Breaking the Monotony of Winterlicious with a Real Barn Burner

With early April’s reminder that winter wasn’t quite over, it opened the door for me to rewind the clock a little and talk about Winterlicious. I’ve always been on the fence about this beloved annual event.  On one hand, it allows the masses to have a taste (literally) of one or more of the hundreds of restaurants that make up Toronto’s proud and diverse culinary culture.  On the other hand, it is a little artificial and contrived. Some the city’s restaurants stay at arms length from this festival and those that do participate often offer menus that are far from representative of their everyday vibe.

I figured I’d bring my dad out for dinner during Winterlicious.  I chose Barnsteiner’s ($35 set menu) for three reasons.  First, it’s located outside the downtown core. Two, it was relatively new on the scene. Thirdly, it actually had a menu that actually bordered on the side of creativity, offering both 5 appetizers and entrees as well as three desserts.  Barnsteiner’s is named after chef and owner Herbert Barnsteiner who, with his wife Michelle, ran the Corner House with great success for a decade and a half.  After a short break, they took over the old John and Sons’ oyster house just south of Yonge and St. Clair.

The vibe is a busy European bistro  feel.  The actual floor plan is a bit of a maze with lots of twists and turns and awkwardly placed tables.  Memories of the old oyster house exist, especially the ceiling mirrors which used to reflect visions of staff shucking oysters on the prep stations but now have benign angles that just miss most of the kitchen’s angles.

I started with a paper plane, a cocktail with  bourbon, montenegro, aperol and lemon. I’d put it at mid-range in terms of bourbon cocktails available throughout the city.

1273
Paper Plane Cocktail $12.5

Among the starters, we decided to split the smoked chicken salad with
grilled oyster mushrooms, arugula, fois gras croutons and finished with a raspberry-sherry dressing and the garlic and chili grill shrimps with crusty bread, and salsa verde.  The salad was a smart blend of colours, textures and flavours.  The sweet berries and dressing was dumbed down by the smoky chicken and the peppery arugula was a smart medium.  The shrimp were cooked to perfection and simply but nicely seasoned with the salsa verde.

From among the entrees, we opted for the  whole roasted black angus striploin with
crushed fingerling potatoes, crimini mushrooms, red-wine jus and the venison stew
braised in juniper red wine sauce with spaetzle and brussel sprouts. I don’t often order steak in a restaurant but I quite enjoy a good roast.  It was a simple dish but very well executed from the beef itself to the flavourful au jus.  The stew was the perfect winter dish; hearty yet refined.  The meat was super tender and the spaetzle was reminiscent of the chef’s proud German heritage.

For dessert, we chose from both ends of the spectrum, opting for the comforting apple and cranberry crumble and the more delicate lemon panacotta with toasted coconut. Once again, no complaints with either one as they were both well executed and exactly what I expected.

My Take

Although the Winterlicious experience is not always a fair representation of the essence of a restaurant, Barnsteiner’s succeeded in making me want to come back. There was good variety as far as a winterlicious menu goes and all the offerings I tried were well executed.  I plan to return to try one of the numerous menus offers such a the many flatbreads, seafood options and chef’s homeland dishes.  In fact, I was asked by a colleague for a last minute dinner suggestion for her team and I suggested here.  I called and they were able to accommodate 8 people with a little shuffling.  Although I didn’t go myself, the feedback from my colleague was a quick  twitterlike …”it was really good! And lots of fun.  Very good price wise.” I nodded in agreement as I thought $35 for a solid winterlicious meal wasn’t bad either.

Barnsteiner's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

 

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The Coast is not Clear: The Case of the Gluten Containing Eel and the Undercooked Scallop

After a trip to the Vancouver aquarium as part of a team building activity (even though only three of us went), we went to look for a quick bite knowing the evening fare at the meeting would be less than appealing.  It was an abnormally warm May day, so we wanted a patio,a drink and some decent food.

Coast is part of the Glowbal group conglomerate which owns a number of popular Vancouver restaurants. Having previously dined at Black + Blue and the Fish Shack with reasonable success, it sounds like a good idea, especially with the advertised cocktail menu and half price appetizers.  After making the uphill trek to Alberni Street, we were able to secure a table on the front patio. The three of us were wearing casual team-building clothes (ie. yoga pants and shorts). We were hardly dressed for the occasion, especially in the midst of the attire of the waitstaff and  numerous suits coming in but we were quickly comfortable in our outdoor seats.

Both my colleagues have what I consider excellent palates and both do not consume gluten.  One of them has also never tried nigiri, so we took the opportunity to run an experiment with the small list on the menu. My thought was to hit her with the ebi thinking it would best to start her off with something cooked not to mention the fact that there was no guilt based on the fact we were just at the aquarium watching numerous other species splash around. The waitress, however, insisted that we opt for the unagi (since it was cooked) although I thought eel may not be the best way to initiate a novice sushi eater.  The shrimp arrived without issue but the eel arrived coated in what appeared to be a brown sauce. Even as a gluten glutton, I have become aware that any brown sauce is an alarm bell, especially on a piece of sushi.  It usually means soy sauce which means gluten. Keep in mind the menu clearly stated this item was gluten free but after deliberation by the waitstaff and kitchen slightly longer than the OJ Simpson verdict, we were told it in fact contained gluten.  Big mistake.  In the end, I ate the eel (which was decent but expensive) and I succeeded in introducing her to the world of nigiri albeit a tame piece of cooked shrimp.

Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively)
Shrimp and Eel Nigiri ($3.95 and $5.30 respectively). Note the brown sauce…

 

I will give Coast credit for it’s buck a shuck special.  I indulged in a half dozen oysters, portraying behaviour similar to that of a five year old opening a new set of lego.  I become mesmerized by combining oyster flesh with pungent horseradish and some type of mignonette.   In fact, I don’t think anything gives me as much enjoyment in the area of seafood relations since Mr. Tecklenberg showed me how to hypnotize a lobster when I was 8 or 9 at a table in his namesake Sudbury restaurant. I was so giddy I forgot the picture.

Each of us weren’t up for a whole lot of food (beside the after effect of seeing a whole lot of underwater life), but we each ordered a dish and did a family style sorta thing.  First were the thai mussels (minus the bread).  They were tasty but a rather dismal serving for $19. Maybe it would have come with 17 pieces of garlic bread which would have made it a bit more economical.

 

Thai Mussels (18.95 or each)
Thai Mussels (18.95 or about a buck each..I’d rather have the oysters)

 

 

Second was the grilled halibut.  It made a lot of sense given the fact it was the season and there was not a hint of brown sauce anywhere on the plate.  Instead, it was served with a decent potato salad.  The fish was cooked nicely but it’s difficult to justify the $38 price tag.

 

Grilled Halibut ($37.95)
Grilled Halibut ($37.95)

Finally, my choice was the apple chopped salad ($12.95) with the optional upgrade of two scallops for a whopping ten bucks.  It arrived with a lone scallop and I made a note to see if it was reflected properly on the bill.  I never had the chance.  The salad itself was fresh, crisp and nicely balanced but when I cut open the scallop I looked at my colleagues and in my best Gordon Ramsey accent yelled “The f@*%ing scallop is raw”.  In fact, it was a bit of a relief because paying 5 bucks for a scallop the size of a jawbreaker just wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps the  biggest annoyance of all was when the manager returned with the plate to confirm with me that, after careful deliberation with the chef, the scallop was in fact raw and they would gladly take it off the bill.  I guess all those years of watching Hell’s kitchen finally paid off since it saved me the embarrassment of being corrected in front of my esteemed colleagues.

 

Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop
Apple Chopped Salad ($12.95) with a $5 scallop

 

The source of much deliberation....
The source of much deliberation….

 

My Take

Vancouver’s Glowbal group seems to be like olives, cilantro or goat cheese; you either love them or hate them.  Some see the group as an innovative and eclectic collection of restaurants showcasing an incredible arrays of foods.  Others see it as an overpriced series of misguided trends in which the decor is more important than the food. The inability to properly display gluten-free foods combined with minute mussels and an undercooked and underwhelming five dollar scallop (that included  a second opinion on doneness) makes me lean toward the latter.  This was just a bad experience with no effort made to fix it.  Good thing there were crudites back at the meeting.  I swear a carrot stick never tasted so good.

Coast Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

 

Two Six {Ate}! Who do we appreciate?: Gaining Respect in Little Italy

I took another trip to Ottawa recently. It’s becoming progressively more difficult to choose places to dine given the huge explosion of interesting destinations all over the city. Take two six {ate} in Little Italy  for example. It has all the foundations of a foodie haven:

1.  It’s named after its address.

2.  They use cliche words like “nose-to-tail” and “snack foods made with local, fresh sustainable products” on their about us page.

3. They are closed Tuesdays.

4.  Decor includes a stash house rusticness and clever, tongue and cheek depictions  of Darth Vader, Uncle Sam, Mickey Mouse and Beethoven.

5.  Uses small letters and punctuation in name  {in this case brackets I forget the significance of}.

That said, Ottawa waitstaff and barkeeps rarely adhere to the Toronto rule that you have to be a pompous ass since you know how to measure an ounce and a half of bourbon using a shot glass. Maybe it’s the fact that any restaurant in Little Italy adheres to some kind of Godfather or Sopranos code of respect.  I was immediately greeted by a pleasant duo who sat me at the bar.  I was given a quick description of the menus which includes a daily sandwich and pasta special.  In this case it was beef tongue and goose confit ravioli respectively.

I went on the heels of  FreBREWary, an exciting promotion by Beau’s in Ottawa which involves the near weekly release of of an innovative beer  surrounded with exciting hoopla.  Since two six {ate} was a participant, I was looking forward to a pint of Wag the Wolf, a heavily hopped wheat beer which was due to be released that day. It was a tad delayed, so I was treated to an Beau’s  Ellsmere’s Regret instead.  It was an absolutely delicious chocolate-marshmallow hemp stout.  It was served on a warped Beau’s promotional  wooden coaster {a FeBREWary promotional flaw which was the result of not letting the wood dry before final production}.

I started with an order of the shrimp and pork pogos {$10} which sound more Asian/American than something from the 1Italian Motherland.  Served on a bed of crisp and delicious slaw with the faint heat of a chili gastrique, I can best describe them as deep fried Dim Sum.  They were nicely seasoned and the flavours of the filling burst in my mouth.  I’m not convinced the batter enhanced the taste of the dish {not to mention the fact the batter pretty much seperated from the filling at the first bite} but it certainly was  a merry concept.

Shrimp and Pork Pogos ($10)
Shrimp and Pork Pogos ($10)

 

The scallops {$16} were highly recommended by the waitstaff.  I didn’t need much convincing when I read the description.  I think brussel sprouts and seafood are terrific partners on a plate. Sweet/sulphur, soft/crispy and white/green coexist quite nicely.  I also love the thought of boozy raisins  sprinkled all over a nicely cooked scallop.  The dish was true to from. The aforementioned ingredients combined with silky sunchoke puree and crunchy pumpkin seeds mapped my taste buds  tongue-tickling  topography.

Scallops $16
Scallops $16

 

The pasta special of the evening was interesting.  I have to admit I have limited experience with goose. I’ve eaten a flock of ducks but not their larger cousin so much. The fact that it was stuffed in ravioli and topped with yellowfoot and hedgehog mushrooms sounded even better.  The goose filling was very gamy which was was oddly coupled with by the strong earthiness of the mushroom medley.   The pasta was a little thick.  I think a blast of sweet or acid {other than the spray of pomegranate seeds I seem to remember} might have helped.   In the end, it was a pleasant dish.

Goose Ravioli
Goose Ravioli {$15}

During the meal I also had a Broadhead Wild Card, a subtle pale ale from Ottawa and another example that the craft beer movement is alive and well in Eastern Ontario.  It was very well balanced with a subtle but cogent  hoppy blast.

For dessert I seemed to have no choice. As far as hype, online comments have elevated the fried p b and j {$9} to the status of Pulp Fiction or Breaking Bad. The question was whether it was worth it. It took two hands to lift each half given the incredible density. It had a soft, creamy centre and a crispy crust on the outside.  It was not overly sweet, even with the aggressive dusting of powered sugar and sweet ice cream next door.  It was more like a good brunch item rather than a dessert.  In fact, I took half home for breakfast the next day.

My Take

Most Ottawa residents are blissful over the recent emergence of high quality and trendy restaurants congruent to those in nearby Toronto and Montreal. Two six {ate} is one of these.  It has many of the fundamental features of a hipster haven {see above} with the additional of friendly, authentic service.  The food is solid although the presentation is a bit monotonous. Two six {ate} has a code. You leave feeling like a dinner guest of Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone. In fact, Tony may have stated  it best when he said …{“Those who want respect, give respect”.} The food is respected. The drink is respected. You are respected.

 

Two Six {Ate} on Urbanspoon

 

Day 2: Husking and Busking in Nashville

My alarm went off the Sunday morning after we sprung the clocks  forward the night before.  It was 630 am and I  was just outside Detroit with the ultimate destination of making  a 515pm  reservation at Husk in Nashville with a lunch stop in-between. Keep in mind I had my two teenage daughters with me and it was part of a nearly week long tour of Tennessee and Kentucky but it seemed an exciting task to try and make a reservation 8 hours away in time.  According to the reviews, Husk may be worth the drive considering it was voted the number 6 best new restaurant in the USA  by GQ magazine.  I was a bit torn since I have longed pledged my allegiance to Anthony Bourdain and felt a slight sense of betrayal since I’m sure Anthony would respect my adventurous nature but would hardly approve of my destination given the fact he refers to GQ’s food critic Alan Richman as a “douchebag” in his book Medium Raw, partly because he insists that celebrity chefs should hang in their restaurants.

Driving in both Kentucky and Tennessee is quite refreshing.  The roads tend not to get congested, the drivers are fast and the roads and scenery are nice.  As a result, there was little issue getting to Nashville on time, especially given the unexpected time change which occurs somewhere in Kentucky.  After checking into the hotel, we jaunted a bit off the beaten path to the restaurant  and arrived  just in time for our reservation.

Husk is an extension of the original in Charleston, South Carolina which has the same name and under the eye of executive chef Sean Brock.  Of some irony is the fact that the original was slammed by Richman.  Nashville’s version promises upscale southern food using only ingredients which can be attained within a small radius of the restaurant itself.  The menu is published daily and features a wide selection of starters and mains. I was there on a Sunday and was somewhat dismayed to discover that the wings voted one of the best in America by website Epicurious were not on the evening menu.

We were seated on the bottom level of the nicely designed restaurant.  It was modern yet rustic.  The walls were filled with pictures of an array of  things including those of Nashville past.  The staff were smartly dressed, looking as if they came straight from a restaurant wars challenge on Top Chef. The crowd was a mix of young and old and included hipsters that looked mighty similar to those I see in Toronto.

The drink menu consisted of a decent variety of wine, local beer (primarily from Yazoo) and signature cocktails ranging from low alcohol choices celebrating (if that’s the right word) prohibition to modern interpretations of some modern favorites.  My choice was the Barrel Aged Seelbach which was bourbon based and laced with fun things like curacao and bitters for $13.  I suppose this is no cheaper than the heavily taxed cocktails I’m accustomed to in Canada, busting the myth that America is a haven for cheap booze and watered down beer and cocktails. I quite enjoy bourbon based cocktails and this was no exception.  The sweet bourbon was nicely contrasted by the bitters and the drink tasted better with every sip.

Husk Cocktail $13
Barrel Aged Seelbach $13

 

They also had a wide array of Bourbon which ranging from $7 to around $40 which included some high proof, reserve and aged choices.

Reviews of this place have criticized the lack of southern hospitality offered by the waitstaff.  I have to agree to some extent.  Our waitress was pleasant but the friendliness was somewhat guarded and seemed to be infused with some pretension, perhaps to justify charging $26 for a piece of chicken. Service was prompt although there is a fair lag between the starters and mains.  For the starters, I opted for the Husk Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”.  I’m not sure who Bill Neal is but I’m sure he’s pleased to know this dish bears his name.  The grits were heavenly creamy, creating that perfect mouth-feel that reminded me of relishing Cream of Wheat as a kid.  The shrimp were delicately cooked and seasoned and even managed to convince my generally seafood-phobic daughter.

Grits
Shrimp and Grits “A Tribute to Bill Neal”  $11

The BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce ($14) were a upscale interpretation of this southern classic.  They were quite meaty but don’t expect the deep flavor and tenderness synonymous with hours in a smoker. The sauce, however, was delicious; a perfect blend between BBQ sweet and vinegary sour.

Husk Ribs
BBQ Pork Ribs with Charred Scallion Sauce $14

The last “first” was A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24-Month Country Ham, Soft Rolls, Mustard, HUSK pickles for $13.  The ham was pungently wonderful and tasted almost like a prosciutto.  The remaining ingredients were great compliments to a dish which screamed comfort.  The buns were fresh and pickled cauliflower was vibrant and a nice contrast to the sweet and fatty ham.

Ham
A Plate of Bob Woods’ 24 Month Ham, Mustard, Husk Pickles $13

Although a main for each of us was suggested, we decided on the Tanglewood Farms chicken, grilled over hickory embers, potato dumplings and carrots for $26.  Much like ribs, when I envision chicken and dumplings I think of comfort food which includes tender chicken, fluffy biscuits and hearty portions of root veggies.  Husk’s modernized twist  kept the chicken intact but omitted the chunks of dough and carrots, replacing them with bite size gnudi and pureed carrot kisses. My daughters looked a little perplexed.  The poultry was tender and seasoned wonderfully. Although the dumplings and carrots were swimming in a small puddle of sauce, it would have been grand to have a little more to complement the chicken and remind me that this in fact is a comfort food.

Chicken
Tangle Wood Farms Chicken with Sides Below $26
"Dumplings and Carrots"
“Potato Dumplings and Carrots”

The most anticipated part of the dinner was the plate of southern vegetables for $25.  There were three reasons for this. First, I was curious to see how you could justify a plate of veggies for $25. Next, it is arguably the most talked about dish at Husk. Finally, I’m tickled that a place would equate a mosaic of plant-based concepts with menu staples like beef, pork and catfish.

On this night, the southern plate consisted of:

a)  Gourd soup with pistachio and chives- Served warm, it had great base flavour which was complemented by some crunch and cream.

b) Tomato and grits topped with a farm fresh poached egg-  The acid of the tomato was terrific with the sweet corn.  A perfectly cooked egg just makes anything better.

c) Soy Glazed Broccoli- Simple but the best part of the dish according to my daughters.  Perfect saltiness and heat surrounded the crunchy vegetable.

d) Roasted Turnips- After eating these, the turnip bottoms may replace  of the tops as the go-to part of the plant for southern feasts.

e) Farro and Lima Bean Salad- Also a salad I have seen north of the border, it was earthy and well balanced with a great touch of acid and sweetness in the dressing.

A Plate of Southern Vegetables $25
A Plate of Southern Vegetables $25

The after dinner offerings paid homage to the classic desserts of the south but also had a refined twist to them.  Chess pie, butterscotch pudding and strawberry shortcake highlighted the sweets menu.  I opted for the latter two.  The pudding was laced with bourbon and served with a pastry offering a hint of apple flavour.  Collectively it was quite delicious.  The shortcake composed of soft serve and strawberries which were divine, especially for a Canadian who is only exposed to the albino grocery store berries until May or June.

 

Pudding
Butterscotch Bourbon Pudding Cup $7
Strawberry
Strawberry Shortcake Soft Serve $7

My Take

Husk has found a niche offering high end southern food, a stark contrast from popular places such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and other iconic Nashville eateries.  The dishes are refined, pretty and pricey.  The execution is near flawless.  I can’t comment on whether this is the 6th best new restaurant in the whole of America but it has all the elements of success; a strong endorsement by a leading food critic, a terrific concept featuring farm to table food with no compromise, a modern and comfortable environment and a whole lot of buzz. The grits were fantastic and the plate of southern vegetables is well worth the price.  The chicken was let down by the somewhat dismal sides.  The desserts and cocktails were sinful and true to the region.

Afterwards, we took a walk down Broadway to find a slew of drunk tourists, neon lights and a guy who was high, very interested in the odd appearance of Canadian money and sung us a Jason Aldean and an Allman brothers song in exchange for a five dollar bill.   Despite this fact, I walked away singing the Tragically Hip’s It can’t be Nashville every night:

He said, ‘we are what we lack’
and this guy’s the autodidact
stares into the glare of them TV lights
It can’t be Nashville every night

with it’s la la oh oh ohs,
whoa-ohs and yeahs.

Yep, so far so good.  An eight hour drive husking and busking in Nashville brought on a degree of la la oh oh ohs and I hadn’t even hit Arnold’s yet. I promised myself I’d go hardcore Bourdain style in Nashville  on day three to make amends for my temporary allegiance to Mr. Richman, arguably one of America’s most well known autodidacts.  PS. Alan.  I don’t think Sean Brock was in the house.  Are we good now, Tony?

Husk on Urbanspoon

Review:Little Italy and Portugal Village:Darwin

So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist.  That’s Darwin.  OK…allow me to put it into perspective.  The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area.  Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of  “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.

I took one look at the  menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence,  it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under  $10  bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.

Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out.  Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St.,  umbrella in hand  and found my destination at College and Grace.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times).   There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable  guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.

An interesting  twist on the classic drink,  I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal  in conjunction with the  traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup.  It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.

Maple Old-Fashioned $10
Maple Old-Fashioned $10

I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a  spin on the original.  The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish.  The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads.  The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.

Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10
Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10

The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours.  It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests.  I found myself lapping the broth up as well.  The frites were delicately done, fried  “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary.  I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.

Moules and Frties $12
Moules and Frties $12

I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned.  The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a  glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.

Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18
Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18

On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.

Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart.  I opted for the former.  It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce.  I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.  In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss.  The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding

My Take

This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many  restaurants in business for decades.  Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant.  Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed.  The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision.  Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.

Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing.  There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25.  Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality.  The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding.  The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall. charles-darwin-1Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Annex: Guu Sakabar

The dining scene in Toronto has diversified over the past few years. Gone is the choice between snooty white linen, chain restaurants  or seedy local bars. Diners are looking for more than food, they want an experience which will either complement or overshadow the  food itself.

Guu Sakabar is marketed as an experience gone Gangnam style, characterized by loud music, singing cooks and a modernized version of old school  Japanese dining including removing your shoes to sit at a kotatsu (low Japanese table which puts your head at eye level to your server’s knees).  Some may see it as fun, hip and lively, others may see it an adult Chuck-e-Cheese or a glorified Lick’s.  Most of the dishes are simply prepared and presented. 

Must

The Hokke (mackerel) was a simple grilled fish, lightly seasoned and presented bone-in. No instruction was provided on proper boning technique so it may present an annoyance for some.  The fish was cooked perfectly, moist and flaky and it was a good-sized  portion.  The only issue was it came 10-15 minutes after everything else which made it a little less appealing to eat. 

Hokke (mackerel)

Maybe

The Ebimayo (fried prawns with spicy mayo) were decent. The prawns themselves were a good size, cooked right  but were too slathered in the less than impressive mayo which made them a bit soggy. 

There are a number of maybes on the menu depending on one’s personal taste.  The grilled beef tongue (Gyu Tongue) was a unique dish simply seasoned with salt.  It had a good flavour but has challenging liver-like texture which may not appeal to the masses. The Tontoro (pork cheek), is once again simply  prepared  but may be a bit too fatty for some palates, especially if the fat is not rendered enough.

Ebimayo (prawns with spicy mayo)
Gyu Tongue (beef tongue..partially eaten)
Tontoro (pork cheek)

Mundane

Regarding the experience, the environment is loud and the service is sketchy.  It was very difficult to order extra food, get a drink or even the bill.  I’ve already commented about the mackerel. Some may argue that the organized chaos adds to the fun but to me it’s an annoyance especially if it interferes with the flow of the  meal.  In addition, they have a rather ridiculous reservation policy which can be summarized as “We will only accept reservations when it’s not busy”. 

My Take

A visit to Guu is like landing a gig as an extra on a bad Japanese game show or a B-rated film.  The “fun” atmosphere is loud, chaotic and only adequate for conversation if you’re on a bad first date or with your mother-in-law.  The set-up  is not conducive to organized and efficient service.   There is a wide variety of well-prepared  simple and more exotic  foods in reasonable portions for sharing which appeals to a spectrum of diners (including about a dozen vegetarian options if you don’t include the free smiles, passion and cheers). 

In sum, it’s a good place to go if you have a small group with a variety of  taste, if you don’t care about talking to them too much and  if you have a lot of patience.  Just keep an eye over your shoulder in case you spy Psy eating tontoro in Toronto or there is a random attack  from Godzilla  or Mothra.

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