Fare..Eat..Ales Favourite Canadian Restaurants of 2014

This year features a steakhouse, a perennial favorite and a couple of new restaurants that have arrived with a splash.  In addition, there are a few veteran restaurants that show no intention of slowing down.

 

10. Wellington 529- Winnipeg, Manitoba

Maybe Winnipeg isn’t known as the Mecca of fine cuisine but I enjoy a good steakhouse.  Aside from what was likely the best steak I had all year, the old school service (including white lab coats) and decor made for a delicous and highly enjoyable dining experience.

9.  Carmen– Toronto

Carmen is one the better and most underrated tapas bars in Toronto.  One dish after another, whether traditional or with a twist, came out thoughtful, well executed and at a decent price point. In particular I still remember the blood sausage and the steak tartare. The service and ambiance were top notch as well.

8.  Pizza Libretto– Toronto

In the competitive world of thin crust pizza, Pizza Libretto is one of my favorites.  Service is good and everything from the anitpasto to the dessert is nicely executed.

7. Le Jambon Gros- Montreal

The perfect greasy spoon.  Although the quarters are tight, the vibe coupled with delightful and innovative grill top provisions makes this a stop for me everytime I’m in old Montreal.

6. Queen and Beaver– Toronto

This long standing British pub serves authentic fare including savory puddings, fish and chips, fine english cheeses and a number of snacks which makes other pubs look like amateurs.  Yes, the service can be a bit crusty at times but once you have a few cask ales in you it really doesn’t matter.

5.  Thoroughbred– Toronto

Although there was only a bar menu when I went here, it was an amazing experience. The owners gave me a tour of the chef’s table and soon to be dining room.  The food was fresh and innovative with a focus on vegetables.  The drinks are cleaver. I plan to return early in 2015 to see if my hunch about this place translates to the full menu.

4. Rasa– Toronto

I was probably most excited about the opening of this Food Dude’s industrial looking bricks and mortar location in 2014.  I wasn’t disappointed. Whether the regular menu items like root beer ribs or the mysterious fish board, the food was as creative as I expected.  The drink list was smart as well.  The service was as friendly as that from the food truck itself.

3. Richmond Station- Toronto

Richmond station is a perennial addition to the list.  Their system is simple; a small menu (including one of the best burgers in Toronto) to default to in the event the blackboard specials are either sold out or not to one’s liking.   To finish off the meal, Richmond Station has one of the most creative and visually stunning dessert menus in Toronto.

2. Maison Publique– Montreal

This fringy pub is quintessential Montreal.  The menu consists of sheets of paper written in French and hanging on a bulletin board. That said, the staff are more than helpful in making sure even the English enjoy a good meal.  With menu items like buccins (aka big snails) and seal mortadella, it’s almost a underground, taboo Anthony Bourdain type experience.  This ultimate foodie experience is enhanced by a good beer, cocktail and wine selection.

1. Whalesbone– Ottawa

Any restaurants that starts with a selection of a half dozen oysters and Kenny Rogers spinning on the turntable is good with me.  What follows is a small but impressive choice of draft and a small menu highlighted by fresh sea ingredients presented in a manner that is visually stunning.    The tight but comfortable quarters, great service, amazing vibe and innovative seafood based menu including  oysters served with one of the most impressive condiment carousels I’ve ever seen puts Whalesbone on top of the list for 2014.

 

 

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Review:Richmond Station

I was minding my own business when I checked my twitter account and was teased by Richmond Station challenging me to come in and try the venison and wild boar tourtiere for lunch. I responded with a “maybe I will” and next thing I knew they were saving me a seat for after my appointment.  When I arrived, I was greeted by name and sat promptly at the chef’s table.

The $19 prix fixe lunch was an easy choice…french onion soup with that alluring meat pie…..

Must

French onion soup is difficult to perfect.  The tendency with most is to rely on salty broth and an abundance of cheese as the main flavour.  This broth was light and delicate and seasoned with flavours much more robust than just salt. The Gruyere cheese was the perfect  amount of taste and meltiness on top. It was quite easy to finish the modest portion without any ill feeling of consuming too much sodium.

French Onion Soup
French Onion Soup

I watched the chef struggle a bit with plating the delicate tourtiere, so it was a bit messy.  Despite this,  the meat pie was easily the best thing I’ve eaten so far in 2013.  The crust was flaky and the large chunks of venison with the ground boar was a blissful textural contrast.  The seasonings once against avoided from the tendency to rely heavily on salt and instead promoted the flavours of  fresh herbs reminiscent of my  Grandma’s Christmas pies. The frisse salad tossed with apples and citrus dressing was a great compliment which, coupled with the pickled vegetables,  brought some crunch and tartness to compliment the main.

Venison and Boar Tourtiere
Venison and Boar Tourtiere

Maybe

In a smart move, Richmond Station offers their regular dessert menu for only $5 during lunch.  I couldn’t resist.  At the advise of the very helpful waitstaff, I opted for the lemon posset which was accompanied with a poached pear, blueberry compote, chamomile foam and meringue.  The presentation was a bit odd as it lacked any real colour since the blueberry was hidden beneath the meringue.  The posset itself could of been a bit more intense in its lemon flavour  to offset the sweetness of the other components. The pear was delicious as a stand alone but was a bit confusing with the rest of the dish.   The chamomile foam was magic  with a wonderful mouth feel and subtle tea taste. In the end, it was a pleasant finish.

Lemon Posset
Lemon Posset

My Take

The first time I went to Richmond station the lunch concept was still under construction.  Based on this experience, I’d get off at this stop anytime, especially if the tourtiere sticks around.  The tempting twitter taunt materialized into an experience characterized by the trinity of terrific service (both virtual and in person), a smart location and the reasonable $19 prix fixe lunch menu.  The whole 3 -course lunch  was served in less than 45 minutes despite the fact the restaurant was full and offered  a spectacle highlighted by a kitchen run with impressive efficiency.   Let’s call it a great dinner and a movie for less than $30. I even got to see a great trailer with the delivery of an impressive pig by a proud butcher for later use. I’m sure it made for quite the sequel.

Fare..Eat..Ales Predictions of 2013 Food Trends.

Each year sees a shift in the direction of the restaurant industry.  I’m going to take a chance and speculate on what food trends will start or continue  in the Toronto dining scene  in 2013. Feel free to agree, disagree or suggest your own trends by commenting here, voting in the poll or tweeting #2013tofoodtrends.

1. Ramen Rage

Arguably the biggest craze in 2012, noodle houses will continue to appear like Starbucks and Subways in the coming months.  Given the versatility of this noodle dish, I suspect new variations will emerge and will not be limited to ramen restaurants  alone.  I expect the big chains and even the small fusion eateries and food trucks to join the ramen rage in some way, shape or form.

2. Offal Offerings

Black hoof has gained international exposure for its offal menu with thumbs up from celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain during his lay over visit and  Richard Blais’  endorsement on his list of favorite restaurants on Urbanspoon.  Adaptations of  the nose to tail concept have been adapted by many eateries, even including  a beginner’s lesson in offal  at Skin and Bones in Leslieville. This concept will continue to flourish given the surge in responsible eating as well as those seeking the adventure of multiple organ consumption.

3. In a Jar

I’m not referring to the traditional strawberry jam, pickled cucumber and mango chutney here.  In efforts to use more local ingredients throughout the year, preserving is gaining popularity.  Local and seasonal cranberries, tomatoes, peppers and tree fruit can be used year round when processed into sweet or savory condiments to compliment meats and even cocktails.  Savory and briny condiments are definitely in.  One of the best dishes I had in 2012 was a pickle tray at Sidedoor in Ottawa and it only makes sense that these creative, unique and in many cases  relatively inexpensive foods are housemade to complement  menus and blackboards in 2013.

4. Eat Street

Despite strict downtown by-laws and less than favourable year round weather, Toronto is catching up with other large metropolitan centres regarding  the presence of food trucks offering anything from smoked meats to tacos to cupcakes. More and more private businesses and fundraisers are seeing the potential in these nomadic sculleries as an awareness raising tactic. In addition,  the low overhead, creative license and geographical flexibility are appealing to restauranteurs, ensuring that the fleet of food trucks will continue to grow.

5. Carrying the Torch

The chef’s blowtorch is a cooking method which has typically been reserved for creme brulee and more recently sushi.  The ease of use and aesthetic properties of charred food could expand the use of this handy tool to other areas of food preparation.  Vegetables, cervices, meringues, terrines and even fois gras could be meliorated with a quick singe  of the blue flame.

6. Mexican Mania

Tacos were the rave of 2012 with the success of Grand Electric and  La Carnita taco-heavy menu. Burrito Boyz, Mucho Burrito and Burrito Bandidos are lunchtime and late night hotspots.  Baja fish tacos adorn almost every chain restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu.  Modernized twists on tasty tostadas, multifarious moles and piquant pozole will expand beyond the traditional taquerias, making Mexican fare one of the hot ethnic cuisines across the board in 2013.

7. Soul Train

Soul food has just gotten started.  The success of Barque, Stockyards and new additions such as AAA combined with the Hogtown and Urban Smoke food trucks have put pulled pork and brisket on the must eat food map.  Look for  southern food to dominate  in 2013 with the expansion of  southern-influenced mainstays such as shrimp and grits, collard/mustard greens, gumbos and maybe even a crayfish or two.

8.  Snack Time

Tastebud teasers  including  spiced nuts and other savory snacks have been a complimentary mainstay of bars and taverns for years.  It seems this concept has crossed into the dining room, with a snack menu available offering munchable morsels, such as warm olives at Patria and Campagnolo, even before the appetizers arrive.   In particular, popcorn is gaining popularity, providing a blank slate for various flavors including  truffle at Origin and chipotle-caramel at Cava,

9. Comfort Zone

It appears chefs have dusted off  their old copies of  “They Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.  A return to comfort food is an emerging trend. In 2012,  coq au vin was a staple at Richmond Station and Trevor Kitchen. Chicken Pot Pies were  being baked up traditionally  at C5 and with fois gras gravy at Reds Wine Tavern.  Fried chicken is half the menu at Paulette’s and is available for two at County General.  Old school bourguignon and gamy stews are emerging elsewhere.  Expect a cornucopia of European inspired comfort food in 2013, complete with the use of fresh meats and seafood, rich sauces and homemade, flaky pastries.

10. Icy Indulgence

Frozen desserts have become a common default dessert item for many big name chefs, especically those with a aversion to baking.  Working on the notion that frozen sugar and milk fat make anything taste better,  unique flavours have been incorporated into ice creams, sorbets and gelatos alike.  Whether it be savory flavours such as thyme or balsamic vinegar, sweetness through the use of commercial sodas or fruit nectars or incorporation of tart flavours like yuzu, a good ice cream maker and imagination is all that’s needed for this trend to blow wide open.

What do you think?  Answer the poll and add your comments.  Multiple answers are acceptable!

Fare..Eat..Ales: My Top Canadian Restaurants of 2012

I’ve been to enough restaurants this year to compile a list of  I what I think are the best 10 in Canada.  I am also including a few which I may not have blogged about since I visited them before I started in June or July.  I will begin a daily countdown starting with number 10 and ending with number 1 on New Year’s Eve.

I’m a amateur blogger with a passion for food and this post is nothing more than my personal reflection of a year of eating out.  Feel free to agree or disagree. I encourage your comments!

See the urbanspoon list at the link below.

http://www.urbanspoon.com/guides/5781-my-top-canadian-restaurants-of-2012

10. Union 613– Ottawa

I can still taste the fried okra and Berkshire pork belly to this day.  The environment is best described as  union hall meets hipster joint meets smokehouse.  The staff is courteous, flexible and attentive. The impressive cocktail  list features rotating southern influenced cocktails (usually bourbon) and flavourful local brews.  Some of the traditional dishes were presented with a risky twist; the lemon lime parfait  was a savory rendition of the normally sweet yet tart key lime pie and the beef brisket was topped with an aggressive salsa verde.

The only major flaw was the rather bland oysters.

In the end, it’s great  food and great service in a great environment. I’ll sign the union card.

Check out initial review below and agree or disagree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/review-ottawa-union-613/

9. Trevor Bar and Kitchen- Toronto

Trevor is a meat and fois gras happy restaurant buried in the architecture of Wellington Street East. Well executed main entrees such as coq au vin and prawn spaghettini  as well as beautiful desserts are examples of the stellar food.  In an attempt to  preserve the integrity of the century and a half old building, the decor still makes me feel like I’m eating in a subway station. Regardless, I’ll buy a metro pass.

Check out initial review below and agree or disagree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/reviewtorontost-lawrence-market-old-towntrevor-kitchen-and-bar/

8. Table 17– Toronto

Table17 is a quaint place  with a great atmosphere located along Queen St. East.  It’s not too loud but still manages to have a buzzy aura. It offers  an innovative cocktail list and sticks pretty consistently to a well executed menu with large portions and  a focus on signature items including oysters, rillette, hot balls and and beef tartare.  The  polenta, presented table side, was the pinnacle of the meal and the duck entree was done well.   The desserts were not  mind-blowing but you may not need them after the meal.   This is a table I don’t  mind sitting at!

The blog post  is below.  Let me know if you agree!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/review-toronto-queen-east-table-17/

7.  Stoney’s Bread Company– Oakville

Stoney’s Bread Company is the least orthodox place on this list.  It’s not fancy, doesn’t have a stunning decor and isn’t the roaring hotspot like some of the others.  That being said, the food is wicked. The chicken curry sandwich on their own bread is one of the best I’ve had all year.  The pizza had a crust thin enough to allow for delicious origami while thick enough to hold together the fragrant sauce and the other fresh ingredients such as the high quality meats and cheeses which adorn the pies. I’d skip the dessert squares though.  Stoney’s may not be  the place to bring a first date or to impress your new boss…unless of course  they love amazing food and don’t mind taking a trip to a plain jane sandwich joint a bit off the beaten path.

The post is pending. Stay tuned!

6. Chambar– Vancouver

This west coast eatery mixes traditional belgian cuisine with tastes from around the world.  Chambar offers an amazing and unique Belgian beer selection and mussels to match.  In addition, there is an array of unique and sinful desserts with a presentation that rival some of the landmarks from the countries they represent.  The entrees were average and it’s almost too loud to have a conversation but the ambiance is pleasant and the edgy yet traditional menu is for the most part one of the better I’ve tried this year. When it comes to the underrated recreation of Belgian cuisine, Chambar is no sham bar.

Read my earlier review!

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/reviewvancouvergastownchambar/

5. Charcut– Calgary

Highlights of this downtown Calgary establishment include a trendy environment in the Hotel Le Germain, a decent booze list and amazing well-prepared yet simple food. In particular, the kitchen pickles and pork belly were most  memorable.   The desserts were decent but limited in choice.  I didn’t blog Charcut because I started writing  a few months after going.  Perhaps it was memorable since it was my first celebrity chef sighting when I chatted with Top Chef Canada contestant Connie DeSousa after dinner. Maybe it was memorable because the food was just damn good.

4. Ursa- Toronto

Ursa is a casual yet elegant eatery which sits quietly on Queen West. Adorned with a long wood bar and open kitchen, it has an intimate environment which is both classic and trendy.  As I mentioned in my review, each dish is a story, whether it be the sourcing of the ingredients or the distinct cooking methods.  Every plate is presented with an artistic flare with fresh,seasonal fare.  The elk tartare was a lesson in leaving good ingredients alone to tell their own tale. In addition, the cocktail list featured quality liquors with fresh ingredients presented in award-winning fashions.   Finally, the deconstructed lemon meringue pie was as tasty as it was visually appealing.  The biggest downfall regarding Ursa is an ever changing and unpredictable small menu which may not appeal to everybody..but I leave you to decide whether that is a major or just a minor issue.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/reviewtoronto-east-ursa/

3. Richmond Station– Toronto

In a few short months, Richmond Station has already established itself as a Toronto hotspot.  Maybe it’s riding the wave of chef/owner Carl Heinrich’s Top Chef Canada 2 win.  With a great open kitchen and a decor that is classy yet trendy, it’s a welcome change from the stuffy French bistros and hipster-centric caverns which straddle the Toronto streets. The food follows the same pattern, offering classic  yet contemporary cocktails, lobster bisque, shucked oysters with fresh condiments and duck two ways. The service, the environment, the chef, the kitchen…all the pieces fit together to make Richmond Station a bitchin’ station.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/reviewtorontodowntownrichmond-station/

2. Grand Electric-Toronto

Grand electric has a feel to it like no other place.  It’s well…electric.    The pozole, the spicy squid and the  tacos (especially the arbol chicken and beef cheek) are some of the better things I have eaten this year.  There’s a great booze list as well.  Despite the long waits and sometimes shady service, the overall feel is hip and cool, catalyzed by loud, hard rap and funky yard sale decor. It’s not clear if the second floor expansion will change the vibe but it shouldn’t change the food on the relatively static  but well executed menu.  In the meantime, there are no surprises.  You’ll  get what you expect with Grand Electric; the “it” factor…but first you gotta put your name on the waiting list.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/reviewtorontoparkdalegrand-electric/

1. Sidedoor- Ottawa

The Sidedoor experience started with impeccable service  the minute I walked in and continued until I left. There was a great cocktail list and the food was even more  impressive. The tuna sashimi might have been the best thing I ate all year and the sinful donuts were a great end to the meal. I was treated to a fantastic pickle tray that wasn’t even on the menu, which contained everything from melon rind to sunchoke to sea asparagus. The tacos were just fine as well. Sidedoor is an example of a perfect storm in which the service, food and environment collide for a truly memorable dining experience. It was so addictive, the next time I went to Ottawa I walked through the cold at 11 pm on a Monday night praying that  by some miracle they’d be open so I could  indulge again.  They weren’t.

Link:

https://fareeatales.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/review-ottawa-sidedoor/

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Richmond Station

Richmond Station posts the following message on their urbanspoon page: “Richmond Station is a stopping place, a bustling neighbourhood restaurant in the downtown core. We are committed to delicious food and excellent hospitality.” A simple message but one forgotten by many eateries in the area.

Upon arriving for my reservation, I was brought to a table with a great view of the open kitchen. Unlike some other restaurants which boast retro soda coolers or toque-wearing moose heads, the decor is a simple white tile, black accents  and classy hardwood tables. I was impressed with the layout of the chef’s table which seats about 8 people.   The wait staff were equally as classy, dressed in black.  Even the chefs were traditionally dressed, donning crisp whites and black aprons.

Richmond’s open kitchen with chef’s rail.

The hostess was very friendly, sat me quickly, provided a menu and I ordered a fantastic modernized version of a whisky old-fashioned cocktail at her recommendation. The waiter arrived  shortly after and immediately asked me my name which he used for the remainder of the night.  His service was impeccable, making menu recommendations while confidently explaining the restaurants concepts and philosophies. He seemed by my side all night, filling my water glass repeatedly and often explaining the station’s journey to date.

Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Excellent hospitality…check.

Now the food.

Must

The featured New Brunswick oysters were fresh and shucked without a flaw. The presentation was like a visual aphrodisiac, served on a bed of ice  with fresh horseradish and house made condiments  including a tangy mignonette, fresh marinara and spicy hot sauce.  I witnessed a definite devotion to “excellent hospitality” from the kitchen when the lady beside me still received all of the accompaniments when ordering a single oyster. At $3.5 each, there may be a temptation to break the bank of these tasty critters even before tackling the main menu.

Oysters with condiments

I received a lesson in  what a real lobster bisque is supposed to taste like.  Ignoring the trend to call any soup a bisque because it sounds better, Carl Heinrich’s team reverts to old school French methods, producing a thin but flavourful broth emulsified with  classic ingredients such as cream and seasoned with tarragon.  The result was a marriage of tantalizing flavours and although it did start to separate a bit toward the end, most will easily consume the majority beforehand.

“Real” Lobster Bisque

Keep an eye on the blackboard.  On this night there was a duck breast served on a braised duck leg.  The shredded leg was thoroughly cooked but still tender while the breast was sliced a perfect medium rare.  Both cuts were graced with a flavourful sauce and served with some vibrant greens.  This dish may answer the old question..am I a breast man or a leg man?  Based on this dish, my answer is both. Then again, maybe it’s the oysters talking.

Duck Two-ways

Maybe

Also on the blackboard was a 6 oz beef offering for $26. Beef is usually a safe bet and Richmond Station was no exception.  The seasoned beef had a beautiful sear and was sliced medium rare but was difficult to see amidst the jungle of greens covering the perfectly cooked steak.  The meat itself had a fantastic flavour but I wasn’t  fond of the bed of overly buttered chopped brussel sprouts which laid the foundation for the beef,  which just made the already rich tasting beef taste even richer.

Beef Special (see blackboard)

Mundane

The regular menu features a starter section highlighted by a $13 lobster cocktail.  Lose any premonition of a tall glass overflowing with fresh, chunky lobster.  Instead, expect a more measly presentation of 4 deep-fried lobster pieces served on a piece of lettuce with a dollop of cocktail sauce.  Sharing means you’ll only get two (or maybe three if you can mildly distract your table mate).   If you’re going to go fishing at Richmond Station, spend $14 and get 4 oysters instead of these land-battered crustaceans.

Lobster Cocktail

My Take

Richmond Station’s urbanspoon proclamation  claim holds true lead by a well-trained, courteous staff and a trendy menu with classic French influence overseen by a proven champion in Carl Heinrich (who even came out to ask how the meal was). The classic decor follows suit, characterized by a modern but bourgeois surrounding  reminiscent of the style of Candice Olson as opposed to Red Green, Bruce Wayne or Beetlejuice.  In the end, both the concept and the location create a perfect storm, appealing to celebrity chef chasers, downtown dwellers,  floating foodies and those who appreciate french inspired food without the confines of  bistros adorning white table linen and equally stuffy service.   I’ll come by again when they open for lunch, but for now I don’t mind this train stop along my voyage in search of culinary pearls.

Richmond Station on Urbanspoon