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.

Get yourself to the Bean and Baker Malt Shop!

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Bean and Baker Sign

Liezel and Bren Anderson are hoping to create memories for a new generation of a malt shop customers.  After over a year of planning, they’ve opened the Bean and Baker Malt Shop where you can get a proper milkshake or ice cream dessert, as well as other homemade sweet or savoury treats.

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Tuesday’s hot humid weather was a good excuse, not that I needed one, to get a malted milkshake, so I headed out to find Toronto’s newest spot.  The Bean and Baker Malt Shop is at corner of Grace and Harbord Streets by Bickford Park. The store in a earlier life, housed a drug store with a counter that served ice cream. Liezel and Bren have done a brilliant job creating a great old-fashioned soda shop, replete with a chromed red and white interior, checkerboard floor, swivel stools and uniformed soda jerks to serve you.

The blackboard menu lists the treats including sodas, shakes, malted milkshakes and coffee creations.  A sweet assortment of pastries made daily by Liezel, who is a former pastry chef, includes flaky cherry hand-pies, lemon meringue tarts, éclairs filled with a creamed custard and the popular bacon and pecan butter tart.  For those who are not big sweet tooths, there are savoury pies from Wisey’s, the New Zealand style bakery on Roncesvalles.

I order the espresso shake with coffee ice cream and malt. It comes garnished with whipped cream, a malt ball and some crunchy bits of chocolate. Served in a tall glass with the remaining shake left for you in the metal cup.

MaltedA good milkshake is about the ratio of milk to ice cream. Bren’s espresso malted shake floats at the midpoint between being solid enough to hold a straw upright but runny enough to easily be sucked up the straw.

The coffee meshes well with the nutty, buttery notes of malt, which heightens the richness of the ice cream.

I try to take my time drinking it, but it’s going down pretty fast. I am tempted to have a second one, it’s that good!Empty Glass2

Another dessert they make is the Old School lunch pie. It’s a combination peanut butter and chocolate pudding pie with raspberry jam on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream. I look forward to trying this later this summer.

Dietary restrictions? No problem. Bean and Baker offer gluten-free, non-dairy and even vegan ice creams so that everyone can enjoy cold treats.

If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned soda or ice cream or sweet treat this summer, you know where you need to go!

Hey, Sunday, July 17 is National Ice Cream day, so you better get yourself to Bean and Baker Malt Shop, pronto!!

Cluny’s in the Distillery District

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It’s December 26, and while many of you have barely digested and recovered from your big Christmas dinners, I know there are also a lot of you looking forward to more eating for New Year’s.  So with that in mind, let me recommend Cluny’s in the Distillery District.  A few weeks ago, I ventured into this beautiful new restaurant on Tank House lane for a solo brunch.

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Washed in natural and warm lighting, Cluny’s is like a very large European cafe, there is an intricately laid blue and white tiled floor separating the space into grouped tables and intimate spaces.  Bouquets of cream and buttercup yellow flowers in large vases, showcase the bakery buffet where staff prepare your baskets of croissants and breads.

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The raw bar is stocked with a daily selection of oysters, claims and shrimp.  Behind the bar is the bustling kitchen, efficiently sending out orders or egg dishes, burgers and salads from the brunch menu.

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My server greets me warmly and asks what my preferences for my morning pastry basket to accompany my French press coffee.

French Press

My oeufs en cocotte, eggs cooked in a vessel like a small dutch oven, arrives with a grilled tomato, greens, truffle and fries.  It is a dish that feels indulgent for a sunny but cold Sunday morning.  I am thrilled that the frites are still quite warm, and soak up the truffle mayonnaise very well.

Oeufs en cocotte

I people watch from my seat at the raw bar, where the friendly staff tell me about the menu and the features with entusiasm.  I also get a great view of the other dishes guests are enjoying at the bar next to me.

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Photo Credit: Cluny Bistro website – clunybistro.com

The dinner menu features traditional bistro fare including foie gras dishes, mussels and frogs legs as well as some continental favourites to satisfy kids and non-seafood eaters.  My best part of the menu for me,  is the selection of cheese dishes, which includes my favourite, Sauvagine stuffed with truffle and sauteed in wild mushroom.

A wonderful setting, lots of seats – however, it is popular, so many sure to call ahead and make a reservation.

 Cluny Bistro – 35 Tank House Lane, Distillery District, Toronto, Ontario

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.

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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.

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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/

The Doughnut Renaissance – from deep fried to designer Part 2

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This is Part 2 to my post of July 17 that featured a short cultural expose on fried dough.

There is a retro food trend a foot.  In uncertain times we get sentimental over things that provided simple homespun pleasures, like macaroni and cheese, hot chocolate and doughnuts.  It has taken me over a month to get part deux done, but doughnut research is complicated and tasty.

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I found four establishments that are creating their own personal brand of designer doughnuts,  Sweet Creations, Paulette’s, Glory Hole Doughnuts and Dough by Rachelle.  Each of these are quite unique from their flavours to their style but all homey, tummy warming, lip smacking sweet nostalgic goodness!!!

My first stop was Sweet Creations in the Distillery District.  They were featuring two doughnuts the Sunday that I visited, Peach Cobbler and the soon to be classic Maple Bacon doughnut.  The peach cobbler had pieces of crumb topping and small pieces of fresh peach.  A light, crisp, not too sweet doughnut but a little lacklustre in achieving a real peachy flavour.  The Maple Bacon was the best of the two.  The sweetness of the maple tempered by the salty and smokey flavour of the bacon makes it more of an entremet rather than a dessert, but something I would definitely choose as a breakfast option.

Paulette’s Original Donuts & Chicken opened in July.  Located in the trending Leslieville area.  You are greeted by staff dressed in traditional retro paper hats inside an aquamarine coloured storefront.  A choice of seven cake doughnuts is featured daily to complement their fried chicken menu.  Some unusual choices were available including chocolate blueberry and grapefruit maple – sweet and zesty.  Our favourite this visit was the banana cream and the dark chocolate pretzel which makes for an excellent cake doughnut flavour.

The much-anticipated Glory Hole Doughnuts opened on August 25 in Parkdale to the excitement of many doughnut devotees.  Over the top raised doughnuts filled with home-made fillings turns the standard doughnut into a wonderful dessert (or over the top breakfast pastry!).  Owner and pastry chef Ashley Jacot de Boinod tops the banana cream with real whipped cream to order.  This doughnut barely made it out of the store, I couldn’t wait to dive in.  The lemon meringue doughnut is filled with  lemon curd, the way lemon curd should be – creamy, silky and just sweet and tangy enough lemon flavour.

Catering and delivery is available with three days’ notice so they’re the freshest they can be for you. It’s worth the trip to Parkdale for these one of a kind deep-fried cakes.

My last trek was on Thursday morning.  At 8:00 a.m. the doughnut curtain is drawn at the back entrance of Beast Restaurant on Tecumseh.  There’s where you find a smiling Rachelle ready to serve her handmade doughnuts to an eager line-up of customers.  This was my second attempt.  The week before I woke up at 7:30 a.m. and was making my way, when at about 9:00 a.m. I found out via a tweet from Rachelle that she was sold out and I had to abort my mission.  Rachelle tweets throughout the morning to let customers know what’s left.

I was first in line this week and left smiling with my box of doughnuts.  Real apples and a rich glaze made the apple fritter bring back a lot of childhood memories, this is not your Tim Horton’s apple fritter, this really has apples in it.  The double chocolate doughnut is coated with real dark chocolate and real white chocolate; the cherry pie doughnut had a crumb topping and the right amount of cherry filling.  Yes, it was worth the 6:45 a.m. alarm I set that morning to get myself up and en route to Rachelle’s.  Doughnuts are also available at weekend brunch at Beast, so save some room and enjoy a morning doughnut.

This is one food that I’m glad is making a come back.  In a city over run by assembly line, same tasting but different coloured glazed tasteless dough, these homemade gems are certainly worth the $2.50 to $3.00 each price tag. In this town, you get what you pay for.  Doughnut popularity comes and goes, I hope this sticks around for a while and that we’ll see new flavours regularly.  I leave you with a great video featuring the Muppet’s Swedish Chef creating his own particular brand of doughnuts.  Enjoy!

 

Seafood and a patio… ah, the days of summer

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August is the month that county fairs begin and with that you know that summer is coming to a close.  It’s been a great summer and over the next few weeks I’m going to try to get to as many restaurant patios as I can, because before you know the cold weather will begin.

I decided to venture down to  the Distillery District as it has been some time since I was there last.  Much has changed and I was impressed this time by the number of restaurants that have settled in.  Pure Spirits, Oyster House & Grill had the most interesting menu for my Sunday food adventure.

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Lots of seating inside, warm wood and dark seats, and  lots of tables which I am sure get filled quickly Thursdays, Fridays evenings and weekends with its very comfortable casual atmosphere.  The brew menu included two of my favourite beers from Quebec, La Maudite and Blanche the Chambly as well as a full list of Sleeman beers.  The oyster menu has a good choice from both the east and west coasts as well as some international choices and daily specials. If you love oysters, Pure Spirits will satisfy.

Seafood is becoming somewhat hard to find in Toronto lately, when Filet of Sole on Duncan St. closed many years ago, it left a void in finding seafood dishes that could please even the pickiest fish eaters, but I think Pure Spirits may close the gap a bit.  I was intrigued by the Ceviche of Lake Huron Pickerel and the Blue Swimmer Cake appetizers which looked very delicious as the wait staff hustled plates of these to tables all around us.  We however, opted for the chicken spring rolls which arrived hot and golden accompanied by sweet chill dipping sauce, bean sprouts with a few sprigs of coriander.

The wait staff is helpful, friendly and the courses are well-timed. I had the mixed salad greens with shredded beet strips dressed with a zesty but not overpowering orange raspberry dressing.

Ah, but the best was the main lunch course -two haddock fillets with chips, purple cabbage slaw and tartar sauce, not only very authentic but incredible value at $16.00.  In most pubs and eateries in the city where you only get one fillet for $17.00 or $18.00. The hand cut fries are done right, crispy on the outside and tender without being oily or overdone, I have to say the fish and chips at the Pure Spirits is by far the best I’ve had in the city.

The dinner menu features Branzino (European Sea Bass), Arctic char as well as lobster and paella.  There are also non-seafood items like steak and chicken.  On my next visit, I’ll be trying the ceviche of Lake Huron pickerel and look forward to sampling the cheese platter from the late night menu.   As a seafood lover, Pure Spirits Oyster House and Grill will be on my list of places to bring friends to.  Make sure you go soon to enjoy the remaining days of warm sunshine, seafood to remind you of the beach and a nice cold beer.  Happy eating!