April 19, 2014
Feb 20, 2013
03:24 PM
Eat

Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Patria

Patria: pretty and tasty (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)

Editors note: Patria now has exterior signage, which it did not have at the time that this article was written.

How do you make something cool? Restaurants play the no sign game. If it has no sign, only cool people know where it is. Which is why we walk by Patria three times before asking in the nearby Weslodge. It’s down the laneway! With no signs.

Weslodge, like Patria, is owned by club king Charles Khabouth. What makes Charles run? Since 1981 he has opened around 25 large clubs and restaurants, 11 of which are apparently thriving. And he keeps opening them at a prodigious rate!

Which makes it easy to diss the guy as money-driven, prizing quantity over quality. It gets easier when we stand at Patria’s maître d’ station and the two hot young women there, who are not visibly otherwise engaged, both ignore us for a full minute. Geez, do they plan that as a way to appear exclusive? One of them then leads us to a table … in the bar! When we turn that down (having reserved for dinner), she leads us — at a jog — to a table in the actual dining room. No offer re coats until we hold one out to her: “Oh,” in apparent surprise: “Would you like to check your coat?”

The dining room is both beautiful (two floors, interesting lighting and a giant embroidered art installation, plus a wall of wine bottles) and very noisy, thanks to all the hard surfaces.

Foodies would not gravitate to a Khabouth resto. But he has copped Hanif Harji (Kultura, Nyood) as a partner, which bodes well food-wise. So well. Shockingly well, for the club king.

The $30 jamón ibérico de bellota, cured for three years, is worth every penny, makes prosciutto seem bland, tastes nutty from the acorns the black hoof free-range pigs ate.

Patria brings in artisanal wines and cheeses from Spain and serves the cheeses at room temperature, with sweet/tart quince jelly and grilled oil-kissed sourdough bread. Their Spanish blue is a farmhouse product that gives French Roquefort a run for its money.

The menu offers tapas and mains, a parade of authentic southern Spanish delights: chickpeas stewed with spinach, which would have been even better minus the (authentic) almond extract. A glorious salad topped with splendidly greasy house-fried artichoke chips. Creamy/crisp manchego croquettes.

The kitchen’s only error is overcooking sea bream baked in salt crust (which brings out the fish’s sweetness), another southern Spanish item. Also very Spanish and more correctly cooked is fideos with clams and chorizo, short thin pasta stewed in spicy tomato broth, infused with smoke from chorizo, atop perfectly cooked fat clams.

None of this gustatory delight is usually Khabouth’s style, hence our gratitude at his new partnership with Mr. Harji, who is clearly responsible for the flavour uptick in the land of the club king. Patria’s executive chef is Stuart Cameron, who was at Kultura under Harji.

All of which goes to show that Charles Khabouth really is the smartest guy opening restaurants in Toronto today — because he hired the right guy to fix the food, and was smart enough to make him a partner.

Patria, 478 King St. W., $100 Dinner for two

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, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.