- Origin North
- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto
- Sharing plates, $4 to $33
- Good cocktails, a short wine list and decent beers in bottle and on draft.
- Calm, cool, friendly and family-friendly, with raw wood beams that give the place a Japanese feel.
- Additional Info
- Best bets: Tuna hand roll, tomato salad, Bangkok beef salad, calamari, scallop ceviche, liquid nitro ice cream; NB: No reservations.
'Brace yourselves," the waiter says. "It's going to be all Macbeth-y for a second."
With that, he sets a silver Champagne bucket – "a cauldron," he calls it – in front of us, and a manager appears bearing a bottle of lemon-flavoured ice cream base, a wooden spoon and a pitcher filled with bubbling, fog-spitting liquid nitrogen, its temperature, -196 C.
Nearly seven years since the chef Claudio Aprile first introduced flash-frozen ice cream to Toronto diners, that signature tableside trick, which is a highlight of the menu at Mr. Aprile's enormous new Origin North at Bayview and Sheppard Ave., remains just as impressive as in its early days.
As the manager combines the lemon base and the nitrogen, a thick and frigid fog settles in around our table. Conversations end. Feet begin to shiver. Every head in the restaurant turns toward us. My seen-everything-done-everything tablemates go bug-eyed at the spectacle. "When shall we four meet again?" one of the more dramatic among them says.
Origin North is the third instalment in Mr. Aprile's growing chain of Origin restaurants. (The second opened last year in Liberty Village.) Launched to much acclaim three years ago on King Street East, the original Origin was intended as an infinitely reproducible blueprint. It was a brand as much as a restaurant, a more populist, more fun, more volume-oriented take on the modernist-inflected Asian and South European flavours that briefly made the chef's recently shuttered first restaurant, called Colborne Lane, one of the best restaurants the city had ever seen.
Origin North, which opened this past June in a purpose-built, two-story building beside the up-market Bayview Village shopping centre, brings the chef a new demographic as well as new challenges. It is a test of both his brand and his ability to manage three restaurants at once.
Where the mood at the King Street original, with its fiery open kitchen and tightly packed bar space, is loud, fun and frenetic, Origin North, which is decorated with raw Douglas-fir beams and set with oversized, wide-spaced tables, feels more suburban and conservative by comparison.
At 6,000 square feet, the new room is more than double the size of his original spot, with double the seating. (There is a second 6,000-square-foot dining space on Origin North's second level, which Mr. Aprile intends for a future project, he said.)
The service here is different also. Where downtown it is professional but can be brusque and unaccommodating, here it is friendly to the point of solicitousness. The servers tell you their names when you sit down.
The music is quieter and more accessible – U2 and Metric in place of Black Sabbath and Interpol. And Origin North intends to introduce a kid's menu next week, a notion that even today would seem unimaginable on King Street. You can't choose your customers when you need to fill this much space.
The menu, however, is much the same: a blend of pop international flavours with exotic techniques and ingredients. When the execution works, Origin North's ambitious culinary roots shine through.
The chef's tuna hand roll, a staple at the original Origin, is a case in point. It is both visually stunning and delicious, jammed with fat tuna hunks, tart apple matchsticks, valentine radish rounds that blush from linen-coloured to pink bubblegum, and crunchy puffed amaranth. The roll is served standing up, like an ice cream cone, in a custom-made wooden block, alongside miso-spiked kewpie mayo.
Late this summer, his kitchen built a dish of corn in nearly all its forms, from fresh and grilled, to popped and baked (as in corn nuts), and served it mixed with juicy grilled nectarine slices and Indian spices. It was not your typical corn dish.
An heirloom tomato salad took a similarly showy turn: Mr. Aprile's cooks arranged green, red and orange tomato slices over a pool of sheep's milk yogurt, with a powdered, frozen herb vinaigrette that slowly liquefied as it melted. Another dish, the carrot soup, came with a chili and lime "snow."
Other menu items riff on junk-food staples: the cocktail list's "Origin Crush," which tasted eerily similar to the orange-flavoured soft drink; soft-serve vanilla ice cream that would have been a dead-ringer for McDonald's soft serve, if only its texture were creamy and slightly petrolated, instead of grainy, like crystallized ice. (The texture was not right.)
Origin North's burger is excellent. Composed of a single, intensely beefy patty cooked to medium, with a touch of avocado and cumin and a squishy brioche bun, it's an up-market play on the simple, highly effective style that the California-based In-N-Out chain made famous. It costs $17, though – à la carte. That's more than double what a similar (and to my mind, superior) burger costs at The Burger's Priest.
Mr. Aprile's non-conformist streak extends to standards from around the globe – perhaps the best of them the sweet, meaty, sour and funky combination of rare flank steak slices, mango, glass noodles, nam jim dressing and peanut brittle in his superlative Bangkok beef salad.
Yet in too many cases, his kitchen's takes on Italian or Chinese or northern Thai aren't as good as the originals.
The sweet pea risotto came deluged with so much cream and mascarpone cheese that the rice – overcooked and glompy – could barely register; it was a warm bowl of high-fat dairy product with a handful of pea shoots for appearance's sake.
The crispy Chinese broccoli was an interesting idea: Whole stalks were battered and then fried and served with yuzu dressing. The florets at the ends of the stalks had soaked up too much batter, however. I had two orders. Both were saturated with wet, raw flour underneath their skins.
The "Chinois Duck," a sour cream-soaked play on Peking Duck served in a dry, flour-based taco that tastes eerily like Carr's Table Water crackers, also needs a serious re-think. There are dozens of better duck renditions in the city, not to mention taco ones.
After eating through most of the restaurant's menu, I would happily go back for roughly one third of it. That's enough to ensure a few return visits, but not to build a long-term success.
Running a restaurant empire with any creative ambition isn't easy. Yet if there's a single factor behind other successful restaurant companies — the Daniel Boulud and Momofuku chains come to mind, and closer to home, the Oliver & Bonacini and Mark McEwan ones — it's that with every new location, the companies install a strong chef de cuisine, name and promote that chef publicly so that diners know who is cooking their dinners, and count on them to take ownership: to strive and to create, to add to the company's DNA.
When I asked Mr. Aprile who his chef de cuisine at Origin North is, it took him nearly a minute to answer. There isn't one exactly, he said. There are two co-chefs right now, he is in the process of tweaking his company's structure with an eye to more expansion. When I asked who comes up with the restaurant's new dishes, Mr. Aprile did not hesitate. "Me," he said. "I am the creative force behind every dish."
That management style has far more in common with the chains that have laminated menus and trademarked dish names than the ones Mr. Aprile aspires to challenge. It doesn't make for motivated kitchens. It doesn't draw or retain the sort of talent that Mr. Aprile's dishes need.
That night we had the liquid nitro ice cream, it started well. But after a minute or so of mixing, the manager spooned the resulting product into a bowl in the middle of our table. It was obvious that it hadn't frozen enough. It slumped there, looking like day-old whipped cream. When I spoke later with Mr. Aprile, he pledged this wasn't going to happen again.
Still, that ice cream was disappointing. After all the drama it should have been anything but.
No stars: Not recommended
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
****Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution