How do you surprise a new audience when you're one of the most imitated chefs on the planet? How do you live up to the hype and hope of a city that expects you to transform what it means to go out to eat?
At the counter around a small open kitchen in one of New York chef David Chang's three new Toronto outposts, a part of the answer to those questions fell into place over two extraordinary meals in the last month.
Just eight weeks into its life, Momofuku Shoto is already the best restaurant in the city. It is more inventive, more gleefully promiscuous with ideas and ingredients, more artfully conceived and many levels more technically masterful than anything else in the city. Nearly a decade after Toronto was last known as an international dining destination, Shoto quite suddenly puts us back on the map.
And in a town where the chefs Susur Lee, Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy, whose ground-breaking years seem long past, are still often cited as leading culinary figures, Shoto perfects a model that's been tried but never entirely successfully in Toronto: It's forward-looking, run by and for a new generation, with all of the skill and the hospitality, but a whole lot of hunger, too. It is the sort of place that changes a city's restaurant scene.
For what this is worth, eating there is also a hell of a lot of fun.
The restaurant is modeled on Momofuku Ko, Mr. Chang's tiny tasting-menu restaurant in Manhattan. (Mr. Chang runs 15 restaurants, bars and dessert spots, including Shoto, Daisho and Noodle Bar in Toronto. Watch for reviews of Daisho and Noodle Bar in next Saturday's paper.)
Shoto's kitchen is led by a lanky, 29-year-old Ko veteran named Mitchell Bates. He and his crew serve their dishes directly to guests, often while singing (badly) and shamble-dancing (also badly) to Elvis and college rock and eighties pop.
The menu (which, fair warning, changes often) begins with a quick succession of tiny, brain-scrambling tastes. There's a perfect cube of rice that's grilled to a toasty, starchy, smoky crunch on one side, with a trickle of molten pork fat. It tastes like the street snack a salaryman might eat after a night of drinking shochu. Next comes a buttery-crispy shrimp cake drizzled with coral-pink, crazy-concentrated lobster sauce, topped with a perfect sprig of watercress for juicy bite.
After that there's lamb belly and apple soup: a base of creamy, earthy celery root, cubes of seductively musky lamb, chive and apple and lovage for black-keyed balance. It's just a tease, an amuse in an espresso cup; the kitchen didn't even bother mentioning it on the menu.
Once that's done, the meal's just beginning. But by this point I was fully under the kitchen's spell.
I was transfixed, for instance, by the dish called "goose wonton," that Peter Jensen, a Dane who is the sous chef, introduced one night. It was a simple bowl by all appearances: three fat dumplings, scattered with strands of Brussels sprout and floating in a clear, brown stock. Yet it tasted as if it had been supercharged – the consommé dark, hyper-distilled, complex with deep-roasted goose and pepper; the dumplings down-light and resonant; the cabbage strands sweet and crunchy.
Another soup tasted so purely and magically of toasted sunflower seeds – a colossally underappreciated foodstuff, it suddenly dawned – that eating it felt like being at a ballgame as a wide-eyed kid, teasing open salted sunflower Spitz with your teeth.
There was foie gras in that soup too, and granola made with sunflower seeds. One of the other diners in the restaurant one night said she didn't want to eat it because it looked and smelled too good. (She caved.)
Right about now is when you might notice a manga-style drawing on the wall, of three dragons. Mr. Chang bought it in Chinatown. This place is not The French Laundry. The servers wear vintage Atari T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. (They are also better at their work, better trained, more hospitable, than 95 per cent of the servers in the city.) They're different here.
Shoto's spaghetti was an eddy of hot, freshly extruded noodles tossed with a deep-sea sauce made with nori and the sweetly saline pop-pop of lumpfish roe. On top there were crunchy tempura sardine croutons. It tasted incredible. It was Italian food, but via coastal Japan.
At this point at most restaurants on most tasting menus, the diners get restless. The young chef (it's always a young one) has used up his tricks, expended all of his knowledge.
At Shoto, you can't wait to get more. Have the monkfish then, with a sauce spiked with vadouvan, a Frenchified curry, and the sweetest, most carroty carrots imaginable (they're cooked sous-vide then roasted), and an intense, creamy carrot mousse made with yogurt. Have the veal cheek, too, coursing with runnels of juice and liquid fat, with a daub of stupid-delicious green chili and yuzu sauce.
And if you've got the room – you've got it, champ – don't neglect your desserts.
There was a banana thing both times I ate there: banana ice cream, banana cake, and a chocolatey porter from Bellwoods Brewery, amazing.
After a pause, one of the servers put a frosted coupe in front of me and filled it with orange juice, and then sparkling wine from Hinterland, in Prince Edward County. A mimosa.
The Hootenanny, as the last dessert was called, tasted like a cross between a pancake and a soufflé. It was fluffy and buttery and richly sweet and eggy. The maple orange ice cream it came with served as syrup of a sort, and the fennel seed and caraway on the plate tasted reminiscent of country sausage. The teaspoonful of sweet-bitter orange-peel puree that Mr. Bates (singing again, to The Bangles) spooned onto the plate cut it all, so that if you ate them in sequence you imagined that you'd never have to stop, that you could go on eating there forever.
Do other tasting menu restaurants make diners feel this way? A handful do, the destination places, almost always elsewhere. There's one in the city now, with any luck the first of many more.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
- Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
- Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.