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.

Araxi at Whistler: Cougar Milk, Penticton Cheese and Memories of Hell’s Kitchen

Let me start by saying I’m not a skier. Growing up in Sudbury, we certainly had the weather for it but the once majestic mountains of the Canadian Shield  have long since eroded to more minuscule bumps, limiting any chance of maximizing 6000 foot drops. As a result, there was no ski scene other than Adanac mountain with its’ six runs and 239 ft vertical or cross country tracks near Laurentian university.

In addition, I get little enjoyment at the thought of lugging copious amounts of equipment to a crowded resort only to dress up, wait in line for a lift and let gravity pull me down a run named Cougar Milk just to end up at the point I started.  Instead, I’m more than happy to sit in the bar and provide moral support although I do feel somewhat guilty about indulging in the apres menu when I didn’t do any of the work. Maybe this is why the Whistler ski scene bugs me so much.  Don’t get me wrong…the scenery is absolutely beautiful but it is somewhat tainted by the aberrant behavior of the town’s residents and visitors.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Nobody looks cool walking in ski boots- Ski boots are for skiing and not walking.  Regardless of your gait or corresponding wardrobe, people walking around hotel lobby’s wearing boots look more foolish that a guy trying to run in high heels as part of a fundraiser.   If you’re done skiing, take your boots off.
  2. Accents are cool unless you make them up- Whistler draws youth from around the world, especially Australia and New Zealand.  Many people find such accents cute or even sexy…unless you don’t really have one. Hanging with a few Aussies for a couple of weeks doesn’t entitle you to start speaking like them.  Accents aren’t viruses..you just don’t catch one.  In addition, making up an accent to increase your hill cred is stupid; it didn’t work for Madonna it sure as hell won’t work for you.
  3. It’s evident there aren’t an abundance of salons in the village- You can get almost anything in Whistler Village…except a haircut.  According to the map, there are a few places but most people don’t seem to use them.  Sure, chronic helmet head is inevitable in such an environment, but allowing your hair to be a refuge for alpine wildlife is taking it a step too far.
  4. Bathrobes are called bathrobes for an reason.  They aren’t called restaurant robes, lobby robes or bar robes.  If you want to drink wine in a bathrobe, use your minibar.  I don’t need to see your post-pedicured feet stuffed in a pair of disposable slippers or have to witness a wardrobe malfunction because you forgot the only thing holding you man or lady parts in place is a velour belt.
  5. Weed is technically still illegal in BC- Regardless of time of day, it is almost impossible to take a stroll through the village without wafting skunky smells here and there.  Although Whistler is far from immune to wildlife, I’m sure the smells are not the results of stinky mammals….well at least not the ones with a white stripe and fur….oh wait…and four legs.

The dining scene in Whistler is a mishmash of aristocratic eateries, snack bars, beer havens and a few very recognizable franchises such as KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s.  I spent most of the time at the hotel for work functions, but I did have the opportunity to go to Araxi for dinner one night. Araxi is a fine dining establishment which gained national attention when it was announced the destination of the winner of the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen.  Dave Levey, best remembered for breaking his arm while washing a fire truck, was the eventual winner.  Rumour has it he was treated like a glorified line cook and left shortly after the 2010 winter Olympics.  In 2014, he was reported arrested as part of a drug bust in New Jersey (perhaps he thought he was still in Whister). Araxi, on the other hand, has continued to flourish under long time head chef James Walt.

I started with a Cuckoo’s calling cocktail, presumably named after the Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling crime novel which is funny because the only bourbons named in that novel are the cookies which are most recognizable as the long brown ones in a box of Peak Frean assorted creme that you only eat once the good ones are gone.  The drink had many of my favorite cocktail flavours including bacon infused bourbon, jalapeno, thyme, lemon and bitters.  The smoky flavour was prevalent but not overwhelming  and the rest of the flavours blended together well.

araxi cocktail
Cuckoo’s Calling $13.50

Araxi features an oyster bar and a small but diverse choice of starters and mains.  Since I rarely have an opportunity to indulge in fresh west coast oysters, I was happy to order a half dozen (three each of Zen and Joyce Point from coastal British Columbia).  They were shucked nicely and served with traditional condiments (fresh horseradish and lemon) and a spectacular mignonette.

araxi oysters
Oysters ($3-$3.50) each

A few of us also split a  Vancouver Island beef tartare tossed with Peruvian chilies, yuzu, local sweet peppers and snipped chives, spiced vegetable chips and arugula and topped with a quail egg.  It was smallish but the ingredients were in perfect proportion and  delivered fresh and delicate flavours with the right amount of heat and seasoning.

araxi tartare
Vancouver Beef Tartare $19.50

For the main I opted for the Quebec rabbit stuffed with slow cooked pork jowl with carrot puree, roasted carrots, sauteed brussel sprouts and grainy mustard vinaigrette.  It didn’t dawn on me on first but I thought afterwards it was rather strange to have a dish with rabbit and carrots together but once I tried the puree, any thoughts related to this food chain faux pas quickly hopped out of my head. It was fantastic.  The rabbit with the pork was incredible and reminded me of a two-tiered and  upscale M&M chicken tornado my mom used to make. The sprouts and carrots were a nice al dente.

araxi rabbit
Quebec Rabbit $36.50

For desert, I decided on a cheese course featuring a mix of offerings from local, Canadian and Italy sources.  I’ve tried a few such as the delicious Benedictin Bleu from Quebec and P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar before, but although not normally a huge fan of the softies, the Poplar Grove double cream camembert from Penticton was the star.  In addition to the decedent taste,  its glistening interior was visually stunning. The fig compote was unbelievably good as well.

araxi cheese
Cheese Plate $23.50 for 5 cheeses (a little more for the extra)

My Take

Whistler draws thousands of annual guests ranging from novice skiers to village wondering orophobic tourists.  As a result, the variety of shops and eateries is quite diverse.  Whether it’s an urban taco bar or a swanky sit down, there is no shortage of choices.  Araxi is one of the most recognized of the latter and lived up to its long standing reputation although at resort prices. Whether it’s untamed hair or an affinity for the maryjane, just remember what happens in Whistler should stay in Whistler…just ask the winner of  Hell’s Kitchen six.

Araxi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

R&D: Rebel and Demon, Research and Development, Rad and Deficient

In a previous blog, I outlined my Masterchef tryout in some detail.  Despite my failure to impress the producers, I watched the show and was happy to see Eric Chong win.  I was equally happy to see something tangible come from his win;  a new restaurant in the perilous region of Chinatown.  R&D is a partnership with the mercurial Alvin Leung, who’s blue hair makes old ladies and smurfs alike quite envious.  The restaurant’s concept is one of polarity and contrast. Our bubbly waitress promised flavours which ran the gamut of tastes and flavours with every bite.  The name R and D refers to the Rebel and Demon personas of the owners and is a play on the fact they were both engineers before finding their true vocation.  Adding to the polarity is Eric’s calm demeanor coupled with the mad science antics of his partner.

I asked the enthusiastic waitress for menu recommendations.  She recommended pretty much everything on the menu but in particular raved about he CSB buns. They cook them hourly and getting one might be synonymous with scoring a Black Friday deal.  Once out of the oven, the waitstaff wrestle for them in the hope they can secure them for the patrons at their tables. I drank the Kool-aid and insisted that we secure some of this precious loot. Did we manage to get them?????

STAY TUNED

The drink list comprises of Asian inspired potent potables derived from a collection of traditional cocktails.  The Whisky sour is splashed with  lemongrass, coriander, pepper and yuzu liqueur.  The pina colada is served as boozy bubble tea. The 510 ceasar (which I ended up ordering), was made with garlic and mushroom infused vodka and seasoned with hoison Worcestershire sauce.  Mushroom flavour was prominent and heat from the chili sauce was a little shy. The drink was topped with Nori which added a pleasant element of unami.  All in all, it was a good Caesar but was a little small in volume which probably helped to intensify the aforementioned flavours.

510 Caesar $14
510 Caesar $14

The first dish to arrive was Eric’s Curry.  Beef brisket sat in a pool of curry sauce and mustard greens. It was brilliantly unique.  A little salt and sweet and a lot of sour and heat made this great to eat (that’s poetry for you left brained science types).  At the time, the dish came with no medium to absorb the sauce (a true engineering flaw) which really was shameful considering how good the sauce was. Maybe we can call it an early oversight since  it appears based on the website the dish now comes with coconut rice. Probably the best dish of the night.

Eric's Curry $20
Eric’s Curry $20

Next was the octopus which was served with eggplant and choy sum chimichurri. The presentation was a little sad but the octopus was nicely prepared and finished with a decent char.  The eggpplant was clever as a replacement to the normal routine of potatoes or olives and the chimichurri was  deliciously unorthadox yet had a familiar flavour I couldn’t quite pinpoint but wanted more.

Octopus $14
Octopus $14

Shortly after we received the Tom Yum Little Dragon buns ($6). I imagine that Thai flavours in a Chinese bun may be considered as engineerial as calling a soup dumpling a dragon bun but in the end they hit the mark on flavour and were a pleasant bite.

Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6
Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6

I was a little reluctant to try the lobster chow mein ($25) but my colleague talked me into it. Despite a reasonably sized  portion of lobster, it was horribly predictable and had no wow factor at all.

Lobster Chow Mein $25
Lobster Chow Mein $25

The one platter were ordered was the general saunders’ chicken served with  kung pao sauce, sichuan maple syrup, and HK egg waffles.  The chicken was nicely seasoned and super moist.  The kung pao sauce was delicious and I think the maple syrup is probably an acquired taste but I took the advice of the waitress and mixed the two together which created a mixture which satisfied a number of taste sensations.  The waffle portion was a little skimpy but complemented the chicken well in their spin of this traditional southern dish.

General Sanders' chicken $25
General Sanders’ chicken $25

At this point there a bit of a mad scramble around the kitchen which suggested one thing..the buns were ready.  Although I was getting rather full, I couldn’t resist the urge to indulge and our waitress, like a trooper, emerged with an order.  The pork filling was a bit scant a certainly played second fiddle to the delicious bread.  They were delightfully warm and just a little sweet and filled my need for gimmickry nicely.

CSB Buns $8
CSB Buns $8

At this point I was quite stuffed but another colleague showed up and ordered the beef tartare.  The spin was the son and law egg with the sauce served on top of the beef.  I had mixed feelings about this one, probably beacuse I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to this dish in particular. I think the beef should be the star and thought the sauce, although matching nicely with the egg,  masked the flavour of the beef a little too much.

Steak Tartare $17
Steak Tartare $17

She also ordered the scallop which was served with hot sauce, chinese greens and sichuan hollandaise. It was hard to put my finger on it, but the dish lacked balance.  The heat and bitterness was prominent but it lack sweetness. Maybe the thought was that the scallop would provide enough sweetness to offset the flavours of the hollandaise and Chinese greens. The scallop itself was cooked near perfectly other than lacking a good sear (which affected both its colour and what might have been a necessary caramelization). Personally, I would have kicked up the sweetness of the hollandaise or replaced it all together.

Scallops $23
Scallops $23

My Take

The Asian fusion concept of R&D is certainly a better fit for Spadina than Strata 241 was. It is a well calculated project with all the fixings of a nouveau Toronto eatery; celebrity chefs, old school rap “fusion food”.  I was surprised a bit by Eric’s kitchen demeanor.  He was extremely stoic and methodical, focusing more at the task at hand than shining in the limelight as Canada’s first masterchef winner. It’s like he was in a 2 hour mystery box challenge.  Like the show, there was a combination of great and not so good dishes. The curry was hands down the best dish of the night.  The chicken, octopus, buns and tartare were more than acceptable and the lobster chow mein and scallops were a bit of a train wreck.  Also like the show, there was gimmickry and hype lead by the promise of extreme flavours with every dish that didn’t always come to fruition.  Much like a television show, the success of R&D will depend on loyalists who will continue to go after trying it once for the novelty, Eric’s ongoing commitment and whether or not people will be able to tolerate Alvin Leung for anymore than a season of Masterchef.

R&D Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

Review: Toronto: Queen East- Table 17

Set in the middle of the busy Queen East dining district, it meets all the criteria for the neighborhood…hipster feel (including the fact that there is a rooster as their logo yet not an ounce of chicken on the menu…so witty), small menu, plaid shirts and an iota of pretension, but hell, they do take reservations.  After being seated, we were required to wait quite  a while for a drink order.  That being said, the drink list is excellent with a small but solid draught beer selection (including my beloved Stonehammer from Guelph), a decent wine selection and some unique cocktails.  In particular a fresh rhubarb mojito was the drink special.  Quite nice.

The staff were happy to recommend various dishes and the table settled for a mix.  They even were able to fulfil my pickle fetish with a side of homemade minis. Had a chance to try a few dishes….

Must

The venison polenta  was it fantastic.  Even better, a chef arrives tableside to finish the dish with the meat mixture while explaining the process he used to prepare it. Great touch.

Duck confit was terrific.  Cooked well with most of the fat rendered out and  the sides (lentils) complimented the dish well.

The beef tartare was fresh,  simply prepared, seasoned well and  portioned heartily.

Oysters were fresh and well-presented.  

Maybe

Diver scallops were perfectly cooked although I was not fond of the accompanying sauce.  It had a medicinal note to it which I felt drown the sweet taste of the scallop a bit.

Brussel sprouts and potatoes were rich.  May be difficult for a vegetarian since aninaml fat seems to be a mandate.

Had the Panna Cotta for dessert and rhubarb dessert  for the table, neither of which are on the menu anymore. Neither were mind-blowing but were decent.

Mundane

Steak was average.

My Take

All in all an enjoyable dining experience.  The environment was a bit distant and not overly welcomming despite the trendy decor.  Food was solid and the value was there. Do the polenta, do the duck and if don’t have room for dessert, that’s quite ok.

Table 17 on Urbanspoon