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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Website

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

The Piano Bar

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

The Decor 

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

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

The Service

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

The Food 

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

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

La Castille Pickles
La Castille Pickles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

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

King Street 2.0: Barhop

I’ve realized that I have done a number of second visits to restaurants along King street so far this year.  Since it has been some time since I’ve been to or reviewed these places, I figured it would be prudent to update my experiences.  Let’s start with Barhop.

Both the staff and many of the patrons at Barhop are what I refer to as “hopsters”.  Hopsters fall under the same genus as hipsters but they differ in order in that their angst is geared toward those who don’t appreciate the fine art of brewing. My first experience with hopsters was almost 20 years ago at C’est What?, a brewpub on Front Street.  I remember watching people come in and order a Canadian or a Blue only to be scoffed at by the staff followed by a stern lecture pointing out that you can’t order a macrobrew here. At the time, I thought it was quiet humourous and chuckled under my breath at the unsuspecting fools.

Barhop has carried on the hopster tradition but has adapted it to 2015.  Even with a decent knowledge of beer, there is no guarantee you will receive prompt and/or courteous service. I dropped in one night only to sit there for 10 minutes without so much as an acknowledgment so I left.  I returned a second time and it was equally as busy but this time I got a rail seat and at least an offer of a drink.  It goes without saying that the beer selection is amazing.  Most of the draft choices are local brews including side launch, KLB, Amsterdam, Indie Ale House, Sawdust city etc. They also have a few of their own branded pints including a very good nitro ESB.  They also have rare brews, table bottles and all sorts of other delights.

From a food perspective, the menu is exactly what you would expect; bar food with a gastropub twist. I only had a few snacks since I was grabbing dinner later.  These pictures are brutal but I wanted to minimize the use of the flash so as not to disturb the hopsters as they began their nocturnal ritual.  The olives and marinated cheese ($13) were served with grilled bread. I thought the cheese was a clever dish and a bit of a deviation from the normal cheese plates served in the area.  The homemade jerky ($9) was served with a bourbon bacon jam.  I must say this the first time I’ve ever eaten jerky with jam.  I won’t say there was synergy in the combined flavours but I think the jam made the jerky, which was quite dry (as is meant to be) a little easier to chew.  The fried pickles served with ranch ($9) hit the mark and were comparable to other places from both a taste and price perspective.

My Take

The original microbrew movement was somewhat quashed by the realization of international conglomerates that microbrews  posed a threat to their bottom line. This resulted in the purchase and/or suppression of many a fine beer.  Creemore, for example, was purchased by Molson (who is owned by Coors’) in 2005 and to this day has been disguised as a microbrewery.  Both Alexander Keith’s and Rickard’s stay at arms length from their owners (Anheuser-Busch and  Molson Coors Brewing respectively) and promote family values, tradition and other moral lessons.

Luckily, this decade has seen a return to the art of authentic craft brewing. Barhop was one of the first restaurants to jump on the resurgence of the true microbrewery movement in Ontario.  With it comes the hopster attitude and a menu which tries to match the needs of their beer swilling patrons.  It’s crowded, they don’t take reservations and the service can be inconsistent but if you want a good pint in the entertainment district, this is your best bet….just don’t order a bud.

Click to add a blog post for Bar Hop on Zomato

DDD:Toking at Tommy’s Joynt although Cheech was the Californian

I was excited to drop into Tommy’s Joynt for an afternoon bite.    Touted as San Francisco’s original Hofbrau, it has been serving a menu centred on carved meat sandwiches since 1947.  They take pride in a no frills attitude and keeping prices low.  In fact, the only three  menu items over ten bucks are the famous Buffalo Stew, braised  oxtails with pasta (served Monday) and  braised  lamb shanks with vegetables (served Thursday and Sunday).  The hunks of meat sitting in the cafeteria style chafing dishes right inside the door while the rest of the place is a seating area complete with a bar serving local craft draught, international bottles and  cheapish cocktails. The cast of characters ranged from young to old, regulars to tourists and hipsters to those with with artificial hips.  The decor is a reminder that it’s been open for almost 70 years.  Hundreds of knick-knacks fill the walls, shelves and any other square inch of available space.  It’s like a yard sale on steroids.  They’ve never changed their style, they just added to it. It’s like a timeline of post WWII Americana scattered all over the place.

Apparently Tommy’s is “Where Turkey is King” so I strolled to the counter and ordered the roast turkey sandwich for $6 along with a side of mixed pickled beans for $2.65.  The guy behind the counter pulled out the bird, carved some meat off the bird and slapped it on a fresh baguette with a side of au jus.  As magical as Tommy’s was, they still couldn’t solve the dry poultry issue.  You can’t keep a turkey in a chafing dish and expect it to stay moist.  That said, the au jus added flavour and moisture to the sandwich.  The bean salad was pretty typical.  I thought things like the barrel of complimentary pickles (complete with a sign telling you not to abuse the pickle pecking privlegdes) to the  strategically placed mustard jars were a nice touch.

Turkey Sandwich $6 with Pickled Bean Salad $2.65
Turkey Sandwich $6 with Pickled Bean Salad $2.65

My Take

Tommy’s Joynt is a west coast version of a Hofbrau, a casual German eatery with focus on beer and food.   Having no idea who the place is named after, I figured it might be Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame). Ironically, Cheech is the Californian (Chong is a good old Canadian).  I mean, the psychedelic paint job on the outside, the easy access to copious amounts of food, some clientele that look like they have hot boxed a few million times and even the fact it has “joynt’ in the name makes my theory somewhat viable. In fact, after a drag one might relish staring intently at the numerous trinkets which populate the walls and shelves.  That said, the food was reasonable, the vibe was good but it just didn’t give me the “high”  some of the other Diners, Drive-ins and Dives did.

Food- 3.5 Guyz

Service- 4 Guyz

Vibe- 4 Guyz

Total- 11.5 Guyz

Tommy's Joynt on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Cabbagetown:Kingyo Izakaya

Kingyo is like a vacation hotspot I never seem to get to.  I see pictures of happy people eating pretty food without a care in the world plastered all over twitter.  At the same time, I’m cordially invited to the join the party and indulge in the daily specials with the fun employees.  I never seem to make it however. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in town on business by myself and know I wouldn’t scratch the surface of the menu or I just didn’t want to head east all the way  to Cabbagetown.

There is a time, however, when you have to ignore the temptation to choose another destination and just book the trip. So I picked up the phone and made a reservation for a friend and I.   I announced my intention on twitter and received a resounding Yay! in return. All was set. I even  pondered taking an Advil in anticipation of a noise level similar that of Guu or other Izakayas across town.

I haven’t walked much past Jarvis for a while.  In fact, I think the last time I strolled down Parliament was when I used to carry groceries back from No Frills while living at Bloor and Jarvis in 1997. I’m not sure much has changed since then…except Kingyo of course. Upon arrival, we swung open the door and entered the oasis, a Japanese eatery carved out of an old brick building.   It was buzzing but not overly loud with the main noise coming from a large birthday party.  We were offered a choice of a table or the sushi counter facing the kitchen.  We chose the latter and our choice was sung out in glee by the waitstaff. A pleasant woman arrived quickly and produced a business card, introducing herself as Akiho.  I guess you could call her our travel agent for the evening.

Here are a couple of things to note about Izakayas:

1.  The menus are enormous.  There’s tofu, seafood, pork, beef, chicken, shellfish,  spicy, salty, sour, rice, noodles, raw, cooked or raw and cooked. It’s like trying to choose between puffin watching, bike riding or a wine tour.

2.  In many cases, you have to trust the waitstaff.  That said, there will probably be one thing you get that you didn’t order.  Call it fate…just smile, nod and eat it. It’s sort of like a foreign  tour guide…you don’t always understand what they say, but in the end it’s usually an enjoyable experience.

3.  Don’t be alarmed by excessive happiness or singing.  You are not on Just for Laughs, in a broadway musical or expected to join a flash mob to Styx’s Mr. Roboto. It’s part of the experience…like salsa dancing on the deck of a cruise ship.

So, after examining the menu like we were studying for an SAT, the ordering began…

I love yuzu and a good gin and tonic.  The three together were an automatic choice for a starting cocktail.  It was presented without bells and whistles like umbrellas or lotus flowers.  I sucked it back pretty quick, a testament  to a good drink. Not a bad price either.

Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8
Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8

The first dish was tako wasabi, It was served beautifully on a stone plate with seaweed paper and a wooden well that Tinkerbell makes wishes in.  If you don’t like wasabi, don’t order this.  I’m not sure if the request for half cooked and half raw octopus was heard because it seemed all  raw but it didn’t matter.  It was a delicious dish.

Tako Wasabi $4.20
Tako Wasabi $4.20

I can’t turn down pickles…or pickels as it was spelled on the menu.  Regardless, the pickles were presented nicely. A cute trio of onion, daikon radish and squash were presented in three distinct ways. Although each may not appeal to everybody, it was like a buffet in which at least one would appease any palate.

Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80
Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80

Since there were only two of us, the 3 kind assortment of sashimi made the most sense.  I have seen the phenomenal presentation of the sashimi on other food reviews, so I was looking forward to a little visual magic.  The plain, white bowl was a bit disappointing (it was like seeing a great hotel on their website only to find the real room a little drab).  Maybe it was because I cheaped out and only ordered the three kind as apposed to 5 or 7.  Although pricy, the sashimi, was delicious. a mix of delicacies stretching the pacific from BC to Hawaii to Japan.

Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment 25.00
Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment
25.00

Next was the red tuna & black tiger prawn avocado tartar.  It tasted exactly how it sounded.  The sweet house sauce was a great touch, adding an unorthodox dimension to a normally rich and buttery dish.  There was a substantial amount of tartar for the 4 garlic crisps..maybe a few rice crackers or other mediums of transfer would have been a practical touch.

Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80
Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80

When it came to the meat,  I was intrigued by the stone grilled beef tongue because it required me to cook it myself.  Served with lemon, a hot sauce and and a savory oil, it requires you to slap some raw tongue on a hot stone and listen to the sizzle. The whole cooking process took less than 30 seconds (see below for my simple three step instructional).  It was fun and delicious and each of the condiments added a contrasting sensory dimension to the salty meat.

Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20- Step 1
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Done!
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 3

For those who like sizzle but not a little tongue, the stone bowl seafood sea urchin don is a smart choice. served with an array of seafood including prawn, squid, scallop and salmon roe.  After presenting the attractive dish, the waitress mixed it for us as it sizzled against the bowl. The suggestion was to let it sit for a while so the rice could caramelize a bit.  In the end, it’s a decent dish with a variety of texture and tastes, although with the ingredients, I expected a bit more of a pop.

Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed

By this time I needed another drink so I ordered the signature gold fish cocktail. I enjoyed it…refreshing with a bit of a kick.  As with the yuzu gin and tonic, I do appreciate $8 cocktails in this world of the numerous double digit offerings by other establishments.

Goldfish Cocktail $8
Goldfish Cocktail $8

The last dish was the Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll.  It’s inevitable that I order a spicy tuna roll every time I visit a place that offers sushi.  Based on the rest of the menu, I wasn’t surprised to see that these rolls had a twist.  The spice was moderate and tuna was roughly chopped to protect it’s delicate texture and taste, The tobiko was a appropriate, salty touch.   The mango was fresh, bright and sweet but a bit overwhelming against the rest of the roll.

Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80
Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80

Japanese restaurants and good dessert can rarely be mentioned  in the same sentence. but not all offer “famous” almond tofu.  Touched with a cap of jasmine syrup and a belt of  tart berry sauce, it had a silky texture and great flavour balance. The key was digging down to the bottom to experience all the complementing flavours in one bite.

2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80
2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80

The final touch was a couple of frozen grapes hidden among yellow flowers in a tiny vase.  Perhaps picked by Tinkerbell or Pollyanna, they were a final reminder of the attention to detail and artistic flare that Kingyo prides themselves on.

Thank you grapes
Thank you grapes

My Take

The izakaya movement has hit Toronto, leading to a plethora of interpretations.  Some have taken the boisterous, karaoke route and others have chosen to go down the route of creating dishes that look straight from travel brochures.  Kingyo opted for the latter and attempted to create an oasis in an otherwise rustic and some would argue rundown and eccentric part of Toronto. Akiho brought us on a tour of wishing wells, hot rocks and bright flowers (although she did disappear for a bit).    In a world of all you can eat sushi menus similar to  all inclusive vacations, Kingyo offers a unique experience filled with good times, fun scenery and good food with enough variety to please meat eaters, pescatarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant alike. Plus, if you’re lucky, you may get serenaded by the wait/kitchen staff or actually spot a fairy hiding behind a mushroom or casting magic wishes in a tiny wooden well.

Kingyo Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Roncesvalles:Barque

After walking up and down Roncesvalles during a festival, I looked at my phone and realized it was close to five.  Knowing that Barque opened then and they hold a percentage of the place for walk-ins, I grabbed the kids and trekked to the front doors. I felt like I was trying to get a wristband for the MMVAs.  It did change my assumption that the only people who eat at 5 pm are kids and senior citizens. I broke a mild sweat as the place  gradually filled.  When it got to my turn, I mustered up my request. She looked apologetic and informed me that the only seats left were those at the bar facing the kitchen.  I couldn’t stifle the smile and said  “Done!” as we were directed to our seats.

The decor strays  from the traditional smokehouse and resembles something you would expect in the west end of Toronto. I was a bit relieved to see a number of children peppered throughout the smallish venue and on the decent sized patio out back. As soon as we were seated, the show began.One of the sous chefs wheeled out about 150 lbs of brisket and methodically prepared it for the smoker.  He pulled out a chunk of brisket and infused each with a large syringe filled with some magic elixir and transferred it to a tray.  He looked like a cross between Bruce Lee and Dr. Frankenstein.  Upon completion, he set the smoker at 175F and threw it in. I was surprised at the low temperature and it made me think I could have thrown a brisket on my porch last week with this summer weather and had the same result.

Oddly enough, they feature four or five beer from the McAuslan line which is a bit of an oddity considering the possibilities in the GTA alone.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent brewery to hang your hat on and I started with a pale ale.

The menu features standard starters and mains but also a number of sampler options, so there is a bit a science to ensuring you get the right amount of food. I was rather intrigued by the Barque plate, which is sample of some unique dishes made each evening.  On this day, it was a tagliatelle with bison meatballs, fried calamari, pulled pork tacos and crostini.  The highlight was the pasta. The rest was decent.   Ok…I confess, I didn’t inform the kids of the bison until afterwards  but they found the dish delicious.

Barque Sampler $16
Barque Plate $16

Next I opted for the Barque Sampler for 2 and chose ribs, brisket and sausage as the mains with caesar salad, slaw and fries as the sides. The brisket was the highlight, a testament to the meticulous process we witnessed earlier. It was crazy tender and seasoned well.  I’ll give props to the remainder of the platter as well. The ribs were well seasoned and the sausages were not dried out and had a good flavour. The asian slaw (which does not look like it’s on the menu anymore) was delicious.  I left  the caesar salad to my son who reported it was good although the bacon “tasted kind of different” perhaps because it’s not my standard practice to serve candied bacon at home.  My daughter’s report on the fries were a resounding thumbs up although she’s not a fan of dipping sauces in general.

Barque Sampler for 2 $35
Barque Sampler for 2 $35 (with 3 sides)
Fries with Aioli
Fries with Aioli
Asian Slaw
Asian Slaw

I have a hard time turning down smoked chicken (both from a taste and having to have the serving staff reassure me that pink chicken is cooked perspective) and this night was no exception. This time I went with the cuban corn and pickles  as the sides.  The chicken was smoky and tender and the corn, although a little overcooked, was spiced nicely. A decent array of pickles were presented which included beets, asparagus, cucumber, cauliflower and onion.I think pickles are a smart side to add a little acid and crunch to an otherwise rich and chewy meal.

Smoked Chicken and Cuban Corn $19
Smoked Chicken and Cuban Corn $19
Side of Pickles
Side of Pickles

Some smokehouses pride themselves on an array of sauces but Barque less so.  There are two offered in a ramekin with a sauce brush. One was a standard tangy red BBQ sauce and one a carolina style mustard sauce.  I found both tasty although I sort of forgot about them in the midst of everything else.

The dessert menu featured a few southern inspired sweets fused with a little Toronto trendiness. The key lime cheesecake was surprising light and laced with a subtle amount of cardamom that worked well. The mango was a bit irrelevant but added some nice colour. The gelato, coupled with a couple of homemade cookies, looked with a nouveau, deconstructed Neapolitan but with cappuccino replacing the chocolate.  I hated chocolate ice cream as a kid, so a dead give away of my freezer mischief was a container of Neapolitan with only the strawberry and vanilla missing. I was often caught pink and white handed.

Key Lime Cheesecake $9
Key Lime Cheesecake $9
Barque Gelato and Cookies $9
Barque and Gelato Cookies $9

My Take

Barque has succeeded in bringing the smokehouse into the Roncesvalles realm. It appeals to atmosphere seeking hipsters as much as it does those who crave carnivorous  delight.  The price point is decent although if you fall prey to the numerous choices, it can push up the final bill rather quickly. The highlight  is clearly the brisket (which was outstanding), followed by the ribs and chicken which would compete in any neighbourhood cook-off.  There’s the token fish and vegetarian dishes for the pescas and vegans respectively. The  barque plate (4 small bites for $16) is a smart idea but hinges on the creativity of the chef on a given night and on this night it was a bit boring.  I’ll give an A for the tagliatelle, a B for the pork belly tacos and maybe a C for the squid and crostini. The single line beer (McAuslan) is a bit confusing given the array of options that would fit with a smokehouse. There is ample wine and a few cocktails which, like Barque itself, are inspired not only by the south but by Toronto itself. There are a lot of smarts about the place including sampling platters to taste either the signatures or the daily inspirations of the chef  or the Sunday night feature which reintroduces the concept of sharing family style. In the end, Barque is a chic smokehouse with Toronto flair serving among many things candied bacon that may not meet the standards of a 10 year old pork traditionalist.

Barque Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown: Momofuku

I arrived in Toronto around 10:20 on Thursday night, parked and headed down the road to Momofuku noodle house, the much discussed David Chang restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel on University Ave.  Open for only a few days, the place was packed.  I was greeted at the entrance and was able to bypass the crowd, not because I’m a famous food blogger but because I was solo and they had a single spot at the bar.

I was seated beside a rather distraught guy who seemed utterly confused by the hype of the place  given the small menu, which offered a mere five bowls with some buns and sides and no dessert.  He eventually had his many questions answered and settled on something.  I was quickly greeting by a pleasant waitress who offered me a glass of water (which wasn’t empty for the rest of the night) and a quick explanation of the menu.  I  immediately noticed  the precision and efficiency of the open kitchen which,  like the service,  ran like a symphony.

I settled on a seven spice sour slushie  (sake, togarashi, yuzu, lime ($10))…say that 5 times fast or you get cut off… to start.  A bit off the wall but a decent cocktail despite a few episodes of  brain freeze due to the large straw and the fact that I drink like an eight-year old. I ordered pork buns, the ramen bowl, pickles and smoked wings.  Within 15 minutes, the pickles arrived, followed by the buns and noodles.  There was a mixup with the wings so I didn’t get them until for a while after the rest of the order came.

Must

The steamed pork buns ($10) were the highlight. A bit of a twist on the popular dim sum item, they were presented open-faced and filled with a tender pork belly and seasoned with a sweet sauce.  Good thing I was dining alone because I might of fought somebody if they went for the second one.

Steamed pork buns ($10)

 Maybe 

The ramen itself was beautiful and traditionally presented, complete with nori, pork two ways (shoulder and belly), and a soft egg.  There  was also a fish cake and a chinese cabbage.  The pork, egg and ramen were cooked perfectly and the cabbage had a briny taste which contrasted the richness of the belly nicely.  The broth, however, was a bit confusing. Quite dark  in colour, it had an almost burnt taste which overpowered the other components of the bowl.   I normally expect a broth to bring it all together, not stand out on its own.  Perhaps I’m not as familiar with Chef’s Chang’s flavour profile, but I was left scratching my head.

Momofuku Ramen ($14)

I love pickles and will order them whenever I can.  Momofuku’s version were presented in a small jar and mainly consisted of onions, carrots and cauliflower.  It took me a bit to realize the bottom of the jar was lined with a mushroom cap as well.  The vegetables were still crisp and tasty if you really like vinegar.  On the other hand, I didn’t get the mushroom.  After what seemed like an eternity, I finally pried it loose and could only manage a bite or two before giving up.

Pickle Jar ($6)

 Mundane

I got roped in by the smoked chicken wings with pickled chili, garlic and scallion.  As mentioned above, I didn’t get them right away but had a good opportunity to watch the preparation  method in the open kitchen.  They are browned on the griddle, broiled, seasoned and served.   They were a good size and well seasoned but still contained a lot of unrendered fat which made them a bit too greasy. There’s no way I could eat anymore than two.

Smoked Wings ($12)

My Take

The opening of Shangra-La will bring some solid New York inspired dining along University avenue, an area in need of more eateries.  Momofuku noodle bar is the first stab and comes with the backing of David Chang and his Michelin stars.  As a result, there will be a lot of hype and a few people may be disappointed, especially given the fact it can be considered a bit on the pricy side.  At the same time, this place will succeed and promise to offer a constantly evolving menu. Whether it is a few growing pains or just a bit of confusion in my understanding of the preparation, at the end I was left feeling a bit like the guy sitting beside me.

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