|Location||419 College Street|
|Dinner for two with cocktails||$200|
Quetzal, a new Mexican restaurant on the northern boundary of Kensington Market, is brought to you by a talented team: Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo (El Rey), Owen Walker (El Rey) and Grant van Gameren (Bar Isabel, Bar Raval, Harry’s, PrettyUgly, El Rey, Tennessee Tavern, Rosalinda). Named after a Central American bird with colourful plumage, Quetzal’s name is quite à propos. After all, it isn’t just another joint that churns out $6 tacos – it’s an elevated dining experience that’s rich in flavor, culture and love.
College Street was bathed in streetlights as I walked into Quetzal for dinner one evening. The clean and contemporary space, inspired by traditional Mexican outdoor markets, conjured up Mexico without the kitsch and affectations. Stark white walls that blended into the ceiling and oak accents brightened up the narrow, dimly-lit space. I was surprised that the 72-seat restaurant pulsed with life for a place that was just shy of its first week in business. Something felt different when I took my bar-side seat. I knew I was about to delight in something magnifique. Pourquoi? When I found out that years of research had been poured into the making of this restaurant – complete with frequent trips to inland Mexico to learn how to make Tlayuda tortillas, among many other things – it all made sense. And the smell that emanated from the eight-metre-long wood fire was otherworldly (it’s the semi-permanent scent of smoke on my jacket didn’t let me forget it for weeks following).
Many Toronto restaurants have husband-and-wife duos at the helm of la cuisine, and Quetzal is no exception. Chomyshyn and Guajardo, alongside Walker and van Gameren, have curated a menu using traditional Mexican techniques and flavours, with a strong focus on farm-to-table. Ingredients are sourced locally, where possible, and nearly everything is made in-house and grilled over the open flame.
Perching at the bar was the perfect spot to witness the artistry happening before mes yeux. I perused the drink menu, which presented various options of craft beer from the motherland, a heavy focus on New World wines from Chile, as well as innovative cocktails infused with Mexican staples, such as tequila and mescal. I ordered The High Ten ($14) – a delicious concoction with Tio Pepe, Sombra mescal, peach, lemon, rhubarb, hyssop and soda. It was a refreshing start to the evening and allowed me to absorb all the things that were igniting my senses.
The food menu was extensive and impressive – and was further evidence of the depth of research that had been done by the owners. With nine different salsas on the menu, including one with antsas an ingredient, there was something to awaken everyone’s taste buds. Salsas were reasonably priced at $3 each, or nine for $25. We ordered the Poblano, Molcajete (made with tomatillo) and Aguacate (smooth avocado and serrano chilies). Paired with stone grilled tostadas made on the comal (the only flat stone griddle in Canada), it brought everything to life.
Let me assure you: the indulgent ceviche dishes were well worth the price tag. And they have a taste that necessitates eating them immediately. The Ceviche Verde Mixto ($26) was mon plat préféré. The gleaming, pearly flesh of the scallops and halibut was highlighted with a vibrant green backdrop and were topped with delicate and salty sea asparagus. I equally enjoyed the Aguachile de Camaron ($24), with black radish, jicama, orange, habanero and the most perfectly sliced avocado. The shrimp had been doused with just the right amount of lime juice to transform its flesh to the slightest pink hue. Like many other dishes, the sense of placement in the raw dishes was well-honed. But, beyond its pristine appearance, the taste was superb and it’s now my ceviche of choice in the city.
Glancing through the rest of the menu, I noticed that almost everything touched the flame – even the vegetables,from the Remolacha al Rescoldo (ash-roasted beet) to the Camote a las Brasas (coal-roasted sweet potato). The Remolacha al Rescoldo ($12) had a complex flavour profile. Subtle sweetness from honey and creaminess from pistachio crema balanced the earthy, ash of the beet. As for the Camote a las Brasas ($8), the dominant flavour was the tang from the accompanying salsa macha. Walnuts added an unexpected crunch to balance out the slightly chunky, warm flesh of the potato.
Beyond this stunning showcase of salsas, ceviche dishes and vegetables, Quetzal’s best dishes came from the carne section, à mon avis. Guajardo and Chomyshyn turn sausages into art and have three varieties to choose from. Perfectly-encased rolls of chorizo verde ($10) were a balanced blend of fat, salt, and acid, with a side dish of chimichurri that imparted a verdant fragrance with aggressive heat.
In many cuisines autour du monde, Mollejas (sweetbreads) are often considered a delicacy. While usually predictable mollejas tacos were absent from the menu, Quetzal offered a more elevated take on this tender meat, and plated it artistically. The smooth taste and soft, delicate texture of the meat played nicely with the rich estofado almendrado (an almond-based mole sauce) that accompanied it.
At this point, we were indubitably full, but managed to squeeze in some dessert. Best when shared, the Nieve Oaxaqueña ($8) is a delightful combination of sorbet-like strawberry ice and bittersweet tarragon. The flavourful dish acted as a palate cleanser with so many interesting textural surprises, including creamy leche quemada (a Mexican milk candy) buried underneath. I appreciated the innovative use of tarragon as the herb instead of a more predictable strawberry and basil combination.
Si vous adorez le chocolat, you must order the Tascalate ($12), a rich and decadent dessert composed of chocolate mousse, toasted tortilla, cacao and pink pine nuts. The circular cake with layers of mousse wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet like most chocolate desserts, and the toasted pine nuts added a buttery richness.
The variety of servers we had throughout the evening were all well-versed in the menu offerings and made us feel as though we were old friends. Hospitality was saturated with a thoughtfulness I’ve rarely seen elsewhere throughout our meal and beyond. Un exemple? With our bill, we received a small selection of Mexican chocolate and hard candy (confectionery being a craft that Guajardo has evidently been honing).
If you’re looking to shake up your regular restaurant routine, Quetzal is an effective panacea. It’s bustling and casual, while respecting a high standard. It introduces some truly unique, creative, world-class food to Toronto. And, the smoky scent from the open flame will linger after you leave, almost as if it’s coaxing you back.
Mme M. xoxo
La rubrique de Madame Marie
1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
2 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
3 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
4 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
5 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.