Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Hanif Harji, left, co-owner and manager of Colborne Lane sits with Claudio Aprile, chef and co-owner, in the bar at the front of their restaurant.
Address: 45 Colborne St.
Hours: Tues. to Sat., 5:30-11 p.m; closed Sun.-Mon.
Dining Room Capacity: 45
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $100
**** 1/2 (out of 5)
Rumours began circulating early last year that Claudio Aprile, a permanent name on the short list of the city’s hot young chefs, would be leaving the kitchen at Senses in the Soho Metropolitan Hotel for his own restaurant. Probably the most prominent practitioner of the voguish “molecular gastronomy” made famous by Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal at Britain’s Fat Duck, Aprile was used to being watched, but months before the doors opened at the restaurant he was prepping with fine dining entrepreneur Hanif Harji (Blowfish, Kultura), it was already being talked about as a food destination.
Colborne Lane finally opened last month, in the space occupied by Café Du Marche for 30 years, just behind the King Edward Hotel. It was a magnificent renovation, opening up the old space in the heritage building to expose all the weathered history, with an epic picture window panorama at the back that looks on the weathered bricks and fire escapes of the buildings south on Wellington Street.
Aprile and Harji had decided to work together over a year ago, when Harji booked a table at Senses and got to talking with the chef. They immediately clicked, and began talking about working together. “What impressed me most,” recalls Harji, “was that his first comment was, ‘We’re going to take the food up another level, but we’re not going to draw any extra price into it. We’re going to let the customer appreciate the fact that we’re working hard for them, we’re not dumbing down the food and using my reputation.’”
They actually delayed opening for a month just to iron out the wrinkles in the kitchen and the service, while the buzz continued to grow. “It’s a bit over the top for both of us,” Aprile says. “There’s an old saying in the business that ‘he’s a great chef — just ask him.’ We want to let things stay as humble as possible, and let the product do the talking. It was a bit daunting to read about ‘the hot new restaurant.’ It was very flattering, but it puts a lot of pressure on to deliver.”
Service is a bit slow on the night I visit, just a week after the opening, but the menu is simple and well-organized, with a selection of relatively inexpensive dishes, each just a bit larger than tapas-sized, meant to be ordered in as multiple courses. Aprile’s kitchen wit is firmly on display, starting with a deconstructed sashimi that features a soy granita, and a pork dish in three parts, one of them being pork belly braised with hoisin in an immersion circulator — a favourite kitchen toy for young chefs that gives the flesh a silky, otherworldly texture. The frozen soy takes away the overpowering salt and smoke notes, making for a purer taste to go with the tuna, while the pork belly is simply indescribable, light years from something even the most kitchen-savvy diner could manage to whip up at home.
“There’s a lot of talk about molecular gastronomy, and it’s a pretty scary term,” Aprile says. “Molecular doesn’t sound very edible to me, that’s why I’m very reluctant to use it ... But I don’t find these things all that avant garde. Maybe I’m just used to them, but it’s just like pastry — I’m just taking things like pastry techniques to savoury food. I’m just not afraid of technology — I think it’s a very valuable tool to have.”