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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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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.

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. 

The Senator: a stately name for a dignified diner

13 Aug

Burgers are one of America’s few seriously solid contributions to world gastronomy, and there’s a not-so-new place to add to your list of Toronto restaurants that do them well: The Senator.  Billed as Toronto’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, it is hidden away on Victoria Street just steps from Yonge and Dundas square.  The Senator is a warm, comfy time-warp in the middle of the city. The furnishings and décor are from 1948.  The art evokes Toronto’s long-lost vaudevillian era.  The high-walled booths are amply wood paneled. This makes me happy.

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The menu is most certainly a standard, full-service diner menu of old, but it contains little clues that indicate that the kitchen staff knows how to cook rather than merely how to open freezer packets.  Soups are made in house, from stock that is made – guess where – in house.  The words “seasonal” and “housemade” appear frequently.  The burgers are made from Cumbrae’s beef.  There is a subtle jab at the pernicious anti-gluten fad that plagues our society.  These things also make me happy.

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I was at my happiest when the attentive waiter offered to have my burger done medium rare – the minimum cooking point at which our fussy nanny state has decreed that adults must eat their ground beef.  I think the kitchen did not share his refreshing willingness to test the limits of the law, because the burger came out decidedly on the medium side.  This scaredy-cat approach to cooking meat aside, I was greatly satisfied with the simple, clean flavours of the meal.  The quality of the beef was clear – the patty did not need excessive seasoning to be delicious.  The dark, buttery caramelized onions were an excellent touch and added depth of flavour that most diner burgers don’t have.  The julienne shoestring fries were perfect, and would be very much at home beside a smartly-presented steak tartare at a brasserie in the XVIe arrondissement.

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I don’t comment much about service – mainly because I don’t care for obtrusive and excessively energetic waiters who try to “earn” their tips – but the service at the Senator deserves a nod.  Our waiter masterfully walked the fine line between making too much conversation and being a useless half-wit.  He knew his Toronto restaurant history – the same company designed and built the famed Lakeview Restaurant – which was a nice touch in such a storied dining room.  The Senator exudes understated quality, and having wait staff who match is key to the overall experience.

I will certainly return to the Senator. Time warps in the middle of downtown Toronto are hard to find, and this one offers up good food, solid service and acres of wood paneling to boot.

3.72/5 brown thumbs up.

 

 

 

Sam Adams Backyard BBQ: a symphony of beer and cheese

27 Jul

Everyone knows that wine and cheese go together like Velveeta and rednecks. Beer and cheese, however, is less of a common pairing in these parts. This makes the Backyard Barbecue co-hosted by Samuel Adams and the Cheese Boutique at the Workshop on Roncesvalles a bold move. The good news is that it worked, and masterfully so. The bad news is that it’s not a regular occurrence.

 

The lush, inviting back patio at Workshop

The lush, inviting back patio at Workshop

Afrim Pristine, of Cheese Boutique fame, used the lush, treed setting of the Workshop’s back patio to showcase an innovative cheese and charcuterie board that actually incorporated the Sam Adams Boston Lager into the cheese. Afrim sourced a cheese from Quebec and then gave it a luxuriant bath in a vat of Boston Lager for thirty days. The result was gloriously nutty, hard yet creamy, and understandably well-paired with a pint of cold Sam Adams. Just in case there wasn’t enough beer involved, the cheese was served with a Boston Lager reduction. I welcome this sort of dedication to the art of cheese-making, because Toronto truly does not have a cheese of its own. While the beer used was from Boston, Afrim’s innovation is a solid step in the right direction.

 

Afrim's cheese and charcuterie board

Afrim’s cheese and charcuterie board

 

The other items on the board were thoughtfully paired with the Sam Adams beers on offer. The robiola from Piemonte, while not marinated in beer, was nonetheless a fantastic pairing with the Sam Adams Summer Ale. The beer’s citrus notes cut through the creaminess of the cheese like a good Chablis would have. The Sainte Maure was clean-tasting, with the grassy notes that are the hallmark of this type of cheese. Again, it went very well with the light Summer Ale. The Bleu d’Auvergne was very well ripened and full of bold flavour, and it screamed for a powerful red wine rather than a beer.  That said, the cheeses were generally very well paired with both the Sam Adams beers.  Aside from the outstanding Boston Lager-marinated cheese, the best pairing in my opinion was the Summer Ale with the Italian robiola.

 

Lamb burger with Sam Adams

Lamb burger with Sam Adams

Workshop’s contribution was equally solid. The lamb burger was lovingly grilled over charcoal by Mat, and the minty goat yoghurt spread was the perfect complement to the pleasantly gamey meat. The accompanying corn and cherry tomato salad was fresh, spicy and a good demonstration of how local, in-season produce can elevate salad to a delightful art form.

 

Mat grilling up some juicy lamb burgers over charcoal

Mat grilling up some juicy lamb burgers over charcoal

The entire evening was well executed.  The Sam Adams beers were thoughtfully paired with cheese, charcuterie and BBQ in ways that heightened each component of the meal.  As well, Afrim and Mat gave fantastic service to the diners, and took the time to explain each course in such detail that their passion for food and drink was immediately apparent.

 

3.61 out of 5 brown thumbs up, and a nod to Afrim and Mat for the excellent service.

 

NB. All photos were taken by Mauricio Jose Calero.

Free-Market Fast-Food Fight: Big King vs. Big Mac

17 Jul

I recently wrote about the new Burger King in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood, and how it’s the devil incarnate, the worst thing to happen to the area, miserably soulless, yada yada yada.  I also mentioned that the McDonald’s that it faces is arguably the worst one in the world, and that the best thing that Burger King could do is to put it out of business.  Being a big fan of unbridled capitalistic competition, I thought I’d compare their offerings to determine who will likely be the winner of this fast-food fight.

I chose the Big King and the Big Mac, since they both represent their respective establishments and are remarkably similar (lawsuit, anyone?).  I knew the Big Mac would be mediocre at best, so I was hoping that the Big King would blow it out of the water.  To be clear, this was not a test of flavour and quality in absolute terms, but rather a relativist exercise in figuring out the lesser of two evils.

Packaged burgers. I prefer boxes.

Packaged burgers. I prefer boxes.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be like a race between a blind guy and a half-blind guy.  The Big King was the half-blind guy.  Despite the fact that the Big King was marginally better because of its pseudo-grilled flavour, proportional serving of sauce (the Big Mac was swimming in it) and real toppings instead of onions that looked like bits of paper towel, I was disappointed that Burger King, the new kid on the block, couldn’t get it together enough to put out a truly quality product (again, in RELATIVE terms).

The Big King. Meh.

The Big King. Meh.

The Big Mac. Bleh.

The Big Mac. Bleh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If an independent burger joint had taken over the corner opposite a McDonald’s, you can be damn sure that it would have tried its hardest to win people over. This Burger King is just phoning it in, and the neighbourhood is left with a choice between useless and hopeless.

Many brown thumbs down for both.

Mata Petisco Bar: small plates, big soul

13 Jul
The roadmap for our feast

The roadmap for our feast

Roughly translated, petisco means tapas. Uh oh. Tapas/small plate/convenient-excuse-to-overcharge restaurants are opening in Toronto as often as a certain Teutonic country scored goals in a certain World Cup semi-final game. It’s not often that a new one promises a new twist on the concept, and actually delivers.

Cherry and I were invited to the media launch of Mata Petisco Bar, which purports to bring a South American style of small plates – driven by Brazilian flavours – to the western reaches of Parkdale. They actually manage to do it, and that’s because they’ve nailed down the one thing that ultimately matters the most: the ingredients. We thoroughly enjoyed navigating my way through the generous, seven-course tasting menu without having heard of, or being able to pronounce, a number of the ingredients. For instance, we had never heard of a malagueta pepper before, but I can tell you that it makes the single best spicy aioli I’ve ever had. Mata’s key ingredients – from the corvinha in the ceviche to the picanha cut of beef in the sliders – have clearly been chosen with thought and care in an effort to bring genuine Brazilian and South American flavours to their dishes. I could write forever about each of the seven dishes that were placed before us, but the highlights should be enough to get you on a streetcar/bike/pack mule to Queen and Roncesvalles.

Corvinha ceviche

Corvinha ceviche

The feast started with seafood. The lobster pastel on the amuse-bouche plate had an unctuous filling that was a great contrast to the crispy-fried shell, and the freshness of the lobster certainly came through. The corvinha ceviche really got things going – the fish was perfectly tender – not chewy or rubbery – and the cucumber added a necessary crunch to mirror the bite of the lime. The caipirinha that was served with the first courses was well balanced and an excellent complement to the bright flavours of the seafood.

The smoked chicken hearts were a good transition from sea to land. While they weren’t the stars of the show for me, I found that they were cleverly paired with an arugula salad – the peppery greens complemented the smoky meat. However, the cauliflower purée and ancho chilli oil did not pull their weight and added little to the dish.  When the picanha sliders came out, a collective “wow” rose from our table as we got a whiff of the passing plates. This was followed up by another, louder “wow” when we tucked into them. The picanha, a relatively fatty cut of beef popular in Brazil, was smoked in-house and was grilled to, well, melt-in-your-mouth. The cachaça-caramelized onions were the perfect topping to cut the fattiness of the meat. However, the aioli was the best part of the slider for me – the malagueta peppers added heat without overpowering the palate. This balanced flavour came through in the sliders, and the whole package was complex and immensely satisfying.

Barbecued octopus

Barbecued octopus

The sliders were followed up by a barbecued octopus plate that reinforced how well the grill minders have mastered their art. I was convinced that the cephalopod was cooked on a charcoal grill – the smell and flavour was distinctly smoky. However, they only have a gas grill, which makes their ability to get so much flavour out of the grilling process all the more impressive. The octopus was tender and not at all chewy, and the char on the outside gave it a delightfully smoky flavour. However, I think that the fantastic malagueta aioli would have been a better pairing than the balsamic and raspberry reduction and heart of palm puree that rounded out the plate.

The crescendo of the meal came in the form of a so-called “poutine” – a term which has been bent, twisted and stretched beyond all recognition by the restauranteurs of this city. Unfortunately, “carbs, curds and gravy” doesn’t have quite the same ring, so we’ll have to suffer through more bastardization of the term “poutine” until a Torontonian wordsmith popularizes a different, home-grown expression. Terminological ranting aside, Mata’s “poutine” was a fitting tribute to the essence of the dish. The cheese curds were incredibly flavourful and creamy – so much so that they managed to stand up to the smokey, velvety beef cheek slathered in red wine demi, and to the generous heaping of scallions that cut through the rich meat and gravy. A rich and flavourful end to a well-executed meal.

Beef cheek poutine (yes, we ate that little bit of cheek that tried to escape. Stupid cheek.)

Beef cheek poutine (yes, we ate that little bit of cheek that tried to escape. Stupid cheek.)

Despite groaning under the weight of all the fantastic food we had eaten so far, we attacked the avocado crème brulée with gusto when it arrived. Cherry had some trepidation about whether she would enjoy it, given her general indifference towards avocado. However, the dessert won both of us over because the traditional texture and flavours of crème brulée were respected, and the avocado notes were subtle.

Mata’s media launch was a great success and, given how well the kitchen executed such a wide variety of dishes, I’m really excited to go back and try their brunch offerings and the other items on the menu.

3.81 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Mata Petisco Bar on Urbanspoon

St. Lawrence Market: we’ve hit the fast food tipping point

6 Jul

The St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood has just about as many fast food joints as it can handle.  Between Starbucks, Pizza Pizza, McDonald’s and Jack Astor’s, there are as many chain restaurants per square inch as you’d find in *cringe* a suburban shopping mall. That’s why I was mortified when I saw my friend Angie’s picture of the shiny new Burger King at the corner of Front and George streets.

Burger King - you are a waste of space.

Burger King – you are a waste of space.

I’m no civic activist, and the property owner is free to choose his tenant, but this is a situation where the neighbourhood needs to vote with its feet.  It’s taken a while, but there are a growing number of innovative and high-quality cafés, bars and restaurants that are helping to foster a true community feeling in the St. Lawrence Market area. Think AAA, Fahrenheit, Betty’s, Pacific Junction Hotel and Fusaro’s.  These have popped up alongside the established, low key locals such as Paddington’s Pump, Patrician Grill, Bellissimo’s and On the Rocks.  All these places, new or old, have the character and soul that are the lifeblood of a true neighbourhood.  By definition, a chain restaurant like Burger King could never have that.  Yet character and soul are what the neighbourhood needs more of as it grows with each new development.

Perhaps the geniuses behind this Burger King location thought that they could capitalize on the nearby George Brown crowd by offering them cheap crap to gobble down while studying (or avoiding studying).  To all those George Brown-ites who might fall for this – there are other, cheaper places. If you want cheap, go to Patrician Grill on King, or to Bellissimo’s down Sherbourne.  They’re just as cheap, and they even have character and soul!  If it’s truly a burger you’re looking for, there is a positively dizzying array of good burgers within spitting distance.  The Jason George has a really well executed pub burger and, on Tuesdays, it’s $5.95! Best of all, it’s RIGHT NEXT DOOR!  As well, Paddington’s and Patrician both do a made-from-scratch flat-top diner style burger that will knock your socks off.

There’s simply not enough room for both a Burger King and a McDonald’s on the same street corner.  Despite wanting a Burger King in the neighbourhood about as much as I wanted an ice cream during the polar vortex, maybe it’ll give the world’s worst McDonald’s a competitive kick in the teeth and put it out of business.  That may be the only silver lining in this unfortunate state of affairs.