Brooklyn Tavern (Leslieville)

Brooklyn Tavern @ 1097 Queen Street East in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 901-1177

Brooklyn tavern.

It was the beginning of Autumn in Toronto and we were all in denial. I attempted to cope by having brunch at Brooklyn Tavern with a new friend. We had a post-prandial walk down to Woodbine Beach and watched all the other deniers playing in the sand. Ice cream soon followed.

Based on this one visit it’s hard not to conclude that Brooklyn Tavern is a wonderful place to have brunch. We dined on their intimate and garden-like back patio. I can’t imagine it will be much of an option in the coming months, but on that day the weather was perfect for brunch among the flowers and leaves.

Brooklyn tavern.

I opted for the signature Caesar, which features Dillon’s unfiltered gin and a natural Caesar mix. Other than a more subdued flavor, I didn’t detect much of a difference between this and a standard Caesar (the spiciness of the drink overwhelms the other subtleties), so I would probably just go with the standard next time and save a few bucks. My entrée was the carnitas hash and egg over arugula salad ($12), which was delicious and a fair price. The arugula was immaculate, the carnitas clearly homemade and the egg perfectly cooked.

Despite the clearly well-conceived and –executed food program, I was more impressed with the service. On this quiet Saturday afternoon the restaurant was staffed by just a server, bartender and chef. They couldn’t have been more friendly and approachable, and perhaps more importantly – proud of the establishment and what they were doing there. I told them – and it’s true – I’d be in every week if it wasn’t across the city for me.

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca & Michaeleats.com

Burger Commandments

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca and Michaeleats.com
Monday, May 12 2014

The Backstory

I became aware of Michael’s work about a year ago when I found his website Tastyburgers.ca. I immediately marked it down as Toronto’s only “burgerdown” an idea as similar in concept and method to Toronto Phodown as they come.

Michael, moreover, in seeking Toronto’s best burger, tugs at my heartstrings in a different manner. Having spent the bulk of my life in the south of the U.S., a love of burgers was fired within me from a young age (for better and for worse). Long story short (too late): Michael is doing important work by performing an in-depth study of the hamburger in Toronto, both seeking to rate each one on his four-point scale and performing a longitudinal study, tracking trends in burger preparation over time. I should also note he’s been a hell of a lot more consistent than my fledgling project, which has become more travel and general food blog than a proper phodown.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.

Michael Nusair (MN): No problem!

TPD: What is the genesis of your love of burgers?

MN: I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember. I honestly don’t think there was one single “aha!” moment for me, burgers have just always been something I’ve been into.

I will say that there are a couple of things that really got me to start thinking more seriously about hamburgers, and provided the impetus for Tasty Burgers. The first thing is the blog Serious Eats, and specifically their sub-blog A Hamburger Today. I’ll admit that Tasty Burgers is more than a little bit inspired by that site.

The second thing is George Motz’s great book, Hamburger America. Obviously there are no Canadian burger joints in that book, but it’s well worth a read regardless.

Between that book and that blog, and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that no one was writing about burgers in Toronto in a way that I deemed satisfactory, Tasty Burgers was born.

TPD: What caused you to settle on the 0-4 omnibus Tyrion scale? As you know, I prefer a more specific set of metrics – I could easily see you considering such a thing at some point in Tastyburger’s history (e.g., 0-4 for the beef; 0-4 for the bun, etc). [Editorial Note: At this point I was under the impression that the images Michael uses for his rating scale were those of Tyrion Lannister.  I was mistaken.]

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MN: I feel like, for the most part, I want the review to speak for itself. I do get a little bit frustrated with the four star rating system sometimes, because, for example, some places I gave three stars to are markedly better than other places that got the same ranking. But not better enough for a 3.5.

If anything, though, I’d change the rating system to something even less specific. Like a Siskel & Ebert style thumbs up or thumbs down. Obviously the more specific scale is working for you, but I honestly have no idea what the difference would be between, say, a hamburger that deserves 8.5 out of 10, and one that deserves 8.6.

TPD: Speaking of your rating scale, why the Dink?

MN: That’s actually Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction! Hence the name. (“Mmm-hmm, this IS a tasty burger!”)

Speaking of Game of Thrones though, that show and Tasty Burgers are pretty much exactly the same age. Thrones premiered in April of 2011, and I posted my first review in May. Coincidence?? Yes. Yes it is.

[Editorial note: this is very embarrassing for me]

TPD: I noticed you often defer to the restaurant when choosing a burger to rate, ordering their specialty. While this may certainly be a fair way to go about things, do you ever worry you sacrifice some empirical rigor? For instance, the special at each restaurant may be quite different, whereas ordering a plain burger at each would yield more comparable ratings across restaurants.

MN: Yeah, that was definitely on my mind a lot when I first started the blog. My thinking is that I want to review whatever the restaurant feels is their signature item. There have been a few times where I thought that the signature burger was just too heavily condimented, and in those cases I got something simpler. But for the most part I think it’s probably worth sacrificing a little bit of consistency to provide a more generally helpful review; I think more people are going to want the restaurant’s signature burger, and will be looking to see how that tastes.

TPD: Which of the Ten Burger Commandments is most often broken?

MN: A few years ago I would have said the fifth commandment (“Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger”), but I feel like Torontonians have slowly realized over the years that all you need to make a great burger is good quality beef. A lot of older places still serve meatloaf burgers, but very few new ones do. Thankfully.

So now I’d say it’s the third one (“Thou shall not use beef that is too lean”). It’s absolutely insane to me how many places get this wrong. I think a lot of places are under the misguided notion that they should make their burgers leaner so that they can be healthier, which is absurd. I also think that a lot of places like to advertise that they make their burgers out of cuts like sirloin, because it sounds fancier, not realizing that sirloin is probably the worst cut of beef to make a burger out of. Juiciness comes from fat. If you make a burger out of lean beef and cook it past medium (which 90% of Toronto burger joints do), it’s going to be dry ten times out of ten. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. So it happening so often in Toronto is as upsetting as it is baffling.

TPD: You note the smashed/griddled burger is especially popular right now in the GTA. All else equal, do you prefer a smashed griddled burger or one cooked on an open flame?

MN: I don’t know, they’re both pretty great. I guess I’d say griddled, because it’s so much easier to find a really good griddled burger in the GTA. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about a really thick, juicy, flame-grilled burger made with great quality beef.

TPD: Perfect beverage pairing with a burger?

MN: I tend to order Sprite or 7 Up with the burgers I review, so I’ll say that. But really, any soda will do. A burger, fries, and a soda — is there a finer combination? The answer is no.

TPD: A theme of your reviews is your consistently chiding restaurants for their beef (e.g., the sausage texture of processed meat, overcooking, use of frozen patties, etc). Fresh, non-lean beef, simply prepared seems quite easy to do – why are so many Toronto restaurants failing?

MN: I have no idea! It’s madness to me. It really is. A really good burger is so simple — just get really good quality beef, make sure it is sufficiently fatty (preferably in the ballpark of a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio, and certainly nothing leaner than 80/20), grind it coarsely without over-handling it, season it with salt and pepper, and then cook it over high heat so a crust forms. That’s it! Don’t mix stupid gunk in there, don’t use lean beef, and certainly don’t use industrially-made frozen patties. This isn’t high-end French cooking. It’s easy enough that every burger joint should be serving a great burger, and yet most don’t. I don’t get it.

TPD: Besides burgers, do you have any other food-related obsessions?

MN: I think I’m just generally obsessed with food. There are few things in life more satisfying than a really great meal.

TPD: Harder to get right, a bowl of pho, or a burger?

MN: I’d say in theory the pho should be harder to get right, but I’ve seen burgers messed up in so many baffling ways that I think I’d have to go with hamburgers. I’ve never had a bowl of pho even close to as bad as the worst burger I’ve eaten. Then again I’ve had maybe a dozen bowls of pho in my life, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.

TPD: Thanks again!

MN: No problem, Jason.

Elephant & Castle (King Street)

Date 53: Pre-Megabus Pub Fare (closing up the Mom Series)

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Elephant & Castle at 212 King Street West, Toronto; Call (416) 598-4003

What do we always say is the most important thing?
Breakfast?

Arrested Development made a name for itself by being a groundbreaking comedy. It was absurd, called back pretty much every gag, and was extremely strategic about its black outs. We take a lot of these elements for granted now as they’ve permeated modern television comedy.

But I think a lot of what contributed to its cult following is that it had heart. Really weird heart, but heart nonetheless. There were times when Michael’s family demonstrated true caring for each other and even when they didn’t, you were touched by Michael’s sheer faith that they would come together.

I had to work on the last day of my mom’s trip to Toronto, so she spent most of the day on her own. She said this suited her just fine, but I still felt guilty. And I still do. Before her boarding the Megabus, there was time to meet near my work for dinner. The choices around there aren’t exactly plum, but we decided on Elephant and Castle. Frankly, this is not a place I even noticed before, blending in with the other somewhat cookie-cutter restaurants on this stretch of King. But once we got inside, Mom noted that this is just the kind of place she likes.

I knew what she meant. It reminded me a lot of the type of restaurants we got taken to as kids, in particular an old joint in San Leandro called Harry’s Hofbrau and a “family restaurant” called Elio’s. These kinds of places were clearly not pushing the envelope in any way, but offered a well-executed product at family-friendly prices.

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I have to say that Elephant and Castle doesn’t seem to meet my fuzzy rose-colored children’s glasses view. I was excited when I read the menu as it seemed to make an honest effort of doing English food, with a curry, pot pies, and fish and chips. But in reality, they tried to do too much. I got a meatloaf and it turned out to be small medallions of bacon-wrapped meatloaf with stodgy mashed potatoes.  I’d much rather just have an honest, well-prepared meat loaf. The green beans were nice, though. And Mom reported enjoying her fish and chips.

A restaurant can let you down. And Michael Bluth’s hope for his family was often misguided. But there’s a reason you keep going back.

Even when you fuck up, family is always there for you.

Date 26, 27 & 28: This End Up, The Common and The Midfield with Steve (pts. 2-4 of the Steve Series)

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This End Up, at 1454 Dundas; call (647) 347-8700

On Steve’s second and final evening, we supped at This End Up, known for being my first date with Bryn. While I came down a bit hard on This End Up in that post, I still had several positive feelings associated with it. Foremost, I genuinely had a good time there and thought the food was good. The main drawback was the self-limiting concept. However, Steve and I like to drink when we hang out, and This End Up’s beverage program is first rate. It’s also just a block or two from my house, and is thus eminently convenient.

Hamburger and fries at This end Up!

All of this rationalization probably obscures the fact that my first date with Bryn way back in May was the start of a new lease on life. It didn’t work out at all, but it was the happiest and most carefree I had been in a long time. Although Bryn and I have lost touch, I owe her a great deal. And for that reason, I will always think of This End Up fondly.

On this evening Steve and I had a grand adventure. Although This End Up’s notoriety stems from its cocktails, it also has a decent beer selection. In particular, it offers beers on draft from King Brewery. Steve and I chose these beers to go along with our sandwiches, mine being the chutney burger ($11) and Steve tackling the fish po’ boy ($15). Each sandwich offered the option of salad or fries, and we both chose fries. Skin-on, not overly-greasy, and on the skinny side, these are a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to a meal.

The chutney burger was good, if a bit small. The pork belly brought the smoke element you would normally get from bacon, but without the crunch. None of the other ingredients were much help in this matter – I might have even preferred iceberg over the arugula to provide some texture. Despite being one note texturally, the flavor was spot on, and the price reasonable.

Steve approved of his po’ boy with the caveat that the fish got lost in the bread a bit.

Thirsty for more action, we made our way over to The Common on College.

The Common, at 1071 College Street; call (416) 546-7789

The Common represents a new breed of coffee shop by day/bar by night enterprises, a natural extension of the coffee shop business and one I’ve been championing for years now.

The Common is a terrific place to hang out, with an accommodating staff that goes to lengths to establish a neighborhood atmosphere. I’ve spent many a day there writing and sipping cappuccinos.

As evening rolls around at the Common, the barista cum bartender drags out a box of various spirits and a few bottles of wine. The prices for wine and beer are affordable at $5 for a generous pour of red or white, and the same for a bottle of Mill Street Organic.

On this night, Steve and I both opted for red, sat by the window and opined lost love.

Midfield Wine Bar and Tavern, at 1434 Dundas Street West; call (647) 345-7005

Not fully satisfied, Steve and I opted for a final drink at the Midfield, an inviting Wine Bar a few doors down from This End Up. It was a stage of the night where there was quite little damage left we could do. At this point, I think we just shared an order of frites ($6), and each had a light beer.

Still, the staff was very friendly and this is certainly a place I wouldn’t mind exploring more. They have a thoughtful wine list and several small plates that would seem to match well with an evening of drinking. I am particularly curious about the quail escabeche with asparagus and potato ($8).

One warning sign, however, is that the fries weren’t particularly well done, some cut very small and the oil tasting a bit dirty.

Date 23: “Irish Nachos” at the Irish Embassy Pub with Setareh

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Irish Embassy Pub Grill @ 47 Yonge Street – Call: (416) 866-8282

On a Thursday in late June I continued a tradition of leaving work for an hour or two for a date, and then returning to the office for a long night.

I met Setareh online and we developed a very easy rapport. Quick-witted, agreeable and either causing or as a cause of her profession in sports media, she is very much a guy’s gal. We agreed on after work beers at the Irish Embassy as our first (and incidentally, only) date.

Irish Embassy Irish Nachos

I had been to the Irish Embassy a few times before our date and had developed a strong lukewarmness towards the place. I think in the past I’ve had the Irish stew, burger, and fish and chips. The latter two were well executed and while the stew was a noble attempt at making the place Irish in more than name only, a burnt element in the stew lent a carbon flavor the entire concoction that should have been caught.

Tonight was mostly about drinks, but since we both wanted something to nibble on, we opted for Irish nachos, which is pretty much exactly what one would expect (waffle-cut fries, and various nacho toppings such as sour cream, guac, salsa, cheese, and green onions).

Something like this is very difficult to evaluate. The fries were crispy and not-greasy. The ingredients tasted fresh. Still, something about nachos seems to just work well with corn chips, potatoes being a bit blander and not as good a medium for nacho toppings. But hey, this ain’t the French Laundry.

Despite the general pleasantness of the date, and our shared understanding that this type of dating is a great way to not only meet a potential partner, but also just make connections, Setareh has declined my attempts to maintain a friendship.

Date 22: After-class lunch with Caleb, Kimbo and Jason

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Hurricanes Roadhouse @ 936 Bloor Street West – Call: (416) 531-7818

Here’s another date from way back to June 1st, the last day of my Foundations II improv class.

Hurricanes is a bar/pub near Bloor and Dovercourt, often in direct competition with Disgraceland in terms of clientele and just being a similarly-styled pub in the area. Both are also favorites of the local comedy scene that performs out of the Comedy Bar.

On this day, our class had just ended and a few of us decided to have an end-of-class lunch. I think Hurricanes was the choice because our teacher, Evany, had often said she’d have after class beers/office hours at Hurricanes, but that turned out to never happen.

The prices here are about what you’d expect to pay at a standard pub – entrees in the $10 range and drinks in the $5-10 range. I think the special of the day (a Saturday) was $3 caesars, which – assuming that figure is correct – is eminently reasonable. I ended up opting for one of those and a burger (picture below).

Hurricanes burger

Again, pretty much exactly what you’d expect. The meat was cooked to hell, but it didn’t have an overly processed/frozen flavor. The fries were lifeless, but salvageable with whatever cocktail of condiments you prefer: catsup, vinegar, hot sauce, etc. The service was appropriately surly and disinterested, but the job got done.

If you are in the neighborhood and fancy a quick bite and a beer, Hurricanes is worth a shot.