Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Don't Put the Dim Sum Cart Before the Year of the Horse

An acquiescence to a good cup of tea had my dear brother and I exhausting every joint we had ever cased in Waterloo, having spent small fortunes on the cherriest of teas we ever had the pleasure of letting our good lips touch. Rarely do we ever see reason to leave our homes anymore, and today was no particular exception. But worn and eventually kind of hungry, I lobbied for a spot that caught my eye about a month ago, and if you dear readers know me, the things in the back of my mind always seem to get precedence. And if tea was a gratuity, we’d no reason to say no, and every reason to absolve any guilt for spending. But to be honest, today, between us two prodigal eaters, we barely spent a dime. Which is why I may like Empire Restaurant just a tiny bit more. That, and it has a really commanding, legendary, Kung Fu kind of name, to me anyway. Of course, it is Chinese, and of course, it’s located in that little oasis of Chinese food, Waterloo’s powerful little university plaza. Why restaurants haven’t uncut each other in price, I’ll never know. Then again, I’m not an economist, but by this point in history, Chinese food seems a farce in Waterloo. It’s mainland, it’s everywhere.

The draw to Empire was simple curiosity, and its surprise was a humble dim sum menu with arbitrary rising prices based on the alleged size of the foodstuffs. But hey, who cares, right? It has as healthy a menu as any other place, fried rice with shrimp and lunch meat, noodles, chow mein, ribs, steamed buns, egg tarts (pricier than I like), and on and on and on. I’m so complacent at this point, I’ve little concern if places like these ever last, because others will just take their place. 

The food isn’t bad, no; but it offers nothing different from anywhere else, really. It did have a residually decorated space, bare and neglected, which I always note as a good sincere sign of Chinese restaurant tourism. I can’t respect anyone that tries too hard when it comes to atmosphere, I’m only there to eat after all. Tables and chairs are all I ever need. 

We made for a small choosing, some coconut red bean pudding, sticky rice in lotus leaf, and some steamed pork buns, accompanied by a piping hot kettle of satisfying and complementary tea. So hot it heated our cups through. So hot we were playing a game to see who could hold onto his cheap porcelain longer.

Our pudding was simple, savoury, and sweet. Jellied coconut milk covered hardy sweetly boiled red beans, an otherwise satisfying choice, especially on a hot day- or so I imagine. Our steamed sticky rice wasn’t particularly dazzling. In fact, the pork stuffed centres' savouriness were a little off-putting for me, which I couldn’t for the life of me understand; and random hard-boiled egg yolk really did nothing for the rice texturally, except had my dear brother wondering what the hell the yellow stuff was. Alas. Still, we had to love that aromatic, nutty, lotus leaf wrapped rice. 

Lastly, our humble pork buns were a strange little sop of grub with no complexity, just two bizarre clashing flavours: barbecue pork with sweet bun, and a hint of what I thought was reminiscent of cinnamon. But we weren’t holding fine dining against the Empire, we were too busy oohing and aahing at wooden buckets rimmed with gold plastic rings and bowled with other curious stir-fry dishes. If I had any mind, I would have asked the locals what they were eating, but something told me my Whiteness would have scared them.

Yup, we had a little bit of everything: mystery, dim sum, tea. Today, we were easy to please, especially since we didn’t come expecting to put the cart before the horse.

Waterloo Empire Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Monday, February 10, 2014

You Should Only Eat What You Don't Understand

Birthright afforded me one of the most humbling privileges: a going away dinner. And while it took all of my pride to accept, I was little more than touched and motivated to be as considerate as possible when choosing a locale.

I often associate food with pangs, and there are innumerable places I’ve eaten at that I’ve never written about because who I ate with was just too painful. Love and food, depending on context, can be a remarkable thing. When I’m a more centred man, maybe I’ll tell you all those stories.

So while it seemed I was considering the preferences of my beloved family, my chophouse of choice was charged with my own voluptuous stirrings for the person who recommended it so long ago. I had never visited it, but felt now was a convenient opportunity, since its cuisine appealed to my family, and, in a strange Borgesian way, managed itself as a conduit for my yearnings of some beautiful interloper. I guess I’m not as altruistic as I think I am, just appropriately opportunistic.

I say this because as I’ve said many times in the past, Indian cuisine is an alien foodscape for my poor palate. Yes, even still today. But Bollywood Bistro was more than a safe bet for me. Some woman I’m smitten over loves it, my family likes Indian food, and, subsequently, it offers Hakka cuisine, an interesting culinary creation that happened as a result of Chinese occupancy in India at some point in history. Sadly, the Hakka choices seemed less than stellar for my familiar self. That said, I couldn’t know any preparation without trying it, but felt the situation warranted not necessarily playing it safe. Instead, and being absolutely out of my element with such a generous menu, I humbly requested my brother-in-law, familiar with the cuisine all his life, to do the choosing. It was only a matter of time before our table was a deluge of cuisine, emblematic samosas, fish fritters, chicken tikka, lamb seekh, butter chicken, methi lamb, and the lightest, softest, most lightly crisp garlic naan I’d ever had the luxury of sinking my teeth into. So buttery and warm in fact, lobster wouldn’t have even been a better substitute.

But before all that, we were welcomed with dipping sauces and crisp flat bread. A bright, glowing cilantro sauce of yoghurt, lemon, and the leaf was hard to stay away from; I’d have happily drank it on its own. Then again, every single sauce, dal, mash, and paste could have been left alone without any accompanying meat. I left that kind of stuff for my family, my naan was the only meat I wanted. But what kind of eater would I have been if I didn’t at least give everything a try.

Packed with potato, peas, and dry spices, our light crusted samosas were the perfect excuse for more dipping, the bright buzzing cilantro sauce quenching against the pastries’ spicy chilli stuffing. And the fish pakora, yet another reason; though the tender, moist, light white fish could have easily been finished alone, its frittered flesh loaded with cumin spice.

Now, I know nothing about butter chicken, as much as I’ve heard about it all my life. Still, my sister and brother-in-law would have liked a little heat, but my na├»ve tongue had no problem with the balmy tomato, cashew, buttercream sauce. And our smorgasbord of marinated meats gave us no reason to complain. Deeply coloured lambs, and warmly seasoned poultry piled on a medley of pickled onions and cabbage paid perfect homage to the warm reds, yellows, and oranges of the decorated walls and Rajastani doorways. If I were any more versed, I’m sure I would have appreciated every morsel even more; still, I was floored by so many flavours, especially by lamb that was rubbed with heady amounts of coriander.

But even after all that, our prized choice of the night had to have been our methi chicken. A lentil paste stewed with fierce fenugreek and cilantro made every one of us more than happy to give up the chunks of chicken inside to each other if it meant smothering our bread with the stuff.

By the end, full, heavily spiced stomachs anchored us to our seats, but in no time, our palates were upheaved by the meal’s ending: a spice bowl of fenugreek seeds, anise, and candies. At first it took me a minute to understand: it was the oldest kind of after dinner mints, and its medley of seeds woke us out of our full, satisfied states. We were warmed, and well on our way, and I was wondering when I’d be lucky enough to come back, and with whom? 

The Bollywood Bistro on Urbanspoon

Mon-Sat: 1130am-23pm
Mon-Thur, Sunday: 5pm-9pm
Fri-Sat: 5pm-10pm


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Almost Missed Connections

The culinary cries of a neoteric picknicker serendipitously pulled me back into my new playground of gastronomies. And while my language here sounds like a missed connection from the London Review of books, I’ve little doubt my conscience would have allowed for my just stopping and eating, and forgetting Willy’s Fresh Cut Fries, the seemingly selfsame kindred spirit of KW’s own David’s Fresh Cut Fries. Yes, I was smitten passing in the night, seeing its green shack lit up in the dead of winter, and lucky enough the next day to have a reason to visit, thanks to a new mouth to feed.

I quashed any curiosity for the chicken and egg debate: which came first? Dave’s or Willy’s? Did it matter? Does it, still? They’ve both their own kind of charm, and to discover which is more edible is an overwhelming task; one I no longer have the funds for. They’re both stick to your ribs food, and the day’s unnecessary storm gave me good reason to eat anything fried. There are some things I’m more fond of though: namely the nameless dog that circles Willy’s quarters, and that Willy’s is always open even in a winter storm. Heck, its fare is even cheaper than the menu says, and it shares its lot with a car garage, which enthusiastically led my company to believe it was a cover for something a little more dangerous. Pretty fantastic. But it’s not all roses. We were dashed by Newfoundland fries that were nothing but soft bread and gravy. No discernible stuffing, no cheese, no onions or peas. Our deep fried pickles too had us a little curious. Until I bit into my own I had wondered if what my comrade was eating was deep fried zucchini posing as a tasty gherkin. Sure enough, crunchy spears were there sleeping among plainly sliced courgettes.

Humble menu posturing aside, when we ordered our feed we were looking on wholeheartedly. It had all you’d expect from a trailer abstrusely anchored between someone’s yard and a brake and steel autoshop: Burgers, fries- prepared to your liking; poutine- of course; perogies, onion rings. Not to mention democratic inclusions of kabob, shawarmas, and gyros, which led me to believe that these items were Willy’s specialty, even more so when the cook suggested I choose a gyro over my company’s burger. And sure enough, I did, but not before bureaucratically making sure to include everything fried that I could in my order. Willy’s Platter was a meager appetizer that could pass as a good independent spot of grub. Fryer grease perfumed the air, and oil bubbled out sweet nothings while I anticipated tender battered chicken fingers (not processed!), capsule shaped mozzarella sticks stuffed instead with cheddar, deep fried pickles, and low-key zucchini slices yet again.

I was pleasantly surprised by my gyro though. Soft, forgivingly chewy pita wrapped itself around earthy cuts of shaved meat tossed with firm wedges of tomato, and crisp red onion, balanced by generous sprigs of curly parsley. Every bite was a memory of my informal induction into the culinary world all those summers ago when that kid from Hong Kong happily filled my stomach with sandwiches of beef and cilantro shoots. Willy’s may not have absolute gastronomic glory, but like me, you may be able to find a just little love in one of the strangest places.

Oh hai, doggie!

Willy's Fresh Cut Fries on Urbanspoon

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