Sunday, December 30, 2007

le cafe vert and coca review

yesterday we had breakfast with my friend maxine. we were supposed to go to okay okay diner, but unfortunately, they were closed (what small restaurant makes enough money that they can afford to be closed for brunch during the holidays???), so we searched around and ended up at le cafe vert on queen east. le cafe vert has received glowing reviews for it's eco-conscious and vegetarian friendly card. the decor has also been praised, although i'm not sure why. it's a mish-mash of well-meaning, ten thousand villages, "world" artifacts thrown together with all the panache that a first year university, leftist, 60s soul revival and black panther acolyte could muster. they were also blasting bob marley, which to me, when combined with the decor, is an unforgivable cliche. the menu is another first-year university experimental vegetarian "world" cuisine mish-mash. there's the ubiquitous pad thai, some kind of "african groundnut" (aka peanuts to you and me) soup, and a small brunch card of 5 or 6 items, all priced uniformly at $11, and edited down to consist of things that you don't really want to eat. i ordered the "gluten free" waffles with scrambled eggs and sausage.

my waffle arrived cold, tough, chewy and flavourless. my scrambled "eggs" should have more rightly been identified in the singular, as the portion was a pittance and they were also cold and gummy. the sausage was the only good thing about it, and thankful am i that i didn't go for the vegetarian option. the dotytron had this "frittata" which was a giant thick mess of an egg torte with spinach and bacon and mealy, undercooked potato chunks. it was TERRIBLE. we left hungry. now, i'm all for being eco-conscious (there's no one who's a more rigorous defender against energy wastage and i routinely spend a hunk of my time sorting through recycling), but you can't build a restaurant based on an IDEA. you have to KNOW HOW TO COOK. which is where a lot of lenny vegetarians and vegans go wrong. i mean, it's all good if you're okay eating crappy food for the rest of your life, but don't put your crappy egg and butter-free baked goods out into the world or try to approximate animal-filled cooking. go with cuisines that have a LONG-STANDING TRADITION of meat-free (indian, asian, etc). don't go making something up on your own because it inevitably ends up being pants. anyway, i thought we got hosed on the cafe vert, considering we can get eggs benny with REAL hollandaise at three's company on the danforth (our new favorite local) with a mixed variety of homefries for $7. or, you can also get their croissant french toast served with a fruit compote and vanilla custard for $7. add a side sausage and it's still only costing you $9. THAT'S breakfast, not that miserable excuse for a projected idea of what che guevara would have eaten that i was served above.

thankfully, coca was a HOME RUN. the portions were more than generous for a tapas resto in toronto, and were built for sharing. we've been to some places that serve enough so that everyone can have one small bite, but look at the size of the plates below!!! the price was amazing too...we got 17 plates of food, 1 sparkling water, 1 glass of cava, 4 glasses of wine, 1 glass of port, for 5 people, and it came to $315 after tax, before tip. all in all, i was thoroughly impressed.

we started with the house-cured olives, which consisted of the following flavours: orange/cardamom (very nice), smoked chili, fennel black olive, ras al hanout (very nice), oil cured arbequinas, honey and sherry (too sweet for my liking), and anchovy stuffed (divine).

next up we had this elk, lamb and beef sobrassada, flavoured with cocoa and topped with manchego on top of brioche. we were really hungry (due to my meagre breakfast) and this provided a satisfyingly meaty, flavour-packed punch of delicious fat, soft, buttered, crisped brioche, and the round flavours of game meat punctuated with the sharpness of the manchego.

we then tried their charcuterie plate. clockwise from the top is a wine-cured horse bresaola, a house-cured sweetened duck breast and a spanish serrano. the spanish serrano was the best of all, sweet and sliced paper thin, so it melted in feathery, porcine, waves on your tongue. the duck breast could have been served to be trimmed a little bit more, as the fat was lacking in flavour slightly and was overwhelming the dimensions of the actual duck breast. the horse bresaola had a nice texture, but was lacking in taste.

we shared an octopus salad, served on beans with chorizo, capers, and pimento. the smoked paprika was too strong in this dish, although the beans and the octopus were cooked correctly (crisp and tender, respectively), the dish was cold on top and warm were the components were in direct contact with the heated dish. overall, a warmed presentation works to help the flavours of the salad mingle, as the cold bites i had were under-whelming.

these were truffled potato and cheese croquetes. bites of gooey, runny potato and cheese mixture (more like a truffled bechamel inside than starchy like the potato would usually indicate), that were encased in a crispy but light breading. absolutely delicious.

we then tried a couple of the restaurant's namesake cocas, which are catalan flatbreads. these were prepared well, but weren't that impressive, as they're basically just a thin crust pizza. the one above had a nice combination of ingredients, with dandelion greens providing bitterness, the smoked fresh cheese providing a deep, woodsy dimension that was supported by the heft and delicate earthiness of the chanterelle mushrooms, all of this punctuated with the sweetness of semi-dried grapes.

this coca had caramelized onions, apples and roquefort cheese. it was very nice, although the flavour combination wasn't as exciting for me as the onion-sweet fruit-blue cheese combo is kind of standard.

from there we moved into the heftier "main course" style tapas. this was a salted basque cod served with manila clams, chorizo, preserved tomato and piquillo peppers. clams and chorizo are a favorite combo of mine, and i loved those elements, but the salt cod was still very very salty and the mixture of the salt of the cod, with the chorizo and the brine of the clams was too much in the saline department. the dish was also cold (a few of the dishes suffered from the trek from the kitchen to the second floor of the restaurant, where the reservations are allowed. also, the kitchen seems to have problems pacing themselves when they get slammed at peak times). a little texture on the salt cod and a more prolonged soak to get rid of the extra salt would have made this dish work a lot better.

this was a smoked duck breast, duck sausage, and white bean stew with truffled foie jus. it was rich and substantial, with tender beans and little nuggets of sage-y duck sausage, lightened by the delicate, lightly sweet, jus. again, this dish was delicious, well balanced and well executed.

escargots served in sherry was up next. unfortunately, the escargots and the sherry mixture were underseasoned and suffered from a lack of balance. the sherry would have been nice if it was a counterpoint to a rich sauce, providing a shot of acidity. however, because the sherry mixture was predominately sherry and lacked a substantial heft of richness (butter, cream) to round it out, it tasted like a unseasoned vinaigrette.

hot cherry peppers stuffed with serrano and a chunk of asiago were the definition of successful bar food. bright, spicy, sharp, fatty, all the elements were there and even though i don't drink, i can imagine how you could just keep snacking on these all night long with beer or vino.

garlic prawns with vanilla, rum and soaking bread were cooked perfectly. tender, slightly sweet with the subtle perfume of vanilla, this dish was addictive. i could easily have eaten about a billion more, with some of the excellent, text-book greasy foccacia like bread for sopping up the juices. there was a very generous pile of prawns for about $12.

this dish was a serrano consomme with serrano ham draped on top of the flute, topped with a few nuggest of nova scotia oyster fritters. i think this dish suffered from the presentation. how the eff are you supposed to eat this thing? because they give you a generous portion of oyster, you can't just wrap the fritters up in the serrano like a little have to disassemble the entire thing and the flute si too tall for the amount of consomme. a shot glass would have worked better. the combination of the fried oysters, the saltiness of the consomme, and the ham, combined to make this taste like chinese food for me. the fried oysters were totally reminiscent of the piles of fried pacific oysters you get at chinese restaurants, and the ham and ham broth tasted like really salty won-ton or ramen soup (the kind my mom tells me i'm not supposed to finish after i've eaten the noodle component because it's so saturated with msg). i love fried oysters though, so what can i say? i still liked it.

this dish was called xato, but the handy pronunciation guide on the menu directed us, in no uncertain terms, to "say SAY-TO". it was green beans (al dente again), olive oil poached tuna (hefty and delicate), boquerones (little marinated anchovies), olives, tomato and hazelnut dressed greens. i'm going to say it here and now: I LOVE WHITE ANCHOVIES, so therefore, it'd be a little hard for me to assess the dish objectively, because I LOVE WHITE ANCHOVIES.

dessert! cheese plate with manchego, cabrales, and idiazabel. i didn't try this but it got properly mowed by the parties responsible (dr. rei and the dotytron, who has never met a tasting of anything he wouldn't order).

rosemary and citrus flan. when i read flan, i thought they meant latin "flan" as in a creme caramel or some kind of egg custard. this was still really nice, although i thought the crust was extraneous.

what's left of an apple and manchego empanada with toffee sauce. this just tasted like a (really good) apple dumpling to me. it was very nice, but the manchego and the other elements that would have made it more interesting, weren't highlighted in the forefront as much.

i ordered the churros with michel cuizel hot chocolate mousse. with all modesty, the churros weren't as good as mine. the choux paste was a little too eggy and the churros weren't that crisp. if you look closely, you can see that the mousse (which tasted fantastic...deep and bitter with a hint of cinnamon) had separated slightly, so the oil presence was slightly off-putting.

overall we were extremely satisfied with the meal and the price point and the portions. the upstairs room is cozy and warm (if a little too low lit for my liking), the service was polite through not terribly effusive, but the food was well prepared. the kitchen just has to tighten up on the timing (cold salt cod with cold clams just isn't that big a winner in my books). i'll definitely be going back here sometime soon.

today we're going to brunch with the dotytron's family. i think we're eating at joy bistro on queen east. then it's home and i'm having a friend over for movies and knitting. then for dinner i think i'm making milk-braised pork with spaetzle and brussel sprouts and carrots (if our montreal friend is staying for dinner...if she's not, then i'm going to eat leftover spicy beef and udon kimchi) and if we still have guests, i'm going to make trifle. if not, then i'll save the trifle for new year's eve dinner.


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