A Tale of Two Steakhouses: La Castile vs Jacobs and Co…What the Dickens!

It was the best of prime, it was the worst of prime…. it was aged and toothsome, it was aged and scrumptious….

Ok..that is an atrocious parody of one of the most recognizable paragraphs in the history of British literature but it may be the closest I will ever get to literary beauty of Charles Dickens.  I read an interesting blog post from Tori Avey, who did a beautiful job summarizing the attention to detail that Dickens penned in many of his famous works, especially when it came to his description of scenes in which food and drink were the central theme.


The steakhouse has a long tradition in dining folklore.  Although a steak is a ubiquitous item on restaurant menus,  making it the focal point of an eatery has a history as old as Dickens himself. Traditionally, there are number of key and consistent characteristics which make a steakhouse what it is:

  1. Mandatory dim lights and oversized tables, presumably to create a more relaxing environment and help with ugly dates.  In all seriousness, an interesting study was done by Cornell university in 2012 that demonstrated that dim lighting, white table cloths and soft music resulted in patrons ordering  just as much, rating the food higher, eating less and taking longer to finish which could mean more booze.. which can also help with the ugly date.
  2. A staff trained to remind you everytime…like a stewardess showing you how to buckle a seatbelt, when you order a steak that medium rare is bright pink in middle…every time.
  3. A menu which includes sleepy items for those who go to a steakhouse and don’t order steak.  This usually means chicken, some kind of fish and a token meatless dish in event a hapless vegetarian is in the mix.
  4. A steak menu which typically doesn’t include anything with the steak (except maybe one of those roasted tomatoes with the bread crumbs on top).
  5. Sides which include asparagus, mushrooms, creamed spinach and if you’re lucky…brussel sprouts.
  6. A place where shrimp cocktails and wedge salads never go out of style.

Despite this blueprint, there exists a huge spectrum ranging from old school to modern. In the last month I have gone to two steakhouses which represent both ends of the gamut.  On one side is La Castile, the Mississauga landmark which describes itself as “the place to see..the place to be seen”. Toronto’s Jacobs on the other hand, is probably actually the place to see…the place to be seen.   Let’s review:

The Website

When you go to the La Castile website, you will be serenaded by “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller while watching a slide show highlighting every nook and cranny of the large and twisted mansion.  Jacobs on the other hand, offers a silent review of its modernized menu without the need for background music from 1940.

The Piano Bar

Both have a piano bar tab.  La Castile offers  plush red velvet, dimly lit chandeliers, private alcoves and stained glass windows.  This creates a mystical ambiance offering live music from Wednesday to Saturday complemented by rumours of the odd Russian “escort”. Jacobs, on the other hand,   simply lists the Tuesday to Saturday lineup on the website and adhere to a bring your own escort policy.

The Decor 

La Castile is quite easy to find.  Located along Dundas St East near the 427, the best instruction is to “follow the light” as it next to impossible to miss the flames shooting out of the brick structure surrounding the restaurant.   Parking is abundant.  Jacobs, on the other hand, is in downtown Toronto on Brant Street right off of King. It’s grey, boxy exterior is rather subtle which is a sharp contrast to the fireworks of its suburban counterpart. Parking is scarce although you could opt for $20 valet parking if you don’t want the hassle.

La Castile has the classic steakhouse setup.  Walking in, you’re not sure whether or not you are at church, a funeral home or a museum.  Dated carpets, stained glass and plush chairs let people experience what first class in the Titanic would feel like.   A dress code is in effect of course which probably includes chain mail armour since I would not have been a bit surprised if I was seated at a table next to Peter Dinklage and served wine in a metal goblet.  Jacobs is a lot sleeker, abandoning the white table clothes  in lieu of bare modern wood tables and sleek chairs which omit the royal red plush.  The concept is much more open and much less distracting.  As the dress code, they don’t have to announce it…people just know.

The Service

La Castile opened in 1968 and I would be very surprised if the staff weren’t exactly the same as back then.  Of course,  they have aged since Woodstock but can now easily be referred to as grumpy old men in tuxedos instead of grumpy young ones.  Jacobs, on the other hand, has a much younger staff who, instead of looking like they are in a wedding party.  are dressed a bit more casually but still quite chic. They were far less grumpy as well.

The Food 

Steakhouses are like brunch; there is a unwritten permission to elevate prices slightly to much higher than the norm. This is somewhat the case with La Castile but the ceiling is somewhat limited by its stingy suburban patrons and the fact that most of the regular clientele still think it’s the 1970s.  Jacobs, on the other hand, takes advantage of its urban locale to price things in the stratosphere.  Twenty dollar Caesar salads and fifteen dollar sides surround steaks that are often $100 and can hit $700 if you want the really good stuff.

La Castile welcomes you with a sectioned silver tray filled with feta, dills and olives (and lots of water poured by Mr. Chucklelopolous to wash down the accompanying sodium).

La Castille Pickles
La Castille Pickles

At La Castile, I had to go for the french onion soup ($9) which fittingly came in a fitting medieval metal goblet/urn atop the same doily I used to slap on side plates when I worked in the restaurant industry in the late 80’s and early 90s.  There was no shortage of cheese and the broth was thick with onions.  All in all, it wasn’t bad but after the pickles and the soup, I was desperately searching for a diuretic which I was confident  one of the many waiters would have had in their pockets along with a nitro pill and maybe a Cialis.

La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)
La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)

For the main, I resisted the urge to insist to share the Chateaubriand with my table mates and  instead opted for the peppercorn steak, which was “deliciously sharp and served with wine sauce”.  Now, I’m unclear as to the sharpness but it was nicely seasoned and cooked a tad above a  proper medium rare but as a bonus also served with a California mix of vegetables also reminiscent on my 1980’s doily days.

La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44
La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44

Jacobs, on the other hand, started with their famous complimentary popovers, which are a mild twist on the classic yorkshire pudding (and set the stage for the general theme of a steakhouse with a modern twist). They hardly needed the butter given the fact they had a really rich flavour.

Now, I missed the table side assembly of the $19 caesar salad (I was a bit late getting to dinner) but it was waiting when I got there.  I’m missing the picture but I assure you it looked, smelled and tasted like a caesar salad.  I will go as far as saying it was one of the best one I’ve had in a long while.  The double smoked bacon was thick and delicious and the dressing was heavy with garlic.

The steaks are about quality, not quantity (not to mention the fact most are triple digits in price) so the table shared a local Ontario 12 oz Ribeye ($60) and an 18oz Nebraska bone-in striploin ($81) complemented with sides which included brussel sprouts and walnuts, duck fat fries, mushrooms and sauteed rapini (~$15 each). Upon request, they will slice the steak for you to avoid butchery or fights at the table. I failed to get a picture since there was a mad rush once the steak was placed on the table.   I did, however, snap the cornucopia once it was on the plate. The steak was cooked perfectly and was exceptional in flavour.  The sides were well prepared as well but I would hope so for the staggering price.

Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries
Two types of Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries

Even the offerings at the end of the meal  are indicative of the differences between the two restaurants.  While Jacobs brings a small plate of after dinner confections (cookies and chocolates) as well as a sinfully delicious packaged muffin for later to the table, La Castile sets a bowl of jelly beans (reminiscent of the ones I used to beg for out of the vending machine at a grocery store when I was 6 years old) by the door so one can grab a spoonful on the way out.

My Take

Although steakhouses across the board share numerous similarities, I think La Castile and Jacobs represent both ends of the spectrum.  La Castile comes in with a “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality even though nothing has been fixed since 1968.  Whereas some may call the decor nostalgic (of medieval times perhaps), I call it tired but I suppose it works well for suburban johns with a fetish for Eastern Europeans.  Jacobs, on the other hand, focuses on aged steaks as opposed to aged decor, offering sleek surroundings in the heart of downtown Toronto and a  variety of special occasions steaks that fall well outside a lot of standard dinner budgets.

In the end, any steak house across the board including the many chains including  the Keg, Ruth’s Chris, Hy’s, Chop  etc, will follow a similar blueprint and inevitably cost you a small fortune.  That said, if you want to experience the extremes of this cuisine,  I think La Castile and Jacobs represent opposite ends of the spectrum whether it be urban vs. suburban, modern vs. traditional or a desire  to hobnob with the cool kids vs cosplaying  as Robb Stark in the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones. Something tells me if Dickens wrote “A Storm of Swords” instead of George R.R. Martin, then the description of the butchery of the meal would have been much more detailed than that of King Robb Stark and his ill-fated army.

Jacob's and Co. Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Castile Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Lunch at the Trump: Not Even Neil Diamond Would Come to This America

I have fond memories of my grandparents and blame them for some of my suspicious musical preferences.  Beside the rusty orange la-z-boy was an eight track player which sat atop a faux leather stand which housed a mix of country and adult contemporary music.  I particular, I remember Neil Diamond.  Even today, at the age of 74, Neil remains a stud in the music world. As a high school student, he would write poems for his male classmates so they could pass along to the ladies in an effort to seal the deal. He was a pre-med student at New York University and excelled at fencing.  He has be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and some of his music remains among the most recognizable over the past 3 generations.  I challenge you to go to any bar, wedding, Red Sox game etc. and not see a drunk crowd of anybody over the age of 25 not belt out the belt out the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” when cued.  He also wrote “I’m a Believer” which any Shrek or Monkees fan would recognize instantly. In this context,  I was reminded of Neil as a result of his epic song America in which he sings of an immigrant’s triumphant arrival to the U.S. with such lyrics as “Everywhere around the world, they’re coming to America,ev’ry time that flag’s unfurled, they’re coming to America”.

America recently replaced Stock at the Trump hotel and is a surprising partnership between two of Toronto’s biggest hospitality groups: Charles Khabouth’s Ink entertainment and restaurant juggernauts Oliver and Bonacini.  As a result, one would expect lavish surroundings and trendy menu choices.  I went for lunch as part of a meeting recently and ordered off the menu.  There is a mix of items including soups, salads and pastas as well as daily specials ranging from lobster rolls to seared tuna.  I fought the temptation to grab a mid meeting nap on the velvet banquette complete with comfy  decorative pillows and ordered the wild and tame mushroom soup ($14) and america’s caesar salad ($16).  I was appalled.  The soup, described on the menu as “enough said” should have said “four mushroom pieces floating in a flimsy broth with no substance” or “mild and lame”.  At least the Caesar salad had a more accurate description which simply stated “creamy roasted garlic dressing”.  There was A LOT  of dressing and the only other component other than the red romaine was a few “croutons” which were nothing more than a dried version of the same jalapeno corn bread that was in the basket on the table. In addition,  I spoke to a few colleagues after and they were equally unimpressed.  The tuna special was sleepy and the shrimp and squid tagliolini had the too long under the  heat lamp look to it.  One of my table mates asked for some Parmesan (I didn’t blame him) which seemed a bit insulting to the waitstaff. Other than that, although the service was pretty good, it was rather slow and inconsistent which was a far cry  from  the service I received in other areas of the Trump throughout the week.

Wild and Tame Mushroom Soup $14
Wild and Tame Mushroom Soup $14
America Caesar Salad $16
America Caesar Salad $16

My Take

Although it was in a different context, I enjoyed Stock when it was open.  I was expecting that if anything, America would elevate at 31st floor of the Trump hotel to a new level.  Instead, it seems to quality of the food has been comprised. Perhaps the dinner experience is better but I would have expected  more from a $30 lunch.  It was surprisingly more stagnant than it was stuffy and I left with a bad taste in my mouth…literally.   In the end, Neil Diamond’s America is much better than Trump’s…and I like his hair better too.

America Restaurant - Trump International Hotel and Tower Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sweet Jesus: Stupid Conservatives and Singing Brewer and Shipley to Deal with Food Paparazzi and Grade School Art Projects

When it comes to the latest trends in the food world, dessert is never left out.  In fact, it seems to turn over more quickly than vegetables like kale and cauliflower.  In the past few years alone, for example, we have seen the peak and trough of cupcakes and donuts.  With the emergence of any of these trends, you can count on three things; a flurry of such shop openings on every street corner, a simultaneous spike in prices and people lining up to hop on the bandwagon.

The newest dessert trend is ice cream.  Despite the fact it doesn’t travel really well, people are flocking to dairy bars across the city looking for the latest spin on the simple treat.  The latest to throw their cone in the vat is Sweet Jesus. Located at King and John, this small space offers coffee and churros all day (I tried these as well and must say both the coffee and  churros with cajeta was more than acceptable)  and at noon the ice cream insanity begins.  The crowd arrives and cramps into the small space while snapping pictures like they are stalking celebrities on the red carpet at the Bell Lightbox around the corner.  I guess one cannot have too many photos of coffee bags and neon signs.

Americano ($3) and Churros ($4)
Americano ($3) and Churros ($4)

In order to calm my nerves in the midst of selfie sticks and indecisive foodies, I started humming  Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” in my head. This 1971 song cracked the top 10 in the US and Canada and was deemed a gospel song by Lawrence Welk despite the fact vice-president at the time Spiro Agnew called the duo subversive to the youth of America in another example of classic conservative naivety, stupidity and confusion. Regardless…it has a nice melody so I went to my happy place signing “It’s a joke that I am in line at Sweet Jesus” over and over again in my head amidst the chaos.

The menu is pretty simple.  There are 4 kinds of soft serve available (marshmallow, vanilla, chocolate and raspberry lemonade) available for $3.75 in which you can have dipped for a dollar.  There are also a dozen or so jacked-up, fancy cones for $6.  You can also get a $4 Mexican popsicle if so inclined.   I went with the lemon coconut cream pie which is exactly like it sounds.  You order, give your name, pay (cash, debit or credit) and wait in the mob until your name is called. Each cone (the base being the old school cones you would get at any parlour) is carefully constructed like a school art project using squirt bottles (eg. for the lemon curd) and plastic containers (eg. for the coconut). In other cases, marshmallows are hand placed on the ice cream tower like Christmas decorations on a tree.  It’s horribly inefficient and time consuming but I suppose it rumbles up the same internal thrill as watching Giuseppe make you a table side Caesar salad at a outdated  Italian joint.  The product itself was acceptable but far from mind-blowing and six bucks is way too much despite the American-like  portion size.  The soft serve itself was more icy than creamy and the toppings became monotonous quickly.

Lemon Coconut Cream Pie Cone ($6)
Lemon Coconut Cream Pie Cone ($6)

My Take

I don’t know why I partake in standing in line for food.  I think it’s an attempt to try and understand the psyche of a foodie.  I would love to do a brain scan to assess the part of the brain that glows red while one is standing in line waiting for the latest trend.  I have never been a lover of crowds.  Sweaty bars and mosh pits make me cringe as much as selfie sticks.  I suppose if there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as a result it would be worth it but I couldn’t say that somebody’s B minus art project fits into that category.  In the end, Sweet Jesus was not worth the hassle.  The line was long, the setup was inefficient and the product wasn’t mind-blowing.  The staff were nice though and I commend them for continuing to smile while the food paparazzi  made ordering ice cream seem like a Drake sighting.  For now, I’ll leave the soft serve to Costco and the art to my grade school son.

Sweet Jesus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato