I Had DINR with the Prime Minister in the North and with the Navy…Sort of.

I’m oblivious sometimes.  Sure, I can navigate through a number of websites searching so what’s hot in the restaurant world but I often miss things right in front of my face. I was in Ottawa for a conference recently and needed a quick spot for dinner.  As part of my search, I stumbled across DINR, a rather new app which revolves around last minute reservations at some of the most coveted restaurants in the country.  Luckily, Ottawa is one of the featured  cities so I managed to secure the chef’s table at North and Navy with a few hours notice. North and Navy is a relatively new restaurant which moved into the space left when Beckta switched locations. The concept plays on what the owners call similarities between the climates of Northern Italy and Eastern Ontario with a focus on local ingredients.

I was staying at a hotel down the road so it was nice walk to the Nepean street location. I noticed that the air was crisp indicating that fall was here.  What I didn’t notice was that there were a number of black sedans outside the restaurant.  We were quickly seated at the rail and waited for our last guest who arrived and immediately commented on the motorcade parked outside.  I laughed and offered to look around the restaurant on the way to the washroom in case the beloved Justin Trudeau may be in the house.  On the way back I made eye contact (well..maybe one way eye contact) which somebody who faintly resembled Sophie who was sitting with a man with flowing Pantene locks.  I didn’t dare stop or make eye contact to confirm given  I’m not sure of the Canadian rules around approaching a head of state in a dining establishment (although a shirtless selfie may have been in the cards), so I went back to my seat and mentioned I thought it was him. Another member of our party got up, walked past the table, did a 360 and quickly returned to confirm the sighting.

We were greeted by a pleasant employee who went through the description of the menu using the airplane safety speech that has become the norm for any shared plate eatery currently in existence.  We were encouraged to try the cicheti (ie. Italian snack plate) which featured grissini, marinated anchovy, oyster, mackerel and a homemade meatball.It was served on a silver platter worthy of let’s say….a prime minister.  We collectively destroyed the plate’s contents with good reviews.

north-cichetti
Cicheti $2-4 plus funky socks and crocs in lieu of a Prime Ministerial selfie 

There were four primi pasta courses on the menu and we ordered them all. The potato tortaletti with matching brodo was pleasantly plated with some pickled onions. The tender and unique pasta was spot on but the delicate but precisely seasoned  broth stole the show.  A bit more along the traditional path of Northern Italy, the bigoli con le vongole was another hit in its simplicity. Great pasta, great sauce and great seafood. I’m typically not a risotto fan but I thoroughly enjoyed  the pancetta and corn offering.  It provided cream corn comfort sprinkled with salty pieces of pancetta. The mint parpadelle with abundant mushrooms was an incredible concoction of earthy flavours.  The mint leaves offered a unorthadox yet pleasant freshness.  In the end, each primi choice offered textures and tastes that ranged from Harper conservative to flowing lock liberal.

As an intermezzo, we went for the raw zucchini with olives, mint and pecorino plus cured eggplant with house yoghurt.  I love chef’s tables, especially when dishes involve meticulous construction.  Both this dishes were assembled with a pinpoint precision which made then as appealing to the eye as to the tongue. The zucchini cleansed the aftermath of the previous dishes while the eggplant foreshadowed what was to come.

Given the sizable amount of food we had already consumed, we decided on two of the  available entrees; the trout with brussel sprouts and parsnip and the Quebec duck with fennel and pear.  The fish was brilliant.  Maybe it was my bias given the fact that I’m tired of every fish dish in a restaurant currently being served with some kind of tomato.  Instead, crunchy sprouts and a rich and pleasantly pungent parsnip puree were the perfect compliment to the pristine pesce. The red cabbage and the pickled squash (which was addictive by itself) added colour and another dimension to the dish.  Duck, especially Quebec canard, seems to be a staple in Ottawa and North and Navy was no exception.  There is an emerging trend coupling fresh fruit with protein and in this case, it was sliced pear.  It wasn’t my favorite dish of the night but still hit decent flavour and textural notes.

Since we were sitting at the chef’s table, we were able to get some great reflections and insights from the kitchen.  Adam Vettorel, North and Navy’s head chef, stopped his meticulous plating to chat for a bit.  He had a confident yet awkward personality which is seemingly quite characteristic among those with the role of chief cook.  We were treated to a story about a recent competition in which he opted for successfully pickling of squash instead of cooking it, a tactic which was transferred with some regularity to his menu soon after.

Dessert was classic Italian which nicely reflected the  general theme of North and Navy; traditional tiramisu and playful panna cotta. Like the rest of the meal, the fundamental execution was brilliant and combined old and new world ingredients and flavours.

My Take

Although I doubt Mr. Trudeau used nor needed the DINR app, it is a great tool for an unorganized, indecisive and whimsical food fan.   I would personally argue that a culinary celebrity sighting if usually more exciting than a political one but dining with the prime minister (sort of) makes for a good story, especially when chatting with friends and colleagues who figurative bleed red or appreciate good hair. That said, North and Navy made its food, especially the pasta, worth throwing into the discussion as well.  Adam Vettorel et al., unlike his famous guest,can effectively  execute a plan. North and Navy’s campaign promised Northern Italy with local influence and they delivered.  In the end, they get my vote even if I’m not a card carrying Liberal.

North & Navy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hello, Why Alo is the Adele of Toronto’s Dining Scene.

Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene.  In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice  reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015.  I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.

A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub).  For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27.  “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.

I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is.  She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones)  from  Shameless.  Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit).   That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).

I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single.  In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and  compared to other entertainment-heavy  metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York,  and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.

Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose.  Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.

Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs  Boxing Day 1985.

10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)

Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face.   The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.

I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.

9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)

A short elevator ride up a few floors  opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails.  A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow.  Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced.   Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.

I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present.  I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle.  Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.

8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)

As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic  sipping cocktail.  They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick  with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)

Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a  standard menu for everybody  or only an option  for the main protein.  They even set the stage for such free will  (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by  offering a choice of a blue or white napkin .  It was rather odd but memorable.

6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)

There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:

  •  Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated  couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of  the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour  little light on the citrus.
  • In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course.  It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a  sinful cousin of a croissant.
  • When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist.  I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
  • I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so.  Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold.  A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
  • In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.

5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)

Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize  by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork.  There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone.  If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them.  For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.

4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)

I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver.  I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

3.  Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)

There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15).  In the name of adventure we agreed.  The featured fromage  was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers.  We ordered  two plates was plenty for the four of us.  Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate.  We joked that, being the token Caucasian  at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate.  I went dark.  Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese,  we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead.  It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me.  Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good.  Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan.  The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.

2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)

When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head.  The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after.  The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.

1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)

Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one.  In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA.  The flow of the meal was spot on.  Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained  the components of each dish with great precision.   The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.

My Take  

Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service.  Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience.  The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.

In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album.  Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening.  You feel the experience  instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment   filled with  countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of  American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.

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

I Didn’t Get Crabby but I Managed to Get Bitter at Oxbow Public Market in Napa

Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different.  Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market  to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa.  Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.

My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my  $9 fresh crab taco.  Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese  ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck  taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro  ($8.00).  These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful  but it worked reasonably well.  It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla.  There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)
Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)

 

After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe.  It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would  be in it?”.  My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home.   Voila!  That’s Oxbow Market.  In particular, let me focus on the last place.  I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura.  Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off.  The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen.  I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around  aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.

Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.

My Take

If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab).  They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour.  For any foodie,  I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for  Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.

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Ten Predicted Food Trends for 2015

As usual, I try to predict the wacky world of food trends.  It’s like a horoscope…I get a few right and a few wrong every year but it’s fun nonetheless.  I think there will be a trend toward more interactive dining experiences. From a food perspective, I think extreme tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami) will highlight menus: Here’s what we can expect in 2015:

Tableside Service

Dim sum service doesn’t have to be limited to weekends.  Places like State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and Ma Peche in New York have made tableside service the norm.  A little closer to home, Buca Yorkvile carves branzino crudo while you watch.  Watch this trend to explode in 2015 as diners demand a more interactive dining experience and restaurants see the opportunity for a sweet price mark-up.

I’m a Little Bitter

Look for greens like hickory, endive, dandelion and maybe even radicchio to grace salad plates.  The strong bitterness and varying colours and shapes will be like playing lego for the palates of foodies everywhere. Even better, it might come with a housemade honey/maple vinaigrette for a great contrast.

Getting in the Game

Bison, venison and maybe even elk will compete with beef on menus in 2015.  The strong, gamy flavours will be more in demand than the 86 ounce steaks that graced menus in 2014.  Also, look for rabbit to hop onto menus as a substitute for chicken or pork.

Duck Dynasty

Half the hipsters I see look like these lovable hillbillies, so why not eat the damn stuff too.  I’m surprised duck hasn’t been deemed the other “red meat”.  Although it has never declined that much in popularity, its unique flavour and versatile use makes it a strong candidate to soar up the ranks of fowl in 2015.

Pssst…achios

It’s no secret that the pistachio has been the most aggressive ad campaign to come of the Golden State since the California raisins. Once nothing more than a snack food which left red dye all over your mouth and fingers,  the pistachio’s recent endorsement by the witty, satirical, side-part, spectacle wearing Stephen Colbert coupled with the fact they can used in everything from salads to desserts might result in “pistachio is the new walnut”  t-shirts popping up everywhere.

Root, Root, Root for the home team.

Dainty vegetables won’t be able to withstand the assault of extreme tastes of 2015. Potatoes provide a blank canvas for all sorts of flavours. The sweetness of  beets and carrots amidst bitter and spice should be a great compliment. Foodie favorites like sunchokes and salsify should round out a good year for the root.

Squash the competition

The squash is longer reserved for soup. This local fall favorite is emerging as a player across the board.  It’s a great base for vegetarian dishes and pairs nicely with a number of spices including clove, nutmeg and even sage, The regional production should appease the locavores and the diversity of the gourds available make them ideal for salads and even desserts.   

 Korean- More popular than “The Interview”

Although Korean is already enjoying popularity in the GTA, I think there’s more to come.  Twists on bibimbap and hot pots will become options on fusion menus while hole in the wall Korean joints may be chosen over a sushi bar or ramen house for a quick and inexpensive lunch.  Plus, your playstation shouldn’t  crash over a little bulgogi.

Micro Booze

The popularity of 40 Creek whisky within what was once seen as an impenetrable rye market plus emerging players like Gibson’s in the vodka and gin world make the small batch production of potent potables is as lucrative as  micro brews.  Bourbon enthusiasts will gravitate toward micro booze whether in a clever cocktail or even on tap.  Look for tasting flights of infused shots of gins, vodkas and vermouths to wiggle their ways onto bar menus everywhere.

The Dumpling and Pancake: More than a way to describe your ass

The use of either a dumpling or a pancake as a canvas  has limitless possibilities. To date, dim sum and gyoza have been all the rage.  In 2014, we saw the emergence of savory pancakes such as latkes.  Look for both to explode in 2015.  From perogies to beghrir, the possibilities are endless. So will the choices on menus.

My Take

2015 will be a year filled with intense flavours highlighted by extreme taste profiles.  Much of the sweet may in fact come from fruits and vegetables including beets, carrots and squash.  Bitter will come from a resurgence of fragrant leafy greens  and infused alcohols.  Strong flavoured proteins such as game meat and duck will be needed to compliment these extreme tastes. Dumplings and pancakes will provide an ideal medium for many trendy tastes.  Pistachio is the new walnut.  Korean will surpass sushi and ramen as the preferred Asian provision of foodie nation. Regardless of the food, look for more options to be served tableside or in some other type of extravagant fashion. So, bring me a duck pancake atop of bed of mixed greens served under a cloche with a shot of vermouth and a pistachio cannoli pronto!

Foreplay with Eric Wood even though Susur Lee thinks he’s “Chopped” liver

I went to the Beverley hotel yet again for lunch with a colleague. I was going to blog it right away until I heard that chef Eric Wood was going to be on Chopped Canada.  I figure I’d wait to see if I could boast that I dined at the restaurant of a Chopped champion.

Ironically enough was the fact that Wood was taking on Bryan Birch from Barque, another place I managed to hit in the last year.  With two very different styles and figured it would come down to the ingredients and the moods of the judges. What I didn’t expect is how moody they could be…

I’ve reviewed the Beverley twice already. I like it because it’s relatively quiet, has a nice ambiance, takes reservations and has a menu that can appeal to the masses.  I started with the Butternut and Tarro salad.  I enjoyed the balance of the sweetness of the squash and dates with the flirt of acid in the dressing.  The tarro and beans offered a great textural contrast and an earthiness to this unique salad.

Butternut and Farro Salad $9
Butternut and Farro Salad $9

Eric Wood is know for his 4 play; a structural sound square meal; a snapshot of his id and ego on any given day.  Typically, it’s an appetizer, salad, main and dessert.  On this particular day, it was shrimp and mussels in a coconut broth, a sage and sunchoke gnocchi, an heirloom tomato salad with pressed ricotta and a sea buckthorn cheesecake with grape jelly.  Foreplay like this makes me want to put out.  The shrimp were delicious and were cooked to perfection.  The gnocchi was nicely caramelized and was far from boring. Although I’m not a huge tomato fan, the cheese compensated  and I really liked the dressing.  The dessert hit the spot as well although it was a little sweeter than expected.  I wanted to be totally overcome by the delicious tartness of the fruit especially in the midst of the super sweet jelly.

4 Play lunch $16
4 Play lunch $16

My Take

Chopped Canada is a double edged sword.  In one sense it can assign subjective culinary supremacy to any of a number  of aspiring and established chefs.  On the other hand it can be a shot to the ego and reputation if one were to lose.

Eric Wood’s appearance on Chopped Canada was consistent with his restaurant philosophy: respect for ingredients  highlighted with bold flavours. Despite this, Susur Lee couldn’t see the forest (in particular morel) mushrooms through the peas.  From the minute Eric missed the infamous snack cake on the plate, Susur had it out for him.  Perhaps it was some kind of king vs queen street rivalry or maybe a textbook  example of workplace bullying, but it struck me as odd.  After sulking about the snack cake, Susur went off on Eric’s blue rare duck, his accusations of making excuses, missing tahini, roasted morels that had the texture of leather and the inappropriate use of cardamom dust with key lime pie. Meanwhile, he turned a relative blind eye to things like overcooked salmon offered by other competitors.

Three’s a charm at the Beverley. In a sense, it has become my go to for a reliable place with a relevant and diverse menu in a beckoning environment.  In particular, the 4 play is a fun spin on a lunch special, featuring the freshest ingredients used to construct  a tongue-tickling portrait of a complete meal. There is a wide diversity of appetizers including the tasty butternut and farro salad.  Perhaps chef Lee should drop by the Beverley hotel for a little 4 play and if  he’s still grumpy after that, maybe he should just get Bent.

Review:Toronto:Midtown:L’Avenue

A business meeting brought me midtown for dinner.  Midtown is a place where restaurants are restaurants and not political statements or abstract expressions of social activism.  You can get an appetizer, main and dessert for a decent  price without the need for  an explanation about the difference between a starter, small plate or large plate.  The menus tend to be simple and the decor looks like a restaurants and not like Johnny’s auto shop.  Plus, you can have a conversation without having Radioactive by the Imagination Dragons blasting or listening to  Run DMC remind me about footwear:

Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare
myself homeboy got 50 pair
got blue and black cause I like to chill
and yellow and green when it’s time to get ill
got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball
with the heal inside make me 10 feet tall

(This is no crack at Run DMC.  I’d just as upset if Locked in the Trunk of a Car by the Tragically Hip  were blasting in my ear).

Unlike it’s name, L’Avenue is a smallish bistro on Bayview, not Avenue. It’s easy to miss with its quaint front; a freckle of the mosaic  that makes up the Leaside neighbourhood.  Like the name suggests, it focuses on french style cooking, although updated with lighter, fresher techniques and local, seasonal ingredients. There is an fairly extensive and reasonably priced list of red and white wines available  (many bottles are in the 35-50 dollar range) from a diversity of regions, Krombacher (Pils and Dark) on tap and a spattering of local and world renowned beer included a gluten-free choice as well

This night featured an oyster special which was served on a cloud of salty meringue.  They were fresh and meaty and seasoned nicely although I’m always a fan of a little heat on the side.

Oyster special
Oyster special

For my  hors d’oeuvres (or appetizers for the anglophone), I opted for sweetbreads in a promise to exchange some of them for the bone marrow at the table.  Sometimes sweetbreads run the risk over being overly greasy or gritty.  The chef avoided both and offered a simple dish atop fragrant streaks of coulis. The marrow was also served in it’s fundamental form, simple seasoned with some herbs and bread crumbs to add some crunch.

Sweetbreads
Sweetbreads
Bone Marrow
Bone Marrow $12

Our table’s family style commitment continued with an array of entrees which included the Fried Chicken “a la Basque”, Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” and a duck feature (we played rock paper and scissors to actually determine who would order the latter).   In summary, the execution of each dish was spot on.  The fried chicken was moist, the duck a beautiful medium rare and the scallop had a perfect char which  housed a glistening white interior.  Instead of relying on traditional french flavours such as ummm…butter, the chicken and seafood stew (as the names suggest) were  infused with Spanish flavours including tomato and saffron respectively. The duck was a bit more traditional but the addition of rhubarb  was stellar and a testament to their commitment to  use seasonal ingredients.

Fried Chicken “a la Basque” $21
Fried Chicken “a la Basque” $21
Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” $25
Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” $25
Duck Feature (mmm....Rhubarb)
Duck Feature (mmm….Rhubarb)

Here’s an interesting fact.  The pavlova dessert was named after the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (God,  I love wikipedia).  You would think that a dish with meringue as its foundation would have European origins, but in fact Pavlova is a creation of culinary juggernaut New Zealand (although Australia also tries to lay claim, possibly fueling the bitter Rugby rivalry which exists to this day). It was presented on a plate and with a style reminiscent of tea at  Gramma’s on Sunday.  Let’s call it an endearing cheesiness.  Like the dishes before, it was well executed with a twist, in this case a tart passion fruit custard.

Pavlova $8
Pavlova $8

My Take

Calling L’Avenue a french bistro is a bit of a misnomer.  Instead of small rich portions served in the most pretentious manner, the chefs invite Basque and Catalan flavours into many of the dishes and serve hearty portions in the midst of a casual environment.

L’Avenue bistro is like a good nap. It’s not the most exciting thing but it is refreshing and satisfying.  You get Egyptian cotton sheets and a small mint on your fluffed pillow iwhile relaxing as soft music senerades you in the background.  They adhere to a theme of comfort and tradition instead of throwing down an air mattress and trying to convince you it’s cool to sleep on it while blasting 2 Live Crew and then retweeting it when you do.

L'Avenue Bistro on Urbanspoon

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