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Review: Woodlot

11 Aug

Summers are busy around here as the majority of birthdays in our family occur within four weeks of each other. This tends to lead to lots of dinners out on the town. In soliciting suggestions from friends, one restaurant came up frequently: Woodlot. I’d read much about Woodlot in the last couple of months: about the fantastic bakery, the locally-sourced ingredients, the simplicity of the food and decor. Between the personal recommendations and the fawning of the print and online food community, the decision wasn’t too hard to make. (The fact that it was voted one of the best new restaurants of 2011 by Toronto Life definitely didn’t hurt.)

We popped into Kalendar for a drink beforehand (check out the rojo martini if you go. Most excellent.) and watched the world go by, including the chef of Grace, Top Chef Canada contestant Dustin Gallagher. Mental note: must get to Grace! We wandered over to Woodlot and as soon as we opened the door, the aroma from that spectacular wood-burning oven wafted over us. Figuring that was a good sign, we inhaled deeply and sat down at our cozy table. The restaurant looks like it seats about 50 on the upper floor with room for another 10 or so downstairs at the chef’s table. The exposed brick walls are adorned with native Canadian art as well as knickknacks that lend a cottage-like vibe to the place. The waiters are dressed casually and it is explained to us that there is a standard menu, plus a separate vegetarian menu. I perused it quickly and was impressed to find a nice selection that didn’t fit into the standard roast-veg-or-pasta options.

We ordered a bottle of cabernet franc and eventually settled on three courses: the scallop ceviche with black quinoa, whipped avocado and julienned red cabbage; Red Fife whole wheat papardelle with wood mushrooms and hazeluts; whey-fed pork chop with grilled treviso,  tri-tip steak with caramelized onions and side of Jerusalem artichokes. I quickly texted to my girlfriend that we had ordered “an onslaught” of food, knowing that the dish sizes are not exactly skimpy.

When the bread basket arrived at the table after placing our order, we jumped right in. J loves bread and watching his face light up after taking that first bite of the gorgeous Red Fife bread was wonderful! I’d read about this particular grain in Sara Elton’s book, Locavore, and was excited to check it out. It kind of makes regular bread taste entirely pathetic. We both had a couple of pieces of the various kinds when the appetizer arrived. The scallops were soft, the avocado was whipped into a lovely, airy bubble and these textures were complimented well with the crunchy quinoa and cabbage. I wish there’d been more of it, but we weren’t exactly going to starve.

Next up was the papardelle which was out of this world. Again, the Red Fife makes a huge difference in terms of flavour. The wide, handmade noodles were cooked perfectly and provided much more dimension to the dish than you’d have otherwise. It was a very earthy plate, one that you wanted to hunker down with in front of a fire and never stop eating. I hope that’s on the menu year ’round, because I would have it again and again. It was hard enough to share it with the birthday boy.

The service at Woodlot is quite good, if not entirely exceptional. Importantly, however, they let you enjoy your meal in peace and the timing  in between courses is well paced. We needed a little time between the hearty pasta and giant slabs of meat that would imminently arrive at our table. And giant slabs of meat they were: delicious, juicy, perfectly-cooked pieces of meat. My pork chops had that little layer of fat around the outside that you know you probably shouldn’t eat, but can’t help yourself because you know how good it is. The grilled treviso was a perfect compliment, too. J’s steak was exactly medium-rare as he’d ordered it and was incredibly tender. The caramelized onions were an excellent accompaniment – in fact, I’d eat a whole bowl of those if they sold them. Even the Jerusalem artichokes were great – caramelized and not overcooked.

To say that we savoured every bite is not an understatement. Nothing was complicated (though I have a spot in my heart for complex food) or overwrought: in fact, we saw several dishes come out on wooden cutting boards. Dessert was very tempting, but we passed this time. I’d like to go back in the cooler months as I’m dying to try the marrow-infused whipped potatoes.  Of course, I also want to go back so I can eat ALL the bread that’s there. I neglected to take my camera on this trip, but for a feel of the restaurant and its amazing bread, check out this website: http://mellymadeit.com/2011/02/27/at-woodlot/.

So there you have it. Great food, cozy and welcoming atmosphere. It’s tough to get reservations on a weekend, but the hostess with whom I spoke to make our reservations was gracious and as accommodating as could be. I will definitely be making return trips here!

Review: Origin Restaurant

3 May

I have been itching to get to Origin for months now, after a friend had gone and raved about the food. I dug the concept: tapas with a twist. This is definitely not your traditional, Spanish tapas. At Origin, you’ll sample small plates with Asian, Italian and Latin influences. I didn’t find the menu overwhelming, but our server was more than happy to help steer the meal so that similar and complimentary flavours were eaten together.

So what did my companions and I choose for dinner last night? It was tough to narrow it down as we would have been happy with just about anything on the menu. We started with the tostones: smashed, flattened and deep-fried plantains with guacamole on the side. The plantains were very well seasoned, with generous use of  kosher salt and a light dusting of curry powder. This particular dish inspired J to try to make it at home and I, for one, am looking forward to being the taste tester.

Tostones.

Next up were the deviled eggs with smoked bacon and gremolata and the smoked cod croquettes with saffron aioli. Both were a big hit at the table, disappearing in a flash. I preferred the  croquettes of the two, but I didn’t exactly NOT eat my share of the deviled eggs.

Everything is better with bacon.

Smoked Cod Croquettes

Those scrumptious bites devoured, we ordered another bottle of wine (three cheers for Monday night dinners with lots of wine!) and anticipated the arrival of more delectable plates. In the meantime, we marveled at the strangeness of the cutlery provided. The only way to balance your knife was blade up. That seemed…dangerous. Especially after the third glass of cabernet sauvignon.

Happily, our next dish appeared and we dove right back in (carefully, so as not to cut ourselves on our upturned knives).  A gorgeously-presented order from the Mozzarella Bar: bufala mozzarella with pear, rosemary oil, pine nuts that was drizzled with honey and placed on a crunchy, toasted slice of calabrese bread. Want it? You know you do:

Fancy Cheese!

Creamy, gorgeous cheese eaten, next up was the Bangkok beef salad with peanuts, mint, mango, fried shallots and a sweet and sour dressing. There was a moment of hesitation while we all tried to dance around the fact that splitting this thing among the three of us might get violent. In the end, however, we shared well. Our kindergarten teachers would be so proud! This wasn’t an exceptionally complicated dish, but it was done to perfection: the beef was tender and pink; the mangoes were ripe and slippery;  the shallots and peanuts added the crunch the dish needed; and the cilantro added the wonderful, bright note at the end. It should be noted that my friend said it was the third time she’d had this particular dish and it was exactly the same every time. THAT is a sign of a great restaurant.

Bangkok Beef Salad.

Our final round of food was to arrive and we were practically giddy with excitement. We had decided on the Chinois duck with pickled cucumber, hoisin and sriracha sauce on a chive pancake, the curried shrimp with naan and the miso-glazed black cod with soba noodles and a ginger vinaigrette. We knew each dish would be good, but didn’t know HOW good. We had spent the first half of the meal happily eating away and we were by no means disappointed with our choices. But these last three dishes absolutely blew it out of the water.

The duck was crispy and, I must say, substantial. The kitchen does not scrimp on the portions! The sweet hoisin sauce was a great compliment to the duck and the heat of the sriracha. A definite must-order.

More, please.

Next up, we attacked the curried shrimp which was intensely flavoured. In fact, it was quite spicy which is just fine with me. The soft, aromatic naan bread sopped up the spicy broth that was left after devouring the plump, juicy shrimp.  Another dish that hit its mark!

Curried Shrimp

Finally (and kind of sadly), we came to our last dish: the black cod. Black cod is one my favourite fish and I have it a fair bit. When I was out in Vancouver earlier this year, I had it almost once a day. This black cod might be the best I’ve had.  Ever.  It was flaky, tender and moist. The miso glaze was pleasantly salty and the skin, importantly, was crispy. (Soggy fish skin? Yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.) The soba noodles were slurped up along with the ginger vinaigrette and, literally, there was nothing left when we were done with it. In all likelihood, the best dish of the night though the three of us never could decide on a clear winner in that category.

This bowl was bare in minutes flat.

All in all, I would definitely recommend Origin to anyone who has some reasonably adventurous taste buds and who is willing to share! There is one composed plate that makes a meal – a burger combo with Spanish fries and a float. I have no doubt it’s delicious, but it seems kind of beside the point of a restaurant like this. Go with friends, go on a date, go with family. It’s not a cheap night out, but it is most definitely money well spent.

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