Review:The Annex:Bickford Flexitarian

When I was looking for a place to grab some breakfast, I came across the Bickford Flexitarian, a relatively new cafe on Harbord St. When I heard the name, it reminded me of a classic novel synonymous with Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte or Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

The Bickford Flexitarian
A Fare..Eat..Ale about Flax Seed and Forgiveness

It was a sweltering summer day. Two figures emerged from a vehicle amongst the modest laden cyclists who painted the roads. The contrasting ideologies of the two made  choosing a venue difficult. Although both shared an affinity for fine fare, a conflict emerged. He was a portly porkivore; she a gluten intolerant pescatarian. They shared a very similar yet different passion for food. Rumours of the Bickford Flexitarian had filled the air and these pilgrims were on a maiden journey to this haven in which communal eating could occur regardless of where they choose to eat on the food chain.

As they approached the air seemed barren. There was a eerie stillness which bled into the uneven sidewalks. The pit in their stomachs grew as they walked toward the inevitable. The doors were locked, the counters were bare. No warning was provided; both the website and facebook betrayed them. After the tedious journey through traffic and the descent toward their destination, the harvest was nil. He clenched his hands in frustration as they turned in unison and returned alone the same trail they had just carved. He was scorned and promised himself that some retribution would occur. Perhaps an ill-tempered tweet or a cantankerous comment to those who would listen would remedy his angst.

A handful of fortnights later he was on a solo mission in the vicinity of the Bickford. A whisper of distain returned as the memories filled his head. Once again, cyclists were weaving and ringing their bells along the Harbord St paths in efforts to alert irate drivers and unaware squirrels  to their presence. With a renewed swagger, he proceeded to the front door to find it ajar. The Bickford was open.

As promised, the list of fare was diverse, ranging from raw and vegan to blackened chicken omelettes. The proprietor was a pleasant lass. Perhaps out of an increased curiosity for the raw food movement or perhaps out of homage to his missing partner, he inquired about the walnut banana “french toast.” Without pretension, she beamed that the toast was the creation of her own hands but subtly questioned his commitment, likely the result of his phenotype which suggested a probable affinity for all things ham. He assured her he was of sound mind and that he wasn’t nuts; he just wanted to eat them, along with an Americano of course.

As he was waiting he confessed his frustration over his previous fruitless endeavour.   He was told the Bickford  was closed on Tuesdays during the summer months, a practice which was common among many establishments.  Her pleasant demeanor filled his heart and he had an instant need to forgive the oversight.

The delivery of the goods was prompt.   As promised, it was a bit of an adventure off the beaten path. The “toast” itself was dense and full of earthy flavours.   The cashew cream made butter seem like an ex-girlfriend and the date syrup was sultry to the tongue.  The walnuts, blueberries and pollyanna fruit cup were perfect accessories.  He deemed the  Americano delicious as well.  It was true, he somewhat longed for some salty swine to complete the dish but there was solace in  the fact that he was able to adhere to the philosophy of his missing travel mate and the other tree hugging cyclists he carefully avoided on his way into the Bickford to begin with.

Walnut Banana 'French Toast' $10.50
Walnut Banana ‘French Toast’ $10.50

As he ate, other patrons ventured inside with many interested in the  baked goods which lined the shelves.  In particular the gluten free muffins seemed to be a hit.  Since he had a work rendezvous with this travel mate the next day, he asked the lass to hold one for him. She gladly complied and wrapped it for the pending trip. Upon his departure he produced his means of payment only to be told to put it away and accept the muffin as an apology for the previous confusion.

He ventured back to his vehicle with a new found admiration for the Bickford Flexitarian. True, all it took was a muffin but it was more than that. It was about respect, acknowledgment and remedy.

By the way, she enjoyed the muffin.

My Take

The Bickford Flexitarian has plunged into the competitive cafe/coffee shop market.  Although located a bit off the beaten path, there is plenty of bike traffic as well as those who take Harbord to avoid the clogged arteries of College or Bloor streets.  Speaking of clogged arteries, Bickford offers hearty breakfasts that spare the heart and are more creative than the glass enclosed baked goods a lot of the others offer.  They also realize that serving healthy food doesn’t need to come with a side of self-righteousness.

The story of Bickford Flexitarian is one of betrayal and forgiveness which, unlike a story such as Jane Eyre, has a happy ending. Ok…that’s a bit much but I often longed to spend my days drinking coffee  and writing about my interpretation of the state of society.  The irony is it took the consumption of a raw walnut banana  flax bread for me to do so.

Bickford Flexitarian on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:Riverdale/Leslieville:Ruby Watchco

Lynn Crawford is arguably one of the most recognizable Canadian chefs on network TV.  Not only is she is a local icon, consulting for shows like Marylin Denis and  starring in shows like Pitchin’ In and Restaurant Makeover, she has become a household name across the border by tackling Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America  and recently competing  on Top Chef Masters.   I’ll also argue she is a sorceress.

I had the opportunity to meet her and chef Lora Kirk at a food truck fund raiser a while back.  At this point I had been to Ruby Eats, her retail outlet featuring pickles, jams, specialty foods and take out lunches. On the other hand,  I hadn’t yet ventured to Ruby Watchco, her single  menu, set price family style venue  a few doors down on Queen East.  I’d had intentions and I’m not fussy in general (other than tomatoes, olives, goat cheese and lamb) but the latter seemed to the be main course every time I had the chance to go.

Finally, the stars aligned.  I was in town, loved the look of the menu, called and was greeting by a pleasant voice who booked me  a “half eight” reservation (I think old school UK accents are so cool…I suddenly had Ruby Tuesday by the Stones in my head..after all it was a Tuesday and I was going to Ruby).   After verifying with my translator, I confirmed that this indeed meant 830 and I was good to go.

The decor is a mix of modern and rustic.  It’s long and narrow, with a large bar on the left and a semi-open kitchen in the back.  Laura was front and centre and Lynn was buzzing around in the background.  The waitstaff were dressed with a professionalism Charles the Butler would approve of.

Here’s where the sorcery comes in.  Looking at the menu, you think you’re going to get off easy.  I mean, $49 for a 4 course meal orchestrated by one of Canada’s most recognizable chefs seems like a steal.  What you’re not told is the series of temptations that await once you are seated. Take for example, the Red Derby, Ruby’s spin on the Caesar.   I was warned by a friend who was there the week before that  the Caesar was addictive.  It looked innocent enough, served without the bells and whistles such a side of charcuteire or a lobster tail.  It was a straight up Caesar served with Charlie’s pickles (of which I have purchased a few jars in the past and thoroughly enjoyed at home) which hit all the elements of the classic Canadian cocktail. At $14 a pop, I gave in and had a couple over the course of the meal.

Red Derby $14
Red Derby $14

The evening’s menu started with “Barrie Hills Farms’ Watermelon Salad”. It was a slew of everything from feta to prosciutto to radish.  The watermelon was not as abundant as i predicted but  added enough  sweet to balance the diversity of salty and bitter flavours which were abundant in the other ingredients.  The dressing was delicate and catalyzed instead of drowning  the salad’s fresh ingredients.

Watermelon Salad
Watermelon Salad

Temptation two from Lynn’s bag of tricks was Lora’s lobster BLT.  $16 gets you half a sandwich served with cocktail sauce.  Using my primary math skills means a whole sandwich would equate to $32, but it’s lobster! and worth it.  It’s one of the better things I’ve eaten this year.  The bread stayed crisp despite housing a concoction of chunky lobster meat and avocado. The debate was the use of the cocktail sauce.  In one sense I didn’t want to mask the flavour of the lobster.  On the other hand, the tangyness was a great compliment to the sweet sandwich filling.

Laura's BLT ($16)
Lora’s BLT ($16)

The cheddar biscuits were a nice addition to the meal.  Nothing speaks to family dinners  like the smell of freshly baked biscuits and Ruby’s were fluffy and delicious.

Biscuits
Biscuits

With the main course , my head was filled with memories of old  family dinners  which featured overcooked pot roast, lumpy potatoes, soggy greens and carrots which disintegrate with the touch of the fork.  Ruby’s, on the other hand, redefined the meal with an offering of grilled flank steak with sweet hot pepper sauce served with potato salad, charred broccoli and roasted heirloom carrots.  Each component was well executed, the sauces were delicious and the portions were a good size.  Sure, the broccoli could have used a little more char and the carrots an extra minute cooking, but it was a rewarding meal that didn’t need to be salvaged by a ladle full of trio gravy.

Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots
Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots

Damn you goat cheese! I loathe you so! Despite the beautiful presentation, I couldn’t finish it.  I could have easily eaten a bowl of the honey and peaches though. I asked my colleague his thoughts; he enjoyed the cheese and would have even liked more of the peach/honey mix.

Ruby's Cheese Course
Ruby’s Cheese Course

Dessert was a maple pot de creme topped with strawberries.    My biggest problem was the portion size (it was probably adequate but the dessert was so good it just wasn’t enough). I could have eaten three of them. My colleague suggested a sprinkle of salt (or bacon) may have been a nice touch although I think Lynn would have something to say about that.

Maple Pot de Creme
Maple Pot de Creme

Once again,   I succumbed to the wizardly of Lynn and ordered an Americano afterwards.  It wasn’t very good and I was charged $5 (which is one the highest prices I’ve paid for one). It was a bit of a bitter end to the night (primarily because coffee is bitter I suppose).

My Take

Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco employs a concept few chefs could get away with…one menu at one price (but in the words of Mick Jagger.. “Who could hang a name on you? When you change with every new day.”…damn that song is still in my head).  The nightly menu is generally traditional (brick chicken, fish on Fridays etc…)  and may not appeal to everybody on a daily basis, especially those looking for pulled pork tacos or a bowl of ramen.  I will admit the single menu choice has kept me away a few times.  Once there, however, you are thrown into an environment which combines the modernism of Toronto eateries with the tradition of a sit down Sunday dinner (although they are closed on Sundays).

Once again, Lynn Crawford is a sorceress.  Her promise of a $49 dinner gets clouded by a spell of choice cocktails and seductive sandwiches. The next thing you know. the bill inflates to triple digits but you can’t help but leave feeling pretty satisfied.    In addition, you can avoid the pitfalls of a family dinner: there is no need to pretend like your annoying niece is cute or that you care about the cyst on your Aunt’s cat Fluffy’s paw. Ya, it costs a bit more but maybe I can offer to pitch in and shuck some oysters or pick some peaches for a few bucks off.

Ruby Watchco on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Origin

I was criticized recently for blogging about a restaurant that was open for less than a week.  I mean, who am I to make a comment about the fact that if you’re going to charge me $16 for a bowl of soup, it better be damn good,  a statement which to me seems unrelated to the length of time a place has been open?

So, as a result, I’ll reflect on my recent visit to origin, a King street joint that been open a lot longer than a week (although origin north is still rather new so I wouldn’t want to step outside my boundaries as a food critic/blogger/whatever).  I would argue that origin may have been a bit clairvoyant when choosing its name as it was one of the first restaurants which embraced the small plate, open kitchen concept which has since spread North, East and West across the Toronto landscape (I can’t say south given the geographical limitations due to Lake Ontario and the rather static Esplanade dining scene.)  I went to Origin a few years ago which at the time was under the watchful eye of Steve Gonzalez, who has subsequently opened up Valdez which has a strikingly similar philosophy.  I was a bit surprised to see that the menu and decor have changed very little during this time.

I started the night with  a “Brass Knuckles” cocktail. I normally don’t drink tequila, but the combination of fruity and bitter flavours along with the fact that a few dollars from each sale goes to cancer research was appealing.  It did have a medicinal taste which may explain the name as it feels a bit like a punch in the throat.  I wouldn’t go as far as to call it Buckley’s… it’s more like  that cherry cough syrup your mother gave you as a kid that you secretly didn’t mind taking when you had a chest cold.

Brass Knuckles $13
Brass Knuckles $13

The spicy spanish fries with chorizo and manchego seemed a good start.  They reminded me of poutine meets patatas bravas .  The additional of chorizo was brilliant but I would have liked a runny aioli or spicy tomato sauce to saturate the fries instead of the globs of thick mayo which topped it.  The fries were nicely cooked and the manchego added an appropriate saltiness to the $12 snack.

Spanish Fries $12
Spanish Fries $12

I must confess I have a bad habit.  I see deviled eggs on a menu, get giddy, order them, eat them and then sigh with a tad of disappointment. I sighed a little less at origin.  Although I found the taste of the filling to be average, these eggs were smart.  The souffletine (little cereal balls), the crisp salty and erect bacon plus the leafy herbs tantalized all the taste buds. I must confess I was a little happy my table mate wasn’t a fan of eggs.

Deviled Eggs $7
Deviled Eggs $7

Drink two was an old thyme sour, a spin on the classic cocktail.  Garnished with fresh thyme, it was bold balance of savory and sweet and laced with sour…a simple yet satisfying drink.

Old Thyme Sour $13
Old Thyme Sour $13

Instead of delving into the small plates, we decided to opt for the big guns and chose the two $33 entrees.  The black cod in broth with asian veggies was full of classic flavours,  The cod maintained its buttery texture while swimming in a nicely balance broth.  The bitterness of the veggies added another dimension.  I’m still hung up on the perfectly cooked black cod at George, so I can’t put this at that level but it gets honorable mention. The beef tenderloin sizzling hot plate (with potatoes , kale, mushrooms, roasted onion butter and ponzu) was the other $33 offering.  The concept was good but the execution not so much.  The onion butter lay cold atop the luke warm and less than abundant tenderloin.  The kale/mushroom mix was tasty and maintained a good temperature atop the hot plate. Perhaps I could have romanticized the dish a little more and mixed the butter and beef throughout the dish but hey I’m dumb and always appreciate an explanation of the procedure required to fulfill a chef’s vision.

Black Cod $33
Black Cod $33
Beef Tenderloin $33
Beef Tenderloin $33 (some beef was already snagged before I got to ake the picture)

The service was a bit slow, so I can use that fact to blame the poor quality of the dessert pics.  When it gets dark, I rely on old faithful…my blackberry 9700 with a resolution comparable to a Fisher-Price camera.  The two us have polar preferences when it comes to dessert, I chose the meringue with citrus and coconut…he chose the hot chocolate cake with soft serve ice cream.  My dessert looked like Stonehenge….the rocks  were alternating pieces of meringue and citrus slices on a plain of custard and sprinkled with coconut.  Like the legendary landmark, it was intriguing and yet a bit confusing.   The chocolate cake hit the mark.  The cake was moist and warm and topped with the right amount of bitter chocolate powder to offset the sweetness of the delicious ice cream.

Citrus Curd $10
Citrus Curd $10
Hot Chocolate Cake $10
Hot Chocolate Cake $10

My Take

Whether a restaurant is brand new or a veteran in the Toronto dining scene, I have argued before that Darwin’s theories are applicable to restaurants.  Survival is a process that requires an understanding of the environment including food trends and value.  At the same time, new eateries need a seed, a foundation in which any new concept will grow from as opposed to replace. Perhaps this is my justification to “whatever” a place within days or years of opening.

Origin was exactly that: the origin of the evolution of eateries for the cool kids in the GTA.  Obviously, its success is evident in the fact that it has offspring in both Liberty Village and Midtown.  Although I didn’t delve into the mozzarella bar or the raw bar,  the foods I did try were scattered across the spectrum.  Although nothing was highly memorable, the Spanish fries, eggs and cod were on the better side and the beef fell a little short.  The desserts were a definite talking point. The meringue was light and abstract…the cake was rich and traditional. The mix of trendy cocktails, witty small plates and a few tempting and expensive classics have become a blueprint for  a number of other emerging favorites in all directions outward from  King and Church.  In the end, maybe Claudio Aprile’s gradual evolution from Colborne Lane to origin was sheer luck or maybe it was sheer brilliance, but I’ll give credit where credit is due (and kindly ask him to remember this should I try out for Masterchef Canada again next year).

Origin Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Little Italy:Hudson Kitchen

TIFF is annoying.  It’s the time of year when A-listers pretend that they are artists and not actors who hold out for big salaries and insist on the right camera angles to minimize acne breakouts or skin blemishes. Actors like Adrian Brody forget the  Gillette commercials they did with Andre 3000 and the other guy nobody’s ever heard of and become humble thespians touting the need to preserve the art of flim.  So, I didn’t go to Hudson Kitchen because Brad Pitt had a private meal there (although it would be dreamy to put my ass in the same spot he did). I was more impressed at the fact that the chef had a history at Ursa and Woodlot, two restaurants which pride themselves on quality seasonal food and innovative plating techniques.

Hudson kitchen is a good sized restaurant, an expansion of the old Palmerston cafe which sits on the corner of Dundas West. Like Woodlot and Ursa, the decor was a blend of chic and worn.  A small bar tended by a large man with quite the dapper mustache greets you as you enter who, based on the pre-opening hype, foreshadows the possibility of a pristine cocktail. The  tables are scattered among hardwood floors. In the front, one wall is plain white and the other displays a plethora of  picture frames containing quirky pics like the fork running away with the spoon.

I can just imagine what the  A-list celebrity turned humble artist would say:

“Hudson kitchen is like Fight Club meets Interview with the Vampire.  It’s a worn yet classic venue’s struggle in a predominantly Italian neighborhood.  I was drawn by the evolution from the old Palmerston attitude and grasped the metamorphosis into a modern yet classic eatery for middle aged foodies.”

In fact, I was a little surprised by the crowd,  True, it was early in the evening but a number of older couples were filling the place.  Whitish hair, sport coats with jeans and the occasional sweater draped over the shoulders of a crisp dress shirt.

The cocktail list is short and sweet (well ironically..it’s not that sweet as most of the drinks gravitate more to the  savory side of things).

Back to the artist…

“The Earth to Grapefruit seemed simple enough: beefeater, campari, lemon and cointreau.  What’s amazing is the fact that it  tasted like grapefruit without any grapefruit… a true demonstration of phenomenal cinematography similar to  eating a Jelly Belly which tastes like popcorn and wondering how they achieved such trickery.  It had a predominant bitterness (much like myself)  that encompassed the struggle between the earth and the fruit it produces.”

Earth to Grapefruit $13
Earth to Grapefruit $14

“The Innocence Lost was exactly that…the innocence of a fat free cocktail is replaced with a cream based, multi-ingredient concoction reminiscent of a latte.   It’s a realistic look at the struggle for identity in a crowded metropolitan cocktail market.    The use of albumin is an advancement over the peasantry of mere egg white. There was a good balance and despite the fruit infusions and  simple sugar, it lacked an overbearing sweetness.”

Innocence Lost $15
Innocence Lost $15

“The Covert Slim was the best of the choices.  It was a modern day Romeo and Juliet…the brilliance was the conflict between the pre-dinner aperol and the post-dinner amaro to co-exist in something that can be enjoyed during the meal.  Once again, the albumin played a key role in unifying these protagonists  among a cast of bitter characters including lemon and grapefruit juice.”

Covert Slim $11
Covert Slim $11

“The expectation for people to pay for bread is a painful reminder of the evolution of societal norms. Yet at the same time we can demand that it’s brilliant.  The schmaltz was supposed to be the star but was replaced by EVOO from Spain at the eleventh hour.  This allowed the spectacular performance of the charred eggplant to shine.  It was an absolutely delicious performance and elevated the decent bread to a higher level.”

House-Made Bread with EVOO and Charred Eggplant $4
House-Made Bread with EVOO and Charred Eggplant $4

“Hudson’s mushroom broth could be the new Pulp Fiction $5 milkshake.  If you charge  $16 bucks for mushroom broth it better be f’ing good.  Unfortunately, the performance was similar to that of Jennifer Aniston…..not worth the money.  It was a good broth but it wasn’t great.  A few pieces of rye bread, some watercress and an extra pouring broth table side doesn’t make up for it.”

Wild Mushroom Broth $16
Wild Mushroom Broth $16

“Once again, the highlight of the late summer harvest salad was the supporting actor.  The walnut brittle was the star.  Although the concept of the harvest was lost (other than a few dollops of  earthy paste hidden among the forest of greens),  it was a nicely dressed salad rustically served atop a cross-section of  a tree trunk.”

Late Summer Harvest Salad, Walnut Brittle $14
Late Summer Harvest Salad, Walnut Brittle $14

“The tagliatelle was the only vegetarian dish available.  It was an exploration into the unpredictable sourness of society as demonstrated by the preserved lemon  within the confines of the traditions of Parmesan cheese and zucchini.  The pasta was a solid al dente performance but a slightly salty interpretation but tasty in the end.”

Tagliatelle, Zucchini, Preserved Lemon and Parmesan $22
Tagliatelle, Zucchini, Preserved Lemon and Parmesan $22

” The chicken adobo was a disappointing attempt at recreating the underbelly of Filipino cooking.  Despite a sinful showing of breasts and thighs,  there was a dryness to the performance which hardly created an eroticism among the brussel sprouts, quinoa and eggplant.  Her skin was beautiful, however, tanned to a mouth watering crispy perfection. The sultry broth added a bit of sex appeal,  it couldn’t cover the prosaic poultry.”

Adobo Chicken $26
Adobo Chicken $26

“The pear, gingerbread and caramel dessert was a celebration of all things autumn and symbolic of the growth of a pear…from flower to succulent fruit.  The gingerbread and ice cream caressed the fruit, reminding it of the earth from which its tree once grew.  Spongy Nougat reminded us that sweetness can come in all shapes and sizes.  A truly tasty performance.”

Pear, Gingerbread and Caramel $10
Pear, Gingerbread and Caramel $10

My Take

If this truly were a movie cast, the walnut brittle, charred eggplant and chicken skin would be nominated for best supporting actor roles.    Perhaps the art direction warrants an Oscar nod since the chicken and dessert plates were beautiful.  The cocktails were a mixed bag and had names which sound like summer movie releases (I can’t wait to see Brad Pitt in Covert Slim next year). Otherwise, the main characters fell short in their attempt to elevate Hudson Kitchen to A-list status.  Priced like a concession stand at a Cineplex, the salad ($14), adobo ($26), pasta ($22) and especially the broth ($16) just weren’t worth it.  Plus, you have to pay for bread and water (if you want still or sparking) which adds to an already inflated bill of fare. The waitstaff seemed to lack confidence which is somewhat forgivable given the fact the place is in its infancy.

If Ursa and Woodlot are Godfather I and II, Hudson Kitchen is Godfather III. Since it was a little disappointing, I can’t give it two thumbs up and  since it cost me an arm and a leg to eat there,  I couldn’t use both thumbs anyway.

Hudson Kitchen on Urbanspoon