Buca

604 King Street WToronto, ON M5V 1M6 Canada • (416) 865-1600 • buca.ca/king.html
 

I hadn’t been to Toronto in over a decade, but I remember having some great meals there. In fact, if you ever read my review of Mercer Kitchen, then you will know that it was the sushi pizza from Toronto that is somewhat responsible for finding my wife. So, it probably goes without saying that I didn’t really need another reason to love the Toronto food scene more than I already do, but then Buca happened.

An epic love story all its own, spanning across eleven rapturous dishes. It was like a scene out of Gone With the Wind- me running into the arms of antipasti, secondi and dolci… and antipasti, secondi and dolci all running into my mouth.

To start, Buca is a massive, industrial space right across the street from another strong Italian option, Gusto 101. That said, Buca is a cut above by all measures, including price tag. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t worth every last loonie.

From the get go, Buca served up more wow’s than Sam and the Firefly, starting with their salmon crudo with goat yogurt, zucchini blossoms, capers, cipollini and dill. Quickly followed delectable, little, warm rosemary, garlic and olive oil bread knots and a strong charcuterie board loaded with assorted cheeses and salumi.

And then Buca stopped playing around and brought the heat. Showing off in the most unlikely of places like a salad of mustard greens filled with berries from a local farm, dressed with goat yogurt and an olive oil of the gods.

This was then chased by a simple, beautiful buratta pizza. But all of this matters not, because the bigoli, aka duck egg pasta with duck offal ragu, venetian spices and mascarpone came in like the second coming and stuck the landing like Mary Lou Retton, crossbred with a cat wearing spikes on its feet.

The prime rib might’ve been the most mortal of the dishes we had or perhaps it was more a dimension of comparison, because it was served back to back with the branzino which stole the show.

For the final act, the dolci, Buca reimagined a Tiramisu with espresso soaked tapioca biscuits, mascarpone and chocolate mousse all layered deep in glass I wish was a yard in hindsight. And while the gelato was no slouch either, after that Tiramisu I could’ve just curled up in a ball and died happy.

Easily among the best Italian restaurants in the world, including Italy.

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Red Rooster

310 Lenox AveNew York, NY 10027 • (212) 792-9001 • redroosterharlem.com
 

While I applaud and appreciate Marcus Samuelson’s mission to make world-class cuisine more accessible, I wasn’t quite blown away. Especially in light of the fact that that others out there are also doing it and doing it better. Such as Danny Meyer with Shake Shack or David Chang with Momofuku Ko to name just a few. Also, having been to Aquavit back in the day, when Marcus was there, this is nothing by comparison. Granted it’s a bit like comparing apples to cured fish, but even quality to quality for what it’s supposed to be, things weren’t even in the same league. Aquavit was an experience. This was a meal.

Now for the deets. Starting with the vibe when you walk in, which is absolutely electric. Probably my single favorite thing about the place. Everything is jumping. From the people to the sounds and smells. Even the walls have a life of their own. In fact, the most docile things in the joint are the flavors.

For starters, I found the cornbread to be a big whatevs. Sure, it’s cut that they’re shaped like mandolins, but they a bland and worthless without a slathering of the honey butter and/or the tomato jam. But at that point you have to ask, what wouldn’t taste good with butter and jam on top?

The chopped salad was also pretty basic by all modern-day standards. And not even executed that well as the roasted pears were not very roasted. The spiced walnuts were not all that spiced. The ricotta salata was either not creamy enough or balanced enough in the dish to have any effect. Leaving the apples, Swiss chard and frisee to fend for itself.

The crab fritters and the meatballs were the only starters I would ever reconsider getting. The meatballs being the better of the two, made thrice as nice with a trio of veal, beef and pork. The fritters are also good, though, made with a blue crab base, which is then twisted by some “bird funk” (I’m guessing either chicken fat or fried chicken batter or both) and fermented lime aioli. It was unique but not amazing.

For my main I had to go with the Hot Honey Yardbird, having heard all about his incredible fried chicken, and while it is by all accounts delicious, it is nowhere near the best I have ever had. In fact, from Florida to New York I’ve had better at Highball & Harvest and ABC Kitchen. That said, the collard greens beneath the chicken were beneath nothing else I have ever had. Absolutely delectable and the show-stealers of that dish by a country mile.

For sides, Marcus had another duo of smash hits, but ironically neither of them were the smashed potatoes. Instead, I much preferred the brussels sprouts and the signature mac and greens. The former has almost become a given these days now that everyone but Panera is now serving killer sprouts, but latter is quite interesting because I’ve read a few polarizing dings on Yelp about the mac and I have to blatantly disagree. Okay, so not entirely. I do have to admit they are mega-loaded with calories and cream. But the value prop is still very much in check if you ask me, because arteries be damned is it good!

Come dessert I was pretty certain this was a strong three knives and I was really hoping for Marcus to pull out all the stops and show me some of that Ethiopian-Scandinavian-French Culinary Institute-Chopped jury magic, but alas I found both the chocolate mousse and the sweet potato donuts to be more filler than fabulous. I’d rather have another bit of that mac.

So, Marcus, let’s look in the basket and see what I have for you today. Three knives, lots of hype, a great vibe and a bushel of hit and miss.

Glasserie

95 Commercial St. New York, NY 11222(718) 389-0640glasserienyc.com

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Being that it is currently a James Beard nominee, this was way up on my list of Brooklyn bites, so when the chance arose to dine here on an expense account, I was in Ferocious heaven.

Regrettably, heavenly is not exactly how I would describe the aroma upon entering. Rather the word dishwater comes to mind. Such a turn off right out of the gate to be hit by a wall of wafting stank from the kitchen opposite the foyer. Not great planning on that one. Nor on the chairs, which make you feel like you’re auditioning for the shrinking role in Alice in Wonderland. Fortunately the rest of the setting is nice, with its exposed brick, charming divided-light windows and mid-century touches, mixed with a little rustic industrialism.

In terms of food, I really appreciated the inventive fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Not that there isn’t already an inherent overlap between the two, but the way the chef blended those elements was truly original.

Not wasting any time, our painfully hip waitress delivered a series of wows, the biggest and Ultimatest being the flatbread with labneh. Served piping hot, so much so that no one could even tear it apart for the first several minutes. And the labneh (yogurt) is unbelievably thick and creamy, filled with a lagoon of wonderful olive oil and harissa. The grilled bread was also good, but next to the flat, it was Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

I also loved the mixed nuts with leblebi. The latter are dried, crunchy chickpeas that are popular during cocktail hour in Turkey. The olives were also nice. Home marinated I’m guessing, because the stems were still on many of them.

After that the courses started hitting the table fast and furious, with a lot of hits, but unfortunately a few misses as well. The hits for me would be the lamb sweetbreads, done grilled as opposed to fried, which I really liked. Feels like a more faithful preparation. The rabbit tacos were also quite nice, served in what I believe was a jicama taco shell. The stuffed cabbage was such a blast from my past that I almost had to love it. And it did Bubby proud, granted a much more inventive spin, made with hanger steak inside, as well as couscous.

In the middle of the field I would put the chicken entree, the leaves and leaves salad, the Syrian cheese plate (pictured) and the Brussels sprouts. All are good, but the fact that sprouts are on every friggin’ menu these days is growing a bit played. And while I appreciate the brown bag serving vessel, I can’t get past the “me too” factor. It’s like kale and Brussels sprouts are being mandated by some sort of foodie mafia overlord.

Bringing up the rear would be the cauliflower and the hanger steak. The former for being way too basic to the point where you could make as good or better at home, and the latter because it was undercooked and chewy, without enough flavor to make the jaw work worthwhile.

In terms of cocktails, they all sounded better than they tasted and the Arak, while served up on a silver platter, literally, is as basic as it gets at its core. The only inventive twist being an actual twist- and a shot grapefruit juice to mix in with your ice, water and anise booze. For a better Arak cocktail try the Hana at Balaboosta.

During dessert things went a little off the rails. The cookie assortment was easily the best. The ice creams went 1 for 3, pistachio being the only one anybody touched. The cardamom and tahini both melted in the bowl like a lonely Wicked Witch of the North. And the chocolate mousse was so bad it shat the bed, or should I say the diaper, which is what it looked like once you opened the bag, like a diaper with shit in it. Not sure what they were thinking on this one, or more than likely it was a lack thinking that lead to this abomination of presentation, but unless you want to test the fortitude of your constitution, I’d take a pass.

So while the performance most certainly ended on a foul note, the earlier winners were enough to carry it over the mid-line.

3 teeth

Burger & Lobster

39 W 19th St. New York, NY 10011 • (646) 833-7532burgerandlobster.com

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It’s a very fun concept. Just three items on the menu: a burger, a half lobster or a lobster roll. Each for twenty dollars and each served with fries and a salad. Which makes it an ideal experience for the indecisive.

It’s also ideal for those who are claustrophobic because the dining room is massive. How big is it? Well let’s just say that if you should venture downstairs for a trip to the WC, you will pass through a second, much smaller dinning room that, if it were a stand alone restaurant unto itself, would also be considered a huge dining area.

In terms of food, however, that’s where the good times end. This place is nowhere near the 4.5 stars it gets on Yelp. The only thing that I would give praise to would be the lobster roll. It’s done with a classic mayonnaise based dressing, but done lightly so it lets the lobster meat shine. Also, they nail it on the bun. Perfectly toasted and buttery.

And speaking of buns, the burger has an interesting one as well. Heavily seeded, adding a nice texture to every bite. Regretfully everything else between the bun is significantly less interesting. And, the burger was overcooked.

But how about those sides? Well, they are more smoke and mirrors than anything, making you feel like the $20 is a good value. However, when you discover that the salad is over-dressed and borderline inedible and that the fries are not even worth the jaw strength it takes to chew them, you come to realize that you just dropped twenty on a mediocre burger. So stick with the lobster options if you don’t want to feel cheated.

As for dessert, the options are also minimal according to theme. A chocolate mousse which I found to be pretty bad. Had one bite and done. And a raspberry cheesecake, which was definitely way more of a pudding than a “cake,” but at least it was worth eating.

2 teeth

 

The Modern Pantry

47-48 St John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ United Kingdom Clerkenwell •  +44 20 7553 9210 themodernpantry.co.uk

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I’m not exactly sure why I knew this from just looking at the eclectic menu and the vibe of the place, but somehow I just sensed that the owner was from New Zealand. Thus far, a distinction that has proved to be above average more times than not.

As for the vibe I speak of, it is quaint and minimalist, with an intimate-sized dining room, which is a nice way of saying small, but cozy. And friendly, laid back service which made for a pleasant stay- well, that and a glass of their house-made white wine, which was quite nice actually.

For my starter I went with their signature dish (pictured), an inventive and tasty spin on omelet made with prawn and hot peppers. And if you like breakfast for dinner, go for it. That said, it’s quite filling for an app, so bring your appetite or order something else.

The Cornish cod entrée was also quite nice, served over a bed of lentils, accented by mango. The fish was cooked perfectly and when all of the ingredients made its way onto your fork, the flavors were good, but a touch on the bland side, especially once the ratio of goodies to fish ran out.

And for dessert I chose the equally inventive sounding chocolate mousse. Unfortunately looks aren’t the only things that can be deceiving. This isn’t to say that it was bad by any stretch, but it was basically just a creamy chocolaty mousse with a few candied hazelnuts to mix things up. But the expected heat from the chili never managed to show up on the palate. So all in all, a solid showing, but not exactly a showstopper either.

3 teeth

Asiate

Mandarin Oriental 80 Columbus Circle New York, NY 10023(212) 805-8881http://www.mandarinoriental.com

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The view alone is worth the visit, but the food doesn’t disappoint either. Well, for the most part.

The wife and I had the brunch tasting menu comprised of 4 appetizers, two mains and two desserts. Of the apps, the ahi tuna and the butternut squash soup were both a tad on the blah side. The foie gras terrine and the edamame empeñada were much better.

The stand outs, came during the mains. All four were excellent. I went breakfasty, if that’s a word, with the caramelized banana french toast and the BLT and egg. While the wife went more lunchy, choosing the sweet potato ravioli with market veggies and the striped sea bass. I honestly can’t tell which of the four was the best, they were all that excellent.

Then, came dessert, a chocolate mousse and an apple cake. Both, unfortunately were lack luster, ending us on a down note.

That is, until you stop by the treat station on the way out, where you can load up on goodies to take home. And just like that, all was right with the world again.

4 teeth

Maca

Hidalgo s/nBetween Boulevard Marina & Emiliano Zapata, Cabo San Lucas 23456, Mexico • 52 624 1434143
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The place was woefully empty when we went, which had us very nervous at first. But, being the only table in the place ensured that we had excellent service. Every waiter and even the owner tended to our every need.

But that is only a fraction of why the score is so high. The décor is also beautifully and thoughtfully done. Tasteful, clean, contemporary meets rustic. The wood doors alone are worth mention. So are the bathrooms. Every detail was thought through on this place. Which only made it even more upsetting that they were empty.

So now you have to be thinking, “okay, so the food had to suck.” But that’s what’s so crazy. It was EXCELLENTE! The Tapas was fantastic. From the shrimp to the octopus to the Manchego and Serrano Ham.

And as for entrees, the duck with cranberry relish was phenomenal. The only miss of the night was the paella. Very bland.

Even both desserts were perfection. One was a chocolate mousse. The other was a cinnamon dusted cream tart-like thing with ice cream. Not sure exactly what it was, but I devoured it before ever learning to pronounce it.

I HIGHLY recommend this place. My favorite meal in Mexico. Please give them business, as it would be a crime for this place to disappear with so many other lack luster places in town, that are packed with tourists eating the same old Mexican slop that you find at 98% of the restaurants there.

5 teeth

 

Mantel

22 Rue St Antoine, 06400 Cannes, France • Phone: +33 4 93 39 13 10

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Mantel has high marks on Tripadvisor, but apart from the beef entrée, I can’t say it lived up to the stars. Décor is nice. Service was good by French standards- but the food, on a whole, just never seemed to cross that line from okay to great.

The zucchini flower appetizer was a prime example of this, fried and flavorless. Which is rare. Normally there is a filling with zucchini flowers, because they don’t have a ton of flavor on their own. Unless, they are incredibly fresh, but then you wouldn’t want to deep fry them.

Another miss was a special fish for six people that they down in a white cream sauce that didn’t quite taste decadent enough to make it worth spoiling the healthiness of the fish. Perhaps the fish wasn’t fresh and they were masking it? Whatever the reason, it wound up tasting somewhat bland.

The next two things were so close to great, but just fell short. First would be the burrata caprese. The presentation is stunning. But the burrata should be creamier (which is kinda the point with burrata) and the dish lacked the salt it needed to make the tomatoes pop. Granted you can always add that yourself, but at a restaurant claiming to be at a certain caliber, you would expect things to come ready to eat as the chef intended- which ideally he intended to be flavorful.

The other near hit was the risotto with black truffles. This might’ve gotten higher marks from me, but earlier in the week we ate at L’Affable and they are a master of risotto. So by comparison, this one paled. A touch over cooked- and the truffles really didn’t have that strong of a flavor.

And last but not least, dessert. And I had several. The chocolate mousse cake with walnuts was the best. A solid good. Skip everything else. The raspberry tart, for example, was once again flavorless and not worth the calories. Plus, there is a MUCH better one just down the hill in Old Cannes at Astoux and Brun.

Sorry Mantel. You need to up your game.

2 teeth