BIG CROW: Up north in midtown

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647 748 3287  |   Reasonably Priced Small, Large Plates  |   176 Dupont St W

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I’ve only ever given out two four-star reviews in this city. The most recent one was Anthony Rose’s Rose and Sons, a deeply satisfying, eclectic diner experience I’ve been raving about for months. Big Crow, an ‘up north’ inspired patio, recently opened just behind it, and I was fortunately invited to partake by a couple friends who’d already been and were craving seconds. Here’s how that went.

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Food

Before I get into food, let me take a couple sentences to say these guys serve ginger beer straight from Thomas Laverns C&D in Kensington Market - a huge plus if you love the unique burn of this particular beverage. Generally, you won’t find ginger beer outside of Caribbean restaurants or cocktail menus, so I happily had both a boozy version with rye and a big glass of it with ice afterwards.

As for the menu here, it’s broken out into starters (crow start), seconds (little crow) and platters that combine main proteins (big crow) with salads (eat crow). And there’s dessert, but I’ll touch on that later.

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The first and highest priority for one of my friends was to re-order the garlic bread with smoked mozzarella (above). It’s got pretty much everything you’re looking for: crunch, mushy garlic, and a buttery soft interior. I would have gone a little heavier on the mozzarella personally given it’s the first item listed, but I can understand not wanting to go overboard with this starter.

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Next up, skewered jerk chicken wings on pineapple slices. The jerk wings were pretty tasty, good heat level, and charred enough for that to become a significant part of the flavour profile. Found the pineapple and bread to be afterthoughts…so I piled them on top of each other, resulting in a combination that was thoroughly forgettable. 

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We also ordered the swordfish with mango salsa to get some fish into the meal. The more I think about this, the less I understand why it’s on the menu. I get that swordfish is forgiving on an open grill, but mangos and a thin piece of swordfish don’t fit the theme at all, and it seems like such a wasted opportunity to do a riff on cedar plank trout or a whole grilled fish.

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Then the meal got a whole lot better with the arrival of the ‘jw bird’. If you’re a connoisseur of roasted chicken, you may have heard of Jonathan Waxman’s iconic JW Chicken, now served at Barbuto in NY’s West Village. I’ve had that chicken and it’s something I’ll never forget, but this was pretty damn close.

Really juicy and tender, crisp exterior, and a different twist on the green sauce that I think contained pickles, capers, green onion, and possibly ginger (don’t quote me on these). Point is, this is a must-order dish.

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Another must-order are the baby back ribs with burst tomato pesto; we ordered a half-rack and they were gone pretty quickly after they arrived. The pesto on ribs thing is a small stroke of genius, a blatantly good idea you don’t quite comprehend until you eat them. Get these.

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Our last savoury items all arrived on one platter:a half rabbit with deliciously vinegary honey butter hot sauce (in front), grilled corn salad with queso fresco and chili mayo (left), cubanello peppers and eggplant (back) and a bag of ketchup chips (right).

Best things on the plate include the stand-out honey hot sauce, grilled rabbit, and corn salad (if only because grilled corn is undeniably a good idea every time).

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I’m not even sure the picture above needs describing, so I’ll keep it short. Dessert at Big Crow is one of three ice-cream sandwiches on brioche. We ordered all three (crunchy peanut butter and blueberry jam, smore with browned mellows on top, berry with lemon curd), and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Just pick what feels right and indulge. You can probably take one down yourself without completely hating yourself.

Service and Ambience

Clearly, this is also a great place to hang out. It’s nicely tucked behind the restaurant, accessed through an alley on the right, and opens up into well-lit lines of picnic tables filled with smells of a big open grill.

One thing you should know is that it gets a bit buggy, mostly little fruit flies, so just know you’ll have to protect your food like you might if you were really outdoors up north.

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Despite not being open long, service here was friendly, well-timed and helpful throughout during a busy Saturday evening. As we closed our tab, we also had our bills split into four on a moment’s notice, which I’d say is an underrated convenience that you’ll find valuable when stuffed and in need of a swift exit.

The Reco?

One of the city’s better options for patio dining without a doubt, and sure to get much busier in the coming weeks. The concept rehashes familiar memories, creates new ones, and will leave you with cravings the next day. All reasons you should get here soon.

That said, the swordfish choice is still bugging me, and I can’t say I’d order everything again. Perhaps it’s a comparative bias, but next time I’m in the area, I’ll probably walk into Rose and Sons and beg for ginger beer and a table by the window.

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image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Jul 20, 2013

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CARMEN: Closer and closer to a taste of Spain

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416 532 0404  |   $4-12 Sharing Plates, $30-38 Paella  |   922 Queen St W

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So I haven’t been reviewing much lately, mostly because I haven’t really tasted anything exciting. That said, I’m going to give a quick shout to Kinton Ramen and Playa Cabana for some tasty meals. But this review is about a restaurant whose offering got me off my ass to write: Carmen.

imageImage credit: blogTO

Food

I originally came here to eat paella on my never-ending quest to find a worthy comparison to those excellent versions I sampled in Barcelona and Valencia. However, in the midst of that quest, I may have discovered the real gold in the tapas that sit just above the paella on this menu.

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Before getting there, I was happy to see Estella, a favourite of mine that you can now find at the LCBO. If you’ve been to Barcelona, chances are you knocked back a few of these during your stay.

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Our very first plate was the most typical: juicy gambas (prawns) topped with olive oil, salt and black pepper. Perfectly cooked, sweet, and a really good start to any meal. Would have liked the heads to still have some of the good stuff inside to suck out, but I won’t complain too much.

I don’t usually comment on price, but $12 felt like a steal for these guys.

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Next were patatas bravas, another staple, covered in bravas sauce and an aioli. At first glance, it appears to be sauce overkill, but it looks more heavy-handed than it is. The bravas sauce is a bit spicy, has a good depth of flavour and is just plain addictive; the potatoes also do have some crisp, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit more. To me, this is Spain’s tasty equivalent to poutine.

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Next were layered fried green tomatoes with feta, corn and red pepper chutney. The textural contrast was the best element of this dish. It was quite light and the thin slices of tomato were very uniformally breaded and crisp with a softer interior. While good, I think this dish was missing something on the flavour side (acid? spice? pepper?).

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On the other hand, this dish was perfection and you could smell it as it hit the table. The morcilla (blood sausage) is complex, rich, and fragrant, and is well complemented by the garbanzo stew beneath. As you eat, pieces of the soft sausage start mixing with the stew and it makes for a bread-dipper’s heaven.

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Our final dish was the Paella Carmen with scallops, clams, mussels, chicken, and chorizo. I’ll review this in bullets:

- Loved the heavy use of basil, great twist

- Perfectly cooked scallops, very difficult to get timing right with delicate seafood

- Chicken and chorizo were flavourful bites

- Saffron was a supporting taste without overwhelming others

- Crispy rice around the edge was nice, but the layer along the bottom of the pan was largely missing - we even left it for five minutes on the table in the hope of developing a base layer of crispy goodness. No dice.

- Rice was a bit oily, may have been in an effort to create the aforementioned crispiness, but it never quite worked.

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Our first dessert was a holy shit dish. Ripe pineapple, baked for a bit with pomegranate molasses, pink peppercorns and mint (apparently some lime zest and salt here too). Just WOW. Utterly delicious, very unexpected, and something I will try to replicate at home and likely fail. You need to eat this.

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The close to the meal came in the form of a very delicate flan that was really light and a had a pleasant touch of toffee/creme caramel flavour. A very different dessert than the pineapple, but the juxtaposition was welcome.

Service and Ambience

While the outside of the restaurant lacks some character, the inside certainly isn’t short on it: a giant wall painting, vibrant primary colors, shoes hanging from walls and figurines along the banquettes. It’s a warm, casual space that reminds me a lot of some of the newer, laid-back tapas bars I visited in Spain.

imageImage credit: blogTO

Service was great throughout. Our server answered all our questions effortlessly, and even managed to have the kitchen dig up a ripe pineapple when there initially appeared to be none (it’s an understatement to say we were grateful).

The Reco?

Some of the best Spanish food I’ve had in the city to this point. I’ve been asking for something like this for a while, and Carmen delivered on nearly every dish and over-delivered on more than one occasion. I will be bringing people back here soon. Especially for that pineapple.

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image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Jul 14, 2013

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BAR ISABEL: Small Plates, Big Flavours

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416 532 2222  |   $5-21 Sharing Plates  |   797 College St

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A restaurant heavily-inspired by a trip to Spain, France and Italy from two former head chefs at Black Hoof with an ingredient-first approach and an emphasis on simple, delicious sharing plates…how could this not interest you?

Clearly, this place needed to be tried, so I went with five hungry friends to taste as much as we could handle.

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Image credit: blogTO

Food

Generally, a menu with this many items and diversity of ingredients would throw up a red flag, but there’s a really solid level of continuity and cohesiveness here. A lot of respectable riffs on traditional Spanish tapas dot the menu, alongside European staples (roasted marrow, arancini, blood sausage), and a healthy dosage of offal (horse, tripe, tongue, pig ears, etc).

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Before beginning the meal, a drink from the cocktail menu sounded like a good idea. Grabbed a Pimm’s Cup (above), and they do quite a good one here.

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The first dish to hit the table was boquerones (anchovies) with piquillo peppers and pickled jalapeno, served along side some spiced chips as mini vessels. Great start to the meal, nice mix of acid, heat, and brininess. 

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Next up was the devilled duck egg, salt cod, morcilla (black pudding) and hollandaise. While generally pretty tasty, found nothing really stood out. Thought the mix of salt cod and pudding would be more pronounced, but think the hollandaise may have muted it a bit too much.

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We also decided to get the raw horse with hot sauce - you’re not going to find this on many menus, so why not? 

I would say the horse was more about texture and less about taste. Very tender, a pleasant level of ‘chew’, almost like tuna. The hot sauce also grew on me and became progressively tastier the more I ate.

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Following the horse came the beef tongue on brioche (a Black Hoof menu staple). My two favourite parts of this where the mound of thinly-sliced tongue and a terrific whole-grain mustard served alongside. You’d never know this was tongue, which for a lot of folks is probably a positive.

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For vegetable content, we got the romaine with smoked ham and quail egg escabeche. The flavours made sense, but this dish was loaded with fresh dill, which I found a little overwhelming personally. I’d dial it down quite a bit, but some folks in our party liked it so keep that in mind if you’re a dill lover.

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This dish was my guilty favourite of the meal. Honey-drizzled crostini topped with chunky slices of sobrassada, not to be confused with the Italian soppressata. This meat was a lot more like the dehyrdrated summer sausage you might find at a Mennonite market - another favourite of mine - but with paprika and other Spanish spices. Just delicious.

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On the lighter side, we also ordered mojama (traditional salt-cured tuna loin from Spain) with blood orange, olive oil and marcona almonds. This dish was really nicely balanced and a good contrast to a lot of the richer/fattier dishes.

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Speaking of richer and fattier, I present the roasted bone marrow. This dish was very bare bones (no pun intended, but sort of) with no accompaniments. On one hand, this presentation gave you a very good understanding of the distinct taste of marrow, but I think some balance could have been achieved here with fresh herbs or something pickled.

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Next up was the salt cod arancini in tomato adobo (above on the left). One hell of a tasty dish, and a much more successful use of salt cod than the first. One of the better and less conventional arancini I’ve had in the city for sure.

The dish on the right was the marinated swiss chard with raisins and anchovies. I wasn’t particularly fond of this one. Thought it would be served hot, and I found the sweetness a little off-putting. 

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The next vegetable dish - broccoli, turnip, cabbage, yogurt and ginger - was more appetizing than the swiss chard, but again, thought it was out of place on the menu. 

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The tide quickly changed though when our fried chicken with sticky eggplant arrived. Your just KNOW that this was good. Perfect crispiness, juicy chicken and satisfying eggplant. Really simple, but a good combination I hadn’t seen.

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The chicken wings escabeche (above) may have been one of the best dishes as well. While the chicken skin was a little mushy, the homey quality of the dish and subtle acidity of the sauce was hard to forget. We would have ordered more, but clearly had ordered our fill of food.

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This whiting dish with brown butter was also stellar. The cripsy skin and perfectly cooked fish were paired nicely with a measured use of brown butter.

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Our final savoury dish of the night, was a suitable topper to this part of the meal: stewed tripe, crispy tripe, chorizo, and a gooey egg. This is another case of an obviously tasty dish on paper living up to it’s description. Note: the chorizo in here was especially good.

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Our two dessert options were the salted chocolate mousse (above) and the basque cake & boozy cream (below). Of the two, I think we were more satisfied by the firm, spongy texture of the cake. The flavours were pretty mild (booze included), but definitely inspired exaltation around the table.

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Service and Ambience

I was a big fan of the inside of this place, mostly because I found it so unpretentious. The trend of awesome food in a comfortable setting continues to make me happy.

The dining room itself is pretty roomy for 75 seats and there’s a lot of unique features like the convex green walls, mosaic-style floors, red lighting and heavy use of wood. It’s both bare bones and charming in a strange way.

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From a service perspective, we quite enjoyed the night. Our servers were friendly, knowledgeable and usually close by, while the multitude of dishes came out in good time.

We initially tried to order pretty much the entire menu save the bar snacks, and a la carte cheese/cured meats. Guy Rawlings came over to us afterwards and recommended we abandon that approach and order fewer dishes with enough for everyone to have a bite. After a bit of discussion, he talked us off the ledge, and I think by the end of the meal our stomachs were better for it.

The Reco?

Bar Isabel is one of the rare restaurants in the city whose slate of dishes can be very eclectic and yet still quite successful; the reason for this is clearly the skill and the creativity in the kitchen. I didn’t like every dish, but I loved at least five of them and that counts for a lot in my book. 

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image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Apr 12, 2013

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ELECTRIC MUD BBQ: Another electric success

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416 516 8286  |   $10-14 Sharing Plates  |   5 Brock Ave

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(special thanks to kiki’s BFF for the menu shot)

I don’t usually come this far west, but St. Patty’s day seemed like a suitable occasion to venture to Electric Mud. I would have been here sooner or later given my healthy appreciation for its sister restaurant Grand Electric, but some pretty unanimous early praise made this a must visit.

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Food

Like Grand Electric, the menu here is pretty succint and split into two parts. The first is a small main board that boasts ribs, pork belly, hot links and duck ham along with some sides, while the second is a paper menu that includes roasted cauliflower, shrimp & grits, and a pork sandwich among other things.

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Before diving into the various fatty and/or fried delights, I took a look through the cocktail menu and selected the ‘porch crawler’ (above) with thai basil gin and watermelon lemonade. Not too boozy, big glass, and more refreshing than sweet, which made it the perfect pairing for the onslaught/meal to follow.

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Our first order was a side of hushpuppies, which we instinctively ordered after watching our friendly line cook prepare them in front of us. This proved to be a wise choice. Perfectly seasoned and crunchy on the outside, fluffy with whole kernels of corn and mashed potato (we think?) on the inside. The puppies sat on what I’d describe as a semi-tartar sauce with a hint of mustard, which added to the addictive quality of the dish.

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Next up, a lightly-dressed creamy salad with soft-boiled egg halves topped with crispy pig ears. In a meal largely devoid of vegetables, it was either this, the coleslaw or the collards, and I think this worked for us. The portion was reasonably large, the pig ears had a just little bit of chew (a good thing), and the dish had good balance overall.

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Do you like pig tails? I love pig tails, and these are the best I’ve had. Often treated like you might prepare a chicken wing, these were so tender, and had a great sharp buffalo sauce that made this my favourite plate of the night. Sure, you might creep some people out as you work your way through what are essentially vertebrae, but it’s so worth it.

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We almost didn’t order the fried chicken, but our decision to say ‘what the hell’ was rewarded. These drumsticks had the perfect interplay of moist, juicy interior and crunchy, cripsy exterior that you look for with good fried chicken; however, I’ll say it was a little light on flavour for me. I think the crust could have used a generous sprinkle of spice or heat to play off the cup of honey on the side. 

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Next up, the token fish dish not named shrimp ‘n grits.  This fish on a squishy bun came stacked with lettuce, a tart, creamy sauce and some kettle chips for crunch. Definitely a tasty combo, but again, felt it was one ingredient short of perfection. More acid? spice? Not sure.

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Last, but certainly not least, the ribs. Tender? Check. Nice bark? Check. Peanuts on top? A smart addition. Clearly, I enjoyed these, but I think it needs to be said that they were a bit on the sweet side. I’d order them again, but I think these too could use some heat. 

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We ended with soft serve, because you should pay every great meal the compliment of ordering dessert. The twist here, was the mysterious flavour of bay leaf. I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what bay leaf tastes like, but I’d call this a variation on green tea ice cream, but less tea and more depth (not a good description, but it’s my best).

Service and Ambience

We first strolled by around 4:30pm to see if we needed to join a line for the 5pm opening, but with no one around, decided it’d be safe to have a pint nearby. We returned about 10 minutes after 5, and luckily snared some of the few remaining bar stools. Moral of the story: get here early.

As is usually the case, sitting at the bar is better. A portion of the kitchen operates right behind the bar, and you get to chat up the cooks and watch service. We felt right at home, got every dish pretty quickly, and really enjoyed ourselves overall.

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The inside of this place is pretty much wall-to-wall particle board with retro-butch items at every turn - the opposite of pretentious. What a great atmosphere to dine on some unique BBQ eats.

The Reco?

I quite like this spot and you should absolutely drop in and sin a little. A few of our dishes were one element short of the ideal bite, but I’ll admit to being very picky because I feel the need to provide some kind of constructive critique. In summary, it’s delicious. Go before everyone knows it exists.

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image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Mar 18, 2013

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HAWTHORNE: Not The Dinner I Had Hoped For

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647 930 9517  |   $16-28 Mains  |   60 Richmond St E

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After having gone to one of Rose & Sons first dinner services, I started to develop a tendency to try out other restaurants making their supper time debut. Hawthorne had been very popular for the lunch crowd over the past few weeks and was just beginning to offer a new menu in the evenings, so I decided to drop in with a bunch of friends to sample their offerings.

imageExterior Image Credit: Karolyne Ellacott, Toronto Life

Food

I’m not exaggerating when I say the menu that night was extremely eclectic. The same menu shares edamame, lamb empanada, lemongrass ribs, fish and chips, peking duck phot and steak frites. Usually, this would send me running for the door, but the described elements of each dish seemed to be in harmony so we proceeded to order.

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Starting with the ‘russian unorthodox’ above, there was a pattern of over-salting early in the early-going. The flavour combinations of horseradish, apple beet, caraway and dill made sense, but not all them showed up on the plate and I couldn’t help but feel the aioli was really salty.

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One of the other starters was a mushroom ‘soup of the moment’ with some decent mushroom flavour, but really lacked depth. Felt very one-note and again probably had more salt than it needed.

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The last app was a small beet and beef tartare with pickled mustard seeds, horseradish cream, and coffee oil. I can’t say I really picked up the oil, but for a third time, I’d say the tartare was too salty.

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On to mains. My order was the ponzu glazed pork belly with lobster broth, long bean, crispy toast and chili peanut dust. While the broth did have lobster flavour, it was quite bitter almost like a Massaman curry. I was really hoping for some bright flavours or spice somewhere to help balance, but everything else on the plate was rather bland. No hint of heat or peanut, which made me wonder if there was any dust at all.

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The crispy skin char with vanilla poached tomato, chestnut gnocchi, charred kale, onion fondue and bee pollen just sounded way too ambitious. I didn’t order it, but I did have a bite of a few elements and I just didn’t get it, especially the tomatoes. Very odd combinations here.

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The beef cheek with bok choy, stone crab chow chow and crispy potato cake was another dish that sounded like there may be something there, but flavours didn’t really come together. Again, felt it was a bit bland.

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The final dish sort of embodied the ongoing theme of promising description, followed by flat result. This chicken (while huge) was supposed to have east African spice and coffee essence, but really wasn’t as pronounced as it needed to be. Also, the presentation felt like Swiss Chalet take out and the croutons surrounding the bird were not what I’d call a good rendition of panzanella salad.

Service and Ambience

Safe to say the food was disappointing, but I did like the vibe of the place. Tasteful use of stone and wood with lots of jars filled with preserves made for a pleasant atmosphere. I can see how the giant bar facing into the kitchen would be buzzing during lunch.

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Interior Image Credit: Karolyne Ellacott, Toronto Life

I also thought our server was very friendly, attentive to our large group, and was also around to answer questions or take any ad hoc orders. I really wish the food had been better so that we could have validated some of his recommendations.

The Reco?

I honestly think the menu stretches this place too thin and has resulted in dishes that seem to over-promise and under-deliver. I continue to hear good things about lunch here, and perhaps this early dinner service is not reflective of the food quality this kitchen puts out, but I can’t recommend this in the slightest based on what I tasted. Sorry guys.

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image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Jan 11, 2013

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ROSE & SONS: Hell of a Second Service

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647 748 3287  |   $15-25 Mains  |   176 Dupont St.

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So by now, I think it’s already pretty evident I had an amazing meal at Rose & Sons. This new comfort food restaurant from Anthony Rose, formerly of The Drake, is the first of three new openings he’s planning over the next little while, and if Rose & Sons is any indication of their eventual quality, this city’s in for a real treat. 

The restaurant has been running brunch and lunch service for a couple weeks, but only began serving dinner on Dec 6th. I dropped in with a few friends on Dec 7th, only the place’s second dinner service, for a meal I won’t soon forget.

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Exterior Image Credit: blogTO

Food

The concept for the restaurant is “comfort food with lots of loving”, and that’s aptly conveyed in the menu. The best way to describe it is a chef thinking of all the food they love to eat and putting it on one concise menu. You’ll find pork fried rice, buckwheat pancakes with whitefish and gravlax, steak frites, chili, and duck confit all just lines apart. Usually, that kind of assortment’s gotta make you apprehensive, but there’s no reason for anxiety here.

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We started with the pork fried rice with egg, ginger, peanuts, and broccoli. I’m not sure what the best part was, but I’ll highlight the great little chunks of belly and the crunch of peanuts and crispy rice as my favourites. The dish as whole is addictive, simple, and assuredly comfort food at its best. 

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Next up: fries and gravy. If we’re eating comfort food, we might as well just go for it. The fries were fries, but the gravy was borderline creamy and had a really nice depth of flavour. The creaminess added thickness and textural contrast that made this a bit unique overall.

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Next up, something I’m seeing a lot more: grilled romaine. The romaine had a good amount of char on it to impart bitterness, but the balance in the dish came from a good shaving of toscano cheese, and an assertive punch of garlic and anchovy. There’s nothing particularly complex here, but the trick is being bold without botching the balance. Well done.

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Our means began with the pickerel, creamed squash and ‘green sauce’, that I’ll say is a riff on salsa verde. This was one of the more unique flavour combinations on the menu, but even reading it, you get the sense it’ll work. The verde was where it should be, the fish had a great sear and flaked as you’d hope, and the squash provided a good base of flavour and heft to the dish.

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The patty melt (above) is one, among many reasons, you need to come here. Essentially it’s a burger and grilled cheese in one and is absolutely fantastic due to (1) the awesome rye dotted with caraway seed and (2) a juicy patty expertly cooked to medium-rare. This wasn’t my main, but I’ll remember my bite of it for a while.

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The last main was the duck confit with brussel sprouts, beans, and poached pear - it didn’t disappoint. Tons of very tender duck, brussel sprouts that even the most vehemently non-vegetable eaters would love and some pear for mild sweetness that really compliments the protein. The only miss here I’d say were the beans that I’m quite certain were under-cooked and little chalky as a result.

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Given the excellence that preceded it, dessert was a mandatory undertaking. We ordered a bread pudding with blueberries and split it between everyone to keep our hearts beating, even though it’s not actually that huge of a portion. A friend of mine described it as the perfect balance between custard and french toast, topped with some of the purest blueberry flavour I’ve had in some time. 

Service and Ambience

I’ll start off by saying you’ll have a tough time reserving a dinner seat here once people know it exists; there just aren’t very many seats in the little space. The diner charm is undeniable and I really like the two-man kitchen in plain sight, helping make the connection between you and the people preparing your food.

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On the service side, Anthony himself greeted us when we walked in, was our server for most of the night and seemed to be doing the expediting with the kitchen. You gotta love the advantages a smaller space provides. He was a great host all night, the food came out of the kitchen quickly, and we really got the sense this was his baby. Very cool.

The Reco?

I’ve found that ‘comfort food’ is a delicate line to walk, and can mean anything from really poorly-executed classics to gloriously simple but addictive plates. Rose & Sons is surely the latter. This is only my second four-star rating in nearly 80 tries, so if that isn’t recommendation enough, I don’t know what is. Go now and enjoy!

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JABISTRO: Ambitious concept, awkward delivery

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647 748 0222  |   $16-55 Sushi, $7-18 Bistro

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By all indications, the people behind Guu can do no wrong in this city. The first location (Izakaya) is still ultra-frequented, the second location (Sakabar) appears successful, and their recent foray into ramen (Kinton) is a prime contender for the best and busiest noodle joint in the city. All this said, their most recent opening is easily the riskiest concept. Naturally, I was eager to try. Here are my thoughts.

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Food

I’ll open by saying that the restaurant is still in soft opening, but has been serving for about a month now. The soft opening menu is split into two main parts: premium sashimi + sushi and ‘bistro’ fare. You could call one part the ‘ja’ and the other the ‘bistro’. We went for a couple items from either side.

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The first two items delivered were our bistro items. The salmon pie with mushroom and oyster sauce and prawn bisque (above) was our first bite. The bisque/sauce combo was flavourful and the pastry had the flaky quality you look for, but the salmon interior fell flat. Not much flavour, the fish was definitely overcooked and came in awkwardly large chunks. 

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The other dish was nanban battered chicken (above) with tartar sauce, some sort of broth at the bottom and a slaw over top. From a taste perspective, this dish was addictive, provided you like a good tartar sauce. The juicy chicken was smothered in it, and on any given bite you were guaranteed flavourful moisture. My issue is that the best part of fried chicken, the crispy exterior, was unfortunately soggy. Sitting fried chicken in broth and pouring tartar sauce over top is a combination I’d recommend revising.

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About a minute after our bistro dishes came to the table, both sushi items arrived. The tiger shrimp or ebi, was delicious and the most unique thing I tasted during the meal. The shrimp came topped with a sauce that I can only describe as bechamel and reminded me (quite fondly) of a savoury breakfast.  

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Our other sushi dish was a torched mackerel topped with a jam/chutney of sorts that I couldn’t identify. The fish was fresh, tender, and flavourful (as mackerel usually is) and each bite made me want another.

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To finish, we went with the nashi, a warm pear pie with ice cream and some berries. The pie was well-executed, had the perfect level of sweetness, and was pleasant with the pairings on the plate. I’d also say this was probably the most successful bistro-style dish of the night, but also decidedly unambitious.

Service and Ambience

From an interior design perspective, this is a beautiful space. It seems every Guu offshoot has a keen eye for what makes a comfortable yet premium atmosphere and I think the fairly large space, with open-concept sushi bar, accomplishes this with ease.

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Image credit: Jabistro Website

From a service perspective, we had a few bumps over the course of the night.

  • Felt a bit rushed when ordering, despite a half-full dining room
  • All dishes arriving at once didn’t make sense and again rushed us to eat before everything got cold
  • Ended up with $10 overcharge on a dish (corrected promptly though)

The Reco?

I’m positive you’ll really like this place if you come for sushi and sashimi, but this idea of incorporating a bistro theme is loose at best and definitely the weaker part of the menu today. While ambitious as a concept, the menus feels disjointed and the overall experience a little confused. For these reasons, I can’t say I’ll be back.

Other Reviews? 
image blogTO     |     image Post City

image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Dec 3, 2012

JaBistro on Urbanspoon

HAPA IZAKAYA: Fresh Fish Steals Show

647 748 4272  |   $5-13 Small Plates

 

I’ve read some polarizing things about Hapa thus far. Before it opened, people lauded it as another hiqh quality izakaya in the mold of Guu, but more recent opinions have labeled it more pedestrian and used the dreaded word: ‘fusion’. I decided to drop-in anyways and give it a shot.

Food

The menu is basically split into three parts: cold tapas, hot tapas and the fresh sheet, an assortment features, rolls and desserts. There’s a ton of variety and you could probably eat all fried things or all sushi if you felt like it. Naturally, I mixed it up for the sake of the review.

Before eating, I began with a Shiso Mojito that sounded like a clever shift from the usual. I’ll say it might be tough to pick it out blindfolded, but I think it’s good value for $9. There’s also a heck of a sake selection (if that’s your thing) and some good beer if you’re a fan of Blanche de Chambly and Amsterdam brews.

Our first dish was the Salmon Yukee (above) topped with a raw quail egg and some nori chips. The tartare was clean, the egg for richness and moisture, and a nori chip that added a unique twist. It’s definitely fusion, but it worked for me.

Next up was the scallop tartare with bacon, mustard mayo, and some wontons. I think the bacon, mustard, scallop flavour combo made sense, but perhaps a bit heavily dressed for something that’s generally a little more delicate.

I think this was my favourite dish of the night. Beef tataki, quickly seared, sliced thin with an addictive sesame-chile topping, crunch, lemon for acid, and a good amount of raw red and green onion. It’s clearly not rocket science, but it’s well executed and hits on all the things I was looking for in a bite.

One of the few hot tapas we ordered was the Ebi Mayo: a very simple preparation of tempura prawns and some ‘spicy mayo’. Outside of the fact I’d call the mayo more ‘zingy’, that was a perfect tempura prawn. Really juicy and tender with a nicely crisp batter made me wish we’d ordered two.

This next plate, the Aburi Saba, is what everyone will tell you order - both for the show and the taste. Your server will bring out a blow torch and give the raw mackerel a quick 5-10 seconds over top. Mackerel is already fairly fishy and the torching brings that out, provides some novel temperature contrast and a slight char flavour. If you like mackerel (I do), you’ll really enjoy this. If not, steer clear.

If you had to nominate one dish you’d find at Joey’s, this halibut taco dish would be it. It’s tempure halibut with bacon bits topped with shoestrings served with a roasted jalapeno tartar sauce. I know it sounds pedestrian, but the sauce packs a good punch,the fish is ruined and the grilled taco is actually tasty. I didn’t want to like it, but I couldn’t help myself.

The last dish we shared was the tuna carpaccio with yuzu dressing. It looks simple, bright, moist and pure, and accomplishes all those things when you drop it in your mouth. Another successful fish preparation.

QUICK NOTE: This is a tapas restaurant, so if you’re not looking to spend big, you’ll likely come away hungry if you entered with an appetite. Luckily, it’s surrounded by super cheap pho places, so keep that in mind.

Service and Ambience

One thing you’ll always get at Guu is an unrivaled ambience. It’s buzzing, borderline too loud, and the kitchen greets you with joy and fervor. Something about the room feels less authentic and more ‘Milestones’ (flat screen TVs will do that), so even a similarly joyous greeting just seems out of place.

Service throughout the night was attentive and helpful, with our server recommending sake for the newer drinkers at the table and delivering all the dishes promptly and as ordered. No complaints here.

The Reco?

Like a lot of pretty well-executed ‘Asian fusion’ restaurants, Hapa probably has taken more heat than it deserves. I almost think of it more as upscale comfort food in some ways, and try not to hold it to the standard of other ultra-authentic alternatives. If you walk in with the same mindset, I’m pretty you’ll come away feeling similarly satisfied.

Other Reviews? 
 Globe and Mail  |      Kat Can Rawr

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Oct 28, 2012

Hapa Izakaya Restaurant on Urbanspoon

SANSOTEI RAMEN: Go Early, Leave Happy

647 476 3833  |   $9 Bowls + Extras

 

It’s noon, your office is freezing, you have a ton of noodle options around, but you want THE bowl of noodles. You turn to a coworker, your go-to-foodie, looking for a nugget of wisdom. She tells you, “if it’s ramen you crave, Sansotei’s the place”. Jovial with this surefire recommendation, you race to the elevator, bust out the doors of your building, and make a beeline to 179 Dundas West.

Your problem? You’re already too late. There’s a huge line, it doesn’t move particularly fast, and you’re going to freeze your ass off outside.

Moral of the story: you can’t just show up here. I know you’ve heard it’s awesome, but so has everyone else, so plan ahead, leave early, and you too can enjoy a bowl of warm goodness.

Food

OK, enough with the narrative, let’s talk food. The menu is very focused on a few key variations of ramen. Wikipedia has a great description of all four: shio (salty), shoya (soy sauce), miso, and tonkotsu (pork bone). With each one of these you can add some extra egg, pork belly, veggies if you want to pack your soup with even more goodies. In addition to ramen, Sansotei also offers some sides like seaweed salad, gyoza, and a couple rice dishes.

I’m a big fan of seaweed salads, so we started with the one above. It should be exactly what you’re looking for: fresh, clean, and a tiny bit chewy for texture.

While Sansotei is known for the Tonkotsu ramen more than any other, I figured I might as well order another kind just for variety. Enter Miso (above).

Miso ramen originated in Hokkaido, Japan (see Bourdain video above for more) and has the familiar taste you’ve come to love, just amped up and combined with complimentary flavours like pork, green onion and corn (generally not found in other ramens). I was a big fan of the bowl myself: noodles had great chewy texture, the broth perfectly salty, and the portion was satisfying. 

I’m no ramen connoisseur, but I very much enjoyed these.

For the hell of it, I also ordered gyoza, and found them to be steaming hot inside their thin crispy noodle exterior and full of pork flavour.

Service and Ambience

Once you step inside the restaurant space, you realize why there’s a line outside: it’s tiny; my best guess is around 20-25 seats max. While a hole in the wall, the interior’s very unique with an intricate rock wall lit from above and a giant rope that looks to have once been used to secure large ships to shore.

From a service perspective, the first thing to know is that you’ll be given a number when standing in line. Servers will pop out from the restaurant and call you in from the cold when it’s your turn for soup. 

Once inside, best to ask your server to help you understand what comes in each ramen, as the menu isn’t very detailed in that regard. Your server may not have an awesome command of the English language, but she’ll do her best with a smile on her face, and you’ll eventually be able to make an informed choice.

The Reco?

I waited in line for about 15 minutes, and thought the meal definitely justified it. The purpose for your visit is straightforward, the menu is good value, and if you’re informed enough to arrive early, I’m certain you’ll have a pleasurable experience. Enjoy!

Other Reviews? 
 Where Jess Ate   |      blogTO

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Nov 1, 2012

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

MOMOFUKU NOODLE BAR: More than ramen

647 253 8000  |   $12-16 Bowls

 

Having already reviewed (and enjoyed) Daisho, it was only natural that I stop in to Noodle Bar to sample what continues to draw lines of folks outside the Shangri-La hotel. 

We ended up waiting about 20 minutes on a Friday - not bad - and got to sample a few things off the menu. I won’t call this a complete review since we just didn’t try a lot, so consider this a mini-review.

Food

If you do any review reading about this place so far, you’ll start to see a consensus: ‘I came here with exceedingly high expectations, ordered the ramen, wasn’t blown away, and came away disappointed’. I’m not gonna argue with everyone, so I decided to sample some of the other menu elements.

The menu itself is pretty small with some buns (or baos), bowls, and extras. Since I’m a complete sucker for these fluffy steamed buns, that’s where I started.

We went the chicken versions (above), and thankfully they were some of the best I’ve ever had. I’d say they stack up well with Baohaus in NYC and those served at Chang’s Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar NYC. The texture is beautiful and fluffy, the chicken flavourful, and the crackling a special textural contrast. I’d highly recommend these.

Next up were the ginger scallion noodles (above), topped with shiitakes, cabbage, cucumber and a ton of scallions. A really clean, fresh, flavourful bowl for sure with noodles curled underneath. My friend really enjoyed it, but was hoping for broth of some kind to add another layer of flavour. Thankfully, the squirt bottle of awesome hot sauce was nearby.

My lunch main was the kimchi stew bowl with pork shoulder and rice cakes (above). I really enjoyed this dish with a bunch of hot sauce added to give it some spice. Match that spice with some of the sharpness from the kimchi and piece of tender shredded pork shoulder, and you’ve got a giant bowl of home.

Service and Ambience

I’ve already commented on the design of the three-storey edifice in another review, so I’ll describe the organized chaos you’re likely to walk into during weekday lunch. Almost all seating is communal, so be ready to rub elbows at the long wooden tables and bar. There’s some seating upstairs in Nikai while you’re waiting, but it’s not serving until dinner hour unfortunately.

As for service, I’d call it friendly and mostly efficient. They try to turn the tables quite quickly given the lunch rush, so you’ll get your food easily within 10-15 minutes. Our server did forget the beer we ordered, but small slips like that are likely to occur every now and then given the speed and noise level in the room.

The Reco?

Go to Sansotei or Kinton if killer ramen is your hankering. I know it’s called Noodle Bar, and everyone expects mind-blowing ramen, but I encourage you to check out some of the other options on this menu. I did, and I’ll definitely be back to check out a few more. I hope you do the same. Cheers.

Other Reviews? 
 Kiki’s BFF   |      foodpron

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Oct 19, 2012

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon