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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Hot list: Paese Ristorante

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Italian-inspired with distinctive made-in-Canada twist, Paese Ristorante, located on 3827 Bathurst Street, offers a wide range of Italian favourite eats including authentic appetizers, homemade pizza (with gluten-free and vegetarian options), and a variety of pasta dishes with homemade sauces. The space is dimly lit, creating a cozy and intimate atmosphere. 

I brought along my coworker, Jen Lee, to the tasting and we were able to try a variety of Paese favourites, which included the soup of the day – asparagus with garnished goat cheese, grilled octopus for appetizer,  grilled shrimp linguine and their daily special Ontario lamb chops for mains, and lastly, cioccolato for dessert.

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While waiting for our dishes to arrive, we started off with their homestyle bread and hummus, which had a nice taste with the right amount of spice that didn’t overpower.

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Asparagus with garnished goat cheese in veggie stock was the soup of the day. I’ll be honest, I’m not really a huge fan of goat cheese, but the cheese really mixed well with the asparagus soup. It added a rich creamier texture with the right consistency.

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The grilled octopus was the next dish we had. It was lightly grilled with a bedding of grilled capers, vegetables, and potatoes. I can tell you that not many people are a fan of overly “fishy” aftertastes when eating seafood; however, the minimal seasoning on the octopus, you can barely taste the “fishy” flavour, which is a definite plus.

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After our appetizers, came main course. Jen ordered the grilled shrimp linguine, and I ordered the daily special – Ontario lamb chops. Everything about the linguine tasted very fresh – the jumbo shrimp, pasta, and the sauce. Since the sauce was freshly made, you can taste the fresh basil in it with tomato chunks – a nice balance between rich and light.

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My lamb chops  came with a side of mashed sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts. It was perfectly cooked to medium rare, lightly sauced, and juicy. The mashed sweet potato evened out the taste of boiled brussels sprouts. It might not look a lot at first glance, but it was extremely filling,

img_7053 As if we haven’t eaten enough already, and have been experiencing a severe cause of good food coma, we couldn’t leave without trying their dessert. The cioccolato (dark chocolate terrine with white chocolate mousse, Nutella and hazelnut brittle) was not too sweet, with lightly whipped white chocolate mousse in between.

Our delicious tasting put us in a ‘food coma’, which is a sign that I truly enjoyed my time at Paese Ristorante. Make sure you try them out when you get the chance!

Phone

416.631.6585

Website

 paeseristorante.com

Facebook

www.facebook.com/PaeseRistorante

Instagram

@paeseristorante

Bar of the Month: An Interview with Ryan Macleod from The Clocktower Bar

Ryan Macleod, who runs the bar program at The Clocktower Bar, which opened in June, began his career in the food service industry when he was fifteen years old. He first worked at the Leslieville restaurant The Nose, where he would serve four hundred people in a given night, followed by positions at The Emerson, Goods and Provisions, and eventually baked with renowned French master-chef J.P. Challet. Such experiences then led him to the roles of sous chef and executive chef, as well as a consultant position on the bar program at Buca. Such a journey is of course littered with hardships, but like the owner of The Nose would yell at him—which has now become his favourite saying and something he regularly says to his daughter— “You can’t snow the snowman.” It’s a saying that effectively conveys one’s imperviousness to the daily challenges and  stressors of the industry, that develops over time. Fortunately in Ryan’s case, that imperviousness has not bred cynicism, but instead an unwavering enthusiasm for the drinks they develop, as well as a casual, relaxed attitude, that is reflexive of the welcoming and communal feel of The Clocktower Bar.

The Clocktower Bar, located at 1210 Yonge Street, is owned by the same people who own The Boxcar Social, a coffee shop and bar, where they pride themselves with their world-renowned rotating list of roasters as well as their meticulously chosen craft beers and wines. Its’ rustic minimalist aesthetic gives off a serious but unpretentious feel, something brought over for the bar, which also accurately reflects the philosophy of the owners and managers of both establishments.

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Photo Credit: Summer Yang

 “[The owners] really, genuinely care about the product and the way the product is conveyed to people, above anything, which is what I love about the chefs that I love and the places that I love to eat at. I really buy into the program that these guys are offering here because their main focus is always what they’re putting forward. Everything everyday is accounted for and is tasted before it goes out. [At Boxcar] they’ll throw out forty shots of espresso before they give you a bad one. And that’s the mentality that we have adopted here.”

He mentions that all the bartenders at The Clocktower Bar have a hand in experimenting with possible drink ideas, and he seems to greatly enjoy the large degree of research that can go into making a unique bar program that conveys a specific mandate. Ryan does note that the classics really never go out of style for patrons, but also hopes that doesn’t deter them from stepping out of their comfort zone, as he is clearly always trying to introduce customers to something fresh and interesting, that hopefully matches their individual tastes. “The idea behind the classic section [of the menu] was ‘why don’t we highlight classic cocktails that people don’t normally order’ . . . if you can get classic cocktails on the list that no one has heard of because they’re so outdated and old, but that can be retooled in a way to make them modern enough for people’s current tastes, then that makes sense to me.”

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Photo Credit: Summer Yang

Sitting atop the cash register of the bar is a dog-eared reprint of a cocktail recipe book from 1927, certainly a treasure trove of forgotten libations that could intrigue the taste buds of a newer generation. For Ryan, he finds that the Cloister cocktail on the menu— a concoction of gin, yellow chartreuse, grapefruit and lemon— to be particularly underrated. As he notes, “when you drink it, it’s really just pleasant. . . it has layers, great texture, good mouth feel, it’s light, and the booze is there but it’s not overpowering.”

Although the Old Fashioned and Negroni continue to be staid favourites amongst patrons, he says, after the first round, people usually begin feeling more adventurous and willing to talk about cocktails. And when people are willing to open up about what they’re willing to try, that allows the bartenders to illustrate all the artistic possibilities that cocktails have to offer. As it turns out, that strategy of politely nudging customers  to be more adventurous, he finds, makes people not only want to return, but desire to have an established personal connection with the bar.

“We have a lot of people who come in regularly now that will sit down, say ‘Hi’—who have been in here a lot of times already— and will say ‘this is what I feel like tonight. Can you make me something?’ Which is great. . .our customers are very excited, and understand that they can come in and sit down and know that the guys and girls that we have hired are dealing with things that entrusts them to make something that makes sense for them.”

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Photo Credit: Summer Yang

As Ryan conveys an enthusiasm for introducing people to cocktails they have hopefully never heard of, it would obviously be remiss not to ask what his favourite drink is. “For me, my favourite thing to drink is a Bitter Giuseppe. I don’t even know if it’s a thing. It’s this really great drink my friend made for me one day, and now it’s this thing that we do all the time that we just love.” It’s made in one glass, and the ingredients are not extravagant or expensive by any stretch, making it very simple to make at home. The recipe is as follows:

The Bitter Giuseppe

  • Glass with ice
  • 1.5 oz. Cynar.
  • 1.5 oz. Dolin Sweet Vermouth.
  • Side of lemon, which is squeezed over top.
  • Pinch of sea salt over top the glass.

The result is bitter, but very smooth and easy to drink, with a vaguely sour after-taste— something that he notes feels reminiscent of a Brio Chinotto, the Italian soft-drink.

This month, on October 27, The Clocktower Bar will be hosting a community party in conjunction with Greenhouse Juice. Special offers will include discounted cocktails—$10.00 each— with some being specially made for the event.  They also regularly host community events for schools, such as teacher-parent auctions, and patio barbecues.  The managers have put forth an impressive effort to show that not only are they deserving of great word-of-mouth, but that they want people who enter to feel as though everybody knows their name.  It will surely evolve its’ presence in the neighbourhood  for quite a long time, and will likely quietly adopt a trendy reputation beyond that.

A Conversation With Oz Ziv, Pumpernickel’s

If you haven’t checked out my review on Pumpernickel’s, be sure to take a look at it here. During my tasting, I had the chance to meet one of the founder’s son, Oz Ziv. We had a bit of a chit chat throughout my tasting, and I got to learn more of their establishment and their future plans.

Joyce Li (JL): What are three tips for running a successful restaurant?

Oz Ziv (OZ):

  1. Your product has to be really good, because customers can’t be fooled, people will know if something is good or bad. Even if they don’t know it, they’ll know it subconsciously cause they won’t come back.
  2. It involves a lot of micromanagement. Constantly looking at every single detail and not giving up on anything because what makes something good – the collective of the tiny little things that add up setting you apart from the competition. It’s incredibly competitive in the food industry.
  3. To remember that you’re still in need to offer value. What’s happening in the food industry – people are replacing style with substance. You can have style and look great, but in the end you’ll have to be able to offer a valuable meal for them that the people pay.

I think that’s the reason why we’re successful, cause we deliver all three.

JL: Do you constantly think of new recipes to create at Pumpernickel’s ( even when you’re making your own dinner at home)?

OZ: It’s give and take, sometimes when I go home and I’m trying to figure out what to make, I’ll take something that one of our chef’s made. Sometimes when I cook at home, I get inspiration from here. The way these recipes started was actually my parents, who founded this company and they got a lot of inspiration from their home cooking. They brought recipes that they always loved in a restaurant format and they made it work and over the years, expanding.

We’ve had so many chefs coming in and out and each one of them has left an impression on us. People who have taught us things along the way, constantly building upon that. We also go to other restaurants, it’s a very common thing. We’ll spend hours walking through the PATH, looking around. We’re always trying to see what people are doing and to see what we do differently and how we can have edge. Being a part of the industry is that you can’t eat uncritically. Even when you’re going to a restaurant, you’re not just thinking of the taking but you’re thinking how that works for them as a dish.

JL: I can see that locations are expanding all over Toronto and the GTA, do you think you’ll be opening another location anytime soon?

OZ: We are opening the one on Bloor west, it’s in a big business complex. We tend to open around businesses because we have a strong focus on catering to them, that’s really the core of out clientele, but we also feed a lot of people who walk in on the streets. We’re doing a lot more of this sort of concept. We want to expand in a solid way, not just open up tons of restaurants and franchise it to anyone. We want to make sure each one is up to our standards, and so we think it’s better to open fewer restaurants with more intensions to details.

JL: What are the future plans for the restaurant?

OZ: We’ve spent the last about 3 or 4 years developing this concept. We were sort of like a deli – huge menu, all over the place. But we’ve always had our quality, we’re still the same place but we just have a refined look and menu and a cleaner concept. What you’re seeing here, this is what we’re going forward – a nice walk in restaurant, big and spacious, lots of seating and a full hot food/salad bar/ sandwich station concept and a carving station coming soon.  Also at the same time, expanding our catering operations, We’ve become a very big corporate cater in Toronto and we’ve never lost sight of that. We’re also opening a central office soon.

The way we do catering – each location produces the food that goes out to the client. What a lot of companies would do with multiple locations is that they would open up a central locations, where everything is produced in one place and then shipped out in the morning to all their various locations. Everything is fresh made to order in each individual store, giving us an advantage.

JL: What inspired you to start this whole restaurant?

OZ: It started 30 years ago, I was just 3 years old. I think when it started is when my parents moved to Canada. They couldn’t get into industry where they needed to use written language skills cause english wasn’t their first language. They had to learn everything from scratch so they did what they know, which was food and they were good at it. My parents has always been very smart business people. They understand food and also how to run a business. For that you don’t really need to be influenced in the language if you know those things. That’s why they succeeded.

JL: How often to you eat at your own restaurant?

OZ: I eat here almost everyday, because I’m here all day, but that’s not the reason why. I eat the salad almost everyday, I would switch it up but never sick of it. I even bring it home sometimes for dinner – because for the same reason why customers come to us 5 days a week, and they don’t get sick of it. It’s a healthy, diverse and big menu. Sometimes what we do, we sometimes change the menu but not for the customers, but for us.

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