Upon entering A-OK, which over hovers over County General at the corner of Queen and Shaw, I felt like I was in a high school cafeteria, complete with pastel coloured picnic tables. Instead of long-winded calculus problems scripted on the board, a short and simple menu was presented offering eclectic spins on Asian food. The curriculum included small plate options mixed with the equally popular ramen bowls. The question would be whether the food had the same cafeteria flare as the decor.
The salt cod inari was a terrific start to the meal….kind of like a first period english class with a cool teacher. The wrapper was a chewy but not an uncomfortable texture housing rice that was moist, not mushy. The salt cod added subtle spots of saltiness throughout the inners of the roll. The feisty dipping sauce was cleverly spread along the rim of the plate, appealing to both the dimension of visual appeal and sapidity.
The spin on the shoyu ramen was decent but it certainly wasn’t the best in the city. It was rather generic and lacked the complexity of some of the other soups. The broth was one-toned, the noodles a bit limp and the pork was tender but not remarkable. The egg was well cooked and nicely seasoned and the goji berries were a cute touch. In the end, it was satisfying but not memorable, creating an economic argument by being priced at over ten bucks a bowl.
The pork ssam had a messy appearance and was tricky to eat. In the end, it had a nice, fresh taste but the flavours were scattered depending on the placement and size of the bite. Not a bad snack for 5 bucks. It might have been a bit more exciting if a short course in engineering promoting self-assembly had been employed.
My table mate ordered the Sichuan Tsukeman ramen bowl. I was tempted to do the same and I’m glad I didn’t. It was a bit of a mess. Understanding it’s a bit of a variation from the standard noodle bowls ( the broth is replaced with a spicy dipping sauce on the side) , it lacked the heartwarming nature of its Shoyu cousin. After dragging the limp noodles through the sauce, I was left with a nice quantity of spice but an oily taste that was less than appealing. The pork, egg and seaweed were interesting additions but still couldn’t cut into the monotony of the overpowering sauce. Let’s call it a cool science experiment gone slightly wrong.
A-OK foods fuses two of Toronto’s hottest culinary trends: asian inspired street food and ramen. Although it doesn’t deliver the best of either world, there were a few dishes worth talking about. As for the vibe, I only experienced the midday experience but it felt a bit like being in detention, lacking the buzz and excitement of similar eateries. In the end, the report card is such that I can’t give A-OK foods an A, but more likely a C and possibly a B minus if the salt cod inari is somewhere in the lesson plan.
I had the fortune of being in the vicinity of Yonge-Dundas square yesterday and headed over for the lunch money days campaign which was held in support of Second Harvest, an organization committed to reducing food waste while improving the food security of hundreds if not thousands of people living in Toronto.
Second Harvest (http://secondharvest.ca/) works closely with food retailers, hotels and restaurants to redistribute food to those in need. Unlike food banks, they focus on perishables such as fruits, vegetables, meat and cheeses. These foods are often discarded by institutions for a variety of reasons. This has always been a particular issue for me, both as a past food service employee and a dietitian. Furthermore, perishables are difficult to attain for many on a restrictive budget, especially in the winter due to cost and transportation issues, and are often the first omitted in efforts to control household spending.
Today’s event invited 15 or so vendors who volunteered their time and food to raise money for this worthy cause. Famed Toronto chef Mark McEwan was on hand to promote this event which I understand is near and dear to his heart. I spoke with him for a few minutes and found him to be a humble and inspiring individual….and he let me take a picture.
Second Harvest advocate Mark McEwan
This Toronto icon was serving some of its favorites including the smoked meat sandwich with a pickle which I topped with some great hot mustard. The meat was tender and the bread was fresh. It was a traditional and classic few bites.
The maple and beef-bacon donuts were a sweet finish to the small meal. It had old school texture and was the size of an overgrown timbit. The bacon added a wee bit of salt and texture.
This mysterious pop-up was present at the event as well, offering a hot chicken masa ball soup brilliantly topped with chicharron (dried chicken skin). The sight of the clear broth steaming from Le Creuset was music to all my senses, offering relief from the nasty February elements.
Once again, RL as solid as rock, putting up a tasty lobster bisque and a lobster roll for tasting. Both were as delicious as their offerings at their Ossington location. They did tease me with a copy of their drink menu which left me longing for another taste of their Iginla Fizz..or maybe a lobster tail Caesar.
The lunch money days campaign is a win-win-win-win etc. Great local eateries peddle their wares and fares to new and interested diners. These diners get to experience a mish-mash of creativity in bite-size portions. Most important, second harvest gets much needed exposure and a financial boost to carry on with their important cause.
It’s always good when you go to a group dinner and can order a la carte. One of the biggest frustrations is when you have a set menu in which you can only choose from one of three entrees that are designed and prepared to appease the conservative diner. Beef (usually steak), chicken (usually roasted), fish (usually salmon) and some lame vegetarian entree (usually a regular menu item with the protein removed) populate these set menus. Needless to say, I was elated when I attended a group dinner at gusto 101 and was handed a real menu, with no restrictions or limitations.
Gusto 101 is positioned right beside Jimmy’s coffee on Portland Ave just North of King Street. There was a tremendous amount of hype as its creation materialized about a year ago. Some may call it another Italian restaurant. Others may call it a trendy trattoria. It has a very friendly website (http://www.gusto101.com) with copies of the menu, gallery pics and even a detailed explanation of their unique reservation policy and very specific expected wait times based on the day of the week and the time of night.
The private room is located in the basement. It’s a well decorated yet unfinished wine cellar with a large wooden communal table which seats about 20. There were about a dozen of us there. Most curious was the fact that about half way through our meal, 4 or 5 people were escorted in and seated at the end of our table for their own soiree. It was actually kind of neat but quite unorthodox. Nonetheless, when it comes to Italian feasts, we are all family, right?
Kale can be a fussy vegetable. Gusto uses a combination of lacination (cutting into small pieces) and acid to perfect the Cavolo Nero salad. A subtle bitterness is maintained amidst the sour lemon vinaigrette, with salty and sweet accents in the form of peccarino cheese and currents rounding out the dish to touch all the tongue’s taste points. It’s a perfect example of simple and balanced preparation.
The Monday night polpette special is a simple dish of meatballs, tomato sauce and grilled tuscan bread. The meat was well seasoned and cooked to the faintest of pink which maintained moistness and excellent texture. The tangy tomato sauce was fresh and vibrant. Once again, it was an other example of traditional and rustic cooking done right.
Many of the wines come in around $10 a 5 oz glass or$50 a bottle with others available at a variety of price points. Gusto offers a rather unique concept….house wine on tap served and poured from pitchers. The table opted for the Gusto Rosso (Cabernet Savignon and Malbec). It was mellow yet complex with a very drinkable character which matched reasonably well with most of the dishes on the menu. Although it may not score perfect on wine spectator, at a buck an ounce, you really can’t go wrong.
Octopus is a risky menu item. It’s a finicky ingredient with a tiny cooking window. Yet every place that serves it boasts it has the best octopus in the city. Gusto’s claim of its Polipo (char-grilled with olive tapenade, green beans, basil oil,citrus emulsion) was no exception. The wood oven baked octopus was almost the perfect texture, but was a tad dry. The condiments, however, were not really complimentary, with overpowering flavours that took away from the intended star of the plate.
The prosciutto pizza was simple, topped with high quality ingredients including Pingue (a Niagara producer) prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula and parmigiano on a wood baked crispy crust. It was satisfying and comparable to surrounding pies but no more memorable.
The dessert trio offered Crema Cotta liquore di caffe, Budino al Cioccolato (with coconut, caramel and cream) and Ravioli di Pera Fritti pear, fig with a spiced red wine reduction. My favorite was the crema cotta as it was fresh and palate cleansing. The ravioli was a bit reminiscent of a McDonald’s baked pie. The budino was served in a baby food jar, a refreshing change from the mason jars which seem to house desserts everywhere else. More importantly, the pudding was quite good although a little sweeter than I like.
The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the Arancini (arborio rice, wild mushrooms, fontina, tomato sauce). Maybe I find this dish a bit boring in general but other than the tangy sauce, it was a starchy monotony with a taste similar to grandma’s cream of mushroom casserole.
Also mundane is the minimal beer selection. There’s no draught beer and only a few bottle choices. Although Italy is not known for its beer selection, Toronto is. There is nothing unauthentic about throwing a few more local brews into the mix, preferably with a few on tap. A crisp local lager or a nutty amber ale would nicely compliment many of Gusto’s menu items.
Gusto’s focus is traditional Italian food within a trendy environment. Even the “semi-private” room tucked in the basement buzzes with a downtown Toronto vibe. The servers emit an aura of pride, evident through their story telling, each with a thesis promising fresh, authentic fare. For the most part, the food is delicious. In fact, I think I would have been just as happy being served a group meal providing it included the kale salad along with Monday’s meatballs (perhaps with some homemade pasta) and all washed down with free flowing dollar an ounce house wine….a far cry from the aforementioned group dinner or the oily salad, rubber chicken, cold spaghetti, stale bread and one-toned table wine normally considered an Italian celebration in other venues.
Cava is midtown Toronto’s answer to Spanish tapas. Tucked down a small alley off of Yonge street, Cava offers a modest but comfortable environment featuring a plentiful array of over 30 menu options. For the most part it errs on the traditional side, offering tapas dishes reminiscent of the mother land. In addition, there a few twists, with choices reflective of the current Toronto dining scene. It has received a number of accolades including number 5 on Joanne Kates’ 2012 top 100 list.
For a guy who normally does not like olives, Cava surprised me. They were like candy. I can’t pinpoint if it was the temperature, the saltiness or the variety. but I found myself eating one after another. The price point was a very fair $3.
The venison anticucho ($12.50) with a warm red cabbage salad featured extremely tender cuts of well-seasoned meat on a a bed of red cabbage. Each morsel was cooked a perfect medium rare. It’s one of those dishes in which you only order one and after the first bite think you should or ordered two…or three…or four. It makes you want to break every rule of tapas etiquette; You keep the plate at close range and encourage everybody to eat everything else while you subtly eat the entire thing. The cabbage salad worked but I would use it as a diversion, offering it to the table and suggesting that it’s just as good as the entire venison skewer you just devoured.
Translation: Anticucho- Cut stew meat usually skewered and served with a variety of traditional spices.
The eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75) was well constructed and well executed. Hints of the eggplant’s bitterness, sweetness of the honey, the tomatillo’s sourness and the salty richness of the cheese completely painted the tongue’s hotspots. If anything, it was a little rich but was balanced nicely otherwise.
Translation: Queso Fresco- A soft, unaged mild white cheese.
Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)? How can one go wrong? Actually..one could but Cava produced. The chard maintained its integrity despite being suspended within a plethora of cheese. The poached egg was perfectly cooked and vamped up the dish in a way only an egg yolk can. I recommend sharing this one given there are a lot of rich flavours and a few bites will suffice.
The salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75) was solid. The salt in the cod was not overwhelming and the cake had adequate moisture and good texture. The tasty piperade was a bit messy and rather one-toned in flavour, missing a punch of heat or acid that might have helped the dish a bit.
Translation: Piperade- a Basque soup made with various ingredients usually including the Espelette pepper (a mild pepper cultivated in the part of France).
The cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and Spanish saffron ($9.50) was a nice rendition of the middle eastern staple. None of the ingredients were overpowering and blended together for a medley of sweet, spice, sulphur and salt.
Translation: Kaboucha- a winter squash also referred to as a Japanese pumpkin.
The brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95) were tasty. Neither spectacular nor bland, the garlic was a nice change from the normal pork fat laden veggies served at most of the competing establishments.
The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($11) was as much a mouthful to eat as it is to say.That’s not to say it wasn’t a good mouthful. There is a bit of an art and science to eating this. The lemon is tart and needs the sweet meringue and the earthiness of the pistachio to round out the dish so a careful spoonful is needed to incorporate all the ingredients. The cake was slightly spicy and the saffron was not overpowering. The poached pears were wonderful by themselves but a bit of an odd addition to the plate from both a taste and visual appearance.
The coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12) came with a 20 minute wait….I was given adequate warning. When it did arrive it appeared more like a souffle. It was fluffy and light with a wonderful mouth feel. The confusion came with the addition of the pineapple. Although it had a sweetness to it, the combination with the custard didn’t make sense, especially when topped with the acidic sorbet. The use of cherries or sweetened berries would have made this a near perfect dessert.
Translation: Clafouti- a french flan usually containing fruit.
Translation: Sea Buckthorn- a fruit similar to a gooseberry or cranberry grown in part of Europe, Asia and across Canada.
There was very little mundane about the food. It would have been nice, however, to have a cava-english dictionary to interpret some of the dishes. I was left to feel a bit inferior if I wasn’t clear on certain dishes, especially since there were creative liberties taken on many of the dishes offered (ie piperade and clafouti). Not that the service was bad, it was a bit pretentious.
On another note the food was fairly expensive. It’s amazing how quickly pricy tapas adds up. In addition, there were about half a dozen red and white wines by the glass. The minimum price for a 5 oz glass was $10 and went up to $25 for a 8 oz glass. This is not to say that the wine is not of a good quality, however it seems to be a bit of a gouge for somebody who simply wants a glass of wine (eg. $23 for an 8 oz glass of a wine which is $19/bottle). That being said, the bottles offer much more of a variety with a wider variety of price points.
Cava is a bit of a hidden treasure in midtown Toronto. It’s a cozy environment but clearly its focus is on the food. The large menu can be overwhelming as it is full of descriptions and definitions that are truly foreign to many. On the other hand, I could go back again and eat 8-10 different choices and be totally satisfied. I barely scratched the menu’s surface in that I didn’t order many of the traditional dishes (scallops, octopus, tripe and of course, paella) or the modern menu favorites (sweetbreads, brisket and sablefish). There are plenty of vegetarian choices which sometimes is an issue with other small plate establishments. The beer selection is scarce and wine by the glass choices are limited and on the pricy side. The desserts are served in a very shareable size and are an enterprise in creativity which offer extreme flavour and texture variations all within the same bite.
Translation: Go to cava, be decisive and bring your wallet….and your appetite.
The diversity of Toronto coffee shops range from socketed snack bars to pristine patisseries. Nadege is certainly the latter. Positioned beside Trinty-Bellwoods park, Nadege sits a bit out of place. It’s bright white exterior clashes with the surrounding landscape along Queen West. Upon entry, you are transformed in to a small, bright cafe adorned with small tables. Large glass counters house articulate creations ranging from traditional French macarons to Japanese inspired green tea cake. A large window stretching across the back wall allows patrons to witness the pastry chefs begetting delicacies while dressed with European eclat.
Nadege has some of the best counter (premade) sandwiches in Toronto. There’s an array of choices including ham and brie, roasted vegetables, french ham and brie and fig and sandwiches of the day on either croissants or baguettes. In particular, I’m a fan of the cucumber, mature cheddar and green leaves on a croissant. It’s simple, fresh and tasty. In general, you’re going to pay $6-8 for each of these creations.
The quality of the desserts and pastries are top notch. A cute gimmick are the chocolate bars, showcasing a different flavour for each letter of the alphabet. I’m not sure what’s more impressive; the variety of offerings or the keen use of english and french lexicography to cover off each letter. In my case I was drawn to “Y” for Yuzu and Cashew over the “B” for Banana or “Q” for Quatre Noix (mixed nuts). “Y” was true to its name, containing healthy chunks of cashews within silky milk chocolate with mild citrus undertones. A decent confection but a bit steep at over $10 per bar.
Nadege adheres to the philosophy that the age old art of brewing coffee has evolved to an espresso machine and a cup of hot water. More so is the infusion of arrogance synonymous, stereotypical or otherwise, with the french culture evident in the response to my barbaric suggestion of a dripped cup of joe. In other words, not only is there no brewed coffee, but I get attitude in suggesting that there should be. The interior is a bit sterile and unfriendly despite the attractive creations sitting within the glass and the previously mentioned display of brightly packaged chocolate bars on the opposite wall. Nadege has the ambiance of an operating room.
The Final Sip
Nadege’s strength lies in high quality baked goods, chocolate and delicate pastries with some of the best counter sandwiches in Toronto. The lack of brewed coffee and a sterile, unfriendly environment means I’ll do take out and get my coffee elsewhere.