Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

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

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

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

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

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

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

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

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

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

Review:Toronto:The Annex: Guu Sakabar

The dining scene in Toronto has diversified over the past few years. Gone is the choice between snooty white linen, chain restaurants  or seedy local bars. Diners are looking for more than food, they want an experience which will either complement or overshadow the  food itself.

Guu Sakabar is marketed as an experience gone Gangnam style, characterized by loud music, singing cooks and a modernized version of old school  Japanese dining including removing your shoes to sit at a kotatsu (low Japanese table which puts your head at eye level to your server’s knees).  Some may see it as fun, hip and lively, others may see it an adult Chuck-e-Cheese or a glorified Lick’s.  Most of the dishes are simply prepared and presented. 

Must

The Hokke (mackerel) was a simple grilled fish, lightly seasoned and presented bone-in. No instruction was provided on proper boning technique so it may present an annoyance for some.  The fish was cooked perfectly, moist and flaky and it was a good-sized  portion.  The only issue was it came 10-15 minutes after everything else which made it a little less appealing to eat. 

Hokke (mackerel)

Maybe

The Ebimayo (fried prawns with spicy mayo) were decent. The prawns themselves were a good size, cooked right  but were too slathered in the less than impressive mayo which made them a bit soggy. 

There are a number of maybes on the menu depending on one’s personal taste.  The grilled beef tongue (Gyu Tongue) was a unique dish simply seasoned with salt.  It had a good flavour but has challenging liver-like texture which may not appeal to the masses. The Tontoro (pork cheek), is once again simply  prepared  but may be a bit too fatty for some palates, especially if the fat is not rendered enough.

Ebimayo (prawns with spicy mayo)
Gyu Tongue (beef tongue..partially eaten)
Tontoro (pork cheek)

Mundane

Regarding the experience, the environment is loud and the service is sketchy.  It was very difficult to order extra food, get a drink or even the bill.  I’ve already commented about the mackerel. Some may argue that the organized chaos adds to the fun but to me it’s an annoyance especially if it interferes with the flow of the  meal.  In addition, they have a rather ridiculous reservation policy which can be summarized as “We will only accept reservations when it’s not busy”. 

My Take

A visit to Guu is like landing a gig as an extra on a bad Japanese game show or a B-rated film.  The “fun” atmosphere is loud, chaotic and only adequate for conversation if you’re on a bad first date or with your mother-in-law.  The set-up  is not conducive to organized and efficient service.   There is a wide variety of well-prepared  simple and more exotic  foods in reasonable portions for sharing which appeals to a spectrum of diners (including about a dozen vegetarian options if you don’t include the free smiles, passion and cheers). 

In sum, it’s a good place to go if you have a small group with a variety of  taste, if you don’t care about talking to them too much and  if you have a lot of patience.  Just keep an eye over your shoulder in case you spy Psy eating tontoro in Toronto or there is a random attack  from Godzilla  or Mothra.

Guu Sakabar on Urbanspoon