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Toronto the Good

July 19, 2010 · 58 comments

My next day in Toronto was overwhelming in friendliness.

For starters, I had two lovely friends N&S drive in from Bracebridge to catch up over lunch. Following direction from Mardi and Neil, we headed down to Butler’s Pantry on Roncesvalles Avenue. Whilst standing outside perusing the menu on the window, a girl burst out the front door to greet us – why of course, it’s my friend N from Perth who is now living in Toronto and for whatever reason just happened to be having lunch in the exact same place we were now planning to eat! All those musical Japanese trinkets are true – it is a small world after all.

N and I had actually already planned to meet up for lunch the next day, so after saying “this is so weird” one last time, we bid each other adieu and N&S and I went in to continue our menu perusal. It is a really interesting one, covering many cuisines, from Korean Bul go gi to Egytpian Kosharee to Greek Moussaka. This usually starts alarm bells ringing, as it seems unlikely that a restaurant will be able to deliver a good rendition of so many types of cuisine, but in the friendly theme of the day we trusted in Mardi and Neil’s recommendation and had faith that a good meal awaited us.

Chicken Pastilla (or possibly the pie), Jambalaya and Khowsway from Butler's Pantry

S chose the Khowsway (“Our version of the famous Burmese dish. Chicken pieces cooked in a coconut milk sauce, mildly spiced served on a bed of egg noodles and garnished with chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumber and coriander $9.25),  I chose the Jambalaya (“Our version of the classic Cajun dish. Spicy tomato rice with chicken, zucchini, carrots, leaks, mushrooms and onions $10.25″) and N chose the Chicken Bastilla Pie (“This famous Moroccan dish is a chicken pie with onions, mushrooms, eggs and cinnamon-scented almonds, wrapped in many layers of buttery filo pastry $11.95″) – or at least I think he did.. it was either that or the Chicken Vegetable Pie. Some sort of chicken and pastry delight, anyway!

Copying these descriptions out, I notice that the descriptions in the menu often start with “Our version of…” which is a nice little disclaimer to have up your sleeve when covering so many cuisines. Disclaimer or no, we all enjoyed our dishes, as well as the friendly service, and thought that the servings were quite generous for the prices.

All too soon I was saying goodbye to N&S and heading off to my next friendly encounter of the day – joining Mardi and her band of merry (little) men for the final exciting instalment for the year of her after-school cooking club Les Petits Chefs. After following Mardi’s adventures with Les Petits Chefs since the start of the year, I was looking forward to meeting the owners of the little hands and witnessing their chopping and squishing prowess.

I don't know about you, but my chem labs in school were sorely lacking in cheese and mushrooms

This particular episode of Les Petits Chefs was all about mushrooms. Mushrooms can be a hard sell to children – I know that I certainly wasn’t keen on them when I was little, particularly after smelling cans of those tinned mushrooms cooking on the stove for my Dad’s Sunday dinner, possibly served with steak and lamb’s fry. To get past this, Mardi used the good old technique of combining them with pizza, which had the added bonus of teaching the boys that the best pizza is one that you make yourself.

The boys certainly didn’t disappoint with their chopping, squishing and stirring skills, and they turned out some pretty fine pizzas. Little boys certainly love their cheese, but now I think there are a few little boys who also love their mushrooms.

You can read Mardi’s post about this on The Mushroom Channel.

Squishing the tomatoes for the pizza sauce

These boys would love the cheese overload of Santa Fe, methinks

I had to step away from the tomato squishing the cheese piling process at one stage when my phone rang. Continuing on the day’s theme, it was a friendly policeman on the phone to inform me that my stolen car had just been found! With a not-so-friendly man driving it!

(It later came to light that the not-so-friendly man was also a smoker and Coke drinker, judging from what he left in my car, in addition to not being much of a tennis player given that he left my racquet in the boot despite having taken everything else. The combination of drinking too much Coke and not playing tennis meant that when he didn’t leave particularly dainty dents when he walked over the roof and bonnet of my car, causing it to be written off. RIP Cerato.)

After packing up the pizzas for the boys to take home, or perhaps eat in the car on the way there, it was time for Mardi and I to head to Guu Izakaya where we were meeting Andrea of High/Low Food/Drink (whom I shared a New York foodie exchange with back in February). Thanks to Andrea having spoken to the manager beforehand, we were welcome to arrive before the scheduled opening time and take photos of the restaurant interior. It was just as well that she had organised this, as things quickly got pretty hectic in there once it opened.

Guu opened up around 6 months ago to much fanfare, from what I have heard, and it was not uncommon for people to be lining up outside for hours to get a table – in a Toronto winter, no less. Due to the typical long waiting periods for a table, Guu place a two hour limit on each party. Andrea’s sweet talking with the manager also resulted in this being waived for us however, which was just as well given the amount of photography going on at our table.

Guu Izakaya

The interior of the restaurant was really warm, and although a little busy with Japanese decorations it was also really neat and sleek. I really liked it. We decided to head out to one of the outside tables however, given our natural foodbloggers’ attraction to natural light and the fact that we could foresee it getting quite noisy inside.

After a quick look through the drinks list we decided to start with a Berry Sakegria ($6.80) for Andrea, and vodka and soda with lemon and grapefruit for myself and Mardi respectively ($5.50 each). Andrea reported that her sakegria tasted much like a good sangria, but that addition of black peppercorns in it was a bit of a surprise. I really loved how my and Mardi’s drinks were presented, with big juicy fruit halves ready to be squeezed at our tables. The fresh lemon gave my drink a great tang and I wish more places used this technique.

DIY drinks - not for those with papercuts

The hard part now stood before us – choosing what food to order. We thought the best way around this would be to just seemingly order almost everything.

KAKUNI - sweet miso braised pork belly with boiled egg ($6.50); EBIMAYO - deep fried prawn in crispy batter with spicy mayo ($7.80); KAKIMAYO - grilled oysters with spinach, garlic mayo and cheese on the top ($6.80) and sweet potato yam fries with honey mayo ($5)

The pork belly was very tasty, but my aversion to chunks o’ fat, however tasty (I know, sacrilege), meant this wasn’t one of my favourite dishes. The prawns were crisp and busty and although not terribly innovative, it was a good dish cooked well and we all enjoyed it. The grilled oysters were absolutely delicious, and I was glad that Andrea and I didn’t have to share our morsels with non-oyster-eating Mardi. They were huge and juicy and covered in cheesy goodness. I do declare my cheese aversion to be officially over! Sweet potato fries are always a hit, and these were no exception. There isn’t enough sweet potato fry action going down in Perth.

KABOCHA KAROKKE - deep fried kabocha pumpkin croquette with a boiled egg inside ($4.50); TOFU SALAD - tofu and garlid sauteed mushrooms on greens with crispy wonton chips ($5.80); TAKOYAKI - deep fried puffed octopus balls served with tonkatsu sauce and mustard mayo ($5.00)

The mayo love continued, with the croquette that we all really enjoyed, to our surprise. There is something curiously gigglish about finding a whole egg inside something. The tofu salad was a nice break from the fried deliciousness, and we were glad we took the advice of our waitress who told us with some concern that we needed to include a salad dish with our order. The takoyaki was good – not the best I’ve had but certainly very good and such lovely presentation too. I’ll never tire of seeing those little bonito flakes flapping in the breeze.

KINOKO CHEESE BIBIMBAP - rice, sauteed garlic mushrooms and cheese with seaweed sauce ($8.30); and SALMON NATTO YUKKE - chopped salmon sashimi with seven friends (natto, shibazuke, takuan, wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion and raw egg yolk) ($8.30) being stirred up by our friendly waitress

The bibimbap was definitely a favourite dish. Not only was there the entertainment value of having it stirred up for us at the table, it was like a cross between a delicious cheesy mushroom risotto and a paella with the hot stone it was served in creating a fabulous crust on the bottom.

After reading the description of the salmon natto yukke, we couldn’t help but order it – salmon sashimi with seven friends! I told you this was a friendly day. This was another cool one to have brought to the table, as the waitress forced the group of friends to become very well acquainted with each other. To be honest, the end texture was a little offputting – no surprises really given the inclusion of natto and a raw egg yolk – but this was mostly offset with the nori sheets you ate it with. An interesting dish, but not sure I want to join this group of friends long term.

Mardi and the Giant Beer

Given the amount of food we were eating, it was soon time for another round of drinks. Andrea chose the “Bamboo” cocktail of melon liqueur, white wine, lychee juice and soda ($5.50), I went for an Asahi beer, and Mardi chose a “big mug” of Sapporo ($9.00). The Sapporo lived up to it’s name, being not the tall elegant glass she was anticipating but rather a giant mug as big as her head. Possibly bigger. She did not finish the beast. Clearly she has been out of Australia far too long.

BANANA TEMPURA - deep fried banana tempura with coconut ice cream dressed with chocolate and mango sauce ($5.80); ALMOND TOFU - ultra creamy almond tofu in the world ($3.50); and some frozen grapes that came out with the bill

After a little breather, we couldn’t help but order the banana tempura and almond tofu for dessert. I mean, “ultra creamy almond tofu in the world” is a hard thing to resist. In the world! The banana tempura was an incredible as it looks. Seriously good. I’m not much of an almond lover – I like the nuts well enough, but anything almond flavoured turns me off – and sadly the almond tofu didn’t do it for me due to this. It was pretty ultra creamy though. Ultra creamy in the world.

Some frozen grapes came out with our bill, which we all thought was a nice touch and a refreshing end to a few hours of overindulgence.

Overall, I really enjoyed my Guu experience. The food was interesting, tasty and well presented, with many options to choose from. The decor was really inviting and clearly had been well thought out. The service was also excellent, including the traditional “irasshaimase!” welcome yelled by all the staff to everyone who entered the restaurant, and another restaurant-wide goodbye as you leave.

The head waitress yelling that we are leaving, and the kitchen staff all waving us goodbye!

The real highlight of the meal however was the fabulous company I got to enjoy it with. It was so lovely to meet Andrea, and such great timing that she was visiting from New York while I was in town. Mardi – thanks again for you and Neil (and little Cleo too) being the perfect hosts for my trip to Toronto, and I hope not too much time must pass before our paths cross again. Isn’t it great when you meet people who you can instantly have fun with?

You can read Andrea’s account of the meal here, and Mardi’s here.

Andrea, me and Mardi with bellies very full

The friendliness of Toronto continued on the next day when I was approached by a man at the bus stop near Mardi and Neil’s house, saying that he noticed me with my suitcases and wondered if I wanted to get a lift with him to the airport, as he was heading there anyway. Luckily I didn’t have to make a decision about whether or not to trust this seemingly very friendly man as I was stopping off in the city to have lunch with N (she of the weirdly coincidental meeting at Butler’s Pantry) but I would like to think he didn’t have any murderous plans behind his kind offer.

Toronto, I like you. We should do this again some time.