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Pan roasted mushrooms, aligot potatoes – and deer lichen.

Instagram

0 out of 4 stars

Name
Loka
Location
620 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
416-995-9639
Website
lokatoronto.com
Price
Small plates $10 to $23, or two people can eat the whole menu for $100.
Cuisine
Canadiana
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Drinks
A short list of reasonably priced wines and beers.
Atmosphere
A welcoming room at Queen and Bathurst, with bare-bones décor, classic rock on the sound system and well-meaning servers who love to overexplain.
Recommendations
The chowder, the pouding chômeur. Menu changes frequently.
Additional Info
Vegan-friendly options available.

When the chef Dave Mottershall posted an image of a beet and carrot salad on Instagram last month, the adulation was immediate. "Stunning," one of his followers wrote. "Stupendo," said another. "Sex on a plate," yet another admirer chimed in. Fully 488 people double-tapped that picture to register a "like," which is no small figure, even in a medium that trades on empty praise. The chef, who worked for six years at Alberta's Banff Springs Hotel and another seven in well-regarded kitchens around Prince Edward Island, is an expert at high-impact plating and food photography – at the artful interplay of colour, shadows, white space and trendy, hand-thrown plates. "Genius," his followers call him, as well as "Jedi master." Last week, a picture of some 'nduja sausage Mr. Mottershall was making garnered 560 likes and the indelible plaudit, "I don't know what that is but I want it in my mouth."

In the great online popularity sweepstakes that is Instagram, the chef is the Toronto restaurant industry's grand prize-home winner. With 45,000 followers, he is outplayed only by Matty Matheson, the celebrity chef and Vice TV star (Mr. Matheson has 85,000 followers), and Chef Jacques LaMerde (127,000 followers), a parody account. Yet far more than those two, Mr. Mottershall has converted his online audience into something tangible. Last summer, when Loka was still a pop-up in a borrowed kitchen in a sticky, east-side booze pit, he parlayed his Instagram fame into a Kickstarter campaign to build his very own bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

Loka's forever home opened in November near Queen and Bathurst, and aims to be "an exploration of Canadian cuisine." It was financed in part with $41,000 in crowd-funded money, with thanks to hundreds of click-happy diners who in many cases knew Mr. Mottershall's cooking only from the Internet.

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I've eaten the chef's cooking three times now, twice at the new spot and once at the pop-up. It is complex, ambitious, extremely hard-working and always drop-dead pretty. It is also barely edible in too many instances – and by this I don't mean it's too beautiful to eat.

Mr. Mottershall commits all the classic my-first-restaurant mistakes – the attention-deficit flavour combinations, the showoffy techniques applied for technique's sake, the palate-exhausting overreliance on pork products – but they're compounded by another, distinctly of-the-moment reality. He is famous above all else for making food that photographs well. How it all tastes doesn't seem to come often enough into play.

I have no idea what Mr. Mottershall was thinking, for instance, when he decided to poach East Coast whelks in rosemary-infused whey, and then to serve them with beef bresaola, cured egg yolk and burnt crumbs of bread, except that it sounds really cool and looks as pretty as a sunset on a wind-swept beach. Thanks to too much of that rosemary, as well as overcooking, those precious whelks tasted a lot like gas-station air freshener the first time I had them, with the texture of salt-soaked mattress pad.

Another dish soon arrived, of mashed potatoes with cheese, topped with pickled and pan-roasted mushrooms. Those headline ingredients were perfectly executed, but on top of them, Mr. Mottershall had placed deep-fried tufts of deer lichen from New Brunswick. Fact: Deep-fried New Brunswick deer lichen tastes a lot like shelf-aged hairball. But was it ever a sight to behold. Mr. Mottershall's deer lichen post got 606 likes on Instagram. "Wauw," one follower wrote.

Yet even the worst of Loka Snacks' fish and vegetable dishes – those whelks, that lichen – can come as sweet relief against his menus' lardcore foundations. The focus here, beyond vastly overcomplicating many of the most rustic and white-bread clichés of Canadian cuisine, is on the veneration of pork fat and organ meats. There's even a cartoon pig on the restaurant's sign.

Mr. Mottershall has converted a glass-fronted, double-door deli fridge into a charcuterie curing chamber, which he keeps on display on the dining room floor, stocked with all manner of creation. But the finer details of charcuterie-making– balance, seasoning, texture, deliciousness – get lost on the way to the slicer.

Mr. Mottershall is above all else an unrepentant maximalist; if a little bit of something is good, far too much of it surely must be better. Most of the charcuterie I tried wasn't predominantly pink or red, from meat, but greasy white from a levee breach of pork fat. "It's super-super simple and it's extremely high fat content as you can see," our server told us one evening as he brought out a salumi platter. It was too fatty, too slick, too mouth-coating; the experience was like eating from a drippings bucket. You could barely distinguish one sausage from another, because so little but the fat came through.

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Worse still was the concoction that Loka's staff call "pig butter." Pig butter is made from the unused ends of all of Loka's salumi, which Mr. Mottershall purees, along with garlic, rosemary and the cured pig fat product called lardo, into a conveniently spreadable bog of sloppy salumi seconds. It's the most undelicious thing I've eaten in several years.

The chef's lonza, by contrast, was an excellent example of charcuterie made well. Lonza is basic, dry-cured pork loin; unlike a salami, it is far less easily subjected to creative flourishes, so it is far harder for a creative but misguided chef to screw up.

You might also be tempted by Loka's sausage ragout plate. It's pork sausage on pork sauce with a crispy pig's ear garnish. On its own, alongside a nice salad and a hunk of good bread, that sausage ragout would make a perfectly decent dinner – every individual part of it was nicely made.

But if your restaurant's a la carte menu effectively doubles as a tasting menu – at Loka, many tables opt to eat the whole menu for $100, with charcuterie as an optional add-on – you've got to build in at least a little balance. On the back of those Pine-Sol whelks, the deer lichen disaster, the pickled char dish that tastes a lot like rollmops (it was good, if heavy, sauced with a thickly creamy remoulade), the pig butter, that "extremely high fat content" charcuterie, and the pig head croquette that oozed liquid fat, that sausage ragout had me craving an intravenous Gravol and Imodium drip.

Yet the greatest tragedy of Loka Snacks is how hard Mr. Mottershall is clearly working. He butchers whole animals, makes his own charcuterie, tries to run a zero-waste kitchen, and very clearly cares deeply about his craft. I can't detect a single cynical thread in any of his work. And in the rare occasions that he cooks with a bit of restraint, he shows glimmers of being a very good chef.

The best thing I ate at Loka, by far, wasn't the "tasting of farm vegetables," with its leeks, ramps and onions cooked a gajillion different ways (it was fine but forgettable), or the overwrought amuse one night of beet chips, beet powder, beet syrup, beet trim dressing, golden beet, chioggia beet and house-made cheese (this was also fine, but far more interesting in theory than on a fork). It certainly wasn't the slap-dash "heritage chicken egg" and duck prosciutto dish, either, which was overwhelmed by pungent Dragon's Breath cheese.

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The best thing there was the chowder made with cream, potatoes, vegetables and mussels, seasoned simply with pepper and salt. It didn't look like much but it tasted absolutely perfect. Later on, when I found Mr. Mottershall's Instagram rendition I sighed a little at how pretty it looked, and had to remind myself that at least this once it tasted just as good.

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