The Solemn Story of Snackies by a Montgomery who wasn’t Lucy

One of the most treasured stories in Canadian folklore is that of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  It’s the coming of age story of a determined redhead who was mistakenly adopted into a farming family in PEI and has been told and retold through books and other media such as film, television and even live productions.  Over a hundred years later, numerous Toronto restaurants are writing their own stories in an effort to capture the essence of Canadiana. Montgomery’s is one of these. Although I can’t attest to the origin of the name (it certainly isn’t that of the owners), I could use my creative licence and suggest that it is may be named after the famed author.  So, although I’m sure she could pen a much better story than I, I’ll attempt to summarize the experience in my own literary style:

There’s a restaurant called Montgomery’s.  It’s a modest place and apparently purposely so. One could easy walk past the meager storefront searching for a place to dine.  The interior is a bit meager  highlighted by a rather large and seemingly cozy rug/tapestry hanging along one wall and tables and chairs that looked like hand me downs from an estate sale. With the plain white walls it looks a bit like a prison visitation room.  Once seated, you may hear a fable from the waitstaff justifying a thirty dollar price tag for an Italian beer. If you are really lucky, in surroundings lit only by the small candle flickering on the table you may hear the tale of Snackies the Omish cow.  Snackies was aptly named by a 2 year old on a farm that, despite, her tender age, was a bovine clairvoyant who knew that one day, her farmyard friend would adorn a plate in downtown Toronto served medium rare.  In the original story, the name of the cow remained a secret, only to be shared with those who were curious or wanted to know the name needed to canonize this cow into culinary sainthood.

mont-steak
Snackies

The trout, sadly, did not receive the same attention. It was simply called trout, named in a fashion much like the majority of the characters (ie. bear, skunk and muskrat) in the Franklin cartoon.  Perhaps the two year oracle would have named it Fishy or Swimmy but alas one will never know.  The only other protein of mention was an small egg custard who’s bite was bigger than its bark in that it was full of sweet, salt and unami flavours. The bread took a dip in the lentils or camouflaged itself behind vibrant green butter. The chain gang of vegetables were housed on white plates and bowls as bleak as the walls themselves. The lettuce drowned in its sorrows and the beans, carrots and potatoes were particularly sour to be there. The tarte tatin, however, was the apple of everybody eye.  The entire group, when together, made for a fun and eventful adventure despite being housed in a concrete tundra. The end.

My Take

I’m a bit behind in my reviews so the menu has changed often since I went a couple of months ago.  That said, the concept seems to have remained the same; seasonal vegetables with a few proteins served in a fashion (ie. plain) which forces the food to do the talking. That said, the cup of lettuce seems to be a consistent character in this story and is worth a try although you probably won’t dream of bathing in the broth at night.  All in all, the food was not mind blowing but it was good.  The custard was divine and Snackies represented. The vegetables were a bit hit and miss but all around good.

The concept of the restaurant, from the shabby store front to the ugly floors and odd rug/tapestry thing on the wall, bothered me. Some people have told me this is purposeful and if it is I apologize for not understanding.  Maybe it’s like that painting at a museum I stare at thinking “WTF”, but I perceive more as “we couldn’t be bothered so let’s pretend like we meant to do it”.  From a decor perspective, to me there is a difference between industrial and correctional.

I’m a bit perplexed at the lack of social media coverage.  Sure, the opening was covered by Toronto life and Blogto but other than that the normal review sites have been as barren as Montgomery’s walls. There are only 9 yelp reviews and zomato hasn’t registered enough voters to even have a rating.  This is not always indicative of overall noise but it’s a bit odd.  I do, however, notice that they do take time to respond to many of the reviews, good or bad.  They are also closed on Sunday and Monday now which could be interpreted in a number of ways.  I guess we have to wait and see if this place will turn out more like Anne of Green Gables or the Pat of Silver Bush.

Given the story of Snackies the cow as the lead character among a diverse cast of plain, misunderstood and diverse characters all set in a drab decor, if I was a literary critic I would say Montgomery’s can best be described as  a tale in which AA Milne meets Orange is the new Black.

Montgomery's Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Good Son: Macaulay Culkin Nightmares and Memories of Norman Rockwell

I have keen to go to the Good Son since it opened.  It’s on the fringes of the Ossington strip which means by geographical location they are mandated to incorporate some of the hipster doctrine into their existence ( in other words “embracing the local Queen street culture” as stated on their website). Good Son is a project of Vittorio Colacitti who gained national attention for his appearance on Top Chef Canada 4. His also has a biography page which, designed a bit like a dating site, outlines his many culinary achievements as well as telling us he is a rooster according to the Chinese Zodiac.

The restaurant’s  website presents Good Son as a surrogate for an old time family experience.  The landing page depicts three generations of a family sitting around the table for dinner which brings back my own family members for very different reasons. Since my family resembles the Lamberts from Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” more than the Cleavers, I think my mom disguised this dysfunction by hanging Norman Rockwell pictures all over the wall to create the illusion that we all sat down and ate mashed potatoes together.  Mr. Rockwell was a 20th century American painter who best described his own art by saying “without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed”.  Quite often this involved very normal families in very normal situations which was a far cry from my life.  The closest I got to a Rockwell painting were the shards of glass in the back of my neck after a sibling spat.  My sister narrowly missed hitting me in the head with a stuffed animal and smashing the glass in the frame of  “The Doctor and the Doll” painting instead. I don’t think he ever painted that.

Norman Rockwell's Doctor and the Doll
Norman Rockwell’s Doctor and the Doll

The name of the restaurant itself also stirs up a few memories. Macaulay Culkin took the world by storm as the cute kid in “Home Alone”. He further stole the hearts of America by starring in the tearjerker “My Girl” followed by a Home Alone sequel.  Things went downhill from there. Perhaps in a effort to expand his acting range, he teamed up with Elijah Wood (who at the age of 12 had the same impish look as he does now) in “The Good Son”, a so called psychological thriller which currently sits at 24% on rotten tomatoes.  Culkin plays a disturbed child who some would argue was a foreshadowing of some of his woes to come.  Wood, on the other hand, went on to fight spiders, orcs and other middle earth creatures to great fanfare in Lord of the Rings. In the end, I couldn’t help thinking that the creepy looking kid at the table on the Good Son’s homepage would eventually take the Macaulay versus Wood path and would likely ponder a “skating accident” as a fate for some loved ones a couple of years down the road.

good son
Life Before Hobbits and Michael Jackson

Despite this irrational fear of the website, I was keen to go because of  the fanfare over the food and drink menu.  I got to experience the latter at a Lucky Rice event I attended a few weeks before.  I remember the well dressed bartenders slinging gin filled concoctions garnished with things like pickled dragon fruit and other foodie furbelows.  I took a seat at the bar and scanned the cocktail menu.  I have no idea who Tony is but I went with “That Thing for Tony” which featured gin, citrus fruit, Campari and some fresh basil. My issue is always the fact that a gin and fruit drink shows up looking like something Mary Poppins would make.  This drink didn’t have the umbrella but did rock the orange slice which served as a  vessel to hold up the straw and combined with the pink was a bit of a kick in the nuts. Nonetheless, gin and campari is always a great combination and a whole lot of fresh basil added a garden vibrancy.

Have you met Tony?
That Thing for Tony $13

I started with the sweet pea tortellini ($18) and it didn’t disappoint.  The pasta was as tender as the peas themselves  and stuffed with a tasty filling which paid homage to this great summer legume.  The tortellini sat atop a sauce laced with citrus and butter flavours and was finished with some grated cheese. At first the portion size looked a little dainty but it was deceptively filling.  Overall, it was a smart and suave dish which honoured  fresh and available ingredients.

Pea Tortilllini $18
Pea Tortellini $18

At this point I needed another drink and since they take as much pride in their bar program as they do their food, I challenged the barkeep to do some alcoholic improv.  He gladly accepted the challenge and began the alchemy.  After a pinch of this and a dash of that he tasted, adjusted and presented his take on a basil smash while profusely apologizing for the brownish appearance but he promised it would taste good.  I wasn’t at all offended and in my head quickly named the drink “Look at my Divot” to reflect the fact it looked like busted up sod after a pathetic attempt with my five iron.  That said, it was a little more manly than drinking through a straw wedged in an orange slice.

“Basil Smash” or “Look at that Divot” $14

For the main, the barkeep suggested the bulgogi short ribs served with kim chee fried rice and a quail egg ($18).  Unlike the smallish pasta portion, this dish was huge. Although the ribs were a little tough, they were flavourful. The rice was equally tasty but a little greasy.  I loved the chucks of kimchi (or kim chee).  The quail egg was cooked perfectly..I just wish there was more of it.  Both the hot and the garlic sauce smeared on the plate were fantastic and removed any monotony of repeated bites of meat and rice. I also liked the abundance of the scallions on the dish from both a taste and appearance perspective.   All in all, a very satisfying (and large) dish in which I could only finish about a third.

Bulgogi Short Ribs $18
Bulgogi Short Ribs $18

My Take

The Good Son succeeds in offering high quality food and drink in a fashionable environment.  Given the creepy family on landing page,  horror movie buffs may fear that many of the plates hanging on the wall may become projectiles in a poltergeist rage.  In fact, I credit the web designers  whose family dinner masterly predicted the movie “The Visit” in which old people finally become the homicidal leads as opposed to the first victims in most other horror movies (just ask Mrs. Deagle in the Gremlins).  It is welcoming with a partially open kitchen and a very visible prep area.  As described on the site, the Good Son’s menu is “a reflection of the melting pot of cultures that has gentrified the Queen West neighbourhood in Toronto”. I agree….I had a little Korean, a little Italian and a little hipster.  One of the questions I always ask myself after a dining experience is “Would I come back?”.  I think this place has one of the most intriguing menus in the city and I felt I only scratched the surface meaning I’d definitely come back in a second to try something like the steak tartare (which I have heard is incredible), jerk shrimp or the burger. In the end, it’s much better than a Macaulay Culkin movie and  as inviting as a Norman Rockwell painting not to mention it’s oddly dreamy that Vittorio’s Chinese astrological sign is compatible with an ox.

The Good Son Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Everything I Know About Hipsters I Learned from Watching the Walking Dead

I have recently jumped on the Walking Dead bandwagon.  For the past month or so I have religiously hooked up Netflix and plowed through episode after episode, taking periodic breaks to sulk whenever a major character gets killed off.  The show has taught me a few things.  First, it convinced me that in the midst of a zombie apocalypse humanity would not unify to preserve its existence.  Instead, the balance of power would become crucial and opposing human survivors with a functional capacity greater than that of a newborn would be more of a threat than a drooling pack of the undead. Second, the more I watched the show the more it made me understand hipsters.  I have struggled with the concept for a number of years but watching the show has brought a much needed clarity that allows me to comprehend and somewhat accept, if not empathize with, the hipster lifestyle.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters travel in packs

Zombies wander aimlessly through forests and streets with one purpose; to eat. Hipsters travel for the same reason.   They walk  urban streets  like amoeba through a digestive tract,  weaving around sidewalks and down alleyways in search of sustenance . In doing so, they remain rather unaware of their surroundings which in some cases includes moving motor vehicles, puppies and non-hipsters.  The latter can take advantage of this phemonemon by setting hipster traps. Whereas a zombie can easily be corralled  using a large pit or a wall of sharpened sticks, the hipster can either be distracted by noise (see below) or other strategies. For example, having a member of your party slow down in front the oblivious pack allows your friends to rush to the door of the destination and scoop the last table well before the hipsters can get there.  Such a strategy was employed by some of my family members outside of Beast  in Toronto during brunch and it worked like a charm.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are attracted to noise

Anybody who watches the show knows that zombies are attracted to noise.  Packs of them have been known to veer completely in the other direction with anything from the clinking of pots, the rattling of a fence or jumping up and down repeatedly  and screaming “over here!”  The same rings true of the hipster.  Although the noise does not need to be of an auditory nature, it needs to satisfy the impulsive nature of the hipster and may include things like a semi-lit neon sign, a sandwich board advertising a happy hour or the promise of a 45  minute wait in order to eat a beef cheek taco.

An example of a hipster distraction tool
An example of a hipster distraction tool
  1. Skin blemishes are key characteristics of both zombies and hipsters

Skin blemishes are a key identifier of both groups.  The presence of decay and discolouration, usually the result of partial death and the lack  of SPF 30,  is a sure fire way to pick out a zombie.  For a hipster, look for colourful sleeve tattoos, quotations or foreign language mantras peppered somewhere on the surface area of the skin.  This is not to say that these blemishes can’t become a clandestine feature of either group.  A good makeup job, some body spray and a little human love was enough to disguise a zombie in the motion picture “Warm Bodies” while a donning long sleeved plaid shirt nicely hides the floral arrangements and depictions of exotic woman on the forearm of a hipster. Unfortunately, all the Drakkar Noir and Abercrombie and Fitch in the world can’t camouflage the obnoxious behavior exhibited by each  which means an astute observer can easily see through the façade.

  1. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Although each zombie in a pack is a unique individual, little regard is given to that individuality of the zombie by outside observers. They all have distant looks on their faces. People tend not to discern between the old and young, male and female or still human like versus quite decayed.  A zombie is a zombie.  Hipsters are much the same. They all have looks of angst on their face. Externals do not differentiate hipsters based on the size of their ear spacers, their sleeve tattoos, what side of their head their hair is parted on or the colour of plaid shirt they are wearing. A hipster is a hipster.  To be fair, there is a subtle difference between the two groups in this regard.  Zombies don’t KNOW they are zombies and hipsters don’t THINK they are hipsters.

A Pack of Zombies
A Pack of Zombies with distant looks
A Pack of Hipsters
A Pack of Hipsters with looks of angst
  1. Both zombies and hipsters relish the “nose to tail” concept

Although they do it for different reasons, both zombies and hipsters adopt a nose to tail philosophy when it comes to eating.  Zombies are not particularly fussy in regarding their diet and will consume anything  they can get their hands on.  The hipster is slightly more discerning but will often include foodstuffs such as  jowls,  liver pates, animal glands and heart tartare. I suppose the difference is that a zombie takes little pride in consuming an entire organism while the hipster will tweet, facebook, yelp, zomato snapchat, Instagram or tumble such milestones not to mention the likelihood of a “Keep Calm and Eat Sweetbreads” shirt surfacing somewhere in their wardrobe.

  1. Both zombies and hipsters are primarily nocturnal

The walking dead zombies are a bit atypical from those depicted in other television shows and movies in that they are not overly adverse to light.  That, said, one can argue that they prefer the evening hours for feeding.  This is true of the hipster.  Feeding hours usually begin after dusk and will proceed until the wee hours of the morning.  This is not to suggest that hipsters, like zombies, are adverse to eating during the day.  There is a ritual in which hipsters do hunt and feast outside of the dusk to dawn hours…it’s called brunch.

  1. You don’t mind watching them from a distance but you sure as hell don’t want to be there.

While watching a walking dead marathon, it quickly comes apparent that there is no rest for the human characters.  Just when you think Rick and the gang are safe, a hole in the fence or an evil human henchman foils the plan for long term safety, forcing the protagonists to flee and the cycle continues.  I sit there watching, grateful that I don’t have to spend my life, like an antelope,  looking over  my shoulder wondering if I’m about to get eaten. It is extremely uncomfortable but I can’t get enough.  I have the same feeling when I see a pack of hipsters.  There are fun to watch from a distance, but the thought of actually being involved in the dynamic is as frightening as an encounter with a walker.  Sure the smell of hair gel and musky cologne  may be slightly better than that of decaying flesh, but the same lack of personal space and relentless monotony of behavior  would simply be unbearable for any extended period of time, let alone 5 seasons.

  1. You can get rid of them by messing with their brains

Any object inserted in the right part of a zombie’s head  is enough to curtail any immediate threat .  Swords, shovels, sticks and arrows are all effective tools in this regard.  For a hipster, the use of such weapons would be illegal and unnecessarily cruel.  Instead, aiming your assault at their mental acuity is much acceptable. Engaging in general trivia including references to key historical events or geography  outside the hipster universe (such as areas in Ontario outside Parkdale) works nicely.  Also, referring  to the evening hours in military time (ie. Hey, it’s 2100 hours..don’t you think you should go home now?) or  listing menu items that include cents (ie $17.00 vs 17) may be enough to clear a room of hipsters with relative ease.

I think we are in the midst of a hipster apocalypse.  Although I wish Max Brooks would release a hipster version  as a sequel to his best selling “ The Zombie Survival Guide” , I think the walking dead has taught me enough about hipsters so that, if was cornered in a room with the last crawfish beignet on earth, I could survive the onslaught and live to see another industrial night.

How to survive a zombie apocolypse...a good disguise!
How to survive a zombie apocolypse…a good disguise!

Filling my Belly at 1 Love Kitchen

The fusion of music and food is a fundamental component to the theme of eateries all over. My son works at Five Guys and spends eight hours listening to classic rock while flipping burgers and dropping fries. Grand Electric blasts old school rap throughout the smallish confines while one eats some of the best tacos in the city. Some eateries take it a step further by creating an entire theme around their pop culture icons. For example, take Sky Blue Sky’s odd tribute to indie band Wilco or Fidel Gastro’s  snack shop which pays homage to the Presley family at Lisa Marie.

One of the newer joints to follow this blueprint is 1 love kitchen, a drop in Caribbean place on Queen street.  Not surprisingly, the menu revolves around jerk meats and features all the fixings including rice and peas and plantains.  In a a Toronto twist, they also offer quinoa and beans for fans of the ever popular supergrain.  A sketch of Bob Marley with his famous smile looks down on the modest interior which has seating for a couple of dozen people.    A line of chaffing dishes  housing the menu offerings is staffed by a single employee who was quite welcoming upon my entry from the bitter cold.  I was grabbing take-out for myself and a colleague who was tormented by the hotel down the road’s lame attempt at gluten free/vegetarian offerings and needed some real food in order to get through the rest of the meeting.  I went right for the jerk chicken with a side of rice and beans, cole slaw ($9.45)  and plantains for an extra $1.25.  The chicken was well seasoned and moist and the rice and slaw hit the spot. The plantains were a bit tough and dry.  The portion sizes (especially the chicken) wwer rather large which somewhat justified the ten dollar price point.

Jerk Chicken with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.45
Jerk Chicken with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.45

My intent was to get the channa roti with buckwheat as a gluten free option but I was informed that this option never took off so they don’t offer it anymore.  So, I ordered the veggy lover’s medley ($9.50) instead after finding out it was a chick pea based curry and therefore had adequate protein and was served with rice and peas and a side salad.  The curry was well developed and hit an appealing bite at the end. The texture of the chick peas were spot on.

Veggy Delight with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.50
Veggy Lover’s Delight with Rice/Peas and Slaw $9.50

Another interesting point is that 1 Love Kitchen is part of Belly, a rather new reward program that allows numerous businesses to be linked to the same account thus cutting down on the need to carry 15 lunch cards around.  With a scan of the Belly app, one will gain points and get rewarded for their ongoing loyalty sometime down the road.

My Take

In the midst of numerous burger joints, sub shops and hot dog carts, 1 love kitchen offers quick Caribbean cuisine for around 10 bucks. Sure, there are a bunch of hole-in-the-wall jerk chicken shacks which might be a bit cheaper, but the proximity of 1 love within the hub of hotels, hospitals etc coupled with the Belly reward program makes it a consideration for a quick lunch or dinner. It’s another example of the fusion of good music and good food.  After all, I left sayin’: let’s get together and feel all right. Wo wo-wo wo-wo! before and after I filled my belly. Bet it would taste even better after embarking in some of Marley’s other “talents”.  Too bad they don’t have late night hours.

1 Love Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?…Probably at King and Shaw

One of the advantages of having younger siblings is the ability to watch some of the television shows that you might not normally watch without getting beat up by your friends. Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? is an example of one of these shows.  Carmen was a master villain  who directed her minions to steal world landmarks.  She dressed in a trench coat and a wide brimmed hat to disguise herself.  In the end, the villain would get caught by the astute contestants but Carmen would escape much to the dismay of the chief who was played by the late Lynne Thigpen.  Even though I was an older teenager, I did learn a lot from that show.  For example, it taught me that the Washington monument looked like a dildo and that Louvres is the one with the pyramid  in the courtyard.  In fact, I may have gotten an ‘A’ in geography because of that shifty laddie.

I have been keen to try Carmen since it replaced the space along Queen street that Caju used to occupy.  Following  the blueprint of Cava and Patria, it focuses on Spanish inspired tapas except in this case adds a few twists and turns here and there. We arrived at around seven to a quarter-full restaurant so getting a seat didn’t seem a problem.  By 730, however, the place was full so I considered us afortunado that we got a seat.

Carmen has an impressive cocktail menu with a focus mainly on bourbon and tequila.  I started with the Almodovar  ($14) which was Bourbon, triple sec, lime, mint and  olive oil.  It was nice summer cocktail with fresh flavours which matched the acid and fattiness in some of the early dishes. Loved the olive oil.

Matador $14
Almodovar $14

 

There were a small group of us, so we ordered a docena of dishes to try the array of flavours that Carmen offered.

1. Pulpo Vinagretta ($8)

A cross between ceviche and an antipasto .The acid is sherry vinegar instead of lime and plenty of olive oil is used. Served with fresh bread, it was a delicious start to the meal.

Pulpo (Octopus)
Pulpo (Octopus) Vinagretta $8

2. Jicama con Aguacate  ($8)

More Mexican than Spanish, these little morsels were a tasty bite of fresh flavours. I have a jicama fetish so I thought they were just delicious.

Jicama
Jicama con Aguacate $7

3. Marinated Olives ($4)

I’m not an olive fan but based on the feedback from the table and the visibly appealing  presentation of different sizes and colours of this popular fruit, I’d say it was a good spent for four bucks.

Olives
Marinated Olives $4

4. Ribeye Pintxos ($14)

A delicious take on these Spanish snacks.  The amount of beef was a little stingy but attractive and well prepared.

Ribeye Pintoxes
Ribeye Pintxos $14

5. Carne Tartara ($12)

Hardly a traditional Spanish dish, beef tartare is a Toronto restaurant staple.  This one compares well to the others in the area.  Pickled ramps and cucumber accessorize the beef along an in-shell quail egg sitting atop it.

Tartar
Carne Tartara $12

6. Patatas Bravas ($7)

These were a true representation of one of Spain’s most recognized dishes.  Slightly sweet and spicy sauce was slathered atop a generous plate of crispy potatoes and finished with streams of aioli.  Very enjoyable.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $7

7.  Crispy bread, fresh tomato spread and manchego cheese ($6)

Nicely presented, fresh, simple and authentic, this dish was a pleasant facsimile of the homeland favorite.

Crispy Bread with Tomato and Manchego Cheese
Crispy Bread, Fresh Tomato and Manchego Cheese $6

8. Pork Tenderloin

A piquant sauce beneath slices of nicely cooked pork tenderloin and topped with manchego cheese, this dish was simple but delicious.

Pork Tenderloin
Pork Tenderloin $10

9. Blood Sausage

Probably the funkiest dish on the menu, I enjoyed the nicely seasoned sausage covered in melted cheese.  Surprisingly, blood sausage is quite a universal dish but I think very few of those cultures top it with cheese like you would escargot or nachos.

Blood Sausage
Blood Sausage $13

10. Quail

The versatile (and foodie friendly) bird was served with flavours including olive and almond. It was a well executed dish.

Quail
Quail $12

11.  Galletas ($2.50 each) and Helado ($6)

I suppose you could call this the Spanish version of cookies and ice cream.  Normally served  separately, we decided on these as small and sweet ways to end the meal.   No complaints.  The cookies were moist and flavourful and not over sweet despite the use of dulce de leche and the rhubarb ice cream was a tart but enjoyable finish to the evening.

Galletas $2.50 each
Galletas $2.50 each
Carmen Ice Cream
Helado $6

My Take

Carmen opened in the midst of the Spanish invasion and before the explosion of the small plate phenomenon in Toronto. It sticks to both the blueprint of traditional tapas with dishes like Patatas Bravas and Ribeye Pintxos but also offers  “vanguardia” dishes with fusion concepts including Mexico and the Middle East.   All in all, the food was above average.  The vibe was a little quieter than some of the other eateries in the area which made for an enjoyable night of discussion instead of trying to speak over the bellowing voices of the in-house music. I didn’t see Vic the Slick , Patty Larceny or any of the other minions associated with the show attempting to steal silverware or the large painting of a woman (who I presume might be Carmen) off the wall. However, I thought I might have seen Carmen Sandiego herself lurking around the shadows of restaurant…but then again, maybe it was just Joanne Kates.

 

Carmen on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

 

 

Rose City Kitchen: Correcting Gertrude Stein While Humming Bret Michaels

“A rose is a rose is a rose”.

-Gertrude Stein

This famous line is said to refer to the fact that things are as they are.  The rose is also a symbol of love (just think of the inflated prices circa February 14th) and even victory.  The Kentucky Derby (aka Run for Roses), for example, drapes a garland of the red flowers over the winning horse. Rose City Kitchen is the newest addition to the bouquet of eateries which  Rose and Sons, Rosewater and the Rosedale diner. These restaurants are not related in any other way but the origin of their names are more obvious than this one. Rose City is a small town in Michigan (pop. 653)  Given the middle eastern influence of RCK and the fact that Rose City, MI is 97% Caucasian, I quickly eliminated that connection.  Portland, Oregon is nicknamed the Rose City. I figured there might have been a connection given the snacky, trendy nature of the place, but I quickly figured that was a stretch.  A little more digging (well, I just read their about page) led me to the Jordanian town of Petra, a historical city known for the rose-coloured stone in which it is carved (this would likely explain other middle-eastern bakeries in Ontario with the same name).

The concept of Rose City Kitchen is brilliant.  It takes the bold flavours of the middle east and serves them street style in handheld pitas that resemble tacos in both size and price.  Representation includes Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Greek and the RCK original.  The promise is that each is stuffed with ingredients (eg. couscous, dates, apricots, almonds and haloumi cheese) respective of their homeland.

After a period of indecisiveness I ordered the original with a chicken and a kale salad to go.  I watched as a pita was warmed in the oven in front of me and  I anticipated the bold flavors that would fill the awaiting pocket.  I received the sandwiches and took a few bites.  I waited for a climax that never came.  The promised flavours were absolutely void.  Minuscule, overcooked pieces of chicken were hidden among a garden of lettuce and carrot.  The home fries were few and far between.  The promised flavour from the humus and garlic oil were underwhelming and the harissa dressing seemed  an afterthought which added sub par heat and flavour to the sandwich.

 

RCK Original with chicken $4
RCK Original with chicken $4

The kale salad with falafel ($7)  offered a little redemption. Three pucks of falafel were hidden among the jungle of  crisp and fresh greens.  The addition of the tomato and onion broke the monotony a bit and the tangy dressing was a nice blast of flavour.

 

Kale Salad with Falafel $7
Kale Salad with Falafel $7

My Take

Rose City Kitchen has emerged in a crowded street food market offering something unique; a  snack sized pita stuffed with bold Mediterranean flavours and priced under 5 bucks.  I try to give the benefit of the doubt and look at new restaurants through rose-coloured glasses except the above claim is as deceitful as Pete Rose himself. The flavours fell well short of expectations. I’d much rather grab a messy taco for the same price or a  sloppy shawarma for a buck more. The kale salad was fresh and well dressed but the three average tasting falafel disks were barely more than garnish.

The concept of RCK sounds as melodic as  Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses”.

The kale salad reminds me of  Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”.

In the end, I’m left humming Poison’s “Every Rose has It’s Thorn”…..with the thorn being execution.

I guess Gertrude was wrong.

 

Rose City Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The P & L Burger: Recognizing Big Boy as the Original Hipster

Parts and Labour’s offspring, P &L burger, was in part due to its performance on Burger Wars, in which it beat out rivals Burger’s Priest and Dangerous Dan’s to claim supremacy.  It opened its doors recently near Queen and Spadina, only a few doors down from Burger’s Priest and in an  area with an ever increasing number of fast/snack food options. Upon entry, I was greeted by a young lady with modern enthusiasm who quickly took my order. Fifteen minutes later, almost to the second, my number was called and I proceeded to the counter.  The cook was as cool as his facial hair and engaged me in a very pleasant conversation about the weather, cycling and growing up in Windsor, Ontario…a far cry from the less than enjoyable service I often receive from other places in the area.

Let’s do a quick historical recount of the evolution of the burger culture in the United States. It would be hard to argue that the Big Mac is not one of the most iconic and recognizable food on earth.  In fact, economic models use the cost of a Big Mac to standardize the state of the economy across the globe.  The brilliance of the Big Mac lies partially in the use of a secret sauce to add some tanginess to the other layers of flavours one would associate with a burger.  The Big Mac was “invented” by a Pittsburgh franchisee in 1967 who developed it to compete with the Big Boy (developed circa 1937), the flagship burger of the restaurant of the same name. The Big Boy is a three layered burger, served on a sesame bun with all the fixings including a special sauce (sound familiar?).  Once a presence throughout the United States, Big Boy still exists although primarily within the state lines of Michigan although a few still exist in Ohio and California.

What struck me the minute I tried the deluxe was the fact that I was eating a hipster Big Mac. It had most of the components with an extra emphasis on the the huge beef patty, which was cooked a juicy medium-well.  The P&L sauce was an excellent condiment and resembled the special sauce that made the Big Mac famous.  The cheese was melted nicely and crispy bacon pieces lined the thick patty.  It was a big, sloppy and delicious mess.  Consuming it did make me wonder why too many other burger places haven’t made an effort to mimic one of America’s favorite and most recognizable foodstuffs.  As far as the sides, I found the fries rather soggy and the slaw unappealing in both colour and taste.

The Deluxe $9
The Deluxe $9 (aka The Hipster Big Mac)

 

Somewhat Soggy Fries
Somewhat Soggy Fries (plus $3 with drink)

 

P & L Slaw
P & L Slaw ($3)

My Take

Not only did Big Boy invent the saucy burger, I argue they invented the hipster.  I mean, look at the mascot:

1. He wears checkered clothing.

2. He has a clean side part and a a flip in the front.

3. He is wearing light blue shoes.

4. He has that “I’m cool because I’m about to eat a burger” look on his face.

Big Boy- The Original Hipster
Big Boy- The Original Hipster

Now McDonald’s stole the Big Mac concept but  alienated the hipster concept and instead introduced Ronald McDonald in 1963.  The famous clown (which apparently has 96% recognition in the USA), was created by Willard Scott (yes…the same Willard Scott who gained fame as a Today show weatherman).  Since then, there have been eight actors who have portrayed the famous clown and none of them have worn, plaid, plastic rimmed glasses or parted their hair to the side.

Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian
Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian

P&L has created a DELICIOUS burger which competes for the best under $10 in Toronto.  The sauce is the key, adding a tangy cut through the richness of the thick beef patty and accompanying melted Amercian cheese and bacon.  The bun is terrific and the condiments are as harmonious as the Big Mac song itself.  The fries were soggy and the slaw was unremarkable.  You’re likely in for about a 15 minute wait but I think it’s worth it (after all some people in Toronto have no issue waiting hours for a stool tucked in the corner of a popular snack bar). Now that I’ve read a bit about burger history I realize that in fact the classic sandwich is the perfect food for the modern day hipster; you can dress like Big Boy and act like a clown.

 

The P & L Burger on Urbanspoon

 

 

Review:Toronto:Entertainment District:Beverley Hotel (Part 2)

A second visit to the Beverley Hotel was warranted since the first time I went it was quite early in the restaurant’s existence.  Since then the menu has expanded but continues  to mix modern food trends with some old style go-to dishes.

Last time I dropped by for a late lunch, sat in the front and did the burger and kale ceasar salad.  Both are still available although slightly modified, likely based on seasonal availability (for example watermelon has diappeared from the burger likely since it is a little more palatable in later summer vs late autumn). This time I dropped by for dinner and a couple of cocktails and was seated in the back.  I really like the Beverley’s ambiance.  There is ample seating and table space within a classy yet trendy ambiance. I was quickly greeted by a pixie of a waitress; a friendly lass who buzzed around the room like a colourful hummingbird.   As the night went on there were a few times I thought she flew away though because she was a bit absent. She offered a cocktail from a list ranging from $12-14.  Since gin is usually my poison of choice and I can’t turn anything with any part of an egg in it, the “Jane Doe, I loved you so”seemed the obvious choice with gin,  brûléed pear, honey-ginger num-num, fresh lemon juice,egg white and orange bitters. It sounded fancier than it tasted but still hit the spot.

Jane Doe, I Loved you So $12
Jane Doe, I Loved you So $12

Perhaps the waitress had put me in the mood to luau because I was partial to the seared ahi tuna poke.  It was quite the Hawaiian adventure from the coconut cream to the pineapple to the taro chips.   The only thing missing was a lei and a witty line from Scott Caan. For $12, it was a nice snack. The tuna had a good sear and the supporting ingredients provided a blend of heat and acid and an array of textures.

Seared Ahi Tuna Poke $12
Seared Ahi Tuna Poke $12

The week before I went here I was in Montreal indulging on Chuck Hughes’ iron chef winning lobster poutine so I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Beverley’s surf and turf offering.  It violated the standard rules of poutine; hollandaise instead of gravy and the normally gooey cheese curd was fried to a crisp amongst the mound of potatoes.  There was lots of surf and even more turf in the form of chunky lobster claw and tender beef short rib respectively.   It was a mess…..a yummy, tasty mess.  The fries, often overlooked in favour of the supporting ingredients may have been dug out of a magic garden (watered daily by my waitress no doubt) because they were golden delicious.

Surf and Turf Poutine $16
Surf and Turf Poutine $16

I love pork,I love beans,I love fried eggs and I love sausage so the pork and beans were an easy choice.  Pork and beans are one of those dishes that can be so simple but so easy to screw up. The pork belly was terrific…check.  The beans were tender…check.  The egg, although a little crispy around the edges, had a soft, runny yolk which just makes magic. The sausage was decent although not really necessary.  The sauce passed the test although it seemed a bit heavy on the cumin (a fact I don’t really mind).

Pork and Beans $20
Pork and Beans $20

The big pasta was…well…a big bowl of pasta.  I’ll be the first to admit I would fail an aptitude test involving matching pasta shapes to their names and couldn’t get the image of a smurf hunting wizard out of my head when I read garganelle.   So, I did what every other self-righteous blogger would do and googled it while pretending to check the weather forecast for the walk back to the hotel (hey..admitting it is the first step). Anyway, garganelle look like huge penne.  Visually, the big pasta was a big mess. Taste wise, it was decent.  The meatball was tasty and the Sunday gravy (an Italian chunky tomato sauce not to be mistaken with my British Isles understanding of Sunday gravy as being lumps of flour mixed with what little liquid is left after a horribly overcooked cut of roast) was a little sweet.  The pasta flirted with being overdone but passed the test.  In the end, it was tasty but just a little limp.

The Big Pasta $19
The Big Pasta $19

During the meal I had to succumb to rather dapper barkeep’s power of persuasion. Stout, cognac and egg white have no business being combined in the same drink. No wonder it’s called Weird Dreams.  Although I can’t say it lived up to it’s promise, it was an oddly tasty concoction.

Weird Dreams $14
Weird Dreams $14

I finished the night doing something I rarely do…sip an ounce of gin. The waitress had asked if I’ve tried Dillon’s gin which is the product of a small distillery in the Niagara region.  I hadn’t heard of it but was curious to see how it would stack up against the gin makers from the same country that scarred my love for Sunday gravy.  It was an incredibly smooth gin. Last year there was a bottle of Bombay under the tree for me…this year I’m hoping for Dillon’s.  Perhaps I can speak to my waitress because I’m pretty sure she works at Santa’s workshop on her day off.

My Take

The Beverley hotel promises to fill the void between the wild, wild Queen Street West and the stuffy confines of the Yonge Street strip and for the most part it succeeds.  Like the decor, it has a menu that’s classy but trendy. I still remain fascinated by the staff who have all the attributes to star in a good sitcom.  On this particular night, the Phoebe Buffay of the cast was more than happy to make sure my water glass was full.  She was sweet but a bit scattered….kind of like the big pasta doused in Sunday gravy.

The Beverley Hotel on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Caju

Caju was brought to my attention when it hosted a locally organized fundraiser to raise money to build soccer pitches in Brazil. Please see http://www.facebook.com/justforkicksto for more information. I met the chef and owner, Mario, who invited me to come back and experience Brazilian food. Without hesitation, I took him up on the offer.

A couple of weeks later I made a reservation and was treated to a great lesson.  Like many countries with large geographies, the cuisine is regional, mainly dictated by the availability of local ingredients.   Historically and not surprisingly, it is heavily influenced by Portugal (Caju is also the Portuguese name for the fruit of the cashew tree which sprouts the popular nut). Interestingly, Brazilian cuisine is also influenced by immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Must

The caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail.  Caju does not disappoint. Made with sugar cane rum, sugar and lime, this cocktail is quite refreshing and rivals many others served on the strip, without the need to add cucumber or Pimm’s.  The price point is also reasonable with a number of variations on the caipirinha available for $8.  By the way, the Brazilian cheese buns are great too.

Caipirinha and great cheese buns

The feijoada (a bean based pork and sausage stew with spices and aromatics) had a basewith a deep, complex flavor reflective of the slow cooking process.  The stewed pork was tender and coupled with the  well seasoned sausage provided both  taste and textural differences.

Feijoada

The feijoada was served with traditional accompaniments including cassava (both fried and milled), collard greens and rice, resulting  in a variety of different flavors with each forkful.

Feijoada Accompaniments

The gnocchi meshes the  traditional flavours of tomato and olive oil with a brazilian spin of  cassava flour and heart of palm to create a vegetarian, gluten-free option competitive with others available in the area.

Gnocchi- Gluten Free and Vegetarian!

The passion fruit mousse was a perfect finish to the meal. The tartness of the fruit was not drowned out  by sugar, resulting in a fresh flavour with a palate cleansing effect.

Maybe

The moqueca (an African influenced seafood soup with a foundation of coconut milk and fish stock and seasoned with onion and cilantro) had an intense flavour reminiscent of  a Thai tom yum or Singapore laksa soup.   It was spiced perfectly although I wished it was served a little hotter. It was quite salty but not unbearably so. I would have  loved  if they served it with a boiled egg…then again, I would add an egg to any dish any time.

Moqueca- Seafood Soup

The pasteis are similar to empanadas and are stuffed with heart of palm or cheese. The former  were full of filling and flavor, the latter not so much so.   The accompanying hot sauces were full of punchy flavor which complimented the more subtle flavour of the two-bite appetizers.

Fried Cassava and Pasteis with Really good hot sauce

Mundane

Sandwiched in between the established Queen West and the emerging Ossington area and rather discreet, Caju is a bit of a black sheep along this strip.  It just may be that traditional flavours and decor  have  fallen  a bit out of fashion, especially in this volatile neighborhood.   This is not a complaint, per se, but some passerbys will look in the window and carry on  in search of  blackboard menus and tattooed service.

My Take

Caju offers traditional Brazilian fare in a traditional setting (the floors are made of Brazilian Cherry wood).  This is in stark contrast to the much talked about eateries (eg. ursa and county general) on the same block which boast eclectic   environments and tailor their menus to current  food trends.  I would argue that many of Caju’s dishes would easily fit in most menus along the Queen street corridor or other hot restaurants in the area. The moqueca, for example, is hands down better than hawkerbar’s signature laksa. Fried cassava with that hot sauce could easily pass on La Carnita’s menu. I admire Mario’s commitment to tradition and at the same time I’m left  yearning for more.  He spoke of the traditional  use of pig trimmings (ear, tail, feet) and different varieties  of sausage that could be used in the frijoada which I think would appeal to the same people who wait two hours to down a pig tail taco at Grand Electric or subscribe to the trendy nose to tail philosophy.  After dining at Caju, I easily see why they have an impressive Zagat rating of 26 for food and 24 for service.  Despite being neat and inviting, I also see why they have a more mediocre  21 (even though still considered very good) in decor since it seems a little out of place in this neighbourhood filled with chaos and pretension. Perhaps serving dishes in  the traditional clay pots or incorporating more “Brazil” into the environment would appease those who were  more disappointed with the decor than they were with the food.

In the end, I believe good food and good service do not go out of style.  I enjoy getting bread and very tasty cheese buns before my meal, being  served by friendly staff wearing traditional white and black uniforms (as opposed to black tees with head-scratching  pictures or witty sayings)  and eating  fusion cuisine defined  through years of tradition and not what the current trendsetters and saloon owners are saying about collard greens and sweetbreads.  Traditional Brazilian food in a traditional environment  is Caju…or cashew, in a nutshell.

Cajú on Urbanspoon