Address: 190 University Avenue, 3rd floor
Type of Meal: Dinner
I love tasting menus! How can you not like the chance to give up all decision making and just relax and eat whatever’s put in front of you? It’s often through tasting menus my palette is expanded as I’m forced to try ingredients and techniques that may otherwise sound unappealing. Shoto, the swankiest of the restaurants in the Momofuku complex, offers a 10-course option for $150 (an extra $80 with wine pairings).
Indeed, there are various tasting menus available throughout Toronto, what differentiates Shoto is their “chef’s table” seating. Twenty two patrons sit in its kitchen around a bar banquette so you get to see the masters at work. When a dish is ready, the chefs serve you and explain what the ingredients in each dish; you’re welcomed to ask questions and inquire about what you see and eat. It brings a sense of casualness to the experience, which fits into the fancy but laid-back Momofuku brand. It’s almost like you’re visiting Chef Mitchell, Peter and Jed at their home and they’re whipping things up for you to try.
Shoto's dining area (1)
If you’re afraid of smelling like food due to the proximity to cooking, don’t worry. An industrial sized venting system sucks everything up so not an ounce of smoke reaches you. The chance to see all the chefs at work is really something, especially if you’re a business nerd and love analyzing a restaurant’s operations. They work to a well-strummed precision despite patrons coming in at various times. There is definitely no manic yelling and slamming of dishes that’s portrayed in Hell’s Kitchen.
However, before you get to sit in one of the surprisingly comfortable supple leather bar stools, you have to get a reservation first. Shoto, like Ko in New York, is online reservations only and as they come up you better book quick if you want a Saturday. Luckily, Shoto’s reservation system is more forgiving than Ko given you’re allowed to book further in advance (four weeks vs. 10 days) and there are more seats up for grabs (22 vs. 12). So, if you can get to a computer by the early afternoon of a Sunday you should be able to get a Saturday.
Upon sitting down, complementary still or sparkling water was served by a friendly waitress. Almost immediately after she leaves, we’re greeted by Chef Jed who presents us with a chewy bread roll to munch on while perusing the drink menu.
A selection of amuse-bouche arrives shortly thereafter. We were presented with:
A cube of sticky rice, charred on top, and dipped in salted fat. Despite its description, it was delicious and light tasting. The rice, a sushi consistency, with a hint of vinegar and smokiness to it. It was a great preview of what’s to come – Asian inspired dishes with a luxurious twist.
Charred crispy rice with fat (2)
Slivers of marinated chilled beef tendon arrived next. Shaved paper thin these tasty slices release a great burst of flavour on the tongue. If you’ve ever visited a Chinese banquet and have the assorted barbeque meat appetizer, it tastes like the smoked pork hock with rice wine (fun tai) except a crispier texture.
Shavings of beef tendon (2)
A small cup of curry mousse with Dungeness crab finished off the amuse offerings. Pieces of plain crab sit at the bottom covered with a light and bubbly mousse foam. The mixture releases just a hint of heat that hits the back of your throat.
Curry with Dungeness crab (3)
The first dish was spot prawn with house made XO sauce, slivers of snap peas and orange zest. My first experience of having shrimp sashimi style was interesting but has made me realize I prefer them cooked. Unfortunately, the soft gummy texture of the raw prawn didn’t appeal to me. But, the spicy XO sauce and crisp sweet raw snap peas helped mask the peculiar consistency and made it bearable.
Spot prawn (4)
A dry-aged rib eye sashimi arrived next which was beautifully presented. The beef was so tender the knife could the thrown away with the fork cutting through it like butter. Pieces of crunchy bacon, creamy green peppercorn sauce and bursts of lumpfish roe added a wonderful mixture of textures and saltiness to the rib eye.
Shoto’s next dish pays homage to barbequing during the summer – teriyaki glazed octopus with warm potato salad. The pan fried octopus retained a chewy tenderness with a hint of smokiness. The potato salad is actually the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes and sits in a pool of thickened chicken stock and parsley(?) oil. Topped with stalks of roasted ramps and slivers of pickled red onions the dish is a cacophony of flavours.
Next came my favourite dish of the night, the pea custard. Deep in the bottom of the bowl is a spring pea egg custard, which was a lovely silky texture and beautiful mint green colour. Topped with shaved radishes, micro greens, trout roe and goat butter it was a great dish where every bite brought new flavours and textures. A soft boiled pickled quail egg was also in the dish, which was an interesting addition but, in my opinion, ruined the rest of the flavours.
Heavier dishes began to arrive after the pea custard. To start, we were served chicken liver tortellini tossed with morels and fava beans. Another first for me was trying chicken liver; piped as a smooth mixture inside the pasta you really couldn’t tell it was liver since it was so light tasting. Overall, the dish was good but nothing rave worthy like the nori spaghetti served with Shoto’s earlier menus I keep hearing about.
Following, was trout topped with a foamy tomatillo and jalapeno sauce. I believe the fish was cooked sous-vide style and arrived at a perfect doneness. The sourness of the tomatillo was a refreshing alternative to citrus and the jalapeno adds a zing of heat to the palette. Additions of spears of asparagus were appreciated given the lack of vegetables in the earlier dishes. I only wish the chunks of almonds at the bottom of the dish were left out, somehow nuts and fish to me don’t really go.
The following dish was presented as “pig face stir-fry”, which although sounding off putting was decent. Consisting of various parts of the pig’s head including braised (?) tongue, prosciutto like shavings of jowl (i.e. cheek) and crispy pieces of fried ear, it was certainly a medley of firsts for me. Surprisingly, the tongue wasn’t as horrible as I expected, it resembles an octopus tentacle with a hint of sausage taste. On the side, a pork consommé accompanying the dish was a miss for me.
Continuing with the meats, lamb, the largest dish of the night arrived. Since we were the later seating we had the pleasure of previewing the dishes before us. After seeing the lamb being served to other eaters I was excited to try it.
All too often, the things you look forward to the most are the biggest disappointment. There was nothing wrong with how the meat was cooked – it was tender and well-seasoned. The let-down was from the piece of lamb they chose to serve me where 80% of it was either fat, hard cartilage or bone; there was simply nothing to actually taste! Meanwhile, my husband’s portion was miles better than mine. Given Shoto is charging patrons $150 per meal, quality control is extremely important and the cut of lamb that I was presented should have never been served.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the cool cucumber geleé gratin and yogurt sorbet paired with the dish. Both were unexpected yet went well to lighten-up the heavy piece of meat. Unfortunately, in my case, there just wasn’t any meat to actually eat it with.
“Cucumber”, the first dessert, was a good transition between savoury and sweet as it was somewhat neutral. Despite its haphazardly put together appearance, it was a delicious mixture of uncommon flavours. A sweet condensed milk gelato sat on top of cubes of chewy mochi and topped with an herbal lime and juniper granita. The dish was refreshing and a good interpretation of something for the summer.
The last dessert and dish for the night was more common – vanilla cake soaked in poached rhubarb syrup with raspberry (?) sorbet and drizzles of crème anglaise. All were good but nothing exciting like the cucumber dessert. However, I did like the touch of watching the chefs grate frozen white chocolate and pine nut ganache over everything.
The tasting menu varies depending on the availability of ingredients, but each season has core dishes. We were advised the offerings we were served would begin to change over the next few weeks, so if any of the above sound delicious to you, book quick before they are gone!
Shoto may be fine dining, but it has an unpretentious attitude I appreciate. Everyone is friendly and down to earth; simply a great place for people who like good food but not the snootiness that can come along with it. All staff from the chefs, waitress and beverage director makes you feel at home and invites you to drum up conversation with them.
Overall, I was expecting more from the experience. With the exception of the lamb, there was nothing devastatingly unacceptable with the menu; but, there was also nothing overly memorable and rave worthy. In the end, Shoto’s worth a try, I’m just not sure if multiple return visits are warranted.
Overall mark - 7 out of 10