A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
We hear about restaurant openings all the time. Some pique our curiousity. Having tasted a panoply of South American flavours at source, when Baro opened, it was only a matter of time before we would check out the excitement.
Adam Waxman: When we open the front door it’s like we’ve passed through a portal. We’re greeted in the foyer by what seems like a concierge at a boutique tropical hotel. There are plants along the wall and a cast iron gate. We feel an old world architectural ambience as though we’re on vacation somewhere exotic. A lot of thought has been put into the décor, and my eyes are darting around trying to take in every detail.
Sara Waxman: We’re ushered toward the Chef’s Table—a counter overlooking the team of chef’s on the line. Everyone has their own function. There is an excitement in the air. Does it come from the energy of the corps of chefs behind the open kitchen? Or does it come from enthusiastic oohs and aahs of diners tasting Chef Steve Gonzales’ cuisine for the first time? The vibrant pulse of this South American kitchen leaves King Street West far behind.
AW: You just know in a place like this, you’re going to want to order a cocktail. I’m always impressed, and skeptical, when I see Pisco Sour on a menu, because most bars do not have fine pisco or know how to make a balanced pisco cocktail. Our waiter recommends the Baro Sour, which is a Pisco Sour with a big twist. Peruvian Pisco blended with passion fruit, guava, raspberry blossom, honey, ginger and vanilla almond bitters. Well structured and balanced, citric, subtly sweet, and with hints of marzipan, it’s a dangerous cocktail. It’s the kind where you don’t taste the alcohol or smell any volatility, but are just excited by the refreshing flavour punch, so you might want to order a few…or a few too many.
SW: The guacamole does not disappoint, and is served with a side of salsa, and a heaping bowl of kitchen-made chips: corn, yucca, purple potato, taro root and plantain. The guac is fresh and chunky and we want to eat up every crunchy chip.
AW: If I were just coming here for drinks—and I will—I would also order these chips—for myself and not to share. They are literally packed in their bowl; crunchy and home-style; they compliment every drink and every course. They’re also perfect for scooping ceviche. Options of ceviche and tiradito include Nikkei, a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese styles that is becoming popular in Europe right now. This Nikkei dish of thickly cut pieces of yellow tail is accented with ponzu, lime, nori, tofu, edamame, lotus root and radish. Each ingredient makes its own statement, but the concept is to mix it all together for a textural blend of crisp veggies with voluptuous fish, a fresh splash of sour citrus with sweet ponzu, combined with herbaceous green. Here is a chef ahead of the curve.
Next up is the classic Peruvian Causa. Served as a cold starter, causa is typically composed of layers of mashed and thickly whipped potato, avocado, and some kind of fish. It is reliably tasty and filling. Never one to rest on his laurels, Chef Gonzales offers his own creative spin. Presented as a decorative sushi roll, smooth potato and aji are wrapped in raw beef and crowned with avocado, crisp shallots and a quail egg with an added lacquer of hibiscus mayo. Peruvian cuisine is the world’s original fusion cuisine, so as long as you stay true to the principles, you can really be imaginative and daring. This causa is as pleasing to the eyes as to the palate, and again, is a medley of complimentary textures.
Not to be outdone by the Japanese influence, Cantonese elements can be found across Peruvian cuisine, namely in the form of stir-fry. The Lomo Saltado and the Chaufa are staples in Peruvian dining.
SW: Meat and potatoes reach their highest aspirations in Lomo Saltado. But this one is different. Who takes the time to make Pomme Anna anymore? Layers of thinly sliced potatoes slowly baked in the French style to buttery crusty deliciousness. Ahh…memories of Paris, circa 1990.
AW: I am a lover of Canadian beef. It’s among the best quality beef in the world, and so this Lomo Saltado is, for me, better than I’ve ever tasted before. The beef is so savoury and marinated to such tenderness in soy and ginger jus that, combined with the mélange of fiddle heads, asparagus, crones (aka Chinese artichokes that look like cavatelli pasta) tomato, wild leeks and golden crisp potato, each and every one of my flavour receptors is on a raging umami high. This is a perfect example of an international dish made better with local produce.
SW: From our vantage point we watch a cook preparing something special. He spoons textured rice into an oval; adds more and more into a decadent stir fry of duck confit, edamame, chili and crunchy tobiko. Every table seems to be ordering this dish. We watch as he methodically ladles it all into a large clay bowl. Oh goodie, this one’s for us!
AW: There’s no way this Chaufa could be a dish just for two. This could feed a family. The portion size is so generous, and the flavours so rich. I’d want to share this with everyone, but it seems that everyone has already ordered they’re own! My palate is dizzy with delight. This is the kind of restaurant where you can get lost in the ambience and the flavours and forget what city you’re in. Colourful plates of octopus, cod and whole fish are whizzing by, and I’m already thinking about what to order next time.
SW: Each dish is presented to us by a server who whets our appetite by describing each ingredient and technique with enthusiastic detail. We are not out on our own here. Concluding our menu of delicious success, a surprising perfect ending veers to simplicity. Coconut milk, a new darling in our world, has been coaxed into a frozen popsicle. Served wooden stem up. We are loving every swirling, cooling taste. Chef Steve Gonzales has evolved into a gastro-hero by returning to his roots and taking us along on a blissful culinary joyride.
AW: …Two nights later, I am back with friends. Sipping Pisco Sours at the bar; moving up to the second floor lounge for more; and then onto Escobar, the alluring speak easy behind a guarded door, where we drink and dance. Where to next? We head up to The Loft event space on the third floor for “Street Dancing”. The length of this room is filled with Latin dancing, which, all of a sudden, I can do perfectly! Without realizing the time, we have spent all night at this multi-leveled emporium of South American cultures. King Street West is already a magnet for great restaurants, but Steve Gonzales and his team stand out, and have enriched our evening with more than good food, more than a special dining experience, they have created a destination.
Baro, 485 King Street West, 416-363-8388