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Toronto, at the moment


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#31 Adrian

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Posted 20 October 2011 - 02:00 PM

Finally made it to Cocktail Bar - Toronto's first Serious Cocktail Bar - from the Black Hoof crew the other night. In general, good but somewhat disappointing. It shows how far this city has to go before it's the equal of even secondary American cities in the cocktail realm. Observations:

The room itself is great in exactly the way it should be: pressed tin ceiling, chipped white paint on the cabinets, big windows, large wooden bar, (no hooks underneath. Odd). There's no secrecy or pretension, no attempt to play the speakeasy card. Nice. There's a piece of writing on the wall explaining that vodka is stupid. Vodka isn't my spirit of choice, but products like Karlsson's are really good and defy the "vodka as a tasteless get drunk drink" stereotype. No need to preach on the walls. The service and crowd isn't douchey at all - no finance guys, PR girls, or Candy Daddies - and the service is much the same. Lots of beer, wine, rum and cokes, and margaritas being ordered. Perhaps not surprising given the low level of cocktail education in the city, but meh - the bartenders don't mind and who am I to judge?

The menu is impeccably well designed. In four quadrants, the top half of the menu is "white", meaning mostly gin based, drinks, the bottom half is "dark", the left side is "modern", their own cocktails, and the right side is "classic". My girlfriend opened with the "Savage Dandy". Quite good. Bourbon, orange, aperol, and orgeat. For me, I ask to go off menu with my typical starting description: dark, dry, boozy, bourbon but I'm flexible. I get a Sazerac with cognac. Good enough but the cognac, whose name I got and can't remember, was a grade below what the places south of the 49th leaving me with a more straightforward drink. Next, she went with a vieux carre and I tried to go off menu again, offering more flexibility. Then a confession - the bartender mentioned she was better at making the drinks on the menu than doing her own. So I asked for a champs elysees, she didn't know it. I went with a vieux carre. Again, quite good, not among the elite. Drinks ran a touch expensive: $70 or so with tax and tip for four.

Back to the bartender. She was incredibly nice and very competent. She wasn't snobbish or douchey. She made everything very well and with care. She just wasn't a cocktail bartender in the sense that guys at even secondary cocktail joints like Deep Ellum are. And why should she be? If she's not going to go south to learn, this is literally the only place she can come to improve. I'm sure in a year's time her knowledge will be expanded ten-fold. I'm sure Jen Agg, the owner, has as much knowledge as anyone. Still, I'm kind of disappointed that if I want a penicillin, I'm going to have to give the recipe myself, and I don't have it committed to memory! Nonetheless, I'll be back, and if you want a cocktail in Toronto, it's your only option.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#32 Adrian

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 02:22 PM

Post 1000! I think I need to do something productive with it, give back, inform. I was thinking of complementing oakapple and telling him that I think that he has a broad conception of formal dining, but I didn't want to get into that fight again. So let's write about something. Oh, I got it:

416 Snack Bar after watching Adam Gopnik talk about winter (upshot of the lecture, Gopnik knows a lot of stuff). Tried to go to Bohemian but their kitchen was closed, so down the street to 416 Snack Bar. The concept? Kind of a love letter to crummy Toronto food. The entrance looks like the side of a Toronto subway, the inside is appropriately weathered, the crowd is a little better looking and a little better dressed than you'd expect from this part of Queen, which splits between some 905 and some of the old Toronto alternative scene.

Oysters to start. From PEI (I think), they were brilliantly shucked - no loss of brine, fully detached muscle. Freshly grated horseradish and other standard and unnecessary accompaniments. Good start. Jamaican beef patty, a Toronto convenience store staple, was an exercise in mimicry. Spicier than the microwave version, not much more interesting. Similarly, the taco el-pastor was like a pretty average taco el-pastor on a flour tortilla. Pineapple was a bit overwhelming at times. Charcuterie board had a decent cheese (no memory of what it was, other than that), good pancetta although not enough of it, and some figs. I want more for my $9. Finished it off with a ruben sandwich. Very good, very smokey flavor on the meat. A pleasant surprise.

I was skeptical of this place when I heard about it. It's gimmicky but it's fun. The food is at least quirky and interesting, more than I can say for a majority of new openings here, especially aiming at that demographic. I do wish it pushed a little harder, mimicked less, thought more. But it's a good option in the hood, especially for a quick bite and a drink after a concert at one of the venues on the strip.

ETA: Hey Orik, don't you have some Montreal to finish up? Eh?

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#33 Adrian

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Posted 01 November 2011 - 02:24 PM

Briefly, Mother's Dumplings, poor, gummy, expensive. Dumpling House, fantastic, crispy, delicate, cheap (not NY cheap, but cheap). Glad to settle that for you.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#34 Adrian

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Posted 06 November 2011 - 08:46 PM

Sauce your meat. I don’t care what you do yourself if it’s not very good. Those are the lessons from a recent meal at Cowbell, Toronto’s NBC mothership, critical darling, and the latest in a line of disappointing Toronto meals. They do get the details right for the press. The neighborhood (Parkdale, recently gentrified), the story (everything made in house! Whole animal butchery!), the décor (vintage-y, not too edgy), the focus (sustainable! Orgainic! Certified so!).

So why don’t they sauce their meat? The duck, cooked “sous vide and then crisped” (because the hep cats serve sous-vide!) was served with chard, black riddish, almonds, and some gummy gnocchi.* No sauce. Let’s parse, shall we?

Duck – gamy, decent quality, but gamy flavors have a hint of bitter
Chard – a bitter green
Black radish – a bit bitter
Almonds – again, a slight bitter note

The punch line? The dish was bitter. The elements were unbound to one another through any sort of unifying feature (like a sauce!). Why not plate them all separately, like a family dinner? Good question – there’s no good reason to put them in a tidy pile. My girlfriend’s pork? Again, unsauced, a little salty, with a giant andouille sausage, a nice piece of squash, and some excellent pork precisely cooked to medium rare. But no sauce! I’m sick of it. You want to know why restaurants in Montreal are generally awesome and restaurants in Toronto generally suck? Because cooks in Montreal know how to prepare proper sauces the bind elements of a dish together. Proper saucing, the use of liquid to transfer flavor, is the heart of all great Western cooking.

Why else? Because dishes aren’t the mere application of heat to shopping; the elements are chosen for a purpose, actual technique is applied. It’s not enough to just roast your okay vegetables. That squash was good, very good, but not so good that merely throwing it in the oven is enough. Anyway, I can do that at home.

Also, what was the purpose of the blood sausage croquette on the totally and completely made in house charcuterie plate? I don’t know. You think that, if you’re deep frying the blood sausage, you’d want the runny sort of blood sausage, the kind that explodes in your mouth, not the grainier, more solid kind. No. You got the more solid kind. The failure of conception was made from scratch as well, I wager. The salamis were good. The pickle plate was there because that’s what these places do. The cheeses were fine. The wines were from Ontario. The pumpkin spice panna cotta had a great texture but was too timid in its flavours. Nice though.

But guys, I don’t care if you butchered the pig in house. I don’t. But doesn’t that leave you with bones? Don’t you make stock from bones? Don’t you make sauce from stock? Try that next time.

* You are a restaurant. Your gnocchi should be a uniform shape. If you're rustic, I don't need the ridges. I don't care if you crisp them on a grill. The shape should be uniform.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#35 GordonCooks

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Posted 07 November 2011 - 01:05 PM

In T.O. over the weekend intending to have a Korean meal with my parents in tow. Alas, they were too tired to venture out so my girl and I caught a great meal at the always dependable Pangaea. Still consistent food, nice wine list, and divine desserts.
Jazz is musical improvisation; it is the art of the moment. In the recording of jazz, the inspiration and inventiveness of this moment is made permanent by technology, giving pleasure many years after the performance.

Photography is jazz for the eye. - William Claxton

#36 Adrian

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Posted 29 November 2011 - 12:41 AM

I feel like I never say anything nice on the Toronto board. I lament the heat-to-shopping restaurants (if you really, really want to hear a rant, ask me to talk about why these places shouldn't use sous vide), complain about the irrelevance of the restaurants. Enough. Let's say something positive: I love the St. Lawrence market. I love it because it remains resilient against sanitization, resistant to the fetish of connoisseurship. You shop here simply because it is good. The market is not a merit badge.

There is no Cumbrae's: a jewel box butcher, meat like Tiffany's, beef aging on shelves instead of hooks, obsession over age and marbling, room for strollers on the side. Instead there are Mano's and Wittevan and White Horse. Not openly hacking a whole pig with the gusto of Slovenia in Montreal, but doing some butchery in plain view. There's an ample selection, bad lighting, and servers with a touch of blood on their apron. Prices are low, dry aging is just what butchers do, not what they fill their display case with. The beef in the back hangs and carefully rots on hooks. The meat at Cumbrae is clearly better, but the selection here is greater and the prepared foods are fewer. Cumbrae hides what it is behind gloss and sheen, these guys show their substance. They're more honest here. Even Oliffe, the only jewel box butcher to make a go at the market, is a little scruffier here. They took over the Sausage King only after learning his recipes.

Mike's Fish Market is another place that just does. No signs broadcasting that the fish has never been frozen, no false statements about sustainability, just the best fish in town because that's what a fish monger does. He's proud that he's got fresh calimari, annoyed because people complain that it's too expensive.

The green grocers are much the same. The Brickworks has its pristine micro greens and brand name farms (Cookstown Greens! Vickie's Vegetables!), it waxes and wanes with the seasons: beefsteaks and red zebras become boscs and bartletts. Fetishists, go there. At the St. Lawrence, the seasons are incidental but not irrelevant. Here tomatoes go from Californian and mealy to Ontarian and rich with acid and umami. That's fine: I make tomato sauce in the winter as well. And yet there's still a bucket of chanterelles, a mere $30 per pound, attracting a crowd in the corner.

There's downstairs as well. Some bakeries, an odd sushi place, and a coffee store that made the observation, long before the third wave kids did, that coffees from different places taste different from one another. A cup is $1.50 and comes from a thermos. It's better than Second Cup, worse than Crema, and devoid of pretension defined as pretension should be defined.

Back upstairs are the sandwiches. Peameal bacon is good enough on a bun from Paddington's, even better beside pancakes. A little dry though. Oliffe hawks a good porchetta, which is satisfying but doesn't taste like you're five years old with mustard on your hands in a big cavernous market on a cold winter's day so skip it. Instead get the peameal from Carousel Bakery at the next stall up. There, that's the memory or, for those of you who can't use the sandwich as a time machine, at least knowledge of what Canadian bacon actually is.

And then there are the cheese mongers, the mustard shops, the guys selling fancy European charcuterie. Form is irrelevant here. There is little obsession among the shoppers. Elsewhere, fancy places that once sold good food decline - they come to realize people like the polished display case more than the best possible chicken (Cumbrae does remain great). Or the geeky few travel ever deeper down the rabbit hole to find the most aged beef in the world. That's fine. I like blue cheesy beef too. The St. Lawrence market isn't about that. It's about what it's always been about; selling good food because that's the kind of food you should sell if you're going to sell food. I love that.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#37 Adrian

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 08:54 PM

Guu Izakaya:

Shut up Vancouver kids, I know you've had five of these for fifty years and we've just gotten our second. I know. They're better there too, I'm sure. Also whatever. 10:30 dinner there last night after The Messiah ('tis the season!). Probably the most fun I've had in a Toronto restaurant in a while. The room's a bit big box clubby, and the location, on a derelict corner south of the gay village and north of Ryerson is a bit odd. And there's a whole lot of schtick, fun schtick, but still schtick. The whole restaurant shouts hi to you in Japanese as you're entering, the same as you're leaving, tables are communal, the desired atmosphere is a party, they succeed. Food? First drink - cheap, slightly flavourless house sake is what you order. The food is Japanese pub fair, some way better than I expected like the spicy tuna tartar that I order despite my shame in ordering spicy tuna tar tar. Fried prawns in spicy mayo are expertly fried in a barely too heavy batter. Bacon wrapped scallops with hon shimeji mushrooms are about what you'd expect. My girlfriend loves the marinated octopus horseradish thing, I find it sweet an snotty, but it's way better here than at, say, decibel. Also, delicious, salty grilled beef tongue. Grilled miso black cod cooked with surprising precision, with a well tempered sweetness. Oh, and an absolutely disgusting bowl of rice, cloying sweet eel, and melted cheddar cheese. We loved every second of it. Sue me.

So it was great. Unfortunately, last orders are taken at 11:30! This is the kind of place I want to be able to go to at 1AM. It shouldn't be winding up at 11 on a Friday, it should be getting drunker. Toronto the good, I guess.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#38 Adrian

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 11:13 PM

And yeah AB, it's kind of a good-ish version of Buddokan with a better (read more Japanese, less B&T/905) crowd, a less clubby feel, and much cheaper. And more of the odd-Japanese bar food stuff - like the gross but kind of addictive eel/rice/cheese thing. Still, refreshing after some generally sullen recent meals here.

ETA: Also with a sense of irony, which Buddokan (and Nobu, etc) lack. It's amazing how much more enjoyable a place is when it realizes that it's silly.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#39 Adrian

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Posted 08 December 2011 - 02:59 PM

Laugh on, guys, laugh on.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#40 Adrian

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Posted 21 January 2012 - 04:45 PM

Haven't posted here in a bit because there hasn't been much worth posting about. I'll continue to reiterate that the steak at Nota Bene is world class and that I wonder what David Lee is doing with himself otherwise. I can't not mention a recently meal at WVRST; a King West-y sausage and beer hall for condo dwellers. Sausages were quite good but the fries, double fried in duck fat, were covered with this sauce that tasted like ketchup with curry powder. Unarguably the single most disgusting dish I've had in years.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#41 Rail Paul

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 12:43 PM

Nice write up about Libretto on Danforth in the Globe & mail

Noise from the eight or so cooks calling orders combines with the heavy bass of the music and the shouting of the clientele. Yes, shouting, because the new Libretto is so noisy that one must shout to attempt conversation.

What I can’t figure out is how you’re supposed to enjoy dinner in an incredibly noisy room where they bring people’s dinners at different times. And good luck getting a spoon for your soup. But the thing about Libretto Danforth (as with the original, Libretto Ossington) is that the food is too good to ignore. Chef Rocco Agostino has, with his partner Max Rimaldi, been blazing Italo-trad culinary trails with Enoteca Sociale and both Libretto spots. These guys have fabulous taste buds and they know how to turn their skills into a top retail experience. Libretto Danforth chef Luigi Encarnacion cut his teeth under the redoubtable Teddy Corrado at C5 in the ROM.

Which explains why the patate e fagioli soup blows every other bean soup in town out of the water. This is soup as carnival, silken bean puree topped with shaved almost-raw butternut squash, barely wilted Swiss chard, peeled cherry tomatoes, smoky ham and chick peas. Almost as enchanting are the arancini, deep-fried balls of lamb neck braised long and slow with fresh mint and melted mozzarella. And the ricotta gnocchi, lightly browned little darlings tossed with butternut squash cubes for depth, slightly sweet pickled onions, crisped pancetta for salt, pine nuts and arugula for complexity. We mind the grease and stodge of the deep-fried egg atop Rocco’s salad, and wish that it were poached, but the salad itself is impeccable – more squash cubes, prosciutto, beets and aged ricotta with al dente Brussels sprouts. Chef takes very good advantage of winter ingredients.


Libretto
“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones. ”
Niccolò Machiavelli

#42 Adrian

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Posted 31 January 2012 - 02:57 PM

I should post more down here. All I do up top is annoy Lex and Wilf and draw Mongo out from the shadows.

Haven't been to the new branch. The original Libretto remains the gold standard for Toronto pizza. The new branch is probably a godsend as there a routinely 1.5 hour plus waits for the West End branch meaning that your only real option is to go on off hours. Which is probably better anyway, since the oven is generally hotter giving the pie a better char. When the place is busy, the pie gets soggy. Otherwise, it's quite good. The pizza is competitive with some of the better New York offerings and the antipasta tread the line between a Franny's or a Motorino and a more traditional Italian restaurant. It's quite good. Lots of great options nearby for drinks as well: Cocktail Bar, The Dakota Tavern, Crooked Star, Red Light, etc, etc.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#43 Adrian

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Posted 11 February 2012 - 06:35 PM

Keriwa Cafe last night. Really good. After a series of really disappointing meals, it's good to go somewhere that rekindles a bit of faith in the city. On first pass, the restaurant seems both tired and gimmicky - seasonal organic restaurant with native Canadian influences. It's not. Chef Bear Robe has a distinct perspective on food that disserviced by such a description.

"Seasonal and local" are often an excuse for the unimaginative and simple cooking of what's in the market. The native inflections serve to give the food the food the strong perspective that many Toronto restaurants lack. The native inflections serve to give the food the food the strong perspective that many Toronto restaurants lack. When combined with the French technique Bear Robe learned at River Cafe, Eiginsinn, and Splendido, the results are surprising - a cuisine of bright acid berries and earthy nuts and grains. It's sourdough bread made with red fife flour, Bison brisket with bullberry, sunchokes, and barley, it's walnuts, and sea buckthorn, smoked whitefish and beets, duck with white beans and squash, rutabaga soup. Menu descriptions also suggest less complex cooking. The aforementioned bison came with an adobo sauce and a pungent garlic and rapini puree. Desserts, while not quite as remarkable as the rest of the menu, still surprise - screech cake is a nice nod to the east coast, a spiced creme brulee sounds boring until you try it with grains and raisins.

There's still room for Keriwa to grow. Protein cookery isn't as refined as it could be - both braises, bison and pork shoulder, were slightly dry, imperfectly glazed, duck was cooked a bit past medium rare. The balance between sweet, herbal, nutty, and earthy may have been thrown slightly off balance with a bit too much sweetness sometimes. The room is too bright, too cold. The wine list is atrocious. Expensive and exclusively Ontarian. If the Adobo isn't local (merely something that makes sense with the cuisine), why does the wine list have to be?

Qualms aside, Keriwa is unique, and delicious, and interesting. It's one of the few restaurants here that's conversant with other restaurants elsewhere the use of herbs and grains, ideas of local expression and terroir, some non-overt modern technique. In short, if you're here, go, it's great.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.


#44 Sneakeater

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Posted 11 February 2012 - 07:40 PM

I should post more down here.


I actively look forward to your Toronto posts. And not because I'm planning to go there, either.
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#45 Adrian

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Posted 12 February 2012 - 10:21 PM

Thanks. I really should do more write-ups here. Here's another. Forget to mention that the red fife sourdough bread at Keriwa was awesome.

For those of you that don't know, and why would you, Enoteca Sociale is the sister restaurant to Pizza Libretto, which Rail Paul posted an article about last week. Recently, Grant van Gameran formerly of the Black Hoof took over duties in the kitchen so I had reasonably high hopes.

Enoteca Sociale is incredibly popular. Reservations are hard to come by. The crowd is more North Toronto one would guess. The food is Italian. That probably explains a lot. We decided to split four dishes*. Octopus was grilled adequately and served with dry potatoes and a sweet-sour sauce that vaguely tasted like the peppers it was supposed to. Smoked sweetbreads were served over romano beans and weren't quite as interesting as I hoped and were the only trace of van Gameran's influence. The sweetbreads had been prepared with care - brined and smoked and crisped and who knows what else - but lacked the texture of great sweetbreads. The dish tasted like cassoulet light. Pastas are all made in house. Papardelle with a lamb regu was good home cooking. Stunning BC spot prawns were served with bottarga and spaghetti. It could have been great. The spot prawns were barely cooked and very sweet.**

Desserts were a chocolate thing that was boring.*** Our other dessert was something in the nutty-caramel family with something that was interesting and unapparent. My lack of recollection says more than any description could.

Wines were eccentric and expensive (the latter being a theme here) given the price of the food.**** Were it closer to my place, I'd grab a glass of wine and some pasta occasionally. Of course, I'd have to beat the crowds, which is near impossible. Which I don't get. Which is fine - they don't need my patronage.

*A note on service: I will refrain from commenting on the service itself as it was well meaning. But some broader issues are worth discussing. First, when you bifurcate your menu between pasta and not pasta, price everything in the $18 range, call the first section Piatti Sociale, and suggest that people often share [and, indeed, neighbouring tables are sharing], you bring the dishes out one at a time. You do not bring out both non-pasta dishes at once and then both pasta dishes. And you give us each plates to divvy the food out onto. I don't care if you don't normally serve couples like this. You need to know better.

** A note on portions and prices. Spot prawns are very expensive. I get that. Spaghetti is cheap. I also get that. So when I get three spot prawns over a heaping mound of spaghetti I wonder "what is going on here?". So I ask. The answer: apparently people were complaining that they didn't get enough food for their $18 or $20. So the kitchen decided to pile on the spaghetti because spot prawns aren't cheap. So I spend most of my time eating a plate of barely adorned noodles. Which sucks. It feels like work. I'm hungry, so I eat it. But guys, don't serve the spot prawns if you can't make an appropriately portioned dish. Or price it to cost. Or warn people the portion is small. Don't ruin the dish. You did that. You ruined a great dish with a big pile of useless noodles that did nothing but fill me up. I'm not paying you to just to fill me up. That's why you have bread.

*** Oh, and don't suggest that we drink our red wine with the chocolate dessert we ordered. I know you want to turn tables, but red wine does not go with chocolate. The fat from the chocolate coats your mouth and you can't taste the wine properly. It makes it taste thin. Thank you.

**** I've got a theory about wine prices. My theory is that there should always be a reasonable bottle of equal price to the average check size. So, here, desserts were about $10, apps $15, pastas $20, meaning that for $45-55 there should be a reasonable option. I may go over, I may not, but that strikes me as an appropriate default rule.

I think you need to interpret what I'm saying in a reasonable way.