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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Modern Japanese in Sushi Suburbia: Yang's Teppanyaki & Sushi

It was inevitable, we all knew it was coming. All-you-can eat sushi joints of poor service and sloppy maki rolls would do for a lunch-time craving or a lazy Friday night binge. But what about the family get-togethers or friendly reunions that you want to celebrate local, but in a venue that makes the night feel as special as it should? And what if you're tired of grilled calamari followed by penne alla vodka? Yang's seems to be the perfect fit for those who want to take a culinary globe trot to Japan, sans traffic jam and overpriced sake. I hadn't been to Yang's since the Grand Opening sign was up a few years ago and being back  made me reminisce of my first experience there (as a merely budding foodista) and how the clean lines and black and white decor reminded me of what trendy restaurants should look like in a big city. (Who am I kidding, I felt like Carrie Bradshaw that day minus the fact that I was too minor to enjoy a Manhattan with my mango rolls). Although the Tuesday night crowd was less than bumping, the atmosphere automatically made me categorize Yang's in a separate class from the Akita's and Makimono's of the GTA--I would consider it more on track of being a Ki of the north. That comparison is to be taken lightly, mind you, especially when it comes to menu selection where it does not come close to rivalry in originality. The menu does offer all the standards you would expect from any sushi joint, with a few added bonuses. In fact, one of the three leather-bound menus placed in front of me offered two prix fixe specials featuring Kobe beef, jumbo shrimps, black cod and 2lbs live lobster. Not to mention the teppanyaki bar located in the back rooms of the restaurant and the fresh oysters to boot. Another leather bound menu especially excited me with a selection of sake infused martinis and a decently varied choice of wine. I ordered a sushi appetizer plate that came with 3 pieces of sushi (salmon, shrimp and tuna) and 3 avocado rolls and 3 salmon rolls along with a small wakame(seaweed) salad. Everything seemed fresh and flavourful--not to be taken for granted in an area loaded with all-you-can eats. Dining partner Mel had the nabe udon which was served in a traditional nabe or metal pot. Laura started off with the salmon pizza. It was one of the biggest sushi pizzas I had ever seen and was made beautifully (in comparison to the heaps of fried rice patty and scattered fish pieces I am usually served) She also had the sushi and sashimi combo: a well priced platter with 8 pieces of sashimi, 5 pieces sushi and 4 large soft-shell crab rolls, miso soup and wakame salad. The portions left us all satisfied: no need to over-order in fear of not being full enough just to have to over-stuff yourself to avoid extra surcharges for leaving food behind. (A mistake I commonly make at all-you-can-eats) The service was better than what I usually expect from a sushi restaurant--attentive when necessary but not exactly engaging or personal. The ingredients tasted fresh and the presentation gave credit to the masters behind the glass bar. A return back to Yang's will occur much sooner than it did this time, next with an emptier stomach to experience the market fresh oysters and teppanyaki marinated black cod dinner that caught my eye. Check out the photos I posted on flicker, all courtesy of Laura Conte. Thanks for the great work Laura!!


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Home may be where the heart is...but who says he can't have a vacation cottage?: Vecchio Frak

After a stressful day at work, serving strangers and refilling too many waters on the patio, I decided I needed a good hearty comfort-food meal. After growing up with an Italian background, in an Italian neighbourhood, comforting food doesn’t come to me in grilled cheese sandwiches or BBQ burgers, but in wood-oven thin crusted pizzas and fresh homemade pastas. You could understand why I felt the only suitable place to satisfy my cravings would be good ol' College St. With a traffic-less drive, a lucky parking spot and a wind-filled wander, we ended up at Vecchio Frak, where we were warmly greeted by a familiar-looking host. In true mia casa è tua casa fashion, we were welcome to seat ourselves at any spot we favoured. The restaurant was just the right amount of European-chic--it didn't make me feel under-dressed nor did it make me feel like I went through a time warp to the 80s. Unlike so many spots on College, the restaurant seemed to seat many without forcing you to rub elbows with other patrons. The interesting and lengthy drink list only triggered my indecisive tendencies, so I let the server (with the Italian accent--common among almost all the employees in this restaurant, and a weak spot for me) be my guide in beverage selection--and he read me all too well, sending me over a larger-than- life-sized version of my favourite cocktail: a pina colada. Antipastos definitely had us contemplating skipping entrees, but our decision not to was wise in the end. The perfectly flavoured bruschette miste was just soft enough (but not mushy) to keep the fresh toppings on the bread from becoming castaway victims to the plate. The tonno, olive e patate salad was not over dressed and the potatoes reminded me of the ones I used to cherish from the tavola calda at the Italian bakeries by my house. The Campolina pizza with mozzarella, truffle cream, mushrooms and eggplants was authentically rustic and thin--but not the thin that doesn’t go straight from dough to burnt. The truffle cream added that amazing flavour that only truffle can master and the eggplants were cooked just right, with the skin left on, but with not a hint of bitterness. The risotto alla pescatore was seasoned well and the rice was cooked perfectly al dente. Although the fish variety included much of the ocean, it seemed to be a little too al-dente itself. Our full stomachs forced us to pass on dessert. Instead we ended a pleasant evening with a Campari and soda and a Gaggia-made cappuccino. The simplicity of the experience made it ideal--friendly service, light and fresh fare in a favoured location. Added bonus? Discovering that the familiar host was a long-lost elementary school friend who just moved back to Canada after living in Italy for 8 years. Needless to say, my nostalgic cravings were more than thoroughly satisfied. A genuine offer to return by the staff will surely be accepted in the near future.

Check out my first food photo experience (eek) on my flickr account!


Get Lost

If my past blogs haven’t made it obvious enough, I’m the type of person who finds myself most completely when I am nowhere to be found. I like to lose myself in my surroundings, whether they be scenery, literature, magazines, a conversation, or a movie. You’ll often find me ignoring my less-interesting guests at work in favour of a juicy conversation (usually about travel) with some of our regulars. As a moody Cancer, it’s not too unpredictable that my source of distraction changes quickly and often. I find I think most clearly when my mind is fuelled with interesting topics and captivating visions. Today I’m dedicating my blog to my favourite way to pass the time--playing hide and seek (with secret hopes of never being found)

Here’s a sneak peak to this week’s top-secret hiding spots:

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton: who ever said whimsical could only be found in the Fantasy section at Chapters? I’m not quite through this one yet, as I’m indulging slowly to savour the imagination-provoking text about mystery, fairy tales and knowing your true self. The constant change of scenery and time period keep you on your toes and keep my easily-distracted mind entertained thoroughly. The book takes place in the early 1900s, the 1970s and some-what present day (2005) following three different characters travelling between England and Australia in hopes of self-discovery. As a reader, I anxiously read to discover with them, all the while trying to unravel the mysteries of their pasts that slowly reveal themselves throughout the text. A book that never quite gives you all the answers but is always provoking questions--need I say more?

Food & Wine-May 2010: Nothing like a good gourmet food magazine to make you hungry. But for anyone whose been tempted enough to look past the salivating cover knows there’s much more to magazines like this one than just luxurious and strenuous recipes. Two articles in particular struck my attention in this month’s issue:

Red Wine & Vegetables: Friends or Foes, by Ray Isle, profiles Californian vineyard owner and restaurateur Randall Grahm and his chef Charlie Parker and their tendency for (successful) odd wine pairings. Anyone who knows me, or has at least caught sight of me even once in a school cafeteria or work back-room knows I should be part-rabbit for how much I love fruits and veggies. Needless to say, I obviously took pleasure in reading how well his “spicy 2007 Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah [one of my favourite varietals] matches beautifully with Parker’s warm-main course salad of young turnips with greens, black olives and hazelnuts”. The success is credited to the earthy properties of root veggies. How relieving it is to know I can have my cake and drink my red, too.

Soup Nazis have more than just a bubbly big-haired Elaine to worry about nowadays. In Where Chefs go to see the Future, Anya von Bremzen talks about international chef congresses that are putting the concept of “secret ingredients” in the past by showcasing master chef’s creating complex dishes right before your (and the media’s) eyes. This article brought in stark contrast for me just how accessible cooking techniques have become for us--from the internet to the Food Network, it seems anyone can become an insta-Cordon Bleu graduate. This is something I defintely have taken granted of (with my search bar). But at second thought it kind of saddens me--will showing too much to too many take the magic out of cooking, discredit the talent in the creators?

Don’t forget to check out a tribute to the Great North (that means us, of course) in the travel secton (A Superselective Guide to Canada’s Best Wine and Food). Planning a back-packing venture any time soon? Let the go list be your guide when it comes to dinner restaurant choices and perfect wine pairings: 100 Best New Food and Drink Experiences. Renovating? (or just planning your future dream kitchen as I often do), Ted Allen offers some expert tips for creating a space fit for a culinary king (or even the top chef master of your castle) in Ted Allen’s Renovation Challenge.

The Young Victoria -The beautiful backdrops of traditional English gardens and castles made this the perfect Sunday afternoon film for someone who plans to travel to London in the near future. The movie profiles the life of the legendary Queen Victoria and her successful reign despite a somewhat premature possession of the crown. An essential love story kept me glossy eyed and was made all the more delicious with some seriously wise casting choices. Her self-assured personality and determination for success made me thinking girl-power thoughts for the whole 105 minutes of the film, all the while making me re-think a second degree in English history.

Toronto Life- June 2010
This month’s feature article, 50 Reasons to Love Toronto Now, covers what we love most about our city--from educational reformers like Chris Spence, to restaurants dedicated solely to a comfort food fave, Grilled Cheese, offered up in ten tantalizing versions in Kensington Market. My favourite of the list was number 9, though--The Toronto Temperance Society. An ode to all the cliques, high-society and the no-boys/girls-allowed treehouse mentality, this members-only club located above Sidecar on College is a drinking club for the wealthy. For an annual fee just shy of $300 dollars, members sip on only-the-best cocktails while abiding by strange clubhouse rules (the most entertaining being a strict no-cosmo policy that, if broken results in immediate removal from the premises). Definitely tickles my Gossip Girl fancy.

Here’s what’s next on my list of indulgences:
Rumors by Anna Godbersen…Part 2 of The Luxe teen series
The Sweet Life in Paris by pastry chef David Lebovitz
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass the classic by Lewis Carroll (a must-read before London)
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (Forgotten Garden)
The latest issue of FASHION that just arrived in my mail box today

And of course next month issues of my faves from the stands

Any suggestions??


Al Gusto

Tucked away in a hiding spot so common to many Vaughan venues (that is, an industrial park), sits Al Gusto-- restaurant, pizzeria, gelateria, bakery, cafe, etc. This multi-purpose venue offers you everything you crave all in one spot with the added convenience of being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (a notable difference when comparing it to most other neighbourhood bakeries that close no later than 8pm).

Nostalgic for Europe, as always, and anxious for a gelato experience to allow my taste buds to reminisce the way my mind does constantly, I made my first visit to Al Gusto with great friend Alessandra Nicole. I must say, when I first entered I was slightly disappointed. At first look, the large size and serene-ness of the place did not bring me back in time or evoke any sense of familiarity. But a closer examination proved me wrong. Not only does the pastry counter offer every traditional delicacy imaginable like canoli and mini tiramisu (were my eyes fooling me, or did I miss out on the cornetti?) but the gelato bar is fully stocked with both classic flavours like Nocciola, Amaretto, Fragola and Banane and the less common selections of Kinder and Fior di Latte. Not only iss the bar obviously accented with oak wood, but the shelves that line the mirrored walls are faced with bottles of spirits, wines and liqueurs and, of course, boxes of Baci chocolate.

The cozy clustered cafe tables in the front of the restaurant are home to a wide range of guests on this rainy Tuesday evening--a pair of girlfriends catching up, a large group of young parents and their children, several mid-older couples, and a group of young espresso-sparkling-water-drinking men. The typical crowd, familiar decor, predictable menu and delicious cappuccinos painted a beautiful picture of a night in Roma (with the added bonus of a young staff with, get this, authentic, straight from the home-land accents, working alongside their elderly parents). I indulged in a banana-stracciatella mixture (my two ultimate faves) while Ale opted for a chocolaty mixture of banana and Bacio. Both were a pleasant serving size and both came with brightly coloured wafer rolls (to be enjoyed as a mixture of crunchy and creamy). Despite an educational conversation on the Canadian music industry with Ale (aspiring Canadian girl-group artist from Queen of Hearts, check them out at, our cappuccino mugs and gelato cups were quickly emptied (and by emptied I mean licked clean).

Although, the experience did allow me a quick peek down memory lane, lingering patrons reminded me that, in harsh reality, we were not in Italy and gelatos-to-go in colourful coppas were not to be enjoyed on cobblestone streets that did not await us outside...ahh, some things just aren't replaceable.

Al Gusto is located at 8099 Weston Rd (between Highway 7 and Langstaff) with an additional entrance from Jevlan. In addition to its cafe brimming with sweet treats, Al Gusto is also a pizzeria, salumeria and full-service ristorante with a tavola calda and pane.