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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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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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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Toronto’s Got Fleas!

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While most people will still flock to the mall for their shopping needs, Toronto has a whole sub-culture of individuals who are looking for unique and interesting stuff – whether that’s clothing, food, or gift and decor items – and they’ve been finding these cool and creative wares at one of the many neighbourhood-based flea markets that have popped up around the city over the past couple of years.

These are not the junky flea markets of the 70s, full of bags of tube sox and rock band logos silkscreened onto mirrors (not that there’s anything wrong with those fleas – they have a special place in our hearts). Nor are these events a “yard sale” type set-up where individuals sell stuff from their attic or basement. Rather, the new breed of fleas are a carefully curated blend of work by young designers, artisans, and artists, along with some of the best vintage vendors in the city.

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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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Join Me For Dinner – May 5th at The Depanneur

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So the brilliant folks at The Depanneur have started a cool weekly new program called Table Talks where they invite people involved in the Toronto food scene – from farmers and producers to local food writers – to drop by each week for an hour-long informal “around the kitchen table” sort of talk. Owner Len Senater cooks up something tasty and everyone shares a meal while discussing a pre-determined issue or topic related to that week’s guest.

I’ll be the featured guest on Tuesday, May 5th from 7 – 8pm where I’ll be talking about Canadian long-form food writing; specifically the lack of diverse voices and foodways in Canadian food writing and why we should all care about not just keeping the food stories of our past alive but why we should be expanding our views to encompass all Canadians.

There will be copies of Stained Pages Press titles for sale and a stack of my favourite Canadian food books to peruse. Not sure what Len is planning on cooking up just yet, but it’s guarantee to be tasty and inexpensive.

The Depanneur is at 1033 College Street, and the talk takes place on Tuesday May 5th at 7pm.

I hope to see you there!

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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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Chowing Down for Change

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Last week I had the chance to attend a fantastic dinner event called Chefs For Change. Yes, there are a variety of these types of events taking place throughout the year, many of which are formal with a high ticket price. However, this very reasonably-priced event ($75, drinks extra) not only directed funds to a very worthy cause, it was one of those great occasions when guests got to see a gang of local chefs from different restaurants all working together. Food was mostly served family-style with all the chefs and a team of students from George Brown College creating the dishes.

This series of events (there are three more – Jan 30th, Feb 20th & Feb 27th – all sold out) all take place at Propeller Coffee, a spacious coffee roastery on Wade Avenue (Bloor/Lansdowne) that has both a huge prep area and event space.

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Theatre Review – BOOM

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Rick Miller’s BOOM. Image from the BOOM website.

 

In my house, the correct answer to the question “Beatles or Stones?” is “The Kinks”; the defining event of 1969 is not the moon landing but the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family. Which is to say, and is probably said so often I might sound like a broken record, I don’t have a whole lot of interest in mainstream culture. Even if it’s from a different era.

For the Boomer generation, who are now well into retirement, the mainstream culture of their youth is what they’re now remembering fondly. Shake-ups, assassinations, fear of war, sure, but as a whole, the weird and wonderful bits of the era tend to be forgotten in favour of a sometimes idealized, sanitized collection of events.

Rick Miller’s BOOM, then, while brilliantly executed, visually breath-taking, and painstakingly researched, is the mainstream version of the Boomer story.

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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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Theatre Review – The Stronger Variations

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Christmas Eve – a woman walks into a cafe to see her friend, who also happens to be her husband’s mistress, sitting alone at a table. A confrontation ensues – one-sided, in which the wife talks and the mistress listens, reacting only via facial expressions or laughter. The play from 1889 by August Strindberg is a mere ten minutes long, but is so easily open to interpretation, to variances and nuances, that the variations Theatre Rusticle present under the direction of Allyson McMackon could be endless.

Set in the 1950s and originally presented with a cast of three (Liza Balkan, Viv Moore, Lucy Rupert) this most recent adaptation of the play runs with the addition of Chala Hunter and Andrya Duff, allowing even more variations as each actress takes turns playing either the wife or the mistress with the use of simple props such as a hat or a shopping bag full of presents.

The variations range from sweet and naive to bitter and pained; Moore (my friend and neighbour) offers the mistress as demon early on in one of the funniest interpretations; while Hunter and Duff, in a scene choreographed by Simon Fon, give us a full-on WWF-worthy knock-down drag-out cat fight complete with hair pulling and face scratching. Sure, it’s slightly predictable, but how else do you create momentum in a show that is the same dialogue over and over? Besides it was brilliantly executed and completely fun to watch. As was the delightful slipper dance scene. More poignantly, some variations appear to verge on emotional breakdown as the wife details how the mistress, without any contact or communication, seems to have inserted herself into the wife’s very soul.

While the bulk of the dialogue centres around a (slightly updated) version of Strindberg’s original play, McMackon has wisely added a few scenes of additional dialogue that give the characters more depth and empathy, such as each actor in the role of the mistress remembering their first kiss, or a scene where the wife runs around the stage as the other actors dance about, begging them to stop repeating the same sad story – after all, the work, written in 1889, is still relevant today.

In fact, I desperately wanted a variation where wife and mistress commiserated, said “ahhh, to hell with him and his stupid slippers with the tulip embroidery” and shared a drink while they trashed dear husband and his philandering ways. But Strindberg’s original theme remains clear; despite the wife’s claims of inner strength, or the audience’s hope she will achieve some form of self-actualization – family – home and family, come first. Has she fought for her man and won, or is she the sad loser headed home to the man who cheated on her?

The Stronger Variations runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until December 7th.

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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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Awesome Thing (That I Made!) – Scones That Are Flaky not Cakey

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When did flaky scones become a thing?

Growing up in Nova Scotia, scones in our house were always fried. We had tea biscuits, which are the closest in texture to what we now refer to as a scone, but they were dense and cakey, never flaky with discernible layers. We had heard of Southern biscuits, which were known to be flaky, and were served with savoury foods such as chicken and gravy, but they never graced our plates. If a bread product made an appearance at supper it was a nice white dinner roll, or possibly brown bread (made with molasses).

But the flaky scone is what we’re all after here in Toronto. I’ve no idea if flaky is what they go for at Betty Windsor’s house, but here, we can’t get enough of those layers and layers of rich, buttery dough. There are a few places now to buy gorgeous flaky scones, and it was after reading an interview with the owner of shop Baker & Scone that I resumed my search for a decent recipe.

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Awesome Thing (That I Made!) – Feathered Hat Pins

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For decades, I wasn’t able to wear hats. The things just didn’t look right on me. Then a year or so ago I changed my hair slightly and all of a sudden, hats looked grand! I celebrated by buying many of the things. Which was suddenly easy because hats had become stylish again. Or at least basic hats had become stylish again. Fedoras, pork pies, cloches in basic colours. Outside of weddings and horse races, women still weren’t getting their Downton on, even though I think we all secretly wanted to. Damn Toronto’s conservative streak.

In any case, I was tired of wearing plain hats so I started making feathery pins that I could mix and match amongst my hat collection. A couple of these are reworked pins from hats I bought long ago from the amazing Gina at Retro G when she had a shop on Queen West (and never wore, because hats looked dumb on me then), but the majority are whipped up from a pile of goodies bought at Sussman’s on Queen West.

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Awesome Thing – Halloween Greetings

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Back in olde times, Halloween wasn’t the big deal it is today. The trick or treating, the parties, it just wasn’t as prominent. Although, as the ladies above demonstrate, the “sexy” costume dates back to at least the 1920s (honestly, no idea where this image came from or if it’s at all Halloween-related, I just dig the flappers).

One thing that does seem to have a place in history is the Halloween postcard, and the Toronto Public Library has an extensive collection. Even better, a great number of the things are online for your enjoyment. Most seem to be from the early 20th century, and range from the adorable to the downright creepy.

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Awesome Thing – Fashion Blows

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Anyone who follows fashion will have heard of Isabella Blow, the iconic stylist who was  fixture on the UK fashion scene. She was known for her fantastic wardrobe, purchasing Alexander McQueen’s entire 1992 St. Martin’s College MA collection and launching his career.

Blow committed suicide in 2007 and her entire wardrobe was sold to another UK fashion icon, Daphne Guinness.

As part of a fund-raising initiative for the Isabella Blow Foundation, Guinness has brought part of Blow’s collection, as well as a few piece from her own extensive wardrobe, to The Bay at Yonge and Queen in an exhibit entitled Fashion Blows.

The fund-raising part was a swank dinner, for the rest of us, the exhibit is free to view, set up throughout The Room, the Bay’s upscale fashion boutique. Blow’s well-worn pieces (complete with stains and cigarette burns – she didn’t believe in keeping fashion for special occasions) include many items by McQueen, as well as Galliano, Gaultier and Dior. It’s a beautiful selection of Blow’s memorable pieces (most with her famous Phillip Treacy hats) and the styling fully captures her spirit.

The exhibit runs until November 1st.

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Full press release here.

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Fixing the Vote – or Why Toronto Needs to Find a Better Way to Choose Its Politicians

vote-ballot-boxIt’s the day after election day, and like most people, you’re probably exhausted and feeling full of ennui. After a 10 month campaign, Toronto finally got rid of Rob Ford (sort of, but not really) and chose that other guy, solely because he is not a Ford.

The problem is less about our actual politicians, however, and more about how we got here in the first place. This election has been full of chaos, drama, racism, misogyny, and assorted other clusterfuckedness that made the whole process horrific.

So here are my humble suggestions…

Make It Shorter
A shorter campaign duration would be beneficial to everyone; candidates and voters. A 10 -month campaign just drags out the worst parts of the process (debates, mud-slinging) and by election day everyone is just frustrated.

There would need to be a way to allow candidates to raise funds, so we could begin registration in July, but prohibit debates, etc. until after Labour Day.

Speaking of fund-raising, we should also look at tightening campaign financing rules. The City of Toronto will be writing large tax receipts to residents of Mississauga who donated to Rob Ford’s campaign. This really shouldn’t happen and there needs to be a rule that candidates can only accept donations from Toronto residents.

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Awesome Thing – Brooches from StoryFolk

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Who is your favourite fictional character? Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice? Goldilocks? Romeo and Juliet? Maybe Anna Karenina? Wouldn’t you love to have an adorable brooch with their image on it?

Christine Su is the mastermind behind StoryFolk, and creates felt brooches of a vast array of characters from literature, from the gingerbread man to Gatsby and Daisy. Her work is super cute and very well done and it’s incredibly hard to choose just one. She’ll also bring beloved characters to life via custom orders.

Perfect for the bookworm in your life for this upcoming gift-giving season.

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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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