Smoke Bourbon BBQ House: Massive amounts of food, moderate amounts of flavor

I remember eating huge plates of all-you-can-eat BBQ chicken and sausages at Redbones in Somerville MA. I also remember the day that the owner said to me “you need to step up to our real BBQ” and gave me a rack of their dry rubbed ribs on the house. I never ordered the all-you-can-eat plate again. Finding BBQ that good in Toronto is hard. Stockyards is the best I’ve found so far. Smoke Bourbon BBQ House might one day match them, but it’s not there yet.

The Baby Back Ribs

Baby back ribs are meant to be almost-fall-off-the-bone delicious. The meat is supposed to melt in your mouth. Smoke’s baby backs do have that succulent meat quality. Unfortunately, they don’t finish off the product well. My rack of ribs had substantial char along the top and edges. I usually like some blackening, but in some areas it was much too thick. When I wasn’t tasting char, the ribs were very bland. Shouldn’t I taste some smoke? I certainly didn’t taste rub at all, not even salt and pepper. There was no sauce on the ribs, only those sauces that came on the table. Since I like my sauce hot (and sticky if possible) this was a disappointment. None of the sauces on the table did any justice to the meat. Ribs need rub, enough said.

Brisket

I was surprised when I saw the beef brisket my dining partner ordered. I had never seen brisket served in any other way besides sliced, but Smoke’s brisket looked like pulled pork. It was tender, and there had been a sauce applied to it. I liked it a lot; a bit sweet and tangy, but good. I’ve never experienced brisket served like this in the south – but I wasn’t complaining much.

Other stuff

The beer list is too small, the sides were decent. The building looked cool. It was our the first day for our server, so I can’t say much about that.

Smoke Bourbon BBQ House on Urbanspoon

Spent Grain Bread: Delicious but…what went wrong?

I tried the spent grain bread recipe from Michigan Beer Blog (@mibeerblog), which had been featured on Lifehacker. I had some spent grain from my first home brew experiment with Chris Conway (@groulxsome).

The bread turned out delicious, but something went wrong. The loaves came out quite small. I allowed the sponge to rise for a little over 16 hours. The second rise was for three, and then the third rise, when the bread was in the pan, for 45 minutes. I think my error might have been working the dough too much in between the second and third rises, or not working the dough enough between the first and second rise (I don’t have a stand mixer like the recipe calls for). Results were still delicious!

ACTINOLITE: No farmer would subsist on these dishes

These are the memoirs of a meal I ate at Actinolite a few weeks ago. The restaurant is named after a small farming town in Ontario, which, if one were to infer from the portion sizes at this restaurant, has a starving underfed population. To sum up what is to come, the service was terrible, the food was at times delicious, at times misguided, and the building looks wonderful.

Our server started the evening off this way:

Server: “Hi, is this your first time visiting Actinolite?”

Us: “Yes, it is.”

Server: “Oh…well…I mean…do you know about the food?”

Us: “No, please tell us.”

Server: “Well, what their doing here is really, um, innovative and on the cutting edge.”

Us: ::Realizing he told us nothing about the food:: “Ahh thanks. We’ll order drinks. We’ll have a bottle of [insert name of second cheapest red wine].”

Server: “You know, at that price point I think you can do better, for example, I’d recommend…ummm…can I see the menu? ::we hand the server the menu:: You know you can get, well…I think..no, actually, I think that Red is the best you can do.”

The server couldn’t answer basic questions about the menu (What kind of berries are these in this dish?) and kept interrupting our conversation instead of waiting for natural breaks. All that would be fine if he didn’t have such a pretentious attitude. In fact, if I revisited Actinolite again, and saw him working, I would walk out before being seated. He was that frustrating.

Food

We had a three course menu. The most memorable dish was simply two braised carrots. By far the best carrot I’ve had. And at $6 a carrot, it should be.

The presentation of the food needed work. For some reason, despite spending major money on renovating the building, Actinolite served its food on dark Ikea plates (at least, they match my Ikea plates at home). Not only does it look cheap, the dim lighting in the building combined with the dark plates made it difficult to see the details of what we were eating. Most places use white plates for a reason: it makes the colors and textures of the food visible to the guest.

The food was good. Simple. The portions were amazingly small. The lamb that most of the table ordered was two to three bites of meat for about $24. I ordered trout which was slightly larger in size, but rather bland besides some dill. The people of Actinolite must be a skinny folk if this is their diet, and they must be poor if their food costs this much. There is little value to be found. It’s also unfortunate that the small country style touches that would set Actinolite apart fall completely flat. For example, one dish used a juniper infused oil. No one could taste any juniper – if it was there it was masked by the dill. In fact, the chef’s love of dill became a running joke at the table, since it was appearing strongly in almost every dish. When the time came to order dessert, one person joked that there was probably going to be dill in it. We laughed. We then laughed harder when the server described the savory dill ice cream on the menu.

The Building

The location is beautiful. The redesign of the building turned out well, and I love the wine cellar at the bottom of the stairs on the way to the washroom.

Actinolite on Urbanspoon

Buddha Pie

With Buddha in the name, you’d expect a humble, quiet, and contemplative pizza shop. And while the small place, decorated with children’s drawings on pizza boxes, certainly is humble, the owner is a gregarious, funny, and a genuinely nice guy. His sign advertising rabbit pizza on the day before Easter drew me in, and I’m glad it did.

The pizza here is interesting. It is by far the thinnest crust I have ever had. The dough is pressed by some sort of device, which results in a crust not much thicker than a few sheets of paper. It is then baked at high heat producing small blisters, but without the charring you get from ovens like those at Libretto. The toppings however were delicious. The pear and prosciutto pizza, with a mild blue cheese, was perhaps my favorite pie in Toronto yet. The BBQ chicken, with some coleslaw on top, also made my taste buds jump. If you are in the area craving pie, check the place out!


Buddha Pie on Urbanspoon

Splendido

I went to Splendido for a special occasion last week, and I have to admit, I had an amazing meal. On top of that, Splendido had the best service I have experienced in Toronto. Before our reservation we received a phone call asking if there were any special dietary needs, and informing us that there was no more valet service (which I am happy about, because patrons would clog the bike lane on that portion of the street). At the restaurant, our server was knowledgeable and friendly, but the coordination of the service was remarkable. Below the waist each wore jeans, while above it white collared shirts and black vests or jackets were the uniform. When serving a large table, all the food came out at once with the servers coordinating the exit from the pass, as well as ensuring that the placement of the dish on the table happened at the same time for each diner. Very impressive.

The food was as good as the service. Memorable was the deer heart tartar with an oyster emulsion. While I usually think of organs as chewy, this raw heart was tender and delicious. My salmon entrée was nicely balanced with a white bean ragu and a delicious chive and mustard combination. My partner’s lamb was tender and delicious – she wouldn’t share much of it with me! We finished the meal with a goat cheese cheesecake. The next day we enjoyed the complimentary shortbread, provided by Splendido upon retrieving our coats, with tea. Overall a great experience.


Splendido on Urbanspoon

Campagnolo

First of all, I need to apologize to Chef/Owner Craig Harding for complaining on Twitter about my reservation. See I had used Urbanspoon to make a reservation for “next Thurs” by selecting the next Thursday listed on the reservation site (which was the 30th). When I showed up on “next Thurs” (the 23rd) the restaurant was closed. I was disappointed and said as much on Twitter. I obviously hadn’t looked at the dates, which had skipped a week in Urbanspoon’s system due to the closure. I hope Craig accepts my apology.

That said, I kept my reservation and dined with a good friend at Campagnolo. The brick building just west of Bathurst on Dundas used to be a Coffee Time before being painted gray and turned into this award-winning Italian restaurant. I’ve frequently ridden down Dundas at dinner time, and I can assure you the place is usually full. Given what I had seen and heard, expectations were high.

Service

The service at Campagnolo was not overly friendly or attentive. I arrived in advance of my partner and sat a bit. A few servers asked me if I wanted drinks, but I asked for only water until my companion arrived. When my dining partner did arrive, the server only came to the table to lean over my shoulder and check what I was looking up on my cellphone. We ordered two appetizers. The table next to us was then seated. About 10 minutes later, they ordered four appetizers. Despite ordering later and having a larger party, their appetizers came out a good 5 minutes before ours arrived. We were drooling over our neighbor’s food.

Atmosphere

The wood tables, big chairs, and candle light reflecting off of wine glasses, really gives this place a cozy feel. The tables can be quite close to each other – but this is sometimes a good thing. By the end of the meal we had a good rapport with our neighbors. They had been picking on me for taking photos of my meal – and even asked, in tourist like fashion, if I wanted to pose with both dishes at once. They joked about switching dishes and stories about ex-girlfriends started to flow. Really, making new friends over food became the highlight of the night!

The food

First thing to note is that the prices were (too?) high, but the entrée portion size was huge. The two of us could have shared either of the two entrees we ordered and been satisfied. The menu changes frequently, but presented a bit of a challenge for us. My dining companion is pregnant (our neighbors thought it was my child! It’s not!), so shellfish (Chilled Corn Soup with Lobster) and possibly undercooked fish (Seared Albacore Tuna) were off the menu for us. We had also just cooked pasta for a recent dinner party, and thus felt compelled to order something else. So we started the meal with the house-made Baguette and Gougères and the Roasted Bone Marrow with Oxtail. For mains, we ordered the Crispy Sea Bream and the Buttermilk Fried Chicken.

House-made Baguette and Gougères – $4

So yes, I was looking up what gougères were when the waiter leaned behind me to see what I was doing. I hadn’t run across these French cheese flavored pastry balls in a restaurant before. They were light, fluffy, and somewhat cheesy. The Baguette was a disappointment: it had clearly been in the oven a bit too long, and although still only a dark brown, biting into the crust gave off a displeasing burnt flavor.

Roasted Bone Marrow with Oxtail and Plum Marmalade – $13

This dish was the highlight of the night. Served in the cavity of a divided bone, the fatty bone marrow was cut nicely by the rich flavors of the oxtail. The plum marmalade gave it a slightly sweet finish. No faults with this dish, if you go, order it.

Crispy Sea Bream with Romano Beans – $28

Fish was served pan-fried with the skin on. The crispiness of the skin was delightful, and the fish was flavorful and not over cooked. Between the two fillets of fish were romano beans, arugula, tomatoes, and pesto Genovese. The tomatoes did a wonderful job of cutting the slight bitterness of the arugula and brought out the flavor of the beans. The pesto was good, although there wasn’t enough of it. Over all the meal was solid and tasty.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken – $27

Three large pieces of fried chicken were served with Parmesan biscuits and gravy, sweet corn salad, as well as a watermelon, mint, and cucumber salad. Although I’m sure the Italians fry chicken, this dish struck me as very southern American, except for the Parmesan used in the biscuit. Each piece of chicken was juicy and moist on the inside. The buttermilk coating was thick and heavy – a little too heavy for my taste, but it did pack a buttermilk punch. By the end of two pieces, I really wanted to soften the coating a bit – dipping it into the gravy helped – but there was not enough gravy to handle even a half piece of chicken. I didn’t care much for the sweet corn salad – all I could taste was sweet corn, and if we’re going to do that, let’s just serve it on the cob (we’re eating fried chicken after all). The watermelon salad was delicious, especially after the hard buttermilk coating.

Budino

Budino is the Italian word for custard or pudding. This custard or pudding, which I believe was caramel flavored, came with bits of meringue and a salted caramel sauce. While the texture was nice, the salt was overwhelming. My partner thought that both the custard and the sauce and been salted – which accounted for why we could taste little else.

Conclusion

Campagnolo did some things brilliantly (the oxtail), some things well (sea bream and chicken), but ultimately didn’t seem to pay attention to the details (baguette and Budino). Campagnolo’s signature dishes (oxtail, pasta, etc.) may be the talk of the down, and it may be our fault for not staying with those dishes while ordering. We left the restaurant satisfied, but by no means blown away. In the end we’ll probably remember our conversations with the table next to us more than the food. If our neighbors are reading, tell us if your experience differed in the comments. 


Campagnolo  on Urbanspoon

El Arriero Restaurante

There are few chances to have Colombian food in Toronto, but El Arriero Restaurante on Jane St. north of Bloor is one of them. My dining partner and I asked the waitress what she recommended, and followed her recommendations of the Bandeja Paisa ($15.99) and Bistec a Caballo ($14.99). So this is a double “One Dish Review.”

Bistec a Caballo

The bistec was served with two fried eggs, a whole fried plantain, rice, and salad. The dish was extremely flavorful. The steak was cooked to tender in a sauce with a few onions. The eggs thickened things up a bit an accentuated the flavors. I love fried plantains, so I was happy with the two halves provided on the plate. The rice and salad were nothing special.

The Bandeja Paisa was a bit disappointing. The dish was a meat market in itself, with sausage, bacon, and steak. It was served with half an avocado, fried egg, rice, and half a friend plantain. The steak on this dish was much tougher than the other and lacked any of the sauce which made the other dish so delightful. I mixed it with some beans and avocado, but that only improved its flavor mildly. The bacon was thick cut and had a tough backing to it. It took me a little while to

Bandeja Paisa

figure out that I should probably peel this backing off, but I had been surprised that it was cooked with it on to begin with. After taking it off, the bacon was much easier to chew, but still nothing special. The sausage was the highlight of this dish. It was flavorful and cooked well. The meat overload left me tired.

One thing to note about both dishes – they are huge! We both took the leftovers home and had another complete meal for two.

So if you find yourself in this part of town craving Colombian, have the Bistec.

 

 

 

 


El Arriero on Urbanspoon

Zócalo

The front of Zocalo

1426 Bloor Street West  
Toronto, ON M6P3L4

Zócalo  may not be the perfect restaurant, but it is definitely one of my favorites in Toronto. I’ve been several times, and for the price, you don’t get a better meal. There is a slight emphasis on “for the price” in that sentence – Zócalo ’s hearty and rustic cuisine is sometimes a little too home-style for me (i.e. steamed broccoli and cabbage). Overall however, Zócalo  has a solid, seasonally-changing menu that is sure to ignite your inner foodie.

Zócalo has a menu that matches seasonally available produce, meats, and cheeses.  Staples of their menu include house made sausage, a Canadian cheese selection, and firecracker cornbread. Many of these dishes are served with their delicious flavoured butters.

While their menu is impressive, the location is understated. You might miss their north-side of Bloor heading into The Junction location, unless you see the “Z” in chalk on the blackboard outside. The restaurant boasts a capacity of 27 (including bar seating), most of which is around hard red tables. The walls were mostly bare during this visit, but the real candles on the table and happy customers around gave the place a cozy feel.  Surprisingly, I’ve never waited in much of a line at Zócalo.

The service at Zócalo  is friendly, knowledgeable, but NOT quick.  The wait staff is usually only two people, so things can take awhile. The food is reasonably quick and, but really, there is no reason to rush out of this place.

Smoked Trout and Tarragon Celery Salad – $10

Smoked Trout with Strawberry and Pink Pepper Cream

The trout was served with a strawberry and pink pepper cream and a buckwheat crepe. Honestly, when this dish arrived I was skeptical that I would like it. I’ve had fish with a cream only once before and it was one of the worst fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. When I tried the cream alone, I thought it was going to be too sweet. I was wrong. Put a little cream and a little trout on the crepe and the combination of smoky and sweet flavors balances nicely. Adding the salad to my cream and trout crepe made the dish even more delicious. No regrets here, it was tasty to be wrong.

House made Steak and Cremini Mushroom Sausage – $11

Seriously good Sausage

I don’t like mushrooms, but this was possibly the best sausage I’ve ever tasted. It was tender, juicy, and delicious. The roasted corn hummus was very different than the Middle Eastern-style hummus I’m used to, but it was no less flavorful. The fresh breads and salad with the hummus was a nice blend of flavors. I loved the potato and pickled red onion salad, but my dining partner wasn’t as fond of them. She loved the sausage too. Did I mention that the sausage was really good?

Lamb and Kale Meatballs – $14

The meatballs came in a tomato and caraway sauce with firecracker

Lamb and Kale Meatballs

cornbread and spicy steamed broccoli and cabbage. The meatballs were tender and the tomato and caraway sauce added a touch of sweetness and moisture. The cornbread was soft and delicious (my diningartner and I love cornbread). The spicy steamed broccoli and cabbage was a disappointment. It lacked spice and simply tasted like steamed broccoli and cabbage. Overall the dish was solid, but not one to rave about.

 

Chocolate Stout Loaf – $8

This chocolate cake was made with honey and locally brewed coffee porter. It was served with a mashed cherry and bourbon syrup. The cake was good, although I was hoping to taste more of the coffee porter, which I could barely discern. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice the bourbon syrup below the cake in the bowl. The syrup added a lot of flavor and was delicious! I wouldn’t mind re-devouring this again with the syrup to see if it changes my somewhat lukewarm perception of the dish.

Dessert

Ricotta and Roasted Corn Cheesecake – $8

Although good, the chocolate cake was put to shame by this cheesecake. The cake was light and fluffy, with a touch of added sweetness from the roasted corn. It was served with a roasted plum and granola cracker and combining the flavors proved to be a brilliant move. This is a great ending to a summertime meal.

Conclusion

Well, it’s obvious I like Zócalo . Two can eat some really high quality food for under $50 total. It’s not a perfect place. The menu includes cornbread with too many dishes; it’s very possible that it will come with your appetizer and your entrée (in fact, I usually order in a way that ensures I don’t get two cornbreads, despite my inclination for cornbread). The service isn’t fast, and sometimes, you get some boring old veggies on the side of your otherwise tasty meal. Still, I will continue to recommend Zócalo  to my friends interested in good food at reasonable prices. 


Zocalo on Urbanspoon

Ducks in the Window’s New Look

Ducks in the Window has a new look! The old theme was attractive, but several people complained about the difficulty they had navigating the site. This new theme has navigation options at the top and right hand side of the page. You can easily see recent posts, the archives, and tags. I hope this will encourage readers to browse past reviews. The new theme is a little plain, but I hope I can use pictures to spice things up! Comments on the new look are very welcome.  

Saving Grace

907 Dundas St W
Toronto, ON M6J1V9

Note: I forgot the battery to my camera, so I apologize in advance for the camera phone pictures in the gallery below.

Saving Grace is one of those places I’ve been meaning to eat at for awhile now. The unusually small breakfast and lunch nook on Dundas always boasts a line of hungry patrons waiting outside on little pink and green benches.  It used to be a residential home and the kitchen, if you peek in, almost looks like your mother’s. While the place is cute, Saving Grace’s fare isn’t as good as the long lines would make you believe.

Service

It’s a good thing we were early. A line the size of the restaurant’s capacity had formed well before Saving Grace opened. There was no semblance of order when the restaurant opened, and some line holders were upset that recent arrivals walked into the restaurant ahead of them. While we got a cozy seat without much problem, the staff wasn’t good at dealing with the hordes who were all seated at once:  our drinks took 20 minutes to arrive and we had to wait another 20 minutes to order. When we ordered, the table on one side of us already had their food; the table on the other side was complaining that they hadn’t even received their drinks yet. After all of that, one of the two dishes that came to our table was incorrect. The meal took almost two hours. It’s no wonder why there are lines in front of this little eatery.

Savory French Toast – $11.50

The savory French toast sounded delicious. French toast served with gruyere, caramelized apples, and roasted red onion accompanied by mixed greens and roasted potatoes. But descriptions in restaurants are often deceiving. What arrived at my table was closer to a grilled cheese sandwich than what the menu described. Lots of gruyere overpowered the smaller amounts of apple and onion. The real disappointment was the French toast. Each slice had only been grilled on one side, which left the middle and non-grilled side soggy and bready. This is not a sandwich that I would order again.

Potato and Green Pea Masala Omelet – $12

The potato and green pea masala omelet was ordered on account of it being an interesting dish that neither one of us had sampled before. This dish was much better executed than the French toast, but was still a bit disappointing. The masala just wasn’t very flavorful, and when you put something like that inside eggs, you want it to provide a flavor that pops. Instead it landed flat. When combined with the super-tasty chutney and eaten on the provided roti, the dish wasn’t bad, but definitely not worth standing in line for.

Summary

The best part of saving grace was certainly the atmosphere: the small space allowed us to interact with both of the nearest tables. I’m not sure if my taking pictures of the food tipped them off to my blogger status, but when we had finished, the table next to us struck up a conversation about the food. They, having ordered totally different dishes, also found the meal unsatisfactory. At first I had thought maybe I was being too hard on Saving Grace; maybe we just ordered the wrong dishes and deep down, there was more that the little place had to offer. But when strangers, unsolicited, want to share their poor experience? Maybe it’s a sign to wait in line elsewhere.


Saving Grace on Urbanspoon

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