Restaurant Review: Chef Craig Harding knows how to dress up the simple stuff at La Palma


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The stunner of a space designed by co-owner Alexandra Hutchison

How is it that a restaurant can open and within a week it becomes impossible to get a table? It took me almost a month to get a reservation at La Palma, and that was with almost daily browsing.

Then we finally get there, and guess what: Toronto is still a spaghetti and meatballs kinda town. This is my only hypothesis for La Palma’s instant over-the-top popularity. We love basic Italiana if they can make it feel snazzy.

And they do. The room is fab — tall, light and mostly white with uber-cool abstract murals of splatter paint on the walls, white garage doors that open onto Dundas West hipsterville in nice weather, a big open kitchen with wood-burning pizza oven, and cute affable servers in black-and-white striped uniforms courtesy of Pink Tartan. And they’re more than just pretty faces. Clearly le patron has been training these young’uns thoughtfully. They can explicate the food items, suggest menu combos and what to share and talk wines well enough to mimic a sommelier. Somebody is in the driver’s seat here. They know what Toronto likes — and just how far to dress up the simple stuff to serve our sense of occasion.

Chef Craig Harding has been winning hearts and minds at his Italian bistro Campagnolo on Dundas West, so it was natural for him to take the cooking of his Italian grandmother across the street and down the block and throw in some po-mo twists. Like the artsy white room. And a lot of veg on the menu. Belgian endive with sweet crispy sunchoke chips and roasted exotic mushrooms is about as deep and throaty as vegetables get. Grilled broccolini gets very jazzy thanks to garlic and chili.

But the main events are more trad Italiana. We love the cavatelli with saffron-scented braised veal shank ragu, a strong, rich garlicky sauce. This is what happened when spaghetti and meatballs got upscale. Lamb scottaditto (means burned fingers because you can’t help picking them up) are grilled to a crunch and topped with piquant salsa verde. The wood oven turns out impeccable thin-crusted pizza. Back to basics: Splendid pizza with basil, tomato sauce and burratini.

This is all very basic Italian food — apparently simple. Because we like that. But there is a world of difference between 90 per cent of the red sauce I’ve eaten in Toronto and the red sauce on the cavatelli. It’s deeper, richer, more garlicky and complex. Same for the pizza, both crust and toppings. It’s all about technique.

And there is one over-the-top splendid dessert: The mille feuille is a crispy puff pastry extravaganza with vanilla pastry cream and whipped cream with passionfruit sauce, put together at the last minute to avoid soggy pastry, a perfect contrast of cream and crunch. Skip the coffee mousse clad in dark chocolate. It’s bland. And good luck getting a table.

La Palma, 849 Dundas St. W., 416-368-4567 

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