Alo – Toronto

For my birthday this year, passing the “Mid-Twenties” mark, tfung very sweetly (and excitedly) booked the top restaurant in Toronto currently. We struggled with scheduling but were able to make it work and rushed to get to our reservation on time, for which we were 15 minutes late, and they were extremely nice and understanding about it.

The decor inside is gorgeous. It’s bright, light, with mid-century modern chairs in a soft but gender-neutral blue. The booths were covered in a soft dirty-periwinkle blue, and the cylindrical chrome hanging lights captured my attention from where we were sitting.

Alo provides a tasting menu that is changed fairly frequently, from specific ingredients in each of the dishes being shuffled daily to suit whatever is freshest, to the whole dish being switched out either weekly or bi-weekly. As a result, their menu is completely different if you come back in 2 months, keeping the restaurant running at high capacity for new patrons as well as returning.

Because we were going for drinks later on that evening, we did not opt for any of the cocktails or other alcoholic beverages at Alo. I definitely would go back to try some of their cocktails, as they looked extremely interesting. We had a chance to look at the menu, and it was constructed with 2 appetizers, and 3 mains, from which we could choose one of two options.

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AMUSE BOUCHE

We started off with puff pastry filled with a thick savoury cream, with torched onion powder on the top. The bite-size was more than enough, as we got two each, and the cream had a nice consistency and thickness, but was not too overpowering in flavour that took away from the onion powder or the pastry itself. Beneath that dish, at the base of the pedestal, was a passion fruit meringue sandwiching thin slices of cooked heart of artichoke, topped with coconut cream. This was my preferred amuse bouche, using different and interesting ingredients that we normally would not imagine together, and constructing an interesting piece out of it, again in a form that we would not normally imagine. The heart of artichoke provided the softer texture of a cooked vegetable, with a slight sourness in flavour to offset the fattiness of the coconut cream and the sweetness of the passion fruit meringue.

APPETIZER

The first appetizer was an English Peas dish. There were fava beans, english peas, and snow peas, that were both in its fresh, slightly blanched form, as well as made into the form of a purée.

Following the Peas, were a Hamachi (done 3 ways) and zucchini pairing. The generous portion of hamachi sashimi filet was fresh, still a cool temperature, and presented on a thin smear of light cream sauce. There was also a small portion of hamachi tartare served on top of the filet, which was creamy and had a nice fatty mouth feel. The flavour of the hamachi was not as pronounced in the belly as it was in the sashimi or the cured hamachi, which was surprising. The cured hamachi, was served in a small portion on the side, topped with some chopped up dried cranberries. The dish was served with scattered zucchini, both steamed and grilled, as well as a sensational key-lime sauce.

MAINS

There were three mains to the dinner. The first was a choice between Morel mushrooms and Dungeness crab, the second was a choice between sea bass and scallops, and the third was a decision between lamb and pork.

Morel vs Dungeness Crab

I chose the morel mushrooms as I actually had never had them before. This is tfung’s favourite type of mushroom, and one that he introduced and taught me about. The dish came with a generous serving of large pieces of morels., soaked in an extremely rich and flavourful almost beef bourgingon sauce, as well as a thick cream sauce on the side made with shallots.The dish was topped off with fried chicken skin bits and some green onion and shallots for garnish. This was probably the most disappointing dish of the bunch. It was extremely salty, to the point where it was difficult to taste the true flavours of the dish. I’m unsure if it was caused by the broth, or if it was the morel mushrooms that might have received too much seasoning, which seeped into the broth, but either two was the culprit. Definitely did not expect such a slip from a restaurant like Alo.

Tfung picked the buttery dungeoness crab dish, with bite-sized pieces of crab, mostly submerged in a seafood infused butter sauce, and topped off with a foam, which added a nice contrast in texture as the whole dish was extremely monotonous.

Sea Bass vs Scallops

The seafood portion of the night featured probably the two most popular favourites by the public. I am never that impressed with scallops, so I opted for the Sea Bass. The bass was cooked to the point of being just underdone, which is how I like it and believe fish should be eaten. The skin was crispy with a nice flavour without being too powerful or aggressive. The dish was a little saltier than I typically like, but I tend to cook quite blandly at home which could have attributed to how I perceived the saltiness. My favourite part of the dish was how big the white asparagus looked, and how it kept us intrigued visually. The green asparagus sauce gave it a nice contrast in colour, was lighter in the intensity of flavour, and the herbiness of the undercooked asparagus balanced out the richness of the cream sauce.

The scallops were done very well and featured a cumin mustard sauce. The sauce I felt lacked a kick that I would have expected but was much more interesting than the usual mushroom or truffle sauce that I have seen in the past with scallops. As usual, the presentation was great and inviting, and the magenta of the radishes added a nice contrast in colour.

Duck Breast vs Pork Chop

Of course, I chose the duck, as I’ve always loved duck breast and duck magret. The duck dish was done in 3 ways, again a presentation that is very popular in many tasting menu restaurants, as well as one that I enjoy a lot. A duck sausage presented into a ball with duck prosciutto wrapped around it, with a small amount of foie gras in the center, and the duck breast itself, seared on the skin and cooked to medium rare. The rich duck breast was decorated and contrasted with the deep purple of radicchio. The presentation wasn’t the most exciting compared to the other dishes, but the flavour and juciness of the breast spoke for itself.

The porkchop held for a more fun experience in enjoying the different components of the dish. There was the porkchop itself, with several asparagus stems cooked to perfection. The pork chop that was generously salted and peppered were to be eaten with an array of different sauces that included a lime and bean puree, a sauteed chives and garlic mixture, a relish condiment made with cabbage, and finally an onion and shallot mixture. The pork chop was again cooked to a good tenderness, and was a little more on the medium side but still retained its juices very well.

DESSERTS

Almond cake with rhubarb sorbet

The almond cake made for a nice light flavour after the heavier main dishes. I didn’t enjoy the cake itself as much as I did the cooked rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet that came with it. Although overall I thought there was not much surprise to this dessert dish.

Chocolate Ganache cake with Mint and Basil Icecream

I was quite surprised at a second dessert as this was not outlined in the menu. But after a slightly disappointing previous dessert with the almond cake, I was quite delighted to come across a much more familiar looking cake, with the exception of the green ice cream resting on top of it – that was melting fast. As expected, the chocolate cake was extremely rich and heavy, and was made with a refined dark cacao. It had different textures throughout, including the thick ganache, a lighter mousse, as well as a dense cake base. The crunchy nougat on the top was also pertinent to enjoying all the different textures of such a rich dish. But the cherry on top and what I believe to be the star of the dish had to be the basil and mint ice cream. The flavour was definitely something you would not typically expect from an ice cream, being so fresh and light – which probably was due to it not being too rich in cream. The contrast of this lightness and bright, fresh flavour compared to the deep dark richness of the chocolate was key.

OVERALL EXPERIENCE

As with most tasting menus, it is all about the fun in trying different combinations of the dish, and tasting very different flavours within dishes as well as between dishes. I believe Alo definitely achieved that, even though some of their dishes were a little less innovative, which serves as a nice anchor for those of us who wish to feel the sense of familiarity. It is a delicate balance between being new and adventurous, as well as showing that you can do the “plain old boring stuff” well. Further, Alo’s service was impeccable, having great attention to detail and being a little overstaffed which made for handling different requests or celebrations easier.

The openness of the kitchen gave you a distraction between the dishes, and the decor was just absolutely stunning without being too gender-specific. I also love that you can be very casual about the dining experience, as well as perceive it to be very formal. The space and attitude of the restaurant were very versatile and is dependent on how the patrons wish to experience their time and meal here.

I definitely think Alo is a place to visit, especially for a special occasion. If not for a special occasion, their à la carte dining area by the bar is also a great alternative, especially when we don’t want a full-blown tasting menu meal.

Food: 9.2/10
Service: 4.7/5
Ambiance: new age, scandi, modern, gender-neutral, classy but not stuffy
Cost: $250/2 people

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Saturday Dinette

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On the first day of spring of 2016, although it was -4˚C, it as a beautiful sunny Sunday. So naturally, I wanted to take advantage of the natural light and go brunching. I had been eyeing this brunch spot for the past month, but never really found the time and right schedule to check it out.

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I wanted to order everything on the menu, but I opted to at least try two things. And this was the best decision I’d made in a long time. I ordered the mushroom on toast with a fried egg on top, as well as a kid’s serving of buckwheat pancakes. My friend got a coffee, the beans were from Jimmy’s coffee (Kensington). However, the French presses they used were probably all in poor shape because even after they remade the coffee when we pointed out the coffee grinds floating around, the grinds still persisted in the second batch. Definitely will opt for another beverage option the next time I come, or perhaps none at all.

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Oh, my. The pancakes were absolutely scrumptious. It was slightly crunchy on the outer edges, quite fluffy for being made of buckwheat, and the maple syrup was perfection. Even when the center of the pancake soaked up the maple syrup, the texture was maintained (again, thanks to the buckwheat). Furthermore, the syrup wasn’t revoltingly sweet (as it sometimes can get, at least to me), but instead, the perfect amount of sweetness with an extra kick from the icing sugar sprinkled on top.

The mushroom on toast was quite good as well, the mushrooms carried an earthy flavour and a slight rosemary aroma as well. The texture of the mushrooms was also done well, not too overdone, as can often happen with many dishes like this. Being the egg yolk lunatic I am, I let the whole wheat toast – the foundation of the whole dish – soak up all the yellow yolk. The yolk was underdone and spilled out of its casing when popped with a honey viscosity. It’s a little weird for some people, but this is one of the most mesmerizing things to watch for me. The egg was a little too salty, which was seasoned as it’s just about to be plated. So perhaps next time I will try to ask them to be a little lighter on the salt, but I doubt this will be easily adaptable based on the setting of the kitchen.

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My friend ordered the Little Reuben, with again a perfect fried egg, melted cheese and pork belly inside the toasted two pieces of whole wheat bread. Again, he also remarked that the egg was just a little over-seasoned, but did not ruin the dish in any way.

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Overall, I thought Saturday Dinette was a positively amazing brunch spot. They were quick with seating (perhaps we were lucky, and also we were only 2). The pricing was reasonably affordable for students, which is always a plus. The only thing I wish they could have improved is the coffee, but not everyone is obsessed with coffee like I am, and also there is Boxcar Social just a block south of where SD is, so it would be as easy as walking down to get a cup of good cortado. I definitely recommend this brunch spot and will easily become my #1 in Toronto!

Food: 9/10
Service:4.2/5
Atmosphere: diner, fast-paced, busy, hustle
Price: $15/person

Saturday Dinette Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

~ kehwon

Santouka – Downtown Toronto

Finally, a ramen post!

Combined, me and tfung have tried many ramen places. Some were utter disappointments, and some just didn’t quite satisfy all of our wants. After our trip to Japan last year, we’ve just been spoiled in terms of our Ramen taste-buds. It is so difficult for us to find a ramen joint we enjoy after that memorable ramen stand near Tsukiji Market. I feel almost as if that feeling and that flavour can never be found again…

But, we did happen to find one we do enjoy in Toronto even if it doesn’t match up to the ones in Japan. We both agreed that out of all the ramen places, this was our favourite in terms of having the best score combined for the noodle, broth and meat. Some places the broth was excellent but the noodle was not done to our liking, or the meat was done so carelessly.

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I ordered the Miso Cha-shu Ramen. It was actually on this day that I discovered I actually don’t like Miso broth. However putting that aside, everything was really good, and there was definitely enough noodle to fill us up.

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Tfung got the Toroniku Shio Ramen, which is something that they can run out of and depends on “first come first serve” basis. Toroniku means the pig’s jowl, and was absolutely delicious. It was tender, but still had texture. The flavour of meat was not masked by any marinating, yet still was flavourful. Shio means salt, and this type of broth is actually one of the older ones.

Since we were seated at the bar, it was a little loud and not very intimate. However I love sitting at the bar at ramen joints because it reminds me of Japan. The waitresses that night seemed a little overwhelmed and were a little hard to get a hold of. However they were very nice and I didn’t have any problems with my order.

Again, I highly recommend checking this place out. If time permits, going at lunch time would be best to avoid waiting in line. We arrived at 6pm and had to wait a full hour. This was back in December 2012 though, so I’m not sure whether the lines are that bad still. Either way, it would be advisable to avoid peak hours.

Another thing I love about this place is that it’s pretty much right next to Eaton Center. I had visited Santouka again this summer after shopping at Eatons with my cousin. We just walked right over and had some ramen. It is just so easy and convenient.

Service: 4/5
Food: 8.9/10
Atmosphere: simple, wood, modern Japanese
Price: $12-20

 

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

~ kehwon

Shiso Tree Cafe – Japantown

I always love going to Japantown (located on Woodbine, just East of Woodbine). I love their pan (bread) and looking at the cakes. I love the general atmosphere and I’ve never had a bad experience there. There’s always something that reminds me of good times, including the time that I bought two big pieces of sashimi (Salmon and Hamachi) for sushi party at my house, at which we ended up butchering the beautiful sashimi because I did not have a proper knife.

Nonetheless, this time my mom and my cousin finally tried the Shiso Tree Cafe. I’ve seen this name pop up in a lot of my friends’ facebook checkins and I finally went and tried it.

We all just ordered pastas,

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My cousin got the Shoyu Mushroom Pasta. Shoyu in japanese means soy sauce, so I’m guessing this was made with some soy sauce. I didn’t taste much of it but it had a sweet taste to it. Being a mushroom lover (haha) I loved this dish. But the sweetness of it did throw me off at first.

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My mom ordered the Shrimp Okonomiyaki . Okonomiyaki is actually a pancake dish in Japan, and it’s famous for the very unique sauce that is used. I used to love okonomiyaki-flavoured chips (and still do) by Calbee, so I’m a huge fan of this sauce. The shrimp was of good quality and had the perfect texture. However, they had put some cheese in the dish. It didn’t match the Asian flavours at all and being someone who generally doesn’t like cheese unless it works really with the dish, I felt that it had ruined this for me.

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I myself got the Shio Clam Vongole. Shio means “salt” in terms of ramen adn that’s kind of what I took it as in this. There were some basil leaves in the dish and the clams were quite good. It was a little oilier than I would have liked but I did like the taste. I have to say that the mushroom pasta was my favourite though!

I really do love Japantown, even more so after visiting Japan. I love the way that Japanese people have the discipline and will power to excel in everything they do. Each individual isn’t a Jack of all trades, but whatever they specialize in, they will perfect it. They are so efficient and have so much respect for the jobs even if they don’t like it. This is something that I think we all need to learn from.

Anyway, the service was quite good, the waitress knew exactly what we wanted and didn’t need much explanation. I hate the places where I have to explain myself to them. I’m not a patient person and at a restaurant is where I want to relax and enjoy. If I have to over-exert myself just to get the waitress to understand it usually turns me off. And this place did a perfect job of that!

Service: 4.5/5
Food: 8.3/10
Atmosphere: Modern Japanese, with little wooden booths
Price: $15-20

Shiso Tree Cafe on Urbanspoon

~ kehwon

Arepa – Fashion District (Queen West)

I had never ventured past Spadina on foot on any street. However I did see on instagram a picture of this cafe and the caption “Guava Cheesecake”. I love guava flavoured drinks and was very interested in trying this cheesecake. This cafe is located on Queen West, in the Fashion District (that I didn’t even know existed). My cousin and I walked here on a really nice day, and we really enjoyed the walk, as we discovered lots of new shops (fabric and bling-bling bead shops) we would never have been able to find. It’s funny how you’ve lived in a city for so long and because you don’t venture out of your comfort zone, there are always places you don’t know about.

Arepa means corn meal bread that’s very prominent in Columbia and Venezuela. This particular cafe is Venezuela-based.

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We arrived and were pretty hungry. I really wanted to eat a salad, and we opted for the Watercress in orange vinagrette, with oranges, sliced almonds and warm fresco cheese. It was really refreshing on this day, and a really fruity tasting salad. I’ve recently started to notice a lot of watercress salads which is interesting and new to me, since I’ve only ever had watercress in the Asian soups that my mom likes to make.

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We also ordered la llanera, which comes with beef tenderloin, avocado, fresco cheese and tomato. We were also given condiments to add, including garlic mayo, pesto and peppercorn. It was pretty good, but the beef was really dry. The condiments made a world of difference in terms of adding some moisture to the dish. The corn meal bread was something that I hadn’t tried before. It was interesting, but I don’t think I’d consider it something I’d pick over other types of bread.

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Finally, we got to the reason I had discovered this restaurant in the first place: the guava cheesecake. The dish was decorated with guava syrup dotted on the side of the plate. I have to be honest, this cheesecake failed to come even close to my expectations. Perhaps I expected too much…Either way, I was just having a regular cheesecake, and there was almost no guava taste. The little guava icing that was on the top was of true guava flavour, and didn’t do much for the cheesecake. The base of the cake was an interesting mix of oats and granola though, which was something I hadn’t seen much of before.

Overall this cafe is cute and is a nice place to go if you want to try something new (or at least it’s new to me, as I’ve never had Venezuelan cuisine before). The food was decent, and came quite quickly. The service was attentive but not annoying which can be hard to achieve in a small cafe. Although I enjoyed my experience, I don’t think I’ll be visiting any time soon, as corn meal bread does not appeal to me, and the guava cheesecake was a disappointment. As for the salad, I am confident I can make something quite similar at home. But if you’ve been wanting to try some new flavours, I do suggest you to check out their arepas!

Service: 4/5
Food: 7.2/10
Atmosphere: cafe, drawings, colourful decor
Price: $10-20

Arepa Cafe on Urbanspoon

~ kehwon

Table 17 – Leslieville (Queen East)

I found this place as my friends and I were trying to decide where to meet up on a Sunday. The answer was obvious: brunch! We all love brunches, and this place has got to be one of the most relaxing places I’ve been to so far. The reason being: no line up! Also there’s lots of free parking on a Sunday at Queen East. It’s just so easy, without the stress of waiting and finding parking.

The restaurant has a very english country style. The patrons who eat there seem to be very relaxed and the atmosphere isn’t stuffy at all. Definitely a place I’d go if I want a chill brunch day.

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Because I liked it so much, I ended up going a second time. This time I ordered the Neapolitan Eggs. The eggs were done well, but the best part of the dish were the amazingly flavourful tomato base that was used. This was a good dish, but not everyone may like tomatoes.

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I’m a sucker for scrambled eggs. Ever since having the best scrambled eggs of my entire existence at Australian Dairy Company (Jordan, HK), I always want to try scrambled eggs to see if anything will top that. It hasn’t.

These eggs were quite good, but still nothing compared to ADC. I really do love that they had salad with every dish, just to make myself feel a little less guilty.

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Today’s star was actually the quiche. It featured spinach, potatoes and truffle oil. The truffle oil was not overdone as it so often is, so that you could taste the flavours of the ingredients in the quiche. However, it still does not compare to the best quiche I’ve ever had (Duchess, Edmonton).

The service both times were quite good. The first time I was here, the waiter was very friendly and liked to joke around with us. However, the hostess that led me to my table had done a poor job as she led me to one that had not been cleaned yet. When I was here today, the service was nothing special to mark.

Overall I didn’t think this restaurant was all that special, but I did love the combination of the hassle-free feeling as well as its price.

Service: 4/5

Food: 7.7/10
Atmosphere: relaxed, english country
Price: $10-15

Table 17 on Urbanspoon

~ kehwon

Inatei – Richmond Hill

Inatei is located at 9021 Leslie st. I first heard about it about 2-3 years ago when my parents heard that the owner of the restaurant they frequent, had opened up a second restaurant: a japanese one. They had tried it and recommended it to me. Today I went with my friends to this place I like to go to when I feel like treating myself.

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I love the decor of this restaurant because it really does capture a Japanese feel to it. With its dark stone constructed wall contrasted with the light coloured wood to partition the booths, finished with the oriental flower fabric, the atmosphere is instantly created. As a very full-package oriented person, I do believe that decor makes and breaks a restaurant. If my eyes and my tastebuds don’t completely agree, then there is just something off. Not to say a restaurant has to be beautifully decorated, but it has to match and fit. This place definitely does that for me.

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We ordered the sushi and sashimi moriawase which a selection of sashimi, nigiri and maki. I love this place because they don’t focus on the common types of fish we tend to see. They had this yellow roe fish (which is actually the golden herring menhaden), saba (mackerel) topped with green onion and ginger, scallops, among the more common types. Everything was very fresh and the quantities were enough that we can really savour the fish. We also ordered a spider roll which had an amazing flavour, which at first almost tastes like okonamiyaki (a flavour I cannot get enough of). I usually am not a fan of soft shell crab but this roll really sucked me in.

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We also had an order of uni nigiri. But they had run out of regular Vancouver uni, so they threw in a Hokkaido Uni (which was more than double the price) in for us instead. The uni more to the bottom of the picture is the Hokkaido one. My friend and I split these two and we definitely could taste a difference. The Vancouver one had more of a fishy taste, and was more “watery”. Whereas the Hokkaido had less fishy taste, but a bitter aftertaste that lingered for quite a while. It also was very very creamy and smooth. I’m not a huge lover of uni but have been enjoying it since my trip to Japan. So I definitely thought their Hokkaido uni was really quite good.

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For dessert we ordered my beloved tofu cheesecake. Inatei was the first time I had tofu cake and although I was very very hesitant at first, I fell in love with it at first bite. It is more like a hard pudding consistency, with tofu taste and graham cracker base. Eaten with the chocolate drizzle, whipped cream and the sliced almond on top, it is so amazing. I also love that this is quite a generous portion of cake (compared to places like Guu, where the slice of yuzu cheesecake was the size of my middle and ring fingers combined….).

Another generous gesture was seen by the owner as he threw in 3 lychee panna cottas for us. It was really more of a lychee pudding, with a piece of lychee at the bottom. Very light in texture and flavour, but I don’t think I would’ve paid for this.

We were served with speed and friendliness by the owner. I loved the whole experience and although I’ve come several times already, I continue to recommend this restaurant to my friends and family. Perhaps it was that I asked if they had tofu cheesecake in stock when we first sat down, or perhaps it was because I spoke cantonese to the owner. Either way, I believe that if you seem to really want to eat their food, they will treat you as treasured customers. Afterall, this restaurant wasn’t opened purely to make money.

Service: 4.5/5
Food: 8.7/10
Atmosphere: Excellent
Price: $20-30

Inatei on Urbanspoon

~ kehwon