Hanmoto: May possibly be the Crown Royal Northern Harvest of New Toronto Restaurants.

The faceless Chris Nuttall-Smith just published his top 10 new Toronto restaurants.  Not surprising, Alo tops the list and other clear favorites including Buca Yorkville and Dandylion made the cut as well.  Perhaps a little more surprising was the inclusion of Hanmoto, the little and unorthadox izakaya joint hidden just outside the intersection of Dundas and Ossington  (it’s on Lakeview Avenue however which, like the Lakeview Diner a block away, doesn’t have a view of a lake).

As Mr. Nuttall-Smith writes (in words much more eloquent than mine), it has no sign and has the aura of a flea market where you are not sure if you will get a great deal, bamboozled  or stabbed with a sushi knife.  The menu is as primitive as the make shift signs you would see advertising dollar persimmons along Spadina avenue.

I went with a few friends a while back as stage one of an Ossington food crawl.  Arriving at 530 or so ensured that there no wait for one of the few makeshift tables scattered among the curio-filled hollow .  The waitress was a pleasantly non-nonsense woman who had a fantastic grasp of the small menu. It seemed fitting to start with the somewhat famous arisaka sour, a gin based cocktail flavoured with yuzu, green tea and cucumber and finished with soda and lime bitters.  It was quite refreshing but a bit flimsy so it was evident I had to switch to beer to avoid downing 8-10 of them before the end of the meal.

2134 - Copy
Arisaki Sour $12

The tiny menu meant little deliberation and the table agreed on the hamachi tartare, the moto bun, the enoki, the masu dengaku, okra and famed dyno wings .

The tartare was nicely balanced from both a texture and taste perspective and was served at the correct temperature.  The moto bun was a fun and flavourful twist on a sloppy joe and was next to impossible to share with the table.  That said, I’m always appreciative of a bun that can withstand the assault of a sloppy filling for the duration of consumption.

The enoki with miso butter was a surprisingly simple take on those mushrooms you see at the Asian food marts and don’t know what to do with.  Their texture with, when combined with the miso butter is somewhat reminiscent of a fat laden piece of steak.

The masu dengaku was an oddly attractive eggplant dish made pretty with fried beets and seasoned with a delicious miso hollandaise.

Each of the previous dishes did not shy away on extreme flavours but the crispy okra blanketed with bonito flakes and asiago (a very saline and odd combination) was a miss.  We casually passed the dish around the table like a hot potato and there were no takers.

2136
Okra $8

Finally, it was time for the fame chicken dyno chicken wings served in the signature take out box.   These wings, stuffed with a pork dumpling, have already attained mythical status in snack food folklore and the label is deserving. The dumpling offers both stark contrast to the crunchy mouth feel of the deep fried wings yet both flavours are married with the sweet and salty sauce.

2140
Dyno Wings $8- A Hot Mess

My Take

I’m a sucker for a good gimmick and there are no shortage of them in the restaurant industry.  I was all over the  Yakatori bar on Baldwin (which now ceases to exist) and I’m the guy who rushes to Harvey’s after not going in years to get my hands on a somehwat revolting pop tart ice cream sandwich.   From the seedy surroundings to the focus on nothing by snack food, Hanmoto itself is a gimmick but one that gone from the exception to the rule in the hipster driven expanse with an Ossington epicentre.

It seems Mr. Nutall-Smith is also enamored by a good gimmick. In his review of Hanmoto, he forgives any hiccups (ie. farmed vs wild salmon) by saying that it’s not that type of bar.  It seems his opinions are driven by the fact that the booze drives the food and not vice versa which I disagree with given the rather sleepy cocktail list and predictable beer choices. Don’t get me wrong..he is brilliant writer and one of the first people I go to for an objective opinion on a new restaurant but I’m left wondering if including Hanmoto on the best new Toronto restaurant list is synonymous with Jim Murray’s choice of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as the world’s best whisky.  Maybe I can meet him halfway but saying the dyno wing is one of the top 10 must-try new dishes in Toronto in 2015 but even in my relatively limited exposure to novel eateries, I won’t go as far as generalizing the dish to the entire experience.

Hanmoto Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

 

 

Chicago:Day 3:I needed pork brains to understand the lexicon of Andrew Zimmerman

Stop #1- Carnitas Don Pedro

Earlier in the week, I received an email that was sent to me by a colleague with  a simple question:

Want to check out Carnitas Don Pedro with me? Attached was a link from a recent Globe and Mail article titled “Overheard in Chicago:Three Pork Brain Tacos, please”. Published in May, it was Jacob Richler’s summary of a visit to one of the many “authentic” Mexican cantinas in Chicago. My answer was a resounding yes.

So…a Limey, a Scot and a Jew go to a Carnita joint….

Three of us hopped a cab and took the trek down W 18th Street.  As we approached our destination, I realized it was a far cry from the rich moles, vibrant cocktails and impeccable service I experienced at the equally authentic Topolobampo less than 18 hours earlier. No margaritas, no sommilier, no celebrity chef…just a cold soda and piles of pork served a dozen ways by people who have never had a food network special or  heard of a James Beard nomination.

We navigated through the busy store front (which doubles as a takeout counter) and sat at a modest table topped with napkins and a small, spanish menu.  We shrugged and collectively used our Canadian minds and shallow understanding of French to try and decifer the choices  until the smiling lady came over, smiled and politely pulled the menu out of the napkin holder and turned it over to the english side.  At the same time, plastic bowls of salsa, pickled jalapenos, cilantro and onions were placed on the table along with a paper container of  chicharrones, of as us anglophones say…. “pork rinds”.  They are sort of synonymous with an offering of bread at an Italian dinner. Like a good loaf of Italian bread,  the chicharrones were crunchy when you bit them but melted in your mouth shortly after.  It was kind of a bacon meets bread experience.

Chicharrones
Chicharrones (aka Pork Rinds)
Condiments
Condiments

For the taco choice, we opted for the pork ribs which were simply prepared and presented bone-in. Warm tortilla shells were added to the table and assembly began.  The tortillas were warm, the meat was delicious and well worth any effort needed to dissect the small bones from the tender flesh.

Carnitas (Ribs)
Carnitas (Ribs)
Assembled Taco
Assembled Taco

We ordered the iconic pork brain tacos which were presented in taboo fashion. The brain was wrapped in a hard shell and held together with toothpicks.   The somewhat mushy texture of the filling  justified the crunchy exterior.  The taste was well….interesting.  It had a complexity and oddness synonomous to haggis.  They certainly wouldn’t be for everybody but there was a sinful satisfaction I got out chewing one down.

Pork Brain tacos
Pork Brain tacos

My reason for ordering Menudo soup was threefold.  First, although I didn’t indulge in too many cocktails at Topobambalo the night before, I wanted to see if Menudo, also called hangover soup, would clear up the my slight grogginess.   Second, I have a mild fear of tripe and wanted to see if I could eat something to overcome my phobia. Third, I wanted to convince myself that the word “Menudo” could mean more than the  boy band  (which eventually included Ricky Martin) that plagued my eardrums in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Although much better than the band, I have to admit I still have a slight disdain for tripe although the broth was a rich adventure in classic Mexican flavours including lime, chili, onion and cilantro.

Good Menudo
Good Menudo
Bad Menudo
Bad Menudo

My Take

Don Pedro’s makes you feel like you’re a member of a surrogate family for the hour you are there. The food is amazing and the staff are friendly, jovial and helpful.  You may get a few odd looks from the locals (afterall, we were the only Caucasians in the place, wearing dress shirts and taking pictures like idiot tourists).  The total bill for three of us was $19, about the same price as bringing a bottle of wine to your mom’s house for a family dinner….and last time I checked, she can’t make carnitas (I don’t even think she knows what they are).

Carnitas Don Pedro on Urbanspoon

Stop #2– Sepia

I chose Sepia for dinner for a number of reasons.  I was entertaining a wine afficianato, trying to appease somebody with a simple palate and make a steak lover happy. In addition, a Michelin star and my curiousity over the cuisine of  Andrew Zimmerman (not Andrew Zimmern), the executuve chef who has received numerous culinary accolades over the past few years didn’t hurt.  My simple palate reference is no disrespect to either the diner or Sepia itself, but the concept of sticking to seasonal, fresh and local food.

Of course, things never work out.  For a number of reasons, my party dwindled from 8 to 5.  Other than the rather snooty hostess nobody seemed to mind.  We were asked to sit at the bar for a few minutes while they rearranged the table.  I grabbed a beer and before we were seated, we were asked to settle the bill…which I found a bit odd since we weren’t leaving.  I was hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the service to come.

Based on the storefront and bar, the dining room was surprisingly large and made the fact that this was a 19th century print shop a little more believable.   The tables were spaced nicely and the noise level was moderate. Our waiter arrived shortly after and took some time to explain the premise of the menu.  When he left, they turned to me and started asking numerous questions about the menu.

Ok….here’s a small rant.  I don’t like the word foodie.  I like food, I think I know food but I don’t consider myself a foodie.   Other people do, however, and ask me to explain everything.  Foodies are like Alex Trebek.  Alex reads out question after question and acts like he actually would know every answer if he didn’t have them in front of his face. He shakes his head and proclaims “Oooo, I’m sorry, the answer is French Polynesia” like you’re a freaking idiot.  Many foodies are self-proclaimed experts who check out the menu in advance so they can look intelligent in front of their guests when they can explain what brandade is. Otherwise, they either do the smartphone check  under the table or excuse themselves to the restroom and pull the google stall search to prepare for the anticipated questions.

I did my best with the barrage of questions (at least I knew what matcha was)  but when the waiter returned he was asked about chermoula, ramps, roman gnocchi, togarashi, artichokes barigoule and bavette (see below for answer key).  Without hesitation, he answered every question without a hitch in a friendly and non-condescending manner.

The amuse bouche was a simple strawberry and a thin fennel slice on top of some soft cheese.  It tasted exactly like it looked but the small piece of fennel gave it a crunch that really worked.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

For the appetizer, I opted for the crispy egg (surprise, surprise) atop mushrooms, asparagus and ramps.  The egg was a perfect soft boiled, the batter was crunchy and not greasy and the bed of stew was delicious.  At $15, it should have been a golden egg.

Crispy Soft Cooked Egg
Crispy Soft Cooked Egg

For the entree, I went for the waygu bavette and pastrami with a potato cake served in the middle.  The pastrami was brined nicely and tender to the point where  a knife was unnecessary.  The bavette was cooked medium rare and was seasoned delicately.  Despite the small portion size, the dish was decadent and I actually didn’t finish it.

Bavette and Pastrami
Waygu Bavette and Pastrami

A special shout out goes to the duck fat fried fingerling potatoes. Need I say more???? They tasted like they looked.

Duck Fat Fried Potatoes
Duck Fat Fried Potatoes

For dessert, I opted for the ginger snaps with ricotta, tarragon mustard ice cream, walnuts and honey.  It was  a bit tricky to eat but was presently beautifully and tasted the same.

Gingersnap Dessert
Gingersnap Dessert

The consensus at the table was that the food was top notch.  The winners were the english pea agnolotti starter, the bavette entree  and the malted milk chocolate mousse for dessert.

My Take

Sepia is a true testament  to local, fresh and well prepared food.  Despite the complex menu descriptions, the flavours are surprising simple and can appease all palates.  The service staff is knowledgeable and not condescending.  The meal flowed nicely although it did take a while to put our orders in (partly due to our culinary illiteracy).  The portions are smallish, the prices are highish but good value is there just given the quality of the food. I’ll take french cuisine for $600 Alex.

Glossary

Brandade- an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil

Chermoula-s a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan  and Tunisian cooking.

Ramps- An early spring vegetbale also called a wild leek.

Roman Gnocchi- Potatoless gnocchi with lots of Parmesan cheese

Artichokes barigoule- artichokes with onions, garlic and carrots and wine

Bavette- bottom sirloin/flank steak

Togarashi- Japanese chili peppers or chili pepper products

Sepia on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Ursa

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.

Must

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.

Elk Tartare

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.

Lemon Tart

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).

Red Horn Cocktail
Smashed Cocktail

Maybe

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.

Lingcod

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.

Santa Rosa Plum Salad

Mundane

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.

Elusive Ursa Menu- Subject to change Frequently.

My Take

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.

Ursa on Urbanspoon