Restaurant Review: Confusion at new Toronto restaurant Constantine

Craig Harding’s amazing Mediterranean menu is a feast for the senses, but what’s going on with the service?


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The open kitchen at Constantine

I am rarely confused by a restaurant. But Constantine has me mystified. What sort of creature is it? At first glance, the place is 100 per cent downtown hipster. It's hard to find a sign outside, which is a sure indicator of wannabe cool. Because if you’re cool, you already know where it is. And if you don’t know where it is, you’re not cool. This allows the restaurant to serve the social function of making you feel cool if you make it inside. Which is an important function of the modern Toronto restaurant: Conferring status.

Inside the place, status continues to be conferred by its beauty. It’s a big resto (145 seats) carefully divided into intimate spaces, with a huge open kitchen as centrepiece. Illuminated shelves with white vases lighten the sexy dark, and velour banquettes and walls both dampen sound and lend luxe. As does the menu, a magical mystery tour of Italy and the Middle East, Milan inflected with Ankara. The name is a reference to Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman/Byzantine empire which is now Istanbul.

Once the food starts arriving, it’s clear that this kitchen can deliver. And how could it not, with such lineage? The new Anndore House hotel brought in chef Craig Harding of Campagnolo and the delicious new La Palma, to helm the cuisine of Constantine.


The spiced carrots 

 

But here’s the part I don’t understand. These people spent a fortune creating the Anndore House hotel and Constantine. They brought in Craig Harding, a gold-plated culinary team and built a great menu. And the service is appalling.

At first it seems fine. One waiter takes our order and seems to know what he’s talking about. He asks whether we want the pasta first, or the pâté with it. I reply that we’d like him to choose the order and pacing of the dishes. He assents.

First come the smoked sea bream pâté with sourdough. It is quite fabulous, a buttery cloud of lightly smoked sweet sea bream to spread on crusty warm sourdough. Almost heaven.

Then they bring everything else. At once. Is this what they call pacing?

We love the cavatelli Milanese, al dente pasta scented with saffron and rich with juicy long-braised beef ribs. And the slightly charred perfectly roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs, goat cheese, scallion, chili and candied walnuts. And the spiced carrot zinged with chimichurri and baby mustard. The fish is also quite grand both in provenance and execution — perfectly cooked Fogo Island cod with melting leeks, crunchy walnuts and a hint of saffron.


Fogo Island cod

 

All quite wonderful, but not wonderful all at once. Delivery is done by three different waitstaff, none of whom exhibits any interest in anything related to our dining experience. After they bring the dessert, a marvellously crisp deconstructed labneh ’n’ cream milles feuilles, we wonder: Will the waiter who took our order return to offer coffee or tea?

Not only does he never make that offer, but the guy seems to have developed an allergy to our table. He drops something at the table beside us. I beckon. He ignores me. He walks by our table. I beckon again. He ignores me again. A third time he walks by and ignores us yet again despite our attempts to catch his attention.

So I end as I began. Confused. How can a restaurant with such a clear commitment to fine design and food have such abysmal service? Not once in a long dinner do I see a supervisor walking the floor. Usually in restaurants of this size, one sees a supervisor checking on tables and service, saying hello and … supervising. The parilla, the wood-fired oven, the clever cooks — all of that means nothing if bad service makes diners hostile.

Constantine, 15 Charles St. E., 647-475-4436

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Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine. Follow her on Twitter @JoanneKates.

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