New Orleans Day 2: Getting Surrey, Them Feeling Toup of the World and Grabbing a Few Groceries to End it All Off

Day two started with another trip down Magazine Street but instead of ending up in the core of the Garden district I stopped a bit early at Surrey’s cafe, another of the 10 or so DDD in the New Orleans area.  Surrey’s is a breakfast/lunch juice bar. The menu items include some of the standard fare for both meals plus a few choices with a Latin flare.

The place is rustic or run-down depending on what side of the foodie line you stand on.  You know what I mean… wobbly tables on an uneven floor with mismatched chairs and confusing art on the wall.  That said, the waitstaff was attentive and the dude was quick to recommend a few of his favorites.  He talked me into the $11 corned beef hash.  The spin was the addition of both boudin and andouille sausage. It was a delicious and hearty portion which I finished off with a few liberal splashes of hot sauce.

In the end, Surrey’s is your cookie-cutter hipster breakfast joint characterized by a seemingly necessary shottiness.  In this case, there is a Latino flare added…kind of like Corona’s as opposed to Cora’s.  Decent food and a decent vibe providing you go at off-peak times.  Otherwise, you’ll be waiting a while.

Food- 4/5 Guyz

Service- 3.5/5 Guyz

Vibe- 3.5/5  Guyz

Total: 11/15 Guyz

Lunch was another example of me living out my PVR fantasies.  Instead of a DDD, I opted for Toups’ Meatery in the Mid-City.  Not only had Issac Toups been nominated for numerous James Beard awards (including 2016 in which he lost out to the chef of my dinner destination), but he also was a finalist on the popular competition show Top Chef.  Toups’ promises a meat heavy experience with a Cajun twist served  in saloony type scenery. Armed with a carnivorous attitude, I delved into the lunch offerings while doing my best to avoid anything related to salad which meant a smorgasbord including  a cheese board, meatery board, Louisiana crab claws and a side order of cracklins. All were quite satisfying but I really enjoyed the crab claws.  They were served so they could be eaten hand held like artichoke leaves.  The sweet and sour of the pickled pineapple and the heat of the Thai chilis made for a number of exciting bites.  They had a bit of that mindless shoving popcorn in your face effect. With a copious amount of  fat and sodium, the cracklins were a complete exercise in arterial challenge.  I would have been surprised if they were anything short of tongue-tingling.

In the end, Toups’ was a good example of a charcuterie shack with a southern spin. I would be naive to think the small amount of omega-3 in the crab claws offset the saturated fat but the Cajun flare they added certainly increased the NOLA authenticity and reminded me I was in the general proximity of the Gulf Coast.

It was back to the garden district for dinner.  The destination was La Petit Grocery who’s chef, Justin Devillier, was the 2016 James Beard winner for the South region.Unlike the industrial look, the interior of this Magazine Street eatery looks like a place where you might court a southern belle.  The cocktail, appetizer and main I ordered are no longer menu (a reflection of the tardiness of my blogs) but these items were still a good representation of what to expect at La Petit Grocery which is New Orleans first flavours with a little Europe thrown  in.  The alta cocktail, which was a combination of booze from Italy to Mexico and accented with citrus flavours, resulting in a refreshing summer drink.  The fresh green garlic spaghetti was the perfect bed for the sweet crawfish tails and the crispy pork confit was teamed with modernized southern classics including pickled collard greens and dirty rice with a mustard jus which brought it all together.   The wine list is diverse and tackles all price ranges including the middle of the road ones we indulged on such as the Domaine Jean Collet & Fils “Montée de Tonnerre ” Chablis 1 er Cru 2009 for $70 and Oregon’s Moises Wahle Vineyards Willamette Valley 2008 Pinot for a few bucks less.

In the end, day 2 was a bit of everything; from rustic and run down to carnivorous and classic chic James Beard favorites which speaks to the fact that New Orleans has evolved into a scene beyond Cajun and creole.  That said,  they seem to ensure they protect the cuisine of Louisiana’s unique culture and history as well. I would need day 3 to see if this is always the case.

La Petite Grocery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato




Hello, Why Alo is the Adele of Toronto’s Dining Scene.

Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene.  In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice  reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015.  I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.

A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub).  For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27.  “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.

I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is.  She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones)  from  Shameless.  Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit).   That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).

I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single.  In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and  compared to other entertainment-heavy  metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York,  and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.

Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose.  Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.

Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs  Boxing Day 1985.

10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)

Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face.   The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.

I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.

9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)

A short elevator ride up a few floors  opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails.  A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow.  Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced.   Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.

I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present.  I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle.  Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.

8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)

As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic  sipping cocktail.  They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick  with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)

Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a  standard menu for everybody  or only an option  for the main protein.  They even set the stage for such free will  (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by  offering a choice of a blue or white napkin .  It was rather odd but memorable.

6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)

There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:

  •  Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated  couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of  the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour  little light on the citrus.
  • In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course.  It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a  sinful cousin of a croissant.
  • When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist.  I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
  • I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so.  Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold.  A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
  • In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.

5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)

Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize  by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork.  There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone.  If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them.  For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.

4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)

I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver.  I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

3.  Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)

There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15).  In the name of adventure we agreed.  The featured fromage  was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers.  We ordered  two plates was plenty for the four of us.  Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate.  We joked that, being the token Caucasian  at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate.  I went dark.  Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese,  we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead.  It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me.  Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good.  Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan.  The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.

2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)

When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head.  The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after.  The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.

1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)

Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one.  In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA.  The flow of the meal was spot on.  Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained  the components of each dish with great precision.   The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.

My Take  

Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service.  Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience.  The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.

In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album.  Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening.  You feel the experience  instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment   filled with  countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of  American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.

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

I Didn’t Get Crabby but I Managed to Get Bitter at Oxbow Public Market in Napa

Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different.  Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market  to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa.  Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.

My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my  $9 fresh crab taco.  Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese  ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck  taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro  ($8.00).  These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful  but it worked reasonably well.  It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla.  There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)
Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)


After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe.  It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would  be in it?”.  My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home.   Voila!  That’s Oxbow Market.  In particular, let me focus on the last place.  I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura.  Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off.  The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen.  I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around  aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.

Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.

My Take

If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab).  They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour.  For any foodie,  I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for  Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.

Click to add a blog post for C CASA on Zomato





Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bowl of ramen and I figured nothing was better than a snow storm to dive back into a bowl.  I have scratched a few places off the list but hadn’t had the chance to try Touhenboku ramen on Queen Street. Spearheaded by owner Zuimei Okuyama,  it has all the hallmarks of the trendy Toronto noodle houses.  First, it has a name a white guy has a hard time remembering (Touhenboku means “blockhead” in Japanese).  Second, it has a cute mascot (in this case a smiling tree stump named Tomo who is a half breed consisting of a Canadian and Japanese maple).  Third, it has a small menu, modest interior and they sing you a farewell tune on the way out.  The big difference is that they use chicken instead of pork as the base for their broth.  From what I understand, this may be a “bone” of contention among ramen purists, but I approached it purely from a taste perspective.  They also adhere to the “vegetarians need love too” philospohy and offer a vegetarian broth which is not the case for some of the other ramen houses in the area.

That said, I ordered my regular fare; shio ramen (thin noodles) and an order of gyoza.   Since I was breaking the pork broth doctrine anyway, I decided to go spicy since I was intrigued by the addition of the “special chili oil”.  The soup arrived quickly and I immediately noticed the distinct smell of chicken emanating from the bowl . Any fears of a dainty broth were quickly extinguished after the first few sips.  As promised, it was rich and creamy and the oil added a modest amount of heat to the broth. The noodles and egg were cooked to near perfection (the noodles were firm and the egg was not quite hard boiled). The other ingredients were in good proportion to the broth and noodles.

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50
Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Despite the fact the place was rather empty, the gyoza, despite being called an appetizer, didn’t arrive until I was almost finished the soup. With this annoyance aside, I was treated to a good plate of dumplings.  They were seasoned well and nicely pan-finished, keeping the integrity of the dumpling while adding the right amount of crispiness.

Gyoza $5.50
Gyoza $5.50

My Take

I wanted to insert some witty banter into this post  but I was left stumped.  Once you’ve branched out to a number of ramen places, you run out of ideas.  Touhenboku turns over a new leaf by having the gall to focus on mizutaki (chicken broth) and knot the traditional tonkotsu (pork broth) as the base to its hearty soups. The flavours are quite rich which might help justify the fact that boles are a bit smaller than other ramen joints.  In the case of the spicy ramen, it’s bark was worse than it’s bite although the chili did add a nice flavour.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the gyoza, despite having a filling a little less poppy than others, were some of the better I’ve had since they were pan-fried to near perfection. In the end, Touhenboku has blossomed into good competition with other ramen houses in the area in regards to both service and more importantly, a decent bowl of soup.  Domo arigato Zuimei Okuyama…wood you please take a bough?

Touhenboku Ramen on Urbanspoon

Two Six {Ate}! Who do we appreciate?: Gaining Respect in Little Italy

I took another trip to Ottawa recently. It’s becoming progressively more difficult to choose places to dine given the huge explosion of interesting destinations all over the city. Take two six {ate} in Little Italy  for example. It has all the foundations of a foodie haven:

1.  It’s named after its address.

2.  They use cliche words like “nose-to-tail” and “snack foods made with local, fresh sustainable products” on their about us page.

3. They are closed Tuesdays.

4.  Decor includes a stash house rusticness and clever, tongue and cheek depictions  of Darth Vader, Uncle Sam, Mickey Mouse and Beethoven.

5.  Uses small letters and punctuation in name  {in this case brackets I forget the significance of}.

That said, Ottawa waitstaff and barkeeps rarely adhere to the Toronto rule that you have to be a pompous ass since you know how to measure an ounce and a half of bourbon using a shot glass. Maybe it’s the fact that any restaurant in Little Italy adheres to some kind of Godfather or Sopranos code of respect.  I was immediately greeted by a pleasant duo who sat me at the bar.  I was given a quick description of the menus which includes a daily sandwich and pasta special.  In this case it was beef tongue and goose confit ravioli respectively.

I went on the heels of  FreBREWary, an exciting promotion by Beau’s in Ottawa which involves the near weekly release of of an innovative beer  surrounded with exciting hoopla.  Since two six {ate} was a participant, I was looking forward to a pint of Wag the Wolf, a heavily hopped wheat beer which was due to be released that day. It was a tad delayed, so I was treated to an Beau’s  Ellsmere’s Regret instead.  It was an absolutely delicious chocolate-marshmallow hemp stout.  It was served on a warped Beau’s promotional  wooden coaster {a FeBREWary promotional flaw which was the result of not letting the wood dry before final production}.

I started with an order of the shrimp and pork pogos {$10} which sound more Asian/American than something from the 1Italian Motherland.  Served on a bed of crisp and delicious slaw with the faint heat of a chili gastrique, I can best describe them as deep fried Dim Sum.  They were nicely seasoned and the flavours of the filling burst in my mouth.  I’m not convinced the batter enhanced the taste of the dish {not to mention the fact the batter pretty much seperated from the filling at the first bite} but it certainly was  a merry concept.

Shrimp and Pork Pogos ($10)
Shrimp and Pork Pogos ($10)


The scallops {$16} were highly recommended by the waitstaff.  I didn’t need much convincing when I read the description.  I think brussel sprouts and seafood are terrific partners on a plate. Sweet/sulphur, soft/crispy and white/green coexist quite nicely.  I also love the thought of boozy raisins  sprinkled all over a nicely cooked scallop.  The dish was true to from. The aforementioned ingredients combined with silky sunchoke puree and crunchy pumpkin seeds mapped my taste buds  tongue-tickling  topography.

Scallops $16
Scallops $16


The pasta special of the evening was interesting.  I have to admit I have limited experience with goose. I’ve eaten a flock of ducks but not their larger cousin so much. The fact that it was stuffed in ravioli and topped with yellowfoot and hedgehog mushrooms sounded even better.  The goose filling was very gamy which was was oddly coupled with by the strong earthiness of the mushroom medley.   The pasta was a little thick.  I think a blast of sweet or acid {other than the spray of pomegranate seeds I seem to remember} might have helped.   In the end, it was a pleasant dish.

Goose Ravioli
Goose Ravioli {$15}

During the meal I also had a Broadhead Wild Card, a subtle pale ale from Ottawa and another example that the craft beer movement is alive and well in Eastern Ontario.  It was very well balanced with a subtle but cogent  hoppy blast.

For dessert I seemed to have no choice. As far as hype, online comments have elevated the fried p b and j {$9} to the status of Pulp Fiction or Breaking Bad. The question was whether it was worth it. It took two hands to lift each half given the incredible density. It had a soft, creamy centre and a crispy crust on the outside.  It was not overly sweet, even with the aggressive dusting of powered sugar and sweet ice cream next door.  It was more like a good brunch item rather than a dessert.  In fact, I took half home for breakfast the next day.

My Take

Most Ottawa residents are blissful over the recent emergence of high quality and trendy restaurants congruent to those in nearby Toronto and Montreal. Two six {ate} is one of these.  It has many of the fundamental features of a hipster haven {see above} with the additional of friendly, authentic service.  The food is solid although the presentation is a bit monotonous. Two six {ate} has a code. You leave feeling like a dinner guest of Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone. In fact, Tony may have stated  it best when he said …{“Those who want respect, give respect”.} The food is respected. The drink is respected. You are respected.


Two Six {Ate} on Urbanspoon


I Battled Gyozilla at Kenzo

Most ramen joints are strutting their stuff right now.  Neck in neck with tacos, ramen was the top trend in the GTA in  2013.  Large windows showcasing the interior cramped quarters have become the norm for these eateries, so I was intrigued when I hit Kenzo noodle house on Dundas street over lunch.  Blinds cover the windows below a modest red sign and a logo of a rather mean looking dude with his arms crossed.  It seemed a bit taboo. Swinging open the door, I felt a little like Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown until I quickly realized the blinds were likely there to keep out the sun and not to hide something forbidden.  The decor was plain; in fact almost run down.  A combination of tables and booths line the walls which are covered with aged pictures advertising Matcha tea smoothies.  The creepy white ceramic cat which features in the majority of Asian restaurants stared and  waved at me with that look I don’t quite trust.

A pleasant waitress came by quickly with a glass of water a handed me a menu which looked like it had been dropped in a puddle and then used as a origami medium to create that creepy white cat or some other creature.  It consisted of a number of ramen bowls, categorized into basic, hot, cuisine and  tonkotsu.  There were also a few interesting sides including a breaded pork chop,  gyoza and octopus balls.  As usual, I ordered the gyoza dumplings and opted for the tonkotsu ramen. You have the option of three levels of spice, so I ordered the middle intensity.  The soup was out in minutes, served on a tray with shichimi and pepper. It was a pretty soup, topped with finely slice scallions, bok choy, bamboo shoots, roasted pork, egg and a fishcake.  The broth was a vibrant, milky white contrasted by specks of red indicated that some heat would ensue.  It had a balanced taste with a bite (definitely don’t go level 2 if you don’t like spice) that didn’t overpower the dish.  In fact, there was no prevailing flavour which made for a nice base.  The liberal use of scallions really helped the soup and the other ingredients, including the noodles, were cooked properly.

Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95
Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95

Unlike the other ramen houses I have been to, the Gyoza came after the soup.  I choose an order of three as opposed to the full order.  When they arrived I realized why there were blinds were on the windows.  They were housing Gyozilla, the largest Japanese dumpling I have seen in a restaurant.  I felt feeble as I lifted my puny chopsticks to battle my pork filled foe.  Although a little greasy, they popped with flavour, especially when coupled with the tangy sauce on the side. I eventually won the battle, but it took three or four bites each to do so.

Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50
Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50

My Take

Kenzo is like a B movie, offering one of the largest cast of ramen bowls in the downtown core.   While other ramen houses have fancy decors and lines out the door, Kenzo is modest in appearance and appears to have a devoted following (there was a steady stream of people the whole time I was there).  Relatively speaking, it’s almost unmentioned on urbanspoon.   After conquering Gyozilla in an epic battle, I did feel a bit like Anthony Bourdain in a Walter Mitty sort of way.  Having seen the octopus balls at another table,  I’d come back for the sequel, this time turning my attention to Oodako, the giant cephalopod which ravished villages in the B movie classic  King Kong vs Godzilla. My chopsticks are ready.

Oodako- My next target

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Ramen Raijin

I was at a conference at a nearby hospital and decided to sneak out in order to avoid the generic wraps which graced the lunch table.  It was a frigid day, so a bowl of ramen sounded divine.  I trekked to the Corner of Yonge and Gerrard, hoping I could get a prime time seat at Ramen Raijin.  It was about 80% to capacity so I didn’t have to wait in line.

The first thing I noticed was the set-up.  I found it a lot roomier than some of the other ramen houses nearby.  I was seated along a counter facing away from the kitchen with a side view of a large and attractive sculpture of what I perceived to be some sort of mythical Japanese idol. On the counter sat a menu held together by a clipboard.  One part of the menu was a lunch combo flyer which presented like a grade 8 art project, complete with pictures of a disproportionate chicken and a pig that kind of looked like a cat.  Of greater interest was the offering a small bowl of one of 5 types of ramen and 4 types of rice with a salad for $11.95.  I tend to gravitate toward Shio Ramen and an order of Gyoza and today was no different.  I chose the Soboro Don as the rice dish as part of the combo.

Menu which got an A in art class
Menu which got an A in art class

The starter salad was fresh and well dressed.

Starter Salad
Starter Salad

The gyoza was terrific.  The dough was tender and fried to perfection and the filling with robust with flavour. The dipping sauce was pleasant. They lacked both the greasy or watery nature that I’ve experienced with these dumplings elsewhere.  They were also priced well at less than $3 for 5 dumplings.

Gyoza (less than $3)
Gyoza (less than $3)

I kind of expected a very small bowl of ramen as part of the special but both the soup and rice were quite a reasonable size.  Raijin’s interpretation of the shio included pork shoulder, green onion, Kikurage mushroom, cabbage, egg and black garlic oil.   The shoulder was tender, the egg cooked to a perfect soft boil, the broth was rich and tasty and the noodles were firm and delicious.  This is likely one of the more polar bowls of ramen I’ve tasted mainly because of the distinct flavour of black garlic oil. It has a strong and distinct flavour which could easily take over some of the delicate flavours of the soup itself.  If you love it..great.  If not, you may be a bit disappointed.

As for the rice dish,  The nori was a nice touch but for some reason the bowl was missing the green onions advertised on the lunch combo flyer. As a result,  it was a safe dish with no contrasting taste or contrast.  It was missing any soft and sweet, missing  the crunch and bites the onions would have provided.

Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)
Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)

My Take

Ramen Raijin offers a roomy and comfortable environment with good service and good food. It has a simple yet attractive decor (I like the sculpture) and lots of room to think or eat or people watch…whatever your fancy.  The lunch special is a good value and allows somebody to try an array of flavours whether a fan of pork or chicken. The gyoza are among the best I’ve had at a ramen house. As mentioned, all the components of the ramen were well executed but the liberal use of the Mayu black garlic oil may not appeal to the masses. I wouldn’t hesitate to return on a cold winter day, but I may bring a bunch of green onions just in case.

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Duke’s Refresher + Bar

I often stay at the Eaton Chelsea so I’ve been watching the completion of Duke’s Refresher and Bar with great anticipation. One of at least 3 restaurants associated with the Aura condo complex at Yonge and Gerrard, Duke’s promises a “Coyote Ugly” experience with good food and a great atmosphere.  I must admit, like any warm-blooded male, the thought of being drenched by a fire hose by a woman standing on top of a bar is somewhere on my bucket list.

I dropped in prior to another engagement I had to check out the place and all the elements were in place.  The music was loud, the beers were pouring, the decor was loud and the barkeeps looked like they could have been on the set of the movie itself. I planned to drop by later with a buddy of mine to grab a few drinks, eat a bit of food and catch the rest of the football game.

We got there a little after 10 and the place was packed.  The layout boasts  a number of tables and we were seated at a couple of chairs along the long bar.  We were immediately warmly greeted by a  bartender and manager who welcomed us to Duke’s. We were presented the menu which includes over 40 tap beer ranging from domestics to craft ales. One of the unique aspects of this place is the ability to order 3 ounce samplers of any of them for a dollar and change.  We did exactly that, ordering 7 or 8 craft beer to start.

The beer were served quickly and in the correct order.  Other than that, the conversation was a bit painful.  At this point I need to clarify something.  If you’re picturing the bartender looking  like Penny from the Big Bang Theory, you’d be wrong. Instead, he was like Zack Johnson, her on and off boyfriend on the show. Every beer I liked was his favorite and with every comment I made about the beer (for example, the hoppiness  of the Amsterdam Boneshaker) was answered with one word…”Interesting”.

While looking at the menu, I noticed the Einstein club, which allows patrons to buy a 24 oz stein for $20 which stays on the shelf ready to be filled anytime they come in.  They are also made privy to future special engagements available only to club members. It’s a concept I’ve seen in a number of Michigan bars, so I wondered if Duke’s  was based on this American model.  So, I asked Zack about this and he said  “I thought it was Detroit but you might be right, I think it was Michigan”.   In the end,  despite being opened less than a week, the Einstein club was full and I was unable to reserve one of the many glasses on the shelves behind the bar.

Looking around, about 75% of the staff were male.  I have no problem with male waitstaff, but my  bucket list dream of being doused by water in a bar was…well…extinguished.  Unfortunately, it didn’t mean that other aspects of Coyote Ugly wouldn’t come into play later.

After settling on a pint of Beau’s Tom Green Milk Stout (which is quite delicious), we ordered a couple of things to get a feel for the food menu. The menu focuses on traditional bar foods such as wings, nachos and burgers but also throws in trendy Toronto foods such as fried chicken, sliders and bibimbap.  As per normal, I am drawn to anything with a fried egg, so the Pig & The Egg ($12.95) sandwich seemed like a good call, described as a bacon focaccia sandwich with a fried egg, sausage, bacon, pulled pork, American cheese and braised onions.  The bread would have been divine even if two slices of bacon weren’t etched into it. The egg was cooked properly…giving me a yolkasm (meaning the feeling you get when you pierce a yolk and get the perfect drip).  The triple hit of pork worked as well.  It was a gimmicky sandwich but one I’d order again. We asked for the fries to be upgraded to the infamous garlic ones which they gladly did for a couple of bucks. They were well seasoned, unique and perhaps infamous but  I think the bar has been raised for terrific fries  and these fell a little short, tasting more cafeteria than downtown Toronto bar.

The pig and the egg $12.95 with infamous garlic fries ($2 upcharge)
The pig and the egg $12.95 with infamous garlic fries ($2 upcharge)

Sticking with the egg theme, we decided to give the bacon and shrimp bibimbap a try.  Garnished with avocado, kimchi and egg planted  atop a bed of rice,  it was a noble attempt at this signature Korean dish. The avocado was ripe, the kimchi was decent and the shrimp were cooked perfectly and in reasonable number and the egg produced another yolkasm (this could be my first multiple).  The accompanying hot sauce was thick and delicious, a nice change from the Frank’s that dominates many other menus around the city. If anything the bacon was scarce and almost absent and the dish could have used the saltiness from a seasoning perspective.

Bacon and Shrimp Bibimbap $14.25
Bacon and Shrimp Bibimbap $14.25

Back to the Coyote Ugly thing.  The water spray was out of the question. Unfortunately, the dancing wasn’t.  Halfway through a bite of sandwich, the manager (also a dude) hopped on the bar and greeted the crowd.  A chant of “Dance, Dance” ensued and I hoped something would prevent what was about to happen. Instead, Zack joined him on the bar and a Dance, Dance revolution session broke out. I was speechless.

My Take

Duke’s Refresher + Bar is more a bar than a restaurant located in an area which is desperate from nightlife other than strip joints and pubs. They offer unique drink options like taster size beer for less than $1.50 and the Einstein club. It likely won’t win a slew of culinary awards, but the food (at least what I tried) was decent bar food that matched the overall theme of the place. The staff is friendly,courteous and fun although this may be a bit a crap shoot depending on your expectations. In my case, maybe I expected walking onto the set of Coyote Ugly but instead ended up as  an extra in an odd episode of the Big Bang Theory meets From Dusk Till Dawn.

Duke's Refresher + Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:A-OK Foods

Upon entering A-OK, which over hovers over County General at the corner of Queen and Shaw,  I felt like I was in a high school cafeteria, complete with pastel coloured picnic tables. Instead of long-winded calculus problems scripted on the board, a short and simple menu was presented offering eclectic spins on Asian food. The curriculum included  small plate options  mixed with the equally popular ramen bowls. The question would be whether the food had the same cafeteria flare as the decor.

A OK Menu
A OK Menu (Subject to Change)


The salt cod inari was a terrific start to the meal….kind of like a first period english class with a cool teacher. The wrapper was a chewy but not an uncomfortable texture housing rice that was moist, not mushy. The salt  cod added subtle spots of saltiness throughout the inners of the roll.  The feisty dipping sauce was cleverly spread along the rim of the plate, appealing to both the dimension of visual appeal and sapidity.

Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari (inside)
Salt Cod Inari (inside)


The spin on the shoyu ramen was decent but it certainly wasn’t the best in the city.  It was rather generic and lacked the complexity of some of the other soups.  The broth was one-toned, the noodles a bit limp and  the pork was tender but not remarkable. The egg was well cooked and nicely seasoned  and the goji berries were a cute touch. In the end, it was satisfying but not memorable, creating an economic argument by being  priced at over ten bucks a bowl.

Shoyu Ramen
Shoyu Ramen

The pork ssam had a messy appearance and was  tricky to eat. In the end, it had a  nice, fresh taste but the flavours were scattered depending on the placement and size of the bite.  Not a bad snack for 5 bucks. It might have been a bit more exciting if a short course in engineering promoting  self-assembly had been employed.

Pork Ssam
Pork Ssam


My table mate ordered the Sichuan Tsukeman ramen bowl.  I was tempted to do the same and I’m glad I didn’t.  It was a bit of a mess. Understanding it’s a bit of a variation from the standard noodle bowls ( the broth is replaced with a spicy dipping sauce on the side) , it lacked the heartwarming nature of its Shoyu cousin. After dragging the limp noodles through the sauce, I was left with a nice quantity of spice but an oily taste that was less than appealing.  The pork, egg and seaweed were interesting additions but still couldn’t cut into the monotony of the overpowering sauce. Let’s call it a cool science experiment gone slightly wrong.

Sichuan Tsukemen
Sichuan Tsukemen

My Take

A-OK foods fuses two of Toronto’s hottest culinary trends: asian inspired street food and ramen.  Although it doesn’t deliver the best of either world, there were a few dishes worth talking about.  As for the vibe, I only experienced the midday experience but it felt a bit like being in detention, lacking the buzz and excitement of  similar eateries. In the end, the report card is such that I can’t  give A-OK foods an A, but more likely a C and possibly a B minus if the salt cod  inari is somewhere in the lesson plan.

A-OK Foods on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales 10 Food Trends That Will Fade in 2013

Much like trends that surge in a given year, there are many that begin to fade away.  Here are my predictions of the Toronto food trends that should curtail in 2013.

1. Beet to Death

Almost every menu offers a beet salad of some kind.  They are cheap, earthy and offer a pretty colour to a plate.  They are however, very distinct.  This uniqueness usually results in a short shelf life. Plus, root vegetables take turns being in favour. Just ask a sweet potato.  They had to step aside for the beet and a new tuber should soon reign supreme.  Perhaps an heirloom carrot, parsnip or even the relatively unknown sunchoke?

2. Doubt the Sprout

Despite its sinister reputation among the young, the brussel sprout  has become the cool cruciferous vegetable in the past few years, offering a perfect marriage with other in vogue flavours  like  hot sauce and bacon fat.  However, with other greens such as collards, swiss chard and  mustard greens gaining popularity, I suspect the brussel sprout will lose some of its spark and go back to being the low point of many a childhood.

3. Pig: The Magical Animal

Pork is no longer the other white meat; it is THE white meat.  Thick chops and pork  belly have dominated menus in the past few years.  Bacon has been used to wrap everthing from steak to scallops to ice cream.  The combination of demand for lighter foods  coupled with expected increases in pork prices in 2013 should see the presence of pork diminish somewhat across the board.  That being said, bacon will be coveted and pork will remain a key component in ramen dishes, but don’t be surprised to see more chicken (in an attempt to gain the white meat status back) and beef options emerge as a replacement to the mighty pig.

4.  Feelin’ Blue

Strong flavours will be replaced  with more mild ones and cheese is no exception. The intensity of the bold blues, including gorgonzola will be replaced by lighter cheeses with more subtle flavour.  The use of blue as a base for rich creamy pasta sauces (especially vegetarian ones) should fall out favour for more acidic, zingy ones.

5. Falling Flat

Flatbreads are pizzas for places that don’t make pizza.  Once a popular appetizer, flatbread is a canvas to display other popular ingredients such as short rib, mushrooms and asparagus with white, red and barbeque sauce foundations.  The novelty has worn off as diners are satisfied with the toppings reconstructed in novel and abstract ways minus the bland and often overcooked dough.

6. Holy Aioli!

Chipotle mayos, basil aiolis and other thick and sinful sauces should give way to vegetables based dips, sauces and condiments.  The trend toward the focus on fresh and local ingredients doesn’t necessarily include mayonnaise and oil but  may favor tangy, tomato jams, spicy chimichurris and vibrant pestos instead.

7.  “Poutin'”

Call me crazy but the life cycle of poutine may be coming to an end.  The classic Quebec dish has evolved to include lobster, brisket and pulled pork as well as modifications to the traditional beef or chicken gravy.  The pendulum is swinging in the direction of lighter flavours. In the end, poutine, regardless of the version,  is a salty and fatty mess to the extreme, one which will soon return to be reserved primarily for the after bar crowd.

8.  Taking a Slide

Despite the number of new restaurants opening promoting sliders of all kinds, in all likelihood they will not sustain the popularity of the past couple of years.  The initial simple slider gave way to newer ideas like pulled pork or beef topped with kimchi, slaw or fois gras. There may be some survival among the many small plate restaurants, but sliders have quickly become an outdated novelty. The advent of competitive burger joints have swung the pendulum back toward the large chin-dripping mains and away from the dainty, often dried out finger sandwiches.

9. “Not”ella

Nutella has gone from  a rare childhood vice to a condiment which recently seems to grace everything from grilled cheese to crepes to burgers. The hazelnut spread has been elevated to iconic levels in the past couple of year with many restaurants going as far as displaying various sized nutella jars in their establishments like some kind of award or trophy.  Not that it will go away, but the jars should come down with diner’s reactions shifting from 2012’s “Cool, this place has nutella” to 2013’s “Oh, nutella…again”.

10. Muffle the Truffle

Truffle oil is not a truffle.  It’s a cheaper, liquid version of the exquisite fungus which has been grossly overused in everything from popcorn to pasta.  Truffle is like fish sauce and saffron; if you use too much once, it resonates to every similar  dish afterwards.   Truffle is meant to subtly complement other flavours, not be the main flavour and too many dishes are offered without this understanding.  Similar to Newtonian law, as the numbers of those who have been subject to truffle oil  abuse increase,  its popularity will decrease.