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JKWB – What happened? A mediocre experience (review + pics)

Having had very pleasurable experiences in the past at JK winebar, I decided to head back for a special dinner to expose my dining companions to a Toronto-‘tapas’ style meal. Being a fan of all things fish, I had noted that JKWB produced some of the best fish dishes in the city. Their fish was not overdone, they were always well flavoured, moist, and well textured due to exceptional freshness. That was, until my last visit made me do a double–take: what happened to JKWB?

Because of my experiences in the past, I was excited and expecting much more than was delivered. Even though I was aware that the chef Tobey had left, other CHers had attested the quality had not suffered and that it was still a solid restaurant. A close dining companion also stated that their last experience was a strong one. I had a hard time finding ANY negative comments about JKWB, so I thought it was a 'safe choice' once again for my risk-adverse dining companions. This is the follow-up review I promised from a couple of weeks back on my less-than-stellar experience at JKWB.

We started with ordering almost every fish dish on the menu due to our affinity towards that type of meat. We also added a dish I remember enjoying from the past – the entrecote of beef with sweet potatoes, as well as a dish that I have highly enjoyed in the past elsewhere – the butter bread pudding and the pork belly. I also added a highly regarded dish on CH – the poutine. Since there were only 3 of dining together, we were limited to about 8 dishes, including dessert.

Overall, I found the dishes to be a tad oversalted. The fish dishes were overdone this time and did not deliver the delicate flavour I was accustomed to. We started with the disappointing lake trout, which was over cooked to the point of being flaky and lifeless – and strangely, it was way too salty. Not sure why someone would choose to oversalt this fish as it is so delicate, but alas. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

The striped bass, however, was a refreshing breath of fresh air – it was almost as good as the first time I ordered it. It was moist, rich, and sweet – just as the fish was meant to be. This dish attained its potential, IMO. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

The poutine, overall, was slightly disappointing for me as well, just because my expectations were a bit raised – having had gourmet poutines elsewhere, I was of course going to compare. After tasting this version, it did not make me think ‘gourmet’ at all – the taste was heavy, way too salty, and that saltiness masked any of the other flavours that I may have gotten out of the pulled pork. Of course, I probably should have expected as much from a pulled pork dish. The fries were exceptional though, IMO. Very light, crisp and tasty. They were definitely the highlight of the dish and some of the best taters I have had. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

Next, we had the scallops – I try to never order scallops at a restaurant, just because most restaurants tend to overcook it for my preferences. And when done improperly, they were ‘just scallops’ and very boring for me. I had an exceptional scallop dish prepared two ways (one was a ‘carpaccio’) at Canoe once, which was my only recent (being 4 years ago) memorable experience of scallops in Canada. My dining companions enjoy scallops, and the waiter highly recommended them – so we went ahead and ordered them. However, they met my expectations of being just scallops – overdone and bland. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

A highlight of the meal was the roast beef sandwich with a goat’s milk cheese – amazing. The meat was sweet and full of flavour. The goat cheddar cheese was subtle in taste, not overpowering as many other goat cheeses tend to be for many people. My dining companion, who tends to absolutely abhor goat’s cheese, gobbled this one up and did not even notice the goat cheese when I probed him about the cheese. It was a very sweet dish and a welcome contrast to the disappointing meal we were having thus far. I would definitely order this dish again (if I ever venture back to JKWB – it would have to be on the ol’ corporate card). Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

The entrecote was nice – very full-bodied and nicely prepared a medium rare. This is one of the few places that understands what medium rare actually means. Since I tend to prefer slightly rarer than medium rare, I have had to order rare at many restaurants because it is simply overdone most of the time. At times, I have even resorted to ordering blue. Many times, I just get a nicely seared piece of raw meat when I order blue, so it’s been quite risky to order my steak that way. However, the pieces were quite tough and too grainy, even considering the cut of beef. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

The pork belly was also tasty, but was not as great as some other pork bellies I have had. The fat was quite rich, smooth and full of flavour though. It was contrasted by an extremely tough polenta though, which took away from the dish, IMO. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

Then to the disastrous close to the meal – the butter bread pudding. Having had the most amazing bread pudding just recently (two times) at Nota Bene, I was excited to relive that experience at JKWB. Sure enough, with such high expectations, I was bound to be disappointed. However, not only was it not as good, it was actually almost inedible. It was bland, mushy and completely a waste of ingredients. I could have mashed up something quick and called it ‘bread pudding’ myself – it was just that bad. Typing this up is bringing back bad memories, so I will stop. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

Do not get me wrong, JKWB is on par with many other higher-end restaurants in Toronto. Unfortunately, that means it was a bit of a disappointment in my eyes. I do not think it is terrible in any way, just disappointing because it used to be so much more (IMO). Things were just "okay" and nothing should be just "okay" at those prices. It used to stand a head and shoulders above its competition, and now it is just a dreary mess of oversalted flavours. (Could it be that Jamie Kennedy is expanding his empire too fast and losing focus on what made him famous in the first place? I do not know enough at this point to make that judgement, but I would like to hear what others think) Would I go back? On someone else’s dime I probably would, just because of a lack of other choices in the financial district. Would I go back on my own accord? No, but just because there are so many other restaurants in Toronto that I have still yet to try and life is just too short for mediocrity.

Cheers and Happy Eating!

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  1. We haven't been there often and have found the food generally good, but only occasionally better than that. We have concluded that we will eat there only when we are in the immediate vicinity and there is no lineup. It is not worth waiting an hour or two for this food.

    In truth, I have never understood Jamie Kennedy's ongoing status as an exalted Toronto chef and a media darling. Going back to his first place, post Scaramouche, on College St, it has always been the same: tasty food, decently prepared, good ingredients, but unexciting. Think about it: the guy's best dish, carried on by his son at the Brickworks, is the French fries.

    I gather he is a likable guy, which many chefs certainly aren't. He has done some really good things, such as recognizing the importance of sustainability, organics, and local produce, making his own preserves, and promoting social causes.

    In terms of your specific experience, there is a new chef. Toby Nemeth left earlier this year. This might, or might not, be a factor.

    1 Reply
    1. re: embee

      hi stapler and embee,
      JKWB has built itself an excellent reputation in the eyes of Torontonians everywhere and it is always on the tip of every tongue when it comes to recs for out of town guests - there are many recent posts about it as well. Hope that the word gets out that perhaps the restaurant just is not that great anymore (or in stapler's case - never really that innovative), or the restaurant finds out their lackluster performance and takes it up a notch so as to not give Toronto a bad reputation for mediocre food.


    2. That poutine looks tiny.. a childs portion

      8 Replies
      1. re: duckdown

        It's a small plates restaurant.

        1. re: duckdown

          I was there last weekend and had the poutine. The serving size has greatly diminished in the past year or two, even though it's still served in a giant bowl.

          1. re: thenurse

            For the price, even though I know it is tapas-style, it is miniscule. They should adjust their prices accordingly, or increase the amount of potato. For poutine, it is a full-price version (around $10), but about 1/2 the size you would get anywhere else for comparable 'gourmet' poutine. I would never have thought to comment on the price though, if it had been spectacular. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

            I find many places tend to oversalt, unfortunately, Blueicus. Any places you've found that tends to take it easy on the salting? I find now that I've decreased my salt intake at home, I really get a shock to the senses when I go out to dine. I would prefer not to get hypertension further down the road.


            1. re: BokChoi

              Hmm.... that's a tough question to answer. The reasons for oversalting are varied and many (from being somebody whose tastes for salt are heavy to having exercised earlier in the day to being dehydrated to simply being heavy handed yet not tasting). I can't say I remember any place that takes it easy on salting on any consistent basis, unfortunately

              1. re: Blueicus

                Ahh thanks for the very honest answer. Eventually, due to health concerns of their patrons, I am sure many restaurants will begin to lessen the usage of salt, as they have with high-fat content dishes. I guess I will just have to be patient.


                1. re: BokChoi

                  maybe it's just your preference for less salted food.

                  The first lesson chefs are taught is salt salt salt! Whether it is in cooking school or working for your first head chef, salt is drilled into your brain.

                  I also know cooks that always carry fleur de sel w/ them at all times. Yes they're nuts.

                  Like I always say, people would be shocked to see how much salt is used in a commercial kitchen. The way I see it, it's not this salt that's doing the most damage. You'd be much better off trying to manage your salt intake in processed foods like chips and such.

                  Then again, even I found the poutine at JK to be a bit on the salty side.

                  1. re: aser

                    Hi aser

                    yes, I agree that eating out is not the way to control salt intake - but I have also cut out all processed foods at home as well. I guess I am not a typical diner, as I have cut out anything that I don't recognize when buying anything - this has meant cutting out all commercial goods. A bit extreme, I've come to realize, as I am finding it hard to balance the whole foodie/health-nut combo.

          2. It seems like the salt issue's been around since day 1 (which I find odd since that probably means most of the cooks are consistently oversalting, unless there's a special salting fairy in the kitchen going crazy with the salt shaker... that or someone working with the meats who's been there a long time consistently oversalts)

            1. i haven't been t JKWB since last year, but my partner and i had wonderful experience there. there was NO over salting at all; everything was perfectly seasoned. there were some wonderful vegetarian options for me, the vegetarian, as well as wonderful meat options for my partner, the meat eater. perhaps things have changed since i've been, but i do not agree that over salting has been an issue since day one.

              1. I think that salt is just one of those issues where it's impossible to please everyone. I went to JK Gardiner with my mom and her friend. Her friend found the meal to be far too salty (although still claimed to have enjoyed it), my mom found it a tad too salty, and I thought it was just right; I, however, do love my sodium, and have a high tolerance for it.

                I also agree that the poutine is too small. The JKG beef brisket poutine was easily the best poutine I've ever had, but in order to reach that satisfied point, I could have eaten two to myself. Of course, I would have felt ridiculous ordering that, though.

                1. I'm sorry your experience was less than stellar. JKWB has become one of my more consistent go-to's over the past couple of months, and I've come to really look forward to the little tweaks the chef makes to the menu. I don't go looking for a gastronomic experience, and i don't think as a wine bar, JK tries to fill that void. It is, for me, the perfect unpretentious and just creative enough place for entertaining a small group of friends (who are picky eaters)-- while not every item is the Best I've Ever Had, I think the flavor profile has become cleaner and more consistent since the old chef left (where, to the best of my recollection, "Salt" was the most consistent thing on the menu)... and the last 3 times I've been, I've walked away more than pleased.

                  18 Replies
                  1. re: nyctransplant

                    Hi Vorpal and nyctransplant

                    I was keeping my eye out for the beef brisket version, as I am not a fan of pork in general, but could never find a day they offered it. I think it's ridiculous to charge $10 for about 15 pieces of potato and a couple of strips of pork, but that could just be me. At least double the fries, because they were amazing... then I would not feel so ripped off. I agree, salt is a finicky demon - I think I am just uber-sensitive compared to most.

                    I was pleased formerly with JKWB - I would go back though on someone else's dime, as I've mentioned. I have not completely ruled it out as it has a nice atmosphere and for what it is, it does it well. And it's close to work. I am much more forgiving on expense account meals - as I am sure everyone is. Hopefully what I had was just a one-off day. I really loved their fish before and I was sad to have lost a solid 'fish' restaurant. However, I will no longer experiment with them on my own tab.


                    1. re: BokChoi

                      I think it's $8 or $9 for the same poutine at JK Gilead cafe...and it still feels like a major ripoff. Tastes nice, but I fail to see what the hype is all about.

                      1. re: grandgourmand

                        Thanks for the headsup - I still have to make my way out to Gilead to try out their wares. Would like to hear what you think is good to try while I'm out there. Being fleeced is not on the top of my list of 'likes'.

                        1. re: BokChoi

                          Thanks for this post, but something doesn't add up for me.

                          So many of the menu items you sampled have outstanding reviews, but the premise is "What happened...medicore..." Aren't you asking for two different things?

                          JKWB has provided both an inspiration for many other venues and continued to evolve. It is a consistent and interesting restaurant, with a great premise that invites diners to try new wines and dishes using local sources for a modern menu.

                          Let's celebrate this feedback via Chowhound if indeed customers are frustrated by portion size, etc.

                          Yet, there is a baby in this bath water.

                          1. re: stephen

                            Hi stephen

                            Sorry I am a bit confused by your comments. Do you mind clarifying a bit? Just so that I can best address your concerns.

                            1. re: BokChoi

                              I believe somewhere in that very reverent response was the notion that you enjoyed 3 out of the 8 dishes you tried. Still a failing grade in my books.

                              1. re: Googs

                                Ah. Thanks, Googs. Yes, if I only like as many dishes as I dislike, or feel blase about, then in my eyes, that is a mediocre experience.

                          2. re: BokChoi

                            Poutine is a still a rip-off at Gilead prices. I've only been the one time. My wife ordered a beef brisket sandwich, which I must admit tasted great.

                            1. re: grandgourmand

                              Thanks grandgourmand for the suggestion. I'll queue up this meal.

                          3. re: grandgourmand

                            I thought Gilead had a nice space and an interesting selection of food but their prices seemed a bit high for what you get. I was there last week and had a Grilled Vegetable Sandwich for $9.50 but the slices of bread that made up the sandwich were tiny, which meant, small sandwich! I'm talking maybe 2 slices in towards the ends of a loaf of bread. My friend had the Smoked Turkey Sandwich, which was bigger and cheaper! That was a little confusing to me - one would think a vegetable sandwich would be bigger and cheaper?! We did enjoy the Frites and yes, they were much saltier than I would normally have but my friend liked them that way and I didn't mind this time.

                            1. re: always_eating

                              Thanks for the thoughts, always_eating. One would think they would like to make the customers happier with full-sized pieces of bread, which is of minimal cost to them. But for some reason, many Toronto restaurateurs, like JK, think "the smaller my food is - the better my customers will think the food is! And if they're still hungry, they'll be forced to buy more sides, such as the fries". My thought is usually that I'll try it once, and if I'm underwhelmed, take my money elsewhere. Silly mistake on their part for the sake of saving two slices of bread. I hope JK is reading these posts and decides to increase the size of the sandwiches - for $10, it's not like he's undercharging. To get a roast beef sandwich and fries at JKWB, you're probably going to be spending close to $20, and you'll most likely still leave hungry. When you look at it that way, JKWB is quite a pricey joint.

                              1. re: BokChoi

                                Not to take this discussion off-track, but if you're in that neighbourhood and you're hungry for lunch, why not try Weezie's? We're not talking apples to apples here. JK does his thing, Constance does her's. We are talking reasonably priced, well-portioned French bistro food that won't leave you wondering if they forgot half your order in the kitchen. Corner of King & Power.

                                1. re: Googs

                                  Awesome - thanks Googs. I haven't come across this rec yet - so thanks for introducing it to me.

                                  1. re: BokChoi

                                    I concur with Googs. I've been to Weezie's about 5-6 times. Had the burger about 3 times. It's always damn good and last time, it seemed like the bun was smaller, which is good because I thought the bun-to-meat ratio was too high.

                                    The mac & cheese is great, and they serve one of the better steak tartars I've had in this city. Very clean flavour.

                                    Another thing, the service is great. It's one guy. A smallish restaurant, but usually quite busy and he manages to stay on top of things in a pleasant manner.

                                    It's a very casual place too.

                                    1. re: grandgourmand

                                      Thanks for the recs on dishes. Seems like a "must hit" place for me sometime soon.

                                      1. re: grandgourmand

                                        Thanks googs and grandgourmand for the rec on Weezie's. I had a great meal there recently because of your recs. Excellent experience. Will be posting pics soon - but that place is so dark, the photos did not turn out well at all...


                                      1. re: Suresh

                                        Me too. Wee for Weezies!

                                        Edited to add - can't link to places anymore but you'll find more info here -