Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ah, Summerlicious , I wish I knew how to quit you.

Every year around this time and again in the dead of winter, I get my hopes up. At the first whisper of the “word” Summerlicious http://www.toronto.ca/special_events/streetfest/summerlicious.htm (or Winterlicious, for that matter), my imagination soars with thoughts of the lovely and innovative cuisine available at some of our city’s finer establishments at a fraction of the usual price. And ordering dessert is mandatory!

I race to the internet, fingers flying, to discover what’s on the menu. I form lengthy lists of possibilities. I plan and schedule and research. This is where the dream starts to fade away. Too often, the vegetarian item is pasta. Usually, this is not the restaurant’s specialty. In fact, it’s often not good enough to appear on its menu. If, from the restaurant’s point of view, the purpose of Summerlicious is to lure you in, impress you with what they’ve got and get you to come back at full price, why are they offering second rate, half-hearted vegetarian choices with little resemblance to the cuisine that they are famous for? And when the item is on the menu, if you do them math you’ll find out it would be cheaper to order off the menu than to get the special.

The Summerlicious restaurant list denotes the restaurants with vegetarian items with a picture of a carrot. (I take partial credit for this- in past when they only published a list of restaurants without a menu, I must have driven the restaurants mad, phoning them to ask which had vegetarian items only to lose my list and be forced to call them again!) However, if you click on these menus, you’ll often find that they don’t have a full vegetarian meal, only an appetizer, or only have vegetarian items for lunch, or have decided fish is a vegetable.
I first discovered the concept of Summerlicious while I was visiting Boston, at their much less embarrassingly named Restaurant Week. ( For anyone considering a career in the adult film industry, may I suggest the stage name Summer Licious? And if you have a twin, she can go by Winter Licious.) In Boston, I had a delicious meal with a unique puffed pastry vegetable tart to start, a creamy risotto for my main course and a rich chocolate cake for dessert. Imagine my disappointment when I attended my first Summerlicious in Toronto only to be served pasta out of a bag with a handful of frozen vegetables.

Still, older and wiser, I’m making my list this year. I’ve learned to avoid the pasta except at the Italian eateries. I’ve learned to read the menus with a discerning eye to see which chefs really understand vegetarian cooking and which are just tossing us a bone.

Here are some of the menus that have caught my eye. Hopefully, I will get to at least one before the event is over so I can let you know how it went. If not, I may go on a full price day. They’re making the effort for vegetarians, I should make an effort for them, too.

Mistura: offering a Red Beet Risotto to start, with Pomodoro Ripieno, a couscous stuffed tomato and vegetable ragout as the main and molten chocolate torte with pistachio ice cream for dessert.
The restaurant at the King Edward Hotel: Offering “Ajo Blanco”, a white almond gazpacho with roasted pepper salsa, Green Pea Risotto with shaved parmesan and summer truffle oil and dense chocolate truffle tart with pistachio ice cream and raspberry coulis (There seems to be a trend toward pistachio ice cream here!)

Here is my wish list of restaurants I’d like to see participating next year: Jamie Kennedy Gardiner, Perigee and Scaramouche. But I doubt it will happen. I think they’re doing just fine without my help.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Golden Triangle: Iron Chef, Yonge and Bloor Edition

If, as I suspect, Yonge and Bloor is the heart of Toronto, and if the loyalties of that heart can be determined based on the cuisine it chooses to embrace, Toronto’s heart belongs to Asia. (Actually, it may belong to mass chain sub shops, but Asian is a close second, and that’s what I’m going to focus on today.) There are three excellent choices in close proximity to each other all offering variations on the theme with varying degrees of success.

The first, and best known is Spring Rolls. This little Toronto institution has grown up into a full-fledged chain with four locations and two spinoffs, but the 693 Yonge Street location remains busy all day and into the evening. The dining room is lovely to look at but the acoustics are terrible for conversation. Luckily, your mouth will likely be too full to talk anyway. The eponymous spring rolls are tasty, with a zesty sauce. Servings of main courses are large, and almost every flavour of sauce offers a veggie option. One complaint might be that with the heavy sauces, the dishes become a little one-note. Two doors down, there is a fast-food version of the restaurant sharing the same kitchen. Here you can choose smaller portions of several dishes for more variety.

Green Mango, like Spring Rolls, is a chain of four restaurants, and like Spring Rolls, it has a smaller takeout version. In this case, the quality of food in the larger table service restaurant at 730 Yonge is superior. There is a full page of vegetarian menu selections. Green Mango’s food is consistently good but rarely reaches a memorably excellent level. There are exceptions to this. Quality ingredients make the asparagus with roasted cashews and oranges stand out, and an Asian version of the crepe stuffed with tender-crisp vegetables and a subtle lemon sauce impresses with its originality. It’s unfortunate that Green Mango is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbours, but perhaps its reputation is dragged down by the mediocre quality of the food from their take-out shop.

Indochine (4 Collier Street) is several blocks north and in a league of its own. The sleek serenity of its dining room will make you feel immediately both relaxed and trendy. There are more than 20 vegetarian items on the menu, several of which can be ordered in a combo with a spicy Vietnamese hot and sour soup and veggie spring roll. Ironically, their spring rolls, with a thick crispy wrapper closer in texture to an egg roll and flavourful mushroom and sprout filling, put Spring Rolls mushy pretenders to shame. One strange idiosyncrasy of this restaurant is that the combos are different for the in-house and delivery menus. Pledging my complete allegiance to their veggie pad thai and mango salad combo, I now insist on ordering in, which has the added benefit of larger portions. In the end, the only thing better than dinner from Indochine is two dinners from Indochine!

Green Mango 730 Yonge Street http://www.greenmango.ca/

Spring Rolls 693 Yonge Street http://www.springrolls.ca/

Indochine 4 Collier Street http://www.indochinethaicuisine.ca/

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bread-Heaven is a place on earth

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889) English poet

I’ll let you in on a secret: I know the bread Robert Browning was writing about. It is available here in Toronto, but here’s the catch: they won’t sell it to you. No, they insist on giving it to you for free!

The French are known for their bread, and with good reason, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Some of the best bread around can be found at our city’s Italian eateries. From the unlimited bread at the Spaghetti Factory whose soft warm bounty has spoiled many a keen appetite, to the sharp squares of olive bread at Trattoria Vaticano whose flavour strikes you in bold strokes like a Mondrian painting, bread has become so much more than an afterthought to tide you over while you await the appetizers.

But it is in the outer reaches of the borough formerly known as North York where bread has been elevated to an art form. Bread-heaven can be found just a short subway ride away, at a restaurant called Mezza Notte. The first few times I visited, I ordered bruschetta as an appetizer. This was a mistake. There is nothing wrong with the perfectly lovely bruschetta they delivered, but it sat unappreciated next to the delights of the free bread basket. There’s fresh, light white bread of the finest quality for traditionalists, a zesty tomato focaccia that manages to be simultaneously nostalgic and adventurous and an unexpectedly savory potato-rosemary focaccia. You know you’re in for a special meal when you can’t stop raving about the bread basket.

The experience was in no way diminished by the courses to follow. All the homemade pastas are perfectly cooked and the sauces that bathe them are harmonious combinations of earnest, quality ingredients. There are six vegetarian pastas, and numerous pizzas. Among the standout pastas are the plump gnocci in a salty and savoury sauce of pesto with cream and tomatoes, both regular and sun-dried, and the crespelle alla napoletana, similar to but head-and-shoulders above the typical cannelloni with a silky béchamel sauce.

In the highly unlikely event that you are still hungry, the desserts are by Dufflet Pastries and as such are delicious but oddly familiar. Then you can relax in the elegant yet somehow still rustic ambiance of the dining room as you and your dining companions repeatedly query each other, “Have you ever tasted such amazing bread?”

5304 Yonge Street

Grazing: Thoughts on Vegetarian eating in Toronto

Some people think that it’s hard to be a vegetarian, that if they try to give up meat, they’ll find themselves starving in the corner, cinching their belt one notch tighter and looking on enviously as the carnivores feast on fat, juicy steaks, or meditatively contemplating their moral superiority while ordering the side salad at McDonalds. My opinion is this: if it’s hard, maybe you aren’t meant to be a vegetarian.

I don’t see myself as a master of self-control for resisting the siren call of the bacon double cheeseburger. Instead, I see myself a picky eater. A very picky eater. There are foods I just don’t like and never will: artificial banana flavour, olives, mushrooms and meat. It’s not that the smell of a Christmas turkey in the oven doesn’t get my stomach growling, it’s that when it comes time to eat it, I can’t forget that it’s a turkey. A big ugly gobbling bird running around in the dirt that I am about to grab and take a big bite of. I just can’t circumvent that mental image. If you can, I say bon appetite.

The truth about vegetarian dining is this: you will rarely find yourself with nothing to eat. Virtually every restaurant has something for you on the menu, and those who don’t will often alter a recipe or put together a collection of side dishes for you. As a last resort, you can always order double dessert. (Food for thought: If the tomato is a fruit, pasta pomdoro contains the same food groups as a slice of cherry cheesecake: fruit, cheese and a refined flour starch. It’s practically health food!)

While most anywhere will suffice, there are lots of restaurants in Toronto that have something special to offer vegetarians. This space will feature my thoughts on some of my favourites. I’ll be gradually adding my reviews and random thoughts over time, but lest you think I’m holding out, I’ll start at the top:

In my opinion, the best vegetarian meal in Toronto is to be found at Biryani House. One can be forgiven for never having come across this gem because it is located in Roy’s Square, which is, let’s face it, an alley one block south of Yonge and Bloor. Even if you ventured down the alley, the unobtrusive ten-table space might not jump out at you. But looks can be deceiving. At lunch it serves a cafeteria-style buffet of perfectly decent choices, but it’s after five pm that it comes alive. The bustling dining room is overseen with the utmost efficiency and courtesy by a gentleman I believe is the owner, and alone he can provide a full house of hungry customers with better service than a team of 20 waiters of the kind you’d find at a suburban chain restaurant.

The menu is roughly 50 per cent vegetarian choices. Crispy appetizers such as pakoras and samosas with sweet-tart relishes warm up the taste buds, but the best of the bunch is the Dal Soup. Lentils cooked so long they’ve liquefied carry the perfect blend of spices, delivering just the right amount of heat without sacrificing flavour. Main courses always seem to arrive just as you finish the last spoonful. I’ve tried almost every vegetarian option on the menu (with the exception of the mushroom curry; this is a decision based on my own personal feelings about mushrooms. If you like mushrooms, I’m sure this dish would be good too), but harbor a fondness bordering on addiction for their Aloo Gobi Masala, and Eggplant. The first dish is a potato-cauliflower blend coated in a sunny yellow mix of spices, the second a stewed mix of tomato and eggplant mashed up to become so much more than the sum of its parts. Neither is hot-spicy but both are seasoned in a distinct yet complimentary manner. Served over nutty basmati rice and soaked up with a piece of fluffy naan bread which comes in servings big enough for two, every bite is perfect. There are desserts on the menu but I’ve never made it that far. A meal for two rings in at under $30 and I usually have enough leftover to eat for lunch the next day.

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants I’ve liked and oftentimes I’ll find one I’ll rave about. But if I keep going back, eventually I’ll be let down. I have been to Biryani House dozens of time and have never been disappointed. This is why I can confidently declare it to be the best vegetarian meal in Toronto.