Mad Magazine, Joanne Kates and why GVG and Jen Agg may be the Spy vs. Spy of Toronto's Culinary Scene

There is no argument that the world has changed substantially in the past two decades and media is no exception. One by one, longstanding publications are disappearing from the shelves and being replaced by virtual articles and snippets on online platforms. The latest fatality is Mad magazine. It can be argued that this iconic rag lead the way in political satire and was the blueprint for magazines like the onion some 35 years later. In addition, I can remember the tactile stimulation of delicately folding the inside of the back cover to reveal a picture hidden within the printed chaos. I remember it being more exciting that cracking open a kinder egg. It can also be argued that the magazine’s figurehead, Alfred E. Neuman, is the origin of the concept that gingers have no souls well before Trump proved it. Finally, Mad magazine may have foreshadowed today’s over the top fair play movement through the Spy vs. Spy comic. Unlike the Coyote and Road Runner, both were protagonists and equally alternated wins back and forth in a fashion similar to giving every kid a “thanks for coming out medal” in modern day youth athletics despite their performance.

Food media has changed as well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that people eagerly scoured a hard copy of the Globe and Mail in anticipation of the latest Joanne Kates Toronto restaurant review. Times have changed and now Ms. Kates is posting her thoughts online. Today, there are no shortage of critics…any google search now reveals a plethora of self-proclaimed experts (including myself) adding their two cents on blogs, snapchats or platforms like yelp… nowadays all you need is a tongue, a catchy handle and a general understanding of the English language to be an elite food writer.

Kates recently reviewed the newest Grant Van Gameren project and it hardly emerged with flying colours. Her argument was even if she is there for the wine, the food needs to be good because she is paying for it. She proceeds to complain more about the service than the grub itself and seems particularly concerned with the lack of kitchen hardware. On the other hand, in her review of Bar Vendetta, she acknowledges the food is less than stellar but you gotta go because of the vibe that only Jen Agg can create.

I’ll be the first to admit that Toronto’s food experience has drastically changed in the past 15 years. Things like three course meals and personal space have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with small plates and tight spaces plus/minus communal tables. Creative versus classic backdrops are the new norm and both GVG and Jen Agg lead the charge. Establishments like the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were trendsetting and fundamental backbones of the Toronto food movement today. That said, here’s my take..backed up by a few followers and a willingness to pay 25 bucks a year to keep my cleverly named web domain.

Vibe

Both spaces are understandably loud and filled with hipster zombies and the odd #okboomer trying to fit in.

Bar Piquette– Small and bright with white tables and blackboards indicating the current and rather extensive wine by the glass choices along with a handful of accompanying food options. Instead of a hidden cellar, bottles adorned with “The Price is Right” tags are stored in a rustic cabinet teasing patrons within plain sight.

Bar Vendetta– Dark environment with mismatched tables and chairs and walls plastered with classic music posters and a Spy vs Spy mural featuring a broken wine bottle and a corkscrew as weapons…clever. Wine choices are less extensive and indicated on spotty and crinkled paper menus which are near impossible to read in the murky surroundings. It’s a place reminiscent of Eric’s basement hangout in that 70’s show.

The Food

Bar Piquette– Limited menu of cold choices. We opted for a classic beef tartare, a tomato salad intertwined with guanciale and a simple cheese toast. Admittedly a little pedestrian but the ingredient were of stellar quality and each dish paired nicely with the one the many exciting selection of unique vinos.

Bar Vendetta– The menu focuses on pasta at peaks hours and gimmicks like muffuletta sandwiches and nachoes pre- and post-prime time respectively. My trio of dishes included the tuna diavolo, eggplant and trecce pasta. The tuna was vibrant and fresh and balanced nicely with a little heat courtesy of some fresh chilis. The eggplant and pasta on the other hand were pretty substandard. There was the odd bite of brilliance in the eggplant but overall it was rather bland and uninspiring, The pasta, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of the experience, was the biggest letdown mainly due to the fact it was uncooked and almost crunchy.

The Drink

Bar Piquette– The wine selection was bold and unique with plenty of by the glass offerings from all over the place. Temptation came screaming from the custom cabinet but I mainly stuck to glasses of skin-on organics and other fun libations.

Bar Vendetta– We made of the mistake of ordering cocktails in a wine bar and paid dearly. I’m always nervous to trash cocktails based on my own odd booze-forward tastes but after playing sharsies with the Dry Clean, Provocateur and Fade Out, my trusted table mates and I concurred that none of them where anywhere close to stellar. These were followed with a decent glass of Pearl Morisssette Irreverence and an Italian Valdibella Nero d’Avola chosen from what was quite frankly a less than impressive list, especially from a place touting itself as a wine bar.

My Take

Maybe Jen Agg and Grant Van Gameren are the Spy vs Spy of Toronto’s culinary scene. Each dream up a culinary scheme and see how it flies. Given their entry into the realm of wine bars, it’s not too far off to suggest that they may in fact have a rivalry similar to the corkscrew and broken bottle mural on Bar Vendetta’s wall. In most cases, both emphasize the vibe of their establishments and the polar nature of their latest projects will certainly lead to each patron picking a different winner. Personally, I like a brighter, wine forward place where Bob Barker could pop in any minute and ask me the price of a skin-organic wine without going over. On the other hand, people like Joanne Kates seem to prefer a venue where you could squint as you listen to Zeppelin and smoke up with Kelso. I’m also much less concerned about kitchen hardware and would prefer a decent beef tartare and other quality meats versus a head-scratching eggplant and under cooked pasta even when using a stove. If it came down to it and I had to choose between the two, I’d Piquette over Vendetta any day.

El Rey vs Jimmy Ray: At Least One of Them Isn’t a One Hit Wonder.

As I’ve frequently stated, the restaurant industry parallels the music industry.  Both are filled with experiences that will forever be etched in our brains. In other cases, certain foods and/or restaurants can be one-hit wonders in the same fashion as “flash in the pan” singers.  By defintion, the saying flash in the pan has nothing to do with food but it sounds pretty good.

1998 was a bad year for music.  The Billboard number 1 song for the entire year was was “Too Close” by Next (insert cricket sounds).  It was also infamous for having a number of charting songs by one-hit wonders including:

21-Crush- Jennifer Paige

28 Sex and Candy- Marcy Playground

35- Tubthumping- Chumbawumba

76- All for you- Sister Hazel

Perhaps the most recognizable (and certainly most applicable to this blog) is number 65  “Are you Jimmy Ray?” by the appropriately named Jimmy Ray. Despite his brilliant lyrics and video featuring an array of hip-pop and cowgirl cheerleaders flaunting pom-poms and doing double dutch, this Chris Issak crossed with Ricky Martin looking Brit faded from fandom rather quickly. In fact, touring with the  Backstreet Boys couldn’t keep Jimmy relevant at the time.

 

Another Rey recently hit the charts in the GTA.  This one goes by the name El and is the third single from Grant van Gameren’s debut album “Snax in the Six”.  The debut single, “Bar Isabel” and sophomore follow-up “Bar Raval” modernized the tapas experience along College street by equally and authentically combining decor and food to create a booze soaked snack vibe which as been copied by others ever since. The newer project, El Rey, on the other hand, launched on the border of Kensington and in the midst of a number of sleepy cantinas and tacquerias down the street and vaulted Mexican cuisine with a flare similar to the previous hits Isabel and Raval.

The two page menu consists of a page and a half of booze and a short row of snack foods highlighted by tostadas, snacks and a few other common Mexican specialties.  There are almost a dozen mezcals to go along with a few beer choices (local, Mexican and European) and wine selections.  Perhaps the paramount drink is the elusive “open windows”.  This cocktail is a must; an refreshing blend of the aforementioned mezcal plus some tequila, lime, pineapple which is finished with some chili for extra bite.  I say elusive because at one point the windows were closed and  it disappeared from the menu but has since returned (unless you go for brunch in which it is mysterious absent on the drink menu). In this case you need to beg and plead for one in a fashion similar to asking your dad for the car.

Foodwise, the tostadas are a must.  In particular, the coctel camaron ($10.50) is spectacular; a crispy corn totialla topped with shrimp, cucumber, avocado and some campechana sauce.    Honorable mention goes to the grilled skirt steak ($10.50) and octopus ($11.50) tostadas as well.  Each offered a unique taste driven but the use of different sauces and complementary ingredients to enhance the properly prepared proteins. Authentic, simple and delicious.  The bean and cheese quesadilla, on the other hand, didn’t get a whole lot of excitement from the table.   In addition to looking like a hot mess, it lacked any punch even when you tired to lather it with any of the provided accompaniments.

El Rey is another successful hit from the discography of Toronto’s Grant van Gameren.  The cantina breathes authenticity in its commitment to simple dishes and decor unlike the exaggerated and khabouthic demeanor of other establishments. As a result, it pumps out hit after hit from both a food and drink perspective. Its vibrant and current drink list is refreshing  both in choice and the fact it steers clear of bourbon-based cocktails and other overdone potent potables which saturate other snack bars in the area.In the end,  the fluidity of the food, drink and vibe allows for seasonal foods and current concepts year round, even when snowbanks and road salt threaten the sunny aura of a full Mexican experience.

As for Jimmy, the other Ray…have no fear…he gets knocked down but he gets up again.  Rumour has it that in a month Jimmy will be back after almost 20 years with his comeback album called “Live to Fight Another Day” just in case you are one those who wants to know.

El Rey Mezcal Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato