Monday, November 16, 2009
No matter because I will always remember the first time I actually visited and, more importantly, ate at Gio Rana's: this past Saturday night with three great, food-loving university girlfriends.
I love eating, but the experience of eating is so wonderfully enhanced when the people you're with love to share food, drink wine, talk loudly, laugh inappropriately, and don't fuss over how to split the bill when it arrives.
For appetizers, we went for grilled calamari (how could we not? $7.95), prosciutto with fig and goat cheese (so simple but tasty $6.95), and the mother of all meatballs (easily bigger than my fist yet somehow perfectly cooked inside-through-out $7.95). For main, I had bites of osso buco (sticky, sweet, warm and comforting $15.95), veal parm (saucy, meaty, hearty $??) and ordered a whole grilled seabass ($19.95) all to myself. I'm greedy, I know.
I love whole fish. This seabass was paper-thin crispy (like Korean fried chicken!) on the outside, and flaky and moist on the inside. There were some parts that were a little dry but for $20, it's hard to go wrong; especially considering the other whole fish I've had were more in the $30 range (Vertical and my regular Italian spot, Sapori at Yonge&Lawrence).
I drank a merlot and had a great cappaccino -- it's been a long time since I've had great coffee. We ended it all with a chocolate brownie in caramel sauce and berries ($7.95?), and a goat cheese cheesecake with a keylime sauce ($7.95?). I've grown away from chocolate desserts (although I still love them) and am so drawn to citrusy flavours now. So I pretty much devoured the cheesecake. I wasn't sure how I would like the goat-cheesiness, and I loved.
Service was amicable and attentive enough (except with the bill, but we were okay to linger). Place was busy, loud, conversational, dim with candlelight and all woods. Table too small for all of our foodiness.
I'm still having dreams about the meal.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Last week, I ate some of my brother's deli sandwich on Monday, again, forgetting what I was doing just because food was in front of me.
So this week, I couldn't go meatless on Monday but I did Tuesday and today. And I didn't miss meat either days. I think that's a huge improvement from when I started actively challenging my regular habits two months ago.
I'm not sure what my "ultimate" goal is, but I know as time progresses, I will continue to lessen my meat intake. I still expect meat to be a regular part of my diet but I hope to change the frequency.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
One is vegetarian, does eat eggs and cheese. Another rules out pork because of religion. The third is wildly (my word) allergic to mushrooms (but luckily not truffles). And the final will eat anything in sight that is edible. Can you guess which one is me?
Individually, the food restrictions aren't that challenging but together I thought it may pose a problem since we were doing tapas, sharing-style. But it turned out to be an excellently executed ordering of various food stuffs: Spanish tortilla of egg and potato, roasted beet salad with goat cheese and lentils, chickpea stew, quail with sweet potato mash and a pomegranate glaze, and grilled sardines with a romano bean-parsley salad. For dessert, churros and an almond cake. Oh, and a hard-hitting Spanish red wine from the Rioja region.
No pictures. Despite the mass food blog-iness of the table, we were too busy enjoying one another's company and the very, very good food.
First time tapas, first time real Spanish food (aside from chorizo sausage and Iberico jamon) for me. I can say confidently all dishes were a great mix of simple but intense flavours. If something was supposed to be light, it was light. If it was supposed to be warm and comforting, it most definitely was. And I think four is definitely the perfect tapas number. We evenly split the bill at $35 each (including tip) and I think we all walked away with satisfied stomachs.
Plus the space is very nice -- warm and inviting, and service is pretty good. Restaurant got quite busy after 8, and unexpectedly loud so it became difficult to hear conversation from across the table. May have needed more wine.
Overall, in conclusion, hurray for food&drink&city lovers! :)
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Jeff and Bettina (I feel like I can call them by their first names because we're Twitter buddies; follow them @Earth_to_Table) are huge advocates of using local, seasonal produce. I love that the cookbook is divided into seasons -- after I finished the intro, I skipped right to fall.
The book is very beautiful and inspiring. The recipes are easy to follow and things like duck confit and fennel pork loin have never seemed so accessible before! But those heavy mains require more time and focus so I decided to start small with apple tarts this past Thanksgiving weekend.
The first batch on Monday didn't turn out like the cookbook's photo, and when I later tweeted about it, @Earth_to_Table told me to bake it longer till golden and crispy. So for my next batch today, I did exactly like that. And they were much better! Definitely crispy.
L: First batch of apple tarts; R: second batch
Anyway, I give myself an A for effort, and maybe a B- for execution? It was fun and easy to make. I haven't baked anything in a long time and it's always fun trying something new, even if it's not exactly as gorgeous and tasty as it is in your head.
I'm sure Jeff and Bettina's apple tarts are much better than mine. :)
Friday, October 2, 2009
I love Bobby Flay. I really do. I get that some people aren't over the standing-on-cutting-board Iron Chef original fiasco, and some never see him ever lose on Throwdown, but he cooks so damn well. Every time one of his Food Network shows ends with the black screen and writing of him owning Mesa Grill, I always think to myself or say out loud, "I want to eat at Mesa Grill." And so I did.
Here's the thing: Even though I hyped it in my head from television, reading scores and scores of New York Times dining reviews, made me realize I was going there for the food, yes, but for the star power as well. Just as I did at Morimoto in Philadelphia. But whereas Morimoto lived up to his name (I met him there after all!), Mesa Grill did not.
The decor seemed strange. Kind of cheap and tacky actually with the fake flames overhead to ... do what ... ? Give a southwestern theme? I felt like I was in Calgary. Service was pleasant but oddly hurried for a relatively non-busy Sunday brunch/lunch hour.
We ordered fresh juice to start. It was great. Very fresh. For $4.50 (all prices in USD). Is that really how much fresh juice costs?
The bread basket was an interesting mix of sweet raisin breads, which were really more like cakes, and little jalapeno scones. For entree, I saw a server carrying Bobby's version of eggs benedict, which I had to have -- two poached eggs on top of cajun chicken with sweet potatoes in an ancho chile hollandaise sauce ($14). It was very filling. And everything was cooked nicely -- egg perfect consistency of runniess; chicken & sweet potatoes tender; hollandaise sauce velvety. But midway through, everything started coming out too sweet, which I thought was weird for a dish that really, seems like it should be more spicy.
It was nice to go, and the meal did it job, and the prices were not too bad, but I couldn't help feel I missed an opportunity to discover a local New York gem of a Sunday brunch place.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
On Monday morning, back in Toronto, I woke up, got ready for work, and realized what a very foolish idea that was. I sent some work off, crawled back into bed and prayed that my body wouldn't feel like an anvil had smooshed me.
Lacking energy and taste buds (my mouth felt like sandpaper...), I made plain congee with... you guessed it... frozen peas! And ginger-honey tea, with real ginger and honey.
I felt better but my head still hurt and a 3-hour nap following didn't really cure it.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
We came here as part of Steph's personal cupcake tour (which will be the final New York post). In 2007, New York Magazine rated its cupcake as the best in the city, but I also thought it'd be nice to have lunch because the prices seemed reasonable and the menu pretty interesting -- kind of Japanese-French lite.
Like at Chelsea Market, I was surprised to find the place nearly empty, as its small to begin with. The server was über-sweet and accommodating, but I guess that's expected when you're one of two occupied tables. In any case, I was just glad to be seated and have water in front of me. We walked from Chelsea to midtown, and already spent two hours sightseeing.
When our plates arrived, the portions seemed small but somehow we were quite full by the end. I wasn't crazy about Steph's dish because the sausage reminded me a little too much of a hot dog. And my quiche wasn't phenomenal either but I still liked it. If you're in the area during brunch on the weekend though, instead of side salad or soup, the entree comes with a complimentary cocktail, which isn't a bad deal.
As for the cupcake... well, you'll have to wait for my cupcake tour review (and photos) on that one!
Rating (out of five stars): *
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
She, of course, said the obvious thing I knew she would say because I've thought about this *problem* myself -- that what's the point? If the non-sustainable fish (or any other animal for consumption) is already caught, killed and prepped, if you don't eat it, someone else will.
I think in some distant past of mine, I used to make this same argument or at least come to this same conclusion for myself. For instance, if my dad makes a meat-ful meal on Monday, and I don't eat it, it'll eventually be consumed by him or my brother or even myself on Tuesday, so how does this equate to a reduction in meat consumption? For that particular problem, I reasoned the way I eat and the way my brother eat (i.e. a lot), I am giving him the chance to eat my meat-ful portion, which means he won't have to cook or buy something else containing meat for another *extra* meat-ful meal.
So if I use that theory stretched to wider consumer demand, I do feel my little decrease of demand can make a difference. In theory, at some point in the chain, there will be an *extra* helping of meat for someone else to eat and thereby they won't need to consume or purchase another portion, thus reducing my carbon footprint.
As an aside, yesterday was the first week since I started Meatless Monday that I had seafood too instead of just vegetables and grain. It was just shrimp, which is sustainable.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Upon 9 a.m. arrival, after dropping our bags off at the Upper West Side hostel and changing, my first choice place to go to was Chelsea Market, where they film Iron Chef America. Somehow I thought I would stumble across Kitchen Stadium and Bobby Flay, or even Alton Brown -- hell, I ran into and chatted up Kevin Brauch at The Drake Hotel once -- but I settled on tomato foccaccia from Amy's Bread instead. After a 12-hour overnight bus ride, it was the best US$2.25 R&R ever.
I guess I'll never know. While it was fun to check out, I have no pressing need to return next time I'm in Manhattan. Unless, of course, I land a spot on the judges' table for Iron Chef!
Friday, September 18, 2009
The latest gem in Daniel Boulud's crown that opened this past May, DBGB Kitchen & Bar is the casual eatery with mains in the $17-25 (all prices listed in US) range, lots of French offal for sharing, and fancy-pants burgers prominently featured. I considered blowing my New York food budget on a single meal at the flagship Daniel, one of only six restaurants with four stars from The New York Times critic Frank Bruni, and sustaining myself on bagels for the rest of the time but I couldn't ask Steph to do the same.
Our friend Kayla, who was also visiting New York that weekend with her sister and aunt, met us at DBGB. The place was packed. Every table in dining and bar room filled. Sleek, cool, dark, metallic with an exposed wrap-around kitchen; copper pots, jar preserves sitting on shelves; black booths and tables; loud but somehow could still hear my friends across the table; a French-accented waiter.
When we sat, before we even glanced at the menu, I promptly told them they were both going to try the bone marrow ($11) I would order. They looked at me skeptically but I insisted. If it was good enough for Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayless (@Rick_Bayless), it was good enough for me. (I saw him Twitpic the dish the weekend before when he helped his daughter move into the NYU residence from their homebase, Chicago.)
Steph got the lemon&rosemary roasted chicken with ratatouille and baked garlic head ($17), while Kayla ate a huge plate of curry mussels ($18), which was completely authentically Thai rather than French. Both were very good. Nothing mind-blowing but comfort food done right.
I'm not sure if I would recommend this place. The bone marrow came quickly but our entrees took a very long time, and I think it's simply because our waiter forget. Another server had to point out to him that we were still waiting. A solid meal, sure, but I'm sure there were lots of other solid meals I could've got out of SoHo, New York.
Rating (out of five stars): *
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Breakfast: Banana and peach. (I realize this may not qualify as breakfast to some, but I'm not exactly an early riser.)
Lunch: Leftover fusili pasta with red&orange peppers and frozen peas that I made for Sunday night dinner. Are you starting to see a theme here with peppers, peas and pasta? It seems to be what's always available in my house. I'm not sure why my dad is obsessed with buying peppers, but they are always there, newly bought, without fail, every week. I've also taken to adding butter and 35% cream to everything. Butter and cream makes life better in every way.
Meat "craving" No.1: Kenzo Ramen noodles thanks to @chantalbraganza's post yesterday. I was meeting Irene later that day for dinner and a TIFF movie. I had already decided on Jules Bistro at Queen and Spadina, but thought of changing it to Kenzo at Dundas and Bay. (We rushed The Invention of Lying by Ricky Gervais -- of The Office and Extras TV shows fame -- at the Elgin theatre at Queen and Yonge.) Then I realized, a vegetarian ramen would not fulfill my desire to recreate my Momofuku Noodle Bar experience. So stuck to Jules. Later, I would find out vegetarian ramen -- even bad vegetarian ramen -- would have beat Jules without a blink.
Meat "craving" No. 2: Jules Happy Hour special is steak frites for $12.95. I contemplated breaking my Meatless Monday vow for a total of five seconds. French bistro vegetarian food was tempting enough to sate my craving. Again, how wrong I was.
Dinner: Jules Vegetarian Sandwich of ratatouille and dijon; plus vegetarian French onion soup ($12.95 all together). An incredibly small portion for 13 bucks. Food was fine but seriously I felt jipped. Plus, I wasn't keen on the service. I get really annoyed by servers who are sweet from the onset, and slowly become more stiff and curt, and are outright rude by the end of it just because I'm not ordering an expensive meal. At one point, I also thought the streak frites may have been better value but probably not. It probably would have been a cracker-size and cracker-thickness piece of flank with possibly 10 frites for accompaniment.
Dessert: Small coffee and chocolate chip cookie at Le Gourmand. Thank gawd for that monster cookie. It filled me right up and gave me the fuel I needed for a two-hour TIFF rush-line wait.
P.S. The Invention of Lying was so much better than I anticipated. Not sure if I would recommend watching it in theatres but it's definitely an unusual (in a good way) storyline.
***Update: Apparently all of Kenzo's broths are pork-based. There are no vegetarian options, which seems very un-Japanese to me.***
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Proprietor, Head Chef & Mini-Resto Empire Mogul: David Chang
Date visited: Saturday September 5, 2009
Small plates $9-15; large $11-20 (all prices in USD)
If you haven't heard about Momofuku before, well, you just suck. It's chef David Chang's mini New York restaurant empire that includes a noodle bar, a ssam bar, a slightly more "upscale" tasting menu restaurant Ko, and a dessert/pastry "milk" bar. In 2007, Chang won the James Beard Foundation rising star award for best new chef.
But enough about accolades. This blog is about me.
We were on a budget for New York, so I decided on the noodle bar as the most cost-effective way to experience Momofuku. The casual eateries have no-reservation policies, and we waited nearly an hour for a table but it was worth it. We ended up being seated at the open-kitchen bar, and I know because of this chance seating, this meal will go down as one of my most memorable.
We were right in front of the action, and I was giddy with delight. Watching the chefs prep and cook, learning the processes of the kitchen, seeing the efficiencies and the behaviours... and smelling the smells... A meal at its coolest point.
I don't know if it's because I ordered the prix-fixe (probably), but we got a surprise amuse of grilled peach, salty ham and mint. And I just read on the website that "momofuku" means "lucky peach." Lucky indeed. A cleverly themed amuse with the added advantage that it is just at the end of peach season. The amuse was a great contrast and fun burst of flavours in my mouth. I was deliriously happy already.
The prix-fixe was four courses for $30. All Momofuku restaurants change the menu daily according to what looks good in the market that day. They have a very close relationship with the farmers they source from. So how could I not do the prix-fixe? I didn't even really understand the descriptions I was reading - tataki, bibim, skate. I've never heard of tataki before; Chantal (@chantalbraganza) just introduced me to bibim rice this past year; and sadly I didn't know skate was a type of fish. Anyway, the website says the food is American, but who are we kidding here? This food is better characterized as Korean and Japanese with American-style sensibilities.
So here's the breakdown of my meal:
2nd course: bibim spicy noodles with pork shoulder and a soy-marinated soft-boiled egg (Chang is infamous for his love of eggs)
3rd course: roasted skate on a bed of heirloom cherry tomatoes
The skate was a little oversalted but a fine piece of fish on fresh veggies. I can't complain.
By the way, all together the entire meal cost us $70, including tax and tip. Service was spot on and we were very full by the end of it.
Rating (out of five stars): *****
Friday, September 11, 2009
Owner: Young Jin
Small plate $10, large $18 (USD)
For Labour Day weekend, I went to New York for my first time ever. And me being me, I designed the entire trip around where to eat. No meal was left unplanned. On Sunday night, after watching The Lion King on Broadway in the afternoon, Stephanie and I trekked out to Queens for Korean fried chicken.
I never heard of such a thing before, but trusty Twitter led me to the suggestion via @rolandgonzales. He pointed me to a 2007 New York Magazine article that gave UFC a hefty five drumsticks out of five. Up until this point, Steph and I had not left Manhattan. Why would anyone need to leave Manhattan? And we were taken aback when we found ourselves in a down-and-out, mostly Latino neighbourhood where when I asked for directions, people either said they didn't speak English or stared at me blankly or ignored me entirely!
In any case, the eatery was not even a block away from the Roosevelt-Jackson Heights subway stop, and we found it soon enough.
I expected the place to be hopping, and signs of no one was not a good sign to me. But it was Sunday night, 7 p.m. on a long weekend -- not exactly the best time for fried eats and beer.
On the ground level is the take-out shop, and downstairs is a small dining room. Green walls, flat screen TVs playing episodes of The X-Files, and a very sweet, smiling server who sounded like she just aced her English-as-a-second-language exam. The menu didn't have many choices. The fried chicken option is divided into drumsticks, wings, or drumsticks&wings; and you can pick small or large. If you choose large, you can try two sauces and it comes with two sides.
The sides are completely filler. It was like eating bagged lettuce, store-bought dressing, and that pre-made macaroni salad crap (I have always hated macaroni salad from childhood to adulthood). But the chicken... my god... the chicken. This is why people need to leave Manhattan.
I wondered out loud why I never knew of this before? Toronto has a huge Korean population with at least two very distinct Koreatowns. I was determined to find the dish upon return.
In the meantime, we ate about two-thirds of the plate, and thought we could not eat anymore. But the crispiness, the tenderness, the sauciness was tempting me, and before we knew it, it was all done.
I will never look at wings the same way ever again.
To read more about Korean fried chicken, here is a great New York Times article about it from 2007.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Some bechemals have been terrible. Others have been divine. And sometimes I stumble upon new creations, like once I somehow ended up with a brown butter sauce. The nutty, buttery flavour was a stand-out.
But I've been trying, as I'm sure many, many cooks have tried in skipping the separate sauce pan part, and make my pasta creamy and buttery in one shot. And you know what? It worked. After draining my pasta, putting the stove at low heat, I added a couple of tablespoons of butter and slowly worked in 35% cream right over the cooked spaghetti. Mix, mix, mix and suddenly I was done. (No cheese because I had nothing in the fridge but those processed Black Diamond singles I stupidly put in the quasedilla last week.)
I added a little jarred tomato sauce, a handful of frozen peas, chili flakes, chili olive oil and instant creamy pasta for me. I was sad when I failed Meatless Monday this week, but I think I definitely made up for it yesterday.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
I took my first trip to New York, New York this past Labour Day weekend and it was a trip completely designed around eating in the city (more on those meals later this week). The only meal I didn't have planned out was Monday morning breakfast/lunch before we left for home in the early afternoon. It all depended on whether we had enough cash left over to spoil ourselves at Norma's at the Parker Meridian Hotel on Central Park South, which @JenniferBylok said is the best brunch of life. Or not.
It turned out to be not.
But I had told my friend from the beginning, I can't eat meat on Monday.
Then we were at a cafe on the Upper West Side, ordering our food. We paid, sat down on the patio and out came my bagel and soup. I slurped up my soup, happy to have something warm soothe my throat, when I realized there was chicken in it and I ate the chicken already.
I had said the words "chicken pasta soup" when I ordered but it didn't occur to me what I was doing.
I was going to make up for it today but I only had tofu&ground pork in the fridge for lunch, and I don't want to buy anything after spending so much this weekend. I will make up for it tomorrow. Meatless Wednesday.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Chef: Andrew Carter (@ARJCarter)
Date visited: Friday July 17, 2009
Apps/snacks $4-12; sandwiches/burgers/pot pies $14-17; mains $17-23
1. Most interesting menu in Toronto I've seen in a long time.
2. The food is "authentic" English pub fare.
3. Fried cod cheeks and tongues. That's why I came.
Victorian home, mismatched but matched decor, over-sized comfy chairs, the Queen's photos all over the place, English china with the gold trim and floral patterns. It's a pub you go home to instead of a pub you feel over-greased from.
So the cheeks and tongues. I didn't see the big deal. It was little pieces of fried fish. But the housemade relish that came with it... Now that's a different story. The tangy, honey, slightly spicy, citrusy relish -- I could eat that for days.
For main, apple cider braised duck leg in a curry sauce ($17) -- I don't think there's anything else to describe. The duck was a little dry, and the apple cider could've stood out in flavour a bit more, but the curry sauce was a nice accompaniment and I had no trouble eating it all up.
Now, here's what you should go for: The Q&B BLT with maple glazed pork belly, butter lettuce and smokey tomatoes ($16). It was best BLT of life. The pork belly was mouth-watering -- smokey, sweet, meaty, salty.
To end, sticky toffee pudding ($9) because we're at a British pub, and sticky toffee pudding has climbed the ranks of being my favourite dessert over the long-time stranglehold of creme brulee. The pudding was definitely traditional -- warm caramel toffee goo that keeps your soul filled. (Not better than Nota Bene's! but nothing to complain about either.)
Service was pleasant, but kitchen was somewhat painfully slow to deliver. I'll chalk that up to still trying to get into the routine of things (they opened on June 15, and there were two large parties when we went).
In any case, screw the bad reviews from The Globe & Mail and Toronto Star. Q&B, I like you.
Rating (out of five stars): **1/2
Monday, August 31, 2009
Looks yummy, right? Yellow&red peppers, mangoes and peaches dressed in sesame oil, honey, chili flakes and lemon neatly packaged within a romaine lettuce leaf and tortilla. And it was yummy. But not at all satisfying, because yesterday I did the exact same thing for a beach picnic with girlfriends -- except for stupid peaches, I had turkey slices in that baby. Moist, salty turkey. So all I could think about when I was eating this at lunch was, "Hmm. This is good. But turkey would make it a whole lot better."
Cut to dinner.
I've had a sore throat since Thursday morning, slight cough. My dad works nights and has heard me coughing around the house so he made me congee for dinner tonight. I love congee. If you didn't grow up with it, it's just slimy white goop, but it is very soothing and you can add virtually anything to it for flavour. Including chicken. I hadn't told my dad about my Meatless Monday pursuit so he callously threw chicken into the congee.
How do the rules apply in a situation like this? I haven't figured it out yet but it was the type of thing I used to use as an excuse to convince myself out of (non-)eating commitments like this. So I carefully ladled around the chicken pieces as best as I could (forgive me if I consumed a couple of strands) and added a huge helping of frozen peas when I heated it up. I will tell you right now -- I felt like I was depriving myself for reasons unknown.
Congee wasn't enough though. I didn't feel full even though it was a considerable helping. So I scraped through the fridge and made a quesadilla from Black Diamond mozzarella cheese singles, yellow peppers, button mushrooms and tomatoes. What I learned from this: processed cheese in a quesadilla still tastes like processed cheese. I soothed my pain with a Dairy Milk vanilla ice cream bar.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
www.pizzerialibretto.com; follow on Twitter @PizzaLibretto
Chef: Rocco Agostino
Appetizers $5-10; pizzas $10-18; 4-course summer prix fixe $25
Was it the best pizza I've ever had in my life before? No. Was it one of the most freshest tasting for a great price? Yes.
I was skeptical about Libretto. All the raving and the moaning and the oohs and ahhs. I get it. It's good. But the no-reservation policy? The line-up for an hour? Not so good. But the wine helped. And in the end, it was worth the wait. I generally liked the place though. Communal dining tables, chalkboard menus, huge open wood-fire burning oven in the back for zapping the pizzas to a perfect 90-second blistering Napalese-style finish. Yes. I liked. My only problem was the noise level -- way, way loud. Not the place to go if you're looking to have a real conversation with someone.
First time, I split the $25 summer prix fixe of bruschetta, heirloom tomato caprese salad, wild mushroom pizza and blueberry panna cotta. My dining partner was vegetarian. It was a lot of food and great for sharing, although the three other people in our group had a prix fixe to each person and polished their plates without a problem. But like I said at the beginning: not the best pizza of my life but everything was so goddamn fresh. And the thin, charred-on-the-outside, foldable crust may have been my favourite part. (Plus chili oil. I wonder if Libretto makes its own chili oil? If not, it should. It's dead easy to do.)
Second time, with two other friends, we got the $25 prix fixe, but chose the duck confit pizza and strawberries with sabayon instead. And we also ordered a margherita a la carte to share. I loved the traditional marg. I think margs show the true colours of a pizzeria -- if you master the simplicity of tomatoes, basil and mozz, you're good in my books.
But I absolutely adored the duck confit pizza -- succulent shreds of duck meat, sweet caramelized bosc pear slices and ooey-gooey Ontario mozzarella.
The bruschetta and caprese were satisfying but forgettable. I do like that Libretto is all about using locally sourced ingredients though instead of some bullshit attitude about how true Naples pizza is only true if you rack up your carbon miles by sourcing from Italy. People, the reason why Naples pizza is so good is because they use the freshest ingredients that travel very few miles and was made right in their own backyards. Get it? Good.
There was lots of Twitter rave about the panna cotta but I like Terroni's panna cotta better. Libretto's was a little too wobbly for my tastes. I did very much like the sabayon -- a simple, creamy, Prosecco-infused sweet treat to end the meal.
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
Thursday, August 27, 2009
There was a free raffle for great prizes, including a signed copy of Ferran Adria's A Day at elBulli that I just happened to win; free samplings of Toronto microbrewery Steam Whistle; wine tastes; complimentary Brassaii breakfast cards; and a specially designed menu for anyone who felt like noshing.
So we knew we'd be in for an equally great -- or even better -- time at the Wine, Wine, Wine Edition, held this past Wednesday evening at Cafe Taste at 1330 Queen Street W., west of Dufferin. Andrea and Suresh set up a smart pricing system: $45 for five wine-and-cheese pairings (plus unlimited pour); $25 for five 2 oz. pours of the wine tasting; and $5 entrance for anyone who couldn't stay for the entire night, or preferred own menu selection.
I opted for the $5 ticket because five glasses of wine would be wasted on me, and I couldn't stay till 11 p.m. They also did another raffle (I won the Top Chef cookbook, which I didn't want but wasn't going to refuse); and author Kathryn Boel read from her upcoming memoir Corked. She was self-deprecating, sassy, clever and hilarious. Plus Cafe Taste owner Jeremy Day was our wine tutor for the night, and he talked about the wines and cheeses sort of like how a lawyer talks about law -- you got the basic concept down, but his capacity for details was hard to keep up with.
A couple of interesting things I learned about wine last night:
1. There is no use in cleaning your palette with water from one wine to the next because there are about 500 compounds in a wine, and two will only have about 35 in common. So better to cleanse with your next wine!
2. The idea behind drinking wine and eating cheese together is the cheese will coat your tongue in fats and acids, so when you take the next sip of wine and next bite of cheese, an improved flavour should occur for the subsequent sips and bites.
I had a really lovely time, enjoying a 5 oz. glass of Calamus Estate Gewurtzraminer 2007 Vinemount Ridge ($9 -- Jeremy only sells Ontario and Quebec wines and cheeses as he's all about local, local, local!), and mostly chatting with Twitter friend Yasmin (@yasminATlesauce) and her currently computer-less friend Stephanie. It was very cool meeting Yasmin in real life, as we talk almost daily on Twitter and each other's blogs (hers is fabulous, by the way -- funny writing and beautiful food photos of her nearly daily creations) but haven't had the opportunity to meet until Wednesday.
Cafe Taste itself has a dark neighbourhood feel. The front is all dark woods, low tables and chairs, which I'm not that into. But the back patio (where we were) was much more quaint -- canopy covering, twinkle lights along the wooden fence, stone path.
I'm really happy I went. I couldn't have had a better time. Plus beforehand, I stopped at Le Gourmand at Queen and Spadina for a small coffee ($1.20) and enormous peanut butter cookie ($2.25); and sketchy Ali's West Indian Roti Shop about a block away from Cafe Taste for $1.70 doubles -- chickpea deliciousness, too good.
For someone who only eats chicken and turkey (and sometimes seafood) because she says other meats gross her out, my friend Irene is pretty open to trying new cuisines. And she likes spicy things. Spicy things are key to eating with me. Anyway, she suggested Ethiopian, and I was game because I've never had it before. I even had to read about it on my good ol'friend Wikipedia as my knowledge was non-existent.
Your only utensils are your hands and injera "bread." Being a child raised on Indian parathas and curries, I had no problem with the hands-only method. It was injera that gave me major issues.
I first saw injera at the Brick Works Farmers' Market in late July and I love all things carbs. So a huge circular piece of doughy bread looked fantastic. But when it sat in front of me at Lalibela with various pickled vegetable mixes on top, I was not eager to dive in.
First, the sight freaked me out. Injera looked like a holey, dirty, wet, used sponge. Then the feeling -- gooey rubber. And sadly, it tasted like spongey rubber with a sour-milk tinge to it. Obviously, I wasn't pleased.
We ordered the hot vegetarian platter ($12) to share, which was described as consisting of splint peas (maybe it was supposed to read "split peas"?), lentil, chick peas, cabbage, collard green and vegetables -- everything I dislike. But what I've noticed as I've gotten older is when I try foods I normally dislike prepared in an "authentic" way, I tend to grow a taste for it. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those times.
We also tried chicken tibs ($13), which is a spicy buttery stew that was good, but not better or that much different from eating my dad's chicken curry.
I thought maybe the Ethiopian coffee would make up for everything. Instead, an elaborate coffee show left my face almost burnt, getting choked by unrelenting smokey incense, and drinking coffee that could've been Nestle Tollhouse for all I knew.
I'm not going to rate this restaurant because it wouldn't be fair. Just because I dislike the cuisine, does not mean the restaurant is bad. Lalibela was recommended to me by a friend who lives in the area, and I know there are a ton of people who are into Ethiopian food. In fact, the place was pretty busy for a Thursday early evening.
It's only the second type of cuisine I don't like -- next to Korean. Although Korean has been growing on me in little ways after all these years. Anyway, still happy I tried it. At least now I know.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Richmond Hill, ON
Petit fours $2-4; cakes $20-30; cookies and miscellaneous $1-2; ice cream $2.50/scoop
I made that address up based on a rough estimate on Google Maps. I'm not even quite sure if the place has a "real" name. It calls itself Patisserie and also has gold Arabic writing on its store sign. It's a small place that my sister wandered into out of curiousity, and fell in love with instantly.
You're greeted by an amazing array of cakes, petit fours and teeny-tiny pastry bites, all lined up row after row in one long glass case. A homemade sign on top tells you, "WE USE ONLY REAL CREAM AND REAL BUTTER IN OUR DESSERTS. NO SUBSTITUTES." Or something to that effect. And you can smell it in the air from the open door of the kitchen in the back.
Every little cake glistens and twinkles, and you can hear the love in the voice of the woman serving, as she coos about what's what and how it's "sooo good." "You have never had a carrot cake like this before!" I dreamily stare at the itty-bitty petit four (I don't even like carrot cake!) and prod my sister, but she demonstrates self-control. We are here to buy a cake for our father's birthday.
In one corner is a round 10-inch cake with a lovely golden brown goo spread over top and dripping ever-so lovely on to the sides. "Caramel and hazelnut," the woman says as she comes out from behind her magical glass case. We groan because we love nutty desserts but our brother is allergic! Blast him!
She rattles off a list of what else is available -- no two cakes are the same. We finally settle on a rectangular Belgian chocolate butter layer cake with the sides exposed ($20). The woman expertly writes "Happy Birthday Dad" on top with chocolate in a piping bag. Before leaving, we treat ourselves to a scoop of blueberry sorbet ($2.50) from her selection of store-bought and homemade ice creams. It's like eating crushed blueberries and ice -- exquisite. Your hands and clothes will easily be stained with the stuff if you're not careful.
Later in the evening, after dinner at Saigon Star, we return to our sister's condo for coffee, tea and cake. What I love about this patisserie's cakes is that somehow they are light and airy, yet rich and deep in flavour at the same time. The vanilla cake layers are firm but soft. The Belgian chocolate cream in between is buttery and delicate. And it all hits the perfect amount of sweetness.
This place has easily become one of my favourites in the city. If you ever find yourself travelling north to Richmond Hill, this is the place to stop at.
Rating (out of five stars): *****
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
This was supposed to be my awesome overdose of grilled veggies: skewered eggplant, red & green & yellow peppers, and button mushrooms, lightly covered in olive oil and a dried Lebanese herb mixture my sister gave me, which I'm going to assume is za'atar (thanks to my foodie Twitter friend @yasminATlesauce); whole scallions (a.k.a. green onions); tomato halves; and some fun with lemon, oranges and pear.
I was psyched to do a few more playful things -- such as brush a couple of the vegetable skewers with different glazes/oils: chili olive oil, toasted sesame oil, and Trader Joe's sweet Thai chili sauce. And of course, squeeze the grilled lemon on top.
I was also planning to melt some chocolate chips for a drizzled sauce over the grilled fruits but alas, it wasn't meant to be. I wasted four matches trying to light my barbecue. It was no use. I was out of gas.
So I threw the skewers on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet, preheated the oven to 450F and roasted them instead for 20 minutes. In the meantime, I made buttery, creamy mashed potatoes (with real butter! and real cream! 35%!) and chopped up the scallions to mash up with the spuds. The pears became snacks as I prepped; although I contemplated poaching them but didn't have any suitable liquid for the task. Oranges and tomatoes ended up in tupperware in my fridge.
After the veggies were done, I tossed them with romaine lettuce, chili olive oil and squeezed the (raw) lemon over.
Albeit a boring little meal, it was successfully satisfying and made up for the greens I lacked earlier in the day.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Richmond Hill, ON
Date visited: Saturday August 22, 2009
Mains $10-15; crab @ market price
My dad's choice for his birthday. My dad doesn't have the same food mind that I do. To him, Vietnamese is exotic.
But this was definitely faux Vietnamese. The food was some strange Vietnamese-Thai-Chinese hybrid. Think Asian Legend meets Lemongrass meets every other regular Chinese restaurant you've ever been to; with overcrowded minimalist decoration, and a noise level that surely induces migraines if I was the type of person who got migraines.
As always at places like these, my siblings and I let my dad order: an appetizer platter of chicken satays, veggie fried spring rolls, some strange pate-like meat substance, fried shrimp-meat claws; smoked glazed pork; broiled fish on a mango-veggie salad; grilled lamb chops; whole crab in a super garlicky garlic sauce; and I'm sure there were a couple of other things I forgot about.
The lamb chops were impressive and cooked quite well. Everything else was mediocre to acceptable. The food came out really, really fast... a little too fast actually. It made me think the kitchen had most food pre-prepared, and just threw on necessary sauces, heated it up (possibly in microwave??) and dashed out.
But definitely the overcrowded space and loudness was the biggest turn-off for me. I couldn't pay the bill and get out of there fast enough.
Rating (out of five stars): Zero
Producing meat puts the earth under a lot of strain. And just like every other greedy human habit we've come to develop under industrialized times, no one is sure how much longer we can keep going like this.
Because the truth is, the earth will probably survive for many, many years after we've placed ourselves in the extinct species category.
So maybe I should refine my second statement: I love meat. But I'd like to enjoy it for many, many years to come.
To do my part, I'm going to participate in Meatless Mondays. Apparently, giving up meat for one day a week reduces your carbon footprint more than trading in your car for a hybrid. (And it's healthier for you.)
Today, so far, I've eaten two Montreal bagels, a banana, a granola bar and a few of PC's chocolate chunk soft-bake brownie cookies. My friend kindly pointed out I forgot to eat vegetables. But so far, so good.
I'll overdose on veggies tonight for dinner.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Head chef: Mark Cutrara
Date visited: Wednesday August 12, 2009
Appetizers $10-20; mains $20-40
Hailed as one of Toronto Life's best new restaurants of 2008, I've been pining for one of Cutrara's carnivorous creations for a long while. Once again I was set up for a Stop for Food prix fixe disappointment, but unlike Harbord Room my back-up plan to be okay with ordering off the regular menu didn't turn out.
Cowbell did offer a prix fixe but only a $50 option -- no lower priced $35 one like I was hoping for. If Jessica and I were hungrier we may have been able to accomplish the small charcuterie, Red Angus beef steak and creme brulee on offer between the two of us; but it didn't seem to whet our appetites enough. In fact, the entire daily chalkboard menu didn't really have anything super appealing, plus it was really difficult to read from where we were sitting.
Jess and I finally settled on sharing the large charcuterie board ($25) and a salad appetizer featuring Arctic char ($13). The charcuterie had some interesting things -- elk with chocolate, elk with blueberries, house-made mortadella -- but nothing really memorable. It was then I decided I'm over charcuterie plates. After a few bites, the fattiness and greasiness was overwhelming, mushing all the flavours into one indistinct blur.
Our salad was probably the best but it was hardly a salad and it wasn't the one we ordered. There was only one server for the whole room, who wasn't that attentive, so we shrugged it off and tried what was in front of us -- a sausage and goat cheese wrapped in a fig leaf ($12 -- with some lightly dressed greens on side; presumbly the salad part). Both were fantastic but the goat cheese was a stand-out. It was unexpectedly spicy, and there was some sort of grain rolled inside as well that gave an unusual contrast to the creamy soft cheese.
We really liked our cheap $6/glass Italian red wine.
On whole, it was a let down. I think the experience may have been better if I tried a real main, but like I said, the daily menu didn't showcase anything to my interest.
I'm not sure how much longer Cowbell will be around. There were only a few other people when we went (8 p.m. on a Wednesday night) and did get a bit buzzier when we were leaving at 9:30; but it's in a middle-of-nowhere low-income neighbourhood and seems like a long way to go (Roncesvalles) for a hit-or-miss menu.
Rating (out of 5 stars): *
Friday, August 21, 2009
Chefs: Cory Vitiello and Curt Martin
Date Visited: Monday August 17, 2009
Small plates $9-12; medium $15-19; large $21-28
Instantly loved look and neighbourhood feel of place. Charming, kind of absurd pink walls, warm and inviting narrow space lined with a narrow bench and wooden tables for two to four on one side, long-ish bar on other. (Too hot to even attempt back patio.)
Disappointed no longer offering Stop for Food prix fixe menu, which was whole point of going, but already had back-up plan of trying the burger. First enjoyed wonderfully refreshing daily cocktail cooler ($9) -- white port with lemon, soda water, and some other delightful alcohol mix that I can't recall or have any idea what it was. Chantal tried the red port one (also $9), which I thought was equally delicious, but she said mine was more suited to a hot summer day.
Debated getting daily summer plate of open-faced tuna burger ($16) but I'm moving away from eating non-sustainable fish these days; plus it was ground-up tuna turned into a patty as opposed to a tuna "steak" piece as I wanted. Stuck with the Kerr Farms natural beef burger ($15) with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions (my favourite burger topping) on fried egg's bun "with fries and a little salad." Added Berkshire bacon too ($2 extra). As you can tell, I hadn't pledged to start Meatless Mondays yet.
It was a very delicious burger, cooked about medium-rare so moist and tender with a little pink centre. I particularly loved the egg bread bun -- lightly toasted but still squishy and fluffy. Could've done without bacon though. It didn't add anything for me. I think cheese and onions would've been enough. Salad was arugula, thinly sliced carrot and radishes. I couldn't really detect a vinaigrette. Fries were fine -- crispy and salty; but house-made ketchup a delight. Instead of the blood-red Heinz variety, I got a tangy, sweet orangey-red specialty.
I got to try the tuna burger anyway, as Chantal ordered it. It was smaller than my burger and came with the same salad but no fries, only a handful of chips. Tried a little and it was quite tasty -- zippy with an avocado-lime guac on top.
Service was very pleasant. Woman attending to us (and most of the room) very helpful, great at refilling our water, and answered my questions (Prix fixe menu? Tuna burger?) knowledgeably and delightfully. I would definitely dine here again.
Rating (out of five stars): ***
And it makes me feel supremely guilty because I know I don't update regularly but yet I still "promote" or link to my blog like it's some foodie treasure you all must follow. When in reality, writing about food (and in general) is a love-hate relationship for me.
In March, after a short weekend trip to Montreal to visit my sister and her husband, I revamped and revived this blog, trying to conceptualize a simple one dedicated primarily to short restaurant/food reviews of places I've eaten at. I did pretty good at first and recorded most of my Montreal hits, but it languished after I returned to Toronto and regular life, reduced to one a month if the mood struck me -- or guilt settled in.
Trust me, there are plenty of times when I've started a "review" and after the first few words, I get bored and frustrated. Frustrated because I don't think I have anything particularly unique and engaging to say about food and restaurants. Bored because I only like to write what I think I'll enjoy reading -- which is why I tried to keep the reviews short and clipped. I tried to achieve this by writing reviews in an Excel cell first, then pasting them into the blog with a few minor edits to make it more coherent. But like all self-indulgent writers, a box could only contain me for so long.
The other main reason why I often fail at keeping up a regular blog is because I think most good blogs have a mixture of (good) images and (good) writing. And I had been stealing images for my posts because I lack the photographer's instinct to snap away without self-consciousness during my food escapades. I would rather have my blog be "pure" where the photos and words are both my own. That and because I fall into a feeling where I actually think taking a photo will marginalize the real-life experience for me -- turning it into an image of the reality, instead of absorbing the moment as it happens. (Thank you Susan Sontag.)
Anyway, my love for Twitter and its fantastic food community has renewed my desire to try to be a more of a keener-blogger. Plus, I bought a camera this week that is in the mail as we speak!
Another attempt to revive this blog, of course means a review of my star rating system. Everyone knows stars are extremely subjective to the person handing them out. They are supposed to be a neat, tidy way of summing up how worthy is this a place to eat at. I found The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni's insights to his own rating system particularly interesting, as apparently there are only six standing restaurants in New York City with four stars (the highest in NYT) that he has awarded in his past five years at the coveted position. He calls it a "gut feeling" when he gives four stars. And I think I'm the same way. Although my rating system goes up to five stars because I don't believe in giving zero. If your restaurant gets a zero from me, that means I'm warning people to not go there at all.
I'm basically demanding a flawless evening if I were to give a restaurant five stars. (Or in the case of Schwartz's, consistently outstanding food, but there are few places I can afford to frequent to know if they are consistent.)
Also, you have to take in account, I don't have an expense account to cover my meals so my ratings are actually extremely flawed because they are based on a single, stand-alone experience.
But I know the other main reason why I wanted to convert this blog into a food/restaurant review outlet is because I wanted a recording of all the places I've ever eaten at. Despite how it may seem, I don't have a ton of money to throw around to all the dining experiences I'd like to have. So I try to savour each one the best I can. And I try to make the most of them by being sure to go with other friends and family who I know will enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy what I have to write about the places I go. I'll try to keep things interesting for you as much as for myself. Here's a basic approximation of what the stars represent:
* (1 star) - satisfactory
** (2 stars) - good
*** (3 stars) - very good
**** (4 stars) - excellent
***** (5 stars) - outstanding
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Executive Chef: James Walt
Date Visited: Wednesday May 27, 2009 for lunch
Sandwiches/burgers $10-14; mains $17-26; dessert $12 (lunch prices; view website for dinner prices)
Beautiful place, huge patio, very kind and friendly service. Great menu note for lunch: "If you need to be somewhere by a certain time, please let us know and we will guarantee you a meal within 45 minutes." I only had an hour for lunch and it was a superbly timed meal. I didn't feel rushed at all but service was still quick.
Had an amazing glass of white wine from Sumac Ridge in BC (only $8 too!). Perfectly chilled, aroma and taste of berries, clean finish. For main, BC wild salmon with local Pemberton farms asparagus and arugula. Salmon was excellently grilled -- a plump, happy pink, moist and flaky with the skin left on for a little texture and extra flavour. Greens tasted like I was eating from the side of Whistler Mountain -- crisp and bursting with flavour. Dressed in a balsamic and mustard seed glaze for a little tart sweetness.
Before I got to Vancouver, I had a check-up with my doctor, and my blood test said I was low on iron, which I already suspected because I'm often tired. My doctor gave me a pamphlet about how to increase my iron intake. Apparently caffeine prevents your body from absorbing all the iron from your meal when you drink a coffee or tea with it. You should wait an hour before or after eating to drink coffee or tea so your body absorbs all nutrients properly. But I was willing to make an exception since I was on vacation and enjoying a fabulous meal.
I was only willing to make the exception for really good coffee though, so I asked the server what kind of coffee beans the restaurant uses. Lo and behold, my local meal continued all the way through because the beans were from BC! Had no idea coffee beans could even grow in Canada. So I had the most amazing Americano of my life. The beans were roasted Italian-style. The coffee tasted buttery, savoury and a little sweet. Better than Illy.
And for dessert, North Arm farms rhubarb soaked in a vanilla bean sauce with panna cotta and a raspberry foam -- a perfect cap to the meal; rhubarb was slightly sweet and tasted like the countryside; panna cotta was the perfect consistency of gel-like creaminess; and raspberry foam added just the right contrast for brightness.
The company that owns Araxi, also owns Blue Water Cafe and West in Vancouver. All three are ranked as top dining spots in Vancouver magazine, and after visiting Araxi, I can easily see why. By far, this is one of the best meals I've ever had before... and it was only lunch too!
Rating (out of five stars): ****
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Often cited as the best Indian restaurant in North America and with good reason. Restaurant is notorious for its no-reservation policy and can sometimes wait for two hours, but worth the wait.
Intimate lounge area in the back and nice simple patio out front for waiting/drinking area. Servers come out every 10 minutes or so with snacks to much on -- poppichat, crisp fries spiced with masala, chickpea and potato pakoras. A pretty casual restaurant. Dining room is not spectacular at all. Walls bare. Could walk in with shorts and flip-flops and no one would bat an eye.
For appetizer had BC spot prawns in a coconut-based curry sauce. Then for mains, famous lamb "popsicles," beef tenderloin and pork tenderloin. Lamb was my favourite -- very tender, and curry was sweet and savoury. Beef and pork also very good but pork a little dry. For dessert, garum goola in a sweet warm cardamom sauce; and a rice pudding. Both excellent and refreshing. Everything tasted super fresh and full of love. All-female kitchen and serving staff. (Sorry for my lack of descriptors on the dishes. Unfortunately, my Indian spice palette vocabulary is not knowledgeable enough for a proper review.)
While everything was great, I can tell why an Indian friend said food is good but to her, it's just dressed up home-cooked Indian food. It's kind of true because if you know someone who does Indian food really, really well, you won't think Vij's is that out of this world. But it's still very good, and worth trying if you are into food and like to indulge yourself once in awhile.
Rating (out of five stars): ***