Astronomy vs Astrology: A Story of Getting Lucky with Mira and Dasha..Two Urban Dictionary Sweethearts

I like astronomy. In fact, it was my favorite elective and turned out to be my best mark in university. It’s a fun combination of three of my favorite things; math, science and trivia. I still remember the order of the stars (OBAFGKM) and my facial haired professor’s challenge to deviate from the sexist “Oh be a fine girl, kiss me” and come up with a more politically correct mnemonic. Mine was “Only Bearded Astronomers Feel Good Knowing Mars”. Not sure he was impressed.

Astrology, on the other hand, is less about science and more about entertainment. I certainly don’t believe in the validity of horoscopes beyond coincidence but it’s at times refreshing to attribute your issues and actions to planetary alignment. That said, it’s really easy to pin my sometimes ridiculous stubbornness on the fact I’m a Taurus and not just an Irish asshole.

The name Mira has a number of meanings and is common in Latin and Slavic cultures, usually meaning admirable, wondrous or related to peace. Urban dictionary calls Mira a extremely lovable girl. Miras are usually the smartest in their class and will go to extreme lengths to show it. Mira’s are loyal people and when given a chance, could grow to be your bff. Mira is also a red giant star in the constellation Cetus and is sometimes visible to the naked eye. In astrology, some cite Cetus as the 14th zodiac sign.

Mira is one of the handful of new Peruvian restaurants which has popped up in the GTA over the last couple of years. Located in an alley between King and Wellington and only identified by a small, worn metal plate, it can be a little tricky to find. Once inside, it opens up into a busy space highlighted by an open kitchen above and a large bar within a narrow space below filled with murals, mirrors and funky flooring.

Drinkwise, I started with the El Manana cocktail, a bourbon based “booze forward” spin on an old fashioned flavored with honey, mint and lime (not pictured). From there it was wine. Truth told it was tough to find a great selection at a price point that less than three digits. First, we decided on a rather disappointing Andover Pinot for $80 followed by a more adventurous and better Portuguese Uivo Vinhas Velhas blend for the same price.

As expected, the menu is a smorgasbord of all sorts of proteins in the form of ceviches, anticuchos and larger mains. From a seafood perspective, the octopus, accompanied with aji and potato, although well prepared, was a bit of a flimsy starter at $22. The tostada morado ($18) was clever collection of classic tuna and central American flavors (corn, avocado and cilantro). The tiradito hiramasa ($21) was the best of the smaller seafood dishes we sampled…fresh kampachi marinated in citrusy tiger’s milk and topped with sweet chili jam. The last fish dish was a fantastic whole branzino ($46) topped with a rich sauce which enhanced the subtle of the fish quickly nicely.

Land anticuchos included costilla (short rib $19) and cordero (lamb $17). The fatty short rib was balanced with sweet, spice and earthy truffle. Admittedly, I’m not a lamb fan so I wasn’t surprised to find the cordero rather unremarkable. In my opinion, the pollo inchacapi ($28) was the STAR of the night. The hen was covered in colourful sauces and garnishes with peanut, chili and tamarind notes which added visual appealing in additional to the incredible flavors. The side corn dish mimicked the flavours of the other dishes and was a nice colourful addition to whole spread.

Dasha is a girl’s Russian name meaning “god’s gift”. According to urban dictionary, Dasha is the sweetest girl in the universe. If u mess with her friends u will have 2 deal with her. She is caring, funny and very talanted. She will always be there 4 u when ur in trouble. If u meet a Dasha, ur life will change and u will always have a smile on ur face. In astrology, Dasha is a Hindi term used to indicate planetary periods. Vimshottari dasha  assumes that the maximum duration of life of an individual human being is 120 years which is the aggregate duration of all nine planetary periods reminding us that Betty White still has a while to go.

Dasha is the newest project of esteemed chef Akira Back and features classic and upscale Chinese food along with traditional karaoke rooms available upstairs. Like Mira, finding it is not intuitive..it a bit off the beaten path tucked down an alley off of King street. It also features a larger bar and an open kitchen. The interior can be described as Chinese market meets the standard Toronto industrial look.

There is a mystic component to the drink menu. I ordered the Iron Fist, Dasha’s take on an old fashioned which pours from a kettle amidst a cloud of dry ice. It was slick and smooth and booze forward of course.

Iron Fist Cocktail

Food wise, we started with a couple of small plates including chicken balls ($9) and wasabi prawns ($14), the latter at the recommendation of the waitstaff. The chicken balls were pretty standard and a lot less bulky than the ones which normally headline your local joint’s family dinner combo and the dipping sauce lacked the fluorescence of the standard sweet and sour sauce but that was made up with the bright green wasabi shrimp which glowed in the surrounding dim light. The crunchy shrimp was surprisingly balanced with sweet accents and heat typical of horseradish.

Next were the dasha fried noodles ($12) and steamed har gow dim sum (which I’m told is a traditional way to celebrate Chinese new year) for $14. Neither dish was overly memorable…the noodles were pretty generic and the dim sum was a bit disappointing. Also, I was with a Chinese colleague who literally cringed at the har gow’s price point which she deemed almost insulting given the same offering usually goes for 1/3-1/2 the price at any other dim sum house and one might argue those ones taste even better.

We finished the dinner with the black cod, black truffle duck ($49) and side miso eggplant ($13) both in which I thoroughly enjoyed. The cod and duck was masterfully prepared and presented. The shaved black truffle was delightful. The eggplant was also flavourful and nicely highlighted the proteins with the unami flavour of both the eggplant itself and the miso seasoning.

I’m also reluctant to go too crazy with dessert at most Chinese restaurants because I honestly can’t recall any Asian dessert topping my list of best of all time sweets. Regardless, we tried the banana spring roll with strawberry ice cream as well as the with green tea ice cream. Let’s just say neither cracks the list. The ice cream was quite good but the accompanying pastries were average at best.

My Take

Despite being very nice ladies according to urban dictionary, Mira and Dasha are also two new and highly sought eateries with many similarities. Both are located in hidden spots off of King street west. Both have busy and vibrant interiors with open kitchens and disproportionately large bars. Both offer exciting cocktails and nicely represent their respective culture through traditional yet clever food. You will pay for the ambiance however and may even overpay, especially if you want mediocre wine, dim sum or dessert.

Despite this adventure, I have to admit I’m still a bigger fan of astronomy than astrology. I much prefer red giants and white dwarfs to mercury retrogrades and horoscopes. That said, perhaps my old scientific and stubborn Taurean mind could be changed to better appreciate astrological intervention, especially if my Dasha fortune cookie ever rings true. Where’s Mira and Dasha when you need them.

My Dasha Fortune Cookie

SOS: Pasta, Palindromes and Growing Up with ABBA

A few days ago, number nerds across the earth ignored the annoying celebration of #okboomers worshiping portending rodents and instead praised palindrome day (02022020). This year’s focus on palindromes have also brought back childhood memories. Growing up, I’ll REFER to the time I spent at my grandparent’s house. My grandmother was an avid reader and I dedicated a good amount of time to flipping through the pages of novels and scaring the shit out of myself by reading a few pages of Stephen King or Dean Koontz when nobody was looking. The other thing I loved was their eight track player. Their music collection made me realize a few things; I was never a fan of country music and I loved Roy Orbison and yes…I also loved ABBA.

ABBA was a universal phenomenon in the 70s and were on LEVEL with the disco craze in terms of popularity. To me, ABBA was the transition from kiddie music to the real stuff. The catchy beats and simple lyrics made it easy to follow along at a time when I was still uninhibited by grown-up social standards. I thought Chiquitita was a song about bananas and Waterloo was about the city my uncle lived in.

Getting back to 02/02/2020, I made sure I opened my spotify account so I could pay homage to the ultimate pop culture palindrome…SOS by ABBA. This song is the only hot 100 single to date in which both the title, the credited act and the musical genre are all palindromes. Plus, I have to admit it is still catchy as hell.

In commemoration of palindrome day from a culinary perspective, it made sense to check out SOS (although pronounced sauce), a casual pasta joint on John Street that’s been on my RADAR for a while. Their sign encourages you to change your past(a) which isn’t hard because my historically my Irish MOM was hardly creative with Italian food…except for the fact she adds carrots to spaghetti sauce. The concept is simple…you can choose a house made short or long pasta with a preferred sauce and optional toppings. Alternatively, you can opt for one of their daily specials. If gnocchi or ravioli is your vice instead, you can go that route as well. They also offer gluten friendly and vegan options as well.

Since I wanted the full experience on visit one, I went with the surf and turf which was a busy mix of crab and lobster ravioli topped with a wine alfredo/ragu sauce accompanied with a couple of shrimp and meatballs. I’ll admit, it was a little over the top but gave me a great opportunity to experience the diversity of the menu all in one dish. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the sauces were robust with flavour. The alfredo was drenched in garlic and the ragu was brimming with tender chunks of braised beef. Both the meatballs and the shrimp were nicely seasoned. Since the pasta is made to order, it’s not RACECAR fast but is quick enough the visit over the the NOON hour and still get back to work on time.

SOS Surf and Turf Pasta $18

My Take

The last time we had a palindrome day, Henry V was the King of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor of Italy. I hardly think the Italians celebrated by eating surf and turf pasta so times have changed. I celebrated 02/02/2020 by listening to ABBA and eating ravioli. I need to reiterate that although I have an emotional attachment to the Swedish quartet, my regular playlist usually focuses on music influenced by my DAD including Beatles songs and great Gilmour guitar SOLOS. In the end, SOS is a quick and relatively inexpensive choice if you are craving pasta and if your lunch partner is craving charcuterie instead, you can just tell them it’s 2020, so GO HANG A SALAMI, I’M A LASAGNA HOG.

Skippa’s Dippa or No Dippa..My Amazing Race to the Most Exciting Game Since Howie Mandel Called the Bank

I’m a big game show fan and I’ve certainly fallen under the spell of many gimmicky ones over the years. In my early years, I learned how to count on the Price is Right and had many arguments with my mom about the reasons why Bob Barker shouldn’t be a father figure (and for the record mom…both my dogs are spayed or neutered). I have had dreams about destroying the Clock Game in 14 seconds ($891..892..893…894) or purposely giving up the trip to Aruba to watch the hiker slip off the edge in Cliffhanger.

My obsession didn’t stop there. I tolerated Regis Philbin on Who wants to be a Millionaire and actually wore a monochrome dress shirt and tie on at least one occasion. I longed to be a game show masochist at the expense of Anne Robinson on the Weakest Link. I even tolerated Howie Mandel’s scrubbed down stand up as he demanded that a bunch of women a third his age “open the case” on Deal or no Deal.

Since Skippa has opened, it’s been on my list but I rarely have the fortitude to haul my ass all the way up to Harbord Street. The irony is when I finally did make the trek, I severely underestimated the restaurant’s distance from the subway. For some reason I assumed it would be in the cluster of other restaurants between Spadina and Bathurst. In fact, I had no idea that Harbord stretched all the way to Ossington so I felt like I was on the Amazing Race as I darted an extra 2 km with the clock ticking in order to get there within some acceptable proximity of my reserved time.

When I made the online reservation I had the choice of communal seating (nope..I’m antisocial), the bar (would be cool but I was meeting a few others) or a comfortable booth a few steps up and away from the kitchen…bingo! When I finally arrived after my trek we were quickly greeted by a very pleasant member of the waitstaff who politely explained the restaurant’s concept. Choice one is the “Trust Skippa” which is a $130 opportunity to sample the entire menu. The option was a la carte but within that list was a $45 today’s sushi option which allows one to sample of piece of each of the evening’s featured fish. The three of us decided to go for the sushi flight and share most of the remaining dishes on the menu.

After ordering some warm sake ( one of the first examples of attention to detail was having ability to choose your own sake glass from all sorts of shapes and sizes), the meal started with an unorthodox bread service featuring a seaweed sourdough accompanied but house made butter which had been fermented for 6 months. Brilliant.

Seaweed Sourdough Bread

You will rarely near me say that pictures speak louder than words, especially given my notorious reputation as a shitty shutterbug. That said, I think these pics are half decent and that said, they don’t have to be great to emit the quality of the offerings.

The opener was a clever amberjack sashimi dish garnished with kumquat and fresh wasabi. Beautifully balanced.

Amberjack and Kumquat

Immediately after finishing, our place settings were cleaned off and reset in anticipation of the next dishes; local shitaake mushroom and daikon in a soy milk bath BC scallops served with in shell and complemented with sunchoke.

Next was a kinoko salad made with maitake mushroom and seasoned with miso and topped with watermelon radish. I found it a little on the salty side but the texture of the mushroom and the contrast of the radish made me a little less salty about it.

The quail dish was accompanied with seasonal persimmons and citrus which put together was a nice contrast to the seafood. It was intense and hearty yet delicate at the same time.

Quail with Persimmon

Once again the dishes were cleared in preparation for the sushi course. Fresh ginger and a beautiful soy sauce were laid on the table but were instructed that the chef would indicate whether it was needed. To dip or not to dip?..that was the question. We waiting in anticipation for direction as each dish was presented:

Retrospectively, there was a bit of a code to the dip or no dip question. The tuna sushi tended to be left alone as as the whitefish that were already seasoned with other sauces. The rest were fair game for a soy dunk. Regardless, all were stellar. Nonetheless, it was a fun game with an anticipation reminiscent of finding out if somebody blew it on Deal or no Deal.

Given the quality the meal, there was no way I was declining dessert. I went with the oba, a simple yogurt based dessert flavored with meyer lemon, sorrel and pomegranate seed atop some crumble. The balance of tart, savory and sweet flavours was perfect but the contrasting textures and temperatures of the creamy yogurt, iced sorrel and crunchy base were even better. In fact, after finding some meyer lemons at Costco the next day, I’ve been searching the city (to no avail) for sorrel in an effort to recreate this dish at home…I may have to use mint or upland cress instead #firstworldproblems.

My Take

Skippa provided a spectacular dining experience and the “Dip or No Dip” game show was an added bonus. From the salads to the dessert, each dish was meticulously thought out and hinged on brilliant contrast in either temperature, texture or taste. The sushi was fresh and vibrant. The service was impeccable and the attention to detail was immaculate. Personally, I don’t think you need the whole $130 “Trust Skippa” menu..I was adequately satiated with the sushi flight and sharing the rest of the dishes with my table mates. Even then, compared to many other sushi joints, Skippa may be big bucks but I promise…no whammies.

Mad Magazine, Joanne Kates and why GVG and Jen Agg may be the Spy vs. Spy of Toronto’s Culinary Scene

There is no argument that the world has changed substantially in the past two decades and media is no exception. One by one, longstanding publications are disappearing from the shelves and being replaced by virtual articles and snippets on online platforms. The latest fatality is Mad magazine. It can be argued that this iconic rag lead the way in political satire and was the blueprint for magazines like the onion some 35 years later. In addition, I can remember the tactile stimulation of delicately folding the inside of the back cover to reveal a picture hidden within the printed chaos. I remember it being more exciting that cracking open a kinder egg. It can also be argued that the magazine’s figurehead, Alfred E. Neuman, is the origin of the concept that gingers have no souls well before Trump proved it. Finally, Mad magazine may have foreshadowed today’s over the top fair play movement through the Spy vs. Spy comic. Unlike the Coyote and Road Runner, both were protagonists and equally alternated wins back and forth in a fashion similar to giving every kid a “thanks for coming out medal” in modern day youth athletics despite their performance.

Food media has changed as well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that people eagerly scoured a hard copy of the Globe and Mail in anticipation of the latest Joanne Kates Toronto restaurant review. Times have changed and now Ms. Kates is posting her thoughts online. Today, there are no shortage of critics…any google search now reveals a plethora of self-proclaimed experts (including myself) adding their two cents on blogs, snapchats or platforms like yelp… nowadays all you need is a tongue, a catchy handle and a general understanding of the English language to be an elite food writer.

Kates recently reviewed the newest Grant Van Gameren project and it hardly emerged with flying colours. Her argument was even if she is there for the wine, the food needs to be good because she is paying for it. She proceeds to complain more about the service than the grub itself and seems particularly concerned with the lack of kitchen hardware. On the other hand, in her review of Bar Vendetta, she acknowledges the food is less than stellar but you gotta go because of the vibe that only Jen Agg can create.

I’ll be the first to admit that Toronto’s food experience has drastically changed in the past 15 years. Things like three course meals and personal space have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with small plates and tight spaces plus/minus communal tables. Creative versus classic backdrops are the new norm and both GVG and Jen Agg lead the charge. Establishments like the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were trendsetting and fundamental backbones of the Toronto food movement today. That said, here’s my take..backed up by a few followers and a willingness to pay 25 bucks a year to keep my cleverly named web domain.

Vibe

Both spaces are understandably loud and filled with hipster zombies and the odd #okboomer trying to fit in.

Bar Piquette– Small and bright with white tables and blackboards indicating the current and rather extensive wine by the glass choices along with a handful of accompanying food options. Instead of a hidden cellar, bottles adorned with “The Price is Right” tags are stored in a rustic cabinet teasing patrons within plain sight.

Bar Vendetta– Dark environment with mismatched tables and chairs and walls plastered with classic music posters and a Spy vs Spy mural featuring a broken wine bottle and a corkscrew as weapons…clever. Wine choices are less extensive and indicated on spotty and crinkled paper menus which are near impossible to read in the murky surroundings. It’s a place reminiscent of Eric’s basement hangout in that 70’s show.

The Food

Bar Piquette– Limited menu of cold choices. We opted for a classic beef tartare, a tomato salad intertwined with guanciale and a simple cheese toast. Admittedly a little pedestrian but the ingredient were of stellar quality and each dish paired nicely with the one the many exciting selection of unique vinos.

Bar Vendetta– The menu focuses on pasta at peaks hours and gimmicks like muffuletta sandwiches and nachoes pre- and post-prime time respectively. My trio of dishes included the tuna diavolo, eggplant and trecce pasta. The tuna was vibrant and fresh and balanced nicely with a little heat courtesy of some fresh chilis. The eggplant and pasta on the other hand were pretty substandard. There was the odd bite of brilliance in the eggplant but overall it was rather bland and uninspiring, The pasta, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of the experience, was the biggest letdown mainly due to the fact it was uncooked and almost crunchy.

The Drink

Bar Piquette– The wine selection was bold and unique with plenty of by the glass offerings from all over the place. Temptation came screaming from the custom cabinet but I mainly stuck to glasses of skin-on organics and other fun libations.

Bar Vendetta– We made of the mistake of ordering cocktails in a wine bar and paid dearly. I’m always nervous to trash cocktails based on my own odd booze-forward tastes but after playing sharsies with the Dry Clean, Provocateur and Fade Out, my trusted table mates and I concurred that none of them where anywhere close to stellar. These were followed with a decent glass of Pearl Morisssette Irreverence and an Italian Valdibella Nero d’Avola chosen from what was quite frankly a less than impressive list, especially from a place touting itself as a wine bar.

My Take

Maybe Jen Agg and Grant Van Gameren are the Spy vs Spy of Toronto’s culinary scene. Each dream up a culinary scheme and see how it flies. Given their entry into the realm of wine bars, it’s not too far off to suggest that they may in fact have a rivalry similar to the corkscrew and broken bottle mural on Bar Vendetta’s wall. In most cases, both emphasize the vibe of their establishments and the polar nature of their latest projects will certainly lead to each patron picking a different winner. Personally, I like a brighter, wine forward place where Bob Barker could pop in any minute and ask me the price of a skin-organic wine without going over. On the other hand, people like Joanne Kates seem to prefer a venue where you could squint as you listen to Zeppelin and smoke up with Kelso. I’m also much less concerned about kitchen hardware and would prefer a decent beef tartare and other quality meats versus a head-scratching eggplant and under cooked pasta even when using a stove. If it came down to it and I had to choose between the two, I’d Piquette over Vendetta any day.

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

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