Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sassafraz (for Winterlicious)

I realized that this title should probably read '45$ for a three course meal', not 'per plate'. I'm not that rich! And Winterlicious is not that pricey- it would defeat the purpose after all, since this Toronto tradition is all about bringing food to the people. Amazing fine dining like Sassafraz set up a prix fixe that is affordable. The food-lovers win by getting a treat that's in the budget, and the restaurants who participate (there's a whack of them!) get to increase their business over the dreary snowed in months.
I feel like I'm always around Molly and Pietro, always dragging them out to dinner...oh wait! That's because I live with them. YEP. They must be tired of discovering amazing new places in Toronto at which to dine. Am I ever thankful they put up with me!
By the way, Molly is also an illustrator, you can check out her work here.

We actually tried all three of the appetizers offered as part of the prix fixe, but I've only chosen to draw two of them.There was a soup as well, but the presentation wasn't striking enough for me to draw it: just a sea of pale creamy yellow. I'll let you use your imagination just this once.

You might remember that back when I reviewed CAVA last month, my guests and I tried something similar. Cornmeal, poblano chili sauce- we weren't too impressed. That says something since I love cornmeal. Cornbread, Johnny cake, polenta, I will eat it. And I'll usually love it.
This tamale is like how that should have been. To start, this sauce had zip, zap, zing- everything. Flavour was present in spades! The tamale was so moist that it crumbled with full, tender grains, steaming hot, and achieved an almost creamy texture on the tongue. It was so incredibly good, right to the filling of shrimp. Their flavour was not very strong, but there's an art to delicate cooking. Here the buttery shrimp worked with the cornmeal to make a great, not-too-filling appetizer.

A salad by any other name would be as sweet! With this sort of taste bud teaser, you know what to expect. Beets will taste like beets, and arugula will always have that arugula spice. Everything was wonderfully fresh, crunchy, and home-made in the case of the beet chips and toasted pecans. I think that beet chips might have been misleadingly named since I at least was expecting something cooked and crunchy, but I won't complain- I adore cooked beets. The real art in this salad was the orange fennel root dressing, though. It added an interesting level of flavour to what is otherwise an unassuming salad.

Seafood? More like steak! Such a cut of swordfish could easily be mistaken for red meat. It was a lovely colour, and had a heavy body and dense texture, like chicken. All in all, it didn't taste very fishy at all, and just had the satisfying flavour of a good mouthful of meat and char. The polpette -something this meal introduced me to- had us guessing for a little while. Without the menu in front of us, it was hard to remember exactly what tastes we experienced ('we' since everything was shared). Tomato, sure, basil, maybe, feta? Parmesan? I don't know if there was any cheese inside, but there was a nice saltiness that had more flavour than the described ingredients suggest. It also looked beautiful on the plate.
Interestingly enough, the Internet tells me a polpette is usually a variety of meatball...but this was vegetarian!

Just the sort of thing you order to remind yourself that summer is on the in again. How about a wonderfully grilled steak! Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, the slab of steak I tried was so moist that I could pull it apart with my fork. Chewiness was nonexistent. Sassafraz served their steak nonchalantly on a bed of green beans, as if to say 'we do not have to dress up how amazing this is'. They didn't. It was. Ancho herb butter was the only flourish in this entree, which speaks to the skill required to cook a perfect steak.

One of my goals with 'Drawn and Devoured' is to always be bold. When faced with a menu, I will NOT just order the pizza Margharita! I will order that weird thing with the blue cheese.
On that note, I had to try Cornish hen. Not only have I never tried a tiny bird before, but I knew that it would be great to draw- much more interesting than a piece of chicken. I was very surprised when my fowl landed! Don't birds usually have two legs? What happened? I may never know, because I didn't ask- a regret I will carry to my grave. What there WAS was excellent, though. I expect it's easy to overcook so small a thing, but the meat was juicy. I took my time with the stuffing, savouring its complexities. There was a good, earthy mushroom flavour, but also a creamy taste that I can't help but compare to blue cheese. The quinoa spilling out bountifully was buttery, and has converted me to the red variety permanently. It has so much great texture! It was a bit too bad that the winter vegetables were just the same cubed sweet potato that was served with the steak.

Many, many flavours mixed together in this teeny tart. Sweet meringue, rich chocolate, piquant lemon, boozy custard (YES), and the unusual floral taste of lavender. We took our time, enjoying all those layers. The crust was crisp and satisfying. Unlike a pie crust, it was much more solid, almost crunchy.

I have to guess that 'pavee' means 'brick'. This was such a dense chocolate cake, it took ages for us to nibble our way through. Made of a layer of heavy cake topped with a layer of mousse topped with a brittle dark chocolate crust, this dessert embodies richness. As someone who is not a fan of passion fruit, I was happy to find myself really enjoying the sorbet, and how it acted as a relief from the overwhelmingly chocolate wedge. The rosewater gelee was fun, and pretty to look at, but tasted of little but gelatin, with only the slightest hint of rose.

Sassafraz on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Harlem Underground

Toronto's East and West sides both have a Harlem Underground to keep those deep-fried needs fuelled. I went with my friends Gillian and Misha to the West side location on Queen street, just east of Trinity Bellwoods. Convenience central! Which was great since our excursion took place in the middle of an awful cold snap.
The spicy comfort food couldn't have hit the spot better. We also had a laugh over some weird naming choices on the menu. 'Mississippi Masala'? Really? I don't think so!

Normally Harlem Underground does charge for their (apparently famous) cornbread at 3.50$, but it was a slow night. I'm chronically early, and was waiting for my friends maybe all of ten minutes when the server surprised me with these amazing morsels, since he felt bad I was waiting. I'd barely been there long! The servers were so friendly to us, I would recommend this place for them alone. The cornbread WAS excellent and moist.

This place knows how to batter 'em up. Was it a cornflake batter? Much lighter than a beer batter, but different from a tempura, I don't know what magic was used to make everything crunchy without feeling like a brick. Okra is a rare treat for me. We started with a plate for our appetizer. There was cracked black pepper in the batter that added so much to the natural spiciness of okra. The mayo was very dull though.


Ordered by Gillian, who stuck to apps for dinner. Even though the presentation was interesting, and the texture of the crisps was unique-like a very thin, crunchy flat bread- the dips were not exciting at all. The hummus didn't have enough body or garlic, and the guacamole just tasted like mashed avocado. I couldn't even tell if they had salted it.

In the end, just about everything we ate was battered and friend. And it was amazing! Catfish is wonderfully solid, and keeps its robustness after the terrors of the deep-fry. These morsels we almost like chicken in texture. The flavour was very subtle, not too fishy. The sauce was your typical Thai chili, and added a good kick. I should also mention, portion here are GENEROUS!! I thought it was a bit overpriced until our dishes arrived.

Amazing. So. Amazing. I have never had better waffles in my LIFE. Large, fluffy, and steaming fresh, it was like they were whipped with air. Oh my gosh! I could eat stacks. They didn't come with maple syrup, which was a bit bizarre. I would up really craving some. The dips that came with it weren't sweet enough for waffles, but went great with the chicken. There were three gigantic pieces on my plate, more than any mere mortal should be able to eat (I totally did). Again there was that thick and crunchy cornflake batter, this time with a hint of thyme in it, but the chicken inside was so tender I had to wonder if they had pre-stewed it.

This one takes the cake. Heaps of stewed chicken piled up on the plate. Are you hungry? Go to the Harlem Underground! They will kill you with their generosity. The chicken was absolutely coated in home made Guinness marinade. It was sweet and succulent. The meat fell right off the bone, and tasted even better mixed in the the mac-n-cheese (which by itself was a bit predictable). At the end of the meal the plate looked like a murder instrument, it was just covered in sauce.

Another review brought to you by VERWHO?
Harlem Underground on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Rawlicious with Stan and Adelle
We all go vroom! in Stans car. Well, okay, he didn't chauffeur Adelle and I to Rawlicious in a pink convertible, but given the snow, wouldn't that have been nice? Actually, given the snow, that would have been awful.
I'm sure not everyone is familiar with the term 'raw food', though the lifestyle seems to be gaining momentum. This is like the extreme end of vegetarianism. The extreme end of veganism! I will leave it to about.com to give you a better idea of what this all means, since I will probably flub it.

Like Adelle says: Everything is what it isn't.

The Tar of life
When I call this hot chocolate sludgy, I don't mean it as an insult. It's a consistency thing. Thick and almost gooey, I've certainly never tasted a hot chocolate like this before! The Rawlicious menu states that it's made from raw chocolate sweetened with agave (but I have to question how 'raw' this is, since it is served hot!)

They see us rollin', they be hatin'
I love the ends of nori, bursting with so much goodness! I was really impressed by how the alfalfa did such a splendid job of masquerading as rice. It filled the nori and added a lot of juicy flavor. This app was refreshing and crunchy.

I knew a girl with kaleidescope eyes

What a perfect disguise! Did you know how accurately zucchini can mimic pasta? With the nutty sauce, we couldn't even tell the difference! The nuts added a crunch, and the sesame ginger sauce was incredibly creamy and flavourful. Cashews are very versatile in raw cooking since their soft, creamy body makes them good for garnishes, sauces, and bread-like loafs. The really important difference between this raw version of pasta was how it doesn't leave you feeling like you've eaten a pound of cement (which is heavier than a pound of feathers).

We tackled this salad gingerly
We went for the ginger-date dressing, and it added a really nice ZIP! I really appreciate when restaurants actively exercise their imaginations with the salad menu. Far too often we're stuck with Caesar, Greek or garden. There are so many options to explore! This salad was bursting with sweet fruity flavours, salty olive tang, and the heat of ginger on mixed greens.

I almost wrote 'bursting with the flavour of whole brains'
Dehydration is a form of cooking. I would never, ever have guessed it! This was a special, so they may not have it if you choose to try out Rawlicious, but wow was it worth it! By using the same spices you'd expect in taco meat on marinated mushrooms, the flavour was very authentic. The 'sour cream' was created with a paste of nuts and tahini. What I was really impressed by was the shell. It wasn't hard and crunchy, but was firm, very moist. It held together but with this great grainy softness, bursting with the flavours of corn and whole grains.

Since there was three of us, we split two deserts. The sizes weren't wild, but since both these deserts used nut loaf (imagine the richest Linzer tart you've ever had), they were very dense and satisfying. The pecan pie tasted exactly like one made with a pastry crust! Salty and sweet with the pecans bursting with natural spice. The Chelsea bun won us all over though. It was gooey, sweet, and dense as a coffee cake, but with a more satisfying, grainier texture.
Rawlicious on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


At 107-109 King Street East, Origin is easy to get to right in Toronto's downtown. Then again, pretty much all the restaurants I've been drawing are!
This place is darkly lit, very sexy, and surrounds the large island kitchen, where you can see every single thing being made. What organization! What skill. I was so impressed. They also had a very unique interior design, with strange light fixtures, weird acrylic tabletops, and low seats. Everything you order here is meant to be shared- a tapas place, though the menu didn't seem to care what culture they were being inspired by. The variety was huge, the prices ranging from 4$ to 40$. We ordered seven dishes, and were all very satisfied and full. I think a lot of people in their early twenties get scared of a place so classy, but to all you people in college and uni: we walked out of here paying about 40$ each, counting a good tip, wine, and the food is to die for.
Live your gastronomic dreams!

Slam dunk
The mozzarella was massive, and almost sweet, it was so creamy and light! There was quite a bit of oil, but it didn't weight down the crisp and crunchy bread, instead if added a mountain of flavour. I found the bread salty, but with the softly poached pear, I didn't mind at all. What an incredible blend of flavor!

I will eat a platter of these, gosh 
As great as these were, and as many devilled eggs as I can always eat, they just taste like eggs. What can I say? Happy breakfast! Here is your fancy bacon and eggs. Crispy bacon, fluffy yolk, some herb and oil. Enjoy.
Spongy in texture, these not quite golf ball sized croquettes were surprisingly heavy. They had a wonderfully strong, fresh fish flavour, and were salty. Origin does not skimp on the salt, I will say that! The aiolie could have emphasized the garlic more, it mostly tasted of plain mayonnaise.

I still don't know what that mystery ingredient was 
This I had to myself, as it's pretty much impossible to split, let alone three ways. I had to try the raw beef. It was succulent, wet, and had an incredible taste. Imagine the most tender veal you've ever had. That is what this beef was like. Was I worried about food poisoning? Of course not! Eating beef raw is completely safe with proper handling. It's chicken you have to watch out for. Back to the hand roll. I adore sushi, and this was so unique it has given me all sorts of inspiration to put to use in my own kitchen. Apply and nori? Incredible! By the end of this dish I was burning, though. Watch out for those little red peppers, they're devils in disguise.

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
There was an assortment of mysterious herbs atop this pouting creation that I haven't quite identified, but that added an unusual bitterness to the spicy, smoky fries. They can call them Spanish fries, but I know a poutine when I see one. The sausage was spicy, with the glorious crumble of chorizo. All together the bitterness, salt, spice, and the sweetness of the roasted red pepper kept us picking and nibbling trying to figure out this complex dish. The Manchego was a great finale, killing the spice before it killed our taste buds (as though I could ever recover from that hot hand roll!).

Holy smoking crustaceans! 
Shrimp that was cooked so perfectly that it was firm but buttery, floated in a thick orange broth. Don't let my drawing deceive you, this skillet was bursting at the seams with shrimp! It was overflowing, and they were monsters in size. Though the curry was thick, it was very mild in flavor, letting the shrimp and chick peas do most of the talking. One of the best things about this dish was the naan, clearly fresh baked, steaming and soft. It was great to sop up all that curry sauce.

Sharing our home and sharing our heart 
Actually, there used to be two scallops in this dish. Our enthusiasm just got ahead of us before I remembered to take my reference picture for later. I think that Origin is pretty generous with their portions considering the quality and intricacy of every dish. Though the scallops were as perfect as can be, the rest of this dish lacked clout. The artichoke was strangled out by the flavour of apple in the puree, and the rapini and bacon side was overly crumbled. Even though it was flavourful, it didn't have an appealing texture.

On a completely unrelated note:
Dear Blogspot, please get a better spell check for food terms. You don't even know naan and rapini? Really? Go to a restaurant!
Origin Restaurant on Urbanspoon