An afternoon at the Red Tea Box, Toronto

I am watching Meilleur Patissier de France (Best pastry chef of France) on M6, my favourite TV station/guilty pleasure.

Today’s challenge was to make a “Voyageur” almond cake, so named because it can keep for 3 days at room temperature. The tricky bit for the 12 contestants was the fondant icing. Ah, yet another ‘false friend’: fondant is just regular glazed icing to me, while what anglos call fondant icing is pâte à sucre (sugar paste) here, and such cake decoration is almost non-existent in Paris*.

On the other hand, we saw some stunning examples when in Toronto a few weeks ago, at the Red Tea Box.

One of our favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto is the stretch of Queen St W. by Trinity Bellwood park. Our friend Fauna kindly sacrified her Friday afternoon off to battle traffic and fetch us from Pearson (when is Canada’s largest city going to have a subway line to the airport, like a normal metropolis?),  then brought us here for some mid-afternoon sustenance.

I had been here 10 years before, again with Fauna (my source of all things cool in TO), and had never forgotten the experience. It was my first time tasting white Chinese tea, and I went gaga for the savory-sweet, Asian-influenced nibblies served in bento boxes. Since then I’ve made many trips to Toronto and tried repeatedly to visit, often dragging Torontophobic, tea-loving HerrKaa to prove the city has its merits even if there are no mountains, but this place would always be closed, ultimately reinforcing entrenched stereotypes.

The server was very friendly and we enjoyed being able to banter with her unhindered by linguistic mental gymnastics. She did tend to mysteriously disappear for long stretches, but this suited us fine as we needed time to choose from the extensive tea menu and to dither between soup of the day, a tea bento, or a gooey dessert.

In the end, HerrKaa opted for a chocolate hazlenut toffeecake, while Fauna and I split a tea bento that featured along with the savouries a chocolate lavender mousse. Because I am greedy was famished I also had a cauliflower, pear and wasabe soup to start. All this was accompanied by a huge pot, practically a vat, of steeped black tea. Such a thrill compared to the minuscule pots of tepid water you get when you are order tea at a typical café in France!

The Red Tea Box (phone for opening hours as they can be irregular)

696 Queen St W, Toronto

416-203-8882

* In Paris, you can order pretty cakes decorated with rolled fondant/pâte à sucre at the American (and I think Canadian)-run Sugarplum Cake Shop, near Contrescarpe. David Lebovitz has a good write-up here.

Dinner at Chartier

Picard butternut squash soup

These days, dinner is usually a romantic tete-a-tete of microwaved Picard meal-in-a-bag, eaten from the dining table that pulls out from under the desk in our room, while watching BBC World News.

However, beware of becoming too engrossed in whatever you’re doing in France (or anywhere in Europe, really) on a Sunday or holiday. Suddenly you find it’s 8 o’clock, your bijou of a bar fridge is empty, the few stores that were open are now shut, and open restaurants are very thin on the ground. Yet your stomach will not shut up.

Insert Chartier, a no-frills traditional French restaurant open 365 days a year. It looks like a Hollywood movie-version of a French restaurant, but this is the real deal. Opened in 1896, you can still see banks of little drawers scattered throughout the restaurant where the regulars kept their napkins.  Brass gleams, waiters bustle, bills are tabulated on the paper tablecloth. Service is brusque, but competent.

People queue outside the restaurant, as if waiting to enter a movie theatre. We were the 5 & 6th in line, and within 2 minutes there was a 30-person lineup. Once you get in, if your party is less than 4, you’ll be sharing a 4-person table with another couple or group of 3. The food is fine, just your usual meat-heavy French bistro standards; it’s the price & atmosphere (and operating hours) that appeals.

Here is a video I found from YouTube (commentary in French):