Review:Toronto:The Annex:Harbord Room

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

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

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

Stalking Kevin Brauch
Stalking Kevin Brauch

Must

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

The Harbord Burger
The Harbord Burger

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

Whitefish Ceviche
Whitefish Ceviche

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

Charcuterie ($20)
Charcuterie ($20)

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

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

Harbord Room Rapini
Harbord Room Rapini

Maybe

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

Cornish Game Hen and Sausage
Cornish Game Hen and Sausage

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

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

Mundane

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

Doughnuts and Terrine
Doughnuts and Chocolate Banana Terrine

I realize sex sells, but really……

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

My Take

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

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

The Harbord Room on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Weslodge

Behind the Yellow Door- A Western Romance

A Novel by Gary Tayles

Introduction

If you ask any foodie for an opinion (which they are willing to give) , I think they would compare a Charles Khabouth restaurant empire to a romance novel. Romance novels are pretty on the outside, using  bare-chested, robe wearing, chiseled men with flowing manes who embrace buxom babes with their eyes closed and mouths open.  The interior, however, often lacks substance, with predictable themes of forbidden love and turgidity. The Khabouth empire, on the other hand, have beautiful decors, characterized by trendy themes, hardwood accents and big, well-stocked bars. Yet, in the opinion of some, the menu is often overpriced and lacks taste and substance.

Chapter 1- I Must Have Her

I opened up the large door and entered the saloon called Weslodge.  Smiling damsels greeted my group and we were sat beneath the watchful eye of a stuffed ptarmigan.  The holster wearing waitstaff were rag proper;  with coifs and pressed shirts who asked me to choose my lotion.  There were 4 or 5 pints of purge available on tap   but I opted for an orange spiced old-fashioned. The bourbon was nicely complemented by strong bitters which flirted with my eager tongue.

Orange Spiced Old-Fashioned ($15)
Orange Spiced Old-Fashioned ($15)

Of the number of tantalizing smalls offered on the bill of fare,  the  scallops were anything but tiny. I was seduced by the ample cleavage which was  accented with iberico crumbs and placed atop tender, firm lentils.  They were  tender and had a taste as fine as cream gravy.

Scallop ($14)
Scallop ($14)

As I did at Patria, Weslodge’s equally attractive sister (I musn’t tell her to avoid the family drama), I gambled and opted for shishito peppers; each was breaded and salted delicately.  This dish was flirtatious in that one out of every 10-15 are extra hot.  It took only two to find the spicy vixen I was seeking.

CRISPY SHISHITO PEPPERS $6
Crispy Shishito Peppers
$6

My search for a sweet piece of calico succeeded in the form of a sticky pudding.   She was traditional, with a simple beauty and a presentation that was highly desirable.

weslodge pudding
Sticky Pudding

Chapter 2- Maybe Baby

I liked her buns…they looked nice beside my pickle.  The burger itself was decent (I would call it average among the many burgers in the area) and a few more of the delicious  fries (to go with the tomatillo ketchup) would have been nice.

Weslodge Burger $18
Weslodge Burger $18

The chickpea panelle is one of the only truly  vegetarian items on the menu (many things are sprinkled with chorizo or iberico).  This bella donna is a sexy side with the mouth feel of a voluptuous  set of  lips.

Chickpea Panelle
Chickpea Panelle

The dessert  menu is elusive, so I inserted a pistareen to get a look at the Weslodge peepshow. Two sisters emerged; one was a prim and proper chocolate toffee bar donning  gold (well..gold leaf). The other was a bit more a hot mess, speckled with  meringue pieces (I really don’t get this trend), strawberries and sweet biscuits and cream.  I can’t remember the exact name of these two lasses (I didn’t write them down in my black book), which is ok because what happens at Weslodge stays at Weslodge.    In the end, after the sticky pudding, I felt a bit adulterous consuming these sweeties anyway.

Elusive Weslodge Dessert
Elusive Weslodge Dessert
Weslodge Gold Donning Dessertn($10 I think()
Weslodge Gold Donning Dessert($10 I think)

Chapter 3– Ugly as a Mud Fence

The Squash taters tots arrived as cold as an unpaid wag-tail. They were sent back and the second batch arrived only slightly warmer.  Regardless, they wouldn’t have  been that good even at the right temperature.

The arctic char  was a bit flimsy, underseasoned and wasn’t exactly charred.  I had to look up Henry Moore (to ensure he was not some sort of jilted lover who would come back carrying a peacemaker and a frown).  It turned out it’s a South Carolina plantation which grows rice and other grains.  Whew!  The grits were tasty and creamy but a bit mismatched with the oils and the char itself. The $26 price tag was steep. Honestly, I would have liked to see the grits without the char on the sides menu for a more reasonable price.

Squash Tots ($& Squash Tots ($7) and Charred Arctic Char ($26)
Squash Tots ($7) and Charred Arctic Char with Henry Moore Grits($26)

Afterward

In the previous western romance, a group of  schrunchers enters the yellow doors of Weslodge looking for sheconnery. The decor, from the large central bar to the quincy, is adorned with trinkets and taxidermy that would appease Ernest Hemingway.  The bar is without any sheephearder’s delight and instead offers high end and often house made firewater. The service had fits and starts, but the holstered staff were welcoming and the flow of food was reasonably steady.

 Weslodge possesses a definite culinary sexuality which relies on attractive decor combined with  delicate feminine dishes and desserts coupled with the masculinity of  3o+ ounce chucks of bone-in meat to feed testosterone-driven cravings. Charles Khabouth may in fact be the equivalent of Fabio in the restaurant world.  Nobody will admit they like him but his popularity remains unquestionable.  I would be remiss if I said that Weslodge had the substance of a Harlequin romance (or let’s say 50 shades for those who have no idea what I’m talking about) but  it does have a few things that left me a bit mitten.

Weslodge on Urbanspoon

DDD:Philadelphia:Silk City Diner

It was stormy night, long ago in Philadelphia.  On the last night of a week long conference, after smiling in front of customers and running up the Rocky stairs, I was ready for Silk City Diner. Other than the fact it’s a  DDD and it’s foundation is a old school diner, I knew little about this Philadelphia icon.

Since I was already an expert in the Philly landscape (based on my previous walk to Honey’s Sit n’ Eat), I lead my band of fearless eaters down Spring Garden St to our destination.  The diner was a little more than I expected, housing a lounge on one side and a beer garden on the other.  Despite the promise of a late June storm, we weathered it out and sat in the latter.  Adorned with metal trellises, Christmas lights and coloured stools and picnic tables, it looked like it could have been decorated by Don Ho or a creative grade 7 class inspired by Claude Monet.

Silk City Diner Beer Garden
Silk City Diner Beer Garden

The Thai Style BBQ ribs were delicious…meaty and flavourful and likely the best thing I ate that night.   The pickles, peanuts and hoisin sauce was an odd combination but it worked so well.

Thai Style RIbs
Thai Style Ribs

Other than a little joint in Toronto (see grand electric in this blog), this is the best fried calamari I have had. It was an abundant pile of hot, tender and spicy all rolled into one.

Spicy Fried Calamari
Spicy Fried Calamari

Philadelphia may not be the haven for comfort soul food, but Silk’s buttermilk chicken reminds me of the deep south (well not really…I’ve never been to the deep south but it did have collard greens and a corn muffin!); a delicious, big ass home cooked meal.  Crunchy skin, juicy chicken and all the fixin’s.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Buttermilk Fried Chicken

In a world filled with burgers approaching  $20, a $10 burger (well..$12 with the guacamole and long hots) is an endangered species.  Silk’s offering was simple and solid.

Silk Burger
Silk Burger

The pork belly empanadas were decent but not the highlight of the meal.  The slaw and the mango attempted to add some different flavour and texture to the dumplings, but they were a bit doughy.  The cilantro cream did little to enhance the dish.

Pork Belly Empanadas
Pork Belly Empanadas

I can’t turn down bread pudding, so I was happy to see Chocolate Banana Brioche Bread Pudding on the menu. It was a little more bread than it was pudding so I let out a little sigh or two.

Chocolate Banana Brioche Bread Pudding
Chocolate Banana Brioche Bread Pudding

This is another let the pictures do the talking place.  The food is diverse and tasty and there’s a bit of something for everybody. There’s plenty of cocktails and a great beer selection, ranging from $2.50 Tecates to a $4 Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils.  The portions are huge and the prices are cheapish.  The environment is fun and lively, even in the midst of a pending summertime storm.

Verdict: 5 Guyz!

Silk City Diner on Urbanspoon