FAJO Picks — Stylish Venues
TOCA’s Mediterranean-meets-Canadiana appeal has a fascinating story behind it.
When it first opened in February 2011, then-chef Tom Brodi had a full-on Canadian theme, complete with homegrown food and local artwork. His abrupt departure in early 2012 left the Ritz-Carlton scrambling for a replacement chef.
The answer came in the form of Montréal-raised Gihen Zitouni, who has been working with the Ritz-Carlton franchise for over a decade. Before she moved to Toronto, she worked under Michelin Star chef Sergi Arola in Portugal.
Zitouni honed her culinary excellence at Ritz-Carlton hotels in Palm Beach, Barcelona and St. Thomas. She changed up the menu at TOCA with a Mediterranean theme after officially accepting the position of head chef in July 2012.
TOCA’s casual-chic décor of local art, earthy hardwood and semi-circular booths cocoons diners and creates a relaxed dining experience. Typical clientele includes couples out for date night or families celebrating milestones. The stylish crowd is understated but luxe: think neutral cashmere and designer denim.
The servers are knowledgeable and upbeat, and the staff members seem genuinely excited to talk about recommendations and are not shy to mention their favourites and bestsellers.
For FAJO‘s exclusive tasting, Zitouni prepared two savoury dishes and a dessert that had food critics across the city reminiscing about one of their favourite childhood treats. The first dish is an organic smoked salmon tartar served with avocado puree and yuzu tabouleh.
“It’s been selling so well,” gushes Zitouni. The second dish is a pig terrine, served with green pea puree. The dish is served with a crispy pig skin, placed atop the terrine. “We’ve been receiving excellent feedback,” Zitouni beams.
Her much-hyped Planet Chocolat is next, a white chocolate sphere served with boozy chocolate sauce, raspberries, Maltesers and pop rocks. The tart raspberries and bittersweet chocolate sauce sophisticate the junk food appeal of the malted chocolate and crackling candy.
The restaurant’s unique cheese cave complements Zitouni’s menu. Taylor Thompson, TOCA’s wine director, gave FAJO a tour.
“We sell $10,000 in cheese every year. Our aged Stravecchio wheel, at this point, is worth $1,100,” he says, pointing at a large yellow wheel of cheese. Thompson says he is passionate about the customers’ experience at the restaurant. “We don’t even turn a profit on our Occelli al Barolo from Italy, it is definitely a labour of love,” he chuckles.
There are over 400 pieces of Canadian artwork spread out across Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. TOCA’s painted charger plates, mounted on the walls and grouped in sets among the table settings, are very much part of its artistic identity. The resident artist, Jacqueline Poirier, is responsible for these distinctive, locally-themed pieces. Her bestsellers are nature-inspired from time spent at her Collingwood cottage.
For fall, she is painting celebrities’ faces on the plates in lieu of the Toronto International Film Festival. Her plates are so popular that diners often inquire on purchasing them. Typically, her custom plates sell for $200, but have sold for as much as $300. “TOCA is really big on farm-to-table dining experiences, so I play at that,” says Poirier.
Zitouni’s advice for budding chefs is to travel and eat out as much as possible. The best thing a chef can do is gain new experiences by trying new foods, she adds. Zitouni plans to live in many more cities after Toronto and wants to continue learning how to craft new recipes. When asked about feedback regarding her time at TOCA, she responds, “the best compliment I’ve ever received was not from a food critic, but from a solo diner who comes here every week and never orders, but tells me to just cook for him.”