I was in the mood for sushi so I opened up my Zomato app in downtown Toronto. Not surprisingly, a 100 places popped up (including a place I think was called 100 sushi). I was quickly grouping them into a number of categories:
Cheap, no frills places where a California roll runs you $4 and you’re lucky if you find anything fancier than a dynamite roll on the menu.
All you can eat joints where quantity usually beats quality for at least $25.
Omakase, where you hope the chef gives you all you can eat for a good chunk of change.
Moderately priced destinations boasting nice decors, signature rolls and even some uni if it’s in season.
Places were sushi is an afterthought among a number of other bite size delights such as izakaya.
Super expensive (ie. access to expense account, trying to impressive your friends or hoping to get laid) locales.
Before becoming zomato, urbanspoon used to have an app which looked like a slot machine. You’d identify an area, type of food and price range and voila…it would spit out an option. It was a brainless and chancy endevour but I kind of miss it, especially considering it now required me to actually ponder my options.
I quickly omitted option one since I have an expense report and my son, whose sushi diet consists solely of California rolls, wasn’t with me. I also omitted six because my expense account isn’t that big, I was alone and not looking to hook up. Two was off the table because it’s January and my Christmas girth was telling me all you can eat was not on option. Three would take too long and when your primary objective is sushi five just doesn’t cut it. This left option three which I further narrowed down to Yuzunohana, the relative longstanding Adelaide street favorite.
At first the service was steallar. It was a chilly and I was quickly offered some green tea as I was seated at the sushi counter. As I peered over the menu, I was offered a spinach amuse bouche which was quite fresh and delicate. I decided on a few of the chef’s sashimi choices including King Salmon and an order of uni. Both came quickly and were ridiculously fresh and beautifully presented. I was reminded once again why uni is one of the most unique foods around. It was silky and naughty.
King Salmon Sashimi $8
Uni Sashimi $13
I also went with my sushi standards; miso soup, gyoza and spicy tuna rolls along with their house specialty yuzu roll . The dumplings were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto. The miso was spot on as well. The rolls were acceptable but average. I was a bit disappointed about both the taste and appearance of the spicy rolls. The yuzu rolls (which was topped with torched salmon and scallop) were nicely presented but were overly sweet for my liking. With my tea long gone and my dishes empty, I did need to wait a bit for the bill which seemed to correspond with the surge of online orders from uber eats, foodie, hurrier and whatever other food delivery services that might exist. The ground zero of assembly was right beside me and the paper bags were flying out the door as I was ignored just a little bit.
Miso Soup $2
Spicy Tuna Roll $8
Yuzu Roll $15
As I was sitting there, I had a little deja yuzu. I’m not sure how long Yuzu No Hana has been around, but I swear I went here with a buddy in the 90s. Throughout the night I felt like the Flash or another tv character who has frequent recollections of past events. I recall we were smashed and decided we were going to drop in for a quick sake. I remember being told that they weren’t a bar and that we needed to get food in order to have a drink.
Although I wasn’t overly thrilled by the sushi rolls the gyoza, sashimi and miso soup were excellent. All in all I enjoyed the experience and it met the aforementioned criteria for a mid-range sushi joint even without the help of the urbanspoon slot machine.
There has been a definite evolution in the process behind making a restaurant reservation over the past decade. Years ago, you either showed up live or called ahead and a friendly person on the other end would scratch your name into a book. Now, the lucrative online reservation systems has blossomed and many restaurants are left to choose which system fits their business needs the best. In the end, the choice appears relatively seamless to the patron, but there are some interesting observations to make about this cutthroat business.
Some restaurants have gotten rather creative with the reservation process. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, for example, offers reservations for dates two months later. The reservation process starts at midnight and I will admit I woke up at 3 am to try and secure a spot but was left unsuccessful and had to stand in line with the rest of the peasants. Others restaurants are asking for credit cards in advance and threaten charges if there is a cancellation too close to the reservation time.
Congratulations, you are a successful restaurant who is either relishing in the fact that people line up to get in or your establishment is so tiny that you have no problem hitting your capacity on a nightly basis and don’t need a system. You’re a pain in the ass because if you are looking to entertain clients, have a birthday or plan to propose to your girlfriend, you have to hope to hell that the stars align and you can get a seat without having to wait two hours. You probably will only seat people once the whole party arrives and you likely take cash only as well.
Reservation by Phone
Yes, there are restaurants which still see a phone as something you talk on as opposed to checking in, tagging friends and taking pictures. This system is not conducive to those who have a whimsical desire to make a reservation at 3 am. In all likelihood, restaurants who subscribe to phone only reservations are:
long-standing eateries that have been using a reservation book since 1960 and damn well won’t change now.
owned by control freaks who don’t think a computer could never do what a human can.
likely to still hand-write bills and frown when you insist that the stub on the bottom is not a sufficient receipt for business purposes and begrudgingly copy one by hand upon request.
OpenTable is the patriarch (or matriarch) of online reservations systems. Once a monopoly, they were known for offering bonus points and a lack of a 7 pm slot on almost any night of the week at some restaurants. Although they still own the lion share of the business (but still only have 322 accounts in Toronto proper), they have responded to recent competition by undergoing a major rebrand focused on pillars which include warm and welcoming, inspired and reliable and fresh and current although it would be naive to think that all restaurants they work with have the same philosophy.You still get the opportunity to review the restaurant after and get the subtly threatening email if you don’t show up threatening that you might get banned if such indiscretions continue (even if the restaurant fails to record your attendance). Open table restaurants tend to include:
those who fare better on tripadvisor than yelp. Tripadvisor uses open table as their reservations system.
conglomerates such as O and B and The Khabouth empire since you can refer to affiliated restaurants in the event your first choice isn’t available.
those whose names start with numbers or the letter a since they are listed in alphabetical order when searched by region.
pricey restaurants in expensive hotels and those who wish they were pricey restaurants in expensive hotels.
Now owned and operated by yelp, this reservation system is less centralized. Seatme does not have a master website like OpenTable but is meant to attract small business owners who either find open table too difficult, expensive or cumbersome. Unlike urbanspoon and tripadvisor, the yelp site itself does not pimp their online reservation system by embedding it in the reviews. Instead of going to a central site, one gets prompted to reserve via seatme when they go to the restaurant’s site looking for a table. On the consumer side, it is hardly distinguishable from other reservation systems but on the vendor’s side it promises a better and cheaper experience than Open Table.
At the end of 2014, yellow media (the yellow pages people) announced the acquisition of both bookenda and dine.TO. Bookenda is a online reservation that is gaining steam in pockets across Canada including the GTA. It’s membership is impressive; Pai, Thoroughbred, Rasa, People’s eatery, Ruby Watchco and Edulis are among the hot destinations under the bookenda umbrella. Like OpenTable, there is a reward program. Instead of saving points in the hope of someday attaining an elusive dining certificate, bookenda offers a variety of reward opportunities for as little as 400 points. Points are not only awarded for booking online but also if you post your reservation on facebook or make a comment about your experience on their site afterwards.
Long gone are the days of picking up the phone and dialing a rotary phone during business hours in the hope of securing a 7 pm reservation at your favourite eatery. Now, you can simply go on a smart phone, tablet or computer at anytime of day and secure anything but a 7pm reservation at any number of establishments. In some cases, you can be recognized for your loyalty with points which may lead to a glass of wine, a free appetizer or the ultimate prize of an OpenTable dining certificate.
I picture that scene from Anchorman when the rival broadcasters including the likes of Vince Vaughan and Tim Robbins assemble in the parking lot for a good old-fashioned brouhaha. In the restaurant world, the clans would be divided based on their reservation system. In one corner would be the no reservation group who ironically would need to wait outside the lot until space in the lot became available and the whole group was there. Their main artillery would be dirty looks and ignorance. The reservation by phone group may sport tin foil hats to prevent satellite interference and carry archaic weaponry reminiscent of Game of Thrones. The OpenTable entourage (although they would not likely show around peak dining hours) would be the largest, led by Michael Bonacini and includes fans of tripadvisor and urbanspoon wearing “Keep Calm and Use Opentable” T-shirts. Seatme peeps would be scattered throughout the parking lot like lone vigilantes. The bookenda bevy would likely be led by Lynn Crawford with patrons wearing red t-shirts symbolizing Canada which spell out “Bookenda is the New OpenTable” scrawled across the front in large white writing as they sipped free wine they got for 400 points.
In the end, the competitive world of online reservations has made it easier than ever for patrons to plan in advance when eating out. Of course, there are still a number of restaurants who feel that it is an honour and privilege to dine there and don’t mind making people wait for the experience. Otherwise, with some flexibility, one can plan a dinner without too much of a headache regardless of the system. A quick call to the restaurant might be necessary to secure the elusive 6-8 pm time slot but otherwise it is a pretty easy to book, show up and reap the rewards of a completed meal. You even have the opportunity, good or bad, to enlighten fellow diners about what you ate and how the experience was….without the need for pitchforks.
I was recently contacted by Steven Chung, the mind behind Placemark, a new food app promising to make remembering the places you want to eat a lot easier. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not as tech savvy as many. Yes, I have a Facebook and Twitter account, but don’t post as much as I should. I’ve been exposed to Instagram, Foursquare, Delicious and Pinterest but I must say I don’t keep up with them.
I’m also guilty at doing extensive internet searches of new Toronto restaurants only to forget them a few hours later. Did I see it on blogTO, Toronto Life, or on the site of one of the many bloggers out there? Sites like Urbanspoon has helped, allowing diners to add restaurants to a wish list for quick reference when looking for a night out. What it can’t do, however, is remind you why you liked that restaurant in the first place.
Enter Placemark, the new app which allows you to tag specific web pages to a catalogue you create. Not only will it save the restaurant’s name and address, but it will pin it on a map and reference to the website which drew you to the restaurant to in the first place. For example, if you read my blog about the lobster bisque at Richmond Station or the boquerones at Bar Isabel, you won’t just remember WHERE you want to go, but WHY you want to go!
It’s easy to use as well. When you sign up (go to http://www.placemarkhq.com/hello), you can add a button to your web browser and simply click it when you see a page about a place you like. The app does the rest. When you check your catalogue, it will indicate what you marked, where it is on a map and remind you of the webpage that drew your interest in the first place.
If you click on the “Toronto Map” tab on my blog, you can see Placemark in action. You can click on the restaurant name to see where it is on the map and see the link to my review.
For any questions about Placemark, please contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, the next time you see something on my blog in Toronto you can’t wait to try…just Placemark it!
I stumbled upon this quiet gelato house while on a stroll along Baldwin Street in Toronto. It’s hard to find anything online about Kekou other than a humble website which appears hidden among the relics of the Little Video Shop reviews during a google search. Gone are the copies of John Hughes and Die Hard movies but the gelato remains..this time infused with Asian flavours synonymous with the Baldwin Street experience. Take, for example, the variety posted on their website:
Vanilla Lotus Seed
Green Bean Coconut
Red Bean White Chocolate
Guava Plum Salt
The last five are dairy free. I’m unsure if all (dairy or non) are available all the time but the variety was great when I popped in. Sampling is available, so I tasted the durian, intrigued by whether the stinky fruit would translate into an icy treat. It worked. In the end, I opted for Spicy Mango and Strawberry-Lychee together in a small cup for $3.75. The mango was creamy despite no dairy (I have a friend of mine who swears no dairy will do wonders for my skin). It had an ever so subtle spicy kick. The strawberry-lychee was icy good, well balanced and refreshing.
The store itself is as humble as the website. Hand-written tags and an old school ice cream parlour sign hang in contrast within the otherwise pristine and modern decor. I’d like to witness the Effe Vertical mixer in action in their open kitchen but it was dormant during my visit.
In a city where the gelato juggernauts seem to reside in midtown, the resurrection of the cold treat is a welcome addition to Baldwin street, this time with an Asian flavour twist. It’s a quiet recluse and although I can’t walk out with a copy of the Accidental Spy (great ice cream scene by the way) , it might end up a quiet little spot I hit during my regular jaunts up and down University Avenue and if the heat happens to make me a little smelly, I’ll just blame the durian.
Hawthorne recently opened in downtown with a bit of a mysterious aura. It has no website and relays all its information, including its menu, through its facebook page. The about tab describes the food as:
It takes up the street level corner of 60 Richmond St which sits about a block southeast of the Eaton Centre. It has the layout out of a old school diner but with chic furniture, shelves of mason jars full of colourful pickled vegetables and on-table dessert menus held up with used wine corks. The menu is highlighted by a signature foursquare tasting meal offering small plates (literally presented on a single square plate) featuring fresh and seasonal ingredients.
Beef brisket is available everywhere and Hawthorne’s offering ($13) competes with some of the best southern joints in the city. Sliced a tad thinner than most, the abundant use of whiskey BBQ sauce and the fattiness of the cut made the sandwich rich and moist and the brioche bun was able to withstand the drippy-goodness. The fries were cut slightly thick and served hot. The homemade ketchup was tasty although quite unorthodox, highlighted by a predominant smoky flavour.
I’m a sucker for homemade soda and was pleased to see the Hawthorne offering. I opted for pear-cardamom and quite enjoyed its delicate and refreshing taste. It was not sickly sweet and was as refreshing a a cold Steamwhistle pilsner, the only other drink I’ve ever been served in a glass boot. A shot of gin from the well stocked bar would have made it a neat spin on a gin and tonic if I was in the mood and position for a potent potable.
The soup of the day was the unique combination of collard green and lentil which was served in a clear glass pot. Although it was a bit thick, it had consistent texture and a freshness reminding me that the phenols would do their best to protect me from cardiac assault of the upcoming brisket.
I was intrigued by the paella bombs which were described as crispy rice cake, sausage, crab and tomato pepper relish. They were presented beautifully but were covered with mussels and clams which I found odd given the description on the menu.The flavours were great although it taste more like a jambalaya or a pot of mussels and less like a paella. The biggest issue is they were presented cold. I addressed this with the waitress who checked with the kitchen and confirmed they should have been hot. She did offer to heat them up but by then I was almost done.
I was told the menu was new so I can understand a few items being lost in translation. However, mussels and clams on a paella is a pretty significant oversight. In addition, the menu indicated that the brisket came with housemade pickles. As a diner who will sometimes order an entree to get such pickles, I was irritated to see their absence. At first the waitress ensured me they were on the sandwich. A surgical dissection of the brisket confirmed otherwise and she went to the kitchen to inquire. The explanation was a typo on the menu and her peace offering was a rather dismal display of a few pickled carrots and sunchokes despite the wide array of options surrounding me.
There are obvious execution errors (temperature and menu descriptions) and waitstaff who seem a bit uninformed and disorganized. Both should be ironed out with time and practice. That said, the food is tasty and the environment is fresh and vibrant. I left generally satisfied despite a minor case of pickle envy.
Hawthorne is a bit confusing to the point where it lacks identity. It is designed like a high-end diner. The staff are dressed in foodie plaid. Some of the dishes are presented in fine dining style. The location (Richmond and Church) would mainly appeal to business folk and downtown dwellers. It’s a place that a larger group may all be alright with but you wouldn’t choose for any particular reason.
A famous author once wrote:
“Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world , individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever”.
Although I’m quite sure this 19th century quote was not meant to predict the Toronto dining scene in 2013, I think there are certain elements which are highly applicable. Today’s restaurants cannot be everything to everybody. You can’t be farm to table, nose to tail, organic, foodie-friendly, fine dining and a speakeasy (mentioned on their twitter account and a term coined in 1889 referring to an illegal alcohol establishment) all in one. If you don’t identify who you are, you will be forgettable amongst the many eateries lining the surrounding streets. Hawthorne’s success will hinge on its ability to fit in, without confusion, to a diverse and finicky Toronto dining crowd, a concept ironically penned in 1835 by American author and namesake Nathaniel Hawthorne.
My morality needed a boost as I found myself surrounded by friends and colleagues hunting high and low for vitamin releasing blenders and adhering to diets making them as alkaline as a Duracell battery. So I made a decision that for one meal I would skip the meat and “eat what food eats”. This philosophy drew me to Sadie’s Diner and Juice Bar, a well-established vegetarian diner in the King West area.
I entered with a brave face in hopes that the astute staff wouldn’t turn on their radar and call my bluff by detecting the trace amounts of pork by-products circulating in my blood from a bacon binge a few nights before. The waitress was a hip version of Anne of Green Gables, sporting some very flowery pants and a personality that matched. A discussion about the merits of brewed coffee versus lattes followed and I felt a little more confident that my cloak and dagger attempt at portraying a clean eater was actually working.
I sat and stared at a menu offering some decent and classic breakfast dishes but with tree-hugging substitutes such as “fakin” and “fauxsage”. In the end, I settled for the Huevos Rancheros: Two eggs over easy on corn tortillas with salsa, refried beans, guacamole & cheddar cheese for $12. It was calling my name as it had no reference to either the above mentioned imposters of something called “vegan cheese”.
As I sipped my coffee (I don’t use dairy..so there), I looked around and made a few interesting observations:
1. There are pez dispensers (with numbers trumped only by the Paper Moon cafe in Baltimore) encased in the walls.
2. Pieces of irony are scattered across the restaurant and included pig salt and pepper shakers, a replica of the Simpson’s Lard Lad and a really mean looking chicken as the April picture on a calender hanging on the wall. Perhaps the latter was not ironic, because a word bubble inserted over the chicken could easily say “Take my eggs, but don’t touch my breasts!”
3. Stunning artwork by struggling artists, jaded lovers and cautious optimists adorn the walls.
My breakfast arrived. The tortillas were crispy, the eggs were a bit over done (I need that ray of sunshine when I cut through the yolk…hmmmm…sounds like a cool theme for a painting) and the salsa, beans and guacamole were just ok, maybe because it couldn’t hide behind breakfast meat.
A plethora of juice combinations, in raw or smoothie form and starting at about $4 are available to complement any meal. They are juiced fresh without the help of David Wolfe, the Adam Duritz meets Jim Rome looking “longevity” expert, and his nutribullet…. but that’s another story. Additions include vegan supplements such as:
Maca Powder: for increased energy & strength – $1.50
Sprouted Golden Flaxseed: fights cholesterol, natural source of antioxidants – $1.50
Spirulina Powder: mega-source of vitamin B12 – $1.50
Veggie Greens: a day‘s worth of fresh veggies in one scoop – $1.50
or…Vegan Protein Powder – add to any smoothie for extra oomph!
Raw Hemp Protein – $2
Brown Rice Protein – $2
Pumpkin Seed Protein – $2
VEGA Complete – $4
Joking about my meatless meal aside, Sadie’s is a neat place with a decent menu. There is passion in the food, the walls, the art and the staff. It’s neat, hip and cool with a fresh decor and an ok vegetarian menu. In the end, a fun switch from the everyday temptation of farmland friends but not so good whereas I’ll consider giving up the sinful flesh. Or maybe I’m just afraid of that damn chicken.
Not since the days of Shaggy, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine have mobile smokehouses been so mainstream. Case and point, I was at a fundraiser a while back and the line for Urban Smoke was twice that of any other truck that was onsite. Parked comfortably within the confines of a private parking lot (so as not to add to further Toronto city hall controversies) , the staff were busy dishing out some traditional and not so traditional fare. Ten bucks got you one of four choices so I picked up some lunch for myself and a colleague.
The ability to get a hearty soup is a rarity in most restaurants let alone a food truck. The split pea soup was reminiscent of something your French-Canadian uncle J.P. may spend hours in the kitchen whipping up in a magical cauldron. It was thick and savory and filled with chunks of delicious double smoked ham while resisting the temptation to over-salt, a common transgression of many an eatery.
Perfecting the grilled cheese seems a easy trick but its simplicity is often its quandary. Urban Smoke offered two sandwiches; a standard grilled cheese and one featuring nutella and mascarpone cheese as a dessert. Magic is grilling the bread to golden brown while melting the ample filling, a feat that everyone from top chefs to 15 year old latchkey kids have spent generations trying to perfect. Urban Smoke comes close. The secret could very well be seasoning the bread with just a small amount of salt on the outside before grilling the abundant contents within. Simple but extremely satisfying.
The pulled pork was average which is still a compliment considering the number of food trucks, burger joints and smoke houses who lay their foundation on good pulled pork. The meat was tender, partnered with piquant seasonings and the bread was soft and proportional to the filling. The “magic fries” provided a poof that could certainly help Penn and Teller make a rabbit appear but maybe not enough to make David Copperfield’s convertible materialize out of the blue. The slaw added a delicious, tangy crunch.
I took a chance and opted to skip the magic fries in favour of the banana pudding (see picture above). It had a decent flavour but I felt a bit ripped off by the size and the fact it was starting to separate a bit, leaving a bit of an oily pool in the bottom of the glass. It was about the size of a jello shooter and in the end about as exciting as the never-ending handkerchief trick.
Part of the appeal of a food truck should be a quick meal to avoid having to sit down, order, eat and wait for the bill. Although almost inevitable, especially during high volume events such as fundraisers and other events, long waits continue to be an issue with wheel-bearing establishments and Urban Smoke was no exception.
Urban Smoke is a bit of a traveling roadshow, bringing a kind of magic show to each and every parking lot or street side it inhabits. The headliners include a variety of southern BBQ foods including pulled pork and brisket partnered with a few other choices. As a result, it draws big crowds which means big lines and big waits. The staff, however, are quite efficient and personable and maintain a decent flow. If the truck is around (check out torontofoodtrucks.ca for schedules), I would definitely consider a trip for lunch if you have the time and desire to break up a hectic day. After all, after a busy adventure unmasking criminals, I’m sure Shag and Scoob would have been happy to fill up on a few grilled cheese sandwiches following an equally smoky visit to the Mystery Machine.