De Niro’s Pad, Homicidal Snowplows and Psychoanalysis at Rino’s Kitchen

I love Windsor.  I’ve mentioned before it reminds me of my hometown of Sudbury. Although it will probably never be part of  a conversation about  the best dining destinations in Canada, Windsor has quietly evolved into a diverse and vibrant culinary locale. Driven by a number of mom/pop or brother/sister joints, one can choose almost anything.   If you’re in the mood for a family style joint, you can hit the Lumberjack’s salad bar or order Penalty Box’s chicken delight. Food Network junkies can hit a number of joints visited by John Catucci on You Gotta Eat Here.  If you are in the mood for ethnic food, there is fantastic Italian along Erie Street and great Thai, Lebanese and even Ethiopian scattered throughout the city.  If you are still stuck you can hop onto Windsor Eats, an impressive website which provides up to date information on local restaurants and even offers tours which highlights local fare.

What makes things even better are the uncontrolled circumstances which usually occur involving a trip to Windsor.  It’s never simply a go to a restaurant, eat and leave experience.  There are always a few things which happen along the way that makes things stranger than fiction.  Take my recent visit for example.

I left the hospital on my way to a meeting with two colleagues; one works with my company and the other is a local doctor. The latter  had suggested we hit an Italian cafe so we can experience Erie Street.  Once I turned onto the street, we pulled over in front the first cafe we found that looked open.  I’m reluctant to name it over fear for my car tires and general well-being. Upon entry, the people in the place scattered, abandoning any card games or whatever else was going on.  The cafe basically consisted of a small bar, a huge espresso machine and an empty gelato bar with a smaller ice cream cooler beside it which was housing three or four flavours.  Looking around I saw a bunch of Italian guys, a picture of Robert De Niro (who apparently visited during Superbowl in Detroit) and an aged and framed oil painting of an Italian man who I have yet to identify.  I think I even saw the eyes follow me  as I walked around the place. A large television was showing Grey’s Anatomy much to the pleasure of a few of the patrons.  Things seemed to settle down once they figured out we weren’t cops and we were able to order.  Given it was about 10 degrees below zero, I ordered a decaf Americano and my work colleague ordered a latte.  The doctor, on the other hand, ordered a chocolate gelato on a waffle cone and proceeded to eat it like a happy 12 year old child.  While we waited, an old Italian guy walked out of the washroom.  He was either hiding in there after thinking a sting was going down or maybe he just needed to use the facilities but his reaction was nothing short of priceless.  I should point out that my colleague is an attractive blond woman whose likes probably haven’t stepped foot in that cafe for 30 years.  His jaw hit the floor like a Warner Brother’s character and he started speaking in tongues.  The woman behind the espresso machine just told him to go sit down.  He complied but continued to mutter drunken Italian nonsense in our direction for the remainder of the visit.  In between bites of chocolate, the doctor suggested that I should probably switch chairs so my back wasn’t facing the front door.   So, with Dr. Dreamy on the tube, a smiling De Niro on the wall and a bunch of old Italian guys (including the paisan in the oil painting) staring at us, we had our meeting, finished our coffees (and gelato of course) and scurried out.

After we dropped him off we decided to grab a bite.  Not only was is cold but it was starting to snow.  I should take this opportunity to point out something about Windsor; they don’t like snow.  In fact, they would have no problem declaring a state of emergency once enough snow falls to erect a  Tyrion Lannister snowman.  So, with nothing more than a centimeter of snow on the ground, out came the plows.  I was driving down one of the many one way streets and a saw the plow behind me.  I was immediately reminded of  a scene from 1986’s Maximum Overdrive.  The only thing missing was the Green Goblin face.  The homicidal plow approached at a feverish pace, sending sparks instead of snow ten feet into the air. I turned onto another street the minute I had a chance, took a deep breath and realized that my life had now been threatened  twice in the same evening.

We eventually decided on dinner at Rino’s kitchen. Rino’s encourages you to “Taste the finest Essex County has to offer. Farm to table at its best in a relaxed pub atmosphere.”  It was also recently featured on an episode of “You Gotta Eat Here”. At this point I should point out the fact that, like most cities, there is a subset of Windsor’s population who thinks they are hipsters.  The last time I came to Rino’s there were a table of clowns that looked more like the cast of Scorpion  than self-proclaimed food aficionados. To be a good hipster you really have to be a self-righteous asshole.  Just wearing the plaid and sitting farm to table joint in a small, blue collar city is not enough.

Luckily, hipsters were absent on this evening. Instead, we arrived on the tail end of an art show.  Small pictures were hanging all over the place.  In fact, we switched tables so as not to get in the way of the viewing audience.  I did have a look at some of the pictures and my colleague, with her psychology background, had commented that most of them looked like Rorschach blots.  I had to agree and felt tempted to lay down on the bench I was sitting on.  One of them looked like De Niro pointing a gun at me.  Another looked like the Green Goblin. Asa a result, I quickly ordered on of the four or five Ontario pints available on tap.

The menu offers all sorts of choices ranging from seasonal salads to protein laden mains.  I’m always a fan of house-cured meats, so we started with the charcuterie plate for $15.  Two types of meat (salami and coppa) and cheese (asiago and pecorino) were served along with roasted red peppers and bread.  The quality of the ingredients were quite good although it would have been nice to have some mustard or other condiments along side.  I would have also liked to see something like aged Ontario cheddars available “on board”.

Charcuterie $15
Charcuterie $15

As tempted as I was to order the signature pork and waffles, the pleasant waitress talked me into the seasonal oxtail stew served atop potato mash ($17).  The stew was filled with tender meat and carrots and served in a hearty portion with more carrots on the side.  It was a lot of carrots. Maybe a few green vegetables would have been better. In addition to a good dose of carotene, it was a delicious dish which was seasoned well.

Oxtail Stew $17
Oxtail Stew $17

They offered an apple crisp and a pumpkin walnut cheesecake for dessert.  I ordered the latter. Pumpkin and walnut go well together and the cheesecake was not overly sweet or heavy.  I think the icing sugar was a fitting garnish for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s kind of a f#ck you to the hipster movement who would likely reference the fact if wasn’t 2003 and then suggest a ground cherry as a more appropriate condiment.  Second, it’s the perfect example of a small town, blue collar adaption of the farm to table concept  in  a relaxed pub environment.

Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7
Pumpkin Walnut Cheesecake $7

 My Take

In the span of a few hours, I escaped a scene from a Robert De Niro movie, outran a homicidal snowplow and got psychoanalyzed by the works of a struggling Windsor artist.  I also ate a decent meal at a restaurant which adheres to farm to table principles from charcuterie to dessert without the associated urban pretension.   You won’t find mason jars or the unnecessary yet abundant use of radishes at Rino’s. In fact, the menu offers trendy, tasty and reasonably priced choices without compromising portion sizes at the expense of making things look pretty.  Ya, I love Windsor…with icing sugar on top.

Rino's Kitchen & Ale House on Urbanspoon

 

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:Little Italy:Bestellen

A colleague of mine asked me a simple question the other day.  “Where can I get a good steak in Toronto?”.  There seems to be a few answers:

1.  A steak house with cuts of beef  as pricy as buying half a heifer at an auction not to mention the fact that the creamed spinach is extra.

2.  A chain offering AAA cut steak which inevitably ends up being generic like the rest of the menu.

3.  A few bistros which pair it with frites and douse it in some kind of butter so they can call it French cuisine.

This got me thinking about my recent visit to Bestellen and why it didn’t come top of mind.  The showcase of the rather large dining room is a transparent meat locker housing steaks of all shapes and sizes. One of the features is a $98, 32 oz steak with marrow and sides. Otherwise, they offer a daily cut in the $30 range. Add the fact it’s the brain child of Top Chef contestant Rob Rossi and it sounds like a slam dunk, right?

Must

You can’t go wrong with “buck a shuck” oysters, which  were fresh and addictive.  Although not served with fancy mignonette, they had the essentials; a lemon wedge, horseradish and a bottle of Tabasco.

Buck a Shuck Oysters
Buck a Shuck Oysters

The “toad in the hole” was a current spin on a old favorite.  The batter had a yorkie lightness which surrounded dense and delicious black pudding.  The eggs were a good medium to blend the contrasting textures and flavours.  The spattering of scallions added a bit of colour and and freshness.

Toad in the Hole $15
Toad in the Hole $15

Opting for the small charcuterie option for $13, I was treated to 3 house-made meats complete with a few pickles, some mustard and some toasted bread  drenched in olive oil which was absolutely fantastic.  The meats themselves were thinly sliced and cured beautifully. It was a pleasure to eat.

Charcuterie- Half Order $13
Charcuterie- Half Order $13

Maybe

Although a little skimpy on the condiments, the steak tartare was delicious. Half a quail egg and a few jalapenos were nothing more than decorations.  The chips were alright but weren’t the tastiest vehicle for scooping the tender meat.

Steak Tartare $14
Steak Tartare $14

Why do I order deviled eggs in a restaurant?  They were tasty enough  but not worth 6 buck and shuck oysters (see picture above…with the charcuterie).

The Budino dessert and olive oil cake were  reasonably priced at $7 and a good example of Rob Rossi’s Italian heritage although they did not elevate to the level of Lutheran grace.   The ice cream was splendid, an apparent reflection of a new machine just installed in the kitchen.

Budino and Olive Oil Cake ($7)
Budino and Olive Oil Cake ($7 each)

Mundane

On this particular night, the feature was flank steak for $28. I envisioned a slice of a magical beast taken from the locker adorning the centre of the restaurant.  Instead I received a few overcooked slices of tough, overdone meat served on a rather bland puree. Even the presentation was rather lame. It looked a bit like leftovers.

Flank Steak $28
Flank Steak $28

Given it wasn’t a really busy night, the service was rather slow.  The wine list is set up by offering $45, $65 and $85 bottles.  I opted for a mediocre Pigeoulet Provence at the middle price.  The waiter did not seem overly concerned that I didn’t enjoy it, assuring me it was “the type of grape”.

My Take

Bestellen is a German named pseudo-steakhouse  run by an Italian on the edge of Little Italy. It’s atypically large compared to other eateries in the area, so one can argue it lacks a bit of coziness, especially if it’s not busy.  It has a bistro feel in the front, with tall, wooden tables and a window view.  Toward the back is an open kitchen with long, communal seating for larger parties.  The above mentioned meat locker divides the two concepts.

At the time, the menu offered a spattering of cultures but since, the menu has evolved and now seems to offer at whole lot of Italy,  minus the ubiquitous pizza and pasta peppering the rest of College street.  The toad in the hole and deviled eggs has disappeared, leaving  polenta, octopus and fritto misto on the forefront.   A little over a year ago, the Globe and Mail review referred to Bestellen as a steak house.  Yes, you can get a $100 steak with all the fixings but the daily cut was disappointing. It’s a bit of a tease that you’re 15 feet away from tenderloins, porterhouses and skirt steaks but have no access to most of the choices on a nightly basis.

I can sum up Bestellen with one word…awkward. Traveling  to the suburbs of Little Italy for buck a shuck oysters but questionable service and suboptimal steak leaves me undecided.  Maybe delving into a suckling pig or indulging on a  full charcuterie plate would make me feel better. As far as recommendations for my colleagues…I suggested the following advice by Buddy Black and Leroy Van Dyke:

Forty-five dollar bidja now, fifty dollar fifty wouldja make it fifty biddle
Onna fifty dolla fifty dolla. Wouldja gimme fifty, wouldja gimme fifty dolla
Bill? I gotta fifty dolla bidja now, five, wouldja biddle onna fifty-five,
Biddle onna fifty-five, fifty-five. Who’s gonna bitta the fifty five dollar
Bill?

-The Auctioneer (1956)

Bestellen on Urbanspoon