Monday, August 31, 2009

Meatless Mondays, Week 2: Deprivation Sets In

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.

Tuesday has never looked so good before.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pizzeria Libretto

221 Ossington Avenue
Toronto, ON
M6J 2Z8
(416) 532-8000; 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

Foodie Meet No. 2: Wine, wine, wine edition

The first Foodie Meet hosted by Andrea Chiu (@TOfoodie) and Suresh Doss (@spotlightcity) of Spotlight Toronto was in June at Brassaii, and it was a huge success. Free to tweeters and non-tweeters alike, it was a word-of-mouth Twitter operation that brought together at least 50 food-minded people on to one gorgeous Toronto patio.

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.

Foodie Meet No. 1 win: A Day at elBulli, signed by chef & owner Ferran Adria

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.

Foodie Meet No. 2 win: Top Chef cookbook

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.

Cafe Taste's back patio: Kathryn Boel, reading from her upcoming memoir Corked

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.

L: Le Gourmand coffee and peanut butter cookie; R: Ali's doubles


869 Bloor Street West (at Ossington Ave.)
Toronto, ON
M6G 1M4
(416) 535-6615
Mains $8-15

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

Persian Patisserie

8952 Yonge St. (at Scott Dr.-Bantry Ave., south of Carrville Rd.-16th Ave.)
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

Meatless Mondays: Week 1

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

Saigon Star Vietnamese Restaurant

330 Highway 7 East (at Bayview Avenue)
Richmond Hill
, ON
L4B 3P8

(905) 731-7221

No website; no "chef"
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

Meatless Mondays

I love meat. But I also love the earth.

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


1564 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON
M6R 1A6
(416) 849-1095
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

Harbord Room

89 Harbord Street
Toronto, ON
M5S 1G4
(416) 962-8989
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): ***

Writing a Food Blog + Restaurant Rating System

I've been getting quite a few tweet responses to my blog lately, people telling me they enjoy my writing and even naming a post or two so I know they're not lying.

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