Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Khao San Road

At the excited tail end of TIFF, we chose to go to Khao San Road. It's a Thai restaurant at 326 Adelaide Street, a stones throw away from the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Eating out anywhere nice around this time of year means you can't avoid the titillation of perhaps running into a star. The twenty minute line up was a hint that we weren't the only people speculating about who could show up (though no one did, dinner was still quite enjoyable). It was by the suggestion of Willie Costello, who runs the vegan food blog Until We Eat Again (who also wrote a review of our dinner, which you can read here) that we went to Khao San Road. It's a new restaurant by the owners of Sukho Thai, though it has somehow avoided my Toronto New Food radar. Thank goodness for suggestions!
Things started out on funny terrain. First we jumped from the line to the bar, and then back to the line when we were told it would only be two minutes for a table. Then, we got our table! All this moving around was my fault- I'm happy to eat at a bar generally, but Khao San is actually very, very well lit, and I like to take my notes and pictures in stealth. Sitting at the bar would mean complete visibility of what I'm doing to the chefs and servers! Have I become so paranoid? The table was better for conversation anyhow, though it was just as bright with a big lamp hanging down directly over us. I appreciated the change from some very dark and intimate restaurants I've been to in the past.

There was some kind of squash shortage in the kitchen. Two of their appetizers, khao greup faktong (squash chips) and Gra Bong (squash fritters), weren't available, which was disappointing since they both sounded very good.
While we mulled over this hiccup, I had the Chai Nom Yen ($4.50), or Thai iced tea. It was sweet and bright orange, the flavour reminding me strongly of Rooibos, but with the tartness of black tea also. It was pleasantly thick from the condensed milk, and I appreciated it even more when I got my main, which was on the spicy side.

Since all the squashy apps were out, the only vegan thing left was the Garlic Tofu ($8.00). It came, the big nuggets heaped and plentiful, their panko-crust glistening with hot oil. The garlic smell was strong, and we were hungry, spearing the golden lumps on forks (for there are no chopsticks at Khao San Road) and dicing them into the sweet and tangy chili sauce provided, burning our mouths in eagerness before deciding the slow down and let the things cool off before causing more pain. There was an almost cheesy, Parmesan taste in the crust, but I didn't find it very garlicky. The smell was stronger than the flavour, though it was present. The tofu was firm and satisfying, and there was lots for both of us.

Willie had the Gaeng Kaew Wan Tofu (Green Curry, $12), and I got to try some. It was VERY good. The coconut milk base was extremely rich and sweet, penetrating right into plentiful, firm tofu chunks. They were not shy with vegetables either, full of mushroom, onion, and....squash? Yes, the squash had returned! But this sauce was probably made before the shortage of gourd. Or maybe it was a different variety. Well, it tasted amazing and heavily of basil. Even at 'medium' the curry was spicy. Thank goodness for that coconut cream!
I suffered gravely from entree envy. My Pad Gra Prao ($13) was not the knockout I had expected, even with my all-encompassing love of egg. I think what I really wanted was something with a different kind of texture. The oil drizzled beef was minced very fine, like ground beef. Served with crumbly, fresh rice, the texture was basic and comforting, but not what I had wanted (should have got noodles!). Everything quickly was mixed together, and the creamy egg yolk made it all sticky and salty, with the kind of creaminess you only get from droopy yolk. The beef itself had spice and tamarind sweetness, which has a quality like molasses. Shrunken holy basil looked more like thyme nodules, but kept its strong basil taste. There was a lot happening in the dish, with herbs, chilies, tamarind all fighting for attention. All were defeated at last by a peppery sharpness!
At Khao San Road, the portions are generous, and we were left satisfied, maybe even overfull. There was no room for dessert!
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keriwa Cafe

Fellow Torontonians, we are spoiled. What is happening in this little town? Or is it just me, who is this last year slowly awakening to astounding worlds of great restaurants and ambitious chefs? I would say it is absolutely the latter, but then...there's Keriwa. Keriwa's been rocking an Aboriginal inspired menu for just over a month, and they are rocking it very, very hard. It rotates regularly, and I've been reading all the scrumptious-sounding changes since they opened the doors to their intimate and art-rich (kudos on the amazing wall art!) dining room at 1690 Queen West. My regular coterie landed there on a day when the menu was heavily stocked with bison- no complaints!

A reputation for skill on all fronts must be circulating, because the other guests (just wrapping up when we arrived for our VERY late 9:30 dinner reservation) were none other than the manager of FRANK restaurant, the manager of cafeAGO (my previous employer, a total darling), and I think Gil Bellows (from Ally McBeal, though I could have been wrong...I was a little young when that was on TV). Local and foreign stars! It was great to get a chance to chat with the people from the AGO and grab a couple recommendations from their meal.

Before wine or beer, we were faced with a choice. Were we going to have plain Toronto water, or a choice of Keriwa's waters, one sparkling, one flat? These are 'house-made' waters, though I don't exactly recall the full description of how they were made. I will say the servers (we had two peeking in on us from time to time) were informative and very descriptive of everything we had, friendly to boot. Though they did switch our waters accidentally, and by the end of the night I was drinking sparkling when I had started with still!

Being a set of nibblers, we ordered a few appetizers and a few mains all to share. Bison was the order of the day. Even with the majority of the menu NOT containing the hearty Canadian meat, three out of five of our dishes did. Like a few restaurants I've been to recently (is this the secret to knowing if you're in a great restaurant?), we were served a plate of complimentary bread, which came with raw unsalted butter, smoked sea salt (sooty and a bit like cracklin's- it's sounds gross, but it was incredible), and whipped pork fat (I don't even- like anise, sweet chili and cloying pork mousse).

The first thing to arrive was the Bison Tartar ($12). This was one of the recommendations from table AGO (thanks Victoria!), and it was such a strange thing. First, we got some more house bread, this time grilled into flat, crunchy toasts. I could tell there wouldn't be enough for the three of us, only because the tartar itself was very big. Remember, this is bison, which is very dense and filling- and there was probably a full cup of minced, raw steak on the plate! The taste of lovage was curious, as it's an herb I haven't had the pleasure of trying before. I found it similar to coriander, but not as powerful or as citrus. The tender meat abolished the need to butter the toast, it was incredibly juicy. I have had a love for raw red meat since trying a raw beef hand roll at Origin for one of my first reviews (so long ago, now!), and this elevated that love. It was so fresh, and the meat stood out so much, even studded with garlic scapes, sea asparagus, and baby chanterelles (all pickled, I think, since so much in other dishes was). There was a lot of natural pepper in the flavour, and the adobo was light and smoky, only a hint.

Next we  went for Bison Empanadas ($12). I think the theme of that evenings menu was Aboriginal with Spanish flare. The bison had a totally different approach from the tartar, and I personally was thrilled to see it's versatility. With a spice reminiscent of a Jamaican patty (understand I mean taken to a completely different level), the meat in the empanadas had a saucy, pulled texture rich with spice and some heat. The pastry scored big for me, it was almost like a dessert pie crust, flaky, solid. Because the dish was actually cold, and the grilled-then-chilled peach salsa piled on the side was incredibly sweet, I really felt like this was dessert. Meat and sweet, but oddly, like dessert. Just a bit of arugula kept this from being too rich.

Surprise surprise, the next dish was..BISON! This time something very true to Canadian roots, Braised Bison Pemmican ($14), with Saskatoon berries. I very quickly mistook them for blueberries, and raved about how small and adorable and hard they were, and what a strong flavor! Foolish Katherine. They are not blueberries, though with a smoky skin, they look very similar. Like the meat, they had been dried enough to be chewy. Here the bison had the same kind of pulled texture as the empanadas we just finished, but drier. The taste was COMPLETELY different, incomparable. Smokey with an undercurrent of cinnamon sweetness, the pemmican was way more gamey than the other dishes. It was also super tender, and caused many eyes to roll in ecstasy. If they have this on the menu again take my word and order it. You will thank yourself. You will thank Keriwa. With it came a little salad of sour pickles (bean, spicy radish?) on greens, and some AMAZING fry bread! The fry bread was chewy and crisp, sprinkled with the smoky sea salt we got to try with our bread and butter starter. It was not absorbent, but made to have meat piled on top. I think there was more of that cinnamon undercurrent.

Moving on from our orgiastic enjoyment of red, tender bison, came a dish of Rainbow Trout ($23). It was a delicately perched slab of fish, carried by a palanquin of roasted heirloom tomatoes and squash. Skin is so important on a fish. This wasn't blackened or crackled, simply seared, keeping its fatty elasticity. The clear taste of a freshwater fish was untainted by unnecessary accouterments. The tomatoes were incredibly sweet, almost as strong as if they had been sun dried, and dripped with a puree of basil and oil. Like an exotic treat, a ricotta stuffed, tempura-battered squash blossom topped the lot. It was hard to split, and I wanted it all to myself. The vegetable armour provided just enough body.

Even though I had been eyeballing a towering piece of peach pie topped with a scoop of ice cream at the table next to ours, we were getting stuffed. Did I mention how very filling Bison is? Even with so little, it had us feeling packed, and we finished off on a refreshing note of Beet Salad with Hazelnuts ($11). It is possible to describe a salad as fun, and it is possible because it contained potato chips. Yes. Little baby potatoes must have been finely mandolined into slivers to fry, no more than two centimeters in diameter. They studded the boldly red and yellow dish with crunchy and salty bursts. The yellow beets were milder and less irony than the bloody red ones, both pickled to soften them even more. Studs of sweet hazelnut drove me wild for their oakiness. There were dollops of milky ricotta, and more pickled vegetables in the form of lemongrass and a leek that came out like boiled rhubarb in texture, surprisingly sweet! Keriwa contains master picklers.

Keriwa. Just go.

Email Katherine
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

one cup sketch: somewhere, a table for two

one cup sketch: somewhere, a table for two


My grandfather exists in my head two ways--
                    as a memory
                                   and as a fable.
My memories seem defined but are warped by time and the naiveté of a 7-year-old's sense of perception. That's where mine end, at age 7, when he died after a long battle with kidney failure and an old battle with alcohol. As they said in those times “he liked his drink”, and my memories are of a man who wore the wear and tear of a life...lived. But then there are the stories from a time that precede my memories, of that man who loved life. One who cared about his presentation, the finer things and the way in which things should be done. His outfits were impeccable, his shoes had to be shined every day, he liked to throw parties, be at parties, celebrate. In more ways than I may realize, I take after him, and he sounds like someone I could have a damn good time with.
If in some alternate universe, he's still my grandfather, but much younger and stronger than he was in my childhood, and I am, well, me, now, then we're definitely best friends. There, my grandfather and I are in opulent room in Paris, windows open at dusk. The best food from Sri Lanka, France, Greece and Japan are on one long table before us, as are the best spirits and wines to go with each, and we're toasting and taking our first bite right about...now.
one cup sketch is about the little fiascos around big city eating.
essays by yasmin seneviratne, illustrations by katherine verhoeven.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Woodlot is like the Golden Fleece. It's a legend, some scintillating thing that is unattainable, that everyone wants. When it opened nearly a year ago off the corner of College and Palmerston getting a reservation was pretty much impossible- it's still tricky to get anything other than a late dinner if you're making a reservation the week of. It's casual fine dining in the setting of a renovated garage. Industrial glam with exposed lights, raw wood, cement, and great allure. You enter and can either eat at the big communal table (a frequent spot for walk-ins to alight), you may go down into the moody bar area with it's long polished counter to dine at, or do as we did and rise up to the interior balcony overlooking the kitchen. It's great to be able to watch a chef and their team at work, but we wound up at a little table nestled against the back wall in seclusion and intimate privacy.

It was something of a special event for me, as my mom has been visiting from Australia, which she does every couple years. She really wanted to come on a blog dinner, and go somewhere...special. She likes to tell us how the prices in Perth for average food are so astronomically high that even fine dining here seems like a light check to leave! Woodlot, for the quality, is not even that up there. We went with my sister Mary and our good friend Elena, whose ship was at port in Toronto for the first time in ages. Lots of visitors from afar!

Quickly, we were plied with a basket of days bread. Woodlot is also a bakery during the light hours, and I've had their loaves at other restaurants. This is a restaurateurs restaurant and Woodlots distinct red fife with it's stone-heated, crusty bottom, seems to pop up at all the nicest places I eat. I love their bread but as the server said, they'd burnt the pumpernickel that day (I still enjoyed it, and asked for a loaf when we left- nothing butter can't fix in the right quantity. They had so many in baskets, left over! She was a total dear and gave us a few loaves to take home...super nice!).

Tomato Watermelon Gazpacho - 9
To get us warmed up, we began the cool night with an equally chilled soup. It really isn't meant for a four way split, but we managed. Watermelon and rich tomato reduce to make a soup only a bit thicker than broth, oddly hearty. It had such an interesting play between tangy and sweet. The bites of salty feta and black olive nibbles brought the sweetness back into focus after each bite.

Hokkaido Scallop Ceviche -14
Visually more related to sushi than I would have anticipated, the ceviche arrived in elegance. The scallop was tender, and unlike other ceviche that I've had, you hardly noticed the lime, which was cleaned away before serving. Instead there was a side of fat black quinoa grains, and a whipped avocado sour cream. I found that too overpowering with the delicate, darling scallops. The quinoa was wonderful by itself, hearty with crunchy kernel hearts. Sea asparagus spears and grapefruit sections added bursts of difference. There were flakes of sea salt that kept us coming back for more.

Roast Naturally Raised Flatiron Steak - 27
We were all so blown away! Mary had this great steak, which is funny for a couple reasons. Mary isn't a big beef fan, and she also (I'm sorry Mary!) has never known how to appreciate the meat. She gets steaks well done. In a very bold move she ordered this medium well done, and I was impressed. The poor chefs, having to do that to beautiful meat. It may have come out straight medium, it was still very red in the middle- Mary has always hated the red. She loved this. I love this. My mom and Elena loved this. With hints of miso and soy, there was a seriously interesting and rustic undertone to the meat, but it never overpowered a genuine flavour. The scallions piled over the slices of tender meat were pearly and translucent, garlicky as well as oniony, adding a gentleness.

Chop of Whey-fed Pork - 26
A whole half belgian endive (witlof, my mother calls it by its Dutch name) was grilled and laid atop a sliced brick of pork, it's fatty rind thick and seeping flavor into the meat. The vegetable was very bitter, as you would expect, but with sprinkles of salt over buttery olive oil which when eaten with the pork, made a balance. I thought I tasted a tease of balsamic. I found the meat hearty for pork, actually quite sustaining. The drippings tasted of smoke and cracklins, but mostly the meat was natural and that was all it needed.

Roast Pacific Pickerel & Porcini - 23
Simplicity is the best route to take when handling fish. Anything heavy handed, and you lose the delicacy, especially with a white fish. Here the pickerel flaked off the fork, little drops of natural oil peeking from the crisp (not crackled) skin. It was a light cilantro drizzle than punctuated a fresh flavour. The fish had a good natural fat, while still solid and just cooked enough to be hot without even coming close to dryness. I would compare it to satin. The wedge of fish was beautifully accented with shaved fennel, peas and beans.

Red Fife Whole Wheat Papardelle - 15/21
These noodles were wide and flat, ambitiously encroaching on lasagna in breadth. The red fife grain doesn't change much of the flavour or texture compared to regular semolina pasta, but I felt very full for the amount in my small order. That could be because the pasta was so wonderfully cheesy! The sauce was spiked with a vinegary taste of mustard, but mostly tasted of butter, cream and romano. It was very rich! What really amazed me was the whole filberts studding the whorls of noodle, adding crunch and a lusty sweetness. There was also a sprinkling of tangy baby chanterelles on top, making the dish wind up hearty and earthy.

Caramelized Jerusalem Artichokes - 6
Not realizing how filling even a small order of the papardelle would be, I had ordered these Jerusalem artichokes. This is another first in my slowly growing knowledge of good food, and less common ingredients. I really has expected, well, artichokes. These little fellows look like beets. While there's a hint of the succulent bitterness of a globe artichoke, it's very hard to compare them. Apples and oranges. These were bittersweet, the sweetness coming from a heavy caramelizing. They were firm and crunchy like radish, but hot as hell! I thought I could taste hints of parsley and leek, and like many things from our dinner at Woodlot, a twist of citrus. They were a hint too heady sweet for my taste in the end.

Japanese Cheesecake - 9
Occasionally I find cheesecake so painfully overwhelming and heavy handed- but this is Woodlot. The cheesecake was light with a texture more like spongecake, the cheese milder than one would find elsewhere, cut with a citrus hint of orange zest. Even the amaretti graham crust it sat on had a lightness to it. The pistachio ice cream began to melt quickly as a flurry of spoons hurried to try everything by itself, scooping up gobs of ripe peach as well, and then together for the meld of flavour. Together it's very sweet, but taken alone the different components are unique and enjoyable.

Goats milk and Wildflower Honey Panna Cotta - 9
Gelatinous in texture, the panna cotta wiggled its way onto our table, tapered from the jelly form it had once inhabited. What is this orange powder on top? Advertised as honeycomb? What odd concoction? It took a little while and some guesswork to figure out why, when eaten, the sugary coating seemed more solid. It's ground up sponge toffee, with no doubt. The texture was a bit too odd, though kudos for the innovation. The actual sweet cheese was as lovely as fresh cream. It was a smooth gel that was not nearly as heavy as goat cheese, and didn't taste much like it. The fat pickled blueberries were flowery and juicy. Great but for the topping, which gave it a bit of a junk-food spin I could have gone without.

Soma Chocolate and Hazelnut Pot de Creme - 9
It's so lovely to see some conspiring between Toronto fixtures. Soma is a lovely chocolatemaker down in the Distillery District, and the cocoa used here comes from them. They make some extraordinary hot chocolate! Out of the desserts, this wound up swaying us all with it's bitter citrus kick and sweet ground hazelnut lid. Not bad for something I blurting out a desire for just as our server was leaving the table. Little flakes of sea salt were fireworks on our tongues, working teasingly with the smooth, rich, strong dessert.

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