The only Indonesian restaurant in Toronto….again. Or: Let’s eat (at) Little Sister!

Toronto, as a major North American city, seems to have a “one-ness” problem. What is that, you ask? Well, let’s consider this. In a city of this magnitude and global reputation, there is only ONE major highway that takes you to the northern suburbs. There is only ONE major subway line that takes you to said suburbs (and even then, not all the way there). There is only ONE major east-west highway throughout most of the city. There is only ONE major shopping mall in the downtown core (people from Jakarta would never believe this). And my biggest beef of them all: there is only, at a maximum, only ONE Indonesian restaurant that operates in the city at any given time. Seriously.

At one time, there was only Warung Kampung. A great beacon of hope for those who were looking to have Indonesian food in an actual, sit-down location. It was the only Indonesian restaurant in Toronto. And less than a year later, it was gone. While it was initially said that they were simply relocating, they seem to have little interest in re-opening a physical location, going instead on the much-more-popular route of home-based catering. Thus, as it has been for so many years in the past, the only way you can eat proper Indonesian food is to know someone who knows someone who operates these catering businesses, and good luck getting info on any of them outside the Consulate General or Indonesian church bazaars.

So now, it is with some excitement that I found out that there is a new Indonesian restaurant that opens up. Since the demise of Warung Kampung, this place is now the ONLY restaurant you can get authentic Indonesian dishes in Toronto. I personally found it funny, in a bitterly sad kind of way, that there once again can only be one of these places at any given time. Where one Indonesian restaurant opens, the other one closes.

Minus the killings.

Minus the killings.

But enough moping about that! The new Indonesian restaurant has the extremely un-Indonesian name of Little Sister, named so because it is the little sister restaurant of Quince, a restaurant on Yonge Street that seems to be rather unremarkable, until I found out that the owners were Dutch and that they held a rijstaffel banquet once every few months or so. It’s also funny that the owners of this establishment actually reached out to Warung Kampung when they were still around, to touch base and tell them that, at least in theory, there would be a time when Toronto would have TWO Indonesian restaurants. #thatscrazytalk

And so we have Little Sister. I was a bit confused as to how the restaurant worked because the dishes were served tapas-style. In other words, all the portions were extremely small, and the prices were way too high for the size that they came in. This seemed the antithesis of proper Indonesian food, but hey, in a city of ONE, it’s not like I had any other options. And I don’t care how many times people try to point this out to me, but GOURMET MALAYSIA IS NOT AN INDONESIAN RESTAURANT GODDAMMIT. It’s a Malaysian restaurant, and a fine one at that. But it’s not, and never will be, an Indonesian restaurant.

The place was cute, with many little tidbits of Bahasa Indonesia terms written on the walls, and I could’ve sworn I saw a makeshift sign of some sort that said “Garuda Indonesia”, which is the long-standing national airline of the country. It’s very amusing, and a little bit sad, that the first time I actually sat and ate at restaurant that proudly shows Indonesian elements in its decor, it’s run by non-Indonesians. The whole place felt like a bit of a hipster joint, but at the same time it retained little bursts of old-world Indonesia. It was a rather nice sight, I have to say.

It's as if a little Indonesian warung opened up near my house and was run completely by white people. UPVOTE!

It’s as if a little Indonesian warung opened up near my house and was run completely by white people. UPVOTE!

We ordered a smorgasbord of food from the menu. I was already anticipating micro-size portions due to the aforementioned tapas-style servings, and (un)fortunately they truly did not disappoint. The portions were so small that even a small Chinese guy like me (who is notorious for not being able to finish most of my restaurant dishes) found himself unsatisfied. The first thing we ordered were the satays. There was a satay lilit (Balinese style satay) and good ol’ satay babi (pork satays). They were actually ridiculously delicious, and one thing that struck me was that Little Sister does NOT skimp on the spices and seasonings. The dishes actually both tasted almost like how they would back home. The consistency of the meat was a bit different, in that they were almost too refined compared to the coarser (but fattier) authentic Indonesian counterparts, but all in all it was an extremely good try. The problem was that these two dishes cost us basically $12 and we had…uh….very very little food to the point that each piece had to be further shared between our table members (there were 5 of us).

THIS much...

THIS much…

....and THIS much.

….and THIS much. Yikes.

 

We were fully aware of this possibility, though, so it’s not as if we ONLY ordered these two dishes. We also ordered up some babi panggang (roasted pork belly), ayam panggang (roasted chicken), grilled mustard greens, and some rendang tacos (which is probably the only fusion dish the place has – everything else is pretty authentic).  Again, we knew the portions were gonna be small, but when we saw the actual dishes, even many of my friends who were tapas veterans were rather disappointed. Flavours-wise, however, just like the satays,  the dishes were impeccable. It’s a bit hard to do individual reviews as we had so many of them, but suffice to say that Little Sister does not dumb down the seasonings, and I’m grateful for them.

Ayam panggang: not bad, but once again too small.

Ayam panggang: not bad, but once again too small.

The weakest of the bunch was the rendang tacos. It was very strange to be eating rendang, which is essentially almost like dry meat curry, mixed with spices and sauces that you would normally get in tacos. I can definitely say that the acidity characteristic of salsas (often part of tacos) that was present in the dish did NOT go well with the rich rendang. I love fusion food, but this was one that did not work.

On the other end of the spectrum, the babi panggang was by far the highlight of the meal for me. There is just the right amount of fat to be noticeable in your mouth without it overwhelming the entire experience. And the seasonings were to die for. I could’ve just ordered two of this for myself. Old-fashioned babi panggang is becoming somewhat of a rarity in Jakarta, so having one in front of me in Toronto was actually a wonderful experience. We cut up the (already) tiny dish into smaller servings so that everyone can get a piece, and I’m not embarassed to say that I probably would’ve body-checked the friend to my left to get at his serving if only that pesky conscience hadn’t kicked in at the last minute.

Damn conscience.

Damn conscience.

Overall, Little Sister was definitely a unique experience. I was happy to be able to once again taste the amazing flavours that literally burst in my mouth with every bite, just like in the old Indonesian restaurants of my childhood. And having it prepared by Caucasians was definitely interesting for me. The food is super top-notch for the most part, and mad respect to the owners for going full-tilt on the spices. However, I was very disappointed with the direction that they chose to take, with respect to how they choose their serving sizes. Indonesian food to me is NOT to be done tapas-style, because it only ends up minimizing the portions and maximizing the prices in my very humble opinion. As such, this is a restaurant where you probably would get more bang for your buck if you come in smaller groups (you can share a dish for 2-3 people. Anything more than that is way too tiny) rather than bigger ones. Because trust me, there’s NO WAY I’m gonna resist pushing whoever is beside me out of the way the next time we get that babi panggang.

 

–Final verdict: Boleh Makan!

The Bucket Co.

2031 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON M4S 2A2
(416) 488-2031

 

Meal for ONE GUY at FIVE GUYS. Or: Getting my burger fix at Five Guys Markham

There’s a bit of a trend that’s been sweeping Toronto the past year or so. And no, it’s not guys wearing pants that are way too tight and way too short. It’s gourmet burgers. Actually, there’s a noticeable upswing to make a more “sophisticated” version of just about everything. We see it here with the increased trend of “premium casual dining” (I’m not joking, that’s the term they actually use) which causes restaurants like Milestones and Moxie’s to look almost like upscale lounges. We also see it with the fact that Wendy’s and even, holy shit, Tim Horton’s going for the more upscale crowd with renovations to the look and feel of their stores. At this rate, maybe the local Dollarama is gonna turn into the Fiverrama, VERY NICE!

I gotta stop using Borat jokes ---from blog.accessdevelopment.com/

I gotta stop using Borat jokes —from blog.accessdevelopment.com/

And why wouldn’t proprietors be interested? Slap on a new coat of paint, serve up “sweet potato fries” as a side, and suddenly you can charge and extra buck or two for every dish that you serve. Sure the upfront renovation costs may be expensive, but the long-term effects are pure mo-NAY. Toronto’s burger scene is not immune from this. We now have names like Burger Priest and Holy Chuck Burgers, to name a few. These burgers are way more expensive than your regular $3-$4 fast food buns, and of course, being the hip person that I am, I had to try one of these. Enter: Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

Five Guys isn’t totally what you would call an upscale joint. It’s not as crazy as Burger Priest in terms of “gourmet”-ness and it’s certainly a more down-to-earth joint. The whole place feels like an unpretentious fast-foodesque joint, but the $7-$8 price tag that comes with their most basic burger tells you that this is, most definitely, in the ballpark of “upper” burgers. And since everyone and their mom seems to have eaten here (except for me), I simply had to sample one myself. It’s also an international chain, with branches in both Canada, the US, and the UK. The street cred is strong in this one.

Walking in, you’ll be greeted with a symphony of red-and-white checkered tiles. Seriously, there’s so much of this pattern that I thought somebody vomited the national jersey of Croatia all over the place. It’s charming, but a bit much at times. What’s NOT much is their menu selection. At its core, Five Guys is about four kinds of burgers: the basic hamburger, the basic cheeseburger, hamburger with bacon, and hamburger with cheese AND bacon. Huh. And they also serve their famous fries two ways: Cajun, or regular. Of course, like many modern places, there is quite a bit of toppings and condiments you can choose for your burger. But from its very utilitarian and basic menu options, you knew that this was a place that meant business. Ain’t nobody got time for fancy-schmancy brisket burger with dijon remoulade sauce and all that. That’s what I mean about this place being both gourmet but not TOO gourmet?

Or a REALLY Canadian checkerboard.

I guess it could also look like a REALLY Canadian checkerboard.

I opted for the simple little hamburger with bacon (but not with cheese this time, though I have since returned to try that one too) and loaded it with many of the toppings that I love like onions and extra onions (no date night for me afterwards!), along with mushrooms, lettuce, and a few others. This is important: their standard hamburger has TWO meat patties. If you just want one and pretend to be a tad healthier (aka if you’re me), then opt for the LITTLE burger. It was still a rather impressive sight, seeing a burger that many purists praise to be one of the best ones around actually be very simple and straightforward. I ordered a side of their cajun fries out of pure curiosity, and all I had left to do was wait. And wait some more. Unlike many walk-in fast food places, Five Guys actually takes a while longer to prepare, and that in itself is a vote of confidence towards the overall quality and freshness of their burgers. However, this can understandably be a bit annoying for those who are accustomed to the rapid delivery of a McDonald’s or Wendy’s. So if you’re REALLY hungry and can’t wait around 10 minutes for your burgers, do not come here.

My burger, unwrapped.

En route to becoming my burger

After the wait (they really should have wi-fi here!) came the food. One burger and one fries.And in my opinion, it was an extremely delicious burger. It’s strangely hard to describe, seeing as how the whole thing is so simple and plain-looking, but I guess if I have to put my finger to it, it’s really the freshness that you can taste, that sold it to me.The burger was super tender, with a rather strong meaty taste, but refreshingly devoid of crazy flavours. I just had mine with mayo, ketchup, and a wee bit of BBQ sauce. For a person who is as seasoning-crazy as I am, it’s very high praise to say that a plain burger was tasty. In fact, the only thing that was missing was a bit of gooeyness, which I rectified in a later visit by adding cheese. In my opinion, if you’re only going to go for either the cheese or the bacon (but not both), opt for the cheese. The meltiness and textural contrast that the cheese presents outweighs the additional saltiness of the bacon (which by itself was not bad, it just wasn’t anything special).

My burger, put together. Not very impressive looking, innit?

Thank God the taste is much better than how it looks.

The fries were a curious bit. Obviously they were flaming HOT (temperature-wise, that is), having come out of the fryer, but the crispness is a bit lacking while the cajun spice only provided hits of flavouring without an overall saltiness that I often like in my fries. Sadly, McDonald’s fries were still better. These weren’t bad at all, and was a nice change, but again I can do without. This was a bit disappointing because I really really wanted to love the fries, but in the end I felt what I feel these days towards most Android games on my tablet: I like ‘em just fine, but I won’t notice them if they’re not there. A near miss but still worth a try.

Oh fries, you could've been so much more

Oh fries, you could’ve been so much more.

Overall, I would recommend Five Guys. Sure it’s not going to be a full-on gourmet burger experience, but it’s a VERY solid step up from your everyday burger chains. And two people (well, two smallish Asian people like myself and WW at least) can be reasonably stuffed for around $20. You’ll get good value for your money, and there’s something very American about the whole place that ends up being a bit charming. Plus, you can totally negate any health illusions you may have had from ordering the little burger by fooling yourself that you’re drinking healthy at the PresoTea next door.

Wait….bubble tea IS healthy right? I mean, it’s just tea. God.

 

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

3987 Highway & East
Toronto, ON L3R 5M6
(905) 944-8555

 

Almost made it to Mexico! Or: Filling my bucket list in Newmarket.

Since we got married, I’ve promised WW that we will try out more new and unique places than before. I thought I identified the perfect spot: It was featured on my Italian cousin John Catucci’s show You Gotta Eat Here, and it has a stellar reputation in the city where it was in (Newmarket). The name of the restaurant was Made in Mexico. It was also batshit full on a Saturday night. Thanks to my lack of reservation, we had to find our dining elsewhere.

How I felt. --- from memegenerator.net

How I felt. — from memegenerator.net

Fortunately, (I AM a bonafide food blogger, after all) I am aware of yet ANOTHER Mexican restaurant just across the street. It’s called The Bucket Co. and they provided the food for a Yelp event that I attended in the middle of the awful ice age of 2014 (otherwise known as winter 2014). The event was held at Tequila 185, a club/tequila bar which is owned by the same gang as those who owned Made in Mexico AND The Bucket Co. I remembered really liking the food, and the fact that Newmarket Main Street had THREE separate Mexican joints was all too amusing for my simple ol’ self. So I grabbed WW and just brought her into this relatively more peaceful restaurant.

The Bucket Co. is interesting. It’s a cute little Mexican restaurant that apparently specializes in casual Mexican street food. In contrast to the fancier (the waitress’ words, not mine) Made in Mexico, this restaurant is a lot more simple and straightforward, featuring many menu items that you would find in stalls in Mexico, or simple Tex-Mex fry-ups. As the logo of the restaurant was a bunch of shrimp in a bucket, I simply had to get the battered shrimp (in a bucket, duh) while WW tried the chicken adobo fajita. Not stuff we’d normally get on a weekend night, but hey I did promise her we’d try new things so #YOLO and all that.

It's a sign. No really. It's a SIGN.

It’s a sign. No really. It’s a SIGN. Inside the restaurant.

The food didn’t take long to come, which is never a bad thing in my books, though I admit I raised an eyebrow as to how fast it came. Clearly this is a place where the food isn’t made from scratch and has been pre-prepared. They would most likely still need to put the final finishing touches on the dishes, but for the most part they’re all done already way in advance. Again, I don’t necessarily mind this as long as the quality is still good, but keep this in mind for some of you out there that may prefer your food items to be made 100% fresh (or at least it would SEEM like they take the time to make it fresh – The Bucket Co. doesn’t even pretend that).

Fortunately, we both enjoyed our selections.  My battered shrimp is, well, battered and a bit oily. But that’s kind of what I was looking for. It’s been a while since my last fry-up and I was craving some deep-fried goodness. The little thin potato slices that came with the shrimp was lovely, and the shrimp meat itself was tender and felt fresh. Nothing was overly mindblowing but, perhaps more importantly, nothing was overfried (they all had the light golden colour which I love in deep-fried food, but without the dark brown overburnt parts) and the chipotle dip that came with the dish was wonderful. It tied the whole thing together and made the dish what it is. I’ve often said that you can make or break your goreng foodstuffs with the dip, and that certainly held true today. The slightly spicy dip sealed the deal and made a good dish better.

Mmmm....fried.

Mmmm….fried.

WW’s chicken adobo was also tasty. I’m no Filipino food expert so I have no idea what proper adobo seasoning is supposed to taste like, but this one was flavourful with a hint of sweetness, so it was more than good enough for me. I had hoped for the chicken meat to be a wee bit more tender, but given that only white meat was used and that it was most likely prepared in advance, it was still very good. I loved when WW was shocked to open the little container they provided and found little pita breads then asked what they were for. I basically told her that she’s gotta eat them like a Mexican Peking Duck. I don’t think I’ve ever made myself so clear so quickly to anyone else in my life :)

I get it now!

Aaaahhh…..I get it now!

For dessert, I told WW we had to order the churros. These lovely sweet fried doughsticks were very good when I tasted them last at the Yelp event, and there’s no way we were gonna miss out on them today. They actually took a bit longer to come (which surprised me a tad pleasantly) and the waitress did say that they made them fresh daily. The churros were wonderful. They were light and crispy on the outside, with a soft interior that was smooth in texture and just crumbled in your mouth. The heavy dosage of sugar was obviously awesome, and while the caramel dip that came with them was just as nice, I didn’t think that such a sugar-coated pastry required that additional infusion of sweetness. Which probably would make this the first time I ever felt that a dish was better withOUT sauce. Crazy, it must be the end of the world, or something.

Pictured: Armageddon.

Pictured: Armageddon. Sans two more churros sticks that were devoured pre-photo shoot.

We enjoyed our visit to The Bucket Co. It wasn’t the most unique collection of Mexican dishes we’ve ever encountered, but they were delicious and the service was delightful. The distance from where we live, though, made it rather unlikely that we would be a regular at an establishment that, while nice and novel, didn’t provide enough for us to justify the time and gas spent to get there. Next time, we gotta try the Made in Mexico restaurant proper, perhaps forearmed with a PROPER reservation beforehand.

 

–Final verdict: Boleh Makan!

The Bucket Co.

196 Main St
Newmarket, ON L3Y 3Y9
(905) 235-9229

 

An old downtown favourite. Or: The first post after I get married!

Yep. The headline is totally meant to entice you to click and open the article again. I guess it worked!

So in our first real date as husband and wife, WW and I visited a little restaurant that is unarguably (that’s right, UNarguably) one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in downtown Toronto: Spadina Garden. This is one of those restaurants that I have passed by when driving (mostly to pick up the in-laws at the Dundas bus terminal)  while saying “I ate here once, it was really good, we should really go back”, and yet for some reason never did. WOW THAT WAS BAD SENTENCE STRUCTURE.

I ate here way, way back around 2008 when I was working at the Atrium on Bay. I remembered not succeeding very well at that job (thank goodness it was just a co-op gig) but one of the most memorable parts during my work term was that the farewell dinner to us co-op kids was held at Spadina Garden. I don’t remember much about what specific kinds of food they served there, only that they were: a) spicy b) saucy and c) delicious. So I’m glad to report that, after SIX years of humming and hemming about coming back here, we actually did!

Yep! ---from blog.accessdevelopment.com/

Yep! —from blog.accessdevelopment.com/

I noticed that the decor has been refreshed, which is very nice to see. It’s not a place you can call fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but it looks quite modern and clean, which definitely has something to do with the fact that the place caters as much to white folk as it does to Asians. Most Chinese restaurants downtown that cater strictly to Chinese people are, I’m sad to say, a little haphazard or chaotic. And yes, I’m Chinese so I can say that #itsthetruth. The restaurant is clean, sleek, and nice-looking, though we did notice that the noise levels were rather high even though it wasn’t that full. I guess the acoustics in the place was bad. Whatever.

Nice chandelier, though!

Nice chandelier, though!

We ordered the fried Szechwan fish and the spicy peanut chicken, both Yelp recommendations, along with two bowls of simple white rice. While waiting, I ended up talking to the lady who is related to the owner of the place (a rather big family business),  and I discovered that the owners are Chinese Hakka people from India. That explains a lot. From the flavours to the saucyness of the dishes, the foods here really do reflect that style of cooking, and everything sort of came back to me. I suddenly remembered why I liked this place so much.

The food was VERY quick to arrive. At first, we were a little dismayed to see that they looked very similar. But unlike many similar restaurants, it quickly became apparent that the ingredients used were different, which resulted in very distinctive tastes. The Szechwan fish, for example, isn’t very Szechwan AT ALL (I’ve eaten at much, much more authentic Szechwan places) but it’s still very delicious. As you know, I don’t care much about authenticity as long as the food tastes good, and this one certainly fits such a description. The fish was fried in a way reminiscent of old-school fish and chips, but with a dark gravy-like sauce that was a bit spicy with very slight undertones of ginger popping up here and there.

Fish and chips on steroids, is what I would call this.

Fish and chips on steroids.

The spicy peanut chicken, on the other hand, wasn’t just good, it was MINDBLOWINGLY delicious. My favourite part is that it had a sweet taste that punctuated its spice (which was mild, tbh) and peanut flavours, complementing them beautifully. I’ve often espoused about how much I love a little sweetness in my spicy foods, and this one fit that requirement perfectly. Interestingly, it’s also very similar to my dad’s homemade chili sauce (a little family secret), something else that I treasure greatly. This one dish is worth coming back for, and we definitely will NOT wait another 6 years before returning here. Mop it up with your plain steamed rice and you’re all set.

More like SIX MINUTESnomnomnomnomnom

More like SIX MINUTESnomnomnomnomnom

Interesting sidebar, one of the servers listened a wee bit on my conversations with WW and quickly asked me if I was Indonesian or Malay. When I asked how he was able to zone in so perfectly on the region where I was born, he said that when I speak English quickly, hints of an Indonesian accent leak out. Fascinating, given that 99% of the people I speak to say that I speak English with no discernible accent. That 1% that disagree is only Beffy, by the way. Love it.

So that was that. A nice little dinner in a very well-known Chinese restaurant that we really should visit more often. The food is very interesting, as it was definitely not authentic Chinese food, not really Indian Chinese (Hakka) style, not really Canadian Chinese, and not really anything in particular. It seems to me that it’s their own take on flavourful fusion Chinese food and that, my friends, is more than good enough for me. Five stars! Zero stars for healthy points but who gives a SH—FIVESTARSFORFLAVOUR!

 

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

 

Spadina Garden

116 Dundas Street West
Toronto, ON M5G 1C3
(416) 977-3413

Not THIS Georgia, THAT Georgia. Or: The last post before I get married!

Yep. The headline is totally meant to entice you to click and open the article, much like a late-night infomercial on a $69.99 kitchen appliance that you don’t need still draws you in to waste your time and watch. The only difference, of course, is that reading DKLoMakan is ALWAYS time well spent.

I AM getting married though, very very soon, and before the crazy busyness of that day plus the days after (we’re also purchasing a house), I thought I’d try to sneak in an article. It may be a while before the next one, though hopefully not! And I (not biased) think it’s one of my more unique ones, owing to the fact that for the first time in both our lives, WW and I dined in a Georgian restaurant! As the title of this post implies, it’s NOT the one with Atlanta and Peachtree TV. It’s the one that used to be a Communist Soviet Republic. Fun times!

Obligatory irrelevant Communist Soviet joke here.

Obligatory irrelevant Communist Soviet joke here   — from fanpop.com

Living and hanging out in Markham, along with being BlogTO’s de facto suburban Asian writer has made me at times focus too much on Asian food (of which there is a LOT). Hence why I try to use opportunities like this blog to branch out and sample other types of cuisines. But up until now, most of my non-Oriental adventures have centred around rather “mainstream” dining, like Italian or Continental Western food. Not that there’s anything wrong with them (I love them dearly) but last week I thought let’s try something REALLY different. And that’s where we ended up: a small restaurant stacked full of Yelp, Urbanspoon, and Tripadvisor recommendations in a dingy little shopping plaza, named Aragvi.

We were shocked at how small the space was upon arrival. We arrived a bit early for our reservation, and realized at once that that was a bit of a mistake. There can’t have been more than  40-50 seats in the restaurant (and that’s being VERY generous in estimating) and there’s very little space between the tables. It’s as if the place was designed by the same obsessive interior designers responsible for ensuring that every Chinese restaurant has absolutely no space between the seats. Then again, that would maybe explain why this place is rather popular with Asians…

I’m not kidding. It’s very fascinating to see that this place was featured in a Chinese newspaper (whose article hung proudly above our dining spot) and that, in the middle of our dining, a huge family of around 10 Chinese people walked in and sat at one of the larger tables there that they reserved. Another smaller Asian family came in towards the end of our meal as well. I always thought that this place’s clientele would be mostly East European, but I was delighted to see how wrong I was. Only in Toronto, kids, and another reason why I love this odd city of ours.

Right before the large Chinese family came and sat here

Right before the large Chinese family came and sat here.

The lady (owner?) greeted us warmly and was very surprised to know that we didn’t waste too much time ordering. Through the power of Yelp, I pretty much identified what we should try. And thus we opened with the khinkali dumplings, and continued with the chanakhi stew and kiev chicken. Pretty much no-brainers, really. I was curious about the egg and butter bread, the hachapuri, but I thought we ordered enough for today. Perhaps next time.

The khinkali arrived first. And true to its advertised form, they very much resemble one of WW’s favourite Chinese dishes: the xiaolongbao. The differences? These were large (“dalongbao” lol #chinesepun #sorryforthelameattempt) and the shells were pretty thick. They were nice though, it felt very meaty and chewy, with a nice flavour inside. Think of a regular xiaolongbao flavour, but with stronger herb-like seasonings. WW commented that they used quite a bit of parsley, which was indeed evident in many of our dishes. Overall, a nice start, and it was cool to see a slightly different take on an old favourite, not unlike spotting a familiar dish in a foreign country and found out that the locals simply have a different way to prepare it.

小笼包...no wait 大笼包. Alright I'm done here.

小笼包…no wait 大笼包. Alright I promise I’m done here.

Then the chanakhi arrived, and my Lord was it delicious. The veal was super tender, and simmered in a velvety smooth stew that contained more herbs than you can throw at the kitchen sink. I’m terrible at identifying ingredients, but there was definitely a lot of eggplant in that stew, along with various other spices that are rarely used in Asian kitchens. Delicious though, warm and filling, and I really wished they had some steamed rice (BAD DKLO! NO! DOWN!) to go with it. Alas, we got some bread instead which were pretty nice (freshly baked!) but nothing too special. My only complaint is that I wish there was more veal in the dish, and it was so delicious I wish the whole thing was  a bit bigger. These are what I would call “good” problems though, so no issues there.

Maybe if I wish it hard enough while closing my eyes, it'll grow bigger!

Maybe if I wish it hard enough while closing my eyes, it’ll grow bigger!

The chicken kiev was….so-so. The batter felt a bit overly thick and the chicken inside, while tender, felt lacking in taste. There was a faint feel of buttery flavour but it was too subtle and was overshadowed by the punchy taste of the chanakhi. We did get two pieces though, so that was a bit nice. The Armenian (yeah…lolwut?) potatoes that came as a side though, were divine. Slathered in a salty garlicky dressing and with a side of homemade ketchup, they were definitely one of the most interesting takes on “fries as a side” that I’ve ever had. Wonderful.

The potatoes are just to the right of this picture. Sorry.

The potatoes are just to the right of this picture. Sorry.

I would definitely recommend this restaurant, especially for those who are looking for those hidden gems in Toronto. Let’s face it, Toronto is never going to be the place that has the fanciest modern-looking restaurants with interesting gimmicks. That’s pretty much Asia’s monopoly. But what it excels in are small, unknown places offering delicious dishes that you would almost never find anywhere else in the world outside of its native country. And Aragvi is one of those places. Not the cheapest of places, but one worth trying, especially if (like me), there’s little chance of you going to the actual country itself.

But for the love of God, MAKE A RESERVATION.

 

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Aragvi

832 Sheppard Avenue West
Toronto, ON M3H 2T3
(416) 792-2613

 

Japanese beef bowl in Markham. Or: Donburi-buri down!

There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed after living in the GTA  for so many years (note to self: I really, REALLY got to stop talking as if I’m an external party observing life in Toronto. I’m NOT. I’m IN it every day and have been for a long time), which is that, despite the abundance of Asians living here and the equally-abundant varieties of Asian cuisine designed specifically to cater to this population, it is still up til now WITHOUT a single international Asian food chain. Bubble tea houses/cafes are the only exception, and even that is a recent phenomenon, as up until several years ago, the only international bubble tea chain available here was TenRen. And I never really understood why.

Let’s take sushi, for example. Well-loved by the many Asians (and non-Asians) that live in the GTA, you can find approximately TEN POINT FIVE MILLION sushi restaurants in the GTA, some of which are little mom and pop shops, and some are small local chains. But you’re not going to find, let’s say, Sushi Tei here. Another example? Korean food. There’s around FIVE POINT TEN MILLION (lulz) Korean restaurants here, but you’re not going to find something like Bulgogi Brothers (actually, we DID get them, then they closed down – which proves my point even further). For a time, there were a few small independent operators that served Japanese-style burgers, but you’re not going to find MOS Burger here. Ditto Japanese-style pasta. We got a little restaurant serving it, but no sign of Pasta de Waraku.

Whoops. It's  ten point SIX  million sushi restaurants now. My bad.

Whoops. It’s ten point SIX million sushi restaurants now. My bad.

This brings me to the main focus of this article: Japanese rice bowls. A nice, simple dish consisting of soft Japanese rice and some rich ingredients, the most well-known international franchise that serves this (that I’m familiar with) is Yoshinoya. No sign of that ever coming here, either. But this post WILL be talking about the local, mom and pop shop that serves it: Donburi. And while I may never understand why these Asian franchises don’t open shop here, I’m very thankful that the likes of Donburi are here to sate my appetite, ensuring that I don’t miss out on the delightful culinary morsels that I grew up loving and being familiar with.

Donburi, located interestingly enough in the extremely Chinese-heavy plaza of Commerce Gate, is an oddity in many ways. It is one of the only places in the GTA that serves this unique dish, and explicitly targets the mainstream population. This is in large contrast to its surrounding tenants, which deals almost exclusively with Chinese (and often fresh mainland Chinese) population. It’s also of particular interest for me because it occupies the exact spot where I had my first date with my soon-to-be wife. The old bubble tea cafe’s interior was so uniquely crafted with its little huts and ponds that it was a complete surprise when I found out that they gutted the whole thing and made it a sparklingly clean and bright Japanese restaurant. With all this peculiarities in mind, how could I NOT go here?

The restaurant’s main distinguishing feature is how open, bright, and cheerful the whole spot looks like. In contrast with the many restaurants in the plaza that looks like it was designed with little purpose other than to cram as many hungry Chinese families as possible, this little gem actually looks like it was created with purpose and care. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it WAS created to cram as many people as possible. But seeing the spacious open concept kitchen and seating, along with what feels like tons of space between tables, such a thing was far from my skeptical mind. It also helps that the waiters are always friendly and ready to help you, and (ERMAHGERD) actually speak fluent English! What a concept.

It's so clean, you really should implement the five MINUTE rule here.

It’s so clean, I’d implement the five MINUTE rule here.

During this visit (not our first), we decided to have the takoyaki (Octopus balls) to start with and the umami rice along with the fried shrimp rice. We also discovered that they now have a lunch special menu, displayed in the usual creative way that I’ve come to expect from this establishment. I personally don’t think it’s THAT much cheaper than their actual regular menu, but I suppose it’s a bit less, and I’m pretty sure you get soup with it, something which you normally don’t get. As for us, this time we’re eating like a BAWSE, so no lunch specials today! Maybe another time.

And in the summer, you can use it to fan yourself!

Grab his head, and you can use it to fan yourself!

The takoyaki came first, and it was delicious. It was piping hot, as is customary, but interestingly it wasn’t SO hot that the little bonito flakes on top of it looked like it was waving at you (something which has always creeped me out tremendously). Thus we didn’t have to wait like half an hour to eat the damn thing, which is much appreciated by this food blogger and his equally hungry fiancee. The balls were tender and fluffy, and the octopus pieces weren’t rubbery, which was nice. I still wish they had wasabi mayo, something I once had in Singapore, but then again I didn’t ask for it so maybe that’s something I should do next time. Portion size was standard, and while it wasn’t anything that blew me away, it was still better than many others I’ve had. Solid marks.

Heehee. Balls.

Heehee. Balls.

The umami rice is, by far, THE thing we always order when we come here and is also the dish YOU should order when you visit Donburi. Taking its name from the oh-so-satisfying flavour terminology that the Japanese came up with (it’s the really satisfying “kick” that you get in good-tasting foods, something MSG tries to replicate when you sprinkle it on your dish), the dish is very aptly named. There is sweet, savoury, salty, all mingling together, with the smoothness of the surimi pieces frequently broken up with the satisfying crunch from the vegetables that come with the dish. It was (and always has been) an excellent dish, worthy of being the signature item on the menu itself. And as someone who just can’t get enough sauce, I TOTALLY GOT ENOUGH. That should be convincing enough for you.

It's so delicious it's practically weeping tears of joy.

It’s practically weeping tears of joy.

The fried shrimp rice was a bit…interesting. It’s not bad, and is actually rather unique. I half-expected a version of the rather delicious tempura don I had on a previous visit, but this time I realized they were actually whole shrimps, deep fried to the point of super crispness (you could eat the whole thing) but without burning the inside part. In other words, the juicyness of the shrimp is mostly intact and feels almost like a freshly boiled shrimp. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the end result was a very crispy and seasoned exterior with a smooth but bland interior. It actually didn’t quite work for me. It’s definitely something new and very good to those who feel that the actual shrimp taste in a tempura is mostly gone (which it usually is). But for me it felt too much like eating boiled shrimp, which I’m not too big a fan of. Worth a try, but I’ll stick to the tempura don next time. The sauces on the shrimp were pretty killer tasty, mind. They do their sauces right, this place.

I ate 'em clean, eyeballs an' all guv'nor!

I ate ‘em clean, eyeballs an’ all guv’nor!

I would heartily recommend everyone to go visit Donburi. In fact, if you promise to review them on Yelp, chances are you’ll get a free dessert out of it. Our previous visits have yielded us with a deliciously light strawberry tofu cheesecake, along with an equally delightful green tea creme brulee. True to their Asian roots, neither of these desserts were heavy. I couldn’t show you any pics here as we didn’t have any during this visit. But this is definitely another notch on the restaurant’s belt. Bonus points also goes to the restaurant for having a charming logo and proper marketing of its design throughout the store, from the uniforms to the menu. As a marketing man, this pleases me to no end. They do their FOOD right, their SERVICE right, and their MARKETING right. Good.

Say hi to Irene, the uber-friendly manager there, along with Stanley (who I believe is the owner). They’d only be too happy to converse with you, and they truly care about making your experience eating there a positive one. And I’m perfectly OK if Yoshinoya never opens here in the GTA, ‘coz I got myself some Donburi!

 

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Donburi

505 Highway 7 East
Toronto, ON L3T 7T1
(905) 597-6505

A note of thanks!

Given my limited culinary preparation skills, I’m fully cognizant that I’ve been blessed by many people around me that have cooked for me. People like my parents, my in-laws, and my fiancee are HUGE, HUGE contributors to this list, and contribute to it so many times that I lost count. But sometimes there are individuals that, totally unexpectedly and out of the blue, prepare food for you just ‘coz they can. And that’s why I want to send a special shoutout to Michelle LeBlanc for her delicious chicken alfredo lasagna and lasagna roll-ups. Delicious, delicious things which I’ve never tasted before and hope to (soon) sample again.

I’m also aware that you probably don’t want too much attention to this so I will remove this post in the near future. So please consider this a small limited-time thank you article that’s made especially for you in recognition of your fine cooking skills. And may they ever continue. ONWARD with the MAKAN!

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! --- from www.deathandtaxesmag.com

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! — from http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com