Adele is a refreshing change to the music scene. In an industry filled with nauseating pop tracks and the flavour of the week singers, Adele’s haunting voice reminds us that there is still hope, even in 2015. I’m not one that tried to get concert tickets for the four Toronto shows she sold out in minutes but I’ll admit if I’m flipping through my Sirius radio and “Hello” comes on I’ll leave it and say hi right back.
A common misnomer of the names of Adele’s albums (19,21 and 25) is that they represent her age when they were released. In fact, they reflect her age during production (this may be a way to win a pint during Adele night at your local pub). For example, her latest album, 25, was released when we was 27. “Rumour has it” that future albums will not follow this trend.
I listened to a bit of an Adele town hall and was surprised how down to earth she is. She’s British polite but at the same time could likely hang out with the Gallaghers (the English ones) from Shameless. Her album 21 was inspired as she listened to music her bus driver played as she toured the American south while she chain smoked (a habit she has recently quit). That said, she cites numerous other influences toher career ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to the Spice Girls (she was apparently traumatized when fellow ginger Geri Halliwell left the group).
I bring up Adele as a metaphor to the Toronto dining scene. Food trends are as volatile as musical ones. People in the 80’s were happy eating bananas foster, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska while listening to Thriller or waiting for the next Madonna single. In the last couple of years, both music and food have become a bit flash in the pan, probably to appease the minute attention span of those in generation X. Bands are now judged by singles and not albums and it’s hard not to confuse Walk the Moon with the Imagine Dragons. At the same time, Toronto’s dining scene has been driven by spur of the moment snack foods and small plates and compared to other entertainment-heavy metropolitan cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, and tasting menus are somewhat scarce.
Alo has burst onto the scene with the promise of bringing back the tasting menu while at the same time not jeopardizing the foodie’s right to choose. Stacked with well known names in Toronto’s culinary scene with Patrick Kriss at the helm, it has opened to great accolades including a bold endorsement as the city’s best new restaurant by the Globe and Mail’s Chris Nutall-Smith.
Instead of writing about the minutiae of each of the many dishes, I figure I’d pay homage to the music industry and do a top ten list of things you need to know about Alo complete with the top 10 songs on December 26 2015 vs Boxing Day 1985.
10. Location (Like I’m Going to Lose You- Meghan Trainor vs Sleeping Bag- ZZ Top)
Hidden between the entertainment district and trendy Queen West, its location is both convenient and a little odd at the same time.When I say hidden, I’m not kidding; I felt like an amazing race contestant looking for Jon Montgomery’s smiling face. The only way to identify the entrance is a keen eye for a tiny sign or a good GPS. In fact, the first question you are asked upon arrival is “Did you find the place ok?” Plus, you need to take an elevator to get to the dining room.
I find myself humming this in my car one day……”Alo’s on the other side, I must’ve passed it a Thousand Times”.
9. Decor (Same Old Love- Selena Gomez vs Small Town- John Mellancamp)
A short elevator ride up a few floors opens into a swanky but simple bar stocked with a number of premium spirits just waiting to turned into a number of trendy cocktails. A few steps forward and the small but open kitchen, cramped with bustling white coats becomes visible. Beyond that is the smallish seating area which has a casual yet classy demeanor. The waitstaff, donning ties tucked into their crisp white shirts are busy circulating the grounds with a fluid flow. Not quite posh and not quite rustic, the decor is simple and despite the small space patrons have plenty of room as the tables are nicely spaced. Even the serving dishes were chic and modern but not extravagant.
I will also put clientele under decor as there were definitely an array of patrons present. I think the couple beside us were on their third or fourth match.com date and she was working really hard to impress him with her culinary knowledge but it fell as flat as a bad souffle. Equally entertaining was a really angry looking man sitting at the end of the chef’s rail who sat stoic for the duration of the meal. On the way out we saw him speaking to the chef so I suspect he was of the mercurial members of Toronto’s dining scene. Those chefs roll deep you know.
8. Drinks (Here- Alessia Cara vs That’s What Friend’s are For- Dionne Warwick and Friends)
As mentioned, there is no shortage of premium cocktails available at Alo. I started with the Longchamp ($14), a simple and smooth bourbon based creation which hits all the notes of a classic sipping cocktail. They also offer a reasonably priced wine list and stick with the bigger, more recognized brews such as Kronenbourg and Blanc De Chambly as opposed to the numerous and trendy craft beer in the area.
7. Choice (Stitches- Shawn Mendes vs I Miss You- Klymaxx)
Like stated in countless other reviews, Alo features a 5 course tasting menu for $89. Perhaps what’s most unique about this is the fact that there is a choice for each of the 4 savory courses (plus the mid-dessert) as opposed offering either a standard menu for everybody or only an option for the main protein. They even set the stage for such free will (maybe it’s a question like when you are testing an audience response system) by offering a choice of a blue or white napkin . It was rather odd but memorable.
6. Surprises (The Hills- The Weeknd vs Election Day- Aracadia)
There are quite a few surprises during the Alo dining experience. At this point I will insert my SPOILER ALERT disclaimer in the event you want the true element of surprise:
- Deux Amuse Bouche. You are immediately treated couple of small souffles (I’d call them crackers) garnished with a garlic aioli. With the re-emergence of the tasting menu comes the resurrection of foam emulsions in the form of the second amuse, fennel, olive oil and citrus. It was a bit heavy on the oil flavour little light on the citrus.
- In what I think is a first, the bread is actually served (complete with house churned butter) as a course. It was rich and buttery and reminded me of a sinful cousin of a croissant.
- When I asked for directions to the washroom the waitress looked pleased to be able to assist. I was somewhat confused as she led me through the bar to a black wall until she pointed to a magic door which opened into the hidden lavatory area. Yes, I am amused easily.
- I rarely order tea at dinner but for some reason I had the desire to do so. Once again, the waitress seemed pleased with my request and promised to return with the tea box. When she opened it, I felt like a leprechaun that had just found a pot of gold. A dimly lit screen confidently describe each tea which was housed in a small, transparent container. It was a little classy and a little cheesy but another example of the incredible attention to detail theme of the evening.
- In a nice touch, you are provided with a wax-sealed envelope at the end of the night which contains the menu for the evening.
5. Food (Love Yourself- Justin Bieber vs Separate Lives- Phil Collins/Marilyn Martin)
Instead of reviewing each individual dish, I will summarize by saying the food was good but not mind-blowing. I think it can best be described as rich and earthy with proteins which included snails, mushrooms, duck, fois gras and pork. There were also some options from the sea including halibut, salmon and lobster. Even with those, the earthiness was maintained with the use of ingredients like sunchokes, truffles, potatoes and artichokes. The proteins were cooked beautifully except for the duck which was overdone. If anything, some of the dishes were lacking acid and seemed a bit unbalanced but some of that may have been the way I ate them. For example, I found the first bite of the mushrooms very single-noted until they were mixed a little more thoroughly with some of the other ingredients and became a delicious forest porridge.
4. Foie Gras (What do you Mean- Justin Bieber vs Alive and Kicking- Simple Minds)
I would always choose lobster over foie gras but the latter was the standout dish of the night. It was smoked which perfectly balanced with the fattiness of the liver. I only had a bite and truly regretted not ordering it as my starter.
3. Dessert (Hotline Bling- Drake vs Party all the Time-Eddie Murphy)
There is no dessert listed on the menu so ever before any hint of the final course, you are asked if you would like the optional cheese plate ($15). In the name of adventure we agreed. The featured fromage was Five Brothers, the delicious signature cheese from Gunn’s Hill in Woodstock and was served with fruit, honey and crackers. We ordered two plates was plenty for the four of us. Around the same time, we were asked our choice for the mid-dessert; dark, milk or white chocolate. We joked that, being the token Caucasian at the table, I was obligated to order the white chocolate. I went dark. Expecting the the chocolate right after the cheese, we instead received a small bite consisting of parsnip and espresso instead. It was fantastic. Afterwards the waitress, hearing our earlier conversation, brought both the white and dark chocolate to the table for me. Each was unique in its own way and even the white chocolate was quite good. Thinking the meal was done, a third dessert arrived in the form of an earl grey parfait (which retrospectively makes sense since she did say the chocolate would be a mid-dessert) arrived at the table. It was like some of the savory dishes in that it had to be eaten with a game plan. The ice cream itself was not strongly flavoured with earl grey unless you were sure to include some of the candied bergamot it was garnished with in each bite.
2. Price (Sorry- Justin Beiber vs Broken Wings- Mr. Mister)
When all was said, the price with a few drinks (no wine) before gratuity was $135/head. The cheese itself was $15/plate. However, given the fact that it took nearly 5 hours and there were technically 11 courses means you if you are on a date you don’t need to worry about doing or spending anything after. The portions are small and the purists would argue that it is probably overpriced but when I consider the whole experience I didn’t think it was too unreasonable and I left stuffed.
1.Service (Hello- Adele vs Say You, Say Me- Lionel Ritchie)
Although these points are not necessarily in rank order, it would be remiss if I did not put service at number one. In fact, I cannot think of a time in recent memory when I have had a better service experience in the GTA. The flow of the meal was spot on. Among the numerous staff members who served the table, all were highly professional and explained the components of each dish with great precision. The addition of the white chocolate based on a short conversation at the table was, well, the icing on the cake.
Alo has successfully resurrected the tasting menu in Toronto by offering a combination of good food and incredible service. Add a few surprises and you are left with a truly memorable experience. The foie gras and innovative dessert courses were the highlights of the menu. The attention to detail, from the tea box to the take away menu, is unmatched.
In sticking with the music analogy, Alo is like a good album. Not every song is a blockbuster but collectively it’s great listening. You feel the experience instead of just doing it. In other words, in an environment filled with countless eateries which mimic the flash in the pan tendencies of American idols, youtubers and one hit wonders, Alo may in fact be the Adele of Toronto’s culinary scene.