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Oct 3, 2012 07:29 PM

Momofuku Shoto (long)

Hi everyone,

Here is a review of my recent experience at Momofuku Shoto. Short version - I liked it a lot. Long version is below if you'd care to peruse it. Full review with some photos is at:

190 University Avenue
Toronto, ON

Certainly, the expansion of David Chang’s Momofuku empire to Toronto has not been without its share of breathless hype. Chang is clearly a talented guy with his own rather effective aesthetic, to say nothing of great food; you don’t wildly succeed in a market as cutthroat as New York City without having some serious mojo. The announcement that he would be coming to town has come on a wave of similar announcements from other well-known culinary figures – we already have Scott Conant’s outpost of Scarpetta in the Thompson, for better or for worse, and we will be seeing Daniel Boulud putting his stamp on the glittery new Four Seasons in Yorkville very soon. Me, I’ve been pretty gleefully anticipating the opening of the local Momofuku chapter for a while now, noting the details as they trickled in on social media; the basic setup (3 restaurants, one bar, adjacent to the new Shangri-La), the names (Nikai, Daisho, Shoto, and a copy of New York’s Noodle Bar) and the specific details (Nikai – the bar, Daisho – the a la carte/large format place, Shoto – the prix fixe counter a la Ko). Finally, reservations became available. I decided when I was in New York in June to forgo dining at Ko and Ssam Bar in favour of trying the Toronto restaurants, and my first inclination was to choose the prix fixe, given my enthusiasm for these types of meals. So it was that I was able to secure a 6:00 solo reservation at Shoto on a date not long after the first service through the online reservation system (which was not as difficult as I suspected it might be).

Arriving at the restaurant (a “glass cube in the heart of Toronto”, according to the website, which seems a reasonable if somewhat fantastical description), I navigated past the line for Noodle Bar and was whisked upstairs by the staff to the third floor host, who asked me if I had a copy of my confirmation (I did not; note that they will ask for this if you are planning to dine there, but in the end it didn’t seem to be a problem). I was taken and seated at the counter, which is in a corner of the floor behind a half-wall separating it from Daisho which takes up the remainder of the space. I was the first to arrive for the evening and was greeted by Chef de Cuisine Mitch Bates and Sous Chef Peter Jensen, who were prepping for the evening’s service. As other diners started to trickle in, I was offered a delicious, warm and buttery roll to start the evening’s festivities.

Drink options were outlined at this point. There is a full pairing, which includes a beverage pairing with each course, a short pairing with every other course, and a brief but interesting a la carte wine list. Not one to do anything in half-measures, I opted for the full pairing, and in short order the amuse courses started to arrive, with a sparkling non-vintage chardonnay blend, Tissot “Cremant” from the Jura region of France poured as an accompaniment. The first amuse was a smoked trout in a cauliflower puree, and given my predilection for anything smoked it’s not surprising I found this very tasty, with the acidity of the bubbly cutting nicely through the richness of the fish.

The second amuse was a lovely and sweet corn soup with a hit of what I thought was sriracha in the bottom but evidently was some sort of Korean hot sauce. A sprig of cilantro gave the dish a bit of a Mexican feel. Again, the sparkling wine was a perfect foil.

It was at this point that I started to take note of the music being played. Over the course of the evening I would hear selections from Wilco, Neil Young, Stereolab, the XX, The National, My Bloody Valentine, Lou Reed, and others, all of which I loved – it was almost as if my iPod had been hijacked by the Shoto team. The staff was digging it too – I was quietly singing along to Arcade Fire’s Neighbourhood #1, only to look over at Chef Bates doing the same. When Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” came gleefully stomping through the restaurant’s sound system (Chang’s shout out to his home base, no doubt) I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot, because it just felt, well, so damned right. Jensen confided to me that Chang spends a pretty fair chunk of time tweaking the playlist to get it exactly the way he wants it. I, for one, certainly appreciated the effort, though admittedly if your tastes run to Chopin or Debussy you may not be as appreciative.

The first course was described as “fluke, caper, dill, turnip”, and was actually composed of a lovely and clean crudo of fluke with crispy onion, sprigs of dill, thinly sliced raw turnip, and a creamy sauce which ended up being horseradish based. Normally I’m not a big fan of crudo, but this worked beautifully, the slight bite of the horseradish providing a great counterpoint to the mildness of the fish and the onions a further layer of complexity. It was probably the best crudo dish I’ve ever had, and was paired with a 2010 Domaine du Poujol “Pico” from the Languedoc in France, which added a great citrus note complementing the fish.

Course number two, “sepia, tomato, harissa”, was tender, sweet cuttlefish, sepia being the Greek term for both the cuttlefish and its ink. The presentation included lots of flavors on the plate evoking the Mediterranean and specifically North Africa, with blanched plump cherry tomatoes sans skin, and the harissa fried into little croutons of couscous which provided this incredible explosive burst of cumin and coriander and spice when you bit into them. Hidden at the bottom of the dish was a small smear of cuttlefish ink. Looking back on the meal as a whole I think this was my favorite course of the night; inventive yet entirely balanced. It was paired with an Italian white from Friuli, Tocai Fruliano I Clivi, which had a nice minerality made for drinking with seafood.

On to course number three, “daikon, plum, Brussels sprouts, curry”, which consisted of a braised piece of daikon in a mild curry with roasted leaves of Brussels sprouts over the top. The sprouts were the star of the plate for me, with a nutty roasted flavor that really carried the dish, lifting the mild flavor of the daikon and light curry spice. On paper, this is one of those combinations that would ordinarily leave one scratching one’s head a bit, but it really worked well. It was paired with a sake, a house Junmai from Kazoeman in Gifu, Japan. Again, I didn’t think this would work with Brussels sprouts, but it did, with a surprising sweet richness that stood up to the nuttiness.

The fourth course, “egg, dashi, horseradish, ikura” was one of only a couple of courses which didn’t totally work for me over the course of the evening. I found that the egg really got lost in the overwhelming umami of the dashi broth, but I did enjoy the textural counterpoint between the creamy egg and the fishy pop of the ikura, and while it wasn’t a total home run, it was still pretty tasty. The pairing was with a sparkling rose from the Loire valley, Agnes et Rene Mosse “Moussamoussettes”. It was slightly sweet with plenty of acidity to temper the umami flavours in the dish, and a lovely fruity nose.

The next few offerings, by contrast, were stunners. “Spaghetti, nori, sardine, lumpfish roe” was a dish of perfectly cooked spaghetti in a savory, peppery, lightly oceanic sauce, with intensely salty and flavorful fried sardines that were phenomenally tasty. This was also poured with one of my favorites, a 2011 Nigl “Gartling” Gruner Veltliner, with abundant apple, stone fruit, and a slight pepper note. Gruners are always food friendly and this wine is no exception.

“Lobster, tandoor, lemon, fava” was buttery lobster tail cooked perfectly with tandoor spices, an intense puree of lemon, and fava beans, which are normally an ingredient I find a bit boring but within the context of the dish their delicate, spring-like flavor was very nice. The wine poured with this one was the best of the night, a 2009 Viognier from Stratus Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was a monster of a wine, buttery and rich and nicely oaked with great fruit and good acid. I have some of the Stratus wines in my cellar and quite like them; somehow I have missed this one over my trips there, and they are currently sold out but if they ever offer it again I will be getting a case posthaste.

“King oyster mushroom, macadamia, barley” was a gorgeously earthy mushroom covered in a macadamia foam and served over creamy barley grains. I noted an interesting citrus note which provided a refreshing contrast to the earth/nut/butter flavors in the dish; when asked, Chef Jensen volunteered that there was indeed some lemon in there (“a little surprise at the bottom”, as he put it). The first beer pairing of the night was poured with it, Asahi Black Lager, which tasted more like a stout and as one would expect married well with the hearty taste of the mushroom.

The final course before dessert was “veal cheek, green chili, Sichuan”. The piece of veal cheek was cooked sous vide and was sublimely tender; however, I would have liked a bit more spice on the plate, as the chili was fairly mild for my tastes. My server told me that about one in twenty of these chilies (I forget the exact variety) really blasts someone with heat. I certainly didn’t get one of those. I did like the wine, a Norman Hardie 2010 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County and one which I’ve had several times.

The dessert courses began with “banana, cashew, mint, gula jawa”, which was paired with an ale from Bellwoods Brewery in Toronto called Lost River. I wondered to myself how this could possibly work, but it did, and the thing that actually tied the two together was the roasted sesame flavor in the dish which matched well with the malty, slightly nutty, almost toffee like taste of the ale.

Finally, the last course of the night was “hootenanny, orange, maple” and was described as a sort of breakfast for dessert: a small, light, delicious griddle cake with flavors of sausage and cinnamon, and maple ice cream with a bit of candied orange. I found it a very unusual and creative way to end the meal. It was paired with a sparkling rose, a Bugey-Cerdon from Patrick Bottex, which was refreshing and low in alcohol (appreciated as I had by this time of the night had rather a lot to drink).

I truly enjoyed my meal here and will be very interested to see where David Chang’s staff will take Shoto in the future. I plan on probably coming back about every six months or so just to see how it evolves. The meal was not cheap; $150 for the tasting plus $80 for the wine pairings, however I felt it was worth it and the cost was certainly in line with similar places I’ve been to. I can only surmise that having such a place on the Toronto culinary landscape will be a good thing, and as innovation tends to beget innovation we Toronto diners should all be winners.

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  1. Thanks for the report. Eventually I plan on making it to Shoto. It looks like some serious thought went into the beverage pairings and it's nice to see that some of our local products are included. Would you say this was the best dining experience you've had in Toronto?

    1 Reply
    1. re: dubchild

      I don't know if it was the best dining experience I've ever had in Toronto; I had a couple of great meals at Splendido. It would absolutely be top five.

    2. Seems like we almost 'rendevous'd' again.
      We had the almost identical menu.
      Agree, an excellent meal showing great promise.
      I wasn't as enthused about the wine pairings. Although good (mostly) I found the Viognier bizarre (aromaticaly fine but clumsy in taste); and the Bugey-Cerdon more of a 'pop-wine' than a serious one. I also liked the sake but found more earthy notes rather than the sweetness you found.
      But an excellent meal - one of my best in Toronto this year. There were several service mis-steps, but I cut them some slack there as it's only just opened.

      And enjoy Chicago - whatever you do don't cancel Schwa - consistently excellent (for me) with the last 2 visits being the best.

      1 Reply
      1. re: estufarian

        Yes, we seem to haunt the same establishments, don't we?

        As I mentioned I found the Viogner very much to my taste, but I do agree about the Bugey-Cerdon. It wasn't up to much, but I was pretty tipsy by this time (the pours I got were rather generous) and if they'd thrown a port or something at me it might have been a bit too much.

        I have every intention of going to Schwa (provided they do service the night I'm there!) and am also pretty excited about Elizabeth and Goosefoot.

      2. Thank you for a great review, dined here with my SO two days ago (and did Daisho the very next day!)

        I think the cuttlefish dish was a misstep - mine was certainly not tender, although it had a nicely charred flavour.

        The spaghetti with sardine was perfect, my favourite moment of the night and a knockout dish.

        The meal for both of us came close to $600 with only one wine pairing (she doesnt do whites so went with a half bottle). At that price point for me, I don't think there is enough value in the ingredients being used. A bit of lobster and quail were the two most expensive I identified. I know that the care, technique and flavour should be all that matters, and many of the dishes were very very good.

        However if I look at the meal as a whole, for $600 I would want an incredible experience, worthy of consideration as a top 10. I think 3 or 4 dishes were incredible, with the rest being tasty and a couple being meh.

        Also, and this may be nitpicky - I found the kitchen staff a bit surly and the plate descriptions too short and not informative enough, we had to ask a lot of follow up questions (which they did answer)

        1. Great report! I'm a big fan of Momofuku Ko in NYC, and was hoping to find a detailed report of Shoto; thanks! I don't believe that I've had any of the dishes at Ko that were on your menu so it's apparent that Chef Mitch didn't merely transplant what was on the menu in NYC to Toronto. I've always found the food at the Momofuku restaurants (and especially Ko) to be very creative, and will now need to schedule a visit to Toronto to dine at all of your new Momofuku restaurants! Two interesting differences between Shoto and Ko: at Shoto you were able to take photos, and you received a printed menu.

          7 Replies
          1. re: ellenost

            I actually wondered about whether the place would be a carbon copy of Ko. It seems like they're trying to make it a distinct experience, though certainly there are similarities.

            1. re: gourmandish

              The format is pretty much identical - but let's be fair, Shoto is still finding its feet.
              With approx 50% more seats at Shoto - and even those more widely separated, there seems to be less interaction between diners and chefs (and also between diners). By my count the same number of kitchen personnel in both places.
              Also the noise from Daisho (and the bar) (and the other floors) makes Shoto a more hectic venue than Ko.
              I rated the food at Shoto very close to Ko - except maybe fewer 'wow' courses (but all competent). Service was definitely a 'work-in-progress'.
              Wine selections were definitely below Ko - let's see if that changes over time.

              Overall certainly one of the 'finer' establishments in Toronto - but more competition in New York. If I lived in Chicago (say) I'd recommend going to Ko. But if already in Toronto, then Shoto is a very good approximation.

              Ko is probably in my top 10 meals anywhere of past year and Shoto in top 3 in Toronto - but only 1 place in Toronto makes the top 10 of the year (not trying to be mysterious here - just not relevant to this thread; regular Hounds will already know what it is!).

              1. re: estufarian

                I'm curious to know so when I do visit Toronto, I'll know where to dine. Thanks.

                1. re: ellenost

                  Splendido - but a recent thread here suggested that males seem to make this #1, whereas females prefer George!

                  Of course, given the dining options in New York - Splendido may be too similar to all the French/ital/California options you already have.

                  Edited to add that for a NY visitor I'd suggest checking out our other Asian cuisines - review Charles Yu posts for the best places in Toronto (albeit mostly in suburbs).

                    1. re: estufarian

                      Totally agree with estufarian's suggestions - I love Splendido, and it is well worth taking the trip out of downtown for (among other Asian cuisines) some of the best Cantonese food in North America, IMHO. Charles's posts are definitely a great place to start.

                      1. re: gourmandish

                        Thank you both for the very helpful suggestions. I've enjoyed reading Charles' posts on the Manhattan board.

            2. Went with a friend over the weekend.

              Was seated promptly and drink menus were presented. We generally don't drink when we are out eating so we opted just for water which seemed to confuse our server as she came back multiple times to make sure we didn't want any alcohol. Prices looked ridiculous anyway.

              We had four amuses (which can be seen in the photos below). The first and third were good but nothing great. The second - rice cube with pork fat - was an interesting idea but it needed something else to spice up the one dimensionality of the bite. The fourth was the standout by far with both of us commenting we could go for a bowl of this soup and a nice hunk of bread. The lamb belly pieces within the soup were full of flavour and everything melded nicely.

              The first course was "fluke - caper, dill, turnip." Nice combination of flavours and textures. Quite liked the crispy leek rings on top of everything. The softness of the fluke, the crunch of the turnip and the crispiness of the leek really combined for a nice mouthfeel. Definitely in the upper tier of the courses on offer that night.

              The second course was "geoduck - squash, black soy." There was slight confusion when the dish was presented to us as we both thought we heard gouda instead of geoduck and were immediately confused. We then thought we had misheard and that he had said grouper but upon tasting it was obvious it wasn't. It was only until we saw the geoduck being prepped in the kitchen that we made the connection. The flavours were nice but the fact that I have nothing more to say about it speaks for itself.

              The third course was "goose wonton - brussels sprout, shiitake." I quickly understood that the kitchen had a deft hand with broths/soups. The wontons were full of flavour and the goose consomme it was all sitting in was delicious. Excellent balance of flavours but unfortunately the brussels sprouts were left hanging. They didn't add anything to the dish and their flavour didn't harmonize with the overwhelming goose flavours in the wontons and broth.

              The fourth course was "egg - dashi, horseradish, ikura." I love ikura so this was very quickly an instant win for me. It could have used a touch more horseradish as I didn't pick up on it that much but otherwise a definite win. Contrary to gourmandish's comment on it, I thought there were no issues with the ikura getting lost and while not perfect it was well above the next course which seems to have fans on this board.

              The fifth course was "spaghetti - nori, sardine, lumpfish roe." This was probably the most confusing dish for me. And interesting to note that both gourmandish and themiguel were highly impressed by it. The flavour of neither the nori nor the roe came through and I found the entire thing limp, flavourless and just plain boring. I'd rank it at the bottom of all the savoury courses served.

              The sixth course was "monkfish - vadouvan, yogurt, carrot." Expertly cooked piece of fish - very tender and not chewy (a huge pet peeve of mine), great flavour from the vadouvan and nice creaminess from the yogurt to balance it out.

              The seventh course was "sunchoke consomme - sunflower granola, foie gras, black pepper." A successful dish except for the idea of putting the super cold slice of foie on there and letting it be warmed up by the broth. The initial bites provided a confused contrast and only towards the end when the foie was warmed did the flavour combinations make sense. Nice crunch and flavour from the granola and again the broth shone through.

              The eighth course was "veal cheek - green chili, sichuan." A very good final savoury course. Veal cheek was very well cooked. Super tender and delicious. I found more than enough spice(and im not averse) on the dish which balanced the sweetness of the meat very well. The largest and most filling of all the courses without a doubt. Upon completion I was left thinking why the kitchen didn't cook more red meat as part of the tasting as it was clear they knew what they were doing.

              The first desert course was "banana - cashew, mint, gula jawa." It was good but I thought the mint didn't really contribute anything to the overall harmony of flavours.

              The last desert course was "hootenanny - orange, maple." Not a bad effort but felt amused with the maple flavoured ice cream. I was hoping for something a bit more creative considering the stereotypes of Canada.

              Service all night was very prompt. Constant water filling and cutlery changing without delay. I will say though that none of the staff - service or kitchen - were warm in demeanour. There was a robotic nature to things which rubbed me the wrong way and was surprising considering how welcoming and friendly the hostess' at the podium for Daisho were.

              I would also add that it seemed there was a clear mix of people at Shoto that were truly interested in what the kitchen was putting out vs people who weren't interested at all but just had money to spend and wouldn't even give the chefs time to explain what they were about to eat. The chefs were particularly peeved with one corner of the table.

              Overall I'd say a worthwhile experience to try something new and interesting with my favourite courses being the veal cheek, the lamb belly soup amuse, and the ikura dish. My least favourite by far the spaghetti dish. I'd be interested in seeing how the menu evolved with time but I suppose it is most telling that at this time I don't think there is good value for dollar and that it isn't worth the $150pp.

              9 Replies
              1. re: radiopolitic

                Great review Radiopolitic, fully agree with your final assessment for the place. An interesting, often tasty experience but not good value for the price. And yes, I too thought the kitchen crew was a bit cold , I used the word surly, but cold is more accurate.

                1. re: radiopolitic

                  were you there on the Saturday? we were there as well and I think I know which section of the tavle you are referring to. I agree with your general comment in that I found the food not worth the price at all, particulalry given the reputation of Chang. So very few courses were better than average or in any ways interesting or memorable. Competent decent kitchen, but I expected oh so much more.

                  1. re: shekamoo

                    Yeah, Saturday. We were directly to the right of the corner that the chefs weren't too pleased with. My friend had a Lumix camera that looks a bit retro on the exterior.

                    Ian from Grand Electric was at the corner to the right of us.

                    It was a disappointment given the reputation of Chang indeed. As much as I don't care for Mallet, I think the National Post review that came out the weekend before metered my expectations a bit or I would have been even more disappointed.

                    1. re: radiopolitic

                      Interestingly enough I just chatted with an acquaintance the other day who said it was the best meal they have ever had in Toronto, and claimed it was better than his meal at French Laundry!

                      Different strokes for different folks....

                      1. re: themiguel

                        I agree with the French Laundry comparison.
                        I disagree that it's the best in Toronto (by a wide margin)!

                        1. re: estufarian

                          I would skip French Laundry then...

                          1. re: estufarian

                            Estufarian, you agree that its better than French Laundry, or that the style is similar to French Laundry?

                            1. re: themiguel

                              Better than - different style.
                              But French Laundry is 'more overrated' - if I can mangle the language a little!

                        2. re: radiopolitic

                          I remember the camera! we were on the south side of the table, the entrance side.

                          themiguel, my meal at Haisai was definitely better than this, and I think that Canoe, Splendido, Auberge, and many other fine dining establishments in Toronto are capable of producing comparable food at a lower price. This was really nothing special. Maybe as they evolve...