Finally got around to trying Hemispheres. The chef has been a favourite of mine at previous restaurants, but Hemispheres has not yet entered the consciousness of those seeking the top dining experiences in Toronto. Based on Chilis recommendation (below), we asked about the tasting menu when reserving and was told it changed daily a good sign. Our reservation was on a Friday usually a busy night in Toronto, but during the summer its less busy as people head out of town at the weekend. In fact, at 7:00 we were the only people in the main dining room.
The menus were presented, and we looked - in vain - for the tasting menu. What they had was a prix fixe du jour, but only three courses, with a choice of two alternatives for the appetizer and main course. So, not a great opportunity to put the chef through his paces. The wine list was quite highly priced (by my standards, although many restaurants in Toronto have higher markups), although still a fair selection under $50 from lesser but adequate producers. There are some strange prices for the top Bordeaux châteaux; for those with an expense account the 1994 Mouton was $650 (a rip-off), but the 1988 Latour was $600 very reasonable by comparison.
We both selected from the prix fixe menu (all choices were also priced individually, so that you could mix and match with the main menu an excellent idea). The first appetizer was a seafood yin and yang a scallop with shrimp coiled around it and a mango and tomato salsa. Excellent presentation and flavour. The other was a cold pear, carrot and ginger soup, served in a hollowed out squash. Again, excellent presentation, but unfortunately it hit a bad note with me personally. As background, I find tomatoes extremely bitter, but cannot taste bitter in other foods. Just quirky tastebuds I guess. As soon as the soup touched my tongue, a bitterness immediately screamed TOMATO. I immediately passed it over to my wife to try, who also (without prompting) said It tastes like tomato. Taking small tastes, I was certainly able to detect the pear, and ginger in the aftertaste, but no sweetness from the carrot. Suspecting (wrongly) that yellow tomato had been substituted for the carrot, I politely summoned the server and asked him to check with the kitchen. This prompted a very concerned visit from Patrick Lin, the chef, who did not appear to recognize me from his previous restaurants (or he has a good poker face). He explained fully how the dish was prepared the pear was roasted, and young carrots were steamed, destemmed and the two pureed together. No tomato at all! Absolutely nothing to explain the tomato-like bitterness (in decades of dining, this was the only time Ive been fooled by a non-tomato bitterness). Even though this was obviously not a chef error, just an unwitting mistake on my part, it was handled impressively. I was offered an alternative starter, a seafood consommé from the regular menu. This was presented with the solid ingredients in a bowl, with the broth poured over it at the table. This technique keeps the seafood crisp and prevents overcooking. The seafood consisted of two shrimp dumplings (the menu description, Id have said quenelles), two slices of sea scallops, and two slices of a tofu custard. The latter looked identical to the scallops, but was a silky textural alternative. The flavours were subtle, but the texture variations were exceptional.
Main courses were also selected from the prix fixe. One was a sea bass with a Dungeness crab crust. Very tasty, although the flavours were subtle. Also the crust wasnt really crusty, more a layer. The other was a duck breast with a 5 spice rub and morels. Much more flavour here, with some excellent texture contrasts. Slightly salty for my taste, but excellent otherwise.
Dessert could have been included with the prix fixe but, bizarrely, the cost for the 3 courses individually was less than the prix fixe inclusive, so we ordered separately.
So, whats the verdict? A talented chef for sure and excellent service. Total bill was $180(Cdn) inclusive of wine, all taxes and tip, which is very reasonable for this level of service and quality in Toronto. Definitely deserves a return visit. Maybe theyll have a tasting menu next time.
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