New Orleans Day 4: Compere Lapin and Shaya Reminded me that Drew Brees Won’t be Around for Ever

With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks.  With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served.  This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans.  Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.

Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district.  Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable.  The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.

The decor is roomy and industrial.  We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize.  The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both.  I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking.  The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous.  The actual service was just ok.

Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish.  I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything.  I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen.  With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous.  Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while.  I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too.  In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.

Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district,  Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya,  totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high.  Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible.  I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5.  We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush.  To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All hit the mark in their respective ways.  With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus.  All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.

The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes.  That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.

Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented.  Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria.  What was most disappointing was the service.  It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.

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

Drago's Seafood Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Compere Lapin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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New Orleans Day 3: Beignets, Trolling in Area 3 and a Graham Elliot Doppelganger

My commitment to three square meals continued on day three in New Orleans; that is if you are willing to accept the fact that a beignet and a cafe au lait is breakfast. Instead of hitting the Cafe Du Monde’s original location, I opted for one close to the convention centre.  It’s hard to argue that dough deep fried in cottonseed oil and covered in powdered sugar can be a bad thing and I was neither let down or really surprised.  I was, however, more intrigued by the coffee.  Historically, chicory was added to coffee by the French during their civil war to preserve rations and that tradition continued from Acadians right through the Louisiana settlers.  The intense bitterness of this plant from the Dandelion family is likely part of the reason the cafe au lait is preferred to straight up black. That said,   I picked up a can and drink it black but it’s certainly a sipping coffee more than one you would down like a shooter during the morning rush.

beighnets-cafe-du-monde
Cafe Du Monde Beignets $5

Lunch was at Peche, which won the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant in the US and is part of the Donald Link empire. This seafood-focused eatery is conveniently located a few minutes from the convention centre so it was relatively safe even among the pop-up thunder storms which seem to blast through the Big Easy at any random moment throughout the work day.

Living in southern Ontario, my access to fresh oysters is few and far between and when I can get them, they are usually overpriced Malpeques so I was delighted at the chance to pound back a dozen gems from gulf coast for a buck or two each.  On this day the features included Louisiana Area 3 (shellfish harvest area are given a number which stop at 28 and luckily do not go up to 51).  Area 3 is the easternmost harvest area.  The others were from Alabama, specifically Dauphin island.  Let’s just say if I lived here I would have absolutely no chance of pernicious anemia, would have frank hypercalcemia and I could probably play Robert Downey Jr.’s iron man double.

peche-oysters
Area 3 and Dauphin Island Oysters (much cheaper than land-locked Ontario)

Looking back, I think I told myself I would order anything with the word Louisiana in it.   In this case it was the Louisiana shrimp roll which seemed a suitable lunch choice.  Much like it’s Canadian cousin, it features a soft bun stuffed with mayo drenched seafood.  It was the prefect lunch choice….good size, good taste and good value.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the strawberry custard which was a trendy version of the no-bake  old school strawberry cheesecake my mom used to make.

Although I didn’t have the full booze laden dinner experience, lunch gave me a flavour of the food and vibe of this accolade filled eatery which was impressive.  The service was prompt and courteous but pleasantly pompous.

After a number of modernized New Orleans meals so far, it was time to go old school and visit Brennan’s for dinner.  This well established destination has a long history in the big easy.  What’s not to like about it:it’s  been around since 1946, it’s cheesy and they use words like old-world elegance and pampering service in their description on the website. Plus, their chef’s, Slade Rushing, has a name that sounds like he should be designated chef for the Sons of Anarchy. After a sazarac in the roost bar, I rewound the clock and had a seat in the tacky rounded booth in one of the many dining rooms.

I was pleased to be greeted by a waiter who looked like Michelin star chef Graham Elliot. He was quick and courteous and knowledgeable;another reminder that there still is good and traditional service in the world.  He was pleased to discuss the many aspects of the menu including the specials which included steak Diane.  I quickly checked my phone to ensure I hadn’t stumbled upon a wormhole which transported me back to the mid 20th century when tableside flambees were all the rage. Despite the date confusion, my mind was made up..I was dining on American nostalgia tonight and it was gonna be good.

brennans-elliott
Graham Elliot?

I was at a large table so collectively there was good opportunity to get feedback on a number of menu items. Appetizers ordered included the Jackson salad, turtle soup and chilled fois gras. I opted for another bite of history…crab remoulade modernized with shaved jicama, avocado and a mango vinaigrette.  It was a smart and fresh summer starter.  I had a spoonful of the turtle soup as well which was bursting with great flavours but I pondered how anybody could eat it regularly in the midst of regular tropical temperatures.

As I mentioned, the steak Diane was automatic. The other choices at the table included the filet Stanley, grouper and lamb.  We also had a vegetarian at the table who was offered the chef’s special which more or less ended up being a plateful of sauteed vegetables. Back to my dish;  Graham cooked up the steak filet like a pro and entertained us with Louisiana banter the whole time.  It was served with potato medallions and a few carrots…brilliant.  The time machine was still working. It was exactly what I expected… a pan seared piece of steak covered in salty juices. The feedback from the rest of the table on the entrees was positive…even the vegetarian seemed satisfied…but that may have been a side effect from the protein deficiency.

Going to Brennan’s and not ordering Bananas Foster would be like going to McDonald’s and never trying a Big Mac.  This labour intensive dessert’s origins lie within Brennan’s seventy year history. According to Brennan’s website (which annoying has the heading Banana’s Foster…the misuse of apostrophes is a real pet peeve of mine) It was created in 1951 after the chef Paul Blangé was challenged to come up with a dessert using surplus banana’s from a family  business.  As mentioned, table side cooking was all the rage so the bananas foster was born. I’m a true believer that nostalgia tastes incredible so I wasn’t disappointed.  There were a smorgasbord of other desserts which arrived as well including a bread pudding, chocolate pave, creme brulee and crepe Fitzgerald (also prepared tableside). The savory palate at the table opted for the cheese tray which was nicely presented with a trio of offerings.

Brennan’s is a retro oasis in a culinary scene driven by an industrial revolution driven by hipster foodies who dismiss table side cuisine but drink Manhattans because they saw it on Mad Men.  This eatery doesn’t budge on bow ties, lavish decor, crafty cocktails and insisting waitstaff earn their gratuities.  The food is unapologetically  New Orleans with the odd twist here and there.  In the end, like a handful of other eateries in the Big Easy; one can rewind the clock and dine like a mid-century aristocrat for a couple of hours and if luck is in the air, you might actually have a masterchef flambeing fare table side.

Brennan's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Ben Stiller, Tattoos and an Afternoon at the Museum

Ben Stiller annoys a lot of people.  That said, he has a decent track record when it comes to box office grosses, primarily driven by three successful trilogies; the Fockers, Madagascar and the Museum movies. In addition, one cannot forget his washroom scene in the very successful “There’s Something About Mary”. Ironically, despite being cited as the leader of the brat pack, movies in which he has starred alongside his partners (Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughan, Owen and Luke Wilson and Steve Carell) have been less successful than other Stiller franchises although not total disasters.

The Night at the Museum film series had worldwide appeal. Based on a children’s book, the cast led by Stiller was multi-generational, ranging from the likes of Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney to the late Robin Williams as Theodore Roosevelt right down to Rami Malek (now of the critically acclaimed Mr. Robot) and that creepy kid from the Vacation remake. The three movies over eight years produced diminishing returns despite bigger budgets although all three could still be considered good return on investments if you looks at the global ticket returns.

Speaking of museums, as anybody hailing from the Toronto knows, it is a city that will not be outdone. Instead of hoping for living reincarnations of a tattooed Atilla the Hun, local hipsters may be intrigued to drop in to the tattoo exhibit which is now showing at the Royal Ontario Museum.  I’m more into bourbon than body art, so after I finished up a conference along Bloor Street and had a couple of hours to kill before dinner so instead of the ROM, I visited another museum, in this case the tavern across the road to indulge in their advertised happy hour. In addition to buck a shuck oysters, one can indulge in a barrel aged cocktail for $11 vs the normal $15 charge ( although when I got the bill I was charged $15).

Choosing between a manhattan, old-fashioned, negroni and sazarac is like choosing which child I love the best.  Alright, maybe not quite but it’s a difficult task nonetheless.  In this case I opted for the first two.  A couple of ounces of both were smartly presented in a funky highball  which housed a thick base of ice instead of a floating ice cube.  The booze itself was smooth, sleek and balanced.

The oysters were fresh and served with a tasty mignonette which I downed them with the aforementioned  barrel aged  old fashioned.

museum oysters
Buck a Shuck Oysters

The Musuem tavern does represent a historical era in the fact that is has that speakeasy feel.  From the decor to the glassware, it screams the 1920s.  The menu is more modern pub fare with what appears to influenced  by a bit of everything.

Since I was grabbing dinner later, I stuck with starters and opted for the fried chicken ($14) and creole crab cakes ($16).  If my intent was to span the spectrum of available snacks I think I succeeded. The four pieces was a hearty serving of chicken which was crispier than greasy , well-seasoned and far from dry.  The crab cakes, on the other hand, can better be described at crab balls.  The dainty, bite sized morsels didn’t lack in flavour what they lacked in size.  Although they were moist, heavy on the crab and served with a decent remoulade., it hardly justified eight bucks a bite…even with pickled onions.

My Take

Viewing history is no longer the exclusive role of a museum.  Many restaurants are now setting up shop with the promise of rewinding the clocks back to the days of prohibition.  The aptly named Museum tavern is no exception and comes complete with swanky decor and a old-school barrel aged cocktail list.  In the end, it had its stars and a decent plot….or at least the trailer (aka. happy hour) suggested so.  The question will be whether the theme resonates past Toronto’s prohibition phase or whether a day at this museum turns out like Ben’s Night at the Museum and overstays its welcome.

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

Araxi at Whistler: Cougar Milk, Penticton Cheese and Memories of Hell’s Kitchen

Let me start by saying I’m not a skier. Growing up in Sudbury, we certainly had the weather for it but the once majestic mountains of the Canadian Shield  have long since eroded to more minuscule bumps, limiting any chance of maximizing 6000 foot drops. As a result, there was no ski scene other than Adanac mountain with its’ six runs and 239 ft vertical or cross country tracks near Laurentian university.

In addition, I get little enjoyment at the thought of lugging copious amounts of equipment to a crowded resort only to dress up, wait in line for a lift and let gravity pull me down a run named Cougar Milk just to end up at the point I started.  Instead, I’m more than happy to sit in the bar and provide moral support although I do feel somewhat guilty about indulging in the apres menu when I didn’t do any of the work. Maybe this is why the Whistler ski scene bugs me so much.  Don’t get me wrong…the scenery is absolutely beautiful but it is somewhat tainted by the aberrant behavior of the town’s residents and visitors.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Nobody looks cool walking in ski boots- Ski boots are for skiing and not walking.  Regardless of your gait or corresponding wardrobe, people walking around hotel lobby’s wearing boots look more foolish that a guy trying to run in high heels as part of a fundraiser.   If you’re done skiing, take your boots off.
  2. Accents are cool unless you make them up- Whistler draws youth from around the world, especially Australia and New Zealand.  Many people find such accents cute or even sexy…unless you don’t really have one. Hanging with a few Aussies for a couple of weeks doesn’t entitle you to start speaking like them.  Accents aren’t viruses..you just don’t catch one.  In addition, making up an accent to increase your hill cred is stupid; it didn’t work for Madonna it sure as hell won’t work for you.
  3. It’s evident there aren’t an abundance of salons in the village- You can get almost anything in Whistler Village…except a haircut.  According to the map, there are a few places but most people don’t seem to use them.  Sure, chronic helmet head is inevitable in such an environment, but allowing your hair to be a refuge for alpine wildlife is taking it a step too far.
  4. Bathrobes are called bathrobes for an reason.  They aren’t called restaurant robes, lobby robes or bar robes.  If you want to drink wine in a bathrobe, use your minibar.  I don’t need to see your post-pedicured feet stuffed in a pair of disposable slippers or have to witness a wardrobe malfunction because you forgot the only thing holding you man or lady parts in place is a velour belt.
  5. Weed is technically still illegal in BC- Regardless of time of day, it is almost impossible to take a stroll through the village without wafting skunky smells here and there.  Although Whistler is far from immune to wildlife, I’m sure the smells are not the results of stinky mammals….well at least not the ones with a white stripe and fur….oh wait…and four legs.

The dining scene in Whistler is a mishmash of aristocratic eateries, snack bars, beer havens and a few very recognizable franchises such as KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s.  I spent most of the time at the hotel for work functions, but I did have the opportunity to go to Araxi for dinner one night. Araxi is a fine dining establishment which gained national attention when it was announced the destination of the winner of the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen.  Dave Levey, best remembered for breaking his arm while washing a fire truck, was the eventual winner.  Rumour has it he was treated like a glorified line cook and left shortly after the 2010 winter Olympics.  In 2014, he was reported arrested as part of a drug bust in New Jersey (perhaps he thought he was still in Whister). Araxi, on the other hand, has continued to flourish under long time head chef James Walt.

I started with a Cuckoo’s calling cocktail, presumably named after the Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling crime novel which is funny because the only bourbons named in that novel are the cookies which are most recognizable as the long brown ones in a box of Peak Frean assorted creme that you only eat once the good ones are gone.  The drink had many of my favorite cocktail flavours including bacon infused bourbon, jalapeno, thyme, lemon and bitters.  The smoky flavour was prevalent but not overwhelming  and the rest of the flavours blended together well.

araxi cocktail
Cuckoo’s Calling $13.50

Araxi features an oyster bar and a small but diverse choice of starters and mains.  Since I rarely have an opportunity to indulge in fresh west coast oysters, I was happy to order a half dozen (three each of Zen and Joyce Point from coastal British Columbia).  They were shucked nicely and served with traditional condiments (fresh horseradish and lemon) and a spectacular mignonette.

araxi oysters
Oysters ($3-$3.50) each

A few of us also split a  Vancouver Island beef tartare tossed with Peruvian chilies, yuzu, local sweet peppers and snipped chives, spiced vegetable chips and arugula and topped with a quail egg.  It was smallish but the ingredients were in perfect proportion and  delivered fresh and delicate flavours with the right amount of heat and seasoning.

araxi tartare
Vancouver Beef Tartare $19.50

For the main I opted for the Quebec rabbit stuffed with slow cooked pork jowl with carrot puree, roasted carrots, sauteed brussel sprouts and grainy mustard vinaigrette.  It didn’t dawn on me on first but I thought afterwards it was rather strange to have a dish with rabbit and carrots together but once I tried the puree, any thoughts related to this food chain faux pas quickly hopped out of my head. It was fantastic.  The rabbit with the pork was incredible and reminded me of a two-tiered and  upscale M&M chicken tornado my mom used to make. The sprouts and carrots were a nice al dente.

araxi rabbit
Quebec Rabbit $36.50

For desert, I decided on a cheese course featuring a mix of offerings from local, Canadian and Italy sources.  I’ve tried a few such as the delicious Benedictin Bleu from Quebec and P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar before, but although not normally a huge fan of the softies, the Poplar Grove double cream camembert from Penticton was the star.  In addition to the decedent taste,  its glistening interior was visually stunning. The fig compote was unbelievably good as well.

araxi cheese
Cheese Plate $23.50 for 5 cheeses (a little more for the extra)

My Take

Whistler draws thousands of annual guests ranging from novice skiers to village wondering orophobic tourists.  As a result, the variety of shops and eateries is quite diverse.  Whether it’s an urban taco bar or a swanky sit down, there is no shortage of choices.  Araxi is one of the most recognized of the latter and lived up to its long standing reputation although at resort prices. Whether it’s untamed hair or an affinity for the maryjane, just remember what happens in Whistler should stay in Whistler…just ask the winner of  Hell’s Kitchen six.

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

Bar Fancy: Bohemian Burlesque Beyond What Alanis Morrisette Says

I still remember the backlash from the community when Alanis Morrisette continuously misused the word ironic on the hit song with the same name of the “Jagged Little Pill” album. They argued that things like rain on your wedding day and a fly in your chardonnay are not ironic but in fact nothing more than shit luck.  Bar Fancy, on the other hand,  is a basic example of irony. Everything about the place fits the blueprint…I mean, the bar is far from fancy. In fact, it’s a bit of a visual atrocity; a mix between a garage and a bachelor apartment.  I would take it a step further and argue that what this Queen West eatery does is beyond irony and actually is more burlesque. Often associated with extravagant and over the top entertainment antics in movies like Moulin Rouge!, the word burlesque encompasses general exaggeration and ridicule. Bar Fancy  has a stupid website that has no copies of the menu and gives you nothing more than an address, hours and a picture of a neon tiger which shows you the way to the semi-hidden entrance.  Once inside,  they have a potluck menu (along with the token extra-large and stupid expensive steak) hand written on a sheet of paper.

I arrived for happy hour  and sat at the kitchen rail with a good view of the kitchen.  A couple of hipster guys were behind the counter, dressed in no way like executive chefs, waiting to prepare menu items to order. The beer and wine menu is intentionally small.  I asked for a cocktail list and was told they really didn’t have one but all the classics were available. I asked for a recommendation and a black manhattan came my way.

Although not the largest happy hour menu, I’ve concluded that half price oysters and $2 a piece fried chicken are a good way to spend the pre-dinner hours.  The chicken met all the criteria of a good bite. While I was there, I watched the kitchen with great interest. Each dish was meticulously prepared from scratch by plaid dressed peons with decent knife skills and obvious culinary comprehension.

bar fancy chicken
$2 Fried Chicken

My Take 

I remember doing a project in university where I had to interview a restaurant whose ironic tag line was “warm beer.lousy food”. Since then, the use of irony has evolved in the food industry.  Hipsters bars have embraced irony and have raised the bar by making things burlesque by exaggerating all the elements of the experience beyond just a simple catch line.

Bar Fancy is an example of a bohemian burlesque. You feel you are at a house party in somebody’s bachelor apartment. Hipsters prepare potluck foods while offering you a small array of beer and wine.  They have no cocktail menu but can whip up any of the classics upon request. Fancy additions like egg whites and lavender shrubs are absent.

Although I’m generally adverse to the silliness of the concepts around hipster havens, I like Bar Fancy. During happy hour, I can grab an old-fashioned, half a dozen oysters and a couple of pieces of chicken for under $30.  I love the lack of a complex cocktail list  and appreciate the simple concept around their  casual, made to order menu.  I’ll have to give it a shot late at night even if it’s after a free ride when I’ve already paid.

Bar Fancy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Korean Cowboy: Fried Spaghetti Westerns and a Mad Hatter Menu

Cowboys have always been a focal point in pop culture.   Bon Jovi is a cowboy…on a steel horse he rides.   Paula Cole asked us where have all the cowboys gone? after she does all the laundry.  Jon Favreau reminded us why Olivia Wilde should stick to television and Daniel Craig to James Bond when he directed Cowboys and Aliens (which only received 44% on rotten tomatoes).  Whether you watch American Idol or read Louis L’Amour, the cowboy is one of the quintessential symbols of Americana.

Korea on the other hand, elicits another series of thoughts and feelings.  Political pundits will cite the lovable Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea or the infamous Kim Jong-un of  the North.  Youtube junkies have hummed and danced to  Psy’s Gangnam Style behind closed doors since 2012.  Foodies hear Korean and think about  bibimbap, bulgogi and hot pots.

So, when thinking of a Korean Cowboy, any number of images come to mind. One may think of Glenn Rhee swapping out his ball cap for a Stetson in the Walking Dead or the purposely annoying Ken Jeong following the gang to the Alamo in the Hangover 15.  Regardless, I suspect the vision of such a cowboy would be more in line with wackiness and fun as opposed to a cameo in a somber scene from the Unforgiven. When looking at the rather insane offerings at Korean Cowboy in advance, I was reminded of the phrase mad hatter which originated from the overt symptoms hatters use to exhibit due to mercury poisoning from the felt used inside of hats and wondered if this menu was a side effect. However, when the website explained  that Koreans are fun people who enjoy lots of booze, fun food and general goofiness,  I figured the menu was a reflection of the fact that this establishment promised  a forum for all three.

Located on Yonge just north of Eglinton, Korean Cowboy had an exciting buzz from the minute I entered. I was greeted by a bubbly waitress and seated at a table with a good view of televisions and saloon-like surroundings. The bar was reminiscent of a scene from an old spaghetti western and offered craft beer, soju and a decent rail of spirits.   The name of the restaurant is painted across mirrors situated behind the shelved booze.  Speaking of spaghetti, I was intrigued by the first of many anju dishes available on the menu; fried spaghetti.  Anju, as I learned from the website, is a generic term given to snacks which are usually served and  enjoyed in the presence of alcohol. This fried spaghetti was not the traditional throw leftovers it in a pan and heat up type.  It was fried in its dry state, creating an odd but intriguing nibble.  For a buck, you can’t go wrong.

Fried Spaghetti $1
Fried Spaghetti $1

It was a Wednesday which happened to be oyster night, meaning you could get a dozen for $12. Instead of the traditional hot sauce and horseradish, they were served with a carousel of unique toppings which included among others Korean tabasco, chili vinegar, sesame, coffee and soju.  Each put a fun and unique spin on eating a plate full of the molluscs. The coffee was probably the most unique and the chili vinegar was one of the best.

Oyster Condiments
Oyster Condiments
Wednesday Night Oysters  12/$12
Wednesday Night Oysters 12/$12

There are no apologies on the menu for the lack of fine food.  Instead, the menu items looked like the product of an episode of Chopped held in a dorm room.  Take the hot dog stir fry ($3.99)for example.  The simple combination of chopped wieners, vegetables and a ketchup sauce result in a dish you want to hate but can’t. It’s tangy and sweet and something you would crave on a street corner after a few pints and allow you to go to bed confident that you’d wake up fine the next morning.

Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99
Hot Dog Stir Fry $3.99

The cheesy spicy rice cakes were a cross between laffy taffy and ball game nachos with that repulsive yet delicious spicy cheese sauce. The chewy rice cakes may not appeal to everybody, but as a guy who loves tapioca and any kind of pudding I found the texture oddly appealing especially when hidden among the nostalgic stadium flavours. This dish was a home run.

Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99
Cheesy Spicy Rice Cakes $5.99

The steamed bun burger ($3.99) was a decent attempt at this classic Asian snack.  The Korean spiced beef sat nicely in the white folded bun riddled with black sesame seeds.  Green onions and cucumbers finished it off. It was messy, wonder bread fun.

BBQ Beef Buns $3.99
BBQ Beef Bun $3.99

Strategies to get kids to eat vegetables usually involves dousing them in cheese, sauce and/or butter.  This is usually the case with brussel sprouts and broccoli but Korean Cowboy does it with corn.  It tasted like one of Gramma’s casseroles before anybody gave a shit about butter or fat.   It was ridiculously but regretfully good, much like a vat of movie popcorn or a slice of greasy, deep dish pizza.

Skillet Corn $5.99
Skillet Corn $5.99

I’m always interested in a good taco so I ordered one of each of the korean beef, spicy pork and chicken.  Each was filled with a cabbage salad and the aforementioned meats in a rather large flour tortilla.  They were decent but in a city in which tacos have become a foodie staple, they fell a little short.  The shell was too much and swallowed instead of housing the taste of the proteins.  Retrospectively, I should have ordered ssam (lettuce wraps) instead to allow the filling to shine a little more.

Tacos $10.99 for 3
Tacos $10.99 for 3

The wings were also a bit disappointing.  They were “cooked the Korean way” and bathed in your choice of a number of sauces. After the anju, I expected a wing with a compilation of crunch, succulent sweet and sinister spice. They weren’t as crunchy nor sweet or spicy enough.  They had the texture of a M and M breaded wing that had been baked in the oven for 20 minutes. The fries were fresh cut and tasted especially good when dipped  in the hot dog or rice cake sauce.

K-wings and Fries $14.99
K-wings and Fries $14.99

My Take

Korean cowboy is a playful addition to mid-town Toronto dining.  Whether it is the decent choice of craft beer, a glass of soju or a variety of anju, malarkey ensues the minute you sit down.  The food is a mix of dorm room creations and campfire provisions developed through the delirium of a culinary mad hatter who wants to fuse Korean fare with edible Americana. The tacos and wings were average.  Despite the fact I tore through a good part of the menu, there are still things like sawdust chicken,G-PO (file fish), kimchi fries and squid and pear salad not to mention a number of pork dishes including mocha pork belly and the King Koink platter.  Maybe next time I visit I’ll throw on a mercury-free fedora and hum Kid Rock’s “I’m a cowboy baby….I can smell a pig from a mile away” as I strut up Yonge street and sniff the air.

Korean Cowboy on Urbanspoon

Hopgood’s Foodliner as Switzerland to Toronto’s Proposed East vs West Food Rivalry

I’ve been pondering a visit to Hopgood’s for some time now.  I often stay downtown so the thought of a long drive, expensive and smelly cab or an onerous TTC excursion usually turns me off and I end up settling on something a little closer. However, a few Mondays ago I was driving to Toronto from London right around dinner time and took advantage of the location plus buck a shuck oysters by popping in before checking into my hotel for the night.

Hopgood’s has received constant accolades since opening a few years back.  It’s theme is east coast fare with a Toronto twist. It goes without saying that it boasts a ocean-centric menu with a bit of poetic licence.  The menu is smallish but complemented with a number of blackboard specials meant to highlight seasonal ingredients.

I grabbed a seat at the bar right in front of the oyster shucker.  He was busy cracking open the joints of 4 or 5 different types and throwing them on trays of ice.  Oysters are a most interesting culinary phenomenon.  There are dozens of species of oysters and each have a distinct profile.  Much like wine, pundits post comments about the bouquet and balance of the tasty mollusks.  There are heated debates about proper condiments; horseradish, lemon and mignonette seems to be holy trinity but it is not uncommon to see cocktail sauce and even blended scotch make it’s way on the list as well. In oyster world, there is also the east versus west coast battle which may be as heated as the music rivalry which has existed in the hip-hop/rap world since the nineties.

Let’s stop here for a second.  I’m a white guy who can’t dance or sing but I’ve always been fascinated by the impact that music has had on popular culture.  Historically, religion and land claims have the two biggest triggers for disputes across the globe. However, in the last 20 years one can argue that one of the biggest rivalries (at least in the US) has been fueled by music.  The west coast vs east coast conflict peaked in the late nineties with the murders of  the treasonous 2Pac (I say so because he was actually born in east Harlem and became one of the kingpins in the west coast movement) in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G ( the self-proclaimed king of New York) just six months later.  I read into this a bit more and discovered a couple of interesting facts:

  • Tupac and B.I.G were victims of drive by shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California respectively.
  • Tupac was hit four times in the chest, pelvis, and his right hand and thigh.  B.I.G was also hit four times with almost an identical profile except for a shot in the back versus chest.  Both reports noted that one of bullet hit the victim’s left testicle.
  • Tupac died six days later in hospital while B.I.G died only an hour after the shooting.
  • Neither  case has  been solved although much speculation still exists as to who the shooters were.  Not surprisingly, names like Diddy and Suge Knight (and in the case of Tupac Biggy himself) come up, but the composite sketch of B.I.G’s shooter looks like The Fresh Prince’s Carlton more than any of the suspected hip-hop thugs.

Back to Hopgood’s.  As opposed to a skinny and cut West Coast Tupac and a heavy east coast Notorious B.I.G, oysters are the opposite. Atlantic oysters tend to be a bit smaller whereas Pacific are meatier. What I found impressive was the fact that there was no compromise in quality even though it was buck a shuck night.  I have been to other places where the only option were rather measly and pathetic Malpeques .  They did charge for condiments such as horseradish (and a rather interested egg/scapple combination (6 o’clock) which I quite enjoyed) but that still didn’t hinder the fact that they were a great deal.  They did take some time to come and an apology came in the form of a free oyster topped with a torched parmesan sauce (2 o’clock) which gave it a nice baked oyster taste without compromising the integrity of the fresh oyster itself.

Oysters (A Buck each)
                                                                     Oysters (A Buck each)

While waiting for the oysters I ordered a winter derby (Elijah Craig Bourbon, Averna, Clementine Shrub, Lemon, Maple Syrup, Cinnamon & Pear Bitters) for $15.  It was tasty cocktail and while a little on the sweet side, had a nice balance and richness which removed the temptation to shoot it while at the same time not being a meal in itself.

Winter Derby $15
                                 Winter Derby $15

I went to the blackboard for my next dish which was beet greens served with brown butter and walnuts.  The bitterness of the greens were harnessed somewhat but the sweetness of the butter and the walnuts glued things together with earthy contrast and crunchy texture. The apple added a needed freshness. I found it a very smart dish.

Beet Greens
Beet Greens $6

The blackboard also offered a tuna belly crudo which was garnised with a salad made of watermelon radish.  It was safer than I expected.  The tuna itself was fresh and delicious but there was a general lack of seasoning, acid and heat. In the end, I thought the fish and salad lacked cohesion as a single dish.

Tuna Belly Crudo
                                                Tuna Belly Crudo $10

For the main course  I stuck to the menu and ordered the sablefish with a n’duja and brussel sprout salad. I expected that a restaurant with great accolades  which specializes in seafood would be able to nail a piece and sablefish and I wasn’t disappointed.  What blew my mind was the salad.  The crunch of the sprouts with the surprising heat (after all where are talking east coast) of the n’duja was unexpected.  In fact, the fish was close to playing supporting actor to the sprouts but the fact it was perfectly cooked allowed it’s buttery richness to shine as the star on the plate.

Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N'duja
                                                    Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N’duja $25

Since I was so impressed with the salad, I couldn’t help but turn to the blackboard and hope that the steamed scallops with n’duja was still available ( I should state here that like most specials, they are made in limited quantities and many of them had lines scratched through them as the night went on).  It was a carbon copy of the sablefish; the beautifully presented (in shell)  scallops were respectfully prepared and once again the sauce was spicy and delicious.  I love playing with my food and I had fun dissecting the bivalves.

Steamed Scallops
                                                                   Steamed Scallops $12

There were long voids in between dishes and I found the service quite scattered and unorganized.  Maybe it was the fact that the waiter taking care of me also had everybody else at bar, a few tables and was responsible for all the drinks.  Although it was a Monday, it was busy and I think at times there was no rhyme or reason to the ways things flowed.

My Take

There is no doubt in my mind why Hopgood’s Foodliner has received the laurels it has since it opened a few years back.  It takes the friendly cuisine of the east coast and urbanizes it to compete in Toronto’s progressive dining scene.  Smart blackboard specials, perfectly executed proteins and surprisingly sauces highlight a superb menu.  The cocktail list is pricy but smart by taking a number of tastes,flavours and boozes into consideration.  The overall experience, however,  was somewhat hampered by slow, inconsistent and confused service.

Classic east/west rivalries such as the Celtics versus Lakers exist in sports. In the culinary world, celebrity chef and competitive brothers Bryan and Mike Voltaggio represent both sides of the United States (with west coast Michael winning the head to head battle on season six of  Top Chef). I got thinking than a similar east versus west rivalry may add some spice to Toronto’s dining scene.  Perhaps the line can be drawn along Bathurst which would nicely separate the bourbon- swilling Parkdale posse from the suit wearing Grey Goose-drinking downtown dwellers.  Thankfully, the likelihood of shootings is minimal, but I imagine feuds could escalate into a night of a few Campari or Shiraz-fueled bitchslaps should things get out of hand.  More likely would be the back and forth twitter banter such as “Hey Don Draper..how’s that Manhattan Tasting #westisbest” or “I drink AFTER working a 10 hour shift, not DURING one  #plaidisbad”.  The biggest question regarding Hopgood’s is since it’s an east coast restaurant on the west side, which side of the fence they would sit on?  Perhaps it can assert itself as a neutral zone and a place where all can exist in harmony while doing oyster shots….just as long as you’re not in a hurry.

Hopgood's Foodliner on Urbanspoon