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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!

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.

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