My First Date with Sara: Rasa’s Sultry and Sophisticated Sister

The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture.  On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end.  My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went.  Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”.  I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter.   Both the name and the bakery was purchased  and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.  That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.

I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area.  I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant.  I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables.  Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T  and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.

When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby).  After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior.  It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents.   Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion.  She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.

It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu.  There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference.  I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise.  In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents.  That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

sara g and t 2
Gin and Tonic $16

Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality.   I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman.  In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky.  The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening.  The dumplings  were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and  cabbage.   The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon  and a dollop of whipped cream.

Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery.  All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease.  The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.

I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet.  Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position.  Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down.  Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation.  I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.

There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts.  The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream.  The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich.  It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.

My Take

I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though.  I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity.  Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and  Sara’s cherry cruller.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.

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

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70 Years of Legendary Women and Seinfeld-Like Cereal Obsessions at Rasa

With the popularity of food trucks in Toronto, it seems like two things are happening.  First, the trucks are spawning off from established restaurants in order to expand their reach.  Second, the gypsy life of a food truck transforms into a brick and mortar opportunity and sets up in one of the many trendy areas of town.

The latter describes Rasa bar.  Set up in the proximity of Harbord Room, THR and Co. and Spendido along Harbord St, it’ s  the brain child of the Food Dudes who may be best known for their Cap’n Crunch tacos served with spiked mango slaw.  In fact, these tacos inspired the dish for my Masterchef Canada tryout a while back.  In addition, I was told by a colleague the the cereal dessert was the best she had in Toronto, which left me more than intrigued.  Needless to say, I was excited to sit down, have a drink and see what else the dudes had to offer. One warning…taking a look at the website may induce seizures or nausea in those who can’t handle rapid movement.  It reminded me of Madonna’s stomach turning “Ray of Light” video.

Once I showed up, I noticed a couple of things almost immediately.  First, it had that garage/industrial type feel.  Second, they played excellent music at a decibel level which allowed for conversation with other people; a novel concept in a city where decor and the insistence of loud tunes outshine the food at times.  Finally, from the minute I entered it was clear that the service would be cordial.  I forgot about how difficult it is to get to Harbord during the bicycle rush hour, so I was 10-15 minutes late and they didn’t bat an eye.

In addition to a small list of draught beer including Niagara-on-the-Lake’s hidden gem Oast brewery, one can sip a number of innovative cocktails featuring some of the trendier spirits on the rail. I opted for the Texas Guinan, a bourbon based drink with accents that allowed the whisky to shine instead of being blunted by conflicting additions.  It’s the way I imagined a cocktail in the era of prohibition where the goal was to relish the booze in its native form. Interestingly enough, this drink is the namesake of a prominent silent movie actress who became America’s first cow girl.  On the more notorious side, she opened a speakeasy in New York during prohibition and was well known to law enforcement for the majority of the 20’s.  Ironically, although spending a decade in an environment filled with booze and scantly clad women, Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan died in Vancouver in 1933 of ameobic dysentery.

Texas Guinan $15
Texas Guinan $15

The food started with a complimentary offering of the mini muffin, a dainty bite filled with the fall flavours of pumpkin and squash and topped with a little salted caramel. It was a cute homage to the season.

Complimentary Mini Muffins
Complimentary Mini Muffins

Next was the chopped salad (vegetables, quinoa, macedonian feta, crispy garbanzos, sumac) for $13.  It was fattoush on steroids.  The strong acidity/sourness of the dressing and sumac, the saltiness of the feta and the crunch of the garbanzo beans created a taste and textural diversity as impressive as the ingredients themselves.

Chopped salad
Chopped salad $13

The fish board special of the night was a chowder ($18).  A thick broth housed jumbo shrimp, scallop, fish, doubled smoked bacon and pickled jalapenos.  It was smooth as silk with enough acid and heat from the pepper to cut the richness to a very palatable level.

Fish Board (Chowder) $18
Fish Board (Chowder) $18

After careful consultation with the very pleasant waitress, we opted for the duck breast over the truffle gnudi and beef cheek ragu.  Rendered nicely and sitting on top of a pillowy puree, it was finished with cherries, chestnuts and greens topped with shaved fois gras torchon.  Although the duck was  underseasoned , it was saved by the array of aforementioned flavours on the plate.

Duck Breast $25
Duck Breast $25

I didn’t need the advice of the waitress for the spare ribs and I wasn’t disappointed. Although a little tricky to eat, they were extremely tender.  More impressive were the playful flavours.  From both a taste and visual perspective, the sweet rib sauce coupled with the foamy polenta was a tongue-tingling metophor of a root beer float. The pickles and corn nuts added a tad of acid and texture.     `

Spare Ribs $17
Spare Ribs $17

As I mentioned, I was told about the druthers of the cereal dessert.  Although I can’t say it is the best in Toronto, it fused modern flavours and techniques with the simple flavours of the well-known boxed treat.  Despite the use of cocoa puffs (or a reasonable facsimile), the sweetness was surprisingly subtle and was further suppressed by the intense nuttiness of the macademia milk.  The fact that it was poured tableside added a nostalgic flare reminiscent of the morning ritual.  It appears from the menu now that there have been some modifications to the dessert (ie. banana and cocoa milk) so I can’t confirm it would be the same today.

Cereal $8
Cereal $9

The other dessert we ordered was the praline sticky bun.  Another breakfast favorite turned dessert,  candied bacon and walnuts surrounded a decedent and rather large pastry sitting on top an innovative cream cheese anglaise.  It was sinful and delicious.

Sticky Bun
Sticky Bun $10

My Take

Rasa by the Food Dudes takes their innovative gypsy philosophy and centralizes it into a bricks and mortar environment. From the homage to female legends (including the Texas Guinan cocktail and Madonna’s Ray of Light website) to their Seinfeld-like cereal infatuation, the concept is pop-intelligent and fun.  The menu seems to rotate often (it’s changed since I went a couple of weeks ago) and there is always the mystery of things like the daily fish plate. There is also “set Mondays”, a $35 tasting menu  with $5 drinks and live music. I suspect Rasa’s promise of fun food and respectful service might actually draw foodies and food truck followers alike into the relatively unknown area north of the College Street parallel and into a land lacking “provision pretension” despite primping plaid shirts. In summary, when I think of Rasa I can’t help but think that Tony the Tiger said it best;”They’re Greeeeeeeaaaaat!”

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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