Join in the Chant – Checking out Chantecler

“Fuck, that’s amazing!” Jacob Wharton-Shukster laughs out loud at my exclamation upon my first mouthful of Chantecler’s polenta and calls over Chef Jonathan Poon and repeats what I’ve said. Poon smiles widely, but shyly, and doesn’t miss a beat as he continues to plate dishes at Chantecler’s pass on a busy Wednesday night, their third day in business.

These guys had a fight with the city to even open their doors – the former Mangez sandwich shop didn’t have an existing liquor license and by default, in an effort to keep out clubs and bars, local councillor Gord Perks tries to block any new liquor license in his Parkdale riding. Perks has the theoretical best interest of the neighbourhood at heart, but you can’t block progress, and new restaurants and businesses, if they are small and community-minded, actually help a place like Parkdale thrive.

Three days in and Chantecler (1320 Queen Street West) is obviously thriving. The 26-seat restaurant quickly fills, with Wharton-Shukster running front of house and mixing up some killer cocktails – Chantecler even has a twist for old cranks like me who aren’t into the cocktail craze – house-made tonic to go with my gin. I like this place already. And the husband is over the moon because they’re serving cask ale.

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The Grove is Gonna Be Groovy

Do not adjust your screens. I know I already wrote a preview of The Grove back in November when I attended a pop-up dinner in conjunction with First Drop Canada. At that point, owners Fritz Wahl, Richard Reyes and Chef Ben Heaton were expecting their Dundas Street restaurant to be ready to go before Christmas. As is the case in the restaurant industry, there were a few delays, and when I attended the real sneak preview pop-up dinner last Friday (also hosted by First Drop Canada, and with proceeds going to Greenest City), they were still awaiting their liquor license.

The good news is that everything else is done and that they’ll be holding their grand opening party this Saturday, March 10th from 6pm onwards. The other good news is that, unlike the previous dinner where Heaton was cooking in a makeshift kitchen in a woodshop, this time he was getting a chance to try out his own custom-built space.

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Ursa is Major

I want to get myself a top hat and cane and stand outside the newly-opened Ursa (924 Queen Street West) and yell at passersby to lure them in, much like a sideshow hawker, except that Ursa is neither a circus or a freak show. You will, however, not believe your eyes, as plate after plate is placed before you and you are astounded that food can be not only beautiful and delicious but also healthy.

Taking over the old Bar One space, complete with a full gut job down to brick walls and the uber-trendy Edison-style bulbs (LED though, because it’s more environmentally-friendly) brothers Jacob and Lucas Sharkey Pearce have translated their work as Two Brothers Foods Inc. (where they created nutritionally-dense bespoke menus for high-end clients including professional athletes) to some combination of art, nutrition and fabulous flavour.

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Hopgood’s Foodliner Rocks the East Coast Flavours

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.

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Smörgåsbord – Bannock

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the media preview event at Oliver & Bonacini’s Bannock at the Hudson’s Bay flagship store (401 By Street) at Yonge and Queen, but those events, while fun and full of free samples, are never really reflective of what the restaurant is like during regular service. Of course, it took a few weeks to get back; Greg and I arrived once without a reservation for dinner and the place was packed. So we popped in for lunch a week or so later and managed to score a table and check out what Chef Anthony Walsh had done with a menu that doubles as a love song to Canadian cuisine and Canadian history.

Teaming up with the Bay and creating a restaurant featuring Canadian comfort food was a no-brainer. As in, why didn’t someone think of this before? The space is both modern and sleek and drenched in history – step into the dining room portion of the space and look up – the ceiling is made from planks of The Queen’s Wharf, a 244 foot long wharf that once stood at the foot of Bathurst Street and was buried/underwater until 2006 when it was unearthed during excavations for a condo tower. The walls, which also look like wooden planks, are actually concrete. How’s that for modern history?

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Smörgåsbord – Keriwa Cafe

We talk a lot about seasonal, local food, but the ultimate in this type of cuisine has to be the food of the First Nations people, who predate the rest of us by thousands of years. European settlers relied on help from First Nations communities when they arrived in Canada, but a lot of what we look at as being “seasonal and local” really isn’t at all, it’s comprised of foodways that were imported.

Toronto has never had a restaurant featuring Aboriginal cuisine that I’m aware of, so Keriwa Cafe (1690 Queen Street West) has both a clean slate, and a lot to prove. There is little precedent for Aboriginal dishes in fine dining, but can Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe make it high-end enough to bring in an upscale clientele (who will “rough it” into the wilderness of Parkdale for the novelty and trendiness factor, but need to be turned into returning regulars to keep the business running), and rustic enough to keep the cuisine true to its roots?

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Smörgåsbord – The Bohemian Gastropub

The word “bohemian” and Queen West have gone hand in hand for decades. From the original Bohemian Embassy in the 1960s (an artsy coffeehouse that was a launchpad for artists such as Margaret Atwood, Gordon Lightfoot and Lorne Michaels) to the various groups of artists, musicians, goths, punks and others who have frequented Queen West over the years (we’ll pointedly ignore the condo project at Queen & Gladstone with the same name, which is a sad riff on previous subcultures and is pretty much the antithesis of anything even remotely bohemian within the current definition of the word), it’s safe to say that Queen Street is where you’d find any bohemians in Toronto.

The recently-opened Bohemian Gastropub (571 Queen Street West), however, is not meant to reference the downtown sub-cultures, but is both a play on owner Paul Boehmer’s name and the actual region of Bohemia, part of the current Czech Republic, bordering on Germany. So a Bohemian Gastropub has hearty Eastern European food with influences of Germany, Poland and Austria.

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Smörgåsbord – La Societe

There’s probably no excuse for having photos of a meal on my computer for 6 weeks and not getting around to writing about a place. We dined at La Societe Bistro (131 Bloor Street West) in early July. I’m extremely happy to see someone putting some love and care back into the space. While I’m not your typical Yorkville restaurant-goer, I have fond memories of the space back in the 80s when it was called The Bermuda Onion and the upper patio was covered in sand, and my roommates and I would sit out there drinking Harvey Wallbangers and dreaming of owning that Gaultier dress in the window of Creed’s (damn, I’m old).

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Smörgåsbord – Acadia

The story of the Acadians was part of the history of the place where I grew up. French settlers on the Bay of Fundy shore of Nova Scotia were expelled from the province in the mid 1700s when they refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Britain. The French settlers ended up scattered all along the eastern seaboard of the US, particularly in the rural areas of Louisiana, where many French-owned plantations made the settlers feel at home.

While many Acadians eventually returned to Acadie (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI) enough stayed in the Louisiana low country and adapted to the life there that the Cajun culture was born. Food, in particular, was still based around the rustic French food they knew and cooked up north, but began to encompass local ingredients and cooking techniques.

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Smörgåsbord – The Bowery

We got to check out The Bowery (55 Colborne Street) a few weeks ago. Chef Tawfik Shehata is doing the exec gig both here and over at The Ballroom, with Chef Jason Maw running the day to day. Both chefs were on hand the night we dropped by with a couple of friends, and we tried a number of dishes that were very impressive. Above, the grilled octopus with tomato confit, nicoise olives, baby arugula, polenta and squid ink aioli. Nice tender bits of squid and the aioli was really interesting – it looks a little odd on the plate, but it has a great flavour of garlic and squid.

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Summer Reading – Lunch With Lady Eaton

Lunch with Lady Eaton – Inside the Dining Rooms of a Nation
Carol Anderson and Katharine Mallinson
206 pages, Ecw Press; April, 2004

When the first department stores opened across the country, they were considered to be (as they sometimes still are now) the death knell for small Mom & Pop stores that specialized in one niche market. And while some department stores like Wal-Mart continue to expand their grocery offering, higher-end shops have all but wiped out their food and grocery departments to specialize in higher-end luxury goods. But there was a time when Canadian department stores not only sold every dry good item imaginable, but they also made and sold food, both in their restaurants and as grocery items.

Case in point would be the long-defunct Eaton’s. The beloved Canadian department store chain began as a dry goods and hardware store under the guidance of founder Timothy Eaton. Early on, the store included coffee shops and restaurants in addition to a massive food hall. Eaton’s made their own baked goods on site, they owned dairies in rural Ontario which supplied the cream for the store to make its own butter, and by the early 1900s, the lunchroom of the downtown Toronto store was serving 5000 meals a day.

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The Restaurant Website – What the Hell Are You Doing?

I just rebooted my computer.

Who cares, you might ask. But I had to reboot my system because I was visiting the website of a local restaurant and the PDF file of their menu caused my operating system to freeze. This would be mildly annoying if it was the only time I ever encountered it, but it actually happens on a regular basis. Between the PDFs, the crap flash websites and sites that are just never updated, restaurants make my job of writing about them like pulling teeth, only with a lot more tears and crying.

Look, I get the fact that not everybody is good at (or interested in) everything. Cooks wanna cook, they don’t want to waste their time mucking around with computer stuff or marketing campaigns or anything that isn’t, well, cooking. I get it. Just about everybody who works in a creative field, making things to sell to other people, feels the same way. Farmers hate dragging their produce to market, craftspeople hate dragging their wares to shows, authors hate doing book tours, and chefs hate taking time out of the kitchen to deal with paperwork.

But it’s a reality of life.

One that more restaurants should embrace, because your website is the most important tool you have in marketing your business. It’s a 24-hour-a-day business card that can make people want to try your food or never set foot in your place ever. More than Twitter, Facebook or any other online social networking site, their own website is where restaurants need to be concentrating their efforts.

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School’s In For Summer at the Drake Hotel

Okay, so let’s be honest, it’s like no school cafeteria you’ve ever been in before; the tables are made from old bowling alley floors, the wall are covered in kitsch, and the juice boxes are spiked. But if you’re going to convert your hotel restaurant dining room into an ongoing art project, one in which the whole thing, including the menu, changes up every few months, school cafeteria food is surely a fun place to start. And of course, the food has got to be memorable too.

Chef Anthony Rose and the staff at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West) have a winner on their hands with the first instalment of the “Dining Roadshow”. Recent popular culture is rife with grown-ups wanting to act and look like children, so an opportunity to return to summer school for an evening and reminisce goes over like gangbusters with the crowd at the media preview earlier this week. We flipped through a menu presented in duo-tangs (menu order forms look like those dreaded fill-in-the-circle test sheets) and pulled condiments out of lunchboxes on each table.

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Quince’s Indonesian Rijsttafel

Quick – tell me your favourite Indonesian restaurant in Toronto. Can’t do it? That’s because they don’t exist. Seriously, Google “Indonesian restaurant Toronto” and you get hits for a Thai restaurant, a Malaysian restaurant and a Vietnamese restaurant. And while those 3 cuisines are similar in many ways to Indonesian food, there’s a different interplay of spices and ingredients that make Indonesian food unique.

I first got hooked on Indonesian food back in the 80s, when the food court in the basement of Dragon City Mall had an Indonesian kiosk where my roommates and I could try various dishes to our heart’s content. I had no point of comparison at that time, so I don’t remember if it was particularly good Indonesian food, but since there are no other Indonesian places in Toronto (and no, nasi goreng at Movenpick Marche doesn’t count), I haven’t had much opportunity for comparison. Until last week.

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Brisket on Wheels – Caplansky’s Gets Around Town

The problem with the restaurant biz is that most restaurants are stationary. Folks have got to come to you to enjoy your food. But Zane Caplansky of Caplansky’s Delicatessen (356 College Street) has his wheels spinning in other directions with a bunch of new initiatives that take the restaurant to the customer.

Earlier this week, Caplansky’s did their very first bicycle-powered lunch delivery. The deli owner bought two large, sturdy bikes with sizeable baskets, and now customers within a downtown delivery area (Dupont to Queen, University to Ossington) can, for a $5 delivery fee, have their smoked meat sandwich delivered to their home or office. Caplansky points out that the bikes are a low-maintenance, high-capacity delivery apparatus – each bike can hold a minimum of 2 orders and with 2 bikes, he can send staff in different directions at the same time. It’s also a respite for his kitchen staff, who can take a break from bussing or dishwashing for a quick bike ride to make a delivery. And while Caplansky works with a local food delivery company to serve a wider geographic area, he points out that the bike system is more local and more personal. Not to mention more efficient in downtown traffic.

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Lahore Tikka House Trades a Trailer for a Tent

They’re gone. After years of construction delays and flapping tarps, the two trailers that served as a makeshift restaurant have been torn down as the main floor of Lahore Tikka House (1365 Gerrard Street East) opens for business. I was there on the weekend to take a photo to go with my piece on Toronto.com and happened to run into owner Alnoor Sayani, who happily showed me around.

The space directly east of the building where the trailers once stood is now home to a giant tent and patio area. Decorated with saris and colourful fabric as well as thousands of tiny lights, it’s already easy to imagine dining here on a hot summer night. Sayani points out where landscaping is still to be added, as well as a spot out front that will house a fountain. Large glass garage doors on the east side of the building also open up to make the whole indoor space feel like a giant patio.

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They’ve Got Sausages at Marben and They’re Happy to See You

It seems as if every chef worth their weight in pork belly has been playing around with sausage-making lately. And with sausage and hot dog restaurants showing up as the next big trend, we’re all going to be eating many more of the things in the near future. So why not pit local chefs against each other to see who truly makes the best wurst.

Ryan Donovan and the gang at Marben (488 Wellington Street West) have decided to do just that. Throughout the spring and summer, select Wednesdays (2 each month) will see Sausage League take over the restaurant. While Marben’s regular menu will still be on offer, guests will have the option of ordering the sausage special for $25. What they’ll get is two dishes – one prepared by each chef – and they’ll get to choose their favourite. The chef who gets the most votes each night will move on to the next round of competition.

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SalivATE – March 2011

This month’s food porn starts with a meal at Jam Cafe (195 Carlton Street). Never heard of it? It’s a charming neighbourhood bistro just west of Cabbagetown that we happened across about a month ago when we were looking for somewhere to eat before a concert at the Phoenix. Besides the fact that the space is absolutely darling, the food is really great and classic bistro fare. Above is the applewood smoked trout with horseradish crème fraîche and homemade apple & onion soda bread.

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