Snack Bar Crawl #1: Frolicking in the Fashion District

A group of friends and I had decided to embark on the first of many snack bar crawls around Toronto. The trend toward small plate menus and relatively geographical proximity allows for a well structured venture to experience a number of tastes and concepts on a given night. What makes this particular group interesting is the diversity of food preferences and aversions.  Instead of the Fantastic Five, we may be better referred to as the Finicky Five.  First of all, none of us are fond of bad food.  In addition, we have one celiac, one gluten intolerant, one fish aversion and a couple of gluttons (yours truly included). That said, I have my own dislikes and aversions, so it made for a bit of a long, tedious decision process at times.   The first target area was Fashion district/Trinity Bellwoods. Starting at 430 pm, we arrived at Bar Buca which made sense considering its day long menu and happy hour in which a few complimentary snacks are provided. The drink menu has an array of wine and a number of cocktails both tradtional and unique.  While my collegaues started with processo,  I opted for a Sicilian Old-fashioned which was true to form.  It was nicely balanced with an aggressive but appropriate amount of bitterness.

Sicilian Old-Fashioned
Sicilian Old-Fashioned

At the same time, we were treated to a nice array of snacks as we decided on the menu.  The small tower had olives, meat, squid, cheese and nodini (bread knots with rosemary and garlic).  It was a nice way to start, especially given the diversity of eaters at the table.

Snacks
Snacks

After careful consideration, we opted for the following four dishes: Ciccioli ($4)– Pork cheek with chili.  Delicious taste and texture with a nice bite from the chili. A steal at four bucks.

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Ciccioli $4

Vongole alla Carbonara.($9)- Little neck clams, guanciale,   egg yolk and amido.  These tasty morsels were packed with flavour and were prepared without the use of pasta water, making them gluten free.  Too bad..because  I could have had more than one.

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Vongole alla Carbonara $9

Polpette di Capra ($14)- Goat and Ricotta meatballs.  Fantastic texture and moisture.  Definitely tasted like goat.  The tomato sauce cut nicely through  the richness of the meatball.  A little pricey.

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Polpette di Capra $14

Arrosticini ($7)– Ewe’s meat, salmoriglio, aged ricotta and lemon.  The meat was not dry and the salty ricotta and acid of lemon created a nice harmony….despite the fact I’m not a fan of lamb.

Lamb
Arrosticini $7

 My Take This is my second visit to Bar Buca and my first for dinner.  Like breakfast, I remain impressed by the diversity of food and drink offered at reasonable price points.  The service is professional and knowledgeable. The complimentary snacks are a great touch and make you feel part of the family.  Despite the fact I don’t know a stitch of Italian, there is no pretension attached to the description of the menu items and they are very willing to accommodate diet restrictions.  A nice start to the snack crawl, even at 430 in the afternoon.  I wouldn’t hesitate to come back to try a few of the more adventurous choices such as immature smelts, offal sausage or  beef heart or even stick to one of the stuffed fococcia or cold plates.

Bar Buca on Urbanspoon

 

416 snack bar has been a thorn in my side for a while.  I have attempted to go a few times but the waiting crowds have kept me away.  Part of the reason is the small quarters and limited seating.  Having arrived around 6, we were able to secure 5 seats around the bar before the dinner crowd arrived. I grabbed a local pint as we once again huddled to decipher what we could eat as a collective whole. Moroccan Vegetable Skewers ($6)– The safest choice on the menu, they were also pretty boring.  Very modest seasoning atop cauliflower with a token olive here and there. Gluten-free and flavor-free.

Moroccan Vegetable Skewers
Moroccan Vegetable Skewers $6

Korean Fried Chicken ($5)– Tasty, crispy morsels topped with fresh green onions.  More batter than chicken but delicious flavour.

Korean Fried Chicken
Korean Fried Chicken $5

Steak Tartare ($7)-Ordered gluten free version atop lettuce instead of crostini.  Asked for crostini after.  Fresh and nicely seasoned, the bread worked a heck of a lot better than the lettuce.

Steak Tartare
Steak Tartare $7

Pork Steam Bun ($5)– Bread was soft and the pork was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and nicely seasoned. However, they have been utensil free since 2011 which made for difficult sharing since I couldn;t get a knife. At the same time, the couple beside me was using a spoon to ladle sauce onto something.  Isn’t that a utensil?

Steamed Bum-Pork
Steamed Bum-Pork $5

The churrasco quail for 2 ($13) was by consensus the best thing we had on the menu (partially due to the fact is was something we could all eat).  The sauce was a great compliment to the nicely cooked bird.  In a world where a  2 pc KFC dinner in considered a snack, don’t be alarmed at the definition of a snack for two at 416.

Currasho Quail for 2
Churrasco Quail for 2 $13

My Take

I never know whether to respect or roll my eyes at gimmicks such as “no utensils since 2011”.  It’s cute but proves a bit cumbersome at times.  Perhaps I’m still annoyed by buddy beside me taunting me with a spoon while I tried to break a pork bun like the Eucharist. Maybe I’ll pull a John Catucci and pull a fork out of my shirt pocket and watch all hell break loose.  416 snack bar is loud and crowded but has a fun vibe and decent food. The price point is low but you really don’t get a lot of food.   Wait, am I allowed to put this on urbanSPOON?

416 Snack Bar on Urbanspoon

 

This was my second visit to Lisa Marie. Memories of my first visit included the pork belly cheese thang and the getaway car (a Ceasar with a beer chaser). Needless to say, I was a bit dismayed to see the former missing from the  menu.  So, I put in faith in some of the other dishes that were offered on the menu. Pad Thai Fries ($12)-  People rave about these fries.  I expected a gloppy mess that I could spill on my shirt as I ate them poutine style.  Instead, they were a dry,seasoned fry that resembled the coated fries from Cavendish.  I suppose a few sprigs of cilantro, a dozen bean sprouts and a lime wedge was supposed to increase the authenticity, but I didn’t get it.

Pad Thai Fries
Pad Thai Fries $12

Moroccan Beef Rib ($15)-  I had visions of he beginning of the Flintstones when this hunk of meat was delivered.  I thought the table was going to tip over like Fred’s car. It was huge.  The rib was fall apart tender but  its sheer size made the seasoning almost undetectable.  A crust would have been ideal to create some texture contrast to the hunk of beef.  We all agreed that some kind of sauce (tomato based?) to cut through the richness would have a nice addition.

Yabba Dabba Do Beef Rib
Yabba Dabba Do Beef Rib $15

We put our innovative minds together and ended up adding the beef to the pad thai fries which added some moisture to the fries and some flavour to cut the monotony of a whole lot of meat.  Bulgogi Ravioli ($11)–  This was a smart dish that was ok.  The beef was nicely marinaded and stuffed fusion style into pasta.  The presentation was kind of sad and underwhelming for the price.  Once again, a little sauce poured over or served on the side might had added a little punch despite the fact the filling was well seasoned.

Bulgogi Ravioli
Bulgogi Ravioli $11

Deep Fried Pizza ($9)- After getting the Flinstone rib, we weren’t sure what to expect with the pizza so we were a little surprised to get a tiny piece of pizza dough with a couple slices of duck and a bit of slaw.  The flavours were there but the portion size wasn’t.

Deep Fried Pizza
Deep Fried Pizza $9

My Take

After voting Lisa Marie one of my favorite restaurants in 2012, I was a little disappointed.  The crafty, brilliant snacks I had before have been replaced by inconsistent dishes from the perspective of size, value and flavour. The pad thai fries were generic and the rib was monotonously large.   The vibe was different too. I’m not sure if it was an off night, but it lacked the energy of the previous two venues.   The service was mediocre.  The getaway car was still delicious and they had a few bottles of wine under $25 on the menu.  I guess even Elvis had a bad album or two.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon

The final stop was Fonda Lola, the recently Queen St. stop promising fresh Mexican fare.  We arrived around 930 to find the place still full.  It’s a small venue which maybe seats around 30 or 35 including the bar. The decor had hints of Mexican influence but also had metal blinds covering the windows. The bar was a good size and had knives and forks fused into the covering.  After a short wait, we were seated together and it was margarita time. I was intrigued by the kombucha (a new and emerging food trend) margarita.  It was easy drinking although not what I would call traditional other than the 2 ounces of tequila. The menu, like the restaurant itself, was rather small, offering a dozen items including dessert. It offered a mix of traditional Mexican dishes combined with some dishes more indicative of the Queen Street dining scene.

Trout Aguachile ($8.5)- A nice example of the combination of a trendy fish prepared in the style of a traditional Mexican ceviche.

Trout
Trout Aguachile $8.5

Frijoles and Cinnamon Chile Rice ($8)- Disappointing dish.  The runny beans were confusing and the rice was unspectacular.  I was hoping for popping Mexican flavour that wasn’t there.

Rice and Beans
Frijoles and Cinnamon Chile Rice  $8

Panela Popper- ($7.5)- An attempt at a jalapeno popper, they were gluten free so there was some excitement at the table.  The jalapeno was almost undetectable and in the end they tasted like blandly battered cheese sticks. The sauce on the bottom created a bit of a punch but nothing really memorable.

Poppers
Panela Popper $7.5

Taco al Pastor-Pork ($11)- The pork was decent but there were no condiments other than the pineapple which seemed seperate from the meat as opposed to the  pator package.  For $11 you got 3 or 4  shells full of boring.

Tacos al Pastor
Tacos al Pastor $11

My Take

The concept of fresh is great, especially with Mexican cooking but it can’t come at the expense of flavour.  The margaritas were fun and delicious even if not traditional.  From a food perspective, the trout ceviche was smart..the rest wasn’t.  The tacos were substandard, especially when compared to others which have graced the palates of hipsters over the last couple of years.    The fried cheese was a poor attempt at healthy bar food and the rice and beans were a sad interpretation of the traditional Mexican dish.   I can’t say I was Fonda Fonda Lola.

Fonda Lola on Urbanspoon

In the end

The fashion frolic faded as the night went on.  Things went south as we headed west.  Bar Buca was the best of the night, offering good food and good service.  416 snack bar had a great vibe but no utensils.  Lisa Marie has become less fashionable since my first visit.  Fonda Lola was kinda mala…and that’s not the tequila talking.  I look forward to taking a summertime schlepp down Ossington.

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Lisa Marie

It seems fitting that Fidel Gastro (aka Matt Basile) would choose to name this pop-up as a tribute to Elvis but call it Lisa Marie instead of something like “The King on Queen” or “Heartbreak Hotel”.    In fact, the only Elvis references in the place are the large wall mural, a ceramic bust (similar to the same one I hung out a window driving up Gordon St. in Guelph after a university bender…that’s another story) behind the bar and an “Elvis is a jar” dessert.

I guess FG is kind of like Lisa Marie in the sense that he has experienced a quiet kind of success as opposed to flamboyant Elvis style exhibited by chefs like Mark McEwan and Lynn Crawford.  There’s a Church of Scientology (Lisa Marie’s old hangout ) underground secrecy about him despite the fact he was featured on a recent CBC documentary. In fact, one could argue he may be as fictional as the war in Wag the Dog or “the Mandarin” in  Ironman 3. That thought was put to rest, however, when I actually met the legend….and I have proof. He took a break from buzzing around the joint to snap a pic.

Proof Fidel Gastro does exist
Proof Fidel Gastro does exist

Lisa Marie has grasped onto the growing trend of small tapas plates seen in some of the nearby joints.  The menu is presented in Cicchetti style, an Italain term for small dishes although many of the dishes have an international fare. Most of the items are snack size and less than $10 each.   You’ll also notice nothing on the menu makes any references to any of the Presleys.

Lisa Marie Menu from Fidel Gastro's  Blog
Lisa Marie Menu

Taken from: http://www.fidelgastro.ca/blog/

After consultation with two separate staff members , both told me to try the deep fried pizza, the pork belly cheese thang, the alabama tailgators and if I wanted something lighter, the fresh tuna puttanesca rolls. As for drinks, after a pint of Wellington I ordered the Getaway car, a Casear-like drink with either tequila, gin or vodka served with a 6 oz chaser of draught beer for $13.  Pretty simple but pretty smart. I opted for gin.  It was simple and delicious in a full pint glass, souped up with lime, spiced nicely with housemade hot sauce, a few green pickled beans and a salt and pepper rim coloured with paprika.

Getaway Car $13
Getaway Car $13

At first I thought the Alabama Tailgaters were going to be Cajan gator tails and not bacon wrapped carpaccio with kimchi and cheddar.  They were delicious, balanced well with the salty bacon, rich beef and acid from the combination of  kimchi and the accompanying housemade pickles. At the same time I ordered the deep fired duck pizza.  I stared a bit perplexed, not sure if if should use a fork or eat it like a taco. The dough was a bit tough and the pizza was a bit hard to navigate, but the duck was moist and flavorful.  It was sweetened slightly with a tasty hoisin sauce.   Both dishes provided great mouthfeel with a subtle bit of crunch in every bite.

Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8
Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8

Round 2 was the second set of the server’s recommendations, this time focusing on the tuna rolls and pork belly cheese thang (I feel so gangsta now).  I will concur, the puttanesca rolls are the lightest thing on the menu..and probably the ONLY light thing on the menu.  They were stuffed with a good amount of tuna and crunchy veggies but I wasn’t a huge fan of the dipping sauce.  If anything, I would hope the sweet would overpower or at least match the sour but I found the vinegar and seasoning to be too predominate and a bit off .  As for the pork belly, if  thang is gangsta for f”ing  delicious, then the description is accurate.  The use of havarti was brilliant as it created a base reminiscent of a queso fundido while remaining pliable enough to be used as a taco shell.  The pork belly and salsa it held were nice partners accented by a subtle amount of sweet and spicy aioli.

Tuna Rolls and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $
Tuna Puttanesca Rolls (2 for $9)and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $5

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pantry.  FG took advantage of the deli case left behind by the previous tenants  to peddle some of his wares including prepared meats and bacon jam.  In addition, there are shelves of pickles vegetables, sloppy joes mixes, hot sauces etc for purchase.  Most jars are priced around $8 and allow one to bring home  a souvenir of the visit to Queen St.’s version of Graceland.

My Take

The food is innovative and well executed. The tuna, pork , beef and duck were all prepared in expert fashion.  The pork belly cheese thang was a Gangsta’s paradise.  The getaway car concept was simple but brilliant. It was pretty easy to fill up and have a couple of drinks for around $50. The service was top notch as well.

Having existed for about 5 weeks, there are still some growing pains.  There’s no website  (although a menu is hidden within the blog tab on the FG website) and they still haven’t figured out if they want to expand to daily late night offerings in a fashion similar to the nearby Odd Seoul, 416 snack bar and Bar Isabel.  Case and point…The dessert menu was on the other side of the bar and wasn’t printed on the menu, so I didn’t realize it existed.  I asked for an Elvis in a jar (the only menu item making reference to the king) but the kitchen had already closed around 11pm on a Thursday night. A mild inconvenience I suppose. Trust me, I’ll be back.

Otherwise, the blueprint of Lisa Marie allows for the creative license demonstrated  by the Fidel Gastro catering and food truck endevours.  This same creativity has been expanded to an impressive pantry and cocktail list. The early menu features no distinct style of fare but this shouldn’t be mistaken as synonymous to the Fat vs Skinny Elvis identity crisis (although the frequent use of the deep fryer may suggest the former). There’s a direction among  the madness and other dishes I still want to try.  Like Lisa Marie at the time of her father’s death, this place has some growing up to do but should mature into a successful franchise without the need to marry Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon