Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Eating off the Hill: Northern Smokes BBQ in Scarborough

I believed I've mentioned before my fondness for southern-style BBQ developed during several trips to the Austin, Texas area during my previous career. Obviously nothing can compare, but a lot of BBQ joints in this style have been popping up in Canada and I recently tried one of them -- Northern Smokes -- in Scarborough.

It being Scarborough, Northern Smokes is, of course, Halal, to broaden its potential market. So no pork ribs or bacon, but lots of beefy options and great sides. It's a bit of a schlep to get to on transit, but I'll consider it worth the trip. Located in a non-descript strip mall (it's Scarborough, everything is located in non-descript strip malls) there's limited indoor seating but I enjoyed my BBQ on the patio, beside a grill and several good-sized smokers.

The menu has the usual BBQ options minus the pork, such as beef ribs and brisket, as well as a few choices catering to local tastes such as Jerk chicken and lamb leg. There's also the expected BBQ sides, including corn bread, means and slaw.

I decide to balance off the meat with the sides and make what's a fairly standard BBQ order for me, minus the pork ribs. I build my meal around the tri tip plate, which is half a pound of tri tip steak. I add, as I often do, a sausage. For my sides, mac and cheese (my favourite southern side) and japapeno creamed corn -- cause I'm all healthy like that.

It was all pretty good, although I have to say the sides were the standout for me. Which is usually a negative as you want the mains to shine. But the mains were good, I just really enjoyed the sides.

The sausage was just ok, I would have liked more juicy flavour. The bun had a nice toast on it though The steak had a nice smoke and flavour. The mac and and cheese was hot and had real cheese and was realtively creamy, which I look for. And the corn was deliciously creamy though not reallty spicy at all, which I was fine with.

I took home some leftovers so I didn't leave in a complete meat coma. Very tasty; I'll be back but hopefully I can find a ride.

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Friday, July 12, 2019

Eating Off the Hill: Summerlicious Prix Fixe at Bannock

I'm in Scarborough for the summer, so expect some even more off the hill food reviews in the weeks and months to come. My first installment comes from a trip downtown to Queen and Bay to sample the Summerlicious prix fixe menu at Bannock.

I will say up front that I was disapointed, although that could partially stem from a misunderstanding of Bannock's concept and offering. I thought it was a somewhat upscale reasturant offering Indegenous-inspired dishes. Instead, it's actually marketed as midmarket Canadian comfort food.

So I went in with an expectations mismatch, and was surprised to find plastic menus and no particularly Indigenous dishes on the menu except the namesake Bannock -- more on that shortly.

Still, I was interested in the menu, which, as part of the City of Toronto's Summerlicious promotion, offered an appetizer, main and desert for $33 as a way of encouraging people to sample more local reasturants.

As my appetizer, I selected the "Fried Mac & Cheese  with aged cheddar and basil pesto." I was a bit put off my the two keptchup packets it came with. I mean, I realize this isn't the more swank place I thought it was, but I don't think Moxie's would give you ketchup packets with your meal. I had lunch at Darcy McGee's at the airport a few weeks back and they gave me ketchup in a ceramic cup. I didn't use these packets, so hopefully they were saved and not disposed of.

Still, as fried Mac & cheese go it was actualy pretty good. Other times I've had this it's more thin like a triangle, so the mac & cheese inside isn't particularly cheesy or pasta-ish. This though was done in cubes. which allowed the cheesy goodness inside to be enjoyed on its on merits.

For my main, I nearly got the meat pie, but ended up deciding on the"Braised Ontario Lamb Pappardelle with tomato, olive oil, parmesan, lamb rag├╣ and rosemary. It was just OK. I would have liked more parm, and perhaps the addition of some garlic for added flavour. It wasn't overly saucy and the lamb was dry. Very much nothing special.

For the last course I selected their featured dessert, described as " Haagen-Dazs Extraaz Bananas Peanut Butter Chip Ice Cream with graham cracker, torched marshmallow and screeched strawberries." First of all, I don't like marshmellows so let's just remove the from the equation. The highlight was the banana ice cream. The bready thing it was served on though didn't seem very grahm crackery to me though. And the strawberroes, while perfectly fine strawberries, I don't know exactly what made them screeched. I didn't finish it as it didn't seem particularly worth the many calories I was no doubt consuming.

Whick brings me back to the namesake Bannock. Since I didn't know when (probably never) I'd be back, while I was sure to be stuffed by the prix fixe, when placing my order at the beginning of the evening I also ordered the mixed bannock box appetizer, just so I could try it. Unfortunately, they seemed to forget it as it never arrived. I didn't bring it up because it didn't show up on the bill and I was full enough anyways, but still, would have liked to have tried it and I did order it.

Anyway, overall I was disapointed by Bannock. Part of it was a mismatch of expectations on concept and menu, but still, their actuall concept was executed mediocrely.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Eating up the Hill: SEN Kitchen at Queen Street Fare

I've written previously about the burger and the pizza vendors (actually, seems I haven't written about the pizza yet so, spoiler alert) at Queen Street Fare, the newish adult pseudo food court that will be adjacent to the Queen Street LRT station if and when it ever opens. The burger place was overpriced and the pizza was fine but nothing special. I have, though, found a dish I thoroughly enjoy and at a fair price point too: the creamy peanut chicken with crispy spinach at SEN Kitchen.

For $13, you get a good-sized portion of chicken and mushrooms in a peanut sauce, a side of crispy spinach, and steamed rice. I added an imperial roll for $2 but frankly, you don’t need it, and it wasn’t anything special. But the main dish was.

The chicken was white and not dry and I was a fan of the mushrooms, but it was all about this peanut sauce. So much peanut flavour it was like peanut overload. I’ve had other peanut sauces. None this peanutty. I was unsure what to do with the crispy spinach, so I just mushed it all together with the main and the rice into a do-it-yourself stir fry, some assembly required.

I miss the days of the sub-$10 lunch but I recognize that, outside the Hill cafeteria, those days were over years ago. But of the three dishes I’ve now tried at different Queen Street Fare vendors, this left my hunger the most sated and offered the best value for dollar.

They also sell dumplings and pork belly bao that I haven’t tried but that look delicious.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Eating up the Hill: Going down the Rabbit Hole

There are a handful of pubs on Sparks Street opposite my office building and, frankly, none of them stand out. There is a newish player on the block though as the Farmteam Cookhouse and Cellar closed awhile back and, after a lengthy renovation, the Rabbit Hole opened in its place. I've been there now for lunch and dinner, and can share my thoughts.

It seems to be aiming for a midpoint between nearby pubs like Brixton's and the Bier Markt, and the swanky Riviera down the street. It has a pricy-ish wine list with a higher end selection you wouldn't find at a pub, and a range of entrees. It markets itself as specializing in cocktails, oysters and pizza, although I had none of those in either of my visits.

My first visit a few months back was for lunch, and I had the steak frites. Incidentally, that's what I also had at my first (and, so far, only) lunch) at Riviera. For $27 I got a small steak (maybe 6 oz, I'd guess) with roasted carrots and fries. It was cooked appropriately and tasted OK but, frankly, was nothing to write home about. I'd like it more at $20-$22. Some mushrooms would have been nice.

More recently I was back for dinner and ordered the special. It's been a few weeks, but I recall it being called spaghetti with braised beef, at somewhere around $18. This represented better value than the steak frites, the portion size was reasonable, the beef was a nice meaty alternative to ground beef, and I liked the tomatoes and herbs. But it could have been served hotter, and I would have liked some sauce -- it was a bit dry.

Two decent meals, but neither were home-runs. And if they're trying to set themselves up as a gastro-pub or something above a regular pub, they need to do better.

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Eating up the Hill: The Buffet is back, but no, not really at all, actually

Like most Hill dwellers, I was a big fan of the semi-weekly Friday buffets at the old Parliamentary Dining Room in Centre Block. A long table filled with sumptuous salads, meaty entrees, and sinfully sweet deserts, all for an affordable $20 or so. So I was sad to break the news some months back that, due to space constraints in the new location in West Block, the buffet would be no more

So it was with some joy that I greeted the adverts that began appearing on the Hill a few months back heralding the return of the Friday buffet -- with a decidedly egg-heavy brunchy menu -- but a buffet nonetheless. My dining companions couldn't synch our calendars until yesterday, the last brunch of the 42nd Parliament -- but with excitement we journeyed to West Block to participate in the return of the infamous buffet.

Settled into our seats, we surveyed the dining room and saw one small circular table containing several bowls of salad, a fruit tray, and a selection of cheeses and crackers. "It's that it?" we wondered. "Where's the beef." At our place settings we found a menu that described the salads, and listed several entrees and deserts, which we couldn't find on any nearby tables.

After beginning with a salad round (plated below) I enquired with one of the servers what the dealio was. He explained that the salad was help yourself, and the you could select and order one entree and one desert. "Only one?" I asked forlornly. "Yes, just one," he confirmed.

As I swallowed my disappointment, we proceeded to discuss buffet logistics. He noted a large buffet table in the small restaurant would cost a third of their already limited seating capacity. I asked if they had considered booking one of the committee rooms across the hall -- unused on Fridays, or the foyer in front of the rooms to place buffet stations. I was told they were looking into those options, but as it would involve diners crossing a sometimes high-traffic hallway, security was raising concerns and would, in the end, have the final say. I would say the chances of it happening are faint.

So, not being a big egg guy, and, while I would have liked the beans as a side, I opted for the short rib poutine. I'm not a big fry person, but it was really the only feasible non-egg option. 

It was OK. The gravy was rich, the beef was rather clumped together, the cheese curds excellent, the fries uninspired. I left some fries uneaten not because I was full, but just because they were meh.

My colleagues all had the crab cakes eggs benedict and pronounced it excellent. In a buffet scenario I would have had a few of the crab cakes as well, leaving the extra eggs for egg lovers that followed in the buffet line. Sadly, that was not to be.

On to desert, which sounded delicious based on the description. Sadly, it disappointed as well. I should have gone with the crepes. I expected it to be served hot, but it was cold to lukewarm. The pastry or whatever you was to call it was spongy, the cream filling bland, and it was swimming in not particularly tasty chocolate sauce. I ate one of the three before deciding this wasn't a good use of the calories I was surely expending here, and I stopped.

So, sadly, no, this was not the heralded return of the famed Parliamentary Buffet. Baring an unlikely change of heart by security, that will need to wait 10-15 years for the re-opening of Centre Block. At best, this is a prix fixe with a small salad bar. Which can be OK in it's own right, but is not the buffet I was expecting. I may return with the correct mindset, but I would like meatier, more substantive entree options to make it worthwhile.

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