Fare..Eat..Ales Favourite Canadian Restaurants of 2014

This year features a steakhouse, a perennial favorite and a couple of new restaurants that have arrived with a splash.  In addition, there are a few veteran restaurants that show no intention of slowing down.

 

10. Wellington 529- Winnipeg, Manitoba

Maybe Winnipeg isn’t known as the Mecca of fine cuisine but I enjoy a good steakhouse.  Aside from what was likely the best steak I had all year, the old school service (including white lab coats) and decor made for a delicous and highly enjoyable dining experience.

9.  Carmen– Toronto

Carmen is one the better and most underrated tapas bars in Toronto.  One dish after another, whether traditional or with a twist, came out thoughtful, well executed and at a decent price point. In particular I still remember the blood sausage and the steak tartare. The service and ambiance were top notch as well.

8.  Pizza Libretto– Toronto

In the competitive world of thin crust pizza, Pizza Libretto is one of my favorites.  Service is good and everything from the anitpasto to the dessert is nicely executed.

7. Le Jambon Gros- Montreal

The perfect greasy spoon.  Although the quarters are tight, the vibe coupled with delightful and innovative grill top provisions makes this a stop for me everytime I’m in old Montreal.

6. Queen and Beaver– Toronto

This long standing British pub serves authentic fare including savory puddings, fish and chips, fine english cheeses and a number of snacks which makes other pubs look like amateurs.  Yes, the service can be a bit crusty at times but once you have a few cask ales in you it really doesn’t matter.

5.  Thoroughbred– Toronto

Although there was only a bar menu when I went here, it was an amazing experience. The owners gave me a tour of the chef’s table and soon to be dining room.  The food was fresh and innovative with a focus on vegetables.  The drinks are cleaver. I plan to return early in 2015 to see if my hunch about this place translates to the full menu.

4. Rasa– Toronto

I was probably most excited about the opening of this Food Dude’s industrial looking bricks and mortar location in 2014.  I wasn’t disappointed. Whether the regular menu items like root beer ribs or the mysterious fish board, the food was as creative as I expected.  The drink list was smart as well.  The service was as friendly as that from the food truck itself.

3. Richmond Station- Toronto

Richmond station is a perennial addition to the list.  Their system is simple; a small menu (including one of the best burgers in Toronto) to default to in the event the blackboard specials are either sold out or not to one’s liking.   To finish off the meal, Richmond Station has one of the most creative and visually stunning dessert menus in Toronto.

2. Maison Publique– Montreal

This fringy pub is quintessential Montreal.  The menu consists of sheets of paper written in French and hanging on a bulletin board. That said, the staff are more than helpful in making sure even the English enjoy a good meal.  With menu items like buccins (aka big snails) and seal mortadella, it’s almost a underground, taboo Anthony Bourdain type experience.  This ultimate foodie experience is enhanced by a good beer, cocktail and wine selection.

1. Whalesbone– Ottawa

Any restaurants that starts with a selection of a half dozen oysters and Kenny Rogers spinning on the turntable is good with me.  What follows is a small but impressive choice of draft and a small menu highlighted by fresh sea ingredients presented in a manner that is visually stunning.    The tight but comfortable quarters, great service, amazing vibe and innovative seafood based menu including  oysters served with one of the most impressive condiment carousels I’ve ever seen puts Whalesbone on top of the list for 2014.

 

 

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Review:Toronto:Downtown:Queen and Beaver Public House

When I think of a queen and a beaver, a few things come to mind:

1.  A nickel (they new scum of the earth currency since the penny disappeared).

2.  Something I saw on late night TV once.

3.  A cool English pub on Elm Street in downtown Toronto.

In North America, the word pub has evolved to mean ” a chain that serves stuff that once resembled English fare”.  Such establishments have popped up all over Ontario, promising fragrant curries and the best fish and chips in town wrapped in wax paper that looks like newspaper. The decor focuses on bar stools, big wooden bars, half a dozen “Drink Guinness” posters hanging beside the flashing Bud Light sign and your choice of three types of Johnnie Walker scotch.  A football is oval instead of round and Leafs nation rules.

So, it’s a bit refreshing to enter a pub with an allegiance to the motherland. The Queen and Beaver has a worn look, nestled among steak houses, Italian restaurants and a Firkin pub along Elm Street. The bottom floor is a humble dining room and a trip up the stairs brings you to a quaint area with a big screen tv, a long, threadbare bar and weary  chairs and chesterfields.  The choice of menu ranges from traditional bar snacks to larger plates featuring an array of almost every type of protein a limey would crave.

On this night, I climbed the stairs and sat at the bar.  An English football game was playing on the tele and I promptly ordered a cask ale, a rare finding in Toronto. Featured was an Arkell best bitter from the Wellington brewery in Guelph. I love a beer you have pull in order to pour.

For a starter, I ordered Wall Fish and marrow on toast for $11. The Wall fish, aka snails, were hidden beneath a sheath of arugula. Once removed, I had a feeling  of an 10 year old uncovering an army of gastropods after removing a log or bunch of vegetation.  The marrow offered a rich and salty accent similar to the garlic butter which drenches the escargot in the French dish. Delicious!

Wallfish and Marrow on Toast $11
Wallfish and Marrow on Toast $11
Wall Fish and Marrow on Toast Exposed
Wall Fish and Marrow on Toast Exposed

In the foodie world, you don’t discuss three things: politics, religion and burgers.  I’ve heard arguments erupt over which burger reigns supreme.  In many cases,  Marben vs Harbord Room enters the discussion.    A recent Burger Wars episode had a bunch of subway buskers crown Parts and Labour’s P and L burger  the champion by beating out the iconic Vatican from Burger’s Priest and the mercurial Dangerous Dan’s Coronary Burger. I humbly offer the Queen and Beaver’s hand chopped burger as a strong contender for the crown. Instead of the finally ground offerings of most burgers, this chunky patty allows for medium rare without contention and  was a thrill to eat, especially topped with aged cheddar and some english bacon and nestled in a sesame bun.  The side of fries were stellar and served with some homemade ketchup and a few pickled vegetables. It was also cool (yes cool is an acceptable term in England) that they ask about cheese and bacon without an addtional charge. It’s the little things.

Hand Chopped Burger and Chips $18
Hand Chopped Burger and Chips $18

The array of puddings were a spectrum of contemporary and classic.  Despite my strong affinity for the pineapple and marshmallows offered in the other desserts, I had to stick with the sticky toffee pudding.  I must admit, I had high expectations, especially after the burger and few pints.  It didn’t let me down.  It hit every note of the traditional pudding; spicy moist cake, rich sauce and ice cream to balance it all off.  The faint hint of treacle was evident in the sauce (which subsequently made me drive my car to the British store a few days later to buy a can).

Sticky Toffee Pudding $8
Sticky Toffee Pudding $8

Addendum: A couple of weeks after the initial visit I went back for some more pudding and a few bites of cheese (I subsequently bit the rest after taking the picture like Luis Suarez in a Chelsea game).  The Lord of Hundreds cheese was amazing and the Sticky Toffee pudding was as good as the first time.  I was rather touched to see the pudding served in the same bowl  my granny had years ago.  Although totally unintentional, it just added to my fondness for this place, despite the framed Ryan Giggs jersey hanging on the wall (this is coming from the mouth of a scouser).

Half-Eaten Lord of Hundreds Cheese $8
Half-Eaten Lord of Hundreds Cheese $8
Fully eaten Sticky Toffee Pudding in my Granny's bowl
Fully eaten Sticky Toffee Pudding in my Granny’s bowl

My Take

I wish there was some regulatory body which would regulate the use of the word “pub”.  Why not send Jeeves the Butler around with a checklist, ready to reprimand wannabees in a pretentious accent:

Lack of Neon Bud Signs….check

Cask Beer…check

Staff which a beer knowledge base greater than “Guiness is Irish”…check

Damn Good Food….check.

The Queen and Beaver would easily pass. Whether the name pays homage to Canada as a part of the commonwealth or if it’s a name intended to generate snickers from teenage boys and “Naked Gun” fans, it’s a classic pub in a city of replicas and imposters who count down the days to St. Patrick’s day in a feeble attempt to justify their authenticity….even if I have to look at a United jersey the whole time.

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