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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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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

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.

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.

 

 

 

Return To Sudbury: How Gourmands Camp

1 Aug

Last year some friends and I were spoiled rotten with a bountiful harvest of wild blueberries foraged from the Sudbury area.  We planned the same camping trip for this summer and you can bet for weeks leading up to it, we talked a big game.  C even bought four new 4-L tupperware containers, and worried that they’d overflow. Let’s just say, this year, our trip was not fruitful (sorry, sorry…).  We each left with a sad sandwich bag worth of tiny blue berries.  We think we missed the first harvest by a week, and were too early for the second round.  Woe!

Falls

It was still a fun time camping near Onaping High Falls, a gorgeous natural wonder made famous by Group of Seven’s A.Y. Jackson’s painting, Spring on the Onaping River.  (There, your art fact of the day!  Cherry would be proud.)  And of course, we ate like gluttons.

The difference between camping when I was a teenager versus camping as an adult  who makes more than minimum wage: we used to pack the cooler with frozen hot dogs (and cheap beer) and lived off that.  Now, we take the time to make sure that the benefit of living outdoors doesn’t cost us our enjoyment of a really good meal.  Camping is really about spending quality time with some good friends in beautiful scenery while breathing fresh air and that is all made better with a bountiful feast on a picnic table.

One of my favourite camping meals?  Breakfast (well, it’s a three-way tie, really….)

Open Faced Fancy Breakfast Sandwich

Ingredients:

  • smoked bacon from a butcher on Roncesvalles
  • one of de la Terre’s amazing organic artisan breads
  • free-range organic eggs
  • pre-washed and pre-chopped red onion and cilantro (pre-washing and pre-chopping is KEY to camping gourmand)
  • Black River Cheese Company‘s 6 year old cheddar (strong flavour means you use less, pack less!)
  • homemade preserved cherry tomatoes (no Heinz for us!)
  • homemade sriracha (go ahead, close down that California plant…we’ll survive)

Bacon!

The first step: cook up that bacon!  And yes, it’s so that you can use the bacon grease to cook up the rest of your breakfast (nobody said we’re cardiologists). This way you don’t have to pack cooking oil and everything tastes like delicious bacon.

onions

Next, brown those pre-chopped onions in that bacon grease.  Yup, pre-washing and pre-chopping some of the vegetables will make things a whole lot easier while camping.

eggs

Once those onions caramelize, crack some eggs into the pan and soak up the remaining bacon grease.

Preserves

Bring out the jars of preserved cherry tomatoes and homemade sriracha from the cooler so that they can come up to room temperature (forest temperature…?).  Preserves are a great way to add flavour, and don’t even necessarily need to stay in the cooler if you plan to finish a smaller jar rather quickly.  It also reduces prep as you really just need to spoon out a cherry tomato instead of washing and chopping.

Sammy

Once everything is finished, take a piece of incredibly dense de la Terre’s artisan bread, put some of that 6 year old cheddar on it, then top with the warm eggs so that the cheese melts a bit.  Then a dollop of preserved cherry tomatoes, a smidge of homemade sriracha, and a sprinkle of pre-washed, pre-chopped cilantro. Eat this masterpiece while throwing the bacon-grease-soaked paper towels into the fire for a little show.

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.

Ontario Gas BBQ Challenge with Charmian Christie (The Messy Baker)

21 Jul

Charmian Christie (The Messy Baker, 2014)

There’s no better way to celebrate the summer than to throw a couple of steaks on the grill and relax on the patio with friends! Five Toronto Food bloggers from the GTA have been selected to participate in a recipe challenge. They will be flexing their skills using Ontario Gas BBQ (OBG) tools and creating delicious original recipes from July 1 – 31, 2014. The victor of the #OGBChallenge will be chosen by popular vote.

We had the chance to speak to one of the contestants: food writer, recipe developer, and soon-to-be cookbook author, Charmian Christie (The Messy Baker: More than 75 Recipes from a Real Kitchen, 2014) who graciously shared with us her thoughts on BBQ.

Clementine (YYZGourmand): Why do you love to BBQ?

Charmian Christie (CC): The practical part of me loves that no matter how hot the BBQ gets, it doesn’t heat up my kitchen. We have a small stone house with no air conditioning, so once it heats up, it stays hot. I dread turning the oven on in the summer and the grill provides the perfect solution. The cook in me loves the flavours provided by the smoke and charring.

YYZ: What is your favourite item to BBQ?

CC: It’s hard to pick a favourite since the BBQ makes almost everything taste better — even broccoli. That said, rotisserie chicken is likely the winner . Although it’s not complicated, it draws raves every time I make it. No one ever tires of it. And that alone is worth a bonus point or ten. Check out Charmian’s recipe for Spicy Grilled Broccolini here and Herbed Rotisserie Chicken here.

(Source: The Messy Baker, 2014)

YYZ: You’re a baker by trade – what delicious baked goods have you created on a blistering hot BBQ? What would you like to bake on a BBQ?

CC: I’ve done pizzas and really loved the charred crust the hot grill creates. It’s perfect for flatbreads and anything baked quickly on high heat. Beyond that, I don’t really bake much on the grill since most of my recipes require a precise heat. However, it’s great for grilling fruit to top oven-baked goods like scones, or smoking sugar to use in desserts. My husband’s still talking about the smoked sugar ice cream.

Smoked Sugar Ice Cream (Source: The Messy Baker, 2014)

Smoked Sugar Ice Cream (Source: The Messy Baker, 2014)

YYZ: Your Italian turkey meatballs sound flavourful and light – what is your secret to keeping them moist off the grill?

CC: Don’t overcook them! Between the Thermopop meat thermometer and the grilling basket it’s easy to achieve moist, properly cooked meatballs. Also, turning them every few minutes helps. It’s hard to do damage if they’re flipped frequently.

Charmian’s delectable Italian Turkey Meatballs (Source: The Messy Baker, 2014)

YYZ: What’s your drink of choice on the patio when BBQ with friends?

CC: Depending on what we’re eating, it’s a bottle of chilled pinot grigio or icy cold dry apple cider — both from Ontario if possible.

A baker who knows her way around the grill! I’m smitten. We wish Charmian the best of luck against some formidable competitors. You, dear reader, can help Charmian (and win prizes yourself) all month long by visiting #OGBChallenge and voting like mad!.

 

*This post was brought to you by Branding & Buzzing and the Ontario Gas BBQ Challenge!

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.