Skippa's Dippa or No Dippa..My Amazing Race to the Most Exciting Game Since Howie Mandel Called the Bank

I’m a big game show fan and I’ve certainly fallen under the spell of many gimmicky ones over the years. In my early years, I learned how to count on the Price is Right and had many arguments with my mom about the reasons why Bob Barker shouldn’t be a father figure (and for the record mom…both my dogs are spayed or neutered). I have had dreams about destroying the Clock Game in 14 seconds ($891..892..893…894) or purposely giving up the trip to Aruba to watch the hiker slip off the edge in Cliffhanger.

My obsession didn’t stop there. I tolerated Regis Philbin on Who wants to be a Millionaire and actually wore a monochrome dress shirt and tie on at least one occasion. I longed to be a game show masochist at the expense of Anne Robinson on the Weakest Link. I even tolerated Howie Mandel’s scrubbed down stand up as he demanded that a bunch of women a third his age “open the case” on Deal or no Deal.

Since Skippa has opened, it’s been on my list but I rarely have the fortitude to haul my ass all the way up to Harbord Street. The irony is when I finally did make the trek, I severely underestimated the restaurant’s distance from the subway. For some reason I assumed it would be in the cluster of other restaurants between Spadina and Bathurst. In fact, I had no idea that Harbord stretched all the way to Ossington so I felt like I was on the Amazing Race as I darted an extra 2 km with the clock ticking in order to get there within some acceptable proximity of my reserved time.

When I made the online reservation I had the choice of communal seating (nope..I’m antisocial), the bar (would be cool but I was meeting a few others) or a comfortable booth a few steps up and away from the kitchen…bingo! When I finally arrived after my trek we were quickly greeted by a very pleasant member of the waitstaff who politely explained the restaurant’s concept. Choice one is the “Trust Skippa” which is a $130 opportunity to sample the entire menu. The option was a la carte but within that list was a $45 today’s sushi option which allows one to sample of piece of each of the evening’s featured fish. The three of us decided to go for the sushi flight and share most of the remaining dishes on the menu.

After ordering some warm sake ( one of the first examples of attention to detail was having ability to choose your own sake glass from all sorts of shapes and sizes), the meal started with an unorthodox bread service featuring a seaweed sourdough accompanied but house made butter which had been fermented for 6 months. Brilliant.

Seaweed Sourdough Bread

You will rarely near me say that pictures speak louder than words, especially given my notorious reputation as a shitty shutterbug. That said, I think these pics are half decent and that said, they don’t have to be great to emit the quality of the offerings.

The opener was a clever amberjack sashimi dish garnished with kumquat and fresh wasabi. Beautifully balanced.

Amberjack and Kumquat

Immediately after finishing, our place settings were cleaned off and reset in anticipation of the next dishes; local shitaake mushroom and daikon in a soy milk bath BC scallops served with in shell and complemented with sunchoke.

Next was a kinoko salad made with maitake mushroom and seasoned with miso and topped with watermelon radish. I found it a little on the salty side but the texture of the mushroom and the contrast of the radish made me a little less salty about it.

The quail dish was accompanied with seasonal persimmons and citrus which put together was a nice contrast to the seafood. It was intense and hearty yet delicate at the same time.

Quail with Persimmon

Once again the dishes were cleared in preparation for the sushi course. Fresh ginger and a beautiful soy sauce were laid on the table but were instructed that the chef would indicate whether it was needed. To dip or not to dip?..that was the question. We waiting in anticipation for direction as each dish was presented:

Retrospectively, there was a bit of a code to the dip or no dip question. The tuna sushi tended to be left alone as as the whitefish that were already seasoned with other sauces. The rest were fair game for a soy dunk. Regardless, all were stellar. Nonetheless, it was a fun game with an anticipation reminiscent of finding out if somebody blew it on Deal or no Deal.

Given the quality the meal, there was no way I was declining dessert. I went with the oba, a simple yogurt based dessert flavored with meyer lemon, sorrel and pomegranate seed atop some crumble. The balance of tart, savory and sweet flavours was perfect but the contrasting textures and temperatures of the creamy yogurt, iced sorrel and crunchy base were even better. In fact, after finding some meyer lemons at Costco the next day, I’ve been searching the city (to no avail) for sorrel in an effort to recreate this dish at home…I may have to use mint or upland cress instead #firstworldproblems.

My Take

Skippa provided a spectacular dining experience and the “Dip or No Dip” game show was an added bonus. From the salads to the dessert, each dish was meticulously thought out and hinged on brilliant contrast in either temperature, texture or taste. The sushi was fresh and vibrant. The service was impeccable and the attention to detail was immaculate. Personally, I don’t think you need the whole $130 “Trust Skippa” menu..I was adequately satiated with the sushi flight and sharing the rest of the dishes with my table mates. Even then, compared to many other sushi joints, Skippa may be big bucks but I promise…no whammies.

Jack Tripper’s Closet, George Carlin’s Arrest and Flocking Good Chicken

Swearing is an interesting means of communication.  When used properly, it makes things funnier. I was watching John Oliver rant about the atrocities of the democratic and republican primaries last week and tipped my hat to his strategic use of the word “fuck” a handful of times. Personally,my swearing is catalyzed by two things: golf and drinking. A near perfect drive followed by a 10 foot flub is enough to put me over the edge and I swear a bottle of homemade wine shuts off whatever language etiquette  I may have.

Many marketing campaigns have been developed around altering the english language slightly to insinuate the use of at least some of Carlin’s list of seven words you can never say on television. In 1972, Carlin was arrested for muttering those same words (see below) during a Milwaukee comedy show.  Surprising enough, despite the increased acceptance of steamy sex scenes and extreme violence in the past decade or two, most of the words are still not allowed, at least on network TV. Luckily, the same does not apply to bloggers or other angstful social media zealots.

The use of manipulated swearing in marketing campaigns is as classic as a misunderstanding on Three’s Company.  I remember many instances in which Jack Tripper’s words and antics  were misconstrued by Mr. Roper and subsequently Mr. Furley. Today, it is an interesting observation to watch the stereotypes of almost 40 years ago.  Janet was the sensible, party-pooping and moderately attractive brunette and Chrissy was the bubble-headed blond.  Jack had to pretend he was gay in order to remain the girl’s roommate given the fact that multigender living arrangements (at least in the eyes of both Mr. Roper and Mr. Furley) were as controversial then as transgendered bathrooms are now.   Whether or not this was the first instance in television’s journey in the recognition and acceptance of gays remains a debate but an article I read while researching this blog (see link below) provides an interesting perspective.  Among other things, it suggests that the irony of Jack’s need to closet his heterosexuality against his landlord (ie. the man) was a direct reflection of the same struggle that homosexuals in the same era were living. The author also notes that the thought of even discussing homosexuality on television was absent in the seventies and really only erupted years later with the introduction of shows like Will and Grace and teasers like Rosanne Barr’s “bisexual moment”.

http://soref.tv/jack-tripper-good-for-the-gays/

What does all this banter have to do with a food blog? I remember going to a place called Fricker’s in Ohio in which you could order a “fricken big beer”.  Ok…friggin’ is not quite a Carlin no-no but I think it illustrates the concept well. Plus, I’m sure there is somewhere in the world where you can cleverly order an “I don’t give a duck sandwich” or something similar.

Enter Flock, a rather new chicken restaurant in Toronto.  It currently has a brood of 3 locations with a fourth which is almost hatched.  The Harbord street location (at the old THR and Co. spot) has a larger sit down area complete with “flocktails” and other bar service.  Otherwise, the other two are no booze take out joints with a bit of seating. The premise is simply chicken and greens.  One can opt for rotisserie or fried chicken complete with a variety of sides and/or a choice of five super salads with all sorts of toppings. In addition to all of that, there are endless possibilities when it comes to the use of the restaurant’s name in everyday speak.  Would it be flocking good or a flocking nightmare? Ha!Much like the sexual innuendos of Three’s Company, it never gets old.

My first experience was a take out lunch from the Harbord location for an office.  I grabbed some Flock Stock (ie soup) ($7) and a few salads including the power flock salad (Chicken, Romaine Hearts, Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Pickled Onions, Marinated Black Beans, Daikon Soy Beans, Cilantro, Goji Berries, Crispy Chick Peas, Sunflower Seeds With Carrot/Ginger/SoyBean/White Miso Dressing) ($11.50 for full). Both were delicious and fresh. The salad was far from overdressed which maintained the crispy integrity of the ingredients.  The soup was herby and fragrant and highlighted by chucks of rotisserie chicken swimming throughout.

flock salad

The second time I grabbed dinner for myself from the Adelaide location.  This time I ordered a half chicken (with Caribbean pepper sauce)  with green beans on the side.  Once again I had no complaints.  The chicken was moist, the beans were cooked but firm and the crispy onions and kimchi were great compliments. I quite enjoyed the sauce.  It was bright with a good flavour and hear;a far cry from Swiss Chalet’s odd and confusingly beloved dishwater dipping sauce.

flock chicken
Half Chicken $9,50 with Carribean Sauce and a Side of Green Beans $5

My Take

Quick and healthy lunch choices can be difficult in a city filled with burger joints and taquerias on every corner, especially if you believe that Subway is nothing more than disguised junk food.  Flock fills this gap by offering food in which the flavour is achieved by spices and freshness as opposed to sodium and fat.

Much like Jack Tripper represented the evolution of the sitcom and George Carlin did the same for comedy, perhaps Flock presents the future of lunch in Toronto. After all, it’s flocking good chicken.  Shit….here come the cops.

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

 

 

 

70 Years of Legendary Women and Seinfeld-Like Cereal Obsessions at Rasa

With the popularity of food trucks in Toronto, it seems like two things are happening.  First, the trucks are spawning off from established restaurants in order to expand their reach.  Second, the gypsy life of a food truck transforms into a brick and mortar opportunity and sets up in one of the many trendy areas of town.

The latter describes Rasa bar.  Set up in the proximity of Harbord Room, THR and Co. and Spendido along Harbord St, it’ s  the brain child of the Food Dudes who may be best known for their Cap’n Crunch tacos served with spiked mango slaw.  In fact, these tacos inspired the dish for my Masterchef Canada tryout a while back.  In addition, I was told by a colleague the the cereal dessert was the best she had in Toronto, which left me more than intrigued.  Needless to say, I was excited to sit down, have a drink and see what else the dudes had to offer. One warning…taking a look at the website may induce seizures or nausea in those who can’t handle rapid movement.  It reminded me of Madonna’s stomach turning “Ray of Light” video.

Once I showed up, I noticed a couple of things almost immediately.  First, it had that garage/industrial type feel.  Second, they played excellent music at a decibel level which allowed for conversation with other people; a novel concept in a city where decor and the insistence of loud tunes outshine the food at times.  Finally, from the minute I entered it was clear that the service would be cordial.  I forgot about how difficult it is to get to Harbord during the bicycle rush hour, so I was 10-15 minutes late and they didn’t bat an eye.

In addition to a small list of draught beer including Niagara-on-the-Lake’s hidden gem Oast brewery, one can sip a number of innovative cocktails featuring some of the trendier spirits on the rail. I opted for the Texas Guinan, a bourbon based drink with accents that allowed the whisky to shine instead of being blunted by conflicting additions.  It’s the way I imagined a cocktail in the era of prohibition where the goal was to relish the booze in its native form. Interestingly enough, this drink is the namesake of a prominent silent movie actress who became America’s first cow girl.  On the more notorious side, she opened a speakeasy in New York during prohibition and was well known to law enforcement for the majority of the 20’s.  Ironically, although spending a decade in an environment filled with booze and scantly clad women, Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan died in Vancouver in 1933 of ameobic dysentery.

Texas Guinan $15
Texas Guinan $15

The food started with a complimentary offering of the mini muffin, a dainty bite filled with the fall flavours of pumpkin and squash and topped with a little salted caramel. It was a cute homage to the season.

Complimentary Mini Muffins
Complimentary Mini Muffins

Next was the chopped salad (vegetables, quinoa, macedonian feta, crispy garbanzos, sumac) for $13.  It was fattoush on steroids.  The strong acidity/sourness of the dressing and sumac, the saltiness of the feta and the crunch of the garbanzo beans created a taste and textural diversity as impressive as the ingredients themselves.

Chopped salad
Chopped salad $13

The fish board special of the night was a chowder ($18).  A thick broth housed jumbo shrimp, scallop, fish, doubled smoked bacon and pickled jalapenos.  It was smooth as silk with enough acid and heat from the pepper to cut the richness to a very palatable level.

Fish Board (Chowder) $18
Fish Board (Chowder) $18

After careful consultation with the very pleasant waitress, we opted for the duck breast over the truffle gnudi and beef cheek ragu.  Rendered nicely and sitting on top of a pillowy puree, it was finished with cherries, chestnuts and greens topped with shaved fois gras torchon.  Although the duck was  underseasoned , it was saved by the array of aforementioned flavours on the plate.

Duck Breast $25
Duck Breast $25

I didn’t need the advice of the waitress for the spare ribs and I wasn’t disappointed. Although a little tricky to eat, they were extremely tender.  More impressive were the playful flavours.  From both a taste and visual perspective, the sweet rib sauce coupled with the foamy polenta was a tongue-tingling metophor of a root beer float. The pickles and corn nuts added a tad of acid and texture.     `

Spare Ribs $17
Spare Ribs $17

As I mentioned, I was told about the druthers of the cereal dessert.  Although I can’t say it is the best in Toronto, it fused modern flavours and techniques with the simple flavours of the well-known boxed treat.  Despite the use of cocoa puffs (or a reasonable facsimile), the sweetness was surprisingly subtle and was further suppressed by the intense nuttiness of the macademia milk.  The fact that it was poured tableside added a nostalgic flare reminiscent of the morning ritual.  It appears from the menu now that there have been some modifications to the dessert (ie. banana and cocoa milk) so I can’t confirm it would be the same today.

Cereal $8
Cereal $9

The other dessert we ordered was the praline sticky bun.  Another breakfast favorite turned dessert,  candied bacon and walnuts surrounded a decedent and rather large pastry sitting on top an innovative cream cheese anglaise.  It was sinful and delicious.

Sticky Bun
Sticky Bun $10

My Take

Rasa by the Food Dudes takes their innovative gypsy philosophy and centralizes it into a bricks and mortar environment. From the homage to female legends (including the Texas Guinan cocktail and Madonna’s Ray of Light website) to their Seinfeld-like cereal infatuation, the concept is pop-intelligent and fun.  The menu seems to rotate often (it’s changed since I went a couple of weeks ago) and there is always the mystery of things like the daily fish plate. There is also “set Mondays”, a $35 tasting menu  with $5 drinks and live music. I suspect Rasa’s promise of fun food and respectful service might actually draw foodies and food truck followers alike into the relatively unknown area north of the College Street parallel and into a land lacking “provision pretension” despite primping plaid shirts. In summary, when I think of Rasa I can’t help but think that Tony the Tiger said it best;”They’re Greeeeeeeaaaaat!”

Rasa on Urbanspoon

Review:The Annex:Bickford Flexitarian

When I was looking for a place to grab some breakfast, I came across the Bickford Flexitarian, a relatively new cafe on Harbord St. When I heard the name, it reminded me of a classic novel synonymous with Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte or Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

The Bickford Flexitarian
A Fare..Eat..Ale about Flax Seed and Forgiveness

It was a sweltering summer day. Two figures emerged from a vehicle amongst the modest laden cyclists who painted the roads. The contrasting ideologies of the two made  choosing a venue difficult. Although both shared an affinity for fine fare, a conflict emerged. He was a portly porkivore; she a gluten intolerant pescatarian. They shared a very similar yet different passion for food. Rumours of the Bickford Flexitarian had filled the air and these pilgrims were on a maiden journey to this haven in which communal eating could occur regardless of where they choose to eat on the food chain.

As they approached the air seemed barren. There was a eerie stillness which bled into the uneven sidewalks. The pit in their stomachs grew as they walked toward the inevitable. The doors were locked, the counters were bare. No warning was provided; both the website and facebook betrayed them. After the tedious journey through traffic and the descent toward their destination, the harvest was nil. He clenched his hands in frustration as they turned in unison and returned alone the same trail they had just carved. He was scorned and promised himself that some retribution would occur. Perhaps an ill-tempered tweet or a cantankerous comment to those who would listen would remedy his angst.

A handful of fortnights later he was on a solo mission in the vicinity of the Bickford. A whisper of distain returned as the memories filled his head. Once again, cyclists were weaving and ringing their bells along the Harbord St paths in efforts to alert irate drivers and unaware squirrels  to their presence. With a renewed swagger, he proceeded to the front door to find it ajar. The Bickford was open.

As promised, the list of fare was diverse, ranging from raw and vegan to blackened chicken omelettes. The proprietor was a pleasant lass. Perhaps out of an increased curiosity for the raw food movement or perhaps out of homage to his missing partner, he inquired about the walnut banana “french toast.” Without pretension, she beamed that the toast was the creation of her own hands but subtly questioned his commitment, likely the result of his phenotype which suggested a probable affinity for all things ham. He assured her he was of sound mind and that he wasn’t nuts; he just wanted to eat them, along with an Americano of course.

As he was waiting he confessed his frustration over his previous fruitless endeavour.   He was told the Bickford  was closed on Tuesdays during the summer months, a practice which was common among many establishments.  Her pleasant demeanor filled his heart and he had an instant need to forgive the oversight.

The delivery of the goods was prompt.   As promised, it was a bit of an adventure off the beaten path. The “toast” itself was dense and full of earthy flavours.   The cashew cream made butter seem like an ex-girlfriend and the date syrup was sultry to the tongue.  The walnuts, blueberries and pollyanna fruit cup were perfect accessories.  He deemed the  Americano delicious as well.  It was true, he somewhat longed for some salty swine to complete the dish but there was solace in  the fact that he was able to adhere to the philosophy of his missing travel mate and the other tree hugging cyclists he carefully avoided on his way into the Bickford to begin with.

Walnut Banana 'French Toast' $10.50
Walnut Banana ‘French Toast’ $10.50

As he ate, other patrons ventured inside with many interested in the  baked goods which lined the shelves.  In particular the gluten free muffins seemed to be a hit.  Since he had a work rendezvous with this travel mate the next day, he asked the lass to hold one for him. She gladly complied and wrapped it for the pending trip. Upon his departure he produced his means of payment only to be told to put it away and accept the muffin as an apology for the previous confusion.

He ventured back to his vehicle with a new found admiration for the Bickford Flexitarian. True, all it took was a muffin but it was more than that. It was about respect, acknowledgment and remedy.

By the way, she enjoyed the muffin.

My Take

The Bickford Flexitarian has plunged into the competitive cafe/coffee shop market.  Although located a bit off the beaten path, there is plenty of bike traffic as well as those who take Harbord to avoid the clogged arteries of College or Bloor streets.  Speaking of clogged arteries, Bickford offers hearty breakfasts that spare the heart and are more creative than the glass enclosed baked goods a lot of the others offer.  They also realize that serving healthy food doesn’t need to come with a side of self-righteousness.

The story of Bickford Flexitarian is one of betrayal and forgiveness which, unlike a story such as Jane Eyre, has a happy ending. Ok…that’s a bit much but I often longed to spend my days drinking coffee  and writing about my interpretation of the state of society.  The irony is it took the consumption of a raw walnut banana  flax bread for me to do so.

Bickford Flexitarian on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Annex:Harbord Room

I’ve had a few celebrity sightings in life.  I remember seeing famed baseball pitcher Denis Martinez in a café after a Red Sox game back in the mid 90’s.  I rode 7 floors on an elevator with Alicia Silverstone and her dog in Toronto hotel circa 2004.

Nothing, however, makes me as excited as meeting anybody who has anything to do with the food industry.  I have had run-ins with icons Lynn Crawford and  Mark McEwan.  I’ve met top chef participants Jonathan Korecki, Carl Heinrich and Connie DeSousa through  visits to their restaurants.

Needless to say I was quite excited to meet Kevin Brauch during a recent visit to Harbord Room, a well established restaurant making good burgers and high end cocktails before burgers and high end cocktails were so cool.  He came in toward the end of my Monday night meal and we had a chance to chat all things food, drink, Alton Brown and Iron Chef.  Let me put it into perspective… I’d rather meet a guy who had built his career drinking all over the world and managing the egos of the likes of Bobby Flay  than let’s say, Tom Cruise, whose definition of acting is trying to convince us that he could street fight guys half his age and twice his height.

Stalking Kevin Brauch
Stalking Kevin Brauch

Must

Harbord room had a cool burger before having cool burgers was cool.  Erring on the side of simplicity, it’s as well known as Mario Batali’s orange crocs and the burger praises are ubiquitous in every critic and blogger review. It’s a gem from the bun to the perfectly cooked beef to the fries.

The Harbord Burger
The Harbord Burger

The whitefish ceviche was a blackboard special that was fresh and clean with perfect tones of heat and acidity and a Morimotoish delicacy.

Whitefish Ceviche
Whitefish Ceviche

As charcuterie crests in popularity across the GTA, Harbord room keeps up with the times with a board full of carnivorous treats ranging  from venison pepperoni to an airy chicken liver pate to a pleasant terrine that would make Marc Forgione’s hair stand on end (ok..bad example). There were house pickles, great crostini, homemade preserves  and a fried egg round it all off.

Charcuterie ($20)
Charcuterie ($20)

Harbord room has also stayed current in the world of cocktails, likely in part to the fact about a third of the restaurant is taken up by the bar.   High end liquors highlight a diverse drink menu which can get rather pricy.  I indulged in “Liquid Swords”, a complex meczal based multi-ingredient drink with an execution as meticulous and passionate as a Michael Symon lamb chop.

Consideration toward a good side is like paying homage to a good sous chef.  Let’s call the rapini the Anne Burell of sides.  Bitter rapini, salty almonds, hot chili and sweet sultanas only make sense as it appeals to all senses.

Harbord Room Rapini
Harbord Room Rapini

Maybe

There was a bit of Cornish hen controversy as our table was told it was not available due to a lack of greens.  We asked for it anyway only to find out that it hadn’t been brined for the appropriate amount of time but they would serve it anyway.  Despite the lack of bath time, the poultry was delicious and moist.  If anything the sausage, the only thing on the plate not involved in the controversy, was as lackluster as an Iron Chef trying to make dessert.

Cornish Game Hen and Sausage
Cornish Game Hen and Sausage

I enjoy olive oil cake and I like Harbord’s spin.  Priced in the single digits, it hit all the elements of a good dessert. The citrus and chocolate sides provided some variety to the neutral cake. The almond crunch added some needed texture.

Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch
Olive Oil Cake with Custard, Sorbet and Crunch

Mundane

Let’s call this a relative mundane list.  Nothing at Harbord was bad per se, but the strength of the menu made some of the dessert seem a bit substandard.  The Valrhona Dark Chocolate & Smoked Banana Terrine, Salted Caramel, Peanut Butter Mousse & Dehydrated Chocolate & Banana Chips was a bit confusing.  A little too deconstructed, the flavours didn’t quite come together.  The Fresh Ricotta Doughnuts
Espresso & Caramel Pot de Creme, Espresso Tapioca & Crumble Meringue Wafer were decent but a bit predictable.  Although good and filled with diverse flavor, I don’t get the meringue wafer trend.  A little too much sweet on sweet.

Doughnuts and Terrine
Doughnuts and Chocolate Banana Terrine

I realize sex sells, but really……

Ummm....Harbord Cappuccino
Ummm….Harbord Cappuccino

My Take

The constant rave about the burger is a bit of a disservice to Harbord room.  The complex drinks, brilliant charcuterie and intuitive sides elevate it to iron chef caliber beyond it’s signature dish.  In a highly competitive market, Harbord maintains a balance between what works and what might work.

In honour of Kevin Brauch, Harbord room is one of the iron chefs of the Toronto restaurant scene.  Challengers emerge, claiming vivacious vibes and great burgers but Harbord has held the test of time against these admirable culinary opponents. It maintains tradition yet remains current in a manner synonymous with the likes of Geoffrey Zakarian. I’m looking forward to the new THR and Co. spin-off in May. Gotta run….I think Tom’s coming to kick my ass.  I’d tell him to pick on somebody his own size, but my 13 year old daughter is not home right now.

The Harbord Room on Urbanspoon