The life of a modernist chef can be tough. After all, it takes scads of time and energy to create aloe vera cubes, frozen soy fragments and the like.
So who can blame noted Toronto chef Claudio Aprile for wanting a break from the grind at his acclaimed avant-garde eatery, Colborne Lane? (Although some critics hectored the chef for doing just that.)
“It takes a tremendous amount of research and development to get ideas of what will work,” Aprile says of his exacting, time-consuming work at Colborne Lane.
Looking for his own culinary happy place, Aprile launched Origin, which its website describes as “a high energy global food bar.”
“If I were a fashion designer, it would be my ready-to-wear collection,” says Aprile of his informal, pulsating King East spot.
Critics be damned. Diners responded so well to the casual side of Aprile, Origin scored the number-one spot on Toronto Life’s “Best New Restaurants of 2011” list. And he recently opened a second Origin in Liberty Village.
For his “born-of-frustration” menu, Aprile was “interested in things that come to mind quickly and without over-intellectualizing.”
He calls his roster of internationally flavored, shareable plates “Top 40 hits.”
“I’m not trying to trying to recreate an entire language [at Origin],” Aprile says.
Yes, guests will find recognizable faves, such as beet and goat cheese salad, Thai beef salad, burgers and shrimp curry. For Aprile has carefully explored “what resonates with us from a food standpoint.” And his carefully designed menu is intended to conjure up fond remembrances of eating, say, deviled eggs at a church potluck or sampling Peking duck for the first time at a Chinatown dive.
But I had to stop the chef when he claimed that Origin “is about everyday cooking, everyday fare.”
Because there’s not a speck of pickle relish in those deviled eggs ($6). Instead, they come garnished with a crispy round of pancetta, herbs and souffletine (baby puffed-cereal balls). And, really, how often is a beet salad ($13) served with a baseball-sized whole beet plunked down in the center?
“You can take the boy out of an avant-garde kitchen, but you can’t take an avant-garde kitchen out of the boy,” Aprile concedes.
Having heard the buzz about Origin from 521 miles away, The Husband and I decided to visit during a recent stopover in T.O. We opted to dine at the original location, as it was a short walk from our hotel.
Although our reservations had mysteriously disappeared from the restaurant’s system, a friendly* hostess whisked us out to a primo two-top on the lovely patio.
Having spent numerous hours in the car gazing at the Origin website, I was ready to roll when our friendly* waiter greeted us. He scored extra points for explaining how he would pair up our dishes for maximum compatibility and perfect pacing.
First up were shrimp ceviche ($17) and burrata cheese ($17) — terrific cold starters for a warm, late-summer night.
Masterfully layered with textures and flavors, Aprile’s ceviche is a winning balance of tart (grapefruit), bitter (micro greens), creamy (fresh coconut bits) and crunchy (cucumbers, cashews). Served crostini-style, amply portioned burrata was rich with Mediterranean accompaniments, including fresh pesto, ooey-gooey caramelized eggplant and roasted red peppers.
Chilled sweet-pea soup with mint and lemon cream ($6) followed. Although unexpectedly thin and milky — which the husband liked, but me — not so much, the soup was still rife with bright, clean and fresh flavors. Although I was not anticipating split pea soup thickness, just a bit more heft would have pleased my palate.
No worries, as I busied myself with Asian-inspired warm mushroom salad ($15) accompanied with bacony smoked tofu, truffled miso and crisp seaweed. Soy, ginger, garlic and salt pervaded this beefy (beefless) dish.
A friendly* back server dropped off our next round. Char-grilled chorizo ($19) with hummus, deep-fried chick peas and greens introduced a plethora of Middle Eastern flavors. Hello parsley, lemon and olive oil. Creamy hummus made a wonderful dipper for the feisty sausage.
Then there was Chinois duck served in a taco-style format ($17). “It’s a complete rip-off of a Peking duck one would get at a Chinese restaurant,” says Aprile, who swaps flour tortillas for classic scallion pancakes.
“Rip-off away,” I say, as I’m still craving this dish 521 miles back home in Chicago. Once again, it was all about balance as the fiery Sriracha-drunk duck partied with sweet and fruity hoisin sauce, crunchy pickled cucumbers, and cooling sour cream.
Soon, our friendly* waiter would return to entice us with desserts.
We opted to end the evening with dulce de leche ($10), a salted-caramel cream liberally sprinkled with an avant-garde topping of freeze-dried raspberries and souffletine.
However, in retrospect, we really should have ordered one last round of duck tacos. Hello, FedEx?
*Note: Everybody is friendly in Canada.
107–109 King Street East
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5C 1G