For some years, TOCA restaurant has quietly gone about its business on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto.
Indeed, the restaurant flies under the city’s gastronomic radar — mystifying, given the sophistication of the meal I had at a recent visit.
TOCA’s kitchen has collaborated with Rome-based, Michelin-starred chef Oliver Glowig, and his input, coupled with a kitchen fully in command of technique, makes for a knockout series of dishes.
For example, pesto vinaigrette’s basil notes fragrantly brings together the elements of the insalata romana — Romaine lettuce, candied tomato, avocado and goat cheese.
On a more homespun, but no less enjoyable, note, there’s chickpea and escarole soup, steaming hot, hearty and garnished with mussels.
One of the evening’s highlights is the house-made, pillow-soft fagotelli pasta pockets stuffed with tender braised duck scented with vanilla, star anise, cinnamon and black peppercorn — a little bit Asian, a little bit Italian, and completely delicious. Offering bitter counterpoint is a hillock of soft rapini. I’d return for this dish alone!
A brightly flavoured tomato sauce brings sweetness and acidity to a generous dish of terrifically moist Mediterranean seabass, squid and mussels garnished with rapini.
And then comes exquisitely tender braised pork cheek, cleverly counterpointed with quince mostarda and silky pureed parsley root, which manages to be homey and sophisticated all at once. It’s one of the finest braises I’ve had anywhere.
Even the daily veg — melt-in-the-mouth braised eggplant and escarole — is fit for a king.
Desserts, courtesy of executive pastry chef Gaël Moutet, continue the meal’s sophisticated trend. There’s an elaborate construction of velvety vanilla panna cotta, candied chestnut, pear marmalade and house-made chestnut gelato (pear and chestnut is a match made in culinary heaven).
Even more impressive is a trio of orange-coloured spheres fashioned from white-chocolate shells stuffed with white-chocolate mousse studded with bits of confit mandarin. These bodacious balls, themselves made to mimic the look of mandarin oranges through clever garnishing, sit in a soup, made from mandarin oranges, whose intensely bright, citrus flavours kick the dessert into orbit.
All of this unfolds in a tranquil, softly lit, contemporary space outfitted with acres of gleaming hardwood, an earth tone palette, glass partitions and, prominently displayed in the centre of the room, a temperature- and humidity-controlled cave storing Canadian and Italian cheeses and their assorted condiments.
Group options include a private dining room seating 12 people, and a chef’s table seating 10. TOCA can accommodate buyouts of 80 to 120.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,400 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.