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Mar 5, 2008 10:55 AM

Colborne Lane: Dinner as Entertainment

After weeks and weeks of agonizing (because I am a drama queen about these things), I finally settled on Colborne Lane's Kitchen Table Tasting Menu for my birthday party. It had come down to Colborne Lane vs. Splendido and finally liquid nitrogen won out over the special stool for my genuine fake gucci handbag.

Reservations were made for 4 for the Kitchen Table (there was minor confusion about whether reservations could be made for 4, since it ordinarily seats 6, but it wasn't much of a problem). Everyone arrived separately, so we had a drink at the bar while the group assembled itself. The bar was perhaps a little understocked, but the bartender was friendly and accommodating.

Once everyone showed up, we were escorted down the stairs and through the kitchen, into the kitchen table. It's a small room carved out of the kitchen with one wall entirely lined with spices, and on the opposite end, a huge glass window opening out to the kitchen.

Our waiter came by with the wine list (I'll leave that for TorontoJo to comment on, since she's the only one who really read it) and water (he was more than happy to provide regular old ice water) and explained a bit about the set up. Then Chef Aprile came in to say a quick hello to the table before things got started.

Our first course was a spoon of what looked very much to be a slightly less then stunning cherry tomato. It turned out to be a carrot gel, matched with a ginger foam. It took my mouth a few seconds to wrap around the idea that it wasn't a tomato -- it really wanted that to be a tomato, or, at least, tomatoey. It was part of the fun of the evening -- your brain telling you one thing and your tongue saying something completely different.

Next up was a dish of tuna sashimi. It was served in a solid block of ice with a bowl carved out of it, and came accompanied by a variety of different flavours and textures from a yuzu sauce to crispy dehydrated garlic chips (I wonder it those come in a snack sized bag?) to popping granules of ginger and cucumber. We all dug enthusiastically into our dishes, trying to determine precisely which items were which, and extolling the virtues of different combinations of the garnishes with the tuna.

Next came a cheddar soup. Which, honestly, as it was being described sounded pretty awful. I mean, I'm as likely as the next person to eat left over cheese sauce off a spoon, but cheddar soup sounded so rich and heavy that I was not looking forward to trying it this early in a 15 course dinner. Defying expectations (there were a lot of defied expectations over the course of the dinner), it turned out to be wonderfully light. There wasn't a hint of density or anything overbearing about it at all. The peeled grapes and seasoned pear added a nice bit of interest to it, and even more refreshing lightness.

Next up was a seafood scallop. One lovely scallop, cooked precisely. It was perfect. The garnishes, again, were many and trying different combinations of them against the scallop was entertaining. I probably should have tried the fried scallions with the scallop, but they were so delicious I just ate the whole lot of them right off the bat. The creme fraiche pearls were not actually dippin dots no matter how much I wanted them to be.

Next up was a Thai inspired dish (I heard 'Italian Inspired' when the waiter introduced it, and I was terribly confused by the dish itself until someone corrected me) of squid. Like the scallop, the squid was perfectly cooked. Not a hint of rubberiness, nor of raw fishiness. All kinds of yummy garnishes, but just sauce on the squid itself was really enough for this one -- it was tremendous. That did not stop me from eating the rest of the mango sauce, though.

Next up was a beet salad dish. (I'm going to misspell beets at least once in this paragraph. I just know it.) There were roasted beets, beet cellophane, a big spongy beet thingy, beet puree and a crusted fried ball of goat cheese. This was the least liked course of the evening. Now, personally, I like beets, so I was good with most of it. My less beet adoring dining companions infinitely preferred the goat cheese to the beets. The one universal, however, was a dislike of the beet sponge tartufo looking thing. It tasted pretty much like I'd expect my memory foam mattress to taste if I spilled a glass of koolaid on it. Chef explained that he didn't expect everyone to like that, as it was one of the more out there preparations, but realistically, I just thought it was kind of nasty.

Immediately following the least liked dish of the night came one of the best. The miso black cod with panna cotta, greens and crispy tapioca. The crispy tapioca was more of a textural counterpoint than a flavor, but really, this dish needed nothing past the miso cod to make it amazing. Earlier dishes had amply demonstrated that the kitchen has a way with seafood -- they really manage to get it to precisely the right temperature without overcooking it at all. This was the most virtuoso display of that skill. The fish was like butter -- it just melted away in your mouth, leaving behind a delicate flavor and the sweetness of the miso glaze.

Next was an intermezzo with lemon curd, sorbet, vanilla pearls, pomelo (po-MEL-lo? PO-mel-lo? po-me-LO? we debated endlessly) and poprocks. Yay for poprocks. Really. So much fun. We were a bit disappointed that mixing pop rocks and champagne did not cause anyone's stomache to explode. Not that exploding stomaches wouldn't have ruined the meal, but you hate to have a bit of your childhood debunked like that.

Arctic char on tofu with marmalade and a mushroom jus was next. I liked this (especially the mushroom jus) but I was kind of still caught up in the miso cod moment, and while this would have seemed great before the cod, after the cod it was just, you know, not the cod. Was that a sign that my palate was just dead after too many courses?

Next up venison with huckleberry sauce (loved the huckleberry sauce) and some vegetables. Parnsip puree, roasted carrots, mushrooms and crispy amaranthe. I enjoyed all but the mushroom, oddly enough. Now I feel extra guilty about all those parsnips that I let rot in my crisper and then threw away back when I was getting a weekly vegetable box and got parsnips every bloody week, and never knew what the hell I was supposed to do with them.

The final 'main' course was a trio (which, realistically, made the whole thing like 17 courses long) with gnocchi with double smoked bacon and green beans (very much a hit), triple seared beef medallion with HP jelly (I admit it, I grew up in an HP family, so I loved that!) and a short rib with sunchoke puree. The short rib was fantastic. The puree was great. Together they were even better. The short rib part of this dish was definitely on everyone's list of favorite items.

Next a cheese course -- a spiced pecan, fig terrine and a manchego. As cheese go, manchego is not one of the more challenging, but this had a nice subtlety and I always do enjoy a manchego. The smidge of black on the plate is plain black pepper and not some kind of strange pollen thing as first speculated by our waiter. So disappointing! We demand strange pollen things!

Pre-dessert was a raspberry lolly and some freeze dried raspberries. It was very, very raspberry. Even more raspberry than actual raspberries.

Main dessert was deconstructed tiramisu. It started with the in room creation of mocha ice cream from infused cream and liquid nitrogen. This was entertaining and had the added bonus of cooling off our little room which was pretty hot by then. They should definitely consider leaving a pitcher of nitrogen boiling off in the corner of that room. The dessert itself was. Well. Here's the thing. I loathe coffee, especially with milk. So coffee ice cream is pretty vile stuff in my mind. I was actually okay with the freeze dried espresso (tasted more like coffee crisp than actual coffee) but the rest of the dessert, I pretty much didn't touch.

Our final dessert was 'nitro iced coffee bombs' which I knew weren't going to be my thing, but I still ate it anyway. The texture was fun, and the sensation of the little cream bulb popping open and starbucks coffee liquere flooding out was impressive -- it's a great mechanism for delivering a concentrated burst of flavor that really bursts. It's just too bad the flavour itself was more coffee. Urk.

The service was excellent -- very personal, with the waiter joining in on conversations when it was appropriate (and even some times where it was probably totally inappropriate, yet utterly hilarious and personable anyway). They were happy to answer any of our questions, even when we wandered out into the kitchen to ask the chefs directly.

It was a five hour experience from start to finish, and we were chatting, laughing and loving every minute of it. It really was immensely entertaining dining.

I'd love one day to be able to try one of the hard core molecular places like WD50 or Alinea or Moto, but I think Colborne Lane is doing a lovely job of balancing the concepts of molecular gastronomy with food that still looks like food. I dined with a group of serious hounds and we all had a great time, but I also feel like I could take my The Keg loving parents there. Not for the 15 course tasting menu, perhaps, but there are definitely things on the menu that are amazingly delicious without necessarily being entirely weird. The entirely weird ones are just more fun.

Jamie took photos and posted them on his flickr account:

Colborne Lane
45 Colborne Street, Toronto, ON M5E 1P8, CA

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  1. Great review and excellent pics... was debating going to Splendido this Sunday (it has been consistently outstanding every time) but your review and especially the pics have me debating a return to Colborne Lane for the tasting menu. Decisions!

    1. What was the price for the experience? Sounds neat!

      2 Replies
      1. re: Pincus

        Just over a thousand dollars, tax, tip and alcohol included.

        1. re: Jacquilynne

          Alcohol = 4 cocktails and 2 bottles of sparkling wine ($75 each).

      2. Absolutely brilliant review! Thanks Jacquilynne.

        I've always pronounced it PO-mel-lo, and I think it's biologically related to the grapefruit.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

          I've always heard it pronounced "paw-mell-oh" in Chinatown, so that's how I always said it.

        2. can i just say that the crispy tapioca looks like styrofoam!? i would've seriously sat there questioning it.

          otherwise, really lovely and detailed review. most other reports never really seemed to have dishes that were as playful but it could have been because of much less detail and description. i'm certainly much more interested in going to cl sometime now.

          one question though... the entire "in the kitchen" experience, how did you find that? i wasn't very thrilled with the trevor one as it really just amounted to being a foot away from the pass... which meant we were often blocked by servers/runners picking up food and yet somehow had flighty service. were the chefs friendly? i see some of them eyeing you back! from one fishbowl to another...

          5 Replies
          1. re: pinstripeprincess

            PSP, we were actually in a wholly separate room from the kitchen. There was one sliding door into the room that only our server (and the occasional chef or additional server) ever used. So there was no traffic issue at all. We had a totally private room with a large window into the kitchen. The service was really excellent (I'm sure our waiter thought we were nuts) and the chefs were friendly when we asked questions. But since we were in a separate room, we had to go out into the kitchen to talk to them. Except for the pastry chef, who's station was right on the other side of our window. She got several mouthed questions from us and she mouthed the answers right back. Funny that "pomelo" and "passion fruit" are so easy to lip read!

            1. re: pinstripeprincess

              Tasted rather like I imagine styrofoam, too--it was just kind of a nothingness flavor, there for texture more than anything else. Didn't really matter to me because on that plate, the cod was the thing.

              I enjoyed the 'in the kitchenness' of it, though it's worth noting that you're kind of walled off from the kitchen a little. So while we did interact with the chefs some, and even wander out to ask questions, we weren't really *in* the kitchen per se.

              We'd get up and congregate by the windows between courses and try and guess what the different chefs were working on and whether it was going to be served to us. In that sense, being in our own little room was kind of freeing -- you probably wouldn't get up and just stare at the chefs in a regular restaurant with an open kitchen because that would be socially weird, but this room was set up so that was fine.

              1. re: Jacquilynne

                It was a great way to watch the level of preparation put into each dish without interfering or being like that person who is hovered directly over your shoulder.

                I'm still oohing and ahhing over the cod, don't think I've ever had it quite so mouth-melting. The only dish I wasn't crazy about through the entire meal was the beet plate, mainly because I discovering that I'm still not a big fan of them (though the presentation was one of the most stunning and the goat cheese fritter made up for the other elements on the the plate). It also amusing how a number of dishes were billed with "surprises" which turned out to be worth the mystery - more desserts deserve pop rocks!

                Overall, I echo Jacquilynne and TorontoJo's thoughts - one of the most entertaining meals I've ever had.

                1. re: jamie

                  I love the food at Colborne lane. However, I think it will be better if the kitchen is set up without the window like L'Atelier, it's more lively with the sound and not so isolated.

                  1. re: skylineR33

                    Hmmm, yes indeed to the sound. It's the sensory combo of watching, smelling, and hearing the kitchen that I adore. The problem is that many people may be too sensitive in terms of what they may hear coming from the kitchen...

                    Too many PC's out there.

            2. Great write up of a great evening! Given that Jacquilynne doesn't like coffee, I'll pipe up with a resounding recommendation of the two coffee desserts. The deconstructed tiramisu was very nice, probably more for the entertainment factor of watching our waiter make the ice cream than for any fundamental wow factor of the end product (though it was very good, it wasn't particularly creative in the flavours -- I guess tiramisu is tiramisu no matter how you build it). The iced coffee bomb was great fun. It looked like a giant mentos candy and the textural experience of having the frozen cream shell dissolve in your mouth and release a burst of coffee liqueur was unique and tasty.

              Re: the wine list. I can't comment much on it, as I went straight for the champagnes and sparklings, which is usually what I get when I have no idea what my dinner is going to consist of. I ended up going with the Cuvee Catherine from Henry of Pelham. It worked very nicely with dinner. It was listed at $75/bottle, which I think is about a 150% markup, which didn't seem outrageous compared to other restaurants.

              The bottom line is that it was an amazing 5 hours of all things food -- talking about it, watching it be made, looking at it, smelling it and, of course, eating it! Great night!