Restaurant Review: Chef Steve Gonzalez is back with his gigantic new King West eatery


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Baro’s handsome interior

I’m confused about Baro.

Try getting a res there. Good luck. Even in the slough of despond that is the depths of the grey Toronto midwinter, tables at Baro are like hen’s teeth. So I went. How could I not, with everyone flocking? Four floors, 15,000 feet.

It does not begin that well. The glam women at the front desk check you in and hand you to the headset people, none of whom offer to take one’s coat. They ask if we want a high or a low table. We say low. They put us at a high table. We order wine. The food comes before the wine, which is apparently forgotten.

We have to do empanadas and guac with salsa and chips because these are part of owner/chef Steve Gonzalez’s signature from his previous place, Valdez. But the guac and salsa are unexceptional, and the empanadas of beef, peas and potato are unflaky pastry with mushy filling. Rather a disappointment.

But cherry-picking the menu works really well. Some of the fusion items, where East meets Latin, are really fun. Chef’s suite of ceviches are superbly entertaining: we’re captivated by the variegated flavours of tiraditos, raw tuna napped in passion fruit and lulo sauce, with black and white sesame seeds, chili-studded purée of butternut squash and baby greens.

The other fab fusion item is chaufa, invented by homesick Chinese immigrants in Peru. Like Korea’s bi bim bap, chaufa is a big bowl of rice with flavourings and crisp edges from the super-heated bowl: $35 is a bit much for a rice bowl, but chaufa is much more exciting than its Korean antecedent. The rice is cooked on the flattop with shreds of confit duck, edamame, egg, tobiko and papi kung fu, a sauce made from sweetened soy with duck fat. Which makes it coat the rice with splendid grease and slide down sweetly.

Much more sweetly than the blah tres leches cake, which seems thin compared to others of its kind. Rather like the service at Baro. There are staff hustling around the tall glam room, always looking very busy.

Some of them are men in suits wearing headsets. This makes them seem very important. Perhaps too important to notice that our servers (of whom there appear to be two) rarely visit our table. 

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s the new normal. Maybe it matters more that the place exudes cool, from the headset people to the good-looking gals up front, from the long marble bar overlooking the big open kitchen, from the tropical plants and brass accents, from the speakeasy ambience, from the password-only bar on one floor (really! It apparently changes daily).

Which all goes to show you that a good-looking restaurant with spotty food and less than stellar service can do really well in the party district. All it needs is snazzy bar food on the menu and complicated cocktails. 

The Emperor doesn’t, apparently, require much of a wardrobe.

Baro, 485 King St. W., 416-363-8388, 

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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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