With the popularity of food trucks in Toronto, it seems like two things are happening. First, the trucks are spawning off from established restaurants in order to expand their reach. Second, the gypsy life of a food truck transforms into a brick and mortar opportunity and sets up in one of the many trendy areas of town.
The latter describes Rasa bar. Set up in the proximity of Harbord Room, THR and Co. and Spendido along Harbord St, it’ s the brain child of the Food Dudes who may be best known for their Cap’n Crunch tacos served with spiked mango slaw. In fact, these tacos inspired the dish for my Masterchef Canada tryout a while back. In addition, I was told by a colleague the the cereal dessert was the best she had in Toronto, which left me more than intrigued. Needless to say, I was excited to sit down, have a drink and see what else the dudes had to offer. One warning…taking a look at the website may induce seizures or nausea in those who can’t handle rapid movement. It reminded me of Madonna’s stomach turning “Ray of Light” video.
Once I showed up, I noticed a couple of things almost immediately. First, it had that garage/industrial type feel. Second, they played excellent music at a decibel level which allowed for conversation with other people; a novel concept in a city where decor and the insistence of loud tunes outshine the food at times. Finally, from the minute I entered it was clear that the service would be cordial. I forgot about how difficult it is to get to Harbord during the bicycle rush hour, so I was 10-15 minutes late and they didn’t bat an eye.
In addition to a small list of draught beer including Niagara-on-the-Lake’s hidden gem Oast brewery, one can sip a number of innovative cocktails featuring some of the trendier spirits on the rail. I opted for the Texas Guinan, a bourbon based drink with accents that allowed the whisky to shine instead of being blunted by conflicting additions. It’s the way I imagined a cocktail in the era of prohibition where the goal was to relish the booze in its native form. Interestingly enough, this drink is the namesake of a prominent silent movie actress who became America’s first cow girl. On the more notorious side, she opened a speakeasy in New York during prohibition and was well known to law enforcement for the majority of the 20’s. Ironically, although spending a decade in an environment filled with booze and scantly clad women, Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan died in Vancouver in 1933 of ameobic dysentery.
The food started with a complimentary offering of the mini muffin, a dainty bite filled with the fall flavours of pumpkin and squash and topped with a little salted caramel. It was a cute homage to the season.
Next was the chopped salad (vegetables, quinoa, macedonian feta, crispy garbanzos, sumac) for $13. It was fattoush on steroids. The strong acidity/sourness of the dressing and sumac, the saltiness of the feta and the crunch of the garbanzo beans created a taste and textural diversity as impressive as the ingredients themselves.
The fish board special of the night was a chowder ($18). A thick broth housed jumbo shrimp, scallop, fish, doubled smoked bacon and pickled jalapenos. It was smooth as silk with enough acid and heat from the pepper to cut the richness to a very palatable level.
After careful consultation with the very pleasant waitress, we opted for the duck breast over the truffle gnudi and beef cheek ragu. Rendered nicely and sitting on top of a pillowy puree, it was finished with cherries, chestnuts and greens topped with shaved fois gras torchon. Although the duck was underseasoned , it was saved by the array of aforementioned flavours on the plate.
I didn’t need the advice of the waitress for the spare ribs and I wasn’t disappointed. Although a little tricky to eat, they were extremely tender. More impressive were the playful flavours. From both a taste and visual perspective, the sweet rib sauce coupled with the foamy polenta was a tongue-tingling metophor of a root beer float. The pickles and corn nuts added a tad of acid and texture. `
As I mentioned, I was told about the druthers of the cereal dessert. Although I can’t say it is the best in Toronto, it fused modern flavours and techniques with the simple flavours of the well-known boxed treat. Despite the use of cocoa puffs (or a reasonable facsimile), the sweetness was surprisingly subtle and was further suppressed by the intense nuttiness of the macademia milk. The fact that it was poured tableside added a nostalgic flare reminiscent of the morning ritual. It appears from the menu now that there have been some modifications to the dessert (ie. banana and cocoa milk) so I can’t confirm it would be the same today.
The other dessert we ordered was the praline sticky bun. Another breakfast favorite turned dessert, candied bacon and walnuts surrounded a decedent and rather large pastry sitting on top an innovative cream cheese anglaise. It was sinful and delicious.
Rasa by the Food Dudes takes their innovative gypsy philosophy and centralizes it into a bricks and mortar environment. From the homage to female legends (including the Texas Guinan cocktail and Madonna’s Ray of Light website) to their Seinfeld-like cereal infatuation, the concept is pop-intelligent and fun. The menu seems to rotate often (it’s changed since I went a couple of weeks ago) and there is always the mystery of things like the daily fish plate. There is also “set Mondays”, a $35 tasting menu with $5 drinks and live music. I suspect Rasa’s promise of fun food and respectful service might actually draw foodies and food truck followers alike into the relatively unknown area north of the College Street parallel and into a land lacking “provision pretension” despite primping plaid shirts. In summary, when I think of Rasa I can’t help but think that Tony the Tiger said it best;”They’re Greeeeeeeaaaaat!”