Livin’ La Vida Loka: Another Example of the Evolution From Hoser Grub to Haute Cuisine

It’s been a crazy year for dining in Toronto.  At the forefront has been the sudden interest in Canadian food.  Once the bane of culinary style, Hoser food has become haute cuisine in only a couple of years.  Poutine, Molson Canadian and butter tarts have been replaced with fiddleheads, microbrews (named after every street, neighbourhood,body of water or geographical indentation across our expansive nation) and sea buckthorn sorbet.  Pickerel, boar and venison are the new proteins in town.

Loka is one of these establishments.  The website states it a an exploration of Canadian Cuisine and that the menu changes frequently depending on the patriotic preference and available ingredients of the day.  That said, once can always count on an offering of cured meats and other creations based on their zero waste butchery policy.  The rest of the menu consists of 8 or so items including a dessert.  They also have a vegetarian menu available for those who find a platter of meat far from appealing. They also invite you to try the whole menu (minus the charcuterie) in smaller portions for $100 which I thought was the ideal strategy for our group of 4 (see menu below).

loka-menu

Hoser to Haute Dictionary:

Coppa-Fancy Bologna

Red Fife- Wheat

Deer Lichen- Moss

PEI Bluda- White Cheese not in plastic

Ndujja-Fancy Klik

Potato Glass-Really Thin Chips

Haskap- A Deformed Blueberry

The booze menu/strategy is a little odd.  Instead of a vast array of shelf liquor, Loka offers a couple of cocktails (an old fashioned and a plum smash) in addition to a small wine and beer list. I tried both cocktails which were radically different but both were middle of the pack among others throughout the city.

loka-plum-smash

One of the disappointing aspects of the meal was the presentation.  Every picture of the dishes on social media looked like something the Group of Seven painted. These dishes were by no means ugly, but they were a little messy, especially the Ndujja which was served plain in a white bowl and looked far from appetizing.  Although a stated favorite of the waiter, I really didn’t like it at all.  It was greasy, especially when served with chicharron, the  gluten free but fatty alternative to bread. In order words, it really was fancy Klik.

From a taste perspective, I was probably most disenchanted by the cod tongues.  I love these delicacies and they really do need very little to compliment the flavour and the overbearing and bland tempura was not effective.

The cured meats, including the pickled char hit the mark nicely.  In particular, the shaved coppa was not only delicious on it’s own but the accompanying hazelnut mustard was brilliant.  The vegetables (spinach and mushrooms) screamed robust and earthy flavours which were highlighted by the inclusion of a few of the aforementioned  Haute ingredients.

The highlights of the night were the chowder and the dessert.  The soup had a beautiful balance of richness and sea sapidity.  The firm potatoes complimented the juicy mussels to round everything out.  The dessert was spectacular.  The otherwise earthy tones exhibited in the rest of the meal remained but a kiss of maple added just enough sweet and did not overpower the welcomed tartness of the yogurt and berries.

My Take

The concept of Canadian food is constantly being redefined, especially in an environment where a focus on local ingredients and the need for expansive creative licence is paramount.  That said, many patrons (including myself to a degree) are somewhat reluctant to rewrite the recipe book too quickly.  Although I enjoy the haute approach to the cuisine of my native land, I’m not about to embrace pemmican and lick the moss off rocks in lieu of a slice of meat pie or a steamy pot of KD.  That said, if you are fan of energetic earthy flavours, you may enjoy elements of Loka even if the dishes don’t also resemble the stunning landscapes of Lawren Harris or A.Y. Jackson every night.

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

I Didn’t Get Crabby but I Managed to Get Bitter at Oxbow Public Market in Napa

Almost every city, big or small, boasts a market and Napa is no different.  Shortly after arriving in town, I headed down to the Oxbow Public Market  to check it out and grab some lunch at the bib gourmand rated C Casa.  Oxbow is a mid-sized indoor market with a combination of shops and restaurants. You can get anything from charcuterie to ice cream.

My biggest target at Oxbow was C Casa, a bib gourmand rated joint featuring unique tacos and other fusion Mexican fare. I was giddy in line in preparation for my  $9 fresh crab taco.  Sadly, the crustacean was not in stock and I had to resort to other options so I settled with the pork carnita tostada with white beans, corn relish, poblanos, micro greens, romaine, lime crema and cotija cheese  ($5.75) and the rotisserie duck  taco with spinach, red onion, goat cheese, oranges, cumin vinaigrette, avacado crema and cilantro  ($8.00).  These were expensive tacos so I was happy to see them arrive with a heaping pile of fillings. The pork tostada was a mess as there was no graceful way to eat it. The beans were such a smart addition and the crema was equally intelligent. The thought of duck and citrus was a little frightful  but it worked reasonably well.  It was less like a taco and more like a spinach salad on a tortilla.  There is a good variety of local pints as well. Beer and tacos are a beautiful couple.

Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)
Pork Carnita Tostada ($5.75) and Rotisserie Duck Taco ($8.00)

 

After barely finishing the Mexican monstrosities, I strolled around the rest of the market in complete awe.  It was like an angel met me in my sleep and asked me “If you could build a market, what would  be in it?”.  My answer would be an oyster house, a spice shop, a kitchen gadget place, a butcher, charcuterie, ice cream and a fancy place where I could get bitters and shrubs to tinker with my own cocktails at home.   Voila!  That’s Oxbow Market.  In particular, let me focus on the last place.  I have gotten a little more experimental with my homemade potent potables and my struggle has been the inability to find bitters outside of the standard angostura.  Many of the Toronto bars brag about walnut, green tea, cherry bourbon and other fancy additions to their old fashioneds and it pisses me off.  The Napa Valley distillery has the largest variety of bitters I have ever seen.  I was a kid in a candy store as I wandered around  aimlessly thinking of the adultery I could commit but combining a number of these flavours with a bottle of Bulleit bourbon. Ironically, it was the first time I realized a significant number of the bitters were produced by Dillon’s, the Niagara distillery a mere 160 km away from my house.

Oh ya…they have a bunch of organic crap at Oxbow too.

My Take

If you go to Napa you most definitely should drink wine but you have to come here!!!!!! I have to admit knew nothing of the Oxbow market prior to my Napa visit. Once there, however, I entered this nirvana which contained all my vices under one roof. Although I didn’t indulge in every one, I got to sip pints, eat tacos, taste bitters, smell spices, stare at striploins and sleep well afterwards. C Casa was probably deserving of bib gourmand status but did not serve the best taco I ever had (and they didn’t have crab).  They were busy and overfilled but had good flavour.  For any foodie,  I highly recommend a dreamy wander through Oxbow Public Market. Although C Casa made me a little crabby, I’ll save my bitterness for  Dillon’s on Tufford road in good old Beamsville, Ontario.

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