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Eating With My Hands at Lamesa

23 Oct

Any chance I get, I love to eat my food with my hands. Bacon? I eat with my hands. Scrambled eggs? Piled on toast and eaten with my hands. I have been known to eat gooey, rich chocolate cake with my hands and no one can convince me otherwise that it doesn’t make for a more joyful experience. (You people and your cutlery-for-pizza ways? I do not understand you.) So when I was invited to take part in a kamayan dinner at Lamesa last night, I was genuinely excited. Sitting down at a table draped with banana leaves and eventually adorned with brightly coloured, intensely flavoured food is my idea of a great dinner. Every Sunday, Lamesa is offering this kamayan (translated, means “hand to mouth”) dinner for a very reasonable $40/person that would be great for everyone: a group of friends, a family, a date. Best to make reservations and to know that this is not a fast meal: the idea is to sit with those you care about to share and enjoy a meal together. It’s a Filipino tradition that the owners and chefs want to bring to our awesome city and I think it’s a fabulous addition. It’s a feast for the senses.

Refreshments in hand, our table watched (and drooled) while head chef Rudy Boquilla and chef de cuisine Joash Dy elegantly placed the four different sauces on top of the banana leaves. First was the bagoong caramel, a fermented shrimp paste, followed by a soy garlic puree, sawsawan gel and housemade hot sauce. The sawasan gel was a table fave: thick, sweet and salty, it was made with soy, vinegar and garlic. Every once in a while, I would find another little pocket of it hidden under rice and I’d swipe whatever bite of food I had in my fingers through it. They could bottle and sell this stuff.

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Next to be served was a salad comprised of sour mango, arugula, radish and pretty heirloom carrots paired with mango chutney. This was followed by a sisig lettuce cup: iceberg lettuce piled high with chopped chicken, pork and beef cooked with chili, garlic and onions. Light and crunchy, these were light bites that helped to balance the rich meats that were to come.

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In the middle of the table, chef Dy spread out generous heaps of garlic fried rice topped with crispy garlic bits. On top of the rice, mussels and clams cooked in a broth of coconut milk, ginger and garlic. In between the shellfish, smoked, boneless bangus (marinated milkfish) were artfully placed. The smokiness of the fish and the brininess of the shellfish were making our mouths water. Next to come was the hands-down winner of the night: the crispy chicken adobo wings. This is not to say that the kare kare oxtail (braised in a peanut garlic sauce) wasn’t succulent and beautiful, because it was; but, this chicken was incredible. Maybe the best fried chicken in the city. A grand statement, to be sure, but it has to be tasted to be believed.

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The array: smoked fish, mussels, corn, oxtail, chicken adobo wings, rice, kale chip, pea shoots, lettuce cup and chicken tinola broth.

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Halved calamansi, pickled egg and mango chutney.

 

Not to be left out were the grilled corn, bok choy, kale chips, sweet purple yam cornbread, pickled egg and fresh calamansi that dotted the table. To say this was an epic meal would almost do it a disservice. It was a fun meal. A balanced meal. An “I am so full but can’t stop eating” meal. An “oh my god, did you try this with that??” meal. A meal one does not soon forget. Check out Lamesa at 669 Queen St. W., just west of Bathurst. They will be putting on the kamayan dinners every Sunday night – don’t forget to make reservations!

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Before…

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…after.

 

Distillery District’s Mexican Fare: El Catrin

2 Aug

I had the pleasure to attend the opening night of El Catrin, the new restaurant replacing The Boiler House in Toronto’s Distillery District. The massive space has been transformed into a fabulous south-of-the-border(s) venue with a massive mural taking up the entire north wall. It has to be seen in person to be believed, but here’s a shot from my perch at one of the high-tops:

mural

The Mexico City-born chef, Olivier de Calvez, and his team prepared an eight-course tasting menu for the launch, each item paired with an impressive cocktail. We started off with fresh tortillas and table-side guacamole with three salsas ranging from mild to hot and nueces picante: mixed roasted nuts rubbed with Mexican spices.  The peanuts and walnuts were a big hit at the table, with many of us squirrelling them away in our bags to snack on later. Accompanying this course was the enormous traditional margarita. In all honesty, tequila and I are not amigos so I am not a great judge of a good margarita; however, those who like them reported back that it was excellent.

Evil margarita.

Evil margarita.

The second course of the night had what I considered one of the best dishes we had that night: ceviche de atun. The beautiful ahi tuna ceviche was done up simply with lime juice, olive oil, watermelon and habanero. It was light, refreshing and I would have been thrilled to eat five or six more servings of it. It was served with a pepino diablo, a tequila-based drink traditionally made with cucumber, jalapeno, pineapple juice and basil. The glass was rimmed with spiced salt and the tequila was not overpowering. Along with those five or six additional ceviche dishes, I could have had as many of this drink. Happily.

Ahi tuna ceviche

Ahi tuna ceviche

Pepino diablo

Pepino diablo

Next up were the Mexican staple tacos al pastor: shredded pork marinated in pineapple and axiote topped with cilantro and chopped onion. It paired nicely with the fuego sandia, a popular drink at our table made with watermelon, tequila and some heat. Nicely balanced, this was my second favourite drink of the evening. Brought out shortly after the pork tacos was my absolute hands-down winner of the evening: tostada de higado de pato. Seared foie gras placed on top of a freshly-made tostada and served with a mezcal mango syrup, poblano and pickled red onion. By turn sumptuous, crunchy, spicy and rich, this was a stand out of the night. I was not as big a fan of the accompanying drink, however, the hibisco rosa. Unfortunately, all I could taste was the rosewater which gave the drink a soapy taste. Some people quite liked it; I couldn’t do more than a couple of sips.

Foie gras tostada

Foie gras tostada

Fuego sandia

Fuego sandia

A lovely, light cactus salad followed and then camarones al ajillo, jumbo shrimp sautéed with guajillo pepper, garlic, lime juice, white wine served over red rice, black bean purée and guacamole. The shrimp was plump and beautifully cooked but the guacamole needed more salt and a little more lime juice.

Shrimp

Shrimp

Our final main was a gorgeous braised short rib with black mole sauce, sweet potato purée and sugar snap peas. The meat was incredibly tender and the mole was lovely and complex with the warm, rich flavours you should expect of the complex, multi-ingredient sauce.

Braised short rib

Braised short rib

Topping off the indulgent evening were two desserts: the classic churros and a barra de chocolat, which is best described as a Mexican Nanaimo bar. It was spiced and smoked with hazelnuts and chocolate and I was in love after one bite. The heat sneaks up on you after a couple of bites which is fine by me. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, you might want to stick with the churros and their chocolate, cajeta and strawberry sauces.

Churros and Mexican chocolate bars.

Churros and Mexican chocolate bars.

No doubt, El Catrin will do well in its spot in the Distillery. There is a fabulous, sprawling patio with separate bars and a fire pit for chilly fall evenings.  There is a separate room for private parties and the bar itself is quite lovely. There was a great buzz in the air at the launch, and not just due to the copious tequila- and rum-based beverages. Should you go – and you should – do not miss the ceviche, the short rib or the foie gras tostada.

Review: Lisa Marie

22 Apr

front

Matt Basile can fairly be called a bundle of energy. In less than two years, he has gone from tables at 99 Sudbury to pop-up events around the city to owning a food truck to opening a restaurant. Oh, and let’s not forget shooting a TV show for Travel & Escape, documenting this whirlwind. You knew Matt, a.k.a. Fidel Gastro, was at an event when you heard the boisterous cries of, “OLÉ!” and when you spotted the omnipresent Elvis bust. Between his enthusiasm and his tasty sandwiches, it is no surprise that Matt has fast-tracked his way to opening his restaurant, Lisa Marie (638 Queen St. West). The menu is comprised of cichetti – small dishes enabling you to try lots of options – and a couple of specials. I went with two equally hungry friends and we decided to order the entire menu, plus one of the specials as it sounded too good to resist. We asked our waiter, Chris, if we were being too ambitious; he asked us to put our trust in him and told us he’d take care of us. If we were getting too full, just let him know and we’d skip right to the special.

So here we go…

menu

The first round of food consisted of: beer-braised short rib on polenta, brined eggplant with tallegio cheese and chili peppers, the (MASSIVE) turkey wing done in a buffalo style and the deep fried pizza with smoked duck and enoki mushroom and asparagus slaw.

plate 1

The pizza here was the table’s favourite: the duck chicharron was the perfect  topping for this umami-bomb of a pizza. We devoured every bite but my dining companions were nice enough to leave me the crispy bits from the dinosaur-like portion of turkey wing…

crispy turkey

Next up, plate two: the deep-fried cheeseburger topped with a pickle and poached quail egg and Lisa Marie’s take on a BLT – the “pork belly cheese thang.”

burger & blt

These two dishes were even better than the first round. I mean…one has pork belly, so…sold. The other is deep-fried brisket and chuck and is topped with a runny, gooey egg. Do not pass these up!

And what was up next on this tasty tour-de-force? One of the lighter dishes on the menu and one of the most addictive. Both delicious, but totally different:

tuna & beef

On the left is the fresh puttanesca tuna roll: ahi tuna marinated in a puttanesca sauce and rolled up in rice paper with a variety of fresh vegetables. Crunchy, light and full of flavour, the rolls are finished with a sweet and sour mango sauce. This sauce was so good one of my tablemates drank the whole thing.

On the right…oh my. These puppies are nuggets of bacon-wrapped beef carpaccio, cheddar and kimchi on top of pickled vegetables. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Do. Not. Miss. These. Only because we knew we had more food coming did we resist ordering another round or six.

Upon this round of food being cleared, Chris announced that our special, the sugo, would be the next dish to arrive. We had been anticipating this particular dish from the time it was described. It appeared at the table and all six eyes widened:

sugo

Homemade, fresh tomato sauce with bison and pork and a bag of warm, torn, salty bread. Simple, fun, delicious. We ripped open the bag and went to town on this one. We plowed through two bags of bread and polished off as much as humanly possible. The sauce was light and flavourful. I want this recipe; but, I suspect I will be out of luck so I will just have to order it every time I go. And I will. I strongly suggest you do, too.

Leftovers? Not a chance.

Leftovers? Not a chance.

Dessert? Oh, yes please. We knew that there would be a couple of dessert options but it was a no-brainer – we wanted The Elvis. This wonderful, vaguely evil concoction in a mason jar, is The Elvis:

dessert

It’s everything The King loved: bananas, caramelized bacon, peanut butter and whipped cream. The three of us happily tucked in and demolished it in a few minutes. We considered ordering another but decided that might be overkill. (It would’ve been worth it.)

I encourage you to check out Lisa Marie. It’s a cool place – with a little market in the back where I picked up some kimchi and bacon jam – that boasts a fun, boisterous vibe. They are taking limited reservations and I would bet Matt will be kept very busy. I doubt he’d have it any other way.

Lisa Marie on Urbanspoon

Drinking for Two

30 Jul

The “before” picture.

There have been a whole lot of changes going on in foodNURDland, not the least of which is the ever-closer arrival of the foodNURDling in December. As someone who loves food – and many, many of the alcoholic beverages under the sun – this has required some alterations in my normal routine. It was not easy to give up some of the foods and drinks I love. Prosciutto, wine, raw fish, tiramisu, beef (steak, at least. I am a firm believer that beef should not be cooked to more medium rare at most, so that’s pretty much out, too) and beer. While I’ve chosen to have a little bit of wine here, some beer there, I’m obviously no longer unwinding after a long day with a glass – or two or three – of cab sauv.

And what’s a wine-loving woman to do when she goes out with friends for dinner and can’t face another ginger ale or glass of water? She asks the bartender to get creative.

The easy option is a virgin mojito. All the bartender has to do is remove the rum et voila: drink. In my experience, though, virgin mojitos are far, far too sweet. J makes a much better version than any I’ve had at a restaurant: it’s nowhere near as sweet. My girlfriend, the Hot Biscuit, doesn’t drink much and her tasty stand-by is a mix of cranberry, orange juice and 7-Up. It’s definitely sweet, but the cranberry juice’s tartness helps.

When I was out at Murphy’s Law over the July long weekend, I asked the waitress what she could recommend that was,  “non-alcoholic but looks like it could get me tanked.” She thought about it for a moment and then suggested a virgin pina colada. Given that pina coladas generally don’t taste like alcohol anyway, this seemed like a pretty solid option though certainly one I’d think of off the top of my head. (Pina coladas = beach resort drink.)

…and after.

The most entertaining drink I’ve had so far? A Shirley Temple, made for me at Salvador Darling. The bartender seemed a little stumped initially, so I suggested she just throw some orange and cranberry juice in a glass. Seconds later, it was like a light bulb went off over her head: “I can make you a Shirley Temple!” Awesome. I haven’t had a Shirley Temple since I was ten. I was asked repeatedly if it tasted like I remembered and it pretty much did: sweet, a little fizzy and…sweet.

The best drink so far? That was created one night while I sat at the bar at The Grove. I was a few minutes early for my reservation, so I hopped up on a stool and presented the bartender with my now-standard request. As usual, there was a moment’s pause while he got over the shock of someone not wanting alcohol and then started processing the quandary. “Well, I’ve been experimenting with ginger lately…do you like ginger?” Oh, I do. “So long as there are no olives involved, I’m in!”

A tall, frosty glass of tastiness arrived in front of me a few minutes later. Filled with ice, mint, ginger, homemade lemonade and a couple of other delicious ingredients, this was pretty much my perfect (non-alcoholic) drink. It was refreshing, not overly sweet, and complex. I’m hoping to be as pleasantly surprised elsewhere as I was that evening but so far, still searching.

Anyone have any suggestions for a great drink or bar?

Spotlight Series: Korean Village

27 Jun

This is the second in a series of monthly posts about some of my favourite smaller spots in Toronto.  I love getting to know the people behind the great food we have in this city!

You can’t miss Korean Village Restaurant. Even in a sea of Korean restaurants and stores, it stands out with its huge yellow sign. Located just west of Palmerston on Bloor, Korean Village is an institution. Opened in 1978 by a Korean pop star and her husband, it catered to other newly-immigrated Korean families and its popularity steadily rose to the point where, now, film executives and stars pop in for dinner during TIFF or whenever they happen to be in town. (As you walk in, you’ll see walls adorned with many, many autographed pictures of stars and the owners.)

Chances are that if you spend an evening here – and they’re open 365 days a year – you’re likely to meet Jason Lee, son to the owners, server extraordinaire, occasional manager and jack of all trades. Jason is the kind of warm, charming presence that makes a restaurant stand out over its competitors. I had the chance to sit down with him not long ago and he impressed upon me how important his job is to him and his enthusiasm for customer service is astounding. He is happy to make recommendations to first-timers who might be overwhelmed by Korean Village’s immense, 12-page  menu. What is he most proud of? “The beef ribs are my personal favourite,” Jason says. Marinated for hours and hours, I can attest that they are tender and rich. I actually forgot myself and started eating my portion before taking this picture…

Beef short ribs

Having been here before, and after talking to numerous people who have as well, I couldn’t argue. The sides are especially great: the kimchi, pickled cucumbers, bean sprouts and spicy pickles are all made expertly, with a nice crunch. If you order the bbq platter – and I recommend you do. It’s leaps and bounds above the chain Korean bbq spots – all these sides will come with it and they are a wonderful accompaniment.

Fabulous – and partially eaten – side dishes.

The kitchen takes a lot of pride in their dishes and make just about everything by hand including the outstanding dumplings. Do not miss these lightly fried delights, stuffed with beef, green onions and various spices.

Other specialties of the house? “I often recommend the bibimbap and sweet potato noodles,” Jason explained. Both are traditional dishes and you could certainly do worse. I happened to love bibimbap and I will certainly be trying this the next time I go.

I have no doubt that most other restaurants in Korea Town have many of the same dishes but going to Korean Village Restaurant is such a fun experience, one that Jason, his parents and the entire staff works hard to maintain. I have heard stories of first dates, business dinners, late-night-not-entirely-sober-drop-ins and massive groups all showing up at the restaurant, all to be shown a great time with delicious food. I do not pretend to be an afficionado of Korean food, but I know what I like: I like great food and great service. I have found both in spades here. Both Jason and his mother are gracious hosts who genuinely want their guests to enjoy themselves. “My mom told me to be a hawk,” explained Jason. “Pay attention to the details.” Clearly, he and Korean Village Restaurant have taken this to heart.

Like this post? Check out the first Spotlight Series article!

My Epic Meal at Centro

10 May

In the last couple of months, J has become friends with one of the wait staff at Centro. Trevor has been insisting that we come in one night to check it out; that we were missing out on a great dinner; that we’d be well taken care of. After a few weeks, we decided we had nothing to lose (except the ability to fit into our pants, apparently) and made a date to check it out.

We walked into the high-ceilinged, heavily-mirrored dining room and were appropriately agog. The room manages to be at once cozy and grandiose. We were shown to a corner table with tall banquette seating with a great view of the dining room. We watched the waiters practically dance around the tables, expertly serving their well-attired clientele. Trevor greeted us, took our drink orders and told us to sit back and relax. Since we’d be having the chef’s tasting menu, all decisions were out of our hands which was just fine by us. My only request was no olives, please. (I have a well-documented hatred of them. I have tried them a few times and I just. Can’t. Do it.) Three hours and seven courses later, we walked out two happy and very full customers.

Two separate starters arrived at our table to begin: piping hot arancini stuffed with pesto risotto and buffala mozzarella, sitting on tomato chutney and a beautiful charcuterie plate with boar salami, guanciale, prosciutto, pate, rye crostini and pickled vegetables. Both plates were stunning to look at and had our mouths watering for more. Following the opening dishes were colourful plates of pickled beets topped with that same creamy buffala mozzarella, pesto and light, crunchy bread tuiles. Light and refreshing, this was a great follow-up to the heavier course before it.

Two courses down, five to go. (Not that we knew how many courses were headed our way. Just that we were going to eat. And eat. And eat.) Next up was perhaps the most delicious scallop dish I have ever had. A single seared scallop in a Meyer lemon sauce, topped with capers and brioche crumbs. Incredible. The sweetness of the scallop was offset – but not overwhelmed – by the briny capers, sharp lemon sauce and the crunch from the bread all came together in a few perfect bites.

The fourth plate? Oh my. This was a gorgeous, rich braised short rib and maple-glazed sweetbreads with crispy leeks, a sunchoke purée and a red wine gastrique. Rich, unctuous, sweet…heaven on a plate. The sweetbreads were absolutely delectable – even J, who was a bit dubious initially, absolutely loved them. They were nice and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, just as they should be. Folks, if you want to try something a little different, I can’t recommend these enough. Chef Symon Abad knows how to handle ’em.

Around this point in the meal – about an hour and a half in – I am thanking all sorts of gods and monsters for not having worn a belt. No one plate was huge, but they were starting to add up. The short rib was wonderfully fatty (not overly, though) and rich. I was thinking that there couldn’t be much more. Like, maybe dessert next? J suggested that there might be pasta on the way, but I just didn’t think that was going to happen. That is, until bowls and seafood forks arrived. Okay. So this was not dessert coming up. No, in fact, it was a lovely pasta course (score one for J!) of squid ink fazzoletti (“handkerchief” in Italian) served with crab, mussels, clams and shrimp in roasted garlic and red pepper sauce. Yes, you read that right. An impressive dish on an impressive evening.

“Okay, that’s got to be it, right? We’ve had meat, pasta, seafood…that’s gotta be it.” I exclaimed. Trevor and another waiter came and cleared away everything but our glasses from the table and I figured that could only mean one thing: dessert.

Trevor: “Okay, folks! Just a main and a dessert to go!” *laughs and walks away*
J: “Did he just say a main?”
Me: “Nahhh, he’s gotta be kidding! I mean, we have no cutlery, no side plates, and he laughed! I’m sure he was just kidding.”

Ten minutes later, forks and sharp knives were placed in front of us. Dear god. Trevor was nearly giddy as he placed veal tenderloin and calf’s liver on potato rosti, red cabbage and pearl onions in front of us as our eyes widened. “Your mains!” he proclaimed. As full as I was, there was simply no way I was not going to try this. The tenderloin was seared on the outside, juicy and just a little pink on the inside. Excellent. I could have eaten four pounds of the potato rosti it was so good. Unfortunately, I’d pretty much hit my wall. I could not have eaten another bite of this rich, tasty plate. J fared better than I but still couldn’t finish. We didn’t want to waste anything so we had what remained packed up.

We paid a quick visit to the chef and his brigade to thank them for a fantastic meal. It was nice to, you know, stand up. Maybe we should’ve gone for a walk around the block between courses!

And what arrived for the seventh and final course of the evening? Two different dishes: a lovely, light, layered cake with rhubarb filling and a plate with freshly-made mini-donuts dipped in maple sugar and served with squash-maple purée and crème fraiche ice cream. Oh my. A fabulous way to end an extraordinary meal. We sat, mildly dazed, sipping ginger tea for a little while, watching the staff clean up for the night, contemplating the past three hours of food extravaganza. A beautiful meal in a beautiful place. The pedigree of chef that’s come through Centro is of the highest quality (Marc Thuet, Michael Bonacini, Chris McDonald…it goes on) and chef Abad upholds the restaurant’s stellar reputation.

Spotlight Series: La Cascina

8 May

This is the first in a series of monthly posts about some of my favourite smaller spots in Toronto.  I love getting to know the people behind the great food we have in this city!

When people ask me, “What’s your favourite restaurant in the city?” my answer is, invariably, La Cascina. Since popping in a couple of years ago for what turned out to be a delicious, filling, relaxing, and surprising meal, J and I have been going back more and more frequently. It’s our go-to for a nice meal. We know we will be treated well by the staff who cater to their guests’ needs without being obsequious nor pushy. It’s the kind of place you go on a date, for a birthday dinner, with family or friends to linger over wonderful Italian food and wine.  Recently, I had the chance to sit down and chat with chef Luca and front-of-house manager, Sharifa, to discuss Abruzzo, Toronto and many things in between.

Having owned a restaurant of the same name in the Abruzzo, when chef Luca arrived in Toronto he was disheartened to see that the hospitality he worked so hard to achieve back home didn’t really exist here. He found dinner here to be a standard, two-hour maximum affair, with restaurants more concerned with flipping tables than satisfying customers. “In Italy, eating is a passion. We had a ‘destination’ restaurant: people would drive for two hours, arriving in the afternoon for lunch and staying through dinner.” With 15 years in the kitchen under his belt and yearning to recreate this kind of atmosphere, Luca opened a restaurant in Woodbridge with much success. As they are in the current location at Avenue & Lawrence, patrons are allowed to take their time with their meals, enjoying every last bite.

Of course, a welcoming atmosphere isn’t worth much if the food is mediocre or even average. Always striving for authentic Abruzese food, Luca vehemently explains, “You will not find veal parmigiana or fettucine alfredo on the menu. Customers sometimes would ask and we would have to explain that we don’t do that here. We have to educate them. It was hard in the beginning but we are winning people’s trust.”

What will diners find on the menu? An ever-changing array of beautiful dishes. Cold antipasti platters of cured meats and young cheese; hot bowls of farro, of braised fennel with onions, of roasted zucchini and almonds. Any pasta option they choose will be made to order and will be incredible. There is always at least one meat and fish option and once a month, Luca and Sharifa host a fish and seafood evening (i sapori del mare). These nights feature succulent, well-executed dishes like rich arctic char topped with truffles and briny linguine vongole.

I asked Luca what his favourite dish to cook was and it happened to coincide with the first dish he learned to make: pasta carbonara. He spent much time trying to perfect it when he was younger and, as he spoke about it, you could see the passion in his eyes. Already a pretty animated person, he was practically giddy when explaining that what you really needed is a few key elements of the highest quality. It’s not a difficult dish to create; but, to make it excellent, you have to have the best, the freshest, ingredients. “You don’t need cream. There is no cream in this restaurant because people in Abruzzo would never use cream. You just have to make it right.” Indeed – and he does. I had some that night and subsequently told all my friends about it. I returned two weeks later with a girlfriend and it happened to be on the menu. She is not a huge fan of pasta, but my effusive praise had convinced her that she had to try it. We split an order and the look on her face was one I recognized: pure food-induced happiness.

A question I love to ask people – especially chefs – is the old, “If you were stuck on a desert island, what five ingredients would you want to have with you?” The chef rhymed off the first three in rapid succession: “pasta, bread and eggs.” After a little further thought, he added truffles and lamb. I, for one, wouldn’t mind being stuck on that desert island if he were there to cook all those things for me.

I encourage you all to come to this wonderful restaurant. There is always something new to experience and Sharifa & Luca constantly strive to bring more to the customer. They are budding sommeliers and stock some lovely Italian wines. (A personal favourite of mine is the Nicola Di Sipio Montepulciano 2008.) Come for the atmosphere: meet Sharifa, the ever-gracious and knowledgeable manager. Come for the friendly and warm service. Last but certainly not least, come for the simple but remarkable food. It’s going to make you re-evaluate the other Italian restaurants at which you’ve been eating and may well spoil them for you.

Death Row Meals: Olde Hunter’s Feast II

3 Apr

Created by the fab duo behind Living.Loving.Local, the Death Row Meals Supper Club put on interesting, delicious, fun dinners that bring together the food lovers in Toronto. My first go ’round was at the Taco Madness meal. I had such a great time that I was hooked, knowing I had to make it to as many of these meals as possible. When the email arrived with the title “Old Hunter’s Feast”, I was in.

On April 1 & 2, hungry collections of people gathered at Beast Restaurant, eagerly anticipating the promised hunter’s feast. They were not disappointed. Let’s call it what it was: Meatapalooza. We sat down in the cozy room at the communal table and got to know our neighbours. As expected, everyone came from different backgrounds, but food was the common denominator. To help stimulate conversation, tiny little plastic animals were placed on the tables and it took no longer than 10 minutes before said animals were…providing entertainment.

Perusing the menu, I was glad to have made the executive decision to not wear tights. That would have been uncomfortable by the end of the night as there were seven amazing courses to ingest and I wanted to savour every bite. First up was Nick Benninger’s “Hunting Trip Gone Wrong”: a slow-poached duck egg, trail mix, “boarsciutto”, foie granola, crab apple verjus and forest edibles. The duck egg was just lovely, and the yolk ran all over the plate as soon as my knife touched it, mixing with the other elements on the plate. The salty boarsciutto (boar prosciutto, a by-product of the first Hunter’s Feast dinner), the savoury crab apple verjus and the creamy yolk were a fabulous combination and something I’d like to have for breakfast. (Hint, nudge.)

Next up was the creation from Beast’s sous chef, Trish Gill. To a lovely, light boar prosciutto brodo, she added confit of sturgeon belly topped with caviar, wild leeks and scrumptious dumplings. If the slurping and spoon-clanking sounds were any indication, the rest of the diners enjoyed it as much as we did. Knowing it was going to be a large, meat-heavy meal, it was nice to have a lighter dish. And hey…there was caviar!

Third on the menu was Tom Davis’ prosciutto “spamstrami” with smoked bean pureé, Canadian Club-infused kimmel crumbs and sage oil. The Stockyards chef explained that he isn’t much for hunting, so if he were out in the woods, he’d need to take some basic provisions like Spam, beans and maybe some bread. Out of that, he created what I thought was a playful take on, basically, a sandwich. The kimmel and pastrami were a natural pairing (pastrami on rye, anyone?) and the smoked bean pureé was fantastic. If you haven’t made it out to Stockyards yet, get there now!

Several dishes – and glasses of Coyotes Run and Sandbanks wine – in, the restaurant was positively buzzing. There was much laughter and merriment as the fourth course arrived: a duo of green and yellow French Canadian split pea soup with boar prosciutto, pheasant sausage and duck spiedini. The chef, Steve Wilson of the Summit Golf & Country Club, referenced his Native Canadian heritage for this dish and it was beautiful. The soup was creamy, smooth and rich and the pheasant sausage was absolutely fantastic. For me, this dish was so wonderful to see (and eat!) as it reminded me of my mom, who used to make split pea soup herself. In fact, it has inspired me to make some of my own.

On to the fabulous Rossy Earle’s dish: the gator, duck liver and boar prosciutto boudin ball with sweet corn pudding, cracklin’, sofrito criollo and ramp coulis. Magic. As anyone who has eaten it can attest, Rossy’s food is incredible. Creative and delicious, this dish was no different. People were literally scraping their plates. The sweet corn pudding alone would have been sufficient, but the rest of dish came together beautifully. I considered proposing marriage, much to J’s confusion.

The final dish before dessert came out was courtesy of Luma’s chef, Jason Bangerter, clearly in his element here. The menu read, “Wild game ragout” with semolina, sour cream and (much to everyone’s delight) crispy tasty bits. Gee, I thought, that’s an awfully vague menu item. I wonder what kind of wild game he has in store. What went into this aromatic dish? Venison, moose and…beaver. Yes, beaver. It was fabulous. Extremely rich, pungent and tender, this dish was a delight to eat. When we were warned that we’d be “uncomfortably full in a great way” at the beginning of the meal, I suspect that this dish in particular was the cause for the alert. The crispy hazelnuts and garlic were a nice counterpoint to the velvety texture of the ragout and, once again, I scraped my plate clean.

It was with mixed feelings that the last course arrived, also concocted by chef Bangerter. This was the “Hunting Trip Gone Right”: homemade marshmallows, mini beaver tails and a Kahlua-infused cream with little graham cracker-like pieces at the bottom, all served in a mason jar. Un-be-lievable. I love dessert: I have a real sweet tooth and this hit the spot. Several spots, really, as I dug down into the jar to get a bite of everything on my spoon. Satiety and good sense be damned, I was going to finish this dessert!

What a wonderful way to spend a few hours: stellar food made by excellent Ontario chefs; great Ontario wine; wonderful company; and friends old and new. If you’re interested in checking out one of these meals for yourself, head on over to Living.Loving.Local’s Facebook page and sign up for their mailing list! For some great pics of the night, head on over to the If Looks Could Fill site!

foodNURD is Officially on Vacation!

18 Feb

Hey, all! I’m off on vacation for a couple of weeks, so foodNURD won’t have any updates for a while. J and I are off to Belize for the second time in two years. Spectacular country with amazing people and, importantly, delectable fresh food. Looking forward to getting my fill of fresh seafood: conch and shrimp ceviche, grouper, red snapper…it goes on. Not to mention excellent, homemade Latin American faves like panades, salbutes and garnachas! And let’s not forget the $2.50 Belikin beers…

I’ve posted a few pics below for you to feast your eyes on. Many more to come upon my return!

Dishcrawling on King St. West

2 Dec

I heard about Dishcrawl via Twitter a few months ago and it sounded like a fun concept: tour and sample dishes from different restaurants in specific neighbourhoods with like-minded foodies. The catch? You don’t know the restaurants until you arrive at the meet-up spot! Throw caution and control to the wind, show up where you’re told and try some new things.

My girlfriend and I anxiously awaited the email telling us where to head for our first destination, having bought our tickets weeks in advance. The day arrived and we went down to Thor Espresso Bar (35 Bathurst St.) where fifty other Dishcrawlers had gathered. Co-owners Patrick and Tom provided espressos and americanos to everyone there, a welcoming sight on a very cold evening. The guys use a mix of beans from South and Central America and they make for a wonderful, rich drink. They also feature some lunch options and snacks like the incredibly sinful looking donuts. One of the Dishcrawlers couldn’t help but buy one for the road and I can’t say I blamed her.

mmmmmm...donuts.

Thor boys contemplating their Slayer machine

When we had all gathered, Gretchen (half of the fabulous Dishcrawl team), led our group to Wabora, a swank Japanese restaurant located at the Thompson Hotel (550 Wellington St. West). We were seated in front of the very busy sushi chefs and were greeted by Wabora’s charming manager who explained what we would be eating that evening. He was quick to point out that Wabora was not strictly sushi restaurant, but also featured a hot kitchen to provide a delicious meal to satisfy any taste. Plates of crispy fried chicken pieces smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce arrived at the tables moments after and were quickly devoured by the hungry guests. Next up were the fresh salmon and dynamite rolls from the sushi kitchen. I thought the sushi was great: the fish and crab were fresh and the dynamite roll was spicy and had lots of crunch. My girlfriend and I agreed, though, that there was too much mayo for what was served, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Finally, an unexpected dessert course came to our table: four spoons with ice cream and deep-fried, chocolate-filled cigar cookies. Our table went silent except for the occasional, quiet, “Oh my god” followed groans of culinary happiness.

Sushi at Wabora

Crispy chicken at Wabora

So where does one go after Japanese food? Why, a German sausage hall, of course! Wvrst opened this past summer and has been on my hit list since (609 King St. West). Featuring everything from pork to elk to kangaroo sausages and duck fat fries, this place is an original in Toronto.  Great, relaxed vibe, friendly staff and an excellent variety of beers on tap – it’s no wonder this place was an instant hit. It’s no frills food, attitude and atmosphere and I can’t wait to try it again. We were told that it was much busier in the restaurant than they’d expected, so the service was delayed longer than we’d anticipated. No one seemed to mind too much, though, as friends old and new chatted away happily over pints. The fries arrived first in paper cones with ducks drawn on the front, served with several dipping sauces. Not too long after, rounds of rabbit and beef sausages with sides of jalapenos, sauerkraut, red peppers and onions started showing up at the table. I opted for the rabbit sausage and was not disappointed. In fact, I will likely have that again in addition to the kangaroo which I’m told is fantastic.

Wvrst sausage platter

Duck fat fries

Sushi and sausage cravings filled, it was back down Bathurst to get a sneak preview of Cheesewerks (56 Bathurst St.), an artisan grilled cheese shop scheduled to open in a couple of weeks. A funky little joint making great grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade soups, the owners have clearly put a lot of thought and hard work into their venture. I was particularly excited to see that they had Red Fife wheat bread on their menu! The menu is exclusively cheese-based and they have thought out potential dietary restriction issues by providing cow, sheep and goat cheese as well as gluten-free bread. When we reported back to a friend that these options would be available, she was so thrilled! She hadn’t allowed herself to get excited about the place but is now very much looking forward to checking it out.

Cheesewerks in action

To wrap up the night, we got adorable little packages of cookies from Wagamama (766 King St. West) to take home. (The shop was long-closed before we could get there.) Tasty, homemade cookies were an excellent way to end a night full of delicious food!

As for Dishcrawl itself, I think it’s a fabulous idea that only has room to grow. I might suggest that they take smaller groups in the future if only to alleviate the crush on the kitchens. Wvrst was unexpectedly busy the night we went (likely due to the Leafs game on TV) and that put both groups behind on time. When we’d reached our final destination, you could feel some of the energy from the beginning of the night start to wane. Having said that, I think it’s a fun way to check out restaurants in an area of town you might not frequent that often and meet some new, like-minded people. I’ll definitely keep it on my radar.

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