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- Sometimes I ride the 501 streetcar just for something to do. It’s a fun way to people watch, without really having to watch out for them, but it’s also a great way to spot new businesses, or old ones for that matter. The past couple of times I took this trip, I wondered what was in the chalkboard-black building on the corner of Queen and Elm Grove. I assumed it was a gallery given it was such a big space, and I was half right. The Mascot is a coffee shop that showcases art…or an art gallery that serves coffee, depending on what you’re going for I guess. I myself was going for the coffee.
At first the place is a bit daunting. It’s quite large, with a lot of negative space, and very limited seating. There are two barstools at the counter, a few tables that can seat more than one, and a surprisingly comfy blue velvet couch in the front room, but patrons need to be ready to get creative if all of those are taken. The back room, which houses the artwork offers up a couple Victorian chairs for those who feel like working on their posture, an old elementary school chair/desk combo, and a springy antique rocking horse (???). I’m not quite sure if that last option is for display only, or for those who like their coffee with a little bouncy nostalgia, but I for one wasn’t about to find out. I used to have one of those horses, and I remember getting pinched by the damn springs on a regular basis. Luckily for us, there was a free table.
My girlfriend ordered a latte while I went with just a basic drip to see what Reunion Island coffee is like in its most vulnerable state. I should’ve went with the latte. Not that the drip was bad, but the latte was fantastic. It was smooth and strong without being bitter. The Rosetta adorning the foam was a nice touch as well. (It should be noted that I went back a few days later for my very own).
As it was around the brunch hour, and breakfast had long worn off we decided to get a couple of treats to go with our coffee. The edible portion of the menu at The Mascot is provided by OMG Baked Goods, and like the seating, selection is limited. The cupcakes were tempting but we were in the mood for savoury, so we ordered a ham & cheese quiche along with a stuffed foccacia.
The quiche arrived looking a little bit sad and we faced off as to who would try it first. We both agreed that it was tastier than we would have guessed, but I’ve definitely had better quiche. The stuffed foccacia on the other hand was a nice surprise. It didn’t come to the table looking like much… really just a bun on a plate. But as with all things stuffed, it’s what’s inside that counts. Filled with roasted peppers, artichokes and Asiago cheese, it was not unlike a grown-up Hot Pocket…one that got tired of all the negative attention so it moved out of its parents freezer, and adopted a healthier lifestyle. The quiche was pushed aside, but later finished – out of hunger alone.
Food however is an afterthought at The Mascot. From what I saw, the people of Parkdale go for the coffee, and rightly so. There was a steady stream of people coming and going, and judging by the interactions, quite a few regulars. With friendly laid-back staff, good ambience and amazing lattes, I would make it my local too – if only I lived anywhere near it.
Footnote: Seating doubles in the warmer months, when it’s comfortable enough to sit on the driftwood looking bench that runs the length of their storefront. Another good place to do some people watching.
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- Let me start by saying I am truly a Latin American food snob. I am fortunate enough to know what the good stuff – the real stuff – tastes like, and I resent those who do it poorly. It’s not difficult food to make, but it takes both time and love to create great Latin American dishes, and it frustrates me when I see melted cheese from a jar smeared on store-bought chips that are passed off as “Mexican food” in restaurants. So it was a relief and a thrill to hear that the head chef from The Black Hoof was helming Grand Electric and promised, “Mexican food, craft beer, brown liquor and loud music.”
I met my dinner companion across the street at The Mascot at 5:45 and watched as a line started to form outside Grand Electric. The Mascot’s baristas suggested that we get ourselves over there before the line up got too long, warning us we’d be eating at 9pm if we didn’t get it in gear. We dutifully lined up at 5:50pm behind two parties. Within five minutes the line had extended half a block behind us. At 6:02pm, the doors opened and people flooded inside. We were shown to a table for two and marveled at just how quickly the small space filled up. Tables were gone by 6:05 and the bar was full a minute later. Music blared, servers started making their rounds and Grand Electric was off and running.
The bar is quite the thing to behold. Bourbon-heavy, it is run by enthusiastic and well-informed staff. It towers over patrons and is a great focal point for the restaurant. In addition to bourbon, you can try several craft beers including Churchkey and Canucklehead cask ale. Both are excellent, but if you haven’t tried a cask ale, you should know it’s not carbonated. Don’t let that dissuade you from checking it out, though, as it has a fruity and slightly bitter taste. You’ll be hooked after your first taste.
The menu for Grand Electric located at the back of the restaurant on a giant chalkboard. It is split up into appetizers, tacos, specials and dessert. Given the advanced buzz that’s been generated, we opted to try as many dishes as possible. We had the guacamole and nachos (an excellent test of a Mexican restaurant’s mettle), tuna ceviche, chicken frito appetizers, one of each taco, and in the end, we went for the key lime pie for dessert.
Beers in hand, we eagerly awaited our food which came out surprisingly fast considering the kitchen must have gotten just crushed with all of us arriving at once. First up came the guacamole and chips. The dip was generously salted and had lots of lime juice, essential elements both. Without enough of those two simple ingredients, guacamole falls flat, but this was the best restaurant-made I’ve ever had (oh, and it comes with a huge serving of light-as-air pork chicharron as a garnish; a great aesthetic touch as it towers over the guacamole & chips). The fresh corn tortilla chips were also both well seasoned and delicious.
While still munching away on this, our tuna ceviche arrived. Beautiful pieces of citrus-cooked fish were piled on a fresh tortilla and topped with cilantro and lime juice. My dining companion and I split the tender tuna, staring at each other, and not believing how good such a simple dish could be. The two appetizers were done so well that we were even more eager to try the tacos we had coming our way.
A plate of three tacos was delivered to us, and we hung on every word our server said as she explained which taco was which. The first three were the sweet pork belly al pastor with pineapple, the fried queso (cheese) and spicy arbol chicken. It’s not that spicy, I promise, especially considering some of the other choices. Of these, the only miss was the queso which I thought could have benefited from some salt. Having said that, the other two were simply wonderful, especially the pork belly. We also tried the Baja fish taco, a lightly breaded tilapia fillet topped with bright, fresh cabbage. The textures of the soft tortilla and the crunchy, crispy toppings had us grinning from ear to ear.
Also on the menu that night were shredded beef cheek and cochinita pibil, a traditional Mexican dish of slow-cooked pork cooked in a banana leaf. Both were winners; tender and tasty with some nice heat on the pork taco. A server helpfully suggested we try the homemade sauces to either amplify the heat or cut it depending on our tastes and the particular taco. Given how busy the restaurant was, I was impressed at how calm, cheerful and helpful the serving staff was throughout the night.
Not-to-be-forgotten is the chicken frito dish we ordered: a mound of crispy, fried chicken pieces slathered in a sweet and citrus-y coating and sprinkled with healthy doses of cilantro, jalapeno peppers slices and little, red, evil chile peppers. I like heat, but skipped over the red chiles in favor of the jalapenos. Sweet, sour, spicy, juicy, crispy, hot…there was nothing about this dish that should be changed. Ever. I will most definitely be ordering this one again.
But let us not forget about dessert! When the small glass jar filled with buttered graham cracker crust, rich, tart lime custard and whipped cream topped with lime zest arrived, my friend and I looked at each other and snickered. “This isn’t going to be big enough for two of us,” we commented. We each grabbed a tiny spoon and dug in. Grand Electric has now spoiled key lime pie for me as this was the best I’ve ever had. Rich, tangy, buttery, creamy and utterly delectable, this dessert truly one of the best I’ve had. Though we contemplated getting a second, our stomachs finally caught up to our eyes and we decided to call it a night.
Overall, this was one of the most fun and delicious meals I’ve had in Toronto. The atmosphere is supercharged in the restaurant, filled with happy customers taking pictures of and devouring the food coming out of the kitchen. While you can hardly say that each dish on the menu is truly, authentically Mexican, it hardly matters when it’s this good. A word to the wise: go early or you will be waiting for hours for a seat, but even if you do end up waiting, it’ll be worth it. There is no other place in the city putting out food like this.
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- Bar Salumi is the unassuming sister bar-come-restaurant to The Local Kitchen in Parkdale. It might be a little too unassuming for its own good, as many people seemed to question its whereabouts when I mentioned its name…but maybe Bar Salumi doesn’t like the spotlight. Indeed, its sign is almost an afterthought, with the store’s original signage for an antique shop, dominating the storefront.
My friend and I had been meaning to go ever since she discovered they served Burrata pizza. She really has a thing for that cheese, and I can’t say I blame her. It’s delicious. We went awhile back, excited at the prospect of this new twist on a Margharita pie, only to find out the chef was on vacation and they were only serving up the liquid portion of their menu. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this, and in some cases I would actually prefer it, but that night we were hungry and consequently, deflated. My friend entered the chefs ETA in her phone, and we vowed to return.
Two weeks later, the alarm sounded, reminding us that the chef was back to work (and also that she had golden potatoes ready to harvest in Smurf Village). We went the very next day.
As it was on our previous visit, Bar Salumi was quiet and dark, illuminated by flickering chandeliers (leftovers from the former antique shop maybe?) and tea light candles housed within mason jars. Hanging legs of prosciutto fight for space with ceiling fans, and a boar’s head watches diners from high above on the back wall. I know it might not sound like it (what with the strong presence of dangling cured meat and taxidermy) but it has a real romantic vibe happening.
There is no kitchen at Bar Salumi, so our personable apron-clad server was also our chef. The menu is a small one, focused on pizza and apps, so diners can watch as everything is prepared behind the bar. It did get a bit hot, what with the pizza oven operating from within the same room, but think how cozy that would be on a winter’s night.
The menu is presented on the wall in cafeteria style (or bowling alley) fashion, with those little plastic letters that slide in and out, and I half expected to see nachos and cheese listed somewhere. More menus were brought to us on mini clipboards, and because the food menu was unnecessary as we had fully rehearsed our order, we paused awhile over the drink list. They offer a thoughtful selection of reds and whites as well as some interesting cocktails. We went with two glasses of Malbec ($12 each) to go with our starter of olives & nodini with ricotta salata ($4). So far so good, except that I couldn’t help but think the nodini crackers weren’t the most functional choice for the cheese…more like basketball hoops for the olives.
Our pizza ($14), although not wood-fired, did come served on a cross-section of a tree trunk. With the creamy white Burrata blending with the red of the San Marzano tomatoes, punctuated by basil it was like an homage to the Italian flag. I wish I could say that the Burrata we were so looking forward to, made it the penultimate Margharita experience, but it was like any other made with Bufala. The two are from the same family after all, so I’m not sure what we were thinking. Cheese does things to people. That being said however, we weren’t disappointed, as the sauce was tangy, the crust was crispy, and it was big enough for both of us to eat and still take home leftovers.
I wouldn’t rank the pizza with the likes of pie giants, Terroni or Libretto, but Bar Salumi is rife with ambience where the aforementioned aren’t. The promise of Buratta may have lured me in the first time, but it’s the character that will bring me back.
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