MASTER CHEF’S MISSTEP
Joanne Kates takes a bite out of new restaurant R&D, by MasterChef’s Alvin Leung and past winner Eric Chong
241 Spadina Ave. $70 Dinner for two I’m thinking of getting a publicist. Here’s my plan: I’ll hire an internetsavvy PR person to paint the town red with the news of my upcoming concert at Massey Hall (keepin’ it small and personal). My PR person will plaster the (virtual) town with news of my international reputation and musical virtuosity. Everyone will believe it because it’s in the news. They will then flock to my equally well-publicized debut Toronto performance.
It may be a bit of shock to the avid music fans at Massey Hall that I can’t carry a tune to save my life. Maybe some of them won’t even notice — or they’ll think I’m so avant-garde that they just don’t understand.
Isn’t hype interesting? All over town (including in this space) food writers have been extolling the virtues of the culinary team that opened R&D on Spadina in the home of Strada 241. None of the excited writers seem to have actually tasted the food they were hyping; but that’s how hype works: It needs the new new all the time, it chows down on anticipation.
And has been so effective that it’s tough getting a table at R&D. Which begets more buzz. Who cares about the taste of things?
One ought to. It’s so meh I wouldn’t go back if you paid me. The famous Red Star Punch, which comes in a smoking teapot thanks to dry ice and costs $45 for two to four people, is a too-sweet girly cocktail of gin with oolong, hawthorn, mandarin, lemon and rhubarb bitters. Tastes like sweetened gin. The equally hyped lobster chow mein is about as good as any chow mein I’d get for less money on the Avenue. Same deal with spicy Szechuan lamb buns: The wrappers are dry, the innards under-seasoned. Better dim sum exists elsewhere and cheaper on the Avenue. Ceviche of prawns and scallops tastes as if they put the seafood in its acid bath so far in advance that the acid “cooked” the seafood… and it’s bland.
The media heroes who bring us all this finery are Alvin Leung and Eric Chong. Mr. Leung was working as an engineer in Hong Kong when, aged 42, he switched to restaurants. He has a Michelin three star restaurant in Hong Kong and, according to the R&D website, “multiple restaurants to his name.” His partner Mr. Chong, also an engineer, is a TV chef who won MasterChef Canada, apprenticed for Leung in Hong Kong and at Buca in Toronto. Unlike the olden days, cooking on TV and a brief apprenticeship seem to suffice as credentials for opening a restaurant.
Who cares that the General Sanders chicken (a cute play of General Tso’s chicken) is overcooked and its coating is thick and hard? Or that their go-with Hong Kong egg waffles are doing a good job of mimicking the horribly dried-out frozen waffles we serve at camp?
Do the crowds flocking mind that the poutine is weird and uncrisp?
That the so-called umami Caesar is bland? The octopus boring? The egg rolls pretty low octane on the flavour chart? The scallops are properly cooked, but we can’t find the promised Szechuan hollandaise anywhere.
Meanwhile, the room is crowded and the people are happy. Which makes me ever more confident about my impending musical debut. Grant van Gameren’s new tapas bar is being lauded as Barcelona’s gift to Toronto. And it is. But life is complicated and Toronto isn’t Barcelona. Oh well. We race to dine at Raval but guess what, they don’t take reservations. That’s no surprise; but the chairs are. Or should I say lack thereof.
And that’s where the rubber hits the road. Toronto isn’t Barcelona. In Barcelona people crowd into tapas bars after work, they stand three deep at the bar and munch on tapas, quaff a dry sherry or three.... And then move on. Barcelonans aren’t eating dinner at tapas bars.
Are we? Is our eating culture the same as theirs? Does it matter?
It does to me. I just wasn’t sure about dining standing up. Even for Grant.
The room is a spectacular homage to Antoni Gaudí, designed to recall the fanciful grand curlicues of the master of whimsy and joy.
And it does. Go for the Gaudí, if not for the food.The Partisans design team turned van Gameren’s love affair with Barcelona into glorious homage to its master architect. The great swooping curves and cutouts, all executed in lustrous mahogany, make the room swooningly gorgeous — walls, bar and ceiling.
Van Gameren, of Bar Isabel, has two partners at Raval; they make the bar hop. But the food is his vision: The menu is all finger food, designed to be speared with toothpicks. No cutlery, no chairs, no fuss, no muss. It’s pintxos — small bites either speared on toothpicks or on great bread.
Grant has always adored pickles. His crunchy dills and chile-pickled green beans jazz spears of melt-inthe-mouth sous-vide tuna. Lightly pickled tender white anchovies play nicely with marinated red peppers on bread.
Small clams which are canned as soon as they’re harvested in Spain are the best thing I’ve ever had from a can. Similarly charming and delightful are small chunks of grilled octopus. Same deal with tender fried sweetbreads for spearing. Less exciting: scallops in uni sauce, the sauce too buttery and soupy for the context; and shrimp and cream on toast, the cream a francophilic mousse from yesteryear.
The regulars say breakfast at Raval is their fave. I can see it. Croissant stuffed with moist salt cod is divine. Grant’s fresh flaky dulce de leche doughnuts are the sexiest carbs in town — especially the one topped with crisped jamon. Pintxos like morcilla sausage topped with a fried quail egg make bacon ’n’ eggs seem antique. Try it on the terrace, you’ll be several steps closer to heaven.
Clockwise from left: R&D’s lively interior; Grant van Gameren turns out doughnuts
smothered in dulce de leche and incredible canned goods