Hello, Why Alo is the Adele of Toronto’s Dining Scene.

Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene.  In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice  reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015.  I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.

A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub).  For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27.  “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.

I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is.  She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones)  from  Shameless.  Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit).   That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).

I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single.  In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and  compared to other entertainment-heavy  metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York,  and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.

Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose.  Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.

Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs  Boxing Day 1985.

10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)

Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face.   The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.

I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.

9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)

A short elevator ride up a few floors  opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails.  A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow.  Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced.   Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.

I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present.  I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle.  Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.

8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)

As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic  sipping cocktail.  They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick  with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)

Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a  standard menu for everybody  or only an option  for the main protein.  They even set the stage for such free will  (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by  offering a choice of a blue or white napkin .  It was rather odd but memorable.

6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)

There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:

  •  Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated  couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of  the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour  little light on the citrus.
  • In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course.  It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a  sinful cousin of a croissant.
  • When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist.  I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
  • I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so.  Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold.  A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
  • In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.

5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)

Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize  by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork.  There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone.  If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them.  For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.

4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)

I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver.  I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

3.  Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)

There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15).  In the name of adventure we agreed.  The featured fromage  was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers.  We ordered  two plates was plenty for the four of us.  Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate.  We joked that, being the token Caucasian  at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate.  I went dark.  Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese,  we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead.  It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me.  Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good.  Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan.  The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.

2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)

When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head.  The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after.  The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.

1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)

Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one.  In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA.  The flow of the meal was spot on.  Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained  the components of each dish with great precision.   The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.

My Take  

Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service.  Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience.  The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.

In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album.  Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening.  You feel the experience  instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment   filled with  countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of  American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.

Alo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Montecito: A Memorable Montage Yet Mediocre Menu

Montecito sounds like a good movie. Starring renowned chef Jonathan Waxman and produced by movie legend Ivan Reitman, it’s a tale of Californian cuisine trying to find its place in the bustling entertainment district of Toronto. Whereas other restaurants in the area have opened and closed with varied amounts of fanfare, one might consider Montecito a big budget production.  It’s a massive, two floor establishment complete with a large bar and lounge are on top and abundant seating on the ground.  Pictures of Montecito, California are projected on the screens throughout the restaurant and snapshots  of Reitman’s accomplishments fill the walls on both floors.

The place was packed.  The clientele ranged from hipsters to business folk.  In fact, the upstairs lounge was filled with suits, ties and plenty of booze. We were quickly seated by a courteous hostess and our waiter showed up shortly after.  He was a little odd from the start in that he talked to us like he was reading a script, making sure he told us that the summering projections were that of Montecito in Southern California.  Otherwise, he was not very informative when it came to anything to do with the menu. The cocktail list was small and sleepy so I opted for a side launch weissbier, one of five draught beer available on the menu.

To start, I ordered chopped salad which consisted of beets, corn, red peppers, onions, blue cheese and boiled eggs for $12.  As a whole, it was very average although the ingredients were nicely proportioned. The blue cheese was divine and made the remainder of the dish a little less boring.

Chopped Salad $12
Chopped Salad $12

I also ordered meatballs served with polenta and tomato sugo for $19.  The triplets came out covered in shaved parmesan cheese.  The rich creamy polenta balanced nicely with the acid in the tomato sauce.  The meatball themselves were old school and nicely seasoned but in the end the price was as elevated as a movie ticket itself.

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19
Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

There are only 2 dishes on the menu which bear the initials of Chef Waxman; the chicken ($24) and the potatoes ($9).  For that reason, I saw them as a must. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, well seasoned was served with an herb salad and salsa verde.  It was good but I can’t say I closed my eyes and tasted Montecito while the salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean with every bite (despite the fact I continued to see images on the wall all night).  The JW potatoes were crispy and well seasoned but once again didn’t transport me to the judging table of Top Chef Masters.

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Garden and Salsa Verde
JW Chicken $24 with Herb Salad and Salsa Verde
JW Potatoes $9
JW Potatoes $9

The other entree we ordered for the table was halibut served with grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa and chermoula ($32).  I was a bit surprised to see roasted tomatoes scattered across the plate.  Maybe I’m out of the loop (I’ve seen it in other places) but I really don’t understand the combination of fish and tomatoes.  It doesn’t work for me.  Neither does mushy halibut or charred romaine.  There is not a thing I liked about this dish, including the $32 price tag.

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32
Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

For dessert, I bought into the Reitman propaganda and ordered the Stay Puft marshmallow basked alaska for $12.  This sickly sweet, ghastly combination of sponge cake, ice cream and torched meringue swam atop a chocolate sauce which tasted like Nestle Quik.  I didn’t (and couldn’t) finish it.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12
Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

My Take

Initially, I was excited to experience food influenced by the highly touted Jonathan Waxman.  With the name Montecito, I expected fresh California fare.  Waxman’s contributions make  him more like a supporting actor by offering his famed chicken and potatoes to another wise lame script devoted more to an Ivan Reitman montage than fresh and innovative cuisine. Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito  as twins along with other memories of movies past (including a replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man which gets passed around tables like a joint and seems to make drunk patrons ridiculously happy) seemed more important than focusing on great food in the present in an area of Toronto that desperately needs it.   To me, it’s nothing more than a glorified Moxie’s or Earl’s.

Ivan Reitman has had a very successful career as a movie producer.  Like anybody else with such a long history, as a producer and executive producer he has had some great movies and some which aren’t so good.  I quite enjoyed the groundbreaking zaniness of Animal House, the crude humour of Old School and EuroTrip and the smart jocosity of Evolution.   On the other hand, I could do without Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam or Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot. As far as his restaurant production goes, I’m forced to give Montecito a very emphatic two thumbs down.

Montecito on Urbanspoon

Rich Table:The Last Supper, Dan Brown, Exodus 16 and Foodieism as a Religion

The fact that Rich Table was my last supper in San Francisco (this was from my trip back in June..I’m a little slow these days)  made me wonder what the famous last supper was like.  I mean, the biblical account by each of the disciples was fairly uniform.  Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and ate it as a symbol of his body.  He then took wine, proclaimed it as his blood and passed it around.  Sounds pretty simple but I wondered what would happen if Jesus was a foodie.  I mean, what if he wasn’t happy with a 21 Herod’s Fury Merlot and send it back or got upset over the fact the bread wasn’t served with EVOO and a crisp balsamic vinegar.

These thoughts made me realize that being a foodie is like a religion if not a cult.  Think about it….can you not picture the foodie couple getting the kids ready in their little plaid shirts from the Gap so they can go to the 11 am seating at Sunday Brunch.  Instead of the Eucharist, they break and share aged cheddar scone and wash it down with french pressed coffee or a mimosa, Caesar or some other potent potable deemed acceptable on a Sunday morning. Any alms are already included in the inflated brunch prices

Ironically,  I stumbled across a website which used a scientific ranking system (science and religion don’t mix) for San Francisco restaurants based on a statistical formula which took into consideration everything from San Francisco Chronicle reviews to eateries awarded Michelin stars.  Rich table was ranked number 1, beating out bay area juggernauts such as Coi, Saison and Quince.  It’s another one of these places with a one month reservation policy but they were very polite in answering all my email questions and promptly booked me a big table when the time came. Due to the size of my group, I was told via email we would have a $65/person menu served family style.

Fast forward a month.  We had a short wait as the table before us was finishing up the earlier reservation.  It was buzzing for a Monday night and the small place was full of fragrant and savory smells.   After being seated, I realized I had a great view of the open kitchen. A friendly waiter soon arrived and handed us a few copies of the gospel according to Rich and I was reminded that it was a preset family style menu.  The menu contained 14 items divided by starters, pastas, mains and dessert.  I asked the waiter how many of each we could order and he politely informed me we were getting them all.

The flip side of the menu featured the beverage offerings which included almost a dozen beers, red and white wines and half a dozen cocktails.  I started with an El Jeffe which is a mezcal based drink with grapefruit, tarragon, aperol and bitters.  It was a refreshing summer drink with a nice amount of bitterness.  Throughout the remainder of the meal, the table developed an affinity for the Bobby Burns, a potent elixir of a holy trinity of scotch, vermouth and benedictine  and finished with bitters.  It started rough but finished smooth and a few of them went down as the night went on.

Genesis (starters):

Sardine chips, horseradish, creme fraiche– A thin slice of potato slitted,”stuffed” with a sardine and deep fried.  Served with a horseradish chip dip. Spectacular!

Douglas fir levain, house cultured butter–  Heavy, moist and extremely flavourful bread.  I had to limit consumption because  wouldn’t have had room for anything else.

Sardine Chips and Levain Bread
Sardine Chips and Levain Bread

Burrata Cheese, Strawberry Gazpacho, Chicken Skin and Almond-  This was one of the table favorites.  It was burrata elevated to  a new level.  The sweet/sour gazpacho would have succeeded as a stand alone in a big bowl, especially since it was sprinkled with some of the magic chicken skin.

Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho
Burrata and Strawberry Gazpacho

Little Gems, Bottarga, Dill, Crispy Onion- An ingenious spin on a caesar salad that held it’s own against the other innovative starters on the table.  The balance of bitter/salt and cream/crunch was phenomenal.

Little Gems Salad
Little Gems Salad

Crispy Potatoes, Grilled Raddicchio, Garlic Chive and Comte– These went quick.  Once again, near perfect from a taste and texture perspective.

Crispy Potatoes
Crispy Potatoes

Dried Porcini Doughnuts, Raclette Cheese- I’m convinced that the manna which spilled from heavens in the Old Testament  may have been these donuts.  They were amazing as a stand alone but became a religious experience when the cheese dip was added.  A table of grown adults looked like a group of kids attacking a family pack of timbits or Homer Simpson hitting a Krispy Kreme when the red light is on.

Porcini Doughnuts
Porcini Doughnuts

The Pasta of Pastas

Pappardelle, Crayfish Oil, Goddess Melon, Pickled Jalapeno, Shiso– The pasta itself was done perfectly.  The array of flavours was a bit much for some but I thought it worked well.  The melon provided a surprising burst of sweetness which I admit was a bit odd but in the end the dish worked.

Pappardelle with Goddess Melon
Pappardelle with Goddess Melon

Garganelli, Housemade Sausage, Tomato Gravy, Basil- Once again, the pasta was spot on.  The flavours were very traditional which was almost surprising considering the uniqueness of all the other dishes at the table.  That said, it left you with that rustic, home-cooked feeling.

Garganelli with Sausage
Garganelli with Sausage

Tagliatelle, Braised Duck, Aged Sake and Almond-  This was my favorite of the bunch.  The use of sake reminded me of a penne alla vodka and the almonds nicely complemented the rich flavor of the duck.

Tagliatelle with Duck
Tagliatelle with Duck

The Gospels (Mains)

Summer Squash Gratin, Kale, Local Gouda, Mixed Herbs- Beautifully presented, this dish was a cross between scalloped potatoes and a mac and cheese with greens.  The abundant use of the herbs and crispy kale added a great punch to this common yet uncommon offering.

Summer Squash Gratin
Summer Squash Gratin

Pork Loin, Toasted Wheatberries, Cherries and Wildflower Honey- I’m a big fan of using cherries with most meats and pork is no exception.   The balance of the flavours was great and I really enjoyed the wheatberries. I wish the pork was cooked a little longer. I’m not adverse to a cut of pork cooked medium but I felt the slight undercooking of the loin affected the texture.

Pork Loin with Cherries
Pork Loin with Cherries

Alaskan Halibut, Corn Grits, Chanaterelles, Bouillabaisse, Pistachio- This was my least favorite dish of the evening. The halibut was a bit limp which didn’t lend well to the fact that the surrounding ingredients has the same texture.  It was like a big plate of mush.

Halibut and Grits
Halibut and Grits

Revelation (Dessert)

Coconut Panna Cotta, Toasted Meringue, Lime Crumble- Nice texture and nice flavours. This was a fresh way to end a large and rich meal.  I could have taken or left the meringue.

Coconut Panna Cotta
Coconut Panna Cotta

Salted Chocolate Sable, Milk Ice, Mint-Chocolate Mousse-  This one had mixed reviews at the table.  It was very minty and very chocolaty so those who aren’t extremists thought it was a bit much.

Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice
Chocolate Sable with Milk Ice

My Take

Although Rich Table hasn’t been blessed with a Michelin star by the food gods, it’s cumulative acclaim ranked it number one in San Francisco on sfist.com and statistics don’t lie.  It’s interior is somewhat humble but not overly crowded.  The large table beside the open kitchen makes for a great dining experience, especially if you are in a big group.  The service was professional and smart.  The cocktails were heavenly and wine list is reasonable including a reasonable corking policy which allows for the waiving on one corking fee if you buy a bottle there.  As for the food, there was a huge selection for a very reasonable $65 per person served family style.  The offerings were brilliant although the entrees were somewhat anti-climatic compared to the starters and pastas.  The porcini doughnuts (as well as the fowl at State Bird Provisions) are biblical, suggesting that if Foodieism is in fact a religion, San Francisco is definitely the Mecca of the foodie movement given these modern day  interpretations of manna and quail first mentioned by Moses in Exodus 16.  When thinking of my last supper at Rich Table, I couldn’t help but think of “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown and hoped that my dining experience wouldn’t be like the book; overhyped and lacking substance. Instead, it was much more “enlightening”, perhaps suggesting that if the Illuminati did exist, they would eat like this.

Rich Table on Urbanspoon

The Coast is not Clear: The Case of the Gluten Containing Eel and the Undercooked Scallop

After a trip to the Vancouver aquarium as part of a team building activity (even though only three of us went), we went to look for a quick bite knowing the evening fare at the meeting would be less than appealing.  It was an abnormally warm May day, so we wanted a patio,a drink and some decent food.

Coast is part of the Glowbal group conglomerate which owns a number of popular Vancouver restaurants. Having previously dined at Black + Blue and the Fish Shack with reasonable success, it sounds like a good idea, especially with the advertised cocktail menu and half price appetizers.  After making the uphill trek to Alberni Street, we were able to secure a table on the front patio. The three of us were wearing casual team-building clothes (ie. yoga pants and shorts). We were hardly dressed for the occasion, especially in the midst of the attire of the waitstaff and  numerous suits coming in but we were quickly comfortable in our outdoor seats.

Both my colleagues have what I consider excellent palates and both do not consume gluten.  One of them has also never tried nigiri, so we took the opportunity to run an experiment with the small list on the menu. My thought was to hit her with the ebi thinking it would best to start her off with something cooked not to mention the fact that there was no guilt based on the fact we were just at the aquarium watching numerous other species splash around. The waitress, however, insisted that we opt for the unagi (since it was cooked) although I thought eel may not be the best way to initiate a novice sushi eater.  The shrimp arrived without issue but the eel arrived coated in what appeared to be a brown sauce. Even as a gluten glutton, I have become aware that any brown sauce is an alarm bell, especially on a piece of sushi.  It usually means soy sauce which means gluten. Keep in mind the menu clearly stated this item was gluten free but after deliberation by the waitstaff and kitchen slightly longer than the OJ Simpson verdict, we were told it in fact contained gluten.  Big mistake.  In the end, I ate the eel (which was decent but expensive) and I succeeded in introducing her to the world of nigiri albeit a tame piece of cooked shrimp.

Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively)
Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively). Note the brown sauce…

 

I will give Coast credit for it’s buck a shuck special.  I indulged in a half dozen oysters, portraying behaviour similar to that of a five year old opening a new set of lego.  I become mesmerized by combining oyster flesh with pungent horseradish and some type of mignonette.   In fact, I don’t think anything gives me as much enjoyment in the area of seafood relations since Mr. Tecklenberg showed me how to hypnotize a lobster when I was 8 or 9 at a table in his namesake Sudbury restaurant. I was so giddy I forgot the picture.

Each of us weren’t up for a whole lot of food (beside the after effect of seeing a whole lot of underwater life), but we each ordered a dish and did a family style sorta thing.  First were the thai mussels (minus the bread).  They were tasty but a rather dismal serving for $19. Maybe it would have come with 17 pieces of garlic bread which would have made it a bit more economical.

 

Thai Mussels (18.95 or each)
Thai Mussels (18.95 or about a buck each..I’d rather have the oysters)

 

 

Second was the grilled halibut.  It made a lot of sense given the fact it was the season and there was not a hint of brown sauce anywhere on the plate.  Instead, it was served with a decent potato salad.  The fish was cooked nicely but it’s difficult to justify the $38 price tag.

 

Grilled Halibut ($37.95)
Grilled Halibut ($37.95)

Finally, my choice was the apple chopped salad ($12.95) with the optional upgrade of two scallops for a whopping ten bucks.  It arrived with a lone scallop and I made a note to see if it was reflected properly on the bill.  I never had the chance.  The salad itself was fresh, crisp and nicely balanced but when I cut open the scallop I looked at my colleagues and in my best Gordon Ramsey accent yelled “The f@*%ing scallop is raw”.  In fact, it was a bit of a relief because paying 5 bucks for a scallop the size of a jawbreaker just wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps the  biggest annoyance of all was when the manager returned with the plate to confirm with me that, after careful deliberation with the chef, the scallop was in fact raw and they would gladly take it off the bill.  I guess all those years of watching Hell’s kitchen finally paid off since it saved me the embarrassment of being corrected in front of my esteemed colleagues.

 

Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop
Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop

 

The source of much deliberation....
The source of much deliberation….

 

My Take

Vancouver’s Glowbal group seems to be like olives, cilantro or goat cheese; you either love them or hate them.  Some see the group as an innovative and eclectic collection of restaurants showcasing an incredible arrays of foods.  Others see it as an overpriced series of misguided trends in which the decor is more important than the food. The inability to properly display gluten-free foods combined with minute mussels and an undercooked and underwhelming five dollar scallop (that included  a second opinion on doneness) makes me lean toward the latter.  This was just a bad experience with no effort made to fix it.  Good thing there were crudites back at the meeting.  I swear a carrot stick never tasted so good.

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

Review:Vancouver:Downtown:The Fish Shack

It was honestly an internet search and a restaurant within walking distance that brought me to the Fish Shack. After seeing it was a creation of the Glowbal group, I was sure it would be far from a shack and even have a few of the gimmicks this restaurant group is renowned for.  The last Glowbal restaurant I went to was Black and Blue. It had a beautiful decor, with a classic steakhouse setup and  highlighted by  a 15 foot high meat locker.  I figured the Fish Shack would be the same.

I wasn’t far off.  The decor is reminiscent of a wooden fishing shack.  Nets hang throughout the place and pictures of fish with interesting trivia line the  wall. It’s bright and clean and the busy waitstaff have a casual look and attitude. The air is filled with the aroma of shellfish, likely  a combination of the bar side shellfish  steamer and the adjacent table ordering the fisherman’s catch, a Cornucopia of mixed seafood strewn across the table in a free for all.

The beer selection is pretty lame, dominated by Molson products. The Whister Bear Paw Honey Lager is a bit of a redemption.  This sad reality led me to the Caesar fleet featuring four offerings laced with vodka, gin, whisky and tequila.  I went vodka, a pretty standard Caesar garnished with prawn and pepperoni.  It was a good Caesar and definitely better than a Coors light.

Caesar
Caesar $8

I like gimmicks, so I opted for buck a shuck oysters (Light house were featured)  and mussels and clams fresh from the steamer. The oysters were fresh and a great deal for four bucks. The $15 steamed shellfish prepared classic style (wine, garlic , shallots and herbs) were good but didn’t rival the mussels at Chambar or the clams at the Pike market in Seattle which were pulled from ocean just minutes away in Puget Sound.

Steamers $15
Steamers $15

For the main, the halibut was calling my name.  Although priced significantly higher than the other fish and chips options, I remembered my experience at Dandelion in Philadelphia and Blue Water cafe in San Diego and hoped for the same in Vancouver.  It was a bit flimsy and although all the components were quite good, nothing was remarkable. The batter was not greasy and had a pleasant taste while the fish maintained a good integrity and decent moistness. The tartar sauce and fries were pretty classic and the creamy horseradish slaw was colourful to look at but didn’t have as much bite as I wanted.

Halibut and Fries $16.50
Halibut and Fries $16.50

I last had the brussel sprouts at Black and Blue last year and ordered them again. I was equally impressed, especially when I hit them with a squirt of hot sauce.

Brussel Sprouts
Brussel Sprouts $6.50

There’s a small dessert menu featuring cheesecake, apple berry crumble and sticky toffee pudding, all for $8.50.  Some may argue you don’t need anymore than that.  I opted for the latter and was presented with a pretty decent offering. The cake was moist, partially helped by the plentiful pool of sauce it sat in.  The traditional chantilly cream and somewhat unorthodox berries were a good finishing touch.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding $8.50

My Take

The fish shack is kind of like Red Lobster, except for people under the age of 65.  Both have a bad beer selection and shrimp garnished Caesars.  Both are decorated with fish and fish paraphernalia.    Both have cheesy slogans like “We sea food differently” and “hook it and cook it”. One can indulge on an array of seafood with the shack’s Fisherman’s catch or Red Lobster’s Ultimate feast, a choice from the fresh daily fresh fish list or non-sea signatures like cheddar bay biscuits (RL) or brussel sprouts (FS).  Both even have a New York style cheesecake for dessert.

The fish shack is pretty; pretty decor and pretty good food.  It’s filled with the little gimmicks like bar side steamers that make the Glowbal group what it is. .  Although none of the dishes blew my mind, the execution of the food was acceptable. and the vibe reeked a little of fish and little of hip. So send Gramma to Red Lobster and suck back some west coast buck a shuck oysters before 6 pm at the fish shack (trust me, Gramma and oysters don’t mix). Afterwards, you can hear about the nice fish and  that dessert cake like Gladys used to make.

As for slogans, I kinda like this one from a famous book that pretty much says it all:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“Catchy”, isn’t it?

The Fish Shack on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Corktown:Gilead Cafe

I have been trying to get to one of the evening events at Gilead for a while and finally had the chance back in June. It was one of the Friday night wine bars that are periodically run throughout the year,

I was a bit surprised by both the location and the decor at 4 Gilead in Corktown. It’s certainly not your typical wine bar environment, probably because it’s mainly only open for breakfast and lunch.   That said, you can’t judge a place by it’s decor, so I forked up ready to indulge on the Jamie Kennedy inspired menu.

After the decor, my second surprise were the clientele. I was easily the youngest patron in the place, maybe because it was 6 pm.  I felt like I was at an early bird dinner.  Even later, however, there was not the crowd I would have expected for an almost underground  one night wine bar experience. Well, except maybe for one jackass who showed up with his date and demanded the door be shut despite the fact it was 35 degrees and subsequently complained about every one of the  6 or 8 drinks he had in a span of an hour.

It only made sense to start with the featured drink, a Fragolina cocktail (wine, strawberry beer and a bit of lime) for $7.  It was very average.  The featured wines were a couple of Ontario red and whites for $7 a glass.

As I was waiting for a colleague, I ordered the poutine with braised beef and cheddar.  The fries were great.  The gravy was a bit salty which ended up being a theme for the evening.  The beef was tender, the cheese was scarce.  In the end, it was decent but not great.

Braised Beef Poutine $9
Braised Beef Poutine $9

I have an issue paying for bread but I was interested in the highly touted red fife sour dough, so I ordered some with two vegetarian dips for $5.   I think they were beet and some kind of hummus.   It was also served with a side of a spice mix which was not explained to me.  Not clear on the intent of this mix, I used liberally on a piece of bread only to find out it was 90% salt.  When I brought this up with the waitress, she scoffed and pointed out “It’s a french thing” and “it should be used sparingly ” on top of the butter.  After pointing out there was no butter at the table, I was told I shouldn’t have got it anyway since it’s only served with lunch.

On the heels of asparagus season, I wasn’t surprised to see it on the menu, simply served with a honey vinaigrette. For $7, it was too simple..9 boiled pieces painted with a mediocre dressing.  I found the green salad with sorrel dressing a bit better (it had a few radishes and sorrel thrown in)  for $7  but the dressing looked and tasted similar to the one used on the asparagus. The beet salad with lentils and feta looked great on the menu but once again has a taste profile not much different than the others.

Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette  $7
Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette $7
Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7
Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7
Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9
Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9

I was excited to try the pristine poached halibut with curried lobster sauce.  Once again it was a disappointment.  The halibut has the consistency of that piece of poached egg white that escapes and floats to the top of the pan.  It was rather bland and seasoned with large chunks of salt scattered among the bottom of the filet.  The lobster curry and bitter greens made the dish salvageable. At least if wasn’t ridiculously priced at $16.

Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16
Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16

I’m not really a flourless chocolate cake fan but decided to try it since it was served with a rhubarb reduction and cardamom ice cream, two flavours I happen to love in a dessert. I thought it was well done, especially if you incorporated the sweet ice cream, the bitter sweet cake and the sour reduction all in one bite.

Flourless chocolate cake $9
Flourless chocolate cake $9

My Take

I was excited to experience this drop-in wine bar, especially with an attractive online menu that featured a nice array of fresh and creative foods developed by one of Toronto’s iconic chefs.  Instead, I was treated to an experience that felt like a dinner at an old age home.  Each of the three veggie dishes  tasted almost exactly the same, the fish was overdone and salt was the predominant seasoning (don’t you know us old people can’t have too much salt).  I felt I was treated a bit like a nursing home resident as well, especially after being scolded about my shallow knowledge regarding  the use of salted herbs on butterless bread in much the same way one would after stepping off the property without permission. Maybe it’s better at breakfast or lunch but mention the word hip at this place during dinner  and most would immediately think it’s a high risk area for a fracture.

Gilead Cafe on Urbanspoon

DDD:San Diego:Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill

I’m a sucker for a good gimmick, especially if it’s done right.  I’m not talking being served by a pirate or a creepy clown making balloon animals for whiny kids.   I’m talking  a good, simple concept that defines a restaurant, one that draws people in from miles away.

The Blue Water Seafood Market  Grill fits the bill.  It’s easy the longest wait I have had at any Triple D, even though I went around 4 pm.  I had a 5 or 10 minute outside, standing behind two old ladies (who reminded me of the female version of  Statler and Waldorf  from the muppet show) bitching about the number of people since “that man from that show came”.  I nodded in agreement and looked to the sky while whistling in hopes that my pasty white complexion wouldn’t give me away.

Blue Water Sign
Blue Water Sign

Once inside, I realized I was still in for a wait which in the end was a bit shy of an hour.  During this hour, a number of cool and/or amusing things happened:

1.  I continued to be exposed to the banter of the local gossip club talking about everything from annoying tourists to the destruction of the San Diego water front.

2.  I was able to choose from  any of the numerous cuts of beautiful, fresh fish cooked in a your choice marinade and served on a sandwich, salad, plate or taco. The pacific halibut was calling my name so I had it thrown on a salad.

3.  I was offered a local craft beer for a few bucks in line while I waited (which I believe lead to a stunk-eye or two from the Waldorf).  There is something liberating about sucking back a pint under the watchful eye of a swordfish.

4.  I enjoyed watching people trying to violate the “you can’t sit until you get your food” policy. Staff patrol the grounds like parking attendants looking for violators. If necessary, they will make a scene similar to that of an embarrassing “Happy Birthday” serenade. It seems like a stupid policy until I paid, turned around and… like clockwork; a window seat magically appeared…and it was  nowhere near the muppets.

The line
The Line (I wouldn’t dare snap Statler and Waldorf)

For some reason, I’m missing the picture of the halibut itself but the freshness of the fish and the care in preparation was evident.  It was perfectly cooked and a good portion size for the price.

They stick to what they do best…fish.   A dozen oysters for $15? Shrimp Ceviche for $5.25 (with El Indio chips from next door)?  A bowl of clam chowder for $4?  Even today (I went a couple of years ago), the menu still offers fresh fish at great prices.

Here’s a Statler and Waldorf quote which I think is quite relevant in this context.

Statler: [Up in the balcony, Statler and Waldorf make fun of Pepe’s bad jokes] Hey, the shrimp’s floundering!
[Statler and Waldorf both laugh]
Pepe the Prawn: You shut-up okay?
Statler: He told us to clam up!
Waldorf: What’s he want to do? Mussle us?
[Both laugh again]
Pepe the Prawn: Don’t get me steamed okay!
Statler: Steamed shrimp!
Waldorf: Oh, pass the cocktail sauce!
[Both laugh]
Pepe the Prawn: That’s it. I’m coming up there!
[Leaves the stage to go to the balcony]
Statler: Whoooaaa… I’m shaking!
Waldorf: You’re always shaking.
[He laughs and Statler grumbles]

In the end, like the muppets, Blue Water  is a gimmick that works. If you have an hour to kill,  don’t see it as a long line but instead as an experience and enjoy; the fish is well worth the wait.

Verdict: 5 Guys

Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill on Urbanspoon