Friday, November 04, 2011

A new beginning

If there is anyone out there still following us, we have, for better or for worse, made the move to the GTA. It was a little sad leaving the familiar tastes and cuisine behind, but we're looking forward to having some new places to explore! Stay tuned...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Uptown 21 -Tapas Nights

In honor of Uptown 21's prestigious inclusion in the 2010 edition of Where to Eat in Canada, we decided to pay them a visit on their Tuesday Tapas night. This regularly weekly night features an all-you-can-eat option of tapas dishes (small, appetizer like plates) that the kitchen keeps sending at you until you beg for no more. And then desserts come. There is a $25 (vegetarian) option and a $35 (carnivore) option which includes meats and seafood. While not all dishes are home runs, the overall quality is very high and for the price it's a great value. Uptown 21 is rapidly becoming one of our favourite restaurants in the Waterloo region. Without further ado, here are some pics and short comments from our last two visits.

Seems like this is the standard appetizer as we received it on both our visits. Toasted bread with goat cheese and tomatoes. Very nice.

Double smoked pork hock infused whiskey with orange juice. The initial taste was orange juice, but the nice smokey pork flavour lingered on the palate. The OJ was an interesting choice, but added too much freshness to something that's probably better as a darker, savoury drink. Perhaps with tonic water and a pickled onion instead.

Roasted vegetables with shaved Parmesan

Warm olives in bacon fat. There's probably a more technical name for it, but it's salty, greasy, and delicious.

Chilled vegetable gazpacho

Fish and creamed spinach with balsamic reduction

Duck, mushrooms and truffle oil on toasted walnut bread with shaved Parmesan. My favourite dish of the night, very rich, intense flavours. We jumped on the opportunity to get a second helping of this one.

Mushroom stew with frisée

Cucumber and strawberry salad with balsamic dressing. Not a great combination of flavours in my opinion, and a little heavy on dressing.

Poutine with truffle oil. By this time we were pretty stuffed and a heavy dish like this didn't go down too well. Would have been good earlier in the night I think. Or if we didn't have that second helping of the duck dish.

Cauliflower and potato fritters with cucumber purée and chili oil. Anything deep fried is tasty, but smaller fritters probably would have prevented the cauliflower from getting too mushy inside.

Grilled shiitake mushroom cap

Tuna croquette. A little dry.

Pork sausage with sauerkraut. Lean and meaty with a rustic texture that's miles beyond anything you'd find in a grocery store.

Summer salad - tomatoes, cucumber and basil

Garlic scapes and asparagus. Very flavourful.

Battered fish with corn relish

Fries are addictive in general, but watch out for these ones. There was just something about the seasoning that made them vanish quickly. Bacon fat?

I guess when you put out a lot of dishes you can't make a separate sauce for everything. The corn relish was repeated here, similar to balsamic reductions on other nights.

Clams in a roasted red pepper soup with lots of bacon bits. The smokiness from the red peppers and bacon really went well together and made for a very complex flavour.

Doughnuts with rhubarb jam and crème fraîche. Desserts are also unlimited and keep on coming, but after our visits, we concluded that they are not his strong points. Most were very simple and felt very one dimensional compared to the savoury dishes. That said, the doughnuts were probably the best dessert.

Chocolate cake with whipped cream and apples

Chocolate mousse

Cookies. What is that in the middle of that cookie? Yes, bacon. I love my bacon as much as the next man (and clearly so does the chef), but just say no if it comes in a cookie.

Strawberry and rhubarb pastry

Overall, it's a tremendous value and opportunity to sample a wide variety of dishes, not to mention a great way to get people in on a traditionally slow night. I'd recommend trying as many savoury dishes as you like, and not worry too much about saving room for a lot of dessert.

Sapphire also has some comments about their cocktails:

After the mediocre cocktail I had during our first visit, we just stuck with ordering food only. Recently I felt they should be given a chance to redeem themselves, and they did! Nick and Nat's culinary creativity extends to their cocktail menu as well. Fresh ingredients translate into vibrant drinks. My favorite is the Caipirinha (although there's no way I could tell if I got cachaça or rum with it); I can sip on it (ahem, "them" if counted by glass) the whole night. When you order drinks, do ask for the day's specials. The most interesting items are normally not from the menu.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Fireside Deli & Family Restaurant

Fireside Deli & Family Restaurant

800 Ottawa St. S.,
Kitchener, Ontario

When a door closes, a window opens. With the arrival of Baby Martini, our chance to dine out has been limited. On the other hand, we've been wanting to visit the Fireside Restaurant for a while. Now with a kid of our own, we seem to fit in better in this family restaurant.

We went there around noon on Sunday. The lineup was intimidating -- the tiny reception area was packed shoulder to shoulder, and the line went out the door. Luckily the line moved fast; they seem to have worked out a formula to have a high table turnover rate.

While being seated, we were offered either a high chair or booster seat. By the way, they use Bumbo seats as the high chair. So cute yet so practical. Since this was our first visit, we asked for both breakfast and lunch menus.

We ordered the following items plus drinks:

Pork souvlaki, with rice, french fries, salad and tzatziki sauce.

Fireside's classic burger with additional bacons, served with french fries

Chicken tenders kids meal

We couldn't close our jaws when the food arrived. The portions were HUMONGOUS. I was so full after having the burger alone. TripleQ had less than half of his pork souvlaki. Then all three of us managed to finish the chicken tenders. That was it! We packed the rest and it became our lunch the next day. I don't remember when was the last time I had so many fries at once.

Most of the food was overcooked, but not terribly so. My favorite was the burger. Meaty patty with lettuce, red onions and tomatoes served on grilled bun. A very satisfying experience. The chicken tender dish is also worth mentioning. Although the batter was quite thick and it seemed to be refried (some parts were really overcooked), at least it was made of real chicken meat; unlike the chicken fingers/nuggets normally served in kids meals which are made of ground up and reconsituted meat with filler.  The souvlaki meat was pretty dry, but the typical sides of rice, salad and fries were very generous and well done.

We can totally see ourselves arranging family get-togethers at the Fireside Restaurant, just like many others.  It’s really a fantastic, friendly and down to earth family diner and the long lines and crowds reflect it.  When you do go, it's better to makes reservations since we saw several big groups having to wait (much) longer than we did.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hashimoto Kaiseki Yu-zen


6435 Dixie Rd., Unit 10
Mississauga, Ontario

This review is in response to Ms Kates' review published in the Globe and Mail. I have been putting off writing a review of Hashimoto; I feel I'm obliged to describe the food and the experience as a whole at the same artistic level as the art-form/meal presented to us. Ms Kates' review is certainly the catalyst of this post.

We have been to Hashimoto's Mississauga location several times until it became outrageously expensive. First we went there two years in a row to celebrate my birthday - there are few things in the world better than an intricate, beautifully-crafted meal. Since Kaiseki Ryori emphasizes bringing out the most flavor of seasonal ingredients as possible, we then realized that we should visit Hashimoto at different times of the year. Although the chef promised that he would email us the pictures, we only received pictures for ONE of our visits. A picture is worth a thousand words, without further ado, here are the pictures sent by Hashimoto.

I won't bore you with the origin of Kaiseki Ryori; abundant information is available on the Internet. In short Kaiseki represents the most sophisticated form of Japanese cuisine. Each dish is a painting, a miniature landscape, a self-inclusive cosmos. It is like poetry on the plate, intriguing you with its brief yet immortal beauty. Kaiseki is the Japanese interpretation of food enlightenment.

With perfectionism deeply programmed in the genes of the Japanese, Kaiseki is, naturally, the quest for perfection. What is perfection? How can it be achieved? Where can you get the BEST ingredients? How was it handled? How fresh is it? How should it be prepared? In Kates' review, she suggested that Hashimoto should use local ingredients to lower the costs. I don't think she understands the integrity of Kaiseki Ryori. The chefs take pride on offering nothing but the ultimate. I wouldn't be surprised if Hashimoto decides to use acupuncture-treated fish to retain the best flavor. Some chefs achieve near perfection based on their classical training and working with familiar ingredients sourced from trusted suppliers. Their mission is to extend the tradition. Using foreign ingredients is, simply put, unacceptable. In their eyes, Iron Chefs Michiba and Morimoto are radical.

However, it is almost sad to see Kaiseki Ryori going down this route. Originally created as a light meal consumed prior to tea ceremony or as its name "Holding Stone" suggests, a monk pressed a heated stone on his (empty) stomach to keep warm during meditation. The emphasis is on the harmony of man and nature. In today's language: sustainable slow food. How it deviates from philosophical enlightenment to elaborate materialism really puzzles me.

If a Kaiseki restaurant uses local ingredients instead of luxury imports, will it lose its aura (as fancy Japanese food)? This leads to another question: how much should Hashimoto charge for his creations? How do you assign a monetary value to such craftsmanship? With the intensive labor for small number of guests, there's a reason that Hashimoto has to charge so much. But that's about as expensive as dining at Fat Duck, one of the most highly-rated restaurants in the world, and I'm not sure I would place Hashimoto at that level. But it is true it will be a "once-a-lifetime" dining experience.

That being said. If you are willing to spend $500+ to experience the ultimate form of Japanese cuisine, I'll say you should visit Hashimoto. This saves you a trip to Japan. (And there's no guarantee you'll get satisfying experience in Japan; the really high-end ryotei (restaurants) might not welcome foreigners in fear of being labeled as a "faux-Kaiseki" restaurant which only attracts tourists who know little about Kaiseki, or simply afraid that they cannot provide the level of service they're known for.) The quality of food at Hashimoto is unparalleled even by the Japanese standard. Unless you're Japanese or at least fluent in Japanese, this is as close to (traditional) Kaiseki Ryori as you can get.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Bauer Kitchen

The Bauer Kitchen
187 King St. South
Waterloo, Ontario

I really wanted to like this restaurant. It has a long and successful pedigree (Charcoal Group - owner of Charcoal and Wildcraft, amongst other local places), it's participating in the urbanization of Uptown Waterloo which I heartily support, and it has a great industrial chic vibe to it inside. The decor is interesting and it seems to have less of a focus on the bar compared to Wildcraft; however, after a couple of visits I was ultimately disappointed with the single most important aspect of a restaurant - the food.

My first visit (sorry, no pictures from this one) was quite acceptable - duck confit spring rolls with a spicy orange sauce were fried crispy and had a generous filling of shredded duck, and the braised short rib gnocchi was also a generous and flavourful meaty offering. It was the aftermath that wasn't so nice - a severe case of food poisoning that had me up all night. Now, one can never be 100% certain of the cause but I had nothing else strange that day so it seems that it was the likely culprit.

The second visit was a lot better from my stomach's perspective, but not for my tastebuds. (Apologies for the dark pictures - it is difficult to take good pictures by candlelight with a point and shoot - but in this case it's somewhat appropriate as the flavours match the lighting).

To start off, we were offered the usual bread. It was purported to be freshly baked that day, but judging from the texture, it seemed at least a day old. It set the tone for the evening though, as what followed was almost a complete disaster.

First appetizer: Hand made beef short rib ravioli, truffled leek cream, red wine jus and fried shallots. ($11.95)

This was literally one big ravioli and looked a bit odd especially with the sauce running all over the plate. It was under seasoned and bland. Beef ribs should have a deep, meaty flavour but this was just completely flat and a touch dry. Same with the red wine jus, which added no punch to the flavour. The best part was the pasta which was fresh and cooked properly. I should have stuck to my vow never to order pasta at a restaurant, but was fooled by the promise of the beef short ribs this time.

Second appetizer: Steak tartare with quail egg, shallots, lemon zest, capers, garlic and crostini. ($9.95)

Sapphire had the steak tartare. It had a fairly unique presentation with the spices laid out separately on the side and the egg on top, so one could presumably mix them together in a proportion that would please their palate. It wasn't a very generous serving of steak and Sapphire said the spices reminded her of the flavouring packet from instant noodles. Although considering she sometimes eats the dried noodles straight up, that might be a compliment.

First main: Duck confit pizza with honey roasted pears, thyme, caramelized onions, stilton cheese and roasted garlic ($14.95)

On paper this seemed to be a fairly straight-forward flavour combination, but the duck was dry and tasteless, the pears tasted like styrofoam (and not even honey roasted styrofoam), and there wasn't enough cheese to pick things up. The crust was crispy and well done though, and it appears they have a stone oven to cook pizzas in.
Second main: Pan-seared Ontario duck with grilled sweet potato medallions, red pepper, wilted spinach, thyme and pear relish. ($23.95)

We'll often try to order dishes that we wouldn't normally cook at home - and as you might guess, duck is one of them. So we've had a lot of experience eating duck in restaurants, and this dish missed on many aspects. A well seasoned and properly seared duck breast should have a meaty, smoky flavour. This one was missing all of that, plus the fat wasn't rendered off sufficiently, ruining the texture as well as the flavour. As with all the other dishes, this was under-seasoned. We thought perhaps this was for health reasons - cutting back on sodium? But alas, the spinach was swimming in butter. Other items were unremarkable, although I'm not sure quickly grilling thick slabs of sweet potato was the best idea.

Dessert: Chocolate walnut brownie with silken chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet. ($7.45)

There is a separate pastry chef listed on the menu, and the dessert reflected it. While it was not particularly outstanding or innovative, we were simply happy at this point to be served a well executed dish. The brownie was rich, dense, and very chocolately. It paired nicely with the mousse for texture, and the raspberry sorbet for flavour contrast. It was, unfortunately, the highlight of the evening.

Service was up to the standards we expected from a place like this. The front desk was overstaffed (a good thing) and we didn't have to wait for our jackets to be taken or our table. The kitchen was a little on the slow side (might explain things drying out?) but nothing outrageous.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about the dinner we had and this review. I'd really like to chalk it up to a bad day (by either the kitchen or our tastebuds) but there were so many things wrong with both visits that we'll have a hard time going back to give them a third chance. I'm sure many customers and readers will disagree, judging by the buzz and the crowds they are still attracting, but with all the options available in Waterloo now I have a hard time wanting to return.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21

Nick and Nat's Uptown 21
21 King St. North
Waterloo, Ontario
(between Erb and Dupont St.)

Lunch 11:30AM - 2PM, Tuesday - Friday
Dinner 5PM - , Tuesday - Saturday

If my memory serves me right, Uptown 21 first opened its door December 2008. Both proprietors, the chef and the manager, were originally from Hannah’s Bella Bistro. The decor is mostly the same from the now defunct Salute with some personal touches; for example, a wall of shelves full of pickled vegetables jars.

Lunch items, all served with soup of your choice, salad or fries, range from $12 to $14. They also offer a three-course prix fixe option for $25. If you order dinner a la carte, it can easily add up to $50+ per person for a three-course meal, so the three-course ($35) or four-course ($45) prix fixe options are highly recommended. By the way, all prix fixe menus change daily.

Other than the “cider beer tempura of fresh tuna”, the idea “eat local” is heavily promoted. They even installed the supplier’s name plate on the kitchen range hood. I myself also side with the "eat local" concept so Uptown 21 certainly gains bonus points on this.

During one of our visits, we had the following items:

  • Dinner four-course prix fixe (two options for each course).
  • Foie gras of the day: foie gras poutine with truffle
  • Cocktail, the Uptown
the Uptown - vodka, red Alizé passion fruit liqueur, sparkling wine, grapefruit and cranberry juice

Normally I order the cocktail named after the restaurant (I believe many people would), mainly because I automatically assume that it should be the signature drink. The composition also looks good on paper - with the clean vodka backbone and a bit of fizz from the sparkling wine, the tartness of the grapefruit juice and cranberry juice should balance well with the Alizé passion fruit liqueur. RIGHT?

It was surprisingly flat.

The bland syrupy liqueur totally dominated the drink and made it taste artificial. The juice, probably from some concentrate mix, wasn't of much help either. This is one example of good concept with poor execution. If I were the owner/bartender, I would look into changing the name of the drink or fine-tuning it. Simply removing it from the menu would do, too.

The food, however, is a lot more interesting and packed with character.

We were tempted by the description of the foie gras of the day so we ordered it in addition to the four-course prix fixe. DON'T DO THAT! The portion of every course was generous. We should have scaled back to three-course prix fixe with that foie gras dish.

The foie gras of the day was foie gras poutine with truffle. The portion was generous; a big plate full of skinny crispy fries topped with brandy-glazed foie gras bits and truffle sauce. Brandy was not completely burned off so TripleQ, who rarely drinks, found it a bit overwhelming. I myself enjoyed this course very much. It was rich and flavorful, completely maxed out the "umami" meter (if there is one). Price-wise though, this is not your everyday comfort food.

We both ordered the four-course prix fixe menu. There were at least two options for each course so we ordered different items to maximize our sampling.

First courses:
  • Crisp fried frog legs with an espresso-ancho dusting served with a radish and jalapeno salsa and chive sour cream
  • House-made lamb and smoked boar chorizo with herbed crème fraiche and olive-basil pesto

The chorizo was quite lean. I don't remember TripleQ commenting on it.
The frog legs were over-fried so they weren't as juicy and tender as I expected. But it might just be the spice mix overpowering its delicate flavor. By the way, I wonder where they can get frog legs locally. I would love to get some.

Second courses:
  • Cream of asparagus and fiddlehead soup

  • Shaved asparagus, greens, aged goat cheese, toasted almonds and rhubarb chutney

I had the soup. With the distinctive asparagus flavor, it is something you either like it or you dislike it. The salad composition sounds appealing; however, TripleQ (again) quietly worked through it stoically. Something funny was going on in that dish: all the ingredients were obviously fresh and it was seasoned. Still, I didn’t feel the whole dish came together. Could it be proportions? Maybe some asparagus could have been treated differently (e.g., grilled) to add dimensions to the dish? Maybe the almonds could have been toasted a tad longer? A squeeze of lemon juice to spike the flavor? I watched TripleQ’s fork repeatedly poking and picking up each piece, with no intention to share/help. :p

Third courses:
  • Moroccan style paella with dried fruit, almonds, and olive studded saffron rice simmered with fresh seafood and smoked garlic sauce
  • Roasted duck breast fanned over crisp fried sage spatzle, fiddleheads, asparagus and duck confit finished with a sherry jus

Compared with the previous course, both options of the third course were extremely savory. The chef really managed to showcase the gamey side of duck meat. As for the paella, TripleQ was awfully quiet that night but this time I am sure he was just too busy (in eating) to talk. I have to admit that between the two, the paella wins the title of “the” comfort food.

Last courses (desserts):
  • Goat cheese mousse with praline maple and a fresh doughnut
  • Parfait of chocolate cake, chocolate gelato and a rhubarb strawberry compote

The doughnut was really cute sitting in the glass. It won't be fair for me to comment on the taste since I am not a big fan of goat cheese, and the goat cheese had a strong presence in that dish! As for the dessert I had, at first I was just ok with the chocolate cake dessert. The more I dug into it, the more nostalgic I felt. It is just like the brownie with strawberry syrup I had as a kid when dining out with parents. I don’t know why but all of sudden I thought of the scene in the movie “Ratatouille”, when the food critic dropped his spoon and had his childhood flashbacks after he sampled Remy’s ratatouille. (And coincidentally, I write restaurant reviews just like that mean food critic!)

Now let’s recap all the dishes we had for the night:
- Crisp fried frog legs with an espresso-ancho dusting served with a radish and jalapeno salsa and chive sour cream
- House-made lamb and smoked boar chorizo with herbed crème fraiche and olive-basil pesto
- Cream of asparagus and fiddlehead soup
- Shaved asparagus, greens, aged goat cheese, toasted almonds and rhubarb chutney
- Moroccan style paella with dried fruit, almonds, and olive studded saffron rice simmered with fresh seafood and smoked garlic sauce
- Roasted duck breast fanned over crisp fried sage spatzle, fiddleheads, asparagus and duck confit finished with a sherry jus
- Goat cheese mousse with praline maple and a fresh doughnut
- Parfait of chocolate cake, chocolate gelato and a rhubarb strawberry compote

It is quite obvious that today’s (vegetable) feature of the day were asparagus and fiddlehead. The chef also had a good supply of goat cheese and a huge jar of rhubarb handy.

Eating local, sustainable produce is a good cause. A chef earns my respect instantly if he/she is willing to source local sustainable products plus changing menus daily. For the level of work he/she has to go through, it takes tremendous determination! But will I go to a restaurant simply based on those factors? Food is meant to be enjoyed after all. If I have to eat so righteously (or shall we say, politically correct?), I find it a bit hard to swallow.

In my opinion, a customer will likely return if 1) food is good; 2) service makes you feel right at home; 3) dirt cheap; 4) no where else to go (luckily #4 is rarely the case in KW). As an independent business determined to provide quality food, it's understandable that #3 is out of question for Uptown 21. Also, it might be quite a stretch to achieve #2 since the service we received wasn't that memorable (on a not-so-busy night). So the deciding factor to attract returning customers for Uptown 21 will be squarely on #1. Both TripleQ and I feel that some items could have turned out better, with more experience and polish. We'd rather see a well sought-after seasonal menu. If it's too boring, make it weekly.

Although we hope that all restaurants thrive in KW, Uptown 21 is definitely one of the few that we really want them to stay. I always enjoy dining at a bistro - small operation with quality (local) food. A place you know you can always take your friends to which is not uptight, yet the food can satisfy any self-acclaimed foodie.

Every city should have at least one of those gathering places, and Uptown 21 has the potential to be one for Uptown Waterloo.