Monday, 30 April 2012

Café Reconcile

Café Reconcile exists to do two things; assist those affected by poverty through life-skills training in a real restaurant surrounding, and cook absolutely mind blowing New Orleans style soul food at easy to swallow prices.
Located in ‘Central City’ on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, Café Reconcile hopes to open more locations throughout the city in the next coming years, allowing them to accept more at risk youth into their highly sought after program.
I heard about the Café through my travel companion, and headed over for lunch (they are only open select hours for lunch and not on weekends). The staff is so warm and effusive, it does not smack of despair or charity, only hope and hard work. We had many servers over the course of our lunch, all stopping to ensure we were enjoying our food and making chit chat.

Being my first day in New Orleans, I was keen on trying the special Seafood Gumbo ($6.49), with a side of fresh baked jalapeno cornbread ($2.49). The gumbo had a complex deep brown roux, the hallmark of a good gumbo, and the seafood was tender and tasty, especially with a good helping of the popular Crystal hot sauce that is so ubiquitous in New Orleans.

The cornbread was a fluffy chunk of sweet bread, speckled with a few whole jalapenos which were spicy but a great complement to the gumbo.

I really wish they would consider either opening in Toronto, or delivering. I think for now I’ll just hone my own roux skills and look forward to my next trip down there!

Café Reconcile is at 1631 Oretha C Haley Boulevard New Orleans  and can be reached at 504 568-1157.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

California Almond Board at the Drake

The California Almond board invited members of the foodie scene and special guests from as far as LA to kick off a nutty night of everything almonds at the Drake Hotel last week.  Showcasing the multi-talented nut was Chef Anthony Rose (formerly the head chef at the Drake), NYC Pastry Chef Jenny McCoy and Hollywood Mixologist Matthew Biancaniello creating several concoctions of nut related deliciousness.

First guests were treated to Matthew’s ‘Lost in Laos’ gin based cocktail, infused with almond milk and green Chartreuse.  Expecting it to be somewhat creamy and thick, it was anything but, offering a delicate nutty flavour that was balanced out with the kaffir lime leaves.

Cooking demos led by Chef Anthony gave gawkers the opportunity to learn how to properly stuff a pot sticker and a walkthrough on his lemon roasted halibut. Chef Jenny turned her almonds into a delectable almond milk panna cotta with a crispy almond praline and strawberry rhubarb compote. Small sample plates were distributed ensuring guests a sample of every dish, which were not only almond rich, but seasonally accessible as well.

And just in case you didn’t get your daily quotient (which according to the California Almond board is an exact 23 almonds) there was a clever self-serve almond bar with eight different flavours to fashion yourself a grab bag for the way home.

So, no excuses people. Almonds are good for you; they’re easy to eat, readily available and highly adaptable to just about every recipe. So get out there and get nuts!

Recipes are re-printed with express consent from the California Almond Board. For more information on almonds and more recipes, check out

Lost In Laos

Ingredients 3-4 kaffir lime leaves 3/4 oz (21 g) of fresh lime juice 3/4 oz (21 g) agave syrup ½ oz (14 g) of Green Chartreuse 2 oz (55 g) gin 2 oz (55 g) unsweetened almond milk

Directions In a cocktail shaker, muddle together kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and agave, approximately 2 minutes. Add liquors, almond milk and ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a collins glass with ice, Garnish with kaffir lime leaves on the side.

Lemon Roasted Halibut with Crunchy Spring Mix

Ingredients 2 cups (500 mL) yellow quinoa 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 6 pieces on the bias 4 cups (1 L) sugar snap peas, cut into 4 pieces on the bias 2 cups (500 mL) shelled green sweet peas ½ lemon, zest and juice ¼ bunch chives, finely chopped ¼ bunch tarragon, finely chopped 3 oz (85 g) extra virgin olive oil 6 (5) oz (142 g) halibut filets 2 sprigs fresh dill 2 lemons, thinly sliced 1/4 lb (113 g) unsalted butter ¼ cup (60 mL) white wine 1 cup (250 mL) toasted crushed whole almonds Salt and pepper, as needed

Directions Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
Rinse quinoa thoroughly and place into a rice cooker with 3 cups (750 ml) of water; Cook until done.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare a large bowl with ice water nearby.

Blanch asparagus, snap peas and sweet peas by placing them into the boiling water for about 1 minute. Strain and remove to ice water for another minute to stop the cooking. Drain well and set aside.

Remove quinoa from rice cooker, place into a large bowl and mix together with lemon zest, chives, tarragon and olive oil. Season to taste with salt & pepper

Season fish with salt and pepper and place onto a parchment-lined sheet tray. Place a sprig of dill onto each piece of fish; layer each with 3-4 lemon slices and top with 1 tsp (5 mL) butter. Splash with white wine and cook uncovered approximately 7 minutes. While the fish is cooking, brown the remaining butter in a pan over medium high heat. Add the remaining lemon juice and blanched vegetables and toss quickly. Season to taste and add toasted almonds to vegetables. To serve, arrange quinoa and fish on a plate and spoon vegetables around and over the fish.

Almond Milk Panna Cotta
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Ingredients ¼ cup (50 mL) almonds, finely chopped 2 tbsp (30 mL) almond paste, finely chopped 3 ½ cups (875 mL) unsweetened almond milk ¼ tsp (1 mL) almond extract 2/3 cups (150 mL) granulated sugar Pinch fine sea salt 1 1/3 cup (325 mL) heavy cream 2 envelopes powdered gelatin

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C) Set 8 to 10 four-ounce (120 g) ramekins on a baking sheet.
Spread almonds on a baking sheet and toast until deep golden and fragrant, about 6 to 8 minutes.
In a medium saucepan, bring toasted almonds, almond paste, almond milk, almond extract, sugar, and salt to a boil. Turn off heat and let steep at room temperature for 15 minutes; return to a rolling boil.

Pour heavy cream into a mixing bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the surface of the cream. Let stand for about 5 minutes, then whisk to incorporate. Add hot almond cream and whisk smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large metal bowl. Place bowl over a larger bowl filled with ice water and stir until cool.

Divide panna cotta base amongst ramekins. Carefully transfer to refrigerator and chill overnight until fully set.

To serve, dip ramekins into a bowl of hot water to loosen the side of the custard. Gently invert onto desired serving dish. Top with Strawberry-Rhubarb Preserves and a piece of Almond Praline.

Makes 4 cups (1 L)
2 ½ pounds (1.135 kg) rhubarb, trimmed and sliced into ½" (1.3 cm) pieces

½ pound (227 g) strawberries, hulled and cut into quarters

Seeds of ½ vanilla bean, optional

1 cup (250 mL) water 4 ½ to 5 ½ cups 1.125 L to 1.375 L) granulated sugar, to taste ¼ tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt Juice of 1 lime

Pinch of fine sea salt

In a large pot, combine the rhubarb, strawberries, vanilla bean, and water over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes, or until the rhubarb is just tender.

Add sugar and salt. Continue to cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until jam has just thickened, skimming off and discarding any foam that rises to the surface. Add remaining sugar, to taste, if needed. Continue cooking until jam has reached 220°F (104°C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice.

Carefully spoon jam into heatproof jars. Let stand uncovered until room temperature. Store in the refrigerator until ready to eat.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients ¼ cup (50 mL) granulated sugar 2 tbps (30 mL) light corn syrup 1 ½ tsp (375 mL) light brown sugar 1 ½ tsp (375 mL) unsalted butter, softened ½ tsp (2 mL) fine sea salt ¼ cup (50 mL)plus 2 tbsp (30 mL) almonds, finely ground

Directions Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir until evenly combined. Refrigerate overnight to harden.

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat.

Divide praline base into 8 to 10 pieces and place on baking sheet, evenly spaced apart. With the palm of your hand, press praline firmly to flatten. Bake until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet to room temperature.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Getting Octagonal at the Octagon

The Octagon is not trendy, exciting or new by any means. It is, however, a purveyor of well executed cuts of meat and seafood, stellar service and a killer wine cellar.  Consistent, accessible and approachable, The Octagon has been in business for decades, and there’s an obvious reason for it. What it lacks in excitement it more than makes up for it what we came for : meat.

Located in Thornhill, just north of Steeles on Yonge street, The Octagon is hard to miss, especially as it lives up to its geometric name, the entire building is a house of crazy eights, in and out, hard angles all at 135 degrees, carved out of oak and cherry woods positioned in between stunning panes of stained glass. This is definitely the type of place you would take Dorothy Manthooth out for a nice seafood dinner and never call her again.

Channeling the steak house vibe, we tucked in for some overpriced cocktails, a spicy Bloody Caesar ($12) and the kitschy classic Long Island Iced Tea ($11). Certainly tasty, not worth the expense though. An in house complimentary pickle tray helped take bite out of cocktails, and the basket of buttery garlic bread was a nice touch. The Caesar salad for two ($29) was prepared table side in a large well-seasoned wooden bowl; you could tell this was going to be a serious salad. A half dozen ramekins containing all the various ingredients (raw egg, anchovies, parmesan cheese, red wine vinegar, lemons, croutons, bacon bits, Worcestershire sauce, tabasco sauce, pepper, garlic) are all portioned out to ensure consistent results. It’s quite a process, but entertaining to watch as well. The servers creating the salads make it look like artwork, our server this evening had been working there for close to 20 years. And the proof is in the pudding, this is easily the best Caesar salad in the GTA. Portions are huge, and the creaminess of the dressing doesn’t disguise the standout ingredients. Almost like a symphony, the salad soars with every bite and every component complementing the next.
The bacon wrapped scallops ($16.95) were tender, salty and pleasantly plump. At about the size of a baby’s fist, you would expect some level of chewiness, but it literally breaks apart in your mouth, seeping the buttery-lemon juices into your mouth.

Steaks are served in every size and cut; we both opted for the Cadillac of all, 8 ounce Filet Mignon ($39.95, or $51.95 for the gut wrenching 12 ounce option). Cooked to a bloody perfect medium rare-rare (so medium rare, but more towards rare than well) I was in meat heaven. Aged a lovingly 45 days and charcoal broiled you really don`t come here for the chicken. Steaks are served simply enough, only a couple mushrooms and a sad piece of parsley compete on this platter. But, there really is no competition. The steak is just so glorious it needs nothing to accompany it. Unlike other upscale steakhouses, The Octagon does offer a side at no charge, so our steaks were quickly followed by a baked potato and circular home fries that were mostly ignored. A perfectly cooked 8 ounce filet is about 4 ounces too much for me anyway, I had no shame in doggy-bagging it here, and looking around most tables had their little Octagon-stamped bags ready to go. 

We rounded out our meal with a fabulous liquid dessert, Spanish Coffee ($10.95). Once again we dragged our server back to our table, this time with an open flame. George lovingly prepared our coffees with great flair and precision. No third degree burns here.

I kept expecting Ron Burgundy to pop out and serenade us with some Jazz flute, but aside from that, this stereotypical steakhouse lives up to all its hype. A little weathered, a little dated, but it`s still a classic restaurant that steak lovers will return to, again and again.

The Octagon is located at 7529 Yonge Street, call 'em at 905-889-8989

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Gourmet Bitches Food Truck

The Gourmet Bitches unveiled their new food truck at the Boiler House in the chic Distillery District. The latest in a fleet of food trucks set to (hopefully) dominate the streets this summer, the Gourmet Bitches plan on enticing food junkies with a more refined menu than your typical greasy sandwiches or meat on a stick. Equal parts gourmand mixed playfully with healthy and gluten/dairy free options, the Gourmet Bitches aim to break the innocuous cycle of food truck mediocrity. Now that the novelty has worn off a bit, it’s exciting to see this genre of food outlet take it further and offer more sophisticated choices.

The bitches in question, if I may, are Shontelle Pinch and Bianka Matchett. Bianka, I’m told, is the driver of this operation, after Shontelle mentions she has a bit of a lead foot. Both these ladies don’t exactly fit the stereotypical truck driver, so it’ll be interesting to see them out on the road with this beast. Big, matte black and burly, the truck glows with their reflective logo and the modern stainless steel kitchen interior.

But will their food match their adventurous looking vehicle? Offering a selection of their gourmet menu to guests, the Bitches hosted a classy evening, showcasing not only their truck, but their culinary pedigree as well.

Set up in stations and served by dozens of model-like ‘bitches’, the menu was inspired by Bianka’s travels and Shontelle’s knack for healthy cooking (and aversion to gluten). Saketinis scented with lavender were a girlish and fun cocktail. 

The mahi mahi and shrimp ceviche salad was refreshing yet quirkily dense at the same time. I wish it was seasoned more, nary a grain of salt in sight. Circulated around were cute little boxes containing sweet potato fries topped with Cuban coffee marinated pulled pork. The flavours were good; just wish the pork was tenderer and thoroughly pulled.

Most of the dishes translated well to travel, others I questioned their portability. The gluten free Balinese chicken on a corn tostada was a crunchy bite, lovingly arranged on a single nacho. In each bite the perfect amount of each ingredient, but is that something you can do on the move?  Chicken wings with three dipping sauces (spicy mango, lemon aioli and tequila bbq) were also offered, which similar to the pulled pork, hard to execute when not kept warm (or served hot).

The tamarind steak sandwich on a gluten free bun was outstanding; I really enjoyed the delicate spices and creamy lemongrass mayo. Bonus points for the puffy yet sturdy bun that stood up to all the mess. The arugula and kale salad with sliced cherry tomatoes, deep fried garlic flakes and green onion had a very spicy kick to it, although I would prefer if the garlic was not as prominent.

Now, keeping in mind this is somewhat of a soft-opening, and the Boiler House kitchen isn’t exactly a bitchin’ kitchin’, I have high hopes for this truck and its mantra. It’s about time someone recognized the gap in mobile good eats, bitch or not.