Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Distillery District: Tappo Wine Bar & Soulpepper

There's no place like the Distillery District. One minute you're downtown and the next, you're walking down cobblestone lanes surrounded by the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of Victorian Industrial architecture anywhere in North America. Founded in 1832, it was the largest distillery in the world, but with the de-industrialization of the surrounding area in the late 20th century, and the winding-down of distillery operations, the district became increasingly derelict.

A portion of the old Distillery - Building #3

In the 1990's, a group of developers came up with a visionary plan for restoring the 47 abandoned industrial buildings by harnessing the talent of hundreds of craftsmen, skilled in working with 19th century timber, planks, stone and brick. Going to great lengths to repurpose the Distillery's original materials and blend them with today's modern materials, the result is an inspired blend of Victorian industrial architecture and stunning 21st century design and ingenuity.

An old archived image of workers at Gooderham & Worts Distillery

It's only when you step inside the buildings that you realize the magnitude of what was accomplished. A dramatic fusion of old and new, the historic Distillery District is widely regarded to be one of Canada's premier arts, culture and entertainment destinations, with its 13-acres of brick-lined streets and restored Victorian industrial buildings housing one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, studios, restaurants, cafés and so much more.

Tappo's signage is a whimsical touch on the Distillery's oldest building

Located in the landmark 'Stone Distillery Building #3' is Tappo Wine Bar & Restaurant, an historically unique and beautifully restored space full of old world charm. Thick stone walls, a soaring 35-foot ceiling and large wooden beams accent the twinkling chandeliers and bar-length mirror that sweeps across the room. Antique machinery once used for grain milling, add a note of industrial-chic to the rustic decor and simple elegance of Tappo's charming and comfortable candlelit dining room, a perfect spot for a romantic dinner.

Exposed stone masonry and timber framing adds to the old world charm 
of this romantic little restaurant

The vision for Tappo was a collaboration of two old friends, Armando Russo and former Leaf's power forward Shayne Corson. The dream of opening a restaurant was always a hot topic with the duo over the years. Well established now and thriving, Tappo is a culinary fixture in the historic neighbourhood. "We have that downtown Montreal feeling," says Russo, "It's more like the loungy destinations you'd find on St. Laurent Boulevard". Tappo's extensive wine collection ensures that there are topnotch wine matches for Chef Tyson Lambert's classic Italian dishes, and with over 300 different varieties of wine to choose from, there's something for everyone.

Shayne Corson (L) and Armando Russo (R) at a Tappo event last year

Tappo's menu which features northern Italian Mediterranean-style dishes, is also serving a Winterlicious menu from January 27-February 9 2012. The special $35 menu offers diners a selection of three antipasti: Zuppa del Giorno; Insalata di Arugola with endives, red onion, gorgonzola, poached pear, pistachios and a prosecco vinaigrette; or Calamari alla Griglia with a vegetable orzo salad, basil pesto and micro greens. 

Calamari alla Griglia with a vegetable orzo salad, basil pesto and arugula

Tappo Zuppa del Giorno - pea soup with double smoked bacon

A choice of three secondi include Ravioli ai Funghi di Bosco, a wild mushroom ravioli with sundried tomatoes in a rich parmigiano cream sauce; Gallina Vetro all Albicocca, an apricot glazed cornish hen with garlic mashed potatos, seasonal vegetables and red wine jus; or Salmone alla Griglia, grilled Atlantic Salmon served with creamy polenta and market vegetables with a sundried tomato pesto.

Salmone alla Griglia with creamy thyme polenta, haricots vert and sundried tomato pesto

Gallina Vetro all Albicocca, an apricot glazed cornish hen with garlic mashed potatos, 
seasonal vegetables and red wine jus

To finish, the Winterlicious menu offers a choice of two dolce: Torta di Cioccolata Senza Farina, a flourless chocolate cake with French bean vanilla ice cream; or Tappo's Tiramisu. A lovely meal in one of the city's most romantic dining rooms, makes Tappo one of the Distillery District's better bets.

Torta di Cioccolata Senza Farina


After dinner we walked along a cobblestone lane to see 'Kim's Convenience' by Ins Choi, the first fully original Canadian play in Soulpepper's history. Set in a Regent Park Korean convenience store, the play was the smash hit of the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. Choi, whose parents came to Canada in 1975 with $200, three children and hope, says that Kim's Convenience is his love letter to his parents and all first generation immigrants who call Canada their home.

The award-winning Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 
permanent home of the Soulpepper Theatre Company

Soulpepper Theatre Company is positively brimming with talent. Their numerous training programs help train artists for the future, creating an environment that can inspire dreams and help them come true. With Soulpepper alumni Ins Choi's debut play opening the 2012 season, it's already made one young man's dream come true.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Grilled Salmon with Bok Choy & Asian Slaw

Salmon positively sings with this delicious combination of sesame, ginger, Ponzu sauce and fresh dill, plus it's carb-free. Ponzu is a brightly flavoured citrus-based sauce used often in Japanese cuisine and can be used as both a dressing and a sauce. Much lighter than soy sauce, it has a distinctive tangy lemon orange flavour, with a perfect balance of sweet, sour and salty. Ponzu is excellent as a dipping sauce for potstickers, a light sauce for steamed vegetables and combined with some minced ginger, makes a fabulous marinade for salmon, seafood, grilled meats or vegetables, like the crunchy Asian Slaw with Ponzu Dressing that I served along with the Roast Salmon with Bok Choy. This year’s renewed focus on healthy eating continues with this light and delicate Asian-fusion meal, taking flavours and textures to fresh new heights.

Ponzu Sauce by Kikkoman, now available in most grocery stores

Grilled Salmon with Bok Choy
Serves 2

2 6oz salmon filets
2 tbsp Ponzu sauce
1 tsp sesame seeds
1/2 tsp grated ginger
4 medium heads bok choy, trimmed and rinsed
fresh dill, for garnish

Marinate the salmon with Ponzu and ginger, and set aside. Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and lightly brush with vegetable oil. Place the salmon skin side down and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Cook for 10-12 minutes, or until the salmon is just cooked through.

Meanwhile, steam the bok choy over high heat until it's beginning to wilt, about 5 minutes. To serve, mound the bok choy in the middle of a warmed plate and place the salmon on top. Garnish with fresh dill and serve with Asian Slaw.

Asian Slaw with Ponzu Dressing
Serves 4 

1/4 head green cabbage, shredded
1/4 lb snow peas, cut on the diagonal into matchsticks
2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
1/4 fennel bulb, sliced as thinly as possible
1/3 cup Ponzu sauce
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1/2 tsp sesame oil
salt to taste

To make the dressing, whisk together the ponzu, sesame oil and sesame seeds in a small bowl. Add salt to taste, mix and set aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, snow peas, carrots and fennel. Add half of the dressing, toss to combine and taste. Keep adding additional dressing until you get the desired flavour. If you're not serving the salad immediately, don't add the dressing until just before serving. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Roasted Beet, Chickpea & Feta Salad

The vibrant jewel-toned colours of the crimson beets, golden chickpeas, bright green arugula and snow-white feta play off each other deliciously in this spectacular Mediterranean-inspired salad. The perfect antidote for the drab days of winter, the bolt of colour from the sweet earthy roasted beets and the chunks of salty feta balance perfectly with the nutty flavour and buttery texture of the chickpeas. Nestled on a bed of peppery wild arugula and dressed with a brightly flavoured citrus vinaigrette, this wildly flavourful and nutritious salad is great on its own or served alongside some simply grilled fish or seafood. 

Roasted Beet, Chickpea & Feta Salad
Serves 6-8

4 small beets, washed & leafy tops removed
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 orange, juiced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 cups arugula
2 1/2 cups canned chickpeas, drained & rinsed
8 oz Greek feta cheese, crumbled

Maldon sea salt, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Wrap each of the beets in aluminum foil and bake for at least an hour, or until a knife passes easily through the beets. Allow them to cool then using plastic gloves, peel the skins off. Cut the beets into small wedges and place in a bowl. Add the cumin, orange juice and olive oil and toss well. To serve, arrange the arugula, beets, feta and chickpeas on a serving dish and drizzle with the remaining dressing. Garnish with a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt for an extra zing.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rodney's Oyster Saloon: Shucking on Temperance

Rodney 'The Oysterman' Clark, has presented and celebrated oysters in downtown Toronto for over twenty years. He's known as the ‘Messiah of the Mollusk,' who ate his first Malpeque at age two, shucked his first oyster shortly afterwards, and has spent nearly three decades helping Canadians unlock the succulent secrets of shellfish. After spending five years honing his skills with the big guy at Rodney's Oyster Bar on King Street, John Belknap decided to open his own bivalve venue three years ago, and together with Chef Sonia Potichnyj, embarked on a voyage to realize their vision of an elegant yet rustic oyster house. Formerly an open-air carport, Rodney’s Oyster Saloon by Bay is tucked into a small space on Temperance Street, in the heart of the financial district. "Oyster bars are traditionally out of the way and hard to find," says Belknap. "I wanted to keep that feeling." 

Rodney's menu of fish house classics turned up a notch

And they're doing just that, enticing both Bay Street rollers and downtown denizens alike, into this warm and friendly side street gem. Designed by Brad Denton, who also styled the interiors of Le Petit Castor, Harbord Room and Czehoski, Rodney's decor strives to capture both urban cool and East Coast charm. Salvaged antique wainscotting, tin ceiling panels and parts of an 1890s building façade add warmth to this tiny room, with a central white marble bar, polished concrete floors, sleek banquettes and cozy wooden tables. The space is absolutely charming, but it's the oysters that reel in the customers. 

Mark Moore - shucker extraordinaire 

Although not actually affiliated with Rodney's Oyster Bar, the oysters at RBB are just as fresh, plentiful and delicious, and shucked expertly by the very knowledgable and affable Mark Moore. I'm so pleased that we chose to sit at the bar so that we had an opportunity to chat with Mark and learn more about oysters, the Digby Scallop Festival in Nova Scotia and the Southern Ontario Oyster Shucking Championships that take place every summer at Rodney's on King Street West. $30 gets you in the door with tickets for 2 beers and 6 oysters. At last year's event, there were 900 people, 35 shuckers, 9 beer reps, wines from Cave Springs, lobster, chili, fried clams, and plenty of live music. I know where I'm going to be.

The daily selection of fresh oysters are highlighted on a central chalkboard

Rodney's offers a selection of five to ten different oysters daily, many drawn from their own beds in P.E.I., as well as the West Coast and abroad, with offerings that might include Merigomish from Nova Scotia, Rappahannock from Virginia, Totten from Washington, Kumamoto from Japan and Mystic from Connecticut. But with the oysters going for an average of $3, it quickly adds up to $36 per dozen. Inhale a dozen or two oysters, add a bottle of wine, and you can easily spend $200 for two. It's worth it.

A dozen fresh and fabulous oysters shucked by Mark: 
4 Village Bay from Nova Scotia, 4 Chef's Creek from BC, 4 Raspberry Point from PEI and 
2 Little Neck Clams from Wallace Bay, Nova Scotia

Rodney's homemade sauces for those who like their oysters with a little zing

Chef Sonia Potichnyj, former chef and co-owner of the Bloor West favourite Lemon Meringue, has taken Rodney's coastal eats upmarket with a menu of upscale fish house classics such as Willy Krauch Smoked Salmon with cream cheese, onions, capers and chili jelly; Trio of Tuna Tartares with soba noodles and a miso vinaigrette; and the ever-popular New England Clam Chowder. Mains include classic Fish & Chips made with Gritstone beer battered Nova Scotia wild haddock and served with house-cut frites and coleslaw with a lovely housemade tartare sauce; Braised Lamb Shanks with parsnip yukon purée and honey roasted heirloom carrots; Pistachio Herb Crusted Wild Pacific Halibut with spiced cauliflower purée and onion bhajis; and outstanding Seared Sea Scallops, perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious, with silky smooth butternut squash purée, sautéed brussel sprouts with roasted chestnuts and a sweet and smokey caramelized hickory bacon confit. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a scallop dish more.

Nova Scotia Wild Haddock Fish and Chips

Seared Sea Scallops with butternut squash purée, sautéed brussel sprouts and 
roasted chestnuts with a caramelized hickory bacon confit

Rodney's by Bay is a little gem and a great spot to sit back, relax and enjoy a dozen oysters, a bottle of wine and a fabulous meal. It's also conveniently located near the COC, which is where we were headed after dinner to see one of the best-loved operas of all time — Tosca — Puccini’s tale of a passionate woman caught in a web of corruption, lust, and betrayal as she navigates a twisted path through the beautiful and dangerous world of 19th-century Rome. What better way to prepare ourselves for this emotional onslaught, than with a dozen oysters, a delicious dinner and a bottle of Muscadet! Then the bill arrived and we had to dash. Aw shucks, and we were just getting started. 

Adrianne Pieczonka plays Tosca in this evening's performance

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Williams Landing: In the Heart of Liberty Village

Williams Landing is one of the newest additions to Liberty Village in the heart of the flourishing King West neighbourhood, stomping ground for many sexy new storefront businesses, film and television production companies and a growing residential community settling into the area's new condos and factory lofts. Behind the restaurant and bar are the owners of the Financial District’s South of Temperance and Leslieville’s Joy Bistro, and already, they seem to 
have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves.

William Landing's impressive four-sided indoor/outdoor bar

The focal point of Williams Landing is unquestionably its sleek second-floor patio with great views of the city, and its impressive four-sided bar that blends the spectacular indoor and outdoor space, perfect for open-air summer events and promotional theme-nights. At 5,000-square feet, it’s a sizeable restaurant, seating around 400 plus the terrace, which is where it all happens in the heat of the summer. "Williams Landing is meant to be a new hub for the neighbourhood, a locale that will hopefully become a community fixture". Judging by the popularity of the place during their Grand Opening this past summer, they're on the right track.

Williams Landing bustling Grand Opening - July 2012

The second floor perch of William Landing

The decor is by Toronto firm McMillan Design, one of the big design firms operating in the hospitality industry today, and whose work includes similar large bar-restos like Far Niente, Canyon Creek, Jack Astor’s and Alice Fazooli’s. Inside, they've used sustainable and recycled material as much as possible, with a combination of warm woods, industrial-inspired materials and innovative light fixtures to punctuate the restaurant's spacious modern interior. Beneath the undulating waves of the dining room’s fabulous wood ceiling, plush beige booths, private black leather VIP lounges and cool red chairs offer splashes of colour along with the banks of pulsing big screen TVs that flank the bar — a big draw for the neighbourhood sports fans.

The long bar with large screen TVs and over 16 beers on tap

The floor to ceiling wine cabinet with over 75 labels to choose from

The interior is a fluid mix of wood, stone and steel punctuated with soft seating, 
cool lighting fixtures and friendly servers, all colour coordinated in black

Libation-savvy bartenders keep patrons glasses full with a selection of artisanal beers, fine wines by the glass, and a bevy of handcrafted mixed drinks. Along with the classics, they offer delectable signature cocktails that change with the season, like the refreshing Pink Tarantula, made with tequila, pink grapefruit juice, agave nectar, fresh lime and pink peppercorns with a Himalayan rock salt rim, and the El César, made with a spicy Stolichnaya vodka, clamato juice, fresh basil and jalapeno pepper with a dash of hot sauce and garnished with a spicy bean and Thai chili pepper — Shazaam!

The Pink Tarantula

The El César

Williams Landing’s chef Marco D’Angelo, previously of E11even, and sous chef Beman Chan, are adept at creating a eclectic menu using fresh, local, organic, sustainable, and seasonal ingredients, infused with Latin, Moroccan, Asian and Italian influences. The kitchen staff also butcher, smoke, and cure all of their meats in-house, using Beretta Farms fresh ground beef and Willowgrove Hill Farms pork. 

Williams Landing’s chef Marco D’Angelo

Appetizers include succulent Crab Cakes that are delicate and delicious, bursting with large chunks of fresh crab and served with a cider tartar sauce, apple chive slaw and garnished with tasty little fried capers; as well as the Seared Sea Scallops, three perfectly cooked scallops served on a generous slice of house-cured pork belly with a drizzle of sweet maple glaze and garnished with wild arugula.

The succulent Crab Cakes with apple chive slaw and fried capers

Seared Sea Scallops on house-cured pork belly with a sweet maple glaze

Entrées include everything from burgers, sandwiches, pizzas and pastas like the Fettucine Forestière, with house-smoked chicken, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and parmesan; and more sophisticated entrées like the Mediterranean Pickerel wrapped in prosciutto, topped with a wonderfully salty Moroccan olive tapenade and served over a bed of saffron coloured Israeli couscous with a hidden treasure of baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, slivered almonds and dried apricots; and the Flatiron Steak Frites with house-cut frites and a truffle aioli. The William Landing menu is also vegan friendly, with certain dishes highlighted where tofu can be substituted in lieu of the fish or meat.

Williams Landing Mediterranean Prosciutto Wrapped Pickerel with 
Moroccan olive tapenade and Israeli couscous

Flatiron Steak Frites with house cut fries and fragrant truffle aioli

Desserts are tempting with creations like Toy Factory Cheesecake served with a trio of sauces and the Chocolate Dim Sum made with cheesecake filled fried wontons served a toblerone chocolate fondue and garnished with a berry coulis topped with a few fresh blueberries and raspberries. 

Chocolate Dim Sum with Toblerone chocolate fondue

With condos rising fast, the Liberty Village neighbourhood has become a beacon for young professionals in search of a relaxed place to go for drinks, dinner, or simply enjoy some appetizers before going out for a night on the town. Open seven days a week, with a relaxed atmosphere, and a friendly efficient staff serving an appetizing and eclectic menu, Williams Landing is an ideal place to kick back after work, especially if you live or work nearby.

Our fabulous server Ed - be sure to get a table in his section!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Eggplant Bharta: A Classic North Indian Dish

Of all the world cuisines, Indian is unquestionably my favourite. With its extraordinary layers of flavour and culinary complexity of aromatic spices, fresh herbs, and dazzling array of vegetarian dishes, daals and curries, India's range of cuisine delights and amazes most palates. Different regions in India offer their own specialties with their own unique taste, subtlety and aroma. A popular dish in the Punjab and Rajasthan region of northern-western India, is Eggplant Bharta, also known as Baingan Bharta, which was traditionally made by gently roasting eggplants in the ashes of a fire. An unlikely cooking method for modern day cooks, many choose to roast them in the oven instead, until they become wonderfully soft and tender.

Sautéed with chopped onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin and green chilis, many recipes call for fresh chopped tomatoes, but I prefer using tomato paste instead, as it adds a more robust flavour to the final dish. Some cooks also discard the skin from the eggplant, but I think that the taste and presentation is greatly enhanced by coarsely chopping the whole eggplant, rather than mashing it, as with a traditional Bharta. A nutritional powerhouse, eggplant is also low in fat and sodium, and high in dietary fibre and vitamins. Add to that the tomato, green chillies, onion and aromatic blend of spices, you also have a classic and delicious Indian dish — and vegetarian too.

Indian Eggplant Bharta
Serves 6-8
Modified from a recipe by Madhur Jaffrey

2 large eggplant
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 fresh hot green chili, seeded and finely chopped
3 tbsp cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 small can tomato paste
1 tsp salt
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tbsp ghee (optional)
2 tsp garam masala

Preheat oven to 375°F. Trim the ends off the eggplant and cut lengthwise into eighths. Place skin side down on a baking sheet and roast for 1 hour, until the flesh is browned. Remove the cooked eggplant from the oven and place on a sheet of tin foil, overlapping the slices into a mound. Seal the packet tightly, and set aside. 

Using a small food processor, blend the onion, ginger and garlic into a smooth paste. Add 3 tablespoons of water and continue to blend for one minute.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Pour in the paste from the blender and add the turmeric. Sauté this mixture stirring frequently for about 20-30 minutes. The paste will not brown but will reduce slightly. Add the green chili and cilantro and stir for 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove the eggplant from the foil. It will be very soft and tender. and coarsely chop into bite size pieces. Add the chopped eggplant to the sauce and cook for 10-15 minutes, seasoning with lemon juice, salt, garam masala and dollop of ghee for flavour. To serve, transfer the Eggplant Bharta to a warm dish and garnish with chopped cilantro. The Eggplant Bharta can also be kept warm over a very low heat until required.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Light Italian Wedding Soup

There are endless variations of Italian Wedding Soup, but the main elements are meatballs and greens. Delicious and low fat, this spa-inspired recipe is made with lean ground turkey, plenty of fresh dill and baby spinach in a clear chicken-based broth. While the name suggests that the soup might be served at an Italian wedding, it's actually a mistranslation of Minestra Maritata - 'maritare' means 'to wed' - a reference that through marrying vegetables with meat, it becomes a complete and balanced one-course meal. 

These little 'meatballs' are actually made with ground turkey and turkey sausage

Normally pasta is added to the soup before serving, but for a lighter calorie friendly soup, the pasta was omitted in this recipe — who needs the extra calories. Turkey, being low in fat and high in protein, is made even more heart smart by baking the aromatic little polpette in the oven rather than frying them, for a healthier take on a wonderfully delicious classic soup.

Light Italian Wedding Soup
Serves 8

For the 'meatballs':
3/4 pound ground turkey
1/2 pound turkey sausage, casings removed
2/3 cup fresh white bread crumbs
2 tsp minced garlic
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for serving
3 tbsp milk
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the soup:
2 tbsp good olive oil
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 cup diced carrots, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
3/4 cup diced celery, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
10 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup minced fresh dill
12 ounces baby spinach, washed and trimmed

Preheat the oven to 350°F. For the 'meatballs', place the ground turkey, sausage, bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, Pecorino, Parmesan, milk, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and combine gently with a fork. With a teaspoon, drop 1 to 1 1/4-inch 'meatballs' onto a baking sheet pan lined with parchment paper. The recipe should have about 40 meatballs. They don't have to be perfectly round. Bake for 30 minutes, until they're cooked through and lightly browned. Set aside.

In the meantime, for the soup, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and sauté until softened, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken stock and wine and bring to a boil. Add the fresh dill and then the meatballs to the soup and simmer for 1 minute. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in the fresh spinach and cook for 1 minute, until the spinach is just wilted. Ladle into soup bowls and sprinkle each serving with extra grated Parmesan.