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May 17, 2010 02:04 PM

A Great First (& Second) Impresssion at L.A.B.

Maybe I’m mellowing in my increasing age but,in the past month, I’ve added 4 new meals to my all-time top 10 (all in Spain unfortunately) and, for the first time in many years, have returned to a new restaurant in Toronto, less than a week after my first sampling.

There is a small thread on L.A.B. but I wanted to highlight it, as it’s probably the most impressive ‘affordable’ opening I’ve discovered in Toronto since the early version of Czehoski (now unfortunately a totally different place).

So what excites me? In this case a stream of ‘unexpected’ taste sensations, particularly highlighting different textures that show creative minds at work and a re-thinking of conventional preparations.

I’m torn between a full description and being deliberately vague – as part of my enjoyment came from the unexpected twists within each dish – and that surprise will be diminished if I reveal all the ‘secrets’. Suffice it to say that I returned less than a week later and forced myself to try all ‘new’ dishes because I already trusted this chef to wow me.

So I’ll restrict myself to the menu descriptions (for the most part), as these give the ‘flavour’ of what to expect and still obscure some of the novelties.

So far 5 appetizers tried (all between $8 and $10). By a small edge I give the prize to the ‘Chilled Bison Two Ways’, one a tartar and one shaved. Similar flavours but totally different textures (and some interesting ‘condiments’). For sharing, a superb ‘Root Vegetable “Calamari” – this is a vegetarian dish – just ‘appears to be Calamari’. And then I rated both the ‘Non-Green Salad’ (yes, indeed, the salad doesn’t have ANY green content!) and the Cream Ale Consommé with parsnips, as must-haves; the salad was exciting – again textures, and the Consommé has even better textures, although the flavours in the soup are a little more exotic. That just leaves the Pogo Chicken Wings – but something has to come bottom! Not as exciting for me, but still pretty good (I prefer more spices in my wings).

On to the mains. I still haven’t worked my way through all of these (only 4 so far) and next up will be the Carrot Risotto with Silver Leaf ($18).

It’s hard to pick a favourite, so I’ll go by price. The most expensive item on the menu is 8-hour steak with carrot, beet and onion cakes ($27). Slow cooked and then seared. Loved the accompaniments (texture again, as well as flavour) but I don’t get excited by beef (in general) although I’d happily have this dish again. Second most expensive (at $24) – Lamb Cooked Sous-Vide with cigar smoked gnocchi. Loved the perfectly cooked gnocchi, the vanilla aromatics of the lamb and a couple of other surprises. At $23 the Pan-Seared Arctic Char was perfectly cooked and the pear salad that accompanied it gave a superb texture lift and a freshness. I also tried the Sweet Potato Perogies, with pickled watermelon, which were super-hot (temperature wise), so take care with these ($17).

For dessert – let’s just say that I will NEVER fail to order a dessert here – astonishingly good – all under $10 (except a creditable cheese plate at $11). The Apple & Cheddar tart is AMAZING (takes 20 minutes so if you want this, order it earlier). Just do it!

The Mayan Chocolate Brownie should be the choice for all chocolate-lovers. There’s also a Chocolate Pot de Crème which has a Pear & Wild Ginger Compote. On my visit the pot de Crème had superb textures (several different chocolate ‘textures’) but the ginger/pear was swamped by the chocolate. Still if you like chocolate, chocolate, chocolate then this may be for you. The compressed Fruit Melon Broth with Edible Flowers is much more delicate – good but didn’t wow as much.

The wine list is small, but well-chosen. The low-end is under $40 with a good choice at around $60 and a couple of splurges.

And service was excellent (but admittedly they weren’t very busy) and very knowledgeable. Some of the dishes prompted questions and all were fully answered. And a full description was given as each dish was served. A couple of the main plates weren’t warmed – but I’m struggling to find something to criticize at these prices.

Did I say I went back less than a week after my first visit? That’s REALLY unusual for me. And my third visit won’t be long coming – if I can get a reservation! Small – only seats around 30 and open evenings only Tue-Sun. I hear they don’t have a (working) mailbox, so call after 6:00.

L.A.B. (Live and Breathe)
651 College St, Toronto, ON M6G, CA

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  1. I'll be trying it out with skylineR33 this Wednesday! Hope to confirm your raving review! Wish me luck! Ha!

    1. Holy frijole ! How and/or why did this place slide under the general radar? And how long have they been in business?

      2 Replies
      1. re: mrbozo

        According to GregClow it opened at the end of March (in the Toronto Openings thread on Boehmer, Ruby WatchCo etc).

        1. re: estufarian

          I was really excited to try this place after reading a couple of great comments in the other thread Estufarian mentioned. For the price we enjoyed our meal but the service was certainly more memorable than the meal.

          The Bison was 1/2 great...the tartar was punched up with the mustard seeds and the "marmalade" smeared on the plate gave an interesting accent, but the shaved portion was a little dry and quite bland (and yes...I understand that Bison is a lean meat etc).

          The Chicken wings with gelled hot sauce was an interesting idea and tasty but gelling the sauce just made it a pain to eat. Do you use a knife to try and balance the "sauce" on the drumette while getting it to your mouth?

          The Calamari was a fun play but at the end of the day, how hard is it to make fried roots taste good. The sauce was nothing special and needed more acid/heat/something to cut the slight greasiness of the fries.

          The lamb was complaints here. I hate rootbeer but I ordered it anyway and was rewarded with deliciousness. Sous-vide cooking left a touch of the slight coppery gaminess that I often miss in lamb when grilled. Gnocchi were perfect, light yet crisp. Didn't really notice an impact from the cigar smoke but nonetheless, a smash hit.

          I liked the perogies but my gf found them too sweet and I can see what she meant....pumpkin pie came to mind.

          The Char was good, might have been great with the pear salad but unfortunately I didn't get to try that.

          Biggest miss was the Korean Gnocchi...made from rice noodles but might as well have been warmed up flavourless gummi bears. I don't know what anyone was thinking when they conceived this dish, let alone served it.

          We went for cheese afterwards which was good but sounds like we missed out on the desserts.

          I would go back as it was a fun place with AMAZINGLY friendly and quite knowledgeable service, making the decent meal for a very low price more enjoyable.

      2. What's the vibe of this place? Is it pretty casual? Do you know if they take reservations?

        Looking forward to trying it!

        2 Replies
        1. re: SMOG

          it's very casual. kind of an artsy, hip vibe. very friendly

          yes they take reso's but no VM on the phone so might have to keep trying their number

          1. re: downtownfoodie

            Actually, I called on Monday to make a reservation and there WAS a voicemail greeting, asking the caller to leave info for reservations. I left a message requesting a reservation for tonight and have yet to hear back...

        2. Maybe I'm being hard on it, but I felt this place just didn't deliver. We had the bison two ways and the root veg calamari. The tartar bison was great but the shaved bison was boring. THe root veg calamari was fine, but it is fried veg, I mean I didn't find it that exciting?
          Then we had the perogies- hard to eat and really just not very good. The 8-hour steak was overcooked, the 'cakes' that came with were FANTASTIC. The lamb was overcooked...the gnocchi, which fell flat from the description provided, I felt like they really enticed me with the interesting description but it just didn't come through on the plate.

          7 Replies
          1. re: nummanumma

            Just finish a mini-chowmeet there. Food was OK but lacking the 'wow' factor. Had the carrot risotto, veggie ragout, root veggie calamari, Arctic Char, Lamb. For dessert, the apple/cheddar pie and the chocolate pot de creme.
            Risotto was aromatic, creamy and quite tasty.
            Veggie ragout was very bland. The boullabaise broth almost tasteless,
            Root veggie calamari was very crispy but very greasy at the same time! More like onion rings than calamari.
            Both Arctic Char and the Lamb were well executed. The fish nice crispy skin and perfectly cooked. The lamb pink and tender. Overall, delicious but nothing special.
            Lastly, both desserts were Ok but again, not a stand out.
            Portions were a bit on the 'small' side.. Expected, based on the relatively cheap price they were charging. Downside, still hungry after the meal!!
            Hope Ruby Watchco will fare a bit better?!

            1. re: Charles Yu

              It's interesting that quite a few others didn't get "wowed" by the food.

              You mentioned Ruby Watchco, I think you will find the portions very generous. I felt that I didn't ned to eat for the next day after I ate there. I am not sure if the portions are still as large since I ate there a few days after they opened.

              Ruby Watchco
              730 Queen St E, Toronto, ON , CA

              1. re: Charles Yu

                I couldn`t agree with you more, Charles, as we were across the room from you. Unless your palate is extremely refined, this is not a destination spot for you, and even this might be giving LAB more credit than they deserve.

                After much hype,the root veggie calamari were a major disappointment. In my opinion, they are using the wrong technique here. I would have much preferred if even all of the vegetables were pureed together, and then reconstituted into chewy rings before being deep friend. These tasted more like deep friend terra chips, and the calamari concept was completely lost on me.

                The Bison two ways was not so well executed, although the product was very tasty. The tartar had fatty bits stringing it together, with a standard grain mustard and perhaps some egg holding it together. The alcohol in the bourbon and maple gel had clearly not been cooked out, leaving the end product with an edge tasting more like a toothpaste then any sauce. The shaved bison was great on its own, while the accompanying anglaise, although wonderful in texture, lacked flavour.

                Steak and cake was not as playful as I`d imagined, and my meat was cooked medium/well...closer to 150 degrees. The steak across from me was rare medium, which really boggled my mind considering they should have come out of the same immersion circulator. The char on the meat did make for a great taste in the mouth. The cake, of a cornbread texture, was on the dryer side but had good flavour. My favourite things on the plate were the delicious mushrooms, and I`m always a sucker for a good potato puree.

                The lamb and gnocchi looked great on the plate, but it wasn`t a dish I`d order again. I actually appreciate the feel of tougher lamb meat in my mouth, and the sous vide technique transformed it into something far mushier. The gnocchi were dry, as if they`d been sitting out all night, with only the very centres being tender. I could not taste any hint of cigar smoke in the gnocchi itself, but the accompanying sauce just might have been the dish`s saving grace.

                Charles must have taken the last apple/cheddar tart, so we settled for the Mayan brownie, which was a bit on the dry side for me but packed a good chili zip. The fruit salsa on top was perfectly executed, and may have accounted for my favourite mouthful of the night for both texture and flavour.

                The service was not perfect, as waters were not refilled after our starters and a second round of drinks came just before dessert. The guys were pleasant to deal with, but seemed a little preoccupied by passing through friends.

                I hope this review does not come off as scathing. I just want the hounds to know what to expect, and I thought maybe my comments could help level off the hype. I think the kitchen needs to improve on a lot of their techniques and flavours for them to avoid being known as one of those ``good for the experience only`` type of spots, of which there seem to be more and more of in this city. I really do like their concept and see great potential for a restaurant such as this in Toronto.

                Practice makes perfect, but a lot of this food incorporates science, and, until they get it perfect, we are all just part of the experiment. I wish LAB the best, and will return...just not in the near future or when it`s out of my way.

                1. re: dlw88

                  Wow! Small world! Including skylineR33, yourself and me, I wonder how many chowhounds were in that place that night?!

                  1. re: Charles Yu

                    My husband and I were there, as well, occupying the table near the door, a couple of tables over from Charles_Yu and SkylineR33 (I'm assuming that was you and your spouses at the table nearest the bar) and, I presume, across the way from dlw88.

                    We were quite disappointed in our meals. As Charles mentioned, there was absolutely no "wow" factor; in fact, there was very little flavour at all. I found many of the dishes (including the lamb, the bison and the consomme) to have one-dimensional flavouring and to be overpowered by a cloying sweetness.

                    We had the consomme, bison, and pogos for starters, and the lamb and beef as mains. We were persuaded by the young and sweet, yet very inexperienced waitress, to order the apple and cheddar turnover. (She approached us while we were eating our mains, advisiing that it takes 20 minutes to make).

                    I can't say that we would recommend any of these dishes. And the apple dessert that we ended up having to wait quite awhile for was virtually tasteless. The apple itself was hard and flavourless, the crust was tough, and the drizzled caramel very uncaramelly. I did like the ice cream that accompanied it, though.

                    I consider myself to have a very refined palate, a knowledge of how flavour is built, and an appreciation of how various textures can work towards creating greatness in a dish. LAB's finished dishes do not show much sophistication in any of these areas.

                    1. re: Tatai

                      Wow! It is indeed a small world! Sometimes I wonder whether we should wear a secret pin to identify ourselves as chowhounders?! Should be fun to be able to exchange ' live' view points with fellow CHers there and then?!!

                      Another complain I had with my meal was that through out the experience, no one actually bothered to explain to us what some of the ' mysterious' ingredients in our plates were. Whether some of them are for consumption or just plain decoration purpose?! Casing point was the pile of mysterious ' brownish powder crystals' on the lip of the veggie ragout plate! Only half way through the dish and by waving the waitress over did we found out that we were supposed to mixed the ' funny tasting' powder into the boullabaise broth!

              2. re: nummanumma

                Thank God I'm not the only one. This was one of the worst meals I've had in the city in a couple years. I'm all for new, interesting, risk-taking cooking, but this wasn't any of that. It was technically awful (gummy, cloyingly sweet risotto), boring (sweet potato pierogies that tasted like gerber's stuffed Pizza Pops), intellectually lazy (silver leaf on a mushy overcooked carrot! Yeah! How original!), full of one liners (not a green salad! Wow! It's not green! But it tastes like . . . salad!), and uncomfortable (our waiter, named Chris, could not have been less interested in our table). It's not WD50 or anything like it. It's not even in the same galaxy as WD50. It's just awful.

              3. Hey guys,
                Just a comment on WHY I found L.A.B. so exciting – not to refute anyone else’s experiences, but to emphasize why I liked it. Your experiences may differ and all comments help other Chowhounds make a choice of whether or not to go to L.A.B.

                In particular (I hope) I identified that it was the TEXTURES that wowed me, as well as some flavours.

                Example: The Bison appetizer – this has both ‘wet and dry’ components; similar underlying flavour of bison (but different spicing) but it was this contrast of textures that made the dish so interesting for me.

                Example: Root vegetable ‘calamari’ – a ‘normal’ calamari appetizer has identical flavours with each ring/bite (ASIDE: If the dish is poorly prepared e.g. greasy, then criticism is valid). Here, each ring ‘looks’ similar but the ingredient could be any 1 of 3 (I think) different flavours/textures. So (for me) each bite was an adventure, not knowing if I was getting parsnip, celery root, celeriac.

                Example: Not Green Salad – apart from the colour, this dish had the complex flavours and textures that I like; touch of bitterness, sweet and sour (from the rhubarb vinaigrette), acid and an ‘al dente’ quality from the pickled beets, and crunch, from the cauliflower – all adding up to multiple taste sensations and textures (would have been even better with, for example, dried cranberries/cherries to give it some distinct chew).

                Example: Pan-Seared Arctic Char – fish was perfect (for me) with a crispy skin (texture again) but was lifted by the pear salad – gave both texture variation (and some crunch) and freshness.

                Example: Apple & Cheddar Tart – sweet (caramel), salty (salted caramel), acid (apple), some crunchy side bits (can’t recall what), a kick and texture variation from the ice-cream (and hot/cold variation) and the ‘umami’ sensation/mouth feel from the cheese.

                Example: Pot de Crème several different textures – smooth, crunchy etc (and if they can ratchet up the Pear and Wild Ginger flavours, then would add additional complexity.


                So if I have ‘unwittingly’ misled people, it wasn’t intentional – textures and complexity are what turn me on (and I tend to mention that frequently in my other posts).

                Perhaps I can better illustrate by saying what ‘bores’ me. The easiest example is sushi!
                50-70% of a series of sushi dishes is IDENTICALLY PREPARED rice (again could be good or bad). And the succession of ‘fish ingredients’ is often fish of similar textures and subtle differences in flavour (I know there are exceptions, but I’m trying to show what I tend to find, so you can assess my tastes – and hence recommendations). So, for me, many (most?) sushi experiences are not memorable (NB I do like Sashimi much more).

                Bad cooking/presentation should justly be criticised. But I hope that by emphasizing the components that pleased me I can prevent possible future ‘unrealistic expectations’.

                4 Replies
                1. re: estufarian

                  I enjoyed my meal there, I just didn't get the wow that you seemed to. Doesn't mean I disagree with your review...I fully support anyone doing anything interesting with food and if a place like LAB comes up with a couple of great dishes it's enough to keep me coming back in the hope that they take feedback on the misses (cough cough...Korean Gnocchi) and use the great ones as a base to build a great menu with a variety of tastes, textures and "twists".

                  p.s. I would have trouble telling the difference between celery root and celeriac even after each bite... :)

                  1. re: downtownfoodie

                    because they're the exact same thing... which is what I assume you mean

                    1. re: Blueicus

                      Sorry - meant to say Parsley (not celery) root - was rushing to catch a plane (just returned), and was distracted!

                  2. re: estufarian

                    I don't get the fried veggie calamari dish. It just not taste good for me, bland and greasy. Like others, I can't tell whether it is parsnip, celery root, celeriac, I can just taste the batter, which is not particularly crispy too, it is more on the hard side.

                    But I quite like the main dishes we order, which is the Artic Char and Lamb, especially the Char. Same description as yours and Charles, and I really like the side veggie besides the pear salad. They make it so refreshing (both taste and look) and go so well with the fish !