I Just had a Meal that was Pretty Fking Good

Once in a while I enjoy going out for dinner. By this I mean dinner versus an new age experience in which food is some part of it. Within an industry dominated by the likes of Charles Khabouth, Oliver and Bonnacini, Jenn Agg or Grant van Gameren, sometimes it’s nice to find a stand alone old school eatery with single site ambition. In essence, I was looking for a place off the hipster path which still has appetizers and mains and serves complimentary bread and tap water without much resistance.

I recently brought a customer out and decided to venture to St. Clair West and visit Fk. I would like to believe that this is a response to the need to make everything an acronym (perhaps to make texting easier) or maybe it’s simply a sassy play on words but i wasn’t sure if I should tell people if I was going to dinner at eff-kay or fuck for dinner. When they called to confirm my reservation which I ensured I booked a few weeks before (because they sure as Fk don’t use open table), they identified themselves with the former pronunciation.

In this case, the “F” is Frank Parhizgar who along with Shawn (nice spelling) Cooper, ran Frank’s Kitchen for a number of years before shuttering and moving a bit north to the current location.

In addition to a less than pedestrian menu, Fk prides themselves on a robust wine list including a small list of exclusive by the glass choices protected with the help of a coravin (I only mention this because it seems to be a big deal). As a result, I was able to indulge in a 5 ounce glass of a small batch Alsatian Pinot Gris which was fantastic. If you are not a wine person, they also offer a couple of delicious albeit expensive draft beer choices including Krombacher Pilsner and an Italian Menabrea Ambrata.

The amuse bouche really is a dying art so it was nice to see the waiter enthusiastically  pour cold avocado soup around a small pile of matchsticked cucumber placed in the middle of a hand crafted bowl (apparently Mr. Parhizgar had a hand in this too). It was pleasant reminder that summer wasn’t quite over yet. Afterwards, we were offered Frank’s fresh baked trio of bread which included a rustic crusty bread, an Italian pomodoro and a walnut loaf.

 

Avocado Amuse Bouche

The appetizer menu include a few old school favorites served nouveau.  My guest opted for a crafty tuna nicoise which featured sushi grade tuna served linearly across the plate among other classic salad ingredients. I cheated a bit and avoided the appetizer menu all together, instead ordering crab cakes from the side menu.  The cakes themselves were crunchy type ( I normally like something a little softer) but the ramp tartar sauce was a phenomenal condiment which I would gladly slather on many foodstuffs, crustacean or otherwise, without much hesitation.

For the main I opted for the lobster ravioli which swam in a tarragon bisque.  It came with a modest portion of six pieces but was rich enough to satiate especially after I made every effort to scoop the last drops of the broth out of the bowl which my spoon while lamenting in the fact that I should have save a bit of walnut loaf to ease the task.

Lobster Ravioli

I skipped dessert but nonetheless I was treated to a house made chocolate gem to finish the meal. Once again, it was another example of a passionate attention to detail.

Fk Chocolates

In the end, Fk was refreshing…a bit of an oasis in the desert of loud, bustling eateries which cloud food with folly.  There is true passion in the dishes coupled with a few cool wines along with the ability to talk about with your party without Richter scale noise. The staff are pleasant and attentive, the wine is unique and the food is pretty fking good.

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

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Reflections on the The Piano Man and Talking About Rosalinda’s “I”s.

I drive quite a bit so I listen to a lot of Sirius radio.  I’ve been enjoying the limited edition Billy Joel channel which has been on the airways for much longer than expected. It’s quite interesting to hear him discuss his inspirations as well as his unique perspectives on his 40+ year music career even if somewhat entwined with typical rock n roll pretension.   With such an extensive catalog, it goes without saying that I would have a number of favorites tunes as well as a small library of songs I’m not fond of.

My Favorite Billy Joel songs (in no particular order):

We Didn’t Start the Fire

This song makes for a great drinking game.  We used to try and recite the lyrics and drink when we got to the point where all we could remember was “Brooklyn has a winning team” and “JFK…blown away…what else do I have to say”.

Piano Man

The shitty bar I frequent down the road from my house probably has a John, a Davey and a microphone that smells like a beer (especially when Smokin’ Dave shows up for a concert).  It’s easy to follow along… it’s like the Cole’s notes version of American Pie if you don’t have eight and a half minutes to kill.

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

Inspired by the B side of the Abbey Road album, the mini symphony reminds me of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and G ‘n R’s November Rain and is reminiscent of the nights when I had a bottle of red AND a bottle of white and really hoped people like Brenda and Eddie wouldn’t work out in the end.

She’s Always a Woman

Billy Joel has a number of sultry ballads but this has got to be my favorite. First, it was a late seventies testament to the power of feminism. Second, in my late and very confused  teen years  I had a girl tell me over my long-corded phone as I laid on my waterbed that this song was her in a nutshell so it certainly has a little sentimental value.

Pressure

This song is good to help vent after a bad day. In addition, it kicked off the season 2 premier of the quirky show “911” which saw a number of chaotic episodes including a renegade pressure cooking reminding us all that second hand slow cookers aren’t the only appliance to be wary of.

Downeaster “Alexa”

Call me a sucker for songs about peril at sea but this haunting ballad fits in the same category as Gordon Lightfoot’s the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald and the Hip’s Nautical Disaster.

My Least favorite Billy Joel songs

All for Leyna

Other than a melody I really don’t like, Leyna sounds like a real bitch and brings back memories of Winnie Cooper on the Wonder Years.

Zanzibar

Any song with the same name as a strip bar on Yonge Street needs a lot of substance to get that vision out of my head and this song just can’t do it.

Big Man on Mulberry Street

Despite being inspired by the Bruce Willis/Cybil Shepherd  show “Moonlighting”, I just can’t get into this song.  It’s a little too broadway or something. I think I’d rather listen to Al Jarreau’s theme song instead.

Lullaby (Goodnight, my Angel)

I find this song is far from a lullaby and often thought the hard piano strokes and pensive lyrics would keep me up all night.  Then again, it can’t worse than listening to any rendition of the rather morbid Rock-a-bye baby.

Rosalinda’s Eyes

I find some of his less appealing songs seem to be about women including the aforementioned Leyna as well as Laura, Judy, Josephine and Rosalinda.  Rosalinda also has a song about her  eyes and could be one of the more loungy songs in his whole repertoire.  That said,  I’m sure even  a $15 hotel cocktail wouldn’t make me appreciate it anymore but let’s talk about her “I”s anyway.

Rosalinda is a downtown establishment which focuses on Mexican, vegan cuisine. The bright decor is cross between a cantina and a greenhouse complete with Mexican accents throughout.  Given its convenient location, it makes for a great lunch venue and at night transforms into a place a little more characteristic of a GVG foodie function.

Innovative

Mexican cuisine is usually known for simplicity more than innovation but Rosalinda’s commitment to veganism other than beans and rice forces thought outside the box. Perhaps the best example was the young coconut ceviche $14 finished with with apple, celery, pickled shallot and herb leche de tigre.  The tender coconut could have easily been mistaken for a scallop and the pleasant acidity was a great palate cleanser.

rosalinda ceviche
Young Coconut Ceviche $14

Another innovative dish was the jackfruit pibil taco ($12) with crispy taro root and slaw.  Jackfruit is a spot-on substitution for this traditional pork dish which was topped with fragrant slaw and a faux crema sauce.

rosalinda jackfruit
Jackfruit Pibil Tacos $12

Inspired

Rosalinda digs a little deeper into the tradition of  Mexico than nachos with salsa and guacamole. Instead, sikil pak served with totopos is the preferred dip and vessel of choice. Sikil pak is a thick dip made from pumpkin seeds and was offered verde vs rojo in which I preferred the former.

topoto rosalinda
Totopos and Sikil Pak

Another inspired dish was the roasted heirloom carrots sitting atop mole, Mexico’s national culinary treasure.  Subtle yet complex, it paired nicely with the carrots which provided a vessel with both textural and flavour contrast.

rosalinda mole
Carrots with Mole $13

Inventive

To be honest, before reading the menu I don’t think I could tel you exactly what Tijuana-style broccolini ($14) was. According to Rosalinda it was served with grilled baby gem lettuce, jalapeno caper salsa, Caesar aioli and crispy garlic.  It seemed a little like the Godfather meeting  Pancho Villa over a salad.

rosalinda broccilini
Tijuana-Style Broccolini $14

My Take

Rosalinda offers a central lunch spot or what I presume is a more lively night in an authentic environment.  Although advertised as a vegan spot, the emphasis is much more on authenticity rather than glorifying the anti-meat movement. Seasonal and local ingredients get transformed into traditional Mexican inventions that are both innovation and inspired. It’s fresh and fun. In the end, these Scenes from a Mexican restaurant reminded me that Rosalinda is always a woman despite the fact her “I”s turned out to be better than her eyes…or at least Billy’s loungy account of them.

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

Fat Pasha: Making Cauliflower an Even More Costly Culinary Commodity

I guess there are so many names to go around.  I mean you can’t go to any most towns without finding a sports bar named the Locker Room or a strip bar with some precious or semi-precious metal in the name (Brass Rail, Solid Gold etc).  Then again, I suppose those would be a little more appealing than having pint at Jock Strap or a rye and coke at the Labia Lounge. That said, there can be mast confusion and controversy when names bare too close to each other.  I would certainly hate to get the Verve confused with the Verve pipe if Scott asked me who wrote the song Bittersweet Symphony at question 10 on HQ.  The band Bush was forced to release their first album in Canada under the name Bush X because there was a 70’s band in Canada with the same name.  After lawyers got involved, a donation to the Starlight Foundation and the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund. cleared things up with allowed the band to simply call themselves Bush (which could also be a name of the aforementioned establishments I suppose).

Fat Pasha is one of a number of restaurants under the Rose banner and should not be confused with Pasha in the Thorncliffe area.  The former is located a short walk from the Dupont subway station and  focuses on middle eastern fare or in their words “Good Jew Food”.  It’s a tight, darkish and dingy space characteristic of many casual eateries around town. I enjoyed being seated at a table facing the small and busy kitchen.  What I enjoyed less was the scattered service that followed.  Once we were seated, it seemed we were more spectators than patrons.  It took a while to order and we had to call them over a couple of times over the course of the night to keep things moving along.

The cocktail list is small and authentic but a bit dainty with accents such as plum wine, hibiscus and apricot brandy.  I opted for a bourbon-based “Make a Mint” which the waiter advised was a “sipping” drink.  I would have considered a pint but was a little turned off by double digit price tag for a Beau’s Lug Tread.   It was smooth and nicely balanced but needed to be nursed to make it through the first course which was the salatim; a plate of salads, pickles, falafel and pita for $29. It was an excellent way to indulge in the multiple smoky and spicy flavors the region has to offer.  In particular the falafel was fragrant and delicious.

fat pasha platter

It’s no secret that the key to success in the restaurant biz is a signature dish that every blogger, critic or reviewer HAS to have. In this case it’s the  roasted cauliflower. Even Maclean’s magazine  shared the secret to the dish on it’s youtube page. It also doesn’t hurt when that item has some type of controversy attached to it.   Heads spun a few years back when cauliflower rocketed to prices similar to natural vanilla or previously mentioned precious metals. This lead to social media outcries suggesting the mainstay might be an endangered species and made me wonder if Dan McTeague might start up “Cauliflower Buddy” to  give us current cauliflower prices from various grocery stores across the GTA.  Since them, it seems cauliflower prices have stabilized and the halloumi, tahini, pomegranate seeds and pine nuts would continue to have a home. With all the fanfare I expected to taste like manna from heaven itself.  It was certainly good but I haven’t stayed up at night obsessing about it since.  It is beautifully presented, however, and reminded me a bit of an edible arrangement- hipster style.

fat pasha caulitflower

The last dish was the lamb shawarma ($30).  It wouldn’t have been my first choice given my general dislike for lamb but I lost the rock, paper, scissors battle and promised myself I wouldn’t let it bias my opinion of the dish in general.  Here’s the thing…it was a $30 shawarma.  I live in London, Ontario and frequent Windsor and Detroit often where there is a huge Lebanese influence and some of the best shawarma on the continent at a fraction of the price.  I quite enjoyed the apricot amba but not enough to justify three John A. Macdonalds/Viola Desmonds.

fat pasha shawarma

My Take

Fat Pasha is a fitting name for this Dupont staple.  You can stuff your face at will with an array of flavours from the middle east provided you have a rather fat wallet. I don’t mind a restaurant’s attempt to elevate ethnic food to a new level but I think it needs to involve more than an apricot amba as an accent. In my neck of the woods, I’m used to $7 shawarmas bursting with pickled turnips, hot sauce, tahini and a pile of toum which often  come with a side of seasoned rice or fries.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not fully equating hipster bar in Toronto with a  mom and pop shop in London but i would be remiss if I didn’t assess the relative value to some degree. In the end, cramped quarters, sippy cocktails, medicore service and a big price tag trumped pretty cruciferous creations.  Perhaps the other Pasha might be a little less pretty but also a little less fat.

Fat Pasha Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My First Date with Sara: Rasa’s Sultry and Sophisticated Sister

The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture.  On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end.  My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went.  Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”.  I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter.   Both the name and the bakery was purchased  and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.  That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.

I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area.  I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant.  I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables.  Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T  and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.

When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby).  After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior.  It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents.   Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion.  She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.

It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu.  There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference.  I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise.  In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents.  That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

sara g and t 2
Gin and Tonic $16

Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality.   I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman.  In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky.  The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening.  The dumplings  were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and  cabbage.   The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon  and a dollop of whipped cream.

Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery.  All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease.  The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.

I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet.  Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position.  Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down.  Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation.  I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.

There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts.  The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream.  The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich.  It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.

My Take

I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though.  I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity.  Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and  Sara’s cherry cruller.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.

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

Oretta: The Importance of Auditory Authenticity: Madonnaism vs Real Accents

I’ve only come to realize recently the important role that accents have on pop culture.  The attention to detail and need for authenticity has often required actors to hide their native tongues to better represent to the role they assume.  Actors like Charlie Hunnan and Hugh Laurie fooled us for years by Americanizing their voices to play the leader of a Charming biker gang and a Jersey cocky doctor respectively.  Most recently I’ve heard interviews from the cast of the Walking Dead only to realize that both Rick and Morgan among others are from across the pond and their American grunts and mumbles amidst the zombies are just part of the act.  It’s not always English to American either;  I recently binged watched season 1 of Fargo and  listened to hours of Californian Colin Hanks and Texan Allison Tolman speak in Minnesota and surrounding accents.

On the other hand, bad accents can counter attempts at authenticity.  For example, shortly after marrying Guy Ritchie, Michigan native Madonna felt the need to let the world know that she became English overnight driven by a lukewarm British accent. The act was deemed rather inauthentic and lead to a good amount of backlash.

The need for some degree of authenticity seems to exist in the restaurant business.  In addition to a decor which reflects a restaurant’s overall concept, some insist on ensuring that the staff are equipped with a lexicon synonymous to the overall theme. It makes sense; I love to grab a Guinness from an Irish barkeep or listen to the proper pronunciation of a great Asian dish. Although the logic and emotion behind this is obvious, I think a couple of rules need to be established:

  • Let’s avoid Madonnaisms. If you are not from the country, don’t use the accent. A crash course using Rosetta Stone won’t fool anybody except the hipsters who did exactly the same thing to create the appearance that they are more intelligent consumer.
  • If you are fluent in the language, don’t be arrogant about it.  If I order rigatoni, I don’t mind having it repeated back to ensure accuracy but don’t need it done to correct my pronunciation. I’m North American; rigatoni is the same as Reeg-a-tow-naaay.
  • Make the menu authentic but readable.  I can figure out that secondi means second but let’s draw the line at having the ingredients listed in a different language along with a 4 page glossary in the back.

I suppose at some point I should get back to reviewing a few restaurants so this may be a good segue.  I went to Oretta a while back.  I was looking for a semi-quiet Italian place downtown that didn’t have the name Cibo, Terroni or Mercatto in it.  I had strolled by it a couple of times prior and was impressed with the roomy layout and decor of a traditional Italian ristorante mixed with a little King Street cheesiness.  Not surprisingly when we were seated we were greeted by a young waiter will a full out Italian accent.  I didn’t for a second think it was fake or phony but it did make me ponder the impact it might have on my dining experience.

The menu was a shortlist of classic Italian salads, pizzas, pastas and “secondis”. In the dead of winter the Cavoletti  salad (shaved brussel sprouts, almonds, pickled red onion, pecorino and crispy prosciutto) was a crisp, fresh and balanced reminder that  sulfuric and pickled vegetables can nicely bridge our extreme Canadian seasons.

oretta salad
Cavoletti $14

From the pasta menu we opted for gnocchi and risotto (aka. Riso di Ieri).  The former was doused with a rich meat sauce which made for a heavier dish, especially with the dense dumplings. The flavours were great but it grew monotonous rather quickly. Regarding the Riso; the normal and often overemphasized creaminess and volume of the risotto itself was de-emphasized.  It was hidden in a pan fried crust and served atop a generous portion of mushrooms.  As somebody who’s not the biggest fan of risotto, I found this version much more balanced and exciting mainly because the rice was de-emphasized. More traditional risotto fans, however, could easily be left disappointed by this interpretation.

oretta gnocchi
Gnocchi $19

oretta risotto
Riso di Ieri $23

I failed to capture a picture of the Margherita pizza ($16) but it looked like…well..a pizza. It passed the test; simplicity by means of a thin crust and fresh ingredients and would reasonably match the others along the King or Queen street strips.

Dessert was “cocco bello”; a tart with fresh fruit, cream and coconut housed in a nutty crust.  Perhaps it was not a standard winter dessert but a few berries when it’s below zero is always a kind reminder that, like the salad and despite a horrendous winter, spring and summer are always on the way.

oretta dessert
Cocco Bello $9

My Take

Deciding where on the spectrum between nouveau cuisine and authenticity one’s restaurant will fall must be a difficult decision. Not only does the food have to fit the bill but the vibe and environment also  needs to reflect the theme.  This includes the manner in which the staff addresses its patrons. I mean, it goes without saying that Game of Thrones would be ridiculous if the Lannisters sounded like Joe Pesci  or Donnie Wahlberg.

Oretta was a happy medium along the spectrum of ignorance and imitation.  Everything from the decor to the food to the waiter’s accent was authentic and not arrogant.  The menu was smallish but highlighted the simplicity of Italian cuisine.  The salad and pizza were the highlights although pasta and dessert were more than acceptable. In the end, I found Oretta a welcome change from the hipster-driven Terroni-like chains that have popped up all over the citta.

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

El Rey vs Jimmy Ray: At Least One of Them Isn’t a One Hit Wonder.

As I’ve frequently stated, the restaurant industry parallels the music industry.  Both are filled with experiences that will forever be etched in our brains. In other cases, certain foods and/or restaurants can be one-hit wonders in the same fashion as “flash in the pan” singers.  By defintion, the saying flash in the pan has nothing to do with food but it sounds pretty good.

1998 was a bad year for music.  The Billboard number 1 song for the entire year was was “Too Close” by Next (insert cricket sounds).  It was also infamous for having a number of charting songs by one-hit wonders including:

21-Crush- Jennifer Paige

28 Sex and Candy- Marcy Playground

35- Tubthumping- Chumbawumba

76- All for you- Sister Hazel

Perhaps the most recognizable (and certainly most applicable to this blog) is number 65  “Are you Jimmy Ray?” by the appropriately named Jimmy Ray. Despite his brilliant lyrics and video featuring an array of hip-pop and cowgirl cheerleaders flaunting pom-poms and doing double dutch, this Chris Issak crossed with Ricky Martin looking Brit faded from fandom rather quickly. In fact, touring with the  Backstreet Boys couldn’t keep Jimmy relevant at the time.

 

Another Rey recently hit the charts in the GTA.  This one goes by the name El and is the third single from Grant van Gameren’s debut album “Snax in the Six”.  The debut single, “Bar Isabel” and sophomore follow-up “Bar Raval” modernized the tapas experience along College street by equally and authentically combining decor and food to create a booze soaked snack vibe which as been copied by others ever since. The newer project, El Rey, on the other hand, launched on the border of Kensington and in the midst of a number of sleepy cantinas and tacquerias down the street and vaulted Mexican cuisine with a flare similar to the previous hits Isabel and Raval.

The two page menu consists of a page and a half of booze and a short row of snack foods highlighted by tostadas, snacks and a few other common Mexican specialties.  There are almost a dozen mezcals to go along with a few beer choices (local, Mexican and European) and wine selections.  Perhaps the paramount drink is the elusive “open windows”.  This cocktail is a must; an refreshing blend of the aforementioned mezcal plus some tequila, lime, pineapple which is finished with some chili for extra bite.  I say elusive because at one point the windows were closed and  it disappeared from the menu but has since returned (unless you go for brunch in which it is mysterious absent on the drink menu). In this case you need to beg and plead for one in a fashion similar to asking your dad for the car.

Foodwise, the tostadas are a must.  In particular, the coctel camaron ($10.50) is spectacular; a crispy corn totialla topped with shrimp, cucumber, avocado and some campechana sauce.    Honorable mention goes to the grilled skirt steak ($10.50) and octopus ($11.50) tostadas as well.  Each offered a unique taste driven but the use of different sauces and complementary ingredients to enhance the properly prepared proteins. Authentic, simple and delicious.  The bean and cheese quesadilla, on the other hand, didn’t get a whole lot of excitement from the table.   In addition to looking like a hot mess, it lacked any punch even when you tired to lather it with any of the provided accompaniments.

El Rey is another successful hit from the discography of Toronto’s Grant van Gameren.  The cantina breathes authenticity in its commitment to simple dishes and decor unlike the exaggerated and khabouthic demeanor of other establishments. As a result, it pumps out hit after hit from both a food and drink perspective. Its vibrant and current drink list is refreshing  both in choice and the fact it steers clear of bourbon-based cocktails and other overdone potent potables which saturate other snack bars in the area.In the end,  the fluidity of the food, drink and vibe allows for seasonal foods and current concepts year round, even when snowbanks and road salt threaten the sunny aura of a full Mexican experience.

As for Jimmy, the other Ray…have no fear…he gets knocked down but he gets up again.  Rumour has it that in a month Jimmy will be back after almost 20 years with his comeback album called “Live to Fight Another Day” just in case you are one those who wants to know.

El Rey Mezcal Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Ethnic Flare of the 905: Taking the Burger out of Suburgatory

After a longer than normal (and probably not noticeable) absence, I figure it’s time to jump on the blogging band wagon again.  Part of my absence can be explained by the unbelievable amount of time it takes to move and the post-relocation stress disorder (PRSD) that lingers for months after. Although this resulted in many days with a spoiled appetite, I have managed to work my way out to a few places during this period.

It seems I’ve been eating in Toronto’s burbs a little more recently lately. Maybe it’s correlated to the fact that,  although I didn’t move far in London, I am on a quieter “suburban” crescent now as opposed to the busy “urban” street I used to live on.  More likely, I’ve just been in hanging more in the 905 area. As part of these experiences, I have noticed that there are advantages to eating outside of the city.

1. Hipsters are few and far between. Sure, there are suburban hipsters (substers) which pop up here and there but for the most part they are an easier breed to deal with.  Substers usually possess less angst and are more likely to have mom tattooed on their upper arms as opposed to roman numerals or  a recreation of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour dreamcoat all over them.

2. Parking is a much easier and cheaper. This may be an issue, however, if the main reason for the night out is to get sloppy drunk. Uber may be a little scattered and transit is a lot less predictable so and expensive cab ride home may be in the works. That said, the price of a cocktail seems to drop by about $5 once you are north of the 401 so it may justify the extra $15 you’ll need to spend to get home.

3. There are amazing pockets of ethnic food in many of Toronto’s suburbs which luckily offset the numerous chains which populate the major streets and commercial areas within the 905. I apologize in advance if there is any disappointment in the fact that there won’t be a Jack Astor’s review as part of this post although I do hear their chicken fingers made in-house are divine and pair beautifully with a barefoot chardonnay.

In particular, I have recently spend some time in the Markham area and hit a quadruple eateries none of which are owned by Cara foods:

1. Tapagria

While the industrial themed small plate movement was taking over the 416, Tapagria quietly opened in the 905 focusing on Spanish tapas with a Markham twist (ie. located in a strip mall).  The menu was surprisingly authentic, complete with traditional favorites such as paella, pintxo and Iberian ham. We stuck with an array of bites including pan con tomate, smoked eggplant pintxo, mushroom croquettes, skirt steak, grilled calamari and a cheese board (including a bit of manchego) which we washed down with a decent Tempranillo. Generally speaking, the dishes were acceptably true to form, attempting to focus on quality ingredients whenever possible. Sure, it’s not la rambla, but despite a bit of suburban modification, I’m not sure it’s much less authentic than some of the other tapas joints that have popped up all over downtown. Plus, it would save a trip if you are in the area anyway and don’t want to venture down the always crowded highways.

2. Congee Queen

Congee queen is well-established Chinese eatery with half a dozen locations scattered across the north of the GTA. Unlike Tapagria, the authenticity does not lie in the food alone, but in the overall experience especially given the fact I was the token white guy in the whole place. Trolleys busily trek back and forth carrying piles of food from the extensive menu. I’ve been a couple of times. The first time I went for an early lunch so one of the 40 plus options of the namesake dish made sense. I opted for the abalone clam and chicken which I  paired with some rice rolls; a combination would could easily replace an oral glucose tolerance test for the diagnosis of diabetes. That said, there is something about a simple bowl of rice porridge that was more mystical than it should be. The second time I went for dinner and sampled an array of dishes including the shrimp wonton soup, tiger shrimp and mango salad and snowpea leaf with king mushroom. The food is good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable.

3. Ding Tai Fung

Dim sum and dumplings are music to my ears and another assault on my beta cell capacity. If you’re not on the Spadina strip in urban Toronto, then Ding Tai Fung is super suburban surrogate. It’s located in the First Markham place, which is the epitome of Toronto’s 905 experience. Where else can you can circle for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, pop into the Home Outfitters for some bed sheets and finish the experience with a bubble tea or some stinky tofu from the Mei Nung Beef Noodle House. Back to Ding Tai Fung: the food was above average highlighted by the incredible Shanghai wontons with spicy sauce and soup dumplings. The only minor disappointment were the gyoza dumplings which were enormous but a little too doughy as opposed to crispy.

4. Shanghai Shikumen Fine Cuisine

Also located in the First Markham place complex, I went not only as the token white guy at the table, but the token white guy in the whole restaurant. I luckily had some help trying to decipher the hundreds of available items and ended up with a variety of dishes which represented a Shanghai experience and pushed the envelope just a little. Menu items included braised wheat gluten (which is somewhat satisfying for reasons other than taste),xiaolongbao (dumplings), jellyfish (which I’ve concluded I’m not fond of), ribs and a few soups. In particular, the spicy soup (similar to mapo doufu) was an interesting experience. It’s characterized by tongue numbing peppercorns which seemed a bit of an initiation but my Asian table mates (little did they know I own not one but two buffalo wild wings champions shirts for eating 10 blazin’ wings in less than 5 minutes…insert evil laugh). I must admit it was a bit euphoric to have one of your senses temporarily removed. The other soup was Jiu Niang (or maybe a variation) which is a fermented rice soup with a level of booze that may just fall short of inducing red faces in those with alcohol dehydrogenase deficiencies (which clearing a phenotypically does not include me).

My Take

Ok, I really didn’t move to the burbs but I can still draw parallels between busy street chaos/calm crescent living and urban vs suburban dining. Yes, the latter can be a little slow and boring but there are elements of excitement (and perhaps modernization) here and there. It’s true enough that many of the aforementioned Asian eateries are nothing new but in some cases there is an overall shift towards having restaurants in the 905 reflecting a multitude of cultures in ways more than shrimp tacos at Kelsey’s. Perhaps one advantage is these places don’t have to pretend or feel pressure to adhering to authenticity dictated by foodie culture. One can enjoy an authentic dumpling without being draped in silk tapestries or having to listen to some spiel about the chef’s inspiration while on a pilgrimage along the Great Wall. Instead, you just get decent food unapologetically thrown down like on the table like a suburban parent running late for hockey practice or piano class.