The first time I encountered the chef Francisco Alejandri he was cooking at a stall called Agave y Aguacate, in a grotty Latin American food court in Kensington Market. Mr. Alejandri had arranged two induction burners, a toaster, a mortar and pestle and a food processor on a spotless little table, with a mini fridge underneath it; he kept an open-topped deep fryer front and centre where the lineups always formed, exactly where you’d expect a cash register to go.
This was the spring of 2011. Mr. Alejandri worked in a white Panama hat. He moved in slow motion, meticulously drizzling arbequina olive oil in perfect grids over squares of lime charlotte, painstakingly tossing fried tortilla and flank steak salads as if with one false move – red wire! No, blue wire! – the whole enterprise might blow.
“I taste things over and over and over again and if I’m not happy I won’t serve it,” he told me recently. Friends of mine took to calling the little stall “Forever Taco,” for how slowly the food came out. (It didn’t serve tacos.)
We never stopped going, though. Mr. Alejandri, who had spent years as a line cook after moving here from central Mexico, served the foods of his childhood, prepared with French-style precision and skill. In place of the burritos, nachos, churros and tacos that you find at most Toronto Mexican spots, he did chile-sauced meatballs from his hometown in Guanajuato state, and crisp, sloppy tostadas piled with stewed chicken and beans.
A year after it opened, Mr. Alejandri abandoned the stall. His standards were too high, he now admits.
Early this year, he opened a real restaurant: a cheery, two-story standalone in Baldwin Village. Partnered with an investor and furniture designer named Keyvan Foroughi, he now has a real stove, a real kitchen, a crew of real cooks behind him. He still doesn’t serve tacos. It’s as though he has never stopped, as most chefs do, to wonder what the public wants. For that, I thank him. You can’t want what you don’t yet know.
I would never think to want a poblano chile relleno (a whole stuffed, roasted chile), for instance – not one that’s stuffed with cape gooseberry and pineapple-spiked guacamole. On top of it there are pickled red onion and carrot slices, queso fresco, a thin sauce that tastes like summer tomatoes. The flavours soar up above the slow-burning heat from the chile and the richness of the avocado and wheel there as if on an updraft, a face-awakening whoosh of hot, sweet, tart and sour. And then a whisper from the cape gooseberries, fresh and astringent like tomatillos (they’re from the same genus), but fruity too.
I wouldn’t know to want Mr. Alejandri’s tostada de tinga, either. It’s a shirt-stainer of a dish: black beans, pulled chicken, chorizo sausage, avocado, pickled onions, thick chipotle pepper sauce and a blob of crema, all mounded high on a fried tortilla round. These are huge flavours, with no-holds-barred heat and depth, acidity and texture – ravishing.
And I wouldn’t know to want Mr. Alejandri’s pollo en pipian rojo. Pipian sauces are made from ground pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and other nuts. I’ve never seen a pipian sauce here.
The chef uses his pipian rojo – it’s coloured red, rojo, from ancho chiles – to coat pieces of poached fryer chicken. The dish didn’t have a lot of flavour, apart from the flavours of poached chicken, ground sesame seeds and smoky red chiles. The cost of learning that was just $11. I’m glad I did.
The chef’s stewed pinto beans are flavoured with beautifully fatty strips of pork rind, as well as serrano peppers and garlic. His bean and tortilla soup is excellent.
A few of his dishes were less successful. Mr. Alejandri seasons his ceviche with coriander, mint and tart wedges of tomatillo. It had good flavour, but the fish was tougher than it should have been.
And though I love that Mr. Alejandri uses Fanta soda to season his coctel de camarones, the shrimp are commodity tiger prawns; the chef then piles on half a dozen big-flavoured fixings. You’d struggle to remember you ate it 10 minutes later.
Yet nothing from the kitchen clangs like Agave y Aguacate’s two dining rooms can. Depending where you’re seated, the design of the place can be a little slice of hell.
The first time I visited, having reserved a week earlier, my dinner mate and I were seated at a long bench along a wall in the downstairs bar. There was a small table over the bench between us, but you couldn’t face it or put your legs underneath it, because, well, the bench.
“Do you guys have a table?” I asked our server.
“This is all we have at the moment,” she answered. “It’s kind of a loungey, tapas-y style,” she said.
“I’m not feeling it,” I responded. “I’m just feeling that my back is all twisted.”
Her answer: “The method that I find is most comfortable is to get your bum right up against the wall and do the side tilt.”
Try doing the 90 degree side tilt for two hours and a dozen dishes (Mr. Alejandri’s food can still take forever). My friend and I were hobbling by the time we left.
Upstairs is not much better. It depends where you’re seated. If you’re seated next to the garbage can and the waiter station at the narrow entrance to the room where everybody going in and out bumps directly past you, just try and have a nice evening.
And that upstairs space is a case study of the perils in ignoring basic acoustic realities. Every surface is hard and reflective. Now add a pair of loud but tinny speakers piping in Rick Astley, and a crowd of excited diners. I’ve heard others praise the room for not being noisy. I had the opposite experience. I never felt better here than once I’d left.
The desserts provide some consolation, particularly that lime charlotte, which you should not miss, and the spell-casting Mexican spiced hot chocolate that’s thickened with ground almonds, barley and hazelnuts.
In the next few months, Mr. Alejandri intends to build out his menu with more of the sort of dishes that Toronto doesn’t yet know it wants. He plans to make the pato en mole verde – duck in green mole sauce – that he’s been dying to get to, he said, as well as the braised and pickled pig’s trotters that he used to eat in his town’s square as a child, that come with pickled peppers and vegetables and warm tostadas and piles and piles of napkins.
I would line up for dishes like that. I suspect a lot of people would.
Given a few fixes to the room, I bet they’d even line up more than once.