Don Alfonso 1890 (Toronto)

Don Alfonso 1890 originates from Sorrento within the Amalfi Coast of Italy. The Mediterranean restaurant has been awarded two Michelin stars and is known for their extensive wine list. While I haven’t visited the original location, it’s described as a picturesque boutique hotel that even has an onsite cooking school. In comes the Liberty Entertainment Group (owners of Casa Loma, Liberty Grand, etc.) who convinced Chef Ernesto Iaccarino to partner with them to open the new Toronto outpost. Of course, Chef Iaccarino will stay in Italy, hence the Toronto kitchen is led by Chef Saverio Macri, who trained with Chef Iaccarino for months.

Set in the former Rosewater Supper Club, the space is even lighter and brighter than before. Sitting in the soaring dining room, you can’t help but feel a sense of tranquility and awe. A few large art pieces draws interest, but otherwise the space is relatively neutral, so you can focus on the food.

In keeping with Don Alfonso’s tradition of using local ingredients, dishes like the Manitoba bison and Nova Scotia ling cod has been customized for the Canadian menu. However, they do import some ingredients to retain the Amalfi Coast flavours. For example, the olive oil that’s carefully poured onto the bread plate (with an indentation that separates the oil) is from Tuscany, a great pairing with their airy and salty focaccia. Also make sure to get their hot crispy mini baguette, this goes wonderfully with the truffle butter.

The 8-course tasting menu ($150 per person with vegetarian option available) consists of five savoury and three sweet dishes, wine pairings are an additional $100.

A collection of canapés arrives on a tree limb shaped plate, where the actual canapés are meant to resemble fall foliage. Each bite is different: yellowfin tuna tartare and parsley crisp a light start; bison tartare with chili chip resembled typical beef tartare; sea urchin with squid ink crisp finishes off with a bitter bite; and finally, meaty and refreshing rockfish ceviche with turmeric crisp, my favourite of the bunch. While each canapé is quickly finished in two bites, it must take a long time to make four different toppings with four different flavoured chips.

Admittedly, when I first saw the ice creamed eel course my stomach turned. Yet, what arrived was pleasant and tasted like a salty cream, not unlike Cesar dressing without the cheese and garlic. Once mixed into the wild rose scented tagliatelle, which by itself is also powerful, the saltiness and the floral flavour worked remarkably well. However, I’d suggest adding the creamed eel gradually into the pasta as the ratio given is unbalanced – for Don Alfonso, doubling the pasta and reducing the creamed eel by a third is advisable.

For some protein courses, dishes allow diners to flavour the meat to their preference. The seared Muscovy duck breast comes with three sauces: a balsamic reduction, a star anise glaze, and royal gala apple purée. It’s a nice touch to be able to mix-and-match to my liking – surprisingly, I enjoyed the star anise glaze the most. The duck was beautifully seared, if only there was more duck and less sauce.

Where the sauces didn’t work as well was for the bison. The San Marzano tomato and red chili reduction was a splitting taste of Frank’s Red Hot and the salsa verde, something that normally goes well with steak, just didn’t pair well.

With the bison wrapped with swiss chard, mozzarella, and a buttery bread crust, the dish was a cross between beef wellington and chicken cordon blue. While my husband believes a chimichurri would go well with it, I think a simple jus mixed with a sweet element (like a berry or current) would have been great – perhaps a little safe, but at least tastier. Luckily, the meat was flavourful enough on its own that I didn’t need the sauce, it was merely disappointing that the meal didn’t end stronger.

For other dishes, we’re told to aggressively mix everything together… to have the elements individually would be too plain. Sure, the mackerel in the vermicelli di gragnano was done beautifully and clean tasting, but once combined with caramelized onions, Alalonga tuna purée, and crunchy Silician pine nut pieces, it was even better. Some patrons may find the dish salty; for me, it was perfect. So much so, that I may go back for a larger plate from their a la carte menu ($28).

The menu describes the merluzzo as having a ‘crisp’ herb skin. While it was a thick sauce formed with six herbs, the skin on the ling cod wasn’t crispy. In fact, it really didn’t taste like much - if anything, the zucchini puree under the fish was stronger and gave the protein flavour. Regardless, it was a lovely lighter dish, adding some vegetables into the meal.

A sizeable portion of Ontario strawberry sorbet arrives as a palette cleanser, in between the savoury dishes and dessert. The pistachio glass is a nice decorative touch.

Dessert begins with something traditional, a Neapolitan sfogliatella, consisting of a flakey phyllo pastry filled with tons of cinnamon infused cream. So much pastry cream that it felt like we were having cinnamon mousse - I say more cone, less cream! Moreover, the amarena cherry glaze should be drizzled around the plate, given it’s an acquired taste (depends if you enjoy maraschino cherries), which I would have preferred to avoid.  

The last dish ends with a bang … or billowing smoke. A tray of petit four arrives with dry ice in the centre, which makes for a great presentation while keeping the sweets cold. The pastry of the deconstructed cannoli was delicious, the nuts adding a great crunch, but the almond cream wasn’t for me. My favourite was the creamy hazelnut semifreddo, which went particularly well with cappuccino. And the last bite, a silky olive oil truffle on a crunchy pistachio biscuit, a rich sweet ending that’s also notably balanced.  

Although $150 tasting menus are widely found in major cities worldwide, in Toronto it’s still one of the pricier options. Aside from the sturgeon caviar (used sparingly with the ice creamed eel), the ingredients aren’t particularly luxurious, so why does Don Alfonso command the price?

Aside from the tie-in to the Michelin-starred restaurant, likely due to the sheer amount of people working. A team of two assembles the canapes dish, which as the evening progressed expanded to three – three people to scoop premade toppings onto crisps. Every table is served in unison, no matter how large. And even opening a bottle of wine is an elaborate affair with the sommelier wheeling over a cart (complete with lit candle), slowly removing the cork, pouring the wine into a large crystal decanter, before presenting the cork on a silver platter and pouring the wine.

Or maybe it has something to do with all the tableware they need to purchase. Every course is served on a customized vessel with matching silverware, believed to showcase the characteristics of the dish. 

In other words, Don Alfonso offers an over-the-top experience that’s rarely found elsewhere in the city. They make you feel special … where else are you offered a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar before leaving the restaurant? It’s the place to go for a special occasion or when you really want to impress someone.

For a glimpse of the experience, you can also visit the second-floor lounge where they offer an a la carte menu, a mix of some tasting menu dishes and others created especially for their smaller kitchen. You may not get served in unison and the wine may not arrive elaborately with a cart, but you can try the tasty vermicelli di gragnano mackerel.

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 19 Toronto Street

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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!

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