Charlie's Burgers Does Anti-Burgers

I needed a couple of days to literally and figuratively digest my latest Charlie's Burgers experience. It was so decadent and pleasantly strange, surreal even.

I was instructed to meet 'the man sitting on the wine barrel' outside the Baton Rouge on Front street at 6:40 pm sharp on Easter Sunday. My partner in crime and I arrived with 10 minutes to spare and shuffled around anxiously, awaiting our turn. In this seemingly-eternal waiting period, everyone on the street seemed like they could be headed to the dinner. Suddenly everyone became a suspect. Was the person dressed up? Did they look sketchy or nervous?

Within a short time period, we saw other lurkers who were clearly awaiting their time to meet the barrel man. Our excitement grew.

At 6:40 pm we approached him. He welcomed us warmly and checked our names off the list then handed us a small box containing the clue for where our dinner would be held, a fast food carton, inscribed with the famous initials CB. We were told to put our dinner money in the box to deliver upon arrival at the destination.

We eagerly opened the box to discover a Steamwhistle coaster and concluded that the brewery was our next destination. We made our way down towards the lake and were greeted by a bouncer at the brewery door who welcomed us inside. We placed our money in the fast food container we were welcomed inside.

Inside, we mingled with other patrons as we drank pints and awaited the festivities. The experience felt larger and more mainstream than my previous dealings with Charlie, but not in a bad way. I was pleased to see that the movement had gained real traction in the GTA and cultivated a dedicated fan base

I had strategically starved myself based on my previous Charlie's Burgers experience. By the time we were seated at the long, extended table, I was utterly famished.

First up was the D'Amare Rosso IGT 2007 (Super-Tuscan) Imprunetta to pair along with The Breakfast Burger, courtesy of Chef Scott Vivian from Beast Restaurant. The wine was lovely and low in tannins, as is my preference and experience with real Italian table wines, and I appreciated the heart caribiner keepsake I got to keep from the bottle. The burger was deconstructed, arriving like a stew in a bowl. The flavours were sweet and savoury at once: a cardamom creme fraiche pancake, smoked pork belly, seared foie gras, maple curd, duck fat tator tots and monforte goat's milk cheddar. I polished my bowl ravenously and braced myself for more richness to come.

The Breakfast Burger
The next course was The Mushroom Umami Burger from Howard Dubrovsky at Live and Breathe (L.A.B.) restaurant. It came with tomato anise chutney and smoked old cheddar. I don't know how Dubrovsky managed to get so much umami into that burger, but it certainly lived up to its name. It was spectacular. The wine pairing was a lovely Diadema Bianco IGT 2009 Imprunetta- easily one of the best whites I've ever tasted and certainly not standard LCBO fare. The bottle was adorned with pink Swarovski crystals that pleased all the ladies in the crowd.

It was a pleasant vegetable break in an otherwise carb-and-meat-heavy meal.

Next came The Beast 'Burger' Terrine, complete with caramelized onions, house made ketchup, aioli, and St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout grain mustard. These were likely the best burger condiments I've ever eaten. I typically find that homemade ketchup (anything but Heinz) misses the mark, but this one was rich and flavourful. The mustard was outstanding. My favourite part was the little honey truffled milkshake that came on the plate. I would drink one of those every day if I could.

The Mushroom Umami Burger
This course paired with an Alsatian wine: Kultmann - Platz Riesling 2009 Alsace, France - Les Viticulteurs Reunis de Hunawihr.

By this point my belly was already feeling like it might burst- and two courses remained. I was pleased to have a slight break to catch my breath and chat with our neighbours.

The Beast "Burger" Terrine
As always, the multiple Charlie servers were an absolute pleasure, making sure that everyone knew the details of each course and ensuring that all patrons were enjoying their time. The whole mandate of Charlie's Burgers is to bring back the mandate of pleasure eating, free from the capitalist clutches of The Industry. It's a chance for food lovers to indulge in something they would not normally be able to eat and an opportunity for chefs to play and curate a menu that wouldn't work in a restaurant setting due to cost and eccentricity. The Charlie servers live and breathe by these beliefs and relish in the opportunity to celebrate the joy of cooking and pleasure in food.

Next came dessert...

The Dessert Burger! Chef Dubrovsky wanted it to look like a trashy McDonaldsesque fast food burger and we all agreed that he succeeded.

The burger was composed of two doughnut buns, tomato jellies and "mustard," which I think was a citrus reduction. The patties were made of chocolate meringue. A real trompe l'oeil!

The Dessert Burger
I felt a slight bit of relief after finishing the dessert course, knowing I wouldn't have to find any more space for food. The final course was an optional scotch and cigar course, which we elected to participate in.

Front and center was a Mombacho Corona Cigar - Indonesian seed grown in Nicaragua, that included a blend of tobaccos grown in three different regions. I don't know much about cigars and I could smoke the whole thing, but I did appreciate the smoothness of the flavour and how it complemented the other tobacco-infused components of the final course.

To complement the tobacco in the cigar, we enjoyed a special Glenmorangie Single-Malt Scotch, which genius mixologist Frankie Solarik from Barchef had infused with Nicaraguan tobacco. Again, I don't know too much about scotch, but I noticed how the flavours in the cigar complemented those in the scotch.

The Final Course
Finally, we enjoyed The Beast After Bite, a tobacco-infused chocolate ganache with single-malt scotch caramel, nougat, feullatine, and smoked sea salt. This treat came courtesy of Rachel Vivian, co-owner and pastry chef of Beast.

If you are interested in participating in Charlie's Burgers, Toronto's very own anti-restaurant, sign up on Charlie's website. You will then be sent a questionnaire to fill out, asking you questions about your food preferences. After that, you will be added to the email distribution list which will disclose the featured chef, menu and cost of the next Charlie's Burgers meal. The location is always cryptic (and fun.)

Remember to bring your appetite and a very adventurous palate.

Good luck!

Cooking in the future (as forecast in the early '90s)

I loved this projection of what cooking could look like in the future from the early 90s. It's a little bit accurate and a little bit hilarious.

(Via Swiss Miss)

Woodlot - You catch more bees with honey...

I recently made two dinner reservations on the same evening for the same occasion. One was at Origin, which Toronto Life had recently ranked as our city's Number One restaurant. It sounded exciting, but challenging. Chris Nuttall-Smith wrote of Origin, "Ear-blistering ’70s rock, kitchen pyrotechnics, Godzilla figurines—they’re all part of the magic at Claudio Aprile’s madhouse of a restaurant" and "Origin is occasionally maddening (the Black Sabbath cranked to 11; the hurried service) but it's also brilliant..."

Grapefruit cocktail with bitters
I started to second-guess myself . For a birthday dinner, it might be nice to sit somewhere more relaxing than geniale, somewhere that doesn't offer an assault! on the senses. Origin seems like the kind of place one might need to brace herself for- less a dining experience and more of an adventure.

I was also surprised to see that Toronto Life had originally ranked the restaurant with two-and-a-half stars before putting it at the top of their 2011 restaurant list. Either the magazine is not consistent or Origin really stepped up their game in recent months. 

Lastly, and perhaps, most significantly of all, I still have residual beef with Origin's owner, Claudio Aprile, over a coke-induced heated tyrade he went on against food bloggers. You can read my less-than-pleased post here: "Biting the hand that feeds."

Gnocchi with goat cheese and poppyseed

I'm sure I'll go there eventually, but, quite frankly, Origin keeps getting kicked down my list of places to visit becuase of Chef Aprile's foolish misstep.

So where did I go instead? Woodlot. Occupying the former location of my favourite the only club I enjoyed attending in Toronto, Octopus, I was hoping some of that location's charm would rub off. 

And it did.

By contrast to Origin, other reviews of Woodlot continually made reference to the cozy atmosphere and comforting, carb-heavy menu. A number of people mentioned the spectacular wood-burning oven. It sounded like a pleasureable experience and pleasure is certainly more my scene.

I knew I liked the place as soon as the hostess greeted us. She was kind and warm in a very genuine way. My positive impression continued as we sat down in the upper loft. Light poured through the skylight, drawing attention to the wine cellar and dark wood details. Our server arrived, even friendlier than the hostess. I ordered a white grapefruit and vodka cocktail with bitters. My companion had a nice, bitter stout.

Steak, medium-rare
We decided to share a large portion of goat cheese and poppyseed gnocchi ($19) to start. It was divine - creamy and unexpected. Goaty, without being too gamey. The poopyseeds were an unexpected and creative addition, popping pleasantly in our mouths.

Another detail I noticed was the wardrobe of the servers: different-coloured, loose-fitted men's shirts- classic and comfortable. Whenever I go somewhere and the waitresses are dressed in barely-there miniskirts or cleavage-revealing tops, I shudder and then wonder how the food is going to taste. Don't get me wrong, I understand the way the world works. I know staff members need to get tips, but I expect this kind of costuming from a club or a bar, not a restaurant. (Take note Nota Bene.) The men's shirts also fit the clever lodge-like motif of Woodlot. The whole place feels very Canadian without being an over-the-top hunting lodge caricature.
Snails and bacon on a bed of polenta

My companion ordered the steak, which arrived on a gorgeous wood plank and had a gooey dollop of herb butter on top ($29.) I ordered snails and bacon on a bed of polenta. It was served with a delicious, brown reduction and some wilted greens, mushrooms and scattered with pumpkin seeds ($24.) Very umami. The polenta had been grilled in such a way that it retained its composition. Both the dishes were perfectly seasoned. 

Because of the decadent nature of our mains, we shared a side of rapini ($6), which was tossed in herbs, hot peppers, lemon and butter. It was perfectly cooked, retaining the bite of the vegetable. Depending on how long you've been reading this blog, you'll know how much I love rapini. I really appreciate this recent restaurant trend of offering side vegetables for the table to share. Turnips were another tempting option that I will try on another occasion.

Rapini tossed in herbs, lemon and butter
We finished the meal with a lemon curd and wild blueberry tart that was topped with an earth-shattering pillow of homemade mashmallow. The combination sounded intriguing, but the result was far more than the sum of its parts. The flavours melded together. Why has no one put marshmallows with lemon before. Why has no one told me about this! I absolutely loved it. 

Frankly, the more I reflect on my experience at Woodlot, the better it gets. It's a comfortable unpretentious place to go for a birthday or romantic dinner. The coziness makes it feel a little wintery so I wonder if the menu will lighten up in the hotter months.

I wholeheartedly recommend you try this spot. Its atmosphere makes it suitable for the whole family. The bakery opens early in the morning, offering warm and sweet baked goods, which I must return to try.
Lemon curd and wild blueberry tarte with marshmallow

293 Palmerston Avenue
Toronto, ON M6J 2J3
(647) 342-6307

Reservations Recommended

Hours Tuesday-Friday 
7:30am-4pm, 5pm-2am

8:30am-4pm, 5pm-2am

4.5 Star Anises (out of a possible 5)

Charlie's Burgers Revival - A return to the roots of Sift, Dust & Toss

I wrote my first blog post more than two years ago, on January 21, 2009. The post included an original recipe for fennel salad that I still make all the time. In the months that followed, I gained momentum and found I really enjoyed blogging.

On March 1, 2009, I caught wind of a secret fine dining trend that was happening in Toronto, most notably through an organization/individual named Charlie's Burgers. I was intrigued and a little intimidated by the idea. It started to gain momentum and journalists from the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star attended these secret dinners.

On March 27, 2009, I wrote a blog post speculating about Charlie's identity. My belief was that he was Jamie Drummond, prominent sommelier for Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy. This blog post caused a lot of chatter in Toronto, getting hyperlinked by and receiving cheers and jeers from food experts and other food bloggers. Jamie Drummond responded with a comment directly on my blog and I received an e-mail from the elusive Charlie, dispelling the rumour I had started. Jamie Drummond was even quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, "Despite popular rumours on the Internet, I am certainly not Charlie."

Looking back, I realize it was that speculative blog post that elevated the stature and popularity of Sift, Dust & Toss.

Later in April, I was invited to attend a Charlie's Burgers dinner, the theme of which was Your Last Meal on Earth. (Menu here.) It was an unbelievably special experience, one that I will never forget. The meal was held in eccentric millionnaire collector, Billy Jamieson's apartment, filled with dark and ancient tribal arts collections that felt more like a gallery than a home. (Pictures here and here and here - although they don't fully do it justice.) When I walked in the door, my eyes met those of Susur Lee, Canada's culinary pride and joy. I was humbled by the stature of my dining companions.

Our chef for the evening was Victor De Guzman, sous-chef of Cambridge's esteemed Langdon Hall. It's considered to be one of the top restaurants in Canada. We savoured oysters, scallops and charred octopus, a mature egg delicacy from Hanoi, cured and roasted duck breast, a Itoham Kobe beef striploin course, and, for dessert, a cashew, praline and meringue torte accompanied by mangosteen, coconut caramel ice cream.

My blog generated some debate about the authenticity of the Kobe beef, which I vehemently defended. Chef De Guzman wrote to me personally and defended the authenticity of the product. Charlie also contacted me. Naysayers and dissidents will always exist. Their jealousy did not succeed in detracting from our spectacular dining experience.

A year later, I would get the amazing opportunity to visit Langdon Hall myself and experience the delightful cooking of Chef De Guzman again with a fabulous tasting menu.

All this walking down memory lane leads my to the point of this post: I'm attending another Charlie's Burgers dinner this Sunday and I'm more excited than ever. As is the custom with these secret dinners, I don't know where it will take place, but I do know who the guest chef is and what the menu will be. Suffice to say, I'm very excited.

The menu is below. Click the image to see it up close.

And just in case that wasn't special enough, here's the optional additional course:

Recap to follow dinner Sunday evening. Stay tuned.

If you are interested in experiencing Charlie's Burgers, sign up here. You can also follow Charlie's Burgers on Twitter.

Red Prince, My Saviour!

Dramatic, Wedding-Cake-Like Package
Nothing could have brightened this dark and dreary day more than what I received today: a lovely package from Red Prince Apples to celebrate the Royal Wedding! I've previously written about this rare and wonderful apple varietal. It is, without question, my very favourite (yes, even more than Honeycrisp!)

My dramatic wedding-cake-like-package included:
1. A talking apple alarm clock (to make sure I wake up on time to watch the procession and ceremony)
2. Gilded Caramel Apple Truffles
3. Red Prince Apple Gem Scones
4. Red Prince apples
Red Prince Apples and Talking Alarm Clock. So cute!

Truffles! Filled with apple!! If Red Prince were human, I'd marry him indeed.

Below I've included a recipe for Red Prince Apple Gem Scones with Clotted Cream, courtesy of the Red Prince himself. It's the perfect regal treat to savour while you watch Kate Middleton walk down the aisle with your man Prince William.

Red Prince Apple Gem Scones with Clotted Cream

The Red Prince apples used in these scones make for a light and moist biscuit. Paired with clotted cream, a traditional English spread, these Red Prince Apple Gem Scones are the perfect treat to serve at a mid-day bridal shower or afternoon tea party.
Red Prince Apple Gem Scones with Clotted Cream

2 Red Prince apples, cored and finely diced
2 tbsp of lemon juice
2 tbsp of brown sugar
1/4 tsp of cinnamon
2 cups of all purpose flour
2 tsp of baking powder
1 cup of milk
2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup salted butter, frozen
demerara sugar for sprinkling, optional
clotted cream

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F (218 C).
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, combine apples with lemon, sugar and cinnamon and let sit.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and baking powder, set aside.
  4. In a small bowl, combine milk and apple cider vinegar; let sit for a few minutes.
  5. Grate frozen butter and add to flour mixture, stirring to combine.
  6. Drain the Red Prince apples and mix into flour and butter to coat. Pour milk into dry ingredients mixing with a fork until just combined being careful not to overwork the dough.
  7. Roll dough to 1-inch (2.5 cm) thickness and with a cookie cutter cut into 1 ½” (3.5 cm) rounds. Sprinkle with demerara sugar (if desired) and bake for 15 minutes or until bottoms are light golden brown.
  8. Serve with clotted cream and good quality tea.
Makes 25 scones.

Gilded Caramel Red Prince Apple Truffles

The World's Top 50 Restaurants

Yesterday, San Pellegrino announced their list of "The World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards." Click here to view the full list of winners.

Of note, no Canadian restaurants made the cut- much to my food blogging chagrin. 

What do you think? Should one of ours have made the cut? Do you disagree with any of the selections?

Bellevue Encore

Just because I love it this much, here are a couple dark shots of dinner: a spectacular steak salad with shaved pecorino, and the daily special - scallops and shrimp in a buerre blanc sauce on a beet-stained quinoa salad with walnuts and wilted micro-greens. I make quinoa all the time and this was the best I've ever had. So much flavour and texture. Absolutely amazing.
Steak Salad with Shaved Pecorino
Beurre Blanc Scallops & Shrimp on Quinoa Salad
Read all about brunch and see the full review of The Bellevue here.

The Bellevue

I think it's fair to say this blog post has only been a mere six months in the making. It's been welling up- percolating inside me for ages. I would write pieces and take pictures then go back again, with each meal trumping the previous one.

I've been to the Bellevue more than a handful times since it opened late last summer. Located at the Western side of Kensington Market, at the corner of Bellevue and Nassau, it's the best-kept secret in this city and the best thing to happen to Toronto since The Black Hoof.

And it's more my beat than those offal nose-to-tail spots. I'll delve into organs and exotic fare, but is it relaxing and pleasurable? Does that make me feel good? Does it nourish my body? Is it wholesome?

Daily Special: Shrimp Tacos
Ultimately no. I'm more Aristotelian than that.

I keep going back because the Bellevue is adventurous. The menu offers playful and exciting ingredients with an emphasis on local and organic fare. The owners are committed to supporting sustainable farming practices and working closely alongside local farmers.

I leave feeling pleasantly satiated, not stuffed with butter. I love the owners, the serving staff, and the casual easygoing atmosphere. I love the price points (reasonable), the piano out front, the perfectly thought-out portion sizes and even the unpretentious, run-of-the-mill toilets downstairs.

El Especial
The menu offers selections for vegetarian palates too. I contend there is something for everyone! Bring your hipsters, health nuts, children and even suits. Come one, come all (but don't make the lineup too long because I found it first!)

El Especial ($12) is The Bellevue's most popular brunch dish: scrambled eggs, salsa verde, three lean pork sausages or thick-cut bacon - both from Sanagan's organic butcher shop, a bowl of black beans topped with avocado and two tostadas.

More adventurous palates might appreciate The Unusual: 2 eggs sunny side up, Sanagan's summer sausage, kimchi, strong white cheddar, oven roasted beets with toast and fruit. It's a fun dish that I would order again because of all the different taste components.

The Pack o' Stancakes ($13) will please sweet teeth, all whilst being gluten free. These cottage cheese pancakes come with caramelized apples, fresh fruit and maple syrup. Amazing. Sweet. Split one with your darling along with a savoury dish and get the best of both worlds.

Pack O' Stancakes
Accompany your breakfast with espresso fare, $7 Caesars, $7 Mimosas, and $5 freshly-squeezed orange juice. Feeling stoic? Enjoy a plate of Greens with Envy ($8) - purple kale, dandelion, cucumber, green onion, nutty sprouts and broccoli in a white vinaigrette.

Leave some room for dessert. I had the best crème brûlée ($7) I've ever enjoyed in my life after dinner one night. A beautiful experience. Julie's Pies ($6) are baked by one of the owner's sisters with berries and fruits from their family farm. The flavours change seasonally. The cherry pie was the best I've ever had.

I deliver this review with mixed emotions. I want The Bellevue to succeed and thrive, but I want to keep it as a secret for myself. In the end, I'm giving the place the praise it deserves. The Bellevue offers care and love and consideration. It would be bad karma for me to keep that to myself. Let's face it, I'll keep going back no matter what.

This restaurant deserves the elusive ranking of five star anises.

Ranking: 5/5

The Bellevue
61 Bellevue Avenue
Toronto, ON
(647) 340-8224

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Multi-Citrus Guacamole Recipe

Nothing says summer like fresh guacamole served with tostadas or tortilla chips. The ingredients are bright and happy, but the sum is infinitely greater than its parts. Brushing up on those ol' guacamole skills will serve to be prudent as we approach the festivities of Cinco de Mayo and prime patio season.

It's my belief that the best guacamole is made with a good old fashioned mortar and pestle, much like proper pesto. If you don't have a real mortar and pestle, you can employ the same method using a wooden spoon and a heavy bowl. They key is to stir and mash simultaneously, in a single, swift motion. Avocado is the star of the show in guacamole and it's just not the same when it's been puréed to a homogenized pulp in a food processor. I like to keep a bit of that delicious avocado texture.

Guacamole is all about fresh, high-quality ingredients and it's meant to be enjoyed immediately. If you're missing something on the list below then you're better off leaving that item out instead of diminishing the dish with an inferior powdered or canned ingredient. No fridge lime juice either! Only the real deal.

Restaurants sometimes add sour cream or mayonnaise to the recipe, but there isn't really any need. Avocados are plenty rich and those creamy additions will just detract from the delicious avocado flavor and dull the other vibrant flavours we all look forward to.

Tasting as you go is essential for any recipe, but particularly for guacamole. Depending on the season, produce availability, and size and ripeness of the avocados, you may need to add more lime, an extra pinch of salt or sugar, or an extra avocado.

I leave the pits in until I'm ready to serve the guac. It helps slow down the oxidization process and keeps the dish lovely and green. Lime juice also helps to slow the browning. In the recipe below, I added a touch of lemon juice and orange juice for extra citrus dimension, along with the slightest hint of orange, lemon and lime rind and a bit of the orange pulp. The sweetness from the orange balances out the bitterness of the salt, tequila and rind for optimal flavor balance. Now that I've made this multi-citric guacamole, I'll never make another version. This one rocks and it's a feast for the eyes with all its wonderful colours.

The quantities listed below are a good guideline, but remember to taste, taste, taste! Feel empowered to add more or less of the items to suit your personal palate.


  • 4 ripe Mexican Hass avocados (black skin that is firm, but yields to the touch)
  • 1/4 red onion, diced
  • 2 scallions, chopped thin
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, diced (or a handful of cherry tomatoes)
  • 2 jalapeño peppers with seeds and veins removed, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped fine
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon of course sea salt
  • rind of 1 lime
  • rind of 1 lemon
  • rind of 1/2 an orange
  • juice of 1 lime
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 orange, peeled, segmented and chopped
  • 1-2 drops of good, Mexican tequila

1. Combine the ripe avocados with the citrus juices as you gently mash them against the side of the bowl. Remember not too stir the guacamole too much so you can keep some texture in the dip!

2. Gently incorporate all the other ingredients into the avocado mixture.

3. Taste and adjust.

4. Serve to friends.

5. Beam with with pride.

Avocado Nutrition

Avocados are rich in mono and polyunsaturated fats that lower LDL cholesterol and help your heart.

Avocados fill you up. Put some in your salad notice how you stay full much longer.

The creamy texture of avocados is great for people who have difficulty digesting lactose. Puree them in salad dressing or add them to your morning smoothie instead of yogurt.

Avocados have Potassium, Vitamin B6,  Vitamin C, Folate, Vitamin E, Fibre as well as the antioxidants Lutein and Beta-sitosterol.

For a fantastic deep-conditioning treatment, mash up an avocado and leave it in your hair for 30 minutes as a deep conditioner. For a simple, moisturizing homemade skin cream that uses avocados, click here.