190 University Avenue
Certainly, the expansion of David Chang’s Momofuku empire to Toronto has not been without its share of breathless hype. Chang is clearly a talented guy with his own rather effective aesthetic, to say nothing of great food; you don’t wildly succeed in a market as cutthroat as New York City without having some serious mojo. The announcement that he would be coming to town has come on a wave of similar announcements from other well-known culinary figures – we already have Scott Conant’s outpost of Scarpetta in the Thompson, for better or for worse, and we will be seeing Daniel Boulud putting his stamp on the glittery new Four Seasons in Yorkville very soon. Me, I’ve been pretty gleefully anticipating the opening of the local Momofuku chapter for a while now, noting the details as they trickled in on social media; the basic setup (3 restaurants, one bar, adjacent to the new Shangri-La), the names (Nikai, Daisho, Shoto, and a copy of New York’s Noodle Bar) and the specific details (Nikai – the bar, Daisho – the a la carte/large format place, Shoto – the prix fixe counter a la Ko). Finally, reservations became available. I decided when I was in New York in June to forgo dining at Ko and Ssam Bar in favour of trying the Toronto restaurants, and my first inclination was to choose the prix fixe, given my enthusiasm for these types of meals. So it was that I was able to secure a 6:00 solo reservation at Shoto on a date not long after the first service through the online reservation system (which was not as difficult as I suspected it might be).
Arriving at the restaurant (a “glass cube in the heart of Toronto”, according to the website, which seems a reasonable if somewhat fantastical description), I navigated past the line for Noodle Bar and was whisked upstairs by the staff to the third floor host, who asked me if I had a copy of my confirmation (I did not; note that they will ask for this if you are planning to dine there, but in the end it didn’t seem to be a problem). I was taken and seated at the counter, which is in a corner of the floor behind a half-wall separating it from Daisho which takes up the remainder of the space. I was the first to arrive for the evening and was greeted by Chef de Cuisine Mitch Bates and Sous Chef Peter Jensen, who were prepping for the evening’s service. As other diners started to trickle in, I was offered a delicious, warm and buttery roll to start the evening’s festivities.
Drink options were outlined at this point. There is a full pairing, which includes a beverage pairing with each course, a short pairing with every other course, and a brief but interesting a la carte wine list. Not one to do anything in half-measures, I opted for the full pairing, and in short order the amuse courses started to arrive, with a sparkling non-vintage chardonnay blend, Tissot “Cremant” from the Jura region of France poured as an accompaniment. The first amuse was a smoked trout in a cauliflower puree, and given my predilection for anything smoked it’s not surprising I found this very tasty, with the acidity of the bubbly cutting nicely through the richness of the fish.
The second amuse was a lovely and sweet corn soup with a hit of what I thought was sriracha in the bottom but evidently was some sort of Korean hot sauce. A sprig of cilantro gave the dish a bit of a Mexican feel. Again, the sparkling wine was a perfect foil.
It was at this point that I started to take note of the music being played. Over the course of the evening I would hear selections from Wilco, Neil Young, Stereolab, the XX, The National, My Bloody Valentine, Lou Reed, and others, all of which I loved – it was almost as if my iPod had been hijacked by the Shoto team. The staff was digging it too – I was quietly singing along to Arcade Fire’s Neighbourhood #1, only to look over at Chef Bates doing the same. When Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” came gleefully stomping through the restaurant’s sound system (Chang’s shout out to his home base, no doubt) I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot, because it just felt, well, so damned right. Jensen confided to me that Chang spends a pretty fair chunk of time tweaking the playlist to get it exactly the way he wants it. I, for one, certainly appreciated the effort, though admittedly if your tastes run to Chopin or Debussy you may not be as appreciative.
The first course was described as “fluke, caper, dill, turnip”, and was actually composed of a lovely and clean crudo of fluke with crispy onion, sprigs of dill, thinly sliced raw turnip, and a creamy sauce which ended up being horseradish based. Normally I’m not a big fan of crudo, but this worked beautifully, the slight bite of the horseradish providing a great counterpoint to the mildness of the fish and the onions a further layer of complexity. It was probably the best crudo dish I’ve ever had, and was paired with a 2010 Domaine du Poujol “Pico” from the Languedoc in France, which added a great citrus note complementing the fish.
Course number two, “sepia, tomato, harissa”, was tender, sweet cuttlefish, sepia being the Greek term for both the cuttlefish and its ink. The presentation included lots of flavors on the plate evoking the Mediterranean and specifically North Africa, with blanched plump cherry tomatoes sans skin, and the harissa fried into little croutons of couscous which provided this incredible explosive burst of cumin and coriander and spice when you bit into them. Hidden at the bottom of the dish was a small smear of cuttlefish ink. Looking back on the meal as a whole I think this was my favorite course of the night; inventive yet entirely balanced. It was paired with an Italian white from Friuli, Tocai Fruliano I Clivi, which had a nice minerality made for drinking with seafood.
On to course number three, “daikon, plum, Brussels sprouts, curry”, which consisted of a braised piece of daikon in a mild curry with roasted leaves of Brussels sprouts over the top. The sprouts were the star of the plate for me, with a nutty roasted flavor that really carried the dish, lifting the mild flavor of the daikon and light curry spice. On paper, this is one of those combinations that would ordinarily leave one scratching one’s head a bit, but it really worked well. It was paired with a sake, a house Junmai from Kazoeman in Gifu, Japan. Again, I didn’t think this would work with Brussels sprouts, but it did, with a surprising sweet richness that stood up to the nuttiness.
The fourth course, “egg, dashi, horseradish, ikura” was one of only a couple of courses which didn’t totally work for me over the course of the evening. I found that the egg really got lost in the overwhelming umami of the dashi broth, but I did enjoy the textural counterpoint between the creamy egg and the fishy pop of the ikura, and while it wasn’t a total home run, it was still pretty tasty. The pairing was with a sparkling rose from the Loire valley, Agnes et Rene Mosse “Moussamoussettes”. It was slightly sweet with plenty of acidity to temper the umami flavours in the dish, and a lovely fruity nose.
The next few offerings, by contrast, were stunners. “Spaghetti, nori, sardine, lumpfish roe” was a dish of perfectly cooked spaghetti in a savory, peppery, lightly oceanic sauce, with intensely salty and flavorful fried sardines that were phenomenally tasty. This was also poured with one of my favorites, a 2011 Nigl “Gartling” Gruner Veltliner, with abundant apple, stone fruit, and a slight pepper note. Gruners are always food friendly and this wine is no exception.
“Lobster, tandoor, lemon, fava” was buttery lobster tail cooked perfectly with tandoor spices, an intense puree of lemon, and fava beans, which are normally an ingredient I find a bit boring but within the context of the dish their delicate, spring-like flavor was very nice. The wine poured with this one was the best of the night, a 2009 Viognier from Stratus Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was a monster of a wine, buttery and rich and nicely oaked with great fruit and good acid. I have some of the Stratus wines in my cellar and quite like them; somehow I have missed this one over my trips there, and they are currently sold out but if they ever offer it again I will be getting a case posthaste.
Forgot to take a picture of this one but there's a great shot at Paul Manson's (aka Taylor Fladgate's) blog at: http://taylorfladgate40906.wordpress.com/#jp-carousel-6784
“King oyster mushroom, macadamia, barley” was a gorgeously earthy mushroom covered in a macadamia foam and served over creamy barley grains. I noted an interesting citrus note which provided a refreshing contrast to the earth/nut/butter flavors in the dish; when asked, Chef Jensen volunteered that there was indeed some lemon in there (“a little surprise at the bottom”, as he put it). The first beer pairing of the night was poured with it, Asahi Black Lager, which tasted more like a stout and as one would expect married well with the hearty taste of the mushroom.
The final course before dessert was “veal cheek, green chili, Sichuan”. The piece of veal cheek was cooked sous vide and was sublimely tender; however, I would have liked a bit more spice on the plate, as the chili was fairly mild for my tastes. My server told me that about one in twenty of these chilies (I forget the exact variety) really blasts someone with heat. I certainly didn’t get one of those. I did like the wine, a Norman Hardie 2010 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County and one which I’ve had several times.
Again, picture forgotten (the drink getting to me) but a great one: http://taylorfladgate40906.wordpress.com/#jp-carousel-6788
The dessert courses began with “banana, cashew, mint, gula jawa”, which was paired with an ale from Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto called Lost River. I wondered to myself how this could possibly work, but it did, and the thing that actually tied the two together was the roasted sesame flavor in the dish which matched well with the malty, slightly nutty, almost toffee like taste of the ale.
Finally, the last course of the night was “hootenanny, orange, maple” and was described as a sort of breakfast for dessert: a small, light, delicious griddle cake with flavors of sausage and cinnamon, and maple ice cream with a bit of candied orange. I found it a very unusual and creative way to end the meal. It was paired with a sparkling rose, a Bugey-Cerdon from Patrick Bottex, which was refreshing and low in alcohol (appreciated as I had by this time of the night had rather a lot to drink).
I truly enjoyed my meal here and will be very interested to see where David Chang’s staff will take Shoto in the future. I plan on probably coming back about every six months or so just to see how it evolves. The meal was not cheap; $150 for the tasting plus $80 for the wine pairings, however I felt it was worth it and the cost was certainly in line with similar places I’ve been to. I can only surmise that having such a place on the Toronto culinary landscape will be a good thing, and as innovation tends to beget innovation we Toronto diners should all be winners.