Friday, March 30, 2012

Restaurant Review: McGugan's

McGugan's promises to be a Scottish pub.

I could blame the owner for creating expectations; dark wainscoting with light walls, Scottish memorablia, Scotch beers - ales on tap, with modern takes on traditional cuisine.  The word pub brings to mind clusters of places to sit with the bar in one corner but dominant.  A game device of some type usually sits on the corner.  On the wall is a dartboard and sometimes there is a pool table or maybe a shuffleboard game.  Some food is served - mostly comfort food.  The main focus is the comraderie and the beer or scotch.  In a modern take, I would expect to see delicately plated foods with wit and damn good bites of food.  Scottish speaks of using humble local ingredients cooked well but being mostly veg and meat, more emphasis on the veg than meat.

Some of those implicit promises were met at McGugan's.  Wainscoting, pictures of Scotland, some televisions and a big bar.  A small menu was handed to us by kilt printed costumes after we had been lead past the bar into a room that is divided from the front bar by a brick archway.  Most of the back of the menu is filled with a list of Scotch. The extent of the Scottish theme almost ends there.  There is one Scottish beer on tap when we are there.  In the Innis and Gunn, you can taste the vanilla notes from the oak barrels used to age the beer.  I sometimes wonder if they just add oak chips to the brew when aging it in the barrels but for now I will take them at their word.  It is excellent on tap.

On the menu, the fare is pretty standard with two dishes that stood out as being reworked Scottish dishes; Scotch eggs and haggis balls.  Yeah, I know, Scotch eggs aren't even Scottish but...  they were good served with dipping sauce.  The hamburger was almost spoiled by the threat of too many fixings in order to justify its price and name of gourmet.  I think that places like Burger's Priest have proven that less can be more.  Fries were served in these weird basket cone things that I believe I had seen on one of Gordon Ramsay's (hey, he's Scottish) restaurant makeover shows a few years ago.  They are to bring the romance of the fish and chips shop back but end up being a pain in the arse (Sc. for ass) when you get to the bottom few fries.  Do you tip it upside down to spill out the fries or what?

Okay, enough about my personal disappointment but a few possible things that could have gone a long way to easing it.  Simple touches like making beet, turnip and parsnip chips or having a local Scotch ale or even a larger Scottish beer selection on tap may have helped.  In terms of adjusting my perspective, I spoke to the woman at the Cookbook shop about a related matter before buying a magazine.  I was worried about Britishisms in the magazine and her response was that a lot of the trends such as Blumenthal's and Ferguson's are now so popular to be world renowned.  In short, there is no there anymore, all is local.  I have a lot to say about that at a later date.

So, this restaurant, whether trying to be a modern gastropub, a take on a traditional cuisine or a local restaurant feels like a kid playing dressup.  This feels like a restaurant mimicking a big box atmosphere.  For instance, in the service you could see the strings.  The server handed us the dessert menu without asking whether we wanted anything else in an effort to upsell, the whiskey menu was one of the first things shown to us and the specials of the day weren't mentioned to us.

The food is good, executed well.  The dressup isn't needed.  The kid is a cute kid.  It is not quite my speed but I can see this place maintaining a good client base of 40 and 50 somethings wanting to go out to a bar for a bite.  There are some people who I would recommend this restaurant.  Some older friends wanting to catch up in a Kelsey's like environment but local and better food would be one of the best targets.  I wish it well.

Changed the name from McGuigan's to McGugan's. I checked it several times but still missed that typo. Sorry...

McGugan's on Urbanspoon

Friday, March 23, 2012

Recipe: Spam Terrine or Sour Cherry Spiced Ham Terrine

My son thinks he likes Spam.  A quick story before I divulge my ultra secret Spam recipe...

We were reading a Daniel Pinkwater novel, I believe it was the Neddiad, where a young heir moves to Los Angeles when on his trip he has a Spam sandwich.  My son thought that sandwich sounded good.  I remembered the spiced ham as being salty and greasy.

When we got the can, the first disappointment struck.  I remember a key that turned a small strip of the can until you were able to pull it apart.  Maybe it was only the lesser mimics and there are plenty of mimics that had that feature but it made me doubt my memory.  Then I tasted the potted meat and memory served correct.  How could this meat be made palatable and delicious for a family meal?  Well, for that first time, I took sliced Spam and seared it.  With the fat left in the pan, I added cherry juice, small bit of sugar, balsamic vinegar and black pepper and reduced the sauce.  Voila, Seared Spiced Ham with Cherry Reduction Sauce.  So, my son thinks he likes Spam.

Ever since then, I have been trying to find a way to slip something similar into a dinner party or some get together and a few weeks ago, a chance presented itself.  Some parents were having a no kids cocktail party and I offered to bring something.

Terrine is just a fancy way of talking about cold meatloaf.  So, I searched the internet for a way to make a terrine out of cooked meat and there isn't very much.  I did find one site that I used as inspiration but on the whole, it was tough.  Regardless, here is the recipe.

Sour Cherry Spiced Ham Terrine

2 cans Spam
1 smoked Kessler pork chop (any smoked piece of flesh will work)
1 egg white
1 c whipping cream
1 tbsp mustard seed (double for pronounced flavour)
1/2 tsp grains of paradise (double for pronounced flavor, can substitute black pepper and cloves)
1 pkg gelatin
1c sour cherry juice
1/2 tsp black pepper

Special Equipment

Food processer
Chilled metal bowl
Terrine mold or loaf pan

1.  Using food processor, puree spam, egg white and whipping cream.  If a lighter, less salty taste is preferred, add a little more cream.  Move to a chilled metal bowl.
2.  Chop smoked pork chop in small cubes. 1/2" pieces is fine.  It is to give a little texture to the otherwise pink homogenous mess.
3.  Toast half of the mustard seed.  Smells a little like popcorn.
4.  Add mustard and grains of paradise into Spam mixture.
5.  Fold in smoked pork chop into Spam mixture.  Pat into mold or loaf pan.  Place in a 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes.  If you can put it in a water bath, do.  Otherwise, the outside may cook inconsistently and make the terrine look odd.  But don't sweat it.
6.  Let cool until it can be placed in fridge.  Truth be told, I let it set on the counter for 15 minutes and placed it in the freezer.

Gelatin Topping
1. You can use any type of gelatin you want.  Follow the instructions on the package.  I used Knox and crushed some black pepper into the liquid.  After warming the liquid, I strained it before adding the hot liquid to the bloomed gelatin.  I added a little citric acid to give a bit more sour taste.  It is all to your palate.  Lemon juice or lime would have worked as well.
2. Place slightly cooled liquid on cooled meatloaf.
3. Let set.

If you have time let it be for about a day.  So, it went over well.  I took half a loaf and there was around two slices worth left.  Most people liked it and the most telling comment was that if I hadn't mentioned that it was Spam, they would've thought salty ham.  It brought out the best part of the Spam.

I would work to dampen the saltiness and add more of the spicing.  When spices get cold they lose some of that oomph so doubling the spices that go in would work well. I could have used a little more gelatin as it was the thing that cut the rich and fatty parts of the terrine.

Serve it with a good french bread, cornichons and a mustard or chutney and there you go.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Shoot the Canadians

Okay, maybe the headline is a little much. I am cleaning out my interesting blog clippings from last year, and I came across a video about a Virginian farmer who is shooting Canadian geese.  I could make some type of migrant population joke but there is a seriousness to this problem, as well.

Invasive species. Eat 'em.

Humans are really just big locusts. We can take anything and elevate it and eat it.  The waves of culinary uses of weeds has endangered the wild garlic. We have overfished a lot of fish including those previously thought as junk fish (Hello lobster) and increased the prices of bad cuts.  I don't think there is very many things that we couldn't find a way to eat and maybe enjoy.

Purple loosestrife has medicinal uses and can be used to create an edible dye.

Zebra mussels are edible but since they are filters for pollutants, it is probably not good to eat them.  But they could be helping clean up the lakes.  Not only from pollutants but from those pesky fish as well.  Okay, that is a little glib.  So, this means that we could probably eat the zebra mussels from cleaner waters.

Sea lamprey is edible and in some cases, desirable.

Garlic mustard is another invasive species that can be used in salads.

While invasive species do a lot of damage, maybe the best option is to somehow commercialize it.  Food fads often take species to their limit.  I bring this up as the wild garlic season comes upon us.  I think that maybe it is high time someone made a cookbook on invasive species and just see what happens.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beer in Canada Gets a Mention

Saveur, in its April 2012 issue dedicated to Las Vegas makes mention of Montreal beers.  There is no mention on their public facing website.  I have asked several of my friends when travelling to Montreal to try some beers and if possible, to pick me up some.

In a depanneur, Depanneur Peluso, the writer picked up a few brewski's and headed back to the room.  There are six mentioned and some of them are pretty high test.  I am hoping that there was company on the testing trip or I may have to doubt some of the notes.  I have had four of the six mentioned and the notes are pretty spot on. Rather than redo the article, I am more interested in whether something like this can happen in Ontario.

Depanneurs in Quebec can stock a lot of the local beers and it appears that this has helped with the growth of the craft brewer movement in and around Montreal. Dieu du Ciel, Charlevoix, le Trou du Diable and so many others do not get play here but are all solid brewers.  You may not like some of their brews but it is hard to say that they are not doing interesting and good work.  International critics and beer competitions agree.

Around Toronto, there is the beginnings of the same type of movement with Flying Monkeys, Mill St. and a few new ones that are pushing the taste forward.  I still believe that Ottawa may have a leg up with Beau's, Hogsback and Clocktower.  Also, the close proximity to the Quebec border will push the brewers into making choices that would not be required in Hogtown.  It is easier in a large market to sell mediocrity because many someone's will buy it.

I am not sure if it is just the distribution chain or the sales chain or what but it seems easier for me to get a Quebec brew than from Beau's.  I am happy to live near a few pubs who go the extra mile (literally and figuratively) in order for me to try some of the more innovative brews from Eastern Ontario.  However, I am sad that I cannot share that experience with friends outside my neighbourhood.

So, I guess I am advocating for a different type of beer store or a wider direct to customer delivery service or even some relaxing of liquor selling laws in Ontario.  I realize that several others have been calling for the dismantling of the KGBO (LCBO) but I am not advocating that.  There are some things that they do well.  Finding and supporting local breweries is not one of them.  I only wish that they do not stand in the way of allowing our Ontario breweries to garner the same international recognition that the Quebec breweries are beginning to receive.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Review: The Coffee Story

Sometimes you pick up a book to read that seems to resonate with your life at the time. Little coincidences seems to abound.  This is what happened when I began reading The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon.

It's a story about a man dying and a story about his life and other's death in the coffee industry. A number of coincidences started almost immediately.  Xeni Jardin, a Boing Boing blogger, announced that she had breast cancer and would be blogging about it.  While following her cancer stories, I came across a hilarious video, Sh*t Cancer Patients Say, that echoed some of the same stuff mentioned by the main character, Teddy Everrett.  The video itself, is or course, a parody of Shit Girls Say.

I had read The Cancer Ward just before I picked up The Coffee Story.  I didn't knowing what Salmon's book was going to be about but there are tons of parallels between the two.  One is critical about the communist system while the other is critical about the capitalism and imperialism in Ethiopia.  Intertwined in both stories are sex and loss of manhood due to ageing.  Or maybe they are really about the emasculation due to an oppressive regime of communism or capitalism.  In either case, they both have a fair amount of humour of the dark variety.  They both have at its core a democratizing factor of great men being brought down by death.

Oh and about the coffee.  After all, this is a blog primarily around food and drink.  I was reading  a book called Endless Appetites that takes about the global food industry and how it affects small farmers in emerging economies.  The coffee story follows Ethiopia and its history of coffee and funny enough there is a whole chapter on some of those same issue in Endless Appetites.  I hope to be able to review that book later this year.  I've finished the meal of the book but have not yet digested the contents.

Coffee is mostly present as a McGuffin. But in talking about The Coffee Story, Lucy must be mentioned.  She is the Teddy's main love.  Her name echoes a local Ethiopian restaurant on the Danforth called Lucy, and Leakey's Lucy, the mother of all humans.  Lucy, the name meaning light, 'came out of the jungle at fourteen with a silver lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other'.  This is repeated many times in the book and shows us through it.

There is a lot of sex but it is of a coarse variety not seemingly meaningful but as a distraction, playful, or just because that is all that is left when your life is totally controlled and predetermined.  A coffee bean is what begins the story, drives the story and ultimately what causes the downfall of the main character.

This book made me look up words: monophysite and cunctator.  The latter word sounds a little dirty and made me feel a little foolish when I looked it up.  But a few pages later, the word that is sound like shows up.  Pretty funny.  Like I said, a fair amount of humour of a certain type.

At the beginning of the story, I do not like this character Teddy.  As the story moves on, a little sympathy is built for him.  But even at the end, I do not feel for him but do gain an understanding.  He is a stand in for capitalism and its detractors in some ways.  Still, the idea of Africa walking into our world with a lighter in one hand and a coffee in the other haunts me.  I am a big coffee drinker and I consume coffee politics with my dark elixir.  I am not blind to the realities but this book reminds me of those that are responsible for the system that now exists.  It a frightening reality with some cracks where hope shines through with either the light of hope or the light of a revolution.

The writing is solid and the subject matter tickled me.  I wouldn't recommend this to everyone but it does invite you to think about coffee and death.  As a novel, it is a gentler way to understand what that bloody cup of coffee costs.  Great for when you need a little pick me up.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Review: The Olive and the Caper

Finally, after years of living close to Greektown in Toronto, I decide to read a Greek cookbook.  I suspected there was more to Greek cooking than roasted meats, grape leaves, fried cheese, moussaka and potatoes.  That is not the interesting part of this cookbook.  The Olive and the Caper was written by Susanna Hoffmann, a food anthropologist who spent many years in Greece.

This cookbook will give you all the recipes that you remember from the restaurants but even more importantly, you can begin to understand what is happening in Greece right now.  Greece has had a history of hard times.  Before the meltdown, there was the end of WWII and the deep poverty that caused many of the Greeks to leave.  There are tons of peasant dishes, along with dishes that probably had some early form in ancient times.  Stories of how Ancient Greece became Modern Greece are located in sidebars and special sections.  Reminds me of another great Workman effort, All Around the World Cookbook by Sheila Lukins.

Sprinkled among the recipes are little tidbits such as; why Greeks don't eat corn (reminds them of poverty) and the fact that lasagna is possibly a Greek invention.  If you don't have a good mediterranean cookbook, then I would suggest you look at this one.  I am probably only going to use a few recipes (Sesame Soup, a greek style barbeque sauce and some sweet savory desserts) but the anecdotes have me seriously considering purchasing a copy.  (I got this one from the library.)

The one revelation that I will take away from this book is about a food that is dear to my heart.  I am partially from Slavic descent and two things struck me.  The first is that Slav comes from slave, which were what northerners were for ancient Greeks.  The second is that cabbage rolls can be served cold with a yoghurt sauce.  When I make cabbage rolls, I often sneak down the first night they are in the fridge and grab the tomato soaked, red greased rolls and gobble them in a few bits.  It never occurred to me to purposely make a lighter filling and intend the cabbage rolls to be eaten with a tangy yoghurt or some thickened lemon sauce.  In fact, you could think of cabbage rolls as a large dolmades.  So, instead of arguing amongst the Poles, Ukraines, Armenians and anyone else, it is possible that the Greeks invented the cabbage roll.

Regardless of the origin, the possibilities of what a cabbage roll can be have expanded for me.  That is the most that I hope for when I read a cookbook.  One morsel of inspiration can feed both my imagination and my family for many times to come.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Scotts are Coming

In the east end of Toronto, kilts are popping up all over.  Okay, I couldn't resist but there is at least three new "Scottish" pubs that have shown up in the last little while.  McGuigan's, Kilt and Keg, and Kilt and Harp.

This whole thing reminds me of a few years ago when a whole bunch of "Irish" pubs cropped up all over.  The most Irish thing about them was the beer.  Even that was normally putting one of two of the big breweries on tap and calling it a day.  Some cute names on the menu and a nod with adding turnips or something would finish off the Irish menu.  All very stereotypical and derivative.

McGuigan's opened just before Robbie Burns' Day near Gerrard at Jones.  The menu is upscale pub food and the beer on tap is not particularly Scottish.  There are plenty of beers from the UK but they tend to be the usual suspects.  It would be nice to see Tracquair, McEwan, Wee Heavy or Harviestoun on tap or even bottled.  Then there is the ability to bring in Scottish inspired ales as well  (Scotch Ale, Lakeport makes a Scottish style...).  By the time I have posted this, the pub may find its legs and have brought in more Scottish fare.  I will definitely try it.  The food is rumoured to be good but a tad pricey.  We will withhold judgement at this time.

Kilt and Keg is a redo of a local pub.  The outside looks like the typical pub.  It is located across from the liquor and beer store on the Danforth. The only ads on the outside for Guinness and Strongbow.

Kilt and Harp will be opening soon near Danforth and Woodbine.

Kilt and Harp is supposed to be opening tonight -- March 7, 2012. Maybe I will get a chance to go...

It is a little weird that in an area that definitely has Scottish immigrants that these are the most high profile of a Scottish pub that exist.  I'm wondering if there is a reason for that? Anyways, two of these are replacement pubs where a pub sat recently and the other is a new face on the block.  Hopefully, I will get a chance to raise a pint in and to them, soon.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Restaurant Review: Salis Noodis

Update: Late June 2012, and Salis Noodis has been closed for minor renovations for a while. I am hoping that this isn't a precursor to deadpool.  Their opening was announced in the last issue of City Bites.  I will post when there is some information available.

A new noodle house has opened just south of St. Clair and Younge.  In this area, any restaurant needs to pitch to health conscious and pocketbook watching lunchers.  The exceptions either pitch to foodies or locals.  It would seem that a noodle house could work in this area where it could add to the plethora of sushi shacks and Italian restaurants.  I wonder what is Italian for noodle house?

Myself and my companions, together have sampled six different soups and two salads.  The pan-asian menu makes sure that there is a soup (Noodis) or salad (Salis) for everyone.  Beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian all have at least one soup and meat often factor into the salads.  Different noodles such as ramen, udon, vermicelli all make an appearance.  Price for the soup is between 10-13 dollars while the salads clock in at the 8ish dollar mark.  The Noodis portion of the menu includes: Roast Duck Breast Lai Fun, Asian Beef Ribs Lai Fun, Mee Fun, and Crispy Pork Belly Udon.  The Salis include Gado-Gado and Spicy Sesame Beef Salad, and Kale Cranberry Salad.

Broth is often used as a base for adding more flavour when making a soup.  It is the starting point. The Salis Noodis broth tastes as if there was a flavouring added to the broth without building the flavours.  It is not an artificial taste but rather of well made consomme being added to a quick stock.  Most of the broths taste a little thin. Still, this is way more desirable than using a soup base from a can or using the same generic broth for every soup. It is fresh tasting, at least in comparison to the muddy tastes of the usual soups from a mix or the grocery store hot bowls or the local chinese restaurants.  One notable exception to the thin broths is the beef broth.  The Asian Beef Ribs Lai Fun came with a bone and the depth of taste that I expect from beef broth.  Maybe it was a trick of the mind because anything with a bone has got to be good.

The broths are flavourable but seem to be missing something.  A touch of acid, a splash of citrus or vinegar, or maybe the tang of a hot pepper or ...something.  They need something to bring notice to the delicate tastes already present.

The salads tend to suffer the opposite effect of too much acid whether it be the vinegar or lemon.  The gado-gado, which is a composed salad of blanched vegetables with a peanut dressing, is cooked perfectly.  The dressing is too thin and overwhelms with lemon.  The spicy sesame beef was on the edge of too tangy.  It reminded me of a fresh sauerkraut with some beef thrown in it.  The sesame was lost.

All of the meat whether it be duck or beef are cooked well.  The meat falls apart in just the right way in your mouth;  a little resistance followed with the rich taste of meat.  My favourite bite was of the pork belly.  It was crisp on the skin side but soft and surprisingly meaty on the fatty side.  The crunch contrasted well with the softness of the noodles.

Some of the textures in these soups were surprising.  Silky enoki and crisp pungent mustard greens provided nuanced tastes.  Maybe it is my western taste buds that yearn for the acidic contrast but since we so seldom use acid in our soups, I am guessing not.

I think that overall it would be better if you stayed in to experience the noodles with a bowl and spoon.  If you take a soup back to the office, be prepared to put it into a glass bowl as eating out of the container is ackward and a little unsatisfying.

A friend of mine put it well, the soup is tasty but is it fourteen dollars of tasty?  I will go to this place every other week.  It's not because it is so awesome but rather because the tastes are different from what is available in the area.  The value for money is right on the edge but with a few tweaks, these soups can be excellent.