2016 BEST NEW RESTAURANT:
It is a testament to the cooking of chef Patrick Kriss that anybody agreed to go into business with him in the first place. On paper, almost everything about Alo – the most ambitious restaurant to open in Toronto in a decade – screams disaster.
The location on the third floor of an unremarkable building, hemmed in by fast food chains, where guests enter through a generic side door and wait for a dingy elevator, is challenging at best. The concept of offering only a choice of multi-course tasting menus in an age when “fast casual” is the industry mantra is bold to the point of delusional, and the style – classic French, as interpreted through Canadian ingredients – seems anathema to a city entralled with global street food and endless variations on fried chicken.
Kriss, a talented young chef at the height of his creative powers, got his start at Toronto’s beloved Auberge du Pommier and spent three years at restaurant Daniel in NYC before returning to the city. With Alo, he and his business partner/general manager Amanda Bradley have assembled a kind of supergroup of high-end restaurant industry veterans. The restaurant’s sous chefs have Michelin-starred training, the pastry chef earned her chops at Canoe, the sommelier has worked in some of the city’s most exacting dining rooms and the bartenders were brought together from the city’s finest watering holes.
Side door shenanigans and rides in industrial elevators aside, when guests finally do arrive they enter in to a cool, crepuscular bar scene where a golden-hued mural and a constellation of pendant lights cast a dramatic glow over a stylish crowd. Many don’t make it past here, either because reservations in the dining room are notoriously difficult to secure, or because there’s an outstanding à-la-carte menu—exceptional, saucy brisket and sweet, Chantilly gilded pâte à choux— on offer in the bar. Perfect manhattans and martinis are joined by carefully balanced original creations that cleverly combine dry sherry with Dubonnet and shake Tanqueray with blood oranges, egg whites and coriander.
Where the bar is cool and dark, the dining room is bright and open, with brass pendants reflecting off smoked mirrors and illuminating long rows of banquettes. Several coveted seats are perched at a bar overlooking the open kitchen and offering a direct look at how the brigade manages to add an element of playfulness to what is highly technical, demanding cooking. Pommes soufflées with black pepper aioli are little more than potato chips, but crunchier, airier and more expertly executed than they have any right to be. A torchon of foie gras, fashioned into a lollipop and dipped in puffed rice pearls, is as decadent as a Buster Bar and twice as rich. A sheet of carpaccio acts as the base for a philosophical and delicious expression of beef: tartare, marrow, tendon and tongue. Beneath a billowing drift of shaved foie gras, veal trotters, mushrooms and coxcomb are braised into a deep, umami richness. Similarly, glassine shards of chicken skin provide a meaty contrast to earthy celery root and matsutake mushrooms while bonito anchors the dish somewhere between land and sea.
Among the myriad dessert courses, the tasting menu provides there is evidence of a sly, sophisticated sense of humour at play. Sunchokes might be turned into purée, their nutty flavour enhanced by burnt honey gelée. Burnished canelles might hold bourbon dosed custard, while berries might be compressed to intensify their flavours and textures before being paired with celery and hibiscus. These are ideas that, like so much of this restaurant, are just crazy enough to work. Impeccable cooking that doesn’t take itself too seriously, formal, expert service that still exudes warmth and congeniality and a plush, perfectly-tuned room not only overcome the inherent challenges of a less than perfect location, but combine to make this the best new restaurant in the country.
A toast to Patrick from Canada’s 100 Best and Veuve Cliquot.