Quetzal (Toronto)

Back to Toronto. As you probably do not recall, I was there with for a few days with a group of colleagues in June. On the first night the entire group ate a banquet dinner at Crown Princess together. On the second night I ate dinner by myself at Canis. On the third and final night two members of the group joined me for dinner at Quetzal, a modern Mexican restaurant that has garnered strong reviews since its opening last year. I gather that the strongest of the reviews came when the original chefs were on board. Early in 2019, however, there was a parting of the ways over artistic differences and a new regime took charge. I was advised that it was still worth a visit and so I decided to make the reservation.

We had a table at 8.30 on a Saturday and the restaurant was packed. It’s unassuming from the outside but inside it’s a  striking space, low-ceilinged and space age’ish with a long pod-like feel. There are some seat against a counter by the window but as you get further in natural light is scarce. Tables are slung along one side of the long dining room, opposite first a bar and then a kitchen counter where people on stools can watch the chefs at work on wood fires. Yes, this too is a wood fire-centered restaurant. It’s also a very loud space. Tables are not that far apart and if, like us, you end up with a four-top next to you who all lean back in their seats and yell across the table at each other it becomes louder still; especially for us older, more staid citizens. The food, however, mostly makes it worth enduring.

Our server recommend that we get things to share and with some guidance/confirmation from him we got bits from all parts of the menu. We started with a kanpachi tiradito and a ceviche. Both were good, with good ingredients, but nothing very far above the norm in terms of flavour. A blue corn masa empanada stuffed with smoked chicken in mole amarillo followed. I quite liked this. From the verduras section we got the roasted runner beans.The components included coconut and grapefruit but I can’t say these made much of an impression. Nonetheless, this was very good indeed.

On to the wood fire-roasted section. We started with the camarones, grilled large Argentinian shrimp served with a recado negro made by pounding charred spices. Very nice though I would have liked to have received the heads as well. Next came the grilled octopus with squash, pineapple and salsa macha. This was dynamite with excellent interplay of textures and flavour; and it was a large portion. Their arrachera/skirt comes in two sizes and we opted for the smaller. It was still a goodly portion and was very good indeed, simply marinated and grilled to perfection. Though this would have been enough at this point we were seduced by the look of a neighbouring table’s roasted scallops in their shells and asked if we could get a small order (3 pcs rather than 6). This was indeed possible but I have to say it didn’t do very much for any of us.

Despite being very full we felt it would be rash to not get all their desserts. Though none of them were in any way familiar to us these turned out to be among the highlights of the meal. My favourite was the xocalatl, spiced Mexican chocolate sorbet topped with passionfruit etc. But the avocado leaf ice cream was very good too, as was the coconut nicuatole served with charred pineapple. I must note that we hadn’t read the dessert menu very closely. One of my friends, who is a little squeamish about some things (she didn’t eat the octopus), was particularly enjoying the ice cream and the little crunchy toppings. Of course, when she mentioned it we paid attention and realized these were crisply fried crickets. Much hilarity ensued.

For a look at the space and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see what we drank, what we thought of the service, and how much we paid. And also for a comparison to Minneapolis’ own recent modern Mexican opening, Popol Vuh.

As with all trendy restaurants in this vein—by which I refer not to the cuisine but the aesthetic of the restaurant—there is a list of interesting cocktails. We got four of these between the three of us. One of my friends got the Michelada Verde, a spiced beer cocktail; the other got the Ensenada, a tequila cocktail with a long list of ingredients. I started with the CLICKbait (no, I don’t know why it’s called this either), which features Havana Club, Lot 40 etc. and later got the Paid Vacation (which involved Monkey Shoulder and some Bowmore 12). Both were good, I preferred the CLICKbait.

Service was mixed. It started off not so well with our server at first a little condescending and then a little too handsy, trying to grab plates that people were actively eating from. After a little bit of this one of my friends snapped at him and that seemed to reset things. For the second half of the meal he was attentive and friendly.

Price: with tax and tip this came to $90/head (USD). Which may be par for the course for a hip restaurant in Downtown Toronto but felt nonetheless like a bit much for what it was. (Whereas the $115 (USD) I paid at Canis seemed appropriate.) So, how did it compare to Popol Vuh in Minneapolis (where we paid $80/head)? Well, both have the wood fires in common but they’re otherwise very different restaurants. Popol Vuh has a more traditional starters/mains structure whereas Quetzal has more of a small plates and sharing ethos.  The cocktails and especially the desserts were clearly better at Quetzal but I think the best of what we ate at Popol Vuh (especially the mains) compared very well with the best of the savoury dishes at Quetzal. Take that, people who think I’m constantly running the Twin Cities scene down in comparison to that in larger cities! (And if you haven’t been to Popol Vuh yet, go.)

Next up on the food front: a return to the North Shore. After that I’ll have another Montreal report.

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