Mad Magazine, Joanne Kates and why GVG and Jen Agg may be the Spy vs. Spy of Toronto's Culinary Scene

There is no argument that the world has changed substantially in the past two decades and media is no exception. One by one, longstanding publications are disappearing from the shelves and being replaced by virtual articles and snippets on online platforms. The latest fatality is Mad magazine. It can be argued that this iconic rag lead the way in political satire and was the blueprint for magazines like the onion some 35 years later. In addition, I can remember the tactile stimulation of delicately folding the inside of the back cover to reveal a picture hidden within the printed chaos. I remember it being more exciting that cracking open a kinder egg. It can also be argued that the magazine’s figurehead, Alfred E. Neuman, is the origin of the concept that gingers have no souls well before Trump proved it. Finally, Mad magazine may have foreshadowed today’s over the top fair play movement through the Spy vs. Spy comic. Unlike the Coyote and Road Runner, both were protagonists and equally alternated wins back and forth in a fashion similar to giving every kid a “thanks for coming out medal” in modern day youth athletics despite their performance.

Food media has changed as well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that people eagerly scoured a hard copy of the Globe and Mail in anticipation of the latest Joanne Kates Toronto restaurant review. Times have changed and now Ms. Kates is posting her thoughts online. Today, there are no shortage of critics…any google search now reveals a plethora of self-proclaimed experts (including myself) adding their two cents on blogs, snapchats or platforms like yelp… nowadays all you need is a tongue, a catchy handle and a general understanding of the English language to be an elite food writer.

Kates recently reviewed the newest Grant Van Gameren project and it hardly emerged with flying colours. Her argument was even if she is there for the wine, the food needs to be good because she is paying for it. She proceeds to complain more about the service than the grub itself and seems particularly concerned with the lack of kitchen hardware. On the other hand, in her review of Bar Vendetta, she acknowledges the food is less than stellar but you gotta go because of the vibe that only Jen Agg can create.

I’ll be the first to admit that Toronto’s food experience has drastically changed in the past 15 years. Things like three course meals and personal space have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with small plates and tight spaces plus/minus communal tables. Creative versus classic backdrops are the new norm and both GVG and Jen Agg lead the charge. Establishments like the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were trendsetting and fundamental backbones of the Toronto food movement today. That said, here’s my take..backed up by a few followers and a willingness to pay 25 bucks a year to keep my cleverly named web domain.

Vibe

Both spaces are understandably loud and filled with hipster zombies and the odd #okboomer trying to fit in.

Bar Piquette– Small and bright with white tables and blackboards indicating the current and rather extensive wine by the glass choices along with a handful of accompanying food options. Instead of a hidden cellar, bottles adorned with “The Price is Right” tags are stored in a rustic cabinet teasing patrons within plain sight.

Bar Vendetta– Dark environment with mismatched tables and chairs and walls plastered with classic music posters and a Spy vs Spy mural featuring a broken wine bottle and a corkscrew as weapons…clever. Wine choices are less extensive and indicated on spotty and crinkled paper menus which are near impossible to read in the murky surroundings. It’s a place reminiscent of Eric’s basement hangout in that 70’s show.

The Food

Bar Piquette– Limited menu of cold choices. We opted for a classic beef tartare, a tomato salad intertwined with guanciale and a simple cheese toast. Admittedly a little pedestrian but the ingredient were of stellar quality and each dish paired nicely with the one the many exciting selection of unique vinos.

Bar Vendetta– The menu focuses on pasta at peaks hours and gimmicks like muffuletta sandwiches and nachoes pre- and post-prime time respectively. My trio of dishes included the tuna diavolo, eggplant and trecce pasta. The tuna was vibrant and fresh and balanced nicely with a little heat courtesy of some fresh chilis. The eggplant and pasta on the other hand were pretty substandard. There was the odd bite of brilliance in the eggplant but overall it was rather bland and uninspiring, The pasta, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of the experience, was the biggest letdown mainly due to the fact it was uncooked and almost crunchy.

The Drink

Bar Piquette– The wine selection was bold and unique with plenty of by the glass offerings from all over the place. Temptation came screaming from the custom cabinet but I mainly stuck to glasses of skin-on organics and other fun libations.

Bar Vendetta– We made of the mistake of ordering cocktails in a wine bar and paid dearly. I’m always nervous to trash cocktails based on my own odd booze-forward tastes but after playing sharsies with the Dry Clean, Provocateur and Fade Out, my trusted table mates and I concurred that none of them where anywhere close to stellar. These were followed with a decent glass of Pearl Morisssette Irreverence and an Italian Valdibella Nero d’Avola chosen from what was quite frankly a less than impressive list, especially from a place touting itself as a wine bar.

My Take

Maybe Jen Agg and Grant Van Gameren are the Spy vs Spy of Toronto’s culinary scene. Each dream up a culinary scheme and see how it flies. Given their entry into the realm of wine bars, it’s not too far off to suggest that they may in fact have a rivalry similar to the corkscrew and broken bottle mural on Bar Vendetta’s wall. In most cases, both emphasize the vibe of their establishments and the polar nature of their latest projects will certainly lead to each patron picking a different winner. Personally, I like a brighter, wine forward place where Bob Barker could pop in any minute and ask me the price of a skin-organic wine without going over. On the other hand, people like Joanne Kates seem to prefer a venue where you could squint as you listen to Zeppelin and smoke up with Kelso. I’m also much less concerned about kitchen hardware and would prefer a decent beef tartare and other quality meats versus a head-scratching eggplant and under cooked pasta even when using a stove. If it came down to it and I had to choose between the two, I’d Piquette over Vendetta any day.

Symon Says if You Don’t Eat yer Meat you Can’t Have Any Pudding While Waters’ Version of Meat is a Pig named Donald Trump

I’m going to take take advantage of any rock music reference I can make when I’m anywhere in the vicinity of Cleveland. Rest assured, the reference will likely not include the likes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, is worth discussing. With a father and uncles who grew up in this era, I was constantly exposed to second hand Floyd mixed among some of the other compounds circulating the air at the time. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the impact this band (and their individuals) have had on musical progression, politics and my ear drums. Inducted into the hall in 1996, their rather subdued and almost somber performance of “Wish you Were Here” with Billy Corgan made you wish Rogers Waters was there (he refused due to long standing tension between band members).

Waters’ tumultuous personality continues to shine (on you crazy diamond). Since the advent of the Trump administration, he has targeted the POTUS more cynically than Alec Baldwin on SNL. I mean you have to respect a guy who can piss off Trump so supporters so bad that they storm out of the venue after paying a few hundred dollars for a ticket. Just watch the near 11 minute updated video for Pigs (Three Different Ones) to see what I mean.

Day two entailed a lot of walking through the wide streets of downtown Cleveland. Once a victim of a slowing of American industrialism and one of the primary members of the Amercian “Rustbelt”, Cleveland’s recent reinvigoration was due in part to a major investment in the city’s downtown prior to the 2016 Republican National Convention in which Donnie J was elected king of the castle. In addition, there are other city landmarks of note including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Progressive Field (which had just hosted the 2019 MLB all-star game), a waterfront on the south side of Lake Erie which was home to the tall ship festival and downtown’s Soldier’s and Sailor’s monument designed by Levi Scofield (spoiler alert….Mr. Scofield will come up again in the next post). There were also a number of musical venues such at House of Blues ( with Carly Rae Jepsen playing that night) and Sunday Reggae at the Music Box.

Another popular spot in Cleveland is East 4th street in the heart of downtown. Called a shopping and dining experience, this pedestrian way houses the likes of the aforementioned House of Blues as well as celebrity chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon’s flagship restaurant Lola and her sister Mabel’s. I opted for the latter for two reasons; a more casual experience and a huge bourbon list. Living in Ontario, the LCBO tends to strangle imports such as fine American Whiskeys and Mabel’s offers a wide array ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars including private barrel selections. I went for a $16 New Riff 4 year old CBC (Cleveland Bourbon Club) #26 a which was a little smoky a little sweet and a little smooth.

Mabel’s is called Cleveland barbeque, meshing American smoking with Eastern European influences including kielbasa, sauerkraut and spaetzle. At the time of my visit, the website boasted a Sunday happy hour but this has recently changed to Monday-Friday and wasn’t updated so I was stuck ordering wings and cracklings (puffy pig skin) at full price. I threw a half pound of smoke turkey and some baked beans into the mix which arrived on a metal tray along with pickles, rye bread and chip dip. I felt the four choices were like the cardinal directions on Mabel’s map representing a bit of everything BBQ. In particular, the turkey was a far cry from the normally dry holiday mess and was full of subtle smoky flavour. Personally. the chip dip was unnecessary and the bread was a slightly dry and unneeded touch that weren’t as appreciated as the rest of the condiments. The banana pudding for dessert was spot on but I’m also highly biased based on my unnatural love for nilla wafers. Looking back, Nilla would have been a cool name for my daughter but I would never her tell her she was named after a cookie or that her name was short for vanilla although it may be a compliment given the fact the vanilla bean seems to be the frankincense or myrrh of this millennium.

Now that I think about, Cleveland has become a Mecca for both governmental and musical politics. It did host the nomination of the most controversial president in US history and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has no shortage of politics itself whether it’s the inductees (ie. Bon Jovi), the no shows (Sex Pistols, Thom Yorke) or the numerous failed attempts at reunions between jaded ex-band members (ie. Dire Straits/CCR etc). That said, Pink Floyd’s famous lyrics ” if you don’t eat yer meat you can’t have any pudding” continue to resonate a life time changing from a literal meaning as a child to a figurative one as a adult. Perhaps Trump just sees it as another brick in the wall.

Mabel's BBQ Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Getting Fired at the Farmer’s Apprentice.

The Farmer’s apprentice has burst on the seen in Vancouver with the same intensity that Donald Trump’s apprentice hit the airwaves years ago . Trump’s show tested young and aspiring entrepreneurs on a variety of tasks and had sent their asses out the door if they didn’t make the cut.  I can make the same parallels with this restaurant…let me explain.

The first task is getting a reservation. The small venue’s popularity makes it difficult to get into. I placed a call between their designated hours of 2 pm to 5pm only to get a voice mail asking me to leave my name, party size along with date and time and somebody would get back to me IF a reservation was available. Knowing my time in Vancouver was short, I let them know I would be free anytime Thursday night. I received a call shortly after confirming an 830 reservation.

The second task was finding the place. Perhaps it’s a bit easier on a night that didn’t include a confused cab driver and a heavy rainstorm in the dark, but I imagine it’s still a difficult task on a good night. It’s small and subtle exterior along West 6th street doesn’t stand out.

Task three was getting a seat. The host had the typical “please tell me you don’t have a reservation so I can laugh at you” look. He looked a bit disappointed when I announced my 830 slot but still seemed a bit pleased when he told me I would have to wait a few minutes. Looking around, the place is small and looked like a farmhouse an ambitious hipster got his or her hands all over. There were tiny tables, rural country window panes and a washroom separated by barn doors. The set-up was messy, especially at the door. It was quite crowded, especially with the need for waitstaff to run out to the porch on occasion to serve the tables out there. A large bar/communal table takes up a good part of the middle of the restaurant. As I waited, I always felt like I was in the way. Eventually, we were seated at table in the front corner which was rather quaint.

The fourth task was ordering. This feat was hampered by the fact that the online menu is updated periodically and may not be reflective of the evening’s fare. For example, I had my heart set on the leeks, cat tails, caramelized buttermilk, ramps, watercress (I have childhood memories of eating boiled cat tails which may have triggered my desire for things that grow in a swamp). The menu changed, however, so I was out of luck unless I wanted my cat tail served beside roasted chicken. For about 5 seconds I pondered asking if I could just have a side order but visions of the soup nazi filled my head and figured there was a slight chance I might be asked to leave.

I started with a drink. Since having my first one in Toronto a couple of months ago,  I have developed an affinity for the classic boulevadier. This one was decent for $10 but I still crave the one from east thrity-six in Toronto on a regular basis.

Boulevadier $10
Boulevadier $10

 

Foodwise, I settled for poached egg, first season asparagus, rye bread, mimolette, pea shoots for $11. The egg seemed almost sous vide and had a vibrant orange yolk and with the asparagus was hidden beneath a foam and topped with the grated salty cheese and rye bread crumbs.The taste hit the mark although some some slides of ry would have been nice to mop of the aftermath of my yolk piercing destruction.

Asparagus with poached egg $11
Asparagus with poached egg $11

Next was mackerel, lovage, sea asparagus, celery and ikura. The presentation was beautiful. The mackerel skin was charred and the remaining ingredients were served salsa style on top of the filet which cut through the fatty fish with easy. The marriage of crunchy vegetables and silky fish made for great mouth feel and pings of salt from the ikura bounced around my palate to consummate  the seasoning.

Mackerel $12
Mackerel $12

Finally, I had the 3 weeks dry aged quail, honey roasted carrot, orange, pistachio and cabarnet sauvignon vinegar($18). One again, it was a pretty dish; presented with different colours and textures. The hay-stuffed quail was nicely roasted with the breasts served medium-rare. I was encouraged by the waitstaff to rummage  through the hay in hopes of finding an “oyster”. I don’t think I discovered a gem but part of it had to do with the fact I got little enjoyment from digging through mushy, cooked hay. The carrots served two ways (roasted and pureed) were delicious. The vinegar was deep and rich in colour and added some needed acid. The oranges were irrelevant from both a taste and presentation perspective.

Quail $18
Quail $18

 

For dessert, I opted for sesame ice cream.  The ice cream was overpowered by odd taste of the sesame wafer.  Perhaps I was spoiled by the artistry of the previous dishes because I was a little let down by the bland presentation of the dessert.  Hell, a ground cherry/gooseberry  (although not the season) would have been a colourful and tasty addition to the otherwise boring plate.

 

Sesame Ice Cream $7
Sesame Ice Cream $7

My Take

The Farmer’s apprentice has blasted up the charts and is cited as one of the best new restaurants in the country for it’s veggiephilic menu which focuses on fresh, local flavours.  The food is creative, intelligent and unpredictable. The dessert wasn’t.   Many other reviews state that the food makes up for any issues around service, the cryptic reservation policy or sitting within the cramped quarters of  a rundown rural oasis within a bustling west coast urban centre. I disagree.

Much like the show with the same name, you enter the unknown and get  exposed to trials and tribulations of trying  to guess the way the ingredients will co-exist based on the loose description or the kinder egg philosophy of searching through soggy hay for a chance at an “oyster”.  Like the apprentice, the fun and funky gamesmanship  is overshadowed by the feeling of being judged. After all, you should feel privileged to be drinking from a enamel cup and opening a barn door to go to the washroom  within one of Canada’s most touted restaurants.  I couldn’t help but feel that with one wrong move or failed mission and the waitstaff would point in my direction and say “you’re fired” before sending me home in a waiting, yellow taxi.

 

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