My First Date with Sara: Rasa’s Sultry and Sophisticated Sister

The name Sara is fairly prominent in pop culture.  On the music side, the name Sara has fronted such singers as McLaughlin and Bareilles although the former is spelled with and H on the end.  My sister’s name is also Sarah which gave my grandmother years of difficult since she was never quite sure where the H went.  Every year my sister would get a card which read “Happy Birthday Sahra!” or “Merry Christmas Sarha!” or “Happy Graduation Shara!”.  I also used to bug my sister in the 80’s by humming the tune “Sara” by Starship which,in addition to “We Built this City”, could the two worst songs released in 1985. I still don’t think she’s forgiven me.

From a food perspective, perhaps the best known Sara is Sara Lee. The company, once called the Kitchens of Sara Lee and opened in 1935, was a small chain of bakeries in Chicago with a man who named his bakeries and a cheesecake within them after his daughter.   Both the name and the bakery was purchased  and 70 years later was a multinational company with 137 000 employees. Since then, the company has been swallowed up by even bigger fish and is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.  That said, it still remains a place to pick up a quick cheesecake if you plan to binge watch Animal Kingdom or you forgot it was your turn for dessert once again and a bag of two bite brownies just won’t cut it.

I couldn’t tell you the origin of Sara, the food dudes new culinary experiment in Toronto’s King West area.  I can only assume it’s an anagram of Rasa, their other brick and mortar restaurant.  I see Sara as Rasa’s more sophisticated but stuffier sister. Rasa hangs out in a basement on Harbord Street, drinking cocktails named after her friends and eating lamb bacon and sticky buns off of wooden tables.  Sara, on the other hand, prefers to sip G&T  and eat crab dumplings off of marble tables in the vicinity of Lee and Jacob’s steakhouse. I was quite excited for my first date with her.

When I arrived I didn’t recognize her. She is in one of the many recently renovated houses along Portland Street just north of King St so it could easily be mistaken for another person (although she didn’t look like a Jimmy and certainly wasn’t Chubby).  After double checking the address, I entered the front door and was immediately impressed with her interior.  It was modest but classy with virginal white (damn!) walls and wood accents.   Her marble tables were sleek yet practical given the fact they held a chamber for cell phones with the intention of removing texting temptations and force and face to face discussion.  She also mentioned they are planning to put chargers in the tables in due time for extra motivation.

It seems Sara likes the hard stuff more than a pint; in particular she’s a fan of a good G&T or a vodka/soda as indicated by the fact that these are the only cocktails formally on the menu.  There are 4 combinations using different gins or vodkas along seasonings and house made mixes based on taste preference.  I opted for a “spice” G&T ($16) accented with fruit and star anise.  In line with the anti-straw movement, she provided an artsy vessel which doubles as a device to muddle the contents.  That said, she was full of surprises and produced a solid old-fashioned comparable to some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.

sara g and t 2
Gin and Tonic $16

Once Sara got me a bit tipsy, she proceeded to show me a little more of her personality.   I quickly realized she was a bit of an uptown girl…a quality vs quantity kind of woman.  In addition, she was full of surprises by offering her upscale versions of food I may eat in a roadhouse with a girl named Becky.  The chopped salad ($16), fries ($14) ,dumplings ($20) and rice pudding ($15), for example, were hardly pedestrian. The salad was garnished with cashew cheese instead of chunks of marble. The fries were shaped shredded potatoes bathed in schmaltz versus shoestrings in shortening.  The dumplings  were Prada-like purses darkened with squid ink and overstuffed with seafood and Bearnaise as opposed to generic bags full of ground pork and  cabbage.   The rice pudding was a rich and savory porridge peppered with corn and bacon and certainly not the senior special with sprinkled cinnamon  and a dollop of whipped cream.

Her elegance emerged as the meal progressed. I looked into her (rib) eye ($34) and I felt like a king (salmon) ($25). I couldn’t help but admire her (pork) belly ($22) in my periphery.  All were well prepared but the portion sizes were a bit of a tease.  The steak went well with the snap pea slaw to balance things out.

I thought it was a little risque when she invited me to the washroom but it was really just to show me the toilet.  Imported from Japan, they come complete with an wall mounted remote with words like pulsating, pressure, oscillating and position.  Needless to say, I was quite excited when she asked me to sit down.  Luckily, the heated seat was a wonderful distraction and took my mind off any potential pulsation.  I must confess I did play with the controls a little before heading back up hoping I might get the dessert I missed out in the washroom…especially with cherries and a party listed on the menu.

There were only three desserts on the menu and I stuck with my washroom thoughts.  The cherry crullers ($12) were rich but modest and nicely flavoured with cardamom and cream.  The party sandwich ($12) seems the signature dessert and is Sara’s version of a regular ice cream sandwich.  It wasn’t sickly sweet partially due to the sesame and miso flavours.

My Take

I think my date with Sara went well. I mean we got tipsy. ate pub food, locked rib eyes, took a trip to the washroom and had a party after. The date wasn’t cheap though.  I think there will some complaints about the price points relative to portion size but as mentioned, Sara is an uptown girl and values quantity over quantity.  Personally, I’m more of a Rasa guy with a preference for basement apartments and her sticky buns vs lofty abodes and  Sara’s cherry cruller.  That said, I wouldn’t turn down a second date as long as it was sometime around a pay day.

Sara Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Advertisements

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