If You're Hip Read This Because This Restaurant Just Might Become One of Yer Favorites

I’m a big Tragically Hip fan. In fact, I recently was informed by spotify that I was one of the top 1% fans worldwide so I figured it was time to write about them. I spent many university days spinning Road Apples, Fully Completely and Day for Night over and over while doing everything from drinking to…ummm….studying. The release of their greatest hits album, “Yer Favorites” solidified the age old argument of whether the slang for yes should use the letter “e” or “u”. Yep..I was right all along.

North of the border, they have had countless cult and commercial hits. Many tell stories of Canadiana or human struggle (which in many cases seem synonymous) . Others are poetic recounts of important historical moments. People like Tom Thomson, Jacques Cartier and Bill Barilko became household names because we sung them out loud while reciting songs like Three Pistols and Fifty Mission Cap while trying not to fuck with the 401.

During their farewell tour, CBC ran a poll to determine the favorite hip songs of Canadians. Not surprising, many of the mainstream classics topped the list including Fully Completely’s Locked in the Trunk of a Car, Courage and the number one fan favorite Wheat Kings, a haunting ballad about the false conviction of David Milgaard. It also cited Day for Night’s Grace, Too and Nautical Disaster which were the songs they performed during their only SNL appearance in 1995. Also on the list was Ahead by a Century which was later resurrected as the theme song to CBC’s Anne with an E.

Instead of reiterating the obvious, I thought I would focus on my favorite but less mainstream Hip songs (you can’t become top 1% in the world only listening to New Orleans is Sinking). Here are my top 10 lesser known buy favorite tracks (in chronological order):

10. Cordelia- Road Apples

It starts with Angst on the planks, spittin’ from a bridge…Just to see how far down it really is. ..a vision that brings me back to days when I would guesstimate height using my own saliva at various Sudbury landmarks. It’s a little angry with fantastic sound and was often overshadowed by more pop-like and popular songs like Little Bones and Twist my Arm.

9. Put if Off- Trouble at the Henhouse

While many default to Gift Shop and Springtime in Vienna, this is one of my favorites. In fact, I usually listen to this album backward, not for satanic purposes but it makes Put it Off the lead track. This song speaks of many dichotomies in which I can relate given my documented and less than adorable moodiness. I often either hum the mantra Put it on or Put it off depending on my state of mind at the time.

8. Emperor Penguin- Phantom Power

I never understood why this song isn’t more popular. It pops into my head constantly, especially when I’m watching Atypical because of Sam’s love for Antarctica and penguins in particular. Plus, given the devotion to the egg, it reaffirms that the fact that not all males in a given species are complete assholes.

7. Sharks- Music@Work

Sharks don’t attack the Irish, It’s mostly Australians. Whew, I’m safe. I just love Gord’s mumbling chorus in sync with the brilliant guitar.

6. The Dire Wolf- In Violet Light

I had no idea who Tallulah Bankhead and Canada Lee were before this song but their story of strong friendship in an era of racially motivated social nonacceptance was impressive and inspiring. They costarred in the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat. This song is another example of excellent songwriting with a great story.

5. The Dark Canuck- In Violet Light

If this song came out before my kids were born, it might have considered naming them apple, zippo or metronome. I love the rather radical change in tempo partway through this song. It goes from a classic Hip ballad to a uptempo and haunting tune reminiscent of Nautical Disaster or Locked in the Trunk of a Car.

4. World Container- World Container

The poetic lyrics of this song combined with the crescendo of angst in Downie’s voice makes for a great listen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “How’d it get so late so early?'” in my own life so I karaoke that lyric in the car every time I listen to the song.

3. Last Night I Dreamed you Didn’t Love Me Anymore- World Container

This is a song about an exaggerated paranoia about falling out of love which can also serve as a great breakup song. Gord’s singing which escalates from frustration to desperation as the song progresses gets me every time.

2. The Depression Suite- We are the Same

This song reminds me of a Day in the Life by the Beatles and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel. Sure, it doesn’t tell a story quite the same but does give one a rather decent lesson in geography and is a near 10 min experience with a few different and equally enjoyable melodies.

  1. Queen of the Furrows- We are the Same

This is just a good old farming song with a great beat and a signature Hip sound with nothing so deep that it’s meaningless. There’s even mention of a toasted Western..can you ever go wrong with a toasted Western.

Favorites is a newish Thai BBQ joint which opened on the Ossington stretch. It’s secretly tucked behind a Sam James coffee bar. Once you enter, you are brought into a surprisingly spacious area with a variety of seating options. It’s unique among many Thai places in Toronto for a couple of reasons: first it focuses more on grilled items versus standard noodle rice dishes or spring rolls and second it suggests wine as the main alcoholic companion to the food as opposed to Singha beer or cocktails. According to the restaurant, the key is smart whites and lighter, chilled reds to compliment but not drown to the more intense Thai flavours. We complimented our meal with la Cuvee du Chat, a fantastic French Gamay which makes me want to head to the SAQ in Quebec to grab a few bottles.

La Cuvee Du Chat

Food wise, we selected a variety of dishes from each section, all of which was served sharing style of course. First was the Betel leaf wraps (nope..not shrimp fresh rolls) with smoke trout, roe and galangal caramel. The edible leaf housed a variety of flavours and textures which will well rounded and a great indicator of what was to come.

Betel Leaves with Trout

Next we had the octopus salad complemented with pomelo and banana blossoms. The octopus, although hidden under a copious amount of greenery, was well prepared and the flavours once again were bursting with classic Thai sweet and salty notes.

Octopus Salad

Since the whole concept of favorites is Thai BBQ, we ordered a trio of options from the grilled menu which included Chiang Mai style pork sausage, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms and grilled duck. The mushrooms were the star, full of smokiness and subtle heat from the BBQ and chili vinegar respectively. The raw cabbage leaves, which were served with all these items, best complimented this dish the best, both in flavour and texture. The duck was nicely rendered and served a stunning medium rare which was nicely complimented with classic thai flavours in the form of a tamarind dip. The sausage was decent but the least thrilling of the three. I just didn’t find it as abstract and entertaining as the other grilled dishes.

The last dish, the curried prawn pineapple fried rice, was the most recognizable dish on the menu by traditional Thai restaurant standards. It was as good as the others I have had at places like Pai but after the rest of the dishes I had, maybe a little too normal.

Curried Pineapple Rice with Prawn

The dessert choices were small but still represented a return to the bold, vibrant and unique flavours of the rest of the menu featuring a passionfruit and chocolate parfait as well as coconut pannacotta. Thankfully, neither were extreme on sweetness but both were bold on contrasting textures and flavours.

Coconut Pannacotta and Passionfruit and Chocolate Parfait

My Take

I’ve always thought if I ever open a restaurant I might name it “Whatever” or “Not Sure” since that’s the answer I usually get when I ask the family where they want to go. That’s why I like the name of this place. If a friend comes up to me and asks where I want to go I can simply say one of my favorites. It deviates from the noodle heavy tendencies of most Thai joints and offers the same balanced flavours in the form of more protein heavy BBQ choices. Even the wine and desserts, two aspects normally less anticipated in Thai cuisine were some of my favorites, much like listening to songs like Sharks or the Depression Suite on the same playlist as New Orleans is Sinking.

Chicago:Day 2: A little goat, a billy goat, two Michelin stars and manlove

The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30  minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes.  After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars),  you hit a block of empty, spray-painted  buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath.  Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.

The apex of this West Randolph landscape  is a cute spinning  goat overlooking the street.  This was destination number one.

Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner

This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat.  You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between.  You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety.   It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth.  The place had a definite diner vibe.  I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction.  The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass  despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from  old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.

A Good Ol' Fashioned Coffee
A Good Ol’ Fashioned Coffee

The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options.  I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti.  Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth.  I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite.  Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.

Breakfast spaghetti 'n clams 'n crab
Breakfast spaghetti ‘n clams ‘n crab $15

My colleague went for the bull’ s eye  french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole.  The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche.  In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.

Bull's eye french toast
Bull’s eye french toast $16

My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop.  It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu.  Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.

Little Goat Diner on Urbanspoon

Stop #2– Naha

A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare.  It’s  spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22.      After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I  found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.

I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls).  Nothing like some pasta on pasta action.  It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.

Spinach Cannelloni
Spinach Cannelloni

For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda(  a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel.    The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of  a well-disguised ceasar salad.  It was a little bit of a yawn.

Loup de Mer
Loup de Mer

My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc.  It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).

Naha Mezze
Naha Mezze

The dessert menu  incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn.   I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of  toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of  nutella panini.    The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism.  Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.

Sundae
Sundae

Chocolate Pave
Chocolate Pave

My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana.  For the most part, the execution was  on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch.  The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East.  The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.

NAHA on Urbanspoon

Stop #3– Billy Goat Tavern

Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to  drop  by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of  men….enough said.

Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.

I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same.  The thin, pre-made  patty  is served on an oversized bun.  The condiment station has the standard toppings,  although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced  or thick (and I mean thick) rings.  I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork,  bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a  freaking $3 burger.

Billy Goat Tavern burger and Beer
Billy Goat Tavern burger and Beer

Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost  the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.

Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Stop #4- Topolobampo

I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago.  Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while  watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat.  I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter.  Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.

Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction.  They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready.  With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening.  Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area.  We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..