Bringing Sexy Back: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Aria and Toca
After three years of restaurant restraint, Aria and Toca, two unabashedly flashy new spots, are giving diners a reason to get dressed up again
Opulence, I missed you. I missed high thread-count table linens and hand-blown water glasses and even edible gold leaf a little. I missed the dining rooms whose owners gave carte blanche to talented designers, insisting only on “something grand.” But mostly, I missed gasping when I walked into restaurants—having to stop to take a space in, to admire. Though restraint wasn’t all bad for dining culture these past few years, it wasn’t always easy on the eyes.
Two ambitious, expensive, flashy new dining rooms have opened downtown in recent months, one of them from a hotel chain that’s synonymous with conspicuous luxury, the other from a pair of neighbourhood restaurateurs who’ve come out shooting for the moon. Both are fine dining (more or less), and both are likely to make you gasp when you enter.
Aria, the star tenant in the new Telus Tower, at Maple Leaf Square, is the sister restaurant to Noce, a beloved, understated Italian place near Trinity Bellwoods. The new room looks exactly nothing like its sibling, or like any other restaurant for that matter. There is more height than square footage to the space: three extravagant storeys of glass on the south and west sides, a 4,000-bottle, floor-to-ceiling wine tower and enormous soft-focus paintings of opera house chandeliers on the walls. All of this is framing for the magnificent centrepiece: sculptor Dennis Lin’s streaming, undulating waves of bent walnut that rise, like an aria, through the room’s 30 feet toward a constellation of pinpoint-lit chandeliers. The room, by Stephen R. Pile Architects, is glamorous, modern, resolutely elegant. There are linens on the tables, and fish forks when they’re needed. The hand-blown water glasses are from Murano. Aria is easily the most beautiful restaurant in town.
One night, there was a youngish man in a handmade suit, sitting with a tanned and jewel-laden woman who looked as though she was born in this sort of place. Not far from them, a middle-aged couple, he in faded jeans, a T-shirt and laceless sneakers, his bleach blonde wife drinking a Creemore with her chitarrine al pomodoro e basilico. You could almost smell the Trans-Am. Another evening there were crowds of young, casually dressed downtown desk monkeys amid the high-rolling corporates. Every table seemed as welcome as the next. You can drop $3,000 on a double magnum of 2007 Solaia, or $50 on a good Soave. There’s a $96 tomahawk rib steak for two, and an $18 bowl of noodles portioned more like a main than a mid. Planning a fine dining restaurant during a recession had to be a nightmare. It’s opulent, but Guido Saldini and Elena Morelli, Aria’s owners, have also made it accessible. Smart.
And the cooking? Brilliant, a lot of it. The baby cuttlefish crudo, for instance: mild, guileless, creamy, just barely dressed with lemon, dried chili threads and thin red shavings of bird’s-eye chili for gentle lift. Or the long, lithe, lightly battered strands of crisp zucchini fritti that turn up dark green, white, yellow and deep golden, tangled in a porcelain bowl like a ball of multicoloured yarn. The dish exudes sunshine and abundance, like a backyard garden in Little Italy on a late August afternoon.
The seared striped bass fillet is perfect. The lobster salad is excellent and the wild mushroom ravioli are worth a special trip. The potatoes that come with the beef tenderloin are mixed with fennel and gorgonzola cheese and topped with sweet, tangy braised cippolini. You feel devastated once you’ve finished potatoes this good.
The kitchen at Aria is almost overrun with talent. The chef, Eron Novalski, who was in charge at Noce, spent four years at Senses (the old, great Senses on Bloor Street) at the height of its run. His sous-chef, Matthew Doerner, was hired out of Colborne Lane. Novalski has also brought over Steve Song, one of the city’s best pastry chefs, who cooked at Senses and Ultra.
Still, I’m not crazy about a few of the dishes: the deboned quail and the Tamshire pork chop are cooked to well done, the way most Italians would eat them. The quail is good, but I’d rather have it more moist. As for the pork, enough with the authenticity: they could at least ask me if I’d like it cardboard dry.
The chitarrine comes slicked in a tomato sauce that’s too dark and swampy, and the noodles are al dente to the extreme. These are rare missteps, however, far outweighed by the dishes that are indisputably great.
Song’s desserts are mostly excellent, particularly the opera cake, which is his most opulent and apropos. It’s a voluptuous tranche of almond sponge soaked in coffee and layered with coffee buttercream, ganache and chocolate, with sour cherries on the side. Song writes “Aria” in chocolate on top of each piece. It’s a dessert and a celebration—it seems wrong to eat it without a glass of good champagne. There’s a gold leaf on top, of course.
Much like the people behind Noce, chef Tom Brodi spent his career working quietly in the background. Then, a few months ago, he opened Toca, the splashy new restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Brodi is highly capable: for six years he was chef de cuisine at Canoe. The Ritz has spent a minor fortune on Toca: there’s a grand, twisty staircase leading upward from the hotel’s lobby, a tasteful if slightly boring lounge area and, beyond that, a gorgeous, intimate inner dining area with golden orbs for chandeliers, a $250,000, glassed-in cheese cave and the requisite private dining room.
The crowd is moneyed, and ecstatic to have a Ritz-Carlton in town: silver-haired men with Bridle Path comb-overs and palladium cufflinks, who look as though they’ve made their fortunes in pipelines or small-cap mining promotion; vixenish second wives and on-the-make young men wearing indoor scarves, sipping $75 champagne cocktails and tandoori pisco sours.
The service, though unsure in spots, is first-rate: Toca has hired star floor staff from Splendido, Scaramouche and the ACC. There are a couple of knockout dishes, none better than the “fancy fish and chips,” a basket of light, moist and crispy lobster poppers. But Brodi’s Canadiana-focused menu doesn’t have much of an identity. It’s a little bit Canoe (but not as good, unfortunately), a little bit Luma (and every bit as bland), even a little bit Lone Star Grill (the head-scratcher of a stew that comes in a cast-iron chafing dish with three sloppy dollops of sour cream). It’s built to appeal to everybody. The risk with such an approach is that nobody’s truly pleased.
The twice-baked goat cheese soufflé is good, and the beef tartare is ably seasoned, even if it’s gone mooshy in the grinder and the crostini it’s served with arrive, weirdly, in an Ace–branded bag (why is a restaurant of this ambition not making its own bread?). The miso-, maple- and screech-marinated black cod is perfectly executed, though you can find the same thing at half of the better restaurants in town.
Toronto needs places this beautiful and welcoming and well-staffed. Everybody’s trying extremely hard. But more than a month into the restaurant’s existence, the execution was often troubled. The kitchen couldn’t even master one of its signature dishes—the soufflé trio dessert. The first time I had it, there was double-chocolate, Grand Marnier and maple walnut, each of them billowing out of an espresso cup. But on the inside, they were still raw.
So I ordered the same thing a week later, and it arrived even less cooked than before. I sent it back. The kitchen rushed out a plate of fruit while I waited. Twenty minutes later, the pastry chef emerged with an apology and the remade soufflés. It was textbook service—they could not have done any better. But for one minor detail. I poked my spoon into each of the espresso cups, hoping for airiness and opulence. The soufflés were liquid inside.
25 York St., 416-363-2742
181 Wellington St. W., 416-585-2500