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Toronto - Susur Restaurant (long review)

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Toronto - Susur Restaurant (long review)

Alan Gardner | Feb 23, 2001 09:42 AM

This time at Susur I took notes. This was my fourth visit; 1 was fantastic 1 was patchy and 1 was disorganized. My previous impressions had been excellent food with occasional brilliance, but inconsistent service and wine list.
This time (Feb 13) the room was resplendent – special heart shaped red lamp shades were along one wall. Most of the staff looked new to me, so changes were afoot. Attendance was less than usual – most tables had couples, instead of 4s, so at any time there was a maximum of about 45-50 people instead of the 75-80 on a normal night.
I arrived before my wife so had plenty of time to browse the wine list and ignore the hard sell of bottled water. The list had doubled in size from the previous version, but the ‘bargains’ had disappeared. Most of the wines were now ‘consignment’ (a strange Ontario custom – we have a provincial liquor monopoly, but registered agents can bring in wines in relatively small quantities [paying identical duties/markups] which are theoretically available to individuals, but are usually ‘consigned’ to restaurants). I have learned to be suspicious of these offerings. In theory, this is a way to make available small quantities of hard-to-get wines. In practice I suspect that some (nameless) restaurants put these on their lists so that consumers won’t know the base cost, so won’t be aware of the sometimes extortionate markups. This makes wine selection a minefield, because shippers/producers are unfamiliar. Any ‘great’ restaurant featuring these MUST have knowledgeable wine staff – unfortunately not common in Toronto. There were about half a dozen whites by the glass – but no reds!!!!!!!!! A similar number of half bottles of white (actually well-chosen) and 4 reds in halves – but I wasn’t familiar with them.
We decided to have the tasting menu (6 courses) – which brought the wine selection to a critical point. We were told this was two fish courses, foie gras, lamb, beef and dessert. We decided to go with an Alsace 1999 Tokay Pinot Gris, Cuvee Caroline from Domaine Schoffit (Pinot Gris usually matches Susur’s food quite well and Schoffit is a good producer, by reputation, although not available here in Government stores). I asked about reds by the glass – and they did exist, although not on the wine list. The server mentioned about four and I asked for the producers of the Sangiovese and Tempranillos offered (there was only one Rioja on the winelist). He didn’t know, but we ordered a glass of each anyway, in anticipation of the meat courses. As an aside, it bugs me when servers don’t tell you the price of any items not on the menu (usually occurs with daily food specials). Yes, I could ask (and often do) but I believe that any restaurant that puts prices on its menu should also ROUTINELY tell you the price of any non-menu items.
The wine arrived at about the same time as a ‘Chefs Amuse Bouche’ (another aside – what happened to Amuse Gueules – what’s the difference?). We were told the wine was very cold, so probably needn’t be put in a cooling bucket - I appreciated the advice (which was accurate) – but at $200 per person, I don’t expect the wine to be too cold! And part way through the meal, the bucket was brought, after the right temperature was reached, so it was the best possible handling, given the coolness. I tasted the wine and stopped in my tracks! It was fairly sweet! Now, Alsace producers often don’t put the sugar level on their labels – I’ve been caught by this several times (and this wasn’t a Vendange Tardive). Even the same producer can be inconsistent from year to year. Maybe Cuvee Caroline denotes this – I certainly didn’t know or expect this (to reiterate, Domaine Schoffit is only available through the consignment program). The servers reaction was probably more on the panic side – I doubt whether anyone returns wine there. His reaction was to tell me that it would go perfectly with the fish courses (no explanation why). OK. Another aside. I should DEFINITELY have been warned that the wine had sweetness – obviously the server wasn’t aware. Secondly, no recovery attempt should have been made. He should have offered to change it immediately or, as a poor substitute, told me WHY the wine would go with fish – after all if a sweet wine goes with fish, why was the majority of the wine list dry white wines? If I can have an aside to an aside, on the previous wine list there was a Trocken (dry) late-harvest (spatlese) Riesling from Germany, which went marvelously with the food, but it’s no longer on the list. Decision time. I decided to keep the wine. Because I’ve eaten Susur’s food many times, I find that it often matches a wine with some sweetness – and there was also a foie gras course pending, which again takes sweetness well. But that was based on specific experience, not anything the server said or did (I’ve been following Susur for about 15 years).

Now, on to the food. The Amuse Bouche was a small round of Polenta topped with a Confit of Tuna. This was capped with a heart shaped beet crisp (it was the day before Valentine’s) and a spicy mayo (?wasabi or horseradish). A beautiful presentation, which my wife loved, but I found slightly acidic (?vinegar) – perhaps because I had the sweet wine taste in my mouth.
The first ‘real’ course was a stunner. It was described as a Ceviche of Oyster, Lobster and Uni (sea urchin) served with Sperrina (?spelling) and Lime. Sperrina is a tangy sea product, something like algae (but delicious). Not mentioned were the very spicy chile pepper seeds, which exploded in the mouth. The course was served in an ice-bowl, with thin slices of cucumber arranged around the edge. The idea was to take a slice of cucumber with each bite to add a crisp texture (if it had been in the bowl it would have lost its crispness). The whole experience matched chewy, hot, acid, crisp, cold, salty etc – a stunning combination. Also, the lime perfectly complemented the sweetness in the wine – it turned out to be a perfect match for this course!!!!!! This is why we pay $200!

The next course was a Japanese Mushroom (?matsutame) Encrusted Tuna with crème fraiche and salmon caviar, in a coriander citrus jus, served with lily pad root. The citrus tasted like grapefruit and, yet again, worked perfectly with the sweetness of the wine! Another excellent dish.

The remaining fish course (who’s counting?) was a variation on a classic Susur theme. Curry Battered Calamari with a Mango Chutney served with Crispy Fried Seaweed in an emulsion of lemongrass and green tomato. The batter is like a tempura and this time didn’t adhere as well as it usually does – it disintegrated into flakes. My favourite variation on this dish uses soft shell crabs, but the calamari was cooked perfectly. And the sauce! Lacking sauce spoons, we had to grab extra bread to sop everything up. The spiciness of the batter, complemented by the mango went perfectly with the wine (broken record) – actually a gewürztraminer might have been even better.

On to the Foie Gras. This was seared and placed on what the server told us was a Chipotle Onion Tart. It was accompanied by provolone cheese and served on an apple ring with a rhubarb glaze. We didn’t taste any chipotle, and concluded it was probably a cioppino(?spelling) onion – not a chipotle! OK The wine wasn’t perfect for this, but we finished it anyway.

Now, on to the meat courses with our glasses of red wine.

As promised, we had medallions of Ontario lamb loin in a mint chutney sauce. The veggies were Burdock and a Taro Root Dauphinoise. The mint chutney is another old faithful – sweet, minty and spiced – nothing like the commercial versions. It went better with the sangiovese, but overall lacked the excitement of the previous courses.

And now the next course – wait a minute, what kind of beef has bones like that? Only squab – that’s what.
It was Squab in a black truffle sauce, served with Pastrami of Beef Tongue and a Ravioli of Tomato and Green Olive. The bird was gamy and rich. I loved the tongue, but Catherine wasn’t fond of the texture. The ravioli she loved but I wasn’t knocked out (she ate mine). Luckily, it all went well with the Tempranillo.

We were each served a different dessert (oh for the good old days when Susur had a restaurant that only seated 30 and would do a different tasting menu for each person). Catherine’s was described as a hot pear tart with crème anglaise. In fact it was an ethereal confection more like a soufflé in flavour and texture. One of the lightest, cloudy desserts we’ve had from Susur (not usually his strong point). So light you’d swear it could float.
My dessert was described as a Coriander Infused Chocolate Pudding with Banana crisp. I couldn’t detect any coriander, but there was a strong flavour of Cardamom!

With coffee (excellent) the total bill with tax and tip came to $400 (for two).

So, what’s the verdict. The kitchen certainly beats the front room. I suspect significant staff turnover, and the front just hasn’t got it together yet. The servers aren’t sufficiently knowledgeable – especially about wine. A couple of positive things I noticed; the maitre d’ wandered the room and talked to the servers about some things (I couldn’t hear what they were). Also, one of our courses was brought by a different server (?trainee) who didn’t know the dish description – he told us our server would be by to describe it (which he did about a minute later). Why is this positive? Because it seemed to me that the food was ready and our server wasn’t. Would you rather have the food wait until the server is free or have a trainee bring it to your table when it’s at its peak?

And the final decision? We booked to go back next month. You can’t get food like this anywhere else in Toronto. If it’s a choice between imperfect service and imperfect food – I’ll suffer the service anytime. For the same food quality you’d pay double in the US ($130 all-in per person, including wine, taxes, tip) or UK (£85 all-in).

Advice to visitors. Go for the tasting menu if it’s early in the week. The pacing was perfect. On the weekends the pacing is inconsistent and you may be rushed out (the perils of two sittings). If you can’t eat multiple courses, consider 3 appetizers instead of 1 appetizer and a main course. The appetizers are incredible and the main courses merely excellent. But be fair to the kitchen and have everybody do this – at least until the service reaches a higher level. For wine choose one with defined flavours - sublety doesn't work with the pure flavours in Susur's food. In white, pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraminer, but not Chardonnay - especially if oaked (a Chablis might work). In reds, Aussie shiraz, gamay but not cabernet sauvignon. If I was brave (and on an expense account) I might try pinot noir. And do go!

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