Thursday, April 18, 2013

Samoon Sandwiches

Disclaimer: This is not a political opinion piece. I'm trying to stick to straight facts here. So please, let’s keep this discussion to the food.

Unless you've been living on Mars, in a cave and under a rock, you've probably heard that the United States invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. Claiming victory several months later and leaving the country in a quagmire. While on the surface, ridding the country of a murderous tyrant seemed like a good idea, if you get a chance to talk to someone from Iraq, a different picture takes shape. One where a delicate balance, held together with Saddam's iron fist, has been upset. One where, clearly, they were better off with the devil they knew. In this case, instead of the many devils they didn't know. I've been lucky enough to converse with some Iraqi people who've left the country because it had simply become too dangerous. As one told me, "Used to be 1 Hussein. Now there's 100."
Al TanoorFor young Sahar and her extended family, the opportunity to leave the homeland and come to Canada has been life changing. Now here 7 years, they've opened a small restaurant serving some of the tastes that they brought with them. Popular Middle Eastern specialties such as Shawarma, Falafel and Baklava, (popular here too) are on the menu but what really makes Al Tanoor so much more than just another in a line of Shawarma places is the tandoor they have in their kitchen. Breads like Samoon, a bun like device and Tanoor, similar to Laffa and simply know as "bread" are baked daily on site and bring a taste of Iraqi to the GTA.

InteriorAl Tanoor sits in a strip mall in Toronto's Wexford neighbourhood. A growing Muslim community. Logically, it's in the best area in the city to secure yourself a Shawarma. Either of Iraqi, Lebanese or Turkish decent.
Inside there's a handful of tables with chairs and a counter at the back of the dining room. That's where the Shawarma does it's magical dance and things are grilled. There's a hot bar with rice and other dishes as well as the condiment station where sandwiches and the like are fitted out.
The main kitchen, where the tandoor resides, is in back. 

So let's get a look at these Iraqi delights.

SamoonBeing cooked in house (and their specialty), the Samoon bread was beautifully fresh and tasty. It makes me think of what the offspring of a pita and Italian roll would be. Quite conducive to stuffing as it seems the interior is a bit more airy. The house special (shawarma) comes on one of these buns instead of  a pita.

Kibbe (1)Kibbe (meaning Ball) is a bulger wheat croquette native to the Middle East. This version has highly seasoned ground beef stuffed into the dough and is then deep fried. This particular specimen is very tasty but, (I guess me being a sauce guy) I thought it could use some sort of dipping sauce. Traditionally they’re either eaten with or without a condiment. Your choice. Sahar suggested concocting a sauce for next time.

SamoonThe Chicken Shawarma special (here in a Samoon)  is some of the best in the city. Terrifically flavourful, I was able to get it cooked a little more well done. It may seem counter intuitive to cook the chicken to well done but there’s enough fat to keep it moist while the shaggy bits of meat get beautifully crispy. A terrific contrast in tastes and textures. All in all, this is a fantastic sandwich and a steal at $2.99.

The Ayran yogurt drink, in my mind, is kinda meh. It’s quite popular but I didn’t care for it. It tastes like salty yogurt. I sometimes think I need to try it again but bring some juice mix.
Shawarma (1)Also fantastic is the Beef Shawarma. Nicely seasoned and very tender. On a pita is my favourite way to have Shawarma and this is no exception. The condiments are fresh and they have one of the better hot sauces for these sandwiches there. Good flavour and plenty of kick for such a little amount. The condiments are pretty much your usual suspects. Toum (Garlic sauce), lettuce, tahini, onions, etc. One of the best Shawarma in the city. Ask for a beef and chicken mix for something a little different.

Shish Tawook SaladShish Tawook, meaning “skewered chicken” in English is just that. Marinated cubes of breast meat, skewered and grilled. AT's version is simply fantastic. Heavily season it came perfectly grilled. The meat was very tender, had a nice exterior while remaining very moist and flavourful inside. There was a pretty ample amount as well. The Tahini and hot sauce make it even better. Full marks here to Sahar as she absolutely nailed the cooking on this. Shown above with salad it made for a full and healthy lunch. I subbed out the rice for Tabbouleh.

BaklavaAl Tanoor make easily my favourtie Baklava as well. This traditional Iraqi style baklava uses simple sugar instead of honey. It’s used a bit more sparingly and allows the top layers of phyllo to puff up nicely and stay crispy. The whole thing is much more reserved in the sweetness department. As such, it’s much, much more appealing.

Well there you have it folks, a taste of Iraq without ever having to jump in an up armoured  Humvee and risk life and limb.

You can find Al Tanoor at 1993 Lawrence Ave E. in Toronto, On.

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You can also find them on facebook.

Al Tanoor on Urbanspoon

Well that's all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hand Crafted Sandwiches

As I mentioned before and as David Sax, in his book wrote, the old fashioned Jewish Deli has been disappearing. For decades old school art of meat and vegetable curing has been dying. As Sax points out, the deli was a place that poor, working, immigrant Jewish families could turn to for tasty and affordable meals. Sadly, like with so many other things, costs have skyrocketed. Brisket, the workhorse of the deli, once an almost give away meat has become very expensive. To make a place profitable prices became rather out of line for what was being delivered.
Out of this demise, much like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, we have new delis opening up. People had to lose what they’d loved to realize what they were missing. Suddenly deli has gone from a neighbourhood staple to an artisan craft worthy of loftier prices. A sort of circle of life if you will.

Ben Venasio and Izzy Bernath were working as plumbers for Ben’s father. True food lovers they’d schedule their day around lunch. Finding the best places to eat near their given jobs. Much to Izzy’s chagrin, finding a fully kosher deli proved impossible.
Ben came from a restauranting family and had also been working with his grandfather curing meats. Much to Ben’s chagrin, the amount of red tape between him and his dream of home made sausages and salamis proved discouraging.
Ben & Izzy'sThe boys would craft a plan to satisfy both dreams. Izzy would get his kosher deli and Ben could get back to hand crafting cured meats. Together they opened Ben & Izzy’s Deli in the heart of Toronto’s large Jewish community.

B & I InteriorBen & Izzy’s occupies a small space in a strip mall in about as Jewish an area as you’ll find outside Jerusalem. The place seats upwards of 30 and has a nice rustic feel. The somewhat old building has exposed brick accented by faux brick, wood and glass. The black and white checkerboard floor really makes the whole place look sharp.
There’s the smoker and steamer right behind the counter where sandwiches are cut and finished as well as a large kitchen in the back. That’s where the bulk of the cooking will take place. All the curing will occur below grade. Speaking of which, the goal is to make everything in house save for the breads and mustards. The cured meats, pickles, hot dogs even aging steaks. All will be COR kosher.

So let’s get a look at what’s the boys have going on.

Ben carving PastamiAll breads are supplied by Isaac’s Bakery just down the street. The rye bread is fantastic. Soft yet sturdy with a nice rye flavour.
As well, they don’t own a meat slicer. All meats will be carved by hand.

PastamiThe Pastrami is fabulous. A little on the lean side but that seems to be the way the area residents want it. At its fattiest, the sandwich would best be described as “Medium fatty.” It was still plenty juicy and had a strong hit of pepper with nice back notes of all spice and smoke. Ben claims it’s just a basic recipe. The meat is piled high enough (not like those goofy, foot high piles of meat you sometimes see on TV) but not so high that you have to unhinge your jaw to eat it. All in all, this is one terrific sandwich.

Smoked MeatThe Smoked Meat sandwich is just that much better. The wider variety of spices, Ben’s own mixture he’s been working on for 5 years, lends to a rounder flavour. While still peppery, it’s more subtle and covers a broader spectrum of flavours. Again, served on rye it’s arguably the best smoked meat sandwiches in the city. They didn’t have any spicy mustard on hand but will in the future. The stronger mustard will stand up to the richness and balance out the sandwich nicely.
So there you have it folks, real deal kosher deli, made by hand in a nice little rustic setting.

Beef BaconBeing completely Kosher they naturally have no pork products. That of course means no bacon right?? Well no, not at all. Ben is curing beef navel and smoking it to produce his own beef bacon. It’s awfully good too. Again, much like Caplansky’s it’s like bacon light.

You can find Ben & Izzy’s at 3513 Bathurst St. in Toronto, On.

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You can also find them on Twitter.

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The “Windie” City

Jerk isn’t an insult the West Indies but a type of Jamaican seasoning that traditionally was rubbed into meat for curing. In bygone days, the heat of the Caribbean meant long term meat storage was a dicey proposition at best. Meats (traditionally pork or chicken) would be cured, smoked and then dried using a paste (or dry rub, or both) creating what we call “Jerky.” This fragrant and spicy concoction has basically three main stars with a larger supporting cast.  The headliners are scallions, scotch bonnet peppers and allspice. Rounding out the paste is garlic, thyme, some sort of sweet and some sort of salty. The later two usually consisting of brown sugar and soy sauce. The addition of nut meg and cinnamon round out the spice category nicely with the sweet and salty components tempering the heat as well as helping with the curing process. Make no mistake though, jerk is not for the faint of heart. Scotch bonnet peppers are among the hottest on the planet. Milder peppers can be substituted but heat is part of the deal. There’s no getting around it.
With refrigeration being prevalent now, the practice of jerking meats has gone from a necessity to a culinary art form. Tofu, fish and veggies now get the jerk treatment while secret family recipes are handed down and guarded like crown jewels. The open fire for the most part has given way to the oven as well. There are a few places that still cook over a fire but the large pimento wood pyres are more for special events in the islands.

Toronto, has a thriving Jamaican communtiy and boasts several restaurants offering tastes of the tropical island and one of the best is Mr. Jerk. Founded in '79 in a Carribean grocery they opened their first store in 1986. They now boast 6 GTA locations to serve you and are bringing the heat of the West Indies to the people of the north. My usual location is on Don Mills in the “Peanut Plaza.” So named for the peanut shaped island in the middle of Don Mills Rd on which the plaza sits. The broom closet sized place does take out only as a line up of thee or more customers constitutes a line up out the door. 

Serving the usual cast of characters such as Curry Chicken and Goat,  Jerk Chicken and Pork, Patties (made by Tastee) and Akee and Saltfish. The later being the national dish of Jamaica. Rice and peas being the common accompanying side.

100_2898Much like BBQ joints with their smoky, porky aroma, jerk has it’s own Siren’s song. Mornings in and around the city can find you intoxicated by smell of a jerk place gearing up for the days business. Most places roast their wares in an oven but there are a few, particularly in the Eglinton West areas heavily populated by West Indians that grill them in a barrel over charcoal.

Well, on to the food.

Rice and peas are like the pasta of the Caribbean. They often show up for duty. Peas are not peas as we know them though. Pigeon peas are small legumes much like Indian dhal or the black eyed pea. When not in season in Jamaica red or kidney beans are substituted and since it’s never pigeon pea season in Canada, we always get red beans. The rice and beans are cooked together in a coconut milk broth. Other flavourizers can be steeped in the cooking liquid such as thyme sprigs and garlic. Such aromatics are necessary to provided some back bone for the rice when going up against a pungent curry or jerk. While the rice and peas at Mr. Jerk are fine they don't have the background flavours that others do.

100_2901The Jerk Pork is wonderfully tender with a nice bark and is somewhat lean. Often times you find a layer of fat and even skin. The less fat content meant the sauce was a little thicker and a bit sweeter but nicely well rounded. The sweetness masked the heat which was a bit of a disappointment at first. I was hoping for much hotter. It was a bit of a Trojan horse though as by the time I finished my lunch my mouth was wide awake and very happy. The sneaky heat was very nice.

20130327_185537The oxtails are quite mild and very tasty. Teetering towards the sweet and sour that some trod upon and showing off the beef flavour of the meat. Said meat is wonderfully tender and holds together nicely on the bone but pulls away very easily and leave a clean piece of skeleton. In other words, cooked perfectly.

20130327_185554The Jerk Chicken is much like the pork although I swear it's hotter. I had chicken one night and pork the other and you'd have a hard time convincing me they're the same heat level. Again, the chicken is cooked perfectly so it's not dry. A half chicken is chopped up and served over top of the rice.
The home made pepper sauce is a real treat too. Slightly tangy with a nice sweet and heat to it. A very nice addition to any dish.

So there you have it. Great Jamaican take away food.

You can find Mr. Jerk at 3050 Don Mills Rd in Toronto or one of their other 5 locations.

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You can also find them on the web
Mr Jerk on Urbanspoon

Well that's all for now folks, we'll see ya next time in the food court.