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

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

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

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

Heart Attack Benny $11
Heart Attack Benny $11

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

Hangover Helper $11
Hangover Helper $11

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

Fancy Franks Gourmet Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Disgraceland on Urbanspoon

De Niro’s Pad, Homicidal Snowplows and Psychoanalysis at Rino’s Kitchen

I love Windsor.  I’ve mentioned before it reminds me of my hometown of Sudbury. Although it will probably never be part of  a conversation about  the best dining destinations in Canada, Windsor has quietly evolved into a diverse and vibrant culinary locale. Driven by a number of mom/pop or brother/sister joints, one can choose almost anything.   If you’re in the mood for a family style joint, you can hit the Lumberjack’s salad bar or order Penalty Box’s chicken delight. Food Network junkies can hit a number of joints visited by John Catucci on You Gotta Eat Here.  If you are in the mood for ethnic food, there is fantastic Italian along Erie Street and great Thai, Lebanese and even Ethiopian scattered throughout the city.  If you are still stuck you can hop onto Windsor Eats, an impressive website which provides up to date information on local restaurants and even offers tours which highlights local fare.

What makes things even better are the uncontrolled circumstances which usually occur involving a trip to Windsor.  It’s never simply a go to a restaurant, eat and leave experience.  There are always a few things which happen along the way that makes things stranger than fiction.  Take my recent visit for example.

I left the hospital on my way to a meeting with two colleagues; one works with my company and the other is a local doctor. The latter  had suggested we hit an Italian cafe so we can experience Erie Street.  Once I turned onto the street, we pulled over in front the first cafe we found that looked open.  I’m reluctant to name it over fear for my car tires and general well-being. Upon entry, the people in the place scattered, abandoning any card games or whatever else was going on.  The cafe basically consisted of a small bar, a huge espresso machine and an empty gelato bar with a smaller ice cream cooler beside it which was housing three or four flavours.  Looking around I saw a bunch of Italian guys, a picture of Robert De Niro (who apparently visited during Superbowl in Detroit) and an aged and framed oil painting of an Italian man who I have yet to identify.  I think I even saw the eyes follow me  as I walked around the place. A large television was showing Grey’s Anatomy much to the pleasure of a few of the patrons.  Things seemed to settle down once they figured out we weren’t cops and we were able to order.  Given it was about 10 degrees below zero, I ordered a decaf Americano and my work colleague ordered a latte.  The doctor, on the other hand, ordered a chocolate gelato on a waffle cone and proceeded to eat it like a happy 12 year old child.  While we waited, an old Italian guy walked out of the washroom.  He was either hiding in there after thinking a sting was going down or maybe he just needed to use the facilities but his reaction was nothing short of priceless.  I should point out that my colleague is an attractive blond woman whose likes probably haven’t stepped foot in that cafe for 30 years.  His jaw hit the floor like a Warner Brother’s character and he started speaking in tongues.  The woman behind the espresso machine just told him to go sit down.  He complied but continued to mutter drunken Italian nonsense in our direction for the remainder of the visit.  In between bites of chocolate, the doctor suggested that I should probably switch chairs so my back wasn’t facing the front door.   So, with Dr. Dreamy on the tube, a smiling De Niro on the wall and a bunch of old Italian guys (including the paisan in the oil painting) staring at us, we had our meeting, finished our coffees (and gelato of course) and scurried out.

After we dropped him off we decided to grab a bite.  Not only was is cold but it was starting to snow.  I should take this opportunity to point out something about Windsor; they don’t like snow.  In fact, they would have no problem declaring a state of emergency once enough snow falls to erect a  Tyrion Lannister snowman.  So, with nothing more than a centimeter of snow on the ground, out came the plows.  I was driving down one of the many one way streets and a saw the plow behind me.  I was immediately reminded of  a scene from 1986’s Maximum Overdrive.  The only thing missing was the Green Goblin face.  The homicidal plow approached at a feverish pace, sending sparks instead of snow ten feet into the air. I turned onto another street the minute I had a chance, took a deep breath and realized that my life had now been threatened  twice in the same evening.

We eventually decided on dinner at Rino’s kitchen. Rino’s encourages you to “Taste the finest Essex County has to offer. Farm to table at its best in a relaxed pub atmosphere.”  It was also recently featured on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”. At this point I should point out the fact that, like most cities, there is a subset of Windsor’s population who thinks they are hipsters.  The last time I came to Rino’s there were a table of clowns that looked more like the cast of Scorpion  than self-proclaimed food aficionados. To be a good hipster you really have to be a self-righteous asshole.  Just wearing the plaid and sitting farm to table joint in a small, blue collar city is not enough.

Luckily, hipsters were absent on this evening. Instead, we arrived on the tail end of an art show.  Small pictures were hanging all over the place.  In fact, we switched tables so as not to get in the way of the viewing audience.  I did have a look at some of the pictures and my colleague, with her psychology background, had commented that most of them looked like Rorschach blots.  I had to agree and felt tempted to lay down on the bench I was sitting on.  One of them looked like De Niro pointing a gun at me.  Another looked like the Green Goblin. Asa a result, I quickly ordered on of the four or five Ontario pints available on tap.

The menu offers all sorts of choices ranging from seasonal salads to protein laden mains.  I’m always a fan of house-cured meats, so we started with the charcuterie plate for $15.  Two types of meat (salami and coppa) and cheese (asiago and pecorino) were served along with roasted red peppers and bread.  The quality of the ingredients were quite good although it would have been nice to have some mustard or other condiments along side.  I would have also liked to see something like aged Ontario cheddars available “on board”.

Charcuterie $15
Charcuterie $15

As tempted as I was to order the signature pork and waffles, the pleasant waitress talked me into the seasonal oxtail stew served atop potato mash ($17).  The stew was filled with tender meat and carrots and served in a hearty portion with more carrots on the side.  It was a lot of carrots. Maybe a few green vegetables would have been better. In addition to a good dose of carotene, it was a delicious dish which was seasoned well.

Oxtail Stew $17
Oxtail Stew $17

They offered an apple crisp and a pumpkin walnut cheesecake for dessert.  I ordered the latter. Pumpkin and walnut go well together and the cheesecake was not overly sweet or heavy.  I think the icing sugar was a fitting garnish for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s kind of a f#ck you to the hipster movement who would likely reference the fact if wasn’t 2003 and then suggest a ground cherry as a more appropriate condiment.  Second, it’s the perfect example of a small town, blue collar adaption of the farm to table concept  in  a relaxed pub environment.

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7
Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

 My Take

In the span of a few hours, I escaped a scene from a Robert De Niro movie, outran a homicidal snowplow and got psychoanalyzed by the works of a struggling Windsor artist.  I also ate a decent meal at a restaurant which adheres to farm to table principles from charcuterie to dessert without the associated urban pretension.   You won’t find mason jars or the unnecessary yet abundant use of radishes at Rino’s. In fact, the menu offers trendy, tasty and reasonably priced choices without compromising portion sizes at the expense of making things look pretty.  Ya, I love Windsor…with icing sugar on top.

Rino's Kitchen & Ale House on Urbanspoon

 

Sky Blue Sky: I’d Rather Hang out with Wilco Instead of Jared Any Day.

I was looking for a lunch spot and remember stumbling across Sky Blue Sky in my travels.  All I knew is that they supposedly had good sandwiches and made an appearance on You Gotta Eat Here.  I’ve been to quite a few restaurants dedicated to members of pop culture.  For example, I’ve been to Lisa Marie in Toronto (Lisa Marie Presley) and Marlowe’s Ribs and restaurant in Memphis (her sorta famous dad).  I’ve dined at  Montecito in Toronto (Ivan Reitman’s tribute to himself) and sipped on cocktails named after Seinfeld characters at Thoroughbred,  but I’ve never been to a place which has paid tribute to the American rock band Wilco.  I’m not talking a poster or album cover hanging on the wall kind of dedication; I mean every sandwich and even the name of the place itself seems to be a WIlco song or album name.

With two locations, I strolled into the one on College Street.  After taking a flight of stairs to get inside, I entered a very modest abode which resembled a deli.  Red and white checked tablecloths covered the spattering of tables and hints of pop cultures stuck on the walls.

The menu is simple.  There are a couple of daily soups and a whole lot of sandwiches including a nice selection of vegetarian ones.  I opted for the split pea with ham($3) and the “Dreamer in my Dreams”($6), described as “slices of roast beef topped with onions cooked in red wine vinegar, banana peppers, slices of tomato and some cheddar cheese.  We put this dream on our spicy jack bread with some mustard and mayonnaise and serve it to you well toasted.”  The soup was well seasoned and had an enjoyable spicy bite at the end. The sandwich arrived in paper sporting the same red and white design.  By well toasted they meant a trip to the panini press.  The bread was delicious and housed a good proportion of fillings.  The cheese was melted nicely and the red wine vinegar, despite it subtly, shone through nicely.

Split pea soup $3
Split pea soup $3
Dream of my Dreams $6
Dreamer in my Dreams $6

As  I was waiting, I saw an older gentleman hobble up the stairs.  He was greeted like Norm from cheers when he walked in.  Soon a student dropped in and got the same treatment.  The two guys working there were friendly, engaging and respectful. There was a sign reminding patrons that Styrofoam soup bowls are recyclable so please use the appropriate bin.   You pay on the way out and not when you order.  You are asked to grab whatever drink you want out of the cooler and leave it to you to let them know. That’s the mentality I like in a place.  Many establishments have forgotten the fact that if you treat customers with respect, they will give it right back to you.  As the for bill, my math might be off on the individual items because my soup, sandwich and Perrier came to a mere $10.54.

My Take

In a world trodden with Subway, Quizno’s, burger joints and overpriced business lunches a simple sandwich shop like Sky Blue Sky has appeal.  It was a bit of a hippy mentality without the flower power, tie dye or Joe Cocker.  Instead, the same “love not war” cordial nature was replaced by good food, a friendly environment and numerous tributes to Wilco. The staff are delightful and well…not Jared.  To paint another picture Sky Blue Sky may not be for everybody (maybe it’s not where all the cool foodies go), but like Wilco, has found success through loyal followers (I guess a couple of Grammy wins doesn’t hurt either).  Plus, I’d almost hang out there just to hear the neighbourhood priest come in andd confidently order a “Hell is Chrome” or maybe an old lady from the area (who would likely be a regular) come in and proclaim”I must be high!”  Either way, I think they’d get a good sandwich.

Sky Blue Sky Sandwich Co. on Urbanspoon

 

Review:You Gotta Eat Here:Barrie:Pie Wood Fired Pizza

John Catucci left a bad taste in my mouth after my visit to Dr. Laffa. So I must admit a was a bit reluctant to place a take out order at Pie Wood Fired Pizza during a recent trip to Barrie. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I picked up the phone and ordered three pies for the trip home. This isn’t an easy task, however, since there are around 20 choices ranging from classic pies, crazy pies and hold the tomato pies.  There is even a $100 fois gras and black truffle pizza.

Pie Wood Fired Pizza is located in one of the many large malls that hug the 400.  Easy to see from the highway, it’s slightly harder to find.  Based on the menu (and the name of the restaurant), pizza is the mainstay and it supported by some pastas, sandwiches and appetizers from calamari to salty balls. Upon arrival, I noticed that the front was plastered with You Gotta Eat Here propaganda.   For example, there was a rather large poster with a proclamation from John Catucci himself….”I love the taste of pie…it’s delicious”.

SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza
SIgn Outside Pie Wood Fired Pizza

The interior is a cross between an Italian bistro and a sports bar.  Its quite open with nicely spaced tables and a large bar along the back.  The walls are lined with posters and paraphernalia  with plenty of pie, pizza and beer references.  A blackboard explains the daily drink specials (long island ice tea, ceasars etc for $6).  I paid for the pies and went on my way.

Pizza one was the Pepperoni pie…the easy solution for any child under the age of 10. There was no shortage of any of the promised toppings and passed the kid test quite easily.  It had that crust pliability that provides great entertainment value as well as taste for the young ones. Not bad for $12 either.

Pizza two was the St. Lucia pie…a Hawaiian type topped with tomato, pineapple, house smoked bacon, mozzarella and shredded coconut.  Other than the coconut, I have yet to understand the correlation between the name and the toppings.  That aside, it was a delicious pizza.  The bacon was sliced thin and  full of flavour.  Chunks of fresh pineapple and the subtle use of coconut add a delicious sweetness.  The toppings were abundant but didn’t compromise the integrity of the delicate thin crust.

pie st lucia

The third pie was the tomatoless cow pie, named for the use of braised beef shank as the main protein.  It reminded me of a steakhouse dinner on a crust as it came complete with roasted potato, spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheese Sauce and parmesan. Once again, despite the cornucopia of toppings, the crust was not compromised at all.  The pototoes were tender and the ingredients were presented in a good proportion.

Cow Pie $14.50
Cow Pie $14.50

My Take

Traditionally, really good thin crust pizzas are reserved for  enotecas  such as Queen Margarita or Terroni located along the trendy streets of urban centres.  One wouldn’t suspect some of the best pizza going lives in a commercial area in Barrie, Ontario. The concept is brilliant; make pizza the mainstay of a sports/casual  bar theme.  Instead of serving a default, thick-crusted, warmed up pizza in order to add diversity to a burger and fry centric menu, Pie makes pizza the star. Sure, some of the crazy pies may appear a bit gimmicky (eg. captain pie liner, hedge hog, green egg and ham etc.) but I don’t doubt each is made with the same attention to detail as the ones I ordered to make a stellar product.Although I can’t comment on the service in the restaurant, it will be a place I will at least think about when driving to and from Northern Ontario instead of hitting the En Route or one of the many crowded chains along Bayfield street.

In the end, I fully agree with John Catucci…

“I love the taste of pie.”

Hmmm…now how would I add one of those winky faces?

Pie on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:You Gotta Eat Here:Dr. Laffa

The recent surge in food with a middle eastern flare is evident. Shawarma stands and restaurants have popped up all over Ontario.  I don’t doubt that at some point a Shawma Wars show will appear on  CMT beside the battles between burgers, pizza and tacos. Until then. the battle for the best shawrma has to be left to the likes of  numerous Toronto blogs and celebrities like John Catucci.

So, when I was peckish for a pita, Dr. Laffa seemed a logical choice.  Although located in an industrial area around Dufferin and Lawrence (actually there is a second location on Bathurst located across from Harold the Jewelry Buyer of commercial fame), it is a bustling joint even on a Sunday. Dr. Laffa has been featured on You Gotta Eat Here and has been crowned with the title of Toronto’s best shawrma by BlogTo a few years back.

Upon entry, I was surrounded by smiling waitstaff and seated in the back corner.  I got there just prior to the lunch rush and narrowly avoided the arrival of a large birthday party which filled half of the seats in the modestly sized interior. The menu gives a loose description of the restaurant’s concept which essentially equates laffa bread with manna from heaven itself.  Baked fresh to order, It’s sort of a cross between pita and naan bread.  It is available with hummus orders as well as an option for any of the sandwiches.

Laffa Bread
Laffa Bread

We were immediately treated with a spread of condiments which included pickles, cabbage, corn salad and carrots.  My favourite was the cabbage although they were all pretty tasty.

Dr. Laffa "Starters"
Dr. Laffa “Starters”

Ordering turned out to be quite the ordeal.  The word “shawarma” on a menu can imply a number of different things.  Both myself and my daughter are fans but we both have an aversion for lamb.  I inquired into the content of the shawarma and after great deliberation by numerous members of the waitstaff, I was told it contained both lamb and chicken and it appeared there was no way to change this fact.  Both of us called an audible and ordered the falafel and chicken shish kabob sandwiches respectively.  I decided to break the bank and go for the laffa whereas my daughter played it safe with the pita.

I started with the hummus masabaha (chickpeas and tahini).  It was a rather large portion served with one piece of laffa.  Creamier than most, it had a mild, pleasant flavour.  If you like an earthy, garlicky dip you may be a bit disappointed.   Be prepared to be left with a whole lot of hummus as well since the amount of bread is not nearly enough.

Hummus
Hummus Masabaha $7.99

I decided to take a stroll to the counter to check out the open kitchen.  It was at this point I realized that a chicken shawarma was possible (I had initially assumed that the lamb and chicken was stacked on the same stick).  I explained to the guy that we were told otherwise and asked if we can  switch.  He looked at me rather perplexed but reluctantly agreed….or so I thought.  Back at the table, I updated the waitress.  Sure enough, out come the kabab laffa with the explanation “well, it wasn’t in the computer and he didn’t know which one to switch”.  There was no offer to remedy.  Furthermore, she didn’t order the laffa to begin with! She was stuck with a laffa instead of a pita (for an extra $3 a pop for chicken laffa I’ll add). I would have almost forgiven the whole ordeal if the sandwich would have been mind blowing. The plaque on the wall boasting Dr. Laffa’s commitment to the importance of pickled turnips, hummus and hot sauce as a key component of a shawarma was  misleading because what was sitting in front of us was a sloppy mess of hummus-laden lettuce and huge chunks of onion overpowering the chicken and falafel.  Although the chicken wasn’t dry and the falafel was moist and nicely seasoned, the sourness of the pickle and heat of the sauce were near absent.

Falafel on Laffa $5.99
Falafel on Laffa $5.99

My son ordered fries for $4.99. They were fresh cut and ample ketchup was available so he was happy.

Fries $4.99
Fries $4.99

At this point the birthday party had pretty much arrived and we were left stranded for a while.  Eventually, we were asked if we wanted to take the sandwiches home and the waitress carefully wrapped them table side which was a nice touch. After another lengthy wait we were given the bill and navigated our way out.

My Take

Despite the dismal dining conditions that exist in London Ontario, there are many great middle eastern choices. I can grab a decent shawarma on almost every corner. If Dr. Laffa is the best shawarma in Toronto, then London wins hands down.   I don’t expect Michelin star service in places like this but I get rather annoyed when simple things go wrong.  The ability to provide a simple chicken shawarma on a pita to a 13 year old does not seem like an impossible feat but proved to be so on this day.  It lacked the fundamental elements of a good sandwich that I though would be automatic in a place raved about on You Gotta Eat Here and Blogto.  My falafel was decent but not heads and tails above others I have had. Some patrons have commented that the laffa should not be a dollar and a half  to three dollars more than the pita but I suspect it is bigger  in general given the amount of filling necessary to stuff the plate-sized bread (this is a theory  I never got to test out since I never got a pita to compare it to). Otherwise, the hummus was good and the starting “treats” were a nice touch.    Despite everything, the place was packed, so there appears to be no shortage of fans.   In the end, I went to the doctor but I didn’t leave laffing.

Dr. Laffa Restaurant on Urbanspoon