It's always different when you're only visiting a place as opposed to living there. When you live somewhere, you often forget about what's around you, as you're too engrossed in going to work, coming home and doing your own thing. When you visit a place after not being there for awhile, it takes on a fresh look. A few weeks ago, the husband was attending a four day conference in Toronto and I was like "I am totally tagging along for a mini vacation." The last time I spent an extended amount of time in Toronto was a few years ago when I briefly lived there. This time it was an excuse for me to catch up on new restaurant openings, shopping and city wandering.
Sometimes you have to revisit an old friend. I first tried Banh Mi Boys when I lived in Toronto and then introduced my husband to it. When he also had a short work placement in Toronto a few years ago, he ate at Banh Mi Boys about 4 or 5 times a week. This small, busy spot at Queen St. and Spadina serves Vietnamese subs, called "banh mis," as well as steamed baos, tacos and Korean-inspired sides, such as kimchi fries and jicama papaya salad. And everything on their menu is about $5. Who needs Subway when you can have a delicious braised beef or pork belly sub for the same price? As soon as we drove into Toronto, Mike and I practically ran here.
Afterwards, Mike went to his conference and I had the afternoon to explore. Ever since going to Southeast Asia, I have been obsessed with "jelly" desserts as I call them. They are Hong Kong or Taiwan style desserts that usually involve fruit, jelly, taro balls, coconut milk and sometimes beans. It's like a much better full dessert version of "bubble tea." In the summer, I went to as Asian night market in Ottawa and bought a tub of "herbal jelly." The person selling it to me had to confirm that I knew what I was buying. "Yes, I've had it before. I know what it is." With the jelly, I made a few of my own concoctions at home. I have a hard time finding places that make these kinds of desserts, mostly because I don't know what to look for, although I recently found Honey Town in Ottawa. The good thing about Toronto is you can find almost anything from any cuisine or region somewhere in the city.
For an after lunch dessert, I stopped at Sugar Marmalade in the Dragon City Mall at Spadina St. and Dundas. If you're looking around for the address, the store is actually inside the mall. I ordered the house special black grass jelly in a mango juice base. It might look kind of weird. I love the combination of textures, the sweetness from the fruit and the refreshing feeling. I mean, why not try something a little different for dessert? My limit is the Durian desserts though. I wouldn't go quite that far.
Another dessert from the other side of the world mesmerizing foodies like me is cheesecake. Japanese cheesecake to be exact. Before I had heard of Uncle Tetsu, I didn't even know cheesecake was considered a big thing in Japan. It's not a traditional dessert, however, it has become something of a new phenomenon with its light, almost souffle-like appearance.
You may have heard about the infamous lines at Uncle Tetsu shops. The Uncle Tetsu shop in Toronto is located at Bay St. and Dundas. Some people will line up for hours to get a single cheesecake and that is all you can get--there is a one cheesecake per person policy. They only make about 12 cheesecakes every 15 minutes or so, which is most likely the reason for the line ups. Even if it sounds kind of crazy to line up for a cheesecake, this is the kind of thing I love doing. I am that person who will line up for the latest food trend to say that I tried it.
So what was my verdict on Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake? Firstly, I went at a good time of day (around 2:30pm-3pm) because I only waited in line about 15 minutes. Then I walked back to the car proudly toting my warm cheesecake in the cute, white Uncle Tetsu's bag. Compared to other "trendy" desserts I have tried at not so reasonable prices, $10 for a whole cheesecake is a good deal. Secondly, you can't expect something from the Cheesecake Factory or an American style rich cheesecake.
According to a recipe I found online, the Japanese cheesecake is made with similar ingredients and tastes almost like it was steamed. It is similar to other spongy Japanese desserts with only a hint of sweetness. The cheesecake was nice and made an impressive dessert to bring to dinner. When we went for dinner at a friend's house, they knew what it was immediately. It was nice although I don't think I would wait more than an hour to buy one.
The second night we went out for dinner in Guelph with the same friends at the newly opened Bread Bar on Gordon St. If there was one place that would do a farm-to-table, local pizza place extremely well, it is Guelph, Ontario. On a Friday night, it was buzzing with students and families grabbing some pizza for takeout and a packed restaurant. These photos don't do the food justice. I was starving and ordered some bread for the table, or what I thought was a little plate of bread. This ended up being the highlight of the meal. The waitress brought out an impressive slab with fresh, warm bread, charred rosemary and amazing creamy ricotta and olive oil, hummus and romesco sauce. It was too beautiful to eat.
Every once in awhile, you could smell the charred rosemary wafting by when the wait staff brought out the plates to other tables. We went for two pizzas to share: the "meat mountain" and the special of the day with seasonal ingredients. So, even though Toronto is thought of an as international culinary destination, there are other smaller cities with impressive food options popping up across Ontario.
The next day it was back to another favourite, Momofuku Noodle Bar on University Ave. The iconic restaurant by David Chang is Momofuku's first Canadian store, which opened a few years ago. You get a heaping bowl of ramen with all of the fixings in a chic, trendy setting inside the Shangri-La Hotel. I strayed from the house special "Momofuku ramen" and went for the "Smoked Chicken Ramen" with similar ramen fixings except there was crispy chicken skin on top. Crispy chicken bits! Sometimes you're like, "I don't know if I should stray away from a classic" and then it turns out you find something else amazing.
The classic ramen has pork belly, pork shoulder, fish cake and a poached egg on top. It also happened to be freezing cold in Toronto that week, so warming up with a hot bowl of ramen was a thing that which dreams are made. There are times I go to a restaurant and I think I can make those dishes myself at home. Then there are instances like at Momofuku where I am alright with paying $14 for a bowl of ramen because no Mr. Noodle crap will even come close. We finished the lunch with a little taste of the "cereal milk" flavoured soft serve ice cream. I also bought a few cookies to take home from the Milk Bar shop. I pretty much spent the entire four days eating and stockpiling food to bring home.
On one of the days we met my parent's for lunch at Bannock on Bay St. After lunch we stopped by the lit up "Toronto" sign in Nathan Phillip's square for a few photos and then saw the Andy Warhol: Stars of the Silver Screen exhibit at TIFF. I'm not sure it was quite my parent's cup of tea. As someone who loves pop culture, art and celebrity culture, I found it kind of neat. My Dad recounted stories from his working days in downtown Toronto and all of the places he went for business lunches and work functions, some of which aren't there anymore or have developed into completely different buildings or condos. They have also moved away from Toronto, so it is also like being a "tourist" for them when they come back to the city to explore.
On the last day, I went for a hike with my in-laws at Halton Falls. It was a nice end to a week of eating--although I walked around Toronto like crazy as well. The only downside to visiting a place and not living there is you have to squeeze in so much a short period of time that you simply can't do everything. There are just places and people to see I will have to add to my list for next time.