The saving grace on a rainy evening is a hard-gotten reservation for dinner at Alder in the recently opened Ace Hotel. An excellent martini at the Lobby Bar that’s adjacent to the entry and jovial conversation with the bar-man perk up our mood as we wait to be summoned to Evangeline. The “word on the street” is that this casual, all-season bar and lounge on the 14th floor, with its wrap-around terrace, sweeping golden-hour vistas, extremely comfortable seating and large fireplace at either end would capture our hearts, minds and palates. The “word” has proven to be gospel.
Seated by a large fire place, we’re enticed by the menu of sharing plates and snacks. Victoria, our waitress, is so knowledgeable and friendly. She suggests a Sotol distilled from a desert spoon in Mexico. It’s a wild agave, not farmed, with a botanical profile and smoky undertones. What makes this spirit special is its pechuga style by which it is re-distilled with a rattlesnake hanging over the clay cask. We’re intrigued. What a dynamic, rich, well-rounded, fruity envelopment. It imbues our cocktail with an alluring bad-ass quotient that we never knew we needed. This is why we go out to a bar. Something new. Something different.
Onto the pairings. We excitedly follow each of Victoria’s recommendations. She raves about the tuna tartare, freshly caught and flown in today. Beautiful. Combined with a refreshing herbed-crème fraiche, and crunchy crisp in-house made russet chips, each bite is more scrumptious than the one before. Warm nduja-stuffed olives lacquered with rosemary, smoked paprika and olive oil are a wonderful compliment to the Sotol and to the Meiji Restoration cocktail of Japanese whiskey, cocchi rosa, plum wine and yuzu bitters. Sourdough bread is house-made, warm and comforting, and topped with a beautifully creamy Canadian Brie and citric yuzu marmalade from Kyoto, and finished with a drizzle of honey and balsamico.
The interiors of Evangeline, designed by Atelier Ace are, in a word, sympatico with the kind of ambiance we enjoy in a lounge. We appreciate all of the self-evident nuances, as well as what is thankfully missing, eg, an extra loud sound track. While enjoying our lovely romantic environment, delicious nibbles, drinks, and staring into the fireplace, we’re advised that our reservation time at the Alder is now. We could stay here all night and be happy, but dinner awaits.
Patrick Kriss, Michelin Star-awarded restaurateur, has been Toronto’s top culinary star for several years now. His restaurant Alo is billed among Canada’s best, and the wait for a reservation can take you into the next season. And so, it is with great anticipation that we board the elevator to the basement of the hotel. I could not mask my surprise when I enter what looks like a noisy, crowded, windowless, commercial cafeteria. The décor could be described as cool, but I would add that it is several degrees closer to cold. A few staff hanging out around the reception podium are more fascinated by their conversations with each other than with seating us. And what a special spot they had saved for us. I am at the end of a long banquet, bracketed by a wooden panel. It is impossible for me to see the one interesting element in the room: the open flame grill and chefs at work. My view is of a hallway leading to a service kitchen. Well, somebody has to sit there, and this evening, it is me.
Never mind. The reputation of Patrick Kriss’ ingenuity and culinary skill will make up for any discomfort. A refreshing salad of orange, grapefruit, arugula and Buratta is a pleasant beginning, and leads us to our exciting main courses. Bread is freshly-baked and still warm, but unfortunately over-salted, which overwhelms what would otherwise be delicious.
A generous whole sea bream, opened and grilled (a few seconds too long) takes center stage on the plate, its charred skin redolent with wood barbecue flavour is perfectly cross hatched. It comes ringed with a vibrant necklace of saffron sauce. Hidden from view under the fish is something that helps give it a plump appearance. Surprise. It is a bed of chopped green olives. I am puzzled by this marriage of three discordant, aggressive flavours. What was the Chef thinking? The elements here are making war, not love. The phrase “chef curated menus” (surely a creation of a PR’s imagination) comes back to mind, and I wonder what it means?
We’re enticed by the wood-fired grill, and would be remiss if we did not order the grilled chicken. The half chicken is so satisfyingly crisp and oh-so-tender, it is a wonderful confluence of textures that really shows why we love the asado that this kitchen has mastered. Decorated with pop-in-your-mouth sweety drop peppers, and enlivened with a vibrant kick of harissa, this richly-flavoured bird is the star of the show.
When I see Coconut Cream Pie with macaroon crust and caramelized white chocolate on the menu, I raise my hand and say, “Me! Me!” Here is this piece of bland, almost tasteless cream pie, drowning under shards of accessories and crumble that I nibble on with my coffee. Time for me to go home. The staff at the reception podium are still chatting among themselves. Nobody acknowledges us or offers a goodbye.
We leave surprised by Alder, but vow to return Evangeline.
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.