Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

salt-cheese
Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Santouka Ramen

Toronto is one of a  number of  North American cities in which Santouka Ramen, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, has set up shop in hopes of capturing the growing base of noodle fans.  Santouka promises quick and efficient service but tries  to deviate from the notion that all ramen soups are created equal.  It steers away from rich pork belly, eggs and nori offered by others in lieu of  a somewhat cleaner bowl of salty broth.  I arrived at 1210 and got the last seat, which was at the bar with a clear view of the kitchen. I was a bit memorized by the long stove holding up 8 large vats  of bubbling broth presumably prepared by a methodical and somewhat mystical  process. Otherwise, it had the feel of a karaoke bar set up in a subway station, with orders sung in Japanese melodies muffling the continuous sound of clanking soup bowls. I had my meal and was out in about  30 minutes, receiving  envious stares from the 12-15 onlookers in line when I left.

Maybe

It’s apparent that each interpretation of this traditional dish is in the eye of the beholder.   In this case, the Shio Ramen  was a mellow, salty broth with a firm, tasty noodle and adorned with green onion, crisp bamboo shoots, fish cake, ribbons of kikurage (mushrooms), fatty back rib pork and a signature pickled plum.  If I were a soup architect constructing the perfect bowl, I’d say the foundation (broth) was a bit oversalted, the walls (noodles)  were solid and the accents spiced up the decor reasonably well. Both the plum and the spiral fishcake were a cute finish; a delicate  reminder of the artistic importance put on  Japanese food.  The shoots and shrooms were mainly for taste and texture and somewhat succeeded at both but more so the latter.  The pork was scarce. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the lack of an egg.  It’s like building  a house without a pool; it works but you’re left feeling like there’s something missing.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The gyoza were satisfying. Not doughy or soggy,  they had a nicely seasoned and fairly abundant filling and were served with a carousel of condiments which included chili oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce. At a little more than a buck a dumpling, they hit the spot.  I would equate them to a nicely manicured but not spectacular lawn sitting outside the previously described  ramen house.

Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Shio Ramen with Gyoza
Gyoza Condiments
Gyoza Condiments

Mundane

I find something sacred about green tea and somewhat expect a little ceremony when I visit a Japanese restaurant.  What I don’t expect is a generic tea bag (I think I can get a 100 bags of this brand for a buck or two at any teashop)  in a cup for $2.50.  At least bring me a good quality loose leaf tea and/or put it in a  pot.  Otherwise, don’t charge me a ridiculous price for an average product that maybe costs a cent or two.

My $2.50 tea.
My $2.50 tea.

My Take

Once again, no two soups are created equal.  The seemingly infinite number of ramen houses mean an infinite number of ramen dishes and an infinite number of opinions. Santouka offered a reasonable competitor with a well flavoured but salt heavy broth (I drove home with the feeling that I had a chalice of water from the dead sea).  The pork was a nice cut but the portion was minimal. The remaining additions were just ok.   In summary,  it’s a worthy, well-calculated  addition to the neighbourhood of ramen soups, offering a house with a strong foundation, a few frills and a nice front yard (gyoza), although I still do miss the pool.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Food Trucks:Urban Smoke

Not since the days of Shaggy, Scooby-Doo and  the Mystery Machine have mobile smokehouses been so mainstream.  Case and point, I was at a fundraiser a while back and the line for Urban Smoke was twice that of any other truck that was onsite.  Parked comfortably within the confines of a private parking lot (so as not to add to further Toronto city hall controversies) , the staff were busy dishing out some traditional and not so traditional fare. Ten bucks got you one of four choices so I picked up some lunch for myself and a colleague.

Urban Smoke Menu
Urban Smoke Menu

Must

The ability to get a hearty soup is a rarity in most restaurants let alone a food truck. The split pea soup was reminiscent of something your French-Canadian uncle J.P. may spend hours in the kitchen whipping up in a magical cauldron. It was thick and savory and filled  with chunks of delicious double smoked ham while resisting  the temptation to over-salt, a common transgression of many an eatery.

Perfecting the grilled cheese seems a easy trick but its simplicity is often its quandary. Urban Smoke offered two sandwiches; a standard grilled cheese and one featuring nutella and mascarpone cheese as a dessert. Magic is grilling the bread to golden brown while melting the ample filling, a feat that everyone from top chefs to 15 year old latchkey kids have spent generations trying to perfect.  Urban Smoke comes close. The secret could very well be seasoning the bread with just a small amount of salt on the outside before grilling the abundant contents within. Simple but extremely satisfying.

Pea Soup, Grilled Cheese and Banana Pudding
Spilt Pea and Ham Soup, Grilled Cheese and Banana Pudding
Marscapone and Nutella Grilled Cheese
Mascarpone and Nutella Grilled Cheese

Maybe

The pulled pork was average which is still a compliment considering the number of food trucks, burger joints and smoke houses who lay  their foundation on good pulled pork.  The meat was tender, partnered with piquant seasonings and the bread was soft and proportional to the filling. The “magic fries” provided a poof that could certainly help Penn and Teller make a rabbit appear but maybe not enough to make David Copperfield’s convertible materialize out of the blue.  The slaw added a delicious, tangy crunch.

Pulled Pork with Magic Fries
Pulled Pork with Magic Fries

Mundane

I took a chance and opted to skip the magic fries in favour of the banana pudding (see picture above).   It had a decent flavour but I felt a bit ripped off by the size and the fact it was starting to separate a bit, leaving a bit of an oily pool in the bottom of the glass.  It was about the size of  a jello shooter and in the end about as exciting as the never-ending handkerchief trick.

Part of the appeal of a food truck should be a quick meal to avoid having to sit down, order, eat and wait for the bill. Although almost inevitable, especially during high volume events such as fundraisers and other events,  long waits continue to be an issue with wheel-bearing establishments and Urban Smoke was no exception.

My Take

Urban Smoke is a bit of a traveling roadshow, bringing a kind of magic show to each and every parking lot or street side it inhabits. The  headliners include  a variety of southern BBQ foods including pulled pork and brisket partnered with a few other choices.  As a result, it draws big crowds which means big lines and  big waits.  The staff, however, are quite efficient and personable and maintain a decent flow. If the truck is around (check out torontofoodtrucks.ca for schedules),  I would definitely consider a trip for lunch  if you have the time and desire to break up a hectic day. After all, after a busy adventure unmasking criminals, I’m sure Shag and Scoob would have been happy to fill up on a few grilled cheese  sandwiches following an equally smoky visit to the Mystery Machine.

Mulling Moment- Please Comment!

Urban Smoke Fusion BBQ on Urbanspoon