Pai, Pai, Toronto’s Northern Thai…I ordered Farang Spicy Heat and I Didn’t Cry

A short, short time ago
I can still remember how good thai used to make me smile
And I knew if I gave pai a chance
That I could make my tastebuds dance
And maybe I’d be happy for a while

The waitstaff made me shiver
With every dish that they’d deliver
After all the food they schlepped
I couldn’t take one more step

I sure remember all I tried
Whether it was a main or a side,
It seemed the yelp ratings didn’t lie
The day I went to Pai.

Pai, Pai, Toronto’s Northern Thai
Drove my Jetta to find parking but the rates were so high
And them good ole boys were serving  two beers that were Thai
The pogues sung Singha beer don’t tell no lies,
That Singha beer don’t tell no lies.

Let me tell you what I did love
The level of spice mentioned above
And the menu told me so!
Now do you believe in good spring rolls?
With a dipping sauce served in a small bowl.
And with a heat that tends to kick in real slow?

Well, I know I’m in love with Tom Yum
Specially when it makes your tongue numb.
The flavours really fused
Man, I dig those good soups and stews

There’s a green curry filled with lots of stuff,
And it’s cleverly served in a coconut
All for the price of 16 bucks
The signature dish of Pai

Pai, Pai, Toronto’s Northern Thai
Drove my Jetta to find parking but the rates were so high
And them good ole boys were serving  two beers that were Thai
The pogues sung Singha beer don’t tell no lies,
That Singha beer don’t tell no lies.

Now for eighteen bucks you can own
A shrimp platter that I can’t condone.
The caesar’s not how I thought i’d be
It was mucky as opposed to light and clean
And the shrimp was rather plain cuisine
although others may disagree

And while the Caesar was going down
I ordered Thai’s culinary crown
It was pad thai I yearned
a good verdict was returned

With flavours complex instead of stark
The sausage really hit the mark
With sauce that deserves good remarks
The day I went to Pai

Pai, Pai, Toronto’s Northern Thai
Drove my Jetta to find parking but the rates were so high
And them good ole boys were serving  two beers that were Thai
The pogues sung Singha beer don’t tell no lies,
That Singha beer don’t tell no lies.

My Take

For the most part authentic Thai food in Toronto has been served in places decorated with elephants and Buddha statues but Pai has introduced the concept of serving this popular fare in a Duncan street rabbit hole designed for basement dwelling hipsters. It is small, crowded and hectic. The service was efficient but a little scattered and inconsistent at times. They do take bookenda reservations, however, so planning ahead ultimately avoids a lot of headaches.  The food lives up to the hype by offering authentic recognizable dishes such as pad thai, tom yum soup and spring rolls as well as other favourites such as green curry and Thai sausage.  The rolls (with the kicking dipping sauce), soup and noodles deserve honorable mention but the curry, in particular, was among one of the best I have had.  Maybe it was the cute coconut as a vessel but the consummate flavours and tender beef made it the premier dish of the evening.   The accompanying sauces such as the Thai relish served with the sausage were delicious.  The Thai caesar platter, although an interesting and exciting concept, was disappointing mainly due to the lackluster Caeser mix and boring shrimp sauce.  I loved the option of farang (foreigner) spicy which added a great bite while respecting the other flavours such as kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass.  Price wise, it’s definitely more expensive than Salad King or most hole in the walls but very much in line with other hipster destinations offering noise and chaos as menu options.

They were serving Thai, Thai, at Toronto’s Pai
I liked the food and bevies and my standards were high
Them good ole rolls and curries were worth the buy
So I’d suggest that you give this place a try.

Pai Northern Thai Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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.

Hopgood's Foodliner on Urbanspoon

My Favorite American Restaurants of 2013

Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive.  I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants  which stood out during my travels.

10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle

This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus.  The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing.  It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.

9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago

Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.

8.  Tamale Place– Indianapolis

You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing.  The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite.  If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too.  It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.

7. Pastabilities- Syracuse

A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there.  The place is always packed for a reason.  First, the food is amazing.  Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific.   It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.

6. Roast– Detroit

Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me.  Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.

5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)

Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone.  Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations.  It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more.  It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while.  Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious.  They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.

4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)

Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union.  Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines.  It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with  pot pie and meatloaf specials.  Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.

3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland

I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s.  In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s.  Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh.  The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten.  From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana.  In fact, I awake craving it at times.  In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.

2. Topolobampo– Chicago

Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America.  Now I know why.  Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo.  From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty.  Hands down the best service I had all year.  The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy.  Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!

1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago

Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is.  Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award.  The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense.  Whether it’s the escargot ravioli,  the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing.  Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso.  I’d tour this gallery anytime.

Review:Toronto:King West:Wvrst

I have sausage envy.

Maybe it’s because I live in a city where my choices are limited to mild or hot italian. Maybe it’s because I still reminisce about the mustard laden monstrosity I had during Oktoberfest in Munich last year (even though it’s width that matters, not length right?)

Sausage at octoberfest
Sausage at Oktoberfest and origin of  my sausage envy

Wvrst opened a couple of years ago in an attempt to mesh the Oktoberfest experience with the downtown Toronto dining scene. Nicely polished wooden communal tables fill the second-story open space as music (don’t expect any Walter Ostanek) fills the air.  Against one wall are shelves full of beer beside 16 or so draught taps ranging from local to international, with a focus on German favorites. In the back is where you order, pay and have a seat.

The menu is like the United Nations of sausage.  With around two dozen choices, one can stick with a traditional German brat, an italian pork sausage or experience the tastes  of South Africa, Tunisia, Slovania or Mexico.  If you’re more of a Duck Dynasty fan, you can opt for Guniea fowl, pheasant or duck.  Big game like wild boar, elk, venison and bison compete for you palate with cute bunnies and kangaroos.  There are even vegetarian options for those who choose to eat what food eats. You can top your choice with peppers, sauerkraut or jalapenos or even a tomato curry sauce.

The fries are available straight up or dirty and with or without duck fat. Dirty means topping them with the same toppings available for the sausage.  If you don’t want it dirty, you can get one of about a dozen dipping sauces on the sauce.

Masked with onion and jalapenos, I suppose I could say this was any of the majestic meats, but I did opt for wild boar stuffed with mushroom and tea.  The bun was like the old lady down the street; crusty on the outside but soft in the middle. I went dirty and ducky with the fries.  They were magically filthy, like playing in the dirt and making mud pies.

Wvrst Dirty Duck Fries $6.50
Wvrst Dirty Duck Fries $6.50
Wild Boar Sausage $9
Wild Boar Sausage $9

Wvrst employees know their beer yet keep the pretension to a minimum.  I mean, they use cool words like “tap takeover” and are keen to discuss the evolution of North American hops but don’t look at you like you’re an inferior moron (unless of course you insist on a bud light or try to argue that the Keith’s Cascade Hop Ale is a real beer). Featuring a slew of Quebec taps, I had a Shawinigan Handshake, a fruity and complex IPA with tremendous balance.   Apparently it’s hitting the LCBO in the coming weeks (thanks to the informative barkeep for the tip).

My Take

I suppose I should insert the cliche comments about this phonetically challenged restaurant.  Wvsrt lacks a vowel but doesn’t lack character. There’s no u in wvest  and no i in beer (unless you’re in France or Quebec). This place is well wvrst in touting the sausage. Despite only a handful of menu items, the vast array of encased critters makes for a tough decision.  The duck fries, alone or adorned with the dirt, are highly addictive. The beer selection rivals anywhere in the Toronto.  The staff are knowledgeable, engaged and friendly.  It can get quite loud either due to the bellowing, glass clinking drunkards lining the communal tables and/or the blaring music filling the open, square dining area. Even without lederhosen and dirndls, Wvrst has all the elements to ease my aching sausage envy without having to resort to one of the numerous hot dog carts clogging the downtown core.

Wvrst on Urbanspoon

DDD:Baltimore:Chap’s Pit Beef

Part of the difficulty of ranking DDDs, or any restaurants for that matter, if the fact that they are so different.  Take Chaps Pit Beef for example. It’s a humble abode with a simple concept; charcoaled meat on bread but can it compete with likes of sausage gravy and Maryland’s own blue crab cakes?

The directions are straight forward.

1.Get on the Pulaksi highway.

2. Look for Gentleman’s Gold Club.

3.  Enter parking lot. Park. Leave car.

4.  Follow smell of smoky goodness to small, stand alone shack.

5.  Enter.

6. Got to counter, imagine any combination of meat possible (beef, sausage, ham, turkey and corned beef).  Many are named after famous people, teams etc.  Put pointer finger and thumb on chin and stare blankly at the numerous choices.

7. Order.

8.  Move to the other side of counter and wait.

9. When food comes proceed to condiment counter and dress accordingly.

I felt a pang of betrayal not ordering the The Guy’s Triple D, but decided on the Richwich, a corned beef, beef, turkey and sausage which pays homage to Man vs Food host Adam Richman (sorry Guy, but it had two kinds of beef!).

Having just eaten at Sip and Bite, I took it to go and drove toward Pennsylvania with a side of tiger (horseradish) and house made BBQ sauce. I had every intention of waiting until I drove a reasonable distance before digging in, but as I said on yelp, it spoke to me, asking me over and over to eat it. I really had no choice, so I finally had to succumb, pull over for safety reasons.  I slathered it with the sauces and indulged.  I must of looked like a cross between a rabid dog (complete with dripping tiger sauce) and a fat kid in a pie eating contest. I swear a state officer did a double take making sure I wasn’t wrestling a ruffed grouse.

Chaps is a straight forward sandwich and burger shack set up in the parking lot of a strip bar. Chaps offers a fantastic sandwich, highlighted by the tender beef, corned beef and turkey.  The sausage was so-so and a bit awkward, so I would likely go with the Raven (beef, turkey, corned beef ) next time.   As for the sausage, I’ll  leave it for the Gentleman’s Gold Club.

Verdict: 5  Guyz

Richwich- Undressed
Richwich- Undressed
Richwich- Dressed with Tiger Sauce
Richwich- Dressed with Tiger Sauce and Attacked

Chaps Pit Beef on Urbanspoon