The hunt for a great burger sometimes goes outside of the city limits. I was in Ajax recently and saw Retro Burger tucked in a strip mall on Bayley St. I went for two reasons. First, I left like a burger. Second, I wanted to determine what exactly made a burger “retro”.
There was a time when the word retro was used to describe things that occurred well before my time. As I get longer in the tooth (that saying in itself ages me), I realize that I am, in fact, retro. Although I can’t relate to the objects in the Grey Power commercials, I could relate to the Pac-Man icon on the wall and the fact that the smiling and enthusiastic staff were likely half my age.
Growing up, I remember two types of burgers. The first were the dry, underseasoned and overcooked ones I ate at home, likely the result of an exaggerated fear over some type of food-borne illness. The second were the oversalted fast food variety which included McDonald’s, Deluxe (a Sudbury staple) and A&W which,at the time, was served on a tray which hung off your car window while you sat in the drive-in.
Retro burger was neither. I would call it cross between Five Guys and Harvey’s. The burger was Five Guys except char broiled : moist and a nice thickness relative to the bun. What can I say? Bun:meat ratio is important to me. The toppings were Harvey’s style; choose your own from the offerings behind the glass. In addition to the standard condiments, they offer a number of sauces to spice things up. I went traditional, opting for cheese, mustard, onion, pickles and hot peppers. A sesame seed bun is always a good call. The fries were skin on and a nice thickness. The combo (including a drink), was around $10, taxes in.
There are a number of other items on the menu including philly cheesesteaks, hand- dipped fish and chips and souvlaki. The guy in front in front me order the cheese steak and it looked rather delicious.
After going to retro burger, I’m still a little perplexed at what makes this place retro. I couldn’t eat the burger off a tray hinged to my car window. It didn’t remind me of the pitiful, overcooked burgers I ate as a kid. Maybe it’s the fact that they pleasantly serve a decent burger at a decent price (including an after 2 pm special) without complicating things by offering kobe beef/buffalo patties topped with avocado, pineapple or a fried egg. Although the experience didn’t flood my brain with the nostalgia of 1982 , at least I wasn’t put through the torture of Tommy Tutone dialing phone numbers or forced to ensure one-hit wonder Buckner and Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever”.
My alarm went off the Sunday morning after we sprung the clocks forward the night before. It was 630 am and I was just outside Detroit with the ultimate destination of making a 515pm reservation at Husk in Nashville with a lunch stop in-between. Keep in mind I had my two teenage daughters with me and it was part of a nearly week long tour of Tennessee and Kentucky but it seemed an exciting task to try and make a reservation 8 hours away in time. According to the reviews, Husk may be worth the drive considering it was voted the number 6 best new restaurant in the USA by GQ magazine. I was a bit torn since I have longed pledged my allegiance to Anthony Bourdain and felt a slight sense of betrayal since I’m sure Anthony would respect my adventurous nature but would hardly approve of my destination given the fact he refers to GQ’s food critic Alan Richman as a “douchebag” in his book Medium Raw, partly because he insists that celebrity chefs should hang in their restaurants.
Driving in both Kentucky and Tennessee is quite refreshing. The roads tend not to get congested, the drivers are fast and the roads and scenery are nice. As a result, there was little issue getting to Nashville on time, especially given the unexpected time change which occurs somewhere in Kentucky. After checking into the hotel, we jaunted a bit off the beaten path to the restaurant and arrived just in time for our reservation.
Husk is an extension of the original in Charleston, South Carolina which has the same name and under the eye of executive chef Sean Brock. Of some irony is the fact that the original was slammed by Richman. Nashville’s version promises upscale southern food using only ingredients which can be attained within a small radius of the restaurant itself. The menu is published daily and features a wide selection of starters and mains. I was there on a Sunday and was somewhat dismayed to discover that the wings voted one of the best in America by website Epicurious were not on the evening menu.
We were seated on the bottom level of the nicely designed restaurant. It was modern yet rustic. The walls were filled with pictures of an array of things including those of Nashville past. The staff were smartly dressed, looking as if they came straight from a restaurant wars challenge on Top Chef. The crowd was a mix of young and old and included hipsters that looked mighty similar to those I see in Toronto.
The drink menu consisted of a decent variety of wine, local beer (primarily from Yazoo) and signature cocktails ranging from low alcohol choices celebrating (if that’s the right word) prohibition to modern interpretations of some modern favorites. My choice was the Barrel Aged Seelbach which was bourbon based and laced with fun things like curacao and bitters for $13. I suppose this is no cheaper than the heavily taxed cocktails I’m accustomed to in Canada, busting the myth that America is a haven for cheap booze and watered down beer and cocktails. I quite enjoy bourbon based cocktails and this was no exception. The sweet bourbon was nicely contrasted by the bitters and the drink tasted better with every sip.
They also had a wide array of Bourbon which ranging from $7 to around $40 which included some high proof, reserve and aged choices.
Reviews of this place have criticized the lack of southern hospitality offered by the waitstaff. I have to agree to some extent. Our waitress was pleasant but the friendliness was somewhat guarded and seemed to be infused with some pretension, perhaps to justify charging $26 for a piece of chicken. Service was prompt although there is a fair lag between the starters and mains. For the starters, I opted for the Husk Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”. I’m not sure who Bill Neal is but I’m sure he’s pleased to know this dish bears his name. The grits were heavenly creamy, creating that perfect mouth-feel that reminded me of relishing Cream of Wheat as a kid. The shrimp were delicately cooked and seasoned and even managed to convince my generally seafood-phobic daughter.
The BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce ($14) were a upscale interpretation of this southern classic. They were quite meaty but don’t expect the deep flavor and tenderness synonymous with hours in a smoker. The sauce, however, was delicious; a perfect blend between BBQ sweet and vinegary sour.
The last “first” was A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24-Month Country Ham, Soft Rolls, Mustard, HUSK pickles for $13. The ham was pungently wonderful and tasted almost like a prosciutto. The remaining ingredients were great compliments to a dish which screamed comfort. The buns were fresh and pickled cauliflower was vibrant and a nice contrast to the sweet and fatty ham.
Although a main for each of us was suggested, we decided on the Tanglewood Farms chicken, grilled over hickory embers, potato dumplings and carrots for $26. Much like ribs, when I envision chicken and dumplings I think of comfort food which includes tender chicken, fluffy biscuits and hearty portions of root veggies. Husk’s modernized twist kept the chicken intact but omitted the chunks of dough and carrots, replacing them with bite size gnudi and pureed carrot kisses. My daughters looked a little perplexed. The poultry was tender and seasoned wonderfully. Although the dumplings and carrots were swimming in a small puddle of sauce, it would have been grand to have a little more to complement the chicken and remind me that this in fact is a comfort food.
The most anticipated part of the dinner was the plate of southern vegetables for $25. There were three reasons for this. First, I was curious to see how you could justify a plate of veggies for $25. Next, it is arguably the most talked about dish at Husk. Finally, I’m tickled that a place would equate a mosaic of plant-based concepts with menu staples like beef, pork and catfish.
On this night, the southern plate consisted of:
a) Gourd soup with pistachio and chives- Served warm, it had great base flavour which was complemented by some crunch and cream.
b) Tomato and grits topped with a farm fresh poached egg- The acid of the tomato was terrific with the sweet corn. A perfectly cooked egg just makes anything better.
c) Soy Glazed Broccoli- Simple but the best part of the dish according to my daughters. Perfect saltiness and heat surrounded the crunchy vegetable.
d) Roasted Turnips- After eating these, the turnip bottoms may replace of the tops as the go-to part of the plant for southern feasts.
e) Farro and Lima Bean Salad- Also a salad I have seen north of the border, it was earthy and well balanced with a great touch of acid and sweetness in the dressing.
The after dinner offerings paid homage to the classic desserts of the south but also had a refined twist to them. Chess pie, butterscotch pudding and strawberry shortcake highlighted the sweets menu. I opted for the latter two. The pudding was laced with bourbon and served with a pastry offering a hint of apple flavour. Collectively it was quite delicious. The shortcake composed of soft serve and strawberries which were divine, especially for a Canadian who is only exposed to the albino grocery store berries until May or June.
Husk has found a niche offering high end southern food, a stark contrast from popular places such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and other iconic Nashville eateries. The dishes are refined, pretty and pricey. The execution is near flawless. I can’t comment on whether this is the 6th best new restaurant in the whole of America but it has all the elements of success; a strong endorsement by a leading food critic, a terrific concept featuring farm to table food with no compromise, a modern and comfortable environment and a whole lot of buzz. The grits were fantastic and the plate of southern vegetables is well worth the price. The chicken was let down by the somewhat dismal sides. The desserts and cocktails were sinful and true to the region.
Afterwards, we took a walk down Broadway to find a slew of drunk tourists, neon lights and a guy who was high, very interested in the odd appearance of Canadian money and sung us a Jason Aldean and an Allman brothers song in exchange for a five dollar bill. Despite this fact, I walked away singing the Tragically Hip’s It can’t be Nashville every night:
He said, ‘we are what we lack’
and this guy’s the autodidact
stares into the glare of them TV lights
It can’t be Nashville every night
with it’s la la oh oh ohs,
whoa-ohs and yeahs.
Yep, so far so good. An eight hour drive husking and busking in Nashville brought on a degree of la la oh oh ohs and I hadn’t even hit Arnold’s yet. I promised myself I’d go hardcore Bourdain style in Nashville on day three to make amends for my temporary allegiance to Mr. Richman, arguably one of America’s most well known autodidacts. PS. Alan. I don’t think Sean Brock was in the house. Are we good now, Tony?
Day two was an early drive into Tennessee. My goal was simple…drive 8 hours to make a reservation at Husk, GQ’s sixth ranked restaurant in the US. Of course there would be a stop or two along the way but at the time I didn’t realize I had the assistance of a change in time zone to grant me an extra hour to complete this daunting task.
Part of the plan was to conveniently arrive in Cincinnati around lunch, allowing me to pop into Terry’s Turf Club. Terry’s is one of these places that has been elevated to elite status in the world of edible Americana. It has been featured on numerous shows and articles including a visit from Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
The exterior could easily be mistaken for an Ohio garage sale. Worn collectibles grace the entire length of the joint. Inside, there’s enough neon to put the Vegas strip to shame. We were greeted by Jim, a friendly maître d’ who informed us we were the first guests of the day and guided us to our seats. He was wearing the first of many Bluetooth earpieces I saw during my travels, an artifact that is near extinct north of the border but is alive and well in the USA.
Terry’s is a burger place. You choose a patty (ranging from lump crab to filet mignon), choose your cheese, decide if you want onions and/or banana peppers and finish with optional toppings for an additional cost. The waitress highly recommended the red wine, wild mushroom and truffle sauce since it was not only her favorite, it was Guy’s choice on the show. I decided to infuse a little irony and add a fried egg (Guy’s nemesis) to the mix. In the end, it was a $13 burger served with potato chips (fries were another $2.25).
I also ordered a TTC deviled egg with shrimp ($3.25) and some pepper paw poppers ($4) to start. The first is a half egg topped with a mango-jalapeno marinated shrimp and filled with a mix of yolk, bearnaise, ghetto mustard and crème fraiche. It was delicious. The filling was thick and hearty. The tanginess was nicely offset by the sweetness and subtle heat of the shrimp. The poppers were an interesting spin on traditional bar food. They are not fried and stuffed with their four cheese mix instead of the traditional cream cheese. They were tasty. The peppers were a natural blend of sweet and spice. The filling had a punch but it was a bit gritty.
While waiting for the burgers, Jim came by and engaged in a very interesting discussion about the restaurant and a past trip to London, Ontario. He and all the staff were extremely friendly and really created a cool vibe, especially when mixed with the copious numbers of neon lights and other symbols of Americana. For example, in an effort to be clean, neat and polite Canadians, we were eating peanuts and nicely stacking the shells on the table. One staff member came by, shook his head in a friendly way and threw them on the floor.
The burgers arrived in decent time. Eight ounces of meat sat between a nicely grilled bun and sat on a paper Dixie plate. The potato chips were nothing more than decoration. Along with the burger came a large serrated knife for the sole purpose of slicing the monstrosity in half to make eating it somewhat possible. As the burger, the meat was a bit stringy, the sauce was a bit salty and the egg was a bit overdone. Collectively, it was a good burger but not a great burger.
Terry’s is a must see if you are in search of what I call “Edible Americana”. The decor is over the top, overflowing with neon, tin and advertisements of yesteryear. The service is superb and sincere. The food is more than acceptable (I really enjoyed the deviled egg) but not among the pinnacle of recreating America’s most beloved foods, the burger. The prices are reasonable unless you can’t fight the temptation to add numerous condiments to the half pound of meat which fills the well-toasted bun. In the end, Terry’s is worth a stop if you’re looking for cheesiness as part of American road trip. If you’re looking for cheese slapped on the best burger on the planet, however, you may be disappointed.
I love Detroit. Once the leader of the industrial revolution, it has become the poster city for the collection of cities that now compose the infamous rust belt. That said, the pride and determination of the residents has been the blueprint in the evolution of a new Detroit; one which is humble, thankful and kinda cool.
Day one of a March Break getaway was a quick stop in Detroit to get a little closer to my ultimate destination of Tennessee. After crossing the border, I veered off the highway immediately for a quick stop in Mexicantown. If anything, this area of Detroit is a microcosm of the city as a whole. It’s wonderfully worn down, bleeding character which leads you to empathize instead of pity the situation. There are no shortage of eateries within the cramped quarters but I opted for La Gloria, an all day bakery specializing in cinnamon conchas, churros and even a tamale if you’r so inclined. After becoming somewhat confused by the narrow streets and haphazard parking job of the locals, I nestled comfortably in lot beside the noticeably pink building and walked in.
The procedure is rather simple. Grab a plastic tray, line it with some paper, get a set of tongs and walk by the numerous offerings enclosed within plastic bins. Most things (from turnovers to heart shaped cookies which say “Te Amo”) range from $0.50-$2.00. When you’re done, your order is rung up and placed in a bag or box depending on quantity.
The conchas are sweet breads similar to donuts that would be considered their “signature” item. I scooped up a cinnamon one as well as a few churros, a tart and a few other baked treats. The grand total was about $7. Collectively. they were quite delicious and well worth the price. I rolled in around four and was left to imagine how divine everything would taste at 5 am when the place opens.
After navigating the narrow streets of Mexicantown and taking a wrong turn or two, it was off to the airport area to crash before the long trip to Nashville. Romulus is not a mecca for food (it seems confined to a few fast food joints and one strip plaza which has a grille, Chinese place, a Subway and Beirut, a small Lebanese place. My daughter had a craving for the latter, so I ordered a couple of chicken shawarmas and a appetizer plate which consisted of hummus, baba ghannouj (which is Arabic for pampered papa), a few falafels, grape leaves and fattouch. The total was just shy of $30 (there were also three drinks). This is the point in which I put in the disclaimer that some of the best Lebanese food I have had is in the Detroit/Windsor area. Toronto lags significantly behind (just read my Dr. Laffa review). The starter plate was delicious. The hummus was smooth and full of flavour, the baba ghannouj was smoky and grape leaves were some of the best I’ve had. They were almost crispy but melted in your mouth afterwards, a far cry from some of the soggy offerings I’ve had at other places. The falafels were average in flavour a little too dry. The soup was piping hot, had a great texture and was seasoned nicely. The shawarmas were more than acceptable but were a little flimsy in construction (although it’s hard to complain that much for 5 bucks). I like shawarmas that are stuffed with pickles and lettuce and drip toum, tahini or hummus incessantly, making for a ridiculous eating experience. These were almost too easy to eat given the sparse use of condiments although the chicken was seasoned well.
Detroit dining is a mosaic of cultures highlighted by really cool Mexican and Lebanese food. Both La Gloria and Beirut represent their respective cultures in an inexpensive but delicious way. Chances are I’m unlikely to chow down on authentic middle eastern fare as I dive into the depths of Tennessee in the coming days.
Music and food have a lot in common. Both stimulate the senses and both tend to be driven by trends. Kingston’s Chez Piggy is an example of both. At first, one might think it was a hot spot in the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie. The locals, however, know that the claim to fame is the fact that this restaurant was opened in 1979 by Zal Yanovsky who was one of the members of the Hall of Fame Inductee band “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.
The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands that had a number of top ten hits you know but have no idea who sings them. Even in their heyday, they were overshadowed by other hippie bands in the mid-sixties. That said, here are a couple of facts about the Lovin’ Spoonful. First, in 1966 their biggest hit “Summer in the City”, was Billboard’s number 11 song of 1966, finishing higher than Paperback Writer, the Beatles’ top entry that year. Another fact is that two of the songs that kept the Spoonful out of the top 10 were by Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’. The irony was that these songs were performed by the Mamas and the Papas, who that had two members who jammed with Yanovsky in the Mugwumps before forming their Hall of Fame band.
The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands who had a bunch of songs people know but can’t identify the band who sung them. For example, I remember numerous commercials asking the question “Did you ever have to finally decide?” while some dude had to decide which super model to choose. On the theme of questions, they also asked the question “Do you believe in magic?”.. a song that has survived the test of time. I still remember Chris Klein singing it to Mena Suvari during American Pie almost 35 years later (yes..there were more parts to that movie other than Stifler’s mom and objectophilia).
The question is whether Chez Piggy had evolved with the times or if it is a disguised homage to Zal who unfortunately passed in 2002. At first sight, it’s a secluded stable. When you enter, the landing on the stairway upwards has a tribute to Zal in the form of a picture along with some T-shirts boasting the Chez Piggy experience. The setup is more traditional than modern as you are rewound into 80’s decor that is much more intentional than the many retro diners which grace the landscapes. The waitstaff are not pretentious students but instead a mix of people who have probably listened to “Daydream” a few times in their lives.
Chez Piggy features a traditional cocktail menu with retro prices. I opted for the ceasar for $6.35. I was pleasantly surprised as it was absolutely delicious and rivaled many others I’ve had that are priced in the double digits.
The menu is like a greatest hits album. It contains all the classics with a few feeble attempts at new creative expression. I hounded the waitress about the number one hits and she said the gambas al ajillo. Not to be mistaken for a Carlos Santana song, it is a fancy of saying garlic shrimp. This is the dish that has stood the test of time. It’s a pot luck favorite, bringing haute cuisine to picnic tables everywhere. It was deliciously incomplex. Seven wonderfully cooked shrimp swam circles in a slurry of oil and garlic within the confines of a cast iron skillet.
I was intrigued by the coast to coast canuck plate. Patriotism on a plate is always a risky en devour. Consisting of maple cured salmon, duck prosciutto, cured venison, bison and blueberry sausage, highland blue cheese, lankaaster cheese, caramelized onion & cheddar tart, smoked cod spread with scrunchions, pickled beets, red cabbage & horseradish salad, it did fairly represent our great land. It was plainly served on a white plate which took away from some of the aesthetic value but served as a reminder that a 35 year old restaurant need not succumb to silly trends like serving cured meat on cutting boards or finished cross-sections of tree trunks (although they do charge a very modern $23). Otherwise, it was a tasty array and captured many of the elements of Canada on a plate. It was sort of like eating a Tragically Hip song.
For the main, I got talked into the special, which was a short rib with potatoes gratin and roasted beets. The plate had a forgivable messiness. The short rib was a bit disappointing in that it was too tough, lacking the “fall of the bone” nature of a perfectly cooked rib. The potatoes were retro-good, another reminder of the days of old where my mom would orchestrate her scalloped potatoes (served exclusively with ham), microwaves were not an option and hit songs tended to be only two or three minutes long. It pushed the limits of acceptable price with the $30 price tag.
I’m not surprised that Chez Piggy is a culinary icon in Kingston. It appeals to those who enjoy a quiet and traditional dining environment. I’m always amazed when I sit in a joint where foodies and seniors can co-exist. I’m also impressed at the fact that, despite the late co-owner’s hall of fame induction, Chez Piggy doesn’t exploit the band. It’s not called the Lovin’ Spoonful (which is actually a cool name for a restaurant). There are no cocktails called “She is still a mystery” or “Six O’Clock”. Other than a modest picture by the T-shirt rack, there is no concert paraphernalia plastered all over the walls. You leave with the impression that Zal wanted it this way.
The food is decent but a bit pricy. The attempts at modernization are more along the lines of menu items additions like Vietnamese spring rolls and less about following current trends of modern cooking techniques. It’s a bit of a refuge from the influx of bourbon houses, enotecas and restaurants named after their address. My guess it’s the leading choice for a Queen’s student who needs to find a place to mooch a pricy dinner off their parents. As a result, it is a little sleepy.
In the end, Chez Piggy is like a concert from a band that hit their peak 30 years ago. The crowd is diverse, the highlights are the old songs although there are a few ones thrown in and there is always a core group of fans who, despite the fact that the singer can’t hit the same octave as they could in the past, thinks the band can do no wrong.
Although it’s not a place I would flock to in Kingston, it’s not a place where I would say that I’m “Never Going Back”.