Inside Sara, a stylish sister spot to Rasa

Food Dudes' latest is a sleek, high-end hideaway with a Japanese-inspired small plates menu and plenty of luxe touches


Sara (98 Portland, at Adelaide, 416-985-5721, sara.restaurant) is the Food Dudes’ sister restaurant to Rasa, though in some ways it might be more accurate to call it a mirror image.

The anagram name is the obvious giveaway, but there are other connections: the industrial darkness of Rasa is replaced by cathedral-like ceilings decorated only by white paint and light, and where Rasa descends from a streetside patio into a basement, Sara ascends to the second floor of a converted Victorian on Portland St. 

“There are a lot of parallels, a lot of yin and yang,” says head chef Mary Dinh. 

Put succinctly: “Rasa is T-shirt and jeans, and Sara is where you put your little black dress on. I look at Sara as being where you want to go to celebrate the best moments, and Rasa is more like where you want to go for Sunday dinner.”

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There’s no rule saying you can’t pop into Sara on your average Tuesday, of course, and the staff say they’ve already found their share of regulars on Portland St. But the luxe price point, numerous stylistic touches (like a custom signature scent, plus uniforms by local designer Mary Young) and nuances of the service (hot towels saturated with eucalyptus and peppermint, special treats they’ll send home with you on your birthday) prove that the Dudes are angling for Sara to be a hot special-occasion destination.

And your night at Sara will surely be a night to remember, because in the middle of every table (beautiful, amorphous marble slabs custom-created by design firm ODAMI), there’s a little well with a lid in which you can entomb your phone for the duration of the meal, encouraging diners to focus on one other and what’s around them. Though it’s not mandatory, Dinh and other staff members say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people play along. 

“Because the food goes on top of it, it prevents you from digging through the food to get to your phone,” Dinh says.

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Natalia Manzocco

And the menu of small dishes (think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure tasting menu) means there will be many, many plates in your way. “We wanted it to be dim sum style, when you order a bunch of food and you’re just kind of feasting. The energy we want is people going out and connecting over your food. We want people to interact – ‘try this, pass me this,’” she says, adding that that “big family spread” is another way that the menu’s Asian influence manifests into the restaurant.

The food was a collaborative effort between Dinh, Dudes founder Adrian Niman, executive chef Davin Shearer and sous chef Graham Gibb (who, like Dinh, came up at Rasa). “We got together and created 24 dishes for this menu — Adrian was set on the number 24,” she says. “We wanted a really well-rounded menu that was shareable.” The result: a Japanese-influenced menu that zeroes in on robata (cooked over Japanese white charcoal, natch) and dumplings 

“You’ll notice the plating is very loud,” says Dinh, adding that it acts as a contrast to the spare white walls.

“We wanted to the food to be the art, essentially.”

Here’s a closer look at the menu:

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Natalia Manzocco

The mini Reuben ($18) is made from shaved wagyu beef, caraway sauerkraut and melted gruyère on a house-made bread with truffle mustard.

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Natalia Manzocco

From the robata menu: Chicken thigh momo yakitori ($20), grilled over Japanese white oak charcoal and served with cherry umeboshi, buttermilk ricotta and mocha powder.

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Natalia Manzocco

The chopped salad is a staple at many Food Dudes restaurants: Sara’s vegan version ($16) incorporates kale, cabbage, fennel, celery, mint, thai basil, champagne grapes, cashew poblano cheese, roasted cashews and wasabi peas.

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A more left-field item off the dumpling menu is the chicken “dumplings” ($16) – actually a wing that’s been deboned and filled with spicy shrimp, glazed with hoisin mustard and rolled in crunchy quinoa.

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Natalia Manzocco

The drinks menu homes in on vodkas and gins the list of four signature cocktails can be made with either. The Hana is Malfy con Limone Gin (or Zubrovka, if you wish), plus lemon, thyme, juniper and a sumac spritz. Cocktails come with a muddling straw, so you can stir or smush ingredients to your liking to bring out different flavours.

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The Empress 1908 gin martini is infused with butterfly pea for that distinct indigo hue. Instead of one garnish, they give you a mini buffet: a blue-cheese-stuffed olive, lemon peel and a molecular carrot-ginger-orange sphere (they suggest just popping it into your mouth).

food@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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