultimately saving a few minutes while only washing one pot. Personally, I’ll continue to roast chickens, make stirfrys in a wok and buy my yogurt for $1.99 in a tub at the grocery store. If I do ever get an Instant Pot, it will likely be on kijiji, partially because I can feed my impatience knowing I can get it right away. Even Amazon prime would take a day or two …even if I eventually figured out how to use Alexa to help me order it.
After being hyper-vigilant for a few years, i fell off the blogging bandwagon for most of 2017. I can probably blame a universal shift or some other cosmic phenomenon but it’s mostly because I got jaded and lazy. I won’t spend much time on the laziness but will focus my efforts on the former. I’m prone to jadedness…some say it’s in my DNA. Perhaps it’s that I’m a disciple of Darwin and his theories of natural selection and the theory doesn’t seen to working at the moment.
I’m not about to go off on a general social commentary but I will bring my observations and feelings back to what I love to write about…food. What we eat and the industry surrounding it has not been immune to the utter stupidity that has infected the world over the past half decade. Whether it be social media, the deprioritization of what we eat as part of a dining experience or the utter ignorance of everything wrong in one of the most corrupt industries in current society, the relationship between who are and what we eat is at an impasse. Unless we really evaluate what we are doing and rethink things, we may end up severing a relationship that has been evolving for thousands of years.
To this day, one of the most important books I have ever read has been “You Eat What You Are; People, Culture and Food Traditions” but Thelma Barer- Stein. I first read it during a university course as part of my nutrition degree. It opened my eyes to the wedded yet delicate relationship between humanity and what we eat. It used to be quite simple; you ate what was around and developed a culture around that. With the advent of transportation, increased exposure to foods from all over the earth and a rapid fusion of many cultures in a span a few decades that strong cultural history is being forgotten, opening the doors to those with creative business minds to redefine and reinforce new ways for consumers to belong to their definition of food culture. Unfortunately, Dr. Barer-Stein left us in 2017 but I would have loved to sit down with her just for a few minutes to get her reaction to how, in a matter of a few years, managed to destroy our relationship with what we eat in the same fashion as what we have done to our precious environment.
Social media has been one of the biggest catalysts in the destruction of our relationship with food. At one point establishments survived based on word of mouth and quality of their menu as opposed to their elaborate social media platforms which are endorsed by hipster zombies who know how to use hash tags. Speaking to a friend, reading a review in a newspaper by a food critic (with proper prose and complete sentences) or getting you hands on a hard copy of a Zagat review has been replaced with uncensored bias reviews written in broken English by people revered for the quantity as opposed to quality of what they post. Yelp, for example, rewards those who post glowing reviews about every Tim Horton’s in town, citing things like “The coffee was priced similar to the other Tim’s across town” or “I saw they had maple dip donuts which is amazing because we live in Canada”.
Instagram is probably worse. True..a picture does speak a thousand words but unfortunately these photos are usually selfies representing “look what I have and how cool I am” versus “look at how good this looks”. Take the Starbucks unicorn frappuccino for example. Anthony Bourdain called it “the perfect nexus of awfulness. Just add pumpkin spice to that mix, and you can nuke the whole county”. I couldn’t agree more. In addition, I would argue it was one of the biggest reasons for truancy in 2017. High school students flocked to their local Starbucks instead of math class to get their hands on one and the main driver was bolstering their social media status. Being one of the first to post yourself looking like a giraffe sucking back heavily dyed 400 calories (complete with 10 g of saturated fat..the same as a Big Mac) and adding a clever hash tag like #iskippedschooltodrinkthisshit or #sweetthensourjustlikeme elevated your profile to new heights (at least for a few hours or until somebody posted a new puppy or something). In other words, food has become an accessory in a fashion similar to a designer purse or a pair of Hunters.
In the restaurant industry, food has slowly fallen from the centre of attention. At one point, people went out to have a good steak or the best eggs benny in town and actually communicated with those around them. Now it seems an experience out has become synonymous with heading to the CNE for Medieval Times in which you enter a rambunctious environment and watch a bunch of costumed knights put on a show while you wear a crown and slurp cold tomato soup from an iron bowl before tearing dry chicken off a leg bone with your teeth. Now, instead of jousting horses, you can go to most restaurants and be surrounded by similar barnstormers. Whether you are into pretentious aristocrats with fake accents or sullen hipsters with the menu tattooed on their arm, you can choose your own adventure. What’s even better is that in most cases the environment is so loud that you don’t even have to have a conversation with the person or people you are with. This is a definite advantage when you have to hang with annoying friends or family members or maybe with a match.com date that just isn’t working. Listen, I not saying that I don’t appreciate spending my money on a good overall experience which includes great service and a cool vibe but it can’t come at the experience of the food. I don’t think too many people have left medieval times saying the show sucked by the food was great. We can’t be lead to believe that the reverse mentality should exist for a place where sustenance should be the primary objective. Furthermore, we have succumb to the mentality that, unlike medieval times when servers were servers, it is acceptable for us as patrons to accept and encourage the sadistic attitude of those we pay as part of our bill. In other words, the acceptance of the current culture puts yet another barrier in the longstanding and evolutionary relationship between humans and the food we eat.
I want to clarify that I’m not against all social media. In many cases it can be used to unify like minds, promote a business or allow for free expression. The #metoo movement has been one of the best examples of an important use of social media…sort of. The core of the movement is long overdue as sexual harassment by whatever definition you choose to use has been running rampant for years. Part of the magic of facebook and other outlets is to allow the unification of people with commonality regardless of their position on the social ladder. A 50 year-old business executive who hit a glass ceiling because she wouldn’t engage in relations outside her job description has as much clout as a 19 year-old waitress who was inappropriately touched or verbally by a restaurant manager. Unfortunately, special interest groups (including Hollywood and yes, I do refer to Hollywood as a special interest group) have hijacked the cause. I’m not suggesting that making millions of dollars is an invitation to be sexually harassed. My point it that turning the Golden Globes into a funeral for the male species fueled by speeches of presidential intention don’t speak for the thousands of men and woman who may live in a constant environment of exploitation not to live in a mansion on the hills but instead in order to pay their rent in a one-bedroom apartment above a convenience store.
I have a 17 year-old daughter who worked for a local restaurant. A number of months ago she discussed a sexual harassment issue with management. A cook in the kitchen easily 40 years her senior continuing made references about how he would like to have babies with her. When it didn’t stop she brought it up with management and the solution was “he was warned”. The behaviour stopped but she was fired 6 months later. It was shortly after she was promoted to a serving position by one of the managers although she was not yet of the alcohol serving age. She was doing well until the owner came in and complained. The pattern continued…every time he would come in he would complain and harass the staff about an underage server right in front on my daughter. I still remember the night she came home and told me she was fired. I asked her why and she said they told her she was moved to a job she couldn’t handle and her old spot wasn’t available. When I went in to discuss it was a manager I was told it was because she missed work too many times (she called in sick once because she was…ummm…sick and other the time was because our dog of 5 years acutely went blind, fell down the stairs, shattered his front leg and had to be put down). The termination letter stated even a different reason for her dismissal. My point is, sexual harassment or not, employees in food service are treated like cutlery and other inventory and it has to stop. In general, they are at the highest risk of exploitation given the history of the industry, the need for gratuities to survive and the hierarchy and balance of power that exists. Simply making Mario Batali a celebrity sacrificial lamb and wearing black designer suits and gowns while you sip expensive champagne while ignoring the hundreds of other who wear short black skirts because they are pressured to and SERVE expensive champagne speaks to the Hollywood hypocrisy that plagues most social moments that exist. I really hope we see a dedicated movement in the restaurant business which recognizes harassment and even goes as far as to promote a harassment free menu and environment with the same awareness and passion that has been used for gluten and peanuts.
Much like our relationship with the environment, if we do not reevaluate our interconnection with what we eat in short order (pardon the pun) then good food will become as scarce as clean air and water. We need to show some gratitude for the food we eat and the people who serve it to us. I’m not suggesting we bow our heads and say grace (although I’m sure some marketing genius will find a hipster way to do it soon), I certainly didn’t take a selfie of me gorging on Grandma’s jelly salad or give her a slap on the ass on the way past the Thanksgiving table. Maybe we can use social media presence to promote the businesses and people who work hard to respect the food we eat and the people who make and serve it instead of using it to pad our inflated virtual egos. Maybe it’s time to realize that Hooter’s was founded in 1983 and yes, things have changed since then. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that hikes in minimum wage and automatic 18% gratuities do not give us permission to treat food service staff like subordinates (although I’d ask the same in return). Finally, in the words of the late Thelma Barer-Stein, maybe it’s time to think about eating what we are and not whatever the output of the latest, flashy marketing campaign tells us to.
As I’ve frequently stated, the restaurant industry parallels the music industry. Both are filled with experiences that will forever be etched in our brains. In other cases, certain foods and/or restaurants can be one-hit wonders in the same fashion as “flash in the pan” singers. By defintion, the saying flash in the pan has nothing to do with food but it sounds pretty good.
1998 was a bad year for music. The Billboard number 1 song for the entire year was was “Too Close” by Next (insert cricket sounds). It was also infamous for having a number of charting songs by one-hit wonders including:
21-Crush- Jennifer Paige
28 Sex and Candy- Marcy Playground
35- Tubthumping- Chumbawumba
76- All for you- Sister Hazel
Perhaps the most recognizable (and certainly most applicable to this blog) is number 65 “Are you Jimmy Ray?” by the appropriately named Jimmy Ray. Despite his brilliant lyrics and video featuring an array of hip-pop and cowgirl cheerleaders flaunting pom-poms and doing double dutch, this Chris Issak crossed with Ricky Martin looking Brit faded from fandom rather quickly. In fact, touring with the Backstreet Boys couldn’t keep Jimmy relevant at the time.
Another Rey recently hit the charts in the GTA. This one goes by the name El and is the third single from Grant van Gameren’s debut album “Snax in the Six”. The debut single, “Bar Isabel” and sophomore follow-up “Bar Raval” modernized the tapas experience along College street by equally and authentically combining decor and food to create a booze soaked snack vibe which as been copied by others ever since. The newer project, El Rey, on the other hand, launched on the border of Kensington and in the midst of a number of sleepy cantinas and tacquerias down the street and vaulted Mexican cuisine with a flare similar to the previous hits Isabel and Raval.
The two page menu consists of a page and a half of booze and a short row of snack foods highlighted by tostadas, snacks and a few other common Mexican specialties. There are almost a dozen mezcals to go along with a few beer choices (local, Mexican and European) and wine selections. Perhaps the paramount drink is the elusive “open windows”. This cocktail is a must; an refreshing blend of the aforementioned mezcal plus some tequila, lime, pineapple which is finished with some chili for extra bite. I say elusive because at one point the windows were closed and it disappeared from the menu but has since returned (unless you go for brunch in which it is mysterious absent on the drink menu). In this case you need to beg and plead for one in a fashion similar to asking your dad for the car.
Foodwise, the tostadas are a must. In particular, the coctel camaron ($10.50) is spectacular; a crispy corn totialla topped with shrimp, cucumber, avocado and some campechana sauce. Honorable mention goes to the grilled skirt steak ($10.50) and octopus ($11.50) tostadas as well. Each offered a unique taste driven but the use of different sauces and complementary ingredients to enhance the properly prepared proteins. Authentic, simple and delicious. The bean and cheese quesadilla, on the other hand, didn’t get a whole lot of excitement from the table. In addition to looking like a hot mess, it lacked any punch even when you tired to lather it with any of the provided accompaniments.
Coctel Camaron $10.50
Grilled Octopus $10.50
Grilled Steak $11.50
Quesillo and Refried Bean Quesadilla $10
El Rey is another successful hit from the discography of Toronto’s Grant van Gameren. The cantina breathes authenticity in its commitment to simple dishes and decor unlike the exaggerated and khabouthic demeanor of other establishments. As a result, it pumps out hit after hit from both a food and drink perspective. Its vibrant and current drink list is refreshing both in choice and the fact it steers clear of bourbon-based cocktails and other overdone potent potables which saturate other snack bars in the area.In the end, the fluidity of the food, drink and vibe allows for seasonal foods and current concepts year round, even when snowbanks and road salt threaten the sunny aura of a full Mexican experience.
As for Jimmy, the other Ray…have no fear…he gets knocked down but he gets up again. Rumour has it that in a month Jimmy will be back after almost 20 years with his comeback album called “Live to Fight Another Day” just in case you are one those who wants to know.
After a longer than normal (and probably not noticeable) absence, I figure it’s time to jump on the blogging band wagon again. Part of my absence can be explained by the unbelievable amount of time it takes to move and the post-relocation stress disorder (PRSD) that lingers for months after. Although this resulted in many days with a spoiled appetite, I have managed to work my way out to a few places during this period.
It seems I’ve been eating in Toronto’s burbs a little more recently lately. Maybe it’s correlated to the fact that, although I didn’t move far in London, I am on a quieter “suburban” crescent now as opposed to the busy “urban” street I used to live on. More likely, I’ve just been in hanging more in the 905 area. As part of these experiences, I have noticed that there are advantages to eating outside of the city.
1. Hipsters are few and far between. Sure, there are suburban hipsters (substers) which pop up here and there but for the most part they are an easier breed to deal with. Substers usually possess less angst and are more likely to have mom tattooed on their upper arms as opposed to roman numerals or a recreation of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour dreamcoat all over them.
2. Parking is a much easier and cheaper. This may be an issue, however, if the main reason for the night out is to get sloppy drunk. Uber may be a little scattered and transit is a lot less predictable so and expensive cab ride home may be in the works. That said, the price of a cocktail seems to drop by about $5 once you are north of the 401 so it may justify the extra $15 you’ll need to spend to get home.
3. There are amazing pockets of ethnic food in many of Toronto’s suburbs which luckily offset the numerous chains which populate the major streets and commercial areas within the 905. I apologize in advance if there is any disappointment in the fact that there won’t be a Jack Astor’s review as part of this post although I do hear their chicken fingers made in-house are divine and pair beautifully with a barefoot chardonnay.
In particular, I have recently spend some time in the Markham area and hit a quadruple eateries none of which are owned by Cara foods:
While the industrial themed small plate movement was taking over the 416, Tapagria quietly opened in the 905 focusing on Spanish tapas with a Markham twist (ie. located in a strip mall). The menu was surprisingly authentic, complete with traditional favorites such as paella, pintxo and Iberian ham. We stuck with an array of bites including pan con tomate, smoked eggplant pintxo, mushroom croquettes, skirt steak, grilled calamari and a cheese board (including a bit of manchego) which we washed down with a decent Tempranillo. Generally speaking, the dishes were acceptably true to form, attempting to focus on quality ingredients whenever possible. Sure, it’s not la rambla, but despite a bit of suburban modification, I’m not sure it’s much less authentic than some of the other tapas joints that have popped up all over downtown. Plus, it would save a trip if you are in the area anyway and don’t want to venture down the always crowded highways.
Pan Con Tomate
2. Congee Queen
Congee queen is well-established Chinese eatery with half a dozen locations scattered across the north of the GTA. Unlike Tapagria, the authenticity does not lie in the food alone, but in the overall experience especially given the fact I was the token white guy in the whole place. Trolleys busily trek back and forth carrying piles of food from the extensive menu. I’ve been a couple of times. The first time I went for an early lunch so one of the 40 plus options of the namesake dish made sense. I opted for the abalone clam and chicken which I paired with some rice rolls; a combination would could easily replace an oral glucose tolerance test for the diagnosis of diabetes. That said, there is something about a simple bowl of rice porridge that was more mystical than it should be. The second time I went for dinner and sampled an array of dishes including the shrimp wonton soup, tiger shrimp and mango salad and snowpea leaf with king mushroom. The food is good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable.
Abalone and Chicken Congee
King Mushroom and Snow Pea Leaves
Shrimp Wonton Soup
Tiger Shrimp and Mango Salad
3. Ding Tai Fung
Dim sum and dumplings are music to my ears and another assault on my beta cell capacity. If you’re not on the Spadina strip in urban Toronto, then Ding Tai Fung is super suburban surrogate. It’s located in the First Markham place, which is the epitome of Toronto’s 905 experience. Where else can you can circle for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, pop into the Home Outfitters for some bed sheets and finish the experience with a bubble tea or some stinky tofu from the Mei Nung Beef Noodle House. Back to Ding Tai Fung: the food was above average highlighted by the incredible Shanghai wontons with spicy sauce and soup dumplings. The only minor disappointment were the gyoza dumplings which were enormous but a little too doughy as opposed to crispy.
Spicy Shanghai Dumplings
4. Shanghai Shikumen Fine Cuisine
Also located in the First Markham place complex, I went not only as the token white guy at the table, but the token white guy in the whole restaurant. I luckily had some help trying to decipher the hundreds of available items and ended up with a variety of dishes which represented a Shanghai experience and pushed the envelope just a little. Menu items included braised wheat gluten (which is somewhat satisfying for reasons other than taste),xiaolongbao (dumplings), jellyfish (which I’ve concluded I’m not fond of), ribs and a few soups. In particular, the spicy soup (similar to mapo doufu) was an interesting experience. It’s characterized by tongue numbing peppercorns which seemed a bit of an initiation but my Asian table mates (little did they know I own not one but two buffalo wild wings champions shirts for eating 10 blazin’ wings in less than 5 minutes…insert evil laugh). I must admit it was a bit euphoric to have one of your senses temporarily removed. The other soup was Jiu Niang (or maybe a variation) which is a fermented rice soup with a level of booze that may just fall short of inducing red faces in those with alcohol dehydrogenase deficiencies (which clearing a phenotypically does not include me).
Hot and Sour Soup
Mmmm. Gluten and not mmm..jellyfish
Soup and Ribs
Spicy soup (similar to mapo doufu)
Jiu Niang (or maybe a variation)
Ok, I really didn’t move to the burbs but I can still draw parallels between busy street chaos/calm crescent living and urban vs suburban dining. Yes, the latter can be a little slow and boring but there are elements of excitement (and perhaps modernization) here and there. It’s true enough that many of the aforementioned Asian eateries are nothing new but in some cases there is an overall shift towards having restaurants in the 905 reflecting a multitude of cultures in ways more than shrimp tacos at Kelsey’s. Perhaps one advantage is these places don’t have to pretend or feel pressure to adhering to authenticity dictated by foodie culture. One can enjoy an authentic dumpling without being draped in silk tapestries or having to listen to some spiel about the chef’s inspiration while on a pilgrimage along the Great Wall. Instead, you just get decent food unapologetically thrown down like on the table like a suburban parent running late for hockey practice or piano class.