East Thirty-Six: Breaking Down the Yonge Street Wall

A riddle…

Q. Why did the foodie cross the road?

A. He didn’t.

This is a dumb joke but one that reigns true when we speak of Canada’s longest street. Yonge street is a bit like the Berlin wall. On the west side a vibrant dining scene.  Queen, King, College and Dundas are lined with dozens of hipster havens.  The east side, however, consists of  a bunch of restaurants  compartmentalized into chains, fine dining and student friendly venues.  It’s like there’s a force field of some kind which repels plastic-rimmed glasses.   There are a few hipster oases in the otherwise barren east but for the most part there’s work to be done before the wall is torn down.

Wellington road east is proxy to a number of upscale condos which have tenants who prefer suits to plaid.  It is also within walking distance of venues such as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. As a result, bahn mi sandwiches and pulled pork tacos aren’t an automatic go-to.  Instead, restaurants in this area need to offer refined yet current fare or offer a unique enough concept whereas to not be a dreadful bore and keep people coming back. Places like Trevor Bar and Kitchen and C’est What have had longevity whereas Lucien and the Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar had shorter lives.

East Thirty-Six now occupies the old quarters of the above mentioned restaurants.  It’s first plan of action was to name itself after its address, a witty move employed by numerous others recently. The second was to adopt a menu which focuses on innovative cocktails and small plates as opposed to the traditional three course meals the east side aristocrats are accustomed to. The focal point of the interior is a large bar which is stocked with a variety of alcohol (including house-made varieties) larger than Lindsay Lohan’s minibar.  Otherwise, it is a classy and well designed east side bar and bistro.

In addition to a panoply of the most current  wines (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, German Rieslings etc.) Eat Thirty Six boasts an impressive cocktail list with emphasis on and fruit and  fruit-infused liquors ranging from $12-14.  I had read about the high touted E36 smoked Boulevardier, a spin on the classic yet rather unknown cocktail from the 20s.  Called a cousin of the Negroni, E36’s version includes a bit of Lillet Blanc and some smoke tincture.  The solution is allowed to conflate  for a number of weeks to create an elixir which is as smooth as a gossamer.  Frankly, it’s  the best cocktail I’ve had this year. I’d equate to it any dish which is allowed to sit and marinate versus being callously put together and served immediately.  There is no rawness or disjointed flavour..just a general smoothness enhanced with ethereal undertones.

E36Smoked Boulevardier $14
E36 Smoked Boulevardier $14

To date, the menu has been classified as french tapas.  I asked the owner about this and he said this wasn’t intentional.  A small plate concept was definitely the intent, but the influence of chef Brent Maxwell resulted in a seeping of French influence into many of the dishes.  Take, for example, the pork caillettes. E36’s version of these sausages are bite-size morsels stuffed with among other things  pork and liver.  Served like a hors d’oeuvre,  each well seasoned bite was a pop of all things porcine. I also ordered some mixed pickles ($4) which made for a nice starter.

Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don't work in the dark)
Pork Caillettes $9 (Note: Cameras don’t work in the dark)
Pickles $4
Mixed Pickles $4

The scallop crudo ($14) was little Italy meets Mexico. It takes the sweetness of scallop and the richness of lardo and  dresses it with tequila and lime.  The rather unorthodox addition of  celery added  a little texture and taste that worked. It didn’t present with the intensity of a ceviche but had enough of an acidity to cut through the lardo and  provide a nice reprieve from some of the heavier items on the menu.

Scallop Crudo $14
Scallop Crudo $14

 

Speaking of heavy, we went to the bottom of the menu for our  dishes.  My colleague and I decided on the short rib ($21), duck confit ($19) and boudin blanc ($18).  That said, all three dishes were delicious choices.  I think I can summarize them with one word: balance. The short rib was nicely accompanied with brussel sprouts, parmesan grits and horseradish.    The duck leg was rendered down nicely and served with egg, mushroom and semolina. If anything, I would have switched the starches because I think corn/duck and beef/wheat pair better together but that may be a bit of a moot point given both dishes were rather delicious. The boudin was an modish interpretation of the sausage in that it used elegant ingredients such fois gras and tarragon.  The additional of the apple and cabbage didn’t make it any less pedestrian.

 

Short Rib $21
Short Rib with Grits $21
Duck Confit $19
Duck Confit with Semolina $19
Boudin Blanc $18
Boudin Blanc with cabbage and apple  $18

For dessert I ordered the lemon custard with shortbread and macadamia ($8) while my colleague ordered another plate of caillettes.  The custard was nice and tart and was served with an impressive number of (hopefully foraged nuts… AND it was served in a mason jar.  Pure hipster bliss.

Lemon Custard $8
Lemon Custard with M academia nuts $8

 

My Take 

On the heels of the short lived Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar, E36 has moved into a tough spot with an attempt to fuse modern food and drink trends with the principles of upscale casual dining this area of town is accustomed to. It can best be described as small plate with french influence although there are a number of surprises on the menu.  I wasn’t able to try the bone marrow (served with chicken liver pate), razor clams, sweetbreads or octopus nor one of the other 10 interesting cocktails, many of which frolic with fruit  or tinker with tinctures.   The decor is clean and modern with a beautiful well-stocked bar as its centrepiece.   The service was great but it was a slow night so it would be interesting to see if the conversation and attention to detail continues with a busier assemblage.

East Thirty-Six has a name, a menu and a cocktail list that would appeal to any hipster. I mean, think about it.  Pickled cauliflower in a mason jar?  The dish alone contains three of the Huffington Post’s  22 essential hipster foods:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/15/hipster-food_n_5146632.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

So, does this mean we finally have a place that would allow the tearing down of the Yonge street wall, finally allowing  the two sides to dine together in harmony while eating offal pork sausage and drinking bourbon concoctions?  Probably not. After all, there’s no need to worsen the carbon footprint  as long as there’s kimchi, kale and PBR on the west side I suppose.

 

East Thirty-Six on Urbanspoon

Day 2: Husking and Busking in Nashville

My alarm went off the Sunday morning after we sprung the clocks  forward the night before.  It was 630 am and I  was just outside Detroit with the ultimate destination of making  a 515pm  reservation at Husk in Nashville with a lunch stop in-between. Keep in mind I had my two teenage daughters with me and it was part of a nearly week long tour of Tennessee and Kentucky but it seemed an exciting task to try and make a reservation 8 hours away in time.  According to the reviews, Husk may be worth the drive considering it was voted the number 6 best new restaurant in the USA  by GQ magazine.  I was a bit torn since I have longed pledged my allegiance to Anthony Bourdain and felt a slight sense of betrayal since I’m sure Anthony would respect my adventurous nature but would hardly approve of my destination given the fact he refers to GQ’s food critic Alan Richman as a “douchebag” in his book Medium Raw, partly because he insists that celebrity chefs should hang in their restaurants.

Driving in both Kentucky and Tennessee is quite refreshing.  The roads tend not to get congested, the drivers are fast and the roads and scenery are nice.  As a result, there was little issue getting to Nashville on time, especially given the unexpected time change which occurs somewhere in Kentucky.  After checking into the hotel, we jaunted a bit off the beaten path to the restaurant  and arrived  just in time for our reservation.

Husk is an extension of the original in Charleston, South Carolina which has the same name and under the eye of executive chef Sean Brock.  Of some irony is the fact that the original was slammed by Richman.  Nashville’s version promises upscale southern food using only ingredients which can be attained within a small radius of the restaurant itself.  The menu is published daily and features a wide selection of starters and mains. I was there on a Sunday and was somewhat dismayed to discover that the wings voted one of the best in America by website Epicurious were not on the evening menu.

We were seated on the bottom level of the nicely designed restaurant.  It was modern yet rustic.  The walls were filled with pictures of an array of  things including those of Nashville past.  The staff were smartly dressed, looking as if they came straight from a restaurant wars challenge on Top Chef. The crowd was a mix of young and old and included hipsters that looked mighty similar to those I see in Toronto.

The drink menu consisted of a decent variety of wine, local beer (primarily from Yazoo) and signature cocktails ranging from low alcohol choices celebrating (if that’s the right word) prohibition to modern interpretations of some modern favorites.  My choice was the Barrel Aged Seelbach which was bourbon based and laced with fun things like curacao and bitters for $13.  I suppose this is no cheaper than the heavily taxed cocktails I’m accustomed to in Canada, busting the myth that America is a haven for cheap booze and watered down beer and cocktails. I quite enjoy bourbon based cocktails and this was no exception.  The sweet bourbon was nicely contrasted by the bitters and the drink tasted better with every sip.

Husk Cocktail $13
Barrel Aged Seelbach $13

 

They also had a wide array of Bourbon which ranging from $7 to around $40 which included some high proof, reserve and aged choices.

Reviews of this place have criticized the lack of southern hospitality offered by the waitstaff.  I have to agree to some extent.  Our waitress was pleasant but the friendliness was somewhat guarded and seemed to be infused with some pretension, perhaps to justify charging $26 for a piece of chicken. Service was prompt although there is a fair lag between the starters and mains.  For the starters, I opted for the Husk Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”.  I’m not sure who Bill Neal is but I’m sure he’s pleased to know this dish bears his name.  The grits were heavenly creamy, creating that perfect mouth-feel that reminded me of relishing Cream of Wheat as a kid.  The shrimp were delicately cooked and seasoned and even managed to convince my generally seafood-phobic daughter.

Grits
Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”  $11

The BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce ($14) were a upscale interpretation of this southern classic.  They were quite meaty but don’t expect the deep flavor and tenderness synonymous with hours in a smoker. The sauce, however, was delicious; a perfect blend between BBQ sweet and vinegary sour.

Husk Ribs
BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce $14

The last “first” was A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24-Month Country Ham, Soft Rolls, Mustard, HUSK pickles for $13.  The ham was pungently wonderful and tasted almost like a prosciutto.  The remaining ingredients were great compliments to a dish which screamed comfort.  The buns were fresh and pickled cauliflower was vibrant and a nice contrast to the sweet and fatty ham.

Ham
A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24 Month Ham, Mustard, Husk Pickles $13

Although a main for each of us was suggested, we decided on the Tanglewood Farms chicken, grilled over hickory embers, potato dumplings and carrots for $26.  Much like ribs, when I envision chicken and dumplings I think of comfort food which includes tender chicken, fluffy biscuits and hearty portions of root veggies.  Husk’s modernized twist  kept the chicken intact but omitted the chunks of dough and carrots, replacing them with bite size gnudi and pureed carrot kisses. My daughters looked a little perplexed.  The poultry was tender and seasoned wonderfully. Although the dumplings and carrots were swimming in a small puddle of sauce, it would have been grand to have a little more to complement the chicken and remind me that this in fact is a comfort food.

Chicken
Tangle Wood Farms Chicken with Sides Below $26
"Dumplings and Carrots"
“Potato Dumplings and Carrots”

The most anticipated part of the dinner was the plate of southern vegetables for $25.  There were three reasons for this. First, I was curious to see how you could justify a plate of veggies for $25. Next, it is arguably the most talked about dish at Husk. Finally, I’m tickled that a place would equate a mosaic of plant-based concepts with menu staples like beef, pork and catfish.

On this night, the southern plate consisted of:

a)  Gourd soup with pistachio and chives- Served warm, it had great base flavour which was complemented by some crunch and cream.

b) Tomato and grits topped with a farm fresh poached egg-  The acid of the tomato was terrific with the sweet corn.  A perfectly cooked egg just makes anything better.

c) Soy Glazed Broccoli- Simple but the best part of the dish according to my daughters.  Perfect saltiness and heat surrounded the crunchy vegetable.

d) Roasted Turnips- After eating these, the turnip bottoms may replace  of the tops as the go-to part of the plant for southern feasts.

e) Farro and Lima Bean Salad- Also a salad I have seen north of the border, it was earthy and well balanced with a great touch of acid and sweetness in the dressing.

A Plate of Southern Vegetables $25
A Plate of Southern Vegetables $25

The after dinner offerings paid homage to the classic desserts of the south but also had a refined twist to them.  Chess pie, butterscotch pudding and strawberry shortcake highlighted the sweets menu.  I opted for the latter two.  The pudding was laced with bourbon and served with a pastry offering a hint of apple flavour.  Collectively it was quite delicious.  The shortcake composed of soft serve and strawberries which were divine, especially for a Canadian who is only exposed to the albino grocery store berries until May or June.

 

Pudding
Butterscotch Bourbon Pudding Cup $7
Strawberry
Strawberry Shortcake Soft Serve $7

My Take

Husk has found a niche offering high end southern food, a stark contrast from popular places such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and other iconic Nashville eateries.  The dishes are refined, pretty and pricey.  The execution is near flawless.  I can’t comment on whether this is the 6th best new restaurant in the whole of America but it has all the elements of success; a strong endorsement by a leading food critic, a terrific concept featuring farm to table food with no compromise, a modern and comfortable environment and a whole lot of buzz. The grits were fantastic and the plate of southern vegetables is well worth the price.  The chicken was let down by the somewhat dismal sides.  The desserts and cocktails were sinful and true to the region.

Afterwards, we took a walk down Broadway to find a slew of drunk tourists, neon lights and a guy who was high, very interested in the odd appearance of Canadian money and sung us a Jason Aldean and an Allman brothers song in exchange for a five dollar bill.   Despite this fact, I walked away singing the Tragically Hip’s It can’t be Nashville every night:

He said, ‘we are what we lack’
and this guy’s the autodidact
stares into the glare of them TV lights
It can’t be Nashville every night

with it’s la la oh oh ohs,
whoa-ohs and yeahs.

Yep, so far so good.  An eight hour drive husking and busking in Nashville brought on a degree of la la oh oh ohs and I hadn’t even hit Arnold’s yet. I promised myself I’d go hardcore Bourdain style in Nashville  on day three to make amends for my temporary allegiance to Mr. Richman, arguably one of America’s most well known autodidacts.  PS. Alan.  I don’t think Sean Brock was in the house.  Are we good now, Tony?

Husk on Urbanspoon

Review: Breaking Bad at Carbon Bar

I finally got Netflix a few weeks ago. Part of the reason was to finally remove myself from the list of the 25 people who haven’t watched Breaking Bad. After watching a few episodes and watching it win at the Golden Globes, maybe I should pay homAge to the show that made chemistry cool again. Whether it’s the structural changes needed to denature the protein in an egg or the intangible spark which may exist with two people sitting across each other at a table, chemistry is an ingredient you can’t pull off the shelf. It can, however, be captured in those who understand and can embody the variables which may result in the sought outcome.  Just ask Walter White.

Carbon (the foundation of organic chemistry) is a new restaurant/lounge that has opened at the corner of Queen and Church. Owned by the Note Bene group, the website describes it as a place “where fun-loving aficionado’s, gourmands and bon vivants meet to share un-pretentious snacks, plates and platters delivered with impeccable hospitality in a space inspired by the storied pAst of a rock’n’roll discotheque, an upstart TV station and a media giant’s studio”. When you walk in, you’re not sure if you’re entering a dance club or a Moxie’s.  Smiling woman greet  you and offer to take your coat.  When you climb the few stairs and turn the corner you walk into “the space”.  It has dimensions that could double as Walter’s meth lab. It’s a roomy, square dining area with a big bar, an open kitchen and a combination of booths and tables. The ceilings are high and it’s decorated in a simple but attractive fashion.

From the bar, there’s a decent cocKtail list, a nice array of wine and a somewhat unimpressive list of cliche Beer.  I started with the Smokin’ Manhattan ($14), made with tobacco-infused Maker’s MArk, bitters and a couple of booze soaked cherries.  It was well made but the price put it on the upper limit of acceptable.

Smokin' Manhattan $14
Smokin’ Manhattan $14

The second drink was the Carbon bar Caesar ($16), made with tequila, chiLi, lime, clamato and a 37 spice rim.  It was surPrisingly unremarkable and nowhere worth the price.

Carbon Bar Caesar $16
Carbon Bar Caesar $16

The hit of the night seemed to be the Volstead which a few of my friends at the table ordered. Made with gin and Montenegro and flavoured with lemon, orange bitters and Cucumber, it’s a perfect summer drink that still holds it own during the winter months.

I ended with a Kensington brewing company Augusta ale which was one of the only draught beer worth drinking.

The menu is small plate and mainly focuses on the trenDy cuisine of the southern US with a spattering of favorites from other parts of the earth.  It’s always interesting going out to a restaurant with the concept of sharing when you’re with “peskies” (a generic term which includes the likes of  peScatarians, those with gluten intolerences and pescatarians with gluten intolerences).  The waiter was excellent.  He knew the menu cold.  For example, he identified there would be gluten in the soy sauce of the jerk cornish hen and in the sugar coating of the pecans in the celery, apple salad.

We sampled a number of dishes so I’ll be short but sweet:

Hot Mess ($11)-sweet Potato, cheese curds, Crema, pickled jalapeño, chopped brisket

It tastes like it sounds.  A well executed and modern Version of Canada’s iconic poutine.  Delicious.

Hot Mess $11
Hot Mess $11

Raw Salad ($12)– avocado, pear, radish, sHaved coconut,corn nuts, coriander, lime viNaigrette

Fresh, acidic and pRetty.  Definitely a sharable because it starts Snappy but can a bit boring after a Few bites.

Raw Salad $12
Raw Salad $12

Quezo de Cabeza ($13)- Fried suckling pig, pork ‘n’ beans, Hen’s egg, pickled Beets.

The perfectly cooked egg sat atop this childhood favorite.  It had great flavour although I wished the pork was fried a little more and was a little less fatty.

f
Quezo de Cabeza $13

Blackened Sea Bass ($22)– yuCa, chili, lime, coriander, tomAtillo chutney

The tender bass was complimented with an array of flavours but the highlight was the tomatillo chutney.  A well balanced dish.

Sea Bass $22
Blackened Sea Bass $22

Jerk Cornish HeN ($18)- black eyed peas, Coconut milk, mango & papaya salsa

Although the chicken was moist, the seasoning was a little lack lustre. The dish had a uNiformly smoky flavour which could not be overcome by the timid salsa.

Jerk Cornish Hen $18
Jerk Cornish Hen $18

Oak-Fired Octopus ($21)- okra, sAusage, hominy coRn & lobster gumbo

All the components of gumbo with the addition of tender pieces of Octopus.  It worked.

Oak -Fired Octopus $21
Oak -Fired Octopus $21

Porcini and Grits ($19)- grits, sautéed porcini mushrooms, deep fried egg Yolk, crisp kale, huitlacoche dust (a type of corn fungus)

The table consensus was this was the best dish of the night.  The flavour was incredible but very rich so definitely recommend as a shared plate. The crispy kale was a great touch. It could have used  more mushrooms.  Great for the pEskie at your table as well.

Porcini n Grits $19
Porcini n Grits $19

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream ($9)- rice pudding, barberries, wild blueberries,candied sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spiked eggNog

Sparked a little controversy at the table.  The rice Pudding was average but the addition of the other ingredients pumped it up.  The ice cream was seasoned well with earthy spice and sweet pumpkin. I think warming the rice would have added to the overall experience.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9
Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9

Sorbets and Ice Creams ($3)– apple, lychee kombucha, buckthoRn, goat’s milk ice cream & Wild honey

A refreshing and delicious finish to the meal.  The buckthorn seemed to be the favorite. Was initially served with graham Crumbs but that didn’t work for the peskies so it was replaced quickly and without question.

Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)
Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)

My Take

Carbon is Note Bene’s response to the continued demand for casual eateries which serve good food instead of standard and water downed versions of foods that were popular two years ago. I think they succeeded. The cocktails are a bit pricy, especially the less than impressive caesar.  The beer selection is more trendy than it is good.  Otherwise, it’s a safe but well executed menu that was not shy on flavour.  The highlights were the porcini ‘n grits, octopus with gumbo and the sea bass (especially the tomatillo chutney). The service was incredible and environment (including the music) was current, hip and applicable to the diverse clientele scattered across the roomy  interior.  Like Breaking Bad, Carbon makes chemistry cool again. In this case, the chemistry is a mix of great food, courteous and intelligent service and a great environment.

The Carbon Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Junction:Roux

I had to get my manager to the airport so it made sense to hit the junction so she could get to the 427 relatively quickly after we were done.  Other than that, I decided to ad lib dinner and saw Roux sitting on the corner Indian Grove along Dundas street. It was still rather early so it wasn’t too busy but the dining room was filled within an hour of our arrival.  It’s a smallish place with a number of tables, a few high stools by the front window and a dozen or so seats which faces the bar/open kitchen. There are oysters on display is an ice filled bin as you walk in.  It had a comfy aura; mixing the feel of an underground speakeasy with a southern US kitchen.  The walls are filled with artistic script  outlining recipes for  jambalaya or what looks like hand drawn pictures of oysters.

Whether the concept of southern hospitality is a theme or we just had a friendly waiter, we were immediately made to feel at home.  We were offered a drink from a short list of local brews (including a Conductor’s craft ale from the Junction Craft Brewery down the road),  one of two kinds of wine on tap and a short list of cocktails including a blueberry old fashioned and the suffering bastard. I opted for the latter; a simple mix of bourbon, gin, bitters and a splash of ginger ale for $8.50.

Perhaps in the spirit of both famous and infamous cinq a sept (referring to Quebec’s happy and/or France’s term for the time a debutant may plan a tryst with his mistress) , the waiter boasted a $5 at 5, a  list of appetizers  taken from the menu with slightly smaller serving sizes.   We opted for a trio of mussels, shrimp fritters and pulled pork poutine.  Although smallish, the mussels, soaked in a beer broth seasoned with a mirepoix.were rather enjoyable.  All of the components of the pulled pork poutine had great flavour although it was served a bit cold.  The shrimp fritters were a bit disappointing…the flavours hit the mark but they were doughy in the middle.

Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)
Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)

In addition to the nine or ten entrees, there were a number of specials that evening. Despite these numerous temptations,  I was sold on the yardbird (fried chicken). Furthermore, I had the dubious task of choosing between sides which included waffles, creamy grits and spicey slaw.  I was promised the waffles were the way to go.  The chicken was middle of the pack (I was hoping for it a little crispier) but the waffles were terrific especially when coupled with the bourbon maple syrup.  Despite the fact I was reluctant on the liberal use of powdered sugar and cranberries, it kind of worked.

Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16
Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16

My manager opted for scallops.  Although I didn’t try them, I did request a taste of the grits (the boundary between manager/employee sharing food starts at protein so I was safe).  They were a fantastic twist on the standard. They lacked the normal cream of wheat gruelness  and instead were presented with the firm yet soft texture of a risotto.   I completed the experience with a side order of collard greens which hit the mark made with a simple yet authentic recipe.

Scallops and Grits
Scallops and Grits $20
Collard Greens $5
Collard Greens $5

As mentioned above, early on the service was friendly and prompt but did diminish a bit as the place filled up and things got frantic. There were a number of forgetful moments and it took quiet a while to get the bill despite many indications we were done.  For this reason (and the need to get my manager back to Saskatoon that night), I skipped on dessert.

My Take

There has been an emergence of high and lower end BBQ joints that have opened up across the GTA.  However, most focus on the art of low and slow smoking and sides more characteristic of  a Texas family gathering than a Louisiana cook-off. Chef Derrick Markland infuses New Orleans into the junction, offering a joint that is casual, unique and refined.  One can argue that the junction’s clientele can be described the same way.  Beside us sat a couple; the guy looked like the white version of the Fresh Prince’s Carlton and she looked like a very feminine incredible hulk, complete with bright green hair and matching eyebrows (which left me wondering….never mind).  On the other side was a guy and his date who were clearly fans of the Big Bang Theory (I think I even heard a bazinga once or twice).  Even an cute, older Asian couple showed up to share a few of the $5 at 5 choices and sip on water while blending in with the mosaic of characters which graced the small dining room.

In an environment of restaurants serving small plates with inflated prices, Roux does bring some promise of value back to dining out.  The $5 at 5 choices, cocktails under $10, six dollar glasses of wine on tap and a number of good sized entrees under $20 make it worth the cab ride or the extra gas you’ll need driving a few blocks further west to the bustling Junction triangle. Plus, it’s kind of fun with a passionate chef, a zany cast of fellow diners and sultry blues filling the air in between laughs, conversations and the bumbling banter of pleasant yet overwhelmed waitstaff.

In the end, Roux is like a wedding. Passion reigns as you hang out with a cast of characters you may otherwise never associate under the same roof.  In this case, it’s a passion for food as opposed to that shared by your third cousin on your mom’s side and his high school sweetheart from smalltown Ontario. Even if everything isn’t perfect, you’re still glad you went.

Roux on Urbanspoon

Chicago: Day 6: White Palace and Black Sabbath

My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight.  After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.

Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit.  My first stop was the White Palace Grill.  Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters.  I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene.  A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated.  It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days.  I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.

The banter in the place  was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before.  People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys.  There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working.  I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.

Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings.  I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.

Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast sans strawberry
Strawberry Banana French Toast
Strawberry Banana French Toast
MMMM...bacon and grits.
MMMM…bacon and grits.

My Take

White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner.  It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not  top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

White Palace Grill on Urbanspoon

Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace.  During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street.  I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.

Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market.  True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches.  There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches.  Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.

I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato.  There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin  for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.

Porchetta Crescentine
Porchetta Crescentine
Meatball Sandwich
Meatball Sandwich
Zarlengo's Rum and Raisin Gelato
Zarlengo’s Rum and Raisin Gelato

I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient.  There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that.   Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis  in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out.  The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.

My Take

Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago.  Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Panozzo's Italian Market. on Urbanspoon

Zarlengo's Soft Serve on Urbanspoon

After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour.  I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.

Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept;  the fusion of burgers and head banging metal.  This is not a superficial claim.  Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme.  I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle.    Take their beer philosophy for example.  One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude.  Consider the possible lyric:

“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,

I’m a commercial lager killer.”

Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of  Apocalypse Cow  housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery.  Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.

The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well.  The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine).  There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg.  I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion.  I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good.  My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.

Kuma's Side Salad
Kuma’s Side Salad
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2
Black Sabbath burger..Take 2

There’s a whole lotta burger.  The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together.  I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well.  If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top.  Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.

My Take

Kuma’s concept is a fun one.  I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out.  Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.

The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”.  Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.

Verdict- 4 Guyz

Kuma's Corner on Urbanspoon