Sunday, 30 November 2008

A Mercurial Ending to a Good Day

My Tuesday in Toronto was a good one, starting off with lunch with a university buddy at diner called Fran's Restaurant, going to a live taping of CBC's The Hour with my sister, and ending the night with a dinner with her at Bar Mercurio, an Italian restaurant previously discovered by my sister, as explained in her review in her food blog (you'll notice we both have the same pictures, as my camera was used). Located on Bloor Street West just west of the St. George subway station it's in the midst of the University of Toronto (according to my sister, it's actually in UofT's English building) and in close proximity to the ROM and Queen's Park. I'll admit we really wanted to try Nota Bene first that evening, but we couldn't get a table for the time we wanted there; considering En Route ranked it the best new restaurant in Canada this year, I'm looking forward to my next return to Toronto to try this joint.

Two things I noticed right away when I entered Bar Mercurio were the following: first, it was a small, packed house, and second, there was an open kitchen further up the bar counter, allowing the aromas of the dishes being prepared to permeate and mingle in the air with the babble of various conversations amongst diners. One thing I began to feel a bit disappointed about after we sat at our table was the wait for service at times. Perhaps since we were in a small corner of the restaurant away from where most of the tables are we weren't attended as quick as I expected, especially when it came to the serving of our dishes. That gave us some more time though at least to enjoy the bread basket offered to us. The focaccia was chewier than what I expected (and especially chewier than my sister's version), but the tuscan bean dip was a nice touch, a departure from butter or even the more stereotyipcally Italian oilve oil/balsamic vinegar dip. As I chewed I also noticed how this place covers the linen tablecloths with large sheets of paper; if the paper can actually keep the tablecloths clean, I don't know which has the more detrimental environmental effect, the constant use and replace of the paper or the daily washing of tablecloths.

For starters I had the salad of the day, a baby spinach salad with seared chicken breast, red grape tomatoes, mushrooms and a warm gorgonzola dressing. Historically I have not been a fan of blue cheese, but I actually enjoyed and appreciated how the flavouring was not too strong for me. The raw grape tomatoes added a sweet dimension to the salad countering the saltiness of the dressing, but the chicken breast itself could have perhaps been cut into smaller, more bite-size pieces.

For my main course, at the suggestion of my server I had the pappardelle with duck ragu. Bonita suggested I try one of the pizzas at this place, but since they were apparently big pizzas (large enough to be easily shared between two people), that would have meant leftovers for sure, a bit of a problem if I'm leaving in a few days; she would not like me to leave stuff in her fridge, I'm sure! To be honest with you, this was the first time I've had pappardelle as well as a ragu on pasta. I had an amusing time trying to "twirl" the pasta around my fork (easier said than done compared to fettucine and spaghetti), and I noticed that ragus are heartier and have considerably less liquid than pasta sauces. The duck ragu was nicely flavoured, the meat all shredded up to better coat the pasta, and the sprinkle of grape tomatoes were actually cooked, allowing bursts of tangier sweetness to come forth between bites of pasta.

Aside from the unexpectedly slow service (my sister assured me that it wasn't like that the last time she was here), I enjoyed this place. Being small means tighter spaces (not to mention reservations being highly recommended), but it also means a warmer and more intimate atmosphere. Food can be seen prepared right before your eyes, and the wait staff were friendly and helpful. I can see why my sister was eager for me to try this place as well.

Name: Bar Mercurio
Address: 270 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON
Cuisine: Italian
Price Range: Dinner Entrées $15-$26
Accessible: Yes

Friday, 21 November 2008

Creating Stories with Food

Montréal... though like Toronto it's a cosmopolitan city, it has a different feel to it for some reason. Perhaps the European influence is just a bit more prevalent here. Perhaps it's the differing geography of these two cities. Perhaps it's the people in Montréal who have just a bit more of the joie de vivre mentality, which definitely complements my "don't work too hard" belief. Whatever it is, Montréal definitely has its share of fine dining joints that one can argue is unique from Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and every other major Canadian city.

In spite of feisty competition from at least Toronto and Vancouver, as well as growing attention being paid to Calgary, Ottawa and others, Montréal has been known to be a haunt for gourmands; for example, Toqué reputedly has a long reservation waiting list and is such a fine restaurant that even New York élites (at least, the last I heard, while the economy was in a better situation) would take helicopter rides just to have dinner there. Yet, in spite of such a vast selection of places to eat in the Montréal region, my family and I had not tried as many "higher-end" restaurants compared to Ottawa and even Toronto. Having grabbed the November issue of Air Canada's En Route magazine on my Winnipeg-Ottawa flight, I found a selective listing of restaurants all over Canada, including the top 10 new restaurants of 2008. In the listing I found out about a few restaurants of interest in Montréal, but with my going only for a daytrip, I decided to try Brontë Restaurant with my parents.

Located on the northern edge of downtown along Rue Sherbrooke Ouest and only open for dinner, Brontë is just a few blocks from McGill University and near the shopping hub of Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest. The name may be inspired by an English author (personally, I wasn't a bit fan of her work), but the food and the interior are a whole different story (pardon the pun); the place seems to be inspired, both literally and metaphorically, by the multicultural nature of Montréal. Soft neon colours bathed the dining room with a mix of warm and cool glows. Wood, cloth and metal permeate the place, and even the metal is a mix of smooth and textured. As for the food, the restaurant offers fusion cuisine, although its anchor is prominently of a Western nature.

As we munched on several types of bread, of which the fig & anise bread I found the most unique, we were first offered an amuse-bouche of foie gras with dates on a homemade croûton slice. Here I could sense the dish playing out various opposites to each other swirling into a couple of bites. Sweet (the date) meets salty (the foie gras) and sour (the drops of balsamic vinegar). Soft and smooth meets crunchy. Richness is countered by lightness. It was a nice prologue that allowed for a gentle opening to the unfolding story that would be my dinner.

For the appetizer, I ordered the crispy sweetbrea, which was accompanied with pan-seared tuna. Again, opposites was the idée fixe of this dish, though much more elaborated here than in the amuse-bouche. Crispiness meets softness within the sweetbread, between the vegetables and the meats, between the baby zucchini and eryngii (aka king oyster) mushroom slices, and even between the tuna and the slice of daikon beneath. Sweetbread could be construed as a heavier ingredient, balanced against the flanking accompaniments. The meats were more savoury while the vegetables were naturally sweet and had a mild sourness to them. This dish was colourful and tasteful, and the sweetbread did not feel too filling.

Next I had milk-fed veal filet and shank as my main course. Here the contrasts are not as pronounced, but that theme still lingered in this new chapter. For one thing, the shank was cooked to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, while the filet, cooked to medium provided a firmer give to the teeth. This dish was relatively richer compared to my earlier dishes, and with respect to contrasts, this offered a greater variety of flavours and textures thanks to the various accompaniments beneath the veal. Both the risina bean purée and the sweet corn ragoût were some nice surprises to this dish, and the bean puree especially was reminiscent to me of French Canadian cuisine. Though this dish was nice, personally I would've liked my veal filet to have been cooked medium-rare; I was not asked by my server how I liked my veal done, and this was before the place got busy (in the eyes of many Montréalais, we started dinner early).

For dessert, I had the raspberry crumble shortcake. Topped with a mildly sweet foam, it was accompanied by a yogurt panna cotta with strawberries and coconut ice cream. None of these items were heavy on the sweetness factor, and the ice cream was given a crunchy dimension with a sugar-based crumble sprinkled as a bed for the ice cream. Presentation was clean and simple, and the flavours were alright, but here is where I perhaps would have preferred the contrast theme to have been dropped a bit. Strawberries and raspberries can complement one another, but coconut? At least my mother's dessert, palm sugar doughnuts with roasted banana and chocolate chipotle ice cream, complemented each other with the use of tropical flavours.

Overall I was not as impressed as I thought I would be, though it was still worth the visit and the atmosphere was welcoming. Brontë demonstrated why one should pay this restaurant some attention, and though it was a good place, I think it's safe for me to say that I've yet to try one of the best restaurants in Montréal to date. There was a whisper here, but, to borrow from Brontë the author, it was not a wuther.

Name: Brontë Restaurant
Address: 1800 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal, QC
Cuisine: Fusion
Price Range: Dinner $60-$90
Accessible: Yes

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A Memorable Lunch on Remembrance Day

I apologize to have neglected my food blog for a while, but unfortunately nothing new has occurred both in terms of cooking and in trying restaurants. Fortunately for my taste buds, I've been on a two-week vacation that will end soon. One benefit of being back with my parents is that I get to enjoy mom's cooking again, as well as home-cooked meals where it's not practical for me to have because I'm single and/or I'm now in a small city. Another benefit is that I get to have a stab at some finer dining establishments.

A friend of mine was nice enough to join me to go see the National Remembrance Day Ceremony at Ottawa's National War Memorial on November 11, and after that our stomachs were grumbling for food and we wanted to be in some warm place. With that we decided to go to Domus Café for lunch. I've previously been to Domus at least once for brunch with family a few years ago, and that was a nice experience. I was not disappointed by my revisit and was looking forward to my meal as I sipped on some cold apple cider and nibbled on freshly baked bread dipped in a mix of olive oil and apple cider vinegar.

For starters I ordered the soup of the day, which was a mushroom purée. I was enticed by the sight of the soup and the enoki heads garnishing it when I was hit by the most pleasant aroma; the garnish was ringed with white truffle oil. The soup was smooth on the palate yet I could feel itty-bitty pieces of mushrooms dancing on my tongue. Considering I'm a hobbit when it comes to mushrooms, it's no surprise that I quickly fell in love with this soup.

For my main course, I ordered the smoked whitefish. The sour cream (of course, with chives) naturally went well with the potato rosti, but it also surprisingly complemented the whitefish quite well. I was surprised by the presence of raw beets in the accompanying salad; until then I've only had cooked or pickled beets. Though it paired well with the shredded carrots, I must say I'd prefer cooked beets as the raw version doesn't seem to taste as sweet, not to mention that raw beets have a rougher texture. The pearl onion chutney was a pleasant surprise to the taste buds, its sourness sharper than the sour cream, but the sweetness of the onions balanced out that sourness.

Domus proudly uses as much local ingredients as possible to produce a refined version of Canadian cuisine. It also changes its menu every season to take advantage of the various ingredients and to have the flavours match the local climate. I was thankful that I could stop by this place for a meal on my vacation in Ottawa, and I hope the next time I return to this place it will remain just as good.

Oh yeah, and if you or whoever you dine with there like to live in your kitchens at home, Domus also has a kitchenware store next door with the same name. My friend was able to buy a few things there while we waited for our table, which comes to one last thing about this place; reservations are highly recommended as it's a small restaurant.

Name: Domus Café
Address: 87 Murray St., Ottawa, ON
Cuisine: Canadian Regional
Price Range: Lunch $25-$40; Dinner $50-$75
Accessible: Yes