The Blake House. A Winterlicious Challenge 2013

DSC03886Winterlicious can been described as Toronto’s winter culinary celebration where 191 restaurants offer prix fixed menus of 3 courses for lunch and dinner ranging from $15 to $25 for lunch and $25 to $45 for dinner.

Before I begin with the first restaurant in my “study”, let me tell you a bit more about the history of Winterlicious and Summerlicious (the summer version of Winterlicious).

Summerlicious and Winterlicious are two food festivals that are held each year in Toronto, Canada. Winterlicious runs during the first two weeks of February, and  Summerlicious take places at the beginning of July. These times have been chosen specifically because statistics have found that these weeks are the lowest in restaurant attendance.

These 2 food festivals  began in 2003 with only 35 restaurants participating. The purpose of these festivals was to increase restaurant attendance during the slowest time of the year. In addition it served to assist Toronto in recovering from the SARS epidemic of 2003.

These events are run by a special events department of the city of Toronto who have set out several rules for becoming a participating restaurant, including certain price standards, a clean health inspection record, and good reviews from prominent Toronto restaurant review guides. Another limit is that participation in this festival is also closed to chains. It has been found that although the prices are discounted, participating restaurants see three to four times as much business than any other time of the year.

Despite the increase in clientele during Summerlicious and Winterlicious and the high competition for restaurants to be included in these festivals, there remains to be a lot of criticism about the quality of service and food at these events. One article notes that customers consistently complain about smaller food portions, lower ingredient quality and mediocre service (http://torontoist.com/2009/01/winterlicious_winternautious/).  

There is no doubt that these festivals have proven to be fruitful for the food industry. For example, the Winterlicious of 2009 served over 180,000 meals over 2 weeks, resulting in $12 million in economic impact for the City of Toronto. Financially these events have proven to be a successful endevour on the part of the City, yet, I wanted to test out the food and service quality for myself.

Over the next few weeks I will be going to several restaurants for Winterlicious to review and test out their food and  service. The first restaurant on my list is The Blake House. The Blake House is located on Jarvis Street between Bloor Street and Wellesley Street in downtown Toronto.

On Saturday January 26th, 2013 my friend and I visited the Blake House for an early lunch.

The Blake House

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My friend and I found the sitting to be tight. There was not a lot of room on the tiny table.  Since there were no other patrons sitting beside us, the waitress connected another table with ours to give us more room.  This made a great difference.

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This Winterlicious menu gave us 3 options for each, the appetizer, main and dessert.

IMG_0439I started with tea since I can no longer drink coffee or any drink that has too much caffeine. I get too jumpy and nervous if I do. In the past I HAD TO start my day with a hot cup of coffee with a touch of milk and a lot of sugar. Oh those were the days.  Sigh.

I loved the tea kettle. So pretty!

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For my appetizer I started with the French Canadian Yellow Split Pea Soup with House Smoked Bacon. I love split pea soup and I was looking forward to this dish after walking in from the freezing cold. Unfortunately it seems that the chef forgot to taste the soup before sending it out because the peas were still hard. All the flavors were there; the smokiness of the bacon, the soup was thick from the addition of cream and it had large pieces of bacon, but the main ingredient was raw. If you like crunchy peas in your soup, you would have loved this soup. Too bad. Every other element in this soup was delicious.

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My friend decided to order the Leek and Feta tart. He noted that the pastry was nice and crumbly, just as he likes it, but overall they lacked in flavor. A kick of feta would have gone a long way.

So far, we were disappointed with the quality of our meal. 2 dishes to go.

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For his main my friend ordered Blake’s Mac and Cheese made with cavatappi pasta, shallots, herbs and white cheddar served extra cheesy with an organic green salad. The first thing my friend said was, “oh! they used real cheese!.” Don’t they always? I guess he was comparing this mac and cheese to the one’s we make from a box.  Well, he was certainly happy with his dish and he also pointed out how creamy and cheesy it was and how the pasta was not overcooked. Such a relief! I would have felt so guilty if the main had been a flop since I was the one that suggested this restaurant to him in the first place. The one drawback my friend noted near the end of his meal was that once he got to the bottom of his salad, he almost could not finish it because it had too much vinegar.

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For my main, I ordered the Avocado BLT Sandwich with avocado and citrus spread, maple glazed bacon, sliced Roma tomatoes, and escarole lettuce on toasted thick sliced egg bread served with fresh-cut Yukon gold fries.  For some reason I failed to read the “avocado spread” and instead I expected to see avocado slices in the sandwich. Yet, the spread was quite good and it provided sufficient avocado flavor and creaminess to balance out the saltiness of the bacon and the sweetness of the tomato. The bread was a little dry, but every other ingredient was fresh so you could easily overlook the dry bread.

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Now to the fries. Well, when I read reviews of this restaurant online, several people mentioned how good the fries at the Blake House were, but from the pictures I saw, they looked soft and soggy (I like my fries crispy), so I really was not expecting to be impressed. Well, I was wrong. The fries were in fact delicious and I almost finished them all and neglected one-half of my sandwich that I ended up taking home (I ate it at home 2 hours later and it still tasted fresh).

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For dessert my friend ordered the Stout Brownie with caramel sauce, whipped cream and toffee bits. We both found it tasty. My only issue with desserts that are kept in the fridge overnight, is that they sometimes smell and taste of being in the fridge. Ok, that does not make sense. Let me put it another way. It is as thought they smell and taste a little bit like freezer burn. But “being-in-the fridge” taste was minimal and it did not take away from the richness of the brownie. My friend would have liked more whipped cream because this whipped cream was actually thick and not like the one’s you get from a can that tastes like air.

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I ordered the Banana & Nut Bread Pudding with chocolate sauce topped with vanilla ice cream. First thought, “oh my goodness, this is the best vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted!” The pudding tasted good too, though I felt that it had too many nuts and I wanted more pudding instead of the dry bread in between. Overall, it was a good dessert and I would have it again….with 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream. Yum!

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The Blake House was my first stop in my Winterlicious 2013 Challenge. The point of this visit was to determine if the quality of the food and service was sub-par as we are expected to believe. We are paying less after all. In this case, I thought The Blake House did well. Sure the appetizers needed work, and every chef should know better than to send a dish out without tasting it first, or at least taste the soup directly from the pot! Come on! Isn’t that Chef 101? But I will let it go because I loved the fries, the ice cream and my friend loved his macaroni and cheese with real cheese. :)

And service? Danielle, our server was very nice, but she also seemed very busy. It looked like she was responsible for every table in the room, and the place was quite busy.  Taking all these factors into account, the service and food were better than average.  I would definitely return for a basket of fries and a side of vanilla ice cream. Have you ever tried dipping your salty fries in ice cream? It tastes really good. I dare you to try it!

Next stop….Auberge du Pommier

The Blake House on Urbanspoon

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