New Orleans Day 4: Compere Lapin and Shaya Reminded me that Drew Brees Won’t be Around for Ever

With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks.  With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served.  This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans.  Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.

Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district.  Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable.  The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.

The decor is roomy and industrial.  We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize.  The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both.  I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking.  The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous.  The actual service was just ok.

Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish.  I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything.  I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen.  With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous.  Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while.  I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too.  In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.

Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district,  Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya,  totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high.  Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible.  I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5.  We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush.  To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All hit the mark in their respective ways.  With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.

The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes.  That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.

Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented.  Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria.  What was most disappointing was the service.  It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.

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

Drago's Seafood Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Compere Lapin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jack Tripper’s Closet, George Carlin’s Arrest and Flocking Good Chicken

Swearing is an interesting means of communication.  When used properly, it makes things funnier. I was watching John Oliver rant about the atrocities of the democratic and republican primaries last week and tipped my hat to his strategic use of the word “fuck” a handful of times. Personally,my swearing is catalyzed by two things: golf and drinking. A near perfect drive followed by a 10 foot flub is enough to put me over the edge and I swear a bottle of homemade wine shuts off whatever language etiquette  I may have.

Many marketing campaigns have been developed around altering the english language slightly to insinuate the use of at least some of Carlin’s list of seven words you can never say on television. In 1972, Carlin was arrested for muttering those same words (see below) during a Milwaukee comedy show.  Surprising enough, despite the increased acceptance of steamy sex scenes and extreme violence in the past decade or two, most of the words are still not allowed, at least on network TV. Luckily, the same does not apply to bloggers or other angstful social media zealots.

The use of manipulated swearing in marketing campaigns is as classic as a misunderstanding on Three’s Company.  I remember many instances in which Jack Tripper’s words and antics  were misconstrued by Mr. Roper and subsequently Mr. Furley. Today, it is an interesting observation to watch the stereotypes of almost 40 years ago.  Janet was the sensible, party-pooping and moderately attractive brunette and Chrissy was the bubble-headed blond.  Jack had to pretend he was gay in order to remain the girl’s roommate given the fact that multigender living arrangements (at least in the eyes of both Mr. Roper and Mr. Furley) were as controversial then as transgendered bathrooms are now.   Whether or not this was the first instance in television’s journey in the recognition and acceptance of gays remains a debate but an article I read while researching this blog (see link below) provides an interesting perspective.  Among other things, it suggests that the irony of Jack’s need to closet his heterosexuality against his landlord (ie. the man) was a direct reflection of the same struggle that homosexuals in the same era were living. The author also notes that the thought of even discussing homosexuality on television was absent in the seventies and really only erupted years later with the introduction of shows like Will and Grace and teasers like Rosanne Barr’s “bisexual moment”.

http://soref.tv/jack-tripper-good-for-the-gays/

What does all this banter have to do with a food blog? I remember going to a place called Fricker’s in Ohio in which you could order a “fricken big beer”.  Ok…friggin’ is not quite a Carlin no-no but I think it illustrates the concept well. Plus, I’m sure there is somewhere in the world where you can cleverly order an “I don’t give a duck sandwich” or something similar.

Enter Flock, a rather new chicken restaurant in Toronto.  It currently has a brood of 3 locations with a fourth which is almost hatched.  The Harbord street location (at the old THR and Co. spot) has a larger sit down area complete with “flocktails” and other bar service.  Otherwise, the other two are no booze take out joints with a bit of seating. The premise is simply chicken and greens.  One can opt for rotisserie or fried chicken complete with a variety of sides and/or a choice of five super salads with all sorts of toppings. In addition to all of that, there are endless possibilities when it comes to the use of the restaurant’s name in everyday speak.  Would it be flocking good or a flocking nightmare? Ha!Much like the sexual innuendos of Three’s Company, it never gets old.

My first experience was a take out lunch from the Harbord location for an office.  I grabbed some Flock Stock (ie soup) ($7) and a few salads including the power flock salad (Chicken, Romaine Hearts, Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Pickled Onions, Marinated Black Beans, Daikon Soy Beans, Cilantro, Goji Berries, Crispy Chick Peas, Sunflower Seeds With Carrot/Ginger/SoyBean/White Miso Dressing) ($11.50 for full). Both were delicious and fresh. The salad was far from overdressed which maintained the crispy integrity of the ingredients.  The soup was herby and fragrant and highlighted by chucks of rotisserie chicken swimming throughout.

flock salad

The second time I grabbed dinner for myself from the Adelaide location.  This time I ordered a half chicken (with Caribbean pepper sauce)  with green beans on the side.  Once again I had no complaints.  The chicken was moist, the beans were cooked but firm and the crispy onions and kimchi were great compliments. I quite enjoyed the sauce.  It was bright with a good flavour and hear;a far cry from Swiss Chalet’s odd and confusingly beloved dishwater dipping sauce.

flock chicken
Half Chicken $9,50 with Carribean Sauce and a Side of Green Beans $5

My Take

Quick and healthy lunch choices can be difficult in a city filled with burger joints and taquerias on every corner, especially if you believe that Subway is nothing more than disguised junk food.  Flock fills this gap by offering food in which the flavour is achieved by spices and freshness as opposed to sodium and fat.

Much like Jack Tripper represented the evolution of the sitcom and George Carlin did the same for comedy, perhaps Flock presents the future of lunch in Toronto. After all, it’s flocking good chicken.  Shit….here come the cops.

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

 

 

 

Breaking the Monotony of Winterlicious with a Real Barn Burner

With early April’s reminder that winter wasn’t quite over, it opened the door for me to rewind the clock a little and talk about Winterlicious. I’ve always been on the fence about this beloved annual event.  On one hand, it allows the masses to have a taste (literally) of one or more of the hundreds of restaurants that make up Toronto’s proud and diverse culinary culture.  On the other hand, it is a little artificial and contrived. Some the city’s restaurants stay at arms length from this festival and those that do participate often offer menus that are far from representative of their everyday vibe.

I figured I’d bring my dad out for dinner during Winterlicious.  I chose Barnsteiner’s ($35 set menu) for three reasons.  First, it’s located outside the downtown core. Two, it was relatively new on the scene. Thirdly, it actually had a menu that actually bordered on the side of creativity, offering both 5 appetizers and entrees as well as three desserts.  Barnsteiner’s is named after chef and owner Herbert Barnsteiner who, with his wife Michelle, ran the Corner House with great success for a decade and a half.  After a short break, they took over the old John and Sons’ oyster house just south of Yonge and St. Clair.

The vibe is a busy European bistro  feel.  The actual floor plan is a bit of a maze with lots of twists and turns and awkwardly placed tables.  Memories of the old oyster house exist, especially the ceiling mirrors which used to reflect visions of staff shucking oysters on the prep stations but now have benign angles that just miss most of the kitchen’s angles.

I started with a paper plane, a cocktail with  bourbon, montenegro, aperol and lemon. I’d put it at mid-range in terms of bourbon cocktails available throughout the city.

1273
Paper Plane Cocktail $12.5

Among the starters, we decided to split the smoked chicken salad with
grilled oyster mushrooms, arugula, fois gras croutons and finished with a raspberry-sherry dressing and the garlic and chili grill shrimps with crusty bread, and salsa verde.  The salad was a smart blend of colours, textures and flavours.  The sweet berries and dressing was dumbed down by the smoky chicken and the peppery arugula was a smart medium.  The shrimp were cooked to perfection and simply but nicely seasoned with the salsa verde.

From among the entrees, we opted for the  whole roasted black angus striploin with
crushed fingerling potatoes, crimini mushrooms, red-wine jus and the venison stew
braised in juniper red wine sauce with spaetzle and brussel sprouts. I don’t often order steak in a restaurant but I quite enjoy a good roast.  It was a simple dish but very well executed from the beef itself to the flavourful au jus.  The stew was the perfect winter dish; hearty yet refined.  The meat was super tender and the spaetzle was reminiscent of the chef’s proud German heritage.

For dessert, we chose from both ends of the spectrum, opting for the comforting apple and cranberry crumble and the more delicate lemon panacotta with toasted coconut. Once again, no complaints with either one as they were both well executed and exactly what I expected.

My Take

Although the Winterlicious experience is not always a fair representation of the essence of a restaurant, Barnsteiner’s succeeded in making me want to come back. There was good variety as far as a winterlicious menu goes and all the offerings I tried were well executed.  I plan to return to try one of the numerous menus offers such a the many flatbreads, seafood options and chef’s homeland dishes.  In fact, I was asked by a colleague for a last minute dinner suggestion for her team and I suggested here.  I called and they were able to accommodate 8 people with a little shuffling.  Although I didn’t go myself, the feedback from my colleague was a quick  twitterlike …”it was really good! And lots of fun.  Very good price wise.” I nodded in agreement as I thought $35 for a solid winterlicious meal wasn’t bad either.

Barnsteiner's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

Fring’s: Let’s Just Say I Wasn’t Yelling HYFR Afterwards

Susur Lee has continued to expand his mini empire by securing the old Crush wine bar space.  Instead of opening another Asian-themed eatery, he has teamed up with entertainment icon and fellow sixite Drake to try and bring high end comfort food to the city’s streets.

I’m not sure why this new enterprise has been named Fring’s.  I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with Torsten Frings, the German midfileder who played 33 games and scoring 2 goals with the Toronto FC only to retire after requiring surgery and returning to Europe to coach in his home country.  Perhaps it’s an homage to the trademarked side available at Harvey’s, Canada’s own fast food restaurant.  A combination of about 3 onion rings and six or so fries, it is the ideal accompaniment for the indecisive.  Maybe it’s the name is a term coined by Champagne Papi to describe the merging of two fundamental components of Drake’s brand, friends and bling, into one happy milieu.

The decor is also a milieu; in this case a trendy industrial style mixed with a cheesy VIP lounge.  Brick walls and wooden window panels combined with fuzzy if not hairy lounge seats with marble tables means both a downtown ambiance and  a nightclub aura.

After being seated, we were greeted by our waiter. The slick hair, glasses and demeanor screamed hipster but I questioned his authenticity as he was trying way to hard.  Like most other restaurants, he gave us the recited speech explaining the proper process for ordering off a sharing menu.  His entire demeanor seemed scripted as well, especially when we heard him deliver the exact same speech, in exactly the same way, to the table beside us.

I’ll admit part of the reason I came here was to have the ability to report back to my daughter who is a massive Drake fan.  So, it goes without saying that my first question to the waiter was “What would Drake drink?”.  He quickly answered that his the pop icon’s favorite drink was the Tom Skudra ($18), a rum based cocktail with a mix of juices, mint and raspberries. I’ve taken to doing google searches on cocktail names and found that Tom Skudra was a Canadian photojournalist who passed in 2007  and best known for TV series called Programme X in 1970. That said, the drink also went along with the ongoing joke that, whether I try or not, I usually end up ordering the girliest looking  which is usually pink (mostly the result of my affinity for Campari) and this was no exception.  Unlike a Campari drink, however, it was exceptionally sweet and somewhat resembled a daiquiri. I was left wondering whether the waiter was lying through his teeth or Drake has a reeeealllll sweet side I don’t know about.

frings drink
Tom Skudra $14

Nothing says comfort food like toast so what better to start with than some homemade ricotta with jalapeno plum jam and pomegranate ($10). It was presented nicely and in Susur fashion, was an explosive blend of flavours and textures.

frings ricotta
Ricotta Toast $10

Next was the steak tartare ($20).  I was expecting a bit more of the aforementioned taste and flavour explosion but it fell a little flat.  The presentation, usually rather extravagant  on a plate that anything to do with Chef Lee, was uninspiring.  Plus, if they put egg on the octopus dish; why not a little on the tartare!

frings tartare
Steak Tartare $20

The southern spicy maple fried chicken ($26) seems all the rave by reviewers across the board but then again, any fried chicken seems to be.  Some will argue that the art of perfecting this comfort food is an intricate as a souffle while others say it’s pretty freaking hard to mess it up since it involves deep frying something.  I adhere to the latter.  I’ve made a few batches in my day and although some have been better than others, none have really been bad.  There was nothing wrong with the chicken at all.  It was crispy on the outside, moist and the middle and adequately seasoned. The sauce was good as well.   All I’m saying is I can get a bucket of KFC with 8 pieces, popcorn chicken, fries, gravy and two salads for about the same price.  Am I saying that KFC is a good as Susur’s fried fowl?  Not at all.  I’m just trying to point out that I might expect a little more for $26.

frings chicken
Southern Spicy Maple Fried Chicken $26

I find a burger an excellent benchmark of a restaurant.  The burger is a canvas for creativity, the variations are endless and the price point can range from a few dollars to a few hundred.  The Susur burger, served with JK fries, comes in at a hefty $24, which is more than other iconic burgers in the city including Richmond station ($21), Marben ($19) and Harbord Room ($19) and wasn’t anyway close to as good.

frings burger
Susur Burger with JK Fries $24

At this point, I begged the waiter for a drink a little more manly than the Tom Skudra  and preferably not as pink.  He suggested the Waste Man ($18), a cocktail with brandy, chamomile bitters and peach.  Although one might expect it to be sleepy (get it?..chamomile) this was a good strong drink more reflective of the 6God’s brand.

frings drink2
Waste Man $18

 

For dessert, I went with the waiter’s recommendation for the overpriced warm plum tart served with creme fraiche and almonds ($14). It was a bit chic and a bit homey, both of which aligned with the general theme of the place but otherwise was average and contained a whole lot of pastry and not enough plum.

frings dessert
Plum Tart $14

My Take

From a pop culture perspective, the marriage of Drake and Susur Lee makes perfect sense.   Much like Chef Lee’s fusion cooking, bringing two variant entities together often results in spawn which are both unique and exciting. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fring’s.  Instead of being an innovator, it seems like Chef Lee is following trends which include cheese topped toasts , burgers  and comfort foods like fried chicken.  Not only are they average from a taste and presentation perspective, they are astronomically priced. The cocktails, steak tartare, fried chicken and burger are at least $4-5 higher than similar drinks and dishes at comparable Toronto eateries. The service was robotic.

In the end, I just expected two of the most innovative minds in Toronto to dream up something a little more exciting.  The cocktail list is overly fruity and juicy and the drinks have boring names.  I mean, any Drake song would make a cool cocktail name.  Take “Teach U a Lesson”‘ “Worst Behavior” (come Drake..you’re Canadian…add a u) and “Star67″ for example . The food is uninspired.”Big Rings” would be like a great side to a burger that can be bigger, better and cheaper.  Even some “Pound Cake” for dessert would work. There’s no tellin’ what the future holds for Fring’s but it’s too expensive and may get boring really fast. After all, I sure as hell didn’t leave yelling HYFR down King street after I left.

Fring's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Whalesbone: Kramer’s Conundrum, Pickerel vs Walleye and is Kenny Rogers Malaysia’s David Hasselhoff?

Growing up I was very familiar with Kenny Rogers. Not only did my grandparents have it in the rotation on the 8 track in between ABBA and Neil Diamond, but mom was a rather obsessive fan. I remember her travelling down to Toronto to see him in concert and returning with a huge, glossy souvenir book which sat in a rack for months afterwards.  His gleaming face on the front cover would greet me at the front door every time I got home from school.   I knew all about Ruby, Lucille and Reuben James. I knew that somebody believed in Kenny and that the Gambler could not possibly outrun the long arm of the law.

Kenny’s legacy continued when I moved to London. There was a Kenny Rogers’ Roaster’s a few blocks from my house. I went once but was more impressed with Canadian chicken juggernaut Swiss Chalet which was located a block closer. The chain’s popularity likely hit it’s peak in the mid-nineties after an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer reluctantly falls in love with the chicken despite the fact its annoying red neon sign lights up his apartment. Despite the publicity, the company eventually declared Chapter 11 and is now owned and operated out of Malaysia with franchises scattered throughout China, the Philippines and Cambodia.   Maybe Kenny is to Malaysia what Hasselhoff is to Germany.

Kramer in the Kenny Rogers' Glow
Kramer in the Kenny Rogers’ Glow

During a recent trip to Ottawa, I was craving seafood more than I was chicken, so I decided to grab dinner at Whalesbone. The oyster house has become a staple among many Ottawa foodies and is known for its innovative menus and bar side turntable which bellows the output of spinning vinyl throughout its tiny confines. I arrived in time to grab a bar seat before the place got too full.  I sat down and had flashbacks when I saw Kenny’s bearded mug staring at me from behind the bar while his voice serenaded me with the suggestion that I decorated his life.

I was greeted by a pleasant barkeep who quickly sliced some bread (served with a delicious maple butter), passed me the daily menu and eagerly explained the daily catch of oysters in great detail.  Finding it difficult to decide, I opted for one of each of the mollusks from the likes of Colville Bay PEI, Foxley River PEI, Eel Lake NS and Simon NB and Deep Bay BC. Equivalent to the variety of oysters was the carousel of condiments that came with it which included the standard horseradish, lemon and Tabasco in addition to the  housemade seafood,hot sauce and mignonette and even a shaker of blended scotch. The variety of both the oysters themselves and the additions made for a very enjoyable start to the evening.

Oysters 3/$16
Oysters $3.15-3.25 each

All of the half dozen starters looked incredible but I settled for the scallop ceviche ($20) which was served with grapefruit, red onion, jalapeno, crisps, cilantro and fraiche.  It was presently beautifully and had a crispy acidity which nicely coddled the tender scallop.  I was hoping for a little more heat from the jalapeno. The radish, which wasn’t listed on the ingredients, was a bit like an uninvited guest whose powerful presence was a little too dominating in the midst of the others party goers.

Scallop Ceviche $20
Scallop Ceviche $20

For the entree, I was fascinated by the walleye and clam combination flavoured with bacon, beans, radish, potatoes and herbs ($30).  As a side note, some of us get rather annoyed by the use of the word walleye instead of the much more Canadian pickerel but I suppose I should pick my battles.  Once again, the dish was picturesque. The pickerel fillet was nicely browned and served atop a fragrant broth which housed the remaining ingredients.  This time the radish was a welcome guest, adding some crunchy bite to the dish.

Walleye $30
Walleye $30

For dessert, the banana cream pie ($11) was calling my name. It was served in a mason jar and served sprinkled with a graham crust.  Those who are not extremists may be a bit turned off since it was heavy on the sweet side but despite this, I enjoyed the taste and texture, highlighted by  fresh cream and chunks of ripe banana.

Banana Cream Pie $11
Banana Cream Pie $11

My Take

From start to finish, I enjoyed the Whalesbone experience.  Whether it was the fresh bread, the array of available oysters, great service or the other innovative dishes, it had all the components of a great but expensive meal. Each offering was well thought out and attractively presented with an array of textures and flavours by pleasant and knowledgeable waitstaff.

I rarely tweet while at a restaurant but the combination of the oysters and Kenny’s crooning put me in the mood to proclaim my sultry experience to the world.  My message was quickly retweeted by somebody at the restaurant and one clever follower asked me if I counted my oysters when I was sitting at the table; I said there’d be time enough for counting when the eatin’s done.

Whalesbone Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bowl of ramen and I figured nothing was better than a snow storm to dive back into a bowl.  I have scratched a few places off the list but hadn’t had the chance to try Touhenboku ramen on Queen Street. Spearheaded by owner Zuimei Okuyama,  it has all the hallmarks of the trendy Toronto noodle houses.  First, it has a name a white guy has a hard time remembering (Touhenboku means “blockhead” in Japanese).  Second, it has a cute mascot (in this case a smiling tree stump named Tomo who is a half breed consisting of a Canadian and Japanese maple).  Third, it has a small menu, modest interior and they sing you a farewell tune on the way out.  The big difference is that they use chicken instead of pork as the base for their broth.  From what I understand, this may be a “bone” of contention among ramen purists, but I approached it purely from a taste perspective.  They also adhere to the “vegetarians need love too” philospohy and offer a vegetarian broth which is not the case for some of the other ramen houses in the area.

That said, I ordered my regular fare; shio ramen (thin noodles) and an order of gyoza.   Since I was breaking the pork broth doctrine anyway, I decided to go spicy since I was intrigued by the addition of the “special chili oil”.  The soup arrived quickly and I immediately noticed the distinct smell of chicken emanating from the bowl . Any fears of a dainty broth were quickly extinguished after the first few sips.  As promised, it was rich and creamy and the oil added a modest amount of heat to the broth. The noodles and egg were cooked to near perfection (the noodles were firm and the egg was not quite hard boiled). The other ingredients were in good proportion to the broth and noodles.

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50
Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Despite the fact the place was rather empty, the gyoza, despite being called an appetizer, didn’t arrive until I was almost finished the soup. With this annoyance aside, I was treated to a good plate of dumplings.  They were seasoned well and nicely pan-finished, keeping the integrity of the dumpling while adding the right amount of crispiness.

Gyoza $5.50
Gyoza $5.50

My Take

I wanted to insert some witty banter into this post  but I was left stumped.  Once you’ve branched out to a number of ramen places, you run out of ideas.  Touhenboku turns over a new leaf by having the gall to focus on mizutaki (chicken broth) and knot the traditional tonkotsu (pork broth) as the base to its hearty soups. The flavours are quite rich which might help justify the fact that boles are a bit smaller than other ramen joints.  In the case of the spicy ramen, it’s bark was worse than it’s bite although the chili did add a nice flavour.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the gyoza, despite having a filling a little less poppy than others, were some of the better I’ve had since they were pan-fried to near perfection. In the end, Touhenboku has blossomed into good competition with other ramen houses in the area in regards to both service and more importantly, a decent bowl of soup.  Domo arigato Zuimei Okuyama…wood you please take a bough?

Touhenboku Ramen on Urbanspoon

Montecito: A Memorable Montage Yet Mediocre Menu

Montecito sounds like a good movie. Starring renowned chef Jonathan Waxman and produced by movie legend Ivan Reitman, it’s a tale of Californian cuisine trying to find its place in the bustling entertainment district of Toronto. Whereas other restaurants in the area have opened and closed with varied amounts of fanfare, one might consider Montecito a big budget production.  It’s a massive, two floor establishment complete with a large bar and lounge are on top and abundant seating on the ground.  Pictures of Montecito, California are projected on the screens throughout the restaurant and snapshots  of Reitman’s accomplishments fill the walls on both floors.

The place was packed.  The clientele ranged from hipsters to business folk.  In fact, the upstairs lounge was filled with suits, ties and plenty of booze. We were quickly seated by a courteous hostess and our waiter showed up shortly after.  He was a little odd from the start in that he talked to us like he was reading a script, making sure he told us that the summering projections were that of Montecito in Southern California.  Otherwise, he was not very informative when it came to anything to do with the menu. The cocktail list was small and sleepy so I opted for a side launch weissbier, one of five draught beer available on the menu.

To start, I ordered chopped salad which consisted of beets, corn, red peppers, onions, blue cheese and boiled eggs for $12.  As a whole, it was very average although the ingredients were nicely proportioned. The blue cheese was divine and made the remainder of the dish a little less boring.

Chopped Salad $12
Chopped Salad $12

I also ordered meatballs served with polenta and tomato sugo for $19.  The triplets came out covered in shaved parmesan cheese.  The rich creamy polenta balanced nicely with the acid in the tomato sauce.  The meatball themselves were old school and nicely seasoned but in the end the price was as elevated as a movie ticket itself.

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19
Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

There are only 2 dishes on the menu which bear the initials of Chef Waxman; the chicken ($24) and the potatoes ($9).  For that reason, I saw them as a must. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, well seasoned was served with an herb salad and salsa verde.  It was good but I can’t say I closed my eyes and tasted Montecito while the salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean with every bite (despite the fact I continued to see images on the wall all night).  The JW potatoes were crispy and well seasoned but once again didn’t transport me to the judging table of Top Chef Masters.

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Garden and Salsa Verde
JW Chicken $24 with Herb Salad and Salsa Verde
JW Potatoes $9
JW Potatoes $9

The other entree we ordered for the table was halibut served with grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa and chermoula ($32).  I was a bit surprised to see roasted tomatoes scattered across the plate.  Maybe I’m out of the loop (I’ve seen it in other places) but I really don’t understand the combination of fish and tomatoes.  It doesn’t work for me.  Neither does mushy halibut or charred romaine.  There is not a thing I liked about this dish, including the $32 price tag.

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32
Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

For dessert, I bought into the Reitman propaganda and ordered the Stay Puft marshmallow basked alaska for $12.  This sickly sweet, ghastly combination of sponge cake, ice cream and torched meringue swam atop a chocolate sauce which tasted like Nestle Quik.  I didn’t (and couldn’t) finish it.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12
Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

My Take

Initially, I was excited to experience food influenced by the highly touted Jonathan Waxman.  With the name Montecito, I expected fresh California fare.  Waxman’s contributions make  him more like a supporting actor by offering his famed chicken and potatoes to another wise lame script devoted more to an Ivan Reitman montage than fresh and innovative cuisine. Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito  as twins along with other memories of movies past (including a replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man which gets passed around tables like a joint and seems to make drunk patrons ridiculously happy) seemed more important than focusing on great food in the present in an area of Toronto that desperately needs it.   To me, it’s nothing more than a glorified Moxie’s or Earl’s.

Ivan Reitman has had a very successful career as a movie producer.  Like anybody else with such a long history, as a producer and executive producer he has had some great movies and some which aren’t so good.  I quite enjoyed the groundbreaking zaniness of Animal House, the crude humour of Old School and EuroTrip and the smart jocosity of Evolution.   On the other hand, I could do without Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam or Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot. As far as his restaurant production goes, I’m forced to give Montecito a very emphatic two thumbs down.

Montecito on Urbanspoon

Chopping the Dynamic Duo at the Tavern by Trevor

Tavern by Trevor is another example of the cross-pollination that is occurring in Toronto.  Partly a way to jump on the small plate phenomenon that has taken the city by storm and partly a means of dealing with the inertia of local foodies to try surrounding neighborhoods, the tavern recently opened at the corner of Spadina and Richmond.  I was impressed by the small yet inventive and reasonably priced menu. Chef Trevor Wilkinson teams up with restaurateur Mike Yaworski in an odd couple type collaboration.   Chef Trevor is the owner of Trevor Bar and Kitchen which has sustained the volatile Toronto dining scene while watching others come and go along the Wellington Street stretch. He also recently appeared as a contestant on Chopped Canada this past year.

I arrived and decided to sit at the makeshift patio (a few tables plus a number of stools beneath a counter made of 2x4s which looked like an inventive RONA project) which took over part of the wide sidewalk along Spadina Avenue.   The waitress was quick to arrive with the food and drink menus.  Boozewise, there are three tap beer from the local Amsterdam brewery plus an array of bottles, big bottles and cans.  The wine list has around 10 bottles of both red and white wine with most in the $40-60 range.  There is also a half a dozen or so bourbons plus a small list of cocktails priced at $11/each. I started with an old-fashioned served with bourbon, sugar cube, angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  It was a decent drink but was served with too much ice making it difficult to disperse the sugar which had settled at the bottom of the glass.

Old-Fashioned $11
Old-Fashioned $11

For the most part, the food menu is structured by price points.  All “Bar food” is $11, salads are $10, “from the stove” is $15 and  entrees are $21. There are also a few sandwiches ($12-14) and sides are $5. There is also the ability to add a number of proteins to the salad.  I ordered the  green pea & lettuce with feta & mint salad and added ginger and garlic fried chicken. For the entree, I went with the bbq octopus, prawns & chorizo with fennel & radish in wild leek vinaigrette.  That’s when things got bad. The salad arrived in a large white bowl and presentation was far from remarkable. The only lettuce was romaine  and it was cut ribbon style with a knife (one of my pet peeves).  I don’t know if the lettuce was warmed first or just not fresh because I found myself pulling out  brown and wilted pieces. From what I could salvage, it was a good flavour combination but I certainly wasn’t enjoying the pea and feta hunting through a jungle of limp romaine. Turning my attention to the chicken, I was equally disappointed.  It was boneless and served with an aioli.  The pieces varied in size and thickness.  I cut into the first thick piece and it was pink. A second thick piece was also pink.  I cut into a third thinner piece and found it cooked properly and found the coating to  be very tasty.  When bringing this to the attention of the waitress, I was told that she just ordered it and it looked like that so it’s fine.  She left only to return a few minutes later to tell me that she checked with the kitchen and in fact the chicken was cooked and it looked like that because it was dark meat.  Then she proceeded to tell me that they were out of the octopus and asked  if I would like anything else instead.  I politely and thankfully said no.

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7
Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7
"Cooked" chicken
“Cooked” chicken

 

Select Lettuce from Salad
Select Lettuce from Salad

My Take

This is one of the worst dining experiences I have had in Toronto in a long time. First, serve a cocktail that can be consumed properly.  Second, either use fresh romaine or don’t prepare it so it wilts. I thought the reason you used romaine was for the vibrant crunch.   Third, if the chicken is pink it is undercooked and the fact that I didn’t eat it should be a hint that despite the reassurances from the waitress and the kitchen (who actually didn’t look at the chicken), I was not happy with the dish.  As a footnote, I have asked 5 people since if the chicken looked undercooked based on the picture and all agreed unanimously.  Fourth, it you are only going to offer three entrees on a menu, you shouldn’t run out of one.  Furthermore, you shouldn’t wait until the   customer orders it before you realize it’s not available.  Fifth, if a customer is clearly unhappy with the experience, perhaps something should be done.  Even an apology would have been sufficient.  Instead, I left paying my bill having eaten only a few bites of salad and a couple of small, thin pieces of chicken. All I can say is this meal is a far cry from the Coq au Vin I had at Trevor Bar and Kitchen a few years ago.

For serving wilted lettuce, raw chicken and not having octopus….Chef Wilkinson..you’ve been chopped.

(I’m aware that in fact Chef Wilkinson did not in fact cook the food I attempted to eat but it is his name on the place!).

 

The Tavern by Trevor on Urbanspoon

El Sol y La Luna sin el Paraguas: Taking a chance at La Loteria Tacqueria

One of my routines is to hit a food truck at the Sony centre on my way back to the train station.  This often means I forfeit the meal on the Via when heading back to London but one can only enjoy so much panko encrusted tilapia. There are different trucks on different days, some of which are difficult to consume, especially if I’m in a rush or don’t want the to burden myself (or the guy beside me) with  a pound of pulled pork poutine before a two hour train ride home. La Loteria is a newer food truck which promises real Mexican tacos, a bold statement in a city which had been so tacophilic for the last few years. The truck pays homage to he  Mexican game of chance  with the same name.  Like bingo, it used pictograms with clever riddles instead of numbers.  One wins when they have a combination of four pictures in a row, square or each corner.

The menu is simple.  You get three tacos for 10 bucks.  As for choices, on this day there was  no pig tail,cauliflower or beef cheek choices.  Instead, it was simply carnita, al pastor and chicken.  I ordered one of each.  They were  served on soft yellow corn tortillas and simply garnished  with cilantro and fresh onions.  Condiments include green and red salsas. The al pastor tacos were delicious, seasoned with fragrant spices and the right amount of heat.  The carnitas were  moist and meaty.  The chicken tacos were tasty as well but my least favorite of the three.  Personally, I like a stringy, dark meat chicken taco and find those made with cubed chicken breast a little bland. I loved the fresh onions and modest use of the cilantro. The limber yet crunchy shells were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

 

Tacos Three Ways $10
Tacos Three Ways $10

My Take

Tacos remain one of the staples on many menus and the preferred snack foods of across the GTA.  In many cases, they are filled with unorthadox ingredients, coated with cereal or given names like the Gobernador.  Most of the time these modifications come with an increase in pesos.  If you’re looking for a simple, cheap and delicious taco, this is your place.  The carnita and al pastor tacos are delicious.  Despite the fact that the rooster. heron, shrimp, deer and watermelon are all depicted  on loteria cards (let’s not get any weird menu ideas here), marking a pig card would make me wanna scream  “Loteria” everytime.

 

La Sandia Loteria Card
La Sandia Loteria Card

La Loteria Tacqueria on Urbanspoon

I Decided to Pukka Place off the Beaten Path

Pukka opened last year along the relative foodie-free St. Clair West area.  Until then, I’ve always associated the word Pukka with something that happens after a few too many pints or the name of a popular pie advertised at football matches across England. It’s real definition is “genuine”.  Pukka touts itself as being the “best modern Indian restaurant in Toronto”. To date, most Indian restaurants in Toronto have been either small, family run hole-in-the-wall cubbies, extravagantly decorated upscale chains such as the Host or all you can eat buffets which dull down flavours to appease the boring palates of Caucasians who just looovvvveee Indian food. Pukka takes a page from Vancouver’s Vikram Vij, an international celebrity chef who gained fame by introducing Indian flavours into mainstream dishes in a stunning environment with excellent service.

Unlike Vij’s, Pukka takes reservations, so that’s a great start.  I booked a table to have dinner with some colleagues.  The decor mimics numerous other Toronto dinner hot spots. It’s cozy and noisy with a huge bar and colourful art all over the walls. The staff were courteous, dapper and as I would find out later, very knowledgeable.

First off was the drink order.  Choices include wine, martinis, a small beer selection and traditional cocktails such as mojitos and old fashioneds. I was intrigued by the Chai town ($8.40), a clever mix of bourbon, chai tea, pomegranate liqueur and bitters.   It tasted a bit like a Negroni’s younger brother.  It had a pleasant sweetness coupled with the subtle tickling of chai on the tongue.

Chai Town $8.40
Chai Town $8.40

 

The menu is divided into snacks, eats and sides as well as bread and rice.  We got the normal banter of how many  dishes four grown men should order to ensure they leave happy. From the list of snacks, we ordered vegetable string chaat, tandoori chicken tikka and gunpowder prawns.

The chaat was one of my favorite dishes and certainly was the lightest. I’d best call it a bowl of Rice Krispies gone Bollywood.  Visually stunning, the flares of colour and flavour provided a different snap, crackle and pop to this vibrant dish.

Vegetable String Chaat $8.70
Vegetable String Chaat $8.70

The chicken tikki was another visually stunning dish.  More importantly, it maintained the moisture commonly lost when smaller pieces of chicken are overcooked.  The seasoning was subtle and authentic and the saffron butter sauce added brilliance to the dish.

Tandoori Chicken Tikka $12.8
Tandoori Chicken Tikka $12.8

The gunpowder shrimp with moong bean salad was twice the price of the other snacks.  Four hearty shrimp were presented atop of an earthy bed of beans.  They were well seasoned although maybe a tad overcooked.

Gunpowder Prawns $17.90
Gunpowder Prawns $17.90

For “eats”,  we ordered the boatman’s fish and prawn curry, the madras pepper steak and beef short ribs.   As one of the most expensive dishes on the menu ($25.80), I was hoping for a little more content.  Only a few prawns and a couple of chucks of fish swam in the thin but flavourful broth. One of the sides was Bhindi bhaji; tender okra which simply seasoned with onion, ginger and garlic. It was a fresh addition to the heavily sauced entrees which surrounded it.

Boatman's fish and prawn curry $25.80 Bhindi bhaji 8.7
Boatman’s fish and prawn curry $25.80
Bhindi bhaji $8.70

The pepper steak ($19.70) was a flat iron cut served in a fragrant sauce with pepper, onion and coconut.  Although it didn’t swell with Indian flavours, technically it beat others I’ve had from the likes of Ruby Watchco and Bestellen. The meat was tender and cooked beautifully, needing little more than weak pressure of a butter knife to get through. The side of green beans were jazzed up nicely with onions, tumeric and coconut.  They kind of reminded me of a  healthy version of pakoras.

Madras Pepper Steak ($19.70) and French Beans ($9.80)
Madras Pepper Steak ($19.70) and French Beans ($9.80)

The highlight of the night was the beef short rib ($22.40).  The cook on the meat was perfect….no grit, no string, no chewiness.  The sauce was an aggressive blend of traditional Indian flavours which enhanced the star of the plate instead of drowning it.

Beef Short Ribs $22.40
Beef Short Ribs $22.40

Naan ($2.70) and basmatic rice ($4.60) were offered as sides.  I swear Mason jars make everything just a little more expensive.

Naan Bread ($2.70)- Two Orders
Naan Bread ($2.70)- Two Orders

 

Saffron Rice $4.60
Saffron Rice $4.60

From the small dessert menu, I went for the sweet plate ($9.80) as I was intrigued by the marshmallows rolled in garam masala sugar.  The plate also came with a torte dipped in ginger and topped with whipped cream and tandoori pineapple.  The third was naan khatai, a traditional Indian sugar cookie.   The marshmallows were a tease and I easily would have traded the rest of the plate for four more.

Sweet Plate ($9.80)
Sweet Plate ($9.80)

My colleague ordered the toasted coconut panna cotta topped with lemon and tandoori pineapple.  I had a morsel which was quite brilliant.  It was a tad unorthodox, lacking the extreme sweetness of traditional Indian desserts.

Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta $8.50
Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta $8.50

 

My Take

Pukka could be the best modern Indian restaurant in Toronto.  It fuses traditional but subtle Indian flavours with a decor and vibe indicative of Toronto’s trendy dining scene although it’s in a bit of an odd location. The dishes avoid the salty/fatty flavours that have become the seasoning of choice for many other nightspots and replace them with vibrant flavours including a whole lotta coconut.

The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, replicating a passion that mimicked the flavours that radiated from the plate. The chaat was brilliant.  The meat dishes were executed to near perfection although the seafood was steeply priced and a little less impressive. The panna cotta and marshmallows were delicious.

If you’re looking for your taste buds to get slapped around by a dabba for a great price, one of the many mum and dad shops may serve your purpose.  If you’re looking to overindulge on limitless portions of curries, there’s many a buffet for that.  If, however, you want more subtle Indian flavours fused with trendy dishes at lofty prices in the context of a modern automat, Pukka is your place.

Pukka on Urbanspoon