January 2014 Toronto dineout bonanza round-up

This year after New Year’s Day, my mum, sister and I went to Toronto on a staggered schedule where they went out on January 1 and I went out on January 2 and left on January 4 while mum stayed until January 6. Between mum’s notes on restaurants she saw profiled on OMNI’s Trendy Zone, a Globe article I read just a few days before, a couple of my own wishlist and flipping through an issue of re:porter during a flight, I put together a list of 13 places to eat during mum’s five-day visit which included 10 places for me to visit during my three-day stay. I set the bar high…!

Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya
690 College Street, Toronto
Website / Yelp

Getting from Halifax to Toronto was brutal and I’ll think twice next time about taking a non-direct flight even when the price seems right. How could a Halifax-Montreal flight feel so very long? It’s all relative, I guess. And then arriving in Toronto was greeted with a blast of cold. I was eager to tuck into a cozy izakaya. I want mum to try an izakaya and my first choice is Hapa Izakaya which has opened a Toronto location after several successful Vancouver ones. But I also wanted to try Ryoji, a uniquely Okinawan joint and it also boasts of being an izakaya. All I know is that Okinawa has different cuisine from the mainland.

We arrived for an early dinner by the restaurant and the College Street area’s standards, when the music was not loud, lights were not dim, and fellow diners weren’t too young. It was nice to see a diverse staff with men and women working in the open kitchen and multiple ethnicities of servers. That is so Toronto. Even so, I felt vaguely uncomfortable for my mum who hasn’t caught onto the concept of “fusion” Japanese food. Good thing I had figured out everything I would order and the menu did not present any surprises.

The first to arrive was ji-ma-mi, a peanut tofu and Okinawan specialty. It had texture that is a cross between squishy cheese and tofu, was served cold in syrup that looked like honey, and topped with grated ginger. It tasted mild like bocconcini but with soy flavour and slight peanut aftertaste. It was intriguing to try, I found a tofu I did not fall in love with, but being served first, it was a nice light start.

I ordered poki salad to have some greens and it’s a Hawaiian style and mum loved her time in Hawaii. It was nicely dressed in a sweet chili sauce but I found the quantity of fish to be paltry and the taco bowl appeared to be a tortilla wrap that was fried and became limp and unappetizing.

I really should have declined the server’s offer to mix up our taco rice as I’m perfectly capable of doing it. What a messy photo! It was, however, delicious – saucy rice in stone bowl with salsa, beef, lettuce, cheese and onion. It tasted like a pasta dish, over rice. Too bad the rice was too wet to stick to the stone bowl and crisp.

Because I first heard of Ryoki as a ramen place, an order of original Otoko-aji (Tonkotsu) is necessary. You are asked if you want your noodles cooked soft, medium, hard or very hard and the server translated my “al dente” request to hard. The broth was really nice and cream and the ramen was the kind that looked like angel hair in thinness and it had the slightest bite. I might have preferred “very hard” cooked noodles.

Our last dish was takoyaki, because it’s a night market staple. The menu describes it as fried mashed potato balls with octopus, tonkatsu sauce and mayo. Indeed, it was mostly mashed potato with a token bit of octopus in each ball. I was missing the gooey texture that comes from barely cooked batter compared to a dry mashed potato recipe.

We happened to eat downtown because my flight was into the city airport. I want mum to try another izakaya where I have an even better idea of what to order. I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t find any of the dishes tremendously good.

Millie Creperie
161 Baldwin Street (Kensington Market), Toronto
Website / Yelp

Since we were downtown anyways (a rarity), and I just learned of a creperie in Kensington Market from the Porter in-flight magazine. It was a weeknight although in the midst of the holidays and rather cold so it was odd to feel as if there were only about ten other diners in all of Kensington at that time.

Millie has just three tables and most of the store counter space for crepe preparation and gelato/ice cream storage. We ordered the Japanese Special crepe with green tea ice cream, sliced strawberries, adzuki bean paste, whipped cream and matcha sauce drizzle. The crepes were bundled for handheld eating and both we and the other three patrons inquired if there were plates to facilitate sharing. It was a delicious dessert crepe and I was delighted to peel back the crepe to reveal sliced strawberry and adzuki paste throughout.

I also wanted to order their crepe cake but it was not available at the time so I simply have to find my way back next visit or so.

Phoenix Restaurant
8190 Bayview Avenue, Thornhill
Website / Yelp

For my first full day in Toronto, I was very ambitious. We would start the day off right with a proper breakfast close to Lil Sis’ apartment before we dropped her off at work. Phoenix is what I consider a “traditional Hong Kong style cafe” – big space and what the menu offered. Mum immediately contrasted the service, admittedly slow, were a couple other places she had been to before I arrived.

I ordered staple breakfast items. The macaroni soup arrived first and it was tasty and light. It didn’t need chili oil and I debated between added it and spicy up breakfast and eventually didn’t.

I ordered the waffle because mum said something like “road side waffle” and so I wanted to try this food that sounded like Hong Kong street food. It did not look at all like the photo but it was clearly freshly made if not overly hot (it did not melt butter) and the butter was carelessly served with lots of bread crumbs mixed in.

The hot breakfast plate was most intriguing. I’m not a fan of teriyaki sauce so found the piece of dark meat chicken just adequate. The scrambled egg (unless there was some miscommunication) looked more like an omelette. It turns out a sweet (Japanese?) soya sauce was folded in and everyone thought it was too salty. We should have ordered pork chop with tomato sauce instead of chicken.

 

Deer Garden Signatures
550 Highway 7 East (Times Square), Richmond Hill
Website / Yelp

For this place, I think the noodle soup photos can say it all! I was pleased that we had the time to take Lil Sis to a Vancouver Deer Garden in September and she had gone to the new Toronto location one on her own. Mum’s visit was much shorter and crazy scheduled but I felt consoled that could try it in Toronto.

So, while Lil Sis was at work, mum and I went to Deer Garden and mum was introduced to the concept of DYO. She thought it was quite cute. We ordered one original no-MSG fish soup with the (possibly) homemade thicker rice noodle. Mum chose to chop it with beef tendon (not tender enough) and fish tofu. I introduced the spicy option with Thai tom yung gong broth, Korean sweet potato noodles and my usual fish filet topping and giant prince mushrooms. The fish was good as usual but I think I would prefer the mushroom sauteed. We also ordered a specially price side dish, pan-fried fish puffs which was a nice bite on the side.

Franchise or chain restaurant, it was definitely comforting to see all the same touches in Toronto as I am accustomed to from Vancouver – same mugs, tea cups, bowls, menu. The Toronto location is the newest and the noodle soup is cheaper ($8.25 cf $8.50) possibly because “eating out in Toronto is cheaper than Vancouver” but with the 13% sales tax in Ontario versus 5% tax on restaurant meals in Vancouver, Deer Garden noodle soup is cheaper in Vancouver!

 

The Host Fine Indian Cuisine
670 Highway 7 East, Richmond Hill
Website / Yelp

There’s a Japanese restaurant that serves pasta that we’ve want mum to try and we attempted it altogether last January to learn they were closed for a few days. This year, we called before heading over and no one picked up. Perhaps they are continuing a common Japanese practice of taking this time of the year off. So Lil Sis quickly thought of The Host for Indian food. Located on Highway 7, we see it all of the time and have wanted to try it.

The Host is located in a non-glamourous mall attached to a Sheraton and nearly all fellow customers were Indian, despite the Richmond Hill location. That is always a good sign, right? At first, I found our waiter to be rude and/or dismissive of us. I’m afraid that I quickly wonder if he is discriminating against us. More likely, we had ordered such ordinary food and under-ordered by his standards. Most like, it was something else. And his mood and attitude did improve as our meal progressed.

We ordered samosa which came four small ones in an order. They were really good and only slightly spicy. We ordered butter naan on mum’s request, lacha parantha because I like it and basmati rice. For curries, we ordered their butter chicken and lamb rojanjosh. We were not asked how spicy we wanted our curry and normally mild butter chicken had a kick! The chicken was almost a bit dry – not injected, Lil Sis remarked. The lamb rojanjosh was really good and the meat perfectly cooked.

Legend, Asian Legend
5186 Yonge Street, Toronto
Website / Yelp

I had a dim sum place in Scaroborough in mind, one mum had turned up from watching Trendy Zone and I “confirmed” with my research. We would go there if only the three of us went, because my Toronto uncle has his own favourites and I’d rather he be happy even though he is always open to our suggestions. We meet at Legend in Thornhill but it wasn’t open due to having a burst pipe! So we drive down Yonge to go to another standby for our family, Asian Legend.

I get shy away from photographing food around my elders so I’ll simply list what we ordered – the usual but goodies: two baskets of pork soup dumplings, sticky rice roll with egg and pork floss, onion pancake coated in egg, beef noodle soup, Shanghai rice cakes with pork and picked cabbage, Fujian fried rice, and mushu pork. We had a new addition to our lunch and there was a good balance of elders (3) to kids (4). It was a delicious and good time.

Marathon Cafe
155 East Beaver Creek Road, Richmond Hiill
Yelp

On recommendation from Trendy Zone, we tried Marathon Coffee & Donuts where you don’t order coffee or tea, haha. They are known for their award winning Hong Kong style milk tea. The Richmond Hill location we went to is the newer and presumably more spacious location and is simply called Marathon Cafe.

You order at the counter from menus hung on the walls and we started with two milk teas and a HOng Kong style French toast that comes with a milk tea. Mum considered this place to be a real traditional Hong Kong Style cafe (no fancy desserts, no muss and fuss) and was fascinated with the place and menu. She proceeded to order a pineapple bun and steamed rice rolls for take out.

I watched intently as they prepared our tea just behind the cashier counter. First, he poured in light brown evaporated milk (I learned later the brand is Dai Pai Dong) then added tea from a thermos then more evaporated milk. The tea is so rich and smooth, unlike any other I’ve had.

When I was in Halifax, I wheedled mum to make Hong Kong style French toast that is deep-fried. In a serious of questionable cooking/ingredient decisions, it didn’t taste right to me. This French toast was the way I wanted mum to make them, two slices of buttered white bread lightly coated in egg and deep fried, a small part of butter and served with this syrup that wasn’t maple. Maybe it was maltose. It didn’t have the consistency of normal maple or imitation maple syrup.

Ten Ren’s Tea
111 Times Avenue, Thornhill
Website / Yelp

Originally I had planned to have dinner at a dumpling place but after our lunch of Northern Chinese cuisine, the idea didn’t sound so palatable. Mum has spied Ten Ren’s from the highway many times and it was recommended in a Globe article I just read so I was game.

Mum chose to have the five-course rice combo which pleased me greatly. She chose steamed rice, wonton in tea-flavoured soup, osthamus steamed fish, Alluring Jasmine  tofu and matcha litchee pudding. There were exactly three wontons for us to share. The steamed fish was steamed on some pressed spongy tofu and mum marveled how delicate the flavors and dishes were. The tofu dish was very silky and even though black beans were used, it wasn’t salty. Dessert was served in a shot glass sized glass with matcha whipped cream topping the litchee flavored pudding that had the consistency of jello.

Other than tea and tea concoctions, a lot of the food was flavored with tea. Lil Sis ordered milk genmaicha and noodles in a tea flavor pork sauce. Her tea was good with palpable nutty rice flavor. I think I could taste the tea flavour in her noodles after it was all tossed together and we certainly could identify and pick out the tea leaves. Mum nabbed the marinated egg the dish was served with.

I ordered a watermelon ti kuan yin tea with aloe jelly and creamy chicken soup noodle with chicken nuggets. My tea was what was described in the Globe article and the aloe jelly was so real, like bite size pieces of fruit. I wanted to introduce mum to Taiwanese “soo guy” since she serves the Canadianized Chinese version in her restaurant but it wasn’t the best and needed to be saved by dunking in soup. I love a pork and pickled cabbage noodle soup and this one was “creamy” (from cornstarch?) and also mushroom flavoured. For the noodle dishes, al dente hand-pulled noodles were not used and that’s okay because I didn’t mind at all the thick rice noodles.

Ten Ren’s tea company has been around for 29 years and Ten Ren’s shops have been around for at least 15 years. It’s taken a while to get around to having a meal there since I never knew it had such an extensive tea and food menu. Mum was impressed with the “new style of restaurant”, the service and level of professionalism. It was a great way to cap off the trip!

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