Eating my way through the Distillery District Christmas Market

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The holidays are just a license to eat and to buy treats for friends that we hope will share them with us.  Sunday’s sunny weather brought many people out to Toronto’s Distillery District to eat and drink to keep warm. There are only about two weeks left for the annual Christmas market.  If you’re going on the weekends, get there before 2:00 p.m. so that you can shop and then settle down in one of the many good restaurants for lunch and cocktails.

Montreal’s Wienstein and Gavino’s

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Being in Montreal for the holidays is always an occasion to discover a fresh place to eat. This year I was introduced to Wienstein and Gavino’s. A delightfully authentic Italian restaurant on Crescent at St. Catherine Sts.

A cavernous three-story space with a wrap around main-floor bar is grandiose with vast seating.

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Communal tables in the bar make for cozy group gatherings. There is a well-stocked wine bar next to the open kitchen and brick pizza oven is on the second floor. An intimate chef’s table is also available in front of the kitchen.  The main seating area is on the third floor with great views of the entire restaurant.

You are welcomed with complimentary warm loaf and olive oil and fresh basil.  The Italian menu features classic pizzas, pastas and mains that are honest and authentic.

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Specials are featured each evening includes a salad, a main and coffee or tea. I also like to have a bit of  green in my cocktails, in this case a pretty good mojito. A variety of traditional sauces such as Gigi (tomato sauce, cream, prosciutto, mushrooms, basil) Al Sole (Olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, butter, white wine, basil, cherry tomatoes) and Gamberi Macchiato (shrimp, garlic, chili peppers, butter, white wine, parsley, cherry tomatoes) are among list of fourteen that are on offer with your choice of pasta.

Mojito

Smoked salmon with penne is my comfort food.  The cream sauce is light and with a respectable portion of salmon.

penne

One of the featured pizzas is spinach, feta and red peppers. The thin crust is carefully done, crispy and thin and perfect from the oven.

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The desert menu, has classic Italian treats like Tiramisu, chocolate Nociola gelato or particularly rich chocolate cake with is accompanied by Nutella.

Wienstein and Gavino’s has a nice wine list, cocktails and drinks are reasonably priced. The wait staff are quick and attentive, water glasses filled regularly, meal arrived well time and still hot.  While this restaurant has great seating capacity, it’s best to make reservations for the evenings as every table was filled by 8:30 p.m.  W&G is as intimate for two as it is for a table of eight, there are enough options for everyone – all authentic and fresh.  Make your way there on your next visit to Montreal.   Bon appetit!

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Via Vai lighting up Bay Street

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The section of Bay St. between Bloor and Dundas St. W. has long been in need of a neighborhood hot spot.  The area has acquired a few more restaurants in recent years but nothing as bright and bold as Via Vai.

Interior2

Opened at the end of April, Via Vai is an immense art gallery like space that spans four stories high.  The elaborate mural and glass paintings are the work of Italian artist, Sandro Martini and were completed in 2012. A mural by local Toronto artist, Hajar Moradi is featured at the back of the restaurant.

Interior west sideAs I understand, the building was formally the sales center for the Burano Condo development.  After admiring the towering views, I finally settle down to read the menu, a single page of Neopolitan pizza and pasta dishes.

Salad

I start with the Insallata del Palladio – kalettes sprouts, pancetta, green apples, DOP Piave with valdobiedene procecco vinaigrette.  Crispy and refreshing, the pancetta adds just a little saltiness to bring out the sweetness of the apples and the tartness of the cheese.

Pizza

I love leafy greens, especially on hot summer days, they add a certain lightness to foods, so with that in mind, I have the Marinara Pizza.  My pizza arrives, its thin crust, risen and well-baked around the edges, dressed with prosciutto, tomato, Parmigiano and arugula.  This simple pizza is satisfying and not complicated by too many toppings, just basic and well done, the way it should be.

IMG_4632It is the end of lunch hour and the sun is shining, there is time for me and room in my stomach to enjoy dessert.  The Tortina Alla Pistochi is rich but light flourless chocolate cake.  The Tortina is rich but light. The crunchy and intense chocolate flavour is highlighted by the raspberry coulis.

The service is friendly and efficient, water glasses are re-filled regularly and courses are well-timed.  I order a cappuccino and sip it while I admire the spine of wine at the opposite end of the restaurant.  I am told that each shelf is dedicated to the different Italian wine regions. I make a mental note to eventually explore all levels and each region on my next visits.

Manager, Jordan Lazaruk and Chef, Joe Friday are part of the great team at Via Vai, taking great care to make sure that your experience meets their standards for excellence and service.  The restaurant has become a popular spot for private events, it’s not hard to see why.  There’s an informal patio outside, if you want to bask in the sun.  I however, prefer to sip my cappuccino slowly and soak in the art and light of this delicious afternoon.

A great place to meet friends, any time  – also, a fabulous event space, Bay St. north of Dundas St. now has a beautiful dining destination.  Bon Appetit, friends.

viavai-knockout-red

 

Via Vai – www.viavai.ca

 

 

Maman in First Canadian Place

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Maman, the Parisian inspired bakery from New York’s SoHo district opened its second location here in Toronto on July 6, in First Canadian Place.  The bakery is in the space formerly occupied by Szechuan Szechuan on the second level food court.  The fast-casual café bakery is owned by Michelin starred, Chef Arman Arnal of La Chassagnet in the South of France and designer/baker, Elise Marshall.

The bright farmhouse chic, in blue and whites is cosy with communal tables and a wall of windows that gives it a standalone feel.

Opening hours are bright and early at 7:00 a.m. when you can get a variety of freshly baked croissants, yogurt and coffees. Lunch time offerings include traditional French favourites like Croque- Madame, Quiche, salads and fresh baguette sandwiches.  I selected the lunch box of ham and cheese Quiche and a salad of fresh greens, strawberries and goat cheese.

The Quiche Lorraine was warm, with a flakey crust and actual pieces of ham and a savoury filling where you could actually taste and see the cheese. A good change from the tasteless and rubbery Quiche available in food courts. Lemon-Thyme Madeleines are buttery treat with coffee for that mid-afternoon lull, keep one handy in your desk drawer.

A number of retail items are also available including teas, popcorn and South of France styled goods. The line up moves quickly, but always wise to get there starting about 11:30 a.m.  Most customers are grab and go, so seating up to about 12:30 is pretty good.

Maman is worth the walk over from whatever food court you inhabit in the vast Toronto Path system. They are looking soon to add a cocktail hour. It’ll be a nice place to relax after work and I look forward trying to it.  Bon appétit, fellow eaters!

Cake

 

Luckee – Indeed, Great Chinese Food!

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After a bit of a blogging sabbatical, I launched back full throttle ready to attack my restaurant bucket list. Luckee, by Susur Lee was the restaurant I chose to get back into my food groove. Located at 328 Wellington St. E., Luckee opened about a year ago, and it is Lee’s latest dining project, where he works new flavors and dimensions to elevate the traditional style and taste of dim sum.

In traditional dim sum service, steamers contain many small pieces of dumplings.  Luckee’s servings are larger with big shrimp and lobster pieces.  The Chicken Cheung Fun was recommended by the waiter and was very popular at the table.

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You need to try a variety crispy, savoury and sweet dishes from the menu as each dish is a creative experience in texture and taste. The staff is helpful in explaining and providing menu suggestions to complement your order.

The second course included two tasty chicken dishes and my favourite, Luckee Duck with Chinese pancakes and foie gras, which is similar to the Peking and Char Sui duck on the menu at Lee Restaurant, one of Susur’s other restaurants on King St. W.

A list of simple desserts is available. Traditional mini egg tarts and a refreshing mango dessert were enough to complement stomachs that were full, but was a nice finish to good evening filled with many dishes.

It’s sophisticated Asian, in a quiet section of Wellington St. with parking right across the street which makes it a convenient and pleasant location.  If you’re looking for a dim sum experience without the clatter, the noise and lots of small plates crowding your table, Luckee will be a very satisfying and far more elegant experience.

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Bon appetit friends.  It’s time I take off to explore more food at Summerlicious 2015.  Back with more stories soon!

 

 

On the Danforth? Try the Louis Cifer Brew Works

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A few weeks ago, I found myself on The Danforth on the cold Thursday night after the previous day’s impromptu snow storm. Cold and looking for a new restaurant to try, of course, I fumbled on the recently opened Louis Cifer Brew Works. An enormous two level space that was former home to a few restaurants over more than twenty years.

A brew house that has a big list of beverages and gastro-pub fare – a little something for everyone.   Their craft beer includes IPA (Indian Pale Ale), lager, blondes and hoptails.  The bar menu includes Bourbons, whiskies and tequila.

From top floor

Two levels make for lots of space to host events. With Steel Dan and Doobie Brothers playing, it wasn’t overly noisy that night, even though there was a party of about twenty people on the second level.  Enough quiet tables for couples and family friendly.

The jumbo wings from the Shareables menu were crispy but a little dry.  It probably would have been a good ideaa to ask for more blue cheese sauce, which is quite good, but not enough.  The Rosemary Fries are crispy and aromatic with the accompanyin roasted garlic aioli.

I always gravitate towards fish dishes, no matter where I am.  The Pan Seared Atlantic Salmon did not disappoint.  It is served with green beans and roasted potatoes over a sweet corn chowder. The chowder is rich and smooth complementing the fish.  It will be hard for me to visit Louis Cifer again and not order this dish.

Creme Brule, yes, another one of my go to desert on a wintry night! Sweet and creamy, I happily devoured ever spoonful

For a cold night, it was busy – lots of good-looking burgers, sandwiches and fish and chips have flown by me as I enjoyed my salmon.

Warm atmosphere, comforting food and enough craft brews to take you through the winter, are good reasons to go to get yourself to The Danforth.  Happy Eating!

Louis Cifer

 http://www.louisciferbrewworks.com/contact/

 

My Fish Taco Fixation

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Occasionally I get obsessed with one food. I’ll go for months craving a certain dish, ordering it consistently at restaurants. Some of my  fixations have included, udon soup, zeppole (Italian pastries made for the feast of St. Joseph on March 19) and chicken Shawarma sandwiches.   My latest little craze has been fish tacos, a bit of a miracle since my first experience eating one was terrible. After many years of hearing about their rise in popularity on the west coast where they originated, it was something I had to try. So, on my first trip to California, eating some fish tacos was a priority. Coast of California

I found a Mexican restaurant in Monterrey and straight away ordered the Baja Fish tacos.  They arrived lukewarm, overcooked and had clearly been re-heated from the day before.  I wasn’t as sophisticated in those days and was too timid to complain or sent them back.  Instead, I choked them down and vowed never to eat one again.

That bad experience didn’t deter me and I continued to give them a try in the hopes of getting a good one and understanding what all the fuss was about.   Since then I have discovered many good fish tacos and have become picky about what makes a good one.

El Catrin’s Baja taco is crispy fried cod dressed with a tasty chipotle lime coleslaw. Cod is a great fish for this dish given its mildness and coarse flake.  The tangy chipotle and lime dressing give the taco a zing but doesn’t overwhelm the fish.  They are three for $15.00, a good sharing plate or a filling meal for one.

El Catrin Fish Tacos

Milagro Cantina’s, La Perla is battered red snapper, tropical slaw and chile crema.  The red snapper is a finely texture fish and light tasting as well.  The tropical slaw lacked a little in flavour but the chile crema and a squeeze of lime make them pretty tasty nevertheless.  On the lunch menu you get two for $12.50 .

Milagro fish tacos

La Mexicana on Yonge at Bloor, has served up authentic Mexican food since 1988 in Toronto.  On a rainy night in October,  I made my way in from the cold to the warm and cosy atmosphere of their place at 838 Yonge St.  The menu doesn’t specify what kind of fish is used, I suppose it’s based on availability.

Fish tacos2

The fish taco dish is delicious and a great value as a main at $16.00 for dinner.  The tacos are dressed with cabbage and chipotle mayo.  While the cabbage on top doesn’t add much, the mayo was flavorful. The crispy lightness of the battered fish was an sign of the use of fresh oil in their deep-fryer, always a big plus  – because you can taste the difference.

This only the tip of the Toronto fish taco iceberg, with more “authentic” Mexican restaurants opening every month here, my quest for tasting has no limit and I’ll be on the look out for more.  In the meantime, bon appétit my eating friends.

 

 

 

Eating at El Catrin, Mexican Restaurants Part 2

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MuralI’ve been excited for the past two weeks about my reservation at El Catrin.  If you plan to go and do the evening dinner thing and eat after 7:00 p.m. , it will take at least three weeks to get a table, so just be warned.  My two-week wait was hastened by the fact that I took the single remaining reservation for last weekend.

Awarded as one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2013 by Sharp Magazine, El Catrin is a cavernous, but spectacularly colourful restaurant in the Distillery District. You walk in to stare up at a grandiose Mexican mural painted by street artist Oscar Flores.  The mural took 100 days to complete and is stunning work of art.

elcatrin wallOn the opposite wall of the restaurant is what can only be described as a temple of Mezcal and Tequila.  The drink menu is two pages of Tequilas and ten types of Mezcal straight up or in a variety of cocktails and bebidas – drinks. My first order was a Paloma Brava – Milagro Reposado, agave, grapefruit, muddled citrus and soda.

However, the Miel Quemada (Burnt Honey) mezcaltles is fresh, smooth and soothing.  Made with Cha Cha Joven mezcal, Cha cha cha ” ( which means “very, very, very ” good in zapoteco )  is the name of a famous Zapoteco poem which tells the history of mezcal from the beginning, to the present day and this is where the name comes from.*

The drink is a mix of Cha Cha Joven, house made honey, fresh lemon and grapefruit bitters.  I had a cold the night I was there and this drink was like a hip, pumped up, alcoholized  version of Neo-Citran and I think much more effective in making you forget that you have a cold.

This is a small plate restaurant, where ordering and sharing three plates per person is the recommended standard. Oliver Le Calvez is the Executive Chef and one of Mexico’s top chefs and his menu is based on the traditional flavours of Mexico.

Of the six or so plates we ordered there were some like the Tostada con higado de pato, a foie-gras tostada.  If you don’t like foie gras or the taste of  “foie”, liver, this is not for you.  It was good, but needed something more to accompany the rich flavour.

There are the usual standards like the fish taco.   The Baja fish taco here was tasty and not greasy.  I’ve had others at the many new Mexican street food places that have popped up over the past year, and this is one of the better ones, it wasn’t bland or greasy.

The Gobernador taco is sautéed shrimp and lobster with chipotle mayonnaise. Refreshing and I probably would’ve just eaten these all evening – it’ll be a great dish to eat out on El Catrin amazing outdoor patio.

el-catrin-toronto-restaurant-intro

Photo Credit: Gizelle Lau – Globe & Mail

If you’re idea of Mexican food is limited to chimichangas, a red and yellow taco kits and your local burrito shop, this will expand your horizon some. There are some creative dishes, albeit somewhat with the hot peppers toned down, but they’re small plates and will give you a good view of the many flavours of Mexico.   The food is good, it’s fresh, but I long for a place that serves dinners and not just “tasting” items.  But I have to say, it’s the drinks, the bar and the patio that will keep me coming back.

Links:

Cha Cha Joven Mezcal – http://trndmonitor.com/product-spotlight-cha-cha-cha-mezcal/

Brasserie Les Halles – New York Restaurant week, Part 3

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Les Halles front

It would not have been a complete trip to New York without a visit to the Anthony Bourdain‘s home base, Brasserie Les Halles.  My reservation is  for two at seven-thirty on Saturday night at the Park Avenue location.

Two-hundred and ninety-four restaurants, including Les Halles,  take part in New York restaurant week which goes from July 22 to August 16th.  Restaurants offer prix-fixe menus for lunch at $25 and dinner for $38.

By New York standards seven-thirty is still a little early for dinner in this town that never sleeps, but the patio is full when we get there.  The hostess checks our reservation and shows us to our table.

The interior is old but charming and warm, the bar seats all taken with New Yorkers having wine and cocktails.  At the table next to us they are watching one as a cook prepare their bananas foster in the traditional way, table side.

inside les halles

While the Restaurant Week menu does offer a good choice of dishes that make up the prix-fixe menu, we decide to try some of the other offerings.  We order the escargots and the Croutons de Coulommiers rotis, au miel et poivre, that is,  Brie topped with honey, cracked pepper, roasted and served on croutons.  The escargots are smooth, rich and tasty, melted butter does that to food.  The Brie is lightly drizzled with clover honey, light to the taste – not too sweet or heavy.

We are most excited about our side order of Truffle Mac and Cheese, we both immediately dig in.  The mac and cheese is perfect, the truffle oil is a great addition, however we both felt there was just a little too much, which made the flavour quite intense – nevertheless it didn’t stop us from devouring it.

truffle mac

My daughter ordered the Magret de Canard, Sauce Grenade.  Beautiful med-well done duck breast with a pomegranate sauce, scalloped potatoes and French beans.  Typical, traditional bistro food – a hearty dish with soul.

duck les hallesThe Mignon de Porc Maison with garlic confit and mashed potatoes is mine.  Simple pork tenderloin, tender without a lot of overwhelming sauce or seasoning.

pork at les hallesA few glasses of an excellent French house white wine to make a good meal great, wine really can do no wrong with food.  The restaurant is  just about full by the time we are finishing up our meals.

We relax for a while feeling satisfied and happy with the food this evening, but we are not done, onto dessert.  We choose the featured dessert, the Frozen Walnut Mousse.  I also order a Cafe Les Halles with Kahlua, coffee, crème Chantilly and flambé with Grand Marnier.

It’s a comfortable evening in Midtown Manhattan.  The patio is still full with people enjoying the night and the slower pace of traffic along Park Avenue in the evening.  We walk a for few blocks talking about which part of the meal we enjoyed most.  I will go back on my next visit and I recommend you give it a try next time you’re in New York – honest bistro food, served the way it should be.

Happy eating, everyone!

The Toronto Chowder Chowdown

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Twenty-four chefs participated in Chowder Chowdown held simultaneously at the Fairmount Royal York Toronto and the Vancouver Aquarium to benefit Ocean Wise on November 21.  Ocean Wise is a ‘Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. Ocean Wise works directly with restaurants, markets, food services and suppliers ensuring that they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood and helping them make ocean-friendly buying decisions.’*

It was a grand evening at the Imperial Ballroom at the Fairmount Royal York where chefs and their teams spent day the preparing their unique chowders and getting ready for the hundreds that would be in attendance.  I love events but sometimes when there’s food around you have to fight your way to the food, so I get there early. Chowder pots simmering, garnishes being freshly prepped, last-minute details getting taking care of, i.e. the arrival of cold beers to go with the chowders.  I take the opportunity to visit the twelve stations and talk to some of the chefs about their chowders.  Inspiring and creative, each chef prepared their own take on chowder or created the classics like Evelyn’s Seafood Chowder, rich and creamy with lots of seafood.

I have to say that I was very impressed with the care given to meticulously garnish each small cup of chowder by the chefs.  Chef Richard Baksh of Earl’s patiently explained each element of the garnish to every guest that asked.  His very tasty Manilla Claim & Seafood Chowder was topped with bacon, tarragon oil and mache; the Royal York’s Chef Amira Becarevic and her team efficiently finished every cup with arugula pesto and chorizo oil.

Some unique twists and wonderful traditional chowder to be sampled.  The Toronto judges choice was Chef Albert Ponzo’s of  Le Select Bistro’s Seafood Chowder, one of my favourites too.  Chef Ponzo’s addition of chorizo enhanced the great flavour.  The People’s Choice award went to Richard Baksh’s of Earl’s Restaurant.  If you love seafood be watching for the date of next year’s event.  I know I will be back again.