stop #6: Prague Deli and Fine Food Emporium
For us, no visit to Toronto is complete without a trip to the Prague Deli on Queen St. It is one of the only surviving signs of the huge Czech popluation that immigrated to Toronto in the late '60s (I should know, my parents came over as part of that wave and I'm a product of that very scene)--and at this point Montreal has virtually no Czech presence,* so we're generally starved for Czech treats. We always pop in for a chlebíček (an open-faced sandwich which is ubiquitous within Prague's working-class delis) and a kolač (a type of danish, of which the blackberry version is particularly recommended). This time around we were shocked to see they'd renovated since our last visit. They've modernized the place and made it more contemporary and "inviting," which took me aback at first. Then I realized that the place was full of people, and this was just the change that would keep the place open and running for years to come. And that's definitely a good thing. The service is very Czech: maybe a little brusque at first, but proper pronunciation of the menu items gets you treated like a dignitary.
stop #7: Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar
Through Les Chèvres, Michelle developed a pretty strong connection with the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar (JKWB). First, there was Melissa who left a position as a line chef at Les Chèvres to seek fame and fortune (or at least some new experiences) in Toronto about a year ago, and eventually found herself with a dream job at JKWB. Then there was Renée, the pastry chef at JKWB, who spent a couple of weeks at Les Chèvres doing a stage earlier this year because (other chefs, take note) Mr. Kennedy is a big proponent of sending his chefs into the field to pick up expertise at other leading restaurants. Renée really enjoyed spending time in the "Patricerie" at Les Chèvres and she and Michelle hit it off in the time she was around. When it came time for her to head back to Toronto, she made Michelle promise that the next time we were in Hogtown we'd stop by for a meal. And, Michelle being a woman of her word, we did.
From the moment we stepped in, announced ourselves to the hostess, and were greeted with an, "Oh, my God! It's so nice to meet you! Your seats are almost ready. Make yourselves comfortable in the lounge, your Bellinis are on their way!," we knew the night was going to be one to remember. We're not all that accustomed to getting that kind of a reception--it's safe to say that we usually fly beneath the radar--but we took it in stride. Minutes later, having stretched out on a couch, sipped our Bellinis, and taken in the scene--the intriguing layout with the twin bars (one "wet" and one "dry"), the monumental floor-to-ceiling wall display of canned goods, the lively atmosphere--we were escorted to our seats at the "dry" bar, the one that faces the wine bar's external kitchen. Our hostess had recommended seats there so we could check out the cooks doing what they do best, and we jumped at the opportunity--we love sitting at the counter of a good sushi bar, and we were sure this was going to be similarly entertaining.
From the moment we sat down at the bar, we quickly established a rapport with the chef operating closest to us. He'd picked up on the fact that we were receiving preferential treatment for some reason, and he jumped right in and started sassing us about it, addressing us as "Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller" and the like. He started to warm up to us as soon as he found out we were from Montreal, though, and when he found out Michelle was a fellow restaurant person, and a cook at Les Chèvres no less, well, he started doting on us too. Then Renée came out with her friend Tobey to greet us, and things really got underway--from that point on, the dishes kept coming at us in rapid succession and the wine flowed. It was only later that we figured out that Tobey was the chef at JKWB. Suffice to say, we were in good hands.
We started off with the brilliant charcuterie plate, featuring an absolutely luscious house duck liver pâté and a breathtaking selection of house-cured meats. Not only did the plate come with a brilliant wine pairing--a lovely 2001 Gewürtztraminer, J.M. Sohler's "Heissenberger"--but it came with exceptional bread, baked on premises and made with Canada's heritage Red Fife flour, one of the Slow Food Foundations "Presidia" products. Already, just these three elements--the house-made charcuterie, the wine, and the bread--summed up so much of what's special at JKWB: the honesty, the attention to detail, the respect for local, heirloom, and heritage ingredients, the imagination--and that was just the first course. Other standouts included their simple but lovely green salad with lovage dressing and artisanally grown organic greens, a juicy, perfectly seasoned hanger steak with fried green tomatoes, and grilled Portuguese sardines with a tangy chermoula. Course after course hit the spot, with nary a dud among them--the fact that we enjoyed the witty repartee of our cook friend the whole time, made the cavalcade of mouth-watering dishes all the more impressive. We talked Montreal, we talked organics, we talked Vancouver Island, Saveur magazine, and Sooke Harbour House, and all the while he plated dish after dish after delicious dish. Our one whimsical selection was the coq au vin poutine. We thought it would be hilarious to pull into Toronto from Montreal and order poutine, at the JKWB of all places. Boy, were we wrong. That poutine was dead serious: the chicken tender yet robust, the Yukon Gold fries beautifully golden-brown, the cheese squeaky-fresh. An unlikely combo, but no less of a knockout for it. When it came to wind down, we did so in style, with a full cheese course, featuring Ontario's finest, and an accompanying Ontario Pinot Noir, Niagara Teaching College's 2004 "Wismer Vineyard." We were in need of an education in Ontario wines and cheeses--both of which are much maligned in Quebec for no good reason--and we figured there was no better place to get it. Both were excellent, and we rounded the corner towards Renée's much-anticipated desserts invigorated.
Good thing, because the desserts quite nearly stole the show. We were a little worried we might get buried--restaurant staff have a tradition of "killing" the staff of other restaurants when they come by for a visit--but instead Renée took the Roberta Flack approach, killing us softly with a perfectly composed sampler of desserts including two sparkling sorbets, golden plum and raspberry, a blancmange with petits fruits, and a mini bundt cake with lavender honey crème fraîche. These were among the very best desserts I'd had all year, and together the assortment brought the meal to a perfect conclusion: they were light on the palate, seasonal, and memorable.
When we'd polished off the very last morsel, the only thing left to do was take a tour of the kitchen to check out the behind-the-scenes activity, meet all the superstars who'd contributed to our V.I.P. Night 2006, and sneak a peek at Tobey's smokehouse.
Okay, okay, we got seriously spoiled, but there's no question in our minds that the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar is a place well worth checking out.
stop #8: Aunties and Uncles
I'd been to this retro-chic diner before on a conference visit, Michelle hadn't. We were a bit worried we might have to mix it up with the punters to get a seat, seeing as Auntie's and Uncle's is a popular neighborhood hang-out and it was Sunday brunch primetime, but we got seated within minutes. Michelle was instantly smitten--I could tell she loved the mismatched arborite tables and the rummage-sale cutlery, and the comfort food breakfasts were right up her alley. She opted for a breakfast burrito with chorizo, but only on the condition that I made sure to keep her plied with some of the copious amounts of peameal bacon that came with my plate. All the egg dishes were good--so were the breakfast sandwiches and the house specialty potato salad. We took in the hipster scene and whiled away the late-morning.
Remember that monumental wall of canned goods at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar? Well, when we saw it, we immediately knew we were on the same wavelenght with Jamie Kennedy & co. You see, we'd gone to Toronto for the weekend with the intention to get some canning done along the way. We'd been having a hard time finding peaches that were passing muster back in Montreal; we figured there had to be better Ontario peaches in Ontario, so Michelle got Renée to order in a crate for her. We picked it up and paid for it when we made our kitchen inspection, and we were right, they were a lot better than the ones we'd found to date. So the next day, Sunday, while I went out on a mid-afternoon ouzo bender, Michelle made use of our hostess's beautiful kitchen to can her latest acquisitions. As you can see, they turned out well. We left a jar with our hostess and took the rest back home to Montreal with us the next day.
stop #9: Yung Sing Bakery
We got turned on to Yung Sing by our friend Sandy, years and years ago. Since then, no visit to Toronto has been complete without at least a BBQ pork bun or a tofu roll. This time around, we snuck in on our way out of town. We couldn't bear the thought of leaving without popping in. Plus, we needed a good lunch to face that culinary wasteland that is the 401. After ordering my BBQ pork bun I noticed a mounted photograph of the proud owners in front of their bakery all the way back in 1968. I asked the woman who was serving me, the matriarch, about the photo and she began to giggle excitedly as she went back and pulled it down so that I could have a closer look. With the attire and the vintage quality of the image it almost looked like an outtake from Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. I'm happy to say that Yung Sing Bakery is almost 40 years old and it's still going strong.
stop #10: Randy's Take-Out
So good we went there twice. This time on our way out of town, after our pitstop at Yung Sing. After all, the 401 is incredibly bleak food-wise, and it's always wise to be prepared for every eventuality. You never know when you might need the soothing flavors of a tasty Jamaican patty.
Prague Deli and Fine Food Emporium, 638 Queen St. W., (416) 504-5787
Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, 9 Church Street, (416) 362-1957
Aunties and Uncles, 74 Lippincott Street, (416) 324-1375
Yung Sing Bakery, 22 Baldwin, at McCaul, (416) 979-2832
Randy's Bakery, 1569 Eglinton Avenue West, (416) 781-5313
*R.I.P. Café Toman.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
stop #6: Prague Deli and Fine Food Emporium