Heart attacks to go

February 18, 2009


I thought Cosplay restaurants pushed the boundaries of sensible foodservice conceptualization – after all, what could be more offensive than eating noodles out of a toilet shaped bowl? But, then I heard about the Heart Attack Grill.

It’s hard to believe that this restaurant actually exists. To be honest it seems more like something you’d see in a satirical show like South Park or The Simpsons rather than a business that someone would actually put their time and money into developing.

From Flatliner Fries to Quadruple Bypass Burgers (2 lbs of meat, 4 layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon!) to waitresses dressed as naughty nurses who will push you to your car in a wheelchair after your meal, this place is crass on almost every level; in fact, the menu even includes lung searing unfiltered cigarettes!

The kicker: According to this article in the Nation’s Restaurant News, Heart Attack Grill is a thriving restaurant. Go figure.

What do you think about this concept? Do you find it a fun idea or offensive? And, if you find HAG offensive, what upsets you: the objectification of women, the insensitivity toward serious illness… something else entirely?

I have to say that for me, this restaurant is like a circus sideshow. I know it’s horrible to want to look at it, but I can’t help but be fascinated and horrified by the idea at the same time.

Topline Trends Tuesday: Intentionally vague menus

February 10, 2009


Like all things in the food biz, menus go through various phases. While the prevailing trend among many of today’s chefs is to give the diner as much info about the food as possible by highlighting regional and artisan ingredients and cutting-edge cooking techniques such as sous vide on menus, there’s a backlash against this wordy style. In fact, a few restauranteurs are intentionally writing menus that are so cryptic that diners need a server to help them decode their choices.

Vdara Restaurant in Toronto is a good example of this type of restaurant. The folks at bizbash describe the Vdara menu like this:

Their intentionally vague menu includes dishes like “wandering free bird caught by sticky steamed buns” and “no noodling celery root lasagne wild with shrooms.”

Vdara’s spokesperson Gianfranco Pellicori goes on to tell Bizbash that “We want people to ask our floor staff questions. We want to make sure there is interaction with our clients.”

Personally, I go out to a restaurant to visit with my friends; having a pleasant, well-informed server with personality can enhance the evening but I’m not counting on spending a lot of time discussing the menu or becoming bff’s with the wait staff. Socializing with my guests is my priority.

What do you guys think? Am I an out-of-date stick in the mud or do you agree that a menu that is purposely puzzling is a silly idea?

[7:47 a.m. Tuesday – post ETA: I just checked the Vdara menu online and it seems to have been rewritten – evidence that people wanted a clearer understanding? I think so!]

Dana learns a lesson

December 5, 2008

img_2269I hate to be labeled as an arrogant Torontonian but since the moniker applies, I can’t help but own it.  I expected St. John’s, Newfoundland to be a quaint city. I expected the people of St. John’s to be friendly. I expected the seafood to be fresh and abundant.  All of these expectations were confirmed within an hour of landing at their international airport. Now for what I didn’t expect to find:

  •  a stylish shopping district that made my credit cards itch,
  •  a horde of investment bankers clogging up a  restaurant I wanted to walk into on a Wednesday night,
  •  a stylish eatery that served food on par with the best restaurants operating in bigger Canadian cities.

But that is exactly what I did find at Water Street eatery The Vault. Although they were closed for a private party (hence the bankers), they found me a spot to eat at the bar. Hostess Lisa Downey, pictured  here in the converted bank vault now used as a wine cellar that inspired the restaurant’s name, was incredibly gracious.  I think hearing that I’d walked from the Fairmont in the cold and dark to try their cuisine won me her favour!

The food at The Vault is inventive, fresh and well-executed (the scallop napoleon is particularly good), the selection of wines by the glass are well matched to the menu, and the service is friendly, polished and attentive. Truly a great experience!  In fact, if I were a citizen of lovely St. John’s I’d likely be a regular customer.

While The Vault is definitely a gem, other St. John’s food destinations deserve to be explored when you’re in town, too. So, if you get to this small Atlantic city do check out:

Have you had a restaurant meal that exceeded your expectations lately? Since the opposite type of experiences get so much more discussion time, please take a minute to tell us about your last great restaurant meal. It doesn’t matter if it was a fabulously fresh bagel at a breakfast joint or a gourmet tasting menu at a grand hotel. Let’s sing out in praise today!

Hanging out with Ferran Adria

October 9, 2008

Martin Kouprie, my chef sprocket hubby, spent time yesterday with molecular gastronomy guru Ferran Adria. In the morning they hung out at The Cookbook Store together while Feran signed copies of his book for an event held last night at the University of Toronto to promote Feran’s new book: A Day in the Life of El Bulli. Although Martin’s cooking is anything but high tech (he likes to say that he could have cooked as well in 1928 with the equipment and ingredients that were commonly available then as he does in his fancy schmancy restaurant kitchen) yet he found himself agreeing with Ferran Adria when he said “cooks need to learn how to taste before they learn how to cook.” I have to say that I agree as well. People with well developed palates know what will delight your taste buds. And, once you have that skill, it doesn’t matter if your tools are high tech or low tech. Great tasting ice cream can be made in a salt packed, hand turned ice cream maker or by using a canister of liquid nitrogen but only if the flavours are combined skillfully in the first place.

Underground dining

September 30, 2008

An illegal dining trend is on the rise in cities such as Boston, Seattle and Toronto. Underground dining establishments that avoid the overhead traditional restaurateurs carry are on the rise. Word of mouth promotion lures diners to private homes where they’re served chef-prepared meals. The movement is causing health inspectors anxiety and sort of annoying people like me who watch their spouses work hard to make a living in the restaurant business.

Perhaps my affiliation with the food service world limits my objectivity, but I see no reason to go to unregulated, uninspected private homes to pay $100 plus per person to eat a chef-prepared meal when there are so many fine restaurants that pay taxes, rent and legal wages offering great dining experiences in these same cities.

What do you think? Am I a square curmudgeon who’s out of touch with the times or would you also prefer to eat in place that has properly marked emergency exits?

Brand power

August 19, 2008

I spent my summer holiday in the far north exploring Alaska and the Yukon. One of the joys of a holiday that takes you to towns and cities with small populations is that you get to see entrepreneurial creativity in full flourish since the chains don’t see many of these markets as viable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the coffee houses of the north. Consider this list of whimsical coffee house concepts:

• Brewed Awakening (Ketchikan, Alaska)
• Pour House (Ketchikan, Alaska)
• The Black Bean: Burritos and Espresso to Go (Skagway, Alaska)

Fun stuff, no?

Sadly, I don’t think the residents of these towns fully appreciate how good they have it. I met a man in Juneau, Alaska who told me that when McDonald’s opened there several years ago that a 2-mile line up for food formed on opening day. Even if the line was only 200 yards long this is disheartening news. But, to make matters worse, the mayor of neighbouring Ketchikan had a plane load of Big Mac combos air-lifted out for his citizens (or at least cronies) to eat. (I guess he hadn’t been to the Sandpiper Café in Juneau where, despite being in Alaska, the hand formed burger patties are piled high with romaine lettuce and ripe tomato slices. An airlift of those burgers I could understand!)

My plea to you today, whether you live in a big city or in a backwater, is to find a locally owned food shop, restaurant or coffee cart and show them some love by making a purchase. And, if you want to tell others about these great local finds, I hope you’ll jot a note about them below.

Beyond chefs…

April 21, 2008

Celebrity chefs and cookbook authors get the media spotlight so often that it’s easy to think that they represent the breadth of the culinary professions. But, as I was reminded when I attended the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual conference last week, there are hundreds of ways to make a living in the food business. This week, I’m going to introduce you to four people who have used an interest in food to create interesting jobs for themselves. Here’s what’s on the roster:

• Monday: Culinary Cartographer Siobhan Donoghue
• Tuesday: Salt Inspired Photographer Clint McLean
• Wednesday: Precocious Sommelier Jonathon Gonsenhauser
• Thursday: Home Economist Amy Snider

Now, without further delay, on to Siobhan Donoghue, a London-based culinary cartographer I met randomly at a friend’s birthday party in New York City. If you have no idea what a culinary cartographer is, don’t feel badly. It’s a small niche, and one I may have just officially named. Basically, Siobhan creates artistically accented maps that highlight the best places to buy and eat food in any given geographical area. Needless to say, her work takes her all over the world. I caught up with Siobhan earlier this spring while she was traveling and recording the gourmet landmarks of Barcelona.

Here’s what she had to say not only about food in Barcelona but her career in general:

DM: What food trends did you note in Barcelona that you don’t see in London?

SD: Spaniards are only now starting the embrace the concept of recognizing and celebrating the origins of their food. In fact, there is a small, flourishing restaurant chain that only serves what is in season within their province. In Barcelona everyone visits the food markets daily and they always have. While London’s farmer’s markets are fantastic, they’re very much an elite experience.

Barcelona is just now discovering the wonders of Japanese food and I noticed that the Ferran Adria approach to combining chemistry and cooking is waning in popularity.

DM: What’s the most exciting or memorable food experience you had in Barcelona?

SD: The calcots. They are a combination of a spring leek and onion that are only available for a few weeks in the spring. They’re barbecued until burnt. One then removes the outer charred layer and dips the inner part of the calcot in a Romanesco-style sauce. It’s almost impossible to eat a calcot without getting it all over yourself. In fact, the restaurants provide bibs since it can be so messy. Fantastic, smoky flavour and a silky leek-like texture and sweetness.

DM: How the heck does someone get a job like yours?

SD: While working as a regional director with the travel company Butterfield & Robinson I saw a need in the travel industry, so following graduate school in New York for Interior Architecture, I started to dabble with painting old style maps illustrating the location of the food venues in New York I thought my friends would enjoy. Then I started to research European cities.

I’ve always loved old world maps that are icon driven with lots of little illustrations. My cartography is now developing into wedding maps featuring food and events along with historical and travel suggestions for their guests. I’m currently working on a map of a person’s life for their 40th birthday. I simply believe that maps can be both functional and beautiful.

DM: Tell me about your favorite map-making destination thus far.

SD: It would have to be Bologna. I was there two weeks ago updating my maps of that city only to find that it’s radically changed. The city has one of the oldest universities in Europe. The town oozes with history yet has a thriving, curious university crowd that keeps it moving forward. They’re totally food obsessed in Bologna given that the region is the food basket of the country. Homey comfort food made with the freshest ingredients is the hallmark of the region. Ingredients are everything to the Bolognese. They’ve given the world tortellini, Parma ham, salami, Parmesan cheese, mortadella, balsamic vinegar, piadina… the list goes on and on.

Hungry for more? Check out some of Siobhan’s work here:

Retail Food Map of NYC’s Lower East Side
Cured Meat Glossary
Vegetable Calendar
Christmas Cookies Featured here last December