Sunday, November 29, 2009

Revisiting a Favourite: New Discoveries at Ematei

If you have been following, I have written about Ematei before - by far our favourite and most frequented restaurant in the city. Tonight, we had a different sort of experience that was so amazing I couldn't resist but share. Last I wrote about this restaurant, I shared my obsession with the hot pot, the ultimate Winter comfort food. We have other favourites as well, but we always have it with the hot pot (it definitely requires more people to share).

Without ordering hot pot, we had stomach room to try other things on the menu. We noticed a "special" sign on the wall tonight for a matsutake (mushroom) soup - we love mushrooms and we love soup, so how could we resist? In a restaurant full of delicious tapas under $10, I was expecting this $20 mushroom soup to be a big bowl; in reality, everything about this dish surprised us. The waitress told us that this was a unique soup made from rare pine mushrooms found only in Winter. The soup was a flavourful simmered broth of pine mushrooms, scallops and shrimp. It was served in a small teapot accompanied by little cups - the unique presentation allowed us to enjoy the soup throughout our meal in small portions, and each taste left us wanting more. A truly worthwhile and unique experience. Fresh pine mushroom are apparently very rare in North America, so we were doubly impressed that Ematei had the delicacy.

In addition to small portions of sushi and sashimi, we also had oden. I LOVE oden, and first experienced it at Ematei. This is also a Japanese Winter dish consisting of assorted fish cakes, daikon and boiled eggs served in a light broth. I think of it as a mini hot pot! We also had eringi butter (king mushroom), grilled black cod, and for the first time here, savoury egg custard. Tony and I had an unforgettable egg custard while in Japan last year at a restaurant that served food from the Hokkaido region, made with bits of roe and tako. It was just the right blend of flavours. Ematei's was made with traces of mushroom, shrimp, artificial crab meat and topped with orange zest. As always, we were happy to have a taste of something from Japan that we have not had at any other Japanese restaurant. And the night got better! For the first time, we actually had room for dessert, and I cannot believed we have missed out for TWO YEARS. We had anmitsu, a jelly and fruit mix served with red bean paste and (we were told) best with ice cream (black sesame was our flavour of choice). Although I recognized the name, I was not sure what this dessert was; in fact, we had it at a delicious izakaya restaurant in Shibuya on our last night in Japan....needless to say, I was elated to see this recognizable dish arrive! We also enjoyed a unique mochi, which we had not tasted before - it was freshly made sticky rice cake, rolled in what I think is ground soybean powder and served with a light syrup. Although we thought we were quite full already, we practically inhaled the entire plate. It was light and the perfect way to finish our meal. That is definitely going on the favourite list!

I regret that we didn't take any pictures tonight because our meal was so beautiful, from the mushroom soup teapot, the small oden ceramic hot pot to our cup of egg custard! Since I have shared my love of Ematei in the past, I was not planning to blog about our meal; but it was a different kind of experience for us that included pleasant reminders of Japan and also new tastes worth sharing. I think we will be back again shortly and perhaps then I can update with pics! We have a new completion goal to try everything on the menu, we don't want to miss out on anything. Think we can do it!?

Butter Chicken of the Sea at Bread Bar!

I pass Bread Bar on my way to and from work everyday. Tony and I finally decided to try it sometime last year. I did not have this blog at the time, but let me tell you, it was an unforgettable meal! It is a bustling restaurant that is great for groups/parties. You may be lucky to have your own table, or be seated at the long communal table - either way, the ambiance is warm and friendly.

On our return visit last night, the first thing I looked for was the "butter chicken of the sea" I affectionately remembered from our initial visit - lobster and prawn in the same makhani sauce. I remember the taste fondly and couldn't wait to have it. Imagine my disappointment to find it was not on the menu. I read and re-read the menu several times before resigning to the fact that the must have replaced this dish with the seafood curry. Of course, I was not ready to give up on the single dish I had returned for so we asked the waiter....and I was THRILLED that it was available, a "special" not on the regular menu. Aren't I glad I asked! I especially loved being able to order something not on the menu...has some kind of insider exclusivity to it.

In addition to the deliciously rich lobster and prawn, we also had a lime lamb shank curry, a nice contrast to the flavours of the makhani sauce, and also saag panner - a spinach and rapini puree with paneer (Indian unsalted cheese). All of this served with basmati rice and garlic naan of course. Bread Bar is actually so named for some of its unique naan offerings, but we were so overwhelmed with the mains already that we ended up going minimal with our accompaniment and sticking to the basics. There's always next time!

Bread Bar is a lovely choice for an indulgent Indian dinner, and probably better celebrated with friends (so you can try more food of course!). It is part of the Amaya group of restaurants, which I have yet to try the others, but I'm sure the name and taste is familiar to some of you. Remember to ask for the butter chicken of the sea - I didn't make the name up, I swear that was on the menu last time!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Savouring True Meat Flavours at Cowbell

We often rely on Toronto Life's best restaurant list for our adventures. Last year, we made our way to Cowbell and were excited to discover a unique bistro experience - the restaurant buys their meat locally, butchers their own animals and sustainably aims to use all parts. It's a small operation involved vertically in the entire food process. The feature there, of course, is meat, with a menu that changes constantly depending on what they have brought in. On our first visit, I had the Cowbell burger. Normally, I would never order a burger, but the lady next to us told me it was the best burger she had ever had, so how could I turn that down? As I recall, it was indeed an amazing burger, with bacon and topped with Quebec cheese. That experience had left me wanting another bite so we made the trek to far Queen West again last night with our friends James and Lisa.

The Cowbell menu is found on a chalkboard in the restaurant, with an assortment of appetizers and mains - I caution vegetarians that this is not the place for you, although there are some minimal choices! What I love most about Cowbell is that the chef really celebrates and highlights the natural flavours of meats - no fancy sauces, just delicate cooking and handling that brings out the best of beef, duck, pork and the like. Last night, Tony and I did the butcher's plate to start - an assortment of terrine, pate, liver and hearts. I had the angus beef with bone marrow as my main, served with a side of wild mushrooms and leeks - the beef was AMAZING. I can't tell you how disappointed we have been with beef in Toronto in general, but this was just perfectly medium rare and tender. Tony had pork, which again was very simple, highlighting the natural taste of pork, tasty, but less amazing than my beef. I miss the carpaccio we had on our first visit, very basic rare beef slices served with nothing and yet, tasted better than any carpaccio we have ever had. It is truly a sign of good fresh meat and good preparation. We had creme caramel with blackberry compote for dessert, which was rich and satisfying, but truly, the highlight of the restaurant is the meats, so invest your bellies in that!

Cowbell is a great place for anyone who loves food and loves meat. Don't think of it as a heavy "meaty" place - I made that mistake at first, delaying our visit there, but it really is a foodie destination, so you can appreciate fine preparation and simple yet delicious tastes.