The Critic: Claudio Aprile, the chef behind the Origin empire, takes on the burbs
Inside the door of Origin North is a 1930s Velocette, the type of low-slung, insectoid motorcycle that officers rode during the war. Claudio Aprile, the restaurant’s owner and chef, parks it beside the reception desk. The bike is a statement: cool has arrived in the suburbs
Origin North opened in June, in a two-storey building in the parking lot of the Bayview Village mall. It’s the third of Aprile’s Origin restaurants and the first outside the downtown. Other chefs have successfully ventured into the land of eight-lane thoroughfares: Mark McEwan opened Fabbrica, his rustic (though decidedly posh) Italian place at the Shops at Don Mills, in 2010. But the move is a bigger deal for Aprile, whom I associate with the tattoos-and-’tude chef culture of downtown. Six years ago, when he opened Colborne Lane, he entranced the city with the tricks of molecular gastronomy, a cooking style that’s as much about ideas (he’d concoct complex dishes out of only white ingredients) as showmanship (he’d freeze ice cream tableside with liquid nitrogen). With Susur Lee distracted by a U.S. expansion, Aprile grabbed the title of Toronto’s most talked-about philosopher-chef.
Then came the recession; liquid nitrogen lost its novelty, and Aprile, like every other fancy cook in town, rebranded for diners on tightened budgets. In 2010, he opened his first Origin restaurant on King East, around the corner from Colborne Lane (which he closed last winter, when he finally admitted he couldn’t spare the time). He seemed to believe he was doing the city a favour: at Origin, he said, he’d apply the standards of fine dining to casual food, as if our only other options were Milestones and Montana’s.
He almost pulls it off. Origin’s menu is as varied as a mall food court. The idea, nice in theory, is that the restaurant, like its patrons, is comfortably multicultural. He divides his dishes into categories like “snacks,” “hot” and “chilled” instead of into straightforward courses, and the table is encouraged to share. Last time I visited, on one of the summer’s few rainless nights, my dinner companion and I sat on the fern-shrouded patio and ordered a Bangkok steak salad and a plate of fresh pappardelle. Each dish was perfect on its own—especially the nam jim–dressed flank steak, which balanced the sweetness of fried shallots and crumbled peanuts with the funky pong of fish sauce—but not in tandem. Same goes for the Yucatán-style lime-tomato soup and the hoisin-sauced duck wrapped in a tortilla, or the coconut milk and lobster ceviche and the crumbled chorizo and fries. The flavours and textures don’t mesh, yet when we asked the server if we should limit ourselves to one region of dishes, he sneered as if we’d just praised apartheid.
From the start, Aprile envisioned the first Origin as a prototype to be expanded around the city. His second location, deep in the new condo district of Liberty Village, opened last year. It’s more nightclubby, to suit the neighbours. The cavernous room is dimly lit by a constellation of Edison bulbs and, with its polished concrete floors and vintage metal stools, brings to mind a steampunk villain’s lair. A large bar takes up nearly a quarter of the space—it’s the sort of restaurant that puts as much emphasis on food as on wallop-to-the-head cocktails, like the Longhouse George, a rye concoction laced with chocolate bitters and apple liqueur.
Liberty’s menu is nearly identical to the King location’s, though with more emphasis on trendy Mexican food. I especially liked my pork belly tostada, a messy tower of smoky meat, guac, black beans and a fried egg. On a recent Saturday night, the place only filled up after 9. The same type of young, on-the-make professionals who usually fill the King Street Origin appeared, plus tables of dolled-up women gathering for a bite before heading to the clubs, and guys with tortoiseshell glasses and twirlable moustaches. What I hadn’t expected (and neither had the flustered servers) was the swarm of red Toronto FC jerseys—a game had let out at the nearby BMO Field, and despite another loss, these fans were determined to have fun. You can see why I had doubts that such a peculiarly downtown creation would survive in a suburban mall parking lot.
Aprile’s uptown Origin shares DNA, and most of the menu, with the other locations, but it’s a different restaurant. The room is more handsome, panelled in salvaged Douglas fir, with tall glass doors opening onto a patio that’s surprisingly tranquil, given the proximity of Sheppard. There’s something less aggressive and harried about the place, which could simply come with success: Origin North seats twice the number of the other locations, and it’s packed. One Friday night, as Daft Punk and The Cure bounced overhead, the restaurant filled with the multi-ethnic and multi-generational mix of customers you never quite see in Aprile’s other restaurants.
And the cooking is far better. This is likely because Aprile spends more of his time at Origin North, watching over the kitchens and developing his newest dishes there. (Downstairs is his management office, where he runs his empire and works on a cookbook, expected to be out in 2015. He says he’s also planning an ambitious new follow-up to Colborne Lane.)
Every dish we ate during our visit was carefully composed, as if by an ikebana artist. A hand roll of silken, ruby red tuna, shiso leaf and a crunchy sprinkle of puffed amaranth arrived perched, just so, on a wooden stand beside a Lilliputian dipping bowl of miso-flavoured mayo. Aprile is still able to work the same fanatically precise flavour control of his Colborne Lane days, wrapping Boston lettuce around pork belly lightly touched with fish sauce, hoisin and lime zest. His burger (every mass-appeal restaurant requires one) is a thick, juicy puck of hand-ground beef on brioche, dressed with a peppery nest of arugula and a mash of avocado.
There’s a safe, market-tested quality to Origin North. The night’s one dud was a plate of miso-glazed cod, an uninspired, fusion-era standard that I thought impossible to screw up. The cod was broiled to a crisp and buttery within, but drowning in a pool of watery ginger broth and soggy bok choy. I didn’t expect to see my fish slosh to the table.
There’s one throwback to Colborne Lane on the Origin North menu: a shared dessert called the Northern Storm, for reasons that became apparent when a server wheeled a cart to our table and cautioned that we might want to lean back. He poured liquid nitrogen and a bottle of crème fraîche into a mixing bowl with citrus zest, stirred and scraped with a metal spatula, then tipped the newly solid cream onto a glass platter. A cloud hovered overtop and then—as couples at the neighbouring tables oohed and aahed—rolled like a horror movie mist onto the table.
The display was mildly embarrassing; nitrogen desserts are this century’s equivalent of bananas Foster. But you’ve got to order it, at least once in a lifetime, to experience the strange texture of the lemony ice cream, both velvety and oddly brittle (it melts instantly on the tongue). The ice cream is merely the topping for more artfully arranged Aprile treats: the platter comes filled with crumbled shortbread, shards of meringue, spiced kumquats, boozy black cherries, blueberries and a tart calamansi curd. It’s 10 desserts in one—an apt kicker to the restaurant’s all-encompassing menu. It’s also massive, especially after so many courses, but I still fought for the last spoonful.