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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

 

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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.

How to eat and drink like a (cheap) pro in SFO

19 Jun

A few months ago, our resident banker went off to San Francisco to indulge in the finer things. I was inspired and, on a whim, I went out there for a few days of food, beer and wine with a friend of mine. However, instead of doing the name-brand, reserve-ahead-or-fail restaurant circuit, we relied on our ability to ferret out a good hole-in-the-wall while wandering around. We found enough of them for me to write a review of biblical proportions, but I’ll spare you the time (and the eye strain) and give you the best and worst of what we had.

 

Beer

MagnoliaMagnolia (Haight Ashbury): this neighbourhood brewpub is a winner on all counts. The bar has a simple rustic feel, the basement brewery vents into the bar to give it the scent of sweet mash, and the staff regularly make jokes about the “colourful” people who walk/stagger by. The beer is fantastic as well – the Stout of Circumstance is as black as bitumen, velvety smooth and has a balanced yet complex flavour. Best of all, pints are generally $4! We almost didn’t leave. 3.94 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

901 Columbus Caffe (Telegraph Hill): $2 local microbrews from 5PM onwards and, despite being a few blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf, nary a fanny pack tourist in sight. Need I say more? 3.39 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

 

 

 

 

 

Wine

IMG_1717

Chateau Montelena, Calistoga

Chardonnay, Cave de Lugny, Mâcon-Lugny (Burgundy): yes, the best wine we had was a $12 bottle of French chardonnay from the grocery store. Sadly, Napa and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma, are the Disneyland of wine. There are some great products, but the prospect of paying upwards of $15 for a tasting and $40-$60 for a decent bottle is mind-boggling. The two valleys have embraced the dog-and-pony show of touristy wine tasting to such a point that anyone with a modicum of knowledge about wine can see through the charade. If you do happen to fall into this tourist trap, go to Chateau Montelena for some genuine Napa Valley history and Bouchon Bakery for the best baguette on this side of the Atlantic. Napa gets a dismal 2.38 out of 5 brown thumbs down.

 

 

 

Meat

IMG_1696

Whole roast chicken with warm bread salad, Zuni Café

Zuni Café (Hayes Valley): a Market Street institution that doesn’t disappoint. We chose the roast chicken for two because it was cooked in a brick wood-fired oven, which is code for “food sex orgy in your mouth”. The warm bread salad that was served right on top of the expertly butchered whole chicken provided just the right texture contrast, and its pleasantly acidic vinaigrette was the perfect companion to the impossibly tender meat and flavourful skin. Service was prompt and efficient – Zuni Café is very obviously a well-oiled machine. 3.71 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Busters’ roadside BBQ pit

Harvest Moon Café (Sonoma): we wandered into this cosy restaurant after hearing high praise from two different wineries. That night, the kitchen had created a meatball plate with a red mole sauce and rice that paid tribute to the Italian-American original while marrying distinctly Mexican flavours. The menu changes frequently, but I hope they keep bringing back that innovative and well-executed dish. Try to get one of the two seats that face the open kitchen. 3.53 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Busters Southern BBQ (Calistoga): the smoke from their roadside, wood-fired outdoor BBQ pit made us literally stop in the middle of the road and make a U-turn.  Armed with a baguette from Bouchon Bakery and some serious hunger, we ordered a pile of plump pork loin with a side of spicy homemade BBQ sauce and proceeded to make the most gloriously sloppy sandwiches known to man. Washed down with our Cave de Lugny chardonnay, this shockingly cheap yet satisfying lunch may have been the best daytime meal we had.  For this, and for the cavalier service from the sardonic till-minder, Busters gets 3.78 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

 

Seafood

Anchor Oyster Bar

Anchor Oyster Bar, Castro, San Francisco

Anchor Oyster Bar (Castro): if you like your seafood fresh and your sauces buttery, this is the place for you. My friend’s vat of seafood pasta was large enough to feed the whole Bay Area for a week. Each element was very well executed – the shrimpswere perfectly juicy and sweet, the pasta was fresh rather than dried, and the sauce burst with flavour thanks to generous helpings of butter, fresh herbs and garlic. My comparatively light pan-fried sole was full of subtle flavour and needed nothing more than a squeeze of lemon to be brilliant. The service was friendly in a neighbourhood-haunt kind of way – welcoming without being overbearing. 3.68 out of 5 thumbs up.

Point Reyes

Drake Bay oysters at Cafe Reyes, Point Reyes Station

Café Reyes (Point Reyes Station): one word – OYSTERS. They come from literally just down the street, and are so fresh that they barely need a squeeze of lemon to induce the culinary equivalent of post-coital moaning. They are amazing enough to overshadow the restaurant’s superb wood-fired pizzas. They also go well with the spirited drive up the winding coastal road from the city. Get out of the city and go there (but not in a Ford Taurus, which is a detuned tractor compared to any other modern car). 3.79 out of 5 brown thumbs up (but a big fuck you to the car).

 

Coffee

Castro Coffee Company (Castro): a hole-in-the-wall in the truest sense of the word, this tiny café barely has enough room to stand let alone sit.  There are likely more coffee beans per square foot in that shop than anywhere else in the world, all of which are expertly roasted in house.  Their espresso has an excellent full-bodied mouth feel and a nice long crema.  A house creation, the café Africano is an incredibly complex and deeply-flavoured blend of espresso and rock sugar.  The people who served us seemed to know everyone who walked in the door, a testament to how much the locals appreciate the quality of their coffee.  My friend ordered an americano and, when he was asked whether he wanted a 12oz or 16oz cup, he instantly realized they understood that the feeble and touristy would order the larger cup in order to fill it with useless milk and sugar, and the true cognoscenti would get the smaller cup and drink it black.  If you need to stay alert while eating and drinking in San Francisco, make sure you get to this incredible little gem. 3.82 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

The San Fran Bay Series: Monterey Bay and Sustainable Seafood

30 Jan

Over the holidays, I went to visit my brother who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.  He is a Renaissance man – athlete, artist, academic, and all-around-great-guy.  On top of that, he has a super refined palate!  So when I showed up at the airport, I wasn’t surprised to hear he made several reservations for us between Monterey Bay to Napa Valley.

Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay

When my brother and I went to Monterey Bay, we ended up spending more time than we had planned at the gorgeous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I loved watching the feeding shows!

We ducked out for a quick lunch at The Fish Hopper .  While their fried calamari should be avoided (tasteless, over-battered, under-fried), I must say the crab cakes with papaya relish were superb.  Although listed as an appetizer, generous portions were served.  The cakes were crispy on the outside and full of fresh Dungeness crab, with no fillers, on the inside.  Also, I have to applaud the drink list for featuring this epic cocktail:

The Ultimate Seafood Bloody Mary

The Ultimate Seafood Bloody Mary

In case it’s hard to see, it’s an ‘Ultimate Seafood Bloody Mary’ cocktail, featuring Absolut Peppar Vodka with their Signature House Made Mix and garnished with a fresh oyster, bacon-wrapped prawn, crab cake slider, Dungeness crab meat in a lemon cup, crab-stuffed olives, pickled green beans, hot peppers and a lemon wedge…

…I know, right?!  I wish I tried it.  Regrets, big time.

My biggest food takeaway from Monterey Bay wasn’t from the meal nor the beast of a cocktail above, but from the Aquarium’s revitilization of my desire to become a conscientious consumer of seafood.  I am a big, big fan of seafood.  I love a freshly shucked osyter, sashimi, beer-battered fish, poached shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce, seared scallops…the list goes on. And on.  But I’ve been hesitant in my consumption because I know 1) not all fishing practices are sustainable and 2) polluted waters are hurting a lot of sea creatures and then, me, after I make a tasty dinner.

So this is where The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s super awesome fantastic Seafood Watch steps in.  This program provides guidance on making choices that affect the health of our oceans, and inevitably, our own lives.  By using a science-based, peer-reviewed process to create recomnmendations of what is safe to eat, the program encourages consumers and businesses to support seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that don’t harm the environment.  You look up what you feel like eating (Hmm, how about Barramundi for dinner?) and it will tell you the Best Choice (sourced from U.S., farmed in recirculating systems), a Good Alternative (sourced from Australia, farmed in fully recirculating systems), and what you should Avoid (sourced from Indo Pacific except Australia, farmed in open systems, or Indonesian wild-caught).

They have a handy free app for your smart phone that is SO easy to use while you’re at a grocery store or a restaurant.  Does the menu not say where they sourced the seafood?  Never be afraid to ask – because they really should know.  Get the dialogue going!  It’s worth it to help save our health and our home (you know, Earth).

This is what the app looks like:

Seafood Watch

Seafood Watch

Don’t have a smart phone?  No problem, you can download/print off a paper guide (check back often because it gets updated!).

If you eat seafood, and you want to be able to make scientifically-backed decisions that support the health of our oceans and our bodies, then I encourage you to check out Seafood Watch and download this app.  Each of us totally have the ability to leverage our purchase-power to change the approach to fishing and seafood farming.

The next time you hear form me will be the last of the San Fran Bay Series: the long awaited drool-worthy Morimoto Omakase (yes, all Seafood Watch approved dishes!).

The San Fran Bay Series: Bouchon Bakery & Bouchon Bistro

24 Jan Bouchon Bistro

Over the holidays, I went to visit my brother who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.  He is a Renaissance man – athlete, artist, academic, and all-around-great-guy.  On top of that, he has a super refined palate!  So when I showed up at the airport, I wasn’t surprised to hear he made several reservations for us between Monterey Bay to Napa Valley.

The next day’s plan was to hit Napa County, which is a 2 hour drive from my brother’s home in San Jose.  We left early at 7 AM PST which is 4 AM EST!  Fortunately, as my vacation chauffeur sped us along the highway, I got to doze in and out of a nap with the sun on my face (sorry people back home in -30 C weather).

Our first stop was a no-brainer.  With French-pressed coffees in hand, we stood in line at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery for our first meal of the day!

Always a line at Bouchon Bakery!

Always a line at Bouchon Bakery!

While at first I was super impatient and scowled at those taking their sweet (pun intended) time at the bakery, I developed a lot more empathy once I ditched my ‘Outside in Line’ status and became an ‘Inside the Bakery’ folk and witnessed the jaw-dropping French patisserie splendor that was being created.  We were faced with tough decisions in there, evidenced by the fact that I spent $70 USD on baked goods.

My Bouchon stash!

My Bouchon stash!

 

Macarons!

Macarons!

This is what a small fortune in sweets looks like. My bag was filled with: 2 dozen macarons (a mix of pistachio, salted caramel, black cherry, lemon meringue and vanilla…all with light and crisp outside and soft and chewy inside), Chocolate Bouchons (small brownie-like cork-shaped treats), and my breakfast…

My breakfast: bacon and cheddar scone!

My breakfast: bacon and cheddar scone!

A delicious savoury bacon and cheddar scone.  Although light and moist, it was also so rich and filling I could only eat half!

With my closely-guarded treats in hand, we wandered around Yountville, enjoying the sun, checking out artisan craft stalls and felt a similar vibe to Toronto’s Distillery District.  Basically we were killing time until our next meal at:

Bouchon Bistro

Bouchon Bistro

Yep.  Bouchon Bistro!  (FYI: the line at Bouchon Bakery next door was still ongoing!)

Bouchon Bistro table bread: perfect start.

Bouchon Bistro table bread: perfect start.

The table bread was straight from the bakery next door.  Crispy exterior and chewy interior, I could have easily eaten the entire thing for lunch and been a happy camper.

Gin 'n juice

Gin ‘n juice

I can’t remember what was in this cocktail but it was refreshing and easy to rationalize as my vitamin C intake for the day.

French onion soup!

Soup a l’Oignon

I am a sucker for a good French onion soup so I couldn’t resist testing Thomas Keller’s. It was, as expected, perfect.  Savoury rich wholesome broth that wasn’t oversalted, and perfectly broiled crispy melted cheese…I was in onion-breath heaven.

Confit de Canard

Confit de Canard

I am also a sucker for duck (my favourite dish of all time is Peking Duck) and I guess I was testing the ‘standards’ so I ordered a Confit de Canard.  Now this dish I did want a bit salty because there’s nothing better than crisp fatty duck skin with salt melting on your tongue.  It’s a fancy potato chip on steroids, really.  And did they ever deliver – and it balanced so nicely against the earthy lentils with root vegetables.

Truite

Truite

My brother ordered the pan-fried trout which he said was quite enjoyable!

Holding our full bellies, we decided, naturally, to walk to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and gaze wistfully outside like sad groupies.

French Laundry

French Laundry

**SHAMELESS ASK: If any of you know someone who knows someone and can get me on their 3 months in advance reservations list, I will be FOREVER grateful.  My brother and his friends have been trying for over a year.  Let’s just say, now that I’ve tried Bouchon Bistro, I KNOW I will need to go to French Laundry!**

Of course nobody inside French Laundry responded to our telepathic pleas so we settled for a tour of their farm which is right across the street from the restaurant.

The farm

The farm

The rest of the afternoon we toured around Napa Valley, visiting wineries, shopping at gourmet shops…basically killing time until our dinner reservations!  (See a theme?)  Stay tuned for my next post – dinner was Morimoto’s omakase!

 

Bouchon Bakery on Urbanspoon

Bouchon on Urbanspoon

The San Fran Bay Series: Franciscan Crab Restaurant

17 Jan Fisherman's Wharf

Over the holidays, I went to visit my brother who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.  He is a Renaissance man – athlete, artist, academic, and all-around-great-guy.  On top of that, he has a super refined palate!  So when I showed up at the airport, I wasn’t surprised to hear he made several reservations for us between Monterey Bay to Napa Valley.

Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman’s Wharf

On my first full day in the San Francisco Bay Area, my brother gave me a whirlwind tour of San Francisco.  I don’t want to brag, dear YYZ, but while you were going through Winterggedon, I was enjoying a sunny 20 C.  The gorgeous weather certainly helped as we miraculously knocked out all the touristy must-do attractions: Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown (with my parents’ shopping list in tow), Union Square and of course, Fisherman’s Wharf.  No visit to San Francisco would be complete without sampling the famed Dungeness crab!

While I do have a penchant for strolling with street food, this dinner was going to be our real first sit-down meal since my arrival (I told you it was a whirlwind tour!) so my brother made sure we had a spot at one of his favourites: The Franciscan Crab Restaurant.  As we walked up to it, I could tell I was going to love it – check out that retro exterior!

The Franciscan Crab Restaurant

The Franciscan Crab Restaurant

We were seated close to the windows and of course, right next to me was a pair of binoculars! What’s there to see?  Alcatraz of course.  I couldn’t resist.

The menu featured a lot of Dungeness crab dishes (of course) ranging from crab enchiladas to the more recognizable crab cakes.  I just wanted it as simple as possible so when the Prix Fixe menu offered sizzling Dungeness crab legs it was decided. Also what helped convinced me was that the starter being offered was a cup of clam chowder.

This was probably one of the best clam chowders I’ve ever had – if not THE best.  1) It’s not served in a tacky sourdough bread bowl.  I get it, it’s a fun thing to do, but when you’re in a restaurant it should be served in a small tureen like above.  2) Not too brothy, not too creamy.  3) Not too chunky, but textured.  4) Full of plump baby clams.  5) No grit.  At all.  5) It tasted like fresh clams and a touch of herbs.  Bravo, Franciscan, bravo.

My main was served on a sizzling platter, as promised by the menu, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that I dug right in and next thing you know it, my hands were too dirty for a photo.  The crab legs were, as expected, very fresh.  The secret sauce?  Well, let’s say it’s pretty much butter, a ton of browned garlic and…crab roe.  Yes.  The sauce is a secret only because if you knew how much cholesterol you were consuming, you’d have to write a last will and testament right then and there.

The third and final course was a generous cup of their homemade custard ice cream.  I don’t have a photo of this because at this point I was just too fat and unresponsive to most noises coming from my waitress.  I think she said something about tea or coffee but it sounded like a muzzled foghorn.  Sure, sure, whatever, just let me breathe in peace.  The ice cream was certainly very smooth but too sugary for my personal tastes.  I took two bites and left a fallen soldier behind.

Ladies and gentlemen, that was only Day 1 of my Three Day Gluttonous Tour of the San Francisco Bay Area.  How does it end?  Let’s say I’ve been back for a couple of weeks and I’m still on a (semi) detox!  Stay tuned as I hit up both Monterey Bay and…NAPA VALLEY!

Franciscan Crab on Urbanspoon

YYZ’s Best of 2013

3 Jan

We started YYZGourmand quietly in March 2013, only sharing our project with friends once we had passed the three month mark and realized that our little project had momentum. The blog has permitted us to become vocal supporters of the flourishing Toronto food community and meet some really fantastic people.

This is our first, of what we hope will be many!, “Best Ofs” where the writers of YYZ Gourmand share what they think was the best of the year – most of what you see on this list is new, and others will reference memorable posts from 2013.

Best place to hold a grown up party: Archive 909

We didn’t promote it on the blog at the time, but we decided to celebrate our 6 months of being in the blogosphere with some of our fellow Toronto food bloggers, friends and supporters. We ended up at the Dundas West gem, Archive 909. The owner, Joel, was an excellent host and chef. t’s really a perfect venue for tapas and drinks. We’ve had other friends host birthdays there since – and everyone said that they wanted to go back after our September soiree. Take a look at our party photos, and then head over and say hi to Joel for us! – Cherry

Where to bring your classy and hungry friends: Archive 909!

Where to bring your classy and hungry friends: Archive 909!

Best books to read when

You need an #uglycry: JoJo Moyes, Me Before You (Penguin) and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Press) — Clementine

When you want to contemplate the slippery and tricky nature of time: Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for a Time Being, with a side of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad. But perhaps not one after the other. You might start questioning time and if you’re running out or into it. Mix it up with Clementine’s suggestions! – Cherry

Best bar for creating drunking memories: Rock’n’Horse Saloon and Clinton’s Tavern

Not that long ago, 60% of YYZ drank too many of these:

'The Bulldog' from Rock 'n Horse Saloon : the margarita/beer combo is a magical elixir that makes you think that you're invincible

‘The Bulldog’ from Rock ‘n Horse Saloon : the margarita/beer combo is a magical elixir that makes you think that you’re invincible

And then decided it was a good idea to try riding a mechanical Bull.

The results were as expected.

Same goes for two YYZ writers joining forces for a birthday bash at Clinton’s. All the photos are blurry, as are the memories. I was dancing in such a happy daze that I forgot that Alice was even there (for shame!).  – Cherry

Best travel destination for twenty-somethings easing into retirement:

Prince Edward County

The #smugcouple is on a quest to discover the bounty Southern Ontario has to offer. We did a lot of driving and tasted a lot of delicious food. Prince Edward County is a nice escape from the city for those looking for small town charm, outdoor activities, and yummy food. Think: small friendly wineries, LAVENDER gelato, and restaurants like Blumen and Pomodoro showcasing fresh local ingredients. Also a great place to be eaten alive by black flies the size of small birds … or visit an ER and not wait 10+ hours – Clementine & HoM

Clementine looking out over Prince Edward County

Clementine looking out over Prince Edward County before the ER visit!

Stratford

Another thing that #smugcouples love in addition to wine and bike rides through the country is live the-a-tre. Another little escape overflowing with quaintness and culture is Stratford (yes, the hometown of the boy idol that shall not be named). In search of Cynthia Dale and Christopher Plummer (who we heard was in town for opening week), we discovered a great production of Othello as well as Blithe SpiritClementine has always wanted to see a Noel Coward play (featuring the foibles of swishy aristos). Sometimes when a movie or play is billed as a “comedy,” it is more witty than laugh-out-loud funny. Blithe Spirit, however, was genuinely hilarious.  Each successive act upped the ante as Charles Condomine (played by Ben Carlson) was driven to the edge of madness, henpecked by his wife Ruth (played by Sara Topham) and the spirit of his late wife Elvira (played by Michelle Giroux). Going back to Stratford on several occasions revealed some hidden culinary gems like Monforte on Wellington and Revel Caffe. We will definitely be back in 2014 to see Colm Feore in King Lear and skip through the streets while holding hands. — Clementine & HoM

Best way to get your greens: Join a CSA!

Now that my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm box has ended for the year, I realize even more how amazing it was. I miss having kale and swiss chard coming out of my ears.  I miss the vibrantly coloured and impossibly sweet and flavourful tomatoes.  I miss the jalapeños that actually packed a serious spicy punch, as opposed to their bland grocery store counterparts. Store-bought lettuce now seems to be a poor imitation of real lettuce. Unlike many people, I love winter, but the anticipation of spring and the bounty of vegetables my farm box will bring is giving me some conflicting feelings. -HoM

Best coffee in the Financial District: Dineen

Progressive Torontonians are putting more emphasis on properly made coffee.  I base my observation on what I see in the financial district, and while that area does admittedly contain a fair number of people who likely do not merit being described as progressive, the explosion of establishments where one can enjoy a proper espresso points to the triumph of the progressives.  I noted this trend in my review of Dineen, SJCB and Kupfert and Kim.  All three, while quite different, should be recognized for providing the Bay St. suits with something better than Starbucks sludge-in-a-paper-cup.

Another place that requires requires recognition: iQ at Wellington and Bay does espresso right.  They brew it with care, and it comes out tight and luscious.  Even a simpleton could come up with a word other than “coffee” to describe its complex flavour.  Best of all, it only comes out in a proper porcelain cup.  The friendly till-minder warns you that you can’t get it to go, a warning that brightens my day every time I hear it. The fact that all these places are packed at most times of the day, especially the coffee-driven spots like Dineen and SJCB, tells me that people actually want the quality brew they are offering up.  They are by no means struggling, and this is a sign that we finally want something better than warm manure. – MCyyz

Best Airport Lounge(s)

2013 boasted a lot of travel for our editors including Belize, Ecuador, Iceland…and even closer destinations like Boston, NYC and San Francisco! There’s no better way to set the mood for an awesome trip than…an awesome airport lounge.

Best Free Lounge:  Hands down, no competition, because quite frankly there’s only one lounge in Toronto that doesn’t require a membership and is available to all flyers, frequent or not, and that’s Porter’s Lounge [insert link to Porter’s site]. Each and every patron can relax in deep-seated leather chairs, read complimentary newspapers, and help themselves to an espresso-based drink, premium snacks, and unlimited wifi.  No laptop or tablet or smart phone?  Then head over to their tech savy business centre filled with Apple computers.   I once took advantage of the comfy chairs, bottomless cappuccinos and Walker shortbread a little too much and had to be paged for my flight-true story.

Best Valued Not-Free Lounge:  Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge (for those flying Air Canada).  Unless you have a membership or access to this lounge through a frequent flyer program or whatever fancy travellers have, it’s normally $50 for a pass (for an economy flex ticket).  But Craiglist and Kijiji are filled with $12-$15 priced guest passes and with a bit of effort you can easily figure out a discounted or free way of entering (I did, shhh!).  So for $free-$15, you can enter a private oasis in the middle of Pearson where there are no screaming babies, clean washrooms with no lines, hot showers, big screen Sony tv rooms, and…12 yr Glenlivet.  Unlimited.  Complimentary.  Oh yeah and soups and healthy quinoa salad and veggies & hummus and other weaker alcoholic beverages blah blah blah.  Go.  Spend the $15 and drink yourself to a warm cozy nap and possibly miss your flight but hey, nobody knows you’re here you can probably just live there and declare it your kingdom.  Hot showers and scotch-what more does a gal need? – Alice

And there is our review of our best of 2013! We can’t wait to share and discover what 2014 has in store for all of us, and especially for our city, YYZ.

 

 

Iceland: Alice’s New Retirement Plan

14 Nov You can't make this up.
You can't make this up.

You can’t make this up.

It’s been nearly two months since my plane from Iceland landed me back home in YYZ.  I’ve been struggling to write about the trip because it is without a doubt positioned as at least 2nd place in this dynamic mental list I keep of favourite countries I’ve visited (mind you, there are many multi-way ties in this ranking system), and I just can’t seem to narrow down what I should share.  I could truly wax poetic for days on the beautiful scenery, the just and progressive social structure, and the endless flow of creativity and artisan mastery we kept witnessing. I’m constantly torn between selflessly offering to buy people a plane ticket so they too can experience this magical fairytale land, and selfishly keeping mute in hopes that the crescendo of public interest tapers off.  Why?  Well, Internet, I want to retire there and I don’t want it to be crowded; I plan to be a crotchety old lady with my sheep and mountains and morning hikes and handmade sweaters.

So let’s keep this entry simple and less romantic.  Did I eat/drink?  Heck. Yeah.

Reykjavik

We spent some time at the legendary record store and record label 12 Tónar and when the free espressos (commonly offered by business owners to their patrons) just couldn’t cure our thirst anymore, the owner recommended a great joint called Kaldi Bar Cafe. There, the lead of Icelandic band Grisalappalisa served us a fairly decent ale from the Kaldi brewery.

Kaldi Bar, Reykjavik, Iceland

Kaldi Bar, Reykjavik, Iceland

Two things you should know: 1) It was hard maintaining composure when this guy poured me a pint (aside: yes, that’s the guy whose childhood photo graces the record cover) and 2) Iceland only just ended prohibition on March 1 1989 (March 1 is known as ‘Beer Day’).  This microbrew wouldn’t have passed as particularly memorable (case and point: I can’t remember it), but knowing that they have only just begun building a craft beer culture, I recall being quite impressed. These folks catch up fast.  Watch out, they will soon produce an export worth vying for.

Kaldi Bar, Reykjavik, Iceland

Kaldi Bar, Reykjavik, Iceland

The bar itself is a beautiful escape filled with handmade rustic furniture, an old piano, and the bar was brass plated.  I’m sorry it was so dark (aka I was too drunk) to take a proper photo.  If I lived in the area, you can bet this would be my hang.

Höfn

By the time we reached Höfn, we’ve had several of nights of eating re-hydrated chili, hardboiled eggs, beef jerky and other camping staples, so we were excited for a ‘real meal’ and a chance to put a napkin on our laps again.  Off we went to Kaffi Hornið, a 10 minute walk from our cottage.

Kaffi Hornið, Höfn, Iceland

Kaffi Hornið, Höfn, Iceland

Höfn is a fishing town, known mostly for its homard but what I was craving was arctic char.  Perfectly grilled, this fatty fish was almost sweet and certainly very tender.

Kaffi Hornið, Höfn, Iceland

Kaffi Hornið, Höfn, Iceland

My drink wasn’t the best pairing, but I had to try Vatnajökull Frozen-in-Time, a local beer named after the largest glacier in Iceland (and Europe!) and of course, brewed with ‘local glacial water’.  Now, I believe like 99% of all tap water there is glacial (luxury amiright?) so I think it’s fair to say most beers you find will be brewed with ‘local glacial water’.  Anyway, it poured a nice amber colour, malty in taste, a little sweet and reminiscent of a bock.

Seyðisfjörður

This little art haven of a port town (population 668), tucked in a valley between towering mountains, was my favourite stop and it was soon evident that Skaftfell Centre for Visual Art was a major factor for my adoration.  Part art museum, part gastropub, part clubhouse accessible to all, one could safely assume that within these walls of Skaftfell many artists got together over some wine and conjured up fantastical ideas well into the night.  Oh, and their food was the best we had this entire trip.

Skaftfell, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

Skaftfell, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

We started off with a seared minke whale with a balsamic reduction.  Not knowing anything about the animal, I confess I had to do a quick Google at the dinner table and confirmed that minke whales are indeed listed as ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  And oh thank god because they are delicious.  The texture was not unlike beef and the flavour closer to a fatty fish sashimi.

Skaftfell, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

Skaftfell, Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

My main was probably the most delicious rack of lamb I’ve ever had.  Sheep are in abundance in Iceland and lamb/mutton were offered on menus everywhere.  Beef was rare and chicken even more rare.  A nice break, as lamb is usually so expensive in restaurants in North America.  Anyway, just imagine perfect succulent medium-rare lamb chops, creamy mashed potatoes and a port sauce.  Served on your grandma’s china with a group of artists laughing in one corner, and old men playing dice in the other.  Heaven.

Mývatn

Mývatn is a large eutrophic lake surrounded by active volcanoes.  The Ring Road (aka Highway 1, aka the route we took to tour the country) treats this lake like a giant roundabout and it takes about 40 minutes to drive around in its entirety.  We stopped and camped on the Eastern end of the lake and ended up having one of our meals at the famous tourist destination, Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe.  And yes, this was upon my insistence.

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

We were seated next to a window that showed where cows get milked (mechanically) and as you can see, I was offered a sample of the fresh unpasteurized milk.  Was it weird sipping warm cow body temperature milk while looking into the eyes of the cow?  Yeah.  Yeah, it was.

The menu boasted typical ‘farm fare’ and featured their specialties: fresh cheese, smoked lamb, smoked arctic char, and hverabrauð, a sweet molasses bread that is slow-baked for 24 hours underground by natural geothermal heat.

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

I ordered the smoked lamb and fresh cheese salad (which had an incredibly generous serving of smoked lamb at bottom of the bowl!).  I confess, the lamb was not seasoned to my liking and I regretfully left most of it behind.  But the vegetables were very fresh and the best we had on this trip (this country was not known for its access to fresh fruits and vegetables).

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, Mývatn, Iceland

Smoked artic char on hverabrauð accompanied my salad.  Again, the smoked seasoning they used was not to my liking but the bread was gobbled up – sweet, moist and dense, like an undercooked pound cake.

Folks, that is a sampling of the awesome foods I got to sample in Iceland.  If you want to hear more about my trip, I’m happy to take a break from Googling Iceland real estate prices and how other Canadian expats found work abroad.  It’s a beautiful country that holds my heart and I can’t wait to return…perhaps for Airwaves ’14?!