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.
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.
Rice Pudding $15
Crab and Scallop Dumpling $20
Chopped Salad $14
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.
Snap Pea Salad $14
King Salmon $25
Pork Belly $22
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.
Cherry Cruller ($12)
Party Sandwich ($12)
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.
Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene. In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015. I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.
A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub). For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27. “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.
I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is. She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones) from Shameless. Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit). That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).
I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single. In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and compared to other entertainment-heavy metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.
Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose. Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.
Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs Boxing Day 1985.
10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)
Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face. The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.
I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.
9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)
A short elevator ride up a few floors opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails. A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow. Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced. Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.
I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present. I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle. Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.
8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)
As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic sipping cocktail. They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.
7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)
Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a standard menu for everybody or only an option for the main protein. They even set the stage for such free will (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by offering a choice of a blue or white napkin . It was rather odd but memorable.
6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)
There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:
Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour little light on the citrus.
In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course. It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a sinful cousin of a croissant.
When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist. I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so. Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold. A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.
5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)
Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork. There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone. If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them. For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.
4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)
I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver. I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.
3. Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)
There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15). In the name of adventure we agreed. The featured fromage was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers. We ordered two plates was plenty for the four of us. Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate. We joked that, being the token Caucasian at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate. I went dark. Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese, we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead. It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me. Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good. Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan. The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.
Earl Grey Parfait
White, Milk and Dark Chocolate
2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)
When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head. The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after. The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.
1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)
Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one. In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA. The flow of the meal was spot on. Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained the components of each dish with great precision. The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.
Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service. Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience. The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.
In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album. Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening. You feel the experience instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment filled with countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.
I went to the Beverley hotel yet again for lunch with a colleague. I was going to blog it right away until I heard that chef Eric Wood was going to be on Chopped Canada. I figure I’d wait to see if I could boast that I dined at the restaurant of a Chopped champion.
Ironically enough was the fact that Wood was taking on Bryan Birch from Barque, another place I managed to hit in the last year. With two very different styles and figured it would come down to the ingredients and the moods of the judges. What I didn’t expect is how moody they could be…
I’ve reviewed the Beverley twice already. I like it because it’s relatively quiet, has a nice ambiance, takes reservations and has a menu that can appeal to the masses. I started with the Butternut and Tarro salad. I enjoyed the balance of the sweetness of the squash and dates with the flirt of acid in the dressing. The tarro and beans offered a great textural contrast and an earthiness to this unique salad.
Eric Wood is know for his 4 play; a structural sound square meal; a snapshot of his id and ego on any given day. Typically, it’s an appetizer, salad, main and dessert. On this particular day, it was shrimp and mussels in a coconut broth, a sage and sunchoke gnocchi, an heirloom tomato salad with pressed ricotta and a sea buckthorn cheesecake with grape jelly. Foreplay like this makes me want to put out. The shrimp were delicious and were cooked to perfection. The gnocchi was nicely caramelized and was far from boring. Although I’m not a huge tomato fan, the cheese compensated and I really liked the dressing. The dessert hit the spot as well although it was a little sweeter than expected. I wanted to be totally overcome by the delicious tartness of the fruit especially in the midst of the super sweet jelly.
Chopped Canada is a double edged sword. In one sense it can assign subjective culinary supremacy to any of a number of aspiring and established chefs. On the other hand it can be a shot to the ego and reputation if one were to lose.
Eric Wood’s appearance on Chopped Canada was consistent with his restaurant philosophy: respect for ingredients highlighted with bold flavours. Despite this, Susur Lee couldn’t see the forest (in particular morel) mushrooms through the peas. From the minute Eric missed the infamous snack cake on the plate, Susur had it out for him. Perhaps it was some kind of king vs queen street rivalry or maybe a textbook example of workplace bullying, but it struck me as odd. After sulking about the snack cake, Susur went off on Eric’s blue rare duck, his accusations of making excuses, missing tahini, roasted morels that had the texture of leather and the inappropriate use of cardamom dust with key lime pie. Meanwhile, he turned a relative blind eye to things like overcooked salmon offered by other competitors.
Three’s a charm at the Beverley. In a sense, it has become my go to for a reliable place with a relevant and diverse menu in a beckoning environment. In particular, the 4 play is a fun spin on a lunch special, featuring the freshest ingredients used to construct a tongue-tickling portrait of a complete meal. There is a wide diversity of appetizers including the tasty butternut and farro salad. Perhaps chef Lee should drop by the Beverley hotel for a little 4 play and if he’s still grumpy after that, maybe he should just get Bent.
To switch things up, our last team meeting was planned outside of the normal confines of the GTA and we headed to Niagara-on-the Lake. A hot spot for worldwide travelers during the summer months, this small border town on Lake Ontario sits quiet during the winter months populated by stray deal seekers and seniors who didn’t make the trek down south for the cold season.
I showed up at the Prince of Wales a little late but in time for the second course of a wine and food pairing. I quickly had a glass of Cattail Creek Pinot Noir shoved into my hand while the chef explained the salmon he prepared. It was a pan roasted organic salmon cake, blue cornmeal and citron aioli lettuce wrap slider. Very tasty.
The next course was a fair trade coffee braised Ontario short rib, sweet potato and succotash and watercress salad served with a Henry of Pelham estate cab/merlot. They paired together nicely and the spoon was a blend of nice winter flavours.
The final was a dessert tray with a divine 2005 Southbrook ice wine. Promised to have complex fruit flavours, it had an overwhelming but delicious raisin flavour that was delicious with the truffles.
Further inspection of the hotel afterwards revealed a setting which may have been the inspiration for the Shining or some other horror movie. The attention to detail in everything from the tapestries to the door knobs was incredible and a far cry from the facades which grace most of the modern day destinations in metropolitan areas. Part of the ambiance was a number of oil paintings scattered throughout the hotel depicting members of the royal family past and present. Almost ever suite in the hotel is different. Mine was a red room complete with velvety curtains, matching carpet and a Pollyanna backboard. There was antique side tables, cozy chairs and yes…an oil painting with two overdressed and unhappy children staring at me.
Day 2– Beer is the new wine but microgreens are alive and well
There’s a beer movement brewing in the wine-dominated Niagara region. The Prince of Wales featured Niagara-on-the-Lake’s own Silversmith black lager. It reminded me of a black and tan..it starts punchy and ends with a smooth finish. The Butler’s bitter is produced by students of the Niagara College teaching brewery and proudly features on the list of taps available. Meant to resemble the beer of choice (or perhaps necessity) by the 1812 British soldiers, it was pleasantly unrefined but surprisingly refreshing.
We walked down the street to the Charles Inn for dinner. It was a mere five blocks from the Prince of Wales but during a polar vortex it felt like a marathon of a walk. It’s a quaint hotel and unlike the Prince, it was decorated much more subtly but still maintained the feel of a 19th century abode. It was a set dinner but was a fair representation of the food scene in this sleepy winter town; squash, microgreens, pork and salmon. In a sense, it’s a fusion of old school dining with a flare of the new. I opted for the squash veloute (which in fact was a cream soup but I guess you can call it a veloute as much as you can call it a bisque). It was hot and creamy and flavourful. The roasted marshmallow was a nice addition but a few springs of crispy sage would have worked really well.
The pork loin was served roasted and was coupled with a square of belly, another example of a fusion of eras versus one of cultures. It was cooked and seasoned nicely and served with root vegetables and a sort of potato pave. I’m sure the latter is a favorite of the locals year round as it screams old school french.
Coming as no surprise, dessert was creme brule, the ubiquitous staple of purveyors of fine dining and pyromaniacs across the country. It had all the elements; crispy top, smooth bottom, a spattering of fresh fruit. and yes..icing sugar. Looking at it was like watching a Miracle on 34th street. I felt relieved knowing this dish would still be around when I was 65 or 70.
Day Three– Burgers, Balzac’s and Brass Tacks
So there’s no question that a winter virus plus a few too many brews makes one a little groggy the next morning so I crossed the street to Balzac’s to indulge in some sort of recovery beverage. Balzac’s is small chain of coffee shops that populate the Golden Horseshoe. They offer roomy interiors and a carousel of available coffees. In addition, they sell traditional coffee inspired beverages but also feature some interesting elixirs that crush things like Starbucks sickly sweet caramel flan latte. The citro-boost for example, is a potion of lemon, maple syrup, ginger and cayenne pepper. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. I trotted back across the street, sat in my meeting and felt medicinally wonderful as my colleagues sipped the watery, hotel made coffee of unknown origin. The next day I went back and had the Cafe Nordique, a latte with honey, vanilla and cardamom. Although a little on the sweet side, the cardamom burst through, resulting in a pleasurable treat.
In the still of winter, I was not surprised that the hotel was rather empty on Monday and Tuesday night. Wednesday, however, was a different story. After my meeting, the bar/restaurant was buzzing and filled to capacity. A wave of blue hairs and accompanying distinguished gentlemen had invaded the place. When I asked the barkeep what was going on she responded with two words: Burger night. It seems 5 dollar burger night is all the rage. The locals dig themselves out of the driveways and brave the cold to indulge on this weekly treat. You even see a pint or a glass of wine peppered on tables around the bar although fisticuffs remained at a minimum.
My plans involved crossing the street to the Irish Harp pub. Voted Niagara’s number one pub, it features an array of local and European beer. Their flagship pints are sold under the “Irish Harp” name and brewed close by. I sucked a few back over the evening with great delight. To my surprise, not every person in Niagara-on-the-Lake was eating a burger at the Prince. The remaining folks were about to engage in Wednesday trivia night. The place was quarter full but table tents with team names adorned most of the unoccupied tables. We took one of the only free tables on the bar side. Shortly after, the regular crowd shuffled in. One group was a half dozen twenty-somethings who looked like trivia was their only break from hours of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Another table was Niagara-on-the-Lake’s version of thirty something foodies. The remaining tables were serious looking mixes of older patrons who were here to play. The husband/wife trivia leading tandem showed up and we were off to the races. Six sheets were circulated in succession with questions that would stump Ken Jennings. The lager numbed the fact that I couldn’t list the first native american prima ballerina (who passed away in 2013) although I did know the author of Get Shorty. After 4 rounds we were in third place and received a few threatening glares from the locals but in rookie fashion we choked a bit in the last two rounds and finished out of the money in 5th place (actually it wasn’t money…first place was a basket of homemade chocolate).
I found the food average. The black and tan onion rings with Guinness spiked mayonnaise were a unique and delicious twist on the traditional appetizer although a little steep at $13.
For a main, I ordered the Irish hot pot which combined a small portion of Irish Stew with the Steak and Guinness pie for $13 and a side of mashed for $2.50. It was quite average. The meat was tenderish and the seasoning was acceptable but neither dish was mind blowing. The picture is really bad because I wasn’t allowed to use my phone during trivia so had to sneak a fast shot…proof I’m not Peter Parker. The pictureless bread pudding was quite delicious, a fitting end to a table who wasn’t quite smart enough to win the prized confections.
Niagara-on-the-Lake made me crave life after 65. The thought of indulging on microgreens, creme brulee and a weekly burger plus a trivia beat down while drinking copious amounts of microbrewed beer is a solid retirement plan. Sure, I would need to put up with annoying summer tourists and creepy oil paintings but it beats snowbirding to Florida, plying bingo and eating dinner at 4 pm every night.