Sunday, October 12, 2014

Soupalicious @ Wychwood Barns

While I have taken part in many Summerlicious and Winterlicious events, this year was the first time that I attended Soup-a-licious, held at Wychwood Barns.  Twenty-nine different booths were set up with soups provided by restaurants,  catering companies, shops and other soup vendors.  Advanced tickets cost $15 for 10 soup tasting coupons while tickets at the door cost $22.  Apparently, if you brought your own soup bowl or soup spoon, you were awarded an extra coupon, which I did not know until I got there.

There were so many wonderful sounding soups that I actually considered getting more coupons.  Lucky I didn't since after 6-7 helpings plus some sips from my husband's tastings, I was so stuffed that I could not consume my last few tastings and had to give my remaining tickets away.  Even that was difficult to do since most people had their own excess tickets and looked rather sick when offered the chance of tasting more soup.  Towards the end, I was asking if I could just get a half cup instead of full cup of soup per tasting.

Many of the soups came with a variety of toppings including croutons, pretzels,  olive oil, fresh herbs, jalapeno buttermilk biscuits, sour cream and more.  

Cobbs Bread was giving away free bread to go with the soup, which sounded like a great deal until you realized that the bread was too filling and took away stomach room from the soup.  Pizza Del Arte was also giving away free pizza slices, which were equally filling but so good that we could not resist.   They handed out a 50% off coupon which we plan to use in the future to order a full pizza.
I tried some delicious soups including mushroom, clam chowder, Spanish fennel, smokey tomato, cheddar & ale with pretzel croutons, cauliflower/spinach/chickpea/garam masala with a crispy papri ball, corn chowder, cauliflower/garlic/sesame and mulligatawny.

Tasting the soups was quite a fun experience but it would have been much better had it not been an unusually warm, Indian summer day in October.  With temperatures in the mid twenties, it was tough drinking all that hot soup and we were all building up quite the sweat.  Where was the chilled vichyssoise when we needed it?

Monday, November 04, 2013

Espresso Bar Mercurio

The Espresso Bar Mercurio is a great place to grab a quick bite for lunch, or a coffee and a snack.  It has a unique arrangement for ordering that is part cafeteria style and part table service.  When you enter the restaurant, you pick up a menu and wait in line to approach the counter.  There you are given a table number and you place your order and pay.  Then you go find the table with your assigned number and await your meal to be brought to you.  The daily specials are written on the windshield of a classic 1950s Fiat.

They serve sandwiches, salads, burgers and other main courses but with a bit of a twist.  The burger came on a thin herbed flat-bread instead of the traditional hamburger bun , while the cod fish and "chips" were served with lightly breaded zucchini fries and an aioli dipping sauce. I love this variation on the potato fries, since the zucchini was both tasty and probably healthier.  Both dishes were accompanied with a bit of green salad and some home made potato chips.

 Many people were having coffee and dessert.  We tried a butter tart, which was a bit too sweet and gooey. We also tried their Cafe Au Lait cookie which was the right consistency between crunchy and chewy and had a nice chocolate flavour but not much coffee taste.  Other cookie flavours include Shortbread and chocolate chip, and some vegan options like Flourless Cashew and Cranberry Oatmeal.

Espresso Bar Mercurio
321 Bloor Street West

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fuzz Box

If you want to snack on authentic Nova Scotian donairs without paying the premium price at a restaurant like Hopgoods Foodliner, then The Fuzz Box is the place for you.  A donair consists of thin slices of seasoned beef, tomatoes, onions, and the signature sweet garlic sauce, all wrapped in a pita.  This East Coast specialty is $6.49 at The Fuzz Box compared to the $14 appetizer at Hopgoods.  You don't get the ambiance, service or amazing chocolate bar dessert that is available at Hopgoods, but the donair itself stands up to the comparison.

We also tried the fried pepperoni with honey mustard dipping sauce for $5.49 but didn't find this worth the money.  If we go back, we would like to try the donair pizza or panzarotti.

Just a few buildings down from Fuzz Box, on the other side of the street, is a beautiful Art Deco building that used to be the Roxy Theatre, but has been turned into a Tim Hortons.  The lovely yellow-bricked facade remains with many features of the theatre still intact.  There is the gorgeous ticket booth, the marquee announcing "Tim Hortons On The Run", and neon lights denoting "Allenby", the original name of the theatre when it was first built in 1935. 

The Fuzz Box
1246 Danforth Ave.

Tim Hortons
1195 Danforth Ave.

Brussels Bistro

We've finally proven Thomas Wolfe wrong–you can go home again, especially when this refers to the reincarnation of the restaurant Cafe Brussels into the newly opened Brussels Bistro.  We used to love Cafe Brussels on the Danforth, especially for their moules-frites (mussels and fries), rack of lamb dish, and the gorgeous decor of the two-tiered restaurant.  It was a sad day when it closed.

But now, Cafe Brussels has been re-branded and reopened in the Beach area under the new name of Brussels Bistro.  The decor is much more modest than the opulent Cafe Brussels, but charming in its own right.  It is in a renovated house that is reminiscent of the restaurant Corner House.

The best of all is that the menu is the same as the old place, and my favourite dishes are still there!  The menu contains an entire section specifically for mussels.  The one I like best is the "Mussels a la Snob" which sit in a broth containing wine, garlic, cream, flour, butter, tarragon, celery, carrots, onions, herbs, and peppercorns.  It's so good I find myself drinking it like soup.  The frites are thin and crispy and come served with mayonnaise.

My other entree of choice is the "Carré d’agneau, Roquefort", otherwise known as rack of lamb with roquefort sauce, accompanied with seasonal vegetables.  The blue cheese flavour in the sauce is amazing and goes so well with the perfectly cooked lamb.

We were so excited to experience the old Cafe Brussels food again that we couldn't decide which of our favourites to order.  We ended up with both, by sharing the mussels as an appetizer followed by the lamb as an entree.  This was a bit too much food but we were too busy tripping down memory lane to care.  In our defense, we did skip dessert so as not to be complete gluttons.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Snacking Our Way North on Yonge St.

Walking along Yonge St. between Davisville and Lawrence, there are many opportunities to get a quick snack, without having to invest the time or money on a sit-down meal.  We have a few favourites that we frequent regularly, and also found a new place that we are waiting to try.

The pizza available at lunch time at Falasca reminds me of our experiences eating pizza in Rome.  Large square slabs of pizza with different sauces and ingredients are on display behind the counter.  A small number denotes which of the 31 different pre-determined pizzas from the menu are currently available.  For example, number 7 is the Arrabbita, a spicy pizza made with fresh mozzarella, scamorza cheese, garlic, chili powder, cherry tomatoes while number 23 is the Norcina, with mozzarella, black truffle, Italian sausage, and pecorino cheese.   There are no pre-cut slices to be purchased.  The pizza is sold by weight with a different price per pound for each type, depending on the type of ingredients found on it.  You can order as little or as much as you want from the various slabs and the proprietor will cut and weigh your selections.

The pizzas have thin, crispy crust, just like we found in Rome.  When we arrived, two new pizzas had just come out of the oven–number 6 is the funghi e Salsiccia (button mushrooms, Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella) and number 9 the funghi e provola (Button mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, smoked provola).  We chose these two since they were freshly baked and did not need to be reheated–and having mushroom (my favourite) as the main ingredient did not hurt!  It was interesting to note how many of the 31 pizzas (including our two choices) did not include tomato sauce, that staple of North American pizza.

Although Street Fish Market is a seafood store that sells raw fish and shellfish, it also offers some delectable prepared food options.  Battered haddock pieces are served on a stick, like giant popsicles, and come with fried potato wedges or an elaborate choice of salads such as the asparagus and mushroom salad that we chose.  Also available were lobster rolls, fish tacos, fried smelt, and more.  All the seafood is prepared on the spot using the freshest of ingredients. You can even purchase any piece of raw fish and ask for it to be prepared to your liking. 

Unfortunately, since the store was not designed for dining, there is very little seating available to eat the delicious food.  You have a choice of a few bar stools along a ledge adjacent to the cash register, or you could fight for the one small table at the back of the store, or jockey for position on the bench in front of the store.  The high quality, great tasting food definitely make it worth a return visit.  But we made a note to self to return on a week day, since the volume of customers on the weekend made for long delays to even order, let alone get your food served and find seating.

Finally, the store that we have scouted out but have not actually tried yet is called Douce France.  It is a patisserie, bakery, confection shop where all products are imported from France.  What caught our eye was the sign advertising authentic Angelina's Hot Chocolate from Paris.  We have had the hot chocolate from Angelina's when we were in Paris and it is out of this world.  The hot chocolate is so thick that a spoon could almost stand straight up in the cup.  This is accompanied by a bowl of beautifully whipped cream and a cup full of sugar, which the customer can add to their taste.  On the day we passed by, it was much too hot to contemplate drinking hot chocolate, but we've made a note to return once the cooler weather hits. 

 Falasca Pizza - 2059 Yonge St.
Street Fish Market - 2584 Yonge St.
Douce France - 2471 Yonge St

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dining Choices at Yonge & St. Clair

 The area around Yonge St. and St. Clair Ave. has accumulated some good eating locations over the past few years.  We have a couple of high-end "destination" restaurants, with Didier serving classic French cuisine and Cava specializing in tapas from the Iberian peninsula.  There are also a slew of mid-range eateries that are a cut above the typical fast food chains.

Nove Trattoria has been bustling with business since it first opened, and it is not surprising.   The restaurant is owned and run by members of the Bianco family, who have decades of experience cooking in Italy.  It serves authentic Italian cuisine at reasonable prices, using the freshest ingredients that are reminiscent of dining in Tuscany.

The caprese salad ($14) is made with the moistest, most flavourful buffalo mozzarella that I've ever tasted.  There are nine pizzas ($12.50-15) on the menu, each one named after one of the nine Bianco siblings, as is the restaurant itself, since "nove" means nine in Italian.  The homemade pasta ($12.50-16.50) is cooked perfectly al dante, accompanied with a variety of cream, tomato or olive oil-based sources.  My favorite is the "fettucine della nonna" which comes with grilled chicken, porcini mushrooms and spinach in a cream sauce.   The "secondi" courses range from $19-24.50 for salmon, chicken, seafood, ribs and steak dishes.

Bushi Udon Kappo specializes in chewy udon noodles that are freshly made on the premises.  The udon is served either hot or cold in a "soy-sauce-based Bonito broth soup" and comes with ingredients such as pork, mushroom, tofu, seaweed, shrimp or veggie tempura.  The best option that we've tried is the curry udon with beef and veggies ($10.50), which has a thick spicy broth.   I would stick to the udon though.  When we strayed and tried the tempura, we found it to have limp and soggy batter.

 The Urban Bistro at St. Clair just west of Yonge St. is home to a series of separate food kiosks including a breakfast place and an Asian noodle place.  The most interesting stall belongs to the makers of Hot Bunzz, taking the concept of  the baked Chinese pork bun and putting a spin on it.  Instead of the traditional filling, the buns are stuffed with choices like bison short rib, pork belly, elk, pulled pork, sausage, Thai basil beef and coconut curry chicken.  Vegetarian options include mushroom and spinach or Quebec 3-cheesed.  The buns are served with homemade potato chips that are spiced with black pepper and rosemary.  The choices for sides, which consist of variations of green salads, potato salads and coleslaw, change on a daily basis.  These exotic buns are surprisingly cheap (abet a bit on the small size) at only $3 each, with volume deals such as buy 5 buns and get the 6th free.

Holy Chuck has been voted one of the top burger joints in Toronto, coming second only to Burger's Priest.  Apparently, it's all about the beef.  Holy Chuck uses local, Ontario beef which they grind into hamburger meat several times a day.  The freshly made patties are pan grilled to produce thick juicy burgers.  The signature Holy Chuck Burger ($9.99) is a double cheeseburger with bacon and caramelized onions and the menu implores you not to add anything else to it.

More unusual options include the Animal Feed (panko crusted portabello mushroom, feta, cream cheese, lettuce, tomato, lemon aioli), the Croissant du Pay San (beef patty, fried egg, pancetta, french fries in a croissant),  and the Holy Duck ($27.99 for beef patty, double smoked bacon, fois gras, truffle oil, maple syrup, black truffles).  The ultimate eating challenge is called "Go Chuck Yourself"– 6 patties, 6 cheeses, triple bacon and caramelized onions stacked between THREE grilled cheese sandwiches.  Why anyone would want to eat this volume of food is beyond me, but there is photographic evidence of the people who have  succeeded. 

It's really nice to have so many good dining options just steps away from our home.  Wonder what we should eat today? ...

Nove Trattoria - 1406 Yonge St.
Bushi Udon Kappi - 1404 Yonge St.
Hot Bunzz / Urban Bistro - 21 St. Clair West
Holy Chuck - 1450 Yonge St.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Marianne's Sausages

Who would have thought that one of the most interesting street vendors in Toronto would be situated on "Hospital Row", the stretch of University Ave. just south of College St.  The sausage stand even has a name–Marianne's, as shown at the top of its lengthy menu.  In addition to the usual Italian pork sausages, the menu also offers such exotic choices as Halal beef, jerk chicken with coconut sauce and onions, vegetarian tofu, and wild meats such as elk, bison, and wild boar.  The jerk chicken sausage is my favourite, as it is moist and juicy and deliciously spicy with a good kick to it.

The prices are quite reasonable, at $7 for the wild meat sausages, and $3-5 for the other choices.  Potato, sweet potato and quinoa salad are offered as sides.  Depending of the day of the week, specialty sandwiches include pulled pork, peameal bacon, and roast beef sourced from Barberian Steak House.

One of the most popular menu items is the "Love Plate" which consists of a sampling of the various items.  The plate includes half of a jerk chicken sausage with the trimmings, choice of baked or sweet potato, and choice of quinoa salad or another half of one of the wild meat sausages.   All of this is topped with a dollap of sour cream.  The plate was apparently so appealing that a passerby asked us what we had and actually took a photo of our lunch.   

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sushi Kaji Tasting Menu

Based solely on location and appearance, you would not peg Sushi Kaji to be a fine dining establishment, boasting some of the best Japanese food in Toronto.   Nestled in southern Etobicoke, in midst of an inauspicious set of low-rise storefronts on the Queensway between Islington Ave and Royal York Road, you can even find free parking after 6pm right in front of the restaurant - no valet parking here!  The interior does not seem much different from any other sushi joint, except for the large wrap-around chef's counter where you can choose to sit and observe the sushi masters at work.  The piped-in muzak playing a cheesy Gypsy King version of "I Will Survive" didn't do much to change first impressions.

But once you try the food, you will know that you are in for something special.  Sushi Kaji has no a la carte menu, but offers two omakase (chef's choice) tasting menus, priced at $120 or $150.  We have eaten there twice in the past five years, each time to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  Both times, we chose the higher priced menu which offered much better selections, since once you are up at those price points, you might as well go for broke.

Rich ordered a cup of sake, which was served in a most interesting fashion.  The sake was poured into a large ceramic "shot glass" sitting in a square ceramic saucer.  The waitress poured the sake right up to the brim (at which point I thought whoa... it's going to overflow), and then continued to pour so that excess sake fell into the saucer.  It took a few seconds to realize she was doing this on purpose.  Apparently this is meant to symbolize wealth (overflowing riches).  Now the trick was how to drink from this without spilling it all ...

The tasting menu started with three delicious appetizers including a battered fish cake with shredded snow peas sitting on top of a daikon radish, Japanese eggplant with a chicken miso sauce, and my favourite–a sweet asparagus soup made with kuzu sauce and a crispy asparagus cake.  At least, that is what I think we ate, since it was very difficult to discern what was being said by the heavily Japanese-accented waitresses.

The sashimi course contained the freshest, tenderest cuts of fish and seafood including Spanish mackerel, red tuna, octopus, sea bream, and hirame (Japanese sole).  There was also shredded white carrot, seaweed and cucumber that was to be dipped in a special sesame sauce.

The most beautifully plated dish consisted of a slab of seared black cod, lotus root slices stuffed with sharp tasting mustard seeds, and a slice of corn on the cob which was hollowed and stuffed with a shrimp/crab mixture.  Brightly coloured edible flowers and dabs of sweet hoisin-like sauce completed the the artistic creation.

The main course was not only tasty but also a unique dining experience.  A personal Hibachi burner was placed in front of each of us and then a pot full of udon noodles, greens, enoki mushroom and slices of raw wagyu beef was set on top of it.  Once the burner was turned on, the soupy sukiyaki dish quickly came to a bubbling boil and we were given instructions to allow the beef to cook until about 80% done.  A bowl containing a soft-poached egg was placed beside the burner.  We were told to stir the egg into a sauce and use it as a dip for the noodle dish.  The result was bursting with flavour and I only wished we were given a spoon so we could drink the broth at the end.

By the time the exotic sushi course came, I was already nearly full, but soldiered on.  The pieces of nigiri seemed never ending as we were presented with seared scallop, tuna tartar, hirame with plum sauce, fried abalone, as well as the more traditional red and white tuna and shrimp.  It was interesting that we didn't seem to get any salmon in any of the courses.  I guess this was considered too commonplace and uninteresting for the chef.

The meal finally ended with a bowl of cold somen noodles with ginger and green onion, followed by a different dessert for each of us.  I received a green tea creme brulee, while Rich got a fruit salad with jello squares and a blob of red bean paste (yuck!).  Neither desserts were quite my cup of tea (where was the chocolate??) but since Rich loves creme brulee, we switched.  I made him eat the red bean paste, but enjoyed the fruit salad which had strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, blueberries and honey dew.

All the staff including the host, waitresses and chefs seemed to be Japanese.  The one conspicuous exception was the white apprentice chef, who spent the first part of the evening merely observing the others.  But by the end of the night, he was taking part in creating the sushi and sashimi dishes.  It was fun watching the sushi master, who was so graceful that his hands seemed to be doing a dance or tai chi movies, as he scooped the rice and the fish and joined them together.

Sushi Kaji
860 The Queensway,  (416) 252-2166

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Keriwa - Aboriginal Cuisine

We have eaten at so many restaurants in the past that the menus are starting to feel redundant, and are therefore always looking for new dining experiences to try.  Keriwa Cafe, which serves cuisine inspired by North American Aboriginal ingredients, seemed to fit the bill.

Right from the start, the decor reflected the restaurant's Aboriginal roots, including the large metal feather sculpture hanging from the ceiling, birch-bark themed painting and colourful patterns and designs on the walls, stairs and banquet benches.

The menu changes regularly to highlight seasonal ingredients available locally and regionally which are inspired by Aboriginal cuisine.  We shared a starter of smoked whitefish served with kelp, radishes and a cucumber sauce.  For main course, we each picked a bison dish.  Rich had a bison burger with bacon and greens surrounded by a bannock (Inuit flat bread) with duck-fat potato patties sitting on a rose aioli sauce.  My meal consisted of a tender piece of bison short rib served with grilled eggplant, wild rice and a rye berry sauce.  The vegetable sides of asparagus with radish and hard-boiled egg in a mustard dressing, and fiddleheads stir-fried with bacon, leek and garlic were delicious and served in interesting wood bowls.

Other unique sounding items on the menu included stinging nettle soup w sheep sorrel, crème fraîche, cucumber, radish and "dirt?", stewed peanuts with garlic scape, swiss chard, yogurt and tomato, smoked hen with arugula, elderberry and fiddlehead.

The prices ranged from $10 for the vegetable sides, to around $10-18 for starters, of which the bison burger was considered, up to $26 for the most expensive main, which was my bison rib.  We did not bother with dessert since it was typical standard fare.

This was an interesting meal representing a different style of ethnic cooking that was tasty and satisfying without significantly straining the pocketbook.

 Keriwa Cafe
1690 Queen St West

Friday, May 24, 2013

Catch Seafood Restaurant

Catch Seafood restaurant proudly advertises that it only serves sustainable fish and seafood of known origin.  This gives an additional reason to eat at this restaurant–the primary reason being that the food is very good.

The menu was divided into sections labelled "Sides", "Small/Medium", "Large - Fish & Shellfish", "Large - Not Fish or Shellfish", "Whole Fish", and "Feast", with each additional section offering progressively larger portions.  Examples under "Whole Fish" included 2 pounds of halibut and 5 pounds of trout.  The "Feast" section listed 15 to 25 pounds of wild striped bass, and their speciality which they call Gout–oysters stuffed in a trout stuffed in a goat!  You need to give 4 days notice and be ready to drop over $600 if you are interested in these items.

We actually preferred the sound of the choices on the "Small/Medium" section and decided to order several selections from there.  It was a good plan, since the offerings turned out to be surprisingly substantial and more than sufficient.

I started with six pieces of perfectly seared tuna, drizzled with olive oil, topped with mint, watercress and goat cheese.   Rich had two giant seared scallops with grilled prosciutto served on a tasty cheese sauce.  His scallops were so sweet and flavourful that I regretted not choosing them, but I really enjoyed my starter as well.

For our "main" course, we both ordered the lobster roll, which I thought looked tiny when it first arrived.  But then I realized that while the bun was small, it was literally overflowing with large chunks of succulent lobster–an excellent proportion of bun versus lobster.  The meal also came with a hearty salad and crispy home-made potato chips.

The highlight for us was actually the "side" dish, which consisted of shredded pieces of brussel sprouts mixed with real crab meat and provolone cheese.  This dish was absolutely delicious and I found I preferred eating brussel sprouts in this shredded format.

Since we really enjoyed our meals, we ate every bite.  As the waitress was clearing our plates and offering us dessert, she made the comment about how much we were able to pack away.  Feeling unjustly labelled as little piggies when we only ordered items from the "small" and "medium" sections, we were nonetheless shamed out of ordering any dessert.  We probably would not have had dessert anyways since there was nothing particularly interesting on the menu. However the waitress didn't do herself any favours if she was trying to make this sale...

744 St. Clair Ave West

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Billy Jacks Po'Boys

We've eaten several times now at Billy Jacks Po'Boys and each meal has been excellent.  Located in the west end on Bloor St near Islington Avenue, this restaurant specializes in "Southern Comfort" food, including the Po'Boy sandwich which it is named for.

A Po'Boy is a submarine-styled sandwich that originated from Louisiana.  It usually consists of fresh crispy French bread wrapped around fried, breaded seafood such as oysters, shrimp, catfish or soft-shelled crab, or meats such as roast beef, chicken, pulled pork, and accompanied by lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo.

Billy Jacks offers delicious Po'Boy sandwiches that are generous with its fillings.  Our two favourites are the fried oyster and the blackened catfish.  The oysters are large, plump and juicy with a delicious light coating of what tastes like a cornmeal breading.  The blackened catfish is delightfully spiced and has a kick.  The sandwich comes with a large choice of sides including fries, hush puppies & gravy, gumbo soup, onion rings, coleslaw, rice and the Po' Boy salad.  This is a heaping salad of artisan greens, toasted pecans, raisins tossed with a seasonal vinaigrette.

Unable to decide which sandwich to order, I asked whether I could get the oysters as an appetizer rather than a sandwich, even though this was not on the menu.  Not only was the request accepted, but the oysters came with an amazing dipping sauce.  We have tried are the Acadian perogies–sauteed roasted garlic, mashed potato and cheddar cheese perogies with a Cajun dipping sauce, and the pulled pork mini sliders.  Everything has been delicious.

Another stellar main course option is the Chicken Fried Chicken. This is a breaded chicken schnitzel smothered with an amazing creamy mushroom sauce, served with mash potatoes and the best coleslaw we've ever had.  What put this slaw over the top for us was the light dressing, nuts and raisins which made for a perfect side.

The only course that we found to be just average was the dessert.  The Bananas Foster had a nice flavour, but the graham cracker crust and Chantilly Lace cream topping of the Lemon Icebox Pie was too thick and overwhelmed the lemon filling.

This is now my go-to place to get breaded oysters, which I will never tire of.

Billy Jacks Po' Boys
3369 Bloor St. West

Hopgoods Foodliner Maritimes Dinng

While it would be difficult to pinpoint what exactly is Canada's national dish, it is much easier to talk about regional specialties.  Hopgoods Foodliner's menu focuses on ingredients and recipes from the east coast.  The restaurant is named after Chef Geoff Hopgood's family's chain of grocery stores (which are known as foodliners in the Maritimes)

We started off with the signature Halifax Donairs, which is an east coast spin on the Greek gyro, but the sauce is sweet instead of savory.  Thin slices of seasoned beef are covered with tomato, onion and this delicious, creamy sauce and served on a pita.  The not so secret ingredient for the sauce is proudly touted in the large display shelves full of cans of Carnation evaporated milk.  The donairs arrive on a paper bag, as a tribute to the traditional "take-out" nature of this snack.

Another retro appetizer was the hot crab dip topped with panko bread crumbs that were served with Triscuit crackers. In fact, the boxes of Triscuits were also prominently displayed on another shelf.  This was apparently based on a recipe that Hopgood's mother used to serve at cocktail parties in the 80s.  The waiter told us that they used to try to make their own crackers, but the result tasted exactly the same as the Triscuits.  Most of the appetizers were in the $14-16 range.

We've been to Hopgoods Foodliner twice in the past 8 months.  On each visit, one of us decided to order the Digby scallops with ham hock and pease pudding.  It was interesting that the same dish with the same ingredients arrived in a totally different cooking style and presentation.  Each time, the scallops were nicely seared but what they sat on varied.  On our first visit in the summer, they came on an oblong dish with slices of ham and a pool of summer peas covered in melted pork fat.  The second time in the winter, the meal was served on a round plate with fried ham croquettes and pea shoots with a balsamic drizzle. 

We've also tried the tender veal cheeks with turnip puree, shoots and slices, served with a beer stout and beet reduction, and sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts for an added crunch.  The mains ranged from $22-27.

There are surprisingly only two dessert choices on the menu, but anyone who loves chocolate would only need one–the Crispy Toffee, which misleadingly does not even have chocolate in its name.  This home-made chocolate bar ($8) contains a mixture of Rice Krispies, cereal and melted white chocolate, topped with a soft toffee.  This combination is formed into a bar and frozen for several hours.  It is then covered with a layer of melted dark chocolate and cocoa butter and what seems like a dusting of cocoa powder.  The final touch is a sprinkling of sea salt.

The result is an explosion of flavours and textures that have to be experienced to be believed.  This bar is so good that I'm tempted to order it for appetizer and main course as well as dessert.  It comes conveniently wrapped up in paper and a string, which makes it perfect for taking home a few extra bars.  Perhaps I need to bring along a cooler next time.

Hopgoods Foodliner
325 Roncesvalles Ave

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Izakaya Dining at Guu Sakabar

Wanting something different from the standard Japanese sushi restaurants, we went to an Izakaya, an alternative Japanese dining adventure both in terms of atmosphere and menu. Dining at Guu Sakabar turned out to be not only a culinary experience but a cultural one as well.

As each new patron enters the restaurant, he is greeted by a loud chorus of hellos in boisterous Japanese by the wait staff.  There are three choices of seating.  You can sit on high stools at the bar, where you are further greeted with deep two-hands-raised-in-the-air bows of respect and welcome from the bartenders.  There are standard wood tables with backless stools that seat two or four people.  And finally there is a separate area that requires you to remove your shoes and sit on a mat at a large communal table.  Whenever an order is taken, the menu choices are shouted out loudly across the room and acknowledged by the chef.

Izakaya fare is offered in a similar fashion to tapas or dim sum, with small plates meant for sharing. The menu sections include starters, salads, cold, grilled/baked or deep fried dishes, rice hotpot and noodles with prices ranging from around $3.5 for the smaller dishes to $12 for the more substantial ones.  We started with the blanched spinach in a sesame paste, seared B.C.tuna sashimi in a ponzu sauce with fried garlic slices, baked oysters with mushroom and cheese, and green bean tempura served with a matcha (green tea flavoured) salt.  While we've had variations of the other dishes before, the spinach dish was unique and delicious.

As a second round, we ordered a few more dishes, including the intriguingly presented Kabocha Korokke which looked like a candied apple on a stick covered with pink sauce.  It was actually a hard boiled egg covered with a puree Japanese kabocha pumpkin, then breaded and deep fried like a scotch egg and covered with a sauce that might have been a mayo and ketchup mixture.  It was average in taste but awesome in appearance.  We also tried the tender and aromatic grilled pork cheeks with salt and yuzu pepper topped with white cabbage, and the grilled saba mackerel with herbs, lemon, onion and garlic on a sizzling hot plate.  This last dish had a fishy taste and little bones in it.  This is not one we would order again.

We had the only non-Asian waitress taking care of our table.  It was amusing to hear our blond server calling out our order in a stream of Japanese. We found out that she started out in an Izakaya in Vancouver and while she was not fluent, she knew enough Japanese to be able to eat well in Japan.

As we left, there was a loud chorus of "Arigato" as we were thanked for coming.  This was a really fun dining experience and the food was tasty. We would definitely return to try some of the other choices and re-order some of our favourites. 

Guu Sakabar
559 Bloor Street W

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chicken Sandwich at Sanagan Meat Locker

The recently opened Sanagan Meat Locker in Kensington Market is sleeker, cleaner and more modern than its predecessor, European Quality Meat.  It offers a wide selection of high quality meats, including great looking steaks and unique sausages such as wild boar with pistachio and red wine sauce.  It is obviously a big hit with its customers, since the store is always packed and you have to take a number and wait for your turn.

There is also an excellent hot food counter that sells sandwiches, salads and fries.  The consensus seems to be that the roast chicken sandwich is the favourite.  Moist pieces of chicken covered in a mayo-based remoulade sauce, a piece of salty, crispy chicken skin, lettuce and tomato are served on a fresh bun.  It is reminiscent of a sandwich from Porcetta with its crackling, but made with chicken–maybe it should be called a "Chicketta" sandwich.  The fries are also excellent–thin, crispy and seasoned with salt and chives.

Unfortunately there is no seating in this meat shop, so you are left to eat it while standing in a stall with a small ledge for a table.  Good thing the sandwich tastes so good that you would probably have gobbled it up quickly anyways.  Other sandwiches offered include a Korean pulled pork, grilled steak chimchurri, roast beef with cheddar and mushroom gravy, sausage with tomato jam & peppers, and a ham, salami, turkey with dijonaisse.  While you can pay by credit card for buying meats, the deli counter is cash only.  The sandwiches are $7 or $9.50 with fries.

Sanagan Meat Locker
Kensington Market
176 Baldwin St.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

British Dining - Queen & Beaver / Oxley House / The Grove

The Queen and Beaver on Elm Street is a cut above the usual English pub chains found in Toronto, in terms of its authentically British menu, decor, and even the china on which the meal is served.  It is a perfect fit for the recently coined concept of the British gastropub - a pub that serves higher end restaurant food.

Unique starters on its pub menu include pressed quail and goose liver with spiced prune jam, grilled ox tongue and mushrooms, potted duck and pontack-sage chutney.  Pheasant, Venison and Welsh lamb are examples of main courses, which range from $23-31. Sides include fondant roots, neeps and tatties and dripping chips.  This is not the typical Fox and Fiddle fare. 

You can also order from the less expensive but still quite expansive bar menu.  Here you find the standards more traditionally found in North American pubs, such as fish and chips served with homemade ketchup and shepherd's pie with peas.  But you could get more adventurous and order rabbit and potato pie, lamb curry with chutney, or braised steak with prunes, to name a few. 

I went for an amazing dish called the Wild Mushroom Pithivier, which was like a flaky slice of pie that contained layers of scalloped potato and savoury mushrooms.  This came with a side salad and was both unique and delicious.  For appetizers, we shared crispy rabbit from the bites section for $9, and a scotch egg from the snacks section for a mere $6.  The rabbit came in large battered chunks of moist, tender meat covered in a sweet, fruity oxford sauce and accompanied by a side dipping sauce.  The scotch egg had a nicely gooey centre, with flavourful pork filling.

The dessert menu is titled "Puddings", even though tarts and ice cream were also on this list. We had the daily special pudding, called "The Wild Blueberry Queen of Puddings", as well as the Elderberry and Plum Tart with Buttermilk Ice Cream.  All the appetizers, desserts and coffees were served in mismatched, patterned plates, saucers and mugs that had quite the British feel.

British monarchs were highlighted in the decor, with an entire wall dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II at various ages and Charles and Diana commemorative plates in the china cabinet.  We sat under a huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth I holding a beaver in her lap.  The most outrageous feature was found in the men's washroom (which my male friend sneaked me into so I could see).  The urinal stalls came with a miniature soccer field, complete with net and soccer ball.  I think the point is to practise your aim while you pee?  Men have all the fun!

Shortly afterwards, we visited the Queen and Beaver's sister restaurant in Yorkville, called Oxley House.  The menu was similar in theme although not all the same choices were available.  We were impressed by the interior decor, which made you feel like you were visiting a stately manor and the beautiful garden patio. Alas, there was no fun bathroom fixture this time (I made Rich go and check!)

In terms of the meal, we had roasted chicken breast with heirloom tomatoes, mussels in a wine, fennel and onion broth with fries, and a sautéed vegetable medley.  We finished off by sharing a scoop of wild cherry and stilton cheese ice cream, which was a strange combination of tart, sweet and salty.  We liked the meal that we ate at The Queen and Beaver better since we chose more interesting options.  But the ambiance of sitting outside in the garden patio of The Oxley on a warm sunny afternoon could not be beat.

Upscale British dining seems to be a new trend in Toronto these days, as The Grove also also focuses on English cuisine.  It is a restaurant, not a gastropub, and has a small menu that offers a choice of 4 mains which change regularly.  When we went, fish served with fresh green vegetables and no starch was heavily featured.  This made for a nice healthy main course that was good, but nothing special.  What did stand out was the soup made of parsnip, bacon, snails and fried bread. I could have eaten several bowls of this and called it a meal.  Also unique was the presentation of the dessert, which was like a deconstructed lemon meringue pudding, served in a mismatched teacup and saucer.

Queen & Beaver
35 Elm St.

121 Yorkville Ave.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Feasting Room Featuring Goose

Pop-up restaurants seem to be the newest rage these days.  They are short term restaurants set up in temporary locations in order to try out new menus, concepts or themes before making the risky investment of a permanent establishment.   New restaurant The Feasting Room is renting space from the bar/nightclub The Orbit Room, located at College St and Clinton St, from 6-10pm Thursdays through Monday until mid November. 

The Feasting Room is using the pop-up strategy to experiment with a fascinating concept that may or may not become a hit with the general public, but will seem innovative and exciting to adventurous diners.  Each week, a $65 6 course blind tasting menu is offered, with every single course from appetizers to mains to dessert featuring (to varying degrees) the "animal of the week".   As part of the "menu", you are presented with a drawing of the selected beast, with numbers indicating which part will be included in each of the 6 courses.  We decided to try out goose week.

 Two complimentary amuse bouches were offered to whet our appetites.  Breaded goose gizzards with aioli sauce and sweet corn veloute with chunks of meat from the goose wing were harbingers of good things to come.  From the cocktail menu, Rich ordered his recently favoured drink - the Pimms Cup, infused with cucumber, mint and sliced peaches.

The appetizers came next.  First was goose liver pate mixed with Medeira port, garlic and thyme served with blueberry compote and sea salt on freshly toasted crostinis.  Next was a salad of goose hearts on watercress with green and yellow beans, capers and a mustard vinaigrette. Then came Rich's favourite dish - Pomme Dauphine (potato puffs) with braised goose neck, pea shoots and sheep's curd - the Feasting Room's version of poutine.

The first main was sausage-like, made by stuffing skin from the goose neck with confit of goose leg, served with roasted corn and a shallot puree.  The final main consisted of medallions of seared rare goose breast on a pistachio-yellow beet puree, accompanied with red and pink beets.

Finally the dessert arrived to satisfy our mildly trepidacious curiosity of how goose would be incorporated.  Thankfully it was merely a homage to the goose - rice pudding with concord grape jelly coulis, served with a "goose"berry and a madeline that was made with goose fat instead of butter.  I really wasn't up for goose liver ice cream!

We were there on a slow night so the wait-staff was made up of the owner/bartender/sommelier (who was very knowledgeable in his wines and cocktails) and the chef.  The availability of the next course was announced from the kitchen by what sounded like the banging of a metal spoon on a pot.

Coming soon on the menu will be game such as venison and boar.  When we asked whether the meat was hunted from the wild, we were told that food regulations prevented this but they would love to do it if it was allowed since they had a shotgun behind the bar.  We thought this was a joke until our bill came rolled up in a spent shotgun shell!

All in all, the food was great other than the goose breast course being a tad on the bland side.  The novelty of the experience was so much fun that we are ready to try this again in a few weeks when the featured animal will be rabbit.  We look forward to this restaurant finding its permanent location as it is a great addition to the Toronto dining scene.

Feasting Room - @ The Orbit Room
580A College St.