We had planned to go to Italy this past summer and looked into staying at a countryside agriturismo villa. Exploring a host family’s kitchen and farm land would have been the perfect getaway to learn more about the food and culture. That was all put on hold for another year. In the meantime, we are looking within the city to satisfy those cravings of great stories and great food – yes, exciting things are still happening right here and we’ll take it day by day. Many restaurants, like other businesses, in Toronto continue to adjust to rapidly changing guidelines. Not easy and we can appreciate the efforts made to ensure our dining experience, whether it’s in-house or take out, is still on par with the restaurant’s vision. These pandemic times have also given restauranteurs a chance to breathe and refresh. The most recent we’ve learned about is at the stunning TOCA Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton Toronto.
On September 23rd, the restaurant reopened with a fresh take on Italian classics. TOCA’s award-winning Executive Chef Paul Shewchuk (Langdon Hall, Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Host Chef James Beard Foundation Taste America: Seattle) and Chef Oliver Glowig, one of Italy’s most celebrated chefs (Quisisana Grand Hotel (Capri), Acquarello Restaurant (Munich), Capri Palace Hotel, Oliver Glowig at Aldrovandi Hotel Villa Borghese, Barrique, collaborated to bring the comforts of Italian fare with a modern twist.
Chef Glowig has been a consulting chef for TOCA over the past 5 years. With several Michelin stars under his name, he continues to excite with his creativity while staying true to handcrafted Italian cuisine. “His 20+ years of experience in Italy has brought us a great understanding of how to pair local and traditional ingredients together to bring out the most flavourful dishes we can create,” said Chef Shewchuk.
The entrance to TOCA includes a wall display filled with the familiar hand-painted dishes of celebrities by resident artist Jacqueline Poirer. The “cheese cave” is still there and half-filled with house-made preserves and curing vegetables. The dining room is airy and well distanced for social distanced dining. Cozy seats in dark greys wrap around solid tables like your favourite sweater making date nights feel extra special and one you won’t want to let go of. Even quieter dining areas are also tucked away that are perfect for small gatherings and families. The vibe is relaxed yet refined. It’s all about comfort here and exactly what we’ve been searching for in today’s climate.
When we had the opportunity to visit safely, we couldn’t wait to delve into some of our favourites but we were also interested in the creative aspects to each dish – and what they are known for. They did not disappoint. “We love to cook and eat,” said Shewchuk. “When we looked at these dishes, as they are some of our favorites, we decided to take these classic items that are very approachable, and use some modern techniques to put a twist on them.”
The menu refresh happens right when many of us are settling into the Fall’s cooler weather and seeking comfort foods. “We changed the menu as we just re-opened TOCA. It was also a chance for us to do a re-set, and take what we have done really well over the years and give it a fresh feel while staying true to who we have been,” said Shewchuk. They still have the much-loved classics including the Signature Ravioli Capresi, the Lobster & Buffalo Mozzarella Caprese and the Branzino with tomato sugo and mussels. they also wanted to make the menu not only approachable but also add some unique features to classics like the 36-hour Porchetta.
Yes, there were several house-made pasta dishes on the new menu including Carbonara, a Mezze Ziti with braised beef cheek, the Amatriciana with Guanciale, and the Gigle with Octopus Ragout. “The Carbonara gets a full dose of the autumn season with the hay pecorino, which really plays into the fall harvest and adds this grassy undertone that pairs perfectly with the guanciale and egg yolk,” Chef Shewchuk tells us. Tempted! Even though the thought of this pasta had us salivating, there was so much more to explore on the menu.
Since we’ve been known to travel up to Vaughan to a little industrial plaza to get our Porchetta fix, this particular dish caught our attention especially learning about the cooking technique here at TOCA. “We sous-vide it for 36 hours and then deep fry it to finish to give it the crispy exterior,” said Shewchuk. “The result is super moist and succulent pork that has a nice crispy outside. The two textures pair so well together.”
What is the ideal Italian meal for Chef Shewchuk? “For me, it is simple things. I enjoy really good bread, like our focaccia, olive oil, some olives, great Italian cheeses and cured meats,” he says. “I like to nibble, drink and have conversations. For a more substantial dish, I like a simple fresh shrimp pasta, with garden tomatoes, a little fresh garlic and basil. The secret is to pick the tomatoes when they are just a bit overripe on the vine. Nothing can replace that flavor and paired the lightly cooked shrimp tossed through a little good olive oil and spaghettini. That for me is all I need. My kids love it as well, which is always an added bonus.”
Manzo Affumicato is another dish not to be missed. Here, the thinly sliced beef is infused with charcoal to give it that “hanging on to summer” smokiness that is out of the world. It’s a delicious starter with a stunning presentation filled with eye-catching acorn squash chips, fresh Chayote squash, pickled mushrooms, Parmagiano Reggiano emulsion and topped with smoked salt.
Ravioli Capresi is outstanding and a signature dish on the menu. Made with house-made Cacciotta cheese and presented on top of TOCA’s signature Pomodoro Sauce We had a taste when chef mentioned it was worth trying but we would dive into a full serving and double the order in a heartbeat.
Our city has a lot to offer and you can literally eat your way around the world right here. But right now, we are trying to do our part in supporting the restaurant and hospitality industries any way we can and according to city and provincial guidelines – supporting take out, dine-in when possible, and delivery.
TOCA is great for special occasions, celebrations (because we still need to find ways to celebrate these days), and when you just need a break that’s worthy of an unhurried dining experience. It’s still inviting, warm and welcoming as always.
TOCA is located at the Ritz Carlton Toronto at 181 Wellington Street West. More information and current menu available here: www.tocarestaurant.com
*Note at time of publishing, the City of Toronto has returned to temporary closure for dine-in services. TOCA remains open for take out and delivery service.