Holy Alioli! I had Croquetas at Coqueta

When it comes to the restaurant scene, San Francisco is a well-oiled machine. It is a mecca for receiving culinary awards such as Michelin stars and James beard nominations. As a result, there is unity among eateries in this posh destination. For example, seemingly every restaurant website in the city has an sf on the end of the restaurant name on their website domain.  It’s a badge which lets the world know that “we are in San Francisco and you’re not”.  Take http://www.coquetasf.com for example. It’s the brain child of celebrity chef  Michael Chiarello and aims to bring trendy  Spanish tapas to the tourist-ridden piers of the city by the bay. This effort was awarded with a nomination for a James Beard award for best new restaurant in 2014 although in the end it was edged out by Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.  I anxiously awaited the one month window to arrive so I could vigilantly get online and make a reservation.  Since the lunch and dinner menus are similar, I booked at noon to take full advantage of a sunny San Francisco day by the pier.  The decor follows the mold of many other San Francisco eateries in that it’s well decorated in a rustic yet modern fashion. In the kitchen area, shelves of jars and bottles sit beside pots that I’m not sure are ever used.  Place settings are available along a long marble bar while the rest of the restaurant consists of nice, high hardwood tables.  There is also area outside as well which provides protection from the sun but a nice view of the bustling pier and sparkling water.

Coqueta's Interior
Coqueta’s Interior

Like most tapas menus, temptation is plenty.  There are hot and cold plates with an array and meets, cheeses and vegetables.  What immediately caught my eyes were the pintxos; bite-size skewers carried around by the staff in an effort to challenge will power.  The platter was an attractive mix (from left to right) of  quail egg, asparagus, boquerones, chorizo and Serrano ham.  AT $2.50 a pop, they were well constructed with a nice combination of salt, sweet and acid.  To my surprise, the quail egg was the least enjoyable, while the Serrano ham with Manchego  cheese and the apricot conserva  was fantastic, offering fundamental spanish flavours and textures all in one bite.

Pixotes 3.50
Various Pintxos $3.50

It’s a daunting task taking four people with very different tastes to agree on a tapas spread, especially with a menu as complex as Coqueta’s. Anybody who has dined with me knows I’ll go for the eggs every time, especially with memories of the  Huevos Cabreados I had in Barcelona a few years back.  I went for the “Sunny side-up” Huevo With Shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing ($13).  The egg was cooked nicely and shrimp, despite the size and skimpy portion,  were seasoned and cooked well.  The potatoes were white and a bit flaccid and literally paled in comparison to their Barcelona counterparts. I think if you’re going to mash an egg into matchstick potatoes, they need to be able to hold their integrity to a degree.

Shrimp
“Sunnny side-up Huevo with shrimp, crispy  dressing potato and chorizo dressing  ($13)

A tapas meal is not complete without some Spanish poutine, also known as patatas bravas $8.  Although in some ways I’m a conservative when it comes to adherence to traditional dishes.  It’s rare that I make any food the first time without adhering to the traditional way of doing things. So, I’m a little skeptical when I get a haute cuisine version of a very traditional dish.  Hand dug potatoes replaced the wedges I’m accustomed to. The normally messy presentation of a piquant sauce and creamy alioli was  subbed for a tomato  base in a side dish and a white dollop atop a freshly dug potato.

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas $8

The Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon (crusted Chicken and English pea croquetas with cured cara-cara orange) for $9 were ok.  Keep in mind I’m impartial  to croquetas to begin with and these were no exception.  Decent taste. The cara cara orange tried to cut into the creamy fried mix but it’s still a croqutea.

Croquetas
Croquetas de Pollo Chicharon $9

The Ensalada de Remolacha (Roasted baby beets with Sausalito watercress, beet vinaigreta, tierra and cabrales blue cheese snow $9) was a pretty dish which combined purple and gold beets with the green and white of watercress and cheese respectively.  It tasted pretty too.

Beets
Ensalada de Remolacha $9

The Calamares a la Plancha (Whole Monterey calamari on the plancha with onion jam and squid ink alioli) $10 was a creative yet authentic dish.  The  calamari was tender and the ink allowed for a little fun and tasty play time.  The jam was a surprising but delicious addition to the mix.

calamari
Calamares a la Plancha $10

I love deviled eggs, so my vote was for the Huevos Nacional (deviled eggs filled with spring pea, smoked pimentón alioli, on pickled saffron potatos and olive oil poached Bonito $7).  Beautifully presented, it was easily the most complex deviled egg I have eaten.  It was almost confusing although using a pickled potato as a pedestal is a tasty and practical idea I not might use myself the next time I make the picnic favorites myself.

Eggs
Huevos Nacional $7

The generous use of delicious fish highlighted the salmon ahumado (Smoked salmon queso fresco and truffle honey-$8).  Piled on top of fluffy cheese and sweetened ever so slightly, it was an interesting spin on bagel and lox.   Thankfully, the truffle was subtle and didn’t overpower the star of the dish and I found the sweetness from the honey instead of the normal use of salt from something like a caper worked well.

Salmon
Salmon Ahumado $8

Another pretty dish was the Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco (Wood grilled green and purple Delta asparagus with coal roasted romesco salsa, raw Manchego and Marcona almonds $14).  There was a smokiness to it that was tamed by the colourful accents.  The salsa was delicious.

Asparagus
Esparragos Trigeros con Romesco $14

The most carnivorous tapas order was the  Albondigas a la Feria (Grilled duck and pork meatballs with tart cherry and tempranillo salsa and crispy shallots $12).  I really enjoyed the flavour of the duck and pork together although a little greasier than I would have liked.  The chefs were stingy on the shallots which was a bit disappointing because it would have added a crunch to the meatball.

Coqueta Meatballs
Albondigas a la Feria $12

My Take

Eating at  a restaurant is like watching a movie. First, you need a plot.  Coqueta entered the already bustling San Francisco dining scene by offering Spanish fare with a Californian twist.  Second, you need a director, preferably a big name. Michael Chiarello certainly fits the bill. Next, you need to enhance the plot with a combination of a great setting and cast.  Coqueta’s decor and service were excellent. The waitress, for example, modified the size of the standard order to accommodate the four us (so we had enough but didn’t need to order two servings) with no issues at all   Since the James Beard awards are like the  Academy Awards of all things food, I was excited to dine in a restaurant who was shortlisted for best new restaurant nationally.  However, sometimes when I watch a Oscar-nominated movie,  I get lost in the complex plot and end up missing  the point.  A few dishes at Coqueta were like that;  it was a good experience  but a few dishes were confusing and overly complex.  The experience was helped by great service and a good location. Like the movies that don’t quite win an Oscar, I was curious to experience those who were just honored to be nominated.

Coqueta on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Midtown:Cava

Cava is midtown Toronto’s answer to Spanish tapas.  Tucked down a small alley off of Yonge street, Cava offers a modest but comfortable environment featuring a plentiful array of over 30 menu options. For the most part it errs on the traditional side, offering tapas dishes reminiscent of the mother land.  In addition, there a few twists, with choices reflective of the current Toronto dining scene. It has received a number of accolades including number 5 on Joanne Kates’  2012 top 100 list.

Must

For a guy who normally does not like olives,  Cava surprised me.  They were like candy.  I can’t pinpoint if it was the temperature, the saltiness or the variety. but I found myself eating one after another.  The price point was a very fair $3.

Warm Olives ($2.95)
Warm Olives ($2.95)

The venison anticucho ($12.50) with a warm red cabbage salad featured extremely tender cuts of well-seasoned meat on a a bed of red cabbage. Each morsel was cooked a perfect medium rare.  It’s one of those dishes in which you only order one and after the first bite think you should or ordered two…or three…or four.  It makes you want to break every rule of tapas etiquette; You keep the plate at close range and encourage everybody to eat everything else while you subtly eat the entire thing. The cabbage salad worked but I would use it as a diversion, offering it to the table and suggesting that it’s just as good as the entire venison skewer you just devoured.

Translation: Anticucho- Cut stew meat usually skewered and served with a variety of traditional spices.

Venison Anticucho ($12.50)
Venison Anticucho ($12.50)

The eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75) was well constructed and well executed.  Hints of the eggplant’s bitterness, sweetness of the honey, the tomatillo’s sourness and the salty richness of the cheese completely painted the tongue’s hotspots.  If anything, it was a little rich but was balanced nicely otherwise.

Translation: Queso Fresco-  A soft, unaged mild white cheese.

Eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75)
Eggplant with queso fresco, honey and tomatillo ($9.75)

Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)?  How can one go wrong? Actually..one could  but Cava produced.  The chard maintained its  integrity despite being suspended within a plethora of cheese.  The poached egg was perfectly cooked and vamped up the dish in a way only an egg yolk can.  I recommend sharing this one given there are a lot of rich flavours and a few bites will suffice.

Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)
Swiss chard gratin with manchego and a poached egg ($9.50)

Maybe

The salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75) was solid.  The salt in the cod was not overwhelming and the cake had adequate moisture and good texture. The tasty piperade was a bit messy and rather one-toned in flavour, missing a punch of heat or acid that might have  helped the dish a bit.

Translation: Piperade- a Basque soup made with various ingredients usually including the Espelette pepper (a mild pepper cultivated in the part of France).

Salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75)
Salt cod cake with piperade and chipotle crema ($12.75)

The cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and  Spanish saffron  ($9.50) was a nice rendition of the middle eastern staple.  None of the ingredients were overpowering and blended together for a medley of sweet, spice, sulphur and salt.

Translation: Kaboucha- a winter squash also referred to as a Japanese pumpkin.

Cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and  Spanish saffron  ($9.50)
Cauliflower and kabocha squash tagine with medjool dates and Spanish saffron ($9.50)

The brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95) were tasty.  Neither spectacular nor bland,  the garlic was a nice change from the normal pork fat laden veggies served at most of the competing establishments.

Brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95)
Brussel sprouts with black garlic ($8.95)

The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($11) was as much a mouthful to eat as it is to say.That’s not to say it wasn’t a good mouthful.  There is a bit of an art and science to eating this.  The lemon is tart and needs the sweet meringue and the earthiness of the pistachio to round out the dish so a careful spoonful is needed to incorporate all the ingredients.  The cake was slightly spicy and the saffron was not overpowering.  The poached pears were wonderful by themselves but a bit of an odd addition to the plate from both a taste and visual appearance.

The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($12)
The lemon-pistachio baked alaska with saffron pepper cake and sherry poached pears ($11)

The coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12) came with a 20 minute wait….I was given adequate warning.  When it did arrive it  appeared  more like a souffle. It was fluffy and light  with a wonderful mouth feel. The confusion came with the addition of the pineapple.  Although it had a sweetness to it, the combination with the custard didn’t make sense, especially when topped with the acidic sorbet. The use of cherries or sweetened berries would have made this a near perfect dessert.

Translation: Clafouti- a french flan usually containing fruit.

Translation: Sea Buckthorn- a fruit similar to a gooseberry or cranberry grown in part of Europe, Asia and across Canada.

Coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12)
Coconut pineapple clafouti with sea buckthorn sorbet ($12)

Mundane

There was very little mundane about the food.  It would have been nice, however, to have a cava-english dictionary to interpret some of the dishes.  I was left to feel a bit inferior if I wasn’t clear on certain dishes, especially since there were creative liberties taken on many of the dishes offered (ie piperade and clafouti).    Not that the service was bad, it was a bit pretentious.

On another note the  food was fairly expensive. It’s amazing how quickly pricy tapas adds up.  In addition, there were about half a dozen red and white wines by the glass.  The minimum price for a 5 oz glass was $10 and went up to $25 for a 8 oz glass. This is not to say that the wine is not of a good quality, however it seems to be a bit of a gouge for somebody who simply wants a glass of wine (eg. $23 for an 8 oz glass of a wine which is $19/bottle).  That being said, the bottles offer much more of a variety with a wider variety of  price points.

My Take

Cava is a bit of a hidden treasure in midtown Toronto.  It’s a cozy environment but clearly its focus is on the food.  The large menu can be overwhelming as it is full of descriptions and definitions that are truly foreign to many. On the other hand, I could go back again  and eat 8-10 different choices and be totally satisfied. I barely scratched the menu’s surface in that I didn’t order many of the traditional dishes (scallops, octopus, tripe and of course, paella) or the modern menu favorites (sweetbreads, brisket and sablefish).    There are plenty of vegetarian choices which sometimes is an issue with other small plate establishments.  The beer selection  is scarce and wine by the glass choices are limited and on the pricy side.  The desserts are served in a very shareable size and are an enterprise in creativity which offer extreme flavour and texture variations all within the same bite.

Translation: Go to cava, be decisive and bring your wallet….and your appetite.

Cava on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Patria

Nestled behind Weslodge is the newest experiment by the same owners,  Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth.  Many eateries in Toronto have adapted the small plate concept but few have tackled traditional Spanish tapas.  In addition to the food, Patria (meaning homeland) has a decor showcasing beautiful art highlighted by a full tapestry along one wall, ceiling high windows along the other and modern fixtures and trinkets in between. The restaurant was bustling with a diverse and busy crowd but the noise level was not excessive.  The service philosophy is reminiscent of my experience in Barcelona; quick and efficient.  My water glass (even though she wasn’t too happy we opted for tap water) was rarely close to empty and the finished dishes were removed quickly.

Must 

I’ve had some bad sangria in Toronto establishments which define it is as  nothing more than watered down table wine with ice and a few orange slices.  Patria returns this iconic drink to its rightful position, although at a price ($30/jug).  The flavour was crisp and vibrant, accented by pieces of fresh fruit peppered throughout an abundance of ice in the  glass (take this as a warning…ask for minimal ice in advance if you don’t like that sort of thing).  As mentioned above, the service was amazing.  I didn’t pour any of my own during the entire meal.

Sangria($30)

The ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo was a delicious salad combining simple but quality ingredients (goat cheese, avocado, almonds)  tossed in a fragrant quince dressing.  Like a good tapas dish, it’s special in its simplicity, offering a freshness and crispness which is a perfect complement to the remainder of the menu.

Ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo ($12)

The Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (oxtail stuffed peppers) topped the list of  tapas choices. The sweet pepper was brimming with a deceivingly large amount of moist, well seasoned meat and accented nicely with salty, shaved manchego cheese, justifying the $12 price tag.

Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (peppers with oxtail)($12)

I’m a huge fan of serrano ham and the offering here lived up to my standards. It was fresh, fatty and not overly salted.  I was possibly biased by the prep station on the way in, which showcased the preparation of the  ham, which is shaved on demand.  It was particularly good with the DO Murcia al Vino cheese and sourdough bread served with a chunk of quince jam.

Serrano Ham ($10) and Olives ($4)

On occasion, I get a craving for chocolate pudding.  Perhaps this was the night, because I thoroughly enjoyed Patria’s offering. It was garnished with coarse salt and a sugar orb which you crack to release a small amount of olive oil over the pudding, adding a unique but  appealing third dimension of taste and flavour.

Chocolate Pudding with Olive Oil Orb ($6)

Maybe

Fragrant saffron highlights the Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew), a rather odd and less traditional tapas choice.  The highlight of this dish is the migras (bread crumbs) which add a brilliant crunch to the otherwise textureless stew.  Simply put, if you like saffron, order this dish.

Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew)($7)

The patatas bravas con heuvos fritos (potatoes with spicy tomato and an egg) are a spin on the classic tapas dish normally served with an aioli but in this case also was served with an egg .  In the first attempt, the egg was overdone but they quickly replaced it with a second which was much better. The potatoes were hot, the tomato was spicy.  All in all, it was a decent dish. 

Patatas Bravas ($8)

The pan con tomate with manchego seemed like a modified version of bruschetta as opposed to the traditional spanish dish which uses tomato as a seasoning (the tomato is rubbed onto the bread) more than a main component of the dish.  I’ll be honest, I’m not a tomato fan but I’m also a bit bothered by the deviation from the traditional dish as well. 

Pan con Tomate ($6)and Manchego Cheese ($8) with Quince Jam

I ordered octopus off the “specials” menu at a pricy $15.  Seven bite size pieces were served on tender potatoes on a bed of olive oil and paprika.   The potatoes were cooked perfectly, but the main event not so much. It was overcooked and therefore  a bit “tough” to justify the price.

Octopus ($15) on special menu

The churros served with a dulce de leche were crunchy and soft at the same time and were decent but not mind-blowing.

Churros ($6) with Dulce de Leche

Mundane

The croquetas de manchego ( leek and cheese croquettes) are a spin on this popular tapas dish which are usually served stuffed with ham or chicken.  The inside was a gooey mess of soft manchego goat cheese with only a hint of leek.  A bit of spicy tomato may have helped salvage the dish but the rich and creamy aioli did nothing to accent the already rich and creamy croquette. 

Croquetas de Manchego ($7)

In general, the service was fantastic but I was a bit bothered by the blatant upselling, whether it was a push for more dishes or more expensive ones. I was told that we didn’t order enough food and when I suggested that we could order again if we wanted to, the response was that they preferred to submit orders only once.  Despite this fact, the dishes did not arrive in a fluid and consistent fashion and it would have been quite simple to order more as needed.  In the end, there was too much food.   

My Take

Patria reminds me of a spanish exchange student who has come over with the intent on sticking to their traditional roots but getting caught up in the ways of the locals.  The pan con tomate became a dish similar to the bruschetta served by all the cool Italians down the road.  The croqueta mimics the cheese sticks you can get at any  roadhouse dwellers along Front St.  Patria even wants to fit in with the carnivores, offering a $65 ribeye steak to match the likes of Ruth’s Chris.  It’s a bit of an identity crisis.  Even the service is a  bit confusing, characterized by friendly staff, continuous water service and quick dish clearance while being upsold  like you’re in a used car lot. Unlike its patria , Toronto’s Patria has certainly adapted to the Toronto restaurant scene, pricing most menu items on the high end of acceptable. Whether you stick will small dishes, pastas ($16-18) or the paellas (around $30),  don’t expect a cheap evening.

In the end, despite the minor mistakes and issues,  Patria worked hard to remedy any of the problems and overall  I left very satisfied, reminding me that in the end a  happy customer is a fundamental priority in this business regardless of what side of the ocean you’re on.

 
Patria 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.