Review:Toronto:King West:Valdez

It can be argued that Origin may have been the “origin” of the current small plate trend in Toronto.  A couple of years and two new Origins later, Valdez opened.  The link is Steve Gonzalez.  A contestant on the first Top Chef Canada,  he has followed the leads of later contestants Carl Heinrich and Ryan Gallagher, who left previous posts at established Toronto eateries to gamble on new ones. Steve went from chef de cuisine at Origin to the proprietor of Valdez, a King Street Latin street food eatery which promises a return to Gonzalez’s Colombian roots and, of course,  a sharing and small plate concept.

The decor is a mix of a saloon and a Mexican cantina.  A large wooden bar is showcased in a long but narrow space filled with bright chairs and worn tables, both painted with reds and blues and greens. A large bar graces one wall of the long but narrow dining room. Coffee sack, art and other paraphernalia grace the walls of this stylish abode.

There is an array of standard cocktails (and a few crazy ones), beer and wine.  I opted for a Tecate, which was presented in psuedo-michelada style. Instead of a glass with lime juice and hot sauce (among other things), a lime wedge and a squeeze of hot sauce was strewn along the top of the can.  Served glassless, I opted to pop the wedge into the can and drink it like that.  I liked the combination although I found it odd that the option for no hot sauce wasn’t offered as I imagine it wouldn’t be for everybody.

The menu is simple, divided into 4 parts; ceviche (self explanatory), stuff (small plate) ,more (bigger plate) and dulce y algo (dessert). Well, maybe the ceviche isn’t so self explanatory. Given the diversity of the choices, I opted for the flight:

There is the traditional “cocktel de camaron” with tomato, citrus, cilantro, chilis and corn nuts. Pretty delicious.

There was the “passion” and “atun japones”, each offering a refreshing twist on tuna (albacore and ahi respectively) by meshing traditional latin and modern Asian flavours such as yuzu, ginger and ponzu.  An intriguing twist but something I would expect at one of the numerous izakaya joints at every street corner in town.

The “mixto” was a trio of octopus, mussel and squid bathed in squid ink with some citrus, maize and sweet potato. The ink was the overwhelming flavour, so some will take it or leave it.

The vegan ceviche was a mix of fruit and veggies which included jicama and other latin staples  in a simple citrus sauce.  Nothing remarkable.

Ceviche Flight $16
Ceviche Flight $16

From the “stuff” menu we opted for tradition, ordering the highly touted guac and chips, empandas and chorizo del jefe (sausage). The guac and chips created some controversy at the table.  I loved the guac.  It had a great texture and was well balanced with citrus and spice.  The chips were a combination of plantain, yucca, potato and taro which I thought was ingenious both to the eye and the tongue. The others at the table were more ho-hum about the guac.

Guac and Chips $8
Guac and Chips $8

The empanadas, on the other hand, were rather disappointing. Offering no flare compared to the rest of the menu, they were rather dry and bland to the extent where the delicious aji sauce which accompanied couldn’t save them.

Empanadas $8
Empanadas $8

The chorizo sausage was a bold and delicious addition to the menu. A squeeze of lime provided enough acid to intensify the well seasoned and moist pork sausage. It rivals some of the best I have had in Toronto. The arepas were nice as well.

Chorizo del jefe $8
Chorizo del jefe $8

As for “more”, we decided on two very different dishes; the delicate Giggie’s trout (togarashi+Quinoe+yuzu+mango+avocado+fried shallots) and the more manly Bandeja (seared pork+rice & beans+plantain+fried egg+avocado+arepa).  This trout dish was a  concert of primarily asian flavours around some beautifully cooked filets.  The dainty dish was a bit out of place served in a Mexican saloon but would be palate pleasing for a pescatarian who so happened  to tag along for the party.

Giggie's Trout $17
Giggie’s Trout $17

The bandeja, on the other hand, was the hardcore latin inspired dish more synonymous with the name Valdez. Bandeja simply means platter, but I would be prone to rename this bandeja buena mierda.  Hidden beneath a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was rice, beans, avocado, arepas and most importantly, tender and juicy pork.   With each bite you got a little more or a little less of each component but each was an adventure in Latin America cuisine. No togarashi, no yuzu (although I love the damn stuff), and no ponzu.  Just simple, flavourful food presented with simplicity and respect.

Bandeja $19
Bandeja $19

My Take

Perhaps the word “Latasian” street food may be a better description of the food served at Valdez.  Although traditional Central and South American dishes are the foundation of the menu, the are a number laced with Asian flavours. The chips and guac and bandeja stole the show with the chorizo sausage taking honorable mention.  I was less impressed with the ceviche and trout, perhaps because my brain was programmed to consume the simple and standard flavours of Latin cuisine as opposed to those I can get at a hundred places elsewhere.  The empanadas were a bit of a bust minus the delicious aji sauce.  I enjoyed the Tecate, served  psuedo-michelada style, from both a nostalgic and taste perspective.

The decor and vibe is fun, trendy and even a bit dangerous. I was reminded  a bit of the bar scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn”. George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino wannabees line the bar except in this case, samurai sword wielding ninjas names Yuzu, Togarashi and Tobiko  enter the scene to join the locals in a battle against the blood hungry vampires looking for a late night snack. Ok, that may be a bit much, but if Steve Gonzalez can offer fried rice and frijoles, I can use my imagination just the same.

Valdez Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:Downtown:Hawthorne Food and Drink

Hawthorne recently opened in downtown with a bit of a mysterious aura.  It has no website and relays all its information, including its menu, through its facebook page. The about tab describes the food as:

American (New)
American (Traditional)
Barbeque
Brunch
Hawaiian
Moroccan
Singaporean
Soul Food
Vegan
Vegetarian

It takes up the street level corner of 60 Richmond St which sits about a block southeast of the Eaton Centre. It has the layout out of a old school diner but with chic furniture, shelves of  mason jars full of colourful pickled vegetables and on-table dessert menus  held up with used wine corks.  The menu is highlighted by a signature foursquare tasting meal offering small plates (literally presented on a single square plate) featuring fresh and seasonal ingredients.

Must

Beef brisket is available everywhere and Hawthorne’s offering ($13) competes with some of the best southern joints in the city.   Sliced a tad thinner than most, the abundant use of whiskey BBQ sauce and the fattiness of the cut made the sandwich rich and moist and the brioche bun was able to withstand  the drippy-goodness.  The fries were cut slightly thick and served hot. The homemade ketchup was tasty although quite unorthodox, highlighted by a predominant smoky flavour.

Brisket Sandwich and Kennebec Fries ($13)
Brisket Sandwich and Kennebec Fries ($13)

I’m a sucker for homemade soda and was pleased to see the  Hawthorne offering.  I opted for pear-cardamom and quite enjoyed its delicate and refreshing taste. It was not sickly sweet and was as refreshing a a cold Steamwhistle pilsner, the only other drink I’ve ever been served in a glass boot.  A shot of gin from the well stocked bar would have made it a neat spin on a gin and tonic if I was in the mood and position for a potent potable.

Housemade Pear-Cardamom Soda
Housemade Pear-Cardamom Soda

Maybe

The soup of the day was the unique combination of collard green and lentil which was served in a clear glass pot.  Although it was a bit thick, it had consistent texture and a freshness reminding me that the phenols would do their best to protect me from cardiac assault of  the upcoming brisket.

Hawthorne Collard Green and Lentil Soup
Hawthorne Collard Green and Lentil Soup

I was intrigued by the paella bombs which were described as crispy rice cake, sausage, crab and tomato pepper relish.  They were presented beautifully but were covered with mussels and clams which I found odd given the description on the menu.The flavours were great although it taste more like a jambalaya or a pot of mussels  and less like  a paella. The biggest issue is they were presented cold.  I addressed this with the waitress who checked with the kitchen and confirmed they should have been hot. She did offer to heat them up but by then I was almost done.

Paella Bombs ($9)
Paella Bombs ($9)

Mundane

I was told the menu was new so I can understand a few items being lost in translation. However, mussels and clams on a paella is a pretty significant oversight.  In addition, the menu indicated that the brisket came with housemade pickles.  As a diner who will sometimes order an entree to get such pickles, I was irritated to see their absence.  At first the waitress ensured me they were on the sandwich.  A surgical dissection of the brisket confirmed otherwise and she went to the kitchen to inquire.  The explanation was a typo on the menu and her peace offering was a rather dismal display of a few pickled carrots and sunchokes despite the wide array of options surrounding me.

Hawthorne Pickles
Hawthorne Pickles

My Take

There are obvious execution errors (temperature and menu descriptions) and waitstaff who seem a bit uninformed and disorganized.  Both should be ironed out with time and practice.  That said, the food is tasty and the environment is fresh and vibrant.  I left generally satisfied despite a minor case of pickle envy.

Hawthorne is a bit confusing to the point where it lacks identity.  It is designed like a high-end diner. The staff are dressed in foodie plaid.  Some of the dishes are presented in fine dining style.   The location (Richmond and Church) would mainly appeal to business folk and downtown dwellers.  It’s a place that a larger group may all be alright with but you wouldn’t  choose for any particular reason.

A famous author once wrote:

“Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world , individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever”.

Although I’m quite sure this 19th century quote was not meant to predict the Toronto dining scene in 2013, I think there are certain elements which are highly applicable. Today’s restaurants cannot be everything to everybody.  You can’t be farm to table, nose to tail, organic,  foodie-friendly, fine dining and a speakeasy (mentioned on their twitter account  and a term coined in 1889 referring to an illegal alcohol establishment) all in one.  If you don’t identify who you are, you will be forgettable amongst the many eateries lining the surrounding streets.  Hawthorne’s success will hinge on its ability to fit in, without confusion, to a diverse and  finicky Toronto dining crowd,  a concept ironically penned in 1835 by American author and namesake Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne Food and Drink on Urbanspoon