Poutine La Banquise (Montreal)


How the poutine came to be an iconic Canadian dish, I’ll never know. Sure, it’s wildly delicious – after all, how could fries doused in gravy and cheese not be? But, is it actually better than the plethora of seafood and wild game offerings our country could be recognized for?

Somehow, in all my visits to Quebec, this dish has eluded me. Until this year, my only encounters with poutine generally revolved around food court creations or late night hangover suppressants from younger years. So, when I finally re-visited the birthplace of poutine, a trip to La Banquise was crucial.

Firstly, the restaurant is opened 24 hours, so I knew I could have the heart clogging delight for any meal. Secondly, with so many varieties, there’d be something to fill cravings. Everything still starts with your basic base of fries, poutine sauce, and cheese curds. Afterwards, a selection of meats (bacon, hot dog, smoked meat), additional condiments (guacamole, salsa) or vegetables (onion, peppers, mushrooms) can round out the creation.

For my first taste of the “authentic” dish, sticking with la classique ($7.25 for the regular) seemed crucial: the three staple ingredients without any of the frills. After the long wait, it’s bittersweet to report that the poutine was good, but no huge dissimilarity from the non-Quebecois offerings.

The fries were dense and a somewhat soft texture, the “poutine” sauce resembled gravy. I know, it’s supposed to be different but, honestly, I can’t tell the distinction. There was a bit more pepper and perhaps it’s due to mixing chicken and beef broth; whatever change, it’s slight and barely noticeable.

La Banquise did use one expert touch: layering the cheese curds throughout the fries. Every bite had some cheese, if only the sauce was hotter so the curds could actually melt.

Should you actually travel to Quebec just to try our national treasure? Likely not. But, if you’re in the area and have a hankering for something indulgent, La Banquise has enough fries, cheese and poutine sauce for everyone. 

How To Find Them
 Location: Montreal, Canada
 Address: 994 Rue Rachel East

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Leña Restaurante (Toronto)


Just try to resist digging into the hot plate of crab cazuela ($14) as soon as it arrives - it will be hard, but trust me, patience is worth it. Instead, make sure you have another small plate to nibble on first, while waiting the requisite five minutes.


Looking back, I should have reached for one of the gaucho empanadas ($13) instead. Supplied to Leña from Susana, Chef Anthony's wife, they’re good, if it weren’t so heavy on the olives. Otherwise, everything else was tasty: the pastry soft and bread-like and the beef and egg filling well spiced. A “chiminasty” sauce (chimichurri combined with Anthony’s scotch bonnet laced nasty sauce) goes nicely with the empanadas and helps to drown out the brininess of the olives.


Afterwards, then you can go back to the crab dip – so why have I made you wait so long? It’s not because it’s piping hot, but rather the fresh crackers that come with the dish. If the crackers haven’t cooled yet, they become a strange texture where the edges are crispy but the middle hard and almost stale tasting; add the crab on and things just get chewy. However, when they’re cooled, the crackers become crispy and pairs nicely with the dip.


The crab cazuela is fantastic. Large chunks of the seafood combined with a light dose of creamy lemony aioli, spinach and fennel slivers on the bottom, a cheesy parmigiano reggiano gratin on top. Unlike some dips where the creamy cheese sauce is most pronounced, you can definitely taste and see the crab – it’s the star of the dish.

Right off the bat, our waitress introduces Leña as an Argentinian restaurant with inspirations from Italian and Spanish cuisine. Having never been to Argentina, perhaps my expectation of a robust steak that has a strong meaty flavour is unfounded. So, when the meek striploin ($44) arrives, the fantasy is soon dashed.

To be fair, if the steak was served at O&B Café instead of Leña, I would have enjoyed it. The meat was tender and the fried duck egg perfectly cooked, oozing its runny yolk over everything. But, for a restaurant that’s representing Argentina, the tepid steak lacked the smokiness from being barbequed on an asado. Really, aside from the chimichurri and yucca fries, there’s not much Argentinian about the steak.

Another dish you’ll likely never find in Argentina is the pan-seared Arctic char ($29). Nonetheless, it’s good and surprisingly rich for fish. The char has such a lovely oiliness that the meat remains moist, the skin still crispy despite the dish being ignored to tuck into the steak, and the four plump mussels topping it a tasty and functional garnish. I also enjoyed the risotto-like corn and fregola gachas on the bottom, but it needs something fresh (salsa criolla maybe) to brighten the dish as everything was just so buttery and rich.


Having only been opened for three weeks, service wasn’t bad at Leña. There was a cheerful and helpful gentlemen who escorted me to the first floor hostess podium (it’s a three-floor restaurant) and our waitress provided a good run-down of the menu and its meaningful dishes. The only slip was forgetting to set steak knives before the main, and then proceeding to bring only one knife when they remembered and knew we were sharing.

Leña is a safe choice – it has a pretty robust menu and everything’s modified to meet the typical western palette. With the exception of the crab cazuela, everything I sampled was decent, but hardly memorable. So, if you want something safe, head to Leña. Just keep your expectations clear – you’re not going to experience an Argentinian affair.

Overall mark - 7 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 176 Yonge Street (inside Saks)

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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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Au Pied de Cochon (Montreal)


Get ready for excess. You’ll leave feeling like a glutton, or if you’re a foie gras lover, marvel at how one menu can contain so many renditions of a fatty goose liver. Au Pied de Cochon has been covered so intensively that if you go expecting a light salad, you must be living under a rock. With that in mind, I steeled myself for a rich dinner, albeit one that doesn’t include the fatty liver and their duck in a can.

Even though their menu isn’t a “small” plate format, it certainly lends itself for sharing. Trust me, the portions are huge and each dish so heavy that you’ll need a helping hand. Take their cured ham from the shack ($16), the wispy slices of fragrant salty meat delicious, but the plate so filled that it’s best split amongst at least four.


Served with half a loaf of their warm toasted baguette and a liquidity sweet maple smoked mustard, the sandwich you could make from the ham would be first class. The mustard such a great touch that I even left with a jar ($6.99).

Would you be surprised to hear the duck carpaccio ($14) was the lightest thing we ate that evening? The large slice of fowl so tender that even a toothless senior could plough through the dish. If only they served this before the cured ham, the duck wouldn’t haven’t been overpowered by the charcuterie’s saltiness. The carpaccio tasted bland, even though there was tons of differing flavours and textures from the sriracha, creamy egg yolk, and parmesan shavings.

I have to give Au Pied credit for their showmanship: the hot can opened tableside with its juicy contents presented with a flourish or an entire pig’s head stuffed with lobster. You can’t help but stare at the table beside you and wonder what they ordered. Even a simple dish of bacon gnocchi ($30) starts with a giant parmesan wheel.


Oh, how the heads turn as the gigantic block of cheese is wheeled on a trolley and stops tableside. First, slices of parmesan is scrapped into the centre. Then, a pan filled with gnocchi, huge chunks of bacon and peas is added and slowly tossed and mixed so the pasta’s heat melts the cheese. Just imagine how you’d react to the intoxicating scent.


Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Afterwards, a small jug of jus is presented and you’re told that they’ll add that into the mixture so the gnocchi isn’t dry. Really, it’s an unnecessary step and renders the dish a watery mess… all that creaminess I watched them cox into the dish was ruined. Another liberal sprinkling of parmesan and a healthy dollop of fresh ricotta - the dish is finally done.


After all that, it’s a shame that the gnocchi is way too salty, drowning in a pool of oily broth, and feels like you’re eating chunks of pork belly as opposed to fluffy pasta. Disappointing to taste, but man how you salivate as you watch it being prepared.

Sadly, everything thereafter wasn’t any better. The duck fat fries ($5.75) were bordering on burnt, but somewhat salvaged by the lovely house-made aioli incorporating a great citrus twist.


A special for the evening, the steamer clams and corn ($16), was perhaps the worst course of the dinner. The cream sauce and bacon much too heavy for clams; only to be made worse by adding maple syrup so everything’s also sweet. Perhaps the chef was simply trying to cover the gritty rubbery clams. Why did I order seafood at a restaurant known for meat?


Despite thinking we showed restraint while ordering (to save room for dessert), our table of three could not get through everything. So, the lone sweet incorporating the popular maple syrup came in a cocktail form. The gin guay ($12.50) is a gin and tonic spiked with maple syrup and topped with champagne and soda water. The first few sips, while the cocktail was nice and cold, was tasty. But, once it warmed a tad, the drink tasted like ultra-sweet cough syrup.


That’s a lesson for me: you don’t go to a place known for excess and try to drink in moderation. Perhaps, if I downed the gin guay and followed the cocktail with beer for the cured ham and wine throughout dinner, the tone would have changed. 

You need to be a little inebriated and carefree to enjoy the rich overpowering dishes. Otherwise, you’ll leave like me, and wish you merely stuck with an awesome cured ham sandwich.

Overall mark - 6 out of 10



How To Find Them
 Location: Montreal, Canada
 Address: 536 Avenue Duluth 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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Tasting Thai food with Thai Select Canada

I love all the influences that Thai cuisine integrates: Chinese due to the origins of the early migrants who moved from southwestern China to Thailand bringing chilies and the stir-frying techniques; Portuguese when the Europeans first discovered the country adding seafood and coconuts; and India as traders brought many of the lovely spices and curries we enjoy today.

While Thailand’s population is over 65-million strong, according to Toronto’s Thai Trade Centre, there’s only about 11,000 people in Canada. Despite the small Canadian population, restaurants are well represented – especially in the metropolitan areas. Thailand’s government aims to protect the reputation of their food by instituting the Thai Select program, which endorses the authenticity of a restaurant (in terms of food and hospitality) and encourages those who don’t meet the qualifications to change their techniques.


If you see a restaurant bearing the Thai Select logo, it essentially certifies
  • a minimum of 60% of the menu is authentic Thai dishes; and
  • the cooking methods used are similar to what’s done in Thailand.
Restaurants awarded the premium status create dishes of a “premium” quality and also takes into account the overall décor and experience. Food isn’t just prepared authentically, it’s presented authentically with intricate decorations (as seen by the beautiful sculpted vegetable carvings).


I’ll admit, until being invited to the Thai Trade Centre, I’ve never recognized the Thai Select logo. I’m likely not alone, although 88 restaurants in Canada have already earned the certification, the general public knows little about the prestigious program. To change this, the Thai Trade Centre enlisted EatNMingle’s help to organize a Taste Thailand Tour.

Having been to a number of blogger events, there’s always latecomers who arrive halfway through. Not on this day! The eight of us (so thankful to be selected for such a small group) were so excited that everyone was early, eager to begin our travel from Toronto to Kingston and then Ottawa. Along with members from the Thai Trade Centre, Chef Nuit (Thai Select’s Canadian Ambassador), and Chef Jeff Regular (of Pai restaurant in Toronto), we set off… on time!

On board the bus, a breakfast from Patchmon’s Thai Dessert staved off our hunger. Inside, two flaky pastries (one filled with curried potato and the second encapsulating taro and mushroom) and delicious pineapple cookies.


Indeed, it’s a heavy breakfast. Similar to other East Asian cultures, breakfast in Thailand generally tends to be a substantial meal. Items like congee, fried dough and noodles are frequently consumed to give everyone the necessary energy throughout the day. Patchmon’s puffs consisted of delicate crispy layers – the curried potato akin to a lighter samosa, while the taro and mushroom an interesting earthy combination.


Given my day was all about eating, I didn’t need that much sustenance, so saved the pineapple cookies for the following day. If you’re familiar with the Tawainese pineapple cakes, Patchmon’s cookies has a similar thin soft crust and centre, except less sweet and not as heavy. I loved the pineapple slivers you could still see and taste inside the pastry and its chewy sticky consistency, similar to a fig newton.


Another treat for the day was visiting the Thailand Ambassador for Canada, His Excellency Mr. Vijavat Isarabhakdi, at his family’s home in Ottawa. A beautiful property, located on a quiet residential street, the pale blue and white decor throughout the house was utterly tranquil.


Yet, there were so many interesting photos, beautiful sculptures and intricate flower arrangements that I didn’t know where to look first! All while sipping on the most delicious sweetened coconut water with young coconut pieces.



Settling into the dining room, an elegant afternoon tea was laid out. As much as I love scones with Devonshire cream, savoury foods steal my heart, so I’ll opt for the Thai afternoon tea any day. The thoong thong are rice paper sachets filled with a chicken, shrimp and crab mixture and tied together with a spring onion. Resembling a filled coin purse, the crisp golden bites were the perfect bite sized hors d’oeuvres.


While the tod man gai is traditionally made with fish, His Excellency’s chef switched the protein for chicken instead. Made into a paste with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, and micro fine pieces of green beans, the skewers were almost like meat balls, except pan fried. Despite being dunked into a sweet sauce, the glaze was very light and with the crisp vegetables was rather nice.


A modern take on Thai cuisine was served - the same spicy salmon salad that won a competition hosted amongst the other Embassy chefs. Salmon is rare in Thailand, but the sashimi style fish dressed with lemongrass, chili, lime juice, mint and avocado was delicious.


The sole sweet was a coconut sticky rice topped with Thai custard. Normally, the warm sweet and salty rice dessert is served with fruits. This rendition took the dessert to the next level by adding a luscious smooth palm sugar and egg custard. You could eat each layer separately and be satisfied, but together the contrasting textures were fantastic.   


During the tea, we learnt all about the Thai Select program and His Excellency’s love for food. Moreover, he shared that since 2017 will be Canada’s 150th birthday, all Embassies have been invited to host an event at the pavilion in Ottawa. Of course, Thailand will be showcasing their warm culture and delicious food as well.


It wouldn’t be a tasting tour without restaurant visits, we sampled so much that our lunch at Thai House Cuisine and dinner at Sukhothai became posts of their own (click the names for the corresponding review).

Looking back at the meals and reading Thai Select’s website, they describe the tradition best: “A popular way to savor the delight of the Thai meal is dining together with a group of friends and share the many dishes together. It's always a hearty feast filled with fun and fiery flavors of Thai culinary creations.”

What started out as a group of individuals, many who didn’t know each other, ended as a night of mischievous laughter (thank you to His Excellency for gifting us bottles of pad Thai sauce that made for an interesting KFC popcorn chicken rest stop cooking experience). As we proceeded through each meal, we certainly savoured the feasts, but also connected and bonded over the dishes.


Seize the day! Grab a group of loved ones and do a Taste Thailand Tour across Canada of your own. You even have a navigator: just visit Thai Select and let the help guide your journey.  


How To Find Them

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Sukhothai (Ottawa)


According to Wikipedia, Sukhothai was once a thriving Kingdom in central Thailand and translates to "dawn of happiness".  There’s something wishful about using that name for a restaurant: hoping to bring happiness to all your customers. By no means am I implying this is why the Ottawa owners chose this name, it’s simply my own romantic notion.

Tomato and red spices are left out of the restaurant’s tom yum goong ($5.50) so the broth remains clear … rather deceiving … until you take a sip. Instantly, the spicy, sour, salty and even mildly sweet flavours flood the mouth – how is such an innocent looking soup so powerful? Even without the red spices the soup has a nice heat level and lemongrass essence. As a warning, it’s a tad salty so this goes best with rice.


Green curries are one of my favourite Thai dishes and Sukhothai’s doesn’t disappoint. The gang keaw warn ($16.95) has great rich flavours and the sauce light enough to spoon liberally over rice. The mixture of crunchy vegetables (bell pepper, carrot, bamboo shoot and baby corn) kept it fresh and the drizzle of extra coconut milk on top an additional creaminess. I’d caution against ordering the beef as it was a tad chewy, I still enjoy this dish best with chicken, shrimp or simply in its vegetarian form.


If you can’t handle spicy curries, the gang khua sap pa rod ($18.95) is a safer alternative. Coconut milk, tomatoes and curry are combined with shrimp and chunks of pineapple. The sweetness from the fruit mellows everything, making the dish a mild approachable curry. The shrimp's texture is different: not the crunchy consistency found in other dishes; something about the acid makes it meaty and tender but not rubbery.


If you thinking the gai pad med ma muang ($15.95) is like kung pao chicken, then you’re correct. This Thai dish is said to be derived from the popular Sichuan version, except substituting the creamier cashew for peanuts and incorporating a stronger heat. Overall, the cashew chicken has a decent spiciness but not overwhelming.  


During the warmer months, a lighter cold dish such as the yum-pla ($17.95) is ideal. Despite the menu noting this Thai salad is generally served as a hors d’oeurve, it’s so substantial that you should consider it a main. A large piece of grilled trout is topped with green mango salad and cashews for crunch.  


Sukhothai’s pad Thai ($15.95) was the first I’ve had that grinds their peanuts into fine pieces so you experience its texture without too much crunch. Overall, a good rendition of the popular dish: the stir-fried rice noodles were springy and well covered in spices without becoming too wet; the chicken and shrimp not over cooked; and the bean sprouts and red cabbage served on the side so you can customize the amount of crunchy raw vegetables.


To end, we were treated with a dessert typically only served on special occasions. The thong ek, which translates to “gold prime”, is meant to bring wealth and advancement with a person’s career.  The dessert is generally carved into a flower shape; at Sukhothai, they’re simplified into a leaf beautifully adorned with a piece of gold foil. Made with sugar, coconut milk reduction and egg yolk, the thong ek reminds me of Chinese New Year cake, except softer and stickier.


Sukhothai, being the last restaurant we went to that day, was a great ending. Not exactly the “dawn of happiness”, but I certainly departed in good spirits having enjoyed a lovely indulgent meal with a group of great people.

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.


How To Find Them
 Location: Ottawa, Canada
 Address: 134 Robertson Road

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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!


Is That It? I Want More!

Other Gastro World posts similar to this:



Sukhothai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Thai House Cuisine (Kingston)



Since 1999, Thai House Cuisine has served Bangkok style dishes to diners across Ontario. Blooming into four locations (Toronto, Mississauga, Kingston, and Belleville), the Toronto location was eventually sold, allowing the founder to focus on the others. Their Kingston restaurant was an ideal stopping point during the Tasting Thailand Tour between Toronto and Ottawa.  

For the indecisive, the appetizer assortment ($14.99) offers a great variety: tons of crowd pleasing fried items including lightly dusted calamari, tasty crispy vegetable spring rolls stuffed with thinly sliced vegetables and glass noodles, and peppery shrimp wrapped in spring roll sheets; simple egg, tofu and vegetable fresh rolls wrapped in rice paper; slightly dry chicken satay skewers; and a refreshing cucumber salad. A nice starter, snack or nibbling plate.

There’s something magical about Thai soups – a medley of ingredients simmered together for long periods creating a cacophony of flavours. The coconut chicken soup ($6.99) was the best part of the meal: a surprisingly light broth, despite the coconut milk, balanced with a slight acidity from lemon and kaffir lime leaves. Don’t be fooled, the milky liquid still has a spicy kick, with the galangal (an ingredient similar to ginger root), creating a throat cleansing sting. Do yourself a favour and save some of the broth to spoon over steamed rice.


Another great addition to rice is the beef tamarind curry ($13.99). Generally, I prefer sticking to chicken, shrimp or vegetable based curries as I find flank steak slices often become tough and tasteless. Thai House Cuisine uses brisket instead, which undoubtedly takes longer to cook, but produces a tender meat that actually soaks up flavours.


Despite the menu displaying three chilies beside the spicy chicken ($12.99), the stir fry wasn’t too hard to handle given the sauce incorporates a sweetness to mellow the heat. We were warned that the restaurant’s dishes have been toned down for the Canadian palette, so if you’re like me and would want this spicier, don’t be afraid to ask for the full-fledged version.


Using the same sauce as the chicken, but seemingly more garlicky, the spicy fish ($16.99) smells amazing as it’s presented. Served as thick boneless filets, the trout remains moist with enough sauce for flavour, but not swimming in the glaze to overpower the seafood. Be warned, this is a substantial dish, so share or be prepared for take-out.


The stir fried garlic pork ($12.99) didn’t have as much garlic as anticipated, but rather a slight peppery taste. Overall, it was a tasty dish, but perhaps cutting the pork into chunks rather than slivers would help the meat become juicier.


With all the protein rich dishes, it was nice to have a mixture of stir fried vegetables ($11.99) and an omelette to provide balance. The khai jeaw, a Thai omelette, is thin and pan fried in a lot of oil so the edges crisp up and becomes fluffy. With nothing mixed into the egg, except for spices, the plain omelette also pairs well with pad Thai.


Their pad Thai ($12.99) has a slight sourness from the tamarind but isn't overly pronounced. Incorporating the typical toppings - shrimp, chicken, tofu, egg, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts – the rice noodles had nice flavours, although could use a bit more “wok hay”. 


Growing up Chinese, I’m accustomed to the heavy grain based East Asian desserts – rice, beans and glutinous flour are common building blocks to our sweets. Thailand is known for their coconut rice ($3.50). Served warm and creamy, it’s mildly sweet with a slight salty current mixed into the coconut. Boy, we were in for a treat! Thai House’s owner was able to procure some of the best mangos I’ve ever tasted in Canada – the fresh juicy sweet ripe fruit went splendidly with the sticky warm rice.


Another great sweet ending is a glass of oliang (iced coffee) or Thai tea. Both are enriched with other ingredients: sesame seeds, soy beans or corn for the coffee; or star anise, tamarind or cinnamon with the tea. The drink isn’t a simple brew-and-consume either – the coffee is often filtered through a “coffee sock” and the tea poured from pot to pot at great heights to create a smoother product. A sweetened condensed milk can be added creating beautiful layers as presented.  


It’s safe to say my taste buds left fully satisfied: spicy, sour, sweet and salty … how can you eat a meal with just one?

Overall mark - 8 out of 10
Disclaimer: The above meal was complimentary. Rest assured, as noted in my mission statement, I will always provide an honest opinion.


How To Find Them
 Location: Kingston, Canada
 Address: 185 Sydenham Street

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:



Thai House Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato