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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Pearl at Longshore Restaurant & Bar

260 Compo Rd SWestport, CT 06880 • (203) 557-6260 • pearlatlongshore.com

Four!!!! That’s the knife count I’m giving, because it is very seldom that country club food is ever this good. Not even remotely. But once again, Westport manages to buck suburban expectations to show the world that you can have your crab cake and eat it too.

Like most country clubs the setting is a stunner, after all, you’re usually sitting amidst an immaculately landscaped golf course. But very few clubs are on the ocean, overlooking the water. Which decidedly takes things up a notch as you sit on the outdoor patio, overlooking a sailing class as they practice in the channel between there and Saugatuck Island. Also, a little know secret, Westport is apparently where Great Gatsby was inspired, looking across the Long Island Sound to the houses on the other shore. And while I sat there having my brunch, I must admit, I felt pretty great.

Things did start off a little rocky, however, with poor service and the Nutella cinnamon buns that tasted a lot like Pillsbury. Not that I have anything against the Dough Boy, but when I go out to a restaurant I expect them to up the game over things my kids could make.

But after that, Pearl went on a tear. The warm, fresh-baked bread and olive oil was so good you could tell it was the start of something special. Then came the Maine lobster benny which was absolutely superb! The eggs, runny, the potatoes spicy and the lobster…lobster-y?

The egg white frittata was also delish, although a bit inconsistent. My wife’s was loaded with all sorts of goodies and full of flavor. Whereas my mother’s was anemic with ingredients and the lesser of the two. So if you get gipped, I’d send it back for a do-over.

The French toast is also really good, soaked like a baller, dusted with confection and berries and hard to resist wolfing it down before anyone asks for a bite.

The only miss for me was the Belgian Waffle. It’s pretty pedestrian compared to the other options.

As for dinner, I haven’t actually been yet. Only for drinks, but watching some of the dishes go by, I have very high hopes.

Estadio

1520 14th St NW Washington, DC 20005 • (202) 319-1404 • estadio-dc.com
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Hey Estadio, the Spanish Inquisition called. They want their décor back. I kid Estadio because I actually like the place, but the décor really is a bit much with its giant throne seating and iron studded everything. I’m guessing Medieval Times must’ve had a yard sale or something. Boom!

Okay, I’m getting snarky, but to be fair, I did say “like” and not “love,” which means there is plenty of room for improvement in this mixed bag. For starters, the sangria was just okay, as was roughly half the menu. The jamon crostini, the pork croquettes, the grilled octopus and the short rib over horseradish mashed potatoes all falling into the land of not.

A notch above the ho-hum were the sizzling shrimp floating in a garlic olive oil that was bread-dipping good. Not great mind you.

But with so much meh, how could I still manage to like it, you ask? Because three dishes soared. The salmon crostini was fantastic, making the jamon look like the pig that it was and the foie gras scrambled eggs with black truffle butter served over toast was also a top two boxer, miraculously done in such a way that kept the flavors on the lighter side, so it was nowhere near as heavy as it sounds. Not that I’d recommend going jogging afterward, but it’s not a gut-bomb either. Just the bomb.

But the front-runner of the night was the crispy Brussels sprouts dish with pine nuts and bacon. They were so damn good they were damn near an Ultimate, tasting a lot like the prep you’ll find at All’onda in New York. In fact, they were so indisputable, that they’re probably about the only thing in DC that you could get a Democrat and a Republican to agree on.

3 teeth

251 Lex

251 Lexington Ave. Mount Kisco, NY 10549 • (914) 218-8156 •  251lex.com

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I was excited to try this relative newcomer, which seemed to have promise from the outside looking in. Unfortunately, the promise only seems to be on the outside. In fact, the only nice thing I can say about the inside is that the people are nice. Oh, and the prices were pretty great, granted it was restaurant week, but only twelve dollars for a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is worthy of a star in and of itself.

Beyond the wine and the warm pita with olive oil, the restaurant falls short on virtually every other metric possible, coming off like a child’s doll house dressed up to play a game of restaurant. The kids, a.k.a. waiters, inside trying so hard to please that it’s almost charming, but when they keep spilling water everywhere and forgetting silverware, the charm wears thin.

In terms of grub, nothing was god awful, but if tepid is the response you’re looking for, then you’ve come to the right place. Starting with the oysters, they were probably the best thing of the night, clean and fresh, served with a beet mignonette that overpowers them, so I would skip it. And while we’re on the subject of skipping things, the kale Caesar salad was cream based, a major no-no, and blah based, also a no-no.

For entrees, the salmon with cracked bulgur struggled to even register a pulse, as did the signature octopus dish, served with Israeli couscous in a skillet that’s so friggin piping hot you could probably still use it as a kiln to bake ceramics after it cools down a touch.

With the writing already firmly on the wall, there was little dessert could do to sway my already solidified opinion and as one would expect, dessert did little to even try. The Greek yogurt and honey panna cotta with fig mostrada, while interesting in theory, proved par for the course in terms of taste. That said, I’m not the biggest panna cotta fan, so the fact that I didn’t hate it is a major coup for 251. And finally the gelati was also semi-decent in the most average sense possible, falling short of supermarket gems like Talenti and Steve’s.

And falling short was theme throughout. Short of expectations and hopes. Really not sure what people see in this place or why it has the crowd or reviews that it does, but I suppose I’ll chalk it up to the fact that people are easily fooled. Case in point, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president. Mic drop.

2 teeth

Bar Pitti

268 Ave of the Americas New York, NY 10014 • (212) 982-3300

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No longer in its heyday, Bar Pitti is still trucking along, doing its thing and keepin’ it real. And by that I mean the real deal authentic Italian, not trying to cover things up with inventive culinary gimmicks or posh smoke and mirrors. This is just bare bones belissimo.

Now I want to reiterate that when I said “authentic” I meant it. Like as if you were in Italy. As in the specials menu is just a chalkboard that they prop up on your table sans translations. So, you either better be Italian, understand Italian, have Google translate warmed up and ready to go on your smartphone, or be prepared to be insulted by your waiter who will also ask if you know what lasagna is. This is not me trying to be clever, this is them being assy. And yes, they actually asked me this with a straight face. So not the kind of service that’ll give you the warm and fuzzies. The food, however, is.

Simple is the theme top to bottom here and the ingredients carry the day quite capably. For example the arugula salad with tomatoes and parmesan is so damn basic, merely dressed with a touch of garlic, oil and lemon, and yet it sings with simplicity.

The prosciutto toast is also deceptively plain Jane, but the prosciutto they use is so phenomenal it puts anything you can buy in Eataly to shame.

The pastas are also tremendous, both in taste and portion. Of the two we tried, I found the lasagna (yes, I now know what it is) to be the clear winner. So layered with flavors and ooey gooey goodness. The artichoke and leek spaghetti with olive oil, on the other hand, was a touch bland for my tastes.

But all of the above went down quite nicely with the Multipuciano they offer by the glass.

The only other miss for me was the affagato. I found the espresso to be too strong and bitter, as opposed to rich and flavorful. I MUCH prefer the one at Fortina in Armonk, because not only is the coffee better, but I love the textural addition of amaretto cookies. But all in all a very admirable showing from a long time NYC icon.

3 teeth

Black Barn

19 E 26th St. New York, NY 10010(212) 265-5959 blackbarnrestaurant.com

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A unequivocal upgrade from SD26 (RIP), Black Barn slaps you in the face with energy the moment you enter, with its lively bar up front, adorned with sleek décor elements done in such a way that honors both the country and city, making the Osmonds proud. Especially in the main dining room in the back, where they really embrace the mix of design elements, complete with a framed out “barn” looming overhead. The only thing taking away from the vibe in a pretty big way is the tablet-style cocktail and wine list. It just cheapens the experience right as you sit down, making you feel like you’re in one of those iPad airport restaurants.

In terms of service, it was a bit spotty, proving to be noticeably lethargic on the bookends with both the cocktails and desserts taking an eternity. Then there’s the matter of our waiter forgetting all about delivering us a bread basket, probably because he was too busy delivering his table-side theatrically, obnoxious Shakespearean presentation of “The Menu.” This guy was so over the top we felt like we were being waited on by Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments.

Fortunately for Charlton the cocktails were very good. The winner of the two I tried was The Bad Seed, made with Buttered Corn American Whiskey and cayenne pepper dust. It was spicy and buttery in all the right places. Yes, it’s good to be bad. The other cocktail was the refreshing Cider House Cup, served in a copper mug, which seems to be all the rage as of late. Made with Apple Jack, fruit and lime juice. It’s a nice yin to the yang of The Bad Seed.

For starters the Beau Soleil oysters were oysters. Fresh, but nothing spectacular. Served with all the usual suspects from lemon to vinegar to cocktail sauce. The seared foie gras with green apples was also just okay, missing the broad side of a, well, barn, with a dish that should’ve easily been a layup had they just given it that hit of sweetness that is normally so germane to the dish. But weakest of all was probably the pumpkin salad, which was so unimpressionable that it might as well have never even been served to us and I doubt anyone would’ve ever noticed.

On the plus side, the mushroom toast with tallegio was good. Not what I would call it incredible, but amidst the losers it was served with, it was a beacon of hope. And speaking of hope, we finally held out long enough for that forgotten breadbasket I mentioned earlier. But once it arrived, it quickly became apparent as to why they had forgotten. Because it’s pretty forgettable. Although I will hand them the award for the most conflicted spread ever served with bread. A pat of butter topped with balsamic vinegar, sitting in a pool of olive oil, surrounded by roasted garlic cloves. Yes, all of that and yet it still failed to wow.

Sadly, the entrees didn’t fare much better. The scallops were just okay, only made mildly better by the potatoes they are served over. But compared to the amazing scallop dish at The Clocktower across the park, I wouldn’t wipe my ass with these. Not that you should ever wipe your ass with mollusks, that’s just gross, not even sure why you brought it up?

The rib eye with chimichurri was also just okay. The meat itself was nothing special at all, so it was in dire need of something to submerge it in, hence why they serve it with the chimichurri, I suppose. But even that wasn’t enough to mask the inadequacies of the dish. Nor was the cayenne popover, which was a nice touch, props for that one, but it’s obviously a borrowed concept from BLT and not quite at the same level, nor size. Still, I appreciated the effort.

And just when the barn was about to be set fire, the best entrée of the night came in to save the day, the sweet potato ravioli with bacon. Not only was it good, it was crazy good. Then, they followed that up with two killer desserts, the rum soaked bread pudding, which was my favorite, as you can imagine, and the other were the salted caramel ice cream sandwiches which were pretty dope as well, to use a horribly dated expression that I’m hoping to bring back into style. The weakest of the three desserts were the warm chocolate brownies. They’re not exactly bad per se, but when you can get a better brownie at Pret, it kinda makes it seem ridiculous to pay over 10 bucks for something inferior.

Such a shame. I had higher hopes for Black Barn. Sure, it had its spots of brilliance, but they were lost in a sea of too much darkness. Or should I say “blackness?” Yet I still stand by what I said at the beginning. It’s definitely an upgrade from the previous tenant, even if the misses outnumber the hits.

2 teeth

The Spotted Pig

314 W 11th St. New York, NY 10014(212) 620-0393 thespottedpig.com

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I have to applaud Yelp for not buying into the hype hook, line and sinker just because James Beard and Michelin apparently have. That said, I still find Yelp’s 3.5 stars to be a bit overstated as well.

Let me explain by starting with the “spotted” service. Not only do they make it painfully annoying to get a table as a result of not taking reservations, they get so crowded that the wait can grow as steep as an hour and 45 minutes by 6:30pm! So right off the bat, you’re basically going into the experience with a this-better-be-fucking-worth-it mindset, which is never good for anyone. I mean, by that point the only way a restaurant is ever going to fair well is if every bite on the menu is on physiological par with an orgasm. But on the plus side, as ridiculous as the wait is, the hosts handle it well. No attitude and they text you when your table is ready so you can go off and drink at another bar until your table is ready. Which also doesn’t bode well for them, because now you’re an angry drunk waiting far longer than is reasonable, only to be seated in an overcrowded dinning room that is so warm you’d swear you were going through menopause, all for food that simply isn’t worth it (more on that later).

As for the actual waiters, they are slow in both senses of the term, getting us the deviled eggs instead of the devils on horseback and then trying to charge us twice for the devils on horseback. But what was especially annoying was the lack of attention to speed of service. After all, wouldn’t one think, “hey, these people just waited nearly two hours for their table, perhaps I should try to make them wait as little as possible from here on out.” But nooooo, not here. It was the longest burger and beer experience of my life, lasting nearly four hours.

Now for the “spotted menu,” which proved to be so disappointing, starting off with the Spotted Pig Bitter, made with bubbles so infinitesimally small that it comes off as flat. But at least it had good flavor to it. Just pales in comparison to Blue Bird Bitter if you’ve ever had it.

As for the infamous Devils on Horseback, they are definitely good, but a bit too moist through and through, if you ask me. I much prefer the contrasty version, where the crisp bacon gives way to the moist, gooey date, like at Boqueria.

The runaway surprise hit of the night was the Apple Salad. It’s just awesome, but bone simple, hence we made a dead ringer of it at home the very next day without even having to look up a recipe online. It’s comprised of Pink Lady apples cut in large chunks, fresh parsley, a bit of arugula, sharp (aged) cheddar or manchego and a dressing made with apple cider vinegar, red chili infused olive oil, Dijon, honey and red pepper flakes to taste.

The most over-hyped dish of the night was easily the burger (pictured). Hidden beneath a tower of shoestring fries in hopes of masking its inadequacies. Sure, the patty is good, but it was so boring without ketchup and mustard, relying way too heavily on the roquefort cheese to carry it to greatness, toward which it falls miserably short. Instead, I highly suggest you head to Minetta Tavern for the Black Label Burger, which actually lives up to its legend. Or the Bash burger at B&B Wine Pub, which has won the best burger in the city five years running. Or even Élan’s Duck Burger, which few know about, but blows the spots off of this pig.

And finally, there’s the Skirt Steak, which not only skirted around our order of medium rare, but came in horrendously chewy, filled with sinew to the point of almost making it off-putting had it not been for the mushrooms and kale on the plate with it.

Unless you have a bizarre foodie fetish and like the masochistic notion of waiting forever for food that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I vote that you skip the Pig and just make that apple salad at home. It really is quite something.

2 teeth

Herringbone

1755 Ocean Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90401(310) 971-4460herringboneeats.com

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I struggle a bit to understand this one. The wait to get in is almost as big as the dinning room, which is so cavernous it’s almost to the point of making it feel like a Rain Forest Café, but for seafood. And while it is done far more tastefully (not saying much), with touches like the puffer fish tree at the foyer or the various nautical elements at every starboard turn, it can’t help escape the vibe that it’s a chain. Yet within chain-dom, there are obviously good chains and bad chains and Herringbone definitely falls in the better camp of the two. But to be fair, a chain is still a chain at the end of the day, so leave your expectations at the door, after all, it will have to wait for a table like everyone else.

To start, I opted for the Grow a Pear cocktail made with jalapeno, gin and cucumber. It was refreshing and light enough to go with anything on the menu. And I put that theory to the test, trying it with a host of starters, my favorite being the heirloom tomato salad, which I found to be the best thing of the night (not good for a “seafood” restaurant). Made with perfectly ripened orbs of red, sprinkled with herbs, drizzled with olive oil and complemented by fresh, creamy chunks of mozzarella, caprese style.

The whole fish ceviche (pictured) was also nice, but mostly as a result of its novel prep, in whole fish form. The flavor of it, however was a little par for the course and nothing exceedingly fresh either.

Working our way from good to meh, the Buffalo octopus was just okay for me. Decent Buffalo flavor, but the pus itself was overcooked. Also could’ve been a bit spicier if you ask me.

But the worst by far was the Baja crab, or should I say Baja crap. Don’t let your waiter try a peddle this loser dish on you. It tastes like overcooked rice speckled with shreds of canned crab and a few squirts of Tabasco.

For my entrée, the scallops were passable, but not very well balanced because after three scallops in, I found that I had finished all of the surrounding goodies, leaving me with one scallop abandon on the plate.

Just as the ship appeared to be sinking, however, somehow Herringbone managed to raise the Titanic with their wonderful lemon poppy begniets. Kept light by the lemon. Kept awesome by the contrast of hot and cold with the addition of ice cream. But as great as the bookends were, the laggards in the middle cost this place dearly.

2 teeth

L’inizio

698 Saw Mill River Rd. Ardsley, NY 10502 • (914) 693-5400 •  liniziony.com

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After three different people recommended that I try this place, I knew it had to be at least a three knifer, but the true question was, is it four or five? Well, if parking were factored in, most certainly not, because it’s a major bitch. And you can forget all about that little lot over by the Thai House that’s always more jam-packed than a drug mule’s colon. So your best bet is across the street and down a touch, over by Star Bagel, since they’re closed for dinner and it’d be a shame to let all of that parking go to waste.

Speaking of space being at a premium, the restaurant itself is quite small as well, which wouldn’t normally be an issue for me, but it’s also pretty lacking in the personality department, making it a modicum nicer than the inside of a shoe box.

But the warmth that’s missing from the décor came from our server in spades, who was not only friendly, she was also spot on with the recommendations. Unfortunately, however, even as well intentioned as the staff was, the service itself is actually a bit spotty, getting both pepper and grated cheese in my wife’s water (so much so that it needed to be replaced) and forgetting to bring out our pasta course before the dessert menu.

In terms of the food, this is where L’inizio shined. Starting with a nice, moist focaccia and grassy olive oil to whet the palate. After that, we doubled down on bread opting for the ricotta with acacia honey, a simple, but wonderful Italian go-to that definitely hit the mark, but I have to say, the chef went a little stingy on the honey.

Next up came the charred endive salad with dates (or more accurately, date in singular form), which was excellent, but again, thin on the one ingredient that made it so interesting, the date.

The recommended octopus was also fantastic, sort of similar in preparation to the one at Charlie Bird in the city, only MUCH better, because there’s so much more going on. The heat from the peppers, the brightness and crunch from the celery. The creaminess of the humus. Even a slight note of sweetness. My only gripe being, you guessed it, a little too light on the octopus. A theme of the joint I suppose? Keep ‘em wanting more? Only I think the chef doesn’t truly get the intent of that saying.

As for pastas, the cavatelli was a bit of a snore compared to the much more flavorful parpadelle with lamb ragu, pine nuts and raisins. The anomaly of the night, because it was shockingly generous with the lamb.

We ended the evening with another great reco, the date cake with sweet mascarpone (pictured), sitting in a pool of caramel sweetness. It was divine. Which is a bit of a hoity-toity phrase for me, I gotta be honest. Almost feels like I should be typing it with a New England lockjaw. But it really was kickass. There. That’s better.

It’s no Cookery and there are many kinks still to work out, but there is not even a shadow of a doubt that this chef knows what he’s doing, even if he cheaps out a bit on the goodies. So my advice to you, go. My advice to the chef, let it go…LET IT GO! Let your yummy ingredients flow! (to be sung like Elsa from Frozen). Do that, and I’ll up you to four knives, because it’s holding you back from true greatness.

3 teeth

Charlie Bird

5 King St. New York, NY 10012(212) 235-7133charliebirdnyc.com

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It’s tough to get a reservation at Charlie Bird. Too tough if you ask me, because it simply isn’t worth the aggravation. Hell, even if it were easy to get a table here I still don’t think I could honestly say it’s worth the money or your time, falling into that ever-growing pile of over-hyped Italian restaurants in New York.

The décor is an intimate sliver on the Soho fringe with exposed brick and a floor to ceiling windowed wall, which tends to make the place quite noisy and thus less intimate because you constantly have to break the flow of conversation at your table by saying, “Wha?” The service was good though. Friendly, unaffected and most importantly attentive.

But Charlie choked where it counts, serving up a ho-hum string of dishes seven deep, made up of three starters and all four pastas. The only bright spots being the focaccia they serve as their bread and the painfully simple, yet surprisingly delicious faro salad (pictured).

So starting positive, let’s talk focaccia, which once served you might ask, hey, where’s the olive oil for dipping? But take just one single bite and you will soon learn that ample amounts of oil are already in the bread. It’s very good, but let’s just say you’re napkin is going to look like you had a run-in with one of those Turkish wrestlers and lost.

Apart from the focaccia, the only other thing that managed to impress was the faro salad I mentioned above, made with a colorful array of roasted cherry tomatoes, pistachios, mint and Parmesan. And while it’s very good, why bend over backwards to get a reservation at 6:30pm for a dish you could easily make at home?

So now that the backhanded compliments are out of the way, it’s time to get nasty… The grilled octopus saltimbocca with Tuscan beans and prosciutto is okay, if not a touch dry. Also, after hearing that it was the best in the world, I feel it is my moral duty to bring those hypers back down to Earth, and correct this injustice by setting the record straight. This pus wouldn’t even crack my top five in New York City alone! Pearl & Ash, Gato and Pasha all handily trouncing this lame attempt at an Ultimate.

Far more disappointing than the octopus, however, was the burrata, served up with baby romaine and pickle accompaniments that did absolutely nothing for the dish. In fact, this dish was so boring it makes watching golf on TV seem riveting by comparison. Yet even as boring as the burrata was, I think the cauliflower with hazelnuts might actually be able to out-bore it in a bore-off.

Then came the pastas, and all four tasted like the chef had developed an acute case of flavor-a-phobia. The best two were the corn parapdelle with leek fondue and the linguini with uni, bortarga and lemon. But saying they were the best is like claiming bragging rights after winning a foot race versus a corpse. The corpses being the gnocci, (Élan’s is WAY better, not to mention Frenchier), and the Chitarra Nero with crab and chili, which was just flat out too salty to be enjoyable. And so was the entire experience for that matter. Especially when there are scads of other places out there that are easier to get into and are infinitely tastier. Sorry Charlie (couldn’t resist a little old school Starkist ad humor).

2 teeth