Tickets on sale for The Stop’s Night Market this week

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Written by Siobhan Ozege, photos by Yuli Scheidt

The Stop’s annual Night Market is nearly upon us. For those in the know, it’s one of Toronto’s most coveted and cherished food events with tickets selling out within hours every year. This year, you’re lucky to have Fat Girl Food Squad watching out for you and giving you the heads-up: tickets go on sale THIS WEEK. On Thursday May 1st for just $65 you get the double-whammy: support the amazing and important food security work that The Stop does, AND eat some of Toronto’s best foods.

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The event itself takes place over two nights, with different vendors each night. Happening on June 17th & 18th from 7-11pm in the Honest Ed’s alleyway, you can eat and drink to your heart’s content. Your ticket includes all-you-can-eat and drink from such FGFS faves as Fonda LolaDundas ParkSmall Town Food Co., and the Dock Ellis among many, many more. There will be savoury apps, sweet desserts, craft brews, local wines, and even some delicious coffee roasters on site. For a complete list of food vendors, you can visit the Night Market website.

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If you’re still on the fence about buying a ticket, we’d suggest reading a bit on what The Stop does. In their own words, “The Stop works to increase access to healthy food in a manner than maintains dignity, builds health and community, and challenges inequality.” This organization runs a number of food programs across the city, including after school programs, community markets and bake ovens, and a drop-in food bank space that serves Toronto’s West End. They’re a great cause, and we’re proud to support them.

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Mark your calendars, you won’t want to miss out on these amazing eats. This will be our second year attending this event, and our mouths are already watering.

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Amaya Group of Restaurants take on Indian Street Food

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I am a huge Indian food fan. One of my go-to take out joints on Just-Eat.ca is Amaya Express on Ossington. So when we were invited to check out the new spring menu at Amaya the Indian Room on Bayview, I was pretty excited. This would be some OG stuff, as it is one of the original Amaya Group of Restaurant locations.

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The Amaya Group of Restaurants was founded back in 2007 by Chef Hemany Bhagwani which currently has 15 locations to date. Chef Bhagwani told us that for the new spring menu he waned to recreate the Amaya experience from start to finish with some new dishes drawing inspiration from India’s vibrant street food culture whilst dipping its toe into some molecular gastronomy.

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Chef Bhagwani started us off with a beautiful amuse bouche consisting of a Yogurt Egg filled with Pomegranate Juice. This was a light airy and simple bite that started off our meals just right.

From there, we were given another amuse bouche of sorts, which was one of their street foods inspiration dishes: Prawn Papdi Chaat with cumin and chutney. Very similar in texture to a ceviche, it was absolutely delicious and all the flavors married so well together. I could have had several more of these, if offered.

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Next up, we were served this new version of Pakoras. Now with kale and tomato chutney. Oh my glob, these were out of this world. Kind of like crispy, deep fried kale chips but little balls. Then with the chutney? Get out of here!

We were finally shown a bit of the seafood side of Amaya with some Scallops paired with pickled lemons, shallot confit and coconut snow. It was beautiful presented and a lovely light taste.

You would think that Tandoori Chicken could not be any different but this was incredible. Spicy, tender and delicious – something about it was great. Plus the foam on it that created a enhanced simple flavor.  Oh, and dem cheese balls. Need I say more?

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Back on the seafood tip, we were treated to some more Prawns (simply titled the Amaya Prawns) – which were juicy and bursting with flavour. Add a bit of beet gel to it and you have yourself a whole new dish. Plus: I am not lying that these were some of the biggest prawns I have seen in my life.

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I would have to say that my favourite dish of the evening though was the Lamb Tenderloin with the Wasabi Ice Cream on top. I was a little bit taken aback when I heard Wasabi Ice Cream but trust me: it works and with all of these flavours. I want more. Please just give me more of this dish forever and always.

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If I haven’t sold you on Amaya’s new menu or on heading to Amaya, then I don’t know what could. They have put so much heart and soul into all of their new offerings, it comes through in each of the plating’s and each of the menu offerings. All of the menu items are so innovative yet so familiar that it’s so comforting. Worth heading to the main location on Bayview! Also of note: all menu items are reasonable priced (between $12-$18) so this makes a great dinner out.

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Photos by Yuli Scheidt

East Thirty Six breathes new life into St Lawrence Market area

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Originally posted to Ama’s weekly column on Toronto Is Awesome.

A new restaurant has opened up in the St Lawrence Market area taking over the former Lucien spot on Wellington. Opened by restauranteurs Julien and Devon Salomone (the same owners who brought us Boutique Bar) bring us the newly revitalized cocktail and food restaurant, East Thirty Six.

As you walk through the doors of East Thirty Six, you are greeted with opulent wood finishes (retrofitted), beautiful overhead blue-purple art-deco lighting fixture and lovely pops of silver and purple everywhere. The room is cozy but gives off a certain richness and warmth, no matter where you are seated in the room.

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The cocktails here are stellar and not to be missed. Co-owner / mixologist Julien Salomone runs the beverage program and has paid great details to the making of such cocktails as the Rum Row (House-made spiced rum, apricot liquor, lemon juice, ginger syrup, tonic float) or French Connection (Muddled cucumber, gin, chartreuse, lillet blanc, coriander syrup, peychaud bitters, coriander tincture). Each of the cocktails range in price between $12-14 a drink but every sip is totally worth it. At the end of the evening, we were even treated to one of Julien’s barrel aged cocktails (off-menu) and this man knows what he is doing.

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So how the food from East Thirty Six measure up? On the evening in question, we were treated to a lovely selection of their offerings from their new upcoming menu. Some of the standouts from the evening were our Winter Salad (castelfranco, kale, endive, ricotta salata aioli, focaccia) which was full of flavour and rich. So many times you encounter a salad with hard, tough croutons and this was just perfect. Next up, Scallop Crudo (lardo, celery, tequila, lime) was one of the dishes with wow factor. It had a freshness that you look for in a crudo with the lardo adding that extra bit of kick.

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Next up, we were treated to a big trend I have been seeing on menus across Toronto (and something I’m not angry about because I love) cauliflower. This dish was served up with capers, preserved lemon, brown butter, hazelnut, parsley and was stunning. The hazelnuts added the nice crunch to it and the lemon gave good acidity. I could ate a whole other plate of this. Next, probably my favourite dish of the evening: Bone Marrow with Chicken liver mousse and toast. Beautifully prepared and absolutely a pleasure. I did not want to share this and reluctantly had to. The marrow was buttery and delicious. A must have.

 

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Rounding in to some of the final courses, we were treated to a flakey and beautifully plated Halibut (with artichoke, carrot, fennel, white wine and lemon). Each piece I put into my mouth was melt in my mouth goodness and the veg in the broth was just an added bonus to the dish. As our final treat, we were shown a dessert course and brought out a lovely Lemon Custard. As I’m not much of a sweets person, I was unsure how I would feel but this tangy sweetness was just right in my books.

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East Thirty Six is open daily for dinner at 4pm and is perfect for an afterwork cocktail. To learn more about the restaurant, visit their website.

Luma serves up a whole lotta Group Love on Valentine’s Day

So for many single and couples in Toronto, Valentine’s Day comes with a bit of dread.  So much anxiety and pressure built up over a fabricated holiday to share your feelings for another.  My life partner, Simon and I decided to keep it cool this year.  We wanted to do something that we felt was relevant to both of our interests (food), relevant to both of our wallets and relevant to both of our lives (being social).

That’s where the Luma Group Love package comes into play.  Luma (the Oliver and Bonacini restaurant at the TIFF Lightbox) held a pre-fixe menu for solo foodies ($25/per person) or groups of three or more ($50 per person).  For those that were ‘riding solo’, you got to saddle up to the Communal Table and share your evening with a night of fabulous new friends.

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We took our seat at the communal table seated amongst a diverse group of new friends.  The table was set with a beautiful array of Valentine’s Day candy and the wait staff started us off with a lovely drink titled the ‘Icebreaker’ (double black cherry infused bourbon), which did just that.  All of us went round-table and introduced ourselves and what we did.  Finally once we were all done, we cheers to a fabulous Valentine’s Day.

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Now a dinner like this may not be for the brave at heart.  Having to make conversation over a great meal with strangers for at least one hour might get awkward and trust me, at times, it did.   But thankfully we had our wonderful servers who had impeccable timing and always made us feel like we were the stars of the evening.  Well that is, next to the food – of course.

Our Ted Allen looking waiter served up one-half dinner theatre style theatrics and one-half food guide for the evening, as he told us everything would be served: “family style, because group love and sharing is caring”.

First up, platters of Fritto Misto of squid and fanny bay oysters fried up with duck egg and radish crudités were put onto the table for all to enjoy.  Each person had their own oyster and each section of the table had their own Misto platter, so we didn’t have to fight over who took the last piece.   Next up, we were plated what (at first) looked like art.  Beautiful and delicate pieces of smoked trout and celery root in a deep bowl which our server then ladled in a lovely herb creme fraiche base.  Can I just say that I wanted to lick the bottom of the bowl.  I thought it may have been a bit rude of me to do so, but the chowder wasn’t heavy or too creamy.  It was rich and perfect.

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We decided to keep the juices flowing by ordering a carafe of Punch Drunk Love (rose, passion fruit liqeur, juice and lemonade).  It reminded me of Beyonce and for that, I thought it would be a good choice.  Verdict: it made me Drunk in Love. I may or may not have sent Simon a text midway through our meal that read: “I think I’m drunk” because clearly I’m old and a lightweight now.

Our next grand dish was the Lemon & Rosemary Cornish Hen served up with a warm chicory & chicken liver salad and a yukon gold potato & kale dauphinoise.  Simon had never had Cornish Hen before and he was won over immediately.  Where as my favourite thing was the potato, which whilst fumbling around trying to dig into this accidentally sliced through half a lemon.  Yep, I’m a class act.  Note: I did not eat half the lemon, just almost ate half of it.  Also: the chicken livers – so baller.  I am proud to say that our side of the table may have taken the salad home with them because: waste not, want not.

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By this time, we were beginning to feel sluggish with Luma Group Love feels and food.  Not only that, our dinner reservations began at 9PM and it was it was nearing 11.  I felt that we were at an authentic Italian style family feast.  The dishes and courses would not stop coming and while I was feeling quite blessed (and well, Punch Drunk Loved) — I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the dessert course without at least unbuttoning my jeans.  However, I took one for the team and dove into (without falling into a food coma) my Warm Chocolate Cake and Salted Caramel Chicharrones.

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This evening was everything I could have asked for food-wise and budget-wise.  I mean, I rolled out of Luma with a 3 course meal including 2 solid desserts for $25!  This deal was better than any other Valentine’s Day evening out.  I mean, let’s be real: even if we had cooked dinner and bought a bottle of vino, it probably would have cost as much as our Luma dinner date (or more)!  But thanks to Luma, they guided our entire evening plus gave us some rad new friends and I didn’t have to do the dishes afterwards.  This was something I am so thankful for.

Best part?  They are offering this amazing special for just ONE MORE DAY!  For those that live in Ontario and celebrate Family Day, you should march your butts over to Luma & partake in the Group Love menu.  You can be like me and stuff yourself silly all in honour of FAMILY!  Then pass out in a wonderful blissful food coma.

[VIDEO]: Drunk Cooking with Simon & Ama – Episode 1

Introduction written by Simon Gilbert

“Some of my most liked things on Instagram are just us being stupid,” Ama confided in me one night.
“Well, yeah. We’re kind of hilarious,” I replied, half joking.
“Do you want to film us getting drunk and making food?”
“Um, obviously?”

And that was the inception of Drunk Cooking with Simon and Ama.

If you’ve ever hung out with Ama and me together, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Drunk Cooking with Simon and Ama. If you haven’t, you’re in for a night of bizarre segways, strange noises, and delicious foods.

Basically, on every episode we’re going to be cooking with booze and making some kind of cocktail. We don’t have many kitchen gadgets (we currently don’t know where the corkscrew is), so this is going to be stuff you can make yourself too!

Because this is the kind of stuff we do on a nightly basis, you can expect an episode on the reg. Ama’s day-job is going into crunch time at the moment, so the next episode won’t be until mid-March, but after that you can expect them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Finally, we want you guys to be involved with this. Is there something you want to see us make? Do you want the shopping list before hand so you can cook along with us? Do you want SEXY NAKED COOKING?! Let us know in the comments or on Facebook. It would also help us out if you like/favourite/subscribe, but we don’t want to be those people. So do what feels right!

(For the sake of full disclosure, Sobeys gave us a $25 gift certificate if we talked about their app. That being said, it was pretty easy to use, and that’s where we found the shandy recipe. Give it a shot if you’re a regular Sobeys shopper and don’t like using paper shopping lists. We’ll keep you posted if we get any sponsorships in the future.)

Pukka spices up St. Clair West

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Originally posted to Ama’s weekly column on Toronto is Awesome.

For many of us in Toronto, good Indian food is a hard thing to come by. We’re accustomed to buffet style or muddled flavours. Thankfully, Derek Valleau and Harsh Chawla (both formerly of Amaya The Indian Room) have taken on what they believe has not been filled in Toronto yet: a fine-dining Indian food spot that leaves you comforting for more. That spot is Pukka (778 St Clair Avenue West).

The space is fresh and modern with reclaimed wood table and pops of green, purple and orange throughout. You’ll find lots of funky paintings and soft lighting, which gives it a bit of a romantic touch. I had mentioned to Derek & Harsh when I first arrived that when I lived in the St Clair area some year back, restaurants like this were missing. Derek told me candidly that the area and its residents have been quite kind in their support, especially over the winter months. When Yuli and I attended on a Tuesday evening, the restaurant had ever seat full. This was even on one of the coldest winter nights we were having.

Pukka sticks to classical Indian cuisine. The kitchen is equipped with a clay tandoor oven and the menu is chalked full of seasonal, locally sourced ingredients while using rich spices and creams to take on their house-made curries and rubs.

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The menu itself is divided into snacks & eats. The snack portion has you covered with some intoxicating dishes such as: Baby Kale Salad ($8.90), which seems simple enough but with dates, cashew nut dressing and lotus chips – it brings it to a whole other level. The Vegetable String Chaat ($8.40) is serving up ripe mango and granny smith apple with a little bit of pomegranate seed just for flavour. Mix that in with some delicious yogurt and chutney and you’ve got yourself a winning dish. Another killer starter was the Chicken 65 ($9.60) which had all the feels of good fried chicken. But should you be in the South of India. This dish was spiced with curry leaf, red chili, tamarind, cumin, garlic and other spices and was pretty much, this was off the chain. I could really seem them developing this into a main. But that’s just my personal opinion.

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After inhaling all of these delicious snacks, we thought it would be wise to test some drinks off of the cocktail menu. You know to – ahem – cleanse the palette. First up was the Snapdragon ($9.20) which consisted of vodka, pear nectar, ginger beer & lime. It was sweet and fun, not too over-powering and reminded me of summer. Thankfully, it went so well with everything we were eating. Yuli decided to test out the Chai Town ($8.40) which had bourbon, chai tea, pomegranate liquors and bitters. From my sip, it was pretty delicious.

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Our servers (who were incredibly lovely and so helpful) brought out our dazzling course of mains, who informed us that most of the dishes were gluten-free. So fear not gluten-free fans, you are in luck! First up, we were brought out one of my favourite dishes of the night: Mushroom & Spinach Stuffed Paneer ($17.30). This dish was rich and bold and filling. Plus: paneer cheese is heavenly. Next up, the Pan Seared Sea Bass ($22.40) which consisted of coconut milk, curry leaves and roasted spices. The fish was beautifully cooked and the aromas of the curry was hypnotizing. You know you cannot visit an Indian food restaurant without having Butter Chicken ($17.90) and while it was good, it was not Pukka’s best dish of the evening. Oddly enough, I enjoyed everything else so much more than the Butter Chicken. The tomato infused butter sauce was rich and delicious but the chicken was a bit dry. Nothing terrible but again, not my favourite out of everything that came out. Next up, we had the Madras Pepper Steak ($19.70) which was tender, juicy and served up with caramelized onion and coconut. It was beautifully rich and delicious. This was probably my second favourite main of the evening.

Don’t forget, you have your options of sides too. We opted for the Green Beans ($8.70) with caramelized onions, coconut and turmeric and Rice ($4.60) served up in a lovely little jar (resealable) with so many aromatics. These pair deliciously with all the mains.

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If you’ve left room for dessert, there is that. We opted for the Eton Mess ($7.60), which was a mess of all things delicious: rosewater-soaked meringues in pomegranate syrup and sweet lassi cream. Um, so into it.

So if you’re craving authentic Indian and feel like making the trek to St. Clair West, make a date for Pukka. You will not be disappointed. Reservations can be made daily.

Life as a Kitchen Widow: The True Story of Dating a Chef

Written by our newest member to the Fat Girl Food Squad Toronto team, Alexandra Cioppa!  We met Alex at our last Bloggers Brunch (rad) and since then a mutual admiration formed.  She is currently a beauty blogger at Chick Advisor and lover of all things food!  Stay tuned to more from Alex and read more about her on our Toronto Squad page.

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Most of my fantasies revolve around food. I have a recurring (very sensual) dream about Anthony Bourdain that involves a pizza. I. love. to. eat. In fact, I am seriously considering a full time career as one of those people who have YouTube channels and eat on camera for money. Or they could pay me in food, I’m not picky.

Consequently, I’ve always wanted to date a chef. I always felt like my love for eating delicious things would do well with a guy whose job it was to create delicious things. I imagined that dating a chef would be like having a restaurant all to myself. He’d bring me pizza when I had bad days and homemade chicken soup when I was sick. So when I found out that the cute, bespectacled guy who had been messaging me on OKCupid was a cook, I was like ‘Um, yes please I want to go to there’.  Obviously, I locked that down.

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A kitchen widow is the name given to chef’s wives who are essentially, widows, since their husbands have left them for the oven. Having a boyfriend who is a chef affords me some great things (he always knows which vegetables to pick at the grocery store) but odd hours and days off are also incredibly difficult sometimes. I’ve been there when my boyfriend has had a shitty day in the kitchen, I’ve been there when he’s smashed it out and is high on adrenaline. I’ve learned a lot in being with my boyfriend, I would even say that my entire perspective on cooks and cooking has changed. One thing I’ve learned? If you ever want to know what being a chef is really like, ask their girlfriend. Here’s chef dating 101:

#1 Chefs Eat Junk

Don’t think for a minute that all chefs turn their noses up to a Big Mac. While I am fairly certain that Grant Achatz probably thinks a Dorito is some sort of commonly worn hat in South America, most chefs love dirty ol’ Taco Bell deliciousness. My boyfriend will never turn down some greasy Chinese or a biscuit from Popeyes.

#2 Don’t Order the Salad

Salad is soooooo boring. There seems to be some idea floating around that ordering salad on a date makes you more attractive. I don’t know what asshole invented that. Chefs like to eat, I like to eat, that’s what made me perfect for him! I knew I had a good one when he was impressed that I ate tripe on our first date. Chefs are impressed with good eaters and people who appreciate food. Like Julia Child said, people who like to eat are the best people.

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#3 Live Fast Die Young

Being a chef is physically hard. However, because cooking jobs aren’t treated as careers, this means they don’t earn benefits. Which in turn means that trips to the doctor are limited to limbs falling off. There’s a sense of live now, figure it out later with cooks. Not great for a planner like me who wants to figure out not only what’s she is doing 5 years from now but also 5 days from now.

#4 You’ll Never Have a Full Day Together

Odd hours mean random days off (sometimes split up) and most likely, never a weekend off together. Working nights means sometimes you’ll only ever see each other in bed. It sucks, it isn’t fun. While I love having my weekends to hang out with friends, sometimes all I want is a brunch date! You need to have strong communication to last.

#5 They’ll Always Be Tired

Quite frankly, feeling frisky only to see your boyfriend falling asleep is a total lady wood killer. It’s all about the compromise (I make him coffee and breakfast on early mornings)… and getting it in earlier.

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#6 All They Want is a Home Cooked Meal

My boyfriend enjoys cooking in his spare time, I enjoy writing in my spare time. But do I want to do it all the time? Not a chance. And he doesn’t want to cook all the time either. What a cook would love is for you to cook for them. For once, they’d like to be the one being served. That being said, I’ve never cooked for my boyfriend and he can expect me to… never. This is a common occurrence in my boyfriend’s life. People are always apprehensive and nervous to cook for him.

#7 The Stress

Think of how stressful your job can be, then imagine being on your feet all day, depending on your co-workers to do your job, being hot and sweaty and hungry and then getting yelled at when you mess up. Being a chef isn’t easy. The stress gets to my boyfriend like it’s gotten to many chefs before him. Drug use and binge drinking aren’t uncommon among chefs which can become dangerous.

#8 Sometimes You Just Won’t Understand

My boyfriend once told me that they would rap his knuckles at work when he made a mistake. I looked at him quizzically, um, what? Like they would hit you? Cooking culture is old and it’s engrained with traditions (both good and bad). Every time your chef comes to you with a job issue and you suggest a solution they’ll tell you that ‘you just don’t understand’. The truth is: you probably won’t. The industry is completely different than any other. Even though I know a lot about the culture now, I’m still an outsider.

#9 I Have No Idea What a Sous-Vide Is

Well, at least I didn’t know what a sous-vide was when I first met my boyfriend. I still have to constantly pull out Google on my phone when my boyfriend turns his back to search a chef, restaurant or what a roux is.

#10 You’ll Hear Them Talk About Food More Passionately Than You

Flipping through a cookbook, my boyfriend will land on a photo of a meal and express just how ‘goddam f**king beautiful’ it is. Or, he will talk about his labels at work and how gorgeous is station is. I love my boyfriend, I just wished he drooled over me like he did a Daniel Boulud cookbook.

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There came a point in my relationship, early on when all of these things suddenly hit me all at once and I panicked. I messaged my friend, asking if she thought I should end things before they got too serious. I liked this guy a lot but the challenges were stacking up. Being in any relationship is challenging though. This isn’t reserved for chef boyfriends and everyday we work to make these relationships work. The fact is, the rewards of love, memories, laughter and all that mushy stuff outweigh the bad stuff. Plus, I get really good lunches  at work which helps.

Tin Chef Competition at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

Written by Aviva Cohen

I arrived 15 minutes after doors opened because Liberty Village is a maze.  At one point I crumbled into myself in the snow and cried. I wondered if I would die like Jack Torrance in The Shining sans axe.
Luckily, I found Mildred’s and my Liberty Village journey would be worth it as delicious h’orderves were promised.  Oh, and I guess to see the cooking competition.

While standing with the large crowd, fighting for a good sight line of 5 home chefs chopping, sautéing, mashing, cutting and [insert cooking term you learned while watching The Food Network at 1 a.m. to impress your pals] — I overhead an older man say to his partner, “if you had told me 10 years ago that cooking would be a spectator sport, I would have said you were crazy.”

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The evening was a replica of Iron Chef, including the secret ingredient of duck.  The chefs had an hour to complete 4 dishes for the judges, which included:

Alida Solomon, head chef & proprietor of Tutti Matti Restaurant
Paul Brans, professional big wig chef at Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants
Saverio Marci, master chef of Cibo Wine Bar

The competitors that evening were Meghan Legere, Jill Chen, Gav Martell, Deborah Brewster and Ronn Reaman. Of the chefs taking part, Deborah seemed to have the largest and most enthusiastic cheering section, with friends and family making cut outs of her face and positive signage.  I can only imagine the multitude of ways those face cut outs could be used down the road.  Ronn Reaman was the only competitor who had a professional chef’s jacket on.  I tried to Google him, but came up empty.  It makes me wonder if there is a chef out there in Toronto missing their jacket right now.  Hmm.

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Each chef had their own prep station including a food pantry and cooking station.  While chefs were busy prepping their veg (boring…I chop veggies at home too.. this is nothing new), I concentrated on filling my belly with h’orderves.  I mean, I paid good money to be here!  (Err, or the handy editors of FGFS asked me to spend my precious time covering this event)  The trout that came dressed up on a tiny spoon, shot glasses filled with butternut squash soup, fancy bread, and poached pears.  The h’orderves train (filled with real people with hopes and dream) had come to a full stop just as the competition did.   But then, as if the heavenly gates had opened, the dessert came out. Ginger cookies, chocolate chip cookies, pancake balls (!!!) and other chocolate type confections endlessly flowed from the kitchen.

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While I kept an eye on the competition, Ronn was attempting to bribe the judges with booze (Spoiler Alert, Ronn! It didn’t work. Paul Brans also reminded everyone that chefs don’t like ice in their alcohol.)  It also seemed like everyone had the same idea, using similar ingredients except for Jill.  She was making wraps (from scratch).  I thought she was doing a play on a traditional Peking duck dish but in her finished product, the wraps were gigantic which I knew based on my advanced knowledge of watching cooking competitions on TV, that did not bode well for her chances.

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Things heated up (good pun) when the chefs went to their cooking stations, using the open concept professional kitchen at Mildred’s. Both Deborah and Gav used mashed potatoes while Meghan had the best looking plate, making a pretty salad bowl with cucumbers.  Each judge was given ten minutes to each and judge.  Unfortunately, they deliberated in private and promptly announced the winner, which meant we were not privy to why one dish was better than the other.  They did remind everyone that seasoning is a chef’s best friend.  According to anything I’ve ever read by Anthony Bourdain it’s actually hard drugs.

I however, overheard the judge’s comment on Gav’s dish, which ended up being the winner.  Congrats Gav!  I overheard that his duck had been cooked perfectly but the grapes he used were a little weird.

I guess the secret to winning a cooking competition goes as follows:

•    Are you Morimoto? A1) Are you sure? Did you check the mirror?
•    If you are not Morimoto proceed to steps C through E
•    Cook protein perfectly
•    Season well
•    Add some weird ingredient, which will make you seem like an eccentric so the judges will be scared of you and pronounce you the winner.

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Zengo’s Test Kitchen: A Melody of East & West

Words by Gillian Kreft
Additional words by Lauren Edward

When you start thinking about fusion cuisine a few things cross your mind, but something that most of us wouldn’t think of is mixing Japanese & Mexican food, but the culinary genius that is Richard Sandoval did it, and it is amazing.

My lovely taster for the evening, Lauren.

My lovely taster for the evening, Lauren.

Sandoval’s restaurant Zengo, recently announced its new Test Kitchen Menu combining the forces of Mexican & Japanese food. The menu rotates every few months mixing different Latin & Asian cuisines into one extraordinary melting pot of flavors.

I was invited to test out the TK menu and I jumped at the chance. Since I’m vegan, I brought one of my good girlfriends, Lauren, with me to devour everything that I couldn’t. While Zengo doesn’t advertise as being vegan friendly, they do have a separate vegetarian menu that includes a few dishes that are already vegan or are easily adaptable.

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They started by bringing us out a drink from the TK cocktail menu, the Shiro margarita which included nigori, agave blanco tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, and house-made sour. I’m not usually a tequila drinker but this was amazing, a sugar rimmed glass added just the right amount of sweetness without making it into something that was all about the sugar and not enough about the fusion of sake & tequila.

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Next were the appetizers, a vegetarian sushi roll to share, Terikayi Pork Belly Gorditas “Sliders” for Lauren, and Arepas de Shiitakes for myself.

For me, the corn meal cakes topped with shiitakes, and guacamole  were a bit too spicy but that was easily remedied by taking off some of the jalapeno on top. They were perfectly crunchy while the mushrooms added a nice meaty texture to them.

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LE: “My first plate to try was the TK Terikayi Pork Belly Gordita “Sliders”, a sort of dressed up McMuffin as the manager called them. Hearing this I was initially a little skeptical, but these little suckers knocked my socks off.  Piled atop a crispy masa cake was sliced pork belly, oaxaca cheese, guacamole, carmalized pineapple, and pickled chiles for just the right amount of heat. The meat was tender and tasty and couldn’t have been better complimented by the array of flavorful fixin’s.”

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As someone who eats a lot of vegetable sushi, I can’t say that this roll stood out. It was delicious but nothing that I haven’t had before. They served the aioli on the side and it was so good Lauren kept it at the table “just in case there’s something else” she could slather it on.

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The next drink they brought out was described as an “updated Old fashioned.” Its formal title: The Calamansi Old-Fashioned; consisting of Japanese whiskey, fresh calamansi juice, agave, and bitters. It was a little heavy on the whiskey but still delicious. I can’t say it read much different than the old fashion my grandmother makes when I visit her but maybe she’s ahead of the times.

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When they brought the entrees out I have to say that I wasn’t super excited. I had read the menu prior and noticed the only dish that was vegan was a tofu one. I love tofu, but as a vegan it can get a little lackluster after a few hundred dishes. When the dish was put in front of me, I couldn’t deny that the presentation alone was enough to make me want to lick the plate clean but once I took a bite of perfectly cooked tofu and a chili sauce, there was no stopping me. I finished my plate before Lauren and was begging for one more piece of tofu to soak up what was left of the sauce but alas, I was left with bokchoy & beansprouts which did the job just as well as the tofu.

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LE: “The TK entree was Kabayaki Glazed Lamb Shank Barbacoa. Now, I will admit I am not the biggest fan of lamb, but this dish prompted a change of heart. You know that melt-off-the-bone meaty goodness that so many of us barbecue lovers can’t get enough of? Well, try this. Aromatic ginger, chiles, and tamarand gave this shank some zing, without overpowering the lamb itself. As for the pairings, this is when things kind of fell apart. The lamb was served over a bed of “arroz verde” and pickled vegetables. I really wasn’t a fan of either of these sides as I felt they offset the composition of the dish and added some strange contrasting flavors. The rice was bitter… pungent almost, and spicy. Not the good flavorful kind, but the burn your taste buds spice. No thanks. As for the veggies, well, okra and carrots, they  were arranged nicely but added very little umphf to the dish. Let’s just say that after finishing the lamb itself, I was ready for dessert.”

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What is a meal without dessert? (The answer: sad) I was able to try all three of their sorbet flavors that rotate, Strawberry-yuzu, Blueberry-ginger, and Mango. I would venture to say that the strawberry and blueberry are made in house while the mango is store-bought. Either way, they were all delicious; the strawberry and blueberry were amazing and the addition of the yuzu and ginger made them undeniably the best sorbet I’ve ever had.

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LE: “Dessert, the showstopper of all showstoppers. Folks, on this night the stars aligned and the culinary Gods above sent to earth the perfect post-dinner treat. The TK Avocado Panna Cotta. I don’t think I can effectively do this dessert justice through any description, but if you ask Gillian, there was very little talking and a whole lot of om-nom. Fresh avocado custard, similar to flan, was perfectly sweet with a subtle hint of that avocado flavor. Served alongside this was a mango chutney of sorts with fresh mint, and peanut chocolate cookie crumbs. What kind of mad world do we live in? I never would have expected this to be as good as it was, but it blew my mind and left me wanting seconds. Cheers to good food.”

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Overall, I was impressed with Zengo. The service was impeccable (thanks Ryan!) and they were more than happy to accommodate two diets into one perfectly presented meal. The tofu alone makes me dream about returning. I look forward to what Sandoval’s next culinary mash-up will be.

Greece makes its mark on the Beaches with Trinity Taverna

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Originally posted to Ama’s twice-weekly column on Toronto Is Awesome.

It is not often that food has brought me out to the East End, but on this cold blustery night – Yuli and I decided to make the trek to an oasis hidden within a beachfront restaurant property with promises of authentic Greek food stylings. That place was Trinity Taverna.

Owned and operated by Peter Morentzos of Morentzos Restaurant Group and Danny and George Foulidis, the team has spared no expense at making this expansive (600 seated) restaurant with stunning lakefront views pleasing to both the eyes and stomach.

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Upon entry, you’re greeted by bold Mediterranean colours and a gorgeous ceiling made-up from thousands of birch branches, creating a Greek villa feel. The bench seating comes equipped with glorious pillows and a beautiful view of the open-kitchen. Beside the kitchen, you’ll notice the fresh seafood counter, whom Peter Morentzos told us shipped in fresh almost daily. They also have a very expansive wine list, including many Greek wines. If you’re uncertain of which wines to pair or have never had a Greek wine, not to fear — their sommelier is very wise and knowledgeable in all things Greece and wine. For example, he treated us to a beautiful red (Boutari Naoussa Xinomavro), which just made the top 100 of the Wine Enthusiast list.

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Chef Pierre Restivo and his kitchen team turns each ingredient into journey through the roads of Greece. For our appetizers, we were delighted with the Trilogy of Spreads, which included six different tastes such as house-made tzatziki (using a goat-milk yogurt, bringing out a smoothy richness and tang), tarama (smoked salmon, caviar and garlic) and htipiti (feta and spicy red pepper). Each of the dips had their own richness and I was seriously considering asking the kitchen to send me with a vat home. Alas: I did not work up the courage to do so. If only snacking at home could be this — elegant.

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Next up, we were brought out a Lamb Tartare (lean lamb loin, fresh mint, shallots, thai chilli oil and quail’s egg). I have never been much of a tartare fan but thought, when in Rome. So I took a chance on this dish and have been dreaming of it ever since. The kick of the thai chilli oil mixed in with the beautiful fresh taste of tartare. Perfect, especially for a lamb tartare. Something so very rarely seen.

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To balance things out, we tried out their Iceberg and Romaine Slaw where razor-thin cucumbers and julienned iceberg are married together with a sweet, simple white-wine vinegar dressing. The results are light and refreshing.

We decided to take the seafood counter out for a spin, testing out the following hot offerings: Shrimp & Feta, Baked Scallops and their standout trophy dish, the Octopus. The tomato and feta sauce served up with the shrimp was hearty and brilliant. If I’m not mistaken, we scooped up every last bit of the sauce. Now let me tell you about those scallops in three words (and trust me you’ll thank me later): saffron béchamel sauce. If that doesn’t scream to you: get in my mouth, I don’t know what will. But that Octopus – it was glorious. Grilled and prepared with an aged balsamic, it was pretty much everything.

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We also munched on some of my favourite offal meat, sweetbreads. Pan-seared in a lamb stock, white wine reduction and truffle oil, the meat was juicy and tender and packed many of the flavours in. The house-made sausage was up next, delivered with hints of citrus and delicious flavour.

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But let me tell you this: the main dinner offerings is where they win everything. We were treated to a sampling of four dishes: Rabbit Stifatho, Veal Cheek Moussaka, Trinity Taverna GYRO and Pan-Seared Lamb Chops. From these four dishes, the two that stood out to me the most were Rabbit Stifatho and Veal Cheek Moussaka. First things first, the rabbit in a delicious stew of onions, tomato confit and cinnamon. The braise leaves the meat to be tender and the flavouring really comes out in this winter hearty Greek dish. With the Veal Cheek Moussaka, you’re taken into a cosmic heaven of foodie delight with layers of scalloped potatoes, braised and stewed veal cheeks, tomato-confit sauce and eggplant once again in a beautiful béchamel sauce. Decadence at its best.

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A note of advice: leave room for dessert because you will want it and well, by the end of this feast you will be sluggish with so much delicious food. Treat yourself to the wondrous Feta Cheesecake (topped with caramelized figs) or Baklava.

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This restaurant is a perfect escape from the everyday Winter blah’s and also to find your own road to Greece right here in Toronto.

All photos by Yuli Scheidt.