DE­LI­CIOUS ONE-WOMAN SHOW

Chef Anna Chen, formerly of Scaramouche and Buca, draws crowds with her Blo­ordale Bistro

Midtown Post - - Contents - JOANNE KATES

Joanne Kates re­views T.O.’s hot new bistro Alma, from for­mer Figo chef Anna Chen

I some­times think there are too many res­tau­rants in Toronto. They’re open­ing all the time, and it’s hard to keep up with the lat­est flavour du jour. But just when I think there are too many, I try to get a reser­va­tion at the new­est hot spot and it’s sold out for two months. As in, just try get­ting a ta­ble at the new Alo­bar. Dream on. So go else­where till it cools down. Be strate­gic, I tell my­self.

Hence my de­light at cop­ping a ta­ble at the hot new Alma in Blo­ordale. This is the love child of chef Anna Chen, a diminu­tive sprite with big ideas. Chef Chen pre­vi­ously cooked at Figo, Buca Yorkville and Scaramouche, where she added French and Ital­ian chops to her Hakka Chi­nese up­bring­ing in In­dia.

This is what cos­mopoli­tan tastes like, and it is the dy­na­mite core of what de­fines the Toronto din­ing scene. Alma’s menu reads like a world tour — al­ways in­flu­enced by Chef Chen’s daily mar­ket visit and her com­mit­ment to mak­ing ev­ery­thing from scratch.

Din­ner starts with chef ’s own warm flat­bread. I find it pleas­ant although too thick, and chef ’s rap­ini sun­flower seed dip could be less as­trin­gently bit­ter. Good hon­est ef­fort though.

Her cau­li­flower is a mas­ter­work, es­pe­cially in a town gone nuts for fried cau­li­flower; this ren­di­tion is un­greasy, care­fully flash-fried and lightly dressed with curry and fer­mented pep­per, with just enough honey for a flavour-dance. Her fresh browned ar­ti­chokes sit in a se­duc­tive pool, a daz­zling purée of raw gar­lic, sour­dough bread and al­monds. Cab­bage dumpling with plum sauce is chef ’s veg homage to dim sum, a melt-in-the-mouth flour wrap­per ‘round long sautéed gen­tled cab­bage.

She makes a quick trip to France with Parisian gnoc­chi, the trad sautéed potato dumpling that is so easy to mess up, thanks to gnoc­chi’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to tough­ness in gen­eral, and fried gnoc­chi’s ad­di­tional propen­sity for tough­ness. Not here! Chef Chen’s fried gnoc­chi are tooth­some gems, made more fun by fried zuc­chini and just enough lemon, mint and pecorino to be jazzy.

Funny, her only mis­step is so close to home: Her ren­di­tion of the clas­sic Chi­nese sticky rice in lo­tus leaf is badly over­stated. First off, she mar­i­nates the chicken in soy sauce – a mis­take be­cause the salt in the soy draws the wa­ter from the chicken and tough­ens it, while adding too strong a flavour. Sec­ond, she cooks the rice in shi­itake broth, which kills the sub­tlety of the rice flavour. And fi­nally, putting fer­mented rap­ini on top is adding yet an­other toost­rong flavour. Death to del­i­cacy. Chef some­times shoots her­self in the foot by lay­er­ing on flavours that are too strong.

But all else de­lights at Alma, in­clud­ing the charm­ing ser­vice. Servers know the menu, wines and in­gre­di­ents and are proud to serve it. The room is pleas­antly min­i­mal­ist, comfy enough with few gew­gaws to dis­tract from the food. When the chef her­self comes out of the kitchen to de­liver your food, which hap­pens of­ten, you know you’re in the pres­ence of a con­trol freak artist. Alma is a de­light­ful one-woman show.

Clock­wise from top: Alma’s min­i­mal­ist din­ing room, pork won­tons and noo­dles, fried cau­li­flower

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