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Restaurants

The Harbord Room

Posted by Guest Contributor / Reviewed on March 5, 2009 / review policy

Harbord Room TorontoThe Harbord Room, 89 Harbord Street, was recently voted the third best new restaurant in Canada by Enroute Magazine (and #2 in Toronto by this site). Toronto critics have raved and relished and the word on the street is this is the place to see and be seen. Not a difficult feat when there is all of 18 seats in the room. It is tiny and if you get stuck in the front, it is damn cold. A curtain hangs where a double door should. A faux fireplace filled with candles stands in place of the real deal - an alternative that has always bugged me.

There is a fine line between the good and the great in the restaurant business and The Harbord Room is teetering. The service is efficient yet dull. The Canadian inspired dishes are a nice homage to our culture but fail to extract any big excitement. I settle on the cod fritters ($11) to start and they are good, really good, but not excellent. They are salty and slightly over fried. Propped beside a wonderfully light celery root and fennel remoulade, the dressing is creamy and has the right touch of citrus but it sneaks under the fritters making their bottoms mushy.

An Applewood smoked Cheddar grilled cheese ($11) is darling. The wild honey for dipping has the right sweetness for the sharpness of the Cheddar. The flavours are balanced. It is served with an unnecessary watercress salad. Clearly a starter, so why the side salad? I'd rather see a little bigger sandwich with less bread and more cheese.

Harbord Room

Flat iron steak frites ($21) are in one word: salty. Between this dish and the fritters (and maybe I'll admit to having some wine), I woke up the next day so dehydrated that my skin was dry. The steak was slightly overdone to medium and its taste so strong that it had liver undertones. Kind of yucky, but I didn't hate it. A flank would've been the wiser choice.

Noticing a housemade catsup on their late night menu, I requested some for my frites. Nope. A big old bottle of Heinz arrives. I guess they didn't make it that day.

The fresh Pappardelle with beef cheeks, squash, winter greens, toasted sour crumbs and Queso Seco ($29) tip the scale to the fantastic side. The pasta was perfectly cooked. The meat reminded me of the Sunday sauce we had growing up that would simmer on the stove for hours. That was pork but I much prefer the cheek. The crumbs were a clever addition and it is always refreshing to see something other than Parmigiano offered with pasta.

The lightly smoked B.C organic salmon ($25) was a hit with two of my dinner dates. I liked the crustiness on top but could not taste the smoke. I guess they bring a whole new meaning to "lightly". With the bacon, Yukon golds, heirloom beets, apple pancake, horseradish, shallot vinaigrette, it was a bit of a circus.

For dessert, a trio of pot de creme ($9). One is caramel with crunchy bits that taste like a Skor bar - it is the winner. The other has an unidentifiable taste with berries on top - boring. The third one is a blood orange creme - it had a faint taste of turkey or the smell of simmering giblets. I know that this is a truly bizarre statement but it is the truth.

Almost as bizarre as the recognition this place has been given.

The Harbord Room

Writing and photos by guest contributor Rita Ricchio

Discussion

15 Comments

K-Line / March 5, 2009 at 10:17 pm
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You know, I went there a couple of weeks ago and I think it's rather overrated. They tried to seat us at the front table and I flatly refused (politely at first and then more insistently when they tried to thwart my desire to move). First it was FREEZING. Secondly, it didn't allow my party of 5 to look at one another given the long narrow set up. Some of the food was damn good. Some was mediocre (chicken / the dessert). It cost more than 300 bucks. Won't be going back.
ds / March 6, 2009 at 08:38 am
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I can't say that I'd visit this resto by the photography in this entry alone, however it seems that it does have potential based on your description of your meal.

I'm not sure though, how the cod fritters can be 'Canadian inspired' though. There hasn't been a sustainable amount of it in our waters for over a decade now.
Cater / March 21, 2009 at 11:03 am
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I think the writer chose the wrong foods from the menu. Haven't you heard of their famous burger? My sister (who's not a big burger person) enjoyed it (and they did serve their homemade ketchup and aioli). You should've gone for it instead of the steak frites. What more can you expect from a steak. Beef cheek was definitely a good choice. The lamb dish was succulent and the fish dishes (salmon, pickerel) were the stars of our dinner.
Go back again and give them another chance!
Cater / March 21, 2009 at 11:05 am
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By the way, the quality of your food pictures didn't do them any justice. You didn't give a good angle and you obviously used super bright flash when taking them.
Rrr / May 3, 2009 at 11:01 am
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Please remove those disgusting photos. Never take pictures of food like that, it is a complete misrepresentation of the quality and time that the chefs at that or any restaurant take in putting the food together.

Aside from that, I have to say your review is bothersome. I've been to the harbord room at least once a month for the last 6, and I've always enjoyed it. I'm not there to strike up a convo with the staff, I'm there to have some great food with a great GOW (glass of wine) and enjoy the company I'm with surrounded by the warm glow of the walls and subtle decor finishes. Its cozy, the foods great, what more do you need?

As for cold, its canada, its winter, if people are going to complain about that then stay home and cook yourself something.

As a departing comment. I agree with Cater, the burger is the best in the city. I'm talking about burgers you can cook to medium-rare/medium style burgers. Its only competition is Bymarks $60 burger, except bymark makes theirs with fois gras, not a true burger. And harbord room house made ketchup is the bomb, nevermind the house made guiness mustard. When you asked for the ketchup they maybe didn't give you any because you weren't worthy... Now I'm being a little cruel, but this place is my fav go to, and your blog does not represent the place that I know. So please at least take the photos down, thx. Rrrrrr

Blueboy / May 26, 2009 at 11:40 pm
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I went there for Mother's Day. Before going I was kind of bothered that they wouldn't sit a fifth person at our 4 person reservation. But after going to see what the place really looks like I kind of understand, its tiny!

I have a problem with your assessment of the service and how it was 'dull'. What are you expecting some kind of show? That the waiters would announce your dish and say 'voila!' before removing a silver dome from your plate? Being efficient is suffiencient for being good at service. I am also not one to have heart-to-hearts with waiters. That's not to say I'm strictly business with waiters all the time, but we all know why I'm really there.....for the food and not to make a new best friend.

I had almost exactly what you had, save the pasta and smoked salmon. I had the artic char salad, the charcuterie platter(holy jesus that was tasty) and lamb cassoulet instead, and everything was perfectly seasoned. Maybe you're just not accustomed to food that you know....comes seasoned. In fact I found the fritters to be a touch on the bland side.

Here is MY real assessment:

Service:
- efficient, they're into bring your own bottles, AND they'll even keep it in the cellar until you're ready to open it so that it is the "perfect cellar temperature" according to the dude in the apron.

Food:

Salt Cod Fritters - yummy fried nuggets with citrusy vinegrette and creamy remoulade. Crispy, creamy, tart...a nice opening combination.

Charcuterie platter - rich and savoury. The mousse is ultra decadent and smooth like a quernelle of butter and the rillettes were guiltily fattening. Want more bread for the platter? Didn't have to ask, our waiter just brought out more when she noticed we were on the low side. You really need to wash this down with wine as it is SUPER rich. The mustard and some kind of berry relish also help cut through the richness...*drools*

Artic char salad - fatty slices of fish sitting with horseradish cream on arugala and other greens with crisp fried shallot over top. Spicy, creamy, crispy......worked awesomely. They kept the salad on the non-tart side, which I think makes for a very savory experience to not over power the velvety artic char.

Steak frite - straightforward, no fuss steak frite as it should be, too bad you didnt get the ketchup because it was AWESOME. Spicy, sweet and smoky...couldn't get enough of it.

Lamb cassoulet with lentil duPuy - my brothers had this, and I'm not a huge lamb fan, so all I have to say, if you like the flavour of lamb, it really permeates the dish (ultra decadent thought)

Pot de creme with churros - sweet jesus! the caramel pot de creme was spot on with its texture and sweetness and the caramel flavour was pronounced but to so much to be coying, and the add a churro on the side to dip into it. I can swim in a vat of this stuff.

We kind of went for the more decadent dishes, next time I might go with a more balanced mix of dishes as I felt like a giant grease ball at the end of the night. But other than that great meal, with great wine, and with great family what could you ask for more?
Pino / June 3, 2009 at 09:56 am
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First of all, I didn't know that a food reviewer needed to be a photographer. People, relax with the photo comments. These people are evaluating the food, service, and ambiance. That's their job, period. Second, there is no need to insult a reviewer. I think we are all entitled to our opinion, but some of the comments above are just rude (ahem, Blueboy, Rrr). If you believe that you could have done a better review, write one and submit it to the website.

I had a similar experience as the reviewer when I went to Harbord Room. The food was over-seasoned and the staff treated me like I didn't exist. Trust me, Blueboy, I've been to the best restos in the city, and I have to say that this one doesn't measure up. Yes, it may have been an "off" night, but I think that the staff should be on their game during every dinner service. I'm not asking my waiter to be my best friend or even engage in small talk, but a smile would help.
donna / June 5, 2009 at 04:45 pm
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I think that most people use the internet to randomly cry/whine and/or tear other people down. However, I love the open dialogue; it really gives people a chance to other subjective (can I italicize that word) reviews.

PS. As an experienced server and frequent diner, I read the review and could totally relate to the article. Servers should entertain - this is part of the entire dining experience!
It's good to
Andrew / July 8, 2009 at 07:22 pm
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This is why you don't take food photos with flash. Ugh.
Chris / October 19, 2009 at 09:43 am
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The flat iron is the traditional cut for steak frites. And it is supposed to taste like that. If you didn't want it to taste like it is supposed to, you should have gone to the Keg for a corn-fed, mass produced, flavourless tenderloin. If it was overdone you should have sent it back and critiqued the way that your server and the kitchen handled THAT situation. That's what professional restaurant critics do. They also visit a place 3 or more times to account for the occasional misstep.

Oh, they also go to school to learn how to write. Something this reviewer (if I can use the term loosely) could use.

A note on service: relationships (you know, those things that happen between two or more humans) are a two-way street. Professional servers, like the ones at Harbord Room, gauge their guests and respond accordingly. Perhaps the 'dull' service you experienced had to do with your attitude. Or perhaps it was the flash photography of everything that hit your table. I assume that you also took notes? Nothing screams 'internet food critic wannabe' more than these now classic moves.

Why is it that everyone with a camera and a free blog can call themselves a restaurant critic nowadays?

Thankfully, places like the Harbord Room survive (thrive, even) on consistently great execution, and repeat visits from customers who go in expecting to enjoy the experience.

Unlike this reviewer, who appears to look for the flaws at every turn. Check out her other reviews at www.ritaboutit.blogspot.com.

Don't believe everything you read.
mina bani / February 3, 2010 at 01:26 pm
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this place is absolutely precious. the servers and bartenders are amazing, the food is delicious, wine and whiskey heaven and great feel. you can go alone and eat and drink and still feel like you're on a date with everyone there... it's a great little gem.
L Fuentes / March 13, 2010 at 06:16 pm
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The food is lovely, but get ready to defalte your wallet. It's not exactly recession-friendly pricing, but I appreciate the quality of the food and the ingredients. Sometimes they do go overboard with the salt. Almost every time I've been it's been a lovely destination, though I have to say the bar is a bit more enjoyable than table service which can be a bit stuffy.
Katie / October 28, 2010 at 05:17 pm
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I decided to celebrate the beautiful fall day Monday with dinner at the Harbord Room. They didn't have a table available but had plenty of room at the bar so we took it. I was there one other time this summer, and what I loved about Harbord Room then and now is that they create the perfect combination of atmosphere plus fantastic fresh, seasonal, local food, good wine, and great cocktails.

This last time, we started with a few cocktails. A great old fashioned, and a unique one with Campari, Cointreau, orange juice, lemon sour, soda water, and a brandy float. It was really good. Then we shared the pan-seared Lake Huron Pickerel with hazelnuts, cauliflower and spinach, the risotto made with squash, kale, nuts, and topped with fresh sheep's milk cheese as well the roasted brussel sprouts and beets side. All of the food was perfectly cooked and flavorful, and we enjoyed it with a glass of local (Flat Rock) Pinot Noir.

It was a bit extravagant for a Monday night, but prices are comparable to similar restaurants in Toronto and New York. They are also open serving food until midnight on the weekends which is nice, and not that common in the neighborhood. In the summer they have a great patio which provides much more space, but I haven't had the chance to sit there yet. So far, I'd have to say that Harbord Room may be my favorite restaurant in TO because they just master the whole experience.
Jose replying to a comment from Blueboy / October 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm
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Great and honest review. I am convinced to give this place a try, regardless of size and space - although I'm not a fan of crampped places, the food overall seems to be getting decent receptions. People also keep over hyping their burgers, so I'm very interested to give that a try.

Thanks for your two cents good sir.
kav / January 4, 2013 at 05:23 pm
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I'm confused. With such a terrible review about the food itself, why is this even the top burger place?

I expect better review from Blog|TO!!

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