Zen Japanese Restaurant
Image by Sifu Renka
As featured on TasteTO:
What do you get when a group of people trek across the city for a sole purpose? In Toronto, it could mean a host of things, but for people with food on the brain, it suggests good eats. Some circles label themselves as a food aficionado meet-up group, while others are classified as an elite band of foodies. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a handful of local food enthusiasts who have been brought together by our common interest, tastes, and apparent obsession with photo-documenting what we eat.
Whatever our background, training, culture and degree of separation, it was our eagerness to find tasty treats (and to do so with others), that brought us together. Online and offline messaging, a couple of dinners, a food project and excursions to source rare treats later, we find the planting of a seed for friendships centered around the art of consumption. An open invitation to others who also professed a love for all things edible resulted in amalgamation of our scattered selves into a grand dozen this past April.
Of those involve, some members have partial links to the industry, others are well known local food bloggers, a few participate on Chowhound, while half our group feel at home on eGullet and Flickr. These newly made connections have been highly educational and often times, extremely delicious. Where else would you find people enthusiastic enough to seek out the best gelato in Toronto and are willing enough to sample 14 litres of the frozen delight from eight different gelaterias all in one day?
The Saturday dinner at Zen (2803 Eglinton Avenue East, Scarborough) was like any other social event that our group has gathered for. A spontaneous suggestion and an interest to revisit a recent find spurs into a quaint reservation for six. With our omakase menus ordered, along with a few additional dishes, we sat back to catch up on the latest news. However, conversations at the table stray from the typical to focus on foodstuff: “Where have you dined recently?” “How was your excursion to country X to try out restaurant Y?” “What’s the next big food project/on the menu for your holiday feast?” “Ooh, how was the vodka pie crust?” “You’re going to San Fran? Don’t forget to Open Table the French Laundry. And please have a pain au chocolat at Tartine on my behalf!” “Did you try the new peas and carrots flavoured macaron or vanilla series when you visited Pierre Hermé?”
At the appearance of the first plate, cameras make their grand entrance and flurries of digital images are captured. “Can I get one more picture?” “Oh, do you have better lighting on that side?” “Did you get a picture of the freshly grated wasabi??” The servers are sensitive to our interest in documenting everything possible, and make an extra effort to place each new plate in front of the evening’s photographers.
That night we have the pleasure of seeing a duo experience their first taste of natto. We giggle and laugh as we share (horror) stories about past experiences with the fermented bean. While the newbies messily consumed the mushy product in all its slimy glory, our table breaks into talks regarding the aroma, tastes, textures, and final opinion of the product. Conclusions are made about the popularity of natto at our table as the native natto “lover” graciously turns down offers to sample the unfinished dish.
Between courses, dialogue transpires into the perfect way to cook and serve bacon. All but one of us reel in horror at the confessed preference for just-cooked non-crisp strips of the pork belly, while I share my love for the leaner “deep fried” version (for the curious, it is completely crispy, and not at all greasy). Others present their tips in the oven and microwave techniques for cooking the sodium-laden meat strips; a pair highly recommended using leftover bacon fat to cook eggs for the perfect breakfast treat.
Our mains arrive and chatter continues about the plating, the floral nuance of the fresh wasabi, the freshness of the silky squid, the sweetness of the uni, and love for the toro we are given. I noticed that there was an absence of salmon on our platters, and my friend is quick to highlight the point that we didn’t receive any “standard” sushi tray fillers. We are equally impressed by the rice, but do not share the same sentiments for the procession of desserts that conclude our meals.
After a relatively healthy dinner, the majority of our group decide to stop off at Manic Coffee (426 College Street), the café owned by one of our serious eaters (and resident coffee expert), for evening drinks. We are lucky to be able to sip on a mug of this week’s special beans that come straight from his secret stash. Putting this evening over the top, we are treated to the coffee shop’s latest feature: freshly baked, flaky, buttery croissants from Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. Did I fail to mention that this was at 11:45pm and they came piping hot from Manic’s in-house convection oven?
As the evening comes to a close, we bid adieu until our next gathering. I happily carry my bag of dried blueberries, a package given to me by a “very sweet” lady at dinner tonight. Another happily holds on to her trio of chocolates, a souvenir from France. Be it a sought after item as rare as tea from the orient or France, freshly baked cookies, a case of Quelque Chose, or a loaf of bread from the west coast or bagels sped in overnight from Montreal, food gifts are not a rare occurrence within our group. After all, they do say the best way to a (wo)man’s heart is through his/her stomach!
The online food community has been steadily growing. The possibilities are endless when those first steps are taken to realize what is out there. For those of us who have exhausted the palates of our nearest and dearest, meeting like-minded individuals who enjoy food may reinvigorate our love for the art. The best part in taking the initiative to become a part of a dining group, besides a full stomach and broadened food horizons, are the friendships that are formed. And in the end, who could ask for anything more?