More on Colborne Lane
Many years ago, when I first discovered that many ice creams were made with artificial coloring, I had the idea of making chocolate-colored strawberry ice cream, to play with the flavor expectations set up by our visual perceptions. Much later, I had dinner at Moto, the self-described “postmodern” restaurant in Chicago where chef/scientist Homaro Cantu prepares similar sensory challenges, like edible paper flavored to taste like crab makizushi. My experience at Moto was part science experiment and part thrill-seeking adventure. But what about the “food”? It was certainly “interesting,” but, with the exception of one fish dish, short of the kind of flavors that are captured in the word “delicious.” The trade off is between the intellectual exercise of playing with your sensory expectations and the actual sensory experience of eating food with extraordinary flavors and textures. As one reviewer put it, “The experience at Moto was so interesting that I preferred it to restaurants where the food tastes better.” I can understand a choice of “interesting” over “delicious” for a one-time or even an every-so-often experience. But not on a regular basis.
There is certainly a significant role that science can play in understanding what makes food delicious. Food writer Harold McGee refers to “the science of deliciousness.” Why does meat taste better when it is seared to caramelize its surfaces? What cooking technique best intensifies the flavor of asparagus? These are questions that any chef or serious home cook wants answers to. But finding these answers, whether through science or through trial and error, doesn’t have much to do with “molecular gastronomy” as it is practiced at Colborne Lane.
The food at Colborne Lane is nowhere near as experimental as the food at Moto, but what sets it apart from other Toronto restaurants is Chef Claudio Aprile’s use of many of the tools and techniques of molecular cooking, particularly his ubiquitous use of liquid nitrogen, I found the food very mixed and inconsistent. Some dishes were quite good, some mediocre, and some were awful. Many dishes had one good element, such as the silky-textured lemon ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen, combined with not-so-good elements, like the doughy, unremarkable passion fruit doughnut. Too often there was a lack of attention to the classic fundamentals of good cooking, resulting in overcooked scallops, beef tenderloin, lamb, and rock hen. In general, Chef Aprile tries to do way too much with his dishes, combining too many ingredients and flavors. As a result, the food loses focus and the flavors become muddled. In great cooking, restraint is important, and “less” is often “more.” One of the best desserts I ever had, at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, consisted of a single Kishu tangerine and three Barhi dates that delivered absolutely extraordinary flavors I’ll never forget. No doubt Chef Aprile would find such a dessert “boring,” an adjective he uses to describe the general food scene in Toronto. The experience at Colborne Lane certainly wasn’t “boring,” but I wanted “delicious” and didn’t get it consistently.
The service at Colborne Lane was an absolute horror story. It took four hours to finish a meal that should not have taken longer than two to two-and-a-half hours to finish. The wait between courses was often interminable. I asked for my beef tenderloin to be cooked rare, and it arrived well done. Similarly, my wife’s rock hen was dry as a bone. After consulting the kitchen, the waiter agreed to re-cook my beef, but told my wife that the rock hen could not be cooked in a way that would make it less dry, and asked her if she would like to substitute another dish. She asked if the lamb could be prepared rare, and upon being assured that it could be, agreed to change to the lamb. We waited -- and waited -- and waited, seemingly forever, for our replacement dishes to arrive. Was the kitchen punishing us? Finally, when the new dishes arrived, my wife’s lamb was not rare, but medium. My wife was understandably unwilling to endure yet another delay, and told the waiter just to leave the dish. When we got our bill, we were charged the higher price for the lamb, instead of the price for the hen that my wife had ordered. When we complained about this upcharge, the waiter sent over the manager. I explained the circumstances of the substitution of the lamb for the hen, but the manager steadfastly refused to make the small adjustment in price. In hindsight, I guess my wife should have just rejected the lamb and asked that the hen/lamb be taken off the bill, but given the arrogant attitude of the management they probably would have charged us for it anyway. Sigh! Another obstacle to the enjoyment of our experience at Colborne Lane was that the noise level made it almost impossible for my wife and me to hear each other across our small table.
The food is far from cheap here and neither my wife nor I felt that we got a sufficiently big bang for our big bucks. All in all, the experience was a huge disappointment.
Pretty much mirrors exactly how I feel about CL. Incredibly hit-or-miss, rehashed "experimentation" that leads to dishes that just don't work, lack of fundamental cooking techniques in exchange for Aprile's version of "flair" which again, isn't always appealing, etc.
When you combine the food with mediocre service and a ho-hum atmosphere, the end product is pretty depressing. I'm actually kind of sorry that you had to go through that based on someone's recommendation.
Other posters have commented on whether the quality would go down while Claudio is opening his second location. There has certainly been press about chefs spreading themselves too thin. Is this the beginning of the end, a transitional faze, or just a bad night? I've had good experiences at CL, and can only hope a disappointing experience like this won't become the norm.
Thanks for the review Tom.
I've not yet been to Colborne-mostly because of my (unfounded) fear/aversion to molecular techniques, particularly with wine pairing.
Just wondering why you decided to go to Colborne for your visit to Toronto? Had you been reading the reviews on this board or was it recommended? Do tell.
re: Splendid Wine Snob
I'm a Seattle (fomerly a Los Angeles) long-time chowhound who is spending a week in Toronto, tagging along with my wife who is attending a conference here. One of my wife's colleagues, who shares my passion (my wife would say "obsession") for food and wine ,highly recommended Colborne Lane, adding that he had eaten there twice already since he arrived in Toronto (from Vancouver, B.C.) Based on his recommendation, I moved Colborne up on my list of places to eat. Interestingly, he questioned my decision to eat at Splendido, where my wife and I ate on Friday night -- the subject of a separate soon-to-be Chowhound post. But, despite my qualms about spending that much money on a single meal, the experience at Splendido was almost flawless in every respect.