Sunday, 27 December 2015

Storming the Barnstormer Brewing Company

Six family members in this house and three of them have December birthdays! Why couldn't they have waited until January, as I did, for a more convenient time to be born? Some people, eh?  It isn't always easy to fit a few more special days into the mix of holiday madness, but we manage it somehow. Five days before Christmas, we took the last of the December babies, my husband Ron, to the Barnstormer Brewing Company for dinner.

Barnstormer is a neat concept. They are part brewery and part eatery. Started a few years a ago in a storage unit, these self described like-minded, beer-loving, big-dreaming wing nuts began experimenting with making true natural and sustainable craft beers. No filtering, pasteurizing or preservatives. Everything on their restaurant menu is either made using beer or created with pairing it with beer in mind. Even the grains used in the brewing process are turned into things like pizza crusts and flat-breads - genius!

Ron and I, three of our kids and 1 girlfriend easily fit into one of Barnstormer's unusually large booths. I'm  pretty sure we could have added 2 more. A quick look around from our table vantage point revealed a casual and fun looking place, almost Irish pub meets industrial. The airplane theme is everywhere but I also got the feeling that this place could definitely be somebody's local. Signs of fun times ahead - trivia night, live music, high-stakes rock/paper/scissors tournaments were everywhere. Sounds like a riot. You can see the brewers behind a glass wall sampling, testing and laughing as they go about the work that they obviously enjoy.

We have a favourite server and her name is Della, which is sort of odd considering we have never been in before! Della is a long time family friend and an employee at Barnstormer. For quite some time, she has been encouraging us to try it out and so finally here we are. We missed Della's shift that day sadly, but she made us a reservation and we were greeted by another fine server instead.

There are several ways to try out Barnstormer's beers. You could order a a tray of sample sized beers if you aren't too sure what you want, or dive right into a full size glass of something that sounds appealing. The beer drinkers at my table all chose the very popular 400 Blonde Ale which is named in honour of all the road warriors who brave our local highway on their daily commute and most certainly deserve a cold brew on a Friday evening. Not being overly adventurous on their first flight into Barnstormer, they wanted something familiar tasting and had heard reports that 400 was reminiscence of Molson Canadian, which they found to be more or less true. They looked at me funny when I ordered the Polar Pumpkin Ale. C'mon guys - live a little!

Barnstormer is well known for their excellent pizzas so Ron ordered one customized in a meat lovers' style with pepperoni, bacon and sausage. He got the 11 inch pie, (there is a 15 inch as well) and fretted aloud that he could never eat all that pizza himself, but eat it he did. Hmmmm it must have been good!

The six of us took a good run at the menu with no two ordering the same thing. Aside from the tasty pizza, there were also honey garlic wings, a beef burger, a Pin Up Girl chicken wrap, a quinoa salad and my veggie burger with a side of poutine on the table. At least the reserved beer drinkers branched out a bit when it came time to eat! By the way, my Polar Pumpkin Ale was really nice. It contrasted greatly to the tall pale blonde glasses on the server's tray when it arrived and I had a brief what-have-I-done? moment. Was this short, darker glass of beer going to be bitter? I am kind of an anti-hop person, if such a term exists. First, I took a sniff. Wow - I completely got that pumpkin pie aroma! I passed it around for others to smell. They agreed that the fragrance was nice but I was still nuts for drinking a pumpkin anything beer. Their loss, I say.

Food was good. We would definitely come back again I would say. In fact, Ron was back again six days later for wings to watch the World Junior hockey game with my brother-in-law.

Being a bit of a spelling and grammar tyrant, (although I mess up plenty myself), I was amused by the large sign above the bar. In raised letters, it reads WHAT'S ON TAP, although the apostrophe seems to have been added in later with either white paint or chalk. I'm betting that there is an interesting story behind that! So if you want to check out something a little different in place where they take the important stuff seriously, but don't get too serious themselves and yet treat you to seriously good eats and drinks, book a flight and take off to the Barnstormer Brewing Company at 384 Yonge St. at Little. Oh yes - they do take out food  and sell beer to take home too!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Dinner and a Show: The 80s Girls Visit McReilly's Pub

If you've read a few of my blog posts, you will notice a recurring theme - the 1980s! It's true that I am hopelessly stuck in this fantastic era of giant earrings and even bigger hair, but what I love the most about that decade is the music. Give me new wave, a bit of punk and a lot of super synthesized electronic dance music.

I wasted many hours of my youth on the lighted and mirrored dance floor at the Queen's Hotel, and if I had a time machine, I would set the dial to about 1984 and go back there in an instant. Without that device (someone invent one please), I do the next best thing - I go to as many 80s band concerts as I can. When I learned that Platinum Blonde was playing at the Roxy Theatre, I was so in! Bought my tickets online and rounded up some other dedicated 80s chicks to go along too.

Going downtown for a show is a great excuse to try out a new eatery. On this adventure, we decided on sampling McReilly's Pub at 82 Dunlop St. E. It is part of the 150 year old McConkey building, where my husband and I had our first apartment years ago. Just my opinion, but I think that an Irish type pub like this is ideally suited to an historic neighbourhood such as this, as opposed to a box in a newer plaza.

My neighbour, Christine, and I arrived at McReilly's about 6:30 and found Nikki and Theressa already there sipping drinks. I looked around - nice, cozy looking place, lots of booths, warm and casual atmosphere and a good mix of age groups. Our server was with us very quickly and I ordered a pint of cider. How I love a cider.

My other love, as you may well know already, is fish and chips. It must be my UK blood. The best thing in the world is a fish supper bought from a street corner chippy, soft white haddock or halibut in a light batter, chunky fries, lots of salt and vinegar, all wrapped up in newspapers. Heaven. Sadly, I believe newspapers aren't considered food grade material and can no longer be used.

So yes - I ordered fish and chips. Christine ordered a really cool thing that I have not noticed on another menu - a hamburger inside a grilled cheese sandwich. Both Theressa and Nikky got the reuben sandwich. Theressa chose the house cut fries as her side dish but Nikki got house salad, which leads me to an interesting little event that I wasn't going to mention at first but then I realized that it actually shines a very positive light on McReilly's excellent customer service.

A little background information - three out of the four of us are country girls, Nikki and I having been raised on the Holland Marsh. We grew up yanking carrots straight out of the field and, after a brief wipe off on our jeans, ate them as a snack. Today, Nikki still lives on the Marsh and works for a company that produces fresh sprouts.

So when Nikki got down to the bottom of her salad bowl and found a minuscule green, six legged creature expired there, she was not terribly panicked. Although not trained pathologists, we surmised that the tiny thing had succumbed to drowning, as this salad was obviously super well washed. Our lovely server however, was mortified. Her pretty smile disappeared and she was very apologetic. We were not too worried because we know that these things happen. Real vegetables, grown in real fields, are going to get mixed up with other living things, whether we want to see them or not.

Even with that funny little occurrence, we really enjoyed our dinners and would come back again. When the bills were handed out, Nikki didn't get one. It took her a minute to realize why. She had not expected to have her entire bill wiped out and was very pleasantly surprised. Very classy, McReilly's!

So, with full bellies and feeling good about our dining experience, we wandered down the street to the concert venue. We arrived far to early but the good thing about that is that you can pick your spot for the show. Nikki is a more seasoned concert goer than I (I plan to catch up!) and set us up stage side, right beside a waist high speaker. She insisted that this was the place to be.

Yes, we waited something like an hour and half there for the concert to begin, but once Platinum Blonde came on stage, the atmosphere was electric! Jumping up and down, hands in the air, dancing in our crowded little corner to Crying, Standing in the Dark, and It Doesn't Really Matter, we were transported back to those fun times years ago. For a few hours, we were 19 years old again.

I didn't appreciate Nikki's true genius until front man, the charismatic Mark Holmes, jumped off the stage and onto our speaker and played his guitar right above our heads. Wow, I nearly turned into one of those screaming fans that you see on old film of Beatles concerts!

The night was such a success that we are already planning to see Honeymoon Suite at the Roxy in January. Platinum Blonde, you guys are as good as ever - or better! McReilly's Pub, you proved that top notch customer service doesn't depend on the thing that happened but how you deal with that thing. You get an A+ from me.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Boon Burger Gets It Right in Downtown Barrie

Bathrooms - you never know when you'll need one, until you need one! Janis took her 8 year old son downtown for the annual Barrie Santa Claus parade, and in the middle of all the hoopla, the young man realized that he needed to visit a rest room soon. The two visited more than one downtown business in search of a toilet, but somewhat understandably, they were refused - no purchase, no potty! Janis, hoping to travel light, hadn't brought her purse to the event, so buying anything anywhere was not going to happen. Finally, one business did take a chance on the boy and his mom and let them use their facilities. Janis decided right there that Boon Burger was going to have her as a customer in the very near future.

Janis posted the details of her mini adventure on her social media, which naturally led to some interesting discussion, and it put a positive light on this local business. Some readers, myself included, had been meaning to try Boon Burger since it opened in August of last year. I'm really not sure why it has taken me this long to drop into Boon Burger. In any case, a lunch date was made and I began to look forward to the much anticipated chat and bite with Janis.

In preparation for lunch, I studied Boon Burger's menu online. I know, I know - who studies for lunch?? As a borderline vegetarian (fish and chips will forever prevent my full conversion ), my normal habit is to scan any given menu for the few dishes that I can eat and then I order one of those. But what if the entire menu is made up of foods that I can eat ... what then? How do I choose? A strange but welcome problem for me.

Janis and I met up on Dunlop St. and arrived at Boon together. Their Barrie eatery is light, open, minimally decorated and, with its plain wooden booth benches, seems almost unfinished. Not unfinished because they ran out of time or money, but unfinished because it required nothing more. No bleached white dinner napkins to be seen either, just a very large roll of brown paper towel on each table. Natural, pure, authentic - that is the vibe that I got.

We were greeted immediately and handed menus. We were invited to sit anywhere we liked and asked if we had ever been in before. That is an excellent question to ask. Many restaurants seem to have a multi-step menu system (choose your protein, choose your bread, choose your toppings, choose your side dish) lately, and it can be a bit of a learning curve for the new customer. Aha - see why I studied ahead of time?

There are many reasons why someone might choose to follow a plant based diet. Some of my more carnivorous friends might say that one of those reasons must surely be madness, after all how can one not crave bacon, poutine, and hamburgers? Nobody ever said we don't. So I had a very special treat on my visit to Boon Burger - a bacun cheeze burger. Actually, my spell checker is working perfectly fine - this is a vegan friendly, equally tasty substitute for a beef burger topped with bacon and cheese. A win win situation, I'm thinking.

Janis got her eye on the Greek Burger on the special of the day chalkboard. Like Greek salad? You will love this! Each of us ordered a side of sesame-potato fries. Janis also got a pumpkin soft serve, a lovely peachy coloured type of shake, and I opted for house made berry iced tea.

Our food arrived in no time at all, as two wide baskets came with towering burgers, accompanied by fries. We both studied our meals, trying to decide how best to attack these mile-high sandwiches. We could see thick patties, loads of toppings and plenty of soft bun around it. Next we unrolled a few lengths of the paper towel - this is going to get messy!

And messy it was. It was a good kind of messy, not any sort of first date kind of messy, we decided, but then again if he doesn't mind that you have dropped some lettuce and organic mustard into your cleavage, he might just be a keeper! We joked that perhaps bibs should be handed out to customers, or maybe some bath towels. We chatted, we laughed, we mopped our messy faces and ate some very delicious food at Boon Burger that afternoon.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

AvocoBar: The New Kid on the Block

It's no secret that I'm an 80s girl! The 1980s were the years of big hair, super synthesized dance music and salad bars. My question is where have all the salad bars gone? Every restaurant used to boast a 'twenty foot salad bar' and stocked with everything from caesar salad and cold shrimp to chick peas, chopped eggs and bean medley. They were an 'all you can eat' affair or part of a combo with your main meal. Now they, along with my Rainbow jeans and glitter eye shadow, are gone.

Most of the above mentioned items will never make a comeback, and some of you may say that this is for the best, but why can't the salad bar come out of retirement? That is what I would like to know. I hear the Bay City Rollers are doing it, and I'm not sure that is ever going to be a good idea, but large selections fresh healthy food is always a good thing. Right?

Yes, there are some remnants of the good old salad bar days around. I can think of the Market Buffet and the Mandarin, and I'm sure you can tell me where to find a few more in the area. Just this week, I tried out something new in my own neighbourhood that makes me feel hopeful for the future of salad as a food item that can be both good for you and good to your taste buds.

Have you heard of the AvocoBar? It sounds a bit like a happening night club, but it's actually a neat little lunch spot on the edge of my Tall Trees neighbourhood, mere steps away from the Bayfield St. strip, on Cundles Rd. E. In a small plaza that includes a beauty school and a clinic, a convenience store recently vacated and the AvocoBar moved into the empty corner shop. A sandwich board outside proclaims that healthy fast food is sold within.

My daughter and I spent a rather long morning in the Drive Test office on Friday, which I'm sure is no surprise to anyone. She got her G1 license (hooray!) and, by the end of that excruciating government process, we were both very hungry, and short on time.

"Have you been in the AvocoBar yet?" she casually asks.

"No. but let's go there right now." I reply. Well played, Miss Margaret, well played.

The interior of the AvocoBar eatery is much bigger than I imagined. There are lots of high tables and tall chairs for those patrons dining in, many of them occupied on this sunny Friday lunch hour. The walls are painted fittingly bright green with chic black accents. The decor is simple and clean - much like the food, I guess.

I always feel like somewhat of a dummy when I approach the counter of some new (to me) restaurant with a unique ordering system. Everybody else always seems to know what they're doing, don't you think? So I slide up to the salad bar with a big L on my forehead and confess my newbie-ness straight away. The young lady behind the counter was awesome. She tells me that she is there to help. Hallelujah! My anxiety melts away.

Step 1: Pick your base, which is a selection of lettuces or greens. Done. Step 2 Choose up to 4 toppings from a huge selection. Step 3. Pick one of 20 house made dressings. The combinations are absolutely endless, when you think about it.

Also, there are special 'designer' salads  to chose from that have the ingredients already picked out for you. This is a blessing for someone like me who may be feeling a little overwhelmed by the multitude of ingredients available. I know I love Greek salad so I picked that and added falafel. The other neat thing is that you can chose to turn your salad into a wrap for only .25 more. That's right - a quarter! Where else can you get an upgrade for anything today for a quarter? I got the  tomato basil wrap for my salad.

Margaret ordered a beet salad with chicken. What a cool system they have for mixing the salads. Each salad is mixed inside a bag and shaken to mix, then popped into a cute little cardboard container reminiscent of a gift box.  They write your name on it a la Starbucks and off you go. If you are thirsty, there are beautiful drink dispensers bubbling away with ice cold water infused with things like lemon, mint and cucumber.

This is definitely guilt free fast food. There are fruit salads available too, and vegan chili as well as butternut squash soup, things that I must try. How nice that it is a short walk from my house. Welcome to the neighbourhood, AvocoBar. I think we are going to get along very well.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Best Little Place Where You Will Never Eat

The name has been known in the City of Barrie for over 110 years. Last year, they served 95.000 meals and never once had to refund anyone's money. The vast majority of their customers are regulars and many eat both lunch and dinner there. Twice a day, there's a long line-up to get in and the customers often call or text their friends when the special of the day is a particular favourite - roast turkey dinner, hamburgers or leek and potato soup. But you will never eat there.

Of course, you are welcome to dine there any time. All are welcome. Come as you are to the rear entrance of 16 Bayfield St. (at Five Points) at noon or 5:00 pm any day of the year, and join the most fascinating and real people you will meet anywhere, for a home style lunch or dinner. You are about to enter the soup kitchen at the Salvation Army's Bayside Mission.

Before I was hired to work as a cook at the soup kitchen, I had next to no understanding about the complex lives of many of the citizens of downtown Barrie, nor what kind of meal service was provided by the Sally Ann.  I pictured a mug of soup being handed out now and then. How wrong I was. I was quite amazed to learn how fantastic the food offered really is!

The cooks start their day at 5 a.m. and put the coffee on for the 45 residents of the men's shelter who live on the second floor. They prepare a breakfast of toast, bagels and cereal on most mornings, but three times a week a hot breakfast of bacon or sausage with eggs, french toast or pancakes is served. Many of the men go off to work, while others stick around helping in the kitchen, job searching in the computer lab or meeting with their social worker. For the men who do go out each day, there are bagged lunches made for them. Each contain 2 sandwiches, 1 snack, 1 drink and 1 fruit.

By 11:30, a huge pot of hot, freshly made soup is bubbling away in the kitchen. Some days, it is a creation born of last evening's leftover dinner - roast beef, turkey, meatballs or cabbage roll casserole. Or it could be something based on an overabundance of in season vegetables - potato leek, french onion, ginger carrot, curry squash. The doors open at noon and when they close again 50 minutes later, somewhere around 80 - 100 bowls will have been ladled, each with a bun or sandwich, a tea or coffee and dessert.

After lunch  clean up has been finished, the morning cook hands the kitchen over to the next cook who has come to prepare dinner. They immediately get to work preparing a home-style dinner from scratch to feed anywhere from 100 - 200 diners. The amount prepared is based on the date. Most diners are dependent on a government cheque, with most receiving a disability benefit. The money that they receive at the first of each month does not go far and by mid month the number of soup kitchen patrons goes up as their funds run out. The cooks prepare the meals accordingly.

Dinners are usually familiar favourites - turkey dinner with all the trimmings, hot dogs and salads, shepherd's pie, meat loaf, chicken pot pie and more. Every dinner also comes with coffee, a bun and dessert. The dining room only holds 48 people, but even busy meal times run like clock work. Three  front line workers divide themselves between manning the door and running the dining room. As some diners leave, others are let in and the kitchen churns out plate after plate of hot dinner to all comers until there are no customers left to serve.

There is no way a solitary cook could do this all alone. The food prep, meal service and clean up is done 365 days a year with the invaluable assistance of the army within the Army - the volunteers. In a year, some 1,700 volunteers pass through the soup kitchen. Some are retired folks, others are high school or college students, there are church groups, work place teams, or people doing mandatory community service ours, but all are vital and appreciated.

But where does all this food come from? Much of it is purchased by the budget of the soup kitchen, and from the generosity of some community minded local businesses. Other items, most of it dry goods, come from a central Salvation Army warehouse in Toronto where corporate donations are received and distributed. Other food items appear out of the blue. Sometimes they are the unused food items from a wedding, funeral, church picnic, political barbecue or waterfront event, a Christmas or retirement party, or just a kind hearted soul who wanted to make a difference. The soup kitchen cooks can transform almost anything into a fabulous meal!

Next time, when you drive through Five Points, you won't have to wonder anymore why all these folks are crowded around the Bayside Mission. More than likely, it's almost meal time and they are eager to find out what delight has been cooked up inside today. The prices are the best in town - there's no doubt about that! But it's more. It's a social time to meet up with friends, visit with the staff and volunteers who most likely greet you by name, get out of the cold or rain for a bit and nourish the body and spirit. I feel privileged to work in this special little corner of the universe.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Celtic Girls Visit Donaleigh's Irish Pub House

You never know where you will meet a new friend. Heidi and I only worked together for perhaps a week, until she found her calling in a kitchen elsewhere, but in that short time we really hit it off. We bonded over talk of our shared Celtic roots. Heidi spent time on a working holiday in Ireland in her youth, while I went to Scotland. We both have 4+ children and have tendencies towards becoming crazy cat ladies in the future!

It took as a while, and a lot of schedule studying, but Heidi and I finally made a lunch date to meet up again. Where should we eat? What better place for two Gaelic girls to grab a bite than Donaleigh's Irish Pub House on Dunlop St., just around the corner from where we once cooked together.

The summer had been slow to start, with cool and rainy weather, which is kind of appropriate when you think of it, but on this July Saturday the sun came out and brought some heat with it. I arrived first at Donaleigh's and was seated on the street side patio in a place where I could watch for Heidi's arrival. I half considered sitting inside Donaleigh's spacious and air conditioned dining room, but summer is short in these parts and I was determined to enjoy this outdoor setting come hell or heatstroke.

It was a bit warm out there, but the little drink coaster set down on the table by my server gave me an idea for a cure - a cold glass of Somersby cider! Barely known in Canada for years, cider, my favourite drink, has finally taken off in a big way here.

Aha, there's Heidi! The menus were flipped open but of course more chatting than deciding went on. I'm sure seasoned servers can tell which diners haven't seen each other for a while! This was not Heidi's first visit so she was quick with her decision. I was boggled by the delicious sounding choices,

Actually, I was torn three ways. I love a good old fashioned fish and chips, and everyone tells me they are the best here, but that is such an easy go-to for me. All the big foodie buzz in the past year or so has been about fish tacos, whatever they are. I should try this. Then again, my daughter and her boyfriend come here just for the Irish nachos.

Heidi chose the chicken and leek pot pie while I took the fish taco plunge. While we waited, I saw some marvelous looking meals come out. I was very impressed by the way the shepherd's pie was presented in a long ceramic dish, topped with thick swirls of mashed potato browned under a broiler and set onto a plate with colourful vegetables.

Heidi's pot pie looked wonderful too. Also in a ceramic boat like dish, puff pasty struggled to contain an overflowing mix of creamy sauce, peas, carrots, leek and chicken and was topped with an artsy little shamrock made from the same pastry. How cute! Some tasty looking sweet potato fries sat beside it.

I wasn't sure what to expect with my fish taco. My little bit of pre-lunch research told me that they almost always come in a soft taco shell but the filling varies wildly. The fish may or may not be battered and is often stuffed with coleslaw. So my first ever fish taco was the Galway fish taco here at Donaleigh's, which is a very light non-battered haddock, seasoned and stuffed into a taco with mango salsa and shredded cabbage. I had a very good pile of fresh cut fries with that too.

All in all, that was a very nice meal. Great food, a superb setting and very fine company. I must commend the lovely servers for their patience. Most of my catch-up lunch dates with friends often turn out to be 3 hour gab sessions and this one was no different!

Now I need to go back. I still want to try the fish and chips. (I hear there is a $10.00 special on this on Friday nights - or is that a rumour??) Must try those Irish nachos. Now I see a Celtic curry on the menu. Oh boy - I have a lot of eating to do!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Gone Fishing! Lunch at Danny's

My vegetable garden was almost complete by this past Thursday, but I needed just few more plants. Ron and I decided to take drive down to Innisfil where a former school mate of mine runs a greenhouse operation. We picked up eggplants and dill and a few extra annuals late in the morning and headed back to Barrie just around the lunch hour. I knew exactly where I wanted to stop for a bite!

We are north end dwellers, living just off the Bayfield Street strip with all it's myriad of shops and restaurants, and don't often venture to the south end of town, so when we found ourselves in the area I had a mission in mind - Danny's Fish & Chips!

I am Scottish born and have spent some time living/working in and visiting the UK, and my ideal meal when I am lucky enough to return is a big feast of fish and chips and a pint of cider. Most times, when dining out here, I choose the fish and chips if it's on the menu. In fact, I'm quite predictable that way and my family finds it rather amusing. They find it funny partly because it's actually my mother's favourite restaurant meal too. Poor Mum has been partly deaf for many years and couldn't always hear what her server was asking her and so just repeated "Fish and chips. Fish and chips" no matter what the question.

So, ridiculed or not, I am always on the hunt for a good local fish supper. I used to love Henry's (too bad it's gone now) and I am a long time fan of Fancy's on Bell Farm Rd., but this city has grown and so have the dining choices. More than once, I have posed the question of who makes the best fish and chips in Barrie, on my social media, and without fail I get numerous votes for Danny's.

What makes a great fish and chips? For me, I think a lot of the key is in the oil. Old frying oil gives too dark a coating where it should be a light golden colour. Oil that is not hot enough makes for an overly greasy meal. Anything other than hand cut french fries is a let down. However, a ritzy setting is not necessary as some of the best fish dinners I've ever eaten were wrapped in old newspapers and handed out the window of a small street corner booth.

Upon entering Danny's, the first thing you notice is how neat and clean it is. This location has been open for nearly 4 years now, but it looks like a brand new restaurant. It wasn't very busy at all when we arrived and the seemingly lone server, a friendly young woman,  was very quick to take our drink order. Ron chose halibut and I chose haddock. Haddock, to me is fish that is not fishy, if that makes any sense!

We both got a beautiful plate piled high with good sized chip wagon style fries and a nice piece of perfectly golden fish. The batter was the lightest I've seen anywhere around and it was really crispy. There is real skill involved in cooking a thick piece of fish right through until it is white and flaky while keeping the batter from becoming overdone. The flavour and texture was terrific and the portion size just right. We walked away feeling full but not overfed or regretful about consuming a greasy meal, because it certainly wasn't.

Do you know how I know that I have had some exceptionally good food? If I am thinking about it later and craving it again, that means to me that the food was beyond ordinary. A ho-hum meal is soon forgotten, but something outstanding is thought of again and again, recommended to friends and often revisited when the chance arises another time.

I would most definitely eat at Danny's again. Barrie folks might just be right - it may be the best fish and chips in Barrie! I never checked the bar menu to see if they offer cider, but if they do, oh boy - I might be visiting the south end of town more often!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Feeling Posh At English & Miller

Being in the food industry means working a lot of holidays and weekends, so I have missed a fair amount of family events over the years. Most Mother's Days I find myself away from home. Usually, my husband and children go and visit my mother for me and I go off to work, which is okay because I understand that this is the nature of the business.

This year, whether oversight or a gift from my supervisor, I found myself not scheduled to work on Mother's Day! One male co-worker did ask if I might like to switch shifts with him and work May 10th for him. Oh no no nooooo no chance would I be giving up my chance at this minor miracle, a day off on Mother's Day!

So what did I do with my big day off? I opened presents - potted annuals, a gift card for Garden Gallery and a nice bottle of Carolans (I like it better than the pricier Baileys) for my coffee. Can't go wrong with flowers and booze, I'd say. Visited with my now 86 year old mum in her Essa Township home. She was scurrying around, as usual, offering the grandkids chips and endless choices of juice flavours. Mum, shouldn't you be sitting down? I think that when I'm 86 I'm going to let other people do the scurrying around.

We left the melee of assorted relatives early and headed back to Barrie because I had a very important date with my daughter, Margaret, and my son, Alex. They had booked a table for three at English & Miller, the lovely gift shop/tea room overlooking Heritage Park in Downtown Barrie. We arrived for our 4 o'clock seating in the middle of a tremendous downpour of rain. Oh how British!

Do you know about this place? Often people do not. I ask them "Do you know where Casa Cappuccino is?" and they usually do. Well, it's behind that. There is a yellowish brick addition at he back of Casa Cappuccino. English & Miller is located there and up a few steps. Upon opening the door, you will be met by the aroma of fresh baking and by a a riot of brightly coloured gifty items. There is everything from aprons, pin cushions and Big Ben tea pots to jewelry, children's books and  linens - most British imports or at least favourites.

Today, the usual union jack couch was missing, likely removed to make way for the extra tables required for the special Mother's Day high tea patrons. High tea was by reservation only which made it all the more special. Weeks ago, Margaret had booked the last seating so that we could visit Grandma first. 

The tables were enchanting - crisp white table cloths, a teal blue runner, mis-matched china cups, plates, sugar bowl and cream jug and tall glasses of cool lemon water. A cheerful little chrysanthemum also sat in a tea cup.

Proprietress, Jean Bevan, could be seen bustling about, overseeing the good sized crew of servers she had smartly scheduled to work today. They were everywhere making sure that everyone was enjoying their experience, but not intrusive at all.

We were not long seated when we were offered our tea. Margaret likes a special house blend called Every Day and Alex and I chose Earl Grey. We each got a large pot of tea, in china just as charmingly unmatched as everything else. No boring stainless steel pots here.

We chatted and laughed a lot, which is pretty normal when you go out anywhere with those two, and awaited the arrival of the main attraction - the tired plates of goodies! We watched as the servers went from table to table setting down these masterpieces of finger food and soon our assortment of treats appeared.

Our server explained what was before us. The bottom plate held the cutest little crustless tea sandwiches in egg salad, tuna, watercress and cream cheese, smoked salmon, cucumber and tomato with possibly stilton cheese. The next plate held 3 large freshly baked raisin scones and adorable little pots of butter, devon cream and jam. The top plate had tiny victoria sponge cakes in flowery cupcake papers, assorted petit fours, wrapped sweets, shortbread, wafers and pink sugar cookies. A feast for the eyes and then the stomach!

I asked my daughter if she had special ordered the sandwich fillings. She had not. Amazing, because these were all types that I would have selected myself.

This tower of delightful yummies, while artful and delicious, didn't look to me like it would be enough for 3 people to share. I was wrong. Surprisingly, there was quite a lot of food there and we did not go away hungry at all. A server went around and offered all the diners a take-out box for their left-overs. It wasn't a styrofoam clam-shell container either, but a cutesy cardboard bakery style box. Little touches make the occasion. In the end, we didn't even need one.

Everything was beautiful to see and to taste. What did I like best? Probably the tea sandwiches. I'm just crazy about little assorted sandwiches and many people who know me are aware of my guilt over my unnatural love for so called funeral sandwiches! Now I know that English & Miller has some lovely little sandwiches for me to enjoy any time, and it isn't necessary for anyone to pass away for me to have some.

I finally opened the big pink striped gift box from my daughter too. Inside was a nice set of silicone bake ware. I am a recent convert to this stuff and Margaret has been finding her inner patissiere lately. I know I won't be baking anything tonight - I'm feeling too spoiled and queenly!

At the very end, all the mummies got a gift. A basket of surprise bags was brought to each table and every mama got to choose one. My bag contained a brown wash cloth and red soap set which looked like a chocolate cupcake. Sweet! I also got a gift card for a free tea. I gave that to my girl because she is a frequent visitor here and deserved a little something for setting up this beautiful event for me. All photo credits go to her too. Thanks a million, Margaret and Alex! xoxo

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Foodie Spy Mission: Quiznos

This is a bit of a departure for me. It's a review of a brand in general, and not so much about a particular restaurant location. Written for a website that promotes franchising of fast food businesses, I followed their lead but in the end it wasn't their style - too 'bloggy' it turns out. So here you go, guys.

A Foodie Spy Mission - Going Undercover To Scope Out the Quiznos Menu!

Quiznos – mmmmm Toasty! That's the current slogan accompanying their TV commercials these days. I have been on a mission recently to find out exactly how much mmmmm and how much toasty is actually involved in the Quiznos menu items offered by the sub sandwich chain.

Until this week, I have never set foot inside a Quiznos. There is actually a location in close proximity to my home, so why haven't I gone in? The answer – one bad review. That's right one bad review from a family member, possibly 5+ years ago, that led to me never even trying the place for myself. Silly perhaps, but it certainly underlines the value of word of mouth advertising. Give one customer a bad sub and you will potentially lose two or three new customers.

So what was the family member's complaint? He said the sub tasted “off” as in something had gone bad. Ooooh nasty! However, I'm willing to bet that the customer in this case might have been unused to Quiznos particular flavours. Perhaps their usual cheeses are more pungent than the cheeses used at say Subway or Mr. Subarine. If your mouth is expecting one flavour, and you get another, you might experience a bit of palate shock. I'm donning my detective hat now to check it out for myself!

So it's been about 5 years since my family member – okay, it's my husband – has been in to have a bite at a Quiznos. Today, we took a willing victim with us, our twenty-something son, and headed off to the nearest Quiznos location just after it opened for business at 11:00 a.m.

Two friendly female counter attendants were busily finishing their lunch set up when we arrived. I bet they could tell we were not regulars! We are used to another submarine sandwich chain restaurant popular in this area, so we were a bit lost and I'm sure we looked it. We were still stumbling over our sandwich preferences when the young ladies asked us if they could help us. They weren't pushy at all, in fact very understanding of our newbie-ness! At our other sub shop, all the fixings are displayed in steel inserts behind a glass window, so we were somewhat at a loss visually since Quiznos keeps their sandwich fillings behind a stainless steel wall. The attendants can see the food items, but the customer cannot. I felt rather blind.

The husband ordered the Beef & Swiss Melt on the rosemary parmesan bread. The other choices were white or whole wheat (brown) bread. The nice thing, not seen at other sub places we frequent, was 3 choices of sub length, not just 2 – 6 inch, 9 inch or  12 inch. The three of us chose 9 inch just because we could! I ordered Tuna Salad on rosemary parmesan and the son ordered Turkey Bacon Guacamole on the same bread.

We were offered a few choices of cheese and if mushrooms were wanted, and such, then we were moved down to another counter area to choose veggie toppings. At first, I thought this was weird and rather unnecessary but then I realized that the sub goes the through the big toaster oven before getting the cold toppings added. Ah - makes sense now.

I got a cup sized (6 oz.) bowl of Broccoli & Cheese soup. There is a bigger 10 oz. size too.

We took our lunch to a table near the window to eat and to analyse. I must say the slogan mmmmm toasty does apply. Our subs were really nice and crispy and they never lost that crunch even as the last bit of crust disappeared.

The boys were thrilled with their lunches. No complaints about off tasting meats from the husband. The son said the meat was really fresh and it reminded him of a deli in the town where he went to college, where they sliced the meat right in front of you and made killer sandwiches. Indeed, you could see state of the art looking meat slicer on the back counter, and between customers, the counter girls sliced meats and cheeses.

And my lunch? Meh. The soup wasn't that great. Okay, I did say that if it wasn't all that hot yet (they had just opened), I would be okay with that, but I didn't mean cold! Still, I could the gist of the flavour, which I would describe as Cheeze Whiz with broccoli in it. It was more or less what I expected, for a fast food place not awful but not spectacular either. I am just daft enough to eat it again. But hot this time!

Well, that was the soup, now the sandwich went from pleasant surprise to let-down. You see, I have been studying the menu on in preparation for this project, and nowhere does it mention tuna. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, and I usually get either egg or tuna salad from that other sub place, so I was kind of bummed that I wouldn't be able to have those choices at Quiznos. I was expecting my lone option to be their Veggie Deluxe sub. I was already a bit put off at the thought of paying the same price for a cheese/veggie sub as a cheese/veggie/meat sub while getting ripped off for protein. So seeing Tuna Salad made my spirits lift. Wouldn't you figure anything with the word salad in it would consist of more than one ingredient? The filling seemed to me to be pretty much tuna straight out of the can. Dear Quiznos, if there's any mayo in your tuna salad at all, you need more.

All that being said, I think I would go back again. I really didn't know what I was doing on this visit. Next time, I would ask for more mayo and some salt and pepper to bump up my tuna.

The menu is not complicated, only unfamiliar to my group. The website says there are 23 original subs on the Quiznos menu and that seems about right. All beautifully depicted in glossy photos above the counter, here are your choices ...
Classic Italian capicola, salami, ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, tomato, lettuce, red onion, black olive, red wine vinaigrette
Classic Club turkey, ham, bacon, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, mayo
Honey Bacon Club ham, bacon, turkey, swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, red onion, honey french dressing Turkey Ranch & Swiss turkey, swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, red onion, ranch dressing
Beef & Swiss Melt roast beef, swiss cheese, mushroom, parmesan alfredo sauce, on garlic toast
Beef & Swiss Melt roast beef, swiss cheese, mushroom, parmesan alfredo sauce, on garlic toast
Black Angus black angus steak, mozzarella, cheddar, sauteed onion, mushroom, honey bourbon mustard, zesty grille sauce
Prime Rib Peppercorn prime rib, mozzarella, sauteed onion, peppercorn sauce
Steakhouse Beef Dip roast beef, mozzarella, peppercorn sauce, side of au jus
Triple Cheese & Beef roast beef, mozzarella, swiss cheese, cheddar, sauteed onion, mushroom, mayo
The Traditional roast beef, turkey, ham, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, red onion, black olive, ranch dressing Veggie Deluxe mozzarella, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, red onion, mushroom, black olive, red wine vinaigrette, guacamole
Turkey Bacon Guacamole turkey, bacon, mozzarella, tomato, lettuce, red onion, ranch dressing, guacamole Mesquite chicken, bacon, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, red onion, ranch dressing
Carbonara chicken, bacon, mozzarella, mushroom, parmesan alfredo sauce
BBQ Smokehouse chicken, bacon, cheddar, sauteed onion, barbecue sauce
Chipotle chicken, bacon, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, chipotle mayo
Honey Bourbon chicken, tomato, lettuce, red onion, honey bourbon mustard, zesty grille sauce
Ham & Swiss ham, swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, mayo
Turkey Caesar turkey, tomato, lettuce, peppercorn caesar dressing
Meatball meatballs, mozzarella, marinara
Beef & Cheddar roast beef, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, mayo
Tuna Salad tuna, tomato, lettuce, mayo

And the flatbread selections ...
Chicken Bacon Ranch chicken, bacon, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, ranch dressing
Turkey Caesar turkey, mozzarella, tomato, lettuce, peppercorn caesar dressing
Chipotle Beef roast beef, cheddar, tomato, lettuce, chipotle mayo

I love the names of the sauces! They sound almost chef inspired, don't they? Actually, they are. Back in 1981, the very first Quiznos was opened in Denver, Colorado by Jimmy Lambatos, who was already a skilled chef. He brought his more haute cuisine sort of flavours and sauces to the fast food world along with the idea of using real, freshly sliced sandwich fillings on artisan breads and then toasting the whole thing until bubbly and crispy. It was a near instant hit and franchising was a no-brainer, which began only 2 years later. The Quiznos chain spread like wildfire, hopping all across the U.S.A. and into Canada, Japan, Mexico and the U.K. The money rolled in and they all lived happily ever after ... or did they?

The fairy tale that is Quiznos has had some dark days. The sun is shining again, but the clouds might return yet. The villain that suddenly appeared in Quiznos' story one day, was the same villain that wrecked many a lovely tale – the economic recession of 2008. Quiznos had been been happily skipping through the forest until bam! the big bad monetary downturn attacked without mercy. Suddenly, the story was all about competition for dollars. No longer would consumers be willing to pay more money for toasted subs with a bit more meat, when the other sub place charges less. Simple math.

Let's look at 2 meatball subs, both 12 inches long with what seems to be identical ingredients (to the consumer anyway). At Quiznos it costs $7.49. At the other sub shop,  it's $5.50. Not all of the price gaps are so wide, but I think there's a perception among consumers that Quiznos is a pricier place to buy a sub.

Scrappy Quiznos, unlike many other businesses, survived that challenge but made some missteps a few years later by jumping on the eat healthy bandwagon, which entailed ditching some of its cheaper subs from the menu. Then, their upscaleness (if that's a word!) in the sub sandwich world began to be eaten up (pun intended) by new kids on the block such as Panera. So the other place is cheaper ... and Panera is fancier ... so where does that leave Quiznos?

In June, 2014, Quiznos found itself declaring bankruptcy. That usually spells the beginning of the end, in fact quite often the bankrupt business is never heard from again. However, Quiznos rose like a phoenix from the ashes, out of bankruptcy only 4 months later. Not bad, Quiznos, not bad at all.

Once upon a time, Quiznos had some 5000 locations. They are a much leaner organization today with less than half of that peak 2007 amount. They are taking baby steps into new territories like Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Quiznos also had a nasty battle in the courtrooms with some of its franchisees, who had felt like they were badly treated by the parent company. One of those suits was settled in 2009 by giving the franchisees $95 million (ouch!), but another suit arose in 2013. It must be difficult to concentrate on refreshing, rebuilding and restructuring a business with court cases pending.

The Quiznos restaurant that I visited with my family was nice and bright and clean. The accent wall across from the counter was painted a cheerful tangerine colour and emblazoned with the giant Quiznos 'Q'. You can choose to sit at a regular table, most with 4 chairs, or at a high table with bar stools. There is a hot pepper bar near the front entrance, which I thought was kind of cool, with jalapenos, banana peppers and more – a nod to their southwestern U.S. origins. That certainly makes it different from the other sub places. Near the do-it-yourself soda pop fountain, there was a huge glass bowl of a drink dispenser, filled with swirling pink lemonade a la old fashioned soda shop style I thought.

Quiznos has extras like cookies, chips and bottled drinks just like their competitors do. Yes, they also offer catering. Kids meals? Check. So what might they be missing? A breakfast menu is something to consider. Quiznos already has the ham, cheese, steak and flatbreads in stock, why not invest in some eggs too?

It will be interesting to see where Quiznos and Quiznos' menu goes from here. Fortunately for them, there will always be a market for sandwiches. As the late American composer, Billy Rose, once wrote “ I don't need music, lobster or wine. Whenever your eyes look into mine, the things I long for are simple and few, a cup of coffee, a sandwich and you.”