CUISINE: Seafood ADDRESS: 315 Wellington Road DATE: January 10, 2014
As I’ve mentioned before, eating any kind of seafood AT ALL is a relatively new phenomenon for me. Throughout the 80s and 90s, when I was alive, my mantra was always:
if it’s from the sea, it’s not for me.
As though having a rhyming ditty was my free pass to get out of eating an entire category of food.
Ian, on the other hand, loves seafood, especially fish and chips. If I announce a trip to New York with friends or a cottage weekend, Ian is happy.
IAN: That means I get to make my fishhhhh.
Ian was hospitalized once in the early 2000s. I don’t remember what year it was, but I do remember that the Michael Jackson baby-dangling incident was the big news of the week, if that helps you set the scene.
That was a pretty scary week for me: Ian was all covered in telemetry (those chest wires that I always refer to as “ET medical things”), I had to pay outrageous hospital parking prices…it was the week that I usually define as the week I became a grown-up wife-lady (it just rolls off the tongue).
Anyway, as Ian was going to be released, I was so relieved that I began making promises of foods I would make for him to rest at home.
MEGAN: Anything you want, Ian. I can make it or. I can go get it.
IAN: (wheezing, but with a smile) Fish…and…chips. Archiesssss.
I’m not saying that he got himself admitted to the hospital so that I would HAVE to go into Archie’s, I’m just saying it was convenient how it worked out.
I got myself some chicken fingers.
But, I’ve grown up a little more, and I will order seafood often in fine dining restaurants. But, like wine, I rely on Ian to tell me what I’ll like.
Ian and I had made plans with our friend Erin, aka THE CHEESE POET, to meet for blog dinner at the greasy spoon on Dundas, Hi-Lunch. But when it was determined that Hi-Lunch, despite its sign boasting “24 hours”, was CLOSED, Ian met Erin (who was getting her hairs did) and I (who was getting my nails DID) at the long-established Irene’s on Wellington Road (just north of Baseline).
Ian pointed out that it’s technically called “New Irene’s” now, because they got new light fixtures or something. But since the road sign says Irene’s, this is where it fits alphabetically on the AZ RESTO TOUR.
It was a slushy, rainy night, but that didn’t stop the friendly patrons of Irene’s from chatting with us in the line that stretched out the door (it was Friday night busy, but also pretty tiny inside).
One lady, with the intimacy of a friend, but who turned out to be a random, stopped to talk to Erin as she was leaving:
RANDO LADY: Oh, you love this place too?
ERIN: Haha. Actually, I’ve never been here before.
OTHER INTERESTED PATRONS: Oh, really?
ERIN: Yeah. (looking at me ahead in the line) Actually neither of us have!
RANDO LADY: Oh, you’ll LOVE IT.
RANDO BOY: The breakfast is the best!
RANDO BOY’S SISTER: The BEST!
RANDO LADY: Get the grilled cod!
MEGAN: Haha. This is great! We’re getting recommendations in line!
RANDO LADY: (walking into the slushy parking lot) And the BEAN SOUP! (still walking away) It’s homemadddeeeee….
We would have waited a lot longer in the line, if Erin hadn’t pushed in to use the washroom and found Mr. Ian at a table for us.
Read your texts, Megan.
When I sat down and got to take in the decor of the “newly renovated” Irene’s, my first thought was “the front sunroom of your grandma’s house.”
With 80s oak-trim as far as the eye can see, a wall of windows, ceramic tile floor and Tiffany-esque hanging pendant lamps, there is nothing new in the styling of it.
But after sleeping on it, my brain continued to refine this description. When I woke up this morning, I was remembering when I was a little kid, my sister and I used to accompany my grandma to some lady’s house to get her hair “set”. (Carrie, back me up. This was a thing, right?)
The tiny dining room (with maybe 8 tables, and a takeout counter) is more reminiscent of your Grandma’s Hairdresser’s IN-HOME SALON.
Specific. So there you go.
Showing off our hair and naillllsssss….
Anyway, as we sat down on the waiting room industry-standard chairs, Erin commented, “I guess that I’ve never been here before (Irene’s has been open in London for more than 50 years) because my Grandparents always went to Archie’s.”
And because Archie’s is synonymous with seafood in London, I actually referred to the restaurant we were currently dining in as Archie’s two more times. I’m not bright.
A quick peruse of the menu indicated standard seafood restaurant tropes: platters of breaded shrimp, scallops, mushrooms…basically anything that you can cover in beige and drop into boiling oil was available for less than 20 bucks.
I looked at the specials while Erin and Ian debated the relative merits of cod vs. halibut.
IAN: Why ANYONE would choose cod over halibut….(he drifts off, mystified)
In the end, they both got a large and a small piece of halibut with fries and coleslaw.
The specials were varied, but had a common theme:
I hope you like tarragon…
Luckily I do, but turned to Erin, a trained chef, and Ian, an amateur one, to find out what fish I wanted.
IAN: Mahi mahi is meatier.
ERIN: Grouper is…buttery-er. Like, soft.
MEGAN: Something about grouper sounds gross. Like, (feigns dumb-dumb voice) group-errrr.
IAN: And cod is fishier-tasting. Oilier.
MEGAN: Ok…so which one do I want?
The good news for us that the homemade Albanian bean soup was, in fact, included in our meals, and came out promptly.
The soup was thick and hearty, with a deep paprika and tomato flavor that really tasted more like a luscious stew.
ERIN: Remember that Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup?
IAN: Oh yeah.
MEGAN: So good.
ERIN: Don’t revisit it. It doesn’t hold up at all. Those condensed soups…
MEGAN: The only time I eat condensed soups is with my grandpa at the cottage. He has a system. Eat half-a-can one day, half-a-can of a different flavour. Third day: combine them!
ERIN: Haha. That’s too good. Campbell’s should make a commercial about him. Does he have favourite combinations?
IAN: Oh yeah, he’s got recipes.
MEGAN: Really, he likes them all. Tomato and chicken noodle? Chicken noodle and mushroom?
IAN: Really a mushroom and tomato would just taste like a blush sauce.
ERIN: But, like, Scotch Broth and…clam chowder? (Shudder) But this is good. It’s reminiscent of what I thought bean and bacon was.
MEGAN: It’s like your memory of that soup. This soup tastes like MEMORIES.
The waitress was definitely an old pro; prompt, friendly but not overly so, and came back to check on drinks and food at the right movements. A professional wait staff makes such a difference in your experience, it’s seems funny that it’s not a job that requires post secondary training. Like, there are teachers that have the right personality for it, but they still have go to school for the skills.
While we were waiting for our entrees, Erin and Ian were talking about the amount of travel they do for their jobs (Erin recently started a job as a wine sales rep), and Erin started to say, “For my flight, they’ve got me f#%*ing landing in Toronto first!” Then she stopped herself. “It’s pretty small in here. I guess I shouldn’t be swearing like a SAILOR!”
Ian and I smiled. “Why not? You are in Irene’s SEAFOOD restaurant…”
Well, Ian said that. Picture me saying the same joke, but a split second later, and accidentally calling it Archie’s instead. Again.
The waitress brought out the sides for Erin and Ian’s fish and chips: coleslaw and tartar sauce. Erin immediately noted with disdain the fact that Irene’s tartar sauce was, in fact, little packets of Kraft Tartar.
ERIN: That seems like a missed opportunity. Tartar sauce is so easy to make, and to make really yummy.
Our entrees arrived soon afterward, and our portions were, GENEROUS.
My tarragon-sauced grouper had more of a rub than a sauce, but was cooked expertly. If I had a complaint, it would be that I found the sauce a bit salty, but the flavour was excellent. The veggies and rice were a nice touch as well, but most of the rice and none of the Metro-standard-issue dinner roll got touched.
But the real show stoppers were the fish and chip dinners. They were HUGE.
I don’t know if the photos really show how big these pieces of fish were. I was trying to think of an everyday object that is the same size.
It was a like a DVD. It was like a ladies’ wallet.
It was like an ice-cube tray, deep fried.
Ian and Erin loved the fish, saying it was not oily, nice and flaky and perfectly cooked and crispy. Ian put it close to some of the best fish he had during his time in England. He was also a big fan of the coleslaw, saying although it had an “unusually long shred”, the flavours were right on, and helpful in cutting the fat of the fish.
The fries were also Metro-standard-issue, but unlike the frozen fries at Ftizrays, these were at least real potatoes. But it’s still an area of opportunity (as I say in drama class, not a MISTAKE, an AREA OF OPPORTUNITY) for a fish-and-chip restaurant to fresh-cut their fries.
The vibe of this place is really lovely. As we were eating, we heard more than one conversation happening, as people recognized friends in the small restaurant. This is a place that encourages regulars. It had the vibe of small-town restaurant, where everyone knows everyone else.
We left feeling stuffed and satisfied. And at about $20 a person with a drink, it was really a bargain, especially for my meal. In a fine dining restaurant, my meal would have been plated more elegantly for sure, but it also would have been $28.
PLUS the cost of MEMORY soup.
Did Irene’s convert me on my distaste for Fish and Chips? No. I didn’t even try a bite. But with the other options available, anyone without a stupid seafood rhyme should find something they’d enjoy at Archie’s….dammit. Irene’s.