This morning we ventured over to Sandy’s Cafe in Little Havana, a few streets over from Duval. Open 24 hours with an all day menu, and I have a hankering for a Cuban Sandwich. Sandy’s does not disappoint.
Sandy’s features outside only seating. We find a pleasant spot against the building under an awning where we can watch the world go by under an already scorching sun.
Orders are placed at the counter. I’m trying a cafe con leche for the first time, a shot of buchi (expresso) with cream and sugar. A bit too sweet for me. I should have asked for less sugar, but nevertheless cafe con leche makes a fine wake me up drink.
Sandwiches arrive wrapped in paper inside take-out containers and accompanied by a very small serving of passable shoestring fries. The second you unwrap your sammy, you know… A feast for the eyes and the palate. A soft bun, loaded with roast pork crisped up and caramelized on the flat top, ham, fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce, topped with thin cucumber pickle and pressed lightly. $7.99.
While eating, sitting up against the building with a window open to the small kitchen, you are surrounded by the mouth watering smell of pork roasting and frying on the griddle. The cook adds spice to the mix and it is positively intoxicating. Everyone should start their day this way.
Off to explore Higgs Beach and the Key West Garden Club at the West Martello Fort Tower. Already too hot to wander and take pics like I like to. I’ll save that for an early morning before we leave.
After a long day in the hot sun relaxing and swimming at the Inn, we are up for some more Cuban food, something that really does not exist in Ottawa.
El Siboney, tucked away in a residential part of Old Key West, celebrates its Cuban indigenous roots. The homey restaurant and warm decor features renderings and sculpture of this native population, the way other restaurants here are cluttered with cats and roosters. The Siboney are depicted much like American Indians were in the 1800’s. This population mixed with the Spanish as they arrived in the America’s much like Mexico’s indigenous peoples.
This neighbourhood joint, relatively free of tourists, had a fairly extensive menu in both English and Spanish. We are quickly seated and brought a basket of warm Cuban bread — white, toasty and buttered.
I order a “Cuban Style” Hatuey beer, made in the USA. It is thin and bitter, not my preference but drinkable.
We have limited experience with Cuban fare and want to try a few things. Rob orders the BBQ chicken with plantanos maduros (fried ripe plantains), rice and black beans, which are separate sides not mixed. The rice, coloured a deep yellow with annatto seed, a common spice in Mexican cuisine, provides a nice foil for the sweet, juicy chicken. The plantains are fried to a deep caramel, chewy and perfect. I decide on the roast pork, cassava and tamale. We choose a side of croquetta just to try.
Food comes out quickly and looks amazing. Rob’s chicken is a large half, generously sauced with a sweet BBQ sauce. He applies some of the house-made hot sauce and sings its praises.
My heaping serving of moist, flavourful pork, comes with cassava, a starchy, bland, gluey, root vegetable, a staple in a good part of the world, which may substitute for a potato but has way less flavour. Both the pork and the cassava are covered in under-fried (in a good way) garlicky onions that provide a nice texture and mild bite. Cassava serves to fill hungry bellies and I don’t really care for it so it gets left. The tamale, made with fine masa flour, has great corn taste and the lightly sweet, cumin scented tomato sauce coating makes for a delicious accompaniment to the roast pork.
The side of shared croquetta are also well made and tasty. Darkly crisp, just shy of burnt, they are filled with smoky ham and potato.
Overall a cheap and very satisfying homemade meal.
Finally made Calgary last night by midnight. We are looking forward to seeing what Calgary has to eat. BBQ seems perfect for an early lunch. Seafood and snow crab are also featured on the menu. Booker’s, a cavernous joint is our first stop. Sufficiently scruffy outside, slick and industrial chic inside, a bank of flatties lights up the bar, funky art and a Jim Beam guitar grace the walls. Buddy Holly, Johnny Rivers, Elvis, SRV and Clapton echo through the towering space.
We order up a couple of local beers, Grasshopper, a nice refreshing wheat beer and an app of burnt ends. The burnt ends arrive quickly. They are tasty, prized cubes of brisket but mostly fat. Rob says this is exactly how they are every time he has tried them. Two are enough for me.
Our mains, BBQ smoked chicken for me and St. Louis ribs for Rob arrive literally on top of our appetizer. Not sure if the poor spacing was due to a virtually empty restaurant at 12:30 on a Wednesday or because we ordered them after we told her what we wanted for mains.
Entrees come with BBQ standards of corn on the cob and baked beans. Whipped potatoes replace potato salad. My perfectly smoked chicken, moist with smoky pink meat, has toughened skin from the smoker. The Kansas City sauce which lends a delicious sweet heat remedies this. Rob’s ribs are excellent, tasty and well smoked. A good smoke ring balanced by a sweet maple bourbon BBQ sauce.
The beans are homemade, decent BBQ beans. They are not very sweet and don’t appear to have any bacon or brisket added. They are not to my preference and I leave them. The potatoes are bland and unseasoned. They could uses a good deal more butter. On second thought. It’s BBQ. stop being creative and serve potato salad as god intended. The corn is a nice surprise. This is usually a throw away item that does nothing more than add colour to a plate full of meat. Bookers corn is dropped into boiling water for 5 when ordered. Fresh, sweet, toothsome. Not mushy like 99% of other BBQ joints. No bread is served. BBQ demands bread.
2012 has been the Summer of Comedy for us. Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Leggere, John Oliver, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, and Jerry Seinfeld. Today we are heading off to Montreal in the midst of its annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival to see a favorite of ours – Jim Gaffigan.
A perfect July day awaits us as does the open road. The sun is high in the sky and insects buzz happily (I’m only assuming here). Cottonball clouds dot the field of blue sky like sheep. The highway is lined with a colourful blur of oncoming wildflowers. Our entertainment of choice today is a Nerdist podcast featuring guest Seth Myers. A good way to get in the mood for the festival.
As we pass neat rows of corn with silos rising soft in the hazy distance, I am reminded of the Indiana of a previous road trip. Could just as well be passing through there. When we cross the border into Quebec, the clouds flatten out and hills rise up in the distance. After a pleasant hour and a half we cross part of the St. Lawrence River and begin to see the outcroppings of a major metropolis. We are here!
Despite the brutal 30-plus degree heat, we head out to the festival grounds and beyond to explore. We are staying at the Hyatt and the festival is in full swing outside. Just for Laughs is a Quebec creation and it has spread to other parts of the globe. We visited the Chicago edition in June. Montreal’s festival is of a totally different and unique flavour. Quebec culture is very much in evidence here in all its government-funded, polka-dot fluorescent satin, mime-y glory, despite the fact that the majority of the comedy is in the English language.
Dinner tonight dinner will be at Laurier1936 BBQ, chosen because it is the 80-year-old original model for all the St-Hubert rotisserie-style restos, a classic Quebec tradition, curiously called BBQ, yet having no element of BBQ whatsoever. More famously and recently, the restaurant engaged Gordon Ramsay of Kitchen Nightmares to reinvigorate it, with a much ballyhooed falling out and competing lawsuits a-flying. Online reviews are alarmingly mixed but I am going with an open mind.
Laurier1936 is in a nice little university neighbourhood about 3 miles from the Hyatt. Many restaurants are not open in the city on Sunday evenings but Laurier is. We pull up out front and nab easy parking. We are greeted by a friendly staffer and the dessert case. She leads us from the main dining room, decorated in very modern white, to a back dining room which is faux distressed white french farmhouse with tin ceiling tiles, milk painted wainscotting and rustic brass fixtures. Clean and warm. The dining room is sparsely populated with two other couples and a small party, but the patio is hopping.
I must state right here that the chairs are the most uncomfortable in which I have EVER sat. Hard metal, cafe style with a narrow back braced at the seat that even my small butt could not fit between without bruising. I had to sit on the chair midway and spent the entire meal trying not to slip off. Why do restaurants never give their chairs a second thought?
The table boasts a complimentary jar of dill pickles, a salt shaker and the now rarely found, private pepper grinder. We place drink orders, pinot for me and beer for Rob. Both come in appropriate glassware which is a good sign. Nothing like a nice glass of red in a crappy, tiny, thick rimmed 50 cent wine glass.
I order the crispy chicken with fries and a buttermilk biscuit. The chicken comes with a honey mustard sauce but no gravy. I order a $1.50 side of gravy for $3. Rob orders the rib and chicken combo, with fries, gravy and coleslaw. Our meals arrive very quickly. My meal is presented in an artistic cone but needs to be emptied out onto a plate to eat it. Three pieces of plump crispy chicken, a biscuit, fries and a sweet, satisfying honey mustard sauce that actually compliments the chicken more than the gravy does. A note about the gravy: it is a good consistency, not overly salty and does not congeal. Strongly flavoured with herbs and tasty – but – tragically – and not a reflection on this sauce – I love the crap they serve at St. Hubert. THAT is hot chicken gravy to me and I cannot be swayed. Therefore I cannot judge the gravy here at Laurier. Rob, on the other hand, feels perfectly qualified to judge as he hates the gloppy, over-processed sludge that passes as chicken gravy at most rotisserie places (guess who added this sentence!).
My chicken is crispy and the homemade batter is lightly spicy. My only complaint is that the chicken is not deboned, which would be fine if the bones were large, but they opt to leave very tiny bones in the serving which you can’t really see, but you can feel with your tongue. You are left trying to politely spit them out. These pieces are all but boneless. Why choose to leave these bones in? In other news, my biscuit was barely warm and dry. It needed butter but it was not offered. I did not eat it. I have traveled in the southern US, home of the biscuit. I am ruined, yes, but even so, this was not a good biscuit.The fries were fine if not slightly over done for my taste. Rob enjoys this style — crispy, golden and not greasy.
Rob’s rotisserie chicken — 1/4 chicken, leg — was marvelous. It was plump, juicy and with a lovely golden skin. It was served on top of an open biscuit with fires and a small rack of pleasant, smoky ribs with a maple BBQ sauce.
We did not consider dessert as we were full. We waited over 15 minutes for our bill which was unacceptable despite the excellent service otherwise. Because it’s rare that I would deliberately go out for rotisserie chicken, I would probably not seek Laurier1936 out but would come back for the chicken if I was in the neighbourhood.
This rustic yet elegant chicken, a meal in a bowl, satisfies in cold weather but is light enough for a spring meal. I usually serve this dish with parsleyed new potatoes which I prepare separately. Just boil and toss with a little butter and parsley, then add to the serving bowls. You can add any other vegetables that you like or have on hand such as carrots or small squashes. Serve with a crusty, rustic bread to soak up the broth, which is very flavourful and really the star of the show.
Coq au Reisling (Adapted from Jaime Oliver)
1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
750 ml Canadian Reisling
1 bouquet garni celery, bay leaf, sprig parsley, sprig thyme, tied with kitchen string
4 ounces pancetta
8 ounces button mushrooms
12 small pickling or chipolini onions
1 tbsp flour
salt and pepper
1. Marinate the chicken in the wine with the bouquet garni in the fridge overnight, in a ziplock bag. Place it in a bowl in case it leaks. (It will leak)
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
3. Heat oil in a dutch oven. Remove chicken from marinade (save it and garni) and season liberally with salt and pepper, add to pot and brown on both sides. Remove from pot and set aside. Add another glug of oil and add bacon to pot. Saute 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and onions and saute 5 more minutes.
4. Add flour to pot and stir. Return chicken to the pot, place on medium heat. Add wine and garni, bring to a boil, stirring. Cover and transfer to oven and cook for 45 minutes.
Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.
Tonight, also inspired by Jaime Oliver, I am roasting some stone fruits (plums and nectarines), but any fruit will do. Toss with a little sugar (about 1/4 cup, adjust to how sour the fruit is), zest some orange peel (just the coloured part, the white pith is bitter), juice the orange, sprinkle in some vanilla extract, break two cinnamon sticks in half, toss in and add a good splash of bourbon, cognac, port, whatever you like and have on hand. I’m using Cavaldos. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Serve over ice cream or Greek yogurt and top with honey if desired.
Up early for an early start. We want to be in Chicago for lunch. Time is short and we want to experience as much of Chicago’s offerings as possible. It is a cool 59 degrees. I do not acclimatize backwards well and am longing for the 106 degrees of last week. The two-hour drive is pleasant enough: cows, cornfields, pale bleached-out skies, tall, yellow wildflowers and on our approach to the city, oil refineries and industrial complexes and then …that famous Chicago skyline.
Lunch is at Lou Malnati’s, famous for it’s authentic deep-dish Chicago pizza. We neglected to eat breakfast on purpose knowing we were headed here. The restaurant is warm and it’s nice to get out of the chill air.
The wood, exposed brick walls and honeyed oak flooring are welcoming. Our section is decorated with White Sox paraphanalia. We order an Antipasto Salad and a 9″ “Malnati Chicago Classic” to share. Sausage, cheese and vine ripened tomato sauce on what Lou Molnati’s calls “buttercrust”. Simple. Chicago-style pizza is upside down by most measures. The cheese is laid down first, then raw sausage meat is pressed into the cheese, the pie is topped with tomato sauce and baked. I decide to try a local wheat Ale from Goose Island called “312”.
The antipasto salad is an excellent chopped vegetable salad of romaine and iceberg lettuces, Volpi salami, roast beef, provolone, black and green olives, pepperoncini peppers, red onion, ripple cut carrots, giadineria, red-wine vinaigrette and fresh-baked croutons. Personally I would leave out the deli roast beef. I find it had that “preserved” taste. I would have loved to have the salami cut in chunks instead of thinly sliced for better flavour and texture, and the homemade croutons were indistingishable from commercial. If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own croutons, make them a little bigger. They get toasty crisp outside and softer but still chewy inside. The tomatoes on the plus side were full of flavour and the slightly sweet vinaigrette dressing complimented everything nicely.
The wait for pizza is fairly long, twenty minutes or so. This is because it is being baked fresh and needs to cook the sausage. It finally arrives at our table, bubbly and red, served up in a deep dish pan that has darkened with age and baked on goodness.
Our server dishes out a piece each, trailing gooey cheese. It’s every bit as good as it looks. The Italian sausage is sweet and mild and the tomatoes are full of fresh, just-crushed flavour. The crust was firm and crispy, but also rich and buttery. It’s a crust we don’t normally associate with pizza, but it’s utterly delicious.
We spend the remainder of the afternoon unpacking, making a few plans for our stay in the windy city and I caught a nap. We plan to head out to Rick Bayless‘ Frontera Grill for dinner. Bayless is a favorite of ours. His approach to Mexican reflects his superstar chef instincts while remaining true to the origins of the cuisine. Frontera does not take reservations and the wait can be upwards of two hours so we decide to go early. There is a wait already at 5:15 just after opening. We sit at the bar.
I order a margarita which is a treat because it is a “real” marg made with lime juice and tequila, not a sody-pop marg. Maybe you American readers wonder why I go on about real margs, but in my home city of Ottawa it is damn near impossible to get one. My fellow Ottawans would be appalled to be served this small, light coloured drink where you can taste the tequila bite and the bitter-sweet lime when they order a margarita. They want Margaritaville. But I digress. Rob ordered a Michelada Moderna, which was extremely refreshing yet spicy. It’s a bottle of crisp beer (in this case, Pacifico, a Mexican favourite) poured in a large glass. Lime juice, tomato juice, a little hot sauce and spices are added and then the glass is rimmed with a chipotle salt and a lime slice. Crisp, refreshing and spicy. Each sip makes you want another, and it wakes up the taste buds for an excellent meal to come.
As we await our table we note that the Grill has a hip Mexican vibe. Decorated in warm reds and golds, with bold vibrant art and wall sculpture and tile floor, it is upscale but unpretentious. Staff is friendly and helpful. Our beeper goes off before we finish our drinks and we move to a table.
For apps we decide to share the 1/2 Grand Seafood platter, which consists of 6 oysters and their accompaniments, ceviche and tropical tuna salad, along with with cornchips to scoop the ceviche. The dish is an artfully arranged bed of ice featuring 6 oysters of various sizes, with a tomatillo-habanero mionetta and a smoky chipotle galic salsa, ceviche fronterizo of lime marinated albacore tuna with tomatoes, olives, cilantro and green chile, and a tropical cocktail of sashimi grade yellowfin, avocado-tomatillo guacamole and melon salsa.
I love oysters with traditional cocktail sauce and occasionally a french mignonette and sometimes a dash of scotch. But I generally stick to classic cocktail. The accompaniments at Frontera were a revelation. The fresh tomatillo-habanero sauce livened up the briney oysters and the smokey chipotle salsa really stood up to and complimented one of the oysters specifically that was quite full-bodied in taste. The ceviche was bright with lime and cilantro but had no heat. The tuna cocktail was visually pleasing with jewel like cubes of tuna and fresh with sweet cantaloupe.
For mains, I asked my server to decide between the shrimp and the chicken. Frontera’s menu is a rough one for me. Usually, even at a high-end eatery, one or two choices jump off the page at me. Frontera’s menu was climbing into my lap – too much good stuff going on there. He is also indecisive, but mulls it over for a bit and decides I will have the chicken, Pollo en Mole Amarillo. Rob orders the Carne Asade a la Oaxaquena.
The chicken was an awesome choice. The small, char-grilled boneless breast, sliced, and served with a green mole that is complex, fruity, lightly sweet and with a little mild heat, comes with delicious poblano mashed potatoes. The creamy spuds have a few chunks and a mild poblano chili flavour and heat. They are also excellent with the mole. The dish is presented with some nicely sauteed spinach I assume for additional colour, but I found the strong taste incongruous with the dish. It did however provide a bitterness that can cut the sweet of the mole, I just didn’t find it necessary. Also unnecessary and difficult to eat were the fine shreds of fried onion. They were perfectly cooked, tasty and provided visual appeal and crunch. Not complaining, but they could have been left off in favour of more of the fabulous mash.
Rob’s carne was marinated in spicy red chile which served to add depth and only a little heat. The wood grilling provided a ton of flavour although neither the grilling nor the marinade masked the excellent quality of the beef. The standout side dish was the sweet plantains with sour cream and a slightly salty Mexican cheese crumbled on top. The black refried beans were nicely spiced with great texture.
At this point I have serious happy mouth, that nice satisfying burn. But I plunge onward and order dessert. I joke about whether or not I will get the chocolate lava cake, churros, or deep-fried ice cream which typify Mexican dessert menus. Of course, none of that is on the menu. Fontera’s dessert menu is once again, too much for me. I’m bad that way. Give me one option and I’m good. Anyways, since we are sharing dessert, I give Rob FOUR options off the menu and make him choose. Luckily for him, he chooses right. Donitas. Perfectly deep fried donut balls with zuchini bits in the batter and a delicate cinnamon-sugar crust accompanied by sugared ribbons of zucchini, walnuts, which were hot and softened and without bitterness due to a little roasting, and toasted cinnamon ice cream. Need I say more.
I ordered a Cafe Tacuba, blanco tequila, Kahlua and espresso coffee, shaken over ice table side and served in a martini glass. Iced coffee with a tequila bite.
Rob had a chocolate cappuccino, which was strong and lightly sweet and over which you could smell the roasted toastiness of both the coffee and the Mexican chocolate.