It is 1051 pm and I realized I have not yet blogged in June. Not doing so would end my streak of writing at least one blog a month since June 2012. So, a few months back I went to Kwan Dim Sum and Chinese cuisine at Yonge and St. Clair for lunch. I was a little worried because I used to work with a guy with a last name Kwan who was rather annoying. I arrived around 1145 to a rather empty restaurant. I looked around and admired the decor which was full of shelves and jugs. I’m sure lucky I booked early because by 1215 it was jam packed. Whew!
We ordered an array of dim sum including steamed dumplings (Har Gow), Sui Mai, deep fried shrimp dumplings, savory crepes and soup for $5-8. Retrospectively, it wasn’t that original of an order but a good representation of a dim sum lunch. The food was well executed and well presented.
Unfortunately, the service was slow and a little rude. Getting a glass of water was hard and getting tea was even harder.
This is the most boring blog I have ever written but the clock is ticking and I need to keep the streak alive. I liked the decor at Kwan. The dim sum was quite good. The service, however, was unenthusiatic. It’s a safe and pretty place for those who enjoy dumplings et al. and don’t want to worry about whether the shady signs and run down decor of other dim sum restaurants in the area translate into either bad or overly “authentic” food. In the end, it’s very CaucASIAN.
I was meeting a couple of friends for lunch and we wanted to try out Wilbur, the new Mexican place on King about half way between Portland and Brant. It was completely unorganized and crazy and since time was of the essence we went next door to Her majesty’s pleasure. I feel this preamble is important in order to justify why I chose a salon/nail bar for lunch. I mean, I’ve never had a manicure or pedicure in my entire life and have no problem sitting down for a $20 haircut.
The decor is….well…very white. I suppose the rationale is the promotion of cleanliness and a glistening that matches the teeth of the smiling patrons who are getting one hand painted with powder rose varnish while using the other to sip perky pink cocktails with mint leaves and raspberries in them. Sounds of grinding coffee and fake laughs filled the air. It was a bit surreal and I found myself looking around for the Real Housewives of Toronto camera crew tucked in a corner. I took a trip to the washroom and realized how big the place actually was. I passed numerous stations equipped with mirrors, blow dryers etc. waiting to primp or crimp or whatever the style of the day happens to be.
The menu is small and consists mainly of organicy, vegany, skin cleansing, waist slimming salads (which I’m sure go great with a fruity cocktail), a sandwich or two and a kettle of soup. As mentioned, you can grab a espresso-based beverage or a number of potent potables. The woman behind the counter took great pride in the offerings, gladly handing out samples of the homemade mushroom soup. I settled on it with a grilled cheese made with homemade bacon jam finished in the “we are too small to have a kitchen” panini press. Add a decaf americano and the bill came to $19.
As I ate in my street clothes with my less than coiffed hair I felt a little like a Bridal Path housekeeper on a lunch break. The soup and sandwich were pretty decent. The bacon jam was delicious. All in all, it was a satisfying lunch. The people watching was phenomenal and I’m sure the patrons were wondering what a jagged nailed bum like me was doing in such an environment. That said, the staff was cordial and played the permasmile supporting role effectively.
A few days later I went for dinner at Buca Yorkville. I was hosting a dinner for 7 so we had to take a 6 pm reservation. That said, we were seated immediately and they were patient with the one or two in the party who are chronologically challenged (or couldn’t find the place..it can be a bit tricky). At that point, we got the family style speech plus the fact that the Yorkville menu represented fare from the sea vs the terrene focus of their sister restaurant Buca on King. It’s always a joy trying to reach a shared consensus with 7 very different palates at the table but we eventually decided on an array of offerings:
As expected, there was a decent selection of wine. We started with a very subtle Soave (La Cappuccina-$65) which I enjoyed more than I would a Prosecco. After a short debate, we ordered Castelfeder Sauvignon Blanc ($75) later in the meal. I almost send it back but after getting a second opinion, we kept it at the table. It just had a taste more sour (like passion fruit) and was less crisp and spicy than the New Zealand ones we are more accustomed to. A few guests at the table commented that the taste grew on them.
Gnocco Fritto ($9)
These squid ink dumplings were served warm. Although they looked like charcoal briquettes, they were absolutely delicious. The accompanying tuna n’duja was spicy and seasoned perfectly. I could’ve eaten a whole lot of these.
Bucaites swear by these doughy balls of goodness. It’s hard to go wrong with garlic, olive oil and rosemary anything so these were not disappointing.
I was really excited for this dish. Eel prepared “in saor” ( a breaded, vinegar preservation method) and finished with pine nuts and the sweet and sour contrast of sea buckthorn and maple syrup sounded dreamy. It was better on paper; the eel was lost in the batter and the contrast of flavours wasn’t as prominent as I expected.
This dish was recommended in advance by a colleague of mine. I think table side preparation is a growing trend and I was excited to watch a sea bass get transformed into crudo in front of my eyes. The sexiness of such an act was somewhat impaired by an equipment malfunction when one of the wheels of the cart flew off in transit. The recovery was quick and the fish was carved and finished with prosecco, lemon and high quality olive oil. It was a classic example of the power of good, high quality and fresh ingredients. I saw quite a few of these fish carved throughout the night and was surprised to see how few people paused to admire the workmanship, especially with the steep price tag of forty plus dollars.
As a table, we ordered three pastas from the group of seven; the spaghetti pomodoro ($19), the famous bigoli ($18) which is one of the few items which made the trip from the king street location and the ravioli doppi ($39) which is stuffed with lobster and parsnip. The pomodoro (not pictured) was near perfect. The pasta was a magnificent al dente and I tasted the saltiness of the sea as I dreamed of the server’s story of Italian tomatoes grown 100 meters from the saline waters on Italy’s coast. The bigoli was ducky;literally and figuratively. The ravioli, which arrived well before the other two, was a bit disappointing. I found the pasta a little thick especially when it is meant to house the delicate taste of lobster. I also made the mistake of cutting the ravioli the wrong way meaning I got nothing but a mouthful of parsnip in the first bite (the pasta was stuffed with the lobster on one side and the pungent root on the other). Even when I corrected by oversight, I still found it disappointing, especially for $39.
At one point I was worried about time. Most restaurants do two seatings for big tables and I was worried we would be rushed as it was approaching 8 pm and we still hadn’t received pizza or anything else we planned to order. However, it was quickly evident that there was no need to rush, especially given the huge void of time between courses, especially the pasta and pizza. The server arrived with a margherita ($17), a nero di seppia ($19) and a pair of scissors. I thought the pizzas were literally night and day. The night was the dark and disappointing nero pizza. It looked a bit like a scrambled Italian flag or a Christmas decoration. There was no adhesion whatsoever; it was a bunch of stuff scattered across squid ink dough. The day was the light and refreshing margherita which delivered everything it promised.
Meat and Vegetable
We didn’t initially order this, but the consensus at the table was that we needed more food so we ordered the costole di bisonte ($36) and a side of cavofiori ($10). I would have expected them to arrive together but the bison rib was served almost 10 minutes before the cauliflower. Maybe it’s the English in me, but I would have expected them to be served together for the meat and vegetable experience. The rib was smart and certainly meaty; the sunchoke and walnuts added a wonderful earthiness to the dish. The cauliflower was surprisingly simple but delicious. It was served with lardo, and finished with pecorino and duck egg yolk.
Dessert was zeppole, otherwise known as an Italian or in this case a roman donut (which may be a bit risque if you were to look up urban dictionary’s definition). It can best be described as cannoli on steroids. The normal brittle, cookie exterior was replaced with a chewy, bagel-like shell which housed a filling that was a sweet pistachio cream offset by a sour cherry sauce. It was absolutely delicious and is now on my list of the things I have specific cravings for.
During the meal, I had another housewife of Toronto experience. A table of 6 women walked in, apparently celebrating some sort of birthday, anniversary, facelift etc. They would all greet each other with toothy smiles and friendly hugs and then take their jackets off only to replace them a minute later once everybody could get a peak of the wares which lied beneath. I found myself somewhat entranced by the whole scene and started to understand why people might actually watch these housewife exposes. I wondered if at least one of them made a trip to her majesty’s pleasure earlier to the day to sip a drink and think about eating something while primping up for a competitive evening with the girls.
Entertainment aside, the experience was pretty good. The meal started and ended well (I still crave that tuna n’juda and zeppole) with a few up and downs in between. The service itself was incredible. The timing, however, was a bumpy as the fish cart with the blown wheel. There were lags between courses and even delays within the courses. Some of the dishes (the eel, ravioli doppi and the branzino crudo) were rather overpriced. It seems that the best dishes were the simple ones and the more complex ones were confusing and unreasonably expensive.
Aside from the land versus sea menu, I think there is a bit of a struggle to define how this Buca location will compare and contrast to the King Street location. There is the need to adhere to the old school “everybody is family” Italian philosophy combined with the pretentious demands of the Yorkville faithful. I think it can work as long as the concept and efforts don’t come across looking as fake as the lips and boobs of the housewives of Toronto.
When I heard the name Signs I wondered if long-haired freaky people could apply or whether I needed a membership care to get inside. As I looked more into the restaurant, I found myself humming the five man electrical band lyrics out loud. Signs is another of a number of emerging restaurants which attempt to bring different humanitarian efforts into the kitchen. With restaurants like Paintbox and Hawthorne, which work on skills training (the former focuses on training and career path opportunities for people in the Regent Park area) and O.Noir, (whose theme is an awareness and employment of the blind by serving food in the dark), Signs provides career opportunities and growth for the Deaf in the hospitality industry.
Upon arrival you are greeted by a hostess who explains the process: You are served by somebody who is deaf and you sign your order using the prompts outlined on the menu. Sounds easy…it’s not. I’m the kind of guy who has struggled with every map and instruction manual ever made. This effort was no different. Take the beer list for example. I attempted to order a $9 cracked canoe using gestures that looked like Ralph Macchio cleaning Pat Morita’s car. The waiter sort of laughed and showed me the correct way; you simply make a zigzag with your finger to symbolize “cracked” and simulate paddling a canoe.
The decor is clean and fresh and the walls are lined with posters demonstrating how to sign letters of the alphabet along with a few important words including important potent potables such as Whisky and Vodka.
For dinner, I started with the $5 soup of the day (chicken and spinach I believe) which I once again failed sign properly and in my panic forgot to take a picture of. It was well-balanced and not overly salty.
For an entree I decided on the chicken piri-piri for $28. To order it, you had to sign a chicken (which is like giving yourself a beak) and signal the heat sign which is like making a fanning motion in front of your mouth. It was a bit slow to arrive and when it did, it was pretty average. It had moderate spice and was served with blandish roasted vegetables and a sweet potato side. The plate was very orange and looked a bit like a Halloween hangover.
For dessert, I decided against the 30 minute apple crisp (they offer a 30 minute dessert they bake from scratch nightly) that the rest of the table ordered and opted for the $9 Nutella Tiramisu instead. Once again, it was average at best although I enjoyed that despite using sickly sweet nutella, the use of cocoa powder among other things managed to keep it from turning it into a cloying confection.
Located on Yonge near Wellesley, Signs is definitely more of a tourist destination than one for a foodie. It gets good reviews on yelp and urbanspoon and is ranked 15th among over 6000 restaurants in Toronto on Tripadvisor. The space is large, roomy and clean and the staff are kind and courteous. There is humility when you order, especially if you have no spatial reasoning capabilities. The food is average at best but in the end didn’t necessarily diminish the experience. You also pay for the experience. A pint of cracked canoe is a whopping $9 and the chicken piri piri was $28. At least you can get a bowl of good soup for $5.
Signs is a mix of tourism and novelty sprinkled with hints of decent food In the end, is a humbling reminder that not everybody can hear bacon sizzle, hum Five Man Electrical Band or listen to Peter Cetera sign about the Glory of Love while the Karate Kid courts his girl with moves that look like me trying to order a pint of beer.
There are a number of references to famous faces (and maybe not so many) I have come across in my travels:
• Two-face is a notorious villain in the Batman franchise.
• Faceman (the Face), played by Dirk Benedict and later Bradley Cooper, was a member of the quartet which made up the A-team.
• My Brave Face was Paul McCartney’s attempt to import and adapt his immense musical talent into the mundane late 80’s pop scene
• Furnace Face was a 90’s Canadian Indy band who put out such songs as “We Love you, Tipper Gore” with an anti-censorship theme and “She Thinks She’s Fat” which addresses the body image image which plagues to this day.
The newest addition to the list is Noodle Face, the recently opened Chinese restaurant in Baldwin Village. Like many of it’s neighbours, it’s a no frills eatery with relatively inexpensive meal choices served with the ethnic flare of the far east. The hand-drawn sign is almost invisible among the other makeshift ones lining the street. Inside is no different. Concrete brick walls on one side and a hand drawn mural on the other, plywood counters and a large, messy blackboard highlight the 40 seat interior. I arrived around lunch and managed to get a seat by the window (in fact probably the only seat by the window). I was offered a tea which was served in an aged enamel cup as a ratty menu was presented containing all sorts of traditional Chinese noodles and soups as opposed to the more common ramen and pho. There is also a list of signature and specialty dishes ranging from pancakes to perfect chicken legs and secret buns you have to drop in and try.
The “Chef Q handmade dumplings” is a broth soup made with seaweed, scallions, a few glass noodles and the aforementioned dumplings. It was very different from the ramen and pho in that the broth was predominately sour versus salty. It was a bit of an acquired taste that got rather pleasant as you ate more of it. When you ate something else and went back, however, you were caught off guard again because of the sourness. The soup dumplings were thick and tasty and filled with flavourful, seasoned pork. The plentiful onions added a nice bite.
The dummy salad came with a choice of green beans or broccoli with no description other than that. I had no idea what a dummy salad was so I ordered it. Basically it was a plate of cold beans dressed lightly and topped with sesame seeds. The beans were not the freshest I have had but the dressing was subtle and refreshing. Otherwise, it was rather unremarkable.
The menu is in no way modest. Case and point is the Rou-Jai-Mo, which is described as follows: “Is mo a bread? Bun? Bao or Nann? Figure it out yourself for our top-rated small food.” Intrigued, I ordered one. I expected a soft pork bun but instead got something that I would describe as a cross between a crunchy english muffin and a tea biscuit. It was stuffed with meat which resembled canned flakes of ham seasoned with cilantro in both appearance and taste. It wasn’t unpleasant but it a was secret that wasn’t as juicy as anticipated.
Noodle face co. is a new joint with a no frills appearance that fits well with the Baldwin Street scene. Instead of duplicating the numerous ramen and pho houses, it offers unique fare more indicative of China than Korea or Japan. The menu is diverse and cryptic which either offers no description of items or very detailed warnings, precautions and promises. Although nothing blew my mind, I wasn’t too disappointed. If anything, the food is unique and the price point reasonable. Noodle Face isn’t pretty like Templeton Peck. It doesn’t aim to conform to the popularity of everybody else like at a late eighties Paul McCartney song. If anything, it’s kind of like Furnaceface; refreshingly unpredictable while making bold statements on a budget…but not for everybody.
The honey badger is a legend, an animal that has stepped into folklore with its ruthless attitude. Some call it the Chuck Norris of the animal kingdom. So, I was intrigued to sample a bistro which pays homage to this iconic creature, especially when it appears with a glass of wine and ready for a fight. There weren’t ruthless looking patrons strewn across the small bar. Instead, it was a plain looking place with tables donning burgundy tablecloths and plain walls minus a few posters telling me that “You’re the sugar to my tea”. How sweet!
I was with a friend who is a cool version of three of the top 44 worst person in every restaurant (ironically she is also the one who sent me the article). For the record, at times I can be classified at times as sad solo diner. My defense is that I travel a bit and don’t have the energy to ask my friends to indulge in my frequent culinary endeavors. And yes, I do look at my phone a lot. I’ll get back to her in a second.
The menu would suggest it could be classified as a gastropub despite the fact it is called a bistro. There’s everything from small plates to sandwiches to burgers to poutine. There are often gourmet twists on standard fare, with offerings like mashed cherry jam and 40 creek mayo scattered across the menu. There is lots of meat and lots of bread, which means lots of gluten, a point which brings me back to my lunch companion. If you didn’t click the link above, she is the cool version of each of the following:
“I’d like the salmon, but instead of the corn, can I get the braised cauliflower from the steak dish? And instead of the frisee salad, can I get that appetizer you used to have in the ’90s, but with a different type of aioli? And instead of the salmon, can I get thrown through the plate glass window in the front of restaurant?”
The Gluten-Free Evangelist
Stop giving us murder eyes when we go for the bread basket. No one cares what it’s done for your “energy”.
The Guilt-Tripping Vegan
Is the exact moment I bite into my steak tartare really the time to bring up that expose you just watched on what really happens behind the scenes at slaughterhouses? Doesn’t matter — I’m going to enjoy it even more out of spite.
So, a gluten loving porkivore and a fish-eating, non-dairy consuming psuedo-vegan who neither guilt-trips nor evangelizes but does substitute enter a Windsor bistro and order roasted butternut squash soup without cream, candied yam fries, a salad and a honey badger reuben.
The candied yam fries ($8) were insanity in a bowl. The sweet potatoes were piled with torched mini marshmallows and topped with what the menu calls a a brown sugar drizzle. It was more like a gravy, seasoned with savory flavours like oregano. Despite the odd sound of this combination, it was actually quite delicious, especially as the marshmallows melted into a delicious fry coating goo shortly after the picture was taken. The fries were cooked well and the whole concoction was not overly sweet. It was a pleasant surprise. Even better, it was appropriate for a sort of vegan.
The reuben was also well executed. The marble rye bread was grilled crisp and was cooked enough to allow the swiss cheese to melt thoroughly. The brisket was tender and the unique addition of the forty creek mayo and brusselkraut (saurkraut made with brussel sprouts) was a delicious twist. The side salad was pleasant as well, dressed lightly with a balsamic dressing. It was a huge sandwich (mmmm. gluten and meat) for a reasonable $12 and I managed to enjoy a little more than half of it before throwing in the towel without so much as a evangelist or guilt-tripping stare from across the table.
As for the soup, I only had a bite. It was okay…but I think it needed cream.
I was hoping for a T-shirt saying “I survived the Honey Badger” but instead left with a stomach full of a decent meal. The menu is casual but well thought out and executed. The yam fries were extreme and the reuben blended an old-school classic with an eclectic spin. The soup needed cream. As for the ambiance , it was a bit drab and certainly didn’t match the exciting food. Either that or I walked into my first ever (and probably last) beestropub.
PS. Thanks to Windsor Eats (www.windsoreats.com) for posting the menu online. Another example of the comradery which exists in this tight-knit culinary community.
I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto). Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.
Here are a few observations I have made about diners:
1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant. The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog. There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa. The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul seems a moot point in the diner culture.
2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam. The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.
4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner. The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish. My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side. I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”. This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45. The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.
5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner. Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.
6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff. On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties. On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there). This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.
In the end, I adore diners. They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine. Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.
The Junction has recently taken on the theme “If we build it they will come”, the most famous line from Field of Dreams. A bit off the beaten path, this area has been overshadowed by others in Toronto which have more established destinations, better parking and more convenient transit access. Most vendors along Dundas West will state that the local community keeps business alive but they would more than welcome a larger crowd moving forward. This optimism has resulted in an explosion of new eateries, from small sandwich shops and coffee shops to hipster destinations such as the Farmhouse Tavern and the Indie Alehouse Brewing Co.
Humble beginnings is a modest joint which focuses on quick meals and catering in addition to coffee and baked goods. Although the lion share of the menu is dedicated to dishes with a focus from local meat, poultry and fish suppliers, special attention is given to vegan and gluten free options as well. I popped in around lunch, so I leaned more toward the soup and sandwich menu as opposed to the larger entrees.
The soup of the day was pumpkin served with apple croutons (which were essentially dried apple rings). It was absolutely delicious. Small bits of fragrant ginger were like pop rocks within a smooth slurry of wonderfully seasoned pumpkin. The apple added a morsel of sweetness and chewiness which was a pleasant contrast. For around $5, it was a large portion. I also appreciated the fact that it was heated to order on a gas stove as opposed to drawn out of a luke warm cauldron with an unknown start time.
As for the sandwich (or as they put it… got to run, but it on a bun), I opted for the grilled chicken with a cherry chili aioli. It was a simple concoction of nicely cooked although a flimsy amount of chicken. What it lacked in content it made up for in flavour, dressed with a tornado of sweet and heat matched with a blanket of peppery arugula. Although the bun was a bit mediocre, in the end it was a decent sandwich. I found $11 a bit steep but not asinine.
Humble beginnings is exactly that…humble. It attempts to serve fresh and locally sourced foods without a lot of noise. In addition for those looking for fresh food options, consideration is given to vegans and those with gluten sensitivity. There aren’t animal heads hanging on the wall or house music blaring in the background. All the dishes are under 15 bucks, the sandwiches under $11 and include a pleasant array of all things that grow. swim or walk. The soup was delicious and the sandwich was satisfying. By itself, it isn’t Field of Dreams in the sense that it won’t bring bleachers of patrons into the Junction, but it’s certainly a building block in this growing community’s attempt to attract the otherwise trend centric foodies looking for the newest place to swing a bat.