I’ll Be Frank..I was Disgracefully Slumming it Up on Bloor West

I recently took a road trip to check out the University of Toronto campus with my son.  Part of the plan was to hit up a brunch spot and introduce him to some of the joints he would likely frequent during his post-secondary experience. We came through Bloor West, past High Park and eventually parked around Ossington in search of a brunch spot.  The initial thought was to walk a few blocks and hit Insomnia to choose from their array of eggs benedict but I called an audible when I walked by Disgraceland and faintly remembered reading something about it having the best something in Toronto. Plus, I could envision my son being more likely to frequent a seedy bar than a place that serves martinis called snowball and diva.

The brunch menu is as no nonsense as the restaurant itself. The tables are dingy and the walls are still sweating booze from the night before.  A picture of the man in black reminds you that they are “cash only” and points you in the direction of a historic ATM which comes with a $1.50 service charge.

The service was prompt and friendly and we quickly ordered the heart attack benny and the hangover helper (both $11) with a couple of refreshingly plain coffees.  It was a standard benny with the addition of cheddar and tomato (the latter I omitted because I don’t think tomatoes belong on most things let alone eggs benedict).  The muffin was a bit chewy and the eggs a few seconds overcooked but the hollandaise did its job unifying everything. The brekkie potatoes were crispy and delicious. All in all, not bad.

Heart Attack Benny $11
Heart Attack Benny $11

My son’s hangover helper was an elixir of nastiness which included eggs, bacon and hollandaise on top of a standard poutine.  With those ingredients, I think it would be harder to screw it up than it would be to nail it and my son certainly had no complaints.

Hangover Helper $11
Hangover Helper $11

After a walk down the street and a pit stop at Long and McQuade  (in which I took the opportunity to explain the importance of a good education as he strummed a $2000 Gibson) we crossed the street to “You Gotta Eat Here” alumni Fancy Franks to grab some lunch for later.  If burgers are Batman, then hot dogs are Robin and a number of tube steak eateries have opened in the past months.  Fancy Franks offers dogs topped with anything from peanut butter to kimchi (most in the $7-9 range) along with other pop culture eats such as poutine ($6-12) and made to order mini donuts for $4-5/dozen. We ordered Franks got Seoul (short rib, kimchi, sesame seeds and scallions) and Franks Coney Island (chili, onions and mustard). The dogs are the snappy type and the toppings are rather abundant. My son (who works at Five Guys burgers and fries) was impressed with condiment bar which even offered a mayo dispenser if one is so inclined.  They were tasty (although they start to get quite greasy when they cool down a bit) but I was left wondering what justified the steep price.  Maybe I’m a bit biased knowing I can head to Detroit and grab the same Coney dog Anthony Bourdain raved about for $1.50 or head to any street vendor and grab some street meat with half a dozen toppings including sauerkraut, fried onions and corn relish for $3.50 but $8 for a hot dog makes a vendor at the Rogers Centre scratch his head. I wish I could report on the donuts but apparently the machine is quite volatile and was misbehaving on this day so I was out of luck.

Franks Got Seoul $7.50 or so
Franks Got Seoul $7.50 or so

My Take

I think our expedition to Toronto taught my son a few things:

  1. The University of Toronto campus is massive.
  2. Carry cash so you don’t get slapped with ATM service charges from places who actually profit from your inconvenience given the fact they only take cash.
  3. Gravy and hollandaise are like him and his sister..they are good together in moderation but I wouldn’t do it too often.
  4. If his ultimate goal is saving up for a Gibson, then eating at Fancy Franks frequently won’t help.

These eateries reflect two of the biggest culinary trends to hit Toronto streets in the past couple of years: brunch and burgers. As I’ve said before, brunch may be a french word for “overpriced breakfast” and  Disgraceland succeeds in offering choices that moderately fit this theme.  When I say burgers I’m generically referring to trend that has opened the door for establishments which focus on handheld foods which represent “North Amerciana”, I’m sure one can blame the escalating price of beef (Frank’s dogs are 100% beef) for the inflated prices but I’d lean more toward the social phenomenon which suggests that people will pay more for something trendy and an $8 hot dog sounds mighty trendy.  So, unless I’m watching R.A. Dickey throwing knuckleballs I’ll stick to street vendors.  Even better, maybe I’ll drive to Detroit and watch Verlander pitch on television and eat a Coney dog for every strikeout he gets…it would still be cheaper than a couple of dogs at Franks.

Fancy Franks Gourmet Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Disgraceland on Urbanspoon

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I Got Invited to a Somewhat Lame Toca Party

At least once a year I get roped into a fancy dinner at a place I normally wouldn’t go.  This year it was Toca, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. Boasting the fact they have Rome and Michelin star Chef Oliver Glowig on retainer, Toca promises a unique take on Italian cuisine.  One can choose from the 4 course tasting menu for $89 or order a la carte.  I’m a firm believer that ninety bucks should get you at least 5 or 6 courses so I chose my own adventure and opted for the menu.

The last time I had a $16 bowl of soup I pointed out that it better change my life since it was nothing more than a mushroom broth. Well, I’m still sitting here talking about food so I guess it didn’t work. This time the same price tag offered me zuppa di sedano e patate (celery and potato soup, lobster, peas, green beans, croutons), a soup with an ingredient list which appeared more French than Italian. Once again, it won’t make me beg the Huffington post to print an article I wrote or quit my job and apply at Zomato, but it was more rewarding than the broth.  The flavours of the individual ingredients were not dulled by butter or cream or fat but instead expressed a mouth-popping individuality with every bite.

Soup
                                            Zuppa di Sedano e Patate $16

The wine list is comprehensive and offers choices from around the world at a wide spectrum of prices, many of which are triple digits and above.  We took a new world followed by an old world approach, sharing a 2009 Hamelin Bay Rampant Red Aussie Shiraz for $75 followed by a 2010 Château de Montmirail from  Rhône Valley for $95.

At the advice of the waitstaff, I split an order of the scialatielli (homemade with clams and mussels) with another dinner guest.  I thought the pasta itself was fantastic even if the fruits de mer were a bit stingy.  There seems to be this growing trend to group clams and mussels in with some of the more illustrious seafood options out there for the purposes of jacking up the price.  I mean, I can still buy about 6 pounds of mussels for the price of a small lobster so $26 for 4 or 5 clams is a bit of a stretch.

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             Scialatielli with Clams and Mussels (half a $26 dollar order) 

For my entree I went with the half galletto croccante;Lemon and rosemary roasted cornish hen for $26.  I felt a bit friendless in my inability to secure a whole hen but my table mates were sold on the tasting menu, black cod and filet mignon. Normally, I’m all over black cod but I think I’ve begun a formal protest against the combination of seafood and olives/tomatoes, so I avoided it on this occasion. So, I was left alone to dine on the simple yet nicely prepared fowl. The skin was crispy and well seasoned and the hen itself was moist although I didn’t care much for the tomato stack sidekick. The gnocchi (pictured on back of plate) was cooked in butter and sage and  available as a side for $9 for 4 pieces.

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Galletto Croccante (Lemon and Rosemary Roasted Cornish Hen $26)

Dessert was a Cachi Melograno (yogurt mousse with pomegranate sorbet and persimmon) for $14.  This combination of ingredients could have produced either an overly tart or sickly sweet confection but it was light, fragrant and balanced, ending the meal with some palate cleansing pleasure.

Dessert $14
Cachi Melograno $14

My Take

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I have high expectations when it comes to restaurants whose quality is assumed by the prices they charge for their food.  This is the case with eateries within many of downtown Toronto’s luxury hotels.  Even when I travel abroad, I frequently reconsider visiting  a restaurant (even when associated with a reputable chef) when I find out it’s attached to a hotel.  That said, the food was quite acceptable but fell a little short if you approach it from a value perspective.  For example, although I didn’t have the tasting menu myself, for $89 I would have expected something a little more creative (eg. more small dishes)  instead of a sampling of something I can get off the menu anyway. Come to think about it, it was more prix fixe than it was tasting.

One of the fundamentals of a Ritz-Carlton experience is an exceptional, if not slightly nauseating level of  service.  Fortunately or not (depending on your take), this didn’t occur. It was cordial and efficient but not over the top.  The general ambiance made me wonder whether a woman who showed up with her dog Cuddles in her Prada handbag would leave satisfied that her ego got stroked as much as her dog does.  Speaking of which, the people watching was a bit disappointing.  The rather sterile crowd was not nearly as entertaining as the fur shawl wearing couple I saw at the Trump a year or two ago, making for a rather lame Toca party.

TOCA on Urbanspoon

I Know I’m as White as the Adrak Duck but Cut Me Some Quack

I was meeting a customer for a dinner in the North and since we both agreed on Indian, he suggested Adrak in Richmond Hill.  So, I hopped on Open Table and made a reservation for the following week.

I’m not overly familiar with Richmond Hill so I needed to type this one into my iPhone.  With the help of Siri I was directed into an abandoned parking lot with a small sign stuck in the ground  indicating that the restaurant was somewhere in the vicinity.  After parking, I walked around to the front of one of the buildings and found the entrance rather easily.  It’s quite spacious, complete with a glassed off area housing tandoori ovens pumping out meat and bread at a feverish rate.  There is a unique cocktail menu which brings flavours of the Southeast into a potent potable.  Although I was tempted, I was deterred by the need to drive back to airport area afterwards.

Although  Adrak means ginger in Hindi, the minute I heard the name of this restaurant I thought of the Aflac duck. This mischievous water fowl made headlines when the absolutely obnoxious Gilbert Gottfried was fired as the voice for making a series of inappropriate jokes related to the tsunami in Japan years back..  Since then, the duck has continued to get in trouble in commercials  by most recently attending a yoga class so he can shamelessly stare at women’s asses in tight pants.

Since the Alfac duck is really white and the name sounds like Adrak, I would like to propose that the term Adrak duck refer to any really white person that walks into a ethnic restaurant and either gets questioned about their food choice or their level of spice.  I have been the victim of this practice numerous times and just think I’ll start belting out “Adrak!” in a duck voice whenever this happens. Consider the following examples.  I recently walked into a Thai restaurant with my daughter and we ordered fresh spring rolls with pork rind in it.  The waitress raised an eyebrow and asked if we were sure we wanted pork rind because  it was skin.  Although I was tempted to yell “Adrak!”, as much as I hated to do it, I had to resort to a foodie look while stating “Yes, I’m aware”.  I also have a Sri Lankan friend I will meet for lunch on occasion.  Whether we go for East Asian or Indian, the level of spice is a discussion between the waitstaff and I with frequent glances at my friend with a “is this guy for real?” quizzical look on their face.  The assumption is the level of heat needs to be tailored to me since I’m the wimpy white guy.

ADRAK!

I’ve read reviews questioning the service at Adrak.  Maybe it was the fact that it was a Wednesday night but I found it prompt and courteous.  The night began with a decent amuse bouche reminiscent of arancini with saffron accents and served atop a tangy tomato sauce.

Amuse Bouche- Arancini
Amuse Bouche- Arancini

Tandoori Temptations

We started the night with a trio of protein from the tandoori oven; salmon tikka, bhatti da murgh (chicken legs) and chaamp taajar (lamb chops).  Each was seasoned with an array of spices, fired up and attractively served.  Before putting in the order, however, it happened.  Totally ignoring the Indian guy at the table, he looked at the two white guys at the table and asked about the spice level.  We agreed on spicy and he proceeded to inform us that Indian spice is hotter than normal spice.

ADRAK!

Even for a white guy, everything was nicely spiced and didn’t require copious amounts of water nor a call to Telehealth to digest.  Despite the extreme heat of the tandoori oven, the meat kept its interior moisture and the traditional sauces were a nice complement.

Salmon Tikki $18
Salmon Tikka $18
Bhatti Murgh $16
Bhatti Murgh $16
Chaamp $25
Chaamp Taajar $25

Next, we decided on a few curries. At the recommendation of my guest, we ordered the Dal Makhani (lentil) and the less traditional Adraki mushroom dishes.  He also recommended the Romali Roti as opposed to Naan.  I added the Matter Paneer (pea and cheese) and the smokey Bangain Bharta (eggplant).   Quite confident with our dominance of the tandoori, I figured spice wouldn’t be an issue this time but in sitcom fashion, the waiter reminded us the spices are more prominent in curries so we should might want to bring it down a notch.

ADRAK!

The lentils were delicious but extremely rich driven by the background taste of lots of butter.  One of my favorite characteristics of a curry is the consistency and I found the mushrooms  a bit disjointed.  The flavours were fine but just didn’t blend as nicely as I hoped.  The peas were spot on; a nicely balanced mix of sweet and tangy with a perfect texture.  I thought the eggplant was decent as well although not as good as the dal or matter.  Once again, the spice level was quite acceptable, even for a tongue flexing Caucasian.

While waiting for the curry, I watched the chef toss the roti dough like a pizza and delicately place each piece on a heated globe of stone and wait a mere few seconds for it to heat up and then skillfully fold it into a basket for the table.    Now I can barely eat with a fork, so using the roomali roti ($5) as a vessel  is always a fun adventure which usually ends up with me spilling something on my shirt or lap.  I’d probably be safer with some basmati and a fork but what’s the fun in that and plus, I’m not a huge fan of rice.

mushroom
Adraki Mushroom $14 and Bangain Bharta $14
Dal Makhani $12 and Matter Paneer $13
Dal Makhani $12 and Matter Paneer $13

My Take

I’m not suggesting that Adrak did anything wrong by questioning the spice levels for a couple of white dudes but I find this is a common occurrence in a slew of ethnic restaurants.  I’m sure it is quite common to have complaints from some clown who thinks he is scary spice come in only to be brought down to baby spice level with one bite of a samosa.  At the same time I should point out that I’m not interested in spice that kills the flavour of the food for the purposes of bragging rights but I do like things which are authentic. That said, I’m tempted to stand up and yell “I did it in two minutes and thirty-seven seconds” hysterically as I rip off my shirt and reveal my “I survived the Blazing Wing Challenge Buffalo Wild Wings Shirt” tee to silence the critics.

Adrak was a decent experience in modern Indian food. The service was good and prices were not ridiculous but a little on the high side  From the open kitchen in which one can witness dough tossing and hot tandoori ovens to the large variety of  traditional and not so traditional curries, any fan of Indian food will find something to satisfy their palate whether your tastes could be better described as  baby (Adrak!) or scary spice.

Adrak!
Adrak!

 

Adrak on Urbanspoon