Food Deserts: The Comestible Topography That Brought Unilever to Its Knees

I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s.   The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical  regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price.  Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as  the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford.  It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis.  This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice.  I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.

The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience.  As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof.  Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg.  A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film
Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare.  There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there  was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do.  Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited  the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished.  The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private.  When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.

(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)

I got thinking about this and  a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion.  There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.

1. Big Business versus Big Business

Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves.  We are not talking small mom and pop shops either.  The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada.  As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel.  Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.

2. Convenience versus Necessity

We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity.  It also comes at a price.  If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice.  I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf.  The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities.  In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.

3. Government Responsibility

The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato.  Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful)  public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption.  I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet.  I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible.  If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario.  Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.

food guide
Health Canada’s Answer to Food Deserts

4.  Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns

The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement.  Some question how real mayonnaise actually is.  On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole.  That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this.  I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line.  A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants?  A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point  is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog  (I think I’ll tackle this one separately)  but it is ” real” food for thought.

My Take

A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis.  As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing.  In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section.  This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities  will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.

I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains.  An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way  weekly flyer specials  from the parent company work.  Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created.  I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative.  Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could  test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.

In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert.  The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods.  The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.





Hoping Reddington Keeps me off the Blacklist After My Blatant Voyeurism at the French Laundry

After a  night of a little too much scotch, I had to muster the strength to venture up the road to Yountville,  a quaint village north of Napa which is  full of beautiful scenery, fancy restaurants, artistic gardens and specialty shops.  I was invited to lunch at Redd, which is described on their website as an updated wine country menu with international influence.  It ‘s the decade old project of respected chef Richard Reddington who should not be confused with fictional international criminal Raymond Reddington of Blacklist.

The decor is simple, roomy and classy.  The waitstaff are professional but not pretentious. I started with hair of the dog in the form of a large goblet of a delicious house red.  To start I went with the appetizer special which was a hamachi collar atop asian slaw.  The slightly fatty, slightly fishy taste went well with sweet but pungent taste of the overdressed slaw.

Hamachi Collar with Slaw
Hamachi Collar with Slaw

Enough with the pseudo-healthy crap. I had a post-scotch apocalypse to deal with.   The fried chicken sandwich fit the bill.  Smothered with melted Gruyere cheese, it seemed the perfect remedy to my self-inflicted woes. Plus, it was served with onion rings which were delicately breaded and quite light. The sandwich was a posh McChicken that hit all the notes needed for a post hangover ration.

Fried Chicken Sand wich with rings $16
Fried Chicken Sand wich with rings $16

With the booze sweats complete and a reasonable amount of grease in my digestive system, I ventured down Yountville’s main drag to take in some of the scenery.  It was surprising quiet given the weather was near perfect.  The walk included trips past rock gardens, markets and a couple of Michelin star restaurants, ending at the ultimate destination in any Napa culinary adventure; The French Laundry. Until now, this Michelin three star establishment has been a figment of my imagination.  In one sense, its legendary status makes me an immediate fan. In another, I wanted to see it first hand so I could better justify  the 300 per person charge.  The exterior is rather modest and the inside is a secret which can only be viewed through small cracks in the window blinds.  I left a bit like a voyeur but I could justify it given the fact their very public garden is right across the street for all to see. Speaking of which, it was a fantastic parcel of land filled with ripe strawberries, cauliflower, fresh herbs, a chicken coop and even an apiary.  The energy of the place was magic and suddenly the French Laundry’s price tag didn’t seem so outrageous.

Mushroom Garden on Washington Street
Mushroom Garden on Washington Street
french laundry
Outside French Laundry
French Laundry Farm
French Laundry Farm

The walk back included a stop at Thomas Keller’s Boulage bakery for an eclair and an Americano, both of which were quite satisfactory and well under $10, a far cry from the price tag associated with his other venture.

The day ended with a drive out to the Stag’s Leap region of Napa Valley and specifically to the aptly named Stag’s Leap cellars which were responsible for the vaulting of California reds into the upper echelon of wines worldwide.  In 1976, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 edged out three French reds including the highly respected Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 to win the international tasting and the rest is history.  Historically, the only upset that rivals this was the historic and nauseating miracle on ice in 1980 which also involved the US as a massive underdog against the powerhouse Russians.

View from Stag's Leap Cellars
View from Stag’s Leap Cellars

My Take

Yountville in Napa Valley is a must go destination for any foodie.  Redd is a classic example of Californian fare.  The decor, much like the food is clean and simple but subtly elegant.  The walk along Washington street is like following the yellow brick road on the way to the castle but in this case the destination is the French Laundry and there are many distractions along the way including the  Boulage bakery and the Laundry’s own garden.  As much as I clicked my heels together, I could not transport myself into the secret quarters of wizard Keller’s castle. Can anybody lend me $300?

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I Didn’t Get Crabby but I Managed to Get Bitter at Oxbow Public Market in Napa

Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different.  Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market  to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa.  Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.

My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my  $9 fresh crab taco.  Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese  ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck  taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro  ($8.00).  These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful  but it worked reasonably well.  It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla.  There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)
Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)


After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe.  It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would  be in it?”.  My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home.   Voila!  That’s Oxbow Market.  In particular, let me focus on the last place.  I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura.  Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off.  The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen.  I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around  aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.

Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.

My Take

If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab).  They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour.  For any foodie,  I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for  Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.

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I Say Frittata, You Say Frittata While Getting my Rocc’s Off in San Francisco

Before heading up to Napa, I decided to scratch another triple D off the list by heading to Rocco’s Cafe on Folsom Street.  It is a classic Italian cafe offering  typical fare from pastas to Italian sandwiches. The timing wasn’t right for dinner so a breakfast visit was the next best thing.

The decor was old school Italian diner.  There is an open kitchen and more pictures than selfies in my daughter’s instagram account hanging on the wall. It has a friendly feel complete with happy cooks and equally pleasant waitstaff.  There is a certain magic about a true rundown/rustic Italian cafe and Rocco’s had the right semblance.

As much as I was tempted to go with the Grilled Homemade Polenta topped with Cheese & Marinara Sauce w/ Eggs any style with Italian Sausage,  I figured the mushroom, onion, basil, & parmesan cheese frittata ($11.95)  was authentic enough for an Italian cafe without the need to paralyze myself.  Now, the word frittata is up for interpretation. By definition, it means fried but there are all sorts of interpretations. Most of them fall somewhere on the spectrum between an omelette and a crust less quiche but usually dictate that some element of the filling is cooked within the egg.  Rocco’s offering was closer to an omelette and not quite what I expected.  Nonetheless, it had good flavour and seasoning and more than abundant fillings/toppings.  The potatoes had a slight off taste I just couldn’t identify but overall they were decent.

Mushroom, Onion and Parmesan Frittata with Potatoes and toast (not shown) $11.95
Mushroom, Onion and Parmesan Frittata with Potatoes and toast (not shown) $11.95

On the way to the subway I was craving an Americano so a quick google search told me Wicked Grounds was just around the corner.  Don’t get me wrong, I could have hit a number of other coffee houses on the way but I was intrigued at the thought of sneaking in behind the closed curtains to experience a fetish cafe in the early morning. I didn’t expect much at 830 am but there were a few customers and some very nice, courteous staff along with plenty of cuffs, paddles and other paraphernalia for sale. Most alarming to my virgin eyes was the option to have a drink served in a dog bowl for those who chose to be subservient on that particular day.  I was tempted to order a decaf and a paddle to go but I stuck with the former along with a granola bar which promised to be more awesome than a cat riding a unicorn.  It wasn’t and I left humming Chris Issak.

It wasn't
It wasn’t because a cat riding a unicorn is pretty awesome

My Take

I suppose there are worse things to do than search for a good breakfast and an amerciano  from a fetish cafe in one of the most liberal cities in the world.  What’s even better is when you get a decent breakfast and knock another DDD and getting a coffee from the same place I’d buy a blow up doll..screw you Walmart.  In the end, regardless of where  the frittata fell on the spectrum, it was a decent plate and the Wicked Grounds coffee was good even if I was able to get my Rocc’s off again.

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Meni Midi Meh

I had a business lunch in the Mount Sinai hospital area, so I needed a place close by. I have walked past Midi back numerous times and figured it would a good time to give it a try.  I showed up from my reservation and was handed  the $18 summerlicious menu which offered the standard starter, entree and dessert.  It was the only menu available but I wasn’t super upset since most of the regular items (most of which were French inspired) were also featured.

It has a small interior that is quite modest and rather worn down.  It doesn’t hold a whole lot of people and it was manned by one waiter who also seemed to be responsible for ordering the restaurant’s food supply as well.

I started with the soup of the day which was split pea. It was a decent consistency but was rather starchy and slightly underseasoned.  The fish special was a seared tuna served with a mango salsa and frites.  The tuna was cooked rare as requested but was horribly underseasoned.  The salsa was a mess…overly sweet with no contrast whatsoever. The fries were marginally warm.  Dessert was a vanilla cardamon creme brulee which I was pretty excited about given my love for that spice in a dessert.  The flavour was there but the consistency of the creme brulee was a little clumpy.

My Take

Lunch at Midi was like a trip back in time.  The worn, unwelcoming decor matched the equally outdated food.  All three components of the $18 summerlicious menu were mediocre at best.  In stark contrast to Caesar’s triumphant Veni, Vidi, Vici war cry, foodies flocking here would likely wimper Meni, Midi, Meh.

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Newfoundland Day 2: Newfoundlasian food and Getting Screeched-In without Dustin Diamond

People in Newfoundland move at their own pace.  Case and point was Coffee Matters, a little coffee house located kiddy (or maybe I should say Quidi) corner from the Sheraton.  During lunch, I went and ordered a quartet of coffees to avoid the hotel brew. They ranked as medium on the difficulty scale (eg. soy milk, double espresso shot). They took an extraordinary amount of time but were pretty decent in the end.

Once the meeting was over, another hike ensued.  This one was significantly longer but not as steep as the Signal Hill hike the day before. The weather however, was significantly worse than day one, coming in at 8 degrees Celsius without the wind chill in mid-June.  I persevered and experienced a pleasant combination of  inclines, declines and long stretches of land peppered with man made steps, bridges and rock paths.  That said, I did often wonder what would happen if someone sustained a significant ankle sprain given there is not a road to be found for a number of kilometres.  The journey ended at the eastern most part in North America which makes for another bucket list check mark. I even have the picture to prove it.

Eastern Most Point In North America
Eastern Most Point In North America

Again, a good hike calls for a good beer and some of the locals brought us to the Duke of Duckworth, one of the oldest drinking holes in St John’s. With the beer came a few orders of nachos ($15) and the famous cod nuggets and chips ($11.59).  The nachos were good. The fish and chips was amazing.  Both were golden brown and pub-delicious.  I found the staff a bit grumpy but copious amounts of deep fried goodness and cold beer made up for it.

Dinner that night was at Basho. Best described as a sushi joint that took a wrong turn in Albuquerque and ended up in St. John’s, it was initially the joint project of a father and son team which I can best describe as Newfoundlasian.  The son (who I met) runs the show.  We had a set menu  but a sushi sampler was waiting at the table when we sat.  It was good sushi but a little lackluster.  There were no fun sauces or concoction  but it served the purpose. Shortly after another platter arrived filled with a more North American deep fried chips and calamari.   Note that this was before the menu appetizers even arrived.

Basho Appetizer Platter
Basho Appetizer Platter

There was a choice of apps that ranged from more sushi rolls to tempura vegetables to a unique surf and turf featuring steak, scallops and onion rings in a tower formation. It was the size of an entree and was ingeniously an odd version of classic land and sea.  Both the meat and scallop were cooked to perfection.  It was a really enjoyable starter…if you call it that.

Basho Surf and Turf
Basho Surf and Turf

I was a little afraid of the entree after the monstrosity that was the appetizer.  I was hoping for the halibut promised on the menu but I heard rumours that the shipment was diverted to another in a bidding war so they made a last minute substitution with cod.  This dish was a bit of a mess in a Jackson Pollack sort of way. I think the halibut would have held up better among the other ingredients and things could have been a little more seasoned but it was a befitting offering in the end.

More Cod....
More Cod….

I was almost full to capacity but tasted each element of the dessert platter.  There was chocolate and green tea ice cream which were ok but the stand out dessert was the cheesecake.  It probably made the least sense in relation to the loose theme of the restaurant but was the best component  hands down.

Basho Dessert Platter
Basho Dessert Platter

The night ended with a late night screech-in ceremony at Christian’s (which didn’t involve a washed up child star, a bar altercation or a knife).  For $20 you have the right to become an honorary Newfoundlander. I was a little fearful at first given the first thing I saw was a large man dressed in a slicker and carrying a paddle. My mind wandered to some sort of sadistic, seashore sodomy but when he started speaking, it turned out he was one of the best emcees ever (at least according to the locals who have seen a number of these ceremonies in the past).  Essentially, participants  have their names read aloud, eat bologna, kiss a cod, take a shot of screech, try and say “Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!”. Then you are presented with your certificate and quickly rush to wash the taste of screech, fish and bologna out of your mouth with copious amounts of beer.

Certificate of Screeching-In
Certificate of Screeching-In

On a final note, I got the airport and had some time to kill, so I went to the restaurant and finished off the trip with some questionable  local blueberry wine while resisting the urge to order something off the glutin free menu. God, I love this place.

Glutin Free Menu
Glutin Free Menu

My Take

A busy second day in Newfoundland involved hiking, drinking, cod, cod and more cod.  It started with a traditional fish and chips at one of the most established pubs in the city, continued with a oddish Asian-Newfoundland fusion meal and ended with making out with a fish.  The phrase “Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw” which translates to “Yes indeed, my friend, long may your big sail (i.e. jib) draw wind” makes total sense now.  The combination of gale forces winds of the Newfoundland cliffs, my big sail (partially the result of too much deep fried cod), the island’s geographical similarity to my hometown of Sudbury  and an honorary Newfie status makes this ol’ cock feel at home.

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Newfoundland Day 1: Getting Cheeky From the Club to the Pub in the Midst of Icebergs

I went to Newfoundland for the first time a few weeks back for a work function. The hope was that I would have ample time to enjoy some of the scenery and culture which is unique to Canada’s most eastern province. The first goal was to get there. A flight to Newfoundland is as predictable as a masterchef souffle so I was happy to arrive with no delays, diversions etc. I arrived at my hotel and observed a beautiful view from my room at the Sheraton.

View of the Pier
View of the Pier

After checking in, my first priority was lunch. Having a minimum understanding of the go to midday restaurants, I leaned on John Catucci and the Food Network to guide me to The Club, one of the sister restaurants (along with Aqua) of Chef Mark McCrowe. Predicably located on Duckworth street, this gastropub offers a mish-mash of bar food with Scottish,French and local influence.

Along with a decent bar rail, they offer a variety of brews from the small Quidi Vidi brewery which is located in the town with the same name.  I had an 1892 amber ale which fell on the good side of ambers (I’m quite mercurial when it comes to red beer and either like them or hate them).

Food wise, I was informed that neither the fish and chips or the mussels were available which I found quite ironic considering my location. However, as I pondered the other menu offerings which ranged from fried chicken to a wild boar sloppy joe topped with an egg (which, like dietary cholesterol, goes straight to my heart), a delivery guy strolled in with a bag of cod in one hand and a sack of mussels in the other. Knowing that the cod was literally delivered minutes before, I called an audible and ordered the fish and chips. It was a good choice. The fish was flaky and fresh, the batter not overwhelming and the gravy was divine. The malt spritzer was subtly intelligent. It was truly a delightful dish and went well with the 1892.

Fish and Chips
Fish and Chips $18

I snacked on a table mate’s lobster roll. The toasted bread was an ideal vessel and housed a decent filling of lobster,celery and tarragon. I wasn’t a fan of the large pieces of lettuce as they made the sandwich messier and cut into the delicate flavour of the lobster a bit.

Lobster Roll
a Portion of a Lobster Roll $19

The moose bologna was a canny cold cut, bringing a component of nasty nostalgia mixed with gastropub gluttony and even had some chopped parsley as a garnish It wasn’t magical by any means but was certainly fun to try.

Fried Moose Bologna
Fried Moose Bologna

Nothing burns off beer and bologna like a hike up signal hill.  However, by the time you get up and down again you want a beer again.  Once again, enter The Quidi Vidi brewery.  There is a certain magic about walking into a brewery, picking up a six-pack, walking out on a  balcony and sucking one back in the midst of spectacular scenery. I mean, it sure as hell beats paying $7 for a pint of half ass beer surrounded by sweaty hipsters on a crowded downtown Toronto patio right? Their flagship beer is Iceberg which is a light, crisp brew made with water from the icebergs that populate the ocean waters surrounding the rock. It could be the psychology of the water source, the blue bottle or the environment but this is one refreshing beer, especially on a balmy 16 degree day in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland.

Beer with a View
Beer with a View

For dinner I was treated to cod tongues and scrunchions at Portobello’s. I fell in love with these the first time I tried them some 20 years ago and was a little fearful  that my reunion with this traditional Newfoundland dish would be disappointing…but it doesn’t. My camera was dysfunctional so I don’t have a picture but imagine clumps of golden deep fried goodness coupled with small chunks of heavily rendered and salted pork with a tarter like dipping sauce.  Fat, salt, chewiness and tartness from the sauce always results in gluttonous glee, right?

For illustrative purposes, I included this picture from which best represents the cod tongues and scrunchions I had in Newfoundland.
For illustrative purposes, I included this picture from which best represents the cod tongues and scrunchions I had in Newfoundland.

My Take

Day one in Newfoundland allowed me to check three key things off my bucket list: a fantastic view, fresh cod and tongues and scrunchions.  With a couple of days left, I was looking forward to experiencing some of the other key rites of passage to complete a true east coast experience on the Rock.

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Attempting Piquant Progress after Last Year’s Spectacular State Bird Seance

I had the chance to get back to San Francisco in May for a wedding (yes I realize it’s July but other duties called) and one of my targets was the progress, the newish spin-off of the highly successful and quite enjoyable State Bird Provisions.  I went there last year and it was easily one of the best restaurants I went to in 2014.  The progress boasts a choose your own adventure 6 course family style meal for $65.  Keep in mind that the table needs to agree on six dishes which may prove to be a very daunting task depending on your table mates.  On this night I was meeting two people I had never met, so in essence it was a blind date minus the romance.  I had no idea what they liked to eat, what aversions they had and what their culinary hot buttons were.

It turns out these two were rather laid back and choosing the menu was really not that difficult. One was rather naive to the nuances of the foodie code (ie. ramps are another word for cool onions) while the other was driven by a value proposition which made her gravitate to ordering the perceived most expensive dishes on the menu.  I had no issues with this at all. So, after a deliberation much faster than the OJ jury, we chose our six dishes  and waited with anticipation. While waiting, I noticed the decor and buzz was less chaotic than its sister restaurant.  The service was more traditional meaning there wasn’t an army of cooks and chefs offering you a bite at every turn. It still had a high hipster factor, driven by both the staff and the patrons sitting at the bar and  around the tables.

The first offering with a complimentary amuse bouche which featured seven snacks including zucchini blossoms, sauced-up radishes, broad beans, fried mussels, a twist on chips and dips, spicy citrus and some jerky in the middle.  It was a pleasant start and opinions as to what was the best was all over the board,  Personally, I enjoyed the jerky and the citrus.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

One of my choices was the salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini.  The main reason was my vivid memory of a king salmon dish I had from State Bird the year before.  At this point it was evident that the menu description only offered a fraction of the secrets each dish held.  There were salty, crunchy and creamy tastes and textures immersed in the aforementioned listed stars of the dish.

salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini

Next were the razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata.  Other than sounding like a Jimmy Buffet tune, it was served with the very foodie friendly watermelon radish.  The star of the plate was a little less than spectacular but in the end the dish was pretty good.

Razor Clams
razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata

Third was a treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth.  I loved the absolute confusion of this dish. They pretty much took every food fetish I have and threw it into a bowl.  I’ll eat anything fermented, any sausage, any dumpling and any broth…especially if it is poured in front of me.  I’ll admit I was a little perplexed but it was like a buffet in a bowl in a blissful foodie dream.

Next was more sausage and seafood; this time lamb merguez (I conceded this dish given my distaste of lamb) with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid.  As expected, it wasn’t my favorite dish. Despite the crispiness of the squid, it wasn’t as texturally balanced as the other dishes.  The octopus was just ok.

Lamb and Octopus
lamb merguez with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid

I was probably most excited about the maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu. I love mushrooms, smoked food  and black cod and my bliss was amplified when it was presented covered in one of my favorite morsels…sweet peas. I was a little disappointed since the cod ironically lost that beautiful texture through the smoking process.  It was a little too salty as well.

Black Cod
maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu

The final dish (we decided against dessert) was the aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.  Once again, the dish presented with a bit of a surprise when it was evident it was meant to be eaten like a cross between a lettuce wrap and a tequila shot. It only came with two legs (complete with the claws) for three people but there wasn’t  a huge fight over who got them.  The quail itself was cooked nicely and they were fun to assemble but the overall flavour was pretty average.

progress quail
aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.

My Take

There is always a danger when it come to a spin-off or sequel , especially when the first effort is so good. The list of sophomore flops is endless; take Three’s a Crowd, Flo and Joanie loves Chachi for example. In the case of State Bird Provisions, there were high expectations when it came to its neighbour and sister restaurant, the Progress. Some of the dishes lived up to the State Bird name while others missed the mark.  The progress’ offering of the salad of king salmon and the treasure chest were amazing whereas the lamb/octopus and the cod, although good, missed the high bar set by its predecessor. So, the Progress is in no way the X-Files’ ridiculous spin-off  the Lone Gunman.  Instead, I see it more as Breaking Bad’s slightly more than mediocre Better Call Saul.

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Notching my Bedpost with Uncle Tetsu while Cursing a Budding Witch

I woke up early while in Toronto so I decided to take a quick jog over to Uncle Tetsu’s to try and secure an elusive cheesecake.  Every time I have strolled by, regardless of time of day, there have been no fewer than 20 people in line. So I was pleased to show up to see a mere 5 people out the door.

I was in absolutely no hurry so I decided to kill the time by engaging in some good old fashioned people watching. Apparently a few others were in more of a hurry than I was. One woman stormed in with some magic ticket stating it should put her to the front of the line.  They quickly dismissed her and she wandered out and decided her place in line was right in front of me. I typically don’t sweat the small stuff so I mumbled something under my breathe and life went on.

Meanwhile, the employees were busy in a very methodical baking process. On one side was the careful measuring of the flour and ridiculous amount of butter for the Madeline (honey) cakes.  On the other side a team of four or five carefully constructed the signature cheesecakes.  In a way I felt like I was at a zoo. Patrons were pressing their noses against the plexiglass hoping to get a better look at the mixing bowl.  Other were snapping pictures of the branding of the cheesecake like it was the hatching of a peregrine falcon. The purchasing process is a bit like Seinfeld’s soup nazi.  You approach the cash, state your order, pay, get your product and leave. It is cash only and there is a limit of 4 madeleines and 1 cheesecake which almost everybody orders and comes to $17.55.

As a batch was released I did the math and realized I was going to miss it by one cake. Part of it was the miserable b*@^h who decided her place in line was in front of me (who I subsequently wished bad karma upon via a facebook post).  The other reason was the number of people bringing their slumber-eyed two year old kids as customers.  So a family of four can walk in holding their kids up like Kevin Kline in “Weekend at Bernie’s” and walk out with a quartet of cakes.  In the end, despite my early optimism, I had to wait 20 minutes for the next batch which means in the end I ended up waiting nearly an hour.

The madeleines  were quickly consumed by my kids.  I managed to get a bite or two and concluded they were quite average. The cheesecake was part of a lunch at my dad’s and came with great anticipation. If anything it was surprising.  The fluffy texture was in between a flan and a cheesecake and taste wise had hints of both.  There was nothing wrong with it but I guess Uncle Tetsu doesn’t see the need for ridiculous North American additions such as fruit or some kind of a crust.

Madeline $2.22 each or 4 for $7.55 taxes in
Madeline $2.22 each or 4 for $7.55 taxes in
6 inch Cheesecake $8.88 or $10 taxes in
6 inch Cheesecake $8.88 or $10 taxes in

My Take

I have been known to partake in ridiculousness when it comes to food and this is no exception.  The phenomenon of waiting an hour in line for a cheesecake while surrounded by people who take pictures like it’s Niagara Falls is near the top of the list.  I wasn’t expecting a miracle in a box and I didn’t get one either with the madeleines or the cheesecake. What I got was a tattooed piece of Japanese folklore which allowed me to carve another notch in my bedpost of culinary conquests within the GTA. It also reaffirmed my Taurean tendency to hold a grudge because I sure as hell hope she dropped her cheesecake on the way to her car, broom or whatever mode of transportation she arrived with.

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