The Toronto “Entertainment District” is an area in downtown Toronto that is home to a concentrated area of nightclubs, theaters, bars, art centers, major league sports teams and an array of mostly mediocre restaurants with a few exceptions. When night falls the district comes alive with partiers from all over Toronto and beyond. The problem is they are not too concerned with the quality of the food, but where the best scene is. So, most restaurants in the area don’t have to pay attention to the food they are serving but have to have a great bar service.
The new kid on the block is Ascari at 620 King Street West. They are not new to the game; they already have a smaller sister on Queen Street East in Lesliville, but this new location is much larger. They still specialize in homemade pastas and salads, but there are more options here. Please note that during Covid the menu is much more limited.
This Ascari can seat up to 110. It has high ceilings and 16-foot windows that let in lots of natural light. There are three distinct seating areas, either by the window, in the center, where you can glimpse at the kitchen or in a more secluded private area where you can host a semiprivate party. The space has a modern industrial feel to it, with concrete pillars, exposed metal beams and bricks. The colour scheme is beige, cream and grey. There are blond wood tables and the place has a modern chic vibe to it. There is a wall of photos of Alberto Ascari, the restaurants namesake, a two-time Formula One champion racer from Italy.
But during these uncertain times, the majority of people have chosen to eat out in the patio as long as the weather permits. We were quite chilly, and had to request a heat lamp to try and keep us a little warmer. I can’t imagine what will happen this winter. It was not a peaceful evening on the patio, what with the busy traffic noise of the streetcars, and the parade of scantily dressed women on the prowl. But it does make for some amusing people watching. We used a bar code to read the menu. They offer a seasonally changing menu, with modern interpretations of classic Italian dishes.
I had high hopes for the food because I heard the chef de cuisine was Michael Lam who had worked at Buca and Il Covo, two excellent Italian establishments in Toronto. Plus, the executive chef and one of the co-owners has worked in some excellent kitchens as well. Unfortunately, I was not wowed, even a little disappointed.
Firstly, I didn’t get the warm fuzzies from our server, he was a little snarky. The food was almost thrown at us, and as you know, one of my pet peeves is when all the food comes at once. It is difficult to enjoy your meal when they bring 4 appetizers at once. The food did not come out hot, another pet peeve. To be fair there were some enjoyable choices, like the broccolini fritti, which was Tuscan battered, with lemon zest and pecorino romano cheese. The insalata di burrata, used a good quality cheese, and was served with field tomatoes and Ontario peaches in a sorrel sauce. Personally, I would have gone with heirloom tomatoes as the field tomatoes were tasteless. They brought us a delicious bread and olive oil along with the cheese, but I found it odd to serve a bread with Indian spices at an Italian spot. They charge $5 for the bread, but don’t mention the cost, they just ask if you want some bread. The hamachi crudo was nothing to write home about. We kept hearing about the spaghetti carbonara with guanciale and cracked pepper, so we had to try it. I’ve enjoyed this dish during my travels to Italy over the last 30 years in a row, so I think I’m a pretty good judge of this dish. It was just okay, not creamy or rich enough, and not served hot. A better bet was the risotto with Cape Breton snow crab, saffron butter, Ontario corn and parmigiana. Our dessert was a lemon crostata with a pine nut tuile. Again, just okay.
Another pet peeve, the server brought tiny side plates for our main course, yet dinner size plates for our appetizers. He also failed to wipe down a dirty table between courses. They offered wines from across the globe, with a focus on Italian wines. There were also large format beers, and I saw many patrons indulging in those. They did a good job on the signature craft cocktails.
It is such a difficult time for restaurateurs during this pandemic so it pains me to say that although the meal was not offensive, it was just average, I would regrettably not try this place again when there are so many other fine Italian establishments.