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.

Bymark 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

Second Harvest: Good Food for a Good Cause

I had the fortune of being in the vicinity of Yonge-Dundas square yesterday and headed over for the lunch money days campaign which was held in support of Second Harvest, an organization committed to reducing food waste while improving the food security of hundreds if not thousands of people living in Toronto.

Second Harvest (http://secondharvest.ca/) works closely with food retailers, hotels and restaurants to redistribute food to those in need.  Unlike food banks, they focus on perishables such as fruits, vegetables, meat and cheeses. These foods are often discarded by institutions for a variety of reasons. This has always been a particular issue for me, both as a past food service employee and a dietitian.  Furthermore, perishables  are difficult to attain for many on a restrictive budget, especially in the winter due to cost and transportation issues,  and are often the first omitted in efforts to control household spending.

Today’s event invited 15 or so vendors who volunteered their time and food to raise money for this worthy cause.  Famed Toronto chef Mark McEwan was on hand to promote this event which I understand is near and dear to his heart.  I spoke with him for a few minutes and found him to be a humble and inspiring individual….and he let me take a picture.

.Second Harvest advocate Mark McEwan

Second Harvest advocate Mark McEwan

Caplansky’s Deli

This Toronto icon was serving some of its favorites including the smoked meat sandwich with a pickle which I topped with some great hot mustard.  The meat was tender and the bread was fresh. It was a traditional and classic few bites.

The maple and beef-bacon donuts were a sweet finish to the small meal.  It had old school texture and was the size of an overgrown timbit.  The bacon added a wee bit of salt and texture.

http://www.caplanskys.com/

Caplansky's Smoked Meat Sandwich with Maple Beef-Bacon Donuts
Caplansky’s Smoked Meat Sandwich with Maple Beef-Bacon Donuts

Ese

This mysterious  pop-up was present at the event as well, offering a hot chicken masa ball soup brilliantly topped with chicharron (dried chicken skin).  The sight of the clear broth steaming from Le Creuset was music to all my senses, offering relief from the nasty February elements.

(http://www.esesuavecito.ca/)

Rock Lobster

Once again, RL as solid as rock, putting up a tasty lobster  bisque and a lobster roll for tasting.  Both were as delicious as their offerings at their Ossington location.  They did tease me with a copy of their drink menu which left me longing for another taste of their Iginla Fizz..or maybe a lobster tail Caesar.

http://rocklobsterfood.com/

Rock Lobster Bisque and Roll
Rock Lobster Bisque and Roll

Sullivan and Bleeker

Bite size cupcakes in four flavors graced the Sullivan and Bleeker tent.  I opted for the smore and red velvet options although the oreo and cookie dough choices were equally as appealing.

http://sullivanandbleeker.com/

Sullivan and Bleeker Cupcakes
Sullivan and Bleeker Cupcakes

My Take

The lunch money days campaign is a win-win-win-win etc.  Great local eateries peddle their wares and fares to new and interested diners.  These diners get to experience a mish-mash of creativity in bite-size portions.  Most important, second harvest gets  much needed exposure and a financial boost to carry on with their important cause.