COCA (783 Queen West, at Manning, 416-703-0783) Complete dinners for $45 per person (lunches $35), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $5 tapas/$20 à la carte. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 6 pm to midnight. Dining room open Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
To the average Spaniard, tapas are more than just a quick nibble between drinks - they're the national pastime.
As late afternoon drifts into early evening, bon vivants and boulevardiers from all walks of life gather at their local tasca to drink glasses of straw-pale fino sherry, kibbitz with contemporaries and snack on bite-sized amusements - pork scratchings, pickled cuttlefish on sticks, mushroom caps stuffed with soft-set eggs - to tide them over till the late supper hour.
In Toronto, tapas are the hottest thing to hit the culinary scene since the great Belgian frites craze of 97. And while many have jumped on the bandwagon - hello, Kultura - few get it right. Add comfortably cozy Coca to the very short list of those that do.
An offshoot of Brad Denton's popular Czehoski, Coca is located just down the block from its parent supper-club in an attenuated space that's been home over the years to a fast-food franchise, a Sante Fe-inspired cantina and a sloppy joe greasy spoon. That's Maggie's, Blue Agave and Helen's Hash House, if you're keeping track.
The exposed-brick room's been considerably overhauled. It's now decked out in green Moorish tiles, tall slate-topped tables and chalkboard menus advertising specials from the surprisingly deep and moderately priced wine cellar. Only a trio of cramped booths squashed against a rear wall negate Coca's considerable conviviality.
A more formal dining room upstairs has a card of Spanish-style starters and mains for those who prefer their meat-'n'-two-veg served in a more conventional manner, but downstairs the card is built for grazing. Created by Czehoski executive chef Nathan Iseberg, it features a lineup of pub grub that's really intended to be shared. Confusingly, much of it is sold by weight rather than plate.
How many olives do you get when they're priced at two bucks for 50 grams? Answer: 20 or so tiny arbequinas scented with citrus and cardamom, eight if they're plump green manzillas stuffed with sweet anchovy. Three dollars and 13 cents brings exactly four hot, blistered cherry peppers packed with slightly salty Serrano ham and cubes of smooth Mahón queso in quality olive oil. But $7.20 for a cup of lightly pickled heirloom beets dressed with slivered almonds seems exorbitant, even if they do have history.
Some bread would be nice to sop up every delicious drop, but none is listed other than as a side to a large order of garlicky prawns ($12), although the kitchen will send out a baked-to-order loaf of doughy ciabatta ($3) if asked.
Three bucks for foie gras is a steal in anybody's books, especially when it's been whipped into a parfait and arrives sided with tissue-thin Tunisian brik wafers, jellied sherry, a toss of pistachio nuts and a quartered pomegranate.
Iseberg is also responsible for most of Coca's shaved charcuterie, including dense venison sausage ($6) and horse ($10) air-cured between planks of cedar. A sample-platter trio that also includes terrifically fatty pork jowl ($4/all 100 grams) sets you back a reasonable $12. They're all particularly tasty with the addition of fruity fig jam, spicy harissa aíoli and not-to-be-missed grape-must mustard (all $1).
Traditional hot tapas go for $5 a pop. Two skewers of remarkably succulent horse tenderloin - fillet of filly? - come splashed with horseradish jus, while deep-fried churrasqueira-style potato balls arrive sauced in a lovely chipotle tomato cream. Best of the lot, juicy strands of shredded beef cheek come encased in a barely there croquette breadcrumb crust.
Coca takes its name from the crackeresque Catalan flatbread that forms the base of more than a half-dozen pizza-like cocas (all $10), most notably the version tantalizingly layered with equal amounts of confit duck and gorgeous roasted pear. Described on the menu as an "individual casserole," boneless quail ($12) turns out to be a daintily trussed bird, packed as much as it can be with house-cured pork belly and figgy bread stuffing and plated over a confetti of cauliflower couscous. It comes draped with two leaves of arugula - other than olives, the only green we see.
Desserts (all $8) impress as well, particularly pastry chef Lesley Mattina's chocolate panettone bread pudding laced with olive oil (!) and served with a dollop of caramel dolce de leche and a sprig of fresh licorice chervil. Impossibly rich, her otherwise straightforward vanilla rice pudding comes cleverly topped with crispy puffed black rice and a delicately twisted almond tuille. Only Leche Frita - four deep-fried cinnamon-dusted fritters filled with eggy custard - fails to live up to its billing.
Yes, the pricing seems occasionally out of whack, but Iseberg informs me that most tapas are now $4 across the board and that bread is prominently featured. Despite its minor and fixable flaws, Coca's tapas are top of the line.