March 2008


wedding cake

Alan and Jocelyn, congratulations once again on your marriage and thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful wedding! Here I am holding up to my end of the bargain, with a post on your yummy multi-tiered wedding cake. Sure, its kosher and dairy free, but it wasn’t as bad as Alan had warned me about. The sponge cake was nice and fluffy with a light tinge of lemon flavor, and cool-whip frosting ain’t bad either. Besides the wedding cake, I also ate both desserts, licking clean the plate of warm and gooey molten chocolate and cherry cake, as well as the apple and cinammon crumble. Truly a sweet wedding!

Ippudo shiromaruLook at this bowl of ramen and tell me how much I’ve sinned. Well technically this wasn’t my bowl but Rosie’s. However, mine was even richer, with the deeply flavored milky pork-bone tonkotsu broth further enhanced by red chili sauce and some unidentifiable dark colored oil/sauce. Any richer and I could be drinking melted jello. For those not into the rich Hakata styled broth, miso and shoyu ramen are also available, with a list of other items including fried chicken and salad. I must emphasize though that the Hakata broth is what’s famous. The char siu was good too, fatty and reasonably thick with a clean taste, and the ramen, thinner than usual, was cooked well, although not quite springy enough for me. Then again, I’m into very al dente noodles. On this unseasonably cold Friday night, a big bowl of ramen from Ippudo, the new ramen-ya currently in soft-opening mode certainly hits the spot. Not cheap though, as a $13 bowl of noodles would probably be on the higher range of ramen prices even in this city where price inflation is the norm. However, this isn’t your regular hole-in-the wall, but part of a renowned chain. It is also the flashiest of its counterparts, complete with a bar (decorated with bowls on the walls and squares of dried instant ramen below the glass counter), ample seating (pleasantly surprised by the different seating arrangements that caters for different group sizes) and space between seats so that I can slurp my noodles without knocking elbows with my neighbors. They also serve specialty cocktails, quite the departure from my neighborhood Men Kui Tei and Sapporo noodle shops. For noodle fiends, this is a worthy addition to the local ramen scene.  

Ippudo

65th 4th Avenue (Between 9th & 10th Sts)

http://www.ippudo.com/ny/

Ippudo

claws on bar While lobsters are not all that readily available during the winter months, we blessed city dwellers do not have to wait for the warm summer months to satisfy any lobster craving. Instead, as I found out, all we needed to do was to pay a visit to this place.  

Francisco’s Centro Vasco is an old school restaurant ostensibly serving Spanish food, but it is more commonly known to its diners as the lobster shrine. Everything reminds you of the lobster, from the neon signage outside, to the plates with little red lobsters printed on.  Regulars would advice novices like me not to order anything but, and judging from the paella Gerrie and I shared (in an attempt to order something else but lobster) they were quite right. The rice was inoffensive at best, packed generously with seafood but a little wet and lacking in flavor, “like what’s served in the dormitory cafeteria” according to Justin. The lobster (which happens to be about almost every plate on every single table that night, nevermind the substantial menu) thankfully, was as good as touted, and even in the winter months does Francisco Centro Vasco manage 1.25 pg lobsterto source fresh shellfish, ranging from petite 1.25 pounders to 15 pound monstrosities done two ways, boiled or broiled with cheese. The truly gigantic lobsters that have met their maker in the restaurant are honored with their massive claws hung from the ceiling.

At some point in my life, I might want to try eating a giant shellfish. However, given a 15 pound lobster is likely to be over 60 years old, it seems like a travesty to be devouring a grandpa lobster. So I was content with the petite lobster (starting at MP, or $23 last weekend) I shared with Gerrie, which for its size yielded a significant amount of succulent meat. The guys on the table attacked their 2.5 pounders, never flagging in their enthusiasm to crack, pry, dip into melted butter and munch. We supplemented our lobster diet with grilled alaskan king crab legs, buttery and juicy. Oh yes, and we did eat our food wearing silly little plastic bibs, but they helped save a few shirts, as those crabs and lobsters can be very juicy, too juicy in fact when they start squirting liquid. Along with our entrees were some sides, including green beans, home made chips, yellow rice, bread and salad, all pretty mediocre with the exception of perhaps the chips that were at least mostly crispy. Thankfully we didn’t have that much stomach space for them anyway.

Besides the rest of the menu, one does not go to Francisco’s Centro Vasco for the decor, old and slightly shabby, with ample kitsch factor (the claws check, the seascape murals check), nor for the service, which was silent but efficient. We opted out of dessert, the choices being rather uninspiring, but if you did want dessert, flan would always be a good choice in a spanish restaurant, and it definitely would not set you back by much here.

Its safe to say that after this weekend, I am pretty lobstered out. But in case you were craving lobster, Francisco’s Centro Vasco’s a pretty good bet that you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Francisco’s Centro Vasco

159 W23rd St (Bet 6th & 7th Aves)

http://www.franciscoscentrovasco.com/

What do you do while 0n vacation in Toronto? Are there other things to do than visit the CN tower? These are valid questions to ask, and ones I’ve thought long and hard about given Toronto’s rather staid and blah reputation. But my trip has been long overdue since I promised bearbear to visit him back in 2001, and with Dawn now living in Toronto, there’s no excuse not to visit. Also, I wanted to judge for myself if Toronto was a worthy town for food, and judging from my weekend there, the answer is there’s quite a bit to eat.

sugar shacking
Woman in pioneer garb standing over cauldrons of steaming sap

One could go sugar shacking just outside the city. While more prevalent in Quebec, we managed to find a maple syrup festival in the Bronte Provincial Park right outside the city. This seasonal activity happens during the  late winter/ early spring months, where sap from maple trees are being harvested and reduced into molten gold syrup, to be doused liberally on pancakes, stewed into baked beans, dunked into ice to make instant lollipops and solidified into solid blocks of maple sugar, redolent of smoke and wood and particularly delightful when thrusted into one’s hand warm, to be popped straight into one’s mouth.

maple candy

Maple candy made into maple leaf molds

No car to venture out of the city? No problem. Another tasty way to spend an hour or two is to vist St Lawrence Market, an indoor food market open seven days a week, serving both the local community as well as tourists looking for a bite. We found ourselves strolling through the market right after a heavy lunch at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and still couldn’t resist trying assorted samples of cheese and dips, and gladly doled out $3 for a thick slab of lean glazed bacon. Unfortunately we had only just eaten lunch, or else we would have dived right into the snaking lines for humongous veal parmigiana sandwiches or a slab of peameal bacon on a bun, a local delicacy.

stlawrence market

St Lawrence on a busy day

Ethnic neighborhoods are also ripe for exploring. After all, Toronto is the largest metropolitan area in Canada, and one of the most diverse in North America, with 49% of residents born outside Canada (soure: Wikipedia, therefore a little iffy). Cantonese food is famous in Toronto, and while I didn’t manage to go to the suburbs where the Chinese have flocked to, we still had an extremely good meal at New Sky Restaurant in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, where the line for authentic and reasonably priced Cantonese food was really long. With help from Ziyang, a friend from VJ choir and pianist extraordinaire now living in Toronto, we ordered a bountiful table of food, including an expertly steamed fish and a steamed crab and rice dish, the ingredients ensconced in bamboo leafs, resulting in firm, meaty crab and perfectly steamed rice perfumed with crab juices, roe and the mild fragrance of bamboo leaf. I probably had 3 bowls of that rice. Request for the Chinese menu, and you’ll get deals not found in the English menu, and to top everything off, the soup and dessert that were on the house were chockful of goodies and very well made, unlike some lesser restaurants who would serve vegetable dredges in water.

steamed crab rice

Steamed crab and rice at New Sky

Besides Chinese, we also enjoyed piping hot fried Vietnamese spring rolls at Pho Ba Ca and aromatic butter chicken at Bombay Bhel in Missisauga, fondly referred to as Missi and home turf of Andrew and Rachel, two of Dawn’s close friends who also shared several meals with us. Like Toronto city proper, Mississauga is a multi-cultural and quickly growing city, with many authentic and cheap restaurants to cater to its many different migrant communities.

Last but not least, Dawn has a major sweet tooth like me, so besides real meals we also sampled quite a variety of sweet treats, including gooey butter tarts, a Canadian specialty, made with flaky crust and an instant melt-in-your mouth filling that is unadulterated butter and sugar, like a version of a less sticky pecan pie. We drank hot chocolate from Tim Horton’s Canada’s answer to starbucks and dunkin donuts combined, and drove down to Korean Town to pick up a box of twee-looking walnut cakes stuffed with either red bean or potato and nut fillings. The cakes were soft but not too sweet, and the size made it so convenient to keep popping them into one’s mouth. Dawn’s friends also drove us to Missisauga, where I had an encounter with the oatmeal smash drink at Bubble Republic Tea House, a place so popular it has its own facebook page.

walnut cake

Walnut cakes from Korean Town

2 Days in Toronto well spent, without even having to step into the CN tower! So what’s stopping you from visiting?

Dinner theatre. Where once the kitchen and the dining room were kept separate, diners now are clamoring to participate not just in the eating but in the preparation of their meals. No wonder then that the counter seats wrapping Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar’s open-concept kitchen were the most coveted. Unfortunately for Dawn and I, we had arrived too late to score some counter action, and were left content to settle into a comfy banquette right across the kitchen counter. If we couldn’t participate directly with the chefs, we would at least be close enough to eavesdrop.

poutineFor those not familiar with the Canadian food scene, Jamie Kennedy is a well known chef in Toronto, a celebrity not unlike Batali in New York. He co-opts culinary traditions from around the globe but uses local and organic ingredients in a constantly changing menu, and serves the dishes in an updated but uncomplicated fashion. International or Canadian. You could truly spin it both ways.

Poutine for one is a seriously Canadian, or more accurately, Quebecois dish consisting of golden french fries, topped with cheelake troutse curds and gravy. Saturday’s version was a luxe version, with duck confit and spring onions to provide some bite in the rich dish. The fries were golden brown and crunchy, but perhaps a victim of hype, and we found the dish over-salted in general. However, a pairing with with a glass of bold fruity Spanish red from a relatively rare grape – Mencia (good but pricey by the glass) enhanced the duck’s gaminess and enjoyability.

Next up was a lake trout, simply pan-fried and sprune tarterved sitting on a pool of bright green parsley sauce. The sauce looked a little unnervingly green, but was creamy and mild-tasting, perfectly complementing the flaky, meaty and slightly strong tasting filet.

Our favorite savory course turned out to be a bowl of slow braised Moroccan lamb with a side of fluffy couscous. The lamb had a melt-in-the mouth quality and was suffused with the aromas of slow cooked onions, citrus, sweet raisins, cumin and other spices that melded well. A dollop of thick yogurt immediately makes the dish a lot more guilt-free. This is something I could see myself eating straight out of the pot.

We ended lunch with 2 desserts, a buttery prune and ground almond tart with a dark armagnac syrup as well as a custardy orange creme brulee. No-nonsense desserts that satisfied but not too swoon-worthy. That sentence would also sum up our experience, from the space to the service and the meal, one that’s relaxed, satisfying and without attitude. Not a bad way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar

9 Church St, Toronto, Canada

www.jamiekennedy.ca

zibetto macchiatoI know I’m my father’s daughter when coffee became my nightcap of choice. I’m far from addicted, largely due to the scarcity of drinkable coffee near the workplace, but on weekends when I’m not limited to Starbucks in the office, I’ve cultivated go-tos where I down an easy dozen cups per weekend. One of my midtown go-to happens to be Zibetto. It is a sliver of a shop space stuck in an unglamorous part of 6th Ave, serving just coffee and pastries. There are no seats, no wifi, and the bar is tight as can be. It is not a space to linger, nor does the proprietor encourage you to do so. But the shots of espresso (Danesi beans) are expertly pulled, the crema thick and always a consistent shade of tan. I like my espresso marked with a little foamed milk, aka a caffe macchiato, the foam providing an illusion of cream, making the drink even more delectable and sinful then it is. And the coffee at Zibetto is never bitter and overdrawn, goes down smoothly and leaves a tingly sensation on my tongue. A delightful tingle with each shot, that lasts till I walk the rest of the way home.  

Zibetto Espresso Bar

1385 6th Ave (Between 56th & 57th Sts)

It must be Ying’s impending departure that’s sparking a state of nostalgia and broodiness. Last night we ate at Cha-an, where I wrote my second food blog entry the Friday after I returned to New York with my trusty camera. The attendees were the same, Yanru, Ying and I, and the topics of discussion were probably similar too, that of work and of men. The sesame creme brulee was as good as ever, creamy with a slight smoky flavor, and just sweet enough. The 3 course dessert set did not disappoint either, except for perhaps overly icy chestnut icecream that had the unappealing consistency of frozen milk. The warm chocolate pudding/cake was wonderful, and so was the red bean choux pastry, and the green tea macaron, albeit a little tough to chew was redeemed by the bitter-sweet green tea cream. We left the tea house and hugged good bye in a torrent of sudden snow that quickly turned into icy rain. I’m going to miss these dinners without Ying terribly.

Today I met up with friends from college and had dim sum again at Jing Fong, where the food was reliably cheap but more salty than usual. A girl was visiting from Chicago and I asked her about changes in Hyde Park. It was sad to find out that the Hyde Park Co-op, where I’ve bought way overpriced and not too fresh groceries during my time had/was closing, to be replaced by a chain called Treasure Island. There goes another neighborhood institution.

And tonight, feeling even more antisocial than not, I begged off dinner with Yanru and her friends and wandered alone in Chinatown, blissfully vacant at 8pm. I found Teochew food at New Chao Chow Restaurant just off Canal Street. The soy-braised duck called out to me and I ordered that in a bowl of hor fun (rice noodles) and ordered a side of stewed pork innards. The noodles were only ok, the duck was pale brown and not deep chocolate like what I’m used to, and the soup resembled salty water. But they had 5 types of chili sauces on the table, including the traditional condiment for duck rice, a murky red chili sauce that’s grainy with the inclusion of chopped dried shrimp and umami packed. And thankfully the innards – including pork intestine, ear and stomach – were braised well and much more flavorful, in a rich sweet and salty black soy-based braising liquid. The innards were also clean tasting, and all the textures were there, crunchy ears and chewy stomach, with some sweet pickled vegetables to clear the taste in between bites. I ate and remembered the sunday brunch tradition shared long ago with my parents, when we’d frequent a kway chap stall in the CBD area, below a multi-storey carpark adjoining a now-forgotten Ministry building. Ruoyi and I were not innard shy and would eat everything with gusto, while Ruoying would go for the braised egg and tofu. Regretfuly, that happened way back, before Chicago, before my mum became vegetarian, before we became too busy/ too far away to have lunch together on Sundays.

After dinner, I ended up at Quickly and bought a cup of milk tea (with egg pudding and tapioca balls) despite the chilly weather, and reminisced about high school, my pals in choir, Marina Square and the quickly shop in that poorly designed and unattractive shopping mall we once hung out in between carolling sessions at the Ritz and the Raffles. Too bad there’s not a single branch left in Singapore.

I’m not quite sure whether the food invoked the memories, or if the memories induced me to seek out the foods. It could be circular, but should nostalgia strike again, I’m comforted to know that I can find it all in the city. 

Cha-An

230 E9th St (Between 3rd & 2nd Aves) 

Jing Fong

18 Elizabeth St (between Canal & Bayard Streets)

New Chao Chow Restaurant

111 Mott St (between Canal & Hester Streets)

Quickly Restaurant 

237 Grand St (Near Bowery St)