I was in the mood for sushi so I opened up my Zomato app in downtown Toronto. Not surprisingly, a 100 places popped up (including a place I think was called 100 sushi). I was quickly grouping them into a number of categories:
Cheap, no frills places where a California roll runs you $4 and you’re lucky if you find anything fancier than a dynamite roll on the menu.
All you can eat joints where quantity usually beats quality for at least $25.
Omakase, where you hope the chef gives you all you can eat for a good chunk of change.
Moderately priced destinations boasting nice decors, signature rolls and even some uni if it’s in season.
Places were sushi is an afterthought among a number of other bite size delights such as izakaya.
Super expensive (ie. access to expense account, trying to impressive your friends or hoping to get laid) locales.
Before becoming zomato, urbanspoon used to have an app which looked like a slot machine. You’d identify an area, type of food and price range and voila…it would spit out an option. It was a brainless and chancy endevour but I kind of miss it, especially considering it now required me to actually ponder my options.
I quickly omitted option one since I have an expense report and my son, whose sushi diet consists solely of California rolls, wasn’t with me. I also omitted six because my expense account isn’t that big, I was alone and not looking to hook up. Two was off the table because it’s January and my Christmas girth was telling me all you can eat was not on option. Three would take too long and when your primary objective is sushi five just doesn’t cut it. This left option three which I further narrowed down to Yuzunohana, the relative longstanding Adelaide street favorite.
At first the service was steallar. It was a chilly and I was quickly offered some green tea as I was seated at the sushi counter. As I peered over the menu, I was offered a spinach amuse bouche which was quite fresh and delicate. I decided on a few of the chef’s sashimi choices including King Salmon and an order of uni. Both came quickly and were ridiculously fresh and beautifully presented. I was reminded once again why uni is one of the most unique foods around. It was silky and naughty.
King Salmon Sashimi $8
Uni Sashimi $13
I also went with my sushi standards; miso soup, gyoza and spicy tuna rolls along with their house specialty yuzu roll . The dumplings were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto. The miso was spot on as well. The rolls were acceptable but average. I was a bit disappointed about both the taste and appearance of the spicy rolls. The yuzu rolls (which was topped with torched salmon and scallop) were nicely presented but were overly sweet for my liking. With my tea long gone and my dishes empty, I did need to wait a bit for the bill which seemed to correspond with the surge of online orders from uber eats, foodie, hurrier and whatever other food delivery services that might exist. The ground zero of assembly was right beside me and the paper bags were flying out the door as I was ignored just a little bit.
Miso Soup $2
Spicy Tuna Roll $8
Yuzu Roll $15
As I was sitting there, I had a little deja yuzu. I’m not sure how long Yuzu No Hana has been around, but I swear I went here with a buddy in the 90s. Throughout the night I felt like the Flash or another tv character who has frequent recollections of past events. I recall we were smashed and decided we were going to drop in for a quick sake. I remember being told that they weren’t a bar and that we needed to get food in order to have a drink.
Although I wasn’t overly thrilled by the sushi rolls the gyoza, sashimi and miso soup were excellent. All in all I enjoyed the experience and it met the aforementioned criteria for a mid-range sushi joint even without the help of the urbanspoon slot machine.
With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks. With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served. This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans. Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.
Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district. Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable. The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.
The decor is roomy and industrial. We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize. The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both. I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking. The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous. The actual service was just ok.
Biscuits and Gravy $15
Vanilla Bruleed Grapefruit $5
Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish. I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything. I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen. With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous. Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while. I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too. In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.
Drago Oysters $12
Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district, Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya, totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high. Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible. I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5. We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush. To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All hit the mark in their respective ways. With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.
Breakfast Hummus $10
Fried Halloumi $16
The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes. That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.
Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented. Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria. What was most disappointing was the service. It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.
My commitment to three square meals continued on day three in New Orleans; that is if you are willing to accept the fact that a beignet and a cafe au lait is breakfast. Instead of hitting the Cafe Du Monde’s original location, I opted for one close to the convention centre. It’s hard to argue that dough deep fried in cottonseed oil and covered in powdered sugar can be a bad thing and I was neither let down or really surprised. I was, however, more intrigued by the coffee. Historically, chicory was added to coffee by the French during their civil war to preserve rations and that tradition continued from Acadians right through the Louisiana settlers. The intense bitterness of this plant from the Dandelion family is likely part of the reason the cafe au lait is preferred to straight up black. That said, I picked up a can and drink it black but it’s certainly a sipping coffee more than one you would down like a shooter during the morning rush.
Lunch was at Peche, which won the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant in the US and is part of the Donald Link empire. This seafood-focused eatery is conveniently located a few minutes from the convention centre so it was relatively safe even among the pop-up thunder storms which seem to blast through the Big Easy at any random moment throughout the work day.
Living in southern Ontario, my access to fresh oysters is few and far between and when I can get them, they are usually overpriced Malpeques so I was delighted at the chance to pound back a dozen gems from gulf coast for a buck or two each. On this day the features included Louisiana Area 3 (shellfish harvest area are given a number which stop at 28 and luckily do not go up to 51). Area 3 is the easternmost harvest area. The others were from Alabama, specifically Dauphin island. Let’s just say if I lived here I would have absolutely no chance of pernicious anemia, would have frank hypercalcemia and I could probably play Robert Downey Jr.’s iron man double.
Looking back, I think I told myself I would order anything with the word Louisiana in it. In this case it was the Louisiana shrimp roll which seemed a suitable lunch choice. Much like it’s Canadian cousin, it features a soft bun stuffed with mayo drenched seafood. It was the prefect lunch choice….good size, good taste and good value. For dessert I couldn’t resist the strawberry custard which was a trendy version of the no-bake old school strawberry cheesecake my mom used to make.
Louisiana Shrimp Roll $14
Strawberry Custard $9
Although I didn’t have the full booze laden dinner experience, lunch gave me a flavour of the food and vibe of this accolade filled eatery which was impressive. The service was prompt and courteous but pleasantly pompous.
After a number of modernized New Orleans meals so far, it was time to go old school and visit Brennan’s for dinner. This well established destination has a long history in the big easy. What’s not to like about it:it’s been around since 1946, it’s cheesy and they use words like old-world elegance and pampering service in their description on the website. Plus, their chef’s, Slade Rushing, has a name that sounds like he should be designated chef for the Sons of Anarchy. After a sazarac in the roost bar, I rewound the clock and had a seat in the tacky rounded booth in one of the many dining rooms.
I was pleased to be greeted by a waiter who looked like Michelin star chef Graham Elliot. He was quick and courteous and knowledgeable;another reminder that there still is good and traditional service in the world. He was pleased to discuss the many aspects of the menu including the specials which included steak Diane. I quickly checked my phone to ensure I hadn’t stumbled upon a wormhole which transported me back to the mid 20th century when tableside flambees were all the rage. Despite the date confusion, my mind was made up..I was dining on American nostalgia tonight and it was gonna be good.
I was at a large table so collectively there was good opportunity to get feedback on a number of menu items. Appetizers ordered included the Jackson salad, turtle soup and chilled fois gras. I opted for another bite of history…crab remoulade modernized with shaved jicama, avocado and a mango vinaigrette. It was a smart and fresh summer starter. I had a spoonful of the turtle soup as well which was bursting with great flavours but I pondered how anybody could eat it regularly in the midst of regular tropical temperatures.
As I mentioned, the steak Diane was automatic. The other choices at the table included the filet Stanley, grouper and lamb. We also had a vegetarian at the table who was offered the chef’s special which more or less ended up being a plateful of sauteed vegetables. Back to my dish; Graham cooked up the steak filet like a pro and entertained us with Louisiana banter the whole time. It was served with potato medallions and a few carrots…brilliant. The time machine was still working. It was exactly what I expected… a pan seared piece of steak covered in salty juices. The feedback from the rest of the table on the entrees was positive…even the vegetarian seemed satisfied…but that may have been a side effect from the protein deficiency.
Filet Stanley (Part of $55 taster)
Steak Diane ($40)
Chef’s Choice Vegetarian Dish
Going to Brennan’s and not ordering Bananas Foster would be like going to McDonald’s and never trying a Big Mac. This labour intensive dessert’s origins lie within Brennan’s seventy year history. According to Brennan’s website (which annoying has the heading Banana’s Foster…the misuse of apostrophes is a real pet peeve of mine) It was created in 1951 after the chef Paul Blangé was challenged to come up with a dessert using surplus banana’s from a family business. As mentioned, table side cooking was all the rage so the bananas foster was born. I’m a true believer that nostalgia tastes incredible so I wasn’t disappointed. There were a smorgasbord of other desserts which arrived as well including a bread pudding, chocolate pave, creme brulee and crepe Fitzgerald (also prepared tableside). The savory palate at the table opted for the cheese tray which was nicely presented with a trio of offerings.
Cheese Tray $9
Creme Brulee $9
Chocolate Pave $9
Legendary Bananas Foster $10/person
Bread Pudding $9
Brennan’s is a retro oasis in a culinary scene driven by an industrial revolution driven by hipster foodies who dismiss table side cuisine but drink Manhattans because they saw it on Mad Men. This eatery doesn’t budge on bow ties, lavish decor, crafty cocktails and insisting waitstaff earn their gratuities. The food is unapologetically New Orleans with the odd twist here and there. In the end, like a handful of other eateries in the Big Easy; one can rewind the clock and dine like a mid-century aristocrat for a couple of hours and if luck is in the air, you might actually have a masterchef flambeing fare table side.
Some will argue that being a foodie/hipster is a religion or better yet a cult. Either way, like other theologies, there is a strict doctrine one must follow to gain acceptance by the congregation:
1. Do your best to looks like the guy on the side of the Abercrombie bag. If you cannot achieve the Adonis six-pack, then the clueless look into the distance will suffice.
2. Scoff at the hicks and jersey wearing sports enthusiasts who drink Bud Light to get free Nascar swag or an NHL beer cozy while they drink Pabst Blue Ribbon; a beer just as shitty where they get absolutely nothing.
3. Eat brunch.
Brunch is a rite of passage for the hipster/foodie type. It’s like a baptism into the church of all things pretentious. It also allows one to eat foods you can only get as part of the weekend menu or pay $4-5 bucks for something just deemed breakfast every other day of the week. In addition, it is typically not served before 11 am which applies to John Q. Foodie because they are soooo hungover from all the bourbon they drank the night before. There’s also the fact that having another cocktail designed for the morning hours or a french press coffee is such a much cooler remedy than a couple of advil and a bowl of Cap’n Crunch at home.
I was in San Francisco so attending brunch here would be like attending mass in the Sistine Chapel. So I looked long and hard to find a suitable brunch that met all the criteria but considering the fact it had to be on a Saturday (the orthodox foodie will only attend brunch on Sundays). Luckily, foreign cinema fit the bill. It is highly rated on numerous websites, situated in a “developing” area of San Francisco and boasts menu items like organic pop tarts, oysters and whipped cod brandade.
It was quite a cab ride from the convention centre. We were driven by a rather frivolous cabbie into the heart of the Mission district and were dropped off at the address listed on Google maps. An extra blink and I would have missed it. The front of the restaurant looked as debilitated as the rest of the buildings along the street. The entrance was a long tunnel which ended at a large, open courtyard that was already buzzing with hungry brunch goers. Despite the open concept it was quite loud which made it quite difficult to carry on a conversation. The clergy (servers) seemed preoccupied and slow throughout the meal which I concluded was appropriate given the ceremony.
Of course, I started with the organic pop tart ($6.75 ) and a stiff drink (Persian Bloody Mary $11). Both met at least one criteria for an ideal brunch experience. The overpriced pop tart was flimsy and unimpressive and only surrounded a tiny amount of peach filling. The Bloody Mary was seasoned with aggressive middle eastern flavours but as a Canadian, I’ve never had a Bloody Mary that comes anywhere close to a Caesar.
For my main I opted for the Chile Verde (fried eggs, slow-cooked heritage pork, poblanos, tomatillos, mojo, queso fresco and tortilla ribbons) for $18. Although not the prettiest dish (especially once you began to dismantle it), the flavours blended beautifully. . Each bite, lead by the pork and egg, was a blend of fresh flavours accented with a perfect amount of acid and heat from the vegetables and sauces.
As mentioned, my visit to foreign cinema was like a baptism into San Francisco foodieism (probably pronounced foo-day-ism). It was a loud but enjoyable ceremony. I managed to visit an” up and coming” area of town, order organic food, drink a breakfast boozy cocktail and pay too much for eggs. I even got somewhat pretentious service to match. However, I am still unclear on the whole movie concept. First, it’s called foreign cinema and plays predominantly American movies. Second, I saw no evidence of the movie at all. I think they play them in the outdoor courtyard which wasn’t offered to me. Maybe that section is reserved for the established foodies and not the ones who think paying seven bucks for a pop tart is an automatic ticket to hipster heaven.
My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight. After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.
Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit. My first stop was the White Palace Grill. Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters. I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene. A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated. It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days. I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.
The banter in the place was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before. People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys. There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working. I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.
Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings. I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.
White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner. It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.
Verdict: 4 Guyz
Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace. During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street. I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.
Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market. True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches. There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches. Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.
I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato. There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.
I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient. There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that. Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out. The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.
Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago. Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.
Verdict- 4 Guyz
After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour. I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.
Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept; the fusion of burgers and head banging metal. This is not a superficial claim. Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme. I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle. Take their beer philosophy for example. One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude. Consider the possible lyric:
“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,
I’m a commercial lager killer.”
Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of Apocalypse Cow housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery. Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.
The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well. The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine). There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg. I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion. I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good. My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.
There’s a whole lotta burger. The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together. I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well. If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top. Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.
Kuma’s concept is a fun one. I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out. Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.
The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”. Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.
As far as twitter goes, Rock Lobster is a busy community. Every night I get numerous tweets and retweets from happy people raving about their recent experience. I must admit I was quite excited for a piece of the action. Walking through the door, I was looking for a place to happen and was greeted by three friendly, plaid wearing barkeeps who quickly sat me at the bar. Looking around, I felt like I was an extra in a Tragically Hip video. Nostalgic Canadian paraphernalia filled the walls and the menu followed suit, offering a near coast to coast menu. It only made sense to salute the flag and partake in the cross country adventure.
Nothing signifies the start a Canadian road trip like a classic caesar. It followed all the rules including celery and steak spice with the luxury of half a lobster tail for 12 bucks. It wasn’t bland nor watery and didn’t require a fire in the hole warning either. It was yummy and spicy and good. The tail didn’t hurt either.
Ironically, the best item on the menu wasn’t lobster. A trip over the hundredth meridian offered a grilled flank steak served with homemade hickory sticks, a soft yolked duck egg and a side of homemade tangy dipping sauce for $14. The steak was grilled to absolute perfection. The egg was served with a shiny, runny yellow which would trickle down onto the crispy and smoky version of delicious of the Canadian classic snack. Despite the richness of each of the ingredients it was far from a greasy jungle; I would describe it more as hearty small plate presented with skill and determination….and grace, too.
I stayed out west for my second drink of the night. I ordered an “Iginla Fizz”, a $10 modern spin on a rye and ginger. It was simple but delicious. Maybe it was the drink itself or the fact that I’ve always felt so hard done by as a Calgary fan and drinking a cocktail named after the Flames captain in Leafs nation was final and just retribution for the Gary Leeman/Doug Gilmour trade.
One of the showcases of Rock Lobster is a cooler displaying the restaurant’s namesake as well as other things born in the water. The fresh PEI malpeque oysters drew my attention, especially at a price of two and a quarter each. One of the bartenders pulled three out, shucked them and served with all the fixings including fresh horseradish she ground with a box grater right at the bar. It was a great offering other than the mignonette sauce, which I found a little off. She didn’t know for sure what she regularly shucks in a shift but figured she may do a 20o plus on a good night.
I was told the lobster roll is the mainstay of the restaurant concept itself. It had all the fireworks of the classic east coast sandwich. Chunks of lobster were coated in a rich but not overbearing mayo and served on a fresh and lightly toasted roll. Normally served with fries and a McClure’s pickle, I asked if they could sub the fries and they gladly doubled the pickle. This may not sound that exciting, but these pickles have been considered some of the best in the business for a long time running.
Rock Lobster’s Quebec contribution was a lobster poutine. The fresh fries hit the mark, the cheese curds were authentic but the bisque gravy fell a bit short. Although full of flavour, the bisque was a little scarce and served luke warm which prevented the heart of the melt, a bit of a cardinal sin in the poutine world. I know it didn’t blow my mind but I couldn’t figure out if it left me yawning or snarling.
I have a confession. One of the twitter feeds bragged about diners enjoying whale tails which left me wondering if this was a taboo spin on the Parkdale offal movement. Much to my relief, the “whale tail” was instead a spin on the classic Canadian beaver tail pastry. It was a crispy and nicely presented, coated in cinnamon sugar and served on a chuck of tree with a shaker of maple sugar. It came with a few irrelevant trickles of creme anglaise. It was good enough but wasn’t too hard puttin’ down.
Rock Lobster has rapidly become a lionized addition to the Ossington strip. The service was friendly, attentive and didn’t take forever. I can’t explain the exact feeling, but it has a modern spirit that so many foodies crave as much as the grub itself. The ironic coupling of extensive twitter hype with a certain degree of secrecy, the dark canuck ambiance and most importantly the solid execution of a cross-section of Canadian classics from hickory sticks to lobster tails define this eatery as a pelagic pinnacle as opposed to a nautical disaster.
Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).
Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).
I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller. I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth. It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.
Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions. It was presented eloquently with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.
Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto. I can’t disagree. The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat. Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.
Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food. I tried the Red Horn, signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).
For a main, I settled on the lingcod. The fish was cooked perfectly. It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour. The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast. The sage was a nice touch.
Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad. There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu. The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more. The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.
I’d consider Ursa a bit stubborn. It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number. When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand, there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.
Ursa is like a good picture book. Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story. If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.