Portland Variety (Toronto)


Portland Variety

Portland Variety is aptly named: serving a menu that well ... has variety. Although mostly dominated with Spanish offerings such as pintxo surtidos there’s also Turkish influences with the baby eggplant byaldi or fusion dishes like the warm mushroom salad with yuzu dressing.  

The mushroom and arugula salad ($15) looks deceptively plain when presented – a mound of barely plain leaves dotted with dressing and pine nuts. But, upon digging into it, there’s a treasure trove of sweet honey mushrooms whose warmth ever so lightly melts the manchego cheese shavings. The yuzu dressing adds a well-balanced acidity but is salty enough to flavour everything despite there not being an abundance covering the arugula.

Portland Variety mushroom salad

Easily edible for brunch, dinner or even dessert is the house-made ricotta cheese ($11) – in fact, I highly recommend it for dessert if you’re a cheese plate fan. The soft creamy ricotta was warmed through to give off a light whiff of the cheese’s essence. Pile on a good helping onto each crostini, since there’s so little bread, then top with a chopped hazelnut, slice of sweet pear and drizzle of honey to make a bite that combines crunch and comfort.

Portland Variety ricotta

After waiting half an hour the 22oz rib eye ($48) arrives. Perhaps a little overcooked for my medium rare tastes and slightly too lean for rib eye (my friend fittingly described it closer to being a strip loin), it was nonetheless still tender. The porcini rub provided great flavouring but started flaking off as you ate it leaving a slightly dusty residue on the tongue – perhaps on account of being cooked too long.

Portland Variety ribeye

The steak is served with a side of caramelized onions providing some sweetness to the dish. Personally, I enjoyed it better with the cassava fries ($8) we ordered which were blisteringly hot and crunchy. However, your liking for the fries will largely depend on what piece you get, as my friends and I soon found out. The ones cut from the outside of the root vegetable are fluffier (really what you want in a fry) while the inside pieces were so hard that even my steak knife had its work cut out for it. Portland Variety should consider only using the less dense pieces for their fries and save the harder ones for something else – perhaps a stew will show up on their menu next?

Portland Variety cassava fries

When our dessert of beignets ($7) arrived my heart sank – who took the large fluffy airy beignets and turned them into hard looking Tim Bits?! Begrudgingly, I cut into one and found it surprisingly airy in the centre. Upon taking a bite, they were actually light and delicious. It was the salted caramel sauce that fell short as it’d be more appropriately described as a ‘spread’ then a dippable sauce. My friend, who does more baking then I, noted it’s likely due to the sugar being cooked too long that it started to crystalize. Who knows, maybe some cream mixed into it would help liquefy it into a smoother dip – as it did have good flavours. And if that doesn’t work, just stick with the more forgiving chocolate ganache instead.

Portland Variety beignets

If you’re looking for shareable plates with variety, Portland’s menu will have you covered. If you’re looking to carry a conversation, it’s likely not the best option. With the tables packed so closely together and the unforgiving acoustics of the back dining room, diners have to shout at each other just to be heard. Of course, it’d help if Portland Variety would just turn down the music and forego some revenue by removing a couple of tables (this should also help servers from having to squish through between chairs causing them to knock purses to the floor). Overall, the food was good and even shows creativity. But, the loud headache inducing atmosphere won’t get me back anytime soon.

Overall mark - 7* out of 10
* Mark purely based on food

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 587 King Street West

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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Did your hear Old School is officially opened?


Old School

Today, May 23, Old School officially opened, occupying the previous Hudson Kitchen’s airy corner lot. Executive Chef and Co-owner Brad Moore and Chef de Cuisine Ian Kapitan have curated a menu with traditional favourites with a slight twist – for breakfast you may be interested in the giant baby apple ($17), a baked mushroom cloud apple pie meets pancake?

Chef Moore has also brought over the delicious fried chicken from School. I’ve heard enough people talk about it and had my first taste at Old School’s media tasting – it was everything you’d want with a flakey crust, succulent chicken, flavourful spices and a drizzle of sweet syrup. You can try it within a dish at breakfast (fried chicken n’ waffles - $19), lunch (colonel sandwich - $10) or dinner (colonel’s bucket - $19).


Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to taste more that evening but heard from Parv# that their sliders and brisket were also delicious. Their menu certainly leans heavy towards the carnivore with ribs, smoked pork, meat loaf and other BBQed meats sure to cause hearts to go a flutter. And they have scoured the USA from cities such as Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina and Austin for inspiration, bringing the taste to Canada.

For those who’d rather eat in the comfort of their home, there’s also a General Store at the back with a selection of smoked meats, baked goods, snacks and more. The media event displayed a wall of delicious looking condiments (bacon mayo anyone) and a low-fat chocolate syrup that I hear the Chef loves.  



Old School has you covered three meals a day; opened from 9am to late. The restaurant notes, “Old School will make you feel right at home. A place to kick-back, relax and enjoy life’s simple pleasures.” The post is but informational in nature as it’d hardly be fair for me to provide a rating on a tasting of fried chicken alone. So, I’ll definitely need to return for a proper meal and provide everyone with an actual review.


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 800 Dundas Street West


Gourmet Malaysia (Toronto)


Gourmet Malaysia

When I’m in the mood for bold flavours, Malaysian cuisine is one of my top choices. With Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Thai and various other influences, Malaysian food offers dippable curries, rich soups and plenty of stir-fried options – making choosing what to eat the hardest choice.

Their curries have the optimal spiciness level for my taste – not tongue numbingly hot, just enough to taste and appreciate the spices. The chicken roti canai ($7.99) was a great starter; large cubes of tender chicken and potatoes cooked in the fragrant curry. But, it’s the three pieces of roti canai that make the dish special, their fluffy texture very different from the relatively flat Jamaican and Indian roti I’ve had in the past. You’ll also find it heavier as the dough is grilled in oil rather than being baked like its unleavened counterparts. But, its flaky crevices are such great vessels for soaking up the light curry.  

Gourmet Malaysia chicken curry

After reading Xiao Eats review, I knew the crispy butter prawns ($12.99) were a must. A heaping dish of fried bites soon arrived, sure to excite any Carnival lover’s heart. The shrimp were lightly dusted, deep fried, then stir fried with a nest of crispy salty bits, which our waitress explained was fried cream (traditional recipes use an egg mixture). If you’ve ever had pork floss, the dry brittle texture is similar to this, except lighter in consistency and flavour.

Gourmet Malaysia butter prawns

Despite its name, there really isn’t much of a buttery taste. In the end, the dish was a decent rendition of fried shrimp but lacked any spices to make it exciting. While researching more about this relatively new dish, many call for ample amounts of curry leaves to be mixed into the airy topping; there were a few at Gourmet Malaysia, just not nearly enough to make it as fragrant as others describe.

To finish, two noodles completed the meal: one stir-fried while the other sitting in broth. The Penang char kwei teow ($7.80) is certainly worth ordering. Thinner flat rice noodles are stir-fried quickly over very high heat to give it a wonderful wok essence while retaining its springy texture. Indonesian and Chinese flavours comingle from the shrimp paste and soy sauce seasonings, with squid, shrimp, bean sprouts and green onion rounding out the noodles.

Gourmet Malaysia char kwei teow

The tom yam seafood noodles in soup ($8.50) provided the spicy kick I was craving that evening - the hot and sour broth hits you in the back of the throat. Slices of fish cake, mushroom and smaller shrimp added to the vermicelli makes the bowl a meal but still relatively light. It was smart of Gourmet Malaysia to use vermicelli with the dish as its thinner and has a texture that allowed small bits of lemon grass to stick to it, while dense enough to resist getting too soft.

Gourmet Malaysia tom yum

With the summer months finally descending upon us, I urge you to look past BBQ and picnics. Consider the cuisine of climates much hotter than us and allow their bold flavours to entice your appetite.

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 4466 Sheppard Avenue East

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____________________________
Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!


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Cold Tea Bar (Toronto)




Cold Tea is just cool. It’s not on a rooftop, celebrities likely won’t frequent the place and in fact there’s not even a menu and they only accept cash. But, its “can only find if you’re in the know” location and knowledgeable mixologists gives the bar a Manhattan vibe, which is cool for me. There’s no frills here, the bar is essentially a room with simply painted walls and plain wooden furniture. Just do yourself a favour and try to sit at one of the five seats; it’s a treat to see all the cocktail making action.

Visiting early on a Friday evening after dinner, we were the first people at the place. But, the tranquility didn’t last long as within fifteen minutes others started trickling in. Cold Tea’s vibe is casual and the first bartender filled us in on details of the place: from its varying hours to explaining the patio is a great Sunday hangout as local restaurants come by to serve eats in the summer.
Personally, I enjoy ordering drinks without a menu. Whatever I’m craving at the time is described and voila it arrives. If you know what you want, like my husband, then simply name it. He started with a dark and stormy ($10), a strong concoction that adds hair to your chest with the black rum and ginger beer mix.


For me, I felt like something, “gin-based, not too sweet … and if there’s cucumber in there than even better.” So, he made me a gin gimlet ($10), the classic gin, lime and soda but with some cucumber puree and garnish to satisfy my craving.


You can tell the people who work here are serious about making drinks. A second Asian gentlemen arrived shortly thereafter and prepared our second round. Watching him make a cocktail reminds me of sitting in the kitchen at a Chef’s table. This time, my husband wanted something “Hendricks-based” and me a “gin fizz”. After carefully contemplating our requests he whipped up a golden vesper martini ($12) for him – suggesting that they use something other than the Hendricks as with all the other alcohols, it wouldn’t be required and why pay more? It’s this knowledge that we truly appreciate and the outcome a strong drink that starts to mellow out as it goes down. 


The gin fizz ($12) was more difficult. Remembering the Ramo’s version I had in NOLA, it felt like the perfect end to the evening: an easy sipping drink that has a dessert-like quality to it. At Cold Tea, he substituted another liqueur to eliminate the cream requirements – yet the drink still have that rich smoothness to it. Vigorously shaken along with lemon juice, sugar, carbonated water, egg whites it arrived in its milkshake glory.


But, along the way the bartender carefully refined the taste (a few drops here, another ingredient there) and siphoned off small tastes of it with a straw to make sure it was perfect. It wasn’t a mad rush of just pouring things, shaking and adding to a glass. He respected the craft of making cocktails and you could taste his care.

Cold Tea, aside from the BBQ Sundays, is really a place for drinks. A small dim sum booth, at the entrance, offers some carby comfort if you’ve had one too many for the evening. And it’s the first sign that you’re in the right place. So, if you want to also be in-the-know head down to Kensington Market and look for the Kensington Mall.


Enter the building and walk down the long hallway until you find an unlabeled door to the left with a red light above it.



Open the door and you’ll be in a dark hallway. Continue onwards, make a right and you’ll see the small dim sum cart – you have arrived! Good luck finding the place, it’s an excitingly impressive place to bring someone to. Well, maybe except for a first date … as the walk through an empty building into a door with red light thing may just creep them out. 

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 58 Kensington Avenue 

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Magic Noodle 大塊樹 (Toronto)



Noodles can satisfy any meal for Chinese individuals. Some may feel like a bowl of carbs is rather heavy and should be restricted to the later meal of the day. But, visit a casual dining spot, cha chan tang, and view their breakfast menu and you’ll find stir fried noodles (often paired with congee), macaroni and ham in soup and instant noodles. With that in mind, it may not seem as strange that Magic Noodle is opened 24 hours a day. Yes, you heard right, a 24 hours a day place serving soupy noodles and other small eats. Luckily, they aren’t by my house or 1am noodles may be a regular occurrence.

At Magic Noodle, they prepare two in-house noodles. The first, hand pulled involves mixing a ball of dough for a long time until it develops an elastic consistency. Then the chef will begin rolling it out, stretching it out arms-length, folding/twisting it over and continuing the stretching and folding process until it gets to the desired thinness. While visiting the restaurant you’ll be able to see the chef prepare it from the open kitchen.


For the first visit, the options seem endless with varying noodle sizes (seven choices) and different protein combinations.  Thinking the house special magic noodle’s ($7.99 for small) picture looked amazing, we order this with the fifth thickness (traditional). Like most food advertising, the actual dish paled in comparison from the menu: the sunny side egg in the picture became an overdone made-ahead-of-time one, while the clear soup base with hints of red chili oil was tinged yellow and tasted of curry instead. But, the bowl was similar sized and had the brisket, beef, turnip, tendon and garnishes pictured.


With fresh pasta it’s hard for it to ever be al dante – after all it has just been made with a ball of soft dough moments from serving. So, it’s natural for the noodles to seem soft and really it’s the delicate silky texture that people enjoy. For me, the noodles were decent but was a tad mushy especially since some sections were stuck together leaving me with spoonfuls of mashed dough. I’d likely go for a thinner size next time as I’d imagine the noodles will cook faster so even if it clumps it wouldn’t be as noticeable.


It was the lightly curried flavour soup that bothered me the most. With past Chinese hand-pulled noodle experiences I’ve become accustomed to beef broth or the hong siu soy sauce version. Both naturally paired better with the beef and doesn’t detract from the noodles as much.    

The second version they serve is the Shanxi knife-sliced noodle. The chef holds a large ball of cold dough, in an angle he uses a sharp knife to directly slice slivers into boiling water. It’s impressive that Magic’s slices are so long it still resembles a noodle. Silky and smooth they were good. But, with the rapid slicing, it’s inevitable that some will be thicker than others, which does lead to uneven cooking consistencies. For this, we went with the simpler sliced beef with noodles ($7.99) which I found is a better choice.


Magic Noodle’s portion sizes are huge (it’s difficult to even finish a small). But, if you have extra room the fried pancake with leek ($2.99) is definitely worth ordering. There’s a great crust that’s not oily, the dough is thin and filled with a substantial portion of what I believe to be chives (although the menu notes leeks), scrambled egg and bean curd thread noodles.

 So after a night of clubbing or if you wake up at 6am with a craving for comfort food, look no further Magic Noodle has you covered. Just bring an appetite as you’ll be satisfied for days.

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 2190 McNicoll Avenue

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____________________________
Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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El Patio (Toronto)



The space at the back of El Caballito has transformed into El Patio, a bright cheery outdoor bar with tons of tables and seats. Sure, the surrounding buildings and dumpsters detracts from atmosphere but with the large floral mural, gorgeous rattan light fixtures and spacious bar & out door kitchen flanking the other sides, the imperfections soon blend into the background.

#Parv and I attended a pre-opening event as part of an Amex Front-of-the-Line deal: $100 afforded us six drinks, ten small bites and chips & dips (in hindsight not really a bargain but did allow for a first look at El Patio before one too many margaritas have been spilt). Plus, the cheerful sombreros looked brand new and may have been used for one too many pictures. 

The Mezcal mule ($9.50 or $48 for a pitcher) continues the ginger beer cocktail trend. Slightly sweet, fizzy with a touch of lime, the cocktail made with Mezcal (an agave distilled spirit) was refreshing; nice summertime choice. 


A tower of salsas (the tangy green tomatillo one my favourite) and pail of chips arrived soon after, followed by a plate of simply adorned guacamole. Given the tortilla chips were heavily salted, I'm glad El Patio left the dips relatively neutral. However, the non-spicy salsas' delicate flavours were somewhat overpowered by the chip: a bit more cilantro could help.                   

  

Rather than ordering off a menu, the food circulated as passed bites in exchange for food tickets. For some, like the spoon of juicy, salty, tender ceviche, it worked as the dish lent itself to sitting around.


But, for the hot items, unless you sat in front of the trailer kitchen, they often arrived lukewarm. The mushroom taco's shell turned cold and hard. Or the arancini, which is best piping hot to enjoy the creamy risotto and crispy exterior in perfect harmony.   


Generally, their food was heavily salted. The pickled cactus tacos, for example, was already salty with it's crispy shell, strong pickled cactus but then further topped with cotija cheese. But then, it's likely a brilliant entrepreneurial move as salty food calls for more drinks. 


In the end, I'd leave the food to Los Colibris, which is conveniently located on the second floor. But, to enjoy the outdoors before (or after) dinner, El Patio is a small hidden oasis.  



How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 220 King Street West

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Branca (Toronto)



Branca meat

You wouldn’t expect to find an Argentinian inspired grill house in a cozy corner house. Blink, especially if you’re driving, and you may miss the conspicuous neon Branca sign in the window. Surprisingly, with all the talk of roasting meats, there wasn’t even a scent in the air to guide our way. But, my dutiful husband looked up its location ahead before heading out and stopped our driver in the nick of time.  

Of course, a nice robust wine is a must with red meat – especially one from Mendoza (there are plenty on the list). But, before the mains, their cocktails sounded so enticing that I had to get a Pisco sour ($12) to start. My first experience with this Chilian brandy, it was light with the lime juice and aromatic bitters… dangerously easy drinking. The dark rum mojito ($12) was packed with fresh mint leaves; another refreshing simple cocktail to enjoy during the summer months.

Branca cocktailBranca cocktail

As soon the order was in, a bowl of chipas, Branca’s version of a bread basket, arrived before us. The Argentine cheese bread is light and airy, like choux pastry except made with tapioca flour. Filled with melted cheese studded with peppers I could have easily eaten all three myself.

Branca cheese bread

Luckily, as my appetite was whet, the empanadas ($6) soon followed. Served piping hot, I was torn – let it cool down or dive in immediately so I can enjoy the molten cheese and corn mixture? In the end, I cut it into smaller pieces as a compromise. Filled with roasted corn, poblano peppers, gruyere and fontina they’re a great way nibble to start on.

Branca empanadas

The cuttlefish or sepia ($15) perfectly showcased the seafood and all its parts: the pigment from its ink sac helped to colour the cuttlefish such a vibrant reddish-brown hue while its ink acted as a savoury sauce. The saffron fregola, little balls that glide across the tongue, was specked with spicy chorizo and sweet roasted cherry tomatoes.

Branca cuttlefish

Branca uses the Argentine grilling method al sador, where meats are splayed and skewered across metal crosses. What looks like a torture device for us ensures the meat has access to the hot wood-burning fire. So, a visit to Branca isn’t complete until you’ve fried something from their grilled section – we tried three.

The first, the entrana ($19) or skirt steak was my favourite. Cooked medium rare at the thinner slices and a touch above rare at the thicker parts, it’s beef the way it’s meant to be enjoyed – cooked, simply seasoned and then left alone. Eaten by itself or topped with a condiment ($1/each), it was equally good:

  • Chimichurri – vinegary, filled with herbs and with a lighter touch on the garlic than most. Best with the skirt steak and suckling pig to help cut through the fat.
  • Roasted garlic – cloves of sweet mild garlic sitting in an oil, delicious to eat but personally didn’t seem to go with anything.
  • Poblano romesco – a creamy sauce with a light touch of smokiness, which for me went best with the short ribs.
  • Harissa – a fiery chili sauce that’s flavourful at first before the zing from the heat slowly builds. In my opinion, it tend to overpower the meats, but I didn’t mind it on the pulled pork.
Branca skirt steak

The tira ($26), a meaty short rib, isn’t the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the braised variety – after all we’re cooking over fire here. But, it was still easily chewable, despite its leanness, and of all the meats lent itself to pairing with the sauces (since it was rather neutral in taste).

Branca short rib

On Friday and Saturdays you can order the chancho ($34) a dish feature four different parts from a suckling pig: pulled pork, belly, tenderloin and chicharrón. Now Magazine writes about the three day process of making the dish – brining it with an aromatic mixture for two days before cooking over the wood-burning fire for an entire third day.

Branca suckling pig

I was a little disappointed that the skin wasn’t left on to get the juicy meat, thin fat layer and crisp skin combination I love so much about pork. Rather, the skin was removed of its fat and fried, served as a chicharrón or pork rind. At first it seemed a tad bland having eaten it right after a chimichurri laden piece of skirt steak, but after a swig of water and retrying it, I found the succulent meat to be quite flavourful – the taste of pork shone through (but not in a gross gamey way). For me, the highlight was the slice of pork belly slice having retained a thin layer of chewy skin and the fat rendered but still evident in the meat.   

A mound of intensely crispy and salty potato strings ($6) arrives with it – very hot but could have been drained a bit more to reduce the oiliness. But, these were addictive, I couldn’t stop snacking on just one more before the dish finally got taken away.

Branca fries

The smoked collards ($6) could be a meal in itself with the creamy sauce, smoked pork pieces and chick peas. With such heavy meats, the side was too decadent as I’d much rather have something plain and light; perhaps the green salad would have been a better option.

Branca smoked collards

Do yourself a favour and save room for the panqueques ($7). Filled with a sweet and salty dulce de leche, the crêpes are rolled and lightly brûléed on top to give it a touch of crunch. The non-sweetened chantilly cream added creaminess without adding another layer of sugariness to the already flavourful dessert. I wonder if Branca would let me return for just a helping of this dessert.


Branca crepes

Service is attentive and friendly, although following suggested order sizes (one starter, main and side per person) would leave tables with too much food - two starters, three mains and two sides was more than enough for our table of three.  At Branca, ingredients are left to its own devices. Some diners will appreciate this, allowing them to enjoy the true taste of the protein. Others may find dishes uninteresting, but I guess that’s when all those sauces will save the day. Regardless, bring a carnivore to Branca … I’m sure they’ll thank you as they leave dinner in a blissful meat-filled dream.

Overall mark - 8 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 1727 Dundas Street West

Follow me on twitter to chat, be notified about new posts and more - https://twitter.com/GastroWorldBlog

____________________________
Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!


Is That It? I Want More!

Other Gastro World posts similar to this:


Branca Restaurant on Urbanspoon