Review:Little Italy and Portugal Village:Darwin

So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist.  That’s Darwin.  OK…allow me to put it into perspective.  The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area.  Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of  “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.

I took one look at the  menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence,  it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under  $10  bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.

Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out.  Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St.,  umbrella in hand  and found my destination at College and Grace.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times).   There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable  guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.

An interesting  twist on the classic drink,  I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal  in conjunction with the  traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup.  It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.

Maple Old-Fashioned $10
Maple Old-Fashioned $10

I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a  spin on the original.  The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish.  The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads.  The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.

Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10
Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10

The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours.  It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests.  I found myself lapping the broth up as well.  The frites were delicately done, fried  “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary.  I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.

Moules and Frties $12
Moules and Frties $12

I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned.  The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a  glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.

Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18
Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18

On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.

Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart.  I opted for the former.  It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce.  I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.  In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss.  The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding

My Take

This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many  restaurants in business for decades.  Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant.  Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed.  The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision.  Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.

Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing.  There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25.  Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality.  The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding.  The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall. charles-darwin-1Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon

Advertisements

Review:Ottawa:Rockcliffe/Beechwood:Farb’s

It was a stormy, cold  night (that narrows it down to one of about 40 nights in the past couple of months) as I made the trek out to Farb’s in Ottawa.  Farb’s is a smallish, gimmick free place that focuses on the elegant presentation of standard bistro fare such as walleye (you think they’d call it pickerel, especially in the nation’s capital), chops, steaks and even Moo Goo Gai Pan for a little ethnic diversity. It’s a meat heavy menu with one vegetarian starter (a ubiquitous beet salad) and one main (risotto with trendy sunchoke and tomato jam).

Must

If this was a short rib, I’d like to see a long rib. It would probably look like that hunk of meat that tips Fred’s car over at the beginning of the Flintstones.  The meat was tasty and tender and abundant.  It sat upon a blissful mess of beans and root veggies and a jovial jus. I’m not sure who Rodney Blake is (I’m assuming it’s not the Aussie rugby player also called Rodzilla) , but his wilted greens are pretty darn good. I would of picked up the bone and savagely tore meat of the bone but….

1. My guest would likely think I was even crazier than I am (after all I do take pictures of everything I eat and interrogate waitstaff like a defense lawyer).

2. There was so much meat I probably couldn’t lift it or get anywhere close to the bone even if Adam Richman was helping me out.

3.  It only looks funny and appropriate on cartoons (how do they clean the bone in one fell swoop?).

Short Rib $30
Short Rib $30

Maybe

With a price just below double digits (restaurant soup prices in the past five years have escalated well above standard inflation rates), Farb’s does a decent one. This one was a carrot soup topped with a bit of salty. melty cheese and flavoured oil to offset the sweetness. The rawness of the carrot was evident and it was seasoned well.  Overall it was a good cure for the wintertime blues.

Market Soup $9
Market Soup $9

My Take

This is my second visit to Farb’s and both have been solid.  It’s a quaint, family run bistro with a focus on well-prepared food.  Starters range from $9-18 with most mains around $30. The wine selection is average and the dessert selection is somewhat minimal.  It’s not a place that will blow your mind with creativity or the use of unmentionable animal products, but you can get a classic dish done well. It comes accompanied with an intangible but important touch of family pride which is often missing from other establishments. In other words, when your with the Farber’s, you’ll have a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time, you’ll have a gay old time.

 

 

Farbs Kitchen & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Yorkville:La Societe Bistro

I was quite prepared for a posh soiree as I strolled into the small Bloor Street mall, past the Gucci and Cartier stores to enter the lavish environment which is La Societe.  Unlike a number of other French bistros in Toronto, La Societe is quite expansive, with stained glass  reminiscent of  l’eglise and a bar with a Hollywood-like bibliotheque.  Not surprising for a Charles Khabouth joint.  The question was whether it would be a scenic adventure with little substance or if the food would be as appealing to taste as the scenery was to observe.

Must

Perhaps most ironic was the fact that the best dish wasn’t french.  Ceviche is all about balance and La Societe’s version hit the mark.  Aggressive citrus and chili accents elevated the subtle and fresh trio of scallops, shrimp and snapper.  Be warned though…it’s a small portion for about 250 pesos ($21).

Seafood Cerviche ($21)
Seafood Ceviche ($21)

Maybe

The duck confit was a combination of roasted breast and a croquette-like portion of leg.  The breast was quite average due to it’s rather tough texture and unimpressive rendering of the fatty cut.  Hands down, the highlight of the plate was the croquette.  Nicely fried and full of flavour, it was stuffed with tender shreds of duck leg which was nicely balanced with the tangy cherry jus.

Duck Confit ($29)
Duck Confit ($29)

Most desserts were priced in the double digits .  The Tahitian vanilla creme brulee was tasty but unremarkable.    The lemon tart was equally as predictable, tasting less like a rich, tangy curd and more like my mom’s early attempts at a  lemon meringue pie.  The hazelnut chocolate bar with salted caramel ice cream was a bit more exciting but a little outdated.  In the end, the desserts were a bit ennuyeux.

Creme Brulee
Creme Brulee
Lemon Tart
Lemon Tart
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar

Mundane

It wasn’t so much the food, but the value that was quite mundane. Here are a few examples:

Dover Sole $48. Ok. I’ve give you that…it sells for up to $75 in New York.

Dover Sole ($48)
Dover Sole ($48)

Steak Frites $32. Ok, that’s a little steep.

Steak Frites ($32)
Steak Frites ($32)

The duck confit and seafood ceviche were $29 and $21 respectively. Other possible choices included $24 mussels or vegetarian cavatelli, $13 french onion soup and an $18 burger.  I appreciate the  interior like the Louvres but the menu is priced like its souvenir shop.

My Take

La Societe bistro is not a bistro.  Wikipedia defines a bistro as “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”. This restaurant is not small, the food is not cheap and the setting is not modest.    The layout is expansive and  uncharacteristic of most french bistros (making me question the lack of intimacy),  the food is decent but with markups similar to the Gucci purses downstairs and the decor is anything but modest. To be fair, they do have a decent prix fixe menu at $44.  As long as Yorkville remains the epitome of  lavish spending,  La Societe will blend in but  it will be interesting to see if the migration of the  luxury hotels and accommodations to other areas of town pressures this and other  local eateries to come down to earth a little with pricing.  Until then, I’ll seek my scenery at the Royal Ontario Museum and indulge on ceviche elsewhere. C’est la vie!

 

La Société Bistro on Urbanspoon