Waffles, Kibble, Rhine and PBR in Cincinnati

I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati.  It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air.  I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid.  It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city.  The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe.  Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks.  Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever,  went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.

The Cast of WKRP in Cincinnati


In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.

W- (Waffles and Wright).

Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot.  The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder.  He was efficient but far from welcoming.  I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup.   The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast.  It was much denser and more filling.  It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup.  The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.


Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog.  In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street.  Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator.  As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.

senate dog
Senate Trailer Park Dog $10

K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)

Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre.  Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of  Kentucky.  In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3.  Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone.  As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style)  and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.

R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)

Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century.  Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states.  For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem.  However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog.  I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once  a death wish but ven that is slowing changing.  That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati  and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling  Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of  Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.   Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.

Cool Floor at Taste of Belgium indicative of Cincinnati architecture.

P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)

The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from.  They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part.  I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side.  They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.

Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese  and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.

My Take

Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but  I’ll  give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium.  Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day.  The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average.  Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.

In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks.  In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s  turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.


Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4.5/5 Guys

Total- 12.5/15 Guyz

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


Food- 3.5/5  Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/Guyz

Bakersfield OTR Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taste of Belgium

Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3/5 Guyz

Total- 9.5/15 Guyz

Taste of Belgium Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Hello, Why Alo is the Adele of Toronto’s Dining Scene.

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.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

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.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

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.

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.

My Take  

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.

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

Tinder Surprises and Scenes from the Red Wedding while Bymark Hits the Mark

My job allows me to attend a number of group dinners.  I’m often reluctant to write reviews of these experiences since they are a bit artificial and may not apply to somebody  looking to grab dinner for two on a Saturday night.  That said, I imagine smooth execution of a delicious dinner for 100 people would speak highly of the quality of the food and the service.  This was the case during a recent visit to Bymark. I wasn’t involved in planning this dinner so I can’t comment on the price per head as part of this review.

I’m used to standard set menus which offer soup or salad as a starter, fish, chicken or steak as he entree and some dessert which usually includes a cheesecake and something chocolaty.   Bymark’s options blew my mind.  There were five starters that included butter braised lobster poutine, fois gras, yellow fin tuna with yuzu, buffalo mozzerella and mixed greens. I sat staring blankly at the menu as I had to reprogram my brain think outside the soup/salad binary code I’m so used to.  I’ve been in a fish mood lately and I’m quite sure “yuzu” is Japanese for “tasty little bastard”, so I went for the tuna.  It was seared and served beautifully .  I would have liked a bit more of both heat and acid to tear into the richness of the tuna but it was fresh and clean and the pop from the odd ginger crisp was memorable.

Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls
Seared Yellow Fin Tuna with Yuzu Pearls

My colleague opted for the lobster poutine.  It was a modest portion served on a circular lobster shell and topped with bernaise sauce.  I think I saw him cry a little bit.  I managed to score a few frites and thought it  was greasy sweetness…literally and figuratively.  I cried a little too.

Butter Braised Lobster Poutine
Butter Braised Lobster Poutine

Another colleague of mine from Quebec stuck to her roots and ordered the fois gras.  As a disclaimer, I am not wacky over fois gras.  I enjoy a think slice of torchon as opposed to a hunk of liver on a plate.  This appetizer was the latter.  Maybe it was the garnish which was a bile-looking sage puree coupled with a bloody looking compote and swimming in a pool chocolate jus. It might have been the fact that the fois gras itself was not served cooked throughout. Either way,  it looked like aftermath of the red wedding scene from Game of Thrones.  Since I am not a savage medieval warrior or Hannibal Lecter, it wasn’t my thing and wouldn’t have been any better even  if there were a few fava beans thrown on the plate.

Fois Gras and Sage Eclair
Fois Gras and Sage Eclair

The selection of entrees were equally as impressive.  There was the choice of steak, lamb, black cod, chicken and vegetable risotto Black cod is one of my favorite fish and I was particularly intrigued with the octopus and crab cakes, so my choice was a no brainer.  To me, the key to good black cod is to achieve the same silky mouthfeel as if  you were eating a pound of butter but without the probable ill-filled aftermath.  Mission accomplished.  The citrus butter balanced the sweetness of the cod and with the help of the coriander crust and subtle broth enhanced it at the same time.  The crab cakes were delightful morsels and the eggplant and  zucchini strands brought some earthiness to the dish.

Coriander Crusted Black Cod
Coriander Crusted Black Cod

For the most part, dessert adhered to the group dinner blueprint in offering chocolate something and cheesecake.  They did, however, offer a delightful selection of cheese (including a killer blue) served with honey, grapes and bread.  It was a nice way to finish the evening.

After Dinner Cheese
After Dinner Cheese

There is something to be said for a restaurant’s ability to execute a large group dinner.  Although it cannot always be compared to the service required for a smaller, more intimate dinner, there is a standard which includes ensuring 100 wine glasses are never empty and that everybody gets their meals within a short window of time.  The service was flawless other than a few hiccups regarding coffee service at the end of the meal.  That said, maybe we scared them off given the fact that our table looked like a bunch of adolescence watching Porky’s for the first time. One of my single colleagues decided to open her tinder app and demonstrate the concept to a bunch of us.  Essentially, you scroll through pictures of people within a defined radius of where you are sitting, squatting, drinking etc.  You either like or dislike them based on a few pictures and whatever witty (or ridiculous) banter they include in their profile.  A yes means if that person also approves of your posted resume, an “It’s a match!” flashes on your screen and the happy couple can be begin a chat which may or may not lead to other things including a walk in the park or a deep discussion about existentialism. A no means great big red letters are stamped over the unsuspecting dude’s picture and the girl can smirk with the satisfaction that she temporarily ended somebody’s hopes and dreams. During the lesson and in the presence of the opposite sex, there were a couple of quick observations I made about this phenomenon called tinder:

1. Guys should not put pictures of cats on their photo roll.  Cat guys seem to be a turn off to women (although I can think of a few guys that really like pus…never mind).

2. Guys should not post pictures of themselves hanging with their buddies, especially if it’s every picture.  There were a few cases where we actually wagered who the actual guy was.  Plus, it may lead one to believe that you either need your buddies in  a picture  look better or you are into threesomes, foursomes or frat parties.

3. Girls and guys differ on the definition of witty and/or funny.  For example, one guy’s status was “My mom says she likes me”. The girls at the table thought that he was clever; the guys thought he was a putz.

4.  Girls want to see the whole package.  Close-ups of a bicep or upper abs along with a shot from distance demonstrating a dude’s love of barbecuing veggie skewers in bad lighting doesn’t work.  It’s  a hook-up app, not a 100 piece puzzle.

5.  I suspect that pseudonyms are acceptable if not encouraged.  Let’s face it…if your name is Marvin or Randy you don’t have a chance.  The brown guys have no problem changing their names to Richard or Jacob (I had an Indian guy beside at dinner who confirmed that Richard was actually his cousin Ashok).  That said, some white guys have figured it out.  Take Roberge for example.  This french prince (whose name is likely Bob) was sleek and suave and would likely want to any girl to roll the “R’ and extend his name to a 3 second ROOOOOBBBEEERRRRRRRRRRGGGGGEEEE!

My Take

As mentioned, I am reluctant to suggest that a good group dinner means that a table for two will have the same experience.  What I can say is that the execution of dinner at Bymark was close to flawless.   Although the fois gras was a bloody mess, the other starters, including the lobster poutine and the seared tuna were delicious.  The entrees were served hot and I heard no complaints (whether it was the steak, fish, lamb or risotto) across our table.  For the most part, the service was prompt and professional.  In the end, I think both the guys and girls agreed  that the pieces of meat served on the plate were much better than those offered on tinder.  Sorry Bob.

Bymark on Urbanspoon

Slanted Door: Lessons from Russell Peters and the Danger of Arranged Lunches

I was listening to Russell Peters on Sirius radio the other day.  It was a replay of his classic rant on arranged marriages.  I thought a little about it and tried to imagine being in that situation.  In a universe filled with energy flow and frequencies, I can’t imagine  being attached to a  woman who would nag me about my food desires, affinity for a pint or the fact that I sit up at weird hours documenting the trials and tribulations of my culinary journals while watching HBO shows.

That said, it was at that point that I realized I have had an experience almost as excruciating…the “arranged lunch”.  Let me explain.  While in San Francisco, I sent out a general invite offering  to bring any of my colleague’s customers out for lunch. I had a few bites and arranged to bring out a group.  I had no idea who they were but figured lunch at the Slanted Door, the well established Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s pier would be a safe call. I met the first of the four at the convention centre for a walk to the pier.  I had met her once before so it wasn’t hard to strum up some conversation.  We arrived at the rather large and very busy restaurant about twenty minutes later.  It has a wide open concept with tables offering various views including the kitchen and bay areas. The rest of my group hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited by the door (I never noticed if it was slanted or not) so we could be seated.  Much like a blind date, I watched people stroll in trying to predict who I’d be meeting.  Finally, three ladies walked in who seemed to the fit the bill.  After some quick introductions, we were seated around the corner in a half circular booth against the wall.

I’ll be the first to admit the menu is a bit long but these ladies made it look like they were reading the bible. The scowls and whispers trying to identify any dishes somewhat recognizable.  I quickly realized the extent of their Asian experience was limited to chicken balls and fried rice.  My fears were further confirmed when the table seemed either confused or appalled when the waiter suggested we order family style.   To avoid further hardship, we agreed to choose a dish each. My dreams of trying some of the more innovative offerings of the James Beard recognized iconic eatery was going up in smoke.

In addition, my guests continued to make various observations including the fact that most of the waitstaff were males and they need more women on the floor.  Nothing like a gender equality talk to spice things up.  That said, I did find the service a little arrogant.

The scowls continued when we were notified that diet coke was not a menu option.  The non-alcoholic drinks mainly consisted of spritzers and juices. So, a couple of them ordered lemonade.  I had a a ginger soda.

I decided to be a bit greedy and order the gulf shrimp and pork wonton soup ($7) to start.  I don’t think anybody cared.  After all, the combination of seafood and pork might have thrown things into array.  Fragrant, light broth housed noodles and dumplings which were tender and perfectly cooked.  It was a large bowl but didn’t care much that I didn’t have to share.

Gulf Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup $7
Gulf Shrimp and Pork Wonton Soup $7

The vegetarian rolls ($12)  served with peanut sauce were stuffed with mushroom, tofu and cabbage.  They hit the mark although nothing spectacular but seemed to be acceptable at the table.

Vegetarian Spring Rolls $13
Vegetarian Spring Rolls $13

The grilled organic chicken with vermicelli ($16) was one of the safer bets on the menu so I wasn’t surprised to see it ordered.  It went pretty fast but I did manage to get a bite or two.  Nicely seasoned and nicely cooked but once again, nothing remarkable.

Grilled Organic Chicken $16
Grilled Organic Chicken $16

Sticking with the safe poultry theme,  we also had lemongrass chicken ($18).  A few mumbles about the spice levels circulated the table but I found it had a nice level of heat.

Lemon Chicken $18
Lemon Chicken $18

The woman I walked over with ordered the trout served with green mango and a chili sauce.  It was easily the best dish of the meal.  The fish was moist and the accompaniments were a great contrast.

Trout Filet $20
Trout Filet $20

My choice was the cellophane noodle with dungeness crab ($20).  Very disappointing.  I probably could have had all the crab in the dish on a tablespoon.  It was so torn up that the pieces looked like specks in the abundant heap of noodles.

Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness $20
Cellophane Noodles with Dungeness $20


Vegetables included boy choy and snowpeas (each $11)  from local farms.  They were  fresh, simple and nicely prepared.

Bok Choy $11
Bok Choy $11
Snow Peas $11
Snow Peas $11

My Take

Slanted door is likely the most well known Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco.  It’s location and reputation makes it a popular destination for lunch and dinner. Personally, I found it a bit overpriced for very good but not spectacular food.  The lack of crab in a San Francisco restaurant overlooking the ocean  is the ultimate and sad irony.

In the end, I don’t recommend arranged dining, especially at a place that revolves around family style dining.  I walked back to the convention centre with the first woman I met and couldn’t help but ask if that was the most painful dining experience she ever endured.  She enthusiastically agreed and  I felt a little better.   If the success of  “It’s just lunch” or other dating sites hinged on a dining experience like this, there’d be a lot more single people in the world.

The Slanted Door on Urbanspoon

Starring in a Sitcom Called Seven Hills

When I think of Seven Hills, a few things come to mind:

1. It sounds like the name of an ABC sitcom that involves some washed-up actor or actress who chose a TV career for a change of pace instead if admitting their last five movies have made less than 25 million combined in theatre revenues.

2. It might be the title of a country song which describes the trials and tribulations of the contours challenging a John Deere tractor in the attempt to harvest a bumper crop of  wheat.

3. It could describe the geography of the walk from O’Farrell to this Hyde St. eatery in the Russian  Hill district.

In fact, it is a relatively quaint Italian joint located between the pier and the bustling, tourist-ridden O’Farrell street. It doesn’t get the fanfare and hype of the more visible eateries but  regularly sits in the top 25 of the 5000 San Francisco restaurants on tripadvisor.  We booked a table for six which seemed to take up a good portion of the restaurant as we were seated in the back corner.  The menu changes regularly but focuses on classic fare in a classic setting.  It’s evident when you read the menu that the place pledges allegiance to locally sourced food.  The vegetables, herbs and proteins come from a guy named Jim or Bob or Jim Bob and from places like Full Belly and All Star farms.

The service staff was cordial but a bit confused.  They had a couple of waiters taking care of our table who had different levels of understanding.  For example, I was offered a unique white wine by one waiter whereas the other had no idea what I was talking about when I ordered another glass.  That said, there was a definite and rightful pride in their demeanor when describing the rustic dishes.

The table agreed on an array of first plates to share which ranged from $9-15.  First, we were treated to an amuse bouche which was a delicious melon soup.  The duck liver pate was a bit unorthodox in that it was served chunky country style instead of smooth like the surrounding eateries. That said, it was pretty decent.  Other choices were the meatballs, arancini, burrata with tomato and prosciutto and carpaccio.  In summary, none were remarkable but none were bad either. If I had to pick, the meatballs won the battle.


Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Melon Soup Amuse Bouche
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with proscutto.
Arancini, Duck Liver Pate, Meatballs, beef carpaccio and burrata with prosciutto ($9-15)

In the meantime, as more people crammed into the small quarters, the temperature rose to the point of slight discomfort.  With more of a crowd the service got a little choppier.  For the main I ordered the squid ink (or neri) pasta. Like the Italian cliche, it was delicious in it’s simplicity but became a little monotonous even with the addition of a generous amounts crispy breadcrumbs.  I found the portion size quite ample and of good value for the price.


Neri (Squid Ink Pasta)
Neri (Squid Ink) Pasta

My Take

Seven Hills is the quintessential small family run bistro within a very diverse and vibrant dining scene.  It’s simple in it’s theme, decor and food.  There are no major surprises and I imagine no major inconsistencies. There’s a true commitment to partnerships with local farmers which comes out in the food.  If you’re looking for adventure, there’s a hundred other places.  However, if you want a safe haven for traditional fare or have a table full of people  who thinks Joe Bastianich should be canonized and lament the fact that Mario Batali will never open a restaurant in San Francisco, this could be your place.  Sure, there are service hiccups but it lacks the phoniness of chains and smiling hostesses who seem way too excited over the fact you might have a coat to check. After dining at Seven Hills, I think it can be described as a sitcom about an all American small Italian ristorante  frequented by Al Pacino and Tony Danza with cameo appearances by Ray Romano and Robert DeNiro (playing local farmers Jim and Bob) and lovable yet confused waitstaff including the likes of Joey Tribbiani.

Seven Hills on Urbanspoon

Chopping the Dynamic Duo at the Tavern by Trevor

Tavern by Trevor is another example of the cross-pollination that is occurring in Toronto.  Partly a way to jump on the small plate phenomenon that has taken the city by storm and partly a means of dealing with the inertia of local foodies to try surrounding neighborhoods, the tavern recently opened at the corner of Spadina and Richmond.  I was impressed by the small yet inventive and reasonably priced menu. Chef Trevor Wilkinson teams up with restaurateur Mike Yaworski in an odd couple type collaboration.   Chef Trevor is the owner of Trevor Bar and Kitchen which has sustained the volatile Toronto dining scene while watching others come and go along the Wellington Street stretch. He also recently appeared as a contestant on Chopped Canada this past year.

I arrived and decided to sit at the makeshift patio (a few tables plus a number of stools beneath a counter made of 2x4s which looked like an inventive RONA project) which took over part of the wide sidewalk along Spadina Avenue.   The waitress was quick to arrive with the food and drink menus.  Boozewise, there are three tap beer from the local Amsterdam brewery plus an array of bottles, big bottles and cans.  The wine list has around 10 bottles of both red and white wine with most in the $40-60 range.  There is also a half a dozen or so bourbons plus a small list of cocktails priced at $11/each. I started with an old-fashioned served with bourbon, sugar cube, angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  It was a decent drink but was served with too much ice making it difficult to disperse the sugar which had settled at the bottom of the glass.

Old-Fashioned $11
Old-Fashioned $11

For the most part, the food menu is structured by price points.  All “Bar food” is $11, salads are $10, “from the stove” is $15 and  entrees are $21. There are also a few sandwiches ($12-14) and sides are $5. There is also the ability to add a number of proteins to the salad.  I ordered the  green pea & lettuce with feta & mint salad and added ginger and garlic fried chicken. For the entree, I went with the bbq octopus, prawns & chorizo with fennel & radish in wild leek vinaigrette.  That’s when things got bad. The salad arrived in a large white bowl and presentation was far from remarkable. The only lettuce was romaine  and it was cut ribbon style with a knife (one of my pet peeves).  I don’t know if the lettuce was warmed first or just not fresh because I found myself pulling out  brown and wilted pieces. From what I could salvage, it was a good flavour combination but I certainly wasn’t enjoying the pea and feta hunting through a jungle of limp romaine. Turning my attention to the chicken, I was equally disappointed.  It was boneless and served with an aioli.  The pieces varied in size and thickness.  I cut into the first thick piece and it was pink. A second thick piece was also pink.  I cut into a third thinner piece and found it cooked properly and found the coating to  be very tasty.  When bringing this to the attention of the waitress, I was told that she just ordered it and it looked like that so it’s fine.  She left only to return a few minutes later to tell me that she checked with the kitchen and in fact the chicken was cooked and it looked like that because it was dark meat.  Then she proceeded to tell me that they were out of the octopus and asked  if I would like anything else instead.  I politely and thankfully said no.

Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7
Green Pea with lettuce with feta and mint $10 with a side of ginger and garlic fried chicken $7
"Cooked" chicken
“Cooked” chicken


Select Lettuce from Salad
Select Lettuce from Salad

My Take

This is one of the worst dining experiences I have had in Toronto in a long time. First, serve a cocktail that can be consumed properly.  Second, either use fresh romaine or don’t prepare it so it wilts. I thought the reason you used romaine was for the vibrant crunch.   Third, if the chicken is pink it is undercooked and the fact that I didn’t eat it should be a hint that despite the reassurances from the waitress and the kitchen (who actually didn’t look at the chicken), I was not happy with the dish.  As a footnote, I have asked 5 people since if the chicken looked undercooked based on the picture and all agreed unanimously.  Fourth, it you are only going to offer three entrees on a menu, you shouldn’t run out of one.  Furthermore, you shouldn’t wait until the   customer orders it before you realize it’s not available.  Fifth, if a customer is clearly unhappy with the experience, perhaps something should be done.  Even an apology would have been sufficient.  Instead, I left paying my bill having eaten only a few bites of salad and a couple of small, thin pieces of chicken. All I can say is this meal is a far cry from the Coq au Vin I had at Trevor Bar and Kitchen a few years ago.

For serving wilted lettuce, raw chicken and not having octopus….Chef Wilkinson..you’ve been chopped.

(I’m aware that in fact Chef Wilkinson did not in fact cook the food I attempted to eat but it is his name on the place!).


The Tavern by Trevor on Urbanspoon

Ironic eating as I Tip my Chapeau to the Big Ham (aka Le Gros Jambon)

I love breakfast places.  I don’t mean places that serve an array of croissants, scones and in-house baked goods.  I’m referring to a place that serves hardcore, greasy spoon type petit dejeuner  which push beyond the boundaries of eggs and bacon.  I was on a recent trip to Montreal and during one of the boring sessions I was watching I started to flip through urbanspoon and yelp looking for an escape from the monotony of the day.  I narrowed down the list before consulting with my buddy who lived  in town about where to go.  When he mentioned Le Gros Jambon, I quickly agreed and was on my way.  The website didn’t rock my world  by any stretch.  It’s simply a freckled-face kid drinking a glass of milk with a link to a menu.  However, it has  great reviews and it was close so it made sense.

I enjoyed the Sunday morning walk through Old Montreal.  A mosaic of pedestrians littered the street.  After dodging clueless cell phone users and many spaced out shutterbugs, I arrived at the doors of this breakfast and lunch nook.  It was bustling with people cramming in and slipping out but I managed to weasel my way in the front door.  There were a couple of stools at the counter, so I was seated immediately.  A look around told me this was my kind of place.  It was set up like a 50’s soda shop that had been remade by somebody with a basement full of nostalgia including  posters, retro advertisements  and a mosiac of  licence plates.   Within a minute a pleasant waitress with no bias against anglophones came over and poured me a decaf. I gandered at the menu, skipped the burgers and sandwiches and went right to brunch.  There were typical items like eggs Benedict and french toast as well as trendy  items like huveros  rancheros and fried chicken and waffles.  In particular, I was interested in the mushroom toast which was described as “creamy mushroom sauce with smoked meat, two fried eggs served on toasted rye” which sounded perfect given it sounded like a nasty mess inspired by local flare. By sitting at the counter facing the open kitchen, I got to watch the meticulous and fluid construction of this interesting dish. First, the jalapeno-potato hash brown thing was dropped in the oil.  Next, the eggs were cracked onto the flat top.  The smoked meat and rye bread joined the party.  Then, within seconds of each other, the bread, meat, egg and mushroom gravy were piled precisely on the  pig shaped plate along with the aforementioned potato and a side of baked beans.  It wasn’t the prettiest dish on earth but my taste buds didn’t care. Although a tad more gravy would have been sloppy fun , it was delicious.

Mushroom Toast $12
Mushroom Toast $12

My Take

When it comes to breakfast, I’m in for either a cheap diner-style spread or something a little more creative and unique.  Le Gros Jambon is the latter.   Instead of  sipping French press coffee and biting  into flaky pastries, devouring the mushroom toast with pictures of  Mickey Mouse and a creepy freckled kid watching over me along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal was as ironic as not eating a stitch of pork off a pig-shaped plate in a place named “big ham”.  More so, the service was not at all pretentious, busting  apart any stereotypes an anglophone in Montreal might have. In fact, it was as genuine as Mabel at the Streamside Diner speaking of her cat’s latest adventure with a ball or yarn or stories of her daughter’s success as the local hairdresser.

In the end, le Gros Jambon is a destination for foodies and which was built by smart culinary minds and those with a knack for interior design inspired by an outdated man cave.  It’s has a  busy, yet pleasant vibe complete with the ability to watch the cooks construct plate after plate in a melodic and methodological manner. For that I tip my chapeau to the big cheese, or maybe in this case, the big ham.


Le Gros Jambon on Urbanspoon