La Vinia (Toronto)

Why is society so guarded from speaking to strangers? Sure, avoid the ones driving by offering lollipops and speaking to someone in a deserted parking lot is a bad idea. But, in most cases, I’ve found it’s a rewarding experience when I let my guard down and get to know someone.

Before I start recounting the food, allow me to explain how I was even able to break bread with Chef Fernando Garcia himself; eating his creations as he flitted from kitchen to table. It began with meeting Mikel Basurto, Innovation and Sales Director of WBG Wines Basurto & Garcia, where he was showcasing the company’s imported Spanish wines. Others at the event would simply pour without comment and off I’d go. But, Mikel waited and inquired how I enjoyed it – caring more about my experience than trying to educate me about the virtues of the award winning wines they were featuring.

La ViniaLearning that I’m a food blogger, he asked if I like Spanish food. Like would be an understatement – after all a cuisine that combines seafood, spices and makes Ibérico ham deserves more than that. But, I also grudgingly admitted to him that my paella experience in Barcelona was disappointing; a wet salty mess. Of course, there are great versions of the dish in Toronto, but the better restaurants also tend to be fancy, not at all the cozy restaurants of Spain where menus may or may not be available and you just graze while enjoying wine.

It was with the frank discussion he presented his business card noting if I want to try what I just described in Toronto to contact him. On most occasions I may have misplaced the card or after sobering up feel awkward reaching out – after all, he must meet dozens of people at every event. But, something in the universe was telling me to reach out and I did. After emailing over a few months we eventually found an opportunity where I could visit on a weekday (when the restaurant is closed), so Chef Garcia could properly take the time to introduce me to Spanish dishes.

Chef Garcia is no stranger around a kitchen, being a third generation chef of a family operated restaurant in Madrid. After training at the Lausanne Cooking Academy in Switzerland, the world’s first school focused on the hospitality industry, he worked all over the world including Spain, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Vancouver. In fact, it’s all the education and years of experience that Garcia feels some chefs now lack. In Europe, he recounts, it takes years of hard work to learn and perfect the craft before someone opens a restaurant; it’s a privilege that’s earned after putting in the time.

La ViniaHe decided to settle in Toronto as the city had a burgeoning culinary scene but still calm enough to allow him to enjoy both cooking and time with this family. So, La Vinia opened in 2012 in a smaller local on the unassuming Lakeshore Boulevard allowing him to focus on serving dinner only. He believes that a present owner and chef is important – he wants customers to know they are tasting his creations.

We started off with a glass of the Auxi wine, named after Chef Garcia’s wife (how romantic) and made at his winery. Crisp and dry it’s a clean tasting wine that goes well with Spanish cuisine.

La Vinia

And it was that wine that I sipped while enjoying slices of lomo Ibérico ($19.75; on the dinner menu also served with the jamón cut). Until this point, I’ve only eaten Ibérico ham, a fattier cut of the delicious acorn fed Spanish black pig. The lomo is derived from the pork loin allowing it to be less fatty yet retaining the delicate tender sweetness synonymous with the meat.

Another new taste for me was the chistorra, a vibrant red paprika sausage originating from the Basque Country. Despite its high fat content ranging from 70-80%, after it has been baked most of the fat melts and you’re left with a flavourful sausage that oozes a salty spicy juice as you bite through it. Christorra would be great for nibbling with a cold glass of beer and works equally well for brunch.

In fact, if La Vinia ever branches into brunch, the restaurant should consider serving it as a side with the pisto monchego. The dish is similar to ratatouille made with diced peppers, zucchini and tomatoes; except it’s stir-fried rather than baked so that the vegetables aren’t quite as mushy. Plenty of garlic and onion adds fragrance to the dish while a light hint of spice (perhaps some a chili oil?) gives it the Spanish flare. Topped with a perfectly fried egg, the rich yolk mixes into everything and goes great with the tableside crusty bread.

If the gazpacho ever makes it onto the menu as the soup of the day ($7.50), a high probability with the summer months descending upon us, you should try it. Less acidic than the tomato based Italian version, La Vinia’s is garlicky and contains a slight peppery zing that lingers at the back of your throat. Smooth and refreshing, it was a great transition from the starters to the heavier finale of the meal.

After talking so much about paella, Mikel must have insisted Chef Garcia make one so I can see how it should taste. The Valenciana ($24.75 per person) was liberally topped with chorizo, chicken, mussels, shrimp and calamari. But it’s the rice that makes it stand out: plump golden grains soaking enough liquid to soften it but still leaving the middle al dante. At La Vinia it’s not the wet mush that I ate in Barcelona, instead each grain was separated giving off the most delightful saffron and shellfish aroma. Indeed, some individuals may like a wetter soft paella, as a warning this wouldn’t be the dish for you.

Throughout the meal we sampled three Rioja wines, bottled in the Basque province of Alava. Mikel decided to serve three red wines from the Casa Primicia winery showcasing them from different years – 2013, 2010 and 2005. What a delightful experience to taste something through the years! The flavours really deepened and the wine seemed to taste smoother (Sommeliers, I know this is not the proper terminology) as we moved back in time.

The Primicia Joven Tinto 2013 is particularly fruity and when served slightly chilled makes it great for sipping in the summer. While the limited edition (10,724 bottles) Graciano 2010, was medium-bodied and went well with paella and red meat. Finally, the Gran Reserva 2005, a blend primarily made from Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano and Grenache, was a full-bodied wine but has a nice fruitiness to it as well (I got a hint of berries).

La Vinia wines

After eating it was a wonderful to just sit around and speak to Mikel, Chef Garcia and his friends (a lovely couple who has travelled extensively through Spain and the wife who acted as a translator for me – thank you!). One thing stood out in particular to me – Garcia’s surprise to people describing working in the restaurant business. For him, yes of course it’s a way to make a living, but he never believed being a Chef was going to make him filthy rich (although there are plenty of celebrity chefs out there that have). Rather a restaurant is the medium for him to share his love of food with others.

When asked whether Toronto will be the last stop for him, Garcia already knows it’s not. Eventually, he would like to go back to his home town in Spain and set-up an intimate chef school with restaurant to impart his knowledge and years of experience back to others – I’d imagine a sort of full circle for him.

From my two hour meal with Garcia I can see how much he loves cooking and sharing the traditional tastes of Spain with others. “[Cooking is] the best thing in the world,” he explains, “you get to please everyone every day.”

Overall mark - 8 out of 10*
* Disclaimer: This meal was complimentary, but following my mission statement, rest assured I'll provide my honest opinion. 

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 2350 Lakeshore Blvd West

Follow me on twitter to chat, be notified about new posts and more -

Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

Is That It? I Want More!

Other Gastro World posts similar to this: