Thursday, March 25, 2010
To get to Buca, 604 King Street West, you have to walk down a dark, quiet alley. Take a sharp right turn at the end and you are about to be transported to either Manhattan or Rome – think of a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book.
Buca has a real New York vibe. It is easily the coolest dining room in Toronto. A landing fit for a queen calls for a dramatic entrance and swanky walk down the stairs. The ceiling is so high, they could add another floor. The room is alive with conversation and zest. Like New York, it feels like it never sleeps.
If you choose Rome, you are dining in a wine cellar and being served real Italian food by handsome men in leather aprons. The subtlety of the lighting is enhanced by warm candlelight. The room feels bare yet deep. You don’t even need to open the wine list to know that there is no shortage of luscious reds in this place.
I like the dining room’s moodiness.
I do not like the unisex washrooms.
I’m also not thrilled by the kitchen’s unpredictability. Some dishes are a knock out but a few are not worth your pennies.
Case in the point is the charcuterie (3 for $15/5 for $25) - too small, too dry and sliced too thin. House made preserves come in cute ramekins and complement your selections nicely but they can’t carry the weight on their own. If you want salumi, go see Grant.
The cheeses (3 for $17/5 for $27) are your better bet. They too come with darling preserves and when sharp gorgonzola and sweet fruit come together, it’s magic. Unctuous buffalo ricotta from Ontario and creamy Caprino from Lombardia also make for some great match ups.
Add the warm olives ($6) but skip the bread knots ($6). Don’t get me wrong, they are tasty little things with their tanned tops and shards of sea salt but are way too small to be a proper vehicle for the charcuterie. Try slathering creamy ricotta on something the size of a toonie; it ends up all over your fingers.
Also pass on the fried salt cod fritters ($7). I am a bit sad to say this as I love salted cod but these are dry, really dry. So dry that we ask for sauce but the flesh is too mealy and parched to be re-hydrated. My Calabrese nonna may be turning in her grave.
In the face of disappointment comes the sweetness of success. Enter the lambs’ brains alla saltimbocca($7). They look like two Cuban cigars; all rolled up in crispy prosciutto. The saltiness and crunchiness of the pork makes a nice back drop to the soft and juicy brains. The texture is almost indescribable – part cottage cheesy, part scrambled eggy and a little fatty. This is one of the most exciting dishes on the menu. It is fun, straight up fun.
The story goes on with gnocchi dressed up in an oxtail ragu with scamorza ($18). Made in house, these little pillows of potato and flour are spot on. The oxtail is moist and succulent but chunky instead of shredded and it’s nice to see something other than beef cheek. Scamorza’s smokiness goes a bit undetected but adds a nice dimension to the consistency of the sauce.
As if all this cheese was not enough we order the funghi pizza with gorgonzola and mascarpone ($18). Woodsy, wild mushrooms play really well with salty and sweet cheeses. The mascarpone so rich and smooth but balanced by the crunchy, leopard print crust. The pizza comes whole but with scissors for cutting it up however you wish (it is your story remember?).
Food aside, let's give bonus points for an innovative use of a pair of scissors, cloth napkins that are like tea towels (very Ital), funky silverware and exceptional service.
Now, Buca prints their menus daily and so you may not have the pleasure of brains or tails on your plates but whatever it is that day, choose wisely as this is truly a place for a great culinary adventure.