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.

Warmly welcoming – La Sala review

La Sala

(photo not mine)

A relative newcomer to The Beaches neighbourhood in East Toronto, La Sala is an Italian restaurant that bridges the gap between family dining and fine dining.

Hosted in a renovated home just off Queen Street, La Sala offers a cosy, welcoming environment akin to visiting the home of a good friend. Decoration is subtle and the yellow walls both inside and out bring warmth to the dining experience.

While offering a variety of dishes, the menu is clean and simple, covering only a single page of $12 appetizers, $16 pastas and $20-$24 main courses that should please any palate.

For an appetizer, I opted for the eggplant parmesan (Parmigiana di Melanzane), which was generously portioned and nicely featured baked eggplant rather than what I expected to be fried. The surprise was my own fault, however, as the menu actually states the eggplant is baked. Baking the eggplant meant that you still got the full flavour of the vegetable while it retained its body (frying often seems to turn them into mush), and the eggplant nicely stood against the generously portioned tomato sauce, providing distinct mouth-feel and compartmentalized flavours.

My dining companion ordered the Romaine fennel and kale salad, which was generously accompanied by avocado dressing, bacon and croutons. Nicely, the salad did not appear to be drowned in dressing and the bacon was short strips rather than crumbles, giving my guest something to bite into.

(BTW: I know I am using the word generous a lot…you are not going home hungry.)

Dining room

Warm, inviting atmosphere (photo not mine)

As a main course, I ordered the butternut squash ravioli, my go-to dish when available both because I like the dish and because it affords me an opportunity to compare between restaurants. Covered in a beautiful butter and sage sauce that was very subtle both in flavour and weight, the ravioli were slightly undercooked, the pasta being a bit chewy. For its part, the butternut squash puree was nice, but could have stood with a bit more spice for my tastes, although my dining partner had no problem with it. For me, the challenge was that the puree struggled to compete with the strong saltiness of the parmesan shavings, and so the dish ended up being somewhat one-note.

More of a seafood fan than me, my partner ordered the seafood linguine (Linguine Frutti di Mare), which looked amazing and I am told was even better. La Sala did not scrimp on the seafood in this dish, the large plate being almost overwhelmed by the mussel and clam shells. And according to my companion, the calamari and octopus were cooked to perfection. Add in some shrimps and my friend spent the better part of the meal picking through the linguine to make sure she got all of the seafood available in the dish before digging into the pasta. To quote her: “This is the best seafood linguini I have ever eaten in my life.”

Jazz Festival

La Sala’s warmth fits nicely with The Beaches eclectic vibe

Having filled up on her salad and main course, my companion could not manage dessert, whereas I had little choice but to order the chocolate mousse with crispy almonds and whipped cream. The full-bodied mousse was delicate on the palate and yet offered plenty of flavour. And nicely, the portion size was large enough to share, but not so large as to leave this well-fed diner in distress.

As to the service, La Sala seems to pride itself on being very attentive to its customers as rarely did our water glasses empty before someone offered to refill them. Likewise, as we finished each course, the next one arrived dutifully. One of the staff was perhaps a tad too diligent with replacing our cutlery and napkins, as we almost ended up with a third napkin by the arrival of dessert, but as much as anything, I put that down to a half-filled house with a full staff—people had time on their hands.

Overall, the evening was a wonderful success and despite the minor setback with my main course, I will quite eagerly return to enjoy what is sure to become a neighbourhood favourite and as good a reason as any to visit The Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto.

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.

Sights unseen (a short story)

Invisible_1

The waitress strode by Jerome for the third time in less than 20 minutes, giving him nary a glance as she shifted another tray of plates and a pot of decaf coffee. Jerome watched her swoosh by, hoping to make eye contact but without any luck. It’s not even like the restaurant was busy.

But then, this is the way it was for Jerome, who was still getting used to being invisible.

Being invisible didn’t come naturally to Jerome. In fact, it was fair to say that he was struggling with the idea. There was a disconnect, you see, between how he saw the world and how the world saw him.

When he looked at his hands, he saw five fingers on each. His feet both had five toes. He had legs and arms, hips and shoulders, pretty much everything that every other person on the planet had. And yet, when other people looked at him…

Well, there it was.

Nobody ever looked at him. They didn’t know he was there. He was invisible.

Although the revelation had only come to him recently—partly the reason he had yet to wrap his head around the idea—it did begin to explain a lot of things.

Why people bumped into him on the Metro. Why teachers never called on him in school. Why his parents always ignored his questions. Why women never returned his smiles.

All of these things bothered him, even made him angry. Now, at least, he understood that it wasn’t personal. They simply didn’t know he was there.

Unconsciously, he raised his arm as the waitress blew past him before disappearing into the kitchen.

Personal or not, being unseeable could be irritating.

Jerome had wondered briefly if he wasn’t perhaps dead, a ghost wandering the streets. He’d seen a movie once about a guy who only ever spoke to a young boy and slowly realized that…

Outside the window at Jerome’s left elbow, a young woman appeared to be having a stroke. Well, in truth, she was staring right at him while applying lipstick, but her mouth movements were so exaggerated that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn her left side was completely frozen and her speech was slurred.

He pressed his nose to the glass. But for the glass, she could easily apply lipstick to his mouth, one way or another. But no.

He had dismissed the idea of death because the guy in the movie had a wife and a medical practice, neither of which he had. And besides, he didn’t know any young children, boys or girls.

“I’m not saying I want a relationship,” the woman at the next table said to her male companion. “But I don’t think we can ignore the fact that we slept together after the party.”

Jerome shook his head. You heard a lot of stories like this when you were invisible. People simply had no sense of privacy.

“And we had a great time,” the guy responded, gingerly placing his hand on hers, his body tensed to flee at the first sign of reciprocation. “But the fact that we work together complicates things.”

No matter how closely Jerome sat to the next table, no matter how obviously he ping-ponged between the speakers, the conversation never became more hushed. He heard every morbid detail, and no one seemed to care.

His attention to the burgeoning telenovela was distracted, however, by a furtive motion at another table. Several feet away, an old man in torn trousers and stained t-shirt palmed a tip left on an adjacent table.

That’s not kosher at any time, Jerome thought, but especially not a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Jerome wanted to say something but then the man used the funds to pay for his own coffee before snatching a ratty knapsack from the floor.

Was he homeless?

The waitress scooped the coins as she vaulted past Jerome with someone’s bill.

Grabbing his unopened book from the corner of the table, Jerome rose from his seat and fished through his pockets.

I don’t know why I even come here, he thought. Still, it didn’t seem right that the waitress should lose out simply so a homeless guy could keep warm.

From the far side of the restaurant, Tula watched Jerome drop a few coins on the table where the old man had stolen the tip. She smiled as she bookmarked the page she was reading, the melodrama at the next table making it too hard to concentrate.

She would have liked to have complimented the man on his beautiful gesture, but there wasn’t much point in even trying.

Tula, you see, had recently determined that she was invisible.