“Just book it now, or we’ll never get a table!”
The hungry husband and I are looking at the Tock reservation system for Alder, the new restaurant in the newly-opened Ace Hotel Toronto, helmed by Chef Patrick Kriss of Alo. Knowing how hard it is to get a table at Kriss’ other restaurants, we figure we have to move fast. Alder launched a few days prior and still has plenty of tables for its first weekend open to the public, but we don’t expect it to stay that way. As it is, we take a 5:15pm reservation and are pleased as punch. We don’t normally eat on “Vegas time”, but we also don’t normally go to King West willingly on a Saturday night, so needs must.
Walking into the Ace Hotel lobby, we ride the wayback machine via the gorgeous mid-century brutalist architecture. Sweeping concrete arches reach over the balcony bar and dining room and make for a breath-taking first impression as we glide down the metal stairs to a basement space that is cathedral-like at this time of day, with sun streaming in the huge west-facing windows on the main floor. Decor is earthy and minimal with wood chairs and tables, terracotta-tiled floors, pebbled walls, and metal wall sconces that glow orange. It takes me back to the late 70s when a neighbour built one of Canada’s first passive solar homes and invited everyone on the street to come in and check it out.
A long, open kitchen at the far end of the space draws the eye to the crackling open fire where much of the food is prepared. It’s cozy at this end of the room, although not uncomfortably so, and we can already imagine coming back when the weather gets colder and the menu changes to heartier fare.
Our server, Rachael, is warm and friendly; she’s somehow managed the perfect amount of chatty and engaging, while still being knowledgeable and informative. In fact, service throughout the evening by all staff is attentive and responsive without being overwhelming. That Alo professionalism is still evident (I would expect nothing less) but Alder feels more laid back, less intimidating.
The drinks list is a tightly curated collection of eight house cocktails ($14 – $20) and four each of red and white wines, plus two rose and two sparkling options, all available by the glass ($16 – $22, except for champagne at $30 per glass). Beers ($10 – $11, $8 for cans) are all local and are predominantly from Toronto breweries.
We start with the baked clams ($16) with brown butter, ‘nduja and a crouton crust. These are a tasty first bite, although one of mine has a larger piece of ‘nduja sausage that throws off the balance slightly. The second one is better, with the spices uplifting the sweetness and brininess of the clam instead of overpowering.
Beef carpaccio ($24) is a gorgeous plate of scarlet pink, paper-thin slices of raw beef topped with aioli, pickled mustard seeds, and the most delicate, crispy, grilled chives which offer just enough contrast to the tender, silky beef to keep things interesting.
Mains on offer include sea bream ($38), short ribs ($46) and a salmon with dill brown butter ($42). The one vegetarian main, out of eight, is a black pepper ravioli ($32) with ricotta, zucchini and roasted garlic pesto, which sounds great, but I’d love to see at least one more meatless option here, ideally vegan, just for variety.
My hypocrisy is obvious though, since we choose the suckling pig ($32), a plate of tender, melt-in-the-mouth pork with shards of salty, crispy crackling (there’s the benefit of cooking over a roaring wood fire!), and a charred corn relish. The half grilled chicken with harissa jus and sweety drop peppers ($34) is the star of this course, and we’re happy we’ve ordered a side of fries ($12) to dip in the fantastic sauce. The Ace Hotel has a gift shop in the lobby and I sincerely hope they will act on my suggestion to sell bottles of this gravy to take home. We’ve also added a plate of tempura shishito peppers ($14), which are crispy and more sweet and mellow than spicy.
Of course, we’ve been greedy and ordered far more than we can comfortably eat, so half of the mains come home for lunch the next day, where everything holds up well and is just as delicious as leftovers.
We’ve intentionally paced ourselves because, well, you’ve got to save room for dessert. And readers should take that as my wise advice – save room for dessert!
Ice cream sandwiches are this summer’s hot dessert trend and the offering at Alder ($12) is stellar. Two chewy, slightly salty miso and sesame cookies sandwich a slab of creamy, tart, sour cherry jam ice cream. The balance on this dish is perfect, and I can appreciate that the person in charge of pastry has a salty-sweet tooth, just like me. It arrives cut in quarters, but it’s still a bit awkward to eat as a sandwich, however the cookies come off easily and spooning the ice cream on, dip-style, is less awkward and allows for more control, not to mention making it easier to keep it all from ending up down my cleavage.
Finally, the coconut cream pie ($16) is just an epic work of art. The first bite is a tears-to-the-eyes kind of moment that, in my long and varied food writing career, has only happened a few times. A rum-brushed macaroon crust wraps around a smooth coconut cream filling and is topped with clouds of slightly sweet whipped cream. What makes this pie monumental is the crumbly mixture scattered in great mounds on the plate; white chocolate, toasted coconut, shredded coconut in a dehydrated coconut cream, notable flakes of salt, and shards of a high quality milk chocolate. Typical coconut cream pie can be very one-note, but these little blasts of different elements give this dish so much more texture, balance, and interest. The salt gives the palate a happy kick, and the milk chocolate acts as an acidic element to create contrast in a dish that might otherwise be overly sweet or creamy. This pie gives me full-on 1970s beach vibes with references to the sand, the sea air, the coconut oil we slathered all over ourselves, and the chocolate-dipped ice cream we’d buy in the parking lot on the way home.
Chef Kriss mentioned to us that he was actually sick of coconut cream pie now, that he had eaten so much of it as they reworked this dish so many times to get it perfect. That dedication shows, but might come back to haunt them, as I predict that will become such a signature that they’ll never be able to remove it from the menu without protest from customers. (By which I mean me, but I suspect I won’t be alone.)
I don’t know if Alder will hit the same notes for others as it did for me. As a child of the 70s, the wood and concrete and earthy tones speak to a very specific period of time that I appreciate much more now that I’m older. The menu is simple and elegant, offering modern twists on classic dishes and I’m intrigued to see how Chef Kriss and his team will change it up for the colder weather.
I want to return on a chilly November night, sit at the big table near the kitchen and the glow of the wood fire, maybe have a hot cocktail and enjoy some lovely dishes with people who make me feel safe and welcome. But I should probably book that reservation soon, since I expect everyone else is going to feel the same.