Fare..Eat..Ales Favourite Canadian Restaurants of 2014

This year features a steakhouse, a perennial favorite and a couple of new restaurants that have arrived with a splash.  In addition, there are a few veteran restaurants that show no intention of slowing down.

 

10. Wellington 529- Winnipeg, Manitoba

Maybe Winnipeg isn’t known as the Mecca of fine cuisine but I enjoy a good steakhouse.  Aside from what was likely the best steak I had all year, the old school service (including white lab coats) and decor made for a delicous and highly enjoyable dining experience.

9.  Carmen– Toronto

Carmen is one the better and most underrated tapas bars in Toronto.  One dish after another, whether traditional or with a twist, came out thoughtful, well executed and at a decent price point. In particular I still remember the blood sausage and the steak tartare. The service and ambiance were top notch as well.

8.  Pizza Libretto– Toronto

In the competitive world of thin crust pizza, Pizza Libretto is one of my favorites.  Service is good and everything from the anitpasto to the dessert is nicely executed.

7. Le Jambon Gros- Montreal

The perfect greasy spoon.  Although the quarters are tight, the vibe coupled with delightful and innovative grill top provisions makes this a stop for me everytime I’m in old Montreal.

6. Queen and Beaver– Toronto

This long standing British pub serves authentic fare including savory puddings, fish and chips, fine english cheeses and a number of snacks which makes other pubs look like amateurs.  Yes, the service can be a bit crusty at times but once you have a few cask ales in you it really doesn’t matter.

5.  Thoroughbred– Toronto

Although there was only a bar menu when I went here, it was an amazing experience. The owners gave me a tour of the chef’s table and soon to be dining room.  The food was fresh and innovative with a focus on vegetables.  The drinks are cleaver. I plan to return early in 2015 to see if my hunch about this place translates to the full menu.

4. Rasa– Toronto

I was probably most excited about the opening of this Food Dude’s industrial looking bricks and mortar location in 2014.  I wasn’t disappointed. Whether the regular menu items like root beer ribs or the mysterious fish board, the food was as creative as I expected.  The drink list was smart as well.  The service was as friendly as that from the food truck itself.

3. Richmond Station- Toronto

Richmond station is a perennial addition to the list.  Their system is simple; a small menu (including one of the best burgers in Toronto) to default to in the event the blackboard specials are either sold out or not to one’s liking.   To finish off the meal, Richmond Station has one of the most creative and visually stunning dessert menus in Toronto.

2. Maison Publique– Montreal

This fringy pub is quintessential Montreal.  The menu consists of sheets of paper written in French and hanging on a bulletin board. That said, the staff are more than helpful in making sure even the English enjoy a good meal.  With menu items like buccins (aka big snails) and seal mortadella, it’s almost a underground, taboo Anthony Bourdain type experience.  This ultimate foodie experience is enhanced by a good beer, cocktail and wine selection.

1. Whalesbone– Ottawa

Any restaurants that starts with a selection of a half dozen oysters and Kenny Rogers spinning on the turntable is good with me.  What follows is a small but impressive choice of draft and a small menu highlighted by fresh sea ingredients presented in a manner that is visually stunning.    The tight but comfortable quarters, great service, amazing vibe and innovative seafood based menu including  oysters served with one of the most impressive condiment carousels I’ve ever seen puts Whalesbone on top of the list for 2014.

 

 

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Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?…Probably at King and Shaw

One of the advantages of having younger siblings is the ability to watch some of the television shows that you might not normally watch without getting beat up by your friends. Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? is an example of one of these shows.  Carmen was a master villain  who directed her minions to steal world landmarks.  She dressed in a trench coat and a wide brimmed hat to disguise herself.  In the end, the villain would get caught by the astute contestants but Carmen would escape much to the dismay of the chief who was played by the late Lynne Thigpen.  Even though I was an older teenager, I did learn a lot from that show.  For example, it taught me that the Washington monument looked like a dildo and that Louvres is the one with the pyramid  in the courtyard.  In fact, I may have gotten an ‘A’ in geography because of that shifty laddie.

I have been keen to try Carmen since it replaced the space along Queen street that Caju used to occupy.  Following  the blueprint of Cava and Patria, it focuses on Spanish inspired tapas except in this case adds a few twists and turns here and there. We arrived at around seven to a quarter-full restaurant so getting a seat didn’t seem a problem.  By 730, however, the place was full so I considered us afortunado that we got a seat.

Carmen has an impressive cocktail menu with a focus mainly on bourbon and tequila.  I started with the Almodovar  ($14) which was Bourbon, triple sec, lime, mint and  olive oil.  It was nice summer cocktail with fresh flavours which matched the acid and fattiness in some of the early dishes. Loved the olive oil.

Matador $14
Almodovar $14

 

There were a small group of us, so we ordered a docena of dishes to try the array of flavours that Carmen offered.

1. Pulpo Vinagretta ($8)

A cross between ceviche and an antipasto .The acid is sherry vinegar instead of lime and plenty of olive oil is used. Served with fresh bread, it was a delicious start to the meal.

Pulpo (Octopus)
Pulpo (Octopus) Vinagretta $8

2. Jicama con Aguacate  ($8)

More Mexican than Spanish, these little morsels were a tasty bite of fresh flavours. I have a jicama fetish so I thought they were just delicious.

Jicama
Jicama con Aguacate $7

3. Marinated Olives ($4)

I’m not an olive fan but based on the feedback from the table and the visibly appealing  presentation of different sizes and colours of this popular fruit, I’d say it was a good spent for four bucks.

Olives
Marinated Olives $4

4. Ribeye Pintxos ($14)

A delicious take on these Spanish snacks.  The amount of beef was a little stingy but attractive and well prepared.

Ribeye Pintoxes
Ribeye Pintxos $14

5. Carne Tartara ($12)

Hardly a traditional Spanish dish, beef tartare is a Toronto restaurant staple.  This one compares well to the others in the area.  Pickled ramps and cucumber accessorize the beef along an in-shell quail egg sitting atop it.

Tartar
Carne Tartara $12

6. Patatas Bravas ($7)

These were a true representation of one of Spain’s most recognized dishes.  Slightly sweet and spicy sauce was slathered atop a generous plate of crispy potatoes and finished with streams of aioli.  Very enjoyable.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $7

7.  Crispy bread, fresh tomato spread and manchego cheese ($6)

Nicely presented, fresh, simple and authentic, this dish was a pleasant facsimile of the homeland favorite.

Crispy Bread with Tomato and Manchego Cheese
Crispy Bread, Fresh Tomato and Manchego Cheese $6

8. Pork Tenderloin

A piquant sauce beneath slices of nicely cooked pork tenderloin and topped with manchego cheese, this dish was simple but delicious.

Pork Tenderloin
Pork Tenderloin $10

9. Blood Sausage

Probably the funkiest dish on the menu, I enjoyed the nicely seasoned sausage covered in melted cheese.  Surprisingly, blood sausage is quite a universal dish but I think very few of those cultures top it with cheese like you would escargot or nachos.

Blood Sausage
Blood Sausage $13

10. Quail

The versatile (and foodie friendly) bird was served with flavours including olive and almond. It was a well executed dish.

Quail
Quail $12

11.  Galletas ($2.50 each) and Helado ($6)

I suppose you could call this the Spanish version of cookies and ice cream.  Normally served  separately, we decided on these as small and sweet ways to end the meal.   No complaints.  The cookies were moist and flavourful and not over sweet despite the use of dulce de leche and the rhubarb ice cream was a tart but enjoyable finish to the evening.

Galletas $2.50 each
Galletas $2.50 each
Carmen Ice Cream
Helado $6

My Take

Carmen opened in the midst of the Spanish invasion and before the explosion of the small plate phenomenon in Toronto. It sticks to both the blueprint of traditional tapas with dishes like Patatas Bravas and Ribeye Pintxos but also offers  “vanguardia” dishes with fusion concepts including Mexico and the Middle East.   All in all, the food was above average.  The vibe was a little quieter than some of the other eateries in the area which made for an enjoyable night of discussion instead of trying to speak over the bellowing voices of the in-house music. I didn’t see Vic the Slick , Patty Larceny or any of the other minions associated with the show attempting to steal silverware or the large painting of a woman (who I presume might be Carmen) off the wall. However, I thought I might have seen Carmen Sandiego herself lurking around the shadows of restaurant…but then again, maybe it was just Joanne Kates.

 

Carmen on Urbanspoon