My Hip Cocktails: The Last Recluse

The whole covid-19 nonsense has certainly brought out the good and the bad in many. It has also led to an exaggeration of a lot of the behaviors people already displayed before the world changed. The extroverts have taken to social media reminding us of the dangers of not staying home or the perils of experimental vaccines while the introverts have used the time to hide behind their walls and use these platforms to remind us all how introverted they are. I’ve been called an extroverted introvert by my friends and colleagues so I guess that entitles me to a wider spectrum of behavior, one of which is feeling rather recluse for extended periods of time.

The Last Recluse is a song from the Hip’s We are The Same album. This is arguably one of the Hip’s more somber collections, containing songs like The Depression Suite, Coffee Girl and Now the Struggle Has a Name and the Last Recluse. Although written well before Covid-19 and the explosion of social media, the lyrics of the latter track could lead one to credit the band with a clairvoyant look into 2020. It’s a tale of abandonment and diminished hope which is a feeling a lot of us have had at times given the ongoing indications that things won’t change anytime soon despite one’s efforts. This reality has made me a bit reclusive at times, so I can certainly relate.

Since there are numerous references to the Canada goose in the song’s lyrics, it seemed a fitting name for a cocktail made with gooseberries. There are numerous variations of this fruit but in this case, I used the readily available cape gooseberry (aka. goldenberry or ground cherry) as inspiration. They have a rather sour but complex flavour which makes for an excellent base for almost any spirit. I was in a mezcal mood so I thought a take on a margarita would fit the fruit’s profile nicely. I also wanted to add a little heat to compliment the sourness so I threw in some jalapeno for extra punch.

The Last Recluse

0.5 oz mezcal

1 oz tequila blanco

0.5 oz triple sec

0.5 oz lime juice

0.5 oz simple sugar

6-8 cape gooseberries

5-7 slices of jalapeno

Muddle the gooseberries and 3-5 slices (depending on your preference). Add all other ingredients to an shaker filled with ice. Shake for 10 seconds or so. Fine strain into a cocktail glass with or without ice and garnish with remaining jalapeno slices.

The Last Recluse

Whatever 2021 brings, I can’t see myself going an extended period of time without reverting to transient reclusive tendencies (especially if the covid conspiracy morons continue to spew nonsense). Ironically, if this me the “last of the immune” then so be it…I’ll stay safe and take my chances because I won’t have to social distance from Jack Daniels or Tom Collins anytime soon.

Who are you?
The last recluse?
Who are you?
The last of the immune?

The Last Recluse- We are the Same, The Tragically Hip

My Hip Cocktails: Long Time Running

I’m a firm believer that one of the easiest way to jazz up a cocktail is to use fresh herbs. The taste of even classic drinks like an old fashioned or a whiskey sour can be significantly modified with sprig of thyme or some rosemary simple syrup. When I was thinking about this, my mind wandered to the Hip song “Long Time Running” and the obvious play on words involving one of my favorite herbs. It started as a quiet and misunderstood song from the Road Apples album and eventually became the title of Hip’s critically acclaimed film which documented their final tour following the announcement of Gord Downie’s cancer diagnosis. In this production, the performance of this song was particularly moving, a somber yet satisfyingly reflection of the band’s illustrious career. I equate it to other songs, such as “The One I Love” by R.E.M, in the sense that on the surface it seems to suggest peace or love but a deeper dig uncovers pain and suffering, a fitting theme to a film which some call the band’s visual eulogy.

I initially made this during the summer and is one of the few vodka cocktails I made. That said, I think it would go just as nicely with gin as well. I used green chartreuse for a little spice and some sweet and floral St. Germain to balance it out. I topped it with a splash of Fentiman’s elderflower soda to boost the St. Germain and lighten it up a bit and then finished it with a fresh sprig of thyme.

Long Time Running

1.5 oz Vodka or Gin

0.5 oz St. Germain

0.25-0.5 oz Green Chartreuse

0.5 lemon juice

Fentiman’s Elderflower soda (optional)*

Shake ingredients together in cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a rocks glass and top with elderflower soda.

* If you don’t have elderflower soda, you can replace with 0.5 oz of thyme simple syrup and club soda. Add the simple syrup to the shaker, strain and add club soda (if desired) to taste.

Long Time Running

Drive-in’s rained out
Weatherman wet-fingers the sky
He pokes it out, he pulls it in
He don’t know why
It’s the same mistake

Long Time Running- Road Apples, The Tragically Hip

My recommendation is to drink this while listening to its namesake sitting in a Muskoka chair with a background of loon hollers or cricket chirps. Otherwise, throw on the documentary and toast a glass to one of the most iconic Canadian bands to ever grace this earth. RIP Gord.

My Hip Cocktails: In Sarnia

When the summer was coming to a close, I decided to mettle with cocktails which used beer as mix. With the re-emergence of countless numbers of craft beer, the possibilities are endless. One of my favorite Ontario microbreweries is Refined Fool in Sarnia, so it was a no-brainer to try and construct a beer based refreshment using their Canatara!, a Berliner Weisse named after one of Lambton county’s more well known beaches. With low bitterness and hints of passionfruit, I thought it would be perfect to finish off a beer cocktail.

The song “in Sarnia” was featured on the Hip’s last album…Man Machine Poem. It’s a bit of a haunting tune, especially when you watch Gord bellow out the lyrics during the farewell tour. Rumour has it the song was initially called “Insomnia” and the name was changed much to the delight of inhabitants of the Imperial City.

I tried a few versions of this cocktail using gin and bourbon and surprisingly felt that it worked best with the latter. I used a bit of peach nectar to complement the passion fruit and balanced it with some fresh lemon juice. Unlike most drinks where the mix is meant to compliment the booze, I would say in this case the booze is there to compliment the beer. Don’t get me wrong…a Canatara! on its own is just fine but I think beer-infused cocktails are an underappreciated art…much like Man Machine Poem album itself.

In Sarnia

1 oz of bourbon

0.5 oz peach nectar

0.5 oz lemon juice

Combine ingredients in a glass with ice and mix. Transfer to a highball glass without the ice and top with chilled Refined Fool’s Canatara! beer. Serve with a lemon slice.

You’re in my heart
And in my pocket and in my eye
In my blood
Sarnia
You’re on my mind

In Sarnia, Man Machine Poem- The Tragically Hip.

Paying Homage to the Hip an Inch an Hour While There’s Still Trouble at the Henhouse

Like most people, I have to adapt to the new reality. I opened up this blog for the first time in quite a while and realized the last time I posted was about a week after the shit hit the fan with Covid-19. At the time, I thought it would be a hiccup in my continued efforts to conquest restaurants across Canada and the US. More than 4 months later, I have yet to sit inside a restaurant, stay in a hotel or travel much further than an hour’s radius for purposes other than either golf or picking up my son from university. I went through the same adaptive mechanisms as many others…I made sourdough, hunted for flour, read online cooking tutorials, gained 10 pounds and likely became an alcoholic. The latter evolved from home consumption of beer and cheap wine to cocktails and more expensive vinos ( I could justify the fact that I no longer spend 75 bucks on a bottle in a restaurant so I could drop $40 at the LCBO). Now, I relish a trip to the LCBO to invest in yet another bottle of something to patch the void once filled with $20 creative concoctions at a hipster Toronto watering hole. I’m now a member of Amazon Prime (yes…2018 called) and have made frivolous purchases including a cocktail shaker kit as well as highball and stemless martini glasses to prepare and vessel the results of my alcoholic alchemy.

I’ve also worn my dog’s nails down walking her while listening to hours of Spotify. One thing that hasn’t changed is my affinity for the Tragically Hip. Regrettably, one of the first causalities of covid for me was the Gord Sinclair concert scheduled at Massey Hall in April. Thankfully, I was able to listen Taxi Dancers on repeat for a few weeks to ease the pain.

Collectively, all of these factors got me thinking. While walking the dog yet again, I started thinking of the titles of Tragically Hip songs and realized many of them would make great cocktail names and my growing arsenal of potent potables would give me the ammunition needed to pay homage to my favorite band. With something like 150 songs to inspire me, we may have a vaccine well before I dream up all my namesake drinks and whittle my stash down to a trunk full of 20 cent returns. Let’s get started…..

La Carnita: Hanging with Abercrombie Smurfs While Seeking Solice From Seniors and Evil Wizards

I’ve had La Carnita on my list for a while but the dinner only hours and location has made it a bit difficult so I was happy to hear that a location opened at the more convenient intersection of King and John and that it was actually open for lunch. I made my way over shortly after not realizing it had just opened the Saturday before.

The layout is quite impressive.  The two-floor trendy and nicely decorated interior offers a bar area on both levels and abundant seating.  Unlike other snack bars, there is a good amount of breathing room so those with varied degrees of claustrophobia or agoraphobia can rest a little easier.  I was quickly seated at the bar and handed a menu.  Normally there is a good draft selection but since the place had just opened the taps were not working properly so I ordered the “Who shot ya?” cocktail instead. At this point I had no idea that this was the La Carnita signature cocktail which was developed by a bartender at the original location and has survived the test of time.  A twist on a bourbon sour, it was a simple offering with great contrasting flavours including a stinging ginger and a sweet/sour pomegranate syrup.

Who Shot ya? Signature cocktail
Who Shot ya? Signature cocktail

I should back up a little and let you know that this story was told to me by what I assumed was either the manager or owner of La Carnita. What I found fascinating was the fact he had a hipster look despite the fact he had to be older than 30 and lacked complete self-absorption.  Although I have equated hipsters to zombies in the past, this got me thinking that maybe they are more like smurfs, especially if we consider the fact that the majority would be either Vanity, Greedy or the tattooed Hefty. If so, I had just found Papa. He directed the staff (many of which I swear I’ve seen on the side of an Abercrombie bag) with kind authority much the same way Papa Smurf would with his clueless blue minions whenever their rather sterile environment was threatened with things like cats, birds or other natural predators.

The menu is taqueria style with a few apps thrown in.  The also feature a special of the day which was a chorizo/kale empanada.  I was all over it and I added a carnita and crispy cotija taco to the mix as well.  From a visual, taste and texture perspective they were all brilliant.  Punches of heat, sweet, crunchy and chewy were present in every bite and I was tempted to scoop up every morsel that fell into the tin tray. For example, the crispy cheese with the cauliflower and pinto beans garnished with a bit of pickled carrot was tastebud blowing and the pork confit in the carnita was melt in your mouth.  Not quite satisfied, I had to try the special taco of the day;chicken fried steak. The thought of stuffing this ridiculous southern delicacy into a taco shell was very appealing to me and it paid off.  The outside was crispy, and the inside was tender and still a bit pink. Once again, the accompaniments were a perfect balance of all things good…kind of like a good shot of Smurfberry juice while building a catapault. Other than forgetting the empananda the first time around,  the rest of the food was served within what seemed seconds after I ordered.

My Take

Despite the one service hiccup and the volatile beer taps, La Carnita was a slam dunk. The days of the stagnancy of King street eateries may be coming to an end.  No longer are the only choices those which require an invitation from a disgruntled maitre d’ standing on the sidewalk waving a 15 year old pre-theatre menu in your face.  Instead, La Carnita offers a welcoming environment with great booze, a cool modern vibe and terrific food served fast and fresh. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about hanging with seniors ordering off the modified menu before “Kinky Boots” and you’ll be good as gold if Gargamel ever shows up.

La Carnita Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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
 

 

 

Review:Montreal:Park Restaurant

One thing that gives me a headache is trying to figure out what to do for brunch.  Usually, it a combination of overpriced breakfast foods in the midst of foodies who are worse than dinner ones (they may in fact be the same except the dinner foodie is drunk and somewhat pleasant whereas the brunch one is hungover and even more miserable).  Add the fact I was in Montreal and my head was going to explode.  So, I did an online search and stumbled across a really good blog which does a stellar job focusing on the most important meal of the day:

http://www.montrealbreakfastreview.com/

After scrolling through numerous and well written posts, I stumbled across Park which met all my criteria:

1.  They..gasp!…take brunch reservations.

2. It’s located in Westmount, a neighborhood outside of the downtown core which meant an opportunity to explore an alternate part of the city.

3. There’s more on the menu than bacon and eggs priced $5 higher than they are any other day of the week. In fact, they serve more of an asian-inspired lunch than a standard brunch.

So, we grabbed a cab and took the trek up to this funky neighbourhood.  It’s oddly set-up in what appears to be a bit of a rundown office building although there are rather expensive pieces of art hanging on the walls of the lobby.  I have no idea what Park was before, but I suspect it was some kind of sit down cafe which served Bunn coffee, bagels and greasy breakfast plates. It has been overhauled with a nice bar, decent decor and blackboards boasting cocktails and menu specials.

At the time we were seated, it was pretty empty but was full by noon.  It was a diverse crowd including a table of elderly people enjoying every bite of their eggs to foodie couples snapping pics the same I was. I was intrigued by the numerous cocktails on the blackboard filled with asian flavours such as yuzu.  When I inquired, however, I was told cocktails weren’t available at brunch and I was left to drink a mediocre $12 mimosa.

We ordered three very unorthodox brunch items which complied with both my whimsical tastes and my dining partner’s like for fresh, healthy flavours (what’s with that?); bibimbap ($13), Jap Chae ($13) and the deconstructed salad for two ($19).   All three dishes had a delicate complexity to them with flavours that burst with freshness and balance. The visual appeal was spectacular.   The grains in the bibimbap and noodles in the Jap Chae were done to perfection.  The deconstructed salad  was like having a personal assistant deliver the freshest ingredients from a whole foods setup on a plate in front of you without having to deal with the Lululemon wearing moms and indecisive salad bar champions. It had no less than 20 ingredients (lettuce, vegetables, pickled items such as kimchi  etc.)  as well as three delicious homemade dressings spiked with Asian flavours such as yuzu and miso. For $19 it could have had a few more protein options,vegetarian or otherwise.

Bibimbap $13
Bibimbap $13

Jap Chae $13
Jap Chae $13

Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)
Deconstructed Salad for Two ($19)

My Take

This is not your typical brunch. Coming here and nestling in knarly and fashionable environments reaches noble and nouveau dimensions only superseded by the prettiness of the food. The combination of the fresh ingredients and bold flavours busts open the notion that the only cure for a hangover is grease.  I’d knock my next day pain upside the head with a dose of this stuff any day but would leave out the $12 mimosa. Otherwise, the next question I would ask when coming to Park is “what’s for dinner?”

Park Restaurant on Urbanspoon