Hearing Stories at Mamakas While Wondering if Mikey, Despite his Ancestry.com Results, Will Like it.

I’m fascinated by the latest round of ancestry.com commercials.  In particular, there is one where some middle aged guy, after thinking he was German for 50 years, went onto the website and found out he was Scottish. In addition, he seemed quite happy about exchanging the lederhosen for a kilt.  I have a problem with this.  If I found out that I wasn’t the nationality I thought I was after 5 decades, I’d be pissed.  Immediate questions like “Did we have a Scottish mailman or a nanny?”would pop into my head. I would also have a frank discussion with my parents about the significance  of properly relaying important information, such as where the hell I came from , to my siblings and I.

That said, there are times I wish my family history was a little more exciting.  I’m at least a third generation Canadian so ties to my homeland are as faded as memories of the last time England won the World Cup.  I’ve mentioned before that my mom has always been a good cook but it would be a stretch to say she was authentic.  Her cabbage rolls, for example, are stuffed with precooked hamburger,  minute rice and parmesan cheese.  I have longed to be able to latch onto a culture and call it my own, especially from a food perspective. After a rather boring diet for the first 20 years of my life, I finally was able to experience authentic ethnic food. I remember working with a doctor from Thailand who introduced me to the first Tom Yum soup I’ve ever had.  To this day, it is etched in my brain as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Most culture’s foods are quite ubiquitous now.  Even in sleepy towns like London, Ontario, there is a surge in the availability of international fare. Toronto is like a diner’s Disneyland, allowing any of us to be Korean, Indian or Jamaican for a day.

In other words, I’m a little jealous of people with well rooted histories and stories from the old world.  Narratives of Sri Lankan perusing markets selling fresh mangosteen or eating carnitas in the alleys of Mexico city sound far more exciting that chasing the Dickie Dee guy down the street to get one of those ghost shapes ice cream bars with the frozen, tooth-cracking gumballs in the middle of a luke warm day in Sudbury.  What overcomes the jealousy a bit is when I dine with them and get to see and experience the pride they have in their culture’s food.

Specifically, when it comes to Greek food, my experience was limited growing up.  The Apollo was the main gig in town and I rarely went. At home, my mom didn’t know what a greek salad was. Since then, I’ve hit a number of Greek places through my triple D expeditions.  Usually, these traditional eateries are pleasantly tacky, often decorated with blue and white colours, flags and pictures of architecture of  the homeland hanging on the wall.  I’ve also come to realize that every second diner, even if it doesn’t serve souvlaki (although it usually does), is owned by a Grecian.  In fact, a Greek friend of mine owns a sports bar in London and I can bet on two things; good food and continuous reminders that, as opposed to England,  Greece has won the Euro Cup whereas England’s World Cup win was even earlier than the last Leaf’s Stanley Cup victory.

I was surprised to hear a Greek place would harbour itself along Ossington, one of the more volatile and finicky streets on the whole Toronto dining map. That said, it keeps getting rave reviews.  I was particularly interested to go since I was with a couple of colleagues who in some way have Grecian ties . I knew I would be treated to  narratives which would nicely compliment some of the dishes that came out and would be a little more exciting than mine which involve the fact that my kids really like my horribly predictable (but decent) chicken souvlaki dinner.

The decor is less tacky than most Greek places and was actually fresh and bright, especially  for an Ossington joint.  It was bustling but there were no worries because they actually take reservations.   It had wine that night so I can’t comment on the cocktails.  Despite the fact that Greek wine is not as renowned as some it’s chest pumping European neighbours,  Mamaka’s stick to their heritage by offering  krasi of all types (about 15 white and red options) and price points ranging from $45 to $120. We opted for the $45 Sofos organic and the $60 Kidonista whites.  Although neither were the best whites I’ve ever had, they were as crisp and clean as the joint itself and well worth the reasonable price.

The first lesson from my table mates was that among the many dips available in a Greek restaurant, taramosalata is a better choice than tzatziki.  Made with fish roe mixed with other traditional Greek ingredients like lemon and oil, it has a pink hue and is quite salty. It was served with cucumber and pita. It’s a bit of a surreal spread and seemed synonymous with marmite from my British roots.

mamakas dip
Taramosalata $7

I didn’t need a lesson to understand the significance of octopus in Grecian cuisine but I did need one to understand Santorini fava.  My knowledge of fava beans include their cameo in a Hannibal Lecter speech in “The Silence of the Lambs” and from my dietitian training in which I learned that they fact they cannot be consumed by segments of the world’s population due to favism, a genetic disorder in which there is insufficient   glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in red blood cells, leading to acute hemolytic anemia.  Ironically, many Greeks carry this genetic abnormality which also protects from malaria . That said, Santorini fava has nothing to do with fava beans.  In fact, it is similar to a hummus made with yellow split peas and flavoured with onions (in this case pickled…soooo Ossington) and capers. This dish was delightful and a nice change from the potato and olive combo which seems to accompany the mollusc everywhere else.

mamakas octopus
Octopus with Santorini Fava $20

Once again, through stories at the table I was transported to a large Greek family dinner featuring Kokoretsi, a lamb offal sausage complimented with skordalia (a garlic potato taste).  I was told stories of a grandmother, who did not want to waste a scrap of food, working meticulously  to season and stuff everything into an awaiting casing with great success.  Although I’m not a lamb fan, I couldn’t complain…it tasted like I was there.

mamakas sausage
Kokoretsi $14

For a side we had tiganites patates which were fries topped with a little feat, egg and spicy sauce.  In other words, it’s Greek poutine.  As I’ve said before, it’s hard to mess up fries and I will eat an egg on anything so I wasn’t disappointed.

mamakas potatoes
Patates $8

My Take

Mamakas proves that Greek food can be as funky and cool as their Korean, Cuban or Vietnamese neighbours.  This restaurant breaks the mold of predictable,  diner-like atmospheres and instead offers a cool and sleek vibe.  The food includes standard fare such as lamb and spanakopita but also transforms traditional but lesser known dishes into modern small plates which still emphasis the concept of family style dining.

I often go to medical conferences (which would perhaps discuss  glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) but don’t usually participate in the guided poster presentations which provide audio commentary to accompany  the visual data.    When it comes to dining, however, I’m singing a different tune.  Listening to my colleagues reminisce about family gatherings rooted in old world traditions in the context of Mamakas decor, vibe and food makes me want to declare myself a culinary pyromaniac, break dishes and scream “Opa!” at the top of my lungs for at least a few hours before reverting to my sullen, ale-swigging distant English eating habits.

In the end, I’ve realized I don’t need ancestry.com.  Being a United Kingdom mutt allows me to be a bit of an impartial chameleon when it comes to the diversity of  cultural food choices out there.  I think restaurant owners perceive there is as much a benefit in appeasing the clueless white guy as there is members of the ethnicity they represent. I feel I’m kind of like Mikey form the iconic life cereal commercials as many of the chefs anxiously stare at me wondering if, after a short period of consideration,  I will like it.

Mamakas Taverna Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Bro, After Getting Me to the Greek in Nashville I had Happy Days at Arnold’s

The plan for day 3 was to hit a few diners, drive-ins and dives in Nashville.  The breakfast plan was Athens family restaurant which was the only DDD open for breakfast. Guy’s visit focused more on the traditional greek entrees but I find breakfast still gives you a good idea of a restaurant as a whole.

Upon arrival, it had all the hallmarks of a tradional greek diner:

1.  Blue and white decor in an otherwise sterile environment.

2.  An aged sign with character including missing letters on the letter board.

2. A moderately pleasant waitress with an accent.

3. A massive menu.

4. A spattering of regulars sucking back copious amounts of coffee while reading the newspaper.

5.  A reminder that Greece is not known for coffee.

 

Athens was featured on DNERS DRVE NS DIVES
Athens was featured on DNERS DRVE NS DIVES

Since we arrived prior to 10am, the choices were limited to breakfast which was a bit of blessing given the huge amount of choice.  The downside was an inability to try any of the traditional dishes that attracted Guy here in the first place.  That said, I believe the ability to execute a terrific breakfast is indicative of the rest of the menu, especially when ordering the Achilles’ (pardon the pun)  heel of many morning joints; eggs Benedict. Perfect poached eggs with tangy and creamy hollandaise atop ample meat is an art. My two daughters had a case of “I lack any sort of ambition prior to high noon”, so they opted for a simple breakfast special. None had a particularly exciting presentation but was reflective of the restaurant’s concept in general.  After all, not everybody garnishes their dishes at home with parsley sprigs or drizzled sauces in shape of the Parthenon.

The Eggs Benedict ($12) was delicious.  Nicely cooked poached eggs sat atop a thick slice of  in-house smoked ham. The Hollandaise sauce was delicate and flavorful.  I ordered it with fruit and was reminded that strawberries are delicious when they don’t have to travel clear across a continent to get to your table. It wasn’t the prettiest plate but was quite easy to devour.

Eggs Benny $12
Eggs Benny $12

My Take

Athens’ is stereotypical greek family restaurant. I can only comment on breakfast but it was a tasty way to start a day in Nashville.  The breakfast specials were a good value (around $6 each).  Predictably, the coffee was bad and food was good.  It lacks any significant vibe but they don’t claim they have one either. It’s a pleasant boring. Hmmmm…sounds like a Russell Brand movie.

Food: 4 Guyz

Service: 3.5 Guyz

Vibe: 3.5 Guyz

Total: 11/15 Guyz

 

Athens Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

Afterwards, I embarked on a walking tour on the two most expensive universities in Tennessee. Vanderbilt tops $40000 per year while Belmont comes in a little under $30000.  Both campuses were beautiful.  They are also very big.  My daughters were less than impressed with the half marathon I brought them on.  The advantage was I was able to work up an appetite to tackle Arnold’s country kitchen, one of the most iconic eateries in Nashville. Promising one of the best “meat and three” meals in Tennessee, Arnold’s offers authentic southern food at decent prices.  Normally I attempt to avoid lunch rushes, but I didn’t want to test my luck against two mercurial teenage girls.  As expected, the place was packed. The diversity of patrons ranged  from young children to business professionals.   As I stood in line I noticed the James Beard medals and numerous celebrity endorsements which lined the walls.  Despite the length of the line, things moved quickly and we had food on our trays within 15 minutes. For me, it was roast beef, creamed corn, mac and cheese and turnip greens.  The girls split fried chicken, green salad, cole slaw and mac and cheese.  For dessert, we had spicy chocolate and strawberry pie respectively. With drinks (ice tea of course), the final tally was less than $30. To this my daughter’s comment was the fact that the entire meal was the same price as the plate of southern vegetables at Husk the night before. I see an economics major in somebody’s future.

What $30 gets you at Arnold's Country Kitchen.
What $30 gets you at Arnold’s Country Kitchen.

Simply put, this place is worth the hype.  Each component of the meal was among the best I’ve had. The roast beef was a perfect medium rare.  The mac and cheese and creamed corn were like a young hollywood starlet: rich but not overly heavy.  The bitterness of the tender  greens were evident but dulled by vibrant seasoning, creating a perfect balance.  The chocolate pie was divine; the bittersweet of the chocolate combined with the subtle heat of the peppers created a trinity of taste sensations more divine that of a French or Louisiana mirepoix. The girls’ fired chicken was equally fantastic.

Roast Beef, Mac and Cheese, Turnip Greens, Creamed Corn and Hot Pepper Chocolate Pie.
Roast Beef, Mac and Cheese, Turnip Greens, Creamed Corn and Hot Pepper Chocolate Pie.

My Take

There is always the fear that restaurants with as much hype as Arnold’s country kitchen will be a let down. From the first bite it was evident that the medals, endorsements and accolades were all well deserved. Tender roast beef, fried chicken that could easily be the envy of Colonel Sanders and his army of Kentuckians, delicious sides and incredible desserts highlight a simple and authentic southern menu.  I understand why they call it soul food…because eats like these hit some kind of sensory receptors on the soul itself.  I honestly pondered getting in line again for another round but after two university campus tours and a rather lengthy walk downtown, the anticipated angst of my two daughters outweighed my desire for a collective meat and six.

Taste: 5/5 Guyz

Service: 4/5 Guyz

Vibe-5/5 Guyz

Total : 14/15 Guyz

 

 

Arnold's Country Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The afternoon involved driving west down the music highway to Memphis but not before a stop at Bro’s Cajun cuisine on the way out.  It took me a few tries to find it.  Perched up a hill on Charlotte street, the best identifier is a white boat in a parking lot with the name of the restaurant written in red across the side.  After a small jaunt up the hill, I walked into the place.  The interior was a cross between a beach house, a bus station and a butcher shop.  We were quickly greeted by a trio of characters I later identified as the chef, the waitress and some dude who hangs out like Norm Peterson or a similar sitcom character.  We ordered takeout and had a seat at a table while waiting.  Norm started up a conversation which included but was not limited to “Where y’all from?” “Is it cold in Canada? I heard it’s nice up there!” and “Make sure you put a tack on the map board over there.” Shortly after he got scolded by the waitress for not doing anything to help  around the restaurant.  When I mentioned we were on our way to Memphis and asked what’s fun to do there, her response was “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been to Memphis”.

I order a triad of Cajun mainstays; gumbo, rice and beans and jambalaya.  In all three dishes, the sausage was the dominant player.  Although this created a bit of monotony throughout the meal, in the end the dishes delivered on the promise of bold flavours. Since I haven’t been to Louisiana,  I can’t comment on the authenticity but I imagine given what I know about Cajun cooking it would safe to say it’s a true representation. The prices were fantastic and the portions were huge.

Gumbo ($5.25), Jambalaya   ($4.95) and Rice and Beans ($4.95)
Gumbo ($5.25), Jambalaya ($4.95) and Rice and Beans ($4.95)

My Take

For those who can’t make it to Louisiana, I’m confident that Bro’s would be an adequate fill-in for a Cajun craving.  The food is delicious although a little monotonous.  When you enter, you feel like family but maybe too much so as you thrown into a bit of a sitcom situation and can’t help wondering if there’s a camera running somewhere.  I mean, would it really be out of the question?  A Louisiana clan moves north to Tennessee to make it big in Music city by converting people from fried chicken to gumbo.  Maybe they would call it “Bro Goes Country” or “North of 35”.

Food: 4/5 Guyz

Service:3.5/5 Guyz

Vibe: 3.5/5 Guyz

Total: 11/15 Guyz

Bro's Cajun Cuisine on Urbanspoon

So, it was off to Memphis for a little Elvis, blues and more culinary quests, of course.