My First Date with Sara: Rasa’s Sultry and Sophisticated Sister

The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture.  On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end.  My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went.  Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”.  I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter.   Both the name and the bakery was purchased  and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.  That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.

I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area.  I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant.  I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables.  Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T  and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.

When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby).  After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior.  It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents.   Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion.  She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.

It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu.  There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference.  I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise.  In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents.  That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

sara g and t 2
Gin and Tonic $16

Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality.   I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman.  In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky.  The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening.  The dumplings  were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and  cabbage.   The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon  and a dollop of whipped cream.

Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery.  All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease.  The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.

I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet.  Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position.  Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down.  Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation.  I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.

There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts.  The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream.  The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich.  It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.

My Take

I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though.  I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity.  Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and  Sara’s cherry cruller.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.

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

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Brekkie at Bar Buca: Beyond Bacon and Bad Brew

Bar Buca comes for a pedigree that has gained the attention of the likes of Jamie Oliver among others.  So far, so good for the offspring. It has escaped the mercurial grasp of the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith as well as gaining praise from seasoned critic Joanne Kates (who I’m convinced is Carmen Sandiego) who recently called it the best thing to open in a year.

In one sense it’s following the lead of the snack bar swing which has taken Toronto by storm.  In another it ups the ante by offerings goods all day including a coffee and breakfast bar as early as 7 am.   The quiet exterior on Portland hides a deceivingly large area with high ceilings, seating which includes wooden high tables, an open kitchen and a coffee/booze bar right inside the entrance. In the morning, each table is equipped with sugar as well as a sugar/espresso paste in a jar which offers an extra kick to the morning coffee. Speaking of which, there are couple of dozen espresso/latte combinations to choose from. After careful deliberation I opted for a Latte Canadese latte style ($5.50). The foundation was maple and brown butter.  Although the size would barely compete with a Starbucks tall, the flavour was far superior.  Not for everybody, it was a bit like drinking melted fudge but the bitterness of the coffee bean balanced it to a degree.

Latte Canadese $5.50
Latte Canadese $5.50

The breakfast menu features everything from savory egg dishes to sweet pastries.   Sensing my indecision, the waiter (yes, I may have forgotten to mention you sit down and they take your coffee order at the table) recommended pane and ricotta; fresh ciabatta bread lathered with fresh ricotta cheese and topped with pear marmalade (honey was an option as well) for $3.50.  There was no shortage of fresh cheese.  The bread was fresh and the marmalade added the contrast of  sweet and clove.

Pane and Ricotta $3.50
Pane and Ricotta $3.50

 

My Take

Chef Rob Gentile has not only jumped on the snack food bandwagon, he’s added horsepower and a fresh coat of paint.  The deviation from  dinner only hours provides the opportunity to snack on an array of goods anytime of day.  A smart breakfast menu with both sweet and savory items which fills the huge gap between greasy spoons and coffee shop pastries  is sheer genius.  The diversity and quality of caffeinated options rivals any other coffeehouse in the area.  I have every intention of indulging on cicchettis, spuntinis and schiacciatas sometime soon but thankfully I have 15 hours a day and 7 days a week to do so.

 

Bar Buca on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:KIng West:Gusto 101

It’s always good when you go to a group dinner and can order a la carte.  One of the biggest frustrations is when you have a set menu in which you can only choose from one of three entrees that are designed and  prepared to appease the conservative diner. Beef (usually steak), chicken (usually roasted), fish (usually salmon) and some lame vegetarian entree (usually a regular menu item with the protein removed) populate these set  menus.  Needless to say, I was elated when I attended a group dinner at gusto 101 and was handed a real menu, with no restrictions or limitations.

Gusto 101 is positioned right beside Jimmy’s coffee  on Portland Ave just North of King Street.  There was a tremendous amount of hype as its creation materialized about a year ago.  Some may call it another Italian restaurant.  Others may call it a trendy trattoria. It has a very friendly website (http://www.gusto101.com) with copies of the menu, gallery pics and even a detailed explanation of their unique reservation policy and very specific expected wait times based on the day of the week and the time of night.

The private room is located in the basement. It’s a well decorated yet unfinished wine cellar with a large wooden communal table which seats about 20.  There were about a dozen of us there.  Most curious was the fact that about half way through our meal, 4 or 5 people were escorted in and seated at the end of our table for their own soiree.  It was actually kind of neat but quite unorthodox.  Nonetheless, when it comes to Italian feasts, we are all family, right?

Must

Kale can be a fussy vegetable. Gusto uses a combination of lacination (cutting into small pieces) and acid to perfect the Cavolo Nero salad.  A subtle bitterness is maintained amidst the sour lemon vinaigrette, with salty and sweet accents in the form of peccarino cheese and currents rounding out the dish to touch all the tongue’s taste points.   It’s a perfect example of  simple and balanced preparation.

Cava Nero Salad
Cavolo Nero Salad

The Monday night polpette special is a simple dish of meatballs, tomato sauce and grilled tuscan bread.  The meat was well seasoned and cooked to the faintest of pink which maintained moistness and excellent texture. The tangy tomato sauce was fresh and vibrant.  Once again, it was an other example of traditional and rustic cooking done right.

Polpette (meatballs)
Polpette (meatballs)

Many of the wines come in around $10 a 5 oz glass or$50 a bottle with others available  at a variety of  price points.  Gusto offers a rather unique concept….house wine on tap served and poured from pitchers.  The table opted for the Gusto Rosso (Cabernet Savignon and Malbec).   It was mellow yet complex with a very drinkable character which matched reasonably well with most of the dishes on the menu.  Although it may not score perfect on wine spectator, at  a buck an ounce, you really can’t  go wrong.

Maybe

Octopus is a risky menu item.  It’s a finicky ingredient with a tiny cooking window. Yet every place that serves it boasts it has the best octopus in the city.   Gusto’s claim of its Polipo (char-grilled with olive tapenade, green beans, basil oil,citrus emulsion) was no exception. The wood oven baked octopus was almost the perfect texture, but was a tad dry.  The condiments, however,  were not really complimentary, with overpowering flavours that took away from the intended star of the plate.

Polipo (octopus)
Polipo (octopus)

The prosciutto pizza was simple, topped with high quality ingredients including Pingue (a Niagara producer) prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula and  parmigiano on a wood baked crispy crust. It was satisfying and comparable to surrounding pies but no more memorable.

Prosciutto Pizza
Prosciutto Pizza

The dessert trio offered Crema Cotta liquore di caffe, Budino al Cioccolato (with coconut, caramel and cream) and Ravioli di Pera Fritti pear, fig with a spiced red wine reduction.  My favorite was the crema cotta as it was fresh and palate cleansing.   The  ravioli was a bit reminiscent of a  McDonald’s baked pie.  The budino was served in a baby food jar, a refreshing change from the mason jars which seem to house desserts everywhere else.  More importantly, the pudding was quite good although a little sweeter than I like.

Dessert Trio
Dessert Trio

Mundane

The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the Arancini (arborio rice, wild mushrooms, fontina, tomato sauce). Maybe I find this dish a bit boring in general but other than the tangy sauce, it was a starchy monotony with a taste similar to grandma’s cream of mushroom casserole.

Arancini
Arancini

Also mundane is the minimal beer selection. There’s no draught  beer and only a few bottle choices.  Although Italy is not known for its beer selection, Toronto is.  There is nothing unauthentic about throwing a few more local brews into the mix, preferably with a few on tap. A crisp local lager or a nutty amber ale would nicely compliment many of Gusto’s menu items.

My Take

Gusto’s focus is traditional Italian food within a trendy environment.  Even the “semi-private” room tucked in the basement  buzzes with a downtown Toronto vibe.   The servers emit an aura of pride, evident through their story telling, each with a thesis promising fresh, authentic fare. For the most part, the food is delicious. In fact, I think I would have been just as happy being served  a group meal providing it included  the kale salad along with Monday’s meatballs (perhaps with some homemade pasta) and all washed down with free flowing dollar an ounce house wine….a far cry from the aforementioned group dinner or the oily salad, rubber chicken, cold spaghetti, stale bread and one-toned table wine normally considered an Italian celebration in other venues.

Gusto 101 on Urbanspoon