Tag Archives: seafood

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.

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.

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!).