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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.


    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.

        2. I could maybe forgive the lack of "off the menu" creativity for a restaurant that has just opened. But what I find exceptionally odd is the fact that he only served you the lamb and the steak for mains. It would have been far more interesting to offer 3, 4 or even 5 different dishes to give you a better sense of the range of the menu and Couilliard's culinary palate.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Fwagra

            If there was ever a chef who got by on what he used to do, Coulliard is it. The fact that they couldn't put together something better than that is inexcusable. I swear people go to his restaurants now out of pity.

            1. re: Jonaton

              hi guys,

              just an FYI, a friend of mine stated that Spice Room was the best meal she's had in Toronto in quite some time, and she's quite the restaurant goer, and has even reviewed for years. Of course, she did say it was veerrrry pricey, so would be a serious special occasion spot for her.

              So, seems having that reputation thing works both ways, some say resting on laurels, getting by on his name, but don't try the place and have an open-mind for the same reason.

              Odd really....

              1. re: Jonaton

                At least people go to his restaurants, Some chefs can't get people to go to their restaurants because of the product. The best meal I ever had in this city (and that's a lot of dinners) was produced by Greg Couillard.

            2. LOL at this whole thread. Can't wait to judge for myself really...

              1. Here's the link to MartiniBoys review. Looks like I'll be skipping it though, since I'm a certified Spice Wimp!


                1. I sooo wanted to like this restaurant. THe mall needed it. But I am sad to say it was not a great meal. Very mediocre.
                  We called for reservations, and they asked us to call back as he wasn't 'near the book'. Then after we made reservations they didn't have them when we arrived. But no problem, the restaurant was 1/2 full.
                  THe server ranged from uninterested in us to downright irritated when we asked for more sweet potato bread (the best thing there).
                  THe washrooms are in the mall. I waved to my dinner companions on the way up the escalator.
                  My appetizer - beet salad, was confused and just a mess of things on the plate. Too many flavours but no single theme.
                  THe jump up soup was a hit at our table. THough from the menu one didn't know it was soup.
                  My dinner didn't come with the accompanments listed. This happens frequently in restaurants. Servers - you must tell us, sometimes we choose the dish based on the side dishes!! Again our server seemed irritaed when I told him. We had waited 45 minutes for food (1/2 empty restaurant) and I was too hungry to order something else.
                  THe dish was fine but not what I ordered.
                  THe food is expensive. It is not worth it.
                  Coullaird also circled the room (3 tables) to say hello - but did not come to our table.
                  I feel bad for the mall.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: lpollard

                    Despite the negativity here, the place seems to be doing quite well. I recently dropped in with some friends and learned that they are doing many of their dishes in tapas portions for 9$ per if you sit at the bar. Six dishes were more than enough for three people, and the flavours were fantastic! Tandoori shrimp stood out, two large shrimps perfectly cooked served on a small salad bed with a mango dressing, together with a spicy jelly. Also good were the red curry seafood bisque, the jump up and the ribs. Beautifully tender, fall off the bone with fantastic flavour.

                  2. So, is this a Cluck, Grunt and Low in a different snack bracket? Variations on "ethnic" food at an absurd markup?

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: mrbozo

                      Haven't tried CG&L, but from what I've read here, the execution there doesn't work, and the flavours seem to be missing. Not with Spice Room, and 9$ apps in Yorkville doesn't constiute an 'absurd markup'. I wouldn't dismiss this place.

                      1. re: mrbozo

                        As much as I dont like the lack of flavour and poor execution at CGL, from my own accounts, and no i didnt order the mac n cheese, the pricing is nowhere near absurd!

                        1. I'm a bit dismayed to say that we had a similar so-so experience as many above. We made a reservation for a Tuesday and got a call back to say that there was a private party and would we mind sitting outside the dining room as the private dining room had yet to be finished. No problem, we were going for the food so the seating (which turned out to be just next to the bar and was fine) was not the issue. Midway through the apps they started sanding the floor close by but GC went to shout at them and that stopped soon enough. We were moved into the dining room proper for dessert as they had gotten the urethane out and the place was starting to smell like a bit funky. Again, many apologies and a free desert plate from the boss. Throughout the meal the service was attentive and very professional, Greg kept coming by to check up and see how things were, everyone was pleasant and everything was done right. Very impressive on the service side.
                          Sweet potato scones and pillow like coconut buns were good but I wouldn't rave about them. The hummus was also good but could have been a bit richer. A chicken liver pate was really punchy and tasted more like blue cheese than pate; this I liked... punchy is good.
                          For apps:
                          Icy octopus was if I recall a jerk rubbed octopus that had been grilled, sliced and served with a sweet chili sauce and a mango (?) coulis. To boot the plate had a cuke flower, pickled ginger, baby pea sprouts, what might have been truffle oil, sprigs of mint. There were more elements than this but I forget. End result (and someone mentioned this above), you could not have fit another flavor on the plate had you been obliged to. That said the octopus was really tasty, spicy, tossed with some fresh thyme.
                          Tandoori shrimp came with a similar set up and were nicely seasoned, again punchy.
                          The presentation was not what I would call soignee. Some might even say the plates were overloaded, but this seemed to be the style. Maybe people who have been to GC's previous restos can say if this has always been his style, this was my first time. I'm very Japanese for my taste in presentation so this was not really up my creek but hey, why not?
                          Jump up soup was good but for my tastes overloaded with different things and flavours.

                          A sorbet of passionfruit was served in between courses. It was good but I would have like a cleaner flavour. For me passionfruit doesn't really cleanse the palate so much as blow it away with a sucker punch of acidity. Also, someone needs to bring out those sorbets before they are half melted, the effect is somehow less spectacular when one receives a beautiful little bowl of slush.

                          The lobster and pasta was very tasty (lobster perhaps a wee bit overcooked, pasta perfectly cooked), the portion was immense. It came under a chafing cover and there was sauce and bits of pasta sticking out from beneath the cover (sloppy). I would certainly order this again, the sauce was creamy well balanced and very sexy. Yes you could probably make this at home but it was still well done. The use of vietnamese lalot leaves as a garnish was strange. The sides of mixed veg were unremarkable, I would prefer an emphasis on seasonal and simpler veg.
                          Berbere crusted lamb was overcooked (I had asked for medium rare and got med-well) but
                          I'm not picky. I didn't find the quality of the meat astounding but it wasn't bad. Overall the sauce was too sweet for me (that said the apps too were too sweet for my palate, so we'll have to beg to differ on the level of sugar, I like sour), and the lamb not spicy enough although I like things hott. The rice on the side was tasty but too soft. The veg (grilled aubergine, beet tops, and one more) were not really remarkable.
                          Filet mignon with tandoori foie gras was interesting. nicely cooked and beautiful piece of meat, again way big portion, foie gras was perfectly cooked and had a nice spice crust. Again I found the overall effect to be a bit too sweet. Potato pancake was tasty, nice and crisp onthe outside.

                          As I said above we got a comped dessert platter. some little meringue japonaises stuffed with mascarpone (delicious), two types of chocolate cake (again oh so yummy), a creme caramel (ban creme brulee and creme caramel, I don't care if the people like it, they can be given a recipe and make it themselves, it would be good for them to learn how to make a desert that doesn't involve Jello or pudding or President's Choice products, and besides I can make a better one than this at home, sorry but I can. Both have to go the way of tiramisu and be relegated to their proper cultural context: BISTRO ONLY). Also a very sexy and not so sweet butterscotch filled tart or something that tasted as such, we never were quite clear on what the filling was. Again, the presentation was a bit matcho for me, great swathes of chocolate sauce everywhere with cacao powder liberally applied.
                          We were stuffed!
                          With 100$ of wine the bill was 100/person before tip. Not unfair. Had we not had comped dessert it might have been a bit more. As someone said above CG means good, he seemed like a really sweet guy, very enthusiastic about his food, very personable and obviously enjoying his new resto. It just really wasn't blow you away stuff, it wasn't bad in any way but it brought nothing new to the table, in fact at points it brought too much to the table.

                          1. We visited last night for a client dinner and were severely underwhelmed. Sticky ribs were tasting of nothing more than ginger, the lamb chops were overcooked at low heat and the roasted sweet potatoes were black. The rice was dry and warmed up.

                            Portions were too large and prices way too high. Never again.