I seem to be reviewing restaurants all the time these days. Not unlike the last 24 years of my life – only it’s new and weird having to pay with my own money. Unsponsored, I must also step back, most reluctantly, from return visits to the city’s established supernovae, concentrating instead on the youngest stars that glitter in the streaming welkin (my daughter is a Pearl, so I claim a co-paternal allegiance to the author of that particular Middle English metaphor). In other words, I’ll have to stick to reviewing new places in Toronto, not old champions. To wit, Salt rather than Chiado. And while we’re busy articulating mandates, I might as well mention that I’ll only post blogs of places I enjoy. Unlike many people in my line of work, I have never taken pleasure in trashing a sub-par operation. I see it as a waste of my time and yours.
So. Where were we? Oh yes: Salt. The latest Ossington opening, right next door to the outrageously popular Pizza Libretto and just a few doors along from the always delightful Foxley. I’ve had my eye on Salt for the best part of a year, waiting patiently for it to open. It’s the brainchild of William Tavares, currently making a name for himself in the business, with input from someone I know better – Albino Silva, creator of Chiado, Adega, Circo, Oasi and the brilliant but only occasionally open Senhor Antonio tapas bar. But the place has had issues since the summertime, denied a liquor licence by a moratorium inspired by councillor Joe Pantalone. Now that little prohibition has been lifted and the party has begun.
They say books furnish a room, but wine bottles can be just as effective. Salt’s long narrow space is lined with dark wooden shelves filled with bottles of wine and fabulous Portuguese olive oils, jars of preserves and packets of Lusitanian goodies. Everything is for sale – this is a shop as well as a wine bar; meanwhile the inventory provides a homey but handsome decor, glistening in the candlelight and the dim glow of mismatched crystal chandeliers. Salt doesn’t take reservations (which may suit the staff but is deeply annoying for customers) so the four of us arrived at 6:30 to be sure of getting a table and found the room completely empty. By 7:30, however, it was packed with a young crowd all talking earnestly over the music until the sound level climbed uncomfortably high.
By then we were deep in our plates. The menu is curiously hard to read through, broken up into a dozen categories such as cheeses, charcuterie, grilled or fried or vegetables or alla plancha… all tapas-sized dishes with an Iberian slant, which are just about big enough for two people to enjoy but look like awfully short commons for a group of four. So we just kept on ordering more.
There was a very fine oxtail consommé served in a small red casserole, the broth thin and rich, perfumed with a mirepoix of root vegetables and sweetened with sherry and agra dolce onions. Another soup was an elegant purée of jerusalem artichokes and leeks with a hit of truffle oil – equally effective at blunting the edge of hunger.
Of the three bocadillos, we chose one that set a hearty but soft-textured chorizo sausage in a soft bun moistened with mustard aïoli and caramelized onions. Two salads seemed a tad too similar, each built around a steep hill of arugula. One dressed the greens with a sherry vinaigrette and garnished it with candied pecans, julienned fresh pear and litle nubs of delectably powerful Valdeon, a ripe Spanish blue cheese. The other presented a tarragon citrus vinaigrette with firm striped beets, goat cheese and crumbled marcona almonds.
More arugula bulked out my favourite dish of the evening – finger-sized pieces of amazingly tender Galician octopus decorated with pine nuts and slices of cherry tomato over wee dabs of tapenade. Salt cod croquettes were yieldingly soft inside a delicate golden crust, perfect for dipping into a robust parsley aïoli. From the meaty end of the menu, pork belly seemed a little dry under its delicately crisped skin, Braised wagyu short ribs had the rich, sweet, sticky meat falling from the bone onto a pillow of garlicky mashed potato. And then there were frites (very good ones) to fill in the corners of our appetites, and a selection of cheeses (more Valdeon), a taste of the machine-cut Serrano ham, a wedge of super-creamy, dense chocolate tart…
Chef Dave Kemp has an interesting pedigree – Avalon as a cook, Splendido for two years as a chef de partie in the David Lee era, then Prego della Piazza as chef de cuisine in its twilight years. This is his first kitchen, and he’s doing an admirable job. From the customer’s point of view, it’s a casual and unstructured way of eating that denies the kitchen much chance to create an ordered progression of experiences. But such freedom can be lovely when the company is good and the wine is flowing. Did I mention the wine? Here Albino Silva’s hand is most clearly seen for the list is jewelled with Portuguese treats – the good stuff that is never seen at the LCBO – reasonably priced, though I wish more were available by the glass.
And don’t leave without a bottle of superb CARM olive oil from the deepest Douro – the one with the black label.
Salt can be found at 225 Ossington Avenue (just south of Dundas Street West). 416 533 7258.