I still remember the backlash from the community when Alanis Morrisette continuously misused the word ironic on the hit song with the same name of the “Jagged Little Pill” album. They argued that things like rain on your wedding day and a fly in your chardonnay are not ironic but in fact nothing more than shit luck. Bar Fancy, on the other hand, is a basic example of irony. Everything about the place fits the blueprint…I mean, the bar is far from fancy. In fact, it’s a bit of a visual atrocity; a mix between a garage and a bachelor apartment. I would take it a step further and argue that what this Queen West eatery does is beyond irony and actually is more burlesque. Often associated with extravagant and over the top entertainment antics in movies like Moulin Rouge!, the word burlesque encompasses general exaggeration and ridicule. Bar Fancy has a stupid website that has no copies of the menu and gives you nothing more than an address, hours and a picture of a neon tiger which shows you the way to the semi-hidden entrance. Once inside, they have a potluck menu (along with the token extra-large and stupid expensive steak) hand written on a sheet of paper.
I arrived for happy hour and sat at the kitchen rail with a good view of the kitchen. A couple of hipster guys were behind the counter, dressed in no way like executive chefs, waiting to prepare menu items to order. The beer and wine menu is intentionally small. I asked for a cocktail list and was told they really didn’t have one but all the classics were available. I asked for a recommendation and a black manhattan came my way.
Although not the largest happy hour menu, I’ve concluded that half price oysters and $2 a piece fried chicken are a good way to spend the pre-dinner hours. The chicken met all the criteria of a good bite. While I was there, I watched the kitchen with great interest. Each dish was meticulously prepared from scratch by plaid dressed peons with decent knife skills and obvious culinary comprehension.
I remember doing a project in university where I had to interview a restaurant whose ironic tag line was “warm beer.lousy food”. Since then, the use of irony has evolved in the food industry. Hipsters bars have embraced irony and have raised the bar by making things burlesque by exaggerating all the elements of the experience beyond just a simple catch line.
Bar Fancy is an example of a bohemian burlesque. You feel you are at a house party in somebody’s bachelor apartment. Hipsters prepare potluck foods while offering you a small array of beer and wine. They have no cocktail menu but can whip up any of the classics upon request. Fancy additions like egg whites and lavender shrubs are absent.
Although I’m generally adverse to the silliness of the concepts around hipster havens, I like Bar Fancy. During happy hour, I can grab an old-fashioned, half a dozen oysters and a couple of pieces of chicken for under $30. I love the lack of a complex cocktail list and appreciate the simple concept around their casual, made to order menu. I’ll have to give it a shot late at night even if it’s after a free ride when I’ve already paid.
Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene. In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015. I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.
A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub). For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27. “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.
I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is. She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones) from Shameless. Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit). That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).
I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single. In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and compared to other entertainment-heavy metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.
Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose. Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.
Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs Boxing Day 1985.
10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)
Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face. The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.
I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.
9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)
A short elevator ride up a few floors opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails. A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow. Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced. Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.
I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present. I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle. Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.
8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)
As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic sipping cocktail. They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.
7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)
Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a standard menu for everybody or only an option for the main protein. They even set the stage for such free will (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by offering a choice of a blue or white napkin . It was rather odd but memorable.
6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)
There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:
Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour little light on the citrus.
In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course. It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a sinful cousin of a croissant.
When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist. I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so. Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold. A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.
5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)
Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork. There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone. If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them. For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.
4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)
I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver. I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.
3. Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)
There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15). In the name of adventure we agreed. The featured fromage was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers. We ordered two plates was plenty for the four of us. Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate. We joked that, being the token Caucasian at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate. I went dark. Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese, we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead. It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me. Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good. Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan. The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.
Earl Grey Parfait
White, Milk and Dark Chocolate
2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)
When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head. The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after. The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.
1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)
Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one. In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA. The flow of the meal was spot on. Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained the components of each dish with great precision. The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.
Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service. Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience. The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.
In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album. Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening. You feel the experience instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment filled with countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.
On my last day in Napa Valley I wanted to go back to Yountville one more time to once again experience it’s quaint beauty, not to mention the fact I was offered transportation in a small red convertible which made me feel like the numerous washed up yuppies back home I see driving around in their open top Chrysler LeBarons. It is a very picturesque drive up highway 29 and the feeling of the fresh wind in my face trumped the sun scaling the top of my head (which is the main reason I have always found convertibles less than enjoyable).
This time I wanted to explore the V marketplace which houses a number of small shops and boutiques. I did a quick tour of a wine shop which offered a wide range of bottles at different types and prices. Not surprisingly, there was some ass hat walking around with his buddy pointing out every wine he has had in the place. I normally wouldn’t care but there was a pompous tone in his voice as opposed to a authentic and organic bliss. In other words, it was more important for him to flaunt his status as a self-declared sommelier than a true wine enthusiast.
The highlight of the market was Napastyle, the Michael Chiarello market which offers a wide range of foodie friendly articles including various foodstuffs, kitchen equipment and knickknacks to enhance any home’s decor and entertaining potential. They had a series of condiments available for tasting which were divine, especially the smoked and spicy olive oils and the fruit vinegar (especially the peach one from what I recall). At this point, we regretted out decision to have traveled with carry on luggage and sucked back a bit more oil before we left.
It was on the tail end of the lunch hour, so we decided to hunt out a place to eat. I would be remiss if I didn’t try and add another star in my Michelin sky, so we decided on Bistro Jeanty, the French cafe in the heart of Yountville. It was quite busy and the patio was full but we were able to secure a table inside. I assume the decor was meant to be a recreation of a rustic and modest eatery in Paris as opposed to the clean and crisp feel of a place like Redd down the street. The waitress arrived very quickly and happily explained the menu. She was polite and courteous in a way that couldn’t be taught and I quickly felt quite welcome.
We decided to split a meal starting with Langue d’Agneau (warm lamb tongue and potato salad) for $15. This dish was a bit of a concession for me but I was curious to see if lamb tongue had the same distinct taste as the rest of the animal. It did. It was as tender as the potatoes and was well complimented by the acidic dressing and bitter greens. The fact that this rather heavy dish was listed on the “lighter side” of the menu was a clear foreshadowing of our upcoming experience.
Dish two was the Quenelles de Brochet (pike dumplings with lobster sauce) for $15. The dumplings were as light and fluffy as cumulus clouds in an atmosphere as thick as that of Venus (ok..this is the astronomy geek in me…Venus’ atmosphere is 90 times more massive than earth’s….and so was this sauce). Taste wise what can I say. It’s butter, cream and lobster. Collectively, I enjoyed the contrast of the light dumpling against the heavy sauce and thought this dish was quite good.
Cassoulet (baked beans, duck confit, toulouse sausage and apple smoked bacon) for $26 was the final dish. Cassoulet is a bit of a generic term used to describe a bean based stew. In fact, it is named after the dish the stew is served in more than a summary of the ingredients in it. I equate it to pork and beans, the North American staple that involves a frantic search through the beans in search of the tiny sliver of bacon strategically placed in each can. Instead with this cassoulet, the fruits of such labour included whole sausage and a duck leg. It was nicely seasoned and did bring back memories of a gold old can of Libby’s. Once again, the dish was very rich and after a few bites, I threw in my serviette and called it day. In fact, I didn’t even think about food for a number of hours afterwards despite walking around in the epicentre of culinary temptation.
Day one in Yountville featured fresh California fare at Redd whereas day 2 was in stark contrast with the rich French food at Bistro Jeanty. The service at Jeanty was incredible. Despite the use of sauces as thick as the atmosphere of Venus, I wouldn’t call the food astronomical although stellar would still be an adequate description. The V marketplace, specifically Napastyle, is well worth a visit even if to only indulge on a few olive oil and vinegar samples. I the end, I envision coming back to Yountville since I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary options in this small town. There is Redd Wood, Bottaga, Bouchon, Ad Hoc and, of course, the Michelin star mecca which is the French Laundry. This gives me an idea; I could transport a suitcase of money down to the Napa Valley, dump it on French Laundry’s porch in exchange for dinner and then use it to transport back a arsenal of of olive oil. I guess that means I’d need to check a bag though.
After a night of a little too much scotch, I had to muster the strength to venture up the road to Yountville, a quaint village north of Napa which is full of beautiful scenery, fancy restaurants, artistic gardens and specialty shops. I was invited to lunch at Redd, which is described on their website as an updated wine country menu with international influence. It ‘s the decade old project of respected chef Richard Reddington who should not be confused with fictional international criminal Raymond Reddington of Blacklist.
The decor is simple, roomy and classy. The waitstaff are professional but not pretentious. I started with hair of the dog in the form of a large goblet of a delicious house red. To start I went with the appetizer special which was a hamachi collar atop asian slaw. The slightly fatty, slightly fishy taste went well with sweet but pungent taste of the overdressed slaw.
Enough with the pseudo-healthy crap. I had a post-scotch apocalypse to deal with. The fried chicken sandwich fit the bill. Smothered with melted Gruyere cheese, it seemed the perfect remedy to my self-inflicted woes. Plus, it was served with onion rings which were delicately breaded and quite light. The sandwich was a posh McChicken that hit all the notes needed for a post hangover ration.
With the booze sweats complete and a reasonable amount of grease in my digestive system, I ventured down Yountville’s main drag to take in some of the scenery. It was surprising quiet given the weather was near perfect. The walk included trips past rock gardens, markets and a couple of Michelin star restaurants, ending at the ultimate destination in any Napa culinary adventure; The French Laundry. Until now, this Michelin three star establishment has been a figment of my imagination. In one sense, its legendary status makes me an immediate fan. In another, I wanted to see it first hand so I could better justify the 300 per person charge. The exterior is rather modest and the inside is a secret which can only be viewed through small cracks in the window blinds. I left a bit like a voyeur but I could justify it given the fact their very public garden is right across the street for all to see. Speaking of which, it was a fantastic parcel of land filled with ripe strawberries, cauliflower, fresh herbs, a chicken coop and even an apiary. The energy of the place was magic and suddenly the French Laundry’s price tag didn’t seem so outrageous.
The walk back included a stop at Thomas Keller’s Boulage bakery for an eclair and an Americano, both of which were quite satisfactory and well under $10, a far cry from the price tag associated with his other venture.
The day ended with a drive out to the Stag’s Leap region of Napa Valley and specifically to the aptly named Stag’s Leap cellars which were responsible for the vaulting of California reds into the upper echelon of wines worldwide. In 1976, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 edged out three French reds including the highly respected Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 to win the international tasting and the rest is history. Historically, the only upset that rivals this was the historic and nauseating miracle on ice in 1980 which also involved the US as a massive underdog against the powerhouse Russians.
Yountville in Napa Valley is a must go destination for any foodie. Redd is a classic example of Californian fare. The decor, much like the food is clean and simple but subtly elegant. The walk along Washington street is like following the yellow brick road on the way to the castle but in this case the destination is the French Laundry and there are many distractions along the way including the Boulage bakery and the Laundry’s own garden. As much as I clicked my heels together, I could not transport myself into the secret quarters of wizard Keller’s castle. Can anybody lend me $300?
There are many reasons to choose a restaurant. In most cases, I have an extravagant formula that combines a number of factors including who I’m with, what’s trending, what my friends or websites suggest, how much I want to eat and whether or not booze will be involved. Others are less calculating. I’ve had guests who have requested vegetarian, clean and/or gluten free food. I have one who avoids garlic and onions and pork can be a sore spot. One of my most recent requests was simple:a place uptown with easy parking. Oddly, this proved to be a daunting task. I could hope for the best and try a place along Bayview or Yonge but parking availability is so random. Knowing my guest liked Italian food, Fabricca immediately came to mind. Located in the shops on Don Mills plaza, this member of Mark McEwan empire offers complimentary valet parking in addition to a parkade only a short distance away.
The spacious restaurant is complete with an outdoor patio, a full bar and a dining area with a view of an open kitchen which includes a wood fired pizza oven. Despite the pseudo-casual atmosphere, Fabbrica has all the components of a fine dining experience. The waitstaff are classically trained and a nicely dressed expediter quarterbacks the kitchen team, ensuring that a salad is neither under- or overdressed or that a parsley leaf is not out of place. I felt a bit like I was on an episode of Top Chef Canada for a second.
Picking a wine is always a bone of contention for me, especially when a table’s worth of palates are on the line. I wouldn’t classify myself as a connoisseur but I can tell the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon so I could get by in a pinch. However, I’m not the guy to go to as a spokesperson when it comes to the dreaded taste test. Sure, I can speak in front of a room of 200 people but having to take the inaugural sip of pinot gris in front of a half dozen people is a daunting task. That said, I have never seen a bottle sent back. In fact, I was thinking it was more of a formality. Not tonight though. We order a bottle of Conundrum from California. My guest took the honours and had a sip. A perplexed look was followed by a second sip and an exclamation that the wine was fizzy. The waiter carried it away and returned shortly with a fresh bottle and an agreement that his call on the wine was correct. In the end, the conundrum was a great choice.
On this night I was in the mood for a salad and pasta. I started with the misticanza salad consisting of seasonal lettuce, fennel, celery, herbs and house dressing ($11). It was delicious in it’s simplicity. The dressing was refreshing and a perfect compliment to the fresh ingredients in the salad.
For the main I ordered the fettuccine with sweet peas, artichoke, pancetta, and crotonese ($20). The pasta was nicely cooked but the dish was too oily and the artichoke pieces were rather large and took away from the taste of the rest of the dish.
For dessert I couldn’t resist the rice pudding with arborio rice, strawberry rhubarb compote and aged balsamic ($11). Oddly enough, I’m not a rice fan but put it in a pudding and I’m a happy camper. In fact, it would likely be one of the five foods I would choose as a desert island choice. The rice maintained its firmness among the creamy base. The compote was hidden in the bottom but once accessible added a nice tartness to the sweet pudding. I thought the addition of the balsamic was brilliant and something I will do when I make rice pudding at home.
Fabbrica is set up to appeal to the masses. It has a bit of the old school Italian eatery mixed with a modern day spin, so it wasn’t surprising to see an array of patrons filling the tables. There was a delightful older couple who may have been celebrating an anniversary, a large table of businessmen laughing incessantly at their own jokes, a table of younger mothers (one of which began breastfeeding her child which raised a few eyebrows among the traditionalists) and even a suave young guy hoping to get to third base by treating his date to dinner including the sundae designed for two. Then again, maybe the other patrons looked at our table as the pretentious one which actually had the nerve to send back a bottle of wine because it was fizzy. In the end, the Fabbrica experience was pretty decent although I was a little disappointed given Mark “Mercurial” McEwan’s high standards on Top Chef Canada. The salad and dessert were fresh and vibrant although the oily pasta was average at best. In the end, I think there are better options in the city for fine Italian fare but if the thought of parallel parking on a busy downtown street or dishing out $20 to jam into a makeshift lot makes you cringe then this may be your place. Plus, you can mingle with “the haves” and get that Coach bag, Solomon jacket or go to across the way to McEwan for that expensive olive oil you always wanted.
This is a dumb joke but one that reigns true when we speak of Canada’s longest street. Yonge street is a bit like the Berlin wall. On the west side a vibrant dining scene. Queen, King, College and Dundas are lined with dozens of hipster havens. The east side, however, consists of a bunch of restaurants compartmentalized into chains, fine dining and student friendly venues. It’s like there’s a force field of some kind which repels plastic-rimmed glasses. There are a few hipster oases in the otherwise barren east but for the most part there’s work to be done before the wall is torn down.
Wellington road east is proxy to a number of upscale condos which have tenants who prefer suits to plaid. It is also within walking distance of venues such as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. As a result, bahn mi sandwiches and pulled pork tacos aren’t an automatic go-to. Instead, restaurants in this area need to offer refined yet current fare or offer a unique enough concept whereas to not be a dreadful bore and keep people coming back. Places like Trevor Bar and Kitchen and C’est What have had longevity whereas Lucien and the Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar had shorter lives.
East Thirty-Six now occupies the old quarters of the above mentioned restaurants. It’s first plan of action was to name itself after its address, a witty move employed by numerous others recently. The second was to adopt a menu which focuses on innovative cocktails and small plates as opposed to the traditional three course meals the east side aristocrats are accustomed to. The focal point of the interior is a large bar which is stocked with a variety of alcohol (including house-made varieties) larger than Lindsay Lohan’s minibar. Otherwise, it is a classy and well designed east side bar and bistro.
In addition to a panoply of the most current wines (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, German Rieslings etc.) Eat Thirty Six boasts an impressive cocktail list with emphasis on and fruit and fruit-infused liquors ranging from $12-14. I had read about the high touted E36 smoked Boulevardier, a spin on the classic yet rather unknown cocktail from the 20s. Called a cousin of the Negroni, E36’s version includes a bit of Lillet Blanc and some smoke tincture. The solution is allowed to conflate for a number of weeks to create an elixir which is as smooth as a gossamer. Frankly, it’s the best cocktail I’ve had this year. I’d equate to it any dish which is allowed to sit and marinate versus being callously put together and served immediately. There is no rawness or disjointed flavour..just a general smoothness enhanced with ethereal undertones.
To date, the menu has been classified as french tapas. I asked the owner about this and he said this wasn’t intentional. A small plate concept was definitely the intent, but the influence of chef Brent Maxwell resulted in a seeping of French influence into many of the dishes. Take, for example, the pork caillettes. E36’s version of these sausages are bite-size morsels stuffed with among other things pork and liver. Served like a hors d’oeuvre, each well seasoned bite was a pop of all things porcine. I also ordered some mixed pickles ($4) which made for a nice starter.
The scallop crudo ($14) was little Italy meets Mexico. It takes the sweetness of scallop and the richness of lardo and dresses it with tequila and lime. The rather unorthodox addition of celery added a little texture and taste that worked. It didn’t present with the intensity of a ceviche but had enough of an acidity to cut through the lardo and provide a nice reprieve from some of the heavier items on the menu.
Speaking of heavy, we went to the bottom of the menu for our dishes. My colleague and I decided on the short rib ($21), duck confit ($19) and boudin blanc ($18). That said, all three dishes were delicious choices. I think I can summarize them with one word: balance. The short rib was nicely accompanied with brussel sprouts, parmesan grits and horseradish. The duck leg was rendered down nicely and served with egg, mushroom and semolina. If anything, I would have switched the starches because I think corn/duck and beef/wheat pair better together but that may be a bit of a moot point given both dishes were rather delicious. The boudin was an modish interpretation of the sausage in that it used elegant ingredients such fois gras and tarragon. The additional of the apple and cabbage didn’t make it any less pedestrian.
For dessert I ordered the lemon custard with shortbread and macadamia ($8) while my colleague ordered another plate of caillettes. The custard was nice and tart and was served with an impressive number of (hopefully foraged nuts… AND it was served in a mason jar. Pure hipster bliss.
On the heels of the short lived Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster bar, E36 has moved into a tough spot with an attempt to fuse modern food and drink trends with the principles of upscale casual dining this area of town is accustomed to. It can best be described as small plate with french influence although there are a number of surprises on the menu. I wasn’t able to try the bone marrow (served with chicken liver pate), razor clams, sweetbreads or octopus nor one of the other 10 interesting cocktails, many of which frolic with fruit or tinker with tinctures. The decor is clean and modern with a beautiful well-stocked bar as its centrepiece. The service was great but it was a slow night so it would be interesting to see if the conversation and attention to detail continues with a busier assemblage.
East Thirty-Six has a name, a menu and a cocktail list that would appeal to any hipster. I mean, think about it. Pickled cauliflower in a mason jar? The dish alone contains three of the Huffington Post’s 22 essential hipster foods:
So, does this mean we finally have a place that would allow the tearing down of the Yonge street wall, finally allowing the two sides to dine together in harmony while eating offal pork sausage and drinking bourbon concoctions? Probably not. After all, there’s no need to worsen the carbon footprint as long as there’s kimchi, kale and PBR on the west side I suppose.
To switch things up, our last team meeting was planned outside of the normal confines of the GTA and we headed to Niagara-on-the Lake. A hot spot for worldwide travelers during the summer months, this small border town on Lake Ontario sits quiet during the winter months populated by stray deal seekers and seniors who didn’t make the trek down south for the cold season.
I showed up at the Prince of Wales a little late but in time for the second course of a wine and food pairing. I quickly had a glass of Cattail Creek Pinot Noir shoved into my hand while the chef explained the salmon he prepared. It was a pan roasted organic salmon cake, blue cornmeal and citron aioli lettuce wrap slider. Very tasty.
The next course was a fair trade coffee braised Ontario short rib, sweet potato and succotash and watercress salad served with a Henry of Pelham estate cab/merlot. They paired together nicely and the spoon was a blend of nice winter flavours.
The final was a dessert tray with a divine 2005 Southbrook ice wine. Promised to have complex fruit flavours, it had an overwhelming but delicious raisin flavour that was delicious with the truffles.
Further inspection of the hotel afterwards revealed a setting which may have been the inspiration for the Shining or some other horror movie. The attention to detail in everything from the tapestries to the door knobs was incredible and a far cry from the facades which grace most of the modern day destinations in metropolitan areas. Part of the ambiance was a number of oil paintings scattered throughout the hotel depicting members of the royal family past and present. Almost ever suite in the hotel is different. Mine was a red room complete with velvety curtains, matching carpet and a Pollyanna backboard. There was antique side tables, cozy chairs and yes…an oil painting with two overdressed and unhappy children staring at me.
Day 2– Beer is the new wine but microgreens are alive and well
There’s a beer movement brewing in the wine-dominated Niagara region. The Prince of Wales featured Niagara-on-the-Lake’s own Silversmith black lager. It reminded me of a black and tan..it starts punchy and ends with a smooth finish. The Butler’s bitter is produced by students of the Niagara College teaching brewery and proudly features on the list of taps available. Meant to resemble the beer of choice (or perhaps necessity) by the 1812 British soldiers, it was pleasantly unrefined but surprisingly refreshing.
We walked down the street to the Charles Inn for dinner. It was a mere five blocks from the Prince of Wales but during a polar vortex it felt like a marathon of a walk. It’s a quaint hotel and unlike the Prince, it was decorated much more subtly but still maintained the feel of a 19th century abode. It was a set dinner but was a fair representation of the food scene in this sleepy winter town; squash, microgreens, pork and salmon. In a sense, it’s a fusion of old school dining with a flare of the new. I opted for the squash veloute (which in fact was a cream soup but I guess you can call it a veloute as much as you can call it a bisque). It was hot and creamy and flavourful. The roasted marshmallow was a nice addition but a few springs of crispy sage would have worked really well.
The pork loin was served roasted and was coupled with a square of belly, another example of a fusion of eras versus one of cultures. It was cooked and seasoned nicely and served with root vegetables and a sort of potato pave. I’m sure the latter is a favorite of the locals year round as it screams old school french.
Coming as no surprise, dessert was creme brule, the ubiquitous staple of purveyors of fine dining and pyromaniacs across the country. It had all the elements; crispy top, smooth bottom, a spattering of fresh fruit. and yes..icing sugar. Looking at it was like watching a Miracle on 34th street. I felt relieved knowing this dish would still be around when I was 65 or 70.
Day Three– Burgers, Balzac’s and Brass Tacks
So there’s no question that a winter virus plus a few too many brews makes one a little groggy the next morning so I crossed the street to Balzac’s to indulge in some sort of recovery beverage. Balzac’s is small chain of coffee shops that populate the Golden Horseshoe. They offer roomy interiors and a carousel of available coffees. In addition, they sell traditional coffee inspired beverages but also feature some interesting elixirs that crush things like Starbucks sickly sweet caramel flan latte. The citro-boost for example, is a potion of lemon, maple syrup, ginger and cayenne pepper. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. I trotted back across the street, sat in my meeting and felt medicinally wonderful as my colleagues sipped the watery, hotel made coffee of unknown origin. The next day I went back and had the Cafe Nordique, a latte with honey, vanilla and cardamom. Although a little on the sweet side, the cardamom burst through, resulting in a pleasurable treat.
In the still of winter, I was not surprised that the hotel was rather empty on Monday and Tuesday night. Wednesday, however, was a different story. After my meeting, the bar/restaurant was buzzing and filled to capacity. A wave of blue hairs and accompanying distinguished gentlemen had invaded the place. When I asked the barkeep what was going on she responded with two words: Burger night. It seems 5 dollar burger night is all the rage. The locals dig themselves out of the driveways and brave the cold to indulge on this weekly treat. You even see a pint or a glass of wine peppered on tables around the bar although fisticuffs remained at a minimum.
My plans involved crossing the street to the Irish Harp pub. Voted Niagara’s number one pub, it features an array of local and European beer. Their flagship pints are sold under the “Irish Harp” name and brewed close by. I sucked a few back over the evening with great delight. To my surprise, not every person in Niagara-on-the-Lake was eating a burger at the Prince. The remaining folks were about to engage in Wednesday trivia night. The place was quarter full but table tents with team names adorned most of the unoccupied tables. We took one of the only free tables on the bar side. Shortly after, the regular crowd shuffled in. One group was a half dozen twenty-somethings who looked like trivia was their only break from hours of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Another table was Niagara-on-the-Lake’s version of thirty something foodies. The remaining tables were serious looking mixes of older patrons who were here to play. The husband/wife trivia leading tandem showed up and we were off to the races. Six sheets were circulated in succession with questions that would stump Ken Jennings. The lager numbed the fact that I couldn’t list the first native american prima ballerina (who passed away in 2013) although I did know the author of Get Shorty. After 4 rounds we were in third place and received a few threatening glares from the locals but in rookie fashion we choked a bit in the last two rounds and finished out of the money in 5th place (actually it wasn’t money…first place was a basket of homemade chocolate).
I found the food average. The black and tan onion rings with Guinness spiked mayonnaise were a unique and delicious twist on the traditional appetizer although a little steep at $13.
For a main, I ordered the Irish hot pot which combined a small portion of Irish Stew with the Steak and Guinness pie for $13 and a side of mashed for $2.50. It was quite average. The meat was tenderish and the seasoning was acceptable but neither dish was mind blowing. The picture is really bad because I wasn’t allowed to use my phone during trivia so had to sneak a fast shot…proof I’m not Peter Parker. The pictureless bread pudding was quite delicious, a fitting end to a table who wasn’t quite smart enough to win the prized confections.
Niagara-on-the-Lake made me crave life after 65. The thought of indulging on microgreens, creme brulee and a weekly burger plus a trivia beat down while drinking copious amounts of microbrewed beer is a solid retirement plan. Sure, I would need to put up with annoying summer tourists and creepy oil paintings but it beats snowbirding to Florida, plying bingo and eating dinner at 4 pm every night.
TIFF is annoying. It’s the time of year when A-listers pretend that they are artists and not actors who hold out for big salaries and insist on the right camera angles to minimize acne breakouts or skin blemishes. Actors like Adrian Brody forget the Gillette commercials they did with Andre 3000 and the other guy nobody’s ever heard of and become humble thespians touting the need to preserve the art of flim. So, I didn’t go to Hudson Kitchen because Brad Pitt had a private meal there (although it would be dreamy to put my ass in the same spot he did). I was more impressed at the fact that the chef had a history at Ursa and Woodlot, two restaurants which pride themselves on quality seasonal food and innovative plating techniques.
Hudson kitchen is a good sized restaurant, an expansion of the old Palmerston cafe which sits on the corner of Dundas West. Like Woodlot and Ursa, the decor was a blend of chic and worn. A small bar tended by a large man with quite the dapper mustache greets you as you enter who, based on the pre-opening hype, foreshadows the possibility of a pristine cocktail. The tables are scattered among hardwood floors. In the front, one wall is plain white and the other displays a plethora of picture frames containing quirky pics like the fork running away with the spoon.
I can just imagine what the A-list celebrity turned humble artist would say:
“Hudson kitchen is like Fight Club meets Interview with the Vampire. It’s a worn yet classic venue’s struggle in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. I was drawn by the evolution from the old Palmerston attitude and grasped the metamorphosis into a modern yet classic eatery for middle aged foodies.”
In fact, I was a little surprised by the crowd, True, it was early in the evening but a number of older couples were filling the place. Whitish hair, sport coats with jeans and the occasional sweater draped over the shoulders of a crisp dress shirt.
The cocktail list is short and sweet (well ironically..it’s not that sweet as most of the drinks gravitate more to the savory side of things).
Back to the artist…
“The Earth to Grapefruit seemed simple enough: beefeater, campari, lemon and cointreau. What’s amazing is the fact that it tasted like grapefruit without any grapefruit… a true demonstration of phenomenal cinematography similar to eating a Jelly Belly which tastes like popcorn and wondering how they achieved such trickery. It had a predominant bitterness (much like myself) that encompassed the struggle between the earth and the fruit it produces.”
“The Innocence Lost was exactly that…the innocence of a fat free cocktail is replaced with a cream based, multi-ingredient concoction reminiscent of a latte. It’s a realistic look at the struggle for identity in a crowded metropolitan cocktail market. The use of albumin is an advancement over the peasantry of mere egg white. There was a good balance and despite the fruit infusions and simple sugar, it lacked an overbearing sweetness.”
“The Covert Slim was the best of the choices. It was a modern day Romeo and Juliet…the brilliance was the conflict between the pre-dinner aperol and the post-dinner amaro to co-exist in something that can be enjoyed during the meal. Once again, the albumin played a key role in unifying these protagonists among a cast of bitter characters including lemon and grapefruit juice.”
“The expectation for people to pay for bread is a painful reminder of the evolution of societal norms. Yet at the same time we can demand that it’s brilliant. The schmaltz was supposed to be the star but was replaced by EVOO from Spain at the eleventh hour. This allowed the spectacular performance of the charred eggplant to shine. It was an absolutely delicious performance and elevated the decent bread to a higher level.”
“Hudson’s mushroom broth could be the new Pulp Fiction $5 milkshake. If you charge $16 bucks for mushroom broth it better be f’ing good. Unfortunately, the performance was similar to that of Jennifer Aniston…..not worth the money. It was a good broth but it wasn’t great. A few pieces of rye bread, some watercress and an extra pouring broth table side doesn’t make up for it.”
“Once again, the highlight of the late summer harvest salad was the supporting actor. The walnut brittle was the star. Although the concept of the harvest was lost (other than a few dollops of earthy paste hidden among the forest of greens), it was a nicely dressed salad rustically served atop a cross-section of a tree trunk.”
“The tagliatelle was the only vegetarian dish available. It was an exploration into the unpredictable sourness of society as demonstrated by the preserved lemon within the confines of the traditions of Parmesan cheese and zucchini. The pasta was a solid al dente performance but a slightly salty interpretation but tasty in the end.”
” The chicken adobo was a disappointing attempt at recreating the underbelly of Filipino cooking. Despite a sinful showing of breasts and thighs, there was a dryness to the performance which hardly created an eroticism among the brussel sprouts, quinoa and eggplant. Her skin was beautiful, however, tanned to a mouth watering crispy perfection. The sultry broth added a bit of sex appeal, it couldn’t cover the prosaic poultry.”
“The pear, gingerbread and caramel dessert was a celebration of all things autumn and symbolic of the growth of a pear…from flower to succulent fruit. The gingerbread and ice cream caressed the fruit, reminding it of the earth from which its tree once grew. Spongy Nougat reminded us that sweetness can come in all shapes and sizes. A truly tasty performance.”
If this truly were a movie cast, the walnut brittle, charred eggplant and chicken skin would be nominated for best supporting actor roles. Perhaps the art direction warrants an Oscar nod since the chicken and dessert plates were beautiful. The cocktails were a mixed bag and had names which sound like summer movie releases (I can’t wait to see Brad Pitt in Covert Slim next year). Otherwise, the main characters fell short in their attempt to elevate Hudson Kitchen to A-list status. Priced like a concession stand at a Cineplex, the salad ($14), adobo ($26), pasta ($22) and especially the broth ($16) just weren’t worth it. Plus, you have to pay for bread and water (if you want still or sparking) which adds to an already inflated bill of fare. The waitstaff seemed to lack confidence which is somewhat forgivable given the fact the place is in its infancy.
If Ursa and Woodlot are Godfather I and II, Hudson Kitchen is Godfather III. Since it was a little disappointing, I can’t give it two thumbs up and since it cost me an arm and a leg to eat there, I couldn’t use both thumbs anyway.
A business meeting brought me midtown for dinner. Midtown is a place where restaurants are restaurants and not political statements or abstract expressions of social activism. You can get an appetizer, main and dessert for a decent price without the need for an explanation about the difference between a starter, small plate or large plate. The menus tend to be simple and the decor looks like a restaurants and not like Johnny’s auto shop. Plus, you can have a conversation without having Radioactive by the Imagination Dragons blasting or listening to Run DMC remind me about footwear:
Now the Adidas I possess for one man is rare
myself homeboy got 50 pair
got blue and black cause I like to chill
and yellow and green when it’s time to get ill
got a pair that I wear when I’m playin ball
with the heal inside make me 10 feet tall
(This is no crack at Run DMC. I’d just as upset if Locked in the Trunk of a Car by the Tragically Hip were blasting in my ear).
Unlike it’s name, L’Avenue is a smallish bistro on Bayview, not Avenue. It’s easy to miss with its quaint front; a freckle of the mosaic that makes up the Leaside neighbourhood. Like the name suggests, it focuses on french style cooking, although updated with lighter, fresher techniques and local, seasonal ingredients. There is an fairly extensive and reasonably priced list of red and white wines available (many bottles are in the 35-50 dollar range) from a diversity of regions, Krombacher (Pils and Dark) on tap and a spattering of local and world renowned beer included a gluten-free choice as well
This night featured an oyster special which was served on a cloud of salty meringue. They were fresh and meaty and seasoned nicely although I’m always a fan of a little heat on the side.
For my hors d’oeuvres (or appetizers for the anglophone), I opted for sweetbreads in a promise to exchange some of them for the bone marrow at the table. Sometimes sweetbreads run the risk over being overly greasy or gritty. The chef avoided both and offered a simple dish atop fragrant streaks of coulis. The marrow was also served in it’s fundamental form, simple seasoned with some herbs and bread crumbs to add some crunch.
Our table’s family style commitment continued with an array of entrees which included the Fried Chicken “a la Basque”, Catalan Seafood Stew “Zarzuela” and a duck feature (we played rock paper and scissors to actually determine who would order the latter). In summary, the execution of each dish was spot on. The fried chicken was moist, the duck a beautiful medium rare and the scallop had a perfect char which housed a glistening white interior. Instead of relying on traditional french flavours such as ummm…butter, the chicken and seafood stew (as the names suggest) were infused with Spanish flavours including tomato and saffron respectively. The duck was a bit more traditional but the addition of rhubarb was stellar and a testament to their commitment to use seasonal ingredients.
Here’s an interesting fact. The pavlova dessert was named after the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (God, I love wikipedia). You would think that a dish with meringue as its foundation would have European origins, but in fact Pavlova is a creation of culinary juggernaut New Zealand (although Australia also tries to lay claim, possibly fueling the bitter Rugby rivalry which exists to this day). It was presented on a plate and with a style reminiscent of tea at Gramma’s on Sunday. Let’s call it an endearing cheesiness. Like the dishes before, it was well executed with a twist, in this case a tart passion fruit custard.
Calling L’Avenue a french bistro is a bit of a misnomer. Instead of small rich portions served in the most pretentious manner, the chefs invite Basque and Catalan flavours into many of the dishes and serve hearty portions in the midst of a casual environment.
L’Avenue bistro is like a good nap. It’s not the most exciting thing but it is refreshing and satisfying. You get Egyptian cotton sheets and a small mint on your fluffed pillow iwhile relaxing as soft music senerades you in the background. They adhere to a theme of comfort and tradition instead of throwing down an air mattress and trying to convince you it’s cool to sleep on it while blasting 2 Live Crew and then retweeting it when you do.
I happened to be staying across from the Purple Pig, the now iconic tapas style restaurant on the Magnificant Mile. It has a large menu featuring a variety of animals in different shapes and sizes. It is a collaboration of chefs Scott Harris, Tony Mantuano, Jimmy Bannos and JImmy Bannos Jr. and promises cheese, swine and wine…but not beer.
We were seated outside without much delay on a high table set up in communal fashion. They was plenty of room and were shortly joined by three girls who sounded like the Chipettes. I even named them Brittany, Jeanette and and Elenor while I was waiting for my food and moved over a little in case Alvin, Simon and Theodore dropped by too.
The waiter came quickly and was happy to boast the fact the focus on the menu was Mediterranean food. He spouted off the predictable verbatim used at almost every tapas or small plate restaurant in North America in a manner synonymous with a stewardess’ safety banter on an outgoing flight….
“Let me take a minute to explain the menu. This is a small plate restaurant meant for sharing so we don’t recommend you order individual dishes but instead order dishes to share as a table. The menu is constructed from light to heavy. We recommend 2-3 dishes per person. Personally, I like the asparagus as a starter and the pork belly for something a little richer, but be sure to save room for our award winning house made dessert..haha!”
Another great thing is pointing out an intolerance or allergy after the recital is over. For example, asking “Does the pork shank have any garlic or onions, leads to a perplexed and slightly pained face and the standard line “I don’t believe so but I’ll check with the chef”.
After the speech, he asked if we wanted a drink. Our group are beer drinkers, so I politely asked if they had any local beer. He looked astonished. Instead of the simple answer of “No”, I got the “this is a Mediterranean restaurant so we only serve beer from that region” in the same tone and manner one would proclaim that San Marzano tomatoes are the only tomatoes you can use in Italian cooking . Fair enough, but heaven forbid I ask if they have a beer or two from one of the most vibrant microbrew regions in North America. Better yet, the menu features such favorites as Brasserie Dupont “Saison Dupont” from BELGIUM and Belhaven “Scottish Stout” from SCOTLAND. I’m not a geography expert, but I don’t think ships cruising the Mediterranean make port stops in Brussels or Glasgow.
One of the appeals of the purple pig is the huge menu, although it can be a bit burdensome when trying to decide amongst 4 people an appropriate “course” of action. After a lengthy discussion, they all looked at me and said “Well, you just order!”. So I did…
Pig’s Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg- Not the best I’ve had but the egg was cooked perfectly. The pig’s ear lacked a little integrity.
House Cured Lardo Iberico- Don’t mistake it for cheese! This salume was very pleasant with a subtle saltiness and silky texture.
Greek Yogurt with Mango Chutney- Arguably one of the best dishes I had on this day. The yogurt was thick and rich and seasoned wonderfully, The chutney had enough acid to cut through the intense creaminess of this oil laden spreadable delight.
Octopus with Green Beans, Fingerling Potatoes & Salsa Verde- Octopus was cooked well and worked with the beans. A little oily however.
Wagyu Sirloin Tip with Fingerling Potatoes, Cippolini Onions, Olives & Bone Marrow Vinaigrette- Cooked just to medium rare, the meat was tender and the potatoes were crisp and delicious. A safe dish for those not invested in snouts, jowls or tails although they do manage to sneak in a bit of bone marrow.
Mussels with Pancetta, Crème Fraîche & Marjoram- Decent but by no means the best mussels I’ve ever had.
Meatball Slider with Parmesan & Arugula- Moist, tangy and salty, it was a blissful few bites. Really messy to eat given the meat to bun ratio!
Pork Secreto with Roasted Red Pepper, Leeks & Pickled Watermelon Rind- This was another divine dish. This amazing cut of pork had an incredible sear and maintained it’s moistness.
There was too much food so dessert was not an option.
The purple pig is a Chicago icon, a magical creation of a handful of some of Chicago’s most prominent chefs. It’s a true nose to tail, small plate menu. The outdoor seating area is nice but be prepared to seat communally with all sorts of folks (maybe you’ll get lucky and have Fred and Daphne from Mystery Inc. show up). Inside, it’s loud and crowded and getting into the small washroom can be as difficult as getting into the restaurant itself. The menu is large and diverse but don’t go with indecisive people because it might be as painful as watching my dad try to pick out a birthday card. My choice of the various fare had some good and some not so good but the highlights were definitely the pork secreto and the Greek yogurt with rhubarb chutney although the lardo and steak tips also get honorable mention. That said, there’s at least another 20 things on the menu (including dessert) I’d want to try.
The only question that remains is “Can one have a medieval feast at a Mediterranean restaurant?” Based on the waiter’s logic, the answer is a resounding yes! After all, I can order a Scottish stout or a Belgian beer. Hell, maybe Game of Throne’s Winterfell may have been saved and the Red Wedding massacre may have been prevented if they knew an attack through the Mediterranean was a possibility. Damn beer drinkers.