Sandwiches work-in-progress at Leslieville Pumps

Pulled pork

Solid sandwich in search of more flavour

Finally managed to visit Leslieville Pumps General Store & Kitchen today for lunch with a friend, situated conveniently at the corner of Queen Street East and Carlaw Avenue in Toronto’s east end and readily accessible by two major transit routes.

A friendly little place where everyone makes an effort to call you by your name after you place a food order, the whole vibe is “welcome, hope you have a good time.” The seating areas both inside and out are kept quite clean, and the folksy decoration fits nicely with the increasingly eclectic Leslieville community that surrounds it.

I ordered the pulled pork sandwich (topped with cole slaw), the classic poutine and a semi-sweet iced tea. My friend ordered the BLT sandwich, deep-fried pickles and iced tea, as well.

Almost full marks on the pulled pork sandwich. They did not scrimp on the meat or overwhelm the pulled pork with so much BBQ sauce as to create a huge mess, and the coleslaw had a nice crunch and added a lovely contrast to the meat. Where they need to improve the sandwich is in the spice of the BBQ sauce, which never really stood out to me. It simply moistened the already juicy meat rather than enhanced or added flavor.

My friend’s BLT was completely underwhelming, unfortunately. Truthfully, there is little to say about this sandwich other than if you want a BLT for lunch, head directly across the street to Rashers, a small restaurant that specializes in all things bacon.

BLT

Rashers Beer BLT vastly superior to Leslieville Pumps BLT

Fortunately for my friend, the blasé BLT was offset by the deep-fried pickles, which were nicely coated with a crunchy crust that wasn’t the least bit greasy. And the pickles themselves stood up to the frying nicely, still providing quite the crunch.

The poutine had ups and downs, but ended up being nothing special. The fries were quite good, not particularly greasy and maintaining a very woody potato flavour. The cheese curds—two varieties, in fact—were okay, adding that stringy quality for which poutine is known, but not adding much flavour to the mix. And the gravy was only slightly better than hydrated beef Bovril cubes, so runny that it largely just pooled in the bottom of the container rather than mingling with the fries and curds.

And finally, the semi-sweet iced tea. Let it be known that I like my iced tea unsweetened, so I knew I might have some issues. I was not ready, however, for something that tasted like it came out of a Lipton Iced Tea can. My dining companion—born and raised in the Southern United States—assures me that the tea was indeed brewed rather than the processed stuff, and is simply suffering from the addition of lemonade. Not a fan.

The $34 meal managed to fill us up, but didn’t leave us terribly satisfied. There was enough merit in the pulled pork and deep-fried pickles, however, for me to be willing to try other dishes on another day.

Needs to up its game – review of Aux Anciens Canadiens

Aux Anciens CanadiensNestled in the heart of Vieux Quebec, less than a block from the Chateau Frontenac, is the familiar red roof of Aux Anciens Canadiens, an unassuming looking restaurant that specializes in game meats. My recent visit was something of a home-coming for me, as I had crossed its threshold 15 years ago and had been amazed by the food and service.

A meat lover’s paradise, the restaurant has made its reputation on its multitude of dishes involving game ranging from elk and caribou to bison and duck, as well as various seafood offerings. On my latest visit, my friend and I had lunch, which was a $20 table d’hôte. But $20 was really just the starting point, as almost everything we ordered added a few to several dollars to our dining tab.

The menu itself was a single long page, but it was chock full of dishes, many of which were not particularly informative about the content of the meal and required questions of our pleasant but harried server.

As it was the Canada Day long weekend, the restaurant was packed and without reservations, it took about half an hour before they could seat us. That being said, the restaurant did its best to get our orders in and food out very quickly. Reservations are recommended.

I started with the escargot. The flesh was pleasantly cooked, offering resistance without being chewy or rubbery. Unfortunately, the flavour of the dish was largely overwhelmed by the cheese, which although not heavily applied was strong and distracting. I wanted garlic butter and instead was met with salt.

Escargots

Sloppy presentation and the cheese overpowered the garlic butter

My main course was the Trapper’s Treat, comprising Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew. This was why I had returned and it did not disappoint. The tourtiere was insanely flavourful, the tastes and textures of the different meats mingling beautifully with the spices and vegetables to create an unforgettable experience.

And the stew reminded me of the amazing stews my grandmother made; the vegetables firm, the bison chunks tender. Interestingly, the bison tasted distinctly like beef in this dish, which surprised me a little as I expected something a bit more distinct.

Trapper's Treat

Lac St.-Jean tourtiere and bison stew with homemade ketchup (like a salsa)

My friend let me sample her main course, which was bison cooked Bourguignon style with a creamy blueberry wine sauce. The blueberries intrigued me, and did not disappoint, not being initially apparent but making a sudden appearance at the finish.

For dessert, both of us had the chocolate pie with white chocolate cream, a very sweet combination that definitely needed the long espresso as a change-up. I admit that I was expecting the pie filling to be more of a mousse and so was surprised when it ended up being more fudge-like in consistency, making it a very heavy dessert. The best part was actually the cream that nicely contrasted with the tartness of the few garnishing strawberry slices.

Chocolate Pie

Heavy (fudge-like) chocolate pie with white chocolate cream

Aux Anciens Canadiens is not a beer-lover’s paradise, however, as the selection was limited to a blanche and an amber. And although the wine menu appeared extensive, only two wines were sold by the glass: a Chardonnay and a Pinot that my friend suggested was not particularly good. All other wines were sold only by the bottle.

As mentioned earlier, service was pleasant and accommodating, but the crush of patrons seemed to have caught the restaurant by surprise, putting the servers on a constant run that made it sometimes difficult to get questions answered.

Sadly, this experience didn’t quite live up to my memories of my earlier one. Perhaps it was the crush of the long weekend. Perhaps it was simply that lunch service doesn’t match up to dinner service. Either way, it feels like the restaurant needs to up its game to compete with other game restaurants in the area, such as Le Hobbit Bistro just outside of Vieux Quebec’s walls.

Game, if you are – review of Hobbit Bistro

Elk flank steak

Elk flank steak, salsify puree and tarte flambée

Deciding that we had had enough of Vieux Quebec, my friend and I decided to look outside the walls of the fort and check out the eclectic neighbourhood that ran along Rue Saint-Jean. Within blocks of the bus depot, we came across Hobbit Bistro, a busy little joint that seemed to specialize in game meats.

Abuzz with activity, we were immediately met by one of the servers who, despite our lack of a reservation, found us a nice little table in the corner, from which we could observe the flurry of activity around us. The décor of the room was as eclectic as the street outside, with a goat head hanging off one wall across from a large central table that appeared to have been hewn as one piece from a sequoia. We also overlooked the amazing bar, overseen by multicoloured bottles of all shapes and sizes.

The staff was quick, both of foot and of tongue, sharing barbs and quips with great alacrity and charm, and ensuring that we were quite happy and satisfied. This became especially important, as we soon realized that checking into Hobbit for dinner was a long-term engagement; while everything and everyone else rushed around, the food itself did not.

For an appetizer, my friend and I shared braised bison cheek bathed in a reduction of its cooking juices and blanketed with fricasseed Brussel sprout leaves and a mushroom salad that seemed to include enoki and alfalfa sprouts. Tender is not the word to describe the meat; fragile is more accurate. And the raspberry vinaigrette of the salad nicely cut through the salt and fat of the meat reduction, laying flavour on top of flavour. My only regret was we didn’t ask for more bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Buffalo cheek

Braised bison cheek with mushroom salad

As a main course—which took longer than my stomach and taste buds would have liked—was elk flank steak spiced with juniper and mustard on a salsify puree and partnered with tarte flambée, carrot and a half bok choy, all under a demi-glace of cacao nibs. Again, the meat was incredibly delicate and wonderfully juicy and rich, while the salsify (think parsnip) had a buttery texture with a nutty finish. I was unfamiliar with tarte flambée but eventually guessed correctly that it was like a pan-fried slice of bread covered in onions and white cheese. This made for an interesting combination of crisp texture, salty tang and sweetness. The only negative to the main was the two vegetables, which we overcooked and quite soft.

Trying to pick only one dessert was practically impossible as everything sounded wonderful. Eventually, I settled on a lemon curd, honey and yoghurt mousse over pistachio cream with chocolate biscuits and a few meringues. Only the chocolate biscuit could be described as very sweet, the mousse and cream offering a beautifully creamy blend that teased the taste buds as the flavours evolved. The meringues were a decorative throw-away in my book and could easily be dispensed with.

Lemon curd mousse

Lemon curd mousse on chocolate cookie with pistachio cream

Despite the slowness of each course of the meal, the lively energy and yet intimate feel of the restaurant ensured guests remained comfortable. And it is clear the staff like working there as one server even remembered another guest who had last been to the restaurant several months back, recalling what the guest had ordered.

The restaurant almost seems too welcoming and accepting to be called fine dining, but the price tag would suggest that is exactly what it is. And the food is more than ample proof that this is dining at its finest. A definite must-visit for anyone checking out Quebec City.

Sharing a laugh, enjoying great food at The Edmund Burke

The Edmund Burke

Family-owned gastropub that welcomes you as a friend

If you’re looking for an unassuming place to enjoy wonderful food, a decent pint and good company in the City of Toronto, The Edmund Burke is the place.

Conveniently located at the western end of Toronto’s Greektown, within a block of Broadview subway station and its many bus and streetcar routes, The Edmund Burke is a small, family-run gastropub that seems to have one mission: make its customers feel welcomed and satisfied.

In fact, I hesitate to call it a gastropub as that comes across as more pretentious than this place is. Visiting The Edmund Burke is like hanging out with your closest neighbours, because in many ways, you are.

The husband-and-wife team—Ginger & Russ—that owns the place live in the neighbourhood and can be found behind the bar or clearing tables at all hours. Their goal is to enliven and enhance the neighbourhood, and they do this in spades with a quick smile and attention to detail. And to add to the family feel, Ginger’s brother John serves as head chef and culinary mastermind.

The food is simple, both in range and presentation, but that simplicity works to its advantage. Chef John understands his ingredients and lets them do the heavy lifting in his cooking.

With none of his dishes are the taste buds overwhelmed; rather, they are cradled by a few flavours, each having a specific place and purpose.

A good example of this is his recently introduced pulled pork sliders. Where others might take the delicately cooked meat and smother it in a sauce that screams spice, Chef John allows the flavour to come from the meat itself, keeping sauces at arm’s length.

He then tops that with a subtle apricot slaw that offers just a hint of sweetness coupled with a crunch to balance the meat’s tenderness. Given that I generally dislike apricot, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the slaw.

SONY DSC

Owner Ginger Robertson pulls the perfect pint

The chicken schnitzel is lightly crusted with the moisture sealed in, keeping the meat tender. And it sits atop perfectly prepared seasonal vegetables and a generous helping of spaetzle (a soft egg noodle). Although I quite enjoyed the chicken and vegetables, I have to admit to being so-so on the spaetzle, but that may just be me.

The Chicago-style beef burger with fries was completely solid, however, and a wonderful mix of flavours from the aged cheddar and garlic aioli. You may wonder how you make something as simple as a burger pop. Chef John does.

The pub itself is cozy without being claustrophobic, like so many Toronto restaurants, so you can draw together as a group or sit apart for quiet dining. By the same token, it can get a little loud should you be sitting near a particularly boisterous table.

The one aspect of the place that throws me off a bit is the choice of dining tables, which seem better suited to a rural truck stop diner than an urban gastropub, and particularly when set in contrast to the beautifully finished bar and beer taps. That being said, everything about this place is delicious, and you’ll be so focused on your meal that you’ll never see past your plate.

And finally, in keeping with the neighbours-looking-after-neighbours theme, Russ and Ginger have done everything they can to keep Chef John’s food reasonably priced without sacrificing on ingredients or his skills, and prices are more than competitive with the bars and restaurants in the area. Their menu would never be classed as cheap eats, but given the mastery that goes into the food preparation and the portion sizes, I’m ecstatic to pay $16 for the schnitzel or burger.

See also:

dine.to’s The Reveal – The Edmund Burke

Pints galore

Taps to tantalize all tastes

Visiting Toronto? Try the bacon! (review)

Ossington

The familiar red awning says it all

(Trying my hand at food reviews)

If a restaurant earned a one-word review, that restaurant is Rashers and the one word is bacon.

Bacon is all you really need to know about Rashers, which specializes in all things bacon, offering multiple cuts—British style, peameal and strip—in a variety of formats…well, one format (sandwich) in a variety of constructions. (You can also order any of the sandwiches without bacon, but we can’t be friends if you do.)

My personal favourite and weekly go-to is the Beer BLT served on a ciabatta bun, which I sometimes get with double bacon just to blow up my electrolytes.

Beer BLT

Beer BLT (double-bacon), potato wedges (salt & pepper), homemade beer mayo

For the less adventurous, but just as hungry, there is the traditional bacon butty (British bacon, white bread, brown sauce) or the Hogtown grilled cheese (peameal bacon, aged cheddar, multigrain bun). For the more adventurous, the Full Monty (full British breakfast on a bun) and the Brie & Bacon (no explanation here).

And to help you hold all that delicious bacon grease are various potato sides, including wedges (my fav), curly fries and tater tots. Oh, and ask for the beer mayo, a homemade ambrosia that offers a subtle sweetness without the oily heaviness you might expect from a mayo.

But surprisingly, I think the best thing about Rashers is the staff, who—come to think of it—kinda smell like bacon. You will never meet a friendlier group of people who seem to love what they do and are truly grateful to see their patrons. If you’re a regular, you receive an eager welcome upon opening the door, and if you’re a newbie, you are immediately greeted with smiles and offers of assistance.

Rashers staff

Serious intent disguises the welcoming smiles that greet you

My weekly pilgrimage is to the Rashers location on Queen Street East near Carlaw Avenue in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood. That it is squeezed between an over-priced tea shop and over-priced pet store makes Rashers’ more than reasonable prices a nice change of pace—its belly-filling sandwiches priced around $8-$10 and sides at $4.

The only real challenge with this particular location is lack of seating, which is essentially 4 bar stools against the window or a triplet of old-style school benches out front. Fortunately, at least from Spring to Autumn, there is a park a couple of blocks West that seems to make the food taste that much better.

More recently, Rashers opened a location in the Western end of Toronto’s downtown core on Ossington, near Dundas. A significantly larger place, this location has booths for dining in comfort and a central bench for stand-up dining (can’t remember if there were stools). And for your entertainment during your meal, they installed a huge mural along one wall that essentially bacon-ifies familiar motifs and Toronto-centric events or landmarks (e.g., Toronto Raptors, Ikea monkey, Yellow Submarine).

Bacon raptor

Both locations are easily accessible via local transit, whereas you may have issue at busier times finding a place to park in either neighbourhood. Regardless, you should make the effort to check these guys out.