Thursday, April 23, 2009

Adventures In World Cuisine: A spotlight on El Trompo

Different cultures and their cuisines have always intrigued me. I respect them and think of foreign foods as an adventure. How boring to only ever eat what we know or what is familiar. How exciting to see and taste how different cuisines can take a common ingredient like chicken and dress it up in so many different costumes.

Ok, so I admit to not ordering the beef heart at Foxley last week but I just didn’t feel like it. After last week’s lunch in Korea Town, I was feeling a little apprehensive.

I know next to nothing about Korean food so I took a trip down to Christie and Bloor for some research. I was out of place and out of sorts. I was just glad that the menu had pictures. I ordered bi bim bap only because it is one of the few dishes I have heard of. Four mystery dishes were served as sides. I could identify two as kimchi but one was some sort of grey jello that had been cut into rectangles. It was sprinkled with seeds and jiggling. It tasted like nothing. Even the bi bim bap was weird. It was cold (I guess I should’ve ordered the one in the hot pot?) and the vegetables had some sort of invisible dressing on them. The only part I recognized was the sriracha. I think I need to go back with a Korean friend but I don’t have any.

I will also admit to not knowing much about Mexican food. I don’t like it – never have. Even in Acapulco, I stuck to a diet of hamburgers and French fries (I was 22 and naive). I have a strong dislike for flour tortillas which, so I thought, ruled out a lot of dishes. I also hate green peppers and think that refried beans look like cat food. I do like corn, cheese, meat, avocados, tomatoes and margaritas so I decided to give Mexican another chance.

Two fellow food writers suggested El Trompo, 277 Augusta Avenue. They can be trusted.

It’s a small and friendly place and I like that the dominant language is Spanish. I don’t like that everything is served on or in plastic.

I ordered a Corona (when in Rome...) and again was feeling content with a menu that has some pictures. Playing it safe, I started with their nachos ($3.99). The corn chips were efficient but not as fresh as the pico de gallo that covered them. You could tell it had been made with love. It was loaded with garlic and onions and had a nice tang. The refried beans were actually not gross. They were subtly smeared on the chips with the cheese, instead of dumped on top.

Tacos al pastor ($9.75) are listed as their specialty. These are Mexico City style and the soft corn tacos are filled with marinated pork, onions, pineapple and coriander. A squirt of lime, a drizzle of salsa verde and I was off. The shredded meat was tender and flavourful. Every bite seemed to release a smoky juiciness. The coriander was chopped into the finest of threads so as to lift the pork not over power it. Sometimes I don’t mind coriander; other times I almost hate it. I find it has a soapy taste but not here. The flavours, including the sweetness from the pineapple bits, are balanced.

Even the tacos themselves were impressive. Unlike the flour variety, they were not doughy. They were dense but fluffy – like sturdy little pancakes.

This taqueria has all the fixings needed for a Mexican feast: huevos rancheros for brunch, margaritas to be savoured on the patio and if you want to make your own they sell authentic chorizo for $18/kg.

A colourful place within a colourful neighbourhood.

* The name of the Korean restaurant has been withheld to be fair. I did not like it but it may have more to do with my ignorance of the cuisine than the place it came from.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mildred's Temple Kitchen

I used to frequent Mildred number one and like half the city, was disappointed when they closed. After visiting the number two – Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, 85 Hanna Avenue, Suite 104, I remain somewhat disappointed. I know, I should not be harbouring sentiments of the restaurant past nor should I be comparing every detail between the original and the sequel but it is after all, the same place – reincarnated. The Mildred Pierce Group may not subscribe to that notion but when you go by a similar name, open up across the tracks, put two of your old dishes on your new dinner menu and practically repeat the brunch card, it is hard not to compare.

The old space was warm and dramatic. The new is cold, sparse and rather hospital like (in a clean way). It almost seems unfinished. The old had an air of sophistication that the new lacks. Mature servers have been replaced by “handsome” twenty somethings in Levis. The hostess looked like she was thirteen and was dressed like a circus performer. Boy George called and wants his hat back. Mildred, they too need a uniform.

The menu is short and to the point. I like its’ no nonsense approach and more than a few dishes caught my attention. To start, a citrus squid salad with red onion, cucumber and apple ($9). It was a nice twist on a tired classic and GreekTown should be taking notes. The tender squid was spritzed with citrus and laid on top of a bed of extra thick and creamy tzatziki. The apple really only added a tartness that wasn’t pleasant. I ignored it and pretended that it was summer and I was dining on a patio. Mildred doesn’t have one which is too bad because this dish is dying to be served al fresco.

Even better were the smoked Georgian Bay whitefish fritters ($11). The fritter trend of 2008 is still going and although these were served very much in the same way as every other restaurant i.e. with a remoulade of tangy bits, these ones were the most able I have seen. The ratio of fish to potato was bang on. They were dressed up in a batter akin to the chicken ball. It was airy and crispy not doughy or crummy.

A beet salad with goat cheese ($9) was so pretty that no one wanted to touch it. The pureed cheese danced swirls through the dressing. The fresh beets were a beautiful shade of orange. Again, summer can’t come fast enough.

As fabulous as the starters were, the mains were full of mistakes. A chickpea and lentil stew ($16) was healthy and bright but lukewarm and lacking a ‘stewed quality’. It seemed to have been made in five minutes instead of the hours that it should have simmered. It had too much cilantro, not enough goats’ milk yogurt and the bhaji that came on the side was nothing but a clumsy addition.

A burger and frites ($15) looked like it belonged in a magazine. Sweet red onion relish, white cheddar and a tiny pickle finished it off. Someone decided to put it on an egg washed brioche bun that crumbled after two bites. It was simply the wrong kind of bread for a thick and juicy burger.

Another mishap was the pork belly sous vide with potato dumplings ($26). I love pork belly. When it is fried its’ crispiness is heaven. Its’ pig flavour out shines even the best bacon. However, when you do anything but fry it, it is nothing more than pork with large amounts of fat stuck to it. Rendering it gives it that crunch, sous vide makes it almost too unhealthy to want to eat.

The meal ended with a watery rendition of the cappuccino and a trio of way too sour sorbet ($9). The strings of sugar were playful but the grapefruit sorbet almost gave me wrinkles.

Mildred, if it wasn’t broke, why did you fix it?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Detoxing the Indetoxable

After the gastronomic indulgence that was New York City, I returned to Toronto a lot squishier than when I had left. I joked about needing a detox. This is a big joke because between my love of red wine and my affection for cold cuts and cheese, I am the last candidate for sacrifice.

Well, you know the saying, 'be careful what you wish for'? It's true. The day after I came home, the mild sore throat that I had been nursing (running around New York City) turned for the worse. As I travelled further down the sick road, the fever got higher and higher and my tonsils whiter and whiter. My journey hit a high point when I spent nine hours in emergency.

I have been in a horizontal position for six days and have had a fever for five of those. Popping pills like candy and talking like the Godfather are two other of my symptoms. Am I hungry? Not really and thank god because I cannot eat. I have been living off bananas, baby food, apple sauce, soup (broth with soft noodles) and water.

What I am is skinnier and happy for it but after watching The Food Network for 122 hours, I cannot wait to go to a restaurant. Hell, I’ll even settle for the energy to make myself something that doesn’t come out of a jar. I feel some mac ‘n’ cheese coming on as soon as I can stand by a stove. It’s soft, I can do it.

As anyone that likes to eat can attest, we often overdo it on nights’ out, weekends and vacations. We get back to reality when we either step on a scale or realize that our jeans aren’t looking as good on us as they were pre-pig out. I knew I had over done it when the thought of just sitting in my jeans sent feelings of uncomfort through my abdomen.

I swore it was cut back time and I kind of did a bit of it until I was forced into starvation by my weakened immune system. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the gluttony and will continue to indulge. It has afterall, become my panache for travelling.