Smörgåsbord – Mamakas Tavern

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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!

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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

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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

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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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Taste of Toronto Festival

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Toronto may not be included in the Michelin guide, but we’re the only North American city to be part of the Taste Festival series, which visits 22 cities each year, bringing together some of the best local food businesses and restaurants for a weekend-long celebration of cuisine.

A well-curated selection of small food businesses (Mad Mexican, Mary Mcleod’s Shortbread), innovative products (Ninutik Maple Sugar, hisbicus tea from Nuba Tisane), local restaurants both small and large, and some larger corporate exhibitors (Pilsner Urquell, San Pellegrino) along with a variety of stages featuring chefs both local and international (Mark McEwan, Jonathan Waxman, Masaharu Morimoto, who is opening a restaurant in Toronto soon), make the Taste of Toronto festival accessible and interesting to everyone.

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Got Game?

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Crispy Masala Quail from The Queen & Beaver. Photo by Q&B chef Andrew Berry-Ashpole.

Hey y’all! A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to write a feature on local game meat for Toronto’s weekly indie NOW Magazine. Just adding some linkage here to prove it actually happened. 🙂

Got Game – why more Toronto shops and restaurants don’t offer wild-caught meat.

Top 5 places to buy game meat in Toronto.

Top 5 game dishes from Toronto restaurants.

 

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Awesome Thing – Geraldine’s Parisienne Milk Punch

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At the beginning of January, the last thing anybody wants to hear about is milk punch, am I right? Weeks of parties full of cloying egg nog, resolutions to get fit… there is no place in there for a punch made with milk. Or so I thought.

On New Year’s Eve the hubbs and I celebrated our 17th anniversary at the lovely Geraldine restaurant (1564 Queen Street West). The menu was resplendent with oysters, foie gras and duck, and despite a massive hangover from a party the night before I was tempted by a couple of the fabulous cocktails created by bar manager Michael Mooney. Specifically the Parisienne Milk Punch, inspired by the Jerry Thomas Bartender’s Guide from 1862,which balances absinthe with a variety of aromatics, juices, rums and tea along with milk. Milk? Ugh! I was skeptical, but our server convinced me with a “just wait and see!”

The end result is not a creamy, gloppy drink at all, but a light, refreshing, fruity cocktail that is surprisingly clear but also amusingly smooth. Flavourwise, it reminded me of a very intricate Tiger Tail ice cream, which is never a bad thing.

It turns out that the trick to this type of milk cocktail is to mix all of the fruit, juices, herbs and liquors together to infuse, then add hot milk… and let it curdle. Yep. The drink is then strained so that the curds are removed, leaving the whey of the milk behind to create that silky smoothness.

The folks at Geraldine were kind enough to share the recipe with Sarah Parniak of NOW last month in a piece about party punches, but the recipe serves 30, includes 14 ingredients, and must infuse for 48 hours. Easier to just head over to Geraldine where a single Parisienne Milk Punch will set you back $13 or get the “tea service” (for the table, wink wink) for $48.

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Where To Eat in Toronto on Christmas Day – 2014 Edition

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You crazy kids have been hitting the 2012 edition of this post so much (there wasn’t one last year), my site stats are going to be pitiful come December 26th. But it seems that there are an awful lot of you out there who have no intention of sitting around with the family wearing those silly hats that come in the Christmas crackers, and who instead want to have someone else do the cooking and cleaning for you on the big day.

I have concentrated on downtown Toronto, but if you’re in the burbs, I think David Ort of Post City is planning a list with a wider range. Even though my list is cross-referenced and confirmed, I’d still recommend calling to book a reservation at anything other than the most casual places, and reservations are required for any of the hotel restaurants.

Enjoy!

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Smörgåsbord – A Week of Meat at Amsterdam Brewhouse, Canoe and Pork Ninjas

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Good luck, bad luck and multi-course dinners with lots of meat – all things that come in threes, apparently, as Greg and I discovered this past week as we tucked in to three very different mighty meaty meals, each amazing in its own way.

On Thursday, November 20th, we joined the brewers at Amsterdam Brewhouse for a fantastic meal that paired each course with both a beer from Amsterdam and a wine from Good Earth Winery. They’ve done a few of these events before and it’s always fun to see which works better with the food – beer or wine. Chef Avaughn Wells sent out some wonderful dishes so we were all happy campers indeed.

Amsterdam does these events with some regularity and at an average of $65 per person, they’re a great deal, especially when you consider the meal included a bottle of Amsterdam’s 2014 Barrel Aged Sour Cherry Imperial Stout to take home.

(Above: Hand-cut fettuccine with brown sage butter, roasted butternut squash, charred collard greens, roasted chestnut and charred lemon. Paired with Amsterdam’s 18 Hands – Rustic Pale Ale and Good Earth’s 2010 Chardonnay.)

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Smörgåsbord – Nuit Social

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Nuit Social
1168 Queen Street West
647-350-6848

While Toronto is generally tired of “small plates” (which were really just a way to charge big prices for not much food), real tapas bars are still a novelty. Ones that pull off an authentic style of service as well as serving great food are even more rare, which is why I’m kind of stoked to have Nuit Social within walking distance of home.

Chef John Rosal’s menu is designed for sharing, but is completely customizable. Separate sections for meat, olives and cheese have around eight options each (plus specials) and are all available as one, three or five choices, allowing diners to create bespoke platters, and more importantly, try new selections.

An additional menu of shareable plates include sizeable portions of things like fried artichokes, arancini balls and scallops. The dessert menu is short with just three options but they are at least interesting twists on classic dishes.

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Awesome Thing – Tibetan Shabaley

shambaly

The shabaley, which doesn’t seem to exist on the Internets at all, although all of the Tibetan restaurants in Toronto’s Parkdale have their own version, is a heftier cousin to the traditional Tibetan momo.

The momo, Tibet’s version of the dumpling, can be steamed or fried, and comes with a variety of fillings, usually vegetable or beef. Momos are approximately 2 inches in diameter and are typically made from one round of dough, expertly crimped in the centre. Shabaley, on the other hand, are closer to 4 inches across, are made from two rounds of dough crimped around the circumference, are always filled with a beef, onion and spice mixture, and are always deep-fried. In terms of appearance, they vaguely resemble an empanada.

Shabaley filling (like most Tibetan food) isn’t spicy but is a unique layering of flavours that is enhanced at the table with soy and hot sauces. The pastry is thicker than the delicate momo wrapper, crisp on the outside while slightly airy inside, and vaguely, but not overwhelmingly, sweet.

Shabaley are usually served as an appetizer, four to an order, but they are extremely filling and reheat nicely the next day if you (ahem) can’t finish them all.

The shabaley pictured above come from Norling Tibetan and Hakka Cuisine (1512 Queen Street West), but most of the Tibetan restaurants in Parkdale include a version on their menus.

 

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Vive Le Québec Dîner at Biff’s

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The Oliver & Bonacini Group is a diverse collection of restaurants, many of which serve a specific niche, and a specific style of food.  Biff’s Bistro is well known for their French bistro cuisine, but the food tends to be more France-French than Quebec-French. Fortunately, O&B also gives their chefs creative license to do special events and dinners, which is how we ended up at Biff’s earlier this week for their Vive le Québec Dîner – a five-course dinner in which Chef Amanda Ray created a menu of the best French Canadian cuisine, all paired with Quebec beers (pairings by Peter Campagna, Certified Ciccerone) and ciders (paired by Mel Hilton).

These dinners are one-off events and most dishes don’t show up on the regular menu, so they’re worth checking out as they really give the chefs the opportunity to offer items and ingredients they they might not normally get to work with or serve. The Vive le Québec Dîner was $85 all in, and included five dishes with drink pairings as well as a welcome drink.

For more info on upcoming dinners, check out the Oliver & Bonacini website or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

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My Friend, Steven Davey, aka Frank

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image: NOWToronto.com

I first met Steven Davey, restaurant critic for NOW magazine, more than 10 years ago. I was running a monthly dining group called Gothic Diners in which Toronto Goths gathered for dinner at local restaurants, usually in all their black finery. Davey heard about our group through a friend of a friend and invited Greg and I, along with our friend Siobhan, to join him for dinner. He took us to the newly opened vegetarian restaurant Fressen, because it tickled his fancy to take a bunch of Goths (and our supposed vampire-inspired blood lust) to the one place where there would be no meat.

We hit it off and I soon found myself in “the rotation” – a group of Steven’s friends and acquaintances who were restaurant-positive, and who he would invite to join him for restaurant visits when he was doing reviews. That is, we liked dining out, enjoyed trying new things and could follow his detailed directions on what to order and how not to blow his cover.

He would book reservations under a false name, usually “Frank”, but on occasion he’d forget, and I’d find myself at a hostess stand, perplexed. No “Frank”. Or else I’d be seated, and watch him across the room, listing off the various names he might have used to book the reservation. One night I ran into him in line at the Drake’s BBQ take-out shop, and stood in line yelling “Hi Frank!” repeatedly until I had to walk up to him and poke him.

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One is the Loneliest Number – On Eating Alone

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Do you eat out by yourself? If so, do you differentiate in terms of where? For instance, I have no problem eating in a fast food restaurant, cafeteria or food court by myself, but am uncomfortable eating alone in a higher-end establishment. And as much as it’s nice to eat at the bar and maybe chat to the bartender, as a middle-aged woman, there’s too much of an “on the prowl” stigma going on that I’d rather not deal with.

Two different options are now available to single diners.In Amsterdam, a restaurant called Eenmaal offers a room full of tables that only seat one. While in Japan, the Moomin Cafe chain (associated with the popular animated character) seats a large stuffed toy across from patrons dining alone.

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Neither is ideal, but Eenmaal’s focus on the experience (no wifi) and the food, seems to have the best of intentions, allowing the diner to revel in the solitude, whereas at Moomin, well, you’ve got to be okay with a tophat-wearing hippo-thingie as your tablemate. Which I would find hilarious but others might just consider silly. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to try Eenmaal if the tables didn’t look so very much like desks in a Junior High basement detention room.

More about Eenmaal at Businessweek, and check out the Moomin Cafe at Dangerous Minds.

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Lucky Dip – Wednesday, April 24th, 2014

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The installations of floral artist Rebecca Louise Law require a lot of patience and absolutely no fear of heights. Law has done a variety of work for companies such as Jimmy Choo, Max Mara and others, and most of her work involves suspending individual flowers from very high ceilings. Amazingly beautiful, particularly the cathedral installations. [Via This Is Colossal]

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You know when you bite into a persimmon and it makes your mouth all “sweatery”? Here’s betting that all of the food created by artist Jessica Dance does that as well. Dance works in set design and in collaboration with food photographer David Sykes has created a series of pieces reminiscent of classic meals including a full English breakfast and Christmas dinner. [Via This Is Colossal]

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How is it that Paris, regardless of the image in the photo, always looks so romantic and intriguing? Now, get a daily dose of old French flavour with Charmade – Vintage French Photos, a Tumblr full of rare vintage French photos. [Via Messy Nessy Chic]

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Where to Eat in Toronto on Christmas Day (2012 Edition)

Heya – Updated version of this list for 2014 can be found here.

 

Despite the pervasiveness of the festive season, not everybody gives a damn about turkey and stuffing and sitting around with the family listening to some pop singer butcher the holiday favourites, for a whole variety of reasons. Some folks might want a more low-key celebration (one in which they don’t have to do the washing up) and for others, it’s just, well, Tuesday.

I’ve been putting together a “Christmas Day dining for heathens” list since the first year we ran TasteTO, and it was very popular last year when I was writing for Toronto.com. So here it is again, modified and updated and fact-checked for your dining pleasure. (Parkdalers – the Beaver is closed on Christmas Day this year, so check the list below before heading out!)

As usual, I’ve not included a lot of Chinese restaurants because they are usually open on Christmas Day as a default. However, because Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year, and many Chinese-owned businesses are closed on Tuesdays, do yourself a favour and call ahead if you’ve got a favourite spot in mind.

Also, reservations are required for all of the options offered at hotels.

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I’m so Sexy in this Pub

As a collector of pin-up art, and the wife of a beer writer, I am probably more exposed to, and less bothered by, cheeky and puerile beer labels and tap handles than other women. I don’t know if beer labels with cute (hot) cartoon babes actually sell more beer – that would be kind of a sad thing, actually – but they certainly are out there. Here in Ontario, we’re all familiar with Niagara Brewery’s Niagara’s Best Blonde, with the 40s era bombshell on the label. She is not scantily clad, mind you, in fact she’s downright wholesome, but I can see where some women would take issue with an image of a woman being used to sell and promote beer.

Of course, busty women have been a marketing default for beer companies for years, and it’s only lately, with the rising popularity of craft beer, that mainstream brewers have changed gears to be more inclusive of women, portraying them more as beer consumers and less as a set of tits in a bikini top, emerging from a lake to bring the man in the ad a crisp, cold one.

Oddly enough, the “sexy-making” in the beer industry has seemed to revert back to the little guy, with craft brewers, especially in the UK, using sexual imagery and innuendo to gain attention for their products in a market that is becoming ever more saturated with competition.

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Macleans, Restaurants and Whiny Temper Tantrums

For anyone in the restaurant industry, this week the buzz is all about Maclean’s Magazine and their Canada’s Best Restaurants edition, in which a team of food critics led by Jacob Richler picked the Top 50 restaurants in the country.

Richler knew what he was getting into – the first line of his introduction makes it clear:

However much work goes into such things, they are seldom praised and always attacked – and gleefully.

What has been surprising is just how vehement those attacks are. I’ve seen no glee, just a level of childish pettiness that is embarrassing for the entire restaurant industry.

It would be idealistic to hope that food writers and the chefs and restaurateurs they write about would aspire to a level of maturity and professionalism in their interactions. That they would approach the work of the other with a realization that the “enemy” is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability with fairness and integrity, and that other factors (editors and readers in the case of writers; business partners and staff in the case of the restaurant owners) sometimes come into play. A restaurant review should never be personal, and should never be taken that way. At its best, a review is the perfect example of a symbiotic relationship where food writer and chef help and promote each other’s businesses (a review – good or bad – gives a restaurant publicity, and a popular review helps to sell copies or push traffic to a website).

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Smörgåsbord – Acadia Rocks the 7-course Tasting Menu

When Chef Matt Blondin announced via Twitter that Acadia (50C Clinton Street) would be offering a $39, 7-course tasting menu, I’m pretty sure everybody’s first thought was, “How the hell is he going to pull that off??” But it turns out that Blondin is a pretty ingenious guy. Not only did he put together 7 courses for $39, they were actually really good and some, like the catfish breaded with pumpernickel with goat’s curd, pickled egg white and yolk and onion tops (above) has recently been added to the restaurant’s regular menu.  Follow along for the rest of what Blondin cooked up…

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