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May 13, 2008 07:59 PM

Less than Splendid-o

I've been debating whether to post this one, but decided I had to as I haven't seen anything but the highest of praise for the above named establishment.

I went last week with a group of dining companions, really, really wanting to be wowed by chef David Lee, who has been battling it out with Susur Lee for Toronto's culinary crown - at least in the eyes of some of this city's food press.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

We all ordered the tasting menu. Service, we agreed, was well orchestrated - to a level we hadn't experienced in Toronto. As impressed as we were, each choreographed swoop made our party a little nervous; I couldn't help but remember with fondness the professional and much lower-key service I have experienced at Scaramouche.

On to the food itself:

The three-tiered pre-amuse was enjoyable; in particular, I enjoyed the shot of fresh pineapple juice rimmed with chili salt, and the vanilla-scented blossom was a beautiful touch.

The amuse was ... well, whatever it was, it clearly it wasn't memorable. I was not impressed with the foie gras course, which was served with a nice duck prosciutto. The vegetable course, a rapini crunch, was delicious, but very, very simple. I enjoyed the sweet pea soup, but it pales in comparison to a recent soup I experienced at Langdon Hall. Soft-shell crab was a big disappointment for me; it was simply a full crab, accompanied by nothing particularly interesting, and all I could taste was batter and oil, although it was not particularly greasy.

The suckling pig and sous-vide pork torchon were a definite highlight: the suckling pig was intensely flavourful and the pork torchon was oh so tender. I loved the preparation. I sampled both options for mains - halibut with fiddleheads and ramps, and a bison dish - and both were quite nice. The bison in particular was wonderfully cooked, and the accompanying gnocchi was heavenly: quite possibly the best gnocchi I've ever had.

The dessert was a light and lovely finish to the meal: a yogurt pannacotta, with fresh and sweet bing cherries mascerated in amaretto and an almond meringue. I loved its simplicity.

Here was my issue with the meal that evening:

The chef cooked with an appreciation for his ingredients: he kept dishes simple (I must have used the word 5 times now) and restrained, making it clear that he wanted to showcase natural flavours, rather than dazzle with unexpected flavour combinations. He did what he wanted, and he did it well; the thing is, what he wanted was very... plain. And honestly, a little boring.

While I can absolutely respect his principled approach to cuisine, for that price ($135 per person plus wine, tips and tax), I expect to be wowed. I have been wowed in this city at a cheaper price: Susur, of course, leaps immediately to mind.

In all, I can guess at where the chef is coming from; I can understand the accolades he's received - sadly, I just don't agree with any of it.

88 Harbord Street, Toronto, ON M5S 1G5, CA

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  1. Perhaps this is precisely why the two Lees have been battling so long for the culinary crown in the local press. Food critics can fall under two camps. Those who want to be dazzled and pleasantly surprised by innovating combinations may prefer Susur. A more complicated dish can indicate a chef has put more attention into it. Then there are those who like to see the chef respect their ingredients, and pay homage to these fine ingredients by cooking them simply with sheer skill. Some even suspect that a chef introduces intricacies into his dish as a way to mask any shortcomings.

    1. The reason I compared the two chefs is as follows: as an experience, I left Splendido unimpressed. I was wowed, incidentally, at Susur, which is one of the few fine dining establishments I've experienced in this city. By offering up my take on the two chefs' respective approaches, it was my hope to shed light on my personal criteria so as to allow people who read my critique to form their own judgments on whether it is of any use or interest to them.

      Also, if you have a very limited budget like I do, and practicality and economics always play a crucial part in your decisions on where to dine, I've found that comparisons can be useful, as long as the criteria by which you are making that comparison are made clear.

      In any event the bottom line was this: I did not feel that what I received at Splendido was worth the cost. I did not feel similarly about other restaurants I've dined at.

      1. While we haven't been to Susur (and likely won't with it closing soon), my girlfriend and I have been to Colbourne Lane this past Christmas and Splendido last month. My girlfriend is a chef in the industry. She thought that CL had a definite wow factor but on just about all the dishes she thought that many of the flavours didn't go well together. Splendido however didn't quite have that wow factor but the flavours worked together much better. She by far preferred Splendido over Colbourne Lane.

        As for the service at Splendidio, it was impeccable but quite odd to experience that kind of thing for the first time.

        5 Replies
        1. re: lister

          But I think that some chefs who do simple and classic can do it in a way that it still makes one's eyes open in surprise as opposed to just doing simple and then thinking, "This doesn't taste special". I think if a person can appreciate eating a spectacular tomato or a "transcendent" piece of steak or a fresh picked fig off a tree (which I believe most people can) they can be wowed at Splendido.

          I'm not saying Splendido can't do that but having gone to Splendido once I have to say that my opinion of the meal resembled Yum's opinion, it was simple and it was expertly prepared... but the dish didn't "sing" (to use a sentimental description). I've had similarly "simple" and "classic" dishes elsewhere but there have been times I was wowed.

          1. re: Blueicus

            I have a preference for elegant, simple constructions that let fresh ingredients speak for themselves. To me, Simple + Wow = Scaramouche.

            1. re: Googs

              I definitely agree with the above posts of Googs, syoung and Blueicus. I think a 'wow' can be achieved without using fireworks to distract the diner - and I think Scaramouche is a perfect example.

              1. re: Yum2MyTum

                OMG, Charles must be having a super hissy fit right now!

                1. re: The Macallan 18

                  I'm loving this 'great debate' so far!!

                  After dining out in great restaurants around the world for so long, personally, I am finding it more and more difficult being wowed by a single dish, let alone a whole meal! Casing point, I was down in NYC a few weeks back trying out all the supposedly 'great' dishes at Mario Batali's Babbo. All these potential 'wow' dishes were highly recommended by fellow chowhounders with sophisticated palate. However, at the end of the day, not only were I not 'wowed', I actually found most of the dishes borderline mediocre and unimpressive. On the other hand, the omakase sushi lunch I had at Sushi Yasuda the following day was simple and Wow! Nothing complicated, just the freshest ingredients served with the right amount of appropriate seasoning.
                  Another thing I have noticed over the past few years is that chefs are trying to emulate each other's signature dishes too much, resulting in patrons seeing boringly repetitive ' variation on the same theme' rather than unique new invention. First, it was Daniel Boulud's world famous' Paupiette of sea bass in a crisp potato shell served with Barolo reduction'. With the blink of an eye, almost every fine dining estabishment I entered, I found a variation of this dish on their menu. Be it garoupa instead of sea bass, taro shell instead of potato or Australian Shiraz instead of Italian Barolo! Now, the theme of this game is 'Berkshire Pork Belly' usually paired with crunchy cracklings! I have lost count in seeing this ingredient and dish appearing in menus all over the place!

                  Anyways, for fine dining, I would still like to take the whole package of ' food, wine, service and ambience' into consideration. And IMHO, I still think Splendido is the only establishment in town that provides all that. Although, Truffles in the Fourseason is catching up.

        2. oh, that's too bad, Splendido was the best meal I've ever eaten, I liked it better than Susur, and I've been to Susur twice.

          1. To me I would turn the entire thing around. I would say the above for Susur and the accolades for Splendido. The service we received at Susur was not very good and the waitors were very arrogant. The food was ok, but nothing spectacular. Splendido however was exceptional along all lines.

            But again personal preferences keep restaurants busy.