Alma is a Latin word for “nourishing” or “kind,” which is what this Bloordale restaurant aims to be. Owners Anna Chen (former executive chef of Figo) and her husband William are hoping to convey this sentiment through all aspects of this place.
“Our goal here is that we want people to enjoy the food, enjoy the atmosphere and have a good time,” says Chen.
Decor-wise, this 34-seat spot that was formerly Karelia Kitchen is very simple and straightforward, with modern, clean lines, various shades of wood accents and furniture, and a warm, inviting feel to it.
Chen and her husband live a block away, so they feel this place is perfect for them; everything “just clicked” when they first walked in and saw the space.
Dinner and weekend brunch are served here, and everything – seriously, everything – is made from scratch, including the charcuterie, cheese and pasta/noodles, down to the miso and soy sauces used to create dishes.
The menu is an eclectic mix of Chen’s experiences; she is originally from India, of Hakka Chinese descent and has a background in cooking French and Italian cuisines.
There are only a couple of cocktails on offer, along with a few bottles of beer from nearby Burdock, plus Beau’s and cider from West Avenue. Wines are mainly from Italy, France and the Niagara region, and most come by the bottle, with a few by the glass.
I try the Raffinato ($12), described as an “elegant and light citrus Negroni.” It lives up to its name, with the distinctive taste (and colour) of grapefruit and a sprig of fresh thyme as garnish.
Some items will likely become staples and stay on the menu permanently, while other dishes will change seasonally, depending on the availability of ingredients. I hope everything from the snacks section of the menu will be kept, as they all work so well together.
House-made flatbread ($2), containing all-purpose flour and stone-ground spelt, is thick and fluffy, with perfect grill marks and a toothsome addictiveness to it.
Freshly made stracciatella cheese ($5) is creamy, salty and absolutely delightful on the bread. It's already proven to be a favourite among diners.
Another tasty accompaniment to the bread is a rapini and sunflower seed dip ($4) with chili oil that has a subtle kick of spice that creeps up as you eat it.
A trio of pork salami ($8) showcases both Asian and Italian influences: one with salted plum; another a mix of spices used in northern Italy that include clove and nutmeg; and a third featuring house-fermented and cured Chinese lap cheong (a recipe from Chen’s mother) that has a hint of cinnamon and a slight sweetness to it.
Fermented garlic scapes and a persimmon mostarda add a nice contrast to each.
From the “small” part of the menu, we try the eggplant wontons ($8) with a dark soy, molasses and balsamic glaze topped with green onion and cilantro. It’s vegetarian, yet the meaty eggplant filling makes it feel substantial and satisfying, packaged in its crispy, pan-fried exterior.
Steamed sticky rice in lotus leaf with shiitake mushrooms and chicken ($18) from the “large” portion of the menu is an elevated take on the dim sum classic.
Inspired by Mama Chen’s version, here it’s tweaked with fermented rapini on top (instead of mustard greens), providing some acidic crunch to the chewy, satisfyingly salty dish. It’s Chinese comfort food at its finest.
To finish off the meal, we have the strawberry sorbet ($10) with ricotta, shiso ice (all made in house of course) and fresh strawberries for dessert. The ricotta at the bottom adds a nice creamy dimension to the dish; it’s sweet, refreshing and perfect for summer.
I can’t wait to return for brunch on the weekend.