Review:Toronto:Roncesvalles:Barque

After walking up and down Roncesvalles during a festival, I looked at my phone and realized it was close to five.  Knowing that Barque opened then and they hold a percentage of the place for walk-ins, I grabbed the kids and trekked to the front doors. I felt like I was trying to get a wristband for the MMVAs.  It did change my assumption that the only people who eat at 5 pm are kids and senior citizens. I broke a mild sweat as the place  gradually filled.  When it got to my turn, I mustered up my request. She looked apologetic and informed me that the only seats left were those at the bar facing the kitchen.  I couldn’t stifle the smile and said  “Done!” as we were directed to our seats.

The decor strays  from the traditional smokehouse and resembles something you would expect in the west end of Toronto. I was a bit relieved to see a number of children peppered throughout the smallish venue and on the decent sized patio out back. As soon as we were seated, the show began.One of the sous chefs wheeled out about 150 lbs of brisket and methodically prepared it for the smoker.  He pulled out a chunk of brisket and infused each with a large syringe filled with some magic elixir and transferred it to a tray.  He looked like a cross between Bruce Lee and Dr. Frankenstein.  Upon completion, he set the smoker at 175F and threw it in. I was surprised at the low temperature and it made me think I could have thrown a brisket on my porch last week with this summer weather and had the same result.

Oddly enough, they feature four or five beer from the McAuslan line which is a bit of an oddity considering the possibilities in the GTA alone.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent brewery to hang your hat on and I started with a pale ale.

The menu features standard starters and mains but also a number of sampler options, so there is a bit a science to ensuring you get the right amount of food. I was rather intrigued by the Barque plate, which is sample of some unique dishes made each evening.  On this day, it was a tagliatelle with bison meatballs, fried calamari, pulled pork tacos and crostini.  The highlight was the pasta. The rest was decent.   Ok…I confess, I didn’t inform the kids of the bison until afterwards  but they found the dish delicious.

Barque Sampler $16
Barque Plate $16

Next I opted for the Barque Sampler for 2 and chose ribs, brisket and sausage as the mains with caesar salad, slaw and fries as the sides. The brisket was the highlight, a testament to the meticulous process we witnessed earlier. It was crazy tender and seasoned well.  I’ll give props to the remainder of the platter as well. The ribs were well seasoned and the sausages were not dried out and had a good flavour. The asian slaw (which does not look like it’s on the menu anymore) was delicious.  I left  the caesar salad to my son who reported it was good although the bacon “tasted kind of different” perhaps because it’s not my standard practice to serve candied bacon at home.  My daughter’s report on the fries were a resounding thumbs up although she’s not a fan of dipping sauces in general.

Barque Sampler for 2 $35
Barque Sampler for 2 $35 (with 3 sides)
Fries with Aioli
Fries with Aioli
Asian Slaw
Asian Slaw

I have a hard time turning down smoked chicken (both from a taste and having to have the serving staff reassure me that pink chicken is cooked perspective) and this night was no exception. This time I went with the cuban corn and pickles  as the sides.  The chicken was smoky and tender and the corn, although a little overcooked, was spiced nicely. A decent array of pickles were presented which included beets, asparagus, cucumber, cauliflower and onion.I think pickles are a smart side to add a little acid and crunch to an otherwise rich and chewy meal.

Smoked Chicken and Cuban Corn $19
Smoked Chicken and Cuban Corn $19
Side of Pickles
Side of Pickles

Some smokehouses pride themselves on an array of sauces but Barque less so.  There are two offered in a ramekin with a sauce brush. One was a standard tangy red BBQ sauce and one a carolina style mustard sauce.  I found both tasty although I sort of forgot about them in the midst of everything else.

The dessert menu featured a few southern inspired sweets fused with a little Toronto trendiness. The key lime cheesecake was surprising light and laced with a subtle amount of cardamom that worked well. The mango was a bit irrelevant but added some nice colour. The gelato, coupled with a couple of homemade cookies, looked with a nouveau, deconstructed Neapolitan but with cappuccino replacing the chocolate.  I hated chocolate ice cream as a kid, so a dead give away of my freezer mischief was a container of Neapolitan with only the strawberry and vanilla missing. I was often caught pink and white handed.

Key Lime Cheesecake $9
Key Lime Cheesecake $9
Barque Gelato and Cookies $9
Barque and Gelato Cookies $9

My Take

Barque has succeeded in bringing the smokehouse into the Roncesvalles realm. It appeals to atmosphere seeking hipsters as much as it does those who crave carnivorous  delight.  The price point is decent although if you fall prey to the numerous choices, it can push up the final bill rather quickly. The highlight  is clearly the brisket (which was outstanding), followed by the ribs and chicken which would compete in any neighbourhood cook-off.  There’s the token fish and vegetarian dishes for the pescas and vegans respectively. The  barque plate (4 small bites for $16) is a smart idea but hinges on the creativity of the chef on a given night and on this night it was a bit boring.  I’ll give an A for the tagliatelle, a B for the pork belly tacos and maybe a C for the squid and crostini. The single line beer (McAuslan) is a bit confusing given the array of options that would fit with a smokehouse. There is ample wine and a few cocktails which, like Barque itself, are inspired not only by the south but by Toronto itself. There are a lot of smarts about the place including sampling platters to taste either the signatures or the daily inspirations of the chef  or the Sunday night feature which reintroduces the concept of sharing family style. In the end, Barque is a chic smokehouse with Toronto flair serving among many things candied bacon that may not meet the standards of a 10 year old pork traditionalist.

Barque Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:Food Trucks:Urban Smoke

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

Urban Smoke Menu
Urban Smoke Menu

Must

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

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

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

Maybe

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

Pulled Pork with Magic Fries
Pulled Pork with Magic Fries

Mundane

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

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

My Take

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

Mulling Moment- Please Comment!

Urban Smoke Fusion BBQ on Urbanspoon