Bocca on Baldwin
26 Baldwin Street
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and wine/beer (no dessert): $65
The great thing about Baldwin Village is that you have your pick of cuisines. It’s a fun treat to stand on the corner and pick a country, and by extension, a restaurant, or vice versa. Recently we wandered into the neighbourhood with some friends we were treating to dinner and stood in front of each place trying to decide. We opted for Bocca on Baldwin, mostly because none of us had been there before.
I was familiar with the space in its previous life, the fun but somewhat rundown Dessert Sensations Café. The building has since been completely gutted and renovated and is now an airy space full of gleaming wood and light.
We started with matching plates of bruscetta ($6) and wild mushroom crostini ($7) to share. The bruscetta was bland, with only tomatoes and a splash of olive oil on top, although the crostini was flavourful, and overflowing with ‘shrooms. Little did we know this would be as good as it got.
The attraction for me at Bocca was the “arborio risotto” with lobster ($21) – I’m a big fan of the crustacean, and am more than happy to eat it at every opportunity, although I should have been warned by the inclusion of arborio in the description. I’d be worried if it wasn’t arborio rice in my risotto.
Unfortunately this dish was an insult to lobsters everywhere. The rice was a thick, glommy lump, not the smooth pool of starchy goodness one expects from a risotto dish. It was full of lobster meat however, and was garnished with chunks of the stuff, including a pair of claws. Too bad it was all terribly overcooked and chewy. The dish also included two pieces of calamari which were so rubbery we joked that I should throw one on the floor to see if it bounced. I managed to chew my way through one piece but earned an aching jaw for my trouble, and left the second one on the plate. A single sea scallop was the only item on the plate cooked properly, and melted in the mouth with a creamy smoothness.
My dining companions fared no better. The margarita pizza ($12.50) had flavourful toppings of cheese and tomatoes, but a goopy crust that was roundly compared to wallpaper paste.
The penne alla vodka ($14) featured prosciutto in a tomato-based rose sauce, a combination that really didn’t work. The proscuitto was sliced and tossed into the dish to be coated by a bland sauce that provoked Chef Boy-Ar-Dee comparisons, completely obliterating the flavour of the ham. A fettuccini dish with mushrooms ($14) was bland, lacking any level of acidity to counter the oil and earthiness of the mushrooms.
Given the quality of our entrees, we collectively opted to pass on dessert.
While the table service we received was professional and gracious, we couldn’t help but feel that the problems with our meal definitely originated in the kitchen. Not just because our food was bad, but because at two different points in the evening, the chef came out to talk with customers – in a dirty apron.
Now, some readers may think that I’m simply being nit-picky, that the disappointing food coloured my opinion of the entire restaurant. But anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen can likely relate to the very bad habit cooks pick up of wiping their dirty hands on their aprons – specifically on the back part of their apron – ie. on their butt. This is a habit I got into at George Brown and continue to do to this day; a particularly embarrassing one when you’re hosting a dinner party only to realize that you’ve just wiped chocolate sauce all over the back of a nice dress.
But the chef at Bocca came into the front of house with the backside of his uniform pretty much covered with smeary handprints of tomato sauce. To me, this indicates the entire attitude of the kitchen and pretty much matched what came on our plates – a true lack of care and concern.
Bocca has a gorgeous space that was marred by a chef in a dirty uniform, and fine ingredients marred by a lack of care and attention to detail in the kitchen. Which is too bad, because a little effort from all concerned could turn the place into a stellar spot. We discovered after our visit that Executive Chef Michael Winer had left Bocca for Baton Rouge Restaurant earlier in the year. Perhaps the poor specimens of food we received were due to a lack of direction in the kitchen.
Given the many choices Baldwin Street has to offer, I’m not sure why Bocca continues to pack them in. Unless the customers filling the patio there were all first-timers like we were who just didn’t know any better, I can’t imagine, given the myriad options Baldwin Village has to offer that Bocca would be anybody’s first choice.