RES­TAU­RANT RE­VIEW

Chef Craig Hard­ing knows how to dress up the sim­ple stuff

Thornhill Post - - Contents -

Joanne Kates vis­its the hottest Ital­ian joint in Toronto

How is it that a res­tau­rant can open and within a week it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to get a ta­ble? It took me al­most a month to get a reser­va­tion at La Palma, and that was with al­most daily brows­ing.

Then we fi­nally get there, and guess what: Toronto is still a spaghetti and meat­balls kinda town. This is my only hy­poth­e­sis for La Palma’s in­stant over-thetop pop­u­lar­ity: We love ba­sic Italiana if they can make it feel snazzy.

And they do. The room is fab — tall, light and mostly white with uber-cool ab­stract mu­rals of splat­ter paint on the walls, white garage doors that open onto Dun­das West hip­ster­ville in nice weather, a big open kitchen with wood-burn­ing pizza oven, and cute af­fa­ble servers in black-and­white striped uni­forms cour­tesy of Pink Tar­tan. And they’re more than just pretty faces. Clearly le patron has been train­ing these young’uns thought­fully. They can ex­pli­cate the food items, sug­gest menu com­bos and what to share and talk wines well enough to mimic a som­me­lier. Some­body is in the driver’s seat here. They know what Toronto likes — and just how far to dress up the sim­ple stuff to serve our sense of oc­ca­sion.

Chef Craig Hard­ing has been win­ning hearts and minds at his Ital­ian bistro Cam­pag­nolo on Dun­das West, so it was nat­u­ral for him to take the cook­ing of his Ital­ian grand­mother across the street and down the block and throw in some po-mo twists. Like the artsy white room. And a lot of veg on the menu. Bel­gian en­dive with sweet crispy sunchoke chips and roasted ex­otic mush­rooms is about as deep and throaty as vegeta­bles get. Grilled broc­col­ini gets very jazzy thanks to gar­lic and chili.

But the main events are more trad Italiana. We love the ca­vatelli with saf­fron-scented braised veal shank ragu, a strong, rich gar­licky sauce. This is what hap­pened when spaghetti and meat­balls got up­scale. Lamb scot­ta­ditto (means burned fin­gers be­cause you can’t help pick­ing them up) are grilled to a crunch and topped with pi­quant salsa verde. The wood oven turns out im­pec­ca­ble thin­crusted pizza. Back to ba­sics: Splen­did pizza with basil, tomato sauce and bur­ra­tini.

This is all very ba­sic Ital­ian food — ap­par­ently sim­ple. Be­cause we like that. But there is a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween 90 per cent of the red sauce I’ve eaten in Toronto and the red sauce on the ca­vatelli. It’s deeper, richer, more gar­licky and com­plex. Same for the pizza, both crust and top­pings. It’s all about tech­nique.

And there is one over-the-top splen­did dessert: The mille feuille is a crispy puff pas­try ex­trav­a­ganza with vanilla pas­try cream and whipped cream with pas­sion fruit sauce, put to­gether at the last minute to avoid soggy pas­try, a per­fect con­trast of cream and crunch. Skip the cof­fee mousse clad in dark choco­late. It’s bland. And good luck get­ting a ta­ble.

Clock­wise from left: the stun­ner of a space de­signed by co-owner Alexan­dra Hutchi­son, seared tuna with water­melon and the cauliflower with roasted grapes

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cor­don Bleu de Cui­sine in Paris. She has writ­ten ar­ti­cles for nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chate­laine. JOANNE KATES

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