Review:Toronto:Downtown:Origin

I was criticized recently for blogging about a restaurant that was open for less than a week.  I mean, who am I to make a comment about the fact that if you’re going to charge me $16 for a bowl of soup, it better be damn good,  a statement which to me seems unrelated to the length of time a place has been open?

So, as a result, I’ll reflect on my recent visit to origin, a King street joint that been open a lot longer than a week (although origin north is still rather new so I wouldn’t want to step outside my boundaries as a food critic/blogger/whatever).  I would argue that origin may have been a bit clairvoyant when choosing its name as it was one of the first restaurants which embraced the small plate, open kitchen concept which has since spread North, East and West across the Toronto landscape (I can’t say south given the geographical limitations due to Lake Ontario and the rather static Esplanade dining scene.)  I went to Origin a few years ago which at the time was under the watchful eye of Steve Gonzalez, who has subsequently opened up Valdez which has a strikingly similar philosophy.  I was a bit surprised to see that the menu and decor have changed very little during this time.

I started the night with  a “Brass Knuckles” cocktail. I normally don’t drink tequila, but the combination of fruity and bitter flavours along with the fact that a few dollars from each sale goes to cancer research was appealing.  It did have a medicinal taste which may explain the name as it feels a bit like a punch in the throat.  I wouldn’t go as far as to call it Buckley’s… it’s more like  that cherry cough syrup your mother gave you as a kid that you secretly didn’t mind taking when you had a chest cold.

Brass Knuckles $13
Brass Knuckles $13

The spicy spanish fries with chorizo and manchego seemed a good start.  They reminded me of poutine meets patatas bravas .  The additional of chorizo was brilliant but I would have liked a runny aioli or spicy tomato sauce to saturate the fries instead of the globs of thick mayo which topped it.  The fries were nicely cooked and the manchego added an appropriate saltiness to the $12 snack.

Spanish Fries $12
Spanish Fries $12

I must confess I have a bad habit.  I see deviled eggs on a menu, get giddy, order them, eat them and then sigh with a tad of disappointment. I sighed a little less at origin.  Although I found the taste of the filling to be average, these eggs were smart.  The souffletine (little cereal balls), the crisp salty and erect bacon plus the leafy herbs tantalized all the taste buds. I must confess I was a little happy my table mate wasn’t a fan of eggs.

Deviled Eggs $7
Deviled Eggs $7

Drink two was an old thyme sour, a spin on the classic cocktail.  Garnished with fresh thyme, it was bold balance of savory and sweet and laced with sour…a simple yet satisfying drink.

Old Thyme Sour $13
Old Thyme Sour $13

Instead of delving into the small plates, we decided to opt for the big guns and chose the two $33 entrees.  The black cod in broth with asian veggies was full of classic flavours,  The cod maintained its buttery texture while swimming in a nicely balance broth.  The bitterness of the veggies added another dimension.  I’m still hung up on the perfectly cooked black cod at George, so I can’t put this at that level but it gets honorable mention. The beef tenderloin sizzling hot plate (with potatoes , kale, mushrooms, roasted onion butter and ponzu) was the other $33 offering.  The concept was good but the execution not so much.  The onion butter lay cold atop the luke warm and less than abundant tenderloin.  The kale/mushroom mix was tasty and maintained a good temperature atop the hot plate. Perhaps I could have romanticized the dish a little more and mixed the butter and beef throughout the dish but hey I’m dumb and always appreciate an explanation of the procedure required to fulfill a chef’s vision.

Black Cod $33
Black Cod $33
Beef Tenderloin $33
Beef Tenderloin $33 (some beef was already snagged before I got to ake the picture)

The service was a bit slow, so I can use that fact to blame the poor quality of the dessert pics.  When it gets dark, I rely on old faithful…my blackberry 9700 with a resolution comparable to a Fisher-Price camera.  The two us have polar preferences when it comes to dessert, I chose the meringue with citrus and coconut…he chose the hot chocolate cake with soft serve ice cream.  My dessert looked like Stonehenge….the rocks  were alternating pieces of meringue and citrus slices on a plain of custard and sprinkled with coconut.  Like the legendary landmark, it was intriguing and yet a bit confusing.   The chocolate cake hit the mark.  The cake was moist and warm and topped with the right amount of bitter chocolate powder to offset the sweetness of the delicious ice cream.

Citrus Curd $10
Citrus Curd $10
Hot Chocolate Cake $10
Hot Chocolate Cake $10

My Take

Whether a restaurant is brand new or a veteran in the Toronto dining scene, I have argued before that Darwin’s theories are applicable to restaurants.  Survival is a process that requires an understanding of the environment including food trends and value.  At the same time, new eateries need a seed, a foundation in which any new concept will grow from as opposed to replace. Perhaps this is my justification to “whatever” a place within days or years of opening.

Origin was exactly that: the origin of the evolution of eateries for the cool kids in the GTA.  Obviously, its success is evident in the fact that it has offspring in both Liberty Village and Midtown.  Although I didn’t delve into the mozzarella bar or the raw bar,  the foods I did try were scattered across the spectrum.  Although nothing was highly memorable, the Spanish fries, eggs and cod were on the better side and the beef fell a little short.  The desserts were a definite talking point. The meringue was light and abstract…the cake was rich and traditional. The mix of trendy cocktails, witty small plates and a few tempting and expensive classics have become a blueprint for  a number of other emerging favorites in all directions outward from  King and Church.  In the end, maybe Claudio Aprile’s gradual evolution from Colborne Lane to origin was sheer luck or maybe it was sheer brilliance, but I’ll give credit where credit is due (and kindly ask him to remember this should I try out for Masterchef Canada again next year).

Origin Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:King West:Valdez

It can be argued that Origin may have been the “origin” of the current small plate trend in Toronto.  A couple of years and two new Origins later, Valdez opened.  The link is Steve Gonzalez.  A contestant on the first Top Chef Canada,  he has followed the leads of later contestants Carl Heinrich and Ryan Gallagher, who left previous posts at established Toronto eateries to gamble on new ones. Steve went from chef de cuisine at Origin to the proprietor of Valdez, a King Street Latin street food eatery which promises a return to Gonzalez’s Colombian roots and, of course,  a sharing and small plate concept.

The decor is a mix of a saloon and a Mexican cantina.  A large wooden bar is showcased in a long but narrow space filled with bright chairs and worn tables, both painted with reds and blues and greens. A large bar graces one wall of the long but narrow dining room. Coffee sack, art and other paraphernalia grace the walls of this stylish abode.

There is an array of standard cocktails (and a few crazy ones), beer and wine.  I opted for a Tecate, which was presented in psuedo-michelada style. Instead of a glass with lime juice and hot sauce (among other things), a lime wedge and a squeeze of hot sauce was strewn along the top of the can.  Served glassless, I opted to pop the wedge into the can and drink it like that.  I liked the combination although I found it odd that the option for no hot sauce wasn’t offered as I imagine it wouldn’t be for everybody.

The menu is simple, divided into 4 parts; ceviche (self explanatory), stuff (small plate) ,more (bigger plate) and dulce y algo (dessert). Well, maybe the ceviche isn’t so self explanatory. Given the diversity of the choices, I opted for the flight:

There is the traditional “cocktel de camaron” with tomato, citrus, cilantro, chilis and corn nuts. Pretty delicious.

There was the “passion” and “atun japones”, each offering a refreshing twist on tuna (albacore and ahi respectively) by meshing traditional latin and modern Asian flavours such as yuzu, ginger and ponzu.  An intriguing twist but something I would expect at one of the numerous izakaya joints at every street corner in town.

The “mixto” was a trio of octopus, mussel and squid bathed in squid ink with some citrus, maize and sweet potato. The ink was the overwhelming flavour, so some will take it or leave it.

The vegan ceviche was a mix of fruit and veggies which included jicama and other latin staples  in a simple citrus sauce.  Nothing remarkable.

Ceviche Flight $16
Ceviche Flight $16

From the “stuff” menu we opted for tradition, ordering the highly touted guac and chips, empandas and chorizo del jefe (sausage). The guac and chips created some controversy at the table.  I loved the guac.  It had a great texture and was well balanced with citrus and spice.  The chips were a combination of plantain, yucca, potato and taro which I thought was ingenious both to the eye and the tongue. The others at the table were more ho-hum about the guac.

Guac and Chips $8
Guac and Chips $8

The empanadas, on the other hand, were rather disappointing. Offering no flare compared to the rest of the menu, they were rather dry and bland to the extent where the delicious aji sauce which accompanied couldn’t save them.

Empanadas $8
Empanadas $8

The chorizo sausage was a bold and delicious addition to the menu. A squeeze of lime provided enough acid to intensify the well seasoned and moist pork sausage. It rivals some of the best I have had in Toronto. The arepas were nice as well.

Chorizo del jefe $8
Chorizo del jefe $8

As for “more”, we decided on two very different dishes; the delicate Giggie’s trout (togarashi+Quinoe+yuzu+mango+avocado+fried shallots) and the more manly Bandeja (seared pork+rice & beans+plantain+fried egg+avocado+arepa).  This trout dish was a  concert of primarily asian flavours around some beautifully cooked filets.  The dainty dish was a bit out of place served in a Mexican saloon but would be palate pleasing for a pescatarian who so happened  to tag along for the party.

Giggie's Trout $17
Giggie’s Trout $17

The bandeja, on the other hand, was the hardcore latin inspired dish more synonymous with the name Valdez. Bandeja simply means platter, but I would be prone to rename this bandeja buena mierda.  Hidden beneath a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was rice, beans, avocado, arepas and most importantly, tender and juicy pork.   With each bite you got a little more or a little less of each component but each was an adventure in Latin America cuisine. No togarashi, no yuzu (although I love the damn stuff), and no ponzu.  Just simple, flavourful food presented with simplicity and respect.

Bandeja $19
Bandeja $19

My Take

Perhaps the word “Latasian” street food may be a better description of the food served at Valdez.  Although traditional Central and South American dishes are the foundation of the menu, the are a number laced with Asian flavours. The chips and guac and bandeja stole the show with the chorizo sausage taking honorable mention.  I was less impressed with the ceviche and trout, perhaps because my brain was programmed to consume the simple and standard flavours of Latin cuisine as opposed to those I can get at a hundred places elsewhere.  The empanadas were a bit of a bust minus the delicious aji sauce.  I enjoyed the Tecate, served  psuedo-michelada style, from both a nostalgic and taste perspective.

The decor and vibe is fun, trendy and even a bit dangerous. I was reminded  a bit of the bar scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn”. George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino wannabees line the bar except in this case, samurai sword wielding ninjas names Yuzu, Togarashi and Tobiko  enter the scene to join the locals in a battle against the blood hungry vampires looking for a late night snack. Ok, that may be a bit much, but if Steve Gonzalez can offer fried rice and frijoles, I can use my imagination just the same.

Valdez Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales Predictions of 2013 Food Trends.

Each year sees a shift in the direction of the restaurant industry.  I’m going to take a chance and speculate on what food trends will start or continue  in the Toronto dining scene  in 2013. Feel free to agree, disagree or suggest your own trends by commenting here, voting in the poll or tweeting #2013tofoodtrends.

1. Ramen Rage

Arguably the biggest craze in 2012, noodle houses will continue to appear like Starbucks and Subways in the coming months.  Given the versatility of this noodle dish, I suspect new variations will emerge and will not be limited to ramen restaurants  alone.  I expect the big chains and even the small fusion eateries and food trucks to join the ramen rage in some way, shape or form.

2. Offal Offerings

Black hoof has gained international exposure for its offal menu with thumbs up from celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain during his lay over visit and  Richard Blais’  endorsement on his list of favorite restaurants on Urbanspoon.  Adaptations of  the nose to tail concept have been adapted by many eateries, even including  a beginner’s lesson in offal  at Skin and Bones in Leslieville. This concept will continue to flourish given the surge in responsible eating as well as those seeking the adventure of multiple organ consumption.

3. In a Jar

I’m not referring to the traditional strawberry jam, pickled cucumber and mango chutney here.  In efforts to use more local ingredients throughout the year, preserving is gaining popularity.  Local and seasonal cranberries, tomatoes, peppers and tree fruit can be used year round when processed into sweet or savory condiments to compliment meats and even cocktails.  Savory and briny condiments are definitely in.  One of the best dishes I had in 2012 was a pickle tray at Sidedoor in Ottawa and it only makes sense that these creative, unique and in many cases  relatively inexpensive foods are housemade to complement  menus and blackboards in 2013.

4. Eat Street

Despite strict downtown by-laws and less than favourable year round weather, Toronto is catching up with other large metropolitan centres regarding  the presence of food trucks offering anything from smoked meats to tacos to cupcakes. More and more private businesses and fundraisers are seeing the potential in these nomadic sculleries as an awareness raising tactic. In addition,  the low overhead, creative license and geographical flexibility are appealing to restauranteurs, ensuring that the fleet of food trucks will continue to grow.

5. Carrying the Torch

The chef’s blowtorch is a cooking method which has typically been reserved for creme brulee and more recently sushi.  The ease of use and aesthetic properties of charred food could expand the use of this handy tool to other areas of food preparation.  Vegetables, cervices, meringues, terrines and even fois gras could be meliorated with a quick singe  of the blue flame.

6. Mexican Mania

Tacos were the rave of 2012 with the success of Grand Electric and  La Carnita taco-heavy menu. Burrito Boyz, Mucho Burrito and Burrito Bandidos are lunchtime and late night hotspots.  Baja fish tacos adorn almost every chain restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu.  Modernized twists on tasty tostadas, multifarious moles and piquant pozole will expand beyond the traditional taquerias, making Mexican fare one of the hot ethnic cuisines across the board in 2013.

7. Soul Train

Soul food has just gotten started.  The success of Barque, Stockyards and new additions such as AAA combined with the Hogtown and Urban Smoke food trucks have put pulled pork and brisket on the must eat food map.  Look for  southern food to dominate  in 2013 with the expansion of  southern-influenced mainstays such as shrimp and grits, collard/mustard greens, gumbos and maybe even a crayfish or two.

8.  Snack Time

Tastebud teasers  including  spiced nuts and other savory snacks have been a complimentary mainstay of bars and taverns for years.  It seems this concept has crossed into the dining room, with a snack menu available offering munchable morsels, such as warm olives at Patria and Campagnolo, even before the appetizers arrive.   In particular, popcorn is gaining popularity, providing a blank slate for various flavors including  truffle at Origin and chipotle-caramel at Cava,

9. Comfort Zone

It appears chefs have dusted off  their old copies of  “They Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.  A return to comfort food is an emerging trend. In 2012,  coq au vin was a staple at Richmond Station and Trevor Kitchen. Chicken Pot Pies were  being baked up traditionally  at C5 and with fois gras gravy at Reds Wine Tavern.  Fried chicken is half the menu at Paulette’s and is available for two at County General.  Old school bourguignon and gamy stews are emerging elsewhere.  Expect a cornucopia of European inspired comfort food in 2013, complete with the use of fresh meats and seafood, rich sauces and homemade, flaky pastries.

10. Icy Indulgence

Frozen desserts have become a common default dessert item for many big name chefs, especically those with a aversion to baking.  Working on the notion that frozen sugar and milk fat make anything taste better,  unique flavours have been incorporated into ice creams, sorbets and gelatos alike.  Whether it be savory flavours such as thyme or balsamic vinegar, sweetness through the use of commercial sodas or fruit nectars or incorporation of tart flavours like yuzu, a good ice cream maker and imagination is all that’s needed for this trend to blow wide open.

What do you think?  Answer the poll and add your comments.  Multiple answers are acceptable!