Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cafe Review: Boxcar Social

In January, after cutting coffee out of my diet for a while, I began to drink one or two a week. In March, a traditionally stressful time at work, I began to drink coffee regularly in response to the stress and tiredness. Part of the reason for this lapse must be blamed on Boxcar Social.

Before we get into this review, let's be clear. I'm biased. I like these guys and what they do. I've handed them some of my beer to taste for reasons that will become clear. I've wrestled with writing reviews of places where I clearly like the people and get to know them before forming an opinion but in this case, it happened backwards. I also have problems writing bad reviews for the sake of bad reviews for similar reasons. That post can be found here. In my defense, nice people often make bad businesses or in other words, the nicest cashiers have the longest lineups.

Anyways, this place came out of the idea of a wine/beer/bourbon place that would serve coffee. Right now, it is just a coffee place. Since opening almost two months ago, the perpetual answer to when the alcohol licence will be in place is two weeks. It has become a bit of running gag amongst regulars.

The place was put together by the five owners who did most of the work to create two floors of exposed brick and gleaming wood, everything but the electrical and plumbing. Part of the coffee bar is science lab stuff like pots that look like beakers, equipment that registers particulate matter and scales. Rustic and high tech, a mix that you see often along trendy streets in Toronto. This is Rosedale. The morning crowd moves through the place with little fanfare and only glimpses of the genius of this place. Each barista has a different personality that is revealed in subsequent visits. If you show your interest in coffee, they may perk up and offer you something interesting in information or knowledge. They know their stuff.

Some of the faces will be familiar if you have been drinking coffee around the city. The owners have been around. What is special is that almost all the coffee is single origin by superstar roasters of the globe. The thing is, you don't feel talked down to or a knob for not knowing it. The pretensions are very low. During busy times there is nary a slurp as they "dial-in" the coffee and weigh the perfect cup, tossing those that don't meet their high standards. They still do this hard work but you don't see it. Inveterate coffee snobs who turn their nose up at sugar and milk or scoff at latte drinkers might feel a little ill at ease watching office workers head to the side board to do just that but the servers, nah.

That is what is cool about this joint. If you want to get into the coffee geekery of a beans difference between the first day roast and a week of aging, they can throw down. Even if batches from the same roaster taste a little different, they can tell you but it is not requisite knowledge. If you say that you can't taste that melony persimmon and grape notes that is listed on the bag, they don't sniff at your uneducated palate (well maybe Joe does) but rather explain to you how the roasters chose the notes. Also, if its bullshit, they'll tell you.

All in all, I'm effusive about this place. There has been two things that have made me think hard about coffee and that is rare for me. I drink a lot of coffee. A lot. As you drink more, you tend to prefer more acid and lighter roasted coffee that expose more exotic flavours. Also, espresso loses its lustre. There are few places that I enjoy an espresso in Toronto. This is one. They mess around with grind, amount of water and weight of shot to bring out what they feel are the desirable elements of a particular bean. That's the dialing in portion and what the science bits are for. None of the coffee I have had there has been above a medium. There may have been a medium dark but that would be an exception. Some of the flavour profiles have been astounding, especially when they are at the test phase of figuring this stuff out. I'd advocate for lighter roasts for espresso bars every where.

The second is the experiment of creating a regular coffee in an espresso machine. That's right. Making the equivalent of a french press or drip coffee. Technically, it's pushing the extraction at a lower pressure. Normally, this makes the coffee bitter because of the roasts and the profile of the beans chosen for the brewing method. Roasters are messing around with this idea and passing it on as experiments to the baristas. It is blurring the lines between drip and espresso. Think of the intense rich flavour on the espresso married with the clean smoothness and variability of tastes of a regular Joe. It changes, for me, what coffee can be.

I do have a few slight criticisms and I've made them known. The first is that the few employees they have lack the confidence and bonhomie of the owners. They don't have skin in the game and are probably unsure of their own abilities. They'll grow into it.

The second is that due to the subtleness of the coffees they are brewing, their lattes like the depth of taste that I like. Granted, the coffees that do work for that are traditionally roasted darker and give it that typical coffee flavour. If you want that type of thing, there is 9 bars at Yonge and St. Clair. It is a more straight forward coffee bar.

I'm not saying that Boxcar latte is not good just that I've not found them to be transcendent as the rest of their coffee experience is. They are working on it and I'm sure that they will eventually make a latte or a cafe au lait that moves what I think of these drinks but not yet.

If you want to learn and grow your coffee experience to include tasting the same bean three different ways, taste three coffees from the same region in a comparative pour over or see some experimentation then come here. I can't recommend this place enough. It is a good coffee geek experience.

Boxcar Social on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...

I sometimes have a hard time with writing reviews on this blog. Restaurant reviews can be the hardest. For the most part, people who run small businesses want to make their customers happy and make money.

Restaurants fail for so many reasons. Sometimes it is the service, or the pricing or it's a bad idea or poorly executed food. I've wanted to start a sandwich business for a long time but the fear of not getting it right coupled with the huge risk has held me back. When I review small places that are trying, I try to remember that.

I doubt too many people intentionally go out and make a bad restaurant. This brings me to yelp! and other such microblogs. Too many times there are comments that don't help me decide if I like a restaurant or not. Too many of the "they don't make the steak right" said of a spaghetti house. There is often no context of the reviewer or the restaurant. Going into a coffee shop and complaining about the tea just doesn't make sense.

It is sometimes hard to separate individual tastes for things that are really bad or really good. I don't like fish but I can tell when it tastes good. However, I probably wouldn't go to a seafood restaurant and dish it because I didn't like the fish.

A second type of review is along the lines of "The food was nice. The tablecloths were nice so therefore the food was good." It tells me nothing. There are tons of tricks used by restaurants that make food taste better. Presentation, different colours, and evocative descriptions influence the way we taste. Slathering a dish in fat, salt and sugar also work. Sometimes these tricks can be employed to make marginal food taste "good". Without all the frills, it probably tastes ordinary or mediocre. By definition, most food will be mediocre. So what does that leave a reviewer to do?

While there is a postmodern argument that all views are valid and everything is taste, I just don't buy it. Yes, you can take the average of all Yelpers and determine that if everyone is saying something is good then it probably is. My favourite reviewers of stuff whether it be movies, food or books offer me an insight into the experience that it is reviewing. Maybe some history on the place or the chef, shedding some light onto their dining and what prejudices and bias they brought to the table and how the meal affected it. Foremost, the writing needs to be "good" writing. It has to capture my attention.

This can be done with snark, humour, intelligence, sparkle, literate, engaging or a bunch of different ways. It cannot be just I had a good nomnom burger. Not enough. Unfortunately, food writing like most restaurants is at best mediocre. I'm no better than the average writer but I strive to, at least once and a while, be better at my craft. Sometimes, I really like what I write. It is with this perspective that we should look at restaurants. Most are just trying to make a living. Try to illustrate what you like, what is truly remarkable and where the place falls down. Be fair and give the benefit of the doubt. Be clear and obvious when you have bias and explain it. Constructive criticism is best.

This does not mean that if you feel a place truly deserves to be trashed because they are only in it for the money then that is okay too. My rule is that I won't write anything that I wouldn't say to an owner and couldn't defend.

All this soul searching was caused by the fact that I really want to write about one of my favourite coffee shops where I have become a regular. I really should have written before but didn't get around to it. I'm trying to figure out what is fair and what is not. I'm also thinking about embarking on guest writing for a few blogs to get my chops up and wonder how writing for someone else will change my thinking. So, if you don't have anything nice to say, find a diplomatic and constructive way of saying it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rice Pudding

Rice pudding may seem like an odd remembrance for an Easter Sunday post. I wonder about the timing myself but let's try to work it out.

When I was growing up, rice normally showed up in two ways, as a stuffing in cabbage rolls or as rice pudding. There were only a handful of times that rice made it into a meal. There were a few times where we bought a fried rice kit that included canned sauce. It was Dainty Fried Rice, I believe, and I don't think I've seen it since. Another time involved Minute Rice and orange juice from that commercial and another was a Rice and Sauce side dish.

In all, rice was second potato. It didn't have a place at the table unless it was covered in salt. Otherwise, its time in the cabbage roll and rice pudding was all that was needed. Strangely, it was my dad that liked rice pudding, even though rice wasn't his thing. In his later years, he grew to love chicken fried rice but then, not so much.

He made both a rice pudding and bread pudding from scratch. You add custard and bake the thing. That was all there was to it. It required for us to make rice especially to have 'leftovers'. His was a dry thing where you could feel the individual grains in your mouth. There was a sugary eggy taste that you get from Portuguese tarts (natal) or Chinese egg tarts. The top would be sunken in with cinnamon liberally topping it. We would have huge, deep pieces served with milk. The raisins would keep the blandness that was broken only with vanilla a bright punch. It grew to be one of my favourites.

My mom had tried various recipes including a creamy one but this was the winner recipe.

When I was courting my wife, we went out on Good Friday looking for rice pudding because somehow I had got it into my head that any wake for Jesus included liquor and rice pudding. We spent a tiring day looking for the food, came back and had our first kiss. In actuality, it was a reunion kiss as we had dated seven years to the day back and it was my birthday. We go married the next year on April 20th. The rice pudding we had that day was Kozy shack pudding. It was more on the creamy side but the raisins cut the taste.

Along the way, we discovered kheer, the Indian version of rice pudding that is creamy and in comparison, spicy, redolent with cinnamon, cardamom and faint tastes of other spices dependent on the chef. I fell in love with the idea of the buffet rice pudding. It is really different than the one that I grew up with. But our tastes change and very few places make that almost dry pudding that requires cream or milk.

In all this time, I have not tried to make rice pudding and I wonder why? This was the first year that I bought rice pudding for Easter and coincidentally, my anniversary. It has been thirteen years since that fateful rice pudding expedition and I wish I could recapture the moment of falling in love again.

Maybe, I'll go and make some rice pudding.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter Food

As the long weekend approaches and meal planning begins, I'm thinking about Easter food. The Easter Sunday meal has always seemed a poor cousin to Christmas and Thanksgiving although it is the highest of holy holidays in the Catholic calendar.

We often had turkey or ham for this meal. By ham, I mean fresh, unsmoked pork shoulder slathered in mustard, brown sugar with cloves poking through the meat. We would have a big roast with the leftovers tasting minty from the cloves served in sandwiches for days afterwards. It was one of my earliest recollections of wanting to eat the fat where most of the flavour rested. If I could easily find a recipe, I would have linked to it. Even in its reduced state, this was one of the biggest meals of the season. What I have more food memories about is Lent.

Lent is that time before Easter where we had to give something up and eat fish on Fridays. Usually, as kids we would give up dessert or candy making the Easter Bunny arrival all that sweeter. The arrival of Lent often meant that the snow was so deep in the bush that my father would be laid off work. He worked in the bush cutting trees or taking the trees to a landing (skidding) where they could be loaded onto trucks to be taken to mills.

This meant a couple of things. Money become tighter due to reduced income and my dad had more influence on food. We would begin to open our reserves and preserves. The deer meat would come out of the freezer. The last bits of the half cow or pig that was slaughtered and sent to the butcher to be wrapped would start making the way onto our plates. There was canned beef and venison that would make a quick meal fried with fried onions and served with mashed potatoes. The potatoes themselves would have to be hauled up from the cellar and you could see the age as the skins became wrinkled and hard to peel. The onions that came up were not always the ones that we had grew in the garden but sometimes purchased in 10lb bags. If Lent was late that year, eyes and yellow green tops could be seen from these basement dwellers.

What I remember most is all the fishing that was done. Dad would go ice fishing in hopes to get some fish for that night's dinner and of course, for Fridays when we could not eat meat. When we were unlucky, there was fish sticks on occasion, the only fish I would eat. Even thought there was lake trout and ling (fresh water cod), I would eat very little of it. The story is that I used to eat fish a lot but choked on a bone when I was small and never eat fish again. In truth, I will only occasionally eat fish but never have taken up the habit again. We would collect the fish grease and use it over and over again until the fish started tasting too fishy and it would be time to ditch the grease.

With the fish, we would often serve fresh fries made from those old Kennebec potatoes which I still believe make the best french fries. They would be cut thicker and I would be in charge of cooking them. The first batch in oil always came out pale and white and only slightly crispy. It is only in recent years that I found out that this always happens with fresh oil. The process was very messy. I don`t do it now because it is hard to find old potatoes in the store and Kennebec potatoes are not found there.

Other than fish and fries, the other food that reminds me of Lent is macaroni and tomatoes. When I started working when I was fourteen years old, I would often miss the Friday fish fry which didn`t bother me that much because of the whole not caring for fish thing but it set me off on a course of cooking. If I was hungry after working on Friday, I would come home and make some boiled macaroni, drain and add a can of tinned tomatoes after buttering and salting the pasta generously. After dishing it into the bowl, I would speckle it with black pepper and eat. Being a teenager, I would often demolish a whole tin of tomatoes with a half pound of pasta by myself before heading up to bed.

So, while I now I savour hot cross buns and plan to eat peameal bacon breakfast with a smoked ham lunch, I sometimes miss the other `lesser`traditions of Easter. It is hard even to achieve that food of fresh caught fish with french fries made from last year`s crop of old potatoes. Even in rural areas, these foods are disappearing for the sake of convenience foods. I`m not some old guy being in my early forties but these foodways are leaving and I miss them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Evolution of Taste

I recently read somewhere, a blog or twitter feed, a beer taster's arc. Beer drinkers move from mass market brews through to hop bombs and then back to simple brews. I have heard this observation before and it got me to thinking, are there parallels in other tastes?

The coffee drink starts with Tim Horton's and the double double, gradually moving into espresso and dark roasted brews of Starbucks and then ends up with medium and mild roast of independent baristas.

Food has a few of these parallels and maybe one for each of the basic tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury. I would add spiciness, as in capsaicin, as another dimension. For instance, sweetness moves to this sickly sweet place and most people move back to a simpler dessert such as a simple cake or pie.


I don't know. I have a few conjectures, though. One is habituation. If you keep tasting or smelling something for a long time, eventually you begin not to notice it. It is a  evolutionary trait that allows us to be able to smell through something to ensure that we are not missing anything such as danger. If any of you have changed enough diapers, you know what I am talking about.

Along with habituation, there is also an addictive type or tasting where we want to taste more of that thing that we like. Let's call it extremism. We keep trying to push the boundaries to have the hoppiest beer or the spiciest chicken wing. At some point, we reach the physical limit of taste. The 80-100 IBU units is often thought as a natural limit to be able to taste differences. Many people believe that at some point of the Scoville scale which measures spiciness, that there is no additional burn but that the flavour of the peppers themselves is different.

Another is taste differentiation. Not its real term but I have spent too much time on the internet trying to figure it out. The idea is that if you are given two closely related tastes you will begin to prefer one over the other. There is some thinking that this is also evolutionary, that in order to ensure that we get the best nutritive content, we prefer one food over another. Of course, this is where nature and nurture begin to raise its head in the discussion but we'll pat it and it will go back to sleep.

Another dimension that I want to touch on here is physical change. As you age, your ability to smell becomes hampered. Although the sense of smell and its physical structure are one of the senses that regenerate, there is a limit to its regeneration. This is a polite way of saying you get old. As you get older, the ability to taste these nuanced flavours disappear and you loose interest in the food. Funny, as you get older and begin to loose your sight, you dress in brighter clothes.

The last one I want to discuss here is experiential. As we go to the extremes and back, we begin to notice subtle differences. As Jordan St. John put recently, as a beer writer, you eventually begin to understand what makes good beer. It is not that you go back to simpler beer but that you can taste the flaws in bad beer or poorly made food. There is an appreciation for the technique of cooking vegetables well or making a lager that doesn't taste crappy.

A sign of a great chef is what they can do with an omelet or to put another way, how simplistic their food appears. When you are eating a plate of meat and two veg, it takes a lot to wow a diner. To be able to be considered great, the simple nuanced food, coffee or beer has to taste great against others in the same category. There is something marvelous in the idea that we go through the simple stage twice, once on the way up and then on the way back down. We don't know what we have until its gone but with taste, we get a second chance to appreciate it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Turning 1000

I did it. I just reached 1000 distinct beers on untappd. To some of you that statement isn't going to make sense and to others, it will be a dubious statement. So, let's just figure out what the hell I just said.

Yeah me! A new beer badge.
Untappd is a social beer application that helps you track beer while earning badges along the way. When I first heard about it, it seemed as if it would drive you to drink in a literal way as you tried to level up. I'll admit that I did drink a beer that I wouldn't have drank (or is that drunk - guess it depends on how many) in order to gain a badge but I don't think it pushed me anywhere.

What the app did do was change the way I looked at my drinking habits. I joined on December 24th, 2011. That means that in 28 months, I have drank 1367 beer with 1000 different beer. That's 48 beer per month or 12 a week. Let's step away from that number for a second and try to break it down or rationalize it.

Chris Schryer posted an excellent blog post about alcoholism and craft beer drinking when he attempted to drink a traditional monk's diet for Lent. Drinking a lot of beer is not necessarily alcoholism. The element of addiction is what moves drinking into that arena but then there is that very big number there.

When I was gnashing my teeth at the whole privatization of alcohol sales in Ontario debate, Brian Papineau, a beer blogger from Ottawa quipped that the real issue is that I haven't been able to find a beer that I like and that may be making me cranky.

So, both these folks have made me question both how I am drinking and what I am drinking. How did I get to this number? Well in the last 28 months, I have gone to four large beer festivals where I have sampled around 20-30 beer at each. Not all samples were fully quaffed and in reality, it was probably around 2 ounces for each sample. That handles 100 right there. There are smaller tap takeovers and more indie type beer events in the city that would account for about 10 different beer each time. Let's say, I've been to around six to eight of those beer events in the last two years. So, another 60.

Now, for regular bar going, it is in my local where every six weeks where I split six beer with a buddy, resulting in a three pint night. That would account for another 110-120 listed beer. So, 1000 beer less 270 is 730 distinct beer that I drank, mainly at home. That makes for just over a beer a day when you add in the duplicates.

That number feels about right. But how do I feel about that number?

Let's go after the second part of my introspection, why so many kinds of beer? Is it just novelty? Before I used the app, I rarely drank the same beer twice in a row and would come back to a beer in a seasonal way. I still do that now but if given the choice of a new beer, I will go for it. Part of it is due to the app egging me on but another part is the growth of beer in Ontario and LCBO's focus on seasonal releases.

Now, every quarter or so, the LCBO introduces a number of new beer that will only be around for a short while. Interspersed with these known releases, there are brewery spotlights and local breweries switching in their seasonal brews. This makes for a set of options that will only be around for a while and in some cases, will not come around. It tickles my scarcity and exclusivity bone. I want to try this rare bird before it flies away. The same drive that causes the Pokemon itch in kids, drives my need to collect them all. Do I feel bad that there isn't a go to beer for me? Do I believe that the next thing is better?

Upon reflection, the idea of a beer a day that changes only coming back once or twice a year doesn't sound so bad. It is very close to the way I eat, seasonal with variations on a theme. My burgers are rarely dressed the same way twice but because they are burgers, they are easily compared and help me appreciate the great ones when they come around again. Here's looking forward to the next thousand beer(s).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Did you ever have to make up your mind?

I'm just a guy who likes good tasting beer. If possible, I'd like to get it in more convenient places while supporting local, small breweries. Given the amount of hyperbole on twitter lately between the Beer Store and the Ontario Convenience Store Association, I was beginning to believe that I was the only one. Either I was in the pocket of big beer and wanted to continue the monopoly while keeping craft beer down or I wanted escalated costs and wanton death and destruction of Western society as we know it. Which one to choose?

A few days, I was challenged to take a position and frankly, I didn't know what to say. I've been brewing at a U-Brew-it for a little over three years and seriously drinking Belgian and what is now considered craft beer for around twenty years and I feel unqualified to have an opinion on Beer Store versus Convenience store. This is not some feint where I'm taking the piss out of them but rather a reflection on the labryrinthine regulations and dense legislation surrounding alcohol sales in this province.

If it wasn't for Jordan St. John's poll, I wouldn't have bothered writing anything. It is only because most of my opinions are reflected in his findings that I feel confident to say a few things here.

The Beer Store is not something I necessarily want to protect. It is owned by three large multinationals on a cost recovery basis where they use the advantages in the regulation to boost their profits through reduced costs, advantageous product placement and pricing practices to licensees. I won't bother rehashing their arguments for the continued survival of the Beer Store but rather note that they do have one shining benefit, recycling. Our recycling program is damned good and any replacement would have to do as well or better.

As a consumer, although it is a pain in the ass, I can't imagine what type of patchwork returns would exist without them. I am old enough to remember doing bottle returns at the grocery store where we would only accept glass bottles from certain brands and not others. I can imagine a return to that era. There is a reason that bottle returns are no longer done.

The convenience store arguments are all around promises that cannot be kept, including an expanded ability for craft beer breweries, more jobs and a beer in every pot. They don't seem so keen on ensuring that there is a true open market for all stores, only convenience stores. Anyways, their claims are fairly spurious and their defense is rabid. I don't trust a convenience store to have the best interests of a beer drinker at heart any more than they support the local snack food industry. They are in business to make money.

In short, they both suck.

A few observations. Currently, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario already does risk based licensing. What does that mean? Studies show that more outlets selling alcohol (density) among other effects of privatization leads to rising costs due to alcohol. If people claim bias, it would be a weird claim that CAMH wants less money by reducing alcoholism. AGCO bases sales location on this reasoning. So, any new stores of any type would have to continue to undergo this licensing scheme.

Maybe the way forward is to modify our system slowly rather than taking the legislation out and burning it in the streets of our provincial capital. Modifications such as:

  • Open the market to any location while keeping AGCO methods of evaluation whether convenience store, grocery store or Tim Horton's. I don't care.
  • Allow for novel places of business while respecting AGCO. (Farmer's markets, co-owned craft beer stores, boutiques). Currently can only buy at LCBO, Beer Store, licensees, and on site breweries.
  • Allow for small breweries to enter the market easier by limiting SKUs at Beer Store and LCBO. Each brewery can only have so many products at a time.
  • Allow for either co-op stores of some type for small breweries from any where in the world or allow for small brewers to buy into the Beer Store.
  • Offer assistance for development of small breweries as is offered for other agricultural and manufactured products. Put another way, incentives to get people who are brewing out of other breweries their own place to increase jobs.

That's all I have come up with in the last few weeks. The message is clear, younger beer drinkers don't care for the beer store but all beer drinkers like greater access. Many believe the LCBO is doing a good job. Full stop.

My point is that this false choice between either a Beer Store or a convenience store is just silly. The good part is that in the past week, I have heard more play of the beer geeks, blogger, columnists and aficionados than ever before. Real experts are finally being heard and that can only be helpful when trying to move forward. Of course, their bias is more good beer.