Bar Raval: Tapas in Toronto finally grows up

9 Apr

Good Spanish food. Wood paneling. Surprisingly, these things are related – they make me very happy, and they both exist in spades at Bar Raval. Grant van Gameren’s newest establishment demonstrates that food inspired by the Iberian Peninsula is here to stay – he apparently spent the equivalent of a moderately equipped Ferrari on said wood paneling! I definitely couldn’t miss out on a stop at Bar Raval on my Easter weekend visit to the centre of the universe.

Bar Raval has garnered significant praise for both its food and its interior design, so expectations were high. It’s been a while since a Toronto restaurant has brought me to culinary coitus when the hype was so great, but Bar Raval did just that. When I walked through the doors I immediately realized two things. First, Bar Raval shares very little of the edginess of its eponymous neighbourhood in Barcelona, but it more than makes up for it with an interior design that truly propels the Toronto restaurant scene forward. Second, the kitchen has done what very few Toronto kitchens do – churn out exceptional versions of traditional pintxos and tapas (think croquetas or simple plates of slightly sweaty Manchego) while displaying playful innovation in other dishes (the dulce de leche spiked with piment d’Espelette, for example).

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Working furiously behind the pass is Grant van Gameren, one of Toronto’s foremost meat men and chef extraordinaire.

This ability to respect the tradition of tapas is incredibly important, and it means respecting not only the food but also the way it is served. Sadly, the Spanish-food craze has led far too many restauranteurs to slap the word “tapas” on dishes that are simply not so, and to charge a premium for the privilege of eating off of a microscopic plate. Many restaurant-going Torontonians have been taken in by this trickery, and falsely believe that they should be going to a tapas bar for dinner because tapas means “stuff yourself with more plates of food because they are smaller”. Bar Raval is likely the first “fashionable” establishment to buck this trend. There are no sprawling tables for ten. The layout encourages standing instead of slouching. A giddiness-inducing array of food is laid out on the main bar. Seafood and cured meats figure prominently. In short, Bar Raval is actually a tapas bar.

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No finer thing has likely been hewn out of the wood of a mahogany tree.

A sampling of the food confirmed that Bar Raval pays proper homage to the tapas bars that line the narrow streets of Barcelona and San Sebastian. I can state with much conviction that the croquetas are the best I have ever had. Anywhere. The anchovies dressed in olive oil had a complex flavour profile that went beyond the merely salty. The octopus pintxos were piled on delicious, dense bread and dressed with a fresh, bracing citrus concoction so bright that I was instantly transported to the warm streets of the Raval itself. These were all dishes that lived up to the true meaning of the words “tapas” and “pintxos”, not merely smaller portions of what would have been a dinnertime main course.

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The most perfect croqueta in the world, accompanied by a plate of olive-topped anchovy fillets simply dressed in floral, herbaceous olive oil.

The ambiance matched the food. The crowd cut across the entire spectrum of Toronto’s population, from families with babes in arms to hipsters sporting superfluous beards. There were no hushed tones or fussy waiters. Grant has crafted an environment that actually promotes snacking as opposed to dining, which goes to the essence of a true tapas bar. With time, I hope that Bar Raval loses some of its new-car shine, because that is the only thing that stands between it and perfection. With a few shrimp shells on the floor and the appropriate patina on the bar, the transformation from Teatro to Toronto’s first genuine tapas bar will be complete.

4.31 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

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Confession: I didn’t know what “Momofuku” was until recently

19 Jan

This resident foodie has a confession: I didn’t know what “Momofuku” was until recently. Late to the party? I know. I love food but I don’t worship “celebrity chefs.” Also, like Bourdain, I have an aversion to hipsters … and I’ve only ever heard the word uttered by people who experience life ironically. I didn’t know that David Chang had revolutionized food.

But, like everyone who has Netflix, I’ve been watching Mind of a Chef on a loop. I have all of the ingredients to make a proper dashi and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna bake with a bandana à la Cristina Tosi. It was only natural that I had to try a bowl of ramen as interpreted by the master. I grew up in Richmond Hill/ Markham. So, noodles in broth aren’t a foreign experience. It’s “fast food.” It’s cheap but delicious. I needed to know what was so special about these noodles so I studied and even consulted Ivan Orkin‘s book!

With a reservation for 5:45 on Saturday, we were seated promptly. It must not be pleasant to be a hostess here – they have to manage an unwieldy velvet curtain (to protect diners from the cold) as they seat guests and process payments for Milk Bar products in a tiny space. The seating is communal for the most part, along with some stools and smaller tables. It seems they still haven’t really resolved the issue regarding winter coats as most guests just sat on their coats and scarves while scarfing their delicious hot noodles.

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The menu is carefully curated and we noticed immediately the range of local farmers and food producers who provide the resto with ingredients. There’s nothing like a chef who sources local food rather than parachute in products created by his friends. Thomas Lavers (Kensington Market) supplies their ginger beer!

We ordered the Kimchi and Pork Buns to start. The kimchi was packed tightly in a mason jar. It’s too much for two people … or so you think … I can’t get over the freshness and balance of flavours. The pork belly melted in your mouth and the cucumber and hoisin sauce reminded me of special dinners as a kid when we got peking duck.

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Momofuku Ramen

The Momofuku ramen is heaven. The broth is so well rounded and savoury. The noodles have snap (they are “toothsome”). The pork, similar to the pork belly in the pork buns but somehow richer, offers comfort and warmth. The Clam Noodle was served with less broth … more of a gravy. It had a healthy kick and the clams added the depth of the sea.

The service was abrupt but perfunctory. I don’t need my server to be my friend … though it wouldn’t kill some of the serving staff (the men in particular) to pretend like they enjoy working there. I was annoyed that this still seemed like a place “to be seen” — there was a table of three obnoxious hipsters drinking a tall can each and sharing a small soft serve. They split their bill three ways. WHY ARE YOU AT A NOODLE BAR?!?

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A visit is not complete without a visit to Milk Bar on the second floor. You can get everything you’ve ever read about: the corn cookie, mixes for all of their different cakes, and merch (because we all need another tote bag). Our haul: Compost Cookie, Corn Cookie (2), Blueberry & Cream, Maple, Pecan & Coconut, Cornflake Marshmallow, Birthday Truffles. The Corn cookies taste like corn. It’s a wild experience. The Birthday Truffles smell like happiness. These cookies each have unique textural qualities, are on the chewy (under-baked) side, and are incredibly rich so you should plan to share with only your favourite people.

I refuse to be a Momofuku “fan” – Chang doesn’t need another “cult follower.” But, I don’t get the hate-on some bloggers have for the guy. I love that he’s elevated the food I grew up on. I strongly believe that he gets good noodles and has crafted each element of this experience with love and care. This is the closest thing to a genuine bowl of ramen without getting yourself a ticket to Tokyo.

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

National Homemade Bread Day (November 17th)

14 Nov

Readers, you know #thesmugcouple LOVES homemade bread. We’ve done chewy bagels, crusty hearth loafs, sourdoughs, and savoury prosciutto rings. Your day is always better with fresh homemade bread.

November 17th is National Homemade Bread Day and Enoteca Sociale (1288 Dundas St. W) wants our readers to try their hand at homemade bread with their very special 5-ingredient focaccia recipe by Head Chef Kris Schlotzhauer. We can’t think of anything better to do on a crisp Saturday afternoon.

The end result!

The end result!

 

Enoteca Sociale’s Famed 5-recipe Focaccia  

Ingredients

640g all purpose flour
25g salt
6g yeast
450g water
50g olive oil
1 sprig of rosemary

Instructions

Mix dry ingredients together, then slowly add wet ingredients until fully incorporated.

Knead the dough for 5 minutes and then rest for 30 minutes.

Knead the dough for 1 minute and then rest again for 30 minutes.

Place the dough into an oil pan then cover with a damp towel and allow to rise for 1 hour.

Bake at 425F for 30 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 205F. Cool on rack.

The result: Great crispy crust and tender interior. I’m surprised how simple the recipe was to execute.

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Notes:

  • This is a simple recipe no overnight biga(starter) needed!
  • Based on our past experience, we would suggest incorporating the flour and yeast together BEFORE adding salt. Mixing salt with yeast prematurely (because the former kills the latter) might mean that your focaccia won’t proof (rise) properly.
  • This should also be quite a wet dough. Don’t over-knead the bread because this can inhibit gluten development. Eschew your stand mixer and just gently fold your dough on itself with a silicone spatula.
  • Dock (pierce the dough with a fork) the bread right before you put it in the oven.
  • I topped my focaccia with some sea-salt and more fresh rosemary.
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The first proof.

 

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Ready to be baked!

For bread enthusiasts who just want to indulge in Enoteca Sociale’s expertly baked goods, they’ve been offering a “Backdoor Bakery” since Spring of 2014. Starting at noon every Saturday (and until they sell out), carb-fans can try their Red Fife Sourdough or Rosemary Focaccia for $5. Grab one for yourself and more for your friends! Inside scoop: Holger Schoorl, their bread and pasta master, likes to experiment from time to time so expect some exciting changes to their Backdoor Bakery menu. 

Holger Schoorl, Bread Master

Holger Schoorl, Bread Master

Thanks to Natasha at ButterPR for sharing this recipe with our readers! YUM.

Salted Brick: simple honest intentions that make complex flavours

30 Oct
No Filter!

No Filter!

In September,  I had the chance to work in the beautiful Okanagan Valley for a couple of weeks.  The picturesque and almost desert-like interior of British Columbia proved to be a powerhouse for fruit orchards and of course, as everyone has heard, vineyards.  The best part was, almost all the top restaurants sourced locally and stressed (ha!) the slow food movement.  Yeah, I had trouble booking a flight home.

I confess, I had a prejudice prior to my arrival that I would be served mostly vegetarian health-conscious fare (as if you don’t think granola when I say West Coast).  Much to my surprise (and relief), I found the complete polar opposite of fresh kale salad – really great charcuterie!  And one of my favourite places to split a board of locally sourced cured meat  in Kelowna was at Chef Jason Leizert’s Salted Brick.

Located next to the old Paramount Theatre, Salted Brick is a stylish but unpretentious eatery that makes food an accessible event.  Seven days a week they serve up mind-blowing affordable sandwiches to the lunch crowd (get the smoked chicken!  No, wait, the brisket! Ugh, no, the smoked chicken!)  while Wednesdays to Sundays there is dinner service and on weekends only, brunch. Everything is priced extremely reasonably and prepared with such care. Also, with the small seating space close to the food prep and bar, you cannot help the intimacy forged between the diner and the plate creator and that is part of the experience of their locavore’s menu.

As soon as I walked in, I could smell the aroma of cured meats and cheeses.  It was prevalent enough to almost act as an amuse bouche but certainly not overpowering.  My dreamy-eyed look must have indicated I would get a kick out of their ‘meat closet’ because guess where I was seated?  Yup right next to it- I could stare to my heart’s content.  My friends, all of this locally-sourced, free range and hormone and antibiotic free charcuterie was created in house!

A lot of glare, but even more meat.

A lot of glare, but even more meat.

My dining partner and I decided to start off with oysters from Salt Spring Island.  They were creamy, briney, and matched perfectly with a mystery house-made hot sauce.

Oysters from Salt Spring Island

Oysters from Salt Spring Island

Next came two giant boards which we unabashedly demolished.  Local cheeses and in-house cured meats.  Paradise!

Cheese board

Cheese board

 

Meat board

Meat board

The cheese pairings ranged from traditional to whimsical.  The charcuterie board was out of this world good; with each bite we proclaimed we found our favourite until we tried the next one.  Our server felt like a pal who casually wandered by and made sure we were having a good time.  We were never rushed, and with the beers and wine flowing, food to share, and a great atmosphere, we were shocked to find 3 hours had passed!

Salted Brick emphasized my belief that dining is an intimate event to be enjoyed with friends and the creators of your meal.  It also bridged the gap between food source and my plate – I could read about the farmers they sourced the meat from and see, with my own eyes, the curing room at the back of the restaurant.

Simple honest intentions and complex flavours – thank you Salted Brick.

 

Edit: I mentioned this was accessible to most wallets and I forgot the prices we paid for the above but just to give you an idea, they do offer a Family Dinner priced at $25/person!  And this is the ridiculously delicious sample menu: 

Bouillabaisse

Squash Ravioli, Brown Butter, Parmesan

Pork Cheeks, Mushrooms, Buttered Kale, Apple Sauce

Goat Cheese

Apple Tart Tartin

Salted Brick on Urbanspoon

 

Ace Mercado: a culinary teleportation device

27 Oct

Ottawa has two types of restaurants: those that make you feel like you’re imprisoned in a bureaucrat’s bureau, and those that transport you to a more, shall we say, cosmopolitan place.  Ace Mercado is firmly in the latter category, and the Byward Market is immeasurably better off because of it.  Ace occupies the busy corner of Dalhousie and Clarence, and it replaced a universally lampooned Italian restaurant named Mangia, a restaurant that will only be missed by those who have a palate as bland as powdered mashed potatoes.

Ace is the brainchild of Top Chef Canada winner Rene Rodriguez, proprietor of nearby Navarra.  In my not-so-humble opinion, Ace is the real winner between the two.  Its menu has all of the innovation, creativity and boldness of Navarra’s without the sticker shock.  The atmosphere is essentially a cross between El Camino and Czehoski’s on Queen West.  This may sound like too much of a scene thing for some, but if you tune out the douchetastic conversations, the overall buzz is energetic and dynamic.  Ottawa needs this to counteract the whiff of dying souls that emanates from its overly ample suburbs.  More importantly, the Market needs this to drive out the tourist-trap, pedestrian slop-troughs that masquerade as restaurants.

Most importantly, the food lives up to the hype and the scene.  When I saw the menu, I was faced with the pleasant yet stressful dilemma that every foodie faces at a good restaurant – how to eat all the things.  Fortunately, I was with other eat-all-the-things people, so we made a serious dent in the menu.  The deviled spot prawns were spot on (yes, I did that).  The prawns retained their juicy sweetness in the face of bold Mexican-inspired spices.  I could find nothing Mexican about the Mexican Fries.  In fact, they were more like a bipolar Francophone – the fries were cooked so well that a Belgian would have been proud, and they were covered in cheese and dotted with crispy fried pigs’ ears – music to any Quebecker’s ears.  They were so crazy that they were awesome.

The tacos were no less impressive.  The lamb taco could compete with El Camino’s, and I think that El Camino’s lamb tacos are the single greatest taco ever made.  The crispy pig’s ear tacos would not have been out of place in a cabane à sucre in Papineauville, which makes them some of the most whimsical tacos I’ve ever had.  The fish tacos were innovative – most tacquerias stick to the well worn path of stuffing a battered and fried piece of whitefish in a shell.  Ace’s version was stuffed with grilled and flaked red snapper, which gave it a decidedly meatier texture.  Hit with some lime, they were almost flawless. In fact, the only flaw with the tacos was the shell.  The wraps were tepid, dry and flavourless.  Sadly, they did not add flavour to the whole, as a good taco shell should.  This flaw is the single reason why I must declare that El Camino’s tacos are marginally – but universally – better.

Ace Mercado’s drinks list is as laudable as its food.  The beer list is tight, but features a blend of local and foreign beers that pair well with all the items.  The tequila list is excellent and covers all the right bases.  Be sure to have a shot of house-made sangrita, a concoction that is essentially a Caesar that took a wrong turn on the highway and ended up in Tijuana.

I will go back to Ace Mercado after a day when I have to deal with HR, IT or any number of other bureaucratic black holes.  Ace Mercado can fix you on days when you think you’ve lost your soul to the crushing dreariness of Place du Portage.  Given how many people work there, I suspect that Ace will be packed on most nights.


3.74 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Labatt vs Craft Beer: When Goliath Tries to Wear David’s Clothes

22 Sep

 

One of my favourite places in the world - Bellwoods Brewery.

One of my favourite places in the world – Bellwoods Brewery.

Hey pals, I’m blogging from the Okanagan this week! Stay tuned as I do have a lovely post about Kelowna-based restaurant RaudZ in the works but for now, I just wanted to quickly share a reminder I received on the importance of knowing the origin of your food and drink.

It’s pretty much the understatement of the year if I say I like craft beer.   Craft beer is enjoyable because it iss made skillfully, driven by passion and community. When you care about your art, you sacrifice time and energy for the slightest details and in return, these small nuances get noticed and celebrated by the educated consumer.   Even if you’re new to beer tasting, or not a beer fan at all, you can still appreciate earnest effort and that is a-plenty in the craft beer industry.

So like anything good and pure, big corporations want to profit from it. And instead of perfecting a beer, they perfect spreadsheets and marketing budgets and then bully their way into an organically created community.

If you haven’t already, check out Ben’s post on Labatt’s expensive and intentionally misleading ad campaign for Shock Top, a beer which is commonly misidentified as a craft beer .

From Shock Top's website

From Shock Top’s website.

Hey, I’m not terribly ‘Shock Topped’ about this (PUN!) – these actions are in line with Big Corporation’s mandate to please shareholders. Okay, so if you’re not surprised they’re capable of that, then why all the hate Alice?  Corporations will be Corporations!  Yes, but there’s something different about imitating real passion and hard work.  I just can’t tolerate that. 

You can cram catchy slogans and expensive giveaways and celebrity endorsements down my throat.  I know what that is.  But when Goliath tries to disguise themsleves as an artist who poured sweat blood and tears into their work, then that’s an outright lie.  You can test my patience for irritating pop songs in your advertising campaign, but you cannot go ahead and skew with authenticity.

But we also have a far more powerful comeback – and that’s our purchasing power.  We can simply not buy Shock Top.

Trust your tastebuds and your common sense. Meet brewers, farmers, and the artisan behind your products.  Always be purposeful with your wallet.

That’s all I wanted to say. 

Love from the Okanagan Valley,

Alice

Taste LOCAL! Taste FRESH! – Foodlink gets local food

22 Sep

Taste Local! Taste Fresh!Foodlink‘s annual Culinary Showcase and Fundraiser, has ruined us for other food festivals. It’s not that the other past food festivals we have attended have disappointed, but that Taste Local! Taste Fresh! offered such a unique, fun, and, most importantly, DELICIOUS experience.

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The setting was a pastoral dream: a heritage farm with sprawling rolling green grounds. The event paired local food producers and chefs who worked together to create 19 tasty creations that celebrate the produce and livestock grown and raised in Waterloo Region. Guests were given passports and invited to visit different booths to sample the small bites. At each table, patrons had the chance to talk to these local culinary titans. Clementine plans on trying her hand at making applesauce this fall so we made a point to pick the brain of the representative from Martin’s Family Fruit FarmInside scoop: GO GET YOUR COURTLANDS NOW. Great for pies and apple sauce.

It’s almost impossible to single out any one particular chef/producer team, since all of their creations were outstanding. Honourable mentions go to Pyrus Cafe/ Pfennings Organic Vegetables for the maple candied tempeh wrap. So crisp and flavourful.

Maple candied tempeh wrap with fresh organic kale, collards and carrots (Pyrus Cafe and Pfennings Organic Vegetables)

Maple candied tempeh wrap with fresh organic kale, collards and carrots (Pyrus Cafe and Pfennings Organic Vegetables)

The Walper Hotel and Two Crows Growery served the most creative dish. Their “Homage to the Soil,” featured  pickled carrots with pea purée and poached crab apple stuffed with pork terrine served on top of a bed of EDIBLE SOIL, which we were told consisted of charred onions and leeks. It was like nothing we’ve ever encountered. Très originale!

Edible SOIL along with pickled carrots (Walper Hotel & Two Crows Growery)

Edible SOIL along with pickled carrots (Walper Hotel & Two Crows Growery)

The Rushes Restaurant/Shantzholm Pumpkins and Wildcraft/Herrle’s Country Farm Market teams did the best job showcasing food producer’s key ingredient and serving it in an unconventional way to make it the star of the show.

Pumpkin FOUR ways (Waterloo Inn/ Rushes & Shantzholm Pumpkins)

Pumpkin FOUR ways (Waterloo Inn/ Rushes & Shantzholm Pumpkins)

The former served pumpkin four ways: pumpkin bisque on top of pumpkin spätzle, garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin focaccia crouton. The bisque was filled with warm spices and crouton was so crisp and savoury. The contrasting textures of the smooth bisque and bouncy pumpkin spätzle was delightful.The latter took the corn, for which Herrle’s is renowned locally, and made sweet corn pannacotta served on top of a sumac meringue.

Sweet corn panacotta with sumac cream, duck fat, meringue & pumpkin seeds (Wildcraft & Herrle's Country Farm Market)

Sweet corn panacotta with sumac cream, duck fat, meringue & pumpkin seeds (Wildcraft & Herrle’s Country Farm Market)

Our consensus favourite dish was produced by Public Kitchen and Bar, Mountain Oak Cheese, and Colour Paradise Greenhouses and Garden Centre. Their fluffy gouda pancakes topped with thyme and brown butter custard and chamomile honey hit out taste buds in all the right places. Garnished with a pansy petal on top, it was also a feast for our eyes!

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Foodlink, the organization behind Taste Local! Taste Fresh!, has been doing this now for 11 years. They know how to elevate a food event from just good to great. First, Steckle Heritage Farm had the ultimate rustic and historic charm. It’s unbelievable that you’re just a 10 minute drive from downtown Kitchener. Also, one of our most frequent complaints is that the music at such events is too loud, drowning out all attempts at conversation. Here however, the music offered by a single acoustic guitarist who played a mixture of classic rock and Canadiana (Blue Rodeo!) was the perfect ambient soundtrack to our culinary adventure. As another lovely touch, upon arrival, each patron received a one-of-a-kind pottery appetizer plate made by local artist Vicky Lucas.

Steckle Heritage Farm

Steckle Heritage Farm

We cannot wait to see what next year’s event has to offer. We will be back with our family and friends in tow. We suggest you do the same.

In the sitcom Frasier, the title character and his brother Niles once commented that, for them, the ideal evening was a perfect meal with one minor flaw that they could pick at all night. With its lack of flaws, major or minor, Taste Local! Taste Fresh! would have left them disappointed. Bad for the Crane brothers, but great for everyone else.

Congrats, Foodlink!

Tennessy Willems: an unlikely haven for pizza lovers in Ottawa

16 Sep

On its face, Tennessy Willems sounds as much like a pizza joint as Toronto’s House of Chan sounds like a great steakhouse. I must admit that I judged this book by its cover and, still fresh off the boat (from Toronto), I had not yet overcome my Toronto food > Ottawa food complex. I mean, what bureaucrat worth his staunch commitment to mediocrity would really want top quality pizza? I was ultimately proven wrong, and thankfully so, since I’ve just moved back to the city of ill-fitting suits and soul-crushing winters. Tennessy Willems will henceforth be my go-to spot for pizza in Ottawa.

Once I sat down at the bar, I was faced with a menu replete with temptations of the insert-name-of-animal confit kind. I exercised remarkable self-control and ordered the margherita. After all, the truest test of any restaurant is its most basic dish, and a pizzeria with a middling margherita is like a brewpub with boring beer – utterly useless. The crust was arguably the star of the show – chewy in the classic Neapolitan tradition – and the sauce was loaded with fresh flavour and just the right amount of sweetness and heat. The latter was in perfect harmony with the copious amounts of aromatic basil leaves. The cheese was perfectly melted, but seemed pedestrian compared to the bursting flavour of the rest of the ingredients.

I must confess that I cheated by adding bacon, but this was after much pressure from my friend who was raving about it. I was not disappointed. The bacon was like meat candy in my mouth – huge chunks of well-cooked, lean, sweet-salty glory. This was not your store-bought, paper-thin, tasteless protein.

No great restaurant experience is complete without solid service. By that, I mean a snarky server who possesses equal parts sarcasm and skill. Sitting at the bar is the best idea at Tennessy Willems, because the bartender – and likely manager/owner – is the poster child for my vision of the perfect server. His sardonic running commentary about life in general was matched only by his cool, collected demeanour in the face of a busy dining room and glassware that seemed to want nothing more than to crash to the ground. His ridiculously hipster-practical glasses with built-in lights added a measure of quirkiness to the whole package.

I will certainly return to Tennessy Willems when I’m in need of a reminder that Ottawa does manage to keep concealed some true culinary gems. Tennessy Willems takes pizza (and sarcasm) seriously, and executes both largely without compromise.

3.59 brown thumbs up. I would give some sort of score for the service, but I haven’t bothered to dream up a rating scale for good service. Deal with it.

On the Mediocrity of Pub Culture in Ottawa

12 Sep

A Treatise Tirade

I was recently sitting in a pub on Elgin Street. It was happy hour. When the waitress stared vaguely at me and visibly strained her intellect to recite the list of half-price appetizers, it struck me, as I recited the well-worn list with her in my head, that many of the pubs on Ottawa’s high streets are hopelessly and predictably mediocre when it comes to food. Surely in 2014, amid the resurgence of quality ingredients as a prime consideration, a basic pub can finally leave the factory-frozen chicken wings behind!

In many world capitals a fraction of Ottawa’s size, the main streets offer up an eclectic array of quality bars that serve simple yet high-quality food. For example, in Luxembourg’s capital city, a quasi-hamlet the size of a postage stamp, the bars and pubs focus on quality rather than quantity, and reflect the region’s culinary history. In Lisbon, a city half Ottawa’s size, the bars that do offer food serve the high-quality seafood and meats that are available in the region. Obvious tourist traps aside (read: Hard Rock Café, etc.), there is largely no recourse to frozen, pre-packaged industrial waste that masquerades as food. In Great Britain, arguably the geographical genesis of Ottawa’s pub culture, even the local public house in the remotest of villages serves inspiring food, to the point that such establishments routinely feature in leading publications on cuisine (e.g., the excellent British Regional Food by Mark Hix).

Sadly, in Ottawa, on streets like Bank and Elgin and in neighbourhoods like the Market, most of the pubs still serve the same tired, bland, lowest-common-denominator food that used to reign supreme before Canada’s cities were flung open to both the world and to the great farms that surround them. These pubs and their clinically depressing fare mirror the people I see walking by. People who wear Crocs to work. People who wear backpacks on suits. People who don’t quite grasp the fact that their clothes should fit them and not the obese geriatrics that they will likely become. Petits fonctionnaires. Melodramatic cynicism aside, I fear that the main reason why mediocre pubs continue to rule the high streets of Ottawa is that there aren’t enough people out there who would vote with their stomachs to expel them from the prime locations.

There are, however, pockets of hope along the avenues of mediocrity. For example, the Manx on Elgin takes its food as seriously as its beer, and hasn’t installed twenty flat-screen TVs per square foot. Chez Lucien in the Market follows much the same philosophy (I will forgive it for having two small, elderly televisions perched in the corners above the bar). Sadly, these gems are drowned in a sea of Royal Oaks and similarly styled McPubs that rely on their location, their 24/7 sports coverage and their lack of discernable soul to attract the hordes of bureaucrats who want nothing more than to avoid the march of culinary progress for fear of having to face any sort of change in their little lives.

I have some faith that quality pubs will continue to grow in number and stature in Ottawa. Alas, I don’t harbour real optimism that they will take over from the overly sanitized establishments that currently line the main streets, because this city simply does not have a progressive class on a scale large enough to truly change the face of its culinary scene.  Ultimately, I am too jaded to believe that, some day, John Q. Civil Servant will wake up and walk past the Fox and Feather and into the Manx. Ottawa’s baseline standard for pub food is sadly doomed to remain as low as its wintertime windchills. Those who want a pint and a plate that don’t diminish their hopes for a better world with every sip and every bite will continue to be relegated to the little pockets of quality cuisine that dot the city. It’s a sad statement to make about a world capital of a million residents.

Chef Susur Lee is getting Veggelicious @ BENT

10 Sep

Just over a year ago, it was when my Dad was helping me drop things off at my then new apartment that we spotted him.

Me: “Dad, I think that’s Susur Lee!”

My Dad: “That does look like him, but are you sure? What would Susur Lee be doing on your street?”

Susur Lee preparing *Tingly* Chilled Soba !

Susur Lee preparing *Tingly* Chilled Soba !

A quick google search proved that the restaurant at the end of my street, BENT, was indeed run by Susur Lee (and his sons). Suddenly, my parents thought much more highly of my neighbourhood. If you had told either of us that Susur Lee would be telling me to “Dig in!” to a selection of his dishes a menu preview a year later, neither of us would have believed you.

Chickpea Tempura Tofu! The secret ingredient is Fish Mint.

Chickpea Tempura Tofu! The secret ingredient is Fish Mint (look it up, it’s a real thing!).

And yet, there I was, a Luckee and hungry blogger who was hosted by Chef Susur Lee, his son Kai, bartender Manual and Chef’s gracious assitant, Kelsea. I was one of a number of bloggers who were invited to participate in the #Veggelicious101 experience – which previewed Bent’s Veggelicious menu, let us peer into Chef Susur Lee’s process, his team’s thoughful preparations and connect with the Toronto food blogging community.

What is Veggelicious at Bent? A 100% vegetarian 5 course tasting menu that is only available until September 20th. It explores seasonal flavours and reminds you how hearty, complex and thoughtful a vegetarian meal can be. Pictured above, the Chickpea Tempura Tofu could fool any carnivore. Bent’s tasting menu hopefully marks a new trend in vegetarian culinary innovation being given centre stage at top tier Toronto restaurants.

 

The beautiiful and delicate tasting Karate Kid cocktail from Manuel. , Special ingredients: gin infused with jasmine green tea, sake and yuzu juice.

The beautiiful and delicate tasting Karate Kid 2 cocktail from BENT cocktail guru, Manuel.Special ingredients include : gin infused with jasmine green tea, sake and yuzu juice. The Asian Ceasar is a fan favourite but this will be my go to cocktail at BENT.

What I am most looking forward to enjoying when I head to Veggelicious with friends next week is enjoying the Tingly Soba Noodles with a Karate Kid 2 cocktail. Why? The noodles are cheekily named “tingly” because of the hint of szechwan, which according to Chef Lee, is “all about the feeling”. The Karate Kid 2 hits my favourite cocktail trend of the year: tea infused liquor. Even if Manual provided us with the hints of how to make it at home (4 bags of tea in 750mL of gin for 4 hours), I doubt I will be able to find the yuzu juice that brings the flavours together.

 

French Meringue with golden licorine, topped with lemon curd, wild blueberries, peaches, passion fruit sauce, and  raspberry coulis - who said vegetarians don't know how to have fun?

French Meringue with golden licorine, topped with lemon curd, wild blueberries, peaches, passion fruit sauce, and raspberry coulis – who said vegetarians don’t know how to have fun?

One of the best part of the afternoon event was that Chef Lee was not only open to sharing his process, but also asked us all about why and how we became active participants in the Toronto food blogging scene. One reason that came up many times over, yet in different iterations, was the desire to share our mostly positive experiences and proudly be part of the Toronto food scene.

If you’re reading this I can share another special preview that we were treated to: learning that Chef Lee’s famous Singapore Slaw will be included on the Bent menu starting later this year. What a treat! Even more of a treat is the French meringue that tops off the Veggelicious tasting menu. Beautiful presentation, exquisite flavours – all quickly devoured by ravenous bloggers!

September is full of promise of new beginnings, so treat yo self  to a healthy and hearty meal and book a spot to enjoy Bent’s Veggelicious Menu. It already started yesterday and it’s only on until September 20th! Call them at 647-352-0092 or book online at http://www.bentrestaurant.com/

 

 

BIG THANK YOU to Kelsea for the invitation, Chef Susur Lee, Kai and the team at BENT for being so welcoming, warm and accomodating. Another thank you belongs to all of the Toronto food bloggers who made the event so fun! Best question to Chef was from Mary Tang – when she asked how he stayed fit and focused. His answer: yoga and eating veg.