Hokkaido Ramen (Sapporo, Japan)

•August 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So on a recent trip to Japan, I found out that the birthplace of ramen is in Sapporo, Japan. In the heart of Sapporo there is a place called Ramen Alley. It’s honestly a little hard to find but when you find it, your nostrils are filled with the smell of delicious broth, bubbling noodles, and cooked meat.

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We went to one of the places in the alley. I don’t know any of the names but this place could only fit 8 people, like most of the places, and a single chef prepares all the bowls to perfection.

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Below is the miso ramen, something our guide said everyone has to try since this is the original place for miso ramen.

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Rich broth, perfectly cooked noodles, balanced by ground pork, egg, and green onions. I normally don’t drink all the broth but it was so tasty I couldn’t help myself.

http://www.best-of-sapporo-japan.com/japanese-noodles.html

We travelled to Otaru and found a packed ramen shop for lunch.

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The miso ramen at this place was excellent. The broth was even richer than ramen alley, but the noodles were probably more spaghetti like. I prefer the ramen alley version but this was still great!

http://www15.plala.or.jp/shodai/

The last bowl I had was at the airport.

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This was the lightest miso broth but still more flavorful than most places in North America. The extras are welcome additions. The noodles are excellent. Again, not as perfect as ramen alley but maybe better than the ones in Otaru. Overall, ramen in Sapporo/Otaru is awesome!

http://www.new-chitose-airport.jp/en/spend/shop/s138.html

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Hanamaru (Sapporo, Japan)

•August 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I was recently in Japan where the food is amazing! While in Sapporo, our guide told us that some of the best sushi in town was at a place in the Sapporo train station called Hanamaru. She warned us there would be a long line and well….see below.

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The wait time was about an hour but the system inside is very efficient and the turnover is quite fast. The first to come off the conveyer belt was salmon, tuna, and the scallop roll.

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I figure we would start off with the basics like salmon and tuna. BEST SUSHI I’VE EVER HAD! How is it possible that it is this much better than every other place?! Japan must hoard the good fish. Next we pulled off a cooked item because you know, fried chicken. Here is the HUGE morsels of Chicken Kaarage.

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Hot, crunchy, and insanely juicy! We saw the next dish pass by a couple times and I won’t lie, I pulled it off a couple times because after the first bite I had to have more. This was one of my favorite dishes: Aburi salmon.

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I don’t know what it is about torched sushi that I love. I love the freshness of raw sushi but the heat must bring out more flavor additional flavors. Here is the Aburi fluke, which I also couldn’t help pulling off numerous times.

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We also tried the Inari, sushi rice wrapped in deep fried tofu wrap.

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Nothing to write home about, but solid. Next that came off the belt was the O-toro, because you can’t ever pass up fatty tuna belly!

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So rich. So awesome! And then the medium fat tuna came by.

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Almost as rich but not as oily and fatty. Both are awesome! If I had a bigger belly, I wouldn’t have stopped. We also saw a scallop roll by so…why not!

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Best raw scallop I’ve ever had. Next the Mackeral.

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So fresh! So good. You are getting the general message. Another aburi fish came by. Not sure what it was but it was delicious.

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The Chef’s are masters at the craft. I’ve never seen sushi chefs throw the rice balls together with such expertise. I watched them plate 6 plates in less than 30 seconds. It was awesome and we had a front row seat!

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There is constantly good stuff passing by on the belt which makes overeating an easy endeavor. We managed to keep it a little under control but all left full.

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To date, this is the best sushi I’ve had in my life. And what’s crazy, is that we ate enough to fill up 3 people for less than $50! How is that possible?! Best sushi of my life for that cheap! I should move to Japan.

http://www.sushi-hanamaru.com/la_en/

Hot Star Large Fried Chicken

•August 4, 2017 • Leave a Comment

So I’m a big fan of fried chicken in all shapes and forms. In my experience, there are a few factors that weigh into the perfect piece of fried chicken: (1) quality of the meat, (2) quality and spice blend of the breading, and (3) freshness from the fryer. The problem with most fast food places is the freshness from the fryer and the low quality meat they use. The batter mix, like the Colonel’s secret recipe or Popeye’s spice blend, is excellent but it’s just a matter of getting the other two factors right. Enter a Taiwanese fried chicken joint, Hot Star Large Fried Chicken, a popular chain in Taiwan that has recently expanded into the Toronto market.

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The white meat chicken breasts are pounded into a flat filet, breaded, fried, and then seasoned to perfection…all cooked to order which hits the freshness “fryer to mouth” criteria in spades. The Original large fried chicken with spicy seasoning is the signature dish.

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Crispy, hot, juicy and loaded with flavor (I think there is fried garlic in the breading) with some nice spice. The heat builds as you work your way through the meal. It starts off mild, but builds to a decent level of heat once you hit the bone near the bottom of the filet. It’s also huge. The size of most people’s face. It’s juicier than most fried chickens you’ll eat, largely due to the freshness, but doesn’t taste greasy like a lot of fried chicken right out of the fryer. I’ve also had it with the seaweed seasoning which is nice but I prefer the heat. For people who can’t handle the heat, I would recommend the salt and pepper or the seaweed which are both lovely. Another option aside from the original signature blend is the Large fried chicken with specialty BBQ sauce.

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Again, it’s fresh and juicy. The sauce adds a nice, sweet BBQ flavor. The breading absorbs the BBQ sauce quickly so it’s not as crispy but the saucy flavor is a nice change. It’s like wanting saucy chicken wings versus dry wings. It’s a matter of preference. I like both so it would depend on my mood. Next is the Crispy large fried chicken.

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This has an amazing crunch to it! The breading is slightly thicker than the original but wow, again driven by the freshness from the fryer, a wicked crunch! The spice blend adheres well and the chicken is as juicy as the other incarnations. I figure since they do fried food well, the Fries and Chicken Popcorn are probably a good bet.

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The fries are crisp, and meaty (or potatoey). The chicken popcorn are nicely fried morsels of mostly dark meat chicken. The breading is crisp, the spice blend is as good as the other larger pieces, and the meat is juicy. The drinks on the menu are interesting. First is the Passion fruit soda.

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Sweet but not too sweet. I’m told not to shake it because I’m sure the gas would blow the top off. The passion fruit is tasty however a little too diluted with the soda. The Green apple yogurt is not diluted at all.

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Super tasty. I wouldn’t say it’s thick like a milkshake but it doesn’t have a water-like consistency (definitely thicker). Rich, sweet and sour apple flavor. I like it! The Sunrise Strawberry Soda is more like the passion fruit soda.

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It has a nice flavor I just wish there was more of it. A little too diluted and you can’t shake it because it might blow up the served package.

Overall, Hot Star Large Fried Chicken serves up some wicked hot (fresh), tasty fried chicken! When I judge by my three criteria, it hits all three points. Fresh, white meat chicken and while the bone is annoying to work around near the end, it also adds flavor! The batter and the spice blend is a “pick your own adventure” type of situation which works on all levels. The Original is crisp and delicious, the BBQ sauced is saucy but the fried nature still holds up, and the crispy is just super crispy while still being able to hold the spice. And the sides and yogurt based drinks are solid. I’ve never been to Taiwan, but if this is how they do friend chicken, I may need to make a trip soon!

http://www.hot-star.ca/

 

Halal Guys (Toronto and NYC)

•July 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

At work I used to sit next to a young man who’s favorite meal was chicken and rice. Simple taste, protein rich and enough carbs to fuel his daily workouts. The dude was huge! When I think “chicken and rice”, I think Halal Guys. I actually stumbled on to the original NYC food cart a number of years ago while staying at the Hilton in midtown. I walked out of my hotel and saw a line stretching down the block (a NYC avenue block and trust me, it’s much longer than a street block). I decided to give it a go and have had cravings for it ever since.

They recently opened a location in Toronto. The first few weeks, pictures of lines around the block filled the social media world. They have sandwiches, falafel, but most people go for the meat combos on rice. Below is the gyro, chicken combo on rice. Gyro beef, chicken, a bit of veg, pita slices on rice topped with the GLORIOUS white sauce and hot sauce (and when I say “hot” I actually mean HOT).

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The meat is juicy and the veg is fresh and crisp. It’s the white sauce that crushes it and makes this dish special and the hot sauce is something else (if you like heat, which I do). It’s creamy, nicely spiced, perfect texture to soak into the meat without being to watery. And the hot sauce, WOW, it’s got some heat! I can take my spice and this makes me sweat a bit. And this was just two small squirts.

To compare, a friend of mine asked me to compare it to NYC on a recent trip. Here is the chicken combo from the original Halal guys cart in NYC.

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So good! The meat is a little juicier and there is twice as much. SOOOO much meat! The pita slices were also left on the flat top little longer which crisped them up. Some people may like that (like me) but others may like the softer version from Toronto. They also let you have sauce control with bottles on the side of the cart. On this trip I may have been a little overzealous with the hot sauce, but I LOVE IT!! If you are in NYC and looking for cheap and delicious chicken and rice, I can’t think of a better place. In Toronto, if you have the craving (like I do frequently) this is enough to get your fix without having to make a trip south of the border.

http://thehalalguys.com/

PG Clucks

•June 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been very vocal about my love of friend chicken and have made it one of my life’s quests to find the world’s best friend chicken. In pursuit of this endeavor, I was pointed to Nashville. Everyone I spoke to who’s been there would rave about the Nashville Hot Fried Chicken. Several years ago I made it to Hattie B’s and must say, it’s the best fried chicken I’d had in my life!

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I ordered the medium spice combo. Spicy chicken with two sides and a drink. I got the mac and cheese and beans as sides. The sides are solid and nothing to write home about but fried chicken is legendary.

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Crispy, juicy, fresh, meaty and spicy as hell! It’s juicy without being oily. The batter is crispy and crunchy but doesn’t flake as you’re eating it. It’s the best friend chicken I’ve ever had and it has made my list of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

There is a relatively new place that has opened in Toronto. Many locals are saying they have the best fried chicken sandwich in the city and Nashville-style hot fried chicken, something I’ve been trying to find north of the boarder for several years now. A friend and I made it up to College street and arrived at PG Clucks.

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It’s s tiny shop with a couple fryers that are serving a steady stream of customers. They warn you as you order that it will take about 10 minutes since all the chicken is fried to order. This is key! The Classic has coleslaw, pickles, smoky chili sauce, and buttermilk ranch sauce.

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The chicken is crispy and juicy. We ordered the hot version which is balanced nicely by the cool coleslaw and ranch sauce. The bun was nice and soft, and absorbed the greasiness and hot chili oil that oozed out of the fried chicken. The pickle adds a hint of sweetness and a different type of crunch. Next we tried the Jalapeno Honey fried chicken sandwich, a piece of honey dipped fried chicken, sweet pickled jalapeno, fermented jalapeno sauce, and ranch sauce.

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Again, crisp, hot and amazing! The jalapenos are surprisingly sweet and the added honey over other the fried chicken is a nice touch to balance out the heat.  If you are hungry, try the Big Cluck! It has two pieces of fried chicken, a piece of American cheese wedged in between, lettuce, onions, pickles and mac sauce.

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It’s a beautiful mess! This was on a different visit and the chicken is hot, crispy and consistent from trip to trip. Every time, fresh out of the fryer and piping hot. It’s “Big Mac”-like construction results in shredded lettuce and chunks of breading flying about, mac sauce dripping onto the wrapper, and oil dripping down my hand. Or maybe I’m just a ravenous eater. Little from column A, little from column B. Then there is the traditional Nashville hot chicken.

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No bones, which is nice. The chicken is crispy, juicy and spicy! It is greasy though and the hot oil oozes out of the chicken. It looks kind of gross swimming in the oil but the flavor is worth the extra time on the treadmill. It’s got some heat. Not Nashville heat, but hot enough.

They also do delivery. Below is the Nashville Hot chicken after delivery (two pieces with coleslaw).

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The extra sitting time allows the batter to build up an extra crunch (hence the darker color between the two pictures) and also soak up more of the hot oil. The chicken retains its juiciness and better than any of the chains I’ve order from in town. I also finally tried the tenders (these seem to sell out regularly).

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The pieces are a little smaller and insanely juicy for white meat morsels. They also made these Nashville hot (which I didn’t specify in the order but was happy to oblige). I would imagine it’s a nice side to a sandwich if you want more protein but for the value, I’m more inclined to go with the full size for a dollar more (and you get a nice cooling side like coleslaw, mac, or potato salad).

Another “must try” are the donuts, honey crullers to be exact. Apparently the secret menu item is to make a sandwich with the donut instead of the soft squishy buns but for the purists, the donut is incredible on it’s own.

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It may be the lightest and most airy donut I’ve ever had! It’s sweet but not overpowering and the inside is almost creamy. A perfect dessert after delicious, hot and crispy chicken!

Nashville will always hold a special place in my heart, but it’s nice to know you can get an amazing fried chicken sandwich and Nashville style fried chicken right in our own backyard.

https://www.pgclucks.com/

http://hattieb.com/

The Ledbury – Best. Brunch. Ever!! (London, UK)

•June 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

While on a trip to London, a friend recommended The Ledbury in Notting Hill. You have to book pretty far in advance and I was lucky enough to score a brunch reservation a couple weeks prior to my arrival thanks to the same friend who recommended the place. It’s a prix fix menu and they don’t skimp on the extras. The space is immaculate and feels luxurious but not stuffy. There were three amuse bouche courses.

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The first was a game meat pate (venison or elk maybe) with jelly and dried, flavored seaweed. The pate was rich, smooth and not as gamey as you would think. The meat flavor was evident but the texture was so different it was hard to believe it was meat. Might be some of the best pate I’ve ever had. Perfectly balanced, perfect texture, rich flavor, simply perfect. The crispy seaweed, which had a complex salty flavor (I was too busy enjoying myself to try pinpoint the spices), was the perfect compliment and the jelly added a nice, well, jelly texture to the whole bite. A very small hint of sweetness but mostly for texture.

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The next amuse was a crunchy meat filled pastry (another game meat, maybe bison…definitely something beefier, maybe elk again…I’m seeing a pattern). Crisp pastry on the outside that wasn’t too thin but not too thick. Just perfect really. How they get it to this state without it flaking out at some point is truly remarkable. The game meat on the inside was warm and comforting. It is like a cross between a British sausage roll and an Asian dumpling. A delicious bite!

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The last amuse was an elk meatball. Come to think of it, maybe all the amuse bouches were elk. It was a flavor bomb of meat! Warm, rich, soft through and through, and wonderfully complex as the meat, jelly and spices swirled in your mouth. We were three amuse dishes in and I’m already insanely impressed.

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The first official appetizer was the Cany beetroot with caviar and smoked, dried eel. I couldn’t even tell it was beetroot. It was cut laser thin and had the texture of very high quality sashimi. The dried eel gave it a savory but almost seafood like flavor (which is why you could easily mistake this for sashimi) and the smoked caviar was divine! The saltiness and the smokiness was perfect with the light, smooth vegetable upgraded by the eel. Hard to pinpoint the highlight, so just it’s best to eat it all with a little bit of each ingredient in each bite.

IMG_5335.jpgThe next appetizer was the hand dived scallop ceviche with seaweed, herb oil and frozen English wasabi (laid out as the flaky powder in the picture above). The scallop was buttery, rich with a small hint of tartness but elevated by the herb oil and wasabi. The wasabi gave it a little bite while the accompanying veg added some crunchy texture.

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Along with the apps came the housemade bread with whipped butter. It reminds me of fife bread we have in Canada. Crunchy and crispy crust, rich with herb seasoning and a warm, soft inside. The whipped compound butter was so smooth, rich, soft, and easily spread over the warm bread. I could eat this every day.

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Next was a beautifully plated dish of fresh grilled cuttlefish, garlic and cracked wheat. There were soba noodles on the side, squid ink and a creamy aioli. Mixing it all together resulted in a complex and delicious bite. Creaminess, light saltiness, silky noodles, and fish. The fish was a little rubbery but the flavors were excellent!

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The next dish was the warm Bantam’s egg, celeriac, arbois, dried ham and spring truffle. This might have been one of my favorites of the meal. I love truffles and eggs which may bias my opinion but how this all works together is truly incredible. You get the richness and warmth of the Bantam egg, the saltiness and savory flavor of the ham (not to mention the crispy texture), the elevated touch of truffles and the nice crunchy texture of the celeriac. Smooth, cream, crunch, salt, savory, meat, truffle overtones and repeat. Each bite…over and over. This may be one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in my life.

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Next was the lobster wrapped in shitake mushrooms with asparagus and macadamia. The lobster is perfectly cooked, slightly sweet and the pieces melt in your mouth. The rich umami flavor of the shitake mushrooms compliment the sweetness of the lobster and the asparagus, as buttery and crunchy as anyone would hope, balances the dish out in terms of both texture and flavor (although does buttery lobster and butter asparagus balance?…maybe I just like butter).

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The main courses were heavier like the Pyrenean milk fed lamb, creamed jersey royals, mousserons cooked in earl grey and celery. The tender lamb is perfectly cooked, rich and fatty and full of flavor. The seasoning of the skin is excellent and perfectly balanced by the lighter creams and foams paired with the dish. The crispy skin also add a nice crispy texture to the soft meat and smooth textures of the cream and foam.

IMG_5341.jpgThe Iberian pork, fennel, elderflower honey and crackling is a dish for two (pictured is a single portion). It’s a small portion, but this may be the single best bite of pork I’ve had in my life. It melts in your mouth, it’s so rich and complex (just the right amount of salt, savoriness, and gravy). No fat or gristle, so it makes me wonder where they get all the rich flavor from?? Magic?! At this point of the meal I’m starting to believe in magic! The meat is incredible but the veg sides add additional texture and balance out the rich flavor of the pork. It’s perfect!

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The first dessert is the chocolate chantilly and mint. Thick morsels of rich chocolate balanced by small scoops of ice cream. Sweet, but because it was dark chocolate, not too sweet. The powdery outer layer flakes in your mouth as the soft inside melt between eat bite. If you mix it with the ice cream, the thick chocolate melds with the ice cream and forms a perfect balance of sweetness and cream.

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The last dessert was the Saulternes tart with apricot and chamomille. A wonderful, light, creamy, sponge-like cake. The jelly and fruit are sweet but this was balanced by the scoop of ice cream and creamy, spongy cake. The apricot is sweet, a little tart but balances by the creaminess of the ice cream. If you don’t like the heaviness that can come with chocolate desserts, this is perfection!

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Upon paying the bill, they brought cinnamon and sugar sticks (mini churros) and more chocolate. Rich chocolate (again dark chocolate so not too sweet) paired with sweet and spicy (cinnamon spicy) sticks. They really go over the top and out-do themselves with the service.

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They have good thinks too like the Bee pollen old fashioned. The bee pollen is a nice touch and the taste of the citrus comes through nicely, but otherwise, the old fashion is on par with other good cocktail bars.

The Ledbury is rated as one of the best restaurants in the world and I must say, it was the best meal I’ve had so far to date. The service is perfect. Friendly, attentive, helpful, and fun without being too invasive. And the food is spectacular! The flavor combinations are genius! The tastes, textures, plating, freshness of the ingredients (everything frankly) is unlike any place I’ve ever been to. This is truly a world gem in the culinary arts! If you are ever in London and are willing to splurge on a meal, this is your place!!

http://www.theledbury.com/

Holy Burgers! The Burger’s Priest and Holy Chuck

•June 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Having grown up in Alberta, I fall into the western Canadian stereotype of liking beef, maybe a little too much. During the Mad Cow Crisis of 2001, my family ate beef almost everyday since the highest grade cuts were all heavily discounted. In recent years, I’ve actually been asked to judge DIY burger competitions based on my “expertise” (I use the term very loosely) and continue my pursuit of the world’s best burger.

There are two chains that have emerged a number of years ago and spread like wildfire with locations around the city, The Burger’s Priest and Holy Chuck.

I tried the Burger’s Priest at their original location on Queen St. East a few months after it opened. When we arrived, there was a line down the block. Upon entering the restaurant, you could see trays of french fries (fried once and ready for a second bath upon ordering), pink patties sizzling on the flat top, and a crew working madly putting the burgers together. We ordered the Priest combo, a cheeseburger with the “option”, a portobello mushroom stuff with cheese and deep fried.  The combo includes doubled fried fries and a drink.

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The picture above isn’t the greatest because it fogged up my car in the cold Toronto winter. The fries are awesome! Super crispy and warm on the inside. Lightly salted. Very solid. You can’t appreciate the burger visually until you take a few bites and see the Option’s cheesy goodness. See below.

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The burger is beefy with a nice crisp char on the outside. The inside of the patty is juicy and moist. The veg is cool and fresh, the bun is perfectly squishy but holds up even after absorbing a little grease. What puts this over the top is the deep fried mushroom with cheese! It adds crunch with gooey cheese the coats the rest of the burger after a few bites. On another occasion I tried the double cheeseburger with bacon.  I wanted to try their bacon burger and the more “purist” burger. It has classic burger goodness (far surpassing the average diner burger) but I like the Priest better.

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These is also a secret menu that involves things like swapping out the bun for grilled cheese sandwiches… yes, two grilled cheese sandwiches.  My cardiologist is going to kill me….well unless the cholesterol does first.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I’d rather live a short life full of happiness and pleasure than a long life filled with regret and eating cardboard.

A few summers ago I made it to Yonge and St. Claire and finally tried Holy Chuck. The shop was larger and has the feel of an old school diner, something out of the original Back to the Future movie. The milkshakes are thick and delicious, there is a modern day soda machine, and a flat top grill whipping up some awesome burgers.

We go with the Holy Chuck, a double cheeseburger with bacon and caramelized onions.

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Similar to the Priest, the patties have a nice char but are still juicy and moist on the inside. It’s beefy with a nice salty seasoning. Maybe I caught them on a bad day but it was a little on the salty side for my taste but still really good. Maybe it was the fatty bacon that added to the extra saltiness but I love bacon so I would put up with the extra saltiness for the savory addition of bacon. The caramelized onions add a buttery sweetness and the cheese adds a gooey richness. The bun is squishy and also holds up in the presence of grease. The fries are awesome! Crisp on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. Very McDonald’s like which, to me, is the gold standard. These fries are elevated by the seasoning.

When people ask me who has the best burger in the city it’s a tough question to answer. I generally divide burgers into three classes, (1) the cheap $5 burger (usually fast food or a really cheap diner), (2) a mid level burger ranging from $10-$20 (usually a specialty burger place or fancier diner or place with fancier toppings), and (3) the high end gourmet burger, above $25 in price (I’ve tried some above $50) and served in nicer restaurants. Then the differentiating factor is a classic burger with traditional toppings or a fancy modern burger. It’s hard to compare any of them directly so I usually have my favorites in each subgroup. I would say these fall into the mid level group and both are as good as you can get! The beef is perfectly cooked, nicely spiced and super juicy (I really hate dry burgers). The additional toppings are excellent (I love the deep fried portobello mushroom filled with cheese) and bun is perfect. The “stuff” to bread ratio is perfect! I continue to see more places popping up and am excited to see who can give these two places a run for their money!

http://theburgerspriest.com/

http://holychuckburgers.com/