Tuesday, March 29, 2011

La Palette

As it was sitting at the top of my 'To Visit' list for some time, I decided it was finally the moment to visit La Palette. For ten years a Kensington Market staple (the owner was instrumental in the creation of Pedestrian Sundays), the much-loved French resto recently moved its menu over to 492 Queen St. West, where it has a new permanent home. I found the new digs very cozy, full of warm reds and creamy yellows. The tables are tiny, or maybe I should say intimate? Maybe moreso for dinner. Since we went for lunch there was a very friendly and open feel to the place. It will be wonderful in the summertime! I was going to describe the decoration and vibe as dressed down but stereotypical French, but my guest, Myra, has actually been to France and said it's nothing similar. Interesting how stereotype can differ from the real deal.
Though I've written the individual prices of items, Myra and I both opted for the 20$ prix fixe, which comes with two items. There's also a 25$ prix fixe for three items, but we weren't that hungry!

I know I've mentioned in the past that I'm chronically early. This actually provides a lovely opportunity to taste and savour pre-food coffee. At La Palette they have brewed coffee, but it's nothing to write home about. For two dollars your get a very petite mug. Maybe the refills are free, but I was happy with the smaller amount this time and didn't ask- normally I can go through gallons of java, even when it's not too remarkable. The presentation was adorable, with a little silver jug of cream, and a mason jar of brown sugar cubes.


If I were to pick one highlight of our visit (a feature I should start including regularly here at D&D!), this would be my choice. There is so much going right in this fromage fondant. A large wedge of creamy camembert was encrusted with a shell of bread crumbs. The thick crust protected the cheese from the heat of the frier, and needed to be cracked open with a fearless fork, after which the cheese would not stop gushing from the wound! How extraordinary and indulgent. The sides were maple-glazed pumpkin seeds and spiced cranberry compote, which could be nudged onto the crust as though onto a cracker. I was especially impressed with the pumpkin seeds, which were actually in a brittle. It was sweet and crunchy. This could have been dessert!


I went to La Palette knowing that there were two things that, no matter what, I would be trying. Escargots! For those not up on your French, and missing the hint in my little illustration, that's snails. I know I've had these before, but it was more than ten years ago at a Kingston restaurant famed for not doing anything wrong. I wanted to test them on an adult palate. My first surprise came in the presentation. Even though I read the description of the snails, I still expected them to arrive on a little round dish, each one nestled into its own buttery pot. Begone, stereotypes! I have a lot to learn about French cuisine. These were served blanketted with warm baby spinach leaves and succulent grilled chanterelle mushrooms. That was my second draw to this dish. The only other time I've had chanterelles I deeply suspect they were false chanterelles. This is supposed to be one of the worlds most delicious mushrooms, and I wanted to give it a second chance. The mushrooms were what I had hoped: citrusy and buttery. That's how they're supposed to be! The rest of the dish was also quite buttery and full of onions. Though I could taste the natural smoke and saltiness of the escargots when eaten by themselves, as soon as they were combined with anything else they were completely overwhelmed.

Our mains came with a selection of sides! We were each asked to choose two. Both of us chose the winter salad and the warm slaw, but somehow I wound up with fries instead of salad. This was the only slip-up in otherwise pleasant service. I didn't mention it because if the universe gives me fries, I will eat them. The winter salad was made up of cashews, rapini, red and golden beets, and brussel sprouts in a bit of olive oil. The warm slaw is something we eat in my family a lot: hot red cabbage with just a bit of butter, salt and vinegar. There was a nice surprise in this version since I swear I could taste anise, a recent flavour obsession I have! The french fries were not a let down, and I was glad I wound up with them. They had an earthy taste left from the intact peels, and with a hint of herbs I was left with a countryside impression.

Myra ordered the fish, which was fresh caught white fish (but what kind of white fish? I should have asked). It was a very small piece, so I would suggest ordering this if you aren't starving. The skin was crisped, and the belly was light and flaky. It had a delicate mildness of flavour, without any overpowering sauce or spice. Enjoyable, but not too memorable, sadly.

This was the other thing I HAD to try! Maybe some people will be scandalized by my willingness to sample horse. It's certainly been the source of some controversy for La Palette, whose front lawn has been the site of more than one protest. For me, it's just another meat, an interesting food that I haven't tried yet. In this case the extra drive to try horse came from its interesting presentation, as part of a benedict breakfast. The toasts were slender home made coins of bread with a hard, herbed crusted that let the milky yolks pool inside. I found that the yolk and hollondaise were too watery and cool, and would have liked the dish to be a bit hotter, less soggy. Still, for taste it was very unique, and I enjoyed myself. The horse steak was served in medium-rare strips underneath the poached egg. It's comparable to beef, but I found it to be a bit more sour tasting, and more crumbly in texture. It was succulent, cooked perfectly for my tastes. I also enjoyed the mayo served on the side, which had a great kick of horseradish to it.

Of the two of us, I think I'm a little bit more adventurous for food! But hey, I'll eat anything.
La Palette on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hot Beans!

Any excuse to make my way over to Kensington Market is a happy one, so it was with pleasure that my sister and I ventured forth yet again to taste what the City of Toronto has to offer for Latin American food. I guess she's my #1 lady to taste these flavourful foods with, being the closest thing to an expert I have on hand. 
Recently opened at 160 Baldwin street (on the west side of the river-like divide of Spadina), is Hot Beans, an all-vegan taco place place. No website yet! This little hole in the wall is easy to find with a nice big sign, but space is tight and I only hope they can put out some chairs and tables in the summer. There's just a corral of a counter with stools running along the upper level, and that was full. Mary and I wound up eating on a bench! No easy feat.
Mary ordered the spicy bean burrito with guac, her favourite anywhere. I was very excited for the tacos, especially the Jackfruit "Pulled Pork" Taco which I had already decided to have. Unfortunately that one was sold out, and instead my eye was drawn against my intent not to a taco, but to one of their specials, a burrito boldly called...

There's just one size for the burritos at Hot Beans, and that is LARGE. They're stuffed to near bursting capacity with filling. The Elvis, may he rest in peace, packed an extra hefty punch, worthy of the name. With generous amounts of starchy fillings like hash browns, tortilla chips, sweet plantain, and crunchy toasted coconut, I needed to be rolled up the stairs afterwards. Yes, I ate it all! It was insanely good, and for me combined some really unique flavours. Peanut miso sauce with coconut and mild banana? Interesting! There was also 'sour cream', which is actually made from cashews. I think there should have been more of both sauces considering how dry the fillings were. Even the plantain had a dryness. I'm used to my burritos moist, and kept spooning on dollops of the homemade hot sauce. It boasts a taste that's sweet like chutney, but with a kick in the teeth from habenaro. This was my first time trying tempeh bacon, and I was underwhelmed. It has nothing on the real deal, and while I like a few fake meats, this time I could have done without. It added nothing, really.

That red squiggle is actually the tell tale trace of hot sauce. Mary went for the milder non-habenaro hot sauce. That one isn't house-made, but is still good, packing a softer citrus-chipotle kick. A bit more predictable! All the regular roster of burritos come filled with garlic-annatto rice (google tells me that annatto is a seed from the Americas used to add natural yellow colouring, and a hint of flavour), pico de gallo, lettuce, "sour cream" and cilantro-jalepeno salsa. The Bean is, of course, the most basic of burritos. At Hot Beans they seem to really like putting plantains in things, and they're present in this big roll along with a hefty spoonful of brown beans. I like black beans for colour and flavour, but I had a few bites of Mary's lunch, and was not unhappy. I feel like maybe Hot Beans doesn't do the most 'authentic' burritos, but I've never been a stickler for authenticity- we're in Toronto. Let's explore hybridization in foods! What I really like about this burrito is the almost tropical undertone, something that reminded me of curry. Maybe it was the cilantro?


These deserts won't set you very far back! Even though they're in line with the large portions that are the trend we've seen from the burritos at Hot Beans, the lime coconut doughnut and peanut butter chocolate cookie only came to 2$ a pop. Hot Beans is already getting some decent buzz online, and I think it's largely fuelled by their original doughnut. Homemade from dough to dip, the thing is unique in Toronto. I found the dough dense and chewy, like good fresh bread but sweeter. Personally lime and dough makes a disconnect for me, so this wasn't my favourite. I can appreciate the experimentation a lot since I love a bold chef. The cookie is vegan too, of course, so it doesn't have the texture of a traditional cookie. I find it was more suitable to my palate. It's powdery, dense like dried out peanut butter, but is so satisfying somehow with bursts of dark chocolate. It's very crumbly, but Mary and I eat every crumb. She says what I'm feeling: "I will come here just for the cookies".
You can almost fool yourself into thinking they're healthy, too.

After this visit I know I'll be back to try Hot Beans signature tacos...and I'll make sure to have someone to split them with!
Hot Beans on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In high school my sister and I had a friend from Venezuela. Her and Mary were great friends, and once Mary got to try these mysterious 'Arepa' things when she was visiting. I never even saw them, but the description of their simplicity and flavour has always left me wondering! Juicy cornbread stuffed sandwiches?
Fortunately Toronto has an answer to my silent wishes: 490 Queen West, Arepa cafe.

arepa cafe
Naturally I went with my sister on this blog outing. If only my buddy Elena weren't off being a chef world traveller! Well, we live in an imperfect world. Imperfect except for this restaurant, maybe....

I was waiting for a while for my company, a result of my being chronically early. Being a growing connoisseur of coffee (admittedly most other people with barista experience could put me to shame), I wanted to try their espresso in its purest form: a shot (with a bit of sugar). Very pleasant! I'm used to the strength and nuttiness of Black Cat, and this was very different. I was foolish not to ask about the bean they use. There was a distinct cherry flavour, and it was nicely mellow.

I was aiming for a dairy-free choice, since I was attempting my first ever 'cleanse' during this trip. Egg, tomato, grilled onion; no cheese, but still hearty! Gluten-free too, which is a nice thing to know, since the buns are made of cornmeal. Little did I know what lurked at the bottom of this arepa...like many sandwiches and wraps, the arepa's juices wait until the last second to spring on you. Here they have a perfect waxy wrap to hold them in. Butter! So very laden with butter! I was happy that the tomatoes weren't overcooked and still had firmness, their freshness helped a lot with what turned out to be a very rich 'light' lunch.

Bolder was the meaty Pabellon! Here is some more Venezuelan flavour, shredded flank steak that really smacked of ground peppercorn. It was dry in a purposeful way, without losing tenderness. The plantains were like the tomatoes on my Perico: firm, crunchy, and adding freshness. With the beans, they actually turned this arepa into a sweeter sensation. It wasn't sugary, but had a nice natural sweetness. The first flavour to hit home really was the cheese, though.

Also famous are these treats: alfajores. They're like two very small and thin shortbread cookies with a happy dollop of dulce de leche in between. I had never tried that caramel-like substance. It's thick as molasses, but tastes like sugary cream. It really held the crumbling, light cookies together! They're fun to eat, but you have to be careful, especially if you're eating out with a sibling: you might just wind up with a face full of icing sugar! These things are coated in half a centimetre of the stuff. One powerful exhale....yikes! Also, don't wear black. Trust me.
Arepa Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Drake Hotel

Hot Stuff
At long last! Drawn and Devoured returns with another weeks worth of delicious restaurant review. This week brought a most delightful brunch from Toronto's famous hotel/restaurant/club/you name it, The Drake. I've been a fan for a while, but it was really fun to go with some people who had never been, to hear what they thought of the food and to try something new myself.
One thing I will always love about The Drake but haven't drawn here is the Caesar. There's more horseradish in that thing than you can shake a fist at. I recommend you make a little detour over to BlogTO for some pictures and an extra-fantastic review of the drink here.

Two of my party of five opted for the manliest thing on the menu. First they mused over the smaller, more typical breakfast plate, but it was the lure of pancakes WITH all that bacon, egg and hash brown that drew them in. By the end I think the Lumberjack had felled them and both plates were whisked away half-done. From my samples and the feedback the ladies were more than happy to provide (I love vocal company!), there are some points of improvement on this platter. First and foremost, that splurge on the pancakes? A bit of a waste. On one plate they were overdone and rubbery. While the other plate had pancakes which were a more ideal golden-brown, they were still flat and bland. Drake needs to learn how to make a fluffier stack! Points go to the big bad plaid for it's crispy, greasy good potatoes, which were hot and fluffy on the inside, and to the mound of bacon heaped on the side. Not shy with the meat! Who's surprised, Drake also runs a barbecue.

I think it's generally pretty hard to mess up a burrito. When you mix all that good stuff together -eggs, potato, cheddar and sour cream in this case- wrap it in soft tortilla and grill until the essence of each ingredient melds together, well, it makes magic. In the Drake's case, they make it stand out by putting fries right in! Or did those potatoes just taste exactly like fries? This baby was on the large side, so bring your appetite if you plan to order it. It also comes with avocado (guacamole, actually) and salsa on the side so you can add them per bite as you work your way through. Oniony, the guac has good taste. Unfortunately the salsa was not as flavourful, lacking any bold choices and tasting like a plain pico- that's just diced tomatoes and onion, for those not in the know.

I present...quiche! Oh, they tried to fool us with clever naming, but when you're baking egg into a pie crust, it's a quiche. I did really enjoy this- the pastry was buttery and flaky, the egg was rich and creamy, full of mushrooms and greens. Ricotta was used in with the egg to give it that lovely extra body and delicious taste. I don't think I really tasted any custard, which is a bit of a shame since it would have added that extra level of interest to what was a perfectly created breakfast. I'm glad the humongous wedge of egg came with a salad sized to match. It worked to clean my palate in between forkfuls, and was also full of yummy red cabbage.

Daniel, Adelle (you should be familiar with her by now!), Lisa, Jane and I are all into coffee in a big way. I think it comes back to Australia- Jane and Lisa are from the java obsessed country, I've lived there, and Adelle has family there (Daniel doesn't have the Aussie connection, but he is awesome anyhow). They know good coffee! Toronto's coffee scene is only just emerging and unfortunately there's little consistency between what passes for a latte or cappuccino here. Order the same thing at different places, and you'll just get a completely different drink. The Drake makes their espresso beverages too watery, and bitter. I know it's not their specialty- but I demand perfection! If you go there, stick to the drip. It's passable.
The Drake Hotel on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Kings Cafe

It was really a bizarre jump to go from the upscale Sassafraz to Kensington's Kings Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant making it's home in one of the larger space along Kensington Avenue's southern half. While I have a huge love, near obsession with vegetarian, vegan and other healthy foods, this is not a positive review. Sadly, Kings Cafe makes very boring Chinese style food with their only real adventurous note being the addition of some known vegetarian meat substitutes like seitan and tempeh.

Read on, brave follower!

It would be so, so unfair to say that everything at Kings Cafe was bad- it wasn't There were some real winners on the menu, and for me these dumplings take the prize. Unlike other steamed buns which are mainly dough and come very light on filling, this was the other way around. It was full of diced veggies, and tasted especially of mushroom. The three small buns arrived on a steamer. I think we left them sitting a few minutes too long, since trying to grab them with our chopsticks, and then our hands, made the tender skin fall apart.

Here is where my opinion of Kings starts to go awry. A couple bites in and Adelle and I, as we had ordered the same soup, began to doubt the wisdom of our selection. There are plenty of excellent and interesting textures which can be created in a soup. The salty water that makes a good miso, the heavy body of a chowder, and all ranges in between from smooth butternut to hearty minestrone. From hot and sour soup, I expect something in the minestrone spectrum: not very dense, but with chunks of interesting food. This hot and sour soup had the texture of cheap plum sauce- the thick, oily kind. The flavour was not strong, or spicy. It really wasn't good, and neither of us finished even half. Though the mushrooms, tofu, and especially bean curd all tasted good by themselves, the terribly viscous 'liquid' they were embalmed in was a complete turn off.

Perhaps my advice when venturing into this glowingly fresh-looking restaurant is to stick to the apps and dim-sum. This tiny wonton soup which came with the large bento box (below) was actually very nice, and available from the starters menu. It was salty, watery in the right way, and the won tons were pleasantly chewy. Simple and good. The soy fritters were one of the more interesting items ordered. Basically they were small nuggets of rolled soy. I don't think they were battered, but were deep fried plain. Crisp on the outside and with a mushroom like texture on the inside, they had very little spice, but a flavour hard to describe. It came with steamed cut carrots and green beans, but from the texture, and the shape of the carrots, I suspect they came from frozen.

Hungry for REAL food, Lexie ventured out to order one of the combos, which comes with a handful of side dishes, including that little won ton soup. Here we have purple rice (a blend of different varieties of rice to make a purple colour), seasonal salad (which was actually fruit salad with cucumbers), spring roll, and soy nuggets. No, we did not change the presentation so that the spring roll and nuggets looked like that! That's how they arrived. They were also what you'd expect in terms of flavor. The spring roll was crisp fried and full of soft, vinegary veggies, and the nuggets, other that their distinct soy-flavour and slightly too squidgy texture, were like good old McDonald's chicken nugs. The fried bean curd was both tasty and original. Again we were presented with something with a fried texture, but the bean curd at Kings Cafe is really delicious. With teriyaki sauce on it, and a crunchy nori bottom, it had a lot of flavour going for it too. The nori base was a particular hit with me, since the seaweed kept the teriyaki from being overpowering.

If you're from Toronto, I hope you've explored Chinatown. You should know that it's dotted with a  score of little bakeries, where the buns, breads and cakes are cheap and plentiful! To cleanse our palate after that greasy soup, we wandered over to the closest reliable hole in the wall baker and loaded up with sesame red bean buns, almond cookies, and whole wheat bread.
 Did I also mention that I bought a peanut crunch mochi ball at the bakery? I did! It came with the tip of a latex glove stuck to the bottom. Discovered AFTER taking a nice big bite out if it, thanks!
I really, really want not to a stereotype of bad Chinese food, but alas. Not today, Chinatown. Not today.
King's Café on Urbanspoon