Showing posts with label asparagus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label asparagus. Show all posts

Azura (Toronto)

If you enjoy bold flavours, Azura’s tasting menu ($128 per person) will have your tastebuds in a tizzy. And since the restaurant serves a blind tasting menu, your taste buds won’t know what’s to come as they’re introduced to spices, herbs, and sauces galore.

Focused on foods from the Mediterranean, the canapés begin with a Moroccan flair. The beet tart was beautiful to behold but also surprisingly bitter for a dish made with sweet root vegetables. The beets did little to stave off the bitter bite from the rhubarb harissa paste and small white flowers. The geraniums also made the tart much too floral tasting. As beautiful as it was, it was a disappointing start.

The avgotaraho moved the menu in the right direction, a crispy piece of panisse topped with labneh and red mullet roe. It’s creamy, salty, tangy, and messy to eat. I’d recommend making the panisse based thinner and wider so it becomes more of a two-bite canapé and would also allow the panisse to taste less dense.

Progressively things became tastier, the cigar looking concoction revealing a smoked cannoli stuffed with albacore tuna. It’s a delicious burst of smokiness balanced with acidity and a host of spices.

To end the canapés, a shrimp mousse piped into choux pastry, which had a sweet and savoury element. I loved the bright ingredients of pickled rhubarb and preserved citrus that helped lighten the umami-laced cream, Chef Adam should consider using this mousse in the beet tart.

Despite the scallop being overpowered by the date and pomegranate vinegarette, it was nonetheless prepared beautifully, so clean and luscious. Covered in creamy avocado and topped with salty fried okra and chili slices, it’s a starter that offers so many flavours and textures.

We’re told the halibut is inspired by one of Chef Adam’s favourite late-night snacks - the shawarma. While the fish could be cooked a touch less, it’s meatiness really held up with all the spices, tahini, and the cauliflower and couscous (?) medley. Who would have thought that fish would make for a great shawarma?

The celeriac was seared until it developed a lovely, caramelized crust emitting a slight smokiness. At once creamy a slightly crunchy, the root vegetable paired nicely with the earthiness of the blue foot mushrooms and refreshing watercress puree. This was one of my top three dishes of the evening.

Yet, the best dish of the meal, the one that had me swooning for more was the Iberico secreto. It’s described as a cut from the neck to arm pit area of the prized Spanish pig that’s known for it’s marbling. Having had Iberico in ham and sausage formats on numerous occasions, why has it taken me so long to have it seared?

Absolutely incredible, the crispy skin and fat makes the protein almost seem duck like but without any gaminess and even juicier. It’s a dish that’s only found on the full tasting menu (not the condensed version) and with the constantly changing offerings, a treat when the ingredient can be sourced.

Chef Adam should consider reordering the menu if a guest adds on the wagyu course (supplemental $55). After the incredible Iberico the beef was boring. My slice was also chewy given it was overcooked and had a muscle fibre running through it. If anything, the wild French asparagus and andouille stuffed morels delighted me more than the beef.

As we near the end of the savoury courses, an entire feast arrives with the venison leg tagine.  The protein was served with dishes of preserved lemon, smoked cucumber and eggplant hummus, olives, pita, and smoked sweet potato. We’re told to divide the pita into four and have the venison with each of the accompaniments individually.

My advice: create small bite sized “tacos” and have the meat with everything all at once. Otherwise, it just tastes too plain. I found the venison too lean and would have liked something that had a bit of fat or gelatinous cartilage incorporated into it – perhaps chunks of brisket or mutton? And I’d just skip the streusel sweet potato all together.

While I enjoyed the asparagus, it’s procession in the menu seems out of place. The vegetable was augmented with bold sides: porcini paste, kefalograviera cheese (like Parmesan but lighter), and something very peppery. If anything, the vegetable would have been nicer before all the meat dishes (it’s pepperiness highlighting the flavours to come) and the sweeter and lighter celeriac creating a better flow into desserts.

With tasting menus, I often find the desserts to be decent at best but not overly memorable. The fig newton could be considered one of those dishes – tasty but safe. A lemon poppyseed cake that sandwiches fig jam, there’s a really comforting quality to the dessert and is perfect for those who like a dessert that’s not overly sweet.

Yet, the last mortadella blew me away and was my second favourite dish. Firstly, it had me fooled – I was so sure it was a piece of meat on the bread. In reality, it is ruby chocolate studded with pistachio and shaved serrano ham. Moreover, there’s some sort of powder that looks like cheese but is so wispy light and creamy. Sweet, creamy, nutty, savoury, and tangy elements all combine to make for an incredible last dish. Give me more desserts like this any day.  

In fact, I should just have ended it on a high and not had the last bite of “Ferrero Rocher”. Hard and dense, there’s no crispy or creamy elements that you’d expect with the famed dessert. Azura needs to make these smaller or better yet, end with something more Mediterranean like a square of baklava instead.

In earlier posts on Gastro World, I’ve been complaining that Toronto’s tasting menus are morphing to become too Euro Japanese. At Azura you won’t find a lick of this – thank God! In fact, it’s one of the most unique tasting menus I’ve had in a while. A theme that continues into the wine offerings from little known regions. Combined with their friendly down-to-earth service and I’m smitten with Azura. I can’t wait to go back, but that Iberico secreto better make an appearance. 

In a nutshell... 
  • Must order: the full tasting menu for a chance to try the Iberico secreto
  • Just skip: wagyu supplement

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 162 Danforth Avenue

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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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Actinolite (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 971 Ossington Avenue
Type of Meal: Dinner

Actinolite is what I'd imagine Noma to be like - except with a focus on Canadian ingredients and much friendlier on the wallet. Like many restaurants they use local suppliers but gone one step further by starting their own garden. Controlling their food source allows them to strive for peak freshness by picking ingredients right before serving. What they don't grow and buy, they forage from the town of Actinolite (as noted on their website). Somehow knowing that their forging happens outside of the city was a relief as the thought of eating vegetation out of the Don River (which may be perfectly safe) was a bit alarming. 

There are two menus available, the 7-course Chef ($85) or a 4-course summary ($55). The summary menu offers larger plate sizes, so you won’t be starving afterwards, but does mean you’ll miss three of the dishes. During our dinner summary diners would have missed out on the radish, squid and egg ones - the biggest loss being the egg dish which was a favourite of my husband and I. Wine pairings are an additional $65 and $40, for the Chef and summary menus, respectively.

We decided to go with the Chef’s menu which true to form was seven courses. There are no amuse dishes at Actinolite, just a slice of sourdough bread with olive oil. At least it's really good sourdough; crunchy exterior, soft interior and enough salt within the dough that you could eat it plain. 

The first radish and carrots course was supposed to resemble a garden with halved vegetables served with soil butter, crunchy grass salt and other crunchy bits. Soil appears to be the up and coming ingredient that's growing in popularity worldwide and noted for its mineral properties. Luckily, at Actinolite the soil is incorporated with whipped butter and light tasting, so much so that it's unclear if real soil is actually used as there was no grittiness at all. 

Next came four spears of the most scrumptiously grilled asparagus. We were advised it was cooked on a Big Green Egg, which my husband proceeded to explain is one of the best grills for temperature precision and its smoking properties. The asparagus was cooked through and hot yet still crunchy with a light smoky flavour. Served with a nettle puree (a relatively neutral flavour), cold thick sour cream and spruce flowers this was a wonderful dish.

Our waitress warned us the squid was chewy, and she certainly wasn’t wrong as I gnawed on it for a while. Undeniably, the squid’s texture wasn’t my favourite and personally would have preferred the addition of shrimp and fish so that it’d be more of a seafood salad and less rubbery. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a total miss as having been marinated in a tart vinaigrette and served cold the dish was refreshing. With juniper berries, olive oil and a flavourful wild ginger gelee we found it almost acted as a palette cleanser.

Eggs are a staple ingredient but when prepared well can also be luxurious. For this dish, Actinolite poached the egg slowly so that it arrives gooey and hot in the middle. Topped with light shavings of summer truffle (a very delicate flavour) and pops of onion from the chive blossoms it was a lovely egg. Simple wilted spinach surrounded it and helped mop up every drop of warm yolk that leaked out.

The halibut was perfectly cooked with a beautiful golden crust and tender meaty interior. I did find the watercress puree on the bottom overwhelming bitter and was taken aback at first. Luckily, it was served to the side so I could lift the fish off and enjoy the halibut by itself. An ingredient I’m starting to get tired of is foam; yes, it’s decorative but in most cases adds little to the dish itself. At Actinolite their foam was made with fish stock and what a genius idea as it actually complimented the fish quite well. Various sprigs of minty herbs accompanied the fish and although I appreciate the naturalness would have preferred a hot cooked vegetable (more of the delicious wilted spinach would have been better).

Our last savoury dish of the night was sweetbread or the sheep’s thymus (neck/throat gland). Lightly floured and pan fried the sweetbread was fairly good and really just tastes like tender dark chicken meat. Sitting on a bed of wilted greens and topped with these tart berries the dish was an interesting mix of sour and salty flavours, with the berries cutting the fattiness of the sweetbread.

To end, a dish of fresh strawberries with cheese curds – a seemingly healthier version of strawberries and cream. With sweet drizzles of elderflower syrup and a delicious hay dust, despite its simple presentation, this was a satisfying dessert. Every speck of dust, drop of syrup and crumble of curd was wiped up with the plump sweet strawberries by the end!

Actinolite’s menu is so different from what you’ll find elsewhere in the city. Dishes are simply presented allowing the ingredients themselves to be showcased and patrons to enjoy their natural tastes. Throughout the meal so many different flavour were presented; sour, bitter, sweet and salty all represented at different times. But, what struck me most was how perfectly Chef Cournoyer seasons everything; each element was salted (for my taste) to the right strength to compliment the other ingredients.

In addition, you still feel good after all seven courses – the dishes felt healthy and light so I didn’t get a gluttonous feeling afterwards. It’s also a good choices for vegetarians as so many dishes featured non-meat ingredients prominently already.

With its small dining room and friendly dressed down staff the restaurant has a laid back atmosphere. It was comfortable and made me feel like I was eating in the countryside despite the busy Ossington street just outside the window. Do yourself a favour and try it once, you may just fall in love with all the tastes fresh produce has to offer.

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • - 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!