93 Harbord (Jan 08) - Lovely lamb, but not the "don't miss" meal that the Post promised
Last weekend, Gina Mallet’s National Post review gave 93 Harbord a 3-star rating (“don’t miss”). That same day, the Rabbitz had coincidentally booked a dinner rez, so we were ready to be blown away by what was coming out of the kitchen. Unfortunately, our experience did not pan out the same as Gina’s.
I made my rez via email on Thursday and had yet to hear a confirmation as of Saturday, so I called to make sure everything was OK. “93” assured me that all was well, and indeed they had a table ready for our 7:00 reservation. The room is pretty-pretty – exposed brick, flattering lighting, comfortable chairs, a well-stocked bar, and good music (old-school jazz, the night of our visit). On a further decorative note, the Christmas tree was still up — but we actually thought that a little passé, this being mid-January.
After some considerable menu deliberation, and in consultation with our seemingly knowledgeable server, we placed our orders and started picking at some very nice warm pita with a tasty green olive tapenade. The wine list is uninspired, but also not particularly price-y, so we went with an Aussie Coonanwarra shiraz/merlot ($38), which was totally quaffable (we went back for another couple of glasses later in the meal). “93” also had an interesting cocktail list, but I was in a wine-mood, so I didn’t do any experimenting (regret now… fig martini!!).
“93” has a mezes menu in addition to the appetizer section on their main menu. The mezes menu tended to be dips and relatively familiar stuff, and while we were initially going to build from this list (why not try the classics?), our server suggested that the starters from the main menu were more special. Despite this counsel, the Rabbit-sister ordered the sumac chicken from the mezes card, which presented a small plate with chopped chicken, leaves, nuts and pita. It was very flavourful, and a good start (also, a very appropriately sized serving). The Dad had the calamari appetizer with figs. This was an extremely generous serving of very tender squid with a peppery, fig-y accompaniment — and probably the best of the apps. My haloumi with arugula and pomegranate sauce was tasty, but I fatigued of the richness and flavour well before the dish was finished. Overall, apps were tasty, but no wow!-factor. Still, Mallet had really raved about the lamb, so we sat back and waited for our meat.
The Dad and I had the lamb tagine with shiraz and figs, and the Rabbit-sister had a lamb shank with ginger and apricots (a dish about which Mallet raved). The lamb in both cases was very tender and succulent, but we were surprised that the differences in flavour between the two stews was really quite minimal. There didn’t seem to be enough of either fruit to distinguish the flavours, and the spicing was more subtle than anticipated. Moreover, the Rabbit-sister’s dish did not come with the promised honey date yogurt. By this time, the restaurant was full and our service had deteriorated significantly, so we never did procure the yog (sometimes peaceable family talk takes precedence over securing an errant side-dish). The shiraz-fig tagine again presented as slightly disappointing since it was not sauce-y nor fig-y enough. There was barely enough sauce with my tagine to sop up the accompanying cous-cous. And since we’re being picky, the sides were entirely disappointing — since when is bok choy a middle eastern veg?
The mains were by no means bad — the lamb was very tender, but somehow none of our meals delivered the flavour-fest that Mallet’s review had groomed us to anticipate.
Finally, the wow!-factor presented itself with dessert. The cheesecake with fig was creamy and delectable with a sweet and flavourful sauce — absolutely wonderful. We also ordered a pistachio crème caramel which was no-longer-available (so early in the evening). We subbed in a baklava that our waiter reported was a customer favourite, but we found this very disappointing. The pastry was thin — more struedel than baklava, and the unsweetenedy pastry had a dough-y flavour that was disappointing. I always think of baklava as honey-dripping and this was anything-but. My mint-tea was “Master’s Choice” — and while I don’t want to snob it up too much, one might think that 93 would want to do better than an A& P housebrand. The Rabbit-sister put back her tawny-port without complaint. I was done.
When we arrived at 93 the place was quite empty, but by the time we left it was very full. Our service reflected this — and toward the end of our evening, with empty water glasses, and Really Big Rab thirsty for more wine, the slow service became rather annoying despite the company.
In my opinion, “93” is a very nice neighbourhood restaurant with an interesting twist to its generally good-ish food. But given all the spots in Toronto, I would definitely not put it on my “don’t miss” list. If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, sure. But I would not make this a destination.
Overall —Our bill was $235ish with tax and tip (and there was some deliberation about how much the absentee waiter actually deserved).
I've eaten a lot of good Arabic food in a lot of places, including some pretty refined ones, but I've never tasted more original or tasty food than this place. He borrows ideas from a lot of regions, uses fresher spiced that you will find elsewhere, and he even goes to Fes to teach cooking classes, which is pretty impressive when you consider that he is from Bethlehem. I've been there twice this month.
Have to add my love for the place. Tastes were all so unusual and delicious. Especially loved the sumac chicken, the lightness of the couscous and the black cod special. Desserts were also a big hit. Service was friendly and helpful in navigating some of the unknown ingredients, though as the place got busier it was more difficult to flag their attention. Bit of a noisy spot and I say that not to discourage, just to inform that this isn't a cosy, whispered conversation kind of place. It's now on my "go back to in a heartbeat" list.