Saturday, February 23, 2008

Moon, Eclipsed, on a Rope

My Panasonic Lumix has a nifty digital image stabilizer, which makes it easy to take pictures with a shaky hand. But it got confused when I tried to take pictures of the total eclipse of the Moon on February 20th. I didn't have a tripod, unfortunately, and the image inevitably smudged. The problem was that the image stabilizer sharpened the smudge.

Oh well: you can see a bit of the copper colour of the eclipsed Moon in this one:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dhaba, Indian "Excellence"

Dhaba is an Indian restaurant on the entertainment strip on King Street West in Toronto. It's just west of the Royal Alexandra theatre, on the other side of the street, and next to the strangely named "Aroma: The Myriad of Exotic Spices" (which made some of us think that the owners must have confused 'myriad' with 'pyramid').

Anyway, sticking to the subject: Dhaba is an upstairs room, made over (in that great TV show "Restaurant Makeover") by Susur Lee and Brenda Bent. Gopal, Jenny, and I went there on a cold Saturday night, and were well (if somewhat eccentrically) treated by the waitstaff.

The average Canadian consumer thinks that spicing is just throwing a bunch of cayenne around: they swear that they cannot taste anything through the heat. So they look for heat plus the titillating effect of cold fizzy beer on an over-stimulated tongue.
But when you find an Indian chef who can handle spices, your gustatory life changes. (Kiran Desai had a wonderful piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Feb 9th 2008, about her family's cook and his shammi kabab -- her recipe is a revelation, and I will say something about it in a future post.) On the Resto Makeover show, Susur works with PK, the chef at Dhaba, and raves about PK's knowledge of spices. "Plating" was the only thing that S could teach PK, it seemed. So we were looking forward to brilliant flavours. Unfortunately, it turned out that the best thing one can say about PK is that he goes well with beer.

We started with papad. Now, those who know Indian cooking will have views about North Indian vs. South Indian versions of this snack. Gopal tells me that his father thinks that this is a no-brainer: South Indian appalams (= papads) are light and don't challenge either your mouth or your tongue. North Indian papads are crisp but weighty in the mouth, studded with whole cumin and cracked black pepper, and in Dhaba's case at least, leaden in the stomach.

Then a veggie samosa and chaat. Now for those who know, chaat is a simple street snack. It's meant to be a sharp crispy mouth-teaser redolent of cumin, served with a chutney, preferably with tamarind, for a sweet and sour finish. At Dhaba, it is heavy, the spicing is muddled and muddy, it's mixed with avocado (!!) and there is a little crispness but not much.

As for the samosa, well -- the samosa came to India from the Levant, where, if you ask me, it represents carelessness. In India, meat samosas surpass their Levantine ancestors by a large margin. In its veggie form, however, it has a thick doughy crust, though it is sometimes enlivened by the flavours of the potatoes and peas found inside. It is accompanied by a sweet chutney -- how else is one to manage the kind of dough that ought only to be used to seal pots for a dhum? At Dhaba, the dough has the thickness of cardboard packing, and the flavours are completely confused. If you find it hard to imagine what solid pea soup is like, try the veggie samosa at this restaurant.

Finally, the mains. What can one say? By this time, we were expecting the worst and got it. The xacutti (a spicy Goan dish) had no discernible cinnamon and the cream of the sauce, derived from coconut, was far too sweet, and with too little of the aromatic spices. The veggie mains seemed to have been created by throwing things around; the naan was overcooked; the saffron rice was flavourless.
Do they buy saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon at Walmart?

Either this place has forgotten its cooking since the Makeover with Susur, or you shouldn't trust Susur on Indian cooking. Bottom line: walk on the other side of the street.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Miga Mississauga

This Korean/Japanese barbeque place is on the south side of Dundas, west of Erin Mills Parkway and just east of the LCBO store and Sobeys. It's far away from the nouveau-riche properties of Mississauga, and we wonder whom you would see there at dinner time. It is comfortable, with nice natural light. At 2 pm, there's hardly anybody there:

As you can see, it is set up for a barbeque at the table, with the hood exhausts and on-table hot pads.

Sergio and I are looking for something quick but we do have standards. He orders beef, and I get a spicy beef and leek soup. The meal starts with a wonderful cold appetizer plate, truly an amuse-bouche:

From left to right, that's kimchi, bean sprouts, "fiddleheads" (not the Canadian kind -- more like rapini), and fish tofu. This is all extremely good and flavourful -- the kimchi is subtle and quite unlike the hyper-garlicky stuff you buy in the supermarket.

The soup is bright red (see below), full of mouth-sized lumps of leeks, generously laced with short-rib meat taken off the bone and crumbled, and with good crisp vegetables. Very spicy, with a clean red-chili taste that doesn't cling to the tongue. There couldn't be a better choice for lunch on a cold day.

Sergio's pork was perfectly grilled and sliced. He says that the sauce was unintrusive but delicious. In general, BBQ saucing and spicing should be self-effacing
, he says -- Sergio is Brazilian, and Brazilian churrasco is divinely self-effacing. Ever the philosopher, S adds: 'unlike moral theory'. Hmmm . . . does this mean that Kant's barbeques might have been more preening than Miga's, as were the ribs at Cluck, Grunt, and Low? Or that Kant knew the difference between a barbeque sauce and moral theory, and adjusted the spicing accordingly?

The meal was served very pleasantly, and cost about $30 (which included my Japanese beer).

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Architectural Silliness at the University of Toronto Mississauga

The CCT Building at the University of Toronto Mississauga is an elegant pile, and is praised by many as a fine example of Canadian architecture in the newly prosperous era. Which it is:

The building also serves as a passageway to the Library:

which is a long way down this foyer/passage. Beautiful light, isn't it?

The foyer displays the Canadian love affair with unadorned concrete. Is that what we want that beautiful light to play on?

Well, one could argue about that.

But here's something you can't argue with. The building does have oddities that make one wonder what the architects were thinking. Walk up that pleasantly angular stair-pile, and one gets to a student reading/surfing/smooching area on top . . .

But then . . . how do you get to the third (or fourth) floor??

Turns out: you have to push a heavy fire door, which leads you to claustrophobia:

No light, no openness here. What a let-down on the way up! (Wish I could convey the smell of damp concrete.)

Not only that . . . but these stairs don't open out into the foyer. If you take them all the way down, you end up at an exterior door, and out in that cold, cold snow.

The stairs are at one end of the building and the elevators in the middle. If you're in the middle, and want to take the stairs up one floor, you have to walk all the way to the end of the building first. If you're at the end of the building, you have no elevator option.

Isn't traffic flow something architects are supposed to care about?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cluck, Grunt, and Low

Cluck, Grunt, and Low is a bbq restaurant on Bloor Street, a block or so west of Spadina. Can you figure out what the name means? Not a pretentious place, and as you can see the decor is not Four Seasons (except for the velvet). Do you like the table linen?

Sergio and I are on a hunt for lunches under $15. That's him talking to our friend, Imogen, about the picture theory of meaning.

We have eaten the Croque Grunt, which is pulled pork and cheese -- Sergio's riff on kosher, the brisket sandwich (tender and very well flavoured), and the ribs two ways -- a dry marinade, and a sweeter wet barbeque sauce.

This is a fabulous restaurant for meat-lovers. The last time we were there, there were four young mothers eating, on an outing with babies in bassinets, and actually at the other tables lots of women eating with each other. All of them kept repeating: "Meat, meat: I love it". Clearly, they protested too much: guilt was in their sandwich, but it didn't spoil the enjoyment.

The meat is fabulous: tender and flavourful, though in my judgement, the ribs are a little too meaty. I enjoy the kind of spare-ribs on which there is very little meat: it seems that the flavour is more intense that way. These were not exactly "spare" -- as big as short-ribs, almost. And, of course, all of it has the kind of molasses/tomato sweetness that one expects of southern barbeque. Still: it isn't as if there is another restaurant I've been to in Canada where you can get this kind of stuff. Actually, it beats most places in Texas, with their huge servings and doughy rolls. It's a nice idea for Toronto to be the civilizing influence on Texas barbeque.

Our bill was just over 60 for four. Not a bad deal at all. Good service, appropriately sassy.