The Kind of School You Want to Go to – A Holiday Hashbrown Poutine Brunch at School Restaurant!

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I think everyone will agree that one of the best things about the holidays is/was getting a break from school.  These two beautiful, glorious weeks are like pure gold (unless of course you happen to have homework to do in which case the pure gold becomes more like a lump of coal.  Seriously, that’s just mean, but for the sake of keeping this happy, we’ll go for the homework-free holiday).  So what if I told you that there was a type of school that you’d actually want to attend during the holiday break?  One where you could educate yourself about delicious food and be surrounded by stacks of mouthwatering pancakes and French toast dripping in syrup, hot plates of eggs, bacon, and homefries with all the fixins’, and waffles outfitted with sweet and savoury accessories?  I probably wouldn’t need to twist your arm to haul your tooshie out of bed then, would I?  Because the only ‘school’ worth waking up to attend over the holidays just happens to be one of the city’s favourite breakfast/brunch spots, School Restaurant, located in Liberty Village!

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School Restaurant lives up to its name with their fun chalkboard diagrams (I could totally ace a test based on the anatomy of an ice cream sundae), their wall of clocks with all hands pointing to 3:30pm (quittin’ time!), bills slipped into little report card envelopes, and clipboard menus featuring fun menu items such as “teachers pet” basket of baked goodies, “headmaster omelette”, and “apple-a-day waffle”.  So not your average cafeteria garb.  If you love themed stuff, School is right up your alley.  And if you don’t care for it, you’ll love the food anyway, especially if you’re a breakfast and brunch fanatic like me!  I got the chance to eat from their special, limited time, “12 Days of Christmas” menu (which was available from December 13 – 24) last week and while I know you won’t find the same menu or exact items in their restaurant anymore, at least this gives you an idea of what the style is like and the type of food you can expect off of their regular menu.  And lucky for you guys, my item is actually available on the regular one!

What I love most about brunch places is their mix of sweet and savoury dishes.  While I usually err on the side of savoury, the sweet ones make me salivate just as much and I only wish I had found out about the special menu earlier, that way there might have been a chance of me squeezing in an extra trip.  But no matter, I enjoyed my incredibly delicious breakfast choice and I can still look forward to eating off their regular menu which boasts just as many scrumptious options: black ‘n’ blue flapjacks, $15 (pancake stack with black and blueberry sauce with brown sugar butter), krispy krunchy French toast, $15 (crunchy French toast coated in rice cereal with marmalade), roasted apple-a-day waffle ($15), cheddar-chive biscuits with honey butter ($7), and smoked salmon breakfast salad ($15).

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Their “12 Days of Christmas” limited edition menu featured lots of holiday cocktails and drinks such as mulled wine, bourbon eggnog, and winter rum punch as well as festive candy cane pancakes, eggnog waffles, gingerbread krispy krunch French toast, omelettes, buttermilk chicken and waffles, cheesy bacon French toast, and my dish: the joyeux noel hashbrown poutine!

Like I mentioned above, this is one of the dishes that is actually available on the regular weekend brunch menu as well so if you like what you see, you can enjoy this awesome deliciousness on Saturdays and Sundays too!  I LOVE LOVE LOVE the main components that make up this dish: hashbrowns/homefry potatoes, cheese/cheese curds, and a gorgeous sunny-side up egg.  These three things alone make me a happy camper so have them all together in one dish sitting atop a generous ladle of rosemary gravy (have I told you I freakin’ love gravy nobody’s business?!  Well, if I haven’t, now you know), with tons of yummy leeks, and a side of tomato jam makes it ultra fabulous.

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The potatoes were perfectly diced (not mushy or dry or undercooked) which made forking mouthfuls of potatoes, gravy, and gooey cheese super easy, the cheese was perfectly melted and stringy and delightful (I love me my cheese curds but it takes the fun out of eating them if they’re cold lumps, you know?), the egg was beautiful and runny, and – wait for it – the leeks were awesome.  I know.  You wouldn’t think the leeks would play such a starring role but they did.  They were sliced thick enough so that you could taste them and see them in the dish with no trouble but not so thick that they were awkward to eat.  I’ve had dishes in the past where the leeks just weren’t prominent enough and I love that they were prominent here.  In all honesty, it was such a nice surprise that the leeks weren’t treated like an afterthought and I thoroughly enjoyed them.  I could do without the tomato jam (it didn’t taste bad, tomato jam just isn’t my thing) but I understand why it’s there (a little acidity is needed to break up the flavours) and can appreciate its presence even if it’s not my cup of tea.

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This was my first time coming here and I’m really glad I had the chance to enjoy my food during the holidays as it definitely made the experience fun and festive.  Going to “school” is definitely that much more bearable when the assignments are this yummy and when a perfect attendance record is this easy to achieve.

*****

School Restaurant is located at 70 Fraser Ave. in Liberty Village, east of Dufferin St. and just south of King Street West off the King streetcar.  They are open 7 days a week for breakfast/weekend brunch and lunch from 9am-3pm.  You can follow them on Twitter @schoolresto.

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Falling In Love With Coriander “Ping Gai” Chicken (and Lemon Coconut Cake!) at Queen Mother Cafe

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Chocolate is a wonderful thing for more reasons than one.  For starters, it makes a mean mousse.  And for another, it made me blog again (thanks, Hershey’s!).  I know that you all know that I’ve been away for nearly half a year.  6 months.  None of my breaks have ever lasted that long and truth be told, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to blog again until after the new year, if at all.  But here I am and it’s all thanks to chocolate for giving me the kick in the pants I really needed to come back.

I’ll write a little more about my being away closer to the end of the month, but for the time being I just want to enjoy this little window of Christmas magic that I’ve carved out for myself because really, these two weeks (this past week and the coming one) are arguably the best weeks in this entire year for me.  It’s been one of the very few glimpses of light in an otherwise dark and unhappy year, especially the latter half while I was away from here.  So I am soaking everything in even more than usual (I’m not kidding, I’ve been looking at all the photos I’ve taken multiple times a day to relive the happiness) and keeping these sweet memories close to me for as long as I can.

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So, onto some really yummy eats.  You know what I discovered about myself during my time away from blogging?  That I really don’t mind eating the same thing from the same place twice in a row.  Or even three times.  Or four.  Which is probably very surprising to many people because I’m always tooting my horn about how much I love working my way through a menu and trying new things and keeping things new and exciting.  Blah, blah, blah.  I changed my tune just a tiny bit in relation to certain places and foods.  You’ll understand EXACTLY what I mean when I get around to making my ginormous ramen noodle house post in the very near future (really, I think I’m going to shock the pants off some people with what I’ll be revealing) but for now, I thought I’d talk a little bit about one of my favourite restaurants in the city, Queen Mother Cafe on Queen Street West.

To refresh everyone’s memories, I wrote my foodie love letter about them almost a year ago here and have loved them ever since.  (Note: their menu does change every so often, so as a note, their quinoa meatloaf burger is no longer on it, unfortunately!  But their quinoa salad is still there.)  Their food, their cake, everything.  Especially their Ping Gai.  Their fan-freakin’-tastic Ping Gai.

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You need this in your life (so long as you are not vegetarian).  You have not tasted awesome chicken until you have tasted this dish.  It’s a big, beautiful piece of boneless chicken marinated in garlic, coriander, and peppercorns and grilled to absolute crispy perfection served with white rice and dressed mixed salad greens ($13.95).  And the lime and coriander dipping sauce that accompanies this luscious chicken?  Good enough to drink.

This dish is comfort, heartiness, freshness, and savouriness all in one.  It’s so filling but light at the same time in the sense that you don’t feel weighed down afterward.  It fills you from the inside out in that happy, warm and full feeling, and the flavours just have that pop that makes it different from anything else I’ve tried.  The chicken is tender and juicy and the grilled crispy skin with that great garlic spiced crust is just divine.  This dish is so good, so delicious, it makes you not want to eat anything else on the menu (except cake), not because the other menu items aren’t mouthwatering too, but because it’s just than damn good.  It is SO hard to resist.  I look at the menu and I feel like there is this ridiculous magnetic pull towards it, that I need to literally pull myself away from that choice to consciously make another one from the menu.

So in a nutshell, I am guilty of having this more than once.  And I can honestly say that I would die happy having only this from Queen Mother for the rest of my life.

Yup.

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Variety is the spice of life though, so I’ve also included in this post some photos of one of their daily specials (which obviously changes daily), their butternut squash agnolotti pasta, and photos of cake.  Because you can’t eat at Queen Mother without having cake.  It’s a sin if you don’t.  And you want to be good, right?

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Their butternut squash agnolotti pasta was a delicious dish of stuffed pasta (think ravioli but half moons instead of squares) bathed in a creamy tomato sauce with snow peas, arugula, and asparagus with a healthy sprinkling of yummy parmesan cheese on top.  And the cake in question was a heavenly slice of lemon coconut: layers of vanilla and lemon cake with cream cheese frosting and shredded coconut.  Hello, happiness.  I would have this cake again in a heartbeat because the consistency of the cream cheese frosting was perfect and the cake was soft and moist.  And it’s lemon coconut, duh!  Their cake selection changes all the time but rest assured that there is something for everyone: chocolate cake, fruit cake, nut cakes, cheesecakes, mousse cakes, layered cakes, pick a cake.

So, the next time you’re here, I hope you try the Ping Gai dish and enjoy it as much as I do.  With cake.  Because you know it’s a must.

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*****

Queen Mother Cafe is located at 208 Queen Street West in the downtown core just steps away from Osgoode subway station, situated between St. Patrick Street and Duncan Street.  They are opened 7 days a week, serving lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday (11:30 am to 1 am) and weekend brunch and dinner on Sundays (11:30 am to midnight 12 am).  You can visit their official website HERE to view their info and menu.

Irish Delights for St. Patrick’s Day – Corned Beef & Gravy with Cabbage & Mashed Potatoes at P.J. O’Brien!

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restaurant.front.pjobrienAnyone who knows me well knows I’m a sucker for all holidays and celebratory occasions.  And I mean all.  Not just the “big” ones like Valentine’s, Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving but also maple syrup season (which just happens to be going on right now!), cherry blossom season, harvest and apple season and let’s not forget, St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow!  Ever since I started Ate by Ate, I’ve had my heart set on doing themed posts for all of them but given time constraints and bad weather, sometimes it feels almost impossible to do posts for everything.  So I decided to change my approach.  Instead of waiting until the last minute to get photos and stories, I would just do them early, if I could.  Does it mean I might miss out on being right in the thick of the moment?  Sure.  But I would rather have something to show for it than nothing at all.  I’m always so disappointed when I don’t get to celebrate on the blog because I waited until the week or weekend of and things just happen to fall through.

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So this time around, I had my Irish food for St. Patrick’s Day early.  Very early.  In fact, I had my incredibly delicious St. Patrick’s Day meal over a month ago!  And it’s here and hot off the press.  Well, the photos and story anyway, not the food.  True, I wasn’t surrounded by happy partygoers clad in green apparel but the nice thing about this is that going to an Irish pub and restaurant means that we can kind of celebrate life with Irish food whenever we want.  And I just happened to celebrate over a month early at P.J. O’Brien in downtown Toronto.

I remember the day so well.  It was one of the coldest, dreariest, grayest days this winter but for whatever reason, the bite in the air eased up a little bit right around lunch hour when I hurriedly scurried out onto Colborne St. just southwest of King and Church to take photos outside.  The building that P.J. O’Brien resides in would brighten even the darkest, gloomiest of days.  It has to be one of my favourite buildings in the city.  Nestled between the towering structures in the financial district and the historic ones of old town Toronto sits a three-storey building as bright and cheerful and charming as a Lego house.  Equipped with bright blue window shutters and painted sunny golden yellow, P.J. O’Brien is a beacon of culinary happiness.

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Their dining room and bar areas are simultaneously cozy and spacious with plenty of space for large groups and intimate get-togethers.  I love the tables by the front windows.  Perfect for taking in the large dining room and bar around you and for taking photos with natural light!  Open 6 days a week from Monday to Saturday from 11am to the wee hours of the morning (1am from Monday to Friday and 2am on Saturday), P.J. O’Brien delivers a mix of comfort food, pub fare and Irish classics with flair including Kilkenny Ale fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, beef and Guinness stew, sausage and chips, and my pick: corned beef and cabbage!

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I had the hardest time choosing between the beef and Guinness stew, sausage and chips, and the corned beef and cabbage.  All of them sounded delicious, all of them screamed warmth and comfort and Irish goodness but with only one stomach, I could only choose one.  Sigh.  So after much deliberation, I chose the corned beef and cabbage ($15): a wedge of freshly steamed cabbage alongside two giant scoops of creamy mashed potatoes with sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley and three moist and juicy pieces of corned beef smothered in rich brown gravy sauce, with an extra side of tartar sauce that I specifically ordered to go with my meal because I am a crazy nut for tartar sauce!  This meal is everything comfort food should be and really, the closest I’ve ever been to Ireland’s food in my life.  It was piping hot and SO. INCREDIBLY. DELICIOUS.

I loved it so much not only because it scrumptious but because it’s something I don’t have all the time.  Or ever, really.  I eat mashed potatoes and deli corned beef (or breakfast hash) and the occasional bite of cabbage, but never all together and certainly never in such a yummy capacity.  The mashed potatoes were fluffy and airy (not gluey!), the cabbage was tender yet crisp (and without the strong tang of bitterness that usually makes me shy away from cabbage) and the corned beef was melt-in-your-mouth soft.  It wasn’t difficult to bite into or cut through at all and its savouriness was perfect; not too salty but far from bland.  Even without the sauce I would have loved it and I really appreciated the thickness of it (imagine the thickness of luncheon meat slices.  Or just look at the photos) and having it in three pieces as opposed to one giant overwhelming slab.  It made it easier to eat and made for a lovely presentation.

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And if you can believe it, it gets better.  My meal came with a basket of bread and butter and by golly that bread and butter was some of the best bread and butter I’ve ever had.  I know.  It’s only bread and butter.  But think about it, even something as simple as bread and butter can go horribly awry (or rye…haha).  The bread can be too hard or too dry and the butter can be too difficult to spread.  But theirs was so good I was tempted to eat the entire thing all by myself in one sitting but I had enough sense just to eat a few pieces and save the rest for my doggy bag along with a piece of corned beef and some cabbage.

I’m a hungry girl but I’m not known for being the queen of the doggy bag (or tupperware) for nothing.

I’m so happy I got to enjoy my ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ meal when I did and I hope that if you’re in around the downtown core tomorrow that you’ll stop by P.J. O’Brien for a bite to celebrate the great food and actual festivities.  You’ll be glad you did.

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*****

P.J. O’Brien is an Irish pub and restaurant located in downtown Toronto at 39 Colborne St., just south of King Street East and just west of Church St.  They are open Monday through Saturday from 11am – 1am (2am on Saturday).  Visit their official website at http://pjobrien.com/

Creamy Chicken Soup & Saucy Curry Rice & Smoked Haddock Kedgeree with Poached Egg – Warm & Delicious British Flavours at The Oxley!

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Okay, who else has been glued to the television (or their laptop or tablet or phone) watching the Olympics this week?!  My brother and I love watching sports.  Always have, always will.  It’s a very special thing that bonds us together as siblings so when the Olympics roll around every 2 years (summer and winter, don’t forget!) it’s like a sports and television party in our living room.  We’re fascinated by the events, we’re captivated by the speed, the crazy flips and spins, and down-to-the-tenth-of-a-second finishes, and we love the feeling of celebration and pride for our team and athletes.  We stay up late watching recaps from the day and we catch whatever coverage we can early in the morning before leaving the house.  It’s so much fun and I love it.

Watching the Olympics take place in Sochi totally inspired me to do a little research on Russian food and Russian food in Toronto and while I’ve found some very cool options to check out, I really don’t think I’ll be able to go to them and then post before the Olympics are over, but at the very least it’s given me some creative juice to work with.  So even though I don’t have any Russian cuisine to share with you guys, I do have overseas eats for you all today: British food from The Oxley!

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Aside from the photo spotlight post I did on my British cookbook, this is the first post on Ate by Ate about British food and I’m so excited!  Going to London is on my bucket list of places to visit at some point in my life.  I salivate at the thought of visiting Twinings, Harrods and Hummingbird Bakery so until I can fly across the Atlantic and park myself down at one of the many afternoon tea spots, bakeries and pubs there, indulging in some British fare here in the city will have to soothe those daydreams for the time being.

The Oxley, located on Yorkville Ave. in Yorkville in a drop-dead gorgeous two-storey cherry red brick house, is the sister restaurant to The Queen and Beaver in downtown Toronto, a popular English pub and watering hole that serves both British and Scottish food.  The Oxley is all sorts of fabulous.  During the summer, it’s like being around an English courtyard and in the winter, it warms you up and makes you feel so cozy with its part English pub, part bar, part home living room vibe.  You should see the place inside.  I had the luxury of sitting and eating upstairs (a food blogger needs her natural light by the window!) and it’s unlike any other dining area I’ve ever been in.  With its long bar with leather bar stools, mahogany tables, hard-wood flooring, black armchairs, deep purple cushioned seating, floral wallpaper, paisley patterned rugs and Union Jack by the bar window, the upstairs dining room is like a scene out of Sherlock Holmes novel.  And I got to have a corner seat by the window all my by myself.  I LOVED IT.

This is prime real estate, folks.

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Their menu is so full of warmth and British character and flavour.  I will preface this next part though by saying that if you’re looking for an inexpensive meal, look elsewhere.  I think The Oxley is an amazing place to have a special lunch or dinner but if you’re just looking for something simple and casual money-wise, you’re not going to find it here simply because many of their mains come in between $16 -$24 (with appetizers $8 – $14, sides a la carte for $6, bar menu bites $8 – $12, and bar menu mains $18 – $26).  Which is fine with me!  I’m not made out of money but I’m constantly considering and evaluating what means the most to me and what would give me the most happiness so I don’t mind putting down the dough to enjoy a meal here because it’s worth it to me every once in awhile.  But I know others may feel differently so I want to be completely honest with you guys so you don’t get the impression that this is something you can do every day!

The menu is chock full of British classics including rabbit and potato pie, fish and chips, Stilton and mushrooms on toasts, Huntsman’s pie, venison and mushroom suet pudding, and fish pie and peas.  I went all out on the winter comfort food with my choices: Cream of Chicken with Tarragon Soup ($8) and Smoked Haddock Kedgeree with Poached Hen Egg ($16).

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Let’s start by talking about the dishes.  Yes, the things we put our food on.  I wanted to squeal out loud.  They are SO pretty.  Tea dishes!  Beautiful china with flowers and patterns and scalloped edges.  My heart wanted to burst from happiness just by looking at them.  Meals come with bread and butter which I happily devoured as I had foodgasms over my cream of chicken with tarragon soup to start.  The soup is so delicious and creamy and not overly salty or seasoned or rich in the least.  It was perfect and so savoury with just the right amount of thickness to it.  With a bright green chive on top, it was both bright and comforting at the same time.  And honestly, along with the bread, it would make an incredible light meal all on its own, it’s THAT good.

And now for the smoked haddock kedgeree with poached hen egg.  In it’s stripped down essence, kedgeree is a rice dish with boiled fish and eggs rooted in Indian-British colonial culture and history, with lots of room for many different interpretations and spins on it.  Could this be any more perfect for me?!  This dish has Deb written all over it because it incorporates all my favourite foods, textures and flavours.

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The Oxley put their signature on it with their mouthwatering, scrumptious version: hot rice bathed in curry sauce and spices, chunks of flaked haddock fish, toasted sliced almonds, bright green peas, and a beautiful and pristine poached egg on top.  There is so much to adore.  The rice is saucy, the almonds give the dish crunch, the smoked haddock fish provided savoury meatiness, the peas give it colour and homeyness (and I just love peas!) and the delicate poached egg just takes the whole thing to another level once you poke it, allowing the sunny yellow yolk to make the rice even more creamy and saucy – if that’s even possible!  It’s gorgeous to look at and even more satisfying to eat.

I’m so happy I finally got to visit The Oxley (I’ve been wanting to go since last summer!).  The staff was so nice to me, allowing me to sit by the window like I wanted and being so attentive and gracious and I felt like I was in another peaceful world sitting in their upstairs dining room looking out at the grey sky and Yorkville streets below.  The food was wonderfully delicious and the experience felt…special, like something you couldn’t have anywhere else.  And that was the real beauty of it.

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*****

The Oxley is located at 121 Yorkville Ave. at the corner of Hazelton Ave. in Yorkville, between Bay Street and Avenue Rd.  They are open 7 days a week serving lunch, dinner and weekend brunch: Monday to Friday 11:30am to 3pm for lunch, 3pm to 5pm Bar Menu, Monday to Saturday 3pm to 11pm for dinner, Sunday 5pm-10pm for dinner, and Saturday & Sunday 10:30am to 3pm for weekend brunch.  You can visit their official website at http://theoxley.com/

A Winter Lunch of Harvest Salad, Sourdough & Clam Chowder – Keep Toasty at Earls Kitchen & Bar

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Winter pro: I learned how to use our snow blower this year and am pushing and dragging that thing around like a winter warrior.  Winter con: there is so much freakin’ snow outside my house you can’t even see me behind the damn mountain of it.  Granted, I’m short (coming in at a generous 5 foot 2 inches) but our mountain of snow is so tall it even obscures my brother who’s 6 feet tall!  It’s been a loooong time since I’ve experienced a winter like this.  And this is coming from a girl who was born and bred in Canada and would lay in the snow inside a snow fort as a kid and just look up at the sky without a care in the world.  What can I say?  We’ve been a little spoiled the last few years here in Toronto so being slapped with so much snow and such bitterly cold temperatures all at once week after week has taken a bit of getting used to.

And I’ll be honest, it’s been especially stymying for me generating blog content.  I’ve never cancelled and switched around my plans more than I have this winter and the cold weather has really pushed me to get creative with the logistics of my outings.  I don’t fare so well in extreme temperatures (hot or cold) as both give me bad migraines so at any given moment I need to hop indoors to warm up to keep myself from being exposed for long periods of time.  Thus, the cold weather has, unfortunately, prevented me from taking those long exploration walks around the city that I love so much, relegating me to the more retail-oriented parts of town.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing!  But let’s be frank: malls get boring real fast and they do me no favours in the food blogging department.  And you all know how much I thrive on variety!

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So I’ve had to put my thinking cap on and figure out how to go about taking photos and trying new places still staying relatively close to the indoors and I think I’ve come up with a few pretty good solutions for myself.  One such outing led me through the underground PATH downtown (which is one of my favourite things in the city) through the Sun Life financial building and straight into the warm and welcoming arms of Earls Kitchen & Bar on King Street West and York Street.  Who would have thought I’d be walking through an insurance building to do food blogging!

Earls Kitchen & Bar is a place I’ve been meaning to try for years and while having a case of cabin fever isn’t exactly the best reason for finally going, I’ll take it.  Because it’s a wonderful place and a place I’d be happy to go back to for meals and meals to come.  If you haven’t been, make the effort because the food is delicious, the staff is so friendly and accommodating, and the restaurant is beautiful and lovely inside.

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Located at 150 King Street West in the financial district hubbub, Earls has a gorgeous outdoor patio out front (which I will be sure to enjoy come summer!) and two large dining areas inside including the large bar and adjoining dining room, making it quite the haunt for the business lunch crowd.  The dining room makes you feel like you’re eating inside a log cabin.  It’s so warm and cozy and nice.  And their menu has warm and cozy written all over it.  While it offers lots of pub fare such as appetizers (calamari, prawn and mango rolls, dry ribs, chicken and wontons), burgers, tacos and sandwiches (angus beef on brioche, chicken tacos, chicken with brie and fig on ciabatta, roasted portobellini and red pepper on sourdough), it offers just as many dishes that will warm you all over on a cold winter’s day such as meaty steaks and seafood, ribs and chicken, roasted root vegetables, curry and pasta (I’ve heard fantastic things about their fettuccini!) and what I had for lunch: sourdough, soup and salad!

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Their chicken and field mushroom fettuccini was calling out at me like a foghorn but I really wanted to try something more lunch fare-ish and I don’t post nearly enough about soup so I jumped at the chance to try Earls salad, soup and sourdough meal ($13.75).  The meal comes with your choice of Caesar or Harvest salad, Earls Famous Clam Chowder or featured soup (which was cream of mushroom at the time), and sourdough bread.  What better way to celebrate the season than with harvest salad and cozy clam chowder?!

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Earls’ Harvest Crunch salad is a beautiful, bright and refreshing mix of baby greens, purple kale, watermelon radish (possibly the prettiest vegetable to grace the earth), sunflower seeds, slices of pear (which I sadly couldn’t eat because of my allergy but it was lovely to look at nevertheless and thankfully there weren’t too many slices so I didn’t have to feel awful for leaving them on my plate) and dried fruit (apricots and cranberries) dressed in citrus vinaigrette with shaved parmesan.  I was all over it like peanut butter on jelly – I hardly ever see watermelon radish in salad!  I love crunch and texture in my salads and the fruit, seeds and radishes made it so enjoyable to eat, not to mention the parmesan gave the salad that yummy hit of saltiness, balancing out the sweetness from the dressing and fruits.  It was a such fab presentation of the winter bounty in salad form.

And the clam chowder and sourdough bread.  You will never look at clam chowder and sourdough the same way again after you have it here at Earls.  For starters, it was presented beautifully on a wooden serving board.  Second, the clam chowder was hearty and scrumptious, chock full of diced tomatoes, celery, carrots, potatoes and meaty clams in a smooth and creamy broth sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley.  It filled me without making me feel like I ate something too creamy or too saturated.  It was just SO DARN DELICIOUS.  It was so full of substance and it ate like a meal, pairing beautifully with the sourdough bread beside it.

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The gigantic wedge of sourdough knocked it out of the park.  It was golden to perfection with a crunchy crust on the outside, a moist and buttery inside and this amazing sweetness from the little bit of honey that was drizzled over top.  I couldn’t believe my tastebuds.  I sat there chewing on my sourdough thinking, “what the heck is this delicious taste that I am tasting?!”  It was sweet and light and unlike any sourdough I had ever had and then it dawned on me that there was a bit of honey on it.  It was fabulous on its own and as a dunker for the clam chowder.

This first visit to Earls made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside for more reasons than one and I’d love to go back to try at least ten other dishes!  Given how winter isn’t going away any time soon, I just might take advantage of the cold and make a return trip before the season is over for more winter comfort eats.

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*****

Earls Kitchen & Bar is located at 150 King Street West at York Street in the financial district in downtown Toronto.  They are open 7 days a week at 11:30am Monday through Sunday, with weekend brunch service on Saturdays and Sundays.  Earls Kitchen & Bar serves multiple locations in the GTA and across the country.  Visit their website at http://www.earls.ca/ for more info on their menus and locations.

The Calm After The Storm – Finding Winter Comfort in Rigatoni & Smoked Pulled Chicken in Tomato Cream Sauce at La Vecchia

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The day I enjoyed this hot and delicious, soul-soothing dish of pasta at La Vecchia was a day of kerfluffles of epic proportions: it was the Monday after the ice storm.  24 hours after the city was cloaked in a sea of white and frozen water, knocked out of power left, right and centre and 2 days before Christmas.  And there I was taking 2 buses and the subway into town at the crack of dawn before daylight had even peeked out from the pitch-black sky.

I know.  I can hear the shrill “are you crazy?!” shrieks shouting at me in the distance.  But having a weekday off before Christmas was hard to come by and I just wanted to go out and do some blog work.  Beyond frustrated at the holidays being turned upside-down in more ways than one, I threw caution to the wind and headed out anyway.  I knew it was going to be messy.  But I did it anyway because I was fortunate enough to still have power in my home and able to exit my house and street for some fresh air so it just didn’t make any sense to waste a day if I wasn’t physically homebound, especially since there were specific things I wanted to accomplish on that particular Monday.

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So did I end up doing exactly what I set out to do?  Not exactly!  The power outage in many pockets of town definitely threw a wrench into the first part of my agenda (I bused northbound on Avenue Road, gaped at the wreckage and ghostliness out the window, mentally scrapped my plan and just stayed on the bus as it doubled back around at the end of the route!) so I shrugged it off and decided to sit down to lunch a little earlier at one of my favourite restaurants in the Yonge & Eglinton area, La Vecchia!

I enjoyed weekend brunch there so much during my first visit last March.  I promised myself I would go back for their salads, sandwiches, mains, pastas and of course, more weekend brunch and while it took awhile I finally made my way back and had a fabulous lunch to boot.  I haven’t done pasta justice on Ate by Ate so going to La Vecchia served two purposes: to get some scrumptious pasta in my belly and on the blog and to warm up with some really fantastic comfort food.  With snow and ice surrounding you from all sides, nothing else would do.

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La Vecchia’s lunch menu offers 8 different pasta dishes ($9 to $12) including penne in spicy tomato sauce with olives and scallions, linguini with shrimp, mussels and calamari, spaghettini with Italian sausage, mushrooms, peppers and onions and capellini with grilled chicken, olives and roasted red peppers.  After seeing my boyfriend have their amazing Rigatoni Romani during our first visit though, I knew without a doubt THAT was the dish I needed to have.

The Rigatoni Romani ($11) is served smothered in hot and creamy blush sauce (light cream tomato sauce) with smoked chicken, portobello mushrooms and lots of creamy, tangy goat cheese crumbles on top.  A bright crunchy leaf of radicchio adorned my heart-warming dish and my server graciously spooned some Parmesan cheese and cracked some fresh black pepper over top to complete the mouthwatering masterpiece.

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I admit, rigatoni wouldn’t normally be my first choice off the bat because long pasta noodles are the way to my pasta-loving heart.  My 3 favourite pastas are pappardelle, linguini and spaghetti.  However, that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t love all the others!  I simply don’t have them as often.  After this meal though, I thought to myself, “girl, you need to have more rigatoni in your life!”  Rigatoni is lovely for so many reasons.  The ridges and tubes catch every ounce of yummy sauce and its cylindrical shape is just plain fun.  It reminds me of childhood and shapes and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, I could write a novel on why I love this pasta dish so much.  It was so saucy, so creamy and so comforting.  And it stays hot!  As you dig through it, steam keeps escaping from the bottom up so you’re never left with cold pasta.  The sauce is super smooth and savoury, the rigatoni is cooked perfectly, the portobello mushrooms are juicy and meaty and the chicken?  Oh my goodness.  We’re not talking about plain old strips of chicken.  We’re talking smoked chicken that resembles pulled pork.  In tomato cream sauce.  Surrounded by cracked black pepper and goat cheese.  It is HEAVEN.  The chicken gets all nice and shredded as you’re eating it so you have this great texture to the dish that you wouldn’t have otherwise if was strips or pieces or even a cutlet.  It really plays up the warmth and comfort factor and it is so satisfyingly filling.

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We might think to ourselves that pasta dishes are easy enough to execute but it’s the little things and attention to detail that makes all the difference.  This wouldn’t be the star that it is if the pasta wasn’t cooked right, if the mushrooms were watery, and if the chicken was dry, tough and overcooked, things that could feasibly happen if it wasn’t executed properly.  But thankfully for me they got it spot on and I had a lunch to remember on one very memorable day of the year.

*****

La Vecchia is an Italian eatery that serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch (11am lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Saturday, and 10am-3:30pm brunch and 3:30pm dinner on Sunday).  They are located at 2405 Yonge Street on the east side of Yonge Street several blocks north of Eglinton by Broadway Ave. in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood.  You can view their menus and contact info on their website HERE.

Curried Chicken & Quinoa Meatloaf & Fluffy Quinoa Salad – Comfort Food from the Heart of Her Royal Highness, Queen Mother Cafe

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*Trumpets and horns tooting in the distance*  “Hear ye, hear ye!  We are gathered here today to mark the celebration of winter comfort food in the wake of the treacherous weather that has descended upon our fair land.  Winter comfort food shall not be taken lightly; it is of utmost importance that we, the masses, surround thyselves with warmth, flavour and heartiness over the coming months in efforts to warm and soothe thy soul and fill thy belly amidst snow, rain and freezing cold.  Thou shall read this post and proceed to drool over the plethora of scrumptious delights Her Royal Highness, Queen Mother Cafe, has to offer: the brightest and heartiest of salads, the most mouthwatering of sandwiches, the savouriest of pasta and noodle dishes, the most scrumptious of burgers, and the most decadent of desserts.  Take note my fellow foodies, for there is only one Royal Highness in the land.”

It’s time to cozy up to some really awesome comfort food in the downtown core on Queen Street West at Queen Mother Cafe!  After passing by this beautiful establishment (serving food in the city since 1978!) more times than I can remember over the years, I fianlly put my foot down and said, “I’m going, no more putting this off!” back at the end of November.  And after that first time, I mentally slotted Queen Mother Cafe into my top 10 favourites, just like that.  It drives me crazy (in a good way!) when I find or visit a place that I end up loving so much I want to go back over and over forever and ever.  It’s one thing to want to come back on your own, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to tell others that they MUST ALSO GO OR ELSE.

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And you all know me well enough to know that it’s rare for me to order the exact same thing from a place because 1) I like variety and 2) I can’t blog about the same dish twice so I purposely choose different things so that I’ll always have new content for Ate by Ate even though there might be one particular dish that I adore to pieces.  Well, I’m confessing that I broke my own rule because I actually went back in December and ordered the same thing because IT WAS THAT AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS.  I didn’t order a salad the first time though and I ordered a different dessert so at least I did that!

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There are so many things to love about Queen Mother Cafe.  For starters, it’s cozy and warm and intimate and homey with Victorian flair.  Second, it’s so close to Osgoode subway station and walkable from Eaton Centre.  Finally, and most importantly, their menu and food leaves me awestruck.  Multi-faceted doesn’t even begin to describe how fantastic it is.  There are meat dishes, vegetarian and vegan dishes, light fare, hearty fare, bar food, comfort food (which, to some, could be one in the same!) and so many different textures and ethnic flavours: Thai, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and French just to name a handful.  There is no shortage of variety on their menu as well, with choices ranging from Thai noodles to grilled sandwiches to grain salads to mouthwatering burgers, providing the perfect landscape for picky eaters and larger parties with different diets and preferences.  In addition to their regular menu, they offer daily specials and a weekend brunch menu on Sundays.

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What we have here is their fluffy quinoa salad and their to-die-for curried chicken and quinoa meatloaf burger (oh we’ll get to dessert in the next post!  And if you’re wondering, no, I did not eat all this by myself!  I shared.)  If you love quinoa, you need to have these dishes in your life because they are game-changers.  Their quinoa salad ($10.95) is a meal-sized salad consisting of quinoa, chickpeas, crumbled goat cheese, sundried tomatoes and red peppers, a little bit of diced red onion, lots of fresh flat-leaf parsley (I love parsley like nobody’s business so I happily inhaled it all) and baby salad greens, all tossed in a light and refreshing vinaigrette of lemon, herbs, garlic and olive oil.

The great thing about this salad is the lightness and all the different textures in it.  The goat cheese is very creamy, you have the crunch from the parsley and chickpeas, a little savoury flavour from the sundried tomatoes and peppers and the greens complement the quinoa giving it even more body and fullness.

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Okay.  The curried chicken and quinoa meatloaf burger ($13.95; all burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of Yukon gold fries or salad).  I honestly didn’t know what to expect when they brought my plate to me.  I just knew I wanted it because it sounded so delicious from the description: “lean ground chicken and quinoa with onions, celery, bell peppers, lime leaf and curry, oven baked and nestled on a toasted bun with baby arugula and roasted tomatoes”.  Would the meatloaf be like a big meatball on a bun?  Would it be a round grain patty?  Would it more like a sloppy joe type of style?

When my plate was placed down, angels sang and harps started playing.  I could not believe how beautiful it looked.  A perfect 1-inch loaf slice of, hands down, one of the juiciest, most amazing things I have ever tasted in my life!  The curry flavour was bang on, the meatloaf was so moist and the ground chicken and quinoa complemented each other so well because the ground meat gave it depth and body while the quinoa kept it from being too stodgy or heavy.  The roasted tomatoes lent a little bit of juicy acidity to it and the arugula kept it bright and crunchy.  It was one of those dishes that struck the perfect balance.  It was hearty and made you full without making you feel uncomfortable in the end.  On the contrary, this will leave you feeling energized and so good afterward.

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And the bun!  I’ll be the first to admit that I shy away from sandwiches and burgers sometimes because I’m just not a fan of some of the buns people serve.  Sometimes they’re too dry, too hard, too doughy or too bland (or even a combination of all of them).  But on this burger?  Holy mother of pearl.  The toasted bun is so soft and light on the outside and crispy on the inside and more than capable of holding the entire meatloaf burger fillings together.

I can’t praise Queen Mother Cafe enough; it is a gem in this city.  In the next post, we’ll talk dessert!

*****

Queen Mother Cafe is located at 208 Queen Street West in the downtown core just steps away from Osgoode subway station, situated between St. Patrick Street and Duncan Street.  They are opened 7 days a week, serving lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday (11:30 am to 1 am) and weekend brunch and dinner on Sundays (11:30 am to midnight 12 am).  You can visit their official website HERE to view their info and menu.