Country 070 – Somalia (Istar Restaurant)

Istar RestaurantLocation: 235 Dixon Road, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://www.istarrestaurant.com/

One thing I’ve discovered over the course of doing this blog: African countries are pretty great at making spicy fried rice.  The restaurants that I’ve visited for Nigeria, Uganda, and now Somalia have all served delicious, spicy, and addictive fried rice.

Istar has a variety of Somalian specialties on their menu, though a Toronto Life article specifically referenced the goat and the rice, so that’s what I ordered.

Istar Restaurant

It’s good, though the aforementioned spicy rice is the clear highlight.  The plate comes with the rice, a generous portion of braised goat, potatoes, and salad.

Goat isn’t a meat you see on a whole lot of menus in this part of the world, which is a shame.  It basically tastes like a slightly stronger version of lamb.  It’s good.

Istar Restaurant

Some of the pieces here were a bit on the tough side, but for the most part they were tender and flavourful.  The spicing is surprisingly subtle (it tastes like it isn’t seasoned with much beyond salt and pepper, though I’m fairly certain that isn’t the case), but the goat itself is tasty enough that it’s barely an issue.

The potatoes were bland and the salad was pretty generic, but the goat and the rice were a winning combo.

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Country 068 – Azerbaijan (Kavkaz)

KavkazLocation: 1881 Steeles Avenue West, North York
Website: None

My dining companion and I visited Kavkaz at lunch, and like a lot of the obscure restaurants I’ve been visiting for this blog, the place was almost entirely deserted (a couple of people eventually showed up, but it was mostly a big, empty restaurant).

I’m glad places like this can survive, even if I’m not sure how.  And I’m especially glad in the case of Kavkaz, because the food was great.

Kavkaz

Almost immediately after sitting down, we were brought a bread basket with warm flatbread, and a bowl with sauerkraut and sliced pickles.  I’m not sure how these three things were meant to be combined (if at all), but they were tasty.

Kavkaz

Up next was bughlama, a stew with fork-tender pieces of lamb, a very pronounced lemony zing, and fresh pops of herbiness from the abundant cilantro (or maybe not cilantro?  It tasted like cilantro, but had a heartier texture and appearance.  I don’t know; I’m pretty terrible at identifying herbs).  The quality of the lamb was great, and the tartness from the lemon really made it stand out.

Kavkaz

Our last dish was the lulya kabab, which I liked even better.  Featuring a mix of ground lamb and beef, this tasted very similar to the kababs you can get from Afghan joints all around the city.  It was tender and perfectly cooked, and was nicely complimented by the sweet and spicy sauce that came on the side.

Kavkaz

It came with a side of potatoes that almost looked like thickly-cut chips.  The slices were creamy and perfectly cooked, with a nice hit of flavour from garlic and dill.  I wish they had been a little bit crispy, but they were otherwise pretty great.

Country 062 – Greece (Colossus Greek Taverna)


Location
: 280 Lakeshore Road East, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.colossusgreektaverna.com/

This will likely be my last post on this blog for a year or so, which is a shame, because yikes.  Yikes, this was an awful meal.  It’s sad to leave on a sour note, but what are you going to do?

We came at lunch, and my dining companion and I both ordered the “Authentic Gyros.”  Sadly, this dish isn’t on their online menu, so I can’t tell you exactly what it was supposed to come with, but if I recall correctly it was pork belly, tomato, greens, grilled haloumi cheese,  and honey mustard.  The presence of honey mustard on what is purportedly an “authentic” gyro probably should have been a tip-off that something was amiss.

And actually, my dining companion ordered his without honey mustard, and I guess they decided “well then, no one gets honey mustard!” because mine was sauce-less as well.

The sandwich came on a bun instead of pita bread.  That was bizarre, but who knows, maybe that’s the way they do it in Greece?  I doubt it, but hey, I haven’t been there.

Either way, it tasted like a stale Dempster’s hamburger bun.  It was not good.  It crumbled apart almost immediately after I picked it up, so I wound up eating the sandwich with a fork and knife.

The next oddity about this sandwich: it was supposed to come with pork belly, but the dried-out pieces of meat were clearly some other cut of pork.  If it was pork belly, it was trimmed in an exceptionally bizarre way — it was dry as heck and there wasn’t a speck of fat on it.  It was also uniformly gray, like it had been boiled.  It was so weird I actually brought it up with the waitress, and I’m usually a “eat whatever the hell is in front of me without doing anything that might even vaguely be construed as making a scene” type of guy.

I asked her if the sandwich was supposed to have pork belly on it.  Yep, she said, that’s pork belly.  I pointed at one of the pieces of meat to clarify.  “This is pork belly?  Are you sure?”  Yes, she said.  She was sure.  I didn’t begrudge the point, as I didn’t see any benefit to arguing over what was or was not pork belly, but no, I’m pretty positive that wasn’t belly.

Either way, it wasn’t particularly good.  The meat was fine, but it was dry and kind of tasteless.  The missing honey mustard probably would have helped, as it really needed some kind of sauce, both to lubricate things and to add some flavour.

Aside from that there were some sodden, mushy onions that, like the pork, tasted like they had been boiled.  Then there was the haloumi, which was actually pretty good, and the veggies.

For a place that is actually very well regarded online, the whole thing was shockingly bad.  I think it might be the worst thing I’ve ever eaten for this blog.

It came with a side of lemon potatoes.  They were nice and tender, I’ll give them that, but the lemony flavour was way too overbearing.  Normally these types of potatoes have a nice zingy brightness from the lemon that works well with the creamy potato; these were flat-out sour.

Country 058 – Ireland (Fynn’s of Temple Bar)


Location
: 489 King Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://fynnstemplebar.com/

Add “boxty” to the list of things I hadn’t even heard of before starting this blog (and in case you’re a member of the “what the hell is boxty?” club, as I was until recently, it’s an Irish take on the potato pancake).

Fynn’s has a couple of boxtys (boxties?) on the menu; I went with the Dublin steak and mushroom boxty.

The boxty was actually much closer in consistency to bread than I was expecting — it had a chewy, bready texture that was more like naan than a traditional potato pancake.  It was unexpected, but it worked quite well with the stew inside.

As for the steak and mushroom stew, it was true to its name and crammed with mushrooms and chunks of beef.  The beef was slightly on the tough side, and there was one spice that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that was a bit overpowering, but for the most part it was tasty and satisfying.

Flynn's of Temple Bar - the outside Flynn's of Temple Bar - the boxty

Country 056 – Norway (Karelia Kitchen)


Location
: 1194 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://kareliakitchen.com/

I feel like ordering cured fish at a Nordic restaurant  might be a bit on the nose, but I suppose there’s a reason why we so closely associate that stuff with Scandinavian countries.

Karelia Kitchen has a pretty bustling brunch crowd — the only reason my dining companion and I were able to get a table is that someone had skipped out on their reservation.  They were about to flat-out turn us away, without even the option to wait.  Suffice it to say, reservations are advised.

I ordered the potato pancakes, which come with hot-smoked trout, beet and horseradish cured gravlax, and a poached duck egg.

The highlight was easily the gravlax.  I’ve certainly had a pretty healthy amount of smoked salmon over my lifetime, but gravlax has eluded me.  It’s similar, but instead of being smoked, it’s cured in a mixture of sugar and salt (and in this case, beet juice and horseradish).

It was fantastic — the texture was silkier and more melt-in-your-mouth tender than any smoked salmon I’ve had before, and without any strong smoky flavours to get in the way, the flavour of the fish itself was much more pronounced.  It also had a really subtle sweetness that complimented the fish perfectly without overwhelming.

I don’t think I tasted any horseradish, which is a shame — it would have been a nice addition, but the gravlax was so good on its own that it’s hard to complain too vigorously.

The trout was pleasant, but nowhere nearly as transcendent as the gravlax.  It had a pleasantly smoky flavour, but it was a bit dry.

The potato pancakes were about on par with the trout — they were crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, but nothing about them stood out.

The poached duck egg had a pleasantly runny yolk, and a richer flavour than the typical chicken variety.  It all comes together quite well — and of course, that gravlax.  It’s so good.

Country 049 – Morocco (Nader’s Middle Eastern Grill & Bakery)

nader
Location
: 3900 Grand Park Drive, Mississauga
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/nadersgrill/

I’ve actually been to Nader’s once before, for my burger blog.  It probably wasn’t fair for me to judge this place based on their hamburger, so here I am, ordering something that’s much more in their wheelhouse: lamb shank tagine with couscous.

It’s a fairly hearty stew, with the aforementioned lamb shank submerged in a saucy mix of potatoes, chick peas, carrots, and some kind of zucchini-esque vegetable, among other things.

It was fine, I guess.  It was kind of watery and a bit one-note salty, but I basically enjoyed it.  I think I’ve mentioned how much I love lamb on this blog, and the lamb here — though a bit dry — was quite tasty, as usual.

It’s just…  the overall flavour of the dish never really pops.  You know that thing that happens when you’re eating a great meal, and every mouthful seems to reveal something new?  It was pretty much the opposite here.  The first bite told me everything I needed to know, and every bite after that was more or less exactly the same.

But again, it wasn’t bad.  It was just ho-hum.

Between this and the burger, I think it’s safe to say that Nader’s isn’t exactly my new favourite restaurant.

Nader's - lamb shank tagine Nader's - lamb shank tagine

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.