September 22, 2010

Gluttony on the go: China, part I

One of the few good excuses that I have for my blogging hiatus is the month-long trip to China that I undertook this summer. Ah China, motherland of yours truly...a country full of contrasting sights, sounds of flavours. Or, if you visit during the month of August while an Universal Exposition is going on, a country full of tourists, sweatiness and aggressive air conditioning.

But I digress. Despite the heat and humidity, I had a fantastic time in China. I visited some family, met a lot of cool peeps and went all out with the eating and drinking. Some basic (but still unusual, to ol' Canadian me) food safety precautions aside, China is an absolute penny-saving-yet-wanderlusting-glutton's heaven. There are almost as many eateries as there are people, each region has its own brand(s) of deliciousness, and let's not forget how darn affordable it all is. Oh thank you, 6.5:1 CAD to RMB exchange rate...

During my stay there, I traveled to the cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. And while I didn't come anywhere close to sampling all of the distinctive dishes, cuisines and restaurants of each place, I did have quite a few memorable meals here and there. So without further ado, here is the first batch of food-related memories from China:

Part I: Shanghai and Suzhou

The Shanghai Bund as seen from the Oriental Pearl Tower.

Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou all share some similar traits in their cuisine. Shanghai cuisine, in particular, is a mix of Jiangsu (where Suzhou is located) and Zhejian (where Hanghzhou is located) styles. As cities from the Jiangnan region (literally, South of the (Yangtze) Riveer), they are especially known for their xiaolongbao:

Ok, these are from Hangzhou but you get the general idea.

If there's one thing that you must know about this glutton's favorite foods, it's that she absolutely head-over-heels LOVES xiaolongbao's (and bread and cheese and calamari and salmon tartare and desserts...but that's another story). Pork, beef, seafood, soupy, steamed or fried, I could probably eat xiaolongbao all day long and not get sick of them. Oh yes, they are that good. (My fondness for all things xiaolongbao-esque might also explain why I am so enamoured with dim sum and dumplings in general. Hmm, xia jiao and shaomai...)

But back to xiaolongbao. The secret in their deliciousness resides in the thinness of their skins and the mix of meats used for their fillings. Soupy xiaolongbao's have the thinnest of skins and are filled with juices from the meat filling --- the tricky part, of course, is to make the soupiest of buns without having them split open the skins. Similarly, the best part about eating soupy xiaolongbao's is to prick a tiny hole into the skin and slurp out all of the soup before eating the bun itself. Mmmmmm. And no offense to the Northerners, but they just cannot make xiaolongbao's in the same way that they do it in the Jiangnan! I tried in vain to get my xiaolongbao fix in Beijing, but the closest that I got during two weeks of futile searching was small bao zi with somewhat thinner dough skins. *sad headshake* It just isn't the same, you know?

Jianbao (or fried baozi) from Shanghai. 

I also had some great jianbao (fried baozi or fried buns) in Shanghai. I believe that they are a local specialty and boy did they hit the spot after a day of walking and sweltering around in the city. Big juicy buns with a savoury mixed meat filling that are fried on the bottom and topped with sesame it with red rice vinegar and it's finger-licking-inducing goodness!

Look at all that fried and sesame-d goodness! 

I unfortunately did not get to have as many food-related experiences in Suzhou. In fact, I only stayed in the city for some 36 hours, so my restaurant-hopping time was greatly limited, to say the least. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised at how fantastic the Japanese food is there. Japanese restaurants and eateries abound in almost all Chinese and North American major cities, but I was taken aback by the realization that the supper that I had with my family in a little restaurant on the so-called Japanese Street (aka. Huahai Street) was probably the single best and most authentic Japanese meal that I've ever had. In fact, it was so authentic that the take-out menu that they gave us when we left was in 100% Japanese Kanji...

Japanese Street (aka. Huahai St.) and its broken neon gate signs ..

Also in Suzhou, my family and I had an impomptu hotpot meal at one of the Little Mongolian Lamb chain restaurants:

They claim to import all of their lamb from Inner Mongolia, but
I remain somewhat skeptical of this.

There are Little Mongolian Lamb hotpot spots (hah, try saying that ten times!) in Montreal and I've been to the one in our teensy weensy Chinatown. The experience was not dissimilar to the one that I had in Suzhou, or to most hotpot dinners that I've had in my life. You get a pot of broth, you order meats and veggies, you cook them in the pot and then enjoy them smothered in Hoisin sauce (okay, maybe that last part is just me). The meal is Suzhou was in every bit the same and strangely enough, this made me home, in a way.

The usual hotpot ritual: broth, veggies, fish balls and heaps of lamb!

You know what else makes me feel at home? Grande caramel lattes with extra caramel swirled on top! Oh yes...

They really are EVERYWHERE.

Not even 19 hours of plane and 12 hours of time difference could shake my daily coffee-drink fix. (I hesitate to call it my caffeine fix because, really, I put enough milk, cream and sugar into my coffee to make it into a warm sweet coffee-flavoured milk...) But oh Starbucks, you ever-present fixture in my life. I seem even more attached to you whenever I travel. So yes, I will shell out the equivalent of an entire day's food for a latte (ie. 35 RMB). Even if the milk you use is funny and your caffeine content is so low that a light coffee addict such as myself notices.

September 18, 2010

Mea Culpa

I said that I'd be back and posting regularly for good, but judging from my, erm, almost four-month absence, it's pretty clear that I've failed miserably.


So let's try again, shall we?

I shall aim for a constant stream of new posts. I shall be diligent and actually type out all these food-related thoughts swirling around my head. I shall not limit myself to resto reviews. I will write about whatever food-related topic pleases me. And I shall find a way to get around my current lack of a photo camera.

It's good to be back.

May 24, 2010

Gluttony on the go: Toronto, part III

Another place that my friend and I happened upon during my trip to Toronto was the Grindhouse Burger Bar in Downtown Toronto. We had been walking around the area taking in the sights for the better part of the early afternoon and popped into this eatery for a late lunch.

Address: 365 King Street West
Phone: (416) 977-3010
Style: specialty burger bar

Let's start with the great things about this place.

Grindhouse prides itself on the quality and locality of their food. Indeed, everything is made in house and all their burger meat is naturally raised, and hormone, antibiotic and GMO-free. With that kind of conscious effort that goes into the food, it's no surprise that the patrons are willing to pay a bit more for the small portions that they get. Or, in my case, appease the disappointment that there was no desserts available that day. (But more about the small portions and disappointment later.)

It also helps that the place has a snazzy decor to match its personality. With its plush red seats, exposed brickwall and carefully chosen colour palate that extends all the way to the bathroom, it gives off a comfy-yet-sophisticated vibe, which is perfect for its no doubt trendy clientele of downtown urbanites.

The seats lined next to the wall are plush and booth-like. Note the pillows and wall ornaments.

Marble tabletops with little flower centerpieces, slick-looking and (more importantly) well-stocked bar, a harmonious use of red and mellow yellow paints...full points on ambiance and aesthetics.

Then came the food.

Our first reaction was to marvel at how small the portions are. My friend's fish 'n chips was rather small for a 12$ meal, whereas I was skeptical whether my burger and side order of onion rings would even fill me up.

My burger and onion rings. You can tell how small they are in comparison to the mayonnaise dish.

My friend's fish 'n chips. There was exactly four pieces of fish, and only a small handful of fries underneath.

But hey, we thought, if this food is as delicious as it looks and sounds, being all organic and healthy, then its worth its pricetag. Plus, if you think about it, 12$ isn't really that much for a really delish mid-size dish...right? After all, an appetizer from a fancy restaurant would easily set you back more than just 12 bucks, no?

Well, the thing is, this isn't a fancy-schmancy kind of place. And even if it was, I'd still expect the food to be worth its price tag. What Grindhouse aims to be, that is a healthy and specialty burger bar, is all for naught if the burger itself doesn't live up to standards. And boy did my burger not live up to standards. I'm not saying that it was the worst burger that I ever had, but the meat was just on this side of bland and just short of being juicy. Even the onion rings tasted mostly like batter and seasoning. My friend's fish 'n chips were similarly just a bit too tasteless to justify its price.

My meal looked great and I had high expectations due to the restaurant's philosophy, but in the end it just resulted in deeper disappointment. It feels like they started with all the right ingredients, but went wrong somewhere in the process and wound up just out of reach of the wanted result. Which, in a way, is almost worse than being a seedy, lowly-rated eatery. At least that way, you walk in with zero expectations and only end up being mildly surprised by whatever enjoyable food you get, whereas in Grindhouse's case, everything seems so great that you come to expect something fantastic on the food front, only to be sorely disappointed.

Bottom line: great intentions, great presentation, but food doesn't deliver.

May 23, 2010

Gluttony on the go: Toronto, part II

After an afternoon of browsing through the shops of Kensington Market and eating empanadas outside in the sun, we headed over to the ever-affordable Java House Café for some fruity, girly, alcoholic winding-down time. 

Address: 537 Queen Street West 
Phone: (416) 504-3025
Style: an eclectic mix of sandwiches, Asian and pub fare
Hours: I quite honestly have no idea, though I have heard that they open early enough for people to get their morning coffee, and they close at least after 11pm on a Saturday

First off, this is not a place to go if you're looking for a fantastic food experience. Judging by that one evening that we spent there, I'd say that drinks---not food, is this place's forte. Well that, and location (right at the corner of Queen W. and Spadina) and its ridiculously well-priced menu. A sandwich will barely set you back 4$, whereas their generously-sized cocktails start at just over 6$. All in all, my group of three paid a bit over 100$ for 5 pints of the local Steam Whistle brew, 8 cocktails, a pad thai, a BLT sandwich and a plate of nachos. So in other words, it's a great place to hang out with your friends and knock back a few on a breezy  evening. 

Things started out well enough with a delicious piña colada. Sweet, with nice whiff of rum and just enough pineapple flavour---just the way I like it. 

Then came this disappointingly bland pad thai. I could see the colouring, but couldn't taste any of that beloved sweet-tangy flavour. Even the chicken was bland. *sigh*

But a nice lychee martini (sans lychee fruit though) and a very good gin&tonic later, I was ready to try another one of their plates. A BLT was ordered and...well, it tasted like a BLT. Bacon, lettuce and tomato doused in mayo and slapped in between two slices of white bread. Had I tried to make this at home one rushed morning, it would have probably ended up tasting the same. 

They slightly redeemed themselves with the nacho plate. It was appropriately greasy and unhealthy, and they didn't skim on the toppings. (I was however to be once again disappointed when I was informed that they had no desserts that day.) 

So bottom line: go there for drinks, ambiance and the terrace, but not for food. Should you get peckish though, go with failproof dishes that won't set you back too many dollars, in any case. (Oh, and I also hear that they make pretty good coffee in the mornings. That I'd be willing to try!)

May 7, 2010

Gluttony on the go: Toronto, part I

Hi all!
I recently had the pleasure of spending five days in Toronto visiting a friend and taking in the sights. As I am wont to do on all trips, I ate and ate and overate. *sigh* But hey, at least I remembered to take pictures this time!
Day 1: browsing and eating at Kensington Market

Address: 245 Augusta Avenue
Phone: (416) 977-0056 

Style: Latin cuisine, empañadas
Hours: Mon-Sat 9am to 7pm; Sun 11am to 6pm

Smack in the middle of Kensington Market is this little gem. Affordable prices, fresh and delicious food, and a patio deck to bask in the springtime sunshine. Absolutely delightful. I can´t wait to go back again and try their famed corn pie, which has layers of meats, olives, onions, eggs and raisins baked in sweet corn---oh yum!

The place is called "JUMBO empañadas", but we chose to go with the mini ones instead. By all accounts, they are equally delicious and affordable, at only 1$ per piece! (The jumbo ones go for 3.99$ each.) Picture are two beef and two chicken mini ones, with a side of dipping salsa. 

This is the beef one. Absolutely delicious. 

The chicken one. Not as good as the ground beef, but still quite delicious. 

Crisp, fresh and simple Chilean salad. Lettuce, tomato, avocado and onions in a lemon juice/olive oil/coriander vinaigrette. A perfect warm weather side dish. 

And to wash it all down: Mango nectar! (I am absolutely besotted with all things mango and all things nectar, so this is pretty much beverage-nirvana for me...) 

Coming up next: a cheap place for good drinks and mediocre food, TO's infamous street-vendor hot dogs, a so-called specialty burger house and more! 

April 28, 2010

Au pied de la cochonne, on se gave de sirop d'érable!

Ah, so I didn't quite manage to post last week. Pesky things they are, those final exams... (You know what else is pesky? Snow on the 27th of April!!!) But now that I've gotten all that out of my way, it's onto food and reviews!

I was recently invited to go to the famed Au Pied de Cochon Sugarshack and I'm happy to say that it lived up to all of my ridiculously fattening expectations! (For those of you who are unfamiliar with Au Pied de Cochon and its chef Martin Picard's affinity for all things rich and yummy, watch this episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. I didn't get fed nearly as aggressively as Mr. Bourdain, but I sure was stuffed with delicious-yet-scrumptious fat after the sugarshack outing!)

Cabane à sucre Au Pied de Cochon 
Address: 11382 Rang de la Fresnière, St-Benoît de Mirabel 
Phone: (450) 258-1732 
Style: sugarshack (traditional Quebec food), foie gras
Hours: Th-Fri 5pm to 9pm; Sat-Sun 11am to 2pm & 5pm to 9pm 

Before you go: reservations are a pain in the ass, especially for large groups, so call ahead months, if not an entire year(!) early and prepare for very little answer from their part. Their opening hours are set in blocks of four hours, during which they do two two-hour service. So if you arrive early...expect to walk around and wait outside. The shack itself is roomy, but twenty-something people huddled next to the bar waiting for their tables definitively makes the room seem a bit...crowded. And also, do try to arrive there before dark. Unless you have a driver who knows the way there like the back of your hand, chances are that Google Maps and your GPS will miss out on at least one of the many twists and turns one must take to get there. Other than that, wear your best lumberjack plaid shirt and prepare to be stuffed! 

The menu: Everything is preset ahead of time according to the local offerings, the season and, one imagines, the whims of Martin Picard. The only add-on is the delicious and incredibly meaty tourtière with homemade ketchup which, at 10$ for half a pie, is totally worth it. (You can also pick up a few frozen ones on your way out---something I should have done but totally forgot about, ugh!) Also, desserts are, if I remember correctly, à volonté. So try to keep that in mind and contain yourself throughout the meal, no matter how hard it is to resist second helpings of that delicious smoked sturgeon omelet or homemade cretons... 

Ok, that's enough blabbing, time to see some food!

You start off with some hearty homemade pea soup and some generous bowls of salad with oreilles de crisse. Then comes the BBQ chicken legs (something that would have looked more at home at a dim sum table than at the sugarshack, just sayin') and delicious homemade cretons and salmon gravlax. The cretons were beautifully flavoured and homey, but it was really the salmon gravlax that stole my heart. I love raw salmon, in any shape, size or seasoning. The whole thing was also accompanied by some steaming-hot sweet buckwheat pancakes, which were a delight to douse with maple syrup and eat with or without any of the other dishes. 

The salads were pretty much 50% oreilles de crisse. Fattening yes, but sooo crispy and satisfying! I also found out that there was cheese, nuts and ham in the salad about halfway through the meal, ha! 

The cretons were heavy, porky and a tad on the salty side, just like I like them. (I kept hankering for some bread or even soda biscuits, but I admit that having read reviews of the place beforehand, I knew that the buckwheat pancakes would be a pretty fantastic substitute!) And the salmon gravlax, oh, you don't want to hear me going on about that...

Just as you've started digging into the aforementioned entrées and appetizers, they bring you this most wonderful smoked sturgeon omelet with pulled pork in the middle. To be honest, I could have done with just the omelet with a hint of sturgeon. The egg was so fluffy and soft, and the fish added such a wonderful smoky aroma to it... Cover the whole thing in maple syrup and you pretty much have my favorite dish of the evening (desserts and gravlax notwithstanding). 

Beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I love eggs and omelet, have I mentioned that? *dreamy sigh*

Next up: the tourtière. Very, very good. The interior was stuffed with a bazillion kind of meats and the exterior was all crisp and just oily enough. The homemade ketchup was a nice touch too. (You can't tell, but I'm currently bashing my head against my keyboard for not buying a couple of the frozen ones to enjoy at home. Why, stuffed-stupid brain, why did you forget?!)  

Pardon the shoddy picture quality. The lighting really wasn't the best and I didn't want to discolour everything by using flash...but at least you can make out some sort of resemblance to food, right?

After that came a bunch of deeply carnivore plates, aka the main dishes. Maple roasted chicken with beans, beef tongue with celeri remoulade and this oddity: 

My picture sucks and does not do it justice, but THIS, my friends, is cabbage stuffed with pork, foie gras and lobster. Yeah, lobster and foie gras. I'll give you a moment to absorb all this. 

Quite honestly, I enjoyed the main dishes but I much preferred the entrées and desserts (more on them in a sec). Out of the three, I easily enjoyed the stuffed cabbage the most. The lobster bits were nice, but I think that I completely passed over the foie gras bits. I don't know if it's because I'm not a big meat eater (well, relatively) or because I was pretty much stuffed by that point, but these three dishes were just okay for me. Absolutely delicious and fantastic-sounding on paper, especially the stuffed cabbage, but not something I would go back again and again (hah, as if that was possible!) to eat. Although said cabbage did give me quite the craving for lobster in maple syrup, hmmm.....

And now, onto the desserts! 

I have to start off by saying that I've got a tremendous sweet tooth and that I can never get enough of tire-sur-neige (maple syrup taffy on snow). Going by the pics and reviews I had seen of the place beforehand, I knew that the banana split with maple ice cream, marshmallows, pecan nuts (I think?) and homemade maple cotton candy was the big hit. But to my great surprise, it was actually the dessert that I enjoyed the less. Instead, the star of the dessert tray was, for me, this fellow: 

Maple cream millefeuille. A perfect, crunchy yet savoury paste filled with just-sweet-enough maple cream and topped with vanilla icing. Oh yeah, that's pretty much heaven in my book. (But then again, bear in mind that I am uncommonly favourably biased towards millefeuille, especially those filled with custard and straight out of the oven...and this is why working morning shifts in a bakery was such sweet, sweet torture. You have to cut, place and arrange those still warm tasty little cakes yet you can't nibble or even have a taste...but I digress.) 

I also greatly enjoyed the arteries-clogging deep-fried-in-duck-fat crispy pancakes and of course, the ubiquitous maple taffy: 

These are still warm and bubbly when they bring it to you. Oh, greasy heavy sweet goodness! My palate kept wanting to eat of those, but I stomach (and liver and heart) started protesting at this point. 

Seeing how there was no snow outside, the syrup was served on ice. No matter, it was still delicious and syrup/taffy-like. 

Our table might have gone ahead and ordered, erm, three plates of this stuff? Yeah, I was stuffed and still kept on eating these sweet little treats. (Needless to say, I did not need to eat the next day. I still did, but really, I had more than enough sugar and fat swimming in my body to make it through the weekend!)

When I said that this dish wasn't the star of the show for me, what I meant was that it was still very, very, very good, but just not as mind-blowingly yummy as the millefeuille, or as deliciously heart-attack-provoking as the pancakes, or even light and enjoyable as the maple taffy. But would I eat this maple syrup banana split again? ...Hell yes.  

And thus, this wraps up my outing au fin fond de Mirabel for this most calorific-but-totally-worth it meal. I walked out of there (over)fed and sleepy, promptly fell asleep on the way back and woke up with the strangest crick in my neck (from the sleeping) and pangs of longing for all things foie gras and maple syrup in my heart (that, I can safely attribute to the meal). All in all, a fantastic gastronomic experience and c'mon, after all the hype surrounding this place, aren't you just a bit curious? 

Also, what made the meal (though really, it was more like 3 meals...) so fun was the people I was eating with. So grab a couple of your friends (each table easily sits 6 to 8), place a reservation ASAP and prepare to go binge on a one-of-a-kind sugarshack experience! 

April 17, 2010

Back from a year-long hiatus

Hi! Long time no see! Sorry for the year-long hiatus, my creative gluttony juices just wouldn't flow properly for the longest time. Well that, and I got lazy and side-tracked...*ahem*

But I'm back now. And hopefully for good this time!

I've already got a few posts planned, including reviews and comments about:
- Le Camélia des tropiques, a Vietnamese BYOW eatery on Côte-des-Neiges
- Le Duc de Lorraine, which is right next door to Camélia
- Au Pied de Cochon's cabane à sucre
- Mesa 14, the Mexican place downtown
- Pacini, more specifically the Côte-des-Neiges branch of this Italian chain

*sharpens knives and writing tools*

Final exams permitting, I should be able to churn out a few posts in the next couple of days.

See you soon!