SpiceCityTo

Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A new Haitian hotspot hits St. Clair

Haitian food is finally getting some love in Toronto. In the fall, Jen Agg from the Black Hoof opened a much acclaimed Haitian spin-off restaurant, Rhum Corner, with her Haitian hubby Roland Jean. And just a few weeks ago, La Créole, a French Caribbean restaurant, opened up at 810 St. Clair Ave West, between Oakwood and Bathurst. It's a good thing, because since the closing of La Belle Jacmel, there had been no place to find Haitian food in Toronto. 



La Créole serves food from the French Caribbean, including Martinique and Guadeloupe, but as the chef is Haitian, classics from that country dominate the menu. Marinad (shown below) are bits of fried dough, typically sold as a street food in Haiti. Akra malanga are bite-sized fritters made of malanga, a starchy root vegetable. Both are served with tasty but searingly spicy side of shredded vegetables, called pikliz. 


Mains include le toro, a hefty, rich beef stew, and creole chicken, baked and coated with a spicy tomato sauce. Both are served with djon djon rice, made with the elusive djon djon mushroom only found in Haiti. "We get it from Montreal because you can't find it here in Toronto," explains owner Ben Cherette, a Haitian community organizer and event planner. Without a Haitian grocery in the city, La Créole is picking up the slack, and customers can purchase bags of djon djon, as well as sweet cassava, Haitian coffee and Couronne, a gaggingly sweet Haitian soft drink.




In the next few months, Cherette plans to introduce new menu items from other French-speaking Caribbean islands, such as bokit sandwiches, which are also served at Le Ti Colibri in Kensington Market. He also wants to turn La Créole into a live venue. Thursdays you can learn kizomba, a sensual dance with Angolan origins that is popular in Haiti. Fridays and Saturdays will be live music and DJ nights, focused on sultry Caribbean genres like souk, compas and troubodour.  

At the bar, Cherette will be serving cocktails, classic Haitian rums like Barbancourt, and cremas, a dessert-like drink made of coconut cream, cinnamon, anise and rum. "We want to have things you can't get anywhere else and have people feel like they're immersing themselves in the French créole culture," explains Cherette. 

La Créole restaurant is located at 810 St. Clair Ave West; telephone: 416 651 8228.

Hours: La Créole is closed Monday. Tuesday to Thursday open 4:30pm til 10pm; Friday and Saturday 4:30pm til 11pm; Sunday 12pm til 6pm.

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  • Monday, February 10, 2014

    Lebanese lunch, loaded with flavour

    Hidden in the back of a plaza at Dufferin and Finch is the perfect place to sample the wonderful ingredients that make up Lebanese breakfast and lunch. Haddad's Mid-East Bakeries consists of a small restaurant and retail shop, plus a kitchen in the back where the fresh bread is made. The 20-year-old restaurant is mainly frequented by Lebanese and Armenian immigrants seeking out the tastes of home. 



    Strangely, the restaurant is named Thyme & Sesame on its website, although the signage on site calls it Haddad's. "They're going to change the name on the sign, but they haven't done it yet," explains Nadine Hajjar, a communications student who works part time at the restaurant. 

    A couple of Lebanese origin order the kashkaval ($6), a sandwich with melted kashkaval Bulgarian cheese and tomatoes. It's served on kaak, a bib-shaped flatbread with a hole in it, which makes it easy for mobile vendors in the Middle East to display pieces for sale. The sesame-studded bread is perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. 


    The couple also ordered the ful ($7.99), a stew of mashed fava beans with a surprising kick. Ful can sometimes be bland, but this version is oozing with olive oil and lemon juice, and packed with hefty chunks of garlic and hot chilis. The result is an intense, tasty spread that you can stuff into a giant flatbread, inflated with warm air and fresh from the oven. The sandwich is garnished with mint leaves, tomatoes, olives and green onion, a fresh yet comforting combination.



    Other popular items include the manakeesh—a sort of flatbread pizza. The version with zaatar—a spice blend of thyme, sumac, sesame and other spices—is popular, as is the one with akawi, a milder version of halloumi cheese.

    Haddad's also has a broad selection of savoury pastries, such as the spinach pie, which has a generous amount of spinach and a sour kick. The pies need to be purchased by the half dozen or dozen, with 12 costing between $8 and $12.




    While you're waiting for your food, check out the groceries. There's a good selection of olives and spice blends, and other interesting items like grape molasses. I recently tried grape molasses at Tavoos, and discovered that when blended with tahini, it's one of the most delicious combinations I've tasted, a lip-smacking Arabic sibling of peanut butter and jam.


    Haddad's Mid-East Bakeries/Thyme and Sesame is located at 4610 Dufferin Street Unit 19B, Toronto. Telephone 416 661 8998. Hours are Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm, Saturday 8am to 4pm, Sunday 8am to 2pm. 


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    Monday, January 20, 2014

    Dumplings that are truly works of art

    ***Update as of Jan. 21, 2014: I just learned this restaurant is now closed. Apologies, it has been a few months since I was there. If you know another restaurant serving Xian dumplings in Toronto, please get in touch. 

    A small restaurant at First Markham Place, a jam-packed Chinese mall at 3255 Highway 7 East, has dumplings like you've never seen before. Not only are these dumplings at Ling Long Legend extraordinarily tasty, they are handcrafted to look like miniature works of art.  




    I went to the restaurant with Zhixi Cecilia Zhuang, a Ryerson prof who shares my love of strip mall eats. In fact, Zhixi, who hails originally from southern China, researches ethnic retailing in Little India and the Pacific Mall in Markham. But even Zhixi was surprised to discover the strange and beautiful dumplings this restaurant has to offer.

    Ling Long Legend has been around for roughly two years, and the name means 'delicate and beautiful,' explained Zhixi. Their delicious Ling Long dumplings, shown above, have a pocket of meat inside, topped with three separate chambers filled with egg, carrot and mushroom. 





    The restaurant specializes in dishes from northwest China, a region known for its noodle and lamb dishes. In contrast, Zhixi explains, Cantonese food specializes in soups and fresh, steamed fare, while Shanghai food tends to be cooked longer with more seasoning.

    We tried an excellent braised pork pancake: a wonderfully intense meat stuffed between a two layers of bread with the consistency of naan. The spicy chicken in a pot with noodles, a classic northwestern Chinese dish, was also very good, with hand-pulled noodles, salty potatoes and fresh, crunchy peppers.



    Co-owner Ailing Hu, shown above, hails from the Chinese city of Xi'an, where dumpling making is somewhat of an art. It turns out that if you preorder a few days in advance, a party of ten can sample dumplings she makes in the shapes of animals, flowers and plants, handcrafted like little sculptures. 

    She showed us her technique: in less than a minute she stuffed a ball of dough with meat and transformed it using just her hands and a few simple wooden tools into the shape of a fish. It was incredibly fast, like watching a sped up video of someone making origami. Then Ailing did the same thing to create a duck, complete with black sesame seed eyes. 




    After, she prepared these adorable golden fortune dumplings for us. They are supposed to bring you good fortune, of course, and are filled with a smooth, sweet egg yolk paste. I'll definitely be back to try the dumpling special and see more of these wonderful little creations. 

    Ling Long Legend is located in First Markham Place, 3255 Highway 7 East, Markham. Tel: 905 477 9881. Hours: Open 11am to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, 11am to 11pm Friday and Saturday. 



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    Monday, December 9, 2013

    The ultimate Japanese comfort food

    In an empty food court in the basement of a half-finished condo mall hides a gem of a restaurant. Kaiju, located at 384 Yonge Street in the newly built Aura condo, isn't easy to find. Look for a stairway half a block north of Gerrard, follow the corridor straight and then to the left and you'll find Kaiju, one of only two operating restaurants so far in this food court that is still under construction.




    The two-month old restaurant is pan-Asian, featuring dishes from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, but the star of the show is the Japanese curry. Served as an accompaniment to a breaded, sliced pork or chicken cutlet, the curry is milder and sweeter than its Indian predecessor. Intensely thick, you have to eat the curry sauce when it's piping hot before it starts to turn into jelly. "It's made of fruits, vegetables and spices," explains owner Siak Khoon Chen. "We cook it for two days at a very low temperature."

    South Asian food lovers will also be interested in the selection of dishes from Chen's home country of Malaysia. While the posted menu only has a few specialties listed such as the hefty fried sambal udon, a longer printed menu behind the counter offers Malaysian dishes such as hokkien mee, char keow tiau and nasi kampung (aka nasi goreng).








    Kaiju (Japanese for 'monster') has a charm that is lacking in most food court establishments. Chen brings the food out to the customers' tables, and don't be surprised if he recognizes you and remembers your order from a brief visit a month or two prior.

    The first converts to the restaurant are Ryerson and University of Toronto students living nearby. "I came down here one night and I got hooked," explains the Steven, a student originally from Glasgow who lives in a condo in the building. "It's the food quality and the friendliness."

    Kaiju is located at 384 Yonge Street on the lower level; tel: 647 748 6338. Hours are Monday to Friday 11am to 8pm; Saturday 12 to 6. 


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