Review:Toronto:Riverdale/Leslieville:Ruby Watchco

Lynn Crawford is arguably one of the most recognizable Canadian chefs on network TV.  Not only is she is a local icon, consulting for shows like Marylin Denis and  starring in shows like Pitchin’ In and Restaurant Makeover, she has become a household name across the border by tackling Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America  and recently competing  on Top Chef Masters.   I’ll also argue she is a sorceress.

I had the opportunity to meet her and chef Lora Kirk at a food truck fund raiser a while back.  At this point I had been to Ruby Eats, her retail outlet featuring pickles, jams, specialty foods and take out lunches. On the other hand,  I hadn’t yet ventured to Ruby Watchco, her single  menu, set price family style venue  a few doors down on Queen East.  I’d had intentions and I’m not fussy in general (other than tomatoes, olives, goat cheese and lamb) but the latter seemed to the be main course every time I had the chance to go.

Finally, the stars aligned.  I was in town, loved the look of the menu, called and was greeting by a pleasant voice who booked me  a “half eight” reservation (I think old school UK accents are so cool…I suddenly had Ruby Tuesday by the Stones in my head..after all it was a Tuesday and I was going to Ruby).   After verifying with my translator, I confirmed that this indeed meant 830 and I was good to go.

The decor is a mix of modern and rustic.  It’s long and narrow, with a large bar on the left and a semi-open kitchen in the back.  Laura was front and centre and Lynn was buzzing around in the background.  The waitstaff were dressed with a professionalism Charles the Butler would approve of.

Here’s where the sorcery comes in.  Looking at the menu, you think you’re going to get off easy.  I mean, $49 for a 4 course meal orchestrated by one of Canada’s most recognizable chefs seems like a steal.  What you’re not told is the series of temptations that await once you are seated. Take for example, the Red Derby, Ruby’s spin on the Caesar.   I was warned by a friend who was there the week before that  the Caesar was addictive.  It looked innocent enough, served without the bells and whistles such a side of charcuteire or a lobster tail.  It was a straight up Caesar served with Charlie’s pickles (of which I have purchased a few jars in the past and thoroughly enjoyed at home) which hit all the elements of the classic Canadian cocktail. At $14 a pop, I gave in and had a couple over the course of the meal.

Red Derby $14
Red Derby $14

The evening’s menu started with “Barrie Hills Farms’ Watermelon Salad”. It was a slew of everything from feta to prosciutto to radish.  The watermelon was not as abundant as i predicted but  added enough  sweet to balance the diversity of salty and bitter flavours which were abundant in the other ingredients.  The dressing was delicate and catalyzed instead of drowning  the salad’s fresh ingredients.

Watermelon Salad
Watermelon Salad

Temptation two from Lynn’s bag of tricks was Lora’s lobster BLT.  $16 gets you half a sandwich served with cocktail sauce.  Using my primary math skills means a whole sandwich would equate to $32, but it’s lobster! and worth it.  It’s one of the better things I’ve eaten this year.  The bread stayed crisp despite housing a concoction of chunky lobster meat and avocado. The debate was the use of the cocktail sauce.  In one sense I didn’t want to mask the flavour of the lobster.  On the other hand, the tangyness was a great compliment to the sweet sandwich filling.

Laura's BLT ($16)
Lora’s BLT ($16)

The cheddar biscuits were a nice addition to the meal.  Nothing speaks to family dinners  like the smell of freshly baked biscuits and Ruby’s were fluffy and delicious.

Biscuits
Biscuits

With the main course , my head was filled with memories of old  family dinners  which featured overcooked pot roast, lumpy potatoes, soggy greens and carrots which disintegrate with the touch of the fork.  Ruby’s, on the other hand, redefined the meal with an offering of grilled flank steak with sweet hot pepper sauce served with potato salad, charred broccoli and roasted heirloom carrots.  Each component was well executed, the sauces were delicious and the portions were a good size.  Sure, the broccoli could have used a little more char and the carrots an extra minute cooking, but it was a rewarding meal that didn’t need to be salvaged by a ladle full of trio gravy.

Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots
Flank Steak, Potato Salad, Broccoli and Carrots

Damn you goat cheese! I loathe you so! Despite the beautiful presentation, I couldn’t finish it.  I could have easily eaten a bowl of the honey and peaches though. I asked my colleague his thoughts; he enjoyed the cheese and would have even liked more of the peach/honey mix.

Ruby's Cheese Course
Ruby’s Cheese Course

Dessert was a maple pot de creme topped with strawberries.    My biggest problem was the portion size (it was probably adequate but the dessert was so good it just wasn’t enough). I could have eaten three of them. My colleague suggested a sprinkle of salt (or bacon) may have been a nice touch although I think Lynn would have something to say about that.

Maple Pot de Creme
Maple Pot de Creme

Once again,   I succumbed to the wizardly of Lynn and ordered an Americano afterwards.  It wasn’t very good and I was charged $5 (which is one the highest prices I’ve paid for one). It was a bit of a bitter end to the night (primarily because coffee is bitter I suppose).

My Take

Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco employs a concept few chefs could get away with…one menu at one price (but in the words of Mick Jagger.. “Who could hang a name on you? When you change with every new day.”…damn that song is still in my head).  The nightly menu is generally traditional (brick chicken, fish on Fridays etc…)  and may not appeal to everybody on a daily basis, especially those looking for pulled pork tacos or a bowl of ramen.  I will admit the single menu choice has kept me away a few times.  Once there, however, you are thrown into an environment which combines the modernism of Toronto eateries with the tradition of a sit down Sunday dinner (although they are closed on Sundays).

Once again, Lynn Crawford is a sorceress.  Her promise of a $49 dinner gets clouded by a spell of choice cocktails and seductive sandwiches. The next thing you know. the bill inflates to triple digits but you can’t help but leave feeling pretty satisfied.    In addition, you can avoid the pitfalls of a family dinner: there is no need to pretend like your annoying niece is cute or that you care about the cyst on your Aunt’s cat Fluffy’s paw. Ya, it costs a bit more but maybe I can offer to pitch in and shuck some oysters or pick some peaches for a few bucks off.

Ruby Watchco on Urbanspoon

Toronto:Coffee:Queen East:Mercury Espresso Bar

It’s a daunting task when you driving down Queen East from downtown at 7:30 am looking for a place to grab a coffee and maybe a bite. The classic hot spots such as Lady Marmalade, Bonjour Brioche and Tulip are still waking up so the liquid remedy of coffee with the possibility of a pastry may be all that exists.

I progressed down the empty street, sun in my eyes and  saw a Starbucks on the right and parked, ready to succumb to over roasted coffee and a generic breakfast sandwich.  Instead, I spied the Mercury Espresso bar, which has a relative smallness of the planet itself.  I walked into a small line, staring down as I flipped the plastic between my fingers, almost convincing myself this was a cash only joint and I would have to cross the street or find a high service ATM in the vicinity.  I let the question “Do you take credit?” squeak out of my mouth. The answer was a resounding yes…minus AMEX  of course.  With that, I ordered an americano.  He did have a shade of baristattitude, but he kept it in the realm of confident versus cocky.  In order to get the bill  up a bit, I ordered a nutella cookie as a compromise to the sandwich I would have ordered at Starbucks.  I was also interested in the coffee on the shelf and chose a Matalapa from El Salvador roasted by George Howell which subsequently has turned out to be a fabulous cup of joe at home.

The americano is one of the better I have had in a while. It was smooth and like a flower garden; complete with fragrant blossoms and was  neither under or over watered.  The cookie was pretty good too.

Nutella Cookie
Nutella Cookie
George Howell Coffee
George Howell Coffee

My Take

Mercury will be a regular stop on my way to the office, although I’m only there half a dozen times a year. I will also grab a bag of coffee while I’m at it. There’s nothing special about the place other than the brew (and maybe the daily trivia question) and I suspect  the bright sun, slight breeze and serenity of an empty Toronto street may have catalyzed the experience, but I’ll take it over of the many possible destinations of the  timbucktoos scattered along the route regardless of the time of day.

Mercury Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Leslievillle:Skin and Bones

Skin and Bones is the newest contribution on the outskirts of the expanding Leslieville dining scene. Quartered in an old warehouse on the outskirts of Queen East restaurant row, the venue is spacious and symmetrical with highlights including a long bar, open kitchen and 16 person communal  table.  Offering a tiny cocktail list and a few microbrews, the focus of the potent potables is the extensive wine list.  Most notable is the array of local and international wines  with equal pricing per ounce  regardless of whether you order the 3 or 6 oz glass. I was told that this was to encourage the enjoyment of multiple wine pairings throughout the meal.  The best I had was the  Pinot Gris François Lichtlé 2010, Alsace, France.  The menu is meant to be shared, set up in a not so unique three tier fashion; snacks, apps and mains.

Must

The celeriac gnocchi with uni bottarga was simple, delicious and well executed.  Straying from the ubiquitous potato pasta topped with the  sweet red or rich cream sauce, the earthy taste of the celery root coupled with the salty bottarga  was very prevalent but was complimented nicely by the acidic and chunky tomato “preserves”.

Celeriac Gnocchi
Celeriac Gnocchi

I have a bias for sticky pudding and S&B did not disappoint.   Moist cake with chunks of dates were smothered in a delicious bone marrow caramel and served with a dollop of Chantilly. It was a smallish portion but was quite  reasonably priced and was a fine finish to the meal.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding

Maybe

The burrata with crostini  ( see picture under pickled quail eggs) was a nice start.  The rich cheese atop the crispy bread had good mouth feel  and was balanced nicely by sweet and salty toppings.

I asked if the chicken tails were a play on words or actually chicken tails.  The waiter clarified the latter so I was quite intrigued.  I can best  describe the dish as fatty chunks of  popcorn chicken served on a bed of seasoned potatoes. They weren’t quite finger-licking good but they were pretty tasty. If anything the perfectly prepared potatoes stole the show.  It was quite heavy…so definitely share this one.

Chicken Tales
Chicken Tails

The highly touted beef tartare turned out to be a bit forgettable .  It was fresh and seasoned well, especially with the addition of the  monforte toscano cheese. Call me a traditionalist but maybe I’m a bit biased because it was missing the raw egg I normally adore with this dish.

Beef Tartare
Beef Tartare

Growing up in Northern Ontario, I relished smelt season in the spring  where I would stand in the cold streams wearing rubber boots in hunt of the tasty critters.  Success would mean a plate of crispy, deep-fried salty goodness.  Needless to say, I was excited to see the option of this childhood treat on the menu.   I loved the taste of the smelts  but would of  liked them served crispy (more than the scant amount of fried bone) to counter the  limp swiss chard below. Braised greens are a bit dangerous since they can be a bit soggy and bitter when cold and I found they were a little of both.  That being said, it was a nice balance of salt, sour and bitter flavours.

Smelt Escabeche
Smelt Escabeche

The chicken and wine main was a potato away from a must.  The deconstruction was visually appealing and the  chicken was cooked to perfection.  My only issue was lack of a supporting cast.  The rutabaga puree was delicious velvet and the celery provided an appealing crunch and earthiness  but in scarce amounts.   Increase the sides and throw a bunch of those potatoes in the mix and you have a winner.

Half Chicken with Rutabaga Puree
Half Chicken with Rutabaga Puree

Mundane

The pickled quail eggs and vegetables were one of my most anticipated items and I was left disappointed.  The dish was underpickled and the eggs were inconsistently cooked.  The promised vegetables turned out to be a few cucumbers. The accompanying “white fluff” was almost flavourless and although appealing to the eye, added very little to complement the pickles.

Burrata Crostini and Pickled Quail Eggs
Burrata Crostini and Pickled Quail Eggs

Despite a small menu and a less than capacity crowd, we were told they had run out of the beef cheek bourguigon.  Worse than that, we were informed after we ordered it.  It kind of left a bad taste..actually no taste,  in my mouth.

Beef Cheek Bourguignon
Beef Cheek Bourguignon

My Take

Skin and bones is attempting to take the Queen East experience beyond Carlaw St. I’d summarize it as a introductory lesson for those interested in nose-to-tail dining, offering things like bone marrow hidden in caramel sauce,chicken tails coated  in crispy batter and beef cheeks cloaked in a  bourguignon sauce.  It has a decent wine list and  a safe but somewhat edgy menu with a few gems hidden within a bunch of maybes at a decent price point. The bigness of the restaurant itself  is a deviation from the quaint quarters of other eateries in the area which will  lead to either an astir ambiance with a big buzz or a  cloying cavern with a desolate demeanor. Time will tell but special events such as wine tastings possibly coupled with edgy prix fixe menus may be necessary to draw in the large crowds which will be needed  to fill the seats of this spacious sit-down.

 

Skin + Bones on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto: Queen East: Paulette’s Original Doughnuts and Chicken

Perhaps it’s the fact that NHL expansion did not occur in the Southern states until after the reign of Harland Sanders that  somebody didn’t dream up combining fried chicken and doughnuts. I mean, a chance meeting with Tim Horton might have changed history.

Fried chicken and doughnuts have one thing in common…a deep-fryer. Other than that, it’s an odd combo. Then again, being situated beside a pulled pork serving gas station on Queen East makes it a little less strange.

It  seems Paulette had a vision to not only combine but modernize these two classics.   There is little “original” about either the doughnuts or the fried chicken. Sure you walk in to an environment with an  old school feel characterized  by a walls painted with a seemingly discontinued paint colour and very pleasant employees dressed  in dapper whites reminiscent of the colonel himself , but one look at the offerings transports you into the present. I don’t remember Raspberry Rose or Mojito doughnuts displayed in between the Boston creams and Dutchies in the old smoke filled Timmy’s.

Must

The doughnuts are good.  It seems like all of the doughnuts have the same moist, rich white cake as a base but the icing pushes the limits of sour, sweet and savory with a delicate balance. I liked the sourness of the blueberry balsamic and mojito doughnuts although preference would be based on individual taste.

The hot sauce was a pleasant surprise, filled with flavour and balance. Ironically, I can think of 20 other things I’d use it for other than fried chicken but it hits the mark.

 

Maybe

The fried chicken  may not be for everybody.  It is crispy and not greasy. The pieces are smallish.   It’s fried in sort of a confit style so the skin and not only the batter accounts for the texture. It bordered on dry which I’m not sure is due to the cooking style or the fact that it was served out of a heating cart and not directly from the fryer.  

Fried chicken with hot sauce and side of mac and cheese.

 

 

The Mac and cheese is a decent side dish. Not the best I’ve ever had, but it was tasty with a subtle kick .

Mundane

A doughnut is $2.75.  A small half chicken with a side is $15.  I wanted one of each donut and the modern colonel was quite pleased to tell me I didn’t have to pay tax since I bought 6.  Yes…but a half dozen still cost me  $16.50. That would buy me a lot of Dutchies.  Here’s a tip. If  you need to thank the government instead of your establishment for a discount, you may want to rethink things.  In general, things are overpriced.

My Take

It’s a unique concept with unique food done well. Price point is a bit high.  They should consider selling a half dozen variety pack for $12 or something in that range. As for the chicken, it’s not cheep..cheep…cheep.  I fear these doughnuts may go the way of the dinosaur or the cupcake. It  won’t be due to a meteorite but more likely a mass realization that overpriced baked good trends have a finite shelf life. Red velvet anyone?

Paulette's Original Donuts and Chicken on Urbanspoon