May 23, 2010

Soma Chocolatemaker – Toronto


Whenever I visit my friend emily in Toronto, our activities revolve around food. When I was there around this time last year, I spent almost a week hanging out with her, and the days went something like this: walk, eat, walk some more, eat again, walk a bit more, eat another treat. It was fantastic.


I visited emily again last week, but this time I could only stay for a few days. Not to worry: we still managed to fit in some good eatin’. It has become a tradition for us to visit the Soma chocolate shop whenever I come to Toronto. I first discovered it about four years ago when I was studying at a chamber music program in nearby Oakville. My group came into the city to see a concert in the Distillery District, a small neighbourhood near downtown where all the distilleries used to be. Full of old, brick buildings and pedestrian cobblestoned streets, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the city. Near the concert hall was this chocolate shop, and my friends and I stopped in. It was incredible. If you like good chocolate and you go to Toronto, Soma is a requisite stop.


Soma is a shop, a cafe, and a mini chocolate factory. It sits in a beautiful Victorian industrial brick building, with high ceilings and a sophisticated, breezy atmosphere. It is what’s known as a bean-to-bar chocolate maker – one of only a few in Canada (including Choklat in Calgary).  They buy cocoa beans directly from plantations and make the chocolate themselves. The variety of products they create is astounding, and includes single-origin bars made from beans from the Ivory Coast, Masagascar, Peru and other countries.


They roast the cocoa beans and make all of their chocolate products on-site. There are large glass windows looking from the cafe into the production area so you can watch the chocolate artisans at work. Unfortunately when I was there last week the area was dead, but it was still interesting to look at the machines and wonder what they do. I don’t know if Soma offers tours but I would definitely go on one.


As for the products themselves, whenever I am there I pretty much want to buy everything. Along with their plain bars, they make small bars with added flavours, such as candied lemon and orange peel, almonds, and candied ginger. (I always pick up a ginger bar for J – they’re his favourite). They also create a similar product with large round discs of chocolate. I like the way the flavours are in large chunks or whole nuts and show through the chocolate – it has great visual appeal.


They also make various other sweet treats with combinations of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate, such as chocolate-covered nuts and coffee beans, and many types of cookies.


In the cafe you can order handmade truffles that beckon like jewels from the display case. If you’re in the mood for a hot drink there is a great variety of hot chocolate, including Mayan with spices, Italian hazelnut, “dark side of the mug”, and even a single chocolate shot (emily’s choice).


And to top it all off they make their own gelato.  This time around I chose a double scoop of coconut and mango. Both flavours tasted like the essential nature of the ingredient in a cold, creamy package. It was definitely some of the best gelato I’ve ever had. 


There is a lot of great chocolate in Edmonton, and Kerstin’s Chocolates is one of my favourite shops in the city. But Soma is something completely different. If you are in Toronto I highly recommend it.


SOMA Chocolatemaker
55 Mill St.
Toronto, ON

May 7, 2010

Spring Entertaining: Olive and Pistachio Tartine


After a long entertaining dry spell, we decided it was finally time to clean up the place and have some people over for supper. I think it was the lovely spring weather that put us in the mood. We love to entertain, but when we're super busy we kind of forget about it. We forget how much fun it is to plan a simple menu, cook up some delicious food, and share it with friends.

In my ever-so-lucky job at CBC radio, I get the chance to test-drive lots of cookbooks. We took some inspiration for our two recent soirees from one I received recently and another I reviewed last fall: Giada At Home by Giada de Laurentiis, and French Taste by Laura Calder.

I've never used a cookbook by Giada, though I've watched her show a few times on the Food Network and mostly been impressed by the size of her cleavage. But this cookbook is good. Simple recipes and a nice style. A few too many family photos for my taste, though.

Laura Calder's French Taste is fast becoming one of our favourite cookbooks. I loved this when I reviewed it, and we're still loving it. Confession: I never used to like Laura when I watched her show. She seemed kind of uppity. But when I interviewed her she was the sweetest thing, and I quickly became converted. I love that this book has little essays on the importance of shopping well, of eating with friends, and other civilized things. She's a charmer, and her recipes are great too. She brings a chic elegance to French food that has nothing stuffy or staid about it.

We made:

Pea Pesto from Giada


Olive and Pistachio Tartine from Laura

Warm Roasted Potato Salad from Laura

Sesame Soy Avocado from Laura

Prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese from Giada (these were good but sooo rich)

Pineapple Upside Down Cake from Nigella Express (another great

Our cookbook collection has probably doubled in the past year and a half (through CBC and my own buying), and now I find myself with books on the shelf that I've barely used. This week I'm beginning our menu planning more vigorously, and I'm going to try to use some of the books I don't know very well. Up next: Michael Smith's Chef at Home, Nigella Express, and We Eat Together by Julianna Mimande and Gabe Wong.

Olive and Pistachio Tartine
Adapted from French Food at Home by Laura Calder

This is is the easiest thing in the world but so satisfying, and it was one of the most popular things on the table the night we made it. I always forget how much I like olives and this is a great way to remind yourself.

All you do is take about a cup of black or kalamata olives, pit them (or do the smart thing and buy them pitted), chop them up into small pieces, and mix them with a few tablespoons olive oil, a few teaspoons of chopped thyme, zest from about half a lemon and a little lemon juice to taste. Season with ground black pepper, and that’s it! Spread onto rounds of crisped baguette and sprinkle with chopped pistachios – the combination is so perfect. This is basically a very simple version of olive tapenade, and if you wanted a smoother mixture you could easily blitz it through a food processor or crush it in a mortar and pestle. Really, you could season olives any number of ways and they would be delicious, so experiment and see what tastes good.

May 6, 2010

Zinc at the AGA

This morning on CBC radio I reviewed Zinc, the new restaurant at the Art Gallery of Alberta. You can listen to the review here. Usually when I review restaurants for CBC, I leave my camera at home. I don't want to draw atttention to myself and make the restaurant think I'm doing some kind of review. But I really want to return to Zinc if only to take photos! It's the most beautiful restaurant I've been to in Edmonton, and one of the most beautiful I've been to anywhere. Chic table settings with luminous blue water goblets, light coming in everywhere from floor-to-ceiling windows, and that amazing end-cut douglas fir wall.

The food looks great too, but the results weren't always fantastic. Definitely not worth the price tag for us. I found the menu pretty blah - a lot of typical choices, and very French preparations. Food like this doesn't have to be boring, of course - it all depends on the chef. The cocktails were delicious, though, and there are some other dishes I'd like to try (like the blueberry and lemon panna cotta and the Brome Lake duck breast).

I've read a lot of negative comments about the service on forums and other blogs, but our service was quite polished. A bit too earnest, and as others have noted, pretty green, but well-timed and polite, even when my husband had to send back an after-dinner drink twice.

We generally eat out at moderately-priced, casual places. The only other high-end restaurants we've visited in Edmonton are the Red Ox and the Blue Pear. We went to the Blue Pear during Fork Fest for the reduced price menu, and I still consider their regular prices prohibitively expensive. The food there was impressive and really pushed the envelope, but the service wasn't great and the atmosphere stank. We really liked the Red Ox and I think it is worth the price. The other high-end places I am itching to try are Madison's and Wildflower Grill - and although it's a little more casual, Wild Tangerine is also near the top of my list. It would be nice to find another special-occasion restaurant in Edmonton.

What are your favourite high-end Edmonton restaurants?