While researching Cincinnati’s scene, I came across an article from Cincinnati’s travel site telling me about 5 things to do for under $5. They included observation towers, castles and conservatories but I was particularly interested in food related activities which included Graeter’s ice cream and Tom and Chee grilled cheese.
Graeter’s was started by the family with the same name in Cincinnati in 1870. Since then, it has grown into a 50 million dollar enterprise with around 50 stores and numerous celebrity endorsements. Since it was an above average night from a temperature perspective, the Over the Rhine location was buzzing. Normally I’m a sloth when it comes to ice cream choices but the website instructed me to indulge in the black raspberry chocolate chip, their signature and best-selling flavour. It was well worth a few bucks highlighted by big chunks of dark chocolate mixed within the rich and not sickly sweet raspberry ice cream.
Tom and Chee’s started in a tent in downtown Cincinnati. Short for Tomato and Cheese, this grilled cheese eatery has steadily grown in the Midwest boosted by endorsements from a couple of Shark Tank investors as well as a pre-weight loss Adam Richman on man versus food nation. It’s smart concept for a number of reasons. One, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese and better yet 16 different ones? Two, they have a great gimmick with their spin on this classic; using a donut instead of bread with almost 10 different filling combinations. Three, the restaurant decor is fun, fresh and clean. Bright red and yellow colours highlight the simple interior.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I opted for the same item as Adam…the Blueberry Bleu consisting of blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone within a donut. It certainly removed the stigma that a grilled cheese is a simple, handheld American snack. This one needed a knife and fork. It was salty and sweet and crunchy and smooth with every bite. I loved the abundant blue cheese against the marscarpone and the blueberry compote was excellent.
I made up a few of my own cheap excursions that didn’t involve any eats. For example, I took a 6k jog and was able to hit three bridges, two states, two rivers and pass both an NFL stadium and an MLB stadium. Speaking of the latter, the Great American Ballpark is a spectacle. The outside has a recreation of an infield complete with a pitcher, catcher, batter and base runner. The entrance to the stadium bring you into the top of stadium meaning you have to walk down instead of up to get to your seat.
I’m always interested in the snack scene of a city as much as I am the James Beard nominees or triple D destinations. In the case of Cincinnati, some of the highlights include an ice cream shop nearly 150 years old and a grilled cheese joint in its infancy. Both are cheap indulges you can help burn off with a jog through a couple of states or a stroll through a modern ballpark which is the centrepiece of an interesting midwest American city.
I was meeting a couple of friends for lunch and we wanted to try out Wilbur, the new Mexican place on King about half way between Portland and Brant. It was completely unorganized and crazy and since time was of the essence we went next door to Her majesty’s pleasure. I feel this preamble is important in order to justify why I chose a salon/nail bar for lunch. I mean, I’ve never had a manicure or pedicure in my entire life and have no problem sitting down for a $20 haircut.
The decor is….well…very white. I suppose the rationale is the promotion of cleanliness and a glistening that matches the teeth of the smiling patrons who are getting one hand painted with powder rose varnish while using the other to sip perky pink cocktails with mint leaves and raspberries in them. Sounds of grinding coffee and fake laughs filled the air. It was a bit surreal and I found myself looking around for the Real Housewives of Toronto camera crew tucked in a corner. I took a trip to the washroom and realized how big the place actually was. I passed numerous stations equipped with mirrors, blow dryers etc. waiting to primp or crimp or whatever the style of the day happens to be.
The menu is small and consists mainly of organicy, vegany, skin cleansing, waist slimming salads (which I’m sure go great with a fruity cocktail), a sandwich or two and a kettle of soup. As mentioned, you can grab a espresso-based beverage or a number of potent potables. The woman behind the counter took great pride in the offerings, gladly handing out samples of the homemade mushroom soup. I settled on it with a grilled cheese made with homemade bacon jam finished in the “we are too small to have a kitchen” panini press. Add a decaf americano and the bill came to $19.
As I ate in my street clothes with my less than coiffed hair I felt a little like a Bridal Path housekeeper on a lunch break. The soup and sandwich were pretty decent. The bacon jam was delicious. All in all, it was a satisfying lunch. The people watching was phenomenal and I’m sure the patrons were wondering what a jagged nailed bum like me was doing in such an environment. That said, the staff was cordial and played the permasmile supporting role effectively.
A few days later I went for dinner at Buca Yorkville. I was hosting a dinner for 7 so we had to take a 6 pm reservation. That said, we were seated immediately and they were patient with the one or two in the party who are chronologically challenged (or couldn’t find the place..it can be a bit tricky). At that point, we got the family style speech plus the fact that the Yorkville menu represented fare from the sea vs the terrene focus of their sister restaurant Buca on King. It’s always a joy trying to reach a shared consensus with 7 very different palates at the table but we eventually decided on an array of offerings:
As expected, there was a decent selection of wine. We started with a very subtle Soave (La Cappuccina-$65) which I enjoyed more than I would a Prosecco. After a short debate, we ordered Castelfeder Sauvignon Blanc ($75) later in the meal. I almost send it back but after getting a second opinion, we kept it at the table. It just had a taste more sour (like passion fruit) and was less crisp and spicy than the New Zealand ones we are more accustomed to. A few guests at the table commented that the taste grew on them.
Gnocco Fritto ($9)
These squid ink dumplings were served warm. Although they looked like charcoal briquettes, they were absolutely delicious. The accompanying tuna n’duja was spicy and seasoned perfectly. I could’ve eaten a whole lot of these.
Bucaites swear by these doughy balls of goodness. It’s hard to go wrong with garlic, olive oil and rosemary anything so these were not disappointing.
I was really excited for this dish. Eel prepared “in saor” ( a breaded, vinegar preservation method) and finished with pine nuts and the sweet and sour contrast of sea buckthorn and maple syrup sounded dreamy. It was better on paper; the eel was lost in the batter and the contrast of flavours wasn’t as prominent as I expected.
This dish was recommended in advance by a colleague of mine. I think table side preparation is a growing trend and I was excited to watch a sea bass get transformed into crudo in front of my eyes. The sexiness of such an act was somewhat impaired by an equipment malfunction when one of the wheels of the cart flew off in transit. The recovery was quick and the fish was carved and finished with prosecco, lemon and high quality olive oil. It was a classic example of the power of good, high quality and fresh ingredients. I saw quite a few of these fish carved throughout the night and was surprised to see how few people paused to admire the workmanship, especially with the steep price tag of forty plus dollars.
As a table, we ordered three pastas from the group of seven; the spaghetti pomodoro ($19), the famous bigoli ($18) which is one of the few items which made the trip from the king street location and the ravioli doppi ($39) which is stuffed with lobster and parsnip. The pomodoro (not pictured) was near perfect. The pasta was a magnificent al dente and I tasted the saltiness of the sea as I dreamed of the server’s story of Italian tomatoes grown 100 meters from the saline waters on Italy’s coast. The bigoli was ducky;literally and figuratively. The ravioli, which arrived well before the other two, was a bit disappointing. I found the pasta a little thick especially when it is meant to house the delicate taste of lobster. I also made the mistake of cutting the ravioli the wrong way meaning I got nothing but a mouthful of parsnip in the first bite (the pasta was stuffed with the lobster on one side and the pungent root on the other). Even when I corrected by oversight, I still found it disappointing, especially for $39.
At one point I was worried about time. Most restaurants do two seatings for big tables and I was worried we would be rushed as it was approaching 8 pm and we still hadn’t received pizza or anything else we planned to order. However, it was quickly evident that there was no need to rush, especially given the huge void of time between courses, especially the pasta and pizza. The server arrived with a margherita ($17), a nero di seppia ($19) and a pair of scissors. I thought the pizzas were literally night and day. The night was the dark and disappointing nero pizza. It looked a bit like a scrambled Italian flag or a Christmas decoration. There was no adhesion whatsoever; it was a bunch of stuff scattered across squid ink dough. The day was the light and refreshing margherita which delivered everything it promised.
Meat and Vegetable
We didn’t initially order this, but the consensus at the table was that we needed more food so we ordered the costole di bisonte ($36) and a side of cavofiori ($10). I would have expected them to arrive together but the bison rib was served almost 10 minutes before the cauliflower. Maybe it’s the English in me, but I would have expected them to be served together for the meat and vegetable experience. The rib was smart and certainly meaty; the sunchoke and walnuts added a wonderful earthiness to the dish. The cauliflower was surprisingly simple but delicious. It was served with lardo, and finished with pecorino and duck egg yolk.
Dessert was zeppole, otherwise known as an Italian or in this case a roman donut (which may be a bit risque if you were to look up urban dictionary’s definition). It can best be described as cannoli on steroids. The normal brittle, cookie exterior was replaced with a chewy, bagel-like shell which housed a filling that was a sweet pistachio cream offset by a sour cherry sauce. It was absolutely delicious and is now on my list of the things I have specific cravings for.
During the meal, I had another housewife of Toronto experience. A table of 6 women walked in, apparently celebrating some sort of birthday, anniversary, facelift etc. They would all greet each other with toothy smiles and friendly hugs and then take their jackets off only to replace them a minute later once everybody could get a peak of the wares which lied beneath. I found myself somewhat entranced by the whole scene and started to understand why people might actually watch these housewife exposes. I wondered if at least one of them made a trip to her majesty’s pleasure earlier to the day to sip a drink and think about eating something while primping up for a competitive evening with the girls.
Entertainment aside, the experience was pretty good. The meal started and ended well (I still crave that tuna n’juda and zeppole) with a few up and downs in between. The service itself was incredible. The timing, however, was a bumpy as the fish cart with the blown wheel. There were lags between courses and even delays within the courses. Some of the dishes (the eel, ravioli doppi and the branzino crudo) were rather overpriced. It seems that the best dishes were the simple ones and the more complex ones were confusing and unreasonably expensive.
Aside from the land versus sea menu, I think there is a bit of a struggle to define how this Buca location will compare and contrast to the King Street location. There is the need to adhere to the old school “everybody is family” Italian philosophy combined with the pretentious demands of the Yorkville faithful. I think it can work as long as the concept and efforts don’t come across looking as fake as the lips and boobs of the housewives of Toronto.
Not since the days of Shaggy, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine have mobile smokehouses been so mainstream. Case and point, I was at a fundraiser a while back and the line for Urban Smoke was twice that of any other truck that was onsite. Parked comfortably within the confines of a private parking lot (so as not to add to further Toronto city hall controversies) , the staff were busy dishing out some traditional and not so traditional fare. Ten bucks got you one of four choices so I picked up some lunch for myself and a colleague.
The ability to get a hearty soup is a rarity in most restaurants let alone a food truck. The split pea soup was reminiscent of something your French-Canadian uncle J.P. may spend hours in the kitchen whipping up in a magical cauldron. It was thick and savory and filled with chunks of delicious double smoked ham while resisting the temptation to over-salt, a common transgression of many an eatery.
Perfecting the grilled cheese seems a easy trick but its simplicity is often its quandary. Urban Smoke offered two sandwiches; a standard grilled cheese and one featuring nutella and mascarpone cheese as a dessert. Magic is grilling the bread to golden brown while melting the ample filling, a feat that everyone from top chefs to 15 year old latchkey kids have spent generations trying to perfect. Urban Smoke comes close. The secret could very well be seasoning the bread with just a small amount of salt on the outside before grilling the abundant contents within. Simple but extremely satisfying.
The pulled pork was average which is still a compliment considering the number of food trucks, burger joints and smoke houses who lay their foundation on good pulled pork. The meat was tender, partnered with piquant seasonings and the bread was soft and proportional to the filling. The “magic fries” provided a poof that could certainly help Penn and Teller make a rabbit appear but maybe not enough to make David Copperfield’s convertible materialize out of the blue. The slaw added a delicious, tangy crunch.
I took a chance and opted to skip the magic fries in favour of the banana pudding (see picture above). It had a decent flavour but I felt a bit ripped off by the size and the fact it was starting to separate a bit, leaving a bit of an oily pool in the bottom of the glass. It was about the size of a jello shooter and in the end about as exciting as the never-ending handkerchief trick.
Part of the appeal of a food truck should be a quick meal to avoid having to sit down, order, eat and wait for the bill. Although almost inevitable, especially during high volume events such as fundraisers and other events, long waits continue to be an issue with wheel-bearing establishments and Urban Smoke was no exception.
Urban Smoke is a bit of a traveling roadshow, bringing a kind of magic show to each and every parking lot or street side it inhabits. The headliners include a variety of southern BBQ foods including pulled pork and brisket partnered with a few other choices. As a result, it draws big crowds which means big lines and big waits. The staff, however, are quite efficient and personable and maintain a decent flow. If the truck is around (check out torontofoodtrucks.ca for schedules), I would definitely consider a trip for lunch if you have the time and desire to break up a hectic day. After all, after a busy adventure unmasking criminals, I’m sure Shag and Scoob would have been happy to fill up on a few grilled cheese sandwiches following an equally smoky visit to the Mystery Machine.