Rickshaw Bar

A few weeks ago I met up with my friend Lynsey for some gossip and some South/Southeast Asian street food from Rickshaw Bar on Queen Street West.

We met up at 5:30pm only to realize the restaurant did not open until 6:00pm. I understand why the restaurant opens at 6 o’clock, but you would think they would try to capture the immediate after-work-crowd? I guess there isn’t an after-work-crowd in that area?  We loitered outside on Queen Street for half an hour, people and dog watching, and leaning on hipster bikes. We were seated quickly and there was only one other couple who made the same mistake as us. The restaurant filled very quickly, and by about 7 o’clock it was full.

The restaurant is very simple: smooth concrete floors, simple wooden tables, exposed brick walls with traces of graffiti and tagging, a long dark bar running the length of the restaurant and industrial copper pipe lighting. We were seated at the first table of the long row of banquette seating and were ready to enjoy some food. Like many restaurants in Toronto, Rickshaw is a sharing/tapas style restaurant so we were able to sample across the menu.

I have to mention our server. Or servers with an “s” I should say. When we were first seated, Server #1 seemed great. He was engaging, excited about the food and made suggestions on the menu. He was understanding about my allergies and checked with the kitchen regarding preparation and accommodation of this. Ok, great. A great server can be the difference in feeling comfortable, safe and happy while dining out with an allergy, especially when you have a nut allergy at an Asian restaurant. We tried to order various beef-related dishes (Ismaili beef curry, khao shay, Makai curry) but everything with beef is prepared with cashews and therefore is off-limits to me. Server #1 didn’t make this connection that all the beef is prepared together and that this might be an issue. He had to return to the kitchen several times to confirm if beef dishes contained nuts. We tried to order the khao shay which he said might contain nuts and he would check with the kitchen. He asked for a substitute order in case the khao shay contained nuts so we requested the lamb mishkaki. SERVER #1 NEVER CAME BACK. Not to tell us that yes, in fact because the khao shay is prepared with all the other beef and it will have nuts or that because of this, he had put in our alternate order. FINE.

Then Server #2 came to our table and asked if we would like anything else. We said Server #1 was checking on something for us and that we had another order coming. Server #2 offered to check on that for us. Server #2 actually came back and said no, your replacement order was never put in with the kitchen and no, you unfortunately you cannot order anything with beef because all beef is prepared together. From that point on, Server #2 was our server. I don’t know how or why this switch occurred but I am glad it did. He took care of us for the rest of our meal. He brought us the lamb mishkaki and our desserts. I left a larger tip then I normally would because we were abandoned and then saved by Server #2.

Back to the food. To start we had the Scallop Puri.

IMG_5965The Scallop Puri with scallop tartare, spiced puffed rice, cucumber, chili oil and lime.

This is a beautiful and simple dish. I love the bowl it is served on with its low sides and leaf-like shape, transporting you to a South-East Asian jungle, as if you are enjoying street food, roadside on the edge of a dark and mysterious jungle on a giant tropical leaf from the trees contained in the jungle. The puffs of rice are crunchy, light and with a slightly nuttiness from the rice. The scallop tartare is almost non-existent. You get a bite of fishiness, none of the texture or butteriness of scallops and then it is overwhelmed by spicy citrusy notes. I did enjoy this but it will not satisfy scallop or tartare cravings your may have.

Then we had the Pakora Fritters.

IMG_5966The Pakora Fritters with potato, zucchini, onion, apple and green chutney.

These were delicious. They were very similar in texture and taste to the squash fritters at Sabai Sabai. The vegetables were grated into thick strands that were then battered and fried. The coating was crispy, light and not greasy. It didn’t overwhelm the subtle flavours of the potato and zucchini. The natural flavours of the vegetables were able to compliment the batter, and offer the first tastes of summer. The chutney was fruity and played up the bright flavours of the zucchini.

Next we had the Spiced Coconut Chicken.

IMG_5967The Spiced Coconut Chicken with green peas, curry leaves and cilantro.

This was my favourite dish of the night. The broth was creamy and thick from the coconut milk and had a touch of sweetness to it. The sweetness mellowed the spiciness of the dish, which allowed the spices to gradually build and the flavor to slowly intensify. Hidden in the luscious broth were tender pieces of chicken that fell part so easily when grazed by a fork or spoon. Ordering rice on the side allows the broth and chicken come together as more of a cohesive whole on a bed of rice, making it more of an entrée rather than a soup. Don’t order the rice if you want to eat as much as possible and not fill up on plain carbs.

And lastly we had the Lamb mishkaki.

IMG_5968The Lamb Mishkaki with grilled lamb, tamarind, mint chimichurri and naan.

Lamb is one of those meats that I have a difficult relationship with. No, it has nothing to do with ethical reasons (I am a horrible person, I know. Did I mention I love veal?) it is the flavor. I don’t mind the taste, I just always forget what it tastes like. Whenever I have the first bite of something with lamb I think “oh right, that is what lamb tastes like.” But that did not happen this time. This time I LOVED the lamb.

It was tender and soft, and had a lighter flavor to it. The lamb is marinated in yogurt which gives it a bit of sweetness and adds to the tenderness. The chimichurri added a floral brightness to the lamb and the naan was a crispy yet doughy plate for it all to sit on. If you like lamb, you definitely need to order this. And if you are like me and you are not sure if you like lamb, you will like it like this.

Although we were absolutely stuffed, we of course ordered dessert. Lynsey had the crispy milk pastry and I had the coconut panna cotta.

IMG_5969Crispy milk pastry with milk, cardamom, almonds and rose petals and the coconut panna cotta with coconut, pineapple and lime.

The panna cotta was light, milky with hints of tropical fruit. It was absolutely delicious and easily rivals any traditional Italian panna cotta I’ve eaten. Although I was absolutely stuffed this did not push me over the edge.

Our meal at Rickshaw was delicious and I would definitely return. The food is accessible but still different from both your every day cuisine and traditional South East Asian food. It expands your horizon to what street food can be and transport you to the crowded street markets of Asia with every bite.

Happy munching!

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Bar Buca

When you’ve eaten your way through most brunch restaurants in Toronto you get tired of seeing the same thing on every menu. I can make your standard bacon and eggs big breakfast that appears at every restaurant and to be frank with you, I like my eggs better. Now when I go for brunch I am looking for something more; I am looking for something different. This fits the description of Bar Buca.

I first went to Bar Buca back in February for brunch with Cynthia. Bar Buca is sleek and modern, using slick materials like marble, steel and concrete. It very much captures the look of contemporary and upscale Italy. You could easily picture this restaurant juxtaposed against the historic streets in Rome. There is an espresso bar at the front of the restaurant that brews coffee for dine-in and take-out. There is a long, wooden chair rail that wraps around the front of the restaurant. The tables are high bar tables with smooth wooden tops and stool seating. There is a long marble bar with leather stools and overlooks the tiny, open-concept kitchen. Seating is limited and communal, a concept I support. I will gladly take sitting with strangers if it means I can enjoy good food instead of waiting in line.

We were seated at the marble bar, drooling over the fresh foccaccia that was coming out of the oven in a steady stream.

I ordered the Ammazza Fegato.

IMG_3303The Ammazza Fegato with Tuscan offal sausage, farro, cavolo nero, king oyster and a poached farm egg.

This is rich and decadent. The farro is meaty, with a slightly crunchy grit to it. It is swimming in a pool of butter. The king oyster mushrooms are woodsy and fleshy. They add a silky meatiness to the base of this dish. The egg is nested and protected in one of the best sausages I have ever eaten. Offal refers to a combination of organ meats and this combination creates a juicy and evenly flavoured sausage. When I slice into the egg, it oozes all over the sausage and mixes with the butter and farro and creates this thick and creamy sauce.

This is one of the best breakfast I have eaten.

Cynthia ordered the Uova Rossa.

IMG_3301The Uova Rossa with duck egg yolk, bay scallop, crisp potato and scallions.

The duck yolk is thick and creamy. The scallops add a sweet ocean flavour to the dish. They are salty and fresh. The potatoes add a crunchiness and the scallions are freshness.

The highlight of the brunch: we were seating at the bar with a single seat on either side of us. The manager came over and asked us how we enjoyed our breakfast. I assumed that because we are adorable (obviously Cynthia, not me) he was just being polite. He proceeded to ask us if we could move seats and it would be worth our will. He brought over a beautiful, perfectly round bombolone filled with vanilla cream and rolled in cinnamon sugar.

IMG_3692All I have to do to get a free donut is move over one stool? OBVIOUSLY. This is the best donut I have ever eaten. It was still warm from being fried. It is filled with a thick and luscious cream, with the most aromatic vanilla flavour I have had in any dessert. The cinnamon sugar is lightly covering the entire surface of the donut. The donut itself is airy and light.

I only* (coffee is slowly becoming a necessity in my life despite having always made a conscious effort to not be a coffee drinker) drink coffee when I go for brunch. And Italians know coffee. Bar Buca is an amazing place to get your coffee fix. They serve their coffee with a sugar that is a mix of espresso crema and sugar. This is basically crack. It is thick, creamy and the right balance between coffee bite and sugary sweetness.

This donut and that coffee was the reason I wanted to return to Bar Buca with my favourite Italian, GC.

GC ordered the Carbonara Schiacciata or stuffed foccaccia.

IMG_3689The Carbonara Schiacciata with guanciale, farm eggs, crotonese and black pepper.

This sandwich. The foccaccia is light but at the same time dense. It is salty and is subtly piney from the rosemary. The egg is partially broken and spread thinly across the bread. Guanciale is a cured Italian meat made from pork jowl and the use of this meat adds a salty briny flavour to the sandwich, rather than a smoky taste which would be derived from using a meat like prosciutto. The crotonese cheese is salty and nutty, but more subtle and sweet than most Italian sheep cheeses.

I ordered the Coniglio Alla Milanese.

IMG_3690The Coniglio Alla Milanese with rabbit loin, prosciutto, smoked mozzarella and fresh gremolata.

Rabbit is not my favourite meat. I find it too much work for what you get. But this. This is how I can eat rabbit. This is essentially an Italian cordon bleu. The rabbit is thinly sliced and is extremely delicate. The prosciutto is even more thinly sliced, draped over the rabbit like tissue paper. The mozzarella is smoky and creamy, it oozes out over the rabbit with each slice and bite. The gremolata adds a fresh, spring citrus element to the rabbit, lightening the dish. The egg floating on top of the rabbit makes this meal breakfast and not dinner.

I am obviously in love with this restaurant. It is an upscale brunch that is not for the faint of heart. I acknowledge that to many, this is not what brunch is about but this is what I am looking for when I go for brunch. Brunch should not be restricted to just eggs and toast. Brunch is just as much of an opportunity to experiment and push boundaries as any other meal. And Bar Buca does that.

Happy munching!

Playa Cabana Cantina

Happy birthday to me! This year marked a milestone birthday for me – I turned 25. I am officially in a new age box on surveys: 25-34. My birthday didn’t send me spinning into a quarter life crisis. Instead, viagra I took the week off and celebrated. I kicked off my birthday celebrations with Thanksgiving and then eased into the week with a visits to Playa Cabana Cantina with GC and my sister Amelia.

Playa Cabana Cantina in the Junction has a much more chilled out, site hipster vibe then the original location on Dupont. The décor is a mixture of vintage, fluorescent lights and rustic textures and materials. It feels like a western Tex-Mex saloon circa 1967. I have plans of hitting up their late night taco special (after 10 pm Thursday-Sunday 3 for $12.00 tacos) with a few drinks sometime in the near future.

We started off with an order of chips and guacamole. The guacamole was good – it was a little too creamy for my personal taste but the chips were fried to crispy perfection and salted with just the right amount of salt.

Amelia and GC ordered the same tacos: the Pescado, Ancho-Braised Shortrib, and the Venera Frita .

IMG_4659 IMG_4660 IMG_4662I ordered the following tacos: the Pollo Tinga, the La Truck, and the Ahi-Tuna.

IMG_4661The pollo tinga was completely drenched in a sauce that was spicy but flavourful. The chicken was shredded and fell apart with each bite. The crispy tortilla held up against the weight of all the toppings. The guacamole was smooth and silky, a nice contrast to the texture of the chicken. The onion gave off a different kind of heat than the chicken offered and the cheese added another level of creaminess. This is the perfect chicken taco. It has inspired me to look up my own pulled chicken recipes to use this winter in my slow cooker. If you have any recommendations let me know!

IMG_4663The la truck taco was a steak taco. The steak was diced into perfectly bite-sized pieces. The steak was tender, juicy and had hints of barbecued smokiness to it. The slaw on top offset the richness and heaviness of the taco and had hints of citrus that were further brought out with the squeeze of fresh lime. This may be the best steak taco I have ever had.

IMG_4664The ahi tuna taco was good but not my favourite fish taco; that title still belongs to La Carnita’s  “In Cod We Trust”. I found the taco lacked any sort of further flavor besides the fish taste. The tortilla was too small and overloaded; it literally crumbled under the weight of the deliciousness of the taco. However, as there was a fork and knife at the table I was still able to munch all this goodness.

After our lunch at Playa Cantina, it was decided that we all prefer it to La Carnita – shocking, I know. La Carnita will continue to hold the title for my favourite fish taco and I will continue to visit it but Playa might turn out to be my go-to Mexican restaurant in the city.

Happy munching!