Neruda has opened on Lake Shore Boulevard East in the Beaches and Torontonicity was invited for a menu tasting to try some of the dishes on the Latin/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern menu.
Upon arriving at Neruda, which was formerly occupied by Carter’s Landing, you can’t help but smell the aroma of smoked meat wafting through the air. Owner/entrepreneur Alex Haditaghi has completely overhauled the space and installed the world’s largest wood fired grill.
As far as the décor goes, one could describe it as upscale casual with warm, neutral tones, with plants providing accents. Haditaghi used the wood from Toronto’s oldest bowling alley to create the tabletops and told us he tested around 150 chairs before choosing the most comfortable yet stylish chair for his restaurant.
Our server quickly introduced herself and took our drinks order. Michelin-star-experienced Executive Chef Romain Avril came by to discuss the restaurant and the menu. Assisted by Chef Sylvain Assie, Chef Avril informed us that all food is prepared in house and all ingredients are locally sourced. Meat, which you will see hanging as you enter the restaurant, is aged anywhere from three weeks to several months.
We started with a gorgeous Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, $14. This salad defies you to eat it and disassemble its perfect presentation. Alas, we did and were impressed that the salad tasted as good as it looked. Gently roasted butternut squash is wonderfully complemented by sweet pomegranate seeds and the slight bitterness of curly endive. Chef Romain explained that he uses just a little olive oil in his lemon/olive oil vinaigrette so that the flavours of the salad dominate.
Tuna Tartare, $24, featured fresh tuna with Nori, daikon, ginger with pine nuts, topped with crispy miso wafers. The tasty wafers are made by drying the miso…ingenious!
One of the highlights of the afternoon, a vegan dish, was Slow Roasted Eggplant with quinoa, fire-roasted heirloom tomato sauce and coriander, $22. I can’t say enough positive things about this dish, but roasting tomatoes on a wood fired grill brings out an unsurpassed flavour. The sauce was so good – rich, intense, smoky. The purple quinoa had a pleasant nutty, chewy flavour.
Another excellent dish was the Pulled Lamb Sandwich, $19, which was served with an Artisan Greens Salad. I don’t often order lamb as I sometimes find its flavour too strong, but I have to admit, this meat was delicious in a light gravy stuffed in a pita with vegetables and herbs. Chef Avril informed me that he uses Ontario lamb on the menu, which has a milder flavour than New Zealand lamb.
For dessert, we tried the Chocolate & Coffee with hazelnut and mascarpone. Sweet chocolate mousse is topped with mascarpone ice cream and accompanied by chocolate wafers and chocolate rice balls. A chocoholic’s delight!
We also tried the Tropical Tart with black sesame and passionfruit. The tart was sweet and smooth, balanced by fresh fruit and a delicious housemade sorbet.
After lunch, Haditaghi took us on a tour of the kitchen, his obvious pride and joy. I was fascinated by the operation of the grill – Haditaghi demonstrated how the cooking temperature on the grill is adjusted by turning a crank to raise the grill towards or lower away from the flames. Haditaghi created a kitchen that is a chef’s dream – Italian marble walls and spacious counters on which to work. The open walls bordering the kitchen underscore the transparency of the kitchen. Haditaghi said he wanted a kitchen where “the floors were clean enough to eat off of”. Looking around, we could see that he achieved his vision.
Executive Chef Romain Avril has created a menu that highlights the intrinsic flavour of ingredients. Not only is the presentation gorgeous, it’s a full sensory experience.
Neruda Restaurant, 1681 Lake Shore Blvd. E. (just east of Coxwell Avenue), 416-690-7800