Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eating at The Beast!

I was sad to learn not long ago that Amuse Bouse had closed down - it was a great little French restaurant tucked away between residences, delicious although a little pricey. Our fabulous realtor, Holly, had introduced us to Amuse Bouche, and so it was only fitting that we tried the new restaurant in its place with her! I was sold on The Beast after taking a scan through the menu online - pig's head pasta? That sounded interesting enough for me to try it out! We had a lovely table on the patio, perfect for a hot summer day. The menu, from starters to mains to dessert was all very appealing - and the healthy eaters we are, we wanted everything! The waitress was a bit concerned for that all that we ordered, but she did not know how much we love to eat :)

Of course, I had to have the Pig's Head Pasta, which was actually agnolotti and was DELICIOUS and my favourite dish of the night. It was served with an egg cracked on top, and was amazing...comfort food at it's best! We also had lamb ribs, which were tasty and had us licking our fingers, but admittedly, not that memorable. The smoked black cod was served uniquely with beet root and caperberries - I have never had caperberries before! And finally, we also had fried green tomatoes, which I actually really enjoyed even though I don't really like tomatoes that much! It was served with bacon and spot prawns that of course, made it extra yummy.

Holly had the rainbow trout while I had duck confit with papardelle (that's a combo that I cannot resist!) and Tony had the braised wild boar with mac n cheese. Honestly, with those items on the menu how can anyone resist trying the restaurant? My duck confit was amazing - he duck leg was tperfectly done, served at the right temperature (I hate when it is mildly warm) and the papardelle was delicious. I, unfortunately, was first to tap out and too full to finish my main - not to worry, I packed it up to be indulged in later :) Tony's braised boar was another case of comfort food at it's best - it was saucy and tender and we lapped up every piece on the plate. We also had sides of green beans and mixed mushrooms - the mushrooms are a MUST if you visit. I know I'm biased because I love mushrooms, but it was truly a delicious preparation and plenty to go around.

Yes, somehow we still had room for dessert - a frittura dolce with corn ice cream and blueberry compote. I have never had anything like it and loved every bite - it wasn't really sweet, and was so unique, you couldn't stop eating it! The waitress told us it was a bit of a home made recipe from the chef's Italian mother. LOVED! We also had cream puffs with cherry mousse - these were delicious as well, and basically melted in your mouth. I was resistant to dessert being so full from mains, but I'm so glad Tony and Holly dived in because I loved both and it elevated my meal experience!

The Beast (I just love saying it) was delicious and unique - it is a bit of a splurge, but then again, you don't have to try and eat everything on the menu like us :) I guarantee anything you pick you will like. The food was just phenomenal. Items on the menu can change weekly, and I am eager to go back and eat more agnolotti and dessert!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Vancouver: Tapas off the Beaten Path at Judas Goat

Vancouver is one of our favorite cities to visit and eat - we get delicious, fresh food for much less than we spend in Toronto. Perhaps it just appeals to our preferences, with great seafood and sushi options! Only making it out for a couple days each year has limited our "tasting" experiences as we always want to visit our favorites, but we met up with our friends Jen and Andrew this time around and had the chance to visit Judas Goat, in Blood Alley Gastown, for a fabulously fun dinner!

I never knew what or where "Blood Alley" was, feels like one of those unique destination that I should have known about having lived there for 4 years, but I chalk it up to being a newer destination (no idea true or not). The popular Salt Tasting Room is also located there, tucked away in Gastown. There are no signs, at least none that we saw, and so Tony and I drove around several times before concluding the restaurant had to be located down this sketchy looking alley. Judas Goat is a small, modern restaurant, with large windows and bar seating opening up to the alley. The rest of the restaurant is made up of a share table and several small round tables along a banquette. My one complaint about the restaurant is I wish we had bigger tables for all the food we were about to have!

Six of us at dinner was just perfect to try everything we wanted - thankfully everyone is a good eater (which one of my friends aren't??) and we proceeded to check random stuff of the menu. It was another case of order by "elimination," where we mostly just agreed on what we didn't want. The menu is divided into Bocadillos (here was a re-invented Spanish sandwich) , Hot, Pressed/Potted/Cured, Salads, Condiments and Sweets. We ate almost everything on the menu - that's the beauty of tapas! Some of our favourites were:
  • Braised pork belly: while I feel like pork belly is everywhere these days, I'm not quite sick of it yet. This pork belly was prepared very similar to some Chinese dishes, (fatty and saucy!) and of course, we had to have seconds of this!
  • Warm lamb cheek with cabbage and white truffle oil: it smelled so delicious and just melted in your mouth.
  • Cacciatori from local artisan butchers: this was ordered on our second round, since none of us were sure that this was - but it ended up being a good plate of cured meats to nibble on, plenty to go around.
  • Rabbit rillette with carrot panna cotta: rillette is a pate like preparation of meat, which was very good and the carrot panna cotta was surprisingly delicious, Jen and I really dived into it (and maybe just the two of us!).
  • Scallop tartare with pork rinds: when we ordered this, Jen described it as "crunchy." The pork rinds were indeed VERY crunchy, like "can't hear yourself" crunchy...but very good! At least I was a fan, and have had an odd craving for it since then.
  • Potted prawns with pistachio butter: The pistachio butter was deliciously rich, although it was hard to share the 2 prawns in the "pot," so of course, we had seconds!
  • Foie gras with rhubard foam: foie gras is rarely, if ever, better than in Quebec, but this was quite good indeed, and I particularly loved the rhubard foam - very unique and added a nice, unique flavour!
Judas Goat was a really fun place to eat and I loved that each dish was served and prepared quite differently with unique flavours paired together - rabbit and carrot (haha!), foie gras and rhubarb (do geese eat rhubard?) etc. It appealed to our particular preference for indulgent meats and spreads. I recommend going with a group so you can maximize what you eat...but be warned that you'll have to sit and eat intimately - the two little round tables we shared table simply weren't big enough for all the food we ordered! Thanks for introducing us to this fun place Jen & Andrew!

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Day in Stratford with Dinner at Rundles Sophisto-Bistro

It's rare that we hang around town on long weekends, since we usually make our way back out West, so with the beautiful weather, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to make a day trip. We had heard great things about the town of Stratford so we started asking around about things to do and places to eat. A friend recommended Rundles to us, a highly regarded restaurant in the little town - reviewed by Fodor's and Frommer's. Of course, Stratford is also home to the annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a celebration of theatre through classic and contemporary plays and musicals May through early November. The most popular play this year is likely The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer (for those who don't know, he was Captain von Trapp in Sound of Music, and is famed originally for Shakespearean plays). While The Tempest was playing during the Sunday matinee we were hoping for, it was sold out. Fortunately, we found great tickets for Evita. One of the great discoveries we made while researching plays was becoming a Play On member - it is a program designed to promote theatre to those under 29, and offers $25 tickets for great seats at various shows! We ended up with fabulous orchestra left seats, row E, right beside some uber expensive seats and the view was great.

Evita: The show was good and very intense, with scenes moving quickly through. The music, of course, was wonderful, done by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Although most reviews had celebrated the actress Chilina Kennedy over the play, we loved Josh Young the most, who played Che and narrated the story. The story was powerful and captures just a small part of the glamour and mystery behind Eva Peron, but enough to give you a taste into her strength, determination and ambition. For better or for worse, the story is captivating.

Matinee was the perfect time for a show - we left Toronto around 10am, pretty leisurely for us, and made it to town in time for lunch and a quick walk around. We came out of the play around 4pm and had time to paddle boat along the river before heading to dinner. It was a beautiful day, and we were lucky not only to paddle boat but also to enjoy music on the barge that was going on - a really nice summer day to be out!

Rundles is located right by the river, in a beautiful building - a mix of traditional and contemporary style. We arrived at the restaurant a tad early but they were able to seat us. We originally made reservations for the restaurant (which was actually quite full) and ended up being seated in Sophisto-Bistro. We didn't know this until we saw the menus, but after taking a peek through, we were happy with what we were seeing and decided to stay. Sophisto-Bistro offers a 2 course prix-fixe menu for $44.50 and 3 courses for $55.50.

Lobster bisque with salt cod croquettes - the bisque was light yet flavourful and frothy. I wouldn't normally consider bisques really healthy, but it did seem that way! The salt cod croquettes were also a pleasant surprise - i've never had good ones before, they are normally underwhelming friend dough balls, but these actually tasted of cod and were quite good!

Grilled calamari with shredded green papaya, kohlrabi and mango - the calamari was served on a skewer, grilled to just the right tenderness, and the salad had just a slight kick to it.

The braised short ribs of beef was amazing!
It was tenderly falling apart as it should, and we were given a utensil resembling a fish knife for the meal - a telling sign of its tenderness. We've had great braised beef before, but what took this meal over the top was the fantastic horseradish cream. It looked like whipped butter, and because of the large portion served, we weren't even sure what it was. Eating the horseradish, as Tony said, was like eating a vegetable. It was light and you could put as much as you wanted on the short ribs and not be overwhelmed by its flavour.

I had seared sea scallops with peking duck and green mango salad, in a brown butter flavoured with yuzu. The sauce was amazing and I couldn't get enough. I cut my scallops into little portions to maximize the surface area to soak up the brown butter! Needless to say, I also made the most of my bread to soak up the sauce!

Vanilla-flavoured crème brûlée and chilled lemon grass soup. It was a really complex dish, very fragrant and with an assortment of flavours that all came together nicely in the crème brûlée, the ice cream it was served with, and the lemon grass "shooter" it came with. A truly unique and delicious dessert.

Dark chocolate cream praline, with espresso granita and "Indian Summer" zabaglione (light whipped custard). I LOVED the zabaglione, served with candied pistacios on top. I also dug deep for the dark chocolate, but I guess in my hurry to pick a dessert I skipped by the "espresso" part, and those who know me will know I'm not a fan of coffee. It was all delicious of course, but in the end I swapped for Tony's fabulous crème brûlée so we wouldn't waste the granita as I desperately picked through the top and bottom layer :P

We had a great time at Sophisto-Bistro and wonder how amazing the "restaurant" menu might have been, but just means we should take another trip back. In the end, we were happy with the menu choices and our delicious meals for a really great price.

We had a wonderful day in Stratford, and we were glad to have made the drive out (was under 2 hours), see a show and have a fabulous dinner.

Contemporary Italian at Buca

Saturday night, I was craving something homey but couldn't quite put my finger on what. I finally settled on Italian and debated between Mercatto and Buca. Truthfully, I was hoping that Mercatto at Eaton Center had opened already so it would just a hop away from dinner...but alas, it's not ready. Ultimately, we decided to go to Buca. We have been before for a friend's birthday, but we arrived too late to eat and only had a chance to check the place out but not the food. Fortunately, even on Saturday night, they found us 2 spots at a communal high table. I have to admit I'm 50/50 on communal tables - you really have to be in the mood for them. I often find myself physically closer to the person sitting next to me rather than Tony; as a result, I struggle to focus on our conversation because I can hear down the table easier than across. I don't dislike them, but as I said, you really have to be in the mood to be friendly and interactive. Regardless, we were happy to get a table and were not joined by other guests until well into our meal.

To start, we decided to on the 3 salumi platter (a selection of 3 house cured meats). Our favourite was the eye of round. Our charcuterie plate was also accompanied by various house preservatives that were a nice complement to the salty meats. Our waiter also kindly recommended we order some bread, which we were hesitant at first, but ultimately ordered the nodini, bread knots flavoured with garlic and rosemary.

As I was craving some comfort food, there was no doubt I would do pasta as a main and I was immediately drawn to the Bigoli: duck egg pasta noodles with duck ragu, mascarpone and basil. I was actually a little disappointed by my dish, because the noodles were thick and chewy...which I should have expected from duck egg noodles, but it was not quite what I was expecting. In the end, I was craving some light, fresh pasta, which fortunately, Tony had! He had the Farfalle: hand cut pasta with baby octopus, artichokes and preserved chili (pictured). This was my second choice on the menu, so I'm lucky Tony cooperated :) The wide bow-like pasta was freshly made, thin and lightly tossed with chili (not spicy) and braised octopus. It was a delicious and well-made dish that I'm sure to return to eat next time.

Although we stuck to pasta mains, Buca does offer a traditional Italian experience - there were diners around us who did salumi to start, pasta as seconds, and meat/fish for mains. Buca is also a versatile restaurant with a warm yet contemporary feel. Patrons were young and old, casual and dressed to the nines - I loved the couple that had their baby with them by their side sleeping away in a stroller. It's something I've learned to love about Toronto, that young couples still dine out and have a downtown lifestyle even after kids...amazing!