My AFC Divisional Round Cook-off: Tennessee vs Baltimore

In the case of this match-up, I think I was more excited about the cooking than I was about the actual game. Maybe Baltimore is not the most sought culinary destination in the US but it is famous for Old Bay spice and the iconic crab cake. It’s also home to Chap’s Pit Beef (the sandwich stop in the parking lot of an LGBTQ strip club) and Sip and Bite (the greek diner with some of the best feta cheese I’ve ever had) which rank number 8 and 13 on my DDD list respectively.

Nashville, on the other hand, is one of the more popular foodie stops which offers a blend of old school southern food outlets and chic eateries. I have had the pleasure of dining at Husk in the Sean Brock days and to this day Arnold’s Country Kitchen and its meat and three remains at the top on my list of all time Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Before getting into the showdown, a few comments about the game:

  1. I was surprised to see that Ryan Tannehill was only 31 so I can’t use my “Lamar Jackson got his ass kicked by his dad” joke…maybe more like his older brother although I often equate QB years to be more like dog vs human. I think it was important for Jackson to taste defeat so he can bounce back in a Patrick Mahomes vs RG III fashion. That said, it should be pointed out that Tannehill only threw for 88 yards with no picks whereas Jackson tossed for 365 but with 2 INTs so it’s hard to say that Ryan was the better QB in the end.
  2. I think the irony is the fact that Baltimore got beat by using the same blueprint that won them Superbowl XLVII…a moderately talented QB and good defense vs a flashy offence lead by a run/pass threat. Similar to this game, Flacco manged to avoid interceptions whereas Kapernick’s balanced offence numbers (including 62 rushing yards himself) was tainted by a pick and a sub 100 QB rating.
  3. Everything said, I can’t get excited about Tennessee. Sure, watching Henry run for almost 200 yards and average 6.5 per carry is somewhat exciting but I can’t help but remember every week of this year’s football pool when I cringed while being forced to choose a winner in any of the painful AFC South interdivisional game.

For the cook-off, I went with the aforementioned crab cake versus Nashville hot chicken. There are hundreds of crab cake concoctions out there but I opted for Andrew Zimmerman’s recipe which is definitely crab forward and uses saltine crackers as its binder. I did take the liberty of throwing in a pinch of Old Bay Seasoning for good measure. They fried up beautifully and really only need a bit of lemon as an accent.

My Tennessee choice was Nashville Hot Chicken, a signature item in many Tennessee eateries including Hattie B’s. Fried chicken is ubiquitous in the US but the uniqueness of this dish is the basting sauce which is a combination of fat, cayenne pepper and sugar. The result is extreme sweet/heat. I used a whole chicken which I cut into 8 pieces instead of quarters allowing for a reasonable frying time of 15 minutes or so. I tempered the heat with a tangy side of slaw, some homemade bread and some lakeside pickles which worked really well.

My Take

Unlike the game, when it came to the cook-off there was no clear winner . I mean choosing between a crab cake and fried chicken is a dubious task especially when the chosen recipes are spot on. Honestly, I think fried chicken holds it own without the Nashville cayenne/sugar topping and I guess I can handle a good crab cake without an aioli although I won’t omit the Old Bay seasoning under any circumstances.

I think Lamar Jackson needs an ass kicking to remind him he’s not quite prime time yet (6 of their games were against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati after all). Next year we will see whether he takes the path of Pat Mahomes or rides (or kneels) away in the sunset like Colin Kapernik. With Marcos Mariota in his prime, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryan Tannehill ends up following in the footsteps of the likes of other past and present 30 plusers like Joe Flacco/Peyton Manning and Kirk Cousins/Brett Favre by joining a retirement team such as Denver or Minnesota.

A Tale of Two Steakhouses: La Castile vs Jacobs and Co…What the Dickens!

It was the best of prime, it was the worst of prime…. it was aged and toothsome, it was aged and scrumptious….

Ok..that is an atrocious parody of one of the most recognizable paragraphs in the history of British literature but it may be the closest I will ever get to literary beauty of Charles Dickens.  I read an interesting blog post from Tori Avey, who did a beautiful job summarizing the attention to detail that Dickens penned in many of his famous works, especially when it came to his description of scenes in which food and drink were the central theme.

http://toriavey.com/history-kitchen/2012/12/charles-dickens-food-and-drink/

The steakhouse has a long tradition in dining folklore.  Although a steak is a ubiquitous item on restaurant menus,  making it the focal point of an eatery has a history as old as Dickens himself. Traditionally, there are number of key and consistent characteristics which make a steakhouse what it is:

  1. Mandatory dim lights and oversized tables, presumably to create a more relaxing environment and help with ugly dates.  In all seriousness, an interesting study was done by Cornell university in 2012 that demonstrated that dim lighting, white table cloths and soft music resulted in patrons ordering  just as much, rating the food higher, eating less and taking longer to finish which could mean more booze.. which can also help with the ugly date.
  2. A staff trained to remind you everytime…like a stewardess showing you how to buckle a seatbelt, when you order a steak that medium rare is bright pink in middle…every time.
  3. A menu which includes sleepy items for those who go to a steakhouse and don’t order steak.  This usually means chicken, some kind of fish and a token meatless dish in event a hapless vegetarian is in the mix.
  4. A steak menu which typically doesn’t include anything with the steak (except maybe one of those roasted tomatoes with the bread crumbs on top).
  5. Sides which include asparagus, mushrooms, creamed spinach and if you’re lucky…brussel sprouts.
  6. A place where shrimp cocktails and wedge salads never go out of style.

Despite this blueprint, there exists a huge spectrum ranging from old school to modern. In the last month I have gone to two steakhouses which represent both ends of the gamut.  On one side is La Castile, the Mississauga landmark which describes itself as “the place to see..the place to be seen”. Toronto’s Jacobs on the other hand, is probably actually the place to see…the place to be seen.   Let’s review:

The Website

When you go to the La Castile website, you will be serenaded by “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller while watching a slide show highlighting every nook and cranny of the large and twisted mansion.  Jacobs on the other hand, offers a silent review of its modernized menu without the need for background music from 1940.

The Piano Bar

Both have a piano bar tab.  La Castile offers  plush red velvet, dimly lit chandeliers, private alcoves and stained glass windows.  This creates a mystical ambiance offering live music from Wednesday to Saturday complemented by rumours of the odd Russian “escort”. Jacobs, on the other hand,   simply lists the Tuesday to Saturday lineup on the website and adhere to a bring your own escort policy.

The Decor 

La Castile is quite easy to find.  Located along Dundas St East near the 427, the best instruction is to “follow the light” as it next to impossible to miss the flames shooting out of the brick structure surrounding the restaurant.   Parking is abundant.  Jacobs, on the other hand, is in downtown Toronto on Brant Street right off of King. It’s grey, boxy exterior is rather subtle which is a sharp contrast to the fireworks of its suburban counterpart. Parking is scarce although you could opt for $20 valet parking if you don’t want the hassle.

La Castile has the classic steakhouse setup.  Walking in, you’re not sure whether or not you are at church, a funeral home or a museum.  Dated carpets, stained glass and plush chairs let people experience what first class in the Titanic would feel like.   A dress code is in effect of course which probably includes chain mail armour since I would not have been a bit surprised if I was seated at a table next to Peter Dinklage and served wine in a metal goblet.  Jacobs is a lot sleeker, abandoning the white table clothes  in lieu of bare modern wood tables and sleek chairs which omit the royal red plush.  The concept is much more open and much less distracting.  As the dress code, they don’t have to announce it…people just know.

The Service

La Castile opened in 1968 and I would be very surprised if the staff weren’t exactly the same as back then.  Of course,  they have aged since Woodstock but can now easily be referred to as grumpy old men in tuxedos instead of grumpy young ones.  Jacobs, on the other hand, has a much younger staff who, instead of looking like they are in a wedding party.  are dressed a bit more casually but still quite chic. They were far less grumpy as well.

The Food 

Steakhouses are like brunch; there is a unwritten permission to elevate prices slightly to much higher than the norm. This is somewhat the case with La Castile but the ceiling is somewhat limited by its stingy suburban patrons and the fact that most of the regular clientele still think it’s the 1970s.  Jacobs, on the other hand, takes advantage of its urban locale to price things in the stratosphere.  Twenty dollar Caesar salads and fifteen dollar sides surround steaks that are often $100 and can hit $700 if you want the really good stuff.

La Castile welcomes you with a sectioned silver tray filled with feta, dills and olives (and lots of water poured by Mr. Chucklelopolous to wash down the accompanying sodium).

La Castille Pickles
La Castille Pickles

At La Castile, I had to go for the french onion soup ($9) which fittingly came in a fitting medieval metal goblet/urn atop the same doily I used to slap on side plates when I worked in the restaurant industry in the late 80’s and early 90s.  There was no shortage of cheese and the broth was thick with onions.  All in all, it wasn’t bad but after the pickles and the soup, I was desperately searching for a diuretic which I was confident  one of the many waiters would have had in their pockets along with a nitro pill and maybe a Cialis.

La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)
La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)

For the main, I resisted the urge to insist to share the Chateaubriand with my table mates and  instead opted for the peppercorn steak, which was “deliciously sharp and served with wine sauce”.  Now, I’m unclear as to the sharpness but it was nicely seasoned and cooked a tad above a  proper medium rare but as a bonus also served with a California mix of vegetables also reminiscent on my 1980’s doily days.

La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44
La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44

Jacobs, on the other hand, started with their famous complimentary popovers, which are a mild twist on the classic yorkshire pudding (and set the stage for the general theme of a steakhouse with a modern twist). They hardly needed the butter given the fact they had a really rich flavour.

Now, I missed the table side assembly of the $19 caesar salad (I was a bit late getting to dinner) but it was waiting when I got there.  I’m missing the picture but I assure you it looked, smelled and tasted like a caesar salad.  I will go as far as saying it was one of the best one I’ve had in a long while.  The double smoked bacon was thick and delicious and the dressing was heavy with garlic.

The steaks are about quality, not quantity (not to mention the fact most are triple digits in price) so the table shared a local Ontario 12 oz Ribeye ($60) and an 18oz Nebraska bone-in striploin ($81) complemented with sides which included brussel sprouts and walnuts, duck fat fries, mushrooms and sauteed rapini (~$15 each). Upon request, they will slice the steak for you to avoid butchery or fights at the table. I failed to get a picture since there was a mad rush once the steak was placed on the table.   I did, however, snap the cornucopia once it was on the plate. The steak was cooked perfectly and was exceptional in flavour.  The sides were well prepared as well but I would hope so for the staggering price.

Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries
Two types of Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries

Even the offerings at the end of the meal  are indicative of the differences between the two restaurants.  While Jacobs brings a small plate of after dinner confections (cookies and chocolates) as well as a sinfully delicious packaged muffin for later to the table, La Castile sets a bowl of jelly beans (reminiscent of the ones I used to beg for out of the vending machine at a grocery store when I was 6 years old) by the door so one can grab a spoonful on the way out.

My Take

Although steakhouses across the board share numerous similarities, I think La Castile and Jacobs represent both ends of the spectrum.  La Castile comes in with a “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality even though nothing has been fixed since 1968.  Whereas some may call the decor nostalgic (of medieval times perhaps), I call it tired but I suppose it works well for suburban johns with a fetish for Eastern Europeans.  Jacobs, on the other hand, focuses on aged steaks as opposed to aged decor, offering sleek surroundings in the heart of downtown Toronto and a  variety of special occasions steaks that fall well outside a lot of standard dinner budgets.

In the end, any steak house across the board including the many chains including  the Keg, Ruth’s Chris, Hy’s, Chop  etc, will follow a similar blueprint and inevitably cost you a small fortune.  That said, if you want to experience the extremes of this cuisine,  I think La Castile and Jacobs represent opposite ends of the spectrum whether it be urban vs. suburban, modern vs. traditional or a desire  to hobnob with the cool kids vs cosplaying  as Robb Stark in the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones. Something tells me if Dickens wrote “A Storm of Swords” instead of George R.R. Martin, then the description of the butchery of the meal would have been much more detailed than that of King Robb Stark and his ill-fated army.

Jacob's and Co. Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Castile Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chopping the Dynamic Duo at the Tavern by Trevor

Tavern by Trevor is another example of the cross-pollination that is occurring in Toronto.  Partly a way to jump on the small plate phenomenon that has taken the city by storm and partly a means of dealing with the inertia of local foodies to try surrounding neighborhoods, the tavern recently opened at the corner of Spadina and Richmond.  I was impressed by the small yet inventive and reasonably priced menu. Chef Trevor Wilkinson teams up with restaurateur Mike Yaworski in an odd couple type collaboration.   Chef Trevor is the owner of Trevor Bar and Kitchen which has sustained the volatile Toronto dining scene while watching others come and go along the Wellington Street stretch. He also recently appeared as a contestant on Chopped Canada this past year.

I arrived and decided to sit at the makeshift patio (a few tables plus a number of stools beneath a counter made of 2x4s which looked like an inventive RONA project) which took over part of the wide sidewalk along Spadina Avenue.   The waitress was quick to arrive with the food and drink menus.  Boozewise, there are three tap beer from the local Amsterdam brewery plus an array of bottles, big bottles and cans.  The wine list has around 10 bottles of both red and white wine with most in the $40-60 range.  There is also a half a dozen or so bourbons plus a small list of cocktails priced at $11/each. I started with an old-fashioned served with bourbon, sugar cube, angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  It was a decent drink but was served with too much ice making it difficult to disperse the sugar which had settled at the bottom of the glass.

Old-Fashioned $11
Old-Fashioned $11

For the most part, the food menu is structured by price points.  All “Bar food” is $11, salads are $10, “from the stove” is $15 and  entrees are $21. There are also a few sandwiches ($12-14) and sides are $5. There is also the ability to add a number of proteins to the salad.  I ordered the  green pea & lettuce with feta & mint salad and added ginger and garlic fried chicken. For the entree, I went with the bbq octopus, prawns & chorizo with fennel & radish in wild leek vinaigrette.  That’s when things got bad. The salad arrived in a large white bowl and presentation was far from remarkable. The only lettuce was romaine  and it was cut ribbon style with a knife (one of my pet peeves).  I don’t know if the lettuce was warmed first or just not fresh because I found myself pulling out  brown and wilted pieces. From what I could salvage, it was a good flavour combination but I certainly wasn’t enjoying the pea and feta hunting through a jungle of limp romaine. Turning my attention to the chicken, I was equally disappointed.  It was boneless and served with an aioli.  The pieces varied in size and thickness.  I cut into the first thick piece and it was pink. A second thick piece was also pink.  I cut into a third thinner piece and found it cooked properly and found the coating to  be very tasty.  When bringing this to the attention of the waitress, I was told that she just ordered it and it looked like that so it’s fine.  She left only to return a few minutes later to tell me that she checked with the kitchen and in fact the chicken was cooked and it looked like that because it was dark meat.  Then she proceeded to tell me that they were out of the octopus and asked  if I would like anything else instead.  I politely and thankfully said no.

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7
Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7

"Cooked" chicken
“Cooked” chicken

 

Select Lettuce from Salad
Select Lettuce from Salad

My Take

This is one of the worst dining experiences I have had in Toronto in a long time. First, serve a cocktail that can be consumed properly.  Second, either use fresh romaine or don’t prepare it so it wilts. I thought the reason you used romaine was for the vibrant crunch.   Third, if the chicken is pink it is undercooked and the fact that I didn’t eat it should be a hint that despite the reassurances from the waitress and the kitchen (who actually didn’t look at the chicken), I was not happy with the dish.  As a footnote, I have asked 5 people since if the chicken looked undercooked based on the picture and all agreed unanimously.  Fourth, it you are only going to offer three entrees on a menu, you shouldn’t run out of one.  Furthermore, you shouldn’t wait until the   customer orders it before you realize it’s not available.  Fifth, if a customer is clearly unhappy with the experience, perhaps something should be done.  Even an apology would have been sufficient.  Instead, I left paying my bill having eaten only a few bites of salad and a couple of small, thin pieces of chicken. All I can say is this meal is a far cry from the Coq au Vin I had at Trevor Bar and Kitchen a few years ago.

For serving wilted lettuce, raw chicken and not having octopus….Chef Wilkinson..you’ve been chopped.

(I’m aware that in fact Chef Wilkinson did not in fact cook the food I attempted to eat but it is his name on the place!).

 

The Tavern by Trevor on Urbanspoon

Review:DDD:Baltimore:Sip and Bite

This is a lazy one.  I wrote this review on Yelp! last summer and I’m doing a cut and paste with a few additions.

Sip & Bite is a true diner located in the vicinity of downtown Baltimore since 1948. It has evolved into an iconic joint which now ships it’s crab cakes, mugs and T-shirts nationwide.

Sip and Bite Front
Sip and Bite Front

Sip and Bite Cup
Sip and Bite Cup

When I entered, the first thing I saw were three or four cooks busy on the grill cooking eggs, breakfast meats and potatoes. It was a divine sight. They had a synchronicity reminiscent of a team event at the Olympic games.

Although I didn’t meet the owner, I met Deena, one of the waitresses and she was terrific. When I ordered the DDD platter, ( famous crab cake and spanakopita) she told me to order the Greek salad and not the sides since the intense flavours of the sides would interfere with the crab cake. I smiled, nodded and agreed. She was right. The greek salad had the best feta I have ever tasted. Deena proudly told me it was barrel-aged imported feta and I believed her. The crab cake was amazing…great texture, great taste and a great commitment to the crab and not breadcrumbs or other fillers. The spanakopita was good as well. It was full of spinach flavours and tasted fresh. The pastry was a tad too crispy.

Sip and Bite Greek Salad
Sip and Bite Greek Salad

Crab Cake and Spanakopita Combo
Crab Cake and Spanakopita Combo

Between greeting regulars and telling me stories of defunct GPS units, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with Deena at the helm.

Speaking of old fashioned service, Sofia, the owner, responded my yelp post with the following:

Thank you for taking the time to write us such an excellent review! Dina really is terrific, she has so many regular customers coming in for her its insane!! Very glad you enjoyed everything, please stop in again whenever you are in town, and hopefully this time we can have the pleasure of meeting! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

My Take

Sip and Bite has been around this long because they care about the right things, the food and the service. It is welcoming from the minute you walk to the minute you leave. It’s not phony or staged or deliberate. It just is. As I said on yelp, I would return here in a second. No blackboard menus or plaid-wearing abecrombie models serving you. Just old-fashioned food with old fashioned service.

If i an offer one line of advice…. Ask if Deena is in (I’m hoping she is) and order a crab cake. If you do, you will give this dive a five……

Verdict: 5 Guyz

Check out my overall  DDD List at https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/diners-drives-ins-and-divesthe-list/

Sip & Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon