Thursday, 14 June 2012

Harbord House

Harbord House is a quaint ‘gastropub’ taking over the now defunct Rowers Grill on Harbord Street. In an area brimming with restaurants, the Harbord House is still a bit of an institution. Located in a charming Victorian house converted into a bar, the three floor (with two patios) bar/pub serves up the typical pub favourites and refreshingly only serves Canadian microbrews on tap. With its proximity to the U of T campus, mainly affordable menu, and kitschy themed meet ups (power walkers group anyone?) they are definitely appealing to a niche market.

Grabbing a table on the upstairs patio affords beautiful views of the city skyline. Every patio table is occupied upon our arrival, and when the cordial yet frenzied waitress speeds by to distribute menus, she explains that they are short staffed, so expect some delays. Being a former server myself, I can remember being in the weeds many a time, and respected her honesty (and the opportunity to bolt if we were in a rush).  We perused the mighty draught menu (11 beers on tap, all from Ontario except for one Quebecois), gave our waitress a moment to catch her breath, and enjoyed the sunshine. We ordered up pints of the Great Lakes Horseshoe Blonde Lager, Steamwhistle and Neustadt (all pints are democratically $6.05) and surprisingly our pints are swiftly delivered considering the circumstance. Owner and very hands-on operator John Oakes is usually found milling about and ensuring things run smoothly, which I’m sure had a lot to do with our drinks finding us so quickly.
When eating at a restaurant that is mostly standard pub fare (club sandwiches, wings and the odd meat and potatoes plate) I take their cue and go with the popular vote. But the Fish and Chips ($14), were rather meh-inducing. A bountiful portion with all the necessary components (including proper malt vinegar) was present, but the fish batter just didn’t coat the foot long haddock in the right ways. Much like a dress should hug all the right curves, fish batter should bubble and pop in all the right dimensions after the fryer. A fluffier batter creates bubbles and pockets, important to withstand the salt and malt onslaught.
The Harbord House Burger ($11), which I had heard a lot of buzz about, was sadly left to char too long, especially considering it was ordered a juicy medium. The lack of interesting condiments either means I’ve been spoiled by Hero Burger, Burger’s Priest et al, or these guys just aren’t trying to compete. Ketchup and mustard don’t cut the, uh mustard? anymore. The slightly toasted sesame seed bun further sponged up the remaining flavours resulting in a rather boring burger.

Flatiron Steak Salad ($15) with two cherry tomatoes, a surprising blue cheese (not listed on the menu), flaccid Portobello mushrooms and charred whole red onion tossed in a maple balsamic (that was neither maple or balsamic) was an exercise in futility. Trying to cut through a steak with a butter knife is like trying to tie your shoes with a meat hook. The rigorous see-saw action required to cut the steak coupled with a rickety patio table was irritating. Either cut the meat to smallish proportions, or equip the diner accordingly!

Sticky Toffee Pudding ($6) was another much hyped menu item, and although it looked like a mud pie a child would make, it was decadent and saccharinely sweet and satisfying.

I guess if you’re coughing up the dough to be a U of T student, or live in the campus area, this cozy and familiar pub will fit your budget and lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with having a good reliable local place with friendly service and a ‘Cheers’ like atmosphere. Just helps if everyone knows your name first.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Restaurant Toqué- Montreal

Had the pleasure of dining at Restaurant Toqué in Montreal over the May long weekend. My best friend from kindergarten(!) came with me, celebrating her birthday. She had never had a tasting menu before, so I felt it necessary to pop her culinary cherry!

There was 8 courses in all, and we declined the wine flight (mostly whites, gah). Two standouts from the night were the Arctic Char, chunks of raw Arctic char, in a melange swirl of amazing flavour combinations, strawberries, spinach, creme fraiche, all in one of the nicest presentations I've seen in a while. Almost too pretty to eat.

I sorely wished for the cheese plate would feature some glorious Quebecois fromage, but unfortunately we got stuck with this, goat cheese mousse fluffed up to look like a fried egg. Very cool concept, which for a tasting menu I adore the bold choice, just wish I could have been mentally prepared for it first.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Oxley

The Oxley only recently opened its doors to the commoners living in the Yorkville area, but they are no doubt off to a great start. Sandwiched by their two quaint patios, their gooey middle is all charm and sophistication. In what every good and proper pub aspires to be, The Oxley exudes. Owned by the Queen and Beaver pub team and Ex-Pat’s Jamieson Kerr and Chef Andrew Carter, The Oxley is less sporty than its sister pub, likely a nod to the less sporty clientele.

Previously occupied by a Hungarian restaurant, the Oxley swung a hammer thru the galley style interior and infused well thought out comfortable pub décor, with nary a fox, toad or firkin in sight. Personal space is well respected here; tables aren’t choked all the way through the narrow dining room, elbow room is kept in high regard and conversations aren’t bounced across every wall in the room. An inviting pub you can actually relax in, without the fuzzy red velour that infects most competitors.

Service is just as swish as the tasteful interior. Friendly without being obtrusive, our server didn’t hesitate to suggest her fave dishes off the British dominated menu. If you haven’t experienced proper pub food (Guinea fowl, organ meat pies) then the Oxley will certainly surprise you. Offering a wide selection of ales and lagers, the server also suggested the cask ales which are traditionally served at room temperature (gives true meaning to pulling pints). We opted for the darker cask ale ($8.50) and a bottle of Stone Hammer ($6) which we expected to match our culinary cravings.

Channeling our English roots, and caving to our pickled hankerings, we started off with the Aged cheddar and Branston sandwich ($16) with house made salty crisps (chips). For those not inclined, Branston is a popular UK condiment that features pickled rutabaga, onions, carrots, all muddled into a black mushy spread that somewhat resembles jam. Spiced with mustard, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and more, it’s definitely an acquired taste. I tend to avoid the jarred stuff, but was compelled to order it when told it was in house made. Served on white bread, with buttery white cheddar, the pickle was salty as well as sweet and the flavours combined together made it memorable. The crisps were a nice touch, served in a parchment bag ensuring a good crunch, and tucking a few in with the cheddar adds a further dimension to the differing textures.

The Fish Pie with peas ($22) was Shepherd’s pie style, with a mashed potato topping replacing the puff pastry that’s usually a feature of most British pies. This resulted in one giant heavy trough of potato, cream and five types of fish: scallops, salmon, halibut, mussels and lobster. Each fish got the special treatment; cooked individually first guaranteed that the fish still retained its natural form and didn’t turn into a mushy fish mess.
The Rib Eye ($38) served on crisped white bread with a generous slathering of stilton sitting atop green beans was an inventive take on a classic. Steak and blue cheese is always a stellar combo, and the upgrade to proper British stilton propelled the juicy medium rare steak into meat glory.
The Sticky Toffee Pudding ($8) lived up to its name. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the steaming pudding had definite notes of molasses and brown sugar. The portion was ample and the ice cream cascaded into a melting river of vanilla, adding a lovely creamy consistency that balanced the denseness of the pudding.

Serving options from the bar, brunch or full dinner menus promises those with varying appetites will be satisfied. And with the 2012 London Olympic Games coming, I predict the Oxley’s tempting commonwealth nibbles to shine a spotlight on modern British cuisine. Just remember, it’s still Yorkville, so mind your p’s and q’s and bring a few extra quid, it’s not your average Toronto pub.

The Oxley is located at 121 Yorkville avenue and does take reservations, although not for the patio.