Review:Vancouver:Robson St:CinCin Ristorante and Bar

While in Vancouver, I had a business meeting  in the private room at Cin Cin, an old school Italian eatery on Robson Street. I was shuffled to the private room which housed hundreds of bottles of wines, some at hundreds of dollars.  Speaking of cost, expect to pay a pretty lira here; apps are $13-18, pastas start at $15 and entrees go from $30-45.   Noise was an issue even in the private room. The only thing separating us and the boisterous outside crowd was a thin sheet of glass and a thick wood door that constantly opened and closed, allowing the drone of human banter to roll in like thick fog.There was a four course set menu featuring an array of choices for the appetizers, mains and desserts with a mushroom risotto as a middle dish.
I opted for tuna tartare to start. It was a large portion on the modest side of seasoning and acidity although I got the odd big chunk of salt here and there. The radish was a nice addition to add a bit of crunch to the otherwise silky texture.

Long line caught albacore tuna tartare
Long line caught albacore tuna tartare

The risotto was well prepared and seasoned nicely. The rice had a subtle crunch and there were plenty of tender mushrooms scattered throughout. It was served hot and it held its temperature well.

Mushroom Risotto
Mushroom Risotto

The sable fish was treated with the utmost respect, its delicate integrity preserved in the cooking process. Ever bite melted like butter in my mouth. The mashed potatoes were subtle and allowed the fish to shine. The kale was simply and perfectly prepared and added great colour, texture and a punch of bitterness to the sweet filet and creamy mashed potatoes.

Sablefish
Sablefish

I strayed from my normal tendency to order tiramisu for dessert and opted for a lemon tart instead. It really wasn’t a tart; it was served cold and with a side of strawberry coulis that brought me back to days of scraping the last morsels of baby food off the side of the jar and shoveling it into my kid’s waiting mouth. The tart as a whole had that “sitting there for a bit” taste.

Lemon tart
Lemon tart

There is pride in the service, characterized but constant wine and water pours by the head waiter who is as well seasoned as the risotto was. The table’s dishes were served  by numerous waitstaff on a way that would make the Canadian synchronized swimming team envious.  I received “Sir, that’s an excellent choice!”  for each and every order I placed, an accolade I’m not sure was entirely deserved, especially in the midst of my tiramisu regret.

My Take

CinCin is a well established and expensive Italian restaurant promising good food, good service and good wine. The sablefish was spectacular and clearly the godfather of the evening. The rest of the food was more Godfather III.   The decor is old school Italian villa; respectfully cheesy while embracing the dwindling art of old school service which is as much choreography as it is  functional. However, there is no music for the dance. Instead there is plenty of noise which could become quite aggravating if you have anything important to say or hear…like how great my dinner choices were.

CinCin Ristorante + Bar on Urbanspoon

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Review:Toronto:KIng West:Gusto 101

It’s always good when you go to a group dinner and can order a la carte.  One of the biggest frustrations is when you have a set menu in which you can only choose from one of three entrees that are designed and  prepared to appease the conservative diner. Beef (usually steak), chicken (usually roasted), fish (usually salmon) and some lame vegetarian entree (usually a regular menu item with the protein removed) populate these set  menus.  Needless to say, I was elated when I attended a group dinner at gusto 101 and was handed a real menu, with no restrictions or limitations.

Gusto 101 is positioned right beside Jimmy’s coffee  on Portland Ave just North of King Street.  There was a tremendous amount of hype as its creation materialized about a year ago.  Some may call it another Italian restaurant.  Others may call it a trendy trattoria. It has a very friendly website (http://www.gusto101.com) with copies of the menu, gallery pics and even a detailed explanation of their unique reservation policy and very specific expected wait times based on the day of the week and the time of night.

The private room is located in the basement. It’s a well decorated yet unfinished wine cellar with a large wooden communal table which seats about 20.  There were about a dozen of us there.  Most curious was the fact that about half way through our meal, 4 or 5 people were escorted in and seated at the end of our table for their own soiree.  It was actually kind of neat but quite unorthodox.  Nonetheless, when it comes to Italian feasts, we are all family, right?

Must

Kale can be a fussy vegetable. Gusto uses a combination of lacination (cutting into small pieces) and acid to perfect the Cavolo Nero salad.  A subtle bitterness is maintained amidst the sour lemon vinaigrette, with salty and sweet accents in the form of peccarino cheese and currents rounding out the dish to touch all the tongue’s taste points.   It’s a perfect example of  simple and balanced preparation.

Cava Nero Salad
Cavolo Nero Salad

The Monday night polpette special is a simple dish of meatballs, tomato sauce and grilled tuscan bread.  The meat was well seasoned and cooked to the faintest of pink which maintained moistness and excellent texture. The tangy tomato sauce was fresh and vibrant.  Once again, it was an other example of traditional and rustic cooking done right.

Polpette (meatballs)
Polpette (meatballs)

Many of the wines come in around $10 a 5 oz glass or$50 a bottle with others available  at a variety of  price points.  Gusto offers a rather unique concept….house wine on tap served and poured from pitchers.  The table opted for the Gusto Rosso (Cabernet Savignon and Malbec).   It was mellow yet complex with a very drinkable character which matched reasonably well with most of the dishes on the menu.  Although it may not score perfect on wine spectator, at  a buck an ounce, you really can’t  go wrong.

Maybe

Octopus is a risky menu item.  It’s a finicky ingredient with a tiny cooking window. Yet every place that serves it boasts it has the best octopus in the city.   Gusto’s claim of its Polipo (char-grilled with olive tapenade, green beans, basil oil,citrus emulsion) was no exception. The wood oven baked octopus was almost the perfect texture, but was a tad dry.  The condiments, however,  were not really complimentary, with overpowering flavours that took away from the intended star of the plate.

Polipo (octopus)
Polipo (octopus)

The prosciutto pizza was simple, topped with high quality ingredients including Pingue (a Niagara producer) prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, arugula and  parmigiano on a wood baked crispy crust. It was satisfying and comparable to surrounding pies but no more memorable.

Prosciutto Pizza
Prosciutto Pizza

The dessert trio offered Crema Cotta liquore di caffe, Budino al Cioccolato (with coconut, caramel and cream) and Ravioli di Pera Fritti pear, fig with a spiced red wine reduction.  My favorite was the crema cotta as it was fresh and palate cleansing.   The  ravioli was a bit reminiscent of a  McDonald’s baked pie.  The budino was served in a baby food jar, a refreshing change from the mason jars which seem to house desserts everywhere else.  More importantly, the pudding was quite good although a little sweeter than I like.

Dessert Trio
Dessert Trio

Mundane

The only thing I wasn’t fond of was the Arancini (arborio rice, wild mushrooms, fontina, tomato sauce). Maybe I find this dish a bit boring in general but other than the tangy sauce, it was a starchy monotony with a taste similar to grandma’s cream of mushroom casserole.

Arancini
Arancini

Also mundane is the minimal beer selection. There’s no draught  beer and only a few bottle choices.  Although Italy is not known for its beer selection, Toronto is.  There is nothing unauthentic about throwing a few more local brews into the mix, preferably with a few on tap. A crisp local lager or a nutty amber ale would nicely compliment many of Gusto’s menu items.

My Take

Gusto’s focus is traditional Italian food within a trendy environment.  Even the “semi-private” room tucked in the basement  buzzes with a downtown Toronto vibe.   The servers emit an aura of pride, evident through their story telling, each with a thesis promising fresh, authentic fare. For the most part, the food is delicious. In fact, I think I would have been just as happy being served  a group meal providing it included  the kale salad along with Monday’s meatballs (perhaps with some homemade pasta) and all washed down with free flowing dollar an ounce house wine….a far cry from the aforementioned group dinner or the oily salad, rubber chicken, cold spaghetti, stale bread and one-toned table wine normally considered an Italian celebration in other venues.

Gusto 101 on Urbanspoon