Bar Fancy: Bohemian Burlesque Beyond What Alanis Morrisette Says

I still remember the backlash from the community when Alanis Morrisette continuously misused the word ironic on the hit song with the same name of the “Jagged Little Pill” album. They argued that things like rain on your wedding day and a fly in your chardonnay are not ironic but in fact nothing more than shit luck.  Bar Fancy, on the other hand,  is a basic example of irony. Everything about the place fits the blueprint…I mean, the bar is far from fancy. In fact, it’s a bit of a visual atrocity; a mix between a garage and a bachelor apartment.  I would take it a step further and argue that what this Queen West eatery does is beyond irony and actually is more burlesque. Often associated with extravagant and over the top entertainment antics in movies like Moulin Rouge!, the word burlesque encompasses general exaggeration and ridicule. Bar Fancy  has a stupid website that has no copies of the menu and gives you nothing more than an address, hours and a picture of a neon tiger which shows you the way to the semi-hidden entrance.  Once inside,  they have a potluck menu (along with the token extra-large and stupid expensive steak) hand written on a sheet of paper.

I arrived for happy hour  and sat at the kitchen rail with a good view of the kitchen.  A couple of hipster guys were behind the counter, dressed in no way like executive chefs, waiting to prepare menu items to order. The beer and wine menu is intentionally small.  I asked for a cocktail list and was told they really didn’t have one but all the classics were available. I asked for a recommendation and a black manhattan came my way.

Although not the largest happy hour menu, I’ve concluded that half price oysters and $2 a piece fried chicken are a good way to spend the pre-dinner hours.  The chicken met all the criteria of a good bite. While I was there, I watched the kitchen with great interest. Each dish was meticulously prepared from scratch by plaid dressed peons with decent knife skills and obvious culinary comprehension.

bar fancy chicken
$2 Fried Chicken

My Take 

I remember doing a project in university where I had to interview a restaurant whose ironic tag line was “warm beer.lousy food”. Since then, the use of irony has evolved in the food industry.  Hipsters bars have embraced irony and have raised the bar by making things burlesque by exaggerating all the elements of the experience beyond just a simple catch line.

Bar Fancy is an example of a bohemian burlesque. You feel you are at a house party in somebody’s bachelor apartment. Hipsters prepare potluck foods while offering you a small array of beer and wine.  They have no cocktail menu but can whip up any of the classics upon request. Fancy additions like egg whites and lavender shrubs are absent.

Although I’m generally adverse to the silliness of the concepts around hipster havens, I like Bar Fancy. During happy hour, I can grab an old-fashioned, half a dozen oysters and a couple of pieces of chicken for under $30.  I love the lack of a complex cocktail list  and appreciate the simple concept around their  casual, made to order menu.  I’ll have to give it a shot late at night even if it’s after a free ride when I’ve already paid.

Bar Fancy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Lisa Marie

It seems fitting that Fidel Gastro (aka Matt Basile) would choose to name this pop-up as a tribute to Elvis but call it Lisa Marie instead of something like “The King on Queen” or “Heartbreak Hotel”.    In fact, the only Elvis references in the place are the large wall mural, a ceramic bust (similar to the same one I hung out a window driving up Gordon St. in Guelph after a university bender…that’s another story) behind the bar and an “Elvis is a jar” dessert.

I guess FG is kind of like Lisa Marie in the sense that he has experienced a quiet kind of success as opposed to flamboyant Elvis style exhibited by chefs like Mark McEwan and Lynn Crawford.  There’s a Church of Scientology (Lisa Marie’s old hangout ) underground secrecy about him despite the fact he was featured on a recent CBC documentary. In fact, one could argue he may be as fictional as the war in Wag the Dog or “the Mandarin” in  Ironman 3. That thought was put to rest, however, when I actually met the legend….and I have proof. He took a break from buzzing around the joint to snap a pic.

Proof Fidel Gastro does exist
Proof Fidel Gastro does exist

Lisa Marie has grasped onto the growing trend of small tapas plates seen in some of the nearby joints.  The menu is presented in Cicchetti style, an Italain term for small dishes although many of the dishes have an international fare. Most of the items are snack size and less than $10 each.   You’ll also notice nothing on the menu makes any references to any of the Presleys.

Lisa Marie Menu from Fidel Gastro's  Blog
Lisa Marie Menu

Taken from: http://www.fidelgastro.ca/blog/

After consultation with two separate staff members , both told me to try the deep fried pizza, the pork belly cheese thang, the alabama tailgators and if I wanted something lighter, the fresh tuna puttanesca rolls. As for drinks, after a pint of Wellington I ordered the Getaway car, a Casear-like drink with either tequila, gin or vodka served with a 6 oz chaser of draught beer for $13.  Pretty simple but pretty smart. I opted for gin.  It was simple and delicious in a full pint glass, souped up with lime, spiced nicely with housemade hot sauce, a few green pickled beans and a salt and pepper rim coloured with paprika.

Getaway Car $13
Getaway Car $13

At first I thought the Alabama Tailgaters were going to be Cajan gator tails and not bacon wrapped carpaccio with kimchi and cheddar.  They were delicious, balanced well with the salty bacon, rich beef and acid from the combination of  kimchi and the accompanying housemade pickles. At the same time I ordered the deep fired duck pizza.  I stared a bit perplexed, not sure if if should use a fork or eat it like a taco. The dough was a bit tough and the pizza was a bit hard to navigate, but the duck was moist and flavorful.  It was sweetened slightly with a tasty hoisin sauce.   Both dishes provided great mouthfeel with a subtle bit of crunch in every bite.

Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8
Deep fried duck pizza $8 and Alabama Tailgaters $8

Round 2 was the second set of the server’s recommendations, this time focusing on the tuna rolls and pork belly cheese thang (I feel so gangsta now).  I will concur, the puttanesca rolls are the lightest thing on the menu..and probably the ONLY light thing on the menu.  They were stuffed with a good amount of tuna and crunchy veggies but I wasn’t a huge fan of the dipping sauce.  If anything, I would hope the sweet would overpower or at least match the sour but I found the vinegar and seasoning to be too predominate and a bit off .  As for the pork belly, if  thang is gangsta for f”ing  delicious, then the description is accurate.  The use of havarti was brilliant as it created a base reminiscent of a queso fundido while remaining pliable enough to be used as a taco shell.  The pork belly and salsa it held were nice partners accented by a subtle amount of sweet and spicy aioli.

Tuna Rolls and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $
Tuna Puttanesca Rolls (2 for $9)and Pork Belly Cheese Thang $5

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pantry.  FG took advantage of the deli case left behind by the previous tenants  to peddle some of his wares including prepared meats and bacon jam.  In addition, there are shelves of pickles vegetables, sloppy joes mixes, hot sauces etc for purchase.  Most jars are priced around $8 and allow one to bring home  a souvenir of the visit to Queen St.’s version of Graceland.

My Take

The food is innovative and well executed. The tuna, pork , beef and duck were all prepared in expert fashion.  The pork belly cheese thang was a Gangsta’s paradise.  The getaway car concept was simple but brilliant. It was pretty easy to fill up and have a couple of drinks for around $50. The service was top notch as well.

Having existed for about 5 weeks, there are still some growing pains.  There’s no website  (although a menu is hidden within the blog tab on the FG website) and they still haven’t figured out if they want to expand to daily late night offerings in a fashion similar to the nearby Odd Seoul, 416 snack bar and Bar Isabel.  Case and point…The dessert menu was on the other side of the bar and wasn’t printed on the menu, so I didn’t realize it existed.  I asked for an Elvis in a jar (the only menu item making reference to the king) but the kitchen had already closed around 11pm on a Thursday night. A mild inconvenience I suppose. Trust me, I’ll be back.

Otherwise, the blueprint of Lisa Marie allows for the creative license demonstrated  by the Fidel Gastro catering and food truck endevours.  This same creativity has been expanded to an impressive pantry and cocktail list. The early menu features no distinct style of fare but this shouldn’t be mistaken as synonymous to the Fat vs Skinny Elvis identity crisis (although the frequent use of the deep fryer may suggest the former). There’s a direction among  the madness and other dishes I still want to try.  Like Lisa Marie at the time of her father’s death, this place has some growing up to do but should mature into a successful franchise without the need to marry Michael Jackson and Nicholas Cage.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:A-OK Foods

Upon entering A-OK, which over hovers over County General at the corner of Queen and Shaw,  I felt like I was in a high school cafeteria, complete with pastel coloured picnic tables. Instead of long-winded calculus problems scripted on the board, a short and simple menu was presented offering eclectic spins on Asian food. The curriculum included  small plate options  mixed with the equally popular ramen bowls. The question would be whether the food had the same cafeteria flare as the decor.

A OK Menu
A OK Menu (Subject to Change)

Must

The salt cod inari was a terrific start to the meal….kind of like a first period english class with a cool teacher. The wrapper was a chewy but not an uncomfortable texture housing rice that was moist, not mushy. The salt  cod added subtle spots of saltiness throughout the inners of the roll.  The feisty dipping sauce was cleverly spread along the rim of the plate, appealing to both the dimension of visual appeal and sapidity.

Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari (inside)
Salt Cod Inari (inside)

Maybe

The spin on the shoyu ramen was decent but it certainly wasn’t the best in the city.  It was rather generic and lacked the complexity of some of the other soups.  The broth was one-toned, the noodles a bit limp and  the pork was tender but not remarkable. The egg was well cooked and nicely seasoned  and the goji berries were a cute touch. In the end, it was satisfying but not memorable, creating an economic argument by being  priced at over ten bucks a bowl.

Shoyu Ramen
Shoyu Ramen

The pork ssam had a messy appearance and was  tricky to eat. In the end, it had a  nice, fresh taste but the flavours were scattered depending on the placement and size of the bite.  Not a bad snack for 5 bucks. It might have been a bit more exciting if a short course in engineering promoting  self-assembly had been employed.

Pork Ssam
Pork Ssam

Mundane

My table mate ordered the Sichuan Tsukeman ramen bowl.  I was tempted to do the same and I’m glad I didn’t.  It was a bit of a mess. Understanding it’s a bit of a variation from the standard noodle bowls ( the broth is replaced with a spicy dipping sauce on the side) , it lacked the heartwarming nature of its Shoyu cousin. After dragging the limp noodles through the sauce, I was left with a nice quantity of spice but an oily taste that was less than appealing.  The pork, egg and seaweed were interesting additions but still couldn’t cut into the monotony of the overpowering sauce. Let’s call it a cool science experiment gone slightly wrong.

Sichuan Tsukemen
Sichuan Tsukemen

My Take

A-OK foods fuses two of Toronto’s hottest culinary trends: asian inspired street food and ramen.  Although it doesn’t deliver the best of either world, there were a few dishes worth talking about.  As for the vibe, I only experienced the midday experience but it felt a bit like being in detention, lacking the buzz and excitement of  similar eateries. In the end, the report card is such that I can’t  give A-OK foods an A, but more likely a C and possibly a B minus if the salt cod  inari is somewhere in the lesson plan.

A-OK Foods on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Nadege

The diversity of Toronto coffee shops range from socketed snack bars to pristine patisseries.  Nadege is certainly the latter.  Positioned beside Trinty-Bellwoods park, Nadege sits a bit out of place.  It’s bright white exterior clashes with the surrounding landscape along Queen West.   Upon entry, you are transformed in to a small, bright cafe adorned with small tables.    Large glass counters house articulate creations ranging from traditional French macarons  to Japanese inspired green tea cake.  A large window stretching across the back wall allows patrons to witness the pastry chefs  begetting delicacies while dressed with European eclat.

Green Tea Cake
Green Tea Cake

Perks

Nadege has some of the best counter (premade) sandwiches in Toronto.   There’s an array of choices including  ham and brie, roasted vegetables, french ham and brie and fig and sandwiches of the day on either croissants or baguettes.  In particular, I’m a fan of the cucumber, mature cheddar and green leaves on a croissant.  It’s simple, fresh and tasty. In general, you’re going to pay $6-8 for each of these creations.

Nadege Sandwiches
Nadege Sandwiches

The quality of the desserts and pastries are top notch.  A cute gimmick are the chocolate bars, showcasing a different flavour for each letter of the alphabet.  I’m not sure what’s more impressive; the variety of offerings or the keen use of english and french lexicography to cover off each letter. In my case I was drawn to “Y” for Yuzu and Cashew over the  “B” for Banana or “Q” for Quatre Noix (mixed nuts).  “Y” was true to its name, containing  healthy chunks of cashews within silky milk chocolate with mild citrus undertones.  A decent confection but a bit steep at over $10 per bar.

Yuzu et Noix de Cajou Chocolate
Chocolate Bar Display
Chocolate Bar Display

Sludge

Nadege adheres to the philosophy that the age old art of brewing coffee has evolved to an espresso machine and a cup of hot water. More so is the infusion of arrogance synonymous, stereotypical or otherwise, with the french culture evident in the response to my barbaric suggestion of a dripped cup of joe.  In other words, not only is there no brewed coffee, but I get attitude in suggesting that there should be.  The interior is a bit sterile and unfriendly despite  the attractive creations sitting within the glass and the previously mentioned display of brightly packaged chocolate bars on the opposite wall.  Nadege has the ambiance of an operating room.

Americano with Mature Cheddar Croissant
Americano with Mature Cheddar Croissant

The Final Sip

Nadege’s strength lies in high quality baked goods, chocolate and delicate pastries  with some of the best counter sandwiches in Toronto. The lack of brewed coffee and a sterile, unfriendly environment means I’ll do take out and get my coffee elsewhere.

Nadege Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Banh Mi Boys

In many ways, the Toronto lunch melee has become as competitive as the dinner one.  As opposed to the drawn-out, cocktail promoting, upselling strategies of the evening scene, the lunch philosophy is a bit different…quick, fresh and cheap. There are a few main events on the midday fight card; the burger battle, the ramen rivalry, the sushi skirmish  and the burrito brawl.  I plan to tackle each of these battles separately but first there is a  need to discuss Banh Mi Boys, a popular lunch spot that beats by its own drum, offering real fusion  flavours unique to this Queen West take out joint.   I tried a variety of offerings including the Banh Mi (sandwich), tacos, steamed Bao (buns) and even a few fries.

Must

The Banh Mi sandwich threw me into blissful confusion.  A baguette topped with delicious tofu (yes those words can co-exist) and topped with a signature mix of pickled carrots, cukes and cilantro jilted my gustatory system with an offering of French, Mexican and Asian flavors.  The bread was surprisingly delicious, with a texture competitive with other gourmet sandwich offerings spattered throughout town.  It was comforting yet edgy but quite satisfying and at a decent price point of $5.49.

Tofu Banh Mi Sandwich
Tofu Banh Mi Sandwich

Maybe

Kimchi fries….hmmmm.  An interesting concept providing you like kimchi..and fries.  Supplemented with mayo (maybe a bit too much) and green onions, this $5.99 dish (although it is quite a sizable portion) is a definite deviation from standard poutine offered at almost every food truck, gastropub burger joint within a 15 km radius.  Kimchi is one of those “in moderation” type foods I could only take these fries in a small dose.  The mayo offered a creamy texture and rich flavor but the fact that the  meltiness of the cheese and heat of steaming gravy was missing  left me just a little sad.

Kimchi Fries
Kimchi Fries

The $3.99 taco was also unorthodox, moving away from the traditional mexican corn or wheat shell toward a thicker, stretchier chapati-type cortex surrounding, in this case, a southern type pulled pork filling and topped with the right amount of kimchi, crunchy cabbage and those incredible pickled carrots.

Tacos and Steamed Bun with Jicama Salad
Tacos and Steamed Bun with Jicama Salad

Mundane

Even a decent braised beef cheek and the magical carrot elixir couldn’t save the bao (see above) which tasted as if it might have been steamed a while ago. It lacked the melt-in-your-mouth-wonder-bread-dipped-in-a-bit-of-sugar taste I associate with a perfect steamed bun. Sigh.

My Take

I applaud Banh Mi Boys’ understanding of fusion cuisine to mean more than adding salsa to pizza and calling it Mexican-Italian.  This is one of the more unique lunches you can score along the busy Queen street corridor, mixing flavours and concepts together create a tantalizing smorgasbord of pungent, sweet and savory gusto surrounded by world examples of starchy staples at a decent price.  Currently, Banh Mi Boys stands alone but given it’s apparent success and unique concept,  there will no doubt be other contenders throwing their culinary aprons in the ring attempting to attract those not interested in burritos, burgers or one of the other ubiquitous main events peppering every downtown street corner. I can taste the jalapeno, panko-coated bologna calzones already.

Mulling Moment- Please Comment!

 

Banh Mi Boys on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Ursa

Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).

Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).

I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller.  I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth.  It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.

Must

Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk  was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions.  It was presented eloquently  with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.

Elk Tartare

Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto.  I can’t disagree.  The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat.  Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.

Lemon Tart

Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food.  I tried the Red Horn,  signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).

Red Horn Cocktail
Smashed Cocktail

Maybe

For a main, I settled on the lingcod.  The fish was cooked perfectly.  It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour.  The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast.  The sage was a nice touch.

Lingcod

Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad.  There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu.   The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more.   The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.

Santa Rosa Plum Salad

Mundane

I’d consider Ursa  a bit stubborn.  It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number.  When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand,  there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.

Elusive Ursa Menu- Subject to change Frequently.

My Take

Ursa is like a good picture book.  Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story.    If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.

Ursa on Urbanspoon

Review: Toronto: Queen West: The County General

Hidden on the corner of Queen West and Shaw, this place is easy to miss if you blink, sneeze or text. Once you find it, the decor could be described as a chic saloon and is reminiscent of a number of other emerging urban eateries.

It may take a minute to get recognized, but when your existence is noted, you have the option of a table, the bar or the outside area which gives you a front row view of the sidewalk sporting a cast of interesting wandering characters with CAMH (the large mental hospital) serving as a fitting backdrop.

After being seated and listening to one of the waitresses flirt with the guy sitting a few seats down, I felt like either a third wheel or an extra in a match.com ad. When MY waitress finally arrived, I asked for her cocktail recommendation. She suggested the “County Picnic” which was humourously a mix-up between the “Sunday Picnic” and the “County Drive In”. I opted for the latter which a smooth bourbon based drink with a bit of cream soda that got better with each sip.

County Drive In

Must

Gone is the standard potato salad….replaced here with the Warm Potato Salad Supreme, a visually appealing offering of tender potatoes laced with flavours of mustard, saltiness and a creamy base better than mayonnaise. Even better is the fact that I can order a perfectly cooked a la carte fried egg to blanket it (or with any dish for that matter). I would highly recommend it.

Warm Potato Salad Supreme

Maybe

The fried calamari tacos were a bit Jeckyl and Hyde. Although nicely presented, the grilled radicchio was a bit too brown and soggy on the edges. I took those pieces off. On the other hand, the remaining components of the taco blended well together and the calamari was cooked well. I was warned about the heat of the accompanying scotch bonnet sauce that was offered but I’m glad I took the plunge as it offered a different spice and flavor typical of the normal cayenne based hot sauces served with these dishes. The price point is a bit high as well ($15 for two tacos). Other places are serving similar tacos for $3.50-$5.00 a piece.

Fried Calamari Tacos with Scotch Bonnet Sauce

The dessert choices were minimal but the chocolate mousse was very acceptable and nicely presented. The fresh, sweetened strawberries were a great contrast in flavour and texture and a nice twist on the traditional dessert.

Chocolate Mousse with Strawberries

Mundane

If you have good food, be proud of it. Don’t let the need to maintain the laissez-faire Queen West attitude impair the patron’s dining experience. It’s ok to smile, recommend your favorite choices and pronounce it scotch bonnet, not scotch bonn-A.

My Take

Good food, not so good service. This place has a chance, especially if they continue their attention to detail regarding the food. A seasonal and changing menu would keep me coming back out of curiosity. However, if I wanted to pay for the cold shoulder, I’d hit up a Jane and Finch McDonald’s and order a 7 dollar combo instead of dropping 60 bucks here.

The County General on Urbanspoon