Among the gastronomic highlights of the past year in Toronto, we choose a hotel dining room. If TOCA, on the mezzanine level of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Toronto was a free-standing, privately owned downtown restaurant, the renown and the applause would be deafening. It took a few years of trying this and that, chefs and their concepts who came and went. But, Chef Oliver Glowig, originally from Germany, based in Rome and recognized as one of Italy’s top restaurateurs, has fulfilled the promise of this unique, appealing space.
Puttin on the Ritz
We begin with a cocktail in the Ritz Bar. For the daring, a signature long-stemmed martini glass of pisco and passion fruit is topped with nitro-flash-frozen passion fruit sorbet, and is a citric blast that is dangerously good. For a little quake in the boots, Richter Scale’s pecan-infused rum with a house-made IPA reduction and grapefruit bitters is as much a show-starter as it is a show-stopper. For the cash-daring, The 6IX, handsomely priced at $600, blends layers of Louis XIII cognac with Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch, sweet vermouth and vanilla rooibos tea syrup. Each one invites auspicious beginnings. Our table is ready.
Through the lobby we count thirteen different kinds of maple leaves and a few of the 400 pieces of original art, from paintings to sculptures, that adorn the hotel. All the artwork is by Canadian artists or related to Canadian themes. When we arrive at TOCA (an acronym for Toronto, Canada) on the mezzanine level, even the artist of the dishware, Jacqueline Poirier, “The Crazy Plate Lady,” is on hand to share with us her inspiration and artistic enthusiasm.
To the Cheese Cave!
Canada’s only Hotel Cheese Cave, and source of monthly wine and cheese events, offers tours by a cheese aficionado, and includes descriptions and the stories behind each cheese. There are twenty five to thirty perfectly aged local and international cheeses at any one time. Three staffers care for the stock and wipe the rinds, mist the cabinet doors, and maintain the delicacy of this room. We select Manchego from Spain, Lincoln Cheddar from England and Lancaster from Ontario, as well as a creamy balance of Italian cheeses. The sommelier helps us pair. We’re in no rush.
Our first dish is plump Ravioli. Each pillow is filled with fresh in-house made caciotta cheese from the cheese cave. Lavished in a bright cherry tomato sauce, this is easily one of my favourite dishes in Toronto. I’ve never tasted ravioli like this before. The acidity of the cherry tomatoes imported directly from Italy perfectly marries the dreamy texture of the caciotta. My dining partner agrees. “Even if I have a lactose intolerance,” she enthuses, “I can’t help myself. I love it.”
Gnocchi with cocoa nibs and lentils beckons. This pillow-y pasta, too, is a study in rich and contrasting flavours and textures from the light sweetness of the potato gnocchi to the bitterness and crunch of the grated nibs and lentils to savoury pork. Too unique to pass up, too good to share! The food is the star here, and the management has it right when they illuminate the food, the table, the ambience, and not the people, so the light is not shining in our eyes.
Chef De Cuisine, Daniele Trivero, describes the seasonal menu as “simplicity at its freshest.” Perfectly seared scallops the size of hockey pucks are plump and meaty, but it’s the Uovo Croccante that really shows off the flair of his cooking. This delicate hen’s egg, gently embraced in a croquette, resting in a parmesan cream, and speckled with black truffle shavings is so decadent, so mellifluously textured; it’s the culinary equivalent of a mic drop.
Are we having fun yet? You bet. In short order our Mediterranean sea bass arrives lavished in vibrant colours of sundried tomatoes and rapini, and generously portioned with squid, mussels and crunchy croutons to soak up all that umami.
The baton is now passed to the Executive Pastry Chef, Chef Gael Moutet. We know we are good hands. Just when we thought that tiramisu belonged in the 80s, Chef Moutet reinvented it, made it current and as appealing to the palate as to the eyes. Thick velvety coffee cream is dusted with cocoa and chocolate pearls, while shards of wafer thin chocolate, flecked in gold, protrude in defiant deconstruction of this classic dessert. A perfect pair with an espresso, we scoop up every last crumb.
So many good things eaten; so many left untried. With an irresistible presentation of flavors, TOCA is like a culinary adventure tour that beckons us back time and time again.
TOCA, 416-585-2500, 181 Wellington St. W.