Thursday, July 4, 2013

We didn't mean it to be like this... really!

We'd had a really long day.  We'd driven back from Niagara on the Lake already and had agonised with the one way system and the road works around Union Station looking for where we had to return the rental car.  But finally we found the right spot and said goodbye to the Jeep which had been a fun car and together decided that we rather fancied a cocktail as it was certainly 5 o'clock somewhere ... it was actually 5 o'clock in Toronto.

The question was where?  Now we've been to TO many times before and knew quite a lot of restaurants and bars but thought we'd like somewhere new so headed towards the financial district which at 5 pm was bound to be thronging with workers quenching thirsts prior to the commute home.  Bars would likely feature highly.  But walking up Yonge Street we only found places we'd already been to and wanted somewhere new.

By the time we reached Wellington, we were getting desperate so turned left off Yonge as I thought I remembered a couple of bars that looked like fun and saw this terrace thronging with people busily slurping booze of some sort and shouting at the top of their lungs (or so it seemed as the noise was pretty impressive).

Multiply the crowd by 10

"This was the place", we thought.  "Go where the crowds are.  It must be decent".  However it was a bit chilly so we didn't fancy sitting outside so checked in with the hostess who said that in addition to the multitude, there was a private party so we needed to go to the basement (aka dungeon) if we wanted a drink.

We didn't get in here
Not an impressive start we both thought and were within an ace of moving on when we found the door to the basement and entered into the palatial interior.

The basement
We were shown to a corner table and a waitress took our drinks order -- both vodka martinis with olives -- and settled in.

The room was pretty empty at this time with only another table occupied by a couple of people having what looked like an after work drink (beer and wine, no cocktails).  The martinis were nice though, good olives too.  This is important in a decent martini I think.  You can always tell good places by the quality of the olives.  The best we'd ever had was in the Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong.  They and the martinis were sensational.

The waitress came over with a menu just in case we changed our minds.  And amazingly after the first martini, we had.  The question though was what nibble should we have with our second martini?

They served oysters which are like catnip for me.  Viv on the other hand doesn't like their sliminess but had persevered in the onslaught that was my prediliction for the humble mollusc and had bent in Newport, RI a couple of years back and downed a couple, and had done so again on several other occasions since.  I ordered a dozen of 3 different varietals (I forget which) whilst Viv ordered the seafood platter -- pretty much every type of raw and cooked seafood you could think of on a big tray.  As it was food we also ordered a bottle of nice Niagara rose wine to wash it down.

They were scrumptious.  Viv chowed down on plenty of my oysters but returned the compliment with the platter and together with the wine, this was something.

A second bottle of rose followed as we munched and slurped away.  This was a great meal.  However we realised as we finished the platters that all we'd actually eaten was a bunch of molluscs and crustaceans -- we were actually still a little peckish.  It wasn't a big steak kind of peckish, rather a sort of "I'd really like a non-fish savoury to finish" kind of peckish so we negotiated a veggie pasta to finish.

Oh yes and with the pasta we just had to have a bottle of nice Niagara red as accompaniment.  It was a pinot noir (I cannot remember which winery though).

The pasta was lovely too -- the sauce was a Mediterranean sauce with plenty of veggies cooked just right.  Viv and I shared an appetizer sized portion which was still pretty substantial.

This was a great meal but the bill was eye watering too.  "What was the name of this restaurant again?" I asked the waitress.  "Bymark" she said.

I'd heard this was a nice fine dining restaurant and can now confirm that it really was!

Chef Brooke McDougall
66 Wellington Street West
Toronto, ON
M5K 1M6
(416) 777-1144

Noodles anyone?

Viv did it again!  Again I've said that before and will say it again sometime soon I've no doubt.  We'd found a great 24 hour ramen noodle shop in March when we were in Miami to watch the Sony Ericsson Tennis Tournament (blogged elsewhere).  It was a wonderful experience and with the large Japanese population in Toronto, Viv wondered if there was something similar there.

There was -- the Hokkaido Ramen Santouka restaurant just away from Dundas Square in downtown TO.  Apparently the boss, one Hitoshi Hatanaka, ate a ramen meal with his family that was not to his taste and vowed to do it better himself.  This was in Hokkaido and subsequently the Santouka Ramen franchise has mushroomed all over, including TO.

The premises are as you would expect, slick and clean but with really long lines outside (this was as we left not as we arrived which was fortunately in the middle of a rain shower so presumably washed away the lines).  Mind you the place was jammed to the gills inside so Viv and I sat at the counter to watch the chefs weave their magic.

There was certainly nobody sitting down chewing the fat.  It was all business for the numerous help.  And it was hot and steamy too, not surprising I suppose given the need to boil the pork soup served with the ramen for 20 hours or so.

Small menu but that's typical for ramen shops -- mostly based around either pork jowl or cha shu (pork back not belly as I thought given the similarity with famous BBQ Chinese pork).  Variations were with what came in it.

We chose the cha shu ramen and the toroniku ramen (pork jowl) with Sapporo beer to wash it all down.    It came in virtually an instant and boy, was it good and hot.  The pork jowl was sensational and the noodle/soup combo... well I'll have to admit here that I am a total sucker of soups in all shapes and forms.  And if you put something in it, well...

The Toroniku Ramen dish, pork jowl to left
This is a great place for a quick fix of noodles.  I will be back!

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
91 Dundas Street East
Toronto, ON M5B 2C8
(647) 748-1717

French Restaurant in East Chinatown??!!

I take off my hat to Viv (yet again) for this.  I don't know if you've heard of Living Social -- a really good deal of the day website which offers really neat and sometimes off the wall adventures each day.  All you have to do is sign up and say which town and country you're interested in.  And you get daily emails forever (and I do mean forever) telling you what's 50% off in your town that day.  Its perfect for when you travel to another town and you want to try something new.  I guess its pretty decent too if there is coverage in your home town too and you feel like an adventure but as we're based in Bermuda where LS doesn't reach, that's tough for us.  But this week we were in Toronto and Viv found 3 things, one of which was a chic French bistro in East Chinatown in a 'burb called Riverdale to be precise.

This was Batifole and Viv bought the voucher because she spied one of my favourites -- which is cassoulet.  A magnificent dish based around white beans and the fattiest meats imagined by man -- pork belly, duck confit and white Toulouse sausage.  Combined in a casserole and baked, this is a dish to make you smile for a year.

Getting there was a breeze too once you skimmed the website and found the very precise instructions but the district it is in is not one where you'd expect to find a quality French bistro owned and chefed by  Jean-Jacques Texier (the name sounds Basque to me), the chef and manager of Sassafrass, the swanky Yorkville eatery (he lives nearby apparently and liked the lot when it came up 5 years ago when he pounced).  It is not a chic area at all.

The boss
However when you enter, things brighten up considerably and it becomes a lovely spot.  Tables and chairs are simple bistro furniture and the waiter was a charming guy (not French, I don't think) who was quite understanding when I explained I wanted to vary from the LS voucher fare (glass of wine, table d'hote menu) and have a bottle of the Grenache (very nice it was too) and the cassoulet.  Viv stayed closer to things with the savoury souffle but we both blew it on the dessert -- another favourite of mine being souffles, this one with marmalade and Grand Marnier.

Forgot to mention nearly the aperitifs -- Viv had some bubbles whilst I had a pastis.  Well you just have to in a French bistro, don't you?

So ticking off boxes as we go along: 1) cassoulet -- very, very nice; 2) souffle -- very, very nice.  Also the nice ambience, nice cold Grenache, pastis to start .... that makes for a very lovely dinner indeed!  And the bill even with my variations was exceptionally reasonable.  What more could you want?

We met a couple of guys there too who were restauranteurs themselves as Viv wanted to know how the Horse Tartare was.  I've eaten that before in France and it certainly looked great, a fact that the gentleman in question confirmed.  In fact both waxed very lyrical about their experience too.  I just wish I remembered which restaurants they said they owned.

Not sure the play button works.  But don't let me stop you.

744 Gerrard Street East
Toronto, ON
M4M 1Y3
(416) 462-9965

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Leave it all to Chris

I can't remember how we'd heard about Cava, a tapas style restaurant at 1560 Yonge.  It may have been in many of the Top 10, Top 25 or Top 100 restaurants in Toronto but in any event Viv and I had been there before with another friend, Nick, but this time it was another friend David's turn to put up with this place.

Its location is on the Yonge Subway just up from St. Clair so an easy hop from downtown, and when we arrived unfashionably 1 hour early for our 9 pm reservation (on a Sunday! Give me a break. The place was half empty!!) we found David chatting to the barman and drinking a vodka martini.  A nice one too, he said.

He'd also read about Cava and particularly the bit about if in doubt as to what to eat, simply "Leave it all to Chris".

Viv and I caught up with our martinis; she vodka with olives, me a James Bond Vesper martini that I had to show the barman how to make.  Mind you he had Lillet and made a magnificent one before admitting he'd just joined and was actually the bus boy and not the regular barman.  He needs to change jobs!

We told our waiter that we were leaving it all to Chris and ordered a nice hearty Spanish red as we sat down.  Then came the plates.

Iberico ham, followed by Quebec foie gras on toast -- sorry, Pinchot of Gamay poached foie gras with rhubarb compote (magnificent incidentally), roasted beet salad, kingfish ceviche, asparagus, roasted lion's main mushrooms, grilled sardines, squid, clams, sablefish, 48 hour beef brisket... my God, it was endless!  And to follow chocolate souffle and a cheese plate with a small savoury of even more foie gras at the very end.  Just in case it was needed!!

Just spectacular.

Mind you, so was the bill at the end but it was one of those cases when it was all worth it.

My son Alistair and I had visited San Sebastian on our Euro road trip in 2011 and had discovered that the old town there was the world capital of tapas bars.  There the food was simpler but equally magnificent.  At Cava it was fancier but certainly all that one could have wished for.

I will go back again when my waistline permits!  Next time with Ali.

Cava Restaurant
1560 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON

(416) 979-9918