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 059 – Egypt (Maha’s)


Location
: 226 Greenwood Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.mahasbrunch.com/

Maha’s is fairly well known for having very long lines, and very leisurely service.  And indeed, the line was long, and service was leisurely (we spent forty minutes in line, and another half hour waiting for our food to arrive).

Maha’s is also fairly well known for having amazing food; again, it lives up to its reputation.  There’s clearly a reason people are willing to wait through the lines and the slow service.

It’s a brunch place, though if you’re looking for the old standards like eggs benedict and pancakes, you won’t find them here.  What you will find is a nice selection of Egyptian-inspired plates and sandwiches; we started with hummus with charred balady bread (an Egyptian version of pita bread made with whole wheat flour), and I ordered the Cairo Classic.

The hummus was so good.  It was super creamy, with an amazing depth of flavour and a nice lemony zing.  It was a definite contender for the best hummus I’ve ever had, and I’ve eaten quite a bit of hummus in my lifetime.

That’s not to mention the balady bread, still warm from the oven and just about as perfect as you can imagine pita bread to be.  It had just the right amount of char, with a subtly crispy exterior and an amazingly fluffy interior.  Combined with the silky hummus, I could have eaten it all day.

The Cairo classic consisted of a heaping portion of foole (a spread consisting mainly of fava beans), a sliced hard boiled egg, a falafel, a tomato and feta spread, more of that amazing balady bread, and a salad.

I mean, after that mind-blowing hummus, would it surprise you to hear that the main meal was quite good as well?  Because yeah, it was pretty amazing.

The combination of the creamy foole, the eggs, and the zippy tomato and feta spread was seriously addictive.

And holy crap, that falafel.  I really wish I had more than just the one; it was perfectly spiced and delightfully fluffy, with lightly crispy exterior.  Like the hummus, this was a best-ever contender.

Maha's - the line Maha's - the hummus Maha's - the Cairo Classic

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 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 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