Restaurant Review – Bacalao

21 01 2012

Bacalao - Nouvelle Newfoundland Cuisine on Urbanspoon

The bar has officially been raised, loyal reader! To celebrate four years together, my beautiful wife and I made some reservations at Bacalao on Lemarchant Road. It’s a restaurant that had intrigued us for a while with its promise of a modern twist on traditional Newfoundland fare. And boy did it deliver an extraordinary experience!

When you walk in the restaurant, you actually find yourself in the front door of a century-old house. We were greeted with a big smile by our hostess Tracy and directed to a table in one of the dining rooms.

Bacalao is cleverly laid out symmetrically into four dining room, each a repurposed room from the old house and each the size of a medium modern living room. The rooms are lovingly decorated with things that emphasize the Newfoundland settings: warm colours, original art from local artists on the walls, a fish copper ornament on the fireplace, bottles of local wine and Screech on the mantle, it all combines in a very cozy and warm atmosphere. I was delighted that the menus and the wine list had been laid out in advance at our table.

After a few moments, our hostess came back and introduced herself and asked how we were doing and if it was our first time. Upon hearing that it was our fourth first date anniversary she sincerely congratulated us. Tracy, and from what I saw of them the same applies to her colleagues, was extremely genuine, friendly and yet professional. She was hands-down the best server we ever had. Her attention to our comfort and pleasure was fantastic without being overbearing. She was also very knowledgeable and helped us select our wine.

As I was perusing the menu, I was pleasantly surprised to find very unique offerings. The dishes, as their reputation affirmed, are really taken from Newfoundland tradition and then elevated. For example, a popular appetizer is a Jiggs Dinner Cabbage Roll: salt meat and veggies wrapped up in a beautiful bright green cabbage leaf and served on a spoonful of pease pudding. It comes with a little cup of mustard pickles and a shooter glass of pot liquor. For the mainlanders among you, that’s the water in which the salt meat and veggies have been boiled. Yum!

The same goes for the main courses. Where else will you find a caribou medallions in partridgeberry reduction sauce?

In addition to the menu, Tracey informed us of the specials. Among them was an appetizer of pan-fried scallops and a main course of braised goat leg. I had heard on the Internet that the restaurant had some recent goat specials and I was hoping they still did!

My better half ordered the scallops for her appetizers while I just had to try the Jiggs dinner cabbage roll. Of course I went for the goat dish for my main while Erica opted for a seafood risotto.

A few minutes after taking our orders, we were presented with a complimentary amuse-bouche of crostinis with cheese-stuffed smoked salmon. The crostini was nice and crunchy and the cold smoked salmon was very aromatic and with a refreshing smoky flavour. It was a great start that left us looking even more forward to our meal.

Tracy also came back with two glasses of the wine she helped us select, a red wine called Barrens by a local vineyard. That was just about the most unique and tasty wine I ever had. It was made with various Newfoundland berries rather than grapes. As a result, there was absolutely no acid aftertaste and just a hint of alcohol. It went down so smoothly it was almost like drinking fruit juice! I recommend it even if you’re not usually a wine person.

Our apps arrived soon and what a treat they were! I wanted to take some pictures but the room was too dark for it.

Erica’s scallops were cooked perfectly and were the smokiest I ever tasted. They were sieved on a turnip purée and finished with a mushroom sauce. They were to die for.

As a big fan of a good cooked supper, my mouth was watering at the thought of the cabbage roll. I was not disappointed! I had never seen a cooked cabbage leaf look do deliciously green and fresh. Slicing into it revealed a mix of salt meat (a good portion of it) and vegetables. Underneath, the pease pudding was very flavourful and had a spot-on consistency. I had never had mustard pickles before and I enjoyed it. And washing it down with a shot of pot liquor was both a great traditional touch and a good palate cleanser. It’s a brilliant dish you won’t find anywhere. It was very cool to experience a dish that was specifically created and designed!

Shortly after, or so it seemed, our main courses arrived. The presentation on them was very elegant and inviting.

Erica’s risotto came accompanied by about 10 to 12 smoked mussels in the shell. The consistency was a little crunchier than I personally like in my risotto, but that’s how my honey likes her and she was happy indeed. The fish had bay scallops, shrimp, asparagus and was served with roasted vegetables and more scallops.

But the star of the evening for me was my dish of goat. I really had no idea what to expect, but for some reason I imagined goat to be stringy. I could not have been more wrong! It turns out that goat has a very tender flesh, very much similar to lamb, but with a much more intense, woody flavour. The cut was boneless and without any sinew, very easy to it. It also had a partridgeberry and goat jus and was accompanied by Duchess potatoes (yummy mashed potatoes shaped into spoon-sized balls and then baked) and roasted vegetables.

A word to the roasted veggies: they were perfectly executed, with just a hint of sear, crunchy texture and full flavour. Well done!

After such a fantastic meal, we just had to ask for the dessert menu. Like their main dishes and appetizers, Bacalao‘s dessers are a a mix of classics and special creations. Dessert chef Andrea Maunder keeps experimenting and coming up with new recipes and designs. We chose to go with two Banana Maunders, the restaurant’s take on the Banana Foster. It’s four banana pieces flambeed with local rum and served with vanilla ice cream, walnuts, a hint of coconut and a brown sugar sauce. I tell you, loyal reader, even if the rest of the meal had been bad, I would still return for the Banana Maunder alone! Dessert lovers, you owe it to yourself to try it. I’m not generally fond of the taste of liquor. When I took a bite of the dessert, I felt a hint of strong alcohol flavour that I anticipated would turn into an unpleasant full-blown taste. But instead, just as a was bracing for the strong taste, a wave of smooth banana flavour hit my taste buds and restored balance. Wow! It’s truly amazing when you encounter this sort of layering of flavours that give your mouth an actual multiple taste experiences!

I accompanied my dessert with a small glass of Lady of the Woods birch sap wine, mostly out of curiosity about how a wine made from birch would taste. To be honest, I found it fairly watery and lacking in flavour, so it’s not really my cup of tea. But I’m glad I tried it.

After our hostess took the time to check how we enjoyed our first visit, and was genuine grateful for our praises, we were brought the check, which worried me a bit since the menu we had seen on the website did not mention prices. But I had a very pleasant surprise when the whole meal (two apps, two mains, two desserts and three glasses of wine) came to $150.01. For the quality of the food, the fact that the dishes are lovingly crafted, the amazing service and the cozy decor, it’s a good deal indeed. Of course you wouldn’t eat there every day, but for special occasions you can definitely pay more elsewhere and not get anywhere near the same level experience. It was worth every penny!

As a very sweet touch, our hostess brought with the check two elegant invitation-style cards that could be redeemed for free desserts in a subsequent visit. She said it was a small anniversary gift on the house. This little gesture made us feel very valued as guests, especially that Tracy actually paid attention to our talks and made a note to highlight our anniversary. That just made us loyal customers for life!

If there is one small thing to criticize, it is the noise level. The concept of four small dining rooms of four tables makes the place intimate and cozy, but it also means that you end up with a dozen people in a room the size of an average living room. If a group is seated in your dining room, their voices will resonate in the enclosed space.

To be fair, however, I see no way of solving that problem without redesigning the place, and I feel that it would lose something if the look and layout was different. I think of it as an unavoidable consequence and a small price to pay for everything else about Bacalao. Until they invent Get Smart‘s Cone of Silence, I can’t fault Bacalao too much for the noise.

Overall, what we take away from our experience at Bacalao is that it’s a restaurant run by people who truly have a passion for food and for Newfoundland. The fact that they create their own original dishes and desserts by experimenting, and the fact they put such a great emphasis on local products gives you something you won’t find in many places.

So save up some scratch and make it a resolution to try Bacalao this year, loyal reader!

Addendum, September 2nd, 2012:
Read about our extraordinary second visit to Bacalao and why you should go as soon as possible!





Restaurant Review – Pi

8 01 2012

Pi on Urbanspoon

After a disappointing shopping adventure this evening, loyal reader, Erica and I decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant supper at the last minute. Since we weren’t dressed up, had no reservations and didn’t feel like going too far, we decided to try Pi, a little artisanal pizza joint a few streets over from our place.

When we entered Pi, it wasn’t very busy so getting a table was no issue. We were greeted by a friendly hostess then picked a corner table in the comfortably dim dining room.

The decor was eclectic, with funky art, colorful walls, a wall-mounted chalkboard indicating the specials. Cleverly, a frieze runs along the top of the walls featuring the numerical value of Pi: 3.1415 etc. It’s a cute idea and it wouldn’t be our first run-in with the restaurant’s geek chic theme.

Like Piatto , Pi specializes in artisanal pizzas with fancy ingredients. Also like Piatto, it had a unique menu design: it’s divided into three sections: constants (a list of pizzas you can order), variables (a list of various crusts, vegetables, proteins and other toppings you can combine to make a custom pizza) and chaos (a few pasta dishes). Several of the pizzas have clever names to reflect the mathematical/scientific theme of the place: the Einstein, the Pythagoras, etc. The layout confused me at first, especially that next to each pizza are numbers with multiplications next to them: “19 x 25 x 36″. I was momentarily puzzled (are those the sizes somehow?) and it took me a bit to realize those where the prices for a small, medium and large pizza, respectively.

Erica and I were divided on the menu. My wife liked it for its originality and for carrying on the theme. I personally found it a little gimmicky and too clever by half. It makes it hard to quickly identify what’s available until you’ve actually read every item in detail. For example, there is no indication that the “chaos” section is pastas. I had to read all the entries and their descriptions to piece it together. If it was labelled “pasta”, I could have skipped it since I knew I didn’t want any.

Menu issues aside, we ordered a yummy-sounding mushroom crostini for an appetizer and my wife and I went for small Pythagoras and Sicilian Salmon pizzas, respectively.

The appetizer arrived without much delay and smelled fantastic! It was a decent size with about 5 or 6 pieces for each of us. It had onions, mushrooms and an Italian blend of cheeses on a thin and crispy crust. It was absolutely delicious and I recommend it to all.

Likewise when our pizzas arrived I was impressed with the size of even those small pis. Each was as big as a large dinner plate.

Erica’s Pythagoras pizza was most excellent. It had sesame-ginger asparagus, sliced Brie cheese, bacon, red grapes and Italian cheeses on a thin crush with a creamy tomato sauce. The grapes contrasted really well with the rest of the pizza, a combination of salty and sweet that I know my bride loves. I tried a slice and I concur.

My Sicilian Salmon pizza was even better. I ordered it because I was quite curious about smoked salmon on a pizza. It could go either way, but fortunately it was a winner! I’m a big fan of smoked salmon and this pizza was almost a deconstructed lox bagel. It had deliciously aromatic salmon, Italian cheeses, capers and red onions. Definitely perfect, without so many capers that it was too salty. Great balance of tastes there!

We had initially intended to have dessert, but we were both full. That was quite a generous meal, portion-wise.

Before leaving, I had to use the restroom. Cleverly, an old physics textbook was casually left on top of the toilet tank. Again, a cute little touch to complement the theme and, unlike the menu, I actually appreciated that one!

Pricing at Pi is comparable to Piatto. The appetizer, two pizzas, a beer and a large soft drink set us back $66.00. Pricier than your average pizza joint, but about right for artisanal fare.

Overall, if you’re in the mood for a classier and unique pizza experience, you should give Pi a visit (or order in). You won’t be sorry!





Restaurant Review – Bamboo Garden

5 01 2012

Bamboo Garden on Urbanspoon

Continuing our culinary explorations of the City of Legends, loyal reader, my lovely wife and I went out last night to a little Chinese restaurant Erica had read good things about. Even better, it’s just down the street from us. Cold and wet from even a short walk, we entered Bamboo Garden.

Located immediately next door to Asian Taste, this Chinese restaurant is an unassuming hole in the wall. The decor is very minimalist. The walls are painted a pleasant peach colour, with some pictures hung here and there. The square tables have red checkered vinyl tablecloths. Overall, it’s very humble. Which is not necessarily a bad thing but it could use some freshening up: the walls have some scrapes and the paint job is pretty sloppy around windows and such. Overall, it’s a little bit hastily put-together and could use a bit of redesign. It could be argued, however, that it’s part of its charm, especially if it’s a place more geared towards the downtown lunch crowd rather than evening diners.

Our smiling hostess took our drink orders while we went over the menu. Bamboo Garden‘s menu focuses on simple fare such as soups, noodles, rice and fried vegetables and meats. It’s casual, affordable fare, the kind where your soft drink comes in a can.

For an appetizer, Erica chose a plate of steamed shrimp dumplings with lemon and herbs. I went with the hot sweet and sour soup (a specialty of the place that came highly recommended). For our entrees I selected a plate of fried noodles with vegetables and sliced pork, while my better half chose sliced BBQ beef and vegetables with some steamed rice. While taking my order, the hostess asked me if I wanted the pork mild, medium or spicy. Of course, I chose the latter option, as I love me some spicy food!

The appetizers took a bit of time ti arrive, about 15 or 20 minutes, which seemed a bit long since we were the only customers. Still, it wasn’t that long of a wait, but it did give me plenty of time to look around and that’s when I noticed the sloppy paint job in more detail.

I was a tad disappointed that my appetizer soup only arrived after we had finished Erica’s shrimp dumplings. Similarly, my wife didn’t receive her entree until a few minutes after mine. I wouldn’t go so far as saying the service was bad (the hostess was always smiling and checked on us to make sure it was good), but it could be tightened so that both diners get their food together.

That being said, the food we ate was absolutely fantastic and completely made up for whatever else Bamboo Garden could improve!

Erica’s shrimp dumpling appetizer was a pleasure for the palate. The dumplings were tender, the shrimp fresh and, best of all, there was this cool flavour layering going on: you ate a dumpling and it tasted like a delicious shrimp dumpling, and it’s only after you’d swallowed that you were treated to a refreshing lemony aftertaste! I love it when you get different sensations like that from the same bite.

The sweet and sour soup I had confirmed why Bamboo Garden is famous for it. It had a spicy broth, four or five shrimps and some shredded vegetables. It was hot, temperature-wise, and like the lemony aftertaste of the dumplings, the spiciness came after you swallowed as a hot but not burning sensation in the back of your mouth. It was well-balanced. I think next time I may end up simply ordering a meal-sized bowl!

Our entrees, despite not arriving together, were equally excellent. One word of advice though, if you order your meat spicy, make you can handle the spice. I’m a huge spicy food freak and my pork definitely ranked among one of the hottest things I have eaten in my life. I loved every bite, but it isn’t for everyone. Let me put it to you this way: it was spicy enough to give me a bit of a runny nose.

Erica’s dish, of course, wasn’t spicy and she loved it! I tasted it as well and I agree. The meat was tender, the vegetables well-cooked without any sliminess. And her bowl of steamed rice had a wonderful texture. I’m not quite sure was kind of rice it was, but I want more of it.

One great thing about Bamboo Garden, in addition to the smashing food, is that portions are very generous. Even a big eater like yours truly left sated. Our dishes were served in large bowls similar to pasta bowls and they were full to the brim!

Finally, another great surprise came with the bill. Two (very full) entrees, two appetizers and three canned drinks came to a whopping… $36.60! There was no mistake. For the quantity and quality of the food, it was a steal!

All in all, when I compare it to its neighbour Asian Taste, Bamboo Garden comes across not as competition but as an alternative. Taste remains my favourite Asian restaurant but it’s more of a dinner place, with sushi and more substantial fare. Plus it wins hands down for service and ambiance.

But Bamboo Garden is a different experience. It’s ideal if you want very affordable (I hesitate to say “cheap”) food that tastes delicious and you don’t care too much about the surroundings. And honestly, if they could tighten up the service and give the paint job a touch-up, they would be a presence to be reckoned with on the Asian scene.

I strongly recommend you give Bamboo Garden a try and see for yourself, loyal reader!





Restaurant Review – The Shanghai

25 10 2011

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As I mentioned yesterday, loyal reader, my wife and I found ourselves going from restaurant to restaurant on Friday night looking for an available table. We checked pretty much the whole west side of Water Street without much success until we entered The Shanghai, an often overlooked Chinese eatery by MacMurdo’s Lane.

I have walked in front of the restaurant for years and its facade is so unassuming that I kept forgetting about it, so it wasn’t even on our radar. And what a pity that is because we missed out on a very pleasant experience indeed!

Upon entering we noticed how quiet it was. Only another couple was dining and they weren’t very loud. There was soft piano music playing on the sound system and it was a welcome oasis of calm after seeing a half dozen crowded, noisy restaurants.

The Shanghai has an interesting layout. You get in from the outside at the end of a hallway and the whole place is king of U-shaped around that hallway. It’s difficult to explain but it segments the dining area quite nicely. There is a slightly raised area with booths in addition to larger tables. We were led to a spacious and comfortable booth and given our menus by a friendly and energetic hostess.

She asked if this was our first visit and happily explained the restaurant’s concept. Rather than individual dishes, the menu features larger plates that are meant to be shared among the diners. It’s a concept I had experienced once in Montreal and really like. It gives every diner a chance to try a bit of everything and really brings people together. After all, breaking bread together has been the unifying ritual of choice for any human civilization.

Our hostess also helpfully recommended some popular items from the menu if we were new. She did such a great job of describing the dishes that she had our mouths watering and we went with her recommendation of a mango chicken dish with a plate of fried rice and vegetables. We also opted for an appetizer of steamed pork dumplings.

As we waited for our food to arrive, we took in the decor. I liked it, it was simple and matched the ambience: pleasant paintings, red Asian-style lights and plenty of space. It’s one of the most relaxing dining places I have had the pleasure of enjoying.

Our steamed dumplings soon arrived and we eagerly dug in. As an aside, both Erica and I have become more adept with chopsticks. The dumplings were tender and delicious and served with a rice vinegar sauce the really grew on me. It was a good start.

Before long we were brought one empty plate each, followed by a big plate of mango chicken and one of rice and veggies. We scooped about half of each on our plates and took in the delectable aroma. It smelled great!

And thankfully it tastes great too. The chicken was tender and the mango and coconut milk sauce it was in wasn’t too sweet at all, which was my concern. The rice was worthy of accompanying it and satisfied my standards by not being the least bit sticky. Every grain was distinct from the others. It was well-prepared rice indeed and most of you know I loves me a good feed of rice!

The serving sizes were perfectly decent. Even though I could have eaten a lot more thanks to the great taste and texture, I did not finish the meal hungry. It was just satisfying.

Two fortune cookies were included in our bill which came to $50.00 including three large Pepsid (I had a refill). It’s not bad at all for a quality meal for two in a relaxing atmosphere.

The only very slight area for improvement is that when we entered the place there was noone to greet us right away as the hostess was in the kitchen. I had to clear my throat to signal our presence, but it didn’t take long for her to come out with a welcoming smile. Perhaps another member of the serving staff wouldn’t hurt to make sure there I’d always someone to welcome patrons. Still, that is a very minor point that I chalk up to a very slow night.

Overall, The Shanghai has not dethroned Asian Taste as my favourite Asian place in town, but it’s right up there. After all, it’s a but hard to compare the two as they have differing styles. I like Asian Taste as a sushi place but there is room for The Shanghai for a more family or group feel to the dining experience. I heartily recommend it and give it a good 9 out of 10!





Restaurant Review – Return to The Pepper Mill

18 09 2011

You may remember, loyal reader, that I gave The Pepper Mill restaurant a glowing review last month. To celebrate my new job, Erica and I decided to make reservations for a return visit last night and we were not disappointed!

The Pepper Mill on a Friday night was just as busy as the last time we were there. Not a table was available for walk-in customers. And yet, even though every table was occupied, it still didn’t feel stressed or cramped. It’s a testament to the great interior design.

This time, my wife and I opted to have a glass of wine. I chose a delicious Shiraz whose name I forget, and Erica enjoyed a tasty sweet and fruity white. For an appetizer, we decided to share a Phyllo-wrapped Brie. The simple name cannot do justice to this tasty little amuse-bouche. It is indeed a piece of Brie cheese wrapped and baked in a thin and flaky Phillo sheet. But oh my goodness, the flavour is utterly divine. If you’re any kind of a cheese lover, I highly recommend it! It was also well-presented on the plate.

For our entrees, I chose a seared duck breast with a Newfoundland partridgeberry demi-glace and Erica went for a roasted pork tenderloin with a Balsamic fig sauce. We were both looking forward to our meals. And despite our high expectations, the food still managed to impress us.

When ordering the duck breast, I expected to have a piece of meat similar in size to a chicken breast, covered in a partridgeberry sauce with a serving of rice and some sweet potato fries. Little did I know that the meticulous chef would make the place a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. My duck breast was sliced into a half-dozen pieces and attractively laid out so that the center of each piece could be seen. The meat was perfectly cooked medium rare. I love duck, and this was the best I ever had. It was an easy to chew texture and each bite was moist, tender and full of that unique duck flavour.

The sides were also well-thought-out. Instead of a serving of rice on the side, the basmati was shaped into a sort of dome that easily came apart to the touch of my fork. The sweet potato fries were laid out quite nicely, with one fry balanced on top of the rice dome. finally, the partridgeberry demi-glace drizzled on the duck gave a beautiful splash of colour, in addition to giving the dish a welcome fruity taste to balance the savouriness of the fowl. Delicious!

Erica’s pork was just as good. Her meat was tender, moist and perfectly cooked. Conceptually, it was a similar dish to mine, with a different meat of course. And instead of sweet potato fries, she had a few spears of asparagus. And those were the best I ever tasted. They weren’t soggy, nor were they undercooked. when you bit into one, it had a satisfying crunch. It felt very, very fresh.

After our meal, we opted this time to have coffee and dessert, even though my wife isn’t much of a coffee person. But since we were planning on having sweets, what best beverage is there to wash it down with?

We both selected a cheesecake as our dessert. I went with a brownie cheesecake and my wife chose a more unique orange, honey and ricotta cheesecake with a mixed-nuts crust. To be honest, while my cake was absolutely delicious, it didn’t wow me. That’s not a mark against its quality, mind you, but rather the fact that chocolate cheesecakes are pretty much all the same.

My wife’s on the other hand, was a different kind of cheesecake and I wish I had ordered it too. The ricotta cheese gave it a different flavour and texture and the best thing about it was the deliciously nutty crust. It was a combination of different flavours and textures that really worked well together. I also loved how there was a thin spiral of coulis drizzled around the plate. It was visually attractive and deserving of the dish.

That evening out set us back 122$, including our server’s well-deserved tip. A bit extravagant, but it was a special occasion after all. And despite a price in the triple digits, it was worth every penny, taking into account our two glasses of wine, appetizer, meals, coffees and desserts. The Pepper Mill demonstrated once more that it has one of the best value for your dining dollar in town!

 

 





Restaurant Review – The Pepper Mill

6 08 2011

The Pepper Mill on Urbanspoon

My apologies yet again for not posting last night, loyal reader. My darling wife and I were babysitting for the evening and so access to the computer was quite scarce. I must also warn you in advance that I won’t be posting tomorrow night either, for I’m going on an overnight trip around the bay with the b’ys!

As a little end-of-week treat, my wife and I had reservations tonight to try another one of our fair city’s restaurants, The Pepper Mill on Water Street . I had heard great things about it for years, but had never been. It was a golden opportunity to check it out and I can tell you that the place absolutely lives up to its reputation.

When you step into the restaurant, one thing is clear: objectively speaking, there isn’t much square footage to be had. after all, it is downtown. But that doesn’t matter because The Pepper Mill makes excellent use of its available space to give you a spacious feel. For starters, the left-hand wall is a large mirror, making the dining room seem bigger than it is. The dozen tables are also perfectly arranged to have a decent amount of space around them. Unlike other places, it really doesn’t feel cramped. Other downtown restaurants could learn a lot about table placement by checking out The Pepper Mill.

The decor is also pleasant. It’s contemporary and well thought out. The colour scheme is dark blue contrasting with some warm browns and earth tones. I appreciate the colour coordination: the dark blue tablecloths matched the colour of the pillars and the trim of the walls. The light level is low, but not too dim. Likewise, soft music plays in the background but not loud enough to be intrusive. The restaurant designers really know their stuff!

One thing I must note about The Pepper Mill is that given its great reputation and the fact that seating is limited, reservations are pretty much a must for diners. During our meals, no less than 4 groups and one caller were politely and regretfully turned away as everything was booked.

We were led to our table by a friendly and black dress-clad waitress who gave us the wine list and menus. Despite the busy evening, our server was attentive and friendly, taking time to ask where my accent was from, which led to a bit of chit-chat about the fact her boyfriend was also French, all the while we were going over the menu. It was a nice to have that personal touch. All the staff was smiling, courteous and professional, without being stiff. Another great night of service from a downtown restaurant!

The Pepper Mill‘s main menu consists of a few appetizer and about a dozen entrees. Chicken, seafood, duck and lamb are the meats of choice. I almost went for a delicious-sounding Duck with Newfoundland Partridgeberries main course, but at the end of the day I was in the more for seafood and opted for a Mussel and Prawns Carbonara Linguine. My wife, who had a hankering for pasta, ordered the same. On top of the menu choices, we were also informed of some of the specials. One was a very tempting steak accompanied by shelled lobster. Yum! Still, we had our hearts set on the carbonara.

In lieu of an appetizer, we each ordered a soup. I went with the classic, a creamy seafood chowder, while my wife succumbed to the temptation of a cream of cauliflower curry and pear soup. Erica chose a white wine, but I wasn’t in the mood for alcohol and stuck with water.

Our soups arrived in short order. My chowder was succulent: rich, creamy and with good chunks of potatoes, salmon, scallops, celery and other veggies. It was well put together. at my wife’s urging, I sampled her soup and good as the chowder was, it made me wish I had ordered the same soup she did!

The cream of cauliflower curry and pear soup was an absolute winner! Ever since we started sampling various restaurants, and at the risk of sounding like a food snob, I kind of get now what haute cuisine people are talking about when they mention things like layering flavours. The soup hit you first with a taste of curried cauliflower, then you noticed the edge was taken off, more than likely through the sweetening effect of the pear. Once you had swallowed it, you were then treated to a bit of heat from the curry. It was quite an experience, being hit with one flavour, then another, then another.

After we finished our soups (and I actually had to help my wife with hers as the bowls were of a good size), we waited about 15 minutes for our carbonaras. They arrived in really elegant and large bowls, the kinds I wish I could get my hands on. They smelled incredible. On a bed of linguine were, of course, the carbonara sauce with red onions, mushrooms and best of all, lots of pieces of bacon! Mixed in were 4 or 5 shrimp, and about half a dozen scallops.

I can’t sing the praises of those carbonaras enough, loyal reader. The abundance of bacon was a welcome pleasure, as was the richness of the sauce. But my favourite part were the scallops. I have never, ever tastes scallops cooked so perfectly. Eating scallops is often a crapshoot: they can easily be rubbery, or burnt with a crust, and unfortunately as you bite through even a well-cooked one, it’s not uncommon to feel something akin to a few grains of sand. Tonight’s, however, I tasted the best scallops of my life.

Seriously, they were moist, juicy, tender and there wasn’t any crispiness or graininess. They almost melted in the mouth. When our server came to see if we were enjoying our meals, I asked her to relay my praises to the chef for those amazing scallops!

I must mention once again that the portions, both of soup and carbonara, were very generous. In a way it sort of worked against the restaurant in this instance. We were originally planning on tasting the desserts, but after the soup and meal we were just stuffed! It’s a shame, as the dessert selection had us in sweets heaven: chocolate cheesecakes, strawberry-rhubard crisp with homemade ice cream, and other delights were tempting us. Ah, next time!

When came the time to get the bill, I was hit with another surprise: the price. For the quality of food, ambience and overall experience, we got a bargain indeed: 73.00$ before tip. I noticed, though, that the server had not counted Erica’s wine glass. When I pointed this out, she immediately apologized and told us she wouldn’t charge it. I insisted to pay for it, but she was adamant that the wine would be on the house. I appreciated that, it’s the mark of an establishment that is not afraid to absorb the cost of a mistake, even an innocuous one.

To compare the price, we paid almost exactly the same amount at Piatto for pizza, beer and tiramisus. Granted, we did not have dessert at The Pepper Mill, but I still think it was outstanding value for the money.

If I were to nitpick on two very small things, I would mention that the tables and chairs take a little getting used to. The seats seem a tad too low for my tastes compared to the tables. The dining surface was almost level with my chest. I would have liked the chair to have been a bit higher (or the table a bit lower), so that it would have been closer to my waist.

Another little hiccup was that, after we were given our menus, we spent a few minutes trying to decide what we wanted. Then our server came down to take our orders and let us know of the evening specials. Ideally, it would have been better to be given the specials at the same time as the menus. As it was, we had already chosen the carbonaras, but being told the specials we had to at least take a couple more minutes to see if we would rather have one of them.

Still, those are minor quibbles. I got used to the table, and I’m more than willing to chalk up the timing of the specials to a busy night. The quality of service we received more than made up for this little timing error.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fine dining experience that still gives you good value for your money, The Pepper Mill is a most excellent destination for you. I give it a good 9.75 out of 10!





Restaurant Review – Klondike Jake’s

27 07 2011

Klondike Jakes on Urbanspoon

My apologies for not posting last night, loyal reader. It had been a very hectic day at the office followed by a few errands, so I gave my brain a rest for the evening. I’d like to thank my wonderful wife, by the way. She knew I had a long frustrating day at work and when I met up with her at the mall for some shopping, she did everything she could to cheer me up. You’re the best, honey!

Before we hit the stores, we decided to have a sit-down supper at a restaurant we tried once before: Klondike Jake’s at the Village Mall. It’s a bit of a cheesy theme restaurant, but they do have an animatronic moose that I find amusing. And since they know they’re going for a theme, I must give Klondike Jake’s kudos for committing to it.

The décor is all about the gold rush era. It’s rustic, there are a lot of old-timey pictures and caricatures and the wall ornaments are an eclectic assortment of “antique” items such as pots, pans, snowshoes, buckets, etc. In keeping with the theme, and one of the restaurant’s signature elements, are the light fixtures above each table: upside-down metal wash basins with lightbulbs in them. It’s cute.

But for sheer commitment to the theme, I must point out the bathrooms. I went in to wash my hands and noticed that instead of standard ceramic latrines, the urinals are made to look like big square metal buckets (with the appropriate plumbing disguised of course) and the stall is made up like an old-fashioned outhouse. They could have easily just put in a regular old washroom but they saw no reason to break the restaurant’s style. Well done.

We sat down and before long our waiter had arrived with menus and took our drink orders. I had a glass of Rickard’s Red (red beer has been growing on m lately thanks to the Yellowbelly’s Fighting Irish brand). Since we are trying to eat healthier, we decided to incorporate more veggies in our choices than we normally would have. To be honest, I was reall jonsing for a hamburger but I exercised some willpower and order a chicken fajita sizzler. Erica opted for the day’s special, a grilled halibut with a side of baked potato and vegetables. We also asked for a bruschetta for an appetizer.

We didn’t have to wait too long, and we passed the time doodling on the table (covered by a large sheet of brown paper of course) with the crayons provided each booth.

The bruschetta was delicious with lots of tomato bits, not too much olive oil and not too much cheese. It felt much healthier than, say, nachos. It was satisfying and a good size, too.

I must give mixed reviews to our entrees though. Erica’s halibut was cooked perfectly. It’s easy to mess up halibut by either over or undercooking it, which woul give you either a dry or too flaky piece of fish. But it was grilled perfectly. The flesh was moist and springy and it really had a lot of flavour. We were disappointed, however, by the veggies that came with it, for they were very buttery. That kind of defeated the purpose of ordering a side of veggies in the first place. A bit of butter is good for flavour, but that was overkill.

I was disappointed by my fajita sizzler. The chicken and vegetable mixture was delicious and well-seasoned, but I didn’t like the way it was served. I was brought a hot skillet of the filling, a container of warm flour tortillas, and little ramekins of salsa, sour cream, diced tomatoes and lettuce. Basically, I had to take our the tortilla, scoop the chicken and veggies in, put in the garnish and wrap the whole thing up before I could take a single bite.

I understand why they would give me the sour cream, salsa and lettuce separately. I could then garnish the fajita to taste. But filling, folding and rolling the tortilla itself should be rightfully done by the kitchen. It was messy, especially since my amateur folding job left plenty of sauce dripping on my hand as I was clumsily picking up the fajita. Even if I had been dexterous enough to properly assemble it, it’s still a bit more labour-intensive than I expect in a restaurant. Had I ordered a hamburger, I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t have brought me a bun, patty and assorted condiments.

Despite the disappointing fajita, I’d like to go back to Klondike Jake’s to try other things. It’s got a good atmosphere, the service was courteous and they make a mean halibut. Overall I would give it a 7.5 out of 10, mostly because of the fajita fiasco.





Restaurant Review – Piatto

1 07 2011

Piatto on Urbanspoon

I was walking along Duckworth Street a few weeks ago, loyal reader, when I noticed a restaurant I hadn’t seen before, Piatto, billing itself as a pizzeria and enoteca (an Italian word meaning, roughly, “wine repository). I was intrigued and Erica and I made plans to try it someday. That day came today as we planned a little dinner date to celebrate the coming three-day weekend.

I had heard good things about Piatto from a colleague of mine who praised it by saying the pizza there was as good as the one he ate on a trip to Italy. High praise indeed! Our own experience was a mixed bag, albeit an overall good one.

From the outside, Piatto looks upscale. It’s storefront uses a contemporary font and a black and white colour scheme. The inside decor is a little more eclectic but still pleasant: mirrors and pictures of Italian products are hung up on the wall. A ten-speed bike is even hanging from the ceiling and a Vespa scooter is displayed in the front window. Those touches give it a European ambiance, but for some reason there’s something missing to gel it all together.

I like the restaurant’s open concept. On the ground floor, there are ten or so tables, a bar and the pizza oven and preparation area, so you can see the cooks at work. It’s far from claustrophobic. In fact it wisely makes the place feel bigger than it actually is. There’s also a second floor, however we didn’t go up so I wouldn’t be able to comment on it.

The place was rather busy, with only two available tables when we arrived. We were greeted by one of the hostesses and led to one of them. The young lady was friendly and was glad to hear it was our first visit. We were given menus right away and we proceeded to read it over.

One thing that I find is usually not mentioned in restaurant reviews are the menu designs. I’m not talking about the selection of dishes, but rather the design of the actual menu in your hands. I give bid kudos to whoever designed Piatto‘s. It’s got a clean, contemporary look and has the dishes’ names in Italian with an English translation seemingly hand-written next to it. Sprinkled here and there among the selections are Italian phrases and their English translations. It’s neatly laid-out and a little whimsical. I like it.

I noticed that the pizza of the week special was a spicy meat lover’s pizza. It had mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, hot Italian sausage, spicy salami and hot pepperoni. I couldn’t pass that up. The little sign advertising it recommended it be enjoyed with a Peroni beer imported from Italy. Never one to disobey a good sign, I opted for that particular combination. Erica also ordered a Peroni beer and went with the a Il Salvadore pizza, which was meatless but had mozzarella and ricotta cheeses as well as roasted red peppers, garlic and caramelized onions.

Our beers arrived. We were each brought a bottle and a very cool hourglass-shaped frosty glass. I really appreciate the fact that the glass came out of the freezer and was still cold and frosty. Great touch! I’m afraid that I don’t drink enough to be a beer connoisseur, but I found the Peroni to be refreshing and without an aftertaste. I’d drink it again.

One of the things I was told about Piatto was that due to their popularity and the fact it was always busy, you end up waiting a long time for your food. Luckily, this proved false for us. We had to wait less than 15 minutes, by my count, for our pizzas.

While we waited, I did notice that the noise level is rather high. It was difficult for me to hear Erica, even though she was seated right across from me. I think a lot of it is due to the very high ceiling. It’s very spacious but it has the unpleasant side effect of making conversations and sounds echo off the walls. It seems to amplify the noise, especially when it’s busy. On top of that, the restaurant has lovely lights above each table, but again the high ceiling makes them hang at least 8 or 9 feet in the air. I believe a dropped ceiling would be a tremendous improvement by making the place feel a bit cosier. It would also control the noise, which was what disappointed me the most about this dining experience. IT was by far the noisiest restaurant I have been to.

Nevertheless, our food arrived quickly, as I mentioned. And those pizzas were beauties. Piatto‘s pis are about 11-inches across and served on an elegant round ceramic dishes that’s about an inch and a half wider. It’s a simple and neat presentation. Mine was sexy-looking, with delicious-smelling slices of sausage and pieces of salami tempting me to dig in. Erica’s look delicious as well, if meatless.

My spicy meat lover’s pizza tasted every bit as delicious as it looked. Despite being billed as spicy, the heat was more on par with, say, a medium salsa: just a little bit of heat to enhance the flavours without burning. To me it could have used a bit more of a kick, but that’s because I’m a huge spicy food lover. For the average person, I think it would be perfectly balanced.

The pizza’s crust was scrumptious. Since it was an authentic Italian pizza, the crust was thin and not at all oily or greasy. The texture was excellent: slightly crispy, and tender inside. Well done! I must say that it was one of the best pizzas I ever ate, on par with the Yellowbelly‘s fantastic wood-fired delights.

Erica was even more generous in her praise for her Il Salvatore pizza. She declared it the best she ever ate and thought that anyone who doesn’t like it is out of their mind. I tried a bit and indeed, the mix of mozzarella and ricotta cheeses is delicious. I just might try that one next time.

After we finished our pis, we decided to stay to enjoy a traditional Italian tiramisu, along with a latte for me. The coffee was great, served in a bowl with a floral design on the foam. It tastes just as good as my other favourite, Coffee and Company‘s, which is high praise. My wife and I really enjoyed the tiramisu, a first for both of us. Its coffee flavour and very smooth texture will have us trying to make it ourselves at home before long, I’m sure.

Overall, the food was excellent and worth the praise it had garnered. One the downside, I found that a few things about the restaurant could be improved. I already mentioned the noise level, which was really a big thing for me, especially coming off a long day on the phones.

The service was good, with the hostesses being friendly and polite, though nothing more. I understand that it was a busy night, but I could see a total of four hostesses for about ten tables, which seemed a tad excessive. Oddly, they didn’t seem to be responsible for certain tables, by which I mean it wasn’t the same hostess that greeted us, took our orders, brought us our food, cleared the table and checked it the food was good. Three of the four young women took care of us. It’s efficient, but a tad impersonal. Perhaps it’s just me but I like having a server who handles our experience from start to finish and personalizes it a bit.

Finally, and this is another big thing for me, the total bill, including taxes and a 15% tip came to $82.00, which is a little steep. Don’t get me wrong, the food was absolutely delicious, but I thought it was more of a $50.00 or so type of delicious rather than $80.  If the ambiance and decor had matched the quality of the food for a complete high-quality package, I wouldn’t mind the price tag, but all things considered, to be honest you would get more value for your dollar at the Yellowbelly. That being said, I do think that you should enjoy Piatto‘s pizzas at least once for a true taste of authentic Italian pizza, at least.

Overall, on the strength of the food quality and speediness of service, I would give Piatto a score of 7.5 out of 10. With some minor tweaking of the service and a dropped ceiling (or some other noise-controlling solution) it could be so much better, however.

 





Restaurant Review – Boston Pizza (Kelsey Drive)

9 06 2011

Boston Pizza (St.John's) on Urbanspoon

Since my wife and I had some shopping to do in preparation for a dinner party this weekend, loyal reader, we decided to treat ourselves to a satisfying meal at the Kelsey Drive Boston Pizza restaurant. After a long busy day at the office, a beer and pizza would go down real easy!

We had gone to BP a few times before and were always satisfied. Tonight was no exception.

The decor and ambience is like a cross between a family restaurant and sports bar. The warm colour scheme is very relaxing and TVs set up high around the room were tuned in to a sports channel, with the sound off. The radio was playing, but not so loudly as to interfere with our conversation.

We were seated right away in a comfortable elevated booth. I love those comfy seats. Our server Amy greeted us with a smile and took our drink orders. She left us enough time to browse the menu and came back just in time. I must in fact commend the speedy service we received throughout dinner. Well done.

As we always do at Boston Pizza, we shared an appetizer of their delicious three cheese toast. If you’ve never tried them, I recommend it. It’s buttery, warm and cheesy. Very indulgent, especially with a mug of cold beer.

Erica and I both opted for pizzas. My wife ordered a tropical chicken pizza, which had chicken, bacon, pineapple and Alfredo sauce. She enjoyed every bite. The Alfredo sauce was a nice change from the traditional tomato sauce and gave the pi a creamier taste.

For my plate, carnivore that I am, I went with a Meateod pizza. It had it all: pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage, ham, bacon, mushrooms, lots of cheese. Mmmmm!

Despite all that meat, it wasn’t overly greasy, which was a pleasant surprise. I loved it, although I felt heavy for hours afterwards. My own fault!

Finally, we treated ourselves to some dessert. The lady selected a sticky toffee pudding, which is a lot like a brown sugar pudding. Pretty good, judging from the bite I stole. The gentleman chose a chocolate explosion cake. It turned out to be a tad too sweet, but I suppose a chocoholic would be in heaven: chocolate cheesecake pieces, chocolate fudge, chocolate mousse and chocolate sauce. For my money it should be more balanced with something creamy, perhaps.

I mentioned the speedy service, and I appreciated it. But the downside of it was that, even though she was friendly and smiling, our server was a bit rushed. It’s the go-go-go aspect of a busy restaurant, though, and can’t be helped.

While our culinary explorations have brought us to many different cultures over the last few weeks, it’s good to get back to some good old well-made North American food. Boston Pizza might be a bit on the pricy side, but the three cheese toast and hearty pizzas are worth the cost. The desserts are, however, fairly unremarkable and could be skipped. Therefore I give Boston Pizza an 8 out of 10 for casual family dining.





Restaurant Review – Shalimar

2 06 2011

Shalimar on Urbanspoon

When it comes to various ethnic cuisines, loyal reader, I confess that Indian food isn’t a type I have much experience with. When I suggested to my wonderful wife that we skipped cooking tonight and enjoy an impromptu dinner date, we decided to make up for that by trying out a small Southeast Asian eatery on Duckworth Street.

I had noticed Shalimar a few weeks ago as I walked back from an errand downtown. Its unassuming facade surprised me. Our city’s most famous Indian places, the Taj Mahal and India Gate are more ornate, so it’s refreshing to see an eatery geared towards a more casual crowd.

Walking into Shalimar, we were immediately greeted by the entrancing aroma of curry and spices. It was enough to make our mouths water. The place was quiet with only two of the ten or so tables occupied, which suited us just fine.

The decor is much like Asian Taste’s: unpretentious, simple and casual. There are a few “Indian” images here and there but mostly the place has kept the brick and plaster look of a downtown building. There’s Indian music playing in the background but not loud enough to be distracting. It’s a simple but nice ambiance.

We were told by our host, a large mustachioed man to select our table and we chose one tucked away by a window near the back of the restaurant.

Despite our host’s no doubt good intentions, I thought the service was a bit disappointing. We never learned our host’s name because he simply isn’t very talkative. Not in a rude way, mind you. He is polite but comes across as a strong silent type. Nothing wrong with that per se but it isn’t the best choice for serving customers. Perhaps getting an experienced waiter or an enthusiastic young person could liven up the experience.

Nonetheless, despite the utilitarian service, the food itself was absolutely delicious!

For a starter, Erica had papar, which is kind of a cross between chips and crackers. Think of a Tostito, but much, much lighter. It came with chattni, green chili chutney on sweet yoghurt. The papar was good, especially dipped in the chattni. Although beware: mix up your chattni before dipping to avoid my wife’s misfortune. Erica scooped up a lot of chili chutney on her first piece of papar and nearly choked on the spiciness. Blending the chili and the yoghurt proved the way to go.

For my part, I enjoyed a shahi soup, which is a creamy white soup of cream, yoghurt, chicken and almonds. It was fantastic! I didn’t know what to expect at first, but I was won over at first bite. There’s a good heat to it that doesn’t turn into burning and it’s neatly balanced with the smooth texture and taste of the cream.

Erica’s entree was chicken tikka: a quarter of a chicken marinated in yoghurt and spices. It was served with Basmati rice, potatoes, lentils and vegetables. The chicken was very tasty with ginger and garlic combining well into the meat. The star of her plate was definitely the rice, though. It was cooked so well that you almost felt like you were eating tiny pasta. I loved the texture.

My main course was a shahi korma lamb: cubes of lamb in a spicy hot vegetable red sauce. It cane with a basket of naan, a sort of Indian bread similar to pita, but moister. I’m now a big fan of naan! As for the lamb, it was cooked perfectly and almost literally melted in my mouth. For Indian food it wasn’t as spicy as I expected but the seasoning worked. A bit more kick wouldn’t have hurt.

Since I was in the mood to try new things, I chose a drink called a mango lassi, which is a drinkable yoghurt. It had a very smooth texture without any of the acidity you usually find in yogurt. I enjoyed it, but the 3.99 price was a bit steep for the size of the glass I got.

We were very happy with our meals so we stated for dessert. I chose a sweet rice pudding topped with almonds called kheer. If you like rice pudding, I highly recommend it, especially since the rice had a very soft texture that lent itself perfectly to a pudding.

Erica’s choice was a zarda, which was another rice dessert. In zarda, however, the rice is served warm and flavoured with saffron, topped with almonds, walnuts and raisins. She enjoyed it but after savouring my kheer I found it a bit on the bland side. It had a much more delicate flavour and I think I would have liked it too if it hadn’t been for the contrasting flavour of mine.

While the whole meal set us back $64, keep in mind that we had appetizers and desserts as well as one meal of lamb. So overall, Shalimar is a very affordable restaurant that delivers more than value for your money with it’s quality of food. If they could just liven up the service with a waiter who’s not shy or aloof, they would have one of the best eateries in town.

All in all I would recommend Shalimar if you are interested in Indian food and award it an 8 out of 10!








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