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.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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.

Visit the Grey Gardens website, and also continue following our arts & culture coverage on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.