When planning my visit to Toronto I knew I’d have time for three breakfasts, three lunches, and two dinners – a fan of unique experiences and avant-garde cuisine I knew Colborne Lane would be one of my dinners and the other was a tossup between the who’s who of Toronto dining – Splendido, North 44, Scaramouche, Trevor, George, and Auberge all got significant consideration – but in the end the decision was made to visit North 44’s sister restaurant, Bymark. Featuring a unique menu focused strongly on Canadian sourced ingredients and a number of options, both sweet and savory, that seemed to challenge “the norm” I contacted Bymark nearly a month before my planned trip and inquired as to whether a tasting menu was available so that I might experience as many dishes as possible. Fielding my e-mail in less than eight hours restaurant manager Jessica Sloan informed me that while the restaurant did not offer a nightly tasting the chef would be “delighted” to craft a menu to my liking if I informed him of which dishes interested me most – an offer I was more than happy to take them up on. Informing the kitchen of my likes and dislikes I was quoted a price for my selected menu and confirmed my reservation for one at 7:30pm on Saturday evening.
Arriving approximately ten minutes early at the Dominon Bank Towers I had no difficulty finding the restaurant and on checking in with the hostess I was welcomed warmly with an offer to check my jacket – an offer I declined as I rather prefer dining in a suit when the opportunity presents. Without delay I was met by a second hostess who then led me to my table in the middle of the main dining room and soon I was met my one of my two servers from the evening who presented the wine list, filled my water, and assured me that all was prepared for my requested menu. Browsing around the room I was impressed by the heavy wooden layout of the room and well sourced overhead lighting but was admittedly a bit taken aback by the level of noise coming from a large party of sixteen – a party that was fortunately transported to the private dining room when my neighbors (apparently regulars and certainly high maintenance given their multiple requests from the server throughout the evening) complained. Once the noise died down I have to admit that setting and service were excellent albeit a tad aloof and perhaps a little overburdened by the myriad requests from my neighbors.
Getting things started, my first dish was an amuse from the kitchen – a Lobster, apple, and crème fraiche “taco” served on a beet tortilla. Featuring an ample amount of fresh lobster accented by sweet gala apples and tamed by the tangy crème this dish was excellent when paired with the crispy and earthy-yet-sweet beet chip. Small, fun, inventive, and delicious – an excellent way to start things off.
My first proper course of the evening was perhaps the only near-miss of the evening for myself (and a total miss for my neighbors who took one bite before returning it to the kitchen.) Entitled calamari and octopus salad with carrot, chorizo and chili citrus dressing this was not an item for the faint of heart – or those with heartburn. Featuring a sizable portion of circular cut cephalopod “noodles” (akin to Blackbird or Scarpetta) mixed with similarly cut carrots, the textures of the seafood were wonderful while the meaty chorizo provided an ample foil to the briny flavors of the sea. Unfortunately most of the nuance of the seafood was lost due to the overpowering dressing which tasted like an admixture of fire and sour. Thankfully served with a refill of my water and the table bread (an unremarkable olive and white, plus a very good multigrain) I was able to navigate this dish but very much do feel a more gentle hand with the spices would greatly benefit the otherwise excellent quality and presentation of this dish.
Dish two of the evening was everything dish one was not – brilliant, balanced, and a smashing success to both the palate and the eyes. Deemed “Open faced foie gras “B.L.T.” with fried quail egg and spiced stone fruit” this dish – right down to the quotation marks – reminded me of something you would expect to see at Keller’s French Laundry. Featuring a lovely piece of seared foie pan fried with peach compote and cinnamon stacked atop a piece of brioche, the dish was finished with a crispy piece of Berkshire bacon, thin sliced tomato and butter lettuce, and topped with a fried quail egg. Poured over top of the sandwich were the natural pan juices from the preparation. Unctuous and succulent as always the foie’s taste was perfectly complimented by the seasonings while the crisp bacon, buttery brioche, and lettuce added texture. Interestingly, despite the creaminess of the liver itself another layer was added by the addition of the egg – something I had not experienced before but quite excellent to say the least.
Dish three of the evening was the restaurant’s signature – and a dish every bit worth the title. Crisp frites with butter braised lobster and classic béarnaise - poutine style was actually delivered to my table by the chef du cuisine and featured approximately 20 crisp frites stacked inside a lobster shell and absolutely loaded with butter poached lobster. Topping the dish was a creamy béarnaise sauce with high notes of lemon and butter plus more nuanced flavors of wine and onion. Whereas the dressing on the salad mired the flavor of the dish, the béarnaise on this dish only served to accent the wonderful lobster and crispy-salty fries. Say what you will about “haute-poutine,” this dish was wonderful and alone worth the trip to Bymark – though I do wonder whether the average diner could finish a full sized portion as the tasting portion was so decadent.
Prior to beginning the “main courses” of the meal I was brought a palate cleansing sorbet – a nice touch. Described as a house made cherry sorbet with lime-peel the icy ball was intensely tangy and very refreshing. While I’ve never seen a sorbet served between appetizers and mains (usually it arrives pre-dessert) I actually liked this placement in the meal as the next dishes were less “fatty” or “creamy” and more focused on nuance, spice, and contrast of flavors.
The fourth dish of the evening was presented quite elegantly by my server and finished tableside. Entitled duck confit ravioli with chestnut puree, crisp parsnip and spiced cranberries I was served a single plump raviolo absolutely packed with clove and nutmeg accented duck leg and topped with a crispy garnish of fried parsnip. Served alongside and overtop the pasta was a creamy sweet-yet-earthy chestnut puree plus cinnamon sweetened cranberries with a mild alcoholic tang. Featuring aspects of protein and carb, sweet and earthy, creamy and acidic this dish was truly excellent and when I saw my neighbor order the full portion (three large ravioli plus all the fixings) I was actually quite impressed at the menu price, as well. Speaking of my neighbors, it was at this point of the meal that they began their somewhat demanding behavior once again asking my server how I was getting so many different dishes and “what made me so special?” They also demanded of myself how I was able to eat so much – the third time that had happened that day.
Dish five was another experiment in blending the sea with the earth and much like the octopus salad it was not perfect, but it was quite good. Titled giant prawn with soupy chorizo sausage risotto the dish featured an extremely large and fresh prawn that had clearly been poached and then grilled served standing upright in a small pool of creamy risotto with chorizo chunks and sausage foam. While the risotto itself was absolutely well prepared with only a slight degree of toothiness and the sausage soup quite mild, the prawn itself was largely overcooked and even somewhat difficult to cut with the combination of fork and butter knife. While tasty, I honestly considered sending this dish back for a better prepared prawn but unfortunately my server was otherwise occupied with the neighboring table who continued to ask questions regarding my menu, whether there were any desserts with no cream, butter, or milk products, etc. While certainly not bad, I do think a gentler hand would have benefited the execution of this dish – nothing harms great seafood like too much heat.
My final savory of the evening was the roasted Cornish Hen with roasted Brussels sprouts, potato gnocchi and natural reduction – it was remarkable. Perfectly seared and succulent the meaty hen simply shredded off the bone with minimal effort and no knife. Accompanying the hen were two halved and pan-caramelized Brussels sprouts and two large plump gnocchi that easily gave way to their creamy interiors on mastication – these items as well as the hen were topped with the natural reduction from the hen and sprouts and the whole dish was succulent, salty, and well balanced between creamy and crispy textures as well as pungent and smooth flavors.
Finishing up my savories I was offered coffee or a cheese selection and after declining both and chatting with my neighbors for a few moments I was presented with a trio of miniature desserts – specifically the Chocolate Caramel Tart with Peanut Butter Mousse and Caramel Corn, the Passion Fruit Creme Brulee, and the Cinnamon Bun Tower with Frangelico Icing. Starting first with the crème brulee as I anticipated it to be my least favorite I have to say I was mildly impressed by the manner in which the passion fruit shined through but as usual I was underwhelmed – crème brulee simply tastes like sugar to me. My second taste of the trio was the cinnamon bun tower – a dish I was excited by in its description but largely unimpressed by in its flavors. With a notable alcoholic hue provided by the Frangelico, I found the overall effect of the dish to be not much like a cinnamon bun but more like butterscotch. Perhaps a larger portion would have been better or perhaps the accoutrements on the solo dessert would have helped. The final taste of the evening was provided by the Chocolate Tart and where the other desserts failed to impress, the tart shined. Tasting somewhat akin to dark chocolate Snickers bar in a pastry shell I particularly found the addition of the caramel corn delicious and playful – if I returned I’d opt for the full sized version of this instead of the trio.
When it was all said and done I paid the bill - $120 Canadian and felt the meal was actually a relatively good bargain for the quality of the food, setting, and accommodations by the staff. While service was adequate I have to say that my server’s tongue ring did seem a bit out of place for fine dining and though I certainly can’t blame her for my neighbors, I do feel that if she’d have been less involved with their “issues” she’d have inquired more frequently as to how I was enjoying everything. A talented kitchen staff with some unique ideas, I do feel that some dishes were not executed as well as one would expect while other dishes could use some tweaking to more properly highlight the quality of the ingredients and the chef’s vision – particularly the cinnamon bun tower and the octopus salad. That said – I’d return in a heartbeat for the poutine, the foie, and the ravioli. I’d additionally strongly suggest to the kitchen that a daily, weekly, or even monthly tasting menu to let the chef flex his creativity would be a great idea.