Foodservice Friday: Alo

Friday, March 25, 2016
Aged beef ribeye, bone marrow, watercress, shallots
Sometimes a restaurant gets such a great review that you have to go, just to see if it could possibly be that good. And occasionally a restaurant gets three such reviews. That was the case with Alo.

Toronto Life called it the best new restaurant in Toronto. Canada's 100 Best magazine called it the best new restaurant in Canada. The restaurant critic for the Globe and Mail described his experience of eating the stew as "probably the best five minutes of my year."

How could I stay away?

But such acclaim comes with popularity, and I tried making reservations a few times with no luck. Finally, I must have timed it perfectly, because just before Christmas I scored a reservation three months out - on a Saturday night!
Pinenuts, yellowfoot chanterelles, celery root, delice de bourgogne
Alo is tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript building on busy Spadina Avenue, just above a tattoo parlour. If you didn't know it existed, you'd never find it; even though we knew it was there, we were happy the greeter on the main floor reassured us we were in the right place.

The menu is different every night, with two choices per course. The presentations were gorgeous: even if I wasn't taking pictures for my blog I'd have taken them anyhow, out of admiration and respect. Technically there were five courses, but actually there were probably closer to ten (including three tiny desserts). Everything is prepared with the utmost of care. Even the butter that's served with the bread is made in-house.

And how did it taste? I adored everything I ate, with the chanterelle mushroom dish being an early contender for the best five minutes of my year.

Kampachi, rice pearls, fennel, cured egg yolk
Chef Patrick Kriss graciously answered the questions I asked him. He said his greatest influences were the people he worked for at New York's Daniel restaurant - Jean-Francois Bruel, Eddy Leroux, and of course Daniel Boulud, all of whom he described as being extremely hard-working and dedicated people. And charmingly, when I asked him what his most memorable cooking moments were, he answered, "Cooking with my grandmother when I was a child. Pies and simple roasts on Sunday."

A note to my Toronto friends: Alo is now taking reservations only two months in advance. In the name of blog research, I went on Open Table this morning to see what reservations were available, and got the message "No availability for Alo restaurant ... in next 8 weeks." But don't give up - this is a restaurant that's more than worth the wait. And when you get that reservation, be sure to tell me which course was the best five minutes of your year.

163 Spadina Avenue
Toronto ON

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

The first day of spring

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Wrap me close, sheets of lavender. Pour your blue and purple dreams into my ears. The breeze whispers at the shutters and mutters queer tales of old days, and cobbled streets, and youths leaping their horses down marble stairways. Pale blue lavender, you are the colour of the sky when it is fresh-washed and fair ... I smell the stars ... they are like tulips and narcissus ... I smell them in the air."

- from "Spring Day" by Amy Lowell

Today's recipe is an all-season one that I've probably never made the same way twice. Below is one simple variation, but it's easily changed to accommodate the time of year and what you have on hand. In honour of the first day of spring, you might add a little sautéed leek in with the onions. If you make it in the summer, use fresh vegetables rather than frozen. If you want a vegetarian version, use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, and forgo the chicken for broccoli and cauliflower pieces. Slice up a few mushrooms and sauté them along with the onions for extra flavour. You can replace the chicken with lamb, and you could top the pot pie with mashed potatoes, biscuits, or puff pastry. (If using puff pastry, cut a sheet of pastry in narrow slices and make a cross-hatch pattern.

Sometimes I cook it all up in one casserole, and sometimes I put it in mini loaf pans or ramekins. The latter are perfect to freeze for another meal, or to deliver to a university student in need of home-cooked food!

Chicken pot pie
(assembled from my imagination, and whatever I have in the fridge)

2 medium potatoes
4 Tbsp butter
1 onion, diced
4 Tbsp flour
2 cups chicken broth
kosher salt
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 cup frozen edamame or peas
1 Tbsp fresh chopped thyme or rosemary
2 cooked chicken breasts (preferably roasted), cut into bite-sized pieces

Boil potatoes until just tender. Let drain and mash with a bit of milk. Set aside.

Melt butter in a medium pot, and add diced onions. Sauté until golden-brown. Add flour, and stir until it forms a smooth paste. Add chicken broth and stir until it thickens. Add kosher salt to taste.

Remove from the heat and add vegetables and herbs. Stir in chicken pieces and combine to mix. Cover with mashed potatoes.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes (when cooking in ramekins or loaf pans) or 30-40 minutes (when cooking in a single casserole).

Foodservice Friday: Byblos

Friday, March 11, 2016
The glorious brussels sprouts
Most of us have a special occasion restaurant. It's usually somewhere with terrific service, and with food so great we know whatever we order will be spectacular.

For me, that restaurant is Byblos. This is the place where I had the brussels sprouts epiphany.  The place that inspired me to make my own Middle Eastern dessert. And the place where I've celebrated my last two birthdays. Byblos has been responsible for quite a lot of happiness in my life.

The beauty of eating at a restaurant with share plates is you try more things than if you just had a single appetizer and entree to yourself. But even so, the biggest challenge about dinner at Byblos is confronting the sad realization that you can't order every single thing on the menu. So what should you order? You have to try at least one of the eggplant appetizers, the roasted red beets, the ribeye, and for dessert, order the qatayef, and the mousse cake that's covered in Persian cotton candy. Oh, and did I mention the brussels sprouts?

Crispy Qatayef, just one of the brilliant desserts Byblos serves
Photo credit: Byblos Restaurant
Byblos's brilliant chef Stuart Cameron took the time to answer a few questions I had for him. I asked him what the inspiration was for Byblos, and he answered, "There are so many amazing ingredients and flavours that are unfamiliar in other cuisines. When I first started Byblos I was amazed by the quality of products that were available. It really drove me to create new dishes that represented Middle Eastern Cuisine." When I asked about his most memorable cooking moment, he said he loves cooking during TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) because of all the great people he meets. He also singled out getting to cook last year with Michelin-starred chef Maria Jose San Roman.

In other words, he loves food, he loves people, and both of those are what makes his food shine.

So if you live in Toronto, Byblos is a restaurant you simply must try. If you don't live in Toronto, Byblos is a very good reason to visit.

And if you go any time around my next special occasion, you'll probably see me there.

Byblos Restaurant
11 Duncan Street
Toronto ON

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

Joy in Mudville

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game."

- from "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

I always love this time of year. Nothing feels like new beginnings more than spring training, when baseball players report to their respective camps. It's a time of innocence and of hope, when every team still has a chance of winning. I remember the first time I went to spring training, and was amazed by how close the fans got to the field, and how much fun the players were having.

After the Blue Jays had their first meaningful October in her lifetime, my youngest daughter is passionately following their spring training exploits, periodically texting me to say, "Pompey walks!" or "Goins 2 run triple ties in bottom of fourth!" (One hopes these updates are interspersed between intense rounds of essay-writing.)

Today's recipe is for apple walnut squares, a recipe that started out as a cake but works perfectly as squares to take to church or book club. And the outcome is extremely brilliant for these lovely squares, even if that church or book club is located in Mudville.

Apple Walnut Squares
(adapted from Epicurious)


1 Tbsp unsalted butter (first amount)
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2" pieces
2 medium Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2" pieces
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature (second amount)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 cup dried currants


1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract

For cake:

Melt 1 Tbsp butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add all apples; cover and simmer until apples are juicy and almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 18 minutes. Uncover and simmer until almost all juices evaporate, about 6 minutes. Using potato masher, mash apples in pan. Cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and butter and flour a 9" x 13" baking dish. Whisk flour and next 5 ingredients in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat remaining 3/4 cup butter and sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg. Stir in flour mixture, then all of apple mixture, then remaining flour mixture. Mix in 1 cup toasted walnuts and currants.

Pour batter into pan and smooth top. Bake until tester inserted into centre comes out clean, about 30-35 minutes. Cool on racks for 5 minutes, then turn out and let cool completely before icing.

For icing:

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until fluffy. Add powdered sugar, cinnamon and vanilla, and beat to blend.

Spread icing on cooled squares. Chill until icing sets before cutting into squares.