R&D: Rebel and Demon, Research and Development, Rad and Deficient

In a previous blog, I outlined my Masterchef tryout in some detail.  Despite my failure to impress the producers, I watched the show and was happy to see Eric Chong win.  I was equally happy to see something tangible come from his win;  a new restaurant in the perilous region of Chinatown.  R&D is a partnership with the mercurial Alvin Leung, who’s blue hair makes old ladies and smurfs alike quite envious.  The restaurant’s concept is one of polarity and contrast. Our bubbly waitress promised flavours which ran the gamut of tastes and flavours with every bite.  The name R and D refers to the Rebel and Demon personas of the owners and is a play on the fact they were both engineers before finding their true vocation.  Adding to the polarity is Eric’s calm demeanor coupled with the mad science antics of his partner.

I asked the enthusiastic waitress for menu recommendations.  She recommended pretty much everything on the menu but in particular raved about he CSB buns. They cook them hourly and getting one might be synonymous with scoring a Black Friday deal.  Once out of the oven, the waitstaff wrestle for them in the hope they can secure them for the patrons at their tables. I drank the Kool-aid and insisted that we secure some of this precious loot. Did we manage to get them?????

STAY TUNED

The drink list comprises of Asian inspired potent potables derived from a collection of traditional cocktails.  The Whisky sour is splashed with  lemongrass, coriander, pepper and yuzu liqueur.  The pina colada is served as boozy bubble tea. The 510 ceasar (which I ended up ordering), was made with garlic and mushroom infused vodka and seasoned with hoison Worcestershire sauce.  Mushroom flavour was prominent and heat from the chili sauce was a little shy. The drink was topped with Nori which added a pleasant element of unami.  All in all, it was a good Caesar but was a little small in volume which probably helped to intensify the aforementioned flavours.

510 Caesar $14
510 Caesar $14

The first dish to arrive was Eric’s Curry.  Beef brisket sat in a pool of curry sauce and mustard greens. It was brilliantly unique.  A little salt and sweet and a lot of sour and heat made this great to eat (that’s poetry for you left brained science types).  At the time, the dish came with no medium to absorb the sauce (a true engineering flaw) which really was shameful considering how good the sauce was. Maybe we can call it an early oversight since  it appears based on the website the dish now comes with coconut rice. Probably the best dish of the night.

Eric's Curry $20
Eric’s Curry $20

Next was the octopus which was served with eggplant and choy sum chimichurri. The presentation was a little sad but the octopus was nicely prepared and finished with a decent char.  The eggpplant was clever as a replacement to the normal routine of potatoes or olives and the chimichurri was  deliciously unorthadox yet had a familiar flavour I couldn’t quite pinpoint but wanted more.

Octopus $14
Octopus $14

Shortly after we received the Tom Yum Little Dragon buns ($6). I imagine that Thai flavours in a Chinese bun may be considered as engineerial as calling a soup dumpling a dragon bun but in the end they hit the mark on flavour and were a pleasant bite.

Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6
Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6

I was a little reluctant to try the lobster chow mein ($25) but my colleague talked me into it. Despite a reasonably sized  portion of lobster, it was horribly predictable and had no wow factor at all.

Lobster Chow Mein $25
Lobster Chow Mein $25

The one platter were ordered was the general saunders’ chicken served with  kung pao sauce, sichuan maple syrup, and HK egg waffles.  The chicken was nicely seasoned and super moist.  The kung pao sauce was delicious and I think the maple syrup is probably an acquired taste but I took the advice of the waitress and mixed the two together which created a mixture which satisfied a number of taste sensations.  The waffle portion was a little skimpy but complemented the chicken well in their spin of this traditional southern dish.

General Sanders' chicken $25
General Sanders’ chicken $25

At this point there a bit of a mad scramble around the kitchen which suggested one thing..the buns were ready.  Although I was getting rather full, I couldn’t resist the urge to indulge and our waitress, like a trooper, emerged with an order.  The pork filling was a bit scant a certainly played second fiddle to the delicious bread.  They were delightfully warm and just a little sweet and filled my need for gimmickry nicely.

CSB Buns $8
CSB Buns $8

At this point I was quite stuffed but another colleague showed up and ordered the beef tartare.  The spin was the son and law egg with the sauce served on top of the beef.  I had mixed feelings about this one, probably beacuse I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to this dish in particular. I think the beef should be the star and thought the sauce, although matching nicely with the egg,  masked the flavour of the beef a little too much.

Steak Tartare $17
Steak Tartare $17

She also ordered the scallop which was served with hot sauce, chinese greens and sichuan hollandaise. It was hard to put my finger on it, but the dish lacked balance.  The heat and bitterness was prominent but it lack sweetness. Maybe the thought was that the scallop would provide enough sweetness to offset the flavours of the hollandaise and Chinese greens. The scallop itself was cooked near perfectly other than lacking a good sear (which affected both its colour and what might have been a necessary caramelization). Personally, I would have kicked up the sweetness of the hollandaise or replaced it all together.

Scallops $23
Scallops $23

My Take

The Asian fusion concept of R&D is certainly a better fit for Spadina than Strata 241 was. It is a well calculated project with all the fixings of a nouveau Toronto eatery; celebrity chefs, old school rap “fusion food”.  I was surprised a bit by Eric’s kitchen demeanor.  He was extremely stoic and methodical, focusing more at the task at hand than shining in the limelight as Canada’s first masterchef winner. It’s like he was in a 2 hour mystery box challenge.  Like the show, there was a combination of great and not so good dishes. The curry was hands down the best dish of the night.  The chicken, octopus, buns and tartare were more than acceptable and the lobster chow mein and scallops were a bit of a train wreck.  Also like the show, there was gimmickry and hype lead by the promise of extreme flavours with every dish that didn’t always come to fruition.  Much like a television show, the success of R&D will depend on loyalists who will continue to go after trying it once for the novelty, Eric’s ongoing commitment and whether or not people will be able to tolerate Alvin Leung for anymore than a season of Masterchef.

R&D Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

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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

Whalesbone: Kramer’s Conundrum, Pickerel vs Walleye and is Kenny Rogers Malaysia’s David Hasselhoff?

Growing up I was very familiar with Kenny Rogers. Not only did my grandparents have it in the rotation on the 8 track in between ABBA and Neil Diamond, but mom was a rather obsessive fan. I remember her travelling down to Toronto to see him in concert and returning with a huge, glossy souvenir book which sat in a rack for months afterwards.  His gleaming face on the front cover would greet me at the front door every time I got home from school.   I knew all about Ruby, Lucille and Reuben James. I knew that somebody believed in Kenny and that the Gambler could not possibly outrun the long arm of the law.

Kenny’s legacy continued when I moved to London. There was a Kenny Rogers’ Roaster’s a few blocks from my house. I went once but was more impressed with Canadian chicken juggernaut Swiss Chalet which was located a block closer. The chain’s popularity likely hit it’s peak in the mid-nineties after an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer reluctantly falls in love with the chicken despite the fact its annoying red neon sign lights up his apartment. Despite the publicity, the company eventually declared Chapter 11 and is now owned and operated out of Malaysia with franchises scattered throughout China, the Philippines and Cambodia.   Maybe Kenny is to Malaysia what Hasselhoff is to Germany.

Kramer in the Kenny Rogers' Glow
Kramer in the Kenny Rogers’ Glow

During a recent trip to Ottawa, I was craving seafood more than I was chicken, so I decided to grab dinner at Whalesbone. The oyster house has become a staple among many Ottawa foodies and is known for its innovative menus and bar side turntable which bellows the output of spinning vinyl throughout its tiny confines. I arrived in time to grab a bar seat before the place got too full.  I sat down and had flashbacks when I saw Kenny’s bearded mug staring at me from behind the bar while his voice serenaded me with the suggestion that I decorated his life.

I was greeted by a pleasant barkeep who quickly sliced some bread (served with a delicious maple butter), passed me the daily menu and eagerly explained the daily catch of oysters in great detail.  Finding it difficult to decide, I opted for one of each of the mollusks from the likes of Colville Bay PEI, Foxley River PEI, Eel Lake NS and Simon NB and Deep Bay BC. Equivalent to the variety of oysters was the carousel of condiments that came with it which included the standard horseradish, lemon and Tabasco in addition to the  housemade seafood,hot sauce and mignonette and even a shaker of blended scotch. The variety of both the oysters themselves and the additions made for a very enjoyable start to the evening.

Oysters 3/$16
Oysters $3.15-3.25 each

All of the half dozen starters looked incredible but I settled for the scallop ceviche ($20) which was served with grapefruit, red onion, jalapeno, crisps, cilantro and fraiche.  It was presently beautifully and had a crispy acidity which nicely coddled the tender scallop.  I was hoping for a little more heat from the jalapeno. The radish, which wasn’t listed on the ingredients, was a bit like an uninvited guest whose powerful presence was a little too dominating in the midst of the others party goers.

Scallop Ceviche $20
Scallop Ceviche $20

For the entree, I was fascinated by the walleye and clam combination flavoured with bacon, beans, radish, potatoes and herbs ($30).  As a side note, some of us get rather annoyed by the use of the word walleye instead of the much more Canadian pickerel but I suppose I should pick my battles.  Once again, the dish was picturesque. The pickerel fillet was nicely browned and served atop a fragrant broth which housed the remaining ingredients.  This time the radish was a welcome guest, adding some crunchy bite to the dish.

Walleye $30
Walleye $30

For dessert, the banana cream pie ($11) was calling my name. It was served in a mason jar and served sprinkled with a graham crust.  Those who are not extremists may be a bit turned off since it was heavy on the sweet side but despite this, I enjoyed the taste and texture, highlighted by  fresh cream and chunks of ripe banana.

Banana Cream Pie $11
Banana Cream Pie $11

My Take

From start to finish, I enjoyed the Whalesbone experience.  Whether it was the fresh bread, the array of available oysters, great service or the other innovative dishes, it had all the components of a great but expensive meal. Each offering was well thought out and attractively presented with an array of textures and flavours by pleasant and knowledgeable waitstaff.

I rarely tweet while at a restaurant but the combination of the oysters and Kenny’s crooning put me in the mood to proclaim my sultry experience to the world.  My message was quickly retweeted by somebody at the restaurant and one clever follower asked me if I counted my oysters when I was sitting at the table; I said there’d be time enough for counting when the eatin’s done.

Whalesbone Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Financial District:Stock Restaurant

Any blog that has anything to do with Donald Trump means the possible insertion of jokes about getting fired, bad hair or something to do with  the apprentice.

A team function brought me to Stock, located on the 31st floor of Trump Tower. There’s a couple of things I would expect when dining at a restaurant affiliated with Donald Trump; waiters with bad hair (dammit!) and at least one staff member getting fired every night (D’oh!).  Seriously, I would hope to view a few self-entitled pretentious patrons and enjoy a dining experience with unparamount attention to detail.

For goal number one, it didn’t take long.  Upon arrival, I was handed a very good glass of what I recall was a Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc and shuffled out to the balcony for some hors d’oeuvres. It was a chilly night, so I wasn’t surprised to see a couple (ie. man and woman) enjoying a couple of  fine cigars and swirling some sort of amber potable while seated in the corner of the balcony as the waiters circulated with appetizers in hand .  Since it was a chilly eve, they were wearing matching fur shawls.  Whether supplied by the hotel or not, it’s pretty irrelevant. MATCHING FUR SHAWLS!  Awesome.  Mission accomplished (sorry no picture).

As for the hors d’oeuvres, I was offered prosciutto wrapped scallops, shucked oysters with fresh horse radish and fried portobello mushrooms with truffle aioli.  The proscitto was a delicate diversion from the usual bacon and provided enough salt to balance the buttery sweet scallop which was cooked perfectly.  The oyster was fresh and meaty.  I must digress on the mushroom as I have publicly called for the banishment of both truffle and aioli as a food trend.  Eating this simple finger food makes me want to take it all back. The mushroom was moist and the batter crispy….and yes, the aioli was good.

Scallop
Scallop
Mushroom with Truffle Aioli
Mushroom with Truffle Aioli

It was a set menu but I found the choices innovative and appealing.  My starter was the octopus. It was executed well….still tender and fired properly (ok..stopping). It was seasoned well and the tender potato added some delicate earthiness to complement this treasure from the sea.

Octopus
Octopus

For the entree, I ordered black cod with an edamame  puree and lightly fried greens. The well seasoned flesh was glistening but wasn’t raw.  The fork cut through it like butter and tasted the same.  The subtle crunch of the crispy vegetables was the perfect complement from both a taste and texture perspective. From the land side,  I  managed to secure a small portion of the filet which was served with a vibrant pink hue  indicative of a good medium rare..simple but satisfying.

Black Cod
Black Cod
8 oz filet
8 oz filet

Dessert was from the chocolate cart which circulated while peddling its house made wares to patrons like an ice cream truck in a subdivision.  A sinful array of truffles and other delicacies weaved  through the tables offering rich and artisan delicacies  which were another example of the delicious attention to detail which was evident throughout the evening.

Chocolate Cart
Chocolate Cart

The meal finished with some Niagara ice wines and a tasty Taylor Fladgate, 10 yr old tawny port which was simply delicious.

My Take 

I expected dinner at Stock to be a adventure in posh dining and a possible fulfillment of my champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Instead of white linens, candlelight and a waiter named Jeeves, the decor was casual and comfortable and the food was the  standard fare you would see at any other eatery in the area.  The concepts were simple and the execution was near flawless.

Ok….I did take a quick peak at the online dinner menu and the prices were quite acceptable and rival some of the higher end restaurants in Toronto.  The octopus is $17, the cod $34 and the filet is $42. The truffles are $3 a piece.

In the end, I got what I was looking for…my paparazzi experience, a good wine/port buzz and a well executed meal from start to finish.  Donald, thanks for making Toronto a better place to dine, one fur shawl at a time.

Stock Restaurant on Urbanspoon