A Good Day to be a Writer

The food: WASP comfort food, Glenwood Treasure style

Asparagus green bean quiche from Summerhill Market

Asparagus green bean quiche from Summerhill Market

The story:

My friend Jane Drake, a successful and prolific writer of children’s non-fiction books, recently invited me to speak to a group of friends gathered in Toronto from Texas, New Hampshire, New York, Utah, Ohio, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Indiana.

In advance, they had all read The Glenwood Treasure, bless them, so I not only gave a talk about the book, I led them on a mini walking tour to three of the book’s key Rosedale locations: Chorley Park, the Toronto Brickworks and Summerhill Market.

Jane's delicious grilled vegetables

Jane's delicious grilled vegetables

In between the talking and walking, though, Jane served a lovely lunch, which she thoughtfully and cleverly based on a menu described in my novel as a WASPy mother character’s idea of comfort food: quiches and salads and brown bread and the requisite side of smoked salmon.

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The weather was fine for our walk, the company gracious and attentive, (they bought more books, too!) and the comfort food was delicious – it was a great day to be a writer.

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Good Burger, Bad Service

The food: the hamburger at Allen’s

Hamburger with blue cheese at Allen's

Hamburger with blue cheese at Allen's

The story:

Last week, I went to Allen’s on the Danforth in Toronto to have a burger because I used to think their burger was the best in Toronto, and I wanted to write about it, give Allen’s its due.

E arrived there first, at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, and was seated on the wooden bench at a table for two on the pleasant backyard patio, which can hold about 50 people, but was occupied by only 10 or so customers.

A quiet afternoon on the Allen's patio

A quiet afternoon on the Allen's patio

I showed up five minutes later, and tried to sit down in one of the cheap plastic chairs that are the only non-bench seating available. I found them too low (the table top was at my chest level when I sat in one) so I pulled another small table over to the one E was sitting at, and sat beside him on the bench, both of us facing the same way.

The waitress came over right away. “Are you expecting a larger party?” When I said no, she said, grim-faced, “Well, we’re going to need that table back.” And though there were at least 30 seats available at that moment on the patio, she wasn’t kidding.

We should have stood up and left, I suppose, but we didn’t. We told her we would be out in less than a hour, she did not take the table away (she didn’t need it yet, it seemed), and we ordered two burgers and some mixed sweet potato and regular potato fries to share.

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The burger was good and juicy, its meaty flavour was not sullied by overpowering garlic or spicy notes, the bun was eggy and toasted, and I did like the blue cheese that came with it. But we were given two tablespoons of anemic relish in a small container for two people, the water I asked for was served in a plastic cup (E’s beer merited a glass), and the waitress was terse and unsmiling for our entire 40 minute visit.

Hell, I’m not looking for tablecloths, crystal or attentive service when I go out for a burger. The cafeteria style lineup at places like Shake Shack, in New York city, where customers eat delicious, high quality, and inexpensive food out of paper containers off trays, suits me fine as long as the counter people I deal with aren’t rude.

My all-time favorite burger: the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, with awesome SS fries

My all-time favorite burger: the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, with awesome Shake Shack fries

But after being a semi-regular Allen’s customer for 20 years – and being made to feel unwelcome this time and on a few previous occasions – good burger or not, I won’t be going back.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Allen's on the Danforth on Urbanspoon

TIFF Food, Part 3: Queen West

The food: soup at Ravi

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The story:

I’ve been attending a screening per day at the Toronto Film Festival this year, mixing with festival-goers (= collecting material for my fiction by eavesdropping on all manner of lineup and in-theatre conversations), ogling some onstage celebrities (Demi Moore’s legs are OMG amazing), and seeing movies – some good, some not so good, all interesting. So far.

Prior to an international premiere screening of Last Ride, a slow but beautiful and haunting Australian film starring Hugo Weaving, about an ex-con and his son on the run, E and I stopped in at Ravi Soup at 322 Adelaide Street West for an early dinner.

E had the soup and wrap combo with the curried lamb, yam and spinach wrap and a smoky, richly flavoured roasted red pepper bisque. The wrap filling was spicy (too hot for my palate) but complexly and satisyingly flavoured. And while the mango-pineapple salsa served with it was a refreshing counterpoint, I thought there should have been more of it.

Curried lamb wrap and roasted red pepper bisque

Curried lamb wrap and roasted red pepper bisque

I opted for the chicken hotpot broth with tofu and noodles, which was delicately delicious. In my carb-loving way, I would have liked less broth and more noodles – more of all the non-liquid ingredients, actually, and maybe another flaky biscuit with red currant jelly like the one that came alongside.

Chicken hot pot broth with biscuit

Chicken hot pot broth with biscuit

Other places to eat when in the vicinity of the Cineplex Scotiabank theatre: Babur restaurant, 273 Queen Street West, home of above average Indian food and, in my view, the best samosas in Toronto; and the Sandwich Box at 388 Richmond Street West, for pricey but good sandwiches made to order with artisanal breads and high quality ingredients.

Ravi Soup on Urbanspoon

TIFF Food, Part 2: Yonge & Dundas

The food: Breakfast and burgers at The Senator vs. Ramen and yakisoba at Kenzo Japanese Noodle House

The winner!

The winner!

The story:

I was all excited (excited!) to hear about the new Yonge & Dundas location of Kenzo Japanese Noodle House, a ramen place that some people (who don’t know shit) claim has good food.

You there, looking in the window - don't go inside!

You there, looking in the window - don't go inside!

So I stopped by on a weekday for lunch and found a lineup out the door – a good sign. When I slipped inside, the people waiting told me no one had spoken to them since they’d arrived – a bad sign. I fought my way to the back, where dirty dishes were stacked up by the cash register (uh-oh). I placed my takeout order with a pleasant but overworked and overwhelmed waitress, and eyed the shabby interior – another bad sign.

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Signs aside, such is my desire to find good ramen in Toronto (I still dream of the delectable ramen at Kintaro in Vancouver) that I was still excited when I brought the food home and plated it in my kitchen.

Kenzo's Sho-yu Ramen with Fatty Pork and Quail (?) Egg

Kenzo's Sho-yu Ramen with Fatty Pork and Quail (?) Egg

Does that ramen look good to you? It didn’t taste good: the broth was so nastily garlicky and what-are-you-trying-to-hide spicy that I was almost felled by its fumes when I opened the container lid, and the ramen noodles were tasteless. The gyoza, meanwhile:

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were okay if you like them big and meaty, with thick skins, and more knock your socks off garlic. And the yakisoba (fried noodles), had all the charm and substandard quality ingredients of noodles from a mall food court:

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A far better spot to eat in while at Yonge & Dundas, before or after seeing films at the Ryerson Theatre, the AMC Yonge-Dundas 24, or The Elgin and Winter Garden theatres, is the Senator restaurant on Victoria Street, just south of Dundas.

Diner decor at the Senator.

Diner decor at the Senator.

My overeasy eggs in the All Day Breakfast were done perfectly to order, the challah toast imprinted with lovingly even grill marks, the bacon was thick and juicy, and the home fries crisp.

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The baked beans I make at home are sweeter and softer than what the Senator serves, but hey, you can’t have everything.

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The Senator’s new burger, devised by (new to the Senator) chef Bob Bermann using a special blend of “naturally raised” meat from Cumbrae’s (though it wasn’t listed as such on the menu, our waitress assured us the new burger WAS in the house) also passed muster with my picky palate – the patty, though on the big side, had a nice char and a smoky, meaty flavour. And the ‘special sauce’ (not shown), a sweet and tangy mixture of ketchup, mayo, dijon mustard and relish that was served along with the burger reminded E and me of the sauce used at Shake Shack in New York (hmm, Shake Shack), which is always a good thing.

Other places to hit up in the Yonge & Dundas corridor while film festing: the Hakka cuisine at Spadina Garden is far superior to Kenzo’s fare – I especially like the House Fried Special Noodle. And though it’s in a mall food court, the rosti with sour cream at Richtree Market (formerly the Marche/Movenpick) in the Eaton Centre, prepared with fresh potatoes peeled, grated and fried in butter and oil right before your eyes, can’t be beat for a light (?) lunch/snack.

Kenzo Japanese Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Senator Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Toronto Film Festival Food, Part I: Yonge & Bloor

The food: Pasta at Black Skirt restaurant

Farfalle Bolognese at Black Skirt

Farfalle Bolognese at Black Skirt

The story:

The Yonge & Bloor area (near TIFF venue the Varsity Cinemas), contains many cheap and cheerful restaurants, mostly serving food of so-so quality. A cut above is Black Skirt, an Italian restaurant located in a less than pretty (overlooking the back of the Brass Rail and a Starbucks) yet convenient location on Charles Street just east of Yonge Street.

A pleasant patio at Black Skirt.

The menu is traditional, simple, rustic Italian, the service friendly, the patio pleasant. On a recent visit, bread was brought to the table with a bruschetta-like chopped tomato and garlic mixture that wasn’t bruschetta (the waitress called it another name I didn’t catch) in a mortar. We were urged to crush the tomatoes with the provided pestle and eat the mixture on the bread, which we did, and liked it, though the bread was soft and bland in way that bespeaks of industrial baking. The mixture was sweet, fresh and tart, though.

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I’m a sucker for arancini (I might have to go on an arancini-seeking tour of North America someday) so I ordered Black Skirt’s appetizer version (with ground veal, mozzarella and peas), which was tasty without the proferred tomato sauce and tastier still with it, though $8 for one rice ball seemed a trifle expensive.

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After that, in keeping with our belief that one can never have too many carbs in a meal, E and I ordered two pastas to share, one a beyond simple spaghetti with ricotta and parmesan, the other a farfalle bolognese, which was that day’s special. Both were priced at $14, which again seemed a little steep for the smallish portion size – and hey, some shredded Reggiano would have been nice instead of the powdered stuff – though both dishes of pasta pleased us with their purity and simplicity.

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Some other Yonge & Bloor food spots to try between films when you don’t have the time to sit and dine on rustic Italian fare at Black Skirt: there’s a full range of high-toned and expensive gourmet takeout at the Holt Renfrew food shop on Bloor in the store’s basement level; more spiffy takeout fare (and groceries!) at Pusateri’s at Yorkville and Bay; folksier but still gourmet part-Asian-inflected takeout at Dinah’s Cupboard, on Cumberland, between Bay and Bloor; artisanal breads, sandwiches, and some nice little madeleine cookies at Le Pain Quotidien on Yonge at Yorkville; designer sandwiches at MBCo in Yorkville behind the Roots store; and a great selection of cheeses at the Alex Farm Cheese shop in the Manulife Centre (same building as the Varsity Cinema).

Black Skirt  on Urbanspoon