Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?…Probably at King and Shaw

One of the advantages of having younger siblings is the ability to watch some of the television shows that you might not normally watch without getting beat up by your friends. Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? is an example of one of these shows.  Carmen was a master villain  who directed her minions to steal world landmarks.  She dressed in a trench coat and a wide brimmed hat to disguise herself.  In the end, the villain would get caught by the astute contestants but Carmen would escape much to the dismay of the chief who was played by the late Lynne Thigpen.  Even though I was an older teenager, I did learn a lot from that show.  For example, it taught me that the Washington monument looked like a dildo and that Louvres is the one with the pyramid  in the courtyard.  In fact, I may have gotten an ‘A’ in geography because of that shifty laddie.

I have been keen to try Carmen since it replaced the space along Queen street that Caju used to occupy.  Following  the blueprint of Cava and Patria, it focuses on Spanish inspired tapas except in this case adds a few twists and turns here and there. We arrived at around seven to a quarter-full restaurant so getting a seat didn’t seem a problem.  By 730, however, the place was full so I considered us afortunado that we got a seat.

Carmen has an impressive cocktail menu with a focus mainly on bourbon and tequila.  I started with the Almodovar  ($14) which was Bourbon, triple sec, lime, mint and  olive oil.  It was nice summer cocktail with fresh flavours which matched the acid and fattiness in some of the early dishes. Loved the olive oil.

Matador $14
Almodovar $14

 

There were a small group of us, so we ordered a docena of dishes to try the array of flavours that Carmen offered.

1. Pulpo Vinagretta ($8)

A cross between ceviche and an antipasto .The acid is sherry vinegar instead of lime and plenty of olive oil is used. Served with fresh bread, it was a delicious start to the meal.

Pulpo (Octopus)
Pulpo (Octopus) Vinagretta $8

2. Jicama con Aguacate  ($8)

More Mexican than Spanish, these little morsels were a tasty bite of fresh flavours. I have a jicama fetish so I thought they were just delicious.

Jicama
Jicama con Aguacate $7

3. Marinated Olives ($4)

I’m not an olive fan but based on the feedback from the table and the visibly appealing  presentation of different sizes and colours of this popular fruit, I’d say it was a good spent for four bucks.

Olives
Marinated Olives $4

4. Ribeye Pintxos ($14)

A delicious take on these Spanish snacks.  The amount of beef was a little stingy but attractive and well prepared.

Ribeye Pintoxes
Ribeye Pintxos $14

5. Carne Tartara ($12)

Hardly a traditional Spanish dish, beef tartare is a Toronto restaurant staple.  This one compares well to the others in the area.  Pickled ramps and cucumber accessorize the beef along an in-shell quail egg sitting atop it.

Tartar
Carne Tartara $12

6. Patatas Bravas ($7)

These were a true representation of one of Spain’s most recognized dishes.  Slightly sweet and spicy sauce was slathered atop a generous plate of crispy potatoes and finished with streams of aioli.  Very enjoyable.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $7

7.  Crispy bread, fresh tomato spread and manchego cheese ($6)

Nicely presented, fresh, simple and authentic, this dish was a pleasant facsimile of the homeland favorite.

Crispy Bread with Tomato and Manchego Cheese
Crispy Bread, Fresh Tomato and Manchego Cheese $6

8. Pork Tenderloin

A piquant sauce beneath slices of nicely cooked pork tenderloin and topped with manchego cheese, this dish was simple but delicious.

Pork Tenderloin
Pork Tenderloin $10

9. Blood Sausage

Probably the funkiest dish on the menu, I enjoyed the nicely seasoned sausage covered in melted cheese.  Surprisingly, blood sausage is quite a universal dish but I think very few of those cultures top it with cheese like you would escargot or nachos.

Blood Sausage
Blood Sausage $13

10. Quail

The versatile (and foodie friendly) bird was served with flavours including olive and almond. It was a well executed dish.

Quail
Quail $12

11.  Galletas ($2.50 each) and Helado ($6)

I suppose you could call this the Spanish version of cookies and ice cream.  Normally served  separately, we decided on these as small and sweet ways to end the meal.   No complaints.  The cookies were moist and flavourful and not over sweet despite the use of dulce de leche and the rhubarb ice cream was a tart but enjoyable finish to the evening.

Galletas $2.50 each
Galletas $2.50 each
Carmen Ice Cream
Helado $6

My Take

Carmen opened in the midst of the Spanish invasion and before the explosion of the small plate phenomenon in Toronto. It sticks to both the blueprint of traditional tapas with dishes like Patatas Bravas and Ribeye Pintxos but also offers  “vanguardia” dishes with fusion concepts including Mexico and the Middle East.   All in all, the food was above average.  The vibe was a little quieter than some of the other eateries in the area which made for an enjoyable night of discussion instead of trying to speak over the bellowing voices of the in-house music. I didn’t see Vic the Slick , Patty Larceny or any of the other minions associated with the show attempting to steal silverware or the large painting of a woman (who I presume might be Carmen) off the wall. However, I thought I might have seen Carmen Sandiego herself lurking around the shadows of restaurant…but then again, maybe it was just Joanne Kates.

 

Carmen on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Alioli! I had Croquetas at Coqueta

When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain.  It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”.  Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef  Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy  Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.  I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation.  Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier.  The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used.  Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables.  There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.

Coqueta's Interior
Coqueta’s Interior

Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty.  There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables.  What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power.  The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of  quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham.  AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid.  To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego  cheese and the apricot conserva  was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.

Pixotes 3.50
Various Pintxos $3.50

It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the  Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back.  I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13).  The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion,  were seasoned and cooked well.  The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.

Shrimp
“Sunnny side-up Huevo with shrimp, crispy  dressing potato and chorizo dressing  ($13)

A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8.  Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes.  It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish.  Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was  subbed for a tomato  base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $8

The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok.  Keep in mind I’m impartial  to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception.  Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.

Croquetas
Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon $9

The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively.  It tasted pretty too.

Beets
Ensalada de Remolacha $9

The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish.  The  calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time.  The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.

calamari
Calamares a la Plancha $10

I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs filled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7).  Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten.  It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.

Eggs
Huevos Nacional $7

The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and truffle honey-$8).  Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox.   Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.

Salmon
Salmon Ahumado $8

Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14).  There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents.  The salsa was delicious.

Asparagus
Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco $14

The most carnivorous tapas order was the  Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12).  I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked.  The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.

Coqueta Meatballs
Albondigas a la Feria $12

My Take

Eating at  a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot.  Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist.  Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast.  Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all   Since the James Beard awards are like the  Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally.  However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie,  I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing  the point.  A few dishes at Coqueta were like that;  it was a good experience  but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex.  The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.

Coqueta on Urbanspoon