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About
Here is a Portugal Village newcomer — equal parts chic and cozy — that seeks to join the legion Mediterranean/Middle Eastern players to which Toronto currently plays host by injecting a little imagination into convention. That means innovations like house-pressed labaneh with zatar, and arak and sour cherry gastric-smothered poutine. Flatbreads, possibly topped with figs and halloumi cheese, emerge from the stone oven centerpiece like miracles. There’s lots for vegetarians here, and folks who like their meat Halal will find that offering across the board. The 4,000 sq.-ft. space is vast, communally oriented and handsome, including a 36-foot long walnut bar.
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Review: Food from the heart(h)

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on March 27, 2014
 

Even living in this multicultural mecca, you wouldn't know that Middle Eastern food is much more than falafel or hummus or shawarmas stuffed with tabouli and tahini and scary neon pink turnips. Yes, Paramount on Yonge took it up a notch with their fantastic homemade, puffed-out pitas (that really ought to come with a burn hazard warning for all the heat that escapes when you tear into one).

Now chef/owner Isam Kaisi of 93 Harbord has his sights set on taking it upper a notch with his Middle Eastern fusion eatery District Oven at College and Ossington. Though the cavernous space with its lipstick-red banquettes may lack much in the charm and coziness department due to its sheer size, the unique blend of flavours from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries along the sunny eastern Mediterranean is a welcome change from the ubiquitous take-out fast food we're so used to in these frozen climes.

Of course, once you begin sinking your teeth into a kefta beef kebab ($8) drizzled with a jalapeno tahini you might start to believe that he will indeed need all that extra room to pack 'em in. Everything here is handmade (including their own harissa, yowzah) and most dishes are prepared in the open oven, giving meats a great charred smokiness and an oozy juiciness.

When a plate of grilled eggplant ($8) makes its way over you might mistake it for an order of short ribs on skewers. Deep and dark brown with the requisite char marks, it would entice even the manliest of carnivores, at least just by looking at it. Alas, it's bland to the taste in spite of a romesco dipping sauce. Hankering for aubergine? You'd be better off with an order of baba ghanoush ($7).

But the kitchen quickly gets back on track with a spicy shawarma cigar ($8). Think spring roll packed with tender, well-seasoned chicken with a nice spice kick. The jalapeno tahini makes a repeat performance, but with a sauce this scrummy you won't be faulting the kitchen for the repetition.

Probably the most intriguing item to arrive at our table is a braised beef tongue and cheek ($12), something you might only expect at much higher-end restaurants. The unexpected dish delights with its pillow soft cheek meat and perhaps the tenderest tongue you've ever tasted since Bar Isabel's. The meat could use a trifle more seasoning to lift its flavor profile, but the tongue's silky soft texture has me thinking someone in that kitchen is a genie.

What does have the perfect flavour balance is a flat bread ($14). Firstly, the crust is a religious experience. A beautifully crispy bottom meets a soft and chewy centre topped with alternating bursts of sweetness and saltiness from figs, shallots, mint and halloumi. Swoon.

Soup of the day ($9) is rarely something to get excited about, even homemade ones. But District Oven's simple vegetable and lentil soup is absolutely superior. Finely turned carrots mingle with plump lentils, a fantastically fragrant broth and a heat that never overpowers. Another hit is a Moroccan classic lamb and vegetable tagine ($23). Large chunks of lamb (with little to no bone, thank you very much) are so soft and tender, just touching it with a fork you might expect it to disintegrate upon impact. Perfumed with aromatic spices and an enticing, warm and peppery ras el hanout sauce, this stew staple is, alas, missing some key components: i.e. vegetables. A few pieces of diced squash need the company of carrots and onions, or chickpeas and peppers or even just some preserved lemon and olives. And a bit of couscous to scoop alongside would be lovely, too.

And just when we think the chef can do little wrong, a shrimp maftoul ($19) makes it way over–an unmitigated bomb. The first time the dish arrives the seafood is an almost raw grey in colour; the second time they arrive beautifully charred but rubbery from overcooking. But there is silver lining: the maftoul risotto made with Israeli couscous is insanely good.

Sides, too, lack the same superb execution we saw earlier in the meal: spiced frites ($5) have a tough texture while half a saffron basmati pilau ($5) is half overcooked and half mushy. And while the scent of saffron wafts up from the plate, it does linger a bit too long to enjoy. Rice shouldn't be that hard to get right in a Middle Eastern restaurant of all places.

Thankfully, desserts are pretty close to perfect. A poached pear ($10) is soft enough to cut with the side of your fork, the true test of its success. And its accompanying mélange of citrus, cinnamon, star anise, arak liqueur and reduction of sour cherry is what can I say, lazeez. But why the added eshta cream with the off-putting odour of Desitin for diaper rash? And a rice pudding ($9) infused with exotic spices and a hint of orange blossom is plumped up by coconut milk and a hint of cayenne. Topped with almonds and candied orange, it's could also be close to stellar if not for it being as cold as ice cream. Something with this kind of spicing can only be appreciated if served warm, or at the very least, room temperature.

Middle Eastern food is rarely served with such flair. And Isam Kaisi is to be applauded for his attempt to educate our palates about this grand, illustrious cuisine. But District Oven's intriguing food might not be enough if it doesn't find a way to fill what looks like the orchestra-level of a concert hall.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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Merlin Homer recommends District Oven Restaurant

Really great addition to College Street, just west of Ossington. Loved it.
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