The Arrival – Ascari King West
It’s always a gamble when a restaurant expands.
But John Sinopoli and Erik Joyal have taken what you know and love about their beloved Leslieville haunt since 2011, Ascari Enoteca, and transformed it to suit the downtown core. More specifically, the King and Portland crowd.
The 3600 sq. ft. space, with soaring ceilings and expansive dining space for over 100 guests, isn’t anything like the cozy spot on Queen East. And that’s a good thing.
In this ‘hood, you want to dine in a bright, open, airy spot that feels luxe without a hint of stuffiness, and order your east-end faves while simultaneously delving into new and exciting dishes.
You’ll find a bigger menu here to match the extensive space. “We were able to flesh out the idea of Ascari more,” says Sinopoli, who along with Joyal also own Gare de l'Est Brasserie and Hi-Lo Bar in the east end. Awaiting you: an array of enticing antipasti, fritti, crudos (a new addition and focus), fresh pastas, mains, sides and desserts.
Chef de Cusine Michael Lam – who worked at Sydney Australia’s Altitude and Quay Restaurant, two Michelin-starred The Modern at MoMA in NYC, and Il Covo, Omaw and Buca in Toronto - deftly straddles traditional and modern fare with ease.
He added Baccala alla Vincentina con Polenta ($28) - a well-known regional dish from Vicenza of milk-braised salt cod served on polenta – to the menu. And his Rigatoni alla Calabrese ($22) is comfort in a bowl. Big thick cylinders of toothsome pasta arrive enveloped in a ‘nduja tomato sauce that delivers a slow but serious heat, speckled with fennel and black gaeta olives, and finished with dollops of creamy housemade ricotta.
His Capesante ($16) however, is sheer modernity with an decidedly Aussie vibe. Raw scallops on the shell are crowned with a fragrant saffron corn purée featuring pickled Ontario corn, corn silk (to emulate saffron), and trout roe for an exquisite pop finish. Served on a bed of rocks, you can practically hear the waves crashing against the shore.
That same bright, vivacious quality can be seen in not-your-Nonna’s crudo Orata ($18) featuring exclusively Italian ingredients - Mediterranean sea bream, compressed cherries, pistachio vinaigrette, and Sicilian olive oil. You might not have been a “fish person” before this epiphany. You are now.
And save room for dessert.
Talented Toronto mixologists Tony DaSilva and Jason Ruggeberg co-created a list of captivating cocktails you won’t find elsewhere the city. Think: a nice warm day in Sicily, strolling the café-lined streets in Rome, post-dinner drinks in Genoa.
“Every drink we created came from an Italian idea, ingredient, or profile,” says Ruggeberg.
Cocktails are focused (four to five ingredients max) yet complex in flavour, and feature Amari – Italian bittersweet liqueurs (i.e. Amaro Montenegro, Cappelletti Aperitivo) - something DaSilva says he’s passionate about. “People know Aperol and Campari, but we have a wider range.” In fact, he’s working on building on the small collection he’s amassed so far, one that’s “very unique to us.”
Perini ($17), boasting Malfy Gin, Cappelletti Aperitivo, Campari, and orange zest, is a whimsical play on a Negroni, using Cappelletti instead of vermouth. And an inventive riff on a Gin Sour comes way of Quattro e Venti ($16) with Bulldog Gin, herb & ginger cordial, lemon, egg whites, and orange bitters.
Elena’s Eyes ($14) features Amaro Montenegro and Skyy Vodka alongside lemon, cantaloupe water, and soda. The alluring refresher, neither not too tart or sweet, was named after Princess Elena of Montenegro - also known as Queen Elena of Italy.
All glassware comes from Italy and all aperitifs and digestifs are served in flute glasses, as “it gives you a more aromatic experience,” says DaSilva.
One of the best ways to experience Amari? Aperitivo Hour - Weekdays 4pm-6pm – when your drink purchase includes a plate of tantalizing Italian nibbles such as charcuterie and fritti.
Paige McIntyre, Sommelier (formerly of Alo) has created a wine program that includes both classic and obscure grape varieties from sustainable or organic producers. You’ll find a splash of New World alongside delicious Old World selections (gls $12-$30, btl $60-$330).
“Our wine program is very unique,” says Sinopoli. “We’ve focused on wines that help tell a story. We’ve always focused on smaller products, and always had biodynamic and natural wines on the list.”
What matters is that the wines “have soul. We don’t really care about big names. We don’t have to have a Brunello,” he says, “Here, we decided to focus just on Italian wines. Lighter, more mineral wines, from volcanic soil - Sicily, Campania, Dolomites in the North. As time goes on, we may shift.”
The approach however, won’t. patio
Take the La Palazetta Rosso Di Montalcino ($80), for example. The 100 per cent Sangiovese picked at 365m altitude above sea level, “is super elegant yet well structured,” says McIntyre. “We describe it as a baby Brunello. It’s one of Erik’s favourite at the moment. I tried to put him on something else, but the Palazetta still takes it.”
Stanza Con Vista
The streamlined, open concept stanza con vista - room with a view - features the bar center stage, with kitchen on display in back.
The Piazza, a middle courtyard, allows you to dine at tables or tuck in at the bar. Stage right you’ll find the The Atrium, boasting a wall of windows and plush seating. The Cellar on the opposite side, is set slightly above the rest, and can be sectioned off for private events. Enjoy the outdoors while you can and dine al fresco on the cozy patio out front.
Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Usually quite the opposite, in fact. But Ascari King West proves that expansion can be a very, very good thing.
Ascari King West
620 King St. W.
The restaurant is open for lunch, dinner, and brunch on weekends, and accommodates 110 guests, with room for 25 on the patio.
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Aperitivo Mon-Fri 4pm -6pm
Dinner Sun-Wed 5pm-10pm, Thurs-Sat 5pm-11pm
Brunch Sat & Sun 10:30am-3:30pm
For more photos, visit @torontorestaurants.co on Instagram.