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Don Appetit! Portland Variety's Globally Inspired Treasures

Don Douloff, Food WriterAlthough Portland Variety has been operating for more than three years on Toronto’s King Street West, I’d never visited, so I dropped by to see what the kitchen was up to.

Long story short: I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a meal so much from start to finish. Portland Variety is one of my new favourite restaurants in the city.

Under executive chef Jo Castrinos (ex-Patria and Splendido), the kitchen is turning globally minded food that’s built on first-rate ingredients and manages the deft balancing act of being subtle and refined yet full of flavour, demonstrating a kitchen in full command of its technique.

Orange blossom honey sweetens silky and rich house-made ricotta garnished with pistachio and seasonal fruit. Mixed forest mushrooms bring deep woodsy earthiness to arugula, Manchego cheese, pine nuts (for toasty crunch) and brightly flavoured yuzu vinaigrette (for citrus buzz).

Things only get better from there. Wild-caught shrimp are superbly tender and delicate, and swim in garlic oil roaring with chile heat. Chef’s meatballs are a revelation. They’re made from a mix of delicately spiced ground beef and veal. But what sets them apart is the absence of breadcrumb filler, giving them a wonderfully dense, rich texture animated by a thick and sweet sauce built on San Marzano tomatoes that’s delicious scooped up with grilled, pillow-soft house-made foccaccia.

Meatballs in tomato sauce.

Eggplant byaldi is sublime. Roasted baby eggplant, impossibly silky, and served warm, is kicked into orbit thanks to a tomato sauce punctuated with caramelized garlic and scented with cinnamon, the genius touch.

Mains bring many pleasures, too. Fork-tender braised oxtail and its rich gravy swaddle ricotta gnocchi. Cassava frites ride shotgun with grilled Portuguese-style Cornish hen, moist and tender, bathed in piri piri sauce.

But best-in-show goes to fideo, angel hair pasta, cut short and deeply imbued with seafood-stock flavours brilliantly set off by slight spice. Perched atop these flavour-bomb noodles — perfectly tender bay scallops, shrimp and squid enriched with drizzles of saffron aioli.

Banana cream millefeuille.

Made-in-house desserts provide a fitting end to this fab feast. Panna cotta is silky, creamy, perfect, and topped with sour cherries. Even better is a heavenly, and superbly fresh, construction of caramelized puff pastry, banana cream, banana jam and vanilla mousseline. Trust me, it’s even better than it sounds.

By day, Portland Variety is a charming, bustling café that, in the evening, morphs into a softly lit dining room — hardwood floors, bare wood tables, snazzy bar — punctuated by Edison bulks casting their warm golden glow.

The restaurant is available for corporate buyouts, and can accommodate 90 people, seated and 130, cocktail style.

— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,400 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.

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