Notes from L.A. Hound. Thanks for great advice!
Thank you Ontario Board for your wonderful recommendations. I was given stellar advice for Toronto based on my query and was able to research some other destinations using your board. I had originally posted for advice specifically convenient to the Annex but we ended up renting a car and did some traveling a field to amortize the exorbitant rental rate.
Our first meal was at the Harbord Room. I agree with other posters on the board that this is not a destination but it was enormously pleasant to recover from our packed to the rafters and lousy with squalling stinky babies flight, there on the patio. Service everywhere we dined in Ontario was genuinely warm, in contrast to L.A. where the service is either falsely warm or genuinely cool.
Himself tried two ales, Mc Causland’s Cream which he found rather neutral and the house pale ale which he found palatable if not particularly bold. I started with the chicken liver mousse which was served with an oddly unsalted (and there was a bit of a flurry in coming up with the salt I requested) fried in a crumb crust quail egg. The mousse was sort of ephemeral, just a nuance off from being deeply flavorful and satisfying in texture. Himself began with some nice smoked salmon which was served with a rather excessive quantity of avocado and horseradish cream, both rather on the bland side.
I ordered a summer vegetable risotto. It had fresh peas and green beans and favas and was brilliant green to the eye. Maybe there was too much tarragon in it or maybe there wasn’t enough. My vote isn’t in on tarragon yet. It was green enough and I liked the vegetables and it was comforting and this is really just a lovely homely neighborhood joint. But still. Like the chicken livers, the risotto was a hair away from being a revelation. Himself ordered pickerel, a fish we’d never of. It was lean and mild but to my taste, a tiny bit overcooked. I am used to, and have grown to prefer fish cooked so that exterior portion is beginning to flake but the interior is mere seconds from doing so. This is what I generally receive here in L.A. and I didn’t think to request this slight underdoneness when dining in Toronto. The fish came with a generous assortment of perfectly lovely vegetables. We were not seduced by the dessert menu. We loved the setting and the affability, quality of ingredients and fair prices certainly compensate for food that was the teensiest bit off the mark.
Our next food stop was the market in St. Jacob’s where we ate some terrific pierogi and bought some mutantly large sweet cherries from a young girl in plain dress and a bonnet. We also bought some baked goods to take back to Toronto which looked better than they tasted but we probably just made a bad choice from among the many bakers represented there. Because of the extent to which understanding the culture which produces the food I eat, enriches my appreciation of it, I don’t think it would be off topic to add that the presentation at the Mennonite Visitor Centre in the village of St. Jacob was incredibly enlightening and moving.
From St. Jacob’s we headed to the sweet town of Stratford. We weren’t up for anything too spiffy and settled at the workaday Bentley’s Pub. Himself was indifferent to their Kilkenny Cream Ale but smiled with pleasure at the Robert Simpson’s Centennial Ale. He began with an ordinary but satisfying potato leek soup and I ordered some garlic bread. The bread was squishy and buttery and mild with garlic and transported me back to the 1960s except it didn’t have paprika sprinkled on it. I could have eaten another order. His fish and chips had that over thick mushy batter but the fish inside was nice and the fries were fine. I ordered a baked penne with smoked chicken which was fine but the sort of thing I do at home and my kids recognize as having a genesis in leftovers. I very much enjoyed my Strongbow cider and it was great to kick back in a small town pub. We shared a refreshing pineapple gelato from Chocolate Barr’s across the street and walked on the river.
Perhaps the best thing I ever learned from Chowhound was not to even consider eating at Niagara Falls. We stopped en route at Niagara on the Lake and sat out on the porch at the little cottage that is the Pie Plate. The menu is limited and when we arrived for a lateish lunch, many things were sold out. We had beer and cider and pleasant carrot ginger soup and a chicken sandwich and an artichoke quiche. If I had it to do again, I would have probably skipped the lunch and scarfed two desserts. I memorialize here, in words, that the cherry crumble was one of the best of the fruit desserts I’ve enjoyed on this planet. Perfection. And the pies did not look too shabby.
Driving back into Toronto, we stopped for carry out at Vena’s Roti on Bloor Street. Sadly, they were out of chutney (!?) but we enjoyed our first roti (chicken mushroom) and some green bean curry. Once in a while roti appear on an L.A. menu but it is not generally available as a carry out item. What a shame. Maybe when frozen yogurt shops which have sprung up on every corner inevitably go out of business, they will be replaced with roti and our city will be a better place for it.
I am insanely jealous of the St. Lawrence Market. I couldn’t do too much damage, being there myself with my single stomach and only one more day in Toronto. In the lower level my resistance caved at a place called European Delights which bills itself as Ukranian but seems to specialize in all manner of fried starchy foods like samosas, and potato lakes and pierogies. I ordered a cheese crepe which tasted like the perfect blintz with a rich, beautifully textured, not too sweet cheese filling. I was unable to find the wasabi almonds that I am addicted to but I found a new love in wasabi fava beans. Tracking these down in L.A. will be a major mission for me.
So you have your St. Lawrence Market and your roti and your wasabi favas but lest you get too smug, it may have been an anomaly, but it was in Toronto that I ate the worst taco I have ever eaten in my life. I am sure there are good tacos to be had in the second largest country (based on landmass) in the world but in L.A. it rains delicious tacos and this will comfort me when I pine for the St. Lawrence Market. The offending taco was purchased from the chain Quesada. It was served on an ice cold gummy flour tortilla. As Lucy Van Pelt would have put it, “Bleeech!”
From the blasphemous to the Portuguese, we supped that night, per Chowhound recommendations, at Chiado. If we return I would request seating on the bar side. I found the tables in the room we were in a bit cramped. Also, there is a practice that makes me absolutely insane. Shortly after we were seated the waiter appeared with a big platter of raw fish. He described every fish and its planned preparation. This was a ten minute recitation. His spiel made my head spin and I couldn’t remember a darn thing. I know that Canada is a much greener country than the U.S. but I presume you have laser printers, and maybe on half a sheet of recycled paper someone could type this stuff up so folks would actually know what they’re ordering rather than being overwhelmed by the theatrics of the grand platter.
I began with a gorgeous plate of grilled fresh sardines and Himself was pleased with his gravlax. We seldom dine anywhere where the least expensive bottle of wine is $50.00 and this was particularly treacherous because there wasn’t a single vino on the menu we had any familiarity with. Perhaps we seemed like rubes but we asked the waiter to chose a $50.00 white for us and it was very drinkable but alas, I forgot to note the name.
We ordered two whole grilled fishes Robalo (a bass) and Boca Negra (ocean perch) which had been flown in fresh and the chef split them so we could each have both. Both were delicious but as at the Harbord Room, I wished they had been removed from the grill about thirty seconds sooner. Both fish dishes were served with a large plate of vegetables. There were thick slices of potato, perhaps a bit too thick and in a bit too much butter and extremely thick asparagus that was surprisingly tender and not too fibrous. Beets, sweet potato and rutabaga were served in large chunks and ungarnished. I’m not sure whether this was rustic and charming or clunky and awkward but it seemed perhaps a nonce more attention could have been paid these excellent quality vegetables. We concluded with some simple and perfect poached pears. The service was friendly and excellent and recommendations were made with thought and sensitivity. A really gracious and sophisticated dining experience overall.
I snicker when I hear visitors trying to pronounce Southern California places like Tujunga or Sepulveda or Cahuenga but I didn’t even try to get my mouth around Penetanguishene. We lunched there, close to the end of the main street at the Blue Sky Diner which was sort of like a diner out of Twin Peaks but also had that main artery of a small town feel. The french fries on everyone else’s plates looked really good and we should have ordered some but we enjoyed turkey with grilled onions and cheese on good ciabatta bread and a really flavorful chicken souvlaki wrap. Desserts were a yummy coconut cream pie and a homemade tasting rice pudding.
Our final restaurant meal was at the Mt. Everest restaurant. We ordered two Nepali specialties-aloo and semee, a curry of green beans and potatoes, and a unique and wonderfully seasoned chicken dish called kukura ko maasu. We also ordered familiar Indian dishes like biryani and onion kulcha. Everything was very good and we were able to make a large lunch the following day from the leftovers.
A true hound, and much to Himself’s chagrin, I demanded we stop at Fiesta Farms on our way out Toronto. This was at 5:50 p.m. on the Monday holiday, ten minutes before the store was to close. I snatched the last two chicken sandwiches off the shelf and grabbed two apples for the flight home. This is seems like a great independent everyday market, the sort of which we could sorely use back in L.A. When the flight attendant began pushing the cart up the aisle with the $6.00 Cup o’ Noodles (but they don’t charge for the boiling water) we pulled out our sandwiches and my beloved forgave me for almost causing us to miss our flight. They were the best prepared sandwiches we’d ever eaten, with fresh moist chicken, caramelized onions and sautéed peppers. But lordy, was that a lousy taco.
Hoping to return soon and pack on another ten or fifteen pounds. Thanks again for all your thoughtful advice and hoping I can be of use to any board folks who visit L.A.
I'll add to the chorus of thanks. And agree - don't go anywhere near 'mexican' in Toronto.
Glad you liked Blue Sky - my favourite place for breakfast in the area (except we've all given up on pronounciation - everyone (even locals) just calls it Penetang). However, having garbled Skaneateles (in Finger Lakes) several times - you have my empathy.
Thanks for taking the time to write this excellent and detailed feedback! It was a great read and nice to see how others see our city. Also you mentioned some places I've not heard of, so there's always more to learn.
That's embarrassing about the Quesada debacle though, it's definitely not a place I would recommend to anyone, let alone a Californian who has access to excellent Mexican food (or so I hear, anyway). That particular genre of food is lacking here in Toronto, and many of us would love better and more authentic options.
So often, when someone from away asks for recommendations, I post mine, but request feedback after the visit, and not often is it offerred. Layne Murphy, your response is a template for what I've been looking for! Detailed, knowledgible, honest! Great post! I'm quite proud of the chow in my adopted city, and I'm glad that you tasted such a range of things in the region.
A couple of comments, though... Taco? What is this thing of which you speak? We might be the second largest nation in the world, but we're only 32 million people with very few Mexicans and Central Americans, or Texans. In Kensington Market there are a couple of places that do really good empanadas, but tacos... not here.
I love Chiado, and it's one of my favourite restaurants in the city. I never tire of the Recitation of the Fish. I'd rather that it be verbal, almost a bit of a performance, than something spewed from a printer in the basement. I also like that one chooses the beast. As to the wine, I agree, it is a pricey list, and being Portuguese, not many people are that familiar with the offerings. That said, they have never steered me wrong, have never tried to 'up-sell' me opportunistically, and have actually encouraged my interest in Portuguese wines. The vegetation you experienced there was pretty traditionally Portuguese: not much fuss, pretty plain.
I think that you had a pretty representative visit (except that Himself didn't drink my favourite beers: Nicklebrook Organic Lager, Creemore Pilsener, Cameron's Auburn Ale, Cameron's Cream Ale, McClauslan Stout), tasting the high through to the unpretentious. Well done. And, come again!
Wow, what a post! You do know how to eat! But I don't think anyone in Toronto would ever recommend a taco to someone from LA!! Too bad you didn't get the eggplant sandwich from moustachios, or a peameal bacon sandwich. And I totally agree with you on the Chiado thing regarding the specials, I'm surprised people don't actually fall asleep during the whole speech. The selection of fish is the best in the city, but you do pay.