Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

East Side Social: A Lesson in the Evolution of My Homophobia

I think I’m still homophobic.

Before you cast stones and banish me to hell, let me explain.  I believe there has been an evolution in the definition of homophobia over the past two or three decades.  As a high school student at an all guys school in Sudbury, Ontario in the late eighties, I sat around the lunch table with a bunch of social rednecks and laughed at  gay jokes like the rest of them.  I had little regard for the struggles associated with homosexuality. First, I naively thought that none of my friends could possibly be gay.  Secondly, I believed that in fact nobody in Sudbury was gay and that the whole movement was a trendy urban phenomenon.

After high school, I was keen to get out of Sudbury (much like my gay friends it turns out)  and I pursued my post-secondary education  at the University of Guelph.  Guelph was interesting in the sense that it was quite dichotomous; one one side were flocks of macho agricultural students and on the other were the advocates for social justice in which gay and lesbian rights lead the charge.  Add the learnings from my first year sociology course, and I grew to realize that I needed to tolerate people who were different than me in whatever way that was.  Still, I was leery to full embrace the movement because, while I was being taught the need for tolerance in order to live in a utopia, my science courses challenged me to believe that everything, whether it was faith in God or same sex attraction, required a biological rationale.  If you could show me that brain size or the expression of a specific gene could explain why I don’t steal or why I would prefer men over women then I would be much more accepting.  I never found definitive evidence which continued to allow me to live in a bubble and live with the mentality that,although I was in the midst of gays and lesbians, I still really didn’t know many so I really need to understand.

Years later, with the advent of social media and other means of communication, I learned that many of my schoolmates and,  in fact, a few of my  closer high school friends were now overtly gay. It was a bit of an epiphany and really the first time when I truly understood my self-righteous nature.

There is no question that in the past few years, gay rights have been at the forefront.  The explosion of the pride movement and changing legislature catalyzed by a proactive federal and provincial government have set the stage for mass social acceptance of anybody regardless of gender, race, age and, of course, sexual orientation.  During this movement, I have further evolved along my homophobic spectrum to a point where I think I finally get it.

So, why am I still homophobic and why the hell am I writing this stuff on a food blog?  It’s simple; I had a dining experience which put things into perspective.  I met a couple of work colleagues for dinner at Eastside social.  Located in mercurial Leslieville, Eastside offers a seafood heavy menu in the trendy prohibition decor. Since it was still summery outside, we opted for the quaint back patio and were introduced (or at least playfully warned) about our waiter for evening.  Eccentric to say he least, we was a 53 yo gay guy who hails from…yes….Sudbury, Ontario.  I relayed that this was my hometown and for the remainder of the night we had conversations about our native neighborhoods, porchetta bingos at the Beef ‘n Bird, Tarini’s meat shop and why we both got the hell out.

Fighting the desire to order off the small but impressive cocktail menu, we each ordered a pint each from the small draught menu (I went with the Junction Conductor’s ale). His passion for life mimicked his passion for the food.  He quickly agreed when we suggested the sardine crostini to start.  For the main, he proudly boasted that there wasn’t a bad offering but in particular recommended the fish tacos and octopus. We agreed and also added the crab stuffed leeks to the mix. One of my colleagues had a seafood allergy, so, although there was an arctic char special, it was suggested that he stick to land dwelling protein for safety purposes.  When he asked about the hanger steak, the waiter explained it was quite good, especially since it was seasoned with a rub and that he likes anything which involves rubbing meat.  My normal reply would have been “Why do you think I’m ordering the char?” but a total lack of confidence in the given situation killed it and I simply laughed.  This is why I think I’m still homophobic; my phobia lies in my confidence about being straight. For some reason I have it in my head that I should be apologetic about liking woman; a philosophy which upon reflection is simply ridiculous.

As for the meal, the sardine crostini was brilliant in its simplicity and presentation.  The crab stuffed leeks were quite interesting in that they were almost a modern spin on the famed Crab Louis salad.  The fish tacos were smartly served on corn tortillas and gently breaded so the flaky fish instead of everything else was the star.  The octopus was charred a little more than I prefer but still very tender and seasoned beautifully with olive oil and citrus (personally it’s nice to see a generous portion of octopus minus the potato and/or olive which seems to grace most of the other menus in town).  Each of the dishes, however, was served with the waiter’s confidence which almost forced me to agree that the meal was great and maybe even better than it actually was.

As mentioned, the whole experience got me thinking.  The biggest barrier I had in the past was the need to believe that people needed to make decisions for reasons which are rooted in science or logic or whatever you want to call it and that by making decisions outside of norms will draw attention so a person needs to consider this when deciding what to say or do.  That couldn’t be further from the truth. Some people seem to think that our forefathers fought for the freedom of our country with some sort of stipulations. I don’t think even the most conservative veterans put their lives on the line for some Canadians..they did it for all Canadians.  They were protecting the freedom and liberty of us all and last time I checked, this meant making whatever decisions we want.  If someone wants to wear pajamas to Walmart, so be it.  If sometime was to tattoo their mother’s name on their shoulder or the first letter of Paul to Corinthians on their forearm then so what.  If a little girl decides she’s going to escape poverty and blow the world away, she has the ability to do so.  What took me years to understand was whether a person chooses to be gay or is biologically gay is a moot point..the fact is they are gay and have a right to be.  In saying that I came to realize that I can be confident and proud about the fact that I’m straight in the same way I’m proud to be of Irish or English descent.

In the end, confidence is a virtue, whether it is expressed as an establishment or as a person. Claims  such as “The Best Wings in Town” or “Sudbury’s Best Fries” have been effective and primarily unproven claims of restaurants for years because they are rooted in confidence.  Despite the aforementioned waiter, an experienced owner and a swanky decor designed by celebrity stylist Cherie Stinson, perhaps the biggest swagger Eastside Social has is setting up with some success within the boundries of the stubborn Leslieville scene.

On a personal note,  I can get up in front of a group of 200 and speak.  I can lead a team building discussion with ease.  So why can’t I declare my frank heterosexuality in the midst of a confident gay man?  Maybe it’s because I’m still homophobic. In this regard, next time I come here I’ll confidently order the char and better yet, switch to the chicken shortly after.

Eastside Social Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review:Toronto:George

The name George has been able to withstand the test of time.   A popular name in the first half of the 20th century, it has still remained popular post world war II and even in the last 5 years, at a time in which names like Apple, Bacon, North and Wisdom reign the headlines. Even William and Kate named the future aire to the British Throne George (although I am convinced Elizabeth will live to 200 and shut out three generations of potentials kings).

There have been a number of influential and important George’s in history:

  • George Washington was the first president of the United States of America.
  • George Orwell was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.
  • George Carlin was a visionary in stand-up comedy.
  • George Harrison was a Beatle.
  • George was the star of a short lived early 70’s series about a loveable St. Bernard.
  • George Lucas created Star Wars.

Even in the world of food, the name has been synonymous with success:

  • George Washington Carver was considered a pioneer in the development of a number of food related products.
  • George Weston became one of the most successful food entrepreneurs in Canadian history.
  • George Foreman turned starving students into gourmet chefs.

So, any restaurant that calls itself  George has some big boots, or pans to fill.  First, it doesn’t hurt that it has a number of awards and accolades from Zagat, open table and numerous Toronto magazines.   Second, chef Lorenzo Loseto uses words like “émigré traditions” in his bio on the about page of the website, so it’s gotta be good.

I had two opportunities to eat there in the span of a couple of weeks.  The first was a small planning dinner and second was a group dinner with about 30 people. I apologize in advance for the qualities of the pics during the group dinner.  The use of flash photography is not recommended when somebody is doing trying to explain the nuances of bone metabolism.

As far as drinks go, George has a fantastic wine list with a heavy focus on France and Italy.  In particular, they had a special  feature in which 4 unique Beaujolais wines were offered by the glass.  In addition, they offer a number of artisanal and traditional cocktails.  I opted for the George and Tonic.  It was served with a cute side bottle of Fever Tree tonic water (a premium UK brand which beat’s the hell out of Schwepp’s). The main flavours were grapefruit and lemongrass.  In fact, it was recommended that I chomp on the lemongrass after each sip to enhance the taste of the gin.  Although I felt a bit like a panda bear, it was one of the better gin and tonics I have had.

George and Tonic $9 (Half Size)
George and Tonic $9 (Half Size)

I would define the waitstaff as modestly pretentious which doesn’t surprise me given the clientele and vibe of the restaurant itself.  The waiter we had the first night seemed quite impatient and unimpressed by our speed in ordering and remained stonefaced throughout the evening. Even the  bartender and hostess on night one seemed to be trying hard to fit the mold of a George Segal sculpture. The service for the group dinner was much better.

George Segal's The Diner (and some waitstaff)
George Segal’s The Diner (which is eerily to  some of the waitstaff at George)

At both dinners I had a starter salad. The first was a spring mix with grilled peaches.  I chose this since it was the beginning of season and I don’t think anything beats a fresh Ontario peach.  The dressing was abundant (maybe too abundant)  and had a distinct acidity.  Although the pine nuts were abundant, I was a bit disappointed to only find two small peach slices amongst the jungle of greens on the plate, The boccachini cheese was also scarce but didn’t make much sense in the salad to begin with.

George Salad $10
George Salad $10

The second salad had the same greens, the same dressing but this time had avocado and quinoa. Although it was a little heavy on the ginger, the taste and texture of each component blended to create a surprisingly hearty starter (no pic).

The first plate courses included the soft shell crab with watermelon and avocado quinoa and black cod with a cashew crust and roasted beets.  Each were executed well. The crab maintained it’s moisture but I thought the coating was pretty average. There is a notion right now that watermelon goes with everything but I’m not sure it worked on this plate.  It was sweet on sweet, so the dish just didn’t have enough contrast.

Soft Shell Crab $24
Soft Shell Crab $24

The black cod, on the other hand, was divine.  The fish itself could not have been cooked better. It had a delicate, buttery taste that was complemented by the nuttiness of the cashews.  The roasted beets contained enough earthiness to offset the sweetness so the dish worked well.

Black Cod (bad pic) Part of Group Meal
Black Cod (bad pic) Part of Group Meal

Mains included the wild boar with almond potato croquettes and veg plus beef tenderloin with mushrooms and sweet potatoes.  The boar was incredible.  It was grilled to the perfect doneness and was served on a bed of fantastic vegetables which included pearled carrots and some tender legumes.  I was like inhaling and swallowing the savannah winds themselves. If necessary, I would have wrestled a lion  over this chop but would have been happy with the vegetables in the event he won.

Wild Boar $29
Wild Boar $29

The tenderloin was pretty standard, complemented with mushroom and sweet potato.  The meat was not nearly as succulent as the cod or boar but it was a noble attempt in an effort to feed 30 people at once. It had a subtle anise or fennel flavour in the vegetables which, depending on your taste, could be a good or bad thing.

Beef Tenderloin (really bad pic). Part of group dinner
Beef Tenderloin (really bad pic). Part of group dinner

Desserts were a coconut custard and blueberry cheesecake.  Although the custard was beautifully presented, it wasn’t as mind blowing as it looked.  It’s sort of like that guy or girl you like to look at until they open their mouth and start talking.  I could say the same about the cheesecake.  I just didn’t want to lick either one all over when all was said and done.

Coconut Custard
Coconut Custard $14
Blueberry Cheesecake (Group Dinner)
Blueberry Cheesecake (Group Dinner)

My Take

One might suggest that George could be a namesake for a number of famous Georges, past or present.  The innovative food preparation techniques and drink menu is reminiscent of a modern day George Washington Carver.  The lovely appearance of each dish  could be synonymous with the face of George Clooney.  On that note, even the prettiest stars don’t always make great movies.  The black cod and the boar were like the descendants, the Ides of March, Three Kings  or even Dusk Till Dawn (yes, I love that movie), while the tenderloin and the desserts are a bit more like  Out of Sight, Spy Kids 3: Game Over, Solaris or Return of the Killer Tomatoes.   The salads were like Batman and Robin, decent but nowhere near  the best in the series.

George is current  and innovative and understands the importance of visually appealing food. The dishes look like Georges Seurat paintings. However, some of the waitstaff are as friendly as Georges St. Pierre during a pre-match weigh-in.   Like a stunning work of art, an MMA pay per view fight or a good movie, you want to get what you pay for.  If you follow their suggestions and go with the tasting menu or the three courses, plus dessert and a cocktail or glass of wine, your George Costanza wallet better be stuffed because it will run you over $100, but you will be treated to at least one or two memorable and stunning  dishes, both from a visual and taste perspective. So pony up because after all….

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food”

George Bernard Shaw- Man and Superman (1903)

George on Urbanspoon