It’s a daunting task when you driving down Queen East from downtown at 7:30 am looking for a place to grab a coffee and maybe a bite. The classic hot spots such as Lady Marmalade, Bonjour Brioche and Tulip are still waking up so the liquid remedy of coffee with the possibility of a pastry may be all that exists.
I progressed down the empty street, sun in my eyes and saw a Starbucks on the right and parked, ready to succumb to over roasted coffee and a generic breakfast sandwich. Instead, I spied the Mercury Espresso bar, which has a relative smallness of the planet itself. I walked into a small line, staring down as I flipped the plastic between my fingers, almost convincing myself this was a cash only joint and I would have to cross the street or find a high service ATM in the vicinity. I let the question “Do you take credit?” squeak out of my mouth. The answer was a resounding yes…minus AMEX of course. With that, I ordered an americano. He did have a shade of baristattitude, but he kept it in the realm of confident versus cocky. In order to get the bill up a bit, I ordered a nutella cookie as a compromise to the sandwich I would have ordered at Starbucks. I was also interested in the coffee on the shelf and chose a Matalapa from El Salvador roasted by George Howell which subsequently has turned out to be a fabulous cup of joe at home.
The americano is one of the better I have had in a while. It was smooth and like a flower garden; complete with fragrant blossoms and was neither under or over watered. The cookie was pretty good too.
Mercury will be a regular stop on my way to the office, although I’m only there half a dozen times a year. I will also grab a bag of coffee while I’m at it. There’s nothing special about the place other than the brew (and maybe the daily trivia question) and I suspect the bright sun, slight breeze and serenity of an empty Toronto street may have catalyzed the experience, but I’ll take it over of the many possible destinations of the timbucktoos scattered along the route regardless of the time of day.
I arrived at Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport at 7 am. I ran into a customer on the plane. Upon takeoff, she kindly offered me her copy of Oprah’s magazine to read on the plane, so I figured what the hell…I was going to Chicago and I did learn how to remove a mole with surgery. When we landed, we agreed to head into the core together. To my surprise, there wasn’t a cab to be found. Eventually, one arrived and it was the first of many pristine cabs (yes, I actually enjoyed the cabs in Chicago despite their stop and go and hornophilic nature) I would take during the week. The drive was slow and I eventually arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel on the magnificent mile. My room was ready, I dumped my bag and heading for a day of culinary adventure.
Stop 1– Grahamwich
Anybody who knows me is aware I’m a sucker for celebrity chefs. Graham Elliot’s sandwich shop, Grahamwich, allowed me to experience the fares of the heavy man without the need for a heavy wallet. Sitting downtown, it offers an arrays of sandwiches with sides including popcorn, chips, pickles and even soft serve ice cream. It’s a simple joint, with minimal seating and the trademark GE symbol painted here and there. It also has one of the most annoying songs I have ever heard on a website and no apparent way to turn it off. The staff resembled Graham himself, with slicked hair and wide-rimmed specs, although few would be able to mimic the speech of expectations related to cutting through the bread of a perfectly toasted sandwich.
I opted for the waldorf chicken sandwich which included grapes, walnuts, gorgonzola and celery for $8. I threw in a large order of local pickles on the side and a homemade vanilla kola for $3 each. For good measure, I grabbed a maple bacon Long John which I venture to guess was a product of local bakery Glazed and Infused for $4.
I grabbed my “To Go” pack, hopped on the subway, and jaunted up to Wrigley field to check out the field. Grabbing a bench outside the park, I dug in.
The most underrated component of a sandwich is the texture. This one was a home run! Each bite was like a great pitching performance and a couple of base hits; the chicken salad that was firm and not soggy and it had perfect walnut and celery crunch and juicy pops of grape. Delicious! I opened the cup holding two flavours of pickles (traditonal kosher dill and spicy). Equally delicious. The drink was subtly sweet and very vanilla flavoured, a polarity that might turn off a soda-pop purists. All in all, a great lunch by a great park. I even thought I saw a few tourists scanning the neighbourhood looking for the source of my lunchtime bliss.
Satisfied, I snapped a few pics and hopped back on the subway and heading up the red line to stop #2. Along the way, I succumbed to the donut and tore off a quarter. Anybody that thinks the combination of maple, bacon and donuts works…you’re right! It was sweet and salty and doughy. Let’s call it an achievement of the donut triple crown….or maybe the Cy Yum award.
Stop #2- Metropolis Coffee
There’s a lot of hype about this coffee (it is served at GE’s restaurants after all), so I was hoping the subway ride up would be worth the visit. I walked past the patio (complete with the classic picture of my favorite bird with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and a caption reading “No Puffin”…come to think of it, how would a puffin get a cigarette in its mouth to begin with or light it for that matter) and into the rather large interior. The patrons were like a chess board; all sorts of sizes and shapes. On the other hand, the staff were similar; young and tattooed and ready to brew. I grabbed a Chemex (pronounced Chem-ex, not chem-A as some of us Canadians like to say in err) made with a nice Guatemalan bean. The execution was flawless and allowed 10 minutes or so for friendly banter. They take their coffee seriously and the final product reflected it. The payment machines were down, so I got a pat on the back and a “just pay when you leave”. Great coffee, great service, great sign. By the way, I remembered to pay…can’t risk the karma coffee.
Stop #3– BIG and Little’s
Knowing I was in for a late dinner, I figured a mid-afterrnoon snack was in order. I decided to take a walk downtown and ended up at my first diner, drive-in and drive of the trip. BIG and Little’s is the brainchild of Hell’s Kitchen contestant Tony D’Alessandro, who was remembered having issues with segmenting grapefruit and who’s early and subtle exit was overshadowed by a volcanic blowup by some guy wanting to punch Ramsey in the face. Since then, he has found success in this cash only taco/burger/fish shack. It’s like a beach canteen in the middle of the city minus the seagulls, crying kids and barefoot patrons. The staff were friendly and the service was quick. I ordered a Big and Little fish taco and al pastor (pork belly). Both tacos were good although I found too much sauce on the first and not enough rendering on the latter. Otherwise, the fish was cooked perfectly (although it was swimming in a sea of lettuce) and the belly was well seasoned and worked well combined with a few sweet pineapple chunks. The fois gras and fries and fish and chips looked divine, but I was going out for dinner later so I toned down a bit, not knowing of the microscopy-requiring meal to come.
Verdict- 3.5 Guyz
Stop #4– Blackbird
I’m going to do a full review in a separate blog, but one of the dangers of Michelin star restaurants is portion size. In this case, Blackbird could be renamed “Blackbird Food”. Bitesize frog leg portions, matchbox sized sturgeon and half a chicken wing were highlights of the dishes served. Although the flavours were nice, the crowded room, average service and the aforementioned small bites left this star shining dimly. The desserts were good though!
It was three o’clock on a Saturday, and the regular crowd shuffled in. There was lots of old men next to me, making love to their surowa kielbasa with Sousie piwnym.
That was the scene. I tend to go to DDD during off hours to avoid crowds but it looks like there is no lull here. There was a short wait list and 5 of us were seated within 15 minutes of arriving.
I agree with many other reviews about the no nonsense attitude of the waitstaff. It’s not a bad thing. If you want traditional Polish food served traditionally, you got it! Goblets, bowls and plates are slammed down throughout the meal, but in an efficient and endearing way. I mean, they carry 5 or 6 glasses at a time on a tray and I needed two hands just to lift it up to my mouth.
Any place that makes 6 soups a day is a friend of mine. I had two..the dill pickle and the chicken noodle. Based on the DDD endorsement and other ratings of the pickle soup I expected a bit more but it was good. The chicken noodle soup was straight forward and delicious and somewhere around $2.50.
Five of us tried the cabbage rolls and five of us were happy. The tomato sauce was simple and tart. The cabbage was cooked but not soggy. The filling was zachwycający (delicious). Even the beans and mashed potato fit the theme perfectly….simple, traditional and homey.
The Surowa kielbasa with Sousie piwnym is sausage with beer sauce. The kielbasa was tasty, seasoned well and big and the sauce was a nice, heartwarming compliment. The kraut, however, stole the show.
I was talking to Davy, who sure liked the gravy…..the Hungarian pancake was over the top. I saw it on DDD and thought Guy was pulling tricks on me. He wasn’t. Everything was done exactly as described on the show and the flavours were rich. This dish was phenomenal. Even bite was different but with an underlying sameness that was delicious. From an authenticity perspective, pork vs beef is a mundane argument when the seasoning and complexity of the dish is so incredible.
The biggest disappointment was the pierogi. They were rather bland and overcooked. This may be a difference of opinion, but I prefer a softer dumpling, not one with a crunchy exterior. They were decent but not what I had hoped for.
Dessert was two crepes, one apple and one cheese. I ordered this because the waitress said they were both homemade. Apple was great. Cheese was a bit chalky and wasn’t helped by the sour cream. Some of the tasty apple compote on the side would of been a better balance in regards to taste and flavour.
Portions are plentiful and the food is good. The menu is diverse enough to appeal to any combination of people you choose to dine with. Just don’t expect too many smiles, except for the mischievous…..ok, creepy dolls which adorn the walls. Polish Village cafe…..we’re all in the mood for a melody and you got us feeling alright.
Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum.
Despite the pierogi, this place still gets 5 Guyz!
Pacific junction hotel is a newish joint on King East. The exterior blue gives this place away at street level and the inside is even more eccentric. It looks like a garage sale gone wrong, complete with a bathtub posing as a seat, formica tables and mismatched chairs ranging from cast iron to benches. A large TV hangs over the dining room and at the time was projecting life size images of Guy Fieri biting into sloppy sandwiches.
Although it sounds like it should be in Vancouver, I imagine the name of the restaurant has something to do with the fact that it’s a mix of food found in countries with some association with the Pacific Ocean. It’s sort of an Asia meets Mexico thing, with a little South America thrown in for good measure. Oddly, there’s also a bit of the Atlantic ocean added in the form of a few jerk recipes. You can choose among wraps and rolls,burgers, tacos or a mishmash of standard bar food including nachos or artichoke dip. There are a few vegetarian options as well.
The menus were thrown on the table and the waitress quickly disappeared. They looked well-used, a few pages of printed paper housed with duo tangs that probably had everything from hot sauce to draught beer spilled all over it. The cocktails feature rum or tequila/mezcal, served in a mason jar or a bowl. There are also a few beer (either in a jar or a pitcher) available as well. I opted for a jalapeno/pineapple mojito in a large jar for $9.30. It was minty and sweet although the added flavours were almost undetectable. I should of savored it more but I was unaware it would be the only drink I was having on this night.
I started with bison sliders for $13. Each were topped with a different concoction of flavours although I was particularly interested in the blueberry compote. They arrived in a Asian bamboo steamer. The patties were overdone, charred to the point where the toppings (even the blueberry!) couldn’t save them. The chips were hidden in the second steamer beneath and were ordinary and unseasoned but were made a bit better with a slather of hot sauce sitting at the table.
Next were the chimichurri tacos (3 for$12). It’s almost tearful to watch beef tenderloin cooked beyond recognition. Even the shells were overdone and cracked when I attempted to bend them. The intense heat and acid I expect from a good chimichurri was absent.
At this point, with my mojito drained in an attempt to offset the dry meat (I wasn’t so much as offered a water at any point in the evening) I ordered one of the half dozen or so draught beer available. Perhaps she was upset at the fact I asked her to recite the choices (I had to laugh because one of them was simply “IPA”), but I never saw it. She walked by a few times and scanned the table but no pint arrived despite the fact I had no drinking vessel anywhere is my vicinity.
Spinach dip is an iconic bar food that’s a bit difficult to master. In addition to flavour, it needs to achieve that optimal solidity window, meaning it’s neither too runny or too thick. The dip hit the mark in flavour, but once it cooled a bit, it was near impossible to navigate through it, especially with the skinny, generic, rainbow nachos chips (yes, 2005 called and they want their trend back).
Finally, there were the spring wraps. More commonly called spring rolls, they are usually available for about $4 at any Thai restaurant (maybe $5 if they throw shrimp in it). The price points at the junction were $8 and $12 respectively. Both the rolls and the side sauce were pretty average and not worth the price, even with dry tortilla thingys on the side.
Serving overcooked bison sliders in a bamboo steamer is not fusion…..it’s confusion. The tacos were average at best and the mango spring rolls were overpriced. The artichoke dip was flavorful but once it cooled below the dipping point the frail chips didn’t stand a chance. The service was not good.
In other words, Pacific Junction Hotel reminds me of going to that house in the neighbourhood with the guy who entertains out of his cluttered garage. Everybody calls him Uncle Gus because he burns his eyebrows off twice a year singeing meat with a three foot flame while the wife attempts to cook ethnic food with bottled sauces and her fingers crossed. Their disgruntled daughter is forced to help serve as opposed to locking herself in her room to share anecdotes of her embarrassing parents with her facebook friends. Even worse, the six-pack you bring over to drown the predicted pain suddenly disappears and you’re left drinkless for the remainder of the evening and develop a increasing desire to drink out of the garden hose.
Much like the Bermuda Triangle may be the bane of the Atlantic Ocean, the junction may be that of the Pacific, with the triangle representing bad service, bad decor and bad food.
It seems fitting that Fidel Gastro (aka Matt Basile) would choose to name this pop-up as a tribute to Elvis but call it Lisa Marie instead of something like “The King on Queen” or “Heartbreak Hotel”. In fact, the only Elvis references in the place are the large wall mural, a ceramic bust (similar to the same one I hung out a window driving up Gordon St. in Guelph after a university bender…that’s another story) behind the bar and an “Elvis is a jar” dessert.
I guess FG is kind of like Lisa Marie in the sense that he has experienced a quiet kind of success as opposed to flamboyant Elvis style exhibited by chefs like Mark McEwan and Lynn Crawford. There’s a Church of Scientology (Lisa Marie’s old hangout ) underground secrecy about him despite the fact he was featured on a recent CBC documentary. In fact, one could argue he may be as fictional as the war in Wag the Dog or “the Mandarin” in Ironman 3. That thought was put to rest, however, when I actually met the legend….and I have proof. He took a break from buzzing around the joint to snap a pic.
Lisa Marie has grasped onto the growing trend of small tapas plates seen in some of the nearby joints. The menu is presented in Cicchetti style, an Italain term for small dishes although many of the dishes have an international fare. Most of the items are snack size and less than $10 each. You’ll also notice nothing on the menu makes any references to any of the Presleys.
After consultation with two separate staff members , both told me to try the deep fried pizza, the pork belly cheese thang, the alabama tailgators and if I wanted something lighter, the fresh tuna puttanesca rolls. As for drinks, after a pint of Wellington I ordered the Getaway car, a Casear-like drink with either tequila, gin or vodka served with a 6 oz chaser of draught beer for $13. Pretty simple but pretty smart. I opted for gin. It was simple and delicious in a full pint glass, souped up with lime, spiced nicely with housemade hot sauce, a few green pickled beans and a salt and pepper rim coloured with paprika.
At first I thought the Alabama Tailgaters were going to be Cajan gator tails and not bacon wrapped carpaccio with kimchi and cheddar. They were delicious, balanced well with the salty bacon, rich beef and acid from the combination of kimchi and the accompanying housemade pickles. At the same time I ordered the deep fired duck pizza. I stared a bit perplexed, not sure if if should use a fork or eat it like a taco. The dough was a bit tough and the pizza was a bit hard to navigate, but the duck was moist and flavorful. It was sweetened slightly with a tasty hoisin sauce. Both dishes provided great mouthfeel with a subtle bit of crunch in every bite.
Round 2 was the second set of the server’s recommendations, this time focusing on the tuna rolls and pork belly cheese thang (I feel so gangsta now). I will concur, the puttanesca rolls are the lightest thing on the menu..and probably the ONLY light thing on the menu. They were stuffed with a good amount of tuna and crunchy veggies but I wasn’t a huge fan of the dipping sauce. If anything, I would hope the sweet would overpower or at least match the sour but I found the vinegar and seasoning to be too predominate and a bit off . As for the pork belly, if thang is gangsta for f”ing delicious, then the description is accurate. The use of havarti was brilliant as it created a base reminiscent of a queso fundido while remaining pliable enough to be used as a taco shell. The pork belly and salsa it held were nice partners accented by a subtle amount of sweet and spicy aioli.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pantry. FG took advantage of the deli case left behind by the previous tenants to peddle some of his wares including prepared meats and bacon jam. In addition, there are shelves of pickles vegetables, sloppy joes mixes, hot sauces etc for purchase. Most jars are priced around $8 and allow one to bring home a souvenir of the visit to Queen St.’s version of Graceland.
The food is innovative and well executed. The tuna, pork , beef and duck were all prepared in expert fashion. The pork belly cheese thang was a Gangsta’s paradise. The getaway car concept was simple but brilliant. It was pretty easy to fill up and have a couple of drinks for around $50. The service was top notch as well.
Having existed for about 5 weeks, there are still some growing pains. There’s no website (although a menu is hidden within the blog tab on the FG website) and they still haven’t figured out if they want to expand to daily late night offerings in a fashion similar to the nearby Odd Seoul, 416 snack bar and Bar Isabel. Case and point…The dessert menu was on the other side of the bar and wasn’t printed on the menu, so I didn’t realize it existed. I asked for an Elvis in a jar (the only menu item making reference to the king) but the kitchen had already closed around 11pm on a Thursday night. A mild inconvenience I suppose. Trust me, I’ll be back.
Otherwise, the blueprint of Lisa Marie allows for the creative license demonstrated by the Fidel Gastro catering and food truck endevours. This same creativity has been expanded to an impressive pantry and cocktail list. The early menu features no distinct style of fare but this shouldn’t be mistaken as synonymous to the Fat vs Skinny Elvis identity crisis (although the frequent use of the deep fryer may suggest the former). There’s a direction among the madness and other dishes I still want to try. Like Lisa Marie at the time of her father’s death, this place has some growing up to do but should mature into a successful franchise without the need to marry Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage.
Bar Isabel is one of a new flock of hipster joints popping up on the outskirts of the Ossington strip. Perhaps they are listening to consumers because instead of puffing out their plaid chests with ridiculous policies, they actually take reservations and accept plastic.
As for the décor, it’s a mix of a man cave and grandma’s kitchen. The lights were dim and music was blasting but tables are meticulously arranged throughout. The walls looked liked they could either hold pictures of bikini clad women or cozy covered tea pots and miniature dolls. The music itself was moderately loud and quite eclectic but it fit the atmosphere.
The staff were like Dr. Seuss characters…some were short and some were tall, some used gel and some were bald. Some looked stoic and some looked glad, some wore bowties and some wore plaid. Even the patrons fit the bill, ranging from a couple that looked like they just left the Rolling Stones concert to a woman at the other end of the bar who had the hair and wardrobe of somebody who belongs in a sepia photo that would be framed on one of grandma’s shelves in the main dining room.
The hostess with fiery red hair ( at least it appeared to be red in the dim light so I’ll call her red fish) sat me at the bar. A “You may get wet on this ride” might have been appropriate because at times I got the odd spray of soda water or lemon from the frantic workings of the barkeep (who I will aptly call blue fish) whipping up an array of traditional and not so traditional cocktails. Quite fun. I threw my hat in and ordered a classic….a 2.5 oz corpse reviver #2 (Plymouth gin, cointreau, lillet blanc, lemon juice, absinthe rinse) for $15. Delicious but expensive.
I quickly realized that she was the Rosetta stone of Bar Isabel. She quickly recommended a few dishes which I properly wouldn’t have ordered otherwise because A) they didn’t look the most appealing and B) I didn’t know what the hell they were. Yes, I will admit that in cases I have pulled out the blackberry in secrecy to look up a menu item I didn’t recognize. She raved about the boquerones and the mojama salad and offered a brief explanation of each. I said sure. She also suggested the fried chicken, telling me it was the best in Toronto.
I started with the Giardiniera Pickles. They were spiced nicely and offered a terrific variety of veggies. They were a bit oily which I suppose is characteristic of this type of pickle. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Boquerones are anchovies, usually soaked in vinegar. Served with paquillo peppers and jalapenos, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year; an absolute sensory overload. Acid predominated but was tamed by the sweetness of the paquillo, the heat of the jalapeno and the buttery saltiness of the fish itself. The homemade corn chips brought some earthiness and crunch and were absolutely delicious on their own. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Mojama is salted tuna. Once again, a fantastic balance was achieved with the richness of the tuna combined with zesty orange, pungent red onion and earthy almonds. The same ingredients offered a great textural contrast was as well. Each bite was a salty and fleshy with a bit of juiciness and crunch. The sorrel was a delicious addition. I actually wanted a bit more. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Fried chicken is fried chicken. Both the chicken and the eggplant were served hot. The coating was nicely spiced and surrounded moist white meat which was cut in chicken finger size pieces. I found it a bit greasy which resulted in putting the tea towel to good use. The eggplant was cooked nicely and wasn’t mushy although it was an odd side to serve with the chicken. Plus, they had fancy plates.
The service was impeccable. I was seated quickly, there was no attitude and no fewer than 5 employees checked on me during the service. In fact, when one of them realized I was waiting to pay my bill he dropped everything and settled up even though he wasn’t my server. I was asked my opinion about all the dishes. I was even impressed when the guy I assumed was the manager or owner smelled my empty wine glass and asked me how I enjoyed the Italian wine I ordered.
If this is the new wave of hipster joints I’m all in! I felt like I was the customer and not an intruder shunned for not knowing what the hell a boquerone was. They take credit cards and reservations. The food was solid, there are good beer on tap (including a Dieu du Ciel, Rosee D’Hibiscus, Belgian Wit which I am drinking right now) and the decor is unique but welcoming. I plan to come back to tackle the whole fish ceviche or octopus and maybe the tripe stew. I’ll pass on the horse however.
In the end, Dr Seuss said it best:
One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,
Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.
This one has a littlecar.
This one has a little star.
Say! What a lot of fish there are.
Yes. Some are red, and some are blue.
Some are old and some are new.
Some are sad, and some are glad,
And some are very, very bad.
In particular, from a fish perspective,both the mojama and boquerones were bad ass. Blue fish is attentive and makes a mean drink. Not bad for a place where, without the help of red fish, I would have ordered a bunch of other things which may or may not have been just as good. In the end, I guess I’ll have to come back and find out. This bar is a little star.
I was driving down Ossington looking for a lunch spot and noticed a sandwich board advertising a Cuban lunch. Intrigued, I parked and dropped in for lunch at Delux, which focuses on this side of the Atlantic during the day as a deviation from the French-inspired dinner service at night.I was quickly seated and found som irony in the fact that I was seated facing a wall size pictur of the alphabet in a plac that can’t spell th word Delux.
A menu offering on a clipboard was provided to me quickly.
Bottles of water served Ossington-style* were readily available.
Conch fritters were ordered as an appetizer. They were very good and served piping hot.
Dessert was not an option since I got the bill before I was even asked if I wanted any.
Expensive cocktails….$14 for a 2 oz mojito?
Fried ripe plantains were spiced nicely but were oversalted.
Guava juice for $3 was a refreshing option.
Ham on the cubano was abundant.
Jalapenos were served with the Cuban to spice it up.
Kicking myself for not ordering the rice and beans.
Lackluster dipping sauce served with conch fritters.
Mustard on the cubano was delicious and not overbearing.
Nice amount of melted swiss on the cubano sandwich. Served at a great temperature.
Oysters are available for a bit over two bucks each.
Pressed cubano sandwich was quite good but not remarkable.
Questionable service. She made no suggestions, was slow and somewhat apathetic.
Roast pork on the cubano was moist and delicious.
Salads looked good. They were ordered by other tables.
Takes credit card! Woohoo!
Vegetarian choices include avocado, cheese and tomato sandwiches as well as salads and sides.
Wine list focuses primarily on Canadian and French with a few US, Spanish and Italian choices thrown in.
X is not the last letter in Deluxe.
You might want to share the conch fritters. There are too many and they are too rich for one person.
Zagat ranking of 23 for food. Lower for service and decor.
*-Ossington-Style water service usually involves a continuous supply of tap or still water served in some sort of glass vessel or carafe.
I must admit I was a bit let down after raising my hopes with the thought of an exotic Cuban lunch. The food was authentic enough but the service made me feel like I was JFK in a Cuban restaurant during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
This experience may have been an anomaly from a place which normally promises a favourable dining experience, but for now the absent E in Delux may represent “excellence” because it was definitely missing on this particular day.