At least once a year I get roped into a fancy dinner at a place I normally wouldn’t go. This year it was Toca, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto. Boasting the fact they have Rome and Michelin star Chef Oliver Glowig on retainer, Toca promises a unique take on Italian cuisine. One can choose from the 4 course tasting menu for $89 or order a la carte. I’m a firm believer that ninety bucks should get you at least 5 or 6 courses so I chose my own adventure and opted for the menu.
The last time I had a $16 bowl of soup I pointed out that it better change my life since it was nothing more than a mushroom broth. Well, I’m still sitting here talking about food so I guess it didn’t work. This time the same price tag offered me zuppa di sedano e patate (celery and potato soup, lobster, peas, green beans, croutons), a soup with an ingredient list which appeared more French than Italian. Once again, it won’t make me beg the Huffington post to print an article I wrote or quit my job and apply at Zomato, but it was more rewarding than the broth. The flavours of the individual ingredients were not dulled by butter or cream or fat but instead expressed a mouth-popping individuality with every bite.
The wine list is comprehensive and offers choices from around the world at a wide spectrum of prices, many of which are triple digits and above. We took a new world followed by an old world approach, sharing a 2009 Hamelin Bay Rampant Red Aussie Shiraz for $75 followed by a 2010 Château de Montmirail from Rhône Valley for $95.
At the advice of the waitstaff, I split an order of the scialatielli (homemade with clams and mussels) with another dinner guest. I thought the pasta itself was fantastic even if the fruits de mer were a bit stingy. There seems to be this growing trend to group clams and mussels in with some of the more illustrious seafood options out there for the purposes of jacking up the price. I mean, I can still buy about 6 pounds of mussels for the price of a small lobster so $26 for 4 or 5 clams is a bit of a stretch.
For my entree I went with the half galletto croccante;Lemon and rosemary roasted cornish hen for $26. I felt a bit friendless in my inability to secure a whole hen but my table mates were sold on the tasting menu, black cod and filet mignon. Normally, I’m all over black cod but I think I’ve begun a formal protest against the combination of seafood and olives/tomatoes, so I avoided it on this occasion. So, I was left alone to dine on the simple yet nicely prepared fowl. The skin was crispy and well seasoned and the hen itself was moist although I didn’t care much for the tomato stack sidekick. The gnocchi (pictured on back of plate) was cooked in butter and sage and available as a side for $9 for 4 pieces.
Dessert was a Cachi Melograno (yogurt mousse with pomegranate sorbet and persimmon) for $14. This combination of ingredients could have produced either an overly tart or sickly sweet confection but it was light, fragrant and balanced, ending the meal with some palate cleansing pleasure.
I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I have high expectations when it comes to restaurants whose quality is assumed by the prices they charge for their food. This is the case with eateries within many of downtown Toronto’s luxury hotels. Even when I travel abroad, I frequently reconsider visiting a restaurant (even when associated with a reputable chef) when I find out it’s attached to a hotel. That said, the food was quite acceptable but fell a little short if you approach it from a value perspective. For example, although I didn’t have the tasting menu myself, for $89 I would have expected something a little more creative (eg. more small dishes) instead of a sampling of something I can get off the menu anyway. Come to think about it, it was more prix fixe than it was tasting.
One of the fundamentals of a Ritz-Carlton experience is an exceptional, if not slightly nauseating level of service. Fortunately or not (depending on your take), this didn’t occur. It was cordial and efficient but not over the top. The general ambiance made me wonder whether a woman who showed up with her dog Cuddles in her Prada handbag would leave satisfied that her ego got stroked as much as her dog does. Speaking of which, the people watching was a bit disappointing. The rather sterile crowd was not nearly as entertaining as the fur shawl wearing couple I saw at the Trump a year or two ago, making for a rather lame Toca party.