All in all I’m of mixed feelings about “molecular gastronomy.” While the best meal of my entire life was at Alinea and many consider El Buli to be the best restaurant in the world I have to say that I was largely unimpressed by Cantu’s Moto and while the food of Jose Andres was good I imagine it would’ve been better using traditional cooking techniques. Planning out my visit to Toronto I’d heard good things about Colborne Lane and since I was visiting many decidedly “safe” choices during my visit I decided to give the local ‘mg’ outpost a try, it was particularly convenient that unlike many of Toronto’s best they are open on Sundays. Additionally, at $109 for a ten course tasting the menu looked like a veritable bargain and on communication with the restaurant I found event coordinator Allie MacDonald quite pleasant and helpful.
Using my GPS to navigate via automobile to the restaurant I have to admit I’d have never found it otherwise. Tucked away on Colborne Street (not Lane) I was somewhat disappointed that there was no valet and I ended up self parking for $10 at a lot about 200 yards away. Making my way into the restaurant I was amused by the blue lighting (highly reminiscent of Alinea’s violet) but somewhat taken aback when I walked through the doors and found myself at an unattended hostess stand in an empty bar. Approximately 2 minutes passed before the bartender (also the host, busser, and server along with one other individual) greeted me and led me to my seat at a long communal table in the center of the room. With the restaurant less than 1/3 full this evening I didn’t really mind the table but had the place been buzzing and full I must say I’d have not been pleased.
“I understand you were interested in the tasting menu?” stated my server. When I replied to the affirmative I additionally asked to see the menu and asked if the tasting borrowed from the menu – “absolutely” I was assured – and as it turned out every item I received was indeed on the nightly menu (save for one which we’ll get to later.) Browsing the room I have to admit that despite the low lighting the overall feel was quite like Moto – somewhat refined but also edgy. An additional note is that the in-house soundtrack is provided via Ipod playlist and that evening consisted of songs by U2, Alice In Chains, Neko Case, and others – while I heard another pair of diners complain about “this noise” I personally found it quite excellent and haven’t enjoyed music as much in a restaurant since Los Angeles’ Providence – the progressive soundtrack matched the food well, in my opinion.
Filling my water the server asked “Shall we get things underway” and when I consented he disappeared to the downstairs kitchen and reappeared shortly with the nightly bread selection and a dish described as my “amuse from the kitchen.” Beginning with the bread I was served two options –an “air bread” with Pepper and Pumpkin Seed and a buttery brioche paired with whipped cow’s butter. Crispy and light with salty seeds contrasting the spicy tang of the pepper spread I quite liked the air bread, though a single stick was hardly enough and I had to ask for more when the server swept away my plate without asking if I wanted a refill. The brioche was largely unmemorable on its own and the butter, albeit light, was nothing to write home about.
The “amuse” was titled Aloe Vera - winter squash + black garlic + pickled mustard seed + sage and consisted of a frozen gel of squash puree on a stick accompanied with a sweet blend of spices that largely led the dish to taste “Italian” in essence – sweet and creamy with a bit of spice, yet pungent with a long lasting effect on the palate. A good way to start things off and a pleasant way to open the senses to the upcoming and more progressive tastes.
The next dish delivered was entitled Fluke Sashimi - yuzu + cauliflower + avocado + black sesame and consisted of a checkerboard of thinly sliced fresh fluke topped with multiple flavors including sour yuzu, creamy avocado, crispy nori and cauliflower, and spicy sesame. Akin to some of the textures at Laurent Gras’ L20 in Chicago this dish was clearly intended to explore the manner in which different ingredients can highlight different flavors of a mild fish and it worked quite well – much like the amuse this dish was well placed in the menu and seemed a very logical progression in the tasting.
Scallop - clotted coconut + sweet chili dressing + citrus fruit + nitro crème fraiche arrived next and proved to be the first “wow” moment of the evening. A single large scallop anchored this dish and was absolutely flawlessly prepared – caramelized on the outside, raw at the center, fresh and sweet as can be. Accompanying the scallop was a dollop of sweet and creamy coconut cream atop a pile of tangerines and grapefruit, dehydrated coconut foam flanking the dies, a sweet and mildly spicy dressing, and small balls of liquid nitrogen frozen crème fraiche. Despite using starkly contrasting flavors and textures this dish was absolutely brilliant and no component went overshadowed while each contributed to highlighting the quality of the scallop. Most impressive I found that the combination of the two forms of coconut plus the citrus fruits created a taste and mouth feel similar to a “floating island” meringue.
Arriving next on the menu was a somewhat heavy dish, but a great one none the less. Titled Aged Cheddar Soup - brown butter + coriander sprouts + white grape + green apple the dish was presented as what appeared to be a sheet of glass topped with fruits and sprouts on the lip of a bowl. Finished tableside the server poured a creamy soup onto the “glass” which shrunk like a 1980’s shrinky-dink and disappeared into the foam of the soup. Special effects aside I spooned a bite of soup into my mouth and was instantly impressed by the light and airy texture of the soup and the manner in which the sharp bite of the cheddar was foiled by the sweetness of the fruits and the essence of the coriander. While I cannot be certain as I didn’t ask, I also detected an air of lavender and perhaps champagne in this dish and the overall flavor was very well balanced on the tongue and full on the palate – Impressive.
Following the soup, a refresher of sorts before beginning the heavier proteins - Beets - Irish stout + pink peppercorn + tarragon + toasted almond + garrotxa. Featuring a variety of beet varieties, textures, and greens along with a toasted almond tuille over a broth of stout and peppercorns the dish was quite light and flavorful. Interestingly, while the dish’s title suggested beets to be the primary flavor, for myself the essence of this dish lied in the soft and creamy goats cheese which served to enhance the beet and smooth the stout.
Kicking of the proteins was perhaps the best dish of the night and perhaps the best fish dish I’ve had outside of L20, Providence, and Guy Savoy in the past year. Titled East Coast Halibut - sweet potato + lychee + tomato and lime chutney + coconut broth the dish was presented as a flawless filet of fresh halibut topped with tomato/lyme chutney served over a smear of creamy cinnamon sweet potato puree. Again finished tableside, this time with the addition of a warm coconut and champagne broth I was immediately struck by the tenderness of the halibut flesh and the crispiness of the skin. Having become somewhat disenchanted with the homogenous sous vide texture propagated by Thomas Keller I quite appreciated the variance in texture and proceeded to add the lychee and pineapple lining the bowl to the broth forming a sweet yet savory fish stew not unlike the halibut at L20.
Next up on the menu was another great dish, and this time featuring an item I’d never before tasted. Lamb Loin - cannelloni + quinoa + licorice yogurt + medjool date + borage at first seemed somewhat standard – well prepared lamb, a puree of sweet dates, chewy quinoa, and borage. The two things that separated this dish from average, however, were the dehydrated licorice and creamy licorice yogurt plus that incredible cannelloni stuffed with roasted lamb neck. Featuring a level of fattiness akin to foie gras, pork trotters, or sweetbreads the cannelloni was absolutely bursting with flavor and texture while the contents simply melted on the tongue releasing the very air of spring lamb.
At this point in the meal I was asked by my server if I was “ready for the sweets?” A tad alarmed as I’d communicated with Allie before the meal that if the foie gras wasn’t on the tasting I’d like to add it as an additional course I inquired of the server how many sweets there were – “Three, this is a 10 course menu” I was told. Counting back on the dishes I noted only 6 at which point I was told “the amuse is counted as a dish.” Finding this quite strange I inquired about the foie and apparently my server had never been made aware (though Allie assured me later by e-mail that he should have been) but he would ask the kitchen. Disappearing for a moment down to the basement kitchen he quickly returned and stated “no worries, the chef will be glad to improvise.”
Waiting only approximately 10 minutes while enjoying some Red Hot Chili Peppers and REM my server soon appeared with a true masterpiece of innovation - Foie Gras - orange + huckleberry + foie gras parfait + hot foie brioche. Featuring a generous portion of seared foie gras (perfectly cleaned) atop a split piece of grilled brioche accented with orange the dish was further embellished with dollops and streaks of orange and huckleberry puree, a hemisphere of foie/fruit parfait, and dehydrated almond butter with the overall “feel” of the plate being that of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Having had a dish remotely similar in the past I can say without doubt that this preparation was vastly more effective and the foie textures and flavors were beautifully complimented by the accoutrements – even the manner in which the dehydrated nut butter soaked up the juices from the foie seemed intentional and decadent.
Now, moving on to the sweets (for real this time,) the first was brought in an ice bowl and appeared largely like multiple colors of dirt and confetti. Described on my take home menu, this dish was called “Dulce de Leche - blueberry snow + malted milk + apricot salt” but I do believe this was a misprint as the dish was described to me as Saffron Air, Black Olive, Dark Chocolate, Malted Milk – and this flavor seems much more accurate. Not too far off from a combination of “dippin’ dots” served at myriad venues plus David Kinch’s “dirt” at Manresa in texture the overall flavor of this dish was actually not far from raw cookie dough with the black olive and malted milk forming a bitter-sweet “dough,” the saffron air adding a buttery/spiced top note, and the chocolate – well, chocolatey.
The primary dessert of the evening was a source of “wow” for many others, but the trick went largely unappreciated by myself – having talked extensively with my waiter (who also appeared to be a bit of an epicurean) we both rather figured this would be the case. Titled Warm Doughnut - nitro ice cream + passion fruit + pineapple the dish was “prepared” tableside in that a bucket of liquid nitrogen was brought out and crème fraiche was poured in creating a big smoking bucket – unfortunately, unlike Heston Blumenthal’s British mg temple, the servers did not plate the dish tableside and had to return to the kitchen to have it plated. Returning shortly the dish was presented and actually tasted quite excellent with the tangy ice cream pairing well with the hot apple donut and fruits on the plate. For myself the key to the dish was actually the gingerbread crumble beneath the ice cream – it was superb.
The final item of the night harkened back to my New Years trip to Moto last year – a single mignardise counted as a course. Entitled Iced Coffee – bombs the dish was a single malted pellet of baileys and coffee entrapped in a liquid nitrogen frozen crème fraiche shell atop a smoking pot – again a nice special effect. Popping the capsule into my mouth I quite liked the melding of the icy shell and the warm interior and like the coconut emulsion at Moto it was gone in a bite and lingered on the palate.
When the meal was completed I chatted with my server for a bit – he’d seen me taking pictures and asked for my blog which I gave him, then settled the bill, and then made my way for the door. An interesting restaurant to be sure and in my opinion quite a bit more impressive than Moto, but far lacking compared to what is being accomplished at Alinea, Providence, or L20 in terms of progressive food. While some dishes were astounding – particularly the halibut and the scallop, plus the spontaneous foie – others were merely good and it was as though someone thought that by adding “tricks” people would think them better. At $109 I have to admit the tasting was a bargain since I got the foie, but I personally feel that if you advertise ten courses the amuse and mignardise should not be counted in those ten – Keller doesn’t do it, nor does Kinch, Cimarusti, or Gras – if you want to count it, don’t call it an amuse when you serve it. While it might sound nitpicky, I really do believe that Colborne Lane has the potential to be the best restaurant in Toronto with a few modest refinements – the chef is clearly talented while the front of the house is attentive, witty and effective - a formula that works quite well.