Tag Archives: Pizza

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.

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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

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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

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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.

Mio Ristobar: a culinary saviour for Toronto’s suits

17 Apr

Mio Ristobar saved my life. Now that Bay St. is getting busy, I’m increasingly spending my time a) in my office, b) in the PATH and c) lamenting the near-complete disappearance of any semblance of social contact. My tastebuds have been crying out for real food, because the PATH is a haven for horrid heaps of barely-consumable matter (zTeca’s excellent sweet potato and chorizo breakfast burrito aside). Fortunately, I decided to wander into Mio, a place that I passed by a million times without ever really taking notice. Until now.

Mio is located at PATH level under Scotia Plaza, and doesn’t attract as much attention as it should since it’s not in the main food court. Mio has a sleek dining room with a nineties-tastic backlit bar, and further down the way there’s a hole-in-the-wall express counter with take-out meals, panini and breakfast items. Both locations are winners.

I normally review the décor and ambiance of a restaurant along with the food. However, in this case, I’ve actually never spent more than 5 minutes in Mio’s dining room, waiting for meals that I inevitably take back to the office to consume while slaving away for hours into the night, so I can’t do better than “sleek” and “nineties-tastic”. Just use your imagination.

While there is little to be said about the ambiance, there is much to be said about the food. The express “hole” shares the same kitchen as the restaurant, and this is a good thing because they know what they’re doing over there. At the express “hole”, you can get a well-balanced array of Italian food – pizza slices (think Libretto, not Pizza Pizza), panini (not made on squares of industrial effluent pressed into toast form that many other sandwich shops use) and hot meals (hearty stews of veal or seafood that fill you up without leaving you comatose at your desk). Their sides, like simple peas dressed in olive oil, or braised Nappa cabbage and white beans, are also simple yet well-executed and non-coma inducing. It’s clear that they choose their ingredients properly and eschew the flavour-less plastic that industrial food supply companies offer up to chains and diners.

The dinner options from the dining room are deserving of even higher praise, and they fit perfectly into the dinner expense budget that most of their clients will no doubt have. Their margherita pizza ($12) is great value, especially when split with someone else whose taste buds are borderline suicidal. Mio’s base tomato sauce has that delightful hint of sweetness that one gets from tomatoes picked, pureed and packed at the height of the season. The cheese and crust are both of excellent quality, and they round out a pizza that is heavy on flavour but light on heft. Pair that with a hearty braised beef short rib ragu with pepperoncino, ample amounts of basil and padano ($18), and you’ve got a solid meal for two people. A good meal for one is the spaghettini with seafood. That light and fresh tomato sauce is an excellent vehicle for plump scallops, sweet shrimp and calamari that doesn’t feel like you’re eating a rubber band. A skilled pan-master must live somewhere in Mio’s kitchen, because all the seafood was properly cooked and the flavours integrated so well into the sauce that the whole dish felt harmonious and complete.

Unfortunately, all of this praise must be tempered by a note about the coffee. As an Italian restaurant and take-out “hole” that actually makes proper Italian food, it should follow that the coffee should be good and, importantly, served properly. Mio wins on the product but fails on the service. When I ordered my proper Illy espresso from the take-out counter, I was told that they only had paper to-go cups. When I pointed to the proper porcelain Illy cup on the shelf above the sink, I was told that I “did not want” that cup. I was instantly bewildered because I thought I had just walked down into the PATH, not into 1950s Soviet Russia. When I regained my bearings, I was presented with a paper cup filled with espresso and covered with a very tight plastic lid, no doubt to prevent rain, dust, snow and errant bird feces from getting into my coffee while I walk down the temperature- and climate-controlled hall back to my office. This was a sad showing from a place that so clearly values quality. Not providing at least the option of having good espresso – and it was actually quite good – in a proper espresso cup is like telling a customer that they must have their fresh, hand-cut macaroni with Velveeta and wieners.

Mio is by no means empty at lunch, but, sadly, I understand why there isn’t a lineup out the door. Mio serves food that would qualify as a real meal, not a list-of-disparate-ingredients-in-a-depressing-box sort of “meal” that has captured the hearts and minds of Toronto’s suits. While I’m sad for the latter, I can’t help appreciating the fact that I don’t have to wait in line for a good meal. Mio is a hidden gem that is best discovered by those who abhor culinary mediocrity and have had enough of it. If a communist-grey box of mismatched rabbit food and bean curd makes you happy, don’t bother going.

Mio gets a commendable 3.67 out of 5 brown thumbs up for the food, but an unfortunate fuck you for the appalling coffee service.

The cheap and greasy NYC pizza adventure

13 Sep

Everyone knows that a cheap pizza slice done right can be one of life’s great pleasures. Unfortunately, establishments that do cheap pizza right are few and far between in Toronto, aside from the obvious gems located in and around Little Italy (think Bitondo’s). New York City is possibly the only leading city in the world that is known just as much for its cheap, greasy fast food as for its haute cuisine. Of course, to treat its fabled pizzerias as producers of the former would do a number of them a great disservice. Some are just cheap and some are just greasy. There are also the unfortunate ones that are neither cheap nor greasy. So, during my recent NYC weekend, I made it my goal in life to find cheap, greasy pizza that was also intensely satisfying in flavour and quality.

My search for pizza nirvana was extremely scientific, in that I set a very scientifically-calculated price limit of $3 per slice and opted to avoid all major chains (that I knew of, being a lowly Canadian). And then I went to the first place I saw. It happened to be a pizzeria that was hilariously named Not Ray’s Pizza, located in the hipster-infiltrated Fort Greene neighbourhood of Brooklyn. On its face, it looked perfect – the promotional A-frame sign with a few slide-in letters missing, the facade untouched since about 1962 and the bright fluorescent lighting – so I boldly walked in and ordered a plain cheese slice. The man behind the counter took my order in a curt fashion and carelessly tossed my slice into the oven; an approach to service that was exactly what I was looking for. I had high hopes for the pizza when I saw it emerge from the oven, its generous helping of cheese glistening with glorious grease. I eagerly took my first bite, and was immediately in two minds.  The cheese was suitably stringy and melted. The sauce had a hint of sweetness that highlighted the quality of the tomatoes. However, the crust was reminiscent of the worst French baguettes in the bargain bin at a suburban Carrefour. It had all the texture appeal of a miserably undercooked piece of tofu and the flavour of tepid cardboard. It was also far too thick for a slice of New York pizza, which is meant to be folded over and enjoyed as an impromptu sandwich of glory. A pizzeria where the attention to detail stops where the crust starts does not deserve praise and, accordingly, Not Ray’s Pizza gets 2.89 out of 5 brown thumbs down.

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Not Ray’s Pizza

My disappointing experience with Not Ray’s Pizza prompted me to look for its positive doppelgänger in the hopes that Ray was doing a better job. In classic MC fashion, I stumbled upon it after walking the Highline Park on Manhattan’s West Side. Original Ray’s Pizza had the right look and feel, and I was optimistic when I walked through the door. The decor was nice and kitschy, with garish tile murals of the Rialto bridge and other Italian tourist traps.

originalrayswall

The dining room was surprisingly large given its prime location – it must be packed on evenings and weekends.  When ordering Alice and I ordered our slices, the service was subpar, in that we weren’t treated with the brusque efficiency of your average pizzeria employee.  Since I love nothing more than being able to fire an order across the counter and get an equally rapid-fire response without so much as a millisecond of eye contact, I was slightly disappointed.  The pizza, however, was a different story.  The slice was a saucy mess in my mouth, which was fantastic since there was enough cheese to match.  The sauce itself was tangy, which, unsurprisingly, demonstrated a different sauce development strategy than the one espoused by Not Ray’s Pizza.  Crucially, the crust had the right balance of crunchiness and chewiness, which sets great pizza apart from the merely mediocre.  All in all, Original Ray’s Pizza scored well on the food, but fell short on blatant indifference toward its clientele.  3.53/5 brown thumbs up and half a fuck you.

Original Ray's

Original Ray’s

I ended up finding pizza nirvana in a place that managed to nail down a slightly grimy décor several generations old, a quality slice with solid sauce and a thin, crispy-chewy crust, and gruff apathy towards its customers – my troika of tremendousness, if you will.  Joe’s Pizza in Greenwich Village was this place, and it unabashedly yet accurately described itself as a neighbourhood “institution”.  It’s a hole-in-the-wall spot near a subway entrance, with just a handful of seats inside and what can only be described as a more or less horizontal piece of timber attached to the wall outside, so that the overflow customers don’t have to sit on the ground.  I was momentarily discouraged by the raft of glowing reviews taped to the front window (I have a non-hipster-ironic distrust of reviews), but once I passed through the door I was heartened to see the old diner-style wall menu, the crusty staff and the thin film of grease and sweat that generally covered the place.  My order was met with the cavalier it’s-nice-that-you-want-pizza-but-don’t-expect-a-smile attitude that I was hoping for.  This primed me for the awesomeness that landed on my paper plate.  The slice that the portly pizzaiolo proffered was thin, cheesy and had little gobs of sauce protruding from every orifice.  The crust was perfectly chewy and crispy and, when I folded it over, it made for a truly tremendous pizza sandwich.  The sauce was a bit sweet and screamed freshness, like the one at Not Ray’s.  The whole slice worked so well that, even though we had just had a delicious brunch at Puerto Viejo, when Alice took a bite to try it, she was so impressed that she made me give her half the slice.  I guess restaurant reviewers can get it right, because Joe’s Pizza is officially the winner of my NYC pizza-fest with 3.77 brown thumbs up.

Joe's Pizza

Joe’s Pizza

Pizza is firmly established as a New York grab-and-go snack/drunk food of choice, and it has evolved to the point where even a dirt-cheap slice of pie can be good enough to make a foodie moan with glee.  Unfortunately, Toronto isn’t quite mature enough yet to claim anything more than mediocre street meat as an institutionalized snack.  We need to do better on this front, and hopefully our answer to NYC pizza will be quality food-truck fare that takes advantage of all the great food cultures that have come to be assembled in this city.  Of course, the oafish, Ottawa-inspired technocrats at City Hall would have to join the rest of us in the 21st century in order for this to happen.