Colborne Lane (Toronto) – The Atrocity Exhibition

The plan was to drop down in Toronto, grab a nice dinner, and race off to the F1 Grand Prix in Montreal the next morning. I touched down and raced off but the Canadian culinary powers-that-be, with their perverse sense of humor, must have known I was coming. My suggestion was Splendido, a very good meal last time, but they were closed for a private event. My Quince-and-F1-loving friend said “Colborne Lane – it can be hit or miss but it should be fine enough…”

“It can be hit or miss…” Words that might echo forever.

The plates were small so the initial reaction was to order one of everything. Cooler heads prevailed and we ordered 3/4 of the menu – different dishes for everyone. I had kept a copy of the menu but it got lost somewhere in the Toronto -> Montreal -> Toronto -> San Francisco journey. Instead, you can navigate their site for examples of the dish names; some examples include:

  • Raw tuni + crispy nori + wasabi + cucumber + avocado + azumi sea weed + lake trout roe + ginger + yuzu + soy sauce ice + ginger
  • Crispy Wokked squid + caramelized peanut + asian pear + green peppercorn + spiced mango pod + pomella + Chinese sausage
  • Peking duck + confit chicken wing + liquorice & burnt honey sauce + butternut squash flan + cape goose berry
  • and the list of ingredients goes on and on and on

In retrospect, their web site, http://www.colbornelane.com/, is a great introduction to the cuisine. Why? It’s a complete and utter mess. There is no design nor organization – there’s only hideous, unnecessary, and complicated design and navigation elements running through it – something that completely embodies the food. Not even the Stone Roses background music can save that thing.

The chef has been celebrated as a “kitchen chemist.” There’s some slight redundance in that phrase but obviously the point is that he practices “molecular gastronomy” in some form or fashion. I have nothing against this style and I have had some exciting meals in this general vein – Keyah Grande, WD-50, Alinea, El Bulli, Fat Duck, and Can Roca. I have also had some unmitigated disasters, meals so bad I wouldn’t wish them on anyone – Moto and Cordeillan Bages.

A prawn ceviche was first. It was a daring pick considering it contained upwards of 5-6 competing ingredients. The prawn were of decent quality but there was no competition on this day – the spice element obliterated everything. It was Unicron, or Galactus, devouring everything in its path, destroying taste buds by the second. There was no regard for balance and less concern for taste. Dine, Then Dish thought their lobster ceviche was too mellow! No one of any nationality could have thought the same of our ceviche. Was the second string working that night? Either Colborne Lane destroyed their taste buds or the kitchen performs at an alarming inconsistency.

We had looks of confusion, worry, and possibly terror. Plans were being drawn up, other restaurants were suggested, and we agreed to a pact – if the next series of dishes resembled anything of the first, dinner at Colborne Lane would be brief and short. Nonetheless, I thought the worry was probably exaggerated considering the statistical impossibility of incompetence striking twice at this magnitude. (Another warning: I took a fair amount of math in college but I somehow skipped Statistics.)

A tuna tartar arrived next – with this crowd, the kiss of death. The plating was sloppy – Tom Aikens can be controversial in the plating department but there’s usually a visual flow. Limp wasabi foam (like a cappuccino that’s sat around a bit too long) was thrown on one side while a mound of soy ice stretched across the other side. There was roe, nori, avocado, cucumber, and much more thrown into the center. It was a DIY dish – the presentation of the ingredients offered no guidance as to their desired concentration on the palette. The raw tuna was of inferior quality – that was that.

“Check please.” To their credit, they didn’t charge us for the food – why kick a man when he’s down? And I will return the favor by not discussing the other 3 dishes we were subjected to.

Looking at the menu, I don’t understand how the food can be consistently delicious. Every dish has at least 5 ingredients displayed on the menu; no doubt, countless more are included. What are the taste buds to do when they are being pulled in every direction? Your mouth would need to be a master of Multi-variable Calculus to get a grip on what’s happening.

Stay Away. From Canada. Others argue the food is “sublime” but, then again, it is Chowhound. BigBunny likes it more than Splendido and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar – I’d have to strongly disagree. Eating in Toronto thought it warranted 4/5 stars – I would struggle to give it one; fortunately, they do give Sushi Kaji 5/5. If you decide to go, start in the shallow waters, order a few dishes, and only continue ordering once you’ve had a chance to sample.

- chuck

Official Site: http://www.colbornelane.com/

  • C

    Dude, I love it when you’re harsh. Too funny. :)

  • Tom Gandey

    Your pictures are blurry.

  • http://QuintessentialCuisine.Blogspot.com/ QUINTESSENTIAL C U I S I N E©

    – LOL –

  • Adrian

    I take it that your dinner there way on Wednesday, the night of the private event at Splendido. Not to take pleasure in your misery, but it was really good. The event, which wasn’t private but instead required fairly advance reservations, was a meal designed to showcase Cumbrae’s meats. Cumbrae is probably the top butcher in Toronto. The meal was uniformly good-very good, although nothing was earth shattering, and David Lee did a tremendous job in not over-cluttering plates. Instead, he let the raw ingredients take the fore. Which, from what I have read, is a a bit of a change for Splendido. Too bad you couldn’t check that meal out.

  • BigBunny

    thanks for the mention.
    i liked kaji too.

  • Tom Gandey

    Adrian,

    I know Chuck didn’t miss anything at the Splendido/Cumbrae dinner. Not to take anything away from either David or Steve, but it was as you say… hardly a destination restaurant that evening. We still would have went if it wasn’t for Chuck getting in so late, but what can you do? Splendido has always had some of the best ingredients in the city, but David still shops at the food terminal for vegetables rather than cultivating relationships with farmers. He has some of the best meat in the city, why can’t he take the time and source better vegetables?

    After one bite of the first dish at Colborne, I just looked at Chuck… rolled my eyes and said lets get the check as it was a sure sign of things to come.

  • Adrian

    I had no complaints about the vegetables during the Cumbrae dinner. The ramps served with the ribeye were really excellent. I guess the asparagus during the chicken course wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. During every course, the protein was displayed in its best possible light, which made up for some of the deficiencies in a couple of the dishes. Besides whipped Berkshire fat as a replacement for butter more than made up for the shortcomings of any given course.

  • Tom Gandey

    Its not like ramps are cultivated by caring farmers… they grow like weeds in maple forests and its hard to get a bad one :) David probably got the asparagus from the food terminal like he gets most of his vegetables, unfortunately. You go to Splendido for David’s trained hand and his meat/shellfish. The guy really is an excellent chef and cultivating relationships with farmers will go a long way in bringing Splendido to the next level.

    I would rather have whipped Berkshire fat than any butter I’ve had at Splendido… another one of its shortcomings. Butter is an afterthought at pretty much any restaurant in Canada anyways, regrettably. Chuck should have wrote about Colborne Lane’s butter… same as my last visit. I call it “42 flavour” butter as it tastes like its pre-formed and held in a fridge uncovered with 42 other ingredients.

  • Hepicurean

    It is unfortunate that your experience was underwhelming to say the least. The food that is created at Colborne Lane is not by any stretch typical of any of the other restaurants in the city. It is what it is meant to be, Chef Apriles creations. Unfortunately individuals need to put things in boxes and label them so they can tell others what is right and wrong. It is embarrassing that even if you do not appreciate the food at Colborne Lane , you don’t recognize the talent. Colborne Lane, like most restaurants cannot please everyone all the time, (especially the culinary expertise that we are obviously dealing with here) but it is an oasis to those it was designed for, in a city that is often scared of anything new and far behind the curve in regards to progressive thinking. Open your mind and your body and palate may follow.

  • ChuckEats

    Hepicurean, as I referenced in the post, I’ve eaten at restaurants that could arguably fall into the same vein as Colborne. However, when comparing the food to those restaurants (most of which are very good), Colborne falls very short. It’s not a question of opening my mind – I’m a fairly adventurous eater. It’s a question of the kitchen performing at the levels they aspire to.

  • maxwell cravenmoorehed

    Chuck
    You are an underachiever commenting on a chef who over achieves and takes risks. Food bloggers practice the lowest form of journalism and have no credibility. Throwing stones at a computer screen is a cowardly act ….. be a man and confront the man.

    Max.

  • ChuckEats

    Maxwell, are you not throwing stones yourself? There’s no need to confront the man (though we told the restaurant *exactly* how we felt) – I will never eat the food again. Over-achieving? You must live in a very easy world.

  • Hepicurean

    Arguably is the key word, but that to me sums up what I take offence to, and that is the pomposity of individuals like yourself. People who say things like “I have eaten at great restaurants around the world”
    You have solidified my argument that you need to place restaurants in categories (“the same vein” – “Colborne falls very short”) To what? Nobody said to me when I was there, “Hey, we are just as good as Splendido” or “The food is the same vein as Susur” Unfortunately some people can only compare, its narrow minded but I think so are you. You no doubt have a collection of salts from around the world in different colours that you show your foodie friends when they come over.

  • ChuckEats

    In the end, everything is relative and subjective – your body, experiences, and environment is different than mine. This blog is obviously my viewpoint – a combinatorial mix of those three elements over my lifetime. Implicit in this viewpoint are preferences and judgement criteria that have been used, refined, and influenced by restaurants that have been collectively agreed upon to be some of the best in the world.

    You can argue that Colborne Lane is “progressive” for Toronto but I find it emblematic of many “progressive” restaurants around the world – a focus on more ingredients without concern for the ingredients.

    While style and taste are more subjective, ingredient quality is far less so. Fresh tuna is fresh tuna and it’s fairly easy to agree when it is not. Of course, there is still an environmental element in this too – in France, they rarely use sushi- or sashimi-grade fish (see my Pic or Jaques Decoret reviews.) However, Colborne Lane did not use the freshest tuna and I will knock them hard on that, as I did the French restaurants.

    My other complaint was the sheer number of ingredients in each dish. Eating a CL dish takes one back to Multivariable Calculus – there are too many elements pushing and pulling the taste buds around to get a read on what is going on. In this respect, it is similar to Splendido but Splendido pulls it off more successfully. Part of this is personal preference (which any intelligent reader can imply) but you can see the same mistake being made over & over again across the land. Perhaps you & the chef have super tastebuds but I’m guessing the average fine diner would have a hard time discerning the combatitive elements of each dish. For example:

    If prawns are served in a dish, I assume they are there for a reason – preferably their sweet taste but maybe their texture. If the spice in the dish completely overpowers the flavor of the prawns, why include them in the first place? The prawns were a touch mushy – their texture was compromised by their lack of freshness – so what was their point in the dish?

    Regardless of how you feel about the review, its fairness, and my pomposity; blogs are yet another way for diners to calibrate their tastes and find new restaurants. Readers have more selection and they can triangulate their preferences better. I don’t get every restaurant right; sometimes I re-visit; but you’d have to pay me to return to CL.

  • jackson chan

    I have eating at some of the best restaurants in the world … Colborne Lane is on the same level ….. actually its better because Colborne Lane dose not cost a mortgage payment for dinner and it dosn’t feel like a hospital waiting room. Very creative and the value blows away the competition. Claudio Aprile is a genius. So Mr.-Chuck …. I am curious as to what makes you the authority on modern cuisine? Let me guess you are probably a computer geek in a dead end job.

    JC

  • ChuckEats

    Blah blah blah – I’ve given my reasons for my lack of enthusiasm – everyone else just throws insults at me while refusing to explain why they hold the restaurant in such high regard.

    If the insults continue, the comments will get erased. If the comments actually contain meaningful information for readers, despite any dissenting views from my review, I will keep them.

  • martha moss

    Aprile is a rock star. I found the dishes very creative and original. the place is amazing , toronto needs more places like this, this city is way behind london, nyc, sydney, etc, etc …. are you sure you are refferring to colborne lane? because everyone i talk to says this place is the best restaurant in toronto.

    btw, i think you should leave this post on regardless if you get insulted. your not exactly polite.

    chuck, if you can’t handle the heat ……..

  • ChuckEats

    Apparently there’s a campaign afoot to save the Colborne Lane name. Regardless, no one has offered any reason why CL is good. Brett Michaels was a rock star but was he good? Does being the best place in Toronto (although I’d argue Splendido is far better) mean the restaurant is great?

    As I’ve said before, the cuisine is Ferran Adria acolyte gone wrong.

    (Ironically enough, this post is accounting for a decent amount of traffic courtesy of the search engines.  Colborne Lane is so great that everyone is keeping it a secret, leaving my review atop the search engine rankings.)

  • Tom Gandey

    Just as some bloggers talk out of their ass, the same happens with some readers. Chuck has told everyone why he doesn’t like CL, but no one comes forth with the reasons why they think CL is so great.

    I think Hanif (co-owner) has more than a little say in influencing the dishes as evidenced by the heavy spicing in my last meal there. On my first visit I watched one of Hanif’s friends beside us douse everything in Tabasco without tasting it first and even though I _love_ Tabasco the acrid aroma from the next table was off-putting. Even so, there was one dish in particular that I thought was bordering excellent (lobster ceviche w/sudachi/tobiko and just a little chili heat… it had some forgettable puffed corn on top, but 4 out of 5 isn’t bad). This was the dish that made me take Chuck there in hopes of more of the same. Brilliant? No, but certainly gave me some hope for my next meal.

    Fast forward to my meal with Chuck there. Pretty much exactly as he described. Robin was informed of our dissatisfaction with the meal and specific complaints were lodged. He could have sent Claudio out to speak with us about the dishes, but he did not. I saw Claudio in the dining room, so he was there and could have come to see us for a face-to-face and Robin knows me well enough that I would say exactly what was on my mind, in a constructive way.

    Excuse me for being the pompous type that has worked hard enough to be able to afford eat in the worlds great restaurants. Martha, Hep, Max, Jackson… what great restaurants can you lay claim to have eaten in? Seems obvious to me that Martha and Jackson don’t get outside of Toronto much and Hep/Max probably work there.

    You wonder why Toronto is behind the rest of the world when it comes to fine dining? Its because people in Toronto praise mediocre ingredients and cooking technique, therefore cuisine can never move forward. Take for instance NYC where people are known to be hypercritical… it has great restaurants. Hmm, I wonder why that is. Very few people with any type of food knowledge have the balls to tell someone that something is wrong and articulate enough to point out where the problem might be so the chef can go back and look for a possible mistake.

    Keep insulting Chuck… he loves it when ignorant people try to mock him (and drive more traffic to his site).

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sifu_renka/ Renée

    As an aside, I think these comments are funny. Sorry to find amusement in what some feel is a sensitive subject.
    I, unlike Chuck and Tom on this meal, sat and endured the rest of mine with the remaining 4 at our table. I have to say a big thank you to the head of our table (I was a guest at this dinner) for sparing me the pain of paying for a meal that was trying too hard… and left us all rather unsatisfied. The plates were too busy, the portions too small (for their price), and everything bordered on wanting to be avant guard without jumping over the fence and doing so. I felt bad to feel this way as I had just completed a Chicago tasting menu tour (Avenues, Moto and Alinea) featuring a couple notable chefs who had already embraced this MG technique (of the three, chef GEB was the superstar – I do like it when food is just prepared well; Moto was more flash and fun, while Alinea was more refined). Service was spotty too, with one server responding rather rudely to my friend’s hesitation to respond when inquired about how he was finding the dessert (which he didn’t really enjoy). I do give CL credit for trying to introduce Toronto’s rather conservative palate to a “new-ish” (but too mainstream now-a-days) movement. I also admit that my experience was near the opening of the restaurant (a couple months in) so rough edges can be excused. But when I still hear of friends and associates’ lackluster experience and opinion of CL, I can’t help but conclude that perhaps I wasn’t too much of a snoot. It’s really too bad, I was rooting for CL to help break the mold in our food loving city.

  • cam_13

    Please don’t judge Canada on Montreal or Toronto…come to Vancouver and see what we can really do…

  • will-smith-but-not-that-guy

    Chuck, I LOVE your blog…i don’t get to many of these fables places, so I love reading about them. I live to cook, am serious about my own food preferences, and consider myself a fairly thoughtful and informed eater. I have eaten at some of the restaurants you comment on, and do not always totally agree — but that’s the joy of reading your site! The layout, photos, and, most important of course, your writing are terrific in every way. So take this late in the game comment about Colborne Lane for what it’s worth: whatever you thought of the place, I totally enjoyed reading your observations. All these people who need to say “you don’t agree with me, you’re therefore an….” just don’t get it. I’m sorry you have to read so much silliness. Please keep this site updated! And I would really love to read your thoughts on your meal at Alinea…perhaps you could email it to me at xxxxx? Keep the faith, and thank you for this wonderful website!

  • chuckeats

    Will Smith, I’ve always felt the action in most blogs is in the comments – and even if people don’t agree, I like to read the comments – brings perspective to everything.

    Given the number of comments on this particular post, I have no doubt some of the commenters above are somehow connected to the restaurant.

  • will-smith-but-not-that-guy

    That was my thought too. Oh well, they have their jobs to preserve, and it’s easier to attack critics than thoughtfully and objectively find out if there are ways to improve. Anyway, this was a great piece. I really do hope to read your detailed observations on Alinea sometime. Thanks again!

  • http://www.xanga.com/aromes S Lloyd

    I ate twice at Colborne Lane. Although I was luckier with them (I am very down to earth and would call a dog a dog, but I saw no fault at all resulting from both dinners I had there), I need to add this: Chuck has the right to not share same appreciations than those who liked Colborne. Who are we to diss Chuck for his tastebuds not being impressed by what he had there. Those insults towards Chuck are suspicious (as in following up a specific agenda) and those folks are lucky that Chuck is opened to discussion: on my blog, I would never tolerate insignificant juvenile challenges over subjective matters! C’mon folks: you liked it, good for you! Chuck did not and that is none of your business to judge him!

Share

when not eating ...
putting in the work ...