Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

Port-landed

If there was anywhere in the United States that I could see myself feeling comfortable, it would definitely be Portland, Oregon. Yes, it’s true, I haven’t been to all of the places in all of the 50 states, but Portland would certainly give any other candidate a run for its money. And here’s why: 1. the local food system is sophisticated and supported by the community, such that one can procure much of what one needs or desires at one of the many farmers’ markets throughout the week; 2. there is excellent coffee found on every corner of every intersection in every neighbourhood; 3. the cycling infrastructure is user-friendly and comprehensive such that anyone could get from point A to point B in order to eat one’s way across the entire city with no problem; 4. White Pinot Noir. Need I say more?; 5. it’s delicious and has a great sense of humour. Full Stop.

Highlights from Portland

  • Saturday Market (on Saturdays and Sundays) full of artisans and knick knacks, and highly entertaining.
  • Saturday Farmers’ Market, with 140 vendors, live music, chef demos, many prepared foods for the muting right there, and a dedicated staff pleased to help you navigate and make the most of everything it has to offer.
  • The Japanese Gardens and the Rose Gardens. WHOA!
  • Alberta, Mississippi, Hawthorne and Alphabet neighbourhoods.
  • Great restaurants including (links on the Restaurant Rundown page): Higgin’s, Wildwood, Beast, and Little Bird

Bye Bye Bistro

Shamez on the Bar. Photo credit Yvonne Bambrick, 2010.

It has come to my attention, a la Facebook, three provinces away, that one of THE best steamy date spots in Toronto is closing it’s original doors. La Palette, previously of Kensington Market, has recently moved to the buzzing Queen West strip. Here’s to Shamez Amlani, a true community building spirit. Raising a glass to you and a thanks for all of the brunches and hot dates I had the pleasure of consuming in your special little nook over the years. I wish La Palette all the best in the brightly coloured, finely crafted, and deliciously inviting new location, and encourage you all to make reservations for confit de canard, escargots, and wild boar ribs immediately.

Yvonne Bambrick was there to experience all the festivities, check out her blog post here!




Lychees and Pennywort

Lychees and Pennywort

Perhaps I should start a new blog that is solely dedicated to eating in places I get to by bicycle around the GTA… but for now I will just continue to post these events (of which there have been many lately) here. If it gets annoying, let me know.

Pavillion of Friendship

Mississauga. A territory I have rarely ventured. As a downtown Toronto kid, I am saddened to say, and feel like a bit of a snob, but I really don’t know the ‘burbs. Of course, Shawn Micallef’s recent book “Stroll” is helping to open my eyes to the beauty of these vast landscapes, but what is truly getting me out of my comfort zone is my training and cycling all over the GTA. I had no idea where I was going to go yesterday, and wanted to avoid all multi-use recreational paths and trails as beautiful days mean high pedestrian traffic. Nice for pedestrians out for a stroll, not so nice for cyclists trying to increase their average speed.

Juicy

The previous night I had ridden on the back of a motorcycle all the way out to Guelph Line on Dundas and had noticed an mysteriously elaborate gate leading into the Mississauga Chinese Centre just west of Tomken Rd. I took notice, was intrigued but didn’t think I would ever go there.

'nough said. "Perviously frozen duck"

The next day, however, when I headed in a westerly direction on two pedal powered wheels without knowing where I would end up, it dawned on me that this would be an excellent destination and probably a decent lunch. It was only 20km out of the city, so I probably shouldn’t have turned around there or taken a break that early, but the beckoning of the red and gold rooftops, the lions so proudly welcoming in visitors to the mall, and the hustle and bustle of families doing their Sunday errands was too exciting to ignore. I did a loop around the parking lot sussing out the scene, and decided to park by a grocery store sporting piles of fruit outside the front door. The security guard was less than impressed that I wanted to lock my bike up to his precious fence, and after I asked him three times not to touch my bike, he finally backed off. I don’t think there are many cyclists around those parts… kinda sad that mine was the only bike I could see in the whole place. Didn’t stop me from fully enjoying the cheerful music, open air meat freezers, styrofoam and cellophane wrapped piles of produce, and quizzical looks I was getting walking around in my spandex cycling gear.

After sucking on six perfect lychees and taking one regrettable sip of a pennywort drink, I moved on to dim sum. The cavernous Sun Sun Seafood Restaurant was nearly empty, save a few tables at the front, but I sat down and eagerly awaited the rolling carts bringing little packages of joy to my table. I opted for chicken

Sun Sun Dim Sum

feet, steamed shrimp and scallion dumplings, and shrimp cheong fun. The chicken feet were tasty, and fatty and juicy, but didn’t quite live up to Pearl at Queen’s Quay Terminal. The dumplings were very good, and my body was craving the simple carbs of the casings like crazy, so they disappeared quickly with a bit of help from a dip in some hot sauce and chinese mustard.

Shrimp Cheong Fun

Cheong fun is by far my favourite dim sum dish, and the slimy rice noodles rolled up around chewy shrimp and coated in oil and sweetened soy sauce. These ones were good, but cold, and had lost some of the slimy quality that I adore, the qualities that make the rice noodle roll slip around your mouth and down the hatch like an oyster. I managed to finish almost all of what I had chosen off the carts, took my full belly back to my bike and had a sluggish ride home. Not sure I would venture there alone again for dim sum in the late afternoon, but perhaps at peak hours with a table of ten, the experience would be awesome!

Bicycle Allowances

As many of you know, I am training to ride from Toronto to Montreal this summer in support of the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation. It is a huge amount of time, resources, energy, and dedication to getting my body ready for the week of grueling, late July exertion that I have signed up for. Call me crazy, I wouldn’t deny it.

Anyhow, one of the benefits to training has been the expenditure of calories that I have never in my life had the pleasure of having to replenish. Five and a half hours of cycling basically allows me to consume an extra 3000 calories! For a closeted compulsive eater, this is like music to one’s ears. The thought process goes something like: “Go eat chelsea buns at parties, add honey to your water just because, and when you stumble upon a new artisan bakery on Lakeshore, eat the baguette, the whole baguette.”

Another major benefit to cycling so much is that I get to explore parts of this fine megacity that I would otherwise never venture to. Yesterday I managed to combine a store visit for work with a mini-training ride. I headed west to Browns Line and Lakeshore. Usually I take the Lakeshore Promenade following the Waterfront trail in and out of sweet residential enclaves, through blossom filled parks, and in and around water treatment plants. But yesterday, I was on a mission to get to Fair Grounds cafe to drop off some samples of chocolate, sugar and other snacky things. Fair Grounds is a micro-roaster that serves up Fair Trade, organic coffee, lovely pastries, and a fair amount of other retailed items like tea and snacks. It is tucked away in an unassuming old bank building on the corner of Lakeshore and 38th or 39th (I can’t remember exactly the cross street). Jeffrey is the ever-present and friendly owner, who works like crazy to offer his customers the best available. They go to farmers markets in the west end, and certainly provide a community building space at the cafe in an otherwise desolate landscape of the low-rise retail strip that looks as if it was forgotten forty years ago.

"Spinach Bagel" from Tatsu's

So I had the pleasure of treating myself to a freshly roasted iced americano at the cafe, and on my way back towards the city, I stopped in at Tatsu’s Artisan Bakery. I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not taken the Lakeshore route, and was very pleased with what I found. What looks as if it was probably a Coffee Time or other sterile donut chain at one point in it’s occupation, has been transformed into a handcrafted baked goods hot spot, just across the street from Humber College. I tried the baguette (which from my independent scoring, would have actually won the baguette challenge as posted a few months ago, with a score of 5), a handmade, organic spelt loaf, and a “spinach bagel”, which resembled a bagel only in shape. The spinach bagel was a perfect cycling snack, flaky pastry and gooey, salty spinach mush in the middle, kind of like a traditional English sausage roll, but with spinach instead of sausage, obviously.

The other west side discovery I have made is up Brown’s Line, just north of Horner Ave. It’s called Organic Big Burger. I don’t eat beef, but if you do, the meat comes from Beretta and they pride themselves on offering clean fast food. But the piece de resistance at Organic Big Burger is MAPLETON’S SOFT SERVE ICE CREAM!!!!!!! That’s right, I said it. Family farmed, organic, LFP certified, sweet, delicious soft serve with no trace of petrochemicals, hydrogenated oils, or the crap that usually makes up a perfect twist. They offer Chocolate, vanilla or both, and it is WELL WORTH the drive, or ride, out there to experience it for yourself.

Happy riding folks! Don’t forget your helmet.

I wish I had a mom who made dumplings…

Today friends and I went for a celebratory dumpling snack session at the newly located Mother’s Dumplings. My very excited friends have just bought a house, and wanted to tell me the news in person, over coffee, about this BIG step. I am so proud of them, and can’t actually get my head around the fact that my contemporaries are buying houses, but that’s besides the point. (Last night my very dear old friend from Georgia also told me that she had bought a house in a subdivision in the suburbs of Atlanta, complete with two car garage…so very different scenarios, but it seems to be a burgeoning theme…).

Steamed Dumplings

So, food, of course, to celebrate. As we were already in the market, Kensington that is, we decided to head over to Spadina and check out the new location and test out the scrumptious little dumplings. It took us all of about 2 minutes to read the menu, decide on a smattering of yummy sounding dishes, and then gab about the house and life until our order was brought to our table, freshly rolled, filled, and pinched.

We shared “Boiled Vegetarian Chives and Noodles Dumplings”, “Steamed Vegetarian (bak choi, mushroom, tofu) Dumplings”, “Smashed Cucumber Salad”, and “Da-lu noodles (meatless option)” and “Wonton (northern style) Soup”. Unfortunately there is liberal use of cilantro at Mother’s Dumplings, which I wasn’t expecting and which I loathe, as a garnish on many of the non-dumpling dishes. The Smashed salad that I was so intrigued by from the listing on the menu was inedible because of those delicate green leaves, and I couldn’t partake in the Da-lu or Wonton Soup, so I’ll refrain from commenting on those. My friends seemed to like them very much, for what it’s worth, albeit they did add a lot of hot sauce, soya sauce, vinegar, and chili oil to everything.

But the DUMPLINGS! O My My, they were good. Three ladies worked side by side at the same counter churning out the pretty packages. One made the balls of dough for the skins, the next lady rolled them out and the third lady filled and pinched them closed. Filled up generously in 18 different variations, there’s something for everyone (as long as you can eat wheat). Customers also have the option of taking the little parcels home as take out, or frozen.

I wish I had had more time to watch the ladies in the kitchen work their magic through the glass pane that kept us apart, but had to eat and run.

Avoid the tea which smells and tastes like moth balls. Do eat the dumplings.

Dipping Sauce Preparations

Gregory’s Special Dipping Sauce Concoction

1 1/2 Tbsp Soya Sauce

1 tsp Vinegar

1 tsp chili oil

Mix in the appropriate little dish and use to dip your dumplings. (If not spicy enough, Gregory also suggests using “cock sauce” or Sriracha)

Dining in the Dark at O Noir Toronto

O Noir - Toronto

Descending into a 1950s buffet-style, hotel supper spot, I started my journey into a few hours of blindness. It was dim at sunset, but would be always, due to the lack of natural light in the depths of an old Church Street hotel. The carpet showed its age, telling of the kind of heavy traffic this space must once have entertained. Nobody schmoozing in the lounge could remember exactly what the place had been before, and nobody had ever been there, but we could agree that not much had changed from whatever it was. Anticipation was palpable amongst the guests invited to a unique fundraising event in support of Toronto People with AIDS Foundation and the Friends for Life Bike Rally. Each guest shelled out $60.00, $25.00 of which was donated to Harvey Malinsky’s campaign to raise $28,000.00 in total. I took my parents with me to dine in the dark.

O Noir is a restaurant staffed by blind waiters, at which guests are led into darkness to eat with all four senses. We could not see the room, our plates, where our cutlery was placed or the strangers sitting across from us at our table. Smell, sound, touch, and taste were heightened by the pitch darkness. We could see nothing save the Indiglo of one of our fellow diner’s wristwatch. Trying to keep the colours of my dinner inside the lines of my plate, and consistently thinking I had succeeded to fill my fork with grilled calamari, roast chicken, or vegetable ragout, only to bring an empty fork to my lips, was all part of the experience. Time and time again I failed at eating blindly. I changed my strategy, put away my table manners and social graces, licked my knife to ensure I wouldn’t drop it on my lap and have to Shout it out later, and used my grubby hands to feed myself this tasty mystery meal. The sound became deafening, as guests got more comfortable with the darkness. Instead of communicating through body language, or eye contact, friends would up their volume to be acknowledged, and it was horrifyingly loud. I could hardly keep my attention on the fascinating situation I found myself in. The food was good, but it wasn’t really about the food. We were stepping into a reality that is almost impossible to understand. Putting trust into our servers to guide us to our seats, serve us what we had ordered, to anticipate our movements and navigate around our chairs, purses, gestures, and requests was nerve racking and pushed me right out of my comfort zone. I generally eat with my eyes first. Not knowing what was in front of me, not knowing what to expect, and not being able to see how my food was presented was challenging and intriguing. I was thrilled.

Restaurants of this genre are popping up around the world in Paris, Montreal, Australia, LA and New York, and Canada contributing 5% of profits to organizations that support people who have barriers to sight. Our waiter, Victor, told us that all of the staff was hired through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The concept is novel, but a novelty the restaurant remains. I will likely not seek out these dining rooms where I travel, nor will I be likely to visit Toronto’s O Noir again any time soon. It will be interesting to see how long the business stays afloat. I can’t imagine there would be very many repeat customers. That being said, it is well worth it to push your boundaries and do something out of the ordinary, and I highly recommend going to O Noir in order to do just that. Enjoy!

I don’t get it, Brassaii… where was the food?

The Sublime Martini by Belvedere and Brassaii

I was invited last night to attend the re-opening party at Brassaii by an acquaintance who swings in very different circles. I had honestly never heard of this HUGE restaurant/lounge tucked behind Crush on King St. just West of Spadina. It was a cavernous, artfully lit space, full of the VIP guest-listed and Media reps. Quite beautiful. There was a lot of milling about, drinking martinis and commenting on one another’s fur vests, but not a whole heck of a lot of food. I toted a Sublime Martini written on the menu as featuring Belvedere Vodka (sponsor for the evening), stirred (actually shaken) with fresh pressed grapefruit juice and a wisp of Jasmine syrup (undetectable), sprinkled with wild blueberries (not wild, but cultivated).

With Bruce Woods (not to be confused with Bruce Wood of Salt Spring Island, yeah, that’s what I thought too. Too bad.) at the helm in the kitchen, and all of the advertising about him, I was hoping to sample some of the new menu. I got to try two tiny hors d’oeuvres – one a “Duck prosciutto + balsamic fig chutney + mascarpone cheese” garnished with a little green sprout; the second was a spoonful of tuna tartar “avocado + tropical fruits + wasabi mayo + crispy wonton”. Neither were any good, the avocado-tuna number sat like an ugly, colourless glob in a ceramic spoon and felt like guacamole mush, with no indication of tuna on the palate.  The duck prosciutto looked pretty, but basically tasted like the toasted baguette upon which it sat. All in all, I was just confused about the idea behind gathering the influential people of that scene this place is catering to, but not actually putting their best foot forward. Maybe those were their best feet. Apparently this place has a wicked patio in the summer though, and I’ve heard great things about the Triple S Lunch, and weekend brunch, which ranges from $8-19 for an early meal on Saturdays and Sundays. If anyone would care to take me there for brunch, I’d be happy to give this place a second chance. The menu doesn’t make a concerted effort to use or promote local eating, so it’s not at the top of my list.

What was much more interesting last night, however, was the menu at Buca. Featuring Whey-Fed Pork, ricotta di bufala from Stirling, ON, and other house-made cured meats and sausages in “The Room”. We stopped by there for a quick drink before heading down the street to Brassaii. I had a quick chat with Peter Tsebelis and Chef Roberto Gentile, who were very open to and enthusiastic about answering my nit picky questions about suppliers and the interesting, local ingredients on the dinner menu. I definitely look forward to someone offering to take me there for dinner, hint hint…