TV Dinner Semiotics

Cheezie wings crack the culinary code of ’70s and ’80s sitcoms

RESTAURANT REVIEW by Aidan Morgan

Photo by Darrol Hofmeister

Malt City Whisky & Beer
100-2201 11th Avenue
306-559-6258
maltcity.ca
3.5 out of 5

As a child growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, my ideas of restaurants came chiefly from sitcoms.

In television comedies of the time, restaurants came in two flavours: greasy, down-home diners or French bistros, complete with a jacket-and-tie dress code and unctuous maitre d’ at the door. Sometimes the diner was a bar (Cheers on Cheers or The Regal Beagle in Three’s Company) but the fancy restaurant always lurked just off-camera, waiting to entrap a hapless character in a world of money and unspoken manners. The pleasure in these scenes generally came from watching Jesse Katsopolis or Sam Malone triumph over the snooty jerks, demonstrating in the process that goodness trumped pedigree.

In the case of Three’s Company, the all-Californian Jack Tripper eventually opened his own restaurant, which turned out be — what else? — a fancy French bistro.

Of course, the fine dining establishments pictured in sitcoms didn’t quite reflect the reality of the times; even by the 1970s, the old-school French restaurant was already being prodded off its throne by the relaxed California cuisine of places like Chez Panisse. Trends in cuisine now come and go like the tides, but even upscale restaurants are still reckoning with that strange sitcom division of high and low culture.

Case in point: Malt City’s Big Crunch Wings ($15), an appetizer of duck wings crusted in cheezie dust (if there’s any justice in this world, let it be Hawkins Cheezies) and accompanied by red bean dip. The elevation of the meat from chicken to duck, the recollection of childhood pleasures in the cheezies — it’s enough to give a semiotician a stomach ache (except for the red bean dip. It seems content just to signify “Hey, I’m bean dip”).

This kind of dish is the sine qua non of millennial dining, a playful set of ideas coming together for an experience that will leave your fingers orange and your mind deep in a bag of chips. But Malt City has more on its mind than the now-commonplace mingling of high and low cuisines; it’s also channeling the experience of growing up in Saskatchewan at the end of the 20th century. The Prairie Takeout ($15.25) features ginger beef, charred pea egg rolls, crispy wontons and chicken boudin balls — a clear shout-out to the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant found in every Saskatchewan town. Similarly, the Beet Borscht ($5.50) is exactly as warm and cozy as a Ukrainian grandmother’s kitchen.

Not every attempt at recreating and recombining nostalgia works. The Craft Dinner ($23.75) is a promising take on mac ’n’ cheese, with cheddar and fried corn gnocchi, beer ‘velveeta’, crouton crumble and French onion foam. A fellow Knight of Appetite ordered it with a tasty piece of smoked salmon which may not have been fair to the dish; the smoked flavour dominated everything on the plate and more or less obliterated the French onion foam, which I was keen to try. The gnocchi, however, were dry and chewy, which is not how I like them (‘pillowy’ is my preferred adjective). Without decent gnocchi, the rest of the dish felt a bit aimless. I may try it again at some point, just in case it was an off night for gnocchi.

The triumph of nostalgia, though, comes with Geno’s ($16), a round of pizza bread topped with mozzarella, parmesan and Italian dressing, with bolognese on the side. It’s a near-perfect replica of the pizza bread found at Geno’s, a now-defunct restaurant chain in Regina and Moose Jaw that eventually turned into Boston Pizza outlets. The only notable difference between the original and the copy is the bread, which is made in-house and tastes much like every carbohydrate product at Malt and its sister restaurant Flip. I’ve never been a huge fan of the bread from executive chef David Straub’s kitchens (I find it cakey and prone to crumbling), but their house style works well with items like Geno’s or in their pizza dough.

Wait, have I mentioned their pizza? I haven’t tried their Meatie ($23) yet, but the vegetarian Green And White ($21) pizza was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in a long time. The red sauce and smoked cheddar gives it a depth of umami most meatless dishes strive to achieve, and it’s covered in roasted cauliflower, a.k.a. the secret weapon of vegetarian cuisine. Order a Green and White now before the price of cauliflower exceeds $100 per head.

Malt City is also one of the rare restaurants where the main dishes deliver on the promises made by appetizers. The Bavette Steak ($28.75) was beautifully done at medium rare. It came with a small pool of mushroom coulis and a baby kale salad. I had the Beef Cheeks ($22), which were outstandingly tender and marred only by the herb gremolata on top, which kept chasing after every bite of beef with that bright lemon-and-parsley flavour. I find a very small amount of gremolata goes a long way (your mileage may vary in this case — who knows, maybe you end your long workday with a big old bucket of gremolata).

The cheeks also came with bourbon shiitake mushrooms, which are always welcome.

On a recent visit I also tried the Gobbler ($26), a confit of turkey wing so massive it felt like medieval excess. As a fellow Knight of Appetite observed, “That looks like something you should eat while watching people joust.” The Gobbler comes with creamed kale, which is probably the only way to make kale palatable.

For those of you left confused and grieving by the disappearance of Salt on Victoria, Malt City has absorbed it like a hungry amoeba with its cytoplasm and pseudopodia and stuff. Salt is now an organelle within the greater mass of Malt, and it’s still got its range of pickled and cured goods for home consumption.

A note of caution: Malt City will apparently be shaking up their menu very soon, so some of these dishes may not be available on your next visit. If anything here sounds pleasing to you, make sure you tune in before they’re replaced with a bright new season of culinary programs.


The Round Table

WHAT IS IT: Malt City Whisky & Beer

WHAT’S IT FOR: Lunch, supper, weekend brunch

WHEN CAN I GO THERE: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Tuesday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight, Wednesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

WHAT’S GOOD: Malt’s menu ranges far and wide, so chances are that you’ll find something you like. I enjoyed the Peameal Chop, Bavette Steak, a short rib daily special, and the Green and White Pizza particularly.

WHAT’S NOT AS GOOD AS THE GOOD STUFF: Why, Craft Dinner, why? I believed in you.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I TRY? Ye gods. Malt’s menu is relatively small but there’s enough to keep you coming back. I’m up for the Meatie Pizza, Winter ‘Risotto’, Half Bird.

WILL YOU WRITE A BOOK CALLED ‘OFF NIGHT FOR GNOCCHI’, THE FIRST VOLUME IN THE DICK BATALI CULINARY MYSTERY SERIES? What? No. Maybe.

2016-02-04