Thursday, 29 March 2012

Reel Eats


Reel Eats hosted their third edition of their popular movie themed dinner parties last night, featuring the classic Johnny Depp flick “Chocolat”. Equal parts spoken word, tasting menu and social congregation, Reel Eats is constantly evolving and changing the definition of dinner party. Brainstorming over dim sum one day, Mary Luz Mejia and Mario Stojanac, Vanessa Yeung and Domenic Ubaldino and Sang Kim – all brought their creative food related talents to the table and imagined hosting a (soon to be) monthly tasting menu with a film focus that engages and entices diners in an entirely new fashion. Tickets are $75 for 6 courses, and wine is BYOB, or Sang can provide pairings for $25.

Finding the location proved to be a bit tricky, but we knew we had arrived when we were tempted by the wafting smells greeting us at the door. The room is all exposed brick and soaring ceilings, with the cluttered open kitchen in the back corner facing guests to watch the rotating chef produce course after course. Movies are silently projected onto a white wall, letting the spoken word speakers to surround guests with their verbal storytelling. The featured storytellers on this particular evening were Dwayne Morgan, a celebrated spoken word poet, Mardi Michels, a French teacher and well known food blogger and Patricia Bradbury a journalist and writer. All three adapted entertaining stories or verses about the theme which added a niche element to the evening, and like nothing else I’d ever experienced. 

The chef for this evening is the charming and colourful Bruno Elsier. An accomplished international chef, specializing in French cuisine and holding the dignified title of ‘Master Chocolatier’, the chef couldn’t be better matched to the movie.

Dinner begins promptly at 7pm, and guests are seated at communal tables. If you aren’t terribly social or outgoing this format might not suit you, but we had a lovely experience with our dining mates and felt the content of the spoken word and silent movie gave us ample conversation starters.

Courses were paired with characters from the film, which was mostly lost on me, since the only thing I knew about the film was when it was spoofed on the Simpsons (we melted for you Johnny Depp, now you’ll melt for us!).

The Frisée salad was presented with bacon strips, sautéed pine nuts (in cacao butter no less) and given a shake table side with tiny chunks of unsweetened cacao. The dressing was absolutely drinkable, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to approach the chef after to get the recipe (honey and white balsamic, no oil).

The shallot and lentil cream soup reminded me of Habitant soup, minus the peas, with the addition of tender French shallots. While the last dish highlighted the cacao flavour, this dish the taste just didn’t translate.

Third course brought us the Bean Cassoulet and Toulouse Sausage with a touch of Milk Chocolate. It also brought Mary Luz to the table retelling the method of how Chef Bruno made the succulent sausages (old world style, still steaming them). The portion was plenty, and the steamed sausage reminded me again of another great (French) Canadian food, a Montreal Steamie. The blend of kidney and green beans played well with the sausage making it a rich and complex dish, but once again disguised the hint of chocolate. 

A palate cleansing sorbet of Yellow Wine and Goat Cheese with Armagnac was then served. Although the flavours mingled well, occasionally I was surprised with a chunk of frozen goat cheese. Burgundy Beef Stew was swiftly delivered, well braised beef was enhanced by the noticeable dark chocolate flavours, and the fresh sprouts garnish provided a nice contrast to the stringy beef. Cones of sadly soggy fries were handed out by the affable wait staff, but judging by their mushy texture the cones didn’t disperse the heat well enough to keep the fries crisp. The spicy chili chocolate mayo was a nice hit of sweet and heat, I just wish the fries kept up their end of the bargain.

The last pairing of the evening was the delectable yet slightly over-engineered dessert flight. In order from left to right, a white chocolate mousse with lime, accompanied by an eye dropper of Cointreau, a single spoon portion of Crème Brûlée of both dark and milk chocolate, Hot and Spiced Chocolate Drink, all resting atop a length of tortilla. The mousse was a lovely consistency; the lime and Cointreau added a superb citrus infusion that balanced decadent and light white chocolate. The Brûlée was exceedingly sweet; I liked the addition of the sugar garnish, but missed the slightly burnt taste that Brûlée usually promises. Saving the best for last was the hot spiced chocolate which was rich and creamy with a lovely kick of chili peppers. 

It was a splendid evening that I felt lucky to be involved with, and I would certainly love to attend more unique events like this. There were some lulls at some points; I suppose when you have so many products donated by sponsors (Cacao Barry chocolate, Evian Water, Le Dolci et al) you owe them an audience for their spiels. Next up for Reel Eats is an evening based on the movie Monsoon Wedding, with an all vegetarian menu.














Bob Blumer- World's Weirdest Restaurants


Bob Blumer welcomed guests and gawkers to the Drake Hotel Monday night for a tasting menu based on his new show on Food Network, ‘World’s Weirdest Restaurants’ in which Bob travels the world in search of the most unconventional dining experiences. While airing segments of his new show, Bob entertained the crowd, and more importantly, fed them too.

The Drake was packed with foodie fans, excited for the wacky guest of honour, Bob Blumer, who did not disappoint. Waiting for each guest on their table was a clown nose, blindfold and the ever classy roll of toilet paper. Keeping everyone in suspense about the random objects, Bob wore several hats (including a monkey costume) and seamlessly worked the room into a feeding frenzy, whether it was dressed as a monkey serving beer, or dishing out hot curry from an actual toilet bowl.

Each course was a nod to a wacky restaurant from the show, which took Bob all over the world. Inspired by visit to a Kayabuki Tavern, Bob’s recipe for Chicken Karaage was served with sake, Mirren and ginger soy sauce. The chicken was tender and crispy, but the accompanying dip was overly salty. To balance out the saltiness, Bob the Monkey hand delivered pints of Sapporo to the crowd, a not so subtle signal to his experience in Japan, in which a team of monkeys are your underpaid and unhygienic servers.

Second course was based on his trip to NYC, in which Bob dines blindfolded. The theory being senses are heightened and as a result patrons are more adept at picking up things like texture and smell, instead of solely relying on your eyes. On the blindfolds went, and small plates were left for us grapple at blindly. At this point, I fully jammed my chin into what I later found out was a crab cake, which was accompanied by a parmesan crisp atop a tiny mug of beer and broccoli soup. I really enjoyed playing along and guessing ingredients, the broccoli was left mostly intact, but the beer was well concealed in the warm soup. Photo taking was a twitch harder, but it also allowed for some rather inconspicuous shots of our table mates (Dan, I love your Bill Murray shirt by the way).  

The next screening was from a trip to Taiwan, in which Bob visits a restaurant called ‘The Modern Toilet`, a restaurant in which food is served in mini porcelain toilets, and guests are encouraged to order a number two (chocolate soft serve ice cream). At this point, a small army of chefs rolled an actual toilet out of the kitchen, and Bob proceeded to dish out piping hot curry to the masses. Now, some may be put off by eating out of a toilet, but diners here were ready for the weird, and noshed on the curry with great enthusiasm. This was by far my favourite dish of the evening, creamy and delicately spiced, the curry was rich and well matched with the braised short rib, thinly sliced steamed potatoes and fresh spinach garnish. Bob introduced another well-known Canadian chef, Vikram Vij (from Vij’s in Vancouver). It was his curry recipe on loan this evening, and although he originally referred to it as a `complete bastardization` of his dish, he relented and was thrilled to be a part of the evening, shaking hands with guests and posing for photos with star-struck foodies.

Last and certainly gimmicky least, we watched as Bob travels to Portland for donuts at Voodoo Donuts, a donut shop hocking mini voodoo donut dolls. Channeling our inner clowns and sporting the flashy red noses our dessert pairing arrived- three mini donuts from Toronto`s Glory Hole donuts, rolled in different flavour variations, cinnamon and sugar, icing sugar and well, bacon sugar?

Bob also let it slip that the talented Executive chef Anthony Rose from the Drake Hotel will be parting ways to cook up his own restaurant venture, I guess we`ll see if it makes the cut for season two of ‘World`s Weirdest Restaurants’.

World`s Weirdest Restaurants airs on Food Network on Wednesdays at 9pm and 9:30pm starting April 4th.



Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Biermarkt- Shops @ Don Mills


Biermarkt has recently opened a third location of their popular European inspired beer bistros in the open-air Shops at Don Mills (and Lawrence). With a 30 page beer menu featuring over 100 brands from 24 different countries, beer is obviously their focus. Taking over a brand new space, next to the always rammed Joey restaurant, Biermarkt does have some stiff competition. But the gleaming brass, spotless poured concrete floors and everything looking so top notch and brand new, beer aficionados in the north end of the city may just migrate to this gastro pub instead.

Service is all good looking twenty-somethings in the universal all black server’s uniform. One thing noticeable from when we walked in is the abundance of smiling staff. The hostesses, bartenders, even the manager sweeping the floor, all seemed to have a spring in their step. They clearly put service first, and that’s something that has been majorly absent from most comparative places.  After stumbling through the gargantuan menus, impressed by not only the vast beer choices, but also the smart wine list, we ordered the featured Jupiler ($7.52), a Belgian blonde-lager first brewed in 1853, in the hefty and festive 20 ounce boot. We matched our boots with the cheese and lager fondue for two ($20). Accompanied by fresh cut Granny Smith apples, clammy pre-cooked fingerling potatoes and ‘Bistro’ bread, the cheese is served warm and further heated by the table side fondue flame. The cheese mixture is a little flat though, the blend of Appenzeller, Emmental and Racelette cheeses get lost in the buttery Stella-Artois based broth.


The Congo mussels ($13) however, are tender and chewy, swimming in a vat of tangy red Thai curry coconut milk, lemon grass and a squeeze of fresh lime. The menu says it’s a ½ kilo of mussels, but the portion seems much larger to me. The warm rosemary roll made sopping up the delectably spicy sauce a treat. Pairing it with the markt frites ($5) made it a salty and satisfying meal.


Equally tempting was the veal Schnitzel ($24). Crusted in panko, the giant veal cutlet was a smidge on the greasy side, but worth the belt busting. It was well balanced with the creamy Yukon mash, crisp grilled asparagus and sweet tomato jam. Swirled around the veal cutlets were two marvellous dipping options, a lemon-caper emulsion and a marmite scented veal reduction.


Biermarkt at Shops at Don Mills is pretty identical to the other locations, other than the different demographic; Esplanade and King St have a definite downtown collection (or some might say 905 on certain nights), whereas Don Mills is more of a casual local vibe. With live music options on the busier nights, and never a cover, beer lovers opting to steer clear of King West or the Esplanade finally have a safe haven amongst the other narrow (ahem, Firkin) choices in the north.










Saturday, 10 March 2012

Woodlot


Woodlot is a charming Canadian inspired restaurant and bakery on Palmerston in College Street’s Little Italy. Woodlot’s name is a no-brainer, greeting you from the street is a woodshed and chopping block, no doubt to feed the beast that is their beautiful wood burning oven, where many if not most of their creations get the heat treatment.

Woodlot is the brainchild of Robyn Donio and David Haman, the latter formerly helmed the kitchens at impressive Toronto institutions such as Noce, Lucien and Senses.

After being shot down (as a walk-in) more than once, I booked a table for a Saturday night about a month in advance. Service, much like the oven itself, is warm and engaging. We felt immediately at home upon arriving, and were pleased to find our table in the upstairs-loft waiting for us.

Menus are short and concise. Four starters, four mains, and a couple pastas and sides are offered. Also presented is a vegetarian menu, which is mostly the same as the regular menu, actually, it is the same, except substitute the meat for two other main courses- ricotta stuffed squash or tofu and mushroom pie.


Celebrating with friends gave me opportunity to try the Ember Grilled Hen-o’-the-Woods Mushrooms ($13) as well as the Baked Caramelized Onion Soup ($11). The mushrooms were a glorified carb rich salad, wild rice, black walnut and mixed greens with a solid portion of somewhat squeaky mushrooms. It was perfectly seasoned, with only a controlled amount of balsamic and olive oil. The soup was rich rich rich, with oozy gruyere cheese, salty onions and their in house made sourdough bread soaking it all up. I found my taste or two of the soup to be quite satisfying, and I noticed my partner struggle to finish it all before our mains arrived.

I opted for the kosher kombo of Whey fed pork chop ($26) with brown bread and walnut sauce, whole prunes and chunks of briny bacon and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts ($6) with bacon and juniper. The pork chop was magnificent, bone in, tender and sauce dripping. Portions were huge, so sharing was easy. I snagged half of my mate’s giant Chicken and Porcini Mushroom Pie ($25) in exchange for some of my chop. While the buttery crust was delectable, notably absent in the pie were the aforementioned mushrooms. We took the crust off the whole pie to inspect and were disappointed, not a single fungi in sight. The fan favourite would have to go to the Naturally Raised Flat Iron Steak ($29). Cooked brilliantly to a perfect medium rare, concealed by black trumpet mushrooms (found em!), drizzled in a green béarnaise sauce and garnished with parsley, it was superb. Pairing it with the Yukon Gold Potato and Porcini Gratin ($6) made it a sophisticated yet comforting meal.


From the bar, Woodlot offers an extensive and well curated list spanning mostly Canada and Italy, with a heavy feature on `Natural` wines, not necessarily  organic; but ones in which the growers show respect for the fruit and land. Four beers are featured, all from Neustadt Springs save for one lonely Duggan`s IPA.

Woodlot was absolutely worth the wait. The food is above average, and although the service can be slow at times, the team more than makes up for it with their charming and convivial attentiveness.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Aria


Aria is pure eye candy. Taking its name from the Italian meaning for ‘Air’, Aria has a breathtakingly beautiful interior, with 35 foot soaring ceilings in the ever prime and seemingly always changing Air Canada Centre/Maple Leafs Square. Celebrating their almost entirely new menu, and with their first anniversary next month, at least someone in the neighbourhood has a reason to rejoice.

Architect Stephen Pile carefully thought out the restaurant, with banquette seating abound and a spiffy marble bar for the target and typical demographic for this area; well-heeled Leaf fans in for a pre-game risotto, or perhaps more commonly, Telus execs down to take advantage of culinary and almost museum like surroundings. The kitchen is helmed by the young Executive Chef Eron Novalski while the restaurant is owned by Guido Saldini and Elena Morelli the proprietors of Noce Restaurant on Queen for many years. I was saddened to hear that the superstar pastry chef Steve Song was no longer with them however.  

Reception is friendly and swift. We were led to our table, and I promptly secured the cozy banquette side that featured small pillows adding to that lux feel. We reviewed our menus and perused the extensive (not so shockingly) mostly Italian wine list. The view was vibrant and there was plenty to be distracted about. Throngs of disappointed Raptors fans leaving the game, bright neon lights from the buildings outside the all glass exterior windows, and at one point I even busted my dining mate checking out the score on the ACC’s giant outdoor TV (Leafs also lost).

Determined to be distracted by something other than sports, we order a couple of app’s to get the party started. The Beef Carpaccio ($18) sounded promising on the menu, the staple of so many other Italian institutions. Here, it was accompanied by a meandering of arugula sprouts, creamy gorgonzola drizzle, chewy walnuts and porcini mushrooms. Certainly a meaty affair, but under seasoned. After a quick fix (although not on tables, servers will happily tote over a small bowl of sea salt and hot chili flakes) it was much more dynamic. With a somewhat goofy presentation, my partner was presented with his Carne Cruda ($15) which is raw beef (steak tartare) with a cracked egg on top. The beef was moo-worthy fresh, the creamy raw egg, all in a delicate balance. The fries were a tasty and fun garnish. My mate was moaning about the generous garnish of rosemary, but not being a fan of rosemary I guess that’s to be expected.

The Shrimp Risotto ($26) in a lobster broth was delicate; not overpoweringly fishy and cooked properly, which for Risotto can make or break the dish. There was an abundant portion of shrimp, which were tender, and not at all overcooked. I especially liked that the shells were off, I hate mucking around the bowl searching for tails.

The Veal Striploin ($37) which was sheathed in prosciutto and swimming in a tangy balsamic reduction. The side was a lovely portion of a potato pancake, with thinly sliced white onion on top which seemed to float above the potatoes, similar to the dramatic dandelion-esque lights above our heads. The striploin was cooked a perfect medium rare, and well complemented by the balsamic.
Even though Aria is technically Noce’s sister restaurant, it feels more like a glamorous Aunt, studded with jewels and air kisses. Service was mostly attentive and very friendly. My only grumble is that the bathrooms are located outside the restaurant, accessed only by card key you must first get from the hostess.