Where Toronto Eats: Electric Mud BBQ

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Where Toronto Eats: Latin World

Latin World is a Mexican and Latin American restaurant located on Bloor West.

Latin World is a grocery store taqueria that offers, alongside the traditional tacos, dishes from other parts of the Latin America. As with many grocery + taqueria combos, Latin World is, despite its yellow and orange banner outside, a small hole in the wall you can easily miss, perhaps distracted by the looming castle-typography adorned gentleman’s club just a block away. What’s harder to pass by, however, is the smell of the food wafting out of the door onto Bloor West. It’s tantalizing on a late afternoon when the store keeps its door ajar. On a recent visit, I wasn’t even hungry but went in anyways. It’s that irresistible.

Once inside, the signs are clear: this is going to be good. A long wall is covered with shelves of Latin American pantry stables; some of them familiar like P.A.N cornmeals, El Yucateco hot sauces, cans of chipotle, dried chili of various colors and sizes; some not, like cleaning products, mysterious canned goods, drink mixes, etc. It’s the equivalent of walking into a Chinese noodle shop and seeing four things on the handwritten menu — this is going to be, in today’s ambiguous parlance, authentic.

Though in what ways and to what extent visual signs and cultural cues signal authenticity or quality in an ethnic restaurant is unclear and ethically questionable, Latin World gives the non Latin individual with a taste for tamales the cravings, the excitement of having come a step closer to the real. After all, most people are both physically and financially very much detached from Tulum, Mexico, and René Redzepi’s kitchen while dizzyingly familiar with the representations of said world of luxurious authenticity (thanks, Jacob Richler).

But, unfortunately, and, to a degree, inevitably, Latin World is not that slice of a Latin world on Bloor. Though the complementary chips and hot sauces, tamales oaxaqueños — tasty masa, spicy pork, and little chicken — with mole, and the enchiladas are good, the tacos, the crown jewel of a taqueria, are highly disappointing. Perhaps this is harsh. But then again, perhaps cochinita pibil, my absolute favorite, — Yucatan-style roasted pork (traditionally a suckling pig marinated in citrus and wrapped in banana leaves) — shouldn’t be chewy and so damn spicy and not sweet and tangy. The carnitas and the fish were decent, if not great.

I’d be amiss to say that my stance on Latin World — neighborhood joint with great service, decent food, and daily specials— is entirely dependable, as my experience with pozole or flautas or variety of other offerings are limited. My fellow customers, who seemed familiar with the cook and the waitress, ordered a plate of quesadillas, enchiladas, and tampiqueña, and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. As it is the case in every ethnic restaurant, perhaps it’s a matter of knowing what to order. In this sense, perhaps, I’m wrong to say that Latin World isn’t a slice of the Latin world on Bloor. Who knows? Perhaps in Yucatan, unbeknownst to everyone outside, cochinita pibils are actually chewy and spicy and not melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, and tangy. The matter of Latin World’s authenticity, whatever that means, isn’t for me to judge. What I do know is that the other customers seemed perfectly happy, that the tamales are good, and that I know how I like my cochinita pibil.

Latin World, 1229 Bloor St W, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., though it’s sometimes open past 10. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Where Toronto Eats: Yum Cha in Markham

Art by Andrea Vahrusev

How far is too far for good yum cha? Though it may seem like a rhetorical question, there is, at least in the minds of aficionados of any kind of food, a sense that the quality of a restaurant is proportional to its inaccessibility; ask a ramen head where the best ramen is — it won’t be down the block, around the corner. Elegance Chinese Dining and Banquet in Markham is certainly not — it’s a few corners (up to North York Centre station), a few perilous bridges (a generous friend with a driver’s license + car), and a crocodile moat (a congested freeway or two) away from downtown Toronto. Once there, the lines, especially on weekend mornings, are long and tedious despite its 350+ persons capacity, as Elegance’s waiting area is relatively small and it shares its strip mall with one or two other restaurants and dubious-looking health stores extolling the benefits of certain tropical berries. Its staff, as is the case in the best of old school restaurants, are not even half heartedly concerned with making you feel ‘at home’.

So it goes without saying that it also has some of the best dim sum I’ve had in Canada.

Elegance’s excellence is telling from the moment the inevitable pot of oolong arrives. The pot of tea is accompanied by a pot of reserve hot water to dilute — if the tea is too strong — or to steep afresh. (And, unusual in my experience of yum cha, the teacups have small handles that bring to mind a certain British/colonial touch.) The tea itself is freshly brewed and delicate, a familiar and comforting opening that far from being pro-forma.

The menu at Elegance is short and divided into sections to help you find what you want. The ha gow is a must, as it’s often deemed the dish to judge a restaurant by; at Elegance, the seasoned and supple shrimps can be seen through the thin and slightly chewy skin. The chive and seafood dumpling, bbq pork bun, pork spare ribs with black beans, and shumai are all telling of the restaurant’s freshness and quality. Steamed rice rolls with shrimp and rice skins was, as they say, a revelation: The soft and chewy skin, perfectly seasoned shrimp, and the crunch of the mysterious ‘rice skin’ dipped in slightly sweet soy sauce — to borrow the hyperbole of Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery — cured the mind’s ailments born since childhood, namely the absence of said roll. The only steamed thing to avoid here is the xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings — I don’t know what happened at the kitchen, but it just wasn’t, by any standards, a xialong bao. 

Elegance is much better at steamed dishes than at fried ones. The pan-fried turnip cakes were wrapped, for no apparent reason, in nori and served with XO sauce; the deep-fried tofu skin was dry; and, most egregious of all, they do not serve pork and chive dumplings.

However, Elegance‘s simply prepared vegetable dishes more than make up for what it misses in its fried section. The snow pea tips and gai lan (Chinese broccoli ), both blanched then prepared simply with oil and salt, were not only delicious but also palate cleansing. If you get a chance, do ask for the snow pea tips while they are in season and easily available; it’s subtle and flavorful and will make you reconsider charring all your vegetables.

Elegance is, I should mention, slightly pricier than most dim sum joints in the city. Each plate is around $4 and the larger plates or specials of the day cost a little extra. However, it should also be said that a local pub’s mediocre special on burgers is often upwards $15 and nobody complains. Or, on a more positive note, even with each plate costing slightly more, you can yum cha like a king and pay only double-digits.

Elegance Chinese Restaurant & Banquet is located at 20 Gibson Drive in Markham and is open daily from 9am to 10pm. On weekends, get there either as early as possible or slightly later in the afternoon to beat the crowd. 

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