There were 5 of us at Greg Couillard's new restaurant, Spice Room, on Friday night.
We will probably not return. It was quite unanimous.
We were greeted very nicely, and the service was generally quite friendly and good. Couillard himself partakes of serving and clearing dishes, while also chatting with customers.
The place itself has the feel of a Las Vegas-style restaurant with the African theme abounding, including African headresses on the hostess, dim lanterns, and other faux exotica. The room itself is quite nice.
The menu is small in selection, which we took as a good sign. Most of the food was described a bit outlandishly with obscure African place-names. The wine list was miniscule and would probably deter anyone from drinking wine, especially given that the spicy food does not lend itself to most wines, except maybe Gewurztraminer. But there was no Gewurz offered on the wine list. Beer ruled the night.
Given that we were in the hands of a very prominent chef, we decided to let him show his stuff. We simply asked that he make dinner for five hungry people, and we would leave it to his discretion and culinary wisdom. We were prepared to be somewhat impressed given his reputation. But, he bristled nervously at our suggestion, demanding particulars of our desires. Perhaps that might have been our cue to simply order from the menu. But, by this point, we did not want to insult him by revoking the trust that we had placed in him.
So what did he do? He brought two appetizers, both on the same bed of mixed fruit and greens. One had deep-fried shrimps atop greens, mango, dragonfruit, and other fruit. The other featured something else (I don't even recall what it was) atop the same stuff. The apps were tasty enough, but they were too similar. There was no variation, as one might expect from a chef who was given free reign.
Then, for the mains, rather than exercising culinary liberty, he simply served us 6 main courses off the menu. Three lambs and three steaks. They were all individually plated, so dividing them was a bit tricky. And, he did point out that he was comping us a main course. But, in my view, he did not live up to the omikase-like possibilities and he did not at all relish our absolute trust in him. The plates were okay. The lamb was generous, but not well-trimmed for my taste; there was too much fat left after trimming, although I know that that is a matter of personal style. The lamb was caked with a very spicy and delicious red paste, which was a bit overbearing but addictive. I was impressed at the spiciness of the food, especially given that we were, after all, in Hazelton Lanes of all places. The sides on the plates were typical: potato pancake, assorted greens. They were almost token. They were uninventive.
So, it got me thinking. Was it our fault? Should I have notified him in advance that we wanted a tasting menu or something akin to that? Did we expect too much? I don't know. But, he sure was rattled by the request. I would have thought that someone with his experience and artistry would have been able to rattle off an impromptu feast that featured the best of his kitchen and skills. But, I guess I was wrong.
Couillard is in trouble. Toronto is now a Mecca for spicy, inexpensive flavour hits. Restoran Malaysia, the Indian buffets, the great roti joints... they're all doing it and doing it well. Couillard's food is an expensive imitation of Toronto's ethnic eats. But, in the absence of some added value from Couillard the genius, I would rather get my flavour on at Restoran Malaysia. I don't need to pay triple for it.