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Review: Acadia Restaurant

3 Nov

I have been drooling at the prospect of going to Acadia for a few months now.  As more and more reviews from fellow food enthusiasts came pouring in, they made me want to drop everything and head over to Little Italy as quickly as I could. The opportunity arose to go this week and I made damn sure that my reservations were secure.

Nestled into a cozy space on Clinton St. just north of College, Acadia couldn’t be a more welcoming place. Exposed brick walls and beautiful hardwood floors make the space look modern, but not overly trendy.  We arrived at 7:30 to find the place bustling with the din of happy diners from various demographics: families, dates, friends, coworkers, young, middle-aged, older, men, women…you name them, they were probably there.

We were shown to our table beside the open kitchen – a concept with which I am completely in love. Far from the insane, noisy, distracting clatter you  might anticipate, it was the exact opposite. Everyone in the kitchen was clearly in sync with each other with nary a raised voice or dropped implement. It makes for a fascinating floor show. We were offered several kinds of water – no, really – but opted for plain ol’ tap. (Hasn’t killed us yet.) We pored over the drink menu which is extensive, to say the least. The craft beer selection on draught is excellent and we opted for the Flying Monkey and Spearhead Hawaiian Style. Like everything else we’d try that night, we were pleasantly surprised at the quality.

Finally: down to the food. How to choose? Chef Matt Blondin’s menu is not a massive one, allowing the kitchen to focus on producing high quality dishes. We were under strict instructions to try the shrimp & grits, so that was already decided. It was a toss up between the halibut cheeks and the scallops (how often does one get to say that?) and eventually the latter won out. For our mains, we opted for the fish dishes:  yellow snapper with chanterelles mushrooms, bacon and Sea Island red peas and the Yarmouth albacore with blackened spices,  celery maque-choux, brown butter hollandaise and tarragon. We also got a side of farro “succotash” with wild mushrooms and truffle oil to share.

I began with the scallops while my husband dug into the shrimp and grits. The scallops were cooked to perfection. Beautifully seared on the outside, they were soft and unctuous on the inside. Paired with chicken crackling (chicken skin is one of those things I crave…), parmesan crisps and basil leaves, the whole dish was not only delicious, but complimentary. Each element played off the other: salt, sweetness, crunch, smoothness. I didn’t think another app could top it. Then I started on my half of the shrimp and grits. I…was wrong. THIS was spectacular. Served in a ham hock broth, the creamy grits are laced with a savoury pimento cheese. At the bottom of the dish, perfectly cooked shrimp make for a perfect comfort food bite. I seriously considered cancelling the rest of our order to order six more bowls of this.

Next to arrive was the albacore tuna. The plating itself was gorgeous with the pieces of fish arranged artfully on the plate that sat between us, dressed with a stellar brown butter hollandaise sauce. I don’t know how I could go back to regular hollandaise sauce now, it was that good. The fish was pink on the inside, just as it should be and the accompaniments served to enhance, rather than detract, from the fish. The yellow snapper was excellent as well, especially with the incredibly crispy double-smoked bacon, but I must say that I thought the albacore was the better of the two. I can’t imagine any diner being upset with either dish, though, and our scraped-clean plates told that story more clearly than anything else could.

But let us not forget the farro “succotash” that I’d say was more risotto-like than anything. In my opinion, that is a very, very good thing. It was the definition of earthy deliciousness: truffle, mushrooms and grain. I’m sure the cornbread and collard greens are great, but trust me on this one…get the farro. Maybe two.

Finally, we ended our meal with a couple of Blanche de Chambly’s and opted to split the poached Bartlett pear with a cake consisting of condensed milk as well as some pumpernickel crisps and creme fraiche ice cream.  It was a lovely way to end the meal: not too heavy and, once again, well-showcased ingredients that complimented each other in terms of flavour and texture.

Where many restaurants might be showing you the door once your meal is complete, we did not feel rushed at all. Overall, the service was very good: the wait staff was knowledgeable, friendly and invisible when it needed to be. There was a great buzz in the room from the beginning of our meal to the end roughly two hours later, and I have no doubt it continued right to closing. The food was top notch, the service excellent. I’m sorry I waited so long to go, but won’t be waiting that long to return.

*pictures above are not mine.
Acadia on Urbanspoon

Barque Binge

26 Oct

Not too long ago, I put up a post discussing the best BBQ in Toronto. It’s definitely a contentious debate, with each restaurant smoking and cooking things their own way, the “best” way. So far, the fried chicken at the Stockyards has been my favourite BBQ menu item and I’ve been anxiously awaiting a dinner at Barque Smokehouse. I’d heard nothing but raves from those who had been, some of whom had tried other places and some who had not.

A group of us opted to check out the ever-changing Sunday night family meal. The menu is different every week, offering up nine – that’s NINE – courses from appetizers through dessert. There are three seatings on Sunday: 5pm, 6:45 and 8:30. Just enough time for everyone to enjoy a sample of each dish from the large, family-style platters that arrive at your table. Our menu consisted of the following:

  • Celeriac Soup with Celery…

Normally not a huge fan of celeriac anything, this soup was warming and hearty with chunks of caramelized celery and I loved it. On a cold, winter day I would want an entire vat of it all to myself.

  • Lamb Antillidos…

So what is an “antillido?” Think Mexican wrap with shredded lamb. Everyone got a small portion of this appetizer that had a spicy kick to it. If this were featured on their regular menu, I would not hesitate to order it again.

Celeriac Soup & Lamb Antillidos

  • Tempura Vegetables with Soy Dipping Sauce…

Oh, lordy. There was a bit of a fight over these at our table. We had a couple of latecomers at our table who were very lucky to get any. The platter was filled with lightly battered taro root, eggplant and sweet potato chips. We could easily have polished off another plate of them, especially when accompanied by a fantastic soy-based dipping sauce.

Tempura Veggies

  • Smoked Chicken…

Not your average chicken. Everyone got a thigh and a leg rubbed with a curry powder concoction that was downright addictive. The chicken itself was a beautiful pink colour, taken on from the smoke. It was juicy, tender, smoky and truly finger-lickin’ good.

  • Honey Mustard Ribs…

The ribs did raise a few points of contention (as they are wont to do…). 90% of the table thought they were great and we even had one anti-rib convert! A couple of people at the table would have preferred a more fall-off-the-bone type rib, but there was no denying the flavour. Barque provides a container of their BBQ sauce that you can add as you wish with a brush. Most of us took advantage this great mixture of flavours and at least one diner had to restrain herself from chugging the BBQ sauce directly from the cup.

Ribbbbbbbbbs.

  • Sausage and Red Pepper Flatbreads…

Delicious little bites packed with flavour. Yet another hit at the table. Sausage and red pepper is a classic combination and they were great together on the crispy, but not overdone, flatbread. Luckily for us, there was enough for two pieces each…

Flatbread

  • Mixed Greens with Cucumbers and Cranberries…

Okay, so this wasn’t great. The greens were fresh, but more cranberries and definitely more dressing was needed. A salad is an excellent idea on a meat-heavy menu, but it seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

  • Crushed Potatoes…

Smashed chunks of potatoes accented with herbs, garlic and copious amounts of butter? Who wouldn’t like this dish? There was some debate as to whether or not tongs were the ideal serving tool but I dug it.

Smashed Potatoes

  • Cookies and Crumble…

There is a very good chance that of all the delectable things put in front of me on Sunday night, the apple crumble might have been the best. I like being surprised by a dish, especially a dish I know well. (My husband makes killer crumbles so I’m spoiled in this department.) I was fortunate enough to get one of my own and I must tell you that there wasn’t a morsel or drop of anything left when I was done. Don’t get me wrong: the chocolate chip and cappuccino cookies were really good, but that crumble was almost too good for words.

Dessert!

Salad aside, each bite of each item was excellent. The ambience and service in the restaurant were both excellent. Barque’s a cozy, cool place to have a great meal aided by prompt, friendly, fun service. I’m told that seats at the bar by the kitchen are great, as you can watch and chat with the chefs while they do their thing. If you go on a Sunday, don’t expect to linger: the line up for the next seating will begin early. But that’s okay: you won’t be able to eat any more anyway and Roncesvalles is a great neighbourhood to wander through afterwards!

 There is no question about whether or not I’ll be returning. It’s simply a matter of when.

Barque Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Holy Chuck, That Was a Tasty Burger

6 Oct

I happen to be lucky enough to work for a company that does a grocery order every week, negating my need to seek out or bring lunch with me 95% of the time. On those days when I just don’t want to make something with my own two hands,  I can venture out and have my choice of Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, deli, Italian, health food….it goes on. I tend to opt for the deli or Vietnamese; however, when invited out by a friend to try the brand-spankin’ new burger place in the work ‘hood, who am I to say no?

Holy Chuck Burger opened on Yonge St. just south of St. Clair and has been attracting a steadily growing number of customers. The owners are clearly aiming to make it a fun place to pop in and happily chat with customers as they chow down on messy, delicious, occasionally-gigantic burgers. On my maiden Holy Chuck burger voyage I opted for the cheeseburger (two patties) with caramelized onions, ketchup, mustard, lettuce & tomato. Adding in the fries was definitely a good idea but sharing them with my lunch companion was an even better idea. I’m sure I could’ve finished them, but I suspect it’s for the best I didn’t. They were hot, perfectly fried and nicely seasoned with salt and parsley. All in all, the cheeseburger was pretty much the perfect size for me: while filling, it’s not so gluttonous that you couldn’t eat more than one a month.

Photo courtesy of Eyeline Imagery.

The cheeseburger itself was a glorious mess and I mean that in the best way possible. The griddle-cooked beef was crispy on the outside but still juicy on the inside as evidenced by the trail it left running down my hands. You’re going to need napkins, people, and plenty of them. If the burger isn’t juicy, why would you want it anyway?

And did my lunch partner and I stop at the burger and fries? Oh, hell no. We went in for the deep-fried Twinkie for dessert. As I exclaimed to Johnny, the joint’s co-owner, it’s like a deep-fried sugar bomb and that is just fine by me. My friend and I agreed that we felt like we should be at a fair eating this slightly insane dessert. Considering that the cold weather is on its way, this might be the perfect way to recreate some summertime memories! I understand that there is also a concoction involving bacon-wrapped cookie dough that is battered and deep-fried (notice a delicious, fatty theme here, folks?). I can hear your arteries hardening and your drool hitting the ground.

I am so happy that we have such a fun place in the neighbourhood to go. I understand there are some changes to come, but rest assured that the classics will remain on the menu and there are vegetarian options that look great! If you’re in the area – or even if you’re not – get yourself over to Holy Chuck Burgers. Don’t forget to grab a ton of napkins – you will make a mess.

Holy Chuck on Urbanspoon
 

Inaugural Toronto Underground Market!

26 Sep

I remember reading about this neat thing in San Francisco where different food vendors came together at one location to sell their amazing wares a few months ago. I bemoaned the fact that this wasn’t happening here, in a city filled with so much great food!

Over the next few months I started following more food-related Twitter accounts and came upon Toronto Underground Market. I was elated to see that they had taken up the mantle from the fine folks in San Fran! I waited very impatiently for the tickets to the first TUM event to go on sale and, as soon as they did, snapped up two as quickly as I could. Then began the month-long wait for the actual event at a great venue, the Evergreen Brick Works.  This place has a special meaning to many people, especially for my husband whose neighbour/babysitter/teacher poured her heart and soul into helping revitalize this space as it had long gone unused. Sadly, she passed away this past winter but we know she’d be beyond thrilled to see the BrickWorks being utilized for this kind of event.

Four of us embarked upon this food adventure with high hopes and cash in hand. All the plates and drinks were very reasonably priced from as low as $2 and up to $8 though we didn’t come across anything that much. Most of the dishes we sampled were in the $3-$4 range and were worth every penny. Our first stop was at the ever-sought-after La Carnita station. These guys have caught fire: they’re incredibly popular taco stand pops up from time to time downtown and the line ups start early. They’ve generated a cult following using Twitter and it showed when we arrived at the Brick Works. Their stand had – by far – the longest line but I can tell you that it was worth the 20 minute wait.

While I waited with The Hot Biscuit, the hubby and a friend went in search of beer and food. They brought back pints from Beau’s Lugtread Lager and absurdly delicious pulled pork quesadillas with pickled onions, cilantro and a slice of fresh jalapeno served with a tomato & melon gazpacho, courtesy of Shi-Naki. With another 10 minutes or so ahead of us in the La Carnita line, J headed over to the West Side Beef Co. and brought back stellar beef po’ boys. The teeny little slider weighed about 12 lbs and was stuffed with organic, fresh beef smothered in sauce, surrounded by a fresh, soft, sweet bun. Drool. Possibly the surprise-best dish of the night.

When we finally got to the front of the La Carnita line, we were greeted by some very friendly folks who took our order (2 each of the Mexican chorizo tacos and tacos de lengua) and gave us the requisite piece of art that always accompanies a La Carnita tasting. With one bite, we knew why these folks are so popular: the beef was spicy but very well balanced and the chorizo was tangy, smoky and paired nicely with sweet fruit. Definitely a hit and was unquestionably at or near the top of many, many people’s lists.

One of the good things about standing in line was chatting with the folks around us. People would have these fabulous plates of food and you couldn’t help but exclaim, “Gosh! That looks so good…where did you get it??!” One dish in particular looked so neat that we had to seek it out: deep fried quails eggs at Bistro Filipino. Happily, it was a slightly shorter line and, again, worth every minute. While  I waited, our friends sought out multi-flavoured rice at Vijaya’s & Krishna’s Pure South-Indian Vegetarian Cuisine while J went to track down more beer. The rice was big hit and a mammoth plate of food. Three kinds of rice and a few other things on the plate that could have been a meal unto itself.

Beer in hand, J returned and we got our order of quail eggs along with chicken marinated in annato seed served with a side of garlic rice and pickled vegetables. The eggs were as delectable as they looked: creamy, salty and piping hot. I could’ve gone back for several more servings  and I wouldn’t have been the only one. I overheard many “I just had to get more” conversations among those in line.

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Those plates devoured,  we began our wait for dessert. The line for the various kinds of popovers at Popover Girl’s station was likely the most cheerful one. How could you not be happy waiting for these fluffy, buttery delights? There were savoury and sweet options available: bacon, cheddar, jalapeno, chocolate, red pepper & feta, pistachio tapenade, onion….take your pick. There are no incorrect choices here. The HB and I opted for the chocolate popover filled with pastry cream while our friend went for the cheddar option. Both smelled and tasted absolutely divine. We did our best to savour these pastries as best we could, but ultimately we found ourselves snarfling them down.

While debating going for Just-One-More-Dish, I couldn’t help but eye the macaroons at the Lunch Room’s table. A plate had already been purchased by the HB to take home to her boyfriend and after very little deliberation with myself, I decided that was a hell of a good idea.  A plate of four giant, chocolate-drizzled coconut macaroons for $3? I’d be silly NOT to get at LEAST one plate to eat later.  It was a good call: J and I dove into them when we got home and were not disappointed. The coconut inside was chewy and soft, sticking to your teeth in the best possible way. Hands down the best macaroons I’ve ever had.

Overall, this was one of the most fun food-related events I’ve ever had the chance to go to. It was well organized:  volunteers were thereto clean the little tables and empty garbage bins, to direct traffic and to answer any and all questions. Some of the vendors did run out of food but not until at least more than halfway through the night.  Having done event-work before, I was most impressed with how well this whole event turned out. If you’re lucky enough to get tickets to the one in October, I advise you to go earlier rather than later. Shuttle buses run from Broadview every half hour, but seating is limited. Go with an open mind and an empty stomach and you will leave one happy, full, foodie camper.

Review: Guu Izakaya

12 Sep

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Have you ever walked into a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Well, this is going to be different”? It’s an exciting feeling that doesn’t happen all that often; but, walking into Guu Izakaya on Church St., I was definitely overcome by that thought.  Everyone who enters and exits gets a loud greeting and goodbye from the entire staff. A bit overwhelming, but it certainly sets the tone for your evening. The place is an absolute nuthouse in the best possible way.

That evening, I was having dinner with my brother and a friend. We were lucky enough to get seats within a few minutes upon arriving, a rare feat as I understand it. Guu features communal dining, with long tables that seat around 15 – 20 people, as well as seats at the bar where you can watch the chefs work. There is a two-hour time limit for diners and often a 1-2 hour wait for a seat. If you can, go early or prepare to cool your heels for a while. I promise you that it will be worth it.

My two dining companions had been to Guu before so they did the bulk of the ordering. They ordered the best dishes they’d had before and also took cues from our tablemates who’d ordered some fascinating dishes. The menu is set up tapas-style, a fantastic way to sample all sorts of delicious creations. We ordered eight dishes for the three of us which was just about right and all were quite reasonably priced.

The first to arrive was the decidedly (and awesomely) decadent deep-fried brie served with a mango and blueberry sauce.  The four pyramid-shaped morsels were golden and crispy on the outside and gooey, rich deliciousness on the inside. Like, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-your-head-good. Next up: the salmon sashimi. Melt in your mouth greatness. It’s one of those simple dishes that really sings based on the merits of great, high quality ingredients.

On to the bacon-wrapped scallops and enoki mushrooms. Holy. Smokes. Bacon-wrapped anything is a winner in my books (see: A’s Awesome Bacon-Wrapped Water Chestnuts), but here the contrasting textures played against each other so beautifully. Paired with the salty pork, the sweet scallop and earthy mushrooms, this dish was so good that it was tempting to cancel the rest of our order and have nothing but this for the rest of the night.

The beef carpaccio was placed before our wide eyes next and it was a lovely, bright contrast to the richness of the dish before. Served with with ponzu, wasabi, mayo & garlic chips, this rare beef was light and, somehow, refreshing. It was nice to have a lighter bite after the richness of the scallops before.

It was at this point in our meal that I noticed a crowd of waiters pause from their constant, frenetic activity. Then I spotted a server with a slice of cake with a candle in it. Guu’s birthday celebrations put Chuck E. Cheese to shame. Not only did the wait staff lead the entire restaurant in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”, encouraging everyone to clap and sing along, but even the insanely busy chefs  joined in. At one point, they had the lights flickering on and off. Utter celebrational pandemonium and it was amazing.

Once the place had settled down a little (to be clear, Guu is the least settled place on the planet), the strangest creation of the evening appeared at our table. It was roughly the size of a softball, deep fried and had a wooden knife protruding from the centre. We wracked our brains trying to figure out if we had actually ordered it, decided we hadn’t and dug in anyway. What it turned out to be was a Japanese scotch egg with a layer of pureed pumpkin surrounding a hard-boiled egg. While I was skeptical initially – I’m not a big pumpkin fan, much to the horror of many of my friends – the combination of the creamy pumpkin, rich egg, crispy exterior and tangy sauce was downright addictive. We just about scraped the plate with out chopsticks long after other dishes had been cleared away.

When the spare ribs arrived, it was allI could do to refrain from gobbling them all up myself. The marinated beef was tender and salty, having surely been marinated for quite some time. If you’re a fan of spare ribs, these are a can’t-miss.

The final dishes of the night were the decadent, baked oysters and the light, miso-glazed black cod, a personal favourite of my brother’s. We ordered the oysters because we saw them arrive for another group at our table and they looked so unique! Kind of a twist on oysters Rockefeller, they’re served with spinach and mushrooms, smothered in a potent mayo-garlic sauce and topped with melted cheese…all in a giant shell. This was a thing of glorious, messy beauty. The mushrooms nestled in the there made for an umami bomb of a bite. Definitely give this one a shot, my friends. It’s weird and tasty and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

Not only was this one of the best meals I’ve had all year, it was by far and away the most fun. Unquestionably, the company helped but the atmosphere at Guu is like none other. It’s not the place to go for a quiet, intimate dinner; it’s the place to go when you want to try innovative, playful and truly remarkable dishes at a pretty reasonable cost. The place is positively brimming with excitement and energy. I can’t wait to go back and try all the dishes I missed on the first go ’round.

In Search of Smoky Perfection: BBQ in T.O.

6 Sep

Barbeque can be such a contentious matter.  Discussing your favourite spot for ribs or fried chicken among friends can lead to long debates about the merits of a dry rub over a wet, whether cornbread is ruined by the addition of jalapenos or which spot in the city smells the best upon entering. I am by no means a bbq snob: I like it all, so long as it’s cooked well. I do prefer sticky, messy wet ribs over the dry-rubbed product but I certainly don’t turn my nose up at them. I don’t believe that there is only one way to do barbeque and I’m on a mission to try it all at the best places Toronto has to offer.

The first bbq spot I tried out in our fair city was an old standby: Phil’s Original BBQ. This was my first taste of “real” barbeque and I was hooked. I recall the ribs, in particular, were excellent. It has been several years since I’ve been there – in fact, Restaurant Makeover hadn’t even come in yet. What say you, folks? Worth a repeat visit?

Next up was Memphis Smoke House. It’s a little further out of the core, at Yonge & Sheppard, but don’t let that stop you. In discussing this post with the husband the other day, we realized that this was the only joint that we found truly exciting. J had read an article in The Star about this place and how the owners had convinced the chef to relocate from Louisiana to Toronto to cook for them. We were blown away by the richness of the ribs, the delicious beans, the crumbly – but not dry – cornbread and the huge portions. It was clear that this was no ordinary bbq we were eating: this was being made by someone who’ done it for years and years and had just about perfected his craft.  Get a combo platter with Aunt Shirley’s BBQ sauce. We have been back several times and brought many others with us. The ribs, the pulled pork, the fries…everything gets a rave review.

Our next stop was the Cluck, Grunt & Low on Bayview. The less said about that the better. Suffice it to say that we were not surprised to see that it had closed within months of opening. The replacement, Highway 61, has fared much better. The food is pretty good, if not super-outstanding. It is, however, very comfortable and pretty good value for your buck.

Then popped up Stockyards.  I have recommended this place til I turned blue in the face. Their fried chicken is remarkably crispy on the outside, while juicy and tender (and molten-lava-hot) on the inside.  I’m not a huge fan of the carraway-laced coleslaw, though I do like the matchstick-thin cabbage. It’s really a personal taste thing. But let us not forget about the ribs! They are smoked to perfection and come with a tangy sauce that’s just ridiculously delicious. You can only get them three days a week, so go early. I can pretty much guarantee you will go often. It should be noted that there are – MAYBE – 20 seats and they are difficult to get. Either be prepared to wait for a spot or just get the take-out.

Finally on my bbq list? Hardys Hogtown Brasserie. My interest was piqued by a Toronto Life article a few months back that said the owner had built his own smoker out of giant drums. It was to open up just down the street from Stockyards, creating some healthy competition. Finally made it in last Friday, a few weeks after their soft opening. Two advantages Hardys has over Stockyards? It’s an actual restaurant and it’s licensed. The list craft beers on tap is a nice alternative to the standard Keith’s-n-Labatt at most places.

The coca-cola ribs were on special so my fellow diner and I ordered two 1/2 racks. My other companions ordered the regular ribs and the slider trio comprised of one pulled chicken, one pulled pork and one pulled brisket sandwich. We were then informed by our incredibly charming and gracious server that they were out of the regular ribs entirely and only had 2 1/4 racks left of the special. Ooooooookay. Shouldn’t the front of house know when a product runs out?

We changed our orders to the 2 1/4 racks of the special and a trio of sliders to split; J’s ribs were swapped out for a trio. Our onion ring apps arrived and they were dang good, if perhaps a little oily. Our mains arrived…sans the trio to split. Once again, our server had to explain that there was a mix up but that they would be happy to give us any other main on the house. She recommended the brisket sandwich, so we got that and the collard greens. All in all, once all the food had arrived, we had to admit that it was all excellent. The coca-cola ribs were sweet without being cloying; the brisket sandwich was piled high with tender, slathered brisket; the trio was perhaps a bit on the small side but delicious nonetheless. The sides of collard greens, potato salad and coleslaw were all completely devoured: always a good sign. Some work needs to be done on the communication between the kitchen and the front of house, but otherwise this was a great spot for friends to gather, have a couple drinks and nosh on some great barbeque. Is it better than Stockyards? Ask me again in a month when I go back for a comparison dinner.

Still to check out on my list? Barque, which has been getting insane rave reviews from all corners, and Lou Dawg’s. Where else do I need to go, my smokehouse-loving, rib-devouring friends?

Wanna Save Some Money? Sure You Do.

29 Aug

Hi, folks!

Consider this a PSA of sorts for those who love to go out for dinner and wouldn’t mind saving a few bucks on said dinner! I came across a site last week called DiningDateNight that offers great deals for higher end restaurants. It’s not a “daily deal” type of concept; instead, a new restaurant gets added each Wednesday you get 30% off your entire bill. And you choose from the entire menu. Thus far, I’ve seen offers for Splendido, L’Unita & Mildred’s Temple Kitchen. Um, yes, please. The offers are for non-peak hours but that’s it for limitations: put $10 down for the deal and you’re good to go.

Is the $10 worth it? Well, here’s a bill from Simple Bistro which illustrates how much you can actually save:

I’ve read a few reviews of people who’ve used the service and so far, so good. The restaurant takes the reservation directly, so the 30% will be automatically removed. No fuss, no muss, as they say. So click HERE give it a whirl if you’re so inclined and let me know what you think!

Krepesz in Kensington

22 Aug

The hubby and I planned a little jaunt into Kensington Market this weekend, one of my favourite places in the city. Not only is it prime people-watching space, but you can find anything your little heart desires there. I happened to mention to my folks that we were headed down there and they recommended a little crepe place – a “palacscinta” cafe – that they’d tried and enjoyed. It seemed likely we’d want to pop in somewhere for a snack and, perhaps, a pint, so I took it under advisement.

After wandering around the crowded, slightly insane but somehow organized market for a while, we decided it was time for a wee nibble and found Krepesz European Palascinta Cafe on Augusta. It had an inviting patio with people happily eating and chatting away, so we plopped ourselves down at a table and had a look at the menu. Right off the bat, we knew a decision would be tough. The crepe menu is split into two categories: savoury & sweet. Since we were considering pints, we thought savoury would be the best route though the banana and Nutella crepe called to me. Loudly. Additionally, Krepesz features a number of other Hungarian specialties that looked like comfort food specials. On a winter day, their house soup would be perfect for getting rid of the chill in your bones.

Our server came out shortly thereafter and took our order: a pitcher of Mill St. Organic and the savoury chicken & feta crepe.  Offhandedly,  J mentioned that we’d be splitting the dish. Our waitress nodded, thanked us, and went inside. A few minutes she returned with our pitcher and, bless her heart, frosty cold glasses. In a perfect world, all pint glasses would arrive that cold. It’s  a little thing, but details are important. J poured our drinks and we chatted idly while watching all the fellow market-goers. My favourite game, Spot the Tourist, is almost too easy here.

Ten minutes later, our waitress was back with our crepe…that she’d halved and placed on two plates since we’d be sharing. (Like I said, details.)  The ground chicken wasn’t dried out and the spinach was just barely cooked without wilting away to nothing. The salty bite from the feta & mozzarella was great and it did not go unnoticed that, even split in two, the portions were huge.  Massive. For under $8, you cannot go wrong with this dish.

This place is indicative of the best places in Kensington: unassuming with great, fresh food cooked with care and served by people who effortlessly make your time there as pleasurable as can be.

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: La Cascina

18 Jul

Every neighbourhood needs a La Cascina: a neighbourhood restaurant run by friendly, accessible owners who produce delicious, vibrant dishes and a welcoming, cozy, fun atmosphere. (Yes, it really is all of those things.) We have been going for about a year now and we are never disappointed. Everything from the variety of antipasti dishes at the beginning to the decadent desserts at the end is plate-scrapingly great.  We have always found the staff to be accommodating and knowledgeable, not to mention charming without fawning ridiculously over clients.

Our first meal there was a three course prix fixe seafood menu that is now a monthly special. The tuna croquettes were the stand out of the five antipasti dishes, but there wasn’t a morsel left in any of the five small bowls that had been brought to the table. Next up was the linguine vongole, or linguine with clams. The homemade pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente and the brininess from the clams was perfect. Salty deliciousness, I tells ya. The main was a beautiful piece of seared trout, with crispy skin that crackled as you cut into it. I said it then and I’ll say it now: it was probably the best piece of fish I’d ever been served.

After that stellar meal, there was no doubt we’d found a new neighbourhood fave. Subsequent visits have only reaffirmed how much we love the place. Their Valentine’s Day menu was an ambitious, mouth-watering, seven-course extravaganza with oysters, cheese plates, risotto, pasta, mains (choice of lamb or halibut…we had one of each) with a side of unbelievably great roasted potatoes and a dessert. (nb – the potatoes were SO good that when the chef came out to say hello, J grilled him on how he did it and then spent the next two weeks trying to perfect it at home. Mission: accomplished, by the way.)

When my birthday rolled around, J asked what I’d like to do and I replied that I’d love to have dinner at La Cascina. So off J went and discussed with the front of house maven, the fabulous Sharifa, what could be done for a special dinner. We were greeted by our very enthusiastic and sweet waitress who showed us to the prime table by the open, garage-door-type window where we could watch the world walk by. The meal opened with the usual complimentary bread with house-made pecorino oil (crazy hot, I must warn you) and then the five antipasti dishes arrived: braised fennel with cheese & onions; roasted zucchini cooked with almonds;  potato gratin; baccala w/ red peppers; and eggplant. Now, I must admit that I am not normally a fan of eggplant. But this? THIS was delicious. It was creamy and beautifully seasoned. If anyone can get me to like eggplant, it’s going to be chef Luca.

And that's just to start.

Next up was the absolutely-to-die-for ricotta ravioli smothered in truffles. As always, the pasta itself was made well and cooked perfectly; but that truffle kicker? Holy smokes. This particular dish had been on the Valentine’s Day menu and became an instant favourite. The pungent, earthy truffles don’t overwhelm the homemade pasta, but they certainly do enhance it. J and I each had four nicely-sized pieces and probably could have eaten fifty more, but then we wouldn’t have any room for what was to come next…

Hello, truffles. I love you.

Following that fantastic pasta course, a plate of beautifully seared arctic char arrived…..once again, slathered in truffles. This is the way to eat, my friends. The fish had a beautifully fatty layer just under a crispy skin, and the orange/ruby flesh melted in our mouths. The fish alone would have been wonderful; the layer of truffles on top was excessive decadence in the best way possible. It was so good, I took a piece of bread and sopped up the teeny remnants on my plate.

Delectability.

After that kind of dish, what could the kitchen possibly serve that would top it? I’ve had desserts at La Cascina before, so I knew I was in for something good. What I didn’t know was that a luscious, creamy panna cotta topped with berries was headed to the table.  Oh, drool. We devoured every little bit of that dessert, happily scraping up the last little bits and then contentedly sitting back to ponder the wonderful meal we’d just had.

Dessert of Champions

La Cascina is one of those restaurants that you don’t come across that often: it balances local ingredients with authentic flavours in a welcoming, warm environment. It’s a somewhere you want to hang out for hours and I have.  (I went in the fall with a girlfriend and we sat for HOURS eating and drinking wine and never once felt like we were being nudged out the door, which is more than I can say from some other local restaurants.) They often have live music and from 5pm-6pm on weekdays you can pop in for a drink and free appetizers. The menu changes from week to week, so some faith in the kitchen is required. On average, there are generally a couple of pasta options, a meat/fish course and sides to be ordered. If they have the figs, honey & cheese plate available, get it! Or the gnocchi with lamb ragu. Or…well, I could go on.

I can’t recommend this place highly enough: it’s one my absolute favourite spots in the city.

La Cascina on Urbanspoon

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