Joanne Kates takes a bite out of new restau­rant R&D, by MasterChef’s Alvin Le­ung and past win­ner Eric Chong

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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

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