Coming back from Kingston, I got off the train in the middle of rush hour and realized it was hapless to attempt to drive back to London so I took the opportunity to grab an early dinner at Byblos. Hidden on Duncan St, the outside is quite subtle especially compared to the massive four floor fortress inside. When I went to the reception, I got the typical routine when I told them I didn’t have a reservation. It starts with the fake pensive stare at the blank computer screen, followed by a slight nod and a grim proclamation and they said there was only room upstairs in the lounge. I followed him upstairs and was seated at a well stocked bar. I felt like I was in the bleachers at a Jays game beacuse I was the only one there. Good thing they snuck me in! As I waited for a drink, I looked around and the saw that the place was decorated in the typical Charles Khabouth style. The room was elegantly decorated and accented with hints of the Middle east.
I was quickly greeted by two barkeeps and we were able to strike up a bit of a conversation. First, we discussed the concept at Byblos: eastern Mediterranean flavours and a kick ass bar. I decided to test the latter out with an old fashioned ($15). Made with a base of Bulleit bourbon (that’s a good start) and accented with date molasses instead of sugar atop a signature Khabouth big ass ice cube, it had an odd colour (I love the bronzy hue of a good old-fashioned) and slightly overwhelming sweetness which hid the bourbon a little too much but in the end was still a decent drink.
From a food perspective, the menu is divided into small and large plates with a spattering of rice dishes. Since I was solo, for the most part I stuck with the small dishes and quizzed the guys about the best dishes:
Cheese Acharuli (Quail Egg + Brioche + Za’atar) $9- Eggs and cheese make me happy so this was an easy choice. The crust was crispy and held its texture while housing the melted cheese and runny egg. The za’atar flavour and pickled onion was a great addition to this spin of the traditional Georgian bread. I didn’t confirm the cheese but wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little sheep’s milk feta hidden in the stringy mess.
I asked about octopus versus crispy squid and the consensus was go with the latter for $13. Although advertised as a large dish, it was no bigger than the acharuli and was seasoned with toum, spices and schug (hot sauce). Although the use of the toum was subtle, it carried a garlic punch that some might find a bit overpowering. Personally, I loved it. The squid itself was a bit lost in the batter and the expected heat from the schug fell a little short.
The final decision was between the duck or eggplant kibbeh. Once again, after careful consultation I went with the vegetarian option ($14) after a suggestion from the waiter that duck might be a bit dry. Within minutes they arrived, served with a yogurt based dipping sauce. It was nicely spiced but overall the dish was a little underwhelming, especially with a $14 price tag.
Byblos is an other Charles Khabouth creation which fits his typical blueprint of huge fanfare, lively atmosphere, abundant space, fancy cocktails, well dressed waitstaff, nicely balanced pretension and hit and miss food. As a whole, I usually enjoy the experience but always leave with a few criticisms. Let me explain what I mean by balanced pretension. I have no issues with people taking pride in their craft and not hiding behind the veil of impartiality. I had a great discussion with the barkeeps about the Keg Mansion, cheque averages and noise levels. We bounced thoughts on the local eateries and agreed or agreed to disagree on many of them; whether it was the noise level, skimpy portions or best anchovy dish in town. That said, they are quite confident about their own joint. This pride is the foundation of the Khabouth brand. Whether it’s Patria, Weslodge or La Societe, you leave feeling a little cooler even if some of the food is hit and miss. Byblos is no different.
If you ask any foodie for an opinion (which they are willing to give) , I think they would compare a Charles Khabouth restaurant empire to a romance novel. Romance novels are pretty on the outside, using bare-chested, robe wearing, chiseled men with flowing manes who embrace buxom babes with their eyes closed and mouths open. The interior, however, often lacks substance, with predictable themes of forbidden love and turgidity. The Khabouth empire, on the other hand, have beautiful decors, characterized by trendy themes, hardwood accents and big, well-stocked bars. Yet, in the opinion of some, the menu is often overpriced and lacks taste and substance.
Chapter 1- I Must Have Her
I opened up the large door and entered the saloon called Weslodge. Smiling damsels greeted my group and we were sat beneath the watchful eye of a stuffed ptarmigan. The holster wearing waitstaff were rag proper; with coifs and pressed shirts who asked me to choose my lotion. There were 4 or 5 pints of purge available on tap but I opted for an orange spiced old-fashioned. The bourbon was nicely complemented by strong bitters which flirted with my eager tongue.
Of the number of tantalizing smalls offered on the bill of fare, the scallops were anything but tiny. I was seduced by the ample cleavage which was accented with iberico crumbs and placed atop tender, firm lentils. They were tender and had a taste as fine as cream gravy.
As I did at Patria, Weslodge’s equally attractive sister (I musn’t tell her to avoid the family drama), I gambled and opted for shishito peppers; each was breaded and salted delicately. This dish was flirtatious in that one out of every 10-15 are extra hot. It took only two to find the spicy vixen I was seeking.
My search for a sweet piece of calico succeeded in the form of a sticky pudding. She was traditional, with a simple beauty and a presentation that was highly desirable.
Chapter 2- Maybe Baby
I liked her buns…they looked nice beside my pickle. The burger itself was decent (I would call it average among the many burgers in the area) and a few more of the delicious fries (to go with the tomatillo ketchup) would have been nice.
The chickpea panelle is one of the only truly vegetarian items on the menu (many things are sprinkled with chorizo or iberico). This bella donna is a sexy side with the mouth feel of a voluptuous set of lips.
The dessert menu is elusive, so I inserted a pistareen to get a look at the Weslodge peepshow. Two sisters emerged; one was a prim and proper chocolate toffee bar donning gold (well..gold leaf). The other was a bit more a hot mess, speckled with meringue pieces (I really don’t get this trend), strawberries and sweet biscuits and cream. I can’t remember the exact name of these two lasses (I didn’t write them down in my black book), which is ok because what happens at Weslodge stays at Weslodge. In the end, after the sticky pudding, I felt a bit adulterous consuming these sweeties anyway.
Chapter 3– Ugly as a Mud Fence
The Squash taters tots arrived as cold as an unpaid wag-tail. They were sent back and the second batch arrived only slightly warmer. Regardless, they wouldn’t have been that good even at the right temperature.
The arctic char was a bit flimsy, underseasoned and wasn’t exactly charred. I had to look up Henry Moore (to ensure he was not some sort of jilted lover who would come back carrying a peacemaker and a frown). It turned out it’s a South Carolina plantation which grows rice and other grains. Whew! The grits were tasty and creamy but a bit mismatched with the oils and the char itself. The $26 price tag was steep. Honestly, I would have liked to see the grits without the char on the sides menu for a more reasonable price.
In the previous western romance, a group of schrunchers enters the yellow doors of Weslodge looking for sheconnery. The decor, from the large central bar to the quincy, is adorned with trinkets and taxidermy that would appease Ernest Hemingway. The bar is without any sheephearder’s delight and instead offers high end and often house made firewater. The service had fits and starts, but the holstered staff were welcoming and the flow of food was reasonably steady.
Weslodge possesses a definite culinary sexuality which relies on attractive decor combined with delicate feminine dishes and desserts coupled with the masculinity of 3o+ ounce chucks of bone-in meat to feed testosterone-driven cravings. Charles Khabouth may in fact be the equivalent of Fabio in the restaurant world. Nobody will admit they like him but his popularity remains unquestionable. I would be remiss if I said that Weslodge had the substance of a Harlequin romance (or let’s say 50 shades for those who have no idea what I’m talking about) but it does have a few things that left me a bit mitten.
I was quite prepared for a posh soiree as I strolled into the small Bloor Street mall, past the Gucci and Cartier stores to enter the lavish environment which is La Societe. Unlike a number of other French bistros in Toronto, La Societe is quite expansive, with stained glass reminiscent of l’eglise and a bar with a Hollywood-like bibliotheque. Not surprising for a Charles Khabouth joint. The question was whether it would be a scenic adventure with little substance or if the food would be as appealing to taste as the scenery was to observe.
Perhaps most ironic was the fact that the best dish wasn’t french. Ceviche is all about balance and La Societe’s version hit the mark. Aggressive citrus and chili accents elevated the subtle and fresh trio of scallops, shrimp and snapper. Be warned though…it’s a small portion for about 250 pesos ($21).
The duck confit was a combination of roasted breast and a croquette-like portion of leg. The breast was quite average due to it’s rather tough texture and unimpressive rendering of the fatty cut. Hands down, the highlight of the plate was the croquette. Nicely fried and full of flavour, it was stuffed with tender shreds of duck leg which was nicely balanced with the tangy cherry jus.
Most desserts were priced in the double digits . The Tahitian vanilla creme brulee was tasty but unremarkable. The lemon tart was equally as predictable, tasting less like a rich, tangy curd and more like my mom’s early attempts at a lemon meringue pie. The hazelnut chocolate bar with salted caramel ice cream was a bit more exciting but a little outdated. In the end, the desserts were a bit ennuyeux.
It wasn’t so much the food, but the value that was quite mundane. Here are a few examples:
Dover Sole $48. Ok. I’ve give you that…it sells for up to $75 in New York.
Steak Frites $32. Ok, that’s a little steep.
The duck confit and seafood ceviche were $29 and $21 respectively. Other possible choices included $24 mussels or vegetarian cavatelli, $13 french onion soup and an $18 burger. I appreciate the interior like the Louvres but the menu is priced like its souvenir shop.
La Societe bistro is not a bistro. Wikipedia defines a bistro as “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”. This restaurant is not small, the food is not cheap and the setting is not modest. The layout is expansive and uncharacteristic of most french bistros (making me question the lack of intimacy), the food is decent but with markups similar to the Gucci purses downstairs and the decor is anything but modest. To be fair, they do have a decent prix fixe menu at $44. As long as Yorkville remains the epitome of lavish spending, La Societe will blend in but it will be interesting to see if the migration of the luxury hotels and accommodations to other areas of town pressures this and other local eateries to come down to earth a little with pricing. Until then, I’ll seek my scenery at the Royal Ontario Museum and indulge on ceviche elsewhere. C’est la vie!
Nestled behind Weslodge is the newest experiment by the same owners, Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth. Many eateries in Toronto have adapted the small plate concept but few have tackled traditional Spanish tapas. In addition to the food, Patria (meaning homeland) has a decor showcasing beautiful art highlighted by a full tapestry along one wall, ceiling high windows along the other and modern fixtures and trinkets in between. The restaurant was bustling with a diverse and busy crowd but the noise level was not excessive. The service philosophy is reminiscent of my experience in Barcelona; quick and efficient. My water glass (even though she wasn’t too happy we opted for tap water) was rarely close to empty and the finished dishes were removed quickly.
I’ve had some bad sangria in Toronto establishments which define it is as nothing more than watered down table wine with ice and a few orange slices. Patria returns this iconic drink to its rightful position, although at a price ($30/jug). The flavour was crisp and vibrant, accented by pieces of fresh fruit peppered throughout an abundance of ice in the glass (take this as a warning…ask for minimal ice in advance if you don’t like that sort of thing). As mentioned above, the service was amazing. I didn’t pour any of my own during the entire meal.
The ensalada de aguacate conqueso de cabra y membrillo was a delicious salad combining simple but quality ingredients (goat cheese, avocado, almonds) tossed in a fragrant quince dressing. Like a good tapas dish, it’s special in its simplicity, offering a freshness and crispness which is a perfect complement to the remainder of the menu.
The Pimientos Rellenos de Buey (oxtail stuffed peppers) topped the list of tapas choices. The sweet pepper was brimming with a deceivingly large amount of moist, well seasoned meat and accented nicely with salty, shaved manchego cheese, justifying the $12 price tag.
I’m a huge fan of serrano ham and the offering here lived up to my standards. It was fresh, fatty and not overly salted. I was possibly biased by the prep station on the way in, which showcased the preparation of the ham, which is shaved on demand. It was particularly good with the DO Murcia al Vino cheese and sourdough bread served with a chunk of quince jam.
On occasion, I get a craving for chocolate pudding. Perhaps this was the night, because I thoroughly enjoyed Patria’s offering. It was garnished with coarse salt and a sugar orb which you crack to release a small amount of olive oil over the pudding, adding a unique but appealing third dimension of taste and flavour.
Fragrant saffron highlights the Garbanzo Con Espinaces (Chickpea Spinach Stew), a rather odd and less traditional tapas choice. The highlight of this dish is the migras (bread crumbs) which add a brilliant crunch to the otherwise textureless stew. Simply put, if you like saffron, order this dish.
The patatas bravas con heuvos fritos (potatoes with spicy tomato and an egg) are a spin on the classic tapas dish normally served with an aioli but in this case also was served with an egg . In the first attempt, the egg was overdone but they quickly replaced it with a second which was much better. The potatoes were hot, the tomato was spicy. All in all, it was a decent dish.
The pan con tomate with manchego seemed like a modified version of bruschetta as opposed to the traditional spanish dish which uses tomato as a seasoning (the tomato is rubbed onto the bread) more than a main component of the dish. I’ll be honest, I’m not a tomato fan but I’m also a bit bothered by the deviation from the traditional dish as well.
I ordered octopus off the “specials” menu at a pricy $15. Seven bite size pieces were served on tender potatoes on a bed of olive oil and paprika. The potatoes were cooked perfectly, but the main event not so much. It was overcooked and therefore a bit “tough” to justify the price.
The churros served with a dulce de leche were crunchy and soft at the same time and were decent but not mind-blowing.
The croquetas de manchego ( leek and cheese croquettes) are a spin on this popular tapas dish which are usually served stuffed with ham or chicken. The inside was a gooey mess of soft manchego goat cheese with only a hint of leek. A bit of spicy tomato may have helped salvage the dish but the rich and creamy aioli did nothing to accent the already rich and creamy croquette.
In general, the service was fantastic but I was a bit bothered by the blatant upselling, whether it was a push for more dishes or more expensive ones. I was told that we didn’t order enough food and when I suggested that we could order again if we wanted to, the response was that they preferred to submit orders only once. Despite this fact, the dishes did not arrive in a fluid and consistent fashion and it would have been quite simple to order more as needed. In the end, there was too much food.
Patria reminds me of a spanish exchange student who has come over with the intent on sticking to their traditional roots but getting caught up in the ways of the locals. The pan con tomate became a dish similar to the bruschetta served by all the cool Italians down the road. The croqueta mimics the cheese sticks you can get at any roadhouse dwellers along Front St. Patria even wants to fit in with the carnivores, offering a $65 ribeye steak to match the likes of Ruth’s Chris. It’s a bit of an identity crisis. Even the service is a bit confusing, characterized by friendly staff, continuous water service and quick dish clearance while being upsold like you’re in a used car lot. Unlike its patria , Toronto’s Patria has certainly adapted to the Toronto restaurant scene, pricing most menu items on the high end of acceptable. Whether you stick will small dishes, pastas ($16-18) or the paellas (around $30), don’t expect a cheap evening.
In the end, despite the minor mistakes and issues, Patria worked hard to remedy any of the problems and overall I left very satisfied, reminding me that in the end a happy customer is a fundamental priority in this business regardless of what side of the ocean you’re on.