Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Brunch: Bloor Street Diner

The great thing about going for an early brunch on Sunday is that there is plenty of time to blog afterwards. This morning, I went to Bloor Street Diner at the crack of 11AM for dear Darryl's all-you-can-eat birthday brunch.

Great for Groups
This is a great place to go with a large group because not only is there something for everyone, but there is no waiting for hours to be served while the kitchen tries to get 20 entrees ready at the same time. On the web site, it says that they open at 11:30AM, but our reservation was for 11 and the buffet was set up just moments before. The price tag is a mere $20/head, which I think is a great deal considering all that is on offer.

Apple or Orange? Apple.
Upon sitting down, the very attentive waitress asked us if we wanted orange or apple juice and filled our wine glasses accordingly. Throughout the meal, she frequently came back and topped us up, so I think I had at least $20 in juice. If you go, get the apple. It's that lovely, fresh, cloudy kind; not the clear, juice box type.

The Offerings
The buffet included an omelette station with two cooks waiting to do your bidding, a carving station with roast beef and smoked ham, a huge salad bar with about 15 different salads, baskets of croissants and pastries, rows of cakes and squares, pancakes, French toast, bacon, sausages, roast chicken and potatoes, Eggs Benedict, mac and cheese, fresh fruit, and yes, a chocolate fountain.

My Plate #1
On my first trip up to the buffet, I had the Eggs Benedict (of course), roast potatoes, Greek Salad, mac and cheese, corn salad, carrot and raisin salad, and Asian noodle salad. The Eggs Benedict was delicious despite being pre-made and held in a warming tray. The egg was nice and runny and was topped with just the right amount of hollandaise. My favourite. The mac and cheese was on the mild side, but I can never pass it up. The carrot salad was too sweet for my taste, but the Greek salad was great with generous chunks of feta. The corn and Asian noodle salad were good as well.

My Plate #2
After a brief pause, I went back up and got the pesto pasta salad, couscous, green bean and broccoli salad, Thai noodle salad, artichoke salad, chickpea salad, poached salmon, smoked salmon, and a sausage. All of the salads were good and I especially I loved the pesto pasta salad made with bowties. You could make your $20 back very easily by loading up on the smoked and poached salmon which were both delicious.

I didn't make the best choices for dessert. Both the tiny lemon cake and the orange/chocolate sponge cake were dry and unexciting. The chocolate fountain is a fun feature, but as you would expect the chocolate isn't the best quality. I did have a bite of Diane's tiramisu-like cake though, which was excellent. Next time.

There are pricier all-you-can-eat options in Toronto (EPIC restaurant at the Royal York Hotel for $50/head) where the selection includes lobster, crab, and other expensive seafood, but if you don't want to break the bank and still have a gluttonous good time, the Bloor Street Diner is the perfect place.

Bloor Street Diner
Manulife Centre
55 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON
Web Site:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Endless Tapas at Casa Barcelona

Tonight I went for dinner at Casa Barcelona in the Bloor and Royal York area with a dear former co-worker who just left my company at the end of January. It's a tapas restaurant with a gigantic menu (140 tapas, 50 mains) and the biggest wine list I've ever seen (1000 labels; inventory of 24,000 bottles). Before I left, I solicited some expert advice from Marcelo (who is Spanish and knows a lot about tapas as well as pretty much everything food related) and Darryl (who recently indulged in tapas in Spain and has a taste for good food that I trust completely). Some of their suggestions were calamari, salt cod, Serrano ham, sardines, croquettes, and dulce de leche (carmelized sweetened condensed milk).

When we got there, we were overwhelmed by the size of the menu. We could have faltered and gone with one of the pre-set combos, but we perservered. The waitress said that we should have 6-7 dishes between the two of us, so of course we settled on 8: My mother's chicken and sausage croquettes; Serrano Spanish Ham; Palmitos Salad (hearts of palm); Real Spanish Omelette; Chorizo sausage with onions, garlic, red wine, and figs; Piquillos Rellenos (roasted red peppers stuffed with Russian salad); Berejenas (eggplant with caramelized onions and honey); and Grilled calamari with aioli sauce.

In addition, we shared a 1/2 liter of sangria, which was the perfect size (2 glasses each) and was the best sangria I've ever had. There was absolutely no aftertaste unlike the swill of my student days at Carlos and Pepes in Montreal (I have so much to learn).

My mother's chicken and sausage croquettes

I loved these croquettes. They were crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside with a spicy, creamy sauce on top.

Serrano Spanish Ham

This was a very generous plate of thinly sliced Serrano ham. It's drier than prosciutto and not as salty. Very nice.

Palmitos Salad (hearts of palm)

I don't think I'd ever eaten hearts of palm before and they were lovely. Slightly vinegary with a creamy, tartar-like sauce on a bed of greens.

Real Spanish Omelette

This omelette was greaseless and full of nice ingredients (potatoes, ham, etc.), but was a little salty for my taste.

Chorizo sausage with onions, garlic, red wine, and figs

These tasted slightly gamey, but it was offset by the sweetness of the figs and sauteed onions.

Piquillos Rellenos

Piquillos Rellenos just means 'stuffed pepper', so there are many kinds, but this one was filled with 'Russian salad' -- a creamy potato salad with peas and carrots. It sounds like a strange combination, but I loved it.

Berejenas (eggplant with caramelized onions and honey)

This was an excellent dish of sliced, breaded eggplant topped with sauteed onions. I'm not sure where they put the honey, but it was definitely there and lent a nice sweetness. The eggplant was cooked perfectly (not mushy or spongey).

Grilled calamari with aioli sauce

The calamari was expertly prepared and was not the least bit chewy. The accompanying aioli was smooth, creamy, and mild.

Crepes with dulce de leche

Even though we were stuffed, we shared an order of crepes with dulce de leche. The thin crepes were filled with the thick caramel, drizzled with chocolate, and topped with whipped cream. Definitely decadent, but the crepe was paper thin, so it's sort of light. It was a lovely ending to a great meal.

Our bill came to about $120 for the two of us including tax and tip, so it's not cheap, but the variety and quality is excellent. I'd say that you probably only need 6 dishes max for 2 people and you'll be more than satisfied.

I think the owner was helping wait tables and he was so sweet. He saw me taking pictures and said that we should blow them up and hang them on the wall so that people can order by pointing. I don't think the wall is big enough -- there are so many choices. Can't wait to go again to try some more.

Casa Barcelona
2980 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON
Web site:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

TTC is conspiring against me

What have I ever done to the TTC? I'm usually a stauch supporter of the TTC since it is normally clean, convenient, and eco-friendly, but why is it that when you need it most, it leaves you crying by the roadside?

This morning, I dragged my snowboard to work at 7AM because I wanted to leave early and take the good old TTC to Earl Bales Park for an evening of snow fun. As per fate, I left my house just in time to see a bus cruising by my stop. Since they are usually 10 minutes apart, I waited. And waited and waited, and it turned out that an entire bus was missing, so by the time I got on it, it was crowded to the rafters. When I finally got to the subway 40 minutes after leaving my place, which is only a 20-minute walk away, there was a power failure at Jane station so Runnymede looked like Yonge and Bloor at rush hour. After waiting another 20 minutes, I finally got on, but of course all the way down the line people were squishing in until the car bulged. Once we got to St. George, I managed to get off, but there was no way I was getting on Southbound on the Yonge University line. I took the subway back one station to Spadina, got on there, and then rode it until the bitter end at King Station 1-1/2 hours after stepping out the door this morning. I know everyone in the car was fuming inside wondering why this girl has a snowboard on the train during rush hour. I give up.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Mercatto: Dreamy Italian Served By Dreamy Italians

My lovely new manager at work sweetly took each of us out individually for lunch to get to know us and talk about our goals and ideas for 2008. She let us pick which places we wanted to go, so I took the opportunity to check out the newly renovated Mercatto.

The renovation looks very Restaurant Makeover with lots of hard surfaces, bright lights, and wine-filled wall units. All of Toronto's restaurants are slowly getting Ikea-fied into one generic interior design regardless of neighbourhood or cuisine, but the new Mercatto is saved by a fantastic chandelier made from tree branches.

I had been to Mercatto several times in the past and remembered having an excellent grilled calamari salad as well as a too salty prosciutto risotto. I scanned the menu online in advance (which has since been taken down) and something called a piadina caught my eye because I'd never heard of it before. A piadina is a thin, crisp Italian flatbread that is filled with ingredients (cheese, meats, greens), folded over, and eaten like a sandwich.

When my piadina came, it looked like an entire pizza folded in half so I thought there was no way I was going to be able to eat the whole thing. I should have known better -- this is me we're talking about. It was filled with delicate slices of prosciutto, milky mozzarella, and lots of fresh, peppery arugula. The bread was much crunchier than a pizza crust with nice charred bits and it was so thin that it went down really fast.

Aside from the food, all the staff at Mercatto from the host who seats you to the busboy who removes your dishes are all exceptionally beautiful (at least they were that day). I could listen to the waiter say 'piadina di proscuitto' all day.

15 Toronto Street
Toronto, ON, M5C2E3
Web site and menus: No longer available

Friday, February 8, 2008

Boston Exclusive: Stellina Restaurant

Back in November, we visited our dear friends Jack and Dana in Boston (actually, Watertown) and they took us to a fantastic Italian restaurant called Stellina. I've been meaning to write about this place for ages and in celebration of Italian Week here at I can't believe I'm back in Toronto, I'm finally getting to it.

Boston Envy
First of all, I have to say that Bostonians are so lucky. Over the course of the short weekend we spent there, we ate at so many places that were full of character and had drop dead delicious food. I love Toronto and I know we have a lot of diverse cuisines here, but Boston seems to do North American staples so much better (e.g. sandwiches, BBQ, pizza, seafood). After spending no more than 2 weeks total there over the past 3 years, I've fallen in love with at least a dozen places, including this one.

Appetizer: Warm Tomato Salad (aka Salad of my Dreams)
At Dana's sage request, we shared an order of Warm Tomato Salad and it was definitely one of the best food experiences I've ever had. The tomatoes were ripe, sweet, and perfect and they were tumbled with basil and olive oil on a bed of crunchy, garlicky crostini with a generous scoop of creamy goat cheese on the side. This is something that anyone could make, but it's the ingredients that lift it past being ordinary. Dana said they source their tomatoes from one particular grower and that if they aren't up to standard, they don't offer the salad at all. No wonder it is on the front page of their web site. I still think about that salad.

Mains: Pizza and Panini
We were all in the mood for something on the light side, so we went for pizza and panini instead of the heavier mains like pasta and meats (although I'd love to go back and have a try). All the pizzas had a delicious, fluffy thin crust. I opted for a white (non-tomato) one with broccoli and parmesan and it was a great, simple combination. Dana had one with roasted mushrooms and Darcy had a classic pepperoni. Jack struck out on his own and had a panini with lots of fresh mozzarella. Check out the endless, oozing cheese. I love Boston.

Stellina Restaurant
46 Main Street, Watertown, MA 02472
Lunch: T-F 11:30AM-2PM
Dinner: Daily from 5PM

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I know where the new Mildred Pierce is...

I may be betraying Donna Dooher and Kevin Gallagher by publicizing this information since they didn't post it on their web site, but I have to share. The new incarnation of Mildred Pierce restaurant is going to be at 85 Hanna Avenue in Liberty Village. A good friend of mine, who will remain nameless, lives practically across the street and I am seething with jealousy. No word on when it will open yet.

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Mangia&Bevi: I thought the pizza was good; the antipasto, pasta, and dessert are to die

Firstly, thank you to Ayngelina for posting about Picnic Restaurant at Yonge and Eglinton. Sorry to hear the food wasn't the best, but the pictures are gorgeous. I have to learn how to take better photos from you. My pictures of decor always came out so badly that I stopped doing it. And, Ayngelina, you've inspired me to write again.

Italian Week
I have so much to catch you up on, so I thought I'd attack it by cuisine. So, let's say that this week is Italian Week and I'll write posts that may include these places that I visited semi-recently: 7 Numbers on Eglinton, Terroni on St.Clair, Mercatto, Solferino Gelato Cafe, and Stellina in Boston. I'll start Italian Week with Mangia&Bevi because I've been there twice since I wrote about it and there's so much more to it than pizza.

Prelude to the Theatre
Last week, I went to Mangia&Bevi before attending an amazing play at Soulpepper called Salt-Water Moon. Soulpepper has been located, since January 2006, in a beautiful new theatre complex called the Young Centre for the Performing Arts at the east end of the Distillery District. Soulpepper plays start at 7:30PM and Mangia&Bevi is open all day, so it's the perfect place for an early pre-theatre meal. It's also just steps away from Canstage's Berkeley Theatre.

On both visits, we ordered the Antipasto Di Affettati Misti, which is a beautiful platter of proscuitto, several salamis, olives, and pickled vegetables. On both occasions the contents and presentation were slightly different but both times all ingredients were high quality and delicious. I especially loved the proscuitto, pickled onions, and preserved tomatoes.

With 19 pizzas on the menu and only four pastas, you might not think they are good but they so are. When I went with a big group, we shared a bunch of pizzas and one order of the Ragu pasta and it easily stole the show. The noodles were homemade and eggy and the sauce was a perfect combination of sausage, carrots, onions, and garlic with a lacy covering of freshly grated parmesan on top. Get it. You won't be disappointed.

On a subsequent visit, I got the Amatriciana pasta which was penne with pancetta, red onions, chillies, and a dusting of vibrant parsley and grated pecorino. The pancetta was smokey and satisfying without overpowering the dish with salt and the tomato sauce was fresh and simple. You'll like this too, but I must admit my heart is with the Ragu.

My friend Jenny had the Pasta al Forno. It was penne tossed with tomato sauce, layered with boccocini, and baked to an oozy goodness. We were both so into our dished that we forgot to share, so I didn't taste it but Jenny couldn't say enough about it.

More Pizza
The great part of going to M&B with a big group is trying lots of different pizzas. We sat at a great high, table at the back (great for large groups up to 8) and ordered a 4 Formaggi (mozzarella, gorgonzola, goat cheese, provolone, oregano), Peperina (mozzarella, roasted red peppers, goat cheese, basil), Bufalina (buffalo mozzarella, basil), and Burina (tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil).

All the pizzas have an amazing, thin crust that is so light that you can easily eat a whole pizza yourself. The tomato sauce is also simple and natural-tasting making a nice base for the star ingredients. All of them were great, but I think the best is the Burina that has big chunks of rustic, homemade sausage. The pizzas take literally 5 minutes to make, so if you're rushing to the theatre, this is your best bet.

The dainty desserts at M&B mean that you always have room for something sweet. We shared a tiramisu that was airy and dreamy with a generous dusting of bittersweet cocoa powder on top. It looked like it was prepared in a large, square pan, which gave it a really homey feel. Since it was so light, we also had some Bacetti, which are basically ice cream-filled chocolates. Each one had a different flavour in them. I don't remember what they all were, but mine was limoncello. Yum.

I can't say enough good things about this place. And it's still very quiet on weekday nights, so go before the word gets out too much and it turns into Terroni.

260 King Street East (entrance is on the west side of Ontario Street)
Toronto, ON
M-F: 8:30AM-10PM
Sat: 11AM-5PM
Sun: Closed

Guest Post by Ayngelina: It was no picnic in the park

Thanks Kaori for the invitation and I also agree that the CSA was the worst job ever. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that my boss would screech my name from inside her office while I sat out in a maze of cubicles. Fortunately, being only 5 feet tall (with shoes on) the cubicles were tall enough that I could leave my desk, walk away from Elvira and no one was the wiser.

Last weekend I went to Picnic Restaurant for lunch with some girlfriends. I didn’t pick the restaurant. Although it seems amusing to have a restaurant with picnic comfort food, I tend to shy away from gimmicky themed restaurants. Particularly in my neighborhood where the young and eligible reign, these types of restaurants are for those who just recently graduated from East Side Marios and feel grown up now that there is no all-you-can-eat menu.

Picnic Interior

*Picnic Interior

Picnic is definitely style over substance. The interior is actually quite nice with vibrant red walls covered with mirrors and red pleather upholstered picnic tables. We sat down to a regular table and the pleather on my seat has already split. For a restaurant that isn’t even a year old that isn’t a great sign. Its predecessor, MEATing also run by the Eatertainment Group, didn’t last very long at this location so perhaps they are wary of investing too much in decor this time.

We order drinks as we review a very sparse menu. When the espressos arrive there is no spoon so we call the waiter back to ask for one. He apologizes and brings back a large, dirty soup spoon and we need to call him back and ask for a clean one. Two things puzzle me: 1) why did they splurge on the illy espresso cups and did not get appropriate sized spoons 2) why do they have waiters that don’t know they are supposed to check the flatware before handing it to a customer.

Antipasti Platter at Picnic

Two of the girls decide to go with the antipasto platter ($16), picking two cheeses, two meats and two fruits accompanied by bread. The presentation was lovely and they were generally happy except for the mushy olives which appeared to be far past their expiry date.

Bland Potato Salad

Not sure if that would be enough for two, they also ordered the potato salad. They seemed happy with it but I found it to be extremely bland, devoid of any seasoning. Although one pointed out the mustard seeds, all I could taste was mayonnaise.

Grilled Cheese?

My other lunchmate went with the grilled cheese sandwich with 3 cheeses for $8. We were surprised when they came out with three cheese “burgers.” I’m not sure where the grilled part comes as they seemed to be warmed in an oven - definitely not grilled. She didn’t have the heart to complain after she had already sent back the Garden Salad with Crispy Greens ($8) which was filled with old browning iceburg lettuce.

Garden Salad with Crispy Greens

I had also ordered the salad and asked if the crispy greens were a spring mix and our waiter nodded and said it was a salad mix. I also asked if I could have prosciutto on it to make it a heartier salad and assured him I would be willing to pay more. The salad was decent, contained more romaine than iceburg than the salad taken back and only a few brown leaves. They were generous with 4 cherry tomatoes, a couple of croutons and a few olives. I will give them credit for not charging me for the prosciutto, otherwise definitely not worth $8.

The restaurant was fairly empty over lunch, which is unusual for the area. After more than a few months in this location I guess the gimmick has worn off and it will close before the summer. I did wonder if I should have ordered the mac and cheese with truffle oil or one of the other brunch dishes but I’m not sure they would have been much better considered they couldn’t get the simple food right.

Picnic Restaurant
2411 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON