Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where is the Love?

I was just on Twitter and in my feed read, "BeastRestaurant: @PizzaLibretto What's worse? Nasty food critic or a food blogger with no cred running home after a meal and bad mouthing resto?"  It made me think, "huh ... would most restaurants call me 'a food blogger with no cred'"?  And, (swallow ego here), they likely would.

As I let insecurity settle in, enter the next questions to my head, "Does anybody actually care what I write?  Respect it?  Recommend it?  READ it?!!"  Well, this is where the answer is much more hazy.  I'd like to think it's 'yes' to all, but I am a realist.  I have a modest group of followers, more than half of whom are friends (so they feel obliged more than compelled to follow).  The rest of the followers I can only assume found me through seeing what their friends 'liked' or who they followed.  I have no fan club.  My posts rarely get re-tweeted.  My daily site visits are nominal.  It's all actually pretty pathetic when I compare it to metrics I'd use in my real profession.  I am, what they call, small fries.

So why bother with all this TRC nonsense?

Well, because I enjoy it.  And, some people seem to genuinely like it and share (or trust) my opinion.  Though I will likely never become the next James Chatto, nor rub elbows with International top chefs, it gives me pleasure and I have a POV.  So what's my point?  Am I turning this into a personal therapy session?  Am I giving up TRC?  The answers are these:
  1. My point is that, cred or no cred, anyone who eats is a critic.  My fucking dog is a critic.  So my suggestion to restaurateurs who are fed up with food bloggers is this: suck it up and take the comments as learning.  Don't take a disgruntled back seat.  It's a two-way conversation.  Your restaurant is not just a restaurant: it is a brand you need to manage, protect, and cultivate.  If you disagree with a legitimate review, write back.  You needn't be a dick about it, but I swear it will go a long way towards positive brand image if you become a more active participant in your brand.
  2. I hope not.  Otherwise that's pathetic.
  3. No.  Not until I come up with something better.
I feel like I'm Rick Mercer doing Rick's Rant.  Can you see me now?  Walking down a back alley full of cool graffiti?  No?  Oh.

Anyway, thanks to those who read this.  And to those who comment.  Or criticize.  It's all part and parcel of my little online conversation and of developing my TRC brand.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

TRC Does Cucci

I don't make it outside of the heart of Toronto too often.  It takes special people to get me to come visit them in the burbs.  So, when my special friends suggested we do dinner at Cucci in Oakville I said, "done" (I am so seriously eloquent).

Now, for those of you who know Oakville, you know people in Oakville have money.  Lots of it.  A restaurant the likes of Cucci fits in very well.  I'm told when Cucci first opened it was panned for being too elitist (as in, "You want to make a reservation?  Who are you?  Oh, nobody?  Sorry, we're full.").  Thank GAWD they had their anal pickle extracted ... we got a reservation!

Situated at the edge of a residential neighbourhood, the restaurant's space is welcoming and upscale without being too pretentious.  It was bustling as we walked in and were greeted by the hostess, the manager and the singing pianist, crooning something decidedly un-Toronto.  The room was filled with terrible blonde dye jobs, zillions of over-sequined tops, and ill-fitting suits.  Do I sound bitchy yet?  I totally sound bitchy, don't I.  Whatevs.

The menu is very well designed and reads as their tagline states: modern Italian cuisine.  There are a number of selections without being overwhelming, the ingredients are all pronounceable without being too pedestrian, and the price points are within reason ... I was excited.

The first course arrives and we all stuck to the classic: Caesar salad.  It looked promising but sadly lacked flavour.  Garlic was barely discernible, the lettuce had started to wilt, and the crouton was so over-toasted it flew across the table as you tried to break into it.  *sigh* ... maybe the wild mushrooms on toast would be better?  Nope.  In concept it was right.  In execution, it tasted just of cream and I sorely missed proper seasoning and the promise of truffle.  On the plus side the black trumpet mushrooms were a nice touch (underutilized) and well cooked.  NB: forgive the pics ... I stupidly forgot my camera and so these are courtesy of my brother's Blackberry.
Cucci Caesar 
Wild Mushrooms on Toast
As our mains arrived, I again got my hopes up.  The plates looked great.  In writing, the dishes sounded delightful.  In real life?  So-so.  The lobster in my spaghetti, although an ample serving of it, was overcooked and the dish was once again light on seasoning and missed the brightness of the lemon.  The scallop risotto was more like al dente rice than creamy risotto.  While the scallops were cooked perfectly, something in the dish had not been washed properly so had a gritty bite (it could also have from the crab if not shelled carefully).  The salmon was more positive and had a lovely mild flavour and cooked to perfection without drying it out.  The rabbit tagliatelle was possibly the winner of all the dishes and while enjoyable and the rabbit nicely braised, lacked somewhat in depth of flavour (despite the olives - which were a nice touch).  The beef was the only dish I did not try ... I'm not sure why, since it was offered to me.  My friend did finish the entire dish and it looked like it was cooked well.  Plus, they get points for the Amarone jus.
Spaghetti with Lobster
Steak with Amarone Jus
Diver Scallops with King Crab and Pea Risotto
Salmon with Mussels
The service was pleasant and attentive, though in my opinion we waited a bit too long to order and also for the bill (Who just keeps coming around giving you more water when the table is clearly done?  Bring. The. Bill.).  For 6 people with 2 bottles of wine and no dessert our bill came to a modest $400 (excluding tip).  Totally reasonable.

So here's my verdict.  If you are looking for somewhere to go in Oakville, don't write this place off.  If on the other hand location is not an issue, there are many other places I'd recommend over Cucci.  My gut tells me the restaurant has a talented chef, but that their line cooks are somewhat green and failing to perfectly execute on their chef's vision.  Maybe we hit it on a bit of an off night.  But with over 10,000 restaurants in the GTA to choose from, can anyone afford to have off nights?

Grandma Marg's Cheese Cookies

My Grandma Marg didn't love to cook.  But, she loved to entertain and so cooked out of necessity (well, that and having to feed 4 kids and a husband).  Like or not like, she was very good at it.  As she got on in age, she cooked less and less.  I recall staying with her when she'd had a knee replacement and I swear all she wanted to eat was gummies, candied ginger, and peanut butter.  Aaaaaaaaaanyway.  There was one recipe Grandma Marg made that will forever be tied to her memory: cheese cookies.  I was about 8 or 9 when she visited us from Toronto and I tried them for the first time.  I fell in love instantly.  Here's the recipe so you can fall in love, too.  If you don't fall in love then you just suck.  So, get ready for love.  Or suckdom.  But hopefully love.

Monday, December 13, 2010

2010 List of Foodie Gifts

Alright so maybe this post is really only going to serve the last-minute shoppers (forgive my tardiness), but Christmastime or not, people who love to cook love receiving cooking-related gifts.  I know.  I am a fucking genius.  Here are the ones I think are neat / worthwhile / dream-worthy.

Emile Henry makes all kinds of nice things and this one is no different.  The pizza stone is glazed so it promises to make removing easy.  I like the handles, plus the nifty colours it comes in.  Us Canadians can get it on Amazon for about $57.

These little oil spritzers from Sur La Table are super-cute and ... useful!  Sometimes you don't need a pile of oil; just a spritz will do!  Use them to make a pan non-stick, to add flavour to salads, to ready a baguette for toasting, or to give yourself that greasy body-builder look.  $12.95US.

The Vitamix blender has been touted by chefs like Thomas Keller as "THE" blender to have.  So if TK thinks it's aiight, I think so too.  It comes with a hefty $580CDN price tag and so falls under the "dream-worthy" category.  I remain a dreamer.

I admit these aren't really for cooking, but every decent cook enjoys a wobbly pop or 5 from time-to-time.  I have a friend who once searched for "suitable ice" for his scotch ... I think this is a great (re-usable) alternative.  Buy 'em from ThinkGeek for just $20US.

For the foodie who really has everything and for the gifter with a conscious, try doing good this season with the Heifer Hope Basket.  For just $50US, you can provide chickens and rabbits to a farmer in need.  Heifer International aims to end world hunger so don't be a Scrooge and help 'em out.

For the home cook who loves to make all things Italian (like me), pick up the super-affordable gnocchi board.  It makes rolling the grooves into gnocchi über-easy.  Plus, it's fun to do!  And who doesn't like fun?!  And exclamation points!  Get it for just $5 at The Inspired Cook.

Alright so most foodies already know a thing or two about cooking, but everyone can still use a bit of learning for their brain!  Why not try gifting a cooking class?  In Toronto there are many options - I'm sure in your city there are, too.  Usually from $75-$150/class.

Sous vide cooking remains, for the most part, something only restaurants can pull off with success.  Wellllll, not anymore, bitches.  Enter the SousVide Supreme.  For the low, low price of $299.95US, you too can make super-succulent meats and tasty water-cooked treats at home!  p.s. - I once tried to jimmy rig a sous vide device.  Not so good.  Buy the real meal deal.

Another nifty gift is an egg topper.  Did you ever see that episode of Top Chef where Anita Lo did soft scrambled eggs with shitakes and then presented them in the shell?  That was some kick-ass presentation, in my opinion.  This one is $54.95US from Sur La Table, but there are other, cheaper options out there.  I just figure if you're going to get a new gadget, get the one the pros would want.

Well, there you have it boys and girls.  Select gift ideas for the foodie in your family (or, the foodie in you).  Happy shopping!  And cooking!  And entertaining!  And eating!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Braised Chicken Thighs in Rosemary Jus

It never ceases to amaze me how simple ingredients can make for such a beautifully flavourful dish.  I served this with mushy peas & asparagus (peas, asparagus, chicken stock, cream & parmesan ... cook, season and mash coarsely), plus a rice pilaf (slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, parsley and basmati rice).  The jus for the chicken is super flavourful and is also nice poured over the rice.  Give it a whirl.  I promise you'll love it.  Otherwise, maybe don't read my blog anymore.

Okay I take that back.  Keep reading me.  For ever and ever and ever.  And ever.

Oeufs en Cocotte (or, eggs in ramekin)

When I was in Paris recently I enjoyed "oeufs en meurette"; basically a poached egg in red wine and mushroom sauce.  Dee-effing-licious.  So, it got me inspired to make some other fun eggy dish, except this time for brekkie vs. a dinner appetizer.  The brilliant thing about this dish is it is infinitely bespoke.  And, it takes so very little time.  All you need is a ramekin, an egg and a bit of an imagination (well, and hopefully some good stuff in your fridge).  This one was with leftover potato gratin, cauliflower, sambal oelek and Beemster XO.  I do love me a warm, comforting and savoury dish for breakfast but scrambled, poached, fried and fritatta can sometimes bore me.  Enter oeufs en cocotte!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spaghetti with King Crab, Jalapeño and Lemon

This one was inspired by another recipe but I opted to change a few things (namely preserved lemon for lemon zest and juice, and chili flakes for jalapeño).  I had King crab legs in the freezer so cooked those and removed the meat by hand ... if you can get good lump crab meat already de-shelled, I highly recommend it.  Otherwise, plan on your hands being shredded some.  But, well worth it.  Oh, and I ate it with Parmesan on top.  People who think you can't have cheese with seafood are the same people who don't think you can wear white after labour day or that your purse must match your shoes or that your carpet has to match the drapes.  Um, OK maybe that was a little off-side.  Never mind.  Get cooking!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cheese Risotto with Mushroom Ragu

Who doesn't love a little cheesy risotto?  Top it with boozy mushrooms and sausage and helllloooooo!  You've got dinner success!  The cheese in this dish is pretty spendy, but I swear it's worth it.  I could survive on mimolette.  Well, that and meat.  Oh, and I guess some water.  But if we're adding to the list I'd also like some wine, Smirnoff Ice (yes, I like that stuff ... so Ice me, bros), all my tunes,  Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Jimmy Fallon.  What?  A girl can dream.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mafalda Corta with Sausage in Saffron Cream Sauce

First off, don't get confused by the name.  Mafalda Corta is just the shape of the pasta ... this dish will work equally well with a penne or gemelli - anything with some ridges to catch the sauce.  I used the Garofalo brand of pasta, but Barilla or another quality brand will do.  Second, this really takes no time at all, so go ahead and make it any night of the week!  And third: the saffron really makes a difference, so don't think you can skip it and get the same outcome.  Get the threads, not the powder.  It's not cheap - a small container will be around $9, but it will last quite a long time (I keep mine in the freezer).  You can sometimes find it at a supermarket, but Bulk Barn or a specialty store will carry it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

TRC does Scarpetta

As with every new restaurant opening in Toronto that has any kind of name behind it, there was much ballyhoo in the food world over Scarpetta's arrival.  All the major papers buzzed about it, bloggers tweeted about it and the chef behind it, Scott Conant, wrote Toronto a letter about it.  Well, it wasn't just about Scarpetta.  It was also about how Mr. Conant is kinda douchey.

Chef Scott Conant
"I don't know if you're into etymology or anything like that" ummm, no I'm not really into geeking out on etymology but I swear if I gave a shit enough to figure out what a word's history was I'd check it out on this thing called Google.  "Miami is really beautiful, T-Dot. You should check it out sometime." right, because after trips to Walmart and some huntin' in the back 90 I'm plum too worn out to get off my ass and see the world, let a lone South Beach.  "Anyway, then some other people came to me and asked me if I would ever entertain the idea of opening one of my restaurants in Toronto -- that's you." Ohhhhhh, THANKS.  I wasn't sure if you meant Toronto.  Since the letter was addressed to Toronto.  Or T-Dot as you've cleverly learned we looove to call it.

Anyway, enough about the letter.  It's really about the food.  Here goes.  Preface: I have been to Scarpetta in Miami, and despite being about 17 sheets to the wind, I do happen to recall the meal was delicious.  So I was looking forward to the same food delights on home ground.  I was mostly appeased.  

On a Wednesday night in August, 10 of us arrived at Scarpetta for our bi-monthly TRC dinner.  Service was slow from the get-go.  Menus were not delivered straight away (i.e. 10 or more minutes in), drink orders took a long time to be taken and then served, and our waiter had the personality of an inch worm.  We placed two orders of Fritto Misto ($17) as a precursor to appetizers, but despite being ordered well before the first courses, all of the first courses arrived together.

When everything did arrive, it was for the most part a success.  The cauliflower puree was well liked, though texturally was a bit thin.  The creamy polenta with mushrooms was incredibly flavourful; one diner felt it got a bit soupy but I personally didn't mind that part - the saucier the better.  And, as another diner proclaimed, the dish was real comfort food.  The braised short ribs with vegetable and farro risotto ($14) was a good combination of textures and flavours, though I would have liked the ribs cooked longer as they were a bit on the chewy side.  The diver scallop ($17) was fresh and nicely cooked but nothing overly special.  Oh, and the fritto misto?  Well, it WAS delicious ... though finding the seafood was like finding a needle in a haystack.  A haystack of delicious crispy-fried vegetables.
Cauliflower puree with oysters
Creamy polenta with truffled mushroom fricasee
Braised beef short ribs with veg & farro risotto
Our mains brought an overarching theme: salt.  Now, let me say first that I love salt.  I love how it can transform foods, I love how it contributes to the umami of a dish, I love how it tastes on my tongue.  But, there is such a thing as over-salting.  And regrettably, many of our dishes suffered from this.  The spiced duck breast ($34) was cooked rare, with a beautifully crisped skin.  It was a perfect portion size.  But - the organic radish flavour was indiscernible for salt.  I had the agnolotti with mixed meat (chicken, beef and pork I'm told) with fonduta ($22), which was a modest portion but bursting with flavour.  My one criticism was the flavours of this dish were quite close to my first dish - the polenta with mushroom.  The duck foie gras ravioli ($23) was incredibly rich, and the marsala reduction slightly tart.  All that could be said of the black tagliolini with lobster ($29) was that it was over-salted.  The ocean trout ($27) had a great depth of flavours but again - salty.  One of the stars of the evening's mains was the moist-roasted capretto - or milk-fed baby goat - ($29) which was wonderfully tender, well balanced, and perfectly rich yet not cloyingly so.  The pitfall of the goat?  The sauce was again over-salted.  The pheasant tortellini ($23) which is served in a brodo, or broth, was a nice light dish with fresh flavours.  A-OK on the salt front with that dish.
Black Tagliolini with Nova Scotia lobster
Duck foie gras ravioli
Agnolotti dal plin (FYI, plin means "pinch")
Finally, the desserts.  The goat cheese cheesecake with pistachio brittle was a wonderful balance of just enough savoury with sweet.  One could have eaten a plate of that brittle it was so delicious.  The coconut panna cotta was very light and flavoured with just enough coconut.  Finally, the chocolate cake.  It was disgustingly rich, warm and gooey - just the way you'd expect it to be.  It's flaw was the gelato accompaniment; it sounded good but its flavour was too weak to pair with the chocolate.
Goat cheese cheesecake
Chocolate Cake
Overall, the experience wasn't as stellar as I would have expected.  The service was slow and not attentive enough (we were in the back room, removed from the main diners but that shouldn't matter), and the food was over-salted.  That said, there were many other dishes on the menu I'd love to try.  And, the ones that were executed properly were absolutely divine.  So, would I go back?  Yes.  Let's just hope with a bit more time they get things sorted out.

Scarpetta is located at the Thompson Hotel on Wellington at Bathurst.  Average price per person is about $120.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Babbo Bolognese with Pappardelle

A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of eating at Babbo in New York.  The meal was divine, the atmosphere was lively (who blares Guns 'n Roses in a place like this?  Apparently Mario Batali), and I've been dreaming of my pasta dish ever since.  Fast forward to my recent Chapters visit.  I sit down to peruse the Babbo cookbook, and happen upon the goat cheese ravioli with fennel and orange - the dish I ate at the restaurant!  I had to buy the book.  OK so the first dish I made wasn't that amazing ravioli - it was this bolognese with pappardelle.  It was just going to be simpler than the ravioli.  While I've made better bolognese sauces (check out the one in Stir), this is still very tasty and perfectly soul-warming.  Plus, you'll love the satisfaction you get from freshly-made pasta.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer Corn with Bacon, Miso Butter and Caramelized Onions

This is one from the Momofuku cookbook.  I've been to Momofuku Noodle Bar, but have yet to visit Momofuku Ssäm, Ko, Milk Bar or Má Pêche (so many New York restaurants, so few New York visits!).  David Chang certainly has created an empire for himself; I'm just happy I can replicate some of his dishes at home.  As for this particular recipe, well, I love corn.  And bacon.  And butter.  And miso?  Why not.  Rest assured, it is DELICIOUS.  NB: it's best eaten straight away; all the nice crunch is gone on day 2.

Ingredients (serves 4-6 as a side dish):

  • Corn kernels, cut off 6 fresh cobs
  • 6 slices bacon, cut into small lardons
  • 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 scallions, sliced (white and green parts)
  • 1-1/2 tbsp white miso paste
  • 1-1/2 tbsp unsalted butter at room temp
  • kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
  • grapeseed or vegetable oil
  1. In a small bowl, mix the miso paste and butter together until well incorporated.
  2. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat.  Add about 1 tbsp grapeseed oil and the onions.  Let the onions cook on high heat for about 2-3 minutes, turning once.  They should be deeply browned, but not burnt.  Turn the heat down to medium low and let cook for about 30-40 minutes (it should be 40 minutes, but I sometimes get impatient and short-change the cooking time).  Season with a pinch of salt.  Set aside.
  3. In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until just crisped.  Set bacon aside, but keep the bacon fat in the pan.
  4. In the same pan with the bacon fat, add the corn.  Cook on medium high heat, tossing so the corn doesn't stick.  Add more oil if you need.  After the corn starts to brown, turn down to medium.  Add the bacon, caramelized onion and miso butter.  Continue cooking until the corn still has bite but is cooked through.  Season with a good 6 or so turns of black pepper, a pinch of salt (taste it first - the miso and bacon are salty so you might not need it).  Top with the scallion and serve!  This dish would go well with burgers or pork chops or a nice steak.  Hell, it'll go well with anything you want.

Turkey Burgers with Dill Havarti on Rosemary Focaccia

Turkey burgers aren't the easiest thing to do, since turkey has very little fat content and so the burgers tend to dry out easily.  Buuuut ... they can be done.  And in this case, it turned out to be a perfect summer afternoon lunch.  Pair it with a margarita (as we did) and you really can't go wrong!

Ingredients (makes 4 or so burgers):
  • 1lb ground turkey
  • rosemary focaccia (you could substitute for plain foccacia or sourdough)
  • 1 smallish white onion, grated or finely minced
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1-1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1tsp fresh thyme leaves
  • dill havarti
  • tomato slices, lettuce & mayo to dress
  • kosher or sea salt & pepper
  1. Preheat BBQ on medium-high.  In a bowl, mix the turkey, onion, egg, breadcrumbs, Worcestershire and thyme until just mixed (you don't want to over-work meat or it will toughen).  Season with a good amount of salt and pepper.  Make into patties, shaping them more oblong to fit the foccacia bread.
  2. Lightly oil the BBQ - the turkey burgers will stick otherwise.  Cook, flipping once, until cooked through - about 5 minutes per side.  If you have an instant-read thermometer, they should be 165F - or just feel them, they should be firm with a bit of give but not squishy (like how the raw meat feels).  If your BBQ is hot, turn down so as not to burn the meat.  Just before they're done, top with slices of the havarti.
  3. Meanwhile, slice the focaccia and lightly oil each side.  Place on the BBQ at low heat to toast them lightly.  When done, assemble the burger, top with tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise, and enjoy!  Oh, and don't forget to mix that margarita for yourself ;)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Steak with Gorgonzola, Mixed Grilled Veg, and King Crab (or, fancy dinner that's really easy)

Okay so this one SOUNDS fancy ... and it is.  But it's dead-simple to make.  Promise.  All you need is a BBQ, ingredients from your local grocer, and about 30 minutes total time (from prep to plate!).  Serve this on a warm summer evening, dine al fresco with some friends, a delicious barolo or zinfandel, and revel in just how wonderful life can be - especially with a delicious meal.

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • 4 steaks - whichever cut you prefer (I opted for a sirloin)
  • 2lbs of frozen Alaskan king crab legs (they occasionally go on sale, so just buy 'em than and keep them frozen until you want to make this meal!)
  • 1 small piece of gorgonzola cheese (Boursin would make a good alternative)
  • 1 small yellow zucchini
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 small spanish onion
  • 1 bunch garlic scapes (these are a lovely treat - they only come out once a season but have a nice mild garlic flavour ... try 'em!)
  • about 15 or so crimini mushrooms
  • balsamic glaze (if you can't find a glaze, which is just thicker than regular balsamic, use the regular stuff)
  • olive oil
  • sea salt & pepper
  • 3 tbsp salted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
Preheat your BBQ on medium-high (if you have a thermometer, then to about 400 degrees).

  1. Cut the vegetables up into bite-sized pieces, keeping them at equal size so they cook at the same time.
  2. Toss in a bowl with a good drizzle of olive oil, a good squeeze of balsamic glaze (or around 1tbsp regular balsamic vinegar), and a healthy pinch of salt.  These will take longest to cook, so throw them on the BBQ in a vegetable basket (the one with holes in it), stirring them occasionally.  They should take about 15 minutes to cook, or until your desired doneness.
  1. First, prep the garlic butter.  All you need to do is mince the garlic (I used a grater) into a small bowl and place the butter in with it.  Microwave for about 45 seconds or until the butter is melted.  Keep warm.
  2. The crab legs can be done one of two ways: steamed in tin foil on the BBQ, or steamed in a pot with about 2" of water - just depends how much space you have on your BBQ.  If doing the BBQ method, wrap them in foil and follow the directions on the package for doneness.  They won't take a very long time - about 7 minutes or so (from frozen).  You can test them by feeling the meat of one of the ends of a leg - it will be opaque and firm but not dry / hard.
  1. Season the steak generously with salt and pepper.  When the vegetables are about 8 minutes from being done, put your steaks on the grill (the veg can always sit with some foil over them if your steaks are thick and need more cooking time).  Note: don't man-handle your steaks.  Leave them alone.  Flip them once only (if you want the cross-hatch grill marks, check out this video), and feel them (you can use the finger test) to tell you how done they are instead of cutting into them and releasing all those awesome juices.
  2. The steaks should take about 4 minutes per side, or until your desired doneness.  In the last minute or so, put a dollop of gorgonzola on each steak to let it start to melt.  Let the steaks rest for a couple minutes before serving.
So all-told, it goes like this: prep the veg and get them on first, then steam the crab about half way through the veg cooking time, then put the steaks on about 8 minutes before the veg are ready to come off.  Plate it and serve with the garlic butter, and lotsa napkins!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Breakfast Pizza

Breakfast pizza is an incredibly simple dish made of all the traditional breakfast ingredients ... only as a pizza.  I know.  Genius.  Since I usually make it at the cottage, I don't go to the trouble of making the dough (though pizza dough is quite easy - see one of my earlier pizza recipe posts).  What you put on it is totally up to you.  I happen to have a love affair with bacon and with cheese, so those are two prerequisites for my b-fast pizza.  But, if you prefer to go veg, with smoked salmon, with back bacon or hell - even macerated fruit with mascarpone and maple syrup - go for it!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

TRC goes to L.A.B.

It was early May and I had yet to select the next location for The Restaurant Club's bi-monthly dinner gathering. I scoured my list (yes, I keep a list of places I'd like to go), checked out what restaurants in the city were new, and after a quick read of both The National Post and Martini Boys' reviews, decided on L.A.B. on College.

I called to make a reservation for 10 people, to which the gentleman on the other end of the line replies, "we're small so we likely won't be able to get everyone's food out at the same time. If you wanted instead you could go for a prix fixe" ... "OK", I say, "let's make it for 8 people since I don't want to do prix fixe. I'll call if our numbers change"

Fast forward to June 3rd. We had 8 members attending, including me. As the first TRC member arrived, we found they didn't have record of the reservation. Uh, really? Thankfully the place wasn't very busy and they were able to move on table and accommodate us. Phew! A quick scan of the room shows some nice design touches and a very approachable, modern-mixed-with-old space. Now we were ready to dive into our evening.

The menu is short and to the point. It's playful in its incorporation of molecular gastronomy techniques, and is pegged as a vegetarian-friendly place (though meat-eaters needn't worry; according to National Post's math, L.A.B. is 40% meat). We each place our orders for both food and drink. Despite there only being a couple other tables, the service was slow and sometimes forgetful.

Our appetizers arrive; pogo chicken wings (fun presentation but the gelled hot sauce lacks heat while the blue cheese sauce lacks flavour), Cameron's Cream Ale vegetable consommé (great table-side presentation), not green salad ("blah ... just salady" by one diner, and bison tartar (simple flavour and delicious with its mustard seeds). Overall, a good start.

Pogo Chicken Wings

Bison tartar & carpaccio

After a short period, our mains arrive: lamb sous vide with cigar-smoked gnocchi (lamb was nicely cooked - great flavour; gnocchi were a tad dry and the cigar-smoking flavor was lost to me), steak and cake (the steak, also sous vide, though looked dry tasted great; the "cakes" were hit-and-miss), sweet potato perogies (pretty straightforward sweet potato flavour; nothing overly special here), "no-rhyme risotto" - a carrot risotto with cabernet sauvignon powder and silver leaf (a tad bitter; interesting presentation but the silver leaf lacked relevance) and korean gnocchi (pretty looking plate, but texturally I found the rice cake noodles a bit off-putting and overall the dish a bit bland).

"No-Rhyme Risotto"
Lamb Sous Vide with Cigar-Smoked Gnocchi
Steak and Cake
Korean Gnocchi with Arrabiatta Sauce, Thai Basil and Ricotta
The mains were all good but in my opinion, none executed to perfection. Next: onto dessert. We ordered the cheese plate (I mean really - is it possible to serve cheese poorly?), Mayan chocolate brownie (spicy and complex with beautiful flavours) and chocolate pot de creme (incredibly delightful and intense chocolate flavour with good mix of textures). We also tried the house-made chamomile grappa which really was a treat.

As we were wrapping up, the service seemed to wane even more. Throughout service the drinks were not readily replenished (or inquired on). We sat too long with our finished plates. The checks were a gong show (I'm sure in part due to the system they've got). The upside to the service, making it bearable, was that our server had charm and a certain amount of showmanship.

Overall I found the space to be great, the prices to be very reasonable, the service to be lacking, and the food to be decent but not amazing. I wouldn't rush back, but I also wouldn't discourage others from giving it a try. They are still new and so may require a little more time to iron the kinks.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Here's how this one went down: I have a friend who recently became the brand manager at KFC.  He was recounting to me how he'd recently worked in the restaurant, and was impressed by how the chicken is brought in fresh from Maple Lodge Farms.  I do love me the Dirty Bird (KFC), but thought "ooohhhhh, I need to make some fried chicken"  And so I did.  It's really quite easy to do; you just need to have a good candy thermometer to keep an eye on the heat of the oil so you don't burn the exterior - and of course so you don't end up with fried chicken sashimi.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sautéed Pork Chop with Mushrooms & Capers

Pork is such a nice, inexpensive meat that really packs a whole lot of flavour.  The key to pork is really just not to overcook it.  Otherwise, it gets tough and dry.  And, pork can actually be eaten a bit on the medium rare side; it doesn't have to be totally white throughout like chicken does.  This one is a bit of a recipe mash-up; I have this great recipe with capers and mushrooms, plus I was watching a show on the Food Network and got inspired to go a bit French.  I knew I couldn't go wrong with the ingredients.  And that's the idea: pick what you love to eat, and inevitably you'll be happy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Braving the Burbs: Blacktree

Well I can now add two firsts to my list: making wine, and having a great meal at a restaurant in Burlington.

It all started like this: I have friends who are true wine-lovers, and in fact have a wine importing business. They invited me to make wine with them (read: pick varietal, pay money, go back 8 weeks later and retrieve “home-made” wine) at a place near their house in Oakville. Seeing as how they know what they’re talking about when it comes to wine, I happily conceded, presuming the outcome would be nothing like the plonk I imagined home-made wine to be. As we were booking our wine pick-up date, my friend suggested we make an event of it and go out for dinner afterwards. I rarely say no to a dinner date. And so we were booked.

Jump ahead 8 weeks, and there we were, driving to Blacktree restaurant in Burlington. I hadn’t heard of it before and so Googled the National Post review. It was a moderate review; certainly not the glowing report I was hoping for. Hmmm. Would this just be an over-priced disaster?

After driving along, wondering which of the crappy cookie-cutter strip malls the restaurant was in, we arrive. We walk towards what I think can only be the back / dumpster area. “Where the hell are we going?” And then there it is: Blacktree. A simple, clean, modern and engaging exterior, leading to a romantic, cozy and welcoming interior. Check: we won’t be eating off paper plates.

Alright so we’re here. I like the place. It’s not slammed-busy, but it’s got some good energy. Let’s get to the FOOD already! OK, here goes.

After placing our orders, our server arrives with fresh-baked, perfectly salted and crispy/soft bread. With … wait for it … foie gras butter! OMG. I love you already, Blacktree. Then, out comes an amuse bouche, a tidy little white bean ravioli with gogi berry. What an intense burst of flavour from just one bite!  And a 2006 Amarone arrives, at the request of my wine-knowledged friend.  Ohhhhhh, it was good.  Dear Amarone: I love you.  Love, Alyssa.

Smoked Cod
Our appetizers then arrive: first, a smoked Alaskan black cod with pork jam (yes, pork jam), roasted red pepper sauce and bacon-wrapped tempura asparagus.  It was sublime. The smoke flavour led, and I really enjoyed how it provided an experience to both the smell and the taste. Plus, the bacon/asparagus tempura rocked.  I really, really loved this dish. Can I use “really” once more? Really. OK, so the second app was the lamb carpaccio with quail egg and goat cheese. The lamb had a subtle flavour, and the quail egg was cooked perfectly. It was not my personal choice so if the diner (you know who you are) cares to elaborate, please do.

Then, through conversation I discovered at least two of my fellow diners had not had foie gras. What?! They must! They must fall in love the way I did! And so, we order one for the table. It arrives, all pan-seared and buttery goodness. It’s topped with a meringue and served with sponge toffee and tamarillo. Blow. My. Mind. And then, out came the honey truffle bomb, which really was a culinary exercise in food science. The flavours were subtle (too subtle in my mind), but the presentation and subsequent mouth-feel was entertaining.

Gnocchi with Pork Belly
Finally, our mains arrive. Me with a gnocchi with pork belly and pork tenderloin, others with tuna and scallop as well as ostrich tenderloin. Though my gnocchi dish was promoted as my Italian dumpling favourite, it was really more of a meat dish with gnocchi as the pairing. The pork belly was so tender and salty and flavourful. The sauce was rich and tomatoey (I just made up a word, BTW). The tuna was a beautiful dish; light, cooked properly, and seasoned well. The ostrich was a bit heavier, and not as gamey as one might imagine. All in all, we were happy campers.

Honey Truffle Verjus Bomb
To top off the night, we enjoyed grappa, and a tableside demonstration of how the bombs are made (a mixture of truffle honey verjus with xanthan and glucose, then dipped in aglin water to make a skin/capsule around the verjus that makes the little flavour bubble).  Extra points for that little number ... I ate it up.

So was I surprised? Yes. Was I impressed? Mostly. Would I go back? Sure … if you offer to drive.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Caramelized Scallops

This one is so ridiculously easy, and the taste is just sublime. It just goes to show that with quality ingredients, you really needn't do much save proper cooking and seasoning.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a 1st course):

  • 6 large sea scallops - ensure they're VERY fresh!
  • 2 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)
  • kosher salt and fleur de sel
  • freshly sqeezed lemon (optional)
  • thyme or other herb to garnish (also optional)
  1. Wash the scallops and pat them dry. These need to be DRY before you set them in the pan, or they won't caramelize properly. Season with kosher salt on both sides.
  2. Heat a skillet (NOT the non-stick kind; it will give you better colour) over medium-high heat. Add the ghee and let melt and heat up to smoking.
  3. Add the scallops to the pan and let sear on each side until nice and rich, golden brown; about 3-3.5 minutes per side.
  4. Transfer to a plate, squeeze fresh lemon juice over (optional) and garnish with a scant sprinkling of fleur de sel.  Serve immediately!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Origin: The Start of Something Great

I had been following Claudio Aprile's blog about his new restaurant, Origin, since the summer of 2009.  Then, in late March of 2010, there is was - the tweet that made me swoon: "@coreymintz Origin is open and taking reservations. 416 603 8009 But no liquor license yet."  What?!  It's open?!  Finally?!  Yesssss!!!  I couldn't wait to pick up the phone.  And, as luck would have it, I had not yet booked a TRC dinner for March.  We were on.

Fast forward to March 30th, and there we were; at a head count of five, we were the smallest TRC gathering yet.  It was perfect.  After quickly getting acquainted and then scanning the menu we all agreed: let's ask our server to bring us whatever he thought we should try.  Carte blanche.  What followed was an onslaught of dishes, and I was in heaven.

All-told, we consumed a total of 15 different dishes.  The menu (as it stood the day we visited) carried 37 dishes, so there are many still left to choose from.  From the list, we tried:
  • Potatas Bravas
  • Deviled Eggs + gremolata + smoked bacon (photo below - the only one stolen from the restaurant blog)
  • Shrimp Seviche + lime + tomato + freeze dried corn + coconut
  • Tuna Salad + Asian pear + avocado + puffed rice + spicy ponzu dressing
  • Mussels with vermicelli in spicy tomato broth (wasn't on the menu so that's my made-up name)
  • Bufala mozzarella + pear + rosemary oil + pine nuts + honey
  • Bufala mozzarella + confit tomato + basil + preserved lemon
  • Bangkok beef salad + peanut + mint + mango + fried onion + nam jim dressing
  • Chorizo + manchego rice + poached egg + salsa verde + dried black olive
  • Miso glazed black cod + mushroom broth + jerusalem artichoke puree + crispy soba
  • Caramelized brioche + walnut praline + honey yogurt sorbet
  • Spiced chocolate pudding + formage frais + frozen aerated milk chocolate
  • Manchego cheese cake + saffron sorbet + marinated berries
  • Hot chocolate cake + candied citrus + soft serve
  • Dulce de leche + espresso ice + caramel crunch + sea salt
Okay, so in an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, here are a few highlights:

The potatas bravas is potatoes with some chorizo and olive and bit of kick.  As one guest described, it was 'comfort food', and the heat was just perfect.  Success on this dish.  The deviled eggs had such a delightfully creamy yolk.  Plus, I do love bacon.  So you can't really go wrong there.  Onto the seviche: the seasoning was great and the shrimp were lovely, but i could have gone without the freeze-dried corn, and I really didn't taste the coconut.  The tuna salad was a good balance, but nothing quite popped off the plate in terms of flavour, so I'd given this one an "OK" rating.  Similarly, the mussels (which I will admit I NEVER order, so take this with a grain of salt) had nice flavour and the broth was quite good, but the vermicelli was difficult to eat and added little to texture or flavour.

Moving onto the two cheese dishes (bufala mozzarella), they both were a real treat.  My fave was the one with pear and honey; the star of that show was definitely the rosemary oil.  It was such a great aroma to complement the other flavours.  The bangkok beef salad and the miso cod were both resounding hits.  We were divided on which won "best dish", so you'll just have to try them both (NB: cod won in my books).

I rarely finish my meal with a sweet dessert, but as we neared the end, out came five of them.  Wow.  This one was difficult to judge, as each seemed to be in perfect balance.  I love the combo of sweet and salty, so the dulce de leche with sea salt was spot on.  In the cheesecake, you could definitely taste the manchego (which I love), but the saffron sorbet was a bit lost.  The spiced chocolate pudding was SO GOOD.  And the possible dessert winner?  The hot chocolate cake.  To quote one of the diners, "I'm definitely going back for this one.  Dark chocolate and citrus are such a wonderful combination with the soft serve adding the necessary foil to the sweetness"  Couldn't have said it better myself.

As for the space, kudos to Stroudfoot for some incredible design pieces.  There are several different light fixtures, each strikingly beautiful.  The open kitchen is both visually appealing and experiential. Our only complaint was our table location.  We sat at the front of the restaurant by the bar (the Westerly room, if you visit), which felt segregated from the main dining area.  It also suffered from poor acoustics; it was a challenge to hear one another (which, if you were sitting in the lounge or at the bar, may not have been such an issue). Besides, that, the service was quite good, and the restaurant seemed to be experiencing few hiccups.

So, does it hold up to Colborne Lane, Aprile's other restaurant?  Well, no.  But it wasn't intended to.  Would I recommend it to you and go back again and again?  Yes, for sure.  I suspect the menu will continue to be tweaked (and hopefully edited somewhat?), but you'll surely find some new favourites and reason enough to want to repeat.

Oh, and special thanks to one of my closest friends and a very talented photographer, Shauna.  You can see more pics from the restaurant on Facebook, and visit her own website here.