Posts Tagged ‘Dinner’

Kiki's Mexican RestaurantDuring my first visit to Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, the kitchen committed a culinary crime that I would, under normal circumstances, have never forgiven: using an inferior ingredient as the centerpiece of a meal. Technically, this review should have ended here, with a stern warning to stay away from Kiki’s at all costs. However, the restaurant recovered from its usually fatal mistake. That it managed to do so speaks volumes about the quality of its menu.

In all honesty, I did this to myself. Since first arriving in El Paso a year and a half ago, I have come to notice that local restaurants struggle, to an unusual and annoying degree, with knowledge of basic ingredients. I have already written about a Brunch restaurant in town that claimed they served maple syrup (i.e., concentrated maple sap), when they actually served artificial table syrup—a mixture of corn syrup, artificial and natural flavors, artificial color, and other (mostly unintelligible) ingredients that, although not completely unpleasant, pours, smells, and tastes very unlike maple syrup. I have also been to a Japanese restaurant that claimed they topped their crab nigiri with crab that was removed, in their very own words, “straight from the shell in the kitchen,” but instead served me nigiri topped with imitation crab—a mixture of white fish paste, binders (like egg whites and starch), sugar, artificial and natural flavors, natural color, and other (again, mostly unintelligible) ingredients explicitly meant to mimic the taste, texture, and appearance of crab.*

Despite these negative restaurant experiences, I (perhaps naïvely) continue to approach every new restaurant I try in town with renewed optimism—with the hope that they will, at the very least, know the difference between cheap imitation foods and their genuine counterparts, and, ideally, use the real McCoy in their dishes (or a quality, preferably in-house, substitute that is properly labeled as such**).

So, when I saw that crab was prominently featured on Kiki’s menu, in dishes ranging from machaca (spiced and shredded protein, typically beef, here covered with various toppings) to enchiladas, I was pleasantly surprised, intrigued, and ready to be impressed. Without a moment’s hesitation, I ordered the crab machaca. However, to my great (but, in retrospect, somewhat inevitable) disappointment, Kiki’s did not produce crab in my crab machaca, as promised, but (you guessed it) imitation crab. (To be fair, a footnote on the menu clarifies that what is meant by “crab” is actually a mixture of crab and fish; but this is misleading, since the mixture is actually fish made to taste like crab.) Now, does Kiki’s mistakenly believe it is serving crab when it serves patrons imitation crab, is it purposefully serving imitation crab without properly labelling it as such, or, worse, does it serve patrons imitation crab, hoping they will be fooled? I did not attempt to find out whether Kiki’s is being misguided, imprecise, or deceptive, but the first option seems to me the most likely, given El Paso restaurants’ seemingly systemic issue with telling cheap imitation foods apart from their genuine counterparts.

I gotta say: Kiki’s was onto something. The idea of preparing machaca with crab instead of meat is absolute genius: crab boasts a stringy quality that is amenable to shredding, just like meat, and a briny flavor that would create a distinct variation on the dish (which is usually marked by the, for lack of a better word, “earthy” flavors of meat).*** Unfortunately, imitation crab (even when made of stuck-together strips) struggles to replicate the mouthfeel and flavor of crab, instead bringing to mind something akin to cooked wonton dough on the texture front, and diluted seasoned rice vinegar on the flavor front.

Kiki’s saving grace lies in its dismissive treatment of the imitation crab: in a wise (but probably unintentional) move, the kitchen does everything in its power to hide it. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I probably wouldn’t have guessed there was imitation crab in my dish: flavor-wise, it was overwhelmed by the toppings (grilled tomatoes, onions, and green chiles; a sunny-side up egg; green chile sauce; and cheese), and texture-wise, it was barely distinguishable from the goops of melted cheese. Sure, the end product wasn’t as innovative as a crab machaca featuring crab, but it nonetheless delivered (and this is what impressed me) even though it only had toppings to stand up on (the core protein being, in effect, absent): the sweet and tender vegetables, the runny egg, the bright and creamy sauce, and the gooey cheese combined into bite after bite of comforting, stick-to-your-ribs goodness. Indeed, eating Kiki’s machaca-less machaca (that sounded dirty, I know) was like eating a favorite dish from my childhood, an impressive feat given authentic Mexican cuisine was not a part of my (Canada-bound) childhood.

I would be doing readers a disservice if I ended this review without mentioning Kiki’s specialty dessert: Mexican flan. For those unfamiliar with the dish, Mexican flan is denser and richer than flans from most other countries (I grew up on European-style flan, or crème caramel, which is light and silky) and is often drizzled with cajeta, a thick syrup made of caramelized milk. Kiki’s Mexican flan is, simply put, one of the best in the region, equaling that of Barrigas (in El Paso/Juàrez) and besting that of Los Arcos (in Juàrez).

Notes

* Although kosher imitation crab contains only white fish (insofar as seafood ingredients are concerned), non-kosher imitation crab also contains (in addition to white fish) crab meat and extract. However, it would be misleading to describe non-kosher imitation crab as a mixture of both fish and crab, since the amount of crab is always negligible (often “2% or less”), its sole purpose to help steer the flavor profile of the fish (always the main ingredient) toward that of crab, by “rounding out” the artificial flavors.

** Patrons being offered imitation crab as a crab substitute (be it to accommodate diet restrictions or for originality’s sake) deserve a better substitute. I personally grew up eating the stuff, because my paternal grandmother, who is Jewish and abides by a kosher diet, could not use shellfish in recipes that called for it. And so, I am familiar enough with imitation crab to say that it is a poor substitute for crab when a substitute is preferred. Many substitutes—like vegan burger patties made of pumpkin and brown rice, or vegan bacon made of smoked and sweetened coconut—are more than (usually poor) replicas of the foods they seek to copy; they are interesting components that work on their own terms (which helps them transcend their limits as replicas). Imitation crab, on the other hand, fails on both counts.

It should be noted, however, that imitation crab is actually a case of a good thing gone bad. It is a form of kamaboko, a Japanese fish loaf prepared with white fish paste (surimi) and other ingredients (which may be partly artificial, as in the case of imitation crab, or completely natural). Kamaboko, when not made to pass as crab and when prepared with only respectable ingredients, is exquisite: smooth in texture and delicately fishy in flavor. Think Jewish gefilte fish with an izakaya twist. For a taste of kamaboko done properly in El Paso, visit Seoul Restaurant, the best Korean joint in town, and ask that your banchan (side dishes) include eomuk-bokkeum (i.e., stir-fried eomuk, the Korean equivalent of kamaboko).

*** You could even say that crab would be the perfect substitute for meat in this situation!

I wrote the following review of Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen about one year ago, but never got around to publishing it here on A Heck of a Kerfuffle. To properly remedy this omission on my part, I have below reproduced my initial, year-old review of Valentine’s, and followed it up with a brand-new update:

My husband and I had dinner at Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen yesterday evening. Don’t let the modest (but very clean) interior fool you: dishes here are prepared and plated thoughtfully, with an attention to taste, texture, and presentation. The shrimp ceviche, the tortilla chips, as well as the fish and shrimp tacos, were particularly impressive. The ceviche combined plump pieces of shrimp with just enough citral acidity, which itself was rather cleverly tempered with the creaminess of avocado purée. The freshly fried tortilla chips were crisp and airy, like thick and savoury triangles of phyllo pastry. (To be honest, Valentine’s tortilla chips are truly like none we’ve ever had before.) As for the tacos: the fish fillets and shrimp were plump and only lightly dusted in breadcrumbs—giving you some “crunch,” while still letting you appreciate the fish and shrimp meat—and rested on mini-tortillas that were sweet and tender. We look forward to visiting Valentine’s again soon, and wish them the best in a town that is tragically short on the kind of thoughtful and subtle cooking we had the pleasure of experiencing at their establishment.

UPDATE: Since our first visit there, Valentine’s has revealed itself to be one of the most accomplished local purveyors of pan blanco, a Mexican bread that, under their bakers’ care, boasts an incredibly soft crumb with unusually pleasant hints of tartness. (Pan blanco is the go-to bread for torta, a Mexican type of sandwich often named after its main ingredient. My own personal, homemade favourite: torta de gravlax! Truly, a match made in heaven that gives bagels and lox a run for their money.)

The happy discovery that Valentine’s bakery puts out one heck of a pan blanco has, I’m afraid, been accompanied by some not-so-happy developments on the kitchen and service fronts. To begin with, we have come to notice that Valentine’s struggles with one of the cardinal features of competent cuisine: consistency. Indeed, over the course of several meals, the kitchen mishandled key ingredients (by, for instance, overcooking fish or over-salting meat) and/or completely omitted key ingredients from their usually pitch-perfect recipes (namely, the avocado purée from the ceviche). Most tragically, however, Valentine’s has inexplicably opted to remove their fish and shrimp tacos—two of their strongest dishes, when prepared appropriately—from their menu. Also, we noted a decline in the quality of service. Indeed, our server (during our last three visits) had trouble reconciling her sulky demeanour with her customer-service responsibilities. This failure on her part had the unfortunate consequence of imposing a drab atmosphere onto our dining experience, an atmosphere which evoked a loss of passion on Valentine’s part. In fact, we have gotten the sense (one we hope is mistaken) that the restaurant is no longer committed to its craft, preferring instead to mechanically output food without attention to detail.

We sincerely hope that Valentine’s finds it within itself to rekindle its former glory by a) encouraging the different chefs that helm the kitchen throughout the day to attentively follow the strong recipes outlined by the original menu creator, b) reinstating strong dishes into its menu, and c) infusing a certain brightness and lightness of spirit back into its service. Promisingly, Valentine’s glory days aren’t buried too deep in the past. Surely, the time is still ripe for them to reach back and become relevant again.

BasicoMy husband and I recently visited Basico Bistro + Café for breakfast. Despite its hip and modern atmosphere, the restaurant ultimately failed to impress. To our disappointment, the breakfast menu on offer was a pared-down version of the (clearly not updated) breakfast menu displayed on the restaurant’s website. From this shortened menu, we ordered the Roman Empire omelette (instead of the intended eggs benedict), along with the banana & walnut pancakes. The florentine-esque omelette proved rather ho-hum, being so paper-thin it lacked any enjoyable texture. Testifying as to the omelette’s dullness, not even its overly salty fillings could bring it to life… Both light and fluffy, the pancakes fared a little better. Unfortunately, their appearance was rather anemic (lacking that golden brown quality) and their flavour profile disappointingly light on banana notes.

Further, although we had requested the pancakes be served with pure maple syrup, and not artificial table syrup, we were nevertheless served the latter. In the end, our server, along with the cooks, reluctantly (yet apologetically) admitted that they thought the artificial table syrup they had on hand was pure maple syrup. (Further questioning on our part revealed that they did not know what pure maple syrup was.) Suffice it to say, we were not impressed with the staff’s lack of knowledge regarding basic breakfast ingredients (in so far as North American cuisine is concerned, which the restaurant’s fare falls squarely into). Moreover, we felt misled by the restaurant’s promise (one implicitly made to customers via its hip and modern décor) of serving only thoughtfully sourced ingredients. In this regard, Basico Bistro + Café stands in stark contrast to Crave Kitchen & Bar, which proudly announced, when we last visited and requested pure maple syrup along with our order, that they “most certainly serve the real stuff.” That being said, in Basico Bistro + Café’s defense, our server did seek to remedy the “situation” as best she could, by enquiring about the origin of pure maple syrup and the process via which it is made, an effort the “produits du terroir québécois” enthusiast in me greatly appreciated.

Crave Kitchen & BarCrave Kitchen & Bar satisfyingly delivers on both the breakfast and lunch fronts. Breakfast-wise, my husband and I generally share their buttermilk pancakes. The pancakes are surprisingly low on sugar, which suits us just fine, because we get to pour even more genuine maple syrup on top of our stack! (Being from Québec, I appreciate Crave not automatically serving artificial table syrup along with their pancakes, like most other breakfast joints in town.) Lunch-wise, we generally share their tuna ceviche and shrimp quesadillas, which are both tastily put together. (I should mention at this point that Crave kindly accommodates diet restrictions. Indeed, being pesco-vegetarian, I always ask our server to hold the chorizo on the quesadillas, a request which never seems to inconvenience the kitchen.)

Given Crave’s strengths in both the breakfast and lunch areas, the promise of enjoying both their breakfast and lunch items at the same time, in the form of their advertised Sunday Brunch, had me excited. Unfortunately, Crave defines Brunch in a rather unusual way, one that, in my eyes at least, negates the whole concept of Brunch. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Crave does not, for all intents and purposes, actually serve Brunch, even though their website claims they do.

The portmanteau word “Brunch” implies that both breakfast and lunch overlap, with breakfast being served beyond breakfast-time (over lunchtime), and lunch being served beyond lunchtime (over breakfast-time), thus allowing patrons to enjoy breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time, or breakfast and lunch at lunchtime, depending on their preference. Crave’s definition of Brunch, however, gives the “lunch” part of the expression the short end of the stick, with breakfast being served all day long, and lunch being served at boring, old lunchtime. In other words, Crave serves an all-day breakfast on Sundays, not Brunch (lunch being served at the appropriate time). And so, those looking to have Brunch in the “breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time” sense of the word will be disappointed. Indeed, when I first visited Crave for their purported Brunch (around 11AM or so) and ordered both breakfast and lunch items, I was informed by my server (who did not seem to realize the irony of her statement) that part of my Brunch (i.e., the lunch part) would have to wait until noon. For these reasons, those looking to enjoy a genuine Brunch experience (i.e., breakfast and lunch at the same time, starting late morning and ending mid-afternoon) should, unfortunately, look elsewhere.

Café Italia

My husband and I visited Café Italia a few months ago and were thoroughly impressed with their pizza. (So much so we ordered three of them, and finished every last slice, right then and there!) Looking to celebrate New Year’s Eve out on the town, we decided to visit the restaurant again and explore the rest of their tantalizing (and refreshingly diminutive) menu.

This time around, we limited ourselves to only one pizza, which we preceded with an antipasto platter and followed with shrimp linguine. Although featuring mozzarella and salami, the antipasto platter eclipsed both Italian staples with perfectly roasted and seasoned vegetables (including, among others, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and carrots). Once again, the pizza was immaculately composed: the crust combined perfectly balanced flavor (subtly salty and yeasty on the tongue) and texture (crispy on the bottom and doughy on the edges); the toppings (buttery mushrooms infused with fennel and rosemary) weaved potent aromas; and the mozzarella delivered fresh and delicate flavor and texture.

Regarding the shrimp linguine, I was bracing myself for disaster: when I asked our server, “Can you make sure the pasta is al dente?”, he shot me a quizzical look and answered, “What’s that?” (Certainly, servers shouldn’t be expected to know as much as chefs; still, I stand by my expectation that a server in a dedicated Italian restaurant should, at the very least, know what “al dente” means, if only to reassure worried patrons like myself that we are, indeed, in good hands, and that our meal won’t be botched.) Fortunately, I had, for the most part, nothing to worry about: on the cusp of being overdone, the pasta nonetheless retained enough of a bite. Further, it was tossed in one of the most exquisite Alfredo sauces—equal parts creamy and buttery—I have ever tasted. That being said, the shrimp were, at best, superfluous: coated in Alfredo, they acted as a vehicle for the sauce—redundantly, pasta already filling that role—as opposed to playing off of it somehow with complimentary flavors and textures (e.g., by getting some char on the shrimp and resting them on top of the sauce, instead of folding them into it).

Typically, the best international restaurants in El Paso are satisfactory by local standards only (something that may change as the city continues to overcome its cultural isolation): put them up against their equivalents in most other large cities and they would pale in comparison. Café Italia, however, stands toe-to-toe with some of the best restaurants on offer in Little Italys across North America. Locally, Café Italia remains unmatched, surpassing other restaurants billing themselves as authentically Italian, as well as those serving Italian fare as part of an eclectic menu. Some examples: the pizza at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing suffered from a bottom so soggy it couldn’t support its toppings, and pasta from Café Central was so overdone it had to be returned to the kitchen.

Café Central

Café Central certainly looks the part: servers clad in classical waiting garb, tasteful (albeit outdated) décor, old favorites playing in the background, verbose yet diminutive menu set in leather covers… Everything you’d schematically expect to see in a fine-dining establishment. Patrons who know better, however, will not be fooled. (Incidentally, “better” is just a few steps away, at Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant.) To those unversed in genuine fine-dining, make no mistake: Café Central is all appearance and no substance, the mass-market version of fine-dining that safely caters to people’s conceptions of what fine-dining is, as opposed to the formative version of fine-dining that, vanguard-like, seeks to shape people’s conceptions of what fine-dining can be.

My husband and I have visited Café Central on two occasions, once to confirm its status as an El Paso institution, and a second time to, well, give them a second chance at making us understand why exactly they’ve come to hold institutional status here in town. With one rousing exception, every dish we ordered on both of our times there left us, at best, unimpressed, and, at worst, frustrated: lackluster sauces, unevenly cooked seafood (i.e., varying wildly from moist and succulent to criminally overcooked), pasta so far past al dente it had to be returned to the kitchen… The list of grievances goes on an on.

To make matters worse, the tendency to fall short systemically extends from the kitchen to the bar: their old fashioned, that old standard by which every bar should be judged, was so lazily assembled its flavor profile was, as a consequence of this, utterly boring. (You know you’re in trouble when a barman grabs a bottle you’ve seen advertised on TV, or plops a store-bought candied cherry, in all its Red #4 glory, into your drink!)

That being said, one dish partially redeems Café Central: pastel de tres leches. Their elevated take on the Mexican classic (one of my favorite soaked cakes, right alongside French Canada’s pouding chômeur, Britain’s sticky toffee pudding, and France’s baba au rhum) is, I assure you, something to behold: light and airy sponge cake, saturated to perfection in sweet, fragrant milk, and draped in velvety smooth frosting. If only the same amount of thought and quality of execution permeated the rest of their menu, Café Central would live up to its name. As mentioned earlier, if you’re looking for the true center of fine-dining in El Paso, visit Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant: it will challenge you, surprise you, inspire you, satisfy you, leave you wanting more. It will do for you what fine-dining—genuine fine-dining that uses food to edify—should do.

A surprise-filled dinner at Europea began unsurprisingly with a 4 out of 4 star rating, but the tiresome effect of endless astonishments caused one of these stars to be shaven off around halfway through the tasting menu. Ultimately, by the time we reached our last strenuous course, we had judged our rating down to half its original number. The biggest surprise of the night was that such a strong start to a meal could end up being overtaken by such mounting exhaustion. Sadly, this meal constantly aimed to distract us from the best it had to offer.

I play with the idea of surprise in my introduction because that was the establishment’s stated goal at the beginning of the dinner. As spoken by one of our servers: “We aim to surprise you tonight.” Were it not for this explicit promise, perhaps we would have been more responsive to the subsequent onslaught of attempts at delighting us. First, some context: my boyfriend and I celebrated our third anniversary at Europea this weekend. Our hopes were appropriately high: Europea boasts a menu by renowned French chef Jérôme Ferrer, and is part of the illustrious Relais & Châteaux family. (Montreal is actually home to only two Relais & Châteaux restaurants, the other being chef Normand Laprise’s equally underwhelming Toqué.) All signs pointed to us finally finding the Montreal equivalent of New York City’s exquisite Le Bernadin, a quest that has endured for some time now. It appears, however, that our fair city is simply no match for the Big Apple.

Our meal at Europea was off to a stellar start. Before our first course (of the “Menu Dégustation”) even made it to the table, we were treated to three welcoming gifts: thin and pungent Carpaccio strips hung on a tiny clothing line with tiny clothing pins; sharp cheese lollypops propped in coarse salt; creamy-on-the inside, crispy-on-the-outside cheese cigars resting in a cigar box; and smoked salmon bites in a cloud of fragrant smoke trapped inside an empty book-shaped box. Highlights from the actual meal included lobster cream cappuccino, tagliatelle of calamari carbonara, and maple bark stewed pan-seared foie gras, finished at the table on a heated river stone. The aptly timed palate cleanser, wild tea ice granita, cut through some of the escalating, and increasingly disconcerting, saltiness of the dishes. Following a lackluster cheese plate, we were presented with three amusing, but ultimately average-tasting and ill-fitting desserts. Over the ten courses, a hefty richness persisted from beginning to end, with little variation. And if you failed to find a common thread or theme that carried through these dishes, that’s because I don’t believe there was one.

Except for that desperation to surprise. So eager to thrill, Europea half pulls this off. Most dishes were served in genuinely unexpected and innovative ways, cleverly repurposing teapots, lollypop sticks, coffee cups, cigar (and other) boxes and hay. Dishes themselves made creative and appealing use of different flavors, smells, colors and textures. If this all somehow failed to surprise us, the chef even sent a handwritten note halfway through the meal, expressing his desire that we enjoy ourselves!

But Europea’s forte is also its downfall. One cannot build such a well-oiled surprise-machine without a degree of industrialization. As the evening progressed, it became increasingly difficult not to think of ourselves (along with our servers) as cogs in this machine. The openness of the space, dominated by a large, winding staircase, at first seemed pleasantly expansive. As time went on, however, the unobstructed layout forced into view the endless stream of servers literally running around and up and down stairs, platters in hand. (The poorly chosen, fast-paced background music lent an even more frenetic quality onto the servers’ va-et-vient.) In this way, guests are able to see, over and over again, their upcoming and previous courses, directly undermining any sense of surprise. I suggest more intimacy in the space would better suit Europea’s objective.

Similarly problematic: however friendly all the servers, they presented each dish in a coolly rote fashion, without spontaneity, as if they had done this a thousand times. (Regarding the first official course, the server announced: “We have been serving this dish for 10 years.” An interesting detail, were it not for the fact that it was relegated as if the man had been trapped in the same loop for 10 years.) This, too, undermined the intended feeling of surprise. (A noteworthy exception was the eloquent and gentlemanly maître d’, who appeared to spin descriptions out of fresh verbal yarn every time, and interacted with guests in a refreshingly warm and authentic fashion.) This practiced spectacle, this ritualization of delight, not only sterilized the menu’s playfulness, it also had the unfortunate effect of making us feel like guests at a wedding reception, or worse, pigs at the trough.

The shame of all this distraction is that Europea’s menu undeniably hit several highs that deserved to be the singular focus. These unique concoctions merited being the backbone of the dining experience, and a critical rejection of anything too superfluous would have created a sumptuous, impactful meal nicely hacked down to its essentials. As the saying goes, there can be too much of a good thing. Never a chef’s desire, by the end of the meal, we began to dread the arrival of the remaining courses, due to satiety and overstimulation. This ultimately seems to point to structural problems with the menu, which I believe should escalate and expand like a good story.

Europea’s menu, however, is the culinary equivalent of The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003): both feature too many endings and an overindulgent resolution. Tightening the menu would enhance its impact. For example, I felt the pop rock-coated chocolate lollypops, reminiscent of fireworks (which usually end a celebration), would have been an appropriate finish to the meal. (The fact that they were served along other carnival fair, like homespun cotton candy and Madeleine popcorn, was only fitting.) Instead of a bang, the meal ended with a whimper: two days later, I cannot recall or be brought to care about what was on my final plate. That it took 25 minutes for us to get our bill, when we clearly indicated we were ready to pay and go, only served to exacerbate the exhausting feeling of interminability (and it didn’t help that this is one of my boyfriend’s list-topping pet peeves).

There is the bud of a great idea somewhere in Europea: serve up classic fair with both panache and showmanship. Chef Jérôme Ferrer’s innovative vision, however, currently crumbles under the weight of its execution.

I shall always remember 2011 as The Year I Discovered Izakayas. Upon my discovery, I was ashamed that the concept of “izakaya” had passed me by for so long, especially given my love of food, and my particular fondness of Japanese food. (I proudly brag that my family cultivated my love of sushi before sushi was really a “thing” in North America.) Thanks to a mix of accidental happenstance and the influence of two of my dearest friends, Tenny and Andrea, I am now a true convert to the many wonders of izakaya, a Japanese type of eatery that serves up tapas-style dishes. Over the course of the last few months, my boyfriend and I have had the pleasure of visiting three izakayas in the Toronto and Montreal areas.

Chosen simply because it happened to be next door to our conference hotel, we nevertheless knew we had encountered something special when we stepped into Izakaya Tsuki (5182 Yonge street, North York, Toronto). Like descending into the hull of an ancient Japanese sailing vessel, its dark, wooden décor exuded a warm and comfortable ambiance. We selected an assortment of conventional (and less conventional) dishes from the varied, colorful menu: the barbecued eel was sweet and flaky; the grilled fish roe sack, soft and granular; the deep-fried octopus balls, crispy and tender; the fish liver, silky and smooth. We also ordered a curious dish that can best be described as sushi-in-a-bowl: seasoned rice topped with seaweed, vegetables, chunks of raw fish and a creamy sauce, all mixed together into a delicious bowlful of raw comfort. In addition, the staff was very helpful, kindly talking us through how to tackle the less familiar arrangements. Two months later, in Toronto for another conference, we chose to celebrate our anniversary with the friendly staff and rich flavors of Izakaya Tsuki, and gladly made the 40-minute metro ride to re-experience our favorite dishes.

Guu (398 Church Street, Downtown Toronto) provides a more contemporary take on the traditional izakaya. Its décor is sleek; its lighting, dim; its dishes, fine and diminutive. Patrons are enthusiastically and thunderously greeted and bid farewell by all chefs and serving staff. Indeed, entering Guu makes you feel like you’re joining friends, rendering the camp-style seating, on long benches and shared tables, almost appropriate. We started with an assortment of dishes, which included marinated jellyfish, and boiled egg enveloped within a deep-fried kabocha pumpkin croquette. The standout dish, however, was salmon natto yukke: chopped salmon sashimi, natto (fermented soy beans), shibazuke (pickled cucumber and eggplant), takuan (pickled daikon radish), wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion and raw egg yolk. The ingredients are mixed together and wrapped, tortilla-style, in nori seaweed. It was my first time eating natto, a pungent and filamentous concoction best described as an acquired taste… Another first was Ramune, a Japanese carbonated soft-drink. The bottle, which looks like invisible hands are strangling its neck, is sealed with a marble that must be pushed down in order to access the sweet, bubble-gummy nectar within. You may have to wait over one hour for a table, so go enjoy a drink at one of the many nearby bars while you wait; the hostess will give your cell phone a ring once a space opens up within the ongoing party.

Kazu (1862 Saint-Catherine Street West, Downtown Montreal) features a more casual setting, its quarters quaintly cramped, fitting only half a dozen tables, and another half-dozen or so seats at the stool-lined bar. We were seated at the bar; right beside me, our elbows occasionally rubbing against each other, the hostess tended to the bills. Kazu has a regular menu, but daily specials scribbled on sheets of paper that layer the walls are the reason to dine there, and the second reason to arrive early, in addition to limited seating. Portions here are, happily, more generous than at other izakayas. The most memorable dish was the grilled tuna belly (the best 30 bucks you’ll ever spend), with its succulently juicy and occasionally fatty flesh. Close seconds were the grilled octopus, so tender it almost melted in your mouth; the shrimp burger, bursting with juicy flavor between a freshly baked bun; and, sushi-in-a-bowl again. All were washed down with perfectly chilled pints of Sapporo beer. Depending on your hunger level, it’s either an annoyance or part of the experience to wait in line between 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Don’t fret the wait, though; we passed the time with an amusing bunch of excited co-izakayans.

Each of the three izakayas we visited displayed their own particular strengths: Izakaya Tsuki boasted the most impressive menu; Guu featured a stimulatingly kinetic ambiance; while Kazu struck the best balance between chow and character. If, like me, you did not know about the wonderful world of izakayas, I recommend you undergo the experience for yourself, regardless of where. In the blink of an eye, you will find yourself transported to the famed Land of the Rising Sun, only without the pesky airborne commute; trust me, both your wallet and your taste buds will thank you!

Note: Many izakayas are currently donating part of their profits to relief efforts in Japan. If you would also like to make a donation, please click here.

Play may just be Ottawa’s best restaurant. And that is saying a lot. Ottawa is home to many exquisite gastronomic options. Some of these include the oyster bar Whalesbone in Centretown, and the aboriginal bistro Sweetgrass in the Byward Market. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how can Ottawa, a government town, boast so many quality restaurants? Let me tell you: I do not know. Yet, as a Montreal native having much “going out for dinner” experience, I continue to be amazed by Ottawa’s restaurant scene. From Beckta creator, Stephen Beckta, Play serves up an ever-changing selection of tapas-style dishes. It is conveniently located in the Byward Market, a few steps away from Parliament Hill.

I was first introduced to Play when my boyfriend selected it for my 26th birthday celebration. He also gave me a very appropriate present: the foodie film par excellence Ratatouille (Bird, 2007) on Blu-ray. During that visit, I discovered my favourite white wine, the Alsatian Zinck (2008). Produced from Gewürztraminer grapes, it features crisp and refreshing tones of citrus, honeydew and lychee. Sadly, due to a constantly rotating cycle of interesting wine choices, Zinck is not currently available at Play. Customers are allowed to “bring their own wine,” however, and we made sure we had a bottle of Zinck with us when we returned last week for our friend Myriam’s birthday.

Our evening started with carefully chosen savoury dishes. The standout selections were: impeccably seasoned, blackened chunks of flaky catfish wrapped sturdily in warm homemade tortillas; seared-to-perfection Digby scallops anchored in a purée of creamed celeriac and sautéed shard, drizzled with the earthy tones of a wild mushroom sauce that contrasted the smooth taste of scallop and celeriac; and plump gnocchi, edamame and mushrooms folded and blended into flavourful, thyme-infused truffle cream.

Next was a selection of local and foreign cheeses, served with thin crostini. From mildest to strongest: the ash enveloped Grey Owl, lingering with a pillowy sweetness, from Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec; the crumbly Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar (curiously wrapped in potato sack), with a sharp, rusty bite, from Prince Edward Island; and the barnyardy, transports-you-directly-to-the-farm-but-in-a-pleasant-sort-of-way Roblochon, from Savoie, France.

The best was yet to come: dessert. Again, we chose to consume the lightest selections before moving up to the heartier ones. First, our spoons crunched through crumbled amaretti cookies, melted through wispy coconut cream and into a thick foundation of banana panna cotta; next, the tanginess of a moist pineapple cake was coupled with the shock of cardamom infused within a date purée, all topped with a scoop of pineapple gelato; following that, a twist on the traditional crème brulée, made more sophisticated by the mild flavours of Earl Grey, further enhanced with the crunchy zest of a lemon-honey biscotti on the side; and, to top off the meal and desserts with a truly worthy finale, a luscious chocolate paté only just firm enough to prop up an angular shard of sponge toffee and drizzled with caramel salted with a tinge of miso. To accompany our final course, Myriam treated us to dessert wines that gave everything an even softer glow: light amber Madeira wine for me, Cabernet ice wine for him, and a rosy sherry for her.

If the descriptions above have not convinced you of this, I can attest that very few restaurants rival Play in its ability to surprise and delight in its unexpected combinations. Flavours go beyond simply complimenting one another: they playfully underscore, accentuate, contrast and offset. In fact, to say that Play’s kitchen is populated by chefs somewhat misrepresents the extent of their talent; they are more than mere chefs, they are artists whose medium is food. At Play, the concept of playfulness extends to more than just the food and extensive wine pairings: quite suitably, the restaurant features a colourful decor, and even manages to employ staff who discuss and serve the menu with an atmosphere of amusement and merrymaking. In all, when it comes to masterfully assembled dishes, and a leisurely evening of drowsy diversion, you can do no better than Play

Note: Click here for more information on the restaurant and its present menu.

Mikado is a Montreal institution, boasting several locations across the island. It was here before sushi became a craze, with new shops popping up every second street corner. As a child, I remember regular visits to the Laurier Avenue location with my family. That was when the restaurant was cooped up on the second floor of a building on the south side of the street. It has now moved across the street into a more expansive and better designed space.

For every Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend and I have celebrated at Mikado. Yesterday, we started with miso soup, overflowing with shitake mushrooms, seaweed, tofu, and tender chunks of fish and seafood. Next up was sunomono, a salad consisting of thin yam noodles, cucumber, seaweed, seafood (crab for me, octopus for him), and tangy rice vinegar dressing. We followed these with two lightly fried maki layered atop aromatic sauces: the Temp-Temp, filled with white fish, salmon, and shallot, and the Relax, filled with spicy tuna, shrimp, crab, cucumber, asparagus, and tobiko (flying fish row). For the sushi virgins among our readers, maki are seaweed and rice rolls filled with a variety of ingredients. Each of the maki here featured a perfect blend of tastes and textures. Still to come was our main course, a combination of nigiri and, yes, more maki. Nigiri are typically raw fish or seafood atop a ball of rice (which, at Mikado, was perfectly seasoned). Of particular note were the ama-ebi (raw sweet shrimp), hotategai (scallop), mirugai (king clam), uni (sea urchin), and Rising Sun (tobiko, hotategai, and quail egg). Each piece of nigiri and maki was carefully positioned across a small wooden vessel, and accompanied with mounds of naturally pickled ginger and wasabi (Japanese horseradish) mustard.

The quality of the ingredients on display at Mikado is unrivalled: freshness and taste abound each and every time we visit. This is not food-court sushi; the raw fish has flavour you may not have known raw fish could have. The presentation is exquisite. The meal, nicely and unhurriedly paced. The service, friendly, attentive, and cordial. And the space, simple and elegant. A meal will run you down 30 to 50$ per person, making visits for special occasions only. Because you can do no better than Mikado in terms of expertly-crafted sushi, however, you may just find yourself looking for special occasions to celebrate!

Note: Click here for more details on the restaurant and its menu. This review applies to the Laurier Avenue location only.

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