Where Toronto Eats: Zakkushi

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

Zakkushi in Cabbagetown is crowded and hectic. The staff moves quickly through the narrow hall, carrying giant pints of beer. The crowd, mostly parties of four or more, is another indication that this is no delicate, precious Japanese dining scene. You can see everyone and everyone can see you in the bright yellow lights: there’s no shame in eating and drinking in excess here. It’s just homey enough feel like your living room and all that space entails for your usual inhibitions. Come to have fun and the staff lets you know you’re right at home; bring a weird uncle who talks to strangers, make new friends.

Also, yakitori. Truth be told, after a few of those giant pints and $9 bottles of sake, I’m no longer sure whether the chicken hearts (hatsu) were served split or whole, or whether the cartilage (nankotsu) were served mixed in a bowl with scallions or just plain with sea salt, and various other details those in the kitchen, the center of gravity that holds everything together, toiled over. But a copious amount of chicken was eaten, and I trust myself to say that it must have been pretty good.

General rule of thumb: wherever they offer ‘teriyaki sauce or sea salt’, opt for the sea salt — in lieu of writing an entire thing against the easy deployment and reckless abundance of ‘teriyaki sauce,’ let me just say, don’t do it. Let’s not make the man/woman who butchered the chicken into multiple different parts and slowly grilled them over charcoal with loving care and occasional dunks in tare look back at the plate of wet kushi in anger.

The raw section of the menu is less than ideal, but considering the prices and the range of meats offered, it’s understandable. And, as mentioned above, it’s difficult to stay disappointed at anything here, what with new dishes to try and new dishes to envy over at the next table. True, some may say that other izakayas or those who want to be izakayas may have larger menus with cooler typography and photos and ostensibly daily specials and a staff with more expansive vocal cords. Okay, cool.

At Zakkushi, order more than think you can finish because the portions are often small, and eat your fill. It’s a bit of a walk to the subway station, so go over the menu again and order some more.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘Nocturne: blue and silver. Battersea Reach’ 1872-1878. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

Toronto’s Gourmet Food Stores for Staying In

Granted, a grocery store is a not the sexiest topic. You just might get stood up if you dm ‘meet me in front of the Provigo at seven, we’re about to really eat’. But what you are not taking into consideration is that there are stores that carry produce and meats and cheeses that are unconscionably sexy they will have you planning out home cooked dinner dates for days. Trust me — that sliver of Bleu d’Elizabeth will have you and your boo moaning in no time.

Since we at Novella are, all things considered, only truly concerned with making you the sexiest motherfu**ers Toronto’s ever seen, we couldn’t in all good conscience not give you the below list of stores you should hit for a night in. Go for the salt, goo, and stink of the splendor at these establishements and enjoy it in the comfort of your home and sweatpants. (Pusateri’s at Saks Fifth was not included in the list because it makes me feel uneasy).

Cheese Boutique (and Nancy’s Cheese)

The Cheese Cave at the Cheese Boutique Photo Credit: Ivan Otis Photography

This could be our way of re-purposing our interview with Afrim Pristine, but it’s not. The Cheese Boutique really is the best place to get cheese in Toronto. Get a bit of different cheeses — make sure to taste them —, pick out a chocolate or two, and grab a baguette and a thing of olives. The best part of the Cheese Boutique is that the staff are knowledgable and will help you pick out what you like.

If the Cheese Boutique is a little too far, Nancy’s Cheese on Dupont and Spadina also carry a very good selection of cheeses from around the world and Canada. Nancy’s has an approximate list of what’s in stock on their website, so you can check it out before you go.

Sanagan’s Meat Locker

Sanagan’s Meat Locker at Kensington Market — image courtesy of Sanagan’s

Sanagan’s Meat Locker has two counters — one for the butcher and one for the deli. The butcher section features meats from numerous farms across Canada and offers everything from premium steaks to offals. The deli side is a little retrained in its choices but all the better since everything it offers is excellent. Personal favorite is their blood sausage — ask for an inch-thick and grill it for breakfast. Sanagan’s also carries a variety of meat-based deliciousness like bone marrow broth; it also has lunch options, so if you’re too hungry to wait, you can get some straight away.

Schmaltz Appetizing

Schmaltz Appetizing — image courtesy of Toronto Life

Schmaltz is truly a magical place. From a variety of smoked fishes, pickled herrings, caviars to cream cheeses and deli salads, these ‘purveyors of fine fish’ really know how to eat. If you need more convincing than a brief look at their goods, try one of their bagel sandwiches — chazzer (gravlax, salmon caviar, horseradish cream cheese) is great place to start. Eat it next to a tiny counter with napkins and local event ads and proceed to spend all your hard earned money. It will be worth it.

Galleria Supermarket

Last on our list is Galleria Supermarket. As the name cries out, it is expansive and covers every section of the food pyramid and spills over some. This Korean grocery store’s mandate is “Better than the best products”. As such their products are fresh and reliable, and their stores are clean and well-managed. Galleria offers produce from Asia alongside your regular blueberries and watermelons, and niche products for adventurous home cooks to chefs alike. Going to Galleria is like an adventure (with a cafeteria at the back at the Finch location) — you will always be surprised by what’s available. (They’ve recently opened a smaller ‘Express’ branch on Bloor W.)

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Where Toronto Eats: Electric Mud BBQ

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

At Electric Mud BBQ on 5 Brock Avenue, there is a poster of ‘California Girls,’ three women (or girls) scantily clad in ’80s high-cut leotards either in the process of getting dressed or undressed — it seems to be a choose-your-own-adventure type of a fantasy — in a steamy locker room. Similar looking women, similarly dressed, in various stages of summer-induced (di)stress, hold beers and stare at you in a procession of equally inane posters throughout the establishment that’s also home to crosses and metal insignias of various sizes. Blues and rock play off a vinyl on a turntable at the back of the bar that merges with a semi-open kitchen. The chairs are metal — humble, if you’re feeling that way, or uncomfortable, if you’re sitting down. The combination of the kitsch and purposefully ‘backcountry’ décor attempts authenticity — not an accumulation of Americana but a slice of America itself. The owner(s) understands that dining out is more than the sum of the foods; that the contemporary dining crowd is looking for an experience, the ethereal, the affirmation.

It is as if the so much time and effort were spent on the mounting of the vintage neon beer signs around the main dining area that they had none left for the barbecue.

The ribs are available by 1/2 racks and are sticky and sweet, on the right side of fall-off-the-bone. But there is no depth of flavor, a quality expected in good barbecue by the mere fact of its process. Instead of the flavorful fattiness, the ribs retain no other flavor than grease after the initial sweetness. Considering how even less time-consuming methods of cooking meat, such as braising or quick searing as in yakitori, retain a touch of the fire and smoke, perhaps barbecue without it is a kind of an achievement in itself. The only thing that distinguishes Electric Mud’s ribs from those of a corporate steakhouse’s is their price, $17.99.

Not much can redeem a barbecue joint from bad ribs, save the redemption by the plentitude and greatness of fixings. No such luck here — the mac and cheese, made with cheddar and served with bacon and breadcrumbs, is runny and bland; the coleslaw and pickles are unmemorable. The spicy pork rinds with pimento cheese, as satisfying as they are, fall short of saving grace. The ribs’ mediocrity haunts the rest of the dinner.

To make sure that this poor state of affairs is not an anomaly, I went back three times at different times and on different days. What surprised me more than Electric Mud’s ability to hide any trace of the ribs having ever been inside a smoker were the lines. All three times people waited on line to get a seat. With its neon cross outside and a graffitied wall, Electric is very much at home in Parkdale, a block away from an angry vegan fast food chain (its sign reads, ‘BE AN ADULT. BE VEGAN’) and next door to a would-be-middling neighborhood microbrewery-pub. Much like its neighbors, all due accolades to the establishment seem due to the fact of its existence: that it remains open is both a curiosity and an indication of how much the fastidiously acquired veneer of a barbecue joint can withstand the reality of objectively bad ribs. From the outside, the place is ostensibly a locus of barbecue and barbecue culture. Yet it’s clear from the food that there’s little love in it.

Manufactured identity requires the presence and affirmation of others. The customers and reviewers of Electric provide those services to the establishment — you can tell by the way the male staff addresses male customers as ‘brother’ and the hostess’s frustration at a visibly frustrated couple waiting on line: They are certain of their status as purveyors of fine barbecue. I wonder if the existence of Electric does the same for the customers and reviewers of the city. As to what affirmation one may find at Electric other than that even good, simple things can so easily be ruined, I’m not sure.

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Bars Around Town: Archive

On one side of Archive, an exposed brick wall partly covered with a vase of baguettes and jars of pickles and dried herbs and spices lead to the bar and kitchen. On the other, a pristine white wall is background for a row of wooden tables and a bench, and decorative photographs of ferris wheels and a carousel. The space is longer than it is wide and is decidedly cozy. On a recent visit, a traveler sat planning out her itinerary next to a group of coworkers on a night out; a young couple perched by the bar and chatted with the staff; two old women sat in the corner by the window and quietly worked on their bottle of orange wine. With its two windows facing a calmer bit of Dundas West and Bellwoods and low hung yellow lights, Archive is a picture of a place one imagines one would someday stumble into, make chance acquaintance with and fall in love.

The wine list is not exhaustive but long enough for a good perusal and the small menu of tapas and cheese & meats encourage adventures and learning by trial and error. The staff take a “What do you like to drink?” approach, which is, more often than not, for formality than function, but the 3oz glass option ease the pressure. But a recommendation from a well informed staff — a glass of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from A. A. Tiberio — was refreshingly dry and delicious with notes of flowers and, in the parlance of wine descriptions, ‘minerals.’ The point, it dawned on me half way through my second glass, was to be okay with not putting the exacting words of description to a wine. A glass of pinot noir from Alsace sealed my trust in her recommendations.

The foods offers, however, were less satisfying. Small savory snacks are offered as ‘Nibbles,’ $5 per plate or three plates for $13. Though the warmed olives are decent, neither the lupini beans (served in olive oil and salt) nor the shishito peppers offer much flavor. That the bread and oil are not complementary is perhaps becoming the norm in the restaurant world today, but the utterly soft and flavorless slices of baguette were an affront to good hospitality. Neither the Prosciutto nor the Chorizo offered much solace, but the Comté was, as it often is, satisfying. The steak tartare is served with the yolk of a quail egg and the shaved vegetable salad includes watermelon radishes.

Archive is located at 909 Dundas St W and is open everyday from 5pm to 2am. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.