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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Where Toronto Eats — Sunrise House

Koreatown between Chrstie and Bathurst is chock full of options. You can stop in for some bubble tea in one corner, get Korean barbecue on the next, maybe go to Karaoke, get a few drinks at a bar. But no night in Koreatown is really complete without a night-after meal some time around 2 or 3 in the morning with a bottle of soju to round things out. The dictates of notorious Korean drinking culture are many and colorful and, with a little resilience and cash, easily available. There are places for such nights.

Sunrise House is not one of them. It opens late for a Korean restaurant, at 11, and closes early twelve hours later. But, like a good standard no-fuss diner, it is a beacon of comfort, of quiet, a place to remedy your hangover, a place to feel safe. With its green walls that match the green sign outside, few tables, metal chopsticks and spoons in a box on a table, quick service, and a long menu, it’s as though it’s been transplanted on Bloor West straight from a restaurant row in a Korean marketplace. It is home of a sort to all kinds. On a recent visit, I sat between a blond in full mink gear and an old Korean man with a Korean daily. Both ate bibimbap.

The food is reminiscent of the vivacity of a busy Korean street; it’s boiling hot, usually spicy, plentiful, and without decorations. The last is significant because the qualities of home-cooked Korean food, not of the barbecue variety, is fundamentally based on necessity and frugality derived from a history of poverty and war — stews and soups feed more people, side dishes can be made cheaply and as preserves and they compliment rice, the main filler, etc. Take budae jji gae, the infamous army stew ($18, big enough for three or four people at Sunrise), for instance: a stew originally made after the Korean War to accommodate whatever luncheon meats and sausages the well-fed and rich U.S. Army threw away from their bases. Or the now popular pork-bone soup ($7) — a soup traditionally made almost entirely from left over pork bone and broth with little to no meat.

With over five pages of items on top of specials, not everything at the Sunrise will be a Michelin star experience. It is unlikely that the women in Sunrise’s kitchen are going at the food with discipline and diligence of a ‘craftsman’ à la Jiro or whoever. But neither did your mom or nonna when making your childhood favorites. Some, like the knife cut noodles with bulgogi, are a miss — the flavor of the broth, or dashi, hides behind the sweetness of the bulgogi, and the noodles, on a recent visit, were slightly undercooked. The banchan however, though curated largely for the novice palate, are free, various, and above average.

As with any reliable diner with a ten-page menu, you have to learn as you go. The dolsot bibimbap ($9) is a definite winner, as is the yukgaejang ($9), or spicy soup with shredded brisket, vermicelli noodles, and vegetables with just the right amount of spicy oil floating on top. If it’s your first rodeo with Korean food, I recommend the potato pancake and bulgogi, a sweet and salty gateway drug.

The life of a restaurant is dependent, among other things, on the shelf life of the trend it stocks on. The many poke joints with quirky names and quaint ingredients, much to no one’s heartfelt sorrow, will, sooner or later, disappear and give way to another fleeting trend. But radishes with salt and butter, cheese and baguettes, a medium-rare cheeseburger will still be, as they are today, delicious and available. So I doubt that Sunrise House is going anywhere any time soon. There will always be people in need of boiling hot soup served quickly without fanfare with an afternoon half-bottle of soju, those in need of the comfort of the brusqueness of the space and the people.

Sunrise House is located at 661 Bloor St. West between Euclid and Manning Avenue. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.