I am like a dog, I need frequent rewards and treats to optimize my performance. The behaviour that warrants such treats has become a loose category that can only be defined under the broad terms of Generally Surviving a Day. August was a dizzy blur, and September has been a bit of a carnival ride too. When all that is familiar goes POOF, I find solace in the tastes and textures that I know well.
I moved from a culinary wasteland of chicken wing joints and worn-out restos that advertised Molson Canadian as a “speciality beer.” Upon arriving in Toronto, my must-eat list was already formed. I had already devoured the Toronto Life Restaurant Guide while exiled in the chicken wing territory of BC and had made educated dining decisions. The winning diners and bistros had been circled in red pen, and clearly, I had a lot of burgers to eat.
The Restaurant Guide has always been a bit of a biblical read for me and lends to reciting favourite passages out loud, like “the huevos divorciados are a sweet and spicy mess of fried eggs atop a chewy corn tortilla that’s smothered in salsa, guacamole and house-made ancho jam.” Or, this about the Globe burger–“the thick half-pound patty is pan-fried in clarified butter and supported by an all-Canadian cast: Quebec curds, Niagara pancetta and mushrooms from Grey County.” This is the centrefold of food porn!
But first, let me reminisce about today. I needed a treat after running the Terry Fox 10K, and for sleeping on an unforgiving floor for the last month. I heard the Black Camel call my name, and in my sleep I said aloud, “I see pulled pork sandwiches.” Located skipping distance from the Rosedale subway station (4 Crescent Road at Yonge), the Black Camel would be the death of any feeble vegetarian. It’s a caveman’s oasis with slow-roasted beef brisket, roasted pulled chicken and the pulled BBQ pork shoulder (the Camel signature). For $7.00 you are offered your choice of meat (way more than the suggested deck of playing cards serving), plus two sauces and/or condiments. The Black Camel BBQ sauce with caramelized onions is the blissful marriage that the ever-helpful and smiley Eli sold me on, behind his shaggy bangs. But there’s more: chipotle mayo, Charamoula mayo (??), horseradish with enough inferno to give you a nosebleed, fontina cheese, sautéed cremini mushrooms, slow-roasted roma tomoatoes, eggplant and sweet red peppers.
The Black Camel keeps it simple and refined—focussing on basic sandwiches, chilli and coleslaw. This is not first date-quality food as the sandwich is abnormally big and drips like a leaky faucet. But, what a memory maker. I walked over to the park with a chilly Brio and ate in a stunned silence. The Brio, for those who haven’t experienced the Italian chinotto, is like a DNA mix-up of Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper. The soda is made from the bitter citrus fruit of the chinotto tree (which is also an essential component of the aperitif Campari), with quinine and other herbal extracts. So, it’s like an all-natural Coke.
And for an all-natural one-two punch follow-up, I rely on Marche Movenpick’s bircher muesli that is straight out of the Swiss Alps. The soaked raw oats are mixed with plain yogurt, shredded apple and elderberries. It looks like a mauve cat fur ball, but has become my go-to for a healthy hit. Because one cannot survive on pulled pork alone, unfortunately.
A week ago, after a night at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) with Dax and Kelly, oatmeal and eight glasses of water were required, stat. Dax and I had bravely ordered the $5 bacon with chocolate sauce after our deep-fried pogo stick entree. Not so surprisingly, the combo worked—that is, if you are a lover of sweet and savoury. My Brit friends Denny and Gillian are continually disgusted by my affection for “eggy bread” and maple syrup, or worse—sausage studded with apple and raisins. Lamb and mint jelly? An embarrassment to the lamb, for sure.
Another lovely, local sweet and savoury companionship that I immediately sought out in Toronto is found at The Garage Sandwich Company (Church St. at Wellesley). I check off the same vital ingredients on the cutesy menu order scripts every time: 7 grain bread, alfalfa sprouts, bacon, roasted sweet potatoes, avocado and honey mustard. Matched with a juniper soda, the Dagwood sandwich that requires toothpicks to hold its guts together is my death row request.
And moments before the dead-man-walking moment, I’d ask for an oatmeal raisin cookie from Le Gourmand on Spadina. The cookies are as big as Frisbees and could easily serve as a meal replacement (best paired with a Jet Fuel mochacinno–which leaves a beehive in your head with the detonation of the two shots of espresso).
For an equally furry head, the Bulldog (98 Granby street) whips up a frothy monster that is delivered as “The Bulldog Latte” for three bucks. The service is reliably snooty as the baristas have the bedside manner of jilted lovers (i.e.– not really caring what you want). But, the lattes are pretty and come with delicate fern designs in the foam.
When the coffee buzz buzzes off, C’est What? (67 Front street at Church) has set the bar for beer drinker palates with their hazelnut chocolate ale, caraway rye beer, coffee porter and the Homegrown Hemp Ale which is my old Beer Store standby.
The Local 4 Restaurant (4 Dundonald street at Yonge) provides a “warm, low-pressure venue for drinking, dining and relaxing.” They are vital supporters of Ontario and Quebec micobreweries and feature Church Key Brewing’s Holy Smoke beer which tastes like a mouthful of campfire smoke, minus the stinging sensation in one’s eyes (and jerky mosquitoes). They also serve the Absinteeni, that boasts a bold shot of absinthe (alcohol content of 45-74%, AKA “the Green Fairy”). Dax and I always scour the beer list, but fall prey to McAuslan’s apricot wheat ale every time. When we went for a near-midnight pint last week, one of the owners, Nancy Gilmour, surprised us with just-baked chocolate chip cookies at our table. Let me tell you, that bolstered our relationship with The Local 4 ten-fold. Side note: the sweet potato wontons and bourbon back ribs should be considered as aphrodisiacs.
And when oysters and truffles fail to bolster sexual desire, Greg Mahon of Greg’s Ice Cream, can make the most frigid, melt. The 14% butterfat content should make anyone weak at the knees, but the flavours are the most compelling: Grapenut, green tea and ginger, lime chiffon, mincemeat, chocolate banana chip, coconut pineapple rum, malt ball crunch and, wait for it, roasted marshmallow. The two scoops of roasted marshmallow provide all the best elements of camping, in a cup or a waffle cone, experienced in the urban comfort of Bloor street.
Petite Thuet (1162 Yonge) is another reliable sweet sanctuary. The salted caramel and pistachio macaroons ($2 each) are dangerously good. Chewy and laced with a butter icing middle, they made me hesitate in the middle of the sidewalk, selfishly contemplating more. The coffee éclair I bought for Dax vanished within moments of his return home from the gym.
And there’s more. My list gets longer with every issue of NOW, and the fall preview of Toronto Life issue. First up is The Great Pumpkin martini at Ceili Cottage (1301 Queen St. E.). As bar bitch Kevin Brauch tells T.O. Life: “My Charlie Brown-inspired cocktail mixes two spoonfuls of pumpkin puree with small-batch bourbon, a drizzle of raspberry puree, orange bitters and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. Tastes best in a devil’s costume.”
Other top-of-the-list makers are The Hoof Cafe (923 Dundas St. W.) for serving up rabbit pancakes and the Gourmet Burger Co. (482 Parliament) has a 100% beef burger with an Australian injection—it comes topped with beets, a fried egg, pineapple, bacon, cheddar, mayo, lettuce and tomato. Hard to believe Aussies could create such a beautiful burger and roar over that Vegemite and Marmite crap.
Ten Feet Tall promises “lamb lollies” (meatballs on a popsicle stick) with a tart mint-yogurt-cucumber dipper. Amber has lobster quesadillas while Tutti Matti boasts house-made tortellini stuffed with squash puree in a sage butter sauce. Oh—and then there’s that place in Little Portugal that advertised chilled cherry soup that I have to locate again.
But tomorrow? I will eat at home, with my parents, and my mother will prepare something incredible with a glass of wine in hand. And this will be the best treat of all.