The Ethnic Flare of the 905: Taking the Burger out of Suburgatory

After a longer than normal (and probably not noticeable) absence, I figure it’s time to jump on the blogging band wagon again.  Part of my absence can be explained by the unbelievable amount of time it takes to move and the post-relocation stress disorder (PRSD) that lingers for months after. Although this resulted in many days with a spoiled appetite, I have managed to work my way out to a few places during this period.

It seems I’ve been eating in Toronto’s burbs a little more recently lately. Maybe it’s correlated to the fact that,  although I didn’t move far in London, I am on a quieter “suburban” crescent now as opposed to the busy “urban” street I used to live on.  More likely, I’ve just been in hanging more in the 905 area. As part of these experiences, I have noticed that there are advantages to eating outside of the city.

1. Hipsters are few and far between. Sure, there are suburban hipsters (substers) which pop up here and there but for the most part they are an easier breed to deal with.  Substers usually possess less angst and are more likely to have mom tattooed on their upper arms as opposed to roman numerals or  a recreation of Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour dreamcoat all over them.

2. Parking is a much easier and cheaper. This may be an issue, however, if the main reason for the night out is to get sloppy drunk. Uber may be a little scattered and transit is a lot less predictable so and expensive cab ride home may be in the works. That said, the price of a cocktail seems to drop by about $5 once you are north of the 401 so it may justify the extra $15 you’ll need to spend to get home.

3. There are amazing pockets of ethnic food in many of Toronto’s suburbs which luckily offset the numerous chains which populate the major streets and commercial areas within the 905. I apologize in advance if there is any disappointment in the fact that there won’t be a Jack Astor’s review as part of this post although I do hear their chicken fingers made in-house are divine and pair beautifully with a barefoot chardonnay.

In particular, I have recently spend some time in the Markham area and hit a quadruple eateries none of which are owned by Cara foods:

1. Tapagria

While the industrial themed small plate movement was taking over the 416, Tapagria quietly opened in the 905 focusing on Spanish tapas with a Markham twist (ie. located in a strip mall).  The menu was surprisingly authentic, complete with traditional favorites such as paella, pintxo and Iberian ham. We stuck with an array of bites including pan con tomate, smoked eggplant pintxo, mushroom croquettes, skirt steak, grilled calamari and a cheese board (including a bit of manchego) which we washed down with a decent Tempranillo. Generally speaking, the dishes were acceptably true to form, attempting to focus on quality ingredients whenever possible. Sure, it’s not la rambla, but despite a bit of suburban modification, I’m not sure it’s much less authentic than some of the other tapas joints that have popped up all over downtown. Plus, it would save a trip if you are in the area anyway and don’t want to venture down the always crowded highways.

2. Congee Queen

Congee queen is well-established Chinese eatery with half a dozen locations scattered across the north of the GTA. Unlike Tapagria, the authenticity does not lie in the food alone, but in the overall experience especially given the fact I was the token white guy in the whole place. Trolleys busily trek back and forth carrying piles of food from the extensive menu. I’ve been a couple of times. The first time I went for an early lunch so one of the 40 plus options of the namesake dish made sense. I opted for the abalone clam and chicken which I  paired with some rice rolls; a combination would could easily replace an oral glucose tolerance test for the diagnosis of diabetes. That said, there is something about a simple bowl of rice porridge that was more mystical than it should be. The second time I went for dinner and sampled an array of dishes including the shrimp wonton soup, tiger shrimp and mango salad and snowpea leaf with king mushroom. The food is good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable.

3. Ding Tai Fung

Dim sum and dumplings are music to my ears and another assault on my beta cell capacity. If you’re not on the Spadina strip in urban Toronto, then Ding Tai Fung is super suburban surrogate. It’s located in the First Markham place, which is the epitome of Toronto’s 905 experience. Where else can you can circle for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, pop into the Home Outfitters for some bed sheets and finish the experience with a bubble tea or some stinky tofu from the Mei Nung Beef Noodle House. Back to Ding Tai Fung: the food was above average highlighted by the incredible Shanghai wontons with spicy sauce and soup dumplings. The only minor disappointment were the gyoza dumplings which were enormous but a little too doughy as opposed to crispy.

4. Shanghai Shikumen Fine Cuisine

Also located in the First Markham place complex, I went not only as the token white guy at the table, but the token white guy in the whole restaurant. I luckily had some help trying to decipher the hundreds of available items and ended up with a variety of dishes which represented a Shanghai experience and pushed the envelope just a little. Menu items included braised wheat gluten (which is somewhat satisfying for reasons other than taste),xiaolongbao (dumplings), jellyfish (which I’ve concluded I’m not fond of), ribs and a few soups. In particular, the spicy soup (similar to mapo doufu) was an interesting experience. It’s characterized by tongue numbing peppercorns which seemed a bit of an initiation but my Asian table mates (little did they know I own not one but two buffalo wild wings champions shirts for eating 10 blazin’ wings in less than 5 minutes…insert evil laugh). I must admit it was a bit euphoric to have one of your senses temporarily removed. The other soup was Jiu Niang (or maybe a variation) which is a fermented rice soup with a level of booze that may just fall short of inducing red faces in those with alcohol dehydrogenase deficiencies (which clearing a phenotypically does not include me).

My Take

Ok, I really didn’t move to the burbs but I can still draw parallels between busy street chaos/calm crescent living and urban vs suburban dining. Yes, the latter can be a little slow and boring but there are elements of excitement (and perhaps modernization) here and there. It’s true enough that many of the aforementioned Asian eateries are nothing new but in some cases there is an overall shift towards having restaurants in the 905 reflecting a multitude of cultures in ways more than shrimp tacos at Kelsey’s. Perhaps one advantage is these places don’t have to pretend or feel pressure to adhering to authenticity dictated by foodie culture. One can enjoy an authentic dumpling without being draped in silk tapestries or having to listen to some spiel about the chef’s inspiration while on a pilgrimage along the Great Wall. Instead, you just get decent food unapologetically thrown down like on the table like a suburban parent running late for hockey practice or piano class.

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Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Salt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jogging and Benching to Burn off Ice Cream and Grilled Cheese in Cincinnati

While researching Cincinnati’s scene, I came across an article from Cincinnati’s travel site telling me about 5 things to do for under $5.  They included observation towers, castles and conservatories  but I was particularly interested in food related activities which included  Graeter’s ice cream and Tom and Chee grilled cheese.

Graeter’s was started by the family with the same name in Cincinnati in 1870.  Since then, it has grown into a 50 million dollar enterprise with around 50 stores and numerous celebrity endorsements.  Since it was an above average night from a temperature perspective, the Over the Rhine location was buzzing.  Normally I’m a sloth when it comes to ice cream choices but the website instructed me to indulge in the black raspberry chocolate chip, their signature and best-selling flavour.  It was well worth a few bucks highlighted by big chunks of dark chocolate mixed within the rich and not sickly sweet raspberry ice cream.

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Black Raspberry and Chocolate Ice Cream

Graeter's Ice Cream Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Tom and Chee’s started in a tent in downtown Cincinnati. Short for Tomato and Cheese, this grilled cheese eatery has steadily grown in the Midwest boosted by endorsements from a couple of  Shark Tank investors as well as a pre-weight loss Adam Richman on man versus food nation. It’s  smart concept for a number of reasons.  One, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese and better yet 16 different ones?  Two, they have a great gimmick with their spin on this classic; using a donut instead of bread with almost 10 different filling combinations. Three, the restaurant decor is fun, fresh and clean.  Bright red and yellow colours highlight the simple interior.

 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I opted for the same item as Adam…the Blueberry Bleu consisting of blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone within a donut.  It certainly removed the stigma that a grilled cheese is a simple, handheld American snack. This one needed a knife and fork. It was salty and sweet and crunchy and smooth with every bite.  I loved the abundant blue cheese against the marscarpone and the blueberry compote was excellent.

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Blueberry Blue Donut Grilled Cheese Donut (may be a little more than 5 bucks)

Tom+Chee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I made up a few of my own cheap excursions that didn’t involve any eats.  For example, I took a 6k jog and was able to hit three bridges, two states, two rivers and pass both an NFL stadium and an MLB stadium.  Speaking of the latter, the Great American Ballpark is a spectacle. The outside has a recreation of an infield complete with a pitcher, catcher, batter and base runner. The entrance to the stadium bring you into the top of stadium meaning you have to walk down instead of up to get to your seat.

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Johnny Bench Statue Outside the Great American Ballpark

My Take

I’m always interested in the snack scene of a city as much as I am the James Beard nominees or triple D destinations.  In the case of Cincinnati, some of the highlights include an ice cream shop nearly 150 years old and a grilled cheese joint in its infancy.  Both are cheap indulges you can help burn off with a jog through a couple of states or a stroll through a modern ballpark which is the centrepiece of an interesting midwest American city.

 

 

Araxi at Whistler: Cougar Milk, Penticton Cheese and Memories of Hell’s Kitchen

Let me start by saying I’m not a skier. Growing up in Sudbury, we certainly had the weather for it but the once majestic mountains of the Canadian Shield  have long since eroded to more minuscule bumps, limiting any chance of maximizing 6000 foot drops. As a result, there was no ski scene other than Adanac mountain with its’ six runs and 239 ft vertical or cross country tracks near Laurentian university.

In addition, I get little enjoyment at the thought of lugging copious amounts of equipment to a crowded resort only to dress up, wait in line for a lift and let gravity pull me down a run named Cougar Milk just to end up at the point I started.  Instead, I’m more than happy to sit in the bar and provide moral support although I do feel somewhat guilty about indulging in the apres menu when I didn’t do any of the work. Maybe this is why the Whistler ski scene bugs me so much.  Don’t get me wrong…the scenery is absolutely beautiful but it is somewhat tainted by the aberrant behavior of the town’s residents and visitors.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Nobody looks cool walking in ski boots- Ski boots are for skiing and not walking.  Regardless of your gait or corresponding wardrobe, people walking around hotel lobby’s wearing boots look more foolish that a guy trying to run in high heels as part of a fundraiser.   If you’re done skiing, take your boots off.
  2. Accents are cool unless you make them up- Whistler draws youth from around the world, especially Australia and New Zealand.  Many people find such accents cute or even sexy…unless you don’t really have one. Hanging with a few Aussies for a couple of weeks doesn’t entitle you to start speaking like them.  Accents aren’t viruses..you just don’t catch one.  In addition, making up an accent to increase your hill cred is stupid; it didn’t work for Madonna it sure as hell won’t work for you.
  3. It’s evident there aren’t an abundance of salons in the village- You can get almost anything in Whistler Village…except a haircut.  According to the map, there are a few places but most people don’t seem to use them.  Sure, chronic helmet head is inevitable in such an environment, but allowing your hair to be a refuge for alpine wildlife is taking it a step too far.
  4. Bathrobes are called bathrobes for an reason.  They aren’t called restaurant robes, lobby robes or bar robes.  If you want to drink wine in a bathrobe, use your minibar.  I don’t need to see your post-pedicured feet stuffed in a pair of disposable slippers or have to witness a wardrobe malfunction because you forgot the only thing holding you man or lady parts in place is a velour belt.
  5. Weed is technically still illegal in BC- Regardless of time of day, it is almost impossible to take a stroll through the village without wafting skunky smells here and there.  Although Whistler is far from immune to wildlife, I’m sure the smells are not the results of stinky mammals….well at least not the ones with a white stripe and fur….oh wait…and four legs.

The dining scene in Whistler is a mishmash of aristocratic eateries, snack bars, beer havens and a few very recognizable franchises such as KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s.  I spent most of the time at the hotel for work functions, but I did have the opportunity to go to Araxi for dinner one night. Araxi is a fine dining establishment which gained national attention when it was announced the destination of the winner of the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen.  Dave Levey, best remembered for breaking his arm while washing a fire truck, was the eventual winner.  Rumour has it he was treated like a glorified line cook and left shortly after the 2010 winter Olympics.  In 2014, he was reported arrested as part of a drug bust in New Jersey (perhaps he thought he was still in Whister). Araxi, on the other hand, has continued to flourish under long time head chef James Walt.

I started with a Cuckoo’s calling cocktail, presumably named after the Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling crime novel which is funny because the only bourbons named in that novel are the cookies which are most recognizable as the long brown ones in a box of Peak Frean assorted creme that you only eat once the good ones are gone.  The drink had many of my favorite cocktail flavours including bacon infused bourbon, jalapeno, thyme, lemon and bitters.  The smoky flavour was prevalent but not overwhelming  and the rest of the flavours blended together well.

araxi cocktail
Cuckoo’s Calling $13.50

Araxi features an oyster bar and a small but diverse choice of starters and mains.  Since I rarely have an opportunity to indulge in fresh west coast oysters, I was happy to order a half dozen (three each of Zen and Joyce Point from coastal British Columbia).  They were shucked nicely and served with traditional condiments (fresh horseradish and lemon) and a spectacular mignonette.

araxi oysters
Oysters ($3-$3.50) each

A few of us also split a  Vancouver Island beef tartare tossed with Peruvian chilies, yuzu, local sweet peppers and snipped chives, spiced vegetable chips and arugula and topped with a quail egg.  It was smallish but the ingredients were in perfect proportion and  delivered fresh and delicate flavours with the right amount of heat and seasoning.

araxi tartare
Vancouver Beef Tartare $19.50

For the main I opted for the Quebec rabbit stuffed with slow cooked pork jowl with carrot puree, roasted carrots, sauteed brussel sprouts and grainy mustard vinaigrette.  It didn’t dawn on me on first but I thought afterwards it was rather strange to have a dish with rabbit and carrots together but once I tried the puree, any thoughts related to this food chain faux pas quickly hopped out of my head. It was fantastic.  The rabbit with the pork was incredible and reminded me of a two-tiered and  upscale M&M chicken tornado my mom used to make. The sprouts and carrots were a nice al dente.

araxi rabbit
Quebec Rabbit $36.50

For desert, I decided on a cheese course featuring a mix of offerings from local, Canadian and Italy sources.  I’ve tried a few such as the delicious Benedictin Bleu from Quebec and P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar before, but although not normally a huge fan of the softies, the Poplar Grove double cream camembert from Penticton was the star.  In addition to the decedent taste,  its glistening interior was visually stunning. The fig compote was unbelievably good as well.

araxi cheese
Cheese Plate $23.50 for 5 cheeses (a little more for the extra)

My Take

Whistler draws thousands of annual guests ranging from novice skiers to village wondering orophobic tourists.  As a result, the variety of shops and eateries is quite diverse.  Whether it’s an urban taco bar or a swanky sit down, there is no shortage of choices.  Araxi is one of the most recognized of the latter and lived up to its long standing reputation although at resort prices. Whether it’s untamed hair or an affinity for the maryjane, just remember what happens in Whistler should stay in Whistler…just ask the winner of  Hell’s Kitchen six.

Araxi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

King Street 2.0: Barhop

I’ve realized that I have done a number of second visits to restaurants along King street so far this year.  Since it has been some time since I’ve been to or reviewed these places, I figured it would be prudent to update my experiences.  Let’s start with Barhop.

Both the staff and many of the patrons at Barhop are what I refer to as “hopsters”.  Hopsters fall under the same genus as hipsters but they differ in order in that their angst is geared toward those who don’t appreciate the fine art of brewing. My first experience with hopsters was almost 20 years ago at C’est What?, a brewpub on Front Street.  I remember watching people come in and order a Canadian or a Blue only to be scoffed at by the staff followed by a stern lecture pointing out that you can’t order a macrobrew here. At the time, I thought it was quiet humourous and chuckled under my breath at the unsuspecting fools.

Barhop has carried on the hopster tradition but has adapted it to 2015.  Even with a decent knowledge of beer, there is no guarantee you will receive prompt and/or courteous service. I dropped in one night only to sit there for 10 minutes without so much as an acknowledgment so I left.  I returned a second time and it was equally as busy but this time I got a rail seat and at least an offer of a drink.  It goes without saying that the beer selection is amazing.  Most of the draft choices are local brews including side launch, KLB, Amsterdam, Indie Ale House, Sawdust city etc. They also have a few of their own branded pints including a very good nitro ESB.  They also have rare brews, table bottles and all sorts of other delights.

From a food perspective, the menu is exactly what you would expect; bar food with a gastropub twist. I only had a few snacks since I was grabbing dinner later.  These pictures are brutal but I wanted to minimize the use of the flash so as not to disturb the hopsters as they began their nocturnal ritual.  The olives and marinated cheese ($13) were served with grilled bread. I thought the cheese was a clever dish and a bit of a deviation from the normal cheese plates served in the area.  The homemade jerky ($9) was served with a bourbon bacon jam.  I must say this the first time I’ve ever eaten jerky with jam.  I won’t say there was synergy in the combined flavours but I think the jam made the jerky, which was quite dry (as is meant to be) a little easier to chew.  The fried pickles served with ranch ($9) hit the mark and were comparable to other places from both a taste and price perspective.

My Take

The original microbrew movement was somewhat quashed by the realization of international conglomerates that microbrews  posed a threat to their bottom line. This resulted in the purchase and/or suppression of many a fine beer.  Creemore, for example, was purchased by Molson (who is owned by Coors’) in 2005 and to this day has been disguised as a microbrewery.  Both Alexander Keith’s and Rickard’s stay at arms length from their owners (Anheuser-Busch and  Molson Coors Brewing respectively) and promote family values, tradition and other moral lessons.

Luckily, this decade has seen a return to the art of authentic craft brewing. Barhop was one of the first restaurants to jump on the resurgence of the true microbrewery movement in Ontario.  With it comes the hopster attitude and a menu which tries to match the needs of their beer swilling patrons.  It’s crowded, they don’t take reservations and the service can be inconsistent but if you want a good pint in the entertainment district, this is your best bet….just don’t order a bud.

Click to add a blog post for Bar Hop on Zomato

Tinder Surprises and Scenes from the Red Wedding while Bymark Hits the Mark

My job allows me to attend a number of group dinners.  I’m often reluctant to write reviews of these experiences since they are a bit artificial and may not apply to somebody  looking to grab dinner for two on a Saturday night.  That said, I imagine smooth execution of a delicious dinner for 100 people would speak highly of the quality of the food and the service.  This was the case during a recent visit to Bymark. I wasn’t involved in planning this dinner so I can’t comment on the price per head as part of this review.

I’m used to standard set menus which offer soup or salad as a starter, fish, chicken or steak as he entree and some dessert which usually includes a cheesecake and something chocolaty.   Bymark’s options blew my mind.  There were five starters that included butter braised lobster poutine, fois gras, yellow fin tuna with yuzu, buffalo mozzerella and mixed greens. I sat staring blankly at the menu as I had to reprogram my brain think outside the soup/salad binary code I’m so used to.  I’ve been in a fish mood lately and I’m quite sure “yuzu” is Japanese for “tasty little bastard”, so I went for the tuna.  It was seared and served beautifully .  I would have liked a bit more of both heat and acid to tear into the richness of the tuna but it was fresh and clean and the pop from the odd ginger crisp was memorable.

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls
Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls

My colleague opted for the lobster poutine.  It was a modest portion served on a circular lobster shell and topped with bernaise sauce.  I think I saw him cry a little bit.  I managed to score a few frites and thought it  was greasy sweetness…literally and figuratively.  I cried a little too.

Butter Braised Lobster Poutine
Butter Braised Lobster Poutine

Another colleague of mine from Quebec stuck to her roots and ordered the fois gras.  As a disclaimer, I am not wacky over fois gras.  I enjoy a think slice of torchon as opposed to a hunk of liver on a plate.  This appetizer was the latter.  Maybe it was the garnish which was a bile-looking sage puree coupled with a bloody looking compote and swimming in a pool chocolate jus. It might have been the fact that the fois gras itself was not served cooked throughout. Either way,  it looked like aftermath of the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones.  Since I am not a savage medieval warrior or Hannibal Lecter, it wasn’t my thing and wouldn’t have been any better even  if there were a few fava beans thrown on the plate.

Fois Gras and Sage Eclair
Fois Gras and Sage Eclair

The selection of entrees were equally as impressive.  There was the choice of steak, lamb, black cod, chicken and vegetable risotto Black cod is one of my favorite fish and I was particularly intrigued with the octopus and crab cakes, so my choice was a no brainer.  To me, the key to good black cod is to achieve the same silky mouthfeel as if  you were eating a pound of butter but without the probable ill-filled aftermath.  Mission accomplished.  The citrus butter balanced the sweetness of the cod and with the help of the coriander crust and subtle broth enhanced it at the same time.  The crab cakes were delightful morsels and the eggplant and  zucchini strands brought some earthiness to the dish.

Coriander Crusted Black Cod
Coriander Crusted Black Cod

For the most part, dessert adhered to the group dinner blueprint in offering chocolate something and cheesecake.  They did, however, offer a delightful selection of cheese (including a killer blue) served with honey, grapes and bread.  It was a nice way to finish the evening.

After Dinner Cheese
After Dinner Cheese

There is something to be said for a restaurant’s ability to execute a large group dinner.  Although it cannot always be compared to the service required for a smaller, more intimate dinner, there is a standard which includes ensuring 100 wine glasses are never empty and that everybody gets their meals within a short window of time.  The service was flawless other than a few hiccups regarding coffee service at the end of the meal.  That said, maybe we scared them off given the fact that our table looked like a bunch of adolescence watching Porky’s for the first time. One of my single colleagues decided to open her tinder app and demonstrate the concept to a bunch of us.  Essentially, you scroll through pictures of people within a defined radius of where you are sitting, squatting, drinking etc.  You either like or dislike them based on a few pictures and whatever witty (or ridiculous) banter they include in their profile.  A yes means if that person also approves of your posted resume, an “It’s a match!” flashes on your screen and the happy couple can be begin a chat which may or may not lead to other things including a walk in the park or a deep discussion about existentialism. A no means great big red letters are stamped over the unsuspecting dude’s picture and the girl can smirk with the satisfaction that she temporarily ended somebody’s hopes and dreams. During the lesson and in the presence of the opposite sex, there were a couple of quick observations I made about this phenomenon called tinder:

1. Guys should not put pictures of cats on their photo roll.  Cat guys seem to be a turn off to women (although I can think of a few guys that really like pus…never mind).

2. Guys should not post pictures of themselves hanging with their buddies, especially if it’s every picture.  There were a few cases where we actually wagered who the actual guy was.  Plus, it may lead one to believe that you either need your buddies in  a picture  look better or you are into threesomes, foursomes or frat parties.

3. Girls and guys differ on the definition of witty and/or funny.  For example, one guy’s status was “My mom says she likes me”. The girls at the table thought that he was clever; the guys thought he was a putz.

4.  Girls want to see the whole package.  Close-ups of a bicep or upper abs along with a shot from distance demonstrating a dude’s love of barbecuing veggie skewers in bad lighting doesn’t work.  It’s  a hook-up app, not a 100 piece puzzle.

5.  I suspect that pseudonyms are acceptable if not encouraged.  Let’s face it…if your name is Marvin or Randy you don’t have a chance.  The brown guys have no problem changing their names to Richard or Jacob (I had an Indian guy beside at dinner who confirmed that Richard was actually his cousin Ashok).  That said, some white guys have figured it out.  Take Roberge for example.  This french prince (whose name is likely Bob) was sleek and suave and would likely want to any girl to roll the “R’ and extend his name to a 3 second ROOOOOBBBEEERRRRRRRRRRGGGGGEEEE!

My Take

As mentioned, I am reluctant to suggest that a good group dinner means that a table for two will have the same experience.  What I can say is that the execution of dinner at Bymark was close to flawless.   Although the fois gras was a bloody mess, the other starters, including the lobster poutine and the seared tuna were delicious.  The entrees were served hot and I heard no complaints (whether it was the steak, fish, lamb or risotto) across our table.  For the most part, the service was prompt and professional.  In the end, I think both the guys and girls agreed  that the pieces of meat served on the plate were much better than those offered on tinder.  Sorry Bob.

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Living the Khabouth Brand at Byblos

Coming back from Kingston, I got off the train in the middle of rush hour and realized it was hapless to attempt to drive back to London so I took the opportunity to grab an early dinner at Byblos. Hidden on Duncan St, the outside is quite subtle especially compared to the massive four floor fortress inside.  When I went to the reception, I got the typical routine when I told them I didn’t have a reservation. It starts with the fake pensive stare at the blank computer screen, followed by  a slight nod and a grim proclamation and they said there was only room upstairs in the lounge.  I followed him upstairs and was seated at a well stocked bar.  I felt like I was in the bleachers at a Jays game beacuse I was the only one there.  Good thing they snuck me in!  As I waited for a drink, I looked around and the saw that the place was decorated in the typical Charles Khabouth style.  The room was elegantly decorated and accented with hints of the Middle east.

I was quickly greeted by two barkeeps and we were able to strike up a bit of a conversation.   First, we discussed the concept at Byblos: eastern Mediterranean flavours and a kick ass bar. I decided to test the latter out with an old fashioned ($15).  Made with a base of Bulleit bourbon (that’s a good start) and accented with date molasses instead of sugar atop a signature Khabouth big ass ice cube,  it  had an odd colour (I love the bronzy hue of a good old-fashioned) and slightly overwhelming sweetness which hid the bourbon a little too much but in the end was still a decent drink.

Old Fashioned $15
Old Fashioned $15

From a food perspective, the menu is divided into small and large plates with a spattering of rice dishes.  Since I was solo, for the most part I stuck with the small dishes and quizzed the guys about the best dishes:

Cheese Acharuli (Quail Egg + Brioche + Za’atar) $9- Eggs and cheese make me happy so this was an easy choice.  The crust was crispy and held its texture while housing the melted cheese and runny egg.  The za’atar flavour  and pickled onion was a great addition to this spin of the traditional Georgian bread. I didn’t confirm the cheese but wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little sheep’s milk feta hidden in the stringy mess.
Cheese Acharuli  (cheese bread) $9
Cheese Acharuli (cheese bread) $9
I asked about octopus versus crispy squid and the consensus was go with the latter for $13.  Although advertised as a large dish, it was no bigger than the acharuli and was seasoned with toum, spices and schug (hot sauce).  Although the use of the toum was subtle, it carried a garlic punch that some might find a bit overpowering.  Personally, I loved it.  The squid itself was a bit lost in the batter and the expected heat from the schug fell a little short.
Crispy Squid Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13
Crispy Squid
Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13
The final decision was between the duck or eggplant kibbeh.  Once again, after careful consultation I went with the vegetarian option ($14) after a suggestion from the waiter that duck might be a bit dry.    Within minutes they arrived, served with a yogurt based dipping sauce.  It was nicely spiced but overall the dish was a little underwhelming, especially with a  $14 price tag.
Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14
Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14
My Take
Byblos is an other Charles Khabouth creation which fits his  typical blueprint of huge fanfare, lively atmosphere, abundant space, fancy cocktails, well dressed waitstaff, nicely balanced pretension and hit and miss food.  As a whole, I usually enjoy the experience but always leave with a few criticisms. Let me explain what I mean by balanced pretension.  I have no issues with people taking pride in their craft and not hiding behind the veil of impartiality.  I had a great discussion with the barkeeps about the Keg Mansion, cheque averages and noise levels.  We bounced thoughts on the local eateries and agreed or agreed to disagree on many of them; whether it was the  noise level, skimpy portions or best anchovy dish in town. That said, they are quite confident about their own joint.    This pride is the foundation of the Khabouth brand. Whether it’s Patria, Weslodge or La Societe, you leave feeling a little cooler even if some of the food is hit and miss. Byblos is no different.

 

Byblos on Urbanspoon