Boralia: Helping Hipsters Forage and Making Canadian History More Exciting Since Circa 2014

Among the many things I remember about my childhood growing up in Sudbury include these three: I was a forager before foraging was cool, I found Canadian history extremely boring and I love pierogies.  From a foraging perspective, I used to make money as a teen tackling the hills of the Canadian Shield and picking blueberries as a young member of my grandmother’s berry cartel, supplying her red hat friends with bad hips with enough substrate to produce jam for the long, cold, northern winters….at a premium price. Second, I’ve always been a science guy and despite my rather trivial mind, I’m not typically a fan of history. I typically scurry around a trivial pursuit board avoiding the yellow pie at all costs.  I’ll get back to the pierogies.

In 2014, Boralia opened along the Ossington strip (well it was called Borealia at the time because I guess one couldn’t avoid lawyers even in the 1600s) promising to pay homage to the new trend of classic Canadian fare.  Hipsters, many of which couldn’t put a tent together let alone provide a synonym for a gooseberry, are flocking here in numbers not to mention that Chris Nutall-Smith listed it as one the top 10 Toronto restaurants in 2015.  Since it was my turn to pick a restaurant for a few colleagues, I thought it was a good call.

The menu is meant to be a bit of a history lesson fused with modern day food trends.  For example, two of the snacks (the Deviled Chinese Tea eggs ($9 for 4) and Chop Suey Croquettes($7.50 for 4) are inspired by the mass Chinese immigration of the 1860s.  As mentioned, I’m no historian, but I can’t imagine groups getting together in Vancouver and having potlucks while passing around deviled eggs. Nonetheless, they were decent starters although nothing that stood out anything more than a good Chinese side dish made fresh at a food court in Sault Ste. Marie or my Gramma’s eggs sprinkled with paprika at Thanksgiving dinner did…and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The main menu features a number of less orthodox proteins which requires some imagination although there are some safer choices for those who don’t want to recreate 200 year old Canadiana.  After some negotiation and hints from past patrons we knew (and a bit to my chagrin), we avoided the whelk, elk and pigeon and agreed on the l’éclade (mussels) $17, mushroom salad $14, bison tartare $15 and sweetbreads $15. The mussels, smoked with pine, was a reflection of the early 1600s.  Served in a clear dome with spiraling smoke, the mussels were delicately done to perfection. It’s so hard not to overcook these fussy mollusks and these were a huge success. The mushroom salad looked like a wreath of earthy colours and the hazelnut corn cake hidden in the foliage was simply addictive.  The bison tartare was a twist on the now ubiquitous modern day classic.  Instead of traditional pickles, punchy heat and an egg as a binder, this tartare utilized garlic and ginger , pickled fennel and lardo to add some fat to the otherwise lean bison.  The grilled bread was a delicious vehicle. The sweetbreads (circa 1876) made sense from the perspective of a nose to tail concept which was necessary during pre-war times  as opposed to cool in the modern era of excess wastage that we are now accustomed to.  Even if it’s not a traditional 19th century recipe (it very well may be), the sweetbreads were extremely tendered and seasoned nicely.

After a few drinks down but with some realization we wouldn’t shut the city down, we decided to indulge in the closest thing we could find to street meat…the bane of the spelling bee…the famous pierogi.  Whether you pick up a frozen bag for a few bucks, have a church nearby or are lucky enough to have an Eastern European family member, these delicious dumplings are the ultimate comfort food. In the case of Boralia, they had some foodie flare in that they were served on a bed of red cabbage. They were good dumplings but 3 for $13 was certainly not a price from the 1800s.

boralia pierogy

Dessert was a homey pumpkin cake with corn ice cream and probably the most recognizable  and predictable Canadian dish on the menu.  It was good but not remarkable.

boralia dessert
Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Corn Ice Cream $9

My Take

The thought of foraging can take on many meanings. Traditionally, it means to live off the land.  For some, it means erecting an urban garden in a few square feet of back yard or in a flower box on a balcony. Others may perceive it as a trip to the urban Sobey’s  across the street to to buy a few kumquats. Regardless, the concept is alive and well and has trickled into Toronto’s restaurant scene.

At the same time, Canadian food has become synonymous with living on the land.  This countries vast landscapes and diverse climates makes it a cornucopia of all things land and sea.  At the same time, as Canada’s rich multicultural history continues to evolve so does its food to the point where eatables like pierogies are now considered as patriotic as maple syrup.  Put the two concepts together and anything goes. In fact, Parks Canada devotes a component of its website with an app called the Parks Canada Heritage Gourmet App which pays homage to traditional Canadian recipes.

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/media/gourmand-gourmet/app-intro.aspx

In the end, hipsters can live vicariously as foragers through the Boralia menu. As for me, I may have payed more attention in history class in high school if it hinged on my understanding of the influence of various cultures on what we call Canadian cuisine today.

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

The Coast is not Clear: The Case of the Gluten Containing Eel and the Undercooked Scallop

After a trip to the Vancouver aquarium as part of a team building activity (even though only three of us went), we went to look for a quick bite knowing the evening fare at the meeting would be less than appealing.  It was an abnormally warm May day, so we wanted a patio,a drink and some decent food.

Coast is part of the Glowbal group conglomerate which owns a number of popular Vancouver restaurants. Having previously dined at Black + Blue and the Fish Shack with reasonable success, it sounds like a good idea, especially with the advertised cocktail menu and half price appetizers.  After making the uphill trek to Alberni Street, we were able to secure a table on the front patio. The three of us were wearing casual team-building clothes (ie. yoga pants and shorts). We were hardly dressed for the occasion, especially in the midst of the attire of the waitstaff and  numerous suits coming in but we were quickly comfortable in our outdoor seats.

Both my colleagues have what I consider excellent palates and both do not consume gluten.  One of them has also never tried nigiri, so we took the opportunity to run an experiment with the small list on the menu. My thought was to hit her with the ebi thinking it would best to start her off with something cooked not to mention the fact that there was no guilt based on the fact we were just at the aquarium watching numerous other species splash around. The waitress, however, insisted that we opt for the unagi (since it was cooked) although I thought eel may not be the best way to initiate a novice sushi eater.  The shrimp arrived without issue but the eel arrived coated in what appeared to be a brown sauce. Even as a gluten glutton, I have become aware that any brown sauce is an alarm bell, especially on a piece of sushi.  It usually means soy sauce which means gluten. Keep in mind the menu clearly stated this item was gluten free but after deliberation by the waitstaff and kitchen slightly longer than the OJ Simpson verdict, we were told it in fact contained gluten.  Big mistake.  In the end, I ate the eel (which was decent but expensive) and I succeeded in introducing her to the world of nigiri albeit a tame piece of cooked shrimp.

Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively)
Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively). Note the brown sauce…

 

I will give Coast credit for it’s buck a shuck special.  I indulged in a half dozen oysters, portraying behaviour similar to that of a five year old opening a new set of lego.  I become mesmerized by combining oyster flesh with pungent horseradish and some type of mignonette.   In fact, I don’t think anything gives me as much enjoyment in the area of seafood relations since Mr. Tecklenberg showed me how to hypnotize a lobster when I was 8 or 9 at a table in his namesake Sudbury restaurant. I was so giddy I forgot the picture.

Each of us weren’t up for a whole lot of food (beside the after effect of seeing a whole lot of underwater life), but we each ordered a dish and did a family style sorta thing.  First were the thai mussels (minus the bread).  They were tasty but a rather dismal serving for $19. Maybe it would have come with 17 pieces of garlic bread which would have made it a bit more economical.

 

Thai Mussels (18.95 or each)
Thai Mussels (18.95 or about a buck each..I’d rather have the oysters)

 

 

Second was the grilled halibut.  It made a lot of sense given the fact it was the season and there was not a hint of brown sauce anywhere on the plate.  Instead, it was served with a decent potato salad.  The fish was cooked nicely but it’s difficult to justify the $38 price tag.

 

Grilled Halibut ($37.95)
Grilled Halibut ($37.95)

Finally, my choice was the apple chopped salad ($12.95) with the optional upgrade of two scallops for a whopping ten bucks.  It arrived with a lone scallop and I made a note to see if it was reflected properly on the bill.  I never had the chance.  The salad itself was fresh, crisp and nicely balanced but when I cut open the scallop I looked at my colleagues and in my best Gordon Ramsey accent yelled “The f@*%ing scallop is raw”.  In fact, it was a bit of a relief because paying 5 bucks for a scallop the size of a jawbreaker just wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps the  biggest annoyance of all was when the manager returned with the plate to confirm with me that, after careful deliberation with the chef, the scallop was in fact raw and they would gladly take it off the bill.  I guess all those years of watching Hell’s kitchen finally paid off since it saved me the embarrassment of being corrected in front of my esteemed colleagues.

 

Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop
Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop

 

The source of much deliberation....
The source of much deliberation….

 

My Take

Vancouver’s Glowbal group seems to be like olives, cilantro or goat cheese; you either love them or hate them.  Some see the group as an innovative and eclectic collection of restaurants showcasing an incredible arrays of foods.  Others see it as an overpriced series of misguided trends in which the decor is more important than the food. The inability to properly display gluten-free foods combined with minute mussels and an undercooked and underwhelming five dollar scallop (that included  a second opinion on doneness) makes me lean toward the latter.  This was just a bad experience with no effort made to fix it.  Good thing there were crudites back at the meeting.  I swear a carrot stick never tasted so good.

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

Review:Toronto:The Junction:Roux

I had to get my manager to the airport so it made sense to hit the junction so she could get to the 427 relatively quickly after we were done.  Other than that, I decided to ad lib dinner and saw Roux sitting on the corner Indian Grove along Dundas street. It was still rather early so it wasn’t too busy but the dining room was filled within an hour of our arrival.  It’s a smallish place with a number of tables, a few high stools by the front window and a dozen or so seats which faces the bar/open kitchen. There are oysters on display is an ice filled bin as you walk in.  It had a comfy aura; mixing the feel of an underground speakeasy with a southern US kitchen.  The walls are filled with artistic script  outlining recipes for  jambalaya or what looks like hand drawn pictures of oysters.

Whether the concept of southern hospitality is a theme or we just had a friendly waiter, we were immediately made to feel at home.  We were offered a drink from a short list of local brews (including a Conductor’s craft ale from the Junction Craft Brewery down the road),  one of two kinds of wine on tap and a short list of cocktails including a blueberry old fashioned and the suffering bastard. I opted for the latter; a simple mix of bourbon, gin, bitters and a splash of ginger ale for $8.50.

Perhaps in the spirit of both famous and infamous cinq a sept (referring to Quebec’s happy and/or France’s term for the time a debutant may plan a tryst with his mistress) , the waiter boasted a $5 at 5, a  list of appetizers  taken from the menu with slightly smaller serving sizes.   We opted for a trio of mussels, shrimp fritters and pulled pork poutine.  Although smallish, the mussels, soaked in a beer broth seasoned with a mirepoix.were rather enjoyable.  All of the components of the pulled pork poutine had great flavour although it was served a bit cold.  The shrimp fritters were a bit disappointing…the flavours hit the mark but they were doughy in the middle.

Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)
Cinq a Sept- Mussels, Shrimp Fritters and Pulled Pork Poutine ($5 each)

In addition to the nine or ten entrees, there were a number of specials that evening. Despite these numerous temptations,  I was sold on the yardbird (fried chicken). Furthermore, I had the dubious task of choosing between sides which included waffles, creamy grits and spicey slaw.  I was promised the waffles were the way to go.  The chicken was middle of the pack (I was hoping for it a little crispier) but the waffles were terrific especially when coupled with the bourbon maple syrup.  Despite the fact I was reluctant on the liberal use of powdered sugar and cranberries, it kind of worked.

Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16
Yardbird with waffles and bourbon maple sugar $16

My manager opted for scallops.  Although I didn’t try them, I did request a taste of the grits (the boundary between manager/employee sharing food starts at protein so I was safe).  They were a fantastic twist on the standard. They lacked the normal cream of wheat gruelness  and instead were presented with the firm yet soft texture of a risotto.   I completed the experience with a side order of collard greens which hit the mark made with a simple yet authentic recipe.

Scallops and Grits
Scallops and Grits $20
Collard Greens $5
Collard Greens $5

As mentioned above, early on the service was friendly and prompt but did diminish a bit as the place filled up and things got frantic. There were a number of forgetful moments and it took quiet a while to get the bill despite many indications we were done.  For this reason (and the need to get my manager back to Saskatoon that night), I skipped on dessert.

My Take

There has been an emergence of high and lower end BBQ joints that have opened up across the GTA.  However, most focus on the art of low and slow smoking and sides more characteristic of  a Texas family gathering than a Louisiana cook-off. Chef Derrick Markland infuses New Orleans into the junction, offering a joint that is casual, unique and refined.  One can argue that the junction’s clientele can be described the same way.  Beside us sat a couple; the guy looked like the white version of the Fresh Prince’s Carlton and she looked like a very feminine incredible hulk, complete with bright green hair and matching eyebrows (which left me wondering….never mind).  On the other side was a guy and his date who were clearly fans of the Big Bang Theory (I think I even heard a bazinga once or twice).  Even an cute, older Asian couple showed up to share a few of the $5 at 5 choices and sip on water while blending in with the mosaic of characters which graced the small dining room.

In an environment of restaurants serving small plates with inflated prices, Roux does bring some promise of value back to dining out.  The $5 at 5 choices, cocktails under $10, six dollar glasses of wine on tap and a number of good sized entrees under $20 make it worth the cab ride or the extra gas you’ll need driving a few blocks further west to the bustling Junction triangle. Plus, it’s kind of fun with a passionate chef, a zany cast of fellow diners and sultry blues filling the air in between laughs, conversations and the bumbling banter of pleasant yet overwhelmed waitstaff.

In the end, Roux is like a wedding. Passion reigns as you hang out with a cast of characters you may otherwise never associate under the same roof.  In this case, it’s a passion for food as opposed to that shared by your third cousin on your mom’s side and his high school sweetheart from smalltown Ontario. Even if everything isn’t perfect, you’re still glad you went.

Roux on Urbanspoon

Review:Vancouver:Downtown:The Fish Shack

It was honestly an internet search and a restaurant within walking distance that brought me to the Fish Shack. After seeing it was a creation of the Glowbal group, I was sure it would be far from a shack and even have a few of the gimmicks this restaurant group is renowned for.  The last Glowbal restaurant I went to was Black and Blue. It had a beautiful decor, with a classic steakhouse setup and  highlighted by  a 15 foot high meat locker.  I figured the Fish Shack would be the same.

I wasn’t far off.  The decor is reminiscent of a wooden fishing shack.  Nets hang throughout the place and pictures of fish with interesting trivia line the  wall. It’s bright and clean and the busy waitstaff have a casual look and attitude. The air is filled with the aroma of shellfish, likely  a combination of the bar side shellfish  steamer and the adjacent table ordering the fisherman’s catch, a Cornucopia of mixed seafood strewn across the table in a free for all.

The beer selection is pretty lame, dominated by Molson products. The Whister Bear Paw Honey Lager is a bit of a redemption.  This sad reality led me to the Caesar fleet featuring four offerings laced with vodka, gin, whisky and tequila.  I went vodka, a pretty standard Caesar garnished with prawn and pepperoni.  It was a good Caesar and definitely better than a Coors light.

Caesar
Caesar $8

I like gimmicks, so I opted for buck a shuck oysters (Light house were featured)  and mussels and clams fresh from the steamer. The oysters were fresh and a great deal for four bucks. The $15 steamed shellfish prepared classic style (wine, garlic , shallots and herbs) were good but didn’t rival the mussels at Chambar or the clams at the Pike market in Seattle which were pulled from ocean just minutes away in Puget Sound.

Steamers $15
Steamers $15

For the main, the halibut was calling my name.  Although priced significantly higher than the other fish and chips options, I remembered my experience at Dandelion in Philadelphia and Blue Water cafe in San Diego and hoped for the same in Vancouver.  It was a bit flimsy and although all the components were quite good, nothing was remarkable. The batter was not greasy and had a pleasant taste while the fish maintained a good integrity and decent moistness. The tartar sauce and fries were pretty classic and the creamy horseradish slaw was colourful to look at but didn’t have as much bite as I wanted.

Halibut and Fries $16.50
Halibut and Fries $16.50

I last had the brussel sprouts at Black and Blue last year and ordered them again. I was equally impressed, especially when I hit them with a squirt of hot sauce.

Brussel Sprouts
Brussel Sprouts $6.50

There’s a small dessert menu featuring cheesecake, apple berry crumble and sticky toffee pudding, all for $8.50.  Some may argue you don’t need anymore than that.  I opted for the latter and was presented with a pretty decent offering. The cake was moist, partially helped by the plentiful pool of sauce it sat in.  The traditional chantilly cream and somewhat unorthodox berries were a good finishing touch.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding $8.50

My Take

The fish shack is kind of like Red Lobster, except for people under the age of 65.  Both have a bad beer selection and shrimp garnished Caesars.  Both are decorated with fish and fish paraphernalia.    Both have cheesy slogans like “We sea food differently” and “hook it and cook it”. One can indulge on an array of seafood with the shack’s Fisherman’s catch or Red Lobster’s Ultimate feast, a choice from the fresh daily fresh fish list or non-sea signatures like cheddar bay biscuits (RL) or brussel sprouts (FS).  Both even have a New York style cheesecake for dessert.

The fish shack is pretty; pretty decor and pretty good food.  It’s filled with the little gimmicks like bar side steamers that make the Glowbal group what it is. .  Although none of the dishes blew my mind, the execution of the food was acceptable. and the vibe reeked a little of fish and little of hip. So send Gramma to Red Lobster and suck back some west coast buck a shuck oysters before 6 pm at the fish shack (trust me, Gramma and oysters don’t mix). Afterwards, you can hear about the nice fish and  that dessert cake like Gladys used to make.

As for slogans, I kinda like this one from a famous book that pretty much says it all:

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“Catchy”, isn’t it?

The Fish Shack on Urbanspoon

Chicago:Day 5: Nana-nana-nana..I was bopping and hopping all night long

Stop 1– Nana’s

Day 5 was a triple hit of triple D.  After a subway up to Wrigley field a few days earlier, I figured I’d venture past US Cellular field to at least lay eyes on the White Sox home field.  That, and it was on the way to another DDD that was a cab ride from the conference centre.  I shyed  away from hitting up Nana’s on Sunday in an effort to avoid the brunch crowd so I figured a late breakfast/early lunch on Monday would be safer.  It’s a clean breakfast and lunch nook with an open kitchen, small tables and a bar to sit at. I had a chance to talk to the owner who told me the restaurant is dedicated to his mom who, after being diagnosed with diabetes, made radical diet and lifestyle changes which got her off of medications and made her diabetes manageable. The premise is fresh and organic foods served with a Mexican flare.

There are two things which definitely draw me to a dish: I’m always intrigued by traditional dishes which are given a twist and anything that is local and in season.  Today was no exception.  Instead of my normal tendency to fill my veins with sausage and pork gravy, I was drawn to the nanadict, an interesting version of classic eggs benny.  The english muffin is replaced with pupusas, the ham with chorizo and the hollandaise with a poblano cream sauce. The pupusa was a bit bricky and the eggs were poached American style (meaning a little too long). I loved the chorizo, especially with the poblano cream, which was rich and had a fresh flavour with a subtle bite.  A little cilantro on top would have been great, The earthy potatoes and acidic greens added a nice balance to the dish.

Nana's Nanadict
Nana’s Nanadict

The local/seasonal draw was the garlic whistles which were served with a sprinkle of fried cheese. They were tender and delicious. The cheese, a  shot of hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon recommended by the owner blended nicely with the garlic flavour. A great side dish!

Garlic Whistles
Garlic Whistles

My Take

Nana’s is a cute nook featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner rooted in family values and giving back.  They sponsor the Benton House, a local agency  dedicated to reducing hunger in Chicago through diner donations.  The owner is present and proud. The menu has lots of choices, many with Mexican/South American influence  and all based on local and in-house ingredients whenever possible. It’s a feel good place although I imagine too much poblano cream or chorizo may not leave you feeling too good the next day.

Verdict: 4 Guyz

Nana on Urbanspoon


Stop 2– bopNgrill

I got out the cab with a couple of colleagues only to avoid a summertime monsoon by seconds.  With wind blowing and stop signs rattling, I was happy to be in the safe confines of bopNgrill, a DDD featuring burgers and bop plates.  When I watched the show, I could almost smell the sizzling mushrooms through the television screen as Will Song meticulously created Americana with Asian influence.  I was drawn to the umami burger that  was featured on DDD and looked absolutely delicious.  The Philly Bulkogi egg rolls featured on the show are only available on weekends, so that wasn’t an option.   We also split the kimchi burger which featured my fave…a fried egg with bacon, cheese and kimchi. My sense of Smellivision was correct. The delicious smell of earthy mushrooms and truffles in the umami burger radiated throught the air. The burgers were cooked a perfect medium and had a dripiness which required a napkin run or two. They were well balanced and extremely flavourful.   As a matter of fact, after one bite the clouds parted and the weather seemed to clear up.  A coincidence??? I think not.

Kimchi and Umami Burgers
Kimchi and Umami Burgers

Verdict: 5 Guyz

bopNgrill on Urbanspoon

Stop 3- Hopleaf Bar

After bopNgrill, I hopped in a cab and faced a dilemma. I had hopleaf, another DDD pegged for a visit, yet it was game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in the city poised to win.  Did I want to venture to a place with a ridiculous choice of beer or did I want to settle for bud light and a crowd of drunkards cheering for the Hawks?  Actually, it wasn’t really a dilemma. The day before, the barkeep at Haymarket raved about this place and hell, there may be a TV at Hopleaf so we could at least keep an eye on things.

The cab dropped us at the front door.  After paying the fare, we were stopped by a gent who demanded ID.  My dad and I have a running joke.  He was asked for ID at 42 and I said I’d beat him.  I’m not 42 yet but that fact I was asked on this occasion says I still have a chance.  That said, it’s pretty standard practice in Illinois to ID everybody.  Hopleaf is considered a tavern so nobody under 21 is even allowed in the place.  We seated ourselves in the bar area and examined the multi-page beer menu. . As for a TV…not a chance.  The bar staff looked like the Grateful Dead and the patrons had anything but hockey on their mind.

The beer selection is extensive, ranging from breweries down to the road to hot spots across the USA.  There is also an extensive selection of Belgian and Belgian style brews as well as a few European stragglers as well.

The Snaggletooth Bandana is a great Illinois IPA from Naperville combining a hoppy punch with strong tropical fruit flavours.  I was fortunate to try a Troublesome Gose from Off Color, a Chicago start-up brewery which had it’s official launch at Hopleaf that night. It was a classic wheat beer with medium spice and a refreshing finish.  One can’t go to Chicago without sucking back a Goose Island offering.  In this regard, I opted for a cumbersome pils which hit the spot. With three of us there, there was lots of sipping and sharing but be assured there is not shortage of choices.  The staff are very helpful as well, quick to offer advice, good or bad, regarding any of the pints.  For example, I ordered a pint of a cucumber beer and, at the advise of the bartender,  was offered a sample first and quickly realized a pint was just not feasible.

As for the food, the menu is a concoction of dishes with most made in-house. Since I was already pretty stuffed with the combination of bopNgrill and beer, we ordered a few things to split and stuck with the signatures; mussels with frites ($13), charcuterie trio  (headlined by house made head cheese) ($14) and the the brisket sandwich ($13). As a result of a camera malfunction I don’t have pictures but I can say that each dish was terrific.  The mussels were classically done.  The charcuterie plate was well executed and well thought out. A minor fight between the four os us almost broke out for the last smear of rilette.  I was a bit reluctant about the brisket.  It’s a tough cut to perfect and the fact it wasn’t a smokehouse left me a little suspicious.  My opinion changed with the first bite.  It was delicate and tender and competitive with some of the best briskets I’ve had.

My Take

Great  beer and great food make this a great place despite the lack on television and a less than cozy atmosphere.  The bar has a bit of staleness but doesn’t translate to the food and drink.  The mussels, brisket and charcuterie were amazing. The service is great from a beer recommendation perspective.  Otherwise, you’re on your own.  The bar area doesn’t doesn’t even have a waitress. Plus, you gotta leave the kids at home and bring you ID because if you don’t have it you might as well be 12 because you’re not getting in.  Despite the lack of a TV, two loud waves of screams a minute apart from a sports bar next door told us everything we needed to know.  The Hawks scored twice in the last two minutes to secure the Stanley cup and the party began….

Verdict- 5 Guyz

Hopleaf on Urbanspoon

Review:Vancouver:Gastown:Chambar

When asked about Belgium, most people will associate it with two things: waffles and chocolate.  Others may also cite mussels, Stella Artois and Jean-Claude Van Damme .  Belgium is a bit of a misunderstood country sandwiched in between the more recognized entities of France, Germany and the Netherlands. It’s no surprise that its culinary influences which include rich saucy foods and hearty stews originate from its neighbours except for Holland…there’s no good food in Holland.

Chambar is a evening hot spot bordering Gastown in Vancouver.  Commandeered by well-trained chef  Nico Schuermans, one could consider Chambar’s menu an “Amazing Race” of world flavours, complete with fast forwards, detours and road blocks.

Must (Fast Forwards)

As it should, the culinary adventure begins in Belgium with offerings of mussels and over 50 Belgian beer ranging from witbier (wheat) to blondes to darks to trappists to table beer (served in 750 ml bottles) that you drink like wine. At the recommendation of the staff,  I ordered  the Duchess de Bourgnogne, a deep ruby lambic with intricate flavors synonymous with a fine European wine.  My choice was  the Boon Gueze, an aggressive but beautiful sour  lambic, which paired nicely with the mussels. Speaking of mussels,  the Coquotte Moules Frites (pictured below) were mind-blowing.  They were meaty and fresh and swimming in a philter of wine and cream with teases of bacon and garnished with fresh green onions.

Coquotte Moule
Coquotte Moule

With due diligence paid to the homeland, Chambar  turns its attention to other parts of the globe. The lapin a la moutarde (rabbit cannelloni) pays respect to the French neighbours while fusing with the middle-eastern flavours of dates and pistachios. The filling was decedent and encased in a perfectly cooked pasta which would even make a few Italians nod with approval.

Rabbit Cannollii
Rabbit Cannelloni

Steak and sausage are staples all over the world.  The Chambar’s Grillade be Boeuf and Chorizo adds a Spanish/South American flare to these two carnivorous staples by grilling the sausage and serving the beef seasoned with  lime and chili atop a fragrant chimichurri.  The fingerling potato chips added an  additional earthiness and subtle crunch to the plate.

Chambar's Grillade be Boeuf and Chorizo
Chambar’s Grillade be Boeuf and Chorizo

For dessert, the Mama Rizk goes back to France with a mille feuille pastry with a rosewater twist. It has an french renaissance architecture that I almost didn’t want to tear down.   The mint sorbet  harmonized the dish from a taste and texture perspective.

Mama Rizk
Mama Rizk

The tarte au citron was another French influenced dessert which payed homage to traditional lemon meringue pie.  Fluffy coconut cake is the foundation for the the tart lemon curd and souffle accents.  As tasty as it was visually appealing, it was a brilliant spin on a classic dish.

Tarte au Citron
Tarte au Citron

Maybe (Detours)

Chambar’s next stop is Asia by offering the ubiquitous  tartare de thon rouge (tuna tartare), flavoured with wasabi, pickled veggies and served with rice crackers.  It was an average dish with decent  flavour but can’t compete with others I have had elsewhere.

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Tatare de Thon Rouge (Tuna Tartare)

Chambar goes Canadian next with its rendition of grilled local octopus, seasoned with soy, maple and bacon flavours and topped with fresh kale.  The  octopus was prepared nicely and the flavours were…well….nice.

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Poulpe Geant Grillee (octopus)

Both the Le Nico Fume and Le Cafe Belge were both highly recommended cake by the waitstaff.  Both were nicely presented but a bit monotonous in flavour. Le Nico Fume was chocolate scotch cake with caramel and ice cream served in a glass (at least it wasn’t a mason jar).  Le Cafe Belge was coffee flavour cheesecake with chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate on top.  Both would be a fitting end to a good meal but lacked the edginess I had come to expect based on the offerings earlier in the evening.

Le Nico Fume
Le Nico Fume
Le Cafe Belge
Le Cafe Belge

Mundane (Road Block)

The thought of sitting on the Pacific coast and enjoying a local, roasted halibut loin swimming in a fragrant broth made my mouth water but I was left a bit confused by the cassoulet de poisson (halibut). Sometimes its better to keep things simple and clean, especially with the availability of a  great eating fish like halibut but there were too many competing  flavours that ironically “drown” the halibut’s subtle flavour.

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Cassoulet de Poisson (Halibut)

From an ambiance perspective, the noise level is off the charts. I equate it to having a window seat near a jet engine so loud you can’t hear the person in the aisle seat beside you. If that’s your scene it works; otherwise it’s quite a distraction.

My Take

Chambar is an edgy eatery which lays its foundation in its Belgian roots but experiments with cutting edge international flavours reflected through  frequently changing menu items  (in fact some of the items reviewed here are no longer available) .  A fascinating Belgian beer selection and world class mussels  served by knowledgeable waitstaff  makes every trip worth it.  In a manner similar to the Amazing Race, the plates offer some wonderful scenery, however, this aggressive style is bound to lead to some winners and losers during the noisy travels along the way.

Mulling Moment- Please comment!

 

Chambar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Reds Wine Tavern

Reds Wine Tavern recently underwent a metamorphosis in an attempt to appeal to a crowd outside of the confines of the financial district.  With a 2-million dollar renovation and the recruitment of Top Chef Canada favorite Ryan Gallagher from Ruby Watchco,  the new Reds promises an upscale yet casual environment to appeal to the Bay street traditionalist and the nomadic foodie alike. One of the highlights of Reds is the availability of over 75 wines by the glass in addition to the over 350 bottles.

I took a chance and asked for the chef’s table via open table with a few days notice knowing the chances were slim to none that I would succeed.  However, I found it a bit annoying to not have the request even acknowledged either in advance or when I checked in at the venue.  In addition, I had to wait at the front door to be seated since the remainder of my party (2 of 4) had not arrived.  They were stuck in a line of traffic on Adelaide which was being diverted around yet another falling glass disaster at the Trump tower two blocks away. We were finally seated at a rather large wooden table in the back corner of the second level overlooking the bar below. I quickly realized we were in for a noisy experience when I heard six or seven guys hollering obnoxiously over a game of table shuffleboard with ties undone and drinks in hand. I  felt like I was an extra in a  whisky commercial. Well…sort of.  Based on the amount of time it took us to receive any sort of service, I could of watched the commercial plus half a sitcom as well. A round of drinks eventually arrived and the food was slowly delivered afterwards.

Must

I must admit I was quite excited for a few menu items at Reds Wine.  I’ve often imagined my own ideal restaurant menu and deviled eggs are definitely on the  list.  Better yet, it was a trio of deviled eggs ($11), each containing all sorts of add-ins such as crispy onion, seafood and even a  delicious avacado and tender pea mixture.   Based on menus I’ve seen online since,  they may be like Cadbury Easter cream eggs; not around all the time but worth it when they are on the shelf.

Deviled Eggs
Deviled Eggs

The triple cooked smoked wings ($15) were braised with duck fat to facilitate a crispiness and flavourful skin while maintaining a tender and juicy flesh underneath.  The two house made side sauces  (especially the BBQ sauce) were a great match for both the crispy vegetables and the wings themselves.

Triple Cooked Smoked Wings
Triple Cooked Smoked Wings

There was a lack of consensus at the table over whether the chicken pot pie with fois gras gravy ($18) was a must or maybe but I’m writing the blog so I vote must.  The pastry was light and baked golden-brown.  The filling was brimming with flavour highlighted by the faint but evident taste of fois gras in a very distinct gravy and a array of fresh vegetables and tender chicken.  The only issue was the scarcity of the stew compared to the abundant crust which I can forgive in lieu of the tremendous taste.

Chicken Pot Pie with Fois Gras Gravy
Chicken Pot Pie with Fois Gras Gravy

Maybe

Another item on my imaginary dream menu is a variety of caesars, so I pleased to see a small variety here.  I opted for the charcuterie caesar ($11.50) which is a classic vodka caesar served  with cool things like Tabasco barrel-infused tomato-clam juice and  housemade hot sauce with a small side bowl of meat, cheese, gherkins and olives.   The complete package was fresh and fun but the drink itself was pretty bland. Perhaps a bacon and tomato jam would of helped…

Charcuterie Caesar
Charcuterie Caesar

The fish of the day items (around $25)  appear to be to the foundation of the menu, likely influenced by Ryan himself.  I ordered  the grouper but they ran out so it gets no points.  I tried the salmon which was moist but under seasoned and lost amongst the abundance of green lentils and apple fennel slaw (the latter was quite tasty).   The New Bedford scallops were large , cooked nicely and served on a pleasant fresh carrot puree with smoky bacon and some pistachio pesto.  The dish blended well and gets a resounding OK which is more than I can say for missing grouper and bland salmon swimming upstream in lentils.

Salmon with Lentils and Apple Fennel Slaw
Salmon with Lentils and Apple Fennel Slaw
New Bedford Scallops
New Bedford Scallops

Three types of mussels were available and we opted for the tavern caesar variety.  The broth was top-notch and the mussels were fresh, hearty and flavorful.  The $18.50 price is a bit high but they do provide a nice start to a good meal although I’m not sure about the bread sticks.

Tavern Caesar Mussels
Tavern Caesar Mussels

The dessert menu only offers three choices for $8 each.  As a table, we opted for the grasshopper parfait (in a mason jar, of course) and an apple tart.  I wouldn’t say it’s must have but it would appease a sweet tooth if you needed the boost.

Grasshopper Parfait
Grasshopper Parfait
Reds Apple Tart
Reds Apple Tart

Mundane

My vision of an $18 lobster guacamole was a bit different than 15 upright nacho chips stuck in a scarce amount of lobster,a runny guacamole and a blob of sour cream.  It’s not that the dish was terrible but if didn’t make me want to throw a flashy new $20 on the table and say thank you.

Lobster Guacamole
Lobster Guacamole

As mentioned above, the service started poorly and didn’t get a lot better. When we ordered wine to complement  the entrees it just didn;t come and otherwise check-ins were infrequent. A chat with a member of the waitstaff afterwards left me even more confused as I was unable to determine from his comments if it was a bad night or if short-staffing is a general philosophy of the restaurant.   It seemed both scatter-brained and laissez-faire and soured the overall experience.

My Take

The emergence of shows like Top Chef Canada and other food network shows have opened up diner’s eyes to some of the brilliant minds who define cuisine in Toronto and other metropolitan areas.  This has allowed a flow of celebrity character into many of the establishments opening up across the country.  Richmond Station in Toronto (Carl Heinrich), Sidedoor in Ottawa (JonathanKorecki) and  Charcut in Calgary (Connie DeSousa) are all stamped with a hip, youthful flare, open kitchens  and sophisticated menu which draws a diversity of clientele. Although the Reds menu synched with my imagination and met the grade, other than his name on the menu, Ryan’s presence seemed absent. The renovation to a relaxed environment has not trickled down to the waitstaff and service mentality. I will say that  Reds realized their mistakes and offered a solution which, in the end, was satisfactory to our dinner party.

I was thinking….perhaps dousing the shuffleboard champion with a charcuterie ceasar from 20 feet up would draw in the resounding claps of the Wiser guys to provide a much needed personality boost to an otherwise stuffy environment. If anything, it would appease to the numerous patrons around me who felt like they were witnessing cantankerous behavior inside a glorified frat house….minus the copious and timely alcohol…at least upstairs anyway.

 

 

Reds Wine Tavern on Urbanspoon