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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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Kensington Cornerstone

Posted on June 21, 2012 by in Kensington Market

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1 star

- The Kensington Cornerstone offers a gluten-free menu.  It has gluten-free beer.  It has a cute patio and it’s painted to look like a circus tent.  I chose it for all of the aforementioned reasons.  It checked a lot of boxes on my list.  I won’t be going back.

This past weekend found me turning another year older, and because I’ve been experimenting with a gluten-reduced diet as of late, I decided my birthday dinner should be had at the Kensington Cornerstone.  I looked at pictures.  I perused the menu.  I read reviews.  It all seemed positive.

It was a beautiful evening, so I was happy that we snagged a spot on the patio.  We had to wait awhile for our drink order to be taken, but at this point we were still taking in our surroundings, people watching (Kensington offers some of the best), and trying to catch passing bubbles being dispensed from somewhere across the street. 

Just when I was at the point of helping myself to my neighbouring tables’ pitcher of beer, our waitress appeared.  The up side to the wait was that we had enough time to choose not only our drinks but our meals, so we placed all of our orders to make up for lost time.  While we had intended to order one of their pitchers of sangria (and/or mojitos, and/or margaritas), we all ended up opting for beer.  My girlfriend and my mom split a pitcher of Upper Canada Lager, while I decided to try one of their 4 gluten-free selections.  I figured having a wheat beer with my gluten-free meal would be like washing down a pie with a diet pop, so I stuck to my guns.  I’ve had what Nicklebrook has to offer in the line of GF beer, so I was looking forward to trying a new one.  I asked our server what the most popular one was, and she pointed me in the direction of a red ale by La Messagre that operates out of Montreal.

When our drinks arrived, I took that first sip so full of hope, and for a split second I thought I was going to have the chance to gloat in the face of my girlfriend (I know, I’m nice aren’t I?) that my beer didn’t taste horrible.  I didn’t have that chance.  Did I just drink beer?  Or did I just suck on a penny?  Even I was a bit confused at that point.  It started off so well, but then finished with a strong metallic and bitter taste that seemed to coat my tongue and the back of my throat.  Bitter…just like I was at that point.

So by this time about 30 minutes had passed since we ordered.  Our thirst was quenched but we were more than peckish.  Thank goodness our server was coming our way!  But instead of food, she came bearing bad news.  My girlfriend would not be dining on the stuffed peppers that she had ordered as they had run out, and for some reason, they just thought to tell her now.  Not only would we have to wait even longer for our food, but our plan to share our meals was scrapped as we now both had the pulled pork sandwich coming to us. 

(Sound of clock ticking) 

Another half hour passed and our meals finally arrived.  As hungry as I was I couldn’t make it through my sandwich ($13).  It looked appetizing enough, but the pork wasn’t nearly as tender as it should have been (I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Fidel Gastro lately), and the sauce was a bit of a turn-off, being too heavy on the tomato and cilantro.  The gluten-free bread was quite good, and even had a bit of a cheesy crust but unfortunately it had been sitting in pork juice, so it was now more of a sponge.  Yes, a pulled pork sandwich should definitely be messy, but you should still be able to pick it up. 

My mom was impressed with her salmon ($18), but she wouldn’t complain if there was a gun to her head.  It did look good though, and the portion was generous, so not all was lost. 

Looking back on it now I wish I had just scrapped the GF diet and stuck with an old faithful restaurant.  What was I thinking trying to eliminate carbs for my birthday dinner?  Why did I go out of my way to both experiment with a restaurant and deprive myself of something I love on my special day?  Who does that?  So while I’m not taking the blame away from the restaurant, I will share some of it with them…but only some as the service was really what ruined our experience.  Maybe the food wasn’t amazing, but the fact that we had to wait so long for it was the added insult.  The servers themselves were lovely girls, but somewhere back in the kitchen, the ball was dropped. 

After we begrudgingly paid our bill, I decided to throw the whole GF thing out the window and head to Ronnie’s for a bottle of (gluten rich) 50 to end the night on a positive note. As we sat there on the patio I couldn’t help but stare across the road at The Grilled Cheese.  Oh, what could have been.

- Rebecca

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Interview with: David Lee and Yannick Bigourdan of Nota Bene

Posted on May 9, 2012 by in Interview with

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Nota Bene has been a fixture on the Toronto dining circuit since 2008, and it was even voted as one of Canada’s top ten new restaurants by Where Magazine. Despite those accolades and all of the success that comes with it, co-owners David Lee (DL) and Yannick Bigourdan (YB) took some time out of their hectic schedule to answer a few questions for TOFoodReviews (TO).

David Lee

TO – How important is sourcing local ingredients to both you and to Nota Bene? How does that build relationships in the community?

DL – It’s very important to us to support the local community, and the food tastes better when you can buy local.

I feel like buying local contributes to a history; my grandmother planted her own vegetable garden and raised chickens. It was just understood that you would eat food that you grew. It is a normal and natural practice. I feel like it helps teach the younger generation the value of sustainability for decades to come.

I have great relationships with farmers and we rely on a forager who sources things like wild leeks and mustard leaf. I have been out foraging for fiddleheads and things like that with my family. I think it is important to have a respect for the food and the ingredients, and a connection with the land and soil.

But I don’t cut out the rest of the world, especially because of the people I am cooking for. There are countries that produce great food, for instance California peas, but we support local farmers as much as possible.

TO – Can this be a challenge in winter months?

DL – January and February are the most challenging months in terms of creativity with the food and menu. You are antsy for spring to arrive, and looking forward to green asparagus, and things like that. I have so many ideas that I want to try. This spring has been particularly difficult as the weather has been so back and forth. It was so warm earlier in the year, so the menu has been changing a lot.

TO – What are some of the trends in the industry that you see right now, and how do you feel about following trends?

DL – Mexican food is a huge industry trend right now, growing out of the taco scene. It seems that down-to-earth and fun to eat food is coming back. But take something like pizza, it has always been there, but the trend comes from the ingredients being used, where are you sourcing the tomatoes, the buffalo mozzarella? What new and creative toppings are you using?

Trends are important to follow in terms of providing the guest with something new to try, but I always come back to the value. I want to make good food that is a great value to the client.

TO – Your restaurants have received a lot of recognition in terms of industry awards and accolades. What does that mean to you?

DL – I consider myself a very humble person, and I have never focused on achieving accolades, I focus more on the attitude that I bring to work each day, and my team. What can we do today to be better than yesterday? How can we please the guest? I still get butterflies when I go to work, because everyday is a new day to try and be better than the one before.

I think the recognition does show that we are serious about our business and the restaurant. It shows that we are always trying to be better in a very competitive industry.

TO – How would you describe your menu in three words?

DL – Ingredients. Passion. Values

TO – What is your favourite neighbourhood in Toronto to spend time in and to shop?

DL – I love to spend time at farmer’s markets, to shop for food and to take my family there, as well. I like Wychwood Barns, but I love to explore.

The great thing about Farmer’s Markets is that you are teaching a respect for food to the public. It is what I call the ‘second notion’ of the food, the person who has grown the food, and selling it, and the ‘first notion’ is the actual planting, the soil and the earth. It gets you closer to the food.

TO – What is your favourite food to cook when you are at home with your family?

DL – I love slow cooking. I would probably cook something in the Green Egg, spare ribs or something like that. I like to cook meat.

TO – What would be your “last supper?”

DL – Lobster and Frites.

TO – How important are wine pairings to you? Do you spend a lot of time planning your menu and your wine list to work with each other?

DL – Wine pairings are very important. Our guests know a lot about wine, so we like to ensure that we have some great matches. We serve such a variety of food at Nota Bene, we have some Asian dishes, and pastas, tuna tartar and steak, we need to have a variety of wines. Ultimately, people will drink what they like, and what they are in the mood for.

TO – What are some of the most difficult challenges you deal with being a restaurant owner and chef, and the most exciting?

DL – The most difficult part of owning and operating a restaurant is the time I miss with my family. At the same time, I love the excitement of the restaurant. It is one of my greatest satisfactions to stand by the dish bin and watch the plates come back empty. It means people loved their meal, and that makes me happy.

Yannick Bigourdan

TO – Tell me a bit about your history, and how you found yourself in the restaurant business?

YB – I come from a family of chefs. My father and uncle were chefs in France, but I always said to myself, ‘I will never cook.’ But, I was 16 or 17 years old when I said that, and when I started thinking about university, somehow I found myself interested in Hotel Management. I travelled to Switzerland for school, and received a degree in Hotel Management. From there, I was asked to work at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. After a few years there, I was given the opportunity to join the Four Seasons in Toronto, and that is how I came to Toronto.

After my time with the Four Seasons, David and I opened Splendido in 2001. It was a very successful restaurant, and we learned a lot, but we realized that we wanted to reach a different market with Nota Bene, that we weren’t able to reach with Splendido. Splendido was a very upscale restaurant, and I think we were missing out on a huge market in that sense, and that is where Nota Bene came from.

TO – What are some of the many hats you wear being a restaurant owner?

YB – Every day when I come in, I am never sure what to expect, some days you are dealing with HR, guiding your staff, enforcing policy. Other times you are an engineer of food and beverage. I spend time with my staff, training managers, and things like that. This industry requires some of the most social people, so I like to get to know everyone.

Day-to-day things are more focused on the food, for instance what promotions are we running? The sequence of service, that do we need to change on the menu? Things like that.

TO – What is your secret to keeping customers coming in?

YB – Bringing people into the restaurant is the easy part. Bring them in twice is difficult. People are naturally curious, and want to try new places, new restaurants and food. What we try to achieve at Nota Bene is great food at a good price. Consistency is important, that is what delivers a great dining experience time after time. That is why people return. They have confidence that they can bring their family here, or their clients, and they know they will have a great experience.

At Nota Bene, we wanted to be the best ‘mid-range’ restaurant in Toronto, we had a very specific goal, and we have worked hard to maintain that. Sometimes we miss, we all make mistakes, but we try to satisfy our guests every time. That is why people return, that is the secret.

TO – What have been some of your most successful promotions, and where do they originate?

YB – In the beginning, we rely on print advertising; we advertise in the Opera or Ballet Program, but print advertising is not sustainable. Print is great for something new. Our marketing has evolved with the business. We focus our public relations on social media; we are active on Facebook and Twitter. We also rely on food critics and some traditional press. Our most successful marketing is recommendations; friends tell friends to come and try Nota Bene, and a great word-of-mouth reference is the best way to keep guests coming in.

TO – Describe the community at Nota Bene, and what charities the restaurant has become involved with.

YB – The restaurant is a public space, it attracts people to come together and to discuss, interact and exchange ideas and opinions. Our patrons influence us by what interests them, and what projects we may want to help with. That is how we came across our involvement with Bloorview Kids, Movember, and Second Harvest. If it is important to our patrons, it is important to us. We are so proud of the work that we did at Bloorview Kids Rehab Children’s Centre. We have raised $1.5 million.

TO – Describe your menu in three words.

YB – Fresh. Eclectic. Canadian.

TO – What is your favourite neighbourhood in Toronto to spend time in and to shop?

YB – I love St. Catharine’s market, and other farmer’s markets. They are a lot of fun, and the food is great.

TO – What is your favourite food to cook when you are at home with your family?

YB – My wife is a professional chef, so when I cook, it is very determined. I love to grill; I would probably make pizza in the wood-burning oven, or BBQ something. I also like smoking in the Green Egg, something Southern style, game meet and other things like that.

TO – What would be your “last supper?”

YB – Mushroom risotto or pasta, with a beautiful piece of caribou.

TO – How important is the wine list, and the relationship with the menu?

YB – Our wine list is food friendly. People dictate what kind of wine they want to drink. Our partner, Franco Prevedello, has been in the wine business for 40 years, so his passion with wine and influence are very important.

We are really open to any good wine. The price has nothing to do with the taste or quality of the wine. An inexpensive wine can be fantastic. What is more important in deciding on which wine to drink is the time of day, the company you are with, the mood and the atmosphere. Drink what you like, that is the best wine for you.

TO – What are some of the most difficult and exciting parts of being a restaurant owner?

YB – The most difficult part of my job is when you can see guests not enjoying themself. At Nota Bene, we put so much effort in to the guest experience, so it is difficult to see that.

The most exciting part of the business is meeting all the extraordinary people. I have the opportunity to communicate and to share ideas with interesting people, people of influence and the community here in Toronto. I love that part of my job. I am surrounded my youth and energy, and it allows me to work hard at the restaurant and enjoy the experience.

- Janine

Check out their website.

Follow Nota Bene on Twitter.

Visit Nota Bene at 180, Queen Street West, Toronto.

(Not sure what the ever so popular green egg is? Neither was I. Check out www.biggreenegg.ca to learn more about what the green egg is and where you can purchase one.)

TOFoodReviews will be visiting Nota Bene for dinner soon. Stay tuned for our review!

Khao San Road

Posted on March 30, 2012 by in Downtown

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2 Stars

- Here is the best advice I can provide if you’re thinking about heading to Khao San Road:

1. Make reservations. Arrive early. Since it opened, this place has gotten great buzz for providing authentic, flavourful Thai food. As a result, people from all over the city have been flocking to this casual downtown joint for lunch and dinner. (They also do take out orders.) My friend and I arrived at 6pm on a Thursday and the place was already almost full: tables of two and four, plus the larger tables at the front that could be utilized for larger parties or cafeteria-style seating and the bar were occupied by a mix of couples, friends and colleagues from the surrounding businesses. While we waited to be seated, I noticed a sheet of laminated paper at the host’s stand imploring potential, hungry customers to be patient while waiting for a table to become available.

2. Come hungry. Portions are more than reasonable and priced accordingly. We were starving and decided to try a number of dishes and split them between us: cold rolls filled with home-made chicken sausage, lettuce, carrots, mint leaves and Thai basil (Po Pia Pak Sod Gai Yaw); crispy squash fritters (Gra Bong); a curry dish with bell and hot peppers, kaffir lime leaves and the ubiquitous Thai basil (Gaeng Panang); pad Thai; and a house specialty of stir-fried minced beef with holy basil, topped with a fried egg (Pad Gra Pra). We also ordered the only beer available, Singha. Not entirely sure why there is only one, but it’s a light, refreshing beer, and I had no complaints about it.

3. Temper your expectations. The food at Khao San Road is good, yes, but it was not exemplary. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I had very high expectations that were sadly unmet. The exception was the Pad Gra Pra which was very, very good. It’s a house specialty so if you go, you might be best to stick with the items on that particular part of the menu. There was nothing wrong with the food in particular; however, after hearing such glowing reviews from both friends and reviews, I was anticipating more.

Additionally, we found the service lacking. Our order was taken promptly and our first round of drinks appeared in short order. The problems started when food began to arrive at our fairly small table faster than we could eat. I pointed this out to our server who shrugged and kept piling on the plates. Once we had all our food, our server disappeared, a problem on two fronts: we had no room to maneuver and we wanted another round of Singhas. We were able to flag her down eventually and we were served with much reluctance from that point.

Khao San Road is not a bad restaurant by any stretch. The food is better than average but not spectacular. Stick with the house specialties and you’ll likely do well. If you’re going to go in for a sit-down meal, reservations are a must. Better yet, call ahead for take-out and have a couple of beers ready to go at home.

- Carolyn

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Pancho’s Bakery

Posted on March 21, 2012 by in Kensington Market

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3 Stars

- I heart churros.  At least that’s what the button said that was given to me by the man behind the counter at Pancho’s Bakery.  After noticing the small collection I have attached to both my bag and jacket, he was quick to give me a new addition.  I was hesitant to let it join the ranks, after all “I heart” anything is a pretty bold statement, and to be honest, as of that moment, I had never had a mind-blowing churro experience, or at least one that would have me declaring such strong feelings for them.  The only time I ever ate a churro was at an establishment once promoted by a talking Chihuahua, so you can understand my hesitation.  I pocketed the button, as its fate would be determined later.

Pancho’s Bakery makes up a portion of what is titled the Latin American Food Court in Kensington Market.  The tiny little storefront on Augusta Avenue is deceiving, as it houses more businesses than I would have guessed.  Assuming it was only Pancho’s in the building, I was surprised (and excited) to see a stall selling tacos, another dealing in empanadas, and the infamous pop-up Agave y Aguacate.  Pancho’s itself occupies the space right up front, across from the Korean dumpling stand… I’m not sure exactly how they fit in.  Apparently the Latin American Food Court doesn’t discriminate, and why should they?  Dumplings are tasty, and well, I’m sure another vendor only helps pay the rent.

It was around twelve o’clock on a Friday when my friend and I decided to check out Pancho’s. Neither of us had eaten, but we couldn’t quite justify having churros for lunch. We are of the mindset however, that believes dinner shouldn’t be the only meal followed by dessert, so our afternoon repast that day would have a churro chaser.

Full of carnitas tacos, and kimchi empanadas (Korean dumpling cart influence!), but not too full to pass up deep-fried dough, we made our way back to Pancho’s.  I was promptly questioned as to the whereabouts of my button but I quickly placed my order as a distraction.

The churros at Pancho’s are piped out in the front window, and brought to life for all to see, before quickly being led to their delicious demise in the deep fryer.  They are served hot, either plain or filled with your choice of chocolate, dulce de leche or strawberry syrup.  We ordered four, one of each flavour, and a plain.  At my servers recommendation I also grabbed some bread pudding and traditional Mexican concha bread.  As we had lost our seats (there aren’t many to begin with) and the sun was shining, we took our treats to go.

We started with the chocolate, moved on to the dulce de leche, followed by the strawberry, and thus ended anticlimactically with the plain. They were crispy and sugar-coated on the outside, while soft and (with the exception of the plain) accompanied with a burst of sweetness from within. Churro rookies be warned… a churro is a like a deep-fried dough straw.  Any filling that goes in the top, will ultimately come out the bottom.  We left a sticky trail through the streets of Kensington that led back to Pancho’s.  If Hansel and Gretel only knew about these, they would have rethought the breadcrumb idea.

Later at home, I popped the bread pudding and concha into the oven.  Concha is a sweet bread that resembles a clam shell, hence the name.  It tasted a little of brown sugar, but overall it was bland.  I think the idea however is to serve it alongside a cup of café con leche or hot chocolate and get to dunking.  I could see this working in its favour.

The bread pudding however (traditionally served around this time of year to be eaten for Lent) was delicious.  Dense, but very moist, and just sweet enough, my girlfriend went nuts over it. Apparently she doesn’t have a problem with dessert after other meals either – and this time it was breakfast.

Now I’m not a fan of donuts, and the churro is essentially the donuts Spanish cousin, but I would take a Pancho’s churro over a donut any day, and these are what I will return for.  As it turns out, I really do “heart” churros after all.  Now where did I put that button?

- Rebecca

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Everest Restaurant and Lounge

Posted on January 13, 2012 by in Queen Street West

3 stars

- Wanting to try something new, and looking for a cool place to go for pre-Yuk-Yuks dinner and drinks, my friend and I decided to try out Everest Restaurant on Queen West.

What seemed to be a quiet Saturday evening when we first arrived at 7pm, quickly turned into a fairly busy “club” like dining experience. And Everest is certainly dressed to impress. The restaurant feels both sexy and modern, with dark mood lighting, clean lines, comfortable and cozy booth seating, and an eclectic playlist/DJ, depending on what night you are in. With a great view of Queen West for people watching, and MuchMusic across the street, the atmosphere, music and style of the restaurant blend in perfectly with the locals.

I was very excited to try a new place with an interesting food theme, something a little different from the usual weekend dinner and drinks, and hoping to find a new “go-to” place for a fun and creative meal. I secured reservations before our arrival, however, we were greeted with a bit of a frosty reception, waved to an area in the front of the room, and told I could sit wherever I wanted. Unorthodox, maybe, but sit we did!

Putting the hostesses’ indifference behind us, we decided to delve straight into the wine menu, and with a little help from our server, selected the Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley, a California vintage from 2009 for about $40. The wine was excellent, and I found the wine menu to be well priced for the quality of wines on the list.

The dinner menu ($15-$20) presents a somewhat more challenging predicament. Filled with Tibetan and Indian dishes, along side the same old North American stand-by of pasta and sandwiches, I found myself unsure if this was a Tibetan restaurant, or your average Italian eatery all dressed up. It’s not that I mind an eclectic menu, in fact I appreciate one, however when venturing out to try a new type of cuisine (in this case, Tibetan), one wants to be sure that the restaurant is absolutely committed to their craft, and have their “specialty cuisine” down pat. Thus, I was unsure of whether venturing into the momas (Tibetan dumplings) and sha-momo (spinach and beef), or the fettuccine alfredo was the better option.

After some quality deliberation between the Tibet/North America paradox, I decided to try a platter, a mix of several different Tibetan style foods, to allow myself to experience as much of the cuisine as possible.

The menu seemed heavy on potatoes, stewed meats and rice, so I decided to try almost all of the above. The stewed potatoes were good, cooked just right, but tasted much like something I could make at home, no real special spice or flavour that made me feel like I was trying something exotic. The rice was cooked with raisins, which just didn’t do it for me, and was a little bland. My meal was served with steamed Tibetan vegetables (broccoli and carrots), which aside from not seeming exceptionally Tibetan to me, were surprisingly good. An interesting side note, both of our meals were served with naan bread, which really was just pita bread from my estimation. Overall, I was fairly underwhelmed by my choice. My friend ordered the butter chicken on rice with naan bread (same problem), and said that she enjoyed her meal. The butter chicken looked and tasted pretty standard to me, so that must be a good thing, but neither of us could really wrap our heads around the lack on naan bread at restaurant serving Indian food.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Everest restaurant for its attention to the design décor and ambience, I was definitely a little disappointed with my first foray into Tibetan food. I think the next time we decide to go out for Tibetan style cuisine, we will try “Little Tibet” further down Queen Street.

- Janine

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Earls Kitchen and Bar: King Street

Posted on December 7, 2011 by in Financial District

4 stars

Earls is nestled amongst the business giants at King and University and was teeming with suits and loosened ties on the Thursday night I paid a visit.  The place was packed, and I soon realized that this was not only attributed to its convenient location.  Earl’s serves up some seriously good food.

 I’ll be totally honest right out of the gate and say that I rarely frequent chain restaurants.  If I do, it’s because it’s for a birthday or office party where the show of hands wins.  Chain restaurants don’t usually sell me on coming back for more.  Earls did.

Prior to going, I previewed their menu online and was looking forward to trying some of their new items that promised “West coast flair” and seasonal flavours.  To stick with the seasonal theme (and just because it’s a deadly beer) I ordered a pint of Muskoka Brewery’s Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout to chase everything down.   It turned out to be a fine choice if I do say so myself, especially where dessert was concerned.

We started with the Tuna Poke Nachos ($11.50).  Served on crispy wontons, and loaded with cubed raw tuna, cucumber, avocado and tomato, they looked like they would be a task to eat.  I envisioned myself taking a bite and (if the toppings made it as far as my mouth without falling off) having it crumble, leaving me with half of a naked nacho, or in this case, wonton.  They surprised me though by maintaining their structure (and toppings).  The spicy mango coulis they were drizzled in leant a nice kick with some crushed macadamia nuts paying tribute to the Hawaiian roots of the dish. I’m not normally a big fan of sushi, but in this case the texture of the tuna and avocado married nicely with the crispiness of the wontons.

Next was the Gnocchi with Italian Rose Sauce ($10.50).  I love gnocchi, but it is associated with being too heavy and too filling often because, well, it usually is.  Not in this case.  Earl’s handmade potato gnocchi was the perfect consistency throughout.  Consistent consistency if you will.  And true we shared it, but it was a generous portion and neither of us felt weighted down afterwards.  That wasn’t the best part though.  The title of the dish doesn’t do it justice.  This gnocchi isn’t served in just any ordinary rose sauce… it’s served in a rose sauce made of San Marzana tomatoes, burrata cheese and fresh basil.  This, my friends, is the Margharita pizza of gnocchi.  Enough said.

Being ambitious (see: gluttonous), we welcomed the Pulled Pork Sandwich ($13.50) and Potato & Leek Soup ($7) to our table.  I’ll start with the soup…although in reality that wasn’t the sequence of events.  The soup was creamy and filled with chunks of potato (skin still on…because that’s where all the vitamins are!).  It was good, but let’s face it, it didn’t compare to the main event of this course.  Even halved, our plates were dwarfed.  This is one behemoth of a sandwich.  Piled with tender BBQ braised pork and coleslaw then dressed with a fiery chipotle mayo, this sandwich was a nice balance of spicy and sweet.  It was messy like it should be so keep the napkins close at hand.  I had almost reached my limit but I knew dessert was on the way, so I exercised some will power (says the girl on her third course) and left a few bites on my plate.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sad to see it go.

You might think that by this point we were too full to even consider the possibility of dessert, and by daily caloric standards, we probably should have been.  But we laughed in the face of those standards and pushed onward…onward to Warm Gingerbread Cake ($8).  Rarely do I find myself at a loss for words, but this cake found me there.  It might have had something to do with the fact that my mouth was full of the aforementioned cake, but also because it was really, really good.  I could use a plethora of colourful adjectives to describe this cake (see: heavenly, divine, decadent) but it all feels so cliché, and none of them would do it justice anyway, so I’m sticking with good.  Damn good.  It was served warm (as promised), drizzled with salted caramel sauce and with sides of brown sugar apple slices and vanilla bean gelato.  Now on any given day, I’ll take a cookie over a slice of cake, but not on this day (or any day going forward where I’m given the choice between a cookie and this particular cake).  It was impossibly moist and as we ate it we debated about what made it so.  We came to the conclusion that… well, we didn’t really come to any conclusion, except that it was killer, and we would be back for more.  Whoever is slicing the cake at Earl’s isn’t stingy (bless their soul) but that was one plate that went back to the kitchen devoid of crumbs.

Now Earls isn’t the place to go for a quiet date.  The people are loud (because there are a lot of them), and the music is loud (because it fights to be heard over the people), but the food is excellent and the service, equally so.  It’s a hike from my house in High Park to the Financial District, but one I’m willing to make again.  Three words folks… warm, gingerbread, cake.  Do yourself a favour.

- Rebecca

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Joe Badali’s

Posted on December 5, 2011 by in Entertainment District

3 stars

- You’re downtown, you’re headed to a game and you need to grab a bite to eat before you head there. You take stock of your options and think, “These places all look kind of similar – where should I head?” Might I suggest you check out Joe Badali’s, an Italian-themed restaurant on Front St. West, steps from both the Rogers Centre and the ACC. The spacious bar/restaurant has something for everyone, a key to success for large groups that often book parties there.

A friend and I popped in the other day to check out their fall/winter brunch menu. Given our choice of bar, table or booth, we opted for a cozy booth in the middle of the restaurant and were given three menus from which to choose our meal. A bit overwhelming, perhaps, but our waiter explained that one menu was strictly for their new pescetarian promotion where you can choose the fish you’d like and how you’d like it cooked. Feeling like it was a little early for ahi tuna, my companion and I went for the brunch options: I had the eggs benedictano and he had the steak frites, ordered medium rare. To accompany our selections, we ordered the pear and cranberry cider and the maple bourbon lemonade. (Both drinks made by the fabulous bartender, Katie, who also makes mean After Eights and Monte Cristos.)

A plate of house- made bread was brought to the table, accompanied by olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Warm, crusty and soft on the inside, we polished off that complimentary snack pretty quickly while we sipped our delicious drinks. The wait staff is clearly comfortable with time crunches of customers and took into consideration that the tables around us had a short amount of time to eat before they needed to head elsewhere. The service was swift and friendly for them, while it was a little more relaxed for us – though by no means slow or lackadaisical.

When our brunch plates arrived, we were eager to dive in. Neither my companion nor I had been to Joe Badali’s in quite some time and wondered how brunch would stack up. The portions were a good size and, importantly, cooked as they should be. My egg yolks were runny and the Canadian back bacon was a great salty accompaniment. The ciabatta base was a nice touch, as it worked well to absorb the leftover yolk on my plate. The home fries might have been a bit crispier, but the peppers and onions were crunchy contrast to the creaminess of the eggs. As for the steak frites, the steak was indeed medium rare and had been rested properly before being brought to the table. By the end of the meal, only a few pieces of diced fruit were left in our respective cups.

Since we felt like indulging at this particular brunch, we allowed ourselves to split a very generous portion of white chocolate mousse cake with strawberry topping. Not overly heavy, it was actually quite a nice way to wrap up a meal. As mentioned earlier, we also tried the After Eight and Monte Cristo specialty coffees. Topped with whipped cream and a cherry, these were decadent and deliciously boozy. We allowed ourselves a few minutes – and a couple of glasses of water – before attempting to get up.

When asked about the capacity of the place, we learned that Badali’s can hold up to 750 people, making it a great place for large parties. We also discovered that they set up a secluded patio in the summers, blocking off the adjacent parking lot in order to make it a pleasant place to escape the downtown crush. If you happen to be in the area – say, before a concert, a Leafs, Raptors or Jays game – check out Joe Badali’s. You’re bound to find something for everyone at reasonable prices. And if you’re in the mood for a drink, I highly recommend checking out either the maple bourbon lemonade or pear and cranberry cider. Had it been later in the day when we went, I suspect there may have been a few more rounds of these!

- Carolyn

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Event: Gourmet Food and Wine Expo 2011

Posted on November 26, 2011 by in Events

The Gourmet Food and Wine Expo took place this past weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the event saw nearly 40,000 guests throughout the 4-day affair. Over 1500 different wines and spirits were available to sample, as well as a plethora of local and international foods. After interviewing Jennifer Campbell, Show Manager of this year’s GFWE, I was extremely excited to attend the event, taste some great wines, and soak up the atmosphere.

Saturday night at the 2011 Gourmet Food and Wine Expo was a very busy night, and rightly so given the number of attractions piled into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The show floor was divided into several different wine growing regions, with everywhere from California and South America to Portugal and Germany represented. A well-organized and beautiful showcase of local Ontario wines was a show highlight, with several smaller wineries in the Ontario region in attendance.  The atmosphere was buzzing with live music and conversations about the phenomenal wine and food variety.

One of my personal wine favourites of the show was the 2009 Henry of Pelham Baco Noir. After chatting with the folks from the winery, I tried it for myself and was extremely impressed. Pelham’s Baco is a rich, deep coloured wine with hints of blueberries and red currants.

This area of the show also saw selections from vineyards that are sometimes harder to find at the LCBO, such as Angel’s Gate Winery of Niagara, Burning Kiln Wineries of Lake Erie, and many others.

The food we sampled was incredible, and my personal favourites were the Cajun shrimp tacos dish and the plate of roast beef with poached pears from Sano Catering Services. The show floor also boasted mini beef sliders, Indian cuisine and many other specialty restaurants, such as Milagros and the Royal Elephant Thai Fusion. There was something for every palette and to pair with almost every wine, beer,or spirit

The overall atmosphere and experience at this year’s show was augmented by the addition of live music. There was everything from DJs to classical opera, but the real crowd pleaser of the evening was the acoustic cover band, Tyler Gifford, playing Canadian favourites, like the Tragically Hip.

The 2011 Food and Wine Expo was a fun event, with a great representation of wines from around the world. Truly, the best reason to attend a show such as this is to have the opportunity to try wines that are often not readily available in Toronto or that are normally out of your wine buying budget. The only minor complaint I have would be that I found the Saturday evening to be extremely busy and at times even a bit chaotic. Next year I will certainly look into purchasing one of the VIP packages for the preview night, Thursday night, to avoid some of the crowd and really enjoy the event and all of the amazing food and wine offerings.

- Janine

Guu Izakaya

Posted on November 23, 2011 by in Downtown

5 stars

- Have you ever walked into a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Well, this is going to be different”? It’s an exciting feeling that doesn’t happen all that often; but, walking into Guu Izakaya on Church St., I was definitely overcome by that thought.  Everyone who enters and exits gets a loud greeting and goodbye from the entire staff. A bit overwhelming, but it certainly sets the tone for your evening. The place is an absolute nuthouse in the best possible way.

That evening, my two companions and I were lucky enough to get seats within a few minutes upon arriving, a rare feat as I understand it. Guu features communal dining, with long tables that seat around 15 – 20 people, as well as seats at the bar where you can watch the chefs work. There is a two-hour time limit for diners and often a 1-2 hour wait for a seat. If you can, go early or prepare to cool your heels for a while. I promise you that it will be worth it.

My friends had been to Guu before so they did the bulk of the ordering. They chose the best dishes they’d had before and also took cues from our tablemates who’d ordered some fascinating fare. The menu is set up tapas-style, a fantastic way to sample all sorts of delicious creations. We ordered eight dishes for the three of us which was just about right and all were quite reasonably priced.

The first to arrive was the decidedly (and awesomely) decadent deep-fried brie served with a mango and blueberry sauce.  The four pyramid-shaped morsels were golden and crispy on the outside and gooey, rich deliciousness on the inside. Like, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-your-head-good. Next up: the salmon sashimi. Melt in your mouth greatness. It’s one of those simple dishes that really sings based on the merits of great, high quality ingredients.

On to the bacon-wrapped scallops and enoki mushrooms. Holy. Smokes. Bacon-wrapped anything is a winner in my books but here the contrasting textures played against each other so beautifully. Paired with the salty pork, the sweet scallop and earthy mushrooms, this dish was so good that it was tempting to cancel the rest of our order and have nothing but this for the rest of the night.

The beef carpaccio was placed before our wide eyes next and it was a lovely, bright contrast to the richness of the dish before. Served with with ponzu, wasabi, mayo & garlic chips, this rare beef was light and, somehow, refreshing. It was nice to have a lighter bite after the richness of the scallops before.

It was at this point in our meal that I noticed a crowd of waiters pause from their constant, frenetic activity. Then I spotted a server with a slice of cake with a candle in it. Guu’s birthday celebrations put Chuck E. Cheese to shame. Not only did the wait staff lead the entire restaurant in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”, encouraging everyone to clap and sing along, but even the insanely busy chefs joined in. At one point, they had the lights flickering on and off. Utter celebrational pandemonium and it was amazing.

Once the place had settled down a little (to be clear, Guu is the least settled place on the planet), the strangest creation of the evening appeared at our table. It was roughly the size of a softball, deep-fried and had a wooden knife protruding from the centre. We wracked our brains trying to figure out if we had actually ordered it, decided we hadn’t and dug in anyways. What it turned out to be was a Japanese scotch egg with a layer of pureed pumpkin surrounding a hard-boiled egg. While I was skeptical initially – I’m not a big pumpkin fan, much to the horror of many of my friends – the combination of the creamy pumpkin, rich egg, crispy exterior and tangy sauce was downright addictive. We just about scraped the plate without chopsticks long after other dishes had been cleared away.

When the spare ribs arrived, it was all I could do to refrain from gobbling them all up myself. The marinated beef was tender and salty, having surely been marinated for quite some time. If you’re a fan of spare ribs, these are a can’t-miss.

The final dishes of the night were the decadent, baked oysters and the light, miso-glazed black cod. We ordered the oysters because we saw them arrive for another group at our table and they looked so unique! Kind of a twist on oysters Rockefeller, they’re served with spinach and mushrooms, smothered in a potent mayo-garlic sauce and topped with melted cheese…all in a giant shell. This was a thing of glorious, messy beauty. The mushrooms nestled in there made for an umami bomb of a bite. Definitely give this one a shot, my friends. It’s weird and tasty and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

Not only was this one of the best meals I’ve had all year, it was by far and away the most fun. Unquestionably, the company helped but the atmosphere at Guu is like none other. It’s not the place to go for a quiet, intimate dinner; it’s the place to go when you want to try innovative, playful and truly remarkable dishes at a pretty reasonable cost. The place is positively brimming with excitement and energy. I can’t wait to go back and try all the dishes I missed on the first go ’round.

- Carolyn

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Check out our review of Guu Sakabar