Review:Toronto:Parkdale:Electric Mud BBQ

Spin-offs can be a dangerous thing.  Just asked the legendary Jackee who couldn’t even find success in a pilot on the heels of the late 80s comedy 227.  Richard Grieco may agree, given his to attempt to leap from 21 Jump Street to Booker and falling flat on his face.  Electric Mud BBQ is a newish eatery cut from the cloth of the highly successful Grand Electric.  The theme seems to be an attempt to capture the vibe of its Parkdale  brother through its own twist on loud music (in this cases old school blues), trendy snack foods and of course a cash only policy.

The decor is as unique as Grand Electric’s and although not as big  or elaborate (which isn’t saying much), there is an open kitchen and seating at both the bar and tables of different shapes and sizes.

Most importantly, the menu is a spin on soul food, with offerings which include  fried chicken, slaw, ribs and shrimp ‘n grits. It was in line  with the Otis Redding spinning on the turntable  as I grabbed a seat at the bar.  Like Grand Electric, there is a mix of current and cool cocktails and well as 4 regional  microbrews on tap. I opted for pints of a good IPA.

Must

I’ve often said you can’t go wrong with a fried egg on everything, which lead me to order the crispy pig ear salad.  The egg was perfect and sat atop a delicate matrix of delicious pork cracking. The seasoning was reminiscent of the spicy squid at Grand Electric. It’s a unique, mind-blowing  flavour that keeps me up at night as I lay flipping through  channels and watching reruns of Baywatch Nights.

Pig Ear Salad with Fried Egg
Pig Ear Salad with Fried Egg ($6.50)

Fried chicken has often been called a simple dish that’s complicated to perfect.  The need for a well seasoned, cripsy coating which protects the juicy integrity of the chicken it houses involves culinary wizardry, a magic much more impressive that the minds that thought that a Ducks of Hazzard  spinoff starring Enos would be a good idea.   The chicken (2 legs and 2 thighs for $8.50) hit the mark (unlike Enos’ aim) on every level.  It was crispy and juicy and seasoned wonderfully.  It was served with reserve Tabasco sauce and a side of honey laden with Malden salt  although the chicken really didn’t need either. Even the pickled vegetables were a nice touch.

Fried Chicken ($8.50)
Fried Chicken ($8.50)

The slaw was fresh and acidic and complemented the chicken well.  It was a decent serving for $3.50 and would go well with any of the rich dishes on the menu. Let’s call it the Frasier of food; it made Cheers better but also fared nicely on its own.

Bad Picture of Good Slaw ($3.50)
Bad Picture of Good Slaw ($3.50)

Maybe

There is an inherent danger in putting pie in a mason jar, much like an attempt to make Joey Tribbiani the main character in a sitcom.   Electric’s banana cream pie ($5)  wasn’t a pie; it was more a parfait with layers and loose graham crumbs on the bottom as opposed to a defined crust. It was a nice few bites but like Joey, was sweet and a bit confused.

Banana Cream Pie ($5)
Banana Cream Pie ($5)…bad pic

Mundane

With Grand Electric’s pozole (aka dope soup) on my mind, I ordered the crack bread fully expecting the same mind-altering experience.  Instead, I was left feeling like I did when Howard Hesseman left “Head of the Class” and was replaced by Billy MacGregor…hopeless anticipation.  Even with the elixir of pork drippings and butter as a spread, finishing it would have been like trying to endure a season of “Billy”. Instead of three’s company, in this case the trio of  hardish buns reminded me of more three’s a crowd.

"Crack" Bread $3
“Crack” Bread $3.50

My Take 

The emergence of Grand Electric last year brought “Happy Days” to hipsters and foodies searching for cheapish, snack foods in the midst of a good vibe. For the same reason, Electric Mud BBQ is emerging as a successful spinoff, highlighting soul food as opposed to nouveau Mexican.  Unique cocktails, good draught, great food and old school blues will leave people feeling a vibe more like  Mork and Mindy and less like Joanie loves Chachi.*

*It makes me wonder if, in fact, if Arnold’s Diner had a couple of spinoffs, would they be called Pork and Mindy and Joanie loves Sriracha?

Electric Mud BBQ on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales: My Top Canadian Restaurants of 2012

I’ve been to enough restaurants this year to compile a list of  I what I think are the best 10 in Canada.  I am also including a few which I may not have blogged about since I visited them before I started in June or July.  I will begin a daily countdown starting with number 10 and ending with number 1 on New Year’s Eve.

I’m a amateur blogger with a passion for food and this post is nothing more than my personal reflection of a year of eating out.  Feel free to agree or disagree. I encourage your comments!

See the urbanspoon list at the link below.

http://www.urbanspoon.com/guides/5781-my-top-canadian-restaurants-of-2012

10. Union 613– Ottawa

I can still taste the fried okra and Berkshire pork belly to this day.  The environment is best described as  union hall meets hipster joint meets smokehouse.  The staff is courteous, flexible and attentive. The impressive cocktail  list features rotating southern influenced cocktails (usually bourbon) and flavourful local brews.  Some of the traditional dishes were presented with a risky twist; the lemon lime parfait  was a savory rendition of the normally sweet yet tart key lime pie and the beef brisket was topped with an aggressive salsa verde.

The only major flaw was the rather bland oysters.

In the end, it’s great  food and great service in a great environment. I’ll sign the union card.

Check out initial review below and agree or disagree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/review-ottawa-union-613/

9. Trevor Bar and Kitchen- Toronto

Trevor is a meat and fois gras happy restaurant buried in the architecture of Wellington Street East. Well executed main entrees such as coq au vin and prawn spaghettini  as well as beautiful desserts are examples of the stellar food.  In an attempt to  preserve the integrity of the century and a half old building, the decor still makes me feel like I’m eating in a subway station. Regardless, I’ll buy a metro pass.

Check out initial review below and agree or disagree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/reviewtorontost-lawrence-market-old-towntrevor-kitchen-and-bar/

8. Table 17– Toronto

Table17 is a quaint place  with a great atmosphere located along Queen St. East.  It’s not too loud but still manages to have a buzzy aura. It offers  an innovative cocktail list and sticks pretty consistently to a well executed menu with large portions and  a focus on signature items including oysters, rillette, hot balls and and beef tartare.  The  polenta, presented table side, was the pinnacle of the meal and the duck entree was done well.   The desserts were not  mind-blowing but you may not need them after the meal.   This is a table I don’t  mind sitting at!

The blog post  is below.  Let me know if you agree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/review-toronto-queen-east-table-17/

7.  Stoney’s Bread Company– Oakville

Stoney’s Bread Company is the least orthodox place on this list.  It’s not fancy, doesn’t have a stunning decor and isn’t the roaring hotspot like some of the others.  That being said, the food is wicked. The chicken curry sandwich on their own bread is one of the best I’ve had all year.  The pizza had a crust thin enough to allow for delicious origami while thick enough to hold together the fragrant sauce and the other fresh ingredients such as the high quality meats and cheeses which adorn the pies. I’d skip the dessert squares though.  Stoney’s may not be  the place to bring a first date or to impress your new boss…unless of course  they love amazing food and don’t mind taking a trip to a plain jane sandwich joint a bit off the beaten path.

The post is pending. Stay tuned!

6. Chambar– Vancouver

This west coast eatery mixes traditional belgian cuisine with tastes from around the world.  Chambar offers an amazing and unique Belgian beer selection and mussels to match.  In addition, there is an array of unique and sinful desserts with a presentation that rival some of the landmarks from the countries they represent.  The entrees were average and it’s almost too loud to have a conversation but the ambiance is pleasant and the edgy yet traditional menu is for the most part one of the better I’ve tried this year. When it comes to the underrated recreation of Belgian cuisine, Chambar is no sham bar.

Read my earlier review!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/reviewvancouvergastownchambar/

5. Charcut– Calgary

Highlights of this downtown Calgary establishment include a trendy environment in the Hotel Le Germain, a decent booze list and amazing well-prepared yet simple food. In particular, the kitchen pickles and pork belly were most  memorable.   The desserts were decent but limited in choice.  I didn’t blog Charcut because I started writing  a few months after going.  Perhaps it was memorable since it was my first celebrity chef sighting when I chatted with Top Chef Canada contestant Connie DeSousa after dinner. Maybe it was memorable because the food was just damn good.

4. Ursa- Toronto

Ursa is a casual yet elegant eatery which sits quietly on Queen West. Adorned with a long wood bar and open kitchen, it has an intimate environment which is both classic and trendy.  As I mentioned in my review, each dish is a story, whether it be the sourcing of the ingredients or the distinct cooking methods.  Every plate is presented with an artistic flare with fresh,seasonal fare.  The elk tartare was a lesson in leaving good ingredients alone to tell their own tale. In addition, the cocktail list featured quality liquors with fresh ingredients presented in award-winning fashions.   Finally, the deconstructed lemon meringue pie was as tasty as it was visually appealing.  The biggest downfall regarding Ursa is an ever changing and unpredictable small menu which may not appeal to everybody..but I leave you to decide whether that is a major or just a minor issue.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/reviewtoronto-east-ursa/

3. Richmond Station– Toronto

In a few short months, Richmond Station has already established itself as a Toronto hotspot.  Maybe it’s riding the wave of chef/owner Carl Heinrich’s Top Chef Canada 2 win.  With a great open kitchen and a decor that is classy yet trendy, it’s a welcome change from the stuffy French bistros and hipster-centric caverns which straddle the Toronto streets. The food follows the same pattern, offering classic  yet contemporary cocktails, lobster bisque, shucked oysters with fresh condiments and duck two ways. The service, the environment, the chef, the kitchen…all the pieces fit together to make Richmond Station a bitchin’ station.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/reviewtorontodowntownrichmond-station/

2. Grand Electric-Toronto

Grand electric has a feel to it like no other place.  It’s well…electric.    The pozole, the spicy squid and the  tacos (especially the arbol chicken and beef cheek) are some of the better things I have eaten this year.  There’s a great booze list as well.  Despite the long waits and sometimes shady service, the overall feel is hip and cool, catalyzed by loud, hard rap and funky yard sale decor. It’s not clear if the second floor expansion will change the vibe but it shouldn’t change the food on the relatively static  but well executed menu.  In the meantime, there are no surprises.  You’ll  get what you expect with Grand Electric; the “it” factor…but first you gotta put your name on the waiting list.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/reviewtorontoparkdalegrand-electric/

1. Sidedoor- Ottawa

The Sidedoor experience started with impeccable service  the minute I walked in and continued until I left. There was a great cocktail list and the food was even more  impressive. The tuna sashimi might have been the best thing I ate all year and the sinful donuts were a great end to the meal. I was treated to a fantastic pickle tray that wasn’t even on the menu, which contained everything from melon rind to sunchoke to sea asparagus. The tacos were just fine as well. Sidedoor is an example of a perfect storm in which the service, food and environment collide for a truly memorable dining experience. It was so addictive, the next time I went to Ottawa I walked through the cold at 11 pm on a Monday night praying that  by some miracle they’d be open so I could  indulge again.  They weren’t.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/review-ottawa-sidedoor/

Review:Toronto:Parkdale:Grand Electric

Grand Electric is a place you wanna hate.  No reservations,  long lines, cash/debit only and no split bills not to mention an irrelevant website  makes planning a dinner with friends a bit cumbersome.  Nonetheless, once you’re in you become one of the cool kids, even if for a short time.  Loud old-school rap cuts the air amongst the touque-wearing animal heads as you stare at a  blackboard scratched with nouveau-Mexican fare and double take when you see tacos for only 3.5 each.  You get sucked into the gluttony and place order after order from the kitchen as you succumb to  the communal rave of taco nirvana. It’s nothing short of a tongue-tickling trance.

Must

The tacos are terrific.  Whether you opt for a safer arbol chicken (slightly spicy), basa fish (battered and flaky) or vegetarian taco (crunchy corn) or  a more adventurous choice such as beef cheek (tender and rich) or pig tail (crispy and flavorful), there is little disappointment.  Each choice is stuffed to the point where it is a hot mess; accompanied with variety of condiments, whether it be the abundant guacamole with the beef cheek or the salty cheese with the chicken. From a value perspective, they are head’s and (pig) tails above the competition considering other moxy establishments ask $10-12 for a pair of clearly inferior products.

Corn and Pork Belly al Pastor Tacos
Basa Fish, Beef Cheek and Chicken Arbol Tacos

The blackboard menu describes the pozole as dope. After the first bite, I couldn’t argue. Each spoonful offered  tender hominy and pork suspended in a fragrant broth which was addictive like liquid nicotine.  It was spiced perfectly, offering an edgy punch with every bite. In the end, it was heart-warming and addictive dish well worth of the dope proclamation.

Pork Pozole (Dope Soup)

The spicy squid redefines calamari which has unfortunately become a generic term for spongy rings of breaded squid served with some kind of generic dipping sauce.  Grand Electric offers a mountain of tender hoops sprinkled with peppers, green onions and a spicy red coating which eliminates the need  to be masked by seafood sauce or garlic aioli.  You’ll wanna share this one although be warned that  a few fork fights may ensue, even among good friends.

Spicy Squid (not calamari)

Maybe

Not surprisingly, desserts include anything that can be shoved into a mason jar. In this case, it was a key lime pie and a dulce de leche cake.  Served together, there were in total contrast; one was tart, smooth and cold and the other was sweet, crumbly and served piping hot.  In the end, they were both average for what they were but provided a very satisfying end to a terrific meal, although some may not enjoy the extreme sweetness and tartness of these finishing touches.

Key Lime and Dulce de Leche Dessert

Mundane

The hang-up is the utter pretension that characterizes many of the restaurants in Parkdale.  There’s a “my house is bigger than your house” or maybe “my hole-in-the wall is less inviting than yours” mentality which resonates throughout the neighbourhood like cracks in the sidewalk.  Case and point….I have a friend of mine who has been there at least a dozen times. She does the 60-90 minute wait like everybody else and brings new people almost every time.  On her last visit, she was cut off. So was her table of four. Why?  Too much bourbon?  No,  she was informed by the hostess that, after less than an hour of sitting, their “time was up” and they would not be served further.  They were given the bill without further discussion.  She attempted to call the owners on three occasions, has left messages and no calls have been returned.

Personally, I found the service pretty good once I went through the mandatory waiting period (even at 1045 at night). I did, however, feel a little inferior.  Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t sport a raven tattoo or know all the lyrics to 2 Live Crew.  Either that or I don’t have a fetish for social sodomy…afterall, I haven’t read 50 Shades and probably never will.  Hey, maybe the next restaurant in Parkdale (providing the ban is lifted)can offer moderate asphyxiation in between the appetizer and main course.

My Take

The food is amazing!  I do, however, heed a warning penned beautifully by Dr. Seuss over 20 years ago  in “Oh, the place you will go!”…..

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

The food is grand, the atmosphere is electric and this joint  may be topping the rest and is the best of the best according to many pundits, critics and self-proclaimed foodies.  The hang-up is self-righteous attitude that one receives in atttempt to get some good squid.   On the heels of an expansion, consideration should be given to modernizing the approach to improved service that will maintain and even enhance the electricity. In a world where people show less attitude starting revolutions against social injustice or going from rags to riches to make millions, Grand Electric should put things into perspective; they make tacos…..although they are pretty freaking good.

Grand Electric on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Caju

Caju was brought to my attention when it hosted a locally organized fundraiser to raise money to build soccer pitches in Brazil. Please see http://www.facebook.com/justforkicksto for more information. I met the chef and owner, Mario, who invited me to come back and experience Brazilian food. Without hesitation, I took him up on the offer.

A couple of weeks later I made a reservation and was treated to a great lesson.  Like many countries with large geographies, the cuisine is regional, mainly dictated by the availability of local ingredients.   Historically and not surprisingly, it is heavily influenced by Portugal (Caju is also the Portuguese name for the fruit of the cashew tree which sprouts the popular nut). Interestingly, Brazilian cuisine is also influenced by immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Must

The caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail.  Caju does not disappoint. Made with sugar cane rum, sugar and lime, this cocktail is quite refreshing and rivals many others served on the strip, without the need to add cucumber or Pimm’s.  The price point is also reasonable with a number of variations on the caipirinha available for $8.  By the way, the Brazilian cheese buns are great too.

Caipirinha and great cheese buns

The feijoada (a bean based pork and sausage stew with spices and aromatics) had a basewith a deep, complex flavor reflective of the slow cooking process.  The stewed pork was tender and coupled with the  well seasoned sausage provided both  taste and textural differences.

Feijoada

The feijoada was served with traditional accompaniments including cassava (both fried and milled), collard greens and rice, resulting  in a variety of different flavors with each forkful.

Feijoada Accompaniments

The gnocchi meshes the  traditional flavours of tomato and olive oil with a brazilian spin of  cassava flour and heart of palm to create a vegetarian, gluten-free option competitive with others available in the area.

Gnocchi- Gluten Free and Vegetarian!

The passion fruit mousse was a perfect finish to the meal. The tartness of the fruit was not drowned out  by sugar, resulting in a fresh flavour with a palate cleansing effect.

Maybe

The moqueca (an African influenced seafood soup with a foundation of coconut milk and fish stock and seasoned with onion and cilantro) had an intense flavour reminiscent of  a Thai tom yum or Singapore laksa soup.   It was spiced perfectly although I wished it was served a little hotter. It was quite salty but not unbearably so. I would have  loved  if they served it with a boiled egg…then again, I would add an egg to any dish any time.

Moqueca- Seafood Soup

The pasteis are similar to empanadas and are stuffed with heart of palm or cheese. The former  were full of filling and flavor, the latter not so much so.   The accompanying hot sauces were full of punchy flavor which complimented the more subtle flavour of the two-bite appetizers.

Fried Cassava and Pasteis with Really good hot sauce

Mundane

Sandwiched in between the established Queen West and the emerging Ossington area and rather discreet, Caju is a bit of a black sheep along this strip.  It just may be that traditional flavours and decor  have  fallen  a bit out of fashion, especially in this volatile neighborhood.   This is not a complaint, per se, but some passerbys will look in the window and carry on  in search of  blackboard menus and tattooed service.

My Take

Caju offers traditional Brazilian fare in a traditional setting (the floors are made of Brazilian Cherry wood).  This is in stark contrast to the much talked about eateries (eg. ursa and county general) on the same block which boast eclectic   environments and tailor their menus to current  food trends.  I would argue that many of Caju’s dishes would easily fit in most menus along the Queen street corridor or other hot restaurants in the area. The moqueca, for example, is hands down better than hawkerbar’s signature laksa. Fried cassava with that hot sauce could easily pass on La Carnita’s menu. I admire Mario’s commitment to tradition and at the same time I’m left  yearning for more.  He spoke of the traditional  use of pig trimmings (ear, tail, feet) and different varieties  of sausage that could be used in the frijoada which I think would appeal to the same people who wait two hours to down a pig tail taco at Grand Electric or subscribe to the trendy nose to tail philosophy.  After dining at Caju, I easily see why they have an impressive Zagat rating of 26 for food and 24 for service.  Despite being neat and inviting, I also see why they have a more mediocre  21 (even though still considered very good) in decor since it seems a little out of place in this neighbourhood filled with chaos and pretension. Perhaps serving dishes in  the traditional clay pots or incorporating more “Brazil” into the environment would appease those who were  more disappointed with the decor than they were with the food.

In the end, I believe good food and good service do not go out of style.  I enjoy getting bread and very tasty cheese buns before my meal, being  served by friendly staff wearing traditional white and black uniforms (as opposed to black tees with head-scratching  pictures or witty sayings)  and eating  fusion cuisine defined  through years of tradition and not what the current trendsetters and saloon owners are saying about collard greens and sweetbreads.  Traditional Brazilian food in a traditional environment  is Caju…or cashew, in a nutshell.

Cajú on Urbanspoon