Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Origin Liberty
Here we go again with the absentee chef thing. Such a crapshoot. Clearly some chefs (cooks?) can make it work. Mark McEwan. Oliver & Bonacini. McDonald’s. Timmy’s. Mario Batali in New York. But mostly it doesn’t work because with food prep, especially at the high end, the devil is in the details.
That’s the case with the cool new Liberty Village resto from wunderkind Claudio Aprile of Origin and Colborne Lane. Origin Liberty is as gorgeous as a tall skinny blonde. It has great bones: tall windows that showcase the sunset, making it a splendid backdrop to the golden glow of Edison bulbs and red-lit chandeliers against the gathering blue of dusk. Cool sprinkles us like stardust — from the heart of the restaurant, a huge bar with stools on the three sides and, between it and the open kitchen, a brushed steel raw bar.
But you can’t eat cool. Chef’s ideas are a magical mystery tour of the exotic cuisines of the moment: From Mexico (and Aprile’s Latin heritage) comes the tostada bar, wherein too thick and tough crisp corn tortillas are the foundation for flavours that hit the mark... almost. I am not sure that lobster tostada is $14 worth of fun: nicely cooked lobster chunks (albeit small ones) tossed with mayo, celery and coriander seedlings. Also from Mexico is the best executed item on the menu: chicken mole, a juicy chicken breast with seasoned plantain mash, avocado salsa and mole sauce with a citric back-bite.
We visit Japan for spicy tuna handroll, a sushi miscalculation with almost no tuna, strange short-grain rice, short green apple and way too much purple shiso on top. The bland miso mayo does not do much for sushi out of balance. There’s the same problem of balance with the Thai opus: Bangkok beef salad is rough. All the correct Thai elements are present. But the salad is executed with neither delicacy nor control... Where is the maestro? Oh yeah, he’s working on his fourth resto, the soon-to-open Origin at Bayview Village.
Is the eternal problem of the absentee employer responsible for the overcooked tough beef in the Bangkok salad, its dressing leaning too hard on fish sauce and sugar, the insufficient green mango? Again it’s a balance problem, soupy sugary sauce drowning the glass noodles.
Speaking of noodles, it may be bad luck for the Origin crew to remind us that their new resto was most recently Liberty Noodle, a dog of a noodle shop. Mostly Asian.
In the space’s current rendition, the mysteries of the East are far better served than they were before, but all is not as well as it should be.
So-called chinois duck becomes confit by the server’s description, and it is Chinese thanks only to a dollop of hoisin. Ho hum. Adding hoisin, sriracha, cucumber and crème fraîche to confit and folding it into a beautifully charred flour tortilla makes it neither Chinese nor exciting.
From India cometh lovely shrimp curry, coconut and red-chili based and buttery, zinged with coriander seedlings and cucumber salsa, with nicely charred naan bread.
Back in Mexico there is a charming dulce de leche confection for dessert: a layer of thick yogurt, then a layer of dulce de leche and on top a flurry of frozen raspberries and puffed cereal. This is classic Claudio Aprile: he loves to play sweet off against sour, and to flirt with frozen things. When sour (yogurt and unsweetened raspberries) meet sweet (dulce de leche) and frozen melts in the mouth, it’s a taste bud carnival.
But despite (or perhaps due to) the charms of curry and dulce de leche, we remain geographically confused. There are the two problems of borrowed cuisines and the issue of control.
Origin Liberty is whirlwind tour, around the world in a dinner. To which we could perhaps open our hearts if it were all just... better.
Origin Liberty, 171 East Liberty Street, $70 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.