Breaking the Monotony of Winterlicious with a Real Barn Burner

With early April’s reminder that winter wasn’t quite over, it opened the door for me to rewind the clock a little and talk about Winterlicious. I’ve always been on the fence about this beloved annual event.  On one hand, it allows the masses to have a taste (literally) of one or more of the hundreds of restaurants that make up Toronto’s proud and diverse culinary culture.  On the other hand, it is a little artificial and contrived. Some the city’s restaurants stay at arms length from this festival and those that do participate often offer menus that are far from representative of their everyday vibe.

I figured I’d bring my dad out for dinner during Winterlicious.  I chose Barnsteiner’s ($35 set menu) for three reasons.  First, it’s located outside the downtown core. Two, it was relatively new on the scene. Thirdly, it actually had a menu that actually bordered on the side of creativity, offering both 5 appetizers and entrees as well as three desserts.  Barnsteiner’s is named after chef and owner Herbert Barnsteiner who, with his wife Michelle, ran the Corner House with great success for a decade and a half.  After a short break, they took over the old John and Sons’ oyster house just south of Yonge and St. Clair.

The vibe is a busy European bistro  feel.  The actual floor plan is a bit of a maze with lots of twists and turns and awkwardly placed tables.  Memories of the old oyster house exist, especially the ceiling mirrors which used to reflect visions of staff shucking oysters on the prep stations but now have benign angles that just miss most of the kitchen’s angles.

I started with a paper plane, a cocktail with  bourbon, montenegro, aperol and lemon. I’d put it at mid-range in terms of bourbon cocktails available throughout the city.

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Paper Plane Cocktail $12.5

Among the starters, we decided to split the smoked chicken salad with
grilled oyster mushrooms, arugula, fois gras croutons and finished with a raspberry-sherry dressing and the garlic and chili grill shrimps with crusty bread, and salsa verde.  The salad was a smart blend of colours, textures and flavours.  The sweet berries and dressing was dumbed down by the smoky chicken and the peppery arugula was a smart medium.  The shrimp were cooked to perfection and simply but nicely seasoned with the salsa verde.

From among the entrees, we opted for the  whole roasted black angus striploin with
crushed fingerling potatoes, crimini mushrooms, red-wine jus and the venison stew
braised in juniper red wine sauce with spaetzle and brussel sprouts. I don’t often order steak in a restaurant but I quite enjoy a good roast.  It was a simple dish but very well executed from the beef itself to the flavourful au jus.  The stew was the perfect winter dish; hearty yet refined.  The meat was super tender and the spaetzle was reminiscent of the chef’s proud German heritage.

For dessert, we chose from both ends of the spectrum, opting for the comforting apple and cranberry crumble and the more delicate lemon panacotta with toasted coconut. Once again, no complaints with either one as they were both well executed and exactly what I expected.

My Take

Although the Winterlicious experience is not always a fair representation of the essence of a restaurant, Barnsteiner’s succeeded in making me want to come back. There was good variety as far as a winterlicious menu goes and all the offerings I tried were well executed.  I plan to return to try one of the numerous menus offers such a the many flatbreads, seafood options and chef’s homeland dishes.  In fact, I was asked by a colleague for a last minute dinner suggestion for her team and I suggested here.  I called and they were able to accommodate 8 people with a little shuffling.  Although I didn’t go myself, the feedback from my colleague was a quick  twitterlike …”it was really good! And lots of fun.  Very good price wise.” I nodded in agreement as I thought $35 for a solid winterlicious meal wasn’t bad either.

Barnsteiner's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

Waffles, Kibble, Rhine and PBR in Cincinnati

I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati.  It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air.  I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid.  It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city.  The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe.  Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks.  Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever,  went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.

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The Cast of WKRP in Cincinnati

 

In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.

W- (Waffles and Wright).

Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot.  The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder.  He was efficient but far from welcoming.  I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup.   The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast.  It was much denser and more filling.  It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup.  The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.

 

Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog.  In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street.  Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator.  As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.

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Senate Trailer Park Dog $10

K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)

Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre.  Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of  Kentucky.  In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3.  Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone.  As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style)  and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.

R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)

Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century.  Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states.  For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem.  However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog.  I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once  a death wish but ven that is slowing changing.  That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati  and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling  Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of  Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.   Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.

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Cool Floor at Taste of Belgium indicative of Cincinnati architecture.

P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)

The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from.  They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part.  I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side.  They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.

Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese  and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.

My Take

Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but  I’ll  give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium.  Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day.  The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average.  Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.

In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks.  In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s  turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.

Senate

Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4.5/5 Guys

Total- 12.5/15 Guyz

Senate Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bakersfield

Food- 3.5/5  Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/Guyz

Bakersfield OTR Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taste of Belgium

Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3/5 Guyz

Total- 9.5/15 Guyz

Taste of Belgium Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato