How to Have a Good Time when You’re a Foodie on the Down Low

It’d be nice if we had the means to dine at Alo or Buca on a regular basis and the shameless determination — or at somebody else’s disposal with the very same shameless determination — to cajole and coerce the maitre d’s for reservations. As it were, money’s short and maitre d’s are not known to vouchsafe tables so easily. By the time your or my time comes to dine at such places without having to insult the waitstaff, another joint pops up a few blocks away. But the truth of the matter is, if it is food, or, what everybody’s calling a “culinary experience”, you’re after, you don’t really need to drop that much money to have fun and something to mull over long after. There are plenty of experiences other than delicious, prettily plated, deconstructed-then-reconstructed, includes-some-foam dinner that are not only culinary but also much more exciting.

Let’s say you have a day to spend entirely on food-related things. Say it’s a Sunday of a long weekend and let’s throw in pleasant weather and good tidings all around to make this hypothetical situation as daydream-like as possible.

Start this wondrous day right at the appetizing store — head over to Schmaltz Appetizing for the right kind of bagels and lox. They carry, among other things, nova, pastrami smoked, and acadian salmon, not to mention sturgeon, gefilte fish, gravlax, caviars of various fish, herring, fresh egg salad, chopped liver, and all kinds of cream cheeses — the only essential they seem to be missing is the sable, the fatty, delicious, now very pricey and prized ‘poor-man’s sturgeon.’ Though they do offer a variety of selections, if this is your first time, I recommend pastrami smoked salmon and regular cream cheese on a plain bagel — this is the fundamentals, the touchstone for not only truly appreciating the lox but also for evaluating an appetizing store. The slivers of onion and a few capers on top are on the house.

It’s worth noting that the bagels at Schmaltz, which come from Kiva’s, are no flimsy crusty ones à la Montreal; they belong to that deliciously chewy, thick, and actual-meal variety of New York. Nevertheless, indulge in a pickled herring after the meal to round things out. I rarely if ever say this when it comes to babka but it’s optional at Schmaltz — the last two times I tried, it was rather dry and the chocolate was unevenly spread. So if you’re still hungry, eat another herring. It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it gives you lots of loving and asks for nothing.

Illustration from Lucky Peach by Nick Iluzada & Brian Macduckston

Walk down to Kensington Market and walk right into Good Egg’s many shelves packed with books for those who love to eat, to cook, and to talk about what to eat for dinner over lunch. If you have not yet checked out Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton, the mind and body behind the eponymous restaurant, you should. She’s not the friendliest of kitchen voices. As her cookbook as well as her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, show, she does not shy away from giving you her opinions and edicts: whether it’s radishes with sea salt and sweet butter or salt baked beef tenderloin, there are right ways to do things and you should know them. The book, even when some of its recipes are not home-kitchen friendly, is full of inspirations. If you’re looking to ante up your Asian dishes with the American vernacular game, you can’t go wrong with either 101 Easy Asian Recipes by Peter Meehan and the brains behind Lucky Peach or The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying and Danny Bowien fame. For a fantastic Italian standard other than Marcella Hazan’s seminal Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, flip through a copy of The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual by the two Frankies and, once again, Peter Meehan.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Chris Ying

The cookbooks cost upwards to $30 and considering their weights, it’s not the wisest thing to make impulses purchases — after all, the wondrous day still has much to offer. Take mental notes — or discreetly take photos of — recipes you like from these cookbooks. How to use fish sauce, to bring out the magic of fermentation, to brighten with ginger are some things you should take notes on from Meehan and Ying. And personally, the Frankies offer a meatballs with sauce recipe worth getting into a fight with the book purveyors. In Hamilton’s book, look for an asparagus recipe as they are in peak season in April — both white and green varieties are unusually delicious during Spring. When you’ve filched your fill of recipes, grab a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s still Kitchen Confidential to support local book business and your mind alike.

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000)

If you have not read Kitchen Confidential yet, this is what you are looking for, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s filthy and romantic and sometimes you want to take a break from it, but you know you will always come back to it. In this way, it’s like that fine medium rare burger deluxe at Joe Jr. on too many nights a week.

By now you’re probably a little peckish and in need of a little sweetness after missing out on that babka. I’ve got you covered: head over — this might take a while — to Neo Coffee Bar for a coffee and a slice of roll cake. The Japanese coffeeshop offers delicious coffee roasted by Toronto’s own de Mello Palheta with subtly sweet roll cakes full of flavor. The Shingen is red beans and gyuhi rice cakes (softer than mochi) with roasted soybean cream; the Matcha & Adzuki is classic combination of the distinct matcha flavor and sweet red beans; and for a classic, try the Pistachio Raspberry. Sit and relax, read your copy of Bourdain, and enjoy. The roll cakes at around $6 aren’t the cheapest sweets out there. But remember that time when you dropped $30 for a mediocre steak frites and it came out with a foot in the well-done zone? That’s right, I saw you.

Otto’s Bierhalle main page

If you’ve read a bit of Bourdain, you’re probably in the mood for some beer. Get on a streetcar and head back west to Otto’s Bierhalle for a pint or two. Though I personally prefer a rowdier and less palm trees ridden beer halls where the lighting and the prices are more conducive to beer-induced silliness, Otto’s has a fine list of drafts you should try. Hofbräu München is a German brewery that opened in 1589 and theirs are some of the best beers one can drink. Otto’s offers two Hofbräus — the Original, a slightly sweet lager, and the Hofbräu Dunkel, a nutty dark larger. Paulaneranother Munich brewery, this one dating back to 1634, is on tap at Otto’s — the Hefeweissbier, or the wheat beer, is slightly more flavorful than common lagers and tastes somewhat like bananas. If you’re looking for something a bit more hoppy, try the citrusy and bitter Stone IPA from the Californian brewery. If you’re in the mood nurse and sip on your beer slowly, go for La Chouffe Golden AleThe Belgian brewery’s cute drunken gnome mascot should be enough warning for both its fruity deliciousness and malicious strength. If you want something in bottles when there is a respectable draft list, I can’t help you.

Tartine’s sourdough photo by Eric Wolfinger from the New York Times

By now you’re happily buzzed or tipsy. This is the perfect time to surreptitiously begin your journey as a journeyman baker/bacteria farmer. When you get home, in a glass or plastic container, put four ounces of whole grain, all-purpose, or rye flour and pour in four ounces of lukewarm filtered water.  Stir until it looks like a thick pancake batter. Cover with a kitchen towel or a cheese cloth. Now you’ve got a sourdough starter going that will, once done, revolutionize your pancake, pizza, morning rolls, and, most importantly, everyday bread game. From then on, you won’t touch pre-packaged bread or even that ACE stuff they sell at the groceries. I recommend reading up on sourdough starters as you go along to find the right one that fits your personal needs.

A day spent like this may very well be costly, what with transportation and roll cakes being $6 and all. But if you do the math, it’s probably a fraction of a dinner with wine at some fancy restaurant. It’s not that a day like this is objectively better than a deconstructed surf & turf + preceding palette cleansing sorbet. It is, rather, that a ‘culinary experience’ can be as humble and mind blowing like a nicely pickled herring or as easy as the surprising texture of red bean in a roll cake. Both are equally good and, in the romantic words of Nick Solares of Eater’s Meat Show, ‘profound and concussive.’ Just so happens that one won’t give your wallet a concussion.

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A Visit to the new Yorkville restaurant, Figures!

There are two sides to my personality that, for a long time, I figured would stay separate, never the ‘twain shall meet. There is the side that’s always on the lookout for a new restaurant that offers an interesting twist or a perspective on something I’ve already had before, thereby making it refreshingly different; a menu that incorporates multiple tastes, layers, and textures into a complex and delicious whole.

And then there’s the other side of me — a massive sci-fi and comic book geek, developed from very early on when I was growing up. Over time those interests have somewhat subsided. But I have found that I have become quite sentimental about that earlier period of my life, those memories that may seem insignificant to others yet played a large role in making me the person I am today. And remembering such memories or icons with a certain fondness perhaps acts as a reminder not too take oneself too seriously as one ages, and to retain a more positive and care-free attitude. It is that sentiment that clearly comes across when you enter the new Yorkville restaurant Figures, at 137 Avenue Road. The owners Nader and Patrick Marzouk have created an environment that brings a sense of laid-back and vibrant fun to the neighbourhood, — which, frankly, they note that Yorkville is in some need of — while also retaining the refined dining that the neighbourhood residents have surely come to expect. It is the interesting marriage of these sensibilities that will most likely make Figures stand out.

The concept of Figures is simple yet seems exciting and fresh. The idea behind the name points to the importance of remembering the figures in our lives that make us who we are. At Figures, they are most clearly various pop-cultural ones.

Very few images of the interior currently exist either on the main website or on their social media accounts — perhaps a calculated marketing ploy to create an air of mystery surrounding the establishment. This certainly worked for me, for when I entered the restaurant, knowing next-to-nothing as to what to expect, I was immediately overwhelmed by the creativity and intricate details of the décor. The front of the restaurant is made to look like a small comic book or a collectible shop. On various shelves sit original concept art sketches of Star Wars characters and golden and silver age comic books amongst other rare and nerdy oddities — certainly appealing to that older collector with some money to burn, as everything in this area is for sale (during my visit, I was told an original sketch of Darth Vader had sold for five thousand dollars a couple of days prior). A hostess greets you in this area, pushes a button — a Captain America Shield —, revealing the wall behind her to be a hidden, Batcave-like entrance to the main dining and bar areas, which are also quite impressive. Entering the dining area, you are met by paintings of Star Wars and DC Comic characters, a large Pac Man maze on the ceiling that also acts as mood lighting, and a large mural of various pop-cultural icons meant to evoke the stories and personalities of the owners and chef. Basically, imagine if someone hired a big pop-culture nerd to create the ultimate high-end VIP dining experience, and you will likely get something close to this. I don’t think it is a stretch of my imagination to think this will quickly become a popular destination for people wanting to check out the space. They will likely not be disappointed by that, nor from the food and drinks offered.

Currently, Figures has a two-page cocktail list, some of the names and concepts of which have a delightfully silly sense of humour to them. To start, I went for The Rarely on Target ($20). Visually speaking, this is going to be a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser. This cocktail is made with Bacardi Gran Reserva Maestro De Ron and Dillon’s Absinthe. Combined, this creates an initial spicy taste, similar to a Negroni, but slightly sweeter and with a smooth, clean finish, which makes it not too boozy and quite easy to drink. A very nice way to start the meal. Egg whites give the Rarely on Target a frothy head, which the bartenders take advantage of by stenciling an image of a stormtrooper on top with various spices. As far as I’m concerned, this drink is the perfect representation of the meticulous presentation, refined tastes, and the don’t-take-yourself-so-seriously sense of humour that Figures will hopefully be known for. A definite recommendation.

The dishes offered create a blend of casual sensibilities that nevertheless can be appreciated with by an experienced palette. There can be some slight drawbacks to that, but otherwise the menu, which is made with seasonal ingredients and is set to change on a near-weekly basis, offers dishes that from my experience are still rich in flavour. The first dish I tried was one that I was told had become a favourite over their initial first weeks of business: the Lump Crab ($24), a medium grilled crab cake sitting atop a small crab salad. The crab cake is very nice, as it has a delightfully crispy exterior, but the interior is still juicy and melts in your mouth. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, a slight criticism would be that there is not much that distinguishes the crab cake from the crab salad. Some more variation between these two components would have been appreciated but, as it stands, it is still a small dish that packs a wallop of hardiness from the crab, and will surely appease those looking some good no-nonsense seafood.

The second dish I went for was an absolute winner. The Lamb Shank ($28) did not disappoint. In keeping with the blend of casual sensibilities with rich tastes, this dish is the restaurant’s own version of a shepherd’s pie — with lamb, gravy, peas, and corn sitting atop a warm bed of mashed potatoes, which has a perfect soft and milky texture. I was told that the lamb had been braised for upwards of five hours, making it incredibly flavourful and tender as well. This is a great balance of different tastes and is incredibly filling given the relatively small portion size. Given everything I tried during this visit, future rotating menu options will likely be promising as well.

Along with the food menu, there are also plans to change the cocktail options on a seasonal basis, some of which are currently being experimented with right now focusing on some ideas inspired by literary figures, according to bar manager and mixologist James Bailey. As such, there are plenty of reasons to be enticed to check out Figures, and given it’s unique atmosphere and unpretentious fine dining options, it will hopefully spark much curiosity in the coming weeks, putting the establishment on a path for prolonged success.

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A Visit to Buca Osteria & Bar in Yorkville!

The list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, as decided by an extensive panel of well-known chefs, journalists, and other in-the-know business representatives was recently announced, which no doubt caught the attention of chefs around the country and whetted the curiosities of countless foodies who want to stimulate their palates in new and exciting ways. Toronto has certainly a lot to be excited about, with the French restaurant Alo moving up to the coveted first place and the 1920’s art deco, visual styling at Lena gaining recognition with an award for Best Restaurant Design. But midst other awards and rankings, one thing continues to be undoubtedly clear: that the Buca restaurant empire, with Chef Rob Gentile at the helm, is still widely considered as the high watermark of quality for Italian cuisine nationwide. Since the list began three years ago, both Buca locations, at 604 King Street and 53 Scollard, have been regular fixtures and Bar Buca at 75 Portland also received some love. Buca Yorkville and Buca on King placed 7th and 16th respectively on this year’s Canada’s 100 Best list. With such rumblings in the culinary scene, it would be foolish not to satiate one’s craving for a traditional yet adventurous Italian dinner there.

Photo: Rick O’Brien

For those who have yet to go, the three locations vary in menu: the King West location has the most traditional selection of meat, pizza, and pasta dishes, and the Bar Buca location is of the smaller, snack-variety. The 53 Scollard location, Buca Osteria & Bar, is where you want to go for some intriguing and innovative seafood dishes. Its innovations are likely what placed the Yorkville location at the higher ranking, as my visit felt like a lesson in crafting deceptively simple but interestingly structured offerings. At the bar, waiting for the dishes to arrive, I asked one of the bartenders if they noticed a rise in business since the release of the list, to which they said they haven’t, as it’s always pretty busy there — the reason for which I was about to discover.

I started with an appetizer, the Carciofi ($11). These are large artichokes slightly braised in olive oil with parmigiano reggiano sprinkled on top — which has a taste similar to the strong, bitter flavour of a grana padano — along with a hint of lemon. A very nice way to begin the meal: the outer layer of the artichoke tastes as though it was lightly fried and seasoned; the taste from the dusting of the cheese stays constant throughout, providing a nice balance with the juicy interior of the artichoke and the citrusy tinge at the end. Now, onto the main attraction.

Photo: Chuck Ortiz

Feeling obliged to try a pasta dish, as I assume that’s what most people would gravitate towards if they’re in the mood for Italian food, I go for what looks to me like the stand-out dish — the Calamarata Al Nero Di Seppia ($26). The dish comprises of calamari rings and calamari noodles, which are covered in a black squid ink sauce and topped with a gremolota made with lemon zest, breadcrumbs, and spices. Admittedly, presentation is not something that typically sways my level of intrigue regarding food in general, but I must admit, I did find this dish surprisingly pretty — the black ink sauce gives the calamari a nice sheen, allowing the colour of the light green gremolota to really pop. But looks aren’t everything, and fortunately this dish did stimulate my palette in ways that really made me appreciate the layers of tastes. The gremolata offers a strong but not overpowering spicy kick to the dish that lingers after every bite, resulting in — similar to the carciofi — a taste that comes full circle. One gets the initial kick, followed by the pasta and calamari. The ink sauce certainly enhances the taste of the pasta and calamari very well due to the mushrooms cooked into the sauce for a robust flavour. They’re quickly followed by the second, finishing sensation of the gremolota. Also, this is a fairly light pasta dish — I suspect due to the seemingly equal-ratio of noodles to calamari — that will put your appetite at the right level of satisfied, without any unwanted carb fatigue following it — which is good for me, considering that there was a fairly new addition to the dessert menu that came with a pretty high recommendation from the bartender.

My final dish of the evening was the Torta Di Polenta ($14). This is a light sponge cake made with cornmeal, served with cranberries and a light cranberry sauce on top. Atop of the cake and cranberries also sits a light cracker made from goat cheese, and surrounding the whole thing is a trail of goat’s milk. Yet another dish that looks so meticulously presented that you kind of want to Instagram it, but you’re afraid of looking weird so, instead, you just dive right in. This dessert is interestingly layered. By cutting into it, the cranberry sauce mixes with the goat’s milk, which are both slowly absorbed by the cake, resulting in a series of ever richer bites. And I don’t know how else to describe the goat cheese cracker in any other way besides delicious.

Photo: Rick O’Brien

The menu also offers a selection of assorted fish that you can pick and choose from, which are then served on a platter, as well as caviar options. So at this point it probably goes without saying: if you’re feeling special, with a group of friends, going out to dinner with co-workers — like many of the patrons seemed to be doing — or maybe you’re just by yourself and want to see what all the fuss is about, you should have a very enjoyable stay at Buca Osteria & Bar.

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A Visit to Jen Agg’s New Wine Bar, Grey Gardens

During my time going to university in downtown Toronto, the draw of the Kensington Market was its eccentric, bohemian charm. Personally, I had felt this had always resonated most with similarly young people who looked like they were always discussing some art or photography project for school while trying to stretch their cash as much as they could for a good meal or a thrifty ensemble. But as I got older, my attention moved away from the youthful and creative community exuberance of the Kensington Market, as though I had outgrown it. When I would walk around the market with a friend, we would see the same students working on their photography projects in the streets, and half-jokingly say something to the effect of “Man, we are officially too old to be here.” When I graduated from my undergrad, I naively felt I also had to graduate into a new neighbourhood hang-out spots.

But in the past few years, the Kensington Market area saw an exciting growth-spurt, as new larger businesses began entering the community, which, fortunately, blend in very nicely with the culturally diverse and charmingly eccentric neighbourhood. Around summer of last year, Grant van Gameren, the owner of Bar Raval and Bar Isabel, opened the El Rey Mezcal Bar, where the servers are more than willing to introduce you to the more rare variations of tequila’s cooler, older sibling. And keeping up the growth is the new wine bar Grey Gardens, the famous/notorious restauranteur Jen Agg’s latest venture, which opened three weeks ago — an inclusion that will likely be the talk of the community for quite some time. I thought I was done with Kensington Market, but it is sure as hell not done with me, because I can clearly see myself going back.

Photo Credit: Renee Suen

For those unaware, Jen Agg is the owner of The Black Hoof, and the bars Rhum Corner and The Cocktail Bar, all of which are likely at the top of any Torontonian’s list of places to visit. Even when she is at one of her restaurants on a given night, her presence is undoubtedly felt by those in the food service industry all over Toronto, as her strong personality and wit are always on full-display through her twitter — @TheBlackHoof — along with her vocal feminism and her willingness to call out other restaurants for various types of misconduct. Such openness has given her a widespread reputation, which she will soon be taking advantage of in a new medium, as her appropriately-named memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, is set to be published by Doubleday later this year. As her name becomes more recognizable, it is certainly no stretch of the imagination to think she may be well on her way to becoming one of the most prominent figures in, or perhaps as Anthony Bourdain once noted, a leader of the modern restaurant scene in Toronto.

Grey Gardens seems to fill a curious void in the Toronto bar scene: that of the wine bar with an exhaustive list comprised of selections from different countries and regions. At the bar, I asked the bar manager, David Greig, what his personal favourite places to go for wine in the city are, to which he answered Archive and the Midfield Winebar & Tavern — which at this point I take to be the standard city-wide answers. With so few comparable options, Grey Gardens should have no problem carving out its own recognizable character that’s also separate from Jen Agg’s other restaurants.

The interior can be best described as a room in an 18th century English countryside-mansion repurposed for young urbanites — as evidenced by the soft colour scheme, flowery wallpaper, candlesticks along the bar, and a communal table that seats nine people at the front underneath a chandelier. The owners have gone out of their way, however, to balance the stately décor touches with the sensibilities of the neighbourhood — there are two bar areas, one for walk-ins and another that can be used for reservations. So it’s equally welcoming for a couple on a date, as well as a gent going by on his bike, looking for a snack. And while perusing the menu, the following songs were playing throughout the room: The Fairest of the Seasons by Nico, Downtown by Petula Clark and Alone Again Or by Love, giving off that signature laid-back and seemingly effortless “cool” one feels in Agg’s other establishments. Atmosphere-wise, I’m sold. But now on to the good stuff.

photo: Renee Suen

The menu has a nice selection of cocktails and ciders, but the extensive wine selection will intrigue guests upon their first visit. It features selections from various regions in Canada, the United States, France, Italy, Australia, Austria, Germany, and Spain. Being in the mood to try something new, and never having tried any before, I first went for a glass of the only selection of orange wine available, the Jorel ’14 ($12). For those unaware, orange wine is made similarly as white wine. Yet whereas the grape skins are removed from those white grapes rather quickly during the process, the orange wine procedure gives a longer exposure to those skins and seeds. The resulting effect is an interesting balance of both worlds: the tannins and fruity aromas commonly found in a light red, followed by the crisp finish of a white. Orange wines seem to be a growing curiosity given how, according to wine expert Amelia Singer, the variations in the taste, as well as continued experimentation by different wineries, allow it to go well with many different food pairings. As such, this may likely turn out to be an intriguing menu option for wine-enthusiasts keeping abreast with the latest trends. Having now dipped my feet in some interestingly layered tastes, I moved on to my first dish.

The snack menu consists of oysters, a cheese platter, bread, and a Smoked Mackerel dip accompanied with gaufrettes (crispy potato wedges, with a seasoning not all that dissimilar to barbecue), which in terms of originality, was what I considered to be the stand-out ($13). In terms of experience, it is kind of what you want — something that is small in portion size, with each bite consisting of two or three textures and sensations. The boneless mackerel is mixed with sour cream, chives, and caper powder. Taking a bite with gaufrettes, one initially feels the rich creamy texture of the sour-cream, followed by the kick from black pepper of the gaufrettes which continues to linger on your tongue. Give it a few seconds and you’re hit with the strong mackerel aftertaste, something that is not too dissimilar to tuna. If you’re not the biggest fish person in the world, I would suggest it is still a dish worth trying, given the different tastes working in tandem without overpowering one another, but still managing to make an intriguing, new whole.

The same can very well be said regarding the second dish I tried, the octopus with shrimp, beans, and peppers ($24). Described to me as being similar to a Mediterranean-style stew, the dish consists of slices of octopus, very generous sized shrimps, chick peas, red peppers, and parsley in a bowl atop a small pool of thin and spicy red pepper purée. Similar to the smoked mackerel, this dish was equally successful in granting an experience you want to remember. My initial worry after hearing it described as a stew came from thinking that one component or spice would overpower the whole dish, as though I would get a big heaping of the red pepper purée, making the parsley insignificant. My experience with stew has never been all that fruitful. But the dish has just the right amount of the purée, making it evenly distributed amongst the different components of the dish, and giving everything in the bowl its own unique spicy aftertaste. The portion size of this dish was fairly small, in my opinion, so you’re definitely paying for quality over quantity.

Along with Jen Agg, Grey Gardens is also co-owned by Mitch Bates, who previously worked at Momofuku Shoto and Momofuko Ko. As such, the dishes seem to be a nice marriage of the creatively casual feel of something from the Black Hoof and the elegant sensibilities of Momofuku.  Hopefully, after your first visit, you will be intrigued enough to return for dinner to try the larger dishes, which consists of oxtail, salmon, duck, and skate, or one of their interesting pasta options.

After leaving the restaurant, a friendly older man, who I assumed lived in the area, was standing in front of his bicycle, looking at the sign out front. “Is it the same people who own El Rey?” he asked me as I was leaving. “I know they also own Bar Raval and Bar Isabel.”

“No, it’s Jen Agg, y’know The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar,” I said, to which the man gave a sly chuckle. After asking me about my experience and having a nice conversation, we talked about her and her career for a little bit. Needless to say, judging from what he had to say, her reputation certainly proceeds her, but when asked if he plans on checking it out some time, he laughs and says, “Oh, of course!” It would appear as though Grey Gardens will have no issues being welcomed with open arms, and it will likely have many fun and bustling nights ahead of them.

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Where Toronto Eats: Loga’s Corner

Eateries abound. But where to eat? In a peculiarly sprawling city like Toronto, where side streets are left to thrive in their residential calm adjacent more often visited avenues, on a single crowded block you can find a mulch of names that do not give in so easily to guesses. Unless you’re the type to read and ruminate on menus on a busy street putting smooth pedestrian mobility, the foundation of urban civilization, in danger — please don’t —, you go where you’ve been before; a place a friend recommended; some place you’ve heard from a coworker; one with a decent Yelp review. It gets boring, tedious, and downright no-good-places-to-eat-around-here ridiculous when it should rightfully be exciting, like Pizza Hut birthday parties were back when you were eight. 

Novella rose to the occasion to bring it back. Welcome to Where Toronto Eats, a new series focused on where we eat and where we should eat more often. We talk about the food and the culture behind the quiet eateries that hold Toronto down as the multicultural food capital of Canada.

I’ve lived in Toronto for six months. The nature of a transplant is such that it feels the need to know its environment in ways a born-and-raised cannot. As a diehard stickler for rules when it comes to all-important matters such as pizza and slurping noodles — the answer is ‘Always Slurp’ —, I’ve done my share of food-adventures here. Jordan D., our arts & culture editor, on the other hand, is steeped in Toronto’s food scene. We hope that our different perspectives on the city will give us fresh insight into its culinary cartography.

Loga’s Corner at 216 Close Ave, Parkdale

Loga’s Corner in Parkdale is a real life brick and mortar place you’ve visited in your flighty dumpling fantasies; a place where perfectly shaped momos — thin doughs packed with delicious beef and vege fillings steamed or fried — are served on unpretentious paper plates for $6; where the bright orange and jubilant homemade hot sauce in unassuming red bottles jolts you out of that dreamy state of dumpling satisfaction into an even more profoundly delicious reality.

Dorjee and Loga

This Tibetan eatery is run by Loga and his family who moved to Toronto from Northern India back in 2012. Loga manages the restaurant while his wife, Dolma Yangchen, and his eldest son, Dorjee, work momo magic in the kitchen. When Loga first opened his Tibetan eatery, it was a small take-out place with almost no seatings. Then over the years the business expanded twice to first take over an adjacent room then what was formerly the Fat Lava Vintage Coffee. Now the spacious café offers many seatings, Loga’s generous hospitality, which includes a plate of tangy and spicy pickled daikons sprinkled with sesame seeds, and photos of his holiness the Dalai Lama.

Momos aren’t a staple dish in Tibet. A more typical meal, Loga said, consists of salty butter tea mixed with tsampa, roasted barley or wheat flour, and some beef. Vegetables are scarce as few thrive in high altitudes. Momos are a special-occasion dish, a delicacy. Even in India, Loga said, the necessary ingredients are too pricy to make them regularly. Only once he and his family moved to Canada did making momos as a business venture make financial sense. And it wasn’t such a farfetched idea as Dolma Yangchen is more than proficient in the exquisite art of dumpling making. “My wife,” Loga said, “is very good at understanding what people like.” That we can enjoy the delicacy on a daily basis here in Toronto is a testimony to our unprecedented and relatively unreal prosperity — something to be thankful for while sipping on a cup of mango lassi and waiting for the momos.

Beef momos come in a crescent shape

Though the dough of a momo is light and soft, the contents are hearty. The beef, mixed with just the right amount of onions, has a certain kind of homeliness to it, like being tucked into a duvet after coming in from the cold. The vege momo, on the other hand, filled with potatoes and other goodnesses, is a wonderful union between a dainty dumpling and a perfectly spiced samosa.Then there is the beef noodle soup — a bowl of beefy umami broth and perfectly chewy and soft noodles to be slurped with bite-size pieces of meat. All of them offer simple, clean satisfaction.

Vege momos
The beef noodle is served in a meaty, hearty broth with fresh vegetables on top

Loga’s Corner, though unassuming from the outside, is in fact a beautiful microcosm of multiculturalism. After the 1959 Tibetan Uprising following periods of armed struggle, Tibetans, in steps with the Dalai Lama, left their homeland for Northern India. Loga’s parents were a part of this exodus, which only increased in numbers with time as political and cultural repression worsened under Chinese control. Once in India, many Tibetans, Loga’s family included, were left to adapt to a drastically different environment with little to no means of easing the transition. Though Loga was born in India, he remembers this history as both a personal and communal experience.

Now in Parkdale, Loga and his eatery reflect his mixed cultural heritage. The parathas, flatbreads stuffed with curried potatoes, and the spices and the spiciness of the hot sauce, atypical in Tibetan cuisine, harken back to time spent and meals had in India. The potato balls, deep fried, crispy, and amazingly only $1 each, were included in the menu because Loga saw, with his ever increasing business acumen, that we in North America love our potatoes especially when they’re fried.

There is a reluctance about Loga when he speaks of his family’s success as though it were less of their doing and more of a benefaction bestowed upon him. Indeed when he speaks of his success, he speaks of it in terms of moral responsibilities to be respectful and honest to his customers and community. Sitting on a table where there used to be a wall, Loga spoke about Buddhism, laws of causality, and the need to do good on a daily basis: “I think a Good Samaritan [approach] will work where ever you go.”

There are three doors to Loga’s Corner. The first, closest to Queen W. with a blue staircase, is the main entrance and opens to the original space of 2012. The second is usually locked, though if Loga sees you, he will gladly unlock the door and welcome you in. The third retains signs of having once been a ‘vintage’ coffee place. Once inside, Loga opens your heart with his warmth while Dolma Yangchen’s momos open it through your stomach.

Loga’s Corner Menu:
Beef Noodle Soup – $6
Beef, Vege, and Chicken Momo – $6 (+1 for fried)
Potato Balls – $1
Paratha – $6
Mango Lassi – $3
Butter Tea & Sweet Tea – $1.5
Soda – $1

Loga’s Corner is located at 216 Close Ave. in Parkdale and is open from 11 A.M. to 11 P.M. everyday. If you go with friends, order one of everything and share. If you’re on your own, definitely the beef momos, a potato ball, and a mango lassi. 

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