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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Maha's: Beautiful brunch on the Eastside

There's something special about a restaurant on an unremarkable stretch of Greenwood Ave. that attracts a lineup at 11:30am on a Thursday. If you've been to Maha's Fine Egyptian Cuisine—and many of my blog readers have—you'll know its popularity is well deserved. The brunch spot, which opened last fall at 226 Greenwood Ave., offers a rare combination of fresh food, home-like atmosphere and excellent service. 

I started off the meal with a cardamom latte, which was smooth and soothing, similar to chai. Then I tried the date grilled cheese, a luxurious sandwich crammed with oozing havarti, gouda and swiss and layered with buttery sautéed dates. The sweet/savoury combination may sound odd, but it's absolutely irresistible. On the side I had the cumin-dusted home fries, which had a nice sour kick from the pickled red onions. 

For a neighbourhood cafe, Maha's takes an unusual amount of effort to create visually appealing dishes. The Cairo Classic is a carefully arranged platter of foole (ful), a chunky, rich stew made from fava beans. The foole is covered with thin slices of hard boiled egg and a crispy ball of falafel, which as per Egyptian custom is also made from fava beans, not chickpeas. 

The big surprise is the pita bread. It resembles the tasteless white pita you see in the grocery store, but the similarity ends there. This slightly charred Egyptian pita or 'balady bread'—is made of whole wheat flour and is spongy, chewy and absolutely delicious. 

Maha's Fine Egyptian Cuisine is located at 22 Greenwood Ave., Toronto. Telephone: 416 462 2703. Operating hours are Monday to Friday 8am til 7pm; Saturday and Sunday 8am til 5pm. 

Thanks to Lisa & Gabby for the tip. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

This crumbling Scarborough strip mall is home to some great Haitian home cooking

A small restaurant in a half-abandoned strip mall in Scarborough is serving up the vibrant flavours of Haiti. The opening of Alabon Libon Caribbean Cuisine at 623 Kennedy Road last May signalled a welcome return of Haitian food to the area, which is home to many immigrants from the island nation. 

In 2013, Haitian food, which is heavily influenced by French, African and Spanish cuisine, hit downtown Toronto with the opening of the trendy Black Hoof spinoff Rhum Corner on Dundas West. It was followed by the 2014 opening of casual Haitian joint La Creole on St. Clair West. But meanwhile, the only remaining Haitian restaurant in Scarborough, La Belle Jacmel, had shut down unexpectedly after an ill-fated expansion.

So when I showed up at Alabon Libon, I was pleasantly surprised to see La Belle Jacmel's excellent chef, Marie-Claire Point Du Jour, in the kitchen. She opened the new place with her husband and daughter Nadege (above) in Corvette Plaza, on Kennedy north of St. Clair East. The name Alabon Libon means roughly "It's good, good," in Haitian creole. 

The plaza is slated for demolition to make way for condos, so rents are affordable and many storefronts are empty (although Councillor Michelle Berardinetti has an office here). The plaza's sign board hasn't been updated in ages, and lists an interesting collection of long-dead businesses. 

I sampled a plate of goat meat and it was excellent. The goat was marinated overnight in a puree of fresh green pepper, red pepper, onion, shallots and olive oil. Then it was fried to order and served with a tomato-based sauce on a bed of barely ripe plantains. The result was a hefty flavour-packed dish, nicely freshened up by fat chunks of perfectly ripe avocado. 

To drink I had a thick, frothy juice made of beets, potato and carrot. Sounds a bit odd I know but it was very enjoyable, with a rich, fruit-like flavour. 

Click to see full-sized menu

One of the restaurant's signature dishes is djon djon rice, made with mushrooms that only grow in Haiti. The hard-to-find fungus is brought in via Montreal, and attracts Haitians from as far as Ajax, Brampton and Mississauga. The djon djon rice is also a hit with local Jamaican, African and Chinese customers.

Other Haitian classics on the menu include beet salad, macaroni pie, butternut soup (soup joumou) and meat and veggie stew (bouillon). The restaurant even has its own Haiti-inspired version of poutine, which includes chicken meat, Haitian-style chicken stock and mozzarella or blue cheese. 

Alabon Libon Caribbean Cuisine is located at 623 Kennedy Road between St. Clair East and Eglinton East. Hours: Closed Monday, open 11am to 8pm Tuesday to Thursday, 11am to 11pm Friday, 10am to 11pm Saturday, 10am to 7pm Sunday. Telephone: 416 261 2870. 

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  • Thursday, January 15, 2015

    Sample the strange dishes of Macau, right here in Toronto

    Downtown Toronto chefs at restaurants like The People's Eatery and Oddseoul have made names for themselves by serving creative fusions of Asian and Western food. But the strange legacy of colonialism has produced culinary experiments that are far more inventive. One of the oddest real-life experiments has to be the food of Macau, the island city off the coast of China that was a Portuguese colony until 1999. 

    Macau, which is just an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, is better known for its gambling dens than its hybrid Chinese/Portuguese cuisine. But if you're curious, there is one place I know of in Toronto to get Macanese food: a stall called Macau/Portuguese Food in the food court of New Kennedy Square, an extremely busy Chinese mall on Kennedy Road south of Highway 7 in Markham. The restaurant was created by Joe Ng, a former chef at Macau's Mandarin Oriental hotel. 

    As a non-Cantonese speaker, ordering food was a comedy of errors. There are multiple menus with several different numbering systems. After several attempts, assistance from another patron and an inexplicable four glasses of soy milk later, we had a feast of interesting dishes at the table. 

    African chicken (below) is a classic dish of Macau. It's a tasty slab of chicken cooked with garlic and coconut milk and slathered with a slightly spicy red sauce. The dish is said to have been originally created by a Macanese hotel chef who was inspired by a trip to one of Portugal's African colonies. 

    The ox tongue in port wine sauce (above) has a definite Iberian flavour. The tongue is fatty and tender, like a carefully stewed brisket, and undeniably tasty.

    The pork cutlet (below) is another Macanese classic. The crispy coating and tangy tartar sauce make this a stand out dish. In fact my dining companion, writer Adam McDowell, said it was even better than the similar pork chop bun he sampled during a his recent visit to Macau.

    Next up was the Macau-style lamb curry (above left), a mildly-spiced dish with good quality chunks of stewed lamb with red and green peppers. A surprise hit was the cod fried rice (above right). It was packed with a generous amount of Portugal's iconic fish, and topped with olives in in true Mediterranean style.

    Not only is this food unique in Toronto, it's also dirt cheap. Most things on the menu are $6 or less, so there's little risk in sampling a wide range of these fascinating dishes.

    Macau/Portuguese Food (Macau & Portuguese Five Star Hotel Foods) is located at New Kennedy Square food court, 8360-8362 Kennedy Road, Markham, just south of Highway 7. Telephone: 905 475 3868. Hours are Monday to Sunday 10am to 9pm; closed Wednesday. 

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