CARMEN: Closer and closer to a taste of Spain

image

image

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

imageimage

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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?).

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

Other Reviews? 
image Globe & Mail    |     image blogTO

image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Jul 14, 2013

Carmen on Urbanspoon

ELECTRIC MUD BBQ: Another electric success

image

image

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

imageimage
(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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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. 

image

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.

image

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. 

image

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.

image

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.

Other Reviews? 
image kiki’s BFF     |     image My Life is Food

image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Mar 18, 2013

Electric Mud BBQ on Urbanspoon

LAMESA: Contemporary Filipino Tasting

647 346 2377   |   $35 Five-Course Tasting

 

I was immediately drawn to the concept at Lamesa for two reasons: it’s a five-course tasting that changes nightly for $35 (win!) and it’s rooted in Filipino cuisine, an under-represented food culture in the Toronto restaurant scene. That was all I needed to know, so I grabbed a group of eight friends and ventured over to the new spot on Queen West to check out what it had to offer.


Photo Credit: blogTO

Food

So let’s jump right into the tasting menu: it’s composed of an amuse-bouche, a pulutan (small plate, tapas-equivalent), an ulam (main), a pre-dessert and a dessert.  

Our amuse was a coconut and corn soup, topped with a chewy piece of bacon for some texture. This may have been one of the best bites of the night. I’m a sucker for great corn flavour and the coconut morphs it just enough to make it different. The bacon bit was also satisfying to munch on afterward.

I then selected the canton noodles with shrimp, beans, carrots, and cabbage for my pulutan. This dish was really clean overall, especially with a healthy squeeze of lemon over top. The shrimp flavour could be tasted throughout, and it was refreshingly devoid of anything overly fatty or oily.

The other pulutan ordered around the table was the ‘halo halo sisig’, a dish of ground pork, chicken and beef with garlic, chillies, tomatoes and onions topped with a fried egg. Some loved it, but some commented it was a bit too salty for them. I’ve been informed the onion and tomato are supposed to balance out the dish, but not sure that happened here. In my bite I also had trouble finding any of the garlic or chillies and felt the egg could have been left runnier for easy mixing (halo halo means to mix around).

The first main to come out was the steak with roasted red pepper, fingerling potatoes, olive tapenade and a pineapple and carrot puree. In concept and look, this dish looks like a standout. Despite the explosive colour, I found the flavour a bit bland. Perhaps the presentation over-promises, but the puree and jus on the plate didn’t deliver much and I couldn’t find the sweetness of the pineapple. That said, the steak was tender and couldn’t have been prepared much better.

The other main was the opposite to the steak dish in many ways. The pork cheek sinigang is a soup, presented here as a deconstruction of sorts, and looked a little bland. However, the tamarind found in the broth delivers a pronounced sour flavour that was probably more assertive than anything on the steak plate.

I see this dish as a bit of an acquired taste. The daikon puree is a bit bitter and when combined with the sour broth may not be your favourite combination. Thankfully, the pork cheek melts in your mouth and again shows these guys are good with their proteins.

The pre-dessert came as a crumbly little cookie that was playfully wrapped in brightly-coloured tissue paper. I’ve been told this is called a polvoron, a beloved cultural treat. It also came laced with a ‘surprise’ ingredient that changes the mouth-feel of the cookie. I won’t divulge what it is, but you’ll know a few seconds after you pop it in.

We had both of the two dessert choices: a maple-custard flan (above) and mini-empanada filled with a little bit of plantain (below). People really enjoyed the flan, with a texture similar to panna cotta and mild maple flavour. I ordered the empanada and was a bit disappointed. The pastry was OK and there was very little plantain to be tasted. Didn’t really get it.

Service and Ambience

I like the inside of the place, clearly designed to complement the more ‘contemporary’ style of the dishes. I was also a fan of the mellow hip-hop being played that keeps the atmosphere chill and casual. The one thing I didn’t get was the flat-screen TVs showing tropical landscapes. Added a bit of cheesiness to an otherwise beautiful room in my opinion.

Our service was excellent throughout the night. Our server ensured we always had a drink if we needed one, and all dishes were explained with careful attention paid to explaining the Filipino origin of the dish. Really appreciated that detail.

The Reco?

I’m really on the fence with the score for Lamesa. I think there were a number of dishes that were just OK and I wouldn’t say I had any ‘wow’ bites. That said, I think the $35 tasting concept is brilliant (even if two of the courses are one bite) and I really enjoyed the service.

I think I would recommend it to others on the basis of value and uniqueness, but not sure if I myself would go back for a second try.

Other reviews:
 dine.TO     |    Food Trippin’

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited June 22, 2012

P.S. Special thanks to Sam Chung for the Filipino subtleties. 

Lamesa Filipino Kitchen on Urbanspoon

BANH MI BOYS: Worth the wait if you’re craving

info@banhmiboys.com   |    $5 - $8 sandwiches

 

I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard someone mention Banh Mi Boys over the last month or so. It opened in December 2011, but has been closed for the past couple months for renovations. Post-reopening, lines have characterized the lunch hour here at Spadina and Queen West as people hustle to get their hands on some long-awaited banh mi. 

Food

The menu is composed of ten banh mi (BM) sandwiches, five tacos and five steamed baos (SB). Popular fillings include pork belly (BM/SB), squid (BM/taco), beef cheek(BM/SB) and duck confit (BM only). There’s also kimchi covered fries and and a yummy jicama papaya slaw offered as sides.

As a big fan of baos and banh mi, I decided I’d have one of each. I started with the five spice pork belly bao (above for $3.49). The belly was tender, maybe not quite as fatty as you might expect and the spice didn’t really stand out; nice pickled veggies and a room-temp steamed bun completed the snack. I wouldn’t rave, but I just love open-face baos so much that I’d easily eat this again.

Next I ordered the kalbi beef banh mi ($5.99, zoomed in above). The beef and accompanying sweet sauce had some decent flavour and a bit of a tang. The baguette wasn’t too thick, fluffy soft, and crusty on the outside - all good things. It’s also a nice size overall and would satisfy many people for lunch. 

I’d heard great things about the duck confit ($7.49, picture above), so I recommended it to my vietnamese friend who came along. She claimed it was banh mi ‘done right’. I had a bite too. Sometimes duck confit doesn’t really taste like duck and is kind of dry, but this was both moist and supremely duck-y. The onion chutney added some sweetness to contrast the pickled veggies and bunches of cilantro (in all BMs offered on the menu). 

I didn’t have the kimchi fries, but I’ve heard rave reviews from people I trust so I’d recommend it for sure.

Another side note: apparently banh mi often has pâté in it. I didn’t know this before my friend told me, but I hope that shows up on the menu at some point as an add-on. I’d take them up on it in a second.

Service and Ambience

The redesign has made the restaurant ‘nicer’, but with limited seating and lots of take out orders, it’s not a highlight. I think the real reason this place is popular is the unique concept, good execution and value. The prices are very competitive with a lot of take out options in the area and the food is clearly better quality.

One thing I’ll comment on service-wise is the speed. We showed up 11:45am on a Wednesday and ended up waiting about 20 minutes from lining up through to receiving food. Around 12:15pm, people just saw the line and left because they knew they’d be there forever. It’s worth the wait if you beat most people to the line, but I’m not so sure it’s worth 30+ mins unless you’re REALLY craving it.

The Reco?

As I said, the unique concept and value make this place a success. It’s niche food done pretty well, and there are enough options to keep you coming back without getting bored. It’s like if your favourite shawarma place had 20 legitimately interesting options. You’d go back too. 

Other reviews:
  NOW Toronto    |      blogTO 

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Apr 4, 2012

Banh Mi Boys on Urbanspoon

THE COUNTY GENERAL: Wouldn’t wait again

416-531-4447    |    $10-18 entrees

 

Headed over to this new spot on Queen West for a country brunch with a twist on a Sunday morning. Had some reasonably high expectations with a 40 minute wait. Here’s my take on it.

Food

Very small brunch menu with classics, each of which has a little twist on the traditional. The two that most appealed to me were the corned beef hash with pork belly and the English breakfast complete with blood sausage, baked beans, two eggs and sautéed mushrooms. Our server recommended the latter, while my friend had the fried chicken sandwich with avocado and tons of fresh cilantro.

My plate was pretty good. Baked beans had a pleasant spice with a generous cumin flavour, eggs perfect over easy, and mushrooms added to the earthy quality of the plate. Now I’m no blood sausage/boudin noir/black pudding expert, but the mushy texture was off-putting personally. I know it can come in a variety of textures: this one turns me off. An all-spice flavour is what I picked up most, but not much outside of that. For $18, it’s a plate with good variety.

My friend’s fried chicken sandwich was a little on the small side, and my bite had some grizzle in it. However, big fan of the liberal cilantro to keep it fresh and the chicken was moist. Heads up, it’s also a little messy. Fries aren’t anything special, but the ketchup seemed house-made which was a nice touch.

We were curious about the dessert. They have a cupcake, a cookie, and a pie that vary frequently. I went with the apple pie with a layer of sharp white cheddar on top and my friend went with the chocolate cupcake with salted caramel.

The apple pie was fine, don’t know that the cheese added much and generally got lost in it all. The cupcake had the chocolate and salt, but caramel didn’t come through at all. The offensive part of it was the butter cream on top that literally tasted like salted butter. Too much fat for me.

I also had a little $12 mimosa (really? $12!) and my friend’s Shirley temple had no grenadine, no cherry. Not a huge deal, but it’s such a standard.

Service and Ambience

Really small inside which explains the long wait. I like the look of it though, with plenty of wood everywhere to keep the country feel.

They call your cell when your table is ready, which I thought worked out well and the estimated wait was close enough. Once we arrived our server was friendly, and had an opinion on the menu which I like to see. Only thing I wasn’t so happy about was that the cheese on my pie was an extra $2, which was a surprise and wasn’t worthwhile.

The Reco?

If I were just eating the two mains, had no wait and lived nearby, I’d say check it out. But places with long waits need to be held to a higher standard, and the dessert/drink missteps kind of killed it for me. In the end, especially after going out of my way to eat there, I didn’t see the value.

Other reviews:
Globe and Mail

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited Nov 6, 2011

The County General on Urbanspoon

LITTLE INDIA: Killer lunch buffet





416-205-9836   |    $11.95 Lunch, $8-18 Entrees

Been here once for dinner, dropped in for popular lunch buffet. It’s popular for a reason.

Food

The buffet selection from memory:
- spinach and chicken pakora (not a ton of flavour here)
- tandoori chicken (great depth, moist chicken)
- shrimp and chicken curry (just wow)
- beef karahi gosht (favourite, layers of ginger and spices were great)
- palak paneer, aloo gobhi (enjoyed both vegetable dishes)
- butter chicken (little sweet for me, less complex and a little drier than the other chicken preparations)
- pulao and zeera rice
- naan
- a few ice cream flavours

I’m missing a couple tasty vegetable dishes, but that’s the gist of the selection. For lunch, the buffet is your only option, so if you’ve got a special item that isn’t featured, say lamb, you’re out of luck.

That said, it’s $11.95! Amazing value.

Service and Ambience

We weren’t really ‘served’ since it was a buffet, but the water and dish clearing was quick and efficient even at peak lunch hour. The cheque was also delivered quickly upon request. Its clear they can definitely turn tables here, which makes it ideal for a quick (and hearty) lunch.

Ambience isn’t anything special, but it’s clean and looks nice enough. Be honest, you’re not there for the decor.

The Reco?

Really like this place and will continue to point people here for lunch. Most of the food is very well-executed and you’d be hard-pressed to find better for the price.

Other reviews:
Little India’s Little Collection of Raves

Posted by: Jacob, Visited Oct 6, 2011

Little India Restaurant on Urbanspoon