Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Benjamin's Restaurant & Inn

Benjamin's Restaurant & Inn
1430 King St. North
St. Jacobs, Ontario N0B 2N0

Benjamin's Restaurant and Inn is located at the north end of "downtown" St Jacobs. Although I never quite understand why St Jacobs attracts so many tourists, it is indeed a small pretty town. There are unique shops and studios, and plants in the planters are so perfect they almost look unreal. Most of the restaurants, if not all, in St Jacobs are along the King Street. They range from casual to formal, with Benjamin Restaurant sitting on the higher end.

I have to admit that I was slightly reluctant to set my foot into Benjamin's the first time. For some reason I thought it was a place more suited for the tourists than the locals, with so-so food, slow service, not-so-friendly staff and worn (but charming in some people's eyes) settings. I'd rather wait in the long line to get in the Stone Crock Restaurant. Good thing that I gave it (and myself) a chance. We've been there several times after my first visit.

The following notes were taken during our recent visits:

The bread is in general nice and moist. Normally we are offered the sliced multigrain variety but occasionally we get bread with vegetable bits (zucchini maybe?) in it.

Calamari- lemon thyme marinated calamari tubes, gilled over open flame, accompanied w q truffled greens salads and an orange vanilla aioli

They did an outstanding job of grilling the calamari; it had great texture. Not like it is that difficult to get it right - fresh squid and a quick grill will do, but you'll be surprised how few restaurants offer this light and healthy item. However, I didn't taste much truffle in the salad. Also, the orange vanilla aioli seemed out of place; it goes better with the deep-fried calamari.

We've tried scallops prepared in different ways. Although they never overcooked our scallops, the dishes didn't seem to reach their full potential. This might sound abstract but I can explain why.

Grilled jumbo sea scallops basted with sesame soya glaze accompanied by tamarind noodle salad and mango oil.
Sea scallops: grilled scallops over nuttery spheghetti squash w pancetta crisp n roasted tomato n smoked paprika coulis

Like the grilled calamari, the texture of the scallops was good. But the excellence stopped there. In the noodle salad dish, the scallops were slightly under-seasoned. The concept of tamarind and mango is great but I couldn't taste either in that dish. The scallops with squash, pancetta and roasted tomatoes sound wonderful as a fall/winter dish. In reality the depth and smokiness were missing. The tomatoes weren't roasted enough to compete with other ingredients; they weren't refreshing enough to cut through the grease either. The smoky paprika coulis, which was supposed to envelop the dish with big bold flavor, was also lacking. After the initial tasting my only thought was, "Why?" Why is every ingredient reasonably prepared but they just don't form a nice dish when put together?

It seems all the dishes we had at Benjamin's suffer from the same shortfalls. The grilled elk chops or lamb chops were succulent but not quite memorable. And it's not like no attention was given to the sides. Once we had fresh corn shoots sprinkled on our mains. It isn't a common ingredient and I definitely appreciate the thought of showcasing the local produce. However, its flavour was so unique and intense that it didn't quite get along with the rest of the dish. I understand how hectic and unpredictable it is being in the kitchen but it will take more work on tweaking the flavours and better execution to bring Benjamin's to the level of sophistication it (intends to) be.

Having said that, food in general is still quite enjoyable. The service is always friendly though slow at times. And the place does have a homey, country feel to it which makes it good for tourists and locals alike to feel welcome in St Jacobs.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


203 King St. South
Waterloo, Ontario
(between Allen and John)

TripleQ and I have frequented Sabletine since it was first open. I could have posted a review of this patisserie a few months ago; however, there's always a voice whispering in my head, "Why not write about it after you try everything?" Ahem, what a sweet goal!

It is reasonable to assume that TripleQ and I are not into desserts judging by the contents of our blog. The truth is, I LOVE desserts, so much that one year I gave TripleQ a standalone mixer as "his" Christmas gift. Before Baby Martini's arrival, I used to spend hours in the kitchen making desserts. And by default, TripleQ is my assistant. (Strangely my patience in cooking is only limited to making desserts. Once my attempt at making California rolls resulted in flying fish eggs, imitation crab meat and avocados on top of plain rice, with seaweed on the side and cucumbers in the fridge.) To me making and having desserts is relaxing and almost therapeutic.

On the other hand, finding a bakery whose products are both delicious and easy on the eye has been a long and frustrating experience. Most of the time sweets are taken so literally; the sweetness dominates other senses, you might as well dive into a sugar jar. The finishes on some cakes are so messy, I have the urge to take out my offset spatula to smooth things out. Not to mention cakes with a phony taste, I feel as if I bite into styrofoam. Indeed there are several popular cafes/bakeries such as Cafe Mozart, Yukiko's and Nougat, just to name a few. Their cakes are decent; however, my quest doesn't stop there - I yearn for something more refined, more complex and more adventurous.

Call me girlie. Whenever I see beautiful, neatly-decorated pastries, I get so excited. I can't help biting my fingers, eyes scanning through each item like laser beams, shrieking while trying not to make nose prints on the display windows. The blemish-less, even-sized berries, the velvety chocolate ganache coating, arrays of circles, oblongs, rectangles and triangles in various colors and finishes...that's so...heavenly. I can never get tired of looking at those little dandy works of art. During our trips to Tokyo and Paris, my "dessert-dar" operated at its full potential, I wished my stomach was 100 times bigger so I could sample all the pastries in sight. I always remember the chocolate cake we got from Fauchon, not simply because of its flavor but how/where it was enjoyed - we had it on the grass in front of Louvre because I couldn't wait to find a more appropriate location; "I want it NOW"! I felt slightly guilty before we dug in to that cute little object but once we started, it was the point of no return. The cake was composed of three different chocolates, with a nutty crunchy core and a full hazelnut in the center. It was very rich and sweet but well-balanced - smooth and crunchy, dense and airy, bitter and sweet. We wanted to savor every bite, yet our hands couldn't slow down digging through its remains. After each trip (to Tokyo and to Paris), we couldn't bring ourselves to get pastries here for weeks. Am I asking too much? I think not. We can get nicely plated desserts, why can't we get equally, aesthetically pleasing pastries here?

One day TripleQ came home from work with a little paper box. He looked at me with a faint mysterious smile when I opened the box. His smile broadened when I shrieked. Since then we become regulars at Sabletine. Kate, the owner and baker of Sabletine, used to work in pastry shops in Toronto. She decided to open her shop in town to be close to her family. It's pretty much a one-person operation with help from friends and families. From my observation, things are gone fast especially after lunch hours; however, you can always call in advance to reserve.

My absolutely favorite from Sabletine is the lemon tart. The lemon aroma is pungent yet elegant. If your impression of lemon tarts is some sugary blob with overpowering, artificial lemon flavor, you should try the Sabletine's version. Unlike the conventional tarts, the shortbread crust of her lemon tarts is neither flaky nor floury. Normally I just pick up the tart and take a bite; its so crunchy that it's hard to cut. I am never a big fan of coconuts but I really enjoy her toasted coconut tarts. The composition is simple - shortbread crust, pastry cream, whipped cream and garnished with tasted coconut. But it is more difficult than you think to get it right.

Tarte au Citron (left; miniature version): a rich shortbread cookie crust filled with a tangy lemon curd, with a brûlée finish.
Toasted Coconut Tart (right): a rich shortbread cookie crust filled with a light coconut creme patisserie, topped with whipped cream and toasted coconut.

Not everything on the menu is made daily. For example, fruit tarts are only available on Fridays and Saturdays. The fruits are not cooked with syrup or glazed with apricot jam so the sourness from the fruits and the sweetness from the creme complement each other well.

Tarte aux Fruits: a rich shortbread crust filled with creme patisserie, and topped with fresh seasonal fruits.

Kate makes exquisite éclairs, a delicate choux pastry filled with a vanilla créme patisserie and topped with a shining chocolate glaze. The thin crust, slightly spongy main vessel and the creamy filling harmonize beautifully. I absolutely adore the eclairs with coffee cream filling. They are made with real espresso as opposed to instant coffee powder. The coffee eclairs are only available upon request so you need to call one day in advance.

The croissants and chocolate rolls (pain au chocolat) are also superb. The croissant dough is made and formed by a local organic bakery (which should be reviewed some other time) but we like Kate's version more. Kate states that she doesn't let the dough to rise as much so the end results are, though smaller, more moist and buttery.

The chocolate cakes are named after mountains in France: Le Ventoux, Galibier and Sancy. The composition of Galibier is quite close to the cake we had from Fauchon. All the chocolate varieties are nice, but they are not exceptionally better compared with those from other reputable bakeries in town. Other items not mentioned here are also nicely made. We just don't get them as often.

For me there's a good indication when I taste a good desert - it inspires me to get in the kitchen and make it. For this reason I've worked on tiramisu, creme brulee, cheesecake, molten chocolate cake, etc. I tried to make lemon tarts and coconut tarts after having the Sabletine's versions. Though I don't have as much time to perfect them as I used to, I am glad that I get to have something nice enough to tickle my dessert brain. Sabletine is truly a good addition to the region.

Here are some more pictures for your enjoyment. P.S. Kate, when are you going to make l'opera cake?

Friday, March 07, 2008

King Crab Oyster Bar & Grill

King Crab Oyster Bar & Grill
907 Victoria St. North
Kitchener, Ontario

King Crab is the younger sister of King St Trio, a restaurant that has been in Kitchener-Waterloo for quite a number of years. With an experienced sibling, it has the chops to be a good restaurants, but is just missing out on that intangible je ne sais quoi that makes a decent place good. Let's see if we can figure out what it is.

To start off, it offers a healthy selection of seafood and oysters, and does it reasonably well, something that cannot be said for too many other places in town. Of course, a landlocked city in the middle of Ontario isn't the first place you'd turn to for seafood anyway.

The restaurant is located in a fairly nondescript strip mall in the middle of a commercial purgatory, surrounded by carpet shops and appliance stores. Strike one -- the ambiance on approach doesn't whet the appetite. Inside, the dining room is bordered by an open kitchen. This normally is an attraction, but we've always been seated by the windows away from the kitchen for some reason.

Sapphire started off with a Kir Royale which was nicely made and well presented.

There was hardly any traffic the night we were there, but the bread was still nice and fresh. Sourdough with a crispy crust, served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

To start, we had a half dozen oysters ($15). Not being very knowledgeable on oysters, we just as a sample of three varieties - raspberry, pickle point and malpeque. They were served with three flavourings, the traditional horseradish, an interesting wasabi sauce, and Chinese oyster sauce. I didn't particularly like anything other than the horseradish though. Other starters range from $6 to $15.

For mains, we had the crab feature ($23) and halibut ($?). I put the two pictures next to each other so it's more obvious that the dishes came with the same sides - cardamom scented jasmine rice and seasonal vegetables. This is strike two - although I suppose it keeps costs and complexity down, it smacks of laziness to plop a different protein down on the same starch and veg. At this level of restaurant, I would expect a unique combination of food for different dishes.

As for the proteins themselves, the crab was a soft shelled crab dusted with Cajun and Szechuan pepper. It was a lot meatier than the ones you'd find in a sushi roll so it was nice to be able to taste the meat, although it was very lightly seasoned and not very spicy at all. The halibut was wrapped in prosciutto with a grainy mustard sauce. The sauce was nice, but the halibut was a little overcooked and a bit tough. Portion was also quite small.

Other mains were pretty typical. Aside from seafood they had Angus steak, pork tenderloin, breaded chicken schnitzel, and a vegetarian entree "available on request" -- not very confidence inspiring.

Dessert was actually the highlight of the meal. All desserts are made in house, something a lot of places are highlighting these days to differentiate them from the restaurants that just import a few Dufflet cakes to mark up. The one we shared was layers of mascarpone cheese custard, alternating with coffee dipped English biscuits and raspberry coulis topped with whipped cream and shaved white and dark chocolate. Rich and decedent like any good dessert should be.

Service was good, friendly and attentive although with only three tables to serve there wasn't much pressure.

So overall, only two strikes but that might be enough to keep our dining dollar at more interesting and innovative places.

NOTE: It looks like the menu has been updated since our visit. You can visit their website for an online version.