Lockdown Dining – Miku

Miku Toronto, part of Isolish
10 Bay Street, unit 105
(647) 347-7347
dinner for two: $130 plus tax

While restaurants are not able to open their seating areas, none of us in Toronto are hard up for take-out or delivery dining options, and that includes high-end offerings from almost all cuisines. There will always be pizza and wings, but a new service called Isolish is teaming up with fine dining restaurants to offer 4-course meals for delivery. So you can still eat posh during lockdown, but in your own dining room.

Working with a variety of restaurants around the city, Isolish offers a unique one-off meal for delivery, with each restaurant offering their 4-course menu on a specific date. A portion of the proceeds goes to Daily Bread Food Bank, making the prospect of a fancy feast even more alluring.

On April 30th, the participating restaurant was Miku, and for $65 per person we got a marvelous 4-course meal comprised of beautifully-detailed dishes. Some of these are currently on Miku’s To-Go menu for anyone interested in trying them outside of the Isolish promotion.

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Lockdown Dining – Greg Couillard at The Depanneur

The Depanneur
1033 College Street
416- 828-1990
Dinner for 2 – $48 plus tax, pick up only

With the prospect of actually going to a sit-down restaurant for a meal looking to be far, far off in the future, and little else going on in the outside world in the form of entertainment, we’ve been punctuating the weeks of isolation with interesting take-away meals, both as a means of giving ourselves something to look forward to, and as a break from cooking every day.

As long-time fans of Greg Couillard, we were excited at the announcement that The Depanneur was offering a take-away dinner featuring some of his dishes. The supperclub dinners hosted by The Depanneur and owner Len Senator are always a hot ticket when Couillard is at the stoves, and this Persian-inspired dinner was no different, selling out well in advance.

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Book Review — In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses

In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
Christoph Ribbat
Pushkin Press, 2018

While the practice of making food for sale to others dates back as far as the human race (apparently the Egyptians were really into street food), the concept of a restaurant — a place where people were seated and served food and drink, then left when the meal was done — exists within Western society for only about the past 250 years. Started in France as a place to buy and consume restorative dishes such as soup, the concept grew and modernized over the centuries.

Of course, there are so many stories, so many chefs, so many food writers, that it’s impossible to talk about them all, but Christoph Ribbat gives it his best effort, interweaving stories of chefs, servers, writers, activists, and even sociologists studying parts of the restaurant industry into one book full of the most poignant stories and events.

Readers may find Ribbat’s style disconcerting. While still moving chronologically, he jumps from place to place, person to person, and restaurant to restaurant, interlacing the story of sociologist Frances Donovan writing about waitresses in 1917 with the first Parisian restaurants in the 1760s. I actually quite enjoyed this format; the reader is not bored by the unnecessary biographies and details of the chefs or servers featured, but is given the meat of the matter in a quick and concise format. Ribbat expects the reader to be familiar with most of the individuals mentioned, but for the most part we are, so it’s all good, and for those whose names we don’t immediately recognize, he does a good job of telling their story in a succinct manner. This felt like the written version of a Julien Temple documentary, with quick cuts and intense imagery. Paired with a cool soundtrack and some grainy historical footage worked in between vignettes, this would actually make a great documentary film.

Ribbat moves the story of restaurants forward by including pieces about Sartre setting up a pseudo office in his favourite cafe, George Orwell working as a dishwasher, Jacques Pepin as a young apprentice, a young Gael Green having sex with Elvis and then ordering him a fried egg sandwich from room service, the first meeting of Hitler henchmen Goring and Goebbels across a restaurant table, the civil rights protests at southern US lunch counters, and a discussion of the emotional labour required to work in a job as a server where you’re expected to smile all the time, usually for very little pay.

Like any documentary, there’s more left out than what gets included but when you look at the massive amount of information Ribbat had to work with, I think he curated the work in a very sharp and concise manner, touching on the most important aspects of the restaurant business (racism, classism, sexism, food activism), both historically and looking forward to the future.

In the final chapter Ribbat moves away from the disparate, inter-cut stories to a more academic tone in which he discusses why he chose to present the work in this format. This feels slightly unnecessary, even with his assertion that the tales and anecdotes presented may be taken (or presented) out of context, they work together to form a cohesive story with a strong, shared theme. He might be undermining his own work here because, while the various stories all spliced together feel a bit like a very delicious rock video, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just as the restaurant progresses through the ages with changing tastes and trends and the adaptation of modern technology, so too does they way we discuss, remember, and analyze the restaurant industry.

With thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley, this book was reviewed from an Advance Reader Copy and may not include exactly the same content or format when published.

Book Review — Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets

Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets
Jeff Benjamin
Burgess Lea Press, 2015

Everybody thinks they could run a restaurant. Whether it’s a person who loves to cook imagining themselves as a four-star chef or someone who thinks it would be easy to be a server because, hey, how hard can it be to carry some plates of food, we all think of waiting tables as an easy job.

Turns out, running a restaurant is a lot more complicated than it seems, and it’s about more than just keeping track of who had the salmon.

Jeff Benjamin is the co-owner of the Vetri family of restaurants, a collection of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia and New Jersey. While Benjamin is one of those rare folks who have dedicated their lives to hospitality and service, he doesn’t love everything about all of his customers, and this book, rather than being a how-to manual for other restaurateurs, is more of a gentle explanation for diners as to how most restaurants work.

Benjamin’s overall philosophy is one of “what can I do to make this guest a return customer?” But he concedes that there are some people you just don’t want to see at your door again; the folks who demand free meals because of one mistake, the folks who come with added guests in tow, the folks who steal the silverware.

Front of the House doesn’t get into the mathematical details of things like wine mark-ups or tipping systems but it does gently and politely explain why these things are necessary. Benjamin offers a variety of scenarios in which a diplomatic demeanour has allowed him to correct issues and gain a loyal customer.

If it all seems a bit self-congratulatory, I don’t think it’s meant to be. Benjamin seems genuinely dedicated to the idea of hospitality and really wants his guests to enjoy their meals.

I was a bit taken aback at his reiteration of turning tables in 75 minutes; most restaurants offer at least 90 minutes to 2 hours, with that time frame expressed up front at the time of reservation. (And who among us hasn’t been annoyed at the idea of having to eat and get out in 2 hours?) A mere hour and fifteen minutes allotted per table means that his staff have to perform not a well-orchestrated ballet but a highland fling to keep guests eating and moving at the right rate.

Other than that, most of his system seems to make sense, based on my own restaurant experience and training.

Ultimately, most of Front of House comes down to being kind, doing whatever you can for the customer (within reason), and ensuring that staff are well-trained and knowledgeable. This is a great guide for the average restaurant customer, but while it’s useful for restaurant owners and staff, it won’t serve as a detailed training manual.

Book Review — Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes

Nova Scotia Cookery, Then and Now: Modern Interpretations of Heritage Recipes
edited by Valerie Mansour
Nimbus, 2017

As long as people have lived in Nova Scotia, there has been a need to cook and thus, a need for recipes. While many cooks of the past needed no written instruction, keeping all the details in their heads, once the popularity of cookbooks grew, plenty of regional recipes were shared through books (both mainstream and community publications), newspapers, and on scraps of paper, either handwritten or typed.

The Nova Scotia Archives has, well, an archive of old recipes, from handwritten notes for a lemon pie to the mass quantity recipes used at the old Moirs’ chocolate factory. Editor Valerie Mansour has compiled a collection of these, dating back nearly 200 years from 1786 to the 1970s and arranged chronologically. For a fun twist, the recipes were passed on to various Nova Scotia chefs who then analyzed the recipe and made their own version.

In some cases they stuck to the original recipe and in others the chefs deviated far off track because the original was just too scary or unworkable. Each entry includes an image of the original recipe in its original form, the revised recipe developed by the chef, and the chef’s comments, as well as a splendid, mouth-warering photo by Len Wagg.

The collection includes expected favourites such as rice pudding, devilled eggs, seafood chowder, rappie pie, and ginger beer, but there’s a Thai peanut soup recipe from 1910, and a Mulligatawny recipe from 1922 that reveals a worldly sophistication not typically ascribed to Nova Scotians of the time.

Recipes range from cocktails and cider to hearty entrees, side dishes, and desserts, and every Nova Scotian will find an old family favourite among the pages.

While some of the chef’s might have taken more artistic license with their dish than was absolutely necessary, this is a fun and interesting collection that offers updated versions of classic dishes that are within the grasp of the majority of home cooks. Some of the best reading in the book is the detailed archival citation of each recipe in a section at the back which cites the sources for each entry, and references community cookbooks, private collections, and publications ranging from promotional corporate cookbooks to community fundraising books.

As an ex-pat Nova Scotian, this book is a delightful taste of home, but it is also a wonderful resource for anybody interested in food history or Nova Scotian cuisine (past and present) in general.

Smörgåsbord – Mamakas Tavern

mamakas_mule

I am terrible these days for going out to try new restaurants and either just not taking photos or taking a pile and never uploading the things. So hurrah that it’s only taken me about a month to remember that we had a fantastic meal at Mamakas Tavern.

Mamakas is a fresh take on Greek cuisine, and it’s being touted as the best Greek restaurant in Toronto. It’s certainly a few steps up from the tired pile o’ dips and sad souvlaki typically found on the Danforth, and it’s scored fantastic reviews from both The Star and The Globe in the past few months. Which is why the place was packed on a Tuesday night.

Chef Chris Kalisperas and owner Thanos Tripi keep the menu innovative and fresh, based on what is good that week – many things we had (below) or that were on the menu during our visit have since been replaced with other dishes.

Enjoyed it very much, stoked to go back.

Above: A Mataxa Mule cocktail with Metaxa 7, ginger beer, lemon and lime, and cardamom bitters.

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Book Review – A Treasury of Great Recipes

pricebookA Treasury of Great Recipes
Mary and Vincent Price
Dover Publications; 50 Anv edition, 512 pages

You’d hear stories about people finding copies in used book stores. Or thrift shops where an unknowing relative had dumped the belongings of a deceased loved one, never knowing what an actual treasure they were giving away. There was a small re-pressing in 1974, but for decades, people talked about it with a bittersweet awe, for only a lucky few would ever possess it.

Until now.

Last month, A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price was republished in all its original 1965 glory.

Yes, that Vincent Price.

It seems the actor was a great gourmand, and along with his wife Mary, an enthusiastic home cook. Both were avid travellers who enjoyed trying new restaurants. Together they toured the world, eating in the best bistros and cafes, convincing chefs along the way to share their recipes, and writing a number of cookbooks together. Because if you were a chef in the early 1960s and Vincent Price showed up at the door of your kitchen, wouldn’t you give him a recipe when he asked for it?

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Alo! Alo!

alo_oyster

So these are from a visit on July 29th (was sick, then travelling, then sick again… really. Stupid recirculated airplane air.), so the menu at Alo might have completely changed in the meantime, but we were so taken with Chef Patrick Kriss’ lovely new spot at Queen and Spadina that I couldn’t just leave these photos sitting on my hard drive.

In a city where the dining scene has become a rush to line up for the opening of the latest burger joint, it is really refreshing to see someone doing refined cuisine. French food doesn’t have to be stuffy and Kriss and general manager Amanda Bradley have created a spot that is both welcoming and comfortable. There are no white table clothes, but we did get lots of cutlery.

While the food and service were sheer perfection, professionally executed without being overbearing, both Kriss and Bradley keep a keen eye out for any issues. They both noticed me smelling my hands after a trip to the washroom (scented soap in restaurants is one of my biggest peeves), and put out some unscented soap to accommodate me.

And while the room got busier as the evening progressed, an earlier reservation (on a sunny day) means getting to experience the room as it lights up with a beautiful pinkish glow as the sun sets to the west and shines through the row of windows looking down onto Spadina.

The menu is 4 courses with 2 options at each course, plus plenty of  amuse bouche, pre-desserts and fun things in between.

Fabulous food, fabulous room, can’t wait to go back.

Shown above: Lameque oyster, watercress, salsify, cultured cream.

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Smörgåsbord – The Tastes of Hamilton: Brux House and Quatrefoil

brux_beets

Recently my husband Greg and I got to spend a day in Hamilton. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t travelled a lot in the past few years, so a trip – even just as far as Hamilton, even if we had to take a stinky Greyhound, and even if the main purpose was for a beer festival – was still a trip. And if I could bargain a visit to the lovely Quatrefoil Restaurant in nearby Dundas out of the deal in exchange for sitting around at a beer festival for hours, all the better.

Incidentally, the Because Beer Festival at Pier 4 Park in Hamilton, overlooking the lovely Hamilton Harbour, was delightful. Okay, I mostly sat at a picnic table by the water watching boats and geese while Greg drank and schmoozed, but it was well organized and relaxing.

We arrived in Hamilton around lunchtime, rolled through the gorgeous original art deco bus station and headed to Brux House, a craft beer restaurant in the Locke Street shopping district, which is incidentally also owned by the folks who own Quatrefoil. Chef Fraser Macfarlane heads the kitchen in both locations, joined by chef Georgina Mitropoulos at Quatrefoil.

Both places share a similar aesthetic – set up in old houses, with a subdued glamour, and attentive servers; Brux House is slightly more relaxed and laid back, Quatrefoil is pretty and elegant and they fold your napkin while you’re in the loo.

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Boralia – Historical Canadian Cuisine for the Modern Palate

boralia_onions

Boralia
59 Ossington Avenue
647-351-5100
@Boralia_To

Smoke gets in your eyes. Just momentarily, but as we enter Boralia, a server walks past with a dish of mussels smoked in pine needles leaving a waft of wood smoke behind them. It’s a good smell – not just camp-fire-like, but green and woodsy. As other tables order the dish the smell lingers, like a less-cloying Canadiana-themed incense.

At a time when Toronto is so busy celebrating food from other countries and cultures, we often forget about the homegrown delicacies created around us. Canadian cuisine is hard to define, and as a young and growing country we tend to look forward, not back, but Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris have built a whole restaurant around historic dishes. Morris comes to Toronto from Nova Scotia via the Okanagan, while Wu – who mostly runs front of house here – has worked in kitchens around the world from Coi in San Francisco to the infamous The Fat Duck. They met while working together in BC, later married, and moved to Toronto to open a restaurant after coming across a collection of historical recipes from Nova Scotia.

The room is elegant and modern, with subtle touches of Canadiana – menus are bound in leather, a sculpture of a wolf greets guests as they exit the washrooms – that never devolves into cutesy or twee.

Most items on the menu have a date associated with them, indicating the date of origin of the recipe. Morris and Wu have pored over historical cookbooks, but have also modernized things, so some dishes are a surprise when they appear at the table looking nothing like we expected.

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