Country 061 – Uzbekistan (Taj Restaurant)


Location
: 1698 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/TAJ-Restaurant-282739815479810/

When we told the waiter (and, I suspect, owner) at Taj that this was our first visit to the restaurant, he pretty much ordered for us.  He gave us a handful of suggestions, then when we neglected to order immediately, he said okay, how about you order this, this, that, and this, and before we knew what was happening the menus were gone and he was in the kitchen (to be fair, we could have said no, but it all sounded good, so we went with it).

It was really bizarre; in pretty much any other setting I probably would have been peeved, but he did it in such an earnest and friendly way that it was hard to be too miffed about it.

Of course, it also helps that all of the food was delicious.

And thankfully it’s an inexpensive place, so despite the fact that we wound up spending (and eating) more than we wanted to, it still only amounted to about 25 bucks each for more food than we were able to eat.

We started with a salad and an enormous round loaf of freshly-baked bread.  The salad, which consisted mostly of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and red onions, was simply dressed and featured really fresh ingredients.  It was quite good.

The bread was warm and homey and satisfying.  It was slightly sweet, and while we weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to eat it with, it was certainly high-quality bread.

Next was the samsa, which was kind of like a Chinese-style bun, but encased in delightfully flaky pastry.  It was crammed with juicy, fennel-infused ground lamb (it was also about the size of my fist and surprisingly heavy, so between that, the salad and the bread we would have been all set for lunch, but I digress).

The final dish was plov (and we got a plate each of this rather than the shared plate we were assuming).  This actually reminded me a lot of qabuli palau, which is Afghanistan’s national dish, and which I sampled at Naan and Kabob.  They both had a pretty similar base — rice, carrots, raisins, and chunks of meat — but the spicing here was much more satisfying.  The raisins and the carrots added subtle pops of sweetness rather than the in-your-face sugar assault from the Naan and Kabob version.

The addition of chick peas gave the dish some added substance, and the chunks of lamb were fork-tender and intensely flavourful.  I love lamb, so maybe I’m biased, but it takes a dish that was already delicious and cranks it right up to eleven.

Taj Restaurant - the salad Taj Restaurant - bread Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the plov

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 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 051 – Brazil (Mata Bar)

mata
Location
: 1690 Queen Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.matabar.ca/

I’m not sure how authentic Mata Bar is (they have stuff like sliders and french toast on their menu), but hey, it’s Winterlicious, it’s my blog, so let’s do it.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Winterlicious is a city-wide promotion where a bunch of restaurants offer relatively cheap three course menus for a couple of weeks.

I came to Mata Bar at lunch, and the waiter informed us that they were offering the ceviche as an appetizer choice that day (it’s normally only a dinner thing);  I figured, yeah, that seems authentic enough.  I went for it.

Ceviche can be hit or miss.  It’s kind of monotonous in its flavours if prepared poorly; basically just acidic and not much else.  But the version here was pretty tasty, with a good balance of acidity and sweetness, and nice hits of spice from the hot peppers.

The main meal was fried rice; it was crammed with chunks of of various meats, including what the menu describes as “salted beef,” and was hearty and quite tasty, if a bit one-note salty.  It was also lacking in the crispy bits that you’re looking for in a dish like this, but it was fine.  I enjoyed it.

The meal concluded with the Guava and Cheese Empanadas with Cinnamon.  Perfectly fried, with a lightly crispy pastry exterior and a very creamy, mildly tart filling, this was absolutely delightful.  It was a very pleasant capper to a very pleasant lunch — nothing too mindblowing, but for 18 bucks for three solid courses, a pretty amazing deal.

Mata Bar - the ceviche Mata Bar - the fried rice Mata Bar - the empanada

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.