Dateline: Toronto and Points North (Bancroft, Algonquin).
What an interesting place Canada is. Visiting from the United States it is at once familiar (unlike Mexico) and yet, like our southern neighbor, extremely alien at the same time. Just when you think you have its measure, something strange and unexpected happens to remind you that Canada is most definitely not just some extremely large 51st state lurking to our north.
I know this is about food, but could I just point out one small example. I get off my plane at Pearson airport (whose Monday mayhem and lack of crowd control is more reminiscent of, oh I dont know, Entebbe say, than any airport I have seen down south) with my trusty ATM card in hand. Mission: get cash in Canadian dollars for cab fare. Should not be a big thing right? This is an ATM card that has dispensed cash flawlessly in all places American, including the most obscure corners of Nebraska, Wyoming . . . you name it; and in a good number of European cities too. But today, I visit three machines and each one refuses to dispense cash with obscure messages that are frankly worrying.
In desperation I ask at the cambio kiosk so whats the deal, these machines will not give me cash!? The clerk looks at my card and announces Its Visa. Visa is not accepted at the airport. To which the obvious comment might be: just how is one to know that the most common credit card on the planet is mysteriously black-balled at Canadas premier airport? (I found this anti-Visa discrimination all over Canada for some reason.) This is what I mean above.
CUT TO THE CHOW!!!!! As this illustrious Web Site would say, OK here goes.
In a previous Chowhound thread I asked for Real Ale recommendations. Well the first one I tried (Granite Brewery, Mount Pleasant Rd at Eglinton) came romping home a winner by a furlong, or maybe firkin, and a half. Not an immediate hit for when I walked in I explained I was looking for cask-conditioned ale the person there started talking me through the line-up of keg beer. I did not spot the 2 beer engines discretely hidden away in the corner but I did spot an extremely relaxed gent sipping a pint of something that resembled the object of my quest. It turns out they had 2 cc ales. A Special bitter which truly was. And I think an IPA (which I did not try).
The Special bitter shone with that amber pearliness only properly made and conditioned ales exhibit, and I must say it tasted just as good as it looked. Wildly hopped just like Bishops Bitter at the late-lamented Sherlocks Home, and with the same looooooong aftertaste. I only wish they would adjust down the alcohol level (I do not know the value actually) to make this a true session bitter. Although having said that I saw this beer being dispensed by the pitcher . . . oh to have been in company of a few English friends to do justice to a few of those jugs.
I think I may have seen this place on an atypical night. There were about 6 tables and a very low-key hushed tones type of atmosphere. But I think it was because it was the day after Easter weekend, almost still a holiday that Monday. On a return visit on a true weeknight it appeared to be considerably more lively. (I preferred the former: rather remindful of an English country pub on a rainy night in November with only the hard-line regulars in residence sipping pints.)
Service was brisk and friendly. I originally was only going to have a few pints there but the beer was so good I opted to eat there also. The food was OK but not really special. The calamari appetizer was al dente which is quite unusual for a breaded cooked-from-frozen product. I suspect it was probably just a tad under fried, but who knows. Again (re: above) perhaps in Canada calamari is done this way(!) A steak to follow was fine (in general Canadian beef seems a good bit more flavorful than US) but not really exceptional. The beer here was the king. The hand-pulled Special Bitter is surely the one to go for here. Thank you to the person who suggested the place, and sorry to those who gave other suggestions. Frankly I had to think that the chances that the other places would best this pint were slim.
The next night I was back for a couple of pints but had a craving for Indian food. On the recommendation of the bartender I set course for Siddartha located on Eglinton around Yonge. Heres another word to the US traveler. If a Canadian bartender says its just a coupla lights down the road, yeah? indicating extreme proximity . . . DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. Even thinking in kilometers it was a long walk from the Granite Brewery to Siddartha. Almost a cab ride. This was not helped by the fact that I had first followed his directions but misinterpreted the direction (via wave of the arm) to be in the Mount Pleasant direction versus east on Eglinton.
Siddartha (N Side Eglinton east of Yonge): I arrived to find this vast space totally empty. I always worry in such cases that they are on the verge of closing (it was still early though). They strategically placed me in the window to (as it turned out successfully) lure other punters into the place (it is upstairs). I did not complain as there was some excellent street life watching here. The food here was excellent: really excellent. I had no complaints. Particularly recommend their light onion and mint chutney---just a delicate little masterpiece of plain ingredients. I enjoyed my lamb vindaloo served in heavy copper serving pots, as were all the entrees. But it was not at all spiced hotly---a shame. Then a rather gangly and hypertensive young lady arrived. She was placed equally strategically in the opposite corner of the window. After about 0.000001 seconds, her cell phone rang for the first time. As always there was the mandatory telling of the person on the line where I am I just sat down at an Indian restaurant and then a hugely tedious one-sided conversation. This young lady was quite attractive (as witnessed by one of the waiters giving her much personal service, as it were) but had a rogue asteroid crashed through the picture windows and incinerated both her and her cell phone, well this is a familiar tenor isnt it? Just like bad dogs. Its never the poor dog, just take a look at the owner. Overall though, Thumb Up for Siddartha. It passes the Indian restaurant test my wife & I devised many years ago now. Its good if you start feeling as though they are wafting illicit vapors into the a/c ducts (whether or not they are in practice). This was a nice place, and not too expensive for the central and obviously expensive locale.
Breakfast at the Sutton Place will be brushed past instantly. Why is breakfast at most halfway upscale hotels always an unmitigated disaster? Discuss.
I did find a little hole-in-the-wall breakfast place around the corner on Yonge (again). But the name? Harlequin? Colonial? If you walk east from the Sutton Place and take a left at Yonge it is just there. Compared to the hotel it was a great breakfast. In Canada always order peameal bacon. Unfortunately not all peameals are the same. What you want is a big chewy rasher of bacon about ¼ thick but it comes in various incarnations. Not all good. Eggs in Canada have no more flavor than eggs in the US. Theres a vast bit of money to be made by any company that can fill that market void.
The Splurge: Café Brussel
Would you call $150 (Canadian!) for one a splurge? Yes, I thought so. I would too really. Actually I loved the food here but I did not enjoy the pretension. Nor do I approve of a weighty wine list being presented with 200-500 dollar bottles intermixed with the 2-digit ones. There were hardly any wines on offer of reasonable daily drinking price. And I find that to be a calculated decision to force people who do not know wine to order something far too good, costing far too much money, in order to save face to the head waiter. Theres no need for this and its not the sign of a truly classy place.
But that having been said, theres not too much wrong with the moules at Café Brussel. They were fine. The escargots special were, frankly awful on tasteless mushrooms, rescued ONLY by the brown butter bits to be sopped up at the very bottom of each snail divot. (I suppose theres a technical term.)
I did not not warm to the head waiter (nor he to me) but his #2 was fine. As with so many such places you are either someone or have to play the game of the head-waiter will make you out to be a dumbkopf. If you dont play the game it puts the head waiter (all these places this is the same truism) in a foul mood. Similarly if you appear to know a little about wine, and pick out the only bottle sub $50 thats interesting (there are only 2 less that $50) again you can tell its spoiling his fun.
I mean the fellow might be the salt of the earth, but there it is. I totally annoyed him by ordering the cheese plate and another demi-bouteille, where he obviously had me pegged as a pie a-la-mode nit-wit from the Outer Boroughs (or Limits).
All in all, I left happy, but you could have had a better meal at any walk-in place (say in Toulouse) for ½ the price and sans lattitude dhauteur which (in the vernacular) puts years on me.
On the next night I had Indian food delivered from India(n) Hut. This was good, but not as good as Siddartha.
Driving north to Bancroft ON (about 3-4 hours NE of Toronto) ate at Vitos Pizzarria. This is one of the more popular places in town. I heard locals saying the food was always good here. The pie looked fine, authentic and generous pizzas. Be warned though theres not much here if you are not in the mood for pizza or Italian. I opted for chicken souvlaki which was OK but marred by a pet peeve, an overly small plate. Generous portions are one thing but not being able to make a single move with knife or fork without something falling off the side of your plate is truly irritating. Also in Bancroft do not miss the breakfast at the Pine Star restaurant. This was the best on the trip. Thick hand sliced pieces of peameal bacon, good sausage, and (get this!) home-made bread (a big batch of dough sitting on the counter to rise). Nothing at all fancy but an excellent start to the day. Its located out of town a ways south on 62 highway.
My drive through Algonquin in search of a rustic northwoods lodge [[BROKEN LINK REMOVED]] was fruitless. I guess in deference to the scenic splendor they do not post any signs advertising such places. As a result I did not find anywhere. I drove a big loop back to Bancroft where I had a really pleasant lunch watching the snow fall (yes, snow in April is standard in these parts) drinking good Guinness and a big hearty open face burger at a sports bar whose name escapes me. It is however easy to find. As you enter town from the south you hit a first stop light as the highway takes a 90 degree turn left onto the main drag. This sports bar is just before that corner on the left. I believe it is located in the historic Hotel Bancroft. Another Canadian twist occurred as some fellow came up and introduced himself. I was blindsided but it turns out it was the local Listerine addict high on mouthwash. I realized too late the waitress behind was gesturing wildly cutting her throat ixne on the alkteh. A little while later a burly officer from the Ontario Provincial Police arrived and the guy ended up in the back seat of the cruiser. As one of the customers said hes no stranger to the back seat. I also met a young waitress there from my home area of England, who had only arrived in Bancroft a month earlier. Bizarre that two people who grew up in the same 20 mile area of the whole planet contrive to bump into each other in a small mineral mining town in Eastern Ontario one snowy afternoon. But it was nice to have a chat all the same.
The other observation is Tim Hortons ----- WHY a Canadian institution?? I guess when its 40 below these 24-hour oases of coffee and fairly unattractive-looking donuts transcend the sum of their parts or something. Mind you I did have a Caffe Mocha there that fueled me with enough sugar to keep a class of 5 year-olds in high gear for 3 days. Perhaps again in winter that sort of brew is de rigeur.
Oh and a night in Minden ON. Recommended to me was Grill on the Gull downtown but it was a snow storm and unexpectedly (to me) it seemed to keep everyone at home. The place was empty and shutting early so instead I ate at the Hotel next door (also empty for most of my meal). The two establishments appear to share the same ownership. The prime rib at the hotel was OK, the service pleasant, but absolutely nothing special. I have a suspicion that the Grill on the Gull is aimed at weekenders and city vacationers from the big city to the south. Therefore priced high and a bit precious as a result(?) Just a hunch. To be fair the motel owner told me a couple from the previous had given it good marks.
Returning to the E-J motel (pretty rustic but OK) which is south and east out of town the snow had become a blowing white-out. The road (and road signs!) obscured. It took me three tries to locate the motel and I felt like I was doing the Iditerod in my Pontiac in this blinding gale.
The other (non-culinary highlight) was swinging by pianist Glenn Goulds old apartment building at 110 St Clair Ave West. Somehow the spirit of that eccentric genius seems 100% in keeping with the Toronto I saw in 2005, and I somehow better understood its attraction for him and why he never left it.
Thanks for reading.