|Location||1194 Bloor Street West|
|Dinner for two with a bottle of wine||$150|
I’m always a fan of females who run the show — especially when they do so with a quiet confidence. Chef Anna Chen (Figo, Buca Yorkville, Scaramouche) and her husband William opened Alma, a new restaurant in Bloordale Village, in July. With Chen having finessed her culinary skills at some of the city’s finest establishments, I knew I had to go. Alma takes its name from the word “nourishing” in Latin, and Chen hopes patrons having a nourishing experience for the mind, body and soul.
The small space, which had no more than 30 seats, was minimalist in its aesthetic. Whitewashed walls, a wood-paneled ceiling and wooden tables and banquettes gave a very Scandinavian feel to the space. Evenly-placed pot lights illuminated the tables in all the right spots, and table-top tea lights gave a warm glow to the muted room. There was nothing about this space that was showy or boastful — it was the definition of understated elegance.
A few printed menus adorned with a golden branch-like logo sat on the table when we arrived. The cocktail list was thoughtfully curated, with only two house selections: Negroni Sbagliato ($13) and “Rusty Nail” with Johnnie Walked Red and Vermouth del Professore ($15). Wines paid homage to the Old World, along with a local nod to producers in Niagara.
At first glance, the menu was a perfect illustration of Chef Chen’s deep-rooted experience with various cuisines. She clearly drew from her Chinese roots, as well as her time growing up in India, with items such as the pork wontons and noodles ($18) and steamed rice in lotus leaf, shiitake and chicken ($19). There was also a good helping of Italian flavours and influences in the homemade pappardelle and duck sugo ($22), par exemple. Le menu was divided into four sections: Snacks, small, large and desserts. Similar to the cocktail menu, Alma’s food menu didn’t ramble. Normally indecisive moi found it très facile to select my choices from the 17 items spread across the inside fold. Our server, who was refreshingly as unpretentious as the décor that surrounded us, explained that items were best if shared.
Chef Chen prides herself on making everything from scratch — from the perfectly charred flatbread ($2) and pork salami ($9), to the chocolate cake with cherries and cream ($10). Everything was priced moderately despite having been made in-house.
My guest and I delighted in a bottle of Redstone Cabernet Merlot from 2013 ($68) to pair with our meal. To the nose, aromas of dark berries and toasty oak were apparent. And at first sip, the savoury, juicy blend of Cabernet and Merlot grapes danced on my tongue, its tannins deepening as I swished it around.
The fried cauliflower, curry, fermented pepper, honey ($10) was the perfect marriage of Asian and Indian flavours. Notre première selection from the small section of the menu, it made a good first impression. Crispy morsels of fried cauliflower sat on top of a pool of bright yellow curry, which doubled as a creative plate presentation and dipping sauce. While this dish didn’t demonstrate technical brilliance or boldness, per se, it was divine in its simplicity. My guest and I both sopped everything up, and agreed that the honey and fermented pepper were the appropriate accents without overpowering the vegetable centerpiece.
Similar sentiments continued for the artichoke, ajo blanco ($12). A staple cold soup in Spanish cuisine, ajo blanco is a delicious combination of bread, crushed almonds, garlic, water, olive oil, salt and sometimes vinegar. While it is usually served with grapes or melon, Chen placed delicate artichoke hearts on top and drizzled the whole dish with olive oil. I had an issue with the temperature inconsistency of the dish. The ajo blanco was chilled, and the artichokes were warm and didn’t impress with flavour. This was one of the more elaborate dishes in presentation, but it seemed indecisive in its identity — was it hot or cold?
Chen has flexed her pasta-making muscle for years at high-end establishments such as Buca Yorkville. The duck sugo and pappardelle ($22) was reminiscent of mon plat préféré at Buca Yorkville: the duck ragu. One bite led me to conclude that Chen’s version had room for improvement. The salt balance was off (did she forget to add salt to the boiling water?) and the meat was dry. A sugo is a patiently-simmered sauce that should burst with flavour. Think: Grandmère’s tomato sauce that’s been simmering on the stove all day long. Chen’s sugo, however, had clearly been prepared in haste.
I was anticipating a thick fillet of meaty white fish in the next dish — branzino, charred onion, new potato ($24). Instead, a paper-thin filet that had been over fried was supported by a bed of miniature skin-on potatoes. No flaking was evident when I tried to peel the skin back — the flesh had been fried beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the new potato and onion didn’t offer any redemption. Beyond its attractive presentation, so much more could have done to elevate this dish, starting with the cooking technique.
Perhaps my favourite dish of the evening was the olive oil cake ($10), which I devoured with gusto. The tableside pour of crème anglaise was a welcome touch and was quickly soaked up by the cake’s oil-rich centre. Layers of lemon verbena lifted the dense cake’s flavour, but I longed for a seasonal fruit compote to round out the dish. Magnifique!
Overall, I had a lovely time at Alma — although I recommend going for the service and ambiance first, and to enjoy the food second. When any chef branches off into the world of owning and operating a restaurant, it’s not a seamless feat. Regardless, Alma is a welcome addition to this strip of Bloor Street, and is lively with clientele. There’s plenty of room for Alma to grow, and, much like the logo on its menu, I’m confident that it will strengthen its roots and branch out.
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.