15.1.16

South-Western Sauna and Tea Room

banya.ca

We have visited South-Western Banya two years in a roll now for Mon Cheri's birthday celebrations. Although this banya does not do group reservations or discounts (somewhat understandable considering their size), they do let you know the peak time. If you come before their rush hour, Fridays that is at 8pm, you will have no problem getting a bigger group in. We asked our twelve guests to come for 7pm and had no problems getting everyone in.


APPEARANCE
The signage off the plaza did not at all mention this little gem. In addition, the obscure entrance on the side of the Moores building was hard to find even when one knows where to be looking. Your perseverance will pay off eventually, my friends. In addition, there was plenty of parking all around.
From the outside, the main attention grabber was a small red awning with their lengthy yellow wordmark which was lit up at night by a single light bulb. This awning adorned a single door in front of with a concrete slab of a step.

NOSE
Once inside, the spartan setting included a sofa to the side and a counter right in front. Tickets were brought there and a convenient magnet bracelet assigned. Visitors also get a towel, a robe and a brief introduction - if requested only, of course. There was also a rack of small containers to the left - scrubs you can purchase for $3 and use in the wet sauna.
Once that is dealt with, clients proceed to the change rooms. There interior was a German log-house theme with the dark wooden beams contrasting the white walls all throughout. A warm, comfortable ambiance was further enhanced by the incandescent lights. The insides of the ladies change room was not private and rather small. Surprisingly, they squeezed in a sofa by the mirror with hairdryers. I found that an odd spot to wait in, as you will be watching all the ladies change by their lockers. I think all would have appreciated the extra changing space or perhaps a full vanity area. The bracelet magnet was used to open an assigned locker and also keep track of your purchases which turned out to be quite convenient. Forgot your flip slops? Nothing to worry about, they have plenty of ones to borrow.

SWIRL
For ladies there was no direct way into the sauna from the change room, while the boys did enjoy that luxury (a mixed blessing though - door opens wide into the main area with limited opportunities for privacy). We need to exit the change room and go through a door where the relaxing area is. This was a darker room, open concept as it connects the saunas, restaurant and main entrance. The beige walls adored with framed photos and dark cushy sofas all around, TV, a chess board, magazines, etc.
We went straight for their spa area to rinse ourselves in their showers. That's right, the showers they were separated from the change rooms, so keep that in mind for when its time for the final beauty shower. This set up is rather basic, no space for pampering yourself, but still functional. The sauna area itself was a large open room with a slightly elevated split section, adding some visual and experiential variety and interest. There were three basic showers, a small dry Scandinavian sauna, a larger wet Turkish variety, and the main large Russian smokey dry one. There was also a corner with a small barrel raised high with a chain where you could take an unsupervised ice bucket challenge potentially involving the sitting crowd nearby in this refreshing activity. Another option to cool oneself was a barrel with a ladder for a cold water dip. In between the cold water and hot sauna area, there were two communal relaxation spaces - one fitted with Muskoka chairs as well as a wooden long bench by the barrels.
Outside the main sauna you will find a metal bucket or two with some bunches of branches. This is where the Russian traditional veniks were soaking. They are used for a kind of massage inside the Russian dry sauna, to intensify the experience and really get your blood rushing. It did look hilarious as a scene from the side - casually taking a seat in one of their relaxation areas, all you see is two sweaty big guys follow one another into the room with a venik, followed by elaborate beating movements inside, the small window on the door giving enough detail to let your imagination fill in the gaps. Looking beyond that, getting a treatment with the venik was a unique experience, ideal for submerging in the culture and worthwhile to try at least once.

SECOND NOSE
We eventually made our way to their restaurant. We passed by a tall dining area, which continued the German log-house look. Furthermore, one of the walls was filled with their elaborate teapot collection - from old brass ones to more recent colourful porcelain ones. In addition there were a bunch of podstakannik - nickle-plated glass holders - unique objects often used in soviet-area trains to help stabilize the glass with hot tea. An odd part of the wall was a line of laminated images pinned to the wood. It turned out that this was how they posted the dishes available for tonight. We agreed that it was quite useful having photos of the many unknown Russian dishes and their prices, however placing them up was not a well-thought out choice. We had to stand and wonder in the way of all the passers by. I could only imagine how stressful this experience would have been when this room was filled with people sitting all around. Some of us learned, the hard way, that the mouth-watering dishes mentioned on the website are not available every evening - so don't get your hopes too high up. There were nine dishes available this evening though, so it gave us a decent choice to pick from.
The restaurant section of the sauna was spread over three rooms. We went to the middle, second room, for their complimentary tea area with some wood on the walls, as well as rough stucco imitation textures. There were a few framed stamp as well as money bills collections. The tea selection was quite generous (and free) all neatly arranged in cork lid jars. We even had a regular visitor near by recommending us ones to mix. Grab a teapot, scoop your herbs in, and add the hot water. Cups were also there, as the teapots were large and ideal for sharing. A mini bar area nearby where to purchase alcohol and food by giving the code on your magnetic bracelet. Alcohol-wise, there was, the selection was on a long sheet nailed to the wood on the side with a proud title"Medicine". Plenty of Russian-themed cocktails to choose from and every item had a quirky sentence description

PALATE
We ordered two of their beers - Lvivske 1715 and Baltika. These two beers were pale lagers and we found them plain and lacking enthusiasm. Supposedly they were both popular in their countries of origin (Ukraine and Russia). Someone from our table ordered their Kvass drink, which everyone seemed to agree was not the best. It was a fermented beverage made from rye bread and non-alcoholic. Throughout the evening we had the following dishes - Shuba, Bourguignon and Boiled Dumplings. Do note that the amount of people increased our wait time closer to 30 minutes for some dishes. Their kitchen is tiny, after all. The dumplings filled with a mix of pork and beef are called pelmeni in Russian. They came topped with sour cream, green onion and a bit of oil. We enjoyed this simple dish a lot. Next we tried their Seledka Pod Shuboi which literally translates to Herring Under a Fur Coat. This lovely dish looks like lasagna at first sight, but turns out to be made of layers of herring, beets, pickled veggies, eggs topped with mayo and green onion. A complex, unique and delightful mix of ingredients. Lastly we had the Beef Bourgeoisie - another popular dish in Russia. It came in a plate consisting of three bows connected by a handle. One bowl had boiled buckwheat with unique spices which I was not familiar with and some people found repelling. Second container had Greek salad, and lastly one with beef. The meat was warm, it came in a stew sauce, topped with parsley. While tender and quality selection meat, it was not much of a stew as we expected, but plenty of chunky cuts instead. On our table throughout, there was always a basket or two of rye bread. Great to much on, even by itself.
Lastly to mention, ladies at the bar were fluent in both English and Russian and the service was quite friendly.

FINISH
Looking for a washroom? That's tricky, one needs to go all the way back to the entrance, near the initial counter. It is an awkward interior layout, however the beauty of it is that it helps keep an eye on who is coming. In a way, walking by the front in your bathrobe almost serves as an advertisement for those walking in.
In reality, we really enjoy this banya - bathhouse. It is not pretentious, as some other ones we visited before. People are friendly, the service is good, food is reasonably priced and authentic, and of course, there are enough amenities to keep the crowd busy. From older men, to moms with children and twenty-something year olds, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
Remember to give your bracelet at the end, as you are to walk out. Once again, this is how your bill is kept track of so you can settle it at the end.

12.1.16

Kintori Yakitori

www.kintoriyakitori.com

We were once again invited by the Kinka Family to taste the new sampling menu at Kintori Yakitori this time. On a windy, cold January night, a wholesome dish is exactly what we craved. Kintori Yakitori is specializing in delectable drinks and authentic Japanese grilled skewers or "yakitori". The oak charcoal used was imported all the way from Japan as well as the bamboo skewers themselves.

APPEARANCE
From the outside, there was not much signage to tell us about Kintori above Kinton Ramen. Nicely designed rust iron 3D letters, light up from under, the Kinton signage impressed us. An interesting wooden finish took over the second floor facade of he building, leaving space for only a tiny window which had a chicken and pig graphics to help prepare us for what we are about the enjoy.

NOSE
We went through the glass door and up the stairs to Kintori Yakitori. Tall stairs awaited us with thin planks of wood on one side. This custom railing of the stairs transitioned into space separators in the upstairs restaurant. The burch and black wooden planks were nicely spaced out to give a sense of air and yet some privacy to those on the other side. The dining space was narrow with two main sitting areas divided by the stairs. There was also a bar space facing an elongated kitchen. We would definitely recommend occupying one of the high chairs to observe the art of cooking, behind the glass wall. Take a seat on one of the wooden plank bar stools which were really heavy but unfortunately had no foot rest. In addition, a small bar took over the far corner. There also was a corner with colourful vintage Japanese posters lined up side-by-side, creating a wallpaper like effect.

SWIRL
Our customized menus (very customized, with our names printed and transcribed in Japanese as well) as well as a couple glasses of water popped on the table almost instantly. Over a dozen dishes were planned for the evening, the list looked daunting, but the options were exciting so we jumped right into it. Our waitress Sierra was friendly and knowledgeable which turned out to be a great asset - saving us from the dizzying confusion of varying dishes. Sitting down, we paid a bit more attention to the bar area overlooking the grill. The kitchen bar decoration included a few pieces of stacked charcoal and dark slates used as plates. Everything looked and felt highly authentic. The kitchen bar decoration included a few pieces of stacked charcoal and slates used for plates. Everything looked and felt highly authentic.

PALATE
Chicken Original Soup was our first dish. It was served with an interesting wooden spoon on the side. There was a tinge of vinegar and small chicken pieces floating inside the opaque broth. It is a great way to warm yourself up when the January winter storm is blowing outside. Green onion slices topped the dish, adding more to it. As strange as it might sound, we thought the wooden spoon added to the taste, and of course the experience.
While sipping on the soup, we ordered a couple of drinks. We chose their full bodied Kinmon sake as well as a glass of Umeshu or Plum Wine - Choya brand. The plum wine reminded us of sherry - maple nose, a bit strong and alcoholic, slightly sour and perfect to lighten and soothe the warm atmosphere, especially as it came served on the rocks.
Oshinko Moriawase (assorted Japanese pickles) was a very curious little appetizer. Some cabbage, lightly pickled cucumber and, our favorite, a type of root vegetable called Burdok with a hint of smokiness. To our surprise, none of the veggies were hot. The cabbage even had some curious floral tones to it. All was topped with thinly sliced dried pepper giving it an aromatic edge.
Our Chef Hiroki Takai did not make us wait long and Negima (chicken thigh & Tokyo scallion) popped on the table. An interesting, well cooked, but not dry, meat. We really enjoyed this skewer. It had a small portion of it wrapped in foil to use as a handle.
Zuri arrived very shortly. We actually never had gizzard before so it was an interesting experience. Very dense meat, almost cartilage-like with irony smell to it. Something interesting to nibble on, but not our favourite from the evening. A couple of curious objects also landed on our table and stayed with us thought - two wooden cylindrical containers. One was tall and empty, while the other one looked like a mini keg and had hole on top. It contained a unique, medium spice blend.
A quick and refreshing Cabbage with chicken miso paste salad followed (Nikumiso Kyabetsu). There were hints of ginger and some salty overtones. The sweet miso paste was actually a bit intense.
Tabasaki arrived - it was a simple chicken wing with next to no seasoning or sauce. Even though a bit oily, the meat turned out tender and not burnt, credit of the special charcoals. Lower burning temperature sealed the taste while not charring the skin too much. The addition the special spice at our table helped accentuate the dish.
Departing from grilled skewers, our next dish was Uzura Kushi Age - a deep fried quail egg. It came with a crispy tempura crust. With an overwhelming taste of the dense dark sauce, we could not taste the actual egg inside unfortunately. A bit of a miss. It was all starting to add up now, the reason for the second empty cylindrical container on the table - to leave the skewers and keep count of how many you have devoured.
Premium Gyu-Tongue was a very pleasant small treat with a side of lemon. Despite appearing oily initially, it was rather light, tender and flavourful. Two thin pieces were just enough to give us a taste. Great sharing experience if ordered alone. We squeezed the lemon wedges which really added to the dish.
Tsukune (chicken meatball) topped with sweet teriyaki sauce followed. The meat, chives, onion and peppers mix resulted in a meatball with a great airy texture which turned out to be surprisingly light and delicious.
We were very curious to try skewered chicken hearts (Hatsu). We found it a bit chewy and not overly flavourful. Almost as if biting through thick skin. An intriguing part of the chicken, it was.
By that time, our drinks were all but finished and we decided to go for another round. We chose two from their beer cocktails, this time. The Red Eye clamato one felt a bit watered down and did not impress us. It was definitively lacking a kick, a spice of some sort to make it more funky. Ginger beer, on the other hand, was considerably more fun. A sharper taste of Ginger Ale was not fighting too much with a softer beer making for an excellent duet.
We also had Reba (chicken liver) which Ma Cherie decided to skip after her first bite. Topped with sweet teriyaki sauce, the liver was very tender and with a typical strong smell of iron. It was a favour which can be described as eating thick smoke. While the dish appeared crusty and thick, under the crispy crust was soft tender meat.
Dishes kept on rolling in. Next one was Asparagus Panko - breaded, deep-fried asparagus wrapped in bacon and served with a wedge of lemon giving an otherwise heavy food a sense of freshness. It was an item not normally on their menu, but really worth being there. Once again, a nice smokey flavour from the bacon tickled our noses, yet the asparagus was refreshing.
Negi Shio Gyu stands for beef with scallion sauce. It was drizzled with sesame oil and topped with scallion sauce for a combination of a bit zesty, almost pickled taste. The beef itself was tender and fragrant.
Lastly, from our mains - Dashi Maki was a rather simple Japanese omelette. It was also served on a dark rock slate, the dish was airy and slightly salty. There was a definite achievement there in terms of making an otherwise simple omelette into this layers packed together which taste so delicious. The tiny portions did not feel that small due to abundance of taste.
Yaki Onigiri turned out to be somewhat of desert. The large rice ball was crispy on the outside with a caramelized crispy crust. Surprisingly, the inside was full of plum filling, which was not ovely sweet but rather gave this dish a tardy flavour. If you want to surprise your date with an appetizer looking desert - Yaki Onigry should be on your list.
Last came our Houji Cha Brûlée - roasted green tea cream brûlée. Maybe it was too late in the evening, maybe we were too full, but this last dish did not impress us. Too much fusion here. Maybe we are too used to a more traditional Cream Brûlée, as this one had a bit of bitter note.

FINISH
We really enjoyed our evening of skewer adventures. It was impressive that we had almost every part of an animal on a stick - heart, liver, tongue, gizzard, wings, you name it - a tad disturbing and at the same time rather sustainable. Kintori Yakitori is all about these small bite-sized meals which would be ideally accompanying plenty of drinks. We were surprised that their drinks menu is not that extensive, especially the beer selection. Watch out though, they have sake on tap! That we must go back and try. It is easy to get overwhelmed here with so many options to choose from. A great option off their main menu is the Chef's Omakase - chef's yakitori selection of the day.

9.1.16

Fruitfull Market

http://www.fruitfulmarket.com

Cheri and I have passed by this place a few times, as it is in our new neighborhood. From the outside Fruitful seemed like an organic store with a vegetarian/vegan section, which we expected to be somewhat expensive.

APPEARANCE
The front was all large windows from the street with a vinyl logo on the glass - a friendly, curvy and elegant wordmark that is. It was written in white, against the colorful background of their local fresh veggie lineup.

SWIRL
Once inside, Fruitful's true and straightforward character came out - concrete floor and ceiling, All electrical and piping exposed, and left as is. A few black walls used as chalkboards added to the character, as well as the unfinished wooden counters with black industrial frames. There was a section with plenty of health foods available to buy (including take-home meals) and, of course, a fridge display with salads and a shelf filled with preserves and books. The friendly cashier was ready to help us as we read through the chalk-written options. We were surprised at their democratic prices for a breakfast bowl $5-7 and oatmeal for $3. Our final choices were their Huevos Rancheros and Smoked Salmon bowl.

NOSE
While paying, we were distracted by their selection of baked sweets. We decided not to go for them today, even though we were tempted. This will be on our list for the next trip along with their coffees.We took a seat at their high chairs looking out the window. Mind you, that was the only area to sit at. It was a peaceful view - concrete sidewalk with some live greens on our table in the foreground. We were somewhat intrigued by the low volume screemo music, as it was an interesting addition. We suspected it might be coming from their kitchen.

PALATE
Both bowls arrived in disposable containers and, at the same time, beautifully presented. The Huevos Rancheros Poached Egg bowl came with the promised blue heaven egg prompted on salsa, on a quinoa and black bean bed. We didn't find the promised avocado in this bowl, but enjoyed the dish nonetheless. The egg was medium-easy which once pierced though helped in our consumption of this dish. There was a taste of cumin, paprika and pepper adding a unique spin to the quinoa, bean base. Overall it was a tasty, nutritious meal.
The neighboring bowl was our Smoked Salmon. This bowl's contents filled it with bright summer colours: light yellow, orange, pink and to top it all off - dark purple leafs The base of this dish was roasted celeriac root which added an unforgettable texture, best described as a non-sweet, young pineapple. It also had a smokey smell to it. Topping this strange root was a piece of salmon, roasted julienned veggies and the poached egg. Once again done medium, which they seemed to have guessed without asking as it is Ma Cherie's favourite. This dish was topped with paprika, however, we didn't find traces of the promised mustard cream which we both agreed would have been very adequate.

FINISH
This charming place felt fresh and upbeat. Their food options were at a reasonable price, although it would have been nice to have a note with regard to ingredients changing based on availability or something of that sort. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed our food and the atmosphere. We both thought it would be great to visit Fruitful in the summer, hopefully they open up a bit of a patio on the street.

7.1.16

Sassafraz

www.sassafraz.ca

Mon Cheri worked in Yorkville for a few years and we wanted to take me to Sassafraz for some time now. It was a lucky coincidence that the restaurant decided to run a Groupon menu after the holidays so we jumped on the offer. Previously, we had subpar experiences with Winterlicious as well as Summerlicious menus. The Groupon special menu was in line with Sassafraz’s regular offerings and did not disappoint us in terms of food quality.

APPEARANCE
There was no obvious signage outside, we did not even notice the restaurant name written anywhere. The standalone Victorian house is definitely a landmark of its own. Do not let the small frontage mislead you – the building is very large on the inside.
Walking in, we felt like we are visiting someone’s living room. The café area was definitely casual and more lounge-like. The interior was a bit dated, but that added a certain charm to the setting. Our choice was the dining area which we were promptly escorted to through a side door.

NOSE
On our way to the far end of the restaurant, we noticed that the demographic consisted of shi shi foo foo folk for the most part. The white banquette hall setting with roses enhanced the feeling. It seemed almost plain, trying not to offend anyone. We were particularly disappointed with the long tables making a private conversation challenging. The distance to a person at the next table was actually shorter than to your own date across. On the bright side, you can always befriend someone else’s date and chat with them. A large skylight pointed roof, loft-sized green wall and a waterfall made the setting quite pleasant.

SWIRL
The special menu allowed for quite a latitude of choice so it took us a few minutes to select. A glass of 2014 Nero d'Avola Italian red and one more of 2014 Pinot Grigio from Srerenissima were an easy choice. Good wines at $10 a glass was they were versatile enough to go with most of the dishes. Real candles all around and dimmed lighting created a romantic setting – we started feeling very relaxed and finally chose Braised Ontario Pork Belly with Spiced Pumpkin Croquette as well as Butternut and Acorn Squash Soup for appetizers. Ontario Cornish Hen with Truffle Sourdough Stuffing and Sturgeon on a Bed of Purple Quinoa sounded terrific for main courses. Although we usually skip the dessert, a Rhubarb Cheesecake plus some Beignets sounded irresistible so we ordered them as well.
Kicking back to relax after the most difficult part of the evening (making choices), we noticed a very common thing in restaurants - a wine rack exposed to plenty of light and potentially heat. It remains a mystery to us why so many places continue subjecting their wine to this kind of treatment. It really doesn't give a wine enthusiast a good feel on how they treat their wines.

PALATE
Pork Belly with Spiced Pumpkin Croquette was a very elaborate appetizer both in terms of presentation and taste complexity. The Butternut Squash purée and Apple Garlic Jam nicely offset the crispy pork belly meat. At the same time, the side of pumpkin spice purée (with plenty of cloves and also lightly fried) was a bit bready and dry to our taste. It is definitely an appetizer worth trying mainly because of the rich meaty taste strongly enhanced by frying as well as the unique apple jam scattered in small pieces and adding a perfect combo of zesty sweetness to the dish.
The second appetizer was decisively less interesting, but, to give it credit, still very much worthwhile. The butternut and acorn squash soup was adorned with a swirl of calvados cumin yogurt and was furthermore topped with crisply sage leaves. These leaves definitely added to the otherwise ordinary dish, in our opinion. Also, the taste of cinnamon in there was not too overwhelming, for those sensitive. Ontario Cornish Hen with Truffle Sourdough Stuffing and water chestnut squash hash looked terrific with the food beautifully laid out on the plate. The chicken meat was a bit fatty, but that greatly contributed to the taste. We suspected also some walnut mixed in there. To top this off, Brussels sprouts leaves and very flavourful brown butter were hen’s companions. As a side, some lightly fried diced veggies occupied the corner of this plate. Cornish Hen was a very strongly positioned dish, full of flavour, nicely presented and wholesome overall. Well worth a try.
One of the priciest items on the menu was BC Sturgeon on a Bed of Purple Quinoa. It came surrounded by yellow radishes and green sauce painted all around. Even more ingredients piled up: saffron poached baby turnips, saved fennel and parsley emulsion. The fish itself is of an exceptionally high quality and there was plenty of it on the plate. So thick was the fillet that we found it somewhat dry towards the middle. On the other hand, the turnips garnish added a lot to the mix as well as shaved fennel accenting the palate. We found parsley to be an unwelcome guest here.
We seamlessly moved towards our desserts. An original Cheesecake with no bottom crust had a beautiful texture with dried rhubarb inside adding sour tanginess. The strawberry compote under, on the other hand, offset it with sweetness. A thin, sharp, dark chocolate piece was there to help the compote too. A well-made cheesecake is always a delight. A tiny macaroon was an adorable addition to the plate. The Maple Beignets, on the other hand, we found somewhat lacking. A sense of dried oil producing not that aromatic of a smell. These deep fried pastries with amaretto crème anglaise and butterscotch glaze could, potentially, work better with a dark coffee and not after a very filling meal. This dish honoured classic beignets, as opposed to trying to push and innovate this dish. It didn't compare next to the cheesecake.

FINISH

Our waiter Giovanni was very pleasant and attentive. We were more concentrated on food so we were not overly talkative, but he could definitely keep up a conversation if we wanted to. We found Sassafraz to be touch too much of a formal, uptight experience for us (at least that day), not only the interior but also the customers contributed to that feel. Fortunately, it was an amazing food adventure. A French-Canadian cuisine with international hints to it, the menu was well balanced with enough choice to satisfy a wide variety of taste preferences.