Saturday, December 31, 2011

CALGARY: Deliciously Wholesome Food at Boxwood Cafe

When we visit Calgary, we prioritize only two sorts of meals: steak and Vietnamese Pho (the best of all the places we've lived in Canada!). We have abundant fancy meal options in Toronto so we don't make a ton of effort to scope out new restaurants. Lucky for me, my friends know how much I love food and are happy to suggest cool new places that have popped up in the city. While looking for a place to catch up with my friend Andy, I could only suggest my old faves, Living Room, Brava and Big Fish - and since they are all still around, I assume they are still good! Andy had a better idea, and that's how we ended up at Boxwood Cafe, sister restaurant to long standing River Cafe in Princess Island Park.

Boxwood is standalone restaurant in Central Memorial Park in the Beltline area (bonus: ample street parking free after 6pm!). Upon entering, I immediately felt the bright, warm and welcoming atmosphere, like walking into a friend's contemporary cottage. There are small dinner tables for an intimate gathering, a tall share table for a more social experience, and I chose to sit at the end of the bar for a quieter catch-up and overlooking the food prep. Boxwood focuses on wholesome and sustainable food with a big of tree-hugger feel and I was ready to indulge!

To start, we nibbled on spiced almonds and pecans followed by house cured tuna served on creme fraiche. The two were great compliments, one boldly flavourful and the other simple and fresh. We also enjoyed refreshing drinks of ginger beer (not too strong and reminded me or the aromas we experienced in Thailand last year) and an unsweetened wild berry iced tea. Perfect pairing for our meal ahead.

I had the lamb with mint and white anchovy salsa
verde, simply served and very tender. As I expect, I was not asked how I like it cooked because I expect a great restaurant to show me how to enjoy it! The simplicity of the food highlights how fresh the ingredients are! Andy had roasted chicken served with a roasted butternut squash and tomato stew that had a hint of curry. Both dishes featured juicy, tender meat that was
good on its own, with a side of freshly made accompaniment to add colour and character. I really enjoyed the clean, natural flavours. To share with our mains, we had a fantastic brussels spouts gratin done with pumpkin seed butter. I could have eaten this as a meal myself and is definitely a must-have at Boxwood. If you ever need to convince someone to eat brussels sprouts, this would be the way to go!

I was warned in advance that dessert was a must, and we chose to try to daily special
of apple tarte tatin and the server's favourite, saskatoon berry bread pudding - I can rarely turn down bread pudding, something about that homey, warm appeal! Our tarte tatin (an upside down flat tart) was great, served with vanilla bean ice cream, but I really loved the bread pudding, topped thinly with caramel sauce and spotted with chocolate chips, it was none too sweet and uber delicious!

Boxwood was a great experience and was definitely my highlight meal of the trip! I love that more cuisine options are showing up in Calgary, particularly one focused around seasonal and local ingredients. This is a great place to catch-up with friends or visit for a date over deliciously wholesome food. Be sure to save room for dessert!

Boxwood Cafe
340- 13th ave SW


Growing up, it was tradition for my family to celebrate Christmas with a steak dinner - with only 3 of us, making a turkey was kind of out of the question. Over the years, I've tried to pick different restaurants in the city to take my parents, including Caesar's Steakhouse, Murrieta's, and often settling at The Keg for my mom's favourite prime rib and lobster. This year, Tony and I decided CHARCUT would be perfect for Christmas Eve - we were fans of Connie on Top Chef Canada, co-executive chef and co-owner, and couldn't wait to try it out.

CHARCUT Roast House is located in the chic Hotel Le Germain Hotel in downtown Calgary, giving you an idea of the style and atmosphere of the restaurant. It's a modern charcuterie, trendy and spacious while serving rustic comfort foods. For Christmas, we were welcomed with a special 3 course set menu for $49, but if that didn't entice, you could also order separate starters, mains and sides. I thought this was great as restaurants often limit meals on special occasions to just the set menu, and who wants a table full of the same thing? My mom and I both went with the Christmas menu, starting with a delicious roasted buttercup squash soup with sage cream and pretzel croutons. The soup was creamy and savoury with a hint of spice that was just perfect. We both lapped up the entire bowl happily! Tony started with the grilled octopus and sausage, which was quite tender but we thought our soup was more spectacular. I couldn't pass up the organic rotisserie turkey (porchetta style!) served with lady apple stuffing for my main - it was Christmas after all! The turkey was really great,
juicy and flavourful, but the highlight was really the dressing with many chunks of sweet apple, served in a mini le creuset. My mom had the 2nd option, a leg of ham served with gruyere biscuits and a fantastic spicy pepper jelly. The jelly was the highlight for her dish, adding a great kick of flavour to the meat. Tony decided he couldn't pass up an opportunity to have great Alberta steak and opted for the Spring Creek Butcher Steak - served simply off the grill and was done perfectly. The steak did not disappoint! For dessert, we ordered one of
each option: upside down gingerbread cake, which was served in a small jar and more like a trifle, and the pumpkin cheesecake. I was initially far more excited about pumpkin cheesecake but the gingerbread dessert turned out to be quite delicious. The cheesecake was a tad sweet where there was extra sugar, but otherwise...also amazing and we finished both without question.

We enjoyed our meal at CHARCUT, with great service and food. Our starters came quickly to satisfy our hunger and tasty meat that did not leave us feeling heavy and unhealthy served with some unique accompaniments. I also loved that we were offered both still and sparkling water free of charge, which was a nice touch since most restaurants charge for sparkling. All the little details count and is what makes a meal and restaurant memorable! CHARCUT is definitely worth a visit if you're in Calgary, a hip place to visit with friends, celebrate a special occasion or entertain clients in style.

CHARCUT Roast House
101, 899 Centre Street SW (in Hotel Le Germain) (reservations available on OpenTable).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CALGARY: Lunching at Brasserie Kensington

I had to pick a lunch restaurant with co-workers last week and I struggled to come up with something fairly easy to access, to park and with good food. We were literally getting together from 4 corners of the city so Kensington became the destination of choice (that probably didn't meet the easy to park criteria but close enough!). After not living in Calgary for 4 years, I wasn't really sure what was good, so I turned to OpenTable for ideas. After some availability searching on OpenTable and then menu browsing, I settled on Brasserie - I can never resist a French bistro!

Brasserie is simple, bright restaurant overlooking Kensington Road. As I had seen online, there were plenty of delicious sounding options on the menu from salads, sandwiches, to house specialties. In the end, we each opted to try a different dish: Cobb Salad (with crab cakes!), breaded cod sandwich (was gigantic!), croque madame and croque moniseur. I had the croque madame because I like the fried egg on top of my Gruyere and ham grilled sandwich! It came with a nice healthy salad, but you can opt for soup or fries. Lunch was very good all around, and it looked like other patrons were enjoying themselves too - I should mention we might have been the only table not indulging in lunch-time champagne! It's not much for decor and style, but Brasserie was a great choice for our lunch get-together. The bustling crowd in the small restaurant made it a bit loud for conversing but it was part of the open and lively atmosphere. I'll have to go back and try the poutine - all fries done in duck fat :) I also recommend getting to Kensington early as parking can be tough right close to noon, but if you're lucky, you might snag parking right in front!

1131 Kensington Rd NW (upstairs)
403-457-4148 (reservations available on OpenTable)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Cozy Experience at Union Restaurant

The Ossington area is bustling with lots of options, but one we have not had a chance to not check out was Union. It was not top of mind, but as I scrolled through my Twitter for ideas this weekend, I noticed the daily menu posted on Thursday and was sold. Thankfully, we were able to secure a reservation for Saturday night!

We were a table of 5, but Tony and I opted to do a selection of the starters for our meal - we always opt to try more food than less :)

Elk Sliders - seeing elk on the initial menu sold me to call, and these sliders were delicious. Served as little meat balls on toast, was actually quite juicy.

Lobster Roll - perhaps odd to consider as a starter, but this creamy sandwich was tasty and sweet. It would have filled me up if I had it on my own as a starter.

Seared Scallops and Risotto - proportion of scallop to risotto was great, and although tasty overall and loved the scallops, I found the risotto a little hard.

Along with some starters, our friends ordered the pasta du jour to share, pappardelle with braised beef. It was nice to have something a little more substantial along with the assortment of starters. If we were to go again, I think we'd do 2 starters and one main to share - the trout sounded quite good, hopefully it will be on the menu again!

We also had two lovely desserts (be sure to save room for it): maple cherry bread pudding and apple walnut cake. I liked my bread pudding more but both were good, not too sweet and was just what we wanted to wrap up our meal.

Union was a great experience, and a perfect place for us to take visitors - unpretentious and cozy with good food selection championing "eat local." I could definitely feel the Parisian bistro inspiration, easily something found in Montmartre. This is a great restaurant to check out with friends or for date-night!

72 Ossington

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Favourite in the City: North 44

We were in a celebratory mood and decided to splurge on dinner at North 44, one of our favourite restaurants in the city; truthfully, we have only ever been during Winterlicious/Summerlicious but it was always an AMAZING experience and we were certain regular dining would be fantastic as well. I always say, it's important for restaurants to do Winterlicious/Summerlicious well.

I was surprised when we arrived at North 44, although there was definitely room it was decently busy for a Tuesday night. Some looked like they were celebrating an occasion and others looked like "regulars." The table next to us had their bottle of wine opened for them before they even's that for service!

First to come was the medley of lobster, crab and prawns, served with creme fraiche. This was an amazing seafood salad and I can still taste the fresh and succulent shell fish, served at a perfect cool temperature. The creme fraiche added to the refreshing and clean tastes of this dish.

Next we opted for one of the specials of the night, beef tartar with toasted capers. I really like capers with my beef tartar in general and this was particularly tasty toasted.

Tony had the pappardelle with braised veal shank (also available in starter portions!). I die every time I take a bite of delicious, thick, FRESH pasta. This was delicious, with hearty chunks of braised veal, a perfect homey dish for the cold night it was. I have no doubt this is a classic favourite at North 44 (pictured above!)

The first thing I spotted on the menu was the miso glazed BC black cod...
but then my eye was drawn away to the house special, pan seared Dover sole with saute of roe, chanterelle mushroom, lemon and brown butter. How can I pass up that description? There is seriously an art to menu writing, key is creating expectation and delivering! Little did I know this special dish was $65...and in a quick irrational moment I said fine. Eek. True to its name, the Dover sole is only found in European waters, so I guess the flight overseas makes it expensive! The fish was quite good, very well done and delicious. The mushrooms, served on the side, I loved as well. I don't know if it was $65 good (sorry!!) but apparently it's a MUST HAVE dish says Chef Jean Joho so I guess I don't have to have it again :)

Normally, I would never do this, but after a week eating indulgently in Madrid, we decided to have the medley of fruit with sorbet, which was EXACTLY what I wanted by the way. It was refreshing and clean tasting, exactly what we needed after our big meal. Don't ever think of "dessert" in the narrow sense, it's whatever helps finish your taste experience and this was perfect for me.

North 44
2537 Yonge Street

Sunday, November 27, 2011

MADRID: A Paella Feast at Casa Benigna

Paella was a high priority on our visit to Spain, one of my most favourite things to eat in the world. To my surprise, it wasn't abundantly popular among the tapas culture in Madrid and we spent most of our meals dedicated to small plates of cured meat, Spanish omlette, croquettes and even tripe. Fear not, we did not leave Madrid without an indulgence in paella - our friends, Jen & Andrew, had a plan to take care of our paella cravings and we were treated to a feast at Casa Benigna.

Casa Benigna is one of those "local" finds, tucked away on a quiet, residential street. Reservations are always needed and we were welcomed into the warm, intimate restaurant after a homey knock on the door, including greeting from the owner's mom. I always get a good feeling from family run food joints! Although we were given menus, I don't think I even flipped it open - part of the experience are the fresh and special dishes that can be offered off the menu....we let our friends take care of the ordering :)

Everything from the olive oil for our bread was an experience - one from Italy and one from Spain. The server poured both into glasses for us to pass around and smell like you would with wine. They were each distinct and simultaneously had crisp and smooth flavours to the smell. We had house soup to get our appetites roaring (not that we needed much help), followed by a delicious duck and eggplant starter. We couldn't pass up the recommended "scrambled eggs" and potato topped with fresh black truffle - the server had brought out the fresh truffle for us to smell upon ordering. It's truffle season! The food kept coming fast and furious, I barely had enough time to take it all in! Next we had a delicious salmon omelette with zucchini and some sea kept - it was a sweet tasting dish served with a light tomato sauce. This was one of the most memorable dishes of the night for me, truly unique and was a nice, light starter...despite it arriving on the table in a giant paella pan!

Now for the main affair: We wanted two paellas, and learned that traditional
paella preparation does not mix meat with seafood/fish so we decided to have one of each. We settled on a squid ink paella for our seafood choice - I love the unique, savoury taste if you can get past it being, well, black! It's definitely one of my favourites and I never turn down the opportunity to have it. We also had a vegetable paella with chicken done with jasmine rice, which was very aromatic and seemed even healthy! The jasmine grains was very unique and was a different flavour and texture to paella. Both were served in GIANT custom pans used by the restaurant (available for sale!) was a good thing there were 6 of us ready to indulge!

After polishing off the paella, pretty quickly I might add, we dived right into the AMAZING dessert - first a mixed platter to share including delicious gelato and chocolate cake, and then individual chocolate dipping cups for pastries (they reminded me of Chinese almond cookies!).

The whole experience at Casa Benigna was wonderful. We were well cared for the whole night, with the service professionalism of any high end restaurant, while still maintaining an intimate and friendly feel. I tried to look at what other patrons were having but was sure everyone was indulging in something different, which is exciting in itself, knowing you can have a very custom meal. Although the restaurant can certainly hold a decent crowd, reservations are highly recommended!

Casa Benigna
Benigno Soto 9, Chamartin, Madrid

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

MADRID: A Visit to Segovia for Suckling Pig

We couldn't turn down the chance to visit the nearby town of Segovia, famous for the Roman built Aqueduct, a UNESCO recognized World Heritage site. The stunning architecture welcomes you to the town, a short 30min high speed train ride from Madrid. It's breathtaking! Some of the other sites include the Alcazar of Segovia, a residence of the monarch in the Middle Ages. When the Royal Court moved to Madrid, the castle became a prison for over two centuries. The Alcazar was destroyed by fire in 1862 and was later rebuilt to be used by the Artillery. As it was rebuilt, some of the rooms are fairly modern, including thrones that were surprisingly made in the 20th century...yes, you read that right. The rooms around the castle are named after small details in the room, such as pine-cone like decor from the ceiling of one room and cord-like decor surrounding doors in another. The room of the monarchs was most memorable to me, with facades of monarchs surrounding the space. It was a little Disney to me but still impressive. Housed at the Alcazar is also the Museum of the Royal Artillery School, including interesting technology and devices used throughout the years. We also made the 152 stair climb up the great tower which offers a spectacular view around the city and of the Cathedral of Segovia, especially beautiful surrounded by fall colours. We were surprised by the vastness of the Cathedral and intricate details. Its gothic style reminded us of the Notre Dame, although much less busy and "polished" but still quite impressive. Some highlights include the huge organ, intricate details throughout, detailed glass windows and vast corridors.

The sites in Segovia were beautiful and we had the luxury of wandering the city leisurely since it was low season; but truth be told, we were sold on Segovia because it is also known for its suckling pig (cochinillo)! Our first stop in the city was for a reservation at Jose Maria. The restaurant is known for its traditional fare and it was by far the busiest place we visited in Segovia - the place was packed! Jose Maria is also known for its service and constant concern for quality of his ingredients, most famous of course is the suckling pig that they raise and make special care for to ensure fine and tender meat.
This is not an experience for the squeamish, we were constantly surrounded by servers bringing out whole roasted piglets to serve...impressively carved with a dish (that's Jose doing it)! The tenderness of the meat and crispy skin were both AMAZING, I can still taste the juices from the meat. I couldn't imagine why someone would order anything else, although a dish of fish nearby looked incredibly good as well! We each decided to have suckling pig along with a side of asparagus (have I mentioned how hard it is to have vegetables in Spain?)...which also came with some delicious fried zucchini. There was no way I could finish my portion, it was HUGE. That entire slab of meat you see IS meat with just some rib-bones underneath. I think I got through half before I gave up. I ate as much as I possibly could, it was too tasty to turn away! This was no cheap meal but a MUST DO and totally worth the trip from Madrid. This may have been our most indulgent and memorable meal this trip!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MADRID: Tapas Galore!

I have fond memories of eating in Spain from my backpacking days in Barcelona, we were thrilled back then to afford a good meal after spending time in London and Paris...paella, seafood and sangria galore! I couldn't have been more excited to visit our friends in Madrid, Jen & Andrew, who promised delicious tapas eating adventures!

La Latina: Tapas are, of course, core to eating in Madrid, and it is especially popular to tapa hop - think bar hopping but for food (and usually drinks too!). Our first night had us in the La Latina area of central Madrid. This area is known for the highest concentration of tapas was like a dream come true! Our first stop was Txirimiri, a modern, high energy tapas bar with mostly standing room only. I wish I had been warned to wear a sling bag! We did
manage to find a couple bar stools and enough counter space for our food - it's not uncommon to be left standing with your food, but there is a restaurant space in the back with seating if you are lucky to find it open and available. Stading andeating was part of the experience! We started with a delicious Spanish omlette on bread, looked almost like a piece of pie on top. It was sweet tasting from the caramelized onions. Next we had some delicious croquettes which would become a staple of almost every meal we have in Madrid. We were off to a good start but the best was yet to come: the special "burger" was a pile of meat served on bread, smothered in a stroganoff-like sauce. It was soooo
good. Then came the mushroom risotto with foie gras on top, hello heavenly! It was prepared fresh, hot and savory. I may have licked the plate clean myself if that had been appropriate. These last 2 items were definitely among the best we had! I can still taste them now :). We eventually made our way to a restaurant down the road that was a little quieter and specialized in cured meats, yummy jamón ibérico and chorizo to be had. That's the beauty of "bar" hopping, you can move from place to place to have their specialties or if you're just looking for a change in scenery.

Mercado de San Miguel: This gourmet food market is on the site of an old
"traditional" market in a beautiful glass structure with cast-iron frame not far from the popular Plaza Mayor. It slowly lost relevance as hygiene of street markets were questioned and the city's growth outpaced the ability of the market to meet everyone's needs. Mercdo de San Miguel was born out of an interest to keep the market alive, now filled with high quality fresh foods including stalls for sushi, assorted tostadas (shrimp, fish and other toppings on crostinis), croquettes, vermouth on tap and fresh juice. We also had mini foie burgers, cheese fondue, traditional seafood tossed in vinegarette and delicious chocolate cake and apple strudel to finish off our fun meal. It takes some patience to secure a spot at the share tables in the middle of the market, but most people were quick to eat and move on. This was a great way to try many different things under one roof, we took turns wandering the market for dishes and drinks to try.

Chimi & Churri: Tony and I stumbled upon this little place near Puerta del Sol that Andrew had pointed out during one of our walks. We wanted to escape the restaurants right around the plaza to avoid (best we could) over-priced tourist traps. We were starving by the time we sat down at the bar, and as we wrinkled our noses and squinted at the overhead blackboard in an attempt to remember what the Spanish words meant, the server kindly offered us a menu with English translation...whew. I think we would have managed anyhow but it was still a nice reprieve. We blindly ordered everything we had appetite for, completely underestimating the portion sizes: chorizo sausage, grilled sweetbread, ham with mushrooms, garlic shrimp tostada and a meat empanada. In true tapa style, we did not think much about the amount we ordered, but it turns out a couple of these were full entree size - I'm sure they wre on the tapas menu, maybe they should have specified for how many people. Oops. The food in this little cafe was good although I would have liked for the server to tell us we were in way over our heads! This was a simple, no frills place for some traditional foods. Had we not completely over-ordered, our meal would have been a pretty good deal :). Next time maybe we'll just try the 10€ prix fixe.

We were hungry for a quick bite before heading to the zoo on our last day in Madrid (how could I resist the opportunity to see baby pandas??). We passed by Viena Capellanes not far from Plaza de Espana and decided to stop in. Although a chain restaurant that does some catering, we were pleasantly surprised with the food. Our favourite was the tripe, a popular local dish, served tender and in a savoury sauce that was a bit curry-like. Yum! We also had another Madrid favourite, broken eggs with chorizo on fries and a blood sausage cannelloni with pine nuts. All delicious! We try hard to avoid chains or "tourist traps," but this place was pretty good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Day in London: Borough Market & Tayyabs

We had one day in London after flying red-eye out of Toronto - no better way to fight jet-lag than to head on out and keep busy. We basically kicked our friends out of bed (thanks Lis, JK and Simon) and headed for lunch at Borough Market. I loved it the first time I went and couldn't wait to taste (and smell!) that raclette cheese again, yummms! The market was busy as expected and we bee-lined our way to get some raclette and potatoes. It was scraped piping hot off the wheel, melted on our little bowl of potatoes. Amazing and every bit as good as I remember, maybe better! It was a good start to our eating. Next we made our way to get a duck confit sandwich (other end of the market) which was really good but the bread was more of a plate than anything for us :p. We also made a stop at Roast To Go and had a pork belly sandwich with apple sauce...highly recommend, it was so tender and tasty! I could have used more apple sauce on the meat though. So. Good. We made a pit stop at Monmouth for coffee and I happened to spy a little bakery next door: Konditor & Cook. After examining all they had to offer (mulled wine truffles were very tempting), I picked up a slice of raspberry hazelnut chocolate cake for the group, covered with chocolate fondant. It was every bit as good as that sounds, and very filling. You'd think dessert was the end of our eating, but we still made our way to the shellfish stall and had grilled scallops with bacon. Seriously, how can one resist?! We were temped by the giant wok of paella initially but were too full by the time we made it back and I had a taste of soup instead, minted asparagus which true to the name was very minty but a little too much for me. With happily stuffed tummies, we embarked on our day of walking along the bank to check out some sites.

After wandering from Tower Bridge to Millenium Bridge, exploring Tate Modern and some quick shopping at Selfridges, we made our way to the East end of London for some Pakistani food at Tayyabs. This place was packed, and is apparently always lined up outside but crowds were moderate when we arrived. It's BYOB at Tayyabs so we picked up some beer which helped us pass the wait for a table, which thankfully did not take that long. Upon entering, I discovered really how big the restaurant was, two floors packed with patrons! The food looked and smelled delicious, I was starving and couldn't wait to dig in. Our friend Vince took care of the ordering and we were treated to a feast of tandoori chicken and lamb chops on hot paltes, karahi gosht, a traditional Pakistani lamb curry dish, a delicious saag aloo (spinach) and some amazing nan, including a sweet nan with sesame that was fluffy and surprisingly really tasty - I had not imagined having sweet nan with my food but I wish I could have had more! Although we were fully stuffed from our abundant and flavorful meats, we could not turn down the chance to try Tayyabs's own yogurt pops that came in mango, pistachio and their original malai. My pistachio one was really good and the perfect way to cut down the spice flavours in my mouth. The most amazing part of the meal? Dinner was £15 a person, which was just a crazy deal! It was so delicious, came quickly and an unbelievable deal. No wonder there's always a line-up outside. Tayyabs was definitely a nice local secret to discover!

Can't complain about our quick jaunt in London, still managed to have some great food experiences! Borough Market is definitely an experience to be had and Tayyabs is a restaurant I'd love to visit again.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Duck for Brunch at Prohibition Gastrohouse

When my friend Stella first told me about Prohibition and its menu full of confit, I knew I had to try it. Sunday brunch seemed like a good as time as any to indulge in flavourful, comfort foods on the menu at Prohibition Gastrohouse in Leslieville.

I had scanned the menu first thing in the morning before making our way to Queen East and had no doubt that I'd be having the benny canard, poached eggs with duck confit, served with potatoes and side of salad. If you weren't sure how eggs benedict could get better, it JUST did. Duck confit on my bennies was exactly the right mix amount of flavour and meat. There was plenty of duck confit piled on the delicious biscuit, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. It was perfect and not as heavy as you might have imagined it to be. I'm admittedly not a big salad eater, but the salad was fresh and a nice flavour cut into my indulgent brunch. There were other things appealing on the menu, such as stuffed french toast, pulled pork sandwich, but ultimately, Tony opted for the grilled cheese with pulled pork. He added mushrooms to the grilled cheese (nice touch!), and upgraded the side to duck poutine. The grilled cheese was very good, delicious bread served with side of fruit compote. The duck poutine, like my benny, was piled high with duck confit. Fries, cheese, duck and lots of gravy...this was not a dish for the weak of heart!

Prohibition Gastrohouse was a delicious treat for Sunday brunch, definitely worth the trek to Leslieville if you're not in the area. Might I suggest a stop at Bobbette and Belle for some cupcakes for dessert after, mango passionfruit is my fave :)

Prohibition Gastrohouse
696 Queen Street East

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sweet, Succulent Lobster at The Lobster Trap

I have always loved lobster, although since the discovery of curry crab at Saigon Star, my allegiance had slowly been diverting. We randomly treat ourselves to lobster, whether it's a full lobster served at Pier 4 down by the water, or lobster with e-fu noodles (yi mein) at Congee Wong. Not long ago, I came across an article about the long standing restaurant, The Lobster Trap, famous for the fresh shipments of lobsters from the East coast. With no dinner plan for Friday night, there was no better time to try out this Toronto favourite for the first time!

The Lobster Trap is a casual, friendly restaurant, complete with blue and white checkered table cloths, lobster nets adorning the walls and friendly live keyboard player for Friday night dinner (perhaps other nights as well?). We dined to the Entertainer, something from Phantom, Fur Elise and other "classics." It all added to the lovely, neighbourhood charm of The Lobster Trap. Despite the obviousness of what I would order, a moment of indecision came on deciding how BIG of a lobster I should have: The Lobster Trap serves by weight, starting at 1 lb. Our server recommended 1.5 lb dinner, which comes with soup, a side and a non-alcoholic drink. There was no doubt I was going to start with the lobster bisque (it's almost my life ambition to find the best in the world....Cannery I miss you!!), but I decided 1.5 lbs would be too ambitious and settled for 1 and a quarter :) Decision two was how the lobster would be prepared, steamed or broiled. Steamed was recommended by our server, broiled included bread crumbs in butter spread on the lobster halves and broiled. Naturally, we each chose one preparation so we could give the broiled a try.

I started with the lobster bisque, which was incredibly sweet and tasty.
Tony's clam chowder was stocked full of clams, every spoonful had plenty! Both were great but good clam chowder is easier had than good lobster bisque, so that I highly recommend. We had hot drawn butter with our lobster, which came whole but served in half. This was seriously some of the BEST lobster I have ever had - there was plenty of succulent meat (even in the legs and fin of the tail) and it was more flavourful than we expected, truly the definition of fresh, sweet lobster! And whether you like it or not, even the tamale had a deliciously sweet flavour. My steamed lobster (picture at top) was definitely preferred to Tony's broiled (pictured to the right), the bread crumbs were a bit greasy and took away from the delicious lobster meat on its own. We liked the fresh drawn butter, but really, the meat was sweet and flavourful on its own. We were in heaven!

The Lobster Trap is definitely an old neighbourhood gem, and a must-visit for family friendly service behind the delicious food. We were surrounded by other couples and families happily picking away at the lobster before them. Would anyone really order the 4 lb lobster available on the menu?? That just sounded insane!

The Lobster Trap
416-787-3211 (no reservations)
1962 Avenue Road

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Great Casual Fare at O&B Canteen

I've posted about Oliver & Bonacini's Canteen in the TIFF Bell Lightbox before, we made a visit when they first opened. We were happy with our meal but only found it average - a good place to go but not some place I was actively recommending. For TIFF this year, we planned ahead for food (eating popcorn for dinner last year wasn't ideal!) and made a pit stop reservation at Canteen between movies. We were pleasantly surprised with a great meal, served quick and excellent service (thanks for taking care of us Joseph!).

Canteen has a wide variety of choices, We were still left with a great
selection of starters, standard mains like pasta, and quickie ones like sandwiches. To start, remembering how great the chicken liver pate was we had to have it, and it was WAY better than we both remembered. There wasn't enough crostini for us to lap it all up! Next, we had the seared scallops served on a bed of curried cauliflower and raisins, a delicious and unique mix of flavours. Yum! For mains, we decided to give the sandwiches a try, which are also available simply for the grab+go counter. I had the beef brisket croissant with havarti and sauerkraut. The croissant was buttery and the brisket was actually pretty lean...the sandwich was heavenly and every bite was a 10! Tony had the pulled pork sandwich with bbq chipotle. It was pretty good but I still think mine was tops!

I highly recommend a stop at Canteen, whether you're in the area because you're checking out TIFF over the next week or if you happen to be downtown and need a quick, inexpensive and delicious meal. This is a worthy place to stop in for something casual or for some simple, unique flavours!

O&B Canteen
330 King Street West (Bell TIFF Lightbox)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

High-end Italian at Mistura

The Toronto International Film Festival is upon us again, one of my favourite times of the year here - the city is just buzzing with energy and celebrities! The funny thing when you eat out during TIFF is there is the notorious head swivel - everyone double takes to see if the next guest to walk in is someone famous. This really doesn't happen normally! I wonder if all the restaurants in Yorkville get a bump simply from people hoping to spot a celebrity?

We randomly went to Mistura for dinner tonight - if we're going to eat out, why not take our chances right?? The last time we were here was with our friend Merrill, and we had a fabulous meal. One very memorable dish was the beef carpaccio, so we just had to have that again. I truthfully can't tell you anything else we ate last time, but this is what we ended up with tonight:

Beef carpaccio - although this was very very delicious, it was not exactly what I remembered and we could not figure out if we just confused the dish with another restaurant. What I recalled was a wonderful dish of beef carpaccio with truffle and lemon juice, but I don't remember it coming as a wrap around arugula. It was still very good but I aways vote more beef than veggies :P

Summer Fish Soup - something on the seasonal menu, this light yet flavourful soup was a great starter. I find fish soup often doesn't actually have much flavour, but this tasted like a nice slow boiled fish soup that had plenty of taste. Love that the chef isn't afraid of being a little fishy (in a great, fresh way of course!).


I went for one of the "untouchables" on the menu, an appetizer size wild boar agnolotti. It was one of the first things that caught my eye and was just DIVINE! I savoured every bite and flavour of the stuffed pasta pockets, lapping up as much of the sour cherry and brown butter sauce as possible. I really didn't want to share with Tony...

Tony went with the pot roasted rabbit, which I was very glad for since it also looked enticing. It was a hearty, saucy dish served generously with two legs and a melange of vegetables. We were even given a spoon to lap up the sauce! It looked so incredibly delicious I couldn't wait to get a taste - every bit as delicious as expected, and although flavourful not overly heavy! That's the thing, good Italian food should not be heavy...


We managed to save a bit of room for dessert, deciding on the semifreddo (a kind of frozen dessert), served with hazelnuts. I'm not actually a huge dessert fan in general but found it a nice way to finish off dinner.

Mistura is a delicious, quality restaurant. It's a bit of a splurge but nothing outrageous and certainly worth it. It looked like the table behind us may have had a custom menu (Chef Massimo stopped by) but I can't be absolutely sure looked and smelled good! All the well heeled patrons looked like they had delicious meals on their plates and lovely wine accompaniments. I should mention we also had a glass of cab, which often is sub-par to selecting a nice bottle but this was really great!

265 Davenport Road
416-515-0009 (available on OpenTable)

Monday, September 5, 2011

VANCOUVER: Mouthwatering Fresh Sushi at Ajisai

Priority for every visit to Vancouver is to eat as much sushi/sashimi as possible...but having not lived in the city since 2004, I feel like I'm no longer "in-the-know" on the best places to indulge. There's always the famous Tojo but one of the main reasons Vancouver is one of my fave places to eat is because you don't have to pay an arm and a leg for great fish. An old favourite in Vancouver is Ajisai Sushi Bar in Kerrisdale, so we decided to stop in for lunch last Saturday, a timely visit to the area for a sunny walk during Kerrisdale Days. Arriving just before 11:30, we were fortunate to arrive before most of the crowds and chose to sit at the sushi bar. We always love sitting at the bar, it allows us to to be close to the food action and see everything going on. There is mostly just raw food at Ajisai, with some selected cooked/grilled items but largely, the menu is raw and made quickly by the 3 chefs standing behind the sushi bar. It was amazing just to watch them make and serve beautiful assorted sushi plates, colourful chirashi special, create unique rolls, and even torch pressed salmon sushi. Sitting at the bar was definitely part of the great experience, it was fast and impressive! Watching them reminded me of the article I read in David Chang's Lucky Peach about Japanese chefs, how they pride themselves on doing one thing well and refining their expertise and skill over time instead of branching out to new forms or cuisines.

Our taste buds were treated to the following at Ajisai:
miso soup: you may wonder why waste precious stomach space with "ordinary" miso soup, but this was served with large chucks of fresh tofu!
special assorted sashimi: this included tuna, salmon, amaebi (sweet shrimp), scallop, octopus and others. Every bite was satisfying...this was finally the fresh fish we desired!
hokkigai (surf shell clam) and sea kelp salad, marinated in miso, a crunchy, light appetizer dish.
Ajisai special roll: this was truly a GIANT roll, and was amazing. The fresh crab meat alone is worth ordering and definitely the highlight and best part!
half orders of wild sockeye salmon sashimi (really, there is no other!) and toro sashimi (falling apart like it should be and simply heavenly!).
special unagi roll: although we were mostly full from our
initial order, we asked the chef if there was anything he recommended (I'm sure he could see us salivating over every creation coming over the bar). Truthfully, I don't remember anything he said but we thought if he can recommend it, we'll eat it! What we received was a delicious and healthy tasting roll made with unagi, asparagus, chopped scallop and avocado topped with wasabi tobiko. Although the many flavours masked the unique tobiko, I tasted it on its own and it had a nice tempered spike to it. No regrets on this roll!

There's no doubt why Ajisai has continued to be one of the most popular and favoured sushi spots in Vancouver. We'l be sure to stop in again next time we're in town...but willing to take any and all other recommendations! We can never have enough sushi on the West coast :)

Ajisai Sushi Bar
2081 West 42 Ave.

Monday, August 29, 2011

VANCOUVER: Knock-out Flavour at Vij's Rangoli

For once, we showed up in Vancouver this past weekend without an eating plan. This is extremely rare as Vancouver is one of my favourite place to eat in the world, but we have been extremely busy with visitors this month and barely booked a flight out West to begin with so we literally just showed up. One of our first stops was South Granville for a visit to Williams-Sonoma....and to our most pleasant surprise, we saw activity near Vij's. I was convinced it was just deliveries, but Rangoli, which doubles as a market and restaurant, was actually just opening for lunch! We've tried to revisit Vij's in our last couple trips, but always too impatient (or hungry!) for the long line. I can't tell you how excited I was to have an unplanned opportunity to eat at Vij's Rangoli!

We decided to sit inside, right at the door, because I like to see all the activity in the restaurant. It's a casual, modern place, including doors hidden in the back wall behind wood panels (I heard one staff tell another the majority of his job is telling people where the bathrooms are!).
Sleek, but not pretentious...perfect. We were excited to crack open the menu and were quick to decide what to eat: I ordered the goat and jackfruit in creamy curry with coconut cabbage salad and Tony ordered my second choice, spicy pulled pork with sour cream chutney. We couldn't possibly just have 2 dishes so we also started with lamb, beef & lentil kebabs. This was the highlight of the meal - colourful and full of flavour! There were 4 kebabs, I made the mistake of stuffing the first one quickly into my mouth without indulging in the date-tamarind chutney. First, it was kind of spicy (but in a delicious "I could eat this all day" kind of way) and the chutney helped to cut the heat...but more importantly, the chutney was the BEST CHUTNEY EVER. It was so delicious, I was obligated to pile on as much as I could in every bite in my 2nd kebab. This is a MUST have at Rangoli. I was ready for more explosions of flavour in my mouth with the goat and jackfruit curry, but relative to the kebab, it was actually
pretty tame. I LOVE goat curry and this was every bit tender and delicious although not as creamy or spicy as I expected. The coconut cabbage was FANTASTIC. I lapped up every bite of curry, goat, cabbage, naan and rice on my plate. Don't worry, they are healthy lunch portions and I was not over eating. In fact, our meal felt pretty healthy, unlike most Indian meals we have had where I feel deathly after from the heaviness. Tony's spicy pork must be a regular favourite, it just had "staple dish" all over it and again, not too spicy. Honestly, I think we could have used a bit more spice but I also think we had the flavour knocked out of us by the starter kebabs.

Eating at Vij's Rangoli is a total experience. A suitably diverse crowd buzzed in and out of the market/restaurant, picking up frozen and ready-to-eat dishes from the market. There were also a number of single diners, finely dressed and also dressed down enjoying the food with a good book out on the patio. Someone also pulled up in a spectacular white Lamborghini - good food reaches all demographics :) While the restaurant was still quiet, I was able to interrupt my way into a conversation among the staff about David Chang's first issue of Lucky Peach after overhearing a familiar discussion about Ivan Ramen. It is the most amazing food journal, and yes, I have a subscription, thanks to my very thoughtful friend, Surina! Great food, great crowd, and crazy food lovers...what could be better? Oh right, being in Vancouver!

Vij's Rangoli
1488 West 11th Ave, Vancouver BC

Saturday, July 16, 2011

VEGAS: Glorious Food in Sin City!

Vegas is one of my favourite places to eat in the world. You wouldn't expect a strip in the middle of the desert to have great seafood and Japanese food for example, but you can really find anything GREAT in Vegas. Here are some of the favourites and new places we visited for my friend's's really not a complete trip without great food, right??

Bouchon: This Thomas Keller bistro only offers brunch on Sunday, so we just had to make a stop. My last visit was nothing short of amazing, including indulgence in chicken & can you go wrong?The unfortunate part of a good and popular restaurant is that there was a long wait. We managed to find 5 seats at the bar eventually....but the challenge of eating at the bar is also that the bar tender kind of has another job to do too! It was also too bad they ran out of the special, which sounded just delicious: lobster and mushroom benedict! I decided on the corned beef hash, as I recalled Merrill's was so tasty the last time we were there. Lis ordered a pastry basket, which turned out to be quite large! But have no fear, we packed it up for a late night/morning snack in the room :) The food was good as expected with BIG portions but our experience tempered by the long wait both for a table and food - I don't recommend Bouchon brunch if you come hungry! However, I do appreciate the attention to customer service, with the bartender treating us to a champagne cocktail to make it up. Yum!

Shibuya: I LOVE one ever goes to Vegas without my insistance they must try this restaurant at the MGM. Sometimes I worry I've hyped it too much and will leave people disappointed; but so far so good! Shibuya is best enjoyed family style, so we just plowed through the list and ordered a number of cold, raw, hot and tasty tapa dishes. I can never resist the rich-but-so-delicious lobster and scallop in uni butter or the king crab miso soup, but we also had kanpachi sashimi with truffle oil and yellowtail with yuzu - both fresh as can be! For warm dishes, we had soft shell crab tempura with lemon shichimi butter sauce, black cod and kurobuta pork crisp (I ordered because I didn't know what it was) which was actually quite delicious - braised pulled pork rolls with seared tofu on top. We also wanted a bit of starch so we shared 2 bowls of shrimp tempura udon, and the tempura is nothing to turn your nose at for being normal because that was some really good, fresh, and hot shrimp tempura! Even the simplest dishes are outstanding at Shibuya!

Society: This was my first time eating at Society in the Encore. I had looked up the menu online previously and thought the brunch menu looked pretty inviting! I liked the extensive "classics" selection in addition to a menu of various sliders...who doesn't like sliders!? I ended up with the "ultimate steak & egg slider", which was seriously the best breakfast sandwich ever, a filet mignon with scrambled eggs and creamed spinach (I had mine on the side but ended up piling most of it on anyways) on a bacon-cheddar muffin. SO GOOD! They also had a "lunch box" menu, which was a really good deal for a smaller 3 course lunch. We all tried different things, with Julie and Kris trying out the cream corn soup, ahi tuna sliders with shrimp chips (which really didn't look like sliders, imagine a white soft a Chinese mantou - steamed bun), and Jenn had the Oscar benedict (poached eggs with crab cake, asparagus and hollandaise). After our BIG brunch at Bouchon yesterday, we all thought Society was quite perfect - the food was good and just the right portion for us. The menu is extensive and I highly recommend a visit! You can also make a reservation in advance :)

L'Atelier: I've frequented MGM several times, so no doubt many of the restaurants I like are also there, including Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier. We wanted a treat for Julie and no better than some French share plates. We were kicked off with a unique amuse bouche, an avocado and grapefruit jelly which I quite enjoyed. Our mix of dishes included Iberico ham, a very smooth beef tartar (which I think Julie and I ate most of!), a veal which honestly kind of tasted like salmon, suckling pig confit, sea bass with chorizo, snapper marinated with lime and tomato, which was one of my favourites for its very light, fresh and unique flavour. A highlight was again, another seemingly simple dish, the L'Atelier spaghetti (carbonara) and we just couldn't enough! We even had room for some outstanding desserts - I just LOVED the red berries with coconut sorbet and the pineapple cream, vanilla wafer, with lime and lemon grass sorbet. Both surprisingly light and refreshing! We were also treated to a selection of sweeter treats to celebrate Julie's stagette, a little taste of everything was just perfect. Always be ready for a rich meal when going French, but it was oh-so-tasty!

Late night: I cannot live without late night eats, and I favour noodles and soup! There are two places to visit if you manage to scramble out of the bar before 2am: Noodle Asia at the Venetian, which offers traditional noodles, dim sum and congee - nothing fancy but definitely hits the spot; and Noodles at Bellagio, which is by far way tastier but also a bit pricy for a bowl of noodles! Noodles is normally a must-stop for me in Vegas, whether it is late night or during the day. I had beef stew noodles this time around...soo good and absolutely hits the spot! Authentic and delicious, can't ask for much more!