Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Toronto Ahoy! (part deux) - Splendido

Part 2 to my part 2.  I wanted to send off my final evening in Toronto with a blast, gastronomically.  After searching through a few sites, I got word of Splendido.  It sounded like an upscale, modern Italian restaurant.  Management changed recently but apparently the standard has remained.  Its menu presented dishes that have an Italian flare but also combined with a slight twist that made them sound fresh.  I was game!

Since the restaurant sounded like it was a popular place that required reservations and I wanted to do a walk-in, I decided to show up early just in case.  When my cab pulled up in front of the restaurant, a cute valet guy immediately opened my door, except I didn't know he was a valet guy until later and was pleasantly confused for a while about how wonderful Canadians can be, opening taxi doors for complete strangers.  The restaurant was quite empty at about 6pm on a Wednesday evening.  I was immediately seated at one of the two bar tables by the large window at the front of the restaurant.

I'd already pretty decided what I was going to order prior to looking at the menu.  Thanks to the Internet these days, I had read in advance that the foie gras parfait and the butter-poached lobster risotto was the way to go.  And that's precisely what I ordered.  Except that the waiter threw me a curveball - the special of the day was parpadelle with morels and English peas.  That reminded me that it was spring and morels were in season!  I simply LOVE morels, they have such a rich and deeply savory flavor.  When in doubt, order everything.  So that's what I did.  Two appetizers (foie gras parfait and the morel pasta) and one entree (the butter-poached risotto) for me please, thank you very much!

First off, I must say I'm very impressed with the bread served at Splendido.  They presented a basket of country or whole-grain bread.  This was served with a very nicely room-temperature cube of salty butter and a little trio of olives, grissini sticks and a blob of hummus-like dip to swipe the grissini sticks in.  The country bread looked nicely rustic but very ordinary.  But oh my, the crust was so chewy and its flavor was amazing!!!!! One of the BEST breads I've had in a very very long time.  I couldn't get enough of this bread!  The bread was soft and very tasty and I even devoured the entire crust, when I'm not usually a crust person.  It was so delicious!  Already I knew this meal was going to be good.

The foie gras parfait came in a form that I wasn't expecting from the name 'parfait.'  Instead it came as a thick slab served atop a plank of natural wood and flanked by a thick slice of butter, crusty brioche and a tiny pot of macerated medjool dates.  This was pure decadence.  I'd read that the pate was made of a mix of goose and chicken livers hence more affordable but the smoothness and richness wasn't lost at all.  The slab of liver pate was so generous that the dish can definitely be shared among two, even though I finished it all up myself.  The sweet, alcoholic date also melded well with the richness of this dish.  A great started.

The second course to arrive was the morel special.  What a lovely, simple, well-executed and delicious dish.  The morels were perfectly cooked and infused itself into the cream sauce that it was served with.  The parpadelle was freshly made and perfectly al dente and yet also wonderfully chewy.  I loved this dish, just the right touch of richness to fend of the nip of early spring and yet still with the brightness of the English peas to remind you that warmer weather is on the way.

Then finally, came the butter-poached lobster.  It looked truly mouthwatering.  Taste-wise, even though it was very good, if I had to choose, it was my least favorite.  The butter-poached-ness didn't really come through so much for me.  Certainly, the Maine lobster used was generous, very fresh and sweet and cooked perfectly, however, it simply tasted to me like a simple poached lobster, the butter poaching didn't seem to make a marked difference.  Nevertheless, the flavors used were still very good.  There was a very appetizing tartness to the cream sauce, perhaps from mascarpone that was used in the risotto.  The raw pea shoots strewn on the dish as a garnish also added a nice touch of freshness to the overall dish.  I still enjoyed everything.

By this time, I was near the verge of explosion and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my health) could not stomach another morsel of food.  Hence I had to pass on dessert (admittedly the dessert menu was rather brief and didn't sound as interesting).  The restaurant was hopping by the time I was ready to leave.  The crowd looked happening and beautiful.  I was glad I was done with my meal though.  I really needed to walk around to help my digestion and very much looked forward to the long walk back to my hotel.

88 Harbord Street between Spadina Ave and Sussex Mews

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pulino's - Finally!

There's been a lot of buzz about this place.  Keith McNally's (owner and restaurateur extraordinaire of Balthazar, Odeon, Lucky Strike, Pastis, Schiller's Liquor Bar - to name a few) newest baby finally opened this month.  Eater has been tantalizing me for weeks with tiny snippets of news, updates about the status of construction, the menu, and photos of the bathroom even.  I was thrilled and surprised to be able to make a reservation for Sunday brunch very easily (12.30pm seating too!) about 2 weeks in advance, for its first week of service.  I was excited to go, mostly because of the hype.

I was a tiny bit skeptical about the food.  I enjoy going to the McNally restaurants, but, it's always more because of the scene and atmosphere than the amazingness of the food (the one exception is Balthazar's fries and beef stroganoff).  It didn't help that there didn't seem to be any overwhelming food review for Pulino's during the first few days of service either.  Nevertheless, the executive chef, Nate Appleman, seems to brought along a bit of goodwill from his days cooking in California although he still has a bit of notoriety in my mind, partly due to his armful of tats and partly due to his badass attitude in The Next Iron Chef.

I showed up for my reservation on time and relatively open-minded nonetheless.  We were seated right away once our party was complete.  The place was hopping.  There were many walk-ins who were told that the wait would be almost an hour.  Thank goodness we scored a reservation!  The interior of the restaurant is very much like Schiller's liquor bar.  There were the same white bathroom tiles, the similar bottle display.  According to one of the staff, the first level of wall-to-wall display of liquor are fake, while the rest above that are all inventoried.  So even though the display looks random, they're all been quite deliberated.

The waitstaff were all dressed in baby-blue t-shirts with police-barrier-type font printed on their front and back (can't remember what were the words).  There were a handful of picnic tables that were constructed from police barriers.  Service was really pleasant and relatively quick and attentive.

The menu gave quite a few options of eggs (on pizza, baked or on its own with sides).  There were sides and also a list of regular non-breakfast pizzas and other oven-cooked foods (roast chicken etc).  Be sure to look at all sides of the paper printed menu, we almost missed out a short list of baked goods printed right at the back.

The nutella fat baby (puff pastry stuffed with a nutella/chocolate/ganache mix) was sweet, tasty, buttery and flaky but would have been even yummier if only it was served warm.

The sable fish appetizer was a nice, light menu choice.

Grapefruit caramelized with muscovado sugar was another refreshing choice.  Although one of our two grapefruit halves turned out a little burnt (not pictured).

We also tried a salad with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom.  This looked run-of-the-mill but it tasted better than it looked.  The mushrooms gave a great texture and the lettuce was surprisingly buttery.

For our entrees, the first to arrive was a pasta dish (the salsiccia) that was crepe-like and layered with a very hearty and meaty ragu.  I liked this dish, it was almost lasagne-like.

Then came the pizza.  A large pie with two beautiful eggs with perfectly runny yolks.  Additional fresh cheese was grated on top.  It was really good.  The crust was so delicious!  It was crispy, very thin crust but still robust enough to hold all the hearty ingredients.  This was the winning dish for me.  I'm usually the one with a pile of pizza crust edges remaining on my plate but I actually ate all of the crust from this one!

Our final entree was the polenta and eggs.  2 eggs (cooked the way you like) over-easy served in a cast-iron skillet with creamy polenta verde (mixed with spinach I think), mushroom sauce and a spiral of spicy sausage.  I enjoyed the juicy sausage but otherwise, I thought this dish was rather meh.

Moving on to dessert.  The warm chestnut cake was definitely a treat.  It was comforting, not too sweet and definitely a flavor you grow to love more and more.

Another dessert we tried was less impressive.  It was the panacotta with burnt honey.  It came with a crisp cookie on top that had an interesting taste to it (that I can't define) but overall, the flavor was really mild and not particularly memorable.

I'm glad I finally got to try Pulino's.  Even though not every dish blew me away, I'm pretty sure I'd try to be back soon, especially for the pizzas.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Great Way to Spend Sunday Lunch

Big Wong is one of my favorite places in Chinatown for Chinese roast meats and casual Hong Kong cafe-style goodies.  They have a wide selection of dishes, they are cheap and they are quick.  A great lunch option for a lazy Sunday or even a hectic Sunday when you are running around getting groceries for the week.

Something to note about casual Chinese places like Big Wong, you can really ask them to prepare whatever dish you like, as long as they have the ingredients.  For example if you wanted to have cha siew and roast duck fried noodles for instance, and it's not on the menu, you may certainly ask your waiter if the kitchen could prepare it specially for you, usually the answer is yes.

One of my all-time favorites from here is their cha siew (roast pork) over rice.  I'd ask for a fried egg, which comes over-easy and crispy on the edges.  And it's yumminess personified!

On Sundays, they have this special which is Zha Leung ie fried dough fritters wrapped in a thin rice-flour skin that's steamed.  It sounds like a starch overload but it isn't.  It's crunchy and silky at the same time.  And it soaks up enough of that soy sauce that it comes with, it makes for a very appetizing snack.  Another tasty dish.

Wontons are always delicious here - big fat and juicy with a generous chunk of shrimp in each dumpling.

If you like the silky texture of the Chinese dumpling wrappers used in wontons, you would probably like this dish as well - stir fried roast pork slices with a silky egg sauce over rice.

Toronto Ahoy! (part deux) - Guu Izakaya & Black Camel

I'm here again!  This time to process some visa-related issues.  Nevertheless, the eating continues!

First up:  Guu Izakaya - I first heard about this place from a fellow foodie friend.  Rumor has it that people will wait an hour to get into here.  A line?! I'm in!  After some googling, it seems like this joint is a bonafide foodie destination worthy of my trekking (although to be honest, it doesn't take much worthiness for me to trek for food).  It is an offshoot of a popular Vancouver chain.  It is located within downtown Toronto and easily walk-able from where I'm staying this time (One King West).  The reviews seem to all indicate a few things: (i) long wait (ii) delicious tori karaage (fried chicken) and (iii) very noisy.

I decided to try Guu out on a Monday evening.  Since I was leaving from work, was unable to hit it at its opening (5pm) but still didn't want to truly end up with an hour-long wait alone in the cold, I decided to scrap the trekking idea and sped off on a cab instead.

I arrived at about 6.30pm.  The restaurant is located in a somewhat deserted block on Church Street, amidst the university area (great idea since a lot of students would be willing customers at such a place).  I lucked out and immediately got seated by the bar since I was a party of one.  The restaurant is very loud indeed.  The entire wait staff would bellow out in Japanese periodically, greetings, goodbyes, order pick-ups etc.  It made for a very communal and festive atmosphere.

The menu is actually surprisingly simple.  A few items each of oden (Japanese soup-braised foods), grilled, fried, cold and dessert dishes.  There is a separate sheet of photocopied paper listing the specials of the day.  I selected the kinoko cheese bibimbap, ebi mayo, tori karaage (how could I resist) and tontoro.

Kinoko Cheese Bibimbap
This is your typical stone-pot rice bowl but made with chunky pieces of button mushrooms sauteed with garlic and seasoned with a nori-flavored seasoning.  The whole mixture is topped with shredded cheese and served up sizzling hot.  It was really delicious!!!  There was something totally addictive about the nori-flavored sauce and the combination with the meaty pieces of mushroom was such a winner.  I don't know why such a simple idea hasn't been repeated at the many izakayas in NYC!?

Ebi Mayo
This is deep fried battered shrimp topped with spicy mayonnaise.  The shrimp was really fresh, plump and juicy.  However, the batter took away from it.  Overall, I wasn't too impressed with the dish, I suppose I found it rather ordinary.

Tori Karaage
This is a very typical Japanese izakaya dish of ginger/garlic-seasoned deep fried chicken chunks.  And it was made really well here.   Chunky pieces of dark meat chicken that has been well-marinated and fried till it's perfectly crispy outside and so juicy, tender and delicious inside.  Definitely the best of the lot, second to the bibimbap.

This is grilled pork cheeks.  The pork was tender, quite oily and more about the texture than anything.  On its own, it wasn't particularly original but it was very interestingly matched with a smudge of grated yuzu peel and wasabi as a dipping condiment.  This yuzu wasabi dip was really wonderful with the somewhat bland pork.

For dessert, the creamy almond pudding was a winner after all that rich food.

And, as a nice final touch, a little pot of frozen grapes with the check.

I had a good time here.  The service was really friendly.  The food was mostly interesting and well-made.  Would come back again if I'm in Toronto.

Guu Izakaya
398 Church Street, between McGill and Granby Streets

Second up: The Black Camel up in Rosedale.  This restaurant is located in the suburban neighborhood of Rosedale.  It is right off busy Yonge Street and is just at the outer rim of the main downtown area of Toronto.  Walking there is possible from downtown Toronto, but may take over half an hour of brisk walking, depending where you are starting from.

The buzz about this place is its pulled pork sandwich, firstly, and its barbecued meats in general, secondly.  It is a small, take-out type of an establishment.  You place your order at a counter and may choose to take-away or eat-in at one of the two small tables or the more plentiful bar stools.

I went with the pulled pork sandwich and added extras - cheese, horseradish sauce and sauteed onions.  My first comment is - don't bother getting the extra toppings, they don't give you much of it and you therefore barely taste them so what for.  The only exception is the horseradish sauce, if you enjoy horseradish, the taste will be strong enough to come through in the sandwich, and it does go well together.

The sandwich is huge.  It comes in a fresh and soft kaiser roll that is split in half.  The pulled pork is piled generously into the bread.  The sandwich comes wrapped in a large sheet of aluminum-lined paper, which serves as a very handy 'plate' for all the drippings that will come.

The pulled pork was very tasty.  The flavor of tomatoes came through most strongly.  Unfortunately, my only complaint is the texture of the pulled pork - it tasted as if it had been sitting in a warmer all day and had gotten a little stringy.  I could tell that when freshly cooked, this pulled pork would've been perfectly textured.  However, as I came around 7pm when closing time was 8pm, it had probably been sitting around for a long time.  That was definitely a shame.

I noticed signs around the little shop that indicated menu items here (most likely including the pulled pork) sell out early oftentimes and that their twitter site would be the best place to confirm availability beforehand.  I guess I was lucky to get what I got going there so late in the day.  Wouldn't mind trying this place again but definitely earlier during the day.

Black Camel
4 Crescent Road, NE corner of Yonge Street

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Night Out on Town in a Hurricane (sorta)

This weekend was a total washout.  There was rain, wind and some more rain.  So much rain, in fact, it almost felt tropical, short of my breath smoking up in the cold.  But a friend was in town and as our schedules were both limited, this was really the only time we could meet up.

As my friend wanted to go somewhere in the meatpacking district, and we were making reservations pretty last minute, we decided to go to an oldie  - Son Cubano.  I've been here once before many years ago and had a good experience.  I remembered that the food was good and the ambience was fun.  I was excited to try it again.

Son Cubano

405 W 14th St (between 14 St & 9th Ave)

Unfortunately, I'd say this place is now past its prime.  The music was too loud and the food too tired.  Most of the appetizers tasted pre-made / reheated.  The saving grace is a still charming interior and great service.  They also had a selection of fruit-flavored mojitos that tasted pretty good.

Pastelitos De Picadillo - puff pastry filled with cuban spiced ground sirloin beef.  This was basically ground meat sandwiched between puff pastry.  It looked great but the ground beef was bland and tasted like it had been sitting around for a while.

Cuban Bocaditos de Sandwiche Cubano - bite size cuban sandwich of roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, and pickles.  This was again, bland.  This supposedly fail-safe sandwich lacked any real flavor.  Perhaps it had too much mild cheese and not enough salt balance with the thin slice of ham.

Calamares Fritos - flash fried, paprika dusted calamari served with lime aioli.  Again, not impressive.  Calamari was freshly-fried and reasonably tender but it was unmemorable.

Crab  Tostones Con Cangrejo - plantain cups filled with crabmeat sautéed in garlic sauce.  The plantain cups were tough and slightly rubbery.  The flavor from the crab filling was mediocre.

Pulpo Encendido - octopus cooked in spicy cuban creole sauce.   The octopus was tender but the sauce didn't really taste distinctly of anything...

Paella Valenciana - lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels, chicken, and chorizo cooked with rice and saffron broth.  The paella was very soupy.  The only plus about this dish was that the seafood used in it was really fresh.

Overall, this place is definitely past its prime.  The kitchen is badly in need of some new inspiration.  The dining area could also use some volume control with its live music - a great idea but when it's too loud, it becomes unappetizing.

After the rather boring but nonetheless filling dinner, we decided to get the check at Son Cubano, take a tiny break and look for somewhere else to have dessert.  As my friend and I have Singapore as our hometown in common, we started talking about Pichet Ong (a New York dessert chef that hails from Southeast Asia).  Pichet Ong's first dessert cafe in NYC was P*Ong.  Some quick googling revealed that  P*Ong had closed and instead, a new dessert cafe was opened, called Spot.  Onward we went!

13 St Mark's Place (8th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, basement)

The selection of desserts were interesting and definitely reminiscent of Southeast Asia.  Flavors such as lychees, milo, yuzu, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and coconut are used.  A few choices of cold and hot beverages are also offered (including boba tea).  An interesting menu option is to select tasting plates to share among a party of 2, 3 and 4 persons.  As there were 4 of us, we went with '5 desserts for 4.'

Coconut cream with basil seeds, some type of tart-tasting sorbet and konyaku jelly.  This was my favorite.

Poached lychees with a bunch of stuff I can't recall on rice pudding.

White miso semifreddo with olive oil cake.  This was salty and sweet.  Interesting.

Yuzu-flavored frozen cream with edible 'soil.'

Milo and chocolate roulade with kabocha cream.  I thought this was the most ordinary, without much flavor enhancement from the mild kabocha.

All said, Spot is definitely a place to check out.  It has some interesting menu choices and is a great place to hang out after dinner.  There aren't enough places like this!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Delightful Lunch

How simple and delicious - room service at the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street West, Toronto - a grilled shrimp caesar salad with an added side order of sauteed mushrooms mixed in:

Toronto Ahoy!

I'm in Toronto for a few days, attending a work conference.  The food in this city is rather renown.  There is quite a lot of character, with an eclectic mix of flea and farmers' markets, ethnic markets, fine-dining restaurants and casual cafes.  Here are a few of my top picks this trip (in no particular order):

1. Carousel Bakery's Peameal Bacon Breakfast Sandwich:

Peameal bacon is a type of Canadian bacon that is traditionally rolled in pea meal to ensure better curing and shelf life.  These days, most peameal bacon is rolled in more commonly available corn meal.  The taste of this bacon is much leaner than regular bacon, it is still juicy, tender and briny nevertheless.  When sandwiched in a soft roll and topped with fried egg and American cheese, it's divine!

Carousel Bakery
St Lawrence Market
On Front Street East, between Jarvis and Market Streets
Closed Sundays and Mondays

2. The Canadian Sausage Cart

I LOVE getting hotdogs in Canada.  They are far and away so much better than what we typically have in New York.  The 5 reasons I love them so much:
(i) Their dogs are grilled over charcoal.
(ii) They have selections of dogs - spicy, chicken, bratwurst etc.
(iii) The buns are toasted over charcoal.
(iv) There is an array of free condiments - pickles, olives, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, bacon bits, mayonnaise (sometimes).
(v) They are all over the city!  This is not a one-off gourmet truck.

Just look:

Northwest corner off Spadina Ave and Dundas Street West
Baldwin Street between Kensington and Augusta Avenues

This area is a collection of little stores that sell everything from edgy clothing and 70's odds-and-ends to fresh produce, meats, seafoods and baked goods.  It has a wonderful neighborhood atmosphere that blends the young and the old and is a great place to wander around and stroll in-and-out of.  It's also right next to Chinatown, so another added benefit is that you have yet another neighborhood to explore afterwards.

4. The Distillary District
This is a little far out to the east, further east after St Lawrence Market.  It is walkable from St Lawrence Market on a nice day.  It is a restored distillary area.  The warehouse facades are still largely maintained, giving the whole area a really nice feel of old and modern.  One of the best foodie stops in this area is Soma Chocolates - a gourmet chocolate shope.  You MUST get a cup of Bicerin while you are there.  It is a wonderful concoction of hot espresso, chocolate and cream, soo yummy.  They have some really good chocolate confections too.  There are also little bakeries and pastry shops dotted here and there, all with thoughtful selections of goodies to choose from.