Stella Artois's Sensorium Dinner (Toronto)

A white dome has descended on King West, in time for TIFF, promising to offer its own entertainment: an evening of dining with all five senses as the atmosphere, food and drink work together. The star of this production would be the voluptuous Stella Artois: each chalice rinsed, filled and finished to highlight the crisp slightly sweet pilsner.

Upon entering, the parking lot transforms into a tranquil starry garden; two long tables softly lit enticing diners of what’s to come.

Before the meal begins, diners mingle at the front with bars prominently showcasing the star drink. The excitement is palpable … there’s a buzz in the night air, when at last at 6:30 the gates swing open and individuals find a seat amongst the garden.

You’re instructed to sit in a certain section, the seats themselves are then first-come first-serve. The dinner a great opportunity to meet people around you (I was surrounded by wonderful companions); the crowd is diverse but everyone shares a love for excitement and food.

As an amuse-bouche, there was a chalice of air, concocted by Dr. Irwin Adam Eydelnant of BevLab, where each is unique and promises a different smell and taste. Mine held a faint whiff of cotton candy but alas tasted like nothing when I attempted to inhale the smoke through the mouth.

Our salad was already at the centre of table, held in shovels and test tubes. The solid form consisted of miniature vegetables accompanied with a crunchy puffed rice, mushroom soil and a thick roasted garlic aioli. Individuals walk by periodically spritzing a floral scented water, so you really embodied the sense of eating in a garden.

Meanwhile, the test tube held Greek salad, an intensely flavoured distilled liquid that tasted of fresh tomatoes and cooling cucumbers. The most molecular dish of the evening, Chef Richie Farina (former chef at one Michelin starred Moto) excited my palette. What a wonderful crisp opening that also helped to cleanse the garlicky dressing for the next course.

As director Jamie Webster’s illusions changed from leafy greens to dazzling white crystals, we knew the seafood course was coming. To confirm our suspicions a poem encased in sea salt was presented to heighten the suspense.

Large shells holding scallops and halibut are rolled into the centre of the table as water is added to activate the dry ice and create a billowy cool smoke. The sliced raw scallops were quickly seared/smoked to heighten its natural sweetness, while the pieces of dried scallop presented a stronger flavour. With a sprinkling of the sea salt, these were rather delicious.

The same can’t be said for the hunk of halibut. Although the menu notes it’s “poached” and adorned with “a young coconut puree”, my piece contained neither of those characteristics, instead tasting like the sea (and not in a pleasant way). To salvage the dish, I used a liberal sprinkling of sea salt, sliced the fish thinly into sashimi form, wrapped it in seaweed and “paired” it with a gulp of Stella… what I wouldn’t have given for a dish of soy sauce and wasabi to magically appear amongst the smoke.   

As the chargers were cleared, a dip in the table was revealed. Soon, it was covered with a bowl of aromatic anise broth and a drummer took the stage. Perhaps the most inventive course, it featured compositions from Nyles Miszczyk and Joe Organ, as the broth danced to the beating drum.

A bowl of crispy noodles, bean sprouts, herbs and jalapeno was then tossed into the soup after the presentation. For a person who adores soupy noodles, this was a horrible version of the dish. The broth was understandably lukewarm, which could be overlooked if it weren’t also lacking flavour and the only pizzazz stemming from the shock of eating a piece of raw jalapeno.

If you’re patient, the crispy noodles slowly rehydrate and become softer transforming back to regular rice noodles. However, the bean sprouts and herbs will always remain raw given the tepid soup temperature – Chef Farina should consider blanching these first as grassy hard beansprouts and leafy herbs isn’t the most appetizing.

The most substantial dish of the night arrives next, a cloche filled of smoke covering a bird’s nest. Although the smoke in mine had long dissipated, the campy smell was still prevalent in the room, a delicious treat for the nose.

It’s a whimsical dish with the egg containing a surprise – in reality a buttery cauliflower puree instead of the perceived quail’s egg. The nest consisted of braised beef cheek slivers comingled with fried enoki mushrooms – richly flavoured but stark cold. The dish did its job on highlighting the sense of touch: the creaminess of cauliflower, chewiness of beef, softness of salsify and crunch of pork rind.  

The campfire theme continues into dessert as skewers of marshmallow arrive with a flaming centerpiece. My advice is to be patient and roast them well - inside one is a sphere of chocolate ganache, which would have been absolutely delicious if it was warm and gooey.

My sweet tooth was sedated by the s’more square that arrived with it: a luscious layer of milk chocolate, spongy marshmallow and buttery graham cracker crumbs.  

A glass of Cidre (not cider) was paired with the dessert. The drink is much lighter than and not as sweet as traditional ciders – I thoroughly enjoyed the crisp taste of apples that left a refreshing feel to the palette.

Overall, Sensorium lived up to its claim of being a dining experience for all the senses. The stunning visuals, sounds of nature, variety of textures, aromatic smokes and tastes were all featured.

Unfortunately, the sense that was worst represented was taste… certainly the most important for me when it comes to dining. Although they used an ingenious method for serving most dishes (having the centre strip of the table slide in an out), those that needed to stay hot (the soup and beef) were served by hand so loses its temperature by the time it arrives. Many others simply lacked flavour, which may have been a conscious decision as to not detract from the light pilsner.

At $148 per person (inclusive of drinks, taxes, gratuities and ticket charges), the dinner isn’t cheap, yet isn’t unreasonable either. Beer lovers will especially enjoy the evening as chalices of Stella are regularly brought over to replace any that’s nearing empty.

In the end, you’re attending Sensorium for the experience, not the food. There were many creative touches such as the edible rice paper menus. Sadly, you may want to eat the menu as the portions are small and won’t leave you satisfied. With no bread baskets or petit fours to follow, you will need to head out for another bite after Sensorium ends.

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 525 King Street West

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Read about #Parv's experience with the same meal.
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