Greg Couillard’s Spice Room & Chutney Bar
Address 55 Avenue Rd.
Hours: Tues-Sat: 5:30 p.m. –
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip $100
**** 1/2 (out of five)
It’s probably the humblest item on the menu at his new restaurant, but for anyone who’s had it in the seemingly innumerable places chef Greg Couillard has worked since the late ’70s, they are a joy that surpasses mere comfort in the first spoonful of a bowl of his Jump Up soup. There’s the immediate hit of spice and heat, followed by a lush sweetness, all twisted together in the thick, golden yellow broth.
There are, of course, quite a few more things to eat on the menu at Greg Couillard’s Spice Room & Chutney Bar, his dark, sultan’s tent of a dining room in Hazelton Lanes, which shares the venerable upscale mall’s former skating rink with Manyata, the courtyard café in the centre of the now-covered atrium, presided over by David Nganga, his business partner. All of it, of course, is treated with Couillard’s trademark colours — spices and ingredients poached from Caribbean, Southeast Asian, Chinese and African cuisine, like the jerked ostrich filet, or the red snapper cooked with slashes of pepper, ginger, garlic and fresh thyme across its flank.
Couillard remembers it as a product of his Queen Street West neighbourhood in the ’70s, the same place that hosted Toronto’s punk rock and artist’s ghetto. He remembers Grange Park as “pretty inspiring,” and found himself intrigued by the tiny vegetable patches where his Chinese neighbours grew bok choy, and the tubs of dried peppers on Dundas Street.
There was no real plan to how he started applying all this bounty to his food as a young chef. “I guess I just kind of adapted flavours. I have no training in cooking. It’s just ideas that come to me. I just happen to know how to do it.”
What followed is a whirlwind of restaurants — the Parrot and Emilio’s, Stelle, Oceans, Avec, Cool Yard and Sarkis among them. He’d disappear for awhile — months or even a year — and then resurface in the most unlikely of places, like the kitchen at Mother India in Parkdale, a humble roti place just moved into an old greasy spoon, which is where he was just before he opened Spice Room with Nganga in the heart of Yorkville — new territory for Couillard.
“When we first opened here,” Couillard says, “I was being very arrogant and saying that I was going to bring bohemia back to Yorkville. But you can’t bring bohemia back with $40 entrees. ... It’s been a challenge but we’ve stood up to it. It’s pretty indicative of the fact that Toronto is growing up.” Definitive words, especially from a man who was there at the birth.