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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Hotlist: Pumpernickel’s

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Celebrating their 30th anniversary with a brand-new look and menu, local culinary family-owned gem, Pumpernickel’s reinvents themselves while keeping their core values. With eleven locations across the city and GTA, they are best known for their stellar lunch and breakfast catering. From days long ago of being a mom-and-pop deli shop style, Pumpernickel’s has come a long way in its 30 years in the restaurant business. The reinvented restaurant is now entering the fast yet casual arena scene, debuting a fresh new menu and look.

Thanks to Butter PR, I had the opportunity to visit their most recent location at 655 Bay Street, Suite 101, Toronto. Entering the restaurant, it felt very spacious and clean with a lot of seating – which is not what you would expect from what used to be just a deli-shop. To add, the menu is laid out nicely across the back wall with creatively designed fonts.

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From the menu, I tried their BBQ Chicken Avocado sandwich, in addition to a variety of their salad from the salad bar, which included spiced chickpeas, quinoa, couscous, kale, with a teriyaki salmon to top it off, and lastly, their famous schnitzel.

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Moving on, the BBQ Chicken Avocado (chipotle mayo, avocado, smoked provolone pickled onions on rosemary focaccia), had a lot of flavour to it. The chicken was not dry and the sauce in the sandwich was just the right amount. The pickled onions gave the sandwich a kick, balancing the bbq flavour of the chicken.

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Although it was just salad, it really felt like a whole meal itself. The fact that I had no limit to how many types I can order, I ordered four different types of salad and topped it off with teriyaki salmon. This meal itself already sounds healthy, and the fact that Pumpernickel’s is in the “fast food” area, it doesn’t feel like it at all! Everything was freshly made and delicious.

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Lastly, I couldn’t go without trying their Famous Schnitzel (with sautéed onions served on a long bun). The portion of that schnitzel was unreal. There were three pieces in just one sandwich. I was already stuffed and satisfied with everything, but this schnitzel was too hard to deny. The schnitzel was not overly coated with breadcrumbs, and with light dressing, I could really taste the meat.

I’m sure by now you know how my experience at Pumpernickel’s was. No need to doubt that I will definitely be going back for a healthy lunch. Make sure to try them out, you won’t regret your decision. Since they are well known for their catering business, you can share this wonderful restaurant with your co-workers/colleagues.

Website:

https://www.pumpernickels.ca/

Instagram:

@pumpernickels_to

Review: The Carbon Bar and Their Latest Promotional Dish!

With the exposed brick and neon décor on the walls, coupled with long rows of communal banquettes that feel reminiscent of a stylish Paris café, the dining room of The Carbon Bar achieves that sought-after yet difficult to perfect aesthetic of having elements that look like they were thrown together, all while supporting a casually elegant feel. This atmosphere seemingly serves as a beacon for all the people in the area who flock in at six o’clock, looking to unwind after work with a bourbon whisky or something new to excite their taste buds. It is therefore the perfect place to introduce a new lobster burger — a new menu item for the month of September, and one that will likely not disappoint.

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Image: Caroline Aksich

I was invited along with a guest to try the new dish, and the whole evening was a memorable experience. With the promotion touting $20.00, with a pint of Alexander Keith’s, our mouths were appropriately agape when the food was brought out, as we were both initially shocked by the generous sizes of the lobster portions. “There’s pretty much half a lobster in there,” the manager, who was nice enough to greet us, jokingly said. I would not be surprised if that was true.

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On the whole, this dish gave the impression that it was meticulously crafted, in order to give a multi-layered experience that begs you to savour every bite. The lobster patty is a lightly breaded, pan-fried affair. Maybe some of it fell apart a little easily, but it is ultimately a benefit, as it allows one to taste the vegetables and herbs infused within quite effortlessly — among them being parsley, dill and onions, the combination of which offer a slightly spicy tinge. Equally as generous as the size of the burger was the helping of hollandaise, with the strong lemon taste being a welcome addition and obviously complimentary to the dish. The burger is also topped off with pit-smoked bacon. Perhaps a needless addition, as the lobster with hollandaise alone provided a lasting enough impact that would make me want to return, but I don’t expect many complaints.

img_0502Following the main course, my guest and I agreed that we would be remiss to not try something on the dessert menu. After all, the dessert is the last thing one may eat before they pay the bill, and therefore can become a significant blemish on an otherwise excellent meal. Fortunately, that was far from being the case, as we decided to try the chocolate bourbon skull. A quite original addition, this is a skull-shaped truffle — the inside of which is made from heated sweetened milk— which is then doused in a bitter dark chocolate, bourbon ganache, and hand-painted gold. Specially ordered from chocolate artist Laura Slack, they are  delicate enough that they melt in your mouth, leaving a pleasant burn on your tongue that travels down to warm your body. The menu specified these truffles were “boozy” — a term they certainly don’t use lightly. We couldn’t have thought of a more satisfying conclusion to the evening.

The promotion for the Nova Scotia Lobster Burger runs until the end of the month, but even if you don’t find the time to try it, you should put The Carbon Bar on your list of places to visit, as it is surely a staple of the neighbourhood.