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.