New Orleans Day 5: Bams! Bloo Bloos and A Tale of Two Diners without Having Flashing My Man Boobs.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo.  Remembering anything after the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, the famous Dickens novel, reminds me of Dr. Evil trying to remember the lyrics to  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”.

My last few days in New Orleans still involved a few mandatory pit stops.  From a celebrity chef perspective, I still hadn’t travelled down the road to Emeril’s and I still had a few DDD to conquer to meet my predefined quota of 6 for the trip. I also wanted to swing by the Sazarac bar in the Famous Roosevelt hotel for the namesake cocktail.

Honestly, I didn’t have Emeril’s on my mandatory list but I certainly didn’t turn down the chance when I got invited to lunch.  I figured it would be best to sample a bit of classic Cajun cuisine with a bit of  fancy in the form of soup and salad (more specifically gumbo and lobster salad).  The dishes couldn’t have been different.  The gumbo was rich and thick and full of regional flavours and flare. The salad was crisp and refreshing.  I was pleasantly surprised by both and quickly forgot the annoying Bams! that made me angry for years before.  I did, however, read that the Bams! were a way to keep his staff awake.  While filming his show, we would do at least half a dozen  back to back in only a few hours and needed to scare his staff into staying attentive. The service was above average..for New Orleans anyway.

Emeril's New Orleans Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

After the conference sessions of the day were over, I became an aristocrat for 45 minutes and sipped a sazarac in the bar at the historic Roosevelt hotel.  Once a cognac based drink (in fact it still can be), since the 1870’s it has been more commonly served with rye whisky due to the fact the phylloxera epidemic in Europe devastated the vineyards of France and made cognac an endangered species.  Foodies probably also appreciate the fact that the sazarac starts with a herbsaint rinse.  Herbsaint is a locally produced anise-flavoured liquor which replaced absinthe when it was banned in the early 19th century due to its potential hallucinogenic properties.  The substitution may also be one of the first documented examples of locavorism. God bless America.

roosevelt-sazarac
Sazarac

For dinner I hit the French quarter to try the old coffeepot restaurant which could be the oldest restaurants on the illustrious and lengthy diner drive-in and dive list.  Established in the 1894, it didn’t take me long to realize that it likely still served some of the original patrons in 2016.  The decor was a cross between a museum and nursing home cafeteria.  Keeping in mind it was a Monday night, I didn’t think it would be packed but the huge space had only two occupied tables which soon became one when the one couple got tired of waiting for the rather apathetic waiter to make his rounds.  One thing I did appreciate was the Triple D combo, which allowed me to sample everything Guy had on the show in one dish. Although I knew this was going to be my order, I asked the waiter what he recommended and he nonchalantly told me he hasn’t tried anything on the menu. The danger with a preset Triple D menu that it usually allows the restaurant to inflate the price for the convenience and this was no exception.  Twenty-five bucks got me  jambalaya, green bean casserole, and fleur de lis chicken (with crab meat stuffing and topped with gulf shrimp) slopped onto a plate and garnished with a bit of parsley and paprika. It wasn’t the worse thing I have ever eaten but it seemed to be reheated as opposed to made to order.

coffee-pot-triple-d
Old Coffee Pot Triple D combo $25

As far as Triple Ds go, this one is among my least favorites.  I guess the Old Coffee pot restaurant is a bit synonymous with a good part of the French Quarter; tired and touristy.  The decor is desperate to reminisce on the glory days of the big easy and  the laissez-faire attitude of the staff  tainted the experience further. Finish it off with average food and I’m afraid the pot’s coffee left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Food- 2.5/5 Guyz

Decor- 3/5 Guyz

Vibe-2/5 Guyz

Total: 7.5/15 Guyz

The Old Coffeepot Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I could have called it a night at this point but I had an ashtray I had to get rid of. I’m a sucker for a good gimmick and the Rivershack Tavern in Jefferson was right up my alley.  It’s tag line is “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”.  Essentially, if you bring in an ugly ashtray you get a free drink. In the past, I figure I’ve had to work a lot harder for a complementary beverage so I dropped by my local Value Village on my way to Detroit to find the perfect  mantelpiece for a bar 1645 km away.  After perusing through the shelves of donated knick-knacks, I laid my eyes on the prize…a rather ugly homemade chunk of ceramic which faintly resembled an ashtray.

A colleague and myself grabbed an uber and took the rather long drive out of New Orleans to the suburb of Jefferson.  We were quite entertained by the driver who told us story after story about her trails and tribulations about being a female driver in New Orleans while complaining about  the slew of WWE fans who poured into the streets outside the Superdome after the end of Monday Night Raw.

It was quite late when we arrived so it was far from busy but we were greeted by a friendly bartender.  We pulled up to the bar and sat on another of the bar’s gimmicks; the Bar Legs stools.  These homemade works of art have been part of the Rivershack’s decor since 1992.

Luckily, the kitchen was still open and offered bar food and burgers.  We ordered mushrooms and onion rings ($6.75 each) and a burger with jack cheese for $9.75 which were the perfect accompaniments to my free pint.  The food was far from gourmet (I did find it odd that the cheese on the burger wasn’t melted) but the batter on the snacks was seasoned nicely and the price was right for what you got.  While sitting on somebody else’s legs, I imagined if I lived in the area I would use my own legs to stroll down the road and catch a band at this rural eatery on a regular basis.

Although my visit was a little artificial given it was late on a Monday night, I did like the waiter and the gimmicks at the Rivershack.  The food was decent as well.  Plus, I can’t help feeling oddly proud about the fact that a little ceramic ashtray which was destined to collect dust on a Value Village knick-knack shelf in London is now permanently enshrined in the “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”.  It almost brings a tear to my eye.

Food-3.5/5 Guyz

Service-4/5 Guyz

Vibe-4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/15 Guyz

Rivershack Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My Take

My last day in New Orleans was a food network extravaganza highlighted by lunch at one of the pioneers of celebrity chefdom’s establishments  and visits to two very polar Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  It did remind me a bit of a Tale of Two Cities but instead of peasantry vs aristocracy ( I feel I experienced both in 12 hours), my tale is one which parallels the tired tourism of New Orleans with a shack on a rural road where one can come and hang with the locals, ashtray in hand, and get a free beer without having to expose his man boobs as a consequence.

Advertisements

New Orleans Day 3: Beignets, Trolling in Area 3 and a Graham Elliot Doppelganger

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.

beighnets-cafe-du-monde
Cafe Du Monde Beignets $5

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.

peche-oysters
Area 3 and Dauphin Island Oysters (much cheaper than land-locked Ontario)

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.

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.

brennans-elliott
Graham Elliot?

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.

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.

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.

Brennan's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

by the power of greystone….i now pronounce you man and wife.

I had an English teacher in grade 9 who I remember well. First, he was a huge Arlo Guthrie fan.  While donning his leather jacket, he would play Alice’s restaurant in class as a reminder of what a generation influenced by Guns n’ Roses and Poison was missing.  At the time I thought he was a bit of a dork but as I matured I gained a greater appreciation for the folk rock of the 1960-1970s.

The reason I mention this was the fact that I remember this same teacher introducing me to the magnificent works of e.e. cummings, the American poet who died a decade before I was born. From what I recall, cummings was known for his descriptive verses which elevated the feeling of an experience to new levels. In particular,  I remember the phrase “puddle wonderful” which describes  a feeling that really can only be compared to hopping  in a post-storm pool of water with an indescribable bliss. He was also known for his preference for lower case letters which may subconsciously be the reason why I sign my emails with a small ‘s’.

Like many things in high school, I doubted I would ever have the need to pull it out my memory vault but it surfaced when I attended a wedding in Napa Valley (I’ll get back to this), specifically at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. This beautiful property boasts one of the most unique and coveted culinary programs in the United States.  It is also a perfect venue for a wedding and I was lucky enough to be invited to one in May.

The wedding was small and had some stereotypical but also a few surreal elements. There was an Irish priest named Peader who was either really funny, really drunk or both. He was pretty close to a Simpson’s character.  The ceremony was outside so his voice was somewhat muted by a flock of birds who chirped as they watched from the crevices in the old building in the backdrop.   It wasn’t creepy in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way….more like Cinderella when the animals united to fix her dress in time for the ball.  Instead of the traditional bible readings, one of the passages was “I carry your heart” from the gospel according to ee cummings which brought back high school memories that I found to be puddle-wonderful.

After the ceremony, the festivities  moved inside where one could roam around and look at a variety of cooking utensils and hundreds of corkscrews  on display. It was a foodie zoo (would that be called a foo?).  There was also a stellar market place that was in plain view but guarded by glass walls and  a less than enthusiastic security guard who looked more inclined to drink bourbon with us than make sure we didn’t steal spatulas. While I began down the path of mild intoxication we were treated to a few starters including a delicate scallop which swam in a delicious and spicy puree and a mini bulgogi soft taco which didn’t disappoint. There was also a duck empanada (not pictured) which rounded out the delicious and diverse hors d’oeuvres.

Growing up, in addition to learning about the literary merits of American poets, I was exposed to many  Northern Ontario weddings which involved rubber chicken dinners and cash bars.  The closest thing to culinary innovation was half a dozen Parisian potatoes to complement the prime rib and green beans. Move the venue from Sudbury to the Napa Valley and make the wedding couple a pair of urban foodies instead of a blue collar uncle on his third marriage and watch the sparks fly.  In this case, the food was presented in four food stations which were chosen based on the ethnicity and preferences of the bride and groom.  There were French, North African, Filipino and Korean posts.  My objective was to try a little of everything. The first station featured a salmon en croute but with a twist; the addition of black cod (since it is the bride’s favorite fish) served with an herbaceous salsa verde. There was also an arugula and endive salad.  I love black cod and will be first to admit it would be tough for it to hold up in both taste and texture in a en croute preparation but it was saved by the salmon.  The salsa verde was brilliantly fresh and  a perfect condiment for the delicate cod. The addition of the bitter greens was a smart contrast against the sweet whitefish.

The French Station
The French Station

The North African station featured spiced game hen with a tajine of quinoa and spring vegetables along with a dollop of preserved lemon and olive tapenade. Personally, the hen was my favorite dish of the night.  It was moist and  bursting with flavour.  The quinoa let the hen shine but didn’t disappoint on it’s own. I love preserved lemon and I loathe olives, so I was curious to try the tapenade.  The olives won but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a smart combination for those that enjoy the nasty little fruit.

The North African Station
The North African Station

The focus of the Filipino section was suckling pig which was complemented with truffled mac and cheese and a chilled spinach salad and pickled vegetables. There was also a pineapple mayo and some fish sauce to add some sweet and salt respectively.  The joke at our part of the table was whether the truffled pasta was authentically Filipino or a creative interpretation orchestrated by the groom.  The pork by itself was a little underseasoned but the diverse flavours which surrounded it were more than enough to compensate.  I thought the spinach salad and pickled veggies were brilliant.

The Filipino Station
The Filipino Station

The final stop was Korean which featured short ribs as the headliner.  I was intrigued by the loosely defined “risotto” which was a porridge of multiple types of rice along with barley. The station was rounded out with a sugar snap and sprout salad and kimchee as a traditional condiment.  The ribs were a bit flimsy but well seasoned.  I am typically not a risotto fan but I enjoyed its complexity and mouthfeel.  The salad was fresh but I would have loved a little more crunch from a few more snap peas.

The Korean Station
The Korean Station

Each station was paired with a California wine which included a Charles Krug Sauv Blanc at the French station, the Morgan 12 Clones Pinot Noir for the North African offerings, the Caymus Conundrum for the Filipino food and the Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel partnered the Korean fare.  I thought the choices were quite complimentary. I’m still a little naive when it comes to all the elements of the marriage between wine and food but I could appreciate these pairings. I had tried the Caymus in the past paired with pasta and was excited to see it on the list.  As for the Ravenswood, I liked it so much I sought out and purchased a bottle when I got back to Ontario.

Dessert (or mignardise) followed the choose your own adventure theme and offered a variety of trendy confections including macarons, eclairs, truffles, creme brulee and chocolate covered strawberries which hit the spot in between the IPAs and the 90’s pop blaring across the dance floor.  The wedding cake was a stunning croquembouche.

Croquembouche Wedding Cake
Croquembouche Wedding Cake

My Take

I was quite keen to attend this wedding in Napa Valley even if it meant a cross continent flight and I wasn’t left disappointed.  Beautiful scenery, great food and a good group of people made for a fun weekend.  I think this is a good blueprint for weddings whether the couple of honour are a pair of foodies or not.  A short ceremony infusing a stereotypical Irish priest, the infusion of the works of an modern American poet in addition to the typical biblical stuff and visually stunning surroundings was a great trifecta.  As for the reception, the wide variety of sentimental and meaningful food choices was brilliant.  The idea of wine pairings replacing the typical chardonnay and cab sav house wines at the table elevated the experience even more.  I tip my hat to the CIA Greystone  for great execution of a rather complicated meal.  Most importantly, I would like to congratulate the bride and groom and wish them  all the success  in their future endeavors and I selfishly encourage them to consider revisiting this concept again in the future.

In sum, I’ll use the same Virginia Woolf quote that was scripted on the back of the wedding program; “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”.  I couldn’t agree more.

East Thirty-Six: Breaking Down the Yonge Street Wall

A riddle…

Q. Why did the foodie cross the road?

A. He didn’t.

This is a dumb joke but one that reigns true when we speak of Canada’s longest street. Yonge street is a bit like the Berlin wall. On the west side a vibrant dining scene.  Queen, King, College and Dundas are lined with dozens of hipster havens.  The east side, however, consists of  a bunch of restaurants  compartmentalized into chains, fine dining and student friendly venues.  It’s like there’s a force field of some kind which repels plastic-rimmed glasses.   There are a few hipster oases in the otherwise barren east but for the most part there’s work to be done before the wall is torn down.

Wellington road east is proxy to a number of upscale condos which have tenants who prefer suits to plaid.  It is also within walking distance of venues such as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. As a result, bahn mi sandwiches and pulled pork tacos aren’t an automatic go-to.  Instead, restaurants in this area need to offer refined yet current fare or offer a unique enough concept whereas to not be a dreadful bore and keep people coming back. Places like Trevor Bar and Kitchen and C’est What have had longevity whereas Lucien and the Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar had shorter lives.

East Thirty-Six now occupies the old quarters of the above mentioned restaurants.  It’s first plan of action was to name itself after its address, a witty move employed by numerous others recently. The second was to adopt a menu which focuses on innovative cocktails and small plates as opposed to the traditional three course meals the east side aristocrats are accustomed to. The focal point of the interior is a large bar which is stocked with a variety of alcohol (including house-made varieties) larger than Lindsay Lohan’s minibar.  Otherwise, it is a classy and well designed east side bar and bistro.

In addition to a panoply of the most current  wines (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, German Rieslings etc.) Eat Thirty Six boasts an impressive cocktail list with emphasis on and fruit and  fruit-infused liquors ranging from $12-14.  I had read about the high touted E36 smoked Boulevardier, a spin on the classic yet rather unknown cocktail from the 20s.  Called a cousin of the Negroni, E36’s version includes a bit of Lillet Blanc and some smoke tincture.  The solution is allowed to conflate  for a number of weeks to create an elixir which is as smooth as a gossamer.  Frankly, it’s  the best cocktail I’ve had this year. I’d equate to it any dish which is allowed to sit and marinate versus being callously put together and served immediately.  There is no rawness or disjointed flavour..just a general smoothness enhanced with ethereal undertones.

E36Smoked Boulevardier $14
E36 Smoked Boulevardier $14

To date, the menu has been classified as french tapas.  I asked the owner about this and he said this wasn’t intentional.  A small plate concept was definitely the intent, but the influence of chef Brent Maxwell resulted in a seeping of French influence into many of the dishes.  Take, for example, the pork caillettes. E36’s version of these sausages are bite-size morsels stuffed with among other things  pork and liver.  Served like a hors d’oeuvre,  each well seasoned bite was a pop of all things porcine. I also ordered some mixed pickles ($4) which made for a nice starter.

Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don't work in the dark)
Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don’t work in the dark)
Pickles $4
Mixed Pickles $4

The scallop crudo ($14) was little Italy meets Mexico. It takes the sweetness of scallop and the richness of lardo and  dresses it with tequila and lime.  The rather unorthodox addition of  celery added  a little texture and taste that worked. It didn’t present with the intensity of a ceviche but had enough of an acidity to cut through the lardo and  provide a nice reprieve from some of the heavier items on the menu.

Scallop Crudo $14
Scallop Crudo $14

 

Speaking of heavy, we went to the bottom of the menu for our  dishes.  My colleague and I decided on the short rib ($21), duck confit ($19) and boudin blanc ($18).  That said, all three dishes were delicious choices.  I think I can summarize them with one word: balance. The short rib was nicely accompanied with brussel sprouts, parmesan grits and horseradish.    The duck leg was rendered down nicely and served with egg, mushroom and semolina. If anything, I would have switched the starches because I think corn/duck and beef/wheat pair better together but that may be a bit of a moot point given both dishes were rather delicious. The boudin was an modish interpretation of the sausage in that it used elegant ingredients such fois gras and tarragon.  The additional of the apple and cabbage didn’t make it any less pedestrian.

 

Short Rib $21
Short Rib with Grits $21
Duck Confit $19
Duck Confit with Semolina $19
Boudin Blanc $18
Boudin Blanc with cabbage and apple  $18

For dessert I ordered the lemon custard with shortbread and macadamia ($8) while my colleague ordered another plate of caillettes.  The custard was nice and tart and was served with an impressive number of (hopefully foraged nuts… AND it was served in a mason jar.  Pure hipster bliss.

Lemon Custard $8
Lemon Custard with M academia nuts $8

 

My Take 

On the heels of the short lived Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar, E36 has moved into a tough spot with an attempt to fuse modern food and drink trends with the principles of upscale casual dining this area of town is accustomed to. It can best be described as small plate with french influence although there are a number of surprises on the menu.  I wasn’t able to try the bone marrow (served with chicken liver pate), razor clams, sweetbreads or octopus nor one of the other 10 interesting cocktails, many of which frolic with fruit  or tinker with tinctures.   The decor is clean and modern with a beautiful well-stocked bar as its centrepiece.   The service was great but it was a slow night so it would be interesting to see if the conversation and attention to detail continues with a busier assemblage.

East Thirty-Six has a name, a menu and a cocktail list that would appeal to any hipster. I mean, think about it.  Pickled cauliflower in a mason jar?  The dish alone contains three of the Huffington Post’s  22 essential hipster foods:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/15/hipster-food_n_5146632.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

So, does this mean we finally have a place that would allow the tearing down of the Yonge street wall, finally allowing  the two sides to dine together in harmony while eating offal pork sausage and drinking bourbon concoctions?  Probably not. After all, there’s no need to worsen the carbon footprint  as long as there’s kimchi, kale and PBR on the west side I suppose.

 

East Thirty-Six on Urbanspoon

Review:Little Italy and Portugal Village:Darwin

So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist.  That’s Darwin.  OK…allow me to put it into perspective.  The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area.  Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of  “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.

I took one look at the  menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence,  it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under  $10  bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.

Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out.  Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St.,  umbrella in hand  and found my destination at College and Grace.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times).   There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable  guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.

An interesting  twist on the classic drink,  I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal  in conjunction with the  traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup.  It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.

Maple Old-Fashioned $10
Maple Old-Fashioned $10

I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a  spin on the original.  The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish.  The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads.  The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.

Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10
Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10

The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours.  It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests.  I found myself lapping the broth up as well.  The frites were delicately done, fried  “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary.  I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.

Moules and Frties $12
Moules and Frties $12

I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned.  The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a  glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.

Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18
Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18

On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.

Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart.  I opted for the former.  It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce.  I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.  In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss.  The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding

My Take

This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many  restaurants in business for decades.  Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant.  Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed.  The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision.  Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.

Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing.  There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25.  Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality.  The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding.  The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall. charles-darwin-1Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Nadege

The diversity of Toronto coffee shops range from socketed snack bars to pristine patisseries.  Nadege is certainly the latter.  Positioned beside Trinty-Bellwoods park, Nadege sits a bit out of place.  It’s bright white exterior clashes with the surrounding landscape along Queen West.   Upon entry, you are transformed in to a small, bright cafe adorned with small tables.    Large glass counters house articulate creations ranging from traditional French macarons  to Japanese inspired green tea cake.  A large window stretching across the back wall allows patrons to witness the pastry chefs  begetting delicacies while dressed with European eclat.

Green Tea Cake
Green Tea Cake

Perks

Nadege has some of the best counter (premade) sandwiches in Toronto.   There’s an array of choices including  ham and brie, roasted vegetables, french ham and brie and fig and sandwiches of the day on either croissants or baguettes.  In particular, I’m a fan of the cucumber, mature cheddar and green leaves on a croissant.  It’s simple, fresh and tasty. In general, you’re going to pay $6-8 for each of these creations.

Nadege Sandwiches
Nadege Sandwiches

The quality of the desserts and pastries are top notch.  A cute gimmick are the chocolate bars, showcasing a different flavour for each letter of the alphabet.  I’m not sure what’s more impressive; the variety of offerings or the keen use of english and french lexicography to cover off each letter. In my case I was drawn to “Y” for Yuzu and Cashew over the  “B” for Banana or “Q” for Quatre Noix (mixed nuts).  “Y” was true to its name, containing  healthy chunks of cashews within silky milk chocolate with mild citrus undertones.  A decent confection but a bit steep at over $10 per bar.

Yuzu et Noix de Cajou Chocolate
Chocolate Bar Display
Chocolate Bar Display

Sludge

Nadege adheres to the philosophy that the age old art of brewing coffee has evolved to an espresso machine and a cup of hot water. More so is the infusion of arrogance synonymous, stereotypical or otherwise, with the french culture evident in the response to my barbaric suggestion of a dripped cup of joe.  In other words, not only is there no brewed coffee, but I get attitude in suggesting that there should be.  The interior is a bit sterile and unfriendly despite  the attractive creations sitting within the glass and the previously mentioned display of brightly packaged chocolate bars on the opposite wall.  Nadege has the ambiance of an operating room.

Americano with Mature Cheddar Croissant
Americano with Mature Cheddar Croissant

The Final Sip

Nadege’s strength lies in high quality baked goods, chocolate and delicate pastries  with some of the best counter sandwiches in Toronto. The lack of brewed coffee and a sterile, unfriendly environment means I’ll do take out and get my coffee elsewhere.

Nadege Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Yorkville:La Societe Bistro

I was quite prepared for a posh soiree as I strolled into the small Bloor Street mall, past the Gucci and Cartier stores to enter the lavish environment which is La Societe.  Unlike a number of other French bistros in Toronto, La Societe is quite expansive, with stained glass  reminiscent of  l’eglise and a bar with a Hollywood-like bibliotheque.  Not surprising for a Charles Khabouth joint.  The question was whether it would be a scenic adventure with little substance or if the food would be as appealing to taste as the scenery was to observe.

Must

Perhaps most ironic was the fact that the best dish wasn’t french.  Ceviche is all about balance and La Societe’s version hit the mark.  Aggressive citrus and chili accents elevated the subtle and fresh trio of scallops, shrimp and snapper.  Be warned though…it’s a small portion for about 250 pesos ($21).

Seafood Cerviche ($21)
Seafood Ceviche ($21)

Maybe

The duck confit was a combination of roasted breast and a croquette-like portion of leg.  The breast was quite average due to it’s rather tough texture and unimpressive rendering of the fatty cut.  Hands down, the highlight of the plate was the croquette.  Nicely fried and full of flavour, it was stuffed with tender shreds of duck leg which was nicely balanced with the tangy cherry jus.

Duck Confit ($29)
Duck Confit ($29)

Most desserts were priced in the double digits .  The Tahitian vanilla creme brulee was tasty but unremarkable.    The lemon tart was equally as predictable, tasting less like a rich, tangy curd and more like my mom’s early attempts at a  lemon meringue pie.  The hazelnut chocolate bar with salted caramel ice cream was a bit more exciting but a little outdated.  In the end, the desserts were a bit ennuyeux.

Creme Brulee
Creme Brulee
Lemon Tart
Lemon Tart
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar
Hazelnut Chocolate Bar

Mundane

It wasn’t so much the food, but the value that was quite mundane. Here are a few examples:

Dover Sole $48. Ok. I’ve give you that…it sells for up to $75 in New York.

Dover Sole ($48)
Dover Sole ($48)

Steak Frites $32. Ok, that’s a little steep.

Steak Frites ($32)
Steak Frites ($32)

The duck confit and seafood ceviche were $29 and $21 respectively. Other possible choices included $24 mussels or vegetarian cavatelli, $13 french onion soup and an $18 burger.  I appreciate the  interior like the Louvres but the menu is priced like its souvenir shop.

My Take

La Societe bistro is not a bistro.  Wikipedia defines a bistro as “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”. This restaurant is not small, the food is not cheap and the setting is not modest.    The layout is expansive and  uncharacteristic of most french bistros (making me question the lack of intimacy),  the food is decent but with markups similar to the Gucci purses downstairs and the decor is anything but modest. To be fair, they do have a decent prix fixe menu at $44.  As long as Yorkville remains the epitome of  lavish spending,  La Societe will blend in but  it will be interesting to see if the migration of the  luxury hotels and accommodations to other areas of town pressures this and other  local eateries to come down to earth a little with pricing.  Until then, I’ll seek my scenery at the Royal Ontario Museum and indulge on ceviche elsewhere. C’est la vie!

 

La Société Bistro on Urbanspoon