Where is it written that a five-star hotel must have a five-star restaurant? Actually, that is standard doctrine in most European manuals, but it doesn’t seem to apply these days in North America. Or maybe it’s just that our definition of a five-star restaurant differs from theirs. A third possibility is that the Ritz-Carlton company has a savvy read on what Toronto likes these days and decided to go for something tasty, local and middle-of-the-road in creating TOCA by Tom Brodi in their new Toronto hotel. The property looks great in a bright, shiny, modern way, hung with original Canadian art and with inlaid maple leaves in the lobby’s marble floor. In the distance, as one walks in, steps lead down to DEQ with its luxe sitting-room atmosphere, open fireplace, bar and patio. It also has its own menu of retro treats such as fondue or Pingue prosciutto sliced right there in the room on a vintage charcuterie slicer, the kind of machine with the silent, silky gears of a Rolls Royce.
For TOCA, however, one turns to the left, either into the chic bar where renowned bartender Moses McGintee holds mixological court beside a Mont Blanc of ice decorated with alluring seafood, or up the broad flight of stairs to the restaurant proper. No one could ever criticize a Ritz-Carlton for cutting corners where staffing is concerned. The room is bustling with hostesses, waiters, busboys, managers and sommeliers, many of them familiar faces from the city’s A-list restaurants. The rhythms of service aren’t quite smooth enough yet, but I dare say that will come. The room itself is certainly handsome. Part of it appears to float out over the bar below and for people hoping to have a conversation with their dinner the music seems obtrusively loud. The main dining area is farther back, separated by the glassed-in cheese cave where $250,000 worth of Cheese Boutique forms age in refrigerated splendour. Tables are polished wood (no linen here); lighting is flattering and many diners are offered a deliberately open view into the kitchen through the broad corridor of the pastry station.
The hotel has made a conscious effort to showcase Canadiana on the wine list, with ingredient sourcing and in their choice of chef. Tom Brodi was at Canoe for 11 years as Anthony Walsh’s right-hand man and he brings his local connections and knack for creating high-end takes on traditional dishes with him. He’s also of Hungarian heritage and uses it here the way Walsh uses his Quebec roots at Canoe. For example, lángos, a sort of puffed-up flatbread of fluffy fried potato-dough becomes a delicious base for double-smoked New Brunswick salmon, crème fraîche, seedlings and crispy garlic chips. Sommelier Lorie O’Sullivan likes to pair it with a very hoppy, unfiltered German Pilsner from downtown’s Duggan’s brewery – a most dramatic choice as the fish oil seems to boost the bitter hopping even further.
Other starters are more elegantly presented. Here’s a fabulous, rich, home-made-tasting duck and onion broth poured from a jug into a bowl containing duck confit meat, soft onion and croutons topped with an Ontario gruyère foam. Or here’s a marrowbone split lengthways to act as a vessel for a mixture of tender tasty dungeness crab meat with fennel and tiny medallions of the bone marrow. Brodi finishes it under the broiler with a sprinkling of gratinéed cheese then tops it with fennel foam and a tissue-thin stencil of a fennel root crisp. Crab and fennel is always a delectable combination – this dish takes them to lobster thermidor country.
Mains play music for many masters. There are massive slabs of protein for those who need red meat or baked rock hen for poultry fanciers. Vegetarians have a treat in store with a dish of truffled ricotta ravioli smothered in wild mushrooms, fresh baby rocket and Jerusalem artichiokes in three different guises – as very soft roasted chunks, as little crisps scattered o’er, and as a foam (Brodi has an unapologetic affection for foams). A buttery mushroom sauce lies at the bottom but it’s the truffle oil in the ricotta that remains as the dish’s dominant aftertaste, its pungency masking the more subtle individual flavours of the mushrooms. This time, O’Sullivan’s match, a 2008 Fontodi Chianti Classico is spot on – one of the only wines we taste all night that isn’t from Niagara.
A fine, juicy fillet of West coast halibut arrives with a topknot of carrot foam like one of Kate Middleton’s hats. Wilted lettuce, petits pois and fingerlings lie beneath but anyone who orders this thinking it’s a lightweight option has been deceived. Diced smoked Berkshire bacon and an unctuous beurre blanc take it deep into the land of the rich and famous.
It’s been a while since I last saw “stew” on a menu but Brodi offers a good one, as down-home as anything in the city with exceptionally tender pieces of St. Canut piglet braised in a rich tomato-paprika gravy with fragrant little turnips, potatoes and baby white onions. Admirably light quark spätzle share the plate while dollops of sour cream and a separate cast-iron ramekin of sweet-tangy braised red cabbage adds the Magyar grace notes. Henry of Pelham Baco Noir Reserve is a suitably forthright, rustic match.
After that, cheese is obviously on the cards, but the choice of three is made for you, which seems a bit of a let-down after staring all evening at so many options. And while cellar temperature is ideal for long ageing of cheeses it’s a bit too chilly for service. Desserts are very well executed. I loved the Grand Marnier soufflé with its separate jugs of vanilla crème anglais to pour in and a little serving of creamy vanilla ice cream. Deep dark sticky toffee pudding tastes more like black treacle (much more interesting than pale caramel) and finds its identical twin in a dark, viscous, raisiny 2001 Sangervasio Recinaio Vin Santo. This is a lively, interesting restaurant and the decision to set it up as an independent kitchen within the hotel is a smart one. It’s going to do very well at lunchtime as Bay Street suits find their way across University Avenue, and the steak program will challenge The Shore Club when that glam protein house opens next door later this year. TOCA’s breakfast takes me right back to hotel power breakfasts of the ’80s. And dinner? As the new clutch of luxury hotels develops the deep downtown they will start to generate their own business, I suppose. They may even bring Toronto back to the idea of dining in a hotel. The rest of the world does so with alacrity. It’s time we put aside our foolish prejudice and joined the party.
TOCA (it stands for TOronto CAnada) by Tom Brodi is inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel, 181 Wellington Street (at Simcoe Street). 416 572 8070. www.tocarestaurant.com.