Mad Magazine, Joanne Kates and why GVG and Jen Agg may be the Spy vs. Spy of Toronto’s Culinary Scene

There is no argument that the world has changed substantially in the past two decades and media is no exception. One by one, longstanding publications are disappearing from the shelves and being replaced by virtual articles and snippets on online platforms. The latest fatality is Mad magazine. It can be argued that this iconic rag lead the way in political satire and was the blueprint for magazines like the onion some 35 years later. In addition, I can remember the tactile stimulation of delicately folding the inside of the back cover to reveal a picture hidden within the printed chaos. I remember it being more exciting that cracking open a kinder egg. It can also be argued that the magazine’s figurehead, Alfred E. Neuman, is the origin of the concept that gingers have no souls well before Trump proved it. Finally, Mad magazine may have foreshadowed today’s over the top fair play movement through the Spy vs. Spy comic. Unlike the Coyote and Road Runner, both were protagonists and equally alternated wins back and forth in a fashion similar to giving every kid a “thanks for coming out medal” in modern day youth athletics despite their performance.

Food media has changed as well. For example, it wasn’t long ago that people eagerly scoured a hard copy of the Globe and Mail in anticipation of the latest Joanne Kates Toronto restaurant review. Times have changed and now Ms. Kates is posting her thoughts online. Today, there are no shortage of critics…any google search now reveals a plethora of self-proclaimed experts (including myself) adding their two cents on blogs, snapchats or platforms like yelp… nowadays all you need is a tongue, a catchy handle and a general understanding of the English language to be an elite food writer.

Kates recently reviewed the newest Grant Van Gameren project and it hardly emerged with flying colours. Her argument was even if she is there for the wine, the food needs to be good because she is paying for it. She proceeds to complain more about the service than the grub itself and seems particularly concerned with the lack of kitchen hardware. On the other hand, in her review of Bar Vendetta, she acknowledges the food is less than stellar but you gotta go because of the vibe that only Jen Agg can create.

I’ll be the first to admit that Toronto’s food experience has drastically changed in the past 15 years. Things like three course meals and personal space have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with small plates and tight spaces plus/minus communal tables. Creative versus classic backdrops are the new norm and both GVG and Jen Agg lead the charge. Establishments like the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were trendsetting and fundamental backbones of the Toronto food movement today. That said, here’s my take..backed up by a few followers and a willingness to pay 25 bucks a year to keep my cleverly named web domain.

Vibe

Both spaces are understandably loud and filled with hipster zombies and the odd #okboomer trying to fit in.

Bar Piquette– Small and bright with white tables and blackboards indicating the current and rather extensive wine by the glass choices along with a handful of accompanying food options. Instead of a hidden cellar, bottles adorned with “The Price is Right” tags are stored in a rustic cabinet teasing patrons within plain sight.

Bar Vendetta– Dark environment with mismatched tables and chairs and walls plastered with classic music posters and a Spy vs Spy mural featuring a broken wine bottle and a corkscrew as weapons…clever. Wine choices are less extensive and indicated on spotty and crinkled paper menus which are near impossible to read in the murky surroundings. It’s a place reminiscent of Eric’s basement hangout in that 70’s show.

The Food

Bar Piquette– Limited menu of cold choices. We opted for a classic beef tartare, a tomato salad intertwined with guanciale and a simple cheese toast. Admittedly a little pedestrian but the ingredient were of stellar quality and each dish paired nicely with the one the many exciting selection of unique vinos.

Bar Vendetta– The menu focuses on pasta at peaks hours and gimmicks like muffuletta sandwiches and nachoes pre- and post-prime time respectively. My trio of dishes included the tuna diavolo, eggplant and trecce pasta. The tuna was vibrant and fresh and balanced nicely with a little heat courtesy of some fresh chilis. The eggplant and pasta on the other hand were pretty substandard. There was the odd bite of brilliance in the eggplant but overall it was rather bland and uninspiring, The pasta, which I assumed would be the pinnacle of the experience, was the biggest letdown mainly due to the fact it was uncooked and almost crunchy.

The Drink

Bar Piquette– The wine selection was bold and unique with plenty of by the glass offerings from all over the place. Temptation came screaming from the custom cabinet but I mainly stuck to glasses of skin-on organics and other fun libations.

Bar Vendetta– We made of the mistake of ordering cocktails in a wine bar and paid dearly. I’m always nervous to trash cocktails based on my own odd booze-forward tastes but after playing sharsies with the Dry Clean, Provocateur and Fade Out, my trusted table mates and I concurred that none of them where anywhere close to stellar. These were followed with a decent glass of Pearl Morisssette Irreverence and an Italian Valdibella Nero d’Avola chosen from what was quite frankly a less than impressive list, especially from a place touting itself as a wine bar.

My Take

Maybe Jen Agg and Grant Van Gameren are the Spy vs Spy of Toronto’s culinary scene. Each dream up a culinary scheme and see how it flies. Given their entry into the realm of wine bars, it’s not too far off to suggest that they may in fact have a rivalry similar to the corkscrew and broken bottle mural on Bar Vendetta’s wall. In most cases, both emphasize the vibe of their establishments and the polar nature of their latest projects will certainly lead to each patron picking a different winner. Personally, I like a brighter, wine forward place where Bob Barker could pop in any minute and ask me the price of a skin-organic wine without going over. On the other hand, people like Joanne Kates seem to prefer a venue where you could squint as you listen to Zeppelin and smoke up with Kelso. I’m also much less concerned about kitchen hardware and would prefer a decent beef tartare and other quality meats versus a head-scratching eggplant and under cooked pasta even when using a stove. If it came down to it and I had to choose between the two, I’d Piquette over Vendetta any day.

Review:Toronto:Corktown:Gilead Cafe

I have been trying to get to one of the evening events at Gilead for a while and finally had the chance back in June. It was one of the Friday night wine bars that are periodically run throughout the year,

I was a bit surprised by both the location and the decor at 4 Gilead in Corktown. It’s certainly not your typical wine bar environment, probably because it’s mainly only open for breakfast and lunch.   That said, you can’t judge a place by it’s decor, so I forked up ready to indulge on the Jamie Kennedy inspired menu.

After the decor, my second surprise were the clientele. I was easily the youngest patron in the place, maybe because it was 6 pm.  I felt like I was at an early bird dinner.  Even later, however, there was not the crowd I would have expected for an almost underground  one night wine bar experience. Well, except maybe for one jackass who showed up with his date and demanded the door be shut despite the fact it was 35 degrees and subsequently complained about every one of the  6 or 8 drinks he had in a span of an hour.

It only made sense to start with the featured drink, a Fragolina cocktail (wine, strawberry beer and a bit of lime) for $7.  It was very average.  The featured wines were a couple of Ontario red and whites for $7 a glass.

As I was waiting for a colleague, I ordered the poutine with braised beef and cheddar.  The fries were great.  The gravy was a bit salty which ended up being a theme for the evening.  The beef was tender, the cheese was scarce.  In the end, it was decent but not great.

Braised Beef Poutine $9
Braised Beef Poutine $9

I have an issue paying for bread but I was interested in the highly touted red fife sour dough, so I ordered some with two vegetarian dips for $5.   I think they were beet and some kind of hummus.   It was also served with a side of a spice mix which was not explained to me.  Not clear on the intent of this mix, I used liberally on a piece of bread only to find out it was 90% salt.  When I brought this up with the waitress, she scoffed and pointed out “It’s a french thing” and “it should be used sparingly ” on top of the butter.  After pointing out there was no butter at the table, I was told I shouldn’t have got it anyway since it’s only served with lunch.

On the heels of asparagus season, I wasn’t surprised to see it on the menu, simply served with a honey vinaigrette. For $7, it was too simple..9 boiled pieces painted with a mediocre dressing.  I found the green salad with sorrel dressing a bit better (it had a few radishes and sorrel thrown in)  for $7  but the dressing looked and tasted similar to the one used on the asparagus. The beet salad with lentils and feta looked great on the menu but once again has a taste profile not much different than the others.

Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette  $7
Asparagus with Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette $7

Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7
Green Salad with Sorrel Vinaigrette $7

Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9
Beet salad with lentils and Feta $9

I was excited to try the pristine poached halibut with curried lobster sauce.  Once again it was a disappointment.  The halibut has the consistency of that piece of poached egg white that escapes and floats to the top of the pan.  It was rather bland and seasoned with large chunks of salt scattered among the bottom of the filet.  The lobster curry and bitter greens made the dish salvageable. At least if wasn’t ridiculously priced at $16.

Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16
Pristine Poached Halibut with Lobster Curry $16

I’m not really a flourless chocolate cake fan but decided to try it since it was served with a rhubarb reduction and cardamom ice cream, two flavours I happen to love in a dessert. I thought it was well done, especially if you incorporated the sweet ice cream, the bitter sweet cake and the sour reduction all in one bite.

Flourless chocolate cake $9
Flourless chocolate cake $9

My Take

I was excited to experience this drop-in wine bar, especially with an attractive online menu that featured a nice array of fresh and creative foods developed by one of Toronto’s iconic chefs.  Instead, I was treated to an experience that felt like a dinner at an old age home.  Each of the three veggie dishes  tasted almost exactly the same, the fish was overdone and salt was the predominant seasoning (don’t you know us old people can’t have too much salt).  I felt I was treated a bit like a nursing home resident as well, especially after being scolded about my shallow knowledge regarding  the use of salted herbs on butterless bread in much the same way one would after stepping off the property without permission. Maybe it’s better at breakfast or lunch but mention the word hip at this place during dinner  and most would immediately think it’s a high risk area for a fracture.

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Review:Toronto:Leslievillle:Skin and Bones

Skin and Bones is the newest contribution on the outskirts of the expanding Leslieville dining scene. Quartered in an old warehouse on the outskirts of Queen East restaurant row, the venue is spacious and symmetrical with highlights including a long bar, open kitchen and 16 person communal  table.  Offering a tiny cocktail list and a few microbrews, the focus of the potent potables is the extensive wine list.  Most notable is the array of local and international wines  with equal pricing per ounce  regardless of whether you order the 3 or 6 oz glass. I was told that this was to encourage the enjoyment of multiple wine pairings throughout the meal.  The best I had was the  Pinot Gris François Lichtlé 2010, Alsace, France.  The menu is meant to be shared, set up in a not so unique three tier fashion; snacks, apps and mains.

Must

The celeriac gnocchi with uni bottarga was simple, delicious and well executed.  Straying from the ubiquitous potato pasta topped with the  sweet red or rich cream sauce, the earthy taste of the celery root coupled with the salty bottarga  was very prevalent but was complimented nicely by the acidic and chunky tomato “preserves”.

Celeriac Gnocchi
Celeriac Gnocchi

I have a bias for sticky pudding and S&B did not disappoint.   Moist cake with chunks of dates were smothered in a delicious bone marrow caramel and served with a dollop of Chantilly. It was a smallish portion but was quite  reasonably priced and was a fine finish to the meal.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Sticky Toffee Pudding

Maybe

The burrata with crostini  ( see picture under pickled quail eggs) was a nice start.  The rich cheese atop the crispy bread had good mouth feel  and was balanced nicely by sweet and salty toppings.

I asked if the chicken tails were a play on words or actually chicken tails.  The waiter clarified the latter so I was quite intrigued.  I can best  describe the dish as fatty chunks of  popcorn chicken served on a bed of seasoned potatoes. They weren’t quite finger-licking good but they were pretty tasty. If anything the perfectly prepared potatoes stole the show.  It was quite heavy…so definitely share this one.

Chicken Tales
Chicken Tails

The highly touted beef tartare turned out to be a bit forgettable .  It was fresh and seasoned well, especially with the addition of the  monforte toscano cheese. Call me a traditionalist but maybe I’m a bit biased because it was missing the raw egg I normally adore with this dish.

Beef Tartare
Beef Tartare

Growing up in Northern Ontario, I relished smelt season in the spring  where I would stand in the cold streams wearing rubber boots in hunt of the tasty critters.  Success would mean a plate of crispy, deep-fried salty goodness.  Needless to say, I was excited to see the option of this childhood treat on the menu.   I loved the taste of the smelts  but would of  liked them served crispy (more than the scant amount of fried bone) to counter the  limp swiss chard below. Braised greens are a bit dangerous since they can be a bit soggy and bitter when cold and I found they were a little of both.  That being said, it was a nice balance of salt, sour and bitter flavours.

Smelt Escabeche
Smelt Escabeche

The chicken and wine main was a potato away from a must.  The deconstruction was visually appealing and the  chicken was cooked to perfection.  My only issue was lack of a supporting cast.  The rutabaga puree was delicious velvet and the celery provided an appealing crunch and earthiness  but in scarce amounts.   Increase the sides and throw a bunch of those potatoes in the mix and you have a winner.

Half Chicken with Rutabaga Puree
Half Chicken with Rutabaga Puree

Mundane

The pickled quail eggs and vegetables were one of my most anticipated items and I was left disappointed.  The dish was underpickled and the eggs were inconsistently cooked.  The promised vegetables turned out to be a few cucumbers. The accompanying “white fluff” was almost flavourless and although appealing to the eye, added very little to complement the pickles.

Burrata Crostini and Pickled Quail Eggs
Burrata Crostini and Pickled Quail Eggs

Despite a small menu and a less than capacity crowd, we were told they had run out of the beef cheek bourguigon.  Worse than that, we were informed after we ordered it.  It kind of left a bad taste..actually no taste,  in my mouth.

Beef Cheek Bourguignon
Beef Cheek Bourguignon

My Take

Skin and bones is attempting to take the Queen East experience beyond Carlaw St. I’d summarize it as a introductory lesson for those interested in nose-to-tail dining, offering things like bone marrow hidden in caramel sauce,chicken tails coated  in crispy batter and beef cheeks cloaked in a  bourguignon sauce.  It has a decent wine list and  a safe but somewhat edgy menu with a few gems hidden within a bunch of maybes at a decent price point. The bigness of the restaurant itself  is a deviation from the quaint quarters of other eateries in the area which will  lead to either an astir ambiance with a big buzz or a  cloying cavern with a desolate demeanor. Time will tell but special events such as wine tastings possibly coupled with edgy prix fixe menus may be necessary to draw in the large crowds which will be needed  to fill the seats of this spacious sit-down.

 

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