I’ll Be Frank..I was Disgracefully Slumming it Up on Bloor West

I recently took a road trip to check out the University of Toronto campus with my son.  Part of the plan was to hit up a brunch spot and introduce him to some of the joints he would likely frequent during his post-secondary experience. We came through Bloor West, past High Park and eventually parked around Ossington in search of a brunch spot.  The initial thought was to walk a few blocks and hit Insomnia to choose from their array of eggs benedict but I called an audible when I walked by Disgraceland and faintly remembered reading something about it having the best something in Toronto. Plus, I could envision my son being more likely to frequent a seedy bar than a place that serves martinis called snowball and diva.

The brunch menu is as no nonsense as the restaurant itself. The tables are dingy and the walls are still sweating booze from the night before.  A picture of the man in black reminds you that they are “cash only” and points you in the direction of a historic ATM which comes with a $1.50 service charge.

The service was prompt and friendly and we quickly ordered the heart attack benny and the hangover helper (both $11) with a couple of refreshingly plain coffees.  It was a standard benny with the addition of cheddar and tomato (the latter I omitted because I don’t think tomatoes belong on most things let alone eggs benedict).  The muffin was a bit chewy and the eggs a few seconds overcooked but the hollandaise did its job unifying everything. The brekkie potatoes were crispy and delicious. All in all, not bad.

Heart Attack Benny $11
Heart Attack Benny $11

My son’s hangover helper was an elixir of nastiness which included eggs, bacon and hollandaise on top of a standard poutine.  With those ingredients, I think it would be harder to screw it up than it would be to nail it and my son certainly had no complaints.

Hangover Helper $11
Hangover Helper $11

After a walk down the street and a pit stop at Long and McQuade  (in which I took the opportunity to explain the importance of a good education as he strummed a $2000 Gibson) we crossed the street to “You Gotta Eat Here” alumni Fancy Franks to grab some lunch for later.  If burgers are Batman, then hot dogs are Robin and a number of tube steak eateries have opened in the past months.  Fancy Franks offers dogs topped with anything from peanut butter to kimchi (most in the $7-9 range) along with other pop culture eats such as poutine ($6-12) and made to order mini donuts for $4-5/dozen. We ordered Franks got Seoul (short rib, kimchi, sesame seeds and scallions) and Franks Coney Island (chili, onions and mustard). The dogs are the snappy type and the toppings are rather abundant. My son (who works at Five Guys burgers and fries) was impressed with condiment bar which even offered a mayo dispenser if one is so inclined.  They were tasty (although they start to get quite greasy when they cool down a bit) but I was left wondering what justified the steep price.  Maybe I’m a bit biased knowing I can head to Detroit and grab the same Coney dog Anthony Bourdain raved about for $1.50 or head to any street vendor and grab some street meat with half a dozen toppings including sauerkraut, fried onions and corn relish for $3.50 but $8 for a hot dog makes a vendor at the Rogers Centre scratch his head. I wish I could report on the donuts but apparently the machine is quite volatile and was misbehaving on this day so I was out of luck.

Franks Got Seoul $7.50 or so
Franks Got Seoul $7.50 or so

My Take

I think our expedition to Toronto taught my son a few things:

  1. The University of Toronto campus is massive.
  2. Carry cash so you don’t get slapped with ATM service charges from places who actually profit from your inconvenience given the fact they only take cash.
  3. Gravy and hollandaise are like him and his sister..they are good together in moderation but I wouldn’t do it too often.
  4. If his ultimate goal is saving up for a Gibson, then eating at Fancy Franks frequently won’t help.

These eateries reflect two of the biggest culinary trends to hit Toronto streets in the past couple of years: brunch and burgers. As I’ve said before, brunch may be a french word for “overpriced breakfast” and  Disgraceland succeeds in offering choices that moderately fit this theme.  When I say burgers I’m generically referring to trend that has opened the door for establishments which focus on handheld foods which represent “North Amerciana”, I’m sure one can blame the escalating price of beef (Frank’s dogs are 100% beef) for the inflated prices but I’d lean more toward the social phenomenon which suggests that people will pay more for something trendy and an $8 hot dog sounds mighty trendy.  So, unless I’m watching R.A. Dickey throwing knuckleballs I’ll stick to street vendors.  Even better, maybe I’ll drive to Detroit and watch Verlander pitch on television and eat a Coney dog for every strikeout he gets…it would still be cheaper than a couple of dogs at Franks.

Fancy Franks Gourmet Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Disgraceland on Urbanspoon

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Starring in “Baptism at Brunch”…A Made in America Movie Now Showing at Foreign Cinema

Some will argue that being a foodie/hipster is a religion or better yet a cult. Either way, like other theologies, there is a strict doctrine one must follow to gain acceptance by the congregation:

1.  Do your best to looks like the guy on the side of the Abercrombie bag.  If you cannot achieve the Adonis  six-pack, then the clueless look into the distance will suffice.

2.  Scoff at the hicks and jersey wearing sports enthusiasts who drink Bud Light to get free Nascar swag or an NHL beer cozy while they drink Pabst Blue Ribbon; a beer just as shitty where they get absolutely nothing.

3. Eat brunch.

Brunch is a rite of passage for the hipster/foodie type.  It’s like a baptism into the church of all things pretentious.   It also allows one to eat foods you can only get as part of the weekend menu or pay $4-5 bucks for something just deemed breakfast every other day of the week.   In addition, it is typically  not served before 11 am which applies to John Q. Foodie because they are soooo hungover from all the bourbon they drank the night before.  There’s also the fact that  having another cocktail designed for the morning hours or a french press coffee is such a much cooler remedy than a couple of advil and a bowl of Cap’n Crunch at home.

I was in San Francisco so attending  brunch here would be like attending mass in the Sistine Chapel.  So I looked long and hard to find a suitable brunch that met all the criteria but considering the fact it had to be on a Saturday (the orthodox foodie will only attend brunch on Sundays). Luckily,  foreign cinema fit the bill.  It is highly rated on numerous websites, situated in a “developing” area of San Francisco and boasts menu items like organic pop tarts, oysters and whipped cod brandade.

It was quite a cab ride from the convention centre.  We were driven by a rather frivolous cabbie  into the heart of the Mission district and were dropped off at the address listed on Google maps.  An extra  blink and I would have missed it.  The front of the restaurant  looked as debilitated as the rest of the buildings along the street.  The entrance was a long tunnel which ended at a large, open courtyard that was already buzzing with hungry brunch goers. Despite the open concept it was quite loud which made it quite  difficult to carry on a conversation. The clergy (servers) seemed preoccupied and slow throughout the meal which I concluded was appropriate given the ceremony.

Of course, I started with the organic pop tart ($6.75 ) and a stiff drink (Persian Bloody Mary $11).  Both met at least one criteria for an ideal brunch experience. The overpriced pop tart was flimsy and unimpressive and only surrounded a  tiny amount of peach filling.  The Bloody Mary was seasoned with aggressive middle eastern flavours but as a Canadian, I’ve never had a Bloody Mary that comes anywhere close to a Caesar.

Peach Poptart $6.75
Peach Poptart $6.75
Persian Bloody Mary $11
Persian Bloody Mary $11

For my main I opted for the Chile Verde (fried eggs, slow-cooked heritage pork, poblanos, tomatillos, mojo, queso fresco and tortilla ribbons) for $18. Although not the prettiest dish (especially once you began to dismantle it), the flavours blended beautifully.  . Each bite, lead by the pork and egg,  was a blend of  fresh flavours accented with a perfect amount of acid and heat from the vegetables and sauces.

Chili Verde $18
Chile Verde $18

My Take

As mentioned, my visit to foreign cinema was like a baptism into San Francisco foodieism (probably pronounced foo-day-ism).  It was a loud but enjoyable ceremony.  I managed to visit an” up and coming” area of town, order organic food, drink a breakfast boozy cocktail and pay too much for eggs. I even got somewhat pretentious service to match. However, I am still  unclear on the whole movie concept. First,  it’s called foreign cinema and plays predominantly American movies. Second, I saw no evidence of the movie at all.  I think they play them in the outdoor courtyard which wasn’t offered to me.  Maybe that section is reserved for the established foodies and not the ones who think paying seven bucks for a pop tart is an automatic ticket to hipster heaven.

Foreign Cinema on Urbanspoon

Review:Montreal:Park Restaurant

One thing that gives me a headache is trying to figure out what to do for brunch.  Usually, it a combination of overpriced breakfast foods in the midst of foodies who are worse than dinner ones (they may in fact be the same except the dinner foodie is drunk and somewhat pleasant whereas the brunch one is hungover and even more miserable).  Add the fact I was in Montreal and my head was going to explode.  So, I did an online search and stumbled across a really good blog which does a stellar job focusing on the most important meal of the day:

http://www.montrealbreakfastreview.com/

After scrolling through numerous and well written posts, I stumbled across Park which met all my criteria:

1.  They..gasp!…take brunch reservations.

2. It’s located in Westmount, a neighborhood outside of the downtown core which meant an opportunity to explore an alternate part of the city.

3. There’s more on the menu than bacon and eggs priced $5 higher than they are any other day of the week. In fact, they serve more of an asian-inspired lunch than a standard brunch.

So, we grabbed a cab and took the trek up to this funky neighbourhood.  It’s oddly set-up in what appears to be a bit of a rundown office building although there are rather expensive pieces of art hanging on the walls of the lobby.  I have no idea what Park was before, but I suspect it was some kind of sit down cafe which served Bunn coffee, bagels and greasy breakfast plates. It has been overhauled with a nice bar, decent decor and blackboards boasting cocktails and menu specials.

At the time we were seated, it was pretty empty but was full by noon.  It was a diverse crowd including a table of elderly people enjoying every bite of their eggs to foodie couples snapping pics the same I was. I was intrigued by the numerous cocktails on the blackboard filled with asian flavours such as yuzu.  When I inquired, however, I was told cocktails weren’t available at brunch and I was left to drink a mediocre $12 mimosa.

We ordered three very unorthodox brunch items which complied with both my whimsical tastes and my dining partner’s like for fresh, healthy flavours (what’s with that?); bibimbap ($13), Jap Chae ($13) and the deconstructed salad for two ($19).   All three dishes had a delicate complexity to them with flavours that burst with freshness and balance. The visual appeal was spectacular.   The grains in the bibimbap and noodles in the Jap Chae were done to perfection.  The deconstructed salad  was like having a personal assistant deliver the freshest ingredients from a whole foods setup on a plate in front of you without having to deal with the Lululemon wearing moms and indecisive salad bar champions. It had no less than 20 ingredients (lettuce, vegetables, pickled items such as kimchi  etc.)  as well as three delicious homemade dressings spiked with Asian flavours such as yuzu and miso. For $19 it could have had a few more protein options,vegetarian or otherwise.

Bibimbap $13
Bibimbap $13
Jap Chae $13
Jap Chae $13
Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)
Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)

My Take

This is not your typical brunch. Coming here and nestling in knarly and fashionable environments reaches noble and nouveau dimensions only superseded by the prettiness of the food. The combination of the fresh ingredients and bold flavours busts open the notion that the only cure for a hangover is grease.  I’d knock my next day pain upside the head with a dose of this stuff any day but would leave out the $12 mimosa. Otherwise, the next question I would ask when coming to Park is “what’s for dinner?”

Park Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Corktown:Gilead Cafe

I have been trying to get to one of the evening events at Gilead for a while and finally had the chance back in June. It was one of the Friday night wine bars that are periodically run throughout the year,

I was a bit surprised by both the location and the decor at 4 Gilead in Corktown. It’s certainly not your typical wine bar environment, probably because it’s mainly only open for breakfast and lunch.   That said, you can’t judge a place by it’s decor, so I forked up ready to indulge on the Jamie Kennedy inspired menu.

After the decor, my second surprise were the clientele. I was easily the youngest patron in the place, maybe because it was 6 pm.  I felt like I was at an early bird dinner.  Even later, however, there was not the crowd I would have expected for an almost underground  one night wine bar experience. Well, except maybe for one jackass who showed up with his date and demanded the door be shut despite the fact it was 35 degrees and subsequently complained about every one of the  6 or 8 drinks he had in a span of an hour.

It only made sense to start with the featured drink, a Fragolina cocktail (wine, strawberry beer and a bit of lime) for $7.  It was very average.  The featured wines were a couple of Ontario red and whites for $7 a glass.

As I was waiting for a colleague, I ordered the poutine with braised beef and cheddar.  The fries were great.  The gravy was a bit salty which ended up being a theme for the evening.  The beef was tender, the cheese was scarce.  In the end, it was decent but not great.

Braised Beef Poutine $9
Braised Beef Poutine $9

I have an issue paying for bread but I was interested in the highly touted red fife sour dough, so I ordered some with two vegetarian dips for $5.   I think they were beet and some kind of hummus.   It was also served with a side of a spice mix which was not explained to me.  Not clear on the intent of this mix, I used liberally on a piece of bread only to find out it was 90% salt.  When I brought this up with the waitress, she scoffed and pointed out “It’s a french thing” and “it should be used sparingly ” on top of the butter.  After pointing out there was no butter at the table, I was told I shouldn’t have got it anyway since it’s only served with lunch.

On the heels of asparagus season, I wasn’t surprised to see it on the menu, simply served with a honey vinaigrette. For $7, it was too simple..9 boiled pieces painted with a mediocre dressing.  I found the green salad with sorrel dressing a bit better (it had a few radishes and sorrel thrown in)  for $7  but the dressing looked and tasted similar to the one used on the asparagus. The beet salad with lentils and feta looked great on the menu but once again has a taste profile not much different than the others.

Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette  $7
Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette $7
Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7
Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7
Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9
Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9

I was excited to try the pristine poached halibut with curried lobster sauce.  Once again it was a disappointment.  The halibut has the consistency of that piece of poached egg white that escapes and floats to the top of the pan.  It was rather bland and seasoned with large chunks of salt scattered among the bottom of the filet.  The lobster curry and bitter greens made the dish salvageable. At least if wasn’t ridiculously priced at $16.

Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16
Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16

I’m not really a flourless chocolate cake fan but decided to try it since it was served with a rhubarb reduction and cardamom ice cream, two flavours I happen to love in a dessert. I thought it was well done, especially if you incorporated the sweet ice cream, the bitter sweet cake and the sour reduction all in one bite.

Flourless chocolate cake $9
Flourless chocolate cake $9

My Take

I was excited to experience this drop-in wine bar, especially with an attractive online menu that featured a nice array of fresh and creative foods developed by one of Toronto’s iconic chefs.  Instead, I was treated to an experience that felt like a dinner at an old age home.  Each of the three veggie dishes  tasted almost exactly the same, the fish was overdone and salt was the predominant seasoning (don’t you know us old people can’t have too much salt).  I felt I was treated a bit like a nursing home resident as well, especially after being scolded about my shallow knowledge regarding  the use of salted herbs on butterless bread in much the same way one would after stepping off the property without permission. Maybe it’s better at breakfast or lunch but mention the word hip at this place during dinner  and most would immediately think it’s a high risk area for a fracture.

Gilead Cafe on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Beast

There are many dichotomies that exist in the world.  Numerous works of literature have been penned which attempt to paint a picture of such polarity.  Charles Dickens tells us a tale of two cities.  Robert Louis Stevenson  describes Dr. Jeckyl and Mr Hyde.  It is no wonder that this concept has crept its way into the culinary world.

Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain have traveled across North America on their Good vs  Evil Tour, embarking on friendly discussions of the triumphs and perils of the culinary culture.  Chef Ripert  is a distinguished chef and a poster boy of the cliché French chef with his frosty hair, pristine chef’s coat and seductive accent.   10 Arts, his restaurant in Philadelphia, is an example of his  simple, clean cooking style with probably the best octopus I have ever had.  Anthony, on the other hand, is a pop culture icon, traveler, author and a celebrity more than he is a chef.  He’s a bone-sucking, bug chewing son of a bitch who tells off food critics and television executives at will.  They are sort of the Beauty and the Beast of the culinary world.

It’s no surprise that Beast, the King West Bistro, was a sponsor of the Good vs Evil tour’s recent stop to Toronto.   It boasts the same premise; good and evil wrapped into one. Other examples include the art, which showcase nubile figures with animalistic heads.  With brunch,  you are offered sweet ketchup together with fiery, housemade hot sauce.  During brunch, you can get a fresh French pressed coffee with a  cherry, coconut donut or one of the filthiest breakfast sandwich in the GTA.  Even the name, Beast, leads one to picture either a noble and majestic animal roaming a grassy plain or flaming soul stealing Lucifer.

I rarely eat brunch and I’m rarely in Toronto with my kids. The mention of a breakfast joint with donuts closed the deal.  They offer a platter of 4 for $10. On this day, there was maple bacon, cherry coconut, a Jack Daniels twist and a Kahlua filled cream donut. Watching two kids fighting for a maraschino cherry is always a blast (in this regard my daughter is good, my son is evil).  They were sinful and quite divine, reminiscent of old school donuts before Tim Horton’s redefined them with their current, par-baked, flimsy version. The finishing touch was a number made to order french press coffee options served with a timer for optimal brewing time.

Array of Donuts (4 for $10)
Array of Donuts (4 for $10)

Beast takes advantage of puffy brunch prices with a $12 bacon and eggs but with a twist…a bottle of Labatt  50 (a testament to the fact that hipsters still can’t let go of beer their fathers and grandfathers drank).  Since my daughter is not a fan of 50 (and the fact she is 13), we opted for the good version (booze free) for $10.  She did get a non-alcoholic ginger beer, which was an aggressively powered elixir which was a bit over the top for a teen palate.  I finished it off and she went with a safer freshly squeezed OJ. As the breakfast, it was an average bacon and eggs, with crisp bacon and slightly soggy potatoes.

Labatt 50 Breakfast $12 ($10 without 50)
Labatt 50 Breakfast $12 ($10 without 50)

The progression from good to evil finished with the beastwich.  Touted as one of the best and nastiest breakfast sandwiches in town, I longed to to see why. The equation is as follows…biscuit, fried chicken, cheese, egg and sausage gravy.  I am a bit biased having a love affair with a similar dish at Lucky’s in Cleveland.    The biscuit was fluffy, the chicken was spot on, I wished for a little more yolkiness with the egg and the gravy was a little less complex than it could have been.  That being said, it held its own and can be considered a leader in GTA breakfast sandwich supremacy. The potatoes could be a bit better and it would be nice to see that void on the plate filled with some grapes, strawberries or another acidic fruit which could tear into the richness of the sandwich. Is $14 worth it?  I’ll let you decide.

Beastwich $14
Beastwich (with remnants of ginger beer)  $14

My Take

Beast offers a fascinating brunch, offering everything from fried pickles to poutine to pork hock.  Even naming their chorizo after Luis Suarez, one of the sweetest yet beastly strikers currently in the English premier league, is an example of the ongoing  theme of polarity.   Don’t expect fluffy pancakes and delicate crepes here; most of the dishes are evil, savory and beast heavy.  The combination of the menu variety and the decent food makes this a place I would come back to again for brunch or dinner…but I would need to be feeling much more Bourdain than I would Ripert.

Beast on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Leslieville:Lady Marmalade

Hey hipster, go hipster, soul hipster, go hipster
Hey hipster, go hipster, soul hipster, go hipster

He went Marmalade down in old Leslieville
Struttin’ his stuff on the street
She said, “Hello, gimme some  Joe
And maybe an order of french toast”

Mmm, fruity fruity ya ya da da
Coulis coulis  ya ya here
Mocha latte  ya ya
Here at  Lady Marmalade

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

He savored his coffee whch she freshed up
Cuz he couldn’t get a beer or wine.
On the formica table tops where
He started to eat.

Tofu tofu ya ya da da
Lots of veggies options here
All day breakfast ya ya
Here at  Lady Marmalade

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Seeing the hollandiase sauce silky smooth
Along with a cafe au lait
One bite of the eggs bennie inside
Makes you wanna cry, “More, more, more”

It’s only open from 8 to 4
And 8 to 3 weekends (and holidays)
But when he sits down to eat
He wants to order more, more, more

Mexi mexi ya ya  da da da
Tortita-gordita ya ya here
Six dollar smoothies ya ya
at the trendy Lady Marmalade.

Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi, ce soir?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Annoying annoying  ya ya da da da
Cash only ya ya here
No reservations either ya ya
Here at Lady Marmalade

Tomato and Basil Eggs Bennie with Potatoes and Salad
Tomato and Basil Eggs Bennie with Potatoes and Salad
Tortita-Gordita Dandwich with Soup
Tortita-Gordita sandwich with Soup

Translation

Pros– One of the best eggs bennie going. I think the hollandaise  sauce has nicotine or something addictive in it because on occasion  i wake up wanting it injected in my veins.  Great menu with lots of veggie options. Food is fresh and environment is buzzy and fun.

Cons– Cash only and no reservations and the whole party has to be there seat policy. Blah, blah, blah. Ugly walls. Hardy Boys (I was partial to Nancy Drew).

Lady Marmalade on Urbanspoon