Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Finds for the Foodie

When it comes to my kitchen, there aren't many tools I'm lacking.  Okay, sure, I'd love a meat slicer or an immersion circulator or maybe even a blast chiller ... but I'd also need a good chunk of change and a WAY bigger kitchen than the one I have.  And so, I find myself satisfied by new gadets that make life in the kitchen easier, or cooler, or that allow me to perform some technique I was otherwise unable.  If you've got a foodie in on your holiday shopping list, here are a few ideas:

Epicurean brand cutting boards are my new faves (next to a tried and true, seasoned butcher block).  They're eco-friendly, can go in the dishwasher, are non-porous, and won't ruin your knives.  There are a variety of options to choose from, whether big or small, with grooves (to catch the juices) or not, and even ones that are modular or specific for pizzas.  I bought mine at The Inspired Cook, but you can buy online at Lee Valley Tools, or just check out the Epicurean website here.  The cutting boards range in price from about $18 - $100, depending on the size.  Rest assured, they're worth the investment.

Another foodie-approved gift is always a cookbook.  I've got plenty, so I'm rather choosy on the new acquisitions.  My latest find is The Flavor Bible, which is less of a cookbook and more of a guide to great food pairings.  There are, however, a few books I think are worth checking out.  One is called Ad Hoc at Home, and is written by Thomas Keller (of the famed French Laundry restaurant).  Though his other cookbooks had been criticized for being too complicated for the home cook, this one is full of simple yet impressive dishes that lack nothing but tireless hours trying to interpret the instructions.  You can buy it online from Chapters for just $40.

A great place to visit and become inspired is the MoMa store in NYC.  True it's more than just a quick jaunt from your house, but thankfully there's an online store with oodles of exciting finds, for the foodie and beyond.  Though I'm personally not much of a baker, this tool struck me as pretty neat.  I mean, even the non-bakers will need to roll out pizza dough or quiche crust!  It comes with three sets of removable disks that raise the rolling pin to 1/16", 1/4", 3/8", or 1/8" ensuring a uniform measurement.  At just $20 (US), it's a great find.

Every cook has to have a few great knives.  And, most adventurous cooks want to have a variety of knives for different tasks.  When I came across this sushi knife set, I thought how fun it'd be to have a sushi party!  The small knife (5" blade, 9-1/2" overall) is used to cut vegetables and fruits in one long, unbroken peel. The medium knife (6-1/2" blade, 11-1/2" overall) is used to make a series of incisions in fish, and its rocker curvature is just right for mincing vegetables or herbs. The slicing knife (8" blade, 12-3/4" overall) is for slicing fish, but can also take wafer-thin slices from a roast.  At just $39.50, it's an affordable way to provide inspiration to the foodie in your life.  Buy online at Lee Valley Tools.

In the same vein as the last idea, the storing of knives can be the challenge for cooks.  I have both a traditional knife block and a magnetic knife strip, but this knife block is infinitely useful given there are no set holes, and so your knives can just fit in wherever there's room!  It's a tightly packed set of polypropylene rods, which not only make finding space easy, but your knives won't be dulled by scraping against the traditional wooden block (hint: if you have one of the old-school blocks, put your knives in upside down, with the sharp side facing up).  Also available at Lee Valley Tools for just $37.50.

If you're a foodie, chances are you also like wine.  Winery-to-Home has a good variety of Ontario wines, shipped to your door from just $39/month.  You can choose just one month, or several (your "QTY" is the number of months you order).  The part I like best?  They also have wine & cheese pairings!!  It's always fun to get a new selection each month, accompanied by tasting notes from wine experts like Tony Aspler or cheese expert Kathy Guidi.

One of my favourite new toys is my Cuisinart citrus juicer.  It's not one of those gargantuan ones that takes up far too much space on your counter and can coax the juice out of a rock, but rather one small, sleek appliance whose only role is to make me fresh squeezed orange juice, or, when summer returns (will it ever?), some lemon juice for lemonade or fresh lime juice for margaritas.  The best part?  It was cheap!  At less than $40, it was one of my favourite finds.  I bought mine at The Inspired Cook, but you mind find other retailers on Cuisinart's site.

When in NYC earlier this year, I was fortunate to have dinner at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant.  It was an interesting experience ... Mario's own personal iPod playlist playing artists like Guns 'n Roses, mixed with a somewhat opulent decor and a fine food menu.  The meal was an utter delight, and I'd happily make any of Mario's dishes.  The cookbook is full of 150 contemporary Italian recipes, and includes suggestions for unique touches you'd get at Babbo, like "predesserts".  Available at Chapters/Indigo for just $31.

For anyone who's breaded anything, you know it can be a messy task.  In comes Williams-Sonoma's stainless steel breading pans.  They have a lip on one side that allows them to interlock nicely, so you can set up an effiicient (and easy to clean) breading station.  And, they stack for easy storage.  My only complaint is the tins aren't very big, so you can really only fit food the size of one breast of chicken at a time.  It's certainly not a reason not to get them ... I love how it makes the breading task mess-free, and that it's dishwasher-safe!  I can't recall the exact price I paid (only US site has prices), but it was about $45 for the set (US site says $35).

The last thing I'll put on the list is one my brother introduced me to.  I have two knife sharpeners, one that broke too easily, and one that seems to do a half-assed job.  Short of buying a very expensive electric one, I figured I'd just persevere for now.  But not any more!  Enter the Lansky Knife Sharpening System.  It comes with 4 sharpening hones, guide rods, honing oil, and a clamp.  I have to say, after Chris went at my knives, they've never been sharper.  You can buy the set at Canadian Tire (unfortunately they don't show it online) for under $50, or search around online via Amazon or other retailers.

Hopefully that gives you a good selection of ideas for that foodie in your home!  If you're still not sure, BlogTO has a list of Toronto's 10 best kitchen supply stores.  Happy shopping!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Amateur Night at The Chefs' House

The Restaurant Club's second dinner brought us to The Chefs' House; George Brown's real-time classroom restaurant, staffed by students from several different programs in their Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts school.  There are no shortage of bodies; I walk in and am greeted by three staff, each equally eager to tend to my needs.  I zone in on one of them and say, "we have a reservation - Huggins, party of 10"  She happily motions towards the table that's set for us, and tells me I can hang up my coat on the rack.  Though it's only a few feet away, she doesn't take us to the table and so we show ourselves to our seats and settle in.

The Chefs' House works this way: it's a prix fixe menu of 3 or 4 courses for the totally reasonable price of either $39 or $45.  The wine selection is decent, mostly Ontario, and is equally affordable.  Once we're seated and have our menus, the service gong show begins.

I have to preface the rest of my post by saying I think it's an entirely necessary and important task George Brown has set out to do: real-time learning in an actual restaurant.  How else will Toronto's future culinary stars truly perfect their craft?  The 'on-the-job' learning is definitely the right way to go.  It's just that, well, when it comes to the wait staff, they need some ... uh ... serious training.

Each person who waits on us is enthusiastic and sweet and smiling.  But they are also equal parts clueless, deer-in-headlights, and awkward.  It starts when our low-talking server introduces himself and starts to take drink orders.  I interject as he's talking to my friend, suggesting we go for a bottle over the glass she's ordering.  Our server seems anxious by our decision-making, and says "I'll just start at the other end of the table" and leaves.  It was a 20 second decision, but OK.  We get in our orders and seem to be off and running.

Next comes the food ordering.  It's obvious you select either 3 or 4 courses, but it's unclear if you can decide which 3 courses you want (starter, main, cheese or dessert).  Faux pas number 2: explain briefly at the onset how your menu works.  We all get on the same page and orders are placed.

As we wait for our first course, the team swoops in with an amuse bouche: ratatouille on crostini with a pepper sauce.  One young chef comes to the table to inform us of the dish we're about to eat.  Check.  He's a little nervous and stumbles a bit, but he did alright.  The dish was a nice burst of flavour - just want an amuse is designed to do.

First courses arrive, and for the most part, everyone is pleased.  My fish & chips with minted mushy peas is a favourite.  The smoked salmon, though plating is a bit juvenile, is tender & tasty.  The mushroom soup is simple and lacks a bit of body; the beet salad could use some added texture; overall the dishes were enjoyed.  The servers missed topping up wine glasses, and one man comes to the table with a glass of water in hand, stands there (thoroughly confused), decides the glass of water isn't needed (which it was not), mumbles something and shrinks away.

Next arrives a surprise additional course: pork belly with octopus.  It's a thoughtful gesture and always enjoyable when the chef decides to take creative liberty with a complimentary dish.  But, we have 2 vegetarians and one person allergic to seafood.  The servers apologetically remove the dishes, and in about 7 minutes the three guests have a replacement dish (one with just pork belly, one with just octopus, and one with a small mushroom soup).  I ask one of the servers, "this is the same cut as bacon, yes?" to which he replies, "I don't know"  Right.  Uh, "could you please find out?" and he says "oh, sure".  He comes back: yes.

Our mains arrive shortly thereafter.  The barley risotto with roasted butternut squash was cooked nicely and properly seasoned.  The farm trout with fingerling potatoes and sherry brown butter sauce was met with mixed reviews: one felt the lemon flavour was overpowering, another thought the seasoning was off and it was dry.  For a third dish, though the vegetables were overcooked, the broth in the lemongrass & ginger seafood stew was amazingly flavourful.  The ribeye was inconsistent - one with a chewy cut, another was done perfectly.  The leeks were overcooked, mushy and flavourless.  Another miss: servers didn't bring steak knives.

To finish, our third courses arrive.  Most of us opted for the cheese, while others went for the apple tart or the banana chocolate bread pudding.  I ask my server, "what are the cheeses?" and she says "uh, one is Ontario and one is Quebec".  Right.  I politely respond, "thank you, but what kind of cheese is it?".  She tells me she needs to go check, and comes back to report "Niagara Gold and Benedectin Bleu".  The crackers that accompany the cheese are too floury tasting and a bit undercooked.  The apple tart, to my taste, was far too sweet.  Thankfully, those who ordered it enjoyed the massive hit of sugar.

Because this is a class, the restaurant closes at 10pm.  Shortly before 10, we ask for our bill.  I provide the server instructions to put X amount on two credit cards, and Y amount on the other.  "$28 on this one?", "no, $128" ... "okay, $28" ... "no, $128" ... "OK".  My card comes back.  $28.  Sigh.  He's trying.

So here's the skinny: The Chefs' House is great value.  The food is, for the most part, quite enjoyable.  It's not earth-shattering, but let's not forget they're learning.  The decor is actually very modern and a slick space.  The staff are all eager and friendly, but incredibly green.  This, in my opinion, is where they need to place the greatest focus: front of the house.  Despite our frustrations, I think it's worth going: to support the school, to support its students, and to get a good meal at a very reasonable price.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Offal ≠ Awful (Or, Why You Should Believe In 'Nose-to-Tail' Eating)

Yesterday I was sitting in my car, waiting for the clock to hit 6:30, and thought to myself, "Alyssa, here goes.  If you really think you're a foodie, you better be ready to eat this stuff"  And at precisely 6:30pm, I walked into The Black Hoof, found a table with a welcoming group, and sat down.  By 9:30 I had new foodie friends, I'd made some connections to fuel my hobby, I'd re-connected with someone from the past, and I had an extreme appreciation for what a real culinary artist can do to food we might otherwise (at least in North America), not even consider ordering.

The event was set up by Paul and Dick of City Bites, and was presented also Mark of The Living Vine (who was accompanied by the lovely Morgane Fleury of Domaine Fleury).  Here was the proposition: $120, 34 guests, communal serving, wine pairings and some new menu items.  Since The Black Hoof was a restaurant on my list of "must visits" (recently rated #2 resto in Canada by EnRoute) and I hadn't yet been, I figured this was the perfect opportunity.  I was sooooo right.

Here's what was on the menu:
  • 1st course:
  • charcuterie plate
  • Fleury & Fils Champagne Brute Carte Rouge (the first winery to go biodynamic in 1989)
  • 2nd through 4th courses:
  • raw scallop with bone marrow sauce
  • cold testina (jowl of the pig's face ... this one thinly sliced) hazlenut and pickled chaterelle salad
  • lamb brain tortellini with fennel seed, orange zest and pecorino
  • Heyl Zu Herrnsheim Baron Heyl Estate Riesling 2005
  • 5th course:
  • horse carpaccio and hot sauce
  • Chateau Monty - Monty's French Red 2007 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes
  • 6th course:
  • tripe and trotter stew (stomach and pig's feet)
  • Ceago Vinegarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
  • 7th & 8th courses:
  • blue cheese and balsamic & cocoa pickled walnuts
  • boudin noir (blood sausage ... yes made with blood), rutabega, quince and ricotta tart
  • Fleury Cuvee Robert Fleury Brut 2000
With each and every course, I was totally and utterly wowed.  With the first course, not one single meat was a let-down.  Each succulent and differentiated and thoughtful.  Then came buttery and flavourful bone marrow atop raw, fresh scallop.  The brain was delicate and the pasta and ingredients in perfect balance and combination.  The horse (left) was lean and so tender it melted in your mouth.  The stew was hearty with incredible depth and a hint of heat.  You honestly didn't eat a single item thinking, 'ew, the [insert animal] used to [insert verb] with this'.  You thought only, 'is it possible these dishes can get any better?!'

Right, so let's be clear: 'offal' is entrails and internal organs of animals.  Not every dish was made from offal.  But, what this meal enlightened me on was two things.  1: 'nose-to-tail' cooking is not only the right thing to do, but can be incredibly delightful (even to those who may only be happy eating chicken breast or striploin) particularly in the hands of a talented chef and 2: that unusual meats (like horse, which for a girl who used to compete in showjumping didn't ever think about riding AND eating the beast) can be as equally flavourful and enjoyable as any other meat we're accustomed to eating.

I must applaud Grant Van Gameren, Jenn Agg and their team for their efforts.  Not only did the food blow my mind, but the pre-dinner cocktail (gin, orange blossom, lime and basil) was freaking fabulous and the service was friendly and professional.  And important to note: the staff was knowledgable.  As in, "what's in this" and they can answer without skipping a beat.  THAT is what good service should offer.

So there you have it, friends.  I ate brains.  I ate pig's feet.  I ate horse.  And I loved it all.  I encourage all of you to try something new, to consider how the full animal is being utilized, and be thankful we can have such amazing choices in life. 

Friday, November 6, 2009

It's Noodle Time: Liberty Noodle

I have to admit I've got a real penchant for noodles.  So when I'd heard that Liberty Noodle was open, I had to get my way there.  Fast.  And boy, was I glad I did.

Located right in the heart of Liberty Village, Liberty Noodle is quickly becoming a favourite go-to place for the locals, and I'm certain will become a staple for anyone craving a seriously good fill-up at a low cost.  The bonus?  It doesn't look like a crummy ramen joint ... its industrial style is chic, clean and minimalistic.

With nothing over $12, my friend and I decide to go appy and main each ... not that I needed all that food, but because it all sounded so damn good.  First comes the curry gyoza and the panko-crusted shrimp and calamari.  Each dish was delightful.  The curry wasn't overpowering, and the gyozas were seared perfectly.  The seafood was accompanied by a wasabi coriander dipping sauce, which I'd gladly take over boring marinara or seafood sauce any day.  Delish!

Next came our noodle dishes.  Mine, a black bean chicken with fried ramen noodles and bok choy, his a curry beef ramen noodle bowl.  Each dish was ample size, and arrived quickly (too quick, I'd say, if we were there for dinner but perfectly fast for a workday lunch).  The black bean sauce was perfectly balanced; if I had one criticism it was the noodles were a tad oily.  Next, the curry beef bowl.  The broth was incredibly tasty and the noodles fresh.  The broth's coconut milk made it rather heavy, but its flavour kept you going back for more.

Service was polite and efficient, but could benefit from a little more pizzazz.  I don't need the chattiest server out there, but some flare and personality go a long way.  And, good servers (along with good food) make loyal regulars.  I doubt this place will have a hard time cultivating regulars; it's got my vote.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Unpretentious La Bruschetta

I've long-heard of the restaurant, La Bruschetta, and on a rainy, pissy Friday in October, I finally went.  Located in St. Clair West, the exterior is marked by a light-adorned blue (and ugly) "RESTAURANT L.L.B.O." sign.  Inside, its long narrow room is cozy, modest and welcoming.

We are greeted by Silvia, the daughter Benito, who with his wife started the restaurant almost 30 years ago.  She is kind with an easy way about her; she makes us feel at home.  Silvia still does some of the cooking, but spends most of her time helping out during service.

First, the complimentary bruschetta arrives.  If you're going to have a restaurant named after a traditional Italian appetizer, you better not disappoint.  And it doesn't.  As a starter my friend orders the carpaccio (which I happily share).  The meat is tender and beautifully thinly sliced.  My one criticism is there was so much parmesan the meat took a back seat.

Then came our mains: pappardelle tartufate and gnocchi gratinati.  The pappardelle was beautifully fresh, and the mushrooms chopped to almost a ragu.  It was hearty and had incredible depth of flavour (surely accented by the brandy in the sauce!).  The gnocchi was light and the dish bountiful.  The sauce was a little too tomatoey for my liking, but had a nice creaminess (and my friend had no trouble polishing it off!).

The servers were friendly, each with a megawatt smile you couldn't help but be charmed by.  As our dinner came to a close, we noticed the room had filled.  It was abuzz with lively conversation and laughter; what a lovely place to be on a dreary Friday evening.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Making Nice With Salt

Too many times I hear friends say, "not too much salt!" or, "oh, I don't add salt to anything" or, "salt is bad for you", to which I usually respond, "SALT IS GOOD!!"  And it is.  Let me explain why:

1) Salt enhances food's flavour.  Salt brings to food far more than one of the five basic taste sensations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami). Sweets taste sweeter. Salt masks bitter tastes, making naturally bitter foods like chocolate and broccoli become delicious.  It brings flavours together, making them play in unison far better than without.  I always recommend cooking with either sea salt or kosher salt versus table salt (or iodized salt).  Kosher salt is additive-free, and has a lighter taste than iodized salt.  Sea salt is, well, made from salt water; it contains trace minerals that aren't found in mined salts (Kosher and iodized are both mined).

2) You actually need salt in your diet.  Sodium cannot be produced within the human body so it is important to the diet. Sodium helps regulate water balance ph and osmotic pressure.  Chloride is equally important in the human diet as it helps the blood to carry carbon dioxide; potassium absorption; helps in digestion; and conserves acid-base balance.

3) Beyond taste, salt can be used as a preservative, texture aid, binder, fermentation control, and colour developer.  It's multi-purposed fun!
Now, don't go all willy-nilly and start adding heaps of salt to everything you do.  I'm not saying that.  Remember it's easy to add and almost impossible to remove.  When you're cooking, TASTE EVERYTHING.  Taste it as you go along and taste it before you serve it.  When you say to yourself, "I think it's missing something", try adding a pinch of salt.  After that, you might need acidity or sweetness or sour or bitterness.

One thing to keep in mind is some other food items are already salty, so be careful how much more salt you need (if at all).  Soy sauce is salty, as are capers and olives.  Some cheeses like halloumi or parmesan are salty.  Bacon can be salty, too (mmmm, bacon).

Lastly, don't be offended if you've made a meal you think is perfectly seasoned and someone asks for more salt.  Our palettes are all different.  Let people add whatever they like.  And, don't cook to the lowest common denominator (i.e. "if it's bland, everyone will like it") - you'll just always be serving flavourless food.  

So there it is, folks.  Don't be afraid of salt.  It's a good thing.  A great thing.  And it doesn't have to make food taste 'salty' - it can make food taste amazing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cooking Classes: Where To Learn (in and around TO)

So, you decide you're ready to up your cooking game.  You've tried a recipe or ten and think, "Hey, this is actually pretty fun; I want to know MORE!" or, "Ooooh, I could use some mad skills to impress my girlfriend" or better still, "Now how the eff do I make pasta?"

Your next question is probably, "um, okay ... where the hell do I go?" 

Well, here's a list:

Calpahlon Culinary Centre is located at King and Spadina in downtown Toronto.  They've got both demo (you watch, eat, and ask questions) and hands-on (you are equipped with a knife and get to the grunt work yourself) classes.  I've done both, and each are good for different reasons.  If you're making something for the very first time that would require you to really feel it out first-hand (like making pasta), I'd say pony up the extra money and ALWAYS go for the hands-on class.  If you just want to sit back, drink some wine, watch the cooking, and take home the recipe to try on your own, the demo is perfect.  It's like going out for dinner, only less ambience and more cafeteria-like.  Think TV cooking show, minus the cameras.  Prices range from $70 (demo) to $500 (series of 4 hands-on classes).  They also offer wine classes for about $135.

Dish Cooking Studio, owned by Trish Magwood, operates similar to Calphalon in that they have both hands-on and demo classes.  They do both scheduled and corporate/private classes.  They often bring in guest chefs to teach the classes, and have very knowledgeable, friendly staff.  The set-up is more intimate than Calphalon, which can be nice with a group of people.  The down-side to the hands-on classes is you generally do not make all elements on a menu - you are broken into teams and are assigned one portion of the menu.  You walk away with all the recipes and can ask all the questions you want, but you are not at your own individual station like at Calphalon.  Prices range from $75 (demo) to $175 (intensive hands-on or celebrity chef demo).

George Brown College's continuing education program in hospitality and culinary arts is rather extensive.  Costs are quite a bit pricier, but because they're taught over several weeks.  Advantage here is the cache of learning in a true teaching facility, with PLENTY of hours to hone your skills.  The list of courses is almost limitless, from food writing to knife skills to gluten-free cooking to dim sum.  Prices range from about $100 to $600, but can vary greatly.

LCBO  not only offers wine tastings, but also a pretty robust array of cooking classes.  They're held in a variety of LCBO flagship locations, and they're actually pretty darn good.  Most of their classes are demos, but what that means for you is they're also AFFORDABLE!  Added bonus: shop for booze while you're there (um, helloooo, who doesn't want booze?!).  Most classes range from $50 to $85, with the odd hands-on for around $225.

Niagara College, besides their full-time enrollments, offers cooking classes for the amateur home cook.  Taught at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, it's a bit of a jaunt if you're travelling from Toronto, but make it a weekend and visit some wineries and stay at a B&B!  Bonus: you can book online. Prices range from about $130 to $170.

Bonnie Stern School of Cooking.  Well, who hasn't heard of Bonnie Stern?!  She founded the school in 1973, has developed recipes for major food companies, has written several cookbooks, has had national TV shows, and the list goes on.  I admit I have not personally been, so I can't comment on the space or the style of class.  There are many guest chefs (don't expect it to be Bonnie, herself) and the class list looks decent.  Hey - check it out and let me know what it's like! Prices range from $135 to $225 per person.

Well, there you go.  I'm sure I'm missing a few, but if you can't find what you're looking for from this list, you are either trying to cook with dead babies or are the most finicky person on earth.  Thankfully, I'm certain my readers are neither psycho nor totally lame.  So good luck, and happy cooking!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Picnic At The Brick Works - Another Successful, Belly-full Year!

On a somewhat dreary fall day, Toronto and beyond's culinary best showed up at The Brick Works on Bayview for another incredible year of delightful food and wine.  The event is a fundraiser for Evergreen and Slow Food Toronto (why not support sustainable, local food, plus bringing more green to our cities?!); this year was its third annual.

The place was abuzz with foodies, locavores, farmers, chefs, shutterbugs and the odd super-weird person (yes, you, girl dressed like mother earth gone wrong).

Our first stop was a delightful amuse from C5 - open fire cooked lamb with harissa duck egg mayonnaise on cornbread.  Moving on, the chicken liver pate with fried chicken skin and manischewitz reduction on chala from Chezvous was incredible.  I am definitely finding a way to work friend chicken skin into just about everything I do.  The elk stew at Langdon Hall was succulent and bursting with flavour.  Right next door to it were pillowy gnocchi with comfort cream sauce from Zucca.  Gnocchi does know the way to my heart ...

Though I wasn't in the mood for sweets, I couldn't resist Epic's home made honey ice cream with rye marinated blueberries in a brandy snap basket.  Not to mention the chef let me come behind the table to take some pics of the honey comb, complete with happy, honey-making bees.

There were a few misses for me, including the Korean ribs that sadly didn't get enough cooking time to break down the meat enough (read: I couldn't even tear off a bite).  I was proud of myself for having tried the tongue, but found it to be a mushy, somewhat bland and grey version of corned beef.

At a price of $110 per ticket ($90 in advance), Picnic at The Brick Works is not a cheap way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it's helluva good food and drink.  I promise you won't regret it ... so be sure to sign up to email updates from Evergreen so you can be reminded to go next year.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


When I've got some free time and feel inspired, I'll cook up some tasty meals that I enjoy and you might want to try, too.  They're often inspired by or flat-out borrowed from published recipes ... I'll usually make a tweak or two to call it my own (and appease my tastes).  As I believe with all cooking, it's really up to what you like and what your taste preferences are - trust your own palate, and you'll never be disappointed.  Check back from time-to-time and see what's new.  Enjoy!

p.s. - I do know both my plating and my photography skills could use some work ... but trust me, when you're cooking for yourself or just for friends, it's most imporant that it tastes amazing :)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Visit Now: Local Kitchen & Wine Bar

Just one week old, and Local Kitchen & Wine Bar has got its groove ... and my vote.  Located on Queen West, just East of Roncesvalles, Local prides itself on homemade artisan salumi, incredible fresh pasta, and a Sicilian heritage.

It's a small 26-seater space with rustic charm and a homey appeal, complete with graphic tees hung along one wall and a boar's head over the door.  The music is spun from turntables in the back ... "feel free to make a request", says co-owner Michael.  I'm at a loss and so I jokingly suggest AC/DC.  I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm an ass, though never really lets on.  Our server is an adorable German woman who is on sabbatical and in Toronto because she "always wanted to work in a foreign country".  I'm a tad jealous of her gusto.  She's sweet and accommodating and perfectly attentive.

To start we decide to order the small salumi plate, and it is FABULOUS.  The dill cappicollo is to die for; the boar salami is perfect, and guanciale is fatty and lovely.  One of the specials of the day was braised rabbit stuffed olives which had been lightly battered and deep fried (served room temperature).  It's hard to balance the briney taste of an olive and so I found the rabbit to take a bit of a back seat, but it was delicious all the same.  And who doesn't want fried stuff?!

For the mains we ordered seared duck breast which sat atop baked apple and lentils with a cider gastrique, and the smoked potato gnocchi with rapini and taleggio.  First, the duck.  It was sweet and a touch tart, balanced by a flavourful rub and the buttery lentils.  SO good.  The gnocchi was made perfectly - pillowy and smooth.  The taleggio cream sauce was subtle and the rapini added a nutty, slightly bitter complement.

We opted to pair each course with a different wine at Michael's discretion.  The list is primarily Ontario-based, though you can find some BC wines along with lovely Italian options as well.  Take a little extra time and read through the preamble to each page of the wine list ... they're amusing stories of why the wine or varietal has made the list, sometimes even personifying the grapes (like the poor White Cab who was once cast away but now making its due comeback).

I have no doubt Local Kitchen & Wine Bar will enjoy a loyal following.  I only hope they one day decide to offer their salumi for retail ... I could indulge in their charcuterie just about every day.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Apres Coucher: Lady Marmalade

Somehow sounds of Christina Aguilera fill my head when I think of the name of Leslieville's latest brunch hot spot: Lady Marmalade.  My guess is its name wasn't borne from the 2001 re-make pop hit.  Or maybe it was.  I don't know.  All I know is Lady Marmalade, a quasi-transplant from Victoria, BC, is a hit.

It's filled with the prescriptive super-hipster East end crowd (although I live in the neighbourhood, I am not quite as cool for school).  Its decor has got that kitschy retro flare, coupled with an arty mash-up.  The servers are mostly wholesome-looking beauties who, despite the seemingly constant stream of waiting customers, maintain their pleasant demeanour with a smile.

The prices are just right for a brunch/lunch spot; not much is more than $12 or so.  It's cash-only (boo), except there's a TD bank 2 doors down for those feeling terribly inconvenienced.  The only other let-down I could discern was that they don't make good-morning poutine (or good-afternoon poutine, for that matter) on the weekends.  Being a Northern Ontario girl and somewhat of a poutine connoisseur, I was excited to try it.  Then, sadly shut down.  *Sigh* - I'll have to go back for that one.

I ordered the baked crepe croque monsieur and was delighted.  Wrapped in a light crepe was ham and cheddar, topped with a miso-scallion cream, perfectly poached eggs and wilted spinach.  I was a tad intrigued by the miso-scallion cream (also an option for the poutine: miso gravy), but found it to be light, balanced, and a perfect complement to the dish without being overpowering.  The side of hashbrowns were some of the best I've had: crispy on the outside, fluffy inside, not greasy and properly seasoned.

The eggs benny options are plentiful with many flavour-pairing favourites to choose from.  One friend ordered the huevos rancheritos which, despite tasting good, looked a bit like dressed-up cafeteria food (I suppose it's hard to make a mound of beans look pretty).  One other plus: fresh-squeezed orange juice.  One would think it's a staple for every good brunch spot but I'm surprised at how many rely on good 'ol Old South.  Lady Marmalade offers both options but don't skimp - fresh juice all the way.

I'm excited the good restaurant options are continuing to grow in Queen's East end.  Better still that there's another yummy brunch option for the 'I'm-so-hungover-all-I-want-is-fucking-tasty-food' crowd.  Check it out ... I know I'll be going back.

Monday, September 14, 2009

BYOW Etiquette

During a recent visit to Loire restaurant on Harbord Street in Toronto, our somewhat large group opted to bring our own wine. The owner/sommelier, Sylvain, agreed to $25/bottle fee up to 1.5L (which was the size we brought). No problem. I get it. Restaurants are in it to make money. OF COURSE. But when the fee turns to $50/bottle at the end of the night, simply because the owner decided they needed to turn a bigger profit, I say it's entrepreneurial gluttony. And, a surefire way to elicit a serious piss-off factor.

Here are some 'rules' of BYOW:
  • check in advance if there is a corkage fee and if there are restrictions (like number or size of bottles)
  • don't bring your own wine just to avoid restaurant prices; you will pay more for a bottle at a restaurant, yes - but you are paying for service, stemware, maintenance of a great wine list, and part of general overhead
  • don't try to serve yourself and expect a discount on the corkage fee
  • don't bring a wine that's on the restaurant's list, it's rude
  • depending on the establishment, corkage fees could be the amount of profit on the restaurant's least expensive bottle (typically priced at three times wholesale, so if it cost the restaurant $10, you would pay $30 ... corkage would be around $20)
Now, did we follow all the 'rules'? Maybe not. But the fact of the matter is we were gouged. Perhaps the owner relised $25 per 750ml bottle was more adequate and changed his mind last minute. But simple business sense says keep your customers happy and you will keep them coming back. I don't know about you, but I find unannounced price increases are generally not well received.

So, be a good little restaurant goer and brush up on BYOW etiquette. And, if you're a restauranteur, don't be a dink. Honour your pricing. After all, bad press travels a lot faster than good.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Premiere Event: Conviction

It's been but a couple of months since the idea for The Restaurant Club came to me. I feel as though it will continue to morph and evolve; I'm happy about the direction we're headed in. And, on September 10th, our first event unfolded.

First, I want to thank all 19 members who were able to make it. It filled me with joy to have such an incredible group of people gather for the first of what I hope to be many events.  Second, I want to thank the team at Conviction.  I changed our numbers several times, requested Biana and Marc address the group (they graciously did), and made special requests that were met with not a tinge of resistance.

So, how was it?  In one word: amazing.  True, there were shortcomings.  The service was slow (the restaurant was not packed), however they had launched their new menu that day.  Servers were friendly but at times lacked attentiveness and knowledge - I suspect a result of both newness (the restaurant had only recently re-opened after being closed for the month of August), and a product of the restaurant's concept.  The staff are, after all (and as one waitor described) 'misfits'.

I would have to say the stars of what our group ordered were the braised beef short ribs, fois gras & sweetbreads, acorn squash potage (soup) with fois gras confit & coconut foam, and the crab & lobster topped with a poached egg and 'no beluga' caviar - which was israeli couscous with squid ink.  Many also thoroughly enjoyed the beef tenderloin.  One of my favourite quotes was about the charcuterie plate: "a delight of slices" - how fun!  On the less favourable side, the arctic char was underseasoned, and one member wrote that the bone marrow was 'bland'.

My only criticism of the restaurant is that, despite having re-launched under a series of names (Thuet, Bite Me, Conviction), the decor remains largely unchanged.  I would have expected that, given the latest concept, there would be a more dramatic shift in the overall vibe of the room.  In my opinion, it's a missed opportunity.

All-in-all, the evening was a great success.  I felt good about the restaurant selection, and for the most part was happy with how the evening played out for the members.  I'm already giving thought to our next event coming up in November.  Well, once I make myself some coffee and breakfast ... maybe just after that ;)

Monday, September 7, 2009

An Afternoon At Peter Cellar's Pub

Located about an hour and 15 minutes North of the city lies the charming, tranquil and idyllic town of Mono, Ontario.  You don't find much in that town, but there are two things worth doing there: hiking through any of the numerous trails, and visiting Peter Cellar's Pub at the Mono Cliffs Inn.

The pub, located in the basement of the main restaurant, is small, dimly lit, eclectic and inviting.  If you visit on the right day, you'll be greeted by Wayne, the charismatic, sweet, and delightfully gay bartender/server extraordinaire.

The menu isn't vast, but has something for everyone.  It's a mixture of Asian-fusion, French, Italian and British, with apps like phyllo-wrapped brie, panko-crusted shrimp with sriracha, oysters, grilled calamari, lamb burgers, lemon poppy seed supreme of chicken, and veggie curry with chickpeas and pappadum.

Between us, we ordered just about everything on the menu.  I had the pleasure of trying almost everyone's dish (a benefit of my new project), and found some winners and some mediocre dishes.  The grilled calamari with sriracha mayo was flavoured deliciously by the charring of the grill; one order was cooked nicely while the second was a little overdone and chewy.  The lentil bacon soup was a bit of a let-down for me - the lentils were cooked fine, but the bacon was barely discernable (I do love my bacon), and the soup base lacked seasoning and depth of flavour.

The supreme of chicken, though it looked slightly plastic because of the glaze, was in fact sweet, savoury and cooked perfectly.  It sat atop a salad that included cherry tomatoes and melon - one of my least favourite fruits.  Despite the melon, the dish was lovely and fresh-tasting.  The lamb burger for me was overpowered by mint sauce, but true lamb-lovers at the table (I rarely eat it, and prefer the tender chops) raved about its success.  So, I'll default to them and go with 'it was a hit'.

For dessert, the kids somehow got tricked into a 'surprise' dish.  Of course they all thought it was going to be cake or chocolate or a brick of sugar topped with more sugar, but out came pavlova.  It's a dish I've never cared to make (I rarely make desserts), but it was just divine.  The meringue was soft on the inside; just crusted on the outside.  The fruit salad that was sandwiched between two white mounds was bursting with flavour and pretty colours.

Service by Wayne was accommodating and personable - just how you'd expect it to be in such a tiny local's haunt.  I was even the fortunate recipient of an impromptu shoulder massage ... simply amazing.  And according to Wayne "it's been a long time since I've made a woman moan".  Charming ;)

So, city kids, pack your SUVs and hybrids, bring your hiking shoes and camera, and plan to make it for lunch or dinner (and a pint or three ... you can always stay at the Inn), and make your way up to Peter Cellar's at The Mono Cliffs Inn.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's All About Conviction

The first event is coming up for The Restaurant Club.  I'm getting excited.  I'm also a bit anxious ... maybe that's what my dream about my molars falling out meant (yes, creepy and gross, all at once).  And, as the title of this post alludes, the chosen restaurant for the first event is Conviction.

Why Conviction?  Well, it promises something very different and yet something very reliable, all at once.  Marc Thuet is one of the city's most talented chefs.  Thuet and Bite Me and Atelier Thuet have each given me wonderful meals.  I can take comfort in knowing the food will not be a let-down.  The 'something different' comes from the fact that his restaurant is staffed with ex-convicts, both at the front and the back of the house.  I think it's both curious and caring ... everyone could use a second (or 5th) chance, and hey - I'm game to hear a story or two about a life 10 times rougher than mine.  Okay, maybe 100 times rougher.  Let's face it - my life has rarely been 'rough'.
For those of you who have been invited to the dinner, I am truly looking forward to seeing you.  I'm excited that you're a part of a new idea for me.  I'm optimistic for the potential outcomes.  I'm hoping for some great feedback.  Most of all, I'm ready for a glorious meal in great company.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inn on the Twenty

On a lacklustre August day (why wouldn't it be lacklustre ... it is, after all, the summer of 2009), 3 colleagues and I trekked out to the Niagara region for 18 holes to be followed by dinner at Inn on the Twenty in Jordan.

Golf was, well, fun. It was not a great success, though there were shining moments. And as we usually play, it was relaxed and without pressures. We played the Escarpment and Iron Bridge courses, the former being slightly less imposing and equally as beautiful. We finished with smiling faces and empty bellies. On to Inn on the Twenty ...

After a short gander at the village of Jordan, we entered the restaurant for our 6pm reservation. The place was empty save 2 or 3 tables. Hmph. Not exactly what you want to see when visiting a place for the first time.

Nevertheless, we sat down and promptly got to choosing our meals. I opted for the caprese salad and ricotta gnocchi; the only other 3 dishes ordered were the tomato soup, scallops and capon. Capon, as I learned, is actually a castrated male chicken. I knew it was fowl ... I just didn't realize it was actually a term for what's done to the bird versus a breed. Nevertheless, Mark reported back it was delicious. The castrating, after all, is intended to create a very tender bird with less stringy meat.

The caprese salad, though not the most adventuresome of items, was delicious. The cheese was soft and fresh mozzarella di buffalo, and the tomatoes were local, ripe, and flavourful. We paired the first course with an extra dry Cave Springs sparking wine. It was tart and young; nothing like a French champagne, but crisp and bubbly and awakening to the palette.

Next came the gnocchi. They were 5 or 6 large dumplings resting atop fresh English peas and pea shoots, 'sugo crudo' (fancy for raw tomatoes), basil pesto and a hint of truffle. Sadly, I was not overwhelmed or even fully satisfied with the gnocchi. They were crisp outside, but rather than pillowy and smooth inside, they were slightly dry and verging on spongy. They lacked seasoning, which further compounded the textural issues. The flavours of the peas, truffle and tomato were a lovely accompaniment; I only wish the gnocchi were a bigger hit. We paired our dinner with a Syrah from Peninsula Ridge. I have to admit that while I am a fan of Ontario whites, the reds still need some time. The syrah lacked complexity, and was slightly too acidic for my syrah preferences. The out-of-country wine list looked decent, but was sufficiently over-priced (none less than $80, if I recall correctly) so as to encourage purchase of local wines. Not a stupid tactic when you are in the heart of Niagara wine country.

The service was impeccable. Attentive, knowledgeable and friendly without lingering on too much. Our final course was a plate of 4 cheeses. Three 'cow' and one 'non-cow'. Benedictin Bleu from Quebec, Thunder Oak Gouda, an ashy aged cheddar, and a tasty sheep's milk cheese whose name escapes me. The blue and the Gouda were by far my favourites, but the other two were definitely a delight.

I will conclude that although the restaurant was lacking in the vibe brought only by the company of others, by the end of our meal the room was sufficiently full. Despite my gnocchi experiences, I would recommend the restaurant to others, hands down. The menu is well thought out, full of local fare, and promises some excellent plates.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Opera at The Nose

Recently, a friend and I checked out "Opera at The Nose". For those who know The Nose (aka Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant), it is fun and lively and full of great meal items and ... most obviously ... Italian. Having been there many times I thought, "why not mix opera and eating?"

I knew the serving and seating format was going to be family style, and that it would be housed in their side room. What I didn't realize (and maybe stupidly), was that they were showing an ACTUAL opera, projected on a screen. For some reason, I thought there would be opera singers there live. No matter, I wasn't disappointed by the motion picture.

First, I will qualify that I have been to the opera once. Lucky for me, it was at the new COC building, so I could marvel at the architectural beauty. Aside from my one encounter, I know almost nil about this art.

The actual opera side of the evening was just OK. While I appreciate the arts, I don't think I'll be running out anytime soon to watch a subtitled singing play, cast with facial contortionists (I gather this is the only way to get out the sounds they are capable of making). BUT ... it was an experience nonetheless. And I do like new experiences.

So onto the food and social part of the evening. My friend and I sat at the end of a table of about 5 other guests. At our table were "cranky couple who probably hadn't had sex in the last quarter", "nice quiet gay guy", and "wealthy suburbanites". Our host was gracious and excited about the evening and clearly well versed in operas. I suppose if you're going to host an event like this, you'd better know a thing or two ...

So how about the food? Well, in true Nose style, it was delicious. And ample. The first round brought us a lovely misto di mare (seafood medley ... LOVED the calamari), a delicious caprese salad modified to include avocado and a little chili oil, and of course - tasty bread. The second course included a squash risotto done to perfection, a spaghettini ai oilo, and a lovely pasta with bolognese sauce. I thought this was it. I was FULL. But alas, it was not. How could I think so? We hadn't even had meat. The third round brought their famous (and gigantic) meatballs, delicious pork loin, and veal chop. The meatballs, I have to admit, were a little lacklustre for me. They were dry and underseasoned. The pork, on the other hand, was perfectly cooked with a flavourful gorgonzola sauce that I can neve get enough of.

We opted out of dessert so we could carry on our way. So what was the verdict? Go for it. Try it once. You may find you love opera, you most definitely will meet some new people, and as always with The Nose, you'll eat well.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Thing About Meat

For those of us who can't imagine life without meat, do read on. Meat is incredible. It's versatile. It can make you happy. You can crave it. It can find itself in almost any meal. Its texture and taste can't be replicated. Traditions are built around it. And, you can screw it up. But here's a thought: a lovely, living animal gave its life for your fabulous meal. Take care not to screw it up.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to trick you into converting into a vegetarian or tell you to write a poem for little moo-cow or write to the pig's parents to tell them how their young son made a lovely sausage or say some prayer for the chicken whose head really was cut off. No, nothing kookie like that. It's a little more practical than that.

Let me write it straight-up. When you cook meat, take care. Pay attention. Don't let it burn. Don't let it dry out. Don't overcook it. You may never witness a slaughter; you may never yourself kill your own meat, but for real; an animal died so you can eat. Pay it some respect and cook it to the best of your abilities. Not only will you and your guests be happy with the results, but you might actually think for a second about the animal's moment of death and feel good about how you've done it good.

To Cook Or Not To Cook

Cooking is one of my most favourite things. It's relaxing, inspiring, fulfilling, exciting, curious, delicious and (usually) social. Yet so many times I hear from friends, "I don't know where to start", or "It's too much work", or "I don't have time". I promise you, it's easy, it can be simple, and it can be done in really no time flat.

What cooking can bring you is a sense of accomplishment. It can be a creative outlet. An edible, wondrous, succulent outlet. And you know what? If it fails, so what. It's easy to try again. It's easy to just order pizza instead. It's OK if it takes you longer than you thought; it's just more time for conversation and wine. Isn't conversation and wine what some of us live for anyway? Food is a necessity, and it can easily be one of the most enjoyable ones. Right up there with the best night's sleep.

Okay, so let's assume I've piqued your interest in actually trying a bit of home cooking. Where to start? is one of the best sites around to find incredible recipes. They have a multitude of filters (from 'quick' to 'chef recipe'), and what's better is recipes are rated by users. Chances are, if more than 5 people have tried the recipe and don't recommend it, WALK AWAY. Find another one. Don't waste your time.

What else? Well, over time, you'll learn what you like and what you don't. You'll learn what you think goes well together, and what might not. It's all about personal preference. Sure, there's some science that goes into a truly mind-blowing meal, but you needn't make it a Michelin 3-star night each time you cook! Some of my simplest meals have garnered the highest compliments. And my friends are not those who blow smoke up your ass just for the hell of it.

So the next time you reach for the frozen dinner, think again. Pick up 4 ingredients. Make a meal. It's easy. I'll even come over and help you figure it out the first time around ;)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Service Matters

It baffles me the restaurants I visit where servers are less than courteous, less than kind, and less than helpful. Having been both a waiter and a bartender, I can say with all fact that serving is not simple. One must endure 'the public'. The hours can rot. There are hazards. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you are not rewarded appropriately. And it can suck.

But in the end, aren't we all looking for some entertainment? Some form of pleasure? Some new story to recount? The food and the company and the environment may very well be incredible, but if the service is poor, it can flat out ruin a dining experience.

We are a city of attitude and deservedness and opinions and swagger and sometimes just a tad too much ego. But for the love of god, servers, DO YOUR JOB. It's showmanship and elegance and etiquette as much as it is taking an order and bringing food and clearing the table.

Now, there are MANY wonderful servers in this city. For each and every one of you, thank you. Thank you for not being pretentious. Thank you for not one-upping me unnecessarily. Thank you for sharing a good story or for offering a laugh. Thank you for actually giving a shit. Being personable and likeable - two of the first traits I believe you should have if you're going to take on serving.

So, in my opinion, service matters more than you may think.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

An Event Not To Miss

If you're looking to be wowed by some incredible, delicious and socially conscious food, get your tickets now for this event:
Buy your tickets before August 14th to get the early bird rate.

The Places I Have Been ...

So, I've started this club. Without much thought, other than I liked the idea. I have people I'd like to see. I have places I'd like to go. And so, The Restaurant Club is born.

First, there are many restaurants I've already been to, and so The Club might not find itself there ... after all, it's about new experiences. I've never thought to keep a diary of them, but here's my best recollection of the tops:

Colborne Lane. One of my favourites. Been twice, and would go all over again, and again, and again. Magnificent.

Nota Bene. Just delicious. So elegant yet somehow still a bit rustic. One must go; perhaps take a client as a good excuse to expense it ;)

Frank. Just being within the architectural beauty that is the AGO is enough to go. But wait ... the food! The food is clean and fresh and local and lovely.

Coppi. Thanks to Michelle and John, I was introduced to this unsuspecting little Italian 'ristorante'. Go when the white truffles have been flown in; a delight that will not disappoint.

Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant. Okay, so it's not that the food is out of this world (though it is extremely tasty), but it's the atmosphere. The energy. The vibe. Go with friends. I'm sure you have already.

Lee. Of course Susur Lee is to Toronto what Bobby Flay is to New York. You've just got to go to one of his restaurants. Lee is full of variety and interest and sass and flavour.

Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. Yet another architectural beauty. The view is lovely, and the food is, in true Jamie style, just as lovely. Of course Gilead Cafe is wonderful, as is Jamie Kennedy and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar (how's that for good branding?), but JK at the Gardiner has something just a little bit more.

Other notables: C5, One, Osteria Ciceri e Tria, PicNic, Table 17, Milagro, Grace, Joso's, Trevor, and so many more I'll continue to add as my fond food memories continue.