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habitat


Nick Soapdish
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I went to habitat on the word of a friend and I've been twice in the last week for dinner and had great meals and great service both times. if anyone hasn't been yet you should check it out. the pork belly is holy crap good.

ns

There's nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves - Fergus Henderson

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I agree - this place was fantastic. It certainly should receive a lot of press in the coming months.

My table ordered the kaiseki plates: mini tasting menus.

They come in either 3, 5, or 7 - we ordered 10 total.

I would go back just for these.

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I ordered four of the appetizers there:

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This is the calamari...

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Here is the "24-hour pork".

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Here is the seared tuna.

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Then we ordered every dessert on the menu.

Great meal. I'll definitely be going back.

Edited by gps-shag (log)
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  • 3 weeks later...

I was just at Habitat last night (Saturday) for dinner. I will try to report as best as I can.

First of all, after reading Joanne Kates' rave review (from November or December, I believe it was), I was very excited to go. I was also a little apprehensive because there had been few other mentions; up until this past week, when they updated their review, Toronto Life had not reviewed the restaurant with the new chef Scot Woods, who took over last fall. Eye Magazine had given a pretty disappointing review, and apart from this thread itself, I had found very little mention.

Apprehension aside, I was blown away. We arrived for our reservation at 8:15; the hostess was stunningly friendly and energetic, and we were quickly seated along the banquette in the dark/earthy, sleek, elegant dining room.

The ambience at Habitat on a Saturday evening might be described as "general din," something which gradually increased as the fashionable lounge crowd gathered in the bar area as the night went on. This wasn't a problem for us at all, but if you're more into a quiet setting, I might suggest going for an earlier sitting or on a Tuesday-Thursday night.

I had read about Chef Woods' inventive Kaiseki platters so I insisted that we share the 7 course mini-tasting menu. It arrived after two amuse bouches (first: a shot of squash soup under a sage foam, topped with a crispy delicious something which I unfortunately didn't catch from our excellent waiter - more on him later. It was phenomenal, delicate, and smooth: I wish every soup I had came in concentrated, flavourful shot form like this. second: a duck dumpling in a crispy wonton skin, on top of a sauce which looked suspiciously like ketchup but tasted anything but - citrusy, if I remember, packed with tomatoes and lots of depth.)

The Kaiseki platter itself was beautifully arranged on two Japanese-style boards. Each dish is tiny and full of flavour. I can't go over everything on the platter, but I will give a few highlights. A lobster royale/custard in a cut-off egg shell: much more than just lobster, it had the pungent aroma of lobster innards and almost a livery undertone. Our waiter said "you guys will fight over this one" and we definitely almost did. House hot-smoked salmon on top of choucroute: a really nice balance. Lamb sausage and mint pasta in an olive consomme - a classic combination reinvented and really tasty. Incredibly tender octopus with soy reduction and something fruity (alas, I couldn't remember everything our waiter told us and I left the pad and pen at home). All of the kaiseki dishes were unique, full of strong flavours, and left us wanting more. Chef Woods really shines through these dishes: they are well thought out and the flavours, while bold and unique, never clash with each other. It must have been the Kaiseki dishes that convinced Joanne Kates to name Woods best new chef for 2005 in her annual end-of-year column.

For mains (regrettably we skipped appetizers, worrying about having too much food - I would love to have tried Woods' famous 24 hour pork belly): my companion had duck breast Peking style in a broth (served in a beautiful assymetrical bowl). I didn't taste this but it received a vote of confidence. I had the duo of braised beef and grilled ribeye. The mains, I feel, were well executed and again full of flavour, but probably less adventurous than the appetizers on the menu or the kaiseki tasters. Certainly my ribeye was grilled to perfection, the braised beef was perfect, and the accompanying pasta in a truffle sauce delicate and rich.

Dessert: Spanish churros with a chocolate/espresso/chili dipping sauce, which I had read about and which definitely met/exceeded expectations. Warm, with a crispy interior and fluffy interior. The chocolate sauce was rich, topped with a clever foam imitating the crema on the surface of an espresso. It was one of those desserts that inspires you to want to re-create in your own kitchen: I'll definitely be attempting churros next time I'm in front of a deep fryer. Warm baked apple cake topped with buttermilk ice cream: also delicious. The choice to use buttermilk to offset the sweetness of the cake and the glazed apple slices was thoughtful and creative.

In terms of just the food, with Habitat's price range chef Woods is certainly punching above his restaurant's weight. Food of that quality, at that price level, must surely make Habitat the talk of the town for the next few months. If my recollection is accurate, Biff's Bistro, for example, has similar/higher prices, and the food, while excellent, is less creative, less adventurous, and I would argue less well executed than at Habitat. True, Woods isn't Susur, Statlander, or MacDonald... yet. But, with my limited experience even of Toronto restaurants, I still feel that he's somebody who must be watched.

In terms of service, Habitat knocked my socks off. The service staff was professional, enthusiastic, and displayed a genuine love of food. Our waiter in particular was eager to explain the menu, the kaiseki platters, and the wine list (which, while limited in comparison to some other restaurants, certainly displays a broad enough range in region, varietal, and price to satisfy most diners). The most heartwarming moment of the meal was when we had finished our dessert, and our waiter pointed out the garnish for the apple cake - what turned out to be a candied sage leaf - and urged us to try it. I have probably never had a server who was so engaged with our dining experience. To be fair, there were probably a couple of service miscues, and a few things which the front of house couldn't control. But every time one of us got up our napkin was folded on the table for us upon return. Wine was replenished with vigour. And so on.

There was a long-ish wait between the kaiseki course and the mains, which I could only attribute to (a) Saturday night (the room was packed) and (b) peering into the semi-open kitchen, I didn't see a huge kitchen batallion. Which leads me to my concluding thoughts about Habitat. As a restaurant/lounge, Habitat probably can't be a mecca for the most serious foodies - right now it's hard to see it as the next Splendido or Perigee. But with Chef Woods displaying so much talent, I might expect that, given the right conditions, Habitat could bloom and eventually join that uppermost echelon of Toronto restaurants. They would have to be willing to eschew the profits from the expensive-martini crowd and significantly shrink the lounge area to make more dining space and also reduce the noise level in the restaurant. They would have to hire a large kitchen staff. They would have to keep up their level of excellent service. This would represent a slight change in clientele and a definite upward shift in menu prices. Since Habitat is doing so well, perhaps these risks will not be taken. To realize the full potential of the chef's talent, I hope that they are.

Habitat is a real treasure - go there for your next major meal.

Cheers,

Aldous Cheung

Edited by Aldous (log)
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First off, welcome to eGullet, Aldous. Thanks for the great review, I look forward to hearing more as you eat your way across Toronto.

Do you feel that a chef of Woods' caliber will be content cooking somewhere where the focus isn't necessarily on the food? He certainly has a strong pedigree of food-centric restaurants; I wonder how long before he gets the itch to reach for the upper echelons, which you certainly seem to feel he is capable of, something which just might not be possible at Habitat.

Simon

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Sadistick: prices are $15-35 for the kaiseki platters (for 3-7 dishes); apps are between $10 and $18; mains are between $20 and $35; desserts are all $8 if I recall.

sgfrank: Obviously I can't say what Woods will/should do. I just mean that I, personally, would love to see Habitat moving in the direction of being even more serious about food. It certainly has the service ethic/staff to accomodate that, and the talent in Chef Woods. It would have to do a number of things differently that would be risky, especially since it is currently, from all I can tell, quite successful.

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  • 4 weeks later...
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