Sunday, 21 April 2013

Astoria Shish Kebob House

My mother is Canadian of English background, my father was Greek. That makes me one of the most well spoken and irrational characters going. I was influenced my both sides of the family as far as cuisine is concerned but one thing we could always agree on is our love for good Greek food. Who in the world doesn't enjoy Greek food? We all have our favorite Greek dish and everyone has their favorite Greek restaurant. I left my favorite Greek restaurant behind when I moved to Toronto 7 years ago. It was a time to make new friends and explore new opportunities but someone had to get me to the Greek already!

Not long after I moved to Toronto, I was introduced to Astoria Shish kebob House in Mississauga, ON. A friend of mine suggested we go for lunch. What a terrific discovery it was! It was the perfect place for a lazy lunch and has become one of my favorite places to eat. It's quite nice inside and hardly formal. Bistro style dinning it's best.

The first thing I noticed was it's cleanliness and ding room's airy design. It leaves you feeling like you can dine with space and features a stone fire place at center. It's a Mediterranean atmosphere without all the usual gimmicks that come with selling Greek cuisine. There's no dancing, no plate smashing and thankfully no naked statue of Apollo with his OPA out!  They have a modest wine list, bottled beer and a standard bar rail to offer. That and their open concept grill would suggest the emphasis is all on food.

Watch their grill master prepare all the Greek specialties or just enjoy the wafting aromas from your table. Their lamb souvlaki is a robust skewer prepared to a temperature you'd enjoy. It's served with some of the best tzatziki ever made. I have yet to find something it doesn't taste amazing with. The menu at Astoria has all that you'd expect of good Mediterranean cuisine.

Astoria offers a small patio that can be enjoyed all summer long. Located on a busy stretch on Dundas St. the patio is set well enough off of the road that it can be enjoyed without the dust traffic can kick up. I've popped in many times for just a cold  Stella Artios and a flaming saganaki. on a hot summer day. A cold beer and that salty kefalograviera is often more enticing than the rest of the days responsibilities.

Last June my uncle George past away at the age of 92. One of the last of his generation, God rest his soul. Many arrangements had to be made and we all did our part as a family. For me, Astoria was an easy choice made for a group of 32 friends and family. The solarium couldn't have been more appropriate to celebrate a good man's legacy. It was a sun filled room on a beautiful summer day, symbolic of his eternal memory. Agiorgitiko complimented with feta cheese was a wine selection that everyone enjoyed. Hummus, olives and pita for all!  Greek village salad and grilled Chilean Sea Bass was served. It was everything we could have possibly enjoyed.  The children devoured all of their souvlaki. and were mystified by the flaming saganaki.

The service was attentive; it always is, our waiter worked a relaxed pace. Astoria couldn't have offered us a better experience. See you again soon.

Astoria Sish Kebob House


Appetizer: Saganaki, Hummus

Entree: Lamb Souvlaki, Chilean Sea Bass

Desert: Baklava

Saturday, 13 April 2013

God's Serving Integrity and it Tastes Devine

If you're passionate about anything at all, you hope to inspire those most dear. Remove all ignorance and be known. There's no denying my passion for food and service so long as I can remember. Some of my fondest memories are of  fishing with my grandfather. I'd hover over his shoulder as he filleted our catch. I peeled vegetables with my grandmother and baked bread with my mother. Everything we made was from scratch.

My grandmother schooled me on which silver to use and my mother on my manner. My grandfather provided all the charade, our dining room the fanciest of restaurants. He'd inspect my glass against the light then pour a third of a glass. He'd snap my napkin over my lap, and confirm his perfect pour, "2% sir?" I often wonder who I'd be if it wasn't for the time we shared? For the time it took to prepare good food was the time we knew each other.

It hardly takes a keen eye to know that times have changed. I can stand in a checkout at the grocery store and be horrified by what I see. Chicken nuggets, hot dogs, frozen pizza, ready made sauces, powdered juice, canned pasta, processed meat and more. I wonder where all the ingredients have gone? Hot dogs alone are a multi-billion dollar industry in North America and if you're from the U.S.A, you celebrate, "National Hot Dog Month".  Every July is a special time to honor it's contents of mechanically separated chicken, pork and beef. It's a delicious batter of meat, skin and bone laced with massive amounts of salt. Thickening agents are used to bind its contents that are also known to include snouts, ears, organs, vegetarian meat substitutes and preservatives. The only people that should celebrating "Hot Dog Month", are the people that sell them!

I'm hesitant to think it was God's intentions when he appointed Noah to build an ark. Preserve all species two by two, so they may walk the earth once more. Depicted by artists, Jesus stands over the 12 apostles and God's  bounty of fresh ingredients. "The Last Supper", as it were. A feast! A blessing of nourishing food. Blasphemous it would be if it were written of 5000, that Jesus fed them til their bellies were full, but only 2 chicken nuggets and 5 pizza pockets.

I count my blessings today for the many chefs and food lovers that protect the integrity of food. I'm hopeful when I see food forums and food communities that have so many recipes to teach. They're full of passionate people that post their beautiful images. It's easy to feel inspired when so many learn from each other. So many families will benefit from their passion about good food.

Jamie Oliver on taking processed food away from our children. -"It's like taking away a pair of David Beckham Adidas football boots and giving them a pair of Jesus sandals."

Nothing could be closer to the truth.

If you've never heard of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, I strongly urge you to watch his documentary called Jamie's School Dinners. It chronicles his plight to ban processed food from London schools. It's a shocking  series that follows a celebrity chef's efforts as he moves to convert children's eating habits, gain the confidence of school boards, increase funding from government and keep the support of parents.

Heart & Stroke
Mental Illness

Only to mention a handful of ways that our children won't live with dignity. There's crucial few years that young bodies and minds will have to develop and grow. It's the only chance we have to influence their standard of life. Entire Nations suffer from famine and disease. A starving child will never have a choice to eat with integrity or not. It's horrifying to think it's appropriate, the gut wrenching image it is. A child deserves the necessities of life. A child deserves good food.

I certainly don't live perfectly. Not by any means a medical authority. I'm just a cook that knows good food that's made with real ingredients.

Jamie's School Dinners:

Episode 1 part 1
Episode 1 part 2
Episode 1 part 3
Episode 1 part 4
Episode 2 part 1
Episode 2 part 2
Episode 2 part 3
Episode 2 part 4
Episode 3 part 1
Episode 3 part 2
Episode 3 part 3
Episode 3 part 4
Episode 4 part 1
Episode 4 part 2
Episode 4 part 3
Episode 4 part 4
Episode 5 part 1
Episode 5 part 2
Episode 5 part 3
Episode 5 part 4
Episode 5 part 5

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Bacardi Mojito: Why can't I get one?

As professional servers, we have a well developed instinct for the guests we host. We've done this for years and we're good!  We can greet a first time guest at the door, hang their jacket, show them to their reserved table and already we have an accurate vibe for their quirky nature. Call it what ever you will, it just comes with experience. Clientele are quirky indeed (we all are) and they all have their own vision of what their experience should be. There's nothing more satisfying than a satisfied guest. Of course! This is our livelihood and the lifeblood of the establishments we work. However, we're wise enough to know there's countless ways a dining experience can go sideways. Weather it's a rocky dining room table, loud neighbors or a less then polished place setting, the possibilities are endless multiplied by pi!

No matter how great the challenge, it's swift recognition that puts a guest at ease and defines your establishment's standard. That's what professionals do. I certainly don't mind working my way back into the good graces of a disappointed guest. When addressed appropriately, it's often more lucrative than what a smooth service might have been. One of the golden pathways into the abyss of tables gone sideways is also one of my biggest pet peeves! In all my years of food and service nothing has had me stumped like The Bacardi Mojito.

Once little known, there isn't a single living being in North America that doesn't know what a Bacardi Mojito is. The commercial is outstanding and leaves you disappointed that it's only made for a 30 second time slot. Hell! I have two left feet and this commercial made me want to shake my money maker! What a trendy ad!  Have a look to refresh your memory.


Visit the website for the full version of that booty shakin' music while you learn Bacardi's Mojito recipe!

We've all been there as servers. One scenario or another. It doesn't happen too often but when it does, its relentless. You approach a table of four for the first time. You introduce yourself. You ask them if they'll keep sparkling water or still water on their table. You ask them if they'll enjoy a cocktail right away. You effectively record three drink request before the last requests a Bacardi Mojito. Congratulations! You're now the proud owner of a table that's already started to go sideways. You cringe and interrogation begins:

Server: I'm sorry we don't have fresh mint leaves.
Guest: Why don't you have fresh mint leaves?
Server: I don't know?
Guest: I really wanted a Mojito.
Server: I'm sorry.
Guest: Isn't there something else you can use?
Server: It can be prepared with creme de menthe.
Guest: I don't want creme de menthe. Isn't there a fresh herb you can use?
Server: We have no other fresh herb that shares the same characteristics of mint leaves.
Guest: What about basil leaves?
Server: I don't believe a Mojito cocktail would be best enjoyed with basil leaves.
Guest: Do you like Mojito's.
Server: Quite nice with fresh mint leaves.
Guest: Why don't you tell the restaurant owner to order mint leaves?
Server: I'd be happy to bring it to his attention.
Guest: Good because next time I come here,  I hope there's mint leaves.
Server: I hope so too.
Guest: Are you sure it can't be made with basil leaves?
Server: I wouldn't suggest you have a Mojito prepared with basil leaves.
Guest: Make one with basil leaves and I'll be the judge.
Server: Isn't there another cocktail that you normally enjoy?
Guest: I want a Mojito.
Server: Of course.

Throughout service the basil Mojito remains untouched. It won't be enjoyed for its contents. Moving forward it's towering monument, lest you forget the competence gunned down in it's place.

I consider myself a very articulate and professional server. I pride myself in my organizational skill and table side tact but there's something about "The Mojito Interrogation" that has me on my heals every time. My fear is to appear condescending in the wake of ignorance. It's for lack of a short and satisfying explanation that I can be found table side, swaying like a post in the wind. Your guest doesn't care why you don't have fresh mint. They're annoyed. You're a restaurant for crying out loud! What's the problem? You're supposed to have it! They only want a Mojito. So why can't they get one?

Despite what people think, a restaurant isn't an emporium of endless ingredients, herbs and spices. It's not a grocery store of magnificent proportions with thousands of costumers per day. More true, a restaurant has a menu that's a well thought out plan inspired by ingredients with several uses. Designed for profit without waste it allows a restaurant to offer its guest the best possible freshness at value.

The menu is inspired by clams:
Seafood Bouillabaisse
Linguine Vongole
Sea food Bisque
Clam Chowder
Cold Seafood Salad

The menu is inspired by marinara:
Spaghetti Pomodoro
Veal Parmesan
Tomato Basil Soup
Tortellini Boscaiola

The menu is inspired by eggplant:
Grilled Vegetable Salad
Eggplant Parmesan
Linguine Primavera
Vegetable Kabob

As you can see, all these inspired offerings contain ingredients with multiple uses. Designed for profit without waste it allows a restaurant to offer its guest the best possible freshness at value. Of course almost any restaurant offers fresh daily features but they too have to be integrated by careful design.

Your menu is inspired by mint:
Garnish for Select Cocktails Including Mojito's
Garnish for Dessert Plates
Mint Jelly
Chocolate Mint Sauce
Fruity Mint Coulis

I'm sure there's more but in order to integrate mint as a viable inspiration, it has to have enough uses by design for profit without waste and offer its guest the best possible freshness at value.

If you were to offer fresh mint as a cocktail garnish, you'd have to order it every other day. If you pushed your servers hard enough, you might sell five Mojito's in that span and a couple of After Eight Martini's. You could enjoy 200 covers on a Saturday night and only sell 40 desserts as people share two, three, four ways or won't have dessert at all. Maybe only a handful of those desserts are appropriately garnished with fresh mint, chocolate mint sauce or a fruity mint coulis. That leaves a whole lot of product to make mint jelly. You can garnish a rack of lamb with mint jelly but on a Saturday night of 200 covers you might only sell 20 of those. Considering weekday business is far more modest than an off-the-hook-Saturday-night, maybe mint in its freshest form, doesn't have a place on a menu at all!. I know it sounds harsh. It breaks my heart to say it. In most restaurants, fresh mint doesn't place in the grand scheme of profit, waste, freshness and value. However, if you planned a large party in advance and wanted to offer your guests a Mojito Punch made with fresh mint leaves, there's no restaurant in the world that would deny you.

By the power vested in me; I Chris Boukouris  hereby, banish The Bacardi Mojito to the back yard BBQ's of North America, to be enjoyed by all of legal drinking age for its citrusy contents and soda.
Not excluding Bacardi white rum and fresh mint.

I don't have anything against a Bacardi Mojito. They're quite nice actually. My concern lies with the relentless interrogation that follows a Mojito or nothing mentality. You'd be hard pressed to develop a short form explanation that doesn't sound condescending. One that would stop a fresh breathing Mojito dragon in their tracks. If you do have one..........this waiter's all ears.

Now, will you enjoy a cocktail right away?