Archive for the ‘Reviews’
LOOKING BACK 25 YEARS, SOUTHERN ACCENT’S FRANCIS WOOD RECALLS THAT IT WASN’T ALWAYS COOL TO BE HOT
It all started when my dad spiked her food with hot peppers.
Francis Wood and I first met when I was three months old, in 1981, and my parents took over her old stomping ground, The Rosedale Diner. When Wood first arrived from Ireland in the late 1960s, she hadn’t had much experience with fiery food, but she had grown to love it and knew it was what she wanted to serve; she just didn’t know what form it would take.
It was a trip to New York City that helped make the restaurant what it is today. Wood followed a small sign in a window, offering Cajun martinis, into the famed Jones Café and the smell of the gumbo, the folk art, antiques and music made her feel right at home. Three years later, she and my parents opened Southern Accent together. (They parted ways soon after). Fast-forward to today and the restaurant is celebrating its silver anniversary—a lifetime in restaurant years.
Southern Accent is a cozy, eccentric spot nestled in Mirvish Village on Markham Street, as famous for its fortunetellers as its menu, which still has the tried-and-tested jambalaya, gumbo, hush puppies and Marie Leveau voodoo pasta.
When she first opened her doors, Wood had the critics confused. “Nobody knew what the hell I was up to,” she says. “No
one had heard of Cajun. Paul Prudhomme wasn’t big yet, but because I drank martinis, I learned to love the stuff.” Critics came out puzzled, but the atmosphere and cuisine had the people coming in droves.
Ever since that first year, Wood has been traveling down to Louisiana to work in kitchens, meet the locals and learn the true
southern secrets that go into the food that helped make New Orleans so famous. For the past 10 years, she has been working with chef and co-owner Thessavan (Tess) Manicaevasakan, who started as a dishwasher before becoming an apprentice with
chef Elena Embrioni. “He brings his spice knowledge from his home, Sri Lanka, which really contributes to the melting pot essence of New Orleans cuisine,” Wood says.
It’s really no surprise that Wood has been in business for so long. “People come here because they feel comfortable,” she says. “And I never get bored. I just love dealing with people and staff. Sometimes they can drive you crazy, but they are my family.”
By Maia Filar
On March 26, Southern Accent welcomes back one of their favourite chefs, Elena Embrioni, to create an evening of grazing stations, featuring the most popular menu items of the last 25 years. Also, all March, book a reservation online and get a free
bottle of Lime Garlic Piquant Sauce.
Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 4, 2006
by Christopher Frey
After 12 years training in the kitchens of his uncle, famed chef Paul Prudhomme, Troy Brocato decided it was time to get out on his own and opened a Cajun and Creole luncheon diner off Tulane Ave. in New Orleans, near a cluster of the city’s hospitals. Three weeks later, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it was under four feet of flood water.
“In the water there was oil, garbage and dead bodies, just sitting there,” Mr. Brocato says. “It had the smell of death. I told myself I was never going to cook in there again.”
Although Brocato lost all his appliances, kitchen supplies and furnishings, he was able to scavenge some replacements, mainly from other restaurants whose insurance companies told them they had to discard their equipment, even if the damage was slight. Then the prospects of re-opening his Flamingeaux Café improved further when a fellow restauranteur from Toronto arrived unannounced with an offer of support.
For Annex dwellers, Frances Wood may be the most gracious host in the city. For over twenty years Wood has cultivated an old-timey, New Orleans-accented vibe at the Mirvish Village institution Southern Accent. Along with co-owner Robert Ketcheson —he of the lampshade haberdashery and fetching drag behind the bar — she’s fostered a warmth of service and atmosphere matched by the tangy heartiness of its Louisiana grub.
When Katrina struck and the levees broke, ushering torrents of water into the city that inspired her cantina, Ms. Wood began setting aside a dollar from every entree they sold.
Rather than donate funds to a relief organization, Ms. Wood wanted to make her contribution an apt one, so she travelled to New Orleans two weeks ago to find someone who could benefit from the $5,000 she had raised.
“I feel an empathy for any restaurant owner that is going through the same things I went through when I opened Southern Accent,” she says. “And then with the flood, I can’t imagine what that would be like.”
In a city where cuisine is central to its reputation, the obstacles faced by New Orleans restaurant owners are formidable. Damaged equipment must be replaced, necessary building repairs made, and there’s a fundamental shortage of people — not just customers but chefs, waiters and kitchen help. The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) says most establishments are getting by with only 30 to 40 per cent of their regular staff. Before the storm, the restaurant industry was the state’s largest employer; now only about a third of the Crescent City’s restaurants are open.
Thirty-five year-old Mr. Brocato came to Ms. Wood’s attention during her New Orleans reconnaissance. A contact at the LRA helped her assemble a shortlist of three possible beneficiaries according to a criteria of pressing need, devotion to local cuisine and reputation. Hearing of Mr. Brocato’s Prudhomme family connection gave Ms. Wood a compelling reason to assist him — it was Paul Prudhomme who gave Wood advice when she opened Southern Accent in 1984, who invited her staff to come work in his kitchen, and who, when she flew her entire staff of 20 to New Orleans, took time to share his knowledge and passion for Louisiana cuisine.
“Chef Paul told me the secrets, the things they don’t put in cookbooks. He was so particular about everything,” remembers Ms. Wood. “I watched him once try a plate of potatoes and send it back three times because it wasn’t right.”
Mr. Brocato may have grown up in Prudhomme kitchens, but the first family of Cajun cuisine hasn’t been spared from Katrina’s fallout. As Paul Prudhomme struggles to maintain his own 200-seat restaurant, K-Paul’s, his avuncular nature has meant the better part of his resources have been committed to supporting the community.
The day before Ms. Wood left, she met Mr. Brocato and his wife Cherie at Prudhomme’s Marigny District home north of the French Quarter. It was an emotional encounter, the young couple floored by the stranger’s desire to donate $5,000 to rebuilding his restaurant. “I had no idea,” says Brocato “It was unbelievable. I wanted to cry, her helping us out like that.”
At present Mr. Brocato is cooking at his son’s elementary school, where the promise of catered lunches is hoped to encourage more students to return. “Nothing fancy,” he says, “just something to put food in their stomachs.” He doesn’t know when the Flamingeaux will be able to re-open; a new roof was installed only last week and much work remains to be done on the building.
But Mr. Brocato does plan to cook at Southern Accent in April as part of a New Orleans benefit night, while Ms. Wood will continue to set aside money from the entrées, raising $5,000 more for another struggling restaurant and so on. Having seen the extent of the reconstruction effort required—a tour of the flattened Ninth Ward shocked Ms. Wood—she hopes other Toronto eateries will start doing the same.
“Really, it’s not that big a deal to take a dollar off an entrée,” she says.
Southern Accent proved to be a great choice for dinner with Alice Ciprick, a retired office manager, and Brian Lester, a freelancer specializing in accounting and bookkeeping. Both proved enthusiastic gastronomes with a passion for watching the food channel. Brian even admitted he would rather spend money on food than clothes. Both love to cook for friends and family. And both eagerly offered to share and taste, so we all got a sampling of one another’s plates.
Southern Accent is in Mirvish Village, behind Honest Ed’s. In a classic old home, the rooms create natural, small dining areas and a comfortable seating area to await your table. New Orleans artifacts are everywhere and the atmosphere is comfortable. The music is definitely Cajun but not so loud one cannot have a conversation, something on which we all commented favourably. We chose to sit in the enclosed patio. Despite the evening chill, the mushroom heater kept it comfortable out there. Trailing plants and bright colours re-create the warmth of a New Orleans terrace.
Alice loves spicy food and confessed that she “will judge every place by it’s liver.” So an appetizer of blackened chicken liver topped with lemon beurre and served with garlic toast points ($7) was her first choice. Hot enough to tingle the tastebuds, we all loved it and Southern Accent passed the liver test. Brian started with three oysters topped with peppered Absolut ($3 a piece). Not a drop was left in the shells. “To die for” was Brian’s pronouncement.
Two other appetizers of crackered catfish fingers ($7) and black tiger shrimp in a piquant garlic-lime hot sauce and served with hush puppies the south’s answer to French fries, deep-fried cornmeal ($9). The catfish was firm, very tasty and not at all fleshy. The shrimp was good but the sauce too runny to appreciate. Alice confessed to not liking seafood much but actually enjoyed the catfish, and bravely tasted to shrimp, liking it enough to have a second.
Brian chose blackened New Zealand rack of lamb marinated in rosemary, red wine, and Creole mustard, served with garlic mashed potatoes ($29). “It’s perfectly prepared, so tender, it’s orgasmic,” he said.
Alice’s jambalaya ($16) came beautifully presented with sausage, shrimp, ham and chicken mounded atop the spicy, tomato-laced rice blend. “It’s really good. It has a kick without being impossibly spicy,” she said.
My own shrimp etouffee ($18), a classic N’Awlins dish, was a half-dozen large, perfectly-cooked shrimp surrounding a moudling of rice, swimming in a piquant, tomato-based sauce.
Now, you’d have thought we all would have been stuffed, but in the best interests of our readers, we all gamely ordered dessert. Besides, who could resist crème brulee (Brian), pecan pie (Alice), and bread pudding with whiskey sauce (yours truly)($7 each)? Alice makes her own pecan pie and felt this one was a little too gluey, not as firm, but definitely good enough to finish. The crème brulee was pronounced by all to be excellent. And though the bread pudding was just OK, the whiskey sauce was superb. I’d say, unless you’re crazy about sweets, eschew the dessert and concentrate on the wonderful, savoury courses here.
A half bottle of Portuguese red wine was $17, a very good, robust, 2000 vintage. Alice doesn’t drink but loved the brewed iced tea enough to have a second glass. The waitress, Vicky, was attentive and helpful, even getting the recipe for the lamb for Brian. The icing on the cake was her comment: “You guys were fun to serve.” Can you tell we have a great time? Brian was ready to hand her his chequebook.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Rarely does a critic have the pleasure of celebrating the growth of a restaurant. For a restaurant to grow is analogous to an individual growing, which is why it is not the usual thing. Growth generally requires a fair amount of pain and effort, and it is unlikely to happen overnight.
If the people running a restaurant give it an enormous amount of consistent effort over time, and come to an understanding of how to make the magic that touches an ordinary room with their own brand of stardust, then their restaurant grows. I have been reviewing restaurants for 20 years, and in that time have stumbled across fewer than a dozen restaurants that have improved substantively during their life span.
So it is with enormous pleasure that I laud the maturing of Southern Accent, Toronto’s longest-running Cajun restaurant. Three years ago, when it opened in the Markham Street house where Gaston’s lived it’s glory days, Southern Accent had more moxie than charm. These upstarts, whose chef hadn’t even been to Louisiana were going to feed us Cajun? Feh.
And feh it was. Their jambalaya was bland, their gumbo tasteless. Hot peppers in obnoxious abundance were supposed to make up for amateurish cooking. They failed to do so. The building was a barren as the cooking – a lovely Victorian shell of which nothing was made.
The restaurant was distinguished chiefly by it’s poverty of culinary technique; it was easy to forget. But it wouldn’t go away. And not only that, but it had the gall to expand. There sprouted Zydeco, a self-styled Cajun Party House, on the corner of Markham and Lennox Street, where other restaurants had come and gone. Strange and wonderful music came from both of the Cajun houses on Markham Street. The kind of music to make your toes tap on the worst of days.
So I went back. Lo and behold, Southern Accent got taste! And smarts, too. The entire upstairs is a non-smoking area. Downstairs houses the bar, and is equally funky. There are stained-glass windows, old Acadian signs, diverse flowered tablecloths, artsy young servers and hip music. It’s the opposite of slick, not an iota of postmodern, but lovely in it’s own cramped manner.
The kitchen has had an even more tasteful awakening, and $60 still buys dinner for two. Cajun food is an honourable cuisine which deserves far better than the nasty dried-out overcooked abomination called blackened fish that is served in so many Toronto restaurants. At Southern Accent when they blacken something, they do not aim to compete with the fossil kingdom. Blackened means spiced and seared, melting in the middle and with sensual surrender ensured by lemony beurre blanc on top. But bronzed is even better: They bronze fresh fish, which means a little less spice, a little gentler than blackened. This, too, is cooked properly, never overcooked.
The appetizers have gone from boring to brilliant – light but strong daily soups, often sweet and hot and sour, some of which are the only rivals Greg Couillard’s jump-up soup has in Toronto. There are superbly crunchy hush puppies (deep-fried corn fritters), and lovely greens with toasted pecans and citrus-scented vinaigrette. The gumbo, that Cajun classic based on a dark roux,, is a dream from the bayou – highly flavoured pork sausage (called andouille) and other meats in a strong broth based on roux, with okra, and topped with a snowy hill of rice.
Most Cajun cooking is based on the roux, which is a paste of flour and oil cooked over exceedingly high heat. Then they will often etouffee the meat or fish, which literally means smother it, usually with onions, tomatoes and peppers. Gumbo and other dishes are thickened with file, fragrant powder made from ground young sassafras leaves. Giblets are an important Cajun flavouring (in the right hands, they make innards into something silken, and Southern Accent has the right hands). Giblets turn Southern Accent’s dirty rice from ordinary to intriguing.
The queen of the Cajun kitchen is jambalaya, from the French jambon, ham, and African ya, rice, and the Acadian language which calls foods “a la”. Jambalaya is the paella, the stew, the chow mein, the major complex statement of Louisiana cooking. It is rice-based, with andouille, smoked ham, beef, chicken, bacon, vegetables and shrimp in Cajun spices. Southern Accent does it proud.
The Cajuns are descendents of the French who lived in Acadian (today’s Nova Scotia) and were expelled by the British in the 1750s. These were the people who fled south, and settled in Louisiana where, despite all efforts to the contrary, they were never melted into the homogenous American pot. They clung to their Cajun identity (the word Cajun come from Acadian) and to this day, celebrate it, most especially in the kitchen, as do we at Southern Accent.
Doug is one well-travelled pooch thanks to restaurant patrons who pack him on their holidays
BY SUSAN GRIMBLY
What started as a gag with a throwaway camera in the summer of 2000 has snowballed into a travelling art event.
That’s Doug the Dog, the stoic stuffed animal taking on a life of his own as the star of tourist photographs taken around the world. Italy, Ireland, Sarasota, Jamaica, Argentina, London, Havana, Boston, Spain, Portugal and San Francisco – no place is too exotic for the jet-setting pooch with the heart of sand.
A canine Forrest Gump, he is shown peeking coyly from behind a memorial to those who fell in the Battle of New Orleans (“A moment of silence please”); or boldly hogging the foreground in a tableau of the Tower of Pisa. There is Toronto’s artful dodger reflective before a pieta of the Baby Jesus or insouciant before a pick-up-doo-doo sign (“Gracies”) in Spain. Sacred and profane space gets equal billing. Fine-art museums, the Coliseum, Alcatraz or cathedrals are all backdrops for our deadpan doggie.
Wini Mertens, impish bartender at the hot soul-food restaurant Tru Grits near the Annex, is Doug’s manager and agent.
“It started as a lark,” she says, “and took off like wildfire.”
And what more appropriate place for bar stunts than the Bloor-Bathurst corner crowned by Honest Ed’s, in the Markham Street neighbourhood when iconoclasts are fostered
A gift from Elena, the executive chef, Doug took his maiden voyage with busboy Shane to Italy and Ireland. When he returned with a sheaf of 5-by-8s for Wini, who showed them around to amused patrons drinking bourbon sours, the offers to backpack the pooch poured in.
A fully realized life of Doug started to develop, through each new set of snaps. Here, a tiny cartoon character overwhelmed by space in a Portuguese piazza; there, a giant eating a muffaletta on the banks of the Mississippi. Whether in or out of focus, his beady eyes and stocky build clearly plant him in the pictures as a dog of great presence.
One customer had a special itinerary printed to help Ms. Merten’s handle all the requests. Now “Doug’s Travel Journal” is pegged on the wall over the bar. Beside it is the giant distressed-antique can of Ocean Blend Tea where Doug lounges in comfort and style under a red-velvet sombrero with gold trim, when home from his sojourns.The gimmick was inspired by ongoing stories of the English, French and Australian prats who steal ceramic and plastic gnomes and then send the hapless owners evidence of Kodak moments of their kidnapped garden sculpture. In the mid-1990s, there was a mini-rash of Gumby thefts.
But there is no kidnapping involved here. Doug is an adventurer more akin to their Excellencies Bill and Ted.
Part weasel, part sheltie, part Border collie, he is a hard-boiled stuffie, which gives an aura of reality. “Little kids were coming up to pet him. They thought he was a real dog,” Ms. Mertens says. “During the trip to Boston, he was chased on the subway platform, because dogs aren’t allowed on the train. My friend had to knock his head on the platform to prove he wasn’t real.”
No mere sunseeker or gawking Hawaiian-shirt wearer, Doug is a culture vulture, embracing sculpture in Madrid and painting in Boston.
He’s missed a few trips – Puerto Vallarta and Thailand fell through. “Someone wanted to take him to Italy, but he’s been there,” Wini says. “Someone wanted to take him to Woodbridge.” And, like any seasoned traveler, he has had his share of travails. His tail fell off in Ireland. He broke his leg in San Francisco. “It’s epoxied back on.”
The big fear is that when Doug is travelling across borders to somewhere like Argentina, he might be suspected of harbouring illicit substances and cut open. Undaunted, Ms. Mertens says, “If that ever happens, I tell customers, take pix.”