Oretta: The Importance of Auditory Authenticity: Madonnaism vs Real Accents

I’ve only come to realize recently the important role that accents have on pop culture.  The attention to detail and need for authenticity has often required actors to hide their native tongues to better represent to the role they assume.  Actors like Charlie Hunnan and Hugh Laurie fooled us for years by Americanizing their voices to play the leader of a Charming biker gang and a Jersey cocky doctor respectively.  Most recently I’ve heard interviews from the cast of the Walking Dead only to realize that both Rick and Morgan among others are from across the pond and their American grunts and mumbles amidst the zombies are just part of the act.  It’s not always English to American either;  I recently binged watched season 1 of Fargo and  listened to hours of Californian Colin Hanks and Texan Allison Tolman speak in Minnesota and surrounding accents.

On the other hand, bad accents can counter attempts at authenticity.  For example, shortly after marrying Guy Ritchie, Michigan native Madonna felt the need to let the world know that she became English overnight driven by a lukewarm British accent. The act was deemed rather inauthentic and lead to a good amount of backlash.

The need for some degree of authenticity seems to exist in the restaurant business.  In addition to a decor which reflects a restaurant’s overall concept, some insist on ensuring that the staff are equipped with a lexicon synonymous to the overall theme. It makes sense; I love to grab a Guinness from an Irish barkeep or listen to the proper pronunciation of a great Asian dish. Although the logic and emotion behind this is obvious, I think a couple of rules need to be established:

  • Let’s avoid Madonnaisms. If you are not from the country, don’t use the accent. A crash course using Rosetta Stone won’t fool anybody except the hipsters who did exactly the same thing to create the appearance that they are more intelligent consumer.
  • If you are fluent in the language, don’t be arrogant about it.  If I order rigatoni, I don’t mind having it repeated back to ensure accuracy but don’t need it done to correct my pronunciation. I’m North American; rigatoni is the same as Reeg-a-tow-naaay.
  • Make the menu authentic but readable.  I can figure out that secondi means second but let’s draw the line at having the ingredients listed in a different language along with a 4 page glossary in the back.

I suppose at some point I should get back to reviewing a few restaurants so this may be a good segue.  I went to Oretta a while back.  I was looking for a semi-quiet Italian place downtown that didn’t have the name Cibo, Terroni or Mercatto in it.  I had strolled by it a couple of times prior and was impressed with the roomy layout and decor of a traditional Italian ristorante mixed with a little King Street cheesiness.  Not surprisingly when we were seated we were greeted by a young waiter will a full out Italian accent.  I didn’t for a second think it was fake or phony but it did make me ponder the impact it might have on my dining experience.

The menu was a shortlist of classic Italian salads, pizzas, pastas and “secondis”. In the dead of winter the Cavoletti  salad (shaved brussel sprouts, almonds, pickled red onion, pecorino and crispy prosciutto) was a crisp, fresh and balanced reminder that  sulfuric and pickled vegetables can nicely bridge our extreme Canadian seasons.

oretta salad
Cavoletti $14

From the pasta menu we opted for gnocchi and risotto (aka. Riso di Ieri).  The former was doused with a rich meat sauce which made for a heavier dish, especially with the dense dumplings. The flavours were great but it grew monotonous rather quickly. Regarding the Riso; the normal and often overemphasized creaminess and volume of the risotto itself was de-emphasized.  It was hidden in a pan fried crust and served atop a generous portion of mushrooms.  As somebody who’s not the biggest fan of risotto, I found this version much more balanced and exciting mainly because the rice was de-emphasized. More traditional risotto fans, however, could easily be left disappointed by this interpretation.

oretta gnocchi
Gnocchi $19
oretta risotto
Riso di Ieri $23

I failed to capture a picture of the Margherita pizza ($16) but it looked like…well..a pizza. It passed the test; simplicity by means of a thin crust and fresh ingredients and would reasonably match the others along the King or Queen street strips.

Dessert was “cocco bello”; a tart with fresh fruit, cream and coconut housed in a nutty crust.  Perhaps it was not a standard winter dessert but a few berries when it’s below zero is always a kind reminder that, like the salad and despite a horrendous winter, spring and summer are always on the way.

oretta dessert
Cocco Bello $9

My Take

Deciding where on the spectrum between nouveau cuisine and authenticity one’s restaurant will fall must be a difficult decision. Not only does the food have to fit the bill but the vibe and environment also  needs to reflect the theme.  This includes the manner in which the staff addresses its patrons. I mean, it goes without saying that Game of Thrones would be ridiculous if the Lannisters sounded like Joe Pesci  or Donnie Wahlberg.

Oretta was a happy medium along the spectrum of ignorance and imitation.  Everything from the decor to the food to the waiter’s accent was authentic and not arrogant.  The menu was smallish but highlighted the simplicity of Italian cuisine.  The salad and pizza were the highlights although pasta and dessert were more than acceptable. In the end, I found Oretta a welcome change from the hipster-driven Terroni-like chains that have popped up all over the citta.

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

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Fring’s: Let’s Just Say I Wasn’t Yelling HYFR Afterwards

Susur Lee has continued to expand his mini empire by securing the old Crush wine bar space.  Instead of opening another Asian-themed eatery, he has teamed up with entertainment icon and fellow sixite Drake to try and bring high end comfort food to the city’s streets.

I’m not sure why this new enterprise has been named Fring’s.  I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with Torsten Frings, the German midfileder who played 33 games and scoring 2 goals with the Toronto FC only to retire after requiring surgery and returning to Europe to coach in his home country.  Perhaps it’s an homage to the trademarked side available at Harvey’s, Canada’s own fast food restaurant.  A combination of about 3 onion rings and six or so fries, it is the ideal accompaniment for the indecisive.  Maybe it’s the name is a term coined by Champagne Papi to describe the merging of two fundamental components of Drake’s brand, friends and bling, into one happy milieu.

The decor is also a milieu; in this case a trendy industrial style mixed with a cheesy VIP lounge.  Brick walls and wooden window panels combined with fuzzy if not hairy lounge seats with marble tables means both a downtown ambiance and  a nightclub aura.

After being seated, we were greeted by our waiter. The slick hair, glasses and demeanor screamed hipster but I questioned his authenticity as he was trying way to hard.  Like most other restaurants, he gave us the recited speech explaining the proper process for ordering off a sharing menu.  His entire demeanor seemed scripted as well, especially when we heard him deliver the exact same speech, in exactly the same way, to the table beside us.

I’ll admit part of the reason I came here was to have the ability to report back to my daughter who is a massive Drake fan.  So, it goes without saying that my first question to the waiter was “What would Drake drink?”.  He quickly answered that his the pop icon’s favorite drink was the Tom Skudra ($18), a rum based cocktail with a mix of juices, mint and raspberries. I’ve taken to doing google searches on cocktail names and found that Tom Skudra was a Canadian photojournalist who passed in 2007  and best known for TV series called Programme X in 1970. That said, the drink also went along with the ongoing joke that, whether I try or not, I usually end up ordering the girliest looking  which is usually pink (mostly the result of my affinity for Campari) and this was no exception.  Unlike a Campari drink, however, it was exceptionally sweet and somewhat resembled a daiquiri. I was left wondering whether the waiter was lying through his teeth or Drake has a reeeealllll sweet side I don’t know about.

frings drink
Tom Skudra $14

Nothing says comfort food like toast so what better to start with than some homemade ricotta with jalapeno plum jam and pomegranate ($10). It was presented nicely and in Susur fashion, was an explosive blend of flavours and textures.

frings ricotta
Ricotta Toast $10

Next was the steak tartare ($20).  I was expecting a bit more of the aforementioned taste and flavour explosion but it fell a little flat.  The presentation, usually rather extravagant  on a plate that anything to do with Chef Lee, was uninspiring.  Plus, if they put egg on the octopus dish; why not a little on the tartare!

frings tartare
Steak Tartare $20

The southern spicy maple fried chicken ($26) seems all the rave by reviewers across the board but then again, any fried chicken seems to be.  Some will argue that the art of perfecting this comfort food is an intricate as a souffle while others say it’s pretty freaking hard to mess it up since it involves deep frying something.  I adhere to the latter.  I’ve made a few batches in my day and although some have been better than others, none have really been bad.  There was nothing wrong with the chicken at all.  It was crispy on the outside, moist and the middle and adequately seasoned. The sauce was good as well.   All I’m saying is I can get a bucket of KFC with 8 pieces, popcorn chicken, fries, gravy and two salads for about the same price.  Am I saying that KFC is a good as Susur’s fried fowl?  Not at all.  I’m just trying to point out that I might expect a little more for $26.

frings chicken
Southern Spicy Maple Fried Chicken $26

I find a burger an excellent benchmark of a restaurant.  The burger is a canvas for creativity, the variations are endless and the price point can range from a few dollars to a few hundred.  The Susur burger, served with JK fries, comes in at a hefty $24, which is more than other iconic burgers in the city including Richmond station ($21), Marben ($19) and Harbord Room ($19) and wasn’t anyway close to as good.

frings burger
Susur Burger with JK Fries $24

At this point, I begged the waiter for a drink a little more manly than the Tom Skudra  and preferably not as pink.  He suggested the Waste Man ($18), a cocktail with brandy, chamomile bitters and peach.  Although one might expect it to be sleepy (get it?..chamomile) this was a good strong drink more reflective of the 6God’s brand.

frings drink2
Waste Man $18

 

For dessert, I went with the waiter’s recommendation for the overpriced warm plum tart served with creme fraiche and almonds ($14). It was a bit chic and a bit homey, both of which aligned with the general theme of the place but otherwise was average and contained a whole lot of pastry and not enough plum.

frings dessert
Plum Tart $14

My Take

From a pop culture perspective, the marriage of Drake and Susur Lee makes perfect sense.   Much like Chef Lee’s fusion cooking, bringing two variant entities together often results in spawn which are both unique and exciting. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fring’s.  Instead of being an innovator, it seems like Chef Lee is following trends which include cheese topped toasts , burgers  and comfort foods like fried chicken.  Not only are they average from a taste and presentation perspective, they are astronomically priced. The cocktails, steak tartare, fried chicken and burger are at least $4-5 higher than similar drinks and dishes at comparable Toronto eateries. The service was robotic.

In the end, I just expected two of the most innovative minds in Toronto to dream up something a little more exciting.  The cocktail list is overly fruity and juicy and the drinks have boring names.  I mean, any Drake song would make a cool cocktail name.  Take “Teach U a Lesson”‘ “Worst Behavior” (come Drake..you’re Canadian…add a u) and “Star67″ for example . The food is uninspired.”Big Rings” would be like a great side to a burger that can be bigger, better and cheaper.  Even some “Pound Cake” for dessert would work. There’s no tellin’ what the future holds for Fring’s but it’s too expensive and may get boring really fast. After all, I sure as hell didn’t leave yelling HYFR down King street after I left.

Fring's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

King Street 2.0: Barhop

I’ve realized that I have done a number of second visits to restaurants along King street so far this year.  Since it has been some time since I’ve been to or reviewed these places, I figured it would be prudent to update my experiences.  Let’s start with Barhop.

Both the staff and many of the patrons at Barhop are what I refer to as “hopsters”.  Hopsters fall under the same genus as hipsters but they differ in order in that their angst is geared toward those who don’t appreciate the fine art of brewing. My first experience with hopsters was almost 20 years ago at C’est What?, a brewpub on Front Street.  I remember watching people come in and order a Canadian or a Blue only to be scoffed at by the staff followed by a stern lecture pointing out that you can’t order a macrobrew here. At the time, I thought it was quiet humourous and chuckled under my breath at the unsuspecting fools.

Barhop has carried on the hopster tradition but has adapted it to 2015.  Even with a decent knowledge of beer, there is no guarantee you will receive prompt and/or courteous service. I dropped in one night only to sit there for 10 minutes without so much as an acknowledgment so I left.  I returned a second time and it was equally as busy but this time I got a rail seat and at least an offer of a drink.  It goes without saying that the beer selection is amazing.  Most of the draft choices are local brews including side launch, KLB, Amsterdam, Indie Ale House, Sawdust city etc. They also have a few of their own branded pints including a very good nitro ESB.  They also have rare brews, table bottles and all sorts of other delights.

From a food perspective, the menu is exactly what you would expect; bar food with a gastropub twist. I only had a few snacks since I was grabbing dinner later.  These pictures are brutal but I wanted to minimize the use of the flash so as not to disturb the hopsters as they began their nocturnal ritual.  The olives and marinated cheese ($13) were served with grilled bread. I thought the cheese was a clever dish and a bit of a deviation from the normal cheese plates served in the area.  The homemade jerky ($9) was served with a bourbon bacon jam.  I must say this the first time I’ve ever eaten jerky with jam.  I won’t say there was synergy in the combined flavours but I think the jam made the jerky, which was quite dry (as is meant to be) a little easier to chew.  The fried pickles served with ranch ($9) hit the mark and were comparable to other places from both a taste and price perspective.

My Take

The original microbrew movement was somewhat quashed by the realization of international conglomerates that microbrews  posed a threat to their bottom line. This resulted in the purchase and/or suppression of many a fine beer.  Creemore, for example, was purchased by Molson (who is owned by Coors’) in 2005 and to this day has been disguised as a microbrewery.  Both Alexander Keith’s and Rickard’s stay at arms length from their owners (Anheuser-Busch and  Molson Coors Brewing respectively) and promote family values, tradition and other moral lessons.

Luckily, this decade has seen a return to the art of authentic craft brewing. Barhop was one of the first restaurants to jump on the resurgence of the true microbrewery movement in Ontario.  With it comes the hopster attitude and a menu which tries to match the needs of their beer swilling patrons.  It’s crowded, they don’t take reservations and the service can be inconsistent but if you want a good pint in the entertainment district, this is your best bet….just don’t order a bud.

Click to add a blog post for Bar Hop on Zomato

Home of the Brave: A Celebration of the American Culinary Trinity of Cheese, Gravy and Sauce

Perhaps it’s fitting I’m typing this as I fly over the Western plains toward San Francisco.   Home of the Brave are the four words which tell you the Star-Spangled banner is over and is usually held for about 16 bars while some celebrity exercises their creative right to make the song their own. It is also the title of a 1988 Toto song, perhaps a patriotic attmept to recreate the success they had in the early 80’s with the Grammy winning album IV featuring the song of the year Rosanna as well as Africa.  The phrase is synomonous with the USA, so it seems an appropriate name for a snack bar which celebrates Amercian culture and cuisine. Such a concept may be a daunting task however. There is nothing universally consistant with American food. Each region adheres to a philosophy and a stubbornness which is much an identity as an local accent. That said, gravy is pretty close.

Toronto’s homage to our southern neighbours sits hidden among King Street favourites Lou Dawg’s, Lee and Wurst.  Relative to other eateries, it about the size of Vermont, boasting a reasonably sized bar, a number of tablesand booths and even a few “patio” seats which overlook the King Street scene.  I was quickly greeting by the bartender who offered me a bar seat.  I sat and looked around.  A bustling open kitchen was nestled in the corner.  The bar area was decorated with American paraphernalia including references to many of the urban centres which make the USA the diverse and interesting country it is. From a drink perspective, they adhere to the American way.  They feature beer, wine and cocktails all produced or inspired by America. There are even a few cocktails created through feedback from the guestbook of American visitors. I was in the mood for a pint, so I opted for an $8 Sam Adam’s Boston lager which was frankly the only palatable beer on the draught list.  They do carry a few bottles from the historic Anchor brewery in the city I was in flight towards. The vibrant beer scene in the USA is misunderstood by so many Canadians who simply say “All American beer is water” and HOTB reinforces this misconception by offering crap like Coors Light  and Rolling Rock as essential American suds.

The menu is everything you would expect in a stereotypical American eatery, offering eats like Philly steak sandwiches, chicken and waffles and Maryland Crab Cakes.  In addition, almost every dish, including vegetables, contains one of the three components of the America culinary trilogy: Gravy, sauce, cheese or a combination of two or three.  In celebration of Napoleon Dynamite and his home state of Idaho, I was obliged to try the tater tots complete with the obligatory cheese AND gravy.  They were nasty, delicious chunks of what seemed like deep fried mashed potatoes which sitting in  a shallow pool of fat.

Tater Tots
Tater Tots $7

It was wing night (which means they serve wings…not the fact you get them for $0.36 each or whatever the going discount rate is) and I thought nothing could be more American than sucking back a pound of chicken parts.  The flavour of the night was Tex-Mex mole, a celebration of the Mexican influence on United States cuisine.  They came out quickly, doused in the promised spicy chocolate sauce and yes….topped with another sauce (sauce on sauce is Amercian food porn at its best).  The taste was quite acceptable and manged to marry the two southern flavours quite effectively. My only issue was the heavy breading on the wings.  Perhaps it’s a dedication to American art of deep frying everything, but I would have prefered the naked wing approach, especially with the rich flavour  of the abundant sauce.  My plasma might have been a little happier with me without the breading as well.

Home of the Brave Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12
Tex-Mex Mole Wings $12

 

I was feeling a little guilty so decided to try and balance things out with a little dose of a vegetable. Asparagus was in season, so I got an order.  Surprise… it was served with cheese and mushroom gravy.  I can’t complain about the taste or the cook on the asparagus..both were terrific but my guilt was hardly stifled as the nutritional value of the green spears  was negated by the other ingredients. The portion size, however, was not American because there was no way I could feed 4 people with this serving of “veggies”.

Asparagus with cheese and gravy
Asparagus with cheese and gravy $7

I passed on dessert even though two of my biggest vices were being offered; ice cream sandwiches and funnel cakes. I also passed on a very intriguing cobb salad served with a whole egg served in a half avocado, a concept I have since adopted into my homemade Cobb.

 

My Take 

Despite horror stories I had heard about the service being similar to the treatment of a gay couple at a misguided and ignorant Rick Perry rally, I found the service prompt and friendly.  The atmosphere was fun and vibrant and I loved the open kitchen concept.  Given the shitty beer selection and the pledge of allegiance  to cheese and gravy, I’m still trying to figure out if the owners intend  HOTB to be an reasonable facsimile of the American eatery or a parody of the plated gluttony which plagues our neighbours to the south. If it’s the latter I think it’s a brilliant joke.  If it’s the former, it’s a stereotype worse than Canadians living in igloos. I mean, not everybody in American puts added fat on everything, right?  Sure, a rib-sucking Texan may cherish the menu but  I’m sure a clean eating Californian would cringe at the fact that this place even manages to make asparagus unhealthy.    In the end, Home of the Brave is a fun rendition of American food.  I wouldn’t, however, bring your vegan sister, a skinny first date or your dad if he’s on a statin. I would, however, bring a good old Ontario health card just in case. I don’t think Obamacare is ready for this place.

 

Home of the Brave on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Valdez

It can be argued that Origin may have been the “origin” of the current small plate trend in Toronto.  A couple of years and two new Origins later, Valdez opened.  The link is Steve Gonzalez.  A contestant on the first Top Chef Canada,  he has followed the leads of later contestants Carl Heinrich and Ryan Gallagher, who left previous posts at established Toronto eateries to gamble on new ones. Steve went from chef de cuisine at Origin to the proprietor of Valdez, a King Street Latin street food eatery which promises a return to Gonzalez’s Colombian roots and, of course,  a sharing and small plate concept.

The decor is a mix of a saloon and a Mexican cantina.  A large wooden bar is showcased in a long but narrow space filled with bright chairs and worn tables, both painted with reds and blues and greens. A large bar graces one wall of the long but narrow dining room. Coffee sack, art and other paraphernalia grace the walls of this stylish abode.

There is an array of standard cocktails (and a few crazy ones), beer and wine.  I opted for a Tecate, which was presented in psuedo-michelada style. Instead of a glass with lime juice and hot sauce (among other things), a lime wedge and a squeeze of hot sauce was strewn along the top of the can.  Served glassless, I opted to pop the wedge into the can and drink it like that.  I liked the combination although I found it odd that the option for no hot sauce wasn’t offered as I imagine it wouldn’t be for everybody.

The menu is simple, divided into 4 parts; ceviche (self explanatory), stuff (small plate) ,more (bigger plate) and dulce y algo (dessert). Well, maybe the ceviche isn’t so self explanatory. Given the diversity of the choices, I opted for the flight:

There is the traditional “cocktel de camaron” with tomato, citrus, cilantro, chilis and corn nuts. Pretty delicious.

There was the “passion” and “atun japones”, each offering a refreshing twist on tuna (albacore and ahi respectively) by meshing traditional latin and modern Asian flavours such as yuzu, ginger and ponzu.  An intriguing twist but something I would expect at one of the numerous izakaya joints at every street corner in town.

The “mixto” was a trio of octopus, mussel and squid bathed in squid ink with some citrus, maize and sweet potato. The ink was the overwhelming flavour, so some will take it or leave it.

The vegan ceviche was a mix of fruit and veggies which included jicama and other latin staples  in a simple citrus sauce.  Nothing remarkable.

Ceviche Flight $16
Ceviche Flight $16

From the “stuff” menu we opted for tradition, ordering the highly touted guac and chips, empandas and chorizo del jefe (sausage). The guac and chips created some controversy at the table.  I loved the guac.  It had a great texture and was well balanced with citrus and spice.  The chips were a combination of plantain, yucca, potato and taro which I thought was ingenious both to the eye and the tongue. The others at the table were more ho-hum about the guac.

Guac and Chips $8
Guac and Chips $8

The empanadas, on the other hand, were rather disappointing. Offering no flare compared to the rest of the menu, they were rather dry and bland to the extent where the delicious aji sauce which accompanied couldn’t save them.

Empanadas $8
Empanadas $8

The chorizo sausage was a bold and delicious addition to the menu. A squeeze of lime provided enough acid to intensify the well seasoned and moist pork sausage. It rivals some of the best I have had in Toronto. The arepas were nice as well.

Chorizo del jefe $8
Chorizo del jefe $8

As for “more”, we decided on two very different dishes; the delicate Giggie’s trout (togarashi+Quinoe+yuzu+mango+avocado+fried shallots) and the more manly Bandeja (seared pork+rice & beans+plantain+fried egg+avocado+arepa).  This trout dish was a  concert of primarily asian flavours around some beautifully cooked filets.  The dainty dish was a bit out of place served in a Mexican saloon but would be palate pleasing for a pescatarian who so happened  to tag along for the party.

Giggie's Trout $17
Giggie’s Trout $17

The bandeja, on the other hand, was the hardcore latin inspired dish more synonymous with the name Valdez. Bandeja simply means platter, but I would be prone to rename this bandeja buena mierda.  Hidden beneath a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was rice, beans, avocado, arepas and most importantly, tender and juicy pork.   With each bite you got a little more or a little less of each component but each was an adventure in Latin America cuisine. No togarashi, no yuzu (although I love the damn stuff), and no ponzu.  Just simple, flavourful food presented with simplicity and respect.

Bandeja $19
Bandeja $19

My Take

Perhaps the word “Latasian” street food may be a better description of the food served at Valdez.  Although traditional Central and South American dishes are the foundation of the menu, the are a number laced with Asian flavours. The chips and guac and bandeja stole the show with the chorizo sausage taking honorable mention.  I was less impressed with the ceviche and trout, perhaps because my brain was programmed to consume the simple and standard flavours of Latin cuisine as opposed to those I can get at a hundred places elsewhere.  The empanadas were a bit of a bust minus the delicious aji sauce.  I enjoyed the Tecate, served  psuedo-michelada style, from both a nostalgic and taste perspective.

The decor and vibe is fun, trendy and even a bit dangerous. I was reminded  a bit of the bar scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn”. George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino wannabees line the bar except in this case, samurai sword wielding ninjas names Yuzu, Togarashi and Tobiko  enter the scene to join the locals in a battle against the blood hungry vampires looking for a late night snack. Ok, that may be a bit much, but if Steve Gonzalez can offer fried rice and frijoles, I can use my imagination just the same.

Valdez Restaurant on Urbanspoon