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3030

Posted on April 26, 2013 by in The Junction

3 Stars

3030 has young-professional written all over it. Craft beers, slightly pretentious menu and crowd, its Junction location (sigh, I remember the days when they avoided this area). And although I spend quite a bit of time in the neighbourhood, I only managed to getting around to checking it out a few days ago. That’s mostly because it’s a difficult place to notice, with an unassuming, simple ‘3030’ stenciled on the front door, and not much else to identify it.

3030 is huge inside… seriously huge; especially for a place in The Junction. Stuffed full of small table settings and 2 full bars, it seems more like you’re in a concert hall than a neighbourhood restaurant, and that’s with good intention. 3030 is built to be a live music venue that doubles as a food-venue, and in my opinion, not the other way around (although that’s what they go for in the off hours).

One thing’s for sure, they put a lot of thought into their draft selection. The back bar has taps full of local-ish craft brews, including Wellington, Beaus, and even some other, more difficult one’s to find, like the Junction Craft Brewing’s IPA (which was fantastic), a Sawdust City stout, and a Broadhead White. Clearly, they take their beer selection very seriously. The unfortunate thing about the bars though is that with no stools to sit on, you get the distinct that they don’t want you hanging out there.

Much like you’d expect from a place aimed at young-pros in The Junction (sigh), the atmosphere sets it up as a pretty cool place to hang out, with shelves full of board games and walls lined with old-school pinball machines and plenty of interesting art. With the retro pinball machines all lit up in the evening, it gives the perfect backdrop to a night out.

But with just a little ‘5 dollar snack menu’ card on each table, you wonder what about those of us that were there for more than snacks. Our server haphazardly and unconfidently rattled off the items they serve (there was only 4 of them at the time) but not before having to go back to the kitchen a couple of times before she could get it right. I asked if the items changed daily, hence no menus and the difficulty remembering them, but nope, these items had been here for a while she said. While it’s cool to try items out to see what works, I hope that eventually they’ll put together a more permanent and more expansive menu, or at least one that changes seasonally.

Because none of their mains sounded appealing to us, we instead opted for the items on the snack menu. The Butter Chicken Wings, while mostly tasty with the typical strong flavours you’d expect, arrived lukewarm. The Potato Wedges on the other hand, were indescribably and inedibly  hot, which turned out to be ok because they were bland and tasteless anyways. Overall, we just didn’t find any of the items on the snack menu impressive at all.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, 3030 may be worth checking out, but I’d say solely for their draft selection; and although the fact that there isn’t much like it in the neighbourhood makes it the kind of place you want to check out, I’d wait until there is a concert or show you want to see before making the trek. In my opinion, it just isn’t worth going out of your way for.

With a Gabby’s now opened next door, I remember feeling a little upset for them having competition so close from some evil, corporate chain, but really, it’s of little consequence. It’s obvious right away that they’ll both be attracting very different types of people.

– Andre

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Momofuku Daisho

Posted on April 25, 2013 by in Downtown, Financial District

3 Stars

- Torontonians have welcomed Momofuku with open arms and with satisfied stomachs. Last month, David Chang, founder of Momofuku and internationally renowned chef, was in Toronto to play host in an unexpected arena: The TIFF Food on Film series. He joined a sold-out theatre of fellow foodies (including us) to watch his favourite culinary film, Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”, and then engaged the audience in an informal Q&A session that spanned topics ranging from film to the trappings of celebrity chef-hood.

Three hours of salivating over delectable Chinese food on the screen left us craving more than popcorn, so we decided to check out Chang’s Momofuku Daisho shortly after…

Momofuku Daisho’s ambience is definitely the highlight of the experience. It’s open concept and top to bottom glass gives it a simplistic, modern feel. After a successful debut in NYC & Sydney, Chang was lured to Toronto by what he says was a ‘perfect and unique’ opportunity presented by the Shangrila Hotel: to house three, different takes on his cooking in 1, single building.

With the accessible Noodle Bar already a favourite of ours and a recent lacklustre (and wallet-busting) venture to the top-rated Shoto, we were eager to try our hand at Momofuku Daisho a mid-level offering that centers the menu around pre-ordered, ‘family-style’ dishes.

As you can probably imagine, it can be challenging enough to pick options in the moment, let alone coordinate an order for our group of 7 a week in advance (of which we were), but eager to get the full experience, we pre-ordered the much hyped about fried chicken and beef short ribs. The waitress kindly cautioned us to tread lightly when considering the rest of our order, on account of the deluge of food on the way. (Warning: Consider your wallet and alternative menu opportunities prior to committing to the pre-order. On a do-over, we would have banked one family style dish and ordered the rest off the menu.

First we enjoyed two dishes of lightly pickled, chilli-infused cucumbers. If these cucumbers are the Asian take on ‘bread and butter’ the West is in more trouble than economists predict!

Next came the Spicy Sausage and Rice Cake dish, inspired by Chinese Szechuan cuisine: these melt-in-your-mouth rice cakes punctuated by spiced sausage and Asian greens are a quintessential menu creation, packing flavour of Momofukian proportions!

We then indulged in a Momofuku classic: a pork-style bun, this time of the deboned chicken wing variety, coupled with dill, a glazey hot sauce and crudité; a real crowd pleaser for our group of 7.

And then, the massive plate of fried chicken arrived in all of its glory. Included with vegetables, scallion pancakes (oily and delicious) and a fancy soya type sauce.

Lastly, we tried the beef ribeye shortribs flanked by white Kimchi, bean sprouts and some sticky white rice. In our not-so-humble opinion, the ribs were a tad on the fatty side,

We decided to end the night right and order the chocolate – five different textures of it. A healthy spectrum of liquid to solidity; an interesting experience, but we’d suggest the more intimate smaller size, even for a larger group like ours.

All in all, we were blissfully overfed at Momofuku Daisho. It was lovely dining with David Chang in town and we luckily caught him at the restaurant to snap a pic. Good friends and good food – what could be better?

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- Marissa and Moez

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Nota Bene

Posted on July 27, 2012 by in Entertainment District

Nota Bene

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5 stars

- Beautifully modern and discerning, Nota Bene provides the perfect setting for special occasions and casual dining alike. What makes the experience at Nota Bene so incredible is the total lack of pretense in a restaurant that could easily come across as pompous, and still attract a devoted clientele.

You might find yourself dining with a local politician or celebrity, and a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, all in the same place. The price is accessible, the quality of the food impeccable, and the service instant without being overwhelming.

We started the evening with Chef David’s lobster tacos and the margarita fiesta specials. The lobster tacos were served in a lettuce shell, with a chipotle cream, veggies and cilantro ($8). They tasted like something you would find in a great coastal city, and not at all heavy. The lobster special is a great way to settle in to a long evening of wonderful food.  The margaritas were phenomenal, served on the rocks with Avion tequila. We tried a couple of the cocktails and loved “Chef David’s” traditional margarita with smoked sea salt. The blueberry and pine tips margarita sounds like a bit of an odd marriage, but worked so wonderfully together that we ordered another.

For appetizers we started with the Hamachi ceviche, which is a yellowtail Pacific fish, infused with coriander, lime, avocado, and jalapeño ($16). This dish came highly recommended by our server, and was absolutely worth the hype. The jalapeños offered a very spicy take on the dish, tempered by the avocado and lime.

Next we tried the cavatelli pasta, with a truffle-scented mushroom Bolognese ($16). This dish was surprisingly soft and creamy without any cheese in it, and the truffle mushrooms were divine. We also had the crisp duck salad with sumac green papaya slaw and cashews ($15), and although I am self-admittedly duck averse, I am told it was perfectly crispy and flavourful, and ending up being the favourite appetizer of the evening for my companion.

For our mains we ordered two Nota Bene favourites. I went with the wild Digby sea scallops with avocado purée, Thai curry paste, mango, papaya and peanut salad ($28). For such a tropical sounding dish, the scallops actually had a very Canadian East coast feel to them, the avocado puree adding a creamy compliment to the scallops. Nota Bene specializes in preparing excellent seafood, and I would absolutely come back for this dish again.

We also tried the braised beef short rib with corn truffle, pickled red onions, queso añejo and coriander ($29). The short ribs were tender, succulent and combined with the sharp taste of the queso añejo and the acidity of the pickled red onion, they were layered with flavour and flat out delicious.

With dinner, we ordered a glass of Ontario Pinot Noir and an Argentinean Malbec. The wine list at Nota Bene is extensive, with the full spectrum of bottles, ranging from the $70 to several hundred.

For dessert we sampled sticky toffee pudding ($12) and S’More ice cream ($10). Needless to say, the sampling turned into finishing. Both desserts were exploding with flavour, the pudding a great combination of traditional pecan praline and spotted dick ice cream, taken with a strong espresso; this is dessert to die for. The S’More ice cream was a fun take on the campfire favourite, with a chocolate and graham cracker crumble.

Go try Nota Bene, twice.  Once to become familiar with all that this brilliantly conceived restaurant has to offer and then a second time to cement the relationship in your black book of regular haunts. Service, quality and ambience are all top rate, yet you still feel the passion Nota Bene has for creating a wonderful experience and forming personal relationships with its guests.

See you there…

– Janine

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Famoso – The Annex

Posted on July 9, 2012 by in The Annex

Famoso The Annex

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2 Stars

- Walk in to Famoso’s new Annex location and there is no mistaking the kind of restaurant you have entered: a popular, loud hang out for students, families and friends alike. It’s a casual place with daily deals (movies, cheap wine on Wednesdays, etc.), TVs showing Blue Jays’ games and young staff working feverishly to keep up with the sit-in and take-out clientele.  It’s got a pleasant, relaxed vibe and people seemed to be rather enjoying themselves.

Once seated in our booth, we perused the menu and our lovely server explained how the restaurant works: you write down your order on the notepad provided, bring it up to the counter and hand it in. You can either pay right away or begin a tab. Any subsequent orders can be placed through the wait staff. I assume this method is effective for those in a hurry, but it did seem a little odd considering how often our server checked in on us. She also expounded upon the “red sauce” pizzas made with Campania tomato sauce, fior-de-latte mozzarella, basil and pecorino romano cheese. (The “white sauce”pizzas are made with a garlic and olive oil sauce instead of the tomatoes.)

We opted for the prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella balls for an appetizer, the funghi tartufo and San Andreas pizzas and, for dessert, the dolce and banana dish. As with any self-respecting pizza place, they had San Pellegrino on the menu so got an Aranciata (my fave) and a Limonata. My dining companion kindly took the order the counter while I scoped out the huge place before me. Famoso has really nice exposed brick walls, comfortable booths and, by my count, at least three staff members per table. There are a lot of eyes on tables and not much gets missed. The staff is universally nice, if perhaps inexperienced. It lacked a certain finesse, but made up for it in sweet charm.

Our appetizer arrived and I’m glad we asked for salt, pepper and chili flakes. The mozzarella balls were tasty, but the red sauce (which would appear later on our funghi pizza) was very, very sweet. For my liking, too sweet.  A dash of salt and some chili flakes were necessary and helped considerably. I was hoping for crispier prosciutto, too; as a start to the meal, it was pretty average. If you’re going to get an appetizer, I would recommend you try a salad. They looked fresh and tasty.

Our funghi  tartufo pizza arrived fairly shortly afterward. It consisted of roasted white mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, truffle oil and parmiggiano reggiano.  Again, it was better with the salt and chili flakes.  The crusts at Famoso are a bit thicker than is the trend right now, but I liked the chewier texture. I only wish that this pizza had been left in the 900-degree oven a little longer as it needed a little more crispiness to counter the soft, melting cheese that was starting to soak through the crust. (A note: I took a slice of this one home and had it two days later. I have to say, it tasted much better as a leftover!)

Our second pizza – the San Andreas – was a “New World Pizza” with a white sauce, chili-lime marinated chicken and fresh mozzarella. It was then baked and topped with avocado slices, diced roma tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a drizzle of cream and a lime wedge. Certainly not traditional, but pretty darned tasty. The pizza seemed to have stayed in the oven just that little bit longer and had that nice char on the bottom. The lime juice provided a bright flavour and the chicken was tender. (I’d have liked a little more chicken, but that’s a bit of a nitpick. It was a good pizza.) Were I to go back, I would steer my companions toward it if they wanted to try something a little different.

Finally, dessert. This was my favourite dish of the four we tried. A long, rectangular plate of roasted bananas coated in caramelized brown sugar, topped with pecans and caramel sauce and a scoop of ice cream in the middle arrived at the table and my eyes widened. This looked and smelled fantasti and tasted even better. The bananas were piping hot and creamy and contrasted beautifully with the crunch of the sugar and the chill of the ice cream. That dish was devoured in what had to be record time.

Overall, Famoso is…fine. There isn`t anything in particular that stands out but there isn’t anything egregiously wrong with it, either.  It caters to a wide variety of tastes so it is sure to be a good option if you are going out with a group with varying tastes or dietary restrictions or preferences. Do not bother with the prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella balls, but do not skip dessert.

- Carolyn

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The Westerly

Posted on May 2, 2012 by in Roncesvalles Village

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4 stars

Located at the top of the restaurant strip on Roncesvalles, The Westerly is a cozy neighbourhood spot that is sure to please.  The uncomplicated menu features classic dishes done beautifully and just a step or two above others’. Five of us arrived for dinner last week and were greeted the charming co-owner, Tom, who presided over the evening with grace and warmth.

We spent an inordinately long time trying to decide from the 10 appetizers and 10 mains. Each looked better than the next and made our decisions more difficult than usual. While we deliberated, a bottle of shiraz and a custom champagne drink were ordered and a basket of some of the best foccaccia I’ve had in a long time arrived at the table. The crust was crispy and salty and the filled basket did not last long.

After a solid twenty minutes of deliberation, we placed our orders: the romaine heart salad to split two ways; steamed PEI mussels in a grainy mustard butter with a side order of fries; roasted Chicken Supreme stuffed with pulled pork (yes, you read that right) served with bacon & smoked cheddar Israeli couscous; the house burger, made with ground chuck, veal and braised short rib; pan-seared arctic char served atop Israeli couscous with lobster; and roasted halibut topped with salsa verde and served with potatoes and mussels.

When the food arrived, five sets of eyes widened. The plates were beautiful and smelled fantastic.  I’m lucky enough to have friends who share, so I got a little of everyone’s meal. While all were delicious, there were a few outstanding bites that I would return for which I would The Westerly in a heartbeat. The Israeli couscous with smoked cheddar and bacon was aromatic and, surprisingly, not heavy at all. The smoked ingredients permeated the little couscous pearls, infusing them with a ton of flavour.  Next was the burger which was so tender it nearly fell apart in my hands as I ate it, juice running down my hands. It came with a spicy salsa that cut through the richness of the burger beautifully.  Undoubtedly, this is a big crowd pleaser.

Between the two fish dishes, I preferred the halibut. I liked the lightness of the fish paired with the bright salsa verde. There was certainly nothing wrong with the char – it was rich, not overcooked and the lobster-laden Israeli couscous was excellent. The balance and combination of ingredients in the halibut dish, though, really appealed to me and I will likely order it upon my next visit.

Amazingly, we had some room left for shared desserts. I opted to split the warm apple crumble with fresh whipped cream while others went for the lemon tart. The crumble was comforting, filled with cinnamon and topped with large, buttery pieces of crumble. Incredible. Definitely a great end to a meal but I recommend sharing as it is quite heavy – otherwise you may be rolling out of the restaurant, pants unzipped.

I would return to The Westerly, unquestionably. My friends and I had a great time in a charming restaurant in which we were treated well (though there was some miscommunication with a dessert, it was rectified gracefully).  If you haven’t been, add it to your list and prepare for a lovely brunch or dinner!

- Carolyn

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Foxley Bistro

Posted on March 23, 2012 by in Ossington Village

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4 Stars

- Tapas seem to be all the hype recently. And it’s easy to see why. Not only does it allow you to try more things on the menu, but it’s also perfect for when you’re  with a larger group. And that is just the reason why a couple of my friends and I headed to the Ossington area to try out Foxley, an Asian-Vietnamese inspired tapas house.

The restaurant ambiance doesn’t mimic anything I typically associate with a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. It has a classier fine dining style of décor with ginger brick walls and soft lighting; it’s a  perfect romantic date spot. In fact, we saw lots of couples there that night all dining on a few plates and enjoying wine.

My friends and I decided to follow suit, so we split a bottle of red and ordered the most interesting dishes that caught our eyes on the menu. This however, was a task easier said than done. The menu comes on a single-sided laminated sheet, with no pictures. It was hard to distinguish where the descriptions of one dish started and the next one ended. It felt a little like reading an essay! But once you get over the poor formatting, you’ll be amazed by the variety of dishes that they offer. There is no shortage of exotic meats and dishes, like frog legs and beef hearts. But if you’re not feeling that adventurous, rest assured they also do have many good old reliable classics, like deep-fried shrimps, steamed mussels, and spring rolls.

The first dish that came was the Lamb and Duck Prosciutto Dumplings ($7). These were served hot,crunchy and  with jam-packed with minced lamb stuffing. They’re tasty, but nothing too special..

Next came the Sea Bream Ceviche with Yuzu and Shiso ($15). They’re bite sizes pieces of thinly sliced sea bream sashimi, covered with coriander and some lime puree. I actually found them to be a little too citrusy for my liking, but it is undeniably fresh. It was paired well with the crunchy fried onions generously sprinkled on top.

After that, a whole slew of dishes came at the same time, and it was difficult to figure out which one to dig into first; they all looked and smelled so appetizing! The Grilled Marinated Beef Short Ribs ($14) came on a small plate with about 3-4 pieces. A little too chewy for my liking, but it was at least well marinated and flavourful. In comparison, the Grilled Side Ribs with Caramelized Shallot Glaze ($9.00) were delicious. They were made up of two long pork ribs covered in a savory sweet glaze, with meat that fell right off the bone. We literally demolished that dish in a couple of seconds!

If you’re a big fan of pork belly as I am, then you’ll be in for a real treat at Foxley. They serve a Slow-braised Pork Belly in Muscatel Reduction ($15) with nicely marbled fat and cooked in a delicious smokey barbeque sauce ;it just melts in your mouth!

And while all those dishes were great, my favourite of the night was the Grilled Beef Heart with Chili Lime Salsa ($8). We ordered it just to try something new, and it was the best decision of the night! It came nicely grilled on two skewers so that the hearts are slightly charred on the outside for flavour, and still tender on the inside. Don’t be afraid to try this one, it actually doesn’t taste as farfetched as it sounds!

To balance out all the meat we ordered, the chef recommended the Kale Salad with Pecorino Toscano and Lemon Dressing ($8). I love kale, so in my books this salad was definitely a good order. My only complaint was that the lemon vinaigrette was a bit too sour.

Upon finishing up the meal, the first thought I had was that Foxley is not as “Asian fusion” as I had anticipated. There are some influences, but not nearly enough for me to notice the Asian aspect of the menu. That does not go to say that I didn’t enjoy my meal though. While I found it was a little on the pricier side, I did enjoy the food and the romantically sophisticated atmosphere. Keep Foxley in your books for either your next date night venue or for a quiet relaxing dinner out with friends.

- Guest Contributor

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The Kennedy Public House

Posted on March 10, 2012 by in Bloor West Village

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4 Stars

- Sharkey’s is no more! And thank God for that. I mean, I know the restaurant options in Bloor West Village are limited, but I really have no idea how that place hung on for as long as it did. With horrible service, brutal food, and staff that spent more time admiring themselves in the mirror than their customers, they created a place that was meant to be avoided. Yet somehow, it managed to exist on that corner for years.

So, imagine my surprise when I saw the beautiful sight of a building permit and brown construction paper covering their windows one day…

A few months later, The Kennedy Public House was born. And boy-oh-boy, this place is exactly what BWV needs. BWV is virtually void of restaurants serving great food. Ok, so there’s earth and Dr. Generosity, but other than that, your choices are pretty limited compared to the tons of options available to other Toronto neighbourhoods. That’s why seeing something as untraditional in BWV as The Kennedy is such a welcoming sight.

The Kennedy has a cool vibe that, if you know the neighbourhood, you wouldn’t expect to see there. It seems oddly out-of-place while at the same time seems oddly comfortable being there. With a laboriously nice interior space, the entire design is well-thought out and pleasant to be in. But surprisingly, The Kennedy isn’t just nice to look at; it also has exceptionally good food.

The Kennedy’s menu doesn’t serve your typical pub grub; it’s much more imaginative than that. Non-traditional items, like polenta burgers, calamari po’boy sandwiches, and pork belly casoulet easily compliment more traditional pub fare, like wings, macaroni and cheese, and thin crust pizzas. Their menu does a fantastic job of covering everyone while still remaining concise and well-thought out.

Working with a number of local businesses, the Kennedy also proudly sources bread and meats from places you’re probably familiar with, like Cobs bread and Wellington County Beef. Nice. I’ve always found that knowing where my food comes from somehow makes it taste better.

One other thing worth mentioning: The Kennedy has unisex bathrooms, which they’ve pulled off nicely. They’ve incorporated them into the place really well, that is, except for the hand-dryer. Their bathroom hand-dryer must be the loudest dam one in the entire free-world. If you happen to be sitting in the back-half of the restaurant, it might even ruin your experience. Hopefully they’ll turn to either cloth or paper towels, or they’ll just find one that is a hell of a lot quieter.

Keep in mind though, if you’re looking for a relaxing experience, this isn’t the place. With strollers and screaming babies during the day that makes it resemble a Montesorri school, and lineups and loud music in the evening that makes it resemble something at John and Adelaide, The Kennedy doesn’t provide a quiet and relaxing experience; what they do provide is a killer take on food you wouldn’t expect to find in a typical public house.

- Andre

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Paese

Posted on February 29, 2012 by in King West

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3 stars

- Relatively new to the King West theatre district, and across the street from the Bell Lightbox, is Paese.  New to the neighbourhood, but not new to the restaurant scene, Paese has been operating out of their Bathurst street location since 1989.  Serving up Italian comfort food in a casual but sleek atmosphere, Paese might give longtime district resident Kit Kat some competition.

With a monochromatic colour scheme, butcher block tables and exposed brick, Paese is very welcoming, even for someone who happened to be dining alone (see: yours truly).

My server brought the customary bread to the table…but this was no ordinary bread and oil. The bread itself was warm and chewy with a pretzel like flavour.  It came with an olive, rosemary and thyme tapenade that was rich and salty.  I tried to stop after one slice, but failed miserably.  I managed to leave one out of the four slices on the plate but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t staring at it longingly throughout dinner.

Next, came my Beet Caprese Salad ($13).  Grilled beets came topped with a generous portion of mozzarella di bufala, drizzled with pistachio pesto and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.  The combination of flavours and textures worked well together, and it was just a very fresh salad overall. If seasons were characterized by salads this one would be spring.  It was filling enough to be my main course, but I wasn’t done yet.

As full of bread and beets as I was, I couldn’t wait for my cavatelli ($13).  Hand rolled and made with semolina it had a texture similar to gnocchi but it wasn’t as filling.  The sauce was reminiscent of my grandmothers, and that’s a compliment as although she wasn’t Italian, she was married to one and had learned a thing or two over the years.

I had initially sent away the wine menu, although I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe it was an unexpected burst of responsibility on my part as it was a weekday afternoon and I had another review to do…but those are hardly excuses not to partake.  It’s part of the job after all.  Either way, one of the resident sommeliers saw right through me and insisted on returning the wine menu to my table.  Smart man.

Paese has an extensive wine list and while most can only be purchased by the bottle, they do have a comprehensive list that is sold by the glass.  Now I’m no expert on wine, but I do drink a lot of the stuff so I know what I like, and I like Amarone.  I was given a sample of a 2004 Fumanelli Amarone before committing to a full glass, after which I gave the go ahead for my server to fill ‘er up.  Rich and full-bodied it was a great complement to my meal, but as far as I’m concerned it would be a great complement to anything…cheese, pasta, breakfast…

Because of its location, I probably won’t make a repeat visit but I don’t think Paese is having a hard time attracting other customers.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to have a good and affordable meal with some vino before or after catching a show.

 – Rebecca

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Grand Electric

Posted on January 22, 2012 by in Parkdale

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5 Stars

- 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.

- Carolyn

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Pachuco

Posted on January 21, 2012 by in The Danforth

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4 stars

- There is a new kid in town, and his name is Pachuco – named after the look and style of Mexican youth back in the 1930s to 1950s that dressed in zoot ihiusuits. Pachuco opened its doors on Friday, January 13th, perhaps a sign of bad luck, but that shouldn’t hinder their success.

Pachuco is a small (read: reservations) and cozy space, with exposed brick walls, wrought-iron décor, and a pretty impressive wall of wine bottles lit by a neon sign. Even though Pachuco shares a kitchen with older brother and Danforth favourite Embrujo Flamenco, they definitely serve up their own distinctive flavour.

Their menu is well thought out and varied, with an excellent selection of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. Their appetizer menu alone is worth the trip. With a confident boasting of guacamole flavours, including goat cheese, blue cheese, smoked trout and walnut, and a guacamole sampler platter that allows you to try three of their creations, there is seemingly no end to the interesting flavour combinations. We decided to stick to our guns, however, and go with the traditional guacamole, which was a stellar choice; lots of lime, onion and creamy avocado, but no flavour was overpowering. Their homemade tortilla chips have to be mentioned as well; they were crisp and tasty. I am hoping they will one day provide these in a to-go bag for purchase before you leave. We also ordered the Chile poblana, swathed in an excellent and perfectly spicy tomato sauce, with queso fresco and refried beans, all baked perfectly. The portion size on both entrees was more than enough for two people, and it could easily serve as a great entrée.

For our meals (both $15) we went with the Taquitos de Machaca (coffee and ancho braised beef brisket, with guacamole and honey chipotle salsa), and the pre-Hispanic delicacy of Taquitos de Huitlacoche (corn truffle, onions, jalapeño peppers, Cazuela beans served with requesón-avocado salsa). Where to start? Let’s save the most interesting for last. The braised beef was well cooked and well spiced, the chipotle salsa was a great added touch, and one order of beans and rice between the two of us was more than enough to share. In fact, we both left incredibly full. Their fresh-this-second corn tortillas are amazing, sweet, soft and still warm from the press, prepared just the way you would expect to find them in a traditional Mexican eatery. The Huitlacoche, however, was an adventure in and of itself.

For those who don’t know (myself included), Huitlacoche is a fungus, which grows naturally on corn in damp environments. The fungus is harvested and has been consumed as a delicacy for centuries in Central and South America cuisine. When it arrived, it tasted smokey and earthy; it looked like a dark mash of black corn, onion- and was that a jalapeño in there? Hard to tell. The dish was good, but I can’t say I would strongly recommend it. Overall, I found the food at Pachuco’s to be mostly over-salted, and the Huitlacoche had to be the worst offender. This is the main reason why I would not order it again; although the flavour was very different from any other Mexican dishes I have tried, and I actually did enjoy it, I just could not get over the intensity of the salt.

The drinks at Pachuco’s are excellent, and they offer several flavours of margaritas to choose from with a sampler platter included for just $17! We ordered the traditional lime, pineapple and guava, which were all fruity and tropical and prepared just right, but the mango, blueberry and the strawberry mint also looked great. With our meal, we just had to try the ‘Bloody Maria,’ essentially a Caesar mixed with spicy chipotle. I loved it, and you will too if you are a smoky chipotle fan. I can’t wait to go back and try out some more margarita flavours. For the non-drinkers and children in the group, there are some exciting choices; fresh strawberry lemonade and hibiscus lemonade both looked gorgeous in their bright colours, and I am sure they are also great spiked.

The drinks and food at Pachuco’s ranged from good to very good, and if they could tone down the salt (margaritas included), I would probably rate most of it as excellent. However, I cannot say our overall experience was excellent, but I would not fault them for it in my overall rating. Being that it was their opening weekend, one expects a few hiccups, and I am sure they will be cleared up by the time you visit. I was served the wrong meal at first, and we had to wait about 10 to 15 minutes for the Huitlacoche to be prepared, instead of the fish tacos, (though delightful looking), I was initially served. By the time my dish came around, the other half of our meal was cold. Our side plates and used cutlery were never removed from our table after we finished with our appetizers, and the tables are so small and cramped as it is, there was no room for our mains. Instead of removing our side plates, there was a vain attempt to stuff everything on the table. I eventually had to ask for fresh cutlery and removal of the used dishes from our table. Not once, but twice, we almost had our not-quite-finished drinks taken from us, and we had to ask a few times for extra tortillas. It seemed a little strange to me that you would only get four at a time, and as great as they were, they are very, very small, so I imagine each meal would require a minimum of 3 or 4 on its own.

Overall, I think these are minor complaints, especially since it was Pachuco’s opening preview. I found that the service was friendly and genuine, the restaurant was quaint and ambient, with Latin music, candles and a few kitschy décor details, which made it seem authentic and allowed it to live up to it’s self-proclaimed ‘Modern Mexican’ dining experience.

– Janine

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