Monday, September 17, 2007

Eating Plain in Toronto

Toronto has always been a favorite city of mine. From the heady nightclubbing days at RPM in the 80s to hanging out with dear friends (and hot women) in Richmond Hill to co-owning Rude Boyz Paintball in Mississauga to my current trip as part of the World Championship Barista Tour, it's always been a fun time - and this time was no different.

Except for my attention to the food.

I'm a different person than when I was last here in January. While I've always enjoyed good food, my expectations are higher now - I don't know if this means I'm harder to please or if the quality of food in general is just so low.

On the road with a chocolate covered donut from Tim Horton's.

In Canada, Tim Horton's is the ubiquitous place for coffee and doughnuts. They're everywhere. And I mean: EVERYWHERE. No matter where you go, where you turn or where you look, chances are that Tim will be there waiting to hand you his watery coffee and slightly hard donut.

I'm in Canada and I might as well do as the Canucks do and start my morning with a proper coffee and chocolate frosted donut from Tim Horton's. It's one sugar and some cream, please. The coffee is generic. No real discernable flavor other than "coffee." Watery and light, it's a coffee that satiates the masses and gets Canada rolling in the morning. The donut is reminiscent of the by-gone days of Dunkin' Donuts. That fluffy round donut that's yeast-driven, sugary sweet and yummy. Not the tired, thin, Krispy Kreme rip-off that Dunkin passes off as donuts today. Tim's donut is slighty harder (meaning: less moist) than the donuts we serve at The Spro, but they're okay. Nothing to rave about, just okay.

I'm drinking Tim's coffee because I've come to learn through the years that one is hard pressed to find a decent cup of coffee at a coffee trade show. Never mind that there are hundreds of coffee vendors, the quality is always mediocre to lackluster.

With Robert Goble from Elysian Coffee and crew at Kubo Radio.

After a long first day at the Canadian National Barista Championships, we're off to Queen Street in downtown Toronto to check out Kubo Radio. I'd been to Kubo back in January when Matt Lee took me there for lunch. I remember it being a pretty decent and funky place for Asian-fusion type of food.

This time, I was a bit disappointed. The place still looked the same and the staff was friendly but the food just didn't shine. Liz ordered some onion rings which were stellar. Thick breading over real onions fried to a perfect brown. Crispy on the outside, tender and onion-y on the inside. It was the highlight of the meal - which spiraled downward after that.

While I didn't try anyone else's dishes, Alistair and Robert reported lackluster meals as well and there was no raving about their dish from anyone in our group. For myself, I ordered their ribeye steak which promised baby bok choy and jasmine rice as sides. The meat came out with the requisite grill marks but the meat was lifeless and kinda tough. Maybe it was "select" grade meat (for $19.95). Even the usually fatty and tender outer rim was knife-resistant and flavorless.

My not so laudable ribeye steak from Kubo Radio.

Wishy-washy is the best way to describe this ribeye. Bland. Lifeless. With no salt on the table, I resorted to using the soy sauce provided - which is another peeve. I've toured around and lived in Asia - there was always salt on the table. It's like those people that insist on being provided with and using chopsticks in a Thai restaurant because it's "Asian" - never mind the fact that Thai people don't traditionally use chopsticks to eat their food.

But I digress.

Back to the meal. Again, lackluster and disappointing. Especially since I remember having a nice meal here previously. The baby bok choy was the highlight of my dish. Steamed just right, it was still slightly crunchy and flavorful. The coup de gras was the rice. The menu promised jasmine rice but the kitchen delivered brown rice. And I absolute hate, abhor and despise brown rice. Especially when I was promised and expecting the light, floral fluffiness of jasmine rice.

The sausage and egg breakfast bagel from Tim Horton's.

After a night of drinking with the locals and the duo from Elysian Coffee, one needs something strong to start the day. For day two of the barista championships, it's a late morning visit back to Tim Horton's. This time I'm trying their bagel breakfast sandwich and it's 10:50am.

The Indian guy working the sandwich bar isn't too happy to be making me another breakfast sandwich and grumpily tells the manager that mine is "the last one." It's only 10:55am and they refuse the girl behind me from getting the same sandwich.

In the end, I should have given her mine.

Without any prior experience with Tim Horton's breakfast sandwiches, I'm presuming that there's usually only one sausage patty included. Mine had three. Why, I don't know. Maybe that Indian guy was just upset and wanted to make sure there were no more sausage patties left, forcing him to make more sandwiches.

In short, it was pretty bad and I became another victim of in-house marketing. The posters on the wall made them look so good but it's was microwaved hell. Even the "scrambled eggs" were microwaved. And salty. Just more examples of why I've started to hate eating at national chain restaurants.

Stephen Morrissey digging into a Harvey's.

At the Toronto Congress Center and in the judges chamber, I find some lunch waiting for us. Seems that someone had gone out to the Harvey's next door and bought us some sandwiches: an assortment of cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. Of course for me, if it's a choice between chicken or beef, I'm going to choose the beef, so cheeseburger it was for me.

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade said: "He chose poorly."

World Barista Champion James Hoffmann and World Cupping Champion Annette Moldvaer dig into Harvey's.

And a poor choice it was. I don't know what that burger was supposed to be, but it wasn't beef. A beef by-product maybe, but not beef. It smelled like beef but tasted like processed beef cake. It had the texture of tofu or that imitation fish cake you see at Japanese markets. It even had a taste resembling beef, but it wasn't beef.

It was horrific.

And I couldn't finish it.

Ugh! The horror! The horror!

While I don't have any photos of our adventure, Liz, Amber, Alistair, Robert and myself had a nice meal at Torito before going to the Manic Coffee party later that night. The menu was all tapas and it was pretty darn good. The flatiron steak as well as the beef tongue were excellent. The ceviche was okay - seems they do it much better in Peru. Alistair chose some wonderful wines to pair with our meal and we enjoyed a great meal in the company of good friends. The way it should be.

Scott Conary chows on Harvey's while Brent Fortune enjoys his panini.

Annette looking rather pensive after her Harvey's as Tracy Allen gnoshes smartly on a panini.