Anyone who knows me or who reads this site regularly knows my feelings on donairs. Particularly that we don’t have any good ones here in Toronto, and that it’s a crying shame because we do so much to celebrate the street food of other cultures, but we seldom, even within the realm of “local”, celebrate the food of Canada. That goes for all Canadian foods, actually, not just street food, and it’s truly a delight to see restaurants like Keriwa Cafe, and Acadia to some extent (Chef Matt Blondin has a specific niche but there’s definite Canadian influences) and now Hopgood’s Foodliner (325 Roncesvalles Avenue) picking up on Canadian regional cuisine.
Geoff Hopgood has been very quiet about his recent restaurant opening. Few people knew it was even happening until news of the soft opening broke on Twitter and an exclusive with the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttal-Smith ran the following day. A website with the most basic info was made in late January, but wasn’t getting indexed by Google as Toronto food freaks desperately searched for more information last Friday.
Most folks know of Hopgood from his time at the Hoof Cafe where he created ingenious brunch dishes with a nose-to-tail aesthetic. But my interest in checking out Foodliner lay in the fact that Hopgood was promising a Nova Scotia-themed restaurant, with dishes that ranged from Halifax’s favourite street food, the donair, to his Mom’s crab dip to a traditional corned beef dinner. Having grown up in Halifax, I was intrigued to see what he’d do to the foods of my youth.
The donairs (pictured above) are pretty bang on, although they are of a higher quality than you’d get at the many donair shops that line Halifax’s downtown streets. In a city once noted for having the largest number of bars per capita in North America, you’ve got to figure that the place would have its own after-bar drunk food.
Hopgood’s donair is smaller than what you’ll get in Hali (although you do get two, served on a crumpled paper bag), with homemade pita instead of store-bought, and a meat made with beef and pork instead of just beef. But he very smartly doesn’t fuck around with it. The meat has the right crispiness on the edges from whirling around on a rotisserie, and the toppings are just the standard tomatoes, onions and donair sauce (it’s sacrilegious to add anything else). The ingredient proportions are slightly different from the recipe I use for donairs at home, and Hopgood was intrigued when I told him that I make the sauce by whipping and freezing it, but his is the best donair I’ve paid for outside of Halifax.
Hopgood’s menu also includes the crab dip, a recipe served by his Mom, always with Triscuits. Creamy, hot, gooey… this is fantastic. Even if the idea of eating processed food crackers freaks you out (there was apparently a plan to make the crackers until they realized how many they’d need), this would be wrong with anything else.
I don’t know if you can see the colour of the trout there, the shot is a bit dark. But the flesh is almost white. Seared simply so that the skin was crisp, this gave me crazy flashbacks to my childhood and mornings in early May when my Grandfather would return from a fishing trip and we would stuff ourselves silly on the very freshest spring trout. This was the colour of those trout back then, before we all started eating farmed trout that were fed dyed food based on a colour wheel in a palette of pinks and oranges. It didn’t taste orange either, which was a very good thing. On the side, smoked potato salad with leeks. This dish was so perfect, I can’t even begin to explain.
I avoided the corned beef when I came across it on the menu because, well, not all Maritime food is good. The traditional boiled dinner, typically mushy, overcooked and stinking of cabbage, has left me with very little love for corned beef. Greg was braver, though, and jumped in, and was glad that he did. The meat was sweet, bright and the accompanying veg (little white turnips) were cooked fork tender and had a buttery silkiness to complement the turnipy tang.
The space (formerly brunch spot Brad’s) is simply decorated, in order to let the food and drink be the stars. The only artwork is a lightbox behind the bar displaying the Hopgood’s Foodliner graphic featured on the restaurant’s website. Hopgood’s family owned a number of Foodliner stores in the Maritimes (they were associated with IGA), which is where the name came from.
Finally, dessert. Behold the maple square (lotsa walnuts in this baby) that is served with a wee pitcher of cream, and the crispy toffee bar – a puffed rice centre surrounded by a light fluffy chocolate mousse, and dusted with cocoa. Both amazingly good.
Other than the lack of coffee available (they’re planning to invest in some French presses), this was a truly outstanding meal. Food in the Maritimes, despite the access to some of the best local ingredients, is traditionally not known for being cutting edge or daring. It’s a fairly conservative place, and it’s easy for things to get a little twee. Fortunately, Hopgood seems to be able to keep a really good balance between traditional dishes, family recipes, featured local ingredients, beloved street food and a modern sensibility that will appeal to Toronto diners.
The menu will, of course, change regularly. I’ve heard rumours of fried clam sandwiches, and if it weren’t for the fact that I know clams are out of season (and a real pain to harvest right now), I’d be at Foodliner’s door, bugging them to fry up some clams… my second favourite Halifax fast food treat.
This former Haligonian offers two big thumbs up to Hopgood’s Foodliner. Go on now, get over there and get it in ya.