By Julian Geneen
Toronto’s Bloordale neighbourhood is a prime example of how hipsterization unfolds. First comes the microbrewery, then the newcomer restaurateur taking a chance in a developing area, and finally the veteran group planting a flag. Burdock Brewery has established that hipster credibility at Bloor and Dufferin and now Anna Chen (former executive chef at Figo) is taking her shot with Alma. For bonus points, the team behind Hanmoto and Oddseoul recently opened Seoul Shakers a block away.
Like the Asian fusion restaurants of the same ilk, (Dailo, Lake Inez, Peoples Eatery), Alma attracts the attention of foodie types but is still familiar enough not to scare anyone away. The homey, comfortable design of the restaurant continues with this theme. I was reminded of what it would feel like to step into the coolest restaurant in small town Ontario.
The menu is comprised of three sections: snacks, small and large, all of which are meant to share. Everything is made in-house from the cheese to the sorbets on the dessert menu. There’s no cocktail menu here but we opted for something from the beer and cider section which Burdock Brewery dominates.
The snacks came out first and were a definite highlight. The pizza-like combination of warm flatbread and creamy stracciatella were an early reminder of Chen's Italian background. The sunflower rapini dip was solid as well, although was pretty forgettable, especially in the wake of the stracciatella.
A chicory salad with grana padano and anchovy was clearly meant as a play on the traditional Caesar salad. It was tasty but so reminiscent of the flavour of the salad it mocks that I wish they had fessed up and called it that. While the gnocchi was exceptionally well cooked it was a little on the bland side.
Chen's Chinese heritage is showcased in the “large” section of the menu and it did not disappoint. Pork wonton and noodles were expertly done. Soy and black pepper give the dish a salty, acidic kick that didn't overpower the wontons themselves. Steamed rice in lotus leaf with shitake and chicken is another riff on a dim sum favourite. This was another knockout as the Chinese flavours were balanced by the mushrooms and vegetables. After eating these dishes, I longed for the more purely Chinese fare Chen seems to be fearful of making.
Overall, Alma is a welcome and unique addition to a crowded Toronto restaurant scene. Its particular cuisine is met with a warm, comforting atmosphere and affordable prices. Unfortunately, Chen’s lack of desire to stray away from what will guarantee a modicum of success is what will hamper the restaurant from elevating itself from the rest.
Price: $55 dollars per person, including one drink.
Rating: Two stars (out of four). A good restaurant.