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.
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.
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.
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.
I had the chance to get back to San Francisco in May for a wedding (yes I realize it’s July but other duties called) and one of my targets was the progress, the newish spin-off of the highly successful and quite enjoyable State Bird Provisions. I went there last year and it was easily one of the best restaurants I went to in 2014. The progress boasts a choose your own adventure 6 course family style meal for $65. Keep in mind that the table needs to agree on six dishes which may prove to be a very daunting task depending on your table mates. On this night I was meeting two people I had never met, so in essence it was a blind date minus the romance. I had no idea what they liked to eat, what aversions they had and what their culinary hot buttons were.
It turns out these two were rather laid back and choosing the menu was really not that difficult. One was rather naive to the nuances of the foodie code (ie. ramps are another word for cool onions) while the other was driven by a value proposition which made her gravitate to ordering the perceived most expensive dishes on the menu. I had no issues with this at all. So, after a deliberation much faster than the OJ jury, we chose our six dishes and waited with anticipation. While waiting, I noticed the decor and buzz was less chaotic than its sister restaurant. The service was more traditional meaning there wasn’t an army of cooks and chefs offering you a bite at every turn. It still had a high hipster factor, driven by both the staff and the patrons sitting at the bar and around the tables.
The first offering with a complimentary amuse bouche which featured seven snacks including zucchini blossoms, sauced-up radishes, broad beans, fried mussels, a twist on chips and dips, spicy citrus and some jerky in the middle. It was a pleasant start and opinions as to what was the best was all over the board, Personally, I enjoyed the jerky and the citrus.
One of my choices was the salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini. The main reason was my vivid memory of a king salmon dish I had from State Bird the year before. At this point it was evident that the menu description only offered a fraction of the secrets each dish held. There were salty, crunchy and creamy tastes and textures immersed in the aforementioned listed stars of the dish.
Next were the razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata. Other than sounding like a Jimmy Buffet tune, it was served with the very foodie friendly watermelon radish. The star of the plate was a little less than spectacular but in the end the dish was pretty good.
Third was a treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth. I loved the absolute confusion of this dish. They pretty much took every food fetish I have and threw it into a bowl. I’ll eat anything fermented, any sausage, any dumpling and any broth…especially if it is poured in front of me. I’ll admit I was a little perplexed but it was like a buffet in a bowl in a blissful foodie dream.
Treasure Chest Pour
treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth.
Next was more sausage and seafood; this time lamb merguez (I conceded this dish given my distaste of lamb) with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid. As expected, it wasn’t my favorite dish. Despite the crispiness of the squid, it wasn’t as texturally balanced as the other dishes. The octopus was just ok.
I was probably most excited about the maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu. I love mushrooms, smoked food and black cod and my bliss was amplified when it was presented covered in one of my favorite morsels…sweet peas. I was a little disappointed since the cod ironically lost that beautiful texture through the smoking process. It was a little too salty as well.
The final dish (we decided against dessert) was the aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste. Once again, the dish presented with a bit of a surprise when it was evident it was meant to be eaten like a cross between a lettuce wrap and a tequila shot. It only came with two legs (complete with the claws) for three people but there wasn’t a huge fight over who got them. The quail itself was cooked nicely and they were fun to assemble but the overall flavour was pretty average.
There is always a danger when it come to a spin-off or sequel , especially when the first effort is so good. The list of sophomore flops is endless; take Three’s a Crowd, Flo and Joanie loves Chachi for example. In the case of State Bird Provisions, there were high expectations when it came to its neighbour and sister restaurant, the Progress. Some of the dishes lived up to the State Bird name while others missed the mark. The progress’ offering of the salad of king salmon and the treasure chest were amazing whereas the lamb/octopus and the cod, although good, missed the high bar set by its predecessor. So, the Progress is in no way the X-Files’ ridiculous spin-off the Lone Gunman. Instead, I see it more as Breaking Bad’s slightly more than mediocre Better Call Saul.
Earlier in the week, I received an email that was sent to me by a colleague with a simple question:
Want to check out Carnitas Don Pedro with me? Attached was a link from a recent Globe and Mail article titled “Overheard in Chicago:Three Pork Brain Tacos, please”. Published in May, it was Jacob Richler’s summary of a visit to one of the many “authentic” Mexican cantinas in Chicago. My answer was a resounding yes.
So…a Limey, a Scot and a Jew go to a Carnita joint….
Three of us hopped a cab and took the trek down W 18th Street. As we approached our destination, I realized it was a far cry from the rich moles, vibrant cocktails and impeccable service I experienced at the equally authentic Topolobampo less than 18 hours earlier. No margaritas, no sommilier, no celebrity chef…just a cold soda and piles of pork served a dozen ways by people who have never had a food network special or heard of a James Beard nomination.
We navigated through the busy store front (which doubles as a takeout counter) and sat at a modest table topped with napkins and a small, spanish menu. We shrugged and collectively used our Canadian minds and shallow understanding of French to try and decifer the choices until the smiling lady came over, smiled and politely pulled the menu out of the napkin holder and turned it over to the english side. At the same time, plastic bowls of salsa, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and onions were placed on the table along with a paper container of chicharrones, of as us anglophones say…. “pork rinds”. They are sort of synonymous with an offering of bread at an Italian dinner. Like a good loaf of Italian bread, the chicharrones were crunchy when you bit them but melted in your mouth shortly after. It was kind of a bacon meets bread experience.
For the taco choice, we opted for the pork ribs which were simply prepared and presented bone-in. Warm tortilla shells were added to the table and assembly began. The tortillas were warm, the meat was delicious and well worth any effort needed to dissect the small bones from the tender flesh.
We ordered the iconic pork brain tacos which were presented in taboo fashion. The brain was wrapped in a hard shell and held together with toothpicks. The somewhat mushy texture of the filling justified the crunchy exterior. The taste was well….interesting. It had a complexity and oddness synonomous to haggis. They certainly wouldn’t be for everybody but there was a sinful satisfaction I got out chewing one down.
My reason for ordering Menudo soup was threefold. First, although I didn’t indulge in too many cocktails at Topobambalo the night before, I wanted to see if Menudo, also called hangover soup, would clear up the my slight grogginess. Second, I have a mild fear of tripe and wanted to see if I could eat something to overcome my phobia. Third, I wanted to convince myself that the word “Menudo” could mean more than the boy band (which eventually included Ricky Martin) that plagued my eardrums in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Although much better than the band, I have to admit I still have a slight disdain for tripe although the broth was a rich adventure in classic Mexican flavours including lime, chili, onion and cilantro.
Don Pedro’s makes you feel like you’re a member of a surrogate family for the hour you are there. The food is amazing and the staff are friendly, jovial and helpful. You may get a few odd looks from the locals (afterall, we were the only Caucasians in the place, wearing dress shirts and taking pictures like idiot tourists). The total bill for three of us was $19, about the same price as bringing a bottle of wine to your mom’s house for a family dinner….and last time I checked, she can’t make carnitas (I don’t even think she knows what they are).
Stop #2– Sepia
I chose Sepia for dinner for a number of reasons. I was entertaining a wine afficianato, trying to appease somebody with a simple palate and make a steak lover happy. In addition, a Michelin star and my curiousity over the cuisine of Andrew Zimmerman (not Andrew Zimmern), the executuve chef who has received numerous culinary accolades over the past few years didn’t hurt. My simple palate reference is no disrespect to either the diner or Sepia itself, but the concept of sticking to seasonal, fresh and local food.
Of course, things never work out. For a number of reasons, my party dwindled from 8 to 5. Other than the rather snooty hostess nobody seemed to mind. We were asked to sit at the bar for a few minutes while they rearranged the table. I grabbed a beer and before we were seated, we were asked to settle the bill…which I found a bit odd since we weren’t leaving. I was hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the service to come.
Based on the storefront and bar, the dining room was surprisingly large and made the fact that this was a 19th century print shop a little more believable. The tables were spaced nicely and the noise level was moderate. Our waiter arrived shortly after and took some time to explain the premise of the menu. When he left, they turned to me and started asking numerous questions about the menu.
Ok….here’s a small rant. I don’t like the word foodie. I like food, I think I know food but I don’t consider myself a foodie. Other people do, however, and ask me to explain everything. Foodies are like Alex Trebek. Alex reads out question after question and acts like he actually would know every answer if he didn’t have them in front of his face. He shakes his head and proclaims “Oooo, I’m sorry, the answer is French Polynesia” like you’re a freaking idiot. Many foodies are self-proclaimed experts who check out the menu in advance so they can look intelligent in front of their guests when they can explain what brandade is. Otherwise, they either do the smartphone check under the table or excuse themselves to the restroom and pull the google stall search to prepare for the anticipated questions.
I did my best with the barrage of questions (at least I knew what matcha was) but when the waiter returned he was asked about chermoula, ramps, roman gnocchi, togarashi, artichokes barigoule and bavette (see below for answer key). Without hesitation, he answered every question without a hitch in a friendly and non-condescending manner.
The amuse bouche was a simple strawberry and a thin fennel slice on top of some soft cheese. It tasted exactly like it looked but the small piece of fennel gave it a crunch that really worked.
For the appetizer, I opted for the crispy egg (surprise, surprise) atop mushrooms, asparagus and ramps. The egg was a perfect soft boiled, the batter was crunchy and not greasy and the bed of stew was delicious. At $15, it should have been a golden egg.
For the entree, I went for the waygu bavette and pastrami with a potato cake served in the middle. The pastrami was brined nicely and tender to the point where a knife was unnecessary. The bavette was cooked medium rare and was seasoned delicately. Despite the small portion size, the dish was decadent and I actually didn’t finish it.
A special shout out goes to the duck fat fried fingerling potatoes. Need I say more???? They tasted like they looked.
For dessert, I opted for the ginger snaps with ricotta, tarragon mustard ice cream, walnuts and honey. It was a bit tricky to eat but was presently beautifully and tasted the same.
The consensus at the table was that the food was top notch. The winners were the english pea agnolotti starter, the bavette entree and the malted milk chocolate mousse for dessert.
Sepia is a true testament to local, fresh and well prepared food. Despite the complex menu descriptions, the flavours are surprising simple and can appease all palates. The service staff is knowledgeable and not condescending. The meal flowed nicely although it did take a while to put our orders in (partly due to our culinary illiteracy). The portions are smallish, the prices are highish but good value is there just given the quality of the food. I’ll take french cuisine for $600 Alex.
Brandade- an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil
Chermoula-s a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cooking.
Ramps- An early spring vegetbale also called a wild leek.
Roman Gnocchi- Potatoless gnocchi with lots of Parmesan cheese
Artichokes barigoule- artichokes with onions, garlic and carrots and wine
Bavette- bottom sirloin/flank steak
Togarashi- Japanese chili peppers or chili pepper products