Saturday, May 31, 2008

Oh Canada! Thursday: Shuffle off to Buffalo

Amongst all the confusion of visiting this cousin and that cousin, I somehow ended up missing the ride to the next destination. I looked at the railroad map and realized that we were supposed to meet up eventually in Niagara Falls, so why didn't I just take a little side trip to Buffalo for some hot wings?

The train trip wasn't that long, but they kept us at the border forever, so I managed to read an entire book on the way. Luckily I had packed up some of the fruit and cheese I'd bought from the markets, so I had a nice picnic instead of microwaved train burgers.

A Scottish couple sitting behind me bitched the entire way about every little thing. You can even hear them quietly bitching in the background of the video I posted of the bridge here.

I rented an SUV with GPS in Buffalo and almost immediately started talking back to the disembodied voice. The Courtyard by Marriott I'd booked was right by the freeway (damn you, google maps!). The room was spartan compared to the Westin, but it was comfortable and had these groovy lamps.

The view from my room:

I went for a drive and passed a cemetary. They aren't set apart and surrounded by hedges and walls like they are here. There is a block of houses, then a block of gravestones, then another block of houses. It's like every vacant lot has been turned into a little cemetary.

I stopped in at Wegman's for supplies. I love Wegman's; they even had Purple Haze cheese.

For dinner I hit Duff's. Even though hot wings were invented at The Anchor Bar, Duff's has the reputation for serving the best wings in Buffalo. The room was crowded and raucus. Teenage boys videotaped each other in hot wing eating contests for Youtube.

The floor looked clean, but was really slippery. I shuffled over to a waitress and asked why it was so slippery. Without missing a beat, she shrugged and replied, "Chicken grease."

The menu warns:

Medium is HOT
Medium Hot is VERY HOT

I ordered ten Medium wings to fill me up and 10 Hot wings for the adventure. I ordered a side of milk, which is my secret weapon for eating spicy food.

The medium wings were incindiary. I moved on to the hot, and wasn't that impressed. I guess it's like getting punched in the face. The difference between getting punched really hard and getting punched really, really hard isn't that noticable.

I found myself longing for Bob's hot wings. He cuts the heat with lemon and gives them a final pass in the broiler to fuse the sauce onto the wings. It's funny how you have to travel so far only to discover that what you were looking for was right there at home all along.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Oh Canada! Wednesday Continued: Canoe Canoe

Canoe is a well-reviewed restaurant serving nouvelle Canadian cuisine. It is part of a restaurant group similar to Patina. I was surprised to be dropped off at a high-rise office building with instructions to take an elevator up to the top floor.

Sometimes I order things that sound strange because I am daring the restaurant to make it taste good, which is how I ended up drinking a "Locust". It is a combination of Grasshopper wheat beer, ginger ale, and Limoncello. And you know what? It worked. Far better than a shandy. After that one experiment, I went for my usual champagne - they had my favorite, Perrier Jouet with the flowers on it.

I started with a chowder of Ontario fiddlehead ferns and BC spot prawns. Fiddleheads are kid of like asparagus, only grassier, maybe a little like pea shoots. It was topped with a wild leek and yukon rouille, a Provencial French sauce for soups. Yes, only the French would think a soup needs a sauce.

Next I was a little daring and had a plate from the tasting menu - Potato gnocchi with crispy sweetbreads and foie gras. The sauce/foam was rich with cream and morel mushrooms. The person who was delivering plates and explaining the ingredients had a very strong French-Candian accent, and I couldn't understand hardly anything he said. In the dim restaurant, it was difficult to make out what was what. The waiter, who I was loving, was staring at the plate trying to help me make out the individual ingredients. You know you are in an expensive restaurant when the waiter is willing to stand and ponder your dinner with you. Suddenly I remembered in a pack-for-emergencies moment I had thrown a Mag light in my bag. So I shone a spotlight on the dish, sweetbreads were identified, and voila!

I was brought an intermezzo of a celery foam. I expected a light refreshing palate cleanse, but there was a layer of salt on top that was so intense, instead my palate received an intensive salt scrub by a vicious Swedish masseuse. Uncle! Uncle! I'm cleansed! My palate is immaculate! I give in!

For my main dish I ordered the bison striploin with North woods mushrooms, confit potatoes and a peppercorn sauce that was similar to a bernaise. There was such a treasure trove of exciting new mushrooms to try - Black trumpet, cinnamon cap, yellow foot, blue foot, and more, that I ate them all before I remembered to take a picture. The confit potatoes were so delicious I am just going to start cooking everything in duck fat from now on. Meatloaf? Confit! Apple pie? Confit!

The buffalo was lovely - kind of like beef with a taste of the wild. It's strange that I am not usually a fan of game, but I love buffalo. Maybe it is my native roots. Or maybe it is the fact that when I was growing up my mom had a freezer stuffed full of buffalo meat. I never knew where it came from. Or if it was really buffalo. Recently when I asked about it she told me she had traded for it.

Check out this crazy Dr Seuss garnish

I only have one memory of my great-grandmother Hopkins. We were at a rare family picnic somewhere in BC. I was asking her what saskatoons looked like. She said, "Well, they that!" We had stumbled upon some wild bushes and picked enough to bring back to the picnic. Canoe had a dessert that came with saskatoons, which the waiter was kind enough to bring me on the side, and they made me a little maudlin.

I have been going easy on desserts, but I had to try Sticky Toffee Pudding made with Glen Breton Rare Whiskey, Toffee Sauce and Parsnip ice cream. Seriously. Standing alone, the parsnip ice cream was successful, but didn't do anything for me. When my waiter convinced me to try it together with everything in one bite, it did actually make it good. Trippy. This is the third time in a month I have seen kumquats in a fancy restaurant, so I guess they are an up-and-coming fruit.

I loved the service I loved the atmosphere and I loved the food. I loved the chef, Anthony Walsh, so much I sent him a glass of champagne. The dishes were all creative but based upon local ingredients. They definitely disproved the theory that restaurants with views all suck.

Downstairs there were two city blocks of taxis waiting. Normally you go to the first taxi in the line, but it was cold, and that first taxi was really far away. So I opened the door of the nearest taxi and asked what the pecking order was. He said there wasn't one, so I hopped in. Within seconds, there was another cabbie at the driver's window, screaming in his face that he was stealing fares and he knew I should go in the first taxi. I thought about getting out and going to the first taxi, but then the guy screamed in the window, "I am going to fucking stomp your fucking face in!" I didn't really want to get in his taxi after that. So my cabbie and I drove off with the guy still grabbing at the window.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Oh Canada! Wednesday: Dim sum and other delights

Wednesday I woke up and headed straight to Lai Wah Heen. It is quite possibly the best dim sum in Toronto. At the very least it is definitely the most elegant. The elevators have different paintings but I love this one because it looks as if they are deciding what button to press.

The menu is filled with exotic and glamourous-sounding temptations that sometimes border on the mysterious, as with the "rainbow chopped in crystal fold" and the "Billionaire egg white fried rice flavoured with shredded conpoy." The pan-seared foie gras arrived with a sweet sauce, mildly touched with ginger alongside tempura asparagus.

I ordered the shark fin soup - just because. The dumpling was really the star of the dish. The shark's fin were long strands of clear straw. Mmmm, cartilagenous.

The dumplings pictured starting on the left are the Phoenix eye purse (fish maw and sprouts), steamed crabmeat, corn and cured ham dumpling, chicken and scallion, and steamed duckling dumpling with foie gras. The Phoenix eye purse was interesting looking, but did not stand out. It was adorable that the corn dumpling was folded to look like an ear of corn, but the simple chicken and scallion was actually the best of the dim sum.

It is so wrong that the duckling dumpling is made to look like a little duck - but in a good way. The foie gras flavor was so mild as to almost be absent.

The chilled duo of lychee and jasmine tea puddings was clever and definitely tasted like tea. They were probably made with agar agar.

Afterwards, I checked out the Bata Shoe Museum. It not only had the pop culture and fashion shoes I expected, but a number of interesting anthropological exhibits.

Bowie's shoes from the "Serious Moonlight Tour". I wanted to smash the glass and steal them so I could burn them and salt the ground so nothing could ever suck that badly again.

I took a cab over to Kensington market. My cabbie was from trinidad, so we sang calypso songs along the way. He got so caught up in singing, he forgot to put on the meter. He offered me a free ride, but I know they are hard up so I gave him a fair sum and asked for a recommendation for a Trini restaurant.

Kensington Market has a lot of cool hipster and hippie shops.

I especially enjoyed a store called Blue Banana where I bought some gifts for friends back home and some bath bombs to spoil myself.

A fellow Roadfooder had recommended the debrezini sausage at European Meats and Sausages. By the time I got there near closing they were out of debrezini, so I enjoyed a knockwurst, which was scored and resembled a stegasaurus tail in a bun.

Toronto Wednesday: Spadina

The neighborhood around Spadina was the epitome of eclecticism. On one corner alone was a Korean place, pho, and dim sum. I took a quick break in Rol San, the dim sum joint. I ordered a Tsing Tao, and I wasn't that hungry so I asked for the deep fried crab claw and an order of dumplings.

Soon a guy who looked like David Crosby and a heavily wasted girl in a Ramones jacket sat behind me. She whined at him in a cheap English accent, "BUDDY, I feel awful, Buddy, I feel dirty." He tried to get her to lower her voice, "Relax we're across the border now. It's over." His voice had an ominous midwestern undertone like Steven Jesse Bernstein. She would not let up, "But Buddeeeeee, BADeeeee, I feel sooo awful, you know, so bad." Soon they were bickering over 20 dollars and the entire room stared. I didn't dare turn around, and waved for my check before I finished my beer. The waiter who had been so accomodating now treated me coldly, as if I had brought them in with me.

I took the dumplings to go, and later abandoned them in the room when I left, so the only thing I really remember about the food was how spongy the shrimp around the crab claw was - somewhere between a shrimp chip and styrofoam packing peanuts. For some reason they made me think about the Australian Kiwi birds and what they would look like deep-fried.

They did have an extremely cool poster on the wall

Next door was a little dim sum bakery called Dong Dong Pastries - how could I resist? I picked up a few treats for later.