Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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Yountville Day #2: Oppa Napastyle While I Dream of (Bistro) Jeanty

On my last day in Napa Valley I wanted to go back to Yountville one more time to once again experience it’s quaint beauty, not to mention the fact I was offered transportation in a small red convertible which made me feel like the numerous washed up yuppies back home I see driving around in their open top Chrysler LeBarons.  It is a very picturesque drive up highway 29 and the feeling of the fresh wind in my face trumped the sun scaling the top of my head (which is the main reason I have always found convertibles less than enjoyable).

This time I wanted to explore the V marketplace which houses a number of small shops and boutiques. I did a quick tour of a wine shop which offered a wide range of bottles at different types and prices. Not surprisingly, there was some ass hat walking around with his buddy pointing out every wine he has had in the place.  I normally wouldn’t care but there  was a pompous tone in his voice as opposed to a authentic and  organic bliss. In other words, it was more important for him to flaunt his status as a self-declared sommelier than a true wine enthusiast.

The highlight of the market was Napastyle, the Michael Chiarello market which offers a wide range of foodie friendly articles including various foodstuffs, kitchen equipment and knickknacks to enhance any home’s decor and entertaining potential.  They had a series of condiments available for tasting which were divine, especially the smoked and spicy olive oils and the fruit vinegar (especially the peach one from what I recall).  At this point,  we regretted out decision to have traveled with carry on luggage and sucked back a bit more oil before we left.

It was on the tail end of the lunch hour, so we decided to hunt out a place to eat.  I would be remiss if I didn’t try and add another star in my Michelin sky, so we decided on Bistro Jeanty, the French cafe in the heart of Yountville.  It was quite busy and the patio was full but we were able to secure a table inside.  I assume the decor was meant to be a recreation of a rustic and modest eatery in Paris as opposed to the clean and crisp feel of a place like Redd down the street.  The waitress arrived very quickly and happily explained the menu.  She was polite and courteous in a way that couldn’t be taught and I quickly felt quite welcome.

We decided to split a meal starting with Langue d’Agneau (warm lamb tongue and potato salad) for $15. This dish was a bit of a concession for me but I was curious to see if lamb tongue had the same distinct taste as the rest of the animal.  It did.  It was as tender as the potatoes and was well complimented by the acidic dressing and bitter greens. The fact that this rather heavy dish was listed on the “lighter side” of the menu was  a clear foreshadowing of our upcoming experience.

salad $15
Langue d’Agneau $15

Dish two was the Quenelles de Brochet  (pike dumplings with lobster sauce) for $15. The dumplings were as light and  fluffy as cumulus clouds in an atmosphere as thick as that of Venus (ok..this is the astronomy geek in me…Venus’ atmosphere is 90 times more massive than earth’s….and so was this sauce).   Taste wise what can I say.  It’s butter, cream and lobster.  Collectively, I enjoyed the contrast of the light dumpling against the heavy sauce and thought this dish was quite good.

Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon) for $26  was the final dish. Cassoulet is a bit of a generic term used to describe a bean based stew.  In fact, it is named after the dish the stew is served in more than a summary of the ingredients in it.  I equate it to pork and beans, the North American staple that involves a frantic search through the beans in search of the tiny sliver of bacon strategically placed in each can.  Instead with this cassoulet, the fruits of such labour included whole sausage and a duck leg. It was nicely seasoned and did bring back memories of a gold old can of Libby’s.  Once again, the dish was very rich and after a few bites, I threw in my serviette and called it  day. In fact, I didn’t even think about food for a number of hours afterwards despite walking around in the epicentre of culinary temptation.

Dump $15 and cross $26
Quenelles de Brochet $15 and Cassoulet  $26

My Take

Day one in Yountville featured fresh California fare at Redd whereas day 2 was in stark contrast with the rich French food at Bistro Jeanty.  The service at Jeanty was incredible. Despite the use of sauces as thick as the atmosphere of Venus, I wouldn’t call the food astronomical although stellar would still be an adequate description. The V marketplace, specifically Napastyle,  is well worth a visit even if to only indulge on a few olive oil and vinegar samples.  I the end, I envision coming back to Yountville since I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary options in this small town.  There is Redd Wood, Bottaga, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and, of course, the Michelin star mecca which is the French Laundry.  This gives me an idea; I could transport a suitcase of money down to the Napa Valley, dump it on French Laundry’s porch in exchange for dinner and then use it to transport back a arsenal of of olive oil.  I guess that means I’d need to check a bag though.

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Tinder Surprises and Scenes from the Red Wedding while Bymark Hits the Mark

My job allows me to attend a number of group dinners.  I’m often reluctant to write reviews of these experiences since they are a bit artificial and may not apply to somebody  looking to grab dinner for two on a Saturday night.  That said, I imagine smooth execution of a delicious dinner for 100 people would speak highly of the quality of the food and the service.  This was the case during a recent visit to Bymark. I wasn’t involved in planning this dinner so I can’t comment on the price per head as part of this review.

I’m used to standard set menus which offer soup or salad as a starter, fish, chicken or steak as he entree and some dessert which usually includes a cheesecake and something chocolaty.   Bymark’s options blew my mind.  There were five starters that included butter braised lobster poutine, fois gras, yellow fin tuna with yuzu, buffalo mozzerella and mixed greens. I sat staring blankly at the menu as I had to reprogram my brain think outside the soup/salad binary code I’m so used to.  I’ve been in a fish mood lately and I’m quite sure “yuzu” is Japanese for “tasty little bastard”, so I went for the tuna.  It was seared and served beautifully .  I would have liked a bit more of both heat and acid to tear into the richness of the tuna but it was fresh and clean and the pop from the odd ginger crisp was memorable.

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls
Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls

My colleague opted for the lobster poutine.  It was a modest portion served on a circular lobster shell and topped with bernaise sauce.  I think I saw him cry a little bit.  I managed to score a few frites and thought it  was greasy sweetness…literally and figuratively.  I cried a little too.

Butter Braised Lobster Poutine
Butter Braised Lobster Poutine

Another colleague of mine from Quebec stuck to her roots and ordered the fois gras.  As a disclaimer, I am not wacky over fois gras.  I enjoy a think slice of torchon as opposed to a hunk of liver on a plate.  This appetizer was the latter.  Maybe it was the garnish which was a bile-looking sage puree coupled with a bloody looking compote and swimming in a pool chocolate jus. It might have been the fact that the fois gras itself was not served cooked throughout. Either way,  it looked like aftermath of the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones.  Since I am not a savage medieval warrior or Hannibal Lecter, it wasn’t my thing and wouldn’t have been any better even  if there were a few fava beans thrown on the plate.

Fois Gras and Sage Eclair
Fois Gras and Sage Eclair

The selection of entrees were equally as impressive.  There was the choice of steak, lamb, black cod, chicken and vegetable risotto Black cod is one of my favorite fish and I was particularly intrigued with the octopus and crab cakes, so my choice was a no brainer.  To me, the key to good black cod is to achieve the same silky mouthfeel as if  you were eating a pound of butter but without the probable ill-filled aftermath.  Mission accomplished.  The citrus butter balanced the sweetness of the cod and with the help of the coriander crust and subtle broth enhanced it at the same time.  The crab cakes were delightful morsels and the eggplant and  zucchini strands brought some earthiness to the dish.

Coriander Crusted Black Cod
Coriander Crusted Black Cod

For the most part, dessert adhered to the group dinner blueprint in offering chocolate something and cheesecake.  They did, however, offer a delightful selection of cheese (including a killer blue) served with honey, grapes and bread.  It was a nice way to finish the evening.

After Dinner Cheese
After Dinner Cheese

There is something to be said for a restaurant’s ability to execute a large group dinner.  Although it cannot always be compared to the service required for a smaller, more intimate dinner, there is a standard which includes ensuring 100 wine glasses are never empty and that everybody gets their meals within a short window of time.  The service was flawless other than a few hiccups regarding coffee service at the end of the meal.  That said, maybe we scared them off given the fact that our table looked like a bunch of adolescence watching Porky’s for the first time. One of my single colleagues decided to open her tinder app and demonstrate the concept to a bunch of us.  Essentially, you scroll through pictures of people within a defined radius of where you are sitting, squatting, drinking etc.  You either like or dislike them based on a few pictures and whatever witty (or ridiculous) banter they include in their profile.  A yes means if that person also approves of your posted resume, an “It’s a match!” flashes on your screen and the happy couple can be begin a chat which may or may not lead to other things including a walk in the park or a deep discussion about existentialism. A no means great big red letters are stamped over the unsuspecting dude’s picture and the girl can smirk with the satisfaction that she temporarily ended somebody’s hopes and dreams. During the lesson and in the presence of the opposite sex, there were a couple of quick observations I made about this phenomenon called tinder:

1. Guys should not put pictures of cats on their photo roll.  Cat guys seem to be a turn off to women (although I can think of a few guys that really like pus…never mind).

2. Guys should not post pictures of themselves hanging with their buddies, especially if it’s every picture.  There were a few cases where we actually wagered who the actual guy was.  Plus, it may lead one to believe that you either need your buddies in  a picture  look better or you are into threesomes, foursomes or frat parties.

3. Girls and guys differ on the definition of witty and/or funny.  For example, one guy’s status was “My mom says she likes me”. The girls at the table thought that he was clever; the guys thought he was a putz.

4.  Girls want to see the whole package.  Close-ups of a bicep or upper abs along with a shot from distance demonstrating a dude’s love of barbecuing veggie skewers in bad lighting doesn’t work.  It’s  a hook-up app, not a 100 piece puzzle.

5.  I suspect that pseudonyms are acceptable if not encouraged.  Let’s face it…if your name is Marvin or Randy you don’t have a chance.  The brown guys have no problem changing their names to Richard or Jacob (I had an Indian guy beside at dinner who confirmed that Richard was actually his cousin Ashok).  That said, some white guys have figured it out.  Take Roberge for example.  This french prince (whose name is likely Bob) was sleek and suave and would likely want to any girl to roll the “R’ and extend his name to a 3 second ROOOOOBBBEEERRRRRRRRRRGGGGGEEEE!

My Take

As mentioned, I am reluctant to suggest that a good group dinner means that a table for two will have the same experience.  What I can say is that the execution of dinner at Bymark was close to flawless.   Although the fois gras was a bloody mess, the other starters, including the lobster poutine and the seared tuna were delicious.  The entrees were served hot and I heard no complaints (whether it was the steak, fish, lamb or risotto) across our table.  For the most part, the service was prompt and professional.  In the end, I think both the guys and girls agreed  that the pieces of meat served on the plate were much better than those offered on tinder.  Sorry Bob.

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