What happens when I eat too much
For the past two days, I’ve been hanging out in Los Angeles. Officially, I’m here for the Western Political Science Association Conference (WPSA). Unofficially, I’m here hanging out with a good friend from my London days who, like me, loves food and is always up for a good eating adventure. Her partner also loves food. Together, we’ve been eating really well. I might blog about it later. For now, suffice it to say, after a fantastic meal eating chicken drumettes with polenta and fried apple skin (sounds weird but the flavour combination was spot-on), pozole and ‘smac and cheese’ at Nickel Diner in downtown LA, I look like the kitty above. Good times, good times.
Me before lunch
This rings more true than I care to admit.
Me and MOTL: Our Story Told Through Steak
Key milestones of my relationship with MOTL have been celebrated through the consumption of steak. Though MOTL and I enjoy a love of different types of food – ranging from the mundane (grilled cheese sandwiches! Macaroni and cheese! Dumplings!) to the esoteric (I would put Au Pied du Cochon’s Plogue à Champlain in this category) – the dish that defines both of us is nothing more than a thick, juicy slab of rare bone-in rib eye steak. What follows are my impressions of key steakhouses that we have visited, along with a discussion of how each steakhouse has come to embody crucial points of our relationship.
First Date – Barberian’s Steakhouse (Toronto, ON)
MOTL and I were – are – good buddies. We met at the start of grad school and immediately clicked; in the course of our friendship, many an evening have been spent sharing our PhD-related woes and hanging out. On one such evening, the two of us were immersed in a random discussion when MOTL asked me if he could ask me a question. Thinking nothing of it, I said yes. MOTL looked at me so seriously that I thought that something terrible had happened. Instead, he asked me out on a date.
Stunned, I then proceeded to give him the third degree: did he mean he wanted us to go out on a ‘date’-date and not just, like, a beer date? How long did he like me for? MOTL later told me that I looked intense, which made him sweat buckets, but in reality, I was shocked. Though I liked MOTL, I didn’t expect that he would ask me out. Who does that anymore? We’re millennials, not boomers; asking someone out on a date in such a formal manner was akin to asking someone if they want to ‘go steady’. No one does that anymore!
In any case, MOTL answered my questions. After a moment’s silence, I cryptically declared that his feelings were “reciprocated,” but then provided reasons for why we shouldn’t go out, which MOTL systematically refuted. (Yes, I really am a self-saboteur). At that point, MOTL went on business mode. My arguments thus defeated, MOTL then told me that he would book dinner reservations in two days and that if I changed my mind “at any point,” I should let him know.
Taking aside the fact that the evening’s proceedings closely resembled a mergers and acquisitions meeting, I was elated. I spent the next two days obsessing and worrying about our date. Though I really liked MOTL, I wasn’t really convinced that it was a good idea to date a good friend. I need not have fretted. Our first date was perfect, in no small part because Barberian’s was truly excellent. It provided the ideal setting for our first date. One thing I immediately noticed was how Barberian’s was romantic and dimly lit, with mahogany chairs and tables befitting a proper steakhouse. Another thing I noticed was how I felt as though I was transplanted into the early 1960s, back when Don Draper and Roger Sterling were still manly men and were able to carouse with impunity.
As for food, well, we had somewhat forgettable escargots to start. I’ve never really had fantastic escargots; anything fried in garlic and butter is bound to taste good, no? The rib eyes we both ordered were therefore a welcome relief following the mediocrity of the escargots. My only regret was that I ordered the 16 oz steak rather than 24 oz steak in an attempt to be polite. MOTL later told me that he was trying not to gross me out by ordering his steak medium-rare, rather than rare or blue-rare, which is his normal preference. On the basis of the high quality of the meat and the impeccable service, Barberian’s is a solid steakhouse.
First Real Trip Abroad – David Burke’s Primehouse (Chicago, Illinois)
After dating for a few months, MOTL and I headed to Chicago for an academic conference. While MOTL obtained travel funding that allowed him to fly, I instead joined forces with four other colleagues from my department and drove from Toronto to Chicago. Although my car ride was chaotic and is a story best told over beers, our stay in Chicago was great fun. MOTL and I had a lot of great food, from Pizza Uno’s deep-dish pizza to Rick Bayless’s interpretation of Mexican food with my friend DC, who I interned with at the UN many moons ago.
The culinary highlight of the trip, though, was our visit to David Burke’s “Primehouse,” which was a refreshing change from other steakhouses in that the interiors were bright, airy, and modern. It also served the best steak I’ve ever had. Ever. We opted to start with oysters, which were disappointing because they didn’t have the salty texture I associate with oysters; instead, they relied on the addition of cocktail sauce and horse radish for flavor. Thinking that having such a lackluster appetizer did not bode well for the main course, we were not terribly enthused while we were waiting for our steaks. When the steaks finally arrived, we immediately realized how wrong we were. One should never see a restaurant’s appetizers as a harbinger for things to come.
Simply put, our rib eyes were fantastic. It was then that I realized just how much of a difference dry aging meats made because the steaks we had – which were dry-aged for 40 days – had a fullness and robustness of flavor that I have yet to encounter anywhere else. The sheer intensity of the flavor is difficult to describe: I felt like I was really tasting meat for the first time because the texture, the taste, and even the smell worked in combination to make every bite phenomenal. The next time I am in Chicago, I will cough out the dough for the 75-day rib eye. If the 40-day rib eye was explosive, imagine what meat dry-aged for 75 days would taste like?
Engagement – Keen’s Steakhouse (NYC)
I did not expect to get engaged to MOTL when I did. I thought he was the cat’s pajamas but getting engaged to me was a signifier of adulthood and at that point, I did not consider myself grown-up enough to think about the Future and Matrimony. (In some ways, I still don’t). When MOTL and I went to New York, I thought that it was going to be one last hurrah before the school year started. I had just returned from fieldwork and wanted to spend time hanging out in the city before facing the drudgery of teaching.
One day, for fun, I suggested that we see the ‘Gender and Millennium Development Goals’ exhibit being held at the UN headquarters. (Quiet, haters: I know I’m a geek). In the middle of the exhibit, while I was reading about the social benefits of educating girls, MOTL started telling me how much he missed me when I was away. While he was talking, I thought he was going to give me a welcome back present, like a yoga pass or a Starbucks voucher. Instead, MOTL proceeded to talk more about the future and about our relationship. When MOTL knelt down and presented a small blue box, I didn’t know what was happening. “Where is my yoga pass?,” I remember thinking. But then, I clued in. And said yes. Even though I had never considered marriage to anyone, marriage and a lifetime with MOTL made sense.
That evening, we headed to Keen’s Steakhouse for our official engagement dinner. Lauded by Anthony Bourdain as one of the best steakhouses in the city, Keen’s is yet again another classic steakhouse, more similar to Barberian’s than to the Primehouse, although unlike Barberian’s, there were more tables crammed into the room which made it easy to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Also unlike Barberian’s, I felt that the service was perfunctory. That aside, what they called the “King’s Cut” or the ‘rib-eye’, was good. Though it didn’t have the same fullness of flavor that the Primehouse’s rib-eye had, it was still impressive: it was well-seasoned and cooked to a perfect rare.
Anniversary Dinner – Morton’s (Toronto, ON)
Last weekend, MOTL surprised me by driving me to Stratford, ON for the annual Shakespeare festival, where we watched Cymbeline. Then, he surprised me again by taking me to Morton’s for our anniversary dinner.
Despite being a chain, Morton’s is the granddaddy of steakhouses. Its interiors are reminiscent of the atmosphere of a steakhouse set in Prohibition-era Chicago in the 1930s, an impression heightened when considering the art deco font of the menu and the black and white uniforms of the servers. The way the food is presented also evokes notions of 30’s-style pizzazz. For example, the shrimp cocktails are huge and served on a silver bowl with dry ice smoking underneath it and the bread is presented in a big mound alongside a long swirl of butter. Morton’s also used to have a ‘meat cart’ that the servers rolled out to showcase the different types of meat on offer, thereby adding further to the performance, but, as we found out on Saturday, management has since discontinued this practice.
This didn’t matter. If I had to choose the best steak in the city, Morton’s would win hands down. MOTL and I both ordered the bone-in rib eye. You know when you slice into really good meat and your knife smoothly glides through the flesh because the texture is just that smooth and because there isn’t any of the gross gristle that you encounter in substandard meat? (Ahem, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, you are guilty of this infraction). This was the case at Morton’s. The rib eyes were perfect: you could taste the richness and the complexity of the beef, which was of such good quality that the chefs were confident enough to serve it with barely any seasoning. Because a lot of steakhouses disguise the shoddy quality of their meats by over-seasoning the steak, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the steak at Morton’s didn’t need to resort to cheap tricks. If you want steak that tastes like meat in all of its ungarnished glory, go to Morton’s. To top it all off, Morton’s was the only place where the sides didn’t feel like an after thought. Our creamed spinach and horse radish mashed potatoes were good enough to stand on their own.
So there you have it, readers. The trajectory of my relationship with MOTL can best be told through our meals at steakhouses. Though I usually shun public declarations, allow me to say this, in honor of our anniversary: I love MOTL and look forward to a lifetime eating steak with him.
In Praise of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen
There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about Filipino food here in Toronto. There are some who write in blogs that will remain unnamed alleging that Filipino food is the ugly sister of Asian cuisine. (Whoever wrote this is forever on my shit-list. Beyond the obviously misogynous implications of this analogy, how ignorant does a person have to be to make that claim? Does this person not know that there is a wide variety of Filipino food and that making such a broad generalization on the basis of one meal is moronic?). There are those who think that Filipino food is AMAZING, but only when done in the traditional manner. And there are those, such as the proprietors of The Purple Yam restaurant in NYC (http://www.purpleyamny…) who see that the time is right for different, non-traditional interpretations of Filipino food.
The proprietors of Lamesa Filipino Kitchen belong to the latter. The controversy that has emerged from Lamesa primarily concerns its ‘modern’ take on Filipino food. Sadly, most of its detractors have yet to set food in the restaurant. Once they do, they might find themselves pleasantly surprised.
In a nutshell, this was, by far, one of the best restaurants in Toronto. I was impressed that they decided to do away with the trappings of standard Filipino restaurants, such as pictures of the Last Supper and carabao figurines. The interiors were sleek and spacious, with bright white walls and an impressively ornate gold ceiling. The service was exemplary - not too obtrusive but extremely friendly and warm, with each server making sure that clear explanations accompanied each dish.
At Lamesa, you can order a la carte or you can eat from the tasting menu. The menu varies weekly, giving the chef the opportunity to flex his culinary muscles and try different creative dishes.
Tonight, the menu started with an amuse bouche of corn soup with bacon, which was a perfect amalgamation of creamy and salty.
Then there was the halo-halo sisig, which definitely did not have the pork ears that are found in traditional sisigns but still maintained sisig’s essence by providing crunchy pork and a fried egg. Welcome additions were tomatoes and a wonton-like cracker. When combined, this provided great texture. The flavours worked. The lemon that was provided with the dish gave the saltiness a delightfully citrusy taste. My personal preference would have been a little bit more spice.
The mains were great. The beef rib kaldereta was unlike any kaldereta I’ve had at my grandmother’s house. The beef was tender and succulent and so full of flavour; the carrot-pineapple puree that accompanied it complemented the beef, and the bits of potato were great touches. This kaldereta was so good that, at $24 a la carte, it felt like a steal - similar beef ribs served in more expensive, ‘mainstream’ establishments like, say, Canoe do not have the same level of complex flavours.
The pork belly adobo was also good though this felt more like pork liempo rather than the traditional adobo. But hey, who am I to quibble? It was orgasmic. The crunchy skin of the pork was especially scrumptious; the black garlic puree, the ginger, and the sweet garlic that served as accoutrements elevated the dish. My only concern was that towards the end, the crunchy skin lost a bit of its, well, crunch, but it could just be that I was taking my time talking and drinking, rather than getting right to business and eating.
The fourth course was their interpretation of a key lime pie, this time with calamansi. It was fine. MOTL loved it but I don’t have a sweet tooth so I’m not the best judge of these things.
The fifth and last course - the jackfruit creme brulee - was the highlight. The surface was nicely coated with caramelized sugar but what lay underneath was impressive! Langka (jackfruit) made into creme brulee is the work of geniuses! Who would’ve thought that this would work? I devoured mine, only giving MOTL a tiny bite. He had an empanada with plantains, which tasted good, but in my blissful state devouring the jackfruit creme brulee, I barely bothered to pay it any heed.
Additional highlights were the cocktails, which were each roughly 12 bucks each, which meant that this was standard for Queen street. We each got the Lolo and the Lola cocktails, which were yummy (and quite strong)!
For someone who eats in my fair share of restaurants, Lamesa was, by far, one of the best meals I’ve had in Toronto.
Bonjour Brioche, always a good bet
Being a foodie, it took me a full 15 minutes to figure out where to go for brunch today. A Toronto institution, how restaurants do brunch has determined their longevity. Finally, after weighing in key considerations like food quality, variety and cost, MOTL and I decided to venture to Lady Marmalade. Alas, when we got there, there was a ridiculous queue.
Thankfully, Bonjour Brioche was close by. There weren’t people waiting when we arrived, so we got seated instantaneously. (Almost as soon as we got there, though, people from who knows where showed up; there was a mild altercation over a table this annoying couple wearing matching blue wanted to steal from a pair of pregnant ladies with two children. I think the couple wanted to sit in the spot closer to the street so they could people watch but the server very reasonably asked that they relinquish their table so the women can sit with their children.)
The food we got was delectable. We each started with flakey pan au chocolat, which had a satisfyingly sweet (but not too sweet!) chocolatey core reminiscent of the ones I ate in Geneva way back in the day. What I would suggest, though, is that they perhaps watch the pan au chocolat more closely because mine tasted ever-so-slightly burnt.
The highlight, though, was the eggs benny. MOTL got the eggs benny with peameal bacon while I got the one with smoked salmon.
Both were great. That the chef decided to forego the traditional English muffin in favour of a croissant was a brilliant move for this ensured that there was a flakey, buttery, slightly sweet bottom that countered the salty richness of the hollondaise sauce. The eggs were not really poached; they were more soft-boiled, which was again a good move. This ensured that the egg didn’t burst to make the croissant soggy. There were abundant portions of the salmon and the peameal bacon was so sizeable that it felt more like a pork cutlet. This was a welcome surprise because other brunch places serve peameal bacon so thin that you can barely see it.
My only minor quibble was the salad, which could have used more texture through the addition of, say, carrots. I also found the dressing a bit bland. That said, it was the perfect meal to start the day. Sometimes, it is better to go to places that are consistently solid. Who wants to wait for an hour to get seated when you have other things to do during the day (namely, my slides for my next lecture…I never got around to it but that’s a different story, sigh).
Quick Kinton Ramen Update
So MOTL, DJ, and I had dinner at Kinton Ramen the other day because I’ve been thinking about ramen non-stop since Saturday. Unfortunately, it was horrific. I felt duped. The pork belly shiyo ramen that I ordered still had passable broth, but there was only one slab of pork belly rather than two slabs, which was the case the last time I went! MOTL - who, aside from being my one true love (shucks), is perhaps the only one I’ve met so far who notices these things - was frantically swishing his noodles around his bowl looking for the other slab of pork belly, to no avail. Also, the chicken karaage we ordered this time around was cold, dry, doughy, and, well, bland. I suspect that the proprietors have become complacent now that they’ve officially opened and have generated a lot of buzz around the city. This means that the food we ate when we attended the soft opening was not a sign of good things to come.
What a fucking disappointment.
Food cravings: pork belly ramen
One of the most common reasons for my inability to dissertate for extended periods of time lies in my extreme gluttony, which is perhaps reason number 254 why I sometimes fear that I am academic impostor. One of my committee members tells me constantly that academia is a “vocation” and that a sign that being an academic is your “true calling” is the way you live, think, and breath your research. I like my research and derive tremendous intellectual and even emotional fulfillment from it, but do I think about it 24/7? No.
What I do think about 24/7 - what peters at the edge of my consciousness at all hours of the day - is food. This has always been the case for as far back as I can remember. Reading my first diary written at the age of 6 is telling. Beyond mundane observations of daily life as a 6 year old, the bulk of my diary entries as a kid consists of what I ate that day. (Sometimes, some of my entries are amusing in the way they juxtapose major political events with run-of-the-mill events. For example, one entry reads as follows: “I had pork chops and rice for lunch. Mama went to the doctor. Marcos the dictator died.”)
Now, I am stuck at this hipster coffee shop scowling in front of my computer, pretending to be thinking deep thoughts when all I can think about is what I’d like to eat. So what have I been thinking about incessantly today?
Ramen. Specifically, the pork belly ramen at Kinton Ramen, which the founders of Guu recently opened in Toronto. Kinton Ramen isn’t the best ramen I’ve ever tasted. That honor goes to a hole-in-the-way I stumbled upon in Tokyo in 2010. But for Toronto, Kinton Ramen isn’t actually bad, especially compared to the atrocity that is Kenzo Ramen at the Annex or Ajisen Ramen in Chinatown. The shiyo ramen at Kinton was especially noteworthy because of the generous strips of fatty, delectable pork belly included; also, the broth, while a tad bit too thin for my taste (give me fatty broth any day), has a heft and substance that other ramen broths in the city don’t have. The noodles were also clearly homemade, which I appreciated. The soft-boiled egg gives the ramen a nice touch.
Now all of the typed words in front of me are beginning to resemble the curly edges of the ramen noodles. How do I work through my gluttony in order to work?