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

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A Midmost Rating of Bar Raval and Why Justin Trudeau Would Make A Promising Food Reviewer

 

I think food blogging is a bit like being a  member of parliament.  First, you have the liberty of being able to say whatever you want but with the knowledge that somebody is going to publicly disagree with your opinion.  In fact, some of them will just be nasty about it.  I remember writing a rather negative review of Hudson Kitchen shortly after all the TIFF sightings a couple of years back only to have a reader tell me how wrong I was (for the record I need to point out that Hudson Kitchen is now closed so I wasn’t that far off) and suggesting that I was not a blog to follow.  Second, like politics,  there is an element of responsibility with any kind of blogging.  I’m not saying what I write is going to make or break a restaurant, but what I say is very public and readily accessible so I try to be extremely careful even if I don’t like a place.  It is never my intention to shit on a chef or their restaurant because it’s like shitting on their character. At the same time, however, I shouldn’t be crapped on as a patron either.  Third, I have to consider not only my opinion but also the opinions of friends and colleagues I respect much like a politician has to respect his or her constituents.

For these reasons, I think Justin Trudeau would be a good food reviewer.  Consider the following:

  1. He has a sizable following on social media . For example, he has 1.2 million twitter followers which means his omnipotent opinion would be read (and maybe even retweeted)  by the masses.
  2. Many of those who read food blogs are his target audience…the entitled generation.   His election win was driven by, among others, those who believe that social injustices of the world can be solved by T-shirts, tattoos and that eating ethnic food is a symbol of global solidarity.
  3. He can post his pretty profile pic along with his reviews because that face can’t lie, right?
  4. Since both yelp and zomato use a 5 point Likert scale to rank restaurants, he can rate everything 4. That way we could count on his nauseating neutrality knowing he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or show favouritism, even if they deserve it.
  5. He can change his opinion whenever it’s convenient.  Even if his initial review makes absolutely no sense and sounds like it came out his ass, he can always revisit things under different circumstances and use reasons beyond his control  to justify changing his mind…again and again.

So how does all of this relate to Bar Raval? I have two colleagues who I respect as good judges of restaurants.  That said, they differ on a few  and Bar Raval is one of them.  One found it charming and delightful and other thought it was crowded, over hyped and served marginal food. Keeping in mind that one experience doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of a place, I felt like I was going to be the tie breaker.

One of the early criticisms I heard about Bar Raval was its tiny size and no reservation policy which obviously makes it difficult to ensure a spot upon arrival.  A few months ago, when patio season was still feasible, I decided to go in the mid afternoon to grab a drink and an early dinner.  I wasn’t sure what to expect because viewing their menu online is more difficult than playing Myst.

Having secured a corner patio seat, I did a quick survey of my surrounding and realized I was in hipster haven.  In fact, one of the many hipsters ended up being my waitress for the afternoon. Drink wise, I was drawn to the Gothic quarter ($13).  I was a bit excited because, although I’m far from a world traveler, I HAVE been to the Gothic quarter in Barcelona and thought I was REALLY cool to have this namesake drink.  As scripted, however, it was pink ( I have this habit of ordering pink drinks regardless of what the description is). I can swallow my manhood and say it was a decent and despite its appearance, even a little bit manly.

Gothic Quarter $13
Gothic Quarter $13

Since I was solo that afternoon and most of the  came in pairs,  I spent a good amount of time wondering how I was going to spend my finite gut capacity yet still get a good flavour of the place. The problem was solved when the waitress indicated I could order singles of any of the pintxos on the menu.  As I was deciding, I ordered some delicious aged Mahon cheese ($8) with some bread ($2) which I easily consumed while deciding on the rest.

Aged Mahon Cheese $8 with Bread $2
Aged Mahon Cheese $8 with Bread $2

I ordered singles of the tuna pickle gilda, the stracciatella with boquerones, the morcilla with egg and the cojunado.  As an afterthought, I’ll admit they were not the most diverse choices but I love tuna, lovingly remember the boquerones from Bar Isabel and can’t turn down an egg on anything. Plus, I wasn’t about to crack a can or sardines without somebody else helping me. Ranging from about $3.50 to $4.50 per piece, each dish was representative of what I remember from both Barcelona and other Spanish tribute restaurants such as Coqueta in San Francisco and Amada in Philadelphia.  My favorite had to be the morcilla. Flavourwise, it was balanced and seasoned nicely and had an enjoyable, crumbly texture which complimented the perfectly cooked quail egg.

 

My Take 

Many factors dictate a good or bad experience and n=1 is not always indicative of a restaurant’s overall semblance which is a big reason that the opinions of others are important.  My experience was in between bad and terrific.  In other words,  it was good. On one hand, I’m keen to come back and admire the Gaudiesque interior while sipping coffees or signature cocktails while eating pastries, pintxos, the raw bar or some other type of tapas  I didn’t get to try this time.  On the other hand, the thought of being crammed shoulder to shoulder with hipsters in close quarters like the sardines I’m eating is far from appealing. However, in the end, I will side with optimistic  neutrality give Bar Raval a very Justinesque “4”. This wishy-washy, indecisive and up the middle denouement  leads me to conclude that not only do I sound like a politician…I also sound like  a liberal.

Bar Raval Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato