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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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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!

Five Doors North

Posted on March 16, 2012 by in Davisville

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5 stars

- Five Doors North is my neighbourhood spot. I have visited it on several occasions, and each time I leave, I debate whether sharing this place with the world is worth having to wait for a table during an already busy dinner rush. My conscience prevails, as 5 Doors North is too great of a restaurant not to review, and share with my fellow TOFoodReviews readers.

A spur of the moment, “Thursday night out” decision, led Andy and I to Five Doors North, knowing we would get a great meal. We were seated in the front area of the dining room, perfect for people watching along the Eglinton-Davisville and Yonge street corridor. The furnishings are worn, kitschy, and mismatched, but only add to the warmth and charm of the restaurant.  The restaurant menu is hand-written and photocopied, followed by an evolving list of specials on the chalkboard, which are carefully selected, and always guaranteed to be great.

The wine list is small and filled with some robust reds. I ordered the Pinot Noir, which I have to say, just didn’t do it for me, it was a bit thin and wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. Andy’s Malbec was fabulous, so we both ordered another glass for the second round. Wines by the glass are anywhere from $7 to $11, and bottles in the $30-$50 range. Overall, wines are priced fairly well, but I would love to see a little more variety to match the diverse food menu.

The appetizer list is long, and everything sounds incredible. They have smoked salmon, Prosciutto, mussels, a delicious polenta dish, on top of the list of daily specials, which included cauliflower soup, avocado bruschetta, and crab cakes. We went with the soup, beef Carpaccio with Pecorino cheese & roasted onion, and the beet salad. First out was the roasted beet salad with scallion aioli & lotus chips, which was wonderful, the goat cheese soft and warm, and the beets sweet and crunchy. The roasted cauliflower soup was smoky and creamy, but not too heavy; a perfect start to the meal, and the beef Carpaccio was some of the best, the cheese and onion offsetting the beef perfectly.

For our mains, I ordered the gnocchi Gorgonzola special and Andy the braised brisket ravioli. The meals were incredible. The gnocchi was awesome, fresh and soft, but the real winner was the Gorgonzola cream sauce. So creamy, it certainly blew my cheese calorie allotment for the week, but so worth it. Garnished with scallions and fresh pepper, the meal needed nothing more to bring out the strong flavours in the Gorgonzola.

The braised brisket ravioli was probably one of the more interesting meals we have ever had. I was unsure what to expect, but the beef was perfect, melt-in-your-mouth, wrapped in fresh pasta, with beef au jus and cream to make up the ravioli sauce. It would be worth phoning in advance to see if this was on the specials menu, as this dish just has to be tried.

The prices are right, entrées run from $14-$20, with appetizers in the $8-$12 range. The service is extremely friendly, with everyone pitching in to seat, serve and check-in. It’s a family run restaurant, and you can tell by the attitudes and the recommendations of the staff that they all love the food at Five Doors North as much as you will.

- Janine

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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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Live Organic Food Bar

Posted on February 15, 2012 by in The Annex

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3 stars

-  “So, are you going to eat a steak first?”

“You might want to sneak some meat in with you.”

“Enjoy your…vegetables.”

These were not uncommon responses from folks when I said I’d be heading to Live Food Bar. I too was skeptical but went along for the ride anyways when a friend suggested we go. While perusing the online menu, I was genuinely stumped as to what I would get. I already eat at least one – but generally several – vegetarian meals a week, so I’m not opposed to eating a meal with no meat. But Live is a vegan, organic restaurant that features recipes without gluten, without sugar and certainly without any animal products which is outside my culinary experience. If you happen to feel the same way, I suggest you go with an open mind as Live has an excellent reputation and it is well earned.

I settled in to the table at the front, which has a great view of the world walking by, of the bright, cheerful restaurant. While I waited for my dining companions, I had a look through the drink list and eventually settled on a bottle Mill Street Organic. (Should I come back in the summer, I will definitely sample the cocktails on the lovely patio!) When the ladies arrived, we ordered a bottle of organic cabernet sauvignon and started going over the menu for the millionth time. It is an extensive list with dishes that should appeal to just about all diners. Appetizers, salads, bowls, mains, pasta, dessert: Live certainly does not lack for choice. The three of us agreed that we wanted to try the chick pea fries, so we ordered those while attempting to make a decision.

Finally, we made our choices: raw sushi with pumpkin & sunflower seed nori rolls and a detox salad; “Bacon Cheese” burger; and tempeh cakes with a warm corn, avocado and white wine salsa. Orders placed, we tucked into our wine and the chick pea fries which arrived shortly thereafter. Crispy on the outside, piping hot and soft on the inside, this non-traditional take on a staple hit the spot, especially with the homemade BBQ sauce on the side.

Our mains arrived in a timely manner, and we hungrily tucked in to them. The sushi roll had a great combination of flavour and texture. I was a little jealous of not ordering that one for myself, but my giant plate of food was more than enough. The tempeh (an Indonesian soybean product) cakes were piled high on top of the wonderful salsa that was accompanied by a spicy chipotle aioli. If you’re hungry, get this dish. It was undoubtedly for the best that I did not order an appetizer, as well as the cakes and sides were so surprisingly good that I was nearly scraping my plate.

As for the “cheese bacon” burger, it passed the taste test. The patty consisted of chick peas and had macadamia cheddar “cheese” and eggplant “bacon.” I can see your eyebrows raising. The eggplant had a smoky flavour and was quite good, though certainly not bacon. The cheese in question was a bit of a head-scratcher, though not unpleasant. The gluten-free bun was nicely toasted and the BBQ sauce was a great touch.

Since we had already gone through much of the menu, we thought we should give dessert a whirl. All the desserts are kept on display in near the back of the restaurant, and there is quite an array from which to choose. We opted for two: the tiramisu and the Black Forrest cake. Now, my Italian friends would be horrified to find a tiramisu without real cream, but it really was quite good with a strong, but not overpowering, taste of espresso. Similarly, the Black Forrest cake was rich, creamy and cut nicely with the cherries on top. No complaints – I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing out.

Live has a great vibe to it and customers were constantly arriving either to have a seated meal or to pick up their take-out orders. The music is at just the right volume and the staff is friendly and accommodating. We were there for several hours and never felt rushed, nor got the idea that we were no longer welcome. Food arrives promptly and with a smile, water bottles are refilled, and the service is relaxed. So take your vegetarian friends, take your carnivorous friends: they will likely all be satisfied. The portions are well-sized and, most importantly, the food is delicious.

- Carolyn

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The Ace

Posted on January 15, 2012 by in Roncesvalles Village

4 stars

- I am the first to admit that I don’t know Roncesvalles Village well. A friend used to live there many moons ago, but we spent most of our time drinking red wine on her porch until the wee hours in the morning instead of exploring what the neighbourhood had to offer. In recent years, however, the lure of the restaurants lining Roncesvalles Ave has drawn me to the West side of the city more frequently. I never know quite what to expect when I arrive, but I am always pleasantly surprised.

One such surprise awaited me at The Ace. I had heard that the space had been standing empty for ages; even that it had once been a Chinese restaurant. Now headed up by chef Peter McKnight, it has been reopened as a place to stop in for some classic comfort food: fried chicken, burgers, soup, Shepherd’s pie. While the menu has changed, the décor most certainly did not; the new owners have kept as much of the original decoration as possible giving the place an authentic 1950’s feel.

My friend and I settled in for our meal in a booth near the back of across from the open kitchen. When asked what we’d like to drink, I tried to sneak a peek at the taps available only to find that there were none in sight. Well, no taps that I recognized anyway. Our waiter informed us that the fantastic milkshake mixer sitting on the counter served as the taps. A great aesthetic touch behind the bar.

We submitted our drink orders – Mill St. for me, the Ace Manhattan for my friend – and took stock of the menu. Written out on paper were five or six appetizers and five or six mains from which to choose. We pondered several options, but when the waiter announced that one of the specials of the day was a “Christmas burger” the whole plan changed. Ground turkey with stuffing in the middle, topped with cranberry chutney? THIS had to be eaten. As delicious as it sounded, it was actually better than anticipated. It hit all the parts of your palate and it was gobbled up in minutes.

Also sampled were the deep-fried Brussels sprouts with dill aioli and the gorgeous, briny oysters. Both were truly excellent and personified what The Ace is all about: simple food done perfectly. My dining companion and I nearly stabbed each other with our forks trying to get at the Brussels sprouts, something I truly thought would never, ever happen in my lifetime.

If you’re at The Ace, do not miss the fried chicken, which is succulent, juicy and crispy, served with him gravy, collard greens and cornbread (though why the cornbread is served on the gravy is a bit beyond me, as it has the unfortunate effect of making the bread a big soggy after a while). The fresh pasta with tuna, chiles, plum tomatoes and basil was cooked to exactly al dente and the flaked trout with potatoes, radishes and red onions struck a great balance of temperature, texture and flavor.

No matter how full you may be from the well-sized portions, I implore you not to skip dessert. The ice cream in particular is outstanding. Do not miss the oatmeal, stout or chocolate-rosemary concoctions: they are all made in-house and I am not ashamed to admit that I asked for an entire vat of the chocolate-rosemary ice cream to take home so that I could swim in it. Seriously. Do not miss dessert!

By the time we left around 8pm, The Ace had a line up of hungry patrons eager to relax in a comfortable, homey environment with excellent comfort food, attentive staff and a great bartender. I would suggest dressing in layers as it gets quite warm, as evidenced by the perpetually fogged-over front window. Go early or go late or go for brunch. You won’t be disappointed.

- Carolyn

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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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Globe Bistro

Posted on December 2, 2011 by in The Danforth

Globe

3 stars

- Much like Ed Ho’s recent earth Bloor West endeavour, Globe bistro’s focus is on local and simple; myself, I find that to be a beautiful combination, if it’s pulled off right that is.

Cut off from the cozy front bar space, you can’t help but notice how welcoming Globe’s dining room is; distinguishingly set tables, character hardwood floors, and an interesting play on shadows and lighting all come together to create a soft and intimate space. It draws you in as soon as you enter, and it gives you the feeling that you’re in for something special.

With considerate, friendly, detail orientated staff, the service at Globe doesn’t disappoint. While it might have partly been because we were among the first tables they had in for dinner that night, we were warmly greeted by the entire front house as we were led to our table. No matter what business you’re in, that type of attention scores big points.

Trouble is, I was there to eat, and most of the food at Globe fell a little flat…

There’s a lot to be said about going local. With hype from the 100 Mile Challenege and a seemingly growing concern for eating local and sustainable, people are looking for food that’s produced closer to home and with a smaller carbon footprint. While Globe’s focus may be on local, it’s hard to identify exactly how close ‘local’ is since they have items sourced from as far as Kelowna and Vancouver.

The West Coast Dungeness Crab starter was overcomplicated, which made it slightly hard to identify what the heck we were eating. Besides the obvious crab meat, which was subtly sweet and perfectly cooked, the plate also had a far-to-large savoury panna cotta and some haphazardly scattered popcorn. Yep. Popcorn. While the consistencies were actually pretty good, it was mostly a confusing dish to eat that came with no explanation.

The Second Winds Farm Elk main was a little too simple; too little color, not enough flavor, and effortless presentation. While the elk loin was perfectly cooked, the braised shoulder was tough and near-tasteless. The best part of the dish was the corn polenta.

Much the same with the pheasant, which also served the meat two ways. While the citrus breast was moist and tasty, the jerked leg was tough and lacking spices.

It’s really too bad, because I truly wanted to love Globe. From the beautiful dining room to the amazing staff, I was sure I was in for something special.

Perhaps simpler is better, especially since what we’re talking about here is a focus on local ingredients. Great cooking is all about balance, and if Globe could just work on simplifying some of their dishes (like the crab starter) and making others slightly more complicated (like the Elk main) and identify where they draw the line on being local, they’d have nothing stopping them.

- Andre

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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