Seven Lives opened up in the recently renovated space at 214 Augusta just 2 weeks ago and there's already a line-up. Having popped up at the Toronto Underground Food Market and Movember-themed festivities, they've collected a following, and with the short-lived tenancy of Rock Lobster Co. in the space now over, they've got a lockdown on fish dishes. Which is a good thing, because chef Sean Riehl has had his eye on the property for some time.
Riehl, who arrived from California two years ago after time spent in high-end kitchens, focuses on seafood--and hallelujah for that. The menu is posted daily on their twitter feed, as well as on an unassuming chalkboard fastened to their in-kitchen fridge.
While there are some menu mainstays, Riehl stops in at fishmongers and produce stalls bright and early and gets inspired by what looks perkiest. There's one freshly-made juice ($1) on weekdays--such as the watermelon al fresca, and beginning next week, Mexican colas--and two on weekends.
The 8 or so dishes on offer run the gamut from steak, to octopus, to a ceviche-topped tostada, and when they run out of a certain item, you're out of luck. Remind you of another high-demand Mexican kitchen? Make that two (but more on that later).
Locavores will be pleased to note that most of the ingredients found in Seven Lives' offerings are sourced locally--as in, just down the street. "I get the cheese from Global Cheese and the fish from Kensington fishmongers." The marlin he smokes himself at home, all the dips and toppings are handmade, and only the tortillas are pre-bought--even this, he admits with a sheepish shrug.
The tacos are typical (with a twist, of course) San Diego--by way of Tijuana--fish tacos, and Riehl says he would chow down on very similar ones every weekend. You can self-dress them with the three homemade sauces, and taste-test with proffered chips: the habanero comes with the disclaimer of "eat at your own risk" (I do, and can vouch for the legitimacy of the warning), a salsa negra (burned tomatoes and spices), and a salsa verde.
First, the Baja fish ($4). Arriving on a miniature blue-corn tortilla, it's the most underwhelming of my chosen taco trio. Cabbage, crema and pico de gallo top a fair-sized chunk of breaded basa--although come Friday, it's switching to mahi mahi. The fish is adequately breaded (read: not too much), the pico de gallo is piquant enough, but the cabbage (oddly enough) overpowers the entire dish.
I'm told that the ceviche tostada ($7) routinely sells out by 3 p.m., so it seems kismet that I can still enjoy it at 5. It's a mix of onions, serrano chilies, tomatoes, garlic, generous slices of avocado, and Riehl's Mexican crema paired with fresh ceviche, atop a lightly fried tortilla. Admittedly, I take a fork to it, but each carefully constructed bite yields a well-balanced blend of textures, spice, and acidity.
Despite how easy ceviche should be to prepare, it's somehow surprising to me that Seven Lives' is better than some others I've tasted at "authentic" Mexican restaurants around the city. The dominant flavour here is purely and simply "fresh."
Then there's the gobernador ($5). This is something of a ridiculous taco on several levels: first, the sheer weight of its contents requires two tortillas, and second, the depth of flavors will mean that you'll soon forget about the gobs of crema trickling down your chin. It's something that I instantly declare to be "stupidly good," and while my exclamations should be more eloquent, I believe in the power of first impressions.
The smoked marlin lends an almost meaty texture, particularly paired with several robust shrimp, but the mix of crema, poblano peppers, onions and garlic with the fresh Jack and cheddar cheese creates an utterly rich, and unique, taste. "We're trying to keep things fresh, light, simple and unpretentious," Riehl says.
Pardon the foray into douchebaggery, but I couldn't resist courting controversy, and drawing the comparisons that naysayers would go to town with like an Etch-a-Sketch. It might look suspicious that one of 214 Augusta's best-loved purveyors of Mexican grub, Agave y Aguacate, vacated the building a short time before Seven Lives moved in. Riehl says, "I would've moved in regardless, and I would've wanted to work with him."
As for La Carnita and Grand Electric? "I haven't been to either," Riehl gamely answers, but says he's heard rumblings that his tacos are on equal footing (or better). And truly, I can vouch; the gobernador is heads above.
Currently, Seven Lives is open in 214 Augusta from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.