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Spice Room - Review

There were 5 of us at Greg Couillard's new restaurant, Spice Room, on Friday night.

We will probably not return. It was quite unanimous.

We were greeted very nicely, and the service was generally quite friendly and good. Couillard himself partakes of serving and clearing dishes, while also chatting with customers.

The place itself has the feel of a Las Vegas-style restaurant with the African theme abounding, including African headresses on the hostess, dim lanterns, and other faux exotica. The room itself is quite nice.

The menu is small in selection, which we took as a good sign. Most of the food was described a bit outlandishly with obscure African place-names. The wine list was miniscule and would probably deter anyone from drinking wine, especially given that the spicy food does not lend itself to most wines, except maybe Gewurztraminer. But there was no Gewurz offered on the wine list. Beer ruled the night.

Given that we were in the hands of a very prominent chef, we decided to let him show his stuff. We simply asked that he make dinner for five hungry people, and we would leave it to his discretion and culinary wisdom. We were prepared to be somewhat impressed given his reputation. But, he bristled nervously at our suggestion, demanding particulars of our desires. Perhaps that might have been our cue to simply order from the menu. But, by this point, we did not want to insult him by revoking the trust that we had placed in him.

So what did he do? He brought two appetizers, both on the same bed of mixed fruit and greens. One had deep-fried shrimps atop greens, mango, dragonfruit, and other fruit. The other featured something else (I don't even recall what it was) atop the same stuff. The apps were tasty enough, but they were too similar. There was no variation, as one might expect from a chef who was given free reign.

Then, for the mains, rather than exercising culinary liberty, he simply served us 6 main courses off the menu. Three lambs and three steaks. They were all individually plated, so dividing them was a bit tricky. And, he did point out that he was comping us a main course. But, in my view, he did not live up to the omikase-like possibilities and he did not at all relish our absolute trust in him. The plates were okay. The lamb was generous, but not well-trimmed for my taste; there was too much fat left after trimming, although I know that that is a matter of personal style. The lamb was caked with a very spicy and delicious red paste, which was a bit overbearing but addictive. I was impressed at the spiciness of the food, especially given that we were, after all, in Hazelton Lanes of all places. The sides on the plates were typical: potato pancake, assorted greens. They were almost token. They were uninventive.

So, it got me thinking. Was it our fault? Should I have notified him in advance that we wanted a tasting menu or something akin to that? Did we expect too much? I don't know. But, he sure was rattled by the request. I would have thought that someone with his experience and artistry would have been able to rattle off an impromptu feast that featured the best of his kitchen and skills. But, I guess I was wrong.

Couillard is in trouble. Toronto is now a Mecca for spicy, inexpensive flavour hits. Restoran Malaysia, the Indian buffets, the great roti joints... they're all doing it and doing it well. Couillard's food is an expensive imitation of Toronto's ethnic eats. But, in the absence of some added value from Couillard the genius, I would rather get my flavour on at Restoran Malaysia. I don't need to pay triple for it.

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  1. Hmm, has anyone actually been to the restaurant and ordered under normal circumstances, from the menu. I mean, if he wanted to add a tasting menu, I suppose he would have, right? I am interested in trying out this place, but it didn't get a very good review in the Post -- not that I completely trust that review anyway.

    Anyone?

    3 Replies
    1. re: antifoodie

      Those of you who know Greg, know he means well...but you just can't expect him to be doing what he was doing in his glory days. Next time, ask the staff for a few of their favs, and just order from the menu. Keep it simple, don't throw curve balls into a new restaurant where I am sure everyone is still finding their 'groove'...Couillard included. I guess you didnt' get what you asked for, but should have realized that this wasn't that 'type' of place.

      1. re: The Macallan 18

        < but you just can't expect him to be doing what he was doing in his glory days >

        is that intentionally damning with faint praise?

        why on earth not? other than the newness of the place, which needs to work out kinks.

        1. re: orangewasabi

          In my opinion, Couillard is still riding on his reputation as a chef who brought 'new' flavours to toronto. however, that toronto is long gone, and as the original poster notes, there are many chefs in toronto who are versed in the cuisines he tries to work with. not sure if it still exists on the board, but a couple of years ago i posted a review of a very bad experience at habitat that in my mind reflects his ignorance of toronto diners' culinary know-how. couillard simply refuses to accept that many of us who eat in his or similar restaurants are not only familiar with the dishes he brings out, but actually cook them (or use the ingredients for them) in our homes. we are no longer wowed by 'exotic' sounding names for dishes and ingredients, and we know how they're supposed to look and taste.

    2. Interesting review; could it be that he simply didn't have the prep and/or product in stock to throw together a 'chef's selection'?

      9 Replies
      1. re: diesta

        Well, as indicated in the initial review, I accept some responsibility for throwing a curveball. But, come on. He's not some bush league chef. He should have done better, I think.

        And, more importantly, the dishes on the menu are simply not that good.

        Yes, I now realize what type of place Spice Room is. It's another average mediocre place with no artistry, innovation, or even really good food.

        1. re: Fwagra

          Sounds like most of Couillards places in the last 10 years!

          1. re: estufarian

            My wife and I had a great meal at meal at Sarkis back in 98. She mentioned how much she enjoyed that dinner even months later. Did any of you ever eat at Sarkis, and if so how did you like it?

            I'm waiting for a few more reviews on the Spice Room before we go.

            1. re: foodyDudey

              Four of us went to Sarkis back in the day and had a great meal. Described by our guests as one of the best meals they ever had.

              1. re: Aardvark

                My recollection isn't that strong.
                I found the spicing repetitive. Absolutely a one-note performance.
                My first recollection was at the Blue Room on King - the cooking there was good and relatively well-priced. But that room - it always gave me a headache just being there.
                The last time was at Irie - just stumbled in one night and discovered Greg was in the kitchen (and serving). Never went back there either.
                And by the time of Avec the food was pretty bad.
                Even his President's Choice jump-up soup (always his best dish) was bland and unexciting.
                I, too, need some strong reviews before trying.

                  1. re: hungry_pangolin

                    No - not China Blues. Blue Room was on King west of Bathurst.

          2. re: Fwagra

            I would guess that an "impromtu" tasing menu would seriously upset the flow in the kitchen which is set up to execute the small menu and nothing more. Perhaps your request was not well recieved becuase Coulliard didnt want to slow down his whole kitchen and give substandard service to the rest of the diners that evening?

            1. re: kasey j miller

              Your speculation may be correct. I don't know. We did put him on the spot, and for whatever reason he was not up for it. That's fine.

              But, here's the point: the food from the menu is not that good. To me, that's what really matters. Not whether the chef is prepared to make a tasting menu off the top of his head.

              This restaurant will not last.

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