Review:Toronto:The Annex:Harbord Room

I’ve had a few celebrity sightings in life.  I remember seeing famed baseball pitcher Denis Martinez in a café after a Red Sox game back in the mid 90’s.  I rode 7 floors on an elevator with Alicia Silverstone and her dog in Toronto hotel circa 2004.

Nothing, however, makes me as excited as meeting anybody who has anything to do with the food industry.  I have had run-ins with icons Lynn Crawford and  Mark McEwan.  I’ve met top chef participants Jonathan Korecki, Carl Heinrich and Connie DeSousa through  visits to their restaurants.

Needless to say I was quite excited to meet Kevin Brauch during a recent visit to Harbord Room, a well established restaurant making good burgers and high end cocktails before burgers and high end cocktails were so cool.  He came in toward the end of my Monday night meal and we had a chance to chat all things food, drink, Alton Brown and Iron Chef.  Let me put it into perspective… I’d rather meet a guy who had built his career drinking all over the world and managing the egos of the likes of Bobby Flay  than let’s say, Tom Cruise, whose definition of acting is trying to convince us that he could street fight guys half his age and twice his height.

Stalking Kevin Brauch
Stalking Kevin Brauch

Must

Harbord room had a cool burger before having cool burgers was cool.  Erring on the side of simplicity, it’s as well known as Mario Batali’s orange crocs and the burger praises are ubiquitous in every critic and blogger review. It’s a gem from the bun to the perfectly cooked beef to the fries.

The Harbord Burger
The Harbord Burger

The whitefish ceviche was a blackboard special that was fresh and clean with perfect tones of heat and acidity and a Morimotoish delicacy.

Whitefish Ceviche
Whitefish Ceviche

As charcuterie crests in popularity across the GTA, Harbord room keeps up with the times with a board full of carnivorous treats ranging  from venison pepperoni to an airy chicken liver pate to a pleasant terrine that would make Marc Forgione’s hair stand on end (ok..bad example). There were house pickles, great crostini, homemade preserves  and a fried egg round it all off.

Charcuterie ($20)
Charcuterie ($20)

Harbord room has also stayed current in the world of cocktails, likely in part to the fact about a third of the restaurant is taken up by the bar.   High end liquors highlight a diverse drink menu which can get rather pricy.  I indulged in “Liquid Swords”, a complex meczal based multi-ingredient drink with an execution as meticulous and passionate as a Michael Symon lamb chop.

Consideration toward a good side is like paying homage to a good sous chef.  Let’s call the rapini the Anne Burell of sides.  Bitter rapini, salty almonds, hot chili and sweet sultanas only make sense as it appeals to all senses.

Harbord Room Rapini
Harbord Room Rapini

Maybe

There was a bit of Cornish hen controversy as our table was told it was not available due to a lack of greens.  We asked for it anyway only to find out that it hadn’t been brined for the appropriate amount of time but they would serve it anyway.  Despite the lack of bath time, the poultry was delicious and moist.  If anything the sausage, the only thing on the plate not involved in the controversy, was as lackluster as an Iron Chef trying to make dessert.

Cornish Game Hen and Sausage
Cornish Game Hen and Sausage

I enjoy olive oil cake and I like Harbord’s spin.  Priced in the single digits, it hit all the elements of a good dessert. The citrus and chocolate sides provided some variety to the neutral cake. The almond crunch added some needed texture.

Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch
Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch

Mundane

Let’s call this a relative mundane list.  Nothing at Harbord was bad per se, but the strength of the menu made some of the dessert seem a bit substandard.  The Valrhona Dark Chocolate & Smoked Banana Terrine, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Mousse & Dehydrated Chocolate & Banana Chips was a bit confusing.  A little too deconstructed, the flavours didn’t quite come together.  The Fresh Ricotta Doughnuts
Espresso & Caramel Pot de Creme, Espresso Tapioca & Crumble Meringue Wafer were decent but a bit predictable.  Although good and filled with diverse flavor, I don’t get the meringue wafer trend.  A little too much sweet on sweet.

Doughnuts and Terrine
Doughnuts and Chocolate Banana Terrine

I realize sex sells, but really……

Ummm....Harbord Cappuccino
Ummm….Harbord Cappuccino

My Take

The constant rave about the burger is a bit of a disservice to Harbord room.  The complex drinks, brilliant charcuterie and intuitive sides elevate it to iron chef caliber beyond it’s signature dish.  In a highly competitive market, Harbord maintains a balance between what works and what might work.

In honour of Kevin Brauch, Harbord room is one of the iron chefs of the Toronto restaurant scene.  Challengers emerge, claiming vivacious vibes and great burgers but Harbord has held the test of time against these admirable culinary opponents. It maintains tradition yet remains current in a manner synonymous with the likes of Geoffrey Zakarian. I’m looking forward to the new THR and Co. spin-off in May. Gotta run….I think Tom’s coming to kick my ass.  I’d tell him to pick on somebody his own size, but my 13 year old daughter is not home right now.

The Harbord Room on Urbanspoon

`Hangout with Anthony Bourdain: Great Quotes and Great Hair

Yesterday, I logged onto a Zagat/Google hangout with Anthony Bourdain. Anthony’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, was a tribute of all of us who ever worked in a kitchen. In fact, I’d consider it the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of culinary literature.

By self-admission, he is a true celebrity chef (which means he doesn’t cook).  He’s been  a welcome addition to the Top Chef series and he is well known for his show “No Reservations”. His candid opinions, and not his cooking, are his trademark. In short, he’s cool, has good hair and uses phrases like “9 1/2 weeks style szechuan hot pot”. He’s one of the original hipster chefs (along with Marco Pierre-White..who also has great hair), earning the respect he gets and not assuming he has it because he uses a checkered tea towel as a napkin in his restaurant.

I was intrigued and amused by this webcast. Nine people were selected to be featured across the bottom and ask a question to break up Anthony’s banter. Some of the questions were a bit silly (but who am I to argue with a guy wearing a chef’s coat while listening to a computer broadcast) , but some of the discussion is  worth sharing:

  • His choice for a death row dinner would be one piece of sea urchin sushi. He wouldn’t want to make a mess when he dies.
  • Deep dish pizza should be banned. Nothing beats a good margherita pizza.
  • If he was at a day camp and had to choose three chefs to join him, he would choose Mario Batali, David Chang and Eric Ripert.

He respectfully paid homage to Julia Child, who would of been 100 yesterday, telling us she brought multimedia cooking to America and was a pioneer in helping people live and eat better.  RIP Julia.

The Zagat/Google marriage (sounds nicer than takeover)  is a smart one and this is a good example. Anthony Bourdain is a culinary god.  As a guy who is adventurous in the kitchen but has no formal training, I liked one of his comments (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

“You gotta screw up to learn; burn your fingers before you understand how to apply heat to protein”.

God, I’m craving a pizza.