Day 1 in Halifax: Hitting 60% of my Maritime Wish List at the Famous Pizza Corner in February

I just attended a conference in Halifax.  I only had a few days so I wanted to make sure I hit the laundry list of things I wanted to do in the Maritimes in the middle of February:

  • Drink local beer
  • Eat a donair
  • Visit pizza corner
  • Have a lobster roll
  • Hit at least one restaurant from “You gotta eat here”.

The first interesting thing about Halifax is the fact that the airport is 45 km away from the city.  Between these points is an abundance of land which could easily accommodate a hundred airports.  One explanation from a cab driver (who had a strong resemblance to Burton Cummings) for keeping the airport well away from the coast is the tendency for sea birds to fly into windshields or engines of incoming planes. Regardless, any cabbie probably won’t complain given it’s a sixty dollar cab ride for a one way trip downtown.

I arrived at the Westin which looked like a cross between an apartment building and an old hospital but was reasonably nice on the inside.  After checking in, I grabbed my toque and scarf and headed out to brave what Halifax had to offer.  I was looking to watch the second half of a soccer game, so a quick search of urbanspoon identified Maxwell’s Plum as a pub with a large number of local beer and football on the tube.  On the way, I looked like Q-Bert as I tried to navigate around the poorly maintained sidewalks in between snowbanks that were higher than  my waist while a mix of ice and snow pelted my face. After walking about a kilometer,  I trekked up the last hill which had to be at least a 60 degree angle and arrived at my destination.  I sat at a small table near the bar with a good view of the game and an equally good view of the clientele which looked like the same as what you would see at a Tim Horton’s in Ontario. The crowd was young and old but all glowed with that down home aura. Discussions included hockey, knitting and the weather.  The Thursday frosty glass special was Hell Bay English Ale from Liverpool, NS, so I ordered it thinking it was a fitting start given I was watching a team with the same name on the tele. The glass was certainly frosty and contained a beer with a nice balance of bitter and carmel flavours.

I went with the burger special for $6.99 and added an egg for $2 which I later realized was kind of ridiculous.  The platter arrived, which brings me to my second interesting observation about Halifax; the restaurants seem to like using dishes with their names chiseled or painted on them.  The burger and fry platter (on the aforementioned  plate which looked that something from Maximilian II and not Maxwell’s Plum) was decent, falling somewhere in the middle of the best and worst I have ever had.

$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg
$6.99 Burger Platter with a $2 egg

I also ordered a sampler of Spruce beer, an organic brewery from Cape Breton which included  Bitter Get’er India Black IPA, Kitchen Party Pale Ale, Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout and Ready Yer Knot Regatta Red Ale.  In addition to the ingenious names, they carried some ingenious flavour.  In particular, I enjoyed the Bitter Get’er and the Kitchen Party for their complex and crisp, fresh flavours respectively (far and middle right).

Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95
Spruce Brewery Sampler $12.95

Afterwards, I donned the water garb again and headed down the road a block to the famous pizza corner.  I mean, there’s a big difference between this late night party zone at 3 am on a Saturday night in July versus a frigid afternoon in February but I needed to see what the hype was about.  Not surprisingly, the intersection was barren of all activity except for blowing snow.  There was a big red DO AIR sign (the N was burnt out) on the storefront  across from my next destination, the Sicilian. Known for it’s big slice, which surely appeals to the post-bar Halifax drunkards, they also offer a donair.  A donair is a Canadain twist on a Doner, a turkish dish made of a combination of meat cooked by rotisserie.  The Canadian version is slathered with a sweet sauce and served in a warm pita. Being a bit of a traditionalist, I would have liked to go to the site of the first Canadian donair, but the King of Donair left the pizza corner a few years back and my already frozen face wouldn’t have been able to handle the walk to their new location.  I carried them back to the hotel and on the way noticed a couple of things.  First, like other local food destinations whose their foundations lay in mom and pop establishments,the pizza corner is starting to be infiltrated by the tentacles of half-ass cookie cutter chain restaurants. I mean, there are still the small, locally owned joints like a Filipino restaurant with a sign on the door saying we are getting out of dodge until the end of February, but the familiar logos of Smoke’s poutinerie and Subway are creeping closer. Second,  I appreciated getting the heads up about the possibility of falling ice outside a burrito restaurant just down the road.  I normally tend to pay little attention to my surroundings but was grateful for the warning when I looked up and saw this:

Beware of Falling Ice
Beware of Falling Ice

After another tumultuous walk, this time back to my hotel, I tore into my pizza corner treasures. The Sicilian’s version of the Halifax doniar ( I got mine minus tomato but with onion) was delicious and as sinful as Lucky Luciano himself.  There was enough sweet in the sauce and spice in the meat to please all “corners” of my mouth. The BBQ chicken pizza wasn’t bad either.  Mission accomplished for day one.

Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair
Sicilian Pizza and a Halifax Donair

My Take

Although hardly under ideal circumstances, I began my quick trip to Halifax by knocking three of the five musts off my list.  I weathered an east coast storm, drank some delicious local brews, hit pizza corner, avoided an icicle avalanche and dripped a sloppy donair all over my hotel desk.  I love the east coast philosophy of screwing roll up the rim after 5 pm  and communicating over a beer instead of coffee  whether you are a wannabe hipster named  Evan, a hockey fan named Peter or a gramma named Mabel.  I also love their ability to recognize that you are a tourist and then kindly tell you to “come back when the weather’s better now”.  Before I went to bed I took one last look over the pier from my hotel window and thought “ya…I  bitter get’er done”.

Maxwell's Plum on Urbanspoon

Sicilian Pizza Donairs & Subs on Urbanspoon

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De Niro’s Pad, Homicidal Snowplows and Psychoanalysis at Rino’s Kitchen

I love Windsor.  I’ve mentioned before it reminds me of my hometown of Sudbury. Although it will probably never be part of  a conversation about  the best dining destinations in Canada, Windsor has quietly evolved into a diverse and vibrant culinary locale. Driven by a number of mom/pop or brother/sister joints, one can choose almost anything.   If you’re in the mood for a family style joint, you can hit the Lumberjack’s salad bar or order Penalty Box’s chicken delight. Food Network junkies can hit a number of joints visited by John Catucci on You Gotta Eat Here.  If you are in the mood for ethnic food, there is fantastic Italian along Erie Street and great Thai, Lebanese and even Ethiopian scattered throughout the city.  If you are still stuck you can hop onto Windsor Eats, an impressive website which provides up to date information on local restaurants and even offers tours which highlights local fare.

What makes things even better are the uncontrolled circumstances which usually occur involving a trip to Windsor.  It’s never simply a go to a restaurant, eat and leave experience.  There are always a few things which happen along the way that makes things stranger than fiction.  Take my recent visit for example.

I left the hospital on my way to a meeting with two colleagues; one works with my company and the other is a local doctor. The latter  had suggested we hit an Italian cafe so we can experience Erie Street.  Once I turned onto the street, we pulled over in front the first cafe we found that looked open.  I’m reluctant to name it over fear for my car tires and general well-being. Upon entry, the people in the place scattered, abandoning any card games or whatever else was going on.  The cafe basically consisted of a small bar, a huge espresso machine and an empty gelato bar with a smaller ice cream cooler beside it which was housing three or four flavours.  Looking around I saw a bunch of Italian guys, a picture of Robert De Niro (who apparently visited during Superbowl in Detroit) and an aged and framed oil painting of an Italian man who I have yet to identify.  I think I even saw the eyes follow me  as I walked around the place. A large television was showing Grey’s Anatomy much to the pleasure of a few of the patrons.  Things seemed to settle down once they figured out we weren’t cops and we were able to order.  Given it was about 10 degrees below zero, I ordered a decaf Americano and my work colleague ordered a latte.  The doctor, on the other hand, ordered a chocolate gelato on a waffle cone and proceeded to eat it like a happy 12 year old child.  While we waited, an old Italian guy walked out of the washroom.  He was either hiding in there after thinking a sting was going down or maybe he just needed to use the facilities but his reaction was nothing short of priceless.  I should point out that my colleague is an attractive blond woman whose likes probably haven’t stepped foot in that cafe for 30 years.  His jaw hit the floor like a Warner Brother’s character and he started speaking in tongues.  The woman behind the espresso machine just told him to go sit down.  He complied but continued to mutter drunken Italian nonsense in our direction for the remainder of the visit.  In between bites of chocolate, the doctor suggested that I should probably switch chairs so my back wasn’t facing the front door.   So, with Dr. Dreamy on the tube, a smiling De Niro on the wall and a bunch of old Italian guys (including the paisan in the oil painting) staring at us, we had our meeting, finished our coffees (and gelato of course) and scurried out.

After we dropped him off we decided to grab a bite.  Not only was is cold but it was starting to snow.  I should take this opportunity to point out something about Windsor; they don’t like snow.  In fact, they would have no problem declaring a state of emergency once enough snow falls to erect a  Tyrion Lannister snowman.  So, with nothing more than a centimeter of snow on the ground, out came the plows.  I was driving down one of the many one way streets and a saw the plow behind me.  I was immediately reminded of  a scene from 1986’s Maximum Overdrive.  The only thing missing was the Green Goblin face.  The homicidal plow approached at a feverish pace, sending sparks instead of snow ten feet into the air. I turned onto another street the minute I had a chance, took a deep breath and realized that my life had now been threatened  twice in the same evening.

We eventually decided on dinner at Rino’s kitchen. Rino’s encourages you to “Taste the finest Essex County has to offer. Farm to table at its best in a relaxed pub atmosphere.”  It was also recently featured on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”. At this point I should point out the fact that, like most cities, there is a subset of Windsor’s population who thinks they are hipsters.  The last time I came to Rino’s there were a table of clowns that looked more like the cast of Scorpion  than self-proclaimed food aficionados. To be a good hipster you really have to be a self-righteous asshole.  Just wearing the plaid and sitting farm to table joint in a small, blue collar city is not enough.

Luckily, hipsters were absent on this evening. Instead, we arrived on the tail end of an art show.  Small pictures were hanging all over the place.  In fact, we switched tables so as not to get in the way of the viewing audience.  I did have a look at some of the pictures and my colleague, with her psychology background, had commented that most of them looked like Rorschach blots.  I had to agree and felt tempted to lay down on the bench I was sitting on.  One of them looked like De Niro pointing a gun at me.  Another looked like the Green Goblin. Asa a result, I quickly ordered on of the four or five Ontario pints available on tap.

The menu offers all sorts of choices ranging from seasonal salads to protein laden mains.  I’m always a fan of house-cured meats, so we started with the charcuterie plate for $15.  Two types of meat (salami and coppa) and cheese (asiago and pecorino) were served along with roasted red peppers and bread.  The quality of the ingredients were quite good although it would have been nice to have some mustard or other condiments along side.  I would have also liked to see something like aged Ontario cheddars available “on board”.

Charcuterie $15
Charcuterie $15

As tempted as I was to order the signature pork and waffles, the pleasant waitress talked me into the seasonal oxtail stew served atop potato mash ($17).  The stew was filled with tender meat and carrots and served in a hearty portion with more carrots on the side.  It was a lot of carrots. Maybe a few green vegetables would have been better. In addition to a good dose of carotene, it was a delicious dish which was seasoned well.

Oxtail Stew $17
Oxtail Stew $17

They offered an apple crisp and a pumpkin walnut cheesecake for dessert.  I ordered the latter. Pumpkin and walnut go well together and the cheesecake was not overly sweet or heavy.  I think the icing sugar was a fitting garnish for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s kind of a f#ck you to the hipster movement who would likely reference the fact if wasn’t 2003 and then suggest a ground cherry as a more appropriate condiment.  Second, it’s the perfect example of a small town, blue collar adaption of the farm to table concept  in  a relaxed pub environment.

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7
Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

 My Take

In the span of a few hours, I escaped a scene from a Robert De Niro movie, outran a homicidal snowplow and got psychoanalyzed by the works of a struggling Windsor artist.  I also ate a decent meal at a restaurant which adheres to farm to table principles from charcuterie to dessert without the associated urban pretension.   You won’t find mason jars or the unnecessary yet abundant use of radishes at Rino’s. In fact, the menu offers trendy, tasty and reasonably priced choices without compromising portion sizes at the expense of making things look pretty.  Ya, I love Windsor…with icing sugar on top.

Rino's Kitchen & Ale House on Urbanspoon

 

What About Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu When The Donger Need Food?

When one mentions Korean food in Toronto, Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu is on the top of this list.  Not to be mistaken with Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles fame, Buk Chang is a College Street mainstay. It is part of my quest to tackle Korean food this year and having a colleague craving bibimbap in a hot stone bow, it seemed a logical stop.  Luckily, it was just past the lunch hour so we easily secured a table in the back corner and were handed the one page menu.  The decor was rather plain but not uncomfortable. Boasting a menu of 9 items with only 2 of them over $7, I ordered the seafood soon tofu with the hot pot of rice for $8 while she ordered the bibimbap for a little under $10.

One of the things I love about the Korean experience is the banchan, which is an array of side dishes which compliment the main dishes.  These are somewhat open to interpretation but usually include kimchi, steamed vegetables (called namul) and other things like pancakes which can contain any number of ingredients.  In the case of Buk Chang, we were treated to some bean sprouts, kimchi, radish and some Kuromame black beans.  The beans were the best part of the banchan and although the rest of the offerings were good, they were far from mind-blowing.

Banchan
Banchan

 

I’m a little stubborn when I go out and eat in an environment that is somewhat foreign to me.  There have been numerous instances where I have been faced with questions like “Should I eat this hot pepper or is it just garnish?” or “Which sauce goes with which dumpling?”.  Today was no different.  I cautiously spied patrons at other tables for hints on proper conduct although I’m not sure there is a particular science in eating Korean food.  I mean, you don’t have to have a Michelin star to conclude that an shelled egg placed on the table should eventually end up cracked in my soup.  What confused me a little more was the reason why the server poured water in my bowl of purple rice after he scraped most of it into another bowl.  Was it to help out the dishwashers?  To cool the bowl down in case I forget and burn myself?  Was I supposed to do something with it to complete my meal?  In the end, I never got the answer despite watching  an older Korean lady who ordered the same thing as me. She didn’t give the rice bowl a second glance which did nothing to answer my question.

The seafood soon tofu arrived bubbling. I dropped the egg in and watched the protein denature like I  was presenting a grade 8 science project.   The tofu itself was amazing; it’s texture hit that part of my brain that made me fall in love with things like rice pudding and tapioca.  The broth was punchy but delicate. Understanding that this is a restaurant with a significant devotion to tofu, I still found the seafood contribution nothing short of measly.   Two tiny unshelled, head-on shrimp and one mussel were absolutely lost in the big bowl of tofu. I’m not really a fan of rice but I enjoyed a few bites from the bowl of the purple grain that was served with the soup.

Seafood Soon Tofu $7.97
Seafood Soon Tofu (with hot pot rice) $7.97

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of bibimbap mainly due to the fact that it’s mostly rice.  That said, if you crisp up some rice against a hot stone bowl and add a fried egg among other things  you can at least peak my interest. It was a decent $10 bowl of rice.  The egg was nicely done and other condiments were used in good proportion.

Bibimbap $9.74
Bibimbap $9.74

My Take

Most white people will confess that their experience with Korean food has been limited to bulgogi beef and bibimbap, a statement which is possibly as stereotypical as the gong which sounded every time Long Duk Dong entered a scene during  Sixteen Candles more than thirty years ago.   Buk Chang’s  focus on soon (soft) tofu opens another page in the Korean cookbook.  Other than the mystery of the water pitcher, this place offers a straight forward experience in a no frills fashion. That said, when I ponder the scant amount of seafood in the soup,  I need to remember that in the end I’m getting a filling meal for about $8 although I think calling it seafood soon tofu is a tad deceiving.

In many good lunches and dinners you only ultimately  remember every perfect ration eaten,  great nosh and  nectarous thrill. Coming here and nibbling inferior kimchi and bland namul prevents me from calling this the best Korean experience I’ve ever had but based on the tofu soup and the bibimbap, I understand why it’s become a staple for many ethnic food enthusiasts in the GTA.

Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu on Urbanspoon

Hopgood’s Foodliner as Switzerland to Toronto’s Proposed East vs West Food Rivalry

I’ve been pondering a visit to Hopgood’s for some time now.  I often stay downtown so the thought of a long drive, expensive and smelly cab or an onerous TTC excursion usually turns me off and I end up settling on something a little closer. However, a few Mondays ago I was driving to Toronto from London right around dinner time and took advantage of the location plus buck a shuck oysters by popping in before checking into my hotel for the night.

Hopgood’s has received constant accolades since opening a few years back.  It’s theme is east coast fare with a Toronto twist. It goes without saying that it boasts a ocean-centric menu with a bit of poetic licence.  The menu is smallish but complemented with a number of blackboard specials meant to highlight seasonal ingredients.

I grabbed a seat at the bar right in front of the oyster shucker.  He was busy cracking open the joints of 4 or 5 different types and throwing them on trays of ice.  Oysters are a most interesting culinary phenomenon.  There are dozens of species of oysters and each have a distinct profile.  Much like wine, pundits post comments about the bouquet and balance of the tasty mollusks.  There are heated debates about proper condiments; horseradish, lemon and mignonette seems to be holy trinity but it is not uncommon to see cocktail sauce and even blended scotch make it’s way on the list as well. In oyster world, there is also the east versus west coast battle which may be as heated as the music rivalry which has existed in the hip-hop/rap world since the nineties.

Let’s stop here for a second.  I’m a white guy who can’t dance or sing but I’ve always been fascinated by the impact that music has had on popular culture.  Historically, religion and land claims have the two biggest triggers for disputes across the globe. However, in the last 20 years one can argue that one of the biggest rivalries (at least in the US) has been fueled by music.  The west coast vs east coast conflict peaked in the late nineties with the murders of  the treasonous 2Pac (I say so because he was actually born in east Harlem and became one of the kingpins in the west coast movement) in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G ( the self-proclaimed king of New York) just six months later.  I read into this a bit more and discovered a couple of interesting facts:

  • Tupac and B.I.G were victims of drive by shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California respectively.
  • Tupac was hit four times in the chest, pelvis, and his right hand and thigh.  B.I.G was also hit four times with almost an identical profile except for a shot in the back versus chest.  Both reports noted that one of bullet hit the victim’s left testicle.
  • Tupac died six days later in hospital while B.I.G died only an hour after the shooting.
  • Neither  case has  been solved although much speculation still exists as to who the shooters were.  Not surprisingly, names like Diddy and Suge Knight (and in the case of Tupac Biggy himself) come up, but the composite sketch of B.I.G’s shooter looks like The Fresh Prince’s Carlton more than any of the suspected hip-hop thugs.

Back to Hopgood’s.  As opposed to a skinny and cut West Coast Tupac and a heavy east coast Notorious B.I.G, oysters are the opposite. Atlantic oysters tend to be a bit smaller whereas Pacific are meatier. What I found impressive was the fact that there was no compromise in quality even though it was buck a shuck night.  I have been to other places where the only option were rather measly and pathetic Malpeques .  They did charge for condiments such as horseradish (and a rather interested egg/scapple combination (6 o’clock) which I quite enjoyed) but that still didn’t hinder the fact that they were a great deal.  They did take some time to come and an apology came in the form of a free oyster topped with a torched parmesan sauce (2 o’clock) which gave it a nice baked oyster taste without compromising the integrity of the fresh oyster itself.

Oysters (A Buck each)
                                                                     Oysters (A Buck each)

While waiting for the oysters I ordered a winter derby (Elijah Craig Bourbon, Averna, Clementine Shrub, Lemon, Maple Syrup, Cinnamon & Pear Bitters) for $15.  It was tasty cocktail and while a little on the sweet side, had a nice balance and richness which removed the temptation to shoot it while at the same time not being a meal in itself.

Winter Derby $15
                                 Winter Derby $15

I went to the blackboard for my next dish which was beet greens served with brown butter and walnuts.  The bitterness of the greens were harnessed somewhat but the sweetness of the butter and the walnuts glued things together with earthy contrast and crunchy texture. The apple added a needed freshness. I found it a very smart dish.

Beet Greens
Beet Greens $6

The blackboard also offered a tuna belly crudo which was garnised with a salad made of watermelon radish.  It was safer than I expected.  The tuna itself was fresh and delicious but there was a general lack of seasoning, acid and heat. In the end, I thought the fish and salad lacked cohesion as a single dish.

Tuna Belly Crudo
                                                Tuna Belly Crudo $10

For the main course  I stuck to the menu and ordered the sablefish with a n’duja and brussel sprout salad. I expected that a restaurant with great accolades  which specializes in seafood would be able to nail a piece and sablefish and I wasn’t disappointed.  What blew my mind was the salad.  The crunch of the sprouts with the surprising heat (after all where are talking east coast) of the n’duja was unexpected.  In fact, the fish was close to playing supporting actor to the sprouts but the fact it was perfectly cooked allowed it’s buttery richness to shine as the star on the plate.

Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N'duja
                                                    Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N’duja $25

Since I was so impressed with the salad, I couldn’t help but turn to the blackboard and hope that the steamed scallops with n’duja was still available ( I should state here that like most specials, they are made in limited quantities and many of them had lines scratched through them as the night went on).  It was a carbon copy of the sablefish; the beautifully presented (in shell)  scallops were respectfully prepared and once again the sauce was spicy and delicious.  I love playing with my food and I had fun dissecting the bivalves.

Steamed Scallops
                                                                   Steamed Scallops $12

There were long voids in between dishes and I found the service quite scattered and unorganized.  Maybe it was the fact that the waiter taking care of me also had everybody else at bar, a few tables and was responsible for all the drinks.  Although it was a Monday, it was busy and I think at times there was no rhyme or reason to the ways things flowed.

My Take

There is no doubt in my mind why Hopgood’s Foodliner has received the laurels it has since it opened a few years back.  It takes the friendly cuisine of the east coast and urbanizes it to compete in Toronto’s progressive dining scene.  Smart blackboard specials, perfectly executed proteins and surprisingly sauces highlight a superb menu.  The cocktail list is pricy but smart by taking a number of tastes,flavours and boozes into consideration.  The overall experience, however,  was somewhat hampered by slow, inconsistent and confused service.

Classic east/west rivalries such as the Celtics versus Lakers exist in sports. In the culinary world, celebrity chef and competitive brothers Bryan and Mike Voltaggio represent both sides of the United States (with west coast Michael winning the head to head battle on season six of  Top Chef). I got thinking than a similar east versus west rivalry may add some spice to Toronto’s dining scene.  Perhaps the line can be drawn along Bathurst which would nicely separate the bourbon- swilling Parkdale posse from the suit wearing Grey Goose-drinking downtown dwellers.  Thankfully, the likelihood of shootings is minimal, but I imagine feuds could escalate into a night of a few Campari or Shiraz-fueled bitchslaps should things get out of hand.  More likely would be the back and forth twitter banter such as “Hey Don Draper..how’s that Manhattan Tasting #westisbest” or “I drink AFTER working a 10 hour shift, not DURING one  #plaidisbad”.  The biggest question regarding Hopgood’s is since it’s an east coast restaurant on the west side, which side of the fence they would sit on?  Perhaps it can assert itself as a neutral zone and a place where all can exist in harmony while doing oyster shots….just as long as you’re not in a hurry.

Hopgood's Foodliner on Urbanspoon