Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I Take it All Back

This photo is not from Toronto

When we were packing up to move from Seattle, I got distracted by a pile of old Gourmet magazines stashed in a closet. When I came across the May 2005 issue on street food from all over the world, I remember opening it in anticipation of what foods it would highlight from my soon-to-be-home city, the most diverse in North America. Wait a minute...I don't see any entries on Toronto...nothing here on any city in Canada! I was disappointed, I was angry. Surely Gourmet magazine was guilty of a terrible oversight! I nearly fired off an email complaint to the editor (she even went to high school in Montreal!) but decided to wait until I had specific places and dishes to recommend.

Well, I've been living here almost two years now and I still haven't sent that email. I take it all back. Gourmet was right.

I've come to learn that Toronto has some of the tightest restrictions in the world on street food. Basically, all that can be served is hot dogs. The city has recently unveiled new regulations intended to encourage diverse offerings, but they are so onerous and expensive, change doesn't look like it's coming anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Where Have You Been All My Life?

I don't mean to be obnoxious, but let's face it. How many Americans can even name an artist from Canada, never mind the Group of Seven? I lived in Washington DC for 6 years for Christ's sake and can't recall one Canadian painting in the whole Smithsonian! We stumbled upon an Emily Carr exhibit one weekend in Vancouver, but it just didn't register.

Enter the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg (just north of Toronto) and the AGO. In the hands of Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, AY Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, JEH MacDonald and Frederick Varley in the 1920s (that would be the Group of Seven), the Canadian landscape comes alive. Tom Thomson, inspired by the beauty of Algonquin Park, influenced the group's development. Emily Carr, influenced by the First Nation's communities of the Pacific Northwest coast, was also closely associated with the group. They uniquely capture the color and light of the beauty that surrounds us.
My favourite of the group's contemporaries is David Milne, whose paintings were clearly shaped by living in New York City in his formative years and less reminiscent of the French Impressionists. The New York Times in 1912 called them "violently alive" and in 2005, reviewing a major retrospective at the Met, described his "delicate yet direct watercolors" as "dazzling." Two rooms off the AGO's gorgeous Galleria Italia are devoted to his work and they're just a tease as far as I'm concerned. A google search reveals no movement to start a museum in his honour, but I'd donate to such a cause.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Frankly Speaking

C5 sets a high bar for museum restaurants ( and I expected FRANK, the restaurant at the newly re-opened Art Gallery of Ontario to be of the same genre of stunning design, fabulous food and hip atmosphere. Based on my first dining experience there, it's less a destination and more a convenient pit-stop.

With expectations adjusted downwards, FRANK is a pleasant place to meet friends for a bite before, during or after a tour through the gallery. Our table for three at brunch last weekend enjoyed views of the clean and pristine open kitchen, a wall of wine bottles and the curious Frank Stella sculpture dangling from the ceiling (which sadly is not completely visible from any one vantage point, limiting its effect). The menu offered tasty options to satisfy all manner of brunch cravings, which in our case turned out to be sweet, savoury or sandwichy:

*Vanilla French toast with Monforte fresh ricotta, poached apricots, late harvest Vidal syrup and toasted almonds (a reward to cap off 2 weeks on South Beach)

*Twice-baked souffle with caramelized shallots and Maple Dale 4-year-old cheddar, served with beluga lentil and roasted baby carrot salad (called beluga because they're small, black and resemble caviar after cooking).

*The club sandwich of the day (whose ingredients I need my friend to verify since it's not on the online menu...but I can say he enjoyed it).

I'll give FRANK another chance to impress at dinner, but I don't have high hopes from a design standpoint. Although I'm sure the food will be fine, the room just doesn't offer the artistic and architectural drama I'd expect from a restaurant in "an international landmark and Canada’s newest cultural destination."

FRANK Restaurant
Art Gallery of Ontario
317 Dundas Street W

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Carts No More!

I've always had mixed feelings about ordering dim sum from those little carts they wheel around. Usually I'm there for a reason: I have an insatiable craving for steamed shrimp dumplings and nothing else will do. If I'm lucky, the cart with all the steamed items comes rolling by just when I sit down. But most of the time, it's total frustration as carts pass by with every possible alternative.

Well, there's no reason to wait for those carts anymore...

Cha Liu's intimate space overlooks bustling Yonge Street near the corner of Eglinton. It would have been easy to walk right by the place, but the byline "dim sum shop" caught our attention just as we started musing over take-out places for dinner that night. Cha Liu's menu has over 20 steamed and 18 fried and pan seared items. Twenty minutes later, we were out the door with two orders of steamed shrimp dumplings (4 pieces per order at $4.50), one order of steamed shrimp, scallop and asparagus dumplings (3 pieces at $4.50) and one order of beef sui mai (4 pieces at $3.50). We weren't sure how well they'd survive the trip home so we decided not to go overboard in ordering. Turns out they travel very well! But to be honest, I prefer a table by the window during lunch time.

Dynasty's large bustling dining room overlooks Bloor Street between Bay Street and Avenue Road. When you sit down, all of the options are laid out in front of you: a regular menu with several pages of entrees, and a dim sum menu with check-boxes beside nearly 75 choices of varying sizes (S, M, L, XL and XXL), and a pen. The first item listed? Steamed shrimp dumplings. Hmmm... this is looking very promising indeed!

We took the menu by storm and nearly every dish impressed. Besides three orders of you know what, we sampled steamed seafood dumplings with chive, pan fried beef buns, crispy shrimp rolls, steamed BBQ pork buns, deep fried octopus fingers, baby bok choy in supreme broth and a few others I can't remember. I usually frown at Chinese desserts (if it doesn't have chocolate, what's the point?) but the steamed sweet egg yolk buns were a sweet way to end the meal and helped ease the sting of the bill ($35 per person on our first trip; $20 per person on our second).

Both places are dangerous if you have frequent cravings for dim sum...easy to get to, open all day and consistently good! Oh, and at dinner, Dynasty delivers...

Cha Liu Dim Sum Shop
2352 Yonge Street, 2nd Floor

Dynasty Chinese Cuisine
131 Bloor St W, 2nd Floor

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's What's Inside That Counts

Street appeal is over-rated. Toronto is filled with hole-in-the-wall looking joints that belie the culinary delights within. Case in point: Cafe California, at 538 Church Street. I'm sure I would have walked right by it had I been in charge of picking a lunch spot (even it's website has no photos of the exterior...). Turns out my friend is neighbours with the owner and has eaten there many times, so that's where we went.

Inside, we found a light-filled and colourful space with the pleasant scents of oregano, garlic and smoked paprika in the air. I had their "signature" Chicken Santa Barbara Salad, a delicious mixture of fresh greens with roasted pine nuts, raisins and mushrooms tossed in a sun-dried tomato and basil pesto vinaigrette and topped with a sliced grilled marinated chicken breast ($16). The generously sized portion could have easily fed two.

The owner stopped by to say hello and we chatted for a while. He moved from Spain and opened the restaurant 20 years ago and hopes to return to Spain in a few years when he retires. When we asked how the economic downturn was affecting the restaurant business, his take was that high-end spots would be hurt the most, but "good value" places like his would survive. Judging from Boba's recent closure and business on this mid-day afternoon, he could be right.

Cafe California, 538 Church Street,

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bulldog Boycott & Kahawa Karma

I took another chance on Bulldog Coffee this afternoon - and the barista (a different guy than last time) was even meaner than the first!

He was ok with me (no sneers or snide remarks), but he yelled at a couple for not standing in the right spot in line, and when the woman in front of me (who had ordered three drinks: 2 lattes and a chai latte) asked if the drink he had just plunked down in front of her was the chai latte, he answered snarkily "The chai latte will be the one that DOESN'T have espresso in it."

OK, that's it. I'm now officially boycotting the place!

Contrast that experience with my impromptu stop at Kahawa Coffee House on College Street. Fully planning to caffeinate at Manic Coffee (, I have to admit Kahawa's sign on the street with its bold statement about organic, fair trade beans roasted on-site caught my attention and the next thing I knew I was ordering a latte and chatting up the barista. Originally from Vancouver, where he learned his tricks of the trade, he was recently brought on board as manager and roaster. He sounded relieved that Toronto was finally becoming a world class city as far as coffee is concerned. Judging from the drink he made me, I'd have to agree.

Kahawa* Coffee House
388 College Street
*Swahili for coffee

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Carnivore's Delight

I don't even know where to begin in describing the delightful evening we had last night at Cowbell. From the moment we arrived, we were welcomed into this cozy space on Queen W and encouraged to relax and savour a meal made from organic locally grown and raised ingredients.

We started with a glass of sparkling riesling and a toast to the New Year. As we caught up with friends we hadn't seen in a while, it struck us that our waiter (who we later learned was Dining Room Manager Neal Murphy) gave us all the time and space we needed. No annoying interruptions to the conversation to see if we were ready to order, no exasperated looks trying to hurry us along. When nodrog casually mentioned "we should think about ordering," Neal suddenly appeared, ready to explain each dish in detail so we'd be sure to make an informed choice.

Selecting from the 6 appetizers and 8 mains(right) proved to be a challenge, as everything sounded so good. By the time we turned to ordering, several items had already been wiped off the chalkboard. My country duck terrine was terrific and well paired with the honey saffron pear, but I was regretted not trying the many options served on the charcuterie plate. The burger, served medium rare and topped with smoked venison salami, was juicy and delicious.

Cowbell practices "whole animal cooking," using all parts of an animal in the interests of thrift and culinary exploration. When we were told that the meat served on the menu is butchered, smoked and cured just a floor below the dining room, we half-jokingly inquired about taking a tour. "Oh sure, I'll ask Chef to stop by later" was the reply.

What elevated the experience from a meal worthy of return visits to a memorable event was the personal tour of the kitchen, prep area and meat locker with none other than chef/owner Mark Cutrara. For amateur foodies like ourselves, the chance to schmooze with Mark about his cooking philosophy, sous vide, what it takes to run a successful restaurant, and his picks for places to eat in Toronto were an extra special treat! (no, I'm not telling).

1564 Queen Street West @ Sorauren