Where Toronto Eats: Sid’s Deli

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

The key to a simple dish lies in the details: the quality of the ingredients and the precision in preparation and presentation. If the demands of these details are met, even the most simple and humble dish can be downright thrilling. But when such dishes are prepared halfheartedly, with no rich sauce or pretty decorations to hide behind, their flaws become glaringly apparent; the balance is thrown off and the humble and simple dish becomes, at its best, noxious fuel for the road. Sushi is a great example: it can either be of Jiro’s dreams or of his nightmares. Though certainly not as highly prized as sushi, the same principle applies to even a deli sandwich. To those who love the pleasures brought on by such dishes’ simplicity, the nightmares are not merely disappointments but causes for moral outrage. For those, and for those looking for a great deli sandwich, Toronto’s Sid’s Deli gives cause for outrage in every bite of its pastrami sandwich. Stuff of Willy Katz’s and Reuben Schwartz’s collective worst fears.

Let’s not get too much into the establishment itself; suffice it to say that the alley next to its patio was riddled with oozing garbage and a red table just in front of the front counter was sticky with whatever combination of substances left undisturbed for god knows how long. The more unforgivable of Sid’s Deli’s deficiencies greeted me in the form of a supposedly 6oz pastrami on rye. The first bad sign: the absolute pinkness of the pastrami without the dark, smoky edges that should have, in the very least, been visible. The second: the visibly, and soon, to my dismay, to touch, cold pastrami — pastrami should sit in a steamer until it’s warm before it’s sliced and served. The third: the unbalanced distribution of the meat: each bite should offer a balance of lean and fat meats to bread ratio. These are, so far, only signs of the kitchen’s carelessness and lack of know-how that are telling me that this sandwich is not likely to satisfy. However, still at this point, the actual sandwich itself, against all odds, might very well have been a pleasant surprise. Not the case. The pastrami was flavorless, dry, and somehow devoid of any fat. The only noticeable flavor came from chunks of peppercorns lodged somewhere in the mound of dry pink. I should also note that Sid’s Deli charges 85 cents to have the pastrami hand-cut, an essential part of eating pastrami I’ve apparently been taking for granted all these years.

Hoping to find some solace, I looked to the rest of the plate, but it offered none. Though I saw the kitchen staff put the cold latke from the fridge into a microwave, I was hoping that it would still be good: it’s difficult to mess up such a simple and perfect classic. But the latke had, by the time I turned to it, oozed yellow oil onto the plate. Cutting into it, I found that the potato was neither grated nor shredded in the food processor but rather pulped in something or other. It was soggy and bland. Not an ounce of soul could be found in this infinitely forgiving and nourishing Jewish soul food. The cabbage in the cabbage slaw was unevenly cut, a paper-thin piece swimming in the same tasteless juice as a piece as thick as a finger. The matzo ball soup with a cold matzo ball was reminiscent of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup in its briny broth. In the end, the only solace came from a bottle of water that tried to wash everything down.

Some may think that I’m overanalyzing a sandwich platter. Would I, for instance, look at a Subways sandwich with the same level of scrutiny? Isn’t a sandwich, after all, just a sandwich? But a pastrami sandwich, especially one from a place that calls itself a deli, is not just a sandwich. Like many everyday foods, pastrami has a long cultural history and carries with it the stories of people who make and eat it. It is nothing short of an embodiment of that history and those stories. As such, it should be treated with respect and when it isn’t, one should scrutinize and call out. With a dash of exaggeration, I might even posit that mediocrity in food — and people’s acceptance of the mediocrity as normal — is both symptom and outcome of a blindingly materialistic culture. That the only thing  BlogTO had to “kvetch” was Sid’s Deli’s high price and that BlogTO is a common reference point for Torontonians are, therefore, sufficient causes for further moral outrage.

After all the moral outrage at this emotionally hazardous establishment, what bugs me still is the fact that it had the audacity to charge 85 cents to have pastrami hand-cut. Was it an attempt to make that extra near-dollar per sandwich and thereby lower food costs? Or were those 85 cents going to the master cutter who otherwise sits solemnly in the back room, sharpening his tools? That the establishment even considered thinly machine-cutting pastrami was a good idea is a testimony to the fact that those running it have neither love nor respect for the food they sell. It should be obvious by now that Sid’s Deli is not Katz or Schwartz, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Sid’s Deli’s values and principles are antithetical to those of respected institutions of deli sandwiches; by extension, it’s antithetical to those of anyone who loves what he/she cooks.

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Parisian Picnic with Grey Goose’s Le Grand Fizz

Recently at Grey Goose’s beautiful Sunset Soirée, Novella had a chance to meet Chef Justin Kent, previously of Alain Passard’s 3-Michelin starred L’Arpègeand chat about French cuisine and its often overlooked adherence to simplicity and the quality of French produce. But more importantly and — and this is no jab at the chef’s personality — more memorably, we had a chance to eat his food. And I must say that Chef Kent’s Parisian picnic-style dishes were a testimony to Grey Goose’s ability to create and spot simple elegance and tastefulness. “Grey Goose approached me because the concept of what I do — farm-to-table — is much in line with their philosophy of field-to-bottle. I wanted to [make pairings] that touch on some of the key notes of Grey Goose and its terroir,” he said. Though those prone to hyperbole might suggest that the pairing of Grey Goose Le Grand Fizz — with which everyone was eventually awash — and Chef Kent’s farm salad and poulet au moutarde was indeed the culinary equivalent of being taken on a nice ride through France’s Picardy region in a 1950 Citroen 2cv — where Grey Goose’s wheat come from —, I myself will go only so far to say that the pairing was a form of alchemy in which scenes of Paris became food and drink.

Luckily for those of us who cannot make it to Paris or Picardy anytime soon, Grey Goose and Chef Kent were kind enough to share their recipes with us. Below are your gateway to effervescent Paris and Picardy and their French effervescence (with some personal notes from yours truly).

Grey Goose Le Grand Fizz

  • 1 & 1/2 parts Grey Goose vodka
  • 1 part St-Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 2 parts chilled soda water
  • 1/2 freshly squeezed lime juice (or approximately 2 wedges)

To switch things up a bit, maintain the ratios and replace Grey Goose with Grey Good L’Orange (or Le Citron) and the lime juice with freshly squeezed orange juice (or lemon juice). You can also try it with Grey Goose Cherry Noir — just replace the lime juice with lemon. The only rule here is to keep things simple. Use good quality ice — the clearer the better — and always use a jigger and let Grey Goose do its thing.

  1. Build ice into an oversized cabernet wine glass. More ice than you initially think seem appropriate.
  2. Add Grey Goose vodka and lime juice and top with St-Germain and soda water (in that order).
  3. Garnish with fresh lime wedges and a swanky Grey Goose stirrer if you have one.

Farm Salad with Goat Cheese & Champagne Vinaigrette

  • 1 fennel bulb (halved and cored)
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 small Chioggia beet (blanched and peeled)
  • 3 large radishes
  • 1 endive
  • 1 granny smith apple (sliced)
  • 80g arugula
  • 1 tablespoon of tarragon leaves
  • 1 tablespoon of dill
  • 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon chives (chopped)
  • 1 tablespoon champagne wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 85g fresh goat cheese (crumbled)
  • This recipe makes 4 servings

The Chioggia beet is a variety straight out of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s. The candy pink and white striped beet is sweeter than the usual variety and does not bleed as much, which is great since red beets may very well overwhelm the rest of the salad with its colors. But if Chioggia is not available at your nearby farmers’ market or grocery store, you can of course replace it with a regular old beet. Or if you want the bright colors, try using watermelon radishes — just make sure to use a little less of the other radishes. Or, do like I did and take it out entirely. Nobody will notice if you don’t tell a soul. It’ll be your little secret that will tickle you when the guests get on your nerves, like, “Little did they know…” Do Mr. Burns’s evil fingers and move onto the other vegetables. Finally, near the end of the summer, try switching red radishes with black ones. They are more pungent and a bit spicier and the charcoal skin adds great color to the salad.

  1. Blanch the beets in simmering water with the skin on until easily able to be pierced with a knife.
  2. Let the beets cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin of the beets with your hands. It should slide off.
  3. Using a mandolin, thinly slice the fennel, carrot, beet, and radishes and transfer to a large bowl. Add the endive, arugula, tarragon, dill, parsley, and chives.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk the champagne vinegar with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the dressing and half of the goat cheese, and toss gently.
  5. Transfer the salad to plates and garnish with the remaining goat cheese.

Poulet au Moutarde 

 

  • 10 chicken thighs (skin on, deboned)
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup cream
  • 150g grain mustard
  • 150g lardons
  • 1/2 banana shallot (diced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • Fresh parsley (chopped for garnish)
  • Salt & pepper (to taste)
  • This recipe makes 5 servings

Use a thick bottomed pan. Cast iron skillet works well here. Some suggest oven roasting the chicken in the oven, but it’s hot in the summer and who has time for that. Poulet au moutarde (mustard chicken doesn’t sound as appetizing for some reason — the French really know how to make everything chic) is a classic and even if everything doesn’t go 100% right, it’s hard to muck up. Use good chicken (organic, kosher, air-chilled, because we are about that good life), good grain mustard (that Grey Poupon, though Canadian brand, Kozlik’s is also very good), and fresh vegetables, and you’re set. Because I’m a sucker for all things pickled, I like the poulet au moutarde avec pickled slaw. Smitten Kitchen has a great and easy recipe and you can get it here. Finally, though this may not really be that haute-cuisine in spirit, always have a loaf of sourdough or a baguette to soak up the sauce.

  1. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
  2. In a pan on medium-high heat, sear the chicken thighs, skin side down in oil until crisp and golden brown. Flip and sear on the other side until lightly caramelized.
  3. Remove the chicken thighs from the pan and set aside on a plate.
  4. Add lardons to the pan and cook until crisp.
  5. Add shallots to the pan and cook until translucent.
  6. Add the grain mustard and stir for 30 seconds being careful not to let it burn.
  7. Deglaze the pan with white win, bring to a simmer and reduce by half.
  8. Add cream and bring to a simmer.
  9. Add the smoked paprika.
  10. Place the chicken thighs back in the sauce and cook on medium to medium-low heat, covered, until fork tender.
  11. Remove from the sauce and place on to the plate to serve.
  12. Spoon sauce over the top of the chicken and garnish with chopped parsley.

Riz au Lait with Caramel Beurre Salé

  • 1 liter whole milk
  • 200g risotto rice (carnaroli is best but arborio will do)
  • 200g sugar
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 200g heavy cream
  • 500g sugar (for the caramel beurre salé)
  • 400g heavy cream (for the caramel beurre salé)
  • 125g salted butter (for the caramel beurre salé)
  • This recipe makes 6~8 servings

Riz au lait is rice pudding. More or less. But instead of chocolate or cinnamon powder, here we have the caramel beurre salé, a fancier accoutrement to be sure. But, lucky for us, not that much more difficult nor time consuming! I recommend the carnaroli instead of the arborio because it is starchier and will give you a creamier result. I’m used to adding a bit of nutmeg to my rice pudding, and I’m sure it won’t harm the recipe here. In fact, I believe that the nutmeg may go very well with Grey Goose Espresso Martini.

  1. Bring milk, rice, and sugar to a simmer and cook for 20-25 minutes until the rice is cooked through.
  2. Add lemon zest and allow mixture to cool.
  3. Whip heavy cream and fold into the riz au lait, set aside.
  4. To make the caramel sauce, heat cream so that it is warm, just before simmering and set aside.
  5. In a small pot, caramelize sugar to a med-dark amber color.
  6. Slowly add in the cream to the caramel, whisking consistently, then remove from the heat once well blended.
  7. Add butter and stir well.
  8. To serve, pour cooled riz au lait into individual sized ramekins and top with caramel sauce.

Grey Goose Espresso Martini 

  • 1 &1/2 parts Grey Goose Vodka
  • 1 part single origin espresso
  • 3/4 parts premium coffee liqueur
  • Good chocolate

This is the finisher. Your guests had their salad and chicken and they’re just digging into the rich riz au lait, thinking something along the lines of I’m dead, and you come out with this concoction of smooth blow of elegance and power.This delicious cocktail wakes up the drinker and makes them happy at the same time. What more can one ask? Maybe a take-out box if there’s any of that salad left. But otherwise, nothing.

  1. Shake hard and long.
  2. Double strain and garnish with grated chocolate.

There you are, folks, the solution to your summer lunch, dinner, and picnic menu problem. Don’t mind the beautiful photo of the rock by the beach with perfectly photogenic charcuterie, cheese, and roast chicken, and absurd ratio between baguette and other foods. I put it there because it’s pretty and maybe it will inspire you to seek out a bit of the French-picnic chic this summer. When preparing the food seem a bit daunting, remember the perfect wood picnic basket. That the Grey Goose is the first on the list is by no means an accident — it’s meant to enliven and rejuvenate your mind, body, and soul as you spend the long summer day out in the sun. Keep the food and drinks simple, spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your friends and family. 

Summer Wines Under $20

If there is anything better than a good bottle of wine, it’s certainly a good bottle of wine that doesn’t break the bank. You certainly don’t need to be utilitarian toward the nectar to leave LCBO with a few bottles in hand and money left in your pocket for cheese, charcuterie, and other goods for an afternoon in a park or a balcony. Here is a list of wines we’re drinking this summer under $20 not just because we’re on budget but also because we know what’s good for us.

Anselmi San Vincenzo — $16.95

Made with Garganega grapes, those familiar with Soave will find that Anselmi San Vincenzo is a good alternative with distinct aromas of lavender and tropical fruits. The dry white wine has a touch of sweetness that goes well with light meals and it’s surprisingly great with raw dishes, like sushi or ceviché.

Roscato Rosso Igt Provincia Di Pavia — $14.95

I had a chance to try Roscato Rosso at iYellow Wine Cave the other day and, though I’m not usually a fan of sweeter wines, it won me over completely with its ruby color, berry flavors, and tantalizing bubbles, which it gets from a secondary fermentation process. It’s best chilled and, though I haven’t tried this myself yet, I imagine its fruity notes will be a fantastic addition to an afternoon sangria.

Clos de Beauregard Vieilles Vignes Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2015 — $16.95

This extra dry bottle is nothing short of a great muscadet. It has a unique minerality and saltiness in addition to notes of apples that earned it 75th place in the 2016 Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Best Buys, which may seem like a small thing until one considers how many bottles of wine are produced in the world each year (something like 31 billion). If you want to expand your white wine palette, this is the place to start.

Kuhlmann-Platz Riesling 2014 — $16.95

This Alsatian riesling is from Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr, a cooperative dating back to 1958, which has since earned a fine reputation for its quality. This particular bottle has notes of honey and fresh fruits, which would be perfect to drink in an afternoon while waiting for things to happen or slouching toward the dinner table.

Château Lamartine Prestige du Malbec 2013 — $19.95

Cahor is a lesser known region in France — it was ravaged by frost and politics alike, which left its economy and reputation in the ditch for a while — but its history dates back to the Ancient Romans. Its wines are known as black wine for their inky color and depth. This particular bottle is a good representation of Cahor’s malbec wines. It is tannic and smoky but also layered with black fruits. This rich wine was also wood aged, which gives it an extra layer of depth.

Bars Around Town: Cocktails as Odes

Artwork by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

Famous Last Words is what is known as a book-themed or a literary-themed bar; it has shelves of books, book-inspired names for cocktails, typewriter typography on the menu that’s divided into chapters and adorned with literary quotes as footnotes. However, FLW is neither an ill-conceived ode to particular authors known for their drinking habits — Hemingway, Bukowski, etc. — and the kind of masculinity that’s mistakenly associated with them, nor a botched attempt at some Oxfordian quaintness. Though the namesake of the bar is Timothy Findley’s 1981 novel, Famous Last Words, it is clear, when one sees the bartop made of 11,000 Scrabble tiles, that FLW is not meanly precise about its literary allusions, but generous in spirit and playful, a bar made and run by an avid reader with equal passion for cocktails. It is less a themed bar and more of a place where books and drinks just pleasantly happen to commingle. Which may be disappointing to those looking to indulge in picture-taking and bibliophily, but highly rewarding for someone looking to have a drink or two, read a book, and talk about this or that author, sentence, comma.

The cocktail menu is divided into three chapters: the Beach Reads (this one, seasonal), the Modernists, and the Classics. Of the Beach Reads — summer cocktails designed to go down smoothly — ‘Fool’ (the title of Christopher Moore’s 2009 novel) is made with gin, vanilla black-tea syrup, lemon, cream, and egg whites, and is frothy and sweet. It is somehow coconutty and dangerously easy to drink. ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ (the title of Chris Cleave’s 2016 novel), from the second chapter, is also gin-based and is made with earl grey-infused Bombay Sapphire, lillet blanc, lemon, and lavender. It has the bitter sweetness of the bergamot and the freshness of the lemon. A few petals of dried lavender float on top and they reward with subtle flavor and beauty. The cocktail isn’t finely strained so that refreshing cracklings of ice sit on top. And last but not least, Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel), is FLW’s take on the Old Fashioned. It is made with Forty Creek Copper Pot Whiskey (which I was told was a rye), maple simple syrup, bitters, and flamed orange zest, and is served with a single ice cube. Though a bit on the sweet side — I’m not sure if this is due to the whiskey or the syrup or the ratio or something else entirely — Fahrenheit 451 is an approachable old fashioned. Most cocktails are only around $12 but are made with ingredients and skills one would often associate with posh speakeasies.

On a recent visit, the only thing I found amiss was Taylor Swift’s voice on the radio. But soon the bartender switched it off and put on the XX’s latest album, I See Youand made everything nice again. It was a hot day and the door and the patio doors were left open to let the breeze in from Pacific Ave. There was a group on a table for three by the patio that steadily grew in number and the bartender quietly brought out chairs from the backroom. A young couple sat on the couch and discussed furniture; at the bar, a baseball fan watched baseball on his phone; a book club gathered in the back of the room. Everyone was at ease.

Famous Last Words is located on 392 Pacific Ave. in the Junction and is closed on Mondays. Check out their specials like Whiskey Wednesday ($2 off whiskey drinks) and the figurative graphic of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 in the men’s bathroom marked as ‘Oscar Wildes’ in Scrabble tiles (the women’s is marked as ‘Jane Austens’).

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Toben Food’s Take on Family Style Catering

Brother and sister duo Toben and Elana Kochman are co-owners of Toben Food by Design, an international culinary experience. Executive chef Toben Kochman graduated from Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Paris and stayed to work at Apicius, a two star Michelin restaurant. He came back to Toronto and worked under Susur Lee as his sous chef at Lee. Then he and his sister Elana combined efforts and Toben Food by Design was born over ten years ago.

“It’s kind of a global cuisine inspired by parts of Asia, to more classical French to Italian to right here within our landscape in Ontario,” says Elana. “It’s really kind of this fusion of international cuisine coupled with the freshest, most seasonal available ingredients that we can get our hands on.”


The team finds itself often asked about its family style wedding catering. Essentially a shared meal, it evokes the nostalgia of Sunday night family dinners or holiday meals spent passing around the mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Except in this case, everyone’s passing around Grilled Whole Sicilian Branzino (recipe at the end of this post) and Fingering Potato Salad, which include lobster, grilled corn, bacon lardons, scallions, and chives.

At the moment, their most popular dish is the Southern Barbecue Braised Beef Brisket smothered in a Memphis style red wine molasses barbecue sauce. Elana recalls her favourite dish, the Watermelon Salad , which combines ingredients like sheep’s milk feta, black beans, corn, and mint. “It’s the most refreshing thing ever!”

The most interesting dish? A house made apple chip, first poached and marinated in star anise and allspice, then oven dried and topped with smoked chicken sausage, red wine braised cabbage, and mustard, all house made. Hours of process and assembly packed into a bite sized hors d’oeuvre.

To keep it fresh and local, family style menus depend on the season. If a client is interested in this style, Toben will pull out their short list of salads, mains, and sides to choose from. Clients are usually asked to choose two salads to start, two mains (protein, usually a meat and a fish, although there are vegetarian options available), and two or three sides. Dessert can also be served family style on the table but after sitting for so long, more people choose to have a dessert table.

Guests are essentially sampling double what they would in a family style setting as opposed to a plated meal. “Even though you’re not doing the sides and mains for 100 percent of the guest count each, you still need to prepare 75 percent of each dish.”  While guests are eating a 4oz portions of the brisket rather than an 8oz portions, and a smaller 3.5oz piece of fish, everyone will still want to try everything.

Kids also have their own menu of flatbreads, chicken fingers, little cones with french fries, and mini crudité cups, all served family style as well. This way, everyone can join in on the fun!

GRILLED WHOLE SICILLIAN BRANZINO

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 whole Branzino fish (sometimes referred to as European Sea Bass), scales and innards removed
  • 4 cups fennel, shaved on a mandolin
  • ½ cup fennel fronds, rough chopped
  • 1 whole lemon, zested and juiced
  • 2 whole lemons, sliced into ½ cm thick rounds
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ tbsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 3 whole oranges, peeled and sliced into segments
  • 3 whole grapefruit, peeled and sliced into segments

METHOD

  • In a small mixing bowl combine the lemon juice, half of the olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and mix with a fork and set aside.
  • Preheat a clean grill to medium-high. Combine the remainder of the olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper and rub generously all over the interior and exterior of the cleaned fish.
  • Assemble the sliced lemon rounds on the interior of the fish.
  • Gently lay the seasoned fish on the preheated grill and cook for 5-7 minutes per side with the lid closed if using a BBQ. Gently flip the fish over and continue to cook on the other side.
  • While the fish is cooking combine the shaved fennel, orange segments, grapefruit segments, lemon juice and olive oil mixture from step 1 and gently toss to combine.

To serve, carefully remove the whole fish from the grill and transfer to a platter and assemble the shaved fennel and citrus segment salad alongside. Garnish with a sprinkling of the rough chopped fennel fronds and serve immediately.

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