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Feb 18, 2012 09:12 AM

Niagara Street Cafe

A word of caution/advice Niagara Street Cafe. There is a new chef and the menu is totally revamped. In fact it is a Latin American restaurant now. We went last night and it was pretty empty, Maybe 4 tables in the whole place were occupied by small groups or pairs. This is odd because when I called earlier in the week for reservations I was told 7 or 8:30 were the only times available. Wasn't an issue since the time worked for us. The menu was a surprise given we were expecting bistro with a bit of a twist and we were not aware that a new chef had started in February. A pleasant surprise though since both my gf and I love the flavours that were on the menu. We started with a small plate of empanadas -- short rib, pork and mushroom with aji. They were cooked well with a little chew to the pastry and very tasty if not a little small. The aji was siced well and balanced. For the main my gf had Grilled Smoked Cornish Hen with potatoes, Escabeche and Huancaina Sauce.

She enjoyed it and it looked pretty good. I tried a small bite of the hen and couldn't taste much of smoke but it was still very good. The Huancaina sauce was made with hazelnuts and delicious. I had Confit of pork shoulder, kidney beans, poached egg (perfectly poached), cilantro mojo and Arepa. The pork was fantastic and the mojo added some brightness and freshness to the very rich dish. Also on the menu were items like Sancocho with oxtail, beef neck, yuca and tamarind, whole steamed fish, several ceviches and 3 dessert options that we were too full to try.

The chef -- Steve Gonzalez formerly of Origin -- came out at the end of the night and at this point there were about 5 people total in the place. I talked to him for a bit and he's really enthusiastic about his ancestry's food. We ended up doing a shot of some peruvian liquor with him and he told us about his plans to make a ceaser type drink with it. We also had a bottle of Cote Du Rhone but I'd like to see a rioja or some Spanish wines on the menu and even some beer would be nice. All in it was 160 bucks (130 bill 30 dollar tip) The service was friendly and professional although he did go missing for some extended periods. We'll definitely be back and I cant wait until the patio is open for business.

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  1. Steve's a great guy. incredibly funny, incredibly passionate. really digs his pork.

    He took over once Nick left to open his own place and has been there for around a month. I haven't gone yet (its on "the list"). I'm just not sure what the long-term status is of the restaurant. I read (briefly) that the owner had the resto up for sale. not sure what that means for Steve.

    regardless, i wish them luck and will likely go there in March when i have a free night.

    6 Replies
    1. re: atomeyes

      I read that the restaurant has actually been sold. Though, like you, I don't know what that means for the restaurant.

      1. re: TorontoJo

        I think it's a done deal and has already been in the press so I'm not telling tales out of school. Anton has sold the business but not the building so he will be the landlord to the new business owner. And the new business owner will be Steve Gonzalez. I've had a meal there recently under Steve and I think this is going to be great, the first Latino cuisine I've had in Toronto that reminded me of the quality and innovation I experienced back in the day at Patria in NYC.

        1. re: bytepusher

          The menu is such a departure that I can't help but think that a name change would benefit them at this point. He also mentioned that there were no plans to do brunch but with that patio and that menu I hope he changes his mind.

          1. re: jamesm

            +1 on the name change. why confuse the diner? we're right down the street so were there a lot. looking forward to regular visits to try the new food

            1. re: downtownfoodie

              Even beyond confusing the diner it would be a wise strategy IMO since the media and blogs, word of mouth, etc...would be focused on it as a new restaurant rather than just a change in the kitchen. I can't help but think it would help generate some buzz. The place wasn't hopping when I was there but it should have been. Maybe it was just a slow night and there's no concern, but that's just my observation.

              1. re: jamesm

                The ownership change won't legally take effect until, I'm pretty sure Anton said, end of March. I've no idea what Steve's plans are but a name change once he's the legal owner of the business isn't out of the question.

                On the other hand I remember people making more or less the same argument when Anton bought the place 8 years ago and within a couple months it really didn't matter.

    2. I remember Steve telling me a while back that Niagara St Cafe was really good. The place looked cute and I would drive by when heading to Beast.
      but to be honest, I never had a desire to eat at a place called "Niagara Street Cafe". i assumed they sold all-day breakfasts and watered-down coffee.

      change the name, start fresh, do something to get some hype.

      1. The flipside of the "change the name" argument, of course, is that since Anton Potvin bought the place in 2004, the Niagara Street Cafe has had two amazing chefs in the kitchen (Michael Caballo until 2008 and Nick Liu since then), along with a lauded wine program built by Anton himself (he's a sommelier). The Niagara Street Cafe name is well-established in Toronto as a place that offers great, innovative food and solid wines. For many people, it's not just a restaurant, but a brand.

        If it's true that Steve Gonzalez is the new tenant and Anton the landlord, I think the ideal scenario would be for the name to remain, with Steve putting together a new menu of innovative food, and Anton continuing to oversee the wine list. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of months.

        12 Replies
        1. re: TOFoodFan

          you talk about its brand....
          was NSC ever a talked about or popular restaurant? i feel like its only come into food discussions in the past 3 or so months.

          1. re: atomeyes

            I've heard it mentioned usually as a reliable standby but never as a buzz type place. I do think a re-brand would initiate that conversation and it deserves to be talked about.

            1. re: atomeyes

              NSC has been very popular with a devoted following for a number of years now. The food has always been very good. They had inconsistent hours and the menu would suddenly change from time to time. They also suffered from bad service which turned people off. IMO a number of things like those I've listed worked against their ability to build traction.

              1. re: atomeyes

                Along the lines of what everyone is saying but in different words: isn't Steve Gonzalez more of a brand than NSC ever was.

                1. re: dubchild

                  I love Steve and all but the answer to your question is NO

                    1. re: justsayn

                      Given that I gave no argument for why Steve Gonzalez is more of a brand than NSC, I guess I can't fault the opposing comments for not giving an argument. My impression is that Origin received much more press than NSC and that the consensus seems to be that it was at its best when Steve was at the helm. I imagine Top Chef also helped give him more exposure. As far as I know no one from NSC was part of a TV show.

                      1. re: dubchild

                        NSC has been a solid place for almost a decade now. It is also well loved by industry insiders. Without referencing Steve Gonzalez in particular, being on TV does not make you a brand, nor necessarily a good chef. Lots of people are just really good at PR.

                        Buzzy places get press via Joanne Kates here. But she seems to think making charcuterie and serving deviled eggs is exciting and/or deserving of a Michelin star.

                        1. re: dubchild

                          I agree, Dubchild - Origin had much more buzz than NSC ever did, with NSC's clientele primarily being industry people. Origin is/was bigger than NSC, and Steve Gonzalez was/is bigger than both.

                          1. re: justxpete

                            not sure what is meant by Steve being a brand.
                            he didn't go deep on Top CHef Canada, so his appearance on the show is semi-irrelevant.

                            what he is, though, is an incredibly nice and funny guy who had success at Origin and is doing something that TOronto's sorely missing: making Latino food.

                            if he can kick a medium to high end Latino restaurant, then brand shmand. I'm down wit it.

                2. re: TOFoodFan

                  From what I understand Anton has other fish to fry and may not be in Toronto much as a result. He can be a landlord without being here much (or frankly at all) but not properly run a restaurant wine program.

                3. I've heard that chefs Tobey Nemeth & Michael Caballo are taking over Niagara Street Cafe in April and the new name will be Edulis.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: JamieK

                    Looking forward to this, they were my fave era of JK Wine Bar.

                        1. re: jamesm

                          i think Steve was always temporary. he's been looking for his own place for a while.

                          it just means that i only have a month to try his menu, which is looking pretty good.

                          1. re: atomeyes

                            Indeed - Steve was apparently just 'holding down the fort' until it was sold, and is still looking for a place to call home.

                            I had dinner at NSC on Friday, and the food was excellent. I would definitely try and make the trip while you can!