Writers Who Lunch

The food: nodini and porky foods at Buca

The story:

I had lunch with my writer friends and Humber School for Writers colleagues Richard Scrimger and Antanas Sileika this week at Buca, an almost too cool (for me) salumi-centric restaurant on King Street West near Portland in Toronto.

In a converted warehouse type room where large joints of cured meat were on display, meathooks formed part of the design aesthetic, and Food Network host Bob Blumer was on hand, lunching casually at the bar, I was drawn, of course, to the starchy items on the menu.

We started with the nodini, a plate of puffed and browned pizza dough knots sprinkled with salt, rosemary and olive oil. They cost $5 for a plate of 10.

Look at that closeup at the top of the post and you’ll know why I had to try very hard not to eat all of them, an effort made more difficult since Richard refused any, claiming he was not much of a bread-lover. I had no trouble resisting the fried pigs’ ears which he ordered for the table, however, only one and a half of which remained by the time I photographed the plate.

Antanas, a pig’s ear aficionado, had a small complaint that the pieces we were served contained both inner ear (less tender) and outer ear (more of a delicacy as far as ears go, he claims). At least I think that’s what he said, I didn’t hear him too clearly since my fingers were in my ears, while I sang la-la-la and contemplated an instant conversion to vegetarianism.

For a main, the virtuous Richard ordered a salad with figs, which he pronounced most satisfactory though the portion was small for the price and he didn’t finish it (now we know how he maintains his lean and hungry look).

Antanas wanted a meaty pizza, so went for one described on the menu (which apparently changes daily) as featuring a selection of meats for around $17.

He admired the thin crust and didn’t mind being given scissors to cut it with, but was disappointed in the amount of meat that topped it. I thought the crust too thin, and my taste of a pleasant-tasting sliver only reaffirmed my devotion to Neapolitan style pizza in all its puffy glory.

For my main, I ordered the pasta carbonara, also around $16 or $17. The portion was small (first course size), and the affectation of having the waitress mix the raw egg into the hot pasta at the table seemed pointless. Plus I was made to feel (though I might have imagined it) that my request for more grated Parmesan (there was hardly any on the dish!), though it was granted quickly, was the request of a hick. The finished, cheesed-up product was perfectly cooked and delicious though, the rather fatty guanciale notwithstanding. (Perhaps only hicks like their guanciale on the lean side.)

We did not eat dessert, though we were respectively amused, intrigued and disgusted by the idea of the Pork Blood and Chocolate Espresso Tart listed on the dessert menu, and retained those opinions after the waitress explained that the pork blood doesn’t so much flavour the tart as contribute to its texture. Enough said.

Buca on Urbanspoon


Warm and Winning Market Fare

The food: winter market fare

The story:

The farmers’ market at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks site still runs on Saturday mornings in wintertime – and through the wintry spring we’re currently enduring – though the market’s fare these days is by necessity focused more on prepared foods than on fresh farm produce.

A recent delicious discovery I made there is a spinach and goat cheese quiche-type tart – only one of several sweet and savoury pies on offer at The Canadian Pie Company stand. Six dollars (slightly cheaper than at the company’s own Queen Street East shop!) buys an individual savoury tart made with eggs, organic spinach and goat cheese wrapped in flaky, puffy pastry. Reheated and served with a green salad, the tart makes a perfect weekend lunch, or with the addition of some roasted carrots or squash, a lovely light dinner.

While at the Brickworks, I also picked up some fresh sheep milk’s ricotta from the Monforte Dairy stand, so that I could once again make a home version of the fresh ricotta with toast that I so loved at Locanda Verde in New York.

This time around, I used walnut raisin bread from Toronto’s St. John’s Bakery – also available at the Brickworks Market – as a base. Here’s how a slice looks toasted:

I topped that with the Monforte ricotta, and drizzled it with warmed orange honey (from the Tasmanian Honey Company) that I had picked up from Honey World, a small booth in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market that specializes in honey from New Zealand, offers free samples to all comers, and was an indirect source of inspiration for the Honey Hut store I featured in my Toronto Noir story “A Taste of Honey.”

After being sprinkled with a few fresh thyme leaves and a few grains of red Hawaiian sea salt, this part local, part global, all market creation – and taste explosion – was ready to enjoy.

Saimin in Kauai, Ramen in L.A.

The food: noodle soups

The story:

I’m a borderline obsessive serious Asian noodle soup devotee, so when, in preparation for my first ever trip to Kauai, I read that a recommended restaurant on the island specialized in saimin, a ramen-like noodle soup unique to Hawaii, I was more than down to try it.

Hamura Saimin (no website – ha! as if), located in a slightly sketchy section of Lihue, a town best known as the location of the Kauai’s homey international airport and its Walmart, is not so much a restaurant as an down-home lunch counter with a 1950’s – 60’s feel and an interior that looks as if it has not been remodeled or refreshed since that period.

The beyond casual vibe of Hamura Saimin, the roosters that run wild in the streets outside it, its “what do you want” type service, and the small industrial supply shops nearby that bear Japanese surnames seemed to me to be representative of the real Kauai (realer than the luxury resorts and timeshare developments) – where to be of a mixed race background is more common than not, tuna is always referred to by its Japanese name (ahi), and every other vehicle on the road is a pickup truck with huge wheels.

As for the food, we tried a few items from Hamura Saimin’s limited menu, starting with deep-fried wontons and shrimp tempura, both of which were, uh, okay:

The special saimin contained noodles that were a little thicker than fresh ramen I’ve had elsewhere, satisfyingly curly, and a little clumpy. The bowl was garnished with overcooked pork wontons, sliced ham, bok choy and a few slices of fatty pork, ramen style. That’s three kinds of pork, people. The broth was bland but passable.

After we saw another customer eating a impressively tall slice of lilikoi (AKA passionfruit) pie, which we were told was another Hawaiian delicacy, we tried a piece. It was light, not too sweet, and a pleasant palate cleanser after all that pork, but had a certain (not good) supermarket bakery quality to it, especially the cardboard-like crust.

I don’t mean to damn the place with faint praise – I liked it and would certainly go back when I’m next in Kauai. The trick to enjoying it, I think, is to go in with low expectations. And possibly while stoned or after a day spent hiking.

Hamura Saimin on Urbanspoon

I found a more refined and soul-stirring noodle soup in only slightly more upscale surroundings at Daikokuya Ramen, a lauded ramen shop in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighbourhood.

The tempura we ordered with our ramen looked and tasted properly tempura-ish, with a not-too-greasy, crunchy batter and a nice assortment of shrimp and vegetables:

And the Daiko Ramen we ordered was exemplary, though my opinion of it may have been influenced by the paragraph-long description of how it is made that appears in the menu, a description that speaks of the long hours of preparation that go into the making of the ton kotsu [sic] broth, and offers options on the chewiness of the chijire noodles and the size of the bowl.

Daikokuya on Urbanspoon

P.S. In Japan’s current time of crisis, I urge all readers of this post to donate to relief efforts in Japan through funds such as the Japan Earthquake/Asia-Pacific Tsunami fund set up by the Canadian Red Cross, which accepts online donations.

Battle of the Burgers – L.A.

The food: artisanal burgers in L.A.

The story:

In 2010, GQ’s Alan Richman declared the Umami Burger (looking rather unimpressive above) – found at the California mini-chain of the same name – to be the Burger of the Year, so while in Los Angeles I had to try it.

Before I did though, I checked out another highly touted – by Esquire magazine – artisanal burger from another California bar/gastropub with a few select branches, Father’s Office.

The Santa Monica location of Father’s Office, on Montana Avenue, is a narrow, dimly lit room that has no wait staff, a very short blackboard menu, is open only in the evenings on weekdays, can get busy, and has been known to have celebrities make an appearance (ScarJo herself showed up there the week after I visited).

Fearing jostling and attitude, I was relieved when we arrived early-ish, passed easily by an ultra-casual doorman whose function appeared to be to check ID of younger customers (of whom there were many) when not reading a novel (!), and saw that the lineup at the bar to order was not long, and tables were available.

Being fans of brussel sprouts, my husband E and I started with a plate of organic ones listed on the chalkboard – they were pan-roasted, came with pine nuts, crispy Serrano ham and sherry vinegar and tasted pretty damn good.

We then made the mistake of ordering one each of the Father’s Office burgers:

This was a mistake because the burgers were big, and they come with strongly flavoured additions for which no substitutions are allowed: arugula, a caramelized onion/bacon compote and Gruyere and Maytag Blue Cheese. I was in favour of the arugula and the cheeses (not sure I needed two though), but I ended up strongly opposed to the onion/bacon compote. I thought it overwhelmed the meat, and made it taste BBQ sauce-ish, not my favourite flavour. We both finished our burgers but I wished I hadn’t. The shoestring fries, made of real, fresh potatoes, were good, though. If you like shoestring fries.

A few days later, we went to the Santa Monica location of Umami Burger, which is hidden inside a Fred Segal store and shares its Broadway address but is at the other end of the store, and is better accessed from 5th Street, where there is a pleasant patio.

We walked into the many-windowed, welcoming and casual but upscale space, which was crowded mid-afternoon. This time we ordered one Umami burger – house-ground beef served with caramelized onions (again), oven-roasted tomatoes, a Parmesan frico (melted, crisped Parmesan), sauteed shiitake mushrooms and house made ketchup – to share, and an excess of sides.

We started with a salad that was good conceptually but could have been executed better – check out the tiredness of the lettuce leaf in the pic, and the croutons seemed like they came from a package:

I couldn’t face any more thin fries so we went next with a side of crunchy, golden smashed potatoes that E particularly liked:

followed by sweet potatoes sprinkled with brown sugar and possibly something else:

and ending with huge onion rings for the person in our party who isn’t me and loves onions:

Umami Burger is all about the fifth taste that’s beyond sweet, salt, sour and bitter (for more about this, see their website). I couldn’t readily identify it in the burger, but once I’d scraped off the caramelized onions, I liked the bouquet of flavour that imbued this burger and its carefully selected and combined toppings, and wished I’d ordered my own.

Father's Office (Santa Monica) on Urbanspoon

Umami Burger on Urbanspoon