Hopgood’s Foodliner as Switzerland to Toronto’s Proposed East vs West Food Rivalry

I’ve been pondering a visit to Hopgood’s for some time now.  I often stay downtown so the thought of a long drive, expensive and smelly cab or an onerous TTC excursion usually turns me off and I end up settling on something a little closer. However, a few Mondays ago I was driving to Toronto from London right around dinner time and took advantage of the location plus buck a shuck oysters by popping in before checking into my hotel for the night.

Hopgood’s has received constant accolades since opening a few years back.  It’s theme is east coast fare with a Toronto twist. It goes without saying that it boasts a ocean-centric menu with a bit of poetic licence.  The menu is smallish but complemented with a number of blackboard specials meant to highlight seasonal ingredients.

I grabbed a seat at the bar right in front of the oyster shucker.  He was busy cracking open the joints of 4 or 5 different types and throwing them on trays of ice.  Oysters are a most interesting culinary phenomenon.  There are dozens of species of oysters and each have a distinct profile.  Much like wine, pundits post comments about the bouquet and balance of the tasty mollusks.  There are heated debates about proper condiments; horseradish, lemon and mignonette seems to be holy trinity but it is not uncommon to see cocktail sauce and even blended scotch make it’s way on the list as well. In oyster world, there is also the east versus west coast battle which may be as heated as the music rivalry which has existed in the hip-hop/rap world since the nineties.

Let’s stop here for a second.  I’m a white guy who can’t dance or sing but I’ve always been fascinated by the impact that music has had on popular culture.  Historically, religion and land claims have the two biggest triggers for disputes across the globe. However, in the last 20 years one can argue that one of the biggest rivalries (at least in the US) has been fueled by music.  The west coast vs east coast conflict peaked in the late nineties with the murders of  the treasonous 2Pac (I say so because he was actually born in east Harlem and became one of the kingpins in the west coast movement) in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G ( the self-proclaimed king of New York) just six months later.  I read into this a bit more and discovered a couple of interesting facts:

  • Tupac and B.I.G were victims of drive by shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and Los Angeles, California respectively.
  • Tupac was hit four times in the chest, pelvis, and his right hand and thigh.  B.I.G was also hit four times with almost an identical profile except for a shot in the back versus chest.  Both reports noted that one of bullet hit the victim’s left testicle.
  • Tupac died six days later in hospital while B.I.G died only an hour after the shooting.
  • Neither  case has  been solved although much speculation still exists as to who the shooters were.  Not surprisingly, names like Diddy and Suge Knight (and in the case of Tupac Biggy himself) come up, but the composite sketch of B.I.G’s shooter looks like The Fresh Prince’s Carlton more than any of the suspected hip-hop thugs.

Back to Hopgood’s.  As opposed to a skinny and cut West Coast Tupac and a heavy east coast Notorious B.I.G, oysters are the opposite. Atlantic oysters tend to be a bit smaller whereas Pacific are meatier. What I found impressive was the fact that there was no compromise in quality even though it was buck a shuck night.  I have been to other places where the only option were rather measly and pathetic Malpeques .  They did charge for condiments such as horseradish (and a rather interested egg/scapple combination (6 o’clock) which I quite enjoyed) but that still didn’t hinder the fact that they were a great deal.  They did take some time to come and an apology came in the form of a free oyster topped with a torched parmesan sauce (2 o’clock) which gave it a nice baked oyster taste without compromising the integrity of the fresh oyster itself.

Oysters (A Buck each)
                                                                     Oysters (A Buck each)

While waiting for the oysters I ordered a winter derby (Elijah Craig Bourbon, Averna, Clementine Shrub, Lemon, Maple Syrup, Cinnamon & Pear Bitters) for $15.  It was tasty cocktail and while a little on the sweet side, had a nice balance and richness which removed the temptation to shoot it while at the same time not being a meal in itself.

Winter Derby $15
                                 Winter Derby $15

I went to the blackboard for my next dish which was beet greens served with brown butter and walnuts.  The bitterness of the greens were harnessed somewhat but the sweetness of the butter and the walnuts glued things together with earthy contrast and crunchy texture. The apple added a needed freshness. I found it a very smart dish.

Beet Greens
Beet Greens $6

The blackboard also offered a tuna belly crudo which was garnised with a salad made of watermelon radish.  It was safer than I expected.  The tuna itself was fresh and delicious but there was a general lack of seasoning, acid and heat. In the end, I thought the fish and salad lacked cohesion as a single dish.

Tuna Belly Crudo
                                                Tuna Belly Crudo $10

For the main course  I stuck to the menu and ordered the sablefish with a n’duja and brussel sprout salad. I expected that a restaurant with great accolades  which specializes in seafood would be able to nail a piece and sablefish and I wasn’t disappointed.  What blew my mind was the salad.  The crunch of the sprouts with the surprising heat (after all where are talking east coast) of the n’duja was unexpected.  In fact, the fish was close to playing supporting actor to the sprouts but the fact it was perfectly cooked allowed it’s buttery richness to shine as the star on the plate.

Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N'duja
                                                    Sablefish with Brussel Sprouts and N’duja $25

Since I was so impressed with the salad, I couldn’t help but turn to the blackboard and hope that the steamed scallops with n’duja was still available ( I should state here that like most specials, they are made in limited quantities and many of them had lines scratched through them as the night went on).  It was a carbon copy of the sablefish; the beautifully presented (in shell)  scallops were respectfully prepared and once again the sauce was spicy and delicious.  I love playing with my food and I had fun dissecting the bivalves.

Steamed Scallops
                                                                   Steamed Scallops $12

There were long voids in between dishes and I found the service quite scattered and unorganized.  Maybe it was the fact that the waiter taking care of me also had everybody else at bar, a few tables and was responsible for all the drinks.  Although it was a Monday, it was busy and I think at times there was no rhyme or reason to the ways things flowed.

My Take

There is no doubt in my mind why Hopgood’s Foodliner has received the laurels it has since it opened a few years back.  It takes the friendly cuisine of the east coast and urbanizes it to compete in Toronto’s progressive dining scene.  Smart blackboard specials, perfectly executed proteins and surprisingly sauces highlight a superb menu.  The cocktail list is pricy but smart by taking a number of tastes,flavours and boozes into consideration.  The overall experience, however,  was somewhat hampered by slow, inconsistent and confused service.

Classic east/west rivalries such as the Celtics versus Lakers exist in sports. In the culinary world, celebrity chef and competitive brothers Bryan and Mike Voltaggio represent both sides of the United States (with west coast Michael winning the head to head battle on season six of  Top Chef). I got thinking than a similar east versus west rivalry may add some spice to Toronto’s dining scene.  Perhaps the line can be drawn along Bathurst which would nicely separate the bourbon- swilling Parkdale posse from the suit wearing Grey Goose-drinking downtown dwellers.  Thankfully, the likelihood of shootings is minimal, but I imagine feuds could escalate into a night of a few Campari or Shiraz-fueled bitchslaps should things get out of hand.  More likely would be the back and forth twitter banter such as “Hey Don Draper..how’s that Manhattan Tasting #westisbest” or “I drink AFTER working a 10 hour shift, not DURING one  #plaidisbad”.  The biggest question regarding Hopgood’s is since it’s an east coast restaurant on the west side, which side of the fence they would sit on?  Perhaps it can assert itself as a neutral zone and a place where all can exist in harmony while doing oyster shots….just as long as you’re not in a hurry.

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Review:Vancouver:Robson St:CinCin Ristorante and Bar

While in Vancouver, I had a business meeting  in the private room at Cin Cin, an old school Italian eatery on Robson Street. I was shuffled to the private room which housed hundreds of bottles of wines, some at hundreds of dollars.  Speaking of cost, expect to pay a pretty lira here; apps are $13-18, pastas start at $15 and entrees go from $30-45.   Noise was an issue even in the private room. The only thing separating us and the boisterous outside crowd was a thin sheet of glass and a thick wood door that constantly opened and closed, allowing the drone of human banter to roll in like thick fog.There was a four course set menu featuring an array of choices for the appetizers, mains and desserts with a mushroom risotto as a middle dish.
I opted for tuna tartare to start. It was a large portion on the modest side of seasoning and acidity although I got the odd big chunk of salt here and there. The radish was a nice addition to add a bit of crunch to the otherwise silky texture.

Long line caught albacore tuna tartare
Long line caught albacore tuna tartare

The risotto was well prepared and seasoned nicely. The rice had a subtle crunch and there were plenty of tender mushrooms scattered throughout. It was served hot and it held its temperature well.

Mushroom Risotto
Mushroom Risotto

The sable fish was treated with the utmost respect, its delicate integrity preserved in the cooking process. Ever bite melted like butter in my mouth. The mashed potatoes were subtle and allowed the fish to shine. The kale was simply and perfectly prepared and added great colour, texture and a punch of bitterness to the sweet filet and creamy mashed potatoes.

Sablefish
Sablefish

I strayed from my normal tendency to order tiramisu for dessert and opted for a lemon tart instead. It really wasn’t a tart; it was served cold and with a side of strawberry coulis that brought me back to days of scraping the last morsels of baby food off the side of the jar and shoveling it into my kid’s waiting mouth. The tart as a whole had that “sitting there for a bit” taste.

Lemon tart
Lemon tart

There is pride in the service, characterized but constant wine and water pours by the head waiter who is as well seasoned as the risotto was. The table’s dishes were served  by numerous waitstaff on a way that would make the Canadian synchronized swimming team envious.  I received “Sir, that’s an excellent choice!”  for each and every order I placed, an accolade I’m not sure was entirely deserved, especially in the midst of my tiramisu regret.

My Take

CinCin is a well established and expensive Italian restaurant promising good food, good service and good wine. The sablefish was spectacular and clearly the godfather of the evening. The rest of the food was more Godfather III.   The decor is old school Italian villa; respectfully cheesy while embracing the dwindling art of old school service which is as much choreography as it is  functional. However, there is no music for the dance. Instead there is plenty of noise which could become quite aggravating if you have anything important to say or hear…like how great my dinner choices were.

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Review:Vancouver:Fairview:Tojo’s

Tojo’s often comes to mind first when one considers fine Japanese cuisine in Vancouver.  Not your hole-in-the-wall sushi joint, Tojo’s focuses on high end sushi at high end prices. Some  hardcore sushi traditionalists call it overrated while others have appointed it the gold standard of Japanese cuisine.  On a recent trip, I went with a large (and rather excited) group to indulge on the famed omakase tasting menu.  The premise of this menu is to offer the freshest ingredients to be served hot and cold in 5 or more courses, preferably with copious amounts of sake and/or Sapporo,  starting at $80.

Must

The sablefish was by far the best course served throughout the evening.  A generous portion of this naturally sweet and buttery fish  was perfectly cooked and  balanced with a slightly tart and salty glaze which graced  the entire tongue to wonderful flavours .  The bed  of slivered, well seasoned vegetables added both texture and colour to complete this well-rounded mid-omakase dish.

Tojo's Sablefish
Tojo’s Sablefish

Maybe

Both the sashimi and sushi platters were “cute”; the former garnished with a fish head, wasabi purses and very Canadian maple leaves.  The latter had a number of delicate rolls  presented nicely beside a cooked lobster shell. The sashimi was fresh and expertly cut so there wasn’t a lot to complain about. The variety of sushi was innovative and  impressive, highlighted by generous amounts of fresh fish topping most of the options.  Despite the server raving  about the signature golden roll (see far right of sushi platter),  I found it the weakest of the offerings despite the fact I’m a huge fan of eggs in any way, shape, form and species.

Sashimi Platter
Sashimi Platter
Sushi Platter
Sushi Platter

Mundane

The tempura vegetables were very average and didn’t add a lot to the overall experience.  Perhaps the hype around the omakaze experience heightened my expectations beyond a greasy, battered sweet potato I could make at home.

Tempura Vegetables
Tempura Vegetables

One of the important aspects of a tasting menu is the need to keep it flowing. Long gaps between courses can disrupt the flow of a good meal and there were some disruptions during the rather long service which was a bit aggravating  considering the restaurant was at about 50% to capacity.

My Take

Every big city has a shortlist of “must see” eateries that every tourist and foodie alike flock to in search of the ultimate dining experience.  Tojo’s fits the bill..but the bill may not fit you.  It was an expensive and lengthy venture into a rich history of West Coast cuisine highlighted by fresh, local fare including hearty sushi rolls and delicious Canadian sablefish prepared by the  iconic Hidekazu Tojo. I was hoping he would come and chat a little, especially since the restaurant was not to capacity and we probably dropped over $1200 on the final bill. Anybody who knows or reads me knows how much I relish speaking to “celebrity chefs” and  to be honest, I was hoping for  a brief discussion instead of listening to him sing a strange karaoke version of “Happy Birthday” to a small group a few tables down. Maybe I’m overreacting a bit but come on..how often can you say you spoke to a man who cooked for Martha Stewart AND invented the California roll.

Mulling Moment- Please Comment!

 

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