Eating Toronto: the Reinvention of Kultura

Torontonians, take note. Have you heard about the reinvention of Kultura?  Well, perhaps not so much a ‘reinvention’ as a ‘reawakening’, but either way, we were champing at the bit to see what all the fuss was about.  If you aren’t familiar with Kultura, here is a quick blurb which was shamelessly stolen from their website (www.kulturatoronto.com):

Kultura Restaurant in Toronto is a 3 Floor very fashionable King St. East it-spot which previously housed the Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery. Seats up to 200 in four different rooms, The menu is diverse with Global offerings that include anything from Italian to Asian-fusion dishes, seafood, Steaks, desserts and more. Beautiful to behold, Kultura Restaurant bills itself as a spot for “social dining” with tapas/small plates of exceptional food that take diners on an endlessly inventive and inspired world tour.

With the aesthetic sensibilities of a well curated gallery, Kultura’s decor centers around exposed brick and wood beams mingled with luxe accents and a surprising blending of organic materials. Rustic, elegant and warmly sophisticated, the decor is exceptionally well thought out across all three floors.

Further on the decor front, sometimes it is the small things that make me happy. In the case of the bathroom, it was the teensiest little twee sink, which couldn’t have been more than 8 inches wide, and for which I fell in love.  So much to see and yet I focus on the bathroom, I know, but I wanted to squirrel that little sink right out of there in my handbag, and if it wasn’t for that pesky ‘plumbing installation’ thing, I would have considered it.  If you have any doubts about how darling and small it was, just compare the size to the soap dispenser and be assured that it is an average size and not made to pump out a palmful of Dial for ham fisted giants.

Several weeks ago, we were lucky enough to be invited to an event organized by Sandra Manthorne (Kultura Event Director) and Karine Delgage (Bilingual PR Consultant, pictured below left).  It was essentially a meet’n’greet/photo-op to introduce an eclectic blend of Toronto’s food writers, media types, and good ol’ bloggers like us to this newest iteration of the restaurant.  We also had the opportunity to meet the face behind Kultura’s success, owner and Rennaisance man Frank Nyilas (pictured below right) who has a diverse CV including management of an art gallery, modelling and talent agency, and exclusive Toronto night clubs such as Mink, Lot 332 and Tryst. Both were equally as charming as you would expect.

We love the opportunity to attend events like these, because a smoothly run PR event means lots of free food, a chance to shmooze with the management and chefs, and an open bar. Perhaps I should have just led with that part, because it was definitely a highlight for my husband.  At this event, the party libations were supplied by Tre Amici Imports. May we recommend the Prosecco?

As soon as it became apparent that we weren’t the only ones to smuggle in a camera beneath the folds of our sweaters, the snapping began in earnest.  Lord love Food Bloggers. We really are an insufferable lot, but at least we found our calling!

One of the highlights of these events is the opportunity to chat with an establishment’s executive chef.  The last time that we were at Kultura, the kitchen was run by Roger Mooking, who has now moved on to different challenges including hosting the shows Everyday Exotic  and Heat Seekers on the Food Network.   Out with the old and in with the new! Kultura’s latest executive chef is the gorgeous and talented Bernadette Calpito, known to most as, simply, “Chef B”.

Calpito has developed quite the reputation in Toronto, and for good reason. She studied at George Brown, graduating with honours in chef training and culinary management. After graduation, she apprenticed with the esteemed Chef Massimo Capra, who not only has the best mustache in Toronto, but also one of the best Italian restaurants.  The importance of this experience cannot be underestimated, and clearly Calpito looks upon it with fondness as she regales us with stories about, “Me and Mass“.  Following her apprenticeship, Calpito worked stints at a number of other Toronto hot spots, including the Quebecois establishment Cafe du Lac, and an 8 month stint as the executive chef at iconic French restaurant Le Papillon, before returning home to Kultura where she had previously worked under executive Chef Mooking.

Chef B is intense, driven, and passionate about her career.  “No is not part of my vocabulary“, she purred to us before darting to another topic and sharing a hilarious story involving a practical joke tht Capra played on Chef Lynn Crawford during her apprenticeship.  With her old alum, George Brown, just down the road, we asked Chef B if she was considering taking on any apprentices as a karmic payback for the great experiences she had.  “Oh yes,” she shook her head emphatically, “we actually had 2 that just left. We’ll definitely have another in the future
(From left to right, Choosy Beggar Tina, Chef Bernadette Calpito, Karine Delgage)

With an ethnic heritage combining Filipino and Hawaiian, and an Italian last name, the multicultural and multilingual (Spanish, Tagalog, English and Portuguese!) Chef B favors diverse flavors and fusion flare. Much of her inspiration is picked up on international travel, and the next big trip she is working on planning will be to Madrid, Spain, which makes me smile looking over the tapas-esque menu.  Other inspiration can be found from her heritage, such as a memory of the macadamia blossom honey that her Grandmother used to slather on toast, which later got spun into a home made ice cream. These influences are the driving force pulsing through the menu, where most items are made from scratch and, wherever possible, even the serving vessels are deliciously edible.

With that’s let’s dig in! Don’t be shy, because I certainly wasn’t….

One of the first appetizers that we tried ended up being among the best, and every time that a new batch of warm freshly baked Palak Paneer naan would circulate, the crowd descended on it like a pack of scavengers.  Chef B. makes the paneer in house for these light, perfectly puffed and barely chewy spinach and cheese stuffed flatbreads, and they are even baked in Kultura’s clay tandoor which was imported at a great expense from India. With just the barest hint of jalapeno heat and an exciting and unexpected sweet peppered honey drizzle, as a shared snack food these wedges were absolutely outstanding.

If the paneer stuffed naan was to set a delicious tone, Mike almost hit rapture with the next bite to circulate our way.

The Ahi tuna cornet was a finely chopped and perfectly seasoned raw tuna tartare garnished peppery fresh shiso cress, dehydrated red miso flakes and a swirled cap of whipped avocado. It came heaped in a small container that looked like a variegated shell, but was actually an edible base made with dried nori seaweed.  The crunch of the shell against the supple lushness of the tartare and avocado was divine, and this was one single bite that definitely left us wanting another.

Next up, on another raw note, was Asian Beef Tartar served on a crispy spring roll shell.  According to the menu, this is garnished with Thai chili, spring onion, Dijon aioli and a ponzu dressing, but I believe that our appetizer version was a bit, shall we say, “dressed down”.  That said, the texture was perfect without any sinew (which is an essential when it comes to beef tartare) and the flavor was mild but honest.

Now then, another appetizer that had me standing in Pole Position every time that the servers circulated: Mushroom orechiette.  Mushrooms and pasta are pretty basic, right? Not this one. Toothsome, al dente ‘little ear’ pasta were served in a rich, extravagantly truffled cream sauce.  The acidic sweet tang of a roasted cherry tomato tempered the richness just enough, and the closest thing to which I can compare the bold truffled luxury of this dish is the “hot potato” at Alinea. But, you know, all the flavor without having to refinance your grandmother’s vacation property.

The jumbo sea scallops with Thai asparagus, earthy baby shiitake mushrooms, fresh bean sprouts and togarishi (the Japanese equivalent of Chinese 5 spice) were perfectly seared and ample.

An unexpected star of the show was the pork belly tacos. If you ask me, pork belly may be the darling of our current Foodie Trendoids, but I often find it to be a bit too fatty and unctuous for my taste. At Kultura, however, the moist and tender pork belly was juicy, shredded perfection, served creatively in a thin taro root shell with tangy pineapple cilantro slaw and acidic pickled red onions to balance the pork.

(Thank you to the charming and chatty photographer at SNAP who offered to pose with the tacos as the delicious juices dripped down his hands and pooled by the sleeves of his sweater!)

The tandoori shrimp were sweet and the spicing was certainly not audacious, but I feel that these little samples would have benefited greatly from the spiced tomato chutney, mustard green quinoa and poppadom cone promised on the regular menu.

Bite sized portions of Hawaiian Garlic Lobster (with sweet paprika, Thai chili and coriander) and Soft Shell Salad (with pomegranate dressing, mango, frisee, plums and crispy shallots) were both well executed and well balanced. I expected a bit…more, somehow; more heat from the chili, more tang from the pomegranate dressing, or more earthy, leafy punch from the cilantro. That said, they were definitely crowd pleasers that I would love to see again at a cocktail party.

A bit of variety in the serving vessels wouldn’t have been amiss, but again, we can hardly complain.

One that we were really looking forward to was the Tempura Sushi, a delightful semi-freddo  concept with gravalax salmon draped atop tempura battered sushi rolls that were warm outside with a cool interior.  The concept was lovely, and the sushi were stuffed with wasabi aioli, tobiko, escaviche (escabeche? Ceviche? No idea…) and avocado with a spicy mayo drizzle.  They were certainly good, but I am a serious dipper when it comes to sushi and I missed my basin of salty soy…..

…until Chef B mentioned that she serves the rolls with white soya sauce, which was, frankly, intriguing. I generally prefer the more complex and subtle flavor of light soy to dark, and mentioned that I had never tried light soy. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned moments later with a small ramekin of white soy sauce (shiro shoyu), which was liquid umami with a balance of sweet, salty, earthy and exciting. That was absolutely what the sushi needed to set them off perfectly. Apparently it was also just what I needed because I liked the white soy so much that I found myself licking at it straight up and feeling no shame.   Definitely something that I will be looking for at the Asian market.

A refrain that we kept hearing from people was, “The lamb is phenomenal. Did you try the lamb? You really must wait and try the lamb. It will be coming out any minute now…try the lamb. You will LOVE the lamb.”  I would not be me if I turned my nose up at lamb, and despite the hour we were easily persuaded to stay. The lamb did not disappoint.

Perfectly cleaned Frenched chops were cooked to a delicious ruby, closer to rare than medium rare (yay!), and sported gorgeous and flavorful caramelization on the outside of the chops and up the bone. We weren’t sure what to expect from the description of sesame dust, smoked dashi and tempura jalapeno, but the lamb was well seasoned with a delicately sweet flavor, and utterly tender and moreish. We quite literally licked our chops.

Thank you again to Delgage and Nyilas, our hosts at Kultura, for a tasteful and delicious evening!  We can’t wait to return and try out Chef B’s tapas inspired tasting menu. Hopefully it will include another one of those Ahi tuna cornets!

Kultura Restaurant

169 King Street East
Toronto, ON
(416) 363-9000

Reservations:  rsvp@kulturatoronto.com

For more information:  info@kulturatoronto.com