Country 057 – Kyrgyzstan (Chaihana)


Location
: 1000 Finch Avenue West, North York
Websitehttp://chaihana.ca/

Chaihana is tucked away in a fairly anonymous office building; though there’s a small sign outside, it’s very easy to miss.  My dining companion and I had the entire restaurant to ourselves — outside of the staff, the place was deserted.  It’s pretty much the definition of a hidden gem.

A lot of hole-in-the-wall joints like this can be dingy and unwelcoming, but Chaihana is clean and colourful; they’re definitely trying to attract more than just the grizzled regulars you’d expect in a place like this.

They specialize in the ‘stans: the website mentions Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.  The dish I ordered is actually the national dish of Kyrgyzstan, so that’s a fourth ‘stan to add to the roster.

I ordered beshbarmak, which a pretty simple dish — boiled beef (which is sliced), topped with sauteed onions and served on a bed of very broad noodles.   There’s really not much more going on than that — there’s some green onions, dill, cracked pepper… and that’s about it.  It’s basic, hearty comfort food.

The pasta was a bit mushy and it was incredibly greasy (you know when you’re eating something really greasy, and your lips get grease-slicked with every bite?  Yeah), but it was pretty satisfying.  The tender beef, the noodles and the onions all go quite well together.

It’s served with an equally simple bowl of soup — basically just broth (mutton, according to Google) with a little bit of dill and some green onions for colour.

Chaihana - the beshbarmak Chaihana - the soup

Country 055 – Nepal (Hakka Khazana)


Location
: 735 Twain Avenue, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.hakkakhazana.ca/

Hakka Khazana is a Nepali/Chinese/Indian restaurant.  That feels like they might be spreading themselves a bit too thin, but hey, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

The first dish — and the clear highlight — was the palungo ko saag.  Though a cursory Googling shows this to be something akin to creamed spinach (but without the cream), the version served here was very, very different.  Maybe this is a regional variation, like how American barbecue differs depending on where in the South you are.  Or maybe it’s just inauthentic — it’s impossible to know for sure (okay fine, it’s actually very possible to know for sure, but that would require way more work than I’m willing to put in for this blog).

The version of the dish served here was basically just some kind of stir-fried baby bok choy.  Authentic or not, with a nice hit of garlic and a strong dose of curry-like spices, it was a very pleasant surprise.  It was one of those dishes that doesn’t seem particularly spicy at first, but then delivers a strong kick that lingers.  It was great.

The kasi ko masu — basically a fairly standard mutton curry — didn’t fare quite as well.  It was fine; the sauce had a nice flavour, even if it was a bit milder than I would have liked.  But nothing about it particularly stood out, and the mutton was rubbery and tough.

Country 053 – Malta (Malta Bake Shop)


Location
: 3256 Dundas Street West, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/maltabakeshopltd/

Though Malta Bake Shop has a pretty decent selection of Maltese pastries, I think it’s safe to say that pastizzi is their claim to fame (they even sell frozen versions of them to a few dozen supermarkets across the GTA).

They have a few different varieties, but when I went they had two: beef and peas, and cheese.

There’s really not a lot to pastizzi; it’s a diamond-shaped pastry, with the aforementioned fillings wrapped in a delightfully flaky dough.

It’s really the pastry itself that makes this so amazing: it’s crispy, flaky, buttery and perfect.  It’s similar to Greek-style phyllo pastry, but it’s done perfectly.  It’s the type of pastry perfection that can only be done by people who have been making the same thing for many, many years, and have clearly mastered their craft.

The fillings were tasty as well, though the beef and peas was the superior of the two.  The cheese (ricotta) wasn’t bad, but it was a bit underseasoned, and a little eggy for my tastes.

I should also note that these things are ninety cents each, which is insanely cheap for something so delicious.

Country 046 – Indonesia (Lion City Restaurant)

lion
Location
: 1177 Central Parkway West, Mississauga
Websitehttp://lioncityrestaurant.ca/

I seem to be on a pretty good roll with this blog; I’ve liked the majority of the dishes I’ve tried recently.  This is in stark contrast to my burger blog, where I seem to either be a lot pickier, or just have lousy luck with the restaurants I’m choosing (okay fine, I’m probably just a picky jerk).

I’m happy to say that the streak continues for at least one more country; the Indonesian food I tried at Lion City Restaurant was seriously delicious.

I tried the nasi goreng, an Indonesian take on fried rice and that country’s national dish. I also tried beef rendang, a hearty dish of braised beef in a rich sauce.

The nasi goreng was greasy in the best way possible, and flavourful enough to eat on its own (though it was also really satisfying with the beef rendang).  The flavour actually reminded me somewhat of Singapore noodles (a dish which, confusingly enough, is Chinese and not Singaporean).

The beef rendang was just as good — the beef was incredibly tender, and the rich, curry-tinged sauce was amazingly satisfying.

Lion City Restaurant - the nasi goreng Lion City Restaurant - the beef rendang

Country 045 – Yemen (Almonasabah)

almon
Location
: 2340 Council Ring Road #107, Mississauga
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/Almonasabah/

I’ve been on quite a roll with Middle Eastern restaurants — so far I’ve checked out Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, and they’ve all been seriously tasty.  And now here’s Yemen to continue that streak.

Alonasabah’s menu is laser-focused — they have a handful of appetizers and desserts, but for the most part there’s only one dish on the menu.  If you want something other than mandi?  Go somewhere else, that’s all they’ve got here.

Mandi is a deceptively simple dish: it’s just rice and meat (with the choice between chicken and lamb).  It’s topped with almonds, raisins, and fried onions.

It’s so good.

The rice is fragrant, richly spiced and deeply flavourful; it’s delicious enough that I’d happily eat a big bowl of it just on its own.

I tried both the chicken and lamb, and both types of meat were super tender and packed with flavour.  They’ve obviously been cooked for a very long time at a very low temperature; the chicken was so incredibly tender that the cartilage had completely broken down, essentially turning into cartilage butter.

The rice and the meat are both super tasty, but it’s the toppings that help put this dish over the top.  The almonds add some nuttiness and crunch, and even the raisins work surprisingly well.  I’m generally not a fan of raisins in any context, so I was shocked by how much I enjoyed them here.  Unlike qabuli palau, the somewhat similar dish I tried from Afghanistan, the raisins go really well with everything else.  They add subtle pops of sweetness that compliment the dish perfectly and never overwhelm.

As for the onions, they were dark and intense, with a flavour somewhere between caramelized and fried.  They were sweet, but with an edge — almost bordering on burnt but never crossing that line.

It seems kind of odd at first that this place only really serves the one dish, but if you do something this well?  Why the hell should you waste your time doing anything else?

Country 042 – Sweden (Fika Cafe)

fika
Location
: 28 Kensington Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttp://fika.ca/

This is one of those things I saw on Instagram and pretty much instantly had to try. I mean, if you can look at that and tell me that you don’t immediately want to eat it, that’s good for you, but you and me are clearly two very different people.

I guess the obvious choice for Sweden would have been meatballs, but I think the Swedish cream puff is probably a bit more interesting.

It’s called a semla (or semlor in the plural — thanks, Wikipedia), and Fika Cafe’s menu describes it like this: “our take on the swedish classic – cardamom bun, seasonal jam, almond paste topped with honey sweetened whipped cream.”

It’s good (of course it’s good, look at it).  The bun itself is sort of like a doughnut, but with a denser, breadier texture.  The cardamom gives it a distinct, floral pop that stays in the background without overwhelming the other flavours.

It’s not as sweet as you’d expect — the bun isn’t particularly sweet, nor is the cream.  Most of the sweetness comes from the jam (some kind of berry when I went, though I guess it changes).  It’s a bit odd at first, though the more subtle sweetness definitely wins you over after a couple of bites.

My only real complaint is that if there was almond paste in there, I couldn’t taste it.  It’s a shame, because I could definitely see it matching well with the bun’s other flavours.

Country 040 – India (Sweet India)

sweet
Location
: 7126 Airport Road, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.sweetindia.com/

Remember when I was saying that a nicer-looking restaurant and a clientele that doesn’t match its ethnicity were both tell-tale signs that a place like this might not be all that great?  Well, here’s a definite exception to that rule: Sweet India is both very nicely designed and, when I went at least, around halfway full of people who looked like they’d fit in comfortably with the cast of Friends.

It was also one of the best meals I’ve had since starting this blog.

The restaurant is laid out like any number of food court joints; they’ve got food in warming trays, and you can pick what you want.  I went with the vegetarian thali, which comes with your choice of three different dishes, raita (a cold yogurt-based cucumber salad), rice, and a basket of naan bread.

I think it’s hard to tell from the picture what an obscene amount of food that is, but seriously: look at the fork and knife for scale.  The plate is about the size of a cafeteria tray, and it was crammed with food.  Not to mention the basket full of naan, and the generous serving of dessert.

Suffice it to say, after eating all that I was ready to lie down and go into a food coma.  And for less than ten bucks, it’s a pretty amazing deal.

The three dishes in the top row of that tray are: aloo baingan, a flavourful mixture of eggplant and potato; chana masala, a chickpea curry; and aloo methi, a potato dish cooked with methi leaves (also known as fenugreek).

It was all really good, though with its fragrant intensity, the aloo baingan was clearly the star of the show.  It was a flavour bomb in the best way possible.  It helps that the accompanying ultra-fresh naan was superb; it was the perfect combo of lightly crispy outside and chewy inside.

The dessert was moong ka halwa, a creamy, pudding-like dish made mostly from lentils.  Indian desserts tend to be a bit of an acquired taste, and I was so full at that point that I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t like it so I could take one bite and throw the rest out.  But it was so good.  So of course I had to eat the whole thing, food coma be damned.

If I had one small complaint, it would be that while everything was fairly spicy, it does feel like the spice level has been toned down to accommodate the aforementioned Friends-like clientele.  A bit more of a fiery kick would have been nice, but everything was so amazingly tasty that it really didn’t matter.