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

Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene.  In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice  reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015.  I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.

A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub).  For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27.  “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.

I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is.  She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones)  from  Shameless.  Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit).   That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).

I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single.  In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and  compared to other entertainment-heavy  metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York,  and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.

Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose.  Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.

Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs  Boxing Day 1985.

10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)

Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face.   The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.

I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.

9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)

A short elevator ride up a few floors  opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails.  A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow.  Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced.   Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.

I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present.  I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle.  Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.

8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)

As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic  sipping cocktail.  They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick  with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.

alo drink
Longchamp Cocktail $14

7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)

Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a  standard menu for everybody  or only an option  for the main protein.  They even set the stage for such free will  (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by  offering a choice of a blue or white napkin .  It was rather odd but memorable.

6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)

There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:

  •  Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated  couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of  the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour  little light on the citrus.
  • In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course.  It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a  sinful cousin of a croissant.
  • When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist.  I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
  • I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so.  Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold.  A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
  • In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.

5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)

Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize  by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork.  There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone.  If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them.  For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.

4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)

I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver.  I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.

alo fois gras
Foie Gras

3.  Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)

There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15).  In the name of adventure we agreed.  The featured fromage  was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers.  We ordered  two plates was plenty for the four of us.  Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate.  We joked that, being the token Caucasian  at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate.  I went dark.  Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese,  we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead.  It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me.  Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good.  Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan.  The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.

2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)

When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head.  The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after.  The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.

1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)

Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one.  In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA.  The flow of the meal was spot on.  Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained  the components of each dish with great precision.   The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.

My Take  

Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service.  Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience.  The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.

In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album.  Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening.  You feel the experience  instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment   filled with  countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of  American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.

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

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R&D: Rebel and Demon, Research and Development, Rad and Deficient

In a previous blog, I outlined my Masterchef tryout in some detail.  Despite my failure to impress the producers, I watched the show and was happy to see Eric Chong win.  I was equally happy to see something tangible come from his win;  a new restaurant in the perilous region of Chinatown.  R&D is a partnership with the mercurial Alvin Leung, who’s blue hair makes old ladies and smurfs alike quite envious.  The restaurant’s concept is one of polarity and contrast. Our bubbly waitress promised flavours which ran the gamut of tastes and flavours with every bite.  The name R and D refers to the Rebel and Demon personas of the owners and is a play on the fact they were both engineers before finding their true vocation.  Adding to the polarity is Eric’s calm demeanor coupled with the mad science antics of his partner.

I asked the enthusiastic waitress for menu recommendations.  She recommended pretty much everything on the menu but in particular raved about he CSB buns. They cook them hourly and getting one might be synonymous with scoring a Black Friday deal.  Once out of the oven, the waitstaff wrestle for them in the hope they can secure them for the patrons at their tables. I drank the Kool-aid and insisted that we secure some of this precious loot. Did we manage to get them?????

STAY TUNED

The drink list comprises of Asian inspired potent potables derived from a collection of traditional cocktails.  The Whisky sour is splashed with  lemongrass, coriander, pepper and yuzu liqueur.  The pina colada is served as boozy bubble tea. The 510 ceasar (which I ended up ordering), was made with garlic and mushroom infused vodka and seasoned with hoison Worcestershire sauce.  Mushroom flavour was prominent and heat from the chili sauce was a little shy. The drink was topped with Nori which added a pleasant element of unami.  All in all, it was a good Caesar but was a little small in volume which probably helped to intensify the aforementioned flavours.

510 Caesar $14
510 Caesar $14

The first dish to arrive was Eric’s Curry.  Beef brisket sat in a pool of curry sauce and mustard greens. It was brilliantly unique.  A little salt and sweet and a lot of sour and heat made this great to eat (that’s poetry for you left brained science types).  At the time, the dish came with no medium to absorb the sauce (a true engineering flaw) which really was shameful considering how good the sauce was. Maybe we can call it an early oversight since  it appears based on the website the dish now comes with coconut rice. Probably the best dish of the night.

Eric's Curry $20
Eric’s Curry $20

Next was the octopus which was served with eggplant and choy sum chimichurri. The presentation was a little sad but the octopus was nicely prepared and finished with a decent char.  The eggpplant was clever as a replacement to the normal routine of potatoes or olives and the chimichurri was  deliciously unorthadox yet had a familiar flavour I couldn’t quite pinpoint but wanted more.

Octopus $14
Octopus $14

Shortly after we received the Tom Yum Little Dragon buns ($6). I imagine that Thai flavours in a Chinese bun may be considered as engineerial as calling a soup dumpling a dragon bun but in the end they hit the mark on flavour and were a pleasant bite.

Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6
Tom Yum Dragon Buns $6

I was a little reluctant to try the lobster chow mein ($25) but my colleague talked me into it. Despite a reasonably sized  portion of lobster, it was horribly predictable and had no wow factor at all.

Lobster Chow Mein $25
Lobster Chow Mein $25

The one platter were ordered was the general saunders’ chicken served with  kung pao sauce, sichuan maple syrup, and HK egg waffles.  The chicken was nicely seasoned and super moist.  The kung pao sauce was delicious and I think the maple syrup is probably an acquired taste but I took the advice of the waitress and mixed the two together which created a mixture which satisfied a number of taste sensations.  The waffle portion was a little skimpy but complemented the chicken well in their spin of this traditional southern dish.

General Sanders' chicken $25
General Sanders’ chicken $25

At this point there a bit of a mad scramble around the kitchen which suggested one thing..the buns were ready.  Although I was getting rather full, I couldn’t resist the urge to indulge and our waitress, like a trooper, emerged with an order.  The pork filling was a bit scant a certainly played second fiddle to the delicious bread.  They were delightfully warm and just a little sweet and filled my need for gimmickry nicely.

CSB Buns $8
CSB Buns $8

At this point I was quite stuffed but another colleague showed up and ordered the beef tartare.  The spin was the son and law egg with the sauce served on top of the beef.  I had mixed feelings about this one, probably beacuse I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to this dish in particular. I think the beef should be the star and thought the sauce, although matching nicely with the egg,  masked the flavour of the beef a little too much.

Steak Tartare $17
Steak Tartare $17

She also ordered the scallop which was served with hot sauce, chinese greens and sichuan hollandaise. It was hard to put my finger on it, but the dish lacked balance.  The heat and bitterness was prominent but it lack sweetness. Maybe the thought was that the scallop would provide enough sweetness to offset the flavours of the hollandaise and Chinese greens. The scallop itself was cooked near perfectly other than lacking a good sear (which affected both its colour and what might have been a necessary caramelization). Personally, I would have kicked up the sweetness of the hollandaise or replaced it all together.

Scallops $23
Scallops $23

My Take

The Asian fusion concept of R&D is certainly a better fit for Spadina than Strata 241 was. It is a well calculated project with all the fixings of a nouveau Toronto eatery; celebrity chefs, old school rap “fusion food”.  I was surprised a bit by Eric’s kitchen demeanor.  He was extremely stoic and methodical, focusing more at the task at hand than shining in the limelight as Canada’s first masterchef winner. It’s like he was in a 2 hour mystery box challenge.  Like the show, there was a combination of great and not so good dishes. The curry was hands down the best dish of the night.  The chicken, octopus, buns and tartare were more than acceptable and the lobster chow mein and scallops were a bit of a train wreck.  Also like the show, there was gimmickry and hype lead by the promise of extreme flavours with every dish that didn’t always come to fruition.  Much like a television show, the success of R&D will depend on loyalists who will continue to go after trying it once for the novelty, Eric’s ongoing commitment and whether or not people will be able to tolerate Alvin Leung for anymore than a season of Masterchef.

R&D Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

Fin-al-ly..The Peoples Eatery has Come Back (although it was never there to start with) to Spadina Avenue!

The first time I heard the name “peoples eatery” I couldn’t help but think of  Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.  He used to step into the ring, grab a microphone and proceed to gloat and taunt his way through an electric monologue which began with “Finally, the Rock has come back to insert city,” and made numerous references to him as the “people’s champion”. He would also cite his “people’s elbow” finishing move so suffice to say he may appreciate eating at the people’s eatery.

In fact, the name may be a reference to the People’s Republic of China given the menu features a spin on Asian fare in the heart of China town (there seems to be inconsistency about whether there is an apostrophe in peoples but the website suggests no)   .  As an extension of 416 snack bar, it has similar features in that it’s crammed into a tiny space (at least the downstairs is) and doesn’t see the necessity of utensils.  It’s different in that the dishes are primarily  inspired by Jewish and East-Asian cultures with a few other surprises thrown in. In addition, there is the option of a tasting menu designed by executive chef Dustin Gallagher and his culinary team.

I arrived to be greeted by well-coiffed waitstaff with a pretension reminiscent of  Rocky Maivia, Johnson’s pre-rock persona. They offer a small but impressive list of local beer featuring breweries like Left Field and Neustadt for around $7.  I inquired about the list and had the choices on the menu described to me.  Ten minutes later, the same guy had a conversation with a co-worker behind the bar raving about the new beer they just got that wasn’t on the menu. I was a little perplexed as to why this was never mentioned to me.

h
“It doesn’t matter what beer you want!”

The Peoples Eatery in a true snack bar.   Most things on the menu are under ten bucks unless you want quail or peking duck.  I got the “small plate” speech which was a predictable as the Rock saying “Jabroni” during one of his heated wrestling rants.  I ordered a bunch of dishes with the knowledge  they would arrive as they were prepared and ready from the kitchen.  Speaking of the kitchen, there is an open prep area for cold foods beside the bar and an open kitchen for hot food in the back. The first dish  to arrive was a twist on the Jewish Sabich (pita with quail egg and herb salad) for $7.  The abundant filling made it a bit tricky to eat and was accented with pickles, a tangy dressing and a creamy sauce.  The flavours were good but it lacked a little substance, especially for seven bucks.

Sabich $7
Sabich $7

Next to arrive was the panipuri ($4).  Also called waterbombs, these bite size morsels fizzled more than they exploded although the dipping sauce added a sweet, tangy and sourness which accented the bombs greatly.

Panipuri $4
Panipuri $4

The General Tso-fu should be ordered just for the name.  It’s tofu….done General Tso style.  It was arguably the best thing I ate all evening.  The silkiness and temperature of the piping hot tofu coupled with the cooling yet spicy sauce balanced perfectly.

Tso-fu $4
Tso-fu $4

Char Shiu Boa (aka pork buns) may be the new taco. Although surprisingly simply, there are many interpretations of this traditional Chinese dish.  The people’s version is a transfer from 416 snack bar and more reminiscent of the Momofuku staple as opposed to the standard dim sum version.  It had that wonderful wonder bread mouth feel and taste which surrounded  a delicious tender pork filling.

Char Shiu Bao $5
Char Shiu Bao $5

Although I follow and accept the small plate doctrine of the restaurants I eat in, I felt it very strange that my oysters were served last.  My guess is that either the waiter forgot until I reminded him or it takes longer to shuck 6 oysters than it does to prepare four dishes.  I was interested in the oysters for two reasons; they were less than $3 bucks each (which is a novelty in Toronto in most cases) and the promise of traditional and untraditional garnishes.  In this case, they were served with lime, a mignonette and a beet horseradish (which I suppose is a little unorthodox).  The oysters themselves were a nice size and shucked properly.

Oysters 6 for $15 served with lime, mignonette and beet horseradish
Oysters 6 for $15 served with lime, mignonette and beet horseradish

For dessert, I ordered the pineapple with coconut cream and lime.  It was a refreshing finish to the meal but nothing remarkable. In general, I find the quality of pineapple inconsistent in general  and this one was a bit on the sour side.

Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4
Pineapple with coconut cream and lime $4

My Take 

Ok, the Peoples Eatery has never been on Spadina Avenue so technically it can’t come back but let’s stick with the wrestling analogy.  First, we have the pretension of the staff which mimics that of the buff characters in the ring.  There was certainly hipster muscle flexing going on.  Second, like a wrestling match, the menu was well choreographed, offering both traditional and fancy moves contained within an entertaining evening. Finally, as a finishing move the dessert  was more like Hulk Hogan’s lame leg drop as opposed to the Rock’s electrifying people’s elbow executed in front of the millions and millions of his adoring  fans.  In the end, the People’s Eatery is a decent but not spectacular sequel to 416 snack bar.  I wouldn’t say it has the swagger of Wrestlemania but it would certainly be considered a good episode of Monday night raw…. if you smell what the Rock is cooking.

People's Eatery on Urbanspoon

Rose City Kitchen: Correcting Gertrude Stein While Humming Bret Michaels

“A rose is a rose is a rose”.

-Gertrude Stein

This famous line is said to refer to the fact that things are as they are.  The rose is also a symbol of love (just think of the inflated prices circa February 14th) and even victory.  The Kentucky Derby (aka Run for Roses), for example, drapes a garland of the red flowers over the winning horse. Rose City Kitchen is the newest addition to the bouquet of eateries which  Rose and Sons, Rosewater and the Rosedale diner. These restaurants are not related in any other way but the origin of their names are more obvious than this one. Rose City is a small town in Michigan (pop. 653)  Given the middle eastern influence of RCK and the fact that Rose City, MI is 97% Caucasian, I quickly eliminated that connection.  Portland, Oregon is nicknamed the Rose City. I figured there might have been a connection given the snacky, trendy nature of the place, but I quickly figured that was a stretch.  A little more digging (well, I just read their about page) led me to the Jordanian town of Petra, a historical city known for the rose-coloured stone in which it is carved (this would likely explain other middle-eastern bakeries in Ontario with the same name).

The concept of Rose City Kitchen is brilliant.  It takes the bold flavours of the middle east and serves them street style in handheld pitas that resemble tacos in both size and price.  Representation includes Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, Greek and the RCK original.  The promise is that each is stuffed with ingredients (eg. couscous, dates, apricots, almonds and haloumi cheese) respective of their homeland.

After a period of indecisiveness I ordered the original with a chicken and a kale salad to go.  I watched as a pita was warmed in the oven in front of me and  I anticipated the bold flavors that would fill the awaiting pocket.  I received the sandwiches and took a few bites.  I waited for a climax that never came.  The promised flavours were absolutely void.  Minuscule, overcooked pieces of chicken were hidden among a garden of lettuce and carrot.  The home fries were few and far between.  The promised flavour from the humus and garlic oil were underwhelming and the harissa dressing seemed  an afterthought which added sub par heat and flavour to the sandwich.

 

RCK Original with chicken $4
RCK Original with chicken $4

The kale salad with falafel ($7)  offered a little redemption. Three pucks of falafel were hidden among the jungle of  crisp and fresh greens.  The addition of the tomato and onion broke the monotony a bit and the tangy dressing was a nice blast of flavour.

 

Kale Salad with Falafel $7
Kale Salad with Falafel $7

My Take

Rose City Kitchen has emerged in a crowded street food market offering something unique; a  snack sized pita stuffed with bold Mediterranean flavours and priced under 5 bucks.  I try to give the benefit of the doubt and look at new restaurants through rose-coloured glasses except the above claim is as deceitful as Pete Rose himself. The flavours fell well short of expectations. I’d much rather grab a messy taco for the same price or a  sloppy shawarma for a buck more. The kale salad was fresh and well dressed but the three average tasting falafel disks were barely more than garnish.

The concept of RCK sounds as melodic as  Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses”.

The kale salad reminds me of  Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”.

In the end, I’m left humming Poison’s “Every Rose has It’s Thorn”…..with the thorn being execution.

I guess Gertrude was wrong.

 

Rose City Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The P & L Burger: Recognizing Big Boy as the Original Hipster

Parts and Labour’s offspring, P &L burger, was in part due to its performance on Burger Wars, in which it beat out rivals Burger’s Priest and Dangerous Dan’s to claim supremacy.  It opened its doors recently near Queen and Spadina, only a few doors down from Burger’s Priest and in an  area with an ever increasing number of fast/snack food options. Upon entry, I was greeted by a young lady with modern enthusiasm who quickly took my order. Fifteen minutes later, almost to the second, my number was called and I proceeded to the counter.  The cook was as cool as his facial hair and engaged me in a very pleasant conversation about the weather, cycling and growing up in Windsor, Ontario…a far cry from the less than enjoyable service I often receive from other places in the area.

Let’s do a quick historical recount of the evolution of the burger culture in the United States. It would be hard to argue that the Big Mac is not one of the most iconic and recognizable food on earth.  In fact, economic models use the cost of a Big Mac to standardize the state of the economy across the globe.  The brilliance of the Big Mac lies partially in the use of a secret sauce to add some tanginess to the other layers of flavours one would associate with a burger.  The Big Mac was “invented” by a Pittsburgh franchisee in 1967 who developed it to compete with the Big Boy (developed circa 1937), the flagship burger of the restaurant of the same name. The Big Boy is a three layered burger, served on a sesame bun with all the fixings including a special sauce (sound familiar?).  Once a presence throughout the United States, Big Boy still exists although primarily within the state lines of Michigan although a few still exist in Ohio and California.

What struck me the minute I tried the deluxe was the fact that I was eating a hipster Big Mac. It had most of the components with an extra emphasis on the the huge beef patty, which was cooked a juicy medium-well.  The P&L sauce was an excellent condiment and resembled the special sauce that made the Big Mac famous.  The cheese was melted nicely and crispy bacon pieces lined the thick patty.  It was a big, sloppy and delicious mess.  Consuming it did make me wonder why too many other burger places haven’t made an effort to mimic one of America’s favorite and most recognizable foodstuffs.  As far as the sides, I found the fries rather soggy and the slaw unappealing in both colour and taste.

The Deluxe $9
The Deluxe $9 (aka The Hipster Big Mac)

 

Somewhat Soggy Fries
Somewhat Soggy Fries (plus $3 with drink)

 

P & L Slaw
P & L Slaw ($3)

My Take

Not only did Big Boy invent the saucy burger, I argue they invented the hipster.  I mean, look at the mascot:

1. He wears checkered clothing.

2. He has a clean side part and a a flip in the front.

3. He is wearing light blue shoes.

4. He has that “I’m cool because I’m about to eat a burger” look on his face.

Big Boy- The Original Hipster
Big Boy- The Original Hipster

Now McDonald’s stole the Big Mac concept but  alienated the hipster concept and instead introduced Ronald McDonald in 1963.  The famous clown (which apparently has 96% recognition in the USA), was created by Willard Scott (yes…the same Willard Scott who gained fame as a Today show weatherman).  Since then, there have been eight actors who have portrayed the famous clown and none of them have worn, plaid, plastic rimmed glasses or parted their hair to the side.

Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian
Willard Scott as the original Ronald McDonald- This would be enough to make me a vegetarian

P&L has created a DELICIOUS burger which competes for the best under $10 in Toronto.  The sauce is the key, adding a tangy cut through the richness of the thick beef patty and accompanying melted Amercian cheese and bacon.  The bun is terrific and the condiments are as harmonious as the Big Mac song itself.  The fries were soggy and the slaw was unremarkable.  You’re likely in for about a 15 minute wait but I think it’s worth it (after all some people in Toronto have no issue waiting hours for a stool tucked in the corner of a popular snack bar). Now that I’ve read a bit about burger history I realize that in fact the classic sandwich is the perfect food for the modern day hipster; you can dress like Big Boy and act like a clown.

 

The P & L Burger on Urbanspoon

 

 

Review:Toronto:Kensington Market/Chinatown:Strada 241

Strada 241 is the newest creation of Toronto restauranteurs the Rubino brothers.  Espresso bar by day and Italian restaurant at night, this restaurant is geographically confused, appearing in the middle of Chinatown instead of as another clone along Queen West or College Street.  The front is subtle and easy to miss amongst the loud signs of the surrounding grocery stores and asian eateries. Once inside, you are warped into a rustic decor characterized by brick walls, high ceilings, low hanging light shades and worn hardwood floors. The spacious coffee bar is separated from the back dining area by an open prep area  showcasing a modern pizza oven. After I was seated, I met Tanya who sat down at the table, , explained the menu in-depth and made wine recommendations with a flare and passion missing from other restaurants who assume I should just know. I started with a Pecorino wine at her suggestion and later progressed into a red from the modest and heavily Italian list.Must

If I could eat my dessert first, The Budino (vanilla-poached apricots, saffron custard and olive oil) would be top of the list. Everything about this dish is delicate, from the vanilla poached apricots to the subtle saffron custard, offering a variety of textures and tastes bordering on savory all  placed with perfect balance inside a mason jar. I’m developing quite a taste for the incorporation of olive oil  into dessert and in this case neither the oil nor the saffron was overpowering but subtle and accenting.

Budino

Maybe

Pizza is a competitive word in Toronto and Strada has a bit of work to do to move up the ranks. At this point they may be able to claim the “best pizza” on Spadina (given it’s a stand alone Italian joint in the middle of Chinatown), but some refinement is need to compete with some of the Queen Street or little Italy juggernauts. The Alessandro was topped with a fresh sauce and tasty meatball but it all seemed to pool onto of an average crust, creating an overall texture that was a little disappointing.

Alessandro Pizza

Mundane

The rapini served with a lemon vincotto dressing sounded appealing but fell flat. I envisioned a warm, al dente dish with a nice citrus punch but instead received a chilled, under seasoned clump of overcooked rapini  hidden beneath some crisp bitter greens and some rather tasty pickled red onions. It became boring really quick…in other words, when the onions were gone.

Rapini

I appreciate an effort to accommodate to a meatless clientele, but the squash fritti seemed like a lame attempt to replace traditional calamari. Served impaled on what looked like a bed of random nails in which the lack of practicality trumped the artistic value. The squash was tender and served piping hot, but the accompanying salsa verde added nothing more than colour. I was craving some heat or acid to tear though the fat, sweet and starch flavours which characterized the deep-fried gourd.

Squash Fritti

My Take

Strada 241 is an italian inspired cocoon nestled among a neighborhood more likely to actually offer 241 pizza as opposed to rustic Italian fare. The question is whether it will materialize as a stand alone in an area not far from dozens of similar establishments. The decor and service are above par but the food needs to catch up. I would go back anytime for a morning coffee if the advertised house baked goods even remotely mimic the budino. Other than that, I’ll wait to see if it emerges as a butterfly or remains a chrysalis hidden among the dim sum shops and noodle houses straddling Spadina Avenue.

Strada 241 on Urbanspoon