Greetings and welcome to the first digestive tract. I’ve never been a blogeen before but the sensation is strangely exhilarating—writing on the fly, without valiant editors and fact-checkers to catch dangling participles and verify scurrilous gossip. It’s cool to be à la minute instead of having to wait for three months to share news of last night’s dinner in a magazine column. And a blog offers a forum for direct communication—or so I’ve been led to believe—which could be interesting during this target-on-my-back time of the year when Toronto Life’s annual restaurant rankings are live and on the newsstands.
The Top 20 was an odd undertaking this time around, with a number of major contenders suddenly stepping out of the ring: chefs leaving Truffles and Langdon Hall, Avalon closing, The Fifth repositioning itself as a less formal experience. Kibbitzing conversations on the Web, it seems my list has outraged a good many restaurant-goers. Which is encouraging. Much better than silence and apathy. Write to me here and we’ll talk.
We could also discuss the apparent trend in Toronto towards more casual dining (qvs Avalon and The Fifth). Some serious minds in the restaurant industry are convinced the city is turning against the Lucullan full monty. It’s not about the price, they believe, so much as a reaction against the effort of putting on a tie and best party manners, of coping with more than one knife and fork and sacrificing a whole evening to dinner. Well, that could be true. Maybe Toronto’s ambient culture is dumbing down. Maybe it’s the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it. But there seems to be just as much evidence to the contrary. Consider the reinvention of Lobby where chef Robert Bragagnolo (born and raised in Toronto but never worked here, spent the last eight years in Europe) is offering his take on molecular gastronomy, at least until next January. The precepts of this kind of cooking (made famous by Ferran Adrià at elBulli in Catalonia and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in England) are really about turning preconceived notions of food upside down—using scientific techniques to alter the texture, temperature and character of ingredients (though usually leaving flavour intact)—to astonish and delight the palate.
Many of our chefs have played with foam in recent years but Bragagnolo has other tricks up his sleeve. For instance, he liquefies lychees then uses a syringe to drip the purée into a solution of calcium chloride (don’t try this at home, kids) which creates little beads of lychee that burst in the mouth like caviar. Neat, but the real point is how well it works as an amuse with pan-seared morsels of prawn and a shot of beet-tinted gazpacho.
I ate at Lobby twice last week and I’m still high on the experience. Running the front of house (and now a partner in the venture) is John Gay, long time manager of Susur, Lee and, before that, maitre d’ of Scaramouche. He’s also matching Bragagnolo’s tasting menus with some delectable wines (including my first ever single varietal Pinot Meunier, a spectacular 2003 from Domaine Chandon in Carneros with a nose of cranberry and raspberry, robust acidity and more length and intensity than a Wagner opera). Lobby will be a destination for curious gourmets by this time next week. Bragagnolo’s for real and it’s great we now have a second molecular-gastronomy artist in the city—company for Claudio Aprile at Senses. Chefs who do so much more than copy stuff from Adria’s lab log, they offer proof that Toronto made it through the millennium.
In other news: Henry Wu has taken over Square’s old property on Mount Pleasant and will open Lai Toh Heen, a more casual midtown version of Lai Wah Heen, as May cuddles up to June.