I was criticized recently for blogging about a restaurant that was open for less than a week. I mean, who am I to make a comment about the fact that if you’re going to charge me $16 for a bowl of soup, it better be damn good, a statement which to me seems unrelated to the length of time a place has been open?
So, as a result, I’ll reflect on my recent visit to origin, a King street joint that been open a lot longer than a week (although origin north is still rather new so I wouldn’t want to step outside my boundaries as a food critic/blogger/whatever). I would argue that origin may have been a bit clairvoyant when choosing its name as it was one of the first restaurants which embraced the small plate, open kitchen concept which has since spread North, East and West across the Toronto landscape (I can’t say south given the geographical limitations due to Lake Ontario and the rather static Esplanade dining scene.) I went to Origin a few years ago which at the time was under the watchful eye of Steve Gonzalez, who has subsequently opened up Valdez which has a strikingly similar philosophy. I was a bit surprised to see that the menu and decor have changed very little during this time.
I started the night with a “Brass Knuckles” cocktail. I normally don’t drink tequila, but the combination of fruity and bitter flavours along with the fact that a few dollars from each sale goes to cancer research was appealing. It did have a medicinal taste which may explain the name as it feels a bit like a punch in the throat. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it Buckley’s… it’s more like that cherry cough syrup your mother gave you as a kid that you secretly didn’t mind taking when you had a chest cold.
The spicy spanish fries with chorizo and manchego seemed a good start. They reminded me of poutine meets patatas bravas . The additional of chorizo was brilliant but I would have liked a runny aioli or spicy tomato sauce to saturate the fries instead of the globs of thick mayo which topped it. The fries were nicely cooked and the manchego added an appropriate saltiness to the $12 snack.
I must confess I have a bad habit. I see deviled eggs on a menu, get giddy, order them, eat them and then sigh with a tad of disappointment. I sighed a little less at origin. Although I found the taste of the filling to be average, these eggs were smart. The souffletine (little cereal balls), the crisp salty and erect bacon plus the leafy herbs tantalized all the taste buds. I must confess I was a little happy my table mate wasn’t a fan of eggs.
Drink two was an old thyme sour, a spin on the classic cocktail. Garnished with fresh thyme, it was bold balance of savory and sweet and laced with sour…a simple yet satisfying drink.
Instead of delving into the small plates, we decided to opt for the big guns and chose the two $33 entrees. The black cod in broth with asian veggies was full of classic flavours, The cod maintained its buttery texture while swimming in a nicely balance broth. The bitterness of the veggies added another dimension. I’m still hung up on the perfectly cooked black cod at George, so I can’t put this at that level but it gets honorable mention. The beef tenderloin sizzling hot plate (with potatoes , kale, mushrooms, roasted onion butter and ponzu) was the other $33 offering. The concept was good but the execution not so much. The onion butter lay cold atop the luke warm and less than abundant tenderloin. The kale/mushroom mix was tasty and maintained a good temperature atop the hot plate. Perhaps I could have romanticized the dish a little more and mixed the butter and beef throughout the dish but hey I’m dumb and always appreciate an explanation of the procedure required to fulfill a chef’s vision.
The service was a bit slow, so I can use that fact to blame the poor quality of the dessert pics. When it gets dark, I rely on old faithful…my blackberry 9700 with a resolution comparable to a Fisher-Price camera. The two us have polar preferences when it comes to dessert, I chose the meringue with citrus and coconut…he chose the hot chocolate cake with soft serve ice cream. My dessert looked like Stonehenge….the rocks were alternating pieces of meringue and citrus slices on a plain of custard and sprinkled with coconut. Like the legendary landmark, it was intriguing and yet a bit confusing. The chocolate cake hit the mark. The cake was moist and warm and topped with the right amount of bitter chocolate powder to offset the sweetness of the delicious ice cream.
Whether a restaurant is brand new or a veteran in the Toronto dining scene, I have argued before that Darwin’s theories are applicable to restaurants. Survival is a process that requires an understanding of the environment including food trends and value. At the same time, new eateries need a seed, a foundation in which any new concept will grow from as opposed to replace. Perhaps this is my justification to “whatever” a place within days or years of opening.
Origin was exactly that: the origin of the evolution of eateries for the cool kids in the GTA. Obviously, its success is evident in the fact that it has offspring in both Liberty Village and Midtown. Although I didn’t delve into the mozzarella bar or the raw bar, the foods I did try were scattered across the spectrum. Although nothing was highly memorable, the Spanish fries, eggs and cod were on the better side and the beef fell a little short. The desserts were a definite talking point. The meringue was light and abstract…the cake was rich and traditional. The mix of trendy cocktails, witty small plates and a few tempting and expensive classics have become a blueprint for a number of other emerging favorites in all directions outward from King and Church. In the end, maybe Claudio Aprile’s gradual evolution from Colborne Lane to origin was sheer luck or maybe it was sheer brilliance, but I’ll give credit where credit is due (and kindly ask him to remember this should I try out for Masterchef Canada again next year).