It's summertime, but I think Toronto becs fins ought to wear more wool. Much more. Maybe we might also want to accessorize that with a bell or two. Worn tastefully around the neck. And now let's practice our bleating. One, two, three, let's hear it: "Bah, Bah." Because that's what we are: Sheep. Frankly, my dears, I'm appalled.
And a titch embarrassed as well. How could I have followed (led?) the herd so mindlessly? When Toronto gourmands talk top restaurants, never is the name Oro mentioned. It could be a matter of location. How unchic is Elm Street a block west of Yonge? Let me count the ways.
In keeping with the location, Oro is busy weeknights (central downtown business crowd after work) and quiet on weekends (when the serious diners eat out). It's funny. Big-name chefs go to Oro and suddenly become no-names. They leave Oro and are in the eyes of the public instantly reborn. Witness Chris Klugman, who disappeared from public view when he left Bistro 990 and resurfaced at Oro at the end of 1996. Klugman left Oro in late '97, resurfaced at Rosewater Supper Club and suddenly ink flowed for him again, in veritable rivers. (One marvels incessantly at the apparently inverse relationship between amount of media coverage and food quality at Rosewater. Are Toronto diners really so naive that we're fooled by a pretty face?)
Meanwhile, back at Oro, Klugman was replaced by Oscar Turchi who came from Borgo Antico on Yorkville (where folks paid attention to him). At Oro, guess what? He suddenly became unknown. Yorkville to Elm Street: Is this the old saw -- location, location location?
Dario Tomaselli (another Oro no-name) worked under Turchi and then took over the stoves when Turchi left Oro a few months ago to cook in St. Catharines. Funny thing, this guy Tomaselli can cook circles around nine out of 10 Toronto chefs. And nobody knows it.
One evening we start with braised rabbit and apple ravioli. Inside is a fine flavored purée, and outside is a bright-green, ultra-fresh asparagus sauce. In the middle of the plate is a pile of white and green asparagus topped with shavings of fresh white truffle for fragrance. Perfectly grilled lobster sits beside splendidly sweet crab cake, atop slightly spicy yellow tomato gazpacho, high-flavored and just chunky enough for interest. Atop the sea treasures is a tangle of baby-beet and pea sprouts and fresh chervil. Hello, summer!
Roasted vegetable tian is a glamorous tall layer cake of sweetly roasted root vegetables topped with corn sprouts and chives. Grilled sardines on a slightly citric parsley sauce hide under fresh lemon thyme linguine spiced with chunks of strong olives and freshly oven-dried tomatoes. This is hearty peasant food gone luxe.
Chef Tomaselli's breadth and range are as astonishing as his skill. From Italian hearty to Eastern refined, he does it all: Six malpeque oysters parade on the diagonal across a huge square plate, with shredded cucumber delicately spiked with black sesame seeds and wasabi-scented caviar and a Thumbelina portion of ginger-lime-wasabi sorbet.
This guy climbed the mountain because it was there. Every plate has a different décor, its own garnish. Achiote-rubbed seared tuna is two fat triangles of barely seared flesh, with miniature tamales (corn-husk packets) of blue corn and sweet potato, barely-there anise-and-lime sauce and a bouquet on top (chive flowers, dill weed and bay-beet sprouts tied up with corn husk ribbon). Under a tall white hunk of sexy tea-smoked sea bass he puts a pillow of fragrant chorizo-flavoured potato hash with lighter-than-air carrot sauce and puddles of hoisin lemony oil. Does this guy dream food? Hallucinate new combos?
How else to dare a millennium version of surf 'n' turf? And ace it: Superbly crisp sweetbreads with a soft heart are married to big, fat scallops, atop a gossamer emulsion of brown butter and vinegar, with sides of garlicky purée of roasted eggplant and house-made kim chi (fiery Korean pickled cabbage). A couple of more cultures meet happily in thick Ontario lamb chops rubbed with Moroccan spices, served with big-grained Israeli couscous and delicate sauce based on harissa (Middle Eastern chili sauce), cooled with creamy mint raita (yogurt sauce). Even cornish hen, scourge of less-than-perfectionist cooks, arrives perfectly cooked, moist, under its benediction of almost-caramelized pear "jam." On top is another bouquet from the chef, baby-pea, corn and beet sprouts tied in corn-sprout ribbons. Oh, Toronto, how could you ignore this artiste?
Oro, 45 Elm St., 416-597-0155. Accessible to people in wheelchairs. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $125.