Good In Every Grain Dinner


Let’s face it. I could never join the keto craze. Eliminating carbohydrates and not eating delicious bread and pasta? No thank you. Hence, when the Grain Farmers of Ontario threw their first of a series of Crop Up dinners to feature the bounty – barley, corn, oats, soybeans, and wheat – they were preaching to the converted.

It was an evening of discovery. Firstly, realizing that tucked behind Bar Raval was Woodlot, a small cozy restaurant. With their rustic décor and wood-fired oven, it was a smartly chosen venue to showcase grains. After all, they already make sourdough bread on site to serve during dinner – the kitchen knows their stuff. A piece of crusty bread with butter … see why I can never go keto?


Chef Mike explained the premise of the menu: to keep things simple and let the grains speak for themselves. The salad was hearty using large chunks of roasted beets that were lightly cooked so that it still retained a slight bite. An herbed barley lay beneath to soak up the beet juices, but it’s such a versatile side that it’d work equally well with meaty or saucier dishes. Topping the salad was a soy nut and sunflower crumble, giving it some crunch – almost like a really flavourful nutty crouton.


Most guests were presented with a mammoth lamb shank, but being a flexitarian during the week, I was treated to a vegetarian main: confit white turnip stuffed with oats, green onion, dandelion and pistachio then cooked in their wood-burning oven and glazed in a surprisingly savoury apricot glaze. With all the roasted vegetables on the side, it was certainly a vibrant and healthy dish. But, I must admit… I was jealous for the lamb shank (note to self: go back to Woodlot on a weekend).


With all the plentiful hearty dishes, it was a shame I couldn’t finish the corn flour chiffon cake… it was just so large! Despite being thick, it was fairly fluffy and the sweetness of the corn was augmented with vanilla and a light touch of lavender. The blueberry compote and chamomile lemon curd were both not overpowering. Chef Mike was true to his word – I could enjoy the natural flavours of the ingredients.


Of course, there were educational aspects to the evening like introducing the Grain Farmers of Ontario and explaining their representation of over 28,000 farmers in Ontario. I also learnt that not all wheat is the same and depending on the farm’s soil different flours are grown – Ontario wheat is largely used for pastry flours.

What made the evening special was there were farmers in attendance. It provided the opportunity for discussions and they very candidly answered our questions.

So, it was nice to learn the personal stories. Both individuals I spoke to grew up on their family farms and when starting their own families purchased land near their parents, which is how a lot of businesses expand. You can hear the passion in their voices and the burning desire to ensure the survival of the family farm. Indeed, they admit, that like any other business, they have to operate economically. Yet, they have to ensure their practices are sustainable since the farm is also where their families live and eat and the asset they want to pass to generations to come.


In an era of change, it wasn’t surprising to hear the comment that a well-educated farmer is paramount for ensuring the farm survives. As families shrink, they also need to rely on technology to help manage the hundreds of acre of land. Big data and satellite imaging to create a map for variable fertilizer application – is Google Farm a thing?

What I didn’t except was the frankness on some the less rosy aspects of farming, such as the mental health issues some farmers face. It’s a stressful industry where so much of their livelihood is dependent on weather (their favourite topic) and politics (their second favourite topic). With the low margins, a bout of extreme weather can have devastating financial impacts.


A lot of work needs to be done, especially at the beginning of the season, so lack of sleep and burnout can augment the stress and anxiety. The humanity of the profession was sadly not something I thought about previously, but was glad for the opportunity to break bread over dinner to have these conversations. We often take for granted the humble grain and the nourishment they provide. It’s nice to be reminded that behind all the grains, there’s are families of farmers, who have passion, stresses and dreams like everyone else. 

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: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 293 Palmerston Avenue 

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Dinner With a View (Toronto)


If you asked me 5 years ago if I’d like to eat dinner under the Gardiner Expressway, a look of confusion and an adamant no would have followed. Yet, the underpass space is undergoing a revitalization, starting with this winter when it was transformed into a skating trail. Now that the ice has finally melted, a small portion of the space near Fort York plays host to Dinner With a View.

Let’s start with the latter half of the title - With a View. As you first arrive, it’s an underwhelming feeling when you find the view consists of black gauze and the metal and concrete highway. But once you settle into one of the domes ($149 and seats from 4-6 people) you start to get into the spirit.


The décor and furniture vary in the domes. As I relaxed into the comfortable wooden chair (which felt like I was getting a hug) and pulled a blanket over my legs, that feeling of experiencing something different added a sense of excitement. Interestingly, the cozy enclosure makes the dinner feel intimate, but being able to peer out into the Bentway also ensures you don’t feel claustrophobic.


I just wish they didn’t keep harping on how the items within the dome weren’t complimentary and that staff members conduct an inventory count before and after the meal. Were guests really pilfering the pots of fake plants? Way to ruin the experience.

Now the first part of the title – Dinner. After reserving a dome, guests are required to select a dinner option (additional $99 per person) within 48 hours and can choose between meat, fish and vegan mains.

Let’s just say you don’t come for the food. The quinoa salad with ranch dressing was something I could have easily whipped up myself. Moreover, the random boring garnishes thrown in – chickpeas, pitted black olives, and frisee – felt like someone was cleaning out their fridge and decided to throw a bunch of ingredients together. Seriously, is it that difficult to at least roast some beets?  


I left hungry as the paltry portion of whitefish (with many soft bones left in) barely made a dent in my appetite. Sure, they could skimp on the protein but at least load-up the plate with more sides (slivers of mushroom, turnip puree, and roasted vegetables). At the very least, give out a bread basket. Note, the beef is slightly larger – although my friends complained it was too salty.


Dessert was a minor improvement with a fancy sounding rosemary vanilla crème brûlée topped with pear tuille. While the actual dish didn’t resemble the name – there was no brûlée and somehow the rosemary was chocolate instead. At least it tasted decent.


I’m sure Chef René Rodriguez tried his best with the challenging outdoor conditions. But, the meal was a flop. They should really stop touting his accolade of being a Canada’s Top Chef winner. I’ve had better meals attending conferences.

Nevertheless, our 7:30pm dinner was the perfect seating – at the start there’s plenty of sunlight so you’re able to navigate easily into the dome; we’re treated to the descending sun for the first half of the meal; and after it gets dark, the lighting and illuminated domes creates a dazzling back drop. I loved the night-time experience and couldn’t believe the one and half hours was over … I didn’t want to leave and felt like I could party all night. You’re definitely here for the experience, not the food.


I can’t finish this post without correcting a piece of fake news – no homeless people were forced to vacate the site to make room for the domes. During the opening weekend of the dinner, OCAP made a lot of fuss that a homeless camp was demolished and people were evicted in preparation for the event. In reality, that camp was located 2km away and the City of Toronto removed the tents for safety reasons; over the winter fires have broken out killing people in the process.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disputing there’s a growing homeless problem in the city. It’s a visible issue that’s not only confined to downtown Toronto and something that has to be addressed. What I can’t agree with is how OCAP reacted to the event. Instead of protesting something that supports the Bentway and adds tax dollars into system, they could have approached the organizers to donate a portion of the proceeds to their cause or alternatively set-up a booth outside to raise awareness and solicit donations.

In a city where there’s a growing divide between the rich and the poor, do we really want to make the chasm even larger? Instead of pointing fingers and throwing insults, wouldn’t it be better to work together to enact positive change? 


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 250 Fort York Boulevard

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Laissez Faire (Toronto)


You do you … the modern day equivalent to living a laissez faire lifestyle. It’s a romantic thought, being able to live as you please, be as you please - and at the new Laissez Faire – eat as you please. Their menu strays from their French name and also offers Italian dishes for good measure.

It’s not always done well, the porcini truffle arancini ($13) are the worst I’ve ever had: the risotto so dry that the ball starts to crumble and the mixture bland so everything relies heavily on the marinara (thankfully, fresh and delicious). As a plus, since it is deep fried rice, even being the worst it’s still edible, but certainly not one you’d want to serve a true Italian.


The squid ink tagliatelli ($21) is 100% better. Dark ribbons of pasta encompasses a seafood flavour but not in a fishy way. It’s covered in a sauce that’s not overly thick but salty enough to really give it a briny sea essence. Plump sweet clams and crunchy bread crumb provide a nice contrast to the pasta, while there’s just enough dill fronds to add a hint of freshness without morphing the dish’s earthiness.


Safer sharing plates are some of the cold seafood options. While we weren’t advised what the oysters were that evening (only that they were from PEI), the dozen ($32) tasted clean and fresh, accompanied with the traditional vinegary onion mignonette and grated horseradish. 


Meanwhile, the albacore tuna ($17) has a real nuttiness from the black and white sesame crust. It’s slowly seared so the seeds are just lightly toasted and the tuna wrapped in a thin cooked ring and warmed through. Really swipe the fish around the plate to get all the herby aioli on the plate.

For something incredible, you have to be willing to dive all-in … calories and cholesterol be damn! Just bite into the pork belly ($17) and enjoy the crispy skin that’s the perfect ratio of fat for flavours and skin for chewiness. A thin sherry gastrique and bits of pomegranate add a slight sweetness against the otherwise savoury dish. It’s so good that a table of four may want to double the order so you can each have another piece.


The duck confit ($21) was another strong dish with the traditional crunchy skin encapsulating soft rich meat. Pairing the fowl with salad was a great idea to keep it lighter and allows a diner to still enjoy some starters.


Aside from the food, two things really stuck out for me. Firstly, the odd portion sizes at Laissez Faire. While the small and large plates weren’t overly big, the sides like roasted Brussels sprouts and parsnips ($14) were massive. Who knows, maybe it’s their way of making diners eat their vegetables. Yet, there’s so much bacon incorporated into the dish that vegetables seem secondary. Moreover, the sauce is way too sweet and the pickled mustard seeds, while a great idea, needs to be applied with a lighter touch. Maybe it’s me, but I want my vegetables to actually taste like vegetables.


Portion sizes were wonky in the dessert department as well. The apple tarte tatin ($11) is barely sharable compared to the brioche panna cotta ($14), which actually resembles a regular-sized dessert.

Nevertheless, both are decent – the apple tatin served as a deconstructed version consisting of well-poached apples with a thinned caramel sauce on top of a piece of really buttery pastry. The flavours are bang on, just the form was a bit disappointing as I was actually hoping for the traditional tarte format. The panna cotta has the requisite creamy texture with a strong vanilla flavour. I could have done without the bits of crunchy brioche crumbles, which takes away from that lovely silky texture; yet, I can see some liking the contrasting texture and hint of saltiness it adds to the dessert.


The second thing that stuck with me, albeit I didn’t realize until I was writing the blog post, was how wildly inaccurate the prices charged for the desserts were from the published amounts. On the menu, it’s listed as $9 for the apple tarte tatin and $11 for the panna cotta, while what’s actually charged is $11 and $14, respectively. Perhaps a $1 difference is reasonable when there’s a last minute change, but to add $3 to each dish is terribly inconsistent. Sadly, the caliber and size of the desserts definitely aren’t worth the augmented price.

Maybe it all comes back to the laissez faire attitude – who cares if prices are incorrectly charged, the Italian dishes aren’t necessarily the strongest, or the sides are the same size as mains? Just go with it and pop another bottle of bubbly to forget about the situation – oddly, we did end up getting a BOGO 50% off deal for the Prosecco without realizing it. After all, it all works out in the end… just chill out.

Overall mark - 7.5 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 589 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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The Chase (Toronto)


Being a Toronto Life Insider has its perks. As a foodie, members can attend R&D dinners where restaurants offer a special menu, often showcasing new dishes to come. It was almost comical when dozens of us descended downtown, on a snowy Sunday evening, to visit The Chase to try their spring menu. With the blanket of snow pelting the city, it certainly didn’t feel like spring.

The 7-course menu ($155) included wine pairings from producers across Ontario, including a focus on Big Head, a little known winery from Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was excited for the evening… we were surely in for a treat given the restaurant is known for its luxurious menus drawing corporate crowds flushed with spending accounts.

Indeed, our first bites fit the bill: a truffle beignet and raw oyster. The beignet is nothing like the puffy pastry from New Orleans, instead akin to a savoury crispy falafel. The truffle scent floods the mouth with a bit of creamy freshness from the crème fraiche and chervil.


This was followed with a single smoked oyster - Taylor notes spring is a great time to enjoy the seafood as the waters are still cold. The smoked oyster was in fact refreshing, especially after the heavier truffle falafel. It was simply flavoured with a wild onion mignonette that had just a hint of spiciness to tingle the tongue. Generally, mignonette can be heavy on the vinegar. At Chase, the condiment is balanced with Chardonnay so the tanginess is mellowed and melds better with the seafood’s natural briny juices.


The shrimp and grit’s aroma proceeds the actual dish… if only I could capture the smell to share with you. Taylor explains it’s a dish he’s been tinkering with for years to really highlight his commitment in using ingredients that can be sourced within 100km of the city. K2 Milling’s red crow grits sits in a sea buckthorn hot sauce, rosemary oil and pork stock; each grain filled with so many flavours, then taken to another level with chunks of melt-in-your-mouth smoked pork hock strewn throughout.


Crowning the dish was a single shrimp grown in Stratford, Ontario, the local farm raising Pacific white shrimp sustainably. The sustainability theme is in each element of the dish – even the garnish of deep fried wild onion roots, which adds a delicious sweetness instead of getting wasted.

A dish that looks like spring is the bison. Indeed, you don’t normally think of this wooly game meat during a flowery season, but all the beautiful garnishes makes the plate seem like a flower box. The bison is quickly cured and served carpaccio style with dollops of smoked buttermilk, pickled ramp, wild watercress, and toasted hemp hearts. Each bite is interesting thanks to the varying flavours and textures.


The raviolo arrives like a bright sun, plump from being stuffed with an egg yolk and thin layer of truffle. In lieu of a cream sauce, it’s topped with truffle gastrique sweetened with maple syrup and chervil water.


Of the meal, it’s perhaps the most educating dish as Taylor explains how the herbs are cultivated using hydroponics (a new technology that raises herbs using water and fish in a closed loop system) and even provides diners with tips on how to ensure the pasta is cooked while the yolk remains molten: insulate the egg, regulate the pasta’s thickness, and never let the water temperature drop.

While the raviolo looks impressive, as soon as you cut through the pasta, the yolk is so runny it simply gushes out and mixes into the other liquids. Which could be okay, but there’s perhaps too many elements and flavours that it just didn’t tie together. Sadly, the mild truffle really didn’t stand out. If anything, aside from the egg, a sweet herby flavour was most pronounced.

I enjoyed the boozy palette cleanser, a tonic and cucumber granita with unfiltered Dillion’s gin poured table side. It’s definitely not your typical sweet granita and definitely more fun.


You can’t create a Canadian seafood dinner without cod – in fact, Taylor tells us in Newfoundland fishing means catching cod – everything else is known by name (such as going trouting). In line with his sustainable beliefs, the meal featured the limited line-caught Fogo Island cod.


The fish is sous vide with morel butter, sautéed morels, sprouted legume, and a maple vinaigrette. A lovely aromatic dashi (a concoction of bull kelp, morels, and wild onion tips) is then poured on top. While it looks like there’s a lot happening on the dish, the elements are rather mellow so the cod remains the predominant flavour with a hint of earthiness. Overall, the fish was cooked beautifully, and was a tasty dish, but a touch more seasoning will help.

Dinner ends with a lovely Ontario lamb wellington wrapped in the traditional crepe, chicken liver duxelle (heavy on the liver and light on mushrooms), and a thin layer of Swiss chard. The lamb saddle is a flavourful but tougher cut, so the Chef ensures it’s tender by sous viding it first. It was absolutely delicious and even more commendable by featuring pasture raised lamb.


Child-like gasps and giddy laughter erupts as a behemoth plate of buttermilk panna cotta is set down - we’re all astounded by the sheer size of the dessert, yet plates are cleaned amongst our table. The panna cotta is creamy and rich, but lightened with compressed candied rhubarb and dollops of rhubarb gelatin. It certainly provided the relaxing and soothing exit Chef Taylor intended.


When I first heard about the Chase’s R&D dinner, I was excited to visit the restaurant to experience the luxurious seafood creations. Yet, what surprised me the most (and has me returning) is learning the Chase cares about using ethical and sustainable ingredients. In fact, dishes aren’t about fancy exotic inputs, but rather supporting local whenever possible. It’s a restaurant that’s proud to feature garnishes from ingredients that may otherwise be thrown away… take that corporate accounts.

Overall mark - 8 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 10 Temperance Street (penthouse)

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!


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The Chase Fish & Oyster Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dim Sum Queen (Toronto)


Aside from being an opportunity to gather friends and family, dim sum is also an excuse to gorge and indulge. Steamer-after-steamer and plate-after-plate of the small bites get placed on the table… just as quickly, it seems, things disappear. Who can keep track of what actually gets eaten?

When Dim Sum Queen opened in the neighbourhood, I had my doubts about its authenticity. From the outside, it looks nothing like a traditional Chinese restaurant and even the name seemed dubious. Yet with the limited dim sum options by my place and the fact that they accept reservations (!), we tried and we conquered (the steamers and plates that is).

Dim Sum Queen does not offer an early bird special, instead, dishes are always charged at the same rate: M ($4.50), L ($5.30), and XL ($6.50). While they don’t have any dishes sized as small, there is a fair selection at the medium range (for example, most of their buns). I'd opt for the BBQ pork (M) ones over the pan fried pork and vegetable (M) as the filling is much tastier. While the BBQ pork is stuffed with large pieces of meat in the traditional sweet sticky sauce, the pan fried buns lacked flavours and needed more vegetables. Moreover, weren’t fried long enough to develop a nice crust.


In general, a lot of the pan fried items could use more time in the pan. Their grilled turnip cake with preserved meat (M) was actually made really well with tons of ingredients and big chunks of turnip, but its lukewarm temperature couldn’t do it justice. The pan fried chicken pot sticker (L) was rather run of the mill, but with the right crunch against the soft filling, it could have been better. Out of all these types of dishes, the pan fried chives shrimp & cake (L) was the tastiest, maybe because its thinner wrapper requires less time on the flattop.


The wrapper on the shrimp dumpling har gow (L) is thicker than I typically like, but the shrimp was well-cooked so it retains its sweetness. For tables with odd numbers, the shrimp and snow pea leaves dumpling (L) may be a better choice as you get a similar shrimp filling but it’s balanced by the vegetables to give it an extra texture and flavour element.


While the pork and shrimp dumpling siu mai (L) doesn't look quite as nice as competitors (lacking that pop of colour on top), it tastes just as good. Dim Sum Queen is made for those who don’t eat pork as they also offer siu mai in tangerine beef (M) and chicken shitake (L) alternatives. The chicken has a similar texture but milder taste and I rather like the slight earthiness from the mushroom. Meanwhile, the beef is in a paste form and has a springy texture – similar to the steamed tangerine beef balls but denser.


Dim sum wouldn’t be the same without an order of rice rolls, the BBQ pork (L) was tasty and contained enough filling. For something different, the vegetarian spring roll version (M) uses a crunchy deep fried spring roll, which makes for such a great contrast against the soft silky wrapper.


While the steamed sticky rice with meat in lotus leaf (L) could use more filling, for what was there, it was flavourful. 


A bowl of the shrimp dumpling in soup (L) (sometimes known as Shanghai dumplings in other restaurants) is also great during the cold weather as they’re steamed in the bowl arriving piping hot. The plump shrimp are further enhanced by crunchy black fungus slivers.


Dishes that should be taken off the menu are the green onion pancake (M) and red bean pancake (M). The dough is much too dense, especially for a green onion pancake that’s normally known for the flaky layers. Moreover, the filling in each is so sparse that they really don’t taste like much.


On the other hand, dishes you should order are ones consisting of a sticky glutinous flour exterior that’s deep fried. The sesame seed and lotus paste balls (M) made fresh so they’re piping hot. What makes them stand out is the glutinous dough – it’s rather delicate so it’s not too dense but still has a lovely crispy crust. In the sesame seed ball, you bite through to be greeted with a lotus paste that’s thinned so it has a silkier texture but still a nice amount of sweetness.


For a savoury version, the deep fried meat & shrimp dumplings (M; 2 orders shown below) is similar but instead filled with bits of pork, mushroom, and shrimp.


While I wouldn’t say every dish at Dim Sum Queen is a hit, what I love that you’re able to visit on a whim and not have to wait. On busier days (think holidays), they still let you book reservations so it’s a great option for larger tables. Having been twice, on busy and slow days, the food and service quality remained consistent.

So, I take back my initial judgment. Maybe their name, signage, and dining room doesn’t look like a typical Chinese restaurant, but their food tastes just as authentic. 

Overall mark - 7 out of 10


How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 3241 Yonge 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!


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