Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nadege Patisserie and Aunties and Uncles, Toronto ON Canada

Making my first trip to Toronto in over two years for the Hall of Fame Game and Hockey Hall of Fame Induction gala I was excited to make my first visit as an epicure who actually has the money to experience the best of Toronto’s cuisine. Arriving early en route from Buffalo on Saturday with plans for Brunch at Auntie’s and Uncles, I first wanted to check out some French pastries and my GPS led me straight to the doors of Nadege. Entering the shop just after 7:30 the team was hard at work in the open back kitchen while a single small woman with a pronounced French accent was placing items in the cases.

Stark, bright, and even perhaps “chic” the layout of the café was clearly designed not to evoke that contrived “bistro-feel” that places such as Payard evoke, but rather to focus one’s eyes on the colorful treats filling the cases – more gallery than restaurant. Browsing the sandwiches and chocolates I will admit that they looked tempting, but I was there for the sweets. Asking for descriptions of a couple items I settled on two macarons, an almond croissant, and something I’d never seen before – an homage of sorts to the macaron enitled “Marie Antoinette.” Paying the modest bill I thanked the clerk and made my way to the park to indulge.

Beginning with the croissant, the only word that comes to mind is wow. A perfect buttery crust, crispy exterior with a great yield of fluffiness inside, and plenty of nuance provided by the almonds, almond extract, and powdered sugar. While not quite as stunning as the version at Payard, the texture was spot on and easily ranks as the best croissant I’ve had in the last year.

Following the croissant I decided to sample the “simple” macarons before diving into the haute-macaron. Talking to the young clerk I learned that Nadege imports both the almond flour and most of the fillings for their 10 daily macarons and although I wanted to “compare” them to some of my other experiences, the unique selections were just too good to pass up – thus I went with one “known” and one “totally unknown.” The first, cappuccino, was essentially Nadege’s version of coffee – and a stunning version at that. Featuring a light crumb and potent coffee filling, the shells were perfectly baked with a crisp snap yielding a pillowy cookie of flavor – every bit on par with those at La Maison du Chocolate in New York in flavor and lagging only minimally in texture. The second macaron, Olive Oil, was very unique and quite similar to the cappuccino in the cookie, but nothing like it in filling. Featuring a smooth and buttery filling with just a hint of sweetness the cookie was like the essence of olive oil – a cookie version of Batali’s heavenly gelato at Otto.

My final selection, the Marie Antoinette, was essentially a rose macaron topped with a large dollop of creamy custard and then spotted with a multitude of mini-macaron cookies. Selecting a small instead of the larger cake version this item was approximately three bites large and absolutely wonderful – almost a blend of a macaron and an éclair – with the high notes of the rose macaron most notable, but also the sweetness of each of the mini-macarons coming through as well.

Having read about Chef Nourian’s pedigree and recent arrival from Paris I expected good things and most certainly was not let down – on a whole the macarons were nearly as good as La Maison, the croissant one of the best to ever grace my palate, and the Marie Antoinette a beautiful take on a classic dessert. While $11 for my selections did seem a tad steep at first, the price was definitely justified by the quality and it left me plenty of room for dessert after a walk through Kensington en route to A+U’s.

Arriving at Auntie’s and Uncles kitschy little store approximately 10 minutes before opening I was glad to see that there was no line – given some of the reviews I expected something like Dottie’s True Blue Café with people lined up 20 deep at opening. As the doors opened up myself and two others made our way in and were allowed to sit “wherever we like” – approximately ten minutes later every single seat in the place was full and a small line had formed. Handed a menu as I walked in I was oddly seated for nearly 15 minutes before orders were taken and coffee offered because two of the employees were actually sitting at a table eating their breakfast – not exactly professional, especially for a place so busy.

Once orders were finally placed I have to admit I liked AU’s design and concept – incredibly fresh food cooked right in front of the customers and a set menu plus daily specials based on the cook’s whim. Coffee was served quickly once my server finally finished up my meal, but unfortunately the only sweetener options were splenda and plain sugar – call me crazy but I quite like Equal. Coffee was adequate but certainly not designer – a relatively acidic blend no better than Tim Horton’s – and refills were slow.

Arriving only ten minutes after I placed my orders, both plates were brought together and both were piping hot and fresh from the kitchen. Having spent the duration of the wait discussing the irony of my neighboring diners being Torontonian basketball fans and myself an Ohioan hockey fan I had to laugh when my neighbor stated that I “ordered too much” and that there was “no way I’d be able to eat all that” – he didn’t even know about Nadege. Having selected one sweet and one savory, a “special” and a “menu item” I figured I’d have a nice sampling of what Auntie’s kitchen could do.

Beginning first with the sweet special, Banana Ricotta Pancakes with cinnamon, fruit, and pure maple syrup – these were excellent. Having had ricotta pancakes once in the past and being largely impressed by the moist pockets of cheese but not sold on the cake texture, Auntie’s and Uncles offering was vastly superior to the last incarnation with a light and airy dough laden with caramelized cinnamon bananas and perfectly complimented by the somewhat bitter yet bold maple syrup. While I’d have preferred the syrup warm this small oversight didn’t hurt the dish and I was glad the kitchen didn’t make the choice to slather the dish with butter like so many others do.

The second dish, a menu “savory” that I’d read rave reviews of honestly didn’t fare as well as the pancakes. Entitled Grilled Brie with Pear Chutney and Walnuts on Challah, I honestly found the dish relatively lacking in flavor. While the bread was beautiful with a mild sweetness coming through the buttery grilled exterior, the pears were largely flavorless (strange given the season,) and the timid brie was vastly overwhelmed by the bitter/earthy walnuts. Well prepared, no doubt, and improved with the addition of some of the syrup from my pancakes, but definitely not something I’d order again – a sad statement considering my love of brie, pears, and grilled cheese in general.

All told I guess I just don’t get the fuss about Auntie’s and Uncles aside from the “cult appeal.” While the pancakes were indeed excellent, the fact that they were a menu special does not assure them to be available daily and the overall “aloofness” of the servers was rather off-putting. Mediocre coffee, an average sandwich, a limited menu (and don’t even get me started on the bathroom)…while I don’t regret the trip and mostly did enjoy my breakfast at Auntie’s and Uncles, in hindsight I’d have rather spent my money on some more of Nadege’s delicacies.

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