I was looking for a lunch spot and remember stumbling across Sky Blue Sky in my travels. All I knew is that they supposedly had good sandwiches and made an appearance on You Gotta Eat Here. I’ve been to quite a few restaurants dedicated to members of pop culture. For example, I’ve been to Lisa Marie in Toronto (Lisa Marie Presley) and Marlowe’s Ribs and restaurant in Memphis (her sorta famous dad). I’ve dined at Montecito in Toronto (Ivan Reitman’s tribute to himself) and sipped on cocktails named after Seinfeld characters at Thoroughbred, but I’ve never been to a place which has paid tribute to the American rock band Wilco. I’m not talking a poster or album cover hanging on the wall kind of dedication; I mean every sandwich and even the name of the place itself seems to be a WIlco song or album name.
With two locations, I strolled into the one on College Street. After taking a flight of stairs to get inside, I entered a very modest abode which resembled a deli. Red and white checked tablecloths covered the spattering of tables and hints of pop cultures stuck on the walls.
The menu is simple. There are a couple of daily soups and a whole lot of sandwiches including a nice selection of vegetarian ones. I opted for the split pea with ham($3) and the “Dreamer in my Dreams”($6), described as “slices of roast beef topped with onions cooked in red wine vinegar, banana peppers, slices of tomato and some cheddar cheese. We put this dream on our spicy jack bread with some mustard and mayonnaise and serve it to you well toasted.” The soup was well seasoned and had an enjoyable spicy bite at the end. The sandwich arrived in paper sporting the same red and white design. By well toasted they meant a trip to the panini press. The bread was delicious and housed a good proportion of fillings. The cheese was melted nicely and the red wine vinegar, despite it subtly, shone through nicely.
As I was waiting, I saw an older gentleman hobble up the stairs. He was greeted like Norm from cheers when he walked in. Soon a student dropped in and got the same treatment. The two guys working there were friendly, engaging and respectful. There was a sign reminding patrons that Styrofoam soup bowls are recyclable so please use the appropriate bin. You pay on the way out and not when you order. You are asked to grab whatever drink you want out of the cooler and leave it to you to let them know. That’s the mentality I like in a place. Many establishments have forgotten the fact that if you treat customers with respect, they will give it right back to you. As the for bill, my math might be off on the individual items because my soup, sandwich and Perrier came to a mere $10.54.
In a world trodden with Subway, Quizno’s, burger joints and overpriced business lunches a simple sandwich shop like Sky Blue Sky has appeal. It was a bit of a hippy mentality without the flower power, tie dye or Joe Cocker. Instead, the same “love not war” cordial nature was replaced by good food, a friendly environment and numerous tributes to Wilco. The staff are delightful and well…not Jared. To paint another picture Sky Blue Sky may not be for everybody (maybe it’s not where all the cool foodies go), but like Wilco, has found success through loyal followers (I guess a couple of Grammy wins doesn’t hurt either). Plus, I’d almost hang out there just to hear the neighbourhood priest come in andd confidently order a “Hell is Chrome” or maybe an old lady from the area (who would likely be a regular) come in and proclaim”I must be high!” Either way, I think they’d get a good sandwich.
Dining alone is not for everybody. I’ll admit it’s not always my favorite thing to do but given my travels I’m up for it when necessary. Others choose to order room service, sit on the bed and get cozy with the remote. I find, however, that going out solo usually results in some adventure worth repeating. Take a recent trip to Woodlot for example. I had just finished an appointment on a Monday and was looking for an early bite which turned out to be a daunting task given the number of institutions closed on the first day of the week. I went to woodlot a few years back and enjoyed it, so I figured it was worth another shot. They take reservations but also seat walk-ins at the bar on the communal table which sits near the open kitchen. I decided to sit at the table and was soon joined by a family of four who also wandered in. I pegged the kids at 8 and 6 years old and was curious to see if the routine was the same as what I go through with younger children. For example, my son’s definition of a good restaurant is a good Caesar salad and free refills. My daughter, on the other hand, enjoys chicken anything as long as it come with a side of good people watching. Watching this family, I was quickly reminded that excursions with children to restaurants outside those with kid’s menus or clowns have the following characteristics:
The father’s main goal is to get their kids to try something so they can later brag about the fact that their offspring has their daddy’s palate. Other than the birth itself or a hockey goal, nothing makes daddy prouder than watching their son suck back a Malpeque oyster.
Handheld devices are a must. Whether a cell phone, Nintendo DS or an iPad, the need to kill the 10 minutes before the food comes is a must. Long gone are crayons and sheets containing mazes, word finds and words which unscramble to spell spaghetti, hamburger or soccer.
The key is to verbally deconstruct any complicated dish in hope of fooling the child into believing that it’s not fancy. For example, “Do you want to try Gnocchi? All it is is the same pasta you are eating with a little bit of yummy mashed potato in it?”. This usually results in the child looking back at the parent with a “are you kidding me?” look on their face.
Mom is usually more subtle by ordering something safe instead of the what they really want in the off chance their child just might want to try what they are eating. It’s a more subtle approach than dad and if he/she complies, it’s a reassurance that the child is still Mama’s little boy or girl.
The cocktail list payed homage to Game of Thrones by offering the Mother of Dragons, Clash of Kings, North of the Wall and Little Finger. Khaleesi aside, I went with the maternal choice which was campari with grapefruit tonic and pastis. It didn’t go down like dragon fire but instead tasted like a tame negroni.
Woodlot is know for it’s bread. A number of varieties are available for sale everyday starting at noon. The same bread is offered to start the meal for those who dine in. By offered I mean provided free of charge. In fact, a variety ranging from white to whole wheat to multigrain is provided with a small churn of butter. It was quite delicious and nicely complimented the rustic nature of the restaurant itself.
My starter was the ember grilled Hen-o’-the-Woods mushrooms with wild rice, black walnut, beet root and dill ($13). These are one of my favorite mushrooms so I had high expectations. Great textures and smoky, earthy flavours highlighted the dish. My expecations were met.
For the entree, I opted for a small order of hand cut sourdough spaghetti and meatballs with dry aged beef, san marzano tomatoes, basil and parmesan for $16. The meatballs were moist and flavourful, the sauce was fresh and tart and the sourdough pasta was an enjoyable twist. It was a small portion but I guess that’s what I ordered.
I also ordered the warm kale salad with currants, toasted almond and pickled shallot for $7. The kale was nicely cooked and the flavours were quite balanced and enjoyable which I thought it paired nicely with the pasta.
I wasn’t blown away by any of the desserts (in fact there are only four including a cheese plate) but I ordered the vanilla pavlova anyway. Served with blueberry and lemon curd, the pavlova itself had a crispy crust and a soft, fluffy interior. The addition of fresh tarragon was smart and the whipped cream helped to buffer the other components on the dish. That said, the extreme sweetness of the pavlova was not balanced with the minimal tartness of the curd, especially when the blueberry joined the party.
Even as College street near Palmerston becomes increasingly innodated with new and trendy eateries, Woodlot sits quietly around the corner and remains a popular dining destination. The communal table, brick oven and open kitchen make for a fun atmosphere even if though it’s at a lower decibel than nearby La Carnita and Dailo. The fact that they focus on freshly baked bread and a dedicated vegetarian menu in addition to the small but smart standard one is a reminder that the food as opposed to a wild cocktail menu, small plate snacks and loud music is the foundation for Woodlot’s success. Although I wouldn’t necessarily call it kid friendly, perhaps the parents at the communal table were smart. After all, what parent doesn’t tell their child that they have to eat everything on their plate and with the small portions at Woodlot, maybe that’s not such a daunting task.
In the race to win over ravenous hipsters and foodies, a number of new horses have joined the field. Thoroughbred is no exception. By reading the name you would expect telewagering, mechanical bulls or country-inspired karoke. Instead, you get a trendy, multi-floored work in progress. Floor one is an attractive smaller area housing a bar and a few tables and serving food which can be described as bar food done differently . The second floor is the kitchen complete with a 10 seat chef’s table. Only a few steps up is the third floor which will be a 35 seat dining room with a complete dinner service. Closed Sundays and Mondays, it offers lunch, dinner and late night service Tuesday to Friday and opens Saturday at 5pm.
And they’re off…..
Although tempted to relish a mint julep in honour of the thoroughbreds of the Kentucky Derby, I was intrigued by pop-culture inspired Art Vandelay instead ($13). Made of London dry gin, Dr. Van Nostrand’s tonic, sage, hopped grapefruit bitters, lime and egg white, I presume it’s a spin on a Gin and tonic or even a Tom Collins developed by a guy who spent Thursday night’s in the 90’s in a spirit-induced coma laughing at the Soup Nazi, Puddy or shaking his hands at neighbours and muttering Newman under his breath. It was sweeter and smoother than I expected, perhaps a reflection of who Art actually would be compared to creator George Costanza.
The race started with a simple bowl of olives ($6). Although it’s hard to imagine a twist one one of the most ubiquitous dishes on Toronto menus, the addition of slim jims and peperoncini peppers was a noble effort. The portion size was generous and and despite the fact I’m not an olive fan,the additions were smart and they were very acceptable.
The next leg was with a bloomin’ scallion, a daintierz twist on the Outback bloomin’ onion. Light batter surrounded tender whole green onions and served atop a citrusy “dipping” sauce. Although a plain dish, it was attractive and well executed. It’s more of a knife and fork nourishment as opposed to a get your hands greasy goody.
Coming into the final turn, I ordered the roast broccoli marrow, broccoli carpaccio, plum vinegar and mache ($6). Perhaps a shot at the bone marrow movement, this dish was visually stunning and textually complex. At first sight, the roasted broccoli stalks would fool a PETA member. Surrounded by jicama, red pepper and cashews, the flavour was as balanced as the presentation. Although primarily vegetables, this dish was a steal for the price and absolutely delicious.
The home stretch was another vegetable creation; shaved summer squash with watermelon, pine nuts, lemon vin and grana padano ($6). Another show horse, piles of shaved zucchini were garnished with ribbons of the same and a few radishes. The watermelon’s sweet and the cheese’s salt sung a harmonious tone atop the tart lemon vinaigrette and spots of olive oil. Like the broccoli, it was a light, well constructed, striking and balanced dish.
Not only is the food delicious, but the service was top notch. Lacking a Kentucky Derby pretension, professional staff run the place, including an engaged business partner who is cordial and visible. He introduced himself to me and brought me upstairs to meet the head chef and show me the kitchen, chef’s table and future dining area. The chef table’s concept includes unique group offerings including a Flintstone’s (ribs and all the fixings) or east coast seafood theme. Patrons can also set price points and let the chef go wild. The menu is in progress but promises a full dinner menu reminiscent of the offerings in the bar below.
Thoroughbred has come out of the gates offering a cool, trendy yet slight awkward set up close to the entertainment district. So far, the food and service are winning heats. They ignore the expected equine cliches by naming cocktails after Axel Foley instead of Willie Shoemaker. Excellent service and engaged ownership combined with unique and innovative snacks, sinful meats, seafood and sandwiches make up the bar menu which leads me craving the bigger show upstairs once it’s offered.
If using the metaphor of a horse race, so far Throughbred is a winner. In the Toronto restaurant derby, the biggest question is whether their vision will come to fruition and this foal will achieve the success of Secretariat or the unfortunate fate of Barbaro. If they stick to this gameplan, I’ll place my bets on the former.
Coming back from Kingston, I got off the train in the middle of rush hour and realized it was hapless to attempt to drive back to London so I took the opportunity to grab an early dinner at Byblos. Hidden on Duncan St, the outside is quite subtle especially compared to the massive four floor fortress inside. When I went to the reception, I got the typical routine when I told them I didn’t have a reservation. It starts with the fake pensive stare at the blank computer screen, followed by a slight nod and a grim proclamation and they said there was only room upstairs in the lounge. I followed him upstairs and was seated at a well stocked bar. I felt like I was in the bleachers at a Jays game beacuse I was the only one there. Good thing they snuck me in! As I waited for a drink, I looked around and the saw that the place was decorated in the typical Charles Khabouth style. The room was elegantly decorated and accented with hints of the Middle east.
I was quickly greeted by two barkeeps and we were able to strike up a bit of a conversation. First, we discussed the concept at Byblos: eastern Mediterranean flavours and a kick ass bar. I decided to test the latter out with an old fashioned ($15). Made with a base of Bulleit bourbon (that’s a good start) and accented with date molasses instead of sugar atop a signature Khabouth big ass ice cube, it had an odd colour (I love the bronzy hue of a good old-fashioned) and slightly overwhelming sweetness which hid the bourbon a little too much but in the end was still a decent drink.
From a food perspective, the menu is divided into small and large plates with a spattering of rice dishes. Since I was solo, for the most part I stuck with the small dishes and quizzed the guys about the best dishes:
Cheese Acharuli (Quail Egg + Brioche + Za’atar) $9- Eggs and cheese make me happy so this was an easy choice. The crust was crispy and held its texture while housing the melted cheese and runny egg. The za’atar flavour and pickled onion was a great addition to this spin of the traditional Georgian bread. I didn’t confirm the cheese but wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little sheep’s milk feta hidden in the stringy mess.
I asked about octopus versus crispy squid and the consensus was go with the latter for $13. Although advertised as a large dish, it was no bigger than the acharuli and was seasoned with toum, spices and schug (hot sauce). Although the use of the toum was subtle, it carried a garlic punch that some might find a bit overpowering. Personally, I loved it. The squid itself was a bit lost in the batter and the expected heat from the schug fell a little short.
The final decision was between the duck or eggplant kibbeh. Once again, after careful consultation I went with the vegetarian option ($14) after a suggestion from the waiter that duck might be a bit dry. Within minutes they arrived, served with a yogurt based dipping sauce. It was nicely spiced but overall the dish was a little underwhelming, especially with a $14 price tag.
Byblos is an other Charles Khabouth creation which fits his typical blueprint of huge fanfare, lively atmosphere, abundant space, fancy cocktails, well dressed waitstaff, nicely balanced pretension and hit and miss food. As a whole, I usually enjoy the experience but always leave with a few criticisms. Let me explain what I mean by balanced pretension. I have no issues with people taking pride in their craft and not hiding behind the veil of impartiality. I had a great discussion with the barkeeps about the Keg Mansion, cheque averages and noise levels. We bounced thoughts on the local eateries and agreed or agreed to disagree on many of them; whether it was the noise level, skimpy portions or best anchovy dish in town. That said, they are quite confident about their own joint. This pride is the foundation of the Khabouth brand. Whether it’s Patria, Weslodge or La Societe, you leave feeling a little cooler even if some of the food is hit and miss. Byblos is no different.
I’ve met a few celebrity chefs in my travels. I ran into Lynn Crawford at a food truck festival, met Mark McEwan at a Second Harvest event and snapped a picture of Guy Fieri through the glass at Lakeview diner. I’m not very bold in these endeavors. I usually only approach if they are available and usually if somebody else has already asked for a picture before me. This might explain my reluctance to Susur Lee. First of all, he scares the hell out of me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile and I still remember the way he ripped apart chef Eric Wood during an episode of Chopped Canada.
I was in Toronto at staying in the King and Portland area so I decided to stroll the neighbourhood in order to grab a bite. I was thinking Portland Variety, the new menu at Valdez or maybe a sausage at Wvrst. The last thing on my mind was Lee but as I walked down the sidewalk I looked up and sitting on the patio of his own restaurant was Susur himself. He was dressed in a burgundy blazer with the same stoic look I have always seen on TV. He seemed engrossed in a business meeting with members of his staff so the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt. Instead I texted a few food geeks I knew informing them of my discovery. I attempted to snap a picture but with my already horrendous camera skills it didn’t go well.
I was still undecided about where to dine until I saw a small sandwich board advertising happy hour at Lee which offered $10 cocktails and a small 1/2 price bar menu. Sounded good to me. I walked in and had a seat at the decent size bar. A friendly bartender was waiting and quickly handed me a food and drink menu. The drink menu offered 6 cocktails which had an array of spirits as a base. I started with a burnt orange manhattan (knob hill bourbon, vermouth, grand marnier, cointreau, orange cream citrate). It had a classic taste with a little twist. The bartender even flamed the orange peel for extra effect. Although Knob Creek is not my favorite bourbon, it was still a great cocktail, especially for $10.
The half price bar snack menu consisted of 5 items so I went all in and ordered them all. The first to arrive was the edamame hummus dip ($4) served with sesame crisps, taro root chips and pomegranate. The silky texture was heavenly and the normal earthiness of a chickpea hummus was replaced with a fresher flavour. The punchy pomegranate seeds and taro chips were great compliments.
At this point, a buddy of mine joined me. Shortly after, the spicy tuna tartare and black pepper tuna tataki ($6), spicy jerk chicken ($6) and cheese burger spring roll ($7) arrived. The tartare and tataki were served on a rice cake and topped with red pepper relish. The tuna was prepared perfectly but was blunted by the overwhelming rice cake. The flavours were there, just disproportionate. The cheeseburger spring egg roll was a brilliant concept, especially with the lettuce wrap and pickled vegetable. Once again, like the tuna, the main protein was lost among the numerous other things on the plate. The spice jerk chicken served with the tamarind glaze and chili sauce was phenomenal and easily the best dish of the night. Moist chicken and a very crisp and aggressive seasoned coating was perfect as a stand alone but the sauces enhanced the flavour even further. It was so good we ordered another one.
The last dish on the bar menu was the fois gras and chicken liver pate. Served with ice syrup, ginger mango and ciabatta for $7. It also had some housemade blueberry compote. Although pate is rarely my preferred choice on a menu, this worked on all levels. The texture of the pate complimented with the contrasting sweet and gingery condiments were delightful to the palate. Ironically, I didn’t eat all the pate but the the rest of the plate didn’t stand a chance.
For a second cocktail, I ordered a Mayan Solstice, a tequila and gin based drink with chili infused lime juice, cucumber and green apple (with a little chartreuse). This was fresh and delightful but the heat from the chili was adequately present with every sip. It was a great cocktail.
Whether it was a few cocktails or an general enjoyment of the food and atmosphere, I saw a couple across bar order Susur’s Signature Singaporean-style Slaw. I felt that the guy from “The Source” commercial who sees his creepy neighbour dancing, looks at the speaker and says “I want that”. This $22 salad is one of the most recognized dishes at Lee. It’s an architectural feat, constructed with 19 ingredients. After a detailed description. the waitress skillfully destroyed it into something that could fit in one’s mouth. As much as it was eye candy, it was alliterative mouth candy as well; sweet, salty, sour, spice, savory and sublime.
I stumbled across happy hour at Lee by chance. It started with a chance sighting of Susur itself and lead to an enjoyable meal. Although it is not your typical cinq a sept joint, the staff are welcoming and treat you as well as somebody who might be dropping a few hundreds bucks for dinner. The cocktails were above average and a great value at $10. The bar food was a nice representation of Susur’s intense and diverse flavour profiles although I found the tuna and spring rolls a bit disproportionate. I’d order two jerk chicken right off the bat just to save yourself a wait. If you like pate, Susar’s is a must. The hummus was excellent as well.
The King and Portland area has become the epicentre for the snack food movement in Toronto and Lee has jumped on board (at least between 5 and 7 anyway). The result is a successful menu which offers a sample of Susur’s bold flavours. Both the cocktails and food are a great value but be warned, you may be tempted to indulge in things like the signature slaw or other dishes which cross your path. In the end, although Susur didn’t look overly happy during his own happy hour, I sure did.
The fact that Rich Table was my last supper in San Francisco (this was from my trip back in June..I’m a little slow these days) made me wonder what the famous last supper was like. I mean, the biblical account by each of the disciples was fairly uniform. Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and ate it as a symbol of his body. He then took wine, proclaimed it as his blood and passed it around. Sounds pretty simple but I wondered what would happen if Jesus was a foodie. I mean, what if he wasn’t happy with a 21 Herod’s Fury Merlot and send it back or got upset over the fact the bread wasn’t served with EVOO and a crisp balsamic vinegar.
These thoughts made me realize that being a foodie is like a religion if not a cult. Think about it….can you not picture the foodie couple getting the kids ready in their little plaid shirts from the Gap so they can go to the 11 am seating at Sunday Brunch. Instead of the Eucharist, they break and share aged cheddar scone and wash it down with french pressed coffee or a mimosa, Caesar or some other potent potable deemed acceptable on a Sunday morning. Any alms are already included in the inflated brunch prices
Ironically, I stumbled across a website which used a scientific ranking system (science and religion don’t mix) for San Francisco restaurants based on a statistical formula which took into consideration everything from San Francisco Chronicle reviews to eateries awarded Michelin stars. Rich table was ranked number 1, beating out bay area juggernauts such as Coi, Saison and Quince. It’s another one of these places with a one month reservation policy but they were very polite in answering all my email questions and promptly booked me a big table when the time came. Due to the size of my group, I was told via email we would have a $65/person menu served family style.
Fast forward a month. We had a short wait as the table before us was finishing up the earlier reservation. It was buzzing for a Monday night and the small place was full of fragrant and savory smells. After being seated, I realized I had a great view of the open kitchen. A friendly waiter soon arrived and handed us a few copies of the gospel according to Rich and I was reminded that it was a preset family style menu. The menu contained 14 items divided by starters, pastas, mains and dessert. I asked the waiter how many of each we could order and he politely informed me we were getting them all.
The flip side of the menu featured the beverage offerings which included almost a dozen beers, red and white wines and half a dozen cocktails. I started with an El Jeffe which is a mezcal based drink with grapefruit, tarragon, aperol and bitters. It was a refreshing summer drink with a nice amount of bitterness. Throughout the remainder of the meal, the table developed an affinity for the Bobby Burns, a potent elixir of a holy trinity of scotch, vermouth and benedictine and finished with bitters. It started rough but finished smooth and a few of them went down as the night went on.
Sardine chips, horseradish, creme fraiche– A thin slice of potato slitted,”stuffed” with a sardine and deep fried. Served with a horseradish chip dip. Spectacular!
Douglas fir levain, house cultured butter– Heavy, moist and extremely flavourful bread. I had to limit consumption because wouldn’t have had room for anything else.
Burrata Cheese, Strawberry Gazpacho, Chicken Skin and Almond- This was one of the table favorites. It was burrata elevated to a new level. The sweet/sour gazpacho would have succeeded as a stand alone in a big bowl, especially since it was sprinkled with some of the magic chicken skin.
Little Gems, Bottarga, Dill, Crispy Onion- An ingenious spin on a caesar salad that held it’s own against the other innovative starters on the table. The balance of bitter/salt and cream/crunch was phenomenal.
Crispy Potatoes, Grilled Raddicchio, Garlic Chive and Comte– These went quick. Once again, near perfect from a taste and texture perspective.
Dried Porcini Doughnuts, Raclette Cheese- I’m convinced that the manna which spilled from heavens in the Old Testament may have been these donuts. They were amazing as a stand alone but became a religious experience when the cheese dip was added. A table of grown adults looked like a group of kids attacking a family pack of timbits or Homer Simpson hitting a Krispy Kreme when the red light is on.
The Pasta of Pastas
Pappardelle, Crayfish Oil, Goddess Melon, Pickled Jalapeno, Shiso– The pasta itself was done perfectly. The array of flavours was a bit much for some but I thought it worked well. The melon provided a surprising burst of sweetness which I admit was a bit odd but in the end the dish worked.
Garganelli, Housemade Sausage, Tomato Gravy, Basil- Once again, the pasta was spot on. The flavours were very traditional which was almost surprising considering the uniqueness of all the other dishes at the table. That said, it left you with that rustic, home-cooked feeling.
Tagliatelle, Braised Duck, Aged Sake and Almond- This was my favorite of the bunch. The use of sake reminded me of a penne alla vodka and the almonds nicely complemented the rich flavor of the duck.
The Gospels (Mains)
Summer Squash Gratin, Kale, Local Gouda, Mixed Herbs- Beautifully presented, this dish was a cross between scalloped potatoes and a mac and cheese with greens. The abundant use of the herbs and crispy kale added a great punch to this common yet uncommon offering.
Pork Loin, Toasted Wheatberries, Cherries and Wildflower Honey- I’m a big fan of using cherries with most meats and pork is no exception. The balance of the flavours was great and I really enjoyed the wheatberries. I wish the pork was cooked a little longer. I’m not adverse to a cut of pork cooked medium but I felt the slight undercooking of the loin affected the texture.
Alaskan Halibut, Corn Grits, Chanaterelles, Bouillabaisse, Pistachio- This was my least favorite dish of the evening. The halibut was a bit limp which didn’t lend well to the fact that the surrounding ingredients has the same texture. It was like a big plate of mush.
Coconut Panna Cotta, Toasted Meringue, Lime Crumble- Nice texture and nice flavours. This was a fresh way to end a large and rich meal. I could have taken or left the meringue.
Salted Chocolate Sable, Milk Ice, Mint-Chocolate Mousse- This one had mixed reviews at the table. It was very minty and very chocolaty so those who aren’t extremists thought it was a bit much.
Although Rich Table hasn’t been blessed with a Michelin star by the food gods, it’s cumulative acclaim ranked it number one in San Francisco on sfist.com and statistics don’t lie. It’s interior is somewhat humble but not overly crowded. The large table beside the open kitchen makes for a great dining experience, especially if you are in a big group. The service was professional and smart. The cocktails were heavenly and wine list is reasonable including a reasonable corking policy which allows for the waiving on one corking fee if you buy a bottle there. As for the food, there was a huge selection for a very reasonable $65 per person served family style. The offerings were brilliant although the entrees were somewhat anti-climatic compared to the starters and pastas. The porcini doughnuts (as well as the fowl at State Bird Provisions) are biblical, suggesting that if Foodieism is in fact a religion, San Francisco is definitely the Mecca of the foodie movement given these modern day interpretations of manna and quail first mentioned by Moses in Exodus 16. When thinking of my last supper at Rich Table, I couldn’t help but think of “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and hoped that my dining experience wouldn’t be like the book; overhyped and lacking substance. Instead, it was much more “enlightening”, perhaps suggesting that if the Illuminati did exist, they would eat like this.
There are many reasons to choose a restaurant. In most cases, I have an extravagant formula that combines a number of factors including who I’m with, what’s trending, what my friends or websites suggest, how much I want to eat and whether or not booze will be involved. Others are less calculating. I’ve had guests who have requested vegetarian, clean and/or gluten free food. I have one who avoids garlic and onions and pork can be a sore spot. One of my most recent requests was simple:a place uptown with easy parking. Oddly, this proved to be a daunting task. I could hope for the best and try a place along Bayview or Yonge but parking availability is so random. Knowing my guest liked Italian food, Fabricca immediately came to mind. Located in the shops on Don Mills plaza, this member of Mark McEwan empire offers complimentary valet parking in addition to a parkade only a short distance away.
The spacious restaurant is complete with an outdoor patio, a full bar and a dining area with a view of an open kitchen which includes a wood fired pizza oven. Despite the pseudo-casual atmosphere, Fabbrica has all the components of a fine dining experience. The waitstaff are classically trained and a nicely dressed expediter quarterbacks the kitchen team, ensuring that a salad is neither under- or overdressed or that a parsley leaf is not out of place. I felt a bit like I was on an episode of Top Chef Canada for a second.
Picking a wine is always a bone of contention for me, especially when a table’s worth of palates are on the line. I wouldn’t classify myself as a connoisseur but I can tell the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon so I could get by in a pinch. However, I’m not the guy to go to as a spokesperson when it comes to the dreaded taste test. Sure, I can speak in front of a room of 200 people but having to take the inaugural sip of pinot gris in front of a half dozen people is a daunting task. That said, I have never seen a bottle sent back. In fact, I was thinking it was more of a formality. Not tonight though. We order a bottle of Conundrum from California. My guest took the honours and had a sip. A perplexed look was followed by a second sip and an exclamation that the wine was fizzy. The waiter carried it away and returned shortly with a fresh bottle and an agreement that his call on the wine was correct. In the end, the conundrum was a great choice.
On this night I was in the mood for a salad and pasta. I started with the misticanza salad consisting of seasonal lettuce, fennel, celery, herbs and house dressing ($11). It was delicious in it’s simplicity. The dressing was refreshing and a perfect compliment to the fresh ingredients in the salad.
For the main I ordered the fettuccine with sweet peas, artichoke, pancetta, and crotonese ($20). The pasta was nicely cooked but the dish was too oily and the artichoke pieces were rather large and took away from the taste of the rest of the dish.
For dessert I couldn’t resist the rice pudding with arborio rice, strawberry rhubarb compote and aged balsamic ($11). Oddly enough, I’m not a rice fan but put it in a pudding and I’m a happy camper. In fact, it would likely be one of the five foods I would choose as a desert island choice. The rice maintained its firmness among the creamy base. The compote was hidden in the bottom but once accessible added a nice tartness to the sweet pudding. I thought the addition of the balsamic was brilliant and something I will do when I make rice pudding at home.
Fabbrica is set up to appeal to the masses. It has a bit of the old school Italian eatery mixed with a modern day spin, so it wasn’t surprising to see an array of patrons filling the tables. There was a delightful older couple who may have been celebrating an anniversary, a large table of businessmen laughing incessantly at their own jokes, a table of younger mothers (one of which began breastfeeding her child which raised a few eyebrows among the traditionalists) and even a suave young guy hoping to get to third base by treating his date to dinner including the sundae designed for two. Then again, maybe the other patrons looked at our table as the pretentious one which actually had the nerve to send back a bottle of wine because it was fizzy. In the end, the Fabbrica experience was pretty decent although I was a little disappointed given Mark “Mercurial” McEwan’s high standards on Top Chef Canada. The salad and dessert were fresh and vibrant although the oily pasta was average at best. In the end, I think there are better options in the city for fine Italian fare but if the thought of parallel parking on a busy downtown street or dishing out $20 to jam into a makeshift lot makes you cringe then this may be your place. Plus, you can mingle with “the haves” and get that Coach bag, Solomon jacket or go to across the way to McEwan for that expensive olive oil you always wanted.