Hot Doug’s

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Last weekend Isabel and I drove to Chicago. It was our second visit to the city in as many years, and if I claimed the urgency of our return was prompted by anything other than eating a hot dog, I’d be lying. But of course, a Chicago-style hot dog is much more than a regular dog. And when you are talking about one from Hot Doug’s, that’s another matter all together.

To say that the self-proclaimed, “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium” is much more than your average hot dog stand, would be an understatement. In fact, the exotic and inventive menu has landed it on Bon Appetit’s list of the  “50 Best Restaurants in the World.” No small feat for a place whose logo is a cartoon hot dog with glasses, and the most expensive item is a whopping $10.

So yeah, the place is good. But the urgency of our return was prompted by owner Doug Sohn’s shock announcement earlier this spring that the restaurant will go into “permanent vacation” this fall. Which meant if Isabel and I were going to sample some of these famous dogs, this summer would be our last chance.

If driving 850km to eat a hot dog sounds insane, than how would you react if I said that before even setting foot in the small restaurant you have to stand in line for upwards of 2 hours? Well that’s part of the Hot Doug’s experience. I won’t say it was a pleasant part of it, but time flies when you’re aware of the ridiculousness of the situation.

So after waiting over an hour and a half—which is about average, I’m told—we came face to face with Hot Doug himself. Part of the restaurant’s charm stems from the fact that Doug personally takes every single order, and happily makes chitchat with every single person. Isabel and I ordered three dogs. The first was Doug’s version of the classic Chicago-style dog. We got ours charred (instead of boiled). It was as good as any Chi dog we’ve had to date. We considered this our “control” in the taste trip. Which meant we had two more opportunities to sample some of the more adventurous dishes. A no-brainer for us was the foie gras dog—a duck and sauternes sausage, with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel. It was as rich as it sounds, and probably the tastiest bite of food I had on our trip. Our third order—based on Doug’s recommendation—was his cassoulet dog. It was a Toulouse sausage with herb mustard, great northern beans, duck confit and black sea salt. We found this one to be a touch salty, but delicious nonetheless.

The verdict? Amazing. Worth the ridiculousness we went through to try it. When it closes this fall, Chicago is losing a real gem.

Som Drinking Vinegar

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On our trip to New York last year, Isabel and I were lucky enough to enjoy dinner at Andy Ricker’s supremely hyped Pok Pok. The meal was very memorable, but perhaps the biggest revelation came while we were waiting for our table, dining and drinking in the adjacent (and also Ricker-operated) Whiskey Soda Lounge. Pok Pok doesn’t accept reservations, so the business case for WSL is to capture the overflow of wannabe diners while they wait upwards of 2 hours for their table. But a less cynical view is that it offers a slice of aahaan kap klaem—the unique, small plate, drinking food of Thailand. While Ricker seems to hate the ‘A-word’ (authentic), the place really did feel a lot closer to Bangkok than Brooklyn.

The one item that jumped off the menu for me was the fruit flavoured drinking vinegars. Diluted with soda water, tart and sweet, the drink seemed like the perfect summer beverage – even on the cold December night I was introduced to it.

So as a present for our anniversary, Isabel gave me a bottle of the pineapple-flavoured som. After a Sunday of biking and grilling in the park, we cracked open the bottle and had a glass of summer. Poured over ice, and mixed 4:1 (four parts soda water, 1 part vinegar), the result is tart and sweet and awesome. We tossed in some mint from Isabel’s rapidly expanding potted plant collection and added a dash of bourbon, and the result was pretty incredible.

Let’s go for a ride

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It seems like the warm weather has finally arrived. And after what was as a particularly bitter winter in Toronto, this is very good news. This prompted Isabel and I to go a bit bike crazy this week. Which is a problem when you don’t actually own a bike to ride.

So after doing a fair share of research and checking Kijiji and Craigslist compulsively, Isabel and I jumped into bike ownership, buying a pair of Raleigh cruisers from a seller in Scarborough. Mine is a chocolate-brown Raleigh Sprite 27 5-speed, made “sometime in the 70s” (according to the seller) in England.

A quick test drive revealed a shockingly smooth ride and, much lighter than I imagined a bike of this vintage. I’m not going to break any land speed records on it, but it will be fun to go for rides on this summer.

BBQ Season pt. 1 – Pok Pok Chicken Wings

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Summer is on everyone’s lips in Toronto right now. And for me, a big part of this exciting new season is the opportunity to barbecue. Not only is most meat* cooked over flame delicious, it also means less cleanup, and with adequate planning (i.e. making marinades in advance) makes weeknight meals a snap.

Over the past few years, Isabel has preached the virtues of BBQ chicken wings – a staple for her growing up. And I’ve got to say, I’m a convert. Not only are grilled chicken wings delicious, they’re essentially bomb-proof. Which means you have to work pretty hard at screwing them up for them not to turn out just right.

I’ve flavoured BBQ wings many ways, but my current favourite is a riff on Andy Ricker’s famous fish sauce wings that Isabel and I had at his Brooklyn restaurant last year.  I say a “riff on” because his are deep fried, and a fair bit more involved, but this simplified grilled version is equally delicious.

A note on technique: When I BBQ wings, I marinate the works for as long as time will allow in a Ziploc bag. When it comes time to grilling, I transfer them to a large bowl, reserving the remaining marinade. Once the wings start to pick up colour, I pull them off and toss them again in the marinade. I repeat this a few times until the meat is cooked. I find this process adds layers of browned flavour that vastly improves the end result. Obviously, a marinade that has touched raw chicken is inedible, so be sure to cook it through, after each swim.

*I say most meat because I’ll take a perfectly seared steak or burger our of a frying pan over charred on a BBQ any day of the week, regardless of season.

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Ingredients

  • Chicken wings (1lb – 1.5lbs)
  • Fish sauce (1/4 cup)
  • Sugar (1/4 cup)
  • 4 or 5 garlic cloves, diced

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, dissolve equal parts sugar and fish sauce.

2. Finely dice garlic cloves, and add to the fishy-sweet marinade.

3. Add the chicken wings and let marinate for as long as time will allow (overnight would be great, but even a half hour is a decent start.

4. Take the wings to the grill. Reserve the leftover marinade. Cook over medium heat. As the skin starts to brown, flip the wings. You’ll do this several times over the course of the process, so don’t worry about being precious. Just be sure to not rip the skin. If they don’t pull away from the grill, they are not ready to be flipped.

5. After both sides are starting to take on colour, remove from the heat and toss with the reserved marinade. Return the wings to the grill. Repeat this process a few times until the wings are cooked. The result is a sticky-sweet-sour wing that punches well above its weight-class at any BBQ.

Swedish Lip Balm

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Last Saturday Isabel and I made the trek to the Junction. One of our stops was Mjölk – a Scando-Japanese design store that sells lots of beautiful stuff you probably don’t need for a price you probably can’t afford. 

The store riled me up in a strange way. There was something about seeing a simple bamboo strainer priced at $120 that would set any sane person off. But I calmed down when I saw this Hudsalve lip balm. The minimalist retro Scandinavian design and the backstory (it was developed for the Swedish Army in the 1950s) drew me to it. And since it was only $12 (a relative statement) I decided to grab one.

I’ve done a bit more reading up on the product’s story, and it seems to get more interesting and more interesting. Swiss Miss explains that the product was originally designed to prevent blisters on soldiers feet, but could also be used as a candle, a bike chain lubricant and a foodstuff. Seriously. The Swedish military suggest it can be fried and eaten if you’re starving in a snowy field somewhere.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I’m happy with the purchase.

Bourbon Blondies

 

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There’s been a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon in our freezer for some time now. Aside from the odd old fashioned, I’ve been looking for ways to incorporate it into cooking. I came across this recipe on Serious Eats and decided to adapt it based on the age old premise of emptying the pantry.

The process of making blondies is very straightforward. It’s equal parts brown sugar to flour, a stick of butter, pinch of salt and vanilla. From there, you can add just about anything that you fancy. The bourbon in this recipe is subtle (I’m not sure if Isabel even noticed it). But it did add elemental interest to the works, making  what’s usually a one-note baked good a bit more multi-dimensional.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 stick of room temperature butter
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • chocolate chips (optional)
  • quick oats (optional)

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar. I decided to apply the Milk Bar cookie technique of  taking the creaming process well beyond what typical recipes call for. This involves adding the egg once the sugar has been incorporated and whipping the works on high for about 8 – 10 minutes. Christina Tosi credits this process for Milk Bar cookies crisp exterior and fudgy, under-cooked interior. And if that doesn’t sound like what a good blondie should taste like, I don’t know what does.

3. The egg-sugar-butter batter should have lightened in colour and doubled in size. At this point add the vanilla, the salt and the bourbon.

4. Pour in the flour and mix until a batter forms. Fold in the optional elements.

5. Grease a baking pan and pour the works into it. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, checking in at about the 18 minute mark.

Poached egg with Haricot vert

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It’s a well-known fact that brunch is catnip for the worst kind of foodies. Sure it’s an unpopular opinion in a city like Toronto, but I really believe it to be true. Part of the reason for this is the type of people the meal (or the culture around it) invites, but equally important is the fact that you can replicate most of the things on the menu at home. With that in mind, I decided to treat Isabel to a little bit of brunch this morning.

I was partially spurred on by an article I read this week on Serious Eats which advertised a “fool-proof” way to poach eggs. It’s worth a read, but the crux of the argument was a Heston Blumenthal technique that involved straining the raw egg – to remove excess, runny whites – prior to the quick poaching. I’m happy to say that the technique worked like a charm, and the result was probably the most perfect poached egg I have ever made.

I served the eggs over some blanched and chilled haricot vert, tossed in a bacon-mustard vinaigrette. Recipe Below:

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Ingredients:

  • Green beans, washed and trimmed
  • Bacon cut into lardons
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Dijon mustard

Directions:

1. Place the beans in boiling water and cook for approximately 4 minutes. Be sure to watch them, because any longer and they will be overcooked and rubbery.

2. Shock the beans in ice-cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.

3. Fry off the bacon lardons until crisp. Remove from the frying pan and reserve the leftover grease.

4. The flavorful liquid fat from the bacon will act as the oil in the vinaigrette. Mix with the rice wine vinegar using typical dressing best practices. Add a quarter tsp of mustard to help emulsify the works.

5. Toss the chilled beans with the vinaigrette. Top with a perfectly poached egg and crown the works with the crispy bacon.

Yum Cha with Susur Lee

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It’s been about a month since Susur Lee’s newest venture, LUCKEE, opened in the Soho Metropolitan. Isabel and I went on opening night (after the Jay’s home opener) for drinks and bar snacks. The was service scattered, the was food cold, and everything was overpriced. But I’ve been a Susur fanboy for some time now, and knew that he deserved another shot to impress us.

So last weekend we went for Saturday lunch. Which really is the main event for any dim sum place—even if it’s of the so-called Nouvelle Chinoise variety. Unlike our first visit, we were seated in the dining room (it’s a beautiful room) and were given the full menu to order from.

The menu is a mix of dim sum items and larger sharing plates. We decided to sample a bit from both. Of course, when it comes to dim sum, the true way to gauge a restaurant’s quality is to sample the standards. For most that means ha gow and siu mai—but we usually add in a pan-fried turnip cake (Susur’s variation involved taro—which I’m a sucker for).

The “classics” were legit. Well-made and tasty, but mostly elevated in price only. The true revelation in the meal came when we ordered his luxe version of cheong fun. This classic rice noodle roll dish was sent into the stratosphere with the inclusion of a fried dough stick (yau ja gwai), chicken and onions. It really was something special. 

Other dishes approached this high (his Shanghaiese ham dish was delightful, and the wok fried beans were as good as they are anywhere else—which isn’t faint praise, because I love that dish).

The only real miss of the meal was his take on siu long bao. I insisted on ordering it because I always do at dumpling restaurants, but knew full well that it would be hard to impress us.

Most reviews will refer to LUCKEE as elevating dim sum. And truth be told, based on this one experience,  it’s already near the top of the dim sum food chain in Toronto. But the Chinatown bar is pretty low. So does it make the trip to Markham irrelevant? I’m not going to go that far, but it’s nice to know that a yum cha fix can be filled closer to home. Even if we’re charged a premium for it.

Weekend in PGH

heinz pghbridge PGHcemetary pghcoffee PNCpark umbrellapghI’ve dragged Isabel on a number of road trips to see Toronto sports teams play (and lose) in foreign cities. From the glamorous and obvious (Boston, Chicago) to the less obvious and less glamorous (Columbus, Ohio). Earlier this month we set our sights on a city that likely falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I visited the city less than a year ago with some coworkers, and found it charming – in a gritty, working class kind of way – adequately primed to live up to it’s New Portland billing. But my first trip was more about sports and drinking (and drinking sports), so we really didn’t see much more of the city than two stadiums and probably a dozen bars. So with the Jays visiting, I figured it was a good enough reason to visit the city proper with Isabel.

So we piled in the car, loaded up on snacks (sadly no homemade jerky) and in about five hours we made it to our Airbnb in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood. As is the norm with our trips, we try to plan the important stuff (i.e. where we will eat our 6-square meals a day), and this weekend was no different. Although PGH is hardly New York or Chicago, there was still plenty to do and eat. Here were some of the highlights:

PNC Park

Everyone you ask about PNC Park will tell you the same thing: it’s a beautiful place to see a game. Intimate atmosphere, great sightlines, and amazing location right by the water. For the two games we saw, we sat in the left field bleachers, with a small but vocal contingent of traveling Jays fans. We saw them win and we saw them lose, but had fun both days.

Allegheny Cemetery

Located in the wooded hillside neighbourhood of Lawrenceville, high above the Allegheny River, this historic burial ground (the 6th oldest rural cemetery in the US) is a beautiful place to go for a stroll. Plenty of deer call the grounds home and it offers ample opportunity for some beautiful pictures.

Andy Warhol Museum

Warhol is perhaps the city’s most famous son, and this seven floor museum is a fitting tribute to his life work. From the early days as a commercial artist, to his exploration in avant-garde filmmaking, the exhibit left Isabel and I inspired beyond expectations.

Bar Marco

We had a few nice meals in PGH, but the one that left the strongest impression on me was at Bar Marco, a small, modern room in the Strip District. It’s a bit unlike us to “brunch” (we both generally hate that) but the breakfast we had here was superb.