Famed Canadian Chef Susur Lee (of Iron Chef America, Top Chef Masters, Chopped Canada, and Masterchef Asia notoriety) captains this upscale King West eatery nestled in the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. One of five in his extensive fleet including Bent, Fring’s, Luckee, and Tunglok Heen, Lee combines the "epicurean" traditions of China with the aesthetics and classical techniques of French cuisine.
If the name sounds minimalist, it could only be bettered by another monosyllabic word: red. From the neon, diner style "Restaurant" sign out front to the pair of majestic three-panel, backlit paintings, the rose-velvet bar stool covers, bar underglow, floor-to-ceiling reflective glass, and yes, even the exit sign, Lee glows red. Think the Macau casino scene in Skyfall. At least on one side. Divided into two sections, Lee boasts a whole
second wing, with exposed brick walls, 14-foot coffered, exposed-beam ceilings, a faded parrot mural, and more of a vintage factory vibe than the east wing's Asian/Vegas theme. With a street side outdoor patio, Lee completes its seating trifecta, offering diners the bustle of King West's night club energy in addition to fine dining and signature cocktails.
If the name sounds minimalist, it could only be bettered by another monosyllabic word: red. From the neon, diner style "Restaurant" sign out front to the pair of majestic three-panel, backlit paintings, the rose-velvet bar stool covers, bar underglow, floor-to-ceiling reflective glass, and yes, even the exit sign, Lee glows red. Think the Macau casino scene in Skyfall. At least on one side. Divided into two sections, Lee boasts a whole second wing, with exposed brick walls, 14-foot coffered, exposed-beam ceilings, a faded parrot mural, and more of a vintage factory vibe than the east wing's Asian/Vegas theme. With a street side outdoor patio, Lee completes its seating trifecta, offering diners the bustle of King West's night club energy in addition to fine dining and signature cocktails.
In contrast to the hustle of King Street’s clubland, Lee creates a world of quiet elegance. Mid-century furnishings grace the spacious, dimly lit interior, with a vast bar greeting guests upon arrival, replete with
martini shaking tenders and velvet covered barstools. It’s an oddly homey mix: for a sophisticated restaurant, the ambiance is welcoming. The cozy bar and cast of characters dotting its stools brings to mind a cross between a classic late night Chinatown diner, and my most recent trip to Las Vegas. Dark wood finishes and hardwood flooring are accented by decorative, carved wood dividers reminiscent of a Chinese abacus. The wood veneer tables and turquoise velvet seats were
comfortable if not a little tightly packed. It was hard to not delve into your neighbour’s conversation (and meal) by proximity alone. A rich crimson hue cast by glowing red triptychs emblazoning the back wall was softened by white ceiling pot lights, rounding out the space’s warm (if not clubby) colour code. Up a low rise ramp, through a narrow doorway lies Lee’s opposing west wing. Almost another restaurant, its high ceilings, exposed beams,
and full length brick wall were like characters in a film. It brought to mind the importance of design and architecture; offering guests as much a spatial, visceral experience as a gastronomic one. While Lee’s patio was chock-a-block, the sparsely filled interior on this particular night made the impactful decor pop even more.
The only drawback was the music. From Destiny’s Child to an odd mix of generic pop and electronic, the music was a sort of "Huh?" hodgepodge. While not overly loud, the ambiance would have been better served by some classical, jazz, a more restrained house or electronic music for the club district vibe, or even some traditional Chinese music.
Greeted kindly at the door, I was seated promptly and welcomed within seconds by no fewer than two different servers. One described the restaurant and its shared-plate theme. A second, in thickly French-accented English, offered a second welcome, water, and
the night’s specials. Soon after followed the sangria girl, presenting an aquarium-like 25-ingredient specialty sangria cocktail. Drink orders were taken quickly and arrived just as fast. Mains took a little longer, though the Singaporean Style Slaw, being a house favourite, arrived within minutes. Two mid-meal table cleanings, and a plate and cutlery refresh in preparation for my third course were nice touches. Water was refilled regularly and without asking. Interestingly each course was actually delivered by a different server. In addition,
each ingredient was listed off as though that server had prepared the meal themselves. While entertaining and certainly informative, for the dense 19-ingredient slaw, it was hard to keep up. By dessert, I was a bit over it. But the practice did add an element of class and performative flair. Chocolate cake isn’t nearly as exciting as, well, every single ingredient in chocolate cake. Otherwise, service was excellent: friendly, prompt, visible when needed, invisible when not.
Lee’s menu is chock full of innovative, visually stunning provender, with none of the usual culprits; that is, if you expected anything usual from a star chef’s Asian-French culinary fusion. There was only one mildly recognizable pan-Asian dish, the Top Chef Green Curry Chicken ($28), though the as mentioned Singaporean Slaw turned out to be a clearly Asian inspired salad. Appetizers range from $8-25 (General Tao Edamame, $8; Susur’s Signature Singaporean Slaw, $25), with mains of seafood and meat ranging from $16-48 (Cheeseburger Spring Roll and Pulled Beef Taco, $16; Korean Pepper Marinated Sirloin, $48) and an extensive dessert menu from simple sorbets ($12) to Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee and Molten Chocolate Cake ($14). The drink menu is stunning in its size, breadth, and price range, offering wines from nearly every known wine producing country (glass $13-21; bottle $52-5300), sparkling wine ($65-1050), a plethora of signature cocktails ($16-21), sake ($42-$245), whiskies ($8-49), standard spirits ($8-195), a small offering of bottled beer and cider ($8-10), and the usual raft of sparkling water, coffee, and tea.
Drink: Dirty Martini. Arriving with two unpitted olives (disappointing in number and pittedness) in a rounded version of the classic martini glass, Lee’s dirty martini was clean, crisp, cold, pucker-inducing, and surprisingly refreshing. At $21 it’d be hard to justify a second round, but that only made me enjoy it all the more.
"Appetizer: Susur’s Singaporean Style Slaw. Recommended as a favourite, this Asian themed salad had no fewer than 19 ingredients. While the server tossed the initially stunning dish, crowned with thin, fried wonton-type crisps live at our table, she listed off each—and every—ingredient. I couldn’t have told you a single one of them for the speed at which she spoke. I worried more about her accidentally spitting on the food during her monologue than hearing what I’d actually be eating. It’s a salad. Got it. After the epic performance, I ate. And it was delicious. Julienned
greens. Gorgeous colour. Strong cilantro tones. Prominent peanut character. Crisp texture. Each bite was a flavour reveal. It was also amazingly filling. While pricey for a salad, the slaw is a dish that delivers on both artistry and substance. Main: Top Chef Green Chicken. This dish’s odd initial appearance—a row of five artful looking meatballs—gave way to a delicious and near classic coconut Thai curry character. Its sparse "sides" included deep fried rice cubes - squares of densely packed rice tasting a lot like a fried potato—and grilled pineapple to balance out the spiciness.
Sans the typical coconut soup and rice, it was a unique take on the well known Thai staple. A small detraction was the chicken’s texture. It seemed an overly soft mix of white and dark meat somehow shaped into a ball. You’d have thought it was ground chicken, but not being so, the texture was strangely like the stringy strands of meat off a chicken leg. That aside, the flavour was a sumptuous melange of curry and coconut. Dessert: Molten Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream. Taking a server-noted 10 minutes to make, the wait for dessert offered a much needed digestive respite. Arriving in another ball-shaped layout, the Molten Chocolate Cake was volcanic and viscous. Its warm interior was wonderfully sweet, and balanced nicely by a second ball of vanilla red bean ice cream.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little heavy after the meal. Despite the onslaught of ingredient listing, I couldn’t really tell which components were the filling culprits. That being said, the flavours were scintillating, creative, and refreshingly different, while still reminiscent of familiar Asian themes. Presentation was paramount: each dish was as much a visual feast as an edible one. Half the "feeling" of the Lee experience was the decor itself. I left with a sense I’d been somewhere new. A bit like I’d travelled and experienced a unique locale.
While the slaw was a hit, I wouldn’t return for those same dishes. For all that Lee boasts in ambiance, innovation, and of course celebrity status, Toronto’s culinary bench—especially at the higher price point—is deep. Lee offers artistry and environment as near equal parts of the eating experience. Like going to an art gallery. And while I do love the gallery, it’s more a place you visit once every few months. While I’d choose another of the city’s high end restos before returning to Lee, I certainly would try his other restaurants, and readily recommend it as a priority destination on Toronto’s celebrity culinary circuit.
Mexican food tends to be the stuff of lunches or takeout or late night food-stops more than a first choice culinary destination for an evening on the town. It’s understandable if you’re a little over-saturated with rice and beans, or tiny tapas tacos, or burritos as big as your head. But thankfully there’s a trend going on in downtown Toronto bringing new and — and, well, actually old — aspects of Latin culture and cuisine (not the least of which is Mexican) to the city’s collective tastebuds (and eyeballs). It’s moving well past the Tequila Flats buckets of mojito mix and Margaritaville chimichangas to far more innovative and decidedly non-traditional Mexican aliment. And it’s not just the food. Increasingly, restaurants are sizably upping their interior decor game, offering diners not just stomach appeal,
but a visual feast, inflating a night out to more than just a bursting belt. Enter Cocina Economica. The newest ship in the prolific fleet of Chef and owner David Sidhu’s Playa Cabana restaurants, (including existing brands Hacienda, Cantina, Barrio Coreano, and Playa Cabana), Cocina Economica opened its doors in May of 2015, taking up residence in Toronto’s burgeoning Queen Street East neighbourhood, straddling Moss Park and Corktown. Tucked into a closet sized used-to-be two-storey rental house that was most recently The Berkeley Cafe, Cocina Economica is kitty-corner from Corktown’s most vibrant concert/event venue (and one time House of God), The Berkeley Church. With its Mother Goose-like size, and off the beaten track coordinates, you kind of need that double-click, map-app, magnifying glass
thing, or a keyhole satellite flyover to pinpoint its exact location. But trust me; the effort is well worth it. Cocina Economica is a Mexican restaurant with a theme. A really good theme. "Cocinas Economicas" (literally ‘economic kitchens’), are family-run, neighbourhood kitchen/restaurants that serve affordable foodstuffs to local residents. Their unaffected and utilitarian purpose is to deliver relatively low-cost meals, with easily attainable ingredients, that don’t skimp on size and substance. It’s supposed to be like Mom’s cooking, but on steroids. In the Playa Cabana version of the Cocina Economica, this is done with the utmost class and an artisinal flair. It’s also insatiably cool.
While Corktown still has an aura of its reputed "je ne sais quoi" dodgyness, Queen East is coming up fast on the radar. Among the many cool things about Cocina Economica is its underground, three-knocks, what’s-the-password, unannounced Prince concert type vibe. And what’s better is the proverbial house party you walk into
upon entering the front door. On a Friday night, it feels like Cheers (or whatever current show where everyone in the bar yells your name when you walk in). Upon arrival (through a pair of part closet, part saloon half doors), people seemed to look at me like they knew me. I almost started saying hello to folks as I waited for the host. The main floor was chock-a-block with people sitting cheek to jowl, drinking, eating, and otherwise contributing to a barely controlled brawl of social camaraderie. With a bar at one end, and a street-facing window at the other, it was tiny and bright, with walls lined with old tin siding, tile, and reclaimed wood,
all in a riot of colour hither and yon. It seemed at once like New York or Paris in the 50s. But a bit more Mexican. Though thankfully without any Day of the Dead skulls. It was also a nice departure from Playa’s slightly Vegas meets Alabama line dancing bar decor theme common to Hacienda and Cantina. I was seated upstairs on Cocina’s newly acquired second floor. Newly acquired in that it was occupied by renters just three months prior to my visit. The staircase was like an old apartment: steep, tight, wallpapered, and with wood so old it creaked. It opened into a long narrow room that was as quaint and cozy as the main floor, if not more so,
and just to my taste - it was less peopled and more subdued than the food fracas going on downstairs. I sat at a high table with bar stool style seats directly across from a gorgeous wooden bar. The walls were lined with a similar melee of colourful tin siding and reclaimed wooden planks, in addition to sensational exposed brick. It was a classy, seamless combination of cool and homey: hard to achieve.
The musical background was a little eye roll inducing with Enrique Iglesias being the first sound to grace my ears, and while thereafter came a train of slightly fromage Latin pop that even Shazam couldn’t recognize (the one it did was "Chayanne", the Puerto Rican Bon Jovi), it was actually a perfect fit for the atmosphere. The volume level was also a big plus, being tastefully unintrusive and ideal for dinner conversation. And while at one point a small child was running laps of the second floor (which was cute, for about 34 seconds), it was indicative of Cocina’s family friendly atmosphere.
The service at Cocina Economica was a treat, plain and simple. I was greeted promptly at the door, taken upstairs to my table, and had an extremely friendly server at my side in minutes. The upstairs section is small, but that didn’t keep Cocina from staffing it well
and being sure all tables were properly attended to. The fact that I sat directly across from the bar kept me in good view, and might have been an added bonus for visibility. My pre-app arrived almost immediately, drink(s) came within minutes of ordering, and from there, the rest of my nutriment followed with the timing of a Beethoven sonata. Water refills were prompt and regular, and there wasn’t a moment of feeling like I was waving my hand in the air for a life raft. As a quality point of note, as I was getting set to leave, my server asked
if I’d like a shot on the house. Lots of class there. While not much of a shooter type, I accepted heartily and asked for something I’d normally not be able to get. She chose yet another Mezcal variety which I had never heard of, and like my previous near-single-malt sipper, this one went down like a fine distilled spirit. I was floored for a second time by what I only ever knew as a type of alcohol you closed both your eyes and nose for while throwing it back after a lick of salt at a frat party. Who knew.
Cocina Economica’s menu is concise yet adventurous, covering a swath of options from beef to seafood. Appetizers (Bocaditos), possibly the most innovative aspect of the menu, range from classic guacamole (with baked tostada chips; $9) and ceviche ($9), to sirloin tips, battered and stuffed chile, cactus, and red wine marinated beef ($9-12). The list of mains is replete with slow cooked, bone-in, off-the-spit meat dishes (chicken, beef, lamb, pork, chorizo; $14-24) that conjure an instinctive primal memory (that or Sunday night dinner at home), and a couple of delectable seafood options (shrimp, whole seabream; $18-22), with a little less for the vegetarian (soy chorizo; $14). Sides include fried and baked tostada chips, guacamole, pinto beans, and a rice and beans duo plate ($1.50-4), with a trio of desserts including corn flour cookies, chocolate caramel flan, and a traditional milk-cake ($8-11).
Drinks at Cocina (like all Playa locations) are a delight. And they’re strong. And a little pricey. But they deliver (Cocktails and sangria; $8-12, pitchers $45-60; two red and white wine selections; $10-15). They also have four non alcoholic options ($3), in addition to specialty coffee ($3). And if Cocina isn’t Toronto's first mezcaleria, it’s among a very small number of establishments offering more than the basic mezcal we all love to hate: tequila. They currently have over 20 different bottles to sample, many of which rival fine single malt scotch whiskies in sip-ability, making them, you know, a bit dangerous. Price point reflects their rarity though, so be prepared to shell out a bit for these superlative treats. The mojito I had came with enough mint to kill a cold and freshen your breath, along with easily to to three shots of tequila. The follow up, a Dave’s Margarita, was equally succulent. It had a salted rim that would make a horse salivate, along with the same substantial helping of tequila. Coming in half-size, regular bar rail glass, the effect was, well, effective. Cocina also had beers from $6 (a bucket of four for $22), including a surprising draft offering from Whitby’s sensational Brock St. Brewery (dark/seasonal, as well as blonde; $8)—a nice nod to local (or semi-local) talent.
Drink: Dirty Martini. Pre-app: fried tostada chips with four kinds of salsa. Appetizer: guacamole with baked tostadas; Ceviche (on the house); Mains: chicken leg and stewed beef, with rice and bean sides and warm tortilla shells; smokey mezcal with chili and salt orange slices for dessert. Within minutes of being seated, I
had a bowl of fried tostadas (nacho chips) with four different types of salsa, all of which were sensational and incredibly diverse in both heat and texture. I continued with the theme and went straight for an app of guacamole. Traditional, I know, but it’s kind of the butter chicken of Mexican restaurants. Simple, but easy to do badly. Mine was fresh off the vine (or however avocados grow), with sparkling cilantro and hints of citrus. The tostadas that came with the guac were baked instead of fried, offering a crispy, light counterpoint to the guac’s viscosity. A big gold star was an offering of fresh ceviche on the house. It was a crisp, tangy, ocean
of flavour. The mains were well timed, arriving as I neared the last bite of my appetizer. Interestingly, I would here note that while they looked delectable, first impressions rated my roasted chicken leg and beef shoulder as relatively innocuous. Both were served ungarnished on relatively simple platters, instilling a sense of plebeian modesty. The chicken was a half pound in weight, including a thigh, wing, and breast. It was perfectly sauced and red in hue as per its barbecue style marinade. While excellent and well balanced in terms of heat, it was amazingly (no offence) evocative of the bygone era of St. Hubert.
Personally, I loved St. Hubert. But for a unique Mexican restaurant, it seemed odd. Maybe St. Hubert stole their sauce recipe from some Mexicans. Who knows. Either way, the chicken was fall-off-the-bone good. The beef shoulder was a slightly different, if not still tasty, experience. It was essentially a big-chunk, bone-in, well-gravied version of stewed beef, which means a cheap, fatty cut that a lot of times has most of the flavour cooked out of it. The taste profile on this one was a little low on character, almost reminding me of school meal-hall meat: filling, warm, and cheap. But the context and the $15 it cost was a bit of a trip. Still, mixed with rice, beans, and guacamole in a tortilla shell, it was pretty tasty.
As the three dessert offerings were fairly dairy-centric, I chose to partake in Cocina’s famous mezcal selection, ordering a high end, smokey sipper of a shot (Mezcal Marcanegra, $16) that came encircled by a ring of freshly sliced oranges sprinkled with salt and chili spice! Chili spice! Definitely deserves two exclamation points. The reddish-brown tone made it seem totally unconventional, but it was exquisitely flavourful, and the most innovative take on an orange I’ve experienced. The combination of citrus with mezcal was like the traditional lemon sucking, salt licking bar shot we all know, but with the class (and flavour) level increased by a jillion squared.
Overall, the largely meat-focused feast left me satiated and not overly full on carbs, and the mojito et. al. did their jobs exquisitely. I’d definitely go back. Solid 8 out of 10.
Italian on King you say? Rivaling Little Italy herself, King West boasts surely the highest per capita Italian cuisine offerings in Toronto. With Kit Kat, Gusto, Cibo, Buca, Ovest, Bar Mozza, and Il Fornello all visible from the curb of King, there are molti choices. While it's possible there's never been a recorded complaint about too many Italian restaurants, especially in Toronto's long time entertainment district (rammed with locals and tourists alike), you'd think another Italian joint would burst the proverbial belt buckle. And while a challenge to stand out in an area chock-a-block with a single food genre, not to mention a zillion other good restaurants,
this new Italian gem does just that. Enter Oretta. Italian for "about an hour", Oretta boasts a cuisine and decor that entice you to do just the opposite. Or, er, you know, to stay longer. Owned by Salvatore Mele of Capocaccia (another Italian theme cafe/restaurant at Yonge & St. Clair), and headed by chef Christian Fontolan, Oretta throws a convincing curveball at King's existing Italian batters. Having opened late December 2016, Oretta is open for lunch and dinner, and reservations are easily made online or via their delightful, Italian Mama-ish, sing-songy answering service. Greeted by sleek, condo-like floor to ceiling exterior windows, Oretta explodes
with originality on the inside. With its stunning, Vatican-esque arched ceilings and central, semi-circular marble bar, Oretta is instantly impressive. Spacious, with a retro feel, and bright pastel color scheme, Oretta pays attention to the details: from the two storey ceilings, 80s vintage light fixtures, vivid floor tiles, to its crisp, clean branding and stylish leather-bound menus. Even Oretta's website shines. With its interior zing, Oretta follows a golden service industry rule, not just reserved for restaurants: if the space is inviting and beautiful, people will come. And for what Oretta offers, they'll stay.
Flooded with natural light from the street side wall of north facing windows, the space gleams. Off-white walls offer good reflective properties, and nary a nook gets shadowed. Hanging bulbous light fixtures suggest an
80s era style, extended by soft pinks and dark aqua-marine accents throughout the furniture and flooring. Music during the meal was staunchly un-Italian, and while both Pavarotti and Paganini would have been apt, the classic hipster mix of indie rock Oretta chose fit well with King's persistent effort to be cool. In addition to the main restaurant area, Oretta has a few hidden gems behind the scenes. One is a quaint coffee and pastry shop in the back (already renowned for its cappuccinos),
accessible through the restaurant and by a separate rear entrance. The second is a gorgeous 2nd floor private dining area for private parties, and the third, a complete demo kitchen with harvest table that Martha Stewart would covet. Here, among other things, Food Network personality David Rocco (of TVs Dolce Vita fame and an Oretta shareholder), has shot commercials, held parties, and prepared special meals.
Service: Arriving for a late afternoon reservation, I was greeted immediately by a friendly host and seated within minutes. With its reputation and location, you'd think the place would be overcrowded and noisy, by day or night. But not so. While big, popular, and busy, Oretta maintained a comfortable volume level, where conversation was easy and relaxed. Service throughout the meal was courteous and prompt.
My waiter was knowledgeable and friendly, guided me through the menu, and didn't let my water glass get below half for the duration of the meal. She was the perfect mesh of attentive when needed, and invisible when not. An interesting factoid: Oretta's servers don sneakers and tees to lend a casual feel to the space, apparently provided by Adidas, who have sponsored the restaurant.
Upon asking "what's good?" my server says, essentially, "Everything". Open for just a few months, Oretta is still tweaking its menu to customer response. Seems a lot's good. Apparently popular items include the Fritto Misto (calamari, $14), Cavoletti Salad (shaved brussel sprouts, $14), and Tagliatelle (ragu pasta, $19), though no dish appears to be a signature just yet. Starters, including a range of shared plates, soups, and appetizers range from $4-22. Pizza is an Oretta feature, with a full two menu columns dedicated to variations ($16-20). Made from scratch and oven baked, Oretta pizzas are reminiscent of Libretto's famous, thin crusted originality, with just a glance and a whiff to affirm they use the freshest ingredients and are cooked to perfection. Secondi offerings include a range of fish, steak, and lamb ($24-120), and tidy dessert list of Italian classics runs $9-16. A note to mention is Oretta's succinctness of menu selections. While robust, it's not enough to make you go cross eyed. Which is nice. 5-7 offerings in each section is it. And they all look good.
With a drink list thicker than the food menu - and the aforementioned bar area covering a good 1/4 of the room footprint - one could surmise that Oretta is as much drink destination as eatery. Which it is. They open with a nice, succinct cocktail program ($12-$15), including a classic Barrel Aged Negroni ($14/2.5oz), and progress with a variety of whiskies, brandy & cognac, single malt scotches, and standard bar rail ($7-38). Oretta's wine list is unique in that it's (as far as I can tell) 100% Italian. Even the most strictly themed Toronto restos will usually stock a VQA or something from Argentina or Chile, but not here. 5oz glasses range from $10-35, and a veritable vineyard of bottles run $50-225. For beer, while offering standard light classics like Pilsner Urquell and Italy's own Peroni, Oretta doesn't neglect Toronto craft lovers. They offer a couple solid options including Muskoka's Mad Tom IPA and Anchor Liberty Ale ($8-9 bottle). They round out the menu with a selection of pop, juice, tea and coffee, as well as sparkling and flat water.
Appetizers: Pane e Olio. Bread and oil. Can't go wrong. But here, with the heaping portion of rye flour filone (a thin, almost baguette style bread) and spinach bun, Oretta adds a spicy olive oil and beautiful salty coco butter spread. Unapologetically carb-ignoring, this
per cominciare (for sharing) starter made the usual bread app more unique. Cavoletti salad. In a word: glorious. A shaved brussel sprout salad, this unique prize came as described: a bed of impossibly fine-shaven brussel sprouts were dense and substantial. Almond pieces and fried, bacon-like prosciutto added crunch and texture, while a hefty dose of pecorino gave a savoury, sharp bite a la parmigiano regiano. A fantastic salad that should quickly rise to the top of Oretta's most ordered list. Main: Tortelloni. Round medallion-like ravioli-style pasta filled with heirloom carrot and ricotta,
with a brown butter sauce, topped with hazelnut and sage. The dish was light yet creamy, with the hazelnut pieces adding counterpoint to the soft, melt-in-your-mouth-ness of the pasta. While the sauce was a highlight, it was sparse enough to let the Tortelloni filling really shine. Delicate yet hearty, the Tortelloni struck a balance of sweet and savoury which while taken in a gourmet setting, instilled the comfort of a home made meal. Portioned perfectly, this main encouraged every bite to be had, without leaving a hint of heaviness in the aftermath.
Dessert: Torta Firenze. In yet another word: phenomenal. The rich Torta Firenze chocolate tart is a 70 per cent cocoa treasure, with pistachio pieces, soft caramel, and pistachio gelato. The cocoa's bitterness was a distinct and refreshing surprise considering the all too usual bulldozer of chocolate dessert sweetness. Presented like a magazine shoot, it arrived sprinkled with pistachio pieces, drizzled with a caramel glaze, with a single scoop of pistachio gelato (on a bed of chocolate pieces) adding as much colour as flavour. Dense, thick, and jam packed with flavour, this dessert, to beat the horse to death, should be on Oretta's signature list. While appearing small in size, each bite revealed a compact density, carrying the eater through to the end with the perfect level of satiation.
In a third word: good. After eating, I felt light and ready to go. The fact that my meal was simple and well-portioned for one could be reason enough for my post-dining bliss (that and the cocoa tart). Certainly other dishes from the Italian library could induce food-coma: creamy fettucine, heaps of pasta, heavy meat sauces and the like. But still, as Oretta is shooting to highlight the modern in "authentic Italian fare with modern day classics", I think they're aware of Italian cuisine's classic missteps.
Conclusion: It's worth a visit to Oretta if only for the decor. Oh and for the food. And the drinks. And the dessert menu. And the service. While not inexpensive, Oretta is more or less in the lower-mid price-range of restaurants in the area. Renowned for glitz and overcoats, King West has its share (or more) of restaurants designed to separate money from customer. At Oretta, there's value to be had: portions are good, pasta is fresh, pizza is artful, service is prompt, and the decor is fun. Even the bill comes on a stylish heavyweight card complete with brass clip. With an interest in tweaking dishes to suit customer feedback, Oretta's is a menu that grows and changes. Which is nice to see. And it's a great way to engage regular clientele. While offering a complete dining experience Oretta also straddles that fine sort of triple threat line: customers can drop in for a drink, a dessert, a coffee, or all the above. That, in addition to a full meal. Kind of great. And kind of rare.
While it's hard to get an accurate read on what the afterlife might look like, if there is one, it's almost certainly a big pool of butter chicken. That or an Indian restaurant, period. While pious adherents to the world's unknown number of religions might suggest this classification to be a bit reductionist, I think many would agree—especially those who've tasted butter chicken, along with those who aren't lactose intolerant—that Indian food rules. Sure, it can be a bit heavy, and its version of 'mild' spice can still give a desert camel a runny nose, but for variety, aromas, picturesque beauty, flavour, and overall experience, Indian food is a strong
contender for the 'best food ever' and 'desert island food' awards. And while there are as many faux poseurs in Toronto's Indian restaurant market as any other, the cream in this restaurant's proverbial chicken korma rises to the top and warrants serious attention. Enter Banjara Indian Cuisine. Without reading (or writing) another word (after this one): go there. Having eaten at a healthy swath of Toronto's Indian food joints, Banjara is the only one whose name I remember (and constantly think about when mulling dining choices). The back story is a little confusing, but generally goes like this: in 2000, owners Raj Veerella and Anil Gurijala acquired
"Mr. Maharajah Indian Cuisine" located just south of Yonge and Bloor, a restaurant which gained much popularity and positive media attention. In 2003, they changed the name to Banjara, (a Hindi word meaning 'nomad') and moved to 796 Bloor West, near Christie Pits Park. They opened a second location on Eglinton close to Yonge, offering the same succulent fare and ambiance. While not sure whether the name has more of a story behind it, the term could certainly be used to describe the restaurant's penchant for drawing on dishes and traditions from both the north and south of India. Either way, the food is magical, plain and simple.
Banjara does an excellent job of offering a wide variety of dishes that, while being firmly rooted in the tradition of Indian cuisine, still present options for those more occasional or outright beginner venturers into this culinary climate. Add to this victuals for vegetarians and meat lovers alike and you get a pretty well-rounded menu (more on this below). Now, to the goods. For this review, we've selected the Bloor and Crawford location at 796 Bloor St. West, though fans should know that both Banajara locations sport exactly the same menu, flavour consistency, and welcoming staff.
Banjara deftly negotiates the fine line between offering clientele a unique and firmly placed decor, and making every average eater feel comfortable. While its butter chicken coloured walls and fiery drapery make no small nod to its lineage, Banjara's interior provides a very comfortable, homey, and welcoming place to eat. The seating is laid out in a quite solidly feng shui
(pardon the cultural crossover) arrangement, where only one table really straddles the busy front entrance and the route to the washrooms (and even still, it's pretty private.) Having separate lunch and dinner seatings, the restaurant has a slightly cumbersome two-hour closure period (from 3-5pm); and while an understandably necessary recoup and prep interval, I've more than once shown up with take out designs during this period only to find them closed. When considering lunch or dinner (both phenomenal) the restaurant can pull a Jekyll and Hyde on you, where at slower points you can enjoy a quiet, reflective meal compared to the din and blur of bodies during peak hours. Whichever your pleasure,
Banjara is rarely empty, and when it's full, the bustle and rumpus of a busy night adds to the experience. And it stands to reason the old adage that a busy restaurant is a good restaurant. Banjara is fairly large, especially with the relatively new winterized greenhouse-esque patio wrapping around the front and side of the existing structure, and can easily seat up to 100 with enough elbow room to not knock over your neighbour's mulligatawny soup. That being said, the tables are jostled in close together and a loud voice will certainly carry. With nearly two full walls of windows in the interior main room as well as a glassed-in patio space (two walls and the ceiling), Banjara has an abundance
of natural light that gives the space a larger feel, and offers alternately warm sunshine in winter, and well, warm sunshine in summer (with a blast of AC to help with the sweating). Limited parking is available in the restaurant's private lot directly out front, which is convenient (and rare downtown) though a lot of the time it's occupied, and the lot itself, with two shipping containers (which presumably house dry goods, etc.), along with slightly potted concrete, make the entrance and frontal appearance a tad shoddy looking.
A close second to the excellent food at Banjara is the friendly staff. Servers welcome (and usher out) guests with such friendliness it could be thought of as weird. But the good kind of weird. And it's not weird. It's great. Banjara also does a great job of staffing even their slower days and seating times with the right number
of staff so you don't have to wait forever to order, or feel you're overburdening the one poor sap most restos will schedule for lunch hour. They also supply each table with its own electronic service bell. Now before you go getting all Downton Abbey about, well, people ringing bells for other people, these little would-be doorbells give a subtle ring out to the kitchen signalling a specific table has a request. I know, still questionable ethically, but it's tough to actually say they aren't great and don't work. Considering Banjara's aforementioned large footprint and the mixture of indoor and outdoor wraparound floor plan, the electro-bells are
actually a necessity, especially on a busy night. Bells notwithstanding, there are enough staff in attendance on an average night to fill the Rogers Centre, so it's not like you're going to be ignored, regardless of where you sit. Which again adds to the restaurant's ability (and reputation) to offer quick and friendly service. My server waited until I rang the bell to come take my order, and I had papadams and water on my table within minutes. The mains and naan arrived in under 10 minutes, and I was checked on an ideal number of times throughout the night to be helpful but not overly doting.
Banajara's menu is relatively affordable, and though portions for many mains come in small-ish sized steel bowls, they're plenty filling. Tasty finger food apps run from $3.50 to $6.50, soups and salads run from $3.99 to $6.50, and their mains fall into categories of protein type and style ranging from Tandoori ($12.99 to $17.99), to chicken ($11.99 to $12.99), lamb, beef, goat ($12.95), seafood ($14.99) and vegetarian ($9.50 to $10.99). There are a plethora of rice options ($3.25 to $12.99), in addition to naan breads ($2.50 to $4.50) with sides ranging from papadams to yogurt ($.50 to $2.50), and desserts including $3.50 rice pudding and $4.50 rasmalai (traditional milk curd patties). Banjara also has extremely tasty and convenient combo platters including lunch ($10 to $12.95) and dinner ($11.99 to $14.95) which offer a greater range of dishes in one meal.
The drink menu is extensive, with a swath of non-alcoholic options including pop, juice, coffee, tea, the coveted Indian "lassie" (plain yogurt or the beloved mango version), as well as chai tea. They also sport an impressive range of alcoholic beverages, including a pleasantly surprising list of more adventurous beers in both bottle and draft (Sleeman, Upper Canada, in addition to the standard Coors and Heineken, plus a couple Indian brands), and a great wine selection (including a couple of my favourites, Yellow Tail and Wolf Blass), all of which are offered at affordable prices.
Papadams and Cauliflower pakoras, butter chicken, and a spinach daal with chai tea for dessert. The papadams were airy and crisp, thin, light, salty, and delicious. With a generous helping of cumin seeds, these papadams have more punch and flavour than most, and avoid the slightly fishy overtone that can plague the delicacy at other restaurants. The cauliflower pakoras had a perfect cauli-to-batter ratio. They were
lightly breaded and even lightly-er fried, which was a nice surprise compared to the norm of thick, almost fish-and-chips style batter with an overly oily finish. While initially ordered as two separate eye popping dishes, the mains turned out (like many on the menu) to be perfectly paired. As one might expect, the butter chicken was a mouth watering bulldozer of a rocket propelled grenade to the stomach. You know, in a good way. Classically cream-heavy, Banjara's butter chicken makes your pants fall off. The chicken was succulent, tender, and perfectly diced to bite sized proportions. The only complaint is there wasn't enough of it. It was far more saucy than chicken-y, but the heft of the sauce
more than made up for any lack of chicken in terms of satiation. Spicier than the butter chicken, the spinach daal was a great textural and flavour complement. One big plus too was that it did not have an overly spinachy flavour: something anyone who eats spinach can sympathize with. You got spice, lentils, and salt foremost on the palate, and the spinach came across more as an appearance, texture, and nutritional component than anything. Nearly as filling as the butter chicken, the spinach daal appeared (like the butter chicken) to be a slightly meagre portion upon first glance, but, like its compatriot, did its fair share of damage to the constraints of my stomach.
Desserts: The menu offers a variety of delicious dessert options which largely center on milk and cream based treats, which, after cheating on my normally lacto-free diet for the majesty of butter chicken, was too much cow enzyme for one evening. And so I went with a chai tea, which, while still milky, was an absolutely amazing post dinner libation. Banjara's chai comes unsweetened and with the perfect ratio of tea to milk. Just half a packet of sugar added the ideal amount of sweetness, and provided the perfect digestif to help settle the stomach.
The post-meal aura was initially a little heavy; an expected comatose state what with the blessed marriage of butter, cream, and bread. But with a little time, pepsinogen and gastric lipase, it felt like a big warm hug. In a word, Banjara is filling. Don't be deceived by the apparently small portions. They pack a punch. And the spice is just right, leaving you with a nice post-meal glow. Especially as the nights start turning cooler, a dinner out at Banjara sort of feels like you just turned on the fireplace and are ready to collapse on the couch with a good book (or another glass of wine.) In summation, you didn't need to read this far to realize I was right when I said in the first paragraph: go there.