Wednesday, August 31, 2011

please, feel free to adapt the menu to your liking

When someone goes out to dine at a restaurant I like to think they choose that particular venue because they like the concept/menu/atmosphere.  To willingly pick a restaurant where these things don't appeal to you is nonsensical.

Why then are there so many guests intent on re-writing the menu to suit their needs?  Bear with me, I'm not talking about allergies here, I understand the difficulty of living with dietary restrictions.  I'm talking about the 'choose your own adventure' guests who think the menu is a free-for-all that can be switched around until it sounds good to them.

"Um, I'll have the pork loin, but with the sauce from the salmon plate - on the side of course - and can you add the goat's cheese from that other dish and I really like the sounds of the vegetables that come with the beef and can I switch the mashed potatoes for a side of gnocchi with lentils too!"

God forbid they don't like their own creation and try to get dinner for free!  Trust me, if you want to be your own chef, you are going to have to pay for it!

There are a number of reasons why menus are decided upon before service, not the least of which is that the Chef decided that he/she just prefers the food presented in the manner described.  In most cases the kitchen staff will even see the plating and learn the cooking style of each dish so they are prepared to do it in a timely manner for all you lovely guests out there trying to get to the show.

Most kitchens are divided into sections.  Certain cooks do certain jobs and have their mise-en-place all set up and ready nearby.  When you redesign a dish it may require an item from another station, or something that is created in equal parts to another element of its original dish.

There is also food cost to think about.  You may want the chanterelle mushrooms from the risotto dish - why can't you add them to your steak?  Because the steak costs more than the rice and the mushrooms aren't cheap.  Be prepared to pay if you want to alter a dish, even if you feel you are making it a cheaper plate, that is not for you to decide, don't bother trying to get a discount by removing an expensive item, it makes you look cheap, and quite frankly, rather dumb.

If you really like something from another dish it's not the end of the world to ask for it.  But don't be haughty and arrogant thinking that you can have whatever you want and NEVER say "they did it for me last time!".  That was last time, and it feels like you're trying to pressure us into doing it again.  Sometimes restaurants do things during a slow period that they cannot execute as well when it's busy.  Ask politely and we'll do our best to accommodate you.

And don't forget to say 'thank-you', sincerely, after all, we did something extra just for you!

Thanks to Carly for inspiration!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

huevos over easy

Ah breakfast... easily my favourite meal of the day, and as they say (whoever they are) "the most important!".  Perfect for any time of day, whether it's an early morning - getting the day started off right, a late afternoon hangover recovery or midnight snack; it's hard to resist eggs cooked how you like them with some kind of greasy pork product, potatoes and toast.

For years Features was a breakfast staple for me and mine, it is "where Stratford meets for breakfast" after all.  But over the years the prices have jumped - often in the winter? - and the service has started to slip a little (not to mention the decreased size of my bacon portion!).  I feel the overall value has decreased to a point where I have ventured further afield to find a great diner breakfast.  Two of my current favourites are Joe's Diner on Erie st. and if you're feeling ambitious, or have a ride from some generous individual, you can trek to Dave's Diner located in the Sobey's plaza for great tasting, perfectly greasy diner fare (try the local water buffalo lasagna sometime for lunch!).

But here I plan to speak of breakfast beyond the early bird special.  I truly believe that the best breakfast in the city is an ongoing battle between Foster's and The Parlour.  Unfortunately for the latter they only serve their really interesting items on Sundays so the availability is incredibly limited - making it much easier to enjoy the Foster's uber breakfast more often and become quite fond of it.

I place here, for culinary judgement, the Huevos Rancheros, Eggs Benedict and French Toast from both restaurants.  After a large amount of gluttony and a spike in my cholesterol - but also a great deal of Omega 3's and 6's - I have consumed all three of these, times two.

It breaks down basically like this:

Foster's Huevos Rancheros:  In my opinion, this is the best breakfast item in the city.  Spiced hash browns are tossed with house-made beans and local bacon, smothered in cheese, placed into a flour tortilla which is then baked until the edges are just a bit crispy.  Over easy eggs perch atop the deliciousness beneath, finished with Pickles Eh! salsa and sour cream.  A prick from your fork sends the warm yolks cascading down, the perfect testament to a well cooked egg.  If you think you might want to omit the bacon and beans I would encourage you to choose something else, if you're vegetarian, at least get the beans, they're the best part!

The Parlour Huevos Rancheros:  A great bit of spice from the fresh sliced jalapenos (a wonderful addition to the dish!) is the highlight here for me, along with a perfectly flavoured guacamole.  I find the potatoes, etc. on the inside of the tortilla to be a little under seasoned but the eggs are impeccably cooked, like little spheres of gooey sunshine!

The Parlour Stuffed French Toast:  If you like the sweeter side of breakfast then this is for you!  Blueberry cheesecake is decadently sandwiched between two generous pieces of house-made brioche.  The bread itself is eggy and fluffy with crunchy toasted edges - perfect!  Final additions of fresh blueberries and real maple syrup round out the plate (and my waistline), and I happily sop up every last drop.  It's dessert for breakfast, and you deserve it!

Foster's French Toast: Apple pie without cheese is, well, not a concern with this sweet/savoury breakfast item.  Thinly sliced, lightly caramelised apples adorn thick cut, dense white baguette (made in house) that has been covered in aged cheddar and baked to golden brown.  Add a few slices of bacon for an extra salty kick and drizzle the whole plate in pure Canadian maple syrup.

Foster's Eggs Benedict: Classically prepared with peameal bacon or enjoyed as one of the variations available on the menu (smoked salmon, crab cakes or portabello mushrooms - great for gluten allergies), this is a breakfast that keeps me coming back.  There is just something about watching a chef/cook whisk your made-to-order hollandaise right in front of you in the open kitchen that makes breakfast taste that much better.  Served with a lightly dressed green salad to help prevent a coronary.

The Parlour Eggs Benedict:  I feel nervous saying it out loud but this is probably the best eggs benedict I have ever had!  A benedict is something that is hard to achieve at a really hot temperature - the physics of the dish usually hold it at 'really warm' - much hotter and the hollandaise will split, the eggs will be poached hard and generally, all the things you love about a benedict will fall apart.  I'm not sure whether it was purposeful brilliance or just serendipity but Max has achieved a wonderful thing.  In place of the peameal stands a quarter inch piece of ham which is served piping hot, this lends itself to the rest of the dish, maintaining the hollandaise intact  and the soft poached eggs but heating it all as you eat it.  Add to this a house-made sourdough english muffin and there is nothing more to say.  Dig in!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Canadian servers have it best

Servers are whiners.  It's true, we complain when we don't get tipped, when it's too hot, that our wage is too low...etc.

But in the grand scheme of servers in various other parts of the world, Canadian servers have it pretty darned good.

We model our tipping expectations against the US.  Our generous neighbour to the south whose service staff get paid an average of $3/hr.  After taxes there are a large number of servers in the States that receive a paycheque that totals less than $10.  They truly survive on the generosity of their guests, and I for one feel that this makes them appreciate their customers more sincerely than we Canadian counterparts.

Travel a little farther abroad to somewhere like Australia and you find that servers get a more standard wage and the concept of tipping is basically discarded.  An Aussie server can expect to bring home a wage of $16-17 flat.

In destinations around Europe things vary, but it is more consistent to find truly professional service staff making professional wages than to find poorly paid servers clamboring for tips.  This is why people with European accents are so scary for Canadian servers.

Back at home, we find that yes, servers are paid below minimum wage but, 'alcohol and beverage server' minimum is currently pushing $9.  If you consider that we are actually taking home a moderately sized paycheque more like the Australians, yet still raking in a high tip percentage like the Americans, well you can see how we are a little spoiled.  Not that I am complaining ;)

Thursday, August 11, 2011 of Indian flavours?

Very few cities with a small population like ours can boast a really good Indian restaurant, let alone two very good Indian restaurants located right around the corner from each other!

Taj has recently opened at a location that has been renovated and updated to the tune of almost a half a million dollars (or more!) so I thought it would be a good idea to compare it to Raja, which I have to admit is a favourite of mine for take-out when I just don't feel like cooking, or when I'm in the mood for something spicy.

Now that I have tried both places a couple of times I have to admit that the decision is a very difficult one to make, but quite frankly, I was impressed with the food at Taj - though the price is more than a little frightening.

Even with the enticement of a 25% discount, lunch was in the $70 range, plus tax and tip (for two).  I always enjoy the value at Raja for lunch, you can get away with a delicious and filling lunch for under $35 (also for two).  Perhaps the two places are better compared at dinner time - as the menu at Taj seems to be the same all day.

Service at both places is incredibly attentive, I always feel treated like royalty at Raja and the young woman serving at Taj is quite capable and charming.

As for the menu: for the less adventurous types, the Butter Chicken at Taj seems to have more depth of flavour than Raja but in turn I prefer the Korma at Raja - maybe it's the cardamom in the rice that intensifies the flavour?

Tandoori chicken is good in both places but I think Taj's wins with increased moistness.

For those more adventurous palates I would certainly recommend the vindaloo at Taj - great balance of spice and flavour, and the heat certainly builds as you get farther into the dish!

Overall, I feel that I will most likely stay loyal to Raja, and I have to admit that this decision is heavily weighted on value for dollar and naan.  The naan bread at Raja is more tender - though if you prefer somewhat crispy naan then Taj is for you.

Perhaps I was also swayed by the washrooms at Taj which seem to have been a last minute thought in the massive renovations that took place this spring.

Good luck to Taj, competition raises the bar for all of us!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Robin's hotdog fail

I demand the return of Mr. Dog.  His awesome cart with the fold up top and a wide variety of condiments available to enhance your street meat experience!  These are the visions in my dreams.

But I must awake and face the reality that our new hotdog man and his shoddy condiment-less world are all we have for street food (besides delicious vinegar soaked Ken's Fries of course) - this sub-par hotdog experience is taking up incredibly valuable real estate, and even more valuable: the only available street vendor permit available at the moment in our fair city (why exactly there is only one available, I am not sure!)

Street food is something that has come to the forefront of the food world of late.  Our own Shawn Hartwell of Simple Fish & Chips has made a recent appearance at the Food Truck Eats revolution in Toronto.  There is another event scheduled August 20th for those of us who missed the first round.  Food trucks are popping up in unexpected places.  Offering reasonably priced food that is full flavoured and delish!  Just turn on your boob tube and find Eat St. on the Food Network for guaranteed salivation (and download the app for road-trip satisfaction!).

Stratford has a rather unfortunate foray into the world of street food.  The new Robin's Dogs is a disappointment.  His buns rest on the ground, a card table set up for your basic ketchup, mustard and relish.  Where is the wide variety of interesting mustards, the sauerkraut, pickles, hot peppers... 

There are better dogs at Molly Blooms: Nathan's Famous Hotdogs that are far superior to the ones available street side.  The buns are pretzel-like, perfectly chewy and you can top your dog with an array of condiments including spicy deep-fried jalapenos!

Why is our city - a culinary destination - so far behind the times?  Give me street meat with interesting condiments, or give me death.

Friday, August 5, 2011

late afternoon patio lunch at The Parlour

The other day between working a week full of split shifts I took a quick moment to myself to have some lunch on the newly re-vamped Parlour patio.

Asian influence has turned into the main focus on a majority of dishes at the Parlour (though you can still get large saucy chicken wings on Thursday nights!) which feels a little out of place amidst the English Pub surroundings. The menu for me seems contradictory to the space but that doesn't make it any less delicious - Chef Max Holbrook has a solid background in Asian influenced cuisine (remember Menrui?)

I tried the 'Shaking Beef' for lunch which is accompanied by fresh lime juice.  Beef and lime wouldn't be my first thought for combination but I am pleasantly surprised, it brightens the dish making a hearty/beefy lunch a great summer option.

Service was fantastic: attentive and friendly.  With a good selection of beer on tap and wines by the glass this would be a great spot for a variety of tastes to be satisfied.  I do have to mention that my pint was a little flat, which I have experienced here before - but overall it was a great midday repreive from the work week for this tired server.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

i'm afraid of Americans...and their cash

We all know the American dollar is in trouble.  For quite a number of years now it has bounced around par with our dollar, spending a good deal of time uncomfortably below ours - quite the turnaround for what the American's were used to! (We wont even talk about the trouble they are in currently that could tank their dollar completely and permanently and the effects that would have on the Stratford economy!)

This poses a problem for servers - and restaurants - often the American doesn't realize how far below our dollar his currency is.  I'm not sure if this is ignorance or just blind optimism.

What this results in is a serious decline in the tip, to the point of non-existence, often to the point of dropping below the price of the bill causing the server to have to pay for the remainder, and then of course still tip out on the overall bill making it rather expensive to serve Americans who pay cash.

American cash used to be a blessing, Stratford saw more American tourists overall when their dollar was stronger than ours, they spent more money and were more generous because it didn't cost them nearly as much.

I miss those days...