Tosca is a big, glassy restaurant in the downtown core, recently relocated to the ground floor of L’Esplanade Laurier from its former, small brick home on Metcalfe.
If you are impressed by the current affection for the multiple-wall covering, you will like this space. Two walls are all window; a third is a massive dark wood wine rack, complete with library ladder to reach the steep stuff. Behind the bar, and along the wall that leads to a private dining room, is a section of stone bricks and gold paint. High-backed, brown-leather benches divide the expansive space into sections. I rather like it. At noon, the mood of the room is convivial and bustling and sunlight pours in through the windows on lots of nicely dressed people. The space generates a constant hum of conversation. It’s jolly, and I like that. In the evening, the room darkens and the light softens and candles create a more embracing mood. I like that too.
What I don’t like is the food, which is, for the most part (and with the notable exception of dessert) of a cafeteria quality slapped out on oversized plates.
The menu is long, and follows the usual Italian restaurant formula – antipasto, soup, salad, then pasta, pizza, pesce, pollo, and carne (veal, steak, lamb).
Dinner was not off to a stellar start when a bowl of mussels had to be returned to the kitchen. Their fishiness was overwhelming, noticeable as they made their final approach to my table. One taste and back they went. (We were told they would be removed from the bill. That didn’t happen.)
The soup of the day was billed as seafood chowder. It arrived sporting a shiny skin and smelling of soup base. Once pierced, it revealed a few specks of what I think were clams and some mushy vegetables in a thick, salty goo. The classic Italian egg drop soup, stracciatella, is meant to be delicate. This version was a tasteless broth with dense, rubbery clumps of scrambled egg, debased with chalky parmesan. The seafood salad was generous, to be sure, but the seafood (small shrimp, rings of squid, scallops) all tasted the same – cold and toughened with vinaigrette – and the salad was drowning in dressing.
While still on a fish theme – the featured pike-perch was done to destruction, the tough, dry fillet tasting pre-frozen. It came with roast potatoes, graying broccoli, soggy baby carrots and mushy roasted green peppers. What was billed as shrimp risotto ($23) tasted of little more than rice with cream, dotted with frozen peas and tasteless, unseasoned shrimp. This is not risotto and it’s painful to be charged $23 for it.
Pasta puttanesca had the right stuff – anchovies, capers, olives, tomato, garlic – but the predominant flavour of the dish was of tinned olives, and the noodles were overcooked. The clumpy, chalky parmesan didn’t help matters.
And on went the letdowns: veal piccata had an almost indecipherable lemon flavour, but mostly it tasted of flour. The veal marsala had the same floury trouble, the meat tender enough, but tasting of nothing at all and the sauce over sweet and tasting of its thickener. Vegetables were the same dreary lot.
Nor did the service work. It was pleasant enough, but it’s never pleasant to feel forgotten. We waited far too long for soup and salad at lunch. We asked for a fork; she forgot. We asked for a glass of wine; he forgot. We asked many times for more water. We were promised an item would be removed from our bill; they forgot (we didn’t).
But by all means, do eat dessert. The house tiramisu was delicate and rich, the chocolate cake dense and the mango cake light and moist. We asked from where they came. Brought in, of course. From the long running Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana on Preston Street.