Friday, November 13, 2009

Opening Soon

There hasn't been a lot of restaurant news to talk about recently, although that's not too surprising in this economic climate. Even The Record seems to be recycling their reviews -- every time they have a new reviewer the same spots are revisited. However, there are a few new openings that we're looking forward to sampling in the near future.

Oliver & Bonacini Cafe Grill - This is a full service restaurant opening up in the recently renovated Conestoga Mall. If you've been to the mall recently, you've probably noticed the "job fair" hiring and publicity that the restaurant has been receiving. I'm a big fan of their more upscale places (Canoe, Jump, Biff's) in Toronto and hope that this more casual oriented franchise will give us a nice alternative to food court "dining" at the mall. The menu seems to be full of classic dishes that should appeal more to the mainstream, yet the compositions seem very well thought out. Michael Bonacini was also one of my favourite chefs to watch on Food Network's Cook Like a Chef so I'm really looking forward to seeing what they will be offering at this level of dining. I'm told they will be opening shortly, sometime in November.

The Bauer Kitchen - Located in the newly constructed Bauer Lofts in Uptown Waterloo, this Charcoal Group restaurant is opening on the heels of their successful Wildcraft restaurant. I don't know a lot about this place, but have heard that it will be slightly more upscale than Wildcraft. This is definitely on our list to try out soon after it opens in December. We'll try to put up a post about it as soon as we can.

Vincenzo's - While not really a restaurant, the specialty food retailer is also moving to the Bauer Lofts. Their Belmont Village place was really bursting at the seams, so it's about time they expanded.

Waterloo Town Square - First, Cora's is moving in and may already be open by the time you read this. Nothing too fancy, just good breakfasts with a large helping of fresh fruit. I'm not sure there is enough room for them and Angie's so close together, and unfortunately I think I know who is going to lose out. Secondly, Moxie's is also coming soon to Waterloo Town Square. I can't say I'm really excited about the food here, but the chain is known for their good looking decor and strict dress code for their servers ;) They will be opening in the current Scotiabank location overlooking the public square, but it probably won't be well into 2010 since Scotia will have to move out (to a King St. frontage location) first.

So even though there hasn't been a lot to post about, hopefully that will be changing in the near future!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Empress of India

Empress of India
103 King Street North
Waterloo, Ontario N2J 2X5

In short, I was not impressed by the Empress. I had fairly high expectations going in; this was their second location (first one is in Guelph) and their website shows some beautifully photographed Indian cuisine. Unfortunately, the food presented at the restaurant came no where close to what I had anticipated.

But let's back up a little. The restaurant recently opened on King St., taking over the very old and tired Maharaja Palace by the north end of Uptown Waterloo. The dark and dreary atmosphere of the old place has been livened up considerably, although the buffet equipment seems like it may have been handed down from the old owners. I was there for the lunch buffet which consisted of two large old steam tables, one with very typical butter chicken, tandoori chicken, naan bread, potato dishes, bean and yogurt sauces, and the other with non-descript salads and rice pudding. While the food was fresh and tasted fine, frankly, the equipment turned me off - it did not convey the message that they were attempting to be anything more than the average buffet.

I suppose I should give them the benefit of the doubt since I'm not very well-versed with Indian cuisine, and perhaps this is just north americanized Indian food similar to the Chinese buffets from the 70's and 80's and I wasn't ordering the right items. Their à la carte menu looks like it has a more depth to it, but after my experience with the lunch, I haven't been inspired to return for another sampling.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Loire Casual Gourmet

119 Harbord Street
Toronto, Ontario

Once in a (very long) while we're able to get away and venture into the big city of Toronto to sample the latest culinary trends. Sadly, it seems that the era of fine dining in Toronto is coming to a close with many high end establishments falling victim to the shrinking expense accounts (and employment, for that matter) of bankers and financiers. So far, we in Kitchener-Waterloo seem to be holding up fairly well, and as long as people keep buying Blackberries it seems this town will do okay.

Rising from ashes are a number of new restaurants that focus on a somewhat lower price point, but still emphasize high quality ingredients, good service, and sophisticated flavours and cooking techniques. We visited one such place a few weeks ago, Loire Casual Gourmet. Rated one of the top new restaurants of 2008 by Toronto Life, we figured it was worth a visit and would be much more affordable than the remaining high end spots.

The restaurant is tucked in a quiet corner away from the shadows of the banking towers, along a street brimming with good restaurants. It has a very neighbourhoody feel to it, and we immediately felt at home as Sylvain (sommelier and owner) led us to our table. Being there for a late afternoon weekday lunch, the place was very quiet but the phone was ringing off the hook for dinner reservations, so there certainly seems to be a buzz about the place.

We started out with a selection of charcuterie ($15), the trendy menu item that is popping up on restaurants everywhere. Essentially cured meats, this plate contained pork rillette (the jar of a pate like substance - meat cooked in fat and meant to be used as a spread on the bread). Very delicious, as anything with lots of pork fat generally is. Moving clockwise we had some cornichon (french pickle) with frisée, proscuitto, and cubed apples. Next was the most delicious item on the plate, a homemade maple and tarragon mustard. The balance of the flavours was simply perfect. Finally, at the bottom of the picture was a chicken liver pate. This was incredibly smooth and rich and literally melted in our mouths. Overall everything was superb, but this dish is definitely not for calorie counters or those with clogged arteries.

The other appetizer was a goat cheese topped with pistachios and arugula salad ($13). The goat cheese with pistachios was a great combination, but the salad and dressing wasn't terribly memorable.

For my main, I had the braised pulled-pork sandwich ($14). It was served on multigrain bread with carmelized apples. On the side was a chipolte mayo and home fries. The pork was very tender and moist, especially when combined with the juicy apples. The fries were very finely cut, and mostly crisp, but some where a little soggy. The mayo was nice but wasn't very heavy on the chipolte, and enough was provided that you could easily put on some weight if you finished it all. The execution was very good, but the plate lacked a little green - both visually and for taste balance.

Sapphire had the Lake Erie white fish with mung-bean carrot ragu, chinese greens (bok choy) and blood orange yogurt ($19). The fish skin was crisp (nicely presented facing up so it would remain so!) and the flesh was tender. It had that grassy/earth taste that is distinct to some fresh water fish, but not overpoweringly so. The combination was interesting -- certainly not something I would have come up with myself -- but didn't click as a whole to make it an exceptional dish.

We shared two desserts - one was the pecan tart with honey-thyme roasted pear puree and butterscotch gelato ($9) and the other a lemongrass-ginger crème brûlée with a mini coconut cake ($9). The tart was very sweet and probably would have gone better with a less sweet gelato. I felt the need to drink something between every bite, but perhaps I'm just getting old and can't hold my sugar like I used to be able to. The crème brûlée was also very strongly flavoured but nice, and the coconut cake was perfectly toasted and full of intense coconut flavour.

Service was friendly and prompt, although with only 3-4 four tables it was not especially difficult for Sylvain to service all the tables by himself.

I would have to agree with Toronto Life that this place has great potential. While the dishes are not at the extreme high end of cuisine, it is certainly a restaurant that is suitable for the current times. A more down to earth, friendly dinner spot with good quality, well executed bistro fair. Contrast this with Splendido -- which we coincidentally visited recently as well -- just a couple of blocks down the road. This was a place for the pre-bailout era and as a result, it is undergoing a reinvention of itself to compete with with more affordable places. Here at Loire, the title casual gourmet fits perfectly.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Kitchen Wok

668 Erb St. West
Waterloo, Ontario N2T 2Z7

Being new parents and all, our opportunities for fine dining are few and far in between. It feels like we've turned in our foodie credentials, and any opportunity to eat out (anywhere!) is a luxurious indulgence these days. Out here on the west side of Waterloo, there aren't many choices other than strip mall Chinese take-out, which seems to be a design requirement when building suburban plazas. That said, these places have come a long way since the egg roll and sweet and sour chicken ball of the 70's.

Kitchen Wok is a new restaurant that opened in the so called Westside Marketplace (i.e. Canadian Tire plaza at the roundabout). It focuses on take-out, but has a few tables and chairs for diners as well. We've tried it a few times and have been mostly pleased with the quality, although expectations were not high to begin with. Everything we've ordered has been cooked freshly -- the battered items are always pleasingly crisp under the sauce -- and vegetables are rarely overcooked. With over 120 items on the menu, there appears to be a large varity of dishes but as with most Chinese menus, many are just duplicates with the protein changed. Some highlights:

General Tso's Chicken - a generous portion of battered chicken pieces in a spicy sauce on broccoli. Despite the "mild" description on the menu, this is nicely spicy and well done. The broccoli tends to get soggy quickly in the plastic take-out container though.

Moo Shu - stir fried bamboo, eggs, vegetables with beef/chicken/pork or shrimp. Meant to be wrapped in "pancakes" (four are included) but even as a filling, this is excessively salty. Tasty, but very salty.

Jar Doo Chicken Wings - we always get this as the "freebie" for cash take-out orders over $25. While it may seem these are only deep fried chicken wings, they are marinated first. Again, very greasy, but tasty.

Orange Chicken - the bitterness of the orange peel and rind really killed this dish. They were not cooked enough with the dish, and didn't impart any flavour to the chicken or sauce, only bitterness.

Ho Feng - the rice noodles were either under soaked or stale the last two times we tried this. They tended to break apart easily and were not the correct texture or consistency. China Garden's version of this is far superior.

Shanghai Noodles - My main criticism of this dish is that it is just too plain. Chinese food is known for it's strong, bold flavours, and this one just doesn't deliver.

Overall, there is a large variety of dishes that would not have been found in the suburbs just 10 years ago. There are some hits and some misses, but as a greasy, salty indulgence for harried parents, you can't go wrong.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Matter of Taste

119 King Street West
Kitchener, Ontario, N2G 1A7

75 King Street South
Waterloo, ON N2J 1P2
(Waterloo Town Square)

We heard a lot of good things about "Matter of Taste" soon after its opening at the Waterloo Town Square. On my first visit I ordered a cappuccino. The drink was absolutely superb but what really surprised me was the creamy, pretty leaf on my cappuccino. No, it was not my first encounter with latte art; I just didn't expect it, Waterloo. For a moment I felt like I shouldn't have paid with my Starbucks Duetto card.

It was quite pleasant to watch their baristas work. I don't know if it is written in their training guide but I noticed a change in their attitude (all of them!) as soon as they pick up the portafilter. The baristas are still very friendly but it is obvious that they are completely absorbed in the coffee-making process. It's like a tea ceremony (except much shorter). Confident yet cautious, each movement is to perfect the flavor of the end product.

And speaking of the end product, let's put it this way: suppose you always get sorbet (sometimes granita) when you order ice cream. One day you really get what you want (that is, ice cream). So you have the first taste and ask yourself, "if this is ice cream, what did I have before?" It totally reminds me why I become a cappuccino lover. When I take a sip, the bold taste of coffee fills my mouth mixed with the sweetness of milk, while silky froth gently wraps my taste buds like feather-light down duvet. It casts a spell on me. I just have to stop by every time I'm remotely close to Waterloo Town Square, like a moth to a flame.

Matter of Taste expanded into Waterloo last year; their first store is located in Kitchener. I vaguely remember seeing a banner saying "Best Barista in Ontario" when I drove along King St. "Mmm...I wonder what this competition is about". So I looked it up online and...viola! Matter of Taste not only produced the best barista in Ontario, it is also the breeding ground Of Canadian regional champions. According to Canadian Canadian Barista & Coffee Academy, "Each competitor must prepare and serve 12 separate espresso beverages: 4 espresso, 4 cappuccinos, and 4 "signature" drinks of their own creation, and present them to a distinguished panel of judges. Competitors have only fifteen minutes to prepare all twelve drinks and are judged on station cleanliness, taste, beverage presentation, technical skills and total impression by a distinguished panel of judges." I don't know how well-regarded the competition is in the world of coffee-making, but it is nice to know that the owners of Matter of Taste are willing to invest in their employees and provide the best products possible.

Nowadays my life is always on go. Juggling work, house chores and a young child just like many others...sometimes a little bit of "me" time seems to be so out of reach. I like to enjoy a cappuccino at Matter of Taste (even if I have to have it in a paper cup if Baby Martini is with me). To me, happiness is that simple.