Didn't someone once say, never trust a skinny chef. Makes sense to me. Well, unless of course you're referring to Claudio Aprile, who, since his early days at Senses, has been choreographing our taste buds with a level of culinary clout that most chefs can only dream about.
So who would ever have thought that one of the most respected chefs in town would ever attach his name to a restaurant chain? We're not talking fast food here; we're talking Origin on King East, which opened to raves a few y
ears ago. And considering that everything with the Aprile stamp of approval has seems to succeed, the odds are pretty good that his latest Origin in Liberty Village (with another planned for Bayview Village) will as well.
And that's mostly because you can't get his kind of food anywhere else, which is why the handsome, slender chef (it's just not fair!) decided to mimic the east menu for his new west locale, subtract the Mozarella bar and add a tostada bar. Either way, it is all part of the Origin Manifesto, to deliver a "high energy global food bar that celebrates the diverse cultures of the world." But as fun a read as the menu is, don't kid yourself that it's any less about a finer-dining experience with exhilarating ingredients and some molecular moments. Take the pretzel ($4), for instance. Puffed up like a Friday night shabbos challah, it sweetness is thanks to being boiled in sugar water. But where most chefs might just add a smear of mustard, Aprile wouldn't even consider something as banal as a bottled condiment, artisanal or otherwise. Instead his pretzel is bathed in house-pickled mustard seeds and it will take all your will power not to scarf down 20.
Another unusual and welcome twist comes with pakoras and a yogurt sauce($7). Most often just a mess of greasy batter, concealing any vestige of vegetables, instead, at Origin long threads of red pepper, kale and onion delicately held together by a gossamer thin, greaseless, beautifully-spiced batter. But nothing will take your breath away much like a shrimp seviche ($16). It's a miracle in itself that the seafood isn't mealy and mushy from bathing in citrus, something that sea bass seems to handle very well. But it's the creamy passionfruit sauce with toasted coconut flakes and pomelo that has me practically lifting the long platter to my lips so I can slurp up every last drop. The earth also moves for a tostada ($14) topped with beautifully tender lobster, celery leaves and tobiko for added crunch. The tostada's airiness is something to wonder at, but a spicy homemade mayo blended with citrus notes cuts right through the creaminess for the lightest, freshest summer seafood sampler. And while a chilled Bangkok beef salad ($16) arranged atop glass noodles, green mango, peanuts and nam jim, a hot, sour, sweet and salty Thai sauce, is certainly a top notch salad, it doesn't demonstrate the same level of creativity as the other dishes. Same with an order of spicy Spanish fries ($12). Hand-cut fries, skin on, are topped with chorizo, oodles of spicy mayo and shredded manchego for a latin interpretation of poutine. Again, while the chorizo is nicely spicy and smoky, this dish too seems more derivative than you'd expect from any kitchen with Aprile at the helm. Even a curried shrimp with grilled naan bread ($16), an admitted Aprile family favourite, doesn't get the excitement meter moving all that much. A Staub pot arrives with sauce overflowing onto the cork trivet, plump shrimp, toothsome chickpeas, tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in a tasty if a bit watery-thin sauce. Good, yes, of course. But where is the Aprile spin on something as classic as curry? Even two stubby lamb sausages ($15) with bulgur, tomato, feta and caramelized eggplant puree seem as ordinary as Middle Eastern takeout.
To reiterate, not one dish is even close to being a failure. But we do hold Aprile to a higher standard; it's the burden he must bear for such a stellar reputation. Thankfully, the meal winds down with an incredible homemade strawberry soft serve ice cream wrapped in a basil granita ($10) that I am still dreaming about. And some fresh doughnuts ($10) are equally light and airy.
Even with some slight disappointments, Origin continues to maintain its dedication to culinary creativity in the most accessible way. Few have managed such consistency, let alone during expansion mode. And when the food falters, it's still better than most chefs' best efforts.