Monday, 11 April 2011
Casa Imperial Fine Chinese Cuisine
4125 Steeles Ave East, (Steeles E & Warden)
For as long as I could remember, the big brick mansion-restaurant on Steeles was Devonsleigh Place, a western steakhouse that our family would call "Die-Oak", literally, "big house". It had a profiterole tower by the entrance, multiple floors, and was reverently lit with a hushed ambeience.
A few years ago, it was changed into an upscale chinese restaurant, but I had never been. The golden sign outside always made me a bit wary, but a friend recommended this place over Century Palace Restaurant down the road for Saturday dimsum. The parking lot was near capacity when we showed up, with a small handful waiting for tables in the lobby. Despite making reservations, we still had a 20 minute wait for a table for 5 adults and 3 children.
We were seated downstairs, so I did not get to check out the rest of the establishment. The decor aims for opulence, with wait staff dressed in suits and black/white maid outfits. The noise levels were reasonably bearable, less raucous than most other dimsum places.
The teapots are more elaborate than your average white porceline teapots. The few times we needed refills on our tea, it took some time for the wait staff to notice the lid to take it away.
The dishes were prices as follows: (S) $3.10, (M) $4.10, (L) $5.10, (XL) $7.10.
Pan Fried Turnip Patties (S) were the first dish to arrive. There was nothing spectacular, but there were also no stumbles either. The cake texture was good, not too soft, and would cut easily with chopsticks (with the carmelized bits providing some resistance while cutting).
Steamed Rice Noodle Roll ~ Jumbo Shrimp & Yellow Chives (L) were again nothing spectacular, and were actually stubbier and shorter than most restaurants. The shrimps were substantial, and seemed to be properly cleaned. The noodle dough could have been more al dente.
Steamed Rice Noodle Roll ~ Minced Beef w/ Coriander (M) were also stubbier and shorter than usual. There was nothing spectacular about the beef filling, and I don't recall any strong coriander flavour.
Super Haw Gow Jumbo Shrimp Dumpling (XL) were a tough dish to decide on. The dumplings were huge, maybe just smaller than your average steamed beef balls. The shrimp had just a touch of ginger flavour, reminiscent of shrimp & snowpeas stirfry, the first time I've seen this done with hargow. Unfortunately, for all its positives, a $7 price tag weighs like an anchor of 700 pennies.
Siu Mai - Shrimp & Pork Dumpling w/ Conpoy (L) were nothing more than average. The conpoy on top, while visually interesting, were very dry and stringy, with very little flavour. The pork and shrimp itself were fine, but nothing that would turn heads.
Pumpkin Congee w/ Bean Curd & Chestnut (L) was something I didn't have a point of reference for. Small square cubes of tender pumpkin, with bean curn and chestnut not particularly identifiable, unless you were looking for them in your spoon.
Beef Ball w/ Water Cress (S) were quite good, with a smooth, slightly elastic texture. there were no extraneous vegetable fillers added to the beef ball like water chestnut or peas or cabbage, sitting atop a bed of watercress.
BBQ Pork Bun w/ Abalone Sauce (M) was one of the highlights for me. The filling was very flavourful, sweeter, richer, and more moist than any bbq bun I've had. I didn't realize that there was "abalone sauce" in the filling, until I started writing the review. Despite not noticing the abalone sauce at the time, this was a very well-executed dish.
Cuttlefish Tentacle w/ Salted Spice (L) was very average. Some tentacles were tender, while others required some struggling with scissors to cut into smaller pieces for an infant. The seasoning wasn't any special "spice" either.
Milk Tart w/ Swallow's Nest (L) was an interesting dessert. It takes a departure from the traditional egg tarts that use either a cookie crust or a flaky crust, and instead employs almost a phyllo-crust instead. Instead of an egg & milk filling, these tarts have a creamy texture, with maybe 2-3 thick strands of swallow's nest, an exotic ingredient in chinese cuisine. I really like the flaky crust, but I'm lukewarm on the use of swallow's nest (and the resulting price).
After tea ($1.20/person), pop ($2/can), taxes and gratuities, the bill came out to $20 per person. As far as high-end dimsum experiences, I was more impressed with Grand Chinese Cuisine at the Double Tree Hotel, for taking bolder leaps in innovation and use of creative ingredient, despite being very hit-or-miss. Casa Imperial plays it far too safe, justifying mark-ups with subtle changes (sometimes undiscernable) to an otherwise traditional dimsum preparation. I'd almost say the quality is comparable to Royal Tea House (which sadly has worsened with a partial change in ownership over the past year), so maybe I've simply been spoiled and need to lower my expectations. Casa's dimsum is better than some of the dimsum places around town, but I don't feel the premium is justified.
Sunday, 03 April 2011
Queen Margherita Pizza
1402 Queen St E (West of Queen/Coxwell)
Mon~Thu: 12:00pm ~ 11:00pm
Fri~Sat: 12:00pm ~ 12:00pm
Sundays: 12:00pm ~ 10:00pm
I'd read about Libretto Pizza a few months ago, touting authentic Neapolitan pizza certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, and is well known in pizza aficionado circles even outside of Toronto. Queen Margherita has since come along, and is turning heads, making the list of Toronto Life's top 10 new restaurants for 2010. I've heard the QMP is also VPNA-certified, and so I plan to take my own shot at a comparison, knowing very little preconceptions about true neapolitan pizzas.
QMP is located right across the a TTC streetcar depot, and there is plenty of meter parking available on the street. There's both downstairs bar seating, as well as an upstairs dining area. Upon our arrival at 5:30pm, they informed us that they could only squeeze us in if we finished in an hour.
The menu offers apps, a choice of 10~12 pizzas, desserts, along with a Prix-Fixe menu of any app, any pizza, and a dessert. The clientele ran the gamut from dressed-up dinner-dates to little-league post-game pizza to 2-adult-2.5-children families.
At the back, three chefs work the pizza oven. Overhearing the waiter at the next table, they mentioned the oven running at around 500F, with pizzas cooking for around 5 minutes. I may have misheard, as comparitively, Libretto runs at 900F at 90 seconds per pizza. There were roughly 6-7 pies cooking at the same time in the oven.
We decided on the classic Margherita pizza ($13.95), with Fior di Latte (extra virgin cow's milk mozzarella), tomato, and basil. The mozzarella was very light and mild, almost to a detriment. My dining mate commented that the flavours weren't exactly like those in Italy, and would have prefered buffalo mozzarella for a stronger flavour to the cheese. The tomato tasted like real tomato, and not a pizza sauce, letting the natural ingredient shine through. For both the Fior di Latte and the basil, we felt that more liberal use of toppings would have made for a much better result. Of the four slices, some had no basil, and some only had a tiny bit of cheese.
The crust is risen and fluffy, lightly charred for a toasty flavour, while the bottom is crispy yet soft with spotted charring. It's definitely different from the usual uniformly-thin-curst pizzas and americanized dense-curst pizzas elsewhere around town.
I'm excited about trying Libretto, then returning to QMP for another round. I definitely plan on returning to try some of the other pizzas, as this was very good pizza.
Friday, 01 April 2011
812 Queen Street East (Queen/Broadview)
Tue~Sun: 8:00am ~ 4:00pm
I think I first heard about Bonjour Brioche from a BlogTO article on the best french bread in town, last summer. Located at Degrassi and Queen East, it's just east of the DVP. All three times I've gone around noon, there's been a 2-3 table wait, but it's a very worthwhile wait.
The seating space is sparse, though during the summer, patio seating is available. Baking racks line the kitchen, while the display case taunts you with croissants and bageutte sandwiches.
We were interested by the Pomegranate Mimosa on the daily special menu. While the presentation is attractive, the flavour was what you might expect; pomegranate juice is very mild, and was a weak pairing for the champagne.
The bageutte sandwiches ($6~$7) are absolutely delicious. On a slab of daily-baked crusty baguette, these brought back memories of Paris, though not quite as narrow. Today's special was roast beef with roasted yellow beet. It's topped with delicious garlic aoili and a touch of horseradish, the roast beef perfectly pink.
The Croque Madam ($8.75), brioche layered with ham & gruyere topped with an egg, is a must-have. It's served with a side of mixed greens with Bonjour Brioche's signature house balsamic basil vinaigrette, and a healthy slab of baguette bread. The basil adds a flavourful complex twist to an otherwise solidly sweet-tart-balanced vinaigrette.
While visually playing second fiddle, the brioche bread is the star of every bite -- eggy, light, and fluffy, yet holds its own against the ham and cheese. The egg was nicely runny, soaking nicely into the brioche. I've yet to try the brioche on its own, but I'm not sure I can resist getting the whole Croque madam.
Friday, 18 February 2011
Le Thobors Boulangerie-Patisserie Cafe
627 Mount Pleasant (~3 lights south of Eglinton)
One of my coworkers occasionally brings in almond croissants and chocolate croissants from Thobors, a nearby french bakery. The almond croissants are always a hit at the office, so it seemed appropriate to pay them a visit.
Upon entering, you would frequently hear french being spoken among the staff, and a good bit of bustle in the back where goods were being produced. There's seating for roughly 5 tables or so.
In addition to croissants, they also have baguettes and other breads baked in the back. I haven't had an opportunity to try those, as I'm typically just fixated on their almond croissants.
Their selection of sweets include large cakes, cake slices, macarons, and petit fours. On a subsequent visit, my friend and I tried one of their Opera cakes, to middling results: good, but not the best in town.
Thobor's almond croissants aren't light and flaky as you might expect. Rather, they're quite well-toasted, almost crusty at the edges. Sugar-dusted with almond slivers, these dense delectables are actually a bit of a challenge to cut with a butterknife.
The croissant is filled with a good amount of ground almond paste. The moistness, texture, and density of the croissant dough would probably be most likened to a coconut macaroon (without the shredded coconut, of course) ~ each bite teases out a bit of sweet almond-tinged moisture from the bread. While this is very atypical of a classic 'croissant', there's an alluring appeal to these, as long as you don't mind the heft and richness.
On a subsequent visit, we tried a almond chocolate croissant -- that is, the same almond croissant, with an additional log of chocolate inside. While the chocolate overpowered the almond at times, it was also a nice decadent treat.
In the comparison between the Mount Pleasant bakeries, I overwhelmingly prefer Thobor's almond croissants over Jules', which are closer to traditional croissants with ground almond filling inside.
Cafe Jules Patisserie
671 Mount Pleasant (~3 lights south of Eglinton)
After a chat on palmiers with a friend, she proclaimed Jules to have the best palmiers in the
world. Although I was skeptical of her claim, I also read that Jules' croissants were one of the
bests along the Mount Pleasant strip, and thought it convenient to taste and compare.
The display case offers up small cakes, pastries, and even baguette sandwiches. Small bags of
cookie line the top of the display. Baskets at the end are filled with all manner of croissants:
plain, almond, and chocolate. The seating is limited, but they do serve coffee/espressos if
you're looking to sit in.
The chocolate croissant had a thin flaky skin outside, almost like an extra layer of eggwash, that would yield to the lightest touch.
The texture was etherial, light and airy inside, layer upon layer cleanly separate. Soft and
tender, you're never fighting the dough or tearing at it. The two narrow logs of dark chocolate
added the right amount of sweetness for a "sweet" pastry, without overwhelming the rest of the
The pouches of miniature palmiers were very light, and extremely buttery.
Thin and very crispy, they can get a bit heavy after having 2~3 of them. The amount of butter
might be overwhelming to some, as blasphemous as that may sound.
In the comparison between the Mount Pleasant bakeries, I overwhelmingly prefer Jules' chocolate
croissants over Thobor's.