Review:Toronto:Little Italy/Portugal Village:Rock Lobster

As far as twitter goes, Rock Lobster is a busy community.  Every night I get numerous tweets and retweets from happy people raving about their recent experience. I must admit I was quite excited for a piece of the action. Walking through the door, I was looking for a place to happen and was greeted by three friendly, plaid wearing barkeeps who quickly sat me at the bar. Looking around, I felt like I was an extra in a Tragically Hip video.  Nostalgic Canadian paraphernalia  filled the walls and the menu followed suit, offering a near coast to coast menu.  It only made sense to salute the flag and partake in the cross country adventure.

Must

Nothing signifies the start a Canadian road trip like a classic caesar.  It followed all the rules including celery and steak spice with the luxury of half a lobster tail  for 12 bucks.  It wasn’t bland nor watery and didn’t require a fire in the hole warning either.  It was yummy and spicy and good.   The tail didn’t hurt either.

Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail
Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail

Ironically, the best item on the menu wasn’t lobster. A trip over the hundredth meridian offered a grilled flank steak  served with homemade hickory sticks, a soft yolked duck egg and a side of homemade tangy dipping sauce  for $14.  The steak was grilled to absolute perfection. The egg was served with a shiny, runny yellow which would trickle down onto the crispy and smoky version of delicious of the Canadian classic snack. Despite the richness of each of the ingredients it was far from a greasy jungle; I would describe it more as hearty small plate presented with skill and determination….and grace, too.

Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg
Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg

I stayed out west for my second drink of the night. I ordered an “Iginla Fizz”, a  $10 modern spin on a rye and ginger.  It was simple but delicious. Maybe it was the drink itself or the fact that  I’ve always felt so hard done by as a Calgary  fan and drinking a cocktail named after the Flames captain in Leafs nation was final  and just retribution for the Gary Leeman/Doug Gilmour trade.

The "Iginla Fizz"
The “Iginla Fizz”

One of the showcases of Rock Lobster is a cooler displaying the restaurant’s namesake as well as other things born in the water.  The fresh PEI malpeque oysters drew my attention, especially at a price of two and a quarter each.  One of the bartenders pulled three out, shucked them and served with all the fixings including fresh horseradish she ground with a box grater right at the bar. It was a great offering  other than the mignonette sauce, which I found a little off. She didn’t know for sure what she regularly shucks in a shift  but figured she may do a 20o plus on a good night.

Rock Lobster Oysters
Rock Lobster Oysters

I was told the  lobster roll is the mainstay of the restaurant concept  itself. It had all the fireworks of the classic east coast sandwich.  Chunks of lobster were coated in a rich but not overbearing mayo and served on a fresh and lightly toasted roll. Normally served with fries and a McClure’s pickle, I asked if  they could sub the fries and they gladly doubled the pickle.  This may not sound that exciting, but these pickles have been considered some of the best in the business for a long time running.

Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll

Maybe

Rock Lobster’s Quebec contribution was a lobster poutine.  The fresh fries hit the mark, the cheese curds were authentic but the bisque gravy fell a bit short.  Although full of flavour, the bisque was a little scarce and  served luke warm which prevented the heart of the melt, a bit of a cardinal sin in the poutine world. I know it didn’t blow my mind but I couldn’t figure out if it left me yawning or snarling.

Lobster Poutine
Lobster Poutine

I have a confession.  One of the twitter feeds bragged about diners enjoying whale tails which left me wondering if this was a taboo spin on the Parkdale offal movement.  Much to my relief, the “whale tail” was instead a spin on the classic Canadian beaver tail pastry. It was a crispy and nicely presented, coated in cinnamon sugar and served on a chuck of tree with a shaker of maple sugar.  It came with a few irrelevant trickles of creme anglaise.  It was good enough but wasn’t too hard puttin’ down.

Whale Tail
Whale Tail

My Take

Rock Lobster has rapidly become a  lionized addition to the Ossington strip. The service was friendly, attentive and didn’t take forever.  I can’t explain the exact feeling, but it has a modern spirit that so many foodies crave  as much as the grub itself.  The ironic coupling of  extensive twitter hype with a certain degree of secrecy, the dark canuck ambiance and most importantly the solid execution of a cross-section of Canadian classics from hickory sticks to lobster tails define this eatery as a  pelagic pinnacle as opposed to a nautical disaster.

 

Rock Lobster on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West: Edulis

En route’s designation of best new Canadian restaurant and an impressive debut as number 11 on Joanne Kates’ top 100 of 2012 certainly raised my curiosity about Edulis, the small bistro which opened in 2012 along Niagara Street.  The philosophy of Edulis can be summarized as a juxtaposition of the elements of fine dining and the  hipster joints plastered up the road along Queen street . Upon entry, you are greeted with a hello, a coat check and waitstaff donning traditional black uniforms. You are seated at a table within the small dining space within an atmosphere which possesses a subtle yet enjoyable aura of chaos.  The decor is highlighted by  a variety of paintings and pictures, marble tables and dim candlelight while at the same time possessing  a flare both rustic and  rundown.  A daily menu is printed featuring core offerings with additional fare  based on ingredient availability with truffles as the specialty. A carte blanche menu is also available with 5 courses for $50 or 7 for $70.  Although I didn’t order myself, some of  the choices included veal three ways- tongue, belly and sweetbread and a pork belly and shoulder offering.   There is a decent wine offering  (8 glasses plus 50 or so bottles) as well as homemade non-alcoholic sodas with odd flavours which include burdock, hibiscus and ginger with szechwan pepper. The latter was divine.

Must

The cele”rissoto”  was a spin on traditional risotto, opting for the winter favorite celery root instead of the traditional arborio rice. The centrepiece was a square of toast topped with fois gras. It managed to create a mouth feel similar to the traditional dish while maintaining  the subtle earthiness of the celeriac. I’m not sure if the draw for me was the unique nature of the dish itself or the surreal nature of taking bite after bite and trying to figure out how they did it. Either way, it was addictive.  In fact, the fois gras became second nature.

Cele"risotto"
Cele”risotto”

In a world filled with different shaped pasta served in different sized bowls  soaking in truffle oil, the thought of homemade potato ribbons swimming in a rich sauce and topped with fresh white truffles was a refreshing thought, even with a price tag of $36. Once again, the execution was flawless; the potatoes were perfectly cooked and a refreshing change from the ubiquity of standard gnocchi.  From the first bite, I was filled with a comfort reminiscent of grandma’s perfect scalloped potatoes yet mixed with the exquisite nature of the precious white fungus…sort of like moving from the comfort of a cozy terrycloth robe to one made of  fine silk.

Potato Pasta with White Truffle
Potato Pasta with White Truffle

I’m quite nostalgic when it comes to the preservation of elements of fine dining.   The disappearance of the amuse bouche and fresh bread has plagued the dining scene so it is quite refreshing when a restaurant adheres to old school philosophies.  An anchovy-stuffed manzanilla olive  was proudly offered along side some of the best homemade bread I’ve had in a while.  It was a rustic, dense loaf  served in a nifty cotton bag; a refreshing change from the normal offering of semi-stale crusty loaf inside a frayed wicker basket.  Normally, the bread is meant  to hold one over until the real food arrives, but I found myself devouring slices well after the first course arrived.

Maybe

Shrimp ceviche and ajo blanco (a cold, white garlic based soup) are quite different in everything except temperature so I was interested to experience  the marriage of the two.  The ajo blanco was fresh and although  a little on the acidic side, it was generally  well-balanced and contained a decent amount of roasted almonds.  However, the ceviche concept was a bit lost in the dish.  There was no distinct citrus flavor or heat and although the shaved onion worked, the cilantro clashed with the ajo blanco base.  The saving grace of the dish was both the flawless execution of the shrimp and the brilliant balance of the soup.  I’m just not sure they go well together.

Ceviche in Ajo Blanco
Ceviche in Ajo Blanco

Another childhood favorite of mine is tapioca pudding so I was pleased to see it offered as a dessert, especially when coupled with the vibrant flavour of meyer lemons.  It was served with the texture of a thick soup more than pudding and the lemon flavour was quite predominant.  The preserved apricot did little to enhance the dessert other than adding a bit of chewiness and not enough sweet.  I will admit I ordered a lot of creamy dishes throughout the night so perhaps a dessert with the same colour and texture profiles was a bit  much.

Tapioca Pudding with Meyer Lemon
Tapioca Pudding with Meyer Lemon

My Take

Edulis is a unique addition to Toronto’s fine dining scene.   Perfect execution highlights the menu which merges old school fine dining with hip and trendy cuisine. Candlelight meets chaos. Suit wearing lawyers sit among thick-rimmed twenty somethings. Marble tables erected beside porcelain bathroom tiles.  The choice of a $100 bottle of wine or a $3 glass of grape soda.  You can gamble on a carte blanche menu or indulge on rich truffles. Even co-owner Tobey Nemeth  personifies the juxtaposition, wearing a trendy tiger print dress while the remaining staff don the traditional black uniforms. You can even pick your price to a degree but temptation could lead to a  bill well over a hundred bucks. Regardless of which side of the spectrum you fall on, in the end you’ll be treated to both great food and great service.  There’s no dichotomy there.

 

Edulis on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Yorkville:La Societe Bistro

I was quite prepared for a posh soiree as I strolled into the small Bloor Street mall, past the Gucci and Cartier stores to enter the lavish environment which is La Societe.  Unlike a number of other French bistros in Toronto, La Societe is quite expansive, with stained glass  reminiscent of  l’eglise and a bar with a Hollywood-like bibliotheque.  Not surprising for a Charles Khabouth joint.  The question was whether it would be a scenic adventure with little substance or if the food would be as appealing to taste as the scenery was to observe.

Must

Perhaps most ironic was the fact that the best dish wasn’t french.  Ceviche is all about balance and La Societe’s version hit the mark.  Aggressive citrus and chili accents elevated the subtle and fresh trio of scallops, shrimp and snapper.  Be warned though…it’s a small portion for about 250 pesos ($21).

Seafood Cerviche ($21)
Seafood Ceviche ($21)

Maybe

The duck confit was a combination of roasted breast and a croquette-like portion of leg.  The breast was quite average due to it’s rather tough texture and unimpressive rendering of the fatty cut.  Hands down, the highlight of the plate was the croquette.  Nicely fried and full of flavour, it was stuffed with tender shreds of duck leg which was nicely balanced with the tangy cherry jus.

Duck Confit ($29)
Duck Confit ($29)

Most desserts were priced in the double digits .  The Tahitian vanilla creme brulee was tasty but unremarkable.    The lemon tart was equally as predictable, tasting less like a rich, tangy curd and more like my mom’s early attempts at a  lemon meringue pie.  The hazelnut chocolate bar with salted caramel ice cream was a bit more exciting but a little outdated.  In the end, the desserts were a bit ennuyeux.

Creme Brulee
Creme Brulee
Lemon Tart
Lemon Tart
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar

Mundane

It wasn’t so much the food, but the value that was quite mundane. Here are a few examples:

Dover Sole $48. Ok. I’ve give you that…it sells for up to $75 in New York.

Dover Sole ($48)
Dover Sole ($48)

Steak Frites $32. Ok, that’s a little steep.

Steak Frites ($32)
Steak Frites ($32)

The duck confit and seafood ceviche were $29 and $21 respectively. Other possible choices included $24 mussels or vegetarian cavatelli, $13 french onion soup and an $18 burger.  I appreciate the  interior like the Louvres but the menu is priced like its souvenir shop.

My Take

La Societe bistro is not a bistro.  Wikipedia defines a bistro as “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”. This restaurant is not small, the food is not cheap and the setting is not modest.    The layout is expansive and  uncharacteristic of most french bistros (making me question the lack of intimacy),  the food is decent but with markups similar to the Gucci purses downstairs and the decor is anything but modest. To be fair, they do have a decent prix fixe menu at $44.  As long as Yorkville remains the epitome of  lavish spending,  La Societe will blend in but  it will be interesting to see if the migration of the  luxury hotels and accommodations to other areas of town pressures this and other  local eateries to come down to earth a little with pricing.  Until then, I’ll seek my scenery at the Royal Ontario Museum and indulge on ceviche elsewhere. C’est la vie!

 

La Société Bistro on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales 10 Food Trends That Will Fade in 2013

Much like trends that surge in a given year, there are many that begin to fade away.  Here are my predictions of the Toronto food trends that should curtail in 2013.

1. Beet to Death

Almost every menu offers a beet salad of some kind.  They are cheap, earthy and offer a pretty colour to a plate.  They are however, very distinct.  This uniqueness usually results in a short shelf life. Plus, root vegetables take turns being in favour. Just ask a sweet potato.  They had to step aside for the beet and a new tuber should soon reign supreme.  Perhaps an heirloom carrot, parsnip or even the relatively unknown sunchoke?

2. Doubt the Sprout

Despite its sinister reputation among the young, the brussel sprout  has become the cool cruciferous vegetable in the past few years, offering a perfect marriage with other in vogue flavours  like  hot sauce and bacon fat.  However, with other greens such as collards, swiss chard and  mustard greens gaining popularity, I suspect the brussel sprout will lose some of its spark and go back to being the low point of many a childhood.

3. Pig: The Magical Animal

Pork is no longer the other white meat; it is THE white meat.  Thick chops and pork  belly have dominated menus in the past few years.  Bacon has been used to wrap everthing from steak to scallops to ice cream.  The combination of demand for lighter foods  coupled with expected increases in pork prices in 2013 should see the presence of pork diminish somewhat across the board.  That being said, bacon will be coveted and pork will remain a key component in ramen dishes, but don’t be surprised to see more chicken (in an attempt to gain the white meat status back) and beef options emerge as a replacement to the mighty pig.

4.  Feelin’ Blue

Strong flavours will be replaced  with more mild ones and cheese is no exception. The intensity of the bold blues, including gorgonzola will be replaced by lighter cheeses with more subtle flavour.  The use of blue as a base for rich creamy pasta sauces (especially vegetarian ones) should fall out favour for more acidic, zingy ones.

5. Falling Flat

Flatbreads are pizzas for places that don’t make pizza.  Once a popular appetizer, flatbread is a canvas to display other popular ingredients such as short rib, mushrooms and asparagus with white, red and barbeque sauce foundations.  The novelty has worn off as diners are satisfied with the toppings reconstructed in novel and abstract ways minus the bland and often overcooked dough.

6. Holy Aioli!

Chipotle mayos, basil aiolis and other thick and sinful sauces should give way to vegetables based dips, sauces and condiments.  The trend toward the focus on fresh and local ingredients doesn’t necessarily include mayonnaise and oil but  may favor tangy, tomato jams, spicy chimichurris and vibrant pestos instead.

7.  “Poutin'”

Call me crazy but the life cycle of poutine may be coming to an end.  The classic Quebec dish has evolved to include lobster, brisket and pulled pork as well as modifications to the traditional beef or chicken gravy.  The pendulum is swinging in the direction of lighter flavours. In the end, poutine, regardless of the version,  is a salty and fatty mess to the extreme, one which will soon return to be reserved primarily for the after bar crowd.

8.  Taking a Slide

Despite the number of new restaurants opening promoting sliders of all kinds, in all likelihood they will not sustain the popularity of the past couple of years.  The initial simple slider gave way to newer ideas like pulled pork or beef topped with kimchi, slaw or fois gras. There may be some survival among the many small plate restaurants, but sliders have quickly become an outdated novelty. The advent of competitive burger joints have swung the pendulum back toward the large chin-dripping mains and away from the dainty, often dried out finger sandwiches.

9. “Not”ella

Nutella has gone from  a rare childhood vice to a condiment which recently seems to grace everything from grilled cheese to crepes to burgers. The hazelnut spread has been elevated to iconic levels in the past couple of year with many restaurants going as far as displaying various sized nutella jars in their establishments like some kind of award or trophy.  Not that it will go away, but the jars should come down with diner’s reactions shifting from 2012’s “Cool, this place has nutella” to 2013’s “Oh, nutella…again”.

10. Muffle the Truffle

Truffle oil is not a truffle.  It’s a cheaper, liquid version of the exquisite fungus which has been grossly overused in everything from popcorn to pasta.  Truffle is like fish sauce and saffron; if you use too much once, it resonates to every similar  dish afterwards.   Truffle is meant to subtly complement other flavours, not be the main flavour and too many dishes are offered without this understanding.  Similar to Newtonian law, as the numbers of those who have been subject to truffle oil  abuse increase,  its popularity will decrease.

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Santouka Ramen

Toronto is one of a  number of  North American cities in which Santouka Ramen, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, has set up shop in hopes of capturing the growing base of noodle fans.  Santouka promises quick and efficient service but tries  to deviate from the notion that all ramen soups are created equal.  It steers away from rich pork belly, eggs and nori offered by others in lieu of  a somewhat cleaner bowl of salty broth.  I arrived at 1210 and got the last seat, which was at the bar with a clear view of the kitchen. I was a bit memorized by the long stove holding up 8 large vats  of bubbling broth presumably prepared by a methodical and somewhat mystical  process. Otherwise, it had the feel of a karaoke bar set up in a subway station, with orders sung in Japanese melodies muffling the continuous sound of clanking soup bowls. I had my meal and was out in about  30 minutes, receiving  envious stares from the 12-15 onlookers in line when I left.

Maybe

It’s apparent that each interpretation of this traditional dish is in the eye of the beholder.   In this case, the Shio Ramen  was a mellow, salty broth with a firm, tasty noodle and adorned with green onion, crisp bamboo shoots, fish cake, ribbons of kikurage (mushrooms), fatty back rib pork and a signature pickled plum.  If I were a soup architect constructing the perfect bowl, I’d say the foundation (broth) was a bit oversalted, the walls (noodles)  were solid and the accents spiced up the decor reasonably well. Both the plum and the spiral fishcake were a cute finish; a delicate  reminder of the artistic importance put on  Japanese food.  The shoots and shrooms were mainly for taste and texture and somewhat succeeded at both but more so the latter.  The pork was scarce. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the lack of an egg.  It’s like building  a house without a pool; it works but you’re left feeling like there’s something missing.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The gyoza were satisfying. Not doughy or soggy,  they had a nicely seasoned and fairly abundant filling and were served with a carousel of condiments which included chili oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce. At a little more than a buck a dumpling, they hit the spot.  I would equate them to a nicely manicured but not spectacular lawn sitting outside the previously described  ramen house.

Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Gyoza Condiments
Gyoza Condiments

Mundane

I find something sacred about green tea and somewhat expect a little ceremony when I visit a Japanese restaurant.  What I don’t expect is a generic tea bag (I think I can get a 100 bags of this brand for a buck or two at any teashop)  in a cup for $2.50.  At least bring me a good quality loose leaf tea and/or put it in a  pot.  Otherwise, don’t charge me a ridiculous price for an average product that maybe costs a cent or two.

My $2.50 tea.
My $2.50 tea.

My Take

Once again, no two soups are created equal.  The seemingly infinite number of ramen houses mean an infinite number of ramen dishes and an infinite number of opinions. Santouka offered a reasonable competitor with a well flavoured but salt heavy broth (I drove home with the feeling that I had a chalice of water from the dead sea).  The pork was a nice cut but the portion was minimal. The remaining additions were just ok.   In summary,  it’s a worthy, well-calculated  addition to the neighbourhood of ramen soups, offering a house with a strong foundation, a few frills and a nice front yard (gyoza), although I still do miss the pool.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon