Brunch with a Twist at Madame Levant

Madame LevantLocation: 821 Gerrard Street East, Toronto
Website: https://www.madamelevant.com/

Madame Levant is a brunch spot with an interesting gimmick; most of the menu consists of brunch classics “with a Levantine twist.”

Actually, maybe using the word “gimmick” to describe what they’re serving here is unfair.  Based on the two dishes I tried, Madame Levant manages to combine brunch standbys and Middle Eastern ingredients in a way that feels completely organic.

Madame Levant

First up was the Halawa Pancakes, which the menu describes as “GF flour blend pancakes served with orange blossom tahini maple syrup & topped with pistachios and ward (dried flower petals).”

Halawa — a sweet, tahini-based dessert — and pancakes turn out to be a great combo, and the floral notes you get from the orange blossom and flower petals complements it perfectly.  I feel like I need all of my maple syrup to be infused with tahini from now on; it adds a richness and a mildly nutty flavour that really amps up its deliciousness.

The pancakes are gluten free, but aside from a slightly denser texture than the norm, they’re very good.

Madame Levant

I also tried the Sujuk Scrambled: “beef sausages finished with pomegranate molasses, 3 soft scrambled eggs, with a side of hummus, pita, & olives.”

This one’s pretty basic, but when you’re dealing with good ingredients that are well prepared, sometimes simpler is better.  The sausage is tasty and the eggs are nicely creamy.  Hummus and eggs aren’t a combination that I would have thought of, but it works.  Nothing here knocked my socks off, but it’s a solid dish.

A Decent Falafel Sandwich at The Haifa Room

The Haifa RoomLocation: 224 Ossington Avenue, Toronto
Website: https://www.instagram.com/thehaifaroom/

The Haifa Room has been up and running for a bit more than a month, and while the dining room isn’t open quite yet, they do have a take-out window where you can get a variety of sandwiches.

I went with the falafel sandwich: “Falafel, tahina, hummus, z’hug, cucumber and tomato salad, marinated red cabbage, parsley, onions, and pickles.”

I asked them to hold the onion, but otherwise got it as is.

It’s a solid sandwich, though nothing about it particularly blew me away.  The falafel itself is crispy and flavourful, with a nice fluffy interior that’s almost creamy (it might have been a tad undercooked, but it was tasty regardless).  And the healthy amount of parsley they top it with is a nice touch, adding a herby punch that complements the falafel quite well.

The Haifa Room

None of the other toppings particularly stand out, however, and I missed the red pickled turnips that you typically find in a sandwich like this; there were copious amounts of tahini and hummus, and in the absence of something with some zip, it felt overly rich and a bit one-note in its flavour.  It did have pickle slices, but they weren’t assertive enough to add much of anything.

(The menu also says the sandwich is topped with z’hug, a herby Yemenite hot sauce, but I didn’t see or taste anything even remotely hot-sauce-like in the sandwich.)

The vaguely stale pita bread probably didn’t help, which came out of a bag and tasted like it came out of a bag.

I feel like I’m complaining a lot for something I actually quite enjoyed, but pretty much everything here is one small step away from being very good, so it’s easy to notice the flaws that are holding it back.

Tasty Middle Eastern Food at Azkadenya

AzkadenyaLocation: 235 Queen Street West, Toronto
Website: https://www.azkadenya.ca/

I’ll admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Azkadenya, a “mezza diner” with locations all over the Middle East.  Aside from the fact that it’s a chain restaurant, the slick decor and quirky dishes made me think it would be style over substance.

Azkadenya

Well, don’t judge a book by its cover, I guess?  This place was actually quite good, though the restaurant is clearly at its best when it sticks with the classics and doesn’t mess around too much.

Azkadenya

We started with the hummus, which is creamy and tasty.  It didn’t quite knock my socks off, but it’s a solid bowl of hummus.  It helps that it comes topped with healthy amount of good quality olive oil, with a bottle available on the table to top it up (which you should absolutely do — hummus and EVOO are best friends and should never be apart).

Azkadenya

Actually, I should mention the multiple bottles at the table — there’s olive oil, a couple of tasty hot sauces, a tahini sauce, and something labeled “sour but sweet” that I completely forgot to try (I know, what’s wrong with me?).

Servers are constantly walking around to replenish your supply of pita bread — they bake these things fresh in what appears to be a wood-burning oven, so yeah, they’re quite good.

Azkadenya

Next up was the falafel, which comes in an order of eight.  This was easily the highlight of the meal.  They’re nicely spiced and not too big, which gives you the perfect ratio of crispy exterior to fluffy interior (too many places make huge, almost tennis-ball-sized falafel, and the crisp-to-fluffy ratio is all wrong).  They’re also not dry in the middle, which is another common issue with falafel in the GTA.  They’re really good.

Azkadenya

Then there was the beef “shawarma.”  I’m putting that in quotes because, I’m sorry, but this isn’t shawarma.  It comes essentially looking like a kabob (though the beef is sliced, even if it doesn’t look that way).  It’s a fun gimmick, and the presentation is certainly striking, but it’s not shawarma.  It tastes nothing like shawarma.

Azkadenya

Still, it’s tasty enough for what it is.  The meat is tender and nicely marinated.  Once you put it in a pita with some of the condiments (it comes with pickles, tahini sauce, garlic sauce, and tomatoes) it’s quite satisfying.

Azkadenya

Last up was the kunafah pops, which takes the traditional Middle Eastern dessert and turns it into little deep-fried balls.  Like the shawarma, this was the restaurant being a bit too clever for their own good.  All of the textures are wrong — the exterior is a bit too crunchy, the cheesy interior doesn’t quite have the gooeyness you’re looking for, and it has a mild oily flavour from the fryer.  It certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but traditional kunafah would have been vastly superior.

A Mixed Bag at Tabule

TabuleLocation: 2009 Yonge Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://tabule.ca/

I like Tabule a lot; it’s probably one of the better Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, though this particular visit wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring.

The starter was fantastic, at least — we got the sampler platter, which came with hummus, babaganuj, and tabule.  The creamy hummus had a nice garlicky bite without overwhelming, the tabule was fresh and zingy, and the babaganuj had a mild smokiness that really set it apart.  It comes with a basket of soft, toasty pita bread.  It’s great.

Tabule

My main wasn’t quite as good.  I got the eggplant, which comes served on mujaddara, a Middle Eastern rice dish with lentils and fried onions.

The eggplant was perfectly cooked; that particular vegetable can easily be mushy, but in this dish it had a satisfyingly firm texture and an amazing creaminess.  I think it might have been some of the most well-prepared eggplant I’ve ever had.

But while it and the rice were both quite tasty, the whole dish was one-note rich; the tahini sauce didn’t do much to contrast with the eggplant and the rice.  Something with some sweetness or acidity would have really rounded things out — as delicious as it was, I was getting tired of eating it by the end of the plate.

Tabule

I had the kunafa for dessert, which was a more unambiguous failure.  I actually had this on a previous visit, and that time it had a really great balance of creaminess and crispiness, without being overly sweet.  This time?  Not so much.

But to quote LeVar Burton: you don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s a side-by-side of the the one I just had, and the one I was served on my last visit.

Tabule

Yikes.  And it was as bad as it looked — it was absolute mush all the way through, with an unpleasantly intense, throat-burning sweetness.