I Battled Gyozilla at Kenzo

Most ramen joints are strutting their stuff right now.  Neck in neck with tacos, ramen was the top trend in the GTA in  2013.  Large windows showcasing the interior cramped quarters have become the norm for these eateries, so I was intrigued when I hit Kenzo noodle house on Dundas street over lunch.  Blinds cover the windows below a modest red sign and a logo of a rather mean looking dude with his arms crossed.  It seemed a bit taboo. Swinging open the door, I felt a little like Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown until I quickly realized the blinds were likely there to keep out the sun and not to hide something forbidden.  The decor was plain; in fact almost run down.  A combination of tables and booths line the walls which are covered with aged pictures advertising Matcha tea smoothies.  The creepy white ceramic cat which features in the majority of Asian restaurants stared and  waved at me with that look I don’t quite trust.

A pleasant waitress came by quickly with a glass of water a handed me a menu which looked like it had been dropped in a puddle and then used as a origami medium to create that creepy white cat or some other creature.  It consisted of a number of ramen bowls, categorized into basic, hot, cuisine and  tonkotsu.  There were also a few interesting sides including a breaded pork chop,  gyoza and octopus balls.  As usual, I ordered the gyoza dumplings and opted for the tonkotsu ramen. You have the option of three levels of spice, so I ordered the middle intensity.  The soup was out in minutes, served on a tray with shichimi and pepper. It was a pretty soup, topped with finely slice scallions, bok choy, bamboo shoots, roasted pork, egg and a fishcake.  The broth was a vibrant, milky white contrasted by specks of red indicated that some heat would ensue.  It had a balanced taste with a bite (definitely don’t go level 2 if you don’t like spice) that didn’t overpower the dish.  In fact, there was no prevailing flavour which made for a nice base.  The liberal use of scallions really helped the soup and the other ingredients, including the noodles, were cooked properly.

Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95
Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95

Unlike the other ramen houses I have been to, the Gyoza came after the soup.  I choose an order of three as opposed to the full order.  When they arrived I realized why there were blinds were on the windows.  They were housing Gyozilla, the largest Japanese dumpling I have seen in a restaurant.  I felt feeble as I lifted my puny chopsticks to battle my pork filled foe.  Although a little greasy, they popped with flavour, especially when coupled with the tangy sauce on the side. I eventually won the battle, but it took three or four bites each to do so.

Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50
Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50

My Take

Kenzo is like a B movie, offering one of the largest cast of ramen bowls in the downtown core.   While other ramen houses have fancy decors and lines out the door, Kenzo is modest in appearance and appears to have a devoted following (there was a steady stream of people the whole time I was there).  Relatively speaking, it’s almost unmentioned on urbanspoon.   After conquering Gyozilla in an epic battle, I did feel a bit like Anthony Bourdain in a Walter Mitty sort of way.  Having seen the octopus balls at another table,  I’d come back for the sequel, this time turning my attention to Oodako, the giant cephalopod which ravished villages in the B movie classic  King Kong vs Godzilla. My chopsticks are ready.

Oodako
Oodako- My next target

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:The Junction:Humble Beginnings

The Junction has recently taken on the theme “If we build it they will come”, the most famous line from Field of Dreams.   A bit off the beaten path, this area has been overshadowed by others in Toronto which have more established destinations, better parking and more convenient transit access.  Most vendors along Dundas West will state that the local community keeps business alive but they would more than welcome a larger crowd moving forward.  This optimism has resulted in an explosion of new eateries, from small sandwich shops and coffee shops to hipster destinations such as the Farmhouse Tavern and the Indie Alehouse Brewing Co.

Humble beginnings is a modest joint which focuses on quick meals and catering in addition to coffee and baked goods.  Although the lion share of the menu is dedicated to dishes with a focus from local meat, poultry and fish suppliers, special attention is given to vegan and gluten free options as well.  I popped in around lunch, so I leaned more toward the soup and sandwich menu as opposed to the larger entrees.

The soup of the day was pumpkin served with apple croutons (which were essentially dried apple rings).    It was absolutely delicious. Small bits of fragrant ginger were like pop rocks within a smooth slurry of wonderfully seasoned pumpkin.  The apple added a morsel of sweetness and chewiness which was a pleasant contrast.  For around $5, it was a large portion.  I also appreciated the fact that it was heated to order on a gas stove as opposed to drawn out of a luke warm cauldron with an unknown start time.

Pumpkin soup with Apple Croutons
Pumpkin soup with Apple Croutons

As for the sandwich (or as they put it… got to run, but it on a bun), I opted for the grilled chicken with a cherry chili aioli.  It was a simple concoction  of nicely cooked although  a flimsy amount of chicken.  What it lacked in content  it made up for in flavour, dressed with a tornado of sweet and heat  matched with a blanket of peppery arugula.   Although the bun was a bit mediocre,  in the end it was a decent sandwich. I found $11 a bit steep but not asinine.

Grilled Chicken with Cheery Chili Aioli $11
Grilled Chicken with Cheery Chili Aioli $11

My Take

Humble beginnings is exactly that…humble.  It attempts to serve fresh and locally sourced foods without a lot of noise.  In addition for those looking for fresh food options, consideration is given to vegans and those with gluten sensitivity.  There aren’t  animal heads hanging on the wall or  house music blaring in the background.   All the dishes are under 15 bucks, the sandwiches under $11  and include a pleasant array of all things that grow. swim or walk. The soup was delicious and the sandwich was satisfying.  By itself, it isn’t Field of Dreams in the sense that it won’t bring bleachers of patrons into the Junction, but it’s certainly a building block in this growing community’s attempt to attract the otherwise trend centric foodies looking for the newest place to swing a bat.

Humble Beginnings on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Coffee:Tampered Press

When it comes to coffee houses, there’s a few things I look for:

1.  Decent internet.  Ample plug-in sockets are an asset.

2. A  welcoming decor including enough space to avoid having somebody reading my computer screen or vice-versa (speaking of which I was in a coffee shop and the guy beside me had a glamour shot of himself as his wallpaper…creepy).

3.  At least something decent to munch on.

A bonus is always an attempt at a unique interpretation of a coffee concoction.

Tampered press is located at the corner of Crawford and Dundas.  It’s a humble exterior complete with a bowl full of dog treats and water on the sidewalk.  When you enter, it opens up into a spacious square room containing communal and smaller tables.  The high shelves are lined with books (which included what I’m assuming was a get this the hell out of my house donated copy of  Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons). There’s art on the wall, they take credit cards, adopt the clean spoon/dirty spoon concept and have a tip cup that says “Tips” as opposed to “College Fund” or “Karma Jar”.

The list of beverages included the standard lattes and americanos but I was interested in the dirty chai.  I think  I’m drawn to dirty things, so I had to ask.  Turns out it’s a chai latte laced with espresso which, according to the barista, balances the normal overbearing sweetness of a normal chai tea latte. Sounded good to me, so I ordered a medium for about four bucks. With a skill which was second nature and while discussing the ridiculousness of vegetable bread, she produced a great drink complete with the signature leaf decoration on top. I quite enjoyed it and  went up for seconds.  The cheese croissant was pretty good as well.

Dirty Chai
Dirty Chai

My Take

There’s a million coffee shops in Toronto (500 000 if you exclude Starbucks).  Some look like they were carved out of a garage and others have a cosiness where you can stretch out, people watch and surf the net with decent wi-fi for the next coffee shop you’ll infiltrate. The Tampered Press is the latter.  They make a decent latte, serve a good croissant and have lots of characters to gawk at….and you get a leaf on your latte! As for the name, it might be fun to open up either a dog groomer or a hair studio next door called “The Pampered Tress”.  That way, people would get even more confused looking for a coffee shop with a Crawford address who’s storefront actually sits on Dundas.

Tampered Press on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Little Italy/Portugal Village:The Guild

Guild is a cool and near forgotten word in the English language. It was once a medieval term used  to describe a a pseudo-union of artisan specialists who unified to protect their trade. Secrecy was a prominent component  necessary to protect things like unique trade secrets.  Since then, the word has become a bit dormant. Today, we do see it used in Hollywood. The Screen Actor’s Guild, a group formed in the 1930s to combat deplorable working conditions in the film industry and  has now evolved to over 105000 thousand numbers when it merged to form SAG-AFTRA a few years back. The modern quilt guild (MQG)  is another organization which uses this term. With over 150 worldwide chapters devoted  to the art of making quilts, it appears to be a bit more than it seems.  A  quick check of their blog (http://themodernquiltguild.wordpress.com/) shows members sporting bad ass tattoos and racy pictures from the Quiltcon conference’s 80’s night. It  makes you think they might do more than make pretty blankets. Needless to say, I was intrigued when a somewhat secretive restaurant aptly named “The Guild” opened its doors recent in the Dundas/Davenport area. I guess my question was “Would this eatery be like every other trendy restaurant or might it have some unique attributes like cool menu items you could only consume  if you executed a secret handshake that you learned  from a MQG creation? Let’s start with the set.  It’s a large space with a window front which opens to the street and an open kitchen in the back.  There are centrepieces on the solid wood tables, funky hippie murals painted on the walls and shiny gold ceilings. Think of it as Casino Royale  meets Austin Power’s shag pad.  There is a large bar stocking all sorts of sinful potables. There is an abundant drink list with everything from the standards (eg. old-fashioned) to funkier choices (e.g. cider sours) to non-alcoholic shakes made from almond milk. The cider sour was a special drink they made for a private function the week before and it stayed on the secret menu.  It was tasty although I would have liked it a little more sour.  The shake was refreshing as well; a good example of a grown-up non-alcoholic cocktail other than a virgin daiquiri.

Cider Sour and Chocolate Mint Almond MIlk Shake
Cider Sour and Chocolate Mint Almond Milk Shake

The staff seem to be made up of SAG actors themselves,  sporting nice coifs and good looks.  They knew their lines as well, reciting the menu with expertise and confidence. In fact, my waiter looked like Zachary Quinto.  Even the kitchen staff look the part, wearing mechanic uniforms in the garage-like open kitchen and moving fluidly while adding pinches of salt during food preparation. There is a bit of secrecy around the menu.  The website posts a sample menu but it changes frequently given the availability of local ingredients. The bits and bites menu is like a series of movie trailers.  It offers a morsel of entertainment instead of a whole dish  for just a couple of bucks. guild menu bits I opted for a trailer trio; the white cheddar croquette, the guanciale wrapped cherries and rabbit haunches (a secret menu item available to members of the guild).  The cherry was a delectable little treat and the croquette was ok. The rabbit, which I equate to a dark meat version of a chicken wing, was spiced nicely and cooked well.

Bits and Bites $2
Bits and Bites $2

With the trailers consumed, it was time for feature presentation: guild menu main . The beet salad was kind of like Scream 5… pretty predictable.  Despite the use of the trendy sous vide cooking method , it was a nicely dressed but still a standard salad.

Beet Salad $7
Beet Salad $7

The local mushrooms, pine nut puree and egg emulsion was like a remake of a classic flick. It was a twist on a classic mushroom omelette except it was deconstructed so that the mushroom was the prominent ingredient. It was a pleasant starter as it strongly resembled  the taste of the original it was based on.

Local mushrooms, pine put puree and egg emulsion-$9
Local mushrooms, pine put puree and egg emulsion-$9

Unfortunately, the octopus was sold out (kind of like trying to get a ticket for a marvel comic film on opening night), so I opted for the quail and scallop dish.  It was a tale of two proteins.  The scallops were cooked wonderfully and seasoned well.  The quail, on the other hand, was overcooked and rather dry. I’d equate it to seeing a movie with a great and no so great actor (eg. any Lethal Weapon, Good Will Hunting  or Rush Hour).

Quail and Scallops $19
Quail and Scallops $19

I’m always intrigued as to whether or not a place with a small menu can accommodate various food requirements including vegetarian options.  In this case, a “not on the menu” gnocchi with a tomato sauce was the offering.  Like the beet salad, it was fairly routine and fairly predictable but tasty nonetheless.

Not on the menu gnocchi $16
Not on the menu gnocchi $16

The dessert menu offers a half dozen reasonable priced options.  I opted for the bruleed fennel, rum kumquat ice cream and coffee panna cotta.  I expected the brulee to be a fennel flavored custard, but instead it was a knife and fork requiring  caramelized piece of fennel . The apple and chocolate accompaniments were perfect although the kumquat was a bit odd.  The oddity of the kumquat continued in its matching with the rum in the main flavouring of the ice cream which in itself had  a great texture. The coffee panna cotta had an intense, almost overwhelming flavour that was somewhat offset by the condensed milk  ice cream.  The hazelnut crumble was pretty chewy and a bit too sticky, making for difficult eating from a dental perspective.

Bruleed Fennel $6
Bruleed Fennel $6
Rum Kumquat Ice Cream $3
Rum Kumquat Ice Cream $3
Coffee Panna Cotta $6
Coffee Panna Cotta $6

My Take The Guild follows most of the rules, but offers some uniqueness in the bits and bites and relatively inexpensive dessert menu.  There is a good, diverse cocktail menu and the decor is funky and current.  In general, the food is predictable and gets one thumb up and one thumb down. It’s still early in production, but I can see the potential of this place.  Fixing the simple problems, removing their infatuation of kumquats and promoting their uniqueness will no doubt make me a guild member moving forward. Speaking of guilds…I think I’ll approach SAG with an idea.  I’m going to propose a spinoff called “Daughters of Anarchy” starring Charlize Theron.  The premise is that the MQG is no doubt a secret organization with the intention of sending messages on behalf of  the Illuminati via the fabrication of Hello Kitty and Holly Hobbie  quilts.  In episode one, Toronto calls on the Cleveland MQG chapter to complete the patch over of rival quilters the Sassy Scarborough Stitchers, lead by Mabel MacKinnon (played by Betty White). After succeeding, the group is on “pins and needles” and must devise a “cover-up” to stay out of the limelight. Then again, maybe I’ll just stick to stuffing my face and blogging about it. The Guild on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Sansotei Ramen

I dropped into this Ramen house around 11 am on a Tuesday morning, taking advantage of the fact that there wasn’t a crowd huddled around the door like you’d see during a Sylvester Stallone sighting.  The reasons for the mass crowds are threefold:

1.  It’s ramen and it’s Toronto.

2.  The place only holds about 30 people.

3.  The policy is wait outside because there’s no room inside.

The decor is plain.  The tables are bare.  The menu is a small laminated, folded card.  The tiny kitchen is barely visible in the back. No cliffhanger here…I followed my standard routine and ordered shio ramen with a side of gyoza dumplings.

The Ramen

It was quite a simple presentation, including green onion, noodles, a few bamboo shoots, pork belly and a softish boiled egg. It ignored the bells and whistles such as nori, pickled plums and goji berries. The broth was rich and full of pork flavor.  On one hand, it was not oversalted. On the other, it was a bit greasy which wasn’t  helped by the really fatty pork cut submerged in the broth.  The egg was cooked and seasoned well, the amount of onion and shoots were not enough and the noodles (ordered thick) were a bit starchy. In the end, it was a decent bowl and less than $9.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The Gyoza

The lipophilic  nature of Sansotei was evident again when I ordered the gyoza.  Four pieces  for $4.50 (I ate one before I remembered I didn’t take a picture) arrived Stallone style (slightly tanned and glistening with oil) and served with a tasty dipping sauce.   Despite being a bit greasy, the dough had a great texture (unlike Stallone  post Judge Dredd) in that it was not too chewy nor too crispy.  The filling was well seasoned and not watered down in a fashion similar to the plot of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Gyoza
Gyoza

My Take

Sansotei is a small, simple eatery with an equally simple menu.  It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other ramens, but despite being a bit greasy,  the rich broth is flavorful enough and is not oversalted.  None of the broths are vegetarian. The gyoza were terrific although a quick wipe with a napkin wouldn’t hurt.  I really need to do a ramen power  ranking but as it stands Sansotei comes in Stallone style again (an underdog who  proves to be a serious contender).  In the end, it may not the be the Rocky of all ramen, but it sure isn’t  the Rhinestone  either.

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Dundas West:The Hogtown Cure

Imagine a place where you can grab a coffee, pop open your computer, enter a clever password (I won’t give it away but it has something to do with a very tasty pork product) and expose yourself to seasons of scents which go from smoked vegetables to pickled onions to freshly baked bread. Welcome to the Hogtown Cure, a newish joint open at the corner of Dufferin and Dundas. Part cafe, part deli and part grab and go, I was keen to sit down and see if it would cure my wintertime blues.

The Hogtown Cure Interior
The Hogtown Cure Interior

Perks

Although the hot beverages are a bit  pricy, Hogtown Cure offers a wide variety of coffee elixirs, notably the red eye and black eye featuring one and two shots of espresso in a cup of drip coffee respectively.  Both the coffee and espresso had a balanced tone and were of good quality and I’m pretty sure that the red eye even gave me wings.

The Hogtown Reuben was a unique spin on the classic sandwich.  It was proportional from an ingredient standpoint. The homemade pastrami  was super tender and reminded me of slow-cooked roast beef  as opposed to the boiled, shriveled balls of meat from Shopsy’s I associated with this type of meat during my youth.  The brine and the seasoning was subtly appropriate.    The sauerkraut and cheese were flavourful.  My only issue was that the bread was toasted and not fried on the grill. Call me picky but I crave the chewy texture of some lightly grilled fresh bread as part of  a hot sandwich vs one made with crunchy of toast.

The mushroom soup was good as well.  It has the earthiness of….well…earth.  Not dirt, earth.  The mushroom was the star and the surrounding broth was neither too flimsy nor too intense.

The Hogtown Reuben with Mushroom Soup
The Hogtown Reuben with Mushroom Soup

Sludge

Although I enjoyed the constant olfactory stimulation, I left smelling a little like a smoker…meaning a food smoker, not a chain smoker.  My wafting scent coupled with my unwavering stare after sucking back a red-eye may have had resulted in a few odd glances my way afterwards, but I really didn’t care. I had a gut full of reuben and was strolling into a strong head wind which aired me out like Grandma’s pantaloons on a brisk summer day.

In most cases, I have an unnatural admiration for slaw and wasn’t fond of Hogtown’s offering.  I found it had the monotone taste of wine vinegar which overwhelmed the harmony of sweet, sour and sulfur present in a great slaw.

The Final Sip

I love the concept of this place.  It’s kind of like hanging out at your mom’s place doing work  all afternoon while she’s slaving away at the stove concocting a plethora of her favorites.  Your attempts at intellectual advancement are challenged  by sultry sensations of savory sundries.  The coffee is decent, the food is pretty good and you can find an electrical outlet here and there. You can even grab a few hundred grams of unique local cheese,  few slabs of duck bacon or a confit leg on the way out. Let’s see mom serve that with her scalloped potatoes.

The Hogtown Cure on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Santouka Ramen

Toronto is one of a  number of  North American cities in which Santouka Ramen, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, has set up shop in hopes of capturing the growing base of noodle fans.  Santouka promises quick and efficient service but tries  to deviate from the notion that all ramen soups are created equal.  It steers away from rich pork belly, eggs and nori offered by others in lieu of  a somewhat cleaner bowl of salty broth.  I arrived at 1210 and got the last seat, which was at the bar with a clear view of the kitchen. I was a bit memorized by the long stove holding up 8 large vats  of bubbling broth presumably prepared by a methodical and somewhat mystical  process. Otherwise, it had the feel of a karaoke bar set up in a subway station, with orders sung in Japanese melodies muffling the continuous sound of clanking soup bowls. I had my meal and was out in about  30 minutes, receiving  envious stares from the 12-15 onlookers in line when I left.

Maybe

It’s apparent that each interpretation of this traditional dish is in the eye of the beholder.   In this case, the Shio Ramen  was a mellow, salty broth with a firm, tasty noodle and adorned with green onion, crisp bamboo shoots, fish cake, ribbons of kikurage (mushrooms), fatty back rib pork and a signature pickled plum.  If I were a soup architect constructing the perfect bowl, I’d say the foundation (broth) was a bit oversalted, the walls (noodles)  were solid and the accents spiced up the decor reasonably well. Both the plum and the spiral fishcake were a cute finish; a delicate  reminder of the artistic importance put on  Japanese food.  The shoots and shrooms were mainly for taste and texture and somewhat succeeded at both but more so the latter.  The pork was scarce. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the lack of an egg.  It’s like building  a house without a pool; it works but you’re left feeling like there’s something missing.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The gyoza were satisfying. Not doughy or soggy,  they had a nicely seasoned and fairly abundant filling and were served with a carousel of condiments which included chili oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce. At a little more than a buck a dumpling, they hit the spot.  I would equate them to a nicely manicured but not spectacular lawn sitting outside the previously described  ramen house.

Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Gyoza Condiments
Gyoza Condiments

Mundane

I find something sacred about green tea and somewhat expect a little ceremony when I visit a Japanese restaurant.  What I don’t expect is a generic tea bag (I think I can get a 100 bags of this brand for a buck or two at any teashop)  in a cup for $2.50.  At least bring me a good quality loose leaf tea and/or put it in a  pot.  Otherwise, don’t charge me a ridiculous price for an average product that maybe costs a cent or two.

My $2.50 tea.
My $2.50 tea.

My Take

Once again, no two soups are created equal.  The seemingly infinite number of ramen houses mean an infinite number of ramen dishes and an infinite number of opinions. Santouka offered a reasonable competitor with a well flavoured but salt heavy broth (I drove home with the feeling that I had a chalice of water from the dead sea).  The pork was a nice cut but the portion was minimal. The remaining additions were just ok.   In summary,  it’s a worthy, well-calculated  addition to the neighbourhood of ramen soups, offering a house with a strong foundation, a few frills and a nice front yard (gyoza), although I still do miss the pool.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon