The Best Six in the Six: Americano (I’m Runnin’ through the Six for some Joe and how Norm Kelly has changed the game)

When you have a teenage daughter you are often are exposed to terminology you have no business knowing and/or using in a conversation, especially when she is a Drake fan.  Like the majority of girls in this age range, she bounces around humming the gospel according to Aubrey while I pull up my khakis and ask why she’s obsessed with a guy named after a duck.  The battle continues in the car.  The Sirius radio is constantly switched between classic rock channels and those which spout the slang of modern day teen angst.  Long gone are the days where Meatloaf recalled the difficulty “seeing  paradise by the dashboard lights” when he 17 (and barely dressed..scary thought).  Instead, Drake reminisces about the hardships of working as a night manager at Shopper’s Drug Mart and his inability to throw a strike while bowling in  “Started from the Bottom”.  

While meatloaf became an advocate for…well..meatloaf, Drake has been crowned the hip-hop ambassador for the City of Toronto. His high profile association with the Raptors and the more infamous OVO festival has opened the doors for old white guys to weigh on things.  City councillor Norm Kelly, once known primarily for trying to harness the bronco actions of Rob Ford, is now a spokesperson and liaison between those with street cred (yes, I can use that term because of Mr. Kelly) and those who are just try to understand current pop culture.  His twitter feed is approaching 132 K followers, many of which are in the 15-25 year old demographic.  His last tweet (at least the last one I read while writing this) was a Tupac quote.

Thanks to Norm, I finally feel comfortable paying homage to Toronto’s dining scene through verse.  Never mind a top 5 or 10 list; it only seems fitting that a top 6 in the 6 list is most appropriate.  This is the first of series of a top 6 lists which identify great food and drink in Toronto.  I’m merely scratching the surface.  These lists are by no means comprehensive but are based on my travels through Toronto and the identification of places that are aight and worth dropping into.  I’ll start with my go-to drink at any coffee shop; the Amerciano. So, let’s travel through the Six for so joes…..

6. Dineen- 140 Yonge Street

Location, location, location..

For students and wall street vocations.

Good people watching when they meet,

with a decor that is quite boutique

And an Americano that is quite unique.

Why I think it’s aight: Unique tasting Amerciano and great people watching in an area saturated with Starbucks.

Dineen's Americano
Dineen’s Americano


5. Big Guy’s Little Coffee Shop– 2861 Lakeshore Blvd West

The sequel didn’t survive

but the original continues to thrive

offering a hipsterless vibe,

he may look like Notorious BIG

but he sure was nice to me.

Why I think it’s aight: Cozy coffeehouse outside of hipster ground zero with great service

Big Guy's Americano and Latte
Big Guy’s Americano and Latte

4.  Te Aro- 983 Queen Street East

Located on the Queen street strip

These guys really know their shit

they have classes where you get taught

to drink coffee at the perfect spot.

and they have a right to be boasters

they are afterall..pilot coffee roasters.

Why I think  it’s aight: Extremely knowledgeable, offer tastings and appreciate the science and complexity of roasting.  Coffee source for many other shops.

3. Red Rocket– 1364 Danforth Road

The coffee selection is absolutely sick,

although it’s name sounds like

Addictive treats and a friendly staff

You won’t leave here at half mast.

Why I think it’s aight: Crazy coffee concoctions and an extremely welcoming environment.

2. Jimmy’s Coffee- 84 Gerrard Street West (plus other locations)

With homage to Carter, Hendrix, Fallon and Page

Jimmy’s coffee is all rage

But there’s one Jimmy they’ve overlooked

Drake’s Degrassi name: Jimmy Brooks.

Why I think it’s aight: One of the best Americanos in Toronto in a fun and upbeat environment.

Jimmy's Americano and Iced Coffee
Jimmy’s Americano and Iced Coffee
  1. Mercury Espresso Bar- 915 Queen St. E

Whether Mercury, Venus, Earth or Mars,

One of the inner planet’s finest coffee bars.

On earth’s Queen street is where it’s furled,

with an Americano that’s out of this world.

But like space the  thing that I fear

is it’s lack of atmosphere.

Why I think it’s aight: Best Americano I have had in Toronto despite the fact it doesn’t have the same vibe as some of the others.

My Take

As I said, this list is by no means comprehensive as I haven’t ventured into most of the coffee shops in the city.  That said, I think these establishments offer a good product and overall experience.  I suppose I’m obliged to update it should I find a better joint. In the meantime, I have a number of go-to choices throughout the city and look forward to trying more as I travel through the six for my joes.

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Brekkie at Bar Buca: Beyond Bacon and Bad Brew

Bar Buca comes for a pedigree that has gained the attention of the likes of Jamie Oliver among others.  So far, so good for the offspring. It has escaped the mercurial grasp of the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith as well as gaining praise from seasoned critic Joanne Kates (who I’m convinced is Carmen Sandiego) who recently called it the best thing to open in a year.

In one sense it’s following the lead of the snack bar swing which has taken Toronto by storm.  In another it ups the ante by offerings goods all day including a coffee and breakfast bar as early as 7 am.   The quiet exterior on Portland hides a deceivingly large area with high ceilings, seating which includes wooden high tables, an open kitchen and a coffee/booze bar right inside the entrance. In the morning, each table is equipped with sugar as well as a sugar/espresso paste in a jar which offers an extra kick to the morning coffee. Speaking of which, there are couple of dozen espresso/latte combinations to choose from. After careful deliberation I opted for a Latte Canadese latte style ($5.50). The foundation was maple and brown butter.  Although the size would barely compete with a Starbucks tall, the flavour was far superior.  Not for everybody, it was a bit like drinking melted fudge but the bitterness of the coffee bean balanced it to a degree.

Latte Canadese $5.50
Latte Canadese $5.50

The breakfast menu features everything from savory egg dishes to sweet pastries.   Sensing my indecision, the waiter (yes, I may have forgotten to mention you sit down and they take your coffee order at the table) recommended pane and ricotta; fresh ciabatta bread lathered with fresh ricotta cheese and topped with pear marmalade (honey was an option as well) for $3.50.  There was no shortage of fresh cheese.  The bread was fresh and the marmalade added the contrast of  sweet and clove.

Pane and Ricotta $3.50
Pane and Ricotta $3.50

 

My Take

Chef Rob Gentile has not only jumped on the snack food bandwagon, he’s added horsepower and a fresh coat of paint.  The deviation from  dinner only hours provides the opportunity to snack on an array of goods anytime of day.  A smart breakfast menu with both sweet and savory items which fills the huge gap between greasy spoons and coffee shop pastries  is sheer genius.  The diversity and quality of caffeinated options rivals any other coffeehouse in the area.  I have every intention of indulging on cicchettis, spuntinis and schiacciatas sometime soon but thankfully I have 15 hours a day and 7 days a week to do so.

 

Bar Buca on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Coffee:Tampered Press

When it comes to coffee houses, there’s a few things I look for:

1.  Decent internet.  Ample plug-in sockets are an asset.

2. A  welcoming decor including enough space to avoid having somebody reading my computer screen or vice-versa (speaking of which I was in a coffee shop and the guy beside me had a glamour shot of himself as his wallpaper…creepy).

3.  At least something decent to munch on.

A bonus is always an attempt at a unique interpretation of a coffee concoction.

Tampered press is located at the corner of Crawford and Dundas.  It’s a humble exterior complete with a bowl full of dog treats and water on the sidewalk.  When you enter, it opens up into a spacious square room containing communal and smaller tables.  The high shelves are lined with books (which included what I’m assuming was a get this the hell out of my house donated copy of  Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons). There’s art on the wall, they take credit cards, adopt the clean spoon/dirty spoon concept and have a tip cup that says “Tips” as opposed to “College Fund” or “Karma Jar”.

The list of beverages included the standard lattes and americanos but I was interested in the dirty chai.  I think  I’m drawn to dirty things, so I had to ask.  Turns out it’s a chai latte laced with espresso which, according to the barista, balances the normal overbearing sweetness of a normal chai tea latte. Sounded good to me, so I ordered a medium for about four bucks. With a skill which was second nature and while discussing the ridiculousness of vegetable bread, she produced a great drink complete with the signature leaf decoration on top. I quite enjoyed it and  went up for seconds.  The cheese croissant was pretty good as well.

Dirty Chai
Dirty Chai

My Take

There’s a million coffee shops in Toronto (500 000 if you exclude Starbucks).  Some look like they were carved out of a garage and others have a cosiness where you can stretch out, people watch and surf the net with decent wi-fi for the next coffee shop you’ll infiltrate. The Tampered Press is the latter.  They make a decent latte, serve a good croissant and have lots of characters to gawk at….and you get a leaf on your latte! As for the name, it might be fun to open up either a dog groomer or a hair studio next door called “The Pampered Tress”.  That way, people would get even more confused looking for a coffee shop with a Crawford address who’s storefront actually sits on Dundas.

Tampered Press on Urbanspoon

Review:The Annex:Bickford Flexitarian

When I was looking for a place to grab some breakfast, I came across the Bickford Flexitarian, a relatively new cafe on Harbord St. When I heard the name, it reminded me of a classic novel synonymous with Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte or Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

The Bickford Flexitarian
A Fare..Eat..Ale about Flax Seed and Forgiveness

It was a sweltering summer day. Two figures emerged from a vehicle amongst the modest laden cyclists who painted the roads. The contrasting ideologies of the two made  choosing a venue difficult. Although both shared an affinity for fine fare, a conflict emerged. He was a portly porkivore; she a gluten intolerant pescatarian. They shared a very similar yet different passion for food. Rumours of the Bickford Flexitarian had filled the air and these pilgrims were on a maiden journey to this haven in which communal eating could occur regardless of where they choose to eat on the food chain.

As they approached the air seemed barren. There was a eerie stillness which bled into the uneven sidewalks. The pit in their stomachs grew as they walked toward the inevitable. The doors were locked, the counters were bare. No warning was provided; both the website and facebook betrayed them. After the tedious journey through traffic and the descent toward their destination, the harvest was nil. He clenched his hands in frustration as they turned in unison and returned alone the same trail they had just carved. He was scorned and promised himself that some retribution would occur. Perhaps an ill-tempered tweet or a cantankerous comment to those who would listen would remedy his angst.

A handful of fortnights later he was on a solo mission in the vicinity of the Bickford. A whisper of distain returned as the memories filled his head. Once again, cyclists were weaving and ringing their bells along the Harbord St paths in efforts to alert irate drivers and unaware squirrels  to their presence. With a renewed swagger, he proceeded to the front door to find it ajar. The Bickford was open.

As promised, the list of fare was diverse, ranging from raw and vegan to blackened chicken omelettes. The proprietor was a pleasant lass. Perhaps out of an increased curiosity for the raw food movement or perhaps out of homage to his missing partner, he inquired about the walnut banana “french toast.” Without pretension, she beamed that the toast was the creation of her own hands but subtly questioned his commitment, likely the result of his phenotype which suggested a probable affinity for all things ham. He assured her he was of sound mind and that he wasn’t nuts; he just wanted to eat them, along with an Americano of course.

As he was waiting he confessed his frustration over his previous fruitless endeavour.   He was told the Bickford  was closed on Tuesdays during the summer months, a practice which was common among many establishments.  Her pleasant demeanor filled his heart and he had an instant need to forgive the oversight.

The delivery of the goods was prompt.   As promised, it was a bit of an adventure off the beaten path. The “toast” itself was dense and full of earthy flavours.   The cashew cream made butter seem like an ex-girlfriend and the date syrup was sultry to the tongue.  The walnuts, blueberries and pollyanna fruit cup were perfect accessories.  He deemed the  Americano delicious as well.  It was true, he somewhat longed for some salty swine to complete the dish but there was solace in  the fact that he was able to adhere to the philosophy of his missing travel mate and the other tree hugging cyclists he carefully avoided on his way into the Bickford to begin with.

Walnut Banana 'French Toast' $10.50
Walnut Banana ‘French Toast’ $10.50

As he ate, other patrons ventured inside with many interested in the  baked goods which lined the shelves.  In particular the gluten free muffins seemed to be a hit.  Since he had a work rendezvous with this travel mate the next day, he asked the lass to hold one for him. She gladly complied and wrapped it for the pending trip. Upon his departure he produced his means of payment only to be told to put it away and accept the muffin as an apology for the previous confusion.

He ventured back to his vehicle with a new found admiration for the Bickford Flexitarian. True, all it took was a muffin but it was more than that. It was about respect, acknowledgment and remedy.

By the way, she enjoyed the muffin.

My Take

The Bickford Flexitarian has plunged into the competitive cafe/coffee shop market.  Although located a bit off the beaten path, there is plenty of bike traffic as well as those who take Harbord to avoid the clogged arteries of College or Bloor streets.  Speaking of clogged arteries, Bickford offers hearty breakfasts that spare the heart and are more creative than the glass enclosed baked goods a lot of the others offer.  They also realize that serving healthy food doesn’t need to come with a side of self-righteousness.

The story of Bickford Flexitarian is one of betrayal and forgiveness which, unlike a story such as Jane Eyre, has a happy ending. Ok…that’s a bit much but I often longed to spend my days drinking coffee  and writing about my interpretation of the state of society.  The irony is it took the consumption of a raw walnut banana  flax bread for me to do so.

Bickford Flexitarian on Urbanspoon

Toronto:Coffee:Queen East:Mercury Espresso Bar

It’s a daunting task when you driving down Queen East from downtown at 7:30 am looking for a place to grab a coffee and maybe a bite. The classic hot spots such as Lady Marmalade, Bonjour Brioche and Tulip are still waking up so the liquid remedy of coffee with the possibility of a pastry may be all that exists.

I progressed down the empty street, sun in my eyes and  saw a Starbucks on the right and parked, ready to succumb to over roasted coffee and a generic breakfast sandwich.  Instead, I spied the Mercury Espresso bar, which has a relative smallness of the planet itself.  I walked into a small line, staring down as I flipped the plastic between my fingers, almost convincing myself this was a cash only joint and I would have to cross the street or find a high service ATM in the vicinity.  I let the question “Do you take credit?” squeak out of my mouth. The answer was a resounding yes…minus AMEX  of course.  With that, I ordered an americano.  He did have a shade of baristattitude, but he kept it in the realm of confident versus cocky.  In order to get the bill  up a bit, I ordered a nutella cookie as a compromise to the sandwich I would have ordered at Starbucks.  I was also interested in the coffee on the shelf and chose a Matalapa from El Salvador roasted by George Howell which subsequently has turned out to be a fabulous cup of joe at home.

The americano is one of the better I have had in a while. It was smooth and like a flower garden; complete with fragrant blossoms and was  neither under or over watered.  The cookie was pretty good too.

Nutella Cookie
Nutella Cookie
George Howell Coffee
George Howell Coffee

My Take

Mercury will be a regular stop on my way to the office, although I’m only there half a dozen times a year. I will also grab a bag of coffee while I’m at it. There’s nothing special about the place other than the brew (and maybe the daily trivia question) and I suspect  the bright sun, slight breeze and serenity of an empty Toronto street may have catalyzed the experience, but I’ll take it over of the many possible destinations of the  timbucktoos scattered along the route regardless of the time of day.

Mercury Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Leslieville:Lady Marmalade

Hey hipster, go hipster, soul hipster, go hipster
Hey hipster, go hipster, soul hipster, go hipster

He went Marmalade down in old Leslieville
Struttin’ his stuff on the street
She said, “Hello, gimme some  Joe
And maybe an order of french toast”

Mmm, fruity fruity ya ya da da
Coulis coulis  ya ya here
Mocha latte  ya ya
Here at  Lady Marmalade

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

He savored his coffee whch she freshed up
Cuz he couldn’t get a beer or wine.
On the formica table tops where
He started to eat.

Tofu tofu ya ya da da
Lots of veggies options here
All day breakfast ya ya
Here at  Lady Marmalade

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Seeing the hollandiase sauce silky smooth
Along with a cafe au lait
One bite of the eggs bennie inside
Makes you wanna cry, “More, more, more”

It’s only open from 8 to 4
And 8 to 3 weekends (and holidays)
But when he sits down to eat
He wants to order more, more, more

Mexi mexi ya ya  da da da
Tortita-gordita ya ya here
Six dollar smoothies ya ya
at the trendy Lady Marmalade.

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Annoying annoying  ya ya da da da
Cash only ya ya here
No reservations either ya ya
Here at Lady Marmalade

Tomato and Basil Eggs Bennie with Potatoes and Salad
Tomato and Basil Eggs Bennie with Potatoes and Salad
Tortita-Gordita Dandwich with Soup
Tortita-Gordita sandwich with Soup

Translation

Pros– One of the best eggs bennie going. I think the hollandaise  sauce has nicotine or something addictive in it because on occasion  i wake up wanting it injected in my veins.  Great menu with lots of veggie options. Food is fresh and environment is buzzy and fun.

Cons– Cash only and no reservations and the whole party has to be there seat policy. Blah, blah, blah. Ugly walls. Hardy Boys (I was partial to Nancy Drew).

Lady Marmalade on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Dundas West:The Hogtown Cure

Imagine a place where you can grab a coffee, pop open your computer, enter a clever password (I won’t give it away but it has something to do with a very tasty pork product) and expose yourself to seasons of scents which go from smoked vegetables to pickled onions to freshly baked bread. Welcome to the Hogtown Cure, a newish joint open at the corner of Dufferin and Dundas. Part cafe, part deli and part grab and go, I was keen to sit down and see if it would cure my wintertime blues.

The Hogtown Cure Interior
The Hogtown Cure Interior

Perks

Although the hot beverages are a bit  pricy, Hogtown Cure offers a wide variety of coffee elixirs, notably the red eye and black eye featuring one and two shots of espresso in a cup of drip coffee respectively.  Both the coffee and espresso had a balanced tone and were of good quality and I’m pretty sure that the red eye even gave me wings.

The Hogtown Reuben was a unique spin on the classic sandwich.  It was proportional from an ingredient standpoint. The homemade pastrami  was super tender and reminded me of slow-cooked roast beef  as opposed to the boiled, shriveled balls of meat from Shopsy’s I associated with this type of meat during my youth.  The brine and the seasoning was subtly appropriate.    The sauerkraut and cheese were flavourful.  My only issue was that the bread was toasted and not fried on the grill. Call me picky but I crave the chewy texture of some lightly grilled fresh bread as part of  a hot sandwich vs one made with crunchy of toast.

The mushroom soup was good as well.  It has the earthiness of….well…earth.  Not dirt, earth.  The mushroom was the star and the surrounding broth was neither too flimsy nor too intense.

The Hogtown Reuben with Mushroom Soup
The Hogtown Reuben with Mushroom Soup

Sludge

Although I enjoyed the constant olfactory stimulation, I left smelling a little like a smoker…meaning a food smoker, not a chain smoker.  My wafting scent coupled with my unwavering stare after sucking back a red-eye may have had resulted in a few odd glances my way afterwards, but I really didn’t care. I had a gut full of reuben and was strolling into a strong head wind which aired me out like Grandma’s pantaloons on a brisk summer day.

In most cases, I have an unnatural admiration for slaw and wasn’t fond of Hogtown’s offering.  I found it had the monotone taste of wine vinegar which overwhelmed the harmony of sweet, sour and sulfur present in a great slaw.

The Final Sip

I love the concept of this place.  It’s kind of like hanging out at your mom’s place doing work  all afternoon while she’s slaving away at the stove concocting a plethora of her favorites.  Your attempts at intellectual advancement are challenged  by sultry sensations of savory sundries.  The coffee is decent, the food is pretty good and you can find an electrical outlet here and there. You can even grab a few hundred grams of unique local cheese,  few slabs of duck bacon or a confit leg on the way out. Let’s see mom serve that with her scalloped potatoes.

The Hogtown Cure on Urbanspoon