It’s always a little dubious when a favourite indie restaurant decides to expand with a second dining room — a bit like when a film studio announces a sequel to a great stand alone movie. Did the world really need a Grease 2? How about The Return of Jafar? So it was with a bit of trepidation that I went to visit Hoof Raw Bar, a fish-focused offshoot of Toronto’s beloved charcuterie shrine, the Black Hoof. (True, there’s already the Hoof Cocktail Bar across the road, but as it doesn’t have a full dinner menu, I’m thinking of that more like a prequel — a genre that has it own weird baggage and expectations.) Anyway, here’s my comparison of the Black Hoof and Hoof Raw Bar.
The first time I went to the Black Hoof two summers ago, it was a Thursday night and the room was so packed that my friend and I had to wait for an hour to get seats at the bar. We didn’t start eating until well after nine, but even then, more and more people were arriving at the door. There was never an empty chair, and the room was roaring with diners raving about the beef tongue sandwich and pork carnitas tacos.
I’m not sure why eating cooked blood seems so gross. Is it really any different than a meal of muscle and fat? Especially when that muscle and fat is grilled rare. Or how does it compare to a microwaved, store-bought hot dog, which is like ingesting running shoes and ground chicken beaks. But blood reminds people of scraped knees and crusty scabs and eating it seems a bit vampire/Silence of the Lambs. That is until you try it, as I did the other night.
This past week when I was in NYC, I tasted what is probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. My hometown of Toronto has been having a pizza boom for the past few years, with places like Libretto and Queen Margherita serving excellent, Neapolitan-style thin crusts from wood burning ovens. But, I have to admit, the Montanara Starita at Manhattan’s Don Antonio by Starita is superior. The toppings are simple: tangy-salty-sweet tomato sauce, fresh basil, and smoked buffalo mozzarella. Most of the time, I could honestly take or leave buffalo mozzarella — it’s good but I don’t understand why people drool over it. The smoked cheese here, though, really makes the dish. It’s still light and milky, but has a rich, deep flavour like a good piece of bacon. And the crust is flash fried before it’s baked, making the dough airier and the edges crispier than I’ve ever had before.
When Guu opened it’s first Toronto location in December 2009, people (many of whom were familiar with the original Vancouver chain) went crazy for it’s Japanese sharing plates, communal tables and exuberant service. The first time I went, I spent an hour and a half waiting outside in the snow for a table, freezing my toes off. I was an unpaid intern at the time so I had no money for dinners out, but I was lured by the incessant buzz. It didn’t disappoint. The food was salty, rich and satisfying (a perfect fit for a pint of Sapporo), and the room felt raucous and fun (especially for a city as reserved as Toronto). The second time I went, I liked it just the same (even though the wait was still close to an hour).
Now, seemingly cashing in on the Japanese pub craze that Guu started, a new izakaya has opened: DonDon. I went to check it out the past weekend. Here’s my point-by-point comparison.
Photo by Riley Stewart, via torontolife.com's The Dish blog
Similar to the many other ultra-buzzy, independent restaurants that have opened in Toronto over the past couple of years, Yours Truly (229 Ossington Ave.) is a closet-small room run by a 28-year-old chef and a wait staff that was all born in the ’90s. And the decor is full of salvage and not terribly practical. To wit, when I went a few weeks ago, I had to lay my jacket on the floor behind the stool I was sitting on because there was no coat rack. I was, however, delighted by the different-sized copper lampshades that dot the ceiling. The shades have a simple but interesting shape and, of course, being copper, will develop an interesting patina overtime (because the food was so good—so good! Parsnip mousse = yummy—I’m sure I’ll be back to see the change). The restaurant was designed by Toronto’s Stroudfoot, which has done other quirky-beautiful restaurants including Origin and Colborne Lane.