Monday, August 31, 2009

Blue Plate Special at Jump - Great Deal and Great Place for Friends

I'm happy to have more friends move to the big city, and even more so when they love to eat as much as we do. Last night, we had a lovely (albeit late) dinner with two pairs of our newly wed friends that are new to the city...what better welcome and relief from the stresses of moving than food!

Jump Cafe was the beginning of Oliver & Bonacini restaurants, known famously for Canoe. It is located in the heart of the financial district - a blessing for the weekend as there is always capacity for last minute reservations. I like Jump because the food is good and the menu has a wide range of options, particularly suitable for groups and if you're not sure of everyone's tastes. I also love that it offers great value in the blue plate specials - a 3 course meal for $35 - probably one of the best deals you'll find downtown for a nice dinner. The term "blue plate" came from the depression era in reference to low priced dinner specials (thanks wikipedia!).

Last night, 5 of us took in the blue plate - Tony of course splurged on the dinner special instead, an impressive lobster sheppard's pie. The great thing about the blue plate is that there are options - to start was a choice between butternut squash soup (I have had it in the past, and it is delicious), crab cakes with chipotle tartar sauce, or broccolini and baby spinach salad. The soup special of the night happened to be New England Clam chowder, which I love, and the waiter was happy to substitute for me. When it arrived, however, there were no clams. I'm not generally one to complain about my food, I just won't return, but the waiter had spent a good minute "selling" the special with details of the delicious clams...and really, clam chowder with no clams?? As expected of any good restaurant, they were happy to replace my soup and a new bowl came back freshly cooked full of clams and assorted vegetables - I wonder if they made it from scratch! Regardless, good service is a check. For my main, I chose lamb - which was delicious...and now that I think back, I never had a chance to ask Matt and Amber how their chicken or snapper was! Again, great options all around, whatever your preferences. I had the chocolate torte for dessert (although I was too full to finish) and the others tried panna cotta and the cheese plate, which apparently had a lovely Quebec cheese - can't go wrong!

Overall I think Jump has good food and great value. The one major downside is how slow they are - we arrived just before 9 and dinner didn't come until at least 10:30 or was a late night, and good thing no one was starving (I think)! Last time, my table had whiled the night away over a bottle or two of wine, so I would suggest a group visit and lots of drinks if you decide to stop in on the weekend, not a bad excuse to catch up with friends - just don't make plans to rush off! I'd like to believe they are much faster serving the weekday crowd, but I'll have to wait for someone to tell me.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Afternoon in Unionville: Old Country Inn for Homey Austrian Fare

We finally had a hot sunny weekend in Toronto so we decided to explore Unionville, a quaint historic district in Markham. I imagine it is always pedestrian friendly but we happened to visit during its annual Jazz festival where the main street was closed off for a number of sound stages. I loved the relaxed feel of the area, with visitors and locals alike enjoying the jazz and also Toogood pond, a small body water not far from main street. We took a walk around the pond where we saw kids fishing, families having picnics, and other locals just enjoying the hot summer weather in the fields and along the picnic tables. It's certainly a nice retreat from the busy life of Toronto! I was surprised to see turtles in the water and this strange bird along the shore (and a white one in the marshes) - no idea what it is, and so far google has not told me, but we were intrigued none the less. Someone local must know!

Main street is populated with little shops, ice cream parlours, and patios galore. We decided to stop in the Old Country Inn, drawn by the Austrian fare of schnitzels, bratwurst and the like. I always long to relive (re-eat?) my exchange experience in Munich, where I had actually stayed with an Austrian family. My host-mom's food was always delicious - they became very familiar with my declarations of "yummy!"

The Old Country Inn is a 127 year old house that appears to be a local favourite, it was packed for jazz fest with reservations from at least a week in advance. Lucky for us, the manager found us a table inside after a very short wait (honestly, it was just too hot for patio). I had liver dumpling soup and rindsgulasch - rump roast cubed and simmered Hungarian style. Tony had potato soup and a delicious jager schnitzel, cutlet in a creamy bacon mushroom sauce. We finished with the sacher torte, famous Viennese style chocolate cake, layered with marmalade! Our dinner was satisfying - comfort food is always my love - and very reasonably priced as our bill came to under $60. You would think that such a tourist area would have much higher prices, but I'm not complaining!

We loved Unionville and the Old Country Inn - we will certainly visit again to try other items on the menu. A warning to any future visitors to jazz fest - the evening is simply packed, with traffic lined up blocks out from main street to get in! Be sure to drop by early with the entire family.

Seafood Fix: Rodney's Oyster House

I had lunch with a friend Friday where we traded stories about the crazy amount of money we spend on dining out and entertainment - everything has to do with food and drinks it seems! She mentioned her love for oysters which reminded me how long it's been since I have had raw oysters - partly because Vancouver's the only place I "trust" fresh oysters. So while Tony and I were looking up places to eat Friday night, we decided to try out Rodney's Oyster House, yes indeed related to Rodney's in Vancouver.

The restaurant's decor is as if you are dining dockside, all within the expected cheesiness of course - nets and wood planks alike. The waitress was quick to offer us a mixed platter of oysters to start - perhaps after seeing our perplexed look at the oyster menu likely leading to slow decision making. We were thrilled when she brought by a good mix of oysters to our liking: kushis from the West coast, raspberry oysters from PEI, some New Zealand oysters and also some clams (raw clams are fantastic if you have not had a chance to try them). The raspberry oysters were a nice surprise, I'm not sure I've ever had them before since I generally stick to West coast, but I would have them again. The oysters were also accompanied with a platter of sauces from a mild shallot sherry to jalapeno hot sauce - Tony tried them all while I favoured the sherry with some lemon and horseradish.

For mains, we each had a cup of soup - New England clam chowder and corn chowder, followed by dungeness crab! We often eat lobster when we are out (I LOVE lobster) but rarely do we have crab. It was simply prepared - steamed I think - the crab meat was sweet and delicious, with the legs pre-cracked (Tony loved that!) and easily parted from the shell. In fact, the meat was so sweet it was better without dipping in butter - how rare is that!?

Rodney's is by no means a cheap meal, but the oysters are reasonable and the staff are quick and courteous. We saw some family outings as well as some dates - it's a place suitable for all. Next time you're craving an oyster fix, why not try it out and see for yourself. Apparently they bring in fresh king crab that is exceptionally sweet - the waitress had us salivating thinking of the taste because it seemed we had not experienced something as good as she described. We're hoping they might bring in stone crabs one of these days, too!