It is 7 p.m., New Year’s Eve, I am sitting on a soft round sofa in a dimly lit Alo’s small dining room, being entertained by the meticulously orchestrated play of the open kitchen crew, who are preparing another course for me. I am enjoying a glass of Gamay red meanwhile. In a few seconds, Chef Patrick Kriss comes on duty and stands by the wall a few tables away from me, overviewing back and front of the house flawless dance. He looks extremely focused without a hint of weakness, as a general on a battle field. Alo it seems, is his battle field, and there is no opportunity for mistake, no time for fun, only precise tactical moves in their spotless execution.
To no one’s surprise, this French restaurant was on my go-to list for a few months already. Alo is the recurrently “Top restaurant in Canada”, to be precise 2 years in a row, 2017 and 2018. It is clearly aiming at a Michelin star. However, no stars came along just yet.
You have to be patient and very quick at the same time, when reserving a table at Alo. It seems like everyone wants to be there and once the reservation process is opened for the next 2 months, all the tables go as hot pastries, being completely booked-out in under an hour.
For those people, like me, not a phone type, it is a good plus that the booking can be done online. However, before pre-paying in full for the pricy set-menu dinner, I still had to call the restaurant to confirm a possibility of accommodation for dietary restrictions (more on that, later in the review). Alo also calls a few days before the set date to reconfirm the booking and the food preferences.
Overall, smooth and simple process. Thumbs up for that part.
ACCOMMODATION FOR DIETARY RESTRICTIONS
On the restaurant reservation web-page, at one of the two booking options it is clearly stated that NO accommodations are provided for any dietary restrictions. That is a bit confusing, as nothing is stated at the other option… And that is actually the reason, why I did not book a table there months earlier, being under the impression, that the restaurant is completely accommodations-unfriendly.
The dietary restriction that I am always checking for is the most difficult and hated in the industry as I know it. It is getting better these days, but most of the Chefs still vigorously detest the vegan diet, simply as it seems, because they had not been trained to make complete plant-based dishes, and it appears to them virtually impossible to offer the same value (both nutrition and pallet complexity wise) dishes for vegans.
Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Chef Kriss had a vegan-friendly tasting menu option up in his sleeve. Is it as fully value for money experience for vegans, as the standard tasting menu? Maybe not (keep on reading for more on that), but the fact that a classically French Alo actually does not turn away vegans, is a huge plus for me.
I did not ask about any other accommodations. However, I suppose, if Alo can offer a menu for a plant-based diet, it can accommodate any other diet… However, when I think about it now… I am curious about the raw-vegan … that could be a challenge 🙂
SERVICE & HOSPITALITY
Service at Alo is on a completely other level from all the other Torontonian restaurants. No doubt, that is a major contribution to Alo being recognized as the “Top restaurant in Canada”. For a 40 sittings restaurant, they seem to have at least 10-15 staff members on the floor at the same time. That is extraordinary for the industry in general, and for Michelin star restaurants as well. I am not sure, how it works financially, but it definitely works operation wise for Chef Kriss. The floor staff is perfectly trained, there is some kind of sign language in place as well, to silently show a colleague if one of the guests needs attention.
The attention to details on the floor is actually quite admiring, there seems to be a special person for everything, even to escort you to a washroom… Your cotton napkin will be replaced and folded, every time you stand up from your sit… literally, every time… The table is scanned for the smallest stains after every single course change, which are 10! I had even tested this, by leaving a tiny little spot from the sauce on the same color table, almost invisible even to myself. Surprisingly, our brilliant waiter had spotted it right away and came around to clean it up immediately.
Let’s just say, Alo is not one of those places, where your water glass will ever stay even half empty, it will be continuously refilled.
As for the hospitality, as defined by Daniel Meyer in his biblical ‘Setting the Table’, I am not so sure. Alo is absolutely technical in the execution of everything they do, from the service to the dishes themselves. However, I cannot say that it feels just as welcoming, as a truly hospitable restaurant does. It feels more like a just-bought, still fresh and unworn pair of shoes, rather than your beloved ones that are so comfy and ready to be worn over and over again. I’d say, it needs just a bit more of human touch to it. At the moment, Alo is more robotic than human.
As the travel to another country starts from the airport, restaurant experience starts from the building entrance. Alo is located in a heritage building near Chinatown. It is easy to access, and also easy to pass by, as there is no apparent signboard on a door. That might be quite annoying when you are desperately trying to find the entrance to escape from the rain outside, but not to be too picky about it…
Once you find eventually the entrance, you will be greeted by a welcoming receptionist/hostess, who will send you right upstairs in a strangely non-fitting in the overall exquisite Alo experience elevator, operated by a bunch of elves. After what seems like an hour you eventually end up on the 3rd floor, where Alo is revealed in it’s all beauty.
The restaurant’s lighting settings do not seem to be as well orchestrated, as everything else. It is way too dark in the dining room and the light is not evenly distributed around the place. It feels, like there was no lighting specialist involved in the dining room design. Nevertheless, it is quite magical how a modern furniture and the overall design of the floor transforms into something more intimate and classic when the sun goes down.
The sitting area is well laid out, there is no “bad” tables in Alo. Wherever you are sited, you will not be disappointed.
A special note needs to be allocated to Alo’s cutlery and glassware. It is simply perfect! In my point of view, a wine glass should be a L size, but completely weightless and as thin as a paper. Such glasses are expensive, hard to find and easily breakable. Seeing these glasses in a restaurant setting, is a huge indicator of the restaurant’s aspiration for perfection and maybe even flawlessness.
So, I’ve covered touch and sight senses of the Alo experience already. What about the sound? Sound… well… epic failure, I’d say… While there is a special person for everything on the service side, there seems to be no particular person in Alo, who is in charge of music… Your ears will hurt and bleed from some poorly lined up pop playlist, while as your pallet will indulge exquisitely executed French dishes.
The food preparation techniques, that Chef Kriss absorbed from working with Chef Daniel Boulud in New York and later with Chef Régis Marcon and Chef Michel Troisgros in France, are outstanding and textbook like. There is absolutely nothing to critique here.
From the standard set menu, I have to specifically highlight a scallop with buttermilk sauce, served with Venetian Sturgeon caviar (see above photo). The impeccably cooked scallop simply melts in your mouth and the caviar gives a touch of that umami flavour that every dish must have. I am also a big fan of grains and always admire when something as simple as grits is presented as a stand-alone dish on such a high level. Grits cooked with the Manchego cheese (see photo below) is a perfect combination, a good alternative to a classical risotto. Bravo!
The plant-based menu itself is a proof of the fact that the world is your oyster when it comes to vegan dishes, only you can limit yourself with prejudice of the necessity of animal protein in a dish to make it great. My compliments to Chef Kriss for incorporating vegan menu to Alo’s option. While as more and more vegan places pop up around the world and Toronto in particular, Alo is the first, that can provide a “high-end” vegan experience. In fact, that is probably the best plant-based food that I had tried so far in restaurants, all the other plant-based restaurants and cafes in Toronto are just a pure disappointment.
Just one little thing I must say about the vegan menu though… While as the standard menu is full of expensive ingredients, like caviar, Japanese sourced fish, oysters, etc, that justify the price of an experience in a way, plant-based menu is more like fennel, rutabaga and chickpeas… I would suggest to incorporate a few more pricy ingredients in the menu, just to match it more closely to the price. Increasing number of successful people are shifting towards plant-based diets nowadays, and those people are reasonable, they will not pay too much for what is worth little in production. Otherwise, thank you Alo for making vegan high-end dining possible!
The last point on my restaurant review checklist, is the sustainability … Well, here Alo fails dramatically, unfortunately. Although, it defines its food as “contemporary French, … celebrating the finest seasonal ingredients”, there is nothing about seasonality on Alo’s menu. Seasonality only makes sense, when talking about local ingredients… Otherwise, everything can be in season somewhere across the world. And the vast majority of Alo’s menu ingredients are not even from Canada, even grits are sourced from the USA, the major polluter to the environment, especially with the recent political agenda. To make it shorter, I would love to see the “Top restaurant in Canada” to source more locally. Actinolite is doing it, as well as many other Torontonian restaurants, so why not Alo?… Also, why there is just 1 female working in the kitchen?…
SO WHAT IS ALO ALL ABOUT?
Having had visited Michelin star restaurants in Europe and being numerous times disappointed with Toronto dining scene, I went to Alo without any high expectations, but still curious about that “best restaurant” in the country. Alo had surely exceeded my hopes. Its service honed to an automatism and its perfect execution of French culinary techniques are admirable indeed. However, it seems like the restaurant is lacking soul… Chef Patrick Kriss is a great Chef, and great Chefs should experiment and surprise. There was nothing surprising on neither standard, nor plant-based menu; extremely precise execution on all levels, but also boring. The ambience of the place needs improvement and definitely someone needs to think seriously about the sustainability of it all. More local ingredients, more women in the kitchen, those are the attributes of a success in a modern world.
At the end the experience, every Alo guest gets a small black envelop with a menu that he/she had tasted enclosed and sealed with a vintage golden stamp. That is just such a thoughtful touch by Alo, and could be a step towards what I call “true hospitality”, if only the menu did not have so many mismatches with what the guest had actually tasted… Maybe I am the first one, who was meticulous enough to go through the whole menu and find errors… Apologies for that, but I was curious and that’s what I did… I’m not going to go through the whole list, just see the pic and my notes.