Review:Toronto:Riverdale/Leslieville:Ruby Watchco

Lynn Crawford is arguably one of the most recognizable Canadian chefs on network TV.  Not only is she is a local icon, consulting for shows like Marylin Denis and  starring in shows like Pitchin’ In and Restaurant Makeover, she has become a household name across the border by tackling Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America  and recently competing  on Top Chef Masters.   I’ll also argue she is a sorceress.

I had the opportunity to meet her and chef Lora Kirk at a food truck fund raiser a while back.  At this point I had been to Ruby Eats, her retail outlet featuring pickles, jams, specialty foods and take out lunches. On the other hand,  I hadn’t yet ventured to Ruby Watchco, her single  menu, set price family style venue  a few doors down on Queen East.  I’d had intentions and I’m not fussy in general (other than tomatoes, olives, goat cheese and lamb) but the latter seemed to the be main course every time I had the chance to go.

Finally, the stars aligned.  I was in town, loved the look of the menu, called and was greeting by a pleasant voice who booked me  a “half eight” reservation (I think old school UK accents are so cool…I suddenly had Ruby Tuesday by the Stones in my head..after all it was a Tuesday and I was going to Ruby).   After verifying with my translator, I confirmed that this indeed meant 830 and I was good to go.

The decor is a mix of modern and rustic.  It’s long and narrow, with a large bar on the left and a semi-open kitchen in the back.  Laura was front and centre and Lynn was buzzing around in the background.  The waitstaff were dressed with a professionalism Charles the Butler would approve of.

Here’s where the sorcery comes in.  Looking at the menu, you think you’re going to get off easy.  I mean, $49 for a 4 course meal orchestrated by one of Canada’s most recognizable chefs seems like a steal.  What you’re not told is the series of temptations that await once you are seated. Take for example, the Red Derby, Ruby’s spin on the Caesar.   I was warned by a friend who was there the week before that  the Caesar was addictive.  It looked innocent enough, served without the bells and whistles such a side of charcuteire or a lobster tail.  It was a straight up Caesar served with Charlie’s pickles (of which I have purchased a few jars in the past and thoroughly enjoyed at home) which hit all the elements of the classic Canadian cocktail. At $14 a pop, I gave in and had a couple over the course of the meal.

Red Derby $14
Red Derby $14

The evening’s menu started with “Barrie Hills Farms’ Watermelon Salad”. It was a slew of everything from feta to prosciutto to radish.  The watermelon was not as abundant as i predicted but  added enough  sweet to balance the diversity of salty and bitter flavours which were abundant in the other ingredients.  The dressing was delicate and catalyzed instead of drowning  the salad’s fresh ingredients.

Watermelon Salad
Watermelon Salad

Temptation two from Lynn’s bag of tricks was Lora’s lobster BLT.  $16 gets you half a sandwich served with cocktail sauce.  Using my primary math skills means a whole sandwich would equate to $32, but it’s lobster! and worth it.  It’s one of the better things I’ve eaten this year.  The bread stayed crisp despite housing a concoction of chunky lobster meat and avocado. The debate was the use of the cocktail sauce.  In one sense I didn’t want to mask the flavour of the lobster.  On the other hand, the tangyness was a great compliment to the sweet sandwich filling.

Laura's BLT ($16)
Lora’s BLT ($16)

The cheddar biscuits were a nice addition to the meal.  Nothing speaks to family dinners  like the smell of freshly baked biscuits and Ruby’s were fluffy and delicious.

Biscuits
Biscuits

With the main course , my head was filled with memories of old  family dinners  which featured overcooked pot roast, lumpy potatoes, soggy greens and carrots which disintegrate with the touch of the fork.  Ruby’s, on the other hand, redefined the meal with an offering of grilled flank steak with sweet hot pepper sauce served with potato salad, charred broccoli and roasted heirloom carrots.  Each component was well executed, the sauces were delicious and the portions were a good size.  Sure, the broccoli could have used a little more char and the carrots an extra minute cooking, but it was a rewarding meal that didn’t need to be salvaged by a ladle full of trio gravy.

Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots
Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots

Damn you goat cheese! I loathe you so! Despite the beautiful presentation, I couldn’t finish it.  I could have easily eaten a bowl of the honey and peaches though. I asked my colleague his thoughts; he enjoyed the cheese and would have even liked more of the peach/honey mix.

Ruby's Cheese Course
Ruby’s Cheese Course

Dessert was a maple pot de creme topped with strawberries.    My biggest problem was the portion size (it was probably adequate but the dessert was so good it just wasn’t enough). I could have eaten three of them. My colleague suggested a sprinkle of salt (or bacon) may have been a nice touch although I think Lynn would have something to say about that.

Maple Pot de Creme
Maple Pot de Creme

Once again,   I succumbed to the wizardly of Lynn and ordered an Americano afterwards.  It wasn’t very good and I was charged $5 (which is one the highest prices I’ve paid for one). It was a bit of a bitter end to the night (primarily because coffee is bitter I suppose).

My Take

Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco employs a concept few chefs could get away with…one menu at one price (but in the words of Mick Jagger.. “Who could hang a name on you? When you change with every new day.”…damn that song is still in my head).  The nightly menu is generally traditional (brick chicken, fish on Fridays etc…)  and may not appeal to everybody on a daily basis, especially those looking for pulled pork tacos or a bowl of ramen.  I will admit the single menu choice has kept me away a few times.  Once there, however, you are thrown into an environment which combines the modernism of Toronto eateries with the tradition of a sit down Sunday dinner (although they are closed on Sundays).

Once again, Lynn Crawford is a sorceress.  Her promise of a $49 dinner gets clouded by a spell of choice cocktails and seductive sandwiches. The next thing you know. the bill inflates to triple digits but you can’t help but leave feeling pretty satisfied.    In addition, you can avoid the pitfalls of a family dinner: there is no need to pretend like your annoying niece is cute or that you care about the cyst on your Aunt’s cat Fluffy’s paw. Ya, it costs a bit more but maybe I can offer to pitch in and shuck some oysters or pick some peaches for a few bucks off.

Ruby Watchco on Urbanspoon

Trying out for Masterchef Canada: My journey for the elusive apron

I decided to test my luck by trying out for the Masterchef open casting a little while back. I watch the US show and often wondered what it would be like to stand face to face with Joe Bastianich and watch his blood boil after I called him a mama’s boy and prepared for a cast iron pan to the side of  the head (or at least a good tongue lashing and that ridiculous stare). I also dreamed of witnessing Graham Elliot piercing a perfectly cooked poached egg yolk  from up close and watch him savour the flavour while staring intently toward the roof as he chewed.  Finally, I wanted to hear Gordon Ramsay up close, referring to everything as the most delicious, freshest  (insert food name here) and explain and maybe demonstrate the appropriate means of cooking such food.

On the other hand, let’s be real. The odds that any of these judges do more than make a guest appearance are astronomical.  Instead, I anticipate Canadian contestants will be dealt one of the half dozen celebrity chefs which grace the airways (that of course depends on whether Bell’s CTV and the  Shaw’s Food Network Canada can play nice in the kitchen).  Might we see the likes of Mark McEwen, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes or Anna Olson?  Or may we see a new crop of judges, possibly chosen with the same rigor and cookie-cutter approach as the contestants themselves.

One option was sending in an application with a video in advance; the other was just showing up, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.  I put my cinematographic hat on and planned to film myself caressing grape leaves in my back yard in my best seductive voice while explaining how to  stuff and serve them. Instead, I ran out of time and just decided to show up on day 2 and roll the die.   I decided on street food, choosing to make my Poppin’ shrimp tacos in hopes of showing my knowledge of food trends coupled with some pretty standard culinary skills (I’m planning to post the recipe to my Veg..Eat..Ales blog shorty). I spent a number of hours refining everything from the taco shells to the corn pop coated shrimp to the sauces which would slathered on top of the finished dish.

I live 2 hours away from the tryouts, so I arranged to stay at a buddy’s place, figuring I could awake at the crack of dawn and compile a winning dish with plenty of time.  The night before I hunted Kensington and Chinatown  for an Ontario grown cabbage and fresh shrimp.  With the mission accomplished, I grabbed a quick bite at Valdez (review later), got back and crashed, setting the alarm for 4 am, giving myself plenty of time to prep in time for the 7am start.

Different shrimp, different pans and a different stove makes for a different product.  I burnt my first four shrimp in seconds. I’m sure I impressed my buddy’s floor mates as I filled his apartment with smoke at 430 am.  I eventually figured it out and produced 4 pretty decent looking shrimp.   I made the tortillas, fried them and stored them in paper towels to keep moist, mixed the jalapeno lime slaw, packed it all into my cooler and walked over to the open casting a few blocks away. The dish had to be served at room temperature many hours later, so I hoped each component would maintain its integrity. I opted for three small tacos as opposed to a single large one in an effort to showcase the three different sauces I prepared as well as the fact that I made my own tortilla shells from scratch.

I arrived at about 635. Once in  line, I received my green wristband marked #43. Shortly after, the line grew longer and I was confident that I would have my turn prior to dusk.  I waited patiently and we were soon greeted by the staff to be happy when the cameras came by.  Some of us were even given signs like “I want to spoon with Gordon” to rouse the cheers.

My assigned wristband
My assigned wristband

Eventually, I was whisked into the hotel and followed a tedious process to get registered, sign my life away and get my mugshot taken.  I went from number 43 on a wristband to H6 on a blue sheet and was sent into a holding room with about 100 others to await my fate. The cast of characters ranged from 18 year old aspiring chefs to a guy who look in his 60’s wearing a blue blazer and red converse shoes.  At first, most of us  held their coolers like they were live organs, unwilling to share any trade secrets (although our food was already prepared)  As we warmed up to each other  (unlike the food which had to be served at room temperature), we started to divulge stories about ourselves and our dishes.  It was surreal. For example, there was:

  • a  stoic, retired RCMP officer who started saying next to nothing, told us countless stories about the police force before, in a authoritative voice, disclosing that  he had made  blueberry lavender butter tarts as his signature dish.
  • A self proclaimed bitchy mom who actually became a bitchy mom when everybody started calling her Krissy.
  • A guy in a lobster shirt who served…..pork tortillas.
  • A woman who, after realizing the wait was going to be a lot longer than she expected, left only to return 10 minutes later with a fully loaded hot dog from a cart outside the hotel which she proceeded to eat in street meat fashion in front of a hundred, cranky and hungry onlookers.

When your group is finally called you enter what  feels  likes a steam room and set up your station. By luck of the draw, I was front and centre in row 1.  Forty-seven other contestants set up in the same way.  The rules were simple.  Once the clock started, you had three minutes to plate.  So, I mixed the slaw, threw down the shells…two minutes… filled them , topped with shrimp and…..one minute remaining began the final garnish.  Before I knew it, the familiar shout of “hands up” filled the room and I was unable to top my tacos with chopped cilantro.  Regardless, I was pleased with the dish and got prepared for the judges. After judging we were allowed to snap pictures although all I had was my low resolution blackberry camera.

Poppin' Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce
Poppin’ Shrimp tacos with cilantro, avocado and chipotle cream sauce

The aforementioned blue sheet had my number on one side and the scoring system on the other. Essentially, contestants are judged on taste, appearance, creativity, food knowledge and quality of ingredients.  In addition, there was room for judges to add comments about personal stories and aspirations of each of the contestants.   The main food judges were the executive producers of Masterchef USA.  Other judges included a number involved in the Canadian production. Since I was at the first table, the judges got to me soon.  She confirmed my use of homemade tortillas, cut my shrimp to check if it was cooked and asked me if I used three different sauces.  I boasted yes, yes and yes.  The second judge asked me about the shrimp and I told her about my corn pop coating. She said it sounded that something David Chang would do.  That comment alone was like scoring a birdie during a shitty round of golf…anything else didn’t matter.

So, after an extensive judging period in which not a single judge tasted anything I made, deliberations began.  It was like waiting for a court decision.  My row speculated that the longer it took, the more likely we were to go through. In the meantime, we wandered around the room and admired each other’s dishes.  There was chocolate ravioli, ceviches, tartares, a whole pork roast with three sauces, gluten free cupcakes, ribs and all sorts of other things. After about 30 minutes, they returned and instructed us to either return to the holding room for further interviews if we made it or take the walk of shame out the front door and back to the mundane life of cooking without fanfare and pressure if we didn’t.

In the end, I was dismissed.  I think the most frustrating part was not having any idea why.  Was it my boring story about cooking in a way that will appeal to my kids? Was it the fact I opted for street food as opposed to something more refined? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the taste because..well….they didn’t taste it.

I’m looking forward to the show which should air in January, hoping I recognize a few of the finalists.  Although I won’t  be one of them, I can tell those around me that I would have made it if my hair was blue , if they actually tasted my food or if I made something more refined (as they smile at you while  thinking in their heads.. “You must have been really bad because I can’t believe that schmuck went further than you did). In the end,  it was a fun experience and I can honesty say there are no sour grapes, although I may use them should I choose to try out next year.  Roasted venison with a sour grape reduction on a bed of quinoa and woodland mushrooms…I like the sound of that.

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Lisa Marie

It seems fitting that Fidel Gastro (aka Matt Basile) would choose to name this pop-up as a tribute to Elvis but call it Lisa Marie instead of something like “The King on Queen” or “Heartbreak Hotel”.    In fact, the only Elvis references in the place are the large wall mural, a ceramic bust (similar to the same one I hung out a window driving up Gordon St. in Guelph after a university bender…that’s another story) behind the bar and an “Elvis is a jar” dessert.

I guess FG is kind of like Lisa Marie in the sense that he has experienced a quiet kind of success as opposed to flamboyant Elvis style exhibited by chefs like Mark McEwan and Lynn Crawford.  There’s a Church of Scientology (Lisa Marie’s old hangout ) underground secrecy about him despite the fact he was featured on a recent CBC documentary. In fact, one could argue he may be as fictional as the war in Wag the Dog or “the Mandarin” in  Ironman 3. That thought was put to rest, however, when I actually met the legend….and I have proof. He took a break from buzzing around the joint to snap a pic.

Proof Fidel Gastro does exist
Proof Fidel Gastro does exist

Lisa Marie has grasped onto the growing trend of small tapas plates seen in some of the nearby joints.  The menu is presented in Cicchetti style, an Italain term for small dishes although many of the dishes have an international fare. Most of the items are snack size and less than $10 each.   You’ll also notice nothing on the menu makes any references to any of the Presleys.

Lisa Marie Menu from Fidel Gastro's  Blog
Lisa Marie Menu

Taken from: http://www.fidelgastro.ca/blog/

After consultation with two separate staff members , both told me to try the deep fried pizza, the pork belly cheese thang, the alabama tailgators and if I wanted something lighter, the fresh tuna puttanesca rolls. As for drinks, after a pint of Wellington I ordered the Getaway car, a Casear-like drink with either tequila, gin or vodka served with a 6 oz chaser of draught beer for $13.  Pretty simple but pretty smart. I opted for gin.  It was simple and delicious in a full pint glass, souped up with lime, spiced nicely with housemade hot sauce, a few green pickled beans and a salt and pepper rim coloured with paprika.

Getaway Car $13
Getaway Car $13

At first I thought the Alabama Tailgaters were going to be Cajan gator tails and not bacon wrapped carpaccio with kimchi and cheddar.  They were delicious, balanced well with the salty bacon, rich beef and acid from the combination of  kimchi and the accompanying housemade pickles. At the same time I ordered the deep fired duck pizza.  I stared a bit perplexed, not sure if if should use a fork or eat it like a taco. The dough was a bit tough and the pizza was a bit hard to navigate, but the duck was moist and flavorful.  It was sweetened slightly with a tasty hoisin sauce.   Both dishes provided great mouthfeel with a subtle bit of crunch in every bite.

Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8
Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8

Round 2 was the second set of the server’s recommendations, this time focusing on the tuna rolls and pork belly cheese thang (I feel so gangsta now).  I will concur, the puttanesca rolls are the lightest thing on the menu..and probably the ONLY light thing on the menu.  They were stuffed with a good amount of tuna and crunchy veggies but I wasn’t a huge fan of the dipping sauce.  If anything, I would hope the sweet would overpower or at least match the sour but I found the vinegar and seasoning to be too predominate and a bit off .  As for the pork belly, if  thang is gangsta for f”ing  delicious, then the description is accurate.  The use of havarti was brilliant as it created a base reminiscent of a queso fundido while remaining pliable enough to be used as a taco shell.  The pork belly and salsa it held were nice partners accented by a subtle amount of sweet and spicy aioli.

Tuna Rolls and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $
Tuna Puttanesca Rolls (2 for $9)and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $5

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pantry.  FG took advantage of the deli case left behind by the previous tenants  to peddle some of his wares including prepared meats and bacon jam.  In addition, there are shelves of pickles vegetables, sloppy joes mixes, hot sauces etc for purchase.  Most jars are priced around $8 and allow one to bring home  a souvenir of the visit to Queen St.’s version of Graceland.

My Take

The food is innovative and well executed. The tuna, pork , beef and duck were all prepared in expert fashion.  The pork belly cheese thang was a Gangsta’s paradise.  The getaway car concept was simple but brilliant. It was pretty easy to fill up and have a couple of drinks for around $50. The service was top notch as well.

Having existed for about 5 weeks, there are still some growing pains.  There’s no website  (although a menu is hidden within the blog tab on the FG website) and they still haven’t figured out if they want to expand to daily late night offerings in a fashion similar to the nearby Odd Seoul, 416 snack bar and Bar Isabel.  Case and point…The dessert menu was on the other side of the bar and wasn’t printed on the menu, so I didn’t realize it existed.  I asked for an Elvis in a jar (the only menu item making reference to the king) but the kitchen had already closed around 11pm on a Thursday night. A mild inconvenience I suppose. Trust me, I’ll be back.

Otherwise, the blueprint of Lisa Marie allows for the creative license demonstrated  by the Fidel Gastro catering and food truck endevours.  This same creativity has been expanded to an impressive pantry and cocktail list. The early menu features no distinct style of fare but this shouldn’t be mistaken as synonymous to the Fat vs Skinny Elvis identity crisis (although the frequent use of the deep fryer may suggest the former). There’s a direction among  the madness and other dishes I still want to try.  Like Lisa Marie at the time of her father’s death, this place has some growing up to do but should mature into a successful franchise without the need to marry Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon