Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brockton General

Welcome to one of the most talked about new hot spots to open in Toronto this past year- so I've heard from my internet meanderings and chats with fellow gastronomes. Brockton General (1321 Dundas West). It's one of a few exciting new restaurants to have opened along the bleak stretch of Dundas West, occupying the former home of a Portuguese sports bar. Right now the bleak strip is as rough and tumble -that is to say, so very inviting- as ever. That isn't the fault of Brockton General. They didn't summon the river of construction whose deluge has separated them from the rest of the world this summer. Nor did they have any say in the gauntlet created between the high protective fence and their neighbor, a remaining Portuguese sports bar. Ever obliging a stereotype, I am met with perturbing catcalls as I pass the loiterers outside, though vehemently avoiding eye contacting or doing anything that might constitute encouragement. Other than walking. Despite these obstacles, the cozy interior of the restaurant that barely seats 20 is full. Brockton General really does have a hot reputation. The double four-top patio will do just fine for me in this heat (I loathe air conditioning), and there's enough wall that I can deek out of the neighbors' sight.
While waiting for my friends I peruse the menu, and jump on one of their playful home made cocktails while the server tells me that that evening's menu is meant to be a refreshing and light compliment to the hot weather.
We'll learn all too soon just how light.

The Rose (9$) cocktail is a lovely taste of summer. Quality gin is perfumed with a splash of rosewater, and sweetened with cardamom syrup, imparting a complex undertone (though very subtle). It reminds me of the witch hazel skin toner I use... I have these last years felt that gin is the only drink worth having in the summertime, and that this tumbler came tossed with dusky potpourri leaves left a positive impression on me. Is this what it feels like to be a classy 20's dame? One imagines.

The boys come to join me to make things more boisterous and fun. The menu is shorter than I had imagined it would be, though I know by rumor that Brockton General imagines its meals only shortly ahead of time, and keeps things simple. The menu changes daily. I was nonetheless disappointed to see that the meat options were relatively tame (where were such offal offerings as I had been led to expect?). I should watch the effect I allow hype to have on me. 
While we muse over the drink menu and catch up on Asa's globe trotting adventure stories, we nibble on house-made olives (4$). The three of us are biased towards Kalamata olives, and what we're served are fat, firm, and green. I think they're a French variety of olive, but don't know for sure. They aren't salty or too savoury, and the strongest thing to taste on them is the fresh olive oil soaking them, clinging to the skin. They taste green, like they're on the cusp of ripeness, but not quite there yet.
Being so very ladylike, I seem to find myself once again having ordered the most courses of us all (the olives were my suggestion too, naturally).  People need to eat more when we're out for a fancy dinner! Only then can I maintain this girlish figure...
I'm sorry, you want to hear about this cucumber gazpacho (7$), didn't you? You want to hear about the zing like lime soda water infused in the cool and refreshing slurry. How the first second seems like someone salted your tongue with acid spice, only to have it quelled in a moment with a mellow coolness, and the cream of heavy balkan yogurt. Well, I will indulge you! It was lovely. I could feel my taste buds popping- if pop rocks weren't so godawful I would make that comparison. Really, what mysterious herbs are in this soup?

My guests are difficult! Who doesn't like sweet potato? Neither of them, I guess! Thankfully the staff at Brockton General are quite kind, and allow a swap out. Josh orders the sausage (16$) with some of the creamy oat risotto as a side instead. I have to wonder how the the yam would have fared, but this will have to be one of life's mysteries. The sausage is sweet and as tender as any I've ever had. The meat has been very finely ground, and grilled to a good, even heat. The skin is soft, not crisp or tight, with a few artful burns. The spice profile honours the meat by letting it stand alone- though what kind of meat it is isn't named. My guess is pork, from the colour and the natural sour-sweetness of it. Even though this is an entree order, it comes with just two tablespoons of risotto, one fair sized sausage, and a pinch of summer greens (no dressing). It's a little flimsy as a dinner.

The same sentiment is echoed with Asa's main course of broth and meatball soup (16$). Maybe he should have been on the lookout for that. Everyone knows you list the ingredients in order of quantity, and the first thing on the menu in this case was 'broth'. Still, I'm a bit surprised that so expensive a soup, served in such a shallow bowl, didn't come with any bread. Not even a cracker! Yes, I see that those are heirloom carrots, purple and beautiful and expensive, and I have no doubt in my mind that the meat is highest quality, and I will give praise that they have the same simple savour as when my Oma makes meatballs. No, I cannot complain about the taste of this soup, which is rooty and spicy from cooked radish. It has a lovely pop from the peas, and tastes like a refreshing country appetizer.
Just not a main.

Was it the hype I heeded when I came to Brockton General that set me up for so many disappointments? Or was this frequently changing, experimental menu just in a rut on the night we came to dine? Something somewhere misfired and I do hope that it's only been a fluke. Such a promising dish as this oat risotto (16$) should have been interesting, playful, delicious and creamy. It arrived later than the other entrees- some confusion because of the exchange when Josh ordered his sausage without sweet potato, and a new server. To my shock, it was drowned with saltiness. Maybe it was a salty goat cheese, maybe the chefs fought the natural sweetness of the oats too hard. Whatever happened, no matter how risotto-like the texture was, how satisfying and filling it should have been, the flavour here was saline. I couldn't taste cheese. Even the chard didn't stand a chance, it's delicately wilted leaves flavourless under a thick sauce. The texture would have been so lovely, grainy little hearts a perfect compliment to a cream sauce, if only there was a flavour to enjoy.

bromancin' the stone

We skipped dessert.

Hopefully in the future I'll get to try Brockton General out again to see if they really just had a one-off bad menu.
Brockton General on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Matahari Grill

Funny how you can think you know a street so well, only to realize over the years there's been a gem that has gone unnoticed, shining in a dark corner. I thought I knew Baldwin street. How I love the saucy Indian food at Jodhpore, and the unique sushi offered at Konichiwa (one of only a handful of Japanese places I'll bother with now that I've realized how unimaginative sushi restaurants tend to be).
The crisp, thick white tablecloths and dim lights at the Matahari Bar & Grill always scared me away. I like to keep my dining very casual, and from the outside it seems very business class, very satin dress and high heels. I don't think I had any curiosity about what kind of food they served, either. Sadly it had never made even the slightest indentation on my gastronomical radar.
All these misplaced assumptions, these terrible mistakes!
My friend Sandy shares my love of Baldwin street, but was shocked that I had never been to Matahari (39 Baldwin St), or tried any Malaysian food at all (other that the nasi-goreng-from-a-package we eat under my Oma's rule). With embarrassment I admitted I didn't even know that cuisine is what Matahari offers. Happy to be led with ebullient suggestions and recommendations, I let him do the ordering, and tell me what he knew about Malaysian food. Because of its geographical location, there's a blend of influences from China, India, Eurasia, and the flavourful Malay flavour as well.

My first lesson came along with our appetizer. When Sandy ordered a Roti (1.25$), my eyes bulged and I worried aloud, how on earth would we eat so much? Two mains, individual rice bowls, and a roti? Impossible! Even in my self indulgent food enthusiasm, could I ever eat so much? Here my assumption was that we were to be served some massive stuffed and folded up bundle of curry sauce and potato, a-la-Ghandi's (or my personal favourite, Island Foods). This is not that Trinidadian style roti. As I learned (is so much of my eating experience learning? Do I really know so little about the world and its noshes?), the word doesn't even mean what I thought. Many breads from Asia are called roti. Chapati, paratha, roti! What we were served was a small, flaky disk about the size of a big grapefruit in diameter, it's edges flaky like puff pastry. This was very delicate and layered with the sweet taste of butter. It was not chewy like naan, but salty and tender in the center, doughy but cooked, with those wonderful layered edges like dry fall leaves.

One of the mains that we ordered to share was this incredible simmered beef rib dish, the Rendang Beef (18$). It came in a deep bowl, piled high onto a majestic and ruffled leaf of romaine. At first it didn't seem like so much, but as we kept going back to refill our plates, it seemed like the beef never ran out. Though this is rib meat, the bone is gone- I suspect it sloughed away from the soft, babyish meat after hours of careful simmering. The flavour was pure Malay (so I was told), with a dry, not hot curry flavour. It also contains coconut milk which I did not taste, but would have worked with all the natural fats to make that delightful sweetness in the deep grains of the meat. The ribs were incredibly marbled, rich and juicy, and I couldn't believe how well crafted the dish was. It was pure and simple, and incredibly satisfying. A quality cut of meat handled with a light hand can be so gratifying, and this is the dish I know I'll order when I return.

Unlike our meaty main, the Casbah Cashew Prawn (18$) was a dish with a very noticeable Chinese influence. It was coated in a thick and rather cloying sweet garlic sauce. This is my least favourite aspect of Chinese cooking, a cuisine which I am not particularly fond of to begin. I don't like warm, sweet sauces. I always find them somehow greasy, and that is also how I felt about this dish. Sandy said it wasn't as good as usual. The garlic in the sauce was smoky and pungent, dressing the flavour of all the vegetables and concealing their milder tastes. It could have been any veg in there, and had little effect on the taste. The prawns and veggies were cooked beautifully, firm enough to retain all their texture, the pink sea bugs snapping and bursting with juice. If only that sauce hadn't been so thick and sweet! I appreciated the dryness of the cashew sprinkled on top, but otherwise was not impressed.
 There was no way not to love this, and I'm not just saying that as a lifetime devotee of white rice. Yes it's true, there are few foods in this world that beat the simple pleasure of a bowl of well handled, moist, glutinous rice; parboiled grains, sticky japonica, dense arborio, or fluffy basmati, please. Considering one of my favourite complimentary flavours in cooking is coconut, I knew I would love the Coconut Rice (2.00$) from Matahari Bar and Grill. The bowl was packed as tight as an onigiri with the high pile of sweetish rice, that was not so sweet it that would pass for dessert (it wasn't meant to be).  The grains were small and perfectly cooked, and there was a saltiness from just enough butter to keep it on the edge of savoury. Apparently it's usually got a stronger flavour of coconut, but tonight I found it mild. I think that is better for mixing with savoury mains, like our delicious simmered short ribs.

Can you tell I got some isometric grid paper to play with? Oh yeeeeah. Things that make me happy and nerdy....
Matahari Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


it's not that I forgot to make pretty title art, but I put an 'e' in that shouldn't have been there. Embarrassing! Must fix asap. 

Up an ambiguous little staircase at 609 King Street West, in a building that feels and looks like a cold brick, is WVRST. The pennant banners flapping against the brick walls sport the sausage halls dashing signature red against the dark exterior. The hallways is a bit misleading, it sports some posters for the downstairs business, too, a print place. Inside WVRST is astoundingly chilly, AC cranked high in contrast the the hot mugginess outdoors. It's a surprisingly big hall on the inside, with large wood trestle tables, a few bars, and one massive private booth that looks super exclusive. With naked lighting drooping from the ceiling and a hot red tile wall that I instantly fall in love with, reminiscent of Toronto's subway branding, there IS something warm about the place. Could it be from the thrifty c9ollection of mismatched stools?  Is it barnyard, or is it school cafeteria? One things for sure, the food here is miles above what you'd get at either of those.
The menu has some special divisions. First choice comes to how you want your dog: currywvrst, a diced up wiener of choice with a laddle of house tomato curry, and country bread. Or keep it traditional and opt for option b, a masticatable meat tube on a bun. Both under ten dollars (side dishes are extra).

This is followed by a rather daunting list of dozens sausages to choose from, with traditional varieties like Italian and Bratwvrst, not one but TWO veggie options, and then the very exciting game category, all house made. I've got a small army for this diner sausage-fest, and we wind up with a cornucopia of dogs (though somehow completely avoid any form of poultry). There is diversity here, with mixes that make me think the chefs must be having fun. I hear that the sausage menu will probably evolve or expand. Might we one day see blood sausage or my beloved chorizo? Or a non-tofu veggie option? These are questions that only return visits will answer. Preferably weekly.
WVERST also has a very nicely curated list of beers that fit more with the price point I'm used to from King West, many of them imports and unusual brands. I tried a Beau's, and think I've found a new favourite (also available from The Bellevue!).
It's a staggered ordering process, some of my friends arriving at different times than others. Even though there was maybe five minutes in between orders, Trevor and Jenn already had food by the time we were out of the short line! I forgot to mention an important detail: to perpetuate that high school mess hall feel, orders are taken at the bar, but the food is delivered to you. I like this, since we can take as long as we like with the menu, though I suppose some people prefer the all-hands-on-deck sit-down approach.
I was torn between rabbit and guinea fowl (made with cheddar and asparagus!), but decided to go with the gamier, since it had been nearly a decade since I last tried a cony (my thesaurus tells my this is how I can say 'Rabbit' and sound fancy).


Each variety of sausage is more than just the meat that goes into it, it's also paired with a certain spice profile, the other ingredients that go into it to complete the sausage. Rabbit is paired with tomato. To match that further, I only opt to add caramelized sweet peppers to it. My first impression isn't of the wvrst, but of the roll. It's a fluffy bread with a chewy skin. Even though it's clearly been grilled, the skin isn't hard, and is beaded with oil blisters. It's salty and buttery and hot, very fresh. I could eat a few of these. The sausage in this case is not what I had expected. I thought that rabbit would create a dry sausage with a palpable grain, but this fellow was fatty. There was more taste of rosemary than tomato, and it was generally a mild sausage, not too risky. 


The menu sports two varieties of fries, the regular frietkoten, or frietkoten fried in duck fat. There was no hesitation, and full orders of fat fries circled the table! Maybe we should have ordered the regular fries for comparisons sake. Though the duck fat fries were rich, they didn't really taste different from my perception of plain ol' fries. They did have a sweetness you could taste if you were searching for it. Overall they were crisp and dry, salty, satisfying, accompanied by two dipping sauces. We chose the maple-rosemary (a MAJOR hit, not overly sweet!) and the wvrst spicy mayo (made with sriracha, I believe).


Jenn ordered the currywvrst with an Italian veggie sausage. I don't think it's easy to pull of a noteworthy non-meat sausage, and WVRST isn't quite there. It tasted nice, though it was hard to focus on just the taste of the dog under all that mild, tomato curry. Still, the flavor of tofu was most present. I wonder if  WVRST will get more experimental, and trying making veggiewvrst from portobello or young jackfruit in the future? The texture was bang-on though, and the sliced medallions were flavourful. The toast served alongside the curry was rustic and grainy, crisp and buttery as a good crostini. It was sliced thin for that extra crunch.


Other sausages that were ordered were the Boerwors
The Boerwors takes the cake for me of everything we ordered. With a dash of coriander, and topped with vinegary saurkraut and fresh caramelized onions, it packs a punch. It was spicy with black pepper and the vinegar from the 'kraut multiplied the sharp winey taste from the vinegar already in the sausage. The proprietor of this order, Misha, mentioned an aroma of scotch. I found the sausage sour and buttery, herbed and heavenly.
The Italian pork was a rollicking, fiery red funhouse a bit like my distant uncle Mario. Who is actually Dutch despite his name. It was dense and colourful. I found the most interesting thing about it the undertone of fennel, a mild liquorice not quite hidden by the more overt garlic onion and tomato.
Last but not least was another gamey treat, this time of noble venison. Here was something falling closer to my imaginings of the rabbit sausage I ordered. It was a dark red with earthy, heady flavours. It had an iron taste, a memory of blood, and a sweetness from the red peppers.

There is so much to chose from, and so much we didn't get to try. Here is a place that is being creative in a narrow field. Blueberries in sausages? TEA? I hope WVRST keeps pulling out all the stops creatively. I would come here with a huge group, for the food, the price, the atmosphere.
But maybe, just maybe, they should add some kind of vegetable to the menu.


My Guests today were:
Trevor Henderson - Horror illustrator
Jenn Woodall - Fashion designer
Gillian Blekkenhorst - Cartoonist and animator
Misha Snyder - Video Artist
Wvrst on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Stockyards


Most of the time when I'm deciding where I should go, I try to find a balance. Somewhere that has a lot of variety with one specialization or signature quirk. The Stockyards (699 St. Clair Avenue West) is not about a colourful menu of diversity: it's about meat, and you better be ready for that. There is no nod to vegetarianism here, no humoring those who do not feed upon flesh. They do meat. And what they do, they do very, very well.
My old friend Steph and her boyfriend Chris just moved to Toronto from Ottawa, and have settled in this area which I don't explore nearly often enough. Since coming here, they've been doing a tour of barbecues and burger joints in the area, but hadn't yet made it to the still-wet-behind-the-ears Stockyards. I've been hearing nothing but positive reviews from all sides about the flavour and authenticity of the smoked meat (actually smoked as opposed to having 'smoke' in the sauce). We set off!
The building is quite small, but easy to spot. I wonder if Stockyards is going to give Dutch Dreams a run for their money for longest line ups on St.Clair? It looked that way on Thursday night, just an hour before closing. Inside there are a couple small tables, and a large bar facing the open kitchen. The staff are lively, tired and energetic all at once.  I'm reminded a bit of the energy at GUU, though it's not half and crazy here. They seem like a staff who are enjoying themselves. Take-out is popular, elbows brush one another companionably in the cramp, and you should watch your step if you're coming inside because the tile floors are treacherously slippery. Mayhaps a little degreaser should be put in the mop water. I have to appreciate the servers for not breaking their necks! We were quickly served menus, and canteen-style metal cups of ice cold, refreshing water.
I always scope out the online menu before coming in to a place, and there were a lot of differences, missing items, and items which hadn't been listed online. Stockyards is probably focusing on having scrumptious vittles during their first months (as they should), but should try to keep their website up-to-date (and better designed, but that's another story that has nothing to do with the quality of the food). I had really wanted to grab 'The Dirty South', a southern-fried steak, but it wasn't on the in-resto menu. They were also sold out of brisket and smoked trout (we did show up just over an hour before closing, though).
After ordering, the server comes by to show off the brunch menu for future reference, which is full of fatty and mouth-watering foods that I am hoping to come back for. Then she tells us "We're the only place north of the border that serves fried chicken on waffles!".
Dear Stockyards: Degrease your floors! Fix your website! And before your servers brag about your brunch, make sure they google that business. I've already reviewed Harlem Underground's AMAZING fried chicken on waffles, and I know for a fact The Drake makes it too. I'm sure there's others.

But please, don't ever change your meat.


Both my guests got burgers. I love how things are served at Stockyards, in a cast iron skillet with red gingham waxed paper to line it. It gives the tiny place a barn hall feel that could only be complete it it were the size of an airplane hangar instead of a closet (and I may joke, but we were very comfortable in our bar seats, stools sliding around wily nily). The menu is broken up into mains and sides, so nothing comes automatically with fries or salad or what have you. Combos are available, and we get an order of fries to split. There's  a lot! They're finely julienned shoestring fries, crisp and fine, on the verge of brittle. They have magnificent crunch, and are tossed in metal bowls with liberal dashes of coarse salt before being served. I really appreciate that they have had the skins left on. I have always felt that that's the trick to the perfect fry, that hint of earth and dirt. A few are dark brown, a little burnt. They're well-done fries, translucent in places with oil. Oh, it's not pretending to be healthy. But neither am I.


I wanted to balance out that side of fries with something a little greener. There's not much to choose from in the vein of greenery, but I've always been a fan of coleslaw. I don't like the mayo-saturated variety that can be so popular. I was assured by the server that Stockyards coleslaw was more of a hybrid between sharp vinegar and cloying cream. It was nonetheless heavier on dairy than I expected. This didn't taste like mayonnaise, though. I suspect that a nice and tart yogurt was used, that was more refreshing than I would have expected from how much dressing was mixed in. The cabbage may have been finely shredded nappa mixed with white cabbage. Some of it was very crunchy, and some was soft and leafy. It had a pleasant dash of mustard and pepper, working to make a complex slaw.

Since there was no fried steak to be had, and we already had our hamburger bases covered, I veered over to the porchetta sandwich, made with house smoked pork loin and belly. In between that and the generous smearing of creamy garlic aioli (a redundant use of the word garlic?) were the cracklins. I didn't realize that a cracklinaioli, and tasted almost like fresh bacon. It was an indulgent, buttery mass served on a fresh section of french baguette. The crust wasn't chewy or hard. I can't stand fighting with the bread when I try to eat a sandwich. With the porchetta you're given the option of having rapini inside. This is something I haven't heard of before, and I wanted to try it. I think it's probably a huge aid to the rich sandwich. Bitter, the rapini kept me from being overwhelmed from how potent the sandwich was, their citrus undertone cutting through all that butter and fat.


See that cute skillet? Ah, how I love fun presentation. This is the Animal, a double cheeseburger with lots of droopy caramelized onion, laden with house sauce. Both Steph and Chris were rolling their eyes in delight from the taste of their burgers. They looked moist and crumbly in texture. The meat is aged, and comes from a top cut of beef for maximum flavour. Unlike some places that serve gourmet burgers on too-tough rolls, these were on classic sesame buns, easy to bite, and not detracting from the star of the plate: the dripping and succulent 3oz patties.

Next time, I'm trying the buttermilk fried chicken...maybe for brunch!

The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder on Urbanspoon