Blintz On Tour: Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco

CAKE. That is all we really care about, in the depths of our souls (people who profess to not like cake just haven’t found the right one, don’t worry they’ll catch up one day). I had been recommended Craftsman and Wolves by my friend Jess who had spent some time living in San Francisco and assured me that there was no better venue in town for baked treats.

Craftsman and Wolves puts itself forward as a modern patisserie.¬† The choice of ‘craftsman’ in the cafe’s name is deliberate to express the respect and dedication to the craft of creating sweet pastry delights. SOUNDS LIKE MY KIND OF JAM. The interior of the store was very impressive and inspired in me instant goodwill – lots of dark wood paneling and wide, golden-lit displays cabinets filled with pastry treats, set up just the right way to encourage optimum ogling.

There were many sweet delights to choose from, but rather than err on the side of something familiar, I decided to have something alongside my coffee that I hadn’t experienced before, and the cube cakes fit the bill. Cube cakes are apparently a bit of a Craftsman and Wolves specialty – perfectly squared cubes of cake that look like the consistency of mousse from the outside.

I went for an apple one, a perfect cube, colour like a sandy pebble, crowded with a semicircle slice of apple that had been poached to the point that it was bright red, like a sliver of blood moon, with a tiny mound of crunchy spiced sugar for the apple crescent to sit on.

Dipping a fork in (and it really is like dipping, the cake is so soft there is only the merest resistance, I have no idea how this thing retains it’s structural integrity), the texture was really similar to mousse with only the merest crumb fluffing. In the middle was a seam of pureed apple, coming across with a texture sort of akin to almond paste, but smoother. It was, altogether, one of the most enjoyable things I have ever eaten in my goddamn life. I have no clue how it was made, I don’t need to know, I just know it was a perfect cloud of delicious wonder and if you are ever in San Francisco you should plunge your face into one toot sweet.

Craftsman and Wolves

746 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Ph: +1 415 913 7713

www.craftsman-wolves.com

Blintz On Tour: Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar, Toronto

I was loving Toronto, but the one thing I was missing was a proper coffee. I’d been relying on Tim Horton’s to keep me awake during film screenings, and while it was leagues preferable to Starbucks I got to a point where I just needed a coffee that tasted like coffee, not French vanilla.

I’d noticed Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar on my walk looking for Grasslands a week earlier, and noted it down as a likely possibility for good coffee. It reminded me of Melbourne cafes a lot, with lots of exposed brick walls, chalkboard menus and LOTS of coffee machines and paraphernalia purring or bubbling away.

I nearly cried with joy at seeing a flat white listed on their menu. It was a very sharp, bordering on bitter initial flavour hit – these are clearly some hefty beans they are using here – but the further into the cup you go that sharpness starts to level out. It never quite gets to a smooth, sedate flavour profile, but hey, at least you know you’re drinking coffee. Also the barista knew how to pour a flat white PERFECTLY, I may have experienced a significant stab of homesickness at the sight.

I ordered myself a little brunch as well – a tomato and soft-boiled egg sandwich with rocket on olive paste sourdough. I couldn’t go past the idea of a boiled egg sandwich, to the point where I bypassed my usual olive trepidation. I normally find olives far too overwhelming, they tend to blot out other flavours for me, but the balance here was spot on, with the toasted olive sourdough nicely coupling with the fresh, lightly salt-and-peppered tomato and thin slices of boiled egg with their creamy yolks.

There’s plenty of pastries and cookies available as well, along with sweet brunch options of yoghurt pots or chia seed puddings topped with a variety of fruits and nuts. While I didn’t notice anything obviously vegan, considering they served a pretty famous vegan a few days before my visit I’m going to guess that they can cover you.

Early Bird is a great spot for anyone hankering for a drop of the good bean, and especially so for antipodeans longing for a coffee that possesses a whiff of home.

Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar

613 Queen Street West, Toronto

Ph: +1 (647) 962 4204

www.facebook.com/EarlyBirdBrew

Blintz on Tour: Hibiscus, Toronto

I was honestly very lucky to have so many friends who had traveled to Toronto in the past few years who were more than eager to give me food tips, eliminating my having to do a lot of strenuous research and soothing my lazy soul. Hibiscus came highly recommended by Carla, who rated it among her best Toronto food experiences.

The first thing I appreciated about Hibiscus was the CALM. It’s situated in the middle of Kensington Market, which seems to be Toronto’s hippy-dippy alternative heart (a bar was advertising “Spliff Reggae Night” if you want to get the general vibe) and is quite bustling, but as soon as you enter Hibiscus this heavenly, relaxed sense of calm descends.

Hibiscus keeps things simple. You essentially have three savoury options: soup, salad, or a selection of savoury and sweet vegan crepes. Since all I could see around me were folks tucking enthusiastically into bowls of salad I figured this was the best way to go.

The bowl is nicely hefty, but not completely belly stuffing, really the perfect amount. And it’s a generous bowl in terms of fillings, featuring on this particular day quinoa, broccoli, kidney beans, tofu cubes, brown lentils, shredded kale, grated beets and carrot, a kind of rough sweet potato mash, served with a thin square of raw cracker and topped with a little mound of cellophane noodles. A terribly attractive bowl of colour it was.

I really like this tendency in Canadian vegie eateries of “here, this is a big bowl of ALL THE THINGS, mix and eat to your heart’s content.” They’re great in terms of offering a meal with a variety of textures, and if all the flavours work then its just a delight of a thing. In this bowl particularly I loved the beets, the excellent sweet potato, the noodles that provided an exciting contrasting bite, and the bright pieces of broccoli that had been blanched just enough and allowed to infuse with some kind of light dressing. It all presented a front of being very simple, yet underneath it all very, very clever.

Did I also mention that the entire menu is gluten free? Yeah, yeah it is. And there’s a cold cabinet filled with ICE CREAM. Hibiscus is the BUSINESS.

Hibiscus

238 Augusta Avenue, Toronto

Ph: +1 (416) 364-6183

hibiscuscafe.ca

Blintz on Tour: Fresh, Toronto

I took to Fresh like a newly minted cult member. This is only slightly hyperbolic a metaphor. I was in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival, and when one is seeing upwards of five films a day, food becomes a very pressing concern, and it can’t just be any food, as salty processed stuff just ends up making me sluggish and more prone to tune out during a flick. For preference it needs to be healthy and hearty stuff, while also being served quick enough that I have plenty of time to duck out between films to refuel.

I’d already been recommended Fresh by a couple of folks who had been to T-town relatively recently, and on discovering there was an outpost on Spadina Avenue a few blocks from the cinema I’d be spending most of my time in, I visited on my first day. And then went back, no lie, nearly every day. I was fanatical, swift and deep.

The reason Fresh struck such a chord with me, apart from my very exacting film festival food requirements, was that everything was simultaneously healthy and delicious, with a wide breadth of options. Indeed, within ten days of visits I didn’t end up ordering any dish twice, I kept being beguiled by something new every day.

My favourite dish all over was probably my second Fresh meal, the panko crumbed squash tacos. These were definitely not eat with your hands tacos as the fillings were so multitudinous that there’s no way you’d be able to trap them all in a tortilla. The two of them spilled forth with tomato, red onion, kale, coriander leaves, fat little nuggets of crispy crumbed squash, and drizzled with creamy jalapeno lime sauce. Squeeze over a wedge of lime and attack with a knife and fork, and it was a zingy delight.

For a quick injection of health, their huge selection of salads and bowls were a great choice. The ‘ace of kales’ salad was an explosion of vegetables, with a kale base supporting heirloom grape tomatoes, spring onions, avocado, jicama, toasted mixed nuts, and thick slabs of tempeh bacon. I did find the tempeh bacon just a bit too sweet for my liking, but otherwise who could sniff at such a bowl of goodness? The green goddess bowl, which had already come with Steph’s seal of approval, was served on soba (you can choose rice instead if you would prefer) and came with broccoli, pickled ginger, grilled tempeh, toasted sunflower seeds, tahini sauce and steamed greens. It was lucky I ordered a baby-sized bowl of this, as despite the deliciousness it was an absolute stuffer for my tiny Australian belly!

Michael had been VERY INSISTENT on Fresh’s quinoa onion rings being a must-try item. I first had them as a component of the BBQ burger, which along with the rings comes with an almond and grain patty, banana chilies, napa cabbage, tomato, lettuce and garlic mayo. As a burger it was huge and quite overwhelming, and quickly had to be reduced to its parts in order to be easily eaten, but it revealed that the quinoa onion rings were indeed devilish magic and needed to be sampled further. So on a later visit I dutifully ordered them alongside a cup of Cuban chickpea and sweet potato soup. Served with vegan dipping mayo, the solo onion rings properly proved themselves to be appropriately off tap. Let’s all be deep frying quinoa, it is clearly a boss idea.

The only thing I had which strayed off the healthy agenda (okay apart from the onion rings, but they don’t really count, they are our crunchy friends in a bowl) was the green poutine. Now you might think from the word ‘green’ that surely it would be somewhat healthy, but that shows your unfamiliarity with poutine. Chips, cheese and gravy are still chips, cheese and gravy, even if the gravy is made of real mushrooms, even if the cheese sauce is a creamy vegan alternative, EVEN IF it is topped with sauteed rainbow chard. THE GREENERY IS A TRAP! This is still poutine, and it will sit in your tum like delicious potato concrete, and even if you roll out the door groaning there will be no regrets. THIS IS POUTINE.

Fresh also have a selection of takeaway sandwiches, baguettes and salads, which were very helpful for those gaps between films that weren’t long enough for a sit down meal. I very quickly found my favourite in the mock turkey with aged cheddar sandwich, with salad bits all held together with a light mayo. Mock meaty sandwiches are something that I really wish I could get around Melbourne easily.

Given Fresh places equal emphasis upon it’s juice bar status as it does their food, I can’t wind up without saying a bit about the drinks menu. Basically you can get any fruit and vegetable known to man whizzed up into a juice or smoothie. My particular favourite was the Grapefruit Glow, comprising of grapefruit, cucumber, lemon, fresh mint, agave and mineral water, and was a bubbly, zingy pick me up. There’s also plenty of green smoothies and juices – thankfully Fresh follow the rule of ‘make sure your proportion of sweet fruits outweigh your greens so that it doesn’t taste like iron-rich sludge’. I also recommend, in the case of a slightly ticklish throat and sluggishness brought on by too many doughnuts, the Ginger Fireball, which juices up a bunch of fresh ginger and lemon with hot water and your choice of either raw honey or agave, it’ll strip any trace of ill feeling from your body and throw it at the nearest wall.

This is probably the most comprehensive review I’ve ever given on this blog, hence the fact it is running to such a huge number of effusive words. I ate more of Fresh’s menu in a week than I’ve managed at most of my regular Melbourne haunts in a year. And I already miss having such an easy, healthy veg alternative that ticks all those veg*n eating options yet isn’t hippy-dippy or aggressively hipster, and just puts its head down to pump out good, quick, yet still interesting food. Could we perhaps open a Melbourne outpost, Fresh HQ? I think you would do very well here.

Fresh

147 Spadina Avenue, Toronto
(other locations on Queen Street West, Bloor Street West and Eglinton Street West)

Ph: +1 416 599 4442

www.freshrestaurants.ca

Proud Mary

I had never been to Proud Mary before. I know, I should have handed in my hipster card as a result long ago. I’m not sure if Proud Mary is even a part of the hipster zeitgeist anymore, so out of the loop am I. Bennett, who was responsible for orchestrating this long overdue visit, is adamant that the hipsters have given over Proud Mary to the growing contingent of Collingwood yuppies, but although I spotted plenty of sartorially coordinated families complete with strollers picking up coffees, there were still far too many ugly sweaters and ironic moustaches in attendance for me to believe that the hipsters had abandoned it entirely.

I was a little concerned that perhaps the full brunt of Proud Mary would be completely lost on me given their specialty is coffee, and I’ve only got to the point where I have a flat white maybe one every couple of weeks, and I certainly don’t go in for cold drips or anything fancy like that. I managed to risk severe caffeine overstimulation by having two flat whites bookend my brunch, and they were quite lovely as anticipated, strong but not fierce, smooth with a good head of crema. And I found the bright blue duck egg cups they were served in to be darling.

Since I couldn’t experience the height of coffee orientated decadence offered by Proud Mary, I decided that I clearly had to go for the most excessive vegetarian friendly brunch item available. There are few things less fancy when it comes to vegetables than the words ‘foraged mushrooms’ so I was very easily swayed into the idea of pine mushrooms on sourdough with housemade cheese curd and a poached egg.

I understand that high levels of pine mushroom use is probably out of the reach of most cafes, but that is a shame because they are such a treat. Two giant disks of lightly sauteed mushroom sat atop a giant slice of sourdough, liberally dotted with light, enormously rich dollops of bright white curd, and once the perfectly poached egg was popped and the yellow yolk oozed all over everything I was in some class of heaven.

Bennett went with the avocado dish of charred corn, green onion tabbouleh, harissa, roasted baby tomatoes and avocado on seedy bread, minus the ricotta because he has a vendetta against cheese. This was an equally piled plate that looked very filling, and quite virtuously so too.

Proud Mary isn’t cheap, you’ll have to battle through the weekend crowds regardless of how early you arrive, and there is the aforementioned hipster factor that is off-putting for some. But even though I was braced to be disappointed in the face of years of overwhelming praise, I was inevitably won over by the food. I’d like to go back in order to have a go at the sweets end of the menu, which apart from such exciting sounding brunch items like the ricotta hot cakes with mandarin caramel, honeycomb and ice cream (!!! how does that even qualify as BREAKFAST) is also augmented by a giant cabinet that was inundated with sweet baked treats – I gave such a saucy eye to a collection of jam doughnuts that they are probably pregnant now.

Proud Mary

172 Oxford Street, Collingwood

Ph: 9417 5930

www.proudmarycoffee.com.au

Grigons & Orr II: Attack of the Avocado Egg

I normally don’t do a lot of repeat visit posts here. Mainly because I mostly figure that if I’ve already written a rave about a place, that’s really enough of an incentive to readers, no one wants to hear me gabbering on about the same places over and over again. I only ever feel inclined to write about a place multiple times if I visit a long time after the first post and feel inspired enough to do a kind of ‘so here’s what they’re up to now’ update, or if I experience a particular dish that makes me sit up and take proper notice and feel the need to make a community awareness announcement. This particular post is most definitely of the latter variety.

Jen and I ended up at Grigons & Orr during the now distant Anzac Day weekend when our first choice of Elceed was closed. Physically not much appears to have changed since my first visit – the resemblance to an old school corner shop is still very charming, and I even spotted the box of crocheted blankets by the front door, although the autumn sun was strong enough that we didn’t need to borrow any.

I knew that I was after a big plate of assorted breakfast goods, and was pleased to see that there was a vegan and gluten free option that looked like it would be of good service to my craving. “The Ghandi” promised potato rosti, spinach, BBQ tofu, tomato, and an “avocado egg” consisting of half an avocado with a pumpkin puree yolk. I was immediately taken by the thought of this avocado egg – how on earth do you make pumpkin taste like egg? Would it taste like egg? Or would it just be a very savoury ball of pumpkin, which probably shouldn’t be sniffed at and might be a nicely novel edition to breakfast? Clearly I HAD to find out.

Well, I have no idea how the cooks at Grigons & Orr did it, but the bright yellow orb of pumpkin sitting in the middle of my avocado half in place of the stone did, unaccountably, magically, taste like like creamy egg yolk. WIZARDRY! Really I shouldn’t be surprised that pumpkin can be induced into tasting like rich delicious anything, but as a child who stupidly eschewed anything pumpkin related I am still catching up with the full extent of this miracle. As to the other components of my plate, the rosti were crispy and provided a good starchy sponge to soak up all the excess sauce from the BBQ tofu, which was VERY saucy indeed and a welcome brunch plate edition, I’d love to see more places play around with tofu that aren’t specially veg*n places, it can be done guys, tofu isn’t scary. The spinach was properly buttery (or margariney in this case), and the tomato was, well, warm breakfast tomato. I am not that fussed with warm breakfast tomato, it was just there, getting the way of tofu and avocado egg. While I was initially worried that the moderate serving size wasn’t going to be enough to soothe my rapacious tum, it was actually the perfect amount to fill you but not stuff you.

Jen went with the salmon version of the corn fritters, which was an impressive looking pile crowned with salmon and a fan of sliced avocado. They didn’t look to be too dense, and seemed to contain a decent array of vegetable matter.

Grigons & Orr was well worth a repeat visit food-wise – the thought of the pumpkin egg still keeps coming back to me weeks later. The service is friendly but remains slightly idiosyncratic – as with my first visit if you want dairy and sugary accoutrements with your tea you have to get up and go source them yourself – but honestly it’s always reassuring when in this brunch fad mad town an establishment that’s been around for more than a year or two can still front up with a good spread.

Grigons & Orr

445 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne

Ph: 0487 608 489

www.grigonsorr.net.au

 

The Stables of Como

What follows actually wasn’t my first visit to The Stables of Como. Jen and I had originally visited back in January, but the day of said visit coincided with a stinking hot day that ended up abruptly turning into a violent cool change. So despite the food being great I didn’t feel like it was fair to blog about it given that first the insane heat and then the squally winds accompanied by swirls of dust greatly hampered our dining experience sitting out of doors.

But I wanted a second visit more than anything on a day with more auspicious weather, as I felt it was a place more than worthy of blogging about, and thankfully a catch up with Bennett that necessitated a venue accessible from the No. 8 tram was just the ticket.

Set in the grounds of historical Como House, the cafe is obviously in a very picturesque spot. There’s plenty of seating outside in the old stables courtyard, but indoors manages to cram in a lot of tables into a very vibrant space – and make sure you take a moment to go investigate the overloaded cakes cabinet, which is a sweet feast for the eyes. I’m still not sure how I managed to escape running off without a bag of cakes at the end, but it may be because my savoury breakfast filled all necessary holes.

That breakfast was the smashed avocado with thyme-buttered mushrooms, feta cheese, basil, flat-leaf parsley and one poached egg, served on two small slices of seedy bread. This dish looked a bit small on first glance, but its rich components, especially the salt-packed feta, gives it significant heft in terms of filling you. The mushrooms were soft with just a touch of bite, and hadn’t been over-herbed, giving a mild thyme overlay. The egg was not quite at optimum gooeyness, but still didn’t tip over into over-cooked, yielding a nice river of yellow once popped. What I actually ended up appreciating most, somewhat surprisingly, was the fresh whole basil leaves, which added just the right note of flavour that pulled all the components together. I ordinarily wouldn’t have thought to pair basil with avocado, but here it worked.

Bennett built his own eggy breakfast – folded herbed eggs with bacon and smashed avocado. This was a nicely huge dish in comparison to mine, the eggs looked smooth and creamy, the bacon fat and not overly crisped. It all disappeared with alacrity, so I assume it was great!

I also had two flat whites during our visit, they were nice and smooth texturally, not too bitter, perfectly enjoyable.

This place packs out on a weekend – it was bustling like anything all through our visit, and be warned that if you sit inside the noise levels get pretty deafening. It’s lucky that Bennett and I are fairly used to bellowing at each other, athough at one point I was on the phone to Schaefer and I know I agreed to *something* he said, but I have no idea what it was. Lord knows what I’ve been roped into.

You should also expect from the location that you’ll be paying Toorak prices – everything is a few dollars more expensive than they probably should be, but considering the Stables are attached to Como House and I presume is assisting the National Trust in keeping the site running and in tip top condition, I don’t really begrudge it. Make sure you visit when you yourself are feeling flush is my best advice. Apparently there’s also afternoon tea menus where you can take advantage of all those cakes, and picnic basket options where you can take your spread into the gardens to enjoy. Sounds delightful to me!

The Stables of Como

Como House & Garden, cnr Williams Road & Lechlade Ave, South Yarra

Ph: 9827 6886

www.thestablesofcomo.com.au