Livin’ La Vida Loka: Another Example of the Evolution From Hoser Grub to Haute Cuisine

It’s been a crazy year for dining in Toronto.  At the forefront has been the sudden interest in Canadian food.  Once the bane of culinary style, Hoser food has become haute cuisine in only a couple of years.  Poutine, Molson Canadian and butter tarts have been replaced with fiddleheads, microbrews (named after every street, neighbourhood,body of water or geographical indentation across our expansive nation) and sea buckthorn sorbet.  Pickerel, boar and venison are the new proteins in town.

Loka is one of these establishments.  The website states it a an exploration of Canadian Cuisine and that the menu changes frequently depending on the patriotic preference and available ingredients of the day.  That said, once can always count on an offering of cured meats and other creations based on their zero waste butchery policy.  The rest of the menu consists of 8 or so items including a dessert.  They also have a vegetarian menu available for those who find a platter of meat far from appealing. They also invite you to try the whole menu (minus the charcuterie) in smaller portions for $100 which I thought was the ideal strategy for our group of 4 (see menu below).

loka-menu

Hoser to Haute Dictionary:

Coppa-Fancy Bologna

Red Fife- Wheat

Deer Lichen- Moss

PEI Bluda- White Cheese not in plastic

Ndujja-Fancy Klik

Potato Glass-Really Thin Chips

Haskap- A Deformed Blueberry

The booze menu/strategy is a little odd.  Instead of a vast array of shelf liquor, Loka offers a couple of cocktails (an old fashioned and a plum smash) in addition to a small wine and beer list. I tried both cocktails which were radically different but both were middle of the pack among others throughout the city.

loka-plum-smash

One of the disappointing aspects of the meal was the presentation.  Every picture of the dishes on social media looked like something the Group of Seven painted. These dishes were by no means ugly, but they were a little messy, especially the Ndujja which was served plain in a white bowl and looked far from appetizing.  Although a stated favorite of the waiter, I really didn’t like it at all.  It was greasy, especially when served with chicharron, the  gluten free but fatty alternative to bread. In order words, it really was fancy Klik.

From a taste perspective, I was probably most disenchanted by the cod tongues.  I love these delicacies and they really do need very little to compliment the flavour and the overbearing and bland tempura was not effective.

The cured meats, including the pickled char hit the mark nicely.  In particular, the shaved coppa was not only delicious on it’s own but the accompanying hazelnut mustard was brilliant.  The vegetables (spinach and mushrooms) screamed robust and earthy flavours which were highlighted by the inclusion of a few of the aforementioned  Haute ingredients.

The highlights of the night were the chowder and the dessert.  The soup had a beautiful balance of richness and sea sapidity.  The firm potatoes complimented the juicy mussels to round everything out.  The dessert was spectacular.  The otherwise earthy tones exhibited in the rest of the meal remained but a kiss of maple added just enough sweet and did not overpower the welcomed tartness of the yogurt and berries.

My Take

The concept of Canadian food is constantly being redefined, especially in an environment where a focus on local ingredients and the need for expansive creative licence is paramount.  That said, many patrons (including myself to a degree) are somewhat reluctant to rewrite the recipe book too quickly.  Although I enjoy the haute approach to the cuisine of my native land, I’m not about to embrace pemmican and lick the moss off rocks in lieu of a slice of meat pie or a steamy pot of KD.  That said, if you are fan of energetic earthy flavours, you may enjoy elements of Loka even if the dishes don’t also resemble the stunning landscapes of Lawren Harris or A.Y. Jackson every night.

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

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Review:Toronto:Downtown:Reds Midtown Tavern

Another addition to the Yonge and Gerrard hotspot is Reds Midtown Tavern; the younger sister of Reds Wine Tavern in the financial district. The decor and set-up is similar.  It has a classy interior, boasting a fresh decor and a large bar as the centrepiece.  There is less emphasis on wine and more on cocktails and craft beer.  The first time I went to Red’s other location, it was shortly after the re-opening when Ryan Gallagher was still at the helm. The menu was heavy on fresh fish and seafood but this concept seems to be on the backburner now in favour of more traditional fare. You can still get a pan-roasted salmon and a cioppino, but the focus now seems to be on a generic mix of favourites such as pan-roasted salmon, steak frites and lamb shank as well as a daily curry hand-crafted by the chef.

For the first little while I felt like I was in the movie “Groundhog Day”.  There was a  repetitive nature of the evening as per the Bill Murray classic.  There was a bit of confusion around the service strategy.  As soon as I was seated some crispy potato flatbread arrived.  Wrong table.  Then a couple of beer came by.  Wrong table.  Finally, a runner carrying a vat of mussels walked toward me.  I just pointed to the adjacent table and said “It’s for them”. In fact, I thought I felt Punxsutawney Phil rub up against my leg once or twice.  There has been a surge of bubbly waitresses in Toronto as of late and this was no exception.  She arrived happy and informed me without breaking a smile that  they were out of the double dip and that “Sri Lankan beef” was the curry of the night. Come to think of it, she did remind me a bit of Andie MacDowell. I put in a drink order and she skipped away.  Sure enough, not two minutes later, I think I felt Phil again as another waiter arrived and told me they were out of double dip and the curry was Sri Lankan beef.

The cocktail list leans toward traditional with many priced at $10 or less. I asked for a highland old fashioned which came with scotch instead of one of the other traditional whiskies.  An orange slice lined the bottom of the glass, held down by a large ice cube.  It was well balanced, tasty and wouldn’t have been disappointed if I had to drink one over and over again.

Highland Old-Fashioned $10
Highland Old-Fashioned $10

The second cocktail I tried was another classic; the Negroni.  To me, a good Negroni should taste like cough medicine…and not the crappy generic stuff either. I mean extra-strength, cherry flavoured Benylin DM.  Red’s hit the mark with a decent $9 offering, made with gin and enough Campari to give it the taste and colour of a real good expectorant.

Negroni $9
Negroni $9

I’m a sucker for a good New England clam chowder, so I started with a cup of their North Atlantic Seafood  for $6.  There are a thousand interpretations on this classic dish. I quite enjoyed the flavour although it was thin for a chowder, there was more fish than clams and it was a bit on the sweet side.

North Atlantic Seafood Chowder $6
North Atlantic Seafood Chowder $6

Intrigued by the earlier attempt to give me some crispy flatbread, I decided to give it a try.  It was an interesting spin on a traditional flatbread, topped with an array of popular flavours like argula, balsamic and whole cloves of roasted garlic. I loved the crunchiness of the “bread”.  It was like a huge crouton underneath a standard Mediterranean salad. I was more than content with one or two small pieces and definitely would recommend as something you share.

Crispy Potato Flatbread $10.75
Crispy Potato Flatbread $10.75

I decided to venture into Asia and ordered the Thai slaw and the Sri Lankan beef curry, going against my cardinal rule of eating out…”if you’re not in a Thai restuarant don’t order Thai”.  Now I can add “if you’re not in a Sri Lankan restaurant, don’t order Sri Lankan”.  Neither dish was bad but just lacked that punch of  intense South Asian flavours, especially the slaw which was rather boring.  At $18.95, I’m convinced I could get a better curry somewhere else for half the price.

Thai Slaw $5.95
Thai Slaw $5.95
Sri Lankan Beef Curry $18.95
Sri Lankan Beef Curry $18.95

The roast chicken was a safer choice. It had all the fundamentals of a good roast chicken..crispy skin, moist meat and a flavourful au jus.  What lacked were the sides.  There was literally one fingerling potato (cut in half), a few pieces of asparagus and a few mushrooms.  For $18.70, I’ll let you decide.

Crispy Roasted Chicken $18.70
Crispy Roasted Chicken $18.70

My Take

Red’s midtown is a great place to grab a drink after work or meet a buddy for a few apps. It’s fun but also loud and chaotic. They have decent shareables, trendy yet traditional cocktails and a good beer list. I have to say it’s less appealing as a dinner destination given the generic nature of the main courses I sampled. In other words, it’s like a Moxie’s or an Earl’s or a Joey’s. Good atmosphere with average, overpriced food.

I’m reminded of a famous line from groundhog day in a conversation between Bill Murray’s character Phil and MacDowell’s Rita:

Phil: Something is… different.

Rita: Good or bad?

Phil: Anything different is good.

It’s not about whether Red’s is good or bad….it’s just not different.
Reds Midtown Tavern on Urbanspoon