A Tribute to Tony Bourdain

8 June 2018

Not the news I wanted to wake up and see, especially when broken to the world by someone who was so extremely close to him… I spent the morning sending out emails to many of my friends who were close to the late Anthony Bourdain, notes going north to Canada, west to Japan, east to France, south to Colombia and beyond.

I’ve only had a few quick words with him over the years in Midtown Manhattan, often in context of our mutual (now former) favourite sushi bar. But the role he played in modern culture is immeasurable. He brought the world to people, showed them the joys of travel and experiencing everything, that openness to new cultures is better than to be stubbornly rejective of things foreign — or perhaps a little frightening. He showed how when you make something personal, such as a place, a food, a drink, you gain a completely new perspective — and respect, and empathy, for something that had otherwise been foreign or unknown in your life.

This has been my mantra whilst travelling, especially these last few years. There is a strange force called Wanderlust in many of us, who choose to see as much as possible. No, not just the usual Barcelona-Cinqueterre-Prague trips that so many folks take, but going to as far to the edge or away from the norm as possible. I reckon Tony would have appreciate some of my adventures, whether it’s as mundane as a round of dawn golf on a windy Icelandic coast or a drunken Chilean bar crawl in areas tour guides tell foreigners to avoid… Or even trying to find my way to civilisation after being dumped in the middle of nowhere in Russia on a frozen December night, to contemplating about life at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Life looks very differently when you’re standing on top of a steamy mountain in central Cambodia, swimming in a festering river in India, doing a grapperia crawl in Bassano, sitting in a former KGB prison cell in Vilnius, standing at the Hypocentre in Hiroshima, throwing a coconut at a war criminal in Honolulu, or frankly, having ham and eggs in a small rural diner in Someplace, USA talking to the local folks.

The point, as Tony has made, is to just go and experience. Life, sadly, is too short not to get the most out of it. If we make it a better place by sharing, we leave it, eventually, in a better place. I don’t know how much of the travelling is left in me, the Wanderlust is ebbing. I’ve seen enough to last many lifetimes, but as long as it’s there I’ll still be on the road.

And yes, as AB always emphasised, not every travel experience is good. It should not be. There’ll always be bad food, bad scenes, and sadly, bad people. But that should make you appreciate the good moments even more, and those are the ones I truly treasure now.

Stay safe and be good, everyone. And really, keep AB’s spirit going by TRAVELLING!

Advertisements

Review: Antler Kitchen & Bar

13 May 2018

This has been a more draining trip than usual, and I am out of energy on its final full day. Perhaps the excessive drinking early on in Boston, plus the long hikes, but in many ways I was tired and ready to head home. So for this Sunday I took it rather easy, just strolling around, throwing in a so-so Korean lunch in between.

For dinner the plan was to head to Antler Kitchen & Bar, which became infamous for how cleverly they took on idiotic vegan extremist protestors. That aside, the menu was interesting enough for me to want to try it out.

I got there on the replacement bus for the Dundas Trolley (this city’s public transportation is just falling apart…) and was having a quick drink when my friend arrived, and we were seated at a rather uncomfortable table near the entrance. We happily carried on our conversation from last night, when we met for dinner at Kū-kŭm Kitchen.

We ordered as our drinks arrived (my second) and continued on for a bit before some food arrived. First up was some boar lumpia…

z2

Honestly, a bit boring, perhaps I was hoping for too much here. Very ordinary, though fried well. Hmmm… My second starter was a set of yakitori…

02-yakitori

The duck heart was good though perhaps undercooked (on purpose? I have no issues with that, but some may think it’s a bit on the bloody side), the wild mushrooms nice though the sauce was a bit distracting, and the chicken thigh nice and meaty and very tasty. A mixed set of starters for me…

I ordered an extra set so I was happy to share it with my friend as I enjoyed a bit more drink. We continued our as usual excellent conversation and before we know it, our main courses arrived. Mine was the day’s venison.

03-venison

Not bad, good quality venison cooked very well, but the portion was on the skimpy side to say the least. Lucky I had to double starter, but this was small. When you get a plate and 2/3 of it is completely empty, it’s a head-scratcher for sure (tho my good friend Simon Majumdar would say something a bit harsher I reckon).

I can see my friend was enjoying tonight’s ordering choice far more than last night’s choices for him, as he made some good ones in the pheasant pot pie and bison ribeye.

x

I suspect he enjoyed this meal more than I did, much like last night I enjoyed it more than he did. Sometimes it’s all the luck of the draw with what you order on a specific day…

Anyway, the best part of this dinner was the conversation of course, and that continued before the dessert arrived. Maple toffee pudding for me…

z1

Very rich, heavier than the main course, but delicious. Thankfully it filled me up just enough to sustain me, as we slowly closed out the evening…and I slowly closed out the trip. It’s so lovely to be back in Toronto again after so many years, especially being able to catch up with a pair of good friends I’ve not seen for too long.

This has been a long trip, full of food and way full of drinks. There were so many disappointments, especially in Boston, but I’m glad for the most part Canada has done itself well on the food side. But I for one know my liver needs a rest when I get home tomorrow night!

Antler Kitchen & Bar
1454 Dundas Street
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Review: Kū-kŭm Kitchen

12 May 2018

When I was planning my return to Toronto after so many years, there was one restaurant that topped the list — Kū-kŭm Kitchen. As I’ve always lamented the lack of restaurants doing Native-inspired cuisine in the US, there is also a true lack in Canada. But Kū-kŭm Kitchen is one of the very few First Nations-inspired places, and I was eagerly anticipating my meal there.

The last time I had excellent First Nations-inspired cuisine was at the much-missed Sweet Grass Aboriginal Bistro in Ottawa, and it’s sad that despite all the “reconciliation” talks there’s still so little of First Nations culture that is exposed to the general public. But this is a good step.

I was getting a little hungry despite that good dimsum lunch at Lai Wah Heen, and I made my way north by Lyft to meet a dear friend there for dinner. I usually dine alone, but it’s always great to catch up with one of my good old friends scattered around the world. We were seated in the back in a rather hectic dining room, not surprising as it was Friday evening after all.

We ordered on the slow side as we were enjoying our chat, having not met up for many years (since my last TO trip). Soon with cocktail in hand, we ordered and continued our convo. After a little bit, the starters arrived…

01-perch

My starter was the grilled perch, which was quite nice. Good quality fish, nice flavours, accented by the wild garlic and onions. Very nice. I think my friend was less enamoured by his order, the seal paté — which was indeed very strong in taste.

x1-seal paté

I remember very well the difficult seal dish I had in Spitzbergen a few years back… Anyway, not a bad start. As we switched to wine, we continued our wonderful conversation then for some reason they set up an orphan 2-top right next to us, incongruent to the layout of the restaurant and totally disturbing flow…oh well, it’s Friday. Then out main courses arrived, and of course I went with the seal loin…

02-seal loin

Excellent! I gotta say the loin is far, far better of a prep than making it into a paté (like my friend’s dish) or a dried meat like in Spitzbergen. Really delicious, I can see more adventurous eaters getting into this. And yes, there is a very limited supply of seal they can serve, so gotta enjoy it when possible.

zz

I enjoyed my dish and my friend seemed to be enjoying his venison ossobuco a little less. It looked a bit overcooked, as I saw a lot of them fire in the kitchen. Perhaps it was all luck of the day, but both of my dishes turned out well, and I think my friend was a little jealous — although we did share stuff from all the dishes.

A pretty nice meal for me, and the place was still hopping, so we both ordered the sorbet…

03-sorbet

Pretty tasty, and with a cedar tea on the side. A nice evening overall. It was worth coming here, and there is a lot of promise here. A little more consistency with the cooking, and you got something that’s more than a cultural restaurant — you got a major hit.

Recommended!

Kū-kŭm Kitchen
581 Mount Pleasant Road
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

A Tasty Tale of Three Cities…

7-12 May 2018

The luxury of having three days in each of the 3 cities I recently visited is having a bit more of a looser schedule than I am used to, which means more food options. During this visit, I decided to make an interesting comparison of dimsum places in Boston, Montréal, and Toronto. All three have historic Chinatowns and large ethnic populations that demand good dimsum, so I was hoping for some really excellent stuff.

So the first of the trio was Hei La Moon in Boston. I had this lunch before the nice dinner at Taberna de Haro for my last day in Beantown. It’s a busy and simple Chinatown place, so perfect for a very quick lunch. First set of stuff I ordered was pretty usual…

a1

On the left is the normal shumai, which was very meaty. On the right is the spicy shumai, which was not bad at all. And in the middle some chive dumplings, not bad. So I had another set…

a2

You have a rather mediocre turnip cake in the middle, flanked on the left by an okay steamed tripe and on the left by a somewhat bland braised tripe. The first order was far better… But in general a cheap and good and fast lunch, exactly what you want. Aside from the tasty, meaty shumai, it’s pretty ordinary…

Fast-forward a few days and I am in Montréal, looking for lunch on a warm day. Dinner that night was the Joe Beef night, so didn’t want to overdo it for obvious reasons — but also needed to coat my stomach lining as the drinking was inevitably going to be heavy! I found a place in Montréal’s Chinatown called Kim Fung.

To make it confusing it used to be called Kam Fung and some of the old signage is still up, but it was another quick and cheap dimsum joint. The carts are running furious and sometimes it feels they are pushing food on you. The first three items I grabbed quickly…

b1

The shumai on the left was good, the shrimp dumplings in the centre were okay, and the mushroom meatballs on the right were pretty good. Then the next set…

b2

The steamed tripe on the left was excellent, lovely flavours. The ribs in the centre were good, but very little to eat on those things — plus so much of the bone cracked so it was a task eating it. And finally the tofu with shrimp was really good. Overall it was better quality than Hei La Moon in Boston, but still not quite as good as it can be.

Then finally fast forward to now in Toronto. I had that wonderful dinner at Boralia last night and had a very busy day all around town, and I was tired. My dinner plans tonight are later than usual, so I caught a late lunch at the highly-rated Chinese restaurant at my hotel, Lai Wah Heen.

I’ve had a quick snack here before so I remember the quality of the food here, and at first it did not disappoint…

c1

Beautiful roast pork, lovely flavours, done so much like in Hong Kong, far better than 99% of places that serves this ubuquitous Chinese item. And also a really nice bean curd wrap around vegetables and truffle. Nice little snack.

c2

Then unfortunately the sticky rice disappointed — too little filling. And yes, there were 2 pieces. Then finally some good steamed items.

c3

The shumai was excellent, as was the chicken and truffle dumplings. These were excellent. This place was fast, but noticeably more expensive than the other two, but for some of it was really worth it.

So in a quick comparison of the 3 dimsums in the 3 different cities, it’s hard to say which was best overall as they all had their strengths. Boston’s Hei La Moon had the best shumai (although all were good). Montréal’s Kim Fung had the best steamed tripe. And Toronto’s Lai Wah Heen had the best roasted meat.

So basically, as you can imagine, it’s just a crap shoot. You’ll get quick and good stuff anywhere you go, but you luck out differently at different places.

Hei La Moon
88 Beach Street
Boston, Massachusetts

Kim Fung
1111 Rue Saint-Urbain #M05
Montréal, Québec

Lai Wah Heen
Doubletree Hotel Toronto
108 Chestnut Street, 2F
Toronto, Ontario

Review: Boralia

11 May 2018

I woke up with a stunning hangover, thanking the stars that my flight is not early… I had a few hours to slowly get myself going, which helped to prevent an ugly day for sure. Last night’s dinner at Joe Beef was as always, a wonderful overall experience of true hospitality. Love that place to death, especially the crew there…

I headed to Trudeau a little zonked, and was glad I was early. I had no appetite, so happily just sipped on water until we boarded the short flight to Toronto. Easy flight, a short walk from the island at Billy Bishop Airport, and hopped into a cab for my hotel.

I was already running late to catch up with a good friend over a few beers, so I ran straight out. Had a wonderful afternoon with a few pints, surprising I was so lucid and able to put the beers away. I then hopped into a Lyft to dinner, as I was running late once again…

Dinner tonight is at Boralia, one of the places I had been targetting for awhile now. I’ve not been back in Toronto for years, due to various factors, but I’m so glad to be back. I got there and took my seat at the bar and relaxed. Despite last night’s excess, I went the cocktail route and thank goodness I had an excellent bartender to turn to here. I ordered and chilled with drink in had…so good to be back in TO…

After a little bit with the nice cocktail, my first item came, a wee snack…

01-tea eggs

Devilled tea eggs, what a great idea. A twist on the Chinese street snack, these were delicious. This restaurant’s philosophy is to celebrate the history of Canadian cuisine, and it also shows how long and deep Chinese culinary traditions have meshed into this multicultural land. And excellent start.

Another drink later, the next dish arrived, and I smiled…whelk!

02-whelk

Now these were fabulous, even better than the excellent whelk at Mon Lapin a few nights ago. Lovely flavours, again perfect texture. And the shredded root veggies below all but exorcised the horrific veggie plate at Hopkins a few nights ago… An excellent dish! Next up, a switch to wine and some venison liver mousse…

03-venison liver

A bit ordinary to be honest, it didn’t have the same impact as the previous two fabulous items. Good, but just less of the wow factor. I then ordered another item, now knowing how the sizes work here. Enjoyed another glass of wine and then a smoky dish appeared…

04-mussels

Some lovely mussels underneath the smoke lid…just lovely to take in all that aroma at first, then the bivalves themselves. Oooh, perfect, just perfect. I love the smoke here, adding just that little extra touch to some excellent quality mussels. Another winner of a dish! This night is going excellent!

My bartender Robin asked about dessert, and I did the Mel thing and ordered, and switched back to cocktails…leaving her to make whatever she wanted. As I was enjoying another excellent creation, my “dessert” appeared…

05-oysters

Oysters! These were excellent, with just enough chilli to give it that nice kick. And what do we have here, another order of tea eggs?

06-tea eggs

Yep, why not, with yet another cocktail! I thought about ordering something else, but I was so wiped from yesterday’s antics — and I have to get up early tomorrow for a very, very long day, so I reluctantly did this as a finale. Excellent as before! And one last cocktail for the road…

What a wonderful evening of food and drink! This place is excellent, and it could easily become my favourite place in Toronto! I had to ask them to call a cab for me as for some reason I had no signal on my phone since I walked in the door. I headed out and thanked my excellent bartender Robin for such a wonderful night and once again, smiling en route back to my hotel but fearful of another massive hangover…

Awesome place, highly recommended!!!

Boralia
59 Ossington Avenue
Toronto, Ontario

Review #4: Joe Beef

10 May 2018

For each trip to Montréal, the highlight inevitably is my return visit to Joe Beef. The famed eatery in Little Burgundy has become a home away from home, and the entire staff treats me like family — most notably during my birthday visit a few years back. Awesome food, plentiful drinks, and the best staff in the business, what’s not to love about Joe Beef?

Yeah, it gets crowded, especially at the counter, but that’s part of the entire package. I got there at an early hour and was led to the counter in the second room. My “usual” edge spots were taken, so I had to squeeze into the middle with others already dining away. A tight fit, but the one great thing about Joe Beef is that strangers soon become friends — and squeezing in actually helps that process!

I relaxed and enjoyed an opening cocktail that my server recommended; they had shifted the raw bar and drinks bar area, so this time I’m right in front of the booze. That may be bad, but it’s my last night in Montréal, so why the heck not? I enjoyed the booze and chatting with both staff and fellow customers at the bar before they began me on a course of excellent wines. Then the opening dish appeared, and as usual, it’s fresh seafood…

01-seafood

Oh my! This was quite a beautiful selection. The mussels were very tasty, and the selection of oysters was excellent. But it’s the snow crab that was the star, and I took my time enjoying them. A little hard to properly eat them with the cramped space (and not wanting to spray my bar neighbours!), so I did it slower than usual. I enjoyed as much of it as possible…what a treat!

I relaxed and cleaned up a little as more wine was brought, and a shot of something which I took with one of the servers. In fact that was an ongoing theme all night, one of the servers would join me in a shot of something each time I got a new drink. It’s hard for me to not think of all these folks as family…it’s just a special experience each time I’m here

We continue with the food (and the aforementioned wine pour) and next up, a beautiful fried Dory topped with crab…

02-dory_edited

This was totally delicious…first of all, it’s one of my favourite fish. Breaded just right, not too thick, the natural flavours worked well enough on its own. Then the crab just added that lovely extra touch to this. Just excellent…

By the way, my usual apologies on the photo quality from here. It does get dark inside, and since I refuse to use flash indoors, the one problem with my Galaxy S-7 is that although it captures in low-light environment adequately, the focus works very poor in that same environment. Even after some editing, the photos are still not great — and often are a bit out of focus… Anyway, my focus was also getting blurrier as more wine (and shot!) before the next dish…

03-terrine_edited

Terrine, excellent. A duck and pork mixture (for texture and consistency), really just a hearty and nice dish to go with the wine. That’s another great thing about this place, it all goes so well with wine…which is the overall ethos of dining Little Burgundy style! Just sheer enjoyment.

More banter, more wine, more shots (!), and then soon more food! This time, some roast beef…

04-roast beef_edited

Sliced nicely, with lovely deep flavour, very condusive to drinking! A very relaxing night tonight, where (perhaps unlike my first visit) it focused more on balance and wine rather than really going all out on the food side. We’re all mellowing with age, right? But another good dish that whet my appetite even more, but I was getting full…

Another wine (and another shot!) and then the main course comes out, the halibut…

05-halibut_edited

Hmmm…honestly this was really not very good. The clams were nice, but the fish was utterly overcooked to the point it was a brick. A really rare mistake by this usually excellent kitchen. It definitely does not compare to the halibut two nights ago at sister restaurant Mon Lapin. Sadly, I decided I was also quite full, so abandoned about half of the fish.

I was genuinely full, my appetite no longer like it was a few years ago for sure. I chilled out and enjoyed the continual banter with staff and fellow diners. I just love coming here…and definitely absence makes the heart grow fonder. Although the food tonight was probably the weakest of all of my trips here, it was as enjoyable overall as always. It’s the total experience…

Just as they fed me a nice grappa, they bring out the dessert — a really nice sorbet.

06-sorbet

The grappa, however, was quite a large size…and I slowly enjoyed it. What a wonderful evening…and it’s still going. The crowd may have thinned out, but still good to chat with some of them. The staff, walking by, are still making me do shots (!!), and at the end poured me another huge grappa…

That was the last one tho, as I was spent. My flight out is not that early tomorrow, but I rather not be completely incoherent for it, so asked them to call a cab for me. I thanked them all profusely and headed out in a state of bliss…I love this place.

The only thing I don’t like whenever I’m here is that they utterly underbill me! My bill again was pathetically low, and if I try to tip over 30% on the machine my US bank will ding the transaction as fraud, so… But overall what an amazing night of hospitality. And at the end, it’s all about hospitality — something so many restaurants in town, and the world, seem to forget these days.

So good…but I’m so gonna pay for it tomorrow… All worth it for such a special evening…

Joe Beef
2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest
Montréal, Québec

Review: Hopkins

9 May 2018

Luckily I had that filling and excellent dinner at Mon Lapin last night, as I had a very busy day in Montréal that also involved hiking some very steep hills. And of course, it was unseasonably warm in town, I had brought the damn heat again. Ugh… Sweaty… But hours of it helped to burn off last night’s excess…

What didn’t help was lunch of a really fabulous and rich fatty at Schwartz’s, the fabulous home of smoked meat sandwiches in Montréal. That helped lull me to take a quick nap in the afternoon heat…

Luckily dinner was on the late side, as I headed to Monkland Village. I plowed through the mostly anglophone crowd to get to my dinner destination, Hopkins. I’ve read so many good things about this place I was really looking forward to it. I was secretly hoping I’ve discovered my “new Hôtel Herman” — after the fabulous restaurant that I frequent each time I come to town that sadly closed due to the pissiness of the landlord (what’s fucking new?).

I sat at the bar and I immediately regretted which side of the bar I sat at, since being next to the service station also meant servers were just loitering so close to my space at times I thought one was gonna put his elbow into my wine. Plus, that one in question seems to have just been hired, and he was being trained right during service…sigh…

I enjoyed a cocktail and ordered 2 dishes, told the kitchen to bring them out as they see fit. I enjoyed some wine when the first item came out, the duck ravioli.

1-duck ravioli

Oh, this was excellent. Lovely flavours all around, and the ravioli were cooked perfectly. Cutting them open, releasing the duck egg, was just a treat. Really excellent, with some duck prosciutto adding to the overall appeal. A really excellent dish! My night is looking quite good!

Another glass in hand, I waited for the second dish — which I thought would have come out first. But in the meantime I was getting annoyed at that new server who really started to crowd my space for absolutely NO REASON. And really, training staff when it’s a full house at 8pm? In any case, my second course arrived, the roasted vegetables…

2-roasted veg

My heart sank when I started at these… I love root vegetables, and I’ve had some wonderful ones, for instance from the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis, but this was a pitiful plate. How many different people on the line worked on this? You had items undercooked, overcooked, burnt, funky tasting, and even cold like it’s been sitting around. What the hell?

I know it’s great having a veg plate full of variety, but when the variety is in which way each item sucked…

How a kitchen produced 2 dishes that are polar opposites is beyond me. But this had the effect of turning me off this place, plus that novice server was really annoying me. I just lost my interest. Despite being hungry, I was done, and I finished up and headed out. Plus it was annoyingly warm inside…

Goodness, I really miss Hôtel Herman just about now. Tonight started off well, then just landed in the crapper in such a drastic fall from grace. What an awful, awful vegetable dish that was. You’d fail high school home-ec with that dish!

So glad I had the foresight to have bought a second sandwich from Schwartz’s, just in case this happened, and that ended up being the rest of my dinner… What a joke this Hopkins is…again, overhyped. I miss Hôtel Herman…

Hopkins
5626 Avenue de Monkland
Montréal, Québec