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Harbord Room - mixed experience

I've been looking forward to trying Harbord Room ever since folks on this board have been glowing about it. But with all the great reviews in the papers over the last 6 months, it's been impossible to get in on short notice and I rarely plan my dinners weeks in advance. Fortunately, hubby was paying attention and surprised me with dinner there with some dear friends for my birthday.

The good:

- Good space, great feel (though the noise levels definitely get up there)

- Service was good. Attentive without being overbearing or insincere.

- The wine list has some fantastic local deals on it. Our server told us that they've managed to source several Niagara wines for great prices and they pass the deals on to the customers. The Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine was only $64 ($30 in the LCBO) and a lovely Tawse merlot/cab blend was only $54. Very nice.

- A friend raved about the burger.

- The salt cod fritters were yummy, as was the grilled cheddar on Fred's walnut bread.

- Friends enjoyed the arctic char salad.

- Fries were also very yummy, particularly with the homemade ketchup and mayo

The OK:

- The chilled yellow tomato and cucumber soup was wonderfully fresh, but surprisingly bland, unless you managed to get a bite with fresh basil in it.

- The trout was cooked well, but the accompaniments felt all over the map and didn't seem to come together as a whole.

- The elk tartare was found to be ok, not as interesting as hoped (I didn't try it, so can't comment).

- Asparagus risotto was "fine", also found to not be that interesting (I didn't try that either)

The really not so good:

- The smoked and roasted whitefish, which I was really looking forward to, was so salty as to be inedible. One of my friends also had it and neither of us could eat more than a few bites. This was the one misstep in the service. I'm sure our server noticed the large portions of the fish remaining on the plates, but there was no question or acknowledgement of why. I will note that the ratatouille it was served on was delicious

- As much as I enjoyed the grilled cheese, the portion (for $11) was incredibly small. I realize that this is meant to be a "small plate", but the two tiny pieces of grilled cheese I received were about 1.5" x 2" each -- not enough to even equal a half of a regular grilled cheese sandwich. I did see another person's plate earlier and that portion looked larger. Maybe I just got unlucky with the small end of the loaf of bread.

So overall, I was actually really disappointed with the experience. Maybe my expectations had been set too high from the reviews here, or maybe we just picked the wrong dishes. But with such a small menu (which I usually like!), to have so many "just ok" dishes was pretty disappointing. I felt bad for my friends, because I was SO excited to be eating there and we all left going "meh". It was a wonderful evening because of the company and the setting, but I really can't see myself rushing back, with all the other great options along Harbord and elsewhere in the city.

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  1. Oh, and I should add, that yes, I should have brought the saltiness of the fish to the attention of our server. But honestly, we were all enjoying our conversation and I really didn't want to break the mood of the evening.

    And I also meant to mention that we decided to pass on dessert or cheese at Harbord Room and walk down the street to Dessert Trends for gelato and ice cream. I had my favourite grapefruit and champagne gelato and a pomegranate/mixed berry that was bursting with flavour (apparently they had just run out of an apricot/ice wine that I would have loved to have tried). Friends tried all sorts and settled on the durian (which they loved) and mascarpone/sour cherry. Everyone agreed the gelatos were amazing and a perfect way to end the evening.

    5 Replies
    1. re: TorontoJo

      Hey TorontoJo, I would have to say I totally agree with your comments about Harbord Room, My husband and I went a couple of months because of the great reviews posted on here and just like you we left feeling disappointed. We felt the same way about our dishes. Unfortunately for us the service and speed of dinner was not great. It took us two hours to have appetizers and mains (it took 20 mins alone just to get our wine). By 11pm we were too tired to even consider staying for dessert, we just wanted to get out of there.
      It is good to know that we weren't the only ones who wouldn't rush back.
      Thanks for the feedback!!

      1. re: eskimo

        Oh I'm sorry to hear that it was a mixed experience, I do like going there from time to time for the burger (juicy and comforting) and haven't had any issues with the service. Last visit there though I strayed from my usual burger and had the trout which as you mentioned was cooked well but I too felt that the sides of puree, bacon and vegetables were not well tied together plus the overall combination of the dish was quite salty.

        thanks for mentioning the DT gelatos-that grapefruit champagne combo sounds like it would be super refreshing!

        1. re: deabot

          the grapefruit champagne is really quite a stunning combination. they weren't afraid to let some of the bitterness come through which i think adds a nice element and more dimension. at least that's the combo i'm pretty sure is in my freezer right now!

          sounds like the burger may be the only reason to go.... it's definitely moved down the list for me though.

          1. re: pinstripeprincess

            Yes, it is the combo in your freezer! The bitterness is what I love about it. How was the mixed berry and limoncello? I haven't tried that one, though the pomegranate and mixed berry was yummy.

            1. re: TorontoJo

              it's really nice but it reminds me more of a sherbert even if it isn't... something about the way the texture pulls back a little. it's m's favourite between the two though i have to admit i don't recall lemonyness but that could be poor memory. i'm now a bit distraught i didn't serve some as it would have been a nice clean refresher from heavy croques!

              edit: i should mention that it is very berry forward but not in a way that's too much. the balance of fruit and sweet is actually rather extraordinary for these flavours as i find them less sweet than other places. which i certainly don't mind and often prefer.

    2. Although I thought the burger at the Harbord Room was great - the best in recent memory, I noticed that the kitchen was heavyhanded with the salt- maybe it was the cumulative effect of salt in the burger, the cheese on the burger, the housemade condiments and the fries. I drank more water than usual while I was dining, and was still thirsty when I got home! The only other foods that cause me to react that way are dim sum and Swiss Chalet!

      6 Replies
      1. re: phoenikia

        I think the only reason I would go back would be to try the burger myself. I was tempted to grab my friend's off her plate, but held back. Hmm... a burger and a cocktail at the bar at Harbord Room, followed by grapefruit and champagne gelato down the street. That could be a perfect evening.

        1. re: TorontoJo

          If you return to HR, I like the Kaffir Collins;) But some of their other cocktails looked tempting, too!

          1. re: phoenikia

            There was a blueberry and lemon collins that looked good. And hubby enjoyed his Pimm's cup.

            1. re: TorontoJo

              The blueberry & lemon collins sounds good. I'm wondering if they'll make a berry julep similar to the one that used to be on the cocktail list at Czehoski (but is no longer on the menu).
              I like the sound of ordering a Pimm's Cup, but I just haven't been able to acquire the taste. They keep it on the menu at the Drake's Sky Yard, too;)

              1. re: phoenikia

                I also recently went to the Harbord Room, and agree that the grilled cheese was quite micro, but man did it taste great! Was disappointed when it was put in front of me, but once I tried it was very happy. Larger portion size of that dish please, HR!
                I found our service to be good, though detached. Buddy definitely was thinking of something else all night though certainly was never neglectful or rude.
                Our table cleared our plates - had char salad, steak frites, the tartare, veal chop and trout. We all agreed the evening was very pleasant and would like to return. Patio seemed very nice, though of course we haven't had much patio weather.
                White sangria was also very popular at our table, though not available by pitcher which was a little disappointing. Apparently they've tried but it didn't work for them? Seems strange.....

        2. re: phoenikia

          A friend and I enjoyed dinner at HR last night (Sunday after 8:30 pm - we walked in and were seated immediately with no reservation). Based on my previous enjoyable visits, I ordered a caesar cocktail, but this time it was overspiced with presumably too much rimmer mixed in. The mid-plate special was a super-salty sausage that was difficult to finish, though the sides (mash potato, rapini, fried onions) were divine. The high point was an excellent coffee-caramel pot de creme resembling a cup of cappuccino complete with perfect foam on top. Next time I will stick to the tried-and-true burger!

          I find many chefs heavyhanded with salt, but I'm thankful JKWB improved that aspect.

        3. Sorry to hear you had a bad time! I had a great experience going for just the burger, side of fries and bitter chocolate tart! Indeed the mayo/ketchup is yummy!

          1. I haven't had the chance to visit this restaurant yet... The chef is a graduate of Stratford Chefs School, so, the cookery should be really good. [www.stratfordchef.com]

            Stratford Chefs School
            68 Nile St, Stratford, ON N5A, CA

            1. i am dying to know how a tiny $11 grilled cheese sandwich can garner even somewhat positive reviews, can someone describe it for me?

              2 Replies
              1. re: julesrules

                The last time I looked, it wasn't on the menu any more. But the one I had I believe was a lovely walnut bread and aged white cheddar, served with a delicious honey. It really was very good, but the portion completely peeved me. Actually, I was kind of insulted.

                1. re: TorontoJo

                  My GC was just as described but also with a mixed greens salad. Smallish portion but eye-rolling back delicious and rich, not sure I would have wanted much more.

              2. I just went last night myself for the first time. Inserting blog plug here :


                Anyway, I had an overall very positive experience. Some slightly pretentious staff, a significantly heavy hand with salt, but some delicious food. I was glad to see they changed the menu from the online version slightly.

                We had starters of chestnut and chorizo soup as well as a diver scallop/crispy pig's ear dish. Both great but not over the top sensational. Scallops were cooked beautifully, , although I was hoping for more than a couple of crispy greasy pork rinds for the pig's ear part of the appetizer.

                I had lamb three ways - overall excellent, nicely spiced. My girlfriend had the duck confit gnocchi, a homerun. Hard to deny gnocchi really, and a couple of nice standard fall touches of pumpkin and fried sage.

                Had a nice "autumn whisper" cocktail (vodka, apple, lime, maple syrup) and a bottle of Malbec. About 1/3 of the restaurant was full for a second seating mid week. Not too bad. All in all, a beautiful meal.

                1. I had a disappointing dining experience over the weekend.

                  While I truly enjoyed the atmosphere, the food left something to be desired.

                  The service started out great. The server was very attentive at first but then as soon as the meals came, he came back only once after someone else had taken away our plates(when we were finished) to drop down the dessert menus on the table.

                  Had he, or anyone, come to check on the food I would have told him that the ribeye steak I ordered medium rare was overcooked, and the side order of spinach was so terribly lemony I found it inedible. The steak was nothing special, and I was disappointed in how they overcooked it and how the server never returned. At that point, I was also too hungry to have waited for them to make me a new steak! The spinach was really bad. My poor date ate most of it, but it tasted as though it had been drenched in lemon juice and was marinating in it for days. Don't try the spinach if you don't like the most lemony spinach you've ever had. Or the ribeye - ordering the steak frites is probably the better choice. We did order a side order of fries and thank god, it was the only redeeming part of my meal. The ketchup grew on me and I really enjoyed the fries. My date had the venison which was good... but we experienced burger envy. It seems the only decent dish to order there is the burgers, based on reviews and based on the people sitting near us eating them. But it's likely we won't be returning to try them out.


                  Harbord Room
                  89 Harbord St, Toronto, ON M5S1G4, CA

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: racheljenna

                    I've always meant to try harbord room but never got around to it since it's not quite a destination spot and a little out of my way to be a neighbourhood place. Last night a client suggested it and i really wish I had gone earlier. The food was outstanding. A couple people split the charcuterie board and it was a nice portion for the the price. I only sampled a small bit but the house made chorizo was outstanding as was the pate. The soft-boiled deep fried egg was a nice touch but difficult to share although had I ordered I'm not sure I would have wanted to share it. I opted out of a starter but did have a Quiet Dog cocktail with watermelon, rum and a couple others I can't recall. It was really good though. For the main three of us went with the special of crispy skin pickerel, fiddleheads, morels, peas and ramp puree. Each of us raved about it. One of the better fish preperations I've had in the city, or anywhere for that matter. So good. The other person ordered the steak frites well done and it was indeed a steak well done. Can't comment on it but she was happy.

                    Really regret not having gone there earlier and will definitely be returning soon.