The shooters were poured. Calvados.
The marrow bones were freshly roasted, jiggling and fatty on their insides, sawn along their lengths into half-pipes. And there amid the linens and purse stools and fine-dining finery of Splendido, were eight young, business-suited revellers, tucking starched cloth napkins into their shirt collars as insurance against what lay ahead.
IPhones flashed as the shooters were shot, as the liquor and molten marrow fat sluiced down the bones into grinning, open mouths. Hoots and high-fives followed, par for the course with bone luging.
Two decades old now, Splendido keeps up with the times.
In the four years that chef Victor Barry and Carlo Catallo have owned the restaurant, the partners have strived to keep Splendido relevant. They did away with the rolling Champagne cart, lowered the food prices, and built a thriving craft cocktails scene at the bar up front, where well-dressed young men and beautiful women wearing chunky gold watches while away the carefree pre-dinner hours.
This spring, the restaurant began serving Sunday brunch for the first time. Nothing says "reaching out to a new audience" like brunch. The room was packed when I tried it; for what must have been one of the first times in the restaurant's history, you could hear squealing young children over the usual dining room din.
Rather than fight change and risk disappearing, Splendido has embraced it – the room is a high-profile test case for the future of fancy restaurants in Toronto. This felt like a good time to check in.
The good news: Mr. Catallo has maintained Splendido's city-leading service standard. It's still fancy enough to appeal to big-spending baby boomers and the business diners who fill the downstairs private dining room. It's also fun enough now to appeal to the all-important bone-luge crowd.
And a few of Mr. Barry's creations are unassailably outstanding, like the starter earlier this month called "A Perfect Egg." It was served in a rocks glass, green on the bottom with parsley sauce, and then that egg, soft-poached, supernally rich, with crisp, gently salty duck prosciutto enveloping it. Mr. Barry buried it all in wild porcini mushrooms that had been seared to sweet and caramelized. Egg, ham, parsley, mushrooms – everyday ingredients transformed into something you wanted to never end.
I loved the house-cured and -smoked salmon, thanks in particular to the bitter-salty preserved lemon puree it came with.
Mr. Barry's spinach and cheese agnolotti thrum with the delicious tension between richness and acidity – with chemistry, as a movie producer might call it.
His best dish, a plump, smoked and butter-poached oyster, arrives under a ceramic dome filled with – spoiler alert! – a plume of cherry wood smoke; it's one of the greatest campfire experiences I've had.
The brunch is perhaps the city's most decadent. For $35, you get a spread of warm, flaky house croissants, excellent jams, paté, silky ham and Manchego cheese. That's followed by a choice of suitably fabulous main courses, like a pork-belly croque madame, or brioche French toast topped with Bananas Foster. (The available add-ons include a $190 caviar setup, and a $185 "tasting of the sea.")
Yet over three visits in the last month I couldn't shake a less positive reality: Apart from the standout dishes, a lot of the food here is boring. This is hardly a plus when the new audience Splendido wants can choose from a surfeit of city places with exciting, big-flavoured and far less pricey cooking. It's too easy to eat an expensive dinner at Splendido with very few wows.
When we couldn't decide what to order one night, our server suggested a tasting menu. It opened with beautifully plated but otherwise ordinary amberjack sashimi, then venison tartare that wasn't seasoned enough to make an impression. That led to a pork belly and watercress salad (good, but unmemorable), to two massive bowls of Asian-style smoked pork shoulder soup (as the centrepiece of a smaller meal, it might have been fantastic), to those excellent agnolotti, to confit lamb sauced with Indian-style raita.
That lamb tasted fantastic on first and second bites, but deathly by the seventh. After fish, venison, pork, more pork and pasta, I would have given anything for lightness, deftness, for a few courses of crispness that came from fresh vegetables instead of from heat applied to animal fat.
Another, lighter dinner left a similar impression. As I left it felt as though I'd been on an around-the-world vacation – and with the nicest people! – but I couldn't remember much about where I'd been. A place with at least one foot in fine dining, with a kitchen that's massively ambitious, should serve memorable, inspiring, out-of-the-ordinary food, shouldn't it? The kitchen should understand how to pace a tasting menu, the way a great DJ paces a playlist. When you're paying $100 per person for dinner (and that's if you chintz it with the supremely pricey wine list), why shouldn't you expect a night of wow?
That $185, brunch-time "Tasting of the Sea," an appetizer for four to six people, the menu told us, unfolded a lot like the tasting a few nights earlier – it was much too much food for four people. (I've never seen so much seafood on one table.) The mussels soon tasted like the oysters, which tasted a lot like the scallops, which tasted like the clams. By the time the lobster and crab arrived (they were terrific, cooked perfectly, seasoned beautifully), we were far too full to enjoy them. We didn't order main courses – we couldn't. What was supposed to be spectacular felt a lot too much like work.
That brunch for four, with the sommelier's solution to my request for "something cheap and cheerful" (she brought two half bottles worth $90) cost $460 with tax and tip. It wasn't worth it.
One night, when the room was packed and bottles of old Barolo flowed and Mr. Catallo worked the tables of regular customers, Splendido felt like one of the most welcoming and genuine restaurants in the city. A smart room and pitch-perfect service can do that, and to be fair, so can Mr. Barry's cooking if you order well.
After dinner, the cheque arrived with a tray of lychee marshmallows. They tasted a lot like marshmallows. There were also macarons on the tray: very good, but they didn't have the intensity or the sweet-acid tension that would make them great.
The dark chocolates filled with blood orange were extraordinary, however. With them came a flash of recognition, for what cooking tastes like when it's better than merely very good.