Experiencing Alo Restaurant

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Alo is a filling tasting menu experience that leaves you speechless.

Toronto has its fair share of restaurants with extravagant tasting menus. Each is known for its fantastic food, but is limited by one critical aspect – you leave hungry.

My visit to Alo Restaurant was to celebrate my 22nd Birthday. After struggling to get reservations, I was given the opportunity to eat at the Chef’s Table with my family. This involved enjoying a 17 course meal that I can say with certainty was the best dining experience of my life.

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Upon entering you go up a squished elevator and walk out to an elegant upscale dining room. On one side there is a bar and on the other are tables. In between the two is the Chef’s Table – a bar counter with six seats looking into the open kitchen – where I enjoyed my meal.

From the vantage point of the Chef’s Table I was able to peer into the beautiful process of creating and plating each dish and even having a few dishes served by Chef Patrick Kriss himself.

Food

Each course was a small piece of art, making you focus on savouring the combination of fresh high quality ingredients rather than having you rhythmically consume a heap of food without much conscious thought.

While the courses are too many to recount, a few stand out as highlights of the night.

Kusshi oyster: a single oyster on a bed of crushed ice, seemed so minuscule, yet easily stood out as the best among many dozens of oysters I’ve enjoyed in the past year.

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Toro: as a sushi fanatic I was thrilled when this was served. This fatty piece of tuna belly had quality reminiscent of Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan.

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Bluefoot chanterelles: a slightly salty and very memorable mushroom dish with rich creamy flavour.

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Hamachi sashimi: the chef finished the dish with a sauce just after it was served and personally explained the dish. As with the toro, the fish was the freshest and best quality I have experienced.

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Beef rib cap: a relatively sizeable chunk of meat served with puréed mushroom and king oyster mushrooms. Despite being the only meat dish in the seafood-heavy tasting menu that evening, it fit perfectly, its rich flavour setting the bar high for future steak dinners.

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At the end of the meal three hours had elapsed and I was too full to consume another morsel of food. In addition to giving me the meal of a lifetime I was left more than satisfied, a genuine surprise considering the nature of upscale tasting menus in Toronto restaurants.

Truly, Alo Restaurant is the right way for a tasting menu to be done. If you’re looking for a celebratory meal that is worth every penny and will be memorable for years to come, this destination is a must.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

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Apathy, ADHD, Appetite

Disclaimer: This is going to be a bit different as far as foodie memoirs go, it’s mostly about how ADHD contributed to me becoming a foodie.

Focus is Impossible

Throughout my grade school experience I constantly struggled to stay focused.

I can’t say I remember a single class in grade 6 where I wasn’t constantly on the verge of dozing off, or zoning out. This was caused by a mix of apathy, poor sleeping habits and the profoundly difficult task of staying focused.

One day in drama class we were performing our little three-minute fight scenes and, as I was in the midst of reacting to a slow-motion punch, I completely zoned out. Luckily it was the end of the scene. Unluckily, the teacher then proceeded to ask us questions about the scene in front of the class. I didn’t hear or react to a single word that came out of his mouth. Needless to say it was painstakingly embarrassing.

School days were filled to the brim with day dreams and once I got home my parents – who deeply value education – would question my apathetic self about every little detail of my day.

Each night during the week I was restricted from playing video games – that’s not to say I didn’t play anyway while my parents backs were turned (sorry, Mom and Dad) – and watching TV was only for after my work was done.

Only through constant intervention from my father who oh so patiently dealt with my inability to focus did I actually get work done during much of high school.

When he wasn’t in the room watching that I was actually doing my work (while he did his paperwork beside me) I was either playing games on my computer, zoning out, or making up fantasies about being in some far away place (the birth of the writer in me I suppose). It was impossible to motivate myself to get started on a task and even if I miraculously did I would frequently get side-tracked.

I should note here that I didn’t do poorly in school for the most part – when I did do the work I’d do a damn good job, but getting me to actually do it was like pulling teeth. I never really had problems with my grades until the start of high school.

You may be thinking, “Doesn’t mean there’s something wrong, tons of kids don’t care about school and zone out all the time.” You’re right, which in part was what made it so hard to see there was a greater problem until later on.

Hidden Troubles

Up until late in my high school experience mental health wasn’t really addressed as being a serious problem that affected the learning experience. ADHD, anxiety, depression and more were all misunderstood by the student body who stigmatized individuals who had them. After a good friend of mine was diagnosed with ADHD he was explaining the struggle of staying focused and someone repeatedly argued that he was simply being lazy and needed to just get the work done. Yeah, high school kids are assholes.

Before entering grade 11 many students in my year were getting academic testing done. I’m not entirely sure what sparked this sudden acknowledgement en-masse of the effects of mental health; it was probably the result of a diagnosis of a kid of an influential parent or my school following a trend among other private high schools in the area. I went from being entirely in the dark about mental health to suddenly seeing it all around me – people getting extra time for ADHD, writing in different rooms for anxiety.

Awareness doesn’t equal understanding though, so the stigma continued.

I was not among the vast number of people who underwent academic testing that summer – people would look at me differently! And so, throughout grade 11 I again struggled to stay focused – leading to many arguments with my parents, sleepless nights and a feeling of utter helplessness.

Thankfully, in the summer before grade 12 I finally did get academic testing done and was diagnosed with a form of ADHD. This was done by a rather judgemental psychiatrist who made me feel awful about it, telling my parents about my potential for failure and inability to focus like I was some dimwit unable to grasp her words and therefore not worthy of being a part of the conversation. I was left with an even greater feeling of stigma, which only furthered my inner-need to hide my mental health problem from as many people as possible.

No Appetite

Hiding my ADHD continued into first year university. I was struggling to cope with the shock of living alone in residence. I was hours away from home and from home cooked meals.

At this point I medicated with prescribed Concerta (similar to Adderal/Ritalin) to manage my ADHD.

One of the biggest side effects of this drug is complete lack of appetite. On top of learning how to feed myself, I was also constantly forgetting to do so. The pangs of hunger that come when you skip four meals in a row? They didn’t come. Even when I realized my lack of eating I had to force myself to consume food. Eating more than a few bites when I should have been starving felt like being brought a personal chocolate cake after a large feast – a part of you wants it, but you cannot bring yourself to take a single bite.

Needless to say, I lost a ton of weight in that first semester of university.

Remedy

Winter break rolled around and I went to my doctor for a check-up. Skipping most meals and eating very little food took its toll on my body. ‘You’re borderline underweight,’ my doctor said. No surprise there.

I stopped taking Concerta and later began alternative treatment through the Listening Centre in Toronto. Paul Madaule is a miracle worker. (After the several-month-long weekly treatment I received there my ADHD was, and still is, about 80-90% better).

But there was still the problem of my weight.

Those of you who have been to Toronto may be familiar with the burger joint ‘The Burger’s Priest’, arguably the best burgers in the city. You may also be familiar with their secret menu, which among other interesting creations contains a burger called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse‘ – two cheeseburger patties, two vegetarian patties (two portobello mushroom caps stuffed with a blend of cheeses and deep fried) and grilled cheese buns. Yes, it’s insane. Well, that’s what I ate on the way home from the doctor’s office that day. I’m sure it’s not what he had in mind, but hell, I was finally eating something.

This was the first time I purposely sought out and ate an interesting food item I had heard about from the Toronto foodie community. The first of many I should say.

From that point onward, throughout my winter break, I visited several other restaurants with rich and filling foods, eating to my heart’s content both at home and at The Burger’s Priest. This jump-started my drive to seek out the best and most interesting foods that Toronto had to offer. As I regained the weight I lost, a new part of me started to stir.

Finally, I was a foodie.

Grab Sushi Safely

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Not many people are aware of what exactly makes a sushi restaurant trustworthy. This is pretty scary considering you’re eating raw fish – a lot can go wrong. I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say food poisoning is only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s some tips to help you stay informed about quality when it comes to sushi places:

Chef’s Experience

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A lot of health risks are associated with bad fish. If it doesn’t smell right, if the cut isn’t good, if the supplier isn’t reliable, if it’s strangely cheap, if the quality isn’t checked upon arrival, you can be put at a serious health risk. These are all things that an inexperienced chef can easily mess up. So if they don’t look like they know what they’re doing, it’s probably a good idea to walk out.

Proximity of Wholesalers

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Many sushi places in London get their fish from Toronto – this is considerably less fresh than getting it that morning from the market. When it comes to sushi, it’s almost all about freshness, every second counts. This is why a lot of small towns won’t have sushi places – they simply cannot get fresh enough fish for it to taste good.

Proximity to Body of Water

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This ties into the previous point and is also useful for getting live fish, a step up from the already fresh market. If you were in a desert town and they said “fresh atlantic salmon” on their door, would you trust them? You shouldn’t. Where the hell is that fish coming from? I can guarantee it’s anything but “fresh”. The fact of the matter is, if you’re far from any body of water, you’re not going to have have high quality fish.

Timing

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Going for sushi during the week is ideal because chances are the restaurant isn’t getting another delivery of fresh fish until Monday morning. Unless it’s an upscale place that gets special delivery, on the weekend they’re likely to be using leftovers from Friday night. That means Saturday isn’t very fresh and Sunday… Just don’t. Monday you’re probably fine unless it’s a less-than-trustworthy place still trying to unload the last of Friday’s shipment through some Monday lunch special. (I highly suggest reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, as he goes into a lot more detail about this sort of thing).

Sanitation

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Don’t get sushi from somewhere that looks sketchy. If they can’t keep their workspace relatively clean or handle it with care how much do you want to bet they don’t treat their food with much care either. Of course this isn’t always the case with restaurants – there are some really crappy looking restaurants out there with spectacular food – but when it comes to raw fish, it’s best to play it on the safe side.

Images: GIPHY (6)

Review: Bar Raval

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Fig & Olive Oil Cake

Bar Raval transports you to a Spanish pinxtos bar, separated from the outside world and offering some of the best food in Toronto.

Before entering this restaurant I had never enjoyed a meal while standing across a barrel in the company of others, nor had I been so confused as to how a seating system works.

The crowded gastro-bar has a bar area with baked goods on display, a table stretching along one side and barrels with flattened tops that act as tables.

If you don’t grab one of the limited number of stools, you’ll be standing for the duration of the meal. But fret not! Most people are standing in this restaurant so you’ll fit right in.

There is also a covered outdoor section that lacks any seating, with more barrels and a window sill to rest your food.

It’s anyone’s guess how the wait staff keep track of whose food goes where but they seem perfectly comfortable, never getting confused or missing an opportunity to ensure you’re having the best possible visit.

The interior is dark and crowded, which makes you feel like you’re part of a small community experiencing the restaurant together.

It comes as no surprise that Chris Nuttall-Smith has placed this in Toronto’s top new restaurants of 2015.

Food & Drink

The Walk Off: Whiskey sour with Absinthe and a strong taste of apricot. Nice to have alongside various tapas to offer a sharp contrast with the oily breads and various rich meats.

Pumpkin & Hazelnut: A small salad with plenty of semi-sweet mashed pumpkin with arugula and pine nuts

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Tomato Bread: Toasted bread with fresh tomato spread. Amazingly simple and delicious. A must try!

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Croquetas: two breadcrumbed fried rolls filled with cheese that simply melts in your mouth. A dish that is far too easy to quickly eat and miss.

Hot Octopus: Small pieces of octopus and potato in a puddle of olive oil. Good portion for splitting between two people.

Mushroom Tower: Two skewers of mushrooms each poked into a piece of bread soaked with good olive oil, topped with a single shrimp. If you like mushrooms, this is the dish for you.

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Fig & Olive Oil Cake: Sweet, somewhat fluffy, large pieces of fig, a hint of olive oil. Served with cream that makes a good dip for each bite of cake.

Rating: 5/5

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

Review: The Cactus Club

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tuna tataki

The Cactus Club is a massive trendy new restaurant in Toronto offering a spectacular atmosphere, great service and acceptable food.

Three separate levels split up this 500-seat restaurant. Each floor is trendy and unique.

The first floor was a bar with tightly packed tables, the second floor offered booths and larger tables with a more homey atmosphere, and the top floor was a massive bar area with plenty of tables and a fully retractable roof.

We were seated on the second floor in a booth. Light jazz music set the mood and allowed conversation to be had without difficulty.

Service was very friendly and quick- a surprise given the sheer size of the restaurant. Our waitress never missed an opportunity to inquire about a refill or answer one of our questions about the menu.

The Food

The menu included an assortment of interesting appetizers, meats, salads and pastas. There was also a feature menu of the location’s unique signature dishes.

The tuna tataki appetizer ($15.50) was fantastic. Great portion size with 12 pieces to share between the three of us. While certainly odd to eat this Japanese dish without chopsticks, the semi-rich umami flavour and melt-in-your-mouth texture easily made up for that.

The ceviche appetizer ($16), was the first on a long list of disappointments throughout the evening. Portion size was good, but that’s where the enjoyment stopped. The dish lacked flavour apart from its fishy taste.

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ceviche

The kale + grilled chicken salad ($16.50) was extremely tart (sadly not an exaggeration), making it inedible. We ended up sending it back and swapping it for another salad.

The quinoa salad ($14.50) had a splendour of different ingredients. This too came with several thin slices of chicken breast.

The first few bites were fascinating as your mouth explores the different ingredients and flavours offered by the dish.

However, it quickly became apparent that the dish both appeared and tasted as if someone had thrown leftovers from the fridge into a salad with the hope that it would work- it didn’t.

Both salads, while unenjoyable, had very large portions and could easily be split between two people.

The Duck Confit ($25), a signature dish, was more fulfilling. The single duck leg was cooked to perfection, topped with tons of greens. It was placed on a large bed of lentils soaked in an excess of vinegar, which made them far too tart.

I strongly recommend paying the additional $9 for another duck leg, otherwise the dish is insubstantial.

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duck confit

For dessert we had the key lime pie ($8.25). This and the tuna tataki made up the two saving graces of the meal.

It was very creamy and somewhat rich. It came served with a large dallop of cream on top which blended perfectly with each bite of the delicious pie.

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key lime pie

Conclusions

It comes as no surprise that this restaurant is popular among Bay street bankers. The trendy, unique and vibrant space offers a multitude of dining experiences.

However, the average Torontonian looking for a nice quality meal will be disappointed if they expect anything more than trendiness and acceptable food from this multi-level establishment.

Rating: 3/5

http://www.cactusclubcafe.com/
77 Adelaide St. W.

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

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Review: Japango

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Sushi Two

Located near Bay and Dundas, Japango is a squished restaurant that offers some of the best sushi in Toronto at affordable prices.

Upon first glance you may be deterred from going to Japango to eat given its claustrophobic atmosphere. It has a very small seating area where even sitting down at your table is a challenge (I nearly knocked over someone’s drink as I was leaving).

The restaurant as a whole can seat about 20 people and is better for smaller groups. I strongly recommend making a reservation (on my first visit here I was forced to leave after being told there was a 45 minute wait time for the four of us).

The waitress was friendly but very distant. She didn’t do much apart from bring us our food and didn’t readily offer any suggestions or explain anything about the restaurant and its menu.

Service was lightning fast, bringing us the appetizer and mains in quick succession (frankly without adequate space between them) only a few short minutes after we placed the order.

The large round plates used for plating were a great addition to the presentation of the meal, unfortunately they hardly fit on the table, especially with the appetizer arriving at the same time.

Food

I ordered the agedashi tofu as an appetizer – four large pieces of (scorching hot) tofu in a bonito soy sauce. At $5 this made for a well valued dish for two.

For my main, I got the sushi two lunch option, which included 12 pieces of nigiri and six pieces of California roll.

Unlike other restaurants which tend to give you a lot of cheap salmon and tuna in the nigiri platters, the chef here at Japango gives you a good assortment of fish – my sushi two included hotate (scallop), hirame (halibut), ebi (prawn), sake (salmon), and more.

While California rolls aren’t exactly authentic or known for quality, the ones included in the sushi two lunch were an exception. They were certainly the best California rolls I’ve had.

Overall, it was an excellent value at the price of $25 plus tax for a fairly filling meal in the heart of downtown Toronto.

I have yet to try anything on their drink menu but I have been told their sake is amazing – particularly the sayuri nigori sake, a sweet creamy sake with a smooth aftertaste and served in a memorable pink bottle.

Rating: 4.5/5

http://www.japango.net
122 Elizabeth Street

P.S. Those looking for an after lunch dessert should check out Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake or Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Matcha Café, which are both right around the corner from the restaurant. Their cheesecakes are amazing!

Cheers,

Ellis Koifman

Introducing: Sushi Couture

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Sashimi Dinner

Sushi chef Ken Zhang succeeds in bringing the high quality fresh fish of Japango and Yuzu No Hana to the Bloor Street area.

Those used to massive menus at sushi places with tons of specialty rolls, hand rolls, soups and more may be deterred by the simple menu found at Sushi Couture.

But fear not! For most items on the menu are carefully crafted by the expert hands of Chef Ken Zhang, notorious for his work at Japango (arguably the best sushi in Toronto).

The sashimi dinner was an absolute delight. 15 pieces of assorted fish, such as salmon, surf clam and Japanese mackeral.

Unlike most sushi restaurants in the area you can really taste the freshness and quality of the fish – I left with zero doubts of the chef’s skill in finding and properly serving only the best of the best to his customers.

The menu also includes a $75 omakase – a set meal of eight course hand selected and crafted by the chef. While this may seem pricey, it is very far on the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to this type of meal.

Sushi Couture sets the standard for how sushi restaurants ought to be – quality fish, reasonable prices and excellent presentation.

http://www.sushicouture.ca/
456 Bloor Street W.