Just like being in South India (except we were in Missisauga)

When I used to travel to South India for work, one of my favourite things to do was to get fresh, hot dosas (fermented rice/lentil crepes) and idlis (steamed rice cakes) for breakfast. Whether it was my perfectly comfortable three star hotel in Bangalore (the Richmond-highly recommend it) or a roadside shack, dosas and idlis were ubiquitous, generally served with a variety of savoury chutneys. My favourite chutney of all time for breakfast was the gunpowder masala, in part because hey, you could say ‘I ate gunpowder for breakfast’ but mostly because when you mixed gunpowder masala with a bit of peanut oil, it became this crunchy delicious mess that you could smush your idli into before taking a heavenly bite of pillowy blandness covered in bits of gunpowdery flavour explosion.

My husband never cared much for idlis but loves a good dosa. In fact, when we lived in India, half his dinners consisted of ‘teen sada dosa,’ or three plain dosas with lentil soup and coconut chutney. Thank heaven for cheap home-delivery food in Mumbai.

So, now, once in a while we get a hankering for some good dosa, idli and some other South Indian snacky/breakfasty specialties. One such fine day we were out in Missisauga and discovered Sarvanaa Bhavan. Walking in there was like beaming ourselves up into the motherland. The tables, the decor, the dishes, the smells-pretty darned authentic. I knew that Sarvanaa Bhavan is a chain out of Chennai (Madras) India but didn’t quite expect it to be such a dedicated replica of the original dosa establishments in South India! The dosas and all the other food were spot on, and the South Indian filter coffee at the end was a great end to the meal. If you’ve never had a South Indian filter coffee, go for that if for nothing else. It’s basically very strong coffee (the coffee powder itself is a blend of coffee beans and chicory root) with hot milk and sugar, mixed into a frothy goodness. Only, ask for sugar on the side and add as much as you want, unless you like your coffee very sweet.

Since it was afternoon, I also tried the fried lentil doughnuts called medu vada, a favourite from childhood. As usual, my eyes were hungrier than my stomach and I couldn’t finish all the food I had ordered. It didn’t help that the food was all super cheap and raised temptation to keep ordering!

But seriously, if your repertoire of Indian food is butter chicken, tandoori chicken and palak paneer (all of which are delicious and I highly recommend them, but sticking to just these dishes is a pity when there’s such a variety for you to try in Indian food) get yourself to Sarvanaa Bhavan.

There are a few different locations around the GTA. The website is:

http://www.sarvanaabhavan.ca

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Journey to Ethiopia: Sheba on College

I love Ethiopia, its people, and mostly I love its food! When I travelled to Ethiopia I was so excited to have injera (Ethiopian bread that’s like a spongy, savoury pancake) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Funny thing is: when I went to Ethiopia I was still vegetarian and mostly ate injera with shiro, a smooth paste of chickpea powder, Ethiopian spices, and gobs of butter. Except for the fact that I was in Ethiopia right after Easter so I did end up eating some meat (got it served on a plate and that was that). Yes, you do get lots of other stuff in Ethiopia, especially in Addis, and there’s almost always pasta on the menu thanks to the Italian influence in Ethiopia. But why oh why would anyone want to eat anything else when they get unlimited access to the amazing cuisine of Ethiopia. In Ethiopia!

Despite (because of?) having been brought up in a knife-and-fork-using, salt-pepper-sweet paprika-herbs-seasoning oriented culture, my husband loves Ethiopian food too. So since moving to Toronto, we’ve tried out a few places. Generally, most Ethiopian restaurants we’ve tried have been pretty good.

Sheba on College (North side, just east of Bathurst) is one we tried recently with my husband’s (then) Ethiopian-Canadian boss. And my oh my was it an experience. First, it was like eating in someone’s home. The hospitality was wonderful. Our host ordered the food-4-5 different vegetables, spicy tibs (fried beef cubes), and doro wot, Ethiopia’s most famous chicken curry. We ate and ate until our stomachs couldn’t handle it anymore and there was still food left. Afterwards we had the pleasure of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, with popcorn and everything. Just like in Ethiopia.

The best thing was: we went back minus the Ethiopian-Canadian boss and all we had to do was say ‘just give us what we had last time’. We switched out the spicy tibs to non-spicy and it was still delicious. A good contrast to the incredibly spicy Doro wot. So good. I just have one wish: that they would make Key wot (beef wot), which along with shiro, is my favourite Ethiopian dish.

If you’ve never had Ethiopian food before, remember: you all (everyone in your party, not everyone in the restaurant) eat in from one platter, and you eat with your fingers. If you really want to be authentic, you can also feed the people dining with you once in a while (I’ve never been that authentic). And don’t be shy-it’s easier than you think and much, much tastier. Food is about all senses, and touch is certainly a key sense.

Sheba’s address is:

418 College Street

http://www.shebarestaurant.ca/

Cookies again! Kensington Market Bakery

So about a year ago I gave up eating most grains (except for quinoa and the occasional guilt-laden spoon of rice), dairy, and sugar. I still cheat once in a while but am pretty good ninety-something percent of the time.

I’m not a huge cookie fanatic except at Christmas-time, when I become the proud baker’s assistant to my Bavarian husband, who churns kilos upon kilos of the most buttery, overly-chocolate-laden, yet lightest of German Christmas cookies.

Yet, I’ve found cookie-love in Toronto. Generally when we go out for coffee, I don’t find a pastry that doesn’t have the ingredients that I no longer eat. BUT there’s this tiny little bakery in the Annex that has cookies that I CAN EAT! I was so, so happy to discover that the Kensington Market Bakery has cookies made with just a bit of maple syrup, with flours made from quinoa, beans, spelt (which I don’t eat), kamut (don’t eat that either), or rice (could cheat a tad bit more often). I’ve had their quinoa-goji cookie and their bean flour-date cookie. Not such a fan of the bean flour (no it doesn’t taste like beans but doesn’t taste like much of anything else either). On cookie/pastry craving days though, the quinoa cookie hits the spot.

They’ve got a bunch of other vegan desserts I haven’t tried yet but if low-sugar, healthier baked goods is your type of thing, go for it.

The Kensington Natural Bakery is on 460 Bloor Street West (North side of Bloor between Spadina and Bathurst). The website’s here: http://www.kensingtonnaturalbakery.com/

Twenty pounds of beef: the temptations of The Stop Farmer’s Market at Wychwood Barns

It takes a lot to get me to wander North of Bloor (NOB), the holy line that divides the real Toronto city dwellers and the rest of the population of the GTA.

The Stop’s Farmer’s Market at Wychwood Barns (just south of St.Clair on Christie) must be special, for I have ventured there not one, not two, but three times already. And I’m hooked.

I love Farmer’s Markets because you get fresh, beautiful products directly from people who make them. Their pride shines as you talk to them to find out more about how they grow or make their product, or to seek ideas about how to use it.

The one at Wychwood Barns is one of the rare Farmer’s Markets in Toronto that is open year round. So the first times I went it was winter, quite the antithesis of the Hollywood image of wandering around a sun-drenched market in a flowery dress and flip flops. And even in the middle of winter it was wonderful. In fact, it was a little less crowded, more relaxed. It gave me the time to wander around and discover some wonderful businesses like Chocosol, Evelyn’s Crackers and much, much more. Wychwood Barns is a perfect site for a wintertime Farmer’s Market and I especially loved the greenhouse that anyone can stroll through.

So the second time I was at the market I was waiting for my friend Asha to finish buying some fabulous looking mushrooms (with which she made me an even more fabulous tasting frittata!). Right next to the mushroom lady was the lady from Green Gate farms with coolers full of sustainably, humanely raised meat. Now, I’m used to buying sustainable, humane meat, but I generally buy it fresh from one of the butchers I’ve already mentioned. No matter, I was just browsing. And lo and behold, I found a cut of meat my husband had been desperately searching for: the rouladen cut. It’s very common in Germany but no one had heard of it until I spotted it at the Green Gate farms table. So I bought some and sure enough, it was the stuff.

We’ve got a busy couple of months now so it seemed like a good idea to stock up. We went to Green Gate farms’ website and found out that they have great deals on sampler boxes. We ordered a 20lb beef sampler box and some extra rouladen meat (that doesn’t automatically come with the sampler box). And lo and behold, yesterday we had 20 lbs of great beef, plus some roulade the farmer had freshly cut for us just the day before. Yum-o.

Here’s some info:
http://thestop.org/the-stop’s-farmers’-market
http://www.wix.com/greengatefarms/home

Barque: The post I almost don’t want to share

I almost didn’t want to share this post because then people might read it, and go to Barque, and make it even more difficult for me and my friends to make reservations there.
It’s that good. A fellow foodie ex-chef told me about it and we went there with our husbands. We left ourselves in the hands of the chef, asking for a feast for 4. And we ate, and ate, and ate and ate. And it was sooo good.
Oh I know everyone knows about it, Barque’s been named one of the 10 best new restaurants in Toronto recently. But I’ve been to some of the others (that shall go nameless). And they’re good, and the food is tasty. But more often than not, I end up shaking my head thinking ‘Toronto isn’t really a foodie city if they looked for the 10 best and this one made it’. But all accolades for Barque are well deserved.
And it’s not pretentious. Great food, great service, no pretentiousness? SOLD.
I’m not going to tell you any more about the food, nor where Barque’s located. I’ve revealed all I’m going to.

Hansel and Gretel’s dream in Toronto: amazing gingerbread

We moved to Toronto from Germany in August 2010. By the time November came around we realized that we were thousands of miles away from the Christmas goodies that Germany is so famous for! So, I did a bit of searching on the internet and found that Stubbe Chocolates on Dupont, just east of Christie, had some once in a while. We called up one Saturday morning and were told that the lebkuchen (German gingerbread-which totally kicks the behind of any other gingerbread in the world) had just arrived, and if we want some we’d better hurry. So, hurry we did-on over to Stubbe. What impressed us to begin with is that the shop looks just like the higher end chocolate shops in Europe. We could look through to the back where in the open kitchen the staff were cutting pieces off large trays of fresh lebkuchen. Matthias was a bit skeptical so I nudged him to go on back and test the wares. The folks at Stubbe were more than happy to have him test the lebkuchen and after approving the merchandise, we got some to take home. Daniel Stubbe, the owner, personally spoke with Matthias and also invited him to the German Stammtish (meetup group), which was very sweet. We’re yet to go but we will someday. In the meantime, we’re so, so happy to have a source of authentic German chocolates and chocolate-based pastries (especially Sacher torte, which is Austrian but hey, close enough).

Here’s more info: http://www.stubbechocolates.com

The tres leches cake that wasn’t. But whatever it was, was sooo delicious

A couple of weeks ago my friend Mariana waxed so poetic about her singular tres leeches cake eating experience that I decided to make sure she would have another tres leches cake to try. Of course d-day came around and I had neither gotten my act together to make a tres leches cake nor to go to the one place in town I knew was sure to have it (it’s Los Arrierios just north of Bloor on Jane-yum-o Colombian food) during opening hours. So on that fateful Saturday morning (aka last Saturday), I got up and started to phone around every Latin American bakery I could find. One – Pastelleria Barreda – picked up. At 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning Señor Barreda agreed to make me a fresh tres leches cake by noon the same day. I was a bit nervous so I asked Señor Barreda 3 times whether he was sure it was a tres leches cake, and he said it was. So just after noon I got to Pastelleria Barreda (on Christie, just south of Dupont) and saw this beautiful white cream cake. That didn’t look like a tres leches cake. So I asked Señor Barreda again and he reconfirmed it was a tres leches cake. We went on to the friends’ house where we were all gathering and I was super nervous, so I insisted on testing the cake before Mariana got there. We cut into it and soon there lay before me a slice of gorgeous cake. A gorgeous cake that was definitely not a tres leches cake, but a delicious sponge cake with a layer of dulce de leche and snow white whipped cream. It was delicious and Mariana was happy with the effort, but the quest for an authentic tres leches cake remains.

When I was in his cake shop I asked Señor Barreda (who incidentally is from Chile) what his most popular cakes were. He said the most popular was a layered puff-pastry and walnut cream cake, followed by a sponge cake with fresh fruit, followed by the tres leches (which was actually a dulce de leche). Regardless, this is a very, very cute cake shop that also stocks savoury Chilean empanadas and speciality Chilean pastries. And it looks like it was set up 50 years ago and never changed. This is one of the many reasons I love Toronto. You get up at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, you call a Chilean bakery, and by noon you pick up a delicious unique cake from an ancient looking bakery run by the cutest elderly couple.

For the GPS friendly Pastelleria Barreda is at 262 Christie Street.

Favorite hair stylist: Devin Payne, Civello Salon on Queen Street

So, I think most women would agree that finding a good hair stylist is as important as finding a good doctor or dentist. When we moved to Toronto, M and I played it safe and went to the Aveda Academy Salon at 125 King Street East. M has had the 18 dollar cuts there and we’ve both had ‘advanced graduate’ cuts (about $45 each), which were pretty good. The only thing is that you don’t get the same person very long. Even the advanced grads move on from time to time.

One day M came home from the Aveda Academy Salon with his best haircut ever from a ‘new’ advanced graduate named Devin. I got completely curious, of course, so the next time I needed a haircut I made an appointment with Devin. Well, Devin was a magician-he cut off enough inches from my hair, cut in more layers than I would’ve otherwise thought possible (with my frizzy wavy-curly texture) and gave it a lovely shape. In short, he have me a really, really pretty haircut!

But of course, within a couple of months Devin was gone from the Academy. I tried to convince myself that other advanced graduates would also do a decent job but I didn’t want to try anyone else anymore. So, I took a shot, called the Academy and got a pleasant surprise! Devin had moved, but within the Aveda salon family in Toronto. He is now at the Civello Salon on the corner of Queen St. and McCaul Street.

M and I have happy haircut experiences again. Devin is as sweet as ever and a true artist. If you want happy hair times too, here’s where Civello is located:

269 Queen Street W.
Toronto, Ontario
Canada, M5V 1Z9
Tel : 416.977.7755

A little bit of Germany in Toronto: Denninger’s

No one does Christmas like the Germans do. Christmastime is my favorite time to be in Germany. In fact, just about now Christmas markets are popping up all over Germany. These are essentially groups of little wooden houses that go up in all market squares in all cities in the country. Each little wooden house has different goodies to eat, drink, or buy-mulled wine, waffles, sausages, wooden ornaments, handmade gifts, etc.

At Christmastime grocery stores, bakeries and specialty shops in Germany are full of the season’s specialties: Lebkuchen (German gingerbread), all sorts of cookies, stollen (German fruit cake), marzipan, special candies, what have you. Last year and again this year, we won’t be in Germany for Christmastime. Both years we were fortunate enough to get a small supply of M’s favorite lebkuchen either sent over or brought over and when I visited Germany this past summer I picked up some supplies to help recreate some of the other treats.

Still, we were longing for a place to get some more ready made Christmas goodies. M is also constantly on the hunt for German style bread (they do amazing bread in Germany). And I wanted some special supplies that I completely forgot to buy back in Germany (hey honestly, who thinks of Christmas baking ingredients in July?).

Thanks to a colleague of Matthias’ we learned of Denninger’s, a small chain of German supermarkets scattered around Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton. We visited the Oakville location this past Saturday. The timing was perfect as this weekend is the first Advent, which starts the Christmas season in Germany.

Denninger’s was a sight for Christmas-treat-sore eyes. They had all the usual suspects: lebkuchen, stollen, dominosteine, chocolate nonpareils, zimtsterne, marzipan, spekulatius, peffernusse, and more. They also carry a larger range of Dimpflmeier bread than most other places too (Dimpflmeier is a local bread brand that makes quite a bit of quality German style bread). I also got ground hazelnuts, coconut shortening straight from Germany, vanilla sugar, and oblaten, all vital ingredients for some of my favorite Christmas cookies! M was less than convinced about the meat section but the preserves were 100% authentic, from the fatherland. Oh, and the prices were very reasonable.

If you’ve got a car, and are looking for something beyond the usual in terms of Christmas goodies, get yourself to Denninger’s.

Here’s the link to Denninger’s website so you can look up the various locations: http://www.denningers.com/

Favorite west end cafe: Mascot

M and I love Toronto. The more you read this blog, the more you’ll discover that!

We love walking around and discovering neighborhoods that native Torontonians find absolutely mundane. For those who’ve lived here all their lives, of course the neighborhoods of Toronto are nothing special, but for us each new neighborhood is a discovery.

So, one fine Saturday we took off on foot to explore Parkdale. I really like this neighborhood, even though it’s a bit worn in places. If you walk through the main streets of Parkdale (generally sections of Queen St. W. and King St. W.) you get a sense of community, of people who are regulars in cafes around the block, and who keep running into each other at streetcorners.

As we got into Parkdale we felt like having a warm drink somewhere and went into The Mascot, the first cafe we spotted. At first glance Mascot looks more like a club than a cafe, but once you get inside it’s got this cool vibe. It’s spacious, all wood, and has random eclectic furniture and artwork strewn about. The coffee (Reunion Island) is excellent, and so is the tea (Smith tea, the brand currently owned by Steve Smith, one of the godfathers of high quality in America today-you have Steve to thank for founding Stash, Tazo, etc. and kick-starting specialty tea).

But what we really, really liked is the atmosphere and the service. The Mascot is owned by 3 partners who give their heart and soul to the place. They did their homework before choosing their tea and coffee lines, got great coffee serveware, and have fantastic customer service that is completely natural. M had a latte-he’s a latte connoisseur and gave the drink high marks. I had a lovely treat: among the varieties of Smith tea available, I spotted a Pussimbing second flush (Darjeeling tea), which I had to try. You see, my friend Ashok owns Pussimbing tea garden and my friend Ajay is the tea expert for all of Ashok’s tea gardens. Ajay is one of my tea gurus (and both he and Ashok are friends of Steve’s). So I had to see if this stuff was really as it should be. And wouldn’t you know it: it was some of the freshest, most delicious Darjeeling tea I’ve had outside India. Sipping the tea transported me back to Pussimbing estate, where I first tried the wonderful tea they produce.

Of course I couldn’t hold back and started gushing about how good the tea was. So one of the owners promptly took out all the private stash of high end Japanese and Chinese teas he had and started showing me his teas, having me sniff them, and wanted me to try all of them. So sweet!

Unfortunately I don’t make it out to Parkdale often so I haven’t had a chance to go back. But I recommend it to one and all, especially if you happen to be in Parkdale.

Here are the contacts:

The Mascot
1267 Queen St. W
416.533.2888