Review:Toronto:The Junction:Roux

I had to get my manager to the airport so it made sense to hit the junction so she could get to the 427 relatively quickly after we were done.  Other than that, I decided to ad lib dinner and saw Roux sitting on the corner Indian Grove along Dundas street. It was still rather early so it wasn’t too busy but the dining room was filled within an hour of our arrival.  It’s a smallish place with a number of tables, a few high stools by the front window and a dozen or so seats which faces the bar/open kitchen. There are oysters on display is an ice filled bin as you walk in.  It had a comfy aura; mixing the feel of an underground speakeasy with a southern US kitchen.  The walls are filled with artistic script  outlining recipes for  jambalaya or what looks like hand drawn pictures of oysters.

Whether the concept of southern hospitality is a theme or we just had a friendly waiter, we were immediately made to feel at home.  We were offered a drink from a short list of local brews (including a Conductor’s craft ale from the Junction Craft Brewery down the road),  one of two kinds of wine on tap and a short list of cocktails including a blueberry old fashioned and the suffering bastard. I opted for the latter; a simple mix of bourbon, gin, bitters and a splash of ginger ale for $8.50.

Perhaps in the spirit of both famous and infamous cinq a sept (referring to Quebec’s happy and/or France’s term for the time a debutant may plan a tryst with his mistress) , the waiter boasted a $5 at 5, a  list of appetizers  taken from the menu with slightly smaller serving sizes.   We opted for a trio of mussels, shrimp fritters and pulled pork poutine.  Although smallish, the mussels, soaked in a beer broth seasoned with a mirepoix.were rather enjoyable.  All of the components of the pulled pork poutine had great flavour although it was served a bit cold.  The shrimp fritters were a bit disappointing…the flavours hit the mark but they were doughy in the middle.

Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)
Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)

In addition to the nine or ten entrees, there were a number of specials that evening. Despite these numerous temptations,  I was sold on the yardbird (fried chicken). Furthermore, I had the dubious task of choosing between sides which included waffles, creamy grits and spicey slaw.  I was promised the waffles were the way to go.  The chicken was middle of the pack (I was hoping for it a little crispier) but the waffles were terrific especially when coupled with the bourbon maple syrup.  Despite the fact I was reluctant on the liberal use of powdered sugar and cranberries, it kind of worked.

Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16
Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16

My manager opted for scallops.  Although I didn’t try them, I did request a taste of the grits (the boundary between manager/employee sharing food starts at protein so I was safe).  They were a fantastic twist on the standard. They lacked the normal cream of wheat gruelness  and instead were presented with the firm yet soft texture of a risotto.   I completed the experience with a side order of collard greens which hit the mark made with a simple yet authentic recipe.

Scallops and Grits
Scallops and Grits $20
Collard Greens $5
Collard Greens $5

As mentioned above, early on the service was friendly and prompt but did diminish a bit as the place filled up and things got frantic. There were a number of forgetful moments and it took quiet a while to get the bill despite many indications we were done.  For this reason (and the need to get my manager back to Saskatoon that night), I skipped on dessert.

My Take

There has been an emergence of high and lower end BBQ joints that have opened up across the GTA.  However, most focus on the art of low and slow smoking and sides more characteristic of  a Texas family gathering than a Louisiana cook-off. Chef Derrick Markland infuses New Orleans into the junction, offering a joint that is casual, unique and refined.  One can argue that the junction’s clientele can be described the same way.  Beside us sat a couple; the guy looked like the white version of the Fresh Prince’s Carlton and she looked like a very feminine incredible hulk, complete with bright green hair and matching eyebrows (which left me wondering….never mind).  On the other side was a guy and his date who were clearly fans of the Big Bang Theory (I think I even heard a bazinga once or twice).  Even an cute, older Asian couple showed up to share a few of the $5 at 5 choices and sip on water while blending in with the mosaic of characters which graced the small dining room.

In an environment of restaurants serving small plates with inflated prices, Roux does bring some promise of value back to dining out.  The $5 at 5 choices, cocktails under $10, six dollar glasses of wine on tap and a number of good sized entrees under $20 make it worth the cab ride or the extra gas you’ll need driving a few blocks further west to the bustling Junction triangle. Plus, it’s kind of fun with a passionate chef, a zany cast of fellow diners and sultry blues filling the air in between laughs, conversations and the bumbling banter of pleasant yet overwhelmed waitstaff.

In the end, Roux is like a wedding. Passion reigns as you hang out with a cast of characters you may otherwise never associate under the same roof.  In this case, it’s a passion for food as opposed to that shared by your third cousin on your mom’s side and his high school sweetheart from smalltown Ontario. Even if everything isn’t perfect, you’re still glad you went.

Roux on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Caju

Caju was brought to my attention when it hosted a locally organized fundraiser to raise money to build soccer pitches in Brazil. Please see http://www.facebook.com/justforkicksto for more information. I met the chef and owner, Mario, who invited me to come back and experience Brazilian food. Without hesitation, I took him up on the offer.

A couple of weeks later I made a reservation and was treated to a great lesson.  Like many countries with large geographies, the cuisine is regional, mainly dictated by the availability of local ingredients.   Historically and not surprisingly, it is heavily influenced by Portugal (Caju is also the Portuguese name for the fruit of the cashew tree which sprouts the popular nut). Interestingly, Brazilian cuisine is also influenced by immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Must

The caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail.  Caju does not disappoint. Made with sugar cane rum, sugar and lime, this cocktail is quite refreshing and rivals many others served on the strip, without the need to add cucumber or Pimm’s.  The price point is also reasonable with a number of variations on the caipirinha available for $8.  By the way, the Brazilian cheese buns are great too.

Caipirinha and great cheese buns

The feijoada (a bean based pork and sausage stew with spices and aromatics) had a basewith a deep, complex flavor reflective of the slow cooking process.  The stewed pork was tender and coupled with the  well seasoned sausage provided both  taste and textural differences.

Feijoada

The feijoada was served with traditional accompaniments including cassava (both fried and milled), collard greens and rice, resulting  in a variety of different flavors with each forkful.

Feijoada Accompaniments

The gnocchi meshes the  traditional flavours of tomato and olive oil with a brazilian spin of  cassava flour and heart of palm to create a vegetarian, gluten-free option competitive with others available in the area.

Gnocchi- Gluten Free and Vegetarian!

The passion fruit mousse was a perfect finish to the meal. The tartness of the fruit was not drowned out  by sugar, resulting in a fresh flavour with a palate cleansing effect.

Maybe

The moqueca (an African influenced seafood soup with a foundation of coconut milk and fish stock and seasoned with onion and cilantro) had an intense flavour reminiscent of  a Thai tom yum or Singapore laksa soup.   It was spiced perfectly although I wished it was served a little hotter. It was quite salty but not unbearably so. I would have  loved  if they served it with a boiled egg…then again, I would add an egg to any dish any time.

Moqueca- Seafood Soup

The pasteis are similar to empanadas and are stuffed with heart of palm or cheese. The former  were full of filling and flavor, the latter not so much so.   The accompanying hot sauces were full of punchy flavor which complimented the more subtle flavour of the two-bite appetizers.

Fried Cassava and Pasteis with Really good hot sauce

Mundane

Sandwiched in between the established Queen West and the emerging Ossington area and rather discreet, Caju is a bit of a black sheep along this strip.  It just may be that traditional flavours and decor  have  fallen  a bit out of fashion, especially in this volatile neighborhood.   This is not a complaint, per se, but some passerbys will look in the window and carry on  in search of  blackboard menus and tattooed service.

My Take

Caju offers traditional Brazilian fare in a traditional setting (the floors are made of Brazilian Cherry wood).  This is in stark contrast to the much talked about eateries (eg. ursa and county general) on the same block which boast eclectic   environments and tailor their menus to current  food trends.  I would argue that many of Caju’s dishes would easily fit in most menus along the Queen street corridor or other hot restaurants in the area. The moqueca, for example, is hands down better than hawkerbar’s signature laksa. Fried cassava with that hot sauce could easily pass on La Carnita’s menu. I admire Mario’s commitment to tradition and at the same time I’m left  yearning for more.  He spoke of the traditional  use of pig trimmings (ear, tail, feet) and different varieties  of sausage that could be used in the frijoada which I think would appeal to the same people who wait two hours to down a pig tail taco at Grand Electric or subscribe to the trendy nose to tail philosophy.  After dining at Caju, I easily see why they have an impressive Zagat rating of 26 for food and 24 for service.  Despite being neat and inviting, I also see why they have a more mediocre  21 (even though still considered very good) in decor since it seems a little out of place in this neighbourhood filled with chaos and pretension. Perhaps serving dishes in  the traditional clay pots or incorporating more “Brazil” into the environment would appease those who were  more disappointed with the decor than they were with the food.

In the end, I believe good food and good service do not go out of style.  I enjoy getting bread and very tasty cheese buns before my meal, being  served by friendly staff wearing traditional white and black uniforms (as opposed to black tees with head-scratching  pictures or witty sayings)  and eating  fusion cuisine defined  through years of tradition and not what the current trendsetters and saloon owners are saying about collard greens and sweetbreads.  Traditional Brazilian food in a traditional environment  is Caju…or cashew, in a nutshell.

Cajú on Urbanspoon