In Toronto, we have a long-standing tradition of putting ourselves down, of believing we are not quite ready for prime time … not as cosmopolitan as London or as foodie as New York or as chic as Paris. But Ossington is here to give the lie to that. How marvellously New World that a strip that only a decade ago was dominated by down-market karaoke bars and cheap tile stores is now the hottest restaurant row in town - testimony to Toronto's having arrived as a great restaurant city.
Why? Because when a city has restaurant rows, it has, in foodie terms, matured. Even if not every resto on the Ossington block is delicious, the mere presence of a dozen bistros on the stretch builds buzz, gives diners choice and puts pedestrians on the street at night - all of which are good things. So there, Joe Pants.
Councillor Pantalone was excoriated enough for spearheading the 2009 Ossington liquor licence moratorium. Thankfully, it's over in time for party season, and it's particularly lucky that Albino Silva, who also owns Chiado, had the fortitude (and the money) to hang on to Salt Wine Bar after it was shut down in September for illegally serving alcohol. (Salt re-opened in November when the moratorium was lifted.)
Salt may not be serving fabulous food, but they retail charm, good wine and competent tapas. The menu merits cherry-picking: Skip the Portuguese sardines. It's a shocking revelation, given owner Albino Silva's track record with seafood (at Chiado), but the sardines at Salt are overcooked and their smoked-tomato jam schmecks of plain winter tomatoes. Also avoid the fried calamari, whose breading is not crisp enough and fails to disguise less-than-stellar squid. Given Chiado's seafood focus, the banality of the shrimps sautéed with chili and garlic butter is surprising. Duck-confit ravioli are similarly mediocre, thanks to an overabundance of plain shredded duck inside them, and not enough excitement in the sauce.
None of this is bad food. It simply lacks zing. Competent is not enough. As in the oyster mushrooms with not quite enough parsley and garlic for excitement. And the perfectly credible salad of arugula with pear, blue cheese and pecans. Good? Yes. Great? Not until they 1) jazz up the dressing, 2) toast the pecans and 3) warm the blue cheese to room temperature. Until they do that, Salt is just another Ossington boîte. Albeit a particularly pretty one, thanks to its charming mimicry of a wine cellar, with tall wooden shelves on a brick wall, chockablock with wine bottles, olive oil and preserves in Mason jars. Light glints from many small crystal chandeliers and the flicker of candles.
Since salt is what's used to cure meat, it's a good moniker for the restaurant. Meat - cured and fresh - is Salt's long suit. They crisp pork belly, they serve up charcuterie on the standard wooden board, most notably thin shaved super sweet jamon serrano. They boil beef into the best consommé in town, strong flavoured and sweet, served in a red mini Le Creuset casserole, with house-made crispy cornbread crostini atop lightly pickled carrot, beet and cucumber.
Their wagyu short ribs are melt-in-the-mouth, the ultimate winter comfort food; dropping the sugar from their otherwise credible sauce would make the dish perfect. Wagyu beef also appears raw, as if to mimic sweet butter, with small shavings of Manchego for contrast. Manchego, the aged sheep cheese of Spain, kissin' cousin to Parmigiano-Reggiano, is one of the great cheeses of the world. To partner it with raw wagyu beef is like putting Reggiano with prosciutto - heaven-sent.
There is a fashion afoot to add bacon to sweet things; Salt's apple-bacon churros are Timbits with attitude. Dip them in buttery house-made caramel sauce, and know sin. Same spiritual experience - transcendence by burnt sugar -arrives in the form of brown-butter crème brulée, wherein a tired cliché gets new legs thanks to the creative addition of brown butter and toasted pecans.
Both desserts prove that Salt's kitchen has the moves and the magic. Now all they have to do is commit to letting nothing leave the kitchen unless it's as entertaining as that crème brulée.
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