The Drake Hotel, Not Just for Celebrities and Trend Setters

My first experiences with the Drake Hotel in Toronto consisted of waiting in line to pay cover, or waiting in line to get onto the rooftop patio and then paying $15 for a drink. One time we weasled our way onto the patio for a romantic, delicious dinner an hour and a half after we had arrived; another time I brushed elbows with Adrian Grenier of the hit show Entourage as he prepared for his band to play downstairs. I agree that this is a great spot to spend a summer evening, but it doesn’t always seem worth all of the fuss.
Then I was introduced to the Drake weekend brunch by a good friend, and haven’t turned back since. You have a few options as to where you want to dine: there is the Drake Café, located on the west side of the hotel, which has a casual, simple patio; the spacious and uniquely decorated bar area; or the darker atmosphere of the restaurant itself. All dining occurs on the main floor for breakfast, but dinner includes service on the rooftop patio or “Sky Yard”, on fashionable benches covered with pillows, giving it a Mata Hari harem sort of feel, but with lighter overtones.
The nice thing about breakfast is that it is a casual meal, and you usually don’t have to wait in line to get in. We did wait on one occasion, but they brought us melt-in-your-mouth mini croissants with jam, and all was quickly copacetic. They offer healthy options, such as granola and fresh fruit, but if you’re like me, when you go out for brunch on the weekends you want something hearty. I personally enjoy ordering eggs Benedict the morning after an evening of red wine, but they can be a risky choice. Some places will overcook your poached eggs, so that you miss out on that mingling of egg yolk, hollandaise, and ketchup. This is no good. But at the Drake, they always poach their eggs perfectly. And I will make this bold statement, but only because it’s true: the Drake Eggs Caleb is my favourite breakfast in Toronto. It comes with scrumptious smoked salmon, and hand cut French fries that marry exquisitely with the hollandaise sauce. The restaurant also offers unique choices like Southern Fried Chicken and Waffles, which comes with sweet Niagara cherry jam; this may sound like an odd combination, but it works. Especially for hangovers.
One of the most appealing things about the hotel space is the eccentric décor. It is artistic, trend setting, and has a gallery feel to it, which makes the experience one-of-a-kind. In the restaurant area, the walls are covered in life size pictures of a forest, illuminated in a way that reminds me of the Science Center in the 1980s. It works in modern decor because of our environmental consciousness and return to grass roots, especially in Toronto where the eco-friendly population is massive. There has also been a move towards nature in the decorating world, where we are seeing more and more natural wood, deer antlers, and other elements you’d expect to see at a cottage or a ranch.  Some of the decorating choices are really out there; I’m referring to the very realistic reproduction of the upper torso of a man, and his partially bald crown, replete with real hair on both his head and his back. It hits you as you come down the stairs from the patio and/or washrooms, and it is hard to avoid. I’m not completely sold on that piece, but overall, I’d like to get the name of their interior designer. The one recommendation I have for the Drake is to sort out the washrooms upstairs, because the smell was off-putting, and took away from the positive experience of the hotel.
If you don’t get a chance to try the fabulous blueberry scones during your meal, be sure to take some to go. They are a delectable way to reward yourself for being so forward thinking, and going to the Drake for breakfast.
The Drake Hotel is located at 1150 Queen St. W., Toronto. For more information, visit the Drake Hotel website at http://www.thedrakehotel.ca/dining/menu
Advertisements

Oliver and Bonacini: Pleasing to the Eye and the Appetite

Red Snapper special

A few weeks ago, my family was getting together for one last reunion before my parents set off to Mexico. We needed to find an accessible location during Friday evening rush hour for people coming from Milton, Oakville, Toronto and Burlington both by car and by train. I suggested the new Oliver and Bonacini at Oakville Place.

Conveniently located less than a five minute drive from the Oakville GO Station, this venue turned out to be the ideal choice for our last supper. I always get a bit nervous choosing restaurants for my family, because my parents are both ‘foodies’ who cook well and enjoy fine dining. So it was nice to impress them with this choice – a restaurant that is both pleasing to the appetite and not too heavy on the wallet.

Although they have a mixed repertoire of food on the menu, it is primarily Italian, and they do their food very well. Most of us opted for seafood: tender scallops with artichoke and fresh parmesan, grilled calamari in a lemon brown butter sauce, and a scrumptious looking portion of battered fish and chips. The special of the evening was a red snapper with jerk roasted potatoes, wilted spinach, pineapple salsa, and a plantain that served both decoratively and as an accent flavour to the rest of the dish.

The service is also worth mentioning; our waitress was professional and charming, and attentive to our sometimes unique requests. And for those who are interested in the aesthetics and overall atmosphere of a restaurant, this gets top rating. In an industry where the trend has become low lighting and dark furniture (think Milestones or Moxie’s’ west coast influences), Oliver and Bonacini comes as a refreshing surprise. There are clean lines in white and silver, with darker accents in the seating areas. Birch and greenery dot the landscape, which is decorated with images of food and the environment it comes from. You can see part of the kitchen from the dining area: a high marble counter with low lighting in white and silver, and decorated with preserves and other food items, as well as recipe books in the shelves along the front.

The atmosphere was a bit quiet for a Friday night, but perhaps it is because they are still building a reputation. I hope this recommendation brings them the busy nights they deserve!

The Real Pizza Experience at Pizzeria Libretto

Well, ladies and gentleman, I have found it. The pizza crust that true pizza lovers dream about can be found at Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington. It’s thin, melts in your mouth, and has that natural taste that only real pizza ovens from Naples, Italy can bring. This pizzeria is the only certified “Vera Pizza Napoletana” in Canada, translated as a “true Neopolitan pizza” experience. When you taste pizza like this, you wonder how places like Pizza Pizza can even claim to be selling the same thing. They should be ashamed of themselves!

Unfortunately, I’m not the only pizza aficionado who feels this way about Pizzeria Libretto. It is a hugely popular spot, so expect to be waiting at least half an hour to be seated. We went on a Monday, thinking we could avoid the line, but we still had to wait 45 minutes before we got a table. The convenient thing is, and it makes you wonder why every restaurant doesn’t do this, they take down your cell phone number to call you when the table becomes available. That way, you can go for a drink elsewhere while you’re waiting.

And it’s worth it. Your taste buds will be satiated while you wait for the pizza, with fresh bread and olive oil with a dash of chilli spice. I sampled two pizzas: the “Hot Peppers” and the “Duck Confit”. The first pizza consisted of house made sausage, fresh basil, tomato, mozzarella in small concentric slices, and of course, hot peppers. Being a fan of spicy food, I will say that I could have taken the hot peppers a little hotter, but otherwise, the pizza was terrific. The sausage was fresh and had some kick to it, and I just couldn’t get enough of that crust. On the other hand, the unique duck confit pizza with pears and a white sauce was a sweet alternative to the more traditional tomato pizza, and the flavours were expertly combined.

We ordered two bottles of red wine between six of us, and each ordered our own pizza. Even with the alcohol, it was a very affordable meal, at approximately $36 including tax and tip. The service is friendly, and they are gracious about taking any leftovers home. You might wonder how I avoided eating the whole pizza right then and there; it was challenging, but my will power paid off for a delicious lunch the next day.

When the pizza crust is right, my favourite thing to do is fold the pizza over itself, for a multi-layered bite; my friend Nicole like to roll hers up like a wrap, and let the olive oil drizzle down. Whichever way you like it, Pizzeria Libretto will live up to your expectations.

Pizzeria Libretto: 221 Ossington Ave., Toronto, just south of Dundas.

On the Hunt for the Perfect Italian Pizza

Italy may have lost the qualifying game for the knockout stage of the World Cup, but it will always win when it comes to food. I have recently had a love affair with thin crust pizza, which all started after eating the finest specimen at La Bottega in Montreal in March (see article “Baguettes, butter and cheese…”). Now it has become a game of trying to find that pizza again. It is a familiar emotion for foodies everywhere – you sample something so delicious at a restaurant (this is usually coupled with a positive atmosphere and experience with friends), and yearn to relive that experience again. This is my dilemma and also my mission this summer: I am on the hunt for the perfect Italian pizza.

Attempt #1: Terrazza Restaurant, 372 Harbord St., Toronto (one block east of Ossington)

This restaurant is situated in an area of Toronto called Dufferin Grove, and the front patio of Terrazza (which literally means “terrace”) certainly lives up to the name, as it is bordered by trees both coniferous and deciduous. It is charming in its modest size and strings of white lights hung across red brick walls, and the staff is friendly and accommodating. We ordered a fabulous pitcher of Sangria for $20, a great deal, and enjoyed the complimentary bread, olives and olive oil. As most Friday nights call for, we opted for two pizzas; the first, a classic margharita pizza with bocconcini, and the second, a spicy salami pizza with gorgonzola and peppers. They were both thin crust, delicious, and hit the spot, and the whole meal was very affordable, so I would definitely recommend this restaurant.

Attempt #2: Marcello’s Pizzeria, 3175 Rutherford Rd., Vaughan

Marcello’s (pronounced with a “che” sound), was recommended by someone who knows Italian food well, as her family is from Agrigento, Sicily. A group of us shared delightful seafood appetizers of calamari, both grilled and fried, and mussels in a tomato-based sauce. The flavours married well with the fresh lemon slices, and it was hard to resist both the appetizers and the fresh bread with spicy olive oil. Of course, in my desire to recreate my thin crust pizza experience, I choose the “Diavola” pizza with spicy peppers, spicy salami, olives, onions and mozzarella, which turned out to be very good. Although the spiciness caused me to pause a few times to wipe my eyes, the pizza was flavourful and had a nice crust, cooked just right. The staff was also very kind, and even let us bring in our own birthday cake, a rare treat in the restaurant industry. If you are heading to Vaughan Mills and are looking for a good dinner place, this would be a good, affordable bet.

Despite my two very positive experiences at these restaurants, I still have not found the perfect Italian pizza. Is it out there? Who knows. I may need to return to Montreal, or even fly to Naples, to find out. But in the meantime, Toronto and the rest of the GTA will be my dinner plate as the hunt continues. Let me know if you have any restaurant suggestions for me to try out!

Hamburger Dreams Come True at Allen’s Restaurant on the Danforth

Ever since I was a young thing, I have been cultivated to savour the finer things in life: good art, French wine, and fresh hamburgers. Now the last item may seem a bit surprising, but anyone who has tried my father’s notorious burgers knows the difference between the real thing and the frozen calamity that comes pre-packaged. Even going out to restaurants, I am often disappointed with the quality of the beef, and the lack of flavour.

But on Friday night, my hamburger dreams came true. My fiancé and I wanted to check out a new area of town, as we tend to stay around the west end, and blindly chose Allen’s pub among all of the other restaurants near Broadview and Danforth Ave. We were enticed by the lively atmosphere when we walked through the door; it was packed with people, and the international beer list filled up two massive chalkboards, both good signs. Although it was busy, we were seated within 15 minutes, having enjoyed an Amsterdam Framboise and a Steigl at the bar in the meantime.

The menu includes traditional pub fare from the isles, such as fish and chips, and a variety of curries, but being indecisive and unsure in a new place, we asked the waitress for advice. She drew our attention to a page of the menu we had overlooked, where she suggested I try the “chopped” steak, which she described as “like a hamburger” but made with the real deal. They also do hamburgers “a la carte” and have various other cuts of high quality beef to choose from, but the unique thing about Allen’s is that all of their beef is butchered in-house, and they are committed to hormone- and pesticide-free products whenever possible.

Although I was a little underwhelmed with what came to the table – it looked like an oddly-shaped hamburger patty without the bun – after the first bite, I went to burger heaven, and didn’t come back down from that happy place until much later that evening. They cook it to order, so what some people might consider odd for a hamburger (pink on the inside at medium-rare), it is in fact the best way to enjoy fresh beef. This is the lesson my father has been trying to teach me ever since I started eating solid foods, and I have finally learned it.

So if you’re looking for a good pub with fine food and a friendly crowd on a Friday night, look no further than Allen’s Restaurant, located at 143 Danforth Ave. You can also check out their website at http://www.allens.to/allens/aboutus.shtml, for more information on dining and special events.

A Different Sort of Café

My old boss, who lives three blocks away from me in the High Park area, told me about a new café in the Junction called The Good Neighbour. And a good neighbour he was indeed!

This little hot spot is located at the corner of Annette and Quebec Ave., and its style is 19th century industrial meets modern chic. It retains some of that historical Junction charm: it has wire light fixtures with exposed bulbs, a few red brick walls, a wooden, warehouse floor (finished, but still with a natural look), and blends these with elements of the modern: white walls, white columns, and a coffee bar that is done in shiny, silver tiles embossed with a stylish floral design. They paid attention to small details like house numbers, #102 and 104, on the bathroom doors, and create an open space between the back hallway and the café with a large, multi-panel window. Overall, there is an airy, eco-conscious feel to the place, as fresh flowers in a variety of colours adorn the tables and countertop, and serve-yourself water aromatized with fresh cucumber and orange slices is available in glasses instead of paper or plastic cups.

They sell your usual café fare – espressos, lattes, loose leaf teas – at competitive prices, and offer delicious pastries to snack on. In the refrigerated counter section, a stylized sign in cursive writing reads “Paninis coming soon”, so you will be able to have lunch with your Americano in the future. According to the espresso expert, Nick, the Americano here is definitely worth checking out.

I was surprised to find out that The Good Neighbour had only been open for two weeks, because it was already buzzing with so many customers! There were girlfriends catching up on Saturday night’s events, people reading or working (me and my fiancé!), a group of folks chatting around the modern fireplace on comfy chairs, women who had just finished outdoor bike training, and trendy young families with new babies in tow. It was a friendly atmosphere, with lots of smiles and comments exchanged between strangers; the place certainly lives up to its name, bringing people from all over the neighbourhood together.

The Good Neighbour Espresso Bar is located at the corner of Annette and Quebec Ave., on the northwest side.

It’s Sweet, Finding the Work you Love

Travelling to Montreal is always a treat, no matter what time of year. The streets are filled with shops, restaurants, and people bustling around, doing their daily errands or heading to work. And although I was on vacation and exempt from the throngs of business men and women in suits and heels, I did spend some time thinking about my job while I was away (as I think many of us do – when we finally have the time to re-evaluate and make decisions). Like many people, I am forever searching for the best work-life equilibrium, and spend my time off imagining ways to turn my passion into my livelihood.
Some people believe that it is a dangerous step to allow your passion to become your daily bread, because through repetition and the stress of making ends meet, you stop enjoying it. For some, this is probably true, but for others, like my friend Reema who lives in Montreal, she does what she loves, does it well, and is hugely popular in the minds, hearts, and mouths of many Montrealers.
A few years after graduating from McGill, Reema opened her own bakery called Cocoa Locale (4807 avenue Du Parc between Villeneuve and St. Joseph). It is a humble place, full of vintage fare, and its charm matches Reema’s effervescent personality, a quality I am certain keeps the customers coming back. A feast for the eyes, the walls of the bake shop are adorned with antiques that resonate with the elements of cooking; there are colourful tea cups in floral pattern, hiding in cake stands; photos of customers revelling in sweet temptation, ready to take a bite of delicious birthday cake. With various shades of pink, turquoise and dark wood accents, it is a picture out of every girl’s dream kitchen.
We reserved a couple of the “cupcake for two” earlier in the day, knowing full well that the shop sells out, especially on the weekends. Like many baked goods, these came in a plain, white box, a complete contrast to the colourful, sweet treats, decorated with simple flower petals inside. We sampled Lemon Coconut, and Vanilla, opting out of the Chocolate Chai flavour this time around, and felt as though we had indeed passed on and gone to cake heaven. Reema’s cakes exemplify the ideal balance between moisture and melt-in-your-mouth goodness, and the icing adds to the delicate equation, giving the perfect sweet finish to each bite. With each foray, where fork met cake, I was more and more convinced that indeed, this baker has found success working in an industry that is both her passion and her talent. She is an inspiration for us all!