Toronto Weekend: L.A.B., Szechuan House, La Bella Managua
The sprat has moved to Toronto so we headed up from Boston to visit for the weekend. We had three dinners, all good in their own way. Started out Friday night at L.A.B, aka Live and Breathe. We knew nothing about it, were just strolling through the Little Italy section of College St. looking in vain for a place that was neither full of drunken soccer fans nor had an impossibly boring-looking menu when we stumbled on this little gem.
The good: an amazingly light, crisp outside tender inside preparation of deep fried tripe - possibly the best rendition of this much-maligned offal I've ever tasted. Light, creamy asparagus risotto. Also "French fries" that were really more like curly potato sticks, a crispy, crunchy pile of fresh-fried goodness.
The OK: Sweet potato pierogis. Delicious flavor, but the firm dough was stuffed with a very liquidy preparation of sweet potato, so they were nearly impossible to cut into without squirting the filling across the table. A so-so steak, mediocre quality meat, slightly overcooked (pink in the center when I'd asked for red), with a sauce of marrowed mayo. Plain marrow would have been preferable.
The surprising: When I ordered a martini, I was asked two questions. First, did I want gin or vodka? No surprise there (yes, I know, a martini is made with gin and any other concoction should be called something else, but this is 2010, people), but when I said gin, the server then asked if I preferred Plymouth or Hendricks! No run-of-the-(gin)mill Beefeater or even Bombay Sapphire here - the ONLY gins at the bar were these two ultra-trendy exemplars. I've had both and chose the Plymouth, I think it makes a better martini. Then there was the dessert - an extruded rectangular snake of dense chocolate mousse, topped with Captain Crunch cereal - added by hand, by the chef, at the table! Can you say precious? I must admit it was a quite tasty combination though.
In sum, it's a place I'd go back to, the chef clearly has talent though though he does at times cross the line a bit into pretentiousness.
Saturday we went to Szechuan House on Spadina, following a recommendation here on the board. Having seen all the posts about how incredibly spicy (hot) the food is, we were both excited and a bit nervous. We needn't have been concerned. Maybe they've toned down the heat levels since they opened in April, or maybe we ordered the wrong dishes, but if anything we all found the food to be surprisingly mild.
We started off with the cold spicy beef salad, a delicious mix of odd bits (tongue, tripe, and some thin sliced gristly part that may have been from a cow's head), well flavored but not all that spicy, and a shrimp soup that was packed with fresh herbs. For mains we shared the lamb with cumin (again, delicious but not very hot), crispy fried duck, and a vegetable dish of peppers and potatoes in which the potatoes were intentionally undercooked (by Western standards), leaving them slightly raw-crisp. It was a perfect foil to the lamb - and the leftovers made great hash brows the next morning. Anyway, maybe we should have ordered some two-chili dishes but the reviews seemed to all say that even the one-chili ones were insanely hot so we thought we'd best play it safe our first time.
Last night was the best of all - again we were just wandering around, this time along Bloor St. when my wife noticed a little Nicaraguan place called La Bella Managua. Amazing! The food was so good, and so obviously authentic. We started with a ceviche, tiny cubes of marinated fish with onions, peppers, and herbs - perfect for a hot summer night. Carne asada was an excellent version, accompanied by perfect fried plantains, a mound of rice with black beans, and a lightly pickled fresh cabbage salad with a touch of carrots and tomatoes. A HUGE plate of great food for something like $12!
But the real hit was the whole fried red snapper - crisp and well-seasoned outside, tender flaky meat inside, a real winner. And again, far too much for my wife to finish, but she had a lot of fun trying.
All in all a good 'Houndish weekend. We'll be back, for sure.