Restaurant-reviewing sounds like a dream job, but it’s a tricky business. I got my start in reviewing eleven years ago, courtesy of Toronto Life magazine. When I began, I was just grateful to be offered the opportunity to be paid to eat. But the work was a lot more complicated than analyzing flavors on a plate. Spotting mistakes — the careless server, the cold entrée, the spilled wine — is child’s play. But it’s hard to gather enough information in one visit to tell whether a place is truly a gem. Most reviews are based on a single visit, and they may paint a picture that’s too bright or too dim, depending on the lighting that particular evening.
While I was in Toronto over Christmas, I went to a restaurant called Relish Bar & Grill twice. My first visit was with my friend Kathleen, who had sussed out the spot before my visit. Relish is a small restaurant with a long, skinny bar, and it’s well away from Toronto’s downtown core, but easily accessible by subway. The menu is Mediterranean tapas — small plates meant for sharing — and the list of both gluten-free and vegetarian choices was impressive. Kathleen doesn’t have celiac disease, but she ordered off the gluten-free menu so that we’d be able to share dishes in the true spirit of tapas. It was a fantastic spread: warm olives with fresh rosemary and red peppers, a salad of heirloom tomatoes and feta atop pickled red onions, a wild mushroom risotto drizzled with black truffle oil, and a blue corn tortilla stuffed with chicken.
I enjoyed the meal so much that I suggested the restaurant to a group of friends for another dinner before I left Toronto. This night at Relish was different from the first. My friends ordered from the regular, non-celiac menu, and I ended up spending dinner watching them eat. When I asked our server why none of my gluten-free dishes were coming out of the kitchen, she started to lecture me about how “tapas is about sharing.” After I explained why celiacs can’t share food that contains gluten, she finally went back to the kitchen and my dishes started to appear. The quality of the food was just as impressive as on my first visit, but the experience did leave something of a bad taste in my mouth. It seemed sad that a restaurant that went to such great lengths to create a celiac-safe menu had at least one staff member who was dimwitted enough not to know what celiac disease was (I’m still not certain what she thought the gluten-free menu was for).
I’d still heartily recommend Relish, but I’m glad I got to see it on a good night and on a not-so-good night. The restaurant has much to its credit, including a gluten-free chocolate polenta cake with caramel sauce that is heavenly. But if it’s at all possible, have the whole table order primarily from the gluten-free menu. And remember, even good restaurants have off days.
Relish Bar & Grill [address] 2152 Danforth Avenue (1 block east of Woodbine), Toronto, Ontario [tel] 416-425-4664 [web] www.relishbarandgrill.com