Archive for April, 2011

Off the rails

April 2011

I get a fair amount of crap for saying my consort’s birthplace (and environs) has a pretty great food scene, but then I appear to be among the minority in this center of the universe who has actually eaten there, and often, over more years than some of those skeptics have been alive. On our last train trip, though, we got to put my belief to a pretty good test. We ate there, then went to world-class Toronto for three meals, then ate there again.

Our first stop was the highly recommended Bistro Europa, where we landed after a “Fully Committed” encounter with Tempo that has put that pretentious joint off the table. By contrast, Bob called Europa and the chef called him back and said he’d hold space for us, on a Saturday night. My in-law equivalent was rather freaked at the tight quarters and flea market decor, but Bob and I felt privileged. Not least when our wine landed, glasses nearly brimming for $7 apiece. He and his mom loved the fried pierogis even though they were made with potato rather than the arugula and mushrooms on the menu, and even though Bob’s aunt makes the best pierogis ever. All of us were quite taken with the beet appetizer, laid out like a painter’s palette with beets pickled, mousse, tartare, carpaccio and in pistachio vinaigrette, with a nice top hat of fried Manchego over half the plate. I eat beets to be polite at friends’ houses. These I scarfed, but contemplatively. Aside from the over-the-topness, this would be a first course in a restaurant at the level of Gotham.

We could have stopped there, but I ordered one $4 wild boar slider that turned out to be the size of a Manhattan burger; as great as it tasted, it was a classic case of too muchness. (Pickled cardoons made an interesting counterpoint, though.) Bob’s big slab of porchetta was juicy, perfectly cooked meat, but with too much of a good thing as sauce. And the I-LE’s pappardelle bolognese probably kept her fed for a week afterward, not least because it was blanketed with pancetta.

And then we come to the duck egg. It was shirred over salt cod brandade with bechamel, then teamed with a rosemary popover: a marriage in a commune among too many egos. Every element was seductive. But sometimes layering is smothering. It says everything that Bob hates anything resembling brioche. Yet he was most impressed by the popover.

WIGB, tho? Absolutely. Eating there was like stepping out of a time machine into Center City Philadelphia in the late Seventies, when all that mattered was the daring with the food.

Next day Bob had the bright idea of checking out the world-class Albright-Knox Gallery and taking in sustenance while we waited for my angst turn at Nickel City Chef, and we had a near-perfect lunch in the nearly empty AK café. Our table overlooked the sculpture in a courtyard, a flatteringly lit setting for my panino and his special salad. The former sounded predictable (tomato-mozzarella-portobello-pesto) but was elevated by yellow tomatoes rather than the anemic cotton balls I was expecting. And his plate sounded like a tweaked Cobb but tasted much jazzier: Gorgonzola, grape tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, fried artichoke fritters. Points off only for the fatigued mesclun.

Later I was full from the contest that lured us there, but Bob was totally ready for a real dinner, especially after comped wine at Sample. And even though we walked in around 9 on Sunday night, Caffé Aroma was busy and in top form.  We split a superb Caesar, one transformed by grilled/smoky croutons, before a New York-level pizza topped with prosciutto, roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions, Fontina and truffle oil.

On our return, we headed to the Delaware near the boyhood home, and we scored first when Bob let me out in the packed parking lot as soon as he saw a couple of large apparent locals lumbering in and told me to beat ’em to the host stand. They were not happy, but we scored a great table near the bar, under the big screen teevee, with surprisingly snappy service. The waiter was a wine seller extraordinaire and also dealt well with our second-most pressing need: sandwiches for the long ride home on Amtrak next day.

We split an order of “asparagus fries,” more like tempura, with two great dipping sauces. Then I tried to restrain myself with a Caesar upgraded with Spars bacon, from the butcher everyone was drooling over at Nickel City. But Bob forced me to share his special, very tender ribs and their accoutrements. Somehow we were still ready for lunch by 11 next day, somewhere past Utica: a superb to-go Reuben yet again plus a B.L.A.S.T. sandwich (“bacon, lettuce, avocado, grilled salmon and tomato on a ciabatta roll”) that held up quite well.

Final note to the FCC: In return for embarrassing myself, we were treated to two nights at the Mansion on Delaware Avenue, which was — I’ll shamelessly admit — a big reason I agreed to break out of my digital dart den. The place really is a refuge; you can see why locals check in when they need a vacation. It’s designed to feel like staying in the house you deserve. There’s also happy hour with free, very good wine; otherwise there’s an honor bar while you check your email next to the fireplace downstairs. You can’t bitch about free luxury, so I’m assuming they remembered me from my gimp days in giving us a bathroom with a shower you could drive a wheelchair into.

The best news: Breakfast is better. Not perfect. But much better. Fewer crappy pastries, more savory choices (although I can’t imagine who would be tempted by roasted Brussels sprouts at 9 in the morning). And while the coffee was good even from the thermal carafes, we Illy junkies were surprised by the lack of a cappuccino option. Machines have replaced workers. Invest, please.

Bistro Europa, 484 Elmwood Avenue, 716 884 1100
AK café, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, 716 882 8700
Sample, 242 Allen Street, 716 883 1675
Caffé Aroma, 957 Elmwood Avenue, 716 884 4522
The Delaware, 3410 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore, 716 874 0100
The Mansion on Delaware Avenue, 424 Delaware Avenue, 716 886 3300


April 2011

While I’m processing Nickel City eats, I will jump ahead to say Toronto was a gustatory wonderland. And not a bad place to explore in only 27 hours. Thanks to a Buffalo tip from the woman who persuaded me to surrender rare face time, we were lucky enough to make our base at the Drake Hotel, which turned out to be super-hip as promised but also amazingly hospitable, with no attitude. Since we arrived too early for check-in, we took the super-charming manager’s suggestion to eat in the cafe and had respectable pulled pork sandwich and fish tacos, the latter with a rather innovative filling: cornmeal-battered and fried steelhead trout. I wound up peeling off the tortillas and sloppy cabbage and just forking up the good fish. Both entrees came with fries that looked both desiccated and Boehner orange but tasted pretty satisfying. Coffee, however, tasted pretty awful, Bob reported.

After a jaunt up to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Crystal addition by Libeskind and take a quick spin through the vaut-le-voyage Bata Shoe Museum recommended by that manager, we made our way to dinner at Lee Lounge, the newly opened addition by Susur Lee. The celeb himself greeted us when we walked in, and we soon settled into a booth with menus for both the bar and the dining room. Bob was smart enough to order Niagara red wine to go with our pupu tower; my usual New Zealand sauvignon blanc seemed too acidic against the great cheeseburger springrolls (with chipotle mayo); edamame with pickled mustard seeds; salmon seviche; chickpea puree with over-browned potato chips, and Peking duck rolls. WIGB? Not sure, but the best part of the evening was peeking in to the kitchen after a trip to the head and seeing the chef/owner himself whipping the cooks into shape.

Next morning we fled the hotel’s bad coffee only to suffer the worst bitter/scorched cappuccino in donkey’s years at T.A.N., a few blocks down Queen Street. An overly sweet pumpkin muffin almost countered it, but it said it all that the barista was pleased when Bob asked for water afterward. “You can tell it’s good coffee if you need water.” Um. No! As they say in Italy.

Afterward we jumped on a $3 streetcar to the St. Lawrence Market, of which I had such intense memories from our first trip easily 20-some years ago. Maybe it was because the stalls were just setting up and restocking after the weekend, but I thought we could have saved Bob’s tiny tokens. We bought some amazing hot mustard from Kozlik’s and a few gifts (Pure honey, cheese curds) from one of the delis but mostly felt underwhelmed. At least we were close by the Flatiron building and walking to it took us past a newsstand where I flipped through a Toronto Life and found Origin touted as the year’s best new restaurant — and a UPS guy outside said it was just a block away. After a detour to the Distillery District one of my consort’s photo friends recommended, we headed there, bags from SOMA chocolate and the overwhelming Bergo’s design store in our hands, outstanding cappuccino from Balzac’s in my belly.

Origin might qualify as the best restaurant of our year so far, despite the AWOL waiters. We sat at the bar and could watch the young crew cooking as well as the street scene outside and the other patrons, ordering and eating with gusto (spicy Spanish fries with chorizo and Manchego looked like upscale poutine). First course: smoked cod croquettes with saffron aioli, which you could almost taste after reading the description. Wok-griddled calamari with pineapple and caramelized peanut sauce followed, a dish that was almost too good because we cleaned the bowl even knowing two more dishes were en route from the performance artists plating just inches in front of us. Then we had three slices of grilled bread topped with fior di latte plus mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil. I’d rate those sensational, but midway through the Chinois duck wrap stuffed with tender meat, pickled cucumber, hoisin sauce, sour cream and sriracha arrived. And it was one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever sunk my retractable fangs into. Only a reflective bowl in front of us prevented us from licking plates, and I normally have self-control. The place gets extra points for offering no drip coffee, only caffeine pulled to order.

The best part of both our better meals was being far afield from our “crash pad,” dazzling as the room and hotel were. I was (stupidly) amazed on realizing how many recommendations, both emailed and in travel stories, cited the same three or four restaurants. Which turned out to be no more than a couple of blocks from the hotel they all recommended. Did I mention the streetcar costs $3?

I always say Montreal is Paris without the jet lag. Toronto is Sydney without the phlebitis.

Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen Street West, 416 531 5042
Lee Lounge, 603 King Street West, 416 504 7867
Origin, 107-109 King Street East, 416 603 8009
Balzac’s in the Distillery District
SOMA chocolatemaker in the Distillery District
Bergo design in the Distillery District has everything.
Kozlik’s mustard

New York minutes/Early April 2011

April 2011

The good, early: Jeffrey’s Grocery in the West Village, where we repaired (to use an underused verb) for a second course after popcorn at Film Forum during “Bill Cunningham New York” and where the experience was almost on the level of the documentary. It was barely dinnertime, so we got seats at the end of the tall communal table, which it took this old brain a while to comprehend were primo — side by side is so much better for talking, plus we each had views into the kitchen and out onto the sidewalk, where passers-by looked straight off the screen. The waiter was Fedora-level, even though he did come over to comment on my whipping out my camera to take digital notes and add that “my boyfriend’s father always takes pictures of his food, too” (great: now I’m not some sheeplish blogger but an old phart). Wines were pretty great: good pours, well-priced. But the food was so much better than you’d expect in a room with a kitchen so tiny. We split an outstanding special of scallop crudo/carpaccio/whatever laced with chile and lime and pork-fat julienne, then sat bedazzled by the almost quivering half-head of roasted cauliflower towering over Bob’s seared tuna teamed with lemon-infused baby artichokes and laid over watercress and radicchio. It tasted buttery from the inside out, and we’ve since replicated it at home (the second time with ghee). I normally resist all things salmon in restaurants, but the $22 special with white asparagus and haricots vert sounded so tantalizing I let down my sustainable guard and was rewarded with a beautifully seared fillet, also perfect from the inside out. WIGB? Absolutely (extra points for still providing matches), but only before the joint fills up. Every extra two bodies at that table elevated the sound level to the point that we might have missed noting that Rod Stewart is my generation’s Frank Sinatra. “Maggie May” took me right back to my few college days, but for the youngsters on the premises it might as well have been Benny Goodman. 172 Waverly Place, 212 398 7630.

The pretty good: Madangsui off Herald Square, where we headed on cursory Sietsema/internet advice on a Saturday when we both wanted Indian while shopping for Indian but had to resist because we were going to be cooking Indian. The JGold Wannabe review posted at the entrance gave me pause, as did the display of rubber/plastic entrees just inside, but we forged on and gave the unflappable waitresses yet another shot at indoctrinating the uninformed. And very shortly we were canceling our reflexive order for a salad and tucking into the eight pickled treats arrayed in front of us while the kitchen cooked our bulgogi (two people searing at the table seemed kinda sad at lunchtime, and two options on the menu forwent that). Both the meat and the kimchi pancake were outstanding. At least to our tastes. Which is why I can only say this was pretty good and not great. Bob’s eaten Korean in some tourist-catcher in Cambodia; I’ve only had it at a press lunch or two. WTF do we know the diff between one-star and a $25&Under? WIGB? Certainly, especially with someone looking for a novel experience. The staff gets A+ for equanimity. And that Biofeel bizarreness you get at the end reinforces the feeling you’re not in Manhattan anymore. 35 West 35th Street, 212 564 9333.