Archive for February, 2009

The Foodie’s Pet Peeves

The Everyman has a habit of mentally keeping a list of secret criteria that either make or break his dining experience.

In previous posts I’ve alluded to one of these; his bread and butter test.  Whenever we are brought a bread basket in a restaurant, the first thing he does is test the butter to see if it’s hard or not.  You see, there’s almost nothing worse when you want a piece of bread and butter than not being able to properly spread the butter on your bread. Or as the Everyman puts it, you end up breaking your bread by exerting so much buttery force.

Coincidentally, I also have a list… the bread and butter thing happens to be on mine too, but there are others, which I’ll outline below.

Restaurants that do not have websites.  Honestly, let’s get real here.  It’s the 21st century, and everybody and their grandmother are on the internet these days.  There is no valid excuse for a restaurant not to have a website in this day and age.

Advertising menus on the website that are no longer being served.  This is probably the one that drives me the most nuts.  If I decide that I want to go to your restaurant, I’m going to visit your website to review the menu (see above).  Once I review your menu, chances are I’m going to have my heart set on certain dishes.  There’s nothing I hate more than showing up to a reservation, sitting down and seeing nothing I want on the menu because it’s not the same one I looked at 24 hours ago.  If you must change your menu with the weeks or the seasons, do us all a favor and change your website on that schedule too.

Unreliable servers.  This category covers a multitude of sins.  Think servers who don’t notice when your wine or water glass are empty, those who forget to bring you cutlery, or the ones who accidentally misplace your order.  Incidentally, this also includes the special breed of Siberian servers that are popping up more and more these days.  If it’s been more than an hour since you popped by my table, something is wrong with this equation and your tip is probably going to be proportionately affected.

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Mighty Cheeky

After work today I ambled over to The Healthy Butcher, eager to finally get my paws on a couple jowls for guanciale.  I say finally, even though the plan for this guanciale-making endeavor was only formulated several weeks ago.  What can I say…?  I’m an impatient foodie.

The various recipes I’d consulted led me to believe that a single jowl would weigh in at nothing larger than 1.5 pounds or so.  Working with that rough estimate, I asked the butcher to order in 2 for me.  I figured that would be safe because it would leave me a spare if I messed up the first (highly unlikely) or a second to play with at a later date once I got the base flavor down.  Well… when I got to the butcher I found out that they’d put aside about $50 worth of jowls for me.  At approximately $4.99 per pound, you can do that math and figure out how much meat I ended up with.  I’d ordered it in though, so I took the meat and figured that at the very least, I was now set for jowls for the next year or so.

Getting the meat home, I began unwrapping my prize.  Lo and behold it turned out that I actually had 4 jowls.  I opted to freeze one whole package for later, and make a double batch with the other package for now.  As one of my recipes suggested, I began picking over my jowls for any errant glands; apparently these need to be removed prior to curing.  I didn’t see anything that looked like glands, but there were several sections of small, bubblewrap-like pockets, so for safety’s sake I pared those back.  Once that was done, I started to mix together the curing concoction.  It’s a pretty simple ratio; just use equal parts of salt and sugar, and whatever fresh spices you want your meat to take on the flavors of.  I’ve heard talk of people also using something called pink salt; I’m not 100% sure what that is, but I know it contains nitrites, so it’s not going in my food.  Next, you massage the mix into the meat, pressing it well into both sides and all the edges.  Place the thoroughly coated meat into a large freezer bag with any leftover mixture, close it and put it in the refrigerator.  Let it rest for 5-7 days, and make sure to flip the bag daily to evenly distribute the cure.

Once I was done with the basic guanciale, (which in addition to the salt, sugar and peppercorns also contains thyme) I decided I wanted to get a bit crazy with the next one.  Instead of using thyme, I opted for a healthy pinch of several types of chili flakes.  Once mixed, patted and put away, I started to feel a bit dejected.  All of the anticipation and excitement of the last few weeks was over in less than 20 minutes.  The next 7 days will be relatively boring, and the 21 after that absolutely excruciating.  If everything goes well after that, I’ll have guanciale instead of a thriving bacteria population eager to kill us all.  Obviously I’m sure you can tell which one I’m hoping for.  During the next month I’ll continue to post periodic updates on Project Guanciale, and if it turns out, I may even post a few pictures.  In the meantime, here are some recipes for cures you can use, since people always tell me I need to write this shit down.  Um, no, I don’t, but I’ll humor you this once nonetheless.

And as an aside, I also finally got to the bottom of the Everyman’s squeamishness regarding guanciale.  When he took a peek at the butcher package today, he remarked incredulously to me, “Hey, this is pork?”  Well of course it is, and I thought he knew that.  It turns out that the first time we had guanciale was at Cowbell, on one of those mixed beef nose to tail plates that the chef loves so much.  The Everyman didn’t care for it then, and ever since had wrongly assumed that the guanciale I keep talking about was also made with cow cheeks.  Now that he realizes that I’m using pigs, I think he’s alot more receptive to the idea of Roman bacon.  Success!  Now all I have to do is make sure it tastes good… hmmm… maybe I should ask Grant from The Black Hoof for some tips…
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Secret Agent (Wo)man

You know, it’s not often that my friends get the one-up on me foodie-wise.  But it just so happens that recently, they managed to catch me unawares.

While there will always be a new ingredient to try, new restaurant to visit, or technique to test drive, I’m usually pretty in tune with what goes on in the Greater Toronto foodie world.  So you can imagine my surprise when a total non-foodie friend sent me a note attached to some birthday wishes about Toronto’s newest anti-restaurant.  What’s an anti-restaurant, you say?  Well, according to the blog post my friend sent me, it’s a revolving group of Toronto chefs who host exclusive, secret tasting menu dinners under the guise of Charlie Burger.

My interest has been piqued.

If you go to their website, you’ll find an unassuming picture of a graffiti-covered door.  It invites you to enter your email address, and that’s about it.  If you’re brave enough to give up your info (it really can be a challenge sometimes in the SPAMcentric age we live in) Charlie will send you an email questionnaire that explains their manifesto a bit more, and asks you some rather open-ended questions.  Is it a coincidence that they chose the name Charlie (a la Charlie’s Angels… ), because this feels awfully covert to me… (and just so we’re clear, I’m talking kitschy ’70s, not ho-bag 2000s)  Once you fire off your responses, what feels like a popularity contest ensues.  I don’t think I’ve sweated my answers to an application so much since I applied to that Hellman’s contest last year.  According to the post I read of a woman (I think) who attended the last secret supper, they received close to 150 applications initially.  Basically, they’ll read your answers, and decide whether you’re in or out.  If you’re lucky enough to be in, you get put on a waiting list that’ll get you a space at a secret supper sometime.  Apparently a week before one if you’ve been chosen they’ll send you an email with details about the chef and menu so you can accept or decline at your leisure.

Lucky for me they liked my answers, so I’m in.  I feel so exclusive!  So this is what it must’ve felt like in high school…  I have no idea when the next dinner will be, but I’m hoping it won’t be too long coming.  I’ve been given the green light by Charlie to blog about it too, just so long as I don’t get too specific with the details for all you readers out there.  I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.

Until next time…

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Frank(ly) My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn…

And so as quickly as it had come, my birthday is gone again.  With the exception of several acquaintances and the Everyman, nobody remembered this year either.

To his credit, the Everyman finally decided to indulge my wishes to eat all food via chalice, and presented me with a giant one from him, and a tiny one (really an egg cup) from the kitties.  While delighted by the chalice, I was slightly miffed that for the third year in a row he forgot to get me a birthday cake.  How the man can remember the sports stats of hundreds of complete strangers but can’t even remember where I wanted a cake from is beyond me.  I guess I know where I fall in the importance hierarchy. That’s fine though.  For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.  His will be an addition to the no-bake list.

He also tells me I can have another cat.  I’ve wanted another cat for approximately a year now, ever since Cuddles, my 21 year old beast passed away.  Several months after she passed I found an excellent one too, and even named her Burger, but at the last minute the owners decided to play a bait and switch and tell me (and probably everyone else who met this kitten) that they hadn’t promised her to anyone.  With my heart broken, I decided I did not want a cat, and haven’t really thought seriously about it since.  Well, except for harbouring fantasies of rescuing a semi-ratty neighbourhood cat that I refer to as Stubbs (because he only has half a tail) who always looks like he doesn’t have a home, that is.  I don’t really know if I can handle another cat, or even if the two we have already can either.  Our youngest, Tuna, is a very jealous cat and doesn’t like it when we spend time with the other cat, Rupert Q Thunderbum, so I can only imagine what it would be like if we brought a kitten home that monopolized all our time.  But alas, this blog is not named Kitty and the Everyman, so I’ll stop blathering about kitty minutiae and get back to the fooding already.

For my birthday day, I wanted to indulge my inner geekdom and go check out the Teck Gallery of Gems and Minerals at the ROM.  When I was a wee foodie, I dreamed of one day becoming a geologist.  I used to go around the neighbourhood collecting rocks and chipping away “samples”.  One year for my birthday my dad even bought me a rock tumbler.  I know, I know, how exceptionally dorky.  Anyhow, after wandering around for a while, the Everyman started to get hungry, so we went in search of food.  The ROM has two options for food, C5 in the stupid, cancerous Crystal, and Food Studio.  We went and checked out the menu for C5 first, but they were serving hoity toity high tea when we arrived and it all looked like crap, so we headed to the basement to check out Food Studio instead.  It was a good thing we did, too.  The Food Studio is a bright little Movenpick-type cafeteria, with many different stations for your perusal.  Knowing that we were going out for dinner in a few hours, I opted for a personal size pepperoni pizza, some blueberry lemonade and a tiny banana cream pie tart.  The Everyman seconded my pizza, and chose a regular lemonade for himself.  The pizzas, while good, were nothing to write home about.  Mine was not heated all the way through, so the cheese sat on top like a congealed, greasy mass.  The blueberry lemonade had a great flavor, but was chunky with blueberry skins, which was quite a turn off for me.  The banana cream tart was excellent though, with nice fresh slices of banana covered in whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate.  If I was hungry at the ROM again, I’d probably come back here.

Flash forward several hours later to dinner.  When asked, I’d given the Everyman two options for places I’d like to go for dinner that we hadn’t been to yet; Trevor Kitchen and Bar and Frank (at the AGO).  I told him I’d checked out the menu at both and he should pick one and surprise me.  I usually leave final decisions up to him because he is a lot more picky about his food consumption than I am, and he also has more of a dietary restriction than I.  While I’ve developed an allergy to some shellfish over the years, it’s pretty easy to avoid that part of a menu.  Unfortunately for the Everyman with his nut allergy, restaurateurs put nuts in everything these days.  It could be baked into your bread or sprinkled over your salad, it may be crusted on your main course or incorporated into your dessert.  It’s everywhere.

The Everyman chose Frank, which was a surprise to me.  Trevor had a bacon in bacon sauce appetizer that seemed right up his alley, but it was served with a chestnut dumpling, so it was out.  Frank is the brand new restaurant on the main floor of the redesigned AGO, and was created by Frank Gehry.  It is a bright, light, inviting space, but is kind of reminiscent of Susur with its backlit seating and bizarre, glowy quality.  They have a really awesome wine wall that runs the extent of one side of the restaurant from floor to ceiling, and is also backlit, so all the wine glows.  I’m not sure how good that is for the wine and the storage of it, but it sure is pretty to look at.

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Sigh

I kind of feel like Eeyore.

Nothing seems to be working properly or coming to its anticipated conclusion lately.

Specifically, my stupid hippie seeds finally showed up, but the order was incomplete.  Considering I followed up with these people several times since I ordered they could have mentioned that some of these items would not be available.  I guess I just have no patience for things not going my way today.  Now I will have to see if I can find these seeds elsewhere, or else discard the plan for them altogether.  Damn Ambition shallots and Sungold tomatoes foiling me!  It’s ironic that I’m being bested by something named ambition.  Oh, bitter irony.

On a completely unrelated note, hot (red) chorizo #1 was a smashing success as determined by the Everyman, so I may never buy chorizo from Bob again.  Now if only my jowls would get here already so I could get on to this guanciale business.  I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to string them up for 3 weeks, but I’m sure it’ll end up in the basement somewhere, or as a last resort, a coat closet.  For anyone who cares to try the good chorizo recipe, read on below.
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I’ve Got Ants In My Pants And They Kinda Wanna Dance

I have had it with winter.

We’re through, it’s over, it’s been enough!

Merely days since the avalanche of snow on my rooftop patio finally melted away, Toronto is being hit with another slushstorm.  Every time I look out the window of my office, all I see is this completely unappealing swirl of whiteness.  Blech!

Compounding my aggression towards this disgusting season is the fact that I’m itching to get gardening and my seeds have not arrived yet.  I thought I’d get an early start on my indoor plantings by ordering seeds in January.  Well, February is 9 days from being over and I still don’t have them all.  So much for being organized.  Clearly the hippies that run the gardening companies I shop at are not as concerned as I am with being on time.  I’m a bit of a garden nazi I guess, but I just like things to be a certain way.  This year I chose a whole slew of new items to try, on top of some that turned out to be successful last year.  Included in this list are Imperial Star artichokes, Ibis celeriac, Touchstone gold and Chioggia beets, ancho and jalapeno peppers, Ambition shallots, Black Krim, Glacier,  Green Zebra, La Roma, Sungold, Yellow Pear, Garden Peach, San Marzano, Costoluto Genovese, Black Cherry, Currant and Black Zebra tomatoes, Little Fingers carrots, the Everyman’s pick of strawberries, and possibly even some sunchokes.

As you can clearly see, I’m going to have my hands full, which is why I wanted to get a head start.  With each passing day I find myself getting more and more anxious to get things going too.  However, my aggravation for this time of year is not solely caused by tardy seeds.  In a few more days it will be my birthday.  I’ve always hated my birthday for being at this time of year.  When I was young all of my friends had summer birthdays, which meant that they got to have cool Canada’s Wonderland or Wild Water Kingdom parties.  Being stuck with a birthday in the middle of winter means that there are pretty slim pickings for cool party options.  For the majority of my childhood my parents just rented out the party room at McDonald’s or let me have a skating party.  I’m sure you can understand why I’d be underwhelmed.  My older sister also had a summer birthday, and don’t think for a second that she didn’t rub that in all the time when we were young, too.  Couple that with the fact that most years my family doesn’t even remember my birthday anymore, and the Everyman forgetting how much I like to have things to open during the other gifting holiday last weekend, and my general expectations for this year’s birthday are pretty darn low.  If I had the ability to fast forward the clock and skip over the day like it never happened, I would.  I never end up getting what I want and mostly end up disappointed, depressed and upset by the people who forgot my day altogether.  Booooooo!!!!  I’m sure this puts an awful lot of undue pressure on the Everyman, because in effect he ends up having to overcompensate for everyone else’s crapitude.

So really, let’s just get this day over with already and move on.  Please.  One day when I rule the universe I’ll figure out a way to fast forward past it every year.

Until next time…

Sausagefest

I realize that some people might read this title and get the wrong impression, so let me stop you right there.  I spent several days this weekend perfecting my sausage-making technique thank-you-very-much.  That is what I did and that is what I’m going to talk about, and that is all.

You see, I’ve been meaning to try sausage-making ever since I bought Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie book several years ago.  So far the only thing I’ve managed to make from that book is some beef jerky for the Everyman that I somehow managed to overcook.  Who knew that was even possible?  For several years I’ve also been meaning to invest in a smoker of some kind so that I can get further into the book, but I just haven’t been able to justify the cost and waste of prime garden real estate on my roof.  Yet.  I’m sure I’ll get there.  Just this weekend I re-examined the book and found a half dozen new things I wanted to try making in the near future.  More on that later though.

If you’ve never made sausage before, you can’t quite appreciate exactly how gross the process is.  Grinding up all the meat and mixing it with spices; that’s child’s play.  The fun really begins when you start working with casings.  If you’re a normal home sausage-maker, you’ll probably be using hog casings that have been packed in salt.  I found mine at a Fortino’s in Brampton (of all places) and not realizing exactly how many yards were required for a single project, ended up stockpiling close to 100 yards in my freezer.  After hearing how hard the Everyman laughed at this number, I figure I’m set until the end of eternity.  So first off, you have to remove all of that salt from the casings so that they’ll soften up and be pliable enough to stuff.  That requires a soak in some warm water for about a half hour.  So far, so good, no big deal, right?  Next, you have to flush the interior of the casing, to make sure that there’s no salt particles left inside either.  In order to do that, you have to start fiddling around with the slimy little bits of innards to find an opening.  As if that’s not gross enough, then you have to tie off an end and feed it onto your stuffing tube.  Lucky for me, I have a Kitchenaid stand mixer and sausage attachment, so I was able to be pretty hands-off after that.  Basically you start shoving your meat mixture down the feed tube and the auger twirls and pushes it into the sausage casing.  The hardest part about this is trying to make sure your sausages are properly packed without letting the casing burst.  I had a few bursts myself, but you just tie them off and start over again.

For the maiden voyage I opted to start with chorizo because it’s a sausage that both the Everyman and I enjoy quite a bit.  The funny thing about chorizo though is that there doesn’t seem to be a standard for what does and doesn’t constitute its ingredients.  I reviewed approximately 20 recipes and they were all wildly different.  Not wanting to put all of my eggs in one basket in case the results were bad, I chose 2 different recipes that produced approximately the same yield; a hot chorizo (nice and smoky red in color) and a Mexican chorizo (a really anemic grey).  Pretty much the only ingredient these recipes had in common was the pork butt.  Other than that they were like night and day.  Making each of them over the course of two days also helped me to understand what I do and don’t like in a sausage-making experience too, which will be valuable information once I start concocting my own.

The hot chorizo was firm and contained very little liquid but a ton of spices.  This made it really easy to pipe out of the stuffer and resulted in some beautifully reddened, appetizing looking sausages.  In the end I was left with about 10 fat 4-5 inch links of this sausage.  Conversely, the Mexican chorizo was quite watery, even after I reduced the amount of liquid in the recipe by half.  It called for vinegar and a boatload of guajillo chillies.  By the time it was finished marinating it smelled good, but was still much too soupy.  Trying to stuff sausages with this mixture felt like a battle too.  The machine seemed to create a vacuum and kept getting clogged with the mooshy material.  It also split much more than the first batch did, which made things a bit messier and more frustrating.  To top it all off, trying to ram the material through the machine with the tamping stick kept spraying watery sausage juice all over the kitchen;  juice which I will undoubtedly still be cleaning off surfaces in the weeks to come. This recipe was slightly smaller and amounted to about 7 lumpy 4-5 inch links.

I have not yet had a chance to do a taste test of the results, but will post my findings once I have.  If I had to judge based on looks alone, the hot chorizo wold be the clear winner.  Only time (and my tastebuds) will tell though.  I’ve already decided that once we plow through all of this chorizo, my next project is going to be a blueberry baco noir sausage similar to one I purchased from Viva Tastings last year.  The relative success of this first project has also inspired me to jump into charcuterie a bit more and attempt some guanciale.  I happen to really love guanciale and am always heartbroken whenever I visit The Cheese Boutique or The Healthy Butcher and they don’t have any around.  I’m sure that once the Everyman gets over the psychological hurdle of cheek and tries it, he’ll love it too, because it really is just a porkier, silkier version of prosciutto that I’ve recently seen referred to as Roman bacon.  The Healthy Butcher will be helping me out with procuring some jowls too, so in just over a week, I’ll have them in my hot little hands and be ready to start curing.

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Let It Go

Life is funny sometimes.

It often seems to me that life is ruled by a law of diminishing returns.  Put simply; you will never get back from a situation as much as you’ve put in.

Kitties are a perfect example of this law in action.  For instance, you feed them, water them, clean up after them, hug them and just generally love them, and they barely acknowledge your existence.  Yet for some reason, people keep on owning them and trying to win their affection.  How odd.

On a more personal level, last night I slaved away in the kitchen for 3 hours to make the Everyman a gourmet 3 course meal for Unvalentine’s Day.  Before I even had a chance to serve him dessert, he passed out on the couch.  Dinner, (in case you were wondering) was an appetizer of roasted bone marrow with crispy toasts, shallot, parsley and caper salad and a nice Chianti.  This was followed by a sweet and sour braised pork belly with a sunchoke and celery root puree, red onion confit and a spicy Gerwurtztraminer.  The dessert (which he finally woke up for) was a (very fitting-for-the-occasion) red velvet cupcake with fluffy vanilla frosting.  With the exception of the bread, (since I still have not mastered the art of baguette making) everything we had for dinner was made from scratch.  I put a great deal of effort into preparing that meal, even going so far as to write out a full prep list so that everything would be properly timed and not forgotten.  I even polished and set out the fancy silver; the first time it’s been used since I bought it.  Then it was over almost as quickly as it had begun and the kitchen sunk under the weight of the mountain of dishes, and I started to wonder why I bother.

Then this morning for Valentine’s Day the Everyman decided to make me breakfast in bed.  This included the caveat that I was not allowed to leave the bedroom, even if I awoke.  It always entertains me that he chooses breakfast as the meal to prepare for me, because he never eats breakfast himself.  Perhaps it’s his way of making it up to me for never going out for brunch anymore.  You see, since the Everyman doesn’t eat eggs or really enjoy the majority of breakfast items either, (pancakes, french toast, etc) we don’t do brunch because most places don’t serve options for people who don’t want a traditional breakfast.  When they do, 9 times out of 10 he ends up eating a burger or club sandwich for breakfast.  Or, back in the days when we used to live close to C-food brunches, it would be a plate of banana bread, a plate of bacon, and a bowl of frites.  This morning he surprised me with a tray of chocolate chip pancakes with fig compote, crispy bacon, a pot of tea and chocolate milk.  Not a bad spread for someone who claims he can’t cook.   It was indeed a delicious way to start the day. Points off for forgetting the Valentine’s Day card though, even if he did decorate the breakfast tray with a tiny shot glass of flowers.

I often wonder to myself why he doesn’t do this for me more often.  Probably because he’s (self proclaimed) lazy.  But I imagine part of the answer can be found in the amount of crashing, bumping and cursing I heard from the kitchen this morning as I lay in bed too.  Breakfast in bed in itself a strange activity, if you think about it.  Beds are not particularly conducive to eating, or really comfortable enough to accommodate a leisurely meal.  Not to mention nobody wants to find crumbs in the covers when they return to bed that evening.  However, you should never underestimate the appeal of a big bowl of cornflakes and bananas, some toast, peanut butter and jam and a warm pot of tea.  If I was a pompous ass I’d probably want the New York Times Sunday crossword in the list of requirements, but I don’t really care for those much at all.

In the end, it’s nice to feel important, and even nicer to feel appreciated.  And sometimes if you’re lucky, you might even get both.  And if you’re a jerk, you might just get none.  Isn’t that how the This Little Piggy story went?  They cried wee wee wee, all the way home.

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Night Of 1,000 Bores…

On the drive home last night, (as the Everyman customarily does before an evening out), he started to ask me what I was planning to have for dinner.  As we discussed the menu, it became more apparent to him that Noce’s Winterlicious menu wasn’t really too high on my list of things to eat.  In fact, every time I looked at the menu over the past few weeks, I could not fathom what exactly had intrigued the Everyman enough to want to visit.  Don’t get me wrong, I have pored over Noce’s regular menu and been intrigued many times, but their Winterlicious menu seemed very pedestrian to me.  The Everyman tends to order familiar, comfort food type meals when we go out, but I prefer to order things that are unique and a little off the beaten path.  I didn’t find anything like that on the Winterlicious menu though.  We decided to visit anyway just to see if we’d want to return after Winterlicious.

When you first enter Noce, you feel enveloped by a warm, familial atmosphere.  The room is glowing and comfortable, and really quite homey.  The service, while friendly, is extremely spotty.  Our waiter was a true Italian, peppering his commentary with lots of “benes, bellisimos and bravos” throughout the evening.  Unfortunately for us, he was hardly ever there.  The room was not even half full when we arrived, but our waiter was always missing in action.  So much so that we weren’t even sure which of the two people who’d stopped by our table throughout the evening was the waiter.

One of the employees stopped by to bring us some bread and butter to nibble on while we awaited the return of the one who took our wine order.  To the Everyman’s delight they passed the bread and butter test.  Sort of.  The butter was pillowy soft and the perfect consistency for spreading.  However, in an eerie similarity to Chez Victor, the bread tasted like soap here too.  It was not prevalent throughout the whole basket though, which led us both to believe that the bread had just been sliced with a soapy knife and left its residue on the first few slices.  Soap on things is gross.  Note to prep staff: wipe your knives.

For a starter, the Everyman had been extremely excited for a house-made pork sausage served on a bed of polenta.  For as long as I’ve known the Everyman, he has never liked polenta, so I was a bit surprised.  When they brought out the dish I was even more stunned though.  It was nothing like what I’d expected.  The sausage was balled up into tiny meatballs, floating in a light tomato sauce atop the creamed polenta.  It really was quite spectacular, and I spent most of the evening wishing I’d ordered it instead.  My appy was a dish of bufala mozzarella with oven roasted tomatoes and baby greens dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette.  The composition of this dish was very odd to me.  There was this huge, fist-sized ball of bufala in the middle of the plate, on top of some baby spinach.  Then there were three extremely small piles of tomato concasse surrounding the cheese.  It wasn’t that good.  There was way too much cheese compared to the other components, and baby spinach is not as good of a flavor match for bufala and tomato as some fresh basil would have been.  Because of the anchovy dressing, the Everyman would not even agree to try this dish either.

The meal being uneven so far, I wasn’t sure what to expect from our mains.  If it weren’t for the amazing Montepulciano the Everyman chose from the wine list, I think dinner might have been a complete loss.  The Everyman’s crispy cornish hen, with lemon, rosemary and sauteed winter vegetables with prosciutto was a complete disappointment.  I’ve never in my life seen him unhappy with a dish that contains prosciutto, but if there was any in this one, we couldn’t find it.  The game hen was way past overcooked, and looked really dry.  It was also ridiculously mouth-scorchingly hot, so we assumed that it hadn’t rested either.  Probably the best thing going for the dish was the sauteed winter veg, which the Everyman quite enjoyed.  My entree was a gargantuan heaping of housemade egg chittarine with wild mushroom medley, olive oil, garlic and parsley.  I don’t pretend to be any sort pasta expert or anything, but it looked, smelled and tasted like regular out of the box, imported spaghetti.  The scent of the mushrooms wafting off the dish was scintillating, until I had a mouthful of pasta.  Noce clearly used a selection of rehydrated dried mushrooms in the dish, and the pasta was coated with the fine, grainy particles that are left behind after soaking mushrooms.  Epic fail.  I couldn’t eat much of the pasta after that, because it was a completely off-putting sensation, but the mushrooms themselves were surprisingly tasty and grain free.

Last but not least, for dessert we both opted for the housemade vanilla gelato with biscotti (the Everyman’s sans biscotti due to nut allergies).  I am a gelato conaisseur, as is the Everyman.  This was not good gelato.  It wasn’t even marginal gelato.  I don’t think it was gelato at all.  It was frozen, hard and not at all smooth or creamy.  The biscotti also left something to be desired, as it tasted quite stale and was much too crumbly; half disintegrating in my hand when I picked up a slice.

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The Retro Foodie

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a predilection for all things retro.

Duran Duran, for instance?  Love ‘em.  Totally one of those things that you realize is cheesy, but love anyway.

Red velvet cake?  I’ll devour it in a heartbeat.

The Good Cook collection from Time Life in the 80′s?  One of my favorite resources ever, even though most recipes are totally out of date.

Paisley and argyle?  All over it.

The Everyman?  Yeah, he’s kind of retro too…

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Scratch Wintervicious, Part 2

As you may recall, the Everyman and I had plans to trip the light fantastic at Veritas for Winterlicious this past weekend.  However, due to an ailment and some negative reviews I read on Chowhound, we didn’t end up making it there.  I felt really bad about canceling the morning of, but I was having some pretty bad chest pains and wasn’t up to making the trip out there for potentially crappy fare.

We did get to Czehoski for lunch though, and yet somehow still managed to get foiled by them.

You see, last weekend we tried to get in to Czehoski for a Winterlicious dinner, but they were packed and the wait was at least half an hour long.  We’d been there during previous ‘Licious‘ and never needed to make a reservation before, so this was a bit of a surprise.  Being absolutely ravenous, neither of us could stand to wait so we walked down the street to our old standby, Terroni.  One thing we both realized after our dinner at Terroni is that their food, while good, is nothing to write home about.  It’s just standard Italian comfort food.  For the most part the Everyman goes there for one reason only; the mezzo mezzo platter.  It’s basically just an antipasto plate with cured meats, cheeses and breadsticks.  In fact, most of the time the ones we make at home are better.  But it’s only after we finish eating dinner that we wonder to ourselves why we keep coming back there.  Most likely because it’s a safe bet, I’d say.  Walking in you know you won’t get anything mindblowing or spectacular, but you know it will be decent, solid cuisine.  We probably should’ve gone to The Black Hoof instead.  The food would have been better by leaps and bounds, and it isn’t nearly as noisy and the service is much friendlier.

Anyhow, as we were approaching Czehoski on the weekend, I had an ominous thought.  We had our mind set on the Winterlicious menu (for the second time), but it occurred to me that because it was the weekend and before 3pm, they’d probably be offering the brunch menu instead.  As we stepped over the threshold, I realized that I was unfortunately right.  We gave the brunch menu a once-over, then decided we both just wanted a burger (which is on the brunch menu) anyway and sat down.

Servers at Czehoski are a unique breed altogether.  While ordering my cheeseburger, the waitress asked me how I would like it.  I answered by saying “as rare as you can legally serve it to me!” knowing full well that there are laws against serving burgers anything less than done.  That doesn’t change the fact that I like to enjoy them that way every chance I get though.  Funnier still was the waitress’ answer of “we can serve it to you any way you’d like!”  Sitting at the table waiting for my meal I was giddy at the thought of finally getting a properly restaurant-charred medium rare burger.  You see, when I was a youngun’ and working in my mom and stepfather’s kitchen, my stepdad introduced me to the joy of griddled, bloody medium rare burgers.  I make them at home, but they never taste the same because I can’t get the right level of heat to char the surface properly on the stove.  So, the possibility of being moments away from one was like Christmas to me.

When the burger finally arrived, it was misshapen, but large.  You could tell that it was handmade at least, what with all the flecks of red pepper flakes, onion slivers and parsley bits.  Within the first bite it became clear that this burger was nowhere near medium rare, but it was still juicy and flavorful.  The Everyman remarked to me that the waitress probably had no clue about burger regulations, got to the kitchen, tried to order it, and then got set straight by the kitchen staff.  Oh well, my dream of medium rare burgers will have to continue unabated until I return to the US or somewhere else where this is not regulated.  At any rate, the burger was quite tasty, with a flaky quality to the patty, and a nice kick from the red pepper flakes.  It was also served with a rosemary chipotle aioli that sounds like a strange combination, but works surprisingly well.  As usual, the fries were stellar, although this time they were not served in a chalice (BOO!).  If you don’t understand why that is a big deal, let me explain.  [Last fall the Everyman and I went to Czehoski for lunch on a rare day off.  We had delicious steak frites and bottle of red, and whiled the afternoon away while laughing at all of the suckers who were at work instead.  The aforementioned frites happened to be served in a rather large, stately brass chalice.  I decided that day that eating from a chalice was way too much fun, and that I would endeavor to do it all the time from that moment on.  I even went so far as to avow that I hoped to one day be rich and famous enough that I could bring my own chalice in to any restaurant I wanted and make them serve my food to me in it.]   All in all, the burger at Czehoski was much better than I had expected, and though it sort of reminded me of meatloaf because of all the additives, it was a nice, satisfying meal and miles ahead of most of the burgers served in Toronto.  I’d go back for one in a heartbeat the next time I crave a decent burger and don’t feel like grilling it myself.  I suggest you try it some time.

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Wintervicious – Take 1!

I read an article recently where Mark McEwan referred to the two and a half week period as Wintervicious, which is fitting in some respect, I suppose.  There will always be people who clamor for reservations at the new hot spot during this time of year because their daily menus are so expensive that many people can’t afford to eat there otherwise.  People who can’t normally afford it want to be able to experience the hype every now and then, too.  There’s something really nice and comforting about going to a good restaurant where they just take care of you.  To mitigate the anticipated volume some places are stringent with how quickly they turn your table, and almost discourage lingering.  I think that Winter(or Summer)licious is a great marketing tool (for those who use it correctly) as well as a fun night out at a reasonable price, so you can’t expect too much of it all.   At the end of the day, these restaurants aren’t participating to lose money, so even if only one out of every 10 diners becomes a regular, they’re still ahead.  I’ve also heard people complaining about how the prices have (quietly) increased for the lunches and dinners this year, but guess what?  Food prices overall have increased over the last year, so you can’t expect that menu prices wouldn’t too.  Restaurant margins are almost nonexistent as it is.  Not to mention that people in general need to start wrapping their heads around the real cost of food, as opposed to the cost of industrial food that contains so many hidden costs for society instead.

To make a long story short, the Everyman and I attended the first of several Winterlicious dinners the other night.

This meal took place at Celestin, Pascal Ribreau’s small restaurant on Mount Pleasant.  The funniest thing about the whole experience is that up until we were actually en route to dinner, I was convinced that this restaurant was just down the street from our house.  The Everyman kept trying to convince me on the drive home from work that it was all the way at Mount Pleasant and Eglinton, but I kept steadfastly disagreeing with him.  Not realizing this meant that we showed up almost 10 minutes late for our reservation.  This caused me a great deal of anxiety in the cab because I’d heard that Celestin was one of the places that monitor their seatings religiously during Winterlicious.

When we arrived the room was packed and quite loud.  After quickly whisking us to the cloak room, we were seated and greeted by the waiter.   He explained that we had to order our whole meal at once, and being seasoned professionals at this by now, we knew what we wanted before we’d even arrived.   Deciding on a bottle of wine probably took longer than anything else.  The waiter sprinted away with our order, promising to return with bread post-haste.  He wasn’t kidding, either.  Within a minute and a half he was back with some divine baguettes and butter, made just next door in the bakery that the chef used to own.   I wished aloud to the Everyman that I could make bread that good. I make some mean foccaccia and pizza nuda, but I just don’t have a hot enough oven to properly make baguette at home.  Perhaps some day the wood oven fairy will come to my home…

Not more than several minutes after that, our appetizers arrived.  And they were the very epitome of the word.  The Everyman had chosen the roquette salad with sweet pickled onions, pecorino cheese and spicy cappicolo.  I sampled a small bite and it really was everything he could have possibly asked for on a plate.  He devoured it quickly, which I’m sure our waiter appreciated since we were late.  For my appetizer I’d picked the fois gras cardamom parfait with condiments and toasts.  It was absolutely delicious, but there were some issues with this dish.  Firstly, it didn’t taste of cardamom or fois gras.  It tasted closer to a chicken liver pate, (which was probably fortified with a small amount of fois gras) and that is fine.  I’m not delusional.  I know fois gras is expensive; but let’s call a spade a spade.   Secondly, the portion was probably 3 ounces, but only came with 2 minuscule toast chips that were not even the size of my thumb.  I quickly dispatched those and had to resort to raiding our bread basket so that I could finish a decent portion of it.  Even with the bread basket, I didn’t have enough bread to finish it all, even after the waiter brought us seconds of bread!  They should probably re-evaluate the portion size a bit one way or the other, though I imagine it’s just to make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.  It was also served with a sprinkling of microgreens and what appeared to be currant jelly, but I could be wrong.  Whatever it was, I had to refrain from licking the plate because the flavors were so good.  The paucity of the toast situation was only further aggravated by the fact that I’d been munching on a slice from my plate while watching for the chef in his neat, upright wheelchair.  As I was turned away from the table, the Everyman stole my last piece of bread!  The nerve, I tell you, the sheer, unmitigated gall!

It wasn’t more than 10 minutes between the time they cleared our plates and the time they returned with our entrees.  Clearly, this place meant business.   By my estimation it appeared they were trying to fit 3 turns in that night, as a seating finished up shortly after we arrived at 7, there were a good amount of people being seated when we arrived, and another wave was coming in as we left around 8:30.  For the main course the Everyman was served a braised buffalo rib with wine jus and roasted potatoes.  There was nothing groundbreaking here, just solid comfort food.  I tried a piece of the rib and it was indeed just the way I like it, soft and succulent.  The Everyman enjoyed the dish even more when he uncovered several bacon slivers underneath it all.  My plate was an absolutely gorgeous stack of nicely browned gnocchi cradled by a vibrant spring pea puree, parmesan shards and some oregano oil.  When they brought it to the table the aroma was heavenly.  So much so that the Everyman started to wish he’d ordered it instead.  The gnocchi were pillowy, soft, yet crisped on the outside, but I don’t know that I would really call them gnocchi.  They had none of the traditional tooth you get in Italian gnocchi and they were more like long fingers of crisped mashed potato, but we’re really splitting hairs here.  It doesn’t matter because they were amazing.  And surprisingly filling; I had to stop and give the rest to the Everyman because I was too full.  But you can be sure that the whole time I did, I was silently cursing my small stomach.

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E Is For Effort!

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us again.  I’ve been wondering to myself lately what other people are hoping for this year.  One woman I know is hoping for a speedy divorce this Valentine’s Day, but that’s not really keeping with the spirit of the holiday, is it?

The Everyman is a great guy.  However, he often complains that this is the “present season” for him, because within the span of 2 months he has Christmas, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, and then my birthday.  Apparently it’s difficult for him to come up with good ideas for me in succession when there is so little time in between.  I usually end up reminding him that 3 of those 4 events are also gifting occasions for me too, and I have not yet been at a loss for what to do/get for him.  I think it’s pretty easy, actually.  But that’s only because instead of trying to come up with ideas all at once, I earmark things I see throughout the year that he might like, and then revisit them when “gifting season” comes around.  I do the same for most people’s birthdays and other gifting holidays too.  It just makes life simpler that way.

The Everyman sometimes can get a bit lazy in love.  I liken it to a search for the path of least resistance.  It often seems to me that he doesn’t put a lot of effort into things, but I think that may just appear that way because he always leaves everything to the last minute (yay procrastination!) It’s hard to feel that you’re appreciated when everything is a mad dash in the last 100 yards, as it were.

This year, I’m hoping for a little more effort.  One of my biggest complaints has always been that he doesn’t often cook for me.  To his credit though, he does offer from time to time, but either he’s not prepared with the ingredients he needs to cook, or I just end up getting into the kitchen and taking over anyway.  It’s in my nature, I guess.  For once I’d like him to conceptualize and plan a whole meal, one prepared by him alone, that would be served by candlelight.  It wouldn’t have to be extremely difficult or fancy; I just want him to pick something new to make me, since his current repertoire is about 3 dishes and a mean grilled cheese.  If I’m really wishing, then I’d go all out with a 3 course meal, with a real dessert.  It wouldn’t matter if it was perfect, I would just want him to try.  We go out to eat at a nice restaurant probably every other week, but sometimes I just wish that he would cook for me instead.  To be fair, I don’t think he had a good example of this growing up, because as far as I can tell the only thing his father ever does that resembles cooking is barbecue.  A little effort in the kitchen is always a great way to show someone that you care about them and make them feel special, and if you pick right, not that daunting at all.

I sometimes think back to when we first started dating and living together.  I’d had a horrendous day at work and when I got home I was extremely upset.  The Everyman went to the store, came back and assembled the best ice cream sundae ever, with chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, sprinkles and raspberries stuffed with blueberries in the middle.  That was 3 years ago and I still remember exactly how it looked and tasted.  It’s the little things that matter to the ladies, you know.

So, for all the men out there, this year, instead of throwing money at the problem, make your special girl breakfast in bed, or a pan of homemade brownies, or a picnic dinner.  Trust me, you’ll be happy you did.

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