New Orleans Day 5: Bams! Bloo Bloos and A Tale of Two Diners without Having Flashing My Man Boobs.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo bloo.  Remembering anything after the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, the famous Dickens novel, reminds me of Dr. Evil trying to remember the lyrics to  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”.

My last few days in New Orleans still involved a few mandatory pit stops.  From a celebrity chef perspective, I still hadn’t travelled down the road to Emeril’s and I still had a few DDD to conquer to meet my predefined quota of 6 for the trip. I also wanted to swing by the Sazarac bar in the Famous Roosevelt hotel for the namesake cocktail.

Honestly, I didn’t have Emeril’s on my mandatory list but I certainly didn’t turn down the chance when I got invited to lunch.  I figured it would be best to sample a bit of classic Cajun cuisine with a bit of  fancy in the form of soup and salad (more specifically gumbo and lobster salad).  The dishes couldn’t have been different.  The gumbo was rich and thick and full of regional flavours and flare. The salad was crisp and refreshing.  I was pleasantly surprised by both and quickly forgot the annoying Bams! that made me angry for years before.  I did, however, read that the Bams! were a way to keep his staff awake.  While filming his show, we would do at least half a dozen  back to back in only a few hours and needed to scare his staff into staying attentive. The service was above average..for New Orleans anyway.

Emeril's New Orleans Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

After the conference sessions of the day were over, I became an aristocrat for 45 minutes and sipped a sazarac in the bar at the historic Roosevelt hotel.  Once a cognac based drink (in fact it still can be), since the 1870’s it has been more commonly served with rye whisky due to the fact the phylloxera epidemic in Europe devastated the vineyards of France and made cognac an endangered species.  Foodies probably also appreciate the fact that the sazarac starts with a herbsaint rinse.  Herbsaint is a locally produced anise-flavoured liquor which replaced absinthe when it was banned in the early 19th century due to its potential hallucinogenic properties.  The substitution may also be one of the first documented examples of locavorism. God bless America.

roosevelt-sazarac
Sazarac

For dinner I hit the French quarter to try the old coffeepot restaurant which could be the oldest restaurants on the illustrious and lengthy diner drive-in and dive list.  Established in the 1894, it didn’t take me long to realize that it likely still served some of the original patrons in 2016.  The decor was a cross between a museum and nursing home cafeteria.  Keeping in mind it was a Monday night, I didn’t think it would be packed but the huge space had only two occupied tables which soon became one when the one couple got tired of waiting for the rather apathetic waiter to make his rounds.  One thing I did appreciate was the Triple D combo, which allowed me to sample everything Guy had on the show in one dish. Although I knew this was going to be my order, I asked the waiter what he recommended and he nonchalantly told me he hasn’t tried anything on the menu. The danger with a preset Triple D menu that it usually allows the restaurant to inflate the price for the convenience and this was no exception.  Twenty-five bucks got me  jambalaya, green bean casserole, and fleur de lis chicken (with crab meat stuffing and topped with gulf shrimp) slopped onto a plate and garnished with a bit of parsley and paprika. It wasn’t the worse thing I have ever eaten but it seemed to be reheated as opposed to made to order.

coffee-pot-triple-d
Old Coffee Pot Triple D combo $25

As far as Triple Ds go, this one is among my least favorites.  I guess the Old Coffee pot restaurant is a bit synonymous with a good part of the French Quarter; tired and touristy.  The decor is desperate to reminisce on the glory days of the big easy and  the laissez-faire attitude of the staff  tainted the experience further. Finish it off with average food and I’m afraid the pot’s coffee left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Food- 2.5/5 Guyz

Decor- 3/5 Guyz

Vibe-2/5 Guyz

Total: 7.5/15 Guyz

The Old Coffeepot Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I could have called it a night at this point but I had an ashtray I had to get rid of. I’m a sucker for a good gimmick and the Rivershack Tavern in Jefferson was right up my alley.  It’s tag line is “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”.  Essentially, if you bring in an ugly ashtray you get a free drink. In the past, I figure I’ve had to work a lot harder for a complementary beverage so I dropped by my local Value Village on my way to Detroit to find the perfect  mantelpiece for a bar 1645 km away.  After perusing through the shelves of donated knick-knacks, I laid my eyes on the prize…a rather ugly homemade chunk of ceramic which faintly resembled an ashtray.

A colleague and myself grabbed an uber and took the rather long drive out of New Orleans to the suburb of Jefferson.  We were quite entertained by the driver who told us story after story about her trails and tribulations about being a female driver in New Orleans while complaining about  the slew of WWE fans who poured into the streets outside the Superdome after the end of Monday Night Raw.

It was quite late when we arrived so it was far from busy but we were greeted by a friendly bartender.  We pulled up to the bar and sat on another of the bar’s gimmicks; the Bar Legs stools.  These homemade works of art have been part of the Rivershack’s decor since 1992.

Luckily, the kitchen was still open and offered bar food and burgers.  We ordered mushrooms and onion rings ($6.75 each) and a burger with jack cheese for $9.75 which were the perfect accompaniments to my free pint.  The food was far from gourmet (I did find it odd that the cheese on the burger wasn’t melted) but the batter on the snacks was seasoned nicely and the price was right for what you got.  While sitting on somebody else’s legs, I imagined if I lived in the area I would use my own legs to stroll down the road and catch a band at this rural eatery on a regular basis.

Although my visit was a little artificial given it was late on a Monday night, I did like the waiter and the gimmicks at the Rivershack.  The food was decent as well.  Plus, I can’t help feeling oddly proud about the fact that a little ceramic ashtray which was destined to collect dust on a Value Village knick-knack shelf in London is now permanently enshrined in the “Home of the Tacky Ashtray”.  It almost brings a tear to my eye.

Food-3.5/5 Guyz

Service-4/5 Guyz

Vibe-4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/15 Guyz

Rivershack Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My Take

My last day in New Orleans was a food network extravaganza highlighted by lunch at one of the pioneers of celebrity chefdom’s establishments  and visits to two very polar Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  It did remind me a bit of a Tale of Two Cities but instead of peasantry vs aristocracy ( I feel I experienced both in 12 hours), my tale is one which parallels the tired tourism of New Orleans with a shack on a rural road where one can come and hang with the locals, ashtray in hand, and get a free beer without having to expose his man boobs as a consequence.

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Hello, Why Alo is the Adele of Toronto’s Dining Scene.

Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene.  In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice  reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015.  I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.

A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub).  For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27.  “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.

I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is.  She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones)  from  Shameless.  Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit).   That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).

I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single.  In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and  compared to other entertainment-heavy  metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York,  and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.

Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose.  Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.

Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs  Boxing Day 1985.

10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)

Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face.   The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.

I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.

9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)

A short elevator ride up a few floors  opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails.  A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow.  Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced.   Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.

I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present.  I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle.  Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.

8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)

As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic  sipping cocktail.  They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick  with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)

Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a  standard menu for everybody  or only an option  for the main protein.  They even set the stage for such free will  (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by  offering a choice of a blue or white napkin .  It was rather odd but memorable.

6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)

There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:

  •  Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated  couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of  the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour  little light on the citrus.
  • In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course.  It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a  sinful cousin of a croissant.
  • When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist.  I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
  • I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so.  Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold.  A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
  • In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.

5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)

Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize  by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork.  There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone.  If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them.  For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.

4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)

I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver.  I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

3.  Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)

There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15).  In the name of adventure we agreed.  The featured fromage  was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers.  We ordered  two plates was plenty for the four of us.  Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate.  We joked that, being the token Caucasian  at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate.  I went dark.  Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese,  we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead.  It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me.  Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good.  Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan.  The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.

2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)

When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head.  The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after.  The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.

1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)

Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one.  In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA.  The flow of the meal was spot on.  Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained  the components of each dish with great precision.   The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.

My Take  

Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service.  Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience.  The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.

In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album.  Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening.  You feel the experience  instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment   filled with  countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of  American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.

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

A Tale of Two Steakhouses: La Castile vs Jacobs and Co…What the Dickens!

It was the best of prime, it was the worst of prime…. it was aged and toothsome, it was aged and scrumptious….

Ok..that is an atrocious parody of one of the most recognizable paragraphs in the history of British literature but it may be the closest I will ever get to literary beauty of Charles Dickens.  I read an interesting blog post from Tori Avey, who did a beautiful job summarizing the attention to detail that Dickens penned in many of his famous works, especially when it came to his description of scenes in which food and drink were the central theme.

http://toriavey.com/history-kitchen/2012/12/charles-dickens-food-and-drink/

The steakhouse has a long tradition in dining folklore.  Although a steak is a ubiquitous item on restaurant menus,  making it the focal point of an eatery has a history as old as Dickens himself. Traditionally, there are number of key and consistent characteristics which make a steakhouse what it is:

  1. Mandatory dim lights and oversized tables, presumably to create a more relaxing environment and help with ugly dates.  In all seriousness, an interesting study was done by Cornell university in 2012 that demonstrated that dim lighting, white table cloths and soft music resulted in patrons ordering  just as much, rating the food higher, eating less and taking longer to finish which could mean more booze.. which can also help with the ugly date.
  2. A staff trained to remind you everytime…like a stewardess showing you how to buckle a seatbelt, when you order a steak that medium rare is bright pink in middle…every time.
  3. A menu which includes sleepy items for those who go to a steakhouse and don’t order steak.  This usually means chicken, some kind of fish and a token meatless dish in event a hapless vegetarian is in the mix.
  4. A steak menu which typically doesn’t include anything with the steak (except maybe one of those roasted tomatoes with the bread crumbs on top).
  5. Sides which include asparagus, mushrooms, creamed spinach and if you’re lucky…brussel sprouts.
  6. A place where shrimp cocktails and wedge salads never go out of style.

Despite this blueprint, there exists a huge spectrum ranging from old school to modern. In the last month I have gone to two steakhouses which represent both ends of the gamut.  On one side is La Castile, the Mississauga landmark which describes itself as “the place to see..the place to be seen”. Toronto’s Jacobs on the other hand, is probably actually the place to see…the place to be seen.   Let’s review:

The Website

When you go to the La Castile website, you will be serenaded by “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller while watching a slide show highlighting every nook and cranny of the large and twisted mansion.  Jacobs on the other hand, offers a silent review of its modernized menu without the need for background music from 1940.

The Piano Bar

Both have a piano bar tab.  La Castile offers  plush red velvet, dimly lit chandeliers, private alcoves and stained glass windows.  This creates a mystical ambiance offering live music from Wednesday to Saturday complemented by rumours of the odd Russian “escort”. Jacobs, on the other hand,   simply lists the Tuesday to Saturday lineup on the website and adhere to a bring your own escort policy.

The Decor 

La Castile is quite easy to find.  Located along Dundas St East near the 427, the best instruction is to “follow the light” as it next to impossible to miss the flames shooting out of the brick structure surrounding the restaurant.   Parking is abundant.  Jacobs, on the other hand, is in downtown Toronto on Brant Street right off of King. It’s grey, boxy exterior is rather subtle which is a sharp contrast to the fireworks of its suburban counterpart. Parking is scarce although you could opt for $20 valet parking if you don’t want the hassle.

La Castile has the classic steakhouse setup.  Walking in, you’re not sure whether or not you are at church, a funeral home or a museum.  Dated carpets, stained glass and plush chairs let people experience what first class in the Titanic would feel like.   A dress code is in effect of course which probably includes chain mail armour since I would not have been a bit surprised if I was seated at a table next to Peter Dinklage and served wine in a metal goblet.  Jacobs is a lot sleeker, abandoning the white table clothes  in lieu of bare modern wood tables and sleek chairs which omit the royal red plush.  The concept is much more open and much less distracting.  As the dress code, they don’t have to announce it…people just know.

The Service

La Castile opened in 1968 and I would be very surprised if the staff weren’t exactly the same as back then.  Of course,  they have aged since Woodstock but can now easily be referred to as grumpy old men in tuxedos instead of grumpy young ones.  Jacobs, on the other hand, has a much younger staff who, instead of looking like they are in a wedding party.  are dressed a bit more casually but still quite chic. They were far less grumpy as well.

The Food 

Steakhouses are like brunch; there is a unwritten permission to elevate prices slightly to much higher than the norm. This is somewhat the case with La Castile but the ceiling is somewhat limited by its stingy suburban patrons and the fact that most of the regular clientele still think it’s the 1970s.  Jacobs, on the other hand, takes advantage of its urban locale to price things in the stratosphere.  Twenty dollar Caesar salads and fifteen dollar sides surround steaks that are often $100 and can hit $700 if you want the really good stuff.

La Castile welcomes you with a sectioned silver tray filled with feta, dills and olives (and lots of water poured by Mr. Chucklelopolous to wash down the accompanying sodium).

La Castille Pickles
La Castille Pickles

At La Castile, I had to go for the french onion soup ($9) which fittingly came in a fitting medieval metal goblet/urn atop the same doily I used to slap on side plates when I worked in the restaurant industry in the late 80’s and early 90s.  There was no shortage of cheese and the broth was thick with onions.  All in all, it wasn’t bad but after the pickles and the soup, I was desperately searching for a diuretic which I was confident  one of the many waiters would have had in their pockets along with a nitro pill and maybe a Cialis.

La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)
La Castille French Onion Soup ($8)

For the main, I resisted the urge to insist to share the Chateaubriand with my table mates and  instead opted for the peppercorn steak, which was “deliciously sharp and served with wine sauce”.  Now, I’m unclear as to the sharpness but it was nicely seasoned and cooked a tad above a  proper medium rare but as a bonus also served with a California mix of vegetables also reminiscent on my 1980’s doily days.

La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44
La Castille Peppercorn Steak $44

Jacobs, on the other hand, started with their famous complimentary popovers, which are a mild twist on the classic yorkshire pudding (and set the stage for the general theme of a steakhouse with a modern twist). They hardly needed the butter given the fact they had a really rich flavour.

Now, I missed the table side assembly of the $19 caesar salad (I was a bit late getting to dinner) but it was waiting when I got there.  I’m missing the picture but I assure you it looked, smelled and tasted like a caesar salad.  I will go as far as saying it was one of the best one I’ve had in a long while.  The double smoked bacon was thick and delicious and the dressing was heavy with garlic.

The steaks are about quality, not quantity (not to mention the fact most are triple digits in price) so the table shared a local Ontario 12 oz Ribeye ($60) and an 18oz Nebraska bone-in striploin ($81) complemented with sides which included brussel sprouts and walnuts, duck fat fries, mushrooms and sauteed rapini (~$15 each). Upon request, they will slice the steak for you to avoid butchery or fights at the table. I failed to get a picture since there was a mad rush once the steak was placed on the table.   I did, however, snap the cornucopia once it was on the plate. The steak was cooked perfectly and was exceptional in flavour.  The sides were well prepared as well but I would hope so for the staggering price.

Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries
Two types of Jacobs steak and sides including mushrooms, rapini and duck fat fries

Even the offerings at the end of the meal  are indicative of the differences between the two restaurants.  While Jacobs brings a small plate of after dinner confections (cookies and chocolates) as well as a sinfully delicious packaged muffin for later to the table, La Castile sets a bowl of jelly beans (reminiscent of the ones I used to beg for out of the vending machine at a grocery store when I was 6 years old) by the door so one can grab a spoonful on the way out.

My Take

Although steakhouses across the board share numerous similarities, I think La Castile and Jacobs represent both ends of the spectrum.  La Castile comes in with a “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality even though nothing has been fixed since 1968.  Whereas some may call the decor nostalgic (of medieval times perhaps), I call it tired but I suppose it works well for suburban johns with a fetish for Eastern Europeans.  Jacobs, on the other hand, focuses on aged steaks as opposed to aged decor, offering sleek surroundings in the heart of downtown Toronto and a  variety of special occasions steaks that fall well outside a lot of standard dinner budgets.

In the end, any steak house across the board including the many chains including  the Keg, Ruth’s Chris, Hy’s, Chop  etc, will follow a similar blueprint and inevitably cost you a small fortune.  That said, if you want to experience the extremes of this cuisine,  I think La Castile and Jacobs represent opposite ends of the spectrum whether it be urban vs. suburban, modern vs. traditional or a desire  to hobnob with the cool kids vs cosplaying  as Robb Stark in the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones. Something tells me if Dickens wrote “A Storm of Swords” instead of George R.R. Martin, then the description of the butchery of the meal would have been much more detailed than that of King Robb Stark and his ill-fated army.

Jacob's and Co. Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Castile Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

A Blind Date with THR & Co…Harbord Room’s Little Sister

Ever since I went to Harbord room, I’ve been interested in trying THR & Co, their sister restaurant. Eating out can be like a blind date. Sometimes, all you  had to go on is a picture of the menu and an online testimony or two.   I  showed up early given I was on another dinner mission  in an attempt to avoid outgoing Toronto traffic.  As a result of this, I was offered  a seat on the comfy side of the bar (there are four or 5 padded stools instead of the regular ones which graced the remaining perimeter.  One of the first surprises was the limited bar menu.  My tainted recollection of Harbord Room (which involved a few drinks with the Food Network’s Kevin Brauch) was an innovative and expansive cocktail menu so I was a little surprised to see a limited selection here.  In fact, another gentleman came in and ordered an amaretto and after a 5 minute search concluded they didn’t have any. Of the four, yes four cocktails, I ordered The Pisco Sour (pisco, pear, egg white, ginger and sage syrup and fresh lemon).  She was certainly playful but was anything but sour. In the end, I was impartial.  She was neither naughty or nice.

Cocktail $13
Pisco Sour $13

For the appetizer, I went with the compressed carrot salad for $13.  She was one of the prettier salads I’ve been served. The  had carrots which were roasted, pickled and cut into attractive ribbons. The apple vinaigrette was subtle but appropriate.  The sunflower granola was less appealing and a little abundant.  All in all, she looked better than she tasted (hmm…that sounds wrong)  but was a very acceptable starter.

Compressed Carrot Salad $13
Compressed Carrot Salad $13

For the main I ordered the Oxtail Bucatini for $21. Wow, she had really small…..pasta.  I recently complained about the price of the pasta at SPQR in San Francisco but that was a value compared to this portion.  Although the pasta itself was delicious and nicely cooked the oxtail was scarce and there was no unity in the sauce.  Instead of a marriage of  flavours, it was more  like a breakup.

Bucatoni with Oxtail Ragu
Bucatini with Oxtail Ragu $21

For a side, I ordered marinated mushrooms which was served with pickled onions, fresh bay and salsa verde.  I enjoyed this dish. Although a little greasy, the unlikely combination of ingredients really worked. I was surprised by the potpourri of mushrooms which  filled the bowl. She would have been a perfect match with the rib eye steak on the menu.

Marinated Mushrooms $7
Marinated Mushrooms $7

None of the desserts appealed to me so I juts decided to end the date and get the hell home.

My Take

Harbord room is like a hot date. It has one the best burgers in Toronto and an extravagant bar menu.  On the other hand, THR & Co is luke warm. I was a little disappointed by the small (although firm) pasta and rather dismal cocktail list.  The carrot salad was stunning and almost as delicious. The pasta was saved somewhat by a nice side of marinated mushrooms.  If Harbord Room and THR & Co are in fact sisters, the latter is the one that probably doesn’t get a date.  She has a really nice salad though.

THR & Co. on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Little Italy/Portugal Village:The Guild

Guild is a cool and near forgotten word in the English language. It was once a medieval term used  to describe a a pseudo-union of artisan specialists who unified to protect their trade. Secrecy was a prominent component  necessary to protect things like unique trade secrets.  Since then, the word has become a bit dormant. Today, we do see it used in Hollywood. The Screen Actor’s Guild, a group formed in the 1930s to combat deplorable working conditions in the film industry and  has now evolved to over 105000 thousand numbers when it merged to form SAG-AFTRA a few years back. The modern quilt guild (MQG)  is another organization which uses this term. With over 150 worldwide chapters devoted  to the art of making quilts, it appears to be a bit more than it seems.  A  quick check of their blog (http://themodernquiltguild.wordpress.com/) shows members sporting bad ass tattoos and racy pictures from the Quiltcon conference’s 80’s night. It  makes you think they might do more than make pretty blankets. Needless to say, I was intrigued when a somewhat secretive restaurant aptly named “The Guild” opened its doors recent in the Dundas/Davenport area. I guess my question was “Would this eatery be like every other trendy restaurant or might it have some unique attributes like cool menu items you could only consume  if you executed a secret handshake that you learned  from a MQG creation? Let’s start with the set.  It’s a large space with a window front which opens to the street and an open kitchen in the back.  There are centrepieces on the solid wood tables, funky hippie murals painted on the walls and shiny gold ceilings. Think of it as Casino Royale  meets Austin Power’s shag pad.  There is a large bar stocking all sorts of sinful potables. There is an abundant drink list with everything from the standards (eg. old-fashioned) to funkier choices (e.g. cider sours) to non-alcoholic shakes made from almond milk. The cider sour was a special drink they made for a private function the week before and it stayed on the secret menu.  It was tasty although I would have liked it a little more sour.  The shake was refreshing as well; a good example of a grown-up non-alcoholic cocktail other than a virgin daiquiri.

Cider Sour and Chocolate Mint Almond MIlk Shake
Cider Sour and Chocolate Mint Almond Milk Shake

The staff seem to be made up of SAG actors themselves,  sporting nice coifs and good looks.  They knew their lines as well, reciting the menu with expertise and confidence. In fact, my waiter looked like Zachary Quinto.  Even the kitchen staff look the part, wearing mechanic uniforms in the garage-like open kitchen and moving fluidly while adding pinches of salt during food preparation. There is a bit of secrecy around the menu.  The website posts a sample menu but it changes frequently given the availability of local ingredients. The bits and bites menu is like a series of movie trailers.  It offers a morsel of entertainment instead of a whole dish  for just a couple of bucks. guild menu bits I opted for a trailer trio; the white cheddar croquette, the guanciale wrapped cherries and rabbit haunches (a secret menu item available to members of the guild).  The cherry was a delectable little treat and the croquette was ok. The rabbit, which I equate to a dark meat version of a chicken wing, was spiced nicely and cooked well.

Bits and Bites $2
Bits and Bites $2

With the trailers consumed, it was time for feature presentation: guild menu main . The beet salad was kind of like Scream 5… pretty predictable.  Despite the use of the trendy sous vide cooking method , it was a nicely dressed but still a standard salad.

Beet Salad $7
Beet Salad $7

The local mushrooms, pine nut puree and egg emulsion was like a remake of a classic flick. It was a twist on a classic mushroom omelette except it was deconstructed so that the mushroom was the prominent ingredient. It was a pleasant starter as it strongly resembled  the taste of the original it was based on.

Local mushrooms, pine put puree and egg emulsion-$9
Local mushrooms, pine put puree and egg emulsion-$9

Unfortunately, the octopus was sold out (kind of like trying to get a ticket for a marvel comic film on opening night), so I opted for the quail and scallop dish.  It was a tale of two proteins.  The scallops were cooked wonderfully and seasoned well.  The quail, on the other hand, was overcooked and rather dry. I’d equate it to seeing a movie with a great and no so great actor (eg. any Lethal Weapon, Good Will Hunting  or Rush Hour).

Quail and Scallops $19
Quail and Scallops $19

I’m always intrigued as to whether or not a place with a small menu can accommodate various food requirements including vegetarian options.  In this case, a “not on the menu” gnocchi with a tomato sauce was the offering.  Like the beet salad, it was fairly routine and fairly predictable but tasty nonetheless.

Not on the menu gnocchi $16
Not on the menu gnocchi $16

The dessert menu offers a half dozen reasonable priced options.  I opted for the bruleed fennel, rum kumquat ice cream and coffee panna cotta.  I expected the brulee to be a fennel flavored custard, but instead it was a knife and fork requiring  caramelized piece of fennel . The apple and chocolate accompaniments were perfect although the kumquat was a bit odd.  The oddity of the kumquat continued in its matching with the rum in the main flavouring of the ice cream which in itself had  a great texture. The coffee panna cotta had an intense, almost overwhelming flavour that was somewhat offset by the condensed milk  ice cream.  The hazelnut crumble was pretty chewy and a bit too sticky, making for difficult eating from a dental perspective.

Bruleed Fennel $6
Bruleed Fennel $6
Rum Kumquat Ice Cream $3
Rum Kumquat Ice Cream $3
Coffee Panna Cotta $6
Coffee Panna Cotta $6

My Take The Guild follows most of the rules, but offers some uniqueness in the bits and bites and relatively inexpensive dessert menu.  There is a good, diverse cocktail menu and the decor is funky and current.  In general, the food is predictable and gets one thumb up and one thumb down. It’s still early in production, but I can see the potential of this place.  Fixing the simple problems, removing their infatuation of kumquats and promoting their uniqueness will no doubt make me a guild member moving forward. Speaking of guilds…I think I’ll approach SAG with an idea.  I’m going to propose a spinoff called “Daughters of Anarchy” starring Charlize Theron.  The premise is that the MQG is no doubt a secret organization with the intention of sending messages on behalf of  the Illuminati via the fabrication of Hello Kitty and Holly Hobbie  quilts.  In episode one, Toronto calls on the Cleveland MQG chapter to complete the patch over of rival quilters the Sassy Scarborough Stitchers, lead by Mabel MacKinnon (played by Betty White). After succeeding, the group is on “pins and needles” and must devise a “cover-up” to stay out of the limelight. Then again, maybe I’ll just stick to stuffing my face and blogging about it. The Guild on Urbanspoon