Review:Toronto:Midtown:L’Avenue

A business meeting brought me midtown for dinner.  Midtown is a place where restaurants are restaurants and not political statements or abstract expressions of social activism.  You can get an appetizer, main and dessert for a decent  price without the need for  an explanation about the difference between a starter, small plate or large plate.  The menus tend to be simple and the decor looks like a restaurants and not like Johnny’s auto shop.  Plus, you can have a conversation without having Radioactive by the Imagination Dragons blasting or listening to  Run DMC remind me about footwear:

Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare
myself homeboy got 50 pair
got blue and black cause I like to chill
and yellow and green when it’s time to get ill
got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball
with the heal inside make me 10 feet tall

(This is no crack at Run DMC.  I’d just as upset if Locked in the Trunk of a Car by the Tragically Hip  were blasting in my ear).

Unlike it’s name, L’Avenue is a smallish bistro on Bayview, not Avenue. It’s easy to miss with its quaint front; a freckle of the mosaic  that makes up the Leaside neighbourhood.  Like the name suggests, it focuses on french style cooking, although updated with lighter, fresher techniques and local, seasonal ingredients. There is an fairly extensive and reasonably priced list of red and white wines available  (many bottles are in the 35-50 dollar range) from a diversity of regions, Krombacher (Pils and Dark) on tap and a spattering of local and world renowned beer included a gluten-free choice as well

This night featured an oyster special which was served on a cloud of salty meringue.  They were fresh and meaty and seasoned nicely although I’m always a fan of a little heat on the side.

Oyster special
Oyster special

For my  hors d’oeuvres (or appetizers for the anglophone), I opted for sweetbreads in a promise to exchange some of them for the bone marrow at the table.  Sometimes sweetbreads run the risk over being overly greasy or gritty.  The chef avoided both and offered a simple dish atop fragrant streaks of coulis. The marrow was also served in it’s fundamental form, simple seasoned with some herbs and bread crumbs to add some crunch.

Sweetbreads
Sweetbreads
Bone Marrow
Bone Marrow $12

Our table’s family style commitment continued with an array of entrees which included the Fried Chicken “a la Basque”, Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” and a duck feature (we played rock paper and scissors to actually determine who would order the latter).   In summary, the execution of each dish was spot on.  The fried chicken was moist, the duck a beautiful medium rare and the scallop had a perfect char which  housed a glistening white interior.  Instead of relying on traditional french flavours such as ummm…butter, the chicken and seafood stew (as the names suggest) were  infused with Spanish flavours including tomato and saffron respectively. The duck was a bit more traditional but the addition of rhubarb  was stellar and a testament to their commitment to  use seasonal ingredients.

Fried Chicken “a la Basque” $21
Fried Chicken “a la Basque” $21
Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” $25
Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” $25
Duck Feature (mmm....Rhubarb)
Duck Feature (mmm….Rhubarb)

Here’s an interesting fact.  The pavlova dessert was named after the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (God,  I love wikipedia).  You would think that a dish with meringue as its foundation would have European origins, but in fact Pavlova is a creation of culinary juggernaut New Zealand (although Australia also tries to lay claim, possibly fueling the bitter Rugby rivalry which exists to this day). It was presented on a plate and with a style reminiscent of tea at  Gramma’s on Sunday.  Let’s call it an endearing cheesiness.  Like the dishes before, it was well executed with a twist, in this case a tart passion fruit custard.

Pavlova $8
Pavlova $8

My Take

Calling L’Avenue a french bistro is a bit of a misnomer.  Instead of small rich portions served in the most pretentious manner, the chefs invite Basque and Catalan flavours into many of the dishes and serve hearty portions in the midst of a casual environment.

L’Avenue bistro is like a good nap. It’s not the most exciting thing but it is refreshing and satisfying.  You get Egyptian cotton sheets and a small mint on your fluffed pillow iwhile relaxing as soft music senerades you in the background.  They adhere to a theme of comfort and tradition instead of throwing down an air mattress and trying to convince you it’s cool to sleep on it while blasting 2 Live Crew and then retweeting it when you do.

L'Avenue Bistro on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:George

The name George has been able to withstand the test of time.   A popular name in the first half of the 20th century, it has still remained popular post world war II and even in the last 5 years, at a time in which names like Apple, Bacon, North and Wisdom reign the headlines. Even William and Kate named the future aire to the British Throne George (although I am convinced Elizabeth will live to 200 and shut out three generations of potentials kings).

There have been a number of influential and important George’s in history:

  • George Washington was the first president of the United States of America.
  • George Orwell was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.
  • George Carlin was a visionary in stand-up comedy.
  • George Harrison was a Beatle.
  • George was the star of a short lived early 70’s series about a loveable St. Bernard.
  • George Lucas created Star Wars.

Even in the world of food, the name has been synonymous with success:

  • George Washington Carver was considered a pioneer in the development of a number of food related products.
  • George Weston became one of the most successful food entrepreneurs in Canadian history.
  • George Foreman turned starving students into gourmet chefs.

So, any restaurant that calls itself  George has some big boots, or pans to fill.  First, it doesn’t hurt that it has a number of awards and accolades from Zagat, open table and numerous Toronto magazines.   Second, chef Lorenzo Loseto uses words like “émigré traditions” in his bio on the about page of the website, so it’s gotta be good.

I had two opportunities to eat there in the span of a couple of weeks.  The first was a small planning dinner and second was a group dinner with about 30 people. I apologize in advance for the qualities of the pics during the group dinner.  The use of flash photography is not recommended when somebody is doing trying to explain the nuances of bone metabolism.

As far as drinks go, George has a fantastic wine list with a heavy focus on France and Italy.  In particular, they had a special  feature in which 4 unique Beaujolais wines were offered by the glass.  In addition, they offer a number of artisanal and traditional cocktails.  I opted for the George and Tonic.  It was served with a cute side bottle of Fever Tree tonic water (a premium UK brand which beat’s the hell out of Schwepp’s). The main flavours were grapefruit and lemongrass.  In fact, it was recommended that I chomp on the lemongrass after each sip to enhance the taste of the gin.  Although I felt a bit like a panda bear, it was one of the better gin and tonics I have had.

George and Tonic $9 (Half Size)
George and Tonic $9 (Half Size)

I would define the waitstaff as modestly pretentious which doesn’t surprise me given the clientele and vibe of the restaurant itself.  The waiter we had the first night seemed quite impatient and unimpressed by our speed in ordering and remained stonefaced throughout the evening. Even the  bartender and hostess on night one seemed to be trying hard to fit the mold of a George Segal sculpture. The service for the group dinner was much better.

George Segal's The Diner (and some waitstaff)
George Segal’s The Diner (which is eerily to  some of the waitstaff at George)

At both dinners I had a starter salad. The first was a spring mix with grilled peaches.  I chose this since it was the beginning of season and I don’t think anything beats a fresh Ontario peach.  The dressing was abundant (maybe too abundant)  and had a distinct acidity.  Although the pine nuts were abundant, I was a bit disappointed to only find two small peach slices amongst the jungle of greens on the plate, The boccachini cheese was also scarce but didn’t make much sense in the salad to begin with.

George Salad $10
George Salad $10

The second salad had the same greens, the same dressing but this time had avocado and quinoa. Although it was a little heavy on the ginger, the taste and texture of each component blended to create a surprisingly hearty starter (no pic).

The first plate courses included the soft shell crab with watermelon and avocado quinoa and black cod with a cashew crust and roasted beets.  Each were executed well. The crab maintained it’s moisture but I thought the coating was pretty average. There is a notion right now that watermelon goes with everything but I’m not sure it worked on this plate.  It was sweet on sweet, so the dish just didn’t have enough contrast.

Soft Shell Crab $24
Soft Shell Crab $24

The black cod, on the other hand, was divine.  The fish itself could not have been cooked better. It had a delicate, buttery taste that was complemented by the nuttiness of the cashews.  The roasted beets contained enough earthiness to offset the sweetness so the dish worked well.

Black Cod (bad pic) Part of Group Meal
Black Cod (bad pic) Part of Group Meal

Mains included the wild boar with almond potato croquettes and veg plus beef tenderloin with mushrooms and sweet potatoes.  The boar was incredible.  It was grilled to the perfect doneness and was served on a bed of fantastic vegetables which included pearled carrots and some tender legumes.  I was like inhaling and swallowing the savannah winds themselves. If necessary, I would have wrestled a lion  over this chop but would have been happy with the vegetables in the event he won.

Wild Boar $29
Wild Boar $29

The tenderloin was pretty standard, complemented with mushroom and sweet potato.  The meat was not nearly as succulent as the cod or boar but it was a noble attempt in an effort to feed 30 people at once. It had a subtle anise or fennel flavour in the vegetables which, depending on your taste, could be a good or bad thing.

Beef Tenderloin (really bad pic). Part of group dinner
Beef Tenderloin (really bad pic). Part of group dinner

Desserts were a coconut custard and blueberry cheesecake.  Although the custard was beautifully presented, it wasn’t as mind blowing as it looked.  It’s sort of like that guy or girl you like to look at until they open their mouth and start talking.  I could say the same about the cheesecake.  I just didn’t want to lick either one all over when all was said and done.

Coconut Custard
Coconut Custard $14
Blueberry Cheesecake (Group Dinner)
Blueberry Cheesecake (Group Dinner)

My Take

One might suggest that George could be a namesake for a number of famous Georges, past or present.  The innovative food preparation techniques and drink menu is reminiscent of a modern day George Washington Carver.  The lovely appearance of each dish  could be synonymous with the face of George Clooney.  On that note, even the prettiest stars don’t always make great movies.  The black cod and the boar were like the descendants, the Ides of March, Three Kings  or even Dusk Till Dawn (yes, I love that movie), while the tenderloin and the desserts are a bit more like  Out of Sight, Spy Kids 3: Game Over, Solaris or Return of the Killer Tomatoes.   The salads were like Batman and Robin, decent but nowhere near  the best in the series.

George is current  and innovative and understands the importance of visually appealing food. The dishes look like Georges Seurat paintings. However, some of the waitstaff are as friendly as Georges St. Pierre during a pre-match weigh-in.   Like a stunning work of art, an MMA pay per view fight or a good movie, you want to get what you pay for.  If you follow their suggestions and go with the tasting menu or the three courses, plus dessert and a cocktail or glass of wine, your George Costanza wallet better be stuffed because it will run you over $100, but you will be treated to at least one or two memorable and stunning  dishes, both from a visual and taste perspective. So pony up because after all….

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food”

George Bernard Shaw- Man and Superman (1903)

George on Urbanspoon

Chicago: Day 6: White Palace and Black Sabbath

My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight.  After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.

Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit.  My first stop was the White Palace Grill.  Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters.  I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene.  A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated.  It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days.  I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.

The banter in the place  was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before.  People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys.  There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working.  I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.

Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings.  I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.

Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast
Strawberry Banana French Toast
MMMM...bacon and grits.
MMMM…bacon and grits.

My Take

White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner.  It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not  top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

White Palace Grill on Urbanspoon

Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace.  During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street.  I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.

Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market.  True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches.  There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches.  Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.

I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato.  There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin  for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.

Porchetta Crescentine
Porchetta Crescentine
Meatball Sandwich
Meatball Sandwich
Zarlengo's Rum and Raisin Gelato
Zarlengo’s Rum and Raisin Gelato

I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient.  There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that.   Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis  in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out.  The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.

My Take

Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago.  Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Panozzo's Italian Market. on Urbanspoon

Zarlengo's Soft Serve on Urbanspoon

After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour.  I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.

Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept;  the fusion of burgers and head banging metal.  This is not a superficial claim.  Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme.  I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle.    Take their beer philosophy for example.  One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude.  Consider the possible lyric:

“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,

I’m a commercial lager killer.”

Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of  Apocalypse Cow  housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery.  Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.

The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well.  The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine).  There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg.  I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion.  I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good.  My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.

Kuma's Side Salad
Kuma’s Side Salad
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2

There’s a whole lotta burger.  The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together.  I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well.  If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top.  Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.

My Take

Kuma’s concept is a fun one.  I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out.  Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.

The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”.  Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Valdez

It can be argued that Origin may have been the “origin” of the current small plate trend in Toronto.  A couple of years and two new Origins later, Valdez opened.  The link is Steve Gonzalez.  A contestant on the first Top Chef Canada,  he has followed the leads of later contestants Carl Heinrich and Ryan Gallagher, who left previous posts at established Toronto eateries to gamble on new ones. Steve went from chef de cuisine at Origin to the proprietor of Valdez, a King Street Latin street food eatery which promises a return to Gonzalez’s Colombian roots and, of course,  a sharing and small plate concept.

The decor is a mix of a saloon and a Mexican cantina.  A large wooden bar is showcased in a long but narrow space filled with bright chairs and worn tables, both painted with reds and blues and greens. A large bar graces one wall of the long but narrow dining room. Coffee sack, art and other paraphernalia grace the walls of this stylish abode.

There is an array of standard cocktails (and a few crazy ones), beer and wine.  I opted for a Tecate, which was presented in psuedo-michelada style. Instead of a glass with lime juice and hot sauce (among other things), a lime wedge and a squeeze of hot sauce was strewn along the top of the can.  Served glassless, I opted to pop the wedge into the can and drink it like that.  I liked the combination although I found it odd that the option for no hot sauce wasn’t offered as I imagine it wouldn’t be for everybody.

The menu is simple, divided into 4 parts; ceviche (self explanatory), stuff (small plate) ,more (bigger plate) and dulce y algo (dessert). Well, maybe the ceviche isn’t so self explanatory. Given the diversity of the choices, I opted for the flight:

There is the traditional “cocktel de camaron” with tomato, citrus, cilantro, chilis and corn nuts. Pretty delicious.

There was the “passion” and “atun japones”, each offering a refreshing twist on tuna (albacore and ahi respectively) by meshing traditional latin and modern Asian flavours such as yuzu, ginger and ponzu.  An intriguing twist but something I would expect at one of the numerous izakaya joints at every street corner in town.

The “mixto” was a trio of octopus, mussel and squid bathed in squid ink with some citrus, maize and sweet potato. The ink was the overwhelming flavour, so some will take it or leave it.

The vegan ceviche was a mix of fruit and veggies which included jicama and other latin staples  in a simple citrus sauce.  Nothing remarkable.

Ceviche Flight $16
Ceviche Flight $16

From the “stuff” menu we opted for tradition, ordering the highly touted guac and chips, empandas and chorizo del jefe (sausage). The guac and chips created some controversy at the table.  I loved the guac.  It had a great texture and was well balanced with citrus and spice.  The chips were a combination of plantain, yucca, potato and taro which I thought was ingenious both to the eye and the tongue. The others at the table were more ho-hum about the guac.

Guac and Chips $8
Guac and Chips $8

The empanadas, on the other hand, were rather disappointing. Offering no flare compared to the rest of the menu, they were rather dry and bland to the extent where the delicious aji sauce which accompanied couldn’t save them.

Empanadas $8
Empanadas $8

The chorizo sausage was a bold and delicious addition to the menu. A squeeze of lime provided enough acid to intensify the well seasoned and moist pork sausage. It rivals some of the best I have had in Toronto. The arepas were nice as well.

Chorizo del jefe $8
Chorizo del jefe $8

As for “more”, we decided on two very different dishes; the delicate Giggie’s trout (togarashi+Quinoe+yuzu+mango+avocado+fried shallots) and the more manly Bandeja (seared pork+rice & beans+plantain+fried egg+avocado+arepa).  This trout dish was a  concert of primarily asian flavours around some beautifully cooked filets.  The dainty dish was a bit out of place served in a Mexican saloon but would be palate pleasing for a pescatarian who so happened  to tag along for the party.

Giggie's Trout $17
Giggie’s Trout $17

The bandeja, on the other hand, was the hardcore latin inspired dish more synonymous with the name Valdez. Bandeja simply means platter, but I would be prone to rename this bandeja buena mierda.  Hidden beneath a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was rice, beans, avocado, arepas and most importantly, tender and juicy pork.   With each bite you got a little more or a little less of each component but each was an adventure in Latin America cuisine. No togarashi, no yuzu (although I love the damn stuff), and no ponzu.  Just simple, flavourful food presented with simplicity and respect.

Bandeja $19
Bandeja $19

My Take

Perhaps the word “Latasian” street food may be a better description of the food served at Valdez.  Although traditional Central and South American dishes are the foundation of the menu, the are a number laced with Asian flavours. The chips and guac and bandeja stole the show with the chorizo sausage taking honorable mention.  I was less impressed with the ceviche and trout, perhaps because my brain was programmed to consume the simple and standard flavours of Latin cuisine as opposed to those I can get at a hundred places elsewhere.  The empanadas were a bit of a bust minus the delicious aji sauce.  I enjoyed the Tecate, served  psuedo-michelada style, from both a nostalgic and taste perspective.

The decor and vibe is fun, trendy and even a bit dangerous. I was reminded  a bit of the bar scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn”. George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino wannabees line the bar except in this case, samurai sword wielding ninjas names Yuzu, Togarashi and Tobiko  enter the scene to join the locals in a battle against the blood hungry vampires looking for a late night snack. Ok, that may be a bit much, but if Steve Gonzalez can offer fried rice and frijoles, I can use my imagination just the same.

Valdez Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Trying out for Masterchef Canada: My journey for the elusive apron

I decided to test my luck by trying out for the Masterchef open casting a little while back. I watch the US show and often wondered what it would be like to stand face to face with Joe Bastianich and watch his blood boil after I called him a mama’s boy and prepared for a cast iron pan to the side of  the head (or at least a good tongue lashing and that ridiculous stare). I also dreamed of witnessing Graham Elliot piercing a perfectly cooked poached egg yolk  from up close and watch him savour the flavour while staring intently toward the roof as he chewed.  Finally, I wanted to hear Gordon Ramsay up close, referring to everything as the most delicious, freshest  (insert food name here) and explain and maybe demonstrate the appropriate means of cooking such food.

On the other hand, let’s be real. The odds that any of these judges do more than make a guest appearance are astronomical.  Instead, I anticipate Canadian contestants will be dealt one of the half dozen celebrity chefs which grace the airways (that of course depends on whether Bell’s CTV and the  Shaw’s Food Network Canada can play nice in the kitchen).  Might we see the likes of Mark McEwen, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes or Anna Olson?  Or may we see a new crop of judges, possibly chosen with the same rigor and cookie-cutter approach as the contestants themselves.

One option was sending in an application with a video in advance; the other was just showing up, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.  I put my cinematographic hat on and planned to film myself caressing grape leaves in my back yard in my best seductive voice while explaining how to  stuff and serve them. Instead, I ran out of time and just decided to show up on day 2 and roll the die.   I decided on street food, choosing to make my Poppin’ shrimp tacos in hopes of showing my knowledge of food trends coupled with some pretty standard culinary skills (I’m planning to post the recipe to my Veg..Eat..Ales blog shorty). I spent a number of hours refining everything from the taco shells to the corn pop coated shrimp to the sauces which would slathered on top of the finished dish.

I live 2 hours away from the tryouts, so I arranged to stay at a buddy’s place, figuring I could awake at the crack of dawn and compile a winning dish with plenty of time.  The night before I hunted Kensington and Chinatown  for an Ontario grown cabbage and fresh shrimp.  With the mission accomplished, I grabbed a quick bite at Valdez (review later), got back and crashed, setting the alarm for 4 am, giving myself plenty of time to prep in time for the 7am start.

Different shrimp, different pans and a different stove makes for a different product.  I burnt my first four shrimp in seconds. I’m sure I impressed my buddy’s floor mates as I filled his apartment with smoke at 430 am.  I eventually figured it out and produced 4 pretty decent looking shrimp.   I made the tortillas, fried them and stored them in paper towels to keep moist, mixed the jalapeno lime slaw, packed it all into my cooler and walked over to the open casting a few blocks away. The dish had to be served at room temperature many hours later, so I hoped each component would maintain its integrity. I opted for three small tacos as opposed to a single large one in an effort to showcase the three different sauces I prepared as well as the fact that I made my own tortilla shells from scratch.

I arrived at about 635. Once in  line, I received my green wristband marked #43. Shortly after, the line grew longer and I was confident that I would have my turn prior to dusk.  I waited patiently and we were soon greeted by the staff to be happy when the cameras came by.  Some of us were even given signs like “I want to spoon with Gordon” to rouse the cheers.

My assigned wristband
My assigned wristband

Eventually, I was whisked into the hotel and followed a tedious process to get registered, sign my life away and get my mugshot taken.  I went from number 43 on a wristband to H6 on a blue sheet and was sent into a holding room with about 100 others to await my fate. The cast of characters ranged from 18 year old aspiring chefs to a guy who look in his 60’s wearing a blue blazer and red converse shoes.  At first, most of us  held their coolers like they were live organs, unwilling to share any trade secrets (although our food was already prepared)  As we warmed up to each other  (unlike the food which had to be served at room temperature), we started to divulge stories about ourselves and our dishes.  It was surreal. For example, there was:

  • a  stoic, retired RCMP officer who started saying next to nothing, told us countless stories about the police force before, in a authoritative voice, disclosing that  he had made  blueberry lavender butter tarts as his signature dish.
  • A self proclaimed bitchy mom who actually became a bitchy mom when everybody started calling her Krissy.
  • A guy in a lobster shirt who served…..pork tortillas.
  • A woman who, after realizing the wait was going to be a lot longer than she expected, left only to return 10 minutes later with a fully loaded hot dog from a cart outside the hotel which she proceeded to eat in street meat fashion in front of a hundred, cranky and hungry onlookers.

When your group is finally called you enter what  feels  likes a steam room and set up your station. By luck of the draw, I was front and centre in row 1.  Forty-seven other contestants set up in the same way.  The rules were simple.  Once the clock started, you had three minutes to plate.  So, I mixed the slaw, threw down the shells…two minutes… filled them , topped with shrimp and…..one minute remaining began the final garnish.  Before I knew it, the familiar shout of “hands up” filled the room and I was unable to top my tacos with chopped cilantro.  Regardless, I was pleased with the dish and got prepared for the judges. After judging we were allowed to snap pictures although all I had was my low resolution blackberry camera.

Poppin' Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce
Poppin’ Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce

The aforementioned blue sheet had my number on one side and the scoring system on the other. Essentially, contestants are judged on taste, appearance, creativity, food knowledge and quality of ingredients.  In addition, there was room for judges to add comments about personal stories and aspirations of each of the contestants.   The main food judges were the executive producers of Masterchef USA.  Other judges included a number involved in the Canadian production. Since I was at the first table, the judges got to me soon.  She confirmed my use of homemade tortillas, cut my shrimp to check if it was cooked and asked me if I used three different sauces.  I boasted yes, yes and yes.  The second judge asked me about the shrimp and I told her about my corn pop coating. She said it sounded that something David Chang would do.  That comment alone was like scoring a birdie during a shitty round of golf…anything else didn’t matter.

So, after an extensive judging period in which not a single judge tasted anything I made, deliberations began.  It was like waiting for a court decision.  My row speculated that the longer it took, the more likely we were to go through. In the meantime, we wandered around the room and admired each other’s dishes.  There was chocolate ravioli, ceviches, tartares, a whole pork roast with three sauces, gluten free cupcakes, ribs and all sorts of other things. After about 30 minutes, they returned and instructed us to either return to the holding room for further interviews if we made it or take the walk of shame out the front door and back to the mundane life of cooking without fanfare and pressure if we didn’t.

In the end, I was dismissed.  I think the most frustrating part was not having any idea why.  Was it my boring story about cooking in a way that will appeal to my kids? Was it the fact I opted for street food as opposed to something more refined? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the taste because..well….they didn’t taste it.

I’m looking forward to the show which should air in January, hoping I recognize a few of the finalists.  Although I won’t  be one of them, I can tell those around me that I would have made it if my hair was blue , if they actually tasted my food or if I made something more refined (as they smile at you while  thinking in their heads.. “You must have been really bad because I can’t believe that schmuck went further than you did). In the end,  it was a fun experience and I can honesty say there are no sour grapes, although I may use them should I choose to try out next year.  Roasted venison with a sour grape reduction on a bed of quinoa and woodland mushrooms…I like the sound of that.

Review:Toronto:Cabbagetown:Kingyo Izakaya

Kingyo is like a vacation hotspot I never seem to get to.  I see pictures of happy people eating pretty food without a care in the world plastered all over twitter.  At the same time, I’m cordially invited to the join the party and indulge in the daily specials with the fun employees.  I never seem to make it however. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in town on business by myself and know I wouldn’t scratch the surface of the menu or I just didn’t want to head east all the way  to Cabbagetown.

There is a time, however, when you have to ignore the temptation to choose another destination and just book the trip. So I picked up the phone and made a reservation for a friend and I.   I announced my intention on twitter and received a resounding Yay! in return. All was set. I even  pondered taking an Advil in anticipation of a noise level similar that of Guu or other Izakayas across town.

I haven’t walked much past Jarvis for a while.  In fact, I think the last time I strolled down Parliament was when I used to carry groceries back from No Frills while living at Bloor and Jarvis in 1997. I’m not sure much has changed since then…except Kingyo of course. Upon arrival, we swung open the door and entered the oasis, a Japanese eatery carved out of an old brick building.   It was buzzing but not overly loud with the main noise coming from a large birthday party.  We were offered a choice of a table or the sushi counter facing the kitchen.  We chose the latter and our choice was sung out in glee by the waitstaff. A pleasant woman arrived quickly and produced a business card, introducing herself as Akiho.  I guess you could call her our travel agent for the evening.

Here are a couple of things to note about Izakayas:

1.  The menus are enormous.  There’s tofu, seafood, pork, beef, chicken, shellfish,  spicy, salty, sour, rice, noodles, raw, cooked or raw and cooked. It’s like trying to choose between puffin watching, bike riding or a wine tour.

2.  In many cases, you have to trust the waitstaff.  That said, there will probably be one thing you get that you didn’t order.  Call it fate…just smile, nod and eat it. It’s sort of like a foreign  tour guide…you don’t always understand what they say, but in the end it’s usually an enjoyable experience.

3.  Don’t be alarmed by excessive happiness or singing.  You are not on Just for Laughs, in a broadway musical or expected to join a flash mob to Styx’s Mr. Roboto. It’s part of the experience…like salsa dancing on the deck of a cruise ship.

So, after examining the menu like we were studying for an SAT, the ordering began…

I love yuzu and a good gin and tonic.  The three together were an automatic choice for a starting cocktail.  It was presented without bells and whistles like umbrellas or lotus flowers.  I sucked it back pretty quick, a testament  to a good drink. Not a bad price either.

Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8
Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8

The first dish was tako wasabi, It was served beautifully on a stone plate with seaweed paper and a wooden well that Tinkerbell makes wishes in.  If you don’t like wasabi, don’t order this.  I’m not sure if the request for half cooked and half raw octopus was heard because it seemed all  raw but it didn’t matter.  It was a delicious dish.

Tako Wasabi $4.20
Tako Wasabi $4.20

I can’t turn down pickles…or pickels as it was spelled on the menu.  Regardless, the pickles were presented nicely. A cute trio of onion, daikon radish and squash were presented in three distinct ways. Although each may not appeal to everybody, it was like a buffet in which at least one would appease any palate.

Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80
Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80

Since there were only two of us, the 3 kind assortment of sashimi made the most sense.  I have seen the phenomenal presentation of the sashimi on other food reviews, so I was looking forward to a little visual magic.  The plain, white bowl was a bit disappointing (it was like seeing a great hotel on their website only to find the real room a little drab).  Maybe it was because I cheaped out and only ordered the three kind as apposed to 5 or 7.  Although pricy, the sashimi, was delicious. a mix of delicacies stretching the pacific from BC to Hawaii to Japan.

Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment 25.00
Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment
25.00

Next was the red tuna & black tiger prawn avocado tartar.  It tasted exactly how it sounded.  The sweet house sauce was a great touch, adding an unorthodox dimension to a normally rich and buttery dish.  There was a substantial amount of tartar for the 4 garlic crisps..maybe a few rice crackers or other mediums of transfer would have been a practical touch.

Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80
Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80

When it came to the meat,  I was intrigued by the stone grilled beef tongue because it required me to cook it myself.  Served with lemon, a hot sauce and and a savory oil, it requires you to slap some raw tongue on a hot stone and listen to the sizzle. The whole cooking process took less than 30 seconds (see below for my simple three step instructional).  It was fun and delicious and each of the condiments added a contrasting sensory dimension to the salty meat.

Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20- Step 1
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Done!
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 3

For those who like sizzle but not a little tongue, the stone bowl seafood sea urchin don is a smart choice. served with an array of seafood including prawn, squid, scallop and salmon roe.  After presenting the attractive dish, the waitress mixed it for us as it sizzled against the bowl. The suggestion was to let it sit for a while so the rice could caramelize a bit.  In the end, it’s a decent dish with a variety of texture and tastes, although with the ingredients, I expected a bit more of a pop.

Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed

By this time I needed another drink so I ordered the signature gold fish cocktail. I enjoyed it…refreshing with a bit of a kick.  As with the yuzu gin and tonic, I do appreciate $8 cocktails in this world of the numerous double digit offerings by other establishments.

Goldfish Cocktail $8
Goldfish Cocktail $8

The last dish was the Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll.  It’s inevitable that I order a spicy tuna roll every time I visit a place that offers sushi.  Based on the rest of the menu, I wasn’t surprised to see that these rolls had a twist.  The spice was moderate and tuna was roughly chopped to protect it’s delicate texture and taste, The tobiko was a appropriate, salty touch.   The mango was fresh, bright and sweet but a bit overwhelming against the rest of the roll.

Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80
Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80

Japanese restaurants and good dessert can rarely be mentioned  in the same sentence. but not all offer “famous” almond tofu.  Touched with a cap of jasmine syrup and a belt of  tart berry sauce, it had a silky texture and great flavour balance. The key was digging down to the bottom to experience all the complementing flavours in one bite.

2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80
2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80

The final touch was a couple of frozen grapes hidden among yellow flowers in a tiny vase.  Perhaps picked by Tinkerbell or Pollyanna, they were a final reminder of the attention to detail and artistic flare that Kingyo prides themselves on.

Thank you grapes
Thank you grapes

My Take

The izakaya movement has hit Toronto, leading to a plethora of interpretations.  Some have taken the boisterous, karaoke route and others have chosen to go down the route of creating dishes that look straight from travel brochures.  Kingyo opted for the latter and attempted to create an oasis in an otherwise rustic and some would argue rundown and eccentric part of Toronto. Akiho brought us on a tour of wishing wells, hot rocks and bright flowers (although she did disappear for a bit).    In a world of all you can eat sushi menus similar to  all inclusive vacations, Kingyo offers a unique experience filled with good times, fun scenery and good food with enough variety to please meat eaters, pescatarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant alike. Plus, if you’re lucky, you may get serenaded by the wait/kitchen staff or actually spot a fairy hiding behind a mushroom or casting magic wishes in a tiny wooden well.

Kingyo Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Review:Vancouver:Downtown:The Fish Shack

It was honestly an internet search and a restaurant within walking distance that brought me to the Fish Shack. After seeing it was a creation of the Glowbal group, I was sure it would be far from a shack and even have a few of the gimmicks this restaurant group is renowned for.  The last Glowbal restaurant I went to was Black and Blue. It had a beautiful decor, with a classic steakhouse setup and  highlighted by  a 15 foot high meat locker.  I figured the Fish Shack would be the same.

I wasn’t far off.  The decor is reminiscent of a wooden fishing shack.  Nets hang throughout the place and pictures of fish with interesting trivia line the  wall. It’s bright and clean and the busy waitstaff have a casual look and attitude. The air is filled with the aroma of shellfish, likely  a combination of the bar side shellfish  steamer and the adjacent table ordering the fisherman’s catch, a Cornucopia of mixed seafood strewn across the table in a free for all.

The beer selection is pretty lame, dominated by Molson products. The Whister Bear Paw Honey Lager is a bit of a redemption.  This sad reality led me to the Caesar fleet featuring four offerings laced with vodka, gin, whisky and tequila.  I went vodka, a pretty standard Caesar garnished with prawn and pepperoni.  It was a good Caesar and definitely better than a Coors light.

Caesar
Caesar $8

I like gimmicks, so I opted for buck a shuck oysters (Light house were featured)  and mussels and clams fresh from the steamer. The oysters were fresh and a great deal for four bucks. The $15 steamed shellfish prepared classic style (wine, garlic , shallots and herbs) were good but didn’t rival the mussels at Chambar or the clams at the Pike market in Seattle which were pulled from ocean just minutes away in Puget Sound.

Steamers $15
Steamers $15

For the main, the halibut was calling my name.  Although priced significantly higher than the other fish and chips options, I remembered my experience at Dandelion in Philadelphia and Blue Water cafe in San Diego and hoped for the same in Vancouver.  It was a bit flimsy and although all the components were quite good, nothing was remarkable. The batter was not greasy and had a pleasant taste while the fish maintained a good integrity and decent moistness. The tartar sauce and fries were pretty classic and the creamy horseradish slaw was colourful to look at but didn’t have as much bite as I wanted.

Halibut and Fries $16.50
Halibut and Fries $16.50

I last had the brussel sprouts at Black and Blue last year and ordered them again. I was equally impressed, especially when I hit them with a squirt of hot sauce.

Brussel Sprouts
Brussel Sprouts $6.50

There’s a small dessert menu featuring cheesecake, apple berry crumble and sticky toffee pudding, all for $8.50.  Some may argue you don’t need anymore than that.  I opted for the latter and was presented with a pretty decent offering. The cake was moist, partially helped by the plentiful pool of sauce it sat in.  The traditional chantilly cream and somewhat unorthodox berries were a good finishing touch.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding $8.50

My Take

The fish shack is kind of like Red Lobster, except for people under the age of 65.  Both have a bad beer selection and shrimp garnished Caesars.  Both are decorated with fish and fish paraphernalia.    Both have cheesy slogans like “We sea food differently” and “hook it and cook it”. One can indulge on an array of seafood with the shack’s Fisherman’s catch or Red Lobster’s Ultimate feast, a choice from the fresh daily fresh fish list or non-sea signatures like cheddar bay biscuits (RL) or brussel sprouts (FS).  Both even have a New York style cheesecake for dessert.

The fish shack is pretty; pretty decor and pretty good food.  It’s filled with the little gimmicks like bar side steamers that make the Glowbal group what it is. .  Although none of the dishes blew my mind, the execution of the food was acceptable. and the vibe reeked a little of fish and little of hip. So send Gramma to Red Lobster and suck back some west coast buck a shuck oysters before 6 pm at the fish shack (trust me, Gramma and oysters don’t mix). Afterwards, you can hear about the nice fish and  that dessert cake like Gladys used to make.

As for slogans, I kinda like this one from a famous book that pretty much says it all:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“Catchy”, isn’t it?

The Fish Shack on Urbanspoon