Vv Magazine’s Nicki Laborie checks out Café Bar Pasta, the Dundas West gem that’s quickly becoming a Toronto culinary scene hot-spot…
Dundas West has long been an up-and-coming foodie destination with fantastic spots like Playa Cabana Cantina, Indie Alehouse and, more recently, Nodo, opening in the last three years. One gem that falls under the radar all too often is Café Bar Pasta, the eatery owned by Tom Bielecki and his wife, designer Christine Vieira. Opened a year and a half ago, it’s been a tough journey for the couple who put everything on the line to create their dream restaurant.
Part espresso bar, part night-time culinary destination, Café Bar Pasta is beautifully designed with custom-art pieces hanging throughout the room, dim lighting and eclectic table settings. Stunning accents include the wallpaper in the kitchen meant to represent food molecules and a bright red art piece that runs against three walls designed by Jose Ortega (owner of Lula Lounge across the street), which tells the story of the creation of Café Bar Pasta. Every nook and cranny of this place has a story and that alone makes it more interesting than its neighbours.
Once seated, it’s true that you don’t want to leave, as my boyfriend and I proved last Friday night when we stayed until the wee hours. While we did not sit in the cozy dining room — choosing instead to sit in the eclectic kitchen at the communal table — it was a fantastic experience to watch Chef Jay Scaife in action. After following him on Instagram for the last year, I know he is one to watch.
Newly given a piece of the Café Bar Pasta pie, Chef Jay has also been under the radar. With a past including being Chef de Cuisine at Taboo in Muskoka and overseas in the Bahamas and St. Vincent, his food is clearly art in itself. As we discuss what to have for dinner, it’s a tough call. This is their second night with a new menu and it’s quite honestly one of the most unique menus I’ve seen in Toronto. You would assume it’s Italian and — while it is, predominantly — there are glimpses of Japan that make your taste buds want to dive into most dishes on the menu.
Paired with fantastic prices, most dishes on the menu are between $12.00 and $18.00 with just a couple in the $20.00 and over range. Wine follows suit with a simple yet worldly list.
While they have a fantastic wine on tap, we decide to indulge in a beautiful Pinot noir from Burgundy, which would likely be priced one-third higher at most Toronto hot spots.
Tom comes to the table and asks if we’re up to Chef Jay just sending us out a tasting menu, and I am all for it. The more items I can try on this menu, the better.
We start with the smoked bufala ricotta salad ($13.00) served with a spiced tea-compressed pear, pistachio, and a honey vinaigrette. I loved this dish. Simple yet the flavours are so complex from the pear. Every bite is quite honestly different.
The snow crab lollipops ($15), served with a yuzu-chili aioli and a cucumber red onion slaw are next. The dish is cute as a button and we cannot wait to bite into the crispy ball of crab. While I love the concept of this dish I did find it important to include some of the cucumber salad in every bite, or the snow crab ball alone is bland. Paired together makes every bite delightful and texturally pleasing.
The server arrives with the sardine “Japonesa” ($13.00), which is one of my favourites of the evening. The sardine is grilled and served whole overtop wakame-edamame-bonito tempura with a side of tsuyu dip. If fish heads and eyes don’t turn you on, this one is not for you. I love them and eat the crispy head happily and, while the sardine is fantastic on its own, I again love the flavours and texture when each bite has all the dish’s elements.
The barbecued octopus ($15.00) arrives and it’s quite literally art on a plate. There are so many components to this dish — I know instinctively that I must include each in every bite or I won’t get the full effect of the chef’s creation. Served with daikon hair, dashi braised daikon, soy gelee, momiji oroshi vinaigrette, and grated dried chorizo, each bite is perfection. My only complaint is that barbecued octopus can be tough, so I would prefer it cooked a little less.
We’re starting to get full – but not really. We’re ready to delve into the pasta portion of the evening.
A mini version of the lamb shank lasagna “loose” ($25.00) arrives, and I don’t even want to take a bite into the beautiful plate. Again, Jay’s presentation is stunning. But the ingredients are screaming my name… Oven-dried Pachino tomato, rosemary pasta sheet, Stilton crust, black olive dust, tomato sauce and bufala mozzarella. I’m not sure what to expect. The flavours of this dish are quite unexpected and multi-dimensional and while we both enjoy it, the lamb shank does come out quite gamy – surprisingly.
Next is the dish that screamed at me when I first sat down. Their signature braised beef agnolotti ($22) with white chocolate-salsify-tarragon puree, lobster foam and baby carrot. Tom comes over to the table and tells us they bought a 1400 lbs cow and split it with Chef Boehmer. Inside the agnolotti is braised beef from that very cow. Sweet and salty this dish satisfies every taste bud and I can even taste the lobster from the foam. Surf and turf on another level.
Last dish of the evening is not on the menu – it’s a variation on their famous bucatini carbonara ($18) because my better half doesn’t eat pork (crazy, I know).
Through the evening we observe Chef Jay making modifications for guests in the dining room, and can I say how refreshing it is to watch such an easy-going chef at work?
For us, he modified the carbonara to a “duckanara”; sautéed duck heart, duck confit, Pecorino, and duck yolk shaved on top. Heavenly.
The vibe of Café Bar Pasta is cool and cozy. The place is buzzing, and Tom has not sat down all night. So nice to see a restaurateur’s passion in action. A common thread we notice is the look in the guests eyes when plates are put in front of them and then the smile when they take their first bite.
At the end of the evening, Tom sits with us and tells us it’s been a good night but nights are not always that busy. All I can think to myself is why not. If I lived next door, I’d be there a few times a week. Great food, great value, and great vibe — can’t get much better than that.
If you’ve dined at Café Bar Pasta, share with us your favourite dishes in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.