Thrill of the Grill event on the Danforth

This weekend my friend and I went to the third annual Danforth Experience Thrill of the Grill event. This being my first time attending this event, I had no idea what to expect. The event featured six different restaurants from the Danforth area all grilling barbecue ribs and coleslaw to see who would be voted ‘the best rack’. Celebrity chef Lynn Crawford was among the distinguished guests on the judging panel but the people who attended the event also got to vote.

For the $12 cost of admission people got to visit six different barbecue stations and try six different samples of coleslaw and ribs all prepared slightly different by each restaurant. The restaurants that participated in this year’s competition were 7 Numbers, Allen’s, Combine Eatery, Factory Girl, Globe Bistro and Silk Road.

ribs judging panel

Thrill of the grill judging panel

I had no idea that there could be such variety when it came down to barbecue ribs. Each of the restaurants had a slightly different preparation. The Silk Road featured a sweet and sour barbecue sauce, Factory used an avant-garde marinade with pineapple and bourbon, 7 numbers used a nice dry rub, Global smoked their ribs for several hours before putting them on the grill which gave it a nice smokey flavour, Allen’s had nice meaty ribs that were fall of the bone tender and the Factory used a nice classic, well-rounded barbecue sauce (I even went up to the chef – Jerry Sathasivam and asked him if he sold the barbecue sauce retail – he doesn’t).

So you got to sample six different ribs accompanied with six different coleslaws for $12. But wait! It doesn’t stop there, the $12 also included samples of wine from Gnarly Head Wines, beer from SteamWhistle brewery and ESKA Natural Spring Water bottled. Not bad (the cost of the ribs alone would cost around $15-20 if you were to have the same thing at a restaurant). I’m an obsessive taste tester so this event for me was a total dream. Complete with a raffle draw (prizes included a Sub-Zero and Wolf outdoor gas barbecue grill, Kitchen Aid appliances and restaurant gift certificates), hand washing stations (eating ribs can get messy) and a place for the people to vote, this is definitely an event that I will be going to on an annual basis.

And the best thing yet – all the proceeds went towards kidney cancer research at the Odette Cancer Centre, Sunnybrook Health Science Centre.

Who won? Interestingly enough, the celebrity judge panel voted for Factory Girl. I have to admit that the flavour on these ribs was my favourite (and hence, why I approached the chef and asked if they sell their barbecue sauce). The people’s choice award went to Allen’s – probably due to the meaty, fall off the bone quality of their ribs.

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The price of coffee

My sleeping hours have been a bit off this week so my morning routine of brewing a cup of coffee before I head out the door have fallen by the way side. However, I’m one of those people who can’t start the day off right without having good cup of coffee. Fortunately for me, there are a number of places on my way to work that sell a good cup of coffee. But, with all three places that I’ve visited lately, I’ve noticed that the coffee prices have creeped up. I used to spend $1.50 on average for a cup of coffee. That price later creeped up to $1.75 and this week I noticed that the prices are up to $2.00 for a medium (12 oz) coffee. That is just crazy.

At that price, I’m thinking I might just bite the bullet and up the ante and order a latte instead. Thankfully, McDonalds brews a good cup of coffee and it doesn’t cost $2.00 (although I haven’t been there in awhile, perhaps it has changed as well). Tim Horton’s still has their medium coffee at around $1.50 (but their coffee isn’t nearly as good if you ask me). *sigh* The days of a good, inexpensive coffee first thing in the morning seem to be a thing of the past. I know this means that I will just have to brew my own (I buy good beans and grind them that morning so it’s generally better (and cheaper) than any cup of coffee that I could buy outside.

But today I just found out that the world of coffee, just got a little more interesting. Starbucks launched their new Starbucks Refreshers drinks. (They had a promotion today where they were giving them out for free from 1-3pm).

Available in Cool Lime and Very Berry Hibiscus flavours, they taste similar to an iced tea but are made with green coffee bean extract. The idea is that the coffee beans have had their caffeine extracted from them before they are roasted which give you the benefit of the energy from caffeine without the coffee flavour that is a result of roasting the beans. Unfortunately, the nutrition information for the Starbucks Refreshers drinks isn’t out yet so I can’t compare the caffeine content to a regular cup of coffee or energy drinks such as Red Bull from their official information. But from other sources, it looks like the amount of vitamin C from the ‘fruit juice’ is negligible and the amount of caffeine is only 15mg compared to 260mg in a 12 oz. coffee.

Hardly a pick me up. Instead drinking something people, consider taking a quick break, going for a walk, reading a book, taking a power nap or meditating for 15 minutes. I have a feeling you’ll feel a lot more refreshed and rejuvenated compared to anything that you might drink. And if you feel like you really need something, try drinking water first. It’s refreshing, it’s readily available and it’s free!

The line up at Starbucks

Plus, who wants to wait in line at Starbucks for 30 minutes to get a free drink (well, mind you it’s free so that kind of makes it worth it). But I’d rather choose to go for a walk and take a breather rather than waiting around in line (free drink or not) any day.

Cycling in the city

It was the long weekend last weekend and what great weather we had! I was planning on going on a cycling day trip to Niagara on the Lake (Ontario’s wine country) so I rented a bike from Sweet Pete’s bike shop. I love going to this shop because it reminds me a lot of Vancouver. Friendly, easy-going and honest staff with very good quality bikes. I love the laid back feel and the fact that they have two friendly golden retrievers walking around the store. How West Coast is that?

Anyways, I ended up cycling for a good 3 hours from one end of the Toronto waterfront to the other on the first day. I hear that it’s around 20km one way but it didn’t feel like it. It only really takes about an hour to go from one end to the next (Leslie to Humber Bay) but the scenery is nice as it’s right along Lake Ontario and offers a great view of the Toronto skyline. It’s also nice to bike to a ‘destination point’. Toward the west are Humber Bay Parks East and West. Very nice parks with million great view of downtown Toronto. I would recommend that people bike East to West to enjoy a nice look out after a nice bike ride. Riding toward the east side is a lot more industrial and not as picturesque. Here are some photos that I took while riding along the Toronto waterfront.

But it doesn’t end there. I also went cycling the next day and the day after that! I explored a bike trail that runs along side the Don Valley Parkway. This is a paved cycling/pedestrian trial which is shaded by a lovely tree canopy. This trail also branches out so you can explore different parts of it. What a find in the middle of downtown Toronto! Among the concrete jungle is a recreational cycling trail that (ironically) runs alongside a highway. Ah well. I will take what I can get. Once you’re on the trail you feel engulfed by nature so you kinda forget that they highway is there. After spending 3 days of discovering the bike paths in Toronto I can say that riding in downtown Toronto (with traffic) truly sucks. Oh ya, and it’s really hard going back to the Bixi bikes. They serve their purpose, but with a real bike (like the hybrid I rented) you realize just how heavy (and slow) they are. But for getting from point A to point B they are really convenient.

I never did make it out to Niagara on the Lake that weekend. I was having too much fun exploring the bike paths of Toronto! But there are still plenty more cycling days in the summer. I will definitely be riding around Toronto a lot more and will make it out to Niagara on the Lake at least once. Now I just need to figure out if I want to keep renting bikes from Sweet Pete’s bike shop or getting the courage to ride my road bike in Toronto.

Books that I’m reading

I’m trying not to forget all the wonderful insight that I had while I was in Paris. I am definitely keeping the culinary dream alive with the French cuisine course that I’m taking at George Brown College and the two books I’m currently reading – “The Making of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman and “Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” by Rosecrans Baldwin. The Making of a Chef is a personal biography by writer/cookbook author Michael Ruhlman who signed up at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) do to research for a book which later lead him to co-authoring the famous French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller. A number of other books followed including “The Soul of a Chef”, “Ratio” (which I plan to buy), “Ruhlman’s Twenty” (which I have read) and the “Making of a Chef” which I am reading now.

“Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” is a book that I heard of from David Lebovitz’s blog (my virtual Paris correspondent). It’s about an American ex-pat who moved to Paris for a year for work and who arrives loving Paris but upon his stay there is faced with frustrations of the realities of living and working there. I have to admit that I have a very romanticized perception of Paris. I was only there for two weeks and I had enough ‘tourist french’ to get by while I was there. But living and working there for a whole year would be a whole other level.

I know that I can’t compare George Brown to the CIA or Cordon Bleu but these books do compliment my cooking classes – I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that finds cauliflower polonaise to be totally old-school french. There is a mention of this dish in “The Making of a Chef” that I can truly appreciate. The book also has me thinking about bread in a whole new way. I might just take a break from the cooking and sign up for a bread course (on the baking side) in the fall or winter. I did manage to make choux pastry and cheese puffs (gougères) this week. And this time my choux pastry didn’t collapse! Nothing like making traditional French dishes while keeping it real in my Toronto kitchen!

The croissant story

Since returning from France I’ve been obsessed with trying to find a good croissant in Toronto. I know that they’re out there but there are few and far between. I have come to realize that a large part of this is because the flour and butter that they use in France is different that what we use in Canada. I can easily count the number of places that sell a good croissant on one hand. Nadege is one of the places that makes a good croissant (equivalent to that found in Paris) and today I discovered that so does La Gourmand. La Gourmand is one of my favourite cafes/coffee shop. It’s a charming cafe that sells pastries, coffee, salads, sandwiches and a selection of imported products from France and Italy. This morning I was in the neighbourhood and stopped by for a coffee and when I saw the flaky croissants that they had in the display case, I just had to try one (I have since developed an eye for a good croissant, it must look crisp, full and flaky otherwise I don’t bother buying it).

morning croissants

This croissant was also very good. I would say as good as the one I had a Nadege. Because I know that good croissants are a rarity in this city, I felt compelled to ask the person behind the counter if they make their croissants in-house or if they have them brought in from another bakery. The answer: they get them brought in frozen but they bake them off on the premises. When I asked which company they bring them in from, none of the counter staff knew. They even asked the guy working in the kitchen and he didn’t know either *sigh*. This is an indication of the way we perceive food here – there just isn’t the same respect and level of commitment to food. However, I’m sure it was an obscure question for them, I mean how often do they get a customer asking them where they get their croissants from? I’m sure most people take it for granted or don’t stop to really appreciate the rarity of a good croissant. And for me, if I can find out where the good croissants come from, it eliminates a lot of the guess work for me. Ah well. It was the weekend. Perhaps I will have better luck if I visit on a weekday afternoon.

croissants - yum!

Interestingly enough, a friend if mine just came back from a recent visit from Montreal and was commenting about how easy it was to find good croissants there. There is a chain coffee shop called Le pain d’or and there were good mass produced croissants being sold in those stores every 5 blocks. Why is this? I spoke to a Montreal resident and it turns out that they import their butter from France! Mais oui! That explains a lot. European butter has a higher fat content compared to North American butter and that extra fat is critical to developing a delicate, flaky crust. That’s one mystery solved. Now I just need to find out where Le Gourmand gets their croissants from.

Could it be from one of the following bakeries that are on this list? My croissant search just got a whole lot easier!

A little taste of Paris in Toronto

macaron largeI decided to start looking for good French bakeries in Toronto, starting with a small, boutique bakery that has been getting great reviews – Nadège. My friend first showed me their Rosedale location which is set up like a boutique. This is when I first tried their croissant which is really good. This time, I wanted to try their macarons. Having developed a bit of a palate for macarons while in Paris, I hope that I’ll be able to find the same sort of quality in Toronto (and the macarons at Loblaws aren’t even close). I read up on the bakery and the owner – Nadège Nourian who is a fourth generation pastry chef from France! Well, it doesn’t get any more authentic than that!

This time, I visited the original Nadège location by Trinity Bellwoods Park. This one is set up as a coffee shop/bistro so there are places where you can sit down and eat (as well as a great patio facing the park). I really liked the large window at the back of the shop that lets your see the pastry chefs working in the kitchen. It’s very similar to how the chocolate shop – Soma has their stores designed.

Okay, now for the macarons. I tried cassis (blackcurrent), vanilla, salted caramel and pistachio. Oh my goodness! They are as good as Laduree’s! And priced fairly as well ($2.20/each). There wasn’t a lot available in terms of croissants and pain au chocolat when I went (it was about an hour away from closing).  It’s best to get those sorts of things early in the day when they are just baked off. However, the sandwiches looked amazing and the prices are reasonable for the quality that you’re getting. I love it. It’s like a small bit of France in Toronto. I will definitely be going back.

Am I going to starve to death after visiting Paris?

Okay, so I’m back in Toronto and was really worried that I would get super depressed from the lack of good food after being exposed to all the great fresh, local and gourmet food in Paris. So for my first grocery store visit, I went to my local Sobey’s grocery store (because it resembles a market whereas my neighbourhood Metro is a little ghetto).  Okay, so the deli isn’t quite the same with the ‘balloon’ strand sausages that are hanging up for decoration (and not the real thing) but there are places in Toronto that have that (St. Lawrence Market, for example). But the produce looks great and the cheese section wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be! We do have very good variety (although we’ve got nothing on the amount and variety of goat cheese that’s available in France). But I hear there are some great cheeses coming out of Quebec.

But lo and behold, to my surprise, I found two of my favourite cheeses while I was in Paris! Bleu D’Auvergne and Compte are both carried at the major grocery stores! Gruyere Grotte (which is from Switzerland and which I first tried when I was in Paris) is also carried in the stores here. Thank goodness for the import/export industry.

However, I have been spoiled by good baguettes while in Paris and I still have to find a good baguette in Toronto. I am optimistic that I will be able to find it if I look hard enough (although they may not be available every 5 blocks).

Bon Voyage with Ladurée

LadureeThis morning I had to say good-bye to the Paris apartment. Madame Roux, the apartment agent, came by this morning for check out. I chipped a glass but she didn’t dock me for it. I also got her business card so if I ever want to rent the apartment again, I can contact her directly and not go through the agency omitting the third party charges. Très bien!

So, after realizing that a taxi to the Charles de Gaulle airport costs 60 euros, I opted to take Parishuttle again for 31 euros. Thing is, all their vans were booked for Sunday. C’est dommage! It looks like I’m going to have to take the RER after all.

Being a little wary with the size of my suitcase and the number of stairs there are in the metro, I checked out the route the night before. There are only 3 staircases that I’d need to get past and from there, there are conveyor belts and escalators at Chatelet/Les Halles station. I think I can do it! Once I got to the RER platform, it was all good (Note to self: Pack less and use a smaller sized suitcase next time). But at a cost of just under 10 euros to get from downtown Paris to the airport, it’s a total deal. (it took me 2 hours to get into central Paris when I took the Parishuttle because the driver had to pick up a bunch of people and then drop off a bunch of people – hence making the fare cheaper but it still cost me 31 euros and took twice as long as the RER).

Sadly I must admit, that prior to getting to the airport, I had not had the chance to go to Ladurée and try one of their famous macarons. Ladurée stores are everywhere in Paris – in department stores, at Versailles, at the airport. Yes the airport. Feeling a little peckish, I figured why not?

I sampled 3 flavours – cherry blossom, blackcurrent and salted caramel (recommended by the sales clerk). Oh my goodness! These are good! Even better than the ones I had at Georges Larnicol or Fauchon!

I went back and got a box to take back with me. And guess what, they were duty free!

Au revoir Paris

So, my Paris adventure is coming to an end but what a fantastic trip it has been! I experienced the open air markets, went to some great restaurants, took a couple courses at Cordon Bleu, went to Versailles, visited Rouen, saw a bunch of museums and mingled with the locals.

But despite everything that I did, I still feel like it wasn’t enough time. I was so busy exploring the city that I have some back posts that I still have to fill in on my blog (the post about the butter I bought, for example). Don’t worry, these will be coming shortly. I am sad to say good-bye to Paris but I purposely left a couple things (Rue Mouffetard and Centre Pompadou) out so that I have something to look forward to the next time I visit.

Leaving Cordon Bleu

Thank you Cordon Bleu!

Interestingly enough, the things I enjoyed most were the cooking classes (go figure), checking out the outdoor markets and interacting with the store owners at the local bakeries and butcher shops. I am very impressed with the level of service that there is (like when I saw the butcher debone a leg of lamb at the market). Least favourite things were the uber touristy things like Champs-Élysées, going to the Louvre in the middle of the afternoon (crazy gong show with the crowds) and the tourist central areas such as Galleries Lafayette, Printemps and Fauchon.

But after experiencing this wonderful visit, it got me thinking…wouldn’t it be nice to live in Paris for a year and sign up for Cordon Bleu? Perhaps if I ever win the lottery – you never know!

My final lunch in Paris

Pramil menu_cropThe day before I flew out of Paris I decided to take it easy. There was still a number of things that I wanted to do in Paris including visiting the Centre Pompidou, checking out the evening view from the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower sparkling in the background and going to Rue Moffatard – the famous market street in the Latin Quarter lined with food shops. However, I decided that those would best be left for next time. I didn’t want to rush through these things and it’s always good to leave something for next time (plus I’d already walked and seen so much this trip that my legs were killing me!)

So, rather than trying to cram everything in on my last day, I decided that I would take it easy and focus on getting a few gifts to bring back. This also meant that I had plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely lunch (something that I rarely had the opportunity to do because I was always running around Paris) with my fellow foodie friend Doris, whom I’d met on my second day at Cordon Bleu. She told me about a restaurant she looked up on Zagat and had gotten very good reviews. She had already been there a couple times (I call it her ‘cantine’). My decision to take it easy and have a nice lunch was one of the best decisions I made on this trip! The place we went to was called Pramil. It had very good reviews, was frequented by locals and offered a set menu  for lunch (20 euro for two courses) and dinner. I loved the fact that it had a small, yet organized kitchen and intimate, yet friendly dining room. The chef even came out and chatted with the guests!

Doris ordered a cream of white asparagus soup with foie gras ice cream and Berkshire pork chops with caramelized heirloom carrots – delish! (although to be honest, I can’t really taste the difference between Berkshire pork chops and regular pork chops. Perhaps my palate isn’t refined enough.) However, they were beautifully cooked! They only cook it to medium rare so it is still pink in the middle (normally I would kinda freak out but I had total confidence in the chef. I figured he really knows what he’s doing). Oh yes, and no substitutions! Haha! True French style.

Cream of white asparagus soup with foie gras ice cream

Cream of white asparagus soup with foie gras ice cream

Berkshire porkchops with caramelized heirloom carrots

Berkshire porkchops with caramelized heirloom carrots

I ordered a smoked salmon salad (the waiter told us that they smoke the salmon in-house) and rabbit (I’ve never had rabbit before – it kinda tastes like chicken).

Salad with smoked fish

Salad with smoked fish

Rabbit with artichokes and olives

Rabbit with artichokes and Kalamata olives

For dessert, Doris had the squash cake with a lychee sorbet (I think it was lychee – certain things get lost in translation). I had a chili infused dark chocolate ice cream (amazing!) with a passionfruit coulis.

squash cake with icecream

Squash cake with ice cream

chocolate ice cream with passionfruit

Dark chocolate ice cream with passionfruit

Lunch was divine! What a great place! I wish I had visited it sooner because I would have definitely gone back to try their duck and sea scallops. I’ve decided that the next time I visit Paris, I will choose to have lunch as my main meal out. The prices are better, the environment less hectic and the food is just as good. I think this was even mentioned to me in my “Edible Adventures in Paris” book (but who has time for a 2 hour lunch when trying to see all the sites of Paris). Pramil wasn’t one of the restaurants listed but it was one of the best food experiences I had. Perhaps it might be in the next edition (but for now, it’s my little secret).

Pramil restaurant

Pramil restaurant