Sunday, October 28, 2012

Horse betting & wine drinking: Hot to Trot wine tasting at Turf Lounge

Sunday, October 28, 2012
Mid-October we checked out a wine launch at Turf Lounge, one of the much more upscale off-track betting places one can visit. We really enjoyed ourselves - Mark and I were each given $2 bet cards and I took both of them and placed bets with no knowledge of how to even read the screen (let alone having any prior understanding of how to bet on horses). Would you believe we won?! I bet both for horse #3 on Indiana Downs because that was the horse on the screen when I happened to look up - lo and behold, that horse placed first!

But the real reason we were there was to taste two wines available now at the LCBO from a US winery in Washington State called 14 Hands Vineyards. The Hot to Trot – Red Blend we sipped is mainly a Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, but also has hints of Mourvedre and other red varieties. It has notes of berries, cherries and currants; the tannins were soft, but I didn't really catch the baking spice and mocha on the finish as per the description. Regardless, the warmer red/dark fruits were definitely present, and I found it to be fairly easy drinking. I'm more of a white drinker though, so I was looking forward to trying the Hot to Trot – White Blend. It is predominantly a Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Semillon blend with flavours of pear, melon and lemon zest. I got a whole lot of pear and a bit of melon, and found it to be crisp and not too too sweet. I wouldn't mind having another bottle on hand at home, as I think I could see it pairing well with many different types of foods, from fish to creamy pastas.

Yours in food, and sometimes wine!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Country Style Hungarian Restaurant

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
We’ve heard a lot about Country Style over the years, (no not the donut chain, the Hungarian restaurant) so we finally decided to check it out last weekend.  We weren’t expecting to be wowed since it was on the list of comfort food spots for many people. I’m writing about it anyway not because it’s trendy or a particularly excellent dining establishment, but because like many mom and pop shops that cater to niche markets or stay low-cost and under the radar, places like this have staying power and are an integral part of their community.

Though my first instinct was to try the Chicken Paprikash with Perogies for an app and perhaps some Goulash on the side, we had limited stomach room and opted for their signature Country Style Wooden Plate for two.

The plate was a combination of a Cabbage Roll, Wiener Schnitzel, Parisian Schnitzel, Fried Sausage, Beets, Rice, and Home Fries. The schnitzels were thinly pounded and incredibly large. We liked the Wiener (sounds like a sausage, but it's not) Schnitzel's breaded crust better than the Parisian's egg coating. We loved the firm and well seasoned fried sausage. The cabbage roll was a complete meal unto itself, not just because it was a huge, but also because you pretty much have your carbs in the form of rice, as well as meat and vegetable in it all together. We also had a side of dumplings, which in this context are plain doughy little things and not the stuffed Asian kind.

That was certainly more than enough food for the two of us, and we ended up taking the rest home.  Because I'm Filipino, I had the leftover schnitzels with steamed rice and a little ketchup, like a Filipino-Spanish torta. It is comfort food after all.


Click here for more photos on Flickr

450 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON M5S 1X8
(416) 536-5966

Posted by: Mark Rodas

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Eat to the Beat 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012
Last Tuesday we were at Roy Thomson Hall for this year's Eat to the Beat, benefitting Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada.

Eat to the Beat is Canada's only fundraising event that brings together top female chefs who donate their time, talent, and materials to raise funds in support of women living with breast cancer. Sixty of Canada's top female chefs participated this year in a cornucopia of sweet and savoury food, wines, and premium beers and spirits. The event also included live music, a silent auction and a raffle draw.

This is one amazing food event. If you haven't been, check out their website next year and support this worthy cause.

IMG_3533_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3538_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3572_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3600_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3614_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3710_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3719_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3721_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3732_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3743_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3769_EatToTheBeat_2012 IMG_3811_EatToTheBeat_2012

More photos on Flickr:

Posted by: Mark Rodas

Monday, October 15, 2012

Keriwa Café - Aboriginal, Local, Seasonal

Monday, October 15, 2012
We went to Keriwa Café to experience what I can only describe as aboriginal haute cuisine. We were pleasantly surprised with how delicious an experience it was, on par with some of the best restaurants in town.

The first thing you notice when you enter Keriwa Café is that it's one relatively small room with a full view of the bustling kitchen directly across from you, with a small bar on the far left. It's definitely not white linen, and if you just accidentally stumbled upon it you wouldn't know that it was a fine dining establishment. That subtlety, along with some discreet aboriginal decor and birch bark on a part of the wall, made it feel very inviting and very accessible.

The wait staff was somewhat informal, but very friendly and quite knowledgeable about the dishes and the ingredients that went into them.


I don't know if it was the fedora'd pumpkin on the bar or the word maple that enticed me to order a Maple Old Fashioned ( bourbon, maple, black walnut bitters ). Despite it falling into our "old man drink" classification ( i.e. Stacey won't drink it ),  I thought that in keeping with our local theme for the night, I should give it a shot. It was good for what it was, but as with a Manhattan and other whisky based cocktails, its particular notes of musty cigar smoke filled bookshelf lined piano bar, causes one to see everything in sepia and want to shuck oysters and smoke Montecristos, while a tuxedoed waiter whips up a table-side Caesar salad... but I digress.

While waiting for our appetizer we nibbled on some good bread with creamy organic butter and a drizzle of salt... and some strangely bright orange coloured and very yummy spread that turned out to be seasoned, whipped Berkshire pork fat.

We started with a succulent and generously portioned Confit Pork Belly app. That was a ridiculously good appetizer if your definition of appetizer is something that makes your mouth water. The tender meat fell apart in my mouth whilst oozing all that salty fatty goodness. A little Asian fusion going on here with the cilantro balanced the richness of the pork nicely. The roasted red pepper and spiced popcorn added other layers of texture.

Confit Pork Belly, peach, red pepper, fennel, creme fraiche

For mains, we had the Bison Skirt Steak and the Lamb Shoulder. The bison looked incredible festive with tender, mildly gamey meat topped with bullberries, and nuts. The tart bitterness of the bulberries and and the crunchy nuts complimented the meat well and provided a good textural contrast to the decadent and juicy bison ravioli underneath. The actual fresh pasta wasn't so thrilling, but the filling and everything else more than made up for it.

Bison skirt steak, Bullberry, Almond, Kale, parsley, pemmican

My first thought upon seeing the lamb shoulder was "that's kind'a small," but as it turns out big taste can come from small packages. Often I mill around the periphery of dishes and taste its layers in isolation before going for that synergistic bite of everything together. I started with the smeared cauliflower purée and was pleasantly bewildered at how something can taste so light and rich at the same time, airy and creamy, a neutral yet powerful canvass. But even more delightful was the sauce on one side of the lamb, which seemed like a less viscous but jacked-up, fat-infused refrito.

The lamb was so tender that it easily fell apart with the slightest prodding and was so densely packed with flavour and wholesomeness that it's apparent small size seemed like an optical illusion.

Lamb Shoulder, Cauliflower, broccoli, white bean, nasturtium

Often we find that the dessert menus at restaurants are thematically disconnected from the rest of the food, much like an afterthought rather than an integrated part of the dining expereience. Keriwa's desserts are a very welcome exception, keeping up with the local motif, infused with flavours and textures that on a whole can be considered very Canadian.

I usually grab a cappuccino with desert, but since part of our dessert include a cheeseboard, I chose to go with some port this time around. I'm glad I did. The very delicious Saskatoon & Sea Buckthorn Semifreddo with nut brittle was absolutely transformed and infinitely better with port.

Saskatoon & Sea Buckthorn Semifreddo (cilantro, nasturtium)

Dessert number 2 was a trio of refreshing sorbet quenelles: Peach Buttermilk, Wild Grape, and Crab Apple, in that order with our favourite first.

Sorbet - (clockwise from left) Crab Apple, Peach Buttermilk, and Wild Grape

Cheeseboard - Spiced nuts, Saskatoon Jelly, Red Fife Cracker

To cap things off, we had a cheeseboard where we could choose to have 2 of 4 available cheeses. Our first cheese was "14 Arpents," a nutty tasting,  soft paste cow milk cheese from Quebec. Our second choice also from Quebec, was "Grey Owl,"  a goat's milk cheese with an ash covered rind. It was characterized by a white, firm, dense paste that crumbles in your mouth, with a sharp taste.

The cheeses where heavenly together with the spiced nuts, Saskatoon jelly and apple jam, washed down with some port. Cheese, particularly the more pungent and flavourful ones, just doesn't taste the same without an accompanying wine to release all those locked-in nuanced notes.

Keriwa Café totally blew us away with the calibre of its cuisine. My only beef with the place was that it was incredibly smokey and you'd totally perish if you happened to be wearing contact lenses. The woodsmoke smell totally gets into everything, and you end up smelling like a campfire, which if you want to be authentic may appeal to some. Ah the small price to pay to for such good food.

Sadly, the day we were there was one of the last ones for this restaurant's à la carte menu. Keriwa will be serving tasting menus on selected evenings of the month, and become a private dining and special events centre. You can contact the restaurant to be put on a list for these special tasting events.

1690 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON M6R 1B3
(416) 533-2552 ‎

 Posted by: Mark Rodas

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The End of a Season: Avenue and Studio Café

Sunday, October 7, 2012
The new Four Seasons Toronto just opened, the 90th in the chain's 51 year history. It features an upscale restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. The new hotel is quite a necessary reboot of the old location just down the street, but as with all things shiny and new, sometimes we reflect upon what came before it. Often in nostalgic haze, we long for the comfort and coziness of things that aren't up to more exacting current standards, but at the same time don't feel as precise nor as rushed. Some people still like vinyl...


As I was dining at Avenue in the Four Seasons hotel,  I felt a pining for a past that had not yet occurred. During the course of my meal, I was informed that both of the two remaining restaurants in the hotel, Avenue and Studio Café, would serve their final meals that Sunday, the 25th of March. The other restaurant, Truffles, one of the more popular dining establishments of its time and scene of many a kiboshed Summer and Winterlicious reservation, had closed a long time ago.

To be seated in a dated hotel restaurant and be handed a newspaper by the attentive but unhurried staff while I take time to look out the window as I contemplate what dishes to explore is a rare treat in a bustling metropolis like Toronto. I'd imagine that as I tasted each item in my private little space that I'd be transported into the past, both my own and extrapolated other selves, à la Proust eating his madeleine. Except that Proust was probably sickly, in cramped quarters, and not very much enjoying his day off.

Elderflower Blossom

I'm not quite certain how I ended up ordering the Elderflower Blossom, a decidedly unmanly drink. Was it all the times I went to Ikea for Swedish meatballs, where I found Elderflower drinks in various forms, leading my subconscious to associate Northern European culinary traditions with 80s 4-star hotel dining? As a kid I had imagined the cool grown-ups smoking menthol cigarettes, flying Pan-Am to their yachting getaways, drinking classic Martinis of Tanqueray with a splash of vermouth and a couple of olives, and of course eating fondue, head cheese, and gravlax. Was it that not too long ago I was served an Elderflower cocktail in Cirque du Soleil's VIP tent, and the saliency of that memory guided my finger down the drink menu?

More likely it was my penchant for complicated highly engineered things that led me to that decision. I mean, on a scale of sublime complexity it topped the list in front of me, with its sake, Grey Goose, Elderflower, and white cranberry. A close runner-up was the Lychee Martini, with Grey Goose, lychee juice, and pitted lychees. But since I grew up on lychees, the novelty of this drink ran thin with me.

There were other Martinis, or colloquially Martinis, that I could never really mention without doing a mental pause. I'm somewhat of a purist in that I like my Martini (there is only one kind) in the aforementioned classic variant, using only gin, not vodka, and most importantly stirred, not shaken, contra to how Bond would have us believe it more sophisticated.

Navy bean and chorizo soup

The soup of the day was navy bean and chorizo. Light and healthy, it brought back memories of Christmases past, and of a far more decadent and likely heart-stoppping dish. Chorizo de Bilbao was something I would only see around the holidays when my grandmother would make Callos, a traditional Filipino/Spanish dish of tripe and bovine knuckles with chorizo and garbanzos stewed in a rich tomato base, eaten with garlic-buttered toasted baguettes and slices of aged Edam cheese.

Sweet chili tuna tartare - avocado, ponzu dressing

After my soup I had a small serving of the tuna tartare. Okay maybe I should retract that earlier lychee statement, not all things oriental fall flat with me. I could never get tired of raw tuna. I suppose a proper hotel would not only serve haute continental cuisine but reach out into fusion i.e. East-meets-West. But I guess even if they did add ponzu to it, tartare is hardly a Japanese word. The word "tartare" is whimsically thought to have been inspired by the Tartar or Tatar people of Central Asia as they apparently ate raw chopped meat (no tuna in the steppes). So I guess it is fusion since it looks like beef tartare, only with ponzu... and no raw egg, anyway.

Steak and salad - romaine hearts, fried onions, Ontario blue cheese dressing

The steak was definitely retro: pale looking greens, thin fried onions, and the practice of cutting into a piece of meat that has not adequately rested, whilst serving it on a white dish dusted with paprika, which was promptly washed away by a stream of juices, depriving the huge medium-rare steak of any prospect of succulence.

Vanilla Corn Pudding - maple brown butter caramel, goat cheese ice cream

Dessert was a rich and gamey affair rather than they typical parade of sweetness. The vanilla corn pudding felt like a Southern and tropical hybrid, with the mellow hint of Madagascar vanilla infusing its velvety base. The accompanying goat cheese ice cream was a little tart, a little refreshing, and lots of tasty punch.


Studio Café 

Studio Café was a little less less formal than Avenue, and offered prix fixe menus for lunch and dinner. Lunch was priced at $19.61in honour of the Four Season's founding year. We had the 3-course "Yorkville Prix Fixe" $49 dinner menu which included 2 glasses of wine each.

The food was good, and I shall list what we had below. But rather than dwell on the gustatory characteristics of the cuisine in this other Four Seasons restaurant (I'm pretty sure I've talked enough about food above) I shall expound on why for me at least this place will be sorely missed.

I came of age in the late 80s with all the Keith Haring art, Fido Dido, Duran Duran, Max Headroom et. al. Stepping into Studio Café was like a blast from the past, with all the colourful glasswork, the spartan yet modern furnishing, and the feeling of being in the space where the establishment once lunched. 

That decade was also the zenith of plating dishes as if they were wall art, with geometric shapes and streaks of colour. The decadence of the those years past immortalized by the infamous characters of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman still lingered in that quiet, vibrant, and contemplative space. 

Ironically, the same reasons why I enjoyed my time at the two restaurants above are the very same reasons that they no longer exist. They were relics that were stylistically and economically untenable. Most people would think them subpar, but some will surely miss them. Why is Instagram so popular and emotive? -- not because of fidelity and quality, but because of associations of memory and abstractions of the soul.

IMG_8498_StudioCafe IMG_8519_StudioCafe IMG_8529_StudioCafe IMG_8535_StudioCafe IMG_8550_StudioCafe IMG_8555_StudioCafe


Our meal consisted of:

Beef tartare - poppy seed brioche, truffled frisée salad
Olive oil poached sablefish - edamame, meyer lemon, pea greens, miso vinaigrette

Seared sea scallops - black trumpet mushrooms, cauliflower purée, hazelnuts, brown butter
Thyme roasted duck breast - rutabaga and bacon, mustard greens, rhubarb vanilla compote

Black forest cake - brandied cherries
Carrot cake cheesecake - carrot confit

Posted by: Mark Rodas

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Expand your home cooking repertoire: Get to know quinoa!

Thursday, October 4, 2012
I have to be honest: Before receiving 500 Best Quinoa Recipes to review, I had never used quinoa in my home cooking. But I had heard a lot about it, and my interest was piqued, so the timing to try out a few recipes was perfect.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) was first cultivated by the Incas. It's considered a seed, but is more specifically classified as a "pseudocereal" meaning that, while it is not technically a grass (true cereals are grasses), it can be used in the same way cereals are. It can be bought in various forms, including seeds, flakes, flour and pasta. While I've never had them before, you can eat the leaves of the quinoa plant - apparently they are good in a salad. Quinoa is closely related to spinach, chard and beets. This mighty plant yields a near-perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre - for this reason, it is important to incorporate quinoa into vegetarian diets. It's also gluten-free - Celiacs, rejoice!

I chose two recipes to try, starting with a stew made mainly of green olives, shredded chicken, tomatoes, and chickpeas. The stew has officially become a regular part of our meal repertoire - I have already made it twice and plan to make it often, especially as winter approaches. We absolutely adore it - it is healthy, hearty and flavourful. It uses dried cilantro and a number of other aromatics along with reduced-sodium broth (I use less broth and add some water because it is already such a flavourful dish and I'm trying to keep it as healthy as possible). While the quinoa blends nicely into a stew, the green olives are my favourite part - despite the Mediterranean influences in the dish, black olives just wouldn't taste right. I used big plump green ones that still had their pits. And the best part: It's easy to transport leftovers to work for lunch!

The next recipe we tried was a salad with a horseradish dressing, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and seared skirt steak. Condo living isn't the most conducive to searing a nice steak... This whole place turns smokey! But it was worth opening all the windows and the door to try this out. The colours just popped. I think I still need to perfect the horseradish dressing though - I found it a bit strong (didn't help that the only horseradish I came across was extra hot). The stew is still my favourite though, and. I think the salad is more a "once-in-a-while" recipe.

There are so many other items to try - I've only made two out of 500 recipes! There are a few breakfast ones I want to attempt. Later this week I'll be trying out a third recipe: crustless quiches starring quinoa and roasted red peppers. Yum!

I think every home cook should try expanding his/her at-home cooking repertoire, especially to find dishes that are healthy and tasty. For me it was all about getting comfortable with quinoa seeds. Next I may move onto using flour or flakes. Or I may try different methods of preparing it, like toasting it rather than using the pasta method to cook it. These recipes really make quinoa the star of the show. It's a good place to start and to get you comfortable with incorporating quinoa into your diet.

Yours in food,