Friday, August 27, 2010

What Everyone Who Loves to Cook Wants to Do

For anyone who loves to cook, the dream of some day opening their own place never dies. Most people though never act on it. The reasons will vary from fear of failure to job security. It would be difficult to give up everything you have to venture into the restaurant business. It’s a cruel and unforgiving trade. Most don’t make it.
In 1970 when Jeslin Needham immigrated to Canada opening a restaurant was simply a dream. Trying to establish yourself in a new country and raise a family isn’t a time to gamble. Thought she was always in the kitchen preparing dinner, readying for back yard BBQ’s or family gatherings job security was important. So she took a job at an accounting firm. Ever the loyal employee, Jeslin toiled away at virtually the same job for some 30 years. Never getting ahead.
Finally in 2004 enough was enough. Tired of the long commute and same old boring job, Jeslin took the advice of her friends and family. “You should open your own place” they’d say so that’s precisely what she did. Taking the recipes she learned at the feet of her grandmother in Jamaica, she leased out a small unit in an industrial mall in Newmarket and started gaving the locals “A Taste of the Islands.”
Offering the best of Jamaica, A Taste of the Islands would build a loyal following which included myself. Business was such that her son Richard joined her within the first year. Together they served up the Jerk, Curry and stews that have made Jamaican food famous. Although doing well, the tiny take out place near Yonge and Mulock wasn’t THE dream. After five years of learning the business it was time to open a proper sit down restaurant. The new place is bigger with a proper dining room and an expanded menu with items such as Jerk Shrimp added. Soon there will be a liquor license and island drinks and beer will flow.
When it comes to the food, “Everything irie.”
I’ve had almost everything on the menu except for the new items. It’s all good and it’s all (just about) made on site. The only exceptions are the patties (Non Nisa/Tastee) and roti skins (hand made though).
The Oxtails are simply superb although not spicy. They have a rich gravy and are slow cooked until the meat is so tender. Oxtails aren’t for everyone though. They’re rather fatty which also makes them greasy. Greasy in a good way I say.
The Jerk Chicken is spicy, slightly salty and very robust. The chicken is slow roasted in the island spice paste until it’s fall apart tender. It had enough heat although if I were in the mood, I’d have kicked it up a bit.
The rice and peas that come with it are also very nicely cooked. The extra gravy we asked for went nicely with it without drowning. A fantastic fresh slaw accompanied our entrées.
Based on the fact that their Curry Chicken and Curry Goat are both great I can assume the roti is fabulous as well.
Once they’re in the swing of things at the new place, a Saturday special will alternate between Akee and Saltfish (the national dish of Jamaica) and Liver and Onions. The Akee as I can attest is fantastic. I do add a bit of hot sauce to mine as I like it a little hotter than they serve it.
They also carry a selection of island soft drinks including the favourite Ting.
You can find A Taste of the Islands at 16700 Bayview Ave. in Newmarket, Ontario.

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You can also find them on the web

Well that’s all for now.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Redeeming the Burger, One at a Time

It is hard to pinpoint the time and place the hamburger was invented.
It’s a given fact that it’s origins are in the Russian dish, Steak Tartare. It’s also a well recognized opinion that the city of Hamburg, Germany is the etymology of the name.
Hamburg, a shipping town had Steak Tartare brought back from Russia in the 1600’s and renamed it Tartare Steak. As Years went by European and North American sailors would return home from Hamburg and with them came the “Hamburg” Steak. By the early 1800’s, New York City street vendors would offer German sailors “Steak cooked in the Hamburg style.” In 1900, Louie’s Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut lays claim to the first modern “Hamburger” when Louie Lassen sold a customer in a hurry one of his Hamburg Steaks between two slices of bread. This chain of events constitutes the general belief of the origin and birth of the hamburger as noted by the Library of Congress. Although the sandwich wasn’t named until years later.
However. The Town of Hamburg, New York claims the birthplace when in 1885 two Erie County Fair vendors ran out of sausage meat for sandwiches and used ground beef instead. A New York Times obituary of Frank Menches (one of the men) contradicts this claim though. Athens, Texas cafe owner Fletcher Davis is credited with selling hamburgers in the late 1880’s. A claim substantiated by the McDonald’s Corporation who claim the invention was made by an unknown 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair vendor. Later confirmed as Davis. At the same time, 15 year old “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin is said to have been selling smashed meatball sandwiches at the Seymour Fair in 1885. So named “Hamburgers” after the Hamburg steak the local German population was familiar. If all that wasn’t enough a more recent claim is that Oscar Weber Bilby of Weber’s Root Beer Stand in Tulsa, Oklahoma first served ground beef on his wife’s home made buns on July 4th 1891. The distinction being that all other claims are void as the bread of choice was sandwich bread. Not a bun.
The popular sandwich suffered from anti German sentiment for a period of time during and after WW1 but today, it’s ubiquitous in North America. If not world wide.
California native Shant Mardirosian arrived in Toronto 20 years ago and has watched as the mighty hamburger ailed. Once great burgers were sold at establishments like the (defunct) Fire Pit and Lick’s. The later still in business as a shadow of it’s former glory. More and more, fillers have been added. More and more, preformed frozen patties were the norm. Over the last half decade or so, a glut of chain, concept and “Gourmet” burger places have tried to capture the market with burgers ranging from poor, to decent but over priced to “Trying too hard.” All this has led to the TO burger scene down the wrong path.
Salvation? Armed with his love of burgers and memories of the great California based chain In-N-Out Burgers, seminary student Shant has opened the Burger’s Priest. His goal is to repatriate the “Classic American” burger to Toronto. He bristles at the thought of being called “Gourmet.”
The Priest is committed to doing it right. Utilizing the K*I*S*S* principle, the quality fresh ground meat is simply seasoned and cooked on a flat top. The bun is simple and the cheese is American (processed). No “Gourmet” toppings here. The most exotic thing you can get is sautéed onions. The fries are cut fresh in house and the chili is slow cooked using their own proprietary recipe.
The cozy 7 seat restaurant pays homage to it’s priestly name with a confessional style curtain separating the back of the house and gothic style screening through out. Pictures of some of the great American burger houses and it’s “Padre” In-N-Out dot the walls. There’s even a small pew out front.
All this is nice but it means nothing if the food doesn’t deliver. It does.
My order, the “What’s Right” combo is a “Double Double” (2 patties, 2 slices of cheese) with “Coney Fries”, a cookie and can of pop.
The burger is all it promises. Two quarter pound patties are done on a flat top. The only thing that’s done to them is they’re seasoned prior to grilling. The great beef flavour works very well although I thought it was slightly under seasoned. A few sprinkles of salt and pepper fixed that. The texture was fantastic. The fresh ground beef is very simply formed to create an extremely tender burger while the grind gives a nice bit of tooth. American is my cheese of choice on a burger so this is perfect. The bun is a Wonderbread style bun and is buttered and griddled a la In-N-Out.
The fries are all cut in house. I’m not a shoe string fry person but since these were buried under a good ladle of chili and cheese it didn’t much matter. They stood up well to the liquid of the chili, providing some crunch all the way ‘til the end. The cheddar is grated fresh in house and the chili is slow cooked, well spiced, heavy on meat and studded with a few kidney beans. The chili as Shant admits really wouldn’t work well on it’s own. It’s meant to be a topping and served with cheese. It matches perfectly with the cheddar.
Heck, even the cookie is made in house. This “Toll House” style cookie was full of chocolate, had a nice slightly crispy crust with plenty of chew.
If you’re not a meat eater, “The Option” offers an unique choice. Two Portobello mushrooms sandwich cheese and the whole thing is breaded and deep fried. “The Priest” burger is a regular single topped with “The Option”. That’ll be for my next visit.

Well that visit has come and gone and "The Priest" has been sampled. I have to say it wildly exceeded my expectations. I'm not a big mushroom and burger combo fan but this was tied together very nicely with the breading and cheese. They whole thing works really well.
Now, don't tell anyone but they've added a "Secret Menu" much like In n' Out has. In fact, there are more places than you'd think that have secret menus. 
One such item is known as the "Vatican City." A "Double Double" topped with a grilled cheese. I had one and thought it was fantastic. Very cheese but needed something to balance it out. Enter bacon. The saltiness of the bacon, the meat, the cheese. All makes this burger fantastic.
You might notice that I chose to "Add Smoke." Another of the secret menu options is the addition of deep fried jalapeno slices. 
It was also cooked "Jarge Style" which means it has a smear of mustard cooked right in. A downright awesome burger although I will omit the "Smoke" in future as it seemed a bit out of place.

Shant does plan to expand the menu slightly in the future and may even open a few more stores. He has no intent to sell out and franchise though. A question of where to put a BP was floated in the spring of '11. Not sure if it's a relocation or a sister store.

You can find The Burger’s Priest at 1636 Queen St. East in Toronto.

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You can also find them on the web and become a Facebook friend.
 The Burger's Priest on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Saigon Sub

As I had mentioned before, conquest is good for the food scene. When one nation occupies another, new foods develop. Indigenous ingredients are introduced to old world recipes and old world ingredients are incorporated into local recipes. One of the best results of this fusion is the Banh Mi.
Also knows as a Vietnamese Sub, Hoagie or Po’ Boy the Banh Mi is just about the perfect sandwich. One part French and one part Vietnamese this South Asian offering is a cheap and tasty treat.
In the middle of the 19th century, the French started colonizing South Asia in what would become French Indochina. The local Viet peoples would be introduced to a variety of French delicacies including pate and the baguette. The addition of local ingredients would give birth to a whole new sandwich based loosely on the French “Salad Sandwich.”
The basic recipe consists of the bread with butter or mayo, a smear of pate, fish or soy sauce, cilantro, cucumber and do chua. A pickled salad of shredded carrots and daikon (a type of radish). That said, any of these ingredients can be omitted. (except the bread of course) The addition of grilled chicken, BBQ pork, sausage or a number of other protein are the variables. You can also get breakfast and veggie options as well.
One of the best I’ve had is the deluxe “Thit Nguoi” (assorted cold cuts) from Rose Cafe in Toronto’s East Chinatown.
Rose Cafe
Rose’s place is a small cafe/grocery store specializing in Vietnamese fast foods and deserts. Sandwiches, spring rolls and banana leaf wrapped delicacies are interspersed with South Asian dry goods and even DVD’s.
RC inside
Whenever I’m in the Leslieville/Cabbagetown area it’s my go to snack stop.
RC Wares
But enough about that, on to the sandwich.
My order, “Deluxe Spicy” is just about the perfect sandwich. The heat of the chilies balanced with the cooling of the cucumber. The richness of the pate played off against the cilantro. The sweet and sour of the do chua. The tasty, salty meats in harmony with the bread. It’s a masterpiece.
Banh Mi (Deluxe Spicy)
The components are broken down as follows. Starting from the ground up…..
The bread is a light baguette made from rice and wheat flours. The resulting thin, crispy crust can end up making quite the bread crumb mess if even if you’re careful.
Rose uses butter (not mayo) when making hers and then some pate is added.
Next come the meats. To a certain degree it’s mystery meat. Typically though, ham, chicken breast and pork roll are used but some places add head cheese. Rose does not.
If I were to take one thing that I just couldn’t live without it’s the do chua. This slaw like garnish as just about as tasty as it can be. The sweetness of the carrot with the pungent daikon and the tart pickling is fantastic. The balance in this garnish is a microcosm of the sandwich it’s self.
The cucumber adds a nice coolness and a bit of crunch.
Enough hot peppers are added to liven it up before fresh cilantro provides a fresh taste and some more crunch.
As great as all this is, you just can’t beat the price either. Just $2.50 will secure one of these beauties for you and that’s actually expensive. Somewhere in the $2.00 range is usual but the extra cold cuts jack the price up slightly. More than worth the money.
You can find Rose Cafe at 324 Broadview Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

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Well that’s all for today kids. See ya next time in the food court.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

“If You Don’t Eat Here, We’ll Both Starve”

Unfortunately this restaurant has now closed pending relocation. A message on their answering machine says to check the website for updates. So far, the website doesn't even mention it being closed.

That’s what the sign hanging on the wall says at Chicago Pizza Kitchen. What it really oughta say is, “If you don’t eat here, you’re missing the boat.”
For over three years now, the Toronto suburb of Maple has been treated to what Chicagoans have been enjoying for decades. Chicago style pizza. A deep dish, stuffed crust pizza, loaded with ingredients.
As a young boy Spiros Drossos learned at the feet of his father Denny, a master chef and provisions officer on Greek Cruise Lines.
Denny eventually settled in Sausalito, California and opened a restaurant called “The Boat House” before moving on to Napa Valley to open “The Penguin’s Fish Grotto.” Spiros learned the restaurant business front to back, literally, by working every job imaginable. Eager to create his own American dream he opened a steak and seafood place named “Speero’s Restaurant and Tavern.”
Six more successful restaurants would follow before, in 1997 he brought the taste of Chicago to Hercules, California. His Chicago style stuffed crust pizzas with their premium ingredients and signature sandwiches (including Chicago beef) would become a huge hit in the Bay Area.
Fast forward almost 10 years and Spiros life was to take an unexpected turn. North. Enter Helen Antonopoulos. With Helen, Spiros would find love again and bring his culinary talents to the Greater Toronto Area. Together they married, started a family and founded Chicago Pizza Kitchen. His spectacular pizzas and sandwiches were instant favourites in the area. Spiros strives to use only the freshest and best ingredients and makes as much in house as possible. The Italian sausage, giardiniera and of course sour dough pizza crust being prime examples. Heck, he even grinds his own beef for burgers.
So on to the food.
The regular thin crust pizzas a very good but the mammoth stuffed crust pizzas are the business. A large can weigh in at over 10 pounds and are enough to feed 4 big appetites. They come in over a half dozen different styles ranging from veggie to meat lovers. You also can create your own from dozens of toppings. My usual is pepperoni, Italian sausage, bacon and green olives.
Today we had the (medium) Dionysos. Our meat lovers is named after Spiros's son and came stuffed with pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, meatballs and bacon. It’s topped with sliced garlic, chopped tomatoes and dusted with parmesan cheese. It’s cut into 8 slices and each slice clocks in at over half a pound. It’s one of the best pizza I’ve had.
Bringing the taste of Chicago to the GTA also means bringing a Chicago Beef Sandwich. The sibling of the roast beef au jus is made from house roasted beef and home made giardiniera on a French stick which is then dipped in the jus. I order it extra jus so more is ladled on after. It comes with a salad which today was a fantastic Cesar. The dressing was of course made in house and had a nice rounded flavour. It was even made with anchovies.
Often, I’ll sub the salad and get potato wedges instead. The seasoned wedges are fresh made in house as well.
I’ve sampled many other menu items and they’re all first rate. If you’re lucky, Spiros will even play guinea pig with you. He’s always tinkering in the kitchen and will often bring a possible new menu item out for some customers to test drive.
That brings me to my final point about CPK. This is a family run business that has a strong emphasis on service and quality. Spiros (or Helen) will come check on you personally to make sure your visit is enjoyable. Today it was son Denny’s turn at the controls. This type of customer appreciation is a dying art in the restaurant game these days and it is welcomed by your truly.
“Get in here” and “Experience something better” as Spiros likes to say.
You can find Chicago Pizza Kitchen at 2338 Major MacKenzie Dr., Maple, Ontario.

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Or on the internet. You can also become a Facebook friend

Well that’s all for today. I’m stuffed.