Review:Toronto:Downtown:Reds Wine Tavern

Reds Wine Tavern recently underwent a metamorphosis in an attempt to appeal to a crowd outside of the confines of the financial district.  With a 2-million dollar renovation and the recruitment of Top Chef Canada favorite Ryan Gallagher from Ruby Watchco,  the new Reds promises an upscale yet casual environment to appeal to the Bay street traditionalist and the nomadic foodie alike. One of the highlights of Reds is the availability of over 75 wines by the glass in addition to the over 350 bottles.

I took a chance and asked for the chef’s table via open table with a few days notice knowing the chances were slim to none that I would succeed.  However, I found it a bit annoying to not have the request even acknowledged either in advance or when I checked in at the venue.  In addition, I had to wait at the front door to be seated since the remainder of my party (2 of 4) had not arrived.  They were stuck in a line of traffic on Adelaide which was being diverted around yet another falling glass disaster at the Trump tower two blocks away. We were finally seated at a rather large wooden table in the back corner of the second level overlooking the bar below. I quickly realized we were in for a noisy experience when I heard six or seven guys hollering obnoxiously over a game of table shuffleboard with ties undone and drinks in hand. I  felt like I was an extra in a  whisky commercial. Well…sort of.  Based on the amount of time it took us to receive any sort of service, I could of watched the commercial plus half a sitcom as well. A round of drinks eventually arrived and the food was slowly delivered afterwards.

Must

I must admit I was quite excited for a few menu items at Reds Wine.  I’ve often imagined my own ideal restaurant menu and deviled eggs are definitely on the  list.  Better yet, it was a trio of deviled eggs ($11), each containing all sorts of add-ins such as crispy onion, seafood and even a  delicious avacado and tender pea mixture.   Based on menus I’ve seen online since,  they may be like Cadbury Easter cream eggs; not around all the time but worth it when they are on the shelf.

Deviled Eggs
Deviled Eggs

The triple cooked smoked wings ($15) were braised with duck fat to facilitate a crispiness and flavourful skin while maintaining a tender and juicy flesh underneath.  The two house made side sauces  (especially the BBQ sauce) were a great match for both the crispy vegetables and the wings themselves.

Triple Cooked Smoked Wings
Triple Cooked Smoked Wings

There was a lack of consensus at the table over whether the chicken pot pie with fois gras gravy ($18) was a must or maybe but I’m writing the blog so I vote must.  The pastry was light and baked golden-brown.  The filling was brimming with flavour highlighted by the faint but evident taste of fois gras in a very distinct gravy and a array of fresh vegetables and tender chicken.  The only issue was the scarcity of the stew compared to the abundant crust which I can forgive in lieu of the tremendous taste.

Chicken Pot Pie with Fois Gras Gravy
Chicken Pot Pie with Fois Gras Gravy

Maybe

Another item on my imaginary dream menu is a variety of caesars, so I pleased to see a small variety here.  I opted for the charcuterie caesar ($11.50) which is a classic vodka caesar served  with cool things like Tabasco barrel-infused tomato-clam juice and  housemade hot sauce with a small side bowl of meat, cheese, gherkins and olives.   The complete package was fresh and fun but the drink itself was pretty bland. Perhaps a bacon and tomato jam would of helped…

Charcuterie Caesar
Charcuterie Caesar

The fish of the day items (around $25)  appear to be to the foundation of the menu, likely influenced by Ryan himself.  I ordered  the grouper but they ran out so it gets no points.  I tried the salmon which was moist but under seasoned and lost amongst the abundance of green lentils and apple fennel slaw (the latter was quite tasty).   The New Bedford scallops were large , cooked nicely and served on a pleasant fresh carrot puree with smoky bacon and some pistachio pesto.  The dish blended well and gets a resounding OK which is more than I can say for missing grouper and bland salmon swimming upstream in lentils.

Salmon with Lentils and Apple Fennel Slaw
Salmon with Lentils and Apple Fennel Slaw
New Bedford Scallops
New Bedford Scallops

Three types of mussels were available and we opted for the tavern caesar variety.  The broth was top-notch and the mussels were fresh, hearty and flavorful.  The $18.50 price is a bit high but they do provide a nice start to a good meal although I’m not sure about the bread sticks.

Tavern Caesar Mussels
Tavern Caesar Mussels

The dessert menu only offers three choices for $8 each.  As a table, we opted for the grasshopper parfait (in a mason jar, of course) and an apple tart.  I wouldn’t say it’s must have but it would appease a sweet tooth if you needed the boost.

Grasshopper Parfait
Grasshopper Parfait
Reds Apple Tart
Reds Apple Tart

Mundane

My vision of an $18 lobster guacamole was a bit different than 15 upright nacho chips stuck in a scarce amount of lobster,a runny guacamole and a blob of sour cream.  It’s not that the dish was terrible but if didn’t make me want to throw a flashy new $20 on the table and say thank you.

Lobster Guacamole
Lobster Guacamole

As mentioned above, the service started poorly and didn’t get a lot better. When we ordered wine to complement  the entrees it just didn;t come and otherwise check-ins were infrequent. A chat with a member of the waitstaff afterwards left me even more confused as I was unable to determine from his comments if it was a bad night or if short-staffing is a general philosophy of the restaurant.   It seemed both scatter-brained and laissez-faire and soured the overall experience.

My Take

The emergence of shows like Top Chef Canada and other food network shows have opened up diner’s eyes to some of the brilliant minds who define cuisine in Toronto and other metropolitan areas.  This has allowed a flow of celebrity character into many of the establishments opening up across the country.  Richmond Station in Toronto (Carl Heinrich), Sidedoor in Ottawa (JonathanKorecki) and  Charcut in Calgary (Connie DeSousa) are all stamped with a hip, youthful flare, open kitchens  and sophisticated menu which draws a diversity of clientele. Although the Reds menu synched with my imagination and met the grade, other than his name on the menu, Ryan’s presence seemed absent. The renovation to a relaxed environment has not trickled down to the waitstaff and service mentality. I will say that  Reds realized their mistakes and offered a solution which, in the end, was satisfactory to our dinner party.

I was thinking….perhaps dousing the shuffleboard champion with a charcuterie ceasar from 20 feet up would draw in the resounding claps of the Wiser guys to provide a much needed personality boost to an otherwise stuffy environment. If anything, it would appease to the numerous patrons around me who felt like they were witnessing cantankerous behavior inside a glorified frat house….minus the copious and timely alcohol…at least upstairs anyway.

 

 

Reds Wine Tavern on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Yorkville:C5

Note: Some of my pictures mysteriously disappeared from my media card.

About a year ago, the Royal Ontario museum announced Corbin Tomaszeski, best known for appearances on the Food Network’s Dinner Party Wars, as the new executive chef of C5, a lunch spot right in the museum which over looks the Toronto skyline. The space is almost uncomfortably vast and a bit industrial despite attempts to offer an upscale dining experience. The open kitchen is awkwardly placed and  seems more institutional than it does inviting.  I arrived for my 130 reservation (hours are 11-3) and had to wait 15 minutes to be seated due to what I was told was a busy lunch rush.  You cannot see the restaurant from the entrance, so I was surprised (and slightly annoyed) to see the restaurant less than half full when I was finally seated.

Must

Nothing beats a hearty, well-seasoned soup and C5 didn’t disappoint.  The chicken soup was served hot, full of vegetables and with a perfectly salted  broth fragrant with thyme. It was served with a  cheddar biscuit, the first of many examples of the  delicious baked goods to come.

The dessert sampler  for 2 was a great finish to the meal.  It offered  four different tastes on one plate: something baked, something chocolate, something fruity and something  creamy. In this case it was pumpkin pie with whipped cream, a chocolate fudge square , a fruit cobbler and a  custard flan.  Each of the desserts were prepared nicely and demonstrated yet another example of  a commitment to preserve the  fading art of  baking from scratch.

Dessert Sampler for 2

Maybe

The resounding theme of baked goods was evident again with  the chicken pot pie.  A flaky puff pastry surrounded a hearty bowl  of rich chicken stew.  The pastry was wonderfully browned and tasty but the filling was underseasoned.  I would have liked more thyme or even salt but all I tasted was a bland cream sauce.

The highlight of salmon tart  was also the crust.  It had a buttery taste but was very light and not t oo overbearing. There were abundant chunks of potato and salmon but, like the pot pie, just seemed to be missing a little something. It was a large portion but  just a lot of the same,  although I did enjoy the salad.

There was a feature menu featuring food from around the world.  I opted for an appetizer dish featuring hummus and a roasted eggplant spread served with  not enough pitas.  The hummus was unimpressive but the eggplant was nicely spiced and was not mushy like some other eggplant spreads.

Mundane

I made the mistake of talking myself into ordering the classic frites after seeing them delivered to a few other tables.  They were overcooked, served with a  less than impressive aioli and hardly worth the 6 bucks.

As mentioned, the service was not impressive.  Perhaps it’s set up to appeal to a slow-moving, pretentious subset of  the museum-dwelling artisans next door  but it  won’t appeal to the masses who are looking for efficient service with a smile.

My Take

C5 is a decent lunch choice despite the difficulty parking and  getting into the restaurant itself (the signage is bad and you need to venture through the museum  itself to find the right elevator). The service was a little stuffy and the decor too cold and cavernous which is a bit ironic for an art museum. Some may like the roominess but I felt a bit lost.  I wish the open kitchen was more of  a highlight but it is relatively inaccessible and unimportant in the scheme of things.

This menu was changed shortly after I went for  lunch and the new menu offers a appealing fall/winter menu with dishes including classic dishes such as Sheppard’s pie, poutine, coq au vin and an expanded side collection including a variety of fall vegetables.  It looks good enough for another try.  There also appears to be an expansion of vegetarian options including corn cakes, flatbreads and dinner salads. I’m just leery that decor and service  won’t match the warm appeal of the menu. If this was dinner party wars, it would be decent food and  great baking served in a garage by your mother-in-law, but with a really nice view.

C5 Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Parkdale:Grand Electric

Grand Electric is a place you wanna hate.  No reservations,  long lines, cash/debit only and no split bills not to mention an irrelevant website  makes planning a dinner with friends a bit cumbersome.  Nonetheless, once you’re in you become one of the cool kids, even if for a short time.  Loud old-school rap cuts the air amongst the touque-wearing animal heads as you stare at a  blackboard scratched with nouveau-Mexican fare and double take when you see tacos for only 3.5 each.  You get sucked into the gluttony and place order after order from the kitchen as you succumb to  the communal rave of taco nirvana. It’s nothing short of a tongue-tickling trance.

Must

The tacos are terrific.  Whether you opt for a safer arbol chicken (slightly spicy), basa fish (battered and flaky) or vegetarian taco (crunchy corn) or  a more adventurous choice such as beef cheek (tender and rich) or pig tail (crispy and flavorful), there is little disappointment.  Each choice is stuffed to the point where it is a hot mess; accompanied with variety of condiments, whether it be the abundant guacamole with the beef cheek or the salty cheese with the chicken. From a value perspective, they are head’s and (pig) tails above the competition considering other moxy establishments ask $10-12 for a pair of clearly inferior products.

Corn and Pork Belly al Pastor Tacos
Basa Fish, Beef Cheek and Chicken Arbol Tacos

The blackboard menu describes the pozole as dope. After the first bite, I couldn’t argue. Each spoonful offered  tender hominy and pork suspended in a fragrant broth which was addictive like liquid nicotine.  It was spiced perfectly, offering an edgy punch with every bite. In the end, it was heart-warming and addictive dish well worth of the dope proclamation.

Pork Pozole (Dope Soup)

The spicy squid redefines calamari which has unfortunately become a generic term for spongy rings of breaded squid served with some kind of generic dipping sauce.  Grand Electric offers a mountain of tender hoops sprinkled with peppers, green onions and a spicy red coating which eliminates the need  to be masked by seafood sauce or garlic aioli.  You’ll wanna share this one although be warned that  a few fork fights may ensue, even among good friends.

Spicy Squid (not calamari)

Maybe

Not surprisingly, desserts include anything that can be shoved into a mason jar. In this case, it was a key lime pie and a dulce de leche cake.  Served together, there were in total contrast; one was tart, smooth and cold and the other was sweet, crumbly and served piping hot.  In the end, they were both average for what they were but provided a very satisfying end to a terrific meal, although some may not enjoy the extreme sweetness and tartness of these finishing touches.

Key Lime and Dulce de Leche Dessert

Mundane

The hang-up is the utter pretension that characterizes many of the restaurants in Parkdale.  There’s a “my house is bigger than your house” or maybe “my hole-in-the wall is less inviting than yours” mentality which resonates throughout the neighbourhood like cracks in the sidewalk.  Case and point….I have a friend of mine who has been there at least a dozen times. She does the 60-90 minute wait like everybody else and brings new people almost every time.  On her last visit, she was cut off. So was her table of four. Why?  Too much bourbon?  No,  she was informed by the hostess that, after less than an hour of sitting, their “time was up” and they would not be served further.  They were given the bill without further discussion.  She attempted to call the owners on three occasions, has left messages and no calls have been returned.

Personally, I found the service pretty good once I went through the mandatory waiting period (even at 1045 at night). I did, however, feel a little inferior.  Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t sport a raven tattoo or know all the lyrics to 2 Live Crew.  Either that or I don’t have a fetish for social sodomy…afterall, I haven’t read 50 Shades and probably never will.  Hey, maybe the next restaurant in Parkdale (providing the ban is lifted)can offer moderate asphyxiation in between the appetizer and main course.

My Take

The food is amazing!  I do, however, heed a warning penned beautifully by Dr. Seuss over 20 years ago  in “Oh, the place you will go!”…..

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

The food is grand, the atmosphere is electric and this joint  may be topping the rest and is the best of the best according to many pundits, critics and self-proclaimed foodies.  The hang-up is self-righteous attitude that one receives in atttempt to get some good squid.   On the heels of an expansion, consideration should be given to modernizing the approach to improved service that will maintain and even enhance the electricity. In a world where people show less attitude starting revolutions against social injustice or going from rags to riches to make millions, Grand Electric should put things into perspective; they make tacos…..although they are pretty freaking good.

Grand Electric on Urbanspoon

Where’s Salty?:The Case of the Missing Culinary Clan

There’s an ongoing marketing campaign looking for salty, a cute little salt shaker who went missing when Knorr cut salt by 25% in their Sidekicks side dishes.  His buddy pepper searched the earth looking for him and Knorr went as far as to offer the consumer 25K to find him.

Missing- Salty

Honestly, I don’t know where salty ended up but I think he is stuck  somewhere on the island of misfits  with a bunch of other items that have mysteriously disappeared from restaurants tables over the past few years.  Long, long ago there used to be a carousel of condiments glued to tables containing recycled bottles of Heinz ketchup with a questionable upper crust and a peeling label, a half-empty squeeze container of mustard that magically never empties and a token three packages of tartar sauce with faded yellow edges and no expiry date. Instead, this contraption has been replaced by a floating candle, house made hot sauce or a centrepiece expressing the sadness and lament toward those who do not adhere to a locovore diet.

In all seriousness, salt and pepper shakers have gradually faded into oblivion like molten lava cakes and dandelion greens. Salt went first and despite a tough fight, pepper followed after a spell of confinement in large wooden mills controlled by smiling food servants keen to add the perfect amount to your pasta or salad. Chefs have taken the liberty of seasoning food perfectly, eliminating the need for table dwelling peasants to finish the dish based on their personal preferences. 

Tap water has also vanished, replaced by “still or sparkling” or something identified only by Q water which flows from a draught tap, usually at a cost of three or four bucks a person.  Fountain pop is almost extinct as the pednulum has swung from environmental protection to reliving the nostaglia of yesterday by selling premium sodas in bottles reminiscent of the thick horn-rimmed glasses worn by Uncle Fredrick  and popularized again by the  server cracking the top open with his tattoo-riddled forearm. 

Bread baskets have had the biscuit…literally….replaced by baked goods full of buttermilk, jalapeno/cheddar or black olive and sundried tomato. Gone are the overly hard butter packets and  ramikins of whipped butter.  Instead, shallow bowls of organic oils with droplets of Modena balsamic vinegar grace the tables now.

A suggestion of brewed coffee after a meal often raises an eyebrow or two followed by a response along the lines of  “Sorry, sir, we do not serve brewed coffee but I would be happy to get you an Americano”.  I just shrug my shoulders and dream of the days when the Bunn machine was pumping out half-ass coffee much to the pleasure of Timbucktoos and ICCs (see Argueing with Venti Caffiends post for more details).  I just can’t picture Phyllis the waitress of times yonder whipping up frothy vanilla lattes instead of ripping open a portion pack of coffee grounds and slamming the filter into the reinforced steel basket. Equally as sad is the removal of triangular desserts such as pies and cakes; they have been “deconstructed” or sentenced to death by consumption out of a mason jar.

The endangered Bunn coffee machine

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Ficton unleased a pletheria of memorable quotes into pop culture.  One in paticular was Vincent’s (played by John Travolta) proclamation about a milkshake, stating  that “I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars but it’s pretty f”ing good”. Urbanspoon now defines a five-dollar shake as ” something that’s more expensive than its worth; even if its pretty damn decent”.  Almost 20 years later, the five-dollar shake mentality reigns supreme and is rooted in the philosophy of many eateries.  In other words, sell the customer something that is more expensive  than it’s worth by using a combination of personal testimony (I order the fois gras gravy with everything on the menu…it’s especially great with the nicoisse salad) and creative vocabulary (aioli vs mayonnaisse, gherkins or cornichons vs pickles, tomato jam vs ketchup etc.).

Five-Dollar Shake

I understand that the restauranteering  is a competitive business and that upselling is a necessary evil to ensure maximal profit margins and prosperity, but the alienation of the fundamentals of traditional dining (eg. salt shakers and complimentary bread and not messing with Grandma’s apple pie) is saddening.

Review:Toronto:King West:Patria

Nestled behind Weslodge is the newest experiment by the same owners,  Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth.  Many eateries in Toronto have adapted the small plate concept but few have tackled traditional Spanish tapas.  In addition to the food, Patria (meaning homeland) has a decor showcasing beautiful art highlighted by a full tapestry along one wall, ceiling high windows along the other and modern fixtures and trinkets in between. The restaurant was bustling with a diverse and busy crowd but the noise level was not excessive.  The service philosophy is reminiscent of my experience in Barcelona; quick and efficient.  My water glass (even though she wasn’t too happy we opted for tap water) was rarely close to empty and the finished dishes were removed quickly.

Must 

I’ve had some bad sangria in Toronto establishments which define it is as  nothing more than watered down table wine with ice and a few orange slices.  Patria returns this iconic drink to its rightful position, although at a price ($30/jug).  The flavour was crisp and vibrant, accented by pieces of fresh fruit peppered throughout an abundance of ice in the  glass (take this as a warning…ask for minimal ice in advance if you don’t like that sort of thing).  As mentioned above, the service was amazing.  I didn’t pour any of my own during the entire meal.

Sangria($30)

The ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo was a delicious salad combining simple but quality ingredients (goat cheese, avocado, almonds)  tossed in a fragrant quince dressing.  Like a good tapas dish, it’s special in its simplicity, offering a freshness and crispness which is a perfect complement to the remainder of the menu.

Ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo ($12)

The Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (oxtail stuffed peppers) topped the list of  tapas choices. The sweet pepper was brimming with a deceivingly large amount of moist, well seasoned meat and accented nicely with salty, shaved manchego cheese, justifying the $12 price tag.

Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (peppers with oxtail)($12)

I’m a huge fan of serrano ham and the offering here lived up to my standards. It was fresh, fatty and not overly salted.  I was possibly biased by the prep station on the way in, which showcased the preparation of the  ham, which is shaved on demand.  It was particularly good with the DO Murcia al Vino cheese and sourdough bread served with a chunk of quince jam.

Serrano Ham ($10) and Olives ($4)

On occasion, I get a craving for chocolate pudding.  Perhaps this was the night, because I thoroughly enjoyed Patria’s offering. It was garnished with coarse salt and a sugar orb which you crack to release a small amount of olive oil over the pudding, adding a unique but  appealing third dimension of taste and flavour.

Chocolate Pudding with Olive Oil Orb ($6)

Maybe

Fragrant saffron highlights the Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew), a rather odd and less traditional tapas choice.  The highlight of this dish is the migras (bread crumbs) which add a brilliant crunch to the otherwise textureless stew.  Simply put, if you like saffron, order this dish.

Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew)($7)

The patatas bravas con heuvos fritos (potatoes with spicy tomato and an egg) are a spin on the classic tapas dish normally served with an aioli but in this case also was served with an egg .  In the first attempt, the egg was overdone but they quickly replaced it with a second which was much better. The potatoes were hot, the tomato was spicy.  All in all, it was a decent dish. 

Patatas Bravas ($8)

The pan con tomate with manchego seemed like a modified version of bruschetta as opposed to the traditional spanish dish which uses tomato as a seasoning (the tomato is rubbed onto the bread) more than a main component of the dish.  I’ll be honest, I’m not a tomato fan but I’m also a bit bothered by the deviation from the traditional dish as well. 

Pan con Tomate ($6)and Manchego Cheese ($8) with Quince Jam

I ordered octopus off the “specials” menu at a pricy $15.  Seven bite size pieces were served on tender potatoes on a bed of olive oil and paprika.   The potatoes were cooked perfectly, but the main event not so much. It was overcooked and therefore  a bit “tough” to justify the price.

Octopus ($15) on special menu

The churros served with a dulce de leche were crunchy and soft at the same time and were decent but not mind-blowing.

Churros ($6) with Dulce de Leche

Mundane

The croquetas de manchego ( leek and cheese croquettes) are a spin on this popular tapas dish which are usually served stuffed with ham or chicken.  The inside was a gooey mess of soft manchego goat cheese with only a hint of leek.  A bit of spicy tomato may have helped salvage the dish but the rich and creamy aioli did nothing to accent the already rich and creamy croquette. 

Croquetas de Manchego ($7)

In general, the service was fantastic but I was a bit bothered by the blatant upselling, whether it was a push for more dishes or more expensive ones. I was told that we didn’t order enough food and when I suggested that we could order again if we wanted to, the response was that they preferred to submit orders only once.  Despite this fact, the dishes did not arrive in a fluid and consistent fashion and it would have been quite simple to order more as needed.  In the end, there was too much food.   

My Take

Patria reminds me of a spanish exchange student who has come over with the intent on sticking to their traditional roots but getting caught up in the ways of the locals.  The pan con tomate became a dish similar to the bruschetta served by all the cool Italians down the road.  The croqueta mimics the cheese sticks you can get at any  roadhouse dwellers along Front St.  Patria even wants to fit in with the carnivores, offering a $65 ribeye steak to match the likes of Ruth’s Chris.  It’s a bit of an identity crisis.  Even the service is a  bit confusing, characterized by friendly staff, continuous water service and quick dish clearance while being upsold  like you’re in a used car lot. Unlike its patria , Toronto’s Patria has certainly adapted to the Toronto restaurant scene, pricing most menu items on the high end of acceptable. Whether you stick will small dishes, pastas ($16-18) or the paellas (around $30),  don’t expect a cheap evening.

In the end, despite the minor mistakes and issues,  Patria worked hard to remedy any of the problems and overall  I left very satisfied, reminding me that in the end a  happy customer is a fundamental priority in this business regardless of what side of the ocean you’re on.

 
Patria on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Kensington Market/Chinatown:Strada 241

Strada 241 is the newest creation of Toronto restauranteurs the Rubino brothers.  Espresso bar by day and Italian restaurant at night, this restaurant is geographically confused, appearing in the middle of Chinatown instead of as another clone along Queen West or College Street.  The front is subtle and easy to miss amongst the loud signs of the surrounding grocery stores and asian eateries. Once inside, you are warped into a rustic decor characterized by brick walls, high ceilings, low hanging light shades and worn hardwood floors. The spacious coffee bar is separated from the back dining area by an open prep area  showcasing a modern pizza oven. After I was seated, I met Tanya who sat down at the table, , explained the menu in-depth and made wine recommendations with a flare and passion missing from other restaurants who assume I should just know. I started with a Pecorino wine at her suggestion and later progressed into a red from the modest and heavily Italian list.Must

If I could eat my dessert first, The Budino (vanilla-poached apricots, saffron custard and olive oil) would be top of the list. Everything about this dish is delicate, from the vanilla poached apricots to the subtle saffron custard, offering a variety of textures and tastes bordering on savory all  placed with perfect balance inside a mason jar. I’m developing quite a taste for the incorporation of olive oil  into dessert and in this case neither the oil nor the saffron was overpowering but subtle and accenting.

Budino

Maybe

Pizza is a competitive word in Toronto and Strada has a bit of work to do to move up the ranks. At this point they may be able to claim the “best pizza” on Spadina (given it’s a stand alone Italian joint in the middle of Chinatown), but some refinement is need to compete with some of the Queen Street or little Italy juggernauts. The Alessandro was topped with a fresh sauce and tasty meatball but it all seemed to pool onto of an average crust, creating an overall texture that was a little disappointing.

Alessandro Pizza

Mundane

The rapini served with a lemon vincotto dressing sounded appealing but fell flat. I envisioned a warm, al dente dish with a nice citrus punch but instead received a chilled, under seasoned clump of overcooked rapini  hidden beneath some crisp bitter greens and some rather tasty pickled red onions. It became boring really quick…in other words, when the onions were gone.

Rapini

I appreciate an effort to accommodate to a meatless clientele, but the squash fritti seemed like a lame attempt to replace traditional calamari. Served impaled on what looked like a bed of random nails in which the lack of practicality trumped the artistic value. The squash was tender and served piping hot, but the accompanying salsa verde added nothing more than colour. I was craving some heat or acid to tear though the fat, sweet and starch flavours which characterized the deep-fried gourd.

Squash Fritti

My Take

Strada 241 is an italian inspired cocoon nestled among a neighborhood more likely to actually offer 241 pizza as opposed to rustic Italian fare. The question is whether it will materialize as a stand alone in an area not far from dozens of similar establishments. The decor and service are above par but the food needs to catch up. I would go back anytime for a morning coffee if the advertised house baked goods even remotely mimic the budino. Other than that, I’ll wait to see if it emerges as a butterfly or remains a chrysalis hidden among the dim sum shops and noodle houses straddling Spadina Avenue.

Strada 241 on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Richmond Station

Richmond Station posts the following message on their urbanspoon page: “Richmond Station is a stopping place, a bustling neighbourhood restaurant in the downtown core. We are committed to delicious food and excellent hospitality.” A simple message but one forgotten by many eateries in the area.

Upon arriving for my reservation, I was brought to a table with a great view of the open kitchen. Unlike some other restaurants which boast retro soda coolers or toque-wearing moose heads, the decor is a simple white tile, black accents  and classy hardwood tables. I was impressed with the layout of the chef’s table which seats about 8 people.   The wait staff were equally as classy, dressed in black.  Even the chefs were traditionally dressed, donning crisp whites and black aprons.

Richmond’s open kitchen with chef’s rail.

The hostess was very friendly, sat me quickly, provided a menu and I ordered a fantastic modernized version of a whisky old-fashioned cocktail at her recommendation. The waiter arrived  shortly after and immediately asked me my name which he used for the remainder of the night.  His service was impeccable, making menu recommendations while confidently explaining the restaurants concepts and philosophies. He seemed by my side all night, filling my water glass repeatedly and often explaining the station’s journey to date.

Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Excellent hospitality…check.

Now the food.

Must

The featured New Brunswick oysters were fresh and shucked without a flaw. The presentation was like a visual aphrodisiac, served on a bed of ice  with fresh horseradish and house made condiments  including a tangy mignonette, fresh marinara and spicy hot sauce.  I witnessed a definite devotion to “excellent hospitality” from the kitchen when the lady beside me still received all of the accompaniments when ordering a single oyster. At $3.5 each, there may be a temptation to break the bank of these tasty critters even before tackling the main menu.

Oysters with condiments

I received a lesson in  what a real lobster bisque is supposed to taste like.  Ignoring the trend to call any soup a bisque because it sounds better, Carl Heinrich’s team reverts to old school French methods, producing a thin but flavourful broth emulsified with  classic ingredients such as cream and seasoned with tarragon.  The result was a marriage of tantalizing flavours and although it did start to separate a bit toward the end, most will easily consume the majority beforehand.

“Real” Lobster Bisque

Keep an eye on the blackboard.  On this night there was a duck breast served on a braised duck leg.  The shredded leg was thoroughly cooked but still tender while the breast was sliced a perfect medium rare.  Both cuts were graced with a flavourful sauce and served with some vibrant greens.  This dish may answer the old question..am I a breast man or a leg man?  Based on this dish, my answer is both. Then again, maybe it’s the oysters talking.

Duck Two-ways

Maybe

Also on the blackboard was a 6 oz beef offering for $26. Beef is usually a safe bet and Richmond Station was no exception.  The seasoned beef had a beautiful sear and was sliced medium rare but was difficult to see amidst the jungle of greens covering the perfectly cooked steak.  The meat itself had a fantastic flavour but I wasn’t  fond of the bed of overly buttered chopped brussel sprouts which laid the foundation for the beef,  which just made the already rich tasting beef taste even richer.

Beef Special (see blackboard)

Mundane

The regular menu features a starter section highlighted by a $13 lobster cocktail.  Lose any premonition of a tall glass overflowing with fresh, chunky lobster.  Instead, expect a more measly presentation of 4 deep-fried lobster pieces served on a piece of lettuce with a dollop of cocktail sauce.  Sharing means you’ll only get two (or maybe three if you can mildly distract your table mate).   If you’re going to go fishing at Richmond Station, spend $14 and get 4 oysters instead of these land-battered crustaceans.

Lobster Cocktail

My Take

Richmond Station’s urbanspoon proclamation  claim holds true lead by a well-trained, courteous staff and a trendy menu with classic French influence overseen by a proven champion in Carl Heinrich (who even came out to ask how the meal was). The classic decor follows suit, characterized by a modern but bourgeois surrounding  reminiscent of the style of Candice Olson as opposed to Red Green, Bruce Wayne or Beetlejuice.  In the end, both the concept and the location create a perfect storm, appealing to celebrity chef chasers, downtown dwellers,  floating foodies and those who appreciate french inspired food without the confines of  bistros adorning white table linen and equally stuffy service.   I’ll come by again when they open for lunch, but for now I don’t mind this train stop along my voyage in search of culinary pearls.

Richmond Station on Urbanspoon