One of the most treasured stories in Canadian folklore is that of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It’s the coming of age story of a determined redhead who was mistakenly adopted into a farming family in PEI and has been told and retold through books and other media such as film, television and even live productions. Over a hundred years later, numerous Toronto restaurants are writing their own stories in an effort to capture the essence of Canadiana. Montgomery’s is one of these. Although I can’t attest to the origin of the name (it certainly isn’t that of the owners), I could use my creative licence and suggest that it is may be named after the famed author. So, although I’m sure she could pen a much better story than I, I’ll attempt to summarize the experience in my own literary style:
There’s a restaurant called Montgomery’s. It’s a modest place and apparently purposely so. One could easy walk past the meager storefront searching for a place to dine. The interior is a bit meager highlighted by a rather large and seemingly cozy rug/tapestry hanging along one wall and tables and chairs that looked like hand me downs from an estate sale. With the plain white walls it looks a bit like a prison visitation room. Once seated, you may hear a fable from the waitstaff justifying a thirty dollar price tag for an Italian beer. If you are really lucky, in surroundings lit only by the small candle flickering on the table you may hear the tale of Snackies the Omish cow. Snackies was aptly named by a 2 year old on a farm that, despite, her tender age, was a bovine clairvoyant who knew that one day, her farmyard friend would adorn a plate in downtown Toronto served medium rare. In the original story, the name of the cow remained a secret, only to be shared with those who were curious or wanted to know the name needed to canonize this cow into culinary sainthood.
The trout, sadly, did not receive the same attention. It was simply called trout, named in a fashion much like the majority of the characters (ie. bear, skunk and muskrat) in the Franklin cartoon. Perhaps the two year oracle would have named it Fishy or Swimmy but alas one will never know. The only other protein of mention was an small egg custard who’s bite was bigger than its bark in that it was full of sweet, salt and unami flavours. The bread took a dip in the lentils or camouflaged itself behind vibrant green butter. The chain gang of vegetables were housed on white plates and bowls as bleak as the walls themselves. The lettuce drowned in its sorrows and the beans, carrots and potatoes were particularly sour to be there. The tarte tatin, however, was the apple of everybody eye. The entire group, when together, made for a fun and eventful adventure despite being housed in a concrete tundra. The end.
Butter and Lentil \dip
I’m a bit behind in my reviews so the menu has changed often since I went a couple of months ago. That said, the concept seems to have remained the same; seasonal vegetables with a few proteins served in a fashion (ie. plain) which forces the food to do the talking. That said, the cup of lettuce seems to be a consistent character in this story and is worth a try although you probably won’t dream of bathing in the broth at night. All in all, the food was not mind blowing but it was good. The custard was divine and Snackies represented. The vegetables were a bit hit and miss but all around good.
The concept of the restaurant, from the shabby store front to the ugly floors and odd rug/tapestry thing on the wall, bothered me. Some people have told me this is purposeful and if it is I apologize for not understanding. Maybe it’s like that painting at a museum I stare at thinking “WTF”, but I perceive more as “we couldn’t be bothered so let’s pretend like we meant to do it”. From a decor perspective, to me there is a difference between industrial and correctional.
I’m a bit perplexed at the lack of social media coverage. Sure, the opening was covered by Toronto life and Blogto but other than that the normal review sites have been as barren as Montgomery’s walls. There are only 9 yelp reviews and zomato hasn’t registered enough voters to even have a rating. This is not always indicative of overall noise but it’s a bit odd. I do, however, notice that they do take time to respond to many of the reviews, good or bad. They are also closed on Sunday and Monday now which could be interpreted in a number of ways. I guess we have to wait and see if this place will turn out more like Anne of Green Gables or the Pat of Silver Bush.
Given the story of Snackies the cow as the lead character among a diverse cast of plain, misunderstood and diverse characters all set in a drab decor, if I was a literary critic I would say Montgomery’s can best be described as a tale in which AA Milne meets Orange is the new Black.
I’ve had La Carnita on my list for a while but the dinner only hours and location has made it a bit difficult so I was happy to hear that a location opened at the more convenient intersection of King and John and that it was actually open for lunch. I made my way over shortly after not realizing it had just opened the Saturday before.
The layout is quite impressive. The two-floor trendy and nicely decorated interior offers a bar area on both levels and abundant seating. Unlike other snack bars, there is a good amount of breathing room so those with varied degrees of claustrophobia or agoraphobia can rest a little easier. I was quickly seated at the bar and handed a menu. Normally there is a good draft selection but since the place had just opened the taps were not working properly so I ordered the “Who shot ya?” cocktail instead. At this point I had no idea that this was the La Carnita signature cocktail which was developed by a bartender at the original location and has survived the test of time. A twist on a bourbon sour, it was a simple offering with great contrasting flavours including a stinging ginger and a sweet/sour pomegranate syrup.
I should back up a little and let you know that this story was told to me by what I assumed was either the manager or owner of La Carnita. What I found fascinating was the fact he had a hipster look despite the fact he had to be older than 30 and lacked complete self-absorption. Although I have equated hipsters to zombies in the past, this got me thinking that maybe they are more like smurfs, especially if we consider the fact that the majority would be either Vanity, Greedy or the tattooed Hefty. If so, I had just found Papa. He directed the staff (many of which I swear I’ve seen on the side of an Abercrombie bag) with kind authority much the same way Papa Smurf would with his clueless blue minions whenever their rather sterile environment was threatened with things like cats, birds or other natural predators.
The menu is taqueria style with a few apps thrown in. The also feature a special of the day which was a chorizo/kale empanada. I was all over it and I added a carnita and crispy cotija taco to the mix as well. From a visual, taste and texture perspective they were all brilliant. Punches of heat, sweet, crunchy and chewy were present in every bite and I was tempted to scoop up every morsel that fell into the tin tray. For example, the crispy cheese with the cauliflower and pinto beans garnished with a bit of pickled carrot was tastebud blowing and the pork confit in the carnita was melt in your mouth. Not quite satisfied, I had to try the special taco of the day;chicken fried steak. The thought of stuffing this ridiculous southern delicacy into a taco shell was very appealing to me and it paid off. The outside was crispy, and the inside was tender and still a bit pink. Once again, the accompaniments were a perfect balance of all things good…kind of like a good shot of Smurfberry juice while building a catapault. Other than forgetting the empananda the first time around, the rest of the food was served within what seemed seconds after I ordered.
Despite the one service hiccup and the volatile beer taps, La Carnita was a slam dunk. The days of the stagnancy of King street eateries may be coming to an end. No longer are the only choices those which require an invitation from a disgruntled maitre d’ standing on the sidewalk waving a 15 year old pre-theatre menu in your face. Instead, La Carnita offers a welcoming environment with great booze, a cool modern vibe and terrific food served fast and fresh. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about hanging with seniors ordering off the modified menu before “Kinky Boots” and you’ll be good as gold if Gargamel ever shows up.
I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s. The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price. Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford. It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis. This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice. I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.
The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience. As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof. Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg. A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.
The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare. There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do. Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished. The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private. When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.
(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)
I got thinking about this and a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion. There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.
1. Big Business versus Big Business
Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves. We are not talking small mom and pop shops either. The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada. As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel. Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.
2. Convenience versus Necessity
We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity. It also comes at a price. If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice. I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf. The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities. In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales. Maybe it’s a little of both. It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.
3. Government Responsibility
The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato. Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful) public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption. I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet. I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible. If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario. Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities. Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.
4. Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns
The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement. Some question how real mayonnaise actually is. On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole. That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this. I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line. A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants? A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog (I think I’ll tackle this one separately) but it is ” real” food for thought.
A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis. As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing. In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section. This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.
I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains. An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way weekly flyer specials from the parent company work. Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created. I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative. Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.
In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert. The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods. The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.
Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different. Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa. Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.
My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my $9 fresh crab taco. Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro ($8.00). These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful but it worked reasonably well. It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla. There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.
After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe. It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would be in it?”. My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home. Voila! That’s Oxbow Market. In particular, let me focus on the last place. I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura. Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off. The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen. I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.
Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.
If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab). They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour. For any foodie, I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.
I’ve realized that I have done a number of second visits to restaurants along King street so far this year. Since it has been some time since I’ve been to or reviewed these places, I figured it would be prudent to update my experiences. Let’s start with Barhop.
Both the staff and many of the patrons at Barhop are what I refer to as “hopsters”. Hopsters fall under the same genus as hipsters but they differ in order in that their angst is geared toward those who don’t appreciate the fine art of brewing. My first experience with hopsters was almost 20 years ago at C’est What?, a brewpub on Front Street. I remember watching people come in and order a Canadian or a Blue only to be scoffed at by the staff followed by a stern lecture pointing out that you can’t order a macrobrew here. At the time, I thought it was quiet humourous and chuckled under my breath at the unsuspecting fools.
Barhop has carried on the hopster tradition but has adapted it to 2015. Even with a decent knowledge of beer, there is no guarantee you will receive prompt and/or courteous service. I dropped in one night only to sit there for 10 minutes without so much as an acknowledgment so I left. I returned a second time and it was equally as busy but this time I got a rail seat and at least an offer of a drink. It goes without saying that the beer selection is amazing. Most of the draft choices are local brews including side launch, KLB, Amsterdam, Indie Ale House, Sawdust city etc. They also have a few of their own branded pints including a very good nitro ESB. They also have rare brews, table bottles and all sorts of other delights.
From a food perspective, the menu is exactly what you would expect; bar food with a gastropub twist. I only had a few snacks since I was grabbing dinner later. These pictures are brutal but I wanted to minimize the use of the flash so as not to disturb the hopsters as they began their nocturnal ritual. The olives and marinated cheese ($13) were served with grilled bread. I thought the cheese was a clever dish and a bit of a deviation from the normal cheese plates served in the area. The homemade jerky ($9) was served with a bourbon bacon jam. I must say this the first time I’ve ever eaten jerky with jam. I won’t say there was synergy in the combined flavours but I think the jam made the jerky, which was quite dry (as is meant to be) a little easier to chew. The fried pickles served with ranch ($9) hit the mark and were comparable to other places from both a taste and price perspective.
The original microbrew movement was somewhat quashed by the realization of international conglomerates that microbrews posed a threat to their bottom line. This resulted in the purchase and/or suppression of many a fine beer. Creemore, for example, was purchased by Molson (who is owned by Coors’) in 2005 and to this day has been disguised as a microbrewery. Both Alexander Keith’s and Rickard’s stay at arms length from their owners (Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors Brewing respectively) and promote family values, tradition and other moral lessons.
Luckily, this decade has seen a return to the art of authentic craft brewing. Barhop was one of the first restaurants to jump on the resurgence of the true microbrewery movement in Ontario. With it comes the hopster attitude and a menu which tries to match the needs of their beer swilling patrons. It’s crowded, they don’t take reservations and the service can be inconsistent but if you want a good pint in the entertainment district, this is your best bet….just don’t order a bud.
I was on a lunch break recently and decided to check out Baldwin village for lunch. Although I was still lamenting the closure of Yakitori Bar (i still swear they had some of the best soup going), I was intrigued to try McRamyun, the new ramen bar that occupied the space.
I knew little of the place when I walked in but appreciated the fact that a ramen bar exists which doesn’t involve the hot, tight quarters that exist with similar eateries elsewhere in the city. It has maintained the interior of Yakitori bar complete with a large bar and spacious tables.
At first glance it was clear the menu offers one of the largest variety of ramen (almost 20) in the city. In addition, you can choose your own adventure by adding your choice of toppings unlike other places tend to dictate the condiments of each bowl. Usually I order dumplings and soup as a benchmark in ramen joints, so i killed two birds with one stone and ordered the mandu ramen which offered the dumplings right in the soup. As I was waiting, I went to the washroom located in the old Odd Seoul space next door. That’s when I made afrightening discovery. The room was filled with skids of packaged ramen noodles. I felt like I was in a university dorm room. When I returned to the table (the washrooms were quite nice by the way) the soup arrived. The broth was thin and spicy and the noodles originated from one of the packages in the back room. The mandu were deep fried prior to being thrown in the soup which I found odd from a texture perspective. They did not have remarkable flavour. The broth lacked the complexity of other places and was seasoned primarily by salt and heat. The egg (available for an additional $0.50 per half..I got a whole egg) was cooked nicely and was the best part of the dish. They forgot the slices of pork belly I ordered so I can’t comment. It would have been and extra $2.49 which would have made the total price of the ramen bowl a staggering $12.50, a price which would make David Chang shake his head.
Burgers and ramen are probably the two hottest trends in the Toronto right now. The burgers range from patties smashed on the flattop to those stuffed with short rib and are price accordingly. Until now, most ramen has been prepared according to traditional recipes complete with homemade noodles and thick pork broth which has simmered for hours. Sure, I’ve made all kinds of ramen; from following an old school recipe to cracking open a dried package after a drunken night out in university but I never thought I’d see the latter served in a restaurant.
Then it made sense. I should have clued in that the name McRamyun said it all. This was fast food…the McDonald’s version of ramen. What confused me, however, was the fact that prices were not much lower that traditional ramen. I mean a quarter pounder isn’t $20, right?
I looked at the table tent on the table, saw the following sign and laughed. How do they get away with this?
A Sapporo pitcher and McChicken wings for $24.95? McChicken? The signage outside, the menu, the packaged food..everything made me think that at any minute Ronald McDonald would show up with a Louisville Slugger ready to kick ass and take names later. Interestingly enough, there was a profile picture update on the restaurant’s webpage two weeks ago which displayed their new logo which simply said Ramyun. I wondering if that change was proactive of may have had something to do with a few broken windows and a pissed off clown.
Like most people, I can get easily irritated. Right now, I’m boycotting Wendy’s because of the ridiculous commercials which spoof 70’s and 80’s tunes while skinny Wendy (aka Red) dresses up like thw singers and makes out with a pretzel bun. When I posted this on facebook, one of my good friends asked me why I would go to Wendy’s anyway. Good point.
Another thing that bugs me are dog shows. Before I go on, I’m not claiming for a second that my complete annoyance by things like this are normal. I think it’s like a phobia; I have a physical reaction to these types of things. The thought of an arena filled with people who pay to watch others dress up like turn of the century debutantes and walk dogs among fake grass turns my stomach. They give the dogs ridiculous names like Roundtown Mercedes of Maryscot (aka: “Sadie”) and make the audience watch as their pooches get dental exams, enemas and other invasive medical procedures. Personally, I’d rather watch a dog chase his tail or stick his nose up another’s ass in a thirty second youtube clip while sitting in my underwear.
Showdogs in San Francisco couldn’t be further from the Westminster Kennel dog show. Suits and ties are replaced by piercings, jeans and tees. Fake grass is replaced with, based on my observations of the some of the staff and clientele, real grass that just might happen to be rolled into a small white paper. Canine conversations are no longer about four-legged friends but about the rest of America’s obesssion…the hotdog. It is estimated that Amercians eat 20 billion hot dogs a year. It is also estimated that there are about 83 million owned dogs in the USA. What isn’t known is how many of the 20 billion hot dogs are eaten by the 83 million dogs in a given year. That said, it makes perfect sense to focus a restaurant on the beloved frank.
The menu at Showdogs is simple. In addition to a small breakfast menu, there are a number of renditions of the American favorite as well as a few classic American sandwiches like the burger and fried chicken. In addition, there are all the words foodies wanna see in a menu including organic, house made,hand dipped and special sauce. My trigger words include “sharp cheddar” and “chili” so I had to try the chili cheese dog ($10). I asked the guy behind the counter what should complement the dog and without hesitation he recommended the onion rings for $5. Along with it, there is a good selection of local brews which, when you drink enough, can almost make a dog show tolerable. In particular , the Hell or High Watermelon from the 21st Amendment brewery was memorable ( I later drank a six-pack with my uncle in Pennsylvania). The food was equally as memorable. I mean, a hot dog and onion rings has boundries regarding creative licence but it still has to be tasty. The think and crunchy onion rings were among the best I’ve had especially when eaten with any of the house made sauces available.
My mom used to boil hot dogs until they split, throw them on a bun and yes, they tasted like lips and assholes. Since then, the hot dog has evolved beyond the ball diamond and street corner cart and have become the focal point of many menus across North America. In fact, a hot dog by Dougie Dog in Vancouver is served topped with Kobe beef and Lobster and soaked in 100 year old Louis XIII cognac has just attained the Guinness nod for the world’s most expensive hot dog with an estimated value of $2300.
Showdogs has embraced the dog and elevated it to a decent meal. The vibe, service and experience was the complete package in this establishment that definitely qualifies as a dive. S0 while skinny Wendy is making out with a pretzel bun while singing an Eric Carmen ballad and people jam into Madison Square Garden wearing their Sunday best to watch dogs walk their owners, I’d rather grab a pint, listen to Pearl Jam in the background and eat a dog instead of watching them.
I was excited to drop into Tommy’s Joynt for an afternoon bite. Touted as San Francisco’s original Hofbrau, it has been serving a menu centred on carved meat sandwiches since 1947. They take pride in a no frills attitude and keeping prices low. In fact, the only three menu items over ten bucks are the famous Buffalo Stew, braised oxtails with pasta (served Monday) and braised lamb shanks with vegetables (served Thursday and Sunday). The hunks of meat sitting in the cafeteria style chafing dishes right inside the door while the rest of the place is a seating area complete with a bar serving local craft draught, international bottles and cheapish cocktails. The cast of characters ranged from young to old, regulars to tourists and hipsters to those with with artificial hips. The decor is a reminder that it’s been open for almost 70 years. Hundreds of knick-knacks fill the walls, shelves and any other square inch of available space. It’s like a yard sale on steroids. They’ve never changed their style, they just added to it. It’s like a timeline of post WWII Americana scattered all over the place.
Apparently Tommy’s is “Where Turkey is King” so I strolled to the counter and ordered the roast turkey sandwich for $6 along with a side of mixed pickled beans for $2.65. The guy behind the counter pulled out the bird, carved some meat off the bird and slapped it on a fresh baguette with a side of au jus. As magical as Tommy’s was, they still couldn’t solve the dry poultry issue. You can’t keep a turkey in a chafing dish and expect it to stay moist. That said, the au jus added flavour and moisture to the sandwich. The bean salad was pretty typical. I thought things like the barrel of complimentary pickles (complete with a sign telling you not to abuse the pickle pecking privlegdes) to the strategically placed mustard jars were a nice touch.
Tommy’s Joynt is a west coast version of a Hofbrau, a casual German eatery with focus on beer and food. Having no idea who the place is named after, I figured it might be Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame). Ironically, Cheech is the Californian (Chong is a good old Canadian). I mean, the psychedelic paint job on the outside, the easy access to copious amounts of food, some clientele that look like they have hot boxed a few million times and even the fact it has “joynt’ in the name makes my theory somewhat viable. In fact, after a drag one might relish staring intently at the numerous trinkets which populate the walls and shelves. That said, the food was reasonable, the vibe was good but it just didn’t give me the “high” some of the other Diners, Drive-ins and Dives did.
Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco. Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa. The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.
Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst. Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene. I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat. I sat and looked around. A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner. The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way. They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list. They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.
The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes. In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three. In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy. They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in a shallow pool of fat.
It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts. The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine. They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best). The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings. Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour of the abundant sauce. My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.
I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order. Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy. I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.
I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.
Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly. The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept. Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke. If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right? Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy. In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food. I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.
A business meeting brought me midtown for dinner. Midtown is a place where restaurants are restaurants and not political statements or abstract expressions of social activism. You can get an appetizer, main and dessert for a decent price without the need for an explanation about the difference between a starter, small plate or large plate. The menus tend to be simple and the decor looks like a restaurants and not like Johnny’s auto shop. Plus, you can have a conversation without having Radioactive by the Imagination Dragons blasting or listening to Run DMC remind me about footwear:
Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare
myself homeboy got 50 pair
got blue and black cause I like to chill
and yellow and green when it’s time to get ill
got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball
with the heal inside make me 10 feet tall
(This is no crack at Run DMC. I’d just as upset if Locked in the Trunk of a Car by the Tragically Hip were blasting in my ear).
Unlike it’s name, L’Avenue is a smallish bistro on Bayview, not Avenue. It’s easy to miss with its quaint front; a freckle of the mosaic that makes up the Leaside neighbourhood. Like the name suggests, it focuses on french style cooking, although updated with lighter, fresher techniques and local, seasonal ingredients. There is an fairly extensive and reasonably priced list of red and white wines available (many bottles are in the 35-50 dollar range) from a diversity of regions, Krombacher (Pils and Dark) on tap and a spattering of local and world renowned beer included a gluten-free choice as well
This night featured an oyster special which was served on a cloud of salty meringue. They were fresh and meaty and seasoned nicely although I’m always a fan of a little heat on the side.
For my hors d’oeuvres (or appetizers for the anglophone), I opted for sweetbreads in a promise to exchange some of them for the bone marrow at the table. Sometimes sweetbreads run the risk over being overly greasy or gritty. The chef avoided both and offered a simple dish atop fragrant streaks of coulis. The marrow was also served in it’s fundamental form, simple seasoned with some herbs and bread crumbs to add some crunch.
Our table’s family style commitment continued with an array of entrees which included the Fried Chicken “a la Basque”, Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” and a duck feature (we played rock paper and scissors to actually determine who would order the latter). In summary, the execution of each dish was spot on. The fried chicken was moist, the duck a beautiful medium rare and the scallop had a perfect char which housed a glistening white interior. Instead of relying on traditional french flavours such as ummm…butter, the chicken and seafood stew (as the names suggest) were infused with Spanish flavours including tomato and saffron respectively. The duck was a bit more traditional but the addition of rhubarb was stellar and a testament to their commitment to use seasonal ingredients.
Here’s an interesting fact. The pavlova dessert was named after the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (God, I love wikipedia). You would think that a dish with meringue as its foundation would have European origins, but in fact Pavlova is a creation of culinary juggernaut New Zealand (although Australia also tries to lay claim, possibly fueling the bitter Rugby rivalry which exists to this day). It was presented on a plate and with a style reminiscent of tea at Gramma’s on Sunday. Let’s call it an endearing cheesiness. Like the dishes before, it was well executed with a twist, in this case a tart passion fruit custard.
Calling L’Avenue a french bistro is a bit of a misnomer. Instead of small rich portions served in the most pretentious manner, the chefs invite Basque and Catalan flavours into many of the dishes and serve hearty portions in the midst of a casual environment.
L’Avenue bistro is like a good nap. It’s not the most exciting thing but it is refreshing and satisfying. You get Egyptian cotton sheets and a small mint on your fluffed pillow iwhile relaxing as soft music senerades you in the background. They adhere to a theme of comfort and tradition instead of throwing down an air mattress and trying to convince you it’s cool to sleep on it while blasting 2 Live Crew and then retweeting it when you do.