Attempting Piquant Progress after Last Year’s Spectacular State Bird Seance

I had the chance to get back to San Francisco in May for a wedding (yes I realize it’s July but other duties called) and one of my targets was the progress, the newish spin-off of the highly successful and quite enjoyable State Bird Provisions.  I went there last year and it was easily one of the best restaurants I went to in 2014.  The progress boasts a choose your own adventure 6 course family style meal for $65.  Keep in mind that the table needs to agree on six dishes which may prove to be a very daunting task depending on your table mates.  On this night I was meeting two people I had never met, so in essence it was a blind date minus the romance.  I had no idea what they liked to eat, what aversions they had and what their culinary hot buttons were.

It turns out these two were rather laid back and choosing the menu was really not that difficult. One was rather naive to the nuances of the foodie code (ie. ramps are another word for cool onions) while the other was driven by a value proposition which made her gravitate to ordering the perceived most expensive dishes on the menu.  I had no issues with this at all. So, after a deliberation much faster than the OJ jury, we chose our six dishes  and waited with anticipation. While waiting, I noticed the decor and buzz was less chaotic than its sister restaurant.  The service was more traditional meaning there wasn’t an army of cooks and chefs offering you a bite at every turn. It still had a high hipster factor, driven by both the staff and the patrons sitting at the bar and  around the tables.

The first offering with a complimentary amuse bouche which featured seven snacks including zucchini blossoms, sauced-up radishes, broad beans, fried mussels, a twist on chips and dips, spicy citrus and some jerky in the middle.  It was a pleasant start and opinions as to what was the best was all over the board,  Personally, I enjoyed the jerky and the citrus.

Amuse Bouche
Amuse Bouche

One of my choices was the salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini.  The main reason was my vivid memory of a king salmon dish I had from State Bird the year before.  At this point it was evident that the menu description only offered a fraction of the secrets each dish held.  There were salty, crunchy and creamy tastes and textures immersed in the aforementioned listed stars of the dish.

Salmon
salad of wild king salmon with basil-marinated zucchini

Next were the razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata.  Other than sounding like a Jimmy Buffet tune, it was served with the very foodie friendly watermelon radish.  The star of the plate was a little less than spectacular but in the end the dish was pretty good.

Razor Clams
razor clams on the plancha with kimchi piccata

Third was a treasure chest of fermented sausage, trout quenelles and sweet onion-rice dumpling in a creamy pork broth.  I loved the absolute confusion of this dish. They pretty much took every food fetish I have and threw it into a bowl.  I’ll eat anything fermented, any sausage, any dumpling and any broth…especially if it is poured in front of me.  I’ll admit I was a little perplexed but it was like a buffet in a bowl in a blissful foodie dream.

Next was more sausage and seafood; this time lamb merguez (I conceded this dish given my distaste of lamb) with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid.  As expected, it wasn’t my favorite dish. Despite the crispiness of the squid, it wasn’t as texturally balanced as the other dishes.  The octopus was just ok.

Lamb and Octopus
lamb merguez with yellow eye beans, octopus and crispy squid

I was probably most excited about the maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu. I love mushrooms, smoked food  and black cod and my bliss was amplified when it was presented covered in one of my favorite morsels…sweet peas. I was a little disappointed since the cod ironically lost that beautiful texture through the smoking process.  It was a little too salty as well.

Black Cod
maitake, tofu and bok choy stir fry with smoked black cod ponzu

The final dish (we decided against dessert) was the aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.  Once again, the dish presented with a bit of a surprise when it was evident it was meant to be eaten like a cross between a lettuce wrap and a tequila shot. It only came with two legs (complete with the claws) for three people but there wasn’t  a huge fight over who got them.  The quail itself was cooked nicely and they were fun to assemble but the overall flavour was pretty average.

progress quail
aromatic spiced squab with salted chili paste.

My Take

There is always a danger when it come to a spin-off or sequel , especially when the first effort is so good. The list of sophomore flops is endless; take Three’s a Crowd, Flo and Joanie loves Chachi for example. In the case of State Bird Provisions, there were high expectations when it came to its neighbour and sister restaurant, the Progress. Some of the dishes lived up to the State Bird name while others missed the mark.  The progress’ offering of the salad of king salmon and the treasure chest were amazing whereas the lamb/octopus and the cod, although good, missed the high bar set by its predecessor. So, the Progress is in no way the X-Files’ ridiculous spin-off  the Lone Gunman.  Instead, I see it more as Breaking Bad’s slightly more than mediocre Better Call Saul.

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Living the Khabouth Brand at Byblos

Coming back from Kingston, I got off the train in the middle of rush hour and realized it was hapless to attempt to drive back to London so I took the opportunity to grab an early dinner at Byblos. Hidden on Duncan St, the outside is quite subtle especially compared to the massive four floor fortress inside.  When I went to the reception, I got the typical routine when I told them I didn’t have a reservation. It starts with the fake pensive stare at the blank computer screen, followed by  a slight nod and a grim proclamation and they said there was only room upstairs in the lounge.  I followed him upstairs and was seated at a well stocked bar.  I felt like I was in the bleachers at a Jays game beacuse I was the only one there.  Good thing they snuck me in!  As I waited for a drink, I looked around and the saw that the place was decorated in the typical Charles Khabouth style.  The room was elegantly decorated and accented with hints of the Middle east.

I was quickly greeted by two barkeeps and we were able to strike up a bit of a conversation.   First, we discussed the concept at Byblos: eastern Mediterranean flavours and a kick ass bar. I decided to test the latter out with an old fashioned ($15).  Made with a base of Bulleit bourbon (that’s a good start) and accented with date molasses instead of sugar atop a signature Khabouth big ass ice cube,  it  had an odd colour (I love the bronzy hue of a good old-fashioned) and slightly overwhelming sweetness which hid the bourbon a little too much but in the end was still a decent drink.

Old Fashioned $15
Old Fashioned $15

From a food perspective, the menu is divided into small and large plates with a spattering of rice dishes.  Since I was solo, for the most part I stuck with the small dishes and quizzed the guys about the best dishes:

Cheese Acharuli (Quail Egg + Brioche + Za’atar) $9- Eggs and cheese make me happy so this was an easy choice.  The crust was crispy and held its texture while housing the melted cheese and runny egg.  The za’atar flavour  and pickled onion was a great addition to this spin of the traditional Georgian bread. I didn’t confirm the cheese but wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little sheep’s milk feta hidden in the stringy mess.
Cheese Acharuli  (cheese bread) $9
Cheese Acharuli (cheese bread) $9
I asked about octopus versus crispy squid and the consensus was go with the latter for $13.  Although advertised as a large dish, it was no bigger than the acharuli and was seasoned with toum, spices and schug (hot sauce).  Although the use of the toum was subtle, it carried a garlic punch that some might find a bit overpowering.  Personally, I loved it.  The squid itself was a bit lost in the batter and the expected heat from the schug fell a little short.
Crispy Squid Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13
Crispy Squid
Bandari Spice + Schug + Toum $13
The final decision was between the duck or eggplant kibbeh.  Once again, after careful consultation I went with the vegetarian option ($14) after a suggestion from the waiter that duck might be a bit dry.    Within minutes they arrived, served with a yogurt based dipping sauce.  It was nicely spiced but overall the dish was a little underwhelming, especially with a  $14 price tag.
Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14
Eggplant Kibbeh Zucchini Flower + Chickpea Batter $14
My Take
Byblos is an other Charles Khabouth creation which fits his  typical blueprint of huge fanfare, lively atmosphere, abundant space, fancy cocktails, well dressed waitstaff, nicely balanced pretension and hit and miss food.  As a whole, I usually enjoy the experience but always leave with a few criticisms. Let me explain what I mean by balanced pretension.  I have no issues with people taking pride in their craft and not hiding behind the veil of impartiality.  I had a great discussion with the barkeeps about the Keg Mansion, cheque averages and noise levels.  We bounced thoughts on the local eateries and agreed or agreed to disagree on many of them; whether it was the  noise level, skimpy portions or best anchovy dish in town. That said, they are quite confident about their own joint.    This pride is the foundation of the Khabouth brand. Whether it’s Patria, Weslodge or La Societe, you leave feeling a little cooler even if some of the food is hit and miss. Byblos is no different.

 

Byblos on Urbanspoon

Sharing Inferiority and Ghosts of Ronaldo Past at Chiado

Portugal reminds me of Canada in that both have major inferiority complexes.  Canada lags behind the Americans in important things like Olympic gold medals, cheap book prices and more recent the value of the dollar. The states also have more restaurant chains, larger portion sizes, cheaper chicken nuggets and more childhood and adult obesity (although Canada is making valiant efforts to try and catch up on the latter).

Portugal, on the other hand, is overshadowed by Italy, Spain and France.  In a CNN travel report in 2012 examining the world’s most romantic nationalities, Spain, Italy and France  placed 1,3, and 4 respectively while Portugal did not even make the top 10, finishing behind the Americans, Irish and Vietnamese.

On the soccer pitch, Portugal historically lags behind their European rivals.  Italy, France and Spain have all won european and world championships whereas Portugal is still seeking its elusive first win. There was some redemption recently when Portugal gained a world cup entry with an impressive second leg win over the Swedes. In addition,  Portuguese phenom Cristiano Ronaldo took back the Ballon D’Or, the award for European soccer player of the year. Things are looking up.

When looking at Toronto’s dining landscape, the big three reign supreme.  Year after year, Italian, French and Spanish restaurants top critic’s lists of best in the GTA and many of the new trendy restaurants that have opened recently are Spanish tapas joints like Patria, Carmen and Bar Isabel. When asked about the big three, Joe Q Foodie will easily cite the fact that the cuisine is all about respecting the fresh ingredients and using simple cooking methods.  When asked about Portuguese cuisine, however, he will use his high school geography knowledge and assume fish. He faintly remembers Siri Siri sauce as he nervously shuffles his iPhone in his cardigan pocket wishing she was there to help (afterwards he secretly asks her only to be disappointed that she only brings up the wikipedia page for “sauce” but with more investigation discovers it’s actually piri piri sauce).

After a pipe burst at Adega, my group was rerouted to Chiado on College street.  It’s a quaint, attractive venue adorned with colourful paintings and well dressed waitstaff. We were seated promptly and received a very good explanation of the menu.  One of the signatures of the service is the presentation of a fish platter; a visual aid boasting the wide array of available choices from the sea.  Included in the mix were three whole fish choices.  For the indecisive, they also offer a tasting plate featuring three cuts chosen at the chef’s discretion.

Like soccer, the wines of Portugal are overshadowed by the products of Italy and France (I will politely leave Spain out of the equation).  My experience with Portuguese wine has been limited to my mother buying one bottle of Mateus a year, having one glass and reserving the rest to clean silverware or something other household use.  I was pleased to see a huge variety of wines from the mother county featured on the menu and quite enjoyed the poppy, fruity Luis Pato wine made with the Marie Gomes grape. I’m a sucker for a fringy type wine (I love Austrian Gruner for example) so I really liked it…maybe a little too much.

The amuse-bouche was a beautiful cheese served with a balsamic reduction and drizzled with honey.  It worked much better than my picture did.

Amuse Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey
Amuse-Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey

For an appetizer I ordered the grouper carpacio atop white asparagus, topped with pine nuts and seasoned with citrus.  It was quite a sizable portion and was more like a ceviche. It wasn’t the prettiest dish and probably would have benefited from a little colour and/or spice.  Maybe some green asparagus instead of white might have worked.  Other than the appearance, I enjoyed it but there was way too much.

Grouper Carpacio $16
Grouper Carpacio $16

Also at the table was the grilled squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks.  It was a very well executed dish and rivaled any calamari those Italians make.  Once again, it was simply presented but lacked a visual punch.

Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15
Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15

I like the thought of playing with my food so I tackled the whole ocean perch.  I was also sold on the promise of a large and tasty cheek.  The fish arrived with the token potato and vegetable side.  The ocean perch is quite bony so I felt a bit like a nervous surgical intern, especially when I offered a piece to a colleague at the table and failed to remove all the bones. I think the waiter sensed my frustration and politely offered to remove the other cheek for me. With my knife and fork he worked with a surgical precision and pulled out a large cheek which made the whole experience worth it.

Ocean Perch
Whole Ocean Perch

I had an indecisive friend sitting beside me who ordered the sampling plate.  Much to my delight, she was kind enough to share a little of her octopus, monkfish and skate.  The skate and octopus were delicious but the monkfish stole the show. It was easily the best thing I ate all night.  I was tempted to cause a distraction to swipe the remaining filet but kept my composure. As an afterthought I should have showed her a picture of a monkfish and asked her if she actually felt comfortable eating one of the ugliest fish on the planet. Damn hindsight.

Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster
Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster

For dessert, I went for the molotof which was described as a light meringue of egg whites served with vanilla cream sauce.  The irony of this is that I think meringue is one of the most ridiculous food trends going but I was intrigued by the promise of the lightness compared to the brick hard meringue served everywhere else. It was a good call. Unlike the starters, it was presented pretty.  It was light and delicious and my friend cashed in the IOU on the monkfish and scooped a few bites.

Molotof $12
Molotof $12

She ordered the peras cozidas (poached pears with Madeira wine, citrus, cinnamon and saffron). The pears were attractive, fresh and laced with punchy, spicy flavour.

$12
Peras Cozidas $12

My Take

I don’t mean to pick on Portugal but they are an easy target just like us Canadians (plus I haven’t forgiven them for ending England’s slim world cup dreams in 2006).  The food, however, is underrated.  It has the same philosophy as Spain and Italy in that it focuses on the freshness of the ingredients.  As for Chiado, it’s a cozy place which nicely represents the beauty of what the ocean and Portugal has to offer.  I agree with the reviews which question the prices but I can’t agree with those who call the service cold and pretentious.  I found it professional and if anything confident, especially when he dissected my fish with the precision of Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking of which, a few more monkfish filets may make me forgive him for scoring  one of the penalty kicks that knocked England out of the world cup for good 8 years ago.

Chiado on Urbanspoon

The 39 year-old Virgin: Adventures in Barcelona.

Yes, this is my first trip to Europe as I wasn’t privy to travel in my younger years. So, after almost 4 decades, I crossed the Atlantic, landing in Barcelona, Spain. Having spent the better part of two days there, I made the following observations:

1. People in Spain walk slow.
2. Wifi is difficult to find.
3. Everybody wears scarves.
4. A beer and sandwich combo is cheaper than a soda and sandwich combo at the airport.
5. The architecture is fantastic.
6. You need your room key to turn on your lights.
7. You can buy almost anything on the street including beer, umbrellas, street food, flowers etc.
8.The food is pretty good.

Since this is a food blog, I will focus on the latter. The food choices are endless. Every nook and cranny is jammed with small eateries, each promising a special variety of decor, personality and of course, food. The restaurants range from off the menu to choosing off a tray under a pane of glass. I can best describe it as simple. No garnish, no explanation, just the food.

A Tale of Two Tapas.

Ciudad Condal had a long wait but I was seated within 30 minutes.

Their flauta was probably the simplest yet the best thing I ate in the two days I was in Barcelona. Simply, it’s  chorizo inside a small loaf of bread for about three euros. The crunch of the bread followed by the rich chorizo was perfect. I put a little machego cheese inside my second one which added some saltiness as well.

The patatas bravas are Spain’s version of poutine. They are basically potatoes covered in a creamy aioli and hot sauce. Also of honourable mention were the fried Padron peppers, simply prepared with salt and olive oil. The nature of these  peppers are generally mild but a few on the plate pack a hot punch, leading to the term “Unos Picans Otros No” meaning some are hot, some are not. I was lucky to get a few biters.  A great dish was the potatoes topped with fried eggs (Huevos Cabreados).  It is a simple but delicious dish; matchstick fried potatoes topped with soft fried eggs cut table side.

I’m a huge flan fan. The creamy spanish flan was a nice ending  and was not overly sweet despite the abundant caramelized sugar.

The service was fast, friendly and efficient.

Chorizo Flautas at Ciudad
Patatas Bravas
Padron Peppers at Ciudad
Huevos Cabreados (Matchstick Potatoes with Egg-Yum)
Caramel Flan at Ciudad

I’m always drawn by places with good reputations and high Zagat ratings. Tapas 24 fit the category in both regards. Much different than Ciudad Condal, Tapas 24 is situated in a basement just off the beaten path of the tourist section.  It was about 11 pm and the place was packed. When I was seated I noticed a much smaller, yet more expensive menu than Ciudad. It was certainly more run down but was filled with character. I was seated at the bar so I could see the open kitchen which was run old school, with orders called from paper tickets stuck on magnetic boards and run like a well-oiled machine.

I started with the standard patatas bravas which were shaped like fries and looked a bit a bit dismal compared to the chunky potatoes at Ciudad.  It was  followed by the bikini (a bit of an ironic name given it’s a grilled ham and cheese sandwich). In this case if was flavoured with some shaved black truffle which was subtle as opposed to overpowering (it’s a fine line when it come to truffle). However, it was a bit imbalanced since the smoked ham I so enjoy was drowned out by the buffalo mozzarella. It was basically  a nine Euro fancy grilled cheese. I finished with calamares (squid) recommended by a guy who looked and dressed like he should don a red cape and run away from bulls. It was simply presented, seasoned with olive oil and when mixed with the bitter, leaking squid ink provided  a good balance. Not sure it was worth 16 euro, but it was certainly unique.

Tapas 24 Patatas Flauvas
Tapas 24 Bikini Sandwich
Tapas 24 Calamares (Baby Squid)

I didn’t realize Spain would have such good ice cream. In particular was a place called Belgious. Situated in what seemed to be a shady back alley along the goth section of the ramblas (maybe it was also the fact it was past midnight), my broken Spanish saw the word exotic and ice cream together and I was sold. I was able to sample a number of flavours including gin and tonic, szechuan pepper, curry and cannibus..yes cannibus. I ended up settling on a combination of thyme (my favourite spice) and Modena vinegar with raspberries. Delish! No picture though..a bit too shady to pull the Blackberry out.

On another note, there are great markets in Barcelona. I managed to visit two during my travels.  La Concepcio is located not far from downtown Barcelona.  It’s a smaller market with a wonderful seafood selection (the meat and chicken isn’t bad either) . In fact, you don’t even smell the fish despite the fact you’re surrounded by it.   Both offered a wide variety of meats, chicken and some of the best fish I have ever seen. La Boqueria is perhaps the most well-known and busiest market and was certainly bustling when I was there.  Once again, the seafood was amazing, complete with huge oysters and fresh fish butchered on the spot. There was a variety of prepared foods such squid on a skewer and fresh juices.  I quenched my palate with a mango coconut juice for a couple of euros.

Oysters at the Market
Prawns at the Market
Produce at the Market
Squid on a Skewer at the Market

I hit the George Payne bar as well which offers great soccer, confusing drink specials and not so good food.