25 June 2013
As the Toronto part of my Canada trip winds down, I had made plans to check out Shōtō — the tasting menu kitchen’s table in David Chang’s new enterprise in the Great White North. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been keen on much from the Momofuku empire, but I thought it was worth a shot to check this place out. Plus, it’s across the street from my hotel.
As much as I don’t like the reservation policy the restaurant has, it’s not as bad as in NYC. I had grabbed a booking for 2 with my good friend Alan, and we looked forward to a good experience. I had arrived a bit earlier, the cube a haven from the horrible humidity outside.
The open kitchen was a cordoned-off area on the top floor of the cube, done very simply but condusive for dialogue with the kitchen. However, the chairs were just awful to sit on…I had to shift many times through the night… As I tried a house cocktail my friend arrived and the feasting was about to commence.
As I didn’t want to drink too much before flying the next day, and my friend had to drive, we chose what they called a half-pairing. As we enjoyed our cocktails and caught up on more conversation, the series of amuse-bouche began. The first was a grilled rice cube with pork fat.
A simple snack, just to get the tastebuds woken up. The next amuse bouche were octopus balls. Though I usually like these things, these were a little boring for me.
They came in quick succession, and the third amuse was the beef tendons.
These were excellent, simply done and much like in many Asian restaurants, though tad less spicy than I’m used to. Good stuff. The fourth amuse followed.
The simple crab curry was creamy and had a okay flavour, easy to eat. So far the amuse has worked well and through a few different Asian styles. The fifth and final amuse was the kimchee consommé.
Honestly I didn’t taste much kimchee in this, almost like a simple broth. A hiccup at the end before the courses begin. Reminds me of why I didn’t like the Momo-cooking style much…it’s like a re-packaged and sanitised version of Asian comfort food. But so far they’ve done well overall.
We continued our conversation when the first pairing came — a generous pour of sake for our first course, the spot prawn.
Not bad, as these from British Columbia were in season. Nice plating, a nice visual effect. Worked well with the sake. A very good start.
Our second course came quickly and we’ve been watching this being prepped for awhile, the dry-aged rib.
A cute dish with good, Ontario grass-fed beef. The lumpfish roe was an added flavour enhancer in the already tasty beef. Worked excellent, a great dish. The dish of the night. Only wee complaint is that a spoon is probably not the best utensil to serve this dish with…
It was here we were told that our “half pairing” was actually not by volume but by courses. So we were told some courses we wouldn’t get a pairing. I really wish they told us this early on before I drained my sake already… This was one of the few mini-fails by the front-of-the-house all night…
The food came out in a fast pace as the counter was not full and I didn’t anticipate more people coming…it’s like they want everyone out of the place early. It’s odd, Toronto is usually a later-eating place, even on a Tuesday night… In any case, the next course was the octopus.
Honestly, when I heard “ramps” on the ingredients my eyes rolled…the most overused and misused ingredient in modern cooking history. But this wasn’t a bad use, as it nearly covered the octopus. The ramps and potatoes were nice, ironically, as the octopus was wee stringy. Now we got a little champagne to resume the “half-pairing” but I need to milk this small glass for the next course too…sigh…
The next course, which came quickly, was the pea custard.
The roe and egg was quite nice, as was the pea shoots. I love the taste of pea shoots, it’s just heavenly when left alone. A strange mixture of items, but it worked well. Peas are so underrated…
We tried to continue our conversation but the food was coming out fast. And at times I ate faster, other times my friend did. And several times the staff tried to remove plates before we were done. I really, really don’t like being rushed like this. I was pissed off by this at Corton…it’s not reached anywhere near that stage here, but I don’t like this modern trend for tasting menus to be rushed — just so the kitchen can shut down before 9pm. A huge minus in my book. But back to the food…dish number five was the tortellini with chicken liver:
Not bad, an interesting set of flavours that didn’t totally mesh but didn’t clash…I guess “interesting” is the best way to put it. Morels, which I love, added to the canvas of flavours.
It was at this time a friend of my friend had to exchange a few work-related items, so he came by the seats and they were chatting for a bit during the exchange. And to my surprise after a few minutes the sommelier, in a loud and huffy way, asked them to move the conversation out of the dining area…huh? Is this a library? It’s not like this is a separate room from the main restaurant. This is a bit of snobbery that was not needed, could have been done much more professionally and discretely than to sound like a nightclub bouncer.
I was not amused by these theatrics by the staff…and I think he realised he was a little heavy-handed in how he delivered the “request” — and comped us a very miniscule splash of a paired wine that we were to skip by the “half pairing” mess. I had started to lose interest in my food at this point. This is a perfect example of how the front-of-the-house can ruin a meal, no matter how the food is going.
The sixth course was the trout, which I thought was rather bland. Even if I was not put into a foul mood, I would have found this lacking. Lukewarm, which hides the flavours of the oils, it was just lacking in taste.
The dishes were still coming out quickly and we again tried to slow it down, but more times the staff tried to pull the dishes before we were done. Just not pleased with this at all. Next dish was the “pig face” which sounded interesting…
As an offal eater I would have thought I’d love this. But Just because it’s a series of parts from a pig’s head it doesn’t mean it’s good. It seemed very incongruent, like they just wanted to try something for each part they feature. It was a mess, and even the tongue tasted odd. Lucky our “half pairing” skipped the ale here…
The fact the place was not full and stuff is sitting around makes me think a little, because we all knew what the last savoury course is — it had been sitting out for an hour. The lamb rib.
A nice piece of lamb with some good textures in the meat, but the lamb was covered in a little too much rub and the fact it sat there for so long made some of the leaner parts of the meat really tough. Was this planned? Or bad cooking for the sake of convenience? Too bad, this could have been a fantastic dish…
Well, the savouries are done…the first of the two sweet dishes came, and I frankly was knackered from all this already… Plus the chairs are so damn uncomfortable. My friend actually stood for a part of the meal because of that…
Yeah…not sure what to say about this. It’s “cucumber”-centric, that’s all I’ll say. But this was nothing compared to the last dessert, the “rhubarb”-centric thing…
This was the only dish that I barely got through half. For the first time all night, they asked if I was done before trying to pull the plate…and for once, they could have it any time…
We wound down with some coffee and the place was already closing down. I was shocked as it was barely 9pm. Only about 2 people left on the counter of Shōtō, and even the rest of the bar/restaurant complext was about half-empty. This would have been unheard of in the NYC Momo-flagship.
Shōtō frankly missed for me. Some of the cooking is quite nice and imaginative, and the planning of the dishes were interesting. Some little execution flaws, like the lamb, were evident, but the kitchen did a good job. A good portion of it was classic Chang — a cleaned-up version of Asian street and comfort food, but often removing the soul of the dishes. Like the tendons, it missed the heat because the Momo empire edited it out for the chi-chi crowd.
And certainly what soured a lot of the meal was the front-of-the-house, from the grabby-grabby plate removal (can you please ask first, especially if there’s still a significant amount of food on the plate?!) to the I-wanna-be-a-bouncer schtick from the sommelier. I frankly lost my appetite after that incident.
Well, I know when I come back to Toronto next time I will avoid the cube, even if it is across the street on a horribly humid day. Plenty of awesome restaurants, and it seems Shōtō is not even living up to its own hype. Too bad.
190 University Avenue