Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Jamie Oliver's Italian Restaurant, Toronto

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What would immediately come to your mind when a world-famous chef decides to open a restaurant far away from an expected downtown location, and plunks it in a suburban mall? Is your response a side-eye glance? Did you murmur a suspicious "hmmm" to yourself? Did you wonder what Chef was smoking to come up with that decision?

Regardless of your reaction to the news, it seems that Chef Jamie Oliver has ignored what traditionally should happen with restaurant openings and instead has opened a place far away from the downtown madding crowd.

There is little doubt regarding the many incredible accomplishments of Mr. Oliver. I have heard nothing but great things about his restaurants in London, and I personally think that he's a fantastic chef and cook. Come to think of it, I am a big fan of anyone who has the guts to tell Vegans to knock it off and just enjoy food. So believe me when I say that it was a shock when I heard that Jamie Oliver's first foray into the Canadian culinary scene would be at Yorkdale shopping centre - an upscale mall located about 40 minutes away from the downtown core.

But in a mall? Oh I get it now Mr. Oliver. With this first restaurant in Canada, clearly you're goal is to become a chain. Well congratulations and good luck on that venture. Ah well, we'll soon find out if there is a method to his madness.

As with anything he does, there is definitive strategic thought and value to opening up a restaurant in a mall, but especially at that particular mall. Yorkdale is one of the busiest shopping centres in the country, and caters to a wide variety of shoppers from all income levels. It is practically a guaranteed spot to have a hit restaurant, unless of course the food being offered does not live up to the celebrity chef who is creating and hyping up the menu.

And that's the rub. Jamie Oliver's entry into the Canadian culinary world landed with a thud. I sincerely hate the following word 'meh', but nothing else came to mind after my dining experiences. Not even just 'meh', but a decidedly, definitive, no confusion whatsoever 'meh'.

Are you ready to find out why? Good, then lets begin the journey of 'meh'.

Now generally when a restaurant decides to locate in a shopping mall, you're going to get an entirely different type of dining experience and in particular, a different type of professional service pool than you would find in a typical, mid to higher end downtown establishment.

Now I don't know about you my fellow reader, but I always find it disconcerting when there are four or five staff clustered at the front entrance of a eating establishment. I think to myself, either too many employees or not enough customers - or both, which is not necessarily a good sign. What makes things more confusing and irritating to an already uncertain opening restaurant experience, is a reservation policy that works well in theory, but is utterly worthless in practice.

Here is my question to you Mr Oliver - why bother even having a reservation policy if you're staff are plunking people in spots that are horrible despite having made reservations' weeks in advance to avoid exactly that issue? Is it fair that "walk in's" seem to be directed to some of the better tables in the house? And worse, when you ask to be moved from a location that guarantees a cold air draft as you're seated next to the front door, only to proceed to punish the people by putting them in an even worse location? Surely you are you aware that people talk and remember slights like this.

And then here comes the waiter. If this was a downtown location, come to think of it, ANY location I'd have him fired. Yes, he was THAT type of waiter, you know the kind. Less than enthused when it's a table of couples, or God forbid a single person, but give him a table filled with pretty, young women? Well didn't he just come to life.

Clearly I was very annoyed by this point in my culinary foray at Jamie's restaurant, and the food was not even ordered yet. So I was hoping that the food would raise the dining experience that has so far been pretty dismal.

We started with some 'nibble's: Arancini Margherita, which was stuffed and tasteless risotto rice balls that contained piri piri chillies, a drab tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. You would think with all of those ingredients that it would not be lacking in flavour, but it did, rendering it a dull, boring and bland dish. I was sincerely at the point where I was this close to eating our waiter with some fava beans and a nice chianti, but my dinner companions preached the gospel of patience. So I took a sip of wine and patiently waited for the mains to arrive.

Thankfully my sausage pappardelle saved what was truly an underwhelming start to the meal at Jamie's Italian Restaurant. Perfectly cooked al dente pasta with a gorgeous, velvety sauce made of sausage and fennel, made my eyes pop and my mouth water. I'm not a huge fan of fennel, and it was slightly overwhelming the dish for me, but I was told by my Italian friends that this is exactly the way it should be. My dining companion ordered the crab spaghetti, and after exclaiming how bored they were with the appetizer, again, the word 'meh' came up to describe their feelings about the pasta. The dish contained garlic, capers, chilli, fennel, parsley, anchovies, lemon & olive oil, but yet when I tasted it, it seemed to have very little actual crab flavour.

We had ordered fried polenta chips as a side dish. Resembling fritters more than fries (which really didn't matter), it turned out to be the best thing I ate so far that night. With the rosemary, olive oil and drenched in Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the flavours melded together beautifully, and we all sighed with delight so much that it almost made us forget that we had to remind our waiter to bring it to the table. Almost.

A fabulous dessert of lemon meringue cheesecake followed our Mains. When I asked the waiter if it was made in-house, I was told that it was provided by Dufflets bakery - a local Toronto favourite, but it was Jamie's recipe. Again, it didn't matter at that point in the evening whose recipe it was or whom even created, it was absolutely fantastic. A wonderful way to end what was truly a disappointing meal.

So with that last statement, you might still be wondering why I called my overall experience at Jamie's 'meh'. Well, that's mostly because a few good dishes doesn't save the fact that crappy service, a hard to get to location, plus an environment that truly screamed "this is a mall restaurant", all conspired to make a trip to Yorkdale Mall the dullest culinary travel experience I've had in a long, long while.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A New Year for a hungry man!

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As the blog moves forward into 2016, I will continue to share some great stories, food trends and reviews. Now I've mentioned in a previous post that I've been trying to build a new home for this site, which has been equally annoying and frustrating, but I also know that eventually it will be launched.

In the meantime, keep popping on to the site to see whats happening in a hungry man's world, because 2016 is going to be an interesting, chaotic, and very eventful year!

And now, the new adventures begin...

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: North of Brooklyn Pizza

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Question: what do you do when the pizza is outstanding, but the process of ordering it is akin to peeling your fingernails, slowly, one by one, off of your hand? Think about that for a minute.

I personally don't know a soul who doesn't love pizza. Mind you, I am sure there are a few folks who don't like it, but they aren't worth knowing or mentioning. They just don't understand just how delicious great pizza really can be.

Now I have had my share of pizzas from around the world: Italy, Japan, New Zealand and of course, right here in my hometown of Toronto. I've run the pizza tasting gamut from mouthwatering to barf-bag inducing, but I stand by all of my pizza testings and tastings. You have to do it in my world, and that includes my recent head-shaking, momentary lapse of judgement of delving into the world of commercial pizza - as in those discs of cardboard created by some of the bigger food companies found in grocery stores. My excuse was that I was starved, STARVED I tell you, for anything but Pizza Pizza or Dominoes or any of that crap. I just wanted pizza. So (un)naturally, I ran to my frozen food aisle to briefly satisfy that craving.

Oi Vey.

Well, after recovering from that bout of idiocy, I was still looking for a place I could call upon whenever that pizza craving hit me. A place that didn't require me to leave my home in order to get it (hello there Pizza Libretto or Terroni), or somewhere that didn't test my gag reflexes (that's you commercial pizza and the bigger pizza chains). So it was serendipitous that my partner introduced me to a new world of fabulous pizza. And the name of the pizzeria that raised my hopes of great pizza in Toronto? A little place called North of Brooklyn. A clever name, non? A little wink and a nudge to our American neighbours whom have a plethora of awesome pizza available, always, 24/7, right at their fingertips and footsteps.

Well, after tasting this pizza, I thought we Torontonians had finally hit the good pizza life too, thanks to this little gem of a pizzeria. Actually, I shouldn't say it's little, there are three locations in the city. But again, you would think we'd be celebrating that fact, but I was wrong. You see, I did have the chance to taste the pizza, ordering a mouthwatering margherita pizza. The simple, but classic tomato sauce was piping hot. The mozzarella cheese was the real deal, traditional Italian home-made discs of melted goodness baked into the sauce. The crust was thin, charred and chewy, just fantastic.

But, despite the pizza love, there was a problem.

In order to get this mouth-watering pizza, I had to deal with the people running the pizzeria, and that alone nearly put me off of it completely. In all of my long years of contacting various pizza delivery places, I don't believe I have ever dealt with such compete indifference to customers than North of Brooklyn.

My first attempt to get the pizza resulted in me contacting the place that was closest to my home. A simple thing anyone could do right? Wrong. I barely got the address out before I was rudely interrupted and told to call another location that was apparently closer to my place. Fine. I agree that it makes sense to do that, but did you have to hang up before I even got the chance to ask any additional questions? First time caller here, I may have an extra question or two.

It doesn't end there.

I call the next recommended location and Holy God what an attitude I encountered with the guy taking the order. I had to practically beg for delivery. Seriously? Here's the deal boys - if it's going to be an issue every-time someone asks you for delivery, don't offer the service!!!!

The things is, I get why the people who work at North of Brooklyn are behaving in such a shitty way. This isn't a case of bad timing or a bad day for the employees. The sad truth is that they know we want their pizza. Desperately. They know they are one of the best and therefore, can afford to treat their customers in a less than reverential way because we will still call them. Often. We want good pizza in this town - badly. We are starving for it. So we'll swallow the shit delivered by the guys who work there because we're starving.

When I tried to call again recently (yesterday), the phone went right to voice mail. You see, I made the huge mistake of calling an hour before delivery officially ends. Yeah, it seems they don't want to pick up the phone an hour beforehand, because God forbid that might mean doing some work before closing. I swear to God, I'd never call this place again if the pizza wasn't so damn good.

So there you have it. Stuck with amazing pizza and absolute shitty service. I am just waiting for another team, hopefully made up of former disgruntled workers to open up locations right beside North of Brooklyn. All it would take - besides offering great pizza, is a friendly voice AND delivery after hours and they'd be raking it in.

Until that happens, the fingernail removal will have to continue.

Brief Hiatus

I apologize for the radio silence lately on the blog. I honestly hadn't had time to post due to personal circumstances, but I'm back baby. Look for new posts very soon!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Loving Lovage: A tribute to a tasty herb

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We are deep into my favourite time of the year - autumn, and this could not be a better time to highlight another classic Fall recipe, butternut squash soup. This time though, before I jump into the recipe, I want to mention a once forgotten herb that is now slowly, but surely, making its way back into our culinary language. This herb will perk up that butternut squash soup and make it sing.

And the name of this wonderful herb? 'Lovage'.

Oh lovage, what a fab name that I swear should be on the tips of everyones lips. It looks a little like flat leaf parsley or cilantro, and shares a palate similar to curry. A truly fabulous flavour. Whenever I hear or see the word lovage, I am reminded of that classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry talks about salsa, its popularity and why people like to say the word salsa. Except, in this case lets substitute 'salsa' with 'lovage'. Where is the lovage? I'd like some lovage. Gimme some lovage. Anyway, you get the point.

This tasty herb is not only pleasing to say, but has a variety of uses besides perking up a simnple soup recipe. Several researches have shown that lovage is an extremely beneficial herb for the digestive and respiratory systems. It has warming and stimulating therapeutic effects on both. In addition, lovage is effectual in healing ailments such as poor appetite, indigestion, bronchitis, gas and colic (pain in the abdomen). Lovage also possesses considerable diuretic and antimicrobial properties and hence it is normally administered for healing urinary tract problems.

Don't you just smile at the more you know? Who knew that a simple herb could have so many amazing healthy benefits? Well think about that the next time your browsing your grocery aisles for garnishes. And in if you do happen to come across lovage, try it with this classic butternut squash soup recipe!

Butternut Squash Soup

1 Butternut Squash
1 tablespoon curry
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
1 chopped onion
1/2 cup of coconut milk
1 teaspoon of finely chopped lovage
salt and pepper to taste

Preparation: Heat over to 400 degrees. Half the squash and remove the seeds. Mix together the curry sugar and il, and pour into the cavity of each squash. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, and peel off skin. Chop squash into pieces. In a medium or large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Add in squash and onion, and reduce heat to simmer. If available, use a hand held immersion blender directly in the soup to blend ingredients together. If an immersion blender is unavailable, transfer soup into blender and mix. Once this is done, pour soup back into saucepan, heat it up but do not let it come to a boil, and add in the coconut milk. Add in salt and pepper to taste. Garnish soup with lovage and serve.

Recipe courtesy of Stephen Wilson