Review:Toronto:Entertainment District:Beverley Hotel (Part 2)

A second visit to the Beverley Hotel was warranted since the first time I went it was quite early in the restaurant’s existence.  Since then the menu has expanded but continues  to mix modern food trends with some old style go-to dishes.

Last time I dropped by for a late lunch, sat in the front and did the burger and kale ceasar salad.  Both are still available although slightly modified, likely based on seasonal availability (for example watermelon has diappeared from the burger likely since it is a little more palatable in later summer vs late autumn). This time I dropped by for dinner and a couple of cocktails and was seated in the back.  I really like the Beverley’s ambiance.  There is ample seating and table space within a classy yet trendy ambiance. I was quickly greeted by a pixie of a waitress; a friendly lass who buzzed around the room like a colourful hummingbird.   As the night went on there were a few times I thought she flew away though because she was a bit absent. She offered a cocktail from a list ranging from $12-14.  Since gin is usually my poison of choice and I can’t turn anything with any part of an egg in it, the “Jane Doe, I loved you so”seemed the obvious choice with gin,  brûléed pear, honey-ginger num-num, fresh lemon juice,egg white and orange bitters. It sounded fancier than it tasted but still hit the spot.

Jane Doe, I Loved you So $12
Jane Doe, I Loved you So $12

Perhaps the waitress had put me in the mood to luau because I was partial to the seared ahi tuna poke.  It was quite the Hawaiian adventure from the coconut cream to the pineapple to the taro chips.   The only thing missing was a lei and a witty line from Scott Caan. For $12, it was a nice snack. The tuna had a good sear and the supporting ingredients provided a blend of heat and acid and an array of textures.

Seared Ahi Tuna Poke $12
Seared Ahi Tuna Poke $12

The week before I went here I was in Montreal indulging on Chuck Hughes’ iron chef winning lobster poutine so I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Beverley’s surf and turf offering.  It violated the standard rules of poutine; hollandaise instead of gravy and the normally gooey cheese curd was fried to a crisp amongst the mound of potatoes.  There was lots of surf and even more turf in the form of chunky lobster claw and tender beef short rib respectively.   It was a mess…..a yummy, tasty mess.  The fries, often overlooked in favour of the supporting ingredients may have been dug out of a magic garden (watered daily by my waitress no doubt) because they were golden delicious.

Surf and Turf Poutine $16
Surf and Turf Poutine $16

I love pork,I love beans,I love fried eggs and I love sausage so the pork and beans were an easy choice.  Pork and beans are one of those dishes that can be so simple but so easy to screw up. The pork belly was terrific…check.  The beans were tender…check.  The egg, although a little crispy around the edges, had a soft, runny yolk which just makes magic. The sausage was decent although not really necessary.  The sauce passed the test although it seemed a bit heavy on the cumin (a fact I don’t really mind).

Pork and Beans $20
Pork and Beans $20

The big pasta was…well…a big bowl of pasta.  I’ll be the first to admit I would fail an aptitude test involving matching pasta shapes to their names and couldn’t get the image of a smurf hunting wizard out of my head when I read garganelle.   So, I did what every other self-righteous blogger would do and googled it while pretending to check the weather forecast for the walk back to the hotel (hey..admitting it is the first step). Anyway, garganelle look like huge penne.  Visually, the big pasta was a big mess. Taste wise, it was decent.  The meatball was tasty and the Sunday gravy (an Italian chunky tomato sauce not to be mistaken with my British Isles understanding of Sunday gravy as being lumps of flour mixed with what little liquid is left after a horribly overcooked cut of roast) was a little sweet.  The pasta flirted with being overdone but passed the test.  In the end, it was tasty but just a little limp.

The Big Pasta $19
The Big Pasta $19

During the meal I had to succumb to rather dapper barkeep’s power of persuasion. Stout, cognac and egg white have no business being combined in the same drink. No wonder it’s called Weird Dreams.  Although I can’t say it lived up to it’s promise, it was an oddly tasty concoction.

Weird Dreams $14
Weird Dreams $14

I finished the night doing something I rarely do…sip an ounce of gin. The waitress had asked if I’ve tried Dillon’s gin which is the product of a small distillery in the Niagara region.  I hadn’t heard of it but was curious to see how it would stack up against the gin makers from the same country that scarred my love for Sunday gravy.  It was an incredibly smooth gin. Last year there was a bottle of Bombay under the tree for me…this year I’m hoping for Dillon’s.  Perhaps I can speak to my waitress because I’m pretty sure she works at Santa’s workshop on her day off.

My Take

The Beverley hotel promises to fill the void between the wild, wild Queen Street West and the stuffy confines of the Yonge Street strip and for the most part it succeeds.  Like the decor, it has a menu that’s classy but trendy. I still remain fascinated by the staff who have all the attributes to star in a good sitcom.  On this particular night, the Phoebe Buffay of the cast was more than happy to make sure my water glass was full.  She was sweet but a bit scattered….kind of like the big pasta doused in Sunday gravy.

The Beverley Hotel on Urbanspoon

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“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and they “Do the Evolution” of the Diner

I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto).  Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.

Here are a few observations I have made about diners:

1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant.  The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog.  There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa.  The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that  Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul  seems a moot point in the diner culture.

2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on  their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam.  The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which  not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.

4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner.  The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish.  My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which  a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side.  I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”.  This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45.  The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.

5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner.  Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.

6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff.  On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties.  On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there).  This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.

In the end, I adore diners.  They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine.  Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.

Review:You Gotta Eat Here:Barrie:Pie Wood Fired Pizza

John Catucci left a bad taste in my mouth after my visit to Dr. Laffa. So I must admit a was a bit reluctant to place a take out order at Pie Wood Fired Pizza during a recent trip to Barrie. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I picked up the phone and ordered three pies for the trip home. This isn’t an easy task, however, since there are around 20 choices ranging from classic pies, crazy pies and hold the tomato pies.  There is even a $100 fois gras and black truffle pizza.

Pie Wood Fired Pizza is located in one of the many large malls that hug the 400.  Easy to see from the highway, it’s slightly harder to find.  Based on the menu (and the name of the restaurant), pizza is the mainstay and it supported by some pastas, sandwiches and appetizers from calamari to salty balls. Upon arrival, I noticed that the front was plastered with You Gotta Eat Here propaganda.   For example, there was a rather large poster with a proclamation from John Catucci himself….”I love the taste of pie…it’s delicious”.

SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza
SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza

The interior is a cross between an Italian bistro and a sports bar.  Its quite open with nicely spaced tables and a large bar along the back.  The walls are lined with posters and paraphernalia  with plenty of pie, pizza and beer references.  A blackboard explains the daily drink specials (long island ice tea, ceasars etc for $6).  I paid for the pies and went on my way.

Pizza one was the Pepperoni pie…the easy solution for any child under the age of 10. There was no shortage of any of the promised toppings and passed the kid test quite easily.  It had that crust pliability that provides great entertainment value as well as taste for the young ones. Not bad for $12 either.

Pizza two was the St. Lucia pie…a Hawaiian type topped with tomato, pineapple, house smoked bacon, mozzarella and shredded coconut.  Other than the coconut, I have yet to understand the correlation between the name and the toppings.  That aside, it was a delicious pizza.  The bacon was sliced thin and  full of flavour.  Chunks of fresh pineapple and the subtle use of coconut add a delicious sweetness.  The toppings were abundant but didn’t compromise the integrity of the delicate thin crust.

pie st lucia

The third pie was the tomatoless cow pie, named for the use of braised beef shank as the main protein.  It reminded me of a steakhouse dinner on a crust as it came complete with roasted potato, spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheese Sauce and parmesan. Once again, despite the cornucopia of toppings, the crust was not compromised at all.  The pototoes were tender and the ingredients were presented in a good proportion.

Cow Pie $14.50
Cow Pie $14.50

My Take

Traditionally, really good thin crust pizzas are reserved for  enotecas  such as Queen Margarita or Terroni located along the trendy streets of urban centres.  One wouldn’t suspect some of the best pizza going lives in a commercial area in Barrie, Ontario. The concept is brilliant; make pizza the mainstay of a sports/casual  bar theme.  Instead of serving a default, thick-crusted, warmed up pizza in order to add diversity to a burger and fry centric menu, Pie makes pizza the star. Sure, some of the crazy pies may appear a bit gimmicky (eg. captain pie liner, hedge hog, green egg and ham etc.) but I don’t doubt each is made with the same attention to detail as the ones I ordered to make a stellar product.Although I can’t comment on the service in the restaurant, it will be a place I will at least think about when driving to and from Northern Ontario instead of hitting the En Route or one of the many crowded chains along Bayfield street.

In the end, I fully agree with John Catucci…

“I love the taste of pie.”

Hmmm…now how would I add one of those winky faces?

Pie on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:You Gotta Eat Here:Dr. Laffa

The recent surge in food with a middle eastern flare is evident. Shawarma stands and restaurants have popped up all over Ontario.  I don’t doubt that at some point a Shawma Wars show will appear on  CMT beside the battles between burgers, pizza and tacos. Until then. the battle for the best shawrma has to be left to the likes of  numerous Toronto blogs and celebrities like John Catucci.

So, when I was peckish for a pita, Dr. Laffa seemed a logical choice.  Although located in an industrial area around Dufferin and Lawrence (actually there is a second location on Bathurst located across from Harold the Jewelry Buyer of commercial fame), it is a bustling joint even on a Sunday. Dr. Laffa has been featured on You Gotta Eat Here and has been crowned with the title of Toronto’s best shawrma by BlogTo a few years back.

Upon entry, I was surrounded by smiling waitstaff and seated in the back corner.  I got there just prior to the lunch rush and narrowly avoided the arrival of a large birthday party which filled half of the seats in the modestly sized interior. The menu gives a loose description of the restaurant’s concept which essentially equates laffa bread with manna from heaven itself.  Baked fresh to order, It’s sort of a cross between pita and naan bread.  It is available with hummus orders as well as an option for any of the sandwiches.

Laffa Bread
Laffa Bread

We were immediately treated with a spread of condiments which included pickles, cabbage, corn salad and carrots.  My favourite was the cabbage although they were all pretty tasty.

Dr. Laffa "Starters"
Dr. Laffa “Starters”

Ordering turned out to be quite the ordeal.  The word “shawarma” on a menu can imply a number of different things.  Both myself and my daughter are fans but we both have an aversion for lamb.  I inquired into the content of the shawarma and after great deliberation by numerous members of the waitstaff, I was told it contained both lamb and chicken and it appeared there was no way to change this fact.  Both of us called an audible and ordered the falafel and chicken shish kabob sandwiches respectively.  I decided to break the bank and go for the laffa whereas my daughter played it safe with the pita.

I started with the hummus masabaha (chickpeas and tahini).  It was a rather large portion served with one piece of laffa.  Creamier than most, it had a mild, pleasant flavour.  If you like an earthy, garlicky dip you may be a bit disappointed.   Be prepared to be left with a whole lot of hummus as well since the amount of bread is not nearly enough.

Hummus
Hummus Masabaha $7.99

I decided to take a stroll to the counter to check out the open kitchen.  It was at this point I realized that a chicken shawarma was possible (I had initially assumed that the lamb and chicken was stacked on the same stick).  I explained to the guy that we were told otherwise and asked if we can  switch.  He looked at me rather perplexed but reluctantly agreed….or so I thought.  Back at the table, I updated the waitress.  Sure enough, out come the kabab laffa with the explanation “well, it wasn’t in the computer and he didn’t know which one to switch”.  There was no offer to remedy.  Furthermore, she didn’t order the laffa to begin with! She was stuck with a laffa instead of a pita (for an extra $3 a pop for chicken laffa I’ll add). I would have almost forgiven the whole ordeal if the sandwich would have been mind blowing. The plaque on the wall boasting Dr. Laffa’s commitment to the importance of pickled turnips, hummus and hot sauce as a key component of a shawarma was  misleading because what was sitting in front of us was a sloppy mess of hummus-laden lettuce and huge chunks of onion overpowering the chicken and falafel.  Although the chicken wasn’t dry and the falafel was moist and nicely seasoned, the sourness of the pickle and heat of the sauce were near absent.

Falafel on Laffa $5.99
Falafel on Laffa $5.99

My son ordered fries for $4.99. They were fresh cut and ample ketchup was available so he was happy.

Fries $4.99
Fries $4.99

At this point the birthday party had pretty much arrived and we were left stranded for a while.  Eventually, we were asked if we wanted to take the sandwiches home and the waitress carefully wrapped them table side which was a nice touch. After another lengthy wait we were given the bill and navigated our way out.

My Take

Despite the dismal dining conditions that exist in London Ontario, there are many great middle eastern choices. I can grab a decent shawarma on almost every corner. If Dr. Laffa is the best shawarma in Toronto, then London wins hands down.   I don’t expect Michelin star service in places like this but I get rather annoyed when simple things go wrong.  The ability to provide a simple chicken shawarma on a pita to a 13 year old does not seem like an impossible feat but proved to be so on this day.  It lacked the fundamental elements of a good sandwich that I though would be automatic in a place raved about on You Gotta Eat Here and Blogto.  My falafel was decent but not heads and tails above others I have had. Some patrons have commented that the laffa should not be a dollar and a half  to three dollars more than the pita but I suspect it is bigger  in general given the amount of filling necessary to stuff the plate-sized bread (this is a theory  I never got to test out since I never got a pita to compare it to). Otherwise, the hummus was good and the starting “treats” were a nice touch.    Despite everything, the place was packed, so there appears to be no shortage of fans.   In the end, I went to the doctor but I didn’t leave laffing.

Dr. Laffa Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Junction:Humble Beginnings

The Junction has recently taken on the theme “If we build it they will come”, the most famous line from Field of Dreams.   A bit off the beaten path, this area has been overshadowed by others in Toronto which have more established destinations, better parking and more convenient transit access.  Most vendors along Dundas West will state that the local community keeps business alive but they would more than welcome a larger crowd moving forward.  This optimism has resulted in an explosion of new eateries, from small sandwich shops and coffee shops to hipster destinations such as the Farmhouse Tavern and the Indie Alehouse Brewing Co.

Humble beginnings is a modest joint which focuses on quick meals and catering in addition to coffee and baked goods.  Although the lion share of the menu is dedicated to dishes with a focus from local meat, poultry and fish suppliers, special attention is given to vegan and gluten free options as well.  I popped in around lunch, so I leaned more toward the soup and sandwich menu as opposed to the larger entrees.

The soup of the day was pumpkin served with apple croutons (which were essentially dried apple rings).    It was absolutely delicious. Small bits of fragrant ginger were like pop rocks within a smooth slurry of wonderfully seasoned pumpkin.  The apple added a morsel of sweetness and chewiness which was a pleasant contrast.  For around $5, it was a large portion.  I also appreciated the fact that it was heated to order on a gas stove as opposed to drawn out of a luke warm cauldron with an unknown start time.

Pumpkin soup with Apple Croutons
Pumpkin soup with Apple Croutons

As for the sandwich (or as they put it… got to run, but it on a bun), I opted for the grilled chicken with a cherry chili aioli.  It was a simple concoction  of nicely cooked although  a flimsy amount of chicken.  What it lacked in content  it made up for in flavour, dressed with a tornado of sweet and heat  matched with a blanket of peppery arugula.   Although the bun was a bit mediocre,  in the end it was a decent sandwich. I found $11 a bit steep but not asinine.

Grilled Chicken with Cheery Chili Aioli $11
Grilled Chicken with Cheery Chili Aioli $11

My Take

Humble beginnings is exactly that…humble.  It attempts to serve fresh and locally sourced foods without a lot of noise.  In addition for those looking for fresh food options, consideration is given to vegans and those with gluten sensitivity.  There aren’t  animal heads hanging on the wall or  house music blaring in the background.   All the dishes are under 15 bucks, the sandwiches under $11  and include a pleasant array of all things that grow. swim or walk. The soup was delicious and the sandwich was satisfying.  By itself, it isn’t Field of Dreams in the sense that it won’t bring bleachers of patrons into the Junction, but it’s certainly a building block in this growing community’s attempt to attract the otherwise trend centric foodies looking for the newest place to swing a bat.

Humble Beginnings on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Coffee:Tampered Press

When it comes to coffee houses, there’s a few things I look for:

1.  Decent internet.  Ample plug-in sockets are an asset.

2. A  welcoming decor including enough space to avoid having somebody reading my computer screen or vice-versa (speaking of which I was in a coffee shop and the guy beside me had a glamour shot of himself as his wallpaper…creepy).

3.  At least something decent to munch on.

A bonus is always an attempt at a unique interpretation of a coffee concoction.

Tampered press is located at the corner of Crawford and Dundas.  It’s a humble exterior complete with a bowl full of dog treats and water on the sidewalk.  When you enter, it opens up into a spacious square room containing communal and smaller tables.  The high shelves are lined with books (which included what I’m assuming was a get this the hell out of my house donated copy of  Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons). There’s art on the wall, they take credit cards, adopt the clean spoon/dirty spoon concept and have a tip cup that says “Tips” as opposed to “College Fund” or “Karma Jar”.

The list of beverages included the standard lattes and americanos but I was interested in the dirty chai.  I think  I’m drawn to dirty things, so I had to ask.  Turns out it’s a chai latte laced with espresso which, according to the barista, balances the normal overbearing sweetness of a normal chai tea latte. Sounded good to me, so I ordered a medium for about four bucks. With a skill which was second nature and while discussing the ridiculousness of vegetable bread, she produced a great drink complete with the signature leaf decoration on top. I quite enjoyed it and  went up for seconds.  The cheese croissant was pretty good as well.

Dirty Chai
Dirty Chai

My Take

There’s a million coffee shops in Toronto (500 000 if you exclude Starbucks).  Some look like they were carved out of a garage and others have a cosiness where you can stretch out, people watch and surf the net with decent wi-fi for the next coffee shop you’ll infiltrate. The Tampered Press is the latter.  They make a decent latte, serve a good croissant and have lots of characters to gawk at….and you get a leaf on your latte! As for the name, it might be fun to open up either a dog groomer or a hair studio next door called “The Pampered Tress”.  That way, people would get even more confused looking for a coffee shop with a Crawford address who’s storefront actually sits on Dundas.

Tampered Press on Urbanspoon