Café Belong (Toronto)


Nestled within the Evergreen Brickworks, Café Belong benefits from its proximity to the year round farmer’s market. Perhaps perusing the fresh food stalls beforehand influenced my meal choice, but their vegetarian dishes sounded fantastic and I didn’t miss an ounce of meat!

Replacing ham, the sautéed kale and mushrooms eggs benedict ($23) incorporated plump mushrooms that provided a meaty bite. As the poached egg oozed over everything, the molten yolk was captured into the not overly done kale’s crevices, making for a cleaner dish.  A layer of sweet caramelized onions sat on top of the doughy soft buttermilk biscuit; it was a bit sugary for my taste, but thankfully the buttery hollandaise helped to add back a savoury element.


Although the frittata ($19) is listed under the “cold kitchen” section of the menu, it still arrives warm. The cubes of roasted butternut squash at the bottom makes the egg dish heartier and I rather enjoyed the grilled red onion and wilted spinach that adds a bite and colourful contrast to the frittata. Just make sure to smear on some of the creamy goat cheese (?) purée from the plate, the tangy saltiness makes for a great addition.


A perfect “dessert” for sharing is their fluffy pancakes ($20 for three). It starts with the requisite eggy and buttery batter and is topped with ricotta, granola and stewed apples. Personally, I found the crunchy granola clusters detracted from the pillowy soft pancakes, but it did pair nicely with the large soft cinnamon apple chunks. The toppings aren’t overly sweet, so you’ll want to pay the extra $4 for warmed maple syrup – pancakes  aren’t the same without this wonderful nectar.


If you’re like me and tend to opt for meaty options during brunch, I encourage you to head to Café Belong and give our plant-based friends a try. After all, maybe Meatless Mondays could easily become Botanical Brunch Saturdays?

Overall mark - 7 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 550 Bayview Avenue (at the Evergreen Brickworks)

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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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Cafe Belong Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fancy Chinese Cuisine 利嘉盛 for dim sum (Markham)


I may have found a new go-to place for dim sum: Fancy Chinese Cuisine. However, I’m hesitant to label the restaurant with the title as its predecessors over the last few years gradually were replaced – mainly as the wait times during their special pricing hours became unbearable. 

Fancy also has the special (between 8:30am – 11:30am or after 1:30pm) where anything classified as small, medium or large is $2.98. Nonetheless, even if you dine during the prime lunch period (11:30am – 1:30pm) prices aren’t much higher: medium dishes are $3.28 and large/special sizes a mere $1 more for $3.98.

These relatively stable prices means there’s less people rushing to get in before 11:30; most visits we were seated within a short wait when arriving before 10:00am. Finally! A place that caters to my impatient personality.  

Fancy also executes dim sum in an OG fashion. Sure, they’re not shaped into Instagram friendly flowers or animals, but they do offer strong flavours and traditional elements. The shrimp dumpling (har gow) and pork dumpling (siu mai; both L) are solid versions of the favourites – the shrimp not overcooked and the wrapper relatively thin on the har gow while the siu mai has the customary juicy pork mixture studded with shrimp.


The shrimp and chives dumpling (L) is also decent: a large size and the chives adding a herby element to the dumpling.


Rather than layering peas or watercress under the steamed beef ball (S), the chef opts for a sheet of parchment paper instead, which makes separating the balls a breeze. The recipe could use a bit more coriander, but the consistency was bang on. Personally, I prefer the beef ball Chew Chow style (M), essentially the same meat balls but served in a broth with watercress. The soup is your typical salty MSG version, but keeps the beef warmer and moister.


With seven fillings available for rice rolls, there’s something for everyone. Having tried the steamed shrimp (L) and BBQ pork (M), they’re both good: enough ingredients so each bite has filling and slits made to allow the soy sauce to permeate further. Although the rice sheets are on the thicker side, the wrapper was still silky and soft.


On the other hand, the fried Chinese dough rice roll (M) was terrible, where the dough fritter was either stale or so over fried that it shatters into oily shards.


Similarly, the conpoy with dumpling in soup (L) was a disappointment. The dish was overcooked rendering the shrimp into small bites of rubber and the actual wrapper mushy.


Normally considered an extra-large dish at other restaurants, you can still order the beef tendon in special sauce (L) at the special pricing. Tendon has a soft chewy gelatinous texture that’s an acquired taste – even for myself, it wasn’t until my adult years that I started enjoying the dish. Fancy’s “special” sauce is a cross between the sweet red sauce used with chicken feet, a spice (perhaps curry?), and tons of garlic. The dish certainly doesn’t lack flavours.


Similarly, the cuttlefish with curry sauce (M) is one of the more powerful ones I’ve had over the last few years.  


The chicken and mushroom steamed rice (L) is served in the typical clay pot. Despite skimping on the soy sauce (a mere tablespoon), there’s sufficient amounts of chicken, black fungus and golden needle (a Chinese herb) to make up for it.


While the mixed meat and seafood congee (L) looks plain, once you dig into the bowl you’ll find a decent portion of fish and pork rind mixed throughout – both white ingredients that simply blends right into the rice. The salted pork and preserved egg congee (L) offers more contrast and I’m surprised by the large pieces of meat and egg within it, it seemed as if every spoon was filled with the ingredients.


Fancy’s dessert offerings, on the menu, does seem skimpy with five choices. However, it’s augmented by options pushed around in carts, so you may want to save room for those. The dumpling with black sesame paste (S) was sweet enough with plenty of coconut, peanut and sugar inside. I loved the sesame casing, which was soft, chewy and fresh.  


How wonderful it feels to have a place to regularly visit again. I appreciate the short waits for a table and my parents love the small touches such as asking whether you want a newspaper with the meal (complimentary and yours to keep afterwards). It’s friendly and comforting, a restaurant you’ll likely find me at most Sundays, on a going forward basis.

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 7750 Kennedy Road

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:


Fancy Chinese Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Szechuan Legend 半畝園 (Toronto)


Gather a group of ten before heading to Szechuan Legend as their set meals, especially on weekdays when they are even cheaper, are an amazing deal. The $198 weeknight non-spicy menu had enough variety to satisfy.

Of course, you’ll get your seafood fix with a medium four pound lobster done “fishermen wharf” style (essentially deep fried and then stir fried with garlic and chilies). It’s a nice change from the traditional ginger and onion and adds a spicy salty kick to the lobster. Afterwards, the tomalley is used in the fried rice, giving it a sticky and rich (albeit slightly fishy) essence.


The crustacean parade continue with two Dungeness crabs simply done with ginger and onion. Both seafood dishes are decent – not overcooked and incorporates enough seasoning without overpowering the seafood.


Although it’s not really Szechuan, a large steamed golden tilapia, is also included to counteract all the fried dishes. Again, the cooking time is bang on so that the fish flakes away from the bone without the texture turning tough.


Other seafood dishes completing the meal includes a Peking style sea cucumber – a sea creature that despite its name is not actually vegetarian. Normally, I’m not a fan of its soft blubbery texture, but at Szechuan Legend it’s chopped into small pieces and quickly stir fried (rather than braised) keeping them crunchy. Lastly, a plate of vermicelli noodles containing a fair amount of seafood and vegetables; it could use more salt as it’s colourful but tepid.


A favourite for my family is Peking duck, so we were in luck when the set menu included one done three ways. Traditionally, the highlight is the slices of skin cocooned in flour wrappers. They’re fine at Szechuan legend – the skin crispy (to the point the duck may have been flash fried) and the wrappers impossibly thin. Yet, the duck needed more seasoning as without the hoisin sauce, it’d be pretty bland.


On the other hand, the lettuce wraps and duck bone soup arguably steals the show. Large chunks of duck meat is reserved for the stir-fried lettuce wrap mixture and the Styrofoam rice noodles are left out in favour of crunchy vegetables and water chestnuts. There’s little meat within the duck bone soup, but the restaurant adds soft cubes of tofu and quickly boiled napa cabbage to make it hearty. A hot boil of soup is a nice toasty way to end off the meal.


The sole vegetable dish included with the set meal is stir fried baby bok choy with shrimp… boring and rather unforgettable compared to everything else. For this reason, we added an order of the stir fried lotus root ($8.99), which has a great crunchy refreshing texture.


The execution on the crispy half chicken ($8.99) varies. Since we had a larger table, we ordered a full chicken and each half arrived separately. The first looked man-handled and was starting to border on dry, while the second better but the breast a tad undercooked. Even so, we all agreed the sweet and spicy sauce accompanying the chicken was fantastic and helped mask the flaws.


In need of more starches, the seafood fried rice cakes ($8.99) were a nice change from noodles. The chewiness of the rice cakes pairs nicely with the crunchy black fungus; pork slivers, shrimp and napa cabbage completes the dish.


On both visits, dessert consisted of red bean soup. The restaurant’s rendition incorporates what looks and smells like Baby’s Breath. Given a limited amount of sugar was used in the dessert, there was little flavour to hide the floral taste. Nonetheless, despite tasting strange, the red bean soup did have a digestive effect after a heavy meal.


Even without the lower pricing, I’d suggest visiting on a weeknight. The restaurant is generally understaffed so service tends to be slow even when the dining room isn’t full. All the same, Szechuan Legend is a respectable restaurant; for the most part, the food is tasty despite being affordable. You’ll leave full and satisfied … just with a floral aftertaste in your mouth.

Overall mark - 7 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 3280 Midland Avenue

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:


Szechuan Legend Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Azure (Toronto)


Torontonians sometimes forget about the restaurants that populates their hotels, with the exception of those manned by celebrity chef imports. Perhaps it’s the sentiment that the restaurants are for tourists and travelers, those where expense isn’t an issue, surely not for you and I that inhabit the city daily?

It’s nice to be reminded that there are benefits to visiting these establishments: there’s generally tables available for walk-ins (after all, it’d be in poor taste to have to turn down hotel guests), the menus tend to be varied (allowing groups to accommodate tastes and dietary restrictions), and their dining rooms are oh so comfortable.

At Azure, the flagship restaurant in the Intercontinental Toronto Centre, their window canopy opens up the space and offers a great people-watching vantage point. The dark wood and plush velvet furnishings helps keep the dining room cozy and comfortable – you can sit at the table for hours. Unlike the current trend of cramming small tables (sometimes communal *shudder*) together making for a horribly loud atmosphere, Azure gives you space to converse and a sense of privacy that I often crave. Ah… tranquility.

Their service is impeccably polished and efficient, common traits of the hotel industry, yet still down-to-earth and approachable. Even before asking what we wanted to drink, our server Coco chatted care freely with us, giving us time to settle down and build a rapport. In quick succession, a basket of warm rolls were presented and a generous glass of red wine to fully take the winter chills out of my bones.

In no time, the first Winterlicious ($48) course was served. Similar to a ceviche, the escabeche marinates the octopus and scallop in an acidic solution. However, in this case, the seafood is poached first before the marinade so the texture remains tender and the tartness is mellow and manageable. I did find it a tad under seasoned (a sprinkle of salt from the table helped rectify this), given the citrus vinaigrette is light.


Amongst the meaty octopus and delicate scallop were crunchy shaved fennel and endives, juicy orange and lime segments, and creamy avocado. A delicate and surprisingly bright start – a glimpse into the warmer spring months ahead of us.

Despite being cooked through (my first instinct is to look for the slightly translucent rose centre), the grainy mustard coated salmon was still moist. The sear from a high heat helped develop a lovely golden crunchy crust and locked in its fatty juices. It sat on top of a bed of crunchy shaved fennel and radicchio that just ever so slightly wilts from the salmon’s heat. All the juices and flavours meld into the fluffy savoury citrusy couscous on the bottom.

Azure certainly doesn’t skimp on portions. A huge port and black cherry osso bucco arrives with an equally sizeable marscarpone crispy risotto cake. The veal shank was braised just long enough to make the meat tender, but not overly done so that the bone marrow disintegrated (save a piece of bread to scoop the gelee marrow onto).

Although I found the centre of the risotto cake too mushy, it was my husband’s favourite part of the dish. Mine, aside from the osso bucco, was the wilted arugula that had a lemony gremolata mixed into it. After a heavy meal, it was exactly the last savoury bite I needed.


If only the tiramisu parfait had more espresso (or in this case the boozy Kahlúa liqueur) and less of the powdery cocoa on top the dessert would have been lovely. The mascarpone mousse was creamy and luxurious, the savoiardi cookies adding a bit of cake to the tiramisu.


A perfect sphere of ice cold honeycomb ice cream sat atop the slightly warm apple tart. The pastry was good – the shortbread crust not overly buttery, large chunks of apples and a sweet enough crumble. I felt bad leaving some unfinished, but what a huge portion after the substantial mains.


Even if the comfortable atmosphere doesn’t convince you that hotel dining isn’t just for tourists, the generously proportioned dishes could – mains are pricier but you won’t leave hungry. Of course, you can always visit them during special occasions when they have prix fixe deals: aside from Winter/Summerlicious there’s also drink and menu specials on key dates (this Valentine’s Azure is offering a $70 menu with $14 cocktails).

Torontonians, next time you’re looking for a comfortable dining experience, consider a hotel. After all, why would you only treat yourself while travelling?

Overall mark - 7 out of 10
Disclaimer: The above meal was complimentary. Rest assured, as noted in my mission statement, I will always provide an honest opinion.
Is Winterlicious worth it (based on my meal selection)?
Winterlicious - $48
Regular menu - $63 - octopus ($18), salmon ($31) and dessert ($14)
Savings - $15 or 24%
How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 225 Front Street West (in the Intercontinental Hotel)

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!
Azure - InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Barnsteiner’s (Toronto)

I’ve heard fond recounts of the Corner House, Herbert and Michelle Barnsteiner’s previous restaurant. Sadly, I’ve never visited the iconic establishment, so hearing the couple was back with the new Barnsteiner’s seemed like an ideal second chance. Beautifully executed meats, wonderful spaetzle, come to me now.

Indeed, their food is delicious, but the kitchen’s consistency is a problem. Gordon Ramsey would throw a temper tantrum seeing the state of the dishes being served side-by-side. Take the charred Brussels sprouts Caesar salad: while some guests had what you’d expect the salad to be (about ten halves of roasted Brussels sprouts with other fixings), my friend and I both received a plate of what looked like a regular Caesar.

After foraging around the romaine and endives, I finally found a single split sprout. To be fair, what I could salvage was delicious with a wonderful caramelized crust and the creamy dressing not overly rich with a heavy hand on the garlic. Aside from the greens, there were also large pieces of smoky bacon and plenty of shaved pecorino … just don’t expect to actually get Brussels sprouts. It felt like I was playing Where’s Waldo? with the salad.

The black angus striploin’s consistency improved a bit – we all at least received two slices of the requisite beef and it was cooked beautifully (a perfect medium rare; juicy and meaty). Everyone even received similar portions of the creamy squashed roasted fingerling potatoes and crispy vericot beans. Yet, the red wine jus was a miss: one (unpictured) dish looked like someone cleaned the plate with Bounty and absorbed most of the sauce with it.


While the menu describes the espresso and hazelnut pannacotta as “tiramisu-ish”, aside from the espresso and perhaps some cream, it’s not tiramisu. Nor does it need to be, as the dessert is delicious on its own. The shallow mason jar may look plain (actually all the desserts were not picturesque), but the flavour is bang on. The pannacotta has a luscious consistency and the creamy espresso sauce on top adds a wonderful flavour. It really shows, sometimes looks don’t matter.


Barnsteiner is a great traditional bistro, but also has an old school mentality towards service. Sure, the staff are professional and things arrive as ordered, but there’s a utilitarian frankness to their service – good luck getting a smile or joke from anyone.

Their technology also seems outdated – when we requested separate bills, we were advised that it can be done, but we should have put in the request while ordering. Maybe I’m succumbing to the millennial mindset, but other restaurants actually ask whether we want individual bills while paying … if it’s such an easy request for them, why is it such an arduous task at Barnstainer? Tip to the restaurant: if splitting checks takes preparation, consider telling staff to warn customers at the beginning the meal - a simple “and will you need separate invoices tonight?” would suffice. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love old school restaurants – their private dark atmospheres, spacious seating, and even mains that arrive with all the sides. There’s something comforting about them and the dim lighting means less technological distractions – why bother taking a zillion photos when they’ll be grainy anyways?

It’s a shame, as Barnsteiner could have been a place I’d really enjoy – but having inconsistent food and unaccommodating service doesn’t make me want return. Maybe it’s the old-fashioned attitude or the Barnsteiner’s are comfortable relying on their previous Corner House clientele, but can a restaurant occupying a convenient location serving decent food be enough? If invited for a meal, I’ll still happily eat there, but recommend it to others? Not so much. 

Overall mark - 6 out of 10
Is Winterlicious worth it (based on my meal selection)?
Winterlicious - $38
Regular menu - $50 - salad* ($12), steak ($27) and dessert* ($11)
Savings - $12 or 24%

* Price based on Barn Caesar salad and other desserts
How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 1 Balmoral Avenue

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:


Barnsteiner's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato