Cora’s – Toronto, ON


Cora’s Breakfast & Lunch
277 Wellington St W
Toronto, ON

(416) 598-2672

This particular post was recently conducted in Toronto, but was spurred by the sighting of a new Cora’s restaurant opening in South Edmonton.  If you’ve ever spent any time in Eastern Canada – chances are, you are already familiar with the popular breakfast & lunch restaurant operating under the cartoon image of a smiling sun.

Cora’s chain of restaurants is the result of the success story of Cora Mussely Tsouflidou and her first Chez Cora restaurant started in Montreal, Quebec in 1987.  This breakfast chain has quickly grown to become a very popular breakfast destination, while it continues to expand across Canada and South into the US.

The prominent draw to this establishment is their offering of huge portions of fresh fruit, paired with classic breakfast  fare.

coras_waffle

The Fresh Fruit Waffles is the go-to option for my friend and Toronto resident.  A sweet custard over the waffle is topped with a mound of fresh fruit.  Beautiful to look at, and from their expression – it must have been as good as expected.

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Ichiban Sushi – Toronto, ON


Ichiban Sushi
Front St. E & Wellington St. E
Toronto, ON
(416) 862-9191

Continuing my tour of downtown Toronto, I happened to find myself standing out the front door of Ichiban Sushi. Located across the street from the historical Godderham building (a.k.a. Flatiron Building), a couple blocks east of Yonge.

ichiban_sushibar

Ichiban – translating to ‘number one’ in english, is terribly overused in the naming of Japanese restaurants throughout North America.  This is one of my personal warning signs – usually preventing me from going to eat at a particular restaurant; however, my overwhelming hunger won.

I usually try to order at least one cooked dish at every Japanese restaurant to get a full picture of an establishment, and I’m a sucker for good gyoza.  These were served with a nice crisp base, and a flavourful filling.  It was a little off-putting to see them cooking these on a rickety stove just to the left of the sushi bar, but the outcome was just fine.

ichiban_gyoza

Next to arrive was the the green dragon maki.  The presentation is definitely non-traditional, but I did enjoy the playfulness of it.  On a side note (maybe this is just a mental thing) – but I much prefer the choice of naming this a dragon over a caterpillar (something I saw years ago at a different restaurant).

ichiban_maki

We also ordered the 20 piece chef’s choice nigiri combo.  This was rather disappointing.  I would have expected a higher quality and selection of fish, not to mention that the nigiri were ridiculously small.  Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that nigiri sushi needs to be big – but these were tiny ( I honestly could have slid my wedding ring over some of these).

ichiban_chef_sushi

The ebi were prepared poorly, as they were split right through (my guess is that they were using factory deveined shrimp), and the majority of the fish was dry and as already mentioned – the selection was weak.   From a presentation perspective – I’m not a fan of stacking sushi on top of another – and yet again with ridiculous garnishes of parsley, lemon, and baran.

I have since discovered that this restaurant is a franchise location (another of my personal warning signs).  Belonging to the Ichiban Sushi House organization, currently operating about 20 locations throughout the GTA.  It appears to be a Korean run organization – as their Ichiban sushi college website is entirely published in hangul.

I was a little perturbed with their claim that they are “one of the leading figures in Canada that developed the Sushi industry”, especially since they’ve only been in operation since 1983.   I know a few places even in Edmonton, which have been around years before this.

Ichiban Sushi on Urbanspoon

Bikkuri Japanese Restaurant – Toronto, ON


Bikkuri Japanese Restaurant
36 King Street East
Toronto, Ontario  M5C 1E5
Tel: (416) 369-0330

I recently found myself staying downtown Toronto, near the financial district for a few days.  Much like the first time I visited this city – the humidex was up making my Alberta-acclimatized self,  feel as though I was standing in a steam-room.  😉

Stepping out onto Yonge Street – I pull out my trusty iphone and run the iSushi application, to identify the closest sushi restaurants from my current location.  Weeding out any obvious no-no’s, we start walking towards Bikkuri Japanese Restaurant located on King Street and a block east of Yonge.

We are promptly seated in this surprisingly large restaurant, and are given a large selection of choices from their huge menu.  We ordered some chicken karaage as an appetizer, and the mains consisted of the nabeyaki udon, nigiri sushi combo, and the salmon-teriyaki.  The latter two entrees came with a starter salad and bowl of miso soup, which both arrived quickly.  Both tasted very good, which put my initial concerns about our destination decision at ease.

The chicken karaage arrived quickly – served on a soba dish garnished with lemon wedges.  The karaage was cooked well, but the flavour lacked punch.  Figuring that a shot of lemon might perk this up a little – I found that it was difficult to use – as the wedge was subjected to some unnecessary knife-work to partially separate the fruit from the rind.

bikkuri_karaage

Moving to the entrees, the salmon-teriyaki scored average.  The salmon portion was huge – served in three slices, with veg and a bowl of rice.  The fish was cooked well, saved by the pleasant flavour of the teriyaki sauce being just right (not overly sweet).  The sides of carrot and broccoli seemed like an odd pairing though.

bikkuri_salmon_teri

The nabeyaki udon was by far the worst dish on the table.  Soup had no flavour (we even tried to make it palatable by adding lots of togarashi), and the presentation lacked any visible appeal.

The highlight of the night was the nigiri sushi.  Presented well, good balance of fish-to-rice, every piece tasted very fresh.  The shari had a slightly sweeter flavour than I’m used to, but was still good.   I would like to acknowledge the knife-work by the itamae, as he took the time to trim the ebi-tail for that little bit of flair, scored the tai and ika to attain a uniform nigiri form.

bikkuri_sushi

My only complaint would be that the tako was a bit thin, and the six lemon slices garnishing the plate were completely unnecessary.

Overall – I would recommend Bikkuri for their nigiri sushi, but think they should revisit their cooked dishes as they can use some work.

Bikkuri Japanese on Urbanspoon

Smoke’s Poutinerie – Toronto, ON


Smoke’s Poutinerie
218 Adelaide St. W
Toronto, ON
(416) 599-CURD (2873)

Ah poutine… a traditional comfort food right up there with pizza or Mac & Cheese. Now I know what many of you are thinking: a specialty restaurant for a side dish of fries with cheese and gravy on top? Why? Bear with me on this one…

Most people have had poutine at a school cafeteria or local greasy spoon and not really given it a second thought (aside from dealing with the heartburn afterwards). Or perhaps like myself, at some all-night diner after a night of bacchanalian activities — just to round out the bodily abuse. But don’t let the fact that cafeterias and diners across Canada simply put some shredded mozzarella cheese and generic gravy on fries convince you that there’s nothing more to know about poutine.

Having grown up in western Canada, I have to admit that I’m hardly an expert on the finer points of this Québécois-native comfort food. In fact, I don’t think I had even tried it until I was in university. However, having made a number of road trips to Mont Tremblant and Montréal over the years ever since moving to Toronto, I’ve definitely put away some fine plates of poutine. And while I wouldn’t say I’m a full-fledged poutine aficionado, I can definitely differentiate an authentic plate from the standard diner fare.

Unfortunately, outside of the province of Quebec, it seems hard to find restaurants with the same sense of tradition and dedication to the dish. So I was pretty excited to hear about the grand opening of Smoke’s Poutinerie here in Toronto, and their plan to import real cheddar cheese curds from Quebec for their poutine. Not surprisingly of course, their first choice of location was in the heart of the club district.

Smoke's Location

Located directly above Burrito Boyz (another fine comfort food establishment) on Adelaide, it’s a fairly unassuming location. The interior could be mistaken for any fast food chain aside from the chalkboard for the post-club crowd to add their wisdom and insight to (“I love you Stephen Harper” was the word from the street when I went) and Smoke’s distinctive logo/face plastered on the walls in a kind of punk-rock caricature way. It was also not-so-subtly guerrilla-branded around town in preparation for the grand opening.

Smoke's Brand Image

It’s a pretty small place designed for people who want grab a quick bite on the go. Bar stools line the windowed areas, and a few small tables in the remaining space. I’d say the location seats about 40 people max, but I’d imagine that most customers take their poutine to eat on the go.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter — the poutine. Now Smoke’s has a number of interesting takes on the dish: Bacon Poutine, Curry Chicken Poutine, Nacho Grande Poutine. However, I felt that for my first visit, the traditional style would be the best way to judge the quality and authenticity of Smoke’s.

The Poutine

So there it is in all it’s greaseful glory. For $5.95, you get a serving which should be hefty enough to soak up the last couple of drinks you shouldn’t have had, or to satisfy the munchies. I wouldn’t plan on needing anything else to eat afterwards, so it’s definitely good value for those on a budget (and eating healthy is secondary).

The verdict? The cheese curds were perfect — fresh, squeaky when you bite into them, mild flavored (unlike the orange cheddar which is used on many poutines around Toronto) so that they combine well with the gravy. The fries were also superb — made in house fresh daily using Yukon Gold potatoes and double blanched in sunflower oil. The size of the fries was just right for me. Slightly larger than McDonalds’ fries so that they can hold up to the gravy, but not so large that you end up with a bland potato center.

The one downside was the gravy. While it was good, it seemed to be lacking in flavor slightly and tended to disappear in the dish. I’ve discussed this with others and we can’t quite put our finger on what exactly it’s missing. Seasoning? Or perhaps it hadn’t been reduced enough (like it didn’t have enough time to stew)? Regardless, it didn’t seem to measure up to some of the other poutine gravies I’ve had. My wife also said that it had a bit too much cinnamon flavor for her.

Nitpicking aside, I can say that it’s the best poutine I’ve had outside of Quebec. I’m not sure how big a compliment that is given that I really haven’t found many restaurants around Toronto (or otherwise) in which it’s more than a sidenote. However, it certainly fares well even among the ones I’ve had in Quebec.

So if you have a craving for the real deal, want to find out what all the fuss is about, or are just looking for the comfort of three types of grease in one meal, Smoke’s should live up to expectations.

Smoke's Poutinerie on Urbanspoon

Beckta Dining and Wine – Ottawa, ON


Beckta Dining and Wine
226 Nepean Street
Ottawa, ON K2P 0B8
(613) 238-7063

When I assess the quality of a restaurant, i generally take into account a multitude of factors. For the most part, restaurants focus on food, and really, that is all that matters to me. After all, without good food, there really is very little reason to visit a restaurant. There are some establishments that focus more on wine. The menu is little more than an excuse to showcase a Wine Spectator worthy list. To me, wine without great food is a waste. However, it is a rare place when you have a restaurant that seamlessly marries food and wine – to the point where it’s hard to imagine having one without the other. Beckta is one of those places.

Beckta first hit the Canadian consciousness when showcased on an episode of Food Network’s “Opening Soon”. The brainchild of sommelier Stephen Beckta, it’s the story of the homecoming of a local boy “done good”. A sommelier who worked in NYC at Cafe Boulud and Eleven Madison Park, returns home to up the local scene. With his extensive experience in building world class wine lists, he has not only put together a fantastic list of eclectic, quality wines, but has dedicated a large portion of his list to local, Canadian producers. A diverse selection of Ontario wines that showcases some of the best our country has to offer.

But as i mentioned, for me, it’s all about the food. The original menu was a Stephen Vardy creation, a young, up and coming chef when he first started at Beckta who has since moved onto a variety of different projects.  Michael Moffat, his sous-chef, took over without any appreciable drop in quality. In fact, in my opinion, his experience over the relatively inexperienced Vardy has strengthened the marriage of wine and food.

The food emphasizes seasonal, local, organic, and sustainable, combined with top quality producers from around the country. While everything is available a la carte, the only way to dine at Beckta is through the chef’s tasting menu ($79), complete with wine pairings($35), and the optional cheese course ($15). The tasting menu is its own inspiration – and does not reuse standard menu items like so many places do these days. Each wine selection is carefully chosen, and when i did find some small fault with a pairing (mostly a matter of personal taste), a new pairing was selected that better fit my palate.

With all the publicity and press Beckta has gotten, I think deep down, I spent a lot of time looking for something not to like about the experience. I couldn’t fine one thing wrong. The atmosphere was classy, hip, yet comfortable. The service was impeccable – both food service, and wine service. In fact, similar to Chambar in Vancouver, this was some of the best service I’ve had in a very long time. Friendly, approachable, yet professional. Efficient without the snottiness.

As for the food? It did a great job of highlighting a lot of the strengths of Canadian food quality. From Alberta beef, to Nunavut char, to Quebec duck, to Nova Scotia scallops, everything was very well executed – perfectly seasoned, packed full of flavour, clear in purpose, creative, and most importantly, the dishes just worked.

When it’s all about the food, I find it’s about finding the right balance of flavours. Along with amuse and palate cleanser, I was dazzled with an array of flavours. Perhaps the my favorite course of the evening was a torchon of foie gras, along with a parmesan cornetto filled with epoisse and sweetbreads. While some might consider this to be too rich, cut with the acidity of the wine, the interplay of sweetbreads, with warmed epoisse and parmesan was perfect.

My last general concern when sizing up a restaurant is about portion size. I am occasionally a bit of a glutton. Tasting menus, in my experience, often leave me fairly dissatisfied. I need only point out experiences at Manresa (with a trip to In N Out afterwards) as an example where the portion size was disproportionate to the cost. With Beckta, there is no need to be concerned about the portion sizes. Everything comes in a good sized portion, allowing you time to savour and enjoy the flavours, without overwhelming you. After this meal, I was stuffed. And yet i still found some room to sample their extensive cheese course – filled with a great selection of high quality, small production cheeses. I did mention something about gluttony….

I generally try to bring a balanced approach to my reviews – after all, there is usually a balance of both positive and negative experiences when dining at any restaurant. However, try as I might, I really have nothing negative to say about Beckta at all. Great atmosphere, great food, great wine, great service. For me, this is *the* place to dine when in the Ottawa region.  With a new restaurant opening in the next year, here’s hoping that they are able to maintain the same lofty standards they’ve already set. After all, they have a tough act to follow.

Beckta Dining and Wine on Urbanspoon