Sunday, April 27, 2014

Croissant Crawl - King / Queen West

In the past couple of years, there has been an explosion of bakeries within a 15 min walk from my home. There is now a particular concentration of French and Italian bakeries. So on the first spring-like sunny Sunday morning, what better way to spend breakfast than a croissant crawl?

For the taste test, I picked 5 French bakeries in my neighbourhood to compare:
  • Brioche Dorée
  • Wagamama
  • Delysée
  • Clafouti
  • Nadège Patisserie
Brioche Dorée ($2.10 / croissant)
I went in Brioche Dorée thinking I would not like it; I generally doubt the quality of baked goods from a chain store.

I was greeted by an airy casual space filled with baked goods, including bread, pastries, sandwiches, quiches and flans. This immediately made me happy.

The croissant was still slightly warm when I got it. It was flaky but well structured, with a crunch on the outside when I halved it. It had good amount of butter taste, and a slightly sweet buttery after-taste. My only complaint is that the layers are not even, with a large air pocket in the middle. Maybe the dough did not get rolled properly?

Brioche Dorée croissant

Brioche Dorée croissant - Warm, good crunch, mysterious air pocket in the middle.
Brioche Dorée croissant - Warm, good crunch, mysterious air pocket in the middle.

Wagamama ($2.00 / croissant)

Wagamama has been my default go-to neighbourhood coffee shop since it opened almost 10 years ago. Their pumpkin muffin, apple crumble muffin, scones and croissant have been a staple in my breakfast.

Wagamama has a homey, relaxed decor. It is a perfect spot for a chill break to enjoy a croissant, a tea and read some newspaper the old fashioned way.

The croissant at Wagamama has a crunchy shell, and flaky layers with little air pockets evenly distributed throughout. The crust was sturdy enough that it held its shape even when I bit into it. There was a slight saltiness that helped to balance the sweet butter taste.

Wagamama croissant

Wagamama croissant - Rich, even layers.
Wagamama croissant - Rich, even layers.

Delysée ($2.75 / croissant)

Delysée is a newcomer to the King West neighbourhood. Its minimal all-white decor gives it a touch of modern upscale French elegance, echoing the delicate macarons they are famous for.

Delysée's croissant almost fell apart when I picked it up from the plate. It was limp, like it got too much steam. Once I halved the croissant, I figured out why - The inside showed some uneven layering with large air pockets in between. The butter taste was more delicate on the palette.  It reminded me of sweet egg bread.

Delysée croissant

Delysée croissant - Flimsy, sweet.
Delysée croissant - Flimsy, sweet.

Calfouti ($1.85 / croissant)

Clafouti has been a staple in the neighbourhood. It is very popular, and they often sell out of items before noon on the weekend. The decor is rustic, like a little French country shop. There are some tables for eat it, but I prefer to enjoy my Clafouti's baked goods sitting on a bench or at a picnic table in Trinity Bellwoods Park across the street.

The croissant is in a large circular shape, not the more common "bull's horn" shape.  The sweet buttery taste has a good salty balance. There was good crunch on the outer shell. The texture is more on the bready, dense side, a bit too chewy for what I want to get from a croissant. (It actually took some force to split it apart for the photo.) It was probably the most filling of all croissants of the day.

Clafouti croissant

Clafouti croissant - Bready, chewy
Clafouti croissant - Bready, chewy.

Nadège ($2.20 / croissant)

Nadège and Delysée have similar all-white modern decor. Maybe because it was more crowded at Nadèges when I arrived, it felt a bit more casual. Nadège also has the advantage of having its patio face a side street across from Trinity Bellwood Park for the soon-to-come sunny warm days.

The croissant at Nadèges had very thick "layers".  It felt like a number of layers got stuck together with large air pockets in between. The result was like eating a piece of unstructured chewy bread.  It was a disappointing end to the croissant crawl.

Nadège croissant

Nadège croissant - uneven, thick layers.
Nadège croissant - Uneven, thick layers.


Lucky for me (and unlucky for my waistline), my top croissant pick is just steps away from my home. The croissant at Wagamama has all the checkmarks in my croissant wish list. And being an independent bakery café with friendly owner and staff is a bonus.

Walking around a neighbourhood to taste croissant and people watch is a great way to enjoy a lazy Sunday morning.  I already have Croissant Crawl - Bayview / Mt Pleasant edition in the plan, and there are probably more other crawls to come.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Down, under, out, back

My impulse purchase of 2012 is a trip to the Australia outback during Christmas/New Year break. It is a long trip to make for a relatively short stay, spending a almost 3 days in totally flying to and from destinations to have 15 days on land. All for a little surprise to my partner who is spending a year travelling around the world.

The highlight of the trip is a 5-day camping trip in the outback. On Christmas Day, after spending a day in the Ayers Rock Resort in Yalara admiring Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) and Katajuta (aka the Olgas) from afar, a rugged 4x4 truck (Bindi) complete with a trailer rolled into the parking lot to pick us up for the trip. We met Bec, our guide, and the other 12 people in our 14-person tour. The tour we joined was the Wayoutback 5-day Kangaroo Dreaming tour. The itinerary is well planned, containing a variety of activities and locations to give a taste of the outback.

Each day has a feature activity / hike, amongst the essentials of eating, travelling, showering and sleeping. We get to walk around the base of Uluru, admiring the rock from different angles, including the sacred aboriginal sites. We get to hike amongst the valleys in the Olgas. We get to walk up to and around the rim of King's Canyon. We get to scramble across the boulders in the Glen Helen Gorge accompanied by some wallabies and followed by a swim. We get to spend time with Loi, a knowledgeable aboriginal woman who told us about some history and showed us some landscape. And of course we had some bumpy 4x4 drives on loose gravel and dirt surfaces.

Breathtaking redness of Kings Canyon during sunset

Chilling at Glen Helen Gorge after a long bumpy drive

As for the camping, we also had the opportunity to try different styles. From having pre-built tents and bed on a campground to bush camping sleeping in a swag, we got to truly enjoy the overview of what the outback has to offer.

There are some excellent detailed review of similar Wayoutback trips online already, so I won't go into too much detail.  You can see what fellow Canadian WestCoastGirl and The Fourteen Month Weekend have to say about the trip.

Last but not least, the food. Bec is a good cook with years of campfire cooking experience. Within the confines of the food provided by the tour operator (and some supplements out of her own pocket), she tried to vary our meals. Lunches are mostly simple sandwiches (served Aussie style with beet root), although we did have BBQ and bacon and eggs on 2 of the days. Dinner has a larger variety - meat stews, steaks, even turkey with gravy on Christmas Day (complete with Christmas crackers and chocolate), baked zucchini with feta and chocolate cake (with sprinkles!) for an early celebration of her birthday.  We had our fair share of discussions about new possibilities she can try.
Our luxury Christmas dinner - turkey with gravy, roasted vegetables, dessert bread.  Complete with Christmas crackers and chocolates on the table.

During a conversation on the trip, Bec reminded me of a very important philosophy in life.

It's the small things that count.

Here are some of the small things (in no particular order) that counted during my 5 days on the tour:
- Playing 'Hey Cow' with Bec on the road
- Looking at the full moon and stars lying in the swag at night

- Waking up to the "bacon and eggs" song
- Having people around who care enough to scour for ice for my sprained ankle (which is also when the "small thing" conversation happened)
- Sitting on the open-air toilet looking at the moon
- Having philosophical discussions about politics (e.g. South Africa apartheid) and life (e.g. not delaying decisions) with Pat, an older well-travelled gentleman on the tour
- Listening to Bec's funny travel stories

- Chatting with everyone over some Curtin Springs Fucking Good Port

- Everyone showing up fresh & clean for dinner after returning to Alice Springs

It is unlikely I will return to the outback soon. I will keep the memories alive with all the photos, videos and the classic Aussie songs I will add to my playlist.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Game for game?

As part of my birthday present from almost 3 months ago, I got a choice of a cooking class to attend.  I discover the wide range of cooking classes available in Toronto, ranging from the very affordable TDSB ones, to fairly technical skills oriented ones like the knife skills course offered by The Good Egg, to those with alterier motives such as the various cupid cooking classes.
Not wanting to commit to a series of classes or spending lots of money, I eventually landed on a cooking class at The Market Kitchen at St Lawrence Market that focused on game meat.

I have never been to The Market Kitchen prior. It is set up more as an event space with an open kitchen than a cooking class. It lacks some basic things like mirror over the range for students to see clearly how the cooking progresses, and multiple stations for hands on practice.  Rather than a cooking class, I would consider it more an interactive dinner with cooking demonstration.

The Market Kitchen, St Lawrence Market

The whole evening was quite enjoyable. Our chef was Andrew Chase. He was casual and friendly, although at times seemed a bit frazzled. To keep him organized was our host (whom I forgot to ask for her name), who was very thoughtful. Aside from ensuring the chef had everything he needed, she also made sure the students were able to see all the ingredients up close by walking the containers through the group, and plated several demo dishes for photo opps. The sous chef and kitchen staff are also impeccable, helping the chef with the preparation and serving the food to all students. There was a selection of coffee, sparkling water, and water available throughout the night.

Chef Andrew Chase & staff, The Market Kitchen, St Lawrence Market

What about the food itself? It is a rare experience to be able to try so many different game meat prepared in different styles. During the evening, we get to taste 6 differ game meat.
- Ostrich [sausage]
- Pheasant [sauage]
- Elk [sausage]
- Bison cheeks [stew] with spatzel
- Venison [meatloaf] with buttermilk mashed potatoes
- Camel [stir fry]

Chef Andrew was knowledgeable about techniques in cooking game, and also told interesting stories about the history of the cooking methods.

Most of the game meat is not too "gamey" in taste, but more like lean beef with a rich intense taste. (No, contrary to populat belief, not everything tastes like chicken.) My favourite is the bison cheek stew, with strong wine flavour resulting from the meat being marinated for 5 days. The texture of the bison cheek is not as soft as braised beef cheeks; both has its own character. Spatzel is a simple noodle from the German / Austrian / Swiss area. It is surprisingly fast & easy to make from scratch. Dressed with a butter sauce, it is a good accompaniment to the stew.

bison cheek stew with spatzel

We made the venison meatloaf in small groups and each person took a small tray home to bake on our own.  The recipe does not bind as well as the type of meatloaf I like, so it looks a bit like a loose shepherd's pie. The combination of salted pork rind and venison gave the dish a very rich flavour; definitely a winner for a casual cold winter's night dinner in.

venison meatloaf with buttermilk mashed potatoes

venison meatloaf

The question many people, including myself, with the menu is  ... How does camel taste? As the chef describes, camel meat is like dark Italian veal, with a more gamey taste.

marinated camel meat

The camel was stir fried in the traditional northern Chinese style, with a slightly vinegary sauce. This treatment made the dish rather light to the stomach.

sweet-as-honey stir fry camel

Sidenote: The dish is called 它賽蜜 in Chinese, meaning "it competes with honey". It seems a strange fit as the dish is not sweet in nature. Regardless, it is supposed to help with blood circulation, making it very suitable for keeping warm in the winter.
Game meat is generally more expensive than the staple beef and pork, so it is not likely to become part of my regular diet. It does make for good conversation during special dinner parties, not to mention its leanness that supposedly is healthier (excluding the load of fat that needs to be added during the cooking process).

game dishes

For those looking to try some game meat, you can find them at Whitehouse Meat at St Lawrence Market. They provided the game meat for the class. The owner Leila sat in on the class, and looked rather pleased with the creation that night.

A memorable evening for sure!

Friday, January 6, 2012

2011 in Review - Significant Foodie Moments

2011 has been a very busy year, both at work and in my personal life.  While I have not had time to write about my foodie adventures, I was still able to savour some significant foodie moments.  I even managed to lose a few food virginity this year!

White Truffle
What is more perfect than a piggy being born in truffle season? White truffles arrived just in time for my birthday dinner at Auberge du Pommier
white truffle

Cuy (aka Guinea Pig) 
A major event for me in 2011 was travelling in Peru for 3.5 weeks.  It has been my long time dream to try guinea pig (or as they are called in Peru, cuy).  I stumbled upon a celebration in Cuzco where indigenous Quechua women were selling traditionally stone roasted cuy.  Mmm ... The other white meat ...
guinea pig - cuy

Another commonly seen animal in Peru is Alpaca.  Not only do they provide wool, they make a tasty meal too!  And no, they don't taste like chicken.  (More like lamb.)

Being someone who likes my seafood raw whenever possible, I have prepared ceviche on my own many times.  However, it is no comparison to the ceviche at Cevicheria el Fayke Piurano in Lima.

The first major confusion upon arriving in Peru is thinking of menu as a menu - a book listing out dishes that a restaurant serve.  Menu (or cena for dinner) is actually a set meal, usually with an appetizer or soup, a main dish, and either a juice for lunch or dessert and sweet tea for dinner.  Unlike the gourmet prix fixe counterpart in North America, these meals are cheap, fast, and most of the time quite tasty.

Coincidentally, 2011 is the first year I have heard of scrapple (thanks to Food Network), and the first year I ate scrapple at Lancers Diner in Horsham, PA.  Mmm ... The other grey meat ... 

Wish everyone a bountiful & delicious 2012!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Learnings from a run-of-the-mill shopping trip

I went to get some bike accessories and groceries today after work.  Sounds like a fairly typical Friday evening so far.  I'm not sure if I got particularly reflective today, but a few incidents made me think about a few life's little principles.

Best advice is useless if it does not fit the context
I went to MEC to get some bike accessories.  While I had the attention of the very helpful and knowledgeable staff, I asked him for some advice on bike locks.  He went into great length explaining and demonstrating the proper way to lock my bike, which involves taking off my quick release front wheel.  I told him it may not be always practical to take off and put on the wheel.  Somehow, the idea of not wanting to go to drinks with dirt on light colored clothing or go to dinner with dirt in my finger nails seems foreign to him.  After 5 minutes of circular discussion, this nice MEC staff still refused to tell me any other "not the best" options, or at least explain the pros & cons of the various options. 

Best option is usually just around the corner
While I was at the Chinese grocery store, I wanted to get some noodles.  I cruised up & down the noodles aisle, noodling over which noodle to get.  I wanted to get something I have not tried before and packaged in a compact way that won't get crushed in my bag while I biked.  After what felt like eternity, I finally gave up and decided to check out.  Just as I exit the aisle, a stack of boxes caught my eye.  There they are!  Medium wide egg noodles in a tight non-easily crushable bag!  And they were on sale!

Law of diminishing satisfaction
As I went through the checkout line, I heard this escalating noise of 2 people arguing.  It turns out an old man and a cashier was in a screaming match.  The dialogue was in mandarin and went pretty fast, so I could not catch much of the content.  It seemed to be about some kiwi fruit - either the old man got charged more than he should, or the cashier forgot to pack the kiwis in his bag.  Every time the old man looked like he was walking away, he would turn around and yelled more at the cashier, or the cashier would start to yell at him, both in escalating screams.  Walking out of the grocery store, I can't stop thinking how more screaming can provide more satisfaction either way.

And on my way I went to get some freshly made bahn bao ... no drama there - just drooling over the dessert counter while I lined up at the cash ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

El Paso & Surrounding Areas on A Tank of Gas

I was recently in El Paso cheering a few friends in their bowling tournament. Of course it would be a waste to fly that distance without some sightseeing.

This is the story of how my rental Toyota Corolla used up its 1 tank of gas. 

I stayed at the Holiday Inn near the airport, on the east side of downtown. The hotel was quite old, and the swimming pool is an odd configuration of half indoors & half outdoors. It does have a courtyard that is good for chillaxing at night when there is no blazing hot sun shining down.

El Paso is not that big, probably a 20-min drive to pretty much everywhere. I would highly recommend having a car as it is definitely a low density sprawl type city. There are several places to eat and a club within walking distance of the hotel.  One of the places is Jaxon's Restaurant and Brewing Company - They don't offer beer flights so I was only able to try out their Borderland Lager and Cactus Jack Amber Ale.  I wouldn't say it's exceptionally good, but it is refreshing to have some microbrew while out in the boonies.
Mexican Lager
Amber Ale
First stop was downtown. There is a free city hall parking right next to the convention center and various museums. The signage is very confusing as it says free city hall parking after 6pm on weeknights and all day on weekends. But it also says parking for Insights Museum only. In any case, I parked there on Fri night and Sat all day with no problem. Street parking is generally free on Sundays and holidays. If you cannot stand heat, I would highly recommend spending the $3-5 for indoor parking at the convention center or across the street in the parkade.

If you are the cultural type, there are 3 museums right next to each other. Mind you they are not the scale of any museums in major cities, but can't beat free general admission either.  A group of us toured the El Paso Museum of Art one afternoon.  They have an eclectic collection of classical and modern art.

Of all the exhibits, I actually found something in the gift shop the most intriguing - a bracelet made with twist ties!  How ingenious!  

For the shopping type, there is the Golden Horseshoe extending from the convention center to the border with Juarez, Mexico. If you are on the hunt for cheap socks and underwear, football [soccer] jerseys, brand name sneakers and women's clothing that is way too tight for anyone who eats more than 500 calories a day, you will find yourself in paradise here!

For the rest of us, this Mexican "Magnificent Mile" is an amusing way to sweat off at least 10lb. I did manage to gain some pounds back from the yummy pistachio paleta I got from a "street vendor" - i.e. a woman with a rolling cooler standing on the side of the street. True Mexican spirit!

[BTW, from all the research I have done and people I have talked to, there is no real reason to go shopping in Juarez ... Your life is worth a lot more than some cheap merchandise!] 

The majority of the tank of gas was spent on a road trip to the White Sands National Monument. The trip is about an hour and a half from El Paso. I would recommend starting early, and stopping by the Little Diner on the way for brunch. According to the advertising in tourist books, George W Bush has eaten here; I didn't know he's considered a gourmet? For those who have time, there is also a relatively large outlet mall at the same exit.  After this section, there are not many selection for decent food on the deserted highway.

As I started late on the trip, I drove directly to White Sands. I also bypassed White Sands Missile Range Museum on the way. This is the site where the atomic bomb used in World War 2 was tested, so it should be a good stop for military buffs. I did stop on the way of the scenic drive to take in the landscape a bit.

White Sands is a very unique place. It almost look like a snow covered ground in the middle of a desert. The whole place is blindingly bright thanks to the reflection of the sun by the sand. Seeing such vast coverage of white sand, and without being by an ocean, is a strange feeling. It feels lonely, like a companion is missing.

On the way back, I took a detour to Mesilla in New Mexico. It is a quaint old town square with a church and some shops in old Southwestern style buildings. I only had time for a whirlwind walk-around and to pick up some locally produced pistachio as gift for my friends back home.

Continuing down NM-28S, the drive suddenly turned into a lush green path through the Stahmanns pecan farms. It is such contrast to the White Sands scenery that I just visited hours ago.

I was not able to bring some pecans back, as they are only available in either fresh form that requires refrigeration, or candied forms that will melt in the car within a minute.

I took Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road back to El Paso. This route passes through the Franklin Mountains State Park. I like the feeling of driving through a mountain pass - climbing in between the rocks, then the sight opening to a vast space. In this case, the sight opened to El Paso and extending into Juarez, Mexico.

I drove to the Wyler Aerial Tramway hoping to get a view of El Paso from the mountain. The drive up to the base station was very steep - I had to drive in first gear of the Corolla to get enough power for the incline. Unfortunately the tram was closed by the time I got there. For those planning to follow this itinerary and want to be a bit more leisurely, I would recommend reversing the route and start with the cable cars. I took in the city view from the base station before heading to some dinner.

After all the sightseeing, I was thirsty at this point. I stopped by Flautas y Paleteria Tepalca, an unassuming restaurant in what seems to be suburbia strip mall. This place sells a large selection of agua fresca (Mexican fruit juices) and paletas (Mexican popsicles). I have not had these many agua fresca flavors to select from since working in Los Angeles years ago - it took me almost 5 minutes to look through all the choices and decided on a mango one in a gianormous styrofoam cup. While sipping the refreshing juice, I checked out their wide paleta selection, wishing for a place like this in Toronto some day.

Last stop of the day is the famous Cattlemen's Steakhouse in Fabens, about half hour Southeast of El Paso. I got there in time for sunset, which is an amazing view, even though it was a cloudy day.

The restaurant is part of a ranch, with live animals around. Aside from the usual suspects like dogs and horses, I got a glimpse of a peacock on the roof of one of the buildings. And while having dinner, a pack of coyotes also showed up to eat some of the fresh meat left outside for them. It was a rare treat having dinner with coyotes indeed!

And the food? My 12oz ribeye was aged to perfection - juicy and buttery without being too fatty! The baked bean side dish has just the right hint of smokiness, although a bit on the sweet side.

The evening concluded with the night view at the hotel and some desperately needed rest after a long day of driving.

Of course, my El Paso trip had to conclude with more food! On the way to the airport, I made a pit stop at a local favorite Chico's Taco. Chico's has a very limited menu. Their El Paso style tacos are more like taquitos with beef filling served in tomato soup then topped with shredded cheese and green chili salsa. It may sound odd, but the tacos were quite tasty in its own way. They also serve "round" hot dog, with a halved sausage in a hamburger bun. I couldn't take more food after 3 tacos, but it did look tasty.

The gas tank warning light came on, so it's time to fill up the tank, return the car, and say adiós!