David Chang, of the Momofuku empire, has just closed and revamped his two previous restaurants at the Shangrila Hotel in Toronto, Daisho and Shoto, and has opened Kōjin, a new palate-pleasing improvement, at 190 University Avenue on the third floor. Under the leadership of executive Chef Paula Navarrete, we can now experience her take on a celebration of the hearth, as of June 2018. Kōjin is the Japanese god of the hearth, and almost everything on the new menu touches the fire. The chef’s childhood was spent in Columbia, where much time was spent around the grill. Here she uses Ontario meat and produce, highlighting the bounty of farmers and purveyors from Ontario, and cooks them over an open flame. (The menu now is far more Western than Eastern.)
The fire is one of the first things you will see when ascending the stairs or emerging from the elevator. A bar surrounding the open flames, where you can see and smell the chefs at work. The restaurant takes over the entire floor, with about 90 seats inside and an additional 30 outside on a lovely terrace, looking over downtown Toronto. You can also have a seat around the bar separating the two rooms, but I preferred the light airy room overlooking University Avenue, with floor to ceiling windows. Dark woods on the floors and tables, with curved blood orange leather booths, or black leather banquets at the windows.
Our knowledgeable and friendly waiter, Hirad could explain each dish in detail, as well as the organic and biodynamic wines, beers and sakes. We decided on cocktails and both his suggestions were to our liking, a Martinez with gin, vermouth and orange bitters, and a Paula’s Pisco, with pisco, agua fava, and sangria ice.
A must here and a notable highlight, is the corn flatbread, a griddled flatbread made from local K3 mills cornmeal and hominy. It is similar to an anarpea, with a nod to a thin English muffin. Served fresh, and hot out of the pan, you can select one of the 5 accompaniments, at an additional cost. We went with the fire roasted tomatoes with feta cheese. But there is also spinach dip, grass fed, honey butter, Montofore cheese with toasted peanuts or Niagara ham and pickled cherries.
There are a selection of crudos, salads and seafood to start, as well as a sausage board with a chef’s daily selection, made by their in-house butcher. Beef is king here, and we chose the 14oz ribeye, minimum dry aged for 32 days, and large enough to share for two to three people. It had the right amount of fat and marbling, and was grilled to perfection. For non-beef eaters, there is also a pork chop, steamed chicken in a pot, whole grilled sea bass as well as prawns. Some of my favourite things were the sides. Being Colombian, Chef Paula knows a thing or two about potatoes, and her family recipe, called Titas Mash, are outstanding. Creamy, buttery, cheesy perfection served in a hot skillet. They also have a great charred corn dish. There are grains, potatoes and vegetables, many of which are cooked on the open flame.
Desserts are sweet and decadent. The burnt cream custard with cherries was topped table-side, with a maple syrup and Bourbon mix. The ice cream cake had a layer of peanut butter, maple ice cream and a salted chocolate top. Both dishes made our eyes pop and our bellies happy.
This endeavour is a new frontier for David Chang of Momofuku fame. He has given Chef Paula free reign to showcase her cooking skills, which are innovative and extremely satisfying.
My only complaint is you will go home smelling of smoke.