SPQR (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus): King Herod Prices And Pasta as Bloody as the Assassination of Caesar

SPQR had me fooled.  Given it was awarded a Michelin star for fine Italian food, I expected a stuffy, polite, quaint restaurant filled with overdressed waitstaff who pour wine with one hand behind their back. My first suspicion that I was wrong is when I walked past it a few nights before on my way from State Bird Provisions to Altier Crenn. From the outside, the vibe seemed more hipster than a classic Italian joint with the presence of surprisingly pounding, quaky rhythms as opposed to uncle Vito playing the violin table side.

I emailed quite a bit in advance to see if I could secure a table of 6 for a group I was with at a conference.  They told me such as table was not available but when I got on open table I was able to secure two tables of 4 at the same time.  It seemed odd to me…sorta pretentious;quite risible in fact.   On the day of, I was a real nuisance and called to see if we could combine of two tables of 4 into one table of 5 due to a few last minute cancellations.  They hesitantly accommodated us but once I walked in, I understood the issue. The restaurant is not designed for large groups. Small tables are crammed into every square foot of the smallish dining area.  When seated, one of us ended up stuck in a  swelling, protruding, quillon-resembling seat which blocked the path of everybody walking by.

The menu changes frequently but usually focuses on a decent array of appetizers, a number of pasta dishes and a few mains. There is no doubt the pasta is the cornerstone of the menu given the fact there are usually a dozen or so smart, piquant, quirky rations available at any given time.  I started with the octopus garnished with kale sprouts, panissa (a lemon chick pea cake) and a vibrant puree laced with pistachio.  Chick peas and octopus work so well together and the panissa was a creative and enjoyable way to marry the flavours .  The octopus was tender and the subtle use of lemon accented everything well.

Octopus $20
Octopus, kale sprout, panissa, chickpea, pistachio and preserved lemon $20

Although I didn’t opt for the pasta, members of my dining party did and I had the opportunity to try a few bites of each.  The bucatini “straw and hay”, california blue cheese, linden walnut, kale and sage brown butter ($26) was a delightful interpretation of this popular combination.  Whole walnuts and sage leaves  along with large pieces  of kale made it a visually appealing dish which was able to balance the intensity of the rich cheese sauce.

Buc
Bucatini “straw and hay”, california blue cheese, linden walnut, kale and sage brown butter ($26)

Another tablemate chose the famed and in the eyes of some, risky blutnudlen which sounds more horrific than the assassination of  Julius Caesar.  This popular dish mixes blood pasta with blood sausage ragu and pig’s foot breadcrumbs ($25).  I must admit it was a novelty to try but beyond a few bites  a sanguine pasta queming  ravenous hipsters is not my cup of tea.  It was rich and flavourful and reminded me why, as a pseudo-Catholic,  my consumption of blood tends to stop at transubstantiation.  I couldn’t imagine finishing the whole plate.

Blood
Blutnudlen $25

Instead of pasta, I opted for the Guinea hen “rosticceria style”, wild rice porridge, roasted strawberry, turnip and pink pepper ($36).  The presentation was a pleasant mess. The delcious hen was almost hidden among the colours of the Italian flag.  The  texture was somewhat reminiscent of a good shawarma. The meat was crispy but held in its moisture.  The wild rice porridge was vibrant and the strawberries sweetened the pot.  The sulphur of the turnip rounded the plate out.

Guinea Hen $36
Guinea Hen “rosticceria style”, wild rice porridge, roasted strawberry, turnip and pink pepper ($36)

 

We decided on a family style approach to dessert and ordered a trio which included 1. fried blueberry pie, butterscotch, lemon curd and burnt sugar gelato, 2. hibiscus bombolini, cherry vanilla, cherry bark vanilla and fior di latte gelato and 3. peanut and milk chocolate pudding , malt and chocolate gelato.  The consensus at the table was that the bombolini was the best followed by the pudding and the fried blueberry pie (all $14).  The blueberry pie was the one I was most excited about but there were too many flavours and the butterscotch didn’t really fit.  The pudding was boring looking and tasted almost the same.  It was very predictable which was kind of odd given the dishes which led up to dessert.

 

Blueberry pie $14
Fried blueberry pie, butterscotch, lemon curd and burnt sugar gelato $14
Hibiscus Bombolini $14
Hibiscus bombolini, cherry vanilla, cherry bark vanilla and fior di latte gelato $14
Peanut Dessert $14
Peanut and milk chocolate pudding , malt and chocolate gelato $14

My Take

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to  critique SPQR, not to praise it.
The dishes that men eat lives after them;
The good is oft inferred with their Michelin star;
So let it be with SPQR. The noble bloggers
Hath told you the menu was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a hipster’s demand,
And graciously  hath SPQR answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Accarrino and the rest–
For SPQR is an honourable place;
So are they all, all honourable chefs–
Come I to speak in Fareeatales.

SPQR is a perfect fit for Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  It ignores the traditional concepts of fine Italian dining by presenting beautiful dishes but throws away the spacious room filled with white linen in favour of a labyrinth of small table scattered throughout a broom closet. The service was characteristic of the latter with the staff dressed in black as opposed to a shirt and tie.   The food was delicious and deserves the accolades it has received over the years.  That said, I have to agree with many that say the food is somewhat pricey; quasi-ridiculous in fact.  Perhaps Herod had a role in charging  $25 for pasta and $14 for dessert. Despite this, the place is always jam packed so it doesn’t seem to deter the masses.  In the end, when I polled my guests to see if they majority enjoyed the experience they agreed that it was stupendously polished;quorum reached.

SPQR on Urbanspoon

 

 

Having a Lovin’ Spoonful at Chez Piggy

Music and food have a lot in common.  Both stimulate the senses and both tend to be driven by trends. Kingston’s Chez Piggy is an example of both.  At first, one might think it was a hot spot in the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted” movie.  The locals, however, know that the claim to fame is the fact that this restaurant was opened in 1979 by Zal Yanovsky who was one of the members of the Hall of Fame Inductee band “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands that had a number of top ten hits you know but have no idea who sings them.  Even in their heyday, they were overshadowed by other hippie bands  in the mid-sixties.  That said, here are a couple of facts about the Lovin’ Spoonful.  First, in 1966 their biggest hit “Summer in the City”, was Billboard’s number 11 song of 1966, finishing higher than Paperback Writer, the Beatles’ top entry that year. Another fact is that two of the songs that kept the Spoonful out of the top 10 were by Monday, Monday and California Dreamin’. The irony was that these songs  were performed by the Mamas and the Papas, who that had two members who jammed with Yanovsky in the Mugwumps before forming their Hall of Fame band.

The Lovin’ Spoonful are one of those bands who had a bunch of songs people know but can’t identify the band who sung them. For example, I remember numerous commercials asking the question “Did you ever have to finally decide?” while some dude had to decide which super model to choose. On the theme of questions, they also asked the question “Do you believe in magic?”.. a song that has survived the test of time.  I still remember Chris Klein singing it to Mena Suvari  during American Pie almost 35 years later (yes..there were more parts to that movie other than Stifler’s mom and objectophilia).

The question is whether Chez Piggy had evolved with the times or if it is a disguised homage to Zal who unfortunately passed in 2002. At first sight, it’s a secluded stable. When you enter, the landing on the stairway upwards has a tribute to Zal in the form of a picture along with some T-shirts boasting the Chez Piggy experience.  The setup is  more traditional than modern as you are rewound into 80’s decor that is much more intentional than the many retro diners which grace the landscapes.  The waitstaff are not pretentious students but instead a mix of people who have probably  listened to “Daydream” a few times in their lives.

Chez Piggy features a traditional cocktail menu with retro prices.  I opted for the ceasar for $6.35. I was pleasantly surprised as it was absolutely delicious and rivaled many others I’ve had that are priced in the double digits.

Delicious Caesar $6.35
Delicious Caesar $6.35

The menu is like a greatest hits album.  It contains all the classics with a few feeble attempts at new creative expression.  I hounded the waitress about the number one hits and she said the gambas al ajillo.  Not to be mistaken for a Carlos Santana song, it is a fancy of saying garlic shrimp.  This is the dish that has stood the test of time. It’s a pot luck favorite, bringing haute cuisine to picnic tables everywhere. It was deliciously incomplex.  Seven wonderfully cooked shrimp swam circles in a slurry of oil and garlic within the confines of a cast iron skillet.

Gambas al ajillo $14
Gambas al ajillo $14

I was intrigued by the coast to coast canuck plate.  Patriotism on a plate is always a risky en devour.   Consisting of maple cured salmon, duck prosciutto, cured venison, bison and blueberry sausage, highland blue cheese, lankaaster cheese, caramelized onion & cheddar tart, smoked cod spread with scrunchions, pickled beets, red cabbage & horseradish salad, it did fairly represent our great land.  It was plainly served on a white plate which took away from some of the aesthetic value but served as a reminder that a 35 year old restaurant need not succumb to silly trends like serving cured meat on cutting boards or finished cross-sections of tree trunks (although they do charge a very modern $23).  Otherwise, it was a tasty array and captured many of the elements of Canada on a plate.  It was sort of like eating a Tragically Hip song.

Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23
Coast to Coast Canuck Plate $23

For the main, I got talked into the special, which was a short rib with  potatoes gratin  and roasted beets.  The plate had a forgivable messiness. The short rib was a bit disappointing in that it was too tough,  lacking the “fall of the bone” nature of a perfectly cooked rib. The potatoes were retro-good, another reminder of the days of old where my mom would orchestrate  her scalloped potatoes (served exclusively with ham), microwaves were not an option and hit songs tended to be only two or three minutes long. It pushed the limits of acceptable price with the $30 price tag.

Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30
Short Ribs with Potatoes Gratin and Beets $30

My Take

I’m not surprised that Chez Piggy is a culinary icon in Kingston.  It appeals to those who enjoy a quiet and traditional dining environment.  I’m always amazed when I sit in a joint where foodies and seniors can co-exist.  I’m also impressed at the fact that, despite the late co-owner’s hall of fame induction, Chez Piggy doesn’t exploit the band. It’s not called the Lovin’ Spoonful (which is actually a cool name for a restaurant).  There are no cocktails called “She is still a mystery” or “Six O’Clock”.  Other than a modest picture by the T-shirt rack, there is no concert paraphernalia plastered all over the walls.  You leave with the impression that Zal wanted it this way.

The food is decent but a bit pricy.  The attempts at modernization are more along the lines of menu items additions like Vietnamese spring rolls and less about following current trends of modern cooking techniques.  It’s a bit of a refuge from the influx of bourbon houses, enotecas and restaurants named after their address.  My guess it’s the leading choice for a Queen’s student who needs to find a place to mooch a pricy dinner off their parents. As a result, it is a little sleepy.

In the end, Chez Piggy is like a concert from a band that hit their peak 30 years ago.  The crowd is diverse, the highlights are the old songs although there are a few ones thrown in and there is always a core group of fans who, despite the fact that the singer can’t hit the same octave as they could in the past, thinks the band can do no wrong.

Although it’s not a place I would flock to in Kingston, it’s not a place where I would say that I’m “Never Going Back”.

Chez Piggy Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Review: Breaking Bad at Carbon Bar

I finally got Netflix a few weeks ago. Part of the reason was to finally remove myself from the list of the 25 people who haven’t watched Breaking Bad. After watching a few episodes and watching it win at the Golden Globes, maybe I should pay homAge to the show that made chemistry cool again. Whether it’s the structural changes needed to denature the protein in an egg or the intangible spark which may exist with two people sitting across each other at a table, chemistry is an ingredient you can’t pull off the shelf. It can, however, be captured in those who understand and can embody the variables which may result in the sought outcome.  Just ask Walter White.

Carbon (the foundation of organic chemistry) is a new restaurant/lounge that has opened at the corner of Queen and Church. Owned by the Note Bene group, the website describes it as a place “where fun-loving aficionado’s, gourmands and bon vivants meet to share un-pretentious snacks, plates and platters delivered with impeccable hospitality in a space inspired by the storied pAst of a rock’n’roll discotheque, an upstart TV station and a media giant’s studio”. When you walk in, you’re not sure if you’re entering a dance club or a Moxie’s.  Smiling woman greet  you and offer to take your coat.  When you climb the few stairs and turn the corner you walk into “the space”.  It has dimensions that could double as Walter’s meth lab. It’s a roomy, square dining area with a big bar, an open kitchen and a combination of booths and tables. The ceilings are high and it’s decorated in a simple but attractive fashion.

From the bar, there’s a decent cocKtail list, a nice array of wine and a somewhat unimpressive list of cliche Beer.  I started with the Smokin’ Manhattan ($14), made with tobacco-infused Maker’s MArk, bitters and a couple of booze soaked cherries.  It was well made but the price put it on the upper limit of acceptable.

Smokin' Manhattan $14
Smokin’ Manhattan $14

The second drink was the Carbon bar Caesar ($16), made with tequila, chiLi, lime, clamato and a 37 spice rim.  It was surPrisingly unremarkable and nowhere worth the price.

Carbon Bar Caesar $16
Carbon Bar Caesar $16

The hit of the night seemed to be the Volstead which a few of my friends at the table ordered. Made with gin and Montenegro and flavoured with lemon, orange bitters and Cucumber, it’s a perfect summer drink that still holds it own during the winter months.

I ended with a Kensington brewing company Augusta ale which was one of the only draught beer worth drinking.

The menu is small plate and mainly focuses on the trenDy cuisine of the southern US with a spattering of favorites from other parts of the earth.  It’s always interesting going out to a restaurant with the concept of sharing when you’re with “peskies” (a generic term which includes the likes of  peScatarians, those with gluten intolerences and pescatarians with gluten intolerences).  The waiter was excellent.  He knew the menu cold.  For example, he identified there would be gluten in the soy sauce of the jerk cornish hen and in the sugar coating of the pecans in the celery, apple salad.

We sampled a number of dishes so I’ll be short but sweet:

Hot Mess ($11)-sweet Potato, cheese curds, Crema, pickled jalapeño, chopped brisket

It tastes like it sounds.  A well executed and modern Version of Canada’s iconic poutine.  Delicious.

Hot Mess $11
Hot Mess $11

Raw Salad ($12)– avocado, pear, radish, sHaved coconut,corn nuts, coriander, lime viNaigrette

Fresh, acidic and pRetty.  Definitely a sharable because it starts Snappy but can a bit boring after a Few bites.

Raw Salad $12
Raw Salad $12

Quezo de Cabeza ($13)- Fried suckling pig, pork ‘n’ beans, Hen’s egg, pickled Beets.

The perfectly cooked egg sat atop this childhood favorite.  It had great flavour although I wished the pork was fried a little more and was a little less fatty.

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Quezo de Cabeza $13

Blackened Sea Bass ($22)– yuCa, chili, lime, coriander, tomAtillo chutney

The tender bass was complimented with an array of flavours but the highlight was the tomatillo chutney.  A well balanced dish.

Sea Bass $22
Blackened Sea Bass $22

Jerk Cornish HeN ($18)- black eyed peas, Coconut milk, mango & papaya salsa

Although the chicken was moist, the seasoning was a little lack lustre. The dish had a uNiformly smoky flavour which could not be overcome by the timid salsa.

Jerk Cornish Hen $18
Jerk Cornish Hen $18

Oak-Fired Octopus ($21)- okra, sAusage, hominy coRn & lobster gumbo

All the components of gumbo with the addition of tender pieces of Octopus.  It worked.

Oak -Fired Octopus $21
Oak -Fired Octopus $21

Porcini and Grits ($19)- grits, sautéed porcini mushrooms, deep fried egg Yolk, crisp kale, huitlacoche dust (a type of corn fungus)

The table consensus was this was the best dish of the night.  The flavour was incredible but very rich so definitely recommend as a shared plate. The crispy kale was a great touch. It could have used  more mushrooms.  Great for the pEskie at your table as well.

Porcini n Grits $19
Porcini n Grits $19

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream ($9)- rice pudding, barberries, wild blueberries,candied sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spiked eggNog

Sparked a little controversy at the table.  The rice Pudding was average but the addition of the other ingredients pumped it up.  The ice cream was seasoned well with earthy spice and sweet pumpkin. I think warming the rice would have added to the overall experience.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9
Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9

Sorbets and Ice Creams ($3)– apple, lychee kombucha, buckthoRn, goat’s milk ice cream & Wild honey

A refreshing and delicious finish to the meal.  The buckthorn seemed to be the favorite. Was initially served with graham Crumbs but that didn’t work for the peskies so it was replaced quickly and without question.

Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)
Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)

My Take

Carbon is Note Bene’s response to the continued demand for casual eateries which serve good food instead of standard and water downed versions of foods that were popular two years ago. I think they succeeded. The cocktails are a bit pricy, especially the less than impressive caesar.  The beer selection is more trendy than it is good.  Otherwise, it’s a safe but well executed menu that was not shy on flavour.  The highlights were the porcini ‘n grits, octopus with gumbo and the sea bass (especially the tomatillo chutney). The service was incredible and environment (including the music) was current, hip and applicable to the diverse clientele scattered across the roomy  interior.  Like Breaking Bad, Carbon makes chemistry cool again. In this case, the chemistry is a mix of great food, courteous and intelligent service and a great environment.

The Carbon Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Little Italy/Portugal Village:Rock Lobster

As far as twitter goes, Rock Lobster is a busy community.  Every night I get numerous tweets and retweets from happy people raving about their recent experience. I must admit I was quite excited for a piece of the action. Walking through the door, I was looking for a place to happen and was greeted by three friendly, plaid wearing barkeeps who quickly sat me at the bar. Looking around, I felt like I was an extra in a Tragically Hip video.  Nostalgic Canadian paraphernalia  filled the walls and the menu followed suit, offering a near coast to coast menu.  It only made sense to salute the flag and partake in the cross country adventure.

Must

Nothing signifies the start a Canadian road trip like a classic caesar.  It followed all the rules including celery and steak spice with the luxury of half a lobster tail  for 12 bucks.  It wasn’t bland nor watery and didn’t require a fire in the hole warning either.  It was yummy and spicy and good.   The tail didn’t hurt either.

Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail
Classic Caesar with Lobster Tail

Ironically, the best item on the menu wasn’t lobster. A trip over the hundredth meridian offered a grilled flank steak  served with homemade hickory sticks, a soft yolked duck egg and a side of homemade tangy dipping sauce  for $14.  The steak was grilled to absolute perfection. The egg was served with a shiny, runny yellow which would trickle down onto the crispy and smoky version of delicious of the Canadian classic snack. Despite the richness of each of the ingredients it was far from a greasy jungle; I would describe it more as hearty small plate presented with skill and determination….and grace, too.

Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg
Flank Steak with Hickory Sticks and Duck Egg

I stayed out west for my second drink of the night. I ordered an “Iginla Fizz”, a  $10 modern spin on a rye and ginger.  It was simple but delicious. Maybe it was the drink itself or the fact that  I’ve always felt so hard done by as a Calgary  fan and drinking a cocktail named after the Flames captain in Leafs nation was final  and just retribution for the Gary Leeman/Doug Gilmour trade.

The "Iginla Fizz"
The “Iginla Fizz”

One of the showcases of Rock Lobster is a cooler displaying the restaurant’s namesake as well as other things born in the water.  The fresh PEI malpeque oysters drew my attention, especially at a price of two and a quarter each.  One of the bartenders pulled three out, shucked them and served with all the fixings including fresh horseradish she ground with a box grater right at the bar. It was a great offering  other than the mignonette sauce, which I found a little off. She didn’t know for sure what she regularly shucks in a shift  but figured she may do a 20o plus on a good night.

Rock Lobster Oysters
Rock Lobster Oysters

I was told the  lobster roll is the mainstay of the restaurant concept  itself. It had all the fireworks of the classic east coast sandwich.  Chunks of lobster were coated in a rich but not overbearing mayo and served on a fresh and lightly toasted roll. Normally served with fries and a McClure’s pickle, I asked if  they could sub the fries and they gladly doubled the pickle.  This may not sound that exciting, but these pickles have been considered some of the best in the business for a long time running.

Lobster Roll
Lobster Roll

Maybe

Rock Lobster’s Quebec contribution was a lobster poutine.  The fresh fries hit the mark, the cheese curds were authentic but the bisque gravy fell a bit short.  Although full of flavour, the bisque was a little scarce and  served luke warm which prevented the heart of the melt, a bit of a cardinal sin in the poutine world. I know it didn’t blow my mind but I couldn’t figure out if it left me yawning or snarling.

Lobster Poutine
Lobster Poutine

I have a confession.  One of the twitter feeds bragged about diners enjoying whale tails which left me wondering if this was a taboo spin on the Parkdale offal movement.  Much to my relief, the “whale tail” was instead a spin on the classic Canadian beaver tail pastry. It was a crispy and nicely presented, coated in cinnamon sugar and served on a chuck of tree with a shaker of maple sugar.  It came with a few irrelevant trickles of creme anglaise.  It was good enough but wasn’t too hard puttin’ down.

Whale Tail
Whale Tail

My Take

Rock Lobster has rapidly become a  lionized addition to the Ossington strip. The service was friendly, attentive and didn’t take forever.  I can’t explain the exact feeling, but it has a modern spirit that so many foodies crave  as much as the grub itself.  The ironic coupling of  extensive twitter hype with a certain degree of secrecy, the dark canuck ambiance and most importantly the solid execution of a cross-section of Canadian classics from hickory sticks to lobster tails define this eatery as a  pelagic pinnacle as opposed to a nautical disaster.

 

Rock Lobster on Urbanspoon