Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Ace

 The moral of my experience at The Ace is probably: learn to make a damn reservation. It is this frequent oversight which has led me (and my unfortunate accomplices) to many a long wait. Though I showed up to the shiny new restaurant/diner at 231A Roncesvalles at 7:15pm, for an 8:00 get together, we didn't wind up with a table until close to 9pm. Oh boy. In the future, when visiting a such a new place I will be sure to call first. A lesson long overdue in being learned, which is not the fault of The Ace at all. These long waits simply offer a chance to wander an unfamiliar neighborhood and explore what fine bars abound, and to reconnect with dear friends who I don't see often enough.
The place itself is long, dark and narrow, like a corridor out of a Twin Peaks lodge, but without the unsettling metaphysical implications. The ceiling is black, the wallpaper old fashioned and intricate, faded. Candlelight almost exclusively serves as our lighting. Even with the kitchen cooking at full speed, there's something woodchippy and natural in the air. Compared to the outdoors on this cold night, The Ace is as cozy as blankets, its big and inviting window dripping with steam condensation.

Celery Root Soup ($4)-
A lightly creamy concoction simply from the luxuriant texture of the roots. this was delightfully fresh and comforting, a titch of cumin accenting the mellow celery root taste. The root is quite mellow compared to the stalk, and I think this is an idea soup to start a meal with.
Ontario Pork Chop w/ Russet Mash & Gravy ($21)-
Ryan has this, and the chop was big and juicy, the bone taking up a big chunk of the bulk. It had an appealing strip of fatty marbling and pips of herb. I didn't try this one, but from sight, the beans looked firm, the potatoes creamy. It disappeared with a speed that implies deliciousness!
Lake Erie Perch w/ Cauliflower Puree, Buttered Spinach & Roasted Red Pepper Compote ($22)-
Like the chop, the fillets of perch formed a little towed over their mash, a big red bullseye of pickled roast red pepper begging for a fork to land. The fish was evenly cooking, the skin indistinguishable from the body. Slightly smoky, very mild. The red pepper juice really permeated the flesh, oozing into each crevasse. Love the cauliflowed mash, almost as robust as a potato mash but with a much more playful taste, rooty and teasing.
Spaghetti w/ Smoked Trout, Spinach & Garlic Lemon Butter Sauce ($14)-
These round and robust noodles were soft, edging to overcooked (which I like but doesn't sit with many), and were evry plain. The garlic butter was a gentle touch, the lemon drizzle only perking it up a spot. The trout was very strong and good, mixing the smoke and water that makes me love this fish most. The spinach stood out more than the rest, making a coup on the spaghetti fortress. The trout and that mild garlic didn't know what hit them. If there was a hint of romano? It was trampled.
Zucchini Cake w/ Oatmeal Ice Cream ($6)-
The dinner portions are just right, leaving well enough room for a touch of dessert. There were some decadent and strange things chalked up on the board, like nutella stuffed pierogies, but a traditionalist mood had overtaken our table. Zucchini cake was ordered, arrived cool, moist, more like a true cake than any zucchini loaf I've taste before. Truly spongy. The squash was only a hint, as were the spices. The oatmeal ice cream was a show stopper, hints of a gummy oat texture that put cookie dough ice cream to shame, very clean and rich, hints of nutmeg, cinnamon,
Rosemary Belgian Chocolate Ice Cream ($4)-
My penchant for amusing combinations paid off in spades. What an excellent and uplifting mix. The flavour was like a trickle that swelled into a river, the rosemary smooth and hard to place even when expecting it, which then billowed and surged into a full mouth chocolate deluge, the ice cream fudge and mind blowing. bittersweet and constantly cut by the herb. What a combination!

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Monday, January 30, 2012

first taste: hot cocoa in the murry kitchen

Getting a chance to work with Yasmin Seneviratne is always a pleasure. I've been enjoying her 'first taste' series, recreating food she learned of and loved from illustrated childhood books. The most recent book she wanted to write about was never illustrated, and that's where I come in! Here's an excerpt from her post, but you should go read all of it on Yasmin's blog Le Sauce, which includes another illustraton, and her delicious recipe for hot cocoa!

Childhood picture books, stories and TV shows that depicted food and dining made a real impression on me. Illustrations of steaming bowls of pasta or a piece of toast smothered in purple jam gave me my first taste of foods I'd yet to try, and are sometimes still the archetypes I hold food up to today. Instead of simply reminisce, I'm going to bring those dishes to life the way I imagined they'd be.


On a dark, stormy night, on her journey to the kitchen from her cold attic room, Meg had time to get down on herself about everything from her mousy appearance, to her IQ level to her recent scrap with bullies at school. This girl needed a drink! She knew it, and decided on hot cocoa. That this was a romantic choice, for a young girl, chilled, a little scared and a lot bummed out, was only part of the appeal to me as I read those opening pages in A Wrinkle in Time. There was also the accepted adult-ness of the whole situation, because who should be heating up milk in anticipation of both Meg and her mother showing up in the kitchen in need of some, but the "baby brother" of the family, Charles Wallace, wise and weirdly intuitive beyond any human's years.....(continued).

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Lakeview Restaurant

I can't say that I'm a Lakeview virgin. The 24 hour long lit lights have called to me more than a few days and nights. The sign hanging outside the haunt at 1132 Dundas has always been a warming greeting. The handshake says, come in, I'm the Lakeview, I'm here for you. It's the handshake of a friend. I can't go in without a premature sense of nostalgia. I haven't been in Toronto long enough to feel nostalgia. I probably haven't been alive long enough to feel a sense of nostalgia. But I get this funny feeling at the Lakeview, like I know that in 20 years when I'm living in a fancy condo on Manhattan island, sipping a microfoam cocktail while my attractive manservant arranges my comic books via a complex system based on art style and era of prominence and my holographic cat purrs at my feet, I will think of the Lakeview with a sigh. Why? Why.
With neighbors like Porchetta, the Black Hoof, and with the entire gastronomical fulmination of the Ossington strip to the South, it does seem easily dwarfed, easily derided. My eating roots are very simple, and I have great appreciation for what the Lakeview is doing by tidying up the concept of the diner. I like their polished and affordable classics, and their pop culture hinted menu.

Personally, I always try to sit in 'the magical murder booth'.

Thus for review #50, a year after starting this blog, here's some new thoughts on an old favourite.
Even though the Lakeview is a diner, it's no greasy spoon. They've always had a lot of fun spins on healthy classics. Their eggs are great. Still, tonight leaned quickly towards the indulgent. I dreadfully declare that our appetizer of deep fried mac'n cheese balls (6.00) set the tone for the night. I don't really know what I was expecting from this! They were decent, they hit the grease/pasta craving bullseye. They struck left of the cheese spot, though. What cheese sauce was gluing this super soft mac together had been absorbed, its flavour reduced by an unholy heat. I made myself food like this in first year uni. Still, when eaten with hands, lumps torn off, crust crisp and oily, dunked in a bbq more spiced and less sweet than ketchup, I was pleased. They are exactly what you can expect (and the ketchupBBQcatsup is a winner).

I am a little ashamed to admit how much I ate. We ate? I guess! One other trait of the Lakeview which is probably not oft lauded due to few Toronto artists writing about food (that I know!), is that they have big tables and a turnaround that means you won't get scowled at for whipping your 11"x14" sketch pad out and bustin' out drawings for a couple lazy hours. Lindsay and I were doodling as we ate, and we took our sweet time. The meal stretched out over a few hours, and at some point during this span of time immemorial, entrees arrived, and they were lovely.
I had some serious skepticism about the fishwich (10.00) because it is a self described as 'crispy filet'. Filet of what? Upon asking I am told it is basa, which I like. Basa holds up nicely to the fryer, it's got body. Not the most flavourful fish, but still enjoyably. It's sizeable! Two fried sticks top one another between a bun which is distinctly not steamed (as advertised). The bun is extremely airy, with a light crust that is as thin as skin. I don't really like steamed bus, and this is fine with me. The tartar is a killer, and I'm in love with its heavy herb and lemon. Dill, I think. The batter is light, layered and very fresh, the beer surprisingly noticeable. With it came a side of salad, which was a bland mixture of greens, refreshingly sweet but nothing to go on about.
While I did not try this terrifying, appealing thing Lindsay ordered, I have to say it was a mountain. Le plateau burger (14.50 or 17.50 for a double) is a thing which incorporates havarti, fried egg, bacon and comes with a size of poutine. It heaps high. I love egg on a burger, but even more so if it's over easy and runs into everything, gooing up the mixture into some mess of glory. I did have some of that poutine. It was not hot enough, and the fries should have been crisper, even under the curds and gravy. The gravy has a hint of bisto to it, hovering a step away from being gelatinous, but full of flavour. The curds were perfect- ripe, firm, fresh, flavourful.
Close to 11pm, after our filling dinners had settled and made room for one more thing to choose from the packed Lakeview menu, we got a dessert. There are things in this world that sound too good because they ARE too good- like the chocolate caramel walnut cheesecake (5.50) which was too rich and too sweet and too weighty.Don't get me wrong, it was good. It was just predictably tooth-aching. The cake was peppered with flecks of vanilla, and the cheese was not too cheesy of cloying- just right. At some points it was just like eating a toffee, there was so much caramel. If only there had been a nudge of contrast! And that, I suppose, is why cheesecake is traditionally had with fruit.
Gentrification comes and goes, neighborhoods change. They ebb. Will Ossington stay this hot and wild? If so, for how long? I think the Lakeview will have a firm foothold in the food loving latenight crowd no matter what. There's ALWAYS the 4$ Ceasar!

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Enoteca Sociale

For a long time I've been trying to get together with my sister, and our friends Emily and Rebecca, who are also sisters. Sister double date! The potential best! And the venue has always been discussed as Enoteca Sociale (1288 Dundas West). That way, the two Italian sisters can tell the two Dutch sisters whether the food is awesome, or not (hint: it was). Things did not turn out as planned, and it was just Emily and I, a duo of little sisters, who went to Enoteca Sociale. Nearing its two year birthday, the crowd that buzzes inside is full, as are the reservations. Room at the bar is available after an hour, and I don't mind whetting my appetite with a beer down the street while waiting, knowing that the wait is indicative of a restaurant which consistently delivers quality and flavour.

The menu is bursting with intriguing combinations of taste and texture. A lover of dark leafy greens, I'm drawn to a salad of baked kale, persimmon, king mushroom, farro & pine nuts  ($13). We're of the same mind and Emily quickly get in cahoots to share everything ordered between us. I will always gladly suffer through the natural bitterness of kale to savour the richness and tang it has. But...what is this? Somehow between blanching and baking, under the buttery olive oil and surprisingly sweet fresh lemon juice, this kale is not bitter at all. I did not think that was possible, especially given that the dish is savoury. This is me, impressed. The persimmons are slice into thin sweet wafers, adding just a pique of contrast to hints of char in a dish which holds its own. Mellow pine nuts are a nice touch, but I could do without the farro, which is strangely tasteless and mushy. I haven't experience farro before mind you, so my tastes may just need maturing.
I'll warn you, our appetites were small that night, and slowed with conversation about the complexities of loving food. We nibbled, and enjoyed ourselves, but did not eat much. I think it warrants a second visit! Emboldened by the bravery of our own company, the next thing we tried was smoked sweetbreads with escarole and romano beans ($17). Sweetbreads are offal, to put it indelicately- the organs most home cooks would never consider trying to turn into something delightful. Unpleasant experiences with kidneys and liver made the choice all the more appealing and trepidating. What to expect? Comfort was lent to the dish by the inclusion of a rich and comforting bed of smooth Romano beans, rehydrated and both firm and creamy. The texture was perfect, piqued with hints of escarole which had melted into the casserole. It added a bit of herb. The sweetbreads themselves were nothing I could have predicted, and were entirely enjoyable. The texture is somewhere between rye bread and liver pate, and the flavor is comparable to chicken, with a brine like flavour underneath a natural fat. Smoking added flavor, but the final treatment was the fryer, and the skins on these nuggets had crackled and bubbled with the flavors of a cracklin skin. Though there is some of that intestinal taste, I couldn't have been more happy with this comforting winter dish meant to warm one coming in from the cold.
Though the portions are modest, their size completely in line with the mastery of their handling, Emily and I only visited ourselves upon one more dish, the house made ravioli, black truffle, ricotta,  apple, chestnut ($22). As a pasta, I expected it would be just the right thing to do me in with heaviness. The ravioli were large and flat, with the most delightfully described 'pimple of flavor' that held chestnut and apple puree, and ricotta. You can thank Emily for that wonderful mental picture (you're welcome). there is not a ton of body to these, though they spread out beautifully on a plate. Black truffle makes enticing curlicues, crimped all over the glistening pasta. It's generous, and I can taste the distinct flavor so clearly. At first I didn't realize that the oaky blue cheese taste was from the truffle. It's woody but layered and nuanced. I'm impressed by how all the elements work together. In the bursting bubbles at the heart of the ravioli is a sweet and relaxing taste, the ricotta just nudging the chestnut into a more prominent place. A dash of tiny granny smith cubes are like timpani, banging out with a more aggressive personality than the other components, and refreshing the taste buds to receive another mouthful.

Why am I at home right now when I could behaving dinner, at Enoteca Sociale?

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Banh-Mi Boys

My experience at Banh Mi Boys plays a bit like a Goldilocks story, so bear with me.

And hello again! I've missed you guys! I've missed using you all as a reason to eat amazing food, all the time. Or most of the time. At least once a week anyhow, but in this case, it was several times in one week and WOW am I still not tired of Banh-Mi.

My day sees me winding down with a walk from Richmond to Queen and Spadina to catch a streetcar to bring me home. I don't usually want to cook for myself at this time of night, especially since cooking for one is pretty boring (I will spoil my roommate with a dinner extravaganza as regularly as possible, but it is never enough). Yes, my nights tend to end in the horror of canned lentil soup. It's been on sale after all, and I'd rather pinch those pennies to splurge on a better meal at a nice restaurant...Banh Mi Boys is almost on the corner, at 392 Queen!

I will start with the bad news, which is that Banh Mi Boys is not that nice restaurant. While I know that they are first-time restaurateurs, that's no excuse for the divey feel of the place. It's painfully fluorescent and blue, the walls bare and painted a glaring and unfriendly white. The layout leaves a lot to be desired, the gauntlet between wall and prep counter squeezing any customer who wants to sit at the few cheap tables in the back. Because they've got some nice graphics, and the buzz has been good, I had expected something that felt less like a Chinatown dive. In that sense, Banh Mi Boys struck out.

We're not here for ambiance, though. We are here to eat.
Day one saw me trying the traditional banh mi sub. I really wanted the five spice pork, but it was sold out. My next choice was the regular pork, but I was told it wasn't the best cut. That is a kinda strange thing to tell a customer, I think, but I appreciated the tip. This one guy was there every day I went, and he was always the most energetic, helpful, and enthusiastic. I gather that it's a partnership, but I deeply suspect he's the motor of the boys. Pork was thus removed from my sub options for the night, and I went for the next thing, the Spicy Beef Banh Mi (5.95). My spice tolerance is above average, but not by so much. For a few minutes I felt like a hotshot as I asked for kimchi and hot sauce on the sandwich, and was given stares of appreciation and fear. Was I mad? Actually I found it very mild. If you like things spicy, ask for extra hot sauce, or jalapenos, they overstate the heat.

The bun is home made by the owner, who moonlights at his fathers bakery to make the perfect bread he pictured for Banh Mi Boys eponymous food, and it is airy as spun clouds with a light and crackling crust. Perfect, not too filling. It's long, so that airiness is an advantage, and it suits banh mi much better than a baguette. The pickled carrots are wobbly and tangy, sweet but natural. Though I don't think the beef was very spicy, it was tender, succulent and fall apart in texture like ragu. It was chopped up in a way that reminded me of a shawarma. After finishing I was surprised that something so visually large could feel so insubstantial after eating.

Day two brought me around again, with a considerable appetite. These steamed buns were a big draw for me, seeming like the most inventive and fun thing on the menu. I was excited to order them and got two, knowing they would be smaller. I am not that familiar with steamed buns, you may guess. They're heavy, doughy and fat to the point that very little can fit in them as far as toppings go. I had a Pork Belly and a Tofu Bao (3.49$ ea). The only way I knew that tofu could be had was because the family ordering ahead of me asked about it. For all appearances, the menu is totally carnivorous. Maybe they should stick to meat, given that the tofu had a very careless treatment. A brick of it was panko-crusted and fried. Panko will always taste good, so that was nice. But the soggy tofu hadn't had the love of a marinade, or any spice treatment. It was sadly bland. It may have been better if instead of one large piece, a few smaller pieces were fried and piled on the bao- more chance for flavor, and easier to handle. The salt in the fried crust was good, but there wasn't any action happening. It was the same vegetables, mild sauce (mayo and bbq), and the kimchi was salty but flavourless.
The pork bao was an improvement. The bbq sauce was tangy and sensitively applied. The meat was honest and robust. I just don't think I like the bao in the end, because their bland and doughy taste envelops any filling that's put inside, no matter how gleaming the flavor.
Whereas the banh mi had left me not feeling full enough, eating these left me feeling loaded and heavy.

Here is where my Goldilocks story comes into play. Day three. Previously the banh mi was too light, the bao too heavy, but these Tacos (3.99$) were totally amazing, and just the right weight. I hadn't known what to expect, but pictured a hard shell. The 'taco' is actually a roti of some kind. Light, buttery, elastic, flaky. They are steamed and then sink into little containers before being heaped with our now familiar vegetable trio of cucumber, cilantro and carrot. It gave me a kick that this Vietnamese inspired place is serving a Mexican named dish with an Indian style bread. Oh Toronto I love you so. I had a kalbi (Korean!) beef taco and though I'm no poultry lover, had the grilled chicken as well. The chicken had shawarma taste again (Vietnam meets Mexico meets India meets Turkey?), but with a potent dash of paprika. The cutlets were quite tangy with celery salt.

My absolute favourite thing was the kalbi taco, which was juicy and knockout flavourful. The meat was rife with onion and the taste of flat top grilling. The tacos are fun to eat, the taco/roti absorbent and malleable, perfect for sopping up juice or ferrying a load of veggies and beef to ones mouth. I had extra kimchi and sriracha on, and that makes these things.

The easy comparison to make here is to the Chinatown vietnamese subs found a five minute walk North on Spadina. They're different beasts, to be sure. Banh Mi Boys are dealing with a higher price point, because they clearly use fresher produce, bread, and higher quality meats.  Every sandwich is made to order. In Chinatown you can get a sub the same size for 2$, and that can be a big draw by itself. They are packaged and ready to go, the bread is not as fresh, and the meat is dubious (but delicious) cold cuts. It's good in a different way. So if you're thinking of arguing about the price difference, think about the difference between the 1.69$ hamburger at Burger King, and the 10$ plate you'll get at any decent pub first. Same deal. Banh Mi Boys is going to be a draw because of their fresh take on a beloved takout food, and I hope a few more weeks will give them time to make the location more welcoming, to kick up the flavour, and hopefully work on their vegetarian option.

Given the proximity to my work, I know I'll be eating more of those tacos.
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