Ritz Bar has undergone a quiet transformation. Although the decor and service remain that of a polished hotel bar, the cuisine has dramatically shifted from sushi into a modern Peruvian concept that's worthy of attention.
When manager Enrique Navarro took the reins at the Ritz Bar, he saw an opportunity to bring some of his homeland to Toronto. Along with Chef Jordan Barnett, they've devised a menu full of elevated street food and sharing plates that are designed for snacking.
The dishes have excellent range here. There's simple snacking fare like Chifles con Huancaina ($6), ribbon-thin plantain chips served with a traditional sauce of Peruvian Aji Amarillo yellow peppers and feta.
While the Italian-styled Pulpo al Olivo ($18), soft and tender baby octopus marinated with fermented chili, and served with an olive emulsion and fried capers offers something more substantial to start. The dish screams Italy, but the use of traditional Aji Panca peppers lends a fruity, smoky flavour that betrays its South American origins.
Ceviche features heavily here too. We tried the Ceviche Mixto ($19), featuring striped bass, shrimp, and octopus in a marinade of celery, lemon, chili and ginger. While Ceviche is frequently served with chips for texture, Barnett and Navarro's approach is to lace the dish with two types of corn - roasted kernels for crunch, and choclo (Peruvian white corn) for a more delicate bite.
Asian influences are represented by the Tuna Tiradito ($21). Ahi tuna belly is pounded wafer-thin, and dressed in a sauce of miso, onion and sesame oil before being topped with squid ink chips of dried tapioca. The range of flavours and styles within one cuisine are frankly amazing.
More traditional street food is well represented too. Hanger steak has been my go-to cut this year (especially for making tacos), and the Anticuchos ($22) offer up delicious skewers of grilled hanger with a Salsa Criolla (think Pico de Gallo), crumbled egg, and 'tacu tacu tots' of fried beans and rice.
Aji de Gallina Teque帽os ($15) are much closer to what I was expecting from Peruvian cuisine - these pastry-crusted spring rolls are stuffed with chicken, cheese and pecan, and served with an Aji Amarillo pepper sauce.
No Peruvian venture would be complete without the national distillate, and pisco features on a cocktail menu by Ritz stalwart Jonathan Neil. His drinks incorporate the heavy use of liquid nitrogen in aid of some dramatic presentation, and the Pisco Pasi贸n ($19) is no exception.
In theory, it's a passion fruit pisco sour, with Pancho Fierro pisco, lime, sugar, egg white, and passionfruit. The presentation, however, involves flash frozen passionfruit and a cocktail glass that towers elegantly above the table. You may need to stand up to drink it!
Chilcano Mano ($16) is, by comparison, more straightforward, with a eucalyptus-infused pisco served with ginger four ways: housemade ginger syrup, Fever Tree ginger ale, fresh grated ginger, and a skewer of candied ginger. Surprisingly, the ginger flavour is relatively restrained despite the variety here.
We also checked out the Black Caviar Margarita ($23), which returns to the nitrogen theme by flash freezing blackberries at both top and bottom of a Don Julio margarita, such that they gradually melt into the cocktail over time, morphing it from a pale green into a deep hue of violet.
There's been little celebration or fanfare to the Ritz Bar's reimagining as a Peruvian dining destination (unlike the rear patio bar, Deq, which launches every season with a lavish party).
The room remains the same, and there's no cheesy pan pipe music or anything to give away the inspiration, but the food is seriously electric, and worth a visit.
Photos by Hector Vasquez.