BOHEMIA HAVANA (994 St. Clair West, at Oakwood, 416-913-0913) Also part Spanish bookshop and part record store, this offbeat eatery offers high-end Cuban turista fare (think hotel, not street) in digs that are decidedly different. Complete meals for $30 per person ($15 at weekend lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Friday 4 to 10 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 10 pm. Closed Monday. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
After a holiday in the sun, Torontonians' Love for Cuban cuisine rarely travels home. Though Julie's and La Carreta get it right, most local cantinas shun this complex hybrid for Tex-Mex travesties. But a most unusual just-opened spot in St. Clair's Latin quarter corrects that imbalance.How unusual? Imagine a travel agency/record store/bookshop where high-end Havana-style hotel fare gets served at tables covered in loud plaid linen to the strains of KC & the Sunshine Band. A request for something a bit more authentic -- some Afro-Cuban All-Stars, perhaps? -- results in sappy country rock that may as well be the Eagles of Ecuador.Since his liquor licence has yet to kick in, owner Alfredo Luaces returns with bottles of sweet Malta Hatuey ($1.75), a tasty molasses-like near-beer we sip while waiting for the starters. Frankly, we're not expecting much from a menu that lists shrimp cocktail ($9.95) and veal with scallops in marinara sauce ($16.95). Like we said: hotel food.
Pleasant, black bean soup does what it's supposed to -- it's smooth and slightly garlicky -- but Chef's Cold Soup (both $3.95) comes as a real surprise. A foamy room-temperature purée of raw tomato, carrot and cuke thickened with olive oil and ground almonds, this Andalusia-inspired wonder will be sensational come summer.
And though we initially laugh at the hot dog squiggles of French's mustard over the chicken salad ($7.95) mixed with cubes of potato and pineapple and draped with asparagus spears, we dig in to discover that with these ingredients a subtler Dijon-based citrus dressing would have disappeared.
Of the mains, pork chops ($12.95) flambéed with rum (alas, in the kitchen, not at table) impress. Two thick, pink-centred chops rest in a pool of lovely honeyed soy jus, garnished with grilled almonds. Sided with lemony baked potato wedges and haricots verts, it's great value, too.
We can't say the same about Gran Plato Bohemia Havana ($29.95), the card's priciest dish and biggest disappointment: mushy lobster tail, a few shrimp and an unidentified fish fillet doused in a tame béchamel sparked by the occasional caper. But we finish on another high: cool custardy flan dusted with coconut in orange syrup ($3.95).
Back for more, we steer clear of Chops Of Grouper On Virgin Sauce ($14.95) and dig into Ropa Vieja ($11.95), here an upmarket vinegary veal version of the rustic stew that translates as old clothes. Its side of black beans and rice -- Moros Y Cristianos -- is rich with olive oil, far fancier than any found in Havana's back streets. Thinly sliced steak (Vaca Frita, $12.95) comes close to being overcooked, but the grilled roast pork, ham, sweet gherkin and Swiss-stuffed Cuban sandwich ($5.95) is the real deal, even down to its tangy squirt of hot dog mustard.
Headlining Bohemia Havana Sandwich ($9.95) is another must-avoid, a non-grilled s'wich built on toasted white sandwich bread cut diagonally into four. Inside, subpar seafood -- halved scallops, butterflied shrimp, smoked salmon -- gets daubed with more French's and sugary mayo. Toothpicks hold the whole thing together like finger food served at a wedding rehearsal. Both sandwiches come with a crisp, plain salad of iceberg, cuke and preternaturally ripe tomato.
Before emigrating to Toronto last year, Bohemia's Jorge Nuñez was chef at El Floridita, the Havana restaurant bar that was Hemingway's hang. Before that, he cooked in hotels in Spain and Switzerland.
If Bohemia is to thrive, it needs more Havana and less Zurich. firstname.lastname@example.org