Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Address: 390 Roncesvalles Ave.
Phone: 416 -516 -8112
Hours: Tues. to Thurs., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. to Sat., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $100
**** (out of 5)
Rocco Agostino has been holding down the upper end of the Roncesvalles strip for fine dining for six and a half years now, as the delis and derelict menswear shops have given way to family-oriented businesses and a growing number of decent restaurants that don’t close before sundown. Lately, his kitchen produced Mark Cutrara, Agostino’s sous chef for four years, who recently set up his own critically praised kitchen at Globe Bistro on the Danforth.
I first encountered Agostino’s food at a lavishly catered birthday party for a one-year-old, just after he’d opened the restaurant. He was, even then, a chef with a lot of enthusiasm for his work, and he’s managed to keep it going through six years of nightly covers, special events and caterings, as well as a recent renovation of the room. Born in Toronto, he studied at the Stratford Chef School before a stint in Rome and at Ferro on St. Clair West.
Recently, he took a trip to London to eat at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s groundbreaking showcase for the sometimes intimidating new molecular gastronomy. “It was absolutely amazing,” Agostino recalls. “A total food experience.” One that involved waiters wielding liquid nitrogen and diners being given iPods to play the right music to go with their dish. He raves about a squab jelly with shrimp cream, a foie gras parfait and a truffle toast, and is trying to incorporate a little of what he learned into his own kitchen.
On a recent Friday dinner, the meal opens with a complimentary amusé bouche of jellied cured duck on a Chinese soup spoon, and ends with a bite-sized morsel of chocolate gelatin. In between the two, however, Agostino still serves the classics with care — I go for a meat bonanza, with a beef carpaccio followed by an organic rib-eye steak in a pepper sauce with organic veggies and frites. The former is delicately flavoured, the latter more robust, as they should be.
Playing with textures and flavours, Agostina says, is a nice break for a chef — especially here in Toronto, where the gospel of seasonal, local produce tends to limit a chef’s choices, especially through the long winter months, now finally ending. “You can play a bit more with the product that you have. It allows a chef to expand from just serving organic carrots and organic turnips to serving a pureed carrot gel — the textures and flavours and mouth feel will be totally different.”
He feels confident that his customers are ready for his experiments. “They tend to try it and realize that it tastes good. ... They’re getting educated so that next time they’ll be willing to try more.”
Agostino’s seen a lot of changes in the neighbourhood since he opened, much of which involves the influx of young families. and the steep rise in house prices on either side of Roncesvalles. Customers who used to come in when he opened got scarce as they had children, but they’re coming back now, often with their kids in tow. This Saturday, for instance, he’s opening the restaurant to host a private party after a baptism.
“... Sometimes the children have more discerning taste than some of the customers that come in. If the parents are educated on food then the kids will just fall into it. Even this catering on Saturday, the mother kept talking about her two-year-old daughter who can sit through a two and a half hour meal and wants the lamb and the salmon.”