Mad Magazine, Joanne Kates and why GVG and Jen Agg may be the Spy vs. Spy of Toronto’s Culinary Scene

There is no argument that the world has changed substantially in the past two decades and media is no exception. One by one, longstanding publications are disappearing from the shelves and being replaced by virtual articles and snippets on online platforms. The latest fatality is Mad magazine. It can be argued that this iconic rag lead the way in political satire and was the blueprint for magazines like the onion some 35 years later. In addition, I can remember the tactile stimulation of delicately folding the inside of the back cover to reveal a picture hidden within the printed chaos. I remember it being more exciting that cracking open a kinder egg. It can also be argued that the magazine’s figurehead, Alfred E. Neuman, is the origin of the concept that gingers have no souls well before Trump proved it. Finally, Mad magazine may have foreshadowed today’s over the top fair play movement through the Spy vs. Spy comic. Unlike the Coyote and Road Runner, both were protagonists and equally alternated wins back and forth in a fashion similar to giving every kid a “thanks for coming out medal” in modern day youth athletics despite their performance.

Food media has changed as well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that people eagerly scoured a hard copy of the Globe and Mail in anticipation of the latest Joanne Kates Toronto restaurant review. Times have changed and now Ms. Kates is posting her thoughts online. Today, there are no shortage of critics…any google search now reveals a plethora of self-proclaimed experts (including myself) adding their two cents on blogs, snapchats or platforms like yelp… nowadays all you need is a tongue, a catchy handle and a general understanding of the English language to be an elite food writer.

Kates recently reviewed the newest Grant Van Gameren project and it hardly emerged with flying colours. Her argument was even if she is there for the wine, the food needs to be good because she is paying for it. She proceeds to complain more about the service than the grub itself and seems particularly concerned with the lack of kitchen hardware. On the other hand, in her review of Bar Vendetta, she acknowledges the food is less than stellar but you gotta go because of the vibe that only Jen Agg can create.

I’ll be the first to admit that Toronto’s food experience has drastically changed in the past 15 years. Things like three course meals and personal space have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with small plates and tight spaces plus/minus communal tables. Creative versus classic backdrops are the new norm and both GVG and Jen Agg lead the charge. Establishments like the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were trendsetting and fundamental backbones of the Toronto food movement today. That said, here’s my take..backed up by a few followers and a willingness to pay 25 bucks a year to keep my cleverly named web domain.

Vibe

Both spaces are understandably loud and filled with hipster zombies and the odd #okboomer trying to fit in.

Bar Piquette– Small and bright with white tables and blackboards indicating the current and rather extensive wine by the glass choices along with a handful of accompanying food options. Instead of a hidden cellar, bottles adorned with “The Price is Right” tags are stored in a rustic cabinet teasing patrons within plain sight.

Bar Vendetta– Dark environment with mismatched tables and chairs and walls plastered with classic music posters and a Spy vs Spy mural featuring a broken wine bottle and a corkscrew as weapons…clever. Wine choices are less extensive and indicated on spotty and crinkled paper menus which are near impossible to read in the murky surroundings. It’s a place reminiscent of Eric’s basement hangout in that 70’s show.

The Food

Bar Piquette– Limited menu of cold choices. We opted for a classic beef tartare, a tomato salad intertwined with guanciale and a simple cheese toast. Admittedly a little pedestrian but the ingredient were of stellar quality and each dish paired nicely with the one the many exciting selection of unique vinos.

Bar Vendetta– The menu focuses on pasta at peaks hours and gimmicks like muffuletta sandwiches and nachoes pre- and post-prime time respectively. My trio of dishes included the tuna diavolo, eggplant and trecce pasta. The tuna was vibrant and fresh and balanced nicely with a little heat courtesy of some fresh chilis. The eggplant and pasta on the other hand were pretty substandard. There was the odd bite of brilliance in the eggplant but overall it was rather bland and uninspiring, The pasta, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of the experience, was the biggest letdown mainly due to the fact it was uncooked and almost crunchy.

The Drink

Bar Piquette– The wine selection was bold and unique with plenty of by the glass offerings from all over the place. Temptation came screaming from the custom cabinet but I mainly stuck to glasses of skin-on organics and other fun libations.

Bar Vendetta– We made of the mistake of ordering cocktails in a wine bar and paid dearly. I’m always nervous to trash cocktails based on my own odd booze-forward tastes but after playing sharsies with the Dry Clean, Provocateur and Fade Out, my trusted table mates and I concurred that none of them where anywhere close to stellar. These were followed with a decent glass of Pearl Morisssette Irreverence and an Italian Valdibella Nero d’Avola chosen from what was quite frankly a less than impressive list, especially from a place touting itself as a wine bar.

My Take

Maybe Jen Agg and Grant Van Gameren are the Spy vs Spy of Toronto’s culinary scene. Each dream up a culinary scheme and see how it flies. Given their entry into the realm of wine bars, it’s not too far off to suggest that they may in fact have a rivalry similar to the corkscrew and broken bottle mural on Bar Vendetta’s wall. In most cases, both emphasize the vibe of their establishments and the polar nature of their latest projects will certainly lead to each patron picking a different winner. Personally, I like a brighter, wine forward place where Bob Barker could pop in any minute and ask me the price of a skin-organic wine without going over. On the other hand, people like Joanne Kates seem to prefer a venue where you could squint as you listen to Zeppelin and smoke up with Kelso. I’m also much less concerned about kitchen hardware and would prefer a decent beef tartare and other quality meats versus a head-scratching eggplant and under cooked pasta even when using a stove. If it came down to it and I had to choose between the two, I’d Piquette over Vendetta any day.

Brekkie at Bar Buca: Beyond Bacon and Bad Brew

Bar Buca comes for a pedigree that has gained the attention of the likes of Jamie Oliver among others.  So far, so good for the offspring. It has escaped the mercurial grasp of the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith as well as gaining praise from seasoned critic Joanne Kates (who I’m convinced is Carmen Sandiego) who recently called it the best thing to open in a year.

In one sense it’s following the lead of the snack bar swing which has taken Toronto by storm.  In another it ups the ante by offerings goods all day including a coffee and breakfast bar as early as 7 am.   The quiet exterior on Portland hides a deceivingly large area with high ceilings, seating which includes wooden high tables, an open kitchen and a coffee/booze bar right inside the entrance. In the morning, each table is equipped with sugar as well as a sugar/espresso paste in a jar which offers an extra kick to the morning coffee. Speaking of which, there are couple of dozen espresso/latte combinations to choose from. After careful deliberation I opted for a Latte Canadese latte style ($5.50). The foundation was maple and brown butter.  Although the size would barely compete with a Starbucks tall, the flavour was far superior.  Not for everybody, it was a bit like drinking melted fudge but the bitterness of the coffee bean balanced it to a degree.

Latte Canadese $5.50
Latte Canadese $5.50

The breakfast menu features everything from savory egg dishes to sweet pastries.   Sensing my indecision, the waiter (yes, I may have forgotten to mention you sit down and they take your coffee order at the table) recommended pane and ricotta; fresh ciabatta bread lathered with fresh ricotta cheese and topped with pear marmalade (honey was an option as well) for $3.50.  There was no shortage of fresh cheese.  The bread was fresh and the marmalade added the contrast of  sweet and clove.

Pane and Ricotta $3.50
Pane and Ricotta $3.50

 

My Take

Chef Rob Gentile has not only jumped on the snack food bandwagon, he’s added horsepower and a fresh coat of paint.  The deviation from  dinner only hours provides the opportunity to snack on an array of goods anytime of day.  A smart breakfast menu with both sweet and savory items which fills the huge gap between greasy spoons and coffee shop pastries  is sheer genius.  The diversity and quality of caffeinated options rivals any other coffeehouse in the area.  I have every intention of indulging on cicchettis, spuntinis and schiacciatas sometime soon but thankfully I have 15 hours a day and 7 days a week to do so.

 

Bar Buca on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Midtown:Zucca Trattoria

Well outside the garden of trattorias and enotecas  restaurants along College street sits Zucca, which many consider the great pumpkin of Italian food.   It has a Zagat rating of 26 and Joanne Kates’ has had it just out of the bronze medal position for two years running, trumping godfathers like Mistura and prodigies like Campagnolo.  Zucca’s message is simple; turn great ingredients into great food.

Must

I have two confessions:

1.  I like playing with my food. I had memories of high  school when I had the opportunity to dissect a fish instead of  a frog. However, instead of searching for lungs and livers I discovered bouquets of slightly charred thyme and rosemary.  I’d give the fish itself an A.  My dissection skills, however,  get a solid  B as I only had a few of those awkward moments (you know…when you miss a bone and want to save face by subtly removing  it from your mouth with the cough into the napkin trick  or just chewing lots, swallowing and hoping you don’t end up with an mild esophageal tear).

2.  I have no idea what kind of fish I had.  It was deep sea, delicious and referred to as scarinno on the bill, a word that does not exist on google searches or food dictionaries and costs $40. I emailed Zucca, tweeted Mario Batelli and searched Italian fish blogs to no avail.  So, in the end I have to swallow my pride in a manner similar to one of those tiny fish bones.

Mystery FIsh- Not Branzino although it sure looks like it
Mystery Fish- Not Branzino although it sure looks like it ($40)

How can you go wrong with fresh tagliatelle with octopus, pine nuts and a tad of prosciutto?  The $16 appetizer size hit the spot.  The pasta was delicious. It wasn’t overly greasy and the additions had good textural contrast.

Tagliatelle with Octopus and Pine Nuts  $16
Tagliatelle with Octopus and Pine Nuts $16

Maybe

If you want a plate of meat topped with some cheese and a few sliced cactus pears, then you’re in luck.  It’s a decent offering of fresh ingredients with a pleasant presentation.

Zucca Prosciutto with Cactus Pear and Parmigiano ($16)
Zucca Prosciutto with Cactus Pear and Parmigiano ($16)

The affogato di caffe was a fitting end to a meal.  It strays a bit from simple with two types of gelato and a massive  wafer but maintains the fundamentals of this classic dessert…and it even comes with a cute paper doilee.

Affagato di caffe
Affagato di caffe ($10)

Mundane

Although there was  nothing mundane about the food, it is old school in service and decor (including a rather awkward design). It’s a bit on the yawnish side and will likely never be considered trendy, but it is well established without the need to peddle  wine on tap, neapolitan wood fired pizza or mama’s homemade meatballs.

My Take

Pine nuts, polipo and pears…..oh my!  Although it’s a bit sleepy, it has great food, great service and nameless fish.  It’s fitting for a business meal or grandma’s 70th birthday but wouldn’t be the venue where  you’d retweet witty vignettes about the jays home opener or copious consumption of cleverly named cocktails.  It’s a place where you can relax, wear slacks, consume , hear yourself think and once the food comes not have to wait very long for proof that the great pumpkin does exist.

Zucca Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Midtown:Cava

Cava is midtown Toronto’s answer to Spanish tapas.  Tucked down a small alley off of Yonge street, Cava offers a modest but comfortable environment featuring a plentiful array of over 30 menu options. For the most part it errs on the traditional side, offering tapas dishes reminiscent of the mother land.  In addition, there a few twists, with choices reflective of the current Toronto dining scene. It has received a number of accolades including number 5 on Joanne Kates’  2012 top 100 list.

Must

For a guy who normally does not like olives,  Cava surprised me.  They were like candy.  I can’t pinpoint if it was the temperature, the saltiness or the variety. but I found myself eating one after another.  The price point was a very fair $3.

Warm Olives ($2.95)
Warm Olives ($2.95)

The venison anticucho ($12.50) with a warm red cabbage salad featured extremely tender cuts of well-seasoned meat on a a bed of red cabbage. Each morsel was cooked a perfect medium rare.  It’s one of those dishes in which you only order one and after the first bite think you should or ordered two…or three…or four.  It makes you want to break every rule of tapas etiquette; You keep the plate at close range and encourage everybody to eat everything else while you subtly eat the entire thing. The cabbage salad worked but I would use it as a diversion, offering it to the table and suggesting that it’s just as good as the entire venison skewer you just devoured.

Translation: Anticucho- Cut stew meat usually skewered and served with a variety of traditional spices.

Venison Anticucho ($12.50)
Venison Anticucho ($12.50)

The eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75) was well constructed and well executed.  Hints of the eggplant’s bitterness, sweetness of the honey, the tomatillo’s sourness and the salty richness of the cheese completely painted the tongue’s hotspots.  If anything, it was a little rich but was balanced nicely otherwise.

Translation: Queso Fresco-  A soft, unaged mild white cheese.

Eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75)
Eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75)

Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)?  How can one go wrong? Actually..one could  but Cava produced.  The chard maintained its  integrity despite being suspended within a plethora of cheese.  The poached egg was perfectly cooked and vamped up the dish in a way only an egg yolk can.  I recommend sharing this one given there are a lot of rich flavours and a few bites will suffice.

Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)
Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)

Maybe

The salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75) was solid.  The salt in the cod was not overwhelming and the cake had adequate moisture and good texture. The tasty piperade was a bit messy and rather one-toned in flavour, missing a punch of heat or acid that might have  helped the dish a bit.

Translation: Piperade- a Basque soup made with various ingredients usually including the Espelette pepper (a mild pepper cultivated in the part of France).

Salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75)
Salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75)

The cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and  Spanish saffron  ($9.50) was a nice rendition of the middle eastern staple.  None of the ingredients were overpowering and blended together for a medley of sweet, spice, sulphur and salt.

Translation: Kaboucha- a winter squash also referred to as a Japanese pumpkin.

Cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and  Spanish saffron  ($9.50)
Cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and Spanish saffron ($9.50)

The brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95) were tasty.  Neither spectacular nor bland,  the garlic was a nice change from the normal pork fat laden veggies served at most of the competing establishments.

Brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95)
Brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95)

The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($11) was as much a mouthful to eat as it is to say.That’s not to say it wasn’t a good mouthful.  There is a bit of an art and science to eating this.  The lemon is tart and needs the sweet meringue and the earthiness of the pistachio to round out the dish so a careful spoonful is needed to incorporate all the ingredients.  The cake was slightly spicy and the saffron was not overpowering.  The poached pears were wonderful by themselves but a bit of an odd addition to the plate from both a taste and visual appearance.

The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($12)
The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($11)

The coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12) came with a 20 minute wait….I was given adequate warning.  When it did arrive it  appeared  more like a souffle. It was fluffy and light  with a wonderful mouth feel. The confusion came with the addition of the pineapple.  Although it had a sweetness to it, the combination with the custard didn’t make sense, especially when topped with the acidic sorbet. The use of cherries or sweetened berries would have made this a near perfect dessert.

Translation: Clafouti- a french flan usually containing fruit.

Translation: Sea Buckthorn- a fruit similar to a gooseberry or cranberry grown in part of Europe, Asia and across Canada.

Coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12)
Coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12)

Mundane

There was very little mundane about the food.  It would have been nice, however, to have a cava-english dictionary to interpret some of the dishes.  I was left to feel a bit inferior if I wasn’t clear on certain dishes, especially since there were creative liberties taken on many of the dishes offered (ie piperade and clafouti).    Not that the service was bad, it was a bit pretentious.

On another note the  food was fairly expensive. It’s amazing how quickly pricy tapas adds up.  In addition, there were about half a dozen red and white wines by the glass.  The minimum price for a 5 oz glass was $10 and went up to $25 for a 8 oz glass. This is not to say that the wine is not of a good quality, however it seems to be a bit of a gouge for somebody who simply wants a glass of wine (eg. $23 for an 8 oz glass of a wine which is $19/bottle).  That being said, the bottles offer much more of a variety with a wider variety of  price points.

My Take

Cava is a bit of a hidden treasure in midtown Toronto.  It’s a cozy environment but clearly its focus is on the food.  The large menu can be overwhelming as it is full of descriptions and definitions that are truly foreign to many. On the other hand, I could go back again  and eat 8-10 different choices and be totally satisfied. I barely scratched the menu’s surface in that I didn’t order many of the traditional dishes (scallops, octopus, tripe and of course, paella) or the modern menu favorites (sweetbreads, brisket and sablefish).    There are plenty of vegetarian choices which sometimes is an issue with other small plate establishments.  The beer selection  is scarce and wine by the glass choices are limited and on the pricy side.  The desserts are served in a very shareable size and are an enterprise in creativity which offer extreme flavour and texture variations all within the same bite.

Translation: Go to cava, be decisive and bring your wallet….and your appetite.

Cava on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Ursa

Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).

Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).

I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller.  I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth.  It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.

Must

Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk  was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions.  It was presented eloquently  with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.

Elk Tartare

Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto.  I can’t disagree.  The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat.  Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.

Lemon Tart

Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food.  I tried the Red Horn,  signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).

Red Horn Cocktail

Smashed Cocktail

Maybe

For a main, I settled on the lingcod.  The fish was cooked perfectly.  It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour.  The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast.  The sage was a nice touch.

Lingcod

Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad.  There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu.   The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more.   The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.

Santa Rosa Plum Salad

Mundane

I’d consider Ursa  a bit stubborn.  It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number.  When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand,  there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.

Elusive Ursa Menu- Subject to change Frequently.

My Take

Ursa is like a good picture book.  Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story.    If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.

Ursa on Urbanspoon