Night Out: Wine and…Tacos?

Tonight I had the privilege of attending the summer opening of Mavrik Wine Bar. It’s a well-known fact that I love wine and anything wine bar related. Sadly, I had never been to Mavrik before but, after this introduction, you can bet I will be going back.

Grapefruit + wine + berries is delicious!

Grapefruit + wine + berries is delicious!

This little Queen West haunt is owned by two ladies who did the unthinkable – left their law and investment banking jobs to pursue a passion and open their own restaurant. They differentiate themselves from all other wine bars in a really great way, offering up local wines that are produced in small quantities (read: too small to be found at the LCBO) and a really good selection of fresh, healthy cooking.

A small sampling of Mavrik's menu - awesome tacos and great wine pairings

A small sampling of Mavrik’s menu – awesome tacos and great wine pairings

I got to sample two of their tacos with wine pairings. The first was a Portobello Taco with guacamole, tomatoes, red peppers, black beans, jalapeños, and basil aioli. While I’m not the biggest mushroom fan, this taco had great texture and flavour to it – not too spicy, just tangy enough, with the basil aioli adding a unique taste to otherwise “typical” taco fillings. The second – and my favourite – was the Sweet Potato Taco, filled with sweet potato, black beans, quinoa, parmesan and lemon aioli. This taco was so refreshing, tasty and was fabulously complemented by a Niagara Region Muscat. This was a perfect summer meal.

Portobello Taco (left) and Sweet Potato Taco (right)

Portobello Taco (left) and Sweet Potato Taco (right)

The vibe of the place is great – small and cozy – and, aside from the wonderful and unique food, there is also a healthy selection of cheese (after all, wine + cheese are the best of friends). My only gripe? With the wines being so local and limited in supply, you may fall in love with something that you can’t get your hands on too easily at the LCBO or Wine Rack. I guess that just means you have to return to Mavrik again.

mavrik vibe

Brunch Is Never A Bad Idea

Brunch is one of those lovely meals that typically only gets enjoyed on a lazy Sunday. There’s been a brunch revival in the last few years (particularly in Toronto) and now there is a smorgasbord of places to pick from if you want to get your “not-quite-breakfast, not-quite-lunch” fix. In fact, the Drake General Store even has a portable brunch map it sells, with all the city’s hot spots.

Stick this map in your wallet and go!

Stick this map in your wallet and go!

Ever since we moved to the new ‘hood, everyone I talk to has the same 3 or 4 places they say we HAVE to try. One of those places is Lady Marmalade, a breakfast/brunch/lunch spot that seems to have a perennial line out the door. After a few weekends of balking at the wait, we finally gave in yesterday and decided to try it. I can say the wait (in warm sunshine, finally!) was well worth it.

LM menuTheir menu is slightly Mexican-themed (lots of “huevos” involved), but their flavours are delightfully all over the map. They have a great selection of eggs benedict, as well as some fun daily specials. Plus, if you don’t eat gluten, they have the option of making a lot of their menu gluten-free. On this particular morning, my boyfriend had their eggs benny special (“Hawaiian Eggs Benedict” which included locally-sourced ham and a poached egg, as well as the unique flavour of roasted pineapple chunks and aged white cheddar) and I had the french toast special (moist baked french toast with raspberries and oranges, and maple syrup, obviously). Both were delicious and oh so filling!

Baked french toast is the cat's pyjamas...

Baked french toast is the cat’s pyjamas…

Aside from the delicious food and good service, I think one of the biggest draws to Lady Marmalade is the fact that they work with local food shops (like the nearby Rowe Farms) to source locally-grown, organic ingredients for their food.

Given the success of this MUST TRY spot, I’m certainly looking forward to hitting up the other local neighbourhood favourites during the summer. Oh, and if the picture of my delicious baked french toast is making you hungry and you want to give it a try at home, I recommend this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. There’s booze in it!

Night Out: Spring Fling

Last night, my friend Allison and I had a night out (we have those with quite fervent regularity) and decided to try out an old classic, The Drake Hotel. Now that spring is officially in the air, we were ok venturing outside of our little respective nooks to Queen West. I’ve mentioned the Drake before (back in the early days of this blog when I talked about good gifts for the holidays from their General Store), and it’s definitely one of my favourite spots in the city. The Art Deco vibe, mixed with good music and great drinks makes for a fun night out, every time.

the drake hotel

Right now through April 30th, they have a prix fixe special going on that just sounded too good to pass up. For $32, you get an appetizer + a main + a dessert. Bonus: they have a neat selection of spring cocktails to accompany your meal (like one of my favourites, the basil smash).

Allison's Basil Smash and my (uber-strong!) bourbon-based "A Clockwork Orange"

Allison’s Basil Smash and my (uber-strong!) bourbon-based “A Clockwork Orange” 

Dinner was, in a word, yummy. Between the two of us, we tried 4 dishes (we tend to think quite similarly when it comes to food). A really refreshing cucumber + mache + sorrel salad (with mint and feta) started the meal for both of us. I then moved on to a really crispy-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside eggplant parmigiana, and she had a seared lamb loin with shallots, carrots, peas and chickpea puree (which was described as “melt in your mouth good!”). Dessert was my favourite, though. There’s absolutely nothing I love more in a dessert than blueberries, unless it’s wild blueberries smothering a vanilla cheesecake with walnuts. Mmmmmm….

Drake Spring Fixe DishesI’d never actually had a sit-down meal at the Drake before (usually just appetizers/nibblies and drinks) but I’m so glad we did because it was all sorts of good. Plus, the service was undeniably good – our waitress was so attentive, without being overbearing, and it felt like our table was more than taken care of. The best part of the whole meal, though, was being up in the Sky Yard – the Drake’s rooftop, semi-covered (for now – in the summer it’s totally open and has one of the best rooftop drinking spots in the city) patio which was such a nice respite from the cold, cold winter over the past few months.

 

Bellwoods Brewery

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Last night, my friend and I hit up the Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington for some munchies and home brew. Bellwoods opened up last April in an old auto-repair shop on the Ossington strip. After waiting on a table for a bit (this is one popular spot!), we were seated upstairs with an overhead view of the downstairs bustle. The vibe in this restopub is classic Ossington – candlelight, rustic decor and awesome soundtracks.

The whole draw of Bellwoods is their home brews – while we were there, we sampled 5 between the two of us. There was a light, summer-y Belgian beer (White Picket Fence); the classic IPA (Roman Candle); the chocolatey-tasting, Guinness-like concoction (Bootknife); the Christmas-inspired ale (Blitzen); and the delicious double IPA (Witchshark). In addition to the drink menu, they have a snack menu we just had to sample (beer on an empty stomach is never a good idea) – sharing a delicious Canadian cheese plate (with fresh, warm sourdough bread from Woodlot), then each having a homemade sausage, with beer-braised cabbage+beans+bacon, and topping it all off with a death-by-chocolate style triple chocolate brownie, drizzled with caramel and roasted almond slivers (in a word: wow).

The Ossington strip is full of little bars and restaurants that are full to capacity on any given weekend night (Yours Truly is one of them). It’s not a hidden gem it once used to be, but it’s become better for it in my opinion because of the quality of food and drink you now find. The trek to get there (if you don’t live on the West end) is well worth it, especially when the weather warms up and the patios open. If you’re up for a good beer night, Bellwoods is a great place to go – plus, if you’re ever craving any of their beers in larger quantities, they have a retail store open every day where they sell bottles of their brews. Yup – I will definitely be going back.

Mac ‘n Cheese, please

Remember how I said I liked comfort food? There’s a classic staple of comfort food eating that I didn’t mention – mac and cheese. I didn’t actually have Kraft Dinner until I was in my early teens. My parents weren’t big proponents of boxed food. But once I had my first taste, my whole world changed (hyperbole aside, it was awesome).

Now that I’m older and more conscious of what I eat (hint: don’t read the ingredients on a box of KD…it’s a little scary), I’ve searched for ways to make this delicious meal in a more homey way. One of my favourite sites, Smitten Kitchen, has a great recipe for a homemade version of this cheesy treat (which I have actually made, and can confirm that it’s super easy and utterly delicious). Another (via Martha Stewart) is a little more involved but based on the various photos, reviews and comments, seems like it will be well worth the effort to try.

Smitten Kitchen's Easiest Mac and Cheese. I'm salivating.

Smitten Kitchen’s Easiest Mac and Cheese. I’m salivating.

Easiest Baked Macaroni and Cheese 

Adapted from The New York Times, 1/4/06

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup cottage cheese (not low fat)
  • 2 cups milk (not skim)
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • Pinch cayenne
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg (I skipped this)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (I’m a big fan of Cabot extra-sharp, in the purple wrapper)
  • 1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked
  1. Heat oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use one tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch round or square baking pan.
  2. In a blender, purée cottage cheese, milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together.
  3. Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.
  4. Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

 

Martha's perfect mac and cheese, via Food52

Martha’s perfect mac and cheese, via Food52

 

Martha Stewart’s Macaroni and Cheese via Food52

Adapted slightly from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

Serves 12

  • 8tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
  • 6slices good white bread, crusts removed, torn or diced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
  • 5 1/2cups milk
  • 1/2cup all-purpose flour
  • 2teaspoons salt
  • 1/4teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 4 1/2cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces)
  • 2cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 8 ounces) or 1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces)
  • 1pound elbow macaroni (or other small pasta shape)

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter (alternately, melt butter in the microwave). Pour butter into bowl with bread, and toss. Set breadcrumbs aside. Pull out 1 1/2 cups of grated cheddar, and 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, and reserve.
  2. Fill a large pot with water; bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 minutes less than manufacturer’s directions, until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Set aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. In the same pot you used for boiling the pasta, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, whisking, 1 minute.
  4. While whisking, slowly pour in hot milk. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
  5. Remove pan from heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere or 1 cup Pecorino Romano. Stir reserved macaroni into the cheese sauce.
  6. Pour mixture into prepared dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano, and breadcrumbs over top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. If after 30 minutes, it’s not browned to your liking, broil the topping rather than leaving it in the oven, which may cause the pasta to overcook and sauce to dry out. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool 5 minutes; serve hot.

Fried Chicken and Beer (Girls’ Night Out)

Saturday night, two of my best friends and I took advantage of the unseasonable warmth (14 degrees Celsius in Toronto!), hitting the town for a night out sans parkas and winter boots. We hit the West end to drink craft beer, eat one-of-a-kind food and see some plaid shirts matched with thick-rimmed glasses.

The first stop was County General, a fantastic little restaurant at Queen and Ossington. We put our name on the wait list (like with most restaurants in the city these days, reservations are a thing of the past) and headed around the corner to Sweaty Betty’s for a drink while we waited. Betty’s is a local watering hole with some neat craft brews on tap, and a cozy vibe. Plus, in the summer, their patio is definitely a must-visit.

This was my second visit to County General, and it has officially become one of my restaurants to recommend and revisit. The first time I went there, I sampled their homestyle burger (on a milk bun). Saturday night, we shared a bottle of wine and got the Fried Chicken for Two and a plate of fries. To start with, this fried chicken isn’t anywhere near your run of the mill Southern comfort food. Upon bringing the meal, our waiter put a large piece of parchment paper in front of us and proceeded to pour out two small bowls of friend chicken – one labeled “KFC” (a slightly sweet and sour sauce covered them) and the other with a hoisin sauce. They were then covered in sesame seeds, drizzled with an avocado mayo, and sprinkled with a mixture of coriander + green onion + mint + basil. Steamed buns accompanied them.

Lots of food makes for happy girls

Lots of food makes for happy girls

The best way I can describe this meal? What had been 3 girls laughing and talking furiously, in not time at all became the quietest table at the restaurant while we all devoured the delicious and moist chicken.

After the food, we decided to continue the night by hitting the Queen West bar strip. That area on Queen is rife with some fantastic places to imbibe.

Made to order eggnog at County General

Made to order eggnog at County General

If you’re ever in the mood for a good vibe and some well-priced drinks, I recommend the Beaconsfield, the Drake, or the perennial classic the Rhino. We had a great night taking in the sights and sounds of the West end, with a fabulous meal, good wine and fantastic company to boot!

Yours Truly

This holiday season will be very busy but before the craziness starts, my boyfriend and I decided to take a night out for just us two. We decided to try a restaurant I’ve been hearing nothing but great things about – Yours Truly.

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The venue itself is awesome – rustic industrial decor, the music’s not too loud, lights not too dim (am I getting old or what?) Perfect ambiance. But the menu and food is something else entirely…

The full menu at Yours Truly

The full menu at Yours Truly

The premise is simple: it’s a four-course tasting menu. You’re given a selection of 2 main ingredients per course (i.e. carrot or beef, egg or grouper…) and you choose the one you want. From there, they make the dish using the main and other local, seasonal ingredients. While the dishes themselves are smaller than you’d expect (as per a “tasting menu”), they provide a few amuse bouches in between that get you just full enough so you’re not scrambling for pizza afterwards.

The view at Yours Truly

The view at Yours Truly

We both had very different things from the menu. My favourite dish had to have been the “egg” dish – it involved pea shoots, a poached egg, purple potato crisps and a lightly whipped foam of egg whites on  top. My boyfriend really enjoyed his second course, consisting of delicious pan-seared scallops. There was also a great chicken dish, which involved chicken breast with crispy skin, blue cheese mousse, pine nuts and apple slices. In between our courses, we were given oysters, a delicious fruit+pomegranate palate cleanser, garlic buttery buns, a mini seared eel sandwich, and my favourite, devilled eggs.

By the time dessert came (an awesome cheese plate for him, a delicious “Christmas-y” cake made with eggnog for me), I could safely say that I will be returning to this restaurant. Highly recommend it for a unique dining experience and great service.

Remnants of a delicious night out

Remnants of a delicious night out