I was in the mood for sushi so I opened up my Zomato app in downtown Toronto. Not surprisingly, a 100 places popped up (including a place I think was called 100 sushi). I was quickly grouping them into a number of categories:
Cheap, no frills places where a California roll runs you $4 and you’re lucky if you find anything fancier than a dynamite roll on the menu.
All you can eat joints where quantity usually beats quality for at least $25.
Omakase, where you hope the chef gives you all you can eat for a good chunk of change.
Moderately priced destinations boasting nice decors, signature rolls and even some uni if it’s in season.
Places were sushi is an afterthought among a number of other bite size delights such as izakaya.
Super expensive (ie. access to expense account, trying to impressive your friends or hoping to get laid) locales.
Before becoming zomato, urbanspoon used to have an app which looked like a slot machine. You’d identify an area, type of food and price range and voila…it would spit out an option. It was a brainless and chancy endevour but I kind of miss it, especially considering it now required me to actually ponder my options.
I quickly omitted option one since I have an expense report and my son, whose sushi diet consists solely of California rolls, wasn’t with me. I also omitted six because my expense account isn’t that big, I was alone and not looking to hook up. Two was off the table because it’s January and my Christmas girth was telling me all you can eat was not on option. Three would take too long and when your primary objective is sushi five just doesn’t cut it. This left option three which I further narrowed down to Yuzunohana, the relative longstanding Adelaide street favorite.
At first the service was steallar. It was a chilly and I was quickly offered some green tea as I was seated at the sushi counter. As I peered over the menu, I was offered a spinach amuse bouche which was quite fresh and delicate. I decided on a few of the chef’s sashimi choices including King Salmon and an order of uni. Both came quickly and were ridiculously fresh and beautifully presented. I was reminded once again why uni is one of the most unique foods around. It was silky and naughty.
King Salmon Sashimi $8
Uni Sashimi $13
I also went with my sushi standards; miso soup, gyoza and spicy tuna rolls along with their house specialty yuzu roll . The dumplings were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto. The miso was spot on as well. The rolls were acceptable but average. I was a bit disappointed about both the taste and appearance of the spicy rolls. The yuzu rolls (which was topped with torched salmon and scallop) were nicely presented but were overly sweet for my liking. With my tea long gone and my dishes empty, I did need to wait a bit for the bill which seemed to correspond with the surge of online orders from uber eats, foodie, hurrier and whatever other food delivery services that might exist. The ground zero of assembly was right beside me and the paper bags were flying out the door as I was ignored just a little bit.
Miso Soup $2
Spicy Tuna Roll $8
Yuzu Roll $15
As I was sitting there, I had a little deja yuzu. I’m not sure how long Yuzu No Hana has been around, but I swear I went here with a buddy in the 90s. Throughout the night I felt like the Flash or another tv character who has frequent recollections of past events. I recall we were smashed and decided we were going to drop in for a quick sake. I remember being told that they weren’t a bar and that we needed to get food in order to have a drink.
Although I wasn’t overly thrilled by the sushi rolls the gyoza, sashimi and miso soup were excellent. All in all I enjoyed the experience and it met the aforementioned criteria for a mid-range sushi joint even without the help of the urbanspoon slot machine.
With the NFL season now in full force, I am reminded that there is a changing of the guard when it comes to quarterbacks. With Peyton’s retirement, the Brady suspension and iffy performances by some of the league’s veterans QBs coupled with the emergence of new blood lad by the likes of Carson Wentz, notice has been served. This might not be that different than the food scene, especially in New Orleans. Although the long standing staples of Cajun cuisine continue to be alive and well, one can argue that they are being upstaged by the new kids on the block which include Shaya, the 2016 James Beard winner for best new restaurant in the US.
Day 4 was a brunch more than breakfast day so my food adventures began down the road at Compere Lapin in the Warehouse district. Once again, the weather was ominous so a location close to the convention centre was most desirable. The website describes this destination as follows :”Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots. Tapping into her classical French culinary training and deep experience with Italian cuisine, the result is a playful menu that takes food you know, and makes it food you love”. In addition, Eater New Orleans included it on their where to have brunch list.
The decor is roomy and industrial. We were there early so the crowds had yet to materialize. The smallish brunch menu featured a mix of sweet and savory so I indulged in a little of both. I started with a vanilla bruleed grapefruit which I thought was a smart twist on the breakfast classic. Next was a mix of two of my favorite things: biscuits and gravy and poached eggs. I found it a bit underwhelming; the heat from both a spice and temperature perspective was a bit lacking. The service was decent but I actually found the cleanup crew better than the waitstaff. My water glass was never empty and the gentleman was polite and courteous. The actual service was just ok.
Biscuits and Gravy $15
Vanilla Bruleed Grapefruit $5
Since it was brunch I really didn’t have a formal midday meal but took the opportunity when I had a few minutes to sample the famous grilled oysters from Drago’s. Almost 25 years ago, a little experimentation with one of nature’s most delicious offerings became what is now Drago’s signature dish. I was a bit reluctant given my wariness toward cooked oysters in general but figured garlic, butter, herbs and cheese on anything is never a bad idea on anything. I sat at a seat in front of the grill and watched the magic happen. With a beer in and a cup of gumbo on the side, I delved into a half dozen for $12. Even with the large chunk of baguette covering part of the plate, it’s clear that a New Orleans half dozen is a bit generous. Not only that, I felt like a bit of a seagull because I was also thrown an few extra by the guy at the grill once in a while. I wasn’t complaining because they were delicious and cooked just enough to maintain the taste and texture I enjoy with a platter of raw ones. The gumbo was pretty solid too. In the end, it was an excellent pseudo-lunch rounded out by great food and incredible service.
Drago Oysters $12
Dinner was at the highly anticipated Shaya which took this year’s James Beard crown as best new US restaurant. Also located in the popular garden district, Shaya, which is the namesake of respected chef New Orleans Alon Shaya, totally deviates from the definition of New Orleans cuisine and instead offers food inspired by Israel. The decor is a modernized old Europe but we found the table a little odd in the sense that it was ridiculously high. Perhaps it was a means to deter people from putting their elbows on the table because unless you were six foot five, this task was nearly impossible. I was happy to be with a larger group which allowed me to sample a number of the small plates they offer on the menu. For example, they offer ten or so small plates for a reasonable $23 when you order 5. We went with the tabouleh, morrocan carrots, ikra, pickles and baba ganoush. To go along with it we also got the tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All hit the mark in their respective ways. With that we also ordered a spattering of other traditional offerings including fattoush, crispy halloumi, falafel and some tahini and soft cooked egg hummus. All were fresh, nicely presented,well spiced and a reasonable value.
Breakfast Hummus $10
Fried Halloumi $16
The service was less than stellar which is likely one of the reasons there were long delays between the above and main dishes. That said, it allowed our bodies to adjust to the copious amounts of freshly baked pita (there is an oven in the back) that we inhaled with the above dishes so I wasn’t upset that we only opted for three mains; the chicken, hanger steak and the slow cooked lamb. Each main incorporates both elements of middle-eastern ingredients and cooking styles (eg. tagine and slow roast) to produce food that hit both modern and traditional notes.
Ok, maybe my visit was reminiscent of my childhood compete with soft food, a high chair and service on my mother’s terms but the food was spot on and beautifully presented. Whether or not it is deserving of best new restaurant in America I will leave it to the real critics but I’m convinced the James Beard committee has a soft spot for both New Orleans and for pumping up the ethnic flavour of the day and Shaya meets both criteria. What was most disappointing was the service. It seems like even the boundaries of the big easy, which once housed the definition of southern hospitality, can’t repel the infiltration of self-centred service typical of the new foodie generation. Oh well, I guess even Drew Brees will have to hang up the cleats someday.
My commitment to three square meals continued on day three in New Orleans; that is if you are willing to accept the fact that a beignet and a cafe au lait is breakfast. Instead of hitting the Cafe Du Monde’s original location, I opted for one close to the convention centre. It’s hard to argue that dough deep fried in cottonseed oil and covered in powdered sugar can be a bad thing and I was neither let down or really surprised. I was, however, more intrigued by the coffee. Historically, chicory was added to coffee by the French during their civil war to preserve rations and that tradition continued from Acadians right through the Louisiana settlers. The intense bitterness of this plant from the Dandelion family is likely part of the reason the cafe au lait is preferred to straight up black. That said, I picked up a can and drink it black but it’s certainly a sipping coffee more than one you would down like a shooter during the morning rush.
Lunch was at Peche, which won the 2014 James Beard award for best new restaurant in the US and is part of the Donald Link empire. This seafood-focused eatery is conveniently located a few minutes from the convention centre so it was relatively safe even among the pop-up thunder storms which seem to blast through the Big Easy at any random moment throughout the work day.
Living in southern Ontario, my access to fresh oysters is few and far between and when I can get them, they are usually overpriced Malpeques so I was delighted at the chance to pound back a dozen gems from gulf coast for a buck or two each. On this day the features included Louisiana Area 3 (shellfish harvest area are given a number which stop at 28 and luckily do not go up to 51). Area 3 is the easternmost harvest area. The others were from Alabama, specifically Dauphin island. Let’s just say if I lived here I would have absolutely no chance of pernicious anemia, would have frank hypercalcemia and I could probably play Robert Downey Jr.’s iron man double.
Looking back, I think I told myself I would order anything with the word Louisiana in it. In this case it was the Louisiana shrimp roll which seemed a suitable lunch choice. Much like it’s Canadian cousin, it features a soft bun stuffed with mayo drenched seafood. It was the prefect lunch choice….good size, good taste and good value. For dessert I couldn’t resist the strawberry custard which was a trendy version of the no-bake old school strawberry cheesecake my mom used to make.
Louisiana Shrimp Roll $14
Strawberry Custard $9
Although I didn’t have the full booze laden dinner experience, lunch gave me a flavour of the food and vibe of this accolade filled eatery which was impressive. The service was prompt and courteous but pleasantly pompous.
After a number of modernized New Orleans meals so far, it was time to go old school and visit Brennan’s for dinner. This well established destination has a long history in the big easy. What’s not to like about it:it’s been around since 1946, it’s cheesy and they use words like old-world elegance and pampering service in their description on the website. Plus, their chef’s, Slade Rushing, has a name that sounds like he should be designated chef for the Sons of Anarchy. After a sazarac in the roost bar, I rewound the clock and had a seat in the tacky rounded booth in one of the many dining rooms.
I was pleased to be greeted by a waiter who looked like Michelin star chef Graham Elliot. He was quick and courteous and knowledgeable;another reminder that there still is good and traditional service in the world. He was pleased to discuss the many aspects of the menu including the specials which included steak Diane. I quickly checked my phone to ensure I hadn’t stumbled upon a wormhole which transported me back to the mid 20th century when tableside flambees were all the rage. Despite the date confusion, my mind was made up..I was dining on American nostalgia tonight and it was gonna be good.
I was at a large table so collectively there was good opportunity to get feedback on a number of menu items. Appetizers ordered included the Jackson salad, turtle soup and chilled fois gras. I opted for another bite of history…crab remoulade modernized with shaved jicama, avocado and a mango vinaigrette. It was a smart and fresh summer starter. I had a spoonful of the turtle soup as well which was bursting with great flavours but I pondered how anybody could eat it regularly in the midst of regular tropical temperatures.
As I mentioned, the steak Diane was automatic. The other choices at the table included the filet Stanley, grouper and lamb. We also had a vegetarian at the table who was offered the chef’s special which more or less ended up being a plateful of sauteed vegetables. Back to my dish; Graham cooked up the steak filet like a pro and entertained us with Louisiana banter the whole time. It was served with potato medallions and a few carrots…brilliant. The time machine was still working. It was exactly what I expected… a pan seared piece of steak covered in salty juices. The feedback from the rest of the table on the entrees was positive…even the vegetarian seemed satisfied…but that may have been a side effect from the protein deficiency.
Filet Stanley (Part of $55 taster)
Steak Diane ($40)
Chef’s Choice Vegetarian Dish
Going to Brennan’s and not ordering Bananas Foster would be like going to McDonald’s and never trying a Big Mac. This labour intensive dessert’s origins lie within Brennan’s seventy year history. According to Brennan’s website (which annoying has the heading Banana’s Foster…the misuse of apostrophes is a real pet peeve of mine) It was created in 1951 after the chef Paul Blangé was challenged to come up with a dessert using surplus banana’s from a family business. As mentioned, table side cooking was all the rage so the bananas foster was born. I’m a true believer that nostalgia tastes incredible so I wasn’t disappointed. There were a smorgasbord of other desserts which arrived as well including a bread pudding, chocolate pave, creme brulee and crepe Fitzgerald (also prepared tableside). The savory palate at the table opted for the cheese tray which was nicely presented with a trio of offerings.
Cheese Tray $9
Creme Brulee $9
Chocolate Pave $9
Legendary Bananas Foster $10/person
Bread Pudding $9
Brennan’s is a retro oasis in a culinary scene driven by an industrial revolution driven by hipster foodies who dismiss table side cuisine but drink Manhattans because they saw it on Mad Men. This eatery doesn’t budge on bow ties, lavish decor, crafty cocktails and insisting waitstaff earn their gratuities. The food is unapologetically New Orleans with the odd twist here and there. In the end, like a handful of other eateries in the Big Easy; one can rewind the clock and dine like a mid-century aristocrat for a couple of hours and if luck is in the air, you might actually have a masterchef flambeing fare table side.
Let me start by saying I’m not a skier. Growing up in Sudbury, we certainly had the weather for it but the once majestic mountains of the Canadian Shield have long since eroded to more minuscule bumps, limiting any chance of maximizing 6000 foot drops. As a result, there was no ski scene other than Adanac mountain with its’ six runs and 239 ft vertical or cross country tracks near Laurentian university.
In addition, I get little enjoyment at the thought of lugging copious amounts of equipment to a crowded resort only to dress up, wait in line for a lift and let gravity pull me down a run named Cougar Milk just to end up at the point I started. Instead, I’m more than happy to sit in the bar and provide moral support although I do feel somewhat guilty about indulging in the apres menu when I didn’t do any of the work. Maybe this is why the Whistler ski scene bugs me so much. Don’t get me wrong…the scenery is absolutely beautiful but it is somewhat tainted by the aberrant behavior of the town’s residents and visitors. Here are a few examples:
Nobody looks cool walking in ski boots- Ski boots are for skiing and not walking. Regardless of your gait or corresponding wardrobe, people walking around hotel lobby’s wearing boots look more foolish that a guy trying to run in high heels as part of a fundraiser. If you’re done skiing, take your boots off.
Accents are cool unless you make them up- Whistler draws youth from around the world, especially Australia and New Zealand. Many people find such accents cute or even sexy…unless you don’t really have one. Hanging with a few Aussies for a couple of weeks doesn’t entitle you to start speaking like them. Accents aren’t viruses..you just don’t catch one. In addition, making up an accent to increase your hill cred is stupid; it didn’t work for Madonna it sure as hell won’t work for you.
It’s evident there aren’t an abundance of salons in the village- You can get almost anything in Whistler Village…except a haircut. According to the map, there are a few places but most people don’t seem to use them. Sure, chronic helmet head is inevitable in such an environment, but allowing your hair to be a refuge for alpine wildlife is taking it a step too far.
Bathrobes are called bathrobes for an reason. They aren’t called restaurant robes, lobby robes or bar robes. If you want to drink wine in a bathrobe, use your minibar. I don’t need to see your post-pedicured feet stuffed in a pair of disposable slippers or have to witness a wardrobe malfunction because you forgot the only thing holding you man or lady parts in place is a velour belt.
Weed is technically still illegal in BC- Regardless of time of day, it is almost impossible to take a stroll through the village without wafting skunky smells here and there. Although Whistler is far from immune to wildlife, I’m sure the smells are not the results of stinky mammals….well at least not the ones with a white stripe and fur….oh wait…and four legs.
The dining scene in Whistler is a mishmash of aristocratic eateries, snack bars, beer havens and a few very recognizable franchises such as KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s. I spent most of the time at the hotel for work functions, but I did have the opportunity to go to Araxi for dinner one night. Araxi is a fine dining establishment which gained national attention when it was announced the destination of the winner of the sixth season of Hell’s Kitchen. Dave Levey, best remembered for breaking his arm while washing a fire truck, was the eventual winner. Rumour has it he was treated like a glorified line cook and left shortly after the 2010 winter Olympics. In 2014, he was reported arrested as part of a drug bust in New Jersey (perhaps he thought he was still in Whister). Araxi, on the other hand, has continued to flourish under long time head chef James Walt.
I started with a Cuckoo’s calling cocktail, presumably named after the Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling crime novel which is funny because the only bourbons named in that novel are the cookies which are most recognizable as the long brown ones in a box of Peak Frean assorted creme that you only eat once the good ones are gone. The drink had many of my favorite cocktail flavours including bacon infused bourbon, jalapeno, thyme, lemon and bitters. The smoky flavour was prevalent but not overwhelming and the rest of the flavours blended together well.
Araxi features an oyster bar and a small but diverse choice of starters and mains. Since I rarely have an opportunity to indulge in fresh west coast oysters, I was happy to order a half dozen (three each of Zen and Joyce Point from coastal British Columbia). They were shucked nicely and served with traditional condiments (fresh horseradish and lemon) and a spectacular mignonette.
A few of us also split a Vancouver Island beef tartare tossed with Peruvian chilies, yuzu, local sweet peppers and snipped chives, spiced vegetable chips and arugula and topped with a quail egg. It was smallish but the ingredients were in perfect proportion and delivered fresh and delicate flavours with the right amount of heat and seasoning.
For the main I opted for the Quebec rabbit stuffed with slow cooked pork jowl with carrot puree, roasted carrots, sauteed brussel sprouts and grainy mustard vinaigrette. It didn’t dawn on me on first but I thought afterwards it was rather strange to have a dish with rabbit and carrots together but once I tried the puree, any thoughts related to this food chain faux pas quickly hopped out of my head. It was fantastic. The rabbit with the pork was incredible and reminded me of a two-tiered and upscale M&M chicken tornado my mom used to make. The sprouts and carrots were a nice al dente.
For desert, I decided on a cheese course featuring a mix of offerings from local, Canadian and Italy sources. I’ve tried a few such as the delicious Benedictin Bleu from Quebec and P.E.I.’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar before, but although not normally a huge fan of the softies, the Poplar Grove double cream camembert from Penticton was the star. In addition to the decedent taste, its glistening interior was visually stunning. The fig compote was unbelievably good as well.
Whistler draws thousands of annual guests ranging from novice skiers to village wondering orophobic tourists. As a result, the variety of shops and eateries is quite diverse. Whether it’s an urban taco bar or a swanky sit down, there is no shortage of choices. Araxi is one of the most recognized of the latter and lived up to its long standing reputation although at resort prices. Whether it’s untamed hair or an affinity for the maryjane, just remember what happens in Whistler should stay in Whistler…just ask the winner of Hell’s Kitchen six.
Ghost hunters has been a show that has been on the air since 2004. Hosted by paranormal experts Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson who are two plumbers who set out to find things more ghastly than clogged sewer pipes. They have filmed over 200 episodes of the show and have had a number of guest hosts with a calibre that rivals that of Dancing with the Stars including professional wrestlers Kofi Kingston (of New Day Fame), the Miz and CM punk, sci-fi idols and Canadians Colin Ferguson and Amanda Tapping and music umm…superstar Meatloaf.
I don’t claim to be an expert in area of ghosts but I’ve wondered why, with the technology available to us today, we can’t get a better picture or recording of some of our friends from beyond the grave. I mean, google earth can take a picture of my licence plate from space so would think we could snap a clear picture of at least one ghost. Beats headphones can pick up Kenny G breathing on a quarter rest during Silhouette but we can’t get an audible account of Father Gus and his unfortunate demise in a church fire.
Anybody with kids know they like to jump on various things to the point of obsession. Both my youngest son and daughter got a little ghost crazy over the summer. For my son, it was youtube ghost stories whereas my daughter was keen to explore haunted relics in the hopes of getting spooked by something more than a Tuesday night horror movie with her friends at the theatre. So on the way down to Allentown to see some family over the summer, I decided to make a pit stop at Andy Gavin’s pub in Scranton, PA. According to stories, a resident ghost named George periodically reeks some fun havoc on the place by flipping the lights off and flushing the toilets.
I had some nachos, wings and a few cheap pints of Miller Lite. The latter was probably the most ghastly thing I experienced that afternoon but for $2.50, I couldn’t complain. My kids swore they may have heard some high pitched screaming upstairs so I’ll let them believe what they want.
Andy Gavin’s Nachos
Andy Gavin’s Wings
From there we proceeded down the road to the Houdini museum which is also rumoured to be haunted. It was quite enjoyable;a makeshift shrine complete with a live show by Dorothy Dietrich who, often called the female Houdini, did the Jinxed Bullet Catch Stunt which was the act that Houdini backed away from. It is also filled with paraphernalia including posters and pictures honouring the famed escape artist.
Recently, I needed a location to meet a customer outside the downtown core with good Italian food and ample parking. Based on the reviews, Five Doors North seemed a good choice. It is a well established Italian eatery located on Yonge street between Davisville and Eglington. Although the website is quite primitive, they do take online reservations so I promptly booked a table.
In keeping with the ghost hunter theme, I’m not sure if the true origin of the restaurant’s name. I mean, it could be the fact that it is north of the city and there are five coloured doors on the restaurant’s facade but I think it may actually be a code for a map to a ghastly burial ground five doors south.
Both the interior and exterior decor is quirky but casual. There are tiled floors, wooden tables with glass tops protecting random pictures and foodie magazine covers (very reminiscent of the Houdini museum and the first clue that something was amiss) and brick walls showing blackboards containing the day’s specials. It has a cozy aura and comes without the automatic pretension of some of the downtown enotecas such as Terroni and Pizza Libretto.
Both the wine and food menus are handwritten on a standard 8.5 x 11 sheet of white paper. The wine choice was not extensive but offered some off the cuff choices that seemed to fit the casual, quirky theme of the restaurant. We opted for a I Muri Primitivo for a respectable $45 which I thought was a fun and rather preternatural wine to drink.
The menu is a bit all over the place, offering traditional Italian dishes as well as a few less orthodox choices like ribs with matchstick potatoes. Every night they feature a long and short pasta as well. On this evening, I went with the former which was a pasta primavera which was a perfect al dente, heavy on the garlic and not overly greasy. For the main, I ordered the branzino special which was served with a hodgepodge of vegetables including a paranormal corn, asparagus, lima beans and a red pepper puree. Although I found the combination a bit aberrant, the fish was nicely prepared and it worked. I also ordered the green salad which was very green and even a little purple.
Despite the pleasant service, funky wine and good food, I had a vibe that something was amiss beyond the funkiness of the place . I brushed it off until I went to the washroom. I did my business and went to wash my hands in the small sink. I looked in the mirror and an apparition appeared. At first I was shocked. She was blond and wore red so I immediately dubbed her the “lady in red”. When I got my wits back, I reached for my phone in the hopes I could snap a picture, worried that the quality of my camera was too good to snap a picture of a ghost since the only pictures ever captured have been grainy pictures in bad light. That said, as demonstrated by my blog posts, I’m often criticized that I have no understanding of basics of photography such as focusing, lighting or positioning so I thought it would be ok. Although my hands were trembling, I managed to secure the shot. I tried asking her what she wanted but all she did was smile. She was holding something white. At first I thought it was a cloud or a ghost baby but a closer inspection showed me it was Cottonelle toilet paper. Between her smile and the silent promise of soft hygienic products I was almost lured into the cottony abyss but I managed to break the spell and quickly escape the chasm of temptation which was the men’s washroom. I returned to my seat likely as red in the face as her shirt and asked for the bill.
Ghost hunters has been on the air since 2004 and has hundreds if not thousands of followers. I have a science background and have always been taught to adhere to an evidence based model which means there should be sufficient and irrefutable proof that a concept is true before I believe it. I’ll be honest, despite my children’s insistence that they heard screaming at Andy Gavin’s, I was reluctant to believe. My experience at Five Doors North may have changed that. I think I will email the show and maybe they can ask Bear Grylls to co-host and demonstrate some urban paranormal survival skills.
Until then, if you are looking for an Italian eatery outside of the downtown core with a funky environment, decent menu and friendly family service you should consider Five Doors North. If you’re walking, however, hit the audio record button on your cell as you approach (let’s say around 5 doors away) in the event you can detect some electronic voice phenomenon. One last word of advice, despite the words of Chris Issak, beware the lady in red.
Disclaimer: I do not believe that the woman in the mirror was an apparition. Although odd, I’m quite sure it was advertisement in which a young, happy woman watched me urinate and then offered me some soft toilet paper. The author of this blog does not accept responsibility for consequences of eating at this restaurant including but not limited to hauntings, garlic breath or leaving really full.
I had a dismal month of blogging in November, primarily due to the fact that my real job gets in the way when it’s busy. I hope December is better. Speaking of busy, the every day trails and tribulations of life lead one to fall into rhythms of the present. Aided by facebook, which has seemingly rewound time and made friends of the past friends of the present, I made a commitment to myself to reconnect with some of these friends and personally I see no better way to do it than over a bowl or plate of something.
I was a small, quiet kid who had a crooked haircut and wore Toughskins, which were corduroy pants with reinforced knees meant to withstand the harsh treatment an 8 year old had to offer. I didn’t understand why people laughed at “Taxi” and why that old man Edward Woodward was scary as “The Equalizer”. I liked when my mom brought me to the hotel bar down the road from my grandmother’s house because I could eat all the maraschino cherries I wanted. I went to a tiny school in Sudbury so whether I liked it or not, I had to hang out with a small group of people…in Sudbury. I got the hell out as soon as I could and somewhat lost track of 90% of those in my past life until Facebook. Now, I have reconnected with historical figures in my life ranging from elementary school to university.
It seemed totally logical to meet a friend I haven’t seen in almost 30 years at Han Ba Tang, A Korean joint in North York (I keep thinking it’s called Hang Ten after the company with the big foot slogan that kids cooler than me wore although we lived no where near waves bigger than those made from a 20 HP motor on Lake Ramsey). What drew me to this place was not the easy to remember name ( I forget it every time) but the fact that it scores one of the highest ratings on Zomato. That and the fact that 2015 appears to be the year of Korean food in Toronto and I wanted to compare it to Korean Cowboy and other similar eateries scattered across the GTA. Plus, we both decided that we should have something that didn’t exist in our Sudbury days where Asian food was limited to sweet and sour chicken balls at the Pagoda.
I arrived, went to the bar and ordered the Caesar on fire. The twist was the addition of jalapeno soju. I was tempted to ask the bartender for ID since he acted like a teenager. This perception was aided by the fact that he opened up a recipe book and meticulously measured every ingredient into a Steamwhistle pint glass only to realize after the fact that he had no straws long enough for the glass. It was good but a full pint of caesar makes for a big drink so the flavours were somewhat diluted even with a short straw.
Dish one was the Kalbi salad ($10) which highlighted the short ribs in a forest of romaine, onions, bell peppers and an onion dressing. It was topped with some deep fried onion as well.
One cannot go to a Korean restaurant withour sampling the tacos so I ordered the spicy pork, kalbi and unagi trio. The shells were oddly shaped and the fillings was flimsy for $4-6 bucks each. Flavourwise, they were ok but overall the touted tacos were a bit of a let down.
The kimchi pancake was fantastic. Laced with bacon, mushroom and pepper it was browned perfectly which maximized both taste and appearance. It had great textural contrast as well.
I love rice cakes and Han Ba Tang’s were no exception. These were filthy good and reminded me of days of warming up a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup after school which was well in line with the evening’s theme of reminiscence.
Finally, we ordered the black calamari which was coloured with a roasted seaweed sauce,further seasoned with baby dried shrimp and garnished with cucumbers. The calamari was cooked well but it was little too much fish on fish flavour.
Before fall foraging became cool, Korean was all the rage which saw Han Ba Tang and other snack/bar food joints vault up the charts. Traditional soups, rice cakes, pancakes, tacos and wings are served with both a taste and an environmental twist. Instead of the flat surroundings of some the College street eateries, most of the new places offer fancy drinks, loud music and a very North American vibe. There’s a fun, thoughtless innocence to these places which is often exemplified by…let’s say naive bartenders who need a manual to make a drink. One can only imagine what would happen once the Karaoke machine goes full throttle and “Crystal Chandeliers” by Charlie Pride fills the air.
In the end, Han Ba Tang is a bit quirky, a bit trashy and a little fun. The tacos were a bit of a mess but otherwise the food was good and not too silly of a price. Although I don’t think it’s a 4.7 on zomato, it sure as hell beats heading to the Pagoda with a crooked haircut.
I went to school at the University of Guelph which meant I got to know a lot of agriculture students, many of which are self-proclaimed rednecks. I also grew up in Sudbury. As a result, I could relate when Jeff Foxworthy burst onto the scene in the early nineties with his signature “You Might Be a Redneck” franchise. To this date, I still laugh at them. The latest one I heard was “If you have just been interviewed about the tornado for the fifth time…you might be a redneck.” I appreciate his humour in the sense that, like Jerry Seinfeld, he can make fun of the boring antics of Caucasians through astute observation.
This got me thinking what would happen if Jeff were a hipster. I think he would have a field day with the antics of this outrageous urban subculture. There are definite differences between rednecks and hipsters. For example, ask both what PBR means and one would reference professional bull riding while the other would ask for a beer. I’m not pretending for a second that I’m some hilarious comedian but I do eat out a lot and have been immersed in this culture long enough to make some general observations. So here is my attempt at “you might be a hipster”:
If you read your tattoos to kill time on the subway…you might be a hipster.
If your wardrobe is less diverse than Fred Flintstone’s…you might be a hipster.
If at least one of your T-shirts has a picture of Fred Flintstone…you might be a hipster.
If your happy hour starts at 10 pm…you might be a hipster.
If your pre-set iPhone alarm contains nothing with the letters “am” in it…you might be a hipster.
If your meaning of gelling with someone is comparing the product in your slick backs…you might be a hipster.
If your primarily using your Bachelor of Arts to sculpt your mustache…you might be a hipster.
If you live above where you eat…you might be a hipster.
If you know the difference between crudo and carpaccio but not the difference between walk and don’t walk…you might be a hipster.
If you can identify Nicaragua, Columbia and Kenya in a cup but not on a map…you might be a hipster.
If you have “ubered” yourself for a ride home…you might be a hipster.
If your definition of a car payment is $10 to a food truck…you might be a hipster.
If you wait longer for a taco than you do a medical procedure…you might be a hipster.
If you think “gimmie the skinny” means taking off your tie…you might be a hipster.
If you need to register your beard with animal control on an annual basis…you might be a hipster.
I have no plans to quit my job and join the Plaid Collar Tour anytime soon but hey…it helps ease the pain.