Review:Little Italy and Portugal Village:Darwin

So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist.  That’s Darwin.  OK…allow me to put it into perspective.  The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area.  Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of  “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.

I took one look at the  menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence,  it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under  $10  bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.

Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out.  Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St.,  umbrella in hand  and found my destination at College and Grace.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times).   There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable  guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.

An interesting  twist on the classic drink,  I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal  in conjunction with the  traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup.  It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.

Maple Old-Fashioned $10
Maple Old-Fashioned $10

I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a  spin on the original.  The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish.  The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads.  The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.

Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10
Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10

The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours.  It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests.  I found myself lapping the broth up as well.  The frites were delicately done, fried  “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary.  I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.

Moules and Frties $12
Moules and Frties $12

I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned.  The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a  glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.

Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18
Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18

On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.

Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart.  I opted for the former.  It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce.  I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.  In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss.  The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding

My Take

This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many  restaurants in business for decades.  Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant.  Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed.  The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision.  Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.

Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing.  There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25.  Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality.  The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding.  The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall. charles-darwin-1Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon

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Fare..Eat..Ales Predictions of 2013 Food Trends.

Each year sees a shift in the direction of the restaurant industry.  I’m going to take a chance and speculate on what food trends will start or continue  in the Toronto dining scene  in 2013. Feel free to agree, disagree or suggest your own trends by commenting here, voting in the poll or tweeting #2013tofoodtrends.

1. Ramen Rage

Arguably the biggest craze in 2012, noodle houses will continue to appear like Starbucks and Subways in the coming months.  Given the versatility of this noodle dish, I suspect new variations will emerge and will not be limited to ramen restaurants  alone.  I expect the big chains and even the small fusion eateries and food trucks to join the ramen rage in some way, shape or form.

2. Offal Offerings

Black hoof has gained international exposure for its offal menu with thumbs up from celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain during his lay over visit and  Richard Blais’  endorsement on his list of favorite restaurants on Urbanspoon.  Adaptations of  the nose to tail concept have been adapted by many eateries, even including  a beginner’s lesson in offal  at Skin and Bones in Leslieville. This concept will continue to flourish given the surge in responsible eating as well as those seeking the adventure of multiple organ consumption.

3. In a Jar

I’m not referring to the traditional strawberry jam, pickled cucumber and mango chutney here.  In efforts to use more local ingredients throughout the year, preserving is gaining popularity.  Local and seasonal cranberries, tomatoes, peppers and tree fruit can be used year round when processed into sweet or savory condiments to compliment meats and even cocktails.  Savory and briny condiments are definitely in.  One of the best dishes I had in 2012 was a pickle tray at Sidedoor in Ottawa and it only makes sense that these creative, unique and in many cases  relatively inexpensive foods are housemade to complement  menus and blackboards in 2013.

4. Eat Street

Despite strict downtown by-laws and less than favourable year round weather, Toronto is catching up with other large metropolitan centres regarding  the presence of food trucks offering anything from smoked meats to tacos to cupcakes. More and more private businesses and fundraisers are seeing the potential in these nomadic sculleries as an awareness raising tactic. In addition,  the low overhead, creative license and geographical flexibility are appealing to restauranteurs, ensuring that the fleet of food trucks will continue to grow.

5. Carrying the Torch

The chef’s blowtorch is a cooking method which has typically been reserved for creme brulee and more recently sushi.  The ease of use and aesthetic properties of charred food could expand the use of this handy tool to other areas of food preparation.  Vegetables, cervices, meringues, terrines and even fois gras could be meliorated with a quick singe  of the blue flame.

6. Mexican Mania

Tacos were the rave of 2012 with the success of Grand Electric and  La Carnita taco-heavy menu. Burrito Boyz, Mucho Burrito and Burrito Bandidos are lunchtime and late night hotspots.  Baja fish tacos adorn almost every chain restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu.  Modernized twists on tasty tostadas, multifarious moles and piquant pozole will expand beyond the traditional taquerias, making Mexican fare one of the hot ethnic cuisines across the board in 2013.

7. Soul Train

Soul food has just gotten started.  The success of Barque, Stockyards and new additions such as AAA combined with the Hogtown and Urban Smoke food trucks have put pulled pork and brisket on the must eat food map.  Look for  southern food to dominate  in 2013 with the expansion of  southern-influenced mainstays such as shrimp and grits, collard/mustard greens, gumbos and maybe even a crayfish or two.

8.  Snack Time

Tastebud teasers  including  spiced nuts and other savory snacks have been a complimentary mainstay of bars and taverns for years.  It seems this concept has crossed into the dining room, with a snack menu available offering munchable morsels, such as warm olives at Patria and Campagnolo, even before the appetizers arrive.   In particular, popcorn is gaining popularity, providing a blank slate for various flavors including  truffle at Origin and chipotle-caramel at Cava,

9. Comfort Zone

It appears chefs have dusted off  their old copies of  “They Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.  A return to comfort food is an emerging trend. In 2012,  coq au vin was a staple at Richmond Station and Trevor Kitchen. Chicken Pot Pies were  being baked up traditionally  at C5 and with fois gras gravy at Reds Wine Tavern.  Fried chicken is half the menu at Paulette’s and is available for two at County General.  Old school bourguignon and gamy stews are emerging elsewhere.  Expect a cornucopia of European inspired comfort food in 2013, complete with the use of fresh meats and seafood, rich sauces and homemade, flaky pastries.

10. Icy Indulgence

Frozen desserts have become a common default dessert item for many big name chefs, especically those with a aversion to baking.  Working on the notion that frozen sugar and milk fat make anything taste better,  unique flavours have been incorporated into ice creams, sorbets and gelatos alike.  Whether it be savory flavours such as thyme or balsamic vinegar, sweetness through the use of commercial sodas or fruit nectars or incorporation of tart flavours like yuzu, a good ice cream maker and imagination is all that’s needed for this trend to blow wide open.

What do you think?  Answer the poll and add your comments.  Multiple answers are acceptable!