Ever since I went to Harbord room, I’ve been interested in trying THR & Co, their sister restaurant. Eating out can be like a blind date. Sometimes, all you had to go on is a picture of the menu and an online testimony or two. I showed up early given I was on another dinner mission in an attempt to avoid outgoing Toronto traffic. As a result of this, I was offered a seat on the comfy side of the bar (there are four or 5 padded stools instead of the regular ones which graced the remaining perimeter. One of the first surprises was the limited bar menu. My tainted recollection of Harbord Room (which involved a few drinks with the Food Network’s Kevin Brauch) was an innovative and expansive cocktail menu so I was a little surprised to see a limited selection here. In fact, another gentleman came in and ordered an amaretto and after a 5 minute search concluded they didn’t have any. Of the four, yes four cocktails, I ordered The Pisco Sour (pisco, pear, egg white, ginger and sage syrup and fresh lemon). She was certainly playful but was anything but sour. In the end, I was impartial. She was neither naughty or nice.
For the appetizer, I went with the compressed carrot salad for $13. She was one of the prettier salads I’ve been served. The had carrots which were roasted, pickled and cut into attractive ribbons. The apple vinaigrette was subtle but appropriate. The sunflower granola was less appealing and a little abundant. All in all, she looked better than she tasted (hmm…that sounds wrong) but was a very acceptable starter.
For the main I ordered the Oxtail Bucatini for $21. Wow, she had really small…..pasta. I recently complained about the price of the pasta at SPQR in San Francisco but that was a value compared to this portion. Although the pasta itself was delicious and nicely cooked the oxtail was scarce and there was no unity in the sauce. Instead of a marriage of flavours, it was more like a breakup.
For a side, I ordered marinated mushrooms which was served with pickled onions, fresh bay and salsa verde. I enjoyed this dish. Although a little greasy, the unlikely combination of ingredients really worked. I was surprised by the potpourri of mushrooms which filled the bowl. She would have been a perfect match with the rib eye steak on the menu.
None of the desserts appealed to me so I juts decided to end the date and get the hell home.
Harbord room is like a hot date. It has one the best burgers in Toronto and an extravagant bar menu. On the other hand, THR & Co is luke warm. I was a little disappointed by the small (although firm) pasta and rather dismal cocktail list. The carrot salad was stunning and almost as delicious. The pasta was saved somewhat by a nice side of marinated mushrooms. If Harbord Room and THR & Co are in fact sisters, the latter is the one that probably doesn’t get a date. She has a really nice salad though.
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.