Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Small but mighty

Last weekend, visiting a friend in Toronto, we went to the most amazing bar I think I've ever encountered. It's called BarChef, on Queen West, and it's a dark cozy speakeasy-type place but with an incredible playlist that ranged from Outkast to Del Shannon. We never could predict what might come up next, but ninety per cent of the time we could sing along to it, to the great amusement of our awesome waiter. This is the kind of place where the cocktails have ingredient lists longer than some soups I make, and they take ten minute to arrive, but when they do, they blow your freaking mind. Another great thing about the place: no standing. You must have a table or a seat at the bar in order to hang out. So adult and classy. The staff were friendly and engaging and really knew their stuff. We spent a terrific three hours hanging out watching the bartenders work and the other patrons interact (and of course, singing and chatting).

Chris and I were both a tiny bit peckish at the start of our stay, so we each ordered the smallest thing on the menu, a shrimp taco. The waiter said they were amazing and we wouldn't be disappointed, and he was right. They were bigger than the tiny happy-hour tacos at Sidedoor here in Ottawa, but smaller than the ones at El Camino - a perfect snack. A soft corn tortilla, nicely grill-marked, was topped with sharp pickled red cabbage, mango chutney (more of a salsa, to my palate) a lemon-coriander sauce, and three small, perfectly cooked shrimp. Three delicious bites and it was gone, sadly.

So tonight I tried to replicate, or at least produce an homage, to those tacos. I would say I got about halfway there, so I'll have to try again. One of the curses of a sensitive palate is that I have excellent taste memory, and I knew there was something lacking. When I try to replicate restaurant dishes the thing I lack is usually salt or fat, or both. I don't cook with a heavy hand from the salt shaker, but restaurants generally do. I also don't cook shrimp frequently and when I do it's usually to dip them in cocktail sauce or simmer them in a moqueca, so I undersalted these babies and I could taste it. For our second round I sprinkled a bit on, and also salted the pineapple salsa that I made, but it still didn't have that punch of flavour. So next time I'll brine the shrimp for an hour beforehand. I also want to pickle the cabbage in white or cider vinegar instead of rice, which I find too mild for my palate. Finally, I need to incorporate something richer than sour cream into the mix - maybe a lemon-coriander mayo next time, and just some diced mango or pineapple instead of a salsa.

In any event, these were still solid tacos and I'll riff on this idea again. They were also pretty as heck:

 Shrimp tacos inspired by BarChef

corn tortillas (We make our own using Maseca)
small (21-28 size) shrimp, two per taco, sauteed in a little neutral oil in a hot pan until pink and cooked through
sour cream (a smear per taco)
pickled red cabbage (your choice; I just made a quick brine with water, rice vinegar, sugar and salt and soaked the shredded cabbage for two hours)
pineapple-coriander salsa (chopped fresh pineapple, minced coriander, lemon juice, salt, espelette pepper)

Assemble and serve immediately.

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