CUISINE: Casual Fine Dining ADDRESS: 117 King Street DATE: May 3, 2014
SO, FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE IMPORTANT, right?
I feel like I’m at my best when I first meet people. I am able to hide most of my hideous character traits, talk to new people easily, and my humour, in front of a fresh audience, is usually ON POINT.
(en pointe? Is this a ballet term?)
My friend Rob, who first met me in 2003, and continues to like me, said his first impression of me was “hilarious and energetic”.
But, of course, you can’t keep that up forever. Eventually, if you stay in my life, you’ll get to know all the bad stuff about me.
(I was going to make a bullet-point list here, but maybe it would be more fun for y’all to just leave them in the comments?)
I had a friend say to me once, about Ian and I:
TRUTHTELLER: You are the reason you guys MAKE friends. Ian is the reason you guys KEEP friends.
AN IMPORTANT PREAMBLE TO THE DINNER:
We had originally planned to do our dinner at La Casa Friday night, but I realized at about 5pm on Friday that I would need a reservation. It was a no-go, so in consultation with a few pals, I called to make a reservation for Saturday night.
LA CASA: How many people?
MEGAN: For 6?
LA CASA: At what time?
MEGAN: I don’t know….7?
LA CASA: Hold on a sec….yep. That’s fine.
Then, a couple more confirmations came in for Saturday dins, and I found that we were up to 8 people. I remembered the weirdly specific admonishment from La Casa’s website:
“JUST A REMINDER: If you can’t make your reservation, if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late, or if the number of people in your party has changed, PLEASE LET US KNOW A.S.A.P. DON’T BE A NO-SHOW. Give other people a chance to use the table which we had, in good faith, courteously reserved for you. Grazie!”
So, just to make sure I wasn’t breaking any rules by bringing two more people along, I called the restaurant just after noon on Saturday to confirm that 8 people would be ok.
MEGAN: Hi, I’m just calling to confirm the my reservation, and to change the number of people coming?
LA CASA: How many?
MEGAN: 8 people now. 8 people total at 7?
LA CASA: Yes yes. This is fine.
I swear, this minutiae comes back to haunt us…
Our friend Kesty was coming in from Tillsonburg for the occasion.
- Andrew is a foodie that always has fun/terrible food words
- we haven’t seen each other since our FREE meal at Dragonfly Bistro. That’s way back at Blog #22!
- Andrew just went to Italy in March.
- Andrew hates cheese, which would make dining at this Italian restaurant…fun.
ANDREW: I’ve never had Mac and Cheese. I hate cheese. But my mom made it once when I was a child, and she didn’t drain the water. Shudder. It’s basically like a ‘Nam flashback.
- Andrew knows the owner of La Casa, and works with him as a teacher. In fact, Andrew and I first really became aware of La Casa and Black Trumpet (owned by the same family; Black Trumpet currently resides on my “best restaurants in London Ontario” list) when he and I were student teaching in the same department as one of the other owners.
- Andrew is, in general, cool
Andrew and Jess came over for a quick drink before dinner.
Andrew mentioned his concerns about eating at a restaurant that his colleague owns. A family owns the restaurant, and Andrew works with one of the brothers at his school.
ANDREW: He’s not working this weekend. I asked him. But if I don’t like his restaurant, things could be AWKWARD….
And things got awkward, but not for that reason.
As Kesty parked on King Street, I got a flurry of frantic texts from Erin, aka THE CHEESE POET, the first of our group to arrive:
MEGAN: (Walking in the door to Erin) How could this be? I literally verified with Hugo this morning!
ERIN: Do you have a waiter here named Hugo?
Anyway, by the time we found Erin sitting at our table near the bar, she was red-faced from being berated by the owner for being “late” for our reservation. But not just because she got yelled at in public. At a restaurant. Alone at a table.
OWNER: Are you Megan?
OWNER: You are late!!!
ERIN: No, I’m the first one here. For 7.
OWNER: No. The reservation was for 6:30!!
ERIN: (pulling out her phone with my text) See? Reservation for 7.
OWNER: WE DON’T EVEN DO A 7 O’CLOCK! (walking away) Jesus Christ!!
No, Erin wasn’t embarrassed just because she had been chastised before she had even had any wine.
More so because she had worked at La Casa for TWO YEARS. The guy who yelled at her used to be her boss.
As most of you know, the best way to enter a restaurant is to feel shamed and wrong, and also, unrecognized, so we were off to a great start.
And also, apparently, this restaurant lets strangers named Hugo answer their phone?
At one point, somebody suggested that when I said the number of people, they thought I meant the time.
MEGAN: Well, the number of people was 6, then it was 8. At no time did I claim to be bringing 630 people.
I will say that the waiter did everything he could to make us forget the rough start. He was apologetic and friendly, complimenting our wine selections…
ERIN: We’ll have the Malivoire.
WAITER: (with a smile) Well, I’ll drink whatever you don’t.
Our waiter also spoke with authority about Jess’s gluten allergy (with a brother and sister who had it, he was both informative about the menu offerings and gave us the interesting tidbit: apparently, it is most predominant in Irish families!)
WAITER: (to Jess) Yes, you can have that. And don’t worry about the pecans in that, they’re soaked in syrup and sugar.
Dylan and Rebekkah missed the drama by arriving about ten minutes late.
Or according to the owner, 40 minutes.
Dylan was riding high because he was recognized by a stranger AGAIN this week. From the blog.
He is now talking endorsement deals.
DYLAN: See, what I’m thinking is that you could make AZ RESTO TOUR merch, like headbands or something, that I can wear when I get RECOGNIZED, and then I can get a licensing deal to wear a shirt for someone ELSE’S business in blog photos.
MEGAN: (eyeroll so big my contact almost popped out)
Despite his blog-star status, Dylan did admit later that the fan had asked him about the infamous “cracker-on-a-cracker” appetizer (see blog #32, KAROON), which is the bane of his existence.
REBEKKAH: Yeahhhh!!! My Alone Time Snack.
JESS: Let’s never speak of it again.
KESTY: What is this again? (A brief description follows) You BABY-BIRDED it?!? That is the most disgusting thing!
REBEKKAH: After we were talking about that, I found myself eyeing a sleeve of Premium Pluses in my kitchen!
(Dylan would be happy if cracker-on-a-cracker was NEVER mentioned on the blog again, but I’m worried that if we make all the food sound TOO appetizing, and makes everyone hungry. Think of cracker-on-a-cracker as balance in the universe.)
So, usually when something bad happens in a restaurant, your next step would be to call over the manager, or owner. But if the owner yells at you….
All of this yelling means no one is talking about Ian’s new pink blog shirt…
And it lead us to talking about other bad service stories.
Rebekkah’s sister was waiting for a table at an Earl’s out west. After waiting a long time, she took advantage of the hostess being away from the desk to check her position in the queue on the computer screen.
Under one couple’s names, she saw the words “OLD”.
Under her name, she saw the word “B1T0H”.
She took a cell photo of it and showed it to the manager.
They ate for free that night.
The manager said “whatever you want, for as long as you want.”
While free wine, free food, free dessert sounds great, we all agreed that we STILL would have posted the picture online.
But as we said, the waiter was exceptional. Kind, attentive, and good with water refills.
IAN: Underrated, but important!
The menu looked great, too: modern Italian food with lots of different options for Jess’ gluten-free diet.
ERIN: This menu has doubled since I worked here. But what is with this wine menu? One menu for the table? Two random inserts that say “specials” that have different things on them? Waaaa?
(Depicted behind her: her former boss/Old Yeller)
While we waited for our appetizers (despite the fact Jess didn’t WANT an appetizer, we warned her she would be THE ONLY ONE WITHOUT ONE, which is obviously the worst), Jess and Andrew analyzed the Malbec they had ordered. Remember from our trip to Dragonfly Bistro (#22) that as a foodie, Kesty knows all the most annoying food words.
KESTY: I want to talk about the wine!
JESS: It was subtle, yet bold. I did not feel intimidated by it.
KESTY: It was not too tannic I agree.
IAN: What about the nose!
MEGAN: Shut up, all of you.
JESS: It is good, though.
Fresh bread with mustard butter: YES.
The restaurant itself is lovely inside: a long wood bar, dim lighting, nicely decorated, but very conservative, kinda dated, and very THE SAME as many other restaurants in London.
I was in Montreal 4 weeks ago, and as I write this am currently on my way back from Halifax. Both of these places are world-class cities, to be sure. One of the things that makes them that way is the variety of restaurants: from old school, to fresh local, to fusion, international. But more than that, the design of the restaurant just seem more MODERN: more attention is paid to light fixtures, and tables, and typefaces on the menu and sign. London restaurants, even the more upscale ones, just seem to be stuck in the 90s. Every “fancy” restaurant in London looks like the formal living room your parents still maintain for “company”.
The wine menu is stuck in some time-space continuum where using COMIC SANS to describe $60 bottles of wine is acceptable. Also known as NOWHERE.
Erin, the Cheese Poet, blames the diners of London.
ERIN: Ugh. This city. I would love to know how many people in this city are having Caesar salad, beef tenderloin, and Creme brûlée for dessert with a McManus cab.
MEGAN: That’s what I call the Tribe meal! My buddy Tribe eats that EVERYWHERE.
(As I write this, I realized I ate a beautiful place called THE FIVE FISHERMAN in Halifax. And I ordered…Pinot noir, Creme brûlée and beef tenderloin—albeit with Bearnaise and lobster. But I’m obviously a Londoner at heart. Dammit.)
Dylan’s app, the minestrone with black beans and duck sausage. Dylan described this, cryptically, as “cassoulet-like”.
Ian and Erin ordered the same calamari appetizer. The calamari was cooked well, and there was plenty of it, but the sauce was watery.
IAN: It’s flavourful, but needs to be thicker.
ERIN: It’s peppery, lemony, balsamic sauce. But with water.
Jess got the pear and parmesan salad. Hey Jess, what do you think?
JESS: I like it, but it’s served in pieces like this.
Please pardon my BRANCHES.
She added that she liked it because “it had a kick. It’s like they’re not afraid to spice things.”
Andrew insisted on doing his own food photography, and his style definitely beats mine. And he absolutely loved the meatballs, calling them “spicy, moist” with a “beautiful arribiata” that he called “the best meatball outside of Italy”.
My mushroom tart was delish. The beef demi-glacé was rich—almost too reduced—it was more like a beef syrup. The mushrooms were earthy and spicy and chipotle goat cheese was nice and spicy.
The puff pastry was nice, too, albeit the vestigial tail on the left was a little off-putting.
Rebekkah the Skeptic went with the charcuterie platter as her appetizer, despite our waiter’s warning that it was “probably too big, even for two people”. He also acquiesed when Rebekkah requested fresh bread instead of toasted.
WAITER: Rock and Roll.
Bekk’s review of the charcuterie was equally succinct, and also telling of how full she became.
BEKK: Meat good, bread good. Missing butter.
To me, that plate looks like a big mess. That’s how it arrived.
Just then, our 8th guest arrived: right on time, at 8:01pm. Thank God the owner didn’t see him.
It’s our friend, actor and general bon vivant, Cameron. Thank God his good looks go some ways to making a hoodie La Casa-appropriate formal wear.
Cameron sat, the waiter hustled him a menu, and Cameron ordered the
hunter pizza with venison salami. While we all checked over our shoulders to make sure the Time Gorgon wasn’t approaching.
Our entrees arrived, and Jess was suitably impressed with her seafood risotto, the dish she decided to get when she perused the menu the week before.
JESS: You know when something tastes exactly like you want it to? That’s this.
Rebekkah the Skeptic ordered lasagna, but as our wise waiter predicted, the charcuterie was too much for her. I think she took one bite of the lasagna.
BEKK: The lasagna was zesty, but I was waaaaay too full.
Dylan went with the gnocchi in bolognese, something I was very tempted to get. You know my rule:
In a bad restaurant, don’t get the gnocchi. In a good restaurant, ALWAYS get it.
But this gnocchi, as it turns out, was just ok. Not pillowy, kind of big. Dylan said the bolognese was good and really had flavour, “more than the lasagna”.
Which he knows because he ended up finishing it for Rebekkah.
DYLAN: I ate it, and I enjoyed it.
Because the rule is to always get gnocchi, I ordered the fish special, red snapper in lemon cream sauce with asparagus and gnocchi.
My red snapper was served steaming hot, and is definitely a firmer fish. I always think I don’t like that kind of fish as much, but I really enjoyed this meal, especially the sauce and vegetables.
I agreed with Dylan about the gnocchi; kind of hard, too big, but it was still ok. I would put this gnocchi on par with the stuff we had at AMICI (Blog #2), but not nearly as good as Black Trumpet or Avenue Dining (Blogs #4, and #6, respectively).
Ian ordered ostensibly the most famous dish La Casa serves: the caramelized salmon, served with fingerling potatoes. Touted in the menu as “the best salmon in London”, Ian had to agree.
IAN: The outside of this is like, BRULEED. This salmon didn’t have a CHANCE.
I feel like every time Cameron makes an appearance on the blog, he orders a pizza. The last time at GUSTO (Blog #28), he ordered a gross salmon pizza that he described as “fishy”.
CAMERON: Ok, the last time I got pizza, it was half as good as this, and the same price. This is REALLY good. The gorgonzola is great, and not overpowering. The meat is not too salty, but flavourful. The olives make me wanna…
ANDREW AND MEGAN: (in unison) Shoop?
ANDREW: Get outta my head!
CAMERON: The sauce is sweeter-tasting, which counteracts the saltiness of the olives and meat.
Andrew had been having a debate with a colleague over the term “pork osso buco”. Andrew felt that Ossobuco was the name of a dish, and always referred to veal, like Duck a L’Orange. He hates it when chefs co-opt the name of one thing to describe another.
He and I pointed out that just because a contestant on Top Chef prepared something called “oat risotto”, doesn’t mean it was, in fact, food.
But Erin clarified that the ossobuco refers to the cut of the meat, the shank. So Andrew, begrudgingly, ordered it. And liked it.
ANDREW: It tasted like pork. Not over-salted at all. The risotto functions as polenta—
You should be writing this down.
(Andrew prefers to be quoted verbatim in the blog. Because of this, you should know that he also sang the following lyrics to the tune of “Till There Was You” from The Music Man:
There was fishhhh…
On the breaaad….
And we never heard them tartar-saucing…)
So, obviously the wine was good.
Despite Bekk giving up the fight, a few of us were still up for dessert, and perusing the thankfully Verdana-typefaced Dessert menu.
KESTY: Look at the salted caramel gelato.
MEGAN: You don’t like salted caramel?
KESTY: I like salted caramel: I don’t like the term “yummiful”.
MEGAN: Ew. No. Or “juxtaposition of opposites”. That wording just TRYING to be annoying. It’s like at Michael’s on the Thames, instead of saying “vegetable medley”, they call it a “rendezvous of vegetables”. As if the veggies are having a clandestine meeting under cover of darkness.
Just to be a complete cliche of myself, I got creme brûlée (see blog posts #2, #3, #5, #14, #22—this list is not exhaustive). The custard was great; smooth and not too eggy. The top needed to be torched a little more, as it was crisp more than it was hard.
Ian got the strawberry cheesecake. Served with five garnishes and a mint toupee. The cheesecake was thick and delicious.
So, through all eight diners, the food was consistently good. Some of the dishes, like the meatballs, the risotto, the salmon and pizza, were standouts. All were good. And because the company was good, and the waiter was lovely, we had a fun night.
But walking out of the restaurant that night, we talked about the owner, again. And the next day, Erin and I wondered if the waiter shouldn’t have comped something. The wine, dessert or something.
There was some sort of mistake, but it wasn’t ours. It was theirs. And yelling at a random diner, not the person who made, and verified, the reservations, before they are joined by seven other people, who ended up spending a few hundred dollars, left us all with a bad first impression.
Which means for most of us, we can get our caesar salad, tenderloin, Cab and creme brûlée ELSEWHERE.