50C Clinton Street
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $275
Accessibility: one step at door, washrooms in basement, outdoor seating in summer
In this first real year of “back to normal” after the pandemic, it’s interesting to see how we’ve all adjusted. Time, having both stretched and compressed concurrently, has given us all the opportunity to reassess how we want to be in the world. For the team at Casa Paco, the answer to that is smaller, homier, and more familiar.
The space on Clinton just north of College has been many restaurants over the past decade, from Acadia and Red Sauce to a few others in the time since. As Casa Paco, the small room is covered in wood paneling, potted plants, and a collection of old photos, brass plates and knickknacks that give it a 70s vibe like you might have found in a neighbour’s or family member’s rec room or enclosed back porch, minus the musty smell and the poorly hidden box of old girly magazines. It doesn’t hurt that the Sunday afternoon we’re there the big front windows are wide open and the soundtrack is a collection of laid back 70s yacht rock songs; stuff I hated in my youth but which I now appreciate more given they sound so much better on a proper, modern sound system as opposed to a tinny AM transistor or car radio.
We’re here for the paella, a dish which the husband enjoys more than I do, but I’m humouring him because he’s a nice guy. There is a small a la carte menu available as well, but they’ve made Paella Sunday a thing and everyone in the place orders the paella while we’re there.
Front of house manager Ailbhe McMahon greets us warmly. Along with bar manager Tommy Conrad, these two are the only serving staff, while chefs Rob Braganolo and Caroline Chinery are the entirety of the folks working in the kitchen. I did say it was homey and cozy.
We start with a couple of zero proof cocktails. The General ($14) is a “negroni-esque” mix of eldlerflower, grapefruit and aperativo. Elderflower appears again in the Summer Chalet ($16) with lemon and juniper. These are both refreshing and clean-tasting, and are a great way to ease into a Sunday afternoon while still feeling grown-up.
The Sunday paella is offered as a prix fixe, with options changing each week but with usually a seafood, meat and vegetarian option ($49 – $56 per person). This addresses my paella issue because the types are all distinct, as opposed to paella that has a bit of everything in it. McMahon tells us the paella is a constant work in progress that changes with the seasons; it was on the menu at Labora, Braganolo’s restaurant on King West, and we had it once over lockdown when it was offered as pop-up menu to pick up and eat at home. Today’s dish is Fogo Island squid that chef buys whole and breaks down, including some of the ink in the rice, along with mussels, spot prawns and a saffron aioli.
First, though, is a selection of appetizers that include roasted red peppers, grilled artichokes, olives, herbed sheep’s cheese, and bruscetta. This is a perfect mix of flavours, textures, colours and temperatures, and is a casual and non-fussy way to ease us into the main course. It’s relaxing, and is reminiscent of what someone might serve to guests in their own home. This can be a risk for restaurants, even ones rocking a “feels like someone’s house” vibe; the key is for it to be so well-balanced that it still feels fancy, and Braganolo and Chinery hit the mark. I could make this at home, but it would take forever and would never be this good.
The paella is astounding. The fish is fresh, sweet, and melts in the mouth. I never love having to shell shrimp in a cooked dish, and the spot prawns require the removal of shells and their little feet before eating, but I concede that this does improve the taste and texture of the fish. This is a minor (mostly my problem) complaint that doesn’t really have a solution, but be warned that there will be… little feet that need dealing with.
The rice is a gorgeous purplish colour, and the dollops of saffron aioli add a touch of acid that balances everything wonderfully. We scrape up every last bit of the crunchy rice from the bottom. Guests who have been seated after us steal glances at our table anticipating what they have in store.
Accompanying the main is a dish of charred zucchini and kale, and this too is exactly what needs to be on the plate; besides being a great flavour and textural contrast to the paella, it is so evocative of a relaxed Sunday afternoon supper with family. If Nonna’s garden gave her lots of zucchini this year, then you’re gonna get zucchini for dinner. At least at Casa Paco, they won’t try and make you take a bunch home with you.
Room for dessert? Of course! We couldn’t not, given that two of the offerings are a Basque cheesecake ($15), and a lemon flan ($12). We pair these with iced coffee ($5) spiked with grapefruit. I ask McMahon for the secret – because the citrus punch is so refreshing and bright and enhances the coffee flavour that I want it every day – and she explains that Conrad does something with a vac pack and I’m hopeful but sad because, yet again, whatever facsimile I come up with at home will never be quite as good.
The cheesecake is flavoured with coffee and cardamon and topped with blackberry coulis and it’s smooth and bright and intense, with the sharp sweet blackberries contrasting with the richness of the cake and the intentionally burnt top. Across the table the lemon flan is more like a cross between lemon curd (like you’d get in a pie) and a creme brule. The husband deigns to give me one bite and then the scrapings of the finished bowl, a clear testament to how delicious it is.
If, in the before times, chefs and diners were after bigger and better, it seems clear now that many of us, after having spent so much time at home, kind of liked it and want our going out experiences to be more familiar and, if not exactly put-your-feet-up casual, then at least more laid-back. Casa Paco seems to have perfected this; service is gracious and warm, the space is familiar and mostly comfortable (folks with back issues might not love the mid-century modern style chairs), and the food is like a warm hug from your grandma. It’s a feed the soul kind of place that makes going out into the world worth the effort.