edible adventures from the centre of the universe

29 June 2007

Review: Ristorante Otto (Montreal)

In Montreal for business earlier this week, I stayed at the ridiculously trendy and ultra-modern W Hotel. It's honestly like living in the Korova Milkbar from A Clockwork Orange. After a particularly long day of work, my colleagues and I decided to check out the hotel restaurant, Otto. The decor in Otto is just as sleek as in the hotel -- it's sort of a mod, nightclubby take on old-school Italian, with lots of reds, whites, and deep browns. We were led to a giant semi- circular booth with lots of plush red pillows. It was very cozy, and gave us a nice view of the rest of the dining room (which happened to be mostly empty on this Tuesday night).

The menu at Otto is essentially Italian-Asian fusion, with tempura and peanut-sauced shrimp alongside risotto and rack of lamb. Our friendly (and very young/attractive -- the norm at W) waitress pointed out the "favourites" on the menu and brought some wine while we decided what to order. I finally settled on the grilled hamachi with cherry tomato and lobster couscous, while my colleagues ordered the rack of lamb and mushroom risotto. We also ordered the tuna tartare to start, which had been highly recommended by the waitress.

The tuna tartare arrived in no time, and was presented beautifully, surrounded with a "border" of avocado slices and cilantro tabouleh. We each took a bite and agreed that it was delicious. The buttery tuna tasted amazing with the creamy avocado and subtle spice from the tabouleh. This was probably the favourite dish of the evening.

After another glass of wine and a long-ish wait, our mains arrived. My plate was extremely hot, which I took to mean that it had been sitting under the heat lamp for some time. I started with a taste of the couscous, which was mixed with huge chunks of lobster meat -- to my disappointment, the lobster was very tough and chewy (almost inedible, really) and my couscous was more clumpy than it was fluffy. However, the grains were infused with a nice savoury tomato flavour. Rather than hearts of palm, as the menu had promised, my dish was sided with some nice and crunchy, barely-cooked green veggies (mostly peas and asparagus, with some tough (undercooked) lima or fava beans thrown in). The hamachi itself was grilled with strange results: it was completely done in some parts and raw in others. Since it didn't appear to have been seared, I couldn't tell if this was done on purpose. Regardless, the fish had a nice rich flavour that went well with the garden-fresh vegetables. Overall, I was pretty underwhelmed with my meal. My colleagues didn't rave about their main dishes either.

In general, I found Otto to be a pretty average dining experience. The service is great, but the food is not worth the price, in my opinion -- it feels a lot like style over substance. I'm sure there are better options in Montreal, unless you're really in the mood for some milk-plus and a little bit of the old ultraviolence.

5 gardiens out of 10


21 June 2007

I Made a Strawberry!


17 June 2007

Yummy Pizza Topping Alert!

It's KALE! I was happy to be able to combine two of my current obsessions the other day (homemade pizza and my container garden) when I added some freshly-harvested kale to a homemade veggie sausage (Tofurky Italian Sausage) and onion pizza. It was amazing! All I did was saute the kale briefly with some garlic in a little olive oil before adding it to the pizza, and the greens added a delicious depth of flavour to the otherwise standard sausage pie. I think I might experiment with a swiss chard pizza next. Yum!

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14 June 2007

Review: Back to the Garden Cafe

Tucked away in the shadow of a condo building a few blocks North of Bloor on Dundas, the unassuming Back to the Garden Cafe (2535 Dundas St. W) is easy to overlook. In fact, it took Dave and I about two years of living in the neighborhood before we developed enough interest in it to try some takeout. I was pleasantly surprised with our order so, when a vegetarian friend was in town for a visit this past week, Back to the Garden's large patio quickly came to mind.

The interior of the restaurant is dark and cozy, with lots of wood paneling and a welcoming fireplace. It looks like a great place to warm up in the winter but, on this particular sunny day, we were all about the patio. Stepping onto the large deck, we noticed that the patio furniture was sun-worn, and in pretty rough shape. The traffic noise coming from Dundas a few feet away was also not ideal, but no matter -- we were there for the food.

As luck would have it, buckets of 4 Coronas were on special for about $12 on this particular Wednesday night. We ordered some to sip while we perused the menu. The specials board inside Back to the Garden offers up a variety of stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, like lasagna and roasted turkey. To us, however, this seemed like a burger n' fries kind of evening.

The burger list is extensive, with a lot of really creative toppings. I had a hard time choosing between two or three different options, and finally settled on "Fun in Acapulco" -- a burger with nacho chips, nacho cheese, jalapenos, and chipotle sauce. I asked for a veggie patty instead of chicken, and our friendly waitress was happy to oblige. Dave ordered "New York New York," a beef burger topped with sauteed mushrooms and swiss cheese, and our out-of-town friend Heath went with "Los Angeles" -- a veggie burger adorned with camembert and chipotle sauce. I was tempted by the flavoured fries, which are crispy fresh-cut fries coated in a sauce of your choice. Dave and I had ordered these for takeout and they were fantastic. On this occasion, however, I opted for no side (after all, I already was going to have nachos on my burger). Dave got a side salad and Heath chose regular, plain fries.

As we waited for our food, our waitress proactively brought out some water for us, without us needing to order it -- I love that. When our burgers arrived, I was thrilled to see that mine actually had nachos on top -- chips, with 7-11-esque liquid nacho cheese, and pickled jalapeno slices, as well as a slice of fresh tomato, pickles, and chopped lettuce. I drizzled the accompanying chipotle sauce on top and dug in -- my burger made a very satisfying crunch with each bite. The smoky heat of the creamy chipotle sauce went well with the nacho cheese and crispy tortilla chips. The jalapeno slices added another layer of spice, and everything was mellowed out by the delicious grain-based veggie patty. What a great burger. Dave equally enjoyed his order, and commented that the salad was tasty, if a little standard. Heath was also a big fan of his burger, but found that the camembert wasn't quite assertive enough to shine through the flavourful chipotle sauce. Dave and I stole a few of Heath's fries because they were so tasty.

Completely stuffed, we took care of our extremely reasonable bill (thanks, Heath!) and started home just as the sun was setting. I regret not trying the creative, delicious food at Back to the Garden earlier, but now that it's on my radar it will be one of my top choices when I'm craving a burger.

7 cow patties out of 10


07 June 2007

Because you don't make friends with salad

Since I stopped eating the real stuff about 10 years ago, I've tried almost every iteration of fake meat that's come across my path. As I've tasted my way from "bologna" to Tofurky, I've found that different brands simulate the texture and flavour of meat to varying degrees of success. One of my most disturbing experiences involved dense, chewy, flavourless gluten "drumsticks" -- Dave and I ate one bite each and then threw the rest in the trash. And then we threw some lighter fluid and a match in after them as a public service to our local garbage-scavenging alley cats.

I've also had some great experiences with fake meat brands, which I'd like to share here. Hoefully these recommendations will help you from avoid any gluten drumstick landmines at your grocery store.

Deli Meat
When it comes to deli meat, Yves has the largest variety -- their bologna is pretty good, and the pepperoni slices are great for veggie pizza. However, I much prefer Tofurky slices when I'm making a sandwich. The texture is very close to actual meat, and the flavour is about as close as you can get to turkey without going for the real thing. I also find these make a great substitute for corned beef in a Rueben

Hot Dogs
I've had some awful vegetarian hot dogs (avoid the Zoglos tofu wieners, for your own sake), but I've also had some great ones. My favourites are Schneider's "Oh Naturel!" wieners and Yves Good Dogs or Jumbo Veggie Dogs. All of these are about a million times healthier than real hot dogs, and taste just as good with mustard. I've just learned that Yves now makes corn dogs, and Tofurky makes foot longs. If you know where to find either of these in the GTA, please leave a comment!

Far and away, the best grocery-store veggie burger is Lick's Nature Burgers. Period.

Chicken Burgers
The best fake chicken burgers I've tried are made by Zoglos. They have breaded and unbreaded versions, both of which are super quick and easy to crisp up in a toaster. I wouldn't recommend these for the BBQ, however, because they tend to dry out.

Tasty vegetarian spaghetti and meatballs is easy to make using President's Choice "World's Best Meatless Meatballs." They're moist and tasty, and also work as a great substitute in a dish of Swedish Meatballs. My second-favourite veggie meatballs are made by Schneider's "Oh Naturel!" brand.

Ground Meat
Yves Ground Round is definitely the best option in this category. You can substitute it in any recipe that calls for ground meat, with great results. I love tacos, and this stuff helps me get my fix without using beef.

Breakfast Sausage
I recently discovered Veggie Patch's line of sausages, and I've been very impressed with their spiced apple version. You can smell the fragrant apple as the sausages fry up, and the end result is very tasty. I can't wait to try the jalapeno cheddar version. If you can't find Veggie Patch products, Yves also makes a passable breakfast sausage.

Regular sausage
I'f you're looking to grill some vegetarian sausages, I've found that the best ones are made by Tofurky. The Italian Sausages get nice and crisp on the outside, and stay moist on the inside -- great on a bun or chopped up into pasta or on a pizza. So far, I've only been able to find the Italian Sausage version, but I'd love to try their brats and kielbasa. If you've seen either of these around the GTA, again, please leave a comment!

So far, I've not been able to find any veggie bacon that really replicates the meaty original. The closest I've come is with Yves, who makes Canadian and regular versions. They're not perfect, but they'll make a decent BLT or bacon cheeseburger.

For unique and delicious frozen meatless products, check out the store in the back of King's Cafe in Kensington market. They carry amazing fake ham (which reminds me of the slices on Egg McMuffins), and deliciously spiced "chicken" chunks. I haven't been disappointed by anything that I've picked up there, and I make sure to stop in whenever I'm in the area. You should too!