Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Host Indian Restaurant

Last night, Darryl, Diane, Michael, Liana and I went to 'The Host', which is an Indian restaurant in Yorkville. I think it's been around forever, but I only heard about it from my manager Marcelo, who has extensive knowledge of Indian food, and my co-worker Vijay who is from Hyderabad, India. They both raved about it, so I thought it must be good.

The Host feels like a place where you could really dress up and not feel like you were overdoing it, or wear jeans and a t-shirt and still feel comfortable. The waiters were very attentive and dressed in semi-formal uniforms, which lent a sense of occasion to the restaurant. We sat at the front in a kind of glassed-in sunroom that was lovely and comfortable in the early evening.

We started with an appetizer platter called Mila Zula, which was a sampling of various deep-fried goodies, including samosa, onion bhajia (onion fritter), khas tikki (mashed potato, pea, and dill fritter) and murg nisha (basically tiny chicken fingers). Everything was hot, crisp, tasty, and not too greasy. Loved it. We also had an order of potato-stuffed paratha (flaky, buttery flatbread). Also very good.

For our mains, we shared Murg Makhni (butter chicken), Chicken Vindaloo (spicy chicken curry), Lamb Roganjosh (lamb curry), Kofta Dilkhush (ricotta cheese balls), guchi matar (peas and morel mushrooms), raita (cucmber yogurt salad), plain naan, and steamed white rice.

The butter chicken was decent if a little underwhelming. I may be wrong, but I think butter chicken is the Indian equivalent of those big, doughy, 'Chinese' chicken balls covered in bright red 'cherry' sauce -- it's Indian food for white people. When I was in India (Pune, Mumbai, Goa, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi) last year, we didn't see it at all. But, at the right place it can be just the thing.

The vindaloo was very nice -- spicy, but not in an overt, aggressive way. It kind of snuck up on you. Very sophisticated. The kofta was fantastic. This is a cheese dish, but it is nothing like paneer. It was basically meatballs, but in place of meat was soft, ricotta cheese. Amazing and delicious. They melted in your mouth.

The lamb was okay, but a little tough. Maybe not the best thing on the menu. And the peas and morels were fine, but I think the mushrooms were dried and reconstituted. I was hoping they'd be fresh, but this may be an unreasonable expectation. I hear that fresh morels are impossible to clean because of all the little pockets.

As for the sides, the naan was nice, big, floppy and chewy with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The rice was a pleasant, plain accompaniment to everything, and the raita cooled us off, but was a bit runny for my taste.

To end we ordered a few plates of pistachio and mango kulfi. If you like kulfi, I think you're better off going to Lahore Tikka House where they make it from scratch and serve it on a stick like a popsicle. The kulfi here seemed to have a layer of ice on the bottom that made me think it wasn't the freshest.

Overall, it was a great place and there were a lot of Indian people dining there, which is a good sign. I think that if I went again I would try some of the dry Tandoori dishes. They looked and smelled amazing. I bet the paneer is fantastic too.

The Host
14 Prince Arthur Avenue
Lunch: Tues-Sun
Dinner: daily

Monday, May 28, 2007

Chinese Traditional Bun(s) - yum!

I'm a little tardy blogging about this restaurant as I went two days ago, but I've been so tired and continue to be. So, I'll be quick-ish. I LOVED this place. It has been reviewed many times in various Toronto press outlets like NOW magazine, Street Eats TV show, and Cheap Thrills Toronto (best Toronto restaurant guide, I think) and I finally went for lunch on Sunday in between Doors Open stops.

Chinese Traditional Bun(s) (it's hard to tell if it's Bun or Buns because it's different on different signs -- part of the charm) is a simple, inexpensive Chinese place. The tables have layers of plastic tablecloths that can be stripped away after each visitor for quick, easy cleanup. I know this is horrifying if you're environmentally sensitive, but it does lend a veneer of authenticity. I remember seeing busboys in Hong Kong grab the ends of these kinds of tablecloths and scoop everything up, dirty dishes and all, to clear the table in 2 seconds.

We ordered a funny combination of dishes: Xian cured pork within bread, vegetable and pork buns, pan-fried vegetable and pork dumplings, and eggplant with mashed garlic sauce. Everything was absolutely delicious.

The Xian cured pork within bread had juicy, shredded pork, cilantro, and green onions sandwiched in English muffin-type bread. It was perfect. The pork was so tasty and the cilantro and green onions added a fresh touch. The bread was really bland so it let the taste of the filling come through. I could eat this every day.

The vegetable and pork buns were also flawless. They reminded me exactly of the ones that my mom made for my dad, my sister, and me before she went to Japan on a month-long trip when I was about 16. I remember she made a tonne of them and froze them in the deep freeze. I think I ate them almost every day for the whole month. The dough is shiny on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. They were screaming hot right to the centre and the pork/veg filling was nice and moist.

The pan fried dumplings had the same filling as the buns, I think, and they were also hot and well cooked. The dumpling skin was nicely crisped from pan-frying.

Lastly came the eggplant, which was an eggplant lovers dream. I think there were at least three or four of those long, Japanese eggplants in it. Darcy isn't that crazy about eggplant so I ate the lion's share of it. I think the actual vegetable itself was steamed because it wasn't greasy at all. On top was a huge portion of mashed garlic and underneath was a pool of very spicy, chili oil-type sauce. I ate as much as I could and mourned the leftovers I had to leave because I was going to be walking around for another few hours and couldn't take it with me.

The entire bill came to $17.07. Crazy cheap. And the man who served us and made most of the food was so sweet. I think he was the owner. I can't recommend this place enough. The entire menu was on a sandwich board outside and I took pictures of it, so if you want to look at it in advance, it's all there. Click on the images to see them enlarged.

Chinese Traditional Bun(s)
536 Dundas Street West
Open daily 9:30 am to 10:30 pm

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Chuck Palahniuk reading at Indigo

Last night after I got home from the Chuck Palahniuk reading, I sat down to blog about the lunch I had earlier that day at Izakaya and the dinner with Darryl at Sono Japanese Restaurant. By the time I got to writing about Chuck, it was way past my bedtime and I wrote a posting that you may have read if you checked early enough this morning. I think I was way too cranky, so I since took it down and I'm going to start over with a better attitude.

For those of you who don't recognize the name, Chuck is the author who wrote the novel Fight Club, which as I think most everyone knows was made into a very successful motion picture starring Brad Pitt. In addition to Fight Club, he has written 9 other books; four of which either have been or will be made into movies. Last night's reading took place to promote his latest novel: Rant.

You would not believe how many people showed up. They really should have held this reading in a seated venue so that everyone could have a look at him. Since it was in a store, there were only about 10 rows of chairs set up, which I heard were full by 2:30 (event started at 7PM), and everyone else was crowded into aisles, peeking over shelves trying to catch a glimpse. Darryl and I went into the music section behind the stage where we had a pretty good view of the back of his head.

He was up there for about 1-1/2 hours and the majority of the time he was letting people ask him questions (alternating between girls and boys). Even if you couldn't see the crowd, you could tell it was very different from the one at say, Michael Ondaatje, because Chuck would say, "Next question? Yes, you with the tattoo on your wrist; okay, now you with the shaved head." He also spent a good deal of time asking trivia questions about his books and giving out prizes of signed inflatable moose(s). He picked moose because he thought it was something Canadians would like (he's American, as you would assume).

When he did read, he read a short story that has not been published yet because he wanted us to get something out of the reading that we couldn't get anywhere else. I thought that was cool. The story itself was about a midwest high school student who was telemarketing to earn money and spent his entire job trying to convince people that he wasn't in India. It was pretty funny.

I haven't read much by him at all. The only book I read was Stranger than Fiction, which was a bunch of short, non-fiction stories. He is someone who has seen, heard, and experienced so much crazy stuff that I couldn't even imagine. Which is what makes him so valuable as an author. Anyone can pick up his books and be thrown into places that we'd have no chance of going to or even knowing they existed. And he really looks like he writes -- wiry, tough, compact, but with a sense of humour.

I really liked how he engaged the audience through the questions and the trivia contest. He made a big effort to interact. One funny question that someone asked was if his mother read his books and what does she think of them (because they're so raw). He said that as an author you can't factor that kind of thing into the equation or you wouldn't be able to write a word. And he said that his mother stopped reading his work a long time ago. :)

Izakaya for lunch

I wanted to keep up my campaign of trying new restaurants in the downtown core close to my work, but I was meeting some old friends and I wanted to go somewhere reliable, so we went to Izakaya. As I said in my earlier post, an izakaya is basically a Japanese pub where they serve casual food like yakitori, noodles, and dumplings. So, no sushi here.

I started with the Crisp and Tart drink, which is a mix of lime, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, and mint. It's delicious and so fresh that if you don't drink it fast enough, the apple juice actually oxidizes and turns brown. Maybe with more lime juice, it wouldn't? In any case, it's delicious.

Since I started seeing my new trainer, I've been trying to eat healthier, but I was foiled again. I had been craving rice and tofu, so I ordered an inarizushi appetizer, which is basically deep-fried tofu pockets stuffed with rice. In my mind, I had the aburaage (deep-fried tofu) mixed up with yuba, which is the skin that forms on top of boiled soymilk and is very low in calories. Honest mistake. It was yummy though and served with pickled ginger.

For my main, I had hot soba noodle soup just like last time. Like before, it was very clean-tasting and the noodle was cooked well. This time there was one piece of tempura (onion), two thin slices of pink fishcake, and small piece of rolled egg (thin egg omelette). It felt healthy and nourishing.

This is a bright, pleasant restaurant with good quality food made from fresh ingredients. If you're in the neighbourhood, it's worth trying.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tapas at Club Cayo Coco

Tonight my company's social committee put on an event that is totally my thing -- tapas at Club Cayo Coco. We were supposed to have a group of 32 people, but only 23 showed up on time so we ate like kings. And I had promised my new trainer yesterday that I would eat better. I can start tomorrow.

We started with mojitos and pitchers of sangria that were both really good. I think the last time I had sangria I was in university in Montreal. We used to go to a Mexican place called Carlos and Pepes that was a restaurant by day but turned into a beer-soaked den of iniquity at night. The sangria tonight was much better. It probably had decent red wine in it rather than dep wine (if you lived in Montreal when you were under 20, you know what this is).

We were set up in a private room upstairs at awkward long tables. I had pictured it being a more casual and loungey situation, but it turned out to be pretty formal. I suppose it would have been difficult to eat the food we had standing up and juggling a drink at the same time.

For the tapas, they started by bringing out warm, crusty bread with garlic butter and pico de gallo, which is a spicy, tomato-based condiment. The bread was a big hit. Next came a decent chickpea salad with red peppers and onions, whole roasted mushrooms with garlic, and marinated seafood, which consisted of shelled mussels, squid, and shrimp in a citrus marinade (kind of like a ceviche). The mushrooms were delicious and the ceviche thing was passably fresh, but the squid was pretty rubbery. This was followed by sliced chorizo sausage (smoky, nice), deep-fried calamari (to die), chicken breast in a garlic butter sauce, beef meatballs in tomato sauce (tender, amazing), and garlic butter shrimp (excellent, fresh).

The restaurant curated our dinner, so we didn't make any choices, but everything was pretty good and they gave us a nice assortment of dishes. Our amazing social committee footed the bill for the entire meal so I have no idea what it costs. But, if you go I strongly recommend the mojitos, sangria, roasted mushrooms, deep-fried calamari, beef meatballs, and garlic shrimp.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Attempt at Inventory - Dean Baldwin

I heard about this food photography exhibit in the Taste TO blog, and I was dying to go but I was busy leading up to this weekend and the show closed on Saturday. After lunch today, we peeked in the gallery window and the show was still up! And the windows were so big that we could pretty much see everything. Yay!

The show was called 'Attempt at Inventory'. Dean Baldwin (Toronto-based artist) tried to take a picture of everything he ate in 2006. Instead of grouping the photos chronologically, he organized them by type so all the bowls of cereal with blueberries were clustered together as were the noodle soups, pizza, etc. The effect of all those photographs side by side was so beautiful.

Last year at Doors Open, Darryl, Diane and I saw another photo collection by him hanging in the Gladstone Hotel called 'Food I left in the Fridge Too Long' or something like that and it was actually as the title says. It was so interesting to look at the different moulds and growths, and when you backed up and just looked at the whole, it was really pretty.

Ladies of Leisure - Lunch at Mildred Pierce

Since Mildred Pierce is nowhere near my place or work (or anything) and I was taking the day off to recuperate from the race, Koto and I took advantage of our ample free time and went for lunch. I was wondering what kind of people would be there since it's kind of remote from any business centres and service is only between 12-2pm.

We got there right at the stroke of 12 and the room was empty except for the owners Donna Dooher and her husband, Kevin Gallagher, who were sitting having an early lunch. Quite the celebrity sighting for me. As time went on, people trickled in and the restaurant became a little over half full. The people who came were a mix of business people, retirees, and interesting intellectual types dining alone (in my imagination, they were novelists).

To celebrate the day off, we started with cocktails. I had a Pom Royale, which I've had before but was so good I had to have it again. It's champagne mixed with pomegranate juice and there are little pomegranate seeds floating in it. Lovely. Koto had a Peppermint Paddywagon, which was a minty, chocolatey vodka drink with shaved chocolate around the rim. I tasted a bit and it was pretty sweet and potent.

Koto started with the shrimp and crab cakes. I had them at dinner the other night and they were just as delicious at lunch -- beautifully hot, but not greasy, plump full of shrimp and shredded crab meat, and served on a bed of crispy Thai-like slaw. Delicious.

For our mains, Koto had the Mildred's club sandwich and I had the Clove-scented basmati biryani. What's great about having lunch with your sister is that you can share food. Koto's sandwich was on this really dark bread that tasted a bit like chocolate. It was filled was shredded, smoked chicken, ripe avocado, arugula, tomato, thinly sliced red onion, and garlic mayonnaise. It came with these beautiful, thin-as-paper taro chips. Both the sandwich and the chips were fabulous.

The biryani was complex and full of ingredients. The spiced basmati rice was mixed with dried apricots, currants, cashews, and pumpkin seeds, topped with fig and date chutney, and cradled in a ring made from two thin strips of deep-fried plaintain. The basket of rice rested on a grilled portobello mushroom surrounded by smooth lentil broth. It was perfect and expertly made.

Since this was a leisurely lunch, we shared a 'Pecan not so square', which was a thick, buttery crust topped with whole, fresh pecans and a caramelly glaze. Alongside was yummy whipped cream and a little bourbon butter sauce. Again, it was perfect.

I said it before, but Mildred Pierce is definitely the place you need to take people from out-of-town. They pay attention to every single detail and it's reliably amazing. And not too expensive for the quality. For one appetizer, two mains, dessert, espresso, and two drinks, the bill came to $75 before tip.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mississauga Half Marathon

Well, we did it. Koto and I ran the Mississauga Half Marathon today in this beautiful weather. Darcy hurt his foot a couple of weeks ago, so he had to sit out (poor Darcy). He sweetly drove us there, hung onto our stuff while we ran, and took some great pictures. This one has the winner of the full marathon, Predrag Mladenovic (2:23), in it. He's the guy with the neon yellow singlet.

This was my second half marathon and I managed to improve my time by about 5 minutes, but I am absolutely destroyed. In the Toronto Half Marathon in October, I felt great and had lots of energy after the race. This time, the last 5k felt like a death march and I had to cheer myself on to keep going (you can do it!). The last km looped around a pond so you could see the finish way before you got there and I almost cried because it looked so far. Next time, I'll have to train harder. I really did do a sort of half-assed training program this time.

As soon as we got home, Darcy ran out and bought Alexander Keith's beer (for him and Koto) and KFC for all of us. KFC is Koto and Darcy's guilty pleasure. Me, I'm a pizza a girl but I dove in anyways.

I'm so glad I am taking tomorrow off. I predict the entire day will be spent in pain with my feet up. I may have to acquire a scooter to get around.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cheap lunches in Bloor West Village: Falafel World and Astra Deli

I have eaten out so much this week. After I got back from getting my hair cut, I was starving and so was Darcy so I met him in Bloor West Village and we went to Falafel World to get me a chicken shawarma sandwich. It's my new favourite thing. For $5 you get a fresh pita stuffed with shaved roasted chicken, cabbage salad, lettuce, and tomato and topped with garlic and hot sauces. It's the complete food. I love it. It's the closest thing we have found to a Montreal shish taouk.

Apparently, Falafel World has been there for something like 20 years and I can see why. It's so good and cheap. And it's a family business, so it feels good to support them. Although, by no means do they need our business. No matter when we go, the place is always busy. But, the service is super fast so you'll never wait long.

Darcy was in the mood for a barbecued sausage from Astra Deli, so I braved the line-up and the cranky barbecue mistress to get him one (Darcy can't stand crowds). Barbecuing and selling sausages in front of Astra Deli must be the worst job in the world because no matter who is manning the grill, they're always in a horrible mood. They've been doing this for years and years, but the system sorely needs some process improvement. They have one person grilling and taking the money, so she has to handle both (ew!). They keep the take-out containers inside so if you need one, you have to go in and get it yourself. They don't have the price posted anywhere so the griller has to say '$2.75' like a million times per day. And the line-up always forms in front of the condiments so after you have your sausage, you have to fight through everyone to dress your dog. They're really good though. What's a little hassle for a great sausage on a bun?

A beautiful day to go to Pop Design

After 7 months without a haircut, I finally went this morning to Pop Design at King and Spadina. I usually go to Red Label Hair in Bloor West Village, but I met Pop Design's owners, Giselle and Sandro, at a party back in November and I really liked them.

Pop Design is a great, funky, unpretentious salon. Everyone is relaxed and friendly and the decor is cool, but unfussy. They use those red tool chests that everyone's dad has for storing styling implements. And even though Gisele co-owns the salon, she washed my hair herself before styling it. I like that. She knew immediately what she wanted to do with my hair, but she wasn't pushing me into anything I wasn't ready for. And she's super nice and fun to talk to. If you're looking for a great stylist in Toronto, I can't recommend her enough.

After doing some research online, I see that their salon is quite famous. The linked article says that they do work for print, television, and runway fashion. It makes me feel like I'm not worthy of getting my hair cut there, but I felt very comfortable and it wasn't that expensive ($70 for a cut by a Master stylist). I think that says a lot about them.

On a completely different topic, I took some pictures of the pond at Ellis on my way down to the streetcar stop. It looked so beautiful in the late morning sun. All of the trees are blooming and the swans are gliding around leisurely. I love our neighbourhood.

Friday, May 4, 2007

'Ladies Lunch' at Sushiman

Yet again, I ventured out for lunch today. Darryl was working from home on Monday when I had my sushi craving (and went to Bikkuri), so we got together today at Sushiman at Victoria and Richmond.

This place is practically across the street from my office, but I'd never been there before. I'd walked by many times and seen Japanese businessmen going in, so I figured it must be pretty good.

The interior was pleasant, sunny, and unpretentious. All of the adorable waitresses seemed to be Japanese (the real deal; not like me), which lends an air of credibility to the place.

I had great intentions of having a straightforward and healthy sushi lunch, but I was foiled again. There was something on the menu called the 'Ladies Lunch', which I had to order because I always wondered what a lady should eat. Darryl ordered the straightforward sushi lunch.

I wonder what sort of lady they had in mind when they created this combo. An Olympic shot putter, maybe? Darryl's straightforward sushi lunch was a standard size and came on an elegant, small wooden board. The waitress' arm strained under the weight of my 'Ladies Lunch', which was served in a bento box. It comprised of 6 California rolls, seaweed salad, a small piece of cantaloupe, and a whole mess 'o tempura (not again!).

The California rolls were the best I've had in a long time. They had actual fish roe in them and the avocado was ripe and creamy. And they were a nice, dainty size. The seaweed salad, however, was quite a disappointment. I thought that it would be that great wakame salad that you see at Bento Nouveau and St. Lawrence Market as well as many other places. It turned out to be the regular (and not very fresh) iceberg lettuce salad with little bits of chewy seaweed and lots of gloppy miso-sesame dressing. Ew. The cantaloupe was okay if a bit overripe and tasteless. And the tempura was passable, but not as good as Bikkuri. It's all in the crispy exterior. Bikkuri's was snowy, fluffy; Sushiman's was like the tempura I've made at home. There was a nice selection of vegetables in it though: pumpkin, potato, sweet potato, carrot, onion, mushroom, green pepper. Thankfully, Darryl had some so I didn't eat all of it.

The bill came to an astounding $20 for the two of us. Despite all my complaints, I'd definitely go again. This time I would order sushi and sashimi only. Or try one of their cooked dishes like donburi. It's quite a deal. Pretty much all the lunch items are under $10.

Mamma's Pizza for dinner

Well, since I had spinach and mushroom salad and soda water for lunch on Thursday, I was due for some Mamma's pizza for dinner that night. Darcy has been housebound for the better part of the week with a sore ankle (he woke up one day and it hurt and then we ran for 6 miles -- don't be like us!) so he was due for a treat. I've had more than enough treats this week, but what is one more?

Mamma's Pizza is a pretty big Toronto chain (23 stores in the GTA). I hadn't tried Mamma's until a couple of weekends ago when Darcy and I got slices there on a Sunday after being disappointed that Falafel World was closed. It's thin crust, floppy, tomatoey pizza with finely chopped toppings. We love it.

Our favourite pizza is what is called an 'All Dressed' pizza in Montreal, which is pepperoni, mushrooms, and green pepper. When I first moved to Ontario (Waterloo), I order an 'all dressed' pizza and ended up with a pizza that had almost everything on the menu. Yikes.

Mamma's pizza is great. It's especially good when you get a slice at the store and they warm it up for you in the pizza oven. The bottom gets all crispy and delicious. Sigh.

Flatiron and Firkin

On Thursday, I unexpectedly went to the Flatiron and Firkin for Matt's resignation lunch. Matt has been at my company for 5 years now and he's a sweet guy, so we had around 25 people.

We all sat on the patio at a long table and I wondered if they were actually going to try to have all of our food ready at the same time. They did try, so it took about 1-1/2 hours for it to arrive. I've been watching so many behind-the-scenes restaurant shows on the Food Network that I pictured this endless ticker tape coming out of the order printer in the kitchen and the cooks trying to choreograph finishing 25 plates simultaneously.

The Flatiron and Firkin is one many 'Firkin' pubs across the GTA. The food is typical pub fare (burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, curry, salads, etc.) and it's definitely a safe choice for a large group lunch -- there's something mediocre for everyone.

I'd been eating out so much this week that I thought I would take it easy and have a soda water and a spinach and mushroom salad. The spinach was remarkably fresh and the hard-boiled eggs were just right (no green tint around the yolk from overcooking). The mushrooms were old though and the promised bacon bits were absent. For a pub though, it was pretty good. And I felt so virtuous. So much so that I stole a few of Tanya's fries, which were great actually. They were those thick, skinless ones that are probably frozen. I love those.

If you're downtown and you're entertaining a large group or dining with finicky eaters, this is the place for you.