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257 Eglinton Ave. W.
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Smoked and Cracked is a moderately priced casual Seafood restaurant located by Eglinton Ave E and Bayview Ave in the Leaside area of Midtown / Uptown.
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Review: The greatest chef you've never heard of

 
By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on September 12, 2013

With cottage season winding down, one chef is keeping summer alive with his own urban lobster boil-on Mt. Pleasant of all places. And we owe it all to a culinary genius who has flown under the radar for the last 40 years. Chef Ron Raymer ring a bell? Thought so, but let...

With cottage season winding down, one chef is keeping summer alive with his own urban lobster boil-on Mt. Pleasant of all places. And we owe it all to a culinary genius who has flown under the radar for the last 40 years. Chef Ron Raymer ring a bell? Thought so, but let me assure you he is responsible for many a memorable meal in this town whether you knew it or not.

From being a busboy at the ripe old age of 11 at the Limelight in Stratford to working the grill full-time during the summer at 13, his resume includes working with lotsa very important people and stints at tony places like the Ben Miller Inn, executive chef of the London Hunt and Country Club and the Bloor Street Diner (when it is was actually not embarrassing to eat there).

That all changed in 1995 when he began a career in catering with the queen of entertaining herself, Dinah Koo (Dinah's Cupboard, Tiger Lily) - even contributing to her and Janice Poon's award-winning book, The Cocktail Chef: Entertaining in Style, the ultimate guide to planning the perfect party. But it wasn't until he teamed up with fellow caterer Michael Kash to open Smoked & Cracked that chef Raymer came out of relative obscurity and into the limelight, a place that even today he is not too comfortable with.

Located in the well-heeled Davisville and Mt. Pleasant area, Smoked and Cracked is as upscale and pretentious as a sleepover camp arts-and-crafts studio: a fold-up card table avec matching vinyl chairs complete the luxe sidewalk patio setting. The emphasis may be on take-out and take home, but snagging a few chairs, if you're lucky, adds to the quirky charm.

Passersby can't help but notice this odd-looking, woefully out-of-place eatery, but it's the aroma of fresh boiled seafood that really reels you in. The menu is small, but necessarily focused for its small crew that includes chef Raymer slaving away out back at his smoker.

Before he makes his way outside to greet us, we have a chance to sample his lobster chowder ($11.95), available in both New England and Manhattan styles. Portions are so insanely generous, two can barely finish one bowl–though something tells moi he went a little ladle happy for us since being relegated to the rickety chairs on the sidewalk. (Heck, I would have paid extra for it anyways.) This soup is so thick 'n creamy, you might be thinking Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (fondly), but rest assured this concoction is wholly homemade with lots of lobster, carrots and celery. And of course, there are lobster rolls. What restaurant isn't serving them? Even McDonald's has 'em. But unlike most, riddled with mayo and precious little seafood, Raymer's gets a thumbs up from an east coast visitor who while leaving utters, "pretty close to the real thing." The two versions include a cold east coast ($13.25) roll and a Newport style served hot with butter ($15.25). What makes them magically delicious, aside from the lovely grilled bread, is that Raymer uses the teensiest hint of fresh tarragon for an extra aromatic kick. Where most bury the seafood in gloopy condiments, Raymer takes the less-is-more approach, which proves to be a winner every time.

A side of homemade potato chips is a tad overdone, but these kettle-cooked beauties, currently made by Summerhill Market to Raymer's exact specifications, are super tasty and addictive. I can't imagine how much better they'd be if made them himself, something he plans to do. And why not? He makes everything else himself. He may lack his own deep fryer at present, but he's forgiven cuz he does all his own smoking.

Other lobster choices include a lobster mac and cheese ($16.95) and a fresh steamed lobster (cold, 1 ½ lb, $23.95). But the biggest draw is the fresh, 1 ½ lb east coast lobster boil ($26.95/person) with all the fixin's. In an awesome spectacle, the timid Raymer  comes out from behind the kitchen to literally spill out the food on top of a newspaper-lined picnic table, cobs of corn, new potatoes and all.

And pescaphobes rejoice: Raymer is a master of non-seafood items, too. The duck panini ($8.95) is outta this world. His house-smoked Magret duck breast, layered with Swiss cheese is as decadent as sandwiches not served on cronuts can get. Yet for all its richness, it's not the least bit cloying. Served with his own homemade smoked tomato ketchup (available by the bottle, $5.95), it's boiled down from fresh tomatoes he hand picks at the food terminal. And he doesn't even add sugar. And while it may not be as slow as Heinz, it is a robust concoction that this perfect panini doesn't even need.

The appearance of a half rack of ribs ($14.95) makes us think that at last Raymer has shown his achilles heel, taking on more than he can chew. Surely this no-name chef can do wrong? No, he cannot. It may look like bubby's boiled, grey brisket, but its smokiness sails through with yet another winner, not to mention a homemade Cameron's 266 BBQ Sauce (bottled, $5.95) with an aroma so strong it will linger on your fingers for days. Even a side of slaw has a delicate vinaigrette that barely grazes the cabbage. The addition of pumpkin seeds and cranberries is yet just another sign that Raymer walks to the beat of his own drum.

Something as commonplace as lemonade and iced tea ($2.95) are also given chef's personal touches: vanilla is added to the lemon to help cut some of the bitterness; and star anise is added to his own iced tea brew for added interest and warmth.

Can it get any better than this? Um, yeah, and you will know exactly what I mean when you dig into a deep-dish butter tart ($5). First of all, no exaggerating, it's the size of Wisconsin with butterscotch oozing out of the crust like a molten lava cake. Large pecans and plump raisins remain within perhaps one of the most beautiful crusts, painstakingly rolled between parchment paper to alleviate the use of extra flour to prevent making it dry and heavy. A bite of that with a cup of 2nd Crack House Blend Coffee ($1.95), beans cracked a second time for a more robust flavor, makes this one very perfect meal.

It just goes to show that you can strip away all the bells and whistles of a restaurant and still deliver a majorly memorable meal. Raymer's kindness, care and generosity as a chef and restaurateur are what makes Smoked and Cracked such a rare gem. How he delivers all this at these prices makes me think he's cracked and smoked, but clearly the only thing he cares about is making the best food he possibly can, not the fame and the fanfare he may receive after all of you read this. He just might be the most talented chef you've never heard of.

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1 Comment for Smoked and Cracked

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Lise Zorzos-White has not yet visited this restaurant.

Alan Cannot wait.. to try this one. Love your writing! Lise from Bemelman's Like, 20 years ago.... Have you been to Tom Altosars place, South on temperance? You know that you've got the best job in the whole wide world, Right?
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