Exploring strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best international food

Saturday, April 21, 2012

This Cabbagetown bakery serves fine French pastries and spicy Sri Lankan snacks

A steady stream of customers head into the narrow storefront of Absolute Bakery & Cafe at 589 Parliament Street, lured by the picture-perfect delicate pastries and breads in the window front. Not only does the bakery serve top notch sweets such as poppy seed rolls and cream cheese danishes, it also has wonderful spicy snacks from Sri Lanka. Tucked behind the counter are trays of curried rolls, known in Sri Lanka as 'short eats.' 

Owner Nageswary Rajendran explains that her fish buns—large triangular baked rolls stuffed with curry—are very popular in her home country of Sri Lanka. Absolute's powdery fish and meat rolls are good, but the clear winner of the bunch is the rotti (below, under the pies), a long folded soft bread stuffed with beef, vegetable or chicken curry.

Each Sri Lankan item will set you back just $2 or $2.50 and two items makes a filling lunch. "People ask for samosas but this is not food from my country," says Nageswary. "I teach Canadians about rotti. They are crazy about rotti."

Nageswary and her husband start work each day at 3am or 4am, preparing dozens of varieties of pastries and breads. Every day, Nageswary roasts chickens in the oven, which she makes into curry by combining the meat with fresh eggplant, green beans and potatoes. She puts the curry onto the freshly prepared rotti bread and finishes them up on the grill. 

In addition to the Sri Lankan food and pastries, Nageswary explained they also serve halal bread. But I realized I heard her wrong when she pulled out a loaf of braided Jewish challah bread. "My husband used to work at a Jewish bakery up on Lawrence many years ago," explained Negeswary. 

In addition to the Parliament Street location, Absolute Bakery has another cafe at 2100 Queen Street East. In the next few weeks, a third location will be opening up at Yonge & St Clair, and it will also serve French food and subcontinental snacks.

Thanks to H. for the tip. 

Absolute Bakery & Cafe is located at 589 Parliament Street just south of Wellesley; tel: 416 979 2700. Hours are 7am til 10pm every day. 

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

A feast from the Middle East

One of the best grocery stores in Toronto is Arz Fine Foods, a Middle Eastern superstore located at 1909 Lawrence Ave. East in Scarborough. For Torontonians originally from the Middle East, such as my Iraqi-born friend H., coming to Arz is a nostalgia-filled tour. "These are the counters of my childhood," H. says. "Today supermarkets in the Middle East look like Loblaws, but Arz is like they used to be 25 years ago." 

The supermarket is known for its fresh, high quality fare from all over the Mediterranean, and also for its top notch line of Arz-branded products, which are made in the supermarket basement and its Scarborough factory. Arz is the Arab word for cedar, the national symbol of Lebanon. The shop was opened twenty-odd years ago by a Lebanese family of Armenian origin. 

Our first stop was the produce department, where picture-perfect exotic fruits such as curly cucumbers and zereshk are on display. Then we headed to check out Arz's house brand of dips: muhammara, made of ground walnuts, pomegranate and peppers; tirokafteri, a spicy cheese dip; various kinds of hummus and labneh, a type of cream cheese. H. points out a jar of labneh balls marinated in mint. "You eat these while you're drinking ouzo," she explains. 

The bakery section features a good selection of Middle Eastern breads: paper-thin Armenian levash, the puffy Persian flatbread barbari, the spongy, sour sangak, and simit, a Turkish round bread similar to a bagel. 

The Middle East has excellent cheese, and Arz has a selection that is hard to beat in the GTA. Sample some wonderfully salty halloumi and its milder cousins akawi and baladi. If you're wanting something more intense, go for the Palestinian cheese nabulsi, or the braided twist—weaved strands of cheese studded with black seeds. If feta is your thing, you can pick up sheep and cow's milk versions in giant tubs.

People with a sweet tooth will find themselves gazing at the towering displays of pretty French-Lebanese pastries and mounds of Turkish delight flavoured with rose water, mint and lemon. Arz also sells large boxes of apricot paste. "This is the original Fruit Roll-Up," explains H. "Every kid back home had this in their lunch box."

The prepared foods are another thing that makes Arz special. They have ready-made items such as eggplant stuffed with walnut and red pepper. "This is home cooking that you can't normally find in a grocery store," says H. Arz also has a line of frozen foods—good quality meals such as stuffed grape leaves and seasoned meatballs. You can also get freshly ground Turkish coffee beans and have nuts and seeds roasted for you on the spot.

If all this isn't enough, Arz also has it's own bakery in the back. Stop by to sample the meat pies, soups and fresh salads.

Thanks to Anna for the tip. Arz Fine Foods is at 1909 Lawrence Street East, Scarborough. Tel:  (416) 755 5084. Hours: Monday to Thursday, 8:30am to 9pm; Friday 8:30 am to 10pm; Saturday 8am to 9pm; Sunday 8am to 8pm. 

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