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Review: Guu Izakaya

I have been to Guu, the first Toronto outpost of a Vancouver chain of izakayas, twice and feel like I’ve had two different enough experiences that I can offer some humble guidance.  For my first time in early April we sat inside and had the whole dark and pleasantly-noisy pub experience.  The second visit, in August, was on the much more tranquil outdoor patio.

The no-reservations policy and resulting wait is the most discussed part of the Guu experience.  I understand that not booking tables keeps costs down–because they’re always full–and this is by no means a deal-breaker for me.  What definitely makes a negative impression is a host or hostess’s inability to give an accurate estimate of wait times.  They have a two-hour table policy at Guu and I bet the average minimum time is somewhere between an hour and eighty minutes.  All this is to say that it is borderline unacceptable to be told a table will be available in at most an hour and a half only to wait closer to two and a half.

Luckily for them this wait left us in a state of ravenous hunger.  While I offer my thoughts on the food at Guu let’s keep one thing in mind: Guu is an izakaya and an izakaya is a sort of Japanese pub and like North American and British pubs some izakayas are more about the food than others but in the end they should all be about the drinks.  Drinks they have covered at Guu.  Giant mugs of Sapporo or Sleaman’s, two kinds of the Japanese plum wine (ume-shu), and reasonably-priced sake, whose quality I’m sadly not equipped to judge.


Queen Margherita’s Pizza

Readers will know that this is the summer we build an oven at  my family’s cottage that is designed to cook, among other things, pizza.  Hopefully, this is enough to solidly establish my credibility as someone who takes pizza seriously.  Either way, I like eating pizza and was pleased to hear of a new authentic pizza joint, Queen Margherita’s Pizza (or just QMP)  that has opened in the East end.

On a recent visit with two friends we kept to the heart of the menu and each ordered a pizza.  The other option is the twenty-five dollar prix fixe menu which created a shit-storm of controversy on Chowhound (what else is Chowhound good for?) when QMP opened and some diners were informed that the prix fixe was mandatory.  Not so anymore but as far as I could tell pizzas are the only a la carte option.  I didn’t see any of the desserts but judging by the frisee salad that arrived at our neighbours’ table (and the disappointed look on their face) sticking with pizza is probably the right choice. (more…)

Review: Ajisen Ramen

There is a place in a city’s foodscape for certain chain restaurants.  We can’t always spend hours pouring over chowhound or Toronto Life (or Food With Legs) when we find ourselves in a  neighbourhood where we don’t have a favourite spot.  Restaurant food should also be judged objectively and there is no defensible reason why a particular dish should automatically be considered negatively because it comes from a menu that is shared by more than one establishment.  Listen, I’m not saying that I pray the Keg will still be around so that I can celebrate my eightieth birthday there but dining–especially when more than two people are involved–is often choosing the best of sub-optimal choices.  Along with Guu Izakaya the two Ajisen Ramen locations are make a good argument for the idea that chains can serve good, affordable Japanese food.

On one visit I tried the spicy pork ramen.  This dish offers the intriguing option to customise how spicy it comes on a scale from twenty-five to two hundred at intervals of twenty-five degrees.  I wonder how they can calibrate the difference between seventy-five and one hundred or why they don’t just allow diners to pick any number within the range–as if someone would complain that their “93″ was not as spicy as the “86″ they had last week.

I like spicy food to have just enough kick and acting on the assumption that the twenty-five option must surely only be offered for the totally uninitiated white guys I settled on fifty degrees.  Big mistake.  As soon as it was set down in front of me I could tell this was going to be a problem.  My scalp tingles and itches when I eat really spicy food and just thinking about the fifty degree broth has me scratching my head.  Every defense mechanism (shy of vomiting) my body possesses was put on full alert–including the one that turns my head purple, I assume to shame me into never being that foolish again–to repel this unwanted chemical attacker.  I’m afraid I made quite the spectacle of myself.  Consider yourselves warned or maybe this is your kind of thing. (more…)

Ravine Deli and Bakery

It is getting to the point where a drunkenly thrown wine bottle in Niagara is bound to hit a winery producing very good wine.  Outside of top-dollar places like Treadwell, Inn on the Twenty, Hillebrand, and Peller it is much more difficult to find good food.  Happily, the people behind the Ravine Deli and Bakery are stepping in to fill this void.

On our whirlwind tour of Niagara two weekends ago we made sure to stop in for lunch.  I was there in December 2008 when chefs Michael and Anna Olson were still at the helm and the deli was called Olson Foods at Ravine.  Since then Paul Harber (middle son of the family who operates the winery) has returned with his impressive resume to the kitchen at Ravine.  Chef Harber trained at the Culinary Institute of America, apprenticed under Daniel Boulud at Cafe Boulud, and worked for Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm.  After Eigensinn he went to Germany to work under Stadtlander’s mentor Vincent Klink.  The rest of the kitchen team at Ravine carries an impressively diverse array of experience in some of Niagara’s best kitchens.

Flat bread and spreads

Our lunch started with the flat bread plate generously sent out by the kitchen.  Hummus often contains cumin but here there is more of a Keller-esque and subtle use of the broader spectrum of curry powder flavours.  The chickpea spread also gave my table-mates an opportunity to correct my horrible pronunciation. (more…)

Toronto Brisket Showdown

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of helping judge a brisket tasting organised by Peter of Bison Basics and Alan from Torontovore.  All of the entrants fall under the category that could be described as Montreal smoked meat.  Yes, I know Zane Caplansky is quite clear that his product varies markedly from what one would expect to get at a Montreal deli like Schwartz’s and The Stockyards calls what they put out pastrami but categories need labels.

Torontovore has a story that details the system we used to judge the meat, all of the tabulated scores, and some aggregated comments.  So as not to violate the Solemn Brisket Judges’ Code and compromise the sanctity of discussions had in the Meat Jury Room I will try to be vaguely non-specific about my comments.  Take a look at his post for the full set of data, and prices for a kilogram of brisket at each establishment.  The meat under consideration came from Caplansky’s, Centre Street Deli (Old Fashioned), Cottage Chef, Dunn’s (available at Costco), Goldin’s (Romanian Style), The Stockyards Smokehouse and Larder, and Wolfies. (more…)