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

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Country 060 – Denmark (Danish Pastry House)


Location
: 487 Cornwall Road, Oakville
Websitehttp://www.danishpastryhouse.ca/

So I probably could have done something a bit more interesting for Denmark, but if I have an opportunity to buy a big box of pastries, I’m going to buy a big box of pastries.  I don’t need much of an excuse.

I ordered six (and prepare for some seriously Nordic-sounding names): hoj snegl, spandaur, tebirkes, overskarn, æblefisk, and royal crown.

After two or three, they started to feel somewhat interchangeable.  That’s unfair, of course; they’re all different enough.  But they all have the same (delicious) flaky pastry base, and they all have a delightfully subtle sweetness.

They’re so different from the cloying sugar-bomb danishes that you’ll find at most doughnut shops that it’s hard to even compare them.  They practically belong in entirely different categories.

They’re all pretty great, in case that isn’t clear.  There’s nothing like a really good pastry from a bakery that knows their craft, and the Danish Pastry House clearly knows their craft.

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 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 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.