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 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 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 034 – Myanmar (Royal Myanmar)

royal
Location
: 483 Horner Avenue, Etobicoke
Websitehttp://theroyalmyanmar.com/

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to order for this blog; how do you distill a nation’s cuisine into one dish?  I mean, you can’t.  But it’s always nice to get something that can at least give a partial view of what a country’s food has to offer.

In the case of Myanmar, there doesn’t seem to be much debate over their national dish: it’s mohinga, Myanmar’s take on Asia’s ubiquitous noodle soup.

So, that’s easy.  Mohinga it is.

Though Royal Myanmar’s version of this dish features noodles that are overcooked and somewhat mushy, and flavours that are more muted than you’d expect (for something that is ostensibly a fish soup, there is an odd lack of anything even resembling a seafood flavour), I still quite enjoyed this.  It’s subtle, but a squirt of lime and a sprinkling from the jar of fiery-hot crushed chilis helps to kick it up several notches.  It also has a nice garlicky hum, an added richness thanks to the sliced hard-boiled egg, and a vibrancy from the abundant fresh cilantro.

The broth has been thickened, but subtly so — some thickened Asian soups can be a bit gelatinous for my tastes, but here it’s just thick enough to to give it substance without going overboard.

It’s topped with crunchy chickpea fritters; it’s kind of like topping a soup with crackers, only with a million times more personality.

Royal Myanmar - mohinga Royal Myanmar - fritters

Country 015 – Taiwan (Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine)

mama
Location
: 324 Highway 7 East, Richmond Hill
Website: http://www.mamabeartaiwanesecuisine.ca

Unlike most of the countries I’ve written about so far for this blog, I’ve actually been to Taiwan.  While I was there, one of the dishes I was looking forward to trying was minced pork rice.  But when I got to the restaurant, it was packed, there was a surly-looking man behind the counter and a total lack of any pictures for me to point to.  I wound up loitering for a couple of minutes before finally losing my nerve and leaving sad and pork-and-rice-less.   Yes, trying to order food when you don’t speak a word of the language can be a challenge.

And now I’m sad all over again, because the version of this dish at Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine was pretty damn good — so I can only imagine how good the real deal in Taiwan must have been.

It doesn’t look like much, but with a surfeit of tender, perfectly cooked fatty pork in a richly flavourful, sweet sauce (served on a heaping mound of rice), it’s easy enough to see why it’s such a treasured dish in Taiwan.

We also ordered the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken, which was crispy, juicy and well seasoned, and easily on par with the fried chicken I had in that country.

The oyster omelette, sadly, was like it came from a different kitchen altogether.

This was another dish that I tried in Taiwan, and the one I had there was almost transcendentally good, with super fresh, perfectly cooked oysters melding with the eggs in a way that was downright magical.   Those eggs, which were lightly crispy on the outside (thanks to a judicious amount of starch mixed in) and soft and creamy on the inside, were among the best I’ve ever had. Served with some sweet sauce on the side to cut the briny richness of the oysters and the eggs, it was pretty much perfect.

I knew this omelette wasn’t going to be as good as that one, but man was it bad.

More starch than egg, the omelette was chewy, gummy, and crammed with overcooked oysters that tasted fishy and canned. And it was absolutely doused in a gloppy sauce — though in this case, the abundance of sauce was probably necessary to disguise the off taste of those oysters.

Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine - the restaurant Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine - minced pork rice Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine - popcorn chicken Mama Bear Taiwanese Cuisine - Oyster Omelette

Country 001 – Spain (Bar Isabel)

bar
Location: 797 College Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://barisabel.com/

Though I’m assuming this blog will entail going to a whole bunch of hole-in-the-wall type places that you probably haven’t heard of,  I’m starting big: Bar Isabel, frequently named one of the best restaurants in the city.

Reservations are advised here; I called hoping for a Saturday evening reservation about a week in advance, and the only thing I could get was 10:30, so yeah, they’re pretty popular.

There is a reason they’re popular.  Oh man, is there ever a reason.  It kinda sucks starting the blog with this place, because I suspect that it’s going to be all downhill from here.  The food at Bar Isabel was, as advertised, amazing.

We tried a few things but I’ll skip to the three highlights (everything was really good, but these three were outstanding).

The first was the Roast Bone Marrow; I’m not sure how authentically Spanish this dish is (chef Grant Van Gameren brought the dish with him from his old stomping grounds at the Black Hoof; presumably because it’s so damn good), but oh man.

It’s impressively presented, with a couple of enormous, bisected bones featuring a generous amount of quivering marrow waiting to be scooped out, accompanied by a few pieces of perfect, toasted bread and an intensely flavourful chimichurri sauce.

You scoop some of that unctuous, rich marrow onto a piece of toast, and then maybe top it with some of that sauce or a little bit of salt, and I can’t even tell you how good it is.  I don’t have the words.  It’s like the best bread and butter you’ve ever had, but meaty and rich.

Next up was the Grilled Octopus, which might just be this restaurant’s most highly-regarded dish.  Surprise surprise, it was delicious.  If you think octopus has to be rubbery and tough, you need to eat this immediately.  It was perfect, with a texture I’d describe as being half-way between a pork chop and a scallop.  It was ridiculously tender, with a nicely crispy exterior that provided a really satisfying textural contrast.

Whatever they marinated it in suited it perfectly, because it was so damn tasty.  Again: I don’t have the words.  It was served with creamy roasted potatoes and some kind of bitter greens and everything was amazing.  AMAZING.

We capped things off with the Basque Cake, another dish that seemingly everyone said you had to try, and again, everyone was right.  I’m going to try to ease off on the superlatives because this is getting ridiculous, but it was definitely one of the better desserts I’ve had in a while.  Rich and custardy in the middle, surrounded by an amazing crust and crispy, caramelized edges — not to mention the decadent sherry cream it was topped with — it was the perfect end to a pretty outstanding meal.

Bar Isabel - bone marrow Bar Isabel - octopus Bar Isabel - basque cake