edible adventures from the centre of the universe

30 September 2006

Review: Mr. Pita

I'm always on the lookout for great take-out spots in our neighborhood for those times when I don't feel like cooking. Pizza or Thai are usually our standbys, but Dave and I recently came across a new spot, Mr. Pita (3358 Dundas St W), that offers a refreshing change from our typical take-out choices.

Mr. Pita is located in a small, unassuming building on the corner of Dundas and Runnymede. The decor is standard take-out joint chic, with just a few eat-in tables surrounding the counter and cooking area where you place your order. Big windows let in a lot of light, giving the place a cheerful vibe. Also cheerful is the super-friendly owner, who is always generous with the smiles and warm welcomes when you step in the door.

The menu on the wall offers a number of Middle Eastern dishes, but on out most recent outing it was all about the falafel. Mr. Pita makes their falafel balls from scratch -- no frozen, dry choking hazards here. When you order the "Falafel Dinner" these delicious, spicy homemade morsels are piled on top of rice pilaf, stewed vegetables, tabouli, a slightly sweet coleslaw-like salad, pickled beets, fresh tomato, onion, and lettuce, and a generous serving of hummus. The whole thing is then topped with a creamy, savoury tahini dressing and house-made delicious hot sauce. Served with very fresh and soft pita bread, this is an amazing deal for $5.99.

As he assembles our meals, the owner is happy to chat and joke with us, throwing in a couple extra pieces of pita bread for free. The service at Mr. Pita is some of the most friendly and genuine that I have ever encountered. The food is delicious, but the main reason we will return to Mr. Pita (again and again) is the fact that it feels great to patronize local neighborhood spots like this where you know your money is going to a great guy.


29 September 2006

In Defence of Gluttony: A Photoessay

After seeing some mouthwatering ads on TV (we're such suckers), Dave and I decided it would be a good idea to get a group together for the all-you-can-eat shrimp promotion that's going on at Red Lobster right now. Brett, taker of the photos below and a graphic designer at Dave's place of employ, Rue Morgue, called up the restaurant to make sure that the, as he hilariously put it, "Eternal Shrimp" event was still on. They confirmed that it was, so we gathered the troops (L-R in the photo below: Paul, Alex, Brett, Gary, Nicole, me, Dave, and Jovanka) to eat as much shrimp as possible in one sitting.

The evening started on an optimistic note, with everyone finishing their free salad and biscuits (which are so, so good), as well as their first servings of shrimp no problem. Plenty of jokes were made referencing the Simpsons seafood episode and the obligatory"Deadly Prawn" pun was slam-dunked by Jovanka (who was the only attendee who was not partaking in the shrimp pig-out due to an allergy). Our servers humoured us, providing pitchers of Diet Coke for the table, and bringing out shrimp replacements at timely intervals. It was soon discovered that the only non-breaded shrimp offering, the garlic shrimp, is the dish to order if you want to maximize your shrimp consumption. On the other hand, the shrimp pasta, while delicious, is a complete appetite-killer due to the huge serving of carbs and rich sauce that comes with it.

After 4 or 5 servings, everyone started to slow down and some people dropped out of the "race" completely (me included). Three of the lead contenders: Paul, Brett, and Gary fell out after 86 prawns were consumed each. To be fair, Paul's shrimp intake included two servings of the aforementioned pasta.

Dave, however, would not stop until he broke three digits. The photo below is shrimp #101. He eventually made it to 105, and then exploded.

As a table, we ate about 540 shrimp between 7 people. It was amazing. The carnage can be seen below.

Gary feels remorse:

Brett slips into a shrimp-induced coma:

Paul struggles to keep his two servings of shrimp pasta down:

While all-you-can-eat deals probably shouldn't be challenged on a regular basis, we had a blast on this particular outing. At $23 bucks a pop, it was definitely worth the price. Thanks, Red Lobster!

24 September 2006

Review: Toni Bulloni (Subhead: I Heart Pasta)

Comforting, versatile pasta is easily one of my favourite foods. This past week, I was lucky to have had two great pasta experiences -- first with a new (to me) restaurant, and second with an easy and delicious recipe. The restaurant experience came about because Dave invited me to a screening of Michel Gondry's new film, The Science of Sleep, and we needed somewhere to eat beforehand. Unfortunately, the screening happened to be in Yorkville, an area of town where "inexpensive" is a dirty word. After a quick intarweb search, we settled on Toni Bulloni (156 Cumberland St.), an Italian restaurant right across the street from the movie theatre that turned out to be not only inexpensive, but homey and entirely satisfying.

Toni Bulloni is a skinny restaurant -- to get to the seating area, you have to walk down a narrow corridor that follows the length of the bar. The atmosphere is dark, warm, and inviting with cozy booths and interesting, brightly-coloured art on the walls. The attentive and friendly server brought our drinks promptly and left us to peruse the menus once we were seated. The menu is large, with a focus on pasta and pizza as well as some meat entrees. The chalkboard on the wall beside us also listed several tasty-sounding specials. It was difficult to choose, but I decided on penne in vodka rose sauce (one of the specials), and Dave chose linguine in a chicken, asparagus, and sundried tomato rose sauce.

As we waited for our meals, the server brought us a small loaf of complimentary bread fresh from the oven, with garlic butter melted over the top. It was delicious and the perfect thing to whet our appetites for the dishes to come. As we munched on the bread, we saw a pizza go by that looked amazing.

Soon after, our generously-portioned pasta dishes were placed in front of us and topped with fresh ground pepper and parmesan. I dug into my penne and was immediately impressed -- the sauce was creamy but not too rich, with chunks of fresh tomato, onion, and just a hint of vodka flavour. The noodles were perfectly cooked to al dente, each one coated with a lovely thin layer of sauce. I was thrilled with my choice.

While I enjoyed my penne, Dave was busy attacking a mountain of linguine. The long, plump noodles were covered in chunks of chicken and crunchy-fresh thin asparagus spears. The earthy-tasting sundried tomato rose sauce tied the entire dish together -- in Dave's words, "mmmm."

While we were in pasta-heaven, our server stopped by to give us some free soda refills -- something that I find is rare at non-chain restaurants (and a complete surprise in Yorkville). She was also happy to accomodate my doggy-bag needs when I couldn't finish my huge bowl of pasta. Overall, the service and food at Toni Bulloni were excellent. It made for a perfect pre-movie dinner and this spot will be at the top of my list next time I'm craving a big bowl of pasta downtown.

8 spaghetti westerns out of 10

After our experience at Toni Bulloni, I was in the mood to make some pasta at home. I turned to one of my all-time favourite cookbooks, Rebar by Audrey Alsterburg and Wanda Urbanowicz, and their "September Spaghettini" sounded like a perfect (and appropriate) antidote to my craving. The simple tomato-basil sauce in this recipe has loads of garlic and tomato flavour. The red chiles add a nice kick, and the touch of honey really mellows out the acidity of the fresh tomatoes. I recommend serving big bowls of this pasta with garlic bread and plenty of extra Parmigiano-Reggiano.

September Spaghettini

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 small yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
pinch red chile flakes
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cracked pepper
6 ripe garden tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
30 g fresh basil
1 heaping tsp honey
1/2 lb spaghettini
Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish

1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add onion and saute until soft and lightly golden. Add garlic, bay leaf, chiles, salt, and pepper, and saute for 5 minutes over low heat. Stir in tomatoes and honey, and simmer gently uncovered up to an hour, until the sauce has acheived your desired thickness. Add chopped basil and season to taste.
2. While the sauce simmers, cook the spaghettini in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and toss the pasta with half the sauce. Distribute pasta into bowls, and then top with the remaining sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Enjoy!

Serves 2

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21 September 2006

Cookbook Love

I've had some great luck with cookbooks lately. The first, which I've mentioned previously, is Great Grilled Cheese by Laura Werlin. The entire book focuses on the delicious, gooey title sandwich, in dozens of iterations. Craving something garlicky, Dave and I decided to try the Garlic-Crusted Sourdough with Cheddar sandwich. The secret is the garlic- and parmesan-infused butter used to crisp the bread -- it elevates the flavour of this sandwich way beyond your typical grilled cheddar.

We needed something to pair with our sandwiches, so I turned to another new cookbook: Once Upon a Tart... by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audreau. Once Upon a Tart is a bakeshop in New York that specializes in tarts, naturally. This book caught my eye because I have a complete weakness for cookbooks that are put out by restaurants. Plus, the pictures looked delectable and the writing syle seemed friendly and easy-to-follow. It was an easy sell.

Flipping through the salad section, I was tempted by the Haricot-Vert-and-Corn Salad with Roasted Artichoke Hearts and fresh Tarragon-Lemon Vinaigrette. I love roasted corn, and the tart vinaigrette seemed like it would be a nice contrast to the rich cheese sandwiches. I wasn't wrong -- the roasted veggies and fresh beans tasted great with the tarragon dressing, and made for an interesting combination with our flavourful grilled cheese. The only change I would make would be to maybe add some honey to the vinaigrette or use a smaller lemon, because it was a little too acidic.

Two great recipes from two great cookbooks, making for one great meal. Enjoy!

Garlic-Crusted Sourdough with Cheddar

3 cups water
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp butter, room temperature
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan
8 slices sourdough bread
8 ounces cheddar, grated (I used aged white cheddar)

1. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the garlic. Boil for 5 minutes, drain, and mash the garlic with the back of a fork in a small bowl. Add the butter and parmesan, and mix well.
2. Butter one side of each slice of bread with the garlic butter. Place 4 slices on your work surface, buttered side down. Distribute the cheese evenly over the 4 slices, and top with the remaining 4 slices of bread, buttered side up.

3. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches in the skillet (in batches, if necessary), cover, and cook for 2 minutes until the undersides are golden brown and the cheese has begun to soften. Uncover, and turn sandwiches with a spatula, pressing firmly to flatten them slightly. Cook for 1 minute, until the undersides are golden brown. Turn the sandwiches again, press with the spatula, and cook for 30 seconds until the cheese has melted completely. Serve immediately.

makes 4 sandwiches

Haricot-Vert-and-Corn Salad with Roasted Artichoke Hearts and fresh Tarragon-Lemon Vinaigrette

1/2 pound haricots vert, or string beans, trimmed and sliced into 1-inch pieces
4 cups cold salted water
2 cups frozen or canned corn
2 tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper
One 13.5 ounce can artichoke hearts in water, drained
1 garlic clove, minced

1 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp salt
a pinch of fresh ground pepper
1/3 cup olive oil

1. Make vinaigrette: Whisk everything but the olive oil together in a small bowl. Add the oil in a thin stream, whisking all the while to form an emulsion. If dressing is too tart, add a small amount of honey to taste. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3. Bring the water to a boil. Add the beans and blanch them for 1 minute. Drain, and run cold water over them. Drain well before adding to a large salad bowl.
4. Toss the corn with 1 tbsp olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, and a few twists of freshly ground pepper. Scatter the corn on a sheet pan, place in the oven, and roast for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Shake the pan once or twice while cooking to prevent burning. Remove the pan from the oven and scrape the corn into the salad bowl.
5. Cut the artichoke hearts into quarters and toss with the remaining olive oil and garlic. Spread artichokes on the sheet pan and place it in the oven for 25 minutes, until the artichokes begin to get brown with charred edges. When they're done, remove from the oven and scape the artichoke hearts into the salad bowl.
6. Just before serving, toss the vegetables with the vinaigrette. Salt to taste, and serve warm or at room temperature.

serves 4


16 September 2006

Review: Okonomi House

Last week I learned that Japanese food is not all sushi, sashimi, and mayo on pizza when I finally had the opportunity to try Okonimi House (23 Charles St), a Japanese restaurant that specializes in okonomiyaki. Our friend Scott was in town for TIFF, and Okonomi House's close proximity to the Varsity theatre made it an ideal place for Dave, Scott, and I to grab a bite.

The Okonomi House has been around since 1978, and its decor is best decribed as 70's Japanese truck-stop, with squishy booths, wood paneling, and bright orange paper lanterns surrounding the dining area. Enhancing the diner feel was the smooth sounds of the 70's and 80's that came at us from the speakers (as Scott put it, "now with 30% more Rod Stewart").

The menu is short, with a focus on teriyaki and okonomiyaki -- something like a Japanese omelet or pancake, made with eggs and four and your choice of filling ("Okonomi" translates roughly to "as you like" in English). The three of us opted for the okonomiyaki, with Scott and I ordering shrimp and Dave choosing the seafood deluxe. We ordered some steamed rice and stir-fried veggies to go with our mains, and we started our meal with some edamame and a sunomomo salad to share.

The edamame and sunomomo were brought to our table very quickly. The edamame were pretty standard (freshly boiled and salted nicely), and the sunomomo was an unusual combination of bean thread noodles, crab stick, seaweed, carrot shreds, sesame seeds, and cucumber floating in what tasted like a combination of rice vinegar and mirin -- quite refreshing.

Soon thereafter, our okonomiyaki were brought to us on individual cast iron and wood platters, resembling fat pancakes coated in brown sauce with a dollop of mayo on top. We dug in and found that the okonomiyaki were crispy on the outside and completely stuffed with shrimp and, in Dave's case, scallops, crab stick, and squid on the inside. The brown sauce was salty sweet, combining perfectly with the savoury fillings, and the mayo added a nice layer of creaminess, although it was a little rich. I think "yum!" about sums it up.

The okonomiyaki were surprisingly filling, so we had a hard time finishing the stir-fried veggies and rice that we had ordered on the side. The veggies were cooked to tender-crisp and were topped with the brown okonomiyaki sauce, and the rice was nice and sticky. The only complaint we had was that the veggies consisted primarily of bean sprouts.

Filled to capacity, we paid our extremely reasonable bill and headed out into the night. I'm thrilled to have discovered the Okonomi House, and I think that its longevity speaks volumes. This is unique and delicious fast food at a great value, and we'll definitely be back for a pre-movie dinner in the near future.

8 Japanese cowboys out of 10


10 September 2006

Mac n' Cheese

Who doesn't love macaroni and cheese? It's the perfect comfort food! Inspired by a mindblowingly tasty version of this classic dish I had at the Victory Cafe recently (seriously, the Vic's mac n' cheese is fantastic), I decided to whip up a batch at home. I turned to one of my all-time favourite cookbooks, Rebar by Audrey Alsterburg and Wanda Urbanowicz, and "Audrey's Deluxe Mac & Cheese" sounded almost perfect. I made a few minor adjustments and came up with the following recipe, which produces creamy, garlicky results. The key is really the breadcrumb crust -- the garlic roasts in the oven, imparting a nutty flavour, and the crispy breadcrumbs add an interesting textural dimension to the dish. Enjoy!

deluxe mac & cheese

3 cups dry macaroni elbows (or other short, chunky pasta)
1.5 cups broccoli florets
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, diced
1 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp red chile pepper flakes
2.5 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
1/4 cup fresh italian parsley, chopped
2 tbsp butter
1.75 cups milk
2 tbsp flour
2 cups grated aged white cheddar
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (grind a few slices of bread in a food processor)
1/2 cup fresh grated parmesan

1. Cook pasta in boiling water. When pasta is almost done, add the broccoli to the boiling water and cook until just tender. Strain broccoli and pasta, and toss with a light coating of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.
2. Heat 1/2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat in a small skillet and saute onion, red chile flakes, and 1/4 tsp salt for 5 minutes. Add half of the minced garlic, and cook until the garlic turns golden. Remove from heat and stir in half of the oregano, thyme, and parsley. Set aside.
3. Gently warm the milk (I use the microwave). Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter, and whisk constantly until the mixture turns golden. Gradually add the warm milk to the saucepan with 1/2 tsp salt, whisking thoroughly. Heat until sauce thickens (about 10 minutes). Add the onion mixture and the grated cheddar cheese, and stir until the cheese is melted. Season to taste.
4. Make the breadcrumb topping: combine the breadcrumbs with the parmesan and the remaining garlic, oregano, thyme, and parsley. Add 1/4 tsp salt, plenty of cracked pepper, and the remaining 1.5 tbsp olive oil. Mix thoroughly.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To assemble, combine the pasta/broccoli with the cheese sauce and mix well. Pour into an oiled casserole dish. Scatter the topping over the entire surface, working some of it into the noodles. Bake uncovered until golden and bubbly, about 35 minutes.

serves 5


09 September 2006

Ala Peanut Butter Sandwiches!

Today I had a peanut butter and pickle sandwich for lunch. It sounds bizarre, but I've loved this combo since I was a kid -- the salty, crunchy sourness of the pickle is a perfect match for the sweet, creamy nuttiness of the PB. For best results, use white bread, lots of peanut butter, and kosher dill pickles (I like Strub's). Yum.


07 September 2006

Review: Anatolia Restaurant

Craving something different, Dave, our friend Jon, and I found ourselves at Anatolia (5112 Dundas St W) yesterday evening for some Turkish eats. I had never tried Turkish food before, but I had heard great things about this restaurant so we decided to give it a go. We weren't disappointed.

Anatolia is located in a sleazy-looking strip mall, but you quickly forget the exterior when you step inside to homey surroundings and delicious scents from the kitchen. Pillows in the windows, checkered tablecloths, and Turkish wall decorations warm the space, although Jon noted that the pitted "wall treatment" looks not unlike bullet holes, as if someone has taken a jack hammer to the wall. Unusual choice.

Once seated, we had a look at the plentitude of unique choices offered on the menu. It was really tough to make a decision, but we finally settled on a few appetizers: Meze Tabagi (a sampler of dips), Lahmacun (pita topped with beef and spices), and Pacanga (cigar-shaped pastry stuffed with mozzarella and beef). Our distracted server returned with these goodies and our drink orders after a short wait.

The Meze Tabagi offered four dips, along with some soft, warm flatbread: Haydari, a tangy yogurt garlic spread; Domates Ezmesi, a type of spicy salsa, made with tomato, onion, and green peppers; Hummus; and Patlican Ezmesi, a soft, smoky eggplant puree. Of the four, the Haydari was my favourite, followed closely by the Domates Ezmesi. The hummus was better than average, but not mindblowing, and the eggplant puree had an unusual flavour that I'm not sure I liked, but was glad to have tried. Dave and Jon reported that the Lahmacun and Pacanga were delicious, and every morsel was gone by the time our mains arrived.

For my entree, I had ordered Gozleme. These are Turkish "crepes" stuffed with fresh spinach and cheese. More like a quesadilla than a crepe, these tasty Gozleme had been lightly browned so that the crispy exterior contrasted beautifully with the gooey feta and chewy dough interior. There was not too much cheese on the inside -- just a nice salty feta "bite" that enhanced, but did not take away from, the delicate "crepe" -- and the freshness of the bright green spinach added another delicious level of flavour. My crepes were accompanied by marinated red cabbage, and a shredded carrot salad. The cabbage was fantastic: tangy, crunchy, and sour, but the carrot was a little bland.

Dave had ordered a "meat sampler" that was on special, and Jon got Manti -- meat dumplings served in a garlic yogurt sauce. Dave loved his meal, which came with a lamb kebab, Turkish meatballs, and a pocket of dough stuffed with ground beef and spices. These were accompanied by sweet almond rice and tomato couscous sides, as well as the carrot and cabbage salads. Jon also enjoyed his dumplings, although he mentioned that they could have used a little less yogurt on top.

At this point, we were completely stuffed and dessert was out of the question. Too bad, because I was dying to try Kunefe, a cheese pastry with syrup that sounded amazing. I guess I'll have to wait until my next visit! Prices at Anatolia are very reasonable and although service is very spotty, the food (mostly) makes up for it. I recommend this spot for a unique and delicious meal.

7 cowgirl hats out of 10


04 September 2006

Goodbye Summer

As the weather begins to cool and the leaves on the trees begin to change colour, I start to feel cravings for those belly warming, comforting, autumn-y foods that I've missed all summer. One of those quintessential cold-weather meals is hot soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. I recently picked up the Great Grilled Cheese cookbook by Laura Werlin, which has a tonne of great ideas for unique takes on everyone's favourite sandwich. One that really appealed to me was the Tomato, Tarragon, and Goat Cheese Sandwich on Olive Bread, and I decided to pair it with a variation on my mom's recipe for creamy potato soup. I was originally going to make a potato-leek soup but, after a mix-up at the grocery store, I ended up with a big bunch of Swiss chard. It turned out that the earthiness of the chard tasted great with the creamy potato base. Accompanied by the rustic olive bread-based sandwiches, this meal is a delicious twist on the classic soup/grilled cheese combo. With hockey, cozy nights in front of the fire, and rib-sticking delicious food like this on the horizon, I can't wait for the season to change. Bring it on, Winter! I'm ready for you.

Tomato, Tarragon, and Goat Cheese Sandwiches on Olive Bread

6 oz fresh goat cheese
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 small tomato, seeded and diced
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
8 slices olive bread (or soudough)
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Combine cheese, shallot, tomato, and tarragon in a small bowl.
2. Brush one side of each slice of bread with olive oil. Pleace 4 slices on your work surface, oiled side down. Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the 4 slices. Place remaining 2 bread slices on top, oiled side up.
3. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches in the skillet (in batches, if necessary), cover, and cook for 2 minutes until the undersides are golden brown and the cheese has begun to soften. Uncover, and turn sandwiches with a spatula, pressing firmly to flatten them slightly. Cook for 1 minute, until the undersides are golden brown. Turn the sandwiches again, press with the spatula, and cook for 30 seconds until the cheese is soft and creamy. Serve immediately.

makes 4 sandwiches

Creamy Potato-Chard Soup

4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup onion, diced
leaves from 1 bunch Swiss chard, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 cups water
a pinch each of thyme and sage
2 veggie bouillon cube
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 large pinch nutmeg
2 cups milk
2 cups sour cream (low fat is okay)
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp olive oil
parsley, for garnish

1. Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add salt, pepper, onions and celery, and saute for 5 minutes until onions are tender. Add garlic, thyme, and sage, and cook for one minute. Add potatoes, bouillon, and water, bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add chard and nutmeg to the pot, cover, and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
2. Remove pot from the stove, and use a hand blender to puree the mixture until it is a smooth paste. Add 1 cup of milk and heat gently.
3. In a small bowl, combine sour cream, flour, and 1 cup milk.
4. Slowly, pour 1/3 of the heated mixture into the sour cream. Slowly pour this mixture back into the remainder of the soup. Heat and stir until thickened. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
5. Garnish with parsley, and serve.

serves 6