The Gist: Perhaps Toronto’s finest ‘fine dining’ restaurant, Splendido had always fancied itself as a contemporary restaurant strongly focused on locally sourced seasonal produce but with the departure of patriarch David Lee to focus on Nota Bene and subsequent sale to Chef de Cuisine Victor Barry (and General Manager Carlo Catallo) in 2009 the restaurant had been met with mixed reviews – some claiming it to be inconsistent and overpriced while others suggested the creativity and quality was better than ever…and improving each day.
The Why: To be honest, the locals scared me away from Splendido on my previous visit to Toronto – with Barry less than 6 months at the helm many wondered whether the restaurant could live up to its previously high standards while others flatly suggested it had already begun to slip even before Chef Lee had departed. Generally one to make my own decisions I decided on that trip, in November of 2009, that a wait and see approach would be best and with reports that the restaurant had only gotten better over the subsequent two and a half years Splendido became my “must visit” restaurant of the first leg of this tour of Canada.
The Reservation: Opentable. 2 persons at 8:30pm, seemingly perfect timing as we’d be coming directly from Blackhoof via car and would need time to allocate parking.
The Space: With a small and relatively subdued exterior the best way I think one can describe Splendido is “dramatic” – a restaurant not only far larger than you would expect from outside, but also a space far more engaging with the narrow dining room stretching far to the back as banquets line the walls, long tables will the center, and the ceiling glows with suspended baubles of light. With wood and white, flowers and mirrors, plush chairs and white table cloths belying the “fine dining” nature of the room and patrons dressed business casual or better I particularly enjoyed the addition of a semi-open kitchen lining the back wall, partially hidden by canned vegetables in an array of colors and insulated so not a sound entered the dining area.
The Service: Service was effusive, pleasant, and knowledgeable – just as one would expect from a restaurant at this price point. What was not expected, however, was being greeted shortly after seating by Mr. Catallo and subsequently the dining room manager with the suggestion that Chef Barry would “like to cook for you,” an offer I found both thrilling and confusing at the time, but one we discovered later was based on the fact that Chef Barry subscribes to this blog. A bit full given our indulgence at Black Hoof but certainly not foolish enough to turn down such a generous offer I will simply note here that we were very well taken care of throughout the evening with frequent visits from Victor himself and that the menu we were served was not only significantly different from the night’s tasting, but also substantially longer despite being charged the standard tasting menu price at the end of the night.
The Food: Amuse, Take Home Gifts, 14 Courses inclusive of optional cheese course, Bread Service – $125 plus $3 surcharge for house purified water available in still or sparkling.
Chickpea Fritter with Preserved Lemon and Crème Fraiche / Cauliflower Puree, Lavender and Curry Foam Soup with Basil Oil: Served on nothing more than a split board with spaces hollowed out to hold the shot glasses of soup this was the nightly amuse arriving at each table and with the fritters similar to the chickpea fries dominating many menus today I particularly enjoyed the sweet meets sour aspect of the fry as a foil to savory notes of the airy potage at its side. Always a fan of an amuse that truly hits all parts of the palate I found this duo inspired not only in its contrasting flavor profile, but also in the crunchy versus creamy and hot versus cold juxtaposition as well.
Rye Sourdough, Rosemary Focaccia, Potato Bread with salted house butter: Served warm, replenished copiously, and each unique I particularly enjoyed the savory Focaccia’s pillowy texture as well as the potato bread’s substantial crust and airy crumb. Butter was creamy and slightly sweet, salted but certainly not “salty.”
Razor Clam Salad with Compressed Cucumber: Served elegantly in its shell along with Anaheim Chili Peppers, Shitake Mushrooms, and Chayote Squash the clam itself was slightly sweet with just a bit of chew and nicely complimented by its vegetal accoutrements but what truly made this dish for me was actually the modernist touch of Champagne Vinaigrette foam and a stripe of lemongrass puree with chili sesame dust adding a sometimes bitter and sometimes spicy overtone that melded each flavor brilliantly.
St. Lawrence River Uni with microbasil seeds, citrus sherry vinaigrette, confit grapefruit, grapefruit foam: Somewhat reminiscent of a dish I’d seen at Per Se only a few weeks earlier, this was the first of many courses presented by Chef Barry and having never realized that urchin could be sourced from the St. Lawrence I was surprised to find not one but two tongues of creamy uni topped with microbasil seeds resting in a light pool of citrus. Slightly less sweet than its California brethren yet far less briny than that from Japan I personally found the flavor of this urchin to be somewhat akin to a fresh scallop and with the intensity of the grapefruit nicely cut by the savory basil and its seeds this was another refreshing dish that both of us thoroughly enjoyed.
Hawaiian Blue Fin Fatty Tuna Belly marinated in ginger and soy: The simplest presentation of the night, served in two large slices on a slate, this dish was described as Blue Fin Oh-Toro and with the sashimi tender and smooth with just a touch of soy this was a definitely a case where less was more – the ingredient quality on proud display.
Smoked Rocky Point Oyster poached in butter with chive, potato foam, crunchy potato chips: Never having been keen on oysters (and all the more so after the events of 12/30/11) in the first place I must say I approached this dish with trepidation largely based on the size of the oyster – without a doubt the largest I’ve ever eaten – but with the bivalve first smoked on the in-house smoker and then thoroughly poached in creamy butter I have to say this specimen was quite good and not nearly as briny as anticipated, likely an effect of the smoky notes and the Robuchon-esque pommes puree.
Ontario Rainbow Trout with Caramelized Cucumber, Caraway, Creme Fraiche, Dill Pickle: Continuing the theme of lightly prepared fish and shellfish with heavy emphasis on local sourcing this dish featured at its core a raw slice of rainbow trout, lean and flavorful with just a touch of dill oil and chives atop tangy buttermilk creme fraiche – tasty on its own but with trout clearly not as inspiring as Oh-Toro and thus gussied up appropriately with a half-moon of charred cucumber ribbons, pumpernickel croutons, maple syrup imbued salmon roe, cornichon relish, and a caraway seed crisp. Light and refreshing and complicated without being fussy this was probably the ‘weakest’ course of the night and as such a rather strong statement about the quality of what preceded and especially what would follow.
Victor’s Foie Gras Parfait with Lennox Farms Rhubarb Confit, Black Truffle Coulis, Walnut Crumble: Course six was the first item we would receive from the nightly menu/tasting and whether it was because I specifically requested it when the chef originally offered to cook for us (“only if he includes the foie gras”) I really cannot be sure, but served in a sized down portion these ethereal cubes of whipped liver topped with vanilla and rhubarb gels were outstanding. Creamy and robust with the foie itself sourced from Quebec’s Rougie and nicely complimented by each ingredient on the plate I particularly loved the manner in which the foie acted as a vehicle to the aromatics of both the vanilla and the truffle while I saved the small baton of brioche for mopping up the rhubarb and walnuts – a delectable nut butter and jelly chaser.
Alaskan King Crab Chawanmushi, Pork Belly, Pickled Kombu, Dashi: The midway point of the meal would see my favorite course of the evening literally “swimming” in umami. Described as steamed king crab and grilled pork belly atop egg custard in a rich stock of bonito and kombu this inspired dish was as sweet as it was savory and as “comfort” as it was complex. Additionally benefitted by a tableside show where our server poured hot water in a serving bowl studded with river stones, sea shells, seaweed, coriander, and ginger root to release the essence of the sea this was perhaps as ‘perfect’ a composition as I’ve had in 2012.
Cumbrae Farms Hen Egg with Cockscomb, Gizzard, Ramps, Tigerlilly Stems: ‘Hot’ on the heels, literally, of the chawanmushi was one of Chef Barry’s signature dishes and although the preparation changes from season to season, the basic ‘do it yourself’ concept remains as each diner is presented with a scalding hot skillet, a block of butter, and a farm fresh egg plus seasonal ingredients with which to form his or her own omelet. Rich with butter plus the confit offal and rife with pungent notes of ramp and ramp oil there was nothing subtle about this dish and, well, I was quite alright with that as I sopped up every drop with a slice of potato bread.
Gaspesie Whelk and George’s Bank Sea Scallop with Parsley Puree, Confit Garlic, Fingerling Potato, King Oyster Mushroom: Having mentioned to another friend that I found Daniel Humm’s use of blacks and deep greens both bold and beautiful at Eleven Madison Park only a few weeks prior I was pleasantly surprised when Chef Barry presented this dish to us with an ample discussion of the sourcing, sustainability, and fishing of the whelks. Generally thought to be a tough ‘throw away’ item but in this case slow poached to a texture and flavor not dissimilar from burgundy escargot I particularly enjoyed the manner in which the briny gastropods were balanced by a caramelized scallop, gold and violet potatoes, plus herbal notes of garlic, parsley, black olive, and squid ink all present but not overwhelming.
Roasted Garlic and Parsley Agnolotti with Rapini, Charred Shishito Peppers, Almonds: With my companion at this point getting quite full I think she was quite happy to see the ‘pasta’ course relegated to a single spoonful and while the portion may have indeed been small the flavor was anything but as the thin noodle burst on mastication with a rush of heat and aromatics later giving way to the smooth and grassy finish of olive oil.
Cumbrae Farms Free Range Guinea Hen, BC Spot Prawn, Edamame Puree, Nori Vinaigrette: Temporarily reassured by the agnolotti that she would be able to finish the meal our final savory, course eleven, arrived in a substantially larger portion than the aforementioned pasta and much to my delight it featured one of my favorite proteins in two forms – a sous vide breast and a confit of leg along with another duo, that of a fresh BC spot prawn and spot prawn mousse along with briny nori and shellfish emulsion, corn ‘powder,’ and both whole and pureed edamame. Tender and moist, pure and fresh, a ‘surf n’ turf’ in both the proteins and the vegetation – yet another sophisticated course from a kitchen firing on all cylinders.
Cheese: With the crowd beginning to thin as the hour passed 10:30 and even myself beginning to feel a bit full it was not long following the Guinea Hen that our server returned with the nightly cheese board – a hulking wooden tray featuring seven selections and from which we opted for three – a trio which would be cut in substantial portions and served on an even more substantial slab of wood. Described at length with ample notes from our server I was a touch disappointed that only one Canadian option was offered, but with the Quebec based 1608 unpasteurized cows cheese perfectly aged and fragrant I got over my disappointment quickly and was additionally impressed by the intensely creamy Chateau de Bourgogne Triple Cream from Burgundy and last but not least a round of flavorful and rich Manchego custom made for Splendido to be shaved via Girolle. Eaten slowly as my friend was of little help and presented with Caraway Crostini, Onion Sultana Jam, and local Wildflower Honey I’ll just say this was a lot of cheese, but there was no way I was letting any of it go to waste.
Newfoundland Cloudberry Sorbet with Greek Yogurt, Roasted White Chocolate, Crisp Meringue: The evening’s palate cleanser would prove quite intriguing as I don’t believe either of us had ever tasted cloudberry before and with the sorbet’s mild floral tones nicely balanced by the tang of the yogurt and toasted ‘dust’ of white chocolate I have to say this was much more impressive than I’d have expected while also providing a nice transition from savory to sweet.
Maple Syrup Smoked Ice Cream, Shortbread, Almond, Cotton Candy: Described by Barry as a dish inspired by a meal at Alinea our final course of the evening would arrive in a large bowl and while I cannot say the presentation was up to par with what is coming out of Achatz’s kitchen, the flavors and the textures were certainly close. Beginning first with a rich brown butter gateaux and subsequently adding layers of taste and texture including the profoundly smoky yet sweet ice cream, maldon sea salt, toasted almonds, maple cream, crumbled short bread cookies, and finally maple cotton candy compressed into a meringue this sundae was all the flavors I associate with breakfast dressed up and served at dinner – a concept I’d recently seen at both Publican and Per Se and would love to see more of in the future.
Take home Shortbreads: With Heather at this point seemingly ready to be rolled out the door in a state of culinary coma (despite really having only eaten 2-3 bites of food since the guinea hen) Chef Barry would stop by one last time to thank us for coming in and to present us with a package of shortbreads along with the bill. Dense and buttery I’ll admit I only tasted one of the shortbreads while sharing the rest with my mother and aunt back at the hotel, but having just eaten three blocks of cheese and the better part of two sundaes on top of the rest of the days’ dining I’m quite alright with that.
The Verdict: Even in the finest of fine dining establishments it is rare that a meal with ten or more courses consistently wows, changes pace, and merges modernist technique with locavore sensibility without missing a beat, but on March 30th of 2012 Chef Victor Barry and his team did exactly that at Splendido. Shortly after the meal Heather would call it “the most incredible eating experience of my life” and while I’ve been fortunate enough to dine at a handful of restaurants that turned out equal or better experiences I can honestly say that I walked out of Splendido that evening as happy as I’ve been with a restaurant experience in a very long time. Yes I admit I am gushing and yes I admit we were apparently “known” to the house but I was certainly not privy to this knowledge walking in the door and while I cannot guarantee that anyone’s experience will be quite like ours I can say without hesitation that this is a world class kitchen turning out world class food. Chef Barry, if you are reading, Thank You – I’ll be back soon.